Saturday, March 8, 2014

How Philosophers Think

Where does it come from, this quest? This need to solve live's mysteries, when the simplest of questions can never be answered. Why are we here? What is the soul? Why do we dream? Perhaps we'd be better off not looking at all. Not delving, not yearning. But that's not human nature, not the human heart. That is not why we are here. 
-Mohinder Suresh, "Genesis" 

The Philosophical Quest

Like many who came before me, I began my philosophical quest early in life. Full of questions and eager for answers, I began asking questions as a child. When the answers did not satisfy, I turned to philosophical works. Finally, after changing majors, I switched to philosophy and after the first day of my Introduction to Philosophy class knew I was in the "right" place. 

The "right" place is an interesting notion. Is this blog the right place for my writing? Is the Earth the right place for me? Is being human right for any of us? What is human? Just a made up word. Can life have any meaning if all our words are simply a growing compendium of made up words? We speak about science and technology in the most serious of tones, and yet the words we speak are also made up. The concepts to which we so dearly clasp are built up on a foundation of made up words. How do we escape? Is there anyplace to which we can escape? If so, what would we do there? Is life an endless stream of made up experiences merely because we have the material with which to make them up? Does it matter? 

No wonder a large percentage of my classmates changed majors. Not from something else to philosophy, but from philosophy to anything else. Philosophy can drive you to the brink of non-existence where you feel as if there is no purpose to life because we cannot find the answers to the simplest questions we ask ourselves in life. It can also deliver you from the Gates of Belief where you allow yourself to believe that you have the answers. If you cross that gate, you're in dangerous territory. I would rather spend an eternity not knowing rather than believing I know something that is unknowable. Of course, if there were an exit code, a being to answer all our questions, a magic portal through which we could travel to a place where all our questions could be answered, how long would it be before we started our questioning anew? 

The Questions We Ask

It is human nature to question, which makes us all philosophers. How we go about questioning, the methods we use, the labels we ascribe determine what we call ourselves. The psychologist studies how people think and the causes of people's beliefs, whether their thinking is rational or irrational. But the philosopher studies how we ought to think IF we are to be rational and seeks to clarify whether our reasons for holding a belief are good or not. 

The historian seeks to increase our knowledge of past battles by gathering facts and determining which accounts of the events are the most accurate or true. The philosopher asks, What is knowledge? What is a fact? What is truth? Which method do we use to determine whether something is true or not? Is there an objective truth, or are all of our opinions relative? 

The physicist studies the ultimate constituents of physical reality such as quarks and neutrinos, black holes and black matter. The philosopher asks, Is physical reality all that there is? The neurobiologist studies the activity of the brain, but the philosopher asks, Are all mental events emanating from the brain, or is the mind something separate from the brain? The psychologist attempts to find causal correlations between criminal behavior and the individual's genetic inheritance. The philosopher asks, Is all behavior (good and bad) causally determined, or do we have some degree of free-will that cannot be scientifically explained? 


A man, accused of committing a crime, walks into a courtroom. The judge asks him to place his hand upon the Bible and swear: "I swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, so help me God." 

The man takes his seat and listens attentively as the evidence against him is presented. After each witness testifies and the juror hears their testimonies, the man is finally brought to the stand. His defense attorney asks him a number of questions and finally asks him whether or not he committed the crime. 

The man responds, "When I came into the courtroom you asked me to place my hand on the Bible and swear to God that I would tell the truth. Presumably the court and hence the State believes that God exists. If God exists, then he created us all. If God created us all, then, really, it is God who is on trial, not me. If the court believes that God created us all, but his creations have free will, then this becomes a philosophical discussion not a legal proceeding. Let us first begin by examining the notion of free will, then we can examine whether or not I committed any crime." 

A murmur is hear throughout the courtroom. The judge bangs his gavel on the wooden block on his desk. "Order! Order, in the court!" he shouts. 

The courtroom grows silent. After a few moments, the judge decides to speak: "Mahatma Gandi, a great philosopher and leader, once said, 'Truth never damages the cause that is just.' Let us proceed with your case and examine the notion of free will afterwards. 

The Questions We Ask, cont.

The astronomer studies the laws that govern the heavenly bodies such as stars and galaxies. The philosopher asks, Is the existence and nature of the universe self-explanatory, or does it need an explanation or a divine creator that exists outside it? How do we account for patterns or order in the world? Is evidence of design sufficient to prove a designer? The meteorologist studies the causes of hurricanes. The medical researcher studies the causes of illness. The philosopher asks, Is there any rational way to believe in a good, all-powerful God who permits the undeserved destruction by hurricanes or the suffering of innocent people? Is the evidence of undeserved suffering an argument against the existence of a God? The sociologist studies the religious beliefs of various groups and the social needs these beliefs fulfill without making any judgments about the truth or rationality of these beliefs. The philosopher asks, Is faith opposed to reason? 

The anthropologist studies the moral codes of various societies and describes their similarities and differences, but does not decide which ones are best. The philosopher asks, Are there any objectively correct ethical values, or are they all relative? Which ethical principles (if any) are the correct ones? How do we decide what is right or wrong? 

The political scientist studies various forms of government. The philosopher asks, What is justice? What makes a government legitimate? What is the proper extent of personal freedom? What are the limits of governmental authority? Are there instances when disobeying the law is ever justified? 

The Wonder of Philosophers

In a way, the questions we ask are the answers we seek. The way in which we ask them define in made up words how we look at ourselves, each other, and the world. The fact that we ask them, as Mohinder Suresh says in the opening pilot episode as well as in the first season finale of the television show Heroes, is what makes us human. Of course, ask a philosopher, and the philosopher will in turn ask, What is a fact? By what criteria can we know a fact? What does it mean to be human? By what criteria do we define our humanity. And .... 

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