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Friday, June 23, 2017

The Limit of Philosophy


Philosophy is one of the greatest strengths of humankind. It has given rise to science, ethics, political systems, and cultures. All it really is, is thinking about things and trying to figure them out. For example, if you ask, “what is a house?” you may think of a picture of a building with a door and a window, a roof, and interior walls that separate a living room from a kitchen from a bedroom from a bathroom, and consider the question answered. But philosophy recognizes that this is only part of the answer. Such an organization of matter alone does not make something a house. First, someone must imbue it with a purpose, specifically as a place to spend time in, to form a familiarity with, to store other bits of matter that we call our property in, and more.

But we can’t stop there. Philosophy digs deeper. What is familiarity? What is property? We can try to answer these, but for any answer you can ask a “but what if” question, casting the answer into doubt. Here you might start to get concerned about a problem. Since the answer must be given as another statement, you can ask another “but what if” question about the answer. And another one about the next answer, and so on. It is like when a toddler asks “why” over and over and over again.

Let's take a common sense statement: “reality exists independently of our perceptions.” We can ask, “but what if it’s reality just a projection of our minds?” In response, we can say “okay, we can't know it absolutely, but we can determine from the patterns in which our experiences fit together that the likelihood of an external reality not existing is infinitesimally small.” But we can ask, “but what if this perception of order is an illusion? Our minds might be fooled into thinking random, unrelated sensations are connected.” We can reply, “We can submit our senses and memory to the laws of logic to see that it is so.” And still we can ask, “but what the very laws of logic are one of the things our minds confuse us about, and logic does not actually exist?”


Even “I think, therefore I am” is open to “but what if your mind is only fooling you into believing existence is necessary for experience?” As far as I can tell, the only statement that begs no “but what if” question is “I experience,” because experience itself is the only thing we experience directly. Of course, “but what if you’re wrong” is a catch-all, but it is not useful because it does not present an alternative possibility.

If you are like me, these questions, like the “why” game, sound silly and annoying. Sure I can’t prove it, but like, I know I exist. And we have to assume the universe exists, and a lot of other things, if our lives are going to function. Accepting assumptions for their usefulness like this is called pragmatism. We should always be questioning things and exploring possibilities, but in order to function, we have to do things. The Ancient Greek father of western philosophy Socrates once said, “One thing only I know, and that is that I know nothing.” We would be wise to adopt a similar view ourselves, understanding that everything we know is pragmatic, based on assumptions. We should keep in mind that everything, even the most common sense of facts, even the very methods we use to determine what is true, might actually be wrong. I do not mean that we should throw our hands up and abandon everything, only that we should listen to people with alternative views, and be open to well-reasoned arguments.

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