Thursday, October 14, 2004

Why philosophy is important

I find it surprising that most people don't have any interest in philosophy. True, there are many people who have concerns about day-to-day survival that trump their curiosities, but I think that accounts for a minority of philosophic apathists. Maybe it's the fact that the high school education system spends no time studying the subject. Who knows?*

Well, here's why I think philosophy is important.

Among other things, philosophy tries to answer the following questions:

How can I know things about the world?

How can I tell if I'm deluding myself?

What is good behavior?

Are each of my activities consistent with one another, or are they canceling each other out?

If the answers to these questions aren't interesting to you, read no further!

How can I know things about the world?
If I tell you that there will be an earthquake tomorrow because I "feel it in my bones," do you believe me? Can people know things by feeling them? Most people would say so, even though science disagrees.

What happens when two people, independent of any objective evidence, make contradictory predictions because they both "feel" they are right? What if Bob feels that God will appoint George W. Bush to a second term, and Bill feels that God must sway the election to Kerry? This kind of "feeling for the truth" happens all the time, and inevitably one of them is wrong. It's not unusual for a person to feel something is true when it isn't. If this happens so frequently, isn't it possible that "feeling the truth" isn't any better than a blind guess? Of course, with millions of people "feeling" reality with their emotions, eventually someone feels something to be true that actually is. Then you hear about it in the know-nothing media.

So how can we know things? For that matter, what is knowledge? This is an important branch of philosophy known as epistemology.

Can we use reason to prove that science is the only way to know anything?

Seems kind of important to me.

Ideological Consistency
I've discussed this issue previously in my blog, vis-a-vis Christian philosophy: who would Jesus bomb? Don't let me give you the impression that only religious people have consistency problems. We all do. It's not an easy problem to solve.

Here's a more lucid description of the issue. A person generally subscribes to the truth of certain propositions, like one should do unto others as you would have done to yourself, or kill them all and let God sort them out. But what happens if the propositions are contradictory? In that case, our good works cancel out our evil/bad works, e.g., the good work we do by following the Golden Rule might be undone by careless application of the death penalty.

On these matters, we must never proceed by blindly taking instructions from someone else. We must always question the philosophical bases of our actions.

The way to approach this problem is to carefully examine the logical relationships between your principles. What do our words really mean? If we can't even define the meaning of our words and our principles, how can we possibly know if they're contradictory?

What is good?
It is absolutely vital that we each try to answer this question. I think it is totally irresponsible to simply accept a definition of what is good without due contemplation and without reason. You might doubt whether reason and experience are enough to answer such philosophical questions. This is a reasonable starting point, but it's not an excuse not to try.

"Most of philosophy is bunk"
As a subscriber to one particular philosophy, logical positivism, I think this statement is actually quite true. Nonetheless, the great abundance of balderdash isn't a justification to ignore philosophical questions. You can't just say something is bunk without just cause.

Feeling alive
Some people get their thrills by bungee-jumping off a thousand-foot bridge. It's a way of making contact with reality, of feeling alive. For me, philosophy has the same effect. By studying reality and coming to terms with the cosmos in the most honest way possible, I feel as if I'm making an almost spiritual connection with the universe.

*Am I supposed to use a question mark after a rhetorical question? Maybe I need a new symbol...


rob said...

Use this one Doc (:)) cause I don't know what else it could be.Is it consternation or something(:))
I like it it works.
Sorry I can't help myself.I'm somewhat silly.
Seriously,I added a link to your blog. A while back I inquired if it would be OK and I didn't hear so what do I do(:)).I add it anyway and figure if it's not OK you could file a lawsuit or something to have me cease and desist.
Thanks Doc it's always a pleasure.

rob said...

Oh yea I think philosophy is very important too.I think most people practice a sort of unquantified reactive type philosophy for the most part.Even as I constantly try to define my own philosophy I find it is not static mostly because of the constant learning that takes place.I absolutely love it even though I drive myself (and others a little nuts sometimes)(short drive it is)
You've got a great site Doc.

Doctor Logic said...

Hi rob,

Sure, go ahead and post a link to my blog.

Thanks for stopping by!