Jump to content
Search In
  • More options...
Find results that contain...
Find results in...

Philosophers Table

  • entries
  • comment
  • views

Contributors to this column

About this column

The rational investigation of questions about existence and knowledge and ethics articles.

Articles in this column

An Introduction to Philosophy Part 1 – The What and Why of Philosophy

Because we will be discussing a lot of philosophy on this column, I thought maybe it might be kind of interesting to go through a definition of philosophy and talk about some of the basic concepts behind philosophy, so that at least you have some understanding of the approach that I take when it comes to discussing philosophical questions, and see if it’s worthwhile or something that you would like to incorporate into your life: the study of wisdom, or knowledge, or truth, or reality, or ethics, and so on. So I’ve Googled the definition of philosophy, and there’s quite a number of them. Let’s go over a few, and then we can see where it fits with the approach we take at Philosophers Table. Definitions of philosophy on the Web include such things as: I quite like that one. This one I don’t like so much: The quotes here are: and And another definition, And another one — this is from Merriam’s: Now we start to get into capitals a little bit towards the end there, and my experience has been that whenever you start to get capitals — like “Wisdom” is capitalized and “Principle as Creation” is capitalized — that you are drifting into a noumenal Platonic realm, or basically the realm of ideals, which is not what I deal with in terms of philosophy. Another definition is, Nice, but “study,” to me is a little bit vague. And here is another one: Well, I would disagree with that with an energy and an emphasis that I could scarcely express here without launching into a series of acrobatics (because, you know, they’d be so fast and ninja-like). There’s a number of other ones that I think are quite interesting. Basically, the idea behind philosophy is that there is a capacity for error within the human mind, and because of this, we need a science, or a set of logical propositions, that are going to help rescue us from error. The first thing to understand when it comes to looking at something like philosophy is that there has to be capacity for error; otherwise, there’s no need for anything corrective. If you think about something like the science of nutrition: we have the capacity to eat poorly (and having come back from an all-inclusive vacation, I can certainly attest that that is, on occasion, a vice of mine as well). So we all have the capacity to eat poorly, and therefore we need a science or a discipline or a methodology for determining how to eat well. We have no capacity to eat poorly, there would be none. Plants don’t have a science of nutrition, because they grow towards sunlight, do their photosynthesis, and live that way; they can’t exactly be tempted by a chocolate éclair, say. You have to have a capacity for a deviation from an ideal or a perfect state, and because you have a capacity to deviate from it, you need a set of principles by which you can judge your actions and, hopefully, develop them into good habits. The idea behind nutrition is not to get you to forego all pleasurable eating in life and live on water-crests and vitamin pills (actually, that would be bad nutrition, too), but it is to attempt to get you to understand the consequences of your actions, so that you can make more informed decisions about how you want to eat. You can hopefully strike a balance and find some good way of eating, and so on. A nutritionist will also tell you that eating well is eating a variety; it’s okay to eat a piece of cheesecake or go to McDonald’s once in a while, but good diet combined with exercise and water intake is all related to health, which brings us to another topic that’s related to the topic of philosophy: the philosophy of medicine. There is an ideal state of human health which is never achieved. In the same way that you can’t eat perfectly, you can’t achieve perfect health; we all have viruses running through us, maybe we get a bad night’s sleep, we’ve got a headache, we stubbed our toe, or have some sort of negative consequences going on. The science of medicine is related in two areas: The realm of prevention, which is somewhat related to nutrition. That is designed to help you avoid ending up with particularly difficult situations from a medical standpoint. For instance, if you eat too much sugar and don’t exercise and don’t take care of yourself, then your odds of developing diabetes go up quite considerably. Medicine — and this is more in conjunction with nutrition and exercise — has a good deal to say about how to prevent diabetes from coming into being. However, if you end up getting diabetes, then medicine also has something useful to say about how to manage the symptoms, about how to take your insulin, how to do all these things so you don’t end up dying, losing a limb, losing your eyesight, whatever it is, from the problem of diabetes. Prevention is one aspect of it, and Cure is another aspect of it. If we look at these disciplines, then we can say that there is a right way to do things and there’s a wrong way to do things. There’s no perfect, optimal, under all situations way to do things, but just because there’s no such thing as perfect health doesn’t mean that there’s no difference between somebody that’s got a mild cold and somebody who’s dying of cancer. To use another metaphor, there is salt water in the sea, and there is freshwater in a lake. The freshwater in a lake has a small amount of salt, minerals, impurities in it, and the salt water in the sea has an enormous amount of those things. So while there are differences of degree, in terms of more salt and less salt, it’s still far better to drink lake water than it is to drink sea water. I want to explain that, just because there’s gray areas — like no lake water is perfectly pure, and no, it’s not like sea water is a solid block of minerals and salt — just because there are differences of degree between seawater and freshwater doesn’t mean that there’s fundamentally no difference between them. They’re not just differences of degree from that standpoint. So while none of us is perfectly healthy — even though I do have viruses and bacteria in my intestines and all that kind of stuff — there is a huge degree of difference between myself, standing here before you in a relatively healthy state (I have no head cold, I haven’t stubbed my toe, I’m feeling good, had a good night’s sleep) and somebody dying of cancer in the same way that there’s a difference in kind, not just in degree, in the potability or the drinkability of seawater as opposed to lake water. Even though lake water contains minerals and seawater contains H2O, which you can drink, there’s still a very large difference between those two states. When we start thinking about philosophy, relating it to these other fields that we’ve been talking about, I think it’s useful to understand that there is an ideal state in philosophy. We could call it virtue, knowledge, wisdom, or whatever. We’ll not get into the definition of that, but I want to talk about the framework of how philosophy works, why it’s important, why it’s relevant, and why it’s, I would say, absolutely necessary to the pursuit of happiness, joy, efficacy, fulfillment, and all the good things in life. The human mind has the capacity for error in the same way that the human body has the capacity for error in terms of the furtherance of life. We could say that — a stroke, a heart attack, diabetes, cancer, Alzheimer’s, or AIDS, or whatever — these physical conditions within the body are deviations from the ideal state of health and the furtherance of life. When we talk about health, there’s an ideal state and there are deviations from it which are correctable. For instance, when we see somebody who’s 95 years old, obviously they’re not going to be leaping up, taking the stairs two at a time; they’re gonna be laboring up or maybe using stair lifts. We would not say that the 95-year-old person is “not well” because they can’t bound the steps up two at a time; however, a relatively fit, or at least not overweight, 15-year-old boy should be able to leap up the stairs two at a time, and if that boy cannot, then we have some idea that there’s a problem, a deviation. Where correction is possible, then nutrition, philosophy, and medicine are valid sciences, valid approaches to this problem. To take an extreme example, if you had some sort of ailment that we could only, perhaps, hope to get, where your body changed its metabolic, physiological structure in some manner that eating cookies, ice cream, chocolate, éclairs, all those goodies, that that was the only food on which you could survive. If that were the case, then the science of nutrition would not be useful. If there were only 5 things you could eat, and you wanted to eat them all (they tasted good), then the science of nutrition would not be that helpful. Similarly, we can’t correct something like aging; we can ameliorate some of its causes, but for sure by the time we get to 110, 120, we’re gonna be dead. Somebody who’s 95 has a different standard of health from somebody who’s 15. The 15-year-old should be able to run around, run up the stairs and so on; we don’t expect that from the 95-year-old, but we would not say that the 95-year-old who can’t bound up the stairs two at a time “is really seriously ill;” we’d just say, “Well, they’re getting really old.” There’s as yet no medical correction for the "problem" of aging, look at me using some un-hyperboles. Where there is no correction possible, there is no ideal state from which there is a deviation. We say some people age well, some people age badly; some people can play tennis into their 80s, some people are unfit and unhealthy by the time they’re 40 or 50, so there are differences of degrees. But the fundamental deterioration that occurs when we age is not something that can be corrected at the moment by medical science; it can be sort of managed, and the effects can be alleviated, but getting old is not the same as getting sick. The reason that I’m pointing this out is that we do need to have a standard that we try to achieve as conceptual or cognizant or intellectual beings in the realm of philosophy. There’s a deviation from that standard, and the solutions are not always obvious. Obvious solutions don’t necessarily require a whole lot of information. You don’t need, probably, a nutritionist to tell you that if you’re thirsty, you should drink something; your body’s going to say that to you. You don’t need a doctor to tell you that if you put your hand (if you don’t have leprosy, or something which has numbed your extremities) in a fire, you should pull it out. You don’t leave it in the fire and go, “(sniff) Hmm, now I’m getting hungry,” then call 9-1-1 when your hand falls off, because there’s an obvious solution that’s sort of baked into our physiological nature to deal with those kinds of issues (around: pull your hand back; if you stub your toe, go down and rub it; if you sprain your ankle, you may not need a doctor to tell you not to put a lot of weight on that ankle, because it’s going to hurt you if you do). There’s a couple of things which I’m talking about here which combine to make philosophy a very interesting science that, relative to other sciences, shouldn’t be overly baffling. Don’t get me wrong. There’s a lot of bafflement in philosophy, but that’s for a variety of reasons we may get into today, depending on my stamina and concentration. I wanted to point out there’s an ideal state, there are deviations from the ideal state, there are sciences, logic, and approaches which can close the ideal state from the non-ideal state, and that the solutions are non-obvious. Getting on a stairmaster (I don’t know about you, maybe you love it)… I go to the gym and do these kinds of things because they are good for me, not because I get this huge — and I know, you get runner’s high and endorphins — but for me, exercise is a little bit of a chore. Not like playing badminton and stuff, but you know, doing weights and stuff like that. So if you merely went by your physical feedback mechanisms, your neuropsychological bio-feedback mechanisms, you’d sit around eating cheesecake and wouldn’t go to the gym. Based on our biology, there’s just no way that broccoli is ever going to taste as good as a chocolate bar. The natural impulses that we have would be towards eating sweet and fat things. Obviously, we developed those things because those things are essential for life, but a rarity, and so we needed to have a higher motivation to go and get them; you can’t live on lettuce and tomatoes, you need fat and sugar. So we had strong biochemical receptors, indicators, and feedback mechanisms to get us to pursue those things during the time of our evolutionary development. Now, of course, they’re overly plentiful, and all these problems, but fundamentally, the solution that a nutritionist has to come up with is sort of non-intuitive. When the doctor says, “You need to eat more salads. You need to eat less fat, less sugar, and you need to exercise more,” that’s kind of counter-intuitive because our biological feedback mechanism leads us toward the dessert tray and then the couch. There are certain non-intuitive things that you need to do in the realm of prevention or self-care, self-maintenance, that are important to know about, because if you just follow your indicators, then you’re not going to have much luck achieving your goals if your goals are health and that kind of stuff. Philosophy also fits into that as well. A lot of things in life are not necessarily intuitive, and yet, if you pursue them, they can be very beneficial and very helpful for you in terms of achieving and maintaining happiness in the world, and having a rich life full of love, joy, intimacy, and all that kind of juicy stuff. Some of that stuff for sure falls into the realm of psychology, which is a subset of philosophy, as all human knowledge really is. What you want to do when you’re starting to understand how human beings acquire knowledge, and why, and what the purpose is, and so on, is to recognize that there are lots of truths about the world that are not intuitive, but nonetheless are very true. Some trivial (I guess not if you’re an astronaut) examples are things like: the world looks flat, but it’s actually not. The sun and the moon look about the same size, but they’re not at all the same size. When you look at the night sky, and you trace the movement of the stars, it looks like the stars are spinning around the earth; we feel like we are not in motion, but of course, that’s not the case. The idea that they had in the Middle Ages that the stars were holes poked in a black bowl that rolled around the earth: obviously not quite so true. When you see an eclipse, it’s clear that the moon and the sun are like the size of a dime held at arm’s length; when you see an eclipse, it looks like the moon covers the sun almost completely. That’s because the sun is 93 million miles away, the moon is a quarter million miles away, and so it’s the disparity in the distance that creates the illusion that they’re the same size. We have some truths there, for instance, that are not intuitive. Human beings do have the capacity for error. When we talk about having a capacity for error, the question is, “In relation to what?” This is the fundamental thing. When we talk about health, we want longevity, vitality, energy, and an absence of pain; that’s sort of the general idea behind health. So we know that we’re deviating from an ideal state whenever we experience pain, when our vitality decreases, our energy, our ability to draw breath, whatever it is, begins to decline within us. Similarly, in nutrition, if we begin to gain weight, or we get diabetes, then we know that we are deviating from an ideal state. The question is, in philosophy, “What is the ideal state, and how do we know that we’ve deviated from it?” In other words, “What is the truth and how do we know the deviation from it?” Well, if we look at our good friends, the physical scientists (and biologists, to some degree, but I’ll stay with physics for the moment), then we can see that there is an ideal state. Truth is something that lives within us; there’s no truth in the exterior world. You don’t kick a rock and it uproots a big sprig of truth, or something; truth doesn’t rain from the sky in driblets. Truth is the correlation between internal ideas and external reality. We’re just talking about the scientific method at the moment; we’ll get to philosophy in just a moment. We’re saying a bunch of things when we say that something is true. We obviously have to say that there’s the capacity for it not to be true because otherwise, there’s no point… nothing to say that there is true or false. Saying that something is true is not a subjective statement. One of the differences between truth and opinion is that truth has external validation. Again, we’re just talking about the scientific method for the most part here. What goes on in science, also very accurate, useful in what goes on in philosophy as well. When we say something is true, we’re saying that there is a mental concept or thesis. The way that it works in science is that, if I say that objects fall from the sky at 9.8 m/s/s (that’s their acceleration), then that’s a proposition; I put forward a proposition that says that. Einstein puts them forward, Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, Newton, and Hawking; all of these people put forward propositions. The proposition is, something falls down from the sky 9.8 m/s/s is the acceleration of it, absent things like atmospheric interference, and so on. So that’s a proposition. It’s not true. You could say it’s true that I put forward a proposition, but it’s not that the proposition has been proven true just by saying it. What you have to measure the proposition against in the scientific world is external, tangible reality. This is very important when it comes to thinking about science, and of course, as we’ll get to in a moment (or maybe we will, maybe we won’t), human conflict. So if I put forward this thesis, then what has to happen is, somebody (me, maybe) has to go and measure this to actually find out whether my idea corresponds with the behavior of matter in the real world, in the world external to consciousness; it’s not the consciousness, which is not part of the real world, and is biochemical, neurological, and there’s nothing mystical about it (certainly there’s nothing proved about the soul or anything like that). We’ll just talk about the mind being part of reality from an electrical, chemical kind of energy way. I put forward a proposition, then that proposition has to be validated in the real world. The way that we validate a proposition in the scientific realm is, we test it. Simple as that. We test it, and we do a statistical analysis on variation. The tests are never going to be perfect; they just have to be close enough (9.8 m/s/s, you could probably go to 500 decimal places and it still not be perfectly correct, and then maybe it’s windy, or this or that, so again, we’re back in the realm where there are certain amounts of gray areas right at the core of things. Only in mathematics can you say 2+2=4 and have it be perfectly true; you put 2 and 2 oranges together, and they’re different shapes, weights, sizes, but when you put 2 and 2 of them together, you still have 4 oranges, even though you don’t have a perfect reproduced set of 4. We’ll get into all of that another time). Again, just because there are gray areas right down to the core of things doesn’t mean that there’s no difference between truth and falsehood. This is very important to understand. If I offer you seawater versus lake water to drink, even though lake water is not pure, as I mentioned earlier, you’ll still choose to drink the lake water, unless you want to be sick or something. From that standpoint, we then take a proposition in the scientific realm, and we attempt to reproduce it through physical experimentation. It has to be reproducible, it can’t be necessarily location-dependent, it can’t be time-dependent. Because we’re dealing with physical reality, which has objective and universal laws, you can’t say, “In Norway, it’s 9.8, and in Iceland, it’s 2.2, and things don’t even fall down in Thailand!” We have to have some methodology by which we compare our ideas to external, physical, tangible reality, in order to validate them. When we say something is true, what we’re saying is that it’s either logical (logic is a complicated topic, which we’ll get to another time)… When you’re dealing with a theory in mathematics, you don’t necessarily have to produce the things that you’re talking about in the real world. Mathematics is a certain kind of logic that requires independent verification, fact-checking, logic-checking and so on, but it doesn’t require physical experiments in the same way that physics does, wherein you have to go and measure how fast the ball falls down. When we have a proposition or an idea within our mind, we have the capacity for error. Very fundamental. Earth looks flat, sun and moon look the same size, and so on. Then what we need to do is compare the ideas that we have and the predictability of those ideas, to what actually happens in the real world, and that’s how we determine whether something is true or false. The question [concerning] the degree to which we are capable of achieving truth and stumbling into error is very important. We’ll spend a few minutes on it now before wrapping up. But the question that always comes up in this area is really about the validity of the senses, and it’s a very important question because that’s how we get information from the outside world. I know that I’m looking at my laptop, and I know that writing because the cursor is blinking and letters are popping into place, and I know that I’m sitting in my study, and so on, because of the evidence of my senses. Descartes had this theory that it could be possible that we all are like a brain in a tank, and we are being manipulated by an external devil that’s creating all the sensory input in a perfectly consistent kind of way, and so on. That’s a very interesting idea, and of course, he was trying to rescue the Christian deity from a certain amount of skepticism at the time. We can certainly understand why he would want to do that if not necessarily respect the methodology. Of course, the problem with theories like that is that there’s no (what’s technically a) “null hypothesis;” and what that means is that there’s no way to disprove them. So if somebody makes to you the argument: “Well, you could just be a brain in a tank, and all of your sensory input is being manipulated by some evil demon,” well… certainly possible, certainly possible… However, Descartes (this is the “I think, therefore I am” thing), would say that I may be entirely wrong about everything that I’m getting from my senses, all my sensory input, but that I still exist because I’m being fooled and something is fooling me, and so on. So that’s where he got the “I think, therefore I am.” That was the only thing that he could really feel that had to be true from a syllogistic or axiomatic standpoint, which is that he existed and that someone was fooling him, and so on. As I said earlier, in order to call something true, it has to have the capacity to be false. The problem with this argument that all our sensory data could be being manipulated by some external demon, we are a brain in a tank, it’s some sick lab, is that there’s no null hypothesis; there’s simply no way. It’s like if you’ve ever had a conversation with a paranoid person, talking to them about how you break them out of their theories: “Ah, the CIA is watching me.” “Well, have you seen any?” “No! See, that’s how good they are! If I’d seen them, I wouldn’t worry as much, because then it wouldn’t be the CIA, because the CIA…” or whatever. So if there is somebody watching you, then you are being shadowed by the CIA, and if there isn’t somebody watching you, or you can’t see them, it’s because they’re hiding, and they’re really good at it. So if there’s no way to disprove a proposition, it actually has no truth or false value statement and is not something that can really be conversed about. If I say I’m actually a voice in your head, and you’re not actually looking at a screen, you’re having a dream, and I’m sent from the future… Well, you know, OK, we could have that debate, but how would we know that that wasn’t the case? One of the ways that we can tell dreams from waking reality in a way that even children can master, but which a lot of philosophers seem to have trouble with is, of course, within dreams, objects don’t have constancy; you’re walking along a street, it turns into a river, and then you’re flying, and then you’re talking to a guy, who turns into an elephant… Objects don’t have consistency and physical laws don’t exist; you can fly, I’ve had dreams where I’m walking along the seabed and able to breathe and so on… And you travel without transition; so in a dream, you’re in a ship, then you’re in a plane, then you’re walking in a desert, and then you’re swimming in the sea, and there’s no transition between them. How we know that we’re in a dream state versus a waking state: we know that in the real world there’s object constancy, physical laws, transition time, and they are all consistent and not subject to our willpower, but in dreams, quite the opposite occur. We can get into that in a little bit more detail, but the fundamental question is that of sensual evidence, the validity of the stuff that’s coming in through our senses. Speaking of which, time for a sip of coffee. The way that we can appreciate the validity of our physical senses is to understand why we have five of them. Our physical senses do not provide, except in the event of dysfunction (like you’re blind, or you have tinnitus, ringing in your ear), assuming that your senses are functioning in a healthy manner, it’s certainly possible that one of your senses can provide information that you misinterpret. The senses are valid; our interpretation of the evidence of the senses is not [always] valid. So that’s an important thing to understand when it comes to receiving information about reality through your senses, and that’s what makes the scientific method so powerful; it surmounts the evidence of the senses, but it has to use the evidence of the senses in an alternative way to make it the case. For instance, back before, I don’t know, geometric measuring devices and satellites, space pictures, how did we know the earth was round? They put a stake in the ground in one place and put a stake in the ground in another place, hundreds and hundreds of miles away, and then at noon, they measured the shadows, and got a sense of that; I think there was a certain mathematical way so when a ship went over the ocean, you saw the hull, and then the mast, and all that went, so it looked like it was going down a slow slope; last but not least, when there was a lunar eclipse (when the earth went between the sun and the moon), as the earth’s shadow went across the moon, you could see that it was rounded. Although the evidence of the senses when we’re just going about our daily life seems to indicate that the world is flat, we still have to use the evidence of our senses to see that the world’s shadow is round when it goes against the moon, to measure these two sticks to see what their shadow is, to see the ship going down over the horizon on a slow slope and so on. The evidence of the senses simply requires verification or a systematic organization of them in order to come up with something that’s true, or more true, versus something that’s false. Just because there’s no perfect truth that we can always achieve doesn’t mean that there’s no difference between truth and falsehood, as we talked about earlier. I hope that that’s a useful introduction to the ideas behind philosophy. There has to be some ideal state, and generally in philosophy it is the actions of the world in reality, which we obtain through the evidence of the senses and validate through rationality, and we can talk a little bit more about how the scientific method works in terms of its connection to philosophical methods, perhaps, in the next article. I thought this would be an interesting way for you to at least understand some of the ideas behind philosophy. Why it’s so helpful we can get into in the next one, what kind of decisions it can really help you make, and why, why, why it’s so important to examine your opinions to find out if they’re true or not. And that’s a very powerful and interesting pursuit. I hope you’ll join me for it next time. This article is heavily based on the introduction to philosophy podcast episode from Stefan Molyneux.