Friday, September 24, 2004

The Philosophy Jelly


Touch any part of philosophy, and the rest of it wobbles.

A conversation starting on the topic of, say, ethical farming practises can quickly move from looking at the various environmentally-friendly options available to farmers, to questions about whether we have a responsibility to preserve the land in its natural state, or whether we have a carte blanche on terraforming, irrigation, bulldozing etc. Diverting a river to service farmland can upset the habitat of native animals. All of a sudden we're arguing about animal rights. Inevitably, ethical divisions will arise between the economic rationalists, those who believe in minimum impact living, and the spiritualists. Before you know it, the argument has moved to the rationality of believing in a god vs a purely scientific view of the world, with a splash of moral relativism thrown in for good measure.

Sometimes, the hardest job when analysing an issue is finding the perspective from which things appear most simple. This is a powerful political tool, often used by marketers and governments in order to quickly allow the populace to divide according to an easily understood issue. The choice of perspective is not always benign, either.

The War on Terror(ism) is a good example - in the early days, they sold it on WMD, not because this is a one-horse race to the bomb, but because they felt it was the simplest perspective by which they could present the argument. Discussions about international obligations, the correctness of violent opposition, the moral duties of war, whether to fully respect the operations of the UN were pushed into the background, because it was easiest to present the war as being "primarily" about WMD.

It is easy to fall into the belief that no argument is ever sufficient - because no argument can ever me complete. Without answering fundamental questions about seemingly oblique issues, it would appear that we can never come to any conclusion about the deceptively simple problems at hand. Sometimes, people dismiss the oblique arguments as being ridiculous (land rights for gay whales!) but without understanding what they are ignoring.

One example of the power of a simple perspective is the orbital paths of the planets. 10 generations or so ago, people believed that the earth was the center of the universe. The sun, the stars, the moon and the planets all moved around the Earth, as was only right given that the Earth was where God chose to put His people. This was simple accepted. However, humanity was not without science - early observations plotted the motion of the stars - the idea that there were celestial objects had been in human thinking for a very long time. Ptolemy constructed almost ludicrously complex geo-centric (around the earth) formulae to explain the motion of the planets. This idea stood for many hundreds of years, until the controversial idea that the universe was centered around the sun was put forward by Copernics in 1533. This idea was metaphysically controvesial, as the idea of a geo-centric universe had long been a part of church doctrine. The idea that God's children did not live in the center of the universe was a challenge to their authority.

So, the next time you consider a problem, realise two things. Firstly realise that there are many, many issues tied up in any problem, and that it may not be as simple as you might think. Secondly, realise that you may be looking at something from the wrong perspective, and that considering the problem in a new light may make the problem comically simple.



Blogger Emma said...

Nothing is ever as simple as initially thought. Ever. Sometimes I wish it was

9/24/2004 02:19:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sorry to blow (part of) your argument out of the water, but Copernicus actually presented his view of the world in 1543, not the 1870s. Galileo expanded on this in the early 1600s. So we've quite a few centuries knowing we weren't the centre of the universe, and certainly more than 10 generations.

9/24/2004 05:00:00 PM  
Blogger MelbournePhilosopher said...

Looks like I was a bit crap. To my vague credit, I pulled the info from wikipedia, so it's possibly I was the victim of some bad info on the page at the time.

By the time you read this, I should have corrected the body of my text.


9/24/2004 05:05:00 PM  

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