Thursday, March 31, 2005

Philosophical House of Cards


Philosophers, for reasons I can't understand, largely concern themselves with foundations, essences and principles. They will invest a lot of time looking for some grand theory of everything, which they feel ties everything together nicely, allowing them to use their philosophical system to say complicated non-obvious but necessarily true things about the world.

This never works.

Some philosophers notice this at times, and attempt to say it's all just inaccuracy which is being slowly worn away as we test more and more theories, and all we have to do is stick to our guns, and come up with even better foundations, essences and principles.

This doesn't work either.

There are lots of reasons that this doesn't work. The logician's argument can be Godel's incompleteness argument - you cannot predict all true things, even within bizarre artificial systems. Once you hit a certain level of descriptiveness, there are hard informational limits on what you can achieve with it. This deals with most people, except of course that they almost never change their position - they just ignore the argument.

You can also argue against whether the basis for our ideas, or indeed reality, is strictly logical, or whether we have it entirely right.

Or, you can trap people into using technical words paradoxically, showing that they don't have a consistent position.

However, I think the real reason is much simpler - the world just doesn't work like that, and you'd better get used to it. People don't operate, either consciously or subconsciously, according to grand over-riding principles, and there is no indication that our objective universe does either. Believing that the universe follows highly logical, consistent laws is a myth - a simplification we get from our school textbooks. Nothing is that simple, believe me. If it were, we'd have it licked. The difficulty is not that we can't come up with alternative systems for reasoning, but that people find it difficult to get used to system in which there are inconsistent foundations, or multiple possible interpretations to a situation, or no answers.

Traditional philosophy is a house of cards, where removing one support causes the whole edifice to come crumbling down. A robust philosophy must be both dynamic in the face of new knowledge, and support distributed ideas of principle and action. That way, even when an idea is proved false, we don't have to start from scratch, or spend a lot of time questioning basic assumptions.

People don't trust in genius scientists or logical philosophers when dealing with issues relating to their lives, because of the frequency with which the house of cards comes tumbling down. Such a skepticism is healthy, but it is also a sad thing to say about the quality of philosophy that is usually presented in the world.



Anonymous Josh Mendelsohn said...

Alas, I confess to be one such philosopher. But that's not exactly how I see it. To begin, I believe that we all already use such a system in our thought. Explicitly or implicitly, there are certain basic facts which we believe about the nature of the world. The rest of our understanding rests on them. Because they underly all normal thought, it is hard to discover them. The task of philosophy, IMO, is to discover these underlying principles, amend them, and integrate the ramificaitons of the amended belief into the rest of our belief system.

A good example of of such a principle is the underlying belief that the world is the sum of all objects, or 'things,' that exist. This belief appears to make sense. We look around, and we see objects, and not much else. But this belief also gives rise to some strange, seemingly unanswerable questions. What is the world made of, then? What property of an object constitutes it as what it is? Why, for example, is my drinking glass a glass and not a hammer, when I can hit nails with it nonetheless? (This kind of thinking was what led Plato to posit a separate world of ideal forms). If all things are objects, then where do more abstract things like thoughts fit in? (This one was the line of thought that must have led Descartes to posit a second reality of the mind). An alternative, but related, underlying belief is the idea that the nature of something is determined by its substance rather than its form.

One response to these apparent paradoxes is to conclude, direly, that man is a blind misfit within a vast, unknowable world. Or, we can go back and try to amend the belief. This was what Wittgenstein set out to do in his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. He said: "The world is all that is the case. The world is the totality of facts, not of things." He was then able to posit the existence of objects reasonably, without those paradoxes, and demonstrate some striking and shocking things about the nature of reality. Conter-intuitive? Yes, but only so because it conflicts with the misguided underlying belief that we held before. The point is, that the world may be in many ways radically different to how we assume - and this is likely the source of what makes it seem like it cannot be understood.

I don't want one "Grand Theory of Everything." Rather, my dream is to be able to understand the principles which underly disparate areas our world & experience, but also to have a more basic set of principles unifying these areas of understanding. In the same way that in physics, we don't use relativistic equations to predict how long it will take for a stone I drop to hit the ground, so too do I not expect to be able to use the same principles to adress the concerns of aesthetics and political philosophy, for example. But jult like we can show how relativity and newtonian mechanics are describing the same things in different ways, so too do I seek a set of further principles to show how the principles which I use to adress two very different areas like aesthetics and political philosophy are basically different aspects of the same world.

Physics is a good analogy. At one time, many would have laughed at the prospect of being able to describe . But then Newton, with his little systematizing mind, came along and showed how we can. Since him, physicists have refined his theories more and more. Now we have a truly breathtaking understanding of the nature and the principles underlying the physical world.

If it can be done with the physical world, why can't it be done with other areas of the world?
e.g. Ethics (not idiotic and vulgar simplifications that assume utilitarianism to begin with, but rather the study of how we should live our lives.)
Epistemology (Kant made a good start here. Lets begin where he left us and see how far we can go.)
Conciousness (Some good work is actually being done here, not the least by John Searle. However, we will go a lot further if we introduce some more through logic into the game.)

Logical models are just about the best tool that we pale apes have. We'd do well to use them for more than working out how to make lots of money and send pieces of metal into the sky. If philosophy, as you are suggesting, can be nothing more than a set of disparate observations, then I think I'll stick to chemistry or literature instead. It is my hope that, with intensive study, it will become possible to work out where we are.

P.S. You might be interested that Nietzsche expressed exactly the sentiment that you are in Twighlight of the Idols. "I mistrust all systematizers and avoid them. The will to a system is a lack of integrity."

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