The Importance of Philosophy

By Wiley Combs

Philosophy is not just a high-falutin’ habit of wizened academics, it is a fundamental grounding for human existence. When one expresses their beliefs, or their opinions, such statements inevitably contain many philosophical underpinnings. Some seem quite common and very explicit, such as when people self-identify with large groups or general belief systems. A few notable examples include political parties, religious beliefs, professions, and national or ethnic identities. We utilize these categories not only to simplify the act of defining ourselves and others, but also to better determine what ideas we might subscribe to. But beyond even that, philosophy extends from less broadly-defined sets of associations into the realm of the everyday: any matter which is governed at some level by “opinion”—and almost everything is—can be considered a matter of philosophy: consumer purchasing choices, time management preferences, even cleaning habits, are all governed at some level by what are often colloquially referred to as “personal philosophies.” Like it or not, everyone attempts to rationalize their habits and choices based upon private mental justifications, but we rarely are capable of unbiased introspective examination of such justifications.

Philosophical ideas dominate our lives so completely that we often assume “philosophy” as a practice to be unnecessary. A very smart woman with journalistic aspirations once told me the following: “I suppose I just don’t see the point in philosophizing myself. I like to try to stay unbiased, so I can make decisions without my own ideology getting in the way. It frustrates me when people do the opposite, and let their beliefs dictate how they act.” This is a noble objective, and a common aspiration (for who wouldn’t love to be unbiased?), but unfortunately the sentiment is based upon an incorrect assumption that one can decide (or even manage to be) unbiased in their judgments. Studies in developmental neuroscience and psychology inform us that the tabula is never rasa, so it would seem foolish to think that we could somehow erase the effects of our own psychological predispositions, let alone disregard the lasting impacts of enculturation.

I might suggest that only a computer could be capable of such an impartial attitude, but even computers must get their assumptions from somewhere, and the substance of the universe is not relatable in ones and zeros without some medium of translation—a computer language such as Java—to digitize the facts of existence into some comprehensible form. And even then, the language’s intelligibility would only be relevant to fallible beings such as ourselves, as computers have no vested interest in the “readibility,” “relevance” or “rightness” of their binary architecture. Such concepts only have importance to creatures with motivations, relationships and beliefs: in other words, values which govern the improvement of understanding or the applicability of learning are the exclusive province of philosophically-oriented people with inexplicable attitudinal drives. It is the very indefinite and indefinable nature of our existence which lends itself to philosophy: that which is simply “is,” while that which lives must constantly deal with unpredictability—such is the nature of a complex world which includes many unknown/unknowable things which nonetheless are, and many living things which cannot help but know very little about the unknowable. In order to function, we strategically form assumptions, categories and beliefs which help to govern our reactions to such predictably unpredictable circumstances.

The formation of categories and assumptions is endemic to our daily operations, as Yale psychologist Paul Bloom suggests in a Floating University lecture where he argues that “part of being a successful human is the ability to learn, and part of learning is making statistical generalizations on the basis of limited experience.” Bloom notes that certain false stereotypes (such as those concerning race and gender, among others) are based upon “biased information,” but we can hardly avoid making mistakes when we’re operating on the basis of probability. The pervasiveness of such stereotypes illustrates the powerful nature of our psychological predisposition to categorize, but it also highlights the need for an equally powerful philosophical examination of the very “truths we hold to be self-evident.”

If there is one lesson that the practice of philosophy has to teach us, it is this: no truth is self-evident. While this phrasing may seem very poignant when declaring that “all men are created equal”—certainly an admirable assertion—the struggle for equality has been as much a philosophical endeavor as a political one. Thomas Jefferson’s oft-quoted statement was the outcome of centuries of rational examination, an embodiment of the philosophical ideals of the Enlightenment. These ideals did not arise from “self-evident” notions; they accompanied a tradition of critical examination based upon logical premises or rational arguments, arguments which mirrored the world-changing natural philosophies of Copernicus, Galileo and Newton. In fact, the decline in belief of previously “self-evident truths” of science—Ptolemaic geocentric astronomy and Aristotelian physics—starkly paralleled the decline of feudalism and the centralized religious order of Catholicism. Such examples indicate the utter malleability of widely-accepted philosophical beliefs as represented by science, religion and politics.

In a seeming about-face, some today believe that the seemingly immutable truths of science can serve as a bedrock for philosophy. Just as our ancestors’ reliance on metaphysical notions were incompletely informed—and thus a poor basis for reasoning—it is certain that our present “scientific” understanding of the world is incomplete. Neither can religion provide us with all the answers, as it often tends to dismiss legitimate detractors as heretics rather than reasonably attempt to answer their critiques. Religious theology has barely advanced from the teleological premises of St. Thomas Aquinas, which cannot stand up to logical examination by trained philosophers. Meanwhile, the philosophy of science is only honest insofar as it admits its own limits: we have learned much from science, but understanding of its multitudinous principles and findings lies far beyond the reach of any single authority. The naïve hubris of both religious and scientific zealots is as striking as it is uninspiring.

As philosophical categories, religion and science cannot do much more than give general operating principles. Notably, these principles are readily discarded by the strictest adherents of either method in the face of inevitable incongruity or incompleteness of advice. Moreover, as the interpretation of religious and scientific truths can often be seen to morph with the times, can it really be argued that any concrete set of present beliefs encapsulates some form of ultimate truth? Of course not. We can see simple examples where neither widely-accepted philosophy has any bearing on our everyday choices: sane people don’t ask God for directions to the hotel, nor do they consult the periodic table when deciding which chemical compounds to consume for dinner.

Broadly speaking, the study of philosophy consists in asking questions properly, sometimes with unsatisfying or uncomfortable results. In this, it is very much distinct from colloquial or commonsense philosophy, which is often based upon presumptions as to which questions are worth asking, or what the answers are. A good philosopher understands that there are many possible avenues for exploration and explanation. And, though we may not use such words as “ontology” or “epistemology” regularly, humans regularly debate questions of what is and how we know things. There is no reason, moreover, to believe that such questions are best left in the hands of overly-verbose academics with a limited field of practical experience. Artists regularly practice the study of aesthetics without resorting to philosophical jargon or debate. In a similar manner, people of all types and stripes practice their own brand of philosophy when deciding on matters which are not definitive: perhaps a broad philosophy can limit our choices on a menu (is that kosher?), but the available decisions are still too numerous and complex for any one system of belief to unerringly and unendingly direct us.

This is all to say that philosophy, as a tool, still has a good deal of utility, and we have yet to discover one complete philosophy which provides the answers to every question. More importantly, it is still uncertain how we should properly form questions, or even which questions to ask. Such is the joke underlying Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker series: if we could build a giant computer to answer life’s most difficult questions, could it be assumed that we even have the framework with which to ask the right questions? Philosophy is the study of questions, and it is only when we have that practice down that we can hope to settle on some definitive answers.

Categories: Issue 5, Non-Fiction | Leave a comment

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