Life is complex and difficult. This difficulty, however (and paradoxically), is often under-acknowledged. Life, with its meanderings and progressions, fails sometimes to demand exploration of the toughest questions. Deep issues too-often fail to become meaningful and important. Deep issues, too often, go without acknowledgement whatsoever.
The consequences, predictably, are bad. But why does this failure originate and persist? The question demands an investigation of the nature of philosophy itself: what it seeks to do, why it’s good, and why it can be difficult to maintain.
In the process, hopefully we’ll better understand philosophy. Furthermore, however, we might learn the identities of some of these big questions, the roles they play in our lives, and even perhaps how they could be answered. If you’re not interested yet – read on.
The scientific approach to life demands elucidation of the unknown. The world, we should believe, must be explained: life and its origins must be understood and classified; materials, molecules, atoms and electrons (and their interactions) must be explored; even the ethereal, rigid structures of mathematical truth must be investigated. It’s less clear, however, that philosophical truths exist and that they must be investigated. Philosophy (in an alternate universe, we might imagine) could have never transpired as a discipline, and its absence gone unnoticed…
That’s why philosophical thinking often goes neglected. Our world, as we naturally perceive it, is not delineated and structured; our philosophical world is even less so. Even as biologists, physicists, and mathematicians explore, compartmentalize, and classify, (and do so transparently), the philosophical world – that of human moral good, or the content of a fulfilled life, or the optimum of social interaction – may freely, to the unread eye, continue to seem as amorphous as ever.
Philosophy, then, is not a necessary pursuit. It’s a GIFT. It’s a blessing, a triumph of progress, available only through grace and glory. Philosophy’s presence isn’t demanded by the universe. Philosophy’s presence, instead, enhances the universe, adding to it something that never previously existed. It adds a framework, and an attempt at a logical scaffolding; it inserts questions, not where they always were, but where they most need to be. Philosophers attempt to imbue structure into the rippling cliffs of human experience.
Moral goodness: who could have imagined that brilliant minds could work towards constructing a scientific theory of the moral good? The task, a priori, doesn’t seem to admit a logical framework. Until, that is, Bentham claimed that we must choose a good (say pleasure) and maximize it; Mill responded that certain goods (say knowledge) inherently supersede others; Smith claimed that positive human interaction alone constitutes an intrinsic good and the rest of morality logically follows hence; Kant posited that morality admits an answer grounded purely in reason and that the good is that which can be universalized without logical contradiction; … <two hundred years later>…; Williams offered his paradigm-shattering rebuttal of utilitarianism in which he claimed that to subject an individual to the utility-whims of the causal nexus around him is to destroy his integrity and his identity as an individual. Have we found the answer? I’m not sure. Have we made progress? I think so. (1)
God’s existence: philosophers have exchanged thousands of logical – extremely logical – debates about the possibility and proof of existence of God. St. Anselm, in 1348, defining God as “that than which nothing greater can be conceived”, claimed that the existence of God not in reality but only (in an inferior form) in the mind would violate its very definition and lead to logical contradiction (2). Political (usually) philosopher Robert Nozick has argued that God, conceived as pure infinity, could instill life with meaning and satisfy particular properties (just as only an infinite mathematical set can be a superset of itself) (3). Logician Kurt Godel even offered an axiomatic proof of God’s existence (4).
Social interaction: the question of how to best interact socially has received incredibly diverse treatment. Machiavelli claimed that the perfidy and shallowness of others must be preempted by manipulation. Dostoevsky urged eternally kind treatment of others, even when logic most tempts us otherwise. Nietzsche, at times, seemed to (implicitly) demand abandonment of human interaction altogether.
Philosophy, then, emerges from the mist and creates a framework, precisely where such a construction might have previously seemed most difficult. Its understanding, moreover, adds incredible depth to life. Questions do now exist in these places we need them. Answers might be on their way, too. The alternate universe in which philosophy never arose seems empty and hopeless. Our universe, meanwhile, is taking on new meaning every day. It’s up to us to learn, and to become participants, and to escape from that old universe altogether. We’re bringing this new universe to incredible places.
- Utilitarianism: For and Against. Monumental arguments from Smart and Williams (respectively) regarding modern philosophical utilitarianism.
- Ontological proofs of God’s existence, from St. Anselm and others.
- Robert Nozick’s chapter from “Philosophical Explanations” regarding the Meaning of Life.
- Logician Kurt Gödel’s ontological proof of God, along with a modern rigorous formalization through higher-order theorem provers.