Philosophy and Fulfillment


Logician Kurt Godel proposed an axiomatic proof of God.

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.

  1. Utilitarianism: For and Against. Monumental arguments from Smart and Williams (respectively) regarding modern philosophical utilitarianism.
  2. Ontological proofs of God’s existence, from St. Anselm and others.
  3. Robert Nozick’s chapter from “Philosophical Explanations” regarding the Meaning of Life.
  4. Logician Kurt Gödel’s ontological proof of God, along with a modern rigorous formalization through higher-order theorem provers.

7 comments on “Philosophy and Fulfillment

  1. Josh says:

    When you say that philosophy is a gift, rather than a necessity: is that gift reserved for the philosopher, or is it shared with all of society? In my reading, I assumed the latter. Bentham, for example, constructs a framework that seeks to provide the greatest good for the greatest number of people. Even if his particular philosophy is incorrect, it seems very reasonable that philosophy in general might benefit greater society.

    In the case of the latter, I come to wonder why mathematicians pursue mathematics, since the study of some math seems to be neither an obvious question in society nor particularly beneficial to it. Of course, math when applied, to engineering for example, saves countless lives. But where’s the societal benefit to a proof for the twin primes theorem, or the Riemann hypothesis, or even the abc conjecture?

    It seems that, while the benefits of philosophy could be shared with all, the benefits of theoretical math are invariably personal, or at least, can be shared only within the mathematical community. By pursuing philosophy instead of math, you could likely provide equal or near-equal enjoyment for yourself, but also greater enjoyment for others. Given that, does the pursuit of math make you selfish? Not that there’s anything wrong with that…unless, of course, I were to follow the beliefs of Bentham, or even Smith.

    • Ben says:

      I imagined philosophy as a gift to the philosopher. Under this lens, mathematics could also be considered a gift, for similar reasons.

      Regarding your question of whether philosophy (or math) could be considered a gift to society: I disagree that philosophy is more socially beneficial than mathematics. Viewing the impact of each field holistically, both fields have caused vast improvements. (Even pure math gets applied eventually.) It’s also evident that most modern work in both fields will have little impact or benefit. (As much as its modern practitioners might like to argue to the contrary.)

      This was also probably the case back then. Incremental improvements always seem tiny. Taken as a whole, though, things tend to add up. Again, all in all, I think the fields’ impacts are equal.

      Finally, as you mentioned, a field’s absence of benefit wouldn’t necessarily make its practitioners immoral.

  2. Pierce says:

    Philosophy is most certainly a gift, a gift second only to life itself in my opinion. I agree that many of the deep questions go without acknowledgement, especially in our society of instant gratification and shallow pleasure. However, I do believe that the questions are pondered by all, even if they don’t realize it. The questions of philosophy are the most important questions we ask ourselves every single day; “How should I act to this person”(Morality/Social Interaction), “What do I want to do with my life”(Purpose/Meaning), “What do I believe in?”(Existence of God), etc. Even the most ‘simple’ seeming people live every day with some philosophical thoughts. The problem is that so many do not recognize these thoughts as being philosophical. Many believe that only the elite genius’ can be philosophers or think deeply, so they abandon the notion that they could. Philosophy is not something you need a degree to pursue, nor is it something the ‘common’ man is barred from. The ‘common’ man must only open his eyes to what has been before him all along and he will recognize the value of philosophy.

    I understand that saying this is much easier than implementing it, but if those of us who already appreciate the value of philosophy make an effort to start a dialogue with those who don’t, we can open new doors for them as well as ourselves.

    great article btw

  3. Anomaly says:

    “The alternate universe in which philosophy never arose seems empty and hopeless.”

    Right on. If more philosophers would write clearly and creatively about issues of great moment, maybe more people would take an interest.

    To Josh’s point: philosophy ought be accessible to all; math can’t be. As Godel would remind us, ought implies can.

  4. Richard says:

    I’ll begin with this, perhaps overused, quote from the Master:

    “The unexamined life is not worth living” – Socrates, in Plato’s Apology

    And another:

    “Philosophy is like trying to open a safe with a combination lock: each little adjustment of the dials seems to achieve nothing, only when everything is in place does the door open.” – Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Occasions (1912-1951; first published 1993)

    Nice piece. A lot of heavy rhetoric though, which I can only imagine comes from a place of sincere appreciation for philosophy.

    I’ll just address a couple of remarks in the article:

    1. ‘The scientific approach to life demands elucidation of the unknown.’
    Is this comment by way of contrast with philosophy? If so, then it puzzles me a great deal. For one thing, aside from birthing many of the sciences, philosophy still aims at elucidating the unknown. What’s more a lot of influential philosophers, like Quine for example, argue, quite convincingly, that philosophy is continuous with the sciences, concerned merely with the world’s more general or abstract features, but nonetheless with the world.

    2. ‘That’s why philosophical thinking often goes neglected.’
    I also think that philosophical thinking is often neglected. Though you haven’t said exactly what you mean by philosophical thinking. So I’m not fully sure if we agree entirely. The philosophical community has become much much more professionalized and compartmentalized over the last couple of hundred years, it not only has its place in every university, but its presence is constitutive of what it is to be a university.

    3. ‘Philosophy, then, is not a necessary pursuit.’
    I assume the sense of ‘necessity’ you’re adopting here, is something like practical necessity, that is, necessary by the standards set by ordinary life? But it’s very unclear that this is so. First, by ‘ordinary life’ do we mean life as it is presented to the average human in the 21st century? If so, then then philosophy is necessary – not only because our world, such as it is in the 21st century, wouldn’t exist as it is without philosophy – but also because philosophy is an inevitable part of the human condition. Pierce’s remarks hit home nicely. Though many areas of philosophy, relying on a long history of development, have now reached a level of technical sophistication that put their upper reaches beyond the practical ken of the layman, or of those who study it casually or informally, it nonetheless remains true that the core elements, and elementary questions, remain of extreme interest to virtually all able-minded human beings.

    Usually the core issues of most interest come from the branch (better, ‘bough’) of philosophy sometimes referred to as ‘axiology’, or value theory. Axiology includes ethics (normative ethics, applied ethics and meta-ethics) as well as aesthetics and political, social and legal philosophy. People recognise the practical significance of the basic issues in these areas more readily than those of more abstract areas of philosophy. “How should I live?” “What is the right thing to do?” “What is the value of our existence?” “What is does it mean to be good or virtuous?”, “What is it for anything to be valuable in any sense?”. “What is the right thing to do on this particular occasion?” etc.

    4. Even more abstract questions concerning the natures of things also have a place in the lives of people, however. So the branches of philosophy that are more theoretical than practical also have a way of finding their way into normal life. My experience has led me to believe that many ordinary people sometimes feel embarrassed about being interested in these deeper questions however. Questions which motivate the discipline of metaphysics and branches, for example, questions like: “What really exists?”(Ontology) “What is the fundamental structure/nature of reality”, “Why is there something rather than nothing?” (Cosmology). Children naturally ask these kinds of questions, though perhaps in less sophisticated language, all the time – at least in my experience.

    It is true that the theoretical branches of philosophy, like metaphysics, epistemology and logic, tend to have a wildly impractical feel to them. People are sometimes alienated by the abstract nature of the disciplines too and with the ever present material concerns of human life, it isn’t perhaps so surprising that the closest some people get to a conversation about these issues is over the fifth or sixth beer.

    But, even aside from concerning people in a basic human way, the theoretical branches of philosophy do impinge upon the practical realities of life, albeit in a peripheral way which most have trouble detecting. Hackneyed examples are the development of the sciences. All the natural and cognitive sciences began life as philosophy in the minds and hands of philosophers, and there is no reason why this tradition need falter. Nowadays, in my experience, the most fruitful scientific consequences of philosophy are to be felt in the cognitive sciences. Linguistics and psychology offer easy examples. But the computational and information sciences also have benefited and continue to benefit from the Queen of the Sciences – as Kant called it. For example, consider the contributions of formal ontology to software engineering a professor and ex-colleague of mine back in Dublin used to work on this. Which isn’t yet to mention Artificial Intelligence, a field of research in which philosophical questions concerning the nature of representation, dynamic reasoning, conceptual development and the nature of consciousness are held, by some, to be essential for progress. (See e.g. this.)

    5. You say ‘Until, that is, Bentham claimed that we must choose a good (say pleasure) and maximize it.’

    It’s worth noting of course that Kant, before Bentham, was doing what he held do be a science of morals too, albeit one which focuses on principles rather than utility maximization.

    • Ben says:

      I’ll try to get to all of these.

      1. The comment was not intended a contrast to philosophy, but as a lead-in to my eventual point. I might have added then: “Therefore why do scientifically-minded people so often ignore philosophy?”

      Then again, though, there’s a reason why the allusion to the “scientific approach” was merely a lead-in, and not the point itself. While both empirical sciences and philosophy aim at elucidating the unknown, they do it in different ways; the “unknowns” they seek to elucidate are different. Here’s how I see it… Empirical sciences, like biology, chemistry, or physics, proceed as follows. First, they section off some particular aspect of, or group of phenomena from, the outside, physical world around us. Then, they develop tools to begin measuring, examining, and researching these phenomena, develop theories about how all of these phenomena work, and so on. In philosophy (and also math), on the other hand, the “outside world” doesn’t exist ahead of time, and we must create it, or at the very least (i.e. even in math) we must work to ascertain the identities of the pertinent objects of study. This is not the case, or at least is certainly less the case, in the empirical sciences.

      That’s why it seems weird to me to say “philosophy still aims at elucidating the unknown”, as if the unknown in philosophy were just out there waiting for us to elucidate it. I don’t see philosophy as an act of elucidating something, like a lantern onto a foreign object, but rather as the object itself, a body of ideas and theories, and of course we do need to traverse through it to better develop and enrich it. It’s certainly not a coincidence that you’ve cited Quine here, and, though I haven’t read the works in which Quine makes the point you’ve mentioned, my initial reaction is to object to it. “Discovering” philosophy seems different than discovering physical laws, and Quine seems like precisely the one to try to disabuse me of a conviction which seems so patently obvious.

      It’s to this purported difference that I attribute our (in general) susceptibility to neglecting philosophical thinking. Nonetheless — and I intended to hint at this with my “lead-in” — the “scientific approach to life”, which demands elucidation of concrete unknowns, should emphatically be extended to the development of philosophical ones.

      So my comment does, in some sense, stand in contrast with philosophy, but for reasons which are more perhaps delicate than those which you perceived, and which shouldn’t be understood as disrespectful to philosophy. The existence of the contrast I’ve described, of course, could be disputed.

      2. Yes, it’s true that philosophy is not neglected in modern university programming. I meant this rather as a comment about personal thinking. I, and others, I suspect, sometimes fail to regularly engage in philosophical thinking at the personal level.

      3. Yes, I meant practical necessity. Precisely, I suppose I was deeming as “practical” those pursuits which contribute to the provision of material economic needs. The functionalities you go on to discuss under the head of “practical necessity” exceed, I think, what’s appropriate to the name. This is a trivial argument in the meanings of words. Certainly, I agree that philosophy is beneficial for all the reasons you’ve argued it to be. I simply refrained from calling those reasons “practical”, in the sense that building bridges or transmitting signals could be considered practical.

      I do agree that philosophy is indispensable for a well-lived life.

      You shouldn’t be offended by my trivial designation of philosophy as “not practical” — recall also that I study pure math — and I don’t think this statement should be taken overly seriously.

      Philosophy is surely practical to the extent that broader concerns about the qualities of our lives are considered practical.

      4. I love thinking, even at a rudimentary level, about those abstract metaphysical things — beers or not.

      It’s fascinating to hear about these applications. I do (prior comments aside) fully believe in the prominent role philosophy has played and is playing in these developments. In particular, I’d like to hear more about the work of your colleague in Dublin. Perhaps you can link me to some articles. And yes, artificial intelligence is ripe for philosophical exploration. I for one wish I had more experience here. The article you sent me is clearly awesome. It will take me some time to fully read it and digest it (I’ll also want to read this paper linked to by the author). I’ll get back to you with these thoughts when they exist.

      5. My philosophical comments in this essay are indisputably weak. I stand corrected.

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