Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Philosophy of Life vs. The Study of Facts

Ever since I read a little C. S. Lewis and started calling myself a philosopher back when I was 15 (if you do not realize what a sin that is, you have much to learn about philosophy), I've always been preoccupied with what I'm calling for the moment the Philosophy of Life. Basically the Philosophy of Life encompasses all of those questions that humanity considers most pivotal, things like the meaning of life, how to live well, how we should treat each other, do we have free will, is there a God, is there life after death and so on. One of the key features of the Philosophy of Life is that one's investigation never really goes anywhere, the kinds of progress you can actually make in the area are severely limited.

You can expand your knowledge of what other people have said on the pertinent topics. You can memorize or discover key areas where people tend to lapse into logical contradiction. You can find tricky dichotomies where most people would regard both options as unacceptable. What you cannot do, is come to conclusions. You cannot make progress on answering the questions.

And yet, there is perpetually something disheartening about the whole study. I think most people who get caught up in this kind of philosophy start from a religious background, and it's no wonder that most people who study it for very long end up in one of two camps: “post-religious” wishy-wash spirituality that wants there to be a God but also can't tie the idea of God to the world of facts as they have found it, or very poor pseudo-philosophers who take the tone of someone who believes in plain, obvious fact while trying not to betray the fact that they too know that their claims rest on shaky ground; it is no wonder because this is the expected result when people ask a lot of questions that seem distant to the facts and world around them. I do not think I really understood until recently just what it is that makes exploring the Philosophy of Life so disheartening.

Philosophy of Life starts with no firm foundations for thought. You do not know nor can you really imagine what the epistemic rules for good thinking in this area are. You do not really know what your starting premises are. In fact, as you proceed through it for a bit, you may find that a lot of your initial ideas were in conflict with each other. You may get the feeling that you're making epistemic decisions based on the wrong criteria – such as judging something 'true' because it is interesting or convenient rather than because it is where some kind of evidence leads. You find very quickly that all of your thinking is taking place in a kind of nebulous sphere, and you realize that you need to find some concrete concepts so that you can tether your thoughts and ideas to something measurable. You cannot, though, except in rare and qualified occasions. Rarely can you really come to any kind of measurable ideas in the Philosophy of Life, such as realizing that science appears to have some things to say about free will and life after death (although, the things they say aren't as profound as some might believe).

What made me realize that this was what was so disheartening was simply learning some basic HTML and then moving on to start learning basic C++. You can immediately notice the difference. This isn't nebulous, this isn't floating out in space somewhere, you can follow the lines of logic in the way the mark-up and coding works, and you can see why things are the way that they are, and you can see how they interact, and most importantly you realize that there are right answers that you can come to. You realize you don't have to just pick the side on a dilemma that seems most right to you, you can look and see what the right answer is.

The same holds true for other studies of facts. When you look at them you start noticing how they all hang together, they all relate to each other, and even though you cannot grasp it, you can imagine all the facts you're looking at coming together to form a united whole.

Of course, the Philosophy of Life won't die. It still asks the most important questions humanity has. Although, once you know what it is like to have a question answered, it is difficult not to wonder if maybe the Philosophy of Life is really not asking questions at all.

No comments:

Post a Comment