Tag Archives: philosophy

“What Is Truth?”

“What is truth?” is a question. You realized that, and you also realized that it is the title of this post. What you may not have fully registered is that the title is in quotes. I am not asking, here, what truth is. I am asking what the question is.

That may seem rather ridiculous. I say it is no more ridiculous than many of the things that people think, and say, and believe are true. At least I am not claiming anything significant. I am just observing that those three words, arrayed in that order, comprise a question.

But if you’d like, I can try to explain why the question would catch my attention. To me, there are two noteworthy things about it. First, it focuses on truth, and truth is commonly considered important. Second, it is the question that Pontius Pilate asked Jesus (John 18:38).

Pilate’s question has been interpreted in various ways. For instance, Wiersbe (2007, p. 303) observes that Pilate may have been either “sneering or sighing . . . we do not know.” Wikipedia, citing Wiersbe, suggests that Pilate could have been implicitly criticizing either the nature of Jesus’s trial or his claim to speak the truth.

Pilate’s utterance is probably why the question seems to be of interest especially to religious people. For example, at this writing, among the first 50 results in a Google search for that question, the large majority are patently religious — mostly Christian, but with a few Mormon entries and at least one that looks Hindu. Christian commentators (e.g., Rolheiser, 2011; Sancto, 2012; A Catholic Thinker, 2012) often consider Pilate’s question ironic, insofar as he seems to have been expressing uncertainty about truth while looking directly at the one who claimed, “I am the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6).

These insights suggest a characterization. “What is truth?” is a question that matters to many Christians because it highlights the contrast between their religion and the Greco-Roman philosophical tradition. In that tradition, someone like Pilate could (and perhaps Pilate did) snidely or sincerely allude to the complexity of philosophical truth, while completely missing the presence or possibility of religious truth.

Pilate, presumably not stupid, was able to miss the significance of Jesus (as portrayed in the New Testament), just as many Christians fail to understand various philosophical truths, because the alleged answer to the question of truth was not provided in an acceptable form. In that light, “What is truth?” points to the phenomenon, witnessed recently in the polarization of American politics, in which a given event can be interpreted in deeply incompatible ways, depending on one’s prior mental and emotional needs and commitments.

It could seem reasonable to respond to this state of affairs by striving for an open mind, freeing oneself from the distortion of those prior commitments. Unfortunately, while that may make sense from a secular perspective, it could be the exact opposite of what faith requires. In response to Thomas’s doubts (John 20:29), Jesus said, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” The greatest faith, within this religion, may be that which is most extremely capable of disregarding or reinterpreting evidence, so as to conform with prior mental or emotional commitments.

From a secular perspective, that may seem like craziness. Playing games with reality is a good way to get hurt or killed — even more so when believers exult in their freedom to behave irrationally, by seeking out endless nonsensical sociopolitical perspectives that have little or nothing to do with faith. You can support the Bush Administration’s counterproductive wars; you can insist on keeping guns in your home as a political statement; you can fight against vaccines and taxes; you can claim expertise in climate science and other fields in which you have no training. But your faith does not require you do to any of that — if anything, it is directly opposed to most of it — and if you insist on looking for trouble, eventually you will find it.

It is neither considerate nor intelligent to behave as if you need not try to make sense to your neighbors. And yet one might say the same thing to the philosophers. At least the believers do have a relatively coherent response to “What is truth?” By contrast, among the results of my Google search, I found these words in the introduction to the Truth entry in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (SEP, Glanzberg, 2013):

The problem of truth is in a way easy to state: what truths are, and what (if anything) makes them true. But this simple statement masks a great deal of controversy. Whether there is a metaphysical problem of truth at all, and if there is, what kind of theory might address it, are all standing issues in the theory of truth.

So, not a bad start, given 2,500 years to work on it. With religion as an obtrusively irrational counterpoint, it has been easy for the secular types to assume that they all agree on science as a superior alternative. Yet this is not so. Another SEP article (Oberheim, 2013) observes that Kuhn (1962) and Feyerabend (1962) were labeled “the worst enemies of science” because their philosophies supported doubts about the rationality of science. Oberheim says the sociology of science became a recognized discipline as a result of that challenge — and, again citing the SEP (Longino, 2015), research within that discipline has contended inter alia that “philosophical analyses of rationality, of evidence, of truth and knowledge, [are] irrelevant to understanding scientific knowledge.” Going further, Good (1999, p. 186) says that some views held by mainstream philosophers of science “have actually been serious hindrances” to the science of chemistry.

So the philosophers are not consistently on the same page with one another, much less agreeing en masse with the scientists. “What is truth?” thus leads us around to the suspicion that truth may be perceived in multiple ways, depending upon one’s perspective or purpose. And — as if to suggest that we might finally be approaching the actual state of affairs — that sympathy to multiple perspectives may irritate believers, scientists, and philosophers alike, insofar as all seem to think they know a lot about truth, and are prepared to explain it to me in detail.

If I had to venture a guess at this point, I might say that truth appears to begin with those statements that must be true, in order for a certain enterprise to proceed. For instance, you have to start by assuming certain things about Jesus, in order to proceed with the Christian project; and you have to assume things about language or the physical world, if you are to get anywhere in philosophy or science. The assumptions will seem well founded in some situations, less so in others; the assumptions of one project may seem much more solid than those of another; but their basis in reality typically becomes less of an issue, once you roll up your sleeves and get absorbed in the details of the project.

That seems to explain Balkin’s (2003) contention that “law creates truth” — that “[i]t makes things true in the eyes of the law. And when law makes things true in its own eyes, this has important consequences in the world.” For instance, what the law makes true regarding taxation is “not true and false from the standpoint of mathematics or natural science” but rather just “from the standpoint of law . . . in ways that matter to us.” The idea seems to be that you start with your own little corner of the world; you say and do things that seem true within that limited physical or mental space; and then, at some point, what you have been saying and doing begins to affect people and things outside of your sphere. As Balkin observes, that can become problematic:

As soon as law creates a category or an institutional structure, it is possible for things to become true or real in the eyes of the law whether or not they are judged true or real from another perspective– for example the standpoint of medical science, religious belief, or political philosophy. . . .

As in religion, philosophy, and science, Balkin observes that legal truth gives people “tools to think with” — “a way of understanding”:

When law “recognizes” a cause of action for sexual harassment, for example, it sees that such a thing exists as a legal wrong. At the moment the wrong becomes cognizable to the law, it becomes real to the law, whether or not it had been real to generations of individuals before that point.

Balkin suggests that other forms of knowledge, behaving in roughly similar fashion, include medicine, psychology, social science, and history. These ways of knowing can conflict because “truth and knowledge are shaped by institutional purposes.” For instance, to a doctor, a person who walks into a hospital’s emergency room is “a set of clinical problems to be tested, identified, diagnosed and cured” but, to a lawyer, that same person is “a potential tort suit.” Both perspectives may be correct, but they can be unrelated or even opposed to one another.

In words that also apply to religion, philosophy, and science, Belkin closes with these remarks:

Law’s construction of a social world and its development of the social imagination can do enormous good. But it always also has other effects. It always also serves other ends, including the empowerment of legal institutions and legal forms of thinking. . . .

My point is to focus on the ways in which legal concepts, legal thinking, and legal imagination colonize moral and ethical imagination. To do this, we must pay careful attention to the many ways in which . . . the moral imagination becomes ensnared by and held in servitude to the legal. Then the truth of law does not necessarily set us free. . . . Law’s power grows organically and relentlessly out of law’s colonization of social imagination.

With those words, “What is truth?” takes an ominous turn. No longer are we talking about a familiar conflict between the old antagonists, God and science, each comfortably sealed in its own self-congratulatory echo chamber. Now, much to the contrary, Belkin portrays truth as an aggressive, colonizing force, a weapon with which to take control of what people think and do. This characterization resonates: this is, after all, what religions and philosophies have always seemed to be hoping for.

In such a setting, the question may be whether truth is your friend — whether the world is actually better off when you or I think we can answer the question, “What is truth?” The image comes to mind of two theologians or lawyers, fighting for years on end, to advance their own firm convictions as to the only permissible outcome of some dispute. When people think they have the truth, they dig in their heels. They become angry; they become hardened. This, it seems, is where wars begin.

Yet there is, perhaps, a response to such concerns. This post adopts a God’s-eye metaposition, standing above the fray, critiquing claimants to the prize of Truth. These various special-purpose forms of truth — legal, religious, etc. — do not generally seem so wise and true as to justify ignoring other forms of truth. In other words, by writing about these perspectives, I have implicitly taken the view that these are all just pieces of the puzzle. The heretofore unstated claim is that, approached honestly, “What is truth?” ultimately drives us toward questions and adaptations, rather than answers and verities.

Pilate asked, “What is truth?” We don’t know what he meant by that. And that is fortunate. Because what he achieved, by leaving us in limbo, was to exemplify the nature of the question. The query pushes us to keep asking him, and each other: Why do you say that? What do you mean? If the scripture is to be our guide, in this case it guides us to keep thinking about religious people, like Jesus; and about philosophers, like the Greeks and Romans in whom Pilate may have been schooled; and about the political and legal and other influences at work, in that moment of Christ’s Passion.

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The Failure of Philosophy on the Big Questions

Philosophy is commonly associated with the big questions of life. For example, a Google search leads to a number of books, articles, and other materials linking philosophers with such questions. The question here is, does philosophy deserve that association?

What Are the Big Questions?

Granted, people may differ on what they consider most important at any moment. If your boat is sinking in the middle of the ocean, your big questions may include “Can we plug the hole?” and “Is there a life raft?” But under ordinary circumstances, lists of really grand questions in life tend to be short and similar, from one source to another. Here, for example, are the topics listed in the contents of a book by Solomon and Higgins (2013):

  • The meaning of life
  • God
  • The nature of reality
  • The search for the truth
  • Self
  • Freedom
  • Morality and the good life

Similarly, the table of contents from a book by Sample, Mills, and Sterba (2004) lists these as “the big questions”:

  • What can we know?
  • What can we know about the nature and existence of God?
  • Are we ever free?
  • Does our existence have a meaning or purpose?
  • How should we live?

Blackburn (2013) phrases similar concerns in somewhat different terms (and adds some that may be better answered by scientists than by philosophers):

  • Am I a ghost in a machine?
  • What is human nature?
  • Am I free?
  • What do we know?
  • Are we rational animals?
  • How can I lie to myself?
  • Is there such a thing as society?
  • Can we understand each other?
  • Can machines think?
  • Why be good?
  • Is it all relative?
  • Does time go by?
  • Why do things keep on keeping on?
  • Why is there something and not nothing?
  • What fills up space?
  • What is beauty?
  • Do we need God?
  • What is it all for?
  • What are my rights?
  • Is death to be feared?

There is not terribly much difference among those lists. A student, assigned to boil them down into the Top Ten Issues, might mention something like existence and nonexistence, reality and knowledge, consciousness and beauty, goodness and freedom, and God and the universe.

How Is Philosophy Doing on the Big Questions?

Imagine a world in which contemporary philosophers had arrived at answers to the big questions, and were effectively communicating those answers to the college students sitting in their classes. In such a world, the self-help sections in bookstores (and the self-help websites online) would probably be much fewer, smaller, and less popular. Religious nuts, spouting nonsense, would get nowhere with a public familiar with philosophy’s answers to the big questions. Politicians would be philosopher-kings, succeeding only to the extent that they could engage educated listeners with reasoned defenses of their preferred views on those questions.

Sad to say, the train went off the tracks somewhere. Self-help has long been a booming business. Religion and politics are the jokes that rule us. Hardly anybody thinks that philosophy, of the type taught in universities, has much relevance to the real world. Yes, a few times per century, some philosopher exerts far-reaching albeit gradual influence upon society; and yes, within other fields of knowledge, there is the occasional intellectual who understands philosophers’ insights, and applies them to his/her own work. But those are exceptions that prove the rule. There is an enormous contrast between what could be happening, as illustrated in those exceptions, and what is actually happening in the overwhelming bulk of philosophical study and writing.

As a practical matter, philosophers have long been pulling a bait-and-switch — holding out the promise of useful education, so as to get people to take their classes and buy their books, but then disappointing generation after generation of students with extremely complex texts that, very often, degenerate into hairsplitting trivia. Students can certainly pick up some ideas, and some familiarity with forms of intellectual debate, that may be useful in their future careers in other fields — although there are no guarantees, as philosophical discussion and reasoning can be very alien to the working world.

The point here is not that philosophy is a complete waste of time. It is that philosophy is a failure for purposes of providing answers to the big questions.

It is not that philosophers have not tried to answer the big questions. It is that, as we learn in philosophy class, every answer has its assumptions, its limits, its weaknesses. The real bait-and-switch is that, with few exceptions, those complex and trivial texts build to a single conclusion: there are not really any answers to the big questions. There are only unsatisfactory ways of attempting to provide such answers.

I do believe that that conclusion is correct — that the philosophers have not been lying to us, that for the most part there truly are no completely satisfactory answers to the big questions. Then again, that is precisely what someone like me would believe — someone who has followed the occasional philosophical debate far enough to arrive at the conclusions expressed in the preceding paragraph. With the aid of a bit of background reading, I, or someone like me, could probably poke holes in just about any big answer that someone might suggest. Persons with this kind of education tend to function as skeptics toward the very notion that there might actually be a useful answer to a big question.

Here’s an example. Take the first topic on the first of those three lists (above): the meaning of life. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on “the meaning of life” says that that topic has interested philosophers since the time of Aristotle. But that entry also says that, somehow, “it is only in the last 30 years that debate with real depth has appeared.” How is that possible? Nor has that deeper contemporary debate led anywhere in particular. The encyclopedia entry suggests that — consistent with philosophy’s established track record — it has yielded, not answers, but rather more questions:

When the topic of the meaning of life comes up, people often pose one of two questions: “So, what is the meaning of life?” and “What are you talking about?”

The entry goes on to state that some people have debated the meaning of life’s “meaning” — but this, too, has not yielded definitive insight:

If talk about meaning in life is not by definition talk about happiness or rightness, then what is it about? There is as yet no consensus in the field.

In further discussion, the entry indicates that some philosophers ascribe meaning to life as it relates to God, while others prefer a sense of life’s meaning that relates in some way to one’s eternal soul. Still others focus on life’s meaning in non-supernatural terms, having to do with either the subjective individual perspective or something else, external to us, that confers meaning upon life regardless of subjective mental state. Finally, there are nihilist or pessimistic perspectives, in which “what would make a life meaningful either cannot obtain or as a matter of fact simply never does.”

So there you are. There, in a nutshell, is philosophy’s answer to the question of the meaning of life. The answer is, it depends on which philosopher you agree with. Very helpful. That and five dollars will get you a cup of coffee.

The true state of affairs is not that philosophy grapples with the big questions in a serious and responsible way. The true state of affairs is that, in the words of a New York Times article, philosophy suffers from “an embarrassing failure, after over 2000 years, to settle any of its central issues.”

Certainly there are people who enjoy philosophizing for its own sake, sitting around and batting ideas back and forth. For that sort of person, big questions can actually be unrewarding, as they tend to involve messy combinations of fact and feeling. Indeed, most important questions in life are like that. When you have a real-life problem, you might entertain various abstract notions, but at the end of the day you need a practical answer.

Suppose, as a relatively simple example, that you’re trying to decide whether to adopt a child. That’s not one of the big questions. But it illustrates a kind of situation in which someone does have a burning need for an answer. It’s not something that you can futz around with for years, and in the end just shrug and say, “Well, I guess there are no absolutely right or wrong answers.” People who bring personal interest and immediate need to the big questions are not wanting someone to diddle them for a while. They are wanting workable conclusions to inform their lives. And the need can be urgent — in the case of someone who is losing his/her religion, for example; in the case of someone considering suicide, or struggling with deep personal loss.

Philosophy tends to provide everything except that sort of working conclusion. In that sense, the bait-and-switch description may not be quite right; perhaps the better characterization is that philosophy is a subterfuge, a means of identifying the people who are most likely to seek out and live by specific answers to big questions, and persuading them that it is silly or at least unrealistic to seek such answers. Philosophy is, indeed, a debilitating subterfuge, insofar as its study tends not even to equip the student with a sophisticated alternative. Most students will not clearly and permanently digest and remember what the philosophers have actually said on a specific question. Instead, what the students tend to retain is a general belief that there is probably some good reason why any attempted answer to such a question is flawed and should be ignored.

If the student ever does arrive at a point in life where s/he needs real answers to big questions, s/he is likely to be found in the self-help aisle, or looking into the words of various physical and social scientists or religious leaders — more or less as s/he would have done if s/he had never read a word of philosophy. In the works of those self-help, scientific, and religious writers, the student may encounter references to various philosophers, and may once again be reminded that philosophy claims to be at the root of the big questions; but for the most part such references will be historical in nature. They will be reminders that, if you want to pretend to wrestle with big questions, you should consider wasting a few years in philosophy classes.

Philosophy vs. Metaphilosophy

Philosophy used to be done by people like Plato and Aristotle, who would try to articulate relatively straightforward solutions to big questions. But then readers noticed problems with the way that Plato et al. formulated or answered such questions. Over time, it developed that reasoned approaches to grand philosophical questions were invariably problematic. There was always some devil lurking in the details. Thus philosophy became more of a historical affair, like the history of the Roman Empire or of ancient Christianity, in which the early deeds of great leaders gradually devolved into the baffled and increasingly ineffectual scrabblings of minor devotees. At a certain point, attempting to get an overview of all that material, you grasp that it is essentially a history lesson — and perhaps an unnecessarily complicated one at that — and you move on, in search of better alternatives.

We see, in other words, that philosophy as currently taught in college courses, and as conveyed in books about philosophy, is a largely bloodless affair, conducted by people with no skin in the game. Is there a God? Maybe, maybe not — but it’s not something that this sort of philosopher will lose any sleep over. It is an activity in which the dominant voice is that of the spectator, sitting back and watching what other people have tried to do, in their variously brilliant or foolish struggles with the big questions.

One could characterize such armchair philosophizing as “metaphilosophy.” Officially speaking, “meta” implies self-reference (i.e., about oneself). So — according to Wikipedia and the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy — metaphilosophy is philosophizing about philosophy.

But the concept of metaphilosophy has drawn a lukewarm reception. Most philosophers seem to feel that meta questions (e.g., “what is the purpose of philosophy?”) are just a part of philosophy itself. And of course philosophers consider themselves qualified to decide what lies within the proper scope of their professional activities, as do other kinds of professionals (e.g., police officers, generals, prostitutes, politicians). Ironically, though, the claim to possess an accurate overall understanding of philosophy, sufficient to reject the label of metaphilosophy, is just what one would expect from a metaphilosopher.

It does not appear, in fact, that philosophers have a very good grasp of the proper scope of their profession. They have positioned themselves as experts in their field, but not as experts on public need. As experts within their own concept of expertise, they have presumed to dictate what the general public should find interesting, or what the general public should be able to understand. Such positioning amounts to elitism: we will speak to the more intelligent people (i.e., those who are more like us), and leave the others to fend for themselves. Certainly some concepts are difficult to understand. But leaving those unlike us to come up with their own beliefs is, in effect, leaving the door open to liars and quacks — and that, we have discovered, is a great way to undermine public support for philosophical inquiry.

While metaphilosophy is certainly not the ordinary word to describe philosophy professors’ everyday teaching and writing about philosophy, it does seem to be the appropriate word. There are real philosophers, who are motivated to resolve big questions with practicable answers that can make a difference in real lives; and then there are various historians, analysts, and teachers who are content to talk about what the real philosophers are trying to do. Traditionally, both groups are called “philosophers.” But that seems lame, for a profession so oriented toward detecting distinctions. We do not confuse football players with those who merely talk about football, or who record the history of its games. We do not confuse the people who study sex with the people who actually participate in it. Let us likewise cease to confuse philosophers with metaphilosophical teachers and historians.

This is not to deny that the garden-variety teacher of philosophy may consider him/herself — perhaps with good reason — to be a philosopher of the first rank, prevented by circumstance rather than lack of brilliance from changing the world with the things that s/he would publish, given time and funding. The line between direct philosophical practice and indirect metaphilosophizing may be vague, contested, and in flux. Nonetheless, there does seem to be the possibility of a useful distinction between the people, ideas, works, situations, or statements that seem to count as solution-focused engagements with the big questions, and those that do not.

In that light, one might look more carefully at the definition of philosophy. The Merriam-Webster online dictionary offers a contrast between, on one hand, “the study of ideas about knowledge, truth, the nature and meaning of life, etc.” and, on the other hand, “a particular set of ideas about knowledge, truth, the nature and meaning of life, etc.” or “a set of ideas about how to do something or how to live.” That contrast amounts to a difference between the general study of ideas offered by various philosophers down through the centuries, suitable for metaphilosophy, and the particular study of an identified set of ideas about a specific issue (e.g., a big question). The former is philosophizing about philosophy — adding the teacher’s or historian’s interpretation on top of what famous philosophers have said — while the latter is the actual practice thereof.

Reconceiving Philosophy as (Especially)
the Pursuit of Answers to Big Questions

It is possible to define teaching to include every instructive activity taken by every crow, dog, and human on the planet. But for purposes of people who are trying to educate small children, the definition of teaching quickly becomes much more narrowly conceived and closely monitored. The same is true of history: there is a difference between logging every random factoid (with or without commentary) and an attempt to provide a concise and readable explanation of what happened in, say, America’s war in Afghanistan. It is neither helpful nor appropriate to indulge the freedoms implied in the broad definition, when circumstances call for an outcome consistent with narrow application.

Likewise in the case of philosophy. The key question (above) is whether the putative philosopher is engaged in the particular study of an identified set of ideas about a big issue. As one moves away from that sort of thing, one appears increasingly likely to be engaged in metaphilosophy — in, that is, classical philosophy’s interminably indecisive dabbling in ideas about ideas, lacking commitment to delivery of working solutions within an appropriate timeframe.

One can belong to various groups; one can share interests with a wide variety of people. It will not be surprising, though, if a philosopher, vitally engaged in the study of a big question, has less in common with metaphilosophers in his/her university department, and more in common with poets, sociologists, and lawyers who have become engaged in some aspect of that same big question. In other words, “philosopher” will no doubt continue to be a term applied carelessly to anyone with a PhD in the field; but, again, for purposes of people seeking useful answers to big questions, there may be a world of difference between real philosophers and abstruse metaphilosophers.

If philosophy is reconceived as the focused pursuit of useful answers to big questions — spinning metaphilosophy off into, perhaps, a subgroup within the university’s departments of history or literature — then it immediately becomes somewhat less appropriate to adjudge philosophy, as a whole, to be a failure with respect to such questions. It also becomes clearer that it is OK if you have not mastered the classic philosophers. Instead, the question may be, how well is this or that contemporary philosopher doing, in his/her up-to-date struggles with the particular big question on which s/he is focused.

Assuming this reconceptualization of philosophy — along with a determined effort to present philosophical findings intelligibly — it could develop that, at some point in the future, philosophy will cease to be a failure with respect to the big questions. That is not to anticipate that philosophers will have all the answers, or that they will have magically ceased to reach conclusions rife with contradiction, error, and impracticality. It is just that, at such a time, their reconceptualized and more tightly focused discipline may at least have bridged part of the gap between what they do and what the world needs from them. Success in this regard may have arrived when the average person seeks guidance from a philosopher — rather than from a minister, astrologer, or self-appointed expert — because the philosopher’s guidance is more palpably based in a superior combination of science, experience, and reasoning, and less dependent upon random opinion.

Next Steps

This article has proposed a distinction between metaphilosophy (understood as the bloodless recounting or analysis of what various philosophers have said) and philosophy (understood as the immediate pursuit of conclusions on big questions within a realistic timeframe). That distinction does not imply that metaphilosophy is worthless. No doubt there are many purposes for which it is well suited. Among other things, the Internet offers tons of material on the history of philosophy, and of course there have been many books as well. Well-known examples include Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy and Copleston’s History of Philosophy series.

Under the rubric of applied (a/k/a practical or popular) philosophy, one finds many (and potentially engaging) philosophical investigations of specific issues arising in the daily news. Such investigations span subjects ranging from health care to hate crimes. Here, again, such subjects can readily entail exploration of topics outside philosophy (e.g., law, in the case of hate crimes). One source distinguishes applied philosophy from accessible philosophy, where the latter consists of efforts to present the ideas and/or works of mainstream philosophers in more readily digested form. My own plain-English restatement of Plato’s Republic would be an example. Daniel Fincke and Brendan Myers offer related thoughts and materials. Philosophy Bites appears to be a recognized source of both applied and accessible philosophy.

Yet applied and accessible philosophy seem to be beside the point — the former, because it appears oriented toward small questions, not big ones; and the latter, because it appears to offer only a simplified route to understanding the ways in which philosophy has failed to reach useful conclusions on the big questions. In other words, the situation seems to be that (with or without accessible treatment) either we accept the rationality-based approach of western philosophy and its lack of convincing solutions, or we reject that approach and go with something else instead.

One rejectionist route is that of religion. Religious organizations and thinkers offer answers to big questions. These are not traditionally considered part of philosophy because they draw upon sources of alleged knowledge that are not open to rational analysis. For example, in Christianity, which has been the primary focus of debates on religion and philosophy in Western culture, key beliefs tend to require uncritical acceptance of unverifiable stories, presented in a scriptural book of mixed reliability.

Before turning to religion, the person seeking workable answers to big questions might consider adopting a single school of philosophy and making a go of it, warts and all — concluding (as one must also do in a religion) that the chosen philosophy has its difficulties and its quandaries, but is nonetheless time-tested and worthy for practical purposes. As a start in this direction, one might look at Wikipedia’s lists of Western and Eastern philosophical movements, along with Listverse’s list. Several of the items on those lists (e.g., existentialism, pragmatism, utilitarianism) appear capable of providing guiding principles sufficient to chart a course through many of the big questions. For instance, Koshal (2010, p. 105) construes Rorty’s pragmatism in these words: “[Pragmatism] maintains that unless we take something for granted we shall never settle any question . . . . The [propositions] we should rely on are those for which we have the most evidence for and little or none against.”

Where the chosen philosophy falls short, one might supplement it with eclectic selections from one or more other philosophies. A reasonable objective, in such an approach, might be, not to arrive at a single quasi-religious God’s-eye answer to all questions, but rather to develop conceptualizations that work and make sense for one’s own purposes. Unlike a religious approach, this objective would appear compatible with, and potentially open to, discussion with and learning from people who have adopted other philosophies.

As these suggestions imply, giving up on philosophy as a source of big answers does not necessarily entail giving up on philosophers as sources of good clues. Perhaps one’s personal philosophy is best developed inductively, starting with applied philosophical discussions of specific topics and allowing one’s reading and thinking to grow toward larger hunches and speculations.

It may turn out that there is not, and for the indefinite future there will not be, a single Bible-like compendium of definitive words, straightforwardly answering the big questions in terms satisfactory to a given reader. In that case, the point of this article might be that one need not therefore lurch to the opposite extreme. There may be strategies, oriented toward development of a working personal philosophy responsive to the big questions, that do not necessitate the undergraduate philosophy major’s bewildered stagger through a thicket of bickering eggheads. Ultimately, it is possible that a carefully reconceived profession of philosophy can succeed where today’s multifarious profession has failed.

The Fecundity of Life vs. the Parsimony of Science

Scientists and philosophers who discuss theory often say that a good theory has certain traits.  Among other things, a theory is especially likely to provide a useful scientific explanation if it is predictive (i.e., it explains the phenomena well enough to predict what will happen in certain conditions) and unique (i.e., when it uses new terms or concepts, it explains how they differ from terms and concepts already in use).

This post focuses on another trait of good theory:  parsimony.  This is often expressed as the view that the simplest explanation is usually the right one.  In a well-known phrasing, the principle of parsimony says, “Do not multiply entities beyond necessity.”  This principle is often used in support of atheism:  basically, if you can explain the world and everything in it without using the concept of God, then it seems unnecessary to invoke or invent that concept, and doing so will probably lead you to incorrect conclusions.

The principle of parsimony has some things in common with the principle of noncontradiction.  According to the latter, something cannot be both true and false.  More precisely, says Wikipedia, “contradictory statements cannot both be true in the same sense at the same time.”  Either the cat is white or it is not white, but not both simultaneously.  Seems obvious.

The problem is that things in the real world rarely occupy “the same sense at the same time.”  Life and philosophy part ways in these regards.  In philosophy, you don’t need redundant entities; but in life, you have redundant entities all over the place.  Life has no problem whatsoever with repeating itself in endless, idiotic duplication and near-duplication.  You already have a cockroach?  Here, have another!  and another!  Nor does life hesitate to contradict itself, at least for human purposes.  Yes, if you were able to pry apart every peccary, peccadillo, and pecuniary propensity, you would perhaps be able to characterize them in black-and-white terms:  fat, not thin; significant, not trivial.  But in real life, as soon as you look away for a minute, another version of the damned thing turns out to be just the opposite of what you expected.

There is a reason for it, of course; there is always some explanation for why something like a bumblebee can’t fly but, in fact, the bumblebee can fly but, in this case, the bumblebee cannot fly, but you were right when you said it could, because it could then.  Just drag everything back to the laboratory, dissect it, and you can explain it all.  Except that, of course, you can’t.  There aren’t enough of you to do it, and besides, you won’t live nearly long enough.  In theory, there are no violations of the principle of noncontradiction.  In reality, much of life is devoted to discovery of and reaction to things that weren’t supposed to be contradictory, but in effect are exactly that – and so they will remain, for the most part, because there aren’t nearly enough of us to sort them all out.

We have, in the principles of noncontradiction and parsimony, a set of abstractions from life.  Within the abstracted spaces of the philosophical armchair and the scientific laboratory, they carry weight.  Within the grand sweep of life, they don’t necessarily.  Mere redundancy, by itself, does not violate parsimony; but as just noted, it’s often not a case of mere redundancy, but rather of endless refinements on the original proposition.  The cat is white, except when it stands in a colored light, unless by “white” you mean . . . and so forth.  The words we use to explain things aren’t so much the neat stack of parsimonious constructs imagined by antique philosophers as they are a continuing dialogue in which people have to keep trying to distinguish cases in order to mimic verbally (in extremely limited form) the endless subtle permutations of life.

As an agnostic polytheistic fundamentalist, I’m not deeply invested in the question of whether the abstracted nature of parsimony shoots holes in atheists’ dismissal of God – for purposes of real life, that is, as distinct from the armchair, where we can sort out a small and artificially structured interpretation of reality in our heads.  People may differ in their willingness to accept that the universe confounds expectations.  I’m less interested in God than in life – in its eagerness to spew forth copy after copy, many mutating slightly from the original.  However useful parsimony may be for the formulation of abstract theories, it is not very helpful in characterizing existence.  Parsimony yields the conclusion but ignores the steps to it – giving us, say, the survival of a species with superior reproductive capability, but without the drama and the adventure, the struggles spanning months or eons that such victory required.  Parsimony is a reviewer who tells us how the book ends but not how it got there:  by definition, parsimony trims out everything it considers extraneous.  You can force it to come to the microphone and recite the progress of the marathon, but it will do so in plodding fashion, without imagination; it really just wants to state the outcome and be done.

In this post, I have parsed parsimony because it gets misused.  There are people who think they have provided an especially cool explanation when they make it as cryptic as possible, as though one dare not risk the wastage of a word.  This mentality, conducive perhaps to certain kinds of activities (e.g., the drafting of statutes), is in considerable conflict with the nature of life.  Life demands and practices constant, florid elaboration (in e.g., the interpretation of statutes).  We are closer to life’s spirit when we postulate not zero, not one, but a thousand gods, a dozen theories, a score of scenarios.  Closing down the options is a concession to our limits and/or our preferences, not to what may be.

As part of life, people indulge deliberately and indifferently arbitrary and superfluous thoughts, actions, and characteristics.  There is always much more to know, even within a rigorously parsimonious scientific mindset; but in fact there is vastly, overwhelmingly much more to suspect.  Principles of parsimony and noncontradiction can help us to think about things, but can be overindulged to the extreme of blinding us to possibilities that life has probably already recognized.

Life and The Afterlife

Apparently the purpose of life is to perpetuate life.

At first, that may not seem like much of a purpose.  It becomes more interesting when you dress it up.  Living things don’t just want to live.  Once they’ve achieved that toehold, they want more.  The “life” that living things (humans, in particular) want to perpetuate comes to include not only food, water, shelter, sleep, and reproduction, but also good sex, love, fine food, righteousness, and double-pane insulating windows.

In fact, the “life” that people want to perpetuate can become conditioned by experience.  If survival is all you’ve ever had, you’ll probably settle for perpetuating that.  But if you’ve experienced fantastic circumstances, and are then rudely pared back to loneliness, pointlessness, rejection, or other adverse mental states, you may be tempted to kill yourself, and some actually will – even if they still enjoy food, shelter, and other basic needs far above the average.

People generally want to stay alive as long as their present experience is at least as good as what they had before.  Not everybody believes in progress, and not everyone who believes in it can have it.  Moreover, what looks like progress may not really be.  Just holding your own, breaking even, can be good enough.  Not fantastic, possibly disappointing, but tolerable.  The life that people perpetuate can be like a seed:  just keeping on, without much change, for years and even centuries – but always being ready to burst forth into much more, when circumstances permit.

The other side of it, just noted, is that signs of weakness in this life project can trigger harsh internal and external forces designed to get you out of the way.  Along with your own self-critical and possibly self-destructive responses to failure, others who see you as a loser will often exclude you or drive you away, or will ridicule or otherwise try to get you to remove yourself.  At best, if you are not in the mainstream of the drive forward, you are likely to be ignored.  Such outcomes may not unfold within all families, neighborhoods, or cultures; but the larger trend over time favors those who succeed – who stay attractive, relevant, and on top.

The purpose of life is to perpetuate life, then, where “life” is defined as status quo plus.  You’ve got to at least hold it together, and if you really want to be protected against the harsher elements of life you may also need to be moving forward.  In some settings you hardly dare to slip at all; in others, you can halfway fall apart, before someone or something catches you and gobbles you up.  Sometimes “slipping” itself consists of not moving forward fast enough, but you get the basic idea.

So when I say that life is defined as status quo plus, I mean that half of the picture is the seedlike propensity for self-preservation and potential growth; the other half is this efficient elimination of unproductive resources, so as to focus the life project on the most promising candidates.  Most get to experience at least a bit of the upside; all eventually experience the downside.

You could say that death is status quo minus.  Just as the consummate life experience is to have everything going your way, to be enjoying the best that life can offer, so also the consummate death experience is to reach the complete opposite, the cessation of anything resembling life.  At any given moment, some physical or nonphysical parts of you are growing, toward a more perfect form of life, while others have died or are becoming more dead.  In this sense, life and death are processes, engaged in a constant give-and-take.

Death is essentially life’s partner in the process of distinguishing what’s working from what’s not.  A person, a part of a person, a way of thinking – all of these things are constantly susceptible to change, be it net improvement or deterioration.  Death is a way of keeping things tidy.  It helps life to shift resources toward those most able to use them.  Debilitation and death for some facilitate life and growth for others.

Death is life’s antithesis, in the limited sense of pulling in the opposite direction.  But at least life and death are on the same page.  They interact, as just described; they make sense because of one another.  You have to have life in order to have death.  On a different level, however, there is something opposite to both life and death:  nonexistence, or barrenness, where something never did live in the first place.  An example would be the children of a girl who died at the age of seven:  such children could never die because they were never born.  In sporting terms, the difference between death and barrenness is that death is the opposing team, from which life’s team is trying to capture territory on the playing field, while barrenness is the universe outside of the playing field.

Many people talk about life after death, but that is a confusing concept.  Few seriously believe in any such thing:  they fight against death as determinedly as anyone else, they mourn their dead the same as everyone else, they seem to have only a dim idea of what a life without death would be like.  They are not clear on whether the person who would experience this afterlife would be me at age 15, or age 40, or age 85 – would I get to choose a self that I prefer, or will I have to accept what they give me? – or what would happen to those who died on their first day of life, or whose brains were never properly formed or that were injured or became diseased during life.

People who speculate about an afterlife may be able to imagine things that would keep them busy in such an existence for ten years, or 50, or even 500.  But human experience suggests that no pleasure is going to endure forever – that people will eventually want to break out and do some traveling, even from Heaven.  No matter how vast it is, at some point they will find the border and want to cross it.  That is the very nature of life:  to keep striving, growing, grasping.  If crossing the border is not possible, then many people in the afterlife may eventually wish to go to sleep, indeed to be unconscious, for centuries on end.  No matter what the vision may be, a million years of any experiences are likely to get boring.

The force of life – to keep growing and thriving – makes us want to believe that its energies can continue forever.  It inclines us to believe in an afterlife, where we can live forever and can enjoy the best of life.  Dogs dream of things that are not; even the cockroach indulges the hope that I will not switch on the light and catch him in the wrong place.  The inclination to invent an afterlife does not prove it is false.  There may be such an existence; in fact, the force of life may itself be designed to point us toward it.  But there are certainly grounds for doubt.

In this life, the afterlife is little more than a rumor.  That hasn’t prevented its believers from killing those who deny it.  To stop the killing, we would need for the afterlife to become more like Kansas:  maybe not everyone’s cup of tea, but indisputably there.  We don’t have that kind of knowledge, and apparently never will, not in this lifetime.  If there is an afterlife, it is evidently so alien that word from there cannot reach us – or, to the same effect, maybe it reaches us constantly, but in a form we cannot perceive.  Or perhaps the gods who created it, or the people who have gone there before us, have their own reasons for declining to communicate with us about it.

In our ignorance of the afterlife, we have been left with religions that make extraordinary decisions about life and people.  More than one religion has decided, for example, that horrible people with odd beliefs will fare better, in the afterlife, than wonderful, honest, sensible people.  Some are quite certain that animals with personalities and character qualities superior to those of some humans will be excluded.  As in other regards, religions are inclined to invent stories about such things, and to insist on their truth, even when such stories go beyond nonsense to hatred and horror.

The invention and/or embellishment of an afterlife tends to suffer from a key defect:  people are tempted to extrapolate from the known to the unknown.  We have a life; therefore, whatever comes next must be something like it.  We will have inequality, as some fare better than others; we will have punishments and pain, and rewards and pleasures; we will have God or gods or other beings as our rulers and subordinates.  This apparent extrapolation does not prove that the afterlife is not as promised.  But, again, without Kansas-like reality, this tends to look like nothing more than an arbitrary compilation of interpretations from preferred passages within scriptures that cannot and do not possess, or even claim, divine authority.

There is the possibility that the afterlife is not an invention based on this life, but rather that this life is a copy, possibly corrupt, of what comes afterwards.  Either way, though, it seems odd to guess that the gods or other forces creating and shaping these two realms, before and after death, would tend to make them similar.  Death seems, to the contrary, to be a wall firmly dividing them.  Our bodies go away; all traces of us eventually vanish.  What, within this reality, would support a hypothesis that this life and the afterlife are similar?

The more likely view is that, if there is an afterlife, it must be extraordinarily different from this life.  Indeed, it probably entails a substantial rejection of what this life is about.  It would have to, or else it would make no sense unless it had its own form of death, separating it from yet another afterlife.

That becomes clearer when you think about what life is.  With all due regard to those who occupy privileged or protected conditions, life is overwhelmingly not a placid, sweet state that could be simply amplified into a lovely afterlife.  To the contrary, life is a restless, struggling force.  It does not know when to quit.  People to whom life grants an excess of money, social support, power, or other resources tend to keep right on going — acquiring more, spreading their tentacles, corrupting and killing to suit their whims, becoming ever uglier as they age.  Growth promotes growths; the healthy cell becomes a cancer.

To the extent that life is beautiful, what keeps it that way is death, that trimming force that ultimately excises even the most horrendous malignancy.  Death helps life to pose as a sphere of glorious, positive achievements.  The observer, taken in by the charade, naturally wishes that such things could continue forever, becoming ever more splendid versions of themselves. We want, eternally, to enjoy the thrill of overcoming our limits and defeating our adversaries, to rear children and grandchildren to the nth degree, to sleep blissful sleep, to enjoy perfect afternoons without end.

Yet humans are not equipped to handle an eternal life with enormous resources.  The closest we can get may be fantasy (e.g., book- or computer-generated) experiences that provide a sense of the possibilities without too much attention to the implications.  Heaven becomes less winsome if we visualize it as a place overrun with disgusting growths spurting endlessly from grotesquely undisciplined life forms.

It seems, in other words, that life after death must also be life after life:  it must be very unlike life as we know it.  By definition, it lacks a disciplining struggle against death.  We seem to be talking, rather, of something opposed to living existence, right down to the level of forgetting or dismissing the things that seem important in this world.  Using the former analogy, this story cannot develop on the playing field, but must rather unfold up in the bleachers of nonexistence, with the infinitely many things that have never been.  What that means – if it can mean anything at all – is a mystery, and apparently it shall so remain, for us, at least until our dying breath.

The afterlife, particularly in the Christian sense, is a fairly obvious counterpart to the old notions of the Earth as the center of the universe, surrounded by a sphere in which the stars moved.  The demise of this discredited cosmology takes, with it, the notion of ourselves as the main attraction in an afterlife.  We may simply cease to exist forever, at death, or we may go into some unknown form of existence, awareness, or participation in something larger.  Again, either way, we are perhaps well advised to expect something other than a simpleminded perpetuation of life in its best forms, shorn of its worst.  This point becomes more compelling as one considers in more detail what life is.

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As always, if you find this post interesting, please comment and/or click the “like” button.  Note that this post consolidates 1 2 3 4 5 earlier posts in another blog.

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