Sunday, April 15, 2012

The Primordial Soup of Ideas

A Student of Philosophy

Yes, I studied philosophy. Logic, epistemology and analytic ethics, actually. In my studies of philosophy, I learned two things:

(1) A healthy respect for philosophy as inquiry. That it is unbounded makes it no less valuable. Actually, that is what provides it with its power - incredible power, which (unfortunately) can be vigorously wielded dishonestly and disingenuously. Abuse of philosophy to attempt to establish truths runs rampant. Searching for truth is not the same thing as thinking one has it.

(2) A healthy disrespect for individual "philosophies." Philosophies are, to be as trite as humanly possible, a-dime-a-dozen. To think that one is the truth is the most profound of egotisms. Yes, I am referring to any given religion.

Unbounded Inquiry

Here's the "problem." Philosophy is unbounded inquiry - the primordial soup of ideas. This is terrifying to most, because it means that their precious sacred cows will be brought under the scope of inquiry as well, something most find intolerable - mainly because much of the time, those sacred cows don't bear up to even cursory, casual inspection. And, make no mistake, many "scientific skeptics" I have encountered are not immune to this. The open derision for philosophy expressed by many scientific skeptics represents precisely the same dogmatic fear as that laboured under by fanatics of all other stripes. Not my sacred cow! Not MY sacred cow, dammit! Some "skeptics" would even go so far as to suggest, even attempt to require, that we limit the scope of skeptical inquiry! Not bloody likely!

I have likened deriding all of philosophy as fluffy sophistry to deriding all astronomy as fluffy astrology or all medicine as fluffy Chi-manipulation. Because, you know, all astronomers are really astrologers. All doctors are really homeopaths. There is nothing at all else in it. Does anyone hear the error when stated that way? Obviously, I do not think all doctors are homeopaths or that all astronomers are astrologers and, of course, I do not think that all philosophers are fluffy navel-gazers. It doesn't take much to avoid making that error, but it takes more than most, it seems, can muster.

I often say philosophies are tools, not truths. A "philosophy" that thinks it's found truth is the most profound of failures. The grey matter seizes up, shrivels and petrifies. All growth and progress is over. All that's left is to wait for the body to fail.

This is the source of one of the most shall we say "entertaining" ironies I have encountered. Everyone hates philosophy, because it doesn't affirm what they want affirmed. They love the power of critique (most often equating critique with criticism, argument with bickering), but are careful to never apply it to their own sacred cows. Some even go so far as to openly declare some things not to be questioned. And there's where I, personally, must part company with the disingenuous. One can be skeptical of skepticism without falling into contradiction if one is not so ridiculous as to equate doubt with denial. The religious, in particular, are especially amusing, in a cynically hilarious sort of way. While they declare philosophy meaningless and derision-worthy, they actually live for the one truly true truth (philosophy). I have been told that philosophy is "stupid," to which I usually reply, "Then why are you a slave to a philosophy?" I'm not sure if the expression that follows is puzzlement, amusement, exasperation, or hatred. Maybe all of the above.

Unbounded Stupidity

Now, I have been gently chiding some scientific skeptics in this little piece, but for the dogmatic types out there who may think that I am thereby supporting you, please do permit me to disabuse you of that misapprehension. Remember that part about wielding philosophical tools dishonestly and disingenuously? An interwoven web of nonsense is not philosophy if all it does is self-affirm. Internal consistency (at least superficial internal consistency) is easily contrived. That is simply not enough to be honest philosophical work.

Remember that dime-a-dozen snippet? Anyone can create a web-work of self-affirming ideas. That is neither profound, nor particularly difficult. "Perfect concepts" (concepts stipulated so that they "explain" everything, including contradictions) are the same. Ideas not subject to any kind of external verification or refutation proliferate like maggots and are just as insidious. Here are a few "perfect concepts" that often escape unnoticed and are taken as given in the popular culture: god, self-interest and hard determinism (was at least one of these controversial - oh dear!)

A lifetime of learning to you all....