Tuesday, June 5, 2012

The Questions.

(An explanation/encouragement of philosophy aimed at high school students)
One way of understanding philosophy is to say that it is about properly articulating certain questions and answering them - with a sense of urgency. These questions appear to the philosopher as great cracks in the ground we walk on hence the urgency to answer them. Having just watched the Dr. Who episode where the Doctor dies in the middle of the exploding Tardis I’m thinking the cracks in space and time that lead up to that event may be an even better analogy. To a philosopher approaching these unanswered questions is very much a feeling of being unmade. The philosopher can imagine that their work is sealing the cracks and saving the multiverse, just like the good doctor.

How can we know anything? This is possibly the question of supreme importance. This is a crack right across space and time. If we don’t answer this then we can’t answer anything else either, at least not with certainty. The philosopher is the one for whom the lack of a very good answer to this question threatens their whole fabric of existence. “How can I make any choices if I don’t know anything?” they beg of a night of vanishing stars.

Unfortunately “How can we know anything?” is a paradoxical question. It can’t be answered. To explain, let’s say that we know things by intuition. Our intuition doesn’t have to be perfect. It can make mistakes. Perhaps what we thought was certain dread was only indigestion. But over time it corrects itself. Following that inner voice is therefore a long and circuitous road to truth perhaps but it’s a road heading in that direction at least.

That’s a cracking theory. There would be no problem creating a fictional character for whom that theory holds all story long. I would enjoy that story. However is it true? In the story is the character wise or mad for following their intuition? Unfortunately we can’t establish that. The source of knowing in this story is intuition but intuition can’t tell us whether intuition can be trusted, it can’t verify itself.

The same is true if we base knowing off of our senses, our logic, or a group vote of everyone with beards or no beards. The same is true if we base our knowing off of the revelations from our experience of God. Or off of a combination of these matters. None of these sources of knowledge can verify themselves. If they are undependable then their verification is undependable too.

In our example of a story it at first seems easy to prove our fictional character mad or wise because we have an objective describer of what happens. We have an author. However an author’s only power to describe is in their reader’s beliefs. Consider the story of Brave New World. It describes an entirely utilitarian culture, complete with people deliberately brain damaged in vitro in order to suit them to repetitive, uncreative work. There is less job dissatisfaction that way.  If this is dystopian to us then that dystopian assessment is a product of our beliefs rather than anything inherently in the story. We already knew that that was “bad” going in to the story or we won't know its bad when the author describes it.

That isn’t to say that story telling can’t sway us. Babe, the movie, puts the case against bacon clearly. The Bible similarly has a fairly scary ending for people who don’t follow God. But at the end of the day if we don’t share the authors’ assumptions about reality then we don’t agree. There is no escape from our question by route of an author’s authority. After all “How do we know what authority to trust?” is just a rewording of the question, “How can we know anything?”

You may be thinking that philosophers are just maladjusted individuals at this point and I think that is not a bad description. All this fretting over the fundamental grounding of our truth claims is exactly the behaviour of someone with anxiety and an inability to avoid overly concrete thinking. I think philosophy is attractive to that part of me. However before we bring out the chamomile and anti-depressants it’s worth noting that the philosopher (in us even) is merely pre-empting those moments in all our lives when the cracks in space and time loom large. Maladjustment is not always somewhere to avoid.

Consider the Pentecostal kid who finds they are dealing with same-sex attraction. The source of truth and knowledge is not an abstract question for them. It is at the heart of their immediate life. Consider the victim confronted by their traumatic feelings after being mugged. When the pills still don’t get them to sleep how do they restore their sense of safety? Should they accept they can’t?

These are moments of profound maladjustment and they should be. Sheesh, if life’s curveballs are just going to pass you by while you strike out without any re-evaluation of your swing then I’m not sure I understand you. I’m a big fan of saying that the unlived life is not worth examining. However how is life being lived either if nothing ever forces you to re-examine yourself? I’m honestly unsure how anyone could avoid “maladjustment” all life long. If they do are they lucky or to be pitied?

Still if the primary uncertainty of how anything can be known is an unsolvable paradox what good can looking at this question do? After a brief spell wandering around in a horse hair shirt with Nietzche in our back pocket won’t we eventually return to the valerian and television anyway? I think that makes the mistake of thinking that we are actually looking for a specific answer whereas what we need is just an honest way to live. The philosopher is trying to hold the universe together not aesthetically but so as to function in it.

These are a few principles I’ve gained from my own journey. That’s an ongoing journey by the way. They may not satisfy you but I think they have potential to guide me for the rest of my life. I don’t think you could call them answers, certainly not to the original question. They allow me to function.

Firstly I have accepted that we have to make a radical choice or leap of faith at our initial point. We can develop our intuition, study the data, choose to follow experienced counsel or a combination of the above but only after we have made some poorly founded choice about what is real and what is not. That choice might alienate us from our peers or even our family though it will probably connect us to other people too. That’s painful especially because we don’t have a casual basis for that very initial decision. We can't convince others to join us. We only have a projected hope.

Secondly it’s doesn’t feel like a choice. It feels more like you’re holding your guts in until you make your decision and then when you do your innards just come rolling out as if from a gaping belly wound. Gross, I know but it is gross. It’s your stink. It’s messy and it’s very mortal. There is potentially no stuffing it back in.  It’s that dualism of a conscious choice and just being yourself for the first time that is coming together here. Yet our knees ought to knock with fear that it’s the stupidest thing we’ve done too because we can get that feeling as easily as we are sentimental.

Thirdly our decision is not really about what is true but about what is important to us. We ultimately answer “How can we know?” with “Why do we want to know?”; “Do we want to be happy? Do we want to fit in? Do we want to never be frightened?” We have to get down to what is our search for knowledge for. If we want to avoid sensory harm (like the pain of a pylon in the head) then sensory input (like looking out for pylons as we drive) is likely the key. If we want pleasure, or justice or connectedness then we will need more awareness of those aspects of ourselves and life. What are our goals?

Fourthly nobody else can force our hand to touch the cracks in space and time. We have to reach forward of our own accord. Definitely no-one else can go mad and get sane for us. There’s some shared characteristics but also some unique ones when a person gets unmade. More importantly any resilience to my outcome has required taking personal responsibility for it. I would be wary of someone who says they can do it for us.

Finally though, other people are not useless to our questioning at all. Friends and family can anchor us to the mundane with love. I can’t tell each of you what will come of your embrace of the cracks but I can advise long walks in dry socks and against too much drugs. Remember the Doctor has companions. They have lives and families and gardens and shopping bills in one dimension and one town on earth. Don’t ever get so haughty in your big ideas and dangerous self exploration that you doubt their importance to you.

I'm a big Rory fan by the way.

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