Paul P. Mealing

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Sunday, 9 March 2008

What is Philosophy?

This is one of those topics that is possibly best introduced by discussing what it is not. Traditionally, Western philosophy is divided into categories: ontology, epistemology, ethics, aesthetics and logic. For the layperson, ontology is often described as the ‘nature of being’, epistemology is to do with ‘knowing’: theories of knowledge may be the best description, and could include aspects of language or linguistics. Ethics relates to moral philosophy, aesthetics relates to philosophies of art and beauty, and logic is related to, but not synonymous with, mathematics. One may also include theology as another category.

From my own essays published in this blog to date, one can see that I cover a variety of topics that infringe on a number of disparate fields. After all, one may see a connection between mathematics and science, science and psychology, psychology and morality, but what about mathematics and morality? And some people may conclude from this, that philosophy is some sort of umbrella discipline that covers all fields of human knowledge and learning. But this would be misleading: ontology is not religion, epistemology is not science, aesthetics is not art, ethics is not justice or politics, and logic is not mathematics. In other words, all these disparate disciplines are not just branches of philosophy.

So what is the relationship? I would argue that the relationship is dialectical: they feed each other. All these fields, of themselves, involve philosophy, even if it’s at a subconscious level. People who practice in these fields, if challenged to explain their motivations and methodologies, will give a philosophical answer. And the significance of this is that it will both agree and differ from others practicing in the same field, even if they have the same level of expertise. To give an example, relating to one of my own postings: Is mathematics evidence of a transcendental realm? I point out how Roger Penrose and Stephen Hawking, who have worked together at the frontiers of cosmology, are philosophically poles apart with regard to their mathematical viewpoints (refer The Large, the Small and the Human Mind by Penrose, Shimony, Cartwright and Hawking).

In that posting, I describe how Kurt Godel ‘proved’ a fundamental premise in mathematical thinking: one cannot derive all mathematics from a set of known axioms. Now some may conclude that this constitutes a ‘philosophical’ proof, but I would contend there are no ‘philosophical proofs’, only proofs that can support a philosophical point of view. You may argue: what is the difference? Well, the difference is that different people, quite commonly, use the same proof to support different philosophical points of view, and Godel’s proof is a case in point. Godel was a Platonist his entire life, while his very good friend, Albert Einstein, was not a Platonist at all. When they lived in Princeton they often took long walks together, which they both apparently enjoyed, able to talk on esoteric subjects at the same level of comprehension (refer A world Without Time by Palle Yourgrau). Obviously, they didn’t always agree, so what was the attraction. Well, based on my own experience, I believe they liked to challenge each other, and be challenged, and that is what practicing philosophy is all about. In a nutshell, philosophy is a point of view supported by rational argument. The corollary to this is that it requires argument to practice philosophy.

To give an entirely different example: many years ago I knew a family of Jehovah Witnesses, and we became good friends, keeping in contact for many years. Every now and then, when they were ‘witnessing’ (as a couple) they would come to my place (I lived alone) and we would have a very good argument. I always enjoyed those encounters because they made me dig very deep into my beliefs and I always felt invigorated afterwards, like one does after some vigorous exercise, like running. I always assumed that they felt the same, otherwise why would they do it? But, most importantly, I believe they came to me, not to be convinced, or even to convince me, but to be challenged, like an exercise.

To return to the categories listed in the introduction: in the 20th Century, academically at least, epistemology became the central pillar of modern philosophy, to the extent that, for some philosophers, epistemology and logic are philosophy – everything else is opinion or culture. In this context, many see philosophy as being subordinate to science - a mere footnote to empiricism. This is a philosophical viewpoint in itself, which, many would argue, originated with David Hume. Bertrand Russell, for example, acknowledged that Hume was the most influential philosopher he read. It was Hume who challenged some of our most important assumptions about cause and effect (he argued that we can never know for certain), and who founded the philosophical premise of empiricism which underpins all of science. (John Searle, in Mind, is one of the few I have read who successfully challenges Hume’s philosophy on cause and effect). So one can see the connection between epistemology and science: if science is empiricism and epistemology is knowledge – they go together hand in glove. But there are limits to science, at least in my view, and that’s another topic (see Does the Universe have a Purpose?).

Epistemology logically leads to a discussion on language, because we all think in a language, and all our knowledge acquisition is language based. This leads one to Ludwig Wittgenstein, who was arguably the most influential philosopher of the 20th Century. But before I discuss Wittgenstein, one can’t leave the discussion of epistemology without a reference to mathematics, especially where science is concerned. I’ve already written 2 postings on mathematics: Is mathematics invented or discovered? and Is mathematics evidence of a transcendental realm? So I will be succinct. Arguably, our knowledge of mathematics has provided us with more insight into the machinations of the Universe, at all levels, than any other endeavour. In keeping with the accepted interpretation of epistemology, many would argue that mathematics is just another language, albeit one that is never a first language. This is a philosophical viewpoint that is hard to defend, not least, because numbers (the fundamental elements of all mathematics) never relate to specific entities as descriptors, the way words do. So I would argue that mathematics is totally relevant to epistemology, but in a way that language is not.

Getting back to Wittgenstein, one of his most famous statements was: ‘Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by the means of language.' Notice how the statement is deliberately ambiguous, even contradictory: does language bewitch our intelligence or do we combat the bewitchment of our intelligence using language? This statement is more than just a clever wordplay, however, and really does encapsulate Wittgenstein's approach to philosophy. Another philosopher who places language centre stage is Umberto Eco. More famously known as a novelist, he is Professor of semiotics at the University of Bologna. Semiotics, according to my dictionary, is the study of words and signs and their relevance to ideas and the physical world. Eco’s book, Kant and the Platypus, is his attempt to convey to laypeople his philosophy of semiotics, but that is another discussion for another time perhaps.

The key to all this, from my viewpoint, is that language may not be unique to humans, but the manner in which we have exploited it is. We use language not only to describe objects in the real world but to embrace metaphysical ideas and concepts that we structure into arguments for discussion. So the link between language and philosophy goes beyond the mundane and the obvious - it is welded to meaning. Wittgenstein's legacy was that he probably understood this better than anyone else, and he made it his life's work to analyse and explore it in all its ramifications.

A lot could be written on Wittgenstein and the results of his exploration, but, even if I was more familiar with his work, I would not choose this context to do it. For some people however, especially in academia, Wittgenstein represents the culmination of Western philosophical thought from Socrates to the modern day.

This should finish the discussion, but I think there is another misconception that needs to be clarified about what constitutes philosophy and its relationship to other fields. In my introduction I made the point that one can discuss mathematics at a philosophical level as well as morality, as I have done more than once in this blog, but that doesn’t mean that I can support a moral philosophical viewpoint using a mathematical argument or vice versa. This example is obvious, but it’s more relevant when one considers the arguments that arise between science and religion.

There are 3 postings on this blog already that refer specifically to arguments between creationism and evolution, because it’s been a very hot topic in recent decades. It is only because philosophy allows a bridge between these 2 different aspects of human enquiry that this debate exists, yet this very aspect of the debate seems to be lost. I made the point in my posting: Is evolution fact? Is creationism myth? that there is an epistemological divide between science and religion that I’ve never seen considered, let alone discussed. Religion is a personal experience that is unique to the individual who has it, whereas science, being empirically based, requires repetition to make it valid. Science seeks universality and religion is intimately personal, albeit most religious arguments have a historical, cultural context. In the case of creationism versus evolution, the context is both historical and cultural, which is why the debate persists.

But there are other aspects to this debate that need to be aired. I remember reading C.S. Lewis’s account of why he could not accept evolution over a biblical interpretation. He consistently referred to evolution as a ‘story’, and since the biblical interpretation is also a story, it’s just a case of substituting one story for another. One story he believed and the other he didn’t – it was that simple. In philosophical parlance, this would be called a ‘category mistake’, though most category mistakes evoked in philosophical discussions are not so obvious. The point is, that people forget that this is a philosophical debate, and that doesn’t allow one to substitute religion for science or science for religion. Substituting a science theory with a biblical story doesn’t make it science, which is why creationists dress it up in different clothes, which I call deception, even fraud when it comes to passing it off as science education.

I’ve said elsewhere that science and religion can’t answer each other’s questions, and I’m not sure why they believe they should. Science and theism are not mutually incompatible but evolution and creationism are. A scientist who is a theist knows the limitations of their science and their beliefs. They know they can’t use science to prove that God exists, in whatever manifestation, and likewise they can’t use a belief in God to support a scientific theory.

In my posting, Does the Universe have a Purpose? there is a link to the John Templeton Foundation, where a group of philosophers, scientists and theologians give their responses to this question. Interestingly, but not surprisingly, both theists and atheists, use evidence from science to support their particular point of view. It’s not much different to Godel and Einstein disagreeing over the philosophical consequences of Godel’s own theorem.

Creationists exploit the gaps in our current knowledge of evolutionary theory to press their case, with the implication that, because evolution, like most scientific endeavours, is still a theory in progress, the entire theory can be replaced by a pseudo-theory lifted from the Bible, despite the fact that it’s been a hugely successful theory to date. I haven’t heard, or seen, a single creationist suggesting that we should scrap quantum mechanics, even though it defies explanation in plain language, and evolution is arguably no less successful in empirical evidence than quantum theory is.

So this is an area in philosophy where disciplines collide, but they collide in philosophy, not in science or religion. If people recognised this, and thankfully many theologians do, the debate would be more sane and less politically malleable.

Footnote: Some of the best philosophical arguments I've read against creationism have been written by theologians. For an example see link: www.cosmosmagazine.com/features/print/15/bad-faith

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