Avenues Into Philosophy

Listening to some academic philosophers discuss the question, “Why philosophy?”, I hear a kind of implicit response to a question not posed. Namely, “How can philosophy apply to the ‘real’ world?” where ‘real’ here means vocation. For undergraduate students taking a philosophy class, I can certainly see the relevance of posing and answer to this question. However, this kind of positioning of the question of philosophy can also be a bit of a subterfuge which leads away from the real questions and relevance of philosophy. To make a living teaching philosophy puts some constraints on a professional philosopher which cannot or perhaps should not be avoided. However, perhaps the unbridled truth is that philosophy does not have a very solid connection to the demands of practicality and capitalism. This in itself could lead one to begin to question capitalism or at least to clarify to oneself why one would think of capitalism as a kind of arbiter of the good. In any case, in this paper I simply want to lay out some of the basic pathways into philosophy.

Whether we like it or not or admit it or not, we all make synthetic judgments. In other words, we have some sort of unitary idea of how things came about and how they work. Let’s start our journey with two basic beginnings. We have unity and change. In the extreme would could have change which spawns off incessant differences. We would have forms or appearances without necessarily any intrinsic connection. It would be like a stream of consciousness. We would have apparitions appearing and disappearing without ever having a sense of a beginning or end or even a unifying idea of ‘objects’. This would be pure sensations. On the other hand, we could start with unities, wholes, objects, God, gods, laws of nature or physics and from this, necessarily, the notion of origins, beginnings (the Big Bang) which make the notions of unity possible. However, if everything starts as unities we may have problems explaining changes which appear to be totally detached from their unities. For example, if we start with the ideal triangle where the sum of its internal angles will always equal 180 degrees we may have a hard time with the observed fact that no existing triangle has ever had the sum of its internal angles equal 180 degrees. In the ‘real’ world (which is itself another unity) there is always some error which keeps the perfect form forever away. Socrates might call the ‘real’ world triangles shadows or apparitions. Since both unity and change pose solutions and contradictions let’s explore a new avenue: the synthesis of the two.

For the sake of this paper let’s say one possibility for synthesis is what I will call the ‘bag of tools’ approach. In this approach ourselves, the universe, existence is the culmination of a collection of tools we have acquired. This is not so unlike the condition where eventually 100 monkeys, given enough time, could build the Empire State building. Somewhat like Nietzsche’s metaphysics of eternal recurrence of the same, if time is infinite and matter is finite eventually any and every possibility will happen again and again. Since one of those already determined, limited and bounded (in advance) possibilities is 100 monkeys building the Empire State building eventually the building will appear. Notice that now we are facing two more avenues: randomness or causation. Nietzsche’s solution evokes the random. There is no apparent casual connection to effects only happenstance given unlimited time and limited space. Of course, modern physics tells us that both time and space is created by the expansion of the universe so unlimited time may be problematic. Also, limited mass may be intuitively correct as ‘what must be’ but this is not a positive proof only a stand-in for the lack of a positive proof. This we can call a negative proof. If there are infinite universes as some have postulated in recent physics, then at the least we have an alternative ‘negative’ explanation which has no positive proof as of yet.

Evolution embodies the notion that we have over time acquired a ‘bag of tools’ which has culminated in language, history (the knowledge of), science and even a more ‘primitive’ beginning in religion. The ‘bag of tools’ approach is the proverbial “pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps” intuition. This approach depends on certain sets of given conditions necessitating or causing determinate outcomes. Of course, the problem with this is the old ‘chicken and egg’ dilemma. In order to support this theory we have to keep substantiating our ‘given conditions’ so the effects we want to explain will ‘naturally’ follow. This means that this way of thinking depends on origin and beginning. However, if we follow the path of evolution back to single cells, bacteria, molecules, atoms and all the way to the Big Bang we have a problem. It seems as if our reliance on the beginning has come to an end. This presents a dilemma: our strategy of beginnings has collapsed in on itself. We are left reeling with only a negative proof that there must be a beginning before the Big Bang.

Now, we have come full circle to the other approach than the ‘bag of tools’ approach. This approach is the ‘God’ approach. By ‘God’ here we include gods, mysticism, faith. This approach does not require a ‘proof’ negative or positive, only a belief. God cannot be subject to ‘proof’ or the laws of physics since God created those things. Note that we have already made a critical distinction: things and non-things. This will be useful latter. For the ‘God’ approach we cannot explicitly rely on knowledge since ‘God’ also created knowledge. Knowledge cannot lead us to God but ‘revelation’ can. Revelation is a form of knowledge which cannot be falsified. It cannot be falsified because it begins in faith. The downside of faith is dogma. The problem with dogma is a vice. In modern terms we call this vice narcissism. In older times it was known as the sin of pride. The person of faith will always have to straddle the precipice of faith and dogma. Proof was the apparent solution to this dilemma. However, the history of science is no stranger to dogma and faith. The claim of the validity of science over ‘god’ is that science can be falsifiable whereas ‘God’ can never be false in any sense for the believer. In religion false gods are always measured by the true ‘God’ whatever form that takes on.

The incestuous relationship of knowledge and language to ‘God’ or science has always presented a conundrum to philosophers. Aristotle thought of this dilemma in terms of forms and being. The essence of form is change. Form has appearance. Appearance is mutable. All appearances in the ‘real’ world change over time. Yet, we have a notion of stuff being the same over time in some sense. Time as an intuition, not a relative idea, does not change. So, even in the midst of changing forms we have a phenomenon which apparently does not change and even seems to validate sameness: time. Well, that intuition is not exactly true since Einstein. Now we know, counter to intuition, that time can change. However, as Heidegger points out this intuition of time as linear and always the same is actually abstract. This notion is really a historical development.

Earlier civilizations thought of time as more like a quality than a quantity. The early Greeks had the word kairos and chronos. The Greeks observed that what Heidegger termed ‘lived time’ had a stretch. When one is feeling joyful or elated time feels like it moves quickly. When one is bored or having anxiety one feels that time is dragging on. There is also sacred time. For the ancients sacred time had a feel of vastness, later thought as ‘eternal’. Kairos, for the Greeks, was the supreme time, the fullness of time, the moment of all moments. Chronos was a sequence of ‘now’ moments. It is what we intuit as time contemporaneously and project it as never ending or infinite. Heidegger thought this notion of time as vulgar time. So, if our modern intuition of time is actually abstract, not in line with relativity, and not like we actually experience time we need to ask ourselves a couple questions: 1) How is it that intuition can be ‘fooled’ by history? – 2) What is it about us than can make ‘abstract’ time into what we think as ‘real’ time?

If intuition can be fooled, can revelation also be fooled? We are at the least left with an insecurity about the very nature of knowledge itself. If knowledge is subject to mutability it cannot be thought as ‘true’ at least in an absolute sense. Knowledge is always provisional. It is circumstantial. It has the real possibility of being false. If knowledge can be false what is the difference between knowledge and the chirping of a bird? This is the beginning of skepticism and existential doubt. We are thrown back upon our assumption of ‘truth’. How does this insecurity of knowledge effect our intuition of unity, of sameness, of God, of our founded-ness in the world? Are we reductively and merely products of change, of history? Are we accidental? How does this affect our sense of meaning? Does meaning have to be eternal to be true? As we live phenomenally, do we have a real or true sense of unity, of sameness. Surely we are not just a stream of consciousness in the way most of us experience ourselves. If we were simply to stand back and observe this sense of unity in ourselves we could be informed by at the least its appearance. Existence as we know it, as it can only be known with the word ‘existence’ does imply some sense of immutability. At minimum, it implies a relative differentiation between change and sameness. This was the problem Aristotle, in particular, was consumed with.

In the tradition of Aristotle, Heidegger also raised anew the question of Being in his monumental work “Being and Time”. All of us assume we know what being means but upon closer inspection this intuition appears to be one of the most empty of all meaning. We act as if it were absolutely ‘real’ and ‘true’ but try to sit down and write out what you think it is. Inevitably, most folks will just end up with a circular argument, “it is true just because it is (true)”. This is called a tautology. The root of tautology is Identity. Identity must always be ‘true’ because it can only ever only restate itself. The interpretive circle called the hermeneutical circle can only always and ever reaffirm itself like faith. However, in phenomenology our method is always to step back and ask what does this affinity in us show us about ourselves? Well, certainly it shows that we are historical in our being-ness. It also shows us that we cannot not think of ‘true’ or ‘real’ because for one, pragmatically we must act as if there is ‘real’ or ‘true’ to be in the world. The ‘true’ and ‘real’ seems to dog us like a shadow. In spite of this we seem to have a kind of poverty about absolute knowledge (unless of course you are a Hegelian). So now we have a lived, phenomenal sense of the ‘real’ or ‘true’ and we also (as is the case for the notion of being) have a kind of emptiness about what the heck it is. We must act as if it is true (pun?) in the face of our own fragility and mortality.

This then is how philosophy begins…