What Good is Philosophy

Philosophy as Humor

When Groucho Marx was asked for his philosophy of life, he famously said, “Here are my principles, if you don’t like these I have others.”  A PhD philosopher friend once joked, “All philosophers are paranoid because philosophy is the only discipline whose field of study is itself.” So, at least philosophy is good for humor.  What else?  Philosophy today, outside of academia, seems to have been relegated to the unanswerable meaning-of-life questions that most people don’t really seem interested in talking about.  So, why do I have a philosophical blog for talking about “meaning?”

Before I answer that question, I have a blog announcement to make.

This is my first serious post on this blog as part of a continuing series.  At the beginning of this month (June 2014)  I started going live with my three-blog site (which some wag christened it, ”Three-Dog Site,” a phrase I that is growing on me because each blog is a dog I hope hunts; comments please?).  At that time, I decided to conduct an experiment for fun to crowd-source write a story about questions and meaning.  One person out of 7.2 billion people responded and took up the challenge based on a story outline and a beginning that I wrote to get it started.  That person was Dorman Bazzell, a senior professional at an international research and consulting firm who has provided regular story inputs. Thanks Dorman.  I announced at the beginning of June that I would pull down whatever story had evolved by COB June 30, and begin to post the short essays I had intended.  We have created an 8,000 word draft of a story and will complete and edit it offline after June 30 with whatever additional inputs I may receive before I pull the post down.

Back to “Why this blog?” 

I believe that “Why” is the most important foundational question we can continually ask and answer for ourselves throughout our lives because it influences everything we do in life, and only it can give our life meaning:  Why we choose to marry someone; Why we choose a job;  Why we choose to live in a particular place; Why a company owner chooses to offer this product or service; Why we choose the clients and friends we do;  Why we learn; Why we vote for a politician; Why we are the way we are;  And on and on.

I will share meaning, as I have found and continue to find it, for whatever value it provides to readers.  I also hope to get feedback from readers to learn what meanings they have found.

Philosophy as Immediate Experience

As a young graduate student working on a PhD in physics I marveled at the idea that so much knowledge of experienced reality could be compressed into such simple equations like E  = MC², where E  is energy, M is mass and C is the speed of light.  The names, letters and concepts of physics equations, like this one discovered by Einstein, were made up long before Einstein out of thin air to represent physical phenomena experienced in everyday life with our five senses.

I soon realized that Einstein could have written his equation like this:  F = RB², where F stood for Fox, R for Rabbit and B for Bird, except those words had already been taken for other concepts at least ten thousand years ago when our interaction with nature was primal and immediate.  Egyptian Hieroglyphics indicate how an alphabet of letters for words evolved out of nature, i.e., the pictogram “J” taken from the shape of a snake and the action of “jumping” by both person and snake when they encounter each other.

Symbols get arranged into a minimum number of alphabet letters to form words with defined meanings; rules are devised to create new word and phrase meanings, which are then written and spoken to communicate and use knowledge.  I see these primal experiences as the start of philosophy: the active search to understand the fundamental nature of knowledge, reality, and existencefor the practical purposes of living.  The driving force behind this search was questioning, without which life would be static going nowhere.  Without questions there would be no science, no world as we know it.  (“Questions” will be addressed in the next post.)

Philosophy got off to a good start but got stuck around 2500 years ago mostly with the Greeks, and later with others in all disciplines from the 16th century on who got trapped into trying to isolate absolute views of reality from a top-down perspective.  It went like this:  Assume a general big truth from a specific small experienced truth and try to argue that the big truth is, well, absolutely true.  

This idea, based on argument alone, turned out to be a losing proposition.  It was buried, for what looks like forever in the early 1900s, when it infected the minds and egos of the world’s best mathematicians, led by German mathematician, David Hilbert.  They were all trying to prove that a philosophy of mathematics existed “that could be consistently stated within mathematics itself.”   While Hilbert’s group was trying to prove this assumption, German mathematician Kurt Gödel set out to prove that they would never be able to prove their proposition, and he was right.  Gödel proved that their task was impossible based on his Incompleteness Theorem published in 1931.  Douglas Hofstadter explains this complicated theorem simply in two ways:  (1) Gödel’s Theorem is like a record that self-destructs when you try to play it; (2) There are things we can know that we cannot prove, and things we can prove that we cannot know.

Meanwhile, Science, arguably the first fully formed offspring of Philosophy as a discipline, moved out in a different direction built on Aristotle’s taxonomy of reality, which divided all of reality into two mutually exclusive parts—the Objective and the Subjective , a Metaphysics (SOM) in which each part had their own hierarchy of categories and sub categories.  A new paradigm for the search for “truth” evolved around Aristotle’s SOM taxonomy that was based on the principle of independent, repeatable and experimental confirmation of proposed “truth concepts,” along with the ability of new concepts to predict new truths.

This SOM Scientific Paradigm has been spectacularly successful during the past 400 years, having built the modern world we experience every day in every way, but we have been losing our connection with the “Whys” for over a century, which had started us on the path of discovery long ago; Also, science has produced questions its SOM paradigm can no longer answer because the object (nature) and the subject (observer) are not,  in fact, separable but connected to each other at the quantum level beyond our senses;  modern science can no longer answer new Whys, and we have been slowly forgetting how to sharply ask Why questions anew for over a century.

Consider this:  Our modern digital smart world depends on us applying quantum physics of the very small beyond our senses, even if magnified by technology, to build and make our smart world work.  Quantum theory lets us do this because it is the most powerful and accurate physics concept discovered to date, but the ugly little secret is that it is also the least understood in all of physics. Nobel Prize laureate Richard Feynman famously said,”I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics.” We know how to make it work, like a cook preparing a meal mechanically from a recipe, but we really don’t know why it works.

Our real problems start when we stop asking questions and lose our way; this is what philosophy has always been good for—finding our way.   In the next post I will begin to explore the role and importance of questions in daily and global life.



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