I can’t give any definitive answer to this question, but I can offer you a portrait of a situation that might be analogous. Picture yourself as a character in a book. Time only has meaning for you, the character, during the narrative of the story, which represents your life on earth. However, outside of the book you, the character also exist in the mind of the author. You were in the mind or the author before the book was written, while it was being written, and after it was finished. And although you experience your life as a series of chronological events, that perspective is only valid from within the story –from outside of the story, your life exists as a timeless whole, although it can only be experienced chronologically.
Both wrestle with the concept that everything we ordinarily view as “reality” could be in fact a highly convincing illusion.
It’s both. It has the form and function of a question, so it is a question, but it is about the questioning process, so it is also a metaquestion. Formal languages such as first or second order logic have paradox-avoiding restrictions that force an either/or choice between using regular langauge or meta langauge, but not both, but English, being a natural language, has no such constraints.
We have to define science first –let’s say it is the body of knowledge formed through the scientific method of testing hypotheses against verifiable empirical data.
It becomes clear that there are a range of questions science cannot answer. Science cannot answer the question of “what is science?” because the body of knowledge that composes science has boundaries that are dependent on already having an accepted definition of science. Science also cannot answer the question of “what questions can science not answer?” since that would require the ability to prove a negative, which cannot be done through empirical testing.
It also seems clear that science is ill-equipped to consider questions about unique phenomena –events or entities that cannot be duplicated, since the replicability of results is a key component of empirical verification. Science is also maladapted for the consideration of transcendent entities –i.e. God, if we assume God to be unbound by scientific laws.
It’s important, however, to keep in mind three things:
- First, the limitations of science do not mean science is not a valuable and essential tool of understanding.
- Second (and conversely), science’s inability to consider certain questions does not necessarily mean that the things considered by those questions are unreal, unimportant, or even unknowable (through other sources of knowledge).
- Third, there are almost certainly things that do not currently seem empirically verifiable that may someday reveal an empirical footprint, and thus pass into the realm of what can be considered by science.
For an example of the last, consider the phenomenon of invisible electromagnetic radiation such as radio waves and UV light. At one point in history these rays would have seemed speculative, metaphysical, unverifiable, and perhaps even absurd, yet now their existence and their effects are uncontroversially accepted as belonging to the realm or science fact –because the advance of scientific equipment has made it possible to test them in ways that are verifiable and repeatable.
This ranks among the most important questions human beings must strive to answer. It’s also one of the most difficult.
There are three contrasting approaches typically used in answering this question. The first is pragmatic: Human nature is what humans do. The second is aspirational: Human nature is an ideal towards which we should strive. The third is constructivist: Human nature is what we say it is.
The first approach might be described as an anthropological research project. To pursue it, we simply look for patterns and commonalities in the behaviors of human beings around the world; and from there generalize to a description of human nature that reads as a list of typical traits and pursuits. Thus, for example, we might describe human beings as tool-making, building-constructing, art-loving, deity-worshiping, word-forming and/or war-mongering beings.
As sensible as the first approach may seem, it has substantial flaws. For one, there is tremendous variability among the cultures of the world. Is there any activity that is is so genuinely universal that every single human being (or even every single human society) practices it? And if so, is it truly unique to human beings, or is it something –such as eating or sleeping –that we share with all the other animals of the world?
A second major flaw in this approach is that it is purely descriptive. It tells us only what is, but gives us no basis for gaining understanding or making judgments. For instance, the sample list above claims that religion is a part of human nature, but doesn’t explain why, or whether that might be a good thing or a bad thing.
A third, and related flaw is that this approach seemingly locks us into the behaviors of the past. If warmongering is a part of human nature (as claimed above) does that mean that war is something we can never ever escape? Or is it possible that human nature might change in the future?
The second approach has a long and distinguished history in philosophy. The Ancient Greek philosopher Plato popularized the pursuit of virtues and ideals (such as Wisdom, Love, Truth and Beauty) as the correct aim of human nature, while his student Aristotle focused on a more earthbound set of “excellences” (such as skill in debate, skill in governance, skill in warfare, and so forth) as the true “measure of a man.” On the other side of the world the famous Chinese philosopher Confucius also advocated a similar approach.
The key advantage to this approach is that it celebrates the best in human nature, and in doing so offers a promise that we can become better as a species; even offering putative guidance towards transcending our weaknesses and eliminating our faults. As good as this may sound, however, this approach also has weaknesses. First, it is vulnerable to the charge of being an unfounded fantasy, divorced from reality –what evidence is there that Plato’s ideals have anything to do with “human nature” at all? Second, it raises the question of who sets the standards, and how can we ensure that they are universal and not ethnocentric –as in the case of many of the “excellences” of Confucius and Aristotle, which can seem strange and alien to a modern day observer in the West. Third, while it offers the possibility of progress towards an ideal of human nature, it does not simultaneously offer the possibility that human nature itself might progress. Thus, it runs the risk of being made obsolete by the changes in the human experience; most notably the increasing importance of technology of various kinds, and the effects on human societies of the worldwide crises of global warming and overpopulation.
The third approach, to claim that human nature is what we make of it, has a degree of freedom and openness, and a sense of personal agency and impact missing from the other two approaches. Yet by itself, it is far the weakest, possessing neither the direct connection to the real world of the first approach, nor the guidance and inspiration of the second approach. It thus threatens to reduce the entire concept of human nature to meaninglessness.
Rather than wholly adopting any one of these approaches, I would instead advocate a “reconstructivist” approach that draws from all three.
First, I think we need the anthropological background of the first approach in order to place human nature within a context; to let us know where we have come from, and what are the social, biological, spiritual and evolutionary pressures that have shaped us as a species. But from that point forward, I think we need to combine the second and third approaches in order to reconstruct a new vision of human nature that is responsive to the realities of the modern era, but that emphasizes the best potentials of human beings in order to create a brighter future.
In broad general outline, this is the way I would envision a reconstructed human nature:
First, I would reemphasize a range of traditional human practices, such as homemade meals enjoyed slowly and communally, face-to-face conversations, getting from place to place by foot (and living in places and ways that make that possible), community gardening and social dancing. These types of things have long histories in nearly all human cultures and therefore evoke a strong visceral response from most people.
Second, I would also reemphasize the arts and humanities, and practices such as music, painting, philosophy, rhetoric, mathematics, and so forth –these are practices that developed over the course of millennia towards the purpose of showcasing the unique aptitudes of human beings.
As far as attitudes towards age, I would reinstate an attitude of respect towards elders, as representatives of tradition and repositories of wisdom, but not to the innovation-stifling extent practiced by most traditional societies. At the same time I would reinforce the modern era’s attitude of respect towards the young, as representatives of innovation and sources of creativity, but not to the tradition-trampling extent practiced by most modern societies.
Some long-established facets of human nature would need to be discarded. Chief among these is the old equation of fecundity = happiness. Children are unquestionably our most precious resource, but our way of expressing that can and must change. I am an opponent of abortion, but I strongly support voluntary preventative birth control. We must embrace the fact that sexual activity is no longer synonymous with procreation. At the same time, we need to promote adoption as an alternative and as a supplement to biological family creation.
Something else that must be eliminated is the human tendency to go to war. The urge to compete is a necessary and positive element of human nature, but competition through violence has outlived whatever utility it once possessed. The new machines of war are so deadly, powerful and horrific, that we must unequivocally ensure they can never be deployed.
In addition, we must all take on a conservationist mindset with respect to natural resources. The past record of humanity on this is mixed. There have been societies, generally in resource rich environments, that have been successful despite their consumerist leanings, while other societies have thrived in resource poor environments through conservation. As the planet transitions from a resource rich to a resource poor environment, however, the human species as a whole must make the shift from a consumerist nature to a conservationist nature.
A modern student of humanity must also consider the place of technology in questions of human identity. On one hand, the invention and utilization of technology is one of the most characteristic of all human activities and traits. But on the other hand, the increasing pervasiveness of technological devices has had what can only be described as a dehumanizing effect on many people and societies.
I would argue for the following: first that we moderate our use of technology, instituting technological sabbaths similar to those practiced by Orthodox Jews, and scaling back our reliance on devices such as cell phones and PDAs. Second, that we change our technological focus away from dehumanizing instantiations of technology such as weapon development, cosmetic surgery and mass productive machinery, and towards more positive aims such as desert reclamation, clean energy production and preventative medicine. Finally, that we should less on physical/material technologies and more on the creation of a new set of social and cultural technologies that will help us better deal with one another as human beings.
The simplest answer is that philosophy is concerned with questions of why whereas science is concerned with questions of how. In other words, if I ask “How do we convert coal to energy?”, that is a science question, but if I ask “Why do we convert coal to energy?” and ”Should we convert coal to energy?” then I am starting to enter the realm of philosophy.
At one time all that we think of as science today was considered a part of philosophy, which encompassed all pursuits aimed at gaining, increasing or using knowledge and wisdom. Today, however, the two often seem very far apart.
Over the years there have been many different proposals about how the gap between science and philosophy should be bridged. Some believe that philosophy should become more scientific. At one time, there was even a strain of thought that argued that philosophy should become subservient to science and concern itself only with asking questions about scientific methodologies! I side rather with those who say scientists should become more philosophical, and spend more time questioning the use the meaning and the larger implications of their experiments and discoveries.
We must also remember that every science is based in some philosophy –some viewpoint about the nature and purpose of the universe.
This is a fantastic question.
I begin my answer by noting that rationality is overvalued and its capacity overestimated. The ability of the human mind to apprehend what it considers is vast, but not unlimited. Not everything, therefore, can be understood in ways that make apparent sense and align with all the other things that we know. In particular, God would not be God if He could be fully comprehended. For this reason, I side with those who call faith unreasonable.
As a student of Kierkegaard, however, I also note that the central paradox of Christianity, of God present with us, is no more of a paradox than the paradox of existence itself. Why should there be something rather than nothing? Why does our existence mainifest in the shape that it has, rather than in some other form? Why does each of us individually and idiosyncratically exist, and why are we bound by space and time? These are questions that have no rational answers, yet we live with the paradoxes they imply because we lack the ability to do otherwise.
This leads me to what I take to be the key Kierkegaardian insight: The mystery of Christ is not only on a par with the mystery of existence, it is in fact the same mystery. The mystery of why God would enter the universe and suffer and die is the very same mystery as why that universe would exist at all, and why there would be suffering and death within it in the first place.
All this having been said, however, I think there’s a danger in dismissing faith as merely or dogmatically irrational. The believer, I would claim, is not simply a believer in defiance of all evidence –which would indeed make him the thoughtless fanatic of your query. Speaking as a believer, I would say that God has demonstrated His existence to me with evidence that is plentiful and personally compelling –yet not of a sort that lends itself to conclusive depersonalized proofs.
My aim in making such a claim is not to present a case for God’s existence capable of convincing the non-believer, but to advance the argument that the intrinsic irrationality (or what we might call the “transrationality”) of faith does not necessarily imply that the person who embraces faith must do so in an irrational manner. One may safely assume that the person who believes does so for personally valid reasons, even if those reasons are not easily understood by the non-believer.
This, it seems to me, is the best way to approach the ontological proofs of theological rationalists like Aquinas and Descartes, the apologetics of someone like C.S.Lewis, or the calculated wagers of Pascal and his ilk –not as attempts to equate faith with reason, but rather as ways of demonstrating that faith and reason are at least compatible with one another; and therefore that the embrace of one does not necessitate the destruction of the other.
There’s not much to say here other than “you’re absolutely right!” What you’ve identified is the chief problem with majority-rule democracy. One person can be right while ninety-nine are wrong. Whatever the popular mythos may claim, there is nothing magical about voting that ensures the right decision will be made.
It’s important to remember that voting the way we do it –assuming that you are an American, or from a country with a similar system –is nothing more than a compromise solution designed to give individual citizens a say in the way their government is run, while still giving some protection to the nation as a whole from the idle whims and sudden enthusiasms of the mob.
There are other solutions as well, each with its own weaknesses:
In a pure or direct democracy, the citizens make the laws themselves, with no elected officials between them and the process. This system has almost always ended in disaster, both because there is chaos and disorder inherent in trying to determine what are the laws and how they should be enforced, as well as because of the observation Plato made in The Republic, that those who love freedom the most are the most vulnerable to the charms of a charismatic tyrant. That’s the reason our system is a representative democracy rather than a pure or direct democracy. In theory, the elected officials stand between us and our worst mob impulses.
In a consensus democracy, officials are elected or laws enacted only when all people agree –thus eliminating the tyranny of the majority. However, it becomes impossibly difficult to reach consensus in groups of more than about 6 or 7 people, so this is unworkable for large-scale democracy.
In a winner takes all vote, such as the American presidential election, the majority makes the choice. However, even so, we have a system that requires (much) more than a majority for decisions that the Founding Fathers didn’t want taken lightly –such as amending the constitution.
In a proportional vote, such as the British Parliament or the American Democratic primaries, the minority is still represented in any given situation, by being given a percentage of representatives proportional to the size of the minority.
My own favorite system based on one proposed by a character in Robert Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress — I don’t know if it was original to him or not. In it, every ten people have the option to select a representative to represent them. Ten representatives can select a super representative, and so forth, up to the top of the system. However, nothing is done by vote. Each person is made a representative by the consensus of those he represents, and they may change their minds at any time. If a representative loses one of her constituents, she will need to find another immediately or lose her position. Thus, each representative fully represents all his constituents, not just the majority. I don’t know that it’s ever been tried in real life, but it has its charms as an idea.
I am part of a minority of philosophers who believe that some variant on the argument you proposed can be incorporated into a strong inductive argument –in fact I’m currently at work on just such a project, named “Pragmatic Metaphysics”. However, the argument as so stated is an example of the formal fallacy “affirming the consequent”.
P1. If Metaphysical Claim then I am Super Kind
P2. I am Super Kind
C. Therefore Metaphysical Claim
One problem is that you haven’t explained why we believe P1 is true, But this argument fails even if P1 is true because we have never established “If Super Kind then Metaphysical Claim”, and the relationship is not reversible.
The danger with affirming the consequent is this: If you start with a true and known statement “B”, such as “2 + 2 = 4”, then every conditional of the form “If A then B” will automatically be true, regardless of the nature of “A”. Thus, “If it is sunny tomorrow, then 2 + 2 will equal 4.” “If it is not sunny tomorrow, then 2 + 2 will equal 4.” “If the Yankees win the World Series then 2 + 2 will equal 4.” “If the devil beats his wife, then 2 + 2 will equal 4.”
Because of this, the type of argument you outlined can never be formally sound. However, it is possible to make a similar strong inductive argument, given the following conditions:
- “A” (i.e. Metaphysical Claim) must be a reasonable explanation for many observable things, not just “B” (Super Kind). So “If A then B, C, D, E, & F”, where B through F are all true.
- “A” must not have further implications that are false. So it must not be the case that “If A then G” where G is false.
- “A” must have predictive value. So “If A then H tomorrow,” where the prediction comes before H is observed, but where H confirms the prediction.
- “A” must not have stronger rivals. There must not be an A´ or an A´´ that explains the same data in a simpler and better fashion.
Even given all this, we do not prove “A,” we can only say that there is reason to believe A, or that A offers good explanatory value. For instance, if we say it is a natural law all planets move in ellipses, there is as sense in which this is a metaphysical claim (since we can observe the planets but not the law in itself). We accept it as true because it has many true implications, no important false implications, excellent predictive value, and no stronger rivals.
The word “Philosophy” literally means love of wisdom, so one answer might be questions asked strictly out of the love of wisdom or knowledge –questions whose primary purpose is not one of practical utility. I don’t favor this definition, however, because I believe philosophical questions have a lot of utility, although not always in an obvious manner.
Another definition is hinted at by Socrates, in Plato’s Phaedo, when he says that he studied science in his youth but found it inadequate because it only answered “how” questions and not “why” questions. Taking this as our guide, we might say that philosophical questions are those more concerned with “why” than with “how”.
I apologize for answering your question in this way –and I tried to find ways to avoid it, but it can’t be helped: It depends on what you mean by “exist”. It seems clear that the Internet doesn’t exist in the same way that a table or a person exists –at least until you try to figure out what the difference is.
The Internet is not a single, discrete physical object like a table –it is the collective name we assign both to a communications network between millions of computers, and to the information that flows over that network. Yet one might also argue that a table is merely a collective name for a diverse collection of millions of atoms arranged in a particular configuration.
The waters get even more muddied when one considers the tradition in philosophy, primarily associated with Plato, that says that everything we perceive as ordinary reality is only a pale reflection of a truer and deeper level of existence. From that point of view, it would be hard to say whether the Internet, as a largely conceptual entity, might not have a better claim to existence than the table.
1) We must always be careful to distinguish between arguments that are valid and those that are sound. A valid deductive argument has the proper logical structure (where true premises guarantee a true conclusion) but that is of little use if the premises themselves are false or unsure. Your expanded version of this argument is indeed valid, but the hidden premise cannot possibly be true (since human fallibility is unavoidable), so the argument is still unsound.
2) Your fallacy is the assumption that untrustworthy information is always wrong. In some ways reliably wrong information could be nearly as useful as reliably right information –it would at least enable the ruling out of some possibilities. In this case, Person A is biased therefore his information is not reliably right –but it is not reliably wrong either. Therefore, his opinion tells us nothing about the rightness of his position.
3) As we’ve discussed before, formal deductive logic is an artificial system designed to extend and improve upon (and theoretically to perfect) the conclusions reached by raw human intuitions (while inductive logic might perhaps be described as the mid-ground between the two). The tendency to confuse the rules of logic with the intuitions that inspired them does indeed have psychological and sociological aspects –but the same could be said for nearly all human practices.
The term phenomenology means the study of phenomena, where phenomena means observable experience. The chief difference between phenomenology and empiricism (which also studies observable experience) is that phenomenology tends to focus on subjective, first-person experiences of the world, whereas empiricism aspires to create an objective, third-person experience of the world.
The “existence” in Existentialism, on the other hand, comes from the idea that “existence precedes essence,” where an object’s essence is viewed as a set of indispensable defining characteristics common to all such objects. A chair, essentially speaking, is a four-legged object that people sit upon; a mirror is essentially an object that casts a reflection. The existentialist claim is that human beings have no such essence. We, as human beings, create our own self-definitions through freely willed actions. We cannot be predefined, our essences are not predetermined, but created in each new moment through the acts that compose our existence.
What the two movements have in common is a radical emphasis on the first-person perspective, which helped the Phenomenology of thinkers such as Heidegger and Husserl to become a major influence on the familiar French Existentialism of Sartre and Camus. Rather than saying that the two philosophies synthesize well with each other, therefore, it might be more accurate to say that the most familiar form of existentialism is itself a synthesis of the first-person perspective of phenomenology with the will-driven radical freedom of thinkers such as Kierkegaard and Nietzsche.
This is a terrific question. Historically, the dominant picture of morality was once one of absolutes. Things were considered either right or wrong, generally by divine decree, with little or no ambiguity. The main thing that changed this conception was a growing awareness that different societies –or the same society in different eras– have had very different moral standards. As an example, I am a Christian, and thus part of a moral tradition that extends back to the ancient Israelites. Yet some of my moral convictions (such as my affirmation of pacifism) are diametrically opposed to some of theirs (i.e. their warlike tendencies).
The recognition that moral judgments change with time and vary from place to place led to moral relativism, the idea that all moral judgments are subjective and contextual. At most, so the reasoning ran, one could be evaluated by his or her own moral standards and convictions. This too, however, seems wrong. Infanticide, cannibalism and slavery have been practiced in many times and places, yet we would hesitate to call them right, even for their own contexts. Similarly there are virtues –generosity, compassion, honor –that seem worthy of universal affirmation.
Observations of this nature led to a third approach to morality, often called the “perennial philosophy”, the idea that there are common moral principles affirmed in all great philosophies, regardless of time and place –such as the “Golden Rule” (“do unto others as you would have them do unto you”), variants of which are found worldwide. The problem with this idea, however, is threefold. First, there is no clear and uncontroversial way of establishing what actually belongs in the perennial philosophy; second, there is a danger of ending up with a washed-out “consensus morality” that offers no real guidance beyond base intuitions; and third, it seems to preclude all possibility of moral progress –the concept that our morals can get better with time.
My own opinion on the matter is that there are both objective and subjective aspects to morality. I think, objectively speaking, that each entity (such as a person or an animal) and each collective (such as a society, a culture, a species) has a “responsibility” to express its own unique existence, yet no less of a responsibility to promote the interests of all other denizens of the universe. From this kind of standpoint, we can even evaluate the morality of creatures very different from ourselves –judging (for example) a mitochondrion, which supports the functioning of almost all earthly life, as morally superior to a virus, which promotes its own interests at the expense of its hosts.
From a subjective point of view, however, it is clear that there is an ample amount of ambiguity and context-dependence inherent in evaluating even these simple criteria. What is the proper balance between self and society, between one’s own interests and the interests of the universe? And how can one know what serves the interests of the universe in the first place?
It is here, I believe, that religion reenters the picture. Religion –with its connection to the infinite –is what gives us the ability to navigate moral issues with confidence. Yet even faith in an unchanging deity does not mean that human societies, which exist in a changing and evolving world, might not experience changing answers to deep moral questions.
First, I would like to congratulate you for asking, essentially, “What is the meaning of life?” Far too many people live their entire lives without ever questioning the choices they choose and the decisions they make.
In my view, there are three basic sources of meaning: Personal, Social and Universal. We’ll tackle social first, since it’s the most straightforward.
I – SOCIAL:
The way to live a meaningful life in a social context is to help other people, and there are six or seven major avenues I would recommend to pursue this:
- The Environment – this may be the most important question for all of us right now. How can we save the environment before it is too late? I would note that engineering might be a good pathway towards this issue –in terms of creating cleaner technologies, or new ways to deal with pollution.
- Peace – We need to stop killing each other. People have been working on this for thousands of years, but that doesn’t mean that it’s insoluble or that we should give up.
- Health Care – Many people around the world are dying from preventable diseases. If you’re interested in medicine, your background in biology could feed into this.
- Poverty and Social Justice – We live in a world where some people are incredibly wealthy and others live in abject misery. No matter where in the world you live, there are simple direct things you can do to help make life better for the poor of your community.
- Music or the Arts – The world can always use somebody who brings a little more beauty into the world.
- Education and Mentoring – Even if you’re not enthusiastic about your own education, you might feel better about passing some of it on to a younger generation. When we teach or mentor those younger than ourselves, we shape the future.
II – Personal
For some people, the standard modern human narrative of get educated, get a job, support and raise a family is enough, for others it is not. Particularly in college, many people discover they have lived their entire lives by the decisions of someone else. In my view, we all have limited lifespans and none of us knows he or she will be alive tomorrow, so I think we all have a right to pursue our own destinies –given that we are not harming or exploiting others. No one has the right to force you to live the life they want you to live.
That said, simply abandoning the things you are involved in now is not going to make you any happier. You need to figure out what you want first, and pursue it second. I recommend the following: First, buy two small blank journals. For the next several months, make a point of trying to remember all your dreams, and to write them down in one of the books as soon as you wake up. Feel free to add pictures or whatever else will help make the dreams more vivid to you. In the other book, write your best and boldest daydreams about life –and also your biggest and most secret fears. Set aside some time every day to meditate on these two books and they will eventually tell you who you are and what you want.
III – Universal
This is the big hard question –what is the meaning of life in the most universal sense. Why are we here? For me as a Christian, I take my answers largely from my faith. If you come from a religious tradition, you might study the holy books of your own faith for some answers. If not, you might try reading some of the great works of religion and philosophy of the world. Personally, I recommend Plato, the Tao Te Ching, Ecclesiastes and the New Testament from the Bible, Kierkegaard and the writings of the Sufi mystics as good places to start.
Good luck to you. You may find that you are a philosopher –one driven by nature to search for meaning.