Sunday, March 23, 2014

Intro to Philosophy Midterm: A Few Thoughts

1. On Philosophy--

Bertrand Russell states in “The Value of Philosophy” that philosophy is used for the sake of approximate knowledge; in his own words, it “aims primarily at knowledge.” However, knowledge based on certainties and facts is not the type to which he is referring. Russell explains that philosophy aims to better understand the unity and framework that holds sciences together. Its purpose is not to provide a definite answer or to reach some kind of resolution, but instead to make an attempt to understand the mysteries and causal forces that propel us through our human experience. My philosophical experience has most certainly confirmed this claim that Russell makes. In Plato’s “Apology: Defence of Socrates,” Socrates justifies his attempts to expose the “pretensions to knowledge” and ignorance of ‘knowledgeable’ individuals. By the mere act of questioning established knowledge (and perhaps rocking the existential boat), Socrates is put on trial and killed. The most important aspect of his philosophy was indeed this “questioning” (“Apology: Defence of Socrates” 23a). Socrates tried to teach his fellow Athenians that thinking critically and examining our systems of thought and belief serves our intellect better than arrogance on any subject matter. At first, this acknowledgement of uncertainty is something that frustrated me; now I see that the uncertainty is the very essence of philosophy. Socrates--the martyr--did his best to instill his passion for philosophy and thought in his contemporaries. David Hume made another compelling argument for the sake of philosophy in his discussion “Of Skepticism with Regard to the Senses.” Although he does not argue for philosophy on the whole, his perspective offers an important insight to our experience. The senses, Hume claims, are but tools to convey “impressions of very existences by a kind of fallacy and illusion.” The greater implication in his statement is that there are realms of consciousness or understanding that go beyond what we are able to perceive sensibly; there is a reality that our senses are only able to hint at. Enter PHILOSOPHY. It is a reasonable, logical, and ‘scientific’ approach to attempting to understand the meta-mind-reality we encounter with intellect, curiosity and consciousness. Even though philosophers must admit to ultimate uncertainty, it is the uncertainty that allows philosophy to evolve alongside our intellect. Philosophy allows us to critically examine our own pretensions to knowledge, and at least try to better understand the mysterious universe of experience in which we find ourselves wondering.  

2. On science--

Scientism is a belief or practice in which the authority of science is placed above that of philosophy, religion, morality, the arts, et cetera. David Armstrong supports this doctrine because he genuinely believes that science has a greater capacity for reaching intellectual consensus (Armstrong, “The Nature of Mind”). There is good reason for this. Armstrong argues, “The best clue we have to the nature of the mind is furnished by the discoveries and hypotheses of modern science…” Before any advancement in scientific methodology, and well before the establishment of a scientific community, “inquiry proceeded, as it were, in the dark.” According to Armstrong, science is the best way to achieve consensus on controversial ideas, and consensus is paramount to the formulation of an established truth or science. While religion or morality can alter human perception, science provides insight into the structure or fabric of the reality in which we exist. Because science is predicated on empirical data, observation, and repetition over time, it is better suited to establish a consensus on the nature of man and our experience. David Hume makes similar claims in his “Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding.” In section four, Hume explains that knowledge is based on prior experience or observation; knowledge of something is not realized until the event upon which the knowledge is predicated has occurred. To prove this fact, Hume argues the inability of one to determine the effect of a specific cause if he or she has not already experienced or observed it. One cannot make a decision (or predict the effect of any cause) based on knowledge “without the assistance of observation and experience.” It is this very principle, Hume claims, that has kept philosophers from remarking upon the “ultimate cause of any natural operation, or [showing] distinctly the action of that power, which produces any single effect in the universe.” This is a problem for science, but also for us philosophers. How are we to formulate even an approximate knowledge about anything if we have no prior understanding or experience of it?  Wesley Salmon examines this in “The Problem of Induction.” Salmon exposes the uniformity principle upon which most science is dependent. It is necessary scientifically to observe or experience a phenomenon in order for it to become knowledge, and to be accepted as established knowledge. However, this type of knowledge cannot be formed in regards to an unobserved fact or phenomenon—this is the problem of induction. Salmon asserts that there is no such thing as ‘knowledge’ when it comes to dealing with unobserved fact; this assumption that we make based on science and our experience is called ‘belief.’ Because accurate knowledge of an unobserved event or phenomenon is impossible to attain, it is impossible to ‘know’ with any certainty that one will experience a distinct or predictable outcome. This makes sense until we reexamine this statement from a scientific perspective. Induction and the assumption of uniformity (or that history will repeat itself) is highly problematic for science. Science depends on past experience and patterns that emerge from observed phenomena. Technically speaking, science is a pretense to knowledge. Even with scientific evidence to support a claim, science does not constitute knowledge. Science does its best to provide the evidence and reasoning for believing a ‘fact,’ but it does not constitute knowledge. Salmon comments, “A ‘science’ that consisted of no more than a mere summary of the results of direct observation would not deserve the name.” Given the circumstances and our human limitations to knowledge, I would wager that science is still our best bet towards understanding the nature of our experience. Science, even if compromised by the assumption of uniformity and plagued by the problem of induction, still offers us a better understanding of cause and effect, and similar past events. It would serve us philosophically and otherwise to admit and fully understand, though, that even science stems from ‘beliefs.’ In other words, we know even less than we thought!

3. On the existence of evil--

I would like to argue against the existence of evil. In “God, Evil and the Best of All Possible Worlds,” Gottfried Leibniz asserts that there is such a thing as a ‘necessary evil.’ Although he denies that God “chose poorly” by creating a world with evil in it, he explains that perhaps God created evil for the sake of a “greater good.” He references St. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, contending that it is perfectly understandable that an “imperfection in the part may be required for a greater perfection in the whole.” Now, I don’t wish to speak ill of the experience or opinions of Leibniz, but I would venture so far as to say that his conclusions about the purpose of evil and its presence in our experience depend on beliefs about God as a being, and about God’s intentions. Leibniz assumes that God is perfect, and therefore would create the perfect world—even if it meant there were suffering in it. By allowing for evil to exist, perhaps one fosters the creation or experience of ‘good’ in response to ‘evil.’ I believe there is something to be said about balance in the universe, though I am not convinced by his reasoning that evil is necessary for the existence of good, or a ‘greater good.’ Russell refutes the argument of design for the exact same reason Leibniz subscribed to it. In his “Argument from Design,” Russell attributes the apparent lack of design and existence of evil to the fact that there is not a perfect God responsible for the creation of our experience. Life evolves and does what it must to survive, and the resulting experience is judged as “evil.” Hume approximates my own stance on the existence of evil in his “Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion.” Philo, one of his characters, states that true nature is neither good nor evil, and that God (or whatever supreme being) is or would be indifferent to good and evil. Instead, Philo describes a natural state of balance, in which events occur that can be judged as “good” or “evil;” however to do so is simply choosing the way in which to relate to these events. Nature, as it exists naturally, is an ebb and flow of events. ‘Good’ and ‘evil’ are simply human reactions to the stimuli from one such event. Hume’s view (as expressed by Philo) seems to be the most congruent with objective experience, or what I would refer to as ‘reality.’ Evil and good are just ideas; they do not exist outside of the framework of a conscious, judgmental mind. Balance is another thing all together—“balance” is a better way of looking at the ups and downs of our experiences. In my opinion, no human acts unjustly based upon his or her individual experience; in fact, nothing in nature acts unjustly, or outside of what he or she is able to justify. But one conscious being might judge the acts of another as evil because of the way those actions affect others. I like to think of life as a pond into which stones are constantly thrown… A conscious, objective person would not judge the ripples as good or evil, but simply accept them for what they are, as they are. I would postulate that good and evil do not exist, but sensations and human reactions to stimuli do exist. It is the way we process these stimuli, and relate to each other and reality that shape our perception of “good” and “evil.”

4. On human identity--

Identity—“who we are”—is one profound topic. As far as my own identity is concerned, I have established a sense of ‘self,’ but I am not sure what it is that I am. A mind? A computer? A living organism, yet also a thinking organism? Over the course of our readings, there were several stances on identity worth mentioning, and I’d like to address those here. First, I would like to acknowledge Searle and his concept of intentionality. This force of will that we exert on our surroundings and others rules out the possibility that humans (or our minds) are simply machines. Searle argues that the human mind is comparable to a computer, and that a computer can in fact think. But we humans are not just computers; computers lack something that is natural to a human—“intentionality,” as Searle puts it. Even though a computer could be created to replicate processes of the human mind, and even though the cause-and-effect events in the mind could be duplicated, the “causal powers” of intentionality and our own distinct experiences are more responsible for our perceived identity. These causes of our experience go beyond programming, or what we might refer to as ‘instinct,’ or ‘human nature.’ It is intentionality and the very nature of choice that allows us to participate in the formation of an ‘identity.’ So, we are somewhat machine like in the sense that our minds have the capacity to compute and process information, but our identity seems to stem from something deeper than programming and input stimuli. Derek Parfit claims that identity is dependent upon psychological continuity and connectedness, though connectedness is most responsible for our “self-survival” or maintained sense of self. Our identity can change depending on our experience; Parfit uses Wiggins’ case to illustrate this point, and how connectedness is essential to defining our sense of self. If one experiences an event-stimulus in which some perceived aspect of the self is changed (either intentionally or reactively), the event is comparable to fission (Wiggins’ case). During this fission, whether the stimulus is internal or external, one may realize a disparity between the established identity and the resulting one. Maintaining a connection between these ‘different’ selves over the course of one’s experience is what shapes his or her sense of identity. Parfit emphasizes that this connectedness, or relation to oneself over time, is the essence of the identity that we experience. This self or identity is constantly undergoing fissions (and fusions arguably) that mold our perception of it; but maintaining the psychological connection from fission to fission is responsible for the “survival” of any one “self” of ours that we experience. This fact reveals the perpetual evolution of our individual self and identity, and allows us to see ourselves more objectively. This truth has played a fundamental role in my understanding of my own identity. Lastly, Descartes—a man after my own heart. Descartes ponders his true essence in his second Meditation dealing with the nature of the human mind. Descartes can come to terms with the fact that he is, but he has trouble deciphering the I in “I am.” He is able to deduce that he exists, and that he is something—“I am a thing that thinks,” he says. He spends a fair amount of time assessing ways in which he can prove the extent of his identity in relation to objects, thoughts and “imperfect” mental inspection. After all of this thought still, he arrives at his conclusion that by considering ways in which he is able to “grasp” a concept or physical object, he is able to better grasp and reveal to himself the nature of his own mind. Obviously, the nature of self and identity is complex, but Descartes reduces himself to nothing but his thoughts, and therein realizes his essence. “I think therefore I am.” In my humble philosophical opinion, there is no greater truth. We are conscious beings, capable of thought beyond what we perceive. We have the ability to think with an awareness about ourselves, and formulate relative opinions based on our own experience with this ‘self.’ This is the nature of our identity—our own thoughts and reactions to a ‘self’ that we exist as and simultaneously outside of. Because of our consciousness and self-awareness, we are able to comprehend that we are something…but the essence of “what we are,” this identity, is created, evolved, and simultaneously experienced in the whirlwind of our life experience. Are we our minds? Yes, but in addition to something else—the will, intentionality, consciousness, and desire to express “who we are”—these all play a part in the symphony of our identity. At least, I think. Descartes said in his infinite wisdom, “My mind enjoys wandering, and it won’t confine itself to the truth. I will therefore loosen the reins for now so that later, when the time is right, I will be able to control my mind more easily.”

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