What is philosophy for?

English: A cropped version of Antonio Ciseri's...

English: A cropped version of Antonio Ciseri’s depiction of Pontius Pilate presenting a scourged Christ to the people. See: Eccehomo1.jpg for full version. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What is truth?” Pilate asked of Jesus. Jesus had just asserted that he had come into the world to testify to the truth. Pilate used this to close off the conversation, as he knew that truth is exceedingly difficult to define, and that one man’s truth is another man’s falsehood.

We live in a world where politicians cite “alternative facts” to defend themselves when their statements are questioned. Hmm. This seems like a step on the road to fluid “truth” of the authorities in the book “1984”, but is more likely to be a scrambling attempt of the establishment to defend itself.

English: Donald Trump at a press conference an...

English: Donald Trump at a press conference announcing David Blaine’s latest feat in New York City at the Trump Tower. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Philosophy is a means of addressing Pilate’s question and many many others that do not fall into the realm of science or of mathematics. What is real and can we know it? Can we know anything? Is there a God, and if so, why does he permit evil into His universe?

These are questions which fall into the realm of philosophy, as do others about the meaning of science and mathematics, and questions of ethics and morals.

Raphael's "School of Athens"

Raphael’s “School of Athens” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Almost by definition, philosophical questions cannot be answered. The “What is truth?” one is a prime example. Will the sun rise tomorrow morning? Did the sun rise this morning? Is the sun risen at the moment? All of these questions can be pragmatically answered “Yes!” but probe a little deeper and the answer can appear less definite.

After all, we might remember the sun coming up this morning, but what if these are false memories. Or maybe what we see is a mere “virtual reality” fed directly to our brains. And just because the sun rose this morning, and the morning before, and so on, doesn’t mean that it will rise tomorrow. Maybe there is some as yet unknown physical event that will cause it not to rise. Maybe cause and effect are illusions and anything can happen.

Dark clouds below light ones at sun rise

Dark clouds below light ones at sun rise (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We nowadays separate science and philosophy, but this was not always so, and science was once termed “natural philosophy“. The ancient Greeks would have been termed philosophers, but they dealt with such questions as what everything is made of. Some of their suggestions would seem quaint today, but they did suggest the concept of atoms.

At the time there was no way that any of their hypotheses, such as the atomic hypothesis, could be tested and some of them even thought that testing them was a bad idea. They meta-hypothesised that everything could be deduced simply by thought. They needed no experiments!

English: Engraving depicting the Greek philoso...

English: Engraving depicting the Greek philosophers Hipparchia of Maroneia and Crates of Thebes. From the book Proefsteen van de Trou-ringh (Touchstone of the Wedding Ring) written by Jacob Cats. Hipparchia and Crates are depicted wearing 17th-century clothing. In the scene depicted, Crates is trying to dissuade Hipparchia from her affections for him by pointing to his head to show how ugly he is. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Atomic theory is now definitely in the realm of science. Biology too, and mathematics, though maths now has its own realm, apart from science. Anything that is in the realms of philosophy may find its way to the realm of science or maths.

What about things like ethics and morality? Surely these won’t ever move to the field of science? Well, maybe. I wouldn’t bet on it, though it may be a long time before there is an ethical Newton, a morality Einstein.

Sir Isaac Newton

Sir Isaac Newton (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Science has made great grabs in recent times for the fields of behaviourism and in studies of human consciousness. These have been until recently the domain of philosophers alone. In a way, it might be better if we did not understand the way that people and societies and human consciousness work, because understanding things is the first step to control things. Let’s hope that the ethical Newton and the morality Einstein arrive before we know how to scientifically control people and societies.

Philosophic pondering on the way things are tend to be wild and diverse. We tend to think of such hypotheses as the multiple worlds theories as new and cutting edge, but Professor Pangloss in Voltaire’s 1759 book “Candide” proclaims that “all is for the best” in this “best of all possible worlds”, which implies that there are, or could be, other worlds where things might be different.

This engraving is from Voltaire's Candide: it ...

This engraving is from Voltaire’s Candide: it depicts the scene where Candide and Cacambo see two monkeys apparently attacking two nude women. Candide kills the monkeys, then comes to believe the monkeys and women were actually lovers. The image may have been accompanied by the caption, “The two wanderers heard a few little cries”. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Of course, since there was no real divide between philosophy and science and maths in the early days, we can’t really say that science has taken over these philosophical topics, more that they have been hived off as science split from philosophy. Nevertheless, science is probing topics, such as the nature of reality, which definitely have a philosophical flavour to them. For instance, is the cat alive or dead, or maybe both?

The philosopher Zeno of Elea introduced some paradoxes which even today exercise the minds of philosophers and mathematicians. Basically, Zeno poses the question : How does one (or an arrow for that matter) move from point A to point B? There’s plenty on the Internet about these paradoxes, so I’m not going into them in detail, but essential the core of the problem is how to sum an infinite number of increasingly small intervals of space or time without the result becoming infinite.

English: The Zeno Paradox in portuguese. Deriv...

English: The Zeno Paradox in portuguese. Derivate work from Zeno Paradox de.PNG Português do Brasil: O Paradoxo de Zenão em português. Trabalho derivado de Zeno Paradox de.PNG. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Obviously Achilles does overtake the tortoise, the arrow does reach its target and it is possible to travel from A to B, but some people still think that science and maths have not yet solved these paradoxes, and there’s still a sliver of a problem for the philosophers. Arguments these days resolve more around whether the paradoxes have been resolved and therefore we can move from A to B, or are still in the realm of philosophers and therefore we cannot move from A to B!

When the Greek philosophers were thinking about atoms and what things are made of, there was no way to test the various theories out. When they were developing theories about the stars and other astronomical objects they had no way to test the theories out. However, eventually the “natural philosophers” like Newton, laid the basis for astronomical theories, and early chemists like Lavoisier laid the basis for the science of chemistry, which made use of the theory of atoms.

A scan of the first page of John Dalton's &quo...

A scan of the first page of John Dalton’s “A New System of Chemical Philosophy”, published in 1808. Please do not “update” the list with modern spellings. This is a historic list and the old spellings are intentional. Yes, it’s “carbone”, not “carbon”. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Philosophy exists because people like to ask questions like “What is beyond the end of the Universe?” or “If God made everything, who or what made God?” Or “How long is the hypotenuse of a right angled triangle with sides on one cm or one inch?” Or “Why is the ratio of the circumference to the diameter of a circle a fixed number and what is it?”

Philosophy exists to postulate parallel Universes, massive balls of fusing gas, and terrestrial planets complete with humans or maybe little green men. Its job is to wonder what lies beyond the bounds of science and what makes humans behave the way that they do, and whether or not God is dead. It is to ask the impossible questions. It is science’s job to prize these issues from the hands of the philosophers and answer them.

 

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