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.


The End of (Western) Civilisation

English: Is this really 'the end of civilisati...
English: Is this really ‘the end of civilisation?’ The Worcestershire/Gloucestershire county boundary on the B4280. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In much of the world capitalism holds sway and there is no denying that, as an economic and social system) it has benefited humanity to a great extent. It has built the great global technological empires that give residents in “western” societies all the consumer goods that we enjoy.

It has provided well for its citizens in general with the standard of living in western societies being the envy of other people in other nations, to the extent that they strive to move to western societies even if their homelands are not embroiled in war and tyranny.

Monument to the fallen in the fight against fa...
Monument to the fallen in the fight against fascism and capitalism in the centre of village Skravena, Bulgaria. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

But capitalism has its faults, and to some extent it can be likened to a car without brakes. A car without brakes is still driveable, and it is still steerable and can stay on the road until it hits a downhill stretch. Then the driver cannot control the car as it gets faster and faster down the hill and the inevitable will eventually occur.

Capitalism tends to vest power in the businesses and organisations that benefit from it. It tends to concentrate the capital from which it gets its name, of course, in a few individuals and while it benefits most people, there are small but growing number who slide to the bottom of the heap for one reason or another.

Poor people in Tirana, Albania
Poor people in Tirana, Albania (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The people at the bottom of the heap are not totally without the benefits of the capitalist system. They mostly have televisions for example, which would have been considered a luxury a few decades ago.

However, they often have difficulty with food, accommodation, schooling and medicine. Any jobs that they get will be generally low skilled and low paid. They may even have to work two or more jobs just to get by.

English: Health Care Português: Saúde Pública
English: Health Care Português: Saúde Pública (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In many western societies houses are becoming more expensive, as measured against family incomes. As houses of their own are out reach for them, they generally rent their accommodation, either from the state or private landlords. Even then they feel the effects of rising house prices in their rent, and often they are forced to rent houses which have serious defects, like damp and mould.

Landlords are of course subject to the capitalism system and are reluctant to spend much money on repairs and so on, as any such expenditure comes out of their pockets. Houses that they let out are often allowed to deteriorate badly.

Poor coastal housing at Hanuabada in Port Moresby2
Poor coastal housing at Hanuabada in Port Moresby2 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For those at the bottom of the heap, schooling may be an issue. While the state provides schools, not all schools are the same. A school in an upmarket suburb is almost always better resourced and has better teachers than a school in a poorer area. It’s no surprise, then, when the upmarket schools perform better in terms of qualifications achieved by the pupils.

Access to medical care is often a problem for those at the bottom of the heap. If a trip to the doctor costs $50, as it may well do, then that is a big chunk out of the family budget, and any prescribed medicines will at to the burden. As people get older, they may no longer be able to work and yet this is the time in their lives that they may need medical care more often. In contrast, a people higher up the scale will be more able to pay to have hip operations and so on performed privately.

People at the top of the scale often look down on those at the bottom as being lazy benefit bludgers who are unwilling to work. This is in most cases untrue. The barriers to rising from poverty to plenty are many, and are in the main insurmountable for many.

The poor are not stupid in the main, though many may not be the brightest of people, and the chances of making it off the bottom rung of the ladder are off putting to many. There are always stories of people making it against the odds, as the saying goes, but in most ways those who succeed in rising up the scale merely reflect the odds.

999 out of a thousand triers will fail, regardless of drive and ambition. Many will therefore not bother. Even if they did try, they might raise the odds to 2 in a thousand, scarcely any better. It truly is a trap at the very bottom of the heap.

The capitalist system is not able to provide for people in their old age when they are unable to work too. One can put aside a portion of one’s income to help provide for old age but many do not bother, and even they do, the portion that they can put aside depends on their position of the scale of wealth. A poor person, living from hand to mouth, may have no income that he or she can put away for old age.

English: Beggar man and beggar woman conversing
English: Beggar man and beggar woman conversing (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Traditionally, at least in the last century or so, the state has helped out by providing a guaranteed income for old age in the shape of a pension. However this still has to be paid for and taxes are the way that it is usually done, which means that the richer people will pay for the poorer peoples’ pensions.

It has reached the state in many western societies that welfare, that is schooling, medicine and provision for old age is no longer affordable for society. This is a coming crisis that the current capitalist system cannot avert. It is not exaggeration that it may be the end of civilisation as we know it.

If the poor can no longer be sustained by the system, then stratification will definitely occur. The “have nots” who outnumber the “haves” will become jealous of them, and that may lead to actual conflict between the classes.

It is not an issue that can be addressed by merely changing the distribution, by effectively taking from the rich and giving to the poor, as this is unfair to those who are considered rich, and will be ineffective anyway, as it provides no incentive for the poor to provide for themselves.

But if nothing changes, things will get worse and worse until conflict, pestilence, famine and death spread in waves across the Earth. That is, unless we find a better, and fairer societal system.

The original Four Horsemen of Apocalypse. Pane...
The original Four Horsemen of Apocalypse. Panel from X-Factor #24. Art by Walt Simonson. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)