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.

 

Religion

Bulgarian orthodox Easter Eggs.
Bulgarian orthodox Easter Eggs. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

At a time like Easter it is common to ponder on one’s faith. Whether one is religious or considers religion to be a delusion and waste of time and effort, one almost certainly aware of the origins of Easter, if one lives in an even nominally Christian country.

One may feel disgust that a religious occasion has been hijacked by commercialism, even if one is not religious, but one may still tuck in to Hot Cross Buns and chocolate Easter Eggs, and even partake of a slice of Simnal Cake.

Kulichs (kulich is a kind of Easter cake, trad...
Kulichs (kulich is a kind of Easter cake, traditional in the Orthodox Christian faith) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Some people pride themselves on having no faith, maybe even declaring themselves to be atheists. I feel though, that deep down everyone has some foundation philosophy or beliefs that seem to them to be unquestionable and obvious, that are in fact part of their make up.

Some people think that religion is silly and obviously wrong. They forget that religion as a world view has a long and successful heritage that has enabled people, in the main, to get along, and survive, and cooperate with other people.

The Army of Super Creatures
The Army of Super Creatures (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It has, it is true, been blamed for a long list of atrocities as well (and still is, of course), but much of that is as a result of people’s’ usage of religion and not the idea of religion itself.

What is religion? It is the belief that the world is controlled and run by some supernatural being or beings, and that everything happens as a result of the aims and intervention of these supernatural being or beings.

English: "Hands of God", symbol of t...
English: “Hands of God”, symbol of the early ethnic religions of the Slavs and Vandals. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Before the invention of science, this would have seemed to be a reasonable theory. Of course, since we are only physical beings, we can only imagine why the supposed divine being causes things to happen that happen to us and to others.

And that’s what people do. In the absence of any other information, they imagine aims and objectives of the divine being or beings. The people who do the imagining are often called prophets or shamans or priests.

Retouched photograph of a shaman of the Ket pe...
Retouched photograph of a shaman of the Ket people. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Of course the shaman’s own people should be the ones favoured by deity, and of course they would be justified in all sorts underhand actions. All the people who did not belong to the shaman’s own people were obviously wrong or deluded and needed to be shown the error of their waves.

One might reasonably ask of the shaman, how does he know the wishes of the deity when the deity doesn’t converse with human beings. The shaman will have all sorts of esoteric methods for determining the wishes of the deity. Tossing bones, disemboweling chickens and taking various mind altering substances to enter trances.


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In many cases the shaman may believe that he is receiving instructions from the deity, though in some the shaman is possibly at least partly a pragmatic politician – it would career and life threatening to tell the tribal chieftain that he is going to lose the next challenge to his supremacy, or that the big tribe next door were going to conquer them.

Of course someone decided to write all the information about the tribe into a big book. Mostly the stuff written down was the history of the tribe and tall tales were OK, as it “proved” that the tribe was big and powerful and supported by the supreme being.

English: Title page of a 1830 copy of The Book...
English: Title page of a 1830 copy of The Book of Mormon: An Account Written by the Hand of Mormon upon Plates Taken from the Plates of Nephi (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Of course such and such a hero defeated 1,000 opponents single handed. How could he do otherwise with the deity on his side? The trouble with writing it down is that fixes the story. There is no scope for the shaman to, shall we say, ad lib.

Also included in the written down texts, handed down from the aural tradition were the rules that the people had to adhere to, and the punishments handed out. Or supposedly handed out. As a punishment for a transgression some ancient person was put to death, but to deter others the punishment was supposedly horrific. And this punishment was enshrined in the holy text, so it became the official punishment.

English: Type of contracts at sharia law
English: Type of contracts at sharia law (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As religion got institutionalised, it was used to justify wars and genocides and other atrocities, and still is to this day. One of the issues with religions and religious books is that things happened in the past and stuff got written to the books, and only a tenuous link between the two. There probably was a king called David, and he probably did some of the things attributed to him, but it is unlikely that the Bible gives an accurate description of his reign.

There is a philosophical problem with the idea of supernatural beings anyway. The only way that we can conceive of such entities is by giving them physical and human attributes – the supreme being is usually male for example. Generally the supernatural being is paternal and judgemental, and favours one particular set of people over others.

Although the Norse god Freyr functions as Hraf...
Although the Norse god Freyr functions as Hrafnkell’s patron deity, the saga contains few supernatural elements (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

To influence matters in the physical universe a supernatural being would need to manifest itself in physical ways. The problem is that a supernatural being is, by definition, non-physical and therefore cannot affect the physical world.

Some people have considered this issue and suggested that the supernatural being merely set up the universe and its laws in the beginning and has had no input since. While that removes the initial problem of the physical/supernatural interaction, it doesn’t address the physical question of how the universe was set up in the first place. It merely pushes the issue back beyond the Big Bang.


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Besides, many religions would be uncomfortable with a deity who merely set things up and then stepped away. Where would they get their laws and stories from? They’d have to make them up!

That’s the problem. Even if somehow the supernatural being’s wishes came to be embedded in a book (or even an aural tradition) someone has to read the book and interpret the words (as originally, the man in the street would not have been able to read) and for any number of reasons, the reader might, probably unconsciously, interpret the words in a way favourable to his biasses.

Setting aside (ordination) as readers of semin...
Setting aside (ordination) as readers of seminary students in Russia (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

And that might be the start of a crusade, and it’s difficult to conceive of a supernatural being who would favour people killing one another in its name. But the get out clause is that we can never understand the aims of such a being, should there be one, and this may be what the supernatural being needs to happen.

Captioned as "Balder und Nanna". The...
Captioned as “Balder und Nanna”. The god Baldr and his wife Nanna. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

 

Weather or not.

English: Cliffs of Moher - Inclement weather a...
English: Cliffs of Moher – Inclement weather again! (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

(One day late again – this is becoming annoying!)

The human race probably evolved language for the single purpose of being able to discuss the weather. It’s one of the first things that people learn about when learning a foreign language. Obviously, when language had been evolved, the human race found other uses for the facility.

Weather would have been very important for early man, as it would be next to impossible to hunt animals in a downpour as rain washes out tracks and scents and makes the task of getting from point A to point B difficult in itself. Heavy rain cuts off hunters from possible hunting grounds.

English: Forest track in spruce plantation I s...
English: Forest track in spruce plantation I suspect this would look bleak regardless of the weather, but mist and heavy rain certainly doesn’t help. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Visibility is also reduced by rain making location and tracking of prey difficult. Also, prey hunkers down in inclement weather, hiding away in inaccessible dens, or perching in inaccessible trees.

When early man developed techniques of agriculture, he would have been aware that his crops were dependant on the weather. Too much rain might cause the crops to rot in the ground or not develop properly, while too little rain (and more sun) would dry out and kill the crops and prevent them from fruiting.

English: This is a Tsuga canadensis in zone 6 ...
English: This is a Tsuga canadensis in zone 6 that may be suffering from early drought. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The early farmer would have had to consider carefully where to plant his crops. It would not be a good idea to plant crops in area prone to flooding (unless the plant, like rice needs flooding, during its development). It would also not be a good idea to plant the crops too far from water, so that watering them would not be too onerous.

Being able to predict the weather would enable the early farmer to take actions to look after his crops. The ancient Egyptians, one of the first societies of whose agriculture we have some knowledge, lived in the Nile basin and took advantage of the annual floods, and developed a complex system of irrigation. This led the Egyptians to develop mathematics, astronomy, and other sciences in order to predict when the floods were likely to happen.

Arguably the need to predict the weather had a lot to do with the fact that the Egyptians developed civilisation in the first place. Arguably the rise of civilisation goes hand in hand with such developments of science and technology.

Predicting the Nile floods is prediction of the weather on a long time scale, and it is likely that the floods could be a little earlier or a little later than predictions. Such large scale weather patterns are both easier and harder to predict than smaller scale weather patterns, because the floods would come sooner or later in most years, but the extent of the floods would likely vary from year to year.


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Since the exact timing of the floods and the extent of the flooding was not predictable, it was almost inevitable that the ancient Egyptians looked for supernatural guidance, and religion became associated with agriculture, and this appears to be a general rule. In a culture, supernatural beings, gods, are associated with agriculture, often a pantheon of them.

As part of the tasks associated with agriculture, the gods were considered to be responsible for the weather both short and long term. Interestingly while the gods were supposed to be responsible for the weather, this did not stop enquiring minds looking for the mechanisms of the weather, how the gods worked, so to speak.


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We know a great deal more about the weather and how it happens, now. Science has moved on a great deal and we have discovered more and more about how the gods create and manage the weather, to the extent that we have taken the task away from them and given it to the scientists. I’m not debating religion per se, but some people think that we have taken everything away from the gods, removing their very necessity of being.

If forced into a corner and asked for my opinion, I’d probably agree, but there is something comforting to many people in the concept of gods or a God, and billions of people express a belief in a deity or deities, or some other supernatural influence. This may be something that we will leave behind as the human race matures, we can’t tell. It may be that science, with its laws, theories and predictions is just the latest in a succession of descriptions of the world, and may itself be ultimately seen as a simple rationalisation of what we see around us.

English: "The ancient Egyptians were accu...
English: “The ancient Egyptians were accustomed to appease the god of the Nile and induce him to bestow a bountiful inundation by throwing as a sacrifice into its sacred water a beautiful virgin.” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It appears that the weather is getting wilder. Scorching temperatures are measured in some places, while other places are in the grip of freezing temperatures. Storms are continually being labelled the biggest in so many years. Flood protection schemes are being overwhelmed. Crippling droughts have hit many countries and ice is reportedly retreating in the Arctic and Antarctic.

This is, for good reasons, labelled global warming and the temperatures do seem to be rising all over the globe. I’m aware that controversy surrounds the whole topic, with allegations of bad science, conspiracy, and manipulation of data on both sides of the “debate”.

Temperature predictions from some climate mode...
Temperature predictions from some climate models assuming the SRES A2 emissions scenario. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The trouble with the global warming discussion is around the time scales involved and the rates of temperature rise. The period of time when we have reliable temperature measurements doesn’t go back very far, and the temperature rise is small and difficult to measure.

Those opposed to the idea of global warming point out that while measured temperatures may have risen slightly, if there is any rise it could be explained by natural changes unrelated to human activities, such as variations in the output of the sun, and that in any case, the data is insufficient to show any upward trend at all.


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Those in favour of the idea, counter that with the claim that the temperature rise is real and that the fact that it has risen in such a short time is a concern, and that action is essential.

It may never be formally decided. As we get better at predicting the weather it may turn out that the models which fit the data may solve the problem, and that one or the other side in the debate will fade away. As in the debate on evolution, the opposition to which gradually faded in favour of Darwin’s theories as time passed, I believe the same is likely to happen in the global warming debate.

English: Human evolution scheme
English: Human evolution scheme (Photo credit: Wikipedia)