The process of Philosophy

Philosophy & Poetry
Philosophy & Poetry (Photo credit: Lawrence OP)

Philosophy is a strange pastime. Scientists measure and weigh. Mathematicians wrangle axioms and logical steps. All other disciplines draw on these two fields, which are probably linked at deep level, but philosophy draws from nothing except thoughts and the philosopher’s view of the Universe.


Mathematics (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Well, that’s not completely accurate because philosophy has to be about something and the only something we have is the universe. But philosophy does not have to be about the universe as we know it. What if there was no such thing as electrical charge, or, the prudent philosopher thinks, what if there was no such thing as the thing we call electrical charge. At a more basic level, what is electrical charge.

Lichtenberg (Photo credit: caddymob)


Philosophers are always getting pushed back by scientists as scientists figure what they think is the case. If there is a scientific consensus on what comprises an electric charge then that question no longer interest philosophers to any great extent. Philosophers mentally travel through the lands marked “Here be dragons”.


Dragon from PSF D-270006.png
Dragon from PSF D-270006.png (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Philosophy is also interested in less “physical” things like ethics and morals, what comprises identity, predestination or free will, what can we know and what knowing is all about. How did the Universe come to exist, or more basically, why is there something rather than nothing?


If you look at this list it comprises extensions to or extrapolations from physics, psychology, physiology, medicine, biology, and other fields of science. Philosophy doesn’t use mathematics (usually), but it uses logical argument or should. It not (usually) built on axioms, so doesn’t have the rigid formality of mathematics.

Illustration of Plato's Allegory of the cave.
Illustration of Plato’s Allegory of the cave. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Philosophers are big users of metaphor, such as Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave”. A metaphor of the expansion of a balloon was used as a philosophical explanation of the expansion of the Universe discovered by Edwin Hubble. Philosophers also imagine physical machines which do not yet exist and which may never exist, such as the ‘teleporter’ which makes a material object at point A disappear and reappear at point B.

Star Trek - Enterprise D Transporter
Star Trek – Enterprise D Transporter (Photo credit: tkksummers)

Quantum physicists have teleported quantum information from one point to another, but this is not the same as teleporting atoms. So far as I can gather from the Wikipedia article, what is teleported is information about the state of an atom, so the same atoms must already be at point B before the teleportation event, and the event is a sort of imprinting on the target atoms. It sounds like the atoms at point A remain in situ, so it is more of a tele-duplication process really. However I don’t really understand the Wikipedia article so I may be wrong.

Diagram for quantum teleportation of a photon
Diagram for quantum teleportation of a photon (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The philosopher is not interested in the quantum nuts and bolts though. He or she would be interested in the process – is a person walks in to the teleporter at point A the same person as the person who walks out of the transporter at point B? Unless his actual atoms are transported by the process, which seems an unlikely implementation, the person at point A shares nothing with the person at point B except a configuration of a second set of atoms. Is the person at point A destroyed by the machine and recreated at point B? What if something goes wrong and the person at point A does not disappear when the button is pressed? Then we have two instances of the person. Which is the real instance?

Unknown Person
Unknown Person (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Notice that the philosopher takes a physical situation of travel from point A to point B and considers a special case, that of travelling between the two point without travelling the old slow way of travelling between all the intervening points and doing it quickly. There is no physics which can currently perform this task, but as usual, scientists are working to, one might say, fill in the gaps.

The Sci-Fi Fly!
The Sci-Fi Fly! (Photo credit: Carolyn Lehrke)

Many times the scientist is also a philosopher – he may have at the back of his mind the concept of teleportation when he creates his hypotheses and does his experiments, but he probably doesn’t concern himself with identity. That is still the realm of the philosopher at present, but if a teleportation device were ever created, it would stop being a philosophical matter, and become a matter of law and psychology and maybe some field that does not exist yet, just as the field of psychology did not exist at one time.

General Psychology
General Psychology (Photo credit: Psychology Pictures)

I’m trying to paint a picture of the area that a philosopher is interested in. If the whole of human knowledge is a planet, then physics and maths are part of the outer most layers of the atmosphere, the exosphere, and this merges with the depths of space are the domain of philosophy. At lower levels are things like chemistry, biology, psychology and other more applied sciences. Don’t look too closely at this analogy because I can see two or three things wrong with it, and I’m not even trying.

English: View of the crescent moon through the...
English: View of the crescent moon through the top of the earth’s atmosphere. Photographed above 21.5°N, 113.3°E. by International Space Station crew Expedition 13 over the South China Sea, just south of Macau (NASA image ID: ISS013-E-54329). Français : Photo des couches hautes de l’atmosphère terrestre. Polski: Zdjęcie górnych warstw atmosfery ziemskiej z widocznym przejściem w przestrzeń kosmiczną. Ελληνικά: Η Γήινη ατμόσφαιρα, η φωτογραφία ελήφθη από το διάστημα κι ύψος 335 χιλιόμετρα (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

But the main point I am making is that philosophy purposefully pokes and prods the areas beyond the domain of current mathematics and physics. Of course the line is not a definite line and there is a grey area. Some physical hypotheses verge into philosophy and some philosophical ideas are one step from becoming physical hypotheses. The suggestion that there be many universe like and unlike ours is one such suggestion that physicists are taking seriously these days.

2-step branching in many-worlds theory
2-step branching in many-worlds theory (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Many of these ideas are not new and many have been used in what has been called “science fiction” for many years, especially the parallel universe theory. Time travel is another common science fiction theme. Although these ideas are used and developed by authors of fiction, physicists have adopted such ideas to advance science, though I don’t mean to suggest that scientists have directly borrowed the ideas of science fiction authors. It is probable that many ideas actually travelled in the opposite direction, from science to fiction.

English: Minkowski diagram of the twin paradox.
English: Minkowski diagram of the twin paradox. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Since philosophy is at heart discursive and not rigidly analytical (in most cases), there is more freedom to expand on ideas that are not what is called “mainstream”. Because of this freedom it is likely that (like economists) no two philosophers will agree on anything, but they will have fun arguing about it.


The Argument Sketch
The Argument Sketch (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


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Why do things make sense?

Make it make sense
Make it make sense (Photo credit: edmittance)

Things pretty much make sense. If they don’t we feel that there is a reason that they don’t. We laughingly make up goblins and poltergeist to explain how the keys came to be in the location in which they are finally found, but we, mostly, have an underlying belief that there are good, physical reasons why they ended up there.

Things appear to get a little murkier at the level of the quantum, the incredibly small, but even there, I believe that scientists are looking for an explanation of the behaviour of things, no matter how bizarre. One of the concepts that appears to have to be abandoned is that of every day causality, although scientists appear to be replacing that concept with a more probabilistic version of  the concept of causality. But I’m not going to go there, as quantum physics has to be spelled out in mathematics or explained inaccurately using analogies. I note that there is still discussion about what quantum physics means.

English: Schrödinger equation of quantum mecha...
English: Schrödinger equation of quantum mechanics (1927). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We strive for meaning when we consider why things happen. When a stone is dropped it accelerates towards the earth. This is observation. We also observe the way in which it accelerates and Sir Isaac Newton, who would have known from his mathematics the equation which governed this acceleration, had the genius to realise that the mutual attraction of the earth and the stone followed an inverse square law and, even more importantly, that this applied to any two objects which have mass in the entire universe.

English: Mural, Balfour Avenue, Belfast Mural ...
English: Mural, Balfour Avenue, Belfast Mural on a gable wall on Balfour Avenue in Belfast (see also 978903). The mural “How can quantum gravity help explain the origin of the universe?” was created by artist Liam Gillick and is part of a series of contemporary art projects designed to alert people to the ‘10 remaining unanswered questions in science’ at public sites across Belfast. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So, that’s done. We know why stones fall and why the earth unmeasurably and unnoticeably jumps to meet it. It is all explained, or is it? Why should any two massy objects experience this attraction? Let’s call it ‘gravity’, shall we? How can we explain gravity?

Well, we could say that it is a consequence of the object having mass, or in other words, it is an intrinsic property of massy objects, which if you think about it, explains nothing, or we can talk about curvature of space, which is interesting, but again explains nothing.

Curved Spaces
Curved Spaces (Photo credit: Digitalnative)

Can you see where I am going with this? Every concept that we consider is either ‘just the way things are’ or requires explanation. Every explanation that we can think up either has to be taken as axiomatic or has to be explained further. Nevertheless most people act as if they believe that there is a logical explanation for things and  that things ultimately make sense.

It is possible that there is no logical explanation of things, and that the apparent relationships between things is an illusion. I once read a science fiction story where someone invented a time machine. Everywhere the machine stopped there was chaos, because there were no laws of nature and our little sliver of time was a mere statistical fluke. When they tried to return to the present they could not find it. This little story demonstrates that although we appear to live in a universe that is logical and there appears to be a structure to it, this may just be an illusion.

English: Illustration of the difference betwee...
English: Illustration of the difference between high statistical significance and statistical meaningfulness of time trends. See Wikipedia article “Statistical meaningfulness test” for more info (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If we do live in a logical universe we not be able to access and understand the basis and structure of it. We may see things “through a glass darkly”. We may be like the inhabitants of Plato’s Cave. Everything we experience we experience through our senses, so our experience of the world is already second-hand and for many purposes we use tools and instruments to view the world around us. Also, our sense impressions are filtered, modified and processed by our brains in the process of experiencing something. We can take prescribed or non-prescribed drugs which alter our view of the world. So how can we know anything about the universe.

Alternatively there may be order to the universe. There may be ‘laws of nature’ and we may be slowly discovering them. I like the analogy of the blanket – a blanket is held between us and the universe but we are able to poke holes in it. Each hole reveals a metaphoric pixel of information about what lies behind the blanket. Over the years, decades, centuries and millennia we have poked an astronomical number of holes in the blanket, so we have a good idea of the shape of what lies behind it.

Cámara estenopéica / Pinhole camera
Cámara estenopéica / Pinhole camera (Photo credit: RubioBuitrago)

So why do things make sense? Is it because there is a structure to the universe that we are either discovering or fooling ourselves into believing that we are discovering, or is there no structure whatsoever and any beliefs that there are illusions. Maybe there’s another possibility. Maybe the universe does have the structure but it is an ‘ad hoc’ structure with no inherent logic to it all!

Highly Illogical
Highly Illogical (Photo credit: Wikipedia)