Philosophy does not exist in a vacuum

Johnny had a great post over at TheFireSermon regarding how we should approach the big philosophical questions. In a book he sites, there are two general kinds of approaches, both relating to a person’s temperament: tender minded and tough minded.

Those who are tender minded are, Intellectualistic, Idealistic, Optimistic, Religious, Free-Willist, Monistic, Dogmatical. The tough minded are, Sensationalistic, Materialistic, Pessimistic, Irreligious, Fatalistic, Pluralistic, Skeptical.

To me this is a great direction, and my interest would be to further break down the sources of a person’s temperament. Where does it come from? How is it formed? I have written about the dangerous of philosophical thinking before – not to say that thinking of this type is a bad thing, but to come right out and say that it is imperfect – it never occurs in a vacuum – void of all influences except logic and reason. When a person thinks, there is always a tremendous amount of presuppositions, emotions, personal history and experience, family tradition, and our own self-destructive nature as forces acting upon our thought processes. Philosophical thinking cannot exist in a controlled environment like a scientific experiment where all the variables are strictly monitored and controlled. How i think and believe one day depends on the sum total of my internal influences. A belief I hold today could change tomorrow. Simply by eating bad pizza could change the way I feel about someone on one day and not another. A laboratory can possibly be made into a controlled environment, but the scientist’s mind can never be. Science is not an exact science.

So what are some important concepts we can take away if this is true? Well, science, as it is practiced, is based in philosophy. If philosophy is no more than the art of finding truth, are not science and philosophy essentially the same? At some point, these two disciplines, although looking for the same thing, diverged. A philosophical truth is based on reason and logic. Scientific truth is based on if it can be measured and observed, or if it is related to something that can be measured or observed (such as taking a stance on a past event that cannot be measured or observed). But in the end, if something is observable, measurable, and repeatable, these concepts were based on the philosophic belief that these are reasonable and logical criteria for finding truth about the natural world.

So if the tools of science (reason and logic) have their roots in philosophy, and we have determined that philosophy is never used in a vacuum, we have a problem. Neither science or philosophy is practiced cleanly. There is always an agenda, emotion, family tradition, past experience, or our self-destructive nature in the way from clear and uncluttered thinking. Unless we want to deny pretty plain reality, we need to take philosophical systems and scientific theories with a gigantic grain of salt (not to mention religious systems, but that just goes without saying). There’s more going on behind the scenes than bare logic and reason.

So am I saying scientific laws are flawed? Are the fundamentals of mathematics incorrect? Does an apple fall down if you through it in the air? Does 1+1=2? Yes – they are flawed. It would be arrogant to say otherwise. Have we suddenly, in this century, finally found absolute reality, whereas mankind in the past was always wrong? Science and math, like all areas of study, is in flux. Theories, even laws, are created and thrown away. Right now most scientific laws are limited to behaving a certain way that greatly depends on size. Quantum Mechanics is throwing a monkey wrench into classical view of things. Many times it seems that intellectuals – both from a scientific or philosophical bent, will forgot the lessons of history in their own fields. Why can we be so arrogantly sure we are right today when everyone has been wrong before, even in our own field of study? In a thousand years from now, will not our current theories be defunct based on new observations and advances?

So what is the outcome of all this? Humility. My perspectives are not all correct, so I can never be arrogant about what I believe. I can never judge others who believe differently than I do as insane or stupid, because their beliefs are based on the same non-rational non-logical influences that mine are. In the end, humans are incapable of true reason and pure logic. Knowledge of this limitation in ourselves cannot enable us to overcome it, only reduce it slightly. We need to be humble about what we believe, and give other people a break.

Even Sam Harris, in his book The End of Faith, says that it is impossibly hard to achieve a high degree of consistency among the sheer number of beliefs we have inside our minds. Although a very insightful comment, Harris’ tone belies his belief in this – he comes across very arrogant about his own belief system as if it were rock-solid reality. This and other things he says allow us to read between the lines and see his true aim – he has an agenda which has little to do with finding truth, and like so many other cultural reformers that I do not respect (Dawkins to name one), will take the path of intellectual dishonesty to reach it, even if they do have good points. Those of us seeking truth will see right through them.

Even as a Christian, I applaud the atheists that I have met on the internet and those I’ve met in person who have a high degree of intellectual honesty – I have come to really appreciate them as people like myself really searching for truth – Asara, Johnny, and John Remy are three I am glad to have run into. 🙂 There are more of you out there that I haven’t mentioned, and more that come from other walks of life (Christian, agnostic, etc.) I hope to get to know you all better in the future! 🙂 We all need to remember to be humble in our pursuit of truth, and should encourage each other in this direction. For most, if not all of the people that come here, this is just a reminder and not a wake up call.

    5 Responses to “Philosophy does not exist in a vacuum”

    1. Mark

      Good article. You have given us a lot to consider, thank-you.

      Reply to this comment.
    2. Asara

      Good Post, Jonathan. I tend to agree with most of what you’ve said.

      A couple thoughts:

      -(This first point is largely irrelevant.) I never really thought of this attitude (always acknowledging the possible falsity of ones own deeply held beliefs and the possible validity of other beliefs that may seem blatantly incorrect) as humility. I suppose I’ve always thought that a humble attitude necessitated an object towards which humility is directed (being “humble before God”, for instance). I thought of humility as acknowledging ones own weaknesses in light of others’ strengths. I see the attitude you are describing here more as acknowledging ones own weaknesses along with others’ weaknesses (i.e. we are all human, therefore none of us can know anything). Probably both can be referred to as humility; I don’t know why it never occurred to me to view the latter as such.

      -How far should this idea be taken? Should we be humble about our humility (i.e. acknowledge the fact that humility could be the “wrong” attitude)? Is it arrogant to believe that humility should be used by all?

      Reply to this comment.
    3. Jonathan
      Author Comment

      Being humble about being humble? That’s a mind bender! 🙂

      Regarding your comments about the object of humility, I’m thinking you might be remembering the Micah verse:

      He has shown all you what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.
      Micah 6:7-9

      A good verse, to be sure. But in this verse, or even if you don’t believe in God at all, the object of humility is reality. We need to think of ourselves compared to reality. In reality, we are limited beings – with a limited ability to use reason and logic.

      Returning to your final thought about being humble about humility: to see if that is possible, it forces me to define humility. I guess I would define it as a conformity to the reality of my human limitations, and aligning the perception of myself and my beliefs to that reality.

      So then the question of whether humility could be the wrong attitude could be posed this way: Is a self-perception that conforms to reality of human limitation a bad thing? In other words, do you want to perceive yourself truthfully or do you want to deceive yourself?

      This is a tricky question, because if you are like me, you may perceive yourself too lowly (a low self-perception), so in a sense, toying with an arrogant attitude seems ‘healthy.’ But to me, human beings are very precious and very important, so I would not call this desire to raise my perception of myself to a new level to be arrogant, but to be an awaking to a more realistic perspective. So to see yourself as important and truly loved as God sees you, that is humility too.

      But this is how I think: to believe a lie is to mentally, physically, or emotionally imprison yourself in some way. A truly free person is one who knows the truth. Truth is not relative, it is synonymous to reality. I don’t want to believe myths or fairy tails or lies, I want to believe reality.  I want so badly to be free.

      Reply to this comment.
    4. Asara

      I’m not sure what specifically I was remembering when I referred to being “humble before God.” I did a search on this phrase just to see if that wording is actually even used in scripture anywhere. Many of the references are to The Book of Mormon. It’s probably one of those phrases that I heard repeatedly in church lessons without a specific reference. I like the Micah verse, though.

      “The object of humility is reality.” Hmm. I’ll have to ponder this one more.

      “So to see yourself as important and truly loved as God sees you, that is humility too.” An interesting conclusion.

      “Truth is not relative, it is synonymous to reality.” But what if reality itself is relative?

      Being humble about being humble is a mind bender indeed. I tend to turn ideas back on themselves until there is no sense to be made of anything. Then I look at the convolution I have created and conclude only that I know nothing.

      I agree with you that humility is not a bad thing, and you provide a good argument supporting this. But I wonder if the logic and reasoning used to conclude that a humble attitude is best are not also subject to the same human shortcomings you discussed earlier. Even with what seems to be a logical argument for criteria for a truth search leading to freedom, I find myself forced also to concede that even these criteria, including humility, may be incorrect because, like all other beliefs and what seem to be truths, fallible human logic is all their validity rests on.

      I neglected to reciprocate, as I had intended in my first comment on this post: I am glad to have run into you as well.

      Reply to this comment.
    5. Jonathan
      Author Comment

      “Even with what seems to be a logical argument for criteria for a truth search leading to freedom, I find myself forced also to concede that even these criteria, including humility, may be incorrect because, like all other beliefs and what seem to be truths, fallible human logic is all their validity rests on.”

      I agree! This was my conclusion as well. Back on a post on Johnny’s website, I repeated what you said pretty closely here. It appears that keeping an open mind on many beliefs is important – you can come up with beliefs about reality, but must be willing to be open-minded because we are all imperfect and limited in our understanding of reality, and are probably wrong more often then we are right. So how can imperfect human beings stumble onto real truth? Its possible we can discover truth on our own, but it seems more prudent to get some outside help. 🙂

      I guess my best understanding of reality is that it is by definition objective, not relative. Regardless of how I or anyone else perceives reality, it is what it is… LOL unless we are talking about the sub-atomic level and Quantum mechanics! (Dancing Wu-Li Masters? 🙂 )

      Reply to this comment.

Leave a Reply