Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Monday, January 19, 2015

What Good is Philosophy?

It would be a wonderful thing if philosophy could give us clear and unambiguous answers to all the questions we have about ourselves and the world in which we live. But this is not the way it works. Philosophy cannot give us those clear and indisputable answers because the human mind itself is incapable of providing us that information. Why not? What's the problem? Well, the problem, as Descartes demonstrated, is that the human mind is incapable of giving us absolute certainty about anything because every thought which the mind can hold is capable of being doubted. It is a curious property of human intelligence that our mind generates questions about all of the mental objects (ideas) which we hold, and at the same time, will generate doubts or questions regarding the reliability of those ideas. In other words, the mind both generates and negates the ideas we have. Everything which can be doubted is subject to that peculiar quality of being both real ("true") and unreal ("false"). The only fact which Descartes found which cannot be doubted is our own existence. We are not even sure what the "our" part of that statement refers to. Our own identity is contingent upon other facts which need the support of external proof. This is the essential problem of philosophy: to separate what we know for certain from what we do not know for certain. And it turns out that there is damn little information (or "facts") that we know for certain. Hume did not invent this situation; he merely commented upon it.

As Hume says, the "self" which we take for granted is nothing more than a bundle of perceptions in the mind. We'd like to believe that something substantial is behind human consciousness, but when we examine it closely we can't find anything but a bundle of nerves which convey electrical impulses from one part of the brain to another. We are thinking machines. But is that all we are? Does human consciousness completely disappear when the electricity is turned off. This is one of those deep questions that only theologians and philosophers worry about. It is disturbing to think that human consciousness is nothing but a program running inside the brain (computer) in our heads.

What about soul? Does anything endure or survive our biological death? Are we composed of just matter or is there something else (soul, spirit, mystical energy)? Science today is incapable of answering that question with the tools at its disposal. But philosophy doesn't require the same body of evidence as does science. It is perfectly ok to speculate about what might be possible or what might be true. Philosophy has an entire branch of metaphysics devoted to the art of speculation, as does theology. The only rule that philosophy observes is that one should be entirely rational and honest in one's adventures of the mind. In other words, you should not be guided by emotions or prejudice in your quest for knowledge. The only thing that Descartes believed could not be doubted was our own mind. Hume refers to this "mind" as a bundle of perceptions. As a result of his own epistemological journey, Descartes provided us with one basic rule for exploring the unknown: everything (but our own existence) should be open to doubt.

So, Hume is following his own speculations about what seems true or plausible.  Doubting the contents of your own mind is risky business. For some, that path leads to madness. But philosophy was never intended for everyone. Just for those of us who want to think, even if thinking sometimes requires us to go to unfamiliar places.


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