Jach's personal blog

(Largely containing a mind-dump to myselves: past, present, and future)
Current favorite quote: "Supposedly smart people are weirdly ignorant of Bayes' Rule." William B Vogt, 2010

What is philosophy?

Philosophy, in the broadest sense, is the branch of human thought concerned with asking questions and then pondering more than one possible answer. This distinguishes philosophy from naval-gazing, which is just about asking questions, and from religion, which tends to ponder one and only one possible answer to its central questions.

The types of questions, and through discussions on answers, lead to various sub branches of philosophy, and when certain answers are agreed upon for the moment, then those answers can lead to math, science, and other fields of thought.

For example, questioning what is truth, and what makes something true, can lead to first order logic. From there, math can be derived by making clear definitions, declaring axioms and rules of proof, and seeing what you find. You might wonder if mathematicians are like religious followers when they say that 2+2 can only be 4. But mathematicians can ponder another solution. This ends up with them simply showing a contradiction with some other thing they believe in. So either that thing is false too (or at least not the only answer), which they can consider (and develop non-Euclidean geometry for instance) or they've shown that so far there still seems to just be one correct answer for 2+2 and many incorrect ones. Serious religious people don't tend to ponder possible answers outside their own doctrine, even if they would judge those other possible answers are incorrect.

Classic philosophy like from Greece or China was centered around two big questions: how an individual should live a good happy life, and how people should be ruled. The first of these is something every man can consider, because it's a very individual question. And there are lots of philosophical frameworks to choose from. Taoism, Confucianism, Stoicism, Objectivism, Humanism... One can pick and read any of these and decide to live by them, becoming little different from a religion adherent, but that may well be fine as not everyone needs to do philosophy. Doing philosophy you can't simply pick a static framework and live it, you need to continually question things.

Other branches of philosophy deal with even more fundamental questions, unfortunately these branches seem less accessible to the common man. The question of "why should one even want to live a good happy life?" is valid and can have huge discussions. Even definitional questions like "what is 'should'?", "what is 'good'?" can be productive. But there are many layers of abstraction that get added, and not all can follow arguments.

Philosophy gets a bad rap because of three things. One is people treating its output as doctrine, just like a religion, and following it without much question. The second is so much of modern philosophy is of the kind that requires a high IQ to follow, and rarely ends up being applicable to anyone's day-to-day anyway. The third is that doing philosophy can be easy, it's just asking questions and thinking about answers, and there's no guarantee of rigor like for math. All three of these things will piss off different kinds of people. But it's important to remember that this is just part of what philosophy is. The solution isn't to write off philosophy, good luck anyway, but to be discerning of quality and practice doing philosophy yourself. Why? That's a whole other philosophical discussion.

Posted on 2017-07-29 by Jach

Tags: philosophy


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