(N.B.C.) My philosophy of philosophy

By Anthony Zheng

 

I am ill-read in philosophy: famous philosophers are merely strangers midst the crowd and I am not learned in conventional philosophical discourse. But I, like so many around us, subscribe to a personal contemplation of the world in earnest.

 

Thus, philosophy seems to be a universal pursuit rather than its stereotype of niche academia. Bearing in mind that words tend to capture subjective thought, my attempt at defining philosophy would be: ‘reflection, with the purpose of seeking wisdom’. To me, philosophy is universal, because it is human nature to reflect – to think back, to think forward, to appraise, to explore.

 

Although philosophers have no doubt sought universal wisdoms, under this line of thought, philosophy is, more or less, subjective. My sentiment is that there are over six billion free minds, influenced by over six billion unique personalities and unique experiences and that each of us, given adequate time, will decide on our own versions of what we think life is (or should be) and on beliefs we deem most enlightened.

 

This is not to deny the actual existence of universal wisdom or truth (a topic which I’m sure invites much debate), but simply to say that I feel convinced that philosophical activity is essentially personal: for as human beings lack omniscience, but possess sufficient free thought, all wisdoms we attain, be it from our private deliberations or from discourse or literature, must inevitably be processed by our unique, personal perspectives.

 

Therefore, as I agree that you might disagree, this present piece of writing is, in intent and purpose, merely reflective writing, personal and unassuming. Of course, ‘personal’ does not mean private and ‘reflective’ is certainly not an excuse to displace vigorous logic with biased assertions, but merely that perhaps equations like 1+1=2 cannot be written for life, especially not in isolation of a thorough consideration of human differences, personalities and emotion.

 

A sudden thought I had in the shower last night was that, figuratively speaking, the equations we’ve ever managed to write about life are most often along the lines of 0.999…=1. Person A would cite a valid mathematical proof to demonstrate that 0.999… is exactly equal to 1, but person B would disagree, citing that the result is evidently counter-intuitive (as in this scenario), or otherwise, for one reason or another, wrong. Perhaps a more intelligent being might be able to dismantle our 0.999…=1 argument, pointing out some logical flaw that our minds are too limited to discern. Or maybe the aforementioned human variables are necessary considerations.

 

I cannot find words adequate to capture the essence of my intermingling thoughts into a summary, but I feel breath-stealing awe at the sheer diversity of humanity and inspired by our seemingly united pursuit for wisdom…and I wonder if humility is the key, as we connect with one another in our quests to understand this life before it fades over the horizon.

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16 responses to “(N.B.C.) My philosophy of philosophy

  1. To start 3 axioms.
    1. Human nature exists. It’s not just nurture.
    2. Human nature is not a point, but a normal distribution.
    3. Human nature is extremely plastic (changeable), but not infinitely so. (people can change).

    So though we differ, we MAY differ alot on a few dimensions of humanity, averaged across all dimensions see do not differ much at all.

    Ask yourself: who is the subjective, personal observer that introspects, observes, learns, experiences? What ever it is, it is very similar to instrument we all use to introspect, observe, learn, and experience.

    In short: man is not an island. You are not an unique individual snowflake. You are the all-singing, all-dancing crap of the world.

  2. Of course 0.999… =/= 1.
    0.999… + 0.000…1 = 1.

    Some people argue that 0.000…1 isn’t a real number because you’ll never get to the 1 on the end, so it’s just 0. But, that’s not my philosophy.

    I think philosophy always involves some earnest attempt at reasoning. It doesn’t always matter that our attempts at finding universal truths may be endlessly hampered by our inability (being human; not the universe) to escape subjectiveness.

    Consider the existentialists – they say life is about finding ‘the truth for me.’ There is a story about a man who has been shot by a poisoned arrow: he does not care that 1+1=2; he cares whether the arrow may kill him!

    It strikes me that since Pontius Pilate asked Jesus “What is truth?” people haven’t agreed on an answer yet. But it’s not like they, as individuals, don’t know what they’re looking for.

  3. Hi Kai,

    I’m not sure that your comment serves well as a counter-argument (if it is one)! I very much agree with the three axioms:

    1) Human nature definitely exists – I’ve even referred to it and talked about it in my above blog. If human nature did not exist, philosophy would be meaningless. But nurture complicates things, no? We don’t always factor in nurture into our ideas about the world – something I said we should do more of!

    2) Of course! How can I believe in subjectivity if humanity was just a ‘point’? And the thing with normal distributions is that no two points (people) on the graph are the same, hence forming a curve! So I DO believe that we’re all unique snowflakes – just because they say otherwise in a movie (albeit a good movie) doesn’t make it correct. And just because we’re snowflakes doesn’t mean we’re lone snowflakes – we are not an island because there are snowflakes all around us; if things heat up between two snowflakes, they can even melt into one another. =)

    3) The fact that people change goes back to the idea of nurture. Even more reason to factor in experience and context.

    But really, if you look closely, the reflections in my blog and the 3 axioms you stated are mostly mutually exclusive.

    Hi Daniel,

    I’m not sure if you’ve come across this before, but here is the proof that 0.999… = 1:
    Let x = 0.999…
    Thus, 10x = 9.999…
    Therefore, 9x = 9
    And so x = 1
    Isn’t it amazing how this contrasts against your reasoning that 0.999…=/=1!
    I agree with what you’ve written.
    And I can’t say for sure what I’m looking for in this life either! At least not yet…

    Regards,

    Anthony

  4. Forget the axioms, they are something I’ve been thinking about but simply best ignored here. Sorry about that. My shoddy post was supposed to be a response to this this paragraph:

    This is not to deny the actual existence of universal wisdom or truth (a topic which I’m sure invites much debate), but simply to say that I feel convinced that philosophical activity is essentially personal: for as human beings lack omniscience, but possess sufficient free thought, all wisdoms we attain, be it from our private deliberations or from discourse or literature, must inevitably be processed by our unique, personal perspectives.

    I guess I don’t feel convinced that philosphy is essentially personal. The ‘no man is an island’ and fight club ‘you’re just like everybody else’ references supposed to address that. Why do we want to see ourselves as unique, special?

  5. Regarding the 0.99 repeater issue, this is a poor example because it does equal one; this is just a curiosity of the radix system. To suggest that it doesn’t equal 1 is to posit some alternative system of mathematics which is more in line with your intuition, in which case 0.999… might a well equal ‘cheese’.

    Fundamentally, logic is the source of common ground. Sure, logic could be a fiction, in which case human understanding is some bizarro, entirely relative system of thought divorced from reality, but for whatever reason there’s startling consistency in our conception of logic. Relative subjectivity only enters this system in the form of unsupported axioms – assertions which people take for granted. If people take the same axioms and the same logical system, then they can reach the same conclusions.
    What’s personal is your subjective selection of axioms, not your conception of logic.

    …and if this isn’t the sense in which you find philosophy subjective/personal, then I’m not sure I follow what you’re trying to say.

  6. Hi Al,

    Yes, I am, most predominantly, speaking of humanity’s interaction with, or application of, logic rather than the “concept of logic” itself – hence the influence of emotions and experience etc. on that interaction. (Does that make sense?) I think people see the same things in different lights and hence form their own ‘perceived truths’.

    I agree that my shower epiphanies aren’t the best of my moments, but I only use the example to illustrate the above-mentioned subjectivity of interaction – that different people can both use ‘human intellect’ but end up at different conclusions. Refer to previous string of comments. I am also saying that a more intelligent being might be able to find flaws in the thinkings of the most intelligent of human beings (this sentence was perhaps poorly worded in my original entry, triggering your comment).

    Now, whether or not one or more of all these resulting ‘perceived truths’ is *actually* the one and only correct truth…this goes back to the universal truth argument…which I said is a different story because the point I’m making stops at the ‘result’ of over six billion ‘perceived truths’. I think that the fact that we each reach distinct sets of beliefs, because of distinct external (contextual) and distinct internal (emotional) influences, makes the *process* of philosophy – of attaining wisdom – very personalised.

    The main reflection in my original discourse however, isn’t that philosophy is personal, but that because there’s such a huge world of people out there (whose differences I respect), we should factor in emotions, experiences, and so forth, into our search for wisdom.

  7. Hey Zhooie, 😀

    I guess I see the process of philosophy as the reasoning side of it, which is why I’d say the process itself is pretty universal (aside from flawed reasoning etc.). I can fully agree that, with slightly different ‘perceived truths’ or axioms, everyone can reach a slightly different conclusion. But fundamentally I think that if people agree on all assumptions made in a debate, then they can’t rationally arrive at different conclusion, and I don’t believe the really fundamental assumptions or internal definitions differ enough to thwart consensus… and so to me the observation that philosophy is personal comes across as ‘people who think different things think different things’.

    That’s not to say the conclusion is as trivial as it sounds phrased in that fashion — realising that people can all have equally relevant and yet completely different interpretations of or responses to life is an important thing, but it’s easy to over-extend and arrive at post-modernist, epistemological relativism (which I realise you’ve directly shunned), which doesn’t get anyone anywhere.
    What this boils down to is that I’m not sure I can agree that the process itself is subjective, because it’s the very fact that the process is shared that lets us discuss these issues in the first place.

  8. I disagree that we can always reach a consensus from a shared set of assumptions. The impossibility of this is the very basis of Ethics. I think the more complicated branches of mathematics, logic, and science do not always reach the same conclusions based on common premises.
    And, systems of reasoning are only really objective in the sense that they are useful. The basic assumptions and laws that we use now were not used in the past. Practicality, what useful conclusions can be reached by using the current systems of reasoning, is all that matters.

  9. Mr. Saxon, the very basis of ethics is assumption. Look at the debate over the eating of meat. Someone starts with the assumption that animals are outside the human ethical domain, another starts with the assumption that we should base rights on how similar we feel animals are. Or perhaps they reach the assumptions based on how they feel about the subject. But fundamentally, if assumptions are the same and logic differs, then either someone’s logic is flawed or the entire concept of logic is flawed.

  10. So differences of opinion occur only because of differences in the original sets of assumptions?
    This means that all disagreement on open-ended questions is a result of either everyone taking completely different premises to begin with even if they think they’re taking the same premises, or that the same assumptions which are the bases of arguments mean different things to different people.

    Both of these results seem to suggest that logic is a subjective enterprise. If we all think that we’re arguing the same points, but we are actually arguing subtly different things, then we’ll never reach a correct conclusion. If the same assumptions mean different things to different people, then any answer we get will be subjective.

    That’s not to say that logic is flawed. Logic is a useful tool for considering the validity or invalidity of arguments, but it can’t be anything more. That is to say, we cannot use logic itself to attack problems, we can only use logic to analyze other approaches that attack problems.

    Consider a cliched ethical dilemma: both your parents and a stranger’s baby are facing imminent death from the Sword of Damocles of your choice, and you only have the time to save one.

    We have lots of different approaches for solving this problem. An evolutionary biologist would assume that saving kin would be more important than saving a stranger, even a baby. A developmental psychologist may well disagree, arguing that we are hardwired to always protect the young first. We could go out on a limb and ask a mathematician to construct a risk/reward ratio to assist our decision. And ethicists themselves would have other ways of solving the dilemma.

    What has happened here is that we have taken the same set of assumptions and have reached different conclusions based on how we approach the problem. In other words, our answers end up depending on things outside the premises, like how much we value children as compared to adults or how much danger we want to put ourselves in. These are subjective things.

    In a perfect universe of pure knowledge where we could precisely operationalize every variable and mathematically quantify every consideration, maybe we could find the perfect answer to this dilemma. But we don’t, so we can’t. What should matter is simply pragmatics: which approach is most useful for the given situation? And in order for this to work, logic needs to subjective. Sure, 2 + 2 = 4 and no amount of postmodern garbage about the hegemony of positivism will ever make that false. But that’s not so say that in the future, it’s possible that 2 + 2 = 4 will be considered less useful than another mathematical model, just like Copernicus’s model of the planets is now more useful than the Catholic Church’s is.

  11. The quantitative aspects of ethics — how things are weighted relative to eachother — are just as much subjective assumptions as the qualitative aspects — how the things are defined. This is not the logic that is subjective. Similarly, in the given example of different professions proposing alternative solutions to the ethical dilemma, the assumptions which differ are in the conception of an ‘acceptable’ solution. Some interpretations may be revealed to be closer to the ‘truth’, but this does mean that any reasoning on the part of those providing solutions was flawed or ‘subjective’.

    The strength of philosophy is its ability to trace the links between assumption and conclusion, or even to reveal inconsistencies within one’s assumptions. This is why I disagree with the idea that philosophy is fundamentally subjective — conclusions may differ entirely, but the practice does not. Logic cannot contradict itself — though, as per Gödel, it necessarily cannot prove everything.

    Now, there is not necessary a direct correlation between logic and truth, which is, I think, a point of disconnect between our arguments. Logic can be used to extrapolate a truth from another truth, but it cannot create truth in a vacuum (except by, rather uselessly, describing itself). Some assumptions may be better approximations of the truth than others. Even abstractions like 2 + 2 = 4 are fundamentally based upon assumptions — assumptions which, in this particular case, Russell and Whitehead went a fair way in proving the external validity of in the Principia Mathematica.
    Other assumptions may be completely arbitrary — and in those cases, people with different assumptions in that area may reach equally ‘valid’ conclusions. Self-evidently, this does not imply the subjectivity of logic itself.

  12. Let’s make a toy argument.

    1. My pet is either a cat or a dog (c v d).
    2. My pet is not a cat (~c).
    C. Therefore, my pet is a dog (d).

    This argument is perfectly valid. For pretty much every permutation of the our galaxy from thousands of years ago and, most likely, thousands of more years into the future, this argument is valid.

    But it cannot be valid for every possible situation in the universe. It is only valid as long as implicit assumptions, like the very existence of cats and dogs and that they comprise different categories of object, are true. What does this argument mean if applied millions of years ago, when there were no cats or dogs? Because logic needs always to be true in order to objective, but cannot always be, I hold that logic is subjective. The truth of the toy argument depends on the conditions of the time.

    This of course violates the very first rule of logic: that an argument’s validity depends only on the form of the argument rather the content of the premises. (p v q), (~p), so (q) is always a valid argument, regardless of what propositions are substituted for the symbols. But what use is our cat/dog argument if cats and dogs don’t even exist? Is there a point to philosophy without purpose?

    That’s why I think it all comes down to pragmatics, which is subjective as it is always changing. While logic is always inherently true, it is possible to come up with nonsense arguments that, while valid, are entirely useless. It is only in considering things that are subjectively relevant and important to us that we are able to come up with laws for reasoning in the first place.

    There is no investigation, no philosophical analysis that needs to be conducted of the statement: “nramgel, not brigule, therefore nramgel”.

    Or how about mathematics. The laws of mathematics are purely abstract; it is possible to perform equations that apply to nothing in the physical world and mean nothing to anyone. But in order to formulate the laws of these equations, first we had to observe physical reality. We can’t say “1 + 1” if we do not first have an object and then another object. To perform “1 – 1” we must have an object and then not have it. These properties of existence and non-existence not “objective”; they are not fixed and immovable; self-evident regardless of whatever else changes. There was a time when there were no objects. There was a time when there were no humans to manipulate objects. Were systems of reasoning objective, rather than subjectively constructed, even in those times?

  13. The logic is valid, but the assertions are untrue. Logic is the relationship between the terms, rather than anything at all to do with the terms themselves.
    Regardless of the context, whatever the time in the universe, the conclusion is true if the premises are also. In a world without cats or dogs, the premise (1) is false — unless your definitions differ, which is again related to the implicit premise. Implicit premises are a different matter entirely, of course, related to communication rather than logic.

    Mathematics is *internally consistent* , i.e. logical, even if it isn’t *externally consistent* , i.e. truthful. That said, we can make statements of objective truth regarding the relationships between mathematical terms due to the validity of logic even if we cannot make statements of objective truth regarding their relationship with the real world.
    Thus, the existence or non-existence of objects is irrelevant to the logical conclusions we can reach based on the central assumptions of mathematics. Similarly, the truthfulness of our perception that we should always save children in the Sword-of-Damocles scenario does not make the very simple logic that, based on this assumption, we should save the child, any less valid.

    Again, I think you’re conflating objective truth with the ‘relational truth’ of logic.

  14. “This of course violates the very first rule of logic: that an argument’s validity depends only on the form of the argument rather the content of the premises. (p v q), (~p), so (q) is always a valid argument, regardless of what propositions are substituted for the symbols. ”

    Mr Saxon, you are confusing the concept of validity with soundness.

  15. no man is an island

  16. I agree Cathy 🙂

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