blog 42

May - June, 2013

What are we doing here?

This is a philosophy book.
It is intended to be a philosophy book.

I have no trouble writing those sentences.
I think they are true.
And I think you understand them.
And you think you can evaluate it as such.

So what is a philosophy book?
(Of what does a philosophy book hold a promise?)
What is it that draws us to philosophy?

Perhaps each one of us philosophers, (philophilosophers) have our own personal narrative, but I would think that none of us has a clear answer, or a clear understanding, of the perennial, personal and individual appeals of philosophy.

I want the world explained to me. I want a theory of everything."

That's ridiculous! There is so much you will never know. There are so many things you do not know and many more things you can never know.

And this book, or any book, will not, and could not possibly, remedy this. So what you want cannot be a theory of everything.

(You can't handle everything!)

You do know that most people do not need a philosophy book, don't you?

"Perhaps they should!"

Yes. "Perhaps they should" is true in the same way that "perhaps you should not" is true.

The Zen monk does not need such a book.
Nor do people who are perfectly comfortable with television entertainments.
Or people who hate books.

There is no reason to think that there is one answer here, let alone one correct answer. There is no reason think there is a "correct" answer.

Academic philosophers may just enjoy keeping up with the "developments" in their fields. And a book on commentary on say the philosophy of Heidegger has its own interest to a student of Heidegger. (Though it is unclear exactly what understanding Heidegger has to do with understanding the world.) Philosophy is an acceptable public cultural pursuit, like basketball.

I am confused—so are others. The world is confusing. I cannot get a handle on reality. There is no agreement."

Yes! It sounds quixotic to think anyone could remedy this, but I am with you.

I want you tell me why there are so many incompatible explanations/philosophies. And why there is no way to adjudicate between them. And which is correct.

Have a seat.

But what needs to be explained about the world. There are many things that can be explained and many things we can't explain yet.

And why do we not know all about reality?
We live in it all the time. Why not just look around?

And why has the answer not been written already? Many people much smarter than me or you have walked the earth before us.

Why are these questions so hard? We can't even get going on this.

"I want the most useful oversimplification possible."

Is a useful oversimplification possible?
Perhaps our lives are necessarily contextual. (We will get back to this.) And all our oversimplified grand explanations contextual as well.

"Oh and I also want you to surprise me."

A philosophy book of eternal truth and you want me to surprise you?
Then you will only want another book to surprise you.
You can't handle the eternal truths.

This is Disappointing

This is certainly a disappointing way of starting out.

Surely any author worth his salt should guide his poor reader away from bumping his head on difficult questions he or she cannot answer and away from questions the author cannot answer himself.

This is true. But beware false expectations. What is it you seek, however unconsciously?

If you want a fat book that gives you the illusion of understanding the fundamental nature of reality, just order one from Amazon.
So which one will you pick?

Some views are indefeasible. Some too general.

Philosophy seems so important, even though it changes nothing.

Perhaps you want a few guiding words, phrases and concepts so you can hold up your end of a philosophical conversation, and counteract all the grand generalizations you find false or inadequate.


My Biggest Ideas

a. The Grand Synchronicity

There is a strong and conceptually important interconnection connection between:

  • the human brain
  • human language (use)
  • the human animal
  • human societies
  • and human culture

b. The Manimal

Humans are also part of a blooming species. I will call this species, the manimal. This is a new word, whose purpose is to shake our understanding of ourselves (as it is) and place more focus on the animal / unconscious / biological / instinctual parts of ourselves.

c. Not all questions are meaningful

And an answer to a non-meaningful question is not an answer at all, but a mistake.

d. We are constantly deluded by our words.

The preceding thought is a subset of a larger thought that our language is constantly deluding us. This is particularly true of our abstract or philosophical thoughts.

e. We live in a vast ignorance of the world and who we are, and we don't know this.

But it is not just our language. We could perhaps forge our language into submission. But we are habitually ignorant of who we are and how we work. (This needs to be spelled out, even as we lack words for it.) An interesting part of this ignorance is how little it seems to matter. But it would not hurt to have an alternative and more honest conception of who we are.

f. We live in contexts.

We grow up and thrive or fail in a world not of our own making. This is as much a social world as anything else.

g. We are the environment

We navigate a world of our own making, as much a social world as anything else.

g. We are deeply ignorant about our language and our words

We need a better picture.

We do not understand it anjy more than we understand music. We cannot put music into words. We cannot substitute words for music. Even though we can have a deeply nuanced appreciation of it.

Where do we go first?

Our Words are Suspect

The correct response to a philosophical question is a hesitation.

Philosophical questions sound genuine, and they often come with the imprimatur of tradition.

But philosophical questions, like philosophy itself, are highly questionable. "What is real?", "What should I do?" and "How should I talk about the world?" are stripped of their usual contexts. There may be nothing out there we are inclined to call "reality", "truth" or "the world."

My ultimate reality may not be your ultimate reality.

You may like to think there is a God out there who guides and help us. (And you think you have if not a clear picture, certainly a good handle on the nature of that God. I may like to think that everything is atoms. (And I will hold in abeyance many stick questions about consciousness, thoughts and desires.)

Both views may be equally satisfying. We may not disagree on any specific facts.

At the same time we are not comfortable saying that "What is the ultimate reality?" is not a real question. We know we will be immediately challenged on this, and we will not know exactly what how to respond.

It is a different kind of ignorance than we are comfortable with. If I ask you the State Flower of Arkansas, or a complex chemistry question, we have no problem in stating that we don't know the answer.

If I ask you Whether God exists? or What is the meaning of life? you will probably have an answer at hand, and you will not hesitate to elaborate on it.

It is strange that we are will to answer all sorts of grand questions while readily admitting we have not studied this in any detail.

Does God exist?

If I hesitate to answer a question that everyone else gladly answers, am I not fully human? How can I not answer that? (And feel I am giving the only true answer?)

We need a snappy response. Here are some possible non-answers.

"The question makes no sense."
This is not subjectively true. People think they understand the question just fine thank-you.

"I don't know."
People will think you are not very bright.

"That depends what you mean by God.
People will think: You know very well what you mean by God. It's a simple word we all learned as a child.

"What would make you change your mind on this?"
First of all you are answering a question with a question.
Secondly, there are simple immediate responses to this. ("Well if God did not exit." or "I know in my heart that God exists.")
Third, even if a person answers "Nothing." people do not feel that this is a show-stopper. Only a person educated in a theory of falsifiability would hesitate on this.

"That is a pseudo-question. (And let me show you how most people are mistaken on this.)"
But the question plays a pivotal role in many people's pseudo-philosophical lives.
(The unexamined life is living.)

"Kristiansen [or any deep philosopher] says that this is an fragenfeil [question-mistake]."
Now we are getting somewhere.
We imply there is a deep and obscure philosopher who has written a persuasive tome on just these kinds of questions. (Forget for the time being that Kristiansen (myself) is completely obscure and his heavy honored tome does not exist.)

What is a Fragenfeil?

Fragenfeil is a neologism, a word I have invented. The word stands in need of an explication. The question is, what meat can I place on this bone?

This is a way to let you hesitate before answering a philosophical question—or not.

For every Fragenfeil there is also an Antwortfeil, or answering-mistake, which is the mistake of simply answering a question mistake.

There are several different kinds of Fragenfeil.

But there is not a specific and definite number of Fragenfeils. The world is not a categorical system. We apply categories to the world. There are definite things which can be counted as a Fragenfeil.

Just like there are no definite points-of-view, emotions, or styles of music.

It could also be that Fragenfeils can not be comprehended generally but that each one needs consideration on its own, they way people and places are.

This is one more way we will never understand the world through a philosophy book

  1. Looking for one explanation when clearly there is a panoply of simultaneous explanations. ("Why do people like to look at fish?") [Answer-simplification]
  2. Taking a word that stands for say a social construct and treating it as though it stands for a natural object. [Answer-objectification-fail]
  3. Using a word so comprehensive you cannot get your minds around it. ("What is religion?") This results in the human grasping at a limited and often unspecified understanding.
  4. Framing an understanding of a word that has multiple frames. [Answer-overframing]
  5. Being fooled by a precising definition. [Redefinition-mistake]
  6. Drawing in your wake unwarranted (but not always undesired) and connotations. [Connotation-carryover-mistake]

Simple Questions

Let us look briefly at questions that can be answered.

It would we unwise to assume that there is one form that applies to all of these as well.

  • the questions on Jeopardy
  • an essay question in a World History class
  • a questions about your intentions or feelings
  • a questions about your memory

Already we are in a complexity that only a strong mind could pull into a hypnotic order.

Now is the following question a question that can or cannot be answered: "Can we decide what questions can and cannot be answered?"

Big Questions

So why and how can all of answer the big questions in life. "What is real?" "Is there a god?" "What is the best form of government" "How should we raise our children?"

All answers are false, or at least not-true.
We speak through lies.
(Of which the last sentence is an example.)

On Living in Contexts

Truth is contextual. Life is contextual.

We can recognize, but not describe these contexts.

And immediately we are thrown into metaphor/images, all of which are, or can easily be, misleading. And all of which will be vast oversimplifications.

The aspects of language-use include:

  • The meaning of words. Proper inflections and proper constructions (proper spelling). (Including the proper emphasis on spelling.
  • Proper situations of utterance. (There is a family of these.)
  • The proper understanding.
  • The proper reactions of understanding.
  • The proper emotional judgments.
  • The proper use among humans.
  • The proper hearing/understanding of these. (Do not repeat; do not forget.)

Even if we were able to formulate a convincing analysis of all such elements, they would not be of much use, just as description of how a human rides a bicycle, or how the mouth moves during speech is mostly useless in riding a bicycle or in speaking.

"So are we simply at the mercy of culture?"

Hardly. Cultures lets us disagree here, here and maybe here. Some things we can disagree in words but not in actions.

Only some parts of the ship are rudders.

Contexts are hardly simple. You are not playing football just because you walk onto a football field. A "context" (in the linguistic sense, is not like "surroundings." It is also like "attention," and "involvement."

The Ambiguity of Words

To build an understanding of the world out of words is like building a house out of cooked spaghetti.

We are constantly and naturally sucked into classifications of the world in which we live. We feel the world must be capable of being described in our concepts.

Yet it is hardly obvious the world is categorical in its nature. With all our words we can think of marginal cases: animal, rock, tree, self, chair.

And which conceptual system has priority? Which picture of a plant is the correct one?

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