How philosophy will unite the world.

Science and religion have been at either’s throats since the last forever. There would appear to be no hope of reconciliation between these historic enemies. Put a scientist and a religious man in the same room, and they will argue and bicker and debate, making zero progress on each other.

However, introduce a philosopher into this room, and before you can “That just isn’t practical, what’s that got to do with anything, you’re looking at things too deeply” the scientist and the religious man unite over a common enemy.

It’s a nice quip to make, but is there something behind this? Why, in the pursuit of wisdom itself, is the wisdom achieved so far removed from anything that could be construed as useful to most? Does that so call wisdom, in fact, cease to be wisdom and become instead a manifestation of intellectual conceit?

The word philosophy, as I oft repeat, originates from the Greek language, and roughly equates to the love of wisdom (and is also why my car is called Sophie (yes, I named my car)). Wisdom is no longer what is loved by philosophers — some way along the line, the love of wisdom became the love of logic, as if the only way wisdom could be divined was through logic.

When I studied philosophy at university, I noticed a recurrent theme — the attempts to define, well, everything. Module on art — let’s define what art is. Module on epistemology — let’s define what knowledge is. Let’s have a look at historical attempts to define things. We love defining things.

Moreover, the definitions themselves seemed to follow a similar pattern. Person A proposes a definition. Person B finds contradiction in definition. Person C proposes amendment to Person A’s original definition. Person B, ever the sceptic, finds contradiction in definition. Person D amends Person’s C’s amendment of Person A’s original theory. Person B finds contradiction in Person D’s amendment. Persons A, C and D are out of ideas and scratch their heads till their hair falls out. Person B briefly gloats before joining A, C and D in the abyss of male pattern baldness.

Like a bunch of lines on a graph, each trying to exactly explain a certain curve, but none being able to. At first glance the proposed solution might seem to follow the same path as the original curve, but zoom in further and you see they diverge. You amend the original line with a new one, and it seems to follow the path more closely, but another round of zooming in and you see that, again, they are not the same line. More amendments, but it feels like we are being led down a blind alley which will never yield the fruit we seek.

As a tangent (relevant play on words), I would notice that the number pi, whilst being a specific and unchanging value, cannot be expressed in conventional mathematics as an exact and specific value — only as an idea, that of a circumference divided a diameter, or an approximation. Put it on a number line and attempt to define it as a number and you will always be able to zoom in far enough to see that your definition is wrong.

Perhaps the problem lies with the idea that truth can only exist in words — the idea if it can’t be placed into a logical argument with premises and assumptions and conclusions, it is worthless. This is not an attack on the power of logic itself — the power of a valid, sound, logical argument to prove and disprove is sacrosanct in its invulnerability. However, a vast field of our own everyday experience is totally disdainful of logic, and remorseless in its ignorance of its own inability to be expressed.

Here, I speak of qualia. Things like colour, taste, feelings. How do you explain the colour red, in its redness, to someone who is blind, without referencing redness itself? You can mention wavelengths of light and reflection and absorption but while these might explain why, they do not explain what. The entire faculty of language seems entirely useless in trying to explain what ‘red’ is. The same can be applied to any other qualia — explaining music to someone who cannot hear it, explaining taste to someone who cannot taste it, explaining feelings to this desk on which I type. They can only be transmitted by reminding them of the past occasions on which the second party may have experienced them themselves, and if they have no experience, no point of reference, the words have no meaning in and of themselves.

Yet red is something. Red is a truth in some sense of the word. (Don’t ask me to define truth.) Things that are red remain red, and are recognisable as red, and most of us would be able to pick out red from a rainbow lineup of the usual suspects (insert Kevin Spacey joke here).

Some might throw up an irreverent accusation of irrelevance — so what? What difference does it make? Yet I would counter that the entire realm of qualia is something closer, more immediate to our true nature than the logic we use to explain them. A child’s perception is almost solely of qualia — of colours, of tastes, of feelings. It’s only as we grow older that our attempts to understand turn to logic. Those of us who have not given ourselves up to the power of logic are perhaps still motivated more by the qualia immediate to us, and are not moved by the logic which fails to even scratch the surface. To use Plato’s cave as a metaphor, perhaps we are focused too intently upon the shadows themselves, and have stopped considering the structure beneath which has caused those shadows to be formed.

I would argue that the notion behind materialism has infected philosophy — that only that which is provable and disprovable is worthy of talk — yet when our everyday experience contains such a vast realm of things beyond notions of provability, perhaps it is time that contemporary philosophy took stock of itself, took a step back and re-evaluated its focus.

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