10 Extremely Important Philosophical Questions from History

Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

Do you ever ponder the deep questions? And I don’t mean the basic, common stuff, I mean the really, really deep questions? Or have you ever thought about the incalculable number of minds who’ve spent their entire existence on this earth throughout the course of human history?

From Aristotle to Plato, from Heisenberg to Heidegger, every prominent thinker in the history of the world who’s left their mark had one, major idea that nobody, up until then at least, had ever thought. Even if their ideas were largely syntheses of multiple previous lines of though, they definitely told their tales through a completely new framework, even if discussing something as timeless as teenage love.

Most great thinkers pondered upon many different questions for a long time until they stumbled upon the main ones that they became known for, such as Sir Isaac Newton who had spent most of his life dedicated to bunk science and occultist fantasies, but still managed to stumble upon the missing piece of the scientific puzzle, Newtonian Mechanics, or more generally, physics. Physics radically changed the way we see the world in its day, and over time, Newton’s influence spanned so greatly, that pretty much every aspect of our lives are dominated by it. So too, there are other ideas in the history of deep thought which shook our world in such a way, it was never able to be viewed quite the same again. Here are 10 of such groundbreaking questions in the history of philosophy.

Reality Check

This is a very fundamental question that many of us have grappled with at some point in our lives — how do we know the world around us is actually as it seems? How do we know that it’s, in fact, real? Or, a more contemporary rendition of this question is something to the effect of, what if our reality was entirely fake, and we were just living in a big computer simulation?

It turns out that this question is nothing new, and is something philosophers have been asking themselves for thousands of years. The question has certainly been around, but few, if any thinkers have done it better than the ancient Greek philosopher Plato, with his allegory of the cave.

The Allegory of the Cave is a thought experiment dating back to somewhere between 380 BCE and 360 BCE, and it’s a powerful thing to consider when questioning the realness of the world around us. In short, there is a cave beneath the earth with a hole in the top, but deep inside the cave, far past the point where you can see the entrance, are several prisoners chained to the ground. These prisoners have always been chained to the ground of the cave, like something out of some fiction novel, and they’ve never known the world outside of the cave.

Now here’s where things get really interesting — suppose there is a ledge behind the prisoners, and there is a fire burning atop the ledge, from which you can make hand puppets and display them on a flat, barren wall in front of the prisoners for them to see. Is it possible that these prisoners, never having seen the actual, outside world, would assume that the shadow puppets were reality and not merely shadows being cast before them? It’s definitely very likely. But the implication of this is a question about the limits of our knowledge in the real world, outside of the cave — how do we know that we know the whole story? How do we know that what we’re seeing and observing is really real, and not just some imaginary shadow of some ultimate reality? I think we all intuitively feel that we can never “know” for sure.

There is a further implication in this also, that if you were to release the prisoners from the cave, their adjustment period would be quite challenging, to say the least, as they adopted to the real world and discovered it. This would be no easy task for the people who had lived their entire lives ignorant, wholly without knowledge of the inner workings of reality that remain with us today.

What is Time?

At this point in time (or not) most of us have seen some variation of a meme that questions the existence of time — as a social construct, as never quite being the same, and other suggestions which chip away at our notion of repetition and any sense of an exacting time. The base of these all boil down to one idea — that time in the world isn’t the same time that we experience. The fact is, time has been perceived in a lot of different ways by a lot of different cultures, and what we take for granted, like the shadow-puppets of Plato’s prisoners, hasn’t always been. Linear time, the idea that time goes one moment into the next in one constant, forward motion hasn’t always been known, believe it or not. Before that, linear time was the de facto understanding of time, that everything worked in cycles, not one, seamless, flowing direction.

Time and Free Will: An Essay on the Immediate Data of Consciousness is the title of a work published by 19th century philosopher Henri Bergson, who further expands on our understanding of time, arguably as much as Einstein did. Bergson divided time into two separate categories, time and duration.

Time, as we know it, as we view it through the lens of, say, science, isn’t the same time that we actually experience, which is duration, the difference between the two being that time cannot get out of the choke-hold of spacial influence — that is, there can be no time without reference to a point in space, but there can be duration without it — a pure subjectivity that’s independent of a specific point. It’s the very nature of consciousness itself to defy a specific material point in space. His point was mainly that you can’t measure the “duration” you experience by comparing it with time, because time is a succession of moments that happen to spacial objects, and experience isn’t a spacial object — the two really have nothing to do with one another.

The really powerful statement here is what Bergson says about the freedom of the human being once one escapes this mechanistic view of time. Experience is qualitative, not quantitative, and it has to do with a simultaneity of things happening, rather than a succession. So if we take the view of Bergson, no, the time in the world, the time of objects, isn’t the same as the experienced time of individuals.

Do I Exist?

A fun little existential problem to ponder from time to time is the question of whether or not we actually exist — what if our entire lives were fake? What if this was like some crazy science fiction movie, where our brains were off in a vat somewhere receiving stimuli which simulated this entire experience that we were living, but even our very own perceptions and our own bodies weren’t real? The “brain in a vat” thought experiment is a demonstration of the skepticism of the 17th century French philosopher, Rene Descartes, and it provides a pretty cool insight into the philosopher’s thoughts, in a more updated, contemporary, understandable way.

Descartes was a scientist, first and foremost, and was always looking for proof in everything. In his work, the first Meditations, Descartes raises a pretty interesting question that you might have thought of before, and that is, “How do I know that my entire life isn’t just a dream?” Perhaps it could be a dream in someone else’s mind, you’re a figure of someone else’s dream, and none of this is really real. Can you prove that this isn’t the case? After all, Descartes, being the skeptic that he was, thought proof was absolutely necessary to make claims. In the Meditations, Descartes writes:

“Every sensory experience I have ever thought I was having while awake I can also think of myself as sometimes having while asleep; and since I do not believe that what I seem to perceive in sleep comes from things located outside me, I did not see why I should be any more inclined to believe this of what I think I perceive while awake.”

So now that he’s established that everything, literally, absolutely everything we know and experience could be fake, Descartes takes an interesting turn when he introduces the evil genius, or demon of Meditations. In short, what if there was an all-powerful demon genius figure who was capable of controlling my perceptions…all of my perceptions were actually just fake, everything from the moon to the grass, all of it was misrepresented by the evil genius who had complete control over my mind? Even my bodily perceptions might very well be fake, and the screen I’m looking at right now isn’t even there, much like Plato’s cave. And if everything else isn’t true or cannot be proven to be true, how do I even know i exist?

And then Descartes came to his most famed and probably most compelling conclusion, Cogito Ergo sum — I think, therefore, I am. What he meant by this was, that if I am to doubt the world, doubt its accuracy or existence, if I am even to doubt my own body, my own memory, the fact that I’m actually doubting these things proves my existence. This was one of, if not the most pivotal thought in the history of philosophy. My existence itself, even under the most radical skeptical scrutiny, could be said to exist.

This concept is still very hard for many to argue against, even today, hundreds of years later, and has proven itself time and again to be the absolutely genius idea that it was — and still is. It’s also become the fundamental concept of many later philosophies which grew out of it, especially French philosophy.

What is Consciousness Made of?

So what is consciousness made of, after all? If I am to be anything, shouldn’t I firstly be consciousness? Is it material or immaterial? Can you touch it? Is it actually a thing? These questions aren’t very new, and even small children might ask similar renditions of the same questions, such as wondering, “What am I made of? Am I just my body? How am I different from dead people?”

Jean-Paul Sartre, the 20th century French philosopher, who took the path of Descartes and augmented it into his philosophy, turned even Descartes’ idea radically on its head: “I think, therefore, I am,” says Descartes; “I am. I exist,” replies Sartre, three centuries later.

Sartre took the lead of another phenomenologist philosopher, Edmund Husserl, who proclaimed that, consciousness is composed entirely of things which are not it. When we’re conscious, we’re not conscious of some material consciousness, we’re conscious of things like trees, street signs, our dog, you name it. This is the intentionality of consciousness, that there’s always an object of our awareness, the “intention” of our awareness. So if our consciousness is made up of everything that isn’t it, what is our consciousness made of? Sartre replies with a resounding, “Nothing.” Literally. Nothing. It’s empty.

Sartre sees consciousness as an “exploding” into the world, a constant push outward, without any hint of possible introspection. It’s an emptiness that’s filled with the phenomenon, the “things” of our experience constantly, and it could be said that we exist as experiencing things, rather than material ones, in Sartre’s view. We exist, for Sartre, but we exist as processes, not objects.

Will I Ever Be Happy?

Arthur Schopenhauer was a man who had a lot to say on the issue of human happiness, and what it means to actually succeed — and most of it wasn’t good. This 19th century philosopher will likely go down in history as the absolute king of the pessimist doctrine, which actually has a long, rich history and some seriously nuanced claims pertaining to what it means to be alive. Pessimism doesn’t just say that everything sucks, but that all things in life are, at least on a long enough time frame, futile and vain. The biblical book of Ecclesiastes was a work of downright pessimism, speaking on the eroding of all things through time; Ecclesiastes reminds us that, “there is nothing new under the sun.”

What is meant here by the author of Ecclesiastes, is that literally billions of people have done most of what you’re doing right now, what you will do in your life, and all vain enjoyments will wash away and be forgotten — unless you do something that survives you and contribute to something that’s bigger than yourself, and will outlive your small life.

Schopenhauer took this one massive step further, in proclaiming that even the enjoyments of life are short lived. Any enjoyment we may find will be entirely fleeting, says Schopenhauer in his Essays on Pessimism, because it’s the nature of existence to oscillate somewhere between striving, hunger, thirst, desire, need, etc., or total and absolute boredom. We strive for the things we want most in life, be they immediate needs like a sandwich, or long-term goals, like physical fitness.

The moment we achieve what we want, we get bored with it. For Schopenhauer, pain and disappointment aren’t things that just pop up in an otherwise happy life — they’re the norm, and moments of happiness, serenity, and calmness seem to be the exception to the rule.

What is Perception Made of?

Phenomenology is a descriptive philosophy that seeks to touch upon the inner world of experience foremost, before dealing with the mechanics of the outside world — that is, the philosophy entirely takes the first-world perspective to the study of everything, so it’s basically the first-person shooter video game of philosophy. It’s primary concern is the study of consciousness and its relation to the world. This makes phenomenology a prime candidate for the best study of perception around. The study was founded by Edmund Husserl and continued on by some bigger names in philosophy, such as Martin Heidegger and Jean-Paul Sartre, but it was a lesser-known phenomenologist who came up with a work called The Phenomenology of Perception, and that man was Maurice Merleau-Ponty. In it, he sought to describe all that we perceive and more importantly how we perceive it.

So what is our perception made of? If the world we perceive can’t be guaranteed to be the whole truth and nothing but the truth, what about our perceptions? The answer, quite simply for Merleau-Ponty, is our subjectivity exists as its body simultaneously. Merleau-Ponty took the monistic, rather than dualistic view, that the mind and body are not at all separate things, but coinciding things that are fused together — one and the same.

Merleau-Ponty likens perception to a language or communication, not as some invisible thing in some spirit or mind out somewhere that’s completely immaterial, like many have assumed for thousands of years to be true; his idea is that senses are the communication with the outside world. He creates a language model, through which our perceptions are like our body’s way of communicating the outside world to the mind. But sometimes this goes awry and doesn’t perform like it should, as things in spoken language can sometimes get lost in translation, the perceptive equal to this would be something along the lines of a patient who has a phantom limb, who experiences sensations and perceives things in a limb that isn’t even there.

Predicting the Future

Philosopher David Hume had a lot to say in his Enquiry Concerning the Human Understanding, particularly in regards to what senses and thoughts actually are, and he discerned that senses are experiences that are immediate, while thoughts are how we feel about those experiences — that is, thoughts are secondary to experiences. This means that everything we know ultimately comes from experiences we’ve had, and is limited, to say the least.

Can we actually use the past to predict the future? Hume makes a powerful assertion here that the past cannot be justified in predicting events from the future, for, not only is it circular, but our memories of the past are simply experiences, sensory experiences to be exact, and not actual reasoning.

Thus, it is nature, our natural taking-in of the world around us and the ensuing experiences through which we live our lives, make decisions, and ultimately not reason. Experiences are experiences of matters of fact, while thoughts about them are second-hand creations from the raw material of our experiences. At best, we can — and will — use the past to infer likely possibilities of the future, but we aren’t in any way justified in believing we can use reason to infer future events from our pasts.

This was quite revolutionary. Until then, other philosophers of the Empiricist school had tried to explain the same thing, but nobody managed to destroy the old ideas quite like Hume. Until Hume, most people thought reason dictated action, but Hume tore that down with a fervor unlike any the world had known at the time.

Can I Just Be?

The being-versus-becoming dichotomy has been around since the times of Socrates and even long before that, almost 2,500 years ago. Temporality is the unfolding of time (not duration) in a succession of moments, one melting away into the next in an ever-streaming flow of events. Many of us ask ourselves, “Can I ever just be happy?” as they imagine themselves with the picture perfect life, still, with all of the objects they’ve ever wanted, unthreatened by the slow, eroding passage of time. But philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre had a lot to say about this in his massive and largely influential work Being and Nothingness.

The problem with this mental image we get of ourselves totally happy is that it’s unattainable, says Sartre, not because it’s difficult to obtain the necessary objects and instruments to get there, but because we can never simply just BE — we are always in action, always moving through time, and most of all, always experiencing. This means we’re always going to be projecting ourselves towards the future in pursuit of some personal project of ours, trying to accomplish some goal — to be, to exist as an object exists and be totally set for life, is to die.

Things that exist in the material world, as objects, are things-in-themselves, they have an intrinsic state of being, but remember, Sartre views consciousness as literally nothing — nothing but pure process. We, as consciousnesses, are beings-for-themselves, we exist in part as a process toward our future selves yet to be realized, rather than existing solely as a stationary, determined entity. Our existence precedes our essence, or, we exist first and we define ourselves and our course in life later. This means we will always be partially incomplete and have a lack of something in our lives, because, like Schopenhauer noted, the moment we obtain what we want is the moment we want something totally new. The difference is, Sartre doesn’t say that we can never be happy, we just have to learn how to be happy with being incomplete.

What Does it Mean to Be?

This is a very good question, and just the first discourse in phenomenologist Martin Heidegger’s book Being and Time proves how difficult it can be to answer. What do we mean by the word “be?” Certainly it has to have a definition, right? When asked what the word “be” means, most people reply with, “Well, it means it exists!” But this is just a deflection, because existing and being are essentially the same thing. More importantly, what implications does this speak about the existence of ourselves as entities — as thinking things?

Here, Heidegger concludes that being is ultimately a verb no matter how you slice it, if an apple is red, while red is a trait, it’s “reddening” through time. This means that not only do we as thinking things exist as processes, as verbs, but so too do objects, in a very real sense.

Heidegger also thinks that, when it comes to questions of existence and being, any meaning taken from such questions are relative to the questioner and which questions they ask. No two people are exactly identical, and because of this, we must ask our questions as we traverse the world alone, and find our own answers. This doesn’t mean we’re totally isolated and alone, however, as we have language — language is what we question being with, and with language, we can also communicate with one another and exchange our experiences, giving one another cues on which questions to ask. Martin Heidegger even goes as far as to boldly claim that our existence is shaped and founded upon language, as language is what gives it meaning, formulating a coherent narrative we can ascribe to and believe.

Beauty and Suicide

Suicide is a puzzling event that happens around the world every single day, when someone just can’t keep going and chooses to take their own lives. Equally as puzzling and likely to never be wholly understood is the concept of beauty. Both are topics which the 20th century philosopher Albert Camus was heavily interested in. For Camus, suicide wasn’t just an act but a value judgment, as one can’t commit suicide without implying that life isn’t worth living. This very well might be the central question pertaining to suicide, why is it that so many people feel that life isn’t worth living?

Life, for Camus, is wholly absurd — there is no meaning in it except that which we create ourselves, so he questions why someone would go on living and trying to create meaning in an existence within which no intrinsic meaning is to be found. The world is random, sporadic, chaotic, and more often than not throws things at us which we didn’t ask for. There’s plenty in this thought to be less than enthused about, but there is yet hope, according to Camus.

We escape this trap through our wonder, as we interpret the world and its contents as a thing of beauty, aesthetically pleasing events and small pleasures add up and color in our otherwise very grey existences. The key to finding beauty is largely to eliminate the search for intrinsic meaning, which is destined to failure in the first place. He suggests we ditch our hopes and dreams as a condition necessary for our happiness and live in the present, take a walk, enjoy nature and the beauty of things and people — you only live once, for as Camus himself writes, “The world is beautiful, and outside there is no salvation.”

© 2019; Joe Duncan. All Rights Reserved

Moments of Passion