SECTION TWO. PHILOSOPHY CAN BE A DANGEROUS ENTERPRISE.
Let me take back my last statement somewhat. When we gain an integrated self by struggling to have well-founded beliefs, we gain knowledge. Sometimes the having of knowledge can be dangerous. Consider the following story that comes from Plato's Republic.
INSERT: ALLEGORY OF THE CAVE (Plato, The Republic, VII, 514A - 518B)
There is a lot going on in this story that could be talked about, but one thing is clear. The person who leaves the cave of images and shadowy beliefs and enters into the world of real objects gains real knowledge; he knows what is truly real. His path to knowledge was not easy, being somehow set free from the bonds of ignorance, intellectual laziness, superstition, and arrogance, then forced up into the realm of reality and truth. Reality and truthful knowledge is magnificent to obtain.
But, then the prisoner is returned to the cave. Of interest to us here is what happens to him when he returns --how he is regarded by his old prisoner-friends who have remained in the cave stranded in their state of intellectual confusion and false belief. He tries to tell them about what is the truth, but they only laugh at him and say that it is he who is confused. Finally, they have had enough of his manner and would kill him for heresy if they could only get their hands on him.
What will happen to you when you begin to examine critically fundamental beliefs held by you and others? You may discover new and radically different beliefs that are far more truthful, that many of the beliefs that you and your friends held are but superstitions ("shadows on the wall") which promote harm rather than good. Imagine what would happen to your status among your friends should you begin to earnestly question and criticize their beliefs. Let's take some examples with which we will deal later.
Suppose you are at a party with friends and in the course of conversation you seriously asked these questions: "Can anyone give me a good argument that God exists? Are women to be treated differently from men? Is capitalism fair to persons? Do animals have a right to life such that we should not eat them, much less hunt them just for sport? Is the sky blue?" You ask these questions and press your friends to back up their answers with good arguments.
Probably, the first response you may receive is the question, "Are you serious about these questions?" You reply, "Yes, they are important; we need to know the truth about those matters, for we would not wish to live our lives based on false beliefs." The discussion may last a bit longer, but usually there is a point at which they declare that you are just trying to "put other persons' beliefs down" and that "everyone has a right to his/her own opinion --so get off their backs!" But you reply that, "Just because everyone has a right to an opinion, that in itself is no guarantee that the opinion is right or true." At this point they become very irritated and you have to decide to let the matter go or try to carry on the discussion then or at a later date. Doing the former returns you to the darkness of the cave and the dangers that lie therein. Doing the latter does not necessarily mean losing your friends, especially if they have the potential of being open-minded, but you may have to work hard to keep their friendship during the tough discussions.
Plato's message is clear; knowledge can be personally dangerous. The wise man is not necessarily liked or esteemed in his community. As a matter of fact, the principle speaker in Plato's story, Socrates, was put to death because he "corrupted the youth of Athens" by asking questions about fundamental beliefs, to which questions the youths then sought answers. Those in power did not want questions asked, especially serious questions about justice; the politicians knew that would lead to trouble. So, they trumped up charges against Socrates (capital charges) thinking he would back-off and leave town. However, Socrates did not leave town as the politicians had wished and even expected. Rather, he faced his death with the conviction that he was doing the right thing to defend his life style of being a philosopher. Here is a glimpse of his basic message as revealed in Plato's Apology.
INSERT :"Perhaps someone will say, 'Why cannot you withdraw from Athens, Socrates, and hold your peace?' It is the most difficult thing in the world to make you understand why I cannot do that. If I say that I cannot hold my peace because that would be to disobey the god, you will think that I am not in earnest and will not believe me. And if I tell you that no better thing can happen to a man than to discuss virtue every day and the other matters about which you have heard me arguing and examining myself and others, and that an unexamined life is not worth living, then you will believe me still less. But that is so my friends, though it is not easy to persuade you." (Plato, The Apology, trans. by Jowett, 3rd ed. (Oxford University Press, 1896))
Socrates' message to us is that the unexamined life, the unfound self, is not worth living or being. What he means by that is what we will begin to discover in the rest of the book, though I think that you have already a reasonably good notion of his point. In a nutshell then, we will examine the nature of our very selves, our fundamental beliefs and how those beliefs relate to the world in which we live. We will be looking inward and outward, critically. Real happiness resides in becoming the self that has and lives by the best beliefs he can have. That is very hard to do, but nothing worthwhile is easy, especially the creating of one's SELF.
Before we move on to another section, let me slip in a small comment. Don't let me scare you away with Plato's caveat. What we will be doing will be somewhat dangerous, but it will also be an exciting adventure of ideas. The unexamined life is certainly not with living, for the examined life, even though there are plenty of risks, has all the fun.
SECTION THREE. PHILOSOPHY REQUIRES THE VIRTUE OF INTELLECTUAL HONESTY.
Since I've introduced us to Socrates, let me tell a bit more about him to develop the point that philosophy will require of us the virtue of having a critical mind and being honest with respect to what it finds.
Whenever Socrates engaged in a conversation with someone, the first thing he admitted was that he knew practically nothing about the topic in question. Most of the time, his dialogues were with persons who claimed to know what is the truth; they claimed to have knowledge, not opinion. Socrates would begin his conversation with them by say something to the effect, "Look folks, I haven't any knowledge about what you are talking and I would really like to learn the truth about the matter. Since you claim to know the truth about the item in question, please tell me what it is so that I too may have knowledge." Socrates would then ask them to give an adequate definition of the item. For example, some of the discussions were about religious beliefs. He would ask, "What is piety; what is religiously right?" or political concerns, "What is justice; what constitutes a good society?"
Notice that he always asked a question whose answer must be given in the form, "I know that x is y." (For example, to the question, "What is piety?" came the response from a young man named Euthypro, "I KNOW that piety (religious right doing) is 'what the gods command.'") Then Socrates would go on to examine the answer using the criteria of consistency, completeness and pragmatism. His reply to Euthyphro's answer about piety is philosophically earth-shaking; "Is something right just because the gods command it or do the gods command it because they know that it is right?" Let me turn it around to fit today. Are the Ten Commandments right JUST because God commands them or are they right and God commands them because they ARE right? (We can already see the enormous issues the response raises and the trouble it will get us into with persons who live in religious caves, so to speak.)
But why would Socrates ask these questions? The answer is simple. He wanted to find the truth; if someone could report to him what the truth is rather than his having to labor extensively to discover it himself, so much the easier and better. Socrates' attitude is all-important to us here.
That attitude is open-mindedness or intellectual honesty. Socrates was willing to listen to and entertain other opinions. If he found them better than his, he would CHANGE HIS MIND. He would adopt the new beliefs that were better. This is important. Philosophy involves not only asking questions and searching for the truth, but also giving up false beliefs when better beliefs are found.
I suspect that most of us would consider the point just made to be so obvious as to be trivially true; who in their right mind would continue to believe something (x) to be true when another person has demonstrated to him that x is false and y is true? It would be like someone's insisting that the earth is flat and refusing to change his mind even while accepting all arguments about space travel and satellites.* However, it is very difficult to give up beliefs which we have been conditioned to think to be true. Our philosophical inquiries in this book will require of us the virtue of intellectual honesty. We must be willing to entertain new ideas and give up those which we find to be false. In a nutshell, we must have the courage to change our minds when we find that we are wrong. (*By the way, there is a "Flat-earth society," believe it or not. I believe it is located in England.)
SECTION FOUR. A QUICK REVIEW OF THE PHILOSOPHICAL ENTERPRISE.
So, what do philosophers do and why? Philosophers ask fundamental questions to find truths or the best answers possible upon which judgments and actions can be based. We, as philosophers, do this because we are better off when we are guided by beliefs which are consistent, complete, and pragmatic; we do better at our work, we live more satisfied lives and we know ourselves more clearly (we are satisfied with ourSELVES and the actions which stem from our natures). We have also found that philosophy requires hard work in the form of intellectual honesty (even to the point of being dangerous). But, despite these hazards we pursue the truth, for as Socrates notes, philosophy involves becoming and living the life of wisdom, living the examined life. Besides, as I mentioned before, philosophy is fun; we may want to do it just for the heck of it.
A famous philosopher of the twentieth century commented on the value of the philosophical enterprise. It would be well to review his commentary here.
INSERT: Bertrand Russell, The Problems of Philosophy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1912)
"Thus, to sum up our discussion of the value of philosophy: Philosophy is to be studied, not for the sake of any definite answers to its questions, since no definite answers can, as a rule, be known to be true, but rather for the sake of the questions themselves; because these questions enlarge our conception of what is possible, enrich our intellectual imagination, and diminish the dogmatic assurance which closes the mind against speculation; but above all, because, through the greatness of the universe which philosophy contemplates, the mind is also rendered great, and becomes capable of that union with the universe which constitutes the highest good."
SECTION FIVE. THE ROLE OF SCIENCE FICTION.
But, what has science-fiction to do with philosophy? Science-fiction may involve some facts about the world, yet it involves a great deal of imagination or fantasy --it's make-believe, which is far from objective truth. We would expect to stay far away from fantasy and fiction if we were good philosophers.
The science-fiction stories and other literature we will use to help us in two ways. The first is that they will give us "case studies" upon which we may turn our critical attention. Sometimes, issues can be best expressed by examples or "case studies" in which they occur. Which would you rather hear first, the facts about love and tragedy, or read Romeo and Juliet? I would prefer the story first, then think about the characteristics of love and tragedy as revealed in the story. Or, suppose we wished to examine the relationship between emotion and logic. We would need go no further than using some of the episodes from Star Trek in which Captain Kirk and Spock approached situations from their different perspectives. The science-fiction stories and other literature will give us good starting points for our many investigations.
Science-fiction is not too far from what scientists and philosophers do when they confront a problem and ask the question, "What if...?" For example, remember when we talked about the criterion of consistency. I presented an argument in which I maintained that abortion was wrong, but capital punishment was correct. The key assertion that caused trouble with consistency was, "Killing of persons is always wrong." The objection was made that a criminal is a person, and that affirmation of capital punishment could not be held consistently with the key assertion. But then --and this is important-- I said, "What if I changed my key assertion to be, "Killing innocent persons is always wrong." Then the problem was resolved, at least for a moment, for fetuses can be regarded as innocent, whereas adult criminals are not innocent. Asking "What if...?" questions shifts our minds into a new gear. It allows us to construct "thought-experiments" in our minds, thought-experiments that can give us entirely new perspectives on the problem concerning us. And, as with any good experiment, they can be subject to critical scrutiny through application of appropriate criteria by others and us who may want to check out our results.
The science fiction stories will give us a way to get to new perspectives of our basic beliefs. For example, in the chapter on religion we will read about a robot who tries to discover the ultimate cause of his existence. The story is interesting because it puts us in the place of the robot. "What if we were a robot trying to figure out the nature of our existence; who made us and for what purpose? Would we accept the answer that humans created us, when we had good evidence that humans are inferior with respect to the overall environmental situation and intelligence factors?" I don't think we would, and the robot thought the same. The story is a thought-experiment that requires us to come to grips with the fundamentals of our religious beliefs. What if those beliefs (for example, the creation of the world and man) turn out after critical scrutiny to be nothing more than half-baked science fiction stories which, for the most part, are poorly written? That new perspective will really get our neurons running.
As I said, thought-experiments are what good scientists and philosophers do. Consider the following thought-experiment that was done in the not too distant past. Suppose everyone, scientists included, believed that Isaac Newton was right in his conception of matter and space. Newton held that matter and space were two distinct entities or substances. Matter existed and moved around in space which was a separate thing; space was a container for matter to move in. However, suppose some experiments done by scientists indicated that peculiar things happened when light traveled through space. Light did strange things such as "curving" in gravitational fields. Einstein was puzzled by these effects and asked, "What if space and time were not separate things or entities apart from matter, but were a part of matter itself. What if space/time were an aspect of the material continuum? Then, space and time would vary according to the speeds of the materials." Einstein's theory of relativity was born. Which turns out to be the case --at least so far. Einstein did a thought-experiment, checked it out, and BINGO! The thesis solved the problem physicists were stumped by.
Our intellectual mission through using science fiction as instigators of thought-experiments will be to examine our fundamental beliefs. In doing so, we will gain new insights into their viability. Some, we may have to give up, as Einstein and other scientists gave up Newton's theory of the separateness of space from matter. The main thing is that the experiments will be interesting, I hope fun to do and will carry us towards the sound belief system we are after.
A second reason is that science-fiction and literature are art. Art enables us to both mirror and "paint" reality in new ways; we are able to see reality through new perspectives. Science-fiction as art lets us look at possible worlds, even worlds that may be contrary to known fact. For example, we may imagine space ships which travel faster than the speed of light, people who shrink to the size of a cell, a world in the form of a ring created around a star, or robots that are persons. This art form lets us stretch our imagination so that new ideas may be entertained, ideas which may help us get around impasses in our current thinking.
Consider the following art puzzle someone showed me as an aid to my point. Connect the dots (x's) below using only 4 straight lines without lifting your pencil off the paper. The solution is at the end of the chapter.
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