Pat Gunn (dachte) wrote,
Pat Gunn

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Philosophy in the Formative Years

As someone whose style in philosophical thought has wandered from logician to value-driven, I look back and wonder whether the transitions of the past would've been possible under this system. In general, I can say that when I was younger I liked neat lines, clear definitions, and believed that formal debates were the best way to ensure that one's beliefs were right. My philosophies were those that best survived the onslaught of arguments in other people's heads (and, increasingly as time has passed, my own) - the most defensible and well-defined of positions were somehow the best, and there were single shades of everything that when defeated stayed down.

Why was this style of thought appealing? I think it ties into a general trait of humanity, somewhat exaggerated by the slice of humanity I belonged to - that weasel cunning and trickery are valuable things. In a way they are, and they represent the species - we did not rise to dominance in nature because we were stronger than our competitors, nor was it that our general strategy of growth was better - it comes down to tactics - thinking in well-defined and tight situations, finding ways to surpass our physical limitations. I think this is where the human style of intelligence shines - we may have needed certain physical fitness as our ticket to the field, but the jock/warrior type of legend is only impressive compared to others of our species. Being creatures of weasel cunning, human philosophies start with trickery and only gain substance at the cost of becoming inaccessible to most people. Philosophical trickery (Sophistry) uses rigidity in order to achieve a quick win - creating a home ground where words and concepts have a single meaning and coercing people to bring their ideas onto that tight field where they can be wrestled down (usually by definition). People are lured to the field by a fetish for solidity (Loki's Wager).

Is rigid thought ever appropriate? Probably yes - formal logic has proven useful in other human endeavours, and because it has been shown empirically to be so useful, we accept it as a tool (subordinate to empiricism, as all tools of thought that might deal with truth are). Our aims in science likewise depend on a certain hard-nosed attitude.

I still wonder whether I could've had the shifts that I did had I drifted from logician-style thinking younger. I may have been over-able to peel away old status quos of thought than I am now. I never was recognisably Christian (my discovery of a book of creation myths of various cultures happened at too early an age for that), but my insistence on taking christianity as a relative whole at the time meant that my dismissing of miracles, the truth of the bible story, and the like led to a complete dismissal of the entire faith (one can dismiss these things and still claim a Christian identity, despite noncompliance with the Nicene Creed). Or, even had I not retained a Christian identity, I may have been left with something like my Father (vague and very cynical spiritualism) or Grandpa (vaguely christianish but without miracles, certainty of afterlife, or even certainty in the christian god). It was easier to cut with broad strokes, and that helped me move farther from where I was raised than I may have gotten with my more careful, value-driven steps of recent years. Viewpoints on these matters tend to move at a certain pace depending on one's philosophy - perhaps it was the claims of an Abrahamic faith itself that lend people towards logician-style reasoning, and the exit trajectory for Abrahamic faiths tend to look like this even if one later changes. I have occasionally met people from flavours of Hinduism that say "we are all Hindus, on our own path to truth" - it occurs to me that it might be very hard to leave that style of belief if one were in the central parts of it initially.

Considering all this again, I am not entirely certain of my metaconclusions here - I still might argue that Christianity doesn't mean much in forms that don't require a god, an afterlife, miracles, and several elements. Is it an adequate answer were I to ask my father (were I still on speaking terms with him) or my grandfather why they retain some ties to belief and they were to say that it provides a moral core and an identity? I might label them as an Abrahamic Agnostic and an Abrahamic Atheist if I wanted to provide terms that could (sloppily) sum what I understand of their beliefs (both in contrast to my mother, who I believe to be well within the bounds of conventional Christianity.. my family's beliefs and other identities are fairly diverse). Perhaps I would've been unsatisfied with what they were had I tried it anyhow, I guess I'll never know. I imagine their day-to-day lives on the topic are not very different than mine - I don't think my grandfather is or ever was a church-going regular, and my dad went, I think, mainly to keep my mom happy; I never got the impression that thoughts of gods were much on their mind, just as apart from occasionally thinking about religion and the religious, my life is absent of much in the way of doubts or thought about the reality on such matters - the mental world people build to live in doesn't require constant attention and even those of us who routinely pry at ideas have a lot of them to think about so any particular ones mostly get attention by chance or because they're somehow relevant to our lives.

I think the main idea that this meandering series of words is playing around is that having styles of thought that are less tactical/logicianlike (or, perhaps perversely opposite in that they're more precise with their targeting) mean that one moves less when exposed to new ideas - making an argument that strikes well against variant A of $SOME_BELIEF is still doable (although one is constrained by an effort to be fair to schools of thought in general), but unless that argument happens to successfully also strike down most other major variants of $SOME_BELIEF, we can no longer take such joy in it. I think as well as these skeptical currents force us to examine our own ideas in the same harsh light as we judge others, it calms us a bit. I still believe, for example, that empiricism is the best school of methods to understand the world, and that naturalism and materialism are the best assumptions to help us bootstrap that. Even given this, we get some humility from feeling that the ground we believe to be under our philosophical feet, while firmer than anything under those of others, is not entirely firm. Those who demand the bedrock that faith can provide (to some, not to everyone, witness Søren Kierkegaard) will eventually find empiricism lacking - it is our creed to imitate invisible truths, not to declare it. We may note that their certainty is based on something false, but that won't make our ideas more palletable - at some point they're forced into some flavour of either dishonesty or a refusal to consider some matters (it is possible to ask some very very pointed questions of Objectivists, who have this certainty fetish, about their ideas of moral truths, questions which are not at all troubling to strong moral relativists).

The tactician may find themselves without the clear upper hand in broad and careful philosophical fields - we give up on a lot of potential cleverness when we're careful enough. Much traditional philosophy aims to tighten the field back to the point where small ideas, tricks, can get some traction (liberty-fetishism, the original position, many others) because it's not easy to have a discussion out in the open. When politics are touched by someone with a little bit of a philosophical background (however little), their listeners are well advised to be wary of framing, warier yet of being wrestled wholesale into foreign ground where things like "by definition" and other definitional games are played. Perhaps new concepts are inevitable, but they should stand on their own beauty or be arguable in terms of the listener's values, not by alien logic.

Tonight I finally had some pumpkin pie (from allegro). Still tired from last night's migraine like I ran a 10k.

Challenge to random people who like challenges: name 8 songs you like that you don't think most people on your friends list have heard (you may be excused slightly if you're the kind sort who shares your mp3/ogg collection with your friends)

Also pondering: blog seems a near-total substitute for socialisation, and an unsatisfactory one at that - mostly one-sided conversations, interpersonal needs unmet. What to do given mental resources?

Tags: philosophy

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