By Eric Bright
My answer to the question that, ‘What is the point of engaging in a philosophical conversation?’ has always been “None!” At least to me. Most questions that make any difference to me are asked outside of philosophy, mostly in different sciences who, themselves, are born out of philosophy.
Given that, I have always been curious as for why people ask questions in a philosophy community. What do you want to know?
If it matters, it is most probably being investigated in sciences. If it is not, it most probably does not matter.
This has been my personal observation in any philosophy group I have ever entered (there have been many). So, what others do see in these kinds of activities that I miss?
Philosophy is not a subject to me. It is a way of thinking. There might be legitimate questions about the utility of a certain way of thinking, in this case philosophy. Why does this particular way of thinking matter? My answer is more pragmatic than anything else: Because it is, by far, one of the few ways of thinking that has made any progress. It has made science possible. It is what science is built upon.
Topics that are typically discussed in philosophy are usually those that are either abandoned by science or not picked up by science yet. Some of them are interesting, but most of them are utterly outdated and irrelevant. Those topics that are interesting and relevant, usually either don’t have any decisive answers, or have very simple ones.
Those topics in philosophy that are still relevant today and have answers, usually have simple and short answers. In most cases one or two sentences would do. Rarely a couple of paragraphs might be required. The rest are almost always commentary to those central sentences.
Those topics that don’t have any clear answer, also are so because of simple issues. The lack of enough information, or wrong questions being asked.
These are the two largest sets of relevant or relevant-looking questions in philosophy. The set for ‘Others’ do not seem to be too large (and it includes paradoxes I guess).
The set of irrelevant or outdated question is philosophy is several times larger than the previous sets. Most questions and answers are either matters of semantics, misinterpretation, or mis-articulation of mixed-up intentions and concepts. As soon as some terms are defined clearly, many of these questions suddenly evaporate.
The other aspect of the issue is this: What type of questions are worth asking in philosophy? Why? Who cares? Why should I care?
Unfortunately, I found it almost futile to ask most philosophical questions these days. The reason is simple: Giving answers are easy. And everyone seems to like to believe that any answer is as good as any other. In mathematics, you don’t have this problem. Either your answer is verifiably correct, or it is verifiably incorrect (at least in most branches of math). Because of that, even though most of mathematics is tautologous, there is something to be learned. You can use it in physics, for example. And it would make a huge difference if you have calculus versus not having calculus. In philosophy, most answers don’t seem to matter. In physics, it does make a huge difference if you know that .
In philosophy however, most questions are too inconsequential to matter. Those that do matter, either don’t have any clear answer (in which case the answers are as good as no answer), or their answers are simple and already known. Variations in acceptable answers seem to be superfluous. Those conversations with important and significant consequences usually have many opposing answers. It is more like going to a vegetable market and pick and chose the types of vegetables you like for your soup. Anything will do as long as you have a recipe for it. Communism? Maybe! Lets try it and see. Capitalism? Umm.. why not! That might work too. Solipsism? You cannot refute it. Who knows. It might be the thing. Animal rights? No way! Let’s eat them all. Wait a second. What if they are conscious? But, what is consciousness anyway? Not enough information…
You might say that the study of consciousness is a big thing. I would say you would have been right half a century ago. Now it is a non-issue. It is a pseudo-philosophical question. Anything interesting about it is now being studied in sciences. Philosophy is just hanging there, because, well… it cannot let it go. Philosophy of mind is a huge Google+ Community today, several times larger than the Philosophy community itself. And it is almost completely obsolete. Take a course in the philosophy of mind. Let it be from one of the best universities and taught by one of the best professors on this planet with countless awards and whatnot. It is completely empty! Pointless! Interesting ideas for 50s or 60s. Maybe not even then. Now, anything important about “mind” is being studied in sciences. Anything and everything. If you don’t believe me, go ahead and try it. Take the course!
There is nothing “philosophical” about “mind” any more. The reason why it is still there is because it is one of the most favourite games of philosophy. It has always been. Also, lay people like the game too. They like almost everything anyway.
Don’t take me wrong. I am not suggesting that “philosophy is dead.” That statement is actually meaningless. It is like saying, “addition and subtraction are dead.” It is that stupid, if not more so. Philosophy is a method and a method that make science possible. Nevertheless, in what is called “philosophy,” it has become abandoned. Philosophical methods are not being used in what we call philosophy today. It is being heavily used in sciences though. Not in philosophy. Science is what used to be called philosophy. It moved on into its current form we know as science. What is left is “philosophy” without philosophical methods.
That is why most “philosophical” conversations don’t matter. Those conversations that do matter, are not “philosophical,” while being possible only because of philosophical methods.
I cannot get rid of this thought for some reason. It seems like an observation that no matter how hard I try to deny its existence, it is still there and is looking me in the eyes. I cannot, it seems, imagine it out of existence.
Most significant philosophical issues are ontological. Unless they are cleared up, the rest won’t matter. In the absence of clear answers to questions such as, “What is the nature of being? What is out there? Is that a relevant question? Out there vs. in here? How come? What is a thing? Anything?” then any other question and answer in philosophy sounds pointless. It is almost exactly equivalent of trying to solve calculus problems before knowing how to do addition and subtraction. What would be the point?
We still don’t have a clear answer to that. And people don’t want to be stopped at that question. Answer or no answer, they want to move on to the next game. What is the next game? What is your next question? And the games goes on and on.
Given all these, most questions sound pointless to me. Most answers to those pointless questions seem inconsequential to me. Why engage in conversations when you perceive it as pointless? What can be learned from such conversations?
I am not sure. I am not complaining at all. This seems to be the state of affairs to me. Whether it is how things are or are not, from a totally objective perspective, is not something anyone can know any time soon. Because, I am not sure if anyone can achieve a totally objective point of view.
There is no motivation to engage in most, if not all, conversations, if they seem pointless and insignificant. If someone wants to kill themselves, that is consequential. That can make a huge difference in the lives of many people. If someone is sad, it is hugely important, because it is real and consequential. I can engage in those kinds of conversations. They are basically non-philosophical in nature. If someone feels lonely, it can very well be my business. Whether or not I engage in a conversation over such issues can make a big difference in this world. But, imparting knowledge? What do I know to impart? Learning something new? What is new? Alright then, watch documentaries. Satisfying my curiosity? Get a textbook and do your homework. Gain knowledge? Go to a library. Borrow books/videos/courses/tutorials from a local library. Either enroll in a course or read the materials on your own.
What else to talk about that might be worth anyone’s while?