02 June 2020

Philosophy is a sandbox: get in & play !

Virtually everyone is aware of the trolley problem in philosophy: a run-away trolley/streetcar/tram is going to kill four people, but you're standing by a switch and you have the capacity to redirect the tram to another track where it will kill one person - do you pull the switch? 

The 'trolley problem' is a staple of philosophy - and it is an example of staple method used in philosophy - the thought experiment.

Or put another way, 'what if' questioning. Or to put a fancy term on it: hypotheticals.

Philosophy then, is a sandbox. It is a place for grownups to play with ideas, concepts, hypotheticals, thought-experiments (e.g., in software development). 

It is fitting to think of philosophy as a sandbox because some of the best philosophers on the planet are children. Children are constantly struck by how the world is wonderful and awesome, they are curious,  and they are constantly asking 'why?' Grownups make up answers to children's questions in a futile effort to end the endless questioning. This further's the child's philosophical development as they become wiser still, and continue by questioning the answers! Until they become adult, and stop asking questions!

The best philosophers are probably also like children in the sense that they are unpublished. For one thing, they are too busy asking questions. Or more generally, they are too busy doing philosophy to be telling everyone about what they're doing which is learning. Besides, publishing is a bit of a challenge to philosophy because it generally requires a commitment to a position - which is in some ways anathema to philosophy. If you're telling everyone the answer, you're not asking questions! And you're probably wrong - as some questing philosophers are likely to show you very soon.

Good philosophy is (as we learn from children) about asking questions and questioning the answers. Parents who know the answers (or more correctly, think they know the answers) are dreadful philosophers.

Some ask whether philosophy is practical, but this is probably asking the wrong question.

Philosophy is more a practice than practical. 

Philosophers are sometimes conceived of as being like medical practitioners. They offer salves and treatments for those that are feeling poorly. But they are probably better conceived as being like a counsellor, a coach or a trainer. They stand along those doing the doing, they offer support, encouragement and some ideas, but they cannot do the work. The counsellor can be empathic, but they cannot take on the client's problems. Real philosophy is doing the work.

You can't hire someone to do philosophy for you any more than you can hire a counsellor, coach or trainer to do the work for you. You don't hire a philosopher - you are a philosopher.

But that leads inevitably to the question of whether philosophy works: is it effective? In a world of enterprise and utilitarian thinking, 'is it effective?' is really asking does it help our bottom line? 

But there is another way in which philosophy might work even while not affecting the bottom line. And that is in the sense that it takes the individual to the place that they need to go. And this is entirely subjective. If the individual does the practice and they feel it helps, then yes, it helps. If they do not do the work, or do not find it helpful to do the work, then no, it does not help.

It is a curious causal relationship. If doing of the practice is helpful for those who do the practice, then doing the practice is helpful. If doing the practice is not helpful for those who do the practice, then they stop doing the work.

It is no accident that philosophy is somewhat like education. It is not something that is given, but something that is picked up. A teacher can teach until their tongue is dry, their eyes bulge, and their brains begin to fry - but if the student is not interested in learning, then the student will not learn. 

The success of education like philosophy is a self-fulfilling prophecy. 

Another metaphor is the placebo. If you use homeopathy, and it works for you, I say go ahead, use homeopathy. I'm pretty sure it does no harm, and if you think it works, then it is doing good. If you don't believe it and you don't use it, it is almost certain that it will not work.

Does homeopathy work, is it effective? If you say it is working for you, then yes, it is working. If you say it is not working for you, then no, it is not working for you.

You see, if believing something makes it so, or believing something ain't so, makes it not so, then it works.

Philosophy is not about knowledge, it is about belief. Does it work? If you believe it is helpful, then it is; if you believe it isn't, then it is not.

So give it a go. What have you got to lose? And if it doesn't work for you, then don't do it.

Things don't have to be practical, I don't have to do things because it has a 'good outcome' in some grand, observable sense. It is enough that it seems good for me, that it does me good. 

That's good enough for me!

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"My skill is not in detecting the dangers: it is in mentally testing out the possible responses; it's in painless, risk-free optimization."
  -- Charles Foster (2016), Being a  Beast (p.165)

"[Some philosophers] educate through cataphasis: positive statements about the Good and the True. Jesters, by contrast, educate through apophasis, literally un-saying. Instead of statements, riddles; instead of commandments, questions."
  -- Allan Jay Levinovitz

(I guess I'm a jester - and I'm okay with that. How about you?)

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