Solving philosophy

Jose asked:

How likely is it that someone will solve philosophy as a whole within our lifetime?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

I have a distinct memory of being told by a fellow Oxford graduate student some time around the late 70s that no less a philosopher than David Wiggins — later to become Wykeham Professor of Logic and Fellow of New College, Oxford as well as Fellow of the British Academy — had expressed to him the view that most of the problems of philosophy had been solved through the application of analytic techniques. All that remained was mopping up a few details or side issues.

This is strongly reminiscent of the statement by a noted physicist Albert A. Michelson, famous for the Michelson-Morley experiment that led to Einstein’s discovery of the Theory of Relativity, that,

“The more important fundamental laws and facts of physical science have all been discovered, and these are now so firmly established that the possibility of their ever being supplanted in consequence of new discoveries is exceedingly remote… Our future discoveries must be looked for in the sixth place of decimals.”

(Speech given in 1894 at the dedication of Ryerson Physics Lab, University of Chicago, quote taken from an answer on Quora)

How wrong he was! Ironic indeed that he was responsible for one of the experiments — the Michelson-Morley experiment disproving the existence of an ‘ether’ — that overthrew the classical understanding of physics and mechanics bequeathed by Isaac Newton.

The time is ripe for a paradigm shift in philosophy, but I fear that such a change will not come for a while yet. Academic philosophy, for all its seeming variety, has found itself entrenched in ever more well-worn paths and now seems incapable of even addressing the really fundamental questions.

As I’ve noted before, academic philosophers are ‘busy, busy, busy’. You’d never guess that they were in reality stumbling in the dark, blindfold. Their arrogance is truly astonishing.

No, Jose, it is not likely that philosophy will be ‘solved as a whole’, now, or indeed ever. Unless, of course, you mean that human beings will get over their impulse to ask philosophical questions, be ‘cured’ of the impulse to philosophize. That’s still an all-too present danger.

Why is there anything at all? And, given that something exists, why am I here, experiencing it (whatever ‘it’ is)? You’ll find those two questions on the first page of my book Naive Metaphysics. The first question is well known, the second — the one I call the ‘idiotic conundrum’ — is the controversial one. Someone ever-so like me would not be me. ‘I might not have existed but someone exactly like me might have existed in my place.’ (Not a lot of people have seen this — yet. I keep trying. And that was a quarter of a century ago!)

Sometimes I like to watch detective programs on TV or NetFlix. One I quite liked from over 20 years ago is ‘Jonathan Creek’. Locked door murder mysteries. The cupboard was carried up three flights of stairs and it was empty. Then how come five minutes later it had a dead body in it?! You drive yourself mad trying to think of a plausible explanation. And then, when the explanation comes, you say, ‘Of course! Why didn’t I think of that?!’

Hard as I try, I cannot imagine what an answer to my conundrum would be. It’s just impossible. But I know myself, and my limitations (following the advice of Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry). I could be wrong and probably am.

Meanwhile, there’s nothing to do but keep thinking, keep looking — keep hoping, maybe, that light will come.

4 thoughts on “Solving philosophy

  1. You wrote, ” but what that sentence means to me is that my existence cannot be a physical fact. ”
    I also am inclined towards thinking similarly.

    You wrote, “I don’t have a theory to explain it — to explain why there is a subjective world in addition to the objective world.”

    Perhaps Kant’s transcendental idealism has something to say about it. Kant says:-

    “All our intuition is nothing but the representation of appearance; that the things that we intuit are not in themselves what we intuit them to be, nor are their relations so constituted in themselves as they appear to us. What may be the case with objects in themselves and abstracted from all receptivity of our sensibility remains entirely unknown to us. We are acquainted with nothing except our way of perceiving them, which is peculiar to us, and which therefore does not necessarily pertain to every being, though to be sure it pertains to every human being.”
    (A42/B59–60)

    I do not know what you meant by ‘objective reality’.

    I think that what science and people generally mean by objective reality or material reality is actually only subjective appearance of reality- in- itself (thing in itself) relative to humans and these subjective realities have no existence apart from the subjects.

    I think that there is one reality in itself and billions and billions of its appearances relative to the subjects.

  2. I don’t have a theory to explain it — to explain why there is a subjective world in addition to the objective world — but what that sentence means to me is that my existence cannot be a physical fact. The physical facts could remain the same and I could go out of existence in the middle of writing this sentence. And nothing would change or be affected. Other than the fact that *I* no longer existed. Traditionally, arguments for a ‘soul’ have had the implication that the soul must outlive the physical body. On my view, the ‘I’ is the most evanescent thing imaginable. I could cease to exist the very next moment. My continuing to exist is as much a mystery as the fact that I exist at all.

    Thomas Nagel, in ‘The View From Nowhere’ acknowledges the problem (of explaining the meaning of ‘I am GK’ or ‘I am TN’) but he thinks that he has solved it. There is only one ‘objective I’, he says, which is one and the same subject of every sentence of the form ‘I am X’. This is reminiscent of the Hindu theory of the Atman. We are all ‘It’ (as Alan Watts says in ‘The Book On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are’). Another philosopher who holds this view is Arnold Zuboff, who has made some videos on YouTube. We once had a memorable dinner in our younger days, when he came to talk to the Birkbeck College Philosophy Society on ‘Love’. Quite a character. Google him.

  3. Geoffrey Klempner, The quality of your thinking is high and noble.

    ‘I might not have existed but someone exactly like me might have existed in my place.’

    To me it seems that if someone is exactly (really absolutely) like you then he would be you. Only you are identical to yourself and nothing and nobody else.

    The law of identity.

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