Monday, January 3, 2011

A Question Worth Asking

While spending time on the beach in Thailand, I'm trying desperately to get some writing in and not waste all my time here. If nothing else some time on the beach and in the ocean gives a little time to think. Increasingly I have become convinced that volition and human action should not only be the focus, but are almost the only question worth asking in philosophy, possibly aside from some more minor ones having to do with epistemology and logic. What follows is a new addition on the role of philosophy.

There has been a fear that philosophy may never get so far as to state a problem that is capable of being answered, one that is a genuine and capable of being tackled. Philosophy has, in its modern form, seemed to flounder, with its reliance on top down structural cohesion by a supreme law giver torn away under the most trivial scrutiny the void of nihilism and relativism that greeted it seemed to loom like an insurmountable storm. Yet on closer inspection the threat of nihilism seems to me to be more like a hangover caused by the continuation of thinking in an outdated patterns and asking questions that are no longer relevant. We make the mistake of acting like there should still be supreme answers, ultimate realities and absolutes hidden somewhere underneath all that we observe, we have it seems never come to terms with accepting a system that might be more open ended and we have had trouble accepting that we ourselves may be the final arbiters of the value of what we encounter. In the realms of physics, cosmology and the other sciences, the philosopher, has been relegated to the sidelines, occasionally offering helpful, and possibly almost as often unhelpful, commentary on the advances of human knowledge brought about through the research of the scientific community.

So as modern philosophy stumbles into the 21st century it has all but rendered itself a sideshow offering it seems very little in human understanding. From one fad to the next we have meandered through a sea of ill defined isms, content with deconstructing all of our questions to meaningless quibbles. Yet, despite the final say of what seems to be the recurring voice of 20th century mantras of relativism and nihilism there seems to be within them a failing, an ignoring of the real question of what philosophy needs to answer. In all of the theory and proclamations, philosophy forgot to consider that we are all still here in the real world, and despite all that it might assert about some actions being no better than others, or the arbitrariness of what actions we might take, we know that some actions taken are preferred to others, that some outcomes are better than others, and that despite the relative foundations of all we experience this does not mean that there is not enough of a foundation with which to assault the most important question of philosophy, “What do I do now?”

To me the central question of philosophy is simply the one that confronts the most basic question in need of an answer for the human condition, and that is the question of agency. That is not to say whether there is human agency or questions of determinism, such questions are near meaningless, the question that philosophy must answer is; what do we do next? This is a question that is forced upon us at every moment of our lives, and at each moment we act (or choose not to) and in this way it is the central concern of the human condition, and it becomes in my mind the most important question that philosophy can answer for the individual. Even those who insist at the top of their lungs that all endeavors or actions are equally worthless cannot escape that at every moment they themselves choose one action over another, and it is this reality of the human condition that lends itself to a non arbitrary application of our decision making powers to the outcomes of our lives.

This in my mind brings philosophy back to its roots and plants it back within the soil from which it was born, making it the study and application of how to live a human life. The art of using philosophy to create for us lives worth living has been at its core through much of its history, and it seems only in modern times that it has lost its way and deviated from this course. The core of philosophy lives in three fields; epistemology, logic and above all ethics.  For in answering the question of what it is that we should do next, we are asking our self an ethical question, we are asking ourselves what is the right action for me to take? In answering such questions philosophy also needs to come down from its theoretical heights and spend some time in the muck of actual human experience. This is where it is most needed, where it was meant to be practiced as made clear by most of the ancients such as the Stoics, Epicureans, Pyrrhonists, Buddhists, and many others. We have forgotten in the modern age that philosophy is not meant to just be discussed, that in order to be relevant it must also be lived. That is a key component that must be reintroduced to philosophy if it is to remain relevant.

While other questions may weigh in on this central question of agency, all other questions stand trivial beside it as the weight of circumstance bears down upon each of us in each passing moment of our lives. Questions of the nature of the universe, the origin of our species, the basis of reality, the reality of volition, all of these become peripheral to dealing with what circumstance has lain before us right now. Why am I here, what is my purpose, why is there something instead of nothing; all of this falls before the more immediate question; I have to pee, do I hold it or go to the bathroom despite the fact that someone is talking to me? The most important questions are not with the fundamentals of the universe, but the everyday questions that we are confronted with every moment of our being.

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