The Role of Philosophy in Daily Life

One might read the previous chapter and question whether philosophy is more than esoteric navel-gazing.  Admittedly, I didn’t do a very good job of presenting it in a manner that would appeal to “Plumber Joe”.  Why should one concern oneself with trying to figure out all the little details about how the universe operates and why?  Shouldn’t it be sufficient to figure out how these more concrete tools at my disposal can contribute to my quality of life?  I can make more money, get better employee benefits, and have more self-satisfaction if I simply tend my garden[1] and work on much more real things.  Besides: lifting weights, buying cars, and playing guitar are easier activities than questioning fundamental assumptions about reality and considerably increase my value in the sexual market by comparison.

I, myself, feed my growing family by way of more practical considerations than discussing the specific ontological status of contracts.  I’m a facilities manager by trade and a philosopher by vocation.  Given that practical considerations generally have more market value than philosophical ones, why would one choose to engage philosophy?  There are a number of answers that, cumulatively, make a compelling case for such activity.  For now, I will focus on the more practical aspects and save the more psychological and ephemeral ones for later in this book.

One of the key aspects of the philosophical exercise is epistemology.  What epistemology effectively boils down to is the study of knowledge: what it means to know something and by what mechanism one comes to know something.  At first, it may seem like a dumb line of inquiry.  One knows something if they believe something and it happens to be true; they know these things because experience leads them to believe such things with accuracy.

As anyone who has had experience with mind-altering substances, mental illness, or living with a pathological liar, will attest, sometimes knowing things isn’t as easy as people initially think.  This has been the case throughout history, as well.  If I see an omen or an angel comes down and tells me something will happen at an appointed time, could that belief rightly be called knowledge?  What if an authority figure tells me something?  Hell, even my senses are suspect; how many times has someone looked at an object and misjudged its size or distance, witnessed a mirage, heard or felt something that didn’t correspond to anyone else’s experience, or any number of other illusions?

Descartes[2] wondered if he was the only mind in existence and that there may be a spirit of some sort causing him to have a vision of all the other phenomena he experienced.  This line of reasoning is called solipsism[3].  This solipsistic reasoning has been extended to “Matrix”-like brain-in-a-vat thought experiments and universe-simulation theories.  One doesn’t need to get as involved as Descartes, though, a quick trip on drugs or mental instability will give one sufficient experience of “seeing things that aren’t really there” to begin doubting one’s senses.

Epistemic problems don’t even need to be that far-reaching, either.  For example, inexplicably, there are a growing number of people that believe the Earth is flat, that crystals have magic healing powers, that children should be encouraged to undergo irreversible unhealthy and life-altering plastic surgery, and so many more absurdities.  Just yesterday, I was led to believe that I had to be somewhere at a certain time… and both the time and location were incorrect.

Understanding the nature of knowledge in a deeper and more reflective manner has, however, been quite useful in preventing situations such as the one that occurred yesterday.  For example, exploring common occurrences of human fallibility in theory helps to identify instances in reality and navigate people through them.  When attempting to coordinate multiple contractors, administrators, and customers, heightened awareness of epistemic difficulties and solutions has been invaluable.

Something related to epistemology and equal in utility is the study of ontology.  Ontology is the study of existence, things that exist, and in what manner.  Again, this may seem to be as obviously superfluous as epistemology at first, and one could just as easily be surprised.  The earlier epistemic examples of “experiencing things that aren’t really there apply to ontology as well, of course.  But what if I told you that a great many things we take for granted as existants[4] are of dubious ontological status?

There’s the obvious things like God, space aliens, astrological energies, political authority, true love… and some less obvious things like consciousness, free will, fundamental particles, or that fortune that Nigerian prince still owes you[5].  One can’t be certain of the existence (or non-existence) of these things if one doesn’t have a firm grasp on one’s methods of knowing things but, even then, it can be difficult to prove or disprove the existence such things.

This is where the bottom-up approach of philosophy
I mentioned in the previous chapter becomes pertinent.  If one can secure knowledge of or, at least, confidence in the existence of some things, it becomes easier to bring other things into that sphere of knowledge by way of understanding the relationships between the two.  Since Descartes’s famous cogito[6], philosophers have largely attempted to prove their own existence or the existence of the phenomena experienced by themselves and used that as a starting place by which to prove the existence of the other furniture of the world that we all take for granted.

I’m sure that this doesn’t seem practical just yet.  “I know I’m hungry because I feel hungry and I know that this bacon cheeseburger I’m about to eat is real because I can see, smell, touch, and taste it.”  Fair enough.  But what if there is a God and he hates people who eat cheeseburgers?  Alternatively, what if that meat isn’t real meat but is some science experiment grown in a vat and happens to be riddled with prions[7]?  Knowing either of those circumstances may give one sufficient reason to modify one’s behavior.

The same goes for whether or not the cow and pig that were, ostensibly, butchered to produce one’s meal possess consciousness and are capable of experiencing meaningful mental events.  If one were convinced that were the case, one would likely become a vegetarian, posthaste.  Otherwise, why wouldn’t one eat baby-burgers with dolphin sauce?

That took a dark turn, but the question still stands.  There is a great deal of human suffering that one can witness and, assuming one believes that other humans exist and are capable of comparable mental faculties to oneself.  A good portion of this suffering is, directly or indirectly, a result of epistemic or ontological mistakes made by either those that are suffering or by others who have those unfortunate individuals within their sphere of influence.

This is why ethics is the oldest and most-engaged field of study throughout the history of philosophy.  The pre-Socratics[8] were primarily concerned with “how does one live the good life” and secondarily concerned with “how does the world work?”  Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle had similar priorities.  Medieval thinkers in Europe and the Middle East alike were also primarily concerned with “How does one be holy?” and secondarily concerned with “How does God work?”.  Enlightenment-era and modern thinkers have been primarily concerned with “what is justice?” and secondarily concerned with political institutions such as monarchy and various forms of socialism (such as democracy, republicanism, communism, etc.).  Only recently has postmodernism shifted the focus from “how does one live the good life?” to “how can we best undermine all of the institutions which were built by Europeans of bygone eras?” with living the good life becoming a secondary philosophical pursuit.

Of course, one can’t know how one ought to act without first knowing at least a little bit about the world one is trying to navigate, hence my initial focus on epistemology and ontology.  For example, one cannot determine that one ought to act to minimize the suffering of others if one does not first establish that there are others who can suffer and that suffering is undesirable.  The same dilemma applies when determining that one ought to live by the prescriptions of a book written thousands of years ago or refraining from eating a delicious and juicy steak.

A quick survey of ethical theories will present so many varieties of premises and conclusions that one is liable to despair at the outset of such an investigation.  Do not worry; I hope that, by the end of this book, you will have a firm enough grasp of philosophical methodology and (possibly) the reality of the matter which philosophy engages that you will be well on your way to making sense of ethics.

For now, I think it should suffice to say that ethics is the most practically applicable area of philosophy because its primary focus is influencing how one acts.  Ethics takes into account the various circumstances an actor finds himself in and applies a rubric by which he can or should act.  As the ancient Greeks phrased it, the problem is “how does one live the good life?”  Such an inquiry is obviously directed at happiness and, hey, who doesn’t like being genuinely happy?

Admittedly, this rubric must take into account objective facts about the world, such as what things exist and in what manner as well as subjective matters such as the objective of the individual actor, and that process is where things get hairy.  The methodology one uses to sort through the furniture of the world and the subjective goals of the individual actor is the source of the plethora of divergent ethical theories[9].

Ultimately, this introduction to the basics of philosophy is directed at establishing in your mind the plausibility of philosophy having practical utility in daily life.  I do not know you, the reader, personally but I am confident that it is a rare exception to find an individual completely lacking in ethical awareness.  How often does one encounter phrases like “that’s just wrong,” “people should just,” “such-and-such are as bad as Hitler,” “you really should go vegan/to church/vote/to college” or other variations of statements directed at modifying or justifying one’s behavior?  Whether those claims relate to a consistent and expansive network of ethical calculations and value judgements or not, those are ethical frameworks in action.

Even if one isn’t aware of the genealogy of those ethical compunctions, I can guarantee that they are derived from some philosophical work or another.  It is important to be aware of that genealogy, though; without the ability to critically examine the consistency of ethical claims one can fall victim to con artists and well-meaning do-gooders alike.  How many political campaigns have stemmed from undeserved patriotism or lies generating outrage?  How many people donate money to charities that simply show a sad image and ask for money, only to line the pockets of fraudsters?  Philosophy can help prevent such things.

[1] This is a barely-veiled allusion to “Candide” by Voltaire.  It’s an exceptional work of scathing philosophical satire.  It’s not as much fun if one hasn’t familiarized oneself with Leibnitz’ optimism.

[2] Rene Descartes: French philosopher from the turn of the 17th century; began a series of inquiries in modern philosophy named “Cartesian” which center on mind-body dualism and problems of knowledge.

[3] Solipsism: The belief that one’s self is the only thing that can be known to exist as such.

[4] Existants (n): Things that exist.

[5] If you don’t get the reference, just look up “Nigerian Prince scam” on the internet.

[6] “Cogito ergo sum.” translated as “I think, therefore I am.”

[7] A prion is a unique vector of disease wherein mutated proteins migrate through a host organism and reproduce, much like a virus.

[8] Pre-Socratics (n): The philosophers who lived in the Mediterranean region before the time of Socrates (the end of the 5th century BC).

[9] This dilemma is made strikingly clear by the observation of David Hume in “A Treatise of Human Nature” wherein he indicates that moral obligation is a concept of a different category than facts about the world.  This is commonly called the is-ought divide.  I will address this particular issue in the chapter on human action.

Tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.