Friday, October 12, 2007

Unpopular Essays, Chapter 2

Chapter 2 (pages 32-44): “Philosophy for Laymen”

Mankind faces the problem of mastering nature -- a problem left to science -- along with the problem of how to use our command over nature. The latter problem is best addressed by reference to current and historical experience. Certainly more mastery over nature has not always brought about increased happiness; rather, wisdom is required. And since philosophy’s literal meaning is 'love of wisdom,' philosophy is what is needed to prevent a fall into the atomic abyss.

Philosophy has always tried to understand how the world works (a process connected with theory and science), and to identify and inculcate sound living (a process connected with practice and religion). The science part is sometimes misunderstood, because as soon as philosophical speculations become subject to the usual scientific method, the topic is removed from philosophy into one of the sciences – this has happened, for instance, with planetary theory and evolution. But the science might never have come about without the earlier philosophical theorizing. Philosophy still points to the proper attitude to take towards science, by identifying the strengths and weaknesses of scientific understanding. It also stokes interest in important questions (such as, does the universe have a purpose?) that cannot yet be answered scientifically.

Unknowledgeable approaches to philosophy lead to people thinking that their own “brand of nonsense” is an eternal truth, and any alternative is a “damnable heresy [p. 37].” Hence the religious strife of the last 1,600 years, when a little command of philosophy would reveal to the participants that they have no good reason to think their own ideas correct. Dogmatism is an enemy to human happiness. It is natural to desire certainty, but it is “an intellectual vice [p. 38]” nonetheless. People need to be trained to “withhold judgment in the absence of evidence [p. 38]” – this would prevent pernicious but popular doctrines that proclaim that killing one subset of humanity will somehow make the world better. Philosophy is the discipline best poised to teach people how to suspend their judgment in the absence of evidence.

Skepticism itself, however, like dogmaticism, is absolutist, embracing the certainty of unknowing -- but philosophy should serve as a counter to certainty of any type, whether of knowledge or ignorance. It would be good if education could make it the case that political statements would be more effective when couched in the probabilistic terms that accurately reflect our imperfect knowledge, rather than the absolutist statements that currently sell better politically. Though of course, we must act on our best knowledge, even as we recognize its potential incorrectness – and presumably our actions will include insurance against the possibility of being wrong. “When you act upon a hypothesis which you know to be uncertain, your action should be such as will not have very harmful results if your hypothesis is false [p. 40, italics Russell’s].” So you shouldn’t burn dissenters at the stake, though it might become a delicate matter if it gets to the point where it is either you or they who will be burned: “an uncertain hypothesis cannot justify a certain evil unless an equal evil is equally certain on the opposite hypothesis [p. 40].”

Philosophy’s practical aim is, like religion’s, to recommend the good life, though unlike religion, philosophy recognizes no appeal to authority or tradition, and more attention is given to the “intellectual virtues [p. 41]”. Ancient philosophers addressed their advice to men of means and leisure who could set up their own experiments in living if need be. But now, most people “have to earn their living within the existing framework of society, and they cannot make important changes in their own way of life unless they can first secure important changes in political and economic organisation [p. 41].” So in modern times ethics have to be reflected more in political behavior, and less in private life, than was the custom anciently.

An initial axiom is that “knowledge is good, even if what is known is painful [p. 41].” Our beliefs are influenced by profound forces, including our youthful lessons and the importuning of powerful organizations. So we must be careful to scrutinise our beliefs – especially those that we (or others) find painful to doubt -- to see which of them are held as true for good reason.

Statements about politics tend to be believed or not on the basis of the nationality of the believer – “which is logically irrelevant [p. 42].” Try replacing terms that might bias you – country names, for instance – with symbols, so that you can think more objectively and generally about political propositions. Generality might also be achieved by being acutely sensitive to dangers faced by distant, anonymous foreigners, but this is a rare characteristic, and most people have to rely instead upon an abstract frame of mind. But a widespread distribution of either approach would lead to vast improvements, as populations at odds with each other would work for their common good, without being too concerned about the precise distribution of the benefits.

Some study of philosophy can “greatly increase the student’s value as a human being and as a citizen [p. 44],” by inculcating the habit of exact thought, for instance, and providing a measure of man’s place in the cosmos. Philosophy, by broadening our thoughts, helps to relieve present anxieties, and promotes, as much as can be hoped for in a troubled world, serenity.

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