A Philosopher’s Apology
Let me paint an all too familiar picture. A child is being tended to by an adult, and the child being curious as most children are starts to ask a never ending string of “Why?”-s, much to the chagrin of the adult. If we think about it for a little while it becomes clear that it isn’t the child’s fault, it is only articulating and asking questions to make sense of the world it was brought into. One of the reasons we as adults get annoyed by these questions is because they break the thin facade of certainty that we’ve built for ourselves so that we can go on living our lives. The questions never really go away, we simply silence them. Dealing with them is hard work, and if we want to live in a society and pursue some form of material success we need to forget about these questions and play the game. So when a child mindlessly confronts us with questions to which we don’t know the answers to, it ends badly for the child and kills its curiosity. Philosophy simply gives me the freedom to confront that ever present uncertainty, and address the long forgotten questions without trying to silence them.
One of the great things about us humans is that we have ways of preserving and passing on knowledge from one generation to the next without much loss. It is what enabled our ancestors to figure out which mushrooms are truly delicious and which ones are lethal (albeit with a lot of trial and fatal error). Although other species have ways to do something similar, their methods of passing on knowledge aren’t as sophisticated as ours. I believe that existential questions have plagued humanity since we managed to free ourselves from the hunter-gatherer lifestyle. Maybe the hunter-gatherers pondered about them as well. The point I’m leading up to is that there have been countless generations of people who have wrestled with the same questions, and many smart people who took their crack at answering them. Being the knowledge preserving species that we are and philosophy being a mostly systematic attempt to answer those existential questions; together enable me to learn from the work of the greats virtually for free. I won’t be able to say it better than Newton. “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” I am aware of my limitations and am painfully aware that I’m no genius. I find strength in the fact that I can stand on the shoulders of the giants of philosophy and see further than they did.
For instance, Aristotle is a philosopher I admire. One of his arguments is about the eternal nature of time. The argument goes like so. He says let us assume that time isn’t eternal. Now the question “What came before time?” arises, and in asking this question we invoke the existence of time before time existed. Which is logically absurd. Similarly the argument works on the other extreme as well, let us say that time ended. Naturally the question “What comes after that?” arises, and again we invoke the existence of time by asking that question. So, Aristotle concludes that time is eternal. Although seeing further than this is a work in progress, I find this simple argument fascinating. I find it interesting to ponder about questions like these. Philosophy provides me with rich thought experiments like these.
In the end, I believe that we are emotional beings masquerading as rational ones. I engage with philosophy as it allows me to cope with this belief and allows me to stay humble. Humility with which I hope to answer questions of inquisitive children and encourage their curiosity instead of killing it.
Note: This essay is the result of an exercise in writing that I did with my philosophy study group. The idea of the exercise was to write something short that would fit in an A4 sheet of paper.