To be a Philosopher

What is philosophy?  The answer lies in the question itself, because philosophy is all about asking questions.  Philosophy is not in the business of dictating answers, so an appropriate philosophical non-answer to the question is that philosophy examines the foundations on which we can claim to know anything.  Not surprisingly, this philosophical position challenges the credibility of all those who profess to know, and philosophy gains a well-deserved reputation for effrontery when it pitches the wisdom of not knowing against the authority of those who claim to know better.  The rest is history, but as philosophers we remain interested in what comes next, knowing that one of the obstacles to ‘getting to know’ is the belief that we know already.   This issue raises the philosophical paradox of knowing that we don’t know, which sits at the heart of knowledge like a ‘black hole’ sitting at the heart of the universe, apparently gobbling up its substance.  But perhaps the ‘dark matter’ of paradox is the gateway to another universe of understanding – beyond the confines of certainty.

A ‘certain fact’ is more a reflection of our psychology than the nature of an external world, for there is no fact in mind that has not been elevated to prominence by our selective thinking.  So our certainties may amount to no more than psychological inflexibilities concerning ideas we want to uphold, or myths we don’t want to relinquish.  Such is the case with our ideas of causality and nature as the cause of existence.  Meanwhile, our ideas about the special nature of life remain unshaken by all the explanations reducing it to unliving processes.  And though we might deem to explain consciousness as an outgrowth of unconscious functions, we know that much only because we already know consciousness to be something much more than that. Nonetheless, the facts continue to inform and it is tempting to think that they are selecting and refining our explanations and conclusions – that the ‘weight of evidence’ will eventually iron out any anomalies and contradictions.  But what if the facts are not straightforward in themselves?  What if the cumulative factual data remains inherently contradictory?

Despite knowing that life is made of some cheap chemicals that become organised, we still don’t know what makes the difference that makes them ‘come to life’ – knowing, as we do, that life marks a difference we cannot ignore by claiming there is no real difference.  Likewise, there are some important questions we can ask only ourselves, such as: by what property of thought are we able to think that a thought is just a brain process and in what state of knowledge do we conclude that it can’t be anything else?  Then what if facts are no more than markers of changes that can’t be explained adequately in terms of things as they were?  What if nature is a plurality of natures to be understood not as one thing or another, but as one thing and another?   In other words, there may be more to reality than the objective facts can reveal about a natural reality that has no cause to think about itself.

What is the law of nature that says everything is really something else or that knowledge owes to this form of explanation?  Perhaps we need to acknowledge the limits of explanation and look to the knowledge that comes with a re-awakening to ourselves as subjective entities, with subjectivity serving as a prerequisite to knowing anything.  Even in science we like to show that we know we know, but to truly know is to realise its limits – back to the paradox!  Then what can we know?  We know that knowledge is impossible without a reference to the facts, but it would be a big mistake to conclude that the facts are the drivers of knowing and wholesale repositories of certainty.  And whereas it seems quite logical to think that more and more facts are the answer to our factual conundrums and theoretical shortcomings, it is wholly unreasonable to think that the facts draw their own conclusions and can explain for us the nature of thought, reason, consciousness and understanding, as if there is nothing more to knowledge than a body of fact, and more to the better when it belongs to an objective state of reality that remains inherently unknowing – as if there is nothing more to reality, or for that matter, being realistic.

Mike Laidler