Philosophizing: Hard Because It’s Easy

Philosophizing: Hard Because It’s Easy

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A man boasts about his successful marriage.
“What’s your secret?” a friend asks.
“Simple division of labor,” the husband says. “I make all the big decisions; my wife makes all the small ones.”
“I don’t understand,” says his friend. “For instance?”
“For instance, my wife decides where I work, where we live, where the kids go to school. I decide whether the U.S. should pull out of Iraq.”

Like the proud husband, I’ve gravitated over the years toward the big decisions. I’m among the rare few whose profession entails thinking about huge questions–even bigger than the husband’s. I can take a tax deduction for expenses related to pondering such imponderables as these:

Which came first, intelligence or matter?
How are energy and information similar and different?
What’s the origin of life here or anywhere?
How is learning and evolving similar and different?
Where does purpose come from?
Does the universe have purpose?
What’s the difference between animal and human consciousness?
What’s the natural history of ambiguity?
What’s the ontology of epistemology?

But I do get the joke. Practically speaking, these aren’t important decisions at all. The little decisions are the ones that matter most. Whether intelligence or matter came first doesn’t make much difference to your everyday life. Whether you’re in the right job does. Size isn’t everything, or rather, small is big.

People tend not to give the cosmic questions the same focused attention they give the practical ones, and those who claim they do usually seem merely preoccupied with practical outcomes they can promote with their cosmic answers–the fundamentalist church fundraisers, jihadists, political ideologues, bombastic public intellectuals, relentless bloggers (including me), self-satisfied true believers. Feigning urgent cosmic concern is disingenuous, but it’s natural. If you have two reasons to focus on something and one of those reasons is a lot more practical and pressing than the other, the practical will tend to drive your focus. So even if you start off philosophical, you can easily drift toward its practical implications–while claiming to still be doing philosophy (or theology, or political theory, or any of kind of big-picture theorizing). People complain about philosophers thinking too much. They’re too much in their heads and not enough in their hearts. But often the real problem is that their hearts are doing the driving and they’re just using their heads for cover. That’s what I tend to think of Republican philosophers, for example. They may claim they believe in something on principle but it sure looks like they believe more for practical small-decision benefit. And they same the same about us Left-leaners.

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Grand thinkers have a bad reputation, and it’s well deserved. Our focus on the broadest issues is suspect. It’s so impractical to care about those big things that it’s reasonable to suspect we probably don’t. People care about practical matters, like making money, not making profound sense; fixing things, not fixing theories; gaining stuff, not gaining abstract wisdom. A practical answer is where the rubber hits the road. A cosmic answer is where the rubber spins freely in lala land.

Spinning rubber can be fun because where there’s no traction there’s also no resistance. Big decisions are hardly testable. If anyone tells you you’re wrong, you can simply say “well maybe so, but maybe not . . . ” with a knowing smile, and then go on spinning your wheels.

The smaller the decision, the more testable it is. Small decisions meet the resistance of immediate evidence. Accountants, brain surgeons, restaurateurs, auto mechanics–when they make a mistake, they find out right away. Philosophers can do no wrong, or rather they can do a lot of wrong and get away with it because with grand schemes, everything is speculative and everything is at least marginally possible. Since there isn’t some plentiful reliable unambiguous stream of evidence about cosmic happenings in the farthest reaches of time and space, even the most preposterous theory could, theoretically, be right. So long as a theory is just the tiny bit plausible it can survive and thrive for millennia. And every grand theory is at least a tiny bit plausible.

Philosophy is a terrible profession. And not just because the pay is bad and the jobs are few. By its nature it attracts and breeds riffraff, sloppy thinkers promoting stupid ideas.

And you can never be sure you’re not one of them.

You can never be sure because, as I’ve said, nothing abstract is absolutely provable or unprovable, but also because it’s not possible, in any systematic way, to earn the respect of peers or laypeople. Since thousand-year-old schools of hard-working self-proclaimed experts on the big questions can in retrospect look like numbskulls following preposterously dead leads, there’s no guarantee that the years you’ve spent following an idea are bringing you any closer to real answers. When it comes to practical matters, you can’t be big and dumb for long. But philosophically you can think big and dumb for a very long time.

And the amateurs know it. They know that when it comes to proving to be right, their chances aren’t much worse than yours. If you’re a Ph.D. geologist, people defer to your expertise. But everyone is an expert on philosophy. Try holding forth at a dinner party about the way causality works or the natural history of purpose. You’ll be interrupted and corrected by people who have spent little time studying but feel as much the expert as you. Geologists don’t have that problem. When they talk about igneous rock formations people listen with respect.

William James defined philosophy as “a peculiarly stubborn attempt to think clearly.” I like that definition a lot but would add “about the most perplexing problems imaginable.” In fact, once a problem stops being perplexing science snatches it away. Philosophers don’t get to play with the straightforward problems.

Doing philosophy is like mud wrestling. It’s intrinsically messy work and very rarely do you get a grip on the opposition (”yeah well, maybe so; maybe not,” they’ll smirk).

And the worst of it is that many philosophers–professional and amateur alike–don’t realize it. They act as though the challenge is to come up with one plausible answer. When they find one, they’re so impressed at the sheer magnitude of its implications that they feel brilliant and resolved. Coming up with a plausible answer is never the problem. In fact you can come up with hundreds of them. And we have. We’ve ended up with hundreds of self-satisfied philosophical factions settling too early upon a range of plausible hypotheses, laughing knowingly at the implausibility of opposing theories but holding on to their own theory’s modest plausibility as evidence that everyone can stop thinking know because the problem is solved.

If you want to see humanity at its dumbest, watch us do philosophy–mud wrestling in the dark in grease-covered padded suits so we never get hurt. Lots of us. Whole teams of mud wrestlers on opposing but ultimately unsuccessful jihads.

Participating in such folly would be embarrassing if the folly were our fault. It’s not, though. It’s the nature of highly speculative, evidence-poor research. And I love it. I figure that for someone like me, lucky enough to have options, trying to take careful notes in a persistently stubborn attempt to think clearly about the biggest goings on ever is a decent way to spend one’s life. And I do exaggerate here. There are standards. They aren’t as hard and fast as empirical standards, but some arguments conform better than others to the evidence that exists. Ultimately someone has to decide whether we should pull out of Iraq, and by thinking carefully while never being able to achieve anything but an educated guess about the big things, we can reduce the chances of guessing wrong.

The ship of my life, well I’m sailing it
If wealth was the test yes, I’m failing it
If the object is plumbin’
A deeper wisdom In
That sense I’d say that I’m nailing it.