Tuesday, June 7, 2011 8:57 PM
“Where do we go from here?" That is the question that started philosophy off and it still being asked today. The purpose of it all appears to elude us, presumably because we haven’t yet got all the facts. There''s a lot still to learn, and the search for wisdom is almost as complicated as it always was. Imagine stone age man looking across a violent landscape pockmarked with volcanoes. No doubt he spent most of his time searching for food. Not until he had leisure time to spend sitting under the tree could he afford to wonder what exactly was “going on". And then there was tribal warfare constantly killing off the strongest and making the lives of the weakest very, very miserable (In some parts of the planet it’s still going on, and in the rest it''s disguised as politics).
In what we call ancient time (not so long ago rarely), a few relatively well-heeled thinkers came up with some brilliant ideas, grist for the philosophical mill to grind upon – men like Thales, Democritus, Kanada and Aristotle. These and men like them set the stage for a whole new enterprise described as philosophy which took up the cudgels when the supernatural proved useless, or at least very unreliable;
not that philosophers today have come to any final conclusions. They spend much time arguing about knowledge itself – how can we say we know anything? What is the difference between belief and knowledge? And would you believe, no sooner had they sorted out this conundrum, then along came the scientists who had been waiting in the wings to tell us that nothing can ever be known for certain and that everything is either always uncertain or at the best only probable.
The reason for this discomforting discovery is mathematical, beyond the wits of most of us to work out. And it leaves us in a quandary: if everything is uncertain how can we plan ahead? What is the real basis for morality? And what is more, we are left with the uneasy suspicion that we may have not found out the real flaws in religious belief.
Not surprisingly religious believers had a field day – if nothing is certain about science and never can be, maybe there is room for God! But the philosophers would have none of this. Just because science (including mathematics) doesn''t yet know the answer or even doubts its own machinations, doesn''t mean either that the supernatural exists or that we will remain ignorant for ever.
Accordingly philosophy has taken to the streets. A new dependence upon argument, its usurpation by politics, its extrication from history all enabled it to concentrate its interests elsewhere. The Tao and the Vedas made another appearance and ethics now became now all the rage, along with economics and globalization, which in turn has turned the spotlight on to the ravages of nature and our destruction of the environment. Indeed, Soupism itself is just one example of what philosophers are finding more digestible, assisted by new phenomena such as the Internet and its effect upon our understanding of where and who we all are. At times it’s as if we are being introduced for the first time. One of our most perceptive philosophers sees hope only in toleration, acceptance of each other as fellow travelers in a grand saga without meaning beyond itself.
So much for Plato, who seems to have looked to a brave new world of mathematical perfection.
Perhaps like Wittgenstein we should trust education rather than think tanks. Wasn''t it Epicurus who taught Nothing Too Much, or was that the great oracle of Delphi? Any way, we’ll get it right one day. The search for truth will continue.