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[salon] Salon Discussion, January 9 - Transience Divine
January 21st, 2007
04:13 pm


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[salon] Salon Discussion, January 9
Disclaimer: I hold a regular Salon discussion group, with wide-ranging conversations on politics, philosophy, society, and life. The thoughts in this post came from a recent Salon, but are not meant to be an accurate reflection of the dialogue.

We had the Salon at MIT (and it will be again on Tuesday), and talked about MIT education, online gaming, and usury, and we griped about contemporary philosophy. I'm concentrating on the last, because it's symptomatic of (what I believe is) a deep rot in society.

With few exceptions, education at MIT is engineering, no matter what they call it. It's all math applied to different problems, or it tries to be. Our science is super-analytical, and we reduce everything to particle physics. Biology at MIT is biochemistry. Political science is the quantification and analysis of political metrics. In philosophy (my field), respectable papers contain at least one mathematical equation, and it's rare to read anything written before 1970.

I love philosophy, but I don't love what it's become over the past 50 years. Philosophy today is obsessed with language, with disconnecting itself from the problems of life, with breaking things down to and building things up from the driest infinitesimals. Instead of bold statements, it prefers conditional hedges, most of which would be intuitively obvious if they weren't couched in esoteric language. It's boring, and irrelevant. Since Descartes, the history of philosophy has been dominated by trends that brought it to this point. (Jonathan Swift, of all people, wrote about these in his Battle of the Books).

There are some deep chasms that run through philosophy, and philosophy is in no small way *about* those chasms. Epistemology is about the gap between understanding and truth. Ethics centers on the gap between choice and conscience. Ontology is the gap between our perceptions and reality. Metaphysics is between reliability and causality. And on a deeper level, there's a chasm between what we can philosophize about and *anything* real. "Truth", "Right", and "Being" are figments of the philosophical imagination, and we'll never know if thinking about them is anything more than mental masturbation.

To cross the chasms, you have to embrace some (however small) totally unfounded beliefs. Modern philosophy hates that and avoids taking any leaps. We say, "You're either progressing at a snail's pace, or not at all." The edges of these chasms are fractally complex, and modern philosophy satisfies itself with magnify-glassing the border. We've tried to build bridges across these gaps, brick-by-brick, so we could cross without making any jumps, but we haven't succeeded yet, and I don't think we will (the most famous failure was logical positivism).

Unfortunately, the unfounded leap is where the action, the adventure, the worth of philosophy is. The leap is the essence of paradigms, and it makes philosophy relevant. Ancient philosophy was quick to leap and quick to acknowledge the error in its leap, but do it anyway.

Modern philosophy conceives of itself as a science, and sees its future in scientificating itself ever more. It has some scientific methods and some so-far-so-good postulates, and it works on piecing those together into new corollaries. When an idea is shown to be false (not an easy thing to do, but anyway), it's thrown out. Philosophy has become the science of ideas.

Plato made statements he knew were wrong (and said so), because they contained a grain of truth, and their rejection contained a different grain of truth. There's no way to make real claims and have them be totally true, but ancient philosophers embraced and played with that fact.

Ancient philosophy wasn't a science, even though it dealt in truth. It was an *art*. It glorified in making beautiful leaps, in awing the mind, in revealing truths by artfully constructing new perspectives. But art and fine craft aren't appreciated in our society. Something is either science/technology/engineering/mathematics, or it's a hobby.

Today, as a result of technology and science, the world that we and philosophy deal with is hugely different than ever before. We've barely begun to construct worldviews that can cope with and enlighten our new modern lives. We *need* philosophy... but it has forfeited its service in society.

There is a growing counter-philosophy. There are movements in the past decade to revitalize philosophy and make it relevant. I think the way forward is clear... but we didn't discuss it much at the Salon, so I'll leave that for another day.

Current Mood: enragedplastic sword

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Date:January 24th, 2007 07:16 pm (UTC)
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