(Originally published on Medium.com)
In the age of international commerce, nanotechnologies and the ever-persistent economic troubles, philosophy sounds like a frivolous endeavour. A pass-time for the lazy and the unemployable, denounced by the likes of Stephen Hawking, seemingly obscene in its premise of ignoring practical productivity for the sake of probing the way we construct our thoughts. Yet, these are precisely the times when philosophy is needed.
Never before have we depended so much on concepts and words. Ideas spreading at almost the speed of light means that what someone thinks in the morning in Japan can become a conversation topic for everyone in the United States by noon. It also means that the topics will fade in and out of the collective consciousness, possibly by the evening of the day they appear. The constant pressure of ever-incoming information urges our brains to respond, yet the fastest mean of response is not deep contemplation, but a knee-jerk type reaction. If this is what we want to change, the question isn’t just “how do we change”, but more importantly “how did we get here?” How should ideas influence the way we change?
On another front, science is advancing at an ever-increasing pace. New discoveries in every discipline are made every year, yet only those which are deemed publicity-worthy by the media have a chance of wider exposure. At the same time, the public’s comprehension of science doesn’t match the needs for full understanding of the consequences of these discoveries – not so much because of a failure of an educational system, but rather because the amount of research is too vast to keep up with. (An estimated 1.8 million articles in the year 2011 in English alone.) What do we mean then, when we talk about “science”? Is it the same thing the scientists do?
And when it comes to the issues of ethics, in the world of cloning, mass surveillance and never-ending warfare, what can the average person say? What time, let alone information or skills, does an average person have when deciding on complex issues that just keep on piling up? It’s simply much easier to just give up and let others decide, but – if asked – would we ever say we genuinely want this?
And when it comes to our own lives, when we are searching for the elusive “meaning” and “purpose”, how do we do it? Do we try to fit as best as we can into the scheme fashioned by our predecessors? Or maybe – in a bout of late rebellion – we try to radically change our lifestyles, or subscribe to new religious beliefs? At the end of the process, in between the self-help books, the expensive courses and the urge to get ahead – whether in finance or general “well-being”, do we actually find that meaning?
Even talking about philosophy itself, we might wish to ask what it is, how we should do it and for what purpose.
All of these issues are current and all of them will have an impact – if not on us directly, then indirectly on our environment and other people. We can keep on arguing the for and against, but that is not the point. We can also keep on applying the same method, hoping that science, with enough information, can guide us out of this chaos. That is a misguided assumption, however, because the issues are not those of knowledge, but of actions and principles. Science can – as far as we know – give us the answers “how”, but we will be running in circles unless we can answer the other question:
That is the question which requires conscious and careful regard that we cannot substitute with anything else. It is not the question of an individual’s motivation at a given moment – it has a deeper meaning. When asked about why we do what we do, why should anyone do what they do, the answer will determine everything else. So why – in the end – do we do all these things? The matter is far from trivial, and pondering the question is far from frivolous. It is the stuff of direction. It is the stuff of reasons.
It (and much more) is the stuff of philosophy.