A Cursory Outline Of Philosophy

This is a letter sent to a friend of mine, Phil, regarding the subject matter discussed by philosophers.  I decided to write him a general outline of the subject.


Several weeks back you asked me to prepare you an outline of the kinds of subjects covered in philosophy, a brief overview of the subject matter, as well as a listing of some of the major authors, their works, and what I think of them.  Having studied this subject for around eight years now, to cover it all would be extremely difficult.  I will do my best to present the material as succinctly as possible.  First let’s discuss the kinds of subjects you will find in philosophy books.

When speaking to an everyday individual, if you were to say, “I study philosophy”, they tend to scoff and think, “Well everyone has their own philosophy.”  To them, the subject is simply a bunch of people sitting around coming up with their own opinions on things, and these opinions are completely ungrounded.  Others feel that philosophy and religion are synonymous. This is far from the case.  These people are mistaken, and are not yet acquainted with the kinds of material philosophers discuss.

The word “philosophy” comes from the base words philo and sophia, which together mean “lover of wisdom”.  Overall, a philosopher is someone who is concerned with the most important subjects in life, and in a constant pursuit of knowledge and truth.  This may lead to the idea that philosophers would study everything, creating a subject which has no bounds, and ceases to be a subject at all.  This really isn’t what happens though.

When a person goes on a journey in the pursuit of knowledge and truth, just as I did eight years ago, and I know you are on this path as well, you find that most subjects that exist out there are worthless and not worth your time.  You will walk into a bookstore, such as Borders or a Barnes and Noble, and will find that 99% of the books within the room aren’t worth reading.  You find that they do not have any substantial content which will truly help you in life, nor help you in your pursuit of truth.

Your studies will lead you, as it has lead many great thinkers, to some major questions and dilemmas which are the most crucial and important.  The first questions which arise to anyone starting the journey are “Who am I?”, “Where am I?”, and “What must I do to be happy?”.  I suppose there may be one last question, “Are there others like me?”, or worded another way, “What is life?”

All of these are extremely deep questions, which very few people spend any significant time thinking about.  The question “Who am I” leads to a huge debate as to knowledge, truth, consciousness, immortality, and many other debates.  In the early debates these thinkers try to distinguish themselves from animals.  They wonder what it means to be a human.  They would ask themselves, “What makes me different from a beast in the field?”   Their early distinctions led them to believe that humans were a being who could “think”, and that other beings, such as animals, could not do so in the same way we could.

The very concept of thinking was very vaguely defined in the early days.  By “early days”, I’m referring to around 500 B.C., and even earlier.  It was a sort of mystical process nobody understood.  Their debates ended up with the invention of the soul, which eventually led to the belief in immortality, which made its way into various religions.

One such debate started like this.  Some early Greek philosophers began to imagine what would happen if they were to sever off their finger.  They imagined that if they did so it would then rot, and once again become the dirt of the ground.   Then a question remained.  How many body parts could be removed before the person ceased to be who they are?  This was one of the earliest debates as to what the “self” is, life, and death.  They ended up concluding that no matter how many limbs or pieces their body was cut up into, the “self” which they were could not be destroyed.  This led to the belief in the “soul” of man, or that immortal aspect of a living thing.  Even when the body is destroyed the soul goes on.

This debate naturally progressed into more complicated things.  Once the soul was admitted to be some abstract existence above and beyond the oridinary world we see, hear, taste, feel, and smell, other things made their way into the heavens as well.  Plato envisioned that “thought” itself must take place in the soul, or at least, in the same realm as the soul.  Then if the soul was to think about things, the things which we think about must also exist alongside our soul in the heavens.  So these sort of immutable “ideas” came into existence.  When you see a table, or a chair in front of you, that table is an imperfect representation of a “pure” immutable “idea” which exists in the intangible realm which our soul exists within as well.  Really, what they were wondering about was how does the mind think of “table”, even though this concept “table” does not apply to any table in particular, but to every table.  The same applies to “man”.  What is a “man”, whenever this concept does not apply to any one man in particular?  How does the mind create these universal concepts which we can apply to many different things?

The debates as to the inquiry of soul, and ideas eventually lead to logic, the concept of truth, and knowledge.  The external world was troubling, and people had different views as to how to place this “self” or “soul” within the external world we live in.  Knowledge came to represent some sort of fusion of these “ideas” to our soul, and how this fusion took place, and what “ideas” were located where, and how they were accessed was the next subject of debate.

Some felt that this soul was immersed in these ideas.  The world is an illusion to distract us from conceiving the ideas!  Our true purpose was to think about God and worship his perfection.  The world below us was just an imperfect transient playground, which only distracted us. These people believed that they could come to understand deep understanding about God, or the Gods, ethics, and other deep truths about life just by sitting and thinking about them.  Their soul would then unite to these “idea” objects, and they would become a deeper and more profound person.  Though their body remained on the Earth, they would meditate and lift themselves to a higher plane of existence.

Such ideas led to conceptions of immutable doctrines and, “I cannot be wrong” mentalities.  After all, what is to be wrong when all you’ve done is fuse yourself with the ideas?  You can’t possibly be wrong about anything.  Such individuals sent themselves out to caves, or other reclusive areas and would do nothing but meditate, pray, and do whatever other methods they felt would lead their soul to fuse with the ideas.  This view became known as ‘rationalism’.  This is where the word ‘rationality’ comes from.  When people say, “be rational”, the origin of this wording comes from this philosophical way of thinking, though it’s meaning has diluted and been changed over time.

But others found this view to be unsatisfactory.  They argued that sometimes people are “wrong”, and others are “right”.  Hence the conception of “truth” came into existence.  The soul to them was moreso a sort of ship sailing about in a foreign world.  It could only fuse to new ideas if it set sail and explored.  If it stayed still in the harbor, it would learn nothing new.   This view became known as ’empiricism’.  This is where the word ’empirical’ comes from, and is often assocated with the scientific frame of mind.

Debates began as to what ‘truth’ was, and how to identify when something was true or not.  The belief held that the soul would unite to these ideas.  That did not change.  But people could hold “wrong” views sometimes.  They may have certain ideas fused together as to how they “think” things work, but in reality, things work differently.  How were they to define this affinity between external reality, and their own soul uniting to these ideas?

The modern conclusion to the truth debate eventually leads to probability theory, because our knowledge is always limited so we have to make educated guesses.  Originally probability theory was birthed out of people, such as Blaise Pascal, trying to find out how to define truth. It’s funny to find people in the world saying, “This is true”, or “That is true”, but really, when you read all of these debates by all these great thinkers, it will really make you sit back and wonder what “truth” even is, or if we ever know anything for certain.  I think one of the greatest gifts you’ll acquire from reading these books is clear thinking, and a deep sense of humility.  You will learn just how faulty and weak our minds are, and it will really put you back in your proper place.

Anyways, the debates as to ‘truth’ were long and difficult.  Some were extreme rationalists, thinking all knowledge could be attained simply by thinking.  Others thought that all knowledge came first through our five senses, and then this information was then processed by our minds and linked together into knowledge.  Others took a middle ground, where some knowledge could be attained simply by thinking about things, and other things we only come to know by exploration in the outer world.  Each were left to the difficulty as to how our mind sorts and links ideas together and comes to an accurate representation of the world we live in.

Some philosophers belived in “a priori” knowlege, and others “a posteriori” knowledge.  “A priori” knowledge was knowledge (truth) which could be derived simply by sitting down and thinking about something.  You didn’t need any sense experience (the five senses) to know this kind of stuff.  It was things you were born knowing.  This is in stark contrast to “a posteriori” knowledge, which is knowledge which comes through sense experience and from the outer world.  A priori arguments were mainly used to try to promote views about God and ethics.  People would say, “I simply know God exists.  I cannot explain it.”  This is an a priori argument.  Others would say, “I simply know right and wrong, nobody has to tell me.”  This is another a priori argument.  But others did not believe them.  All knowledge to them had to come from the senses, and they would say, “You may believe in God, but you have no knowledge of him.  You’ve never seen God, you’ve never talked to him.  How do you know this idea in your head even exists, and is not just your imagination?”, and they would also argue that ethics were habits and things taught, not so much things we know intrinsically.

Modern arguments tend to lean toward the empiricistic view of morality, mainly due to differences you see among different tribes around the world, and different cultures, and how much they differ as to what they consider right and wrong.  Areas of humanity who developed in isolation from other groups all hold their own moral codes and standards.  If these moral codes were innately embedded into our human mind by God, then how come they vastly differ across the world in areas in which their culture developed separately?

Before leaving this topic, we can’t forget to mention the sceptics, who found it difficult to escape the soul, and wondered if any of our knowledge which we have in our minds is ever really true.  This is where the word “scepticism” comes from.  The sceptic’s point of view is kind of like in relativity: how do we rise above the subjective observer into the objective world around us, when we’re all observers?  How do we know that what we’re seeing is not illusion?  How do we know we’re not living in a dream?  How do we know other people are really conscious just like us?  How do we know if anything will happen or is the way we think it is?

Sceptics claim there is no way of ever knowing anything for certain.  Take something most people feel quite certain of – the sun coming up in the morning.  People will claim for certain: “The sun will rise tomorrow.”  The sceptic argues, “How do you know?  It might not.”  Then people argue back, “Well, it always has come up.  It will do so tomorrow as well.”  But the sceptic argues that you can never know for certain.  The sceptic argues, “What if a castasrophe happens in our solar system, which ends up distorting the sun’s orbit, and throws the Earth way out into deep space?”  To this the person argues back, “Well, that doesn’t seem likely.” The sceptic argues back, “Who are you to say what’s likely, or not likely?  The sun is not subject to your decrees, nor is the solar system.”

Who is to say if a person’s hand will be burnt if you stick it in the fire?  The most a scientist can say is that out of 100 people who have stuck their hands in the fire, 100 hands have come out burnt.  Who is to say that the next person who sticks their hand in the fire will come out burnt?  All we can say is that 100% of all people we have seen who have stuck their hands in the fire, their hands have burnt.  But really, if you wish to be objective, each test we do, and each event in reality is its own individual case.  It is always possible that what has happened in the past will not happen again.  When someone says, “Well, it is not likely that the person’s hand will not be burnt.”  They simply mean, that out of 100 times we’ve tried it, 100 hands have been burnt.  Beyond this, there is no meaning to human “truth”.  It’s simply belief that what has happened in the past will happen again, and since our minds are limited, we can always be wrong in our assumptions.

Considering that there are oftentimes many complex interrelated laws which govern the universe, we can oftentimes mistake various things, and believe we’ve found a law which governs reality, when really we were mistaken, and only found a particular set of cases – a sort of subset of a more encompassing law.  Certain laws of physics hold just fine at low velocities, but at high speeds near the speed of light, those old laws no longer are true.

The famous philosopher Descartes began to ponder the arguments of the sceptics, and began to wonder everything he could ever doubt.  He said he could doubt reality, as it possibly may be a dream, or a strange vision given to him by a demon.  He could doubt whether his friends were really conscious or not.  They may be just robots.  But there was one thing he said he couldn’t doubt, and that was that he existed.  Considering that he was thinking, he must exist.  He then said his famous line, “I think, therefore I am.”  Therefore, he knew one thing at least for certain, he must exist in some form or the other, or he wouldn’t even be able to think on the question.  As to anything else, he could always be wrong.

Jean Paul Sartre (an existentialist), later came and corrected him (I think rightly), and said, “No Descartes, you have it backwards.  It is not I think, therefore I am.  It is I am, therefore I think, for you could not think if you did not first exist.”  This may sound like a pedantic and petty correction, but it’s very major.  I agree with Sartre, because I think our physical existence must be taken into account, as most of our thoughts regard our desires and our needs, which is heavily based on our mode of existence.  An alien with a different physical existence would likely think about different things than a human.  I doubt some sort of conscious life energy force would think much about food to eat, or sex when it doesn’t even eat food to begin with, nor have sexual reproductive organs.  If our physical existence is what determines what we think about, and to be human is to be a thinking being, then our physical form of existence is of primary importance.  You must remember, a lot of the old philosophers and thinkers felt the soul to be an immaterial sort of thinking substance, which exists in the heavenly ether, and continues to exist after we die.  This totally shatters such a view.  This leads to a debate as to whether thought is linked to our physical existence, and if so, does all the old debates as to soul and immortality go to waste?  I think it does.  Drink a considerable amount of hard alcohol and watch your thinking become very clouded.  Or if you can’t watch the event while intoxicated, others will certainly see your thinking has been impaired.

If dogs think about things relevant to dogs (bones, food, etc), and termites think about things relevant to termites (fresh wood to eat, going to the bathroom, etc), and humans think about things relevant to humans (food, shelter, reproducing, etc), then how are we to think about the “soul”?  Are the “ideas” we can “think” about confined to our physical existence?  If we can rise above our own physical existence, then how can this be done?  Can a man think the thoughts of God, or must his thoughts be confined to the world he lives in?

In my own opinion man has tried to conceive God, but I do not think a being with no bounds can be crammed into our finite minds.  All thought seems to imply negation, or the setting of a boundary.  A thing with no bounds seems an awfully lot like nothingness to me.  I feel it is impossible even to believe via faith that God exists, because we cannot even conceive such a being.  How can you believe that such a thing exists, when it is impossible for any aspect of that entity to enter into your mind?  We can’t even state what it is we believe in.  We believe in an anthropomorophic version of God, which suites our interests.  If lions could make a god, I’m sure they would envison God as a lion.  I think the best we can say is that there’s a possibility that there is a being or beings which are beyond our understanding which may exist in the universe in some form we cannot understand.  Then again, they may not.  I certainly can’t say one way or the other.

But to also confront the issue of Descartes, when he says, “I think, therefore I am”, and whether we are to think of the existence of man as a “thinking entity”, we must consider an argument by John Locke, when he said, “I cannot speak for all men, but as for me, I sometimes sit idle, thinking about nothing.  I must confess, I feel I continue to exist, even when I am thinking about nothing.”  He has a good point, I think.  I do not think that the “divine spark” of life, which we have, has anything to do with thought, though thought and intelligence probably is the factor distinguishing us from animals.

Let’s also briefly cover morality, as every philosopher heavily discusses morals.  Initially the subject was designed to lead a person to fusion with ideas, and happiness, but soon found itself encumbered with things such as responsibility, justice, being “practical”, etc.  There are lots of debates as to the purposes of morality, and why some actions should be valued over others.  The “virtuous” man was a subject near all philosophers wondered about.  Everyone tried to find a set of actions they could recommend which would lead to the ideal man.  Later the concept of “ideals” were questioned, and people began to wonder what the end goal of it all was.  Was it power over men?  Was it control of the forces of nature?  Was it love?  Was it union with God?  Was it sensual pleasure?

Some began to think the world is not about what makes us happy, but our “duty” to our fellow men.  Others wondered the point if all we do is live miserable constantly helping others who won’t take the time to help themselves.  Some would concede to some things as “duty”, but others did not feel they had such responsibilities in certain areas.

I suppose to summarize these moral debates, what was considered “duty”, “noble”, “good/evil” always promoted a set of actions and mindsets which eventually led to the philosopher’s own finite and oftentimes flawed ideal(s).  You’ll find that a lot of the things which people presuppose as a “duty” and “noble” are harmful in a lot of circumstances.  That’s not to say that all are found to be harmful.  It’s obvious that there are sets of actions and ways of life which lead to more happiness than others, as I’ve seen this in life.  But the thing to remember about us humans is that our minds are finite, and when a person claims to know something absolutely and that they can in no way be wrong, remember to be sceptical.  All things in life are like they are in science. We live by a series of successive approximations and eventually close in toward a desired goal.  It’s like the irrational number pi.  We can get closer and closer to a desired goal, but can never state it exactly.  Also, just like in science, we end up finding flaws in our initial assumptions, which then change our entire framework and what we’re dealing with.  Our foundations are expanded, which gives us an entirely new perspective sometimes.  We don’t always have to build just upwards, but we can also expand sideways.

Some moral debates deal with how we should deal with life when we do not get our way.  How should we handle things mentally when the world around us is too powerful to deal with?  Stoic philosophers just said to play along.  If you don’t agree with the religion, just don’t say anything.  Just go to the services, play along, and act like you believe it, when you really don’t.  The trouble you’ll cause by fighting the system won’t be worth it.  Others thought you should always stand for what you believe in, and never live a lie.  Normally debates like these are then backed by arguments of historical examples, and what happened in various circumstances.

Punishment also is heavily debated, as well as government structures, and social “utopias”.  Debates as to what should be taught in schools, what the purpose of education is, the purpose and style of discipline, prisons, correctional establishments, execution and euthanasia, etc.   Whether there should be lots of government, minimal government, and the purposes of government.  Whether propaganda and rhetoric should be used if it brings about the greater good, or whether the truth should always be told.  (Then the “greater good” is debated).  Freedom of speech and the press, women’s rights, slavery, nationalism and patriotism are also heavily discussed.

Psychoanalysis and new psychological findings have heavily changed how intellectuals and thinkers view punishment and morality.  Like I was saying to you the other day, it’s just as important to ask why a person did what they did, than just that they did something.  Past experiences have been found to heavily influence the thinking and actions of a person, and cannot be ignored.  I told you about the girl I met who became angry during a conversation we were having, when I was discussing some frustrations related to work.  She blew up on me, and raised her voice.  I then thought, “Why is she doing this?”  Then after questioning her on the matter using psychological methods, I was able to find out that her father would come home and take out his work related frustrations on her when she was a child.  Naturally being verbally abused growing up, talking with her about work related frustrations caused unconscious conflicts and pains within her, as it reminded her of her father and his verbal abuse.  Therefore to avoid these painful emotions, she violently steered the conversation away from that topic, as it was a painful area to her.

Old ethical mindsets would have tried to judge her actions as “wrong”, as she “shouldn’t” have blew up on me.  The more mature modern mindsets are moreso concerned with why the person did what they did, and concerns themselves more with “why” the person did what they did, than the fact that they did what they did.  The obvious problem to this dilemma is that if there is a “why” to every action a person does, then what happens to free will?  So responsibility is becoming a more and more difficult issue to deal with.  People continually wonder if a person was “in their right mind”.  Sometimes when people are in this frame of “right mind” they have free will, but other times they can lose control, and cannot be held responsible for what they did.  So instead of executing the mass murderer, we instead put him in an asylum and study him, to ask ourselves what painful events in his life caused him to be the way he is.  In a sense, we don’t judge him, but view him as a complex mechanical device which has malfunctioned and needs repaired.

I recently watched the Saddleback debates between John McCain and Barack Obama, where each of them were questioned on a series of issues by Pastor Rick Warren related to all kinds of things.  One of the issues was abortion.  John McCain represents the older ways of thinking.  Abortion is bad.  We can’t kill babies.  Obama had the modern view. He asked why the people were getting abortions to begin with, and why did they not want to keep the child?  To Obama, abortion is certainly a moral issue, but that is not the most important notion here.  What’s really important is the reasons causing the woman to want an abortion and not want to keep the child.  He’s personally against abortion, but he knows that law cannot mask over what people want to do anyways.  What’s more important is why do these women not want the children, and why are they considering abortion as the solution to this problem?  Is it because she lacks the financial means to raise the child?  Is it because she was raped?  If she was raped, what kind of environments are conducive to rape, and how can we fix those environments? Did we fail in our sexual education instruction, and in the consequences of pre-marital sex?  Etc.  Their opinions are a very stark contrast.  McCain is all about these absolute rigid right/wrong ideas, whereas Obama is about finding the causes to the problem and fixing them.  “Sin” and “evil” are worthless concepts if you fix the root of the problems.

Imagine a set of sores growing on a man’s body.  McCain’s type of views looks at an infection and says, “Pop those puss sores.  Those sores are bad.”  That really doesn’t do much though, especially if the main cause behind the sores will not be treated by popping the sores.  Obama’s method is a full examination of the inner workings of the body, and questions why the disease exists, and where is its root?  Passing a law prohibiting abortion is like popping these sores.  It doesn’t fix the disease.

It’s kind of like if we tried to filter the content of television and music.  We may think, “The lyrics to these songs are horrible.  We can’t have songs like this!  We should censor this kind of content!”  Oftentimes conservatives feel this way.  The more correct view though is not to censor the content, but to ask ourselves why these people are hurting so bad, and why is this negative content so prelevant in all their song lyrics?  Obviously there are problems in this world that need fixed.  If we fix the problems, then people will be more happy, and they will sing songs which are more happy in content.  Happy children will sing songs which about either petty issues, or about general happiness.  Sad children sing songs about sad topics.  Out of the heart the mouth speaks.  But simply censoring the content will not fix the main issue, as people inwardly are still unhappy, no matter how you superficially try to mask over all the pain by “happy” television programming.  It’s really a cheap, easy way out.

When asked the question, “Does evil exist?  And if so, how should we deal with it?”  McCain said, “We must defeat it.”  Obama’s answer was much deeper.  He said, “Certainly there is evil, and we should do all we can to prevent it.  But we must also keep in mind that oftentimes when people think they’re serving a great cause, they’re actually doing things very evil.  What a man thinks is good, is not always good.”  I once heard President Bush in a speech reference that all men had inside them a “moral compass” telling them what’s “right” and “wrong”.  Everyone knows what’s right and wrong, and obviously the war in Iraq and Afghanistan is what we all should do.  It’s so clear isn’t it!  Conservative values make a person easier to control.  You teach them to not think for themselves, and to rely on authority to do all their reasoning for them.  “Isn’t your moral compass telling you that the war in Iraq is the our only option?  If it’s not, there must be something wrong with your compass.”

When that girl got angry with me, I could have went off on her, and tried to use some sort of guilt tactic on her and said, “You shouldn’t get angry at me.  What have I done to deserve you raising your voice like you’re doing now?”  That might mask over the problem temporarily, but the next time I start talking about frustrations at work, the same painful emotions are going to boil up inside her, and she’s going to get angry again.  We have not cured the disease.  A great deal of the old morals are lacking in practice.  They only condemn, and lead us to judge others, instead of viewing all of us as the same, and trying to fix one another’s problems.

Philosophy is really a practical subject when you spend enough time with it.  In the beginning it won’t be, as you won’t completely get it.  But once you spend some serious time with it, you’ll see that it applies to everything going on around you.

Near all social issues are heavily debated by philosophers.  Things such as television, literature, consumer buying habits, music, lifestyles, art, abortion, communism, democracy, socialism, anarchism, nihilism, etc.  For example, post-modernists advocate that what a person buys shows great depth into who they are as a person.  What their buying habits are shows what they value in life, and is a key insight into the mind of the individual.  Does life consist in things?  If so, what kinds of things?  If not, then what else is there?

Economics is always a subject of philosophers.  Money is what makes the world go round, and to figure out its inner working is core to any real social thinker.  You must understand why people struggle, how people get rich, and why other people are poor, etc.  Why are houses so expensive?  Should they be so expensive, or should they be cheaper, and for what reasons?  You have to learn about things like the division of labor, and how working together we can get more done than living life alone.  But is it neccessarily worthwhile that we crank out more and more stuff?  Most of the stuff we create is worthless isn’t it?  Is working a virtuous endeavor?  Or is working something which keeps us from thinking about much more important things, such as studying and reading books on science and other interesting things going on?  The American mindset is that anyone who doesn’t work, is lazy.  Compare this to the French, who only work six hours per day, four days a week.  They value free-time and leisure to think, as they value a developed mental life over material possessions.  I personally agree much more with the French.

To get back to the mental aspects of philosophy, when dealing with the fusion of ideas together and the inner workings of the mind, we come to all kinds of interesting debates.  Things such as similarity, causality (necessity and contingency included), space, time, univerals and particulars (ex:  a particular might be a specific cat, ‘cat’ being the universal, and a more univeral concept being ‘animal’, and even more universal concept being ‘entity’.  Universals and particulars are container words and the concepts they contain), and other similar notions came into existence.  Mathematical philosophy embodies this same concept as classes, class-concepts, denoting, and defining via extension vs intension.  Continuity, infinity, the nature of mathematics and numbers, etc.  Continuity, which is a big topic if you’re going to deal with space-time, as the space-time “continuum” is so heavily talked about in physics.  If you read mathematical philosophy books such as Bertrand Russell’s “Principles of Mathematics”, or the more involved “Principia Mathematica”, you find that the problem of continuity ultimately boils down to the same philosophical question of the one and the many.  Cantor and Weierstrass define continuity in a certain way which seems to solve this debate, but when you hear the full philosophical consequences of the view, it’s very interesting.

For example, when an arrow is shot and is flying through the air, it is always at rest in each particular instant, or point in time.  But all these individual “moments”, which are a series of static “still-frames” with the arrow in different positions, all link together into a continuous series via order.  Very fascinating to think about.  Originally a philosopher Zeno from 500 BC came up with a series of arguments on this topic which perplexed mathematicians and physicists all the way up until the 1800s. Though it sounds so simple, it really is not, and took some really great thinkers to really figure it all out.

I once posed a question to an individual asking him, “What is motion?”  He gave me a rather unsatisfactory answer.  I then asked him, “Suppose you’re driving in a car with your friends down the highway, and you’re sitting in the back seat with a camera.  You take a picture which includes the contents of the front-window, and you can see the speedometer, which reads 60 miles per hour.  Now in this picture, would you say the people are moving at 60 miles per hour?”  The person I was with then replied, “Yes, of course.”  I then replied, “But nothing is moving in this picture.  It is a still-frame.”

We’re not moving in any particular moment, but somehow the moments combine and make motion happen.  Without the notion of continuity as well as the concept of the derivative in calculus, defining motion is impossible.  Motion presupposes multiple moments combined in a particular way, but each moment, if taken in isolation, does not constitute motion.  Speed is a complex ratio, which implies continuity, and says that if you are to take any two individual moments, and compare the change in distance the object has moved, and divide that by the change in the time that has taken place imbetween those moments, as you take smaller and smaller time intervals, the ratio of the distance and the time will converge on some value, in the case of this driver, 60 miles per hour.

Being a physicist, I know you understand these things, probably much greater than I do.  But I am quite fond of examples, and of explaining things to great lengths.  So to give several examples, if you were to take one moment, and identify the position of the car, and then wait one hour, then measure how far the car had traveled, you would measure a distance between those two measurements of 60 miles.  If you were to only wait 1/2 of an hour, you would measure a distance traveled of 30 miles, and 30 / (1/2) = 60 mph.  If you were to wait only 1 minute, you would find the car had travel 1 mile, so you would take 1 / (1/60) and get again, 60 miles per hour.  But as we can see, motion implies at least two different moments compared.  No matter how small a time interval we take, even if we were to only wait 0.00000001 seconds inbetween our measurements taken, if we were to divide the distance traveled, by the time, we would get 60 miles per hour, at that moment.

Of course, it gets complicated because it’s not likely that the car travels consistently at 60 miles per hour, but is often-times speeding up, and slowing down.  That is why we must define speed as a ratio, and if you wish to know the speed of the car at any given time, you take a starting position, and take a very very very small time-interval, measure the distance traveled from a starting point, over that small time interval, divide them, and you get an approximation of the speed at that time.  But in order to get the exact speed for an exact “moment” of time, you need calculus, and you take the limit as the time approaches 0.

If you wish to get really techincal, we have not even properly defined time, as to measure time implies a device which can measure time, such as a clock or stop-watch.  But how do such devices work?  Say we create a clock device which ticks very rapidly, then counts the number of ticks.  We then compare the space traversed by the car during one tick of our time-keeping device, and divide the two to get speed.  So we really see that even our definition of motion really is simply comparing two motions to each other.  Speed is comparing two different motions, the motion of the car, versus the motion inside our timing device, and calculating a ratio between the two.  The more rapid the ticking happens relative to the movement of the car, the more accurate our measurements of speed will be.  But that is also too simple.

As Einstein has shown us, distance will be measured differently based on the speed we ourselves are moving.  For you see, if we go back to our car example, when we are measuring the movement of the car, we are relying on light which has bounced off the car to measure distance traveled.  As long as we are moving slowly, the light bounces off the car and makes it to us so quickly, that taking the speed of light into account makes a negligible difference.  But when dealing with high speed objects, measuring distances, times, and speeds becomes more difficult.  Different observers get different readings. Our time-keeping device, which is right next to us, will keep doing its ticks, but we must remember that because light moves at a finite speed, there is a delay between events.  If we were moving away from the car at very high speeds near the speed of light, the light rays which are bouncing off the car would take a longer time to catch up with us.  But since our clock (ticking motion) is moving with us, dividing the two ratios gives us different readings for the car.  More ticks of our time-keeping device would happen before the light caught up to us.  Also, because we see objects with our eyes from light rays entering our pupils, perspective itself changes based on our speed.  At slow speeds it is not enough to notice, but at high speeds the only light which is fast enough to make it to your eyes is light more directly in front of you, so even our concept of sight becomes limited and eventually converges to a single point straight in front of us as we approach the speed of light.  No light bouncing off things can catch up to us, besides the light straight in front of us.

Are we finished with this so-called “simple” debate, that time and speed are so incredibly simple common-sense notions?  Most certainly not.  If we look onto a field, where the grass is blowing in the wind, we find that we feel that all of this is happening concurrently.  Not so.  The grass in the distance is actually the moment that happened a short while ago.  The grass closer to you is more accurate as to what’s going on “right now” than the grass in the distance.  But everything is seen at a delay.  Each blade of grass, because it exists in its own position either farther or closer to you, each represents a different moment in time.  But how are we to define an objective “delay” if we’re all observers?  More confusing dilemmas.  For also, if we’re all observers, we must take into account that there’s even more delay as when light hits our eyes, the electromagnetic signal must then be fired through the nerves, and then into our brains and processed – that does not happen instantaneously.

Motion is extremely complex.  Time and space are extremely complex notions.  Old three-dimensions of space, with scalar time, such as used by Newton, work at low speeds, but start to fail at much higher speeds.  I honestly love to think about such things, as we see that reality is extremly intricate.  The most simple of things, are actually very intricate if you’re smart enough to see them.

When a person moves their “arm”, it has traversed an infinite series of moments.  You do not need to go to the outer bounds of the universe to find infinity, you can find it in the simple task of picking up a cup off the table.  But besides this, imagine if the speed of light was very slow.  Imagine light to be very slow, and imagine a person in a much more rapid movement.  It would take light a while to hit the arm, then bounce back to you.  If the person could move faster than light, they would completely fall out of sync.  They may do a little dance, but you would see some sort of weird shifting blob of colors, which does not resemble the person.  If the only objectivity is in the observer, and light is always doing this, then what does it mean for something to even be solid?  To be solid is simply sychronized sensory impression.

To top all this off, everything is strangely out of sync.  One time I was thinking, “How could a person ever know if something truly happened in the past?”  Take the passion of Jesus for example.  How could you know it really happened?  Well, the light waves from the event, which came from the sun, have bounced of Jesus (if he ever existed), and are traveling through space right now.  If you could “catch up” to them, maybe through a worm-hole device, you could actually watch the events from the past, based on light waves which have happened thousands of years ago.  All kinds of events from the past are traveling all around the universe.  When we look up at the stars at night, everything is out of sync.  This star’s image we’re seeing is from four years ago, this star’s image is from 1200 years ago, and the other one way up there may be millions of years old, and all these light rays are converging, from all different ages, into your eyes, which synchronize into “time” for us.  Some weird alien species may be looking out of a telescope right now, and they see Jesus being crucified, based on some super-magnified image of the Earth, based on these ancient light rays which have come to them.  If we could only worm-hole our way over there, and take a look through the telescope real quick, we could know.  If we could go way way way back, we could look through the telescope and see dinosaurs, and possibly even the formation of the Earth, if we could only worm-hole our selves far enough out, and had a way of magnifying the images we’re receiving.

I have not mastered all of physics yet, so I still have more to go before I can fully flesh out the details to these dilemmas.  I do not fully understand the dualistic particle/wave nature of light, nor how optics or magnification of images truly works, so I do not fully know if this kind of assumption could be done, but it seems plausible to me with my current limited knowledge.  (Looks like I need to do more reading in my Feynman lectures set!  I appreciate you recommending that set to me, it’s by far the best set I’ve encountered on the subject). But anyways, I simply said all this to say that the “stuff” the world is, and how it changes, if we take it from the perspective of the observer, is very complex.  Philosophers have always concerned themselves with issues such as these.

But we’ve neglected talking about another important topic, “Where am I?”  All the early conceptions of our world and science, and their foundations come from philosophy.  Science’s main purpose is to describe the world around us.  So far we’ve only discussed the psychological aspects of philosophy.  Philosophy is really just a broader subject, with psychology as one of its subsets.  I once read some articles debating whether there should even be a distinction between the two.  Psychology should have never been separated from philospohy.  I myself find no good grounds to make a distinction.  Psychology removes the ethical implications and other aspects of the bigger picture and tries to establish itself as it’s own entity.  All the early debates as to emotion, anger, love, beauty, belief, and other topics typically thought to be psychology all were debated earlier by philosophers.  It’s a shame all the people who neglect these early studies simply because they do not know that philosophy is the root, the tree trunk, of psychology.

Back to science.   Representing geometry with the (X,Y – Cartesian) coordinate system was initially created by a philosopher, Descartes.   The early conceptions of the atom come from Democritus, a philosopher.  Calculus comes from Leibniz and Newton, both philosophers trying to understand infinity and how this concept can be used to describe the change of reality we see, as well as God.  Early astronomy and debates about the heavens all start with philosophy.  The scientific mindset, as stated earlier, comes from Aristotle, a philosopher, and was later more fully fleshed out by Renascence philosophers.  Government and statecraft, justice, and the purpose of government all come from philosophers.  John Locke was the philosopher who envisoned the government of the United States, with checks and balances, and created the idea of religious toleration.  Economics was initially a subject of philosophers.  They were the first economists.  Adam Smith, and Jeremy Bentham, were both philosophers.  (Utilitarians).  David Hume is also often quoted in economics text, and he was a philosopher.  (one of my favoroties) J.S. Mill is often quote in economics texts, and he was a philosopher.  In a book on my shelf containing the Federalist papers and the American govnerment papers such as the constitution and declaration of independence you also find several of J.S. Mill’s books.  Womens rights were originally debated by a philosopher (J.S. Mill).   The foundations of mathematics, such as that found in Principia Mathematica, was written by Bertrand Russell and Alfred North Whitehead, philosophers and mathematicians.  A lot of the early ideas of physics, such as the nature of heat, matter, and light, were debated by philosophers, such as John Locke.  Linguistics finds its earliest rootings in philosophy, as they debated how ideas are represented by these words which bounce around in our heads, and how to make those words bounce around in logical ways.  The earliest linguist I know is John Locke.  The subject of probability in mathematics came about as a pursuit to define truth by philosophers, such as Blaise Pascal. As mentioned earlier, all psychology is initially rooted in philosophy.  Even certain inquiries in anatomy were due to philosophers questioning how free will operates, the cause of intelligence, and determinism.

Most people think philosophy is about religious issues.  Most of it has nothing to do with religion.  In fact, a great deal of philosophers are opposed to religion, and find it to be an enslavement of the mind.  Even when they were religious, they certainly were not orthodox.  Others may tell you that the subject of philosophy never progresses.  That is only because everytime philosophers make a discovery, others take it away and make a separate branch of the tree, and do not give philosophy the credit for its initial discovery.  Even Einstein read philosophy, such as Spinoza and Kant.  Quoting Einstein, “I believe in Spinoza’s God, who reveals Himself in the lawful harmony of the world, not in a God Who concerns Himself with the fate and the doings of mankind.”  Almost all the greatest thinkers of all time have studied the great writings of philosophers.  Not to say they always agree with them, but they at least know where all these beliefs so important to life come from.  Really, you’ll only be able to come up with new theories if you’re able to fully understand where the existing sciences come from.

Hopefully this will give you a good idea as to what the subject of philosophy is about, and some of my own opinions on matters after years of studying it.  Obviously we had to lightly skim over everything.  I will get you a list of authors, and descriptions of their works as well, and will send them to you as a second email.

– Jason

One thought on “A Cursory Outline Of Philosophy”

  1. Thank you so much for this. This is exactly the sort of thing I am looking for. I really appreciate you putting this here.
    I have yet to study it properly but I can tell it is just what I want. So many introductions to philosophy are so opaque and a dummy like me finds it so difficult to get their foot in the door of this fascinating subject. I think you ought to expand this into a book, to make it more accessible to people like me.

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