Meta-Philosophy: An Essay on the (F)Utility of Philosophising
My friends sometimes tell me that I shouldn’t philosophise too much but rather enjoy and experience life directly in a state of mindlessness. I have counter argued that such an attitude is only possible once you have convinced yourself of the futility of philosophising, which apparently is a process that you need to go through via the very medium of philosophy, which is reason.
The purpose of this essay is to explore for myself the (f)utility of philosophising as a means to come to “correct knowledge”, which Patanjali calls “Pramana” in the Yoga Sutras by reasoning this out in a quasi-philosophical manner. Correct knowledge as defined by Patanjali is knowledge obtained by direct untainted experience, deduction or truthful testimony. It is opposed to knowledge obtained by imagination, hallucination, speculation, incorrect reasoning or interpretation, from dreams or from memory.
I choose not to follow the traditional methodology of philosophy for reasons that will become clear in the course of this essay. Although I ultimately desire to develop my own alternative methodology, the present essay is a first exploratory attempt. It is a first brainstorm to order my thoughts, which by no means I claim to be exhaustive.
Whenever we use the word “philosophising” we have a certain meaning for this word in mind. Although each individual probably has his/her own definition of this terminology, for the sake of this essay I distinguish two classes of philosophising:
1) Philosophising by layman, which essentially amounts to reasoning and arguing about certain mental concepts, based on ill or fuzzy defined definitions and which relies on a non-systematic way of reasoning, which is allegedly based on “common-sense”.
2) Academic philosophy. As to this form of philosophy, Wikipedia gives a definition: “Philosophy is the study of general and fundamental problems, such as those connected with reality, existence, knowledge, values, reason, mind, and language. Philosophy is distinguished from other ways of addressing such problems by its critical, generally systematic approach and its reliance on rational argument.“
I did not study philosophy, so my type of philosophising appears to fall a priori in the first category. But I hope to be able to explore by rational arguments based on my common sense, in what way both methods have their inherent flaws and positive points or at least are ultimately (f)utile in their attempts to come to “correct knowledge”, in the sense that Patanjali uses the word in the Yoga Sutras. An analysis of Pramana, will have to wait until the end of this essay however.
As such this attempt is a kind of “philosophising about philosophy”, which makes it a kind of Meta-philosophy. Wikipedia defines this as follows: “Metaphilosophy (sometimes called philosophy of philosophy) is ‘the investigation of the nature of philosophy.’ Its subject matter includes the aims of philosophy, the boundaries of philosophy, and its methods. It is considered by some to be a subject apart from philosophy, while others see it as automatically a part of philosophy.”
In this sense my present meta-philosophical attempt is not futile, that -if it works out well- will save me from wasting time on futile future philosophising and possibly make clear which type of philosophising has utility for me. In this sense it is not part of academic philosophy, in that I intentionally choose to avoid the “generally systematic approach” of academic philosophy, whilst still relying on the rational argument.
One of the problems with the academic approach (as the ruling thesis of what philosophy is supposed to be) is that an essential part of its general systematic approach relies on providing new definitions of the terminologies used.
Although it is necessary to clearly know what one is talking about, academic philosophy often loses itself in a typical association-type think fever, the quagmire of semantics, leading to hopelessly long lists of definitions, before you have even started to reason. Although cumbersome, time-consuming and rendering the text to be read utterly boring, it seems an indispensable pre-condition.
But it often leads away from the very concept that one wants to study. Because every definition becomes a topic of philosophical study itself before one can get to the very concept that one wants to discuss. This is a kind of runaway of philosophical spin-offs of all the parts that are needed to describe a whole. This can lead to chicken-egg problems when definition of concepts are interdependent; where you need the chicken to define the egg and the egg to define the chicken, so that in the end you do not have a meaningful delimitation of either concept (and you can only merge the concepts into a meta-concept relating to the interdependency).
Because every terminology is described in terms of other terminologies, you get a repeating process where you probably can’t stop until you have given philosophical definitions of all the words in the dictionary. As academic philosophy is incomplete as regards this, it fails to properly apply its own methodology and is bound to work with common-sense and intuitive meanings of terminologies, sometimes without even being aware of that.
But there is a worse problem here: namely that the meanings of the very terminologies you wanted to use to describe a concept have been so distorted due to the academic defining process, that they are no longer suitable to define/describe/analyse that concept.
What we often see is that the accepted philosophical meaning of a terminology (I.e. accepted by the ruling paradigm in academic philosophy) is very far away from the instinctive or common sense meaning of that terminology. Whereas the original aim may have been to clarify an instinctive or common sense concept, the final concept with the same name that academic philosophy is describing is no longer identical to the topic that one wanted to treat. A serendipitously generated self-consistent piece of philosophy may have been generated, but the concept they deal with, the concepts they have defined, do not reflect well the instinctive or common sense meaning of that terminology. What Heidegger understands about “being“, “beyng“, “Dasein“, “Mitsein“, “Existenz” etc. has very little in common, with what you or I instinctively sense as the meaning of “being” and “existence”. The funny thing is that the academic philosophers are in a sense aware of these distortions, so that they use brackets, diacritical marks, and other symbols or slightly change the spelling of the terms like “beyng” (Heidegger) or “differance” instead of “difference” (Derrida).
Philosophers then have to go through a cumbersome process of discussing all different types of definitions given by different philosophers to a terminology, which terminology is for them the best approach of “instinctive concept” that they want to study, to finally try to give it their own subjective meaning. And I hope that this is done at all, because I get the impression, that much academic philosophy misses this point: that the philosophical process transforms the meanings of the concepts so much that it no longer corresponds to the original concept one wanted to ponder.
This shows that even academic philosophy is a highly subjective process. The meaning of terminologies is changing over time as the ruling paradigms change over time. Then there are attitudes of showing-off how smart and how complex one can reason. And it certainly doesn’t help to clarify things. You can only read academic philosophy texts if you’re a philosopher yourself, they are hopelessly complex and often do not well describe the point they want to make. I certainly don’t feel attracted to this obligation of having to go through everything that has been said in the literature on a given concept before I can make up my own mind on it. I’ll even put it in stronger terms: This process stifles your ways of getting a clear understanding of a concept. (No, I don’t want to define “concept” at this moment).
Perhaps I can illustrate what I mean with the following: I had studied classical guitar for many years, when I wanted to learn how to improvise. In the beginning this was not an easy process, because I was biased by all the melodic and rhythmic fragments that I had automatised in my study. I had developed a kind of blind spot for the possibility of new combinations. A friend of me, who had just started playing guitar, was composing the most interesting melodies and rhythms in jazz and blues and largely outperformed me when it came to improvising in this style. I had to “learn” “a vocabulary” of “melodic phrases” (licks) in jazz and blues in order to be able to jam with him. But it took a very long time before I started to develop my own set of licks and before I was able to spontaneously improvise new licks in the process of playing, based on hearing and feeling. I had the disadvantage of the so-called head-start. And in a certain way, for every skill such a disadvantage of a “head-start” can be present, including in philosophy.
Laymen philosophy (as antithesis) as I already said, suffers from ill or fuzzy defined definitions and relies on a non-systematic way of reasoning. Every amateur philosopher has his/her own instinctive definitions, which he/she has not clearly defined in terminological framework. This makes it very difficult to communicate. As everybody has had a different education and a different life-experience, the instinctive meanings of words given by different persons do not match. This is the basic source of almost all miscommunication in the world: the false assumption that our personal and cultural dictionaries match.
You can try starting your own philosophical enquiry into the nature of your experience, but as long as at least for yourself you have not clearly defined for yourself what you mean by the terminologies you use in your reasoning, you are bound to end up with fallacies.
If you have the rigour of going through the definition process to build your personal philosophical dictionary and vocabulary and you are careful not to diverge from your instinctive concepts by the seductive flow of redefining terminologies in ways that they no longer correspond to your initial instinctive process, you end up with a pair of extremely subjective philosophical glasses. They may help you to understand yourself, but they are worthless to share in communication, because the set of definitions is probably so boring, that no one will ever take the effort to read them. (I conjecture that most readers who started reading this essay won’t even arrive at this point of the essay, because it is such a boring topic).
But at least you may have gained some insight in your usual fallacies, so that you can avoid them.
Then there is still the danger that your way of reasoning is not following the principles of what is academically understood of reasoning and that you are introducing fallacies in you line of reasoning because you are not even aware of these fallacies. I am not going too deeply into this topic. It is well-known that logic, the basis of reasoning has its own limitations. But at least there is a subset of logic, which when applied in a correct way, gives reliable results in the majority of cases. At least this part of academic philosophy is important to study and to incorporate as a mastered vocabulary. It is a pre-condition for any attempt to philosophise.
Anyway, it is not because there are parts of the philosophical process that are inherently sound, that therewith the whole becomes sound and non-futile. For the whole to be sound, all the parts must be sound. In other words, it suffices to undermine one part of the academic philosophical methodology in order to render it useless.
A more problematic issue with reasoning, than the “logical process”, is the fact that (both in academic and layman philosophy) the premises of the logical argument themselves have not always been proven to be sound, correct or true.
The layman is often even not aware that the knowledge about the premises used is incomplete and that therefore the premises are not necessarily true. Worse, certain premises not only have not been verified, sometimes by their very nature they are unverifiable.
This problem reaches its culmination in “speculative premises”, which is a hopeless starting point to build a solid argument.
This leads us to further difficult philosophical issues of what is “truth”, what is “proof” et cetera, which I do not want to define here.
The academic philosopher can avoid such issues by first going through the whole process of philosophy for each of these terminologies, ending up with definitions, which are perhaps internally consistent, but which do no longer “feel” like being representative of “truth” or “proof”.
Especially in science as an extension of philosophy many premises are speculative. The very concept of a hypothesis is based on speculating what might happen. Therefore the scientific method uses a methodology to prove a hypothesis.
One of the worst problems with science as an extension of philosophy is that it has never proven its most basic tenet: That something must be proven by the scientific method for it to be true. It is rather so by definition. But that is a kind of logical fallacy as well: to do away with a problem, by making the problem part of the definition.
I do not wish to enter the discussion of what “truth”, “proof”, “being”, “absolute”, “relative”, “reality”, “illusion” etc. mean, because that is part of a philosophy itself. The purpose of this essay is to shed light on the futility of philosophising as such.
One thing I do wish to say about science, is that it is largely “inductive”: it suggests a pattern based on “strong evidence”, which gives it a certain probability. You get a cloud of dots and you connect the dots in a certain way, in which you derive an abstraction, a general trend of a certain correlation of two observable parameters. But the way you connect the dots heavily depends on your hypothesis. Aliasing shows, that there is often more than one way to connect the truth, an unless you are aware of that, you may be tempted to draw a straight line through every cloud, where perhaps a polynomial, a hyperbole, a sine or another mathematical expression form would have been more reflective of the underlying reality. There is only one logical rational inference process that gives irrefutable outcomes and that is deduction. Induction can at best predict a probable outcome.
In fact the scientist is sometimes so strongly biased by the hypothesis, that he tends to neglect “outliers (out-liars?)” that do not fit his/her hypothesis.
Moreover, what you are seeking to prove, you will often find proof for that. But you may not be aware that you have neglected other essential parameters or that methodological fallacies have crept in. If you would have tried to prove the opposite, you might have found proof for that too. If you are so lucky to realise that there are multiple possible ways to mathematically model and explain a set of data, so that you generate a number of parallel hypotheses, then it is still difficult to figure out which one reflects the underlying reality the best.
Scientists then often use Occam’s Razor for this purpose, which states that the hypothesis with the fewest assumptions should be selected.
But that principle has neither been proven in any way, nor is it capable of revealing hidden assumptions in the hypothesis that seems to have the fewest number of assumptions. Perhaps if one would have known all the underlying assumptions, it would have become clear that this assumption was not the one with the fewest number of assumptions at all.
Is science then a futile and precarious undertaking? Should we discard philosophy and science because often they inherently cannot give us certainty?
What I have done in this essay is shed doubt on science and philosophy as a means to come to consistent knowledge about ourselves and the apparent world around us, which leaves no doubt. They do not seem fit for that purpose in an absolute sense, that we would know everything with certainty. But as long as they give us a pragmatic attitude and probabilities of likely success, a certain measure of predictability, via which we can make our lives more manageable and avoid misunderstandings, they are welcome to me.
Another positive point is that by philosophically realising that we have an experiential and interpretative bias, which gives us a subjective perspective on what happens, we can become more forgiving towards others. Others may have experienced the same event from a different angle, have different memories about the event (memories tend to fade and to transform over time) and most importantly a different cultural interpretation and a different emotional experience of the event. As long as this is not clear to all parties, people tend to defend their “subjective truth”, often based on fear based, territorial or social motives, which they are not even consciously aware of. Worse, in such a process people sometimes attribute certain “intentions” to the person they have a problem with. These presumed intentions are purely speculative. We don’t know what is going on in the mind of somebody else. Even if accompanied by a certain body language, it is still interpretation. Unless you are telepathic it is guesswork one can better refrain from. When we realise that our “truth” is relative, we may become inclined to become more critical towards ourselves and more accepting towards others.
Another positive point of philosophical considerations as regards the working of the mind is that we may start to realise that whenever we use (pseudo) rational arguments to defend a certain stance, these arguments are often driven by the wish to prove the desired outcome of the stance. That means that our selection of arguments is heavily biased from the onset. The most honest way to scrutinise a stance would be to start to find arguments and proof to defend to opposite stance. But even that is no warranty for success. As I already said, the “Prover” in us will find proof for what the “Thinker” thinks/desires. We are normally so strongly driven by our passions, that we have a blind-spot for the passion-driven selectivity as regards the arguments we provide. One may even question whether we have free will at all; if there is ever any instance where we overrule our passions. Because even if a rational argument would overcome the desire to appease e.g. a physical passion, one could argue that our passion for rationality at that moment has overruled us.
In a sense rational techniques when used for self-observation can be very useful, as long as we are aware of our potential blind spots. I have mentioned a few, but I suspect there are more of them, and obviously as they are unrevealed blind spots, for the moment I am not aware of them. Let’s hope that the rational self-observation of my underlying motives will reveal further blind-spots. Any suggestions as to further blind spots are welcome.
There is also the issue that if one wishes to enjoy and experience life directly in a state of mindlessness, one must have cleared out all the mental and emotional blockages that prevent such a state. As far as I know myself, these are usually the consequence of loops in the mind regarding unresolved psychological issues. You can only resolve such issues, if you are aware of them and if you are aware of your motives to allow them to persist. Whereas you can call self-analysis a form of psychology, the rational methodology you develop to do so is also a form of philosophy. It is not by trying to be mindless that you will reach a state of being mindless. The thought patterns that prevent the mindless state have to be worked out. In my humble opinion there is no better way than doing this exercise of self-analysis in writing. Writing clarifies the thought processes and makes your stance clear to yourself.
If you are a master of martial arts, music or art and you can work from that blissful state of mindlessness, this is certainly an advantage, both as regards the result and the enjoyment of the process of the act. But in order to become a master, one must go through a painful process of relentless practice. All the movements of sequences must have been automatised. It is usually only then that spontaneous improvisation will occur.
There are of course cases of prodigies that master skills without having learnt them. Also certain yoga techniques open areas where suddenly proficiency arises, without any trace in the practitioner’s life of having learnt the particular skill. However, such occurrences are extremely rare. Even if such an emergent skill is attained by yoga, at least the practitioner has put in the required flight hours in the practice of yoga. That practice of yoga did involve self-study (svadhyaya), which is again a form of philosophising. So practice, at least for the layman, appears to be generally indispensable.
Now my ultimate target of this metaphilosophical analysis was, to see if philosophising in whatever way is a way to come to correct knowledge, Pramana. Then we must see what Patanjali means by the terminology Pramana. In Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras I.7 we learn that Pramana is the knowledge obtained by either direct sensory observation, inference (deduction and induction) or testimony.
With regard to direct sensory observation, we must be vigilant that our observation is not tainted by sensory illusions (such as optical illusions) or other types of hallucinations. As soon as interpretation enters the game, there is a risk of arriving at “incorrect knowledge”, which occurs when the mental concept and the sensory input do not match. If we can rule out sensory illusion, in such a case we can better question our mental concept.
Deduction is one of the major tools of philosophy. Here I agree with Patanjali, if it is done by deduction, this is a way to come to correct knowledge. I do not know whether the translation of the term “anumana” as “inference” correctly covers the intent of Patanjali and whether Patanjali solely meant deductive inference or also meant inductive inference. As already said earlier, inductive inference gives a good likelihood of repeatability of a phenomenon, but no certainty. I strongly doubt whether Patanjali intended to include this meaning.
As regards testimony, one must be certain that the person testifying is a “truthful person”. This of course is slippery ice these days. I most certainly do not trust the vast majority of religious texts, because they are full of internal contradictions. The only way here is by direct contact with a person or a presumed authoritative text that you have not been able to nab on untruthfulness or internal inconsistencies. And even then there is the risk of wrong interpretation. It seems advisable to try out the teachings yourself to verify if they also apply to you.
The knowledge, that you then obtain, is according to Patanjali “correct knowledge”. But we must still be aware that this is knowledge about how we experience the world. Our brain and senses filter information in quite an extreme manner, so that what is out there or the object of observation per se (what Kant calls the Noumenon) cannot lead to complete knowledge of the object. We can extend our senses a bit with technical tools, but then we enter the realm of interpreting data, which is an unsure way to get “correct knowledge”. Perhaps meditative techniques, such as “samyama” (see Patanjali III.4), where subject and object merge can bring us almost complete knowledge of an object. I have a good hope that is so, because as of yet Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras have not revealed internal inconsistencies to me. But Patanjali never uses the word “complete knowledge”. In fact Gödel’s incompleteness theorem deductively shows that absolute “complete knowledge” is impossible. (Noteworthy, this contradicts the notion of omniscience of God as in western religions. However the Rg Veda, the Puranas and other Hindu scriptures do not claim omniscience of God. They state that God does not know all his energies and is always enjoying discovering them).
One of the last questions I’d like to address in this brainstorm is: how can you ever know, that what you experience is not a form of hallucination? How can you be sure that your thoughts are your thoughts and not thoughts fed to you by a puppeteer? I pose this question not so much with regard to daily life experience, but more as regards the so-called mystical experience. I guess that as long as our experience does not enable, empower us to manipulate “apparent reality”, the assumed mystical experience can have been a hallucination. If it does empower us we can still be the puppets of a puppeteer we’re unaware of. I guess that in this case that distinction probably won’t matter to us at all. Like for a little child watching a demo of a video game who has the impression he is steering the car in that game it is probably very joyful.
So as long as I am not a master in acquiring correct knowledge, it seems philosophy is still part of my game. Utile instead of futile. But I am aware that my incomplete analysis may have been biased by the desire that this was the very outcome of the argumentation, that my argumentation may contain flaws and fallacies (please point them out to me) and that I have not sufficiently scrutinised the opposite stance and quantitatively weighed the different opposing arguments in a balance.
For today I stop my brainstorming, and promise to work out a personal philosophical methodology in more detail, that allows for a fairer scrutiny of the opposite (the futile) stance. Although one thing is sure: we can never be sure that we have all knowledge to come to a fair balancing, so that it seems as per Gödel’s theorem and as per the blind-spot to be able to see all possible vantage points, that the issue is ultimately undecidable. This notion then prompts me to continue to pragmatically apply my philosophy as long as I have no good reason not to do so.