Saturday, February 15, 2014

Philosophy and knowledge

"Philosophy" is a word that everybody knows, and it is a word that likely has as many definitions as people using it. My first official encounter with this subject was when I was 15, starting third course in high school. The first thing the teacher did was indeed opening the field asking us "what does philosophy mean to you?"

I had heard horror stories about this specific subject, which was even more feared than maths, but the truth is that I had a blast with the topic that year. We studied some bits of the thoughts of famous philosophers, put in context with the moment they lived in history. We studied some bits of anthropology. We then studied more bits of psychology and of formal logic. Debates were a constant, they never finished as soon as the class bell rang, and there was a lot of homework. How could I not love it?

My school was public in a moment when education was good in Spain, so I was also fortunate enough of having the choice of deciding if I would study religion, or ethics. Since I prefer reading fantasy in my own time, I chose ethics from my very beginning in school (when I was five years old), and so I had the privilege of talking about relevant matters in life since I was that little. By the time the philosophy classes started, I was ten years talking in school about morality, the concept of reality, lies, being selfish, drugs, sexual transmission diseases, sexual harassment, friendship, love, politics, war, torture, relationships, parenting, abortion, responsibility, freedom... we even talked about religion! But we did from the perspective "why do people need to believe?"

Nowadays I think that it would have also been relevant talking about "what's the harm in believing?", but I can't complain much: we covered a lot of ground. Sure, when I was 15 I wasn't ready for life, but I also hadn't a sugar coated vision of it.

I can hear some parents screaming right now. My parents didn't. Our teachers didn't force any view of life into us. They merely drove the debates and pointed out when our reasoning was blatantly fallacious. At the end of each course, there were as many views of each topic as students had participated in class. And of course, each one of us thought that we were the one being right about everything, just to change our minds the next year, in light of more mature material that our teachers presented at class :-)

Well, okay, my parents didn't scream because we talked about those matters in school and then high school. My parents DID scream once they realized that arguing my points was a little more complicated than just saying "you do this because I'm your father/mother!" and even more difficult than "this is for your own good." (And how this is good for me? Could you explain?)

One of the moments I clearly remember, is when it was pointed out that earliest philosophers were quite sexist. The teacher (a woman) said that they were indeed sexist, and then made two questions to the class. The first question was "were they less right about what they said?" The second question was "do you think you can expect people that lived centuries ago, having a view of moral as we have it nowadays?" She then added "like our bodies themselves, the way people think has also evolved in time, and we will be studying that in this course."

Those two questions are still very relevant in my life, especially when I feel inclined to reject an opinion because I don't like the person saying it. I add: There's no consensus nowadays in when many aspects are "morally right/wrong", how could we expect that this consensus existed before?

Once I was 17, I had to choose what I would study in University. I had many temptations and I could choose only one. I wanted to study philosophy. I wanted to study psychology. Arts. Mathematics. Computer Science. Physics. Chemistry. Philology. Psychiatry. I wanted it all!

But we can't have it all, particularly all the time in the world with no income needs, and so I made my decision. I went for Mathematics, and I knew the true reason of my choice just a few years ago. It was the only choice that would assure me, my father would leave me in peace in what respects the class material.

Just like everybody else, my father thought he was right about everything. The problem is that, once I reached a certain age (over 13), he developed the annoying habit of telling me that every single topic I studied at class was false just because he felt it that way. We were studying the decomposition of light? Lies, my teachers are hiding relevant information to me. We were studying Kant? Bullshit, the guy was nuts and anyway my teachers only tell to me what they want to tell to me about him, how could I know those interpretations were indeed from Kant's thoughts and not totally made up?

There was only one exception to this: The only topic he never had an opinion about, was Mathematics. And that, in an instinctive level, led my decision.

I don't regret having studied Mathematics. I think it's one of the best things that ever happened to me. Everything I studied was fascinating. It gave me a mindset that has proven to be useful in my life, and it opened the door to meeting important people in my life... people with very interesting minds, not afraid of talking about anything. At all.

I have to confess, though, that I still feel attracted to studying Philosophy, as a degree. I've read a bit of some philosophers about topics such as education, ethics, "the meaning of life" and religion, but I feel I'm missing out on a lot. Even if just for the sake of it, I would like to be back to University. But then reality kicks in, reminding you that you cannot live from the air.

So even though I know that it's very unlikely I could do this degree, I would like to study it.

It is claiming absolutes like "people are [this or that]" what starts my curiosity. We are part of "people". When we say "people lie", we're saying that we lie too. When we say that "people are idiots", we're saying that we're idiots too.

We define the world basing our claims in our perception ("Men are..." and you likely know less than 0.001% of men in the world). We define morals as our moral ("Abortion is wrong." or "Abortion is a right."). Honesty is always our personal interpretation of honesty, open to the hypocrisy of looking aside when we (and nobody else) has a tough situation that can't be saved without stepping on our principles.

I would like to develop my own thoughts in those matters, but I feel, like for example I felt yesterday, that I'm lacking on essential definitions. (What does "respecting a feeling" mean? Why are we assigning human entity to a feeling and at times we put them even above the respect to a person, giving more value to the feelings than to the person themselves? Respecting a feeling means that we empathize? That we will not tell the person they're wrong? Then why we do respect feelings but not decisions? Why do we "respect feelings" but feel entitled to tell people they should decide something else, if we don't agree with a decision?)

The interesting of this is that by exploring all those concepts, humankind developed knowledge. Yes, I know that there are people saying that "science is an invention of interested politicians, the real power is in our minds". But if you really stop and think about the implications, you realize that despite of the uncertainty, there are things that can be known. Like, you know that you cannot stop a train with your mind before the train rolls over you. You better get out of the train's way.

And that's the beauty: there are things that can be known!

I feel that if you like knowledge, you like philosophy. Like with any other feeling, I could be wrong about that. That's in part why my interest in such a journey: I need to know when I'm right or wrong. To me, it is not enough with just feeling that I could be right.


  1. Great piece, Auryn! Schools don't encourage pupils to think nowadays - in the UK, anyway - much less teach them HOW to do it. My kids have got into trouble a lot in school for questioning the content that they have been told, mainly because I drummed a degree of cynicism into them as soon as they were able to access the internet ("Don't believe everything you read; everybody lies - intentionally or because they are ignorant")

    Your writing also highlights - for me, anyway - the problem of words, which are not always a good way of expressing the concepts that one holds inside one's head; actually the problem is that it is difficult to communicate those concepts, and words are the best way possible, but still inadequate, especially for those who are not good with words.

    And that is why you are setting yourself an impossible task in "needing" to know if you are right or wrong. It is the equivalent of trying to answer questions you are asked in a language that you don't understand, which does not have equivalent words for the concepts involved.

    Pep (read all his son's books which were recommended for the International Baccalaureat course on Theory of Knowledge/Epistemology - something his son did NOT do!)

    1. Sadly, education in our country has deteriorated, quite. It became a tool in politicians' hands, who obviously don't want critical voters. The list of topics per subject halved, and the rule was to run the classes at the slowest student's pace. Being politically correct crippled a system that was encouraging students to work into being useful to society and to themselves, and now we mostly park our students until they're legally adults. (Putting in hands of kids and teenagers the pace of classes, by adapting to how slow they can be, is a huge mistake. The lazy will be lazier, and the smart one, discouraged to do any better.)

      I have got into trouble at school also. I was quite pacific, but they taught us to think, and that of course can be a problem when it is the teachers saying nonsense. I will save the details.

      Even with that training, during the first years of my life, I wasn't taught that even my parents' judgment was subject to criticism. That came on its own when I went into puberty... and my parents started to regret that I could think on my own, having nobody as sacred. But that's a different story anyway.

      Words. It feels like they are never good enough for me. I dismiss a lot of writings because I don't find a way of saying what I want to say. At times I feel like walking in circles around an idea, unable to express it, or to explain why to consider it.

      Something I enjoyed when studying Mathematics is that, within them, you have a very accurate language to express what you really want to say. There's no way of misinterpreting what a definition says, and if you formulate something false, the logic rules will tell if the implication was correct or not. If something is proved false, that's all about it.

      I'm aware that my wanting to know may be (is) unrealistic quite often. I know that I cannot even trust my own senses and that pushes the need. I'm not looking for the meaning of life (there's none), but to always keep in my sight where's the (often fine) line separating reality from fantasy. All I can say is that it is important to me.

      It's perhaps an unrealistic task too. Going back to square one... What's reality, what's fantasy? Again the problem of the definitions, the problem of words.

      PS: As an unrelated (?) note, I also wanted to mention that our teachers did a great job in several levels. There were also literary workshops, for us to train our skills writing. They insisted in that the ability of communicating and transmitting your knowledge, feelings, ideas... was as important as acquiring the knowledge in itself.