Ideas from a brain in a vat: Why we could use some philosophizing

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The word philosophy no doubt conjures the image of wizened old men swathed in their Ottoman chairs, pipes puffing smoke as they whittle the day away with their sagacious discourse on all matters philosophical, be they the meaning of one’s existence, the eternal debate of free will versus determinism, or even the provenance of life itself. It would then come as little surprise that we shape within our minds the preconception that the edifice of philosophy is rooted exclusively in the demesne of the erudite and pedantic, its sprawling secrets fenced off from mere common folk. We think of great names such as Socrates, Plato and Heraclitus, and convince ourselves that theirs is a legacy that we cannot hope to comprehend. Yet I for one do not subscribe to the belief that we are so limited in our cognitive potential. We are each of us the accumulation of hundreds of thousands of years of evolution, and our capacity to create and adapt stems from the brilliance of our minds, the fount of our cognitive prowess. But while it appears that we do possess the capacity to philosophize, the buzzing question seems to be: Why should we?

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To answer that, it is essential that we first understand what philosophizing entails. To philosophize is to cogitate and ponder about the fundamental truths about the world, to probe the various questions that have piqued the interests of scholars for centuries; it is a venture into a world of inquiry, to juggle ideas, concepts and theories in a quest of attaining a better understanding of the world, and perhaps what lies beyond it. Put in another way, philosophizing is a whole lot like reading a musical score – You pierce the flurry of notes scattered across the page to discern the meaningful patterns behind them, generating sound explanations as to why the composer arranged the notes as they are, and thereby hopefully gaining a more profound insight into the workings of the score. While we may not necessarily come to grand epiphanies like those of Plato and Aristotle, we would do ourselves a disservice if we assumed that we cannot practice philosophy. All it takes is a little willingness and the effort to think at a deeper level.

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Yet the question remains: Why do so? Why spare the effort of thinking about ideas and concepts that serve no tangible purpose? Why waste time trying to answer questions that have no real answers?  For one thing, the art of philosophizing nurtures our critical thinking. To fully grasp philosophical ideas in their entirety is by no means an easy feat, and philosophy demands that we partition away fraudulent assumptions and instead utilize rational, precise logic to deal with the problems and issues that we may encounter. Think about it, when considering important issues such as the meaning of one’s life or the moral implications of an action, you would not want to go into it willy-nilly now would you?  Philosophizing forces us to critically analyze a problem and to engage in a deeper form of thinking, so that we may fully grasp the meaning behind the problem. While you may not necessarily apply such critical thinking in deciding what to have for lunch (though in fairness you still could), making major decisions in your life or solving problems can all benefit from critical thinking. Just as you would critically consider the implications of Ayn Rand’s Objectivistic philosophy, so too would you apply the same, logical reasoning in deciding what career pathway to take or even in your self-reflection. Terry Goodkind boldly proclaimed in his book that, “The only sovereign you can allow to rule you is reason”; this seems to further highlight the need for critical thinking, to arm ourselves with logic and reason in confronting the issues in our lives.

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Philosophizing also paves the way to creativity and open-mindedness. To consider an idea or concept in its whole, you must be willing to look at it from different angles, examine at through different lenses. A major tenant in philosophy is to question everything, to always allow for the possibility of inaccurateness. Philosophers such as Descartes and Berkeley questioned the very fabric of our supposed reality and proposed different explanations for how our reality truly is, yet they were not lunatics spouting nonsensical drivel; they were scholars, embarking on a philosophical journey to uncover different possibilities of the truths about the world. It may seem inconceivable that your existence is nothing but a brain in a vat or that you only exist when being perceived, but the point here is not to consign your reality to either one, it is to consider these plausible possibilities about reality, to play around the idea that there may be a higher truth than we previously believed. And these ideas would not have been conceived without the element of creativity, the spark of creation that allowed these philosophers to come forth with such ideas (in the context of logical hypothesizing of course). In other words, these philosophers opened their minds to the many possible inferences of the nature of the world, creatively coming up with their own theories.

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I think it would be no exaggeration to say that this creativity and open-mindedness one ascribes to philosophizing is equally important in the realm of sciences. All branches of sciences aim to uncover the different truths about the world, whether it’s the existence of black holes or the perplexing nature of human behavior. Yet truth is often veiled in layers of convoluted mystery, hidden behind screens of erroneous thinking and assumptions. That is why it is important to consider things from multiple perspectives and to use one’s creativity in coming up with novel explanations. We should not fool ourselves into thinking that memorizing facts and theories is enough to pursue the world’s truths; it is through critical, deliberate thinking, complemented with a healthy dose of creativity, which precipitates the uncovering of new knowledge about the world.

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Finally, philosophizing is a fascinating activity that reminds us of how incredible our existence is. Debates about the authenticity of free will, of life after death, of the nature of reality…they may not be issues of immediate, practical significance, but it can be argued that these are certainly fascinating topics of discourse that reflect our inherent curiosity, our inquisitive drive to understand ourselves and our relation with the world. I do not mean that we should spend entire days in philosophical discourse, but perhaps we could appreciate philosophizing from how it allows us to gain better insight into a broad spectrum of meaningful topics. Perhaps it can be said that philosophizing enriches and reinforces our interest in the world, fueling our drive to understand it.

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While many universities do offer course on philosophy, I believe that a degree in philosophy is not necessary to appreciate and to reap its benefits. Philosophizing trains our critical thinking and creativity, as well as imbuing us with a drive to better understand the world and all its complexities.

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A trueborn kid at heart with a penchant for lame jokes of every kind, Tim enjoys lazy afternoons with coffee in one hand and a good fantasy book in the other. Having hailed from an imaginary world, he believes in mankind’s inherent duality, and has thus embarked on a quest to uncover the hidden truths of the human mind, armed with the regalia of psychology, philosophy and uncommon sense. Has a soft spot for plushies and baby animals.

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