I am a simple person in that I like clearly defined boundaries and rules. I like to know why something is the way it is – or to at least know that there’s probably a good reason, even if I’ll never understand it.
Take gravity for example. I’ve learned the Einsteinian explanations and seen the demonstrations where balls of different sizes are placed onto stretched fabric to represent planets bending space and time. But I still don’t really get it. The concept of space-time is too foreign and intangible for me to intuitively grasp.
At the same time, the behind-the-scenes details don’t really matter to me personally because I can understand the result quite viscerally: I am held tightly to this planet.
We all know this to be fact, and no one argues about the fairness or morality of gravity. It just is what it is, and human society has built up around this and other inescapable monoliths of physics which I have come to appreciate for their unyielding presence.
Now that I’ve turned my interest to philosophy, however, this appreciation for rules and inexorable laws leads to nothing but frustration. I’m looking for deeper truths and root causes of why we believe what we do, but that appears to be an exercise in futility.
This isn’t really surprising. Philosophy is by definition different from science. One cannot simply observe and measure humans and then conclude a fundamental set of morals.
Philosophy, in truth, is just a matter of coming up with principles to live by and then convincing everyone else to follow them. It’s a bit like religion. It’s a bit like politics. But I’d say that the big difference is that philosophers are more interested in coming up with the ideas and less so with imposing them upon others (that’s left for the smooth talkers who start religions and governments).
So how do philosophers come up with these principles? Well, they don’t drop bowling balls and feathers from towers to see which lands first. They don’t fly kites into thunderstorms. They don’t track the migration habits of African Swallows.
What philosophers do, as far as I can tell, is make shit up.
Philosopher’s gather their experiences, their observations of people, and their biases and preferences, and they create elaborate moral structures around them. They conclude things like, “I value my life. Everyone else I know values theirs as well. Therefore, human life has great value. Therefore, it is immoral to take a human life.” And it sounds great – nearly everyone buys into this.
But it’s no gravity. The philosopher has not identified something that cannot be done but, rather, something that should not be done according to him. While scientists help us understand certain rules of nature that cannot be disregarded, philosophers offer mere suggestions for how to live alongside other humans.
These suggestions can be powerful, however, and many of them have shaped human societies just as strongly as have gravity and weather. America was built heavily on the philosophy of John Locke, for example, and Nietzsche is often credited (fairly or not) as one of Hitler’s inspirations.
Clearly, philosophy is a powerful force. One might even say it’s inescapable – as long as there are humans, philosophy will exist, guiding individual human actions and society as a whole.
My original intent in this paper was to complain about the lack of a natural, universal truth – a gravity – within philosophy which explains why we do what we do. I have since come to the conclusion that philosophy itself is the gravity. Philosophy affects each human thought in the same way that gravity affects each step we take – consciously or not. As rational beings, we cannot step outside the bounds of philosophy any more than we can disregard the effects of gravity.
Luckily, recognizing a law is the first step to understanding it and learning to use it to our advantage. While gravity will always pull us in different directions as we continue to explore the universe, our understanding of it has allowed us to travel further than we once thought possible and to “see” into distant crevices of the universe.
This is a satisfying breakthrough for me, and yet I remain uneasy with philosophy. Humans have been pondering its questions much longer than they have gravity, and they have yet to produce universal laws. We still can’t agree on basic, root issue, and this leads to wildly different world views even though we live in the same exact world.
Why does one person believe in the concept of self ownership while another believes in communal ownership? Why does one person think life begins at inception while another thinks the heartbeat is what counts? Why do some people feel the need to spread their beliefs while others are perfectly happy keeping it to themselves?
If philosophy truly is a force to be reckoned with – a natural law in itself, – it’s time to dig in and see if it is built upon empirical foundations. Can we understand why people accept certain beliefs and dispute others? Is there a fundamental set of principles – at any level – that all humans can (must) agree upon?
If philosophy is gravity, then we need its Einstein to come along and give us some damned equations to explain it all.
Many have tried, but none have succeeded. For now, philosophy remains grounded in the arbitrary.