On Philosophy and Ethics

Distilled from what I think is best of the thought of the great philosophers, I present answers to the questions that have been the subject matter of philosophy that I believe to be true. The chief criticism to which they might be subject, I think, is that they are unoriginal, obvious, and banal. However, since some still regard the great questions of philosophy as open, rather than settled, it still seemed worthwhile to set what follows in writing.

On the Nature of Reality and Existence

The first, and most dominant, and most certain, fact of which anyone is aware is that of his own existence. I see, I hear, I feel: thus, I, the experiencer, must exist, although all I percieve might be an illusion.

My experiences take a coherent form. They permit themselves to be simplified and systematized on the basis of the hypothesis of the existence of material bodies, which retain their forms and properties even when my attention is directed away from them. And further, I myself have a physical body; there are other bodies like mine, and they appear to be animated by a reason similar to my own.

Given the surpassing obviousness of the hypothesis that, therefore, there truly exist in the world individuals other than myself, it should be regarded as a very clear and obvious thing that I am under a moral obligation to accept the consequence of the high likelihood of the truth of this hypothesis, that I should be respectful of my fellow man as one who feels pleasure and pain even as I do, and be as loath to cause pain to others as I am to experience it myself.

Acknowledging the reality of one's fellow man, then, can be viewed almost as a consequence of materialism. The notion that there was first a material world, and that through the workings of natural laws, first life and then mind came into existence, must be admitted as not being unreasonable.

Our experience of consciousness, however, goes beyond, and even seems to be in conflict with, our knowledge of the material world. Also, while materialism provides a basis for regarding one's neighbor as objectively as important as oneself, it fails to provide, within itself, a motivation for other than selfish behavior, even if materialism alone is sufficient to allow us to recognize such behavior as tainted with partiality in ourselves as well as in others.

Our experience of the material world also teaches us the value of the rules of logic, and hence the rules of arithmetic and abstract mathematics. As these things are not in themselves material, are they real?

It is meaningful to say of someone that he thinks in a sound way that is likely to yield practical results, or that he does not; the statement that a certain mathematical theorem is consistent with the postulates of the system of which it is a part is a statement that has meaningful truth of the same kind. Sound reasoning and self-consistent reasoning can be referred to in themselves, and thus the relationships of steps in a chain of reasoning can be described, since we can discuss the physical world, and chains of reasoning do, in many cases, have the possibility of interacting with the physical world.

There is still a difference between what truth means in mathematics, and what it means in the physical world, since, as has been famously noted, the truths of mathematics have an absolute certitude that other truths cannot reach, but only in so far as we make no statements about their relationship to the physical world, but the basic concept of truth as that which is, rather than that which is not, is common to both realms.

If we accept that the material world is real, because we perceive it, can we then conclude that the material world is as we perceive it? One of the most obvious areas in which this is questioned is in connection with our perception of color. When I say "this ball is red", I really mean that "this ball, if illuminated with white light of a certain standard composition, will, when viewed by an observer with normal vision, cause that observer to see the ball as red".

The mental perception of "redness" is not something found in the physical world. Objects have reflectance properties for light within the visual spectrum; these can be plotted on a graph, and the sensations associated with them can be different for people with anomalies of color vision. But a statement like "this ball is red" as ordinarily used remains meaningful, because it is a statement about something that really exists, the physical reflectance properties of a material object. It is a very condensed statement about those properties, and the particular condensation employed is based on the particular workings of the human visual system, but that does not change the nature of the statement.

Is There Such a Thing as Time?

In general, we all take it for granted that there is such a thing as time. Certainly, the time of day is a thing we can observe, from the height of the sun in the sky. But once someone had advanced to me the notion that only the succession of events is real, and what we call time is but a human conceit.

I was able to argue against this.

One cannot measure out a span of time with one's hands as one would a span of distance, although one could snap one's fingers, wait a while, and snap them again. Time separates events, and is analogous to distance, as the Time Traveller argued in H. G. Wells' famous novel, and as Einstein later more forcibly established.

Still, one can indeed say that material objects are "real", and time, like distance, belongs to a different category. But that time is an abstraction - abstracted from our direct observations of reality - does not necessarily make it a whim or fashion of our particular culture.

Is there a reality which gives rise to our concept of time, however imperfect our understanding of it may be? This is the question to which an affirmative answer is sufficient to establish that time is something real.

I go into a room, and close the door, and while there, I read a chapter of a novel. When I emerge, I do not find that the building in which that room was present has crumbled into dust and ruins about me, nor do I find that a TV commercial which was beginning as I entered the room is just finishing. In fact, the hands on the wristwatch I am wearing have advanced somewhat as I read that chapter - and they are in agreement with those on the clock in the living-room.

Not only, then, have events succeeded each other. Something, without direct physical influence of the one upon the other, has kept related events succeeding each other at the same pace both within the room in which I was reading, and in the rest of the world outside.

And this is time; the pace by which events that are related succeed each other. There is a physical reality which imposes like durations for like processes in different places. Time is, as practical experience reinforces, a part of the real world.

On the Nature of Virtue

Given, for the moment, that what are ordinarily regarded as good actions, those which promote the well-being of one's fellow persons, represent what is good, one might enquire into the types of good behavior among men.

It has been proposed, quite reasonably, that there are three basic types of good behavior:

One might do what is helpful, and avoid what is hurtful, to others out of fear of punisment.

One might do good to those to whom one feels a genuine affection, such as the members of one's family, or those with whom one is allied in a common endeavour.

One might do what is right because one knows it to be right.

Naturally, each of these motivations seems to be more to be esteemed than the ones which precede it, as we move down the list. But others have decried this view, at least as it might be applied to the instruction of children, in that it tends to the creation of those who serve no end but themselves.

I would hold that they, or perhaps those they criticize, or both, have misunderstood this view of virtue.

No one is to be particularly esteemed who does what is hurtful to others, because he falsely believes it to be right; in any case, we are more likely to encounter either a pretended belief of this nature, or a false belief for which the individual is culpable due to facile thinking.

Thus, while we may esteem good behavior coming from a higher source as more virtuous, our definition of what is good should be viewed as coming first.

From this approach, it then becomes apparent that the different levels of virtuous conduct do not conflict with each other, but rather that the higher and lower levels are included in each other.

One who does what is right largely out of fear of punishment still finds rules which he recognizes as fair less irksome than those which he does not so recognize.

While partiality is to be despised, affection towards others is a good, and a genuine affection towards all humanity is part of the virtue of a saint, not a defect.

One who seeks to do good to others because he knows it is right welcomes just laws, as they not only benefit his fellow men by restraining the actions of those less virtuous than himself, but also because he recognizes them to be helpful to him in his own humanity and hence imperfection. Just as he welcomes sunshine and rain, so too he would welcome the natural affections that incline us to good conduct.

Thus, it is a proper cause for rejoicing that most children, in their earliest years, from the care which their parents take of them, have before them a model of unselfish love, which, in addition to being an ideal, grants them the security with which they can build a healthy personality.

That a man to an extent shows kindness to his wife because he desires her embraces, and that a woman cares solicitously for her children in part because it is in her nature to bask in their returned affection, is not a thing to be despised. That in this case, Nature works on the side of virtue, is good; and in any case, it should be readily acknowledged that any competent parents bring a great deal of true and unselfish love of their own in addition to that which is inspired by Nature.

The Question of "Scientism"

One definition of scientism, categorized as a philosophical error, that I have seen is that it is the belief that the methods of physical science are the most reliable, or the only valid, means of finding knowledge about the world.

This definition is ambiguous because it acknowledges that different writers on the subject have used different definitions of scientism.

My position is that some of what could be called "scientism" is not erroneous, but, on the other hand, some of it is.

Those who work in the physical sciences themselves readily acknowledge that the methods of mathematics are more reliable and trustworthy than those of the physical sciences. In mathematics, there is, at least potentially, absolute certainty; in the physical sciences, limits to the precision of observations, and the possibility of error, are inescapable.

This does not, however, lead to it being suggested that only the methods of mathematics should be used to investigate the physical world.

Thus, I see no difficulty in acknowledging that the methods of the physical sciences are superior to those of philosophy, religion, and the humanities in general, in terms of producing more reliable knowledge, without falling into the error of believing that philosophical questions should only be addressed when this can be done by means of the methods of the physical sciences, and those which cannot be so addressed are of no real or legitimate interest.

We don't give up physics because mathematics is "better", so why should we give up philosophy because science is "better"?

However, this is not quite enough to settle the matter. If there is such a great gulf between the reliability of scientific knowledge and what is held to be knowledge in fields such as philosophy and ethics, is it unreasonable to be dismissive of philosophy and ethics as a mere waste of time in an endless cycle of arguing about opinion?

What I find unreasonable is not a degree of dismissiveness, but rather when that dismissiveness becomes absolute, or at least approaches that. Because then it is likely to result in at least one of these two errors:

Attempting to answer philosophical questions using the methods of the physical sciences in ways that are fallacious;

Claiming that the questions that can only be addressed through philosophical means are irrelevant and can safely be completely ignored.

I have seen quite enough of people versed in the physical sciences appearing, at least in my estimation, to make fools of themselves through each of those two errors when discussing the question of human consciousness to conclude that scientism can be taken too far, even if some of what gets decried as "scientism" is perfectly valid.

On the Nature of the Good

Although it is obvious that comfort and ease are good, and suffering and pain are bad, even when we add that these things are equally good and bad when experienced by everyone, at least in the beginning, it has long been recognized that this does not automatically lead to a complete theory of right and wrong.

This is true for several reasons, some of which have become more obvious to people today than they were in past times.

It has long been recognized that comfort and ease should not be taken as the highest good. Artistic creations, discoveries in the sciences, even achievements in athletics: these things seem to represent the real purpose for which humans exist. Yet, we are properly deeply mistrustful of any theory which grants these things too great an importance, compared to the avoidance and amelioration of human suffering. Similarly, one may wish to advance the claim that old age is a stage of life with a proper purpose of its own, but however valid the purpose one might propose may be, skepticism will be one's lot if one attempts to present such a purpose as a rationale for slackening medicine's search for the fountain of youth.

That people should refrain from gratuitously injuring one another has hardly ever been in doubt. But circumstances vary in how much people can reasonably be expected to do in assisting one another. The question of how humans should respond in the face of an insufficiency in the products of Nature clearly has a practical dimension, but it also raises moral issues which seem far from simple. However, it could well be argued, and I am largely a holder of this opinion, that they are simpler than they seem, because the first thing to do is to avoid the insufficiency: in past times, by restraining our carnal appetites, and in the present time, given certain medical advances, without even making that sacrifice.

My further thoughts on these matters, beyond what has been noted above, enter the realm of political controversy, and thus I have placed them on another page, rather than on this one about philosophy.

And now I have added comments on an even more controversial matter: on yet another page, I address the recent barrage of criticism that religious belief has come in for these days.