Original Link : https://medium.com/@postbio/limits-of-philosophy-dd9dff7e6614
I consider myself an entrepreneur, scientist, and philosopher. When thinking from the perspective of the first two, there exist very tangible constraints that must be satisfied, or at least acknowledged. In entrepreneurship, you are highly constrained by the capital, customer buy-in, and securities laws, among many other things. In science, you are highly constrained by energy conservation, momentum conservation, and entropy considerations. However, when philosophy is not subjected to many constraints, it may degenerate into meaninglessness.
There may be more, but I see the limits and problems of philosophy in terms of the following four issues.
- Limits of Words
- Ignoring Reality
1. Limits of Words
In the process of reading through all of Paul Graham’s essays, I happened upon his essay How to Do Philosophy where he goes into detail about what he considers good and bad philosophy. One particularly interesting idea was that outside of mathematics, the use of words are inherently fuzzy and imprecise since they depend on context and culture. In daily living, words work just well enough to serve their purpose because most situations we encounter do not require extreme precision. However, words will ultimately break if pushed too far and this is the source of seemingly intractable debates and even worse, deep truths.
To illustrate the problem with inflexibility, I will take the example of one philosopher I consider particularly inflexible and dogmatic, Immanuel Kant. This is mostly in the context of his Categorical (Unconditional) Imperative, which states you should act as an ends in itself and not as a means. We can define the Categorical Imperative with respect to a Hypothetical Imperative, which is a statement of the form: “If you want X, THEN do Y.” Basically, if you do something as a means to something else, it’s Hypothetical and not Categorical.
A moment’s thinking shows how inflexibility in action and thought to maintain philosophical purity is impractical, unsustainable, or just plain dumb. The relevant thought experiment: a friend is hiding in your house and there’s a knock at your door. The person knocking wants to murder your friend and asks you if you’ve seen that friend. How should you answer? Since Kant believes lying is wrong and that morality is about principles (Categorical Imperative) and not consequences (Hypothetical Imperative), he believes you can’t outright lie and say your friend is not there, but you can instead say that that you have seen the friend in the last hour.
My take? You do anything necessary to protect your friend, even if it means acting directly against the values and philosophy you ascribe to or that society holds. Philosophy is a great tool, but you must avoid being handicapped or imprisoned by the inflexibility of the tool. Anne Frank would definitely consider me a better friend than Kant.
Why is the Categorical Imperative correct? Why are any philosophical positions or statements correct? I can’t find any reason since core philosophical positions and statements are arbitrary, akin to the axioms in mathematics where you ultimately confront irreducible first principles that were arbitrarily chosen. If you are bound inflexibly and unquestioningly to some arbitrary philosophical principle, your philosophy is limited.
Expanding or changing the context of any philosophical view can lead to contradictions that may invalidate the entire philosophical framework.
For example, is light a wave or a particle? In a double-slit experiment where you allow light to interfere with itself, light acts like a wave. If you now continuously probe that light as it travels through the slits, it then acts like a particle. Here, two directly contradictory statements are both true. In the context of philosophy related to morality, you are either acting in accordance with those morals or you are violating them. Certainly you can’t be both, particularly at once.
It’s only when we expand our context to include the environment that the light travels through (double slit without observation vs. double slit with observation) do we see the truth of wave-particle duality, and thus statements concerning whether the a priori and essential nature of light is a particle or a wave is really meaningless without specifying the environment are meaningless.
So, not allowing for contradictions limits philosophy.
“The opposite of a true statement is a false statement. The opposite of a deep truth is another deep truth.” — Niels Bohr
4. Ignoring Reality
I remember watching a 2009 Singularity Summit debate between philosopher David Chalmers and Ray Kurzweil about the emergence of super-intelligence. (Note: specific details may be a bit off and I can’t find the specific video clip, but the general gist remains.) Chalmers suggested (super-)intelligence can be evolved by creating a virtual world with evolutionary pressures that eventually lead to emergence of that intelligence. Kurzweil countered by saying that the simulation of the environment and intelligence would require massive computational resources, and that undertaking would need to satisfy untenable energy requirements.
The crucial point here was that Chalmers wasn’t cognizant of reality, specifically about the computation and energy resources required, and was instead just ‘philosophizing’ freely. Philosophy as an ends in itself is highly limited when it is not sufficiently constrained by reality.