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Philosophy is Bullshit

We will now pause for a short romp through historical philosophy. We will focus to some small extent on the Enlightenment - the tremendous philosophical advances made in Europe in between roughly the end of the fifteenth century and the present (as it is a process that continues to this very day and this very book). No attempt at all will be made to do this in a strict historical order; rather we'll focus on certain key contributions that are relevant to the central thesis of this book.

Note well that this book is very definitely intended as a polemic. It is perhaps intentionally a bit disrespectful of the mistakes of our elders. This is because those mistakes get repeated over and over again - I teach physics at a University and advise students who are taking physics and philosophy and mathematics courses and hear over and over again how the same old shell game is perpetuated. I refer specifically to the fact that philosophy and logic courses time and again present rhetoric as if it is the logical content of the argument that matters, not the axiomatic basis from which the logic proceeds. They present all arguments as loaded questions9.1.

What, you might ask, is a loaded question, or its close cousin a loaded argument? It is a proposition that can be proven (or disproven) only on the basis of premises that are at least as dubious as the proposition itself. When I was a teen-ager I once wrote an entire fantasy story whose fundamental basis was the saying ``if you put your elbows on the table you squish a fairy''9.2. No kidding. Yes, even then my notion of ``rational discourse'' was perhaps a bit skewed.

Now, if I were to attempt to prove the proposition ``if I put my elbows down gently I can just trap a fairy without harming it'' and used nothing but the finest of facts and purest of logic to observe that any possible presumed physical form of a fairy would require some presumed force greater than zero, expressed in Newtons of force to be ``squished'', that there was no physical reason I couldn't apply my elbow to a table with less than this critical force, that by doing this inside of a fair trap would more or less guarantee a non-fatally injured fairy within the trap at the critical moment of contact, Q.E.D., would you accept this conclusion as proven?

Only if another proposition, the proposition that ``you are a complete idiot'' is true. To accept the argument you have to accept the premises upon which it is based - that fairies exist (first of all) and that they magically appear underneath all elbows that approach ``a table'' whatever one defines that to be. So fine, these are axioms, or conditional premises of the argument that cannot be proven and might be false and which you are (in fact) likely to disagree with. At least I hope so.

As the Pit of Despair made clear, however, all axioms are equally unprovable. They are assumptions. Unprovable is unprovable, right? Nice dualistic split, a bit simpler than the existence thing (a fact that has caused an entire system of logic wherein ``true'' stands for ``is proveable'', sort of moving the notions of logic closer to those of logical positivism). ``If it is an axiom it must be unprovable'' isn't an axiom itself (or even a real proposition), it is a part of the definition of the word ``axiom''. We cannot rank unprovability. It is equally unprovable to assert that invisible fairies do not exist. Maybe they are there, only invisible. Maybe they are Neutrino Life and don't much interact with ordinary matter enough to be detected. Yet.

All philosophical arguments but one are built on top of a set of axioms as unprovable assumptions, not on top of self-evident truths. All philosophical arguments are hence loaded. A common term for the ``proven'' answer to a loaded question, one that openly expresses the contempt one should rightfully feel for the attempt to convince you that the unprovable is proven, is bullshit.

Now, much of the prose so colorfully presented above is not terribly idea-original. The perceptive reader9.3 will observe that I've read and been influenced by many philosophers and thinkers of years past. Yes, I've digested my Plato, barfed up my Aristotle, danced with Descartes, listened to falling trees in the forest with Berkeley and God together, been smacked by Johnson, laughed hysterically at the grave and oh-so-wrong ``rational'' pronouncements of the Germans9.4 nodded thoughtfully at the Major Upanishads and some aspects of Bhuddism, Taoism, and Zen, and wept quietly as Philosophy attempted to pretend that the greatest philosopher, the seal of the philosophers as Mohammed is supposedly the seal of the prophets, never wrote the essays that destroyed the fundamental basis of philosophy as it was known up to that time.

I refer, of course, to David Hume.

Let's start out by taking a peek at what ol' David had to say about philosophy, given that he was, after all, a Famous Philosopher.



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Robert G. Brown 2007-12-17