Updated: Oct 12, 2020
Neural science and quantum physics are relatively new. Philosophy is really, really old. That’s why Plato and Socrates are called ancient philosophers. They’re old. Yet if we travel that far back, we will see that although they had the science all wrong (thinking earth was flat and the gods were responsible for the weather) they pretty much rocked the philosophy.
Philosophy is the science of ideas. Philosophy has developed over the millennia with new schools of thought, ideas that build on ideas and ideas that challenge old ideas. Even when ancient, the ideas have not lost their value or freshness and the exercise of pondering them is still a great workout. Ideas have no expiration date and the truths they attempt to frame are as relevant today as they were in ancient Rome. For example, Plato explained our recognition of mathematical truths as the concept of a priori knowledge, that some forms of knowledge are not learned, but innately known from birth. What he didn’t know is that modern science would find evidence of instinctual thinking pre-encoded in our DNA. That’s philosophy stepping up to the plate 3000 years before science.
If pondering philosophy is new to you, we need to be sure that we are starting from the same position of understanding, so a pencil sharpening on the definition of philosophy is in order. Philosophy is the systematic study of ideas. Until ideas are subjected to the testing, critical thinking, and systematic approach of rational argument, they are just ideas, they are not philosophy. When people say their philosophy is to “do good onto others”, we should congratulate them on their charity, but chastise them on their terminology. “Do good onto others” is a principal. “Doing good onto others is a worthy endeavor because of the gain not only to the individual recipient, but also to the satisfaction and shared human experience and community, by evidence of its opposite creating a class and resource disparity that propagates back to the community as a shared loss” is a philosophy. Philosophy, like science, is problem solving. It requires a hypothesis, a set of testing parameters and a conclusive result. Philosophy is distinguished from other ways of addressing idea problems by its critical, generally systematic approach and its reliance on rational argument.
Not to worry, this is Thought Vitamins, not an upper level college course. There will be no mid-term test and you won’t be asked to deconstruct Kant’s critique of categorical imperatives. Philosophy is only one of many ways of looking at and experiencing ideas and we won’t hold all ideas to the rigors of a laborious philosophical beat down. We will do this though: we will look at philosophy not as ivy league ponderers spinning the intellectual wheel, but as valuable workout, an exercise of the mind. Human beings are unique from the rest of the biological sphere in that we can process sensory input into decision and action and then also reflect, hypothesize, theorize and create ideas. This is a talent we have that is, far too often, left dormant in our society of spoon-fed stimulation. If we add a layer of critical thinking and objective standards to the deluge of marketing ideas dumped on us every day we can only be moving in the right direction. “Life is better with Coke” is an idea. Putting it in a song does not create its validity. Only a rational examination of its thesis can do that.
Here’s a thought - Is the human capacity to philosophize an advanced version of the same natural cognitive capabilities all living creatures possess, or is it a completely new characteristic that’s unique only to humans? Is it a more advanced version the same tool available to the dolphins, apes and house cats or a completely different tool, not seen even in traces in our sub-species thought skill set?
Now that’s a philosophical question!