What I Love About Philosophy

As a church-going atheist, I was very pleased to hear of this not-a-church "Sunday Assembly". It now means I have four different congregations to visit each month. One is quite spiritual, but also agnostic. Another is extremely political, and not very religious. A third is nominally Christian, but more interested in psychoanalysis and self-healing. And the fourth? Well, we're standing in it, and it is based on a very beautiful statement: "Live better, Help Others, Wonder More".

Such an appeal suits my love of philosophy. Around twenty years ago, I received a stiff piece of cardboard that said that I had a degree of expertise in loving philosophy, and since then I've continued this practise, often autodidactically by talking to the strange daimons in my head, sometimes with other people, and often at a group I convene entitled "The Philosophy Forum".

This presentation has a title that was assigned to me, not of my choosing (thanks Pippa). Those with some background would know that philosophy means "The love of wisdom". So I am supposed to speak about the "Why I love the love of wisdom". My next talk will be on "Why I love the love of the love of wisdom". After that there will be "the love of the love of the love of wisdom", followed by a discussion on recursion.

Now it has been said that philosophy, perhaps uniquely of all academic disciplines, has managed to exist for some three thousand years with numerous and sometimes intelligent practitioners, without having managed to define what it really is. The source of some wisdom itself, Uncyclopedia, claims that it is "a disorder that causes people to ponder pondering, rather than go out and get a job. This usually takes the form of interminable circular and self-referential arguments and inevitably leads to a moderately well-paid career whining about students in the humanities department".

Now there is some good reasons for this. Cicero did say "There is nothing so ridiculous that some philosopher has not said it". That was over two thousand years ago, and many philosophers both before and after have made some significant contributions to the ridiculous. Even more so, they've made serious, well-thought out, and relentlessly logical studies in matters that cannot be proven. Whether abstract entities, such as numbers, are real, conceptual, or nominal; whether the ultimate nature of reality is physical or mental; whether or not we have free well, we are determined, or whether the two are compatible; whether or not there is something "beyond" space and time - and so forth. Metaphysics is thus described by The Concise Encyclopaedia of Philosophy and Philosophers" (1960) in the following terms:

"Metaphysics is that part of philosophy which has the greatest pretensions and is exposed to the greatest suspicions. Having the avowed claim of arriving at profound truths about everything, it is sometimes held to result only in obscure nonsense about nothing."

Now earlier I mentioned a group called "The Philosophy Forum". It meets at the at the Melbourne Unitarian Church hall on the first Sunday of the month at 12.30pm. The group has been around for about fifteen years; we have around thirty regular people who turn up for an hour-and-a-half, we deal with serious and challenging philosophical issues in ontology (the study of being), epistemology (the study of knowledge), and logic (the study of reasoning). We have avoided speculations in theology and are very careful indeed about making metaphysical claims. We leave that for other otherworldly experts.

Some of the things that we have discussed are rather more pragmatic, if challenging. Evidence of aesthetic expressions in non-human animals. Studies in formal, rhetorical, and dialectical logic. The question of how to justify beliefs. A typology of rational and irrational statements. Problems in reductionist theories of consciousness. The philosophy of history, both in terms of contextual understanding, and of the forensics involved in interpreting primary evidence. The next meeting will discuss the use of religion to express higher human values, ideals, and experiences.

But this explains what we do, not why we do it. The latter is what is determines a love of philosophy. That is based on the real desire to understand what is true, what is good, and what is beautiful, to use an old triad, attributed to Socrates. From a modern perspective these questions do not require appeals to otherworldly claims. They can be derived from what we experience and understand.

Way back in the day when I did my first degree at Murdoch University in 1986, I undertook a foundation course called "Structure, Thought and Reality". One of the reading texts was a delightful story called "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance" which the author stated, in true philosophical style, didn't actually include much of either. What it did include however was a narrative of an inquiry into values, and it said something which I think is relevant to both the Philosophy Forum and The Sunday Assembly:

"The real University ... has no specific location. It owns no property, pays no salaries and receives no material dues. The real University is a state of mind. It is that great heritage of rational thought that has been brought down to us through the centuries and which does not exist at any specific location. It's a state of mind which is regenerated throughout the centuries by a body of people who traditionally carry the title of professor, but even that title is not part of the real University. The real University is nothing less than the continuing body of reason itself."

That is what I love about philosophy.

Presentation to the Inaugural Melbourne Sunday Assembly, Sunday April 21st, 2013, South Melbourne Commons