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Philosophy in The Real World

May 1, 2015

 by Julian Ashbourn 


What we used to call ‘natural philosophy’ became what we now call ‘science’. The transformation reminds us that philosophy used to play a much more important role in the world, from the ancient civilisations through to medieval times, being more connected with the pursuit of knowledge. Of course, there was also a good deal of superstition and various religious doctrines with which to absorb the thinking of the masses. Nevertheless, philosophy had an important role to play, particularly in education and the burgeoning new area of science.


Nowadays, philosophy is perceived more as an academic pursuit for the few who wish to engage in such discussion or write lengthy discourses on the subject, but something which is not really relevant to our fast moving, overtly materialistic world. It has, in fact, become sidelined by politics and commerce from an everyday practical perspective and, those in the fast lane of our global culture of greed will argue that, philosophy is all well and good but has nothing to do with the reality of 21st century life. Furthermore, even within academia, we tend to isolate philosophy as a distinct subject area, rarely taking advantage of its potential to inform and enrich other foci of endeavour.


Philosophers, true philosophers that is, will hold a somewhat different view and may reasonably argue that philosophy is as relevant now as it has ever been and that, indeed, there has perhaps never been a time when we more urgently need some rational, philosophical thinking with which to inform and guide our future evolutionary trajectory. The question is, how may we connect these two perspectives in a manner which supports practical progress and sets out a future plan for humanity? If we fail to do so, then critics of philosophy and its relevance to the modern world, will undoubtedly have a point.


The answer may lie in a systematic review of humanity, its past, present and likely future, aligned with a focused effort to reconnect philosophy with education, politics, religion and yes, even commerce. Such an aspiration may at first seem like an impossible dream, however, a little reflection may unveil many opportunities in this context. The question is, are we capable of such objective deliberation, or are we too entrenched in our current perspectives of politics, industry, academia, religion and the other forces driving our evolutionary trajectory? It may be argued that, if we fail to wake up to this reality, then the human race shall, within the course of the next century, face some daunting challenges which may threaten civilisation itself. In this context, philosophy surely has an important role to play.


Natural Philosophy:


No doubt early man often wondered about the nature of things as he gazed up at the night sky or experienced the exhilaration of a heavy storm. No doubt he also wondered about the animals and plants around him and his own position within this greater, magnificent whole. As the ancient civilisations developed, such musings became more formalised areas of reflection and study, leading to what, for some considerable time, was known as Natural Philosophy. In simple terms, natural philosophy may be thought of as the contemplation and study of the natural world, from the everyday reality that surrounds us, to the workings of the broader universe, prior to the advent of what we would now call science.


Indeed, in some respects it was more inclusive than modern science in that natural philosophy considered more than simply the physical workings of nature, reaching into the philosophical reasons why nature exists at all. Furthermore, it sought to position humanity within this broader scenario while striving to understand how we may attain knowledge for the general betterment of mankind. Some might hold that its aims were of an altogether more noble persuasion than the mere mechanical understanding of physical phenomena. Others might posit that there was an almost religious element to the study of natural philosophy as it reached tentatively into the spiritual domain. The ancient Greeks in particular mused often about the nature of things and attempted to answer questions about the universe, some of which remain beyond our understanding today. Aristotle was particularly adept at formalising and grouping such matters within his various works, including the eight books of the ‘Physics’ which deal with nature and motion and the inner principles of things. However, even within this work, mention is made of the unseen or unmoved ‘mover of the universe’ without whom the physical domain would not exist. Indeed, natural philosophy may be considered as embracing both the theoretical and practical, both faith and observation, in its quest to understand.


Ongoing debates around the nature of the universe and that within it swayed one way or another over time, but the overall concept of natural philosophy ran through the ancient world and well into the middle ages. Even the great Isaac Newton (1642-1727) considered himself a natural philosopher as indicated in the full title of the Principia - Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica, first published on July 5th 1687. Newton was of course a man of many interests, including alchemy and was also deeply interested in religion, albeit according to his own manner. And so it seems that natural philosophy, while a precursor to what we now call science, encompassed an additional, almost spiritual aspect which maintained an alignment with philosophy in its purest sense.


The Birth of Science:


Slowly, the concept of natural philosophy gave way to the modern notion of science, which takes a much more measured and analytical approach to the acquisition of knowledge. Perhaps it is no coincidence that the first flowerings of science accompanied the early development of scientific instruments such as the telescope and microscope, leading to a bond between science and technology that remains strongly embedded in modern thought. Supposition and assumption could now give way to measured observation and statements of ‘fact’ at least as we understood them. Copernicus (1473-1543) is often cited as heralding the nova scientia although, ironically, Copernicus himself indulged in little experimentation or direct measurement, his ideas based more upon a combination of logical reasoning and dissatisfaction with commonly held beliefs about the nature of the solar system and the universe. Consequently, his ideas came to be revised by, among others Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) with alternative explanations of the motions of heavenly bodies, including the suggestion of elliptical orbits. But perhaps it was Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) who, more than anyone, aligned mathematics with his studies of motion and other phenomena in a manner which reflects modern scientific method. In any event, a trend had been set which relied more on observation and measurement than philosophical musing, a trend which would be aided by the parallel and ongoing development of scientific instruments. And so, we were moving toward a more exacting form of questioning, based upon empirical evidence and measurement, in order to develop knowledge, or ‘science’.


However, the philosophical element had not entirely disappeared. Indeed, in some minds, it remained prominent. René Descartes (1596-1650) was himself a noted mathematician, introducing concepts such as analytic geometry, and much more besides, which helped to shape our mathematical thinking and expression. He also thought deeply about cause and effect and the concept of certainty, leading to the publication of Meditations on First Philosophy in 1641. Further questioning about the nature of the world and the human condition established Descartes as the ‘Father of Modern Philosophy’ and yet, he was a true scientist and an influence upon Isaac Newton among many others. Nevertheless, the birth of science and the advent of the ‘scientist’ a term first introduced by William Whewell (1794-1896) much later in the 19th century, changed the way we think about the development and acquisition of knowledge. For many, it also introduced a dichotomy between science and philosophy, the two disciplines tending to embark upon their own exclusive trajectories from that point onward. This impression of distance remains in many minds to this day.


Superstition and Religious Doctrine:


While natural philosophy and science were finding their way and developing important new trains of thought and knowledge, there remained a good deal of superstition and religious doctrine which often sought to undermine such progress. Some may posit that this was an expression of fear of the unknown, or matters that we should not delve into too deeply. Others might recognise the societal power and influence that such doctrines often enjoyed and were reluctant to relinquish. Consequently, the development of what might be construed as certain knowledge was often seen as a direct threat to those who maintained that all things in nature were created by God (whichever God they happened to choose) and should never be questioned by man. Furthermore, all the knowledge we needed was contained in the bible (the bible of their choice) and that this should be our guide in all matters. Such perspectives are maintained today but, in both ancient and medieval times, the dichotomy was rather more extreme. Many who had the intuition and open mindedness to forge ahead, were persecuted for their views. From Socrates onwards, there are many whose inquiring minds have lead them into conflict with the established views of their times.


In one sense, this reality is an example of the nature of man and consequently, some may argue, falls into both the philosophical and scientific domains as a worthy factor for ongoing consideration. In this context it is interesting to consider that, in one of the most technologically and scientifically advanced countries of the world, there remain those who refuse to accept the concept of the evolution of species as they perceive such a notion as flying in the face of God. It would seem then that we maintain a trinity of pedagogic endeavour, scientific, philosophical and religious which, in reality, has not changed for some considerable time, even though we may occasionally choose to attach different emphasis according to our purpose. On top of this trinity, we may overlay the duo of politics and commerce which, for many, represent the expression of the real world, even if informed by the underlying trinity. Clearly, science and technology currently enjoy a huge influence upon this uppermost expression. However, superstition and religious doctrine continue to wield an influence, the strength of which may be volatile according to other factors. Some may consider philosophy as a potentially moderating force among these different spheres of influence and their associated objectives. However, this would not currently appear to be the case in practice.


The Modern World:


And so to the modern world where the prevailing culture is one of unrestrained avarice with little regard for the furtherance of knowledge, other than as a mechanism for competitive advantage. Politics has become corrupt and exploitative towards the masses to such a degree that some see little distinction between it and what we used to call organised crime, the both seeking to exercise a level of control for their own purpose. We live in a world of pretence where the charade of political governance is enacted daily against a backdrop of greed which pushes the extremes of poverty and wealth ever farther apart. Have we indeed forsaken the green and pleasant fields of Jerusalem for the dark satanic mills? Many believe so, as the entire world seems locked upon a path of abject greed and the distortion of values once held dear. We know, from simple reasoning, informed by science, that our present trajectory is not ultimately sustainable. And still we pursue it relentlessly, casting aside any doubts about damage to the fabric of our world, sustainable economies, population growth, the destruction of culture and other factors which we would rather not entertain, lest they detract from our appreciation of the golden veil of pretence in which we have wrapped ourselves.


Science and technology are the ready serfs to this material fiefdom. Religious doctrines find an uncomfortable coexistence, except as a vehicle to fuel conflict and serve parochial agendas. But what of philosophy? What is the place of a pure philosophy with ideals toward the betterment of mankind and in the interests of the common good? Is philosophy to be relegated to the position of an academic caricature as part of the Great Deception?


Material Philosophy:


Many will hold that philosophy is alive and well and reflected in all that we do. After all, the term is frequently used in both politics and business to describe a particular position, whether actual or for purposes of propaganda. In this context, the term has perhaps become confused with ‘intention’ or ‘agenda’ although use of the word ‘philosophy’ perhaps lends the deed a more noble bearing. Within both a commercial and political sense, the philosophy in question is generally interwoven with the fabric of the Great Deception until, ultimately, it blends seamlessly into the whole and becomes quite meaningless. Nevertheless, one might reasonably claim that this is indeed a philosophy in itself. A Material Philosophy. The philosophy of propaganda mixed with the philosophy of self interest. Furthermore, one might posit that it is a perfectly valid and, indeed, a necessary philosophy, as it underpins the workings of our modern world and the mechanics of perpetual growth upon which so many economies are based. Whether such a philosophy is ultimately in the interests of civilisation or, is even sustainable, is another matter entirely, but such details are of little concern to the burgeoning and churning engine of the capitalism which lies at the heart of all of our political doctrines, no matter what moniker we attach to them, their differing hues simply reflecting the different interests of particular groups.


Academic Segregation:


Back in academia, we have more philosophical departments than one may conveniently shake a stick at. Generally, they are divorced from Material Philosophy and so may continue a more leisurely and pleasant discourse around the finer points of previously published works, from the ancient philosophers, through the Renaissance to the 20th century, occasionally interjecting ideas of a more sociological nature. Interesting though this may be for those involved, outside of this environment the value of such discourse may be questioned. Even within the broader realms of academia, some may long for a closer relationship between philosophy and the sciences, arts and humanities. Surely, they might argue, a modern philosophy could serve to inform these other areas, thus enriching both as they learn from each other and become more closely aligned with the contemporary world. Indeed, philosophy could help to guide our very process of pedagogic endeavour, ensuring that it follows the right paths and serves to inform future generations towards a more civilised and sustainable tenure of this good Earth. Further, that it serves to highlight what is really important in life and how other academic pursuits fit within a more noble sense of purpose, not in a subjective or hypothetical manner, but from an eminently practical perspective. One has variously heard it suggested that the different academic branches fail to work together as closely as they might and that, in so doing, all would undoubtedly benefit from the cross-fertilisation of ideas and expertise.


We do see a certain amount of cooperation where the same would serve a particular project or purpose, often commercially or politically inspired, but rather more rarely within a context of true and lasting cooperation. This is perhaps unfortunate as it tenders an impression of isolation between academic entities, even though, as individuals, we must often cross these barriers. This is particularly relevant to philosophy which some might see as rather more distant than most. One might suppose that early natural philosophers would have maintained a broader compass of activity within their deliberations and, perhaps, would have been better able to profit from the sharing of ideas accordingly. Perhaps we should learn from this example.


Pure Philosophy:


An alternative to Material Philosophy might reasonably be described as Pure Philosophy. A philosophy which starts from the premise of understanding and defining its own purpose. Such a purpose might be for the enlightenment of mankind and in the interest of the common good, or perhaps to enable the individual to develop an inner alignment with the natural world, or perhaps some other, composite definition. In any event, pure philosophy will not be connected with materialism and will veer more towards the spiritual, as pure philosophy knows no boundaries of geography, time or culture (although it may be practised in alignment with those factors). In some ways, we might hold that pure philosophy is closer to that of the ancients than to the modern world, although it may certainly be informed by the modern world and the character of man within it. It should also be inspired by nature, the wonder of the natural world and all things in the universe. It is a philosophy that belongs to everyone and which may be practised by anyone, whoever and wherever they are, thus developing their own reconciliation with the broader concepts of life. In some ways, it is a very personal entity, and yet, it is also a vehicle for discussion and deliberation among groups who share a common interest in philosophy. It is the universal language of life and understanding. It is perhaps the very nature of pure philosophy which has a tendency to isolate it among other academic and scientific pursuits. After all, it is a very distinct activity which requires a rather more personal interaction. However, this need not be the case and there are surely ways in which philosophy may inform and enrich these other disciplines.


Reconciling Material Philosophy and Pure Philosophy:


A distinction between material philosophy and pure philosophy has been made and it has been further suggested that a greater interaction might be realised between philosophy and other academic disciplines. In a similar vein, one might posit that philosophy has a part to play within the material world of politics and commerce, where it may also serve to inform and help us to make better decisions in the interests of continued civilisation. However, we must first find a reconciliation between material philosophy and pure philosophy, which enables true philosophers to play a more significant part in the affairs of man. One way of achieving this may be to overlay pure philosophy upon the material philosophy which governs so much of our world, asking pertinent questions accordingly. Some of these questions may relate to realised benefits (as opposed to theoretical benefits), seeking out, by a process of rational enquiry, exactly what the benefits of a given philosophy are and exactly who the beneficiaries are. This simplistic statement may actually cover a good deal of ground.


Of course, many who practise a material philosophy may not be aware that they are doing so, and so it will be important to position any such endeavour at the right level. In most cases, this would mean starting at the top. Most industries have some sort of industry association where ethical statements and general guidance is maintained. Similarly, government agencies and political parties have public facing offices where such statements are made, as do international agencies wherein countries collaborate in the interests of the common good (NATO, UN, EU etc.). In order to facilitate such an activity it would be necessary to establish a representative body as the focal point of the pure philosophy camp. This representative body may liaise with and coordinate between universities and philosophical centres of excellence in order to form and develop a set of fundamental principles, while simultaneously interfacing with the aforementioned organisations and agencies. Naturally, such an undertaking must be considered as an enduring, long term activity and must therefore be subject to a well organised plan, with defined objectives and milestones. All of this is perfectly realisable, if we have the will to do so, but it requires commitment and a certain courage of conviction in order to expose such thinking to the outside world.


A New Modern Synthesis of Philosophy: 


The suggestions made in the previous section will seem alarming to many who would prefer to continue their philosophical research and associated deliberations in a conventional manner. After all, they might reasonably argue, this has been the model for many years. While acknowledging the truth of such statements, one might also posit that there is no reason why modifications to such a model, or even a completely new model, should not be introduced, if there is a benefit in so doing. The key factor in this respect revolves around clarity of purpose. No doubt Socrates would have argued that there was a purpose to his many dialogues, and that this purpose was closely aligned with the potential to influence for the better (indeed, it was surely influence that his detractors were most afraid of, and yet his influence remains). Later philosophers may be said to have drifted somewhat from this path. However, without purpose and the potential to influence, one must question the value of modern philosophy. One may hold that material philosophy enjoys both purpose and influence, at least of a kind. So why should pure philosophy be denied such attributes? Perhaps we need a new synthesis of philosophy with which to move forwards into the practicalities of the modern world.


In the world of evolutionary science, a new ‘modern synthesis’ was developed in the 20th century in order to coordinate and align various biological threads to establish a more solid and rational account of the evolution of species. Within this endeavour, it was acknowledged that previous pioneering work (from Darwin, Mendel and others) could usefully be brought up to date with the addition of more recent revelations, the whole being synthesised into a new and enduring model which, itself, allowed for future development. In a similar manner, one would like to propose a new Modern Synthesis of Philosophy, within which established ideas may be merged with a new and vibrant sense of purpose in order to develop a practical model with which to move forwards. A model which will dispel criticisms of philosophy as an irrelevant science. A model which will have both identity and influence. A model in which original thinkers may merge their ideas for the common good. A model with which to connect philosophy to the real world in a practical and exciting manner.


Humanity, Past Present and Future:


In order to inform our Modern Synthesis of Philosophy, we might usefully stand back and take a long, cool look at our world. To strive to understand, really understand, both natural history and the history of humanity and to be able to place all in context within a greater temporal and spatial landscape. We must also look to the past, present and potential future, in order to imbue our new model with a relevance and sense of purpose in relation to our current position. Understanding the development of human civilisation, its triumphs and its great mistakes, should enable us to position our Modern Synthesis of Philosophy in a suitable context. From here, we may devise an architecture which provides for ongoing development of the synthesis, while enabling the potential for influence within the modern world. This is important for two reasons. Firstly, from an evolutionary perspective, there is little doubt that the human race will face some serious challenges within the next century or so, partly as a result of spiralling population and partly in accordance with our management of natural resources. Secondly, there is also little doubt that the established governmental models will be unequal to the challenge of properly managing such a situation, especially when held in the grip of unbridled materialism. Consequently, there is a void to be filled, where reason and rational argument may bring influence to a variety of issues as they unfold, independently of politics or organisational structure, and yet working with both as required. This is where the established focus of the Modern Synthesis of Philosophy may interact with various entities in order to gently influence and aid in the development of intelligent conclusions and associated decisions.


The Great Task:


Naturally, there will be those who will scoff at, or even ridicule such a proposal. They will claim that it is impossible to change human nature and that humanity has already set the course of its ultimate destiny. Others may hold that nature itself will exercise a regulating influence upon the affairs of planet Earth, introducing controls and counter controls as necessary. Both arguments however are, at best, tenuous. History shows us quite clearly that, while the fundamental nature of humans may persist, attitudes most certainly do change and, sometimes, quite dramatically. Such changes may develop in response to events or other stimulus, but they are certainly possible. With regards to the second argument, our understanding of science, especially the geosciences and Earth sciences, reminds us that the balance of nature can be very fragile and is easily upset. Furthermore, there is an element of unpredictability as we remain ignorant of the depth of interactions and dependencies that exist at the planetary level. Consequently, however impossible the task may appear, we surely must at least try to exercise all of our intelligence, our accumulated knowledge and our real-world experience for the continuance of civilisation.


Currently, our house is in disarray with academia, politics, commerce and religion all taking a somewhat parochial view of things and, mostly, being content to live for the moment and not consider the future too deeply. We need a coordinating entity that can cross all such boundaries, coordinate thinking and act as a catalyst for intelligent reasoning and, where appropriate, influence and change. Philosophy is the obvious candidate for such a coordinating entity. However, before becoming so, it must itself find a universality and sense of purpose that underpins such an undertaking. It must create a new Modern Synthesis of Philosophy, encompassing not only strains of contemporary philosophical thinking, but additional aspects of the sciences, arts and humanities, becoming a more complete and vibrant entity in the process. This new focus may then serve to weave a golden thread of philosophy through the very fabric of civilisation, providing the inspiration to meet future challenges in an ethical and responsible manner. We must dwell not on a hundred reasons why this could not possibly be achieved, but the one reason why it must be achieved.


~ Julian Ashbourn 



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