Why is it that the greatest minds of philosophy talk such unintelligible gibberish?
The legal test for insanity in the US and the UK is not knowing the difference between right and wrong. Yet all the world’s greatest philosophers have not been able to make that determination in nearly three thousand years of uninterrupted effort. Therefore, under this test, we are all legally insane and don’t know it. We do know however what we think is right for us and wrong for us, our interests, families and social groups. But what we believe has nothing to do with objective morality and everything to do with our own self-interest.
This difficulty arises because language is primarily useful in communicating about everyday human needs and interests. Language is an excellent tool for describing what we might like to eat or items that we might wish to own or buy. But language does very poorly when it comes to describing more abstract ideas, like god, morality, good and evil, truth, spirituality, the soul, the purpose or meaning of life, and reason itself. These abstract concepts are not actual things. They do not exist in the physical world but only in the minds of people who try to imagine them as concepts. Often people accept culturally received notions of these ideas. Philosophers on the other hand tend to make up meanings for these concepts as they go along.
Abstract concepts like good and evil and reason are often expressed as absolutes. They are the foundation of innumerable absolutist ideologies and religions which claim to be true, good and moral. Such absolutist ideal concepts cannot be described in a sensible fashion because there is no objective reference point that makes the meaning of good, evil and reason comprehensible. Philosophers have spent the last three thousand years trying to define these absolutes and failing. They fail because moral and ethical absolutes are inventions of man. They do not exist in nature and have no relation to the physical universe. They cannot succeed because they are attempts to extract objective moral laws from the subjective individual interests of humans which are the only meaningful measure of such judgments.
It is fascinating to read the remarkably diverse nonsense spouted by our greatest philosophers throughout the ages.
Philosophical thought tends to be built on a structure of meaningless, undefined or, at best, imprecisely defined, terms on which absolute ideals are built supported only by the nonsensical terms the philosopher started with.
The term “substance” is one such term. While it sounds like the chewing gum one finds on the sole of one’s shoe, substance is a word used to bear many structures of philosophical thought. Some philosophers view substance as the “thing in itself” regardless of its appearance or properties. Plato used ideal forms to describe his version of substances. For Spinoza, god was the only substance; for Descartes there are three substances, mind, matter and god; and for Leibniz there are an infinite number of substances which he called monads, but somehow matter is not one of them. With such a vague and squishy term underlying these philosophical structures one is left with a feeling of the insubstantiality of these philosophies.
The term “god” is another undefined term. Often it is used as a dead end for thought, such as in: “things are the way they are because god made them that way.” This is very similar to saying “It is what it is” or “they are what they are.” Further, every thinker seems to have his own unique conception of what god is or isn’t. Most people who say they believe in god don’t know what to say when asked what the god is that they believe in. Similarly, atheists sometimes cannot say what the god is that they don’t believe in.
And what a remarkable collection of philosophical thinkers we have in history!
Schopenhauer believed that all life involves striving to achieve desires which lead to great suffering that is only further increased by knowledge. By exercising less will and knowing less, Schopenhauer says we suffer less. This is a philosophy for turtles.
Rousseau believed that civilization is the cause of all evil and that the only good comes from living like man in a hypothetical state of nature. True to his beliefs, he lived like a barbarian and gave all of his six children away to an orphanage from birth. This is a philosophy for cavemen.
Nietzsche believed in the virtues of a powerful and noble elite. Nietzsche felt that the suffering of the masses was a good thing. He said that women exist only for the recreation of the warrior and that Christian beliefs constituted a “slave morality” because Christianity upheld protecting the weak instead of the strong. This is a philosophy for elitist despotism.
Hegel believed that man should only be free to obey the laws of the state in which he lives. What kind of “freedom” is that? This is a philosophy of fascism.
Kant believed that moral acts must be performed based on a categorical imperative that to this day no one follows. Kant, who never traveled more than 120 miles from his birthplace and believed he understood the universe, also thought that moral acts must be performed out of duty and moral obligation. Too bad few of us do things that way. Kant’s is a philosophy for naïve idealists.
Hume—who worked for some time as the secretary for a lunatic—believed, perhaps for that reason, that cause and effect do not exist. Nevertheless, he is one of the greatest of our philosophical thinkers based upon his skeptical philosophical approach.
Spinoza believed that the State could do no wrong and that matters of religion should be decided by the State. While he believed in freedom of opinion, he did not believe in rebellion against authority. His philosophy is a contradiction in terms.
Leibniz never published his real philosophical ideas for fear of the disfavor of his patron princes. What he published was his optimistic Panglossian ideas that god created this world as “the best of all possible worlds;” an idea that his powerful patrons were pleased by since they had been well taken care of in it. Brilliant though he was, Leibniz’s public philosophy is a philosophy of cowardice.
Locke, one of the more reasonable of philosophers, believed that captives in war could be kept as slaves as a matter of natural law. Locke’s was a philosophy of political convenience.
Berkley believed that matter does not exist and that the only reality exists in the mind and the senses. He thought that if things were not perceived they would not exist. Things exist continuously only because god always perceives them. Presumably if god did not exist then nothing else would either until someone looked at it and made it spring into being. This is a philosophy of uncertainty and illusion.
Talking Sense about Philosophy
Now let’s try to talk some sense. Notwithstanding what philosophers say, we should understand that the universe is utterly indifferent to absolute ideas about morality, truth or life itself. The universe simply continues, indifferent toward the fate of all the beings in it, including man. The universe must be infinite in all directions of space and time, for otherwise it would not include everything that has been or that will be and therefore it would not be the universe. The universe does not require any creator or first cause. It simply is, and perhaps always has been, and always will be.
It cannot matter to the universe whether it contains beings or doesn’t, although that will, of course, be of primary interest to any such beings. But the universe is not dependent on man or any other being and has no use for beings or their purposes. Like the beings in it, the universe lacks purpose or meaning beyond the fact of its own existence.
In every direction we look in the universe we see the same kinds of structures. Nothing is unique. If there is one galaxy there are untold billions. If there is one black hole there are an infinite number of black holes. If there is one planet with life on it there must be a huge number of others. If there was one “big bang” there were many others. In the face of such a universe, all human claims about philosophy, religion, absolute morality and truth dissolve into absurdity and non-existence. The only certainty that remains is being itself and its efforts to assert itself in a world of limitless freedom and limitless constraints. And that may, after all is said and done, be about the best thing that we can say about philosophy.