What Philosophy should be about?

I’ve thoroughly enjoyed reading two books recently. ‘How much is enough‘, the first one, is a sensible attack on money for money’s sake and the absurdity of it. The second one, ‘Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance‘ is a classic that I read for the second time. This time it became clear to me that the book on many levels was talking about the an ugly outcome of single-minded urbanization. It also questions the apparent superiority of intellect over aesthetics. Of course, the two books are about much more than what I’m describing here but the underlying thread was common – both books urged considering mankind’s total quality of experience, rather than just material wealth or technological / scientific progress.

The idea of rationality holding supreme power to describe the universe is a very strong one and has actually lead to a lot of progress in recent centuries in terms of increased lifespan and other comforts. However, does this mean that in terms of stacking order Science is the end answer to everything? The two books inspired me to try approaching this from a first principles perspective.

So I asked myself where should all human inquiry begin?

In other words.

What philosophy should be about?

We now know that humans are a type of mammal, organisms evolved just like any other we find on Earth. Every now and then since the recorded history, man (a human) has gradually dethroned himself from being the centre of the universe to now a collection of biological cells capable of thought. Every time a Copernican revolution happened in Science, humans got closer to their primate family.

It’s both scientifically proven and commonly observed that much of our behaviour is animal-like. We eat, we reproduce, we play, we take care of young ones. We do pretty much that all biological creatures exist for – passing on genetic information to the next generation.

Since the biological nature of humans is an undeniable fact and impacts us in a very personal way, I believe that is what all philosophies should take as a given. Biological nature of humans should be an axiom. No matter how much theorising is done in Philosophy, one can’t wish away the biologicalness of humans. A lot of our wants, drives and even what’s right and what’s wrong comes from our biologically derived behaviour. So a student of Philosophy should have a very good grasp of subjects such as evolution, animal behaviour, psychology, and even genetics. Without a thorough understanding of how evolution and nature has shaped humans and their wants, all the talks about morals, values, aesthetics and politics would be wishful thinking. Biology is to philosophy what physics is to chemistry. If an experiment shows that humans tend to make irrational choices, one can’t theorise the supremacy of rational choices over what choices actually get made. In other words, in terms of usefulness – which is what Philosophy should be bothered with – intellectual truth is subordinate to human nature and that is what all Philosophies should take as a given.

However, human nature can be shaped.

The fantastic unique ability of humans for elaborate communication and exchange of thoughts makes us different from the rest of biological creatures. Avoidance of suffering is programmed into us (and all other creatures) through evolution. The drive for survival and food lead a creature into suffering-minimizing mode. The drive for reproduction and sex lead it to happiness-maximizing mode. All creatures including humans are programmed to minimise suffering and maximize happiness.

The only way for all biological creatures apart from humans to maximize survival and reproduction is through unconscious, programmed genetic evolution over generations. Humans are special in that regard. In addition to genetic record, we can record our experiences in oral and written form and teach the same generation on how to minimize suffering and maximize happiness — the drives that evolution wants us to optimize for.

I think this basic drive towards well being (where suffering is minimal and happiness is maximized) is what Pirsig refers to as Quality in his Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. We can pass our experiences, experiments and thoughts to others in order to collectively achieve a high Quality life.

I believe that’s what human inquiry should be about – provided that we’re a biological creature, what should we do in order to lead a good life, a life with maximum well-being, a happy and satisfactory life.

The nature of goodness needs elaboration. Goodness for biological creatures relates to their survival and reproduction. Sure, evolution had made our brain seek goodness and rewards it with dopamine whenever it is achieved and punishes it with pain whenever it’s not. However, an argument could be made that if humans succeed in isolating pure consciousness that is unencumbered from biological constraints, what would that consciousness do (or seek)? What would a Philosophy for pure consciousness look like. I doubt we can ever isolate pure consciousness or that it exists but let’s assume it as a thought experiment. This is akin to making a computer which exhibits signs of consciousness. What would such a pure consciousness do?

Suppose there are then multiple such pure consciousness, multiple metaphysical entities. Since we don’t know what such pure consciousness would be bothered about let’s assume that different entities exhibit different behaviours. Some randomly drift. Some dissipate. Some replicate and spread. Interestingly, given multiple varieties of entities, eventually only the entities that replicate and spread will remain and dominate others in the population. In other words, we can hazard a guess that another evolution may kickstart for this hypothetical scenario and that evolution will also lead the dominating consciousness to seek some sort of goodness. The nature of that goodness is uncertain, but in my opinion there’s a tantalising possibility of a universal state that is preferable than other states. In the world of pure consciousness, such metaphysical entities will philosophize on how to achieve that good state.

Hence, given the underlying nature of the beings or entities, Philosophy should really be concerned about maximizing well-being, goodness or whatever else it is called in respective contexts.

Why is there anything at all?

We humans have cognizance of the universe and unlike other creatures we can’t help but wonder why is there a universe in the first place. Why anything exists at all? The fact that there is something rather than nothing and we don’t know why proves that there is a gap in our understanding and experience. Science and rationality cannot be expected to answer the why question. They answer what and how.

No matter how much scientists say that the question of why anything exists is meaningless or impractical, the void always nags and points to limitations of science. Perhaps that void can only be filled with a direct (spiritual?) experience and not through intellectual understanding?

Since the void nags and reduces well being for many (including me), Philosophy should also aim at taking a stab at how such a void can be filled. Perhaps the answer is arts, poetry, morality or beauty. I’m not sure what it is but any valid Philosophy should attempt to provide a total satisfaction – including these nagging questions.

In summary, if you have to begin an inquiry, here’s where you could begin:

Given that human is a biological creature, a product of evolution, what can we do to maximize well being. Bonus points for answering why anything exists at all?

You can then derive answers as to why you sometimes feel enslaved by modern urban life, what is the nature of morality, how much money is enough, is democracy the right form of government and many such questions like that from time to time.

8 thoughts on “What Philosophy should be about?”

  1. Great post paras! I was just wondering that since only those pure consciousness (metaphysical entities) which pick reproduction and survival as their goal will finally exist (or survive) – Reproduction and Survival only can be the bedrock on which any consciousness should be based on. Or the basic nature or primal instinct of any entity which survives could only be reproduction and survival. Anything else is just a distraction.
    In that case I wonder why humans who spend so much effort on societal constructs like money, power, etc. survive. Or may be its just too early in human evolution, and in some time we will be taken over by species/entities whose only primal nature is to reproduce and survive.

  2. @Pranay – you make a good point. Yes, indeed it might be early in our evolution. Once a lot of automation is there, it may eventually lead to majority of humans to simply sit back, eat and reproduce.

  3. It was interesting reading through. Haven’t read the first book that you mention. Haven’t picked as much from the second.

    Nature/Universe (Spiritual entities as some would call them)has one law ..of change and not survival.Survival is a struggle,but the true goal of everything is to change.Drop that struggle and things would change still.We are only afraid of changes (albeit the ones that are evident). This fear keeps us at this struggle, the human nature that is reformed is reformed by fear and then by habitual practices that come from countering the cause of that fear. It’s a rational choice.But what do we know? Evolution is a change as well…a gradual one, perhaps a controlled one, not entirely a predictable one.Changes don’t always aid survival.
    Rationality is morality evolved.That’s why we aren’t entering into another world war anytime soon.

    As for why it exists? Because it has an audience.

  4. Hi Paras –

    Great article, and I too read both Philosophy (in College a long time ago) and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (after College). One of my favorite teachers once said, “when it’s all over, we don’t have all the answers, but we have been to a celebration of the questions.” In that spirit, and in the sometimes maddening ways of the Philosophers, I will answer your question(s) with a few more inquiries:

    1) What does “biological” mean if we use a strong microscope to view the smaller and smaller energy particles swirling in a magical dance as described in quantum mechanics?

    2) When you wrote “maximize well being” I was struck by its similarity to the “pursuit of happiness” as described in the US Declaration of Independence — http://www.archives.gov/exhibits/charters/declaration_transcript.html — is this part of what you are driving at?

    3) If money were abandoned (a notion that some screenplays for Star Trek have played with), what currency might we use to honestly reward the great enterprise of human endeavors?

    And, since it always drove me nuts when by philosophy profs only answered questions with questions — I will take a stab at getting to you answer… from my current point of view. I believe that the answer to both why things exist, and what is best for human being lie in the triad of Liberty, Truth, and Justice. Take any one of those away and you cannot have the other two.

    – Scott

  5. @Scott – great comment.

    1. By “biological”, I really mean that it constraint our emotions and feelings. Ultimately it comes down to physics, but we don’t feel voltage potentials inside our bodies or neutrinos passing.

    2. Yep, by happiness that is what I mean more or less. For me happiness is freedom to act, think and do what one wants to do. I wrote about it earlier http://paraschopra.com/blog/personal/how-to-be-happy.htm

    3. If money was abandoned, I think some other metric would come. Maybe a real-world karma? Evolution has programmed us to be super-competitive, so some metric will always be there for us to compare each others.

  6. Hey Paras,

    I totally agree that a Student of Philosophy must count these Biological aspects and read them thoroughly because that’s the part driving the basics of everything we usually do.

    Understanding every human being is still not possible for a single person, but these biological matters and facts can still help a lot.

    Thanks for putting up such an informative post.

    Cheers. :)

  7. @Paras: As for the first part of your question, taking the given into consideration that humans are biological entities which means we are made up of energy just pure energy. From our flesh to thoughts everything is energy.

    To understand what maximizes the well being of energy we need to bring in two sisters physics, philosophy together. What defines a well being of an energy? to have an amazing quantum, or may be to accumulate more energy it can be thousands of things. Every energy has different behavior, so their well being depends on the varying influence of various factors.

    I think to maximize the happiness of a biological being which we humans are, we need to first understand that we are not just flesh but we are energy. Energy needs to flow and realize its nature only then can it understand the universal energy, of which it is a part of. Our well being lies in the variety of experiences that we live each day. More the experiences, the more we can understand our true nature and the more we understand ourselves the more we can understand the universal energy.

    So, everything exits because energy exists. Everything is but a form of energy. Energy can neither be destroyed nor created, it can only be transformed from one state to another, isn’t that what we read in our school? We are here as a form of energy experiencing its true nature before it dissipates in the universal energy again. Isn’t that simple? What do you think?

  8. hi Paras,

    These are probing questions which Indian philosophy attempts to answer. Have you read Advaita Vedanta ? Please read Swami Ranganathananda’s works.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *