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Introduction to Philosophy

Characteristics of a Philosophical Problem

Abstract: A working definition of philosophy is proposed and a few philosophical problems are illustrated.

  1. Some general comments about the nature of philosophy can be summarized from the previous tutorial.
    1. Etymologically, "philosophy" can be broken into the following roots and examples.
      • philo—fond of, affinity for; e.g., the name "Philip" means "lover of horses."
      • sophia—wisdom; e.g., the name "Sophie" means "wisdom."
    2. Hazarding a beginning definition and some general characteristics of philosophy might be of help.
      1. Philosophy is the systematic inquiry into the principles and presuppositions of any endeavor.
        1. Almost any area of interest has philosophical aspects. For example, name an area and place the phrase “philosophy of” in front of it as in philosophy of science, philosophy of art, and philosophy of science. Or name the area and place the word “philosophy” after it as in political philosophy and ethical philosophy.
        2. Recently, philosophy of sport, medical ethics, and ethics of genetics have generated much interest.
        3. Some restaurants have printed on the back of the customer's bill their philosophy of restaurant management.
      2. In general, philosophy questions often are a series of "why-questions," whereas science is often said to ask "how-questions."
      3. E.g., asking "Why did you come to class today?" is the beginning of a series of why-questions which ultimately lead to the answer of the principles or presuppositions by which you lead your life.

        I.e., Answer: "To pass the course."

        Question: "Why do you want to pass the course?"
        Answer: "To graduate from college."

        Question: "Why do you want to graduate?"
        Answer: "To get a good job."

        Question: "Why do you want a good job?"
        Answer: "To make lots of money."

        Question: "Why do you want to make money?"
        Answer: "To be happy."

        Hence, one comes to class in order to increase the chances for happiness.
  2. As I remember Avrum Stroll and Richard H. Popkin, in their highly readable book, Introduction to Philosophy, isolate seven characteristics of a philosophical problem. These characteristics serve as a good introduction to mark some of the perplexing kinds of problems which can arise in philosophy.
    Philosophical Thought-Experiments from Metaphysics and Epistemology
    Characteristics Typical Examples
    1. A reflection about the world and the things in it. If I take a book off my hand, what's left on my hand? If I take away the air, then what's left? If I take away the space? With the space gone, nothing is left. Does everything exist in nothing?
    2. A conceptual rather than a practical activity. According to Newton's gravitation theory, as the ballerina on a New York stage moves, my balance is imperceptibly affected. Since the earth's circumference is about 25,000 miles, and the earth spins around once every 24 hours, as I sit at my desk, I am in reality looping through space in giant arcs at over 25,000 miles per hour.
    3. The use of reason and argumentation to establish a point. Does a tree falling in a forest with no one around to hear it, make a sound? To solve, we distinguish two senses of "sound": (1) hearing—a phenomenological perception and (2) vibration—a longitudinal wave in matter. So if no one is there to hear, there is no sound of type 1, but there is sound of type 2, as can be determined by the prior leaving a recording device on the scence.
    4. An explanation of the puzzling features of things. Does a mirror reverse left and right? If I move my right hand, the image's left hand moves. But why then doesn't the mirror reverse up and down? Why aren't the feet in the mirror image at the top of the mirror? Why doesn't it change the situation if I lie down or I rotate the mirror 90 degrees?
    5. Digging beyond the obvious. What is a fact? In science, facts are collected. Is a book a fact? Is it a big or little fact? Is the book a smaller fact than the earth which is a larger fact. If the book is brown, is that a brown fact? If facts don't have size, shape, and color, then in what manner do they exist in the world? And how can they be found?
    6. The search for principles which underlie phenomena. Is a geranium one flower or is it a combination of many small flowers bunched together? If I turn on a computer, does one event occur or do many events occur?
    7. Theory building from these principles. Is nature discrete or continuous? E.g., Consider Zeno's paradoxes of motion. If you are to leave the classroom today, isn't it true that you will have to walk at least half-way to the door? And then when you get half-way, you will have to at least walk another half? How many "halves" are there? How will you ever get out?
  3. In practice, philosophy is an attitude, an approach, or even a calling to answer, to ask, or to comment upon certain peculiar kinds of questions. As we saw previously, the problems are often relegated to the main divisions of philosophy: Epistemology, Metaphysics, and Axiology (Ethics and Æsthetics).
    1. Attitude—a curiosity arising from questions such as the following.
      1. Under the assumption that time is a dimension just like any other, the case of the problem of the surprise examination can arise: Suppose students obtain the promise from their teacher that a surprise quiz scheduled be given next week will not be given, if the students demonstrate how they can know, in advance, the day the teacher will give the exam. Thus, the students can argue as follows: Assuming the class meets only on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, the students know the surprise exam cannot be given on Friday because everyone would know Thursday night that the following day is the only period left in which to give the exam. One would think that the teacher could give the exam Wednesday, but since Friday has been eliminated as a possibility, on Tuesday night, the students would know that the only period left in the week would be Wednesday (since Friday has already been eliminated; hence, the exam could not be given Wednesday either. Monday, then, is the only possible period left to offer the exam. But, of course, the teacher could not give the exam Monday because the students would expect the exam that day. Consequently, the teacher cannot give a surprise examination next week.
      2. In his Nobel Prize Lecture, Richard Feynman explained that from the perspective of quantum electrodynamics, if an electron is seen as going forward in time, a positron is the same particle moving backwards in time. Is time- reversal really possible?
        1. Is a positron, or even the earlier tachyon, discussed above, associated with backward causation a possible event? Consider this paradoxical result. Suppose a "positron gun" or a "tachyon gun" would fire a particle going backward in time—it could "trigger" an off-switch to turn off the gun before it could be fired.
        2. This example is, of course, a thought-experiment. As Feynman noted in his Lectures on Physics, "Philosophers say a great deal about what is absolutely necessary for science, and it is always, so far as one can see, rather naive, and probably wrong.
    2. Approach—to devise a methodology to answer such puzzles. Very often, all that is needed is to invoke old maxim, "When there is a difficulty, make a distinction."
      1. E.g., for the problem of the sound of a tree falling in a forest with no one around to hear, all we need do is distinguish two different senses of "sound."
      2. If by "sound" is meant a "phenomenological perception by a subject," then no sound ("hearing") would occur. If by "sound" is meant "a longitudinal wave in matter," then a sound is discoverable.
    3. Calling— if a person has had experiences of curiosity, discovery, and invention at an early age, these experiences could leave an imprint on mind and character to last a lifetime.
Further Reading:
  • Ask a Philosopher Archive. Submitted philosophical questions are answered in some detail by philosophers, a project maintained by the International Society for Philosophers. You may submit your questions on the Ask a Philosopher page.
  • Backward Causation. Jan Fey's entry in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy examines several paradoxes based on the notion where an effect temporally, but not causally, precedes its cause.
  • Paradox. An extensive reference list of paradoxes in Wikipedia is summarized by topic in mathematics, logic, practice, philosophy, psychology, physics and economics with links to more extensive discussion.
  • Unexpected Hanging Paradox. Eric W. Weisstein at the site Wolfram MathWorld provides another version of the Surprise Examination Paradox with a list of further references.
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“203. Language is a labyrinth of paths. You approach from one side and know your way about; you approach the same place from another side and no longer know your way about.” Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations Trans. G. E. M. Anscombe, 3rd. ed. (New York: The Macmillan Company), 1958), 82e.

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