Jan 31, 2014

Solutions to "intuiting about philosophy" - part 1

In the assignment posted a few days ago, I had asked learners to classify 8 different issues as to the branch of philosophy that deals with them. I got some really good answers from Abhishek, Satyasarvani and Aparna. Lets dissect these.

1. In what way should one submit oneself to God.

Abhishek: Main branch - Ethics; This is because the question deals with morality and behavior. Specific branch - Normative ethics and Applied Ethics; This is because the questions considers how a person ought to act (normative ethics). It also deals with a specific issue - religion and thus would be related to personal or private religious ethics (a part of applied ethics)
Me: The question is usually answered as a diktat from a certain theological standpoint and as such is outside the purview of systematic philosophy. i.e. One religion may ask its follower to submit via penance, while another may advocate highest learning about the world and beyond. These diktats usually have some reasoning (although based on fallacious grounds) which usually end up with "God said so" or that "God likes it like this" or some such variant. Philosophy is about asking questions and finding out deeper truths. Diktats are therefore not what philosophers do. However, questioning the rationale behind such theocratic doctrines is left to Philosophy of Religion. Ethics deals with behavior in human society, while the question above pertains to behavior towards that which transcends all that is human. Hence although normative ethics would analyse how people follow tenets of religion or applied ethics would discuss how subjugating oneself to God may be beneficial (or not) and how should one go about it, neither can define the method by which this may be done. So technically this question is theological and not philosophical, however, philosophy of religion is the closest tool to analyse various theologies and their take on this issue. 

2. What are the conditions for saying "I Know"? Is it sufficient to have heard it from someone or is it necessary to actually have seen it / sensed it?

Abhishek: Main branch - Epistemology. This is because the question is regarding the study of knowledge. Specific branch - Acquisition of knowledge : A priori and A posteriori knowledge. This is because the question asks whether obtaining knowledge should be experience-independent (A priori) or experience-dependent (A posteriori).
Me: This is definitely a question from Epistemology. Epistemology deals with what is knowledge?, what does it mean "to know"?, is knowledge subjective or objective? and so on. As Abhishek rightly points out, it is an issue of whether we need to have an experience of something to truly "know" it or is learning indirectly from a trusted source, sufficient. It further deals with issues such as sensory data (what we sense) as being different from perception (what we make of it and is it necessarily the same) and the cognition (what we consciously think about it and learn from it or connecting it with other knowledge) as being the ultimate stage of "knowing". It also questions - if we have never sensed it ourselves, then can we be sure about its existence?. In this, it enters into the realm of metaphysics and would need to discuss what is existence. Thus the Theory of knowledge is an epistemic inquiry with a metaphysical basis. 

3. What is the meaning of adding the number 1 to any number?

Abhishek: Main branch - Epistemology. This is because the question is regarding the study of knowledge. Specific branch - Nature of knowledge - Propositional knowledge. This is because the question is regarding knowing that (propositional knowledge) addition of 1 to number means something and about finding out this meaning.
Aparna: Epistemology, Rationalism
Me: The study of math entails the study and acceptance of many abstractions, one of which is 'numbers'. Although we can point out objects and count them, the idea of numbers remains abstract. Just to highlight this point, consider this question: If we count all the objects in the known universe (from people to mountains to fishes to molecules to toothpicks and then to stars and so on) we should be able to come up with some (very large) number. So, so far we know what each number we counted stood for. However, if we add 1 to this number, what would that stand for? (of course I already counted myself). So, if a number does not correspond to something, does it have meaning? Does meaning have to do with correspondance, or is it more about implication? (for example if an ant gave birth to another ant, then our counting would increase by 1 and thus the new number "would" exist and hence "has" meaning) Have a look at Max Tegmarks hypothesis for an interesting viewpoint. So to answer my question, this is partly epistemology, in the sense that we discuss about what is the knowledge associated with numbers or mathematical operations, but it is a more specific application of epistemology and partly metaphysics (what is the meaning of?) of reality into the field of abstractions, namely - Philosophy of Mathematics.
Response to Aparna: Rationalism like many other '-isms' (e.g. logical positivism) take different standpoints to answer a question. Strict Realism for example may say that the numbers are just referrals to real objects and as such have no meaning and hence addition by 1 is simply a mechanism to refer to 1 more object. So in the absence of objects, this process has no meaning. Whereas, Plato's idealism or even Tegmark's hypothesis would claim that the numbers have their own existence in a world transcending our's and thus addition is just our way of understanding relations between different, already existing numbers. So you see, that is what isms do. They however do not change the area of philosophy in which the question is posed. Sometimes, questions are posed from one ism to counter another. Very rarely, questions from one area (from any ism) may lead to redefining another area by reclassifying the issues that come under it. e.g. Darwin's observations and the scientific questions he posed, shifted the focus of origin of life from religion to science.

4. Is beauty really in the eye of the beholder or is it really about the hand of the artist?

Abhishek: Main branch - Aesthetics. This is because the question deals with the study of art and beauty. Specific branch - Aesthetic judgement - Objective and Subjective Nature of Art. This is because the question deals with whether beauty is objective - innate, or viewer-independent; or subjective - viewer-dependent.
Me: Abhishek, Satya & Aparna are all pretty much on the mark here. It is Aesthetics. It has been a raging debate in this field for more than 2000 years about whether beauty is objective or subjective (read more here). Aparna is close in saying that it is an issue of values; more specifically of value judgement. It calls for a metaphysical understanding of how (and why) one forms a value judgement about something. For example, the ancient Greeks held that strength and heroism was something to be aspired to and this is depicted in most art of that era. Another example is where a teenager who cannot handle his emotional turbulence, prefers the escape into the world of films or songs, almost all the time, and thus finds songs about dreams and maybe love, to be extremely beautiful. Read The Romantic Manifesto by Ayn Rand to a get a clearer picture of this issue.
The next four answers in the next post. Stay tuned ...

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