Philosophical Thoughts

I have many ideas for blog posts but there are only so many I can do and research. Here are just a few that I’ve wanted to do but haven’t found the time. Posts about

  1.  The polymath Isaac Asimov
  2. The physician and philosopher Albert Schweitzer
  3. Rousseau on self-love
  4. Whether it was worth it to become educated
  5. How enclosed we are in our thoughts, seeing the world mostly from our perspective.
  6. A theory of time

I’ll stop as the list could continue for a long time. I literally have almost 100 drafts of posts in my drafts folder. But there could be a million or a billion or a trillion. The sliver of things I can contemplate and experience is so limited. (I’m always struck by how much there is to learn and so little time to do it in.)

But even were I to be able to instantly download all human knowledge there is still so much I wouldn’t know. Suppose I could download all the knowledge of all other intelligent beings in the universe (assuming they exist) my knowledge would still be limited.

But even were I omniscient wouldn’t there still be things I wouldn’t know? After all, Godel showed that some mathematical propositions are true but can’t be known to be true. And if I know the velocity of a sub-atomic particle I can’t know its position and vice versa. So it seems that omniscience probably isn’t a coherent notion. I don’t know what it would mean to know everything. And even if I did, maybe the answer is just 42.

Contemplations like these make me feel lost in a vast universe. But then after a while, the contemplation subsides and life goes on. Here I’m reminded of David Hume,

“Where am I, or what? From what causes do I derive my existence, and to what condition shall I return? … I am confounded with all these questions, and begin to fancy myself in the most deplorable condition imaginable, environed with the deepest darkness, and utterly deprived of the use of every member and faculty.

Most fortunately it happens, that since Reason is incapable of dispelling these clouds, Nature herself suffices to that purpose, and cures me of this philosophical melancholy and delirium, either by relaxing this bent of mind, or by some avocation, and lively impression of my senses, which obliterate all these chimeras. I dine, I play a game of backgammon, I converse, and am merry with my friends. And when, after three or four hours’ amusement, I would return to these speculations, they appear so cold, and strained, and ridiculous, that I cannot find in my heart to enter into them any farther.”

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10 thoughts on “Philosophical Thoughts

  1. Thank you, Dr. Messerly.

    It’s all normal. A real philosopher will feel this insecurity. Ferruccio Busoni, a masterful musician, after performing at the piano, would be given standing ovations, and what would he do? He would run back home and practice all the bits he thought he didn’t perform well enough.

    Beethoven is known to every musicologists for correcting his works for years. Bruce Lee said of martial arts: “You’ll never understand everything about this (martial arts), but you keep at it.”. Of course, by “you” he meant him also.

    Hippocrates famously said “Art is long, life is short”. Every expert who dedicated their lives to one thing, said something similar. And what about the expert Socrates? His “I don’t know anything.” was a hyperbolic statement, an ironic way of saying: “I see every idiot around me thinking they know -without knowing-, whereas here I am, thinking I’ll never know enough.”.

    I don’t think these realizations are something negative, they are positive. They attest to your intellectual superiority compared to many, many other people. This needs not be interpreted with drama by someone…..intellectual superiority isn’t a discriminatory anything, it is a fact.

    When we are children, we play hide and seek. But playing hide and seek when we aren’t children anymore, would only bore us out of our skull. The intellect of an adult just can’t take doing something so predictable, basic, and easy. Knowledge or philosophy is a gym for the mind…..the more you train, the more you want the challenge to rise (even though I now think that going to the gym lifting weights is incredibly shallow and boring too….martial arts are probably a far better example).

    I think that all the intellectual conditioning and training done by philosophers, inevitably leads to a bird’s eye view of knowledge: we would know a lot more if we were eternal, and that would rock our socks off. Yet we have to accept that there’s only so much we can do in one lifetime, and give credit to ourselves for having learned what we could. How much more you know compared to the majority of the population?

    ” Godel showed that some mathematical propositions are true but can’t be known to be true.”. No doubt there are many things that are true but cannot be easily demonstrated….I think that these are the cases we should use “presumptive logic” as Douglas N. Walton called it, since the deductive or inductive type isn’t enough in these cases.

    So for me to know what is true enough, is good enough. I might be mistaken, but it’s the best I can do with what I have, and it’s still more than many others will arrive at (for example, religious people, delusional people who have no mental health problems, etc).

    And yes, I feel you. I am 50 and I don’t know a tiny fraction of what you know and learned for all these years, and yet this short life and the incredibly fast passage of time, makes it all feel so unfair, it makes me think: “Damn it, I had just got started!”. Ha ha. It feels as if we were cursed.

    There’s an interesting story (you might know about it) about a young Schopenhauer who’s with a friend, and they are discussing the future. Schopenhauer recalls: “There I was, wondering about how there’s no time to do ANYTHING, and my friends tells me that he wanted to start a business. I thought, what a stupid idea!”.

    Of course, it was easy for him to say, born and raised in a wealthy household. But still, I agree with him, and I am struck at how so many people spend most of their lives just getting by, paying the bills, etc. Sure, this has to be done, but they didn’t seem to do much else. I think this is because they never fully realized how swift life is. This will only happen at the end, but it will be too late.

    We, on the other hand, travelled a different, and yes, far better path. I can even say so of myself, a little, very late “student”.

    Sure, I’ll never know everything, or even a small part of it. But having a roof and a bed to sleep on, is still far better than wandering around with rags on, so to speak.

    Thank you!

  2. PS. I think I know what you are thinking, for I am thinking it everyday. This darn life is REALLY short, and we both have “reached the summit, and for the first time we now see what lies on the other side”, as Schopenhauer wrote.
    A consoling thought I have read in some Zen/samurai writings, helps me:
    “There is no shame in dying before you have accomplished all you want to. But it is shameful, and a dog’s life, to continue living without working towards these accomplishments. “.

    Also, another interesting and consoling thought in the matter comes from the concert pianist James Ching: “We should not, after a good degree of skill has been accomplished, to always strive for the next level, but enjoy the journey as well. Mistakes and all!”.

    You are a perfectionist, Dr Messerly. All the greats have been that. The constant hunger to get better, to arrive far beyond what we seem to be capable of, to grow and never stop growing. But Ching was right, it’s about the journey, too. And I add, a journey like that cannot not be an interesting one!

  3. Like your list. For yourself, I would think #4 $elf-defining and explanatory. It seems to me also that most of us who think, write at some time about truth, reality and such notions. I just got a slap in the face over postmodernism. That was enough to make ME reconsider both those areas mentioned. Time is still on the burner as well, for reasons of truth, reality and postmodernism. One cannot do it all and do it well. Focus is paramount after a thesis is formed, in my opinion. Much of my early life was random, reactionary and stochastic. Still battling those demons. Winning, mostly. But trying not to be too sure of myself. Your brother, in arms,

  4. Thanks Paul. Always appreciate your insightful comments.

    “Focus is paramount…” As an overwhelmed new grad student in philosophy one of my profs told me to think about philosophy like he thought about NYCity when he moved there. Its so big as to be overwhelming hence find you little space, your grocery store, subway station, coffee shop, etc. Same with Phil. You can’t know it all so carve out your little niche.

  5. Luigi

    I always love reading your comments. So much I could say here but let me just say this, I agree with almost everything you write. And we both agree with Russell. “With equal passion I have sought knowledge … A little of this but not much I have achieved.”

  6. I like both quotes. Again Russell comes to mind, “I should wish to die while still at work, knowing that others will carry on what I can no longer do and content in the thought that what was possible has been done.” That your thoughts are reminiscent of Russell says a lot about you.

  7. Thank you, Dr. Messerly. What you wrote encourages me to keep learning and to be less dumb than I am. Anything good and useful that I learn, I learn only from you and people like you. So you see how your work has more influence than even on your own personal quest…. in forty years people will be reading your philosophical thoughts, and this will make others advance in their own personal quests, as it happens now for mine.

    The Russell quote I remember reading about t in his autobiography, in which I have highlighted many passages…. I’ll review them soon enough. If you ever start using the Kindle app, kindly let me know, I’ll send you Logicomix. It was amazing.

  8. Luigi

    as always thanks for you kind words. Seems like we are fellow sojourners.

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