February 24, 2012

Big Questions

People who constantly obsess over questions like What is Justice? or What is Art? obviously need help; and they can get it in the form of multi-year treatment programs which combine personal counseling with group therapy sessions.  Although such treatment programs (known as graduate programs in philosophy) offer no cure, they teach participants a variety of effective strategies for coping with their debilitating obsessive disorder.  Those who complete such treatment programs tend to remain in institutional environments (known as colleges or universities), where they earn a modest income by sharing their difficult experiences with young men and women (known as undergraduates) in weekly encounter groups (known as introductory philosophy courses).  The social utility of this arrangement is undeniable, if only because it gives many young people an early opportunity to recognize the life-wasting potential of questions that are exceedingly general, hopelessly vague, and of no discernible promise to our quest for knowledge.

Sarcastic and decidedly unfriendly, this view of big questions (and of professional "wisdom lovers" who obsess with them) is held by many people, which should not be surprising since the view is largely correct.  I didn't say 'entirely correct' because there are rare exceptions when big questions -- e.g., about space, time, determinism, causality, infinity, proof, truth -- are motivated not by idle speculations, but by deep theoretical problems in science and mathematics.  In such cases, the answers -- if possible at all, and even if incomplete and to some extent provisional -- are mathematically precise, empirically meaningful (in science), and often of great aesthetic appeal to those who understand them.  Only these answers never come from professional philosophers, but always from scientists and mathematicians, albeit those with a pronounced affinity for conceptual analysis.
In the mean time philosophers continue to pride themselves on being good at asking big questions.  That they are.  But being good at asking questions is like being good at foreplay:  if that's all you're good at, you shouldn't be surprised when those on the receiving end of your talents regard you with frustration and disappointment bordering on contempt.


Fred said...

Hey Boom,

This commentary brought a smile to my face. How apt and true! My admiration for your ability to lay it all out in the open: cleanly, succinctly and honestly, knows no bounds.


Ted said...

This beautiful post takes me on a very pleasant nostalgia trip. Ah, the pleasures of making fun of such people with their 'big questions' and dull-bladed 'problematizings.' My friends and I ridiculed such aspirations constantly and with great self-righteousness -- back when we were pursuing our PhDs in philosophy. (Are you familiar with that subject? It's an effective antidote to what you're complaining about here.)