Why Philosophy? And Why Has the Soul Become its Stronghold?

by rsbakker

Aphorism of the Day: Why me? is as honest a question as it is useless, given that no one deserves anything, least of all what they get.


It really is amazing how prone we are to overlook the obvious, especially when our knowledge of a field is genuinely deep. The question, Why philosophy? should rank with the most profound, most discussed questions within philosophy, but it isn’t. If you make a living being stymied, surely you would want to ask why you are stymied!

And yet, it’s scarcely considered, let alone mentioned. The answer, I’m sure most philosophers would tell you, is too obvious to be worth considering. Why philosophy? Because we don’t know. And since so much of philosophy is given over to the question of knowledge, they would argue that a great deal of philosophy is concerned with its own import and status. The problem is we just don’t know what the hell ‘knowing’ is.

The question, Why philosophy? in other words, follows the question, What is knowledge? Questions must be answered in the proper order to be answered at all.

Sounds sensible. But what if they got it backward? What if the question, Why philosophy? is actually prior to the question of, What is knowledge?

If you look at the history of philosophy you find a rather remarkable process of what might be called ‘reaching and yielding.’ Over the centuries, philosophy has retreated from countless of questions and problematics, namely, those incorporated within the natural sciences. Why have they retreated? Because the questions asked eventually found empirical resolution. Knowledge came to the rescue…

See? the philosopher can say. I told you so.

But what if we scaled back our answer? What if we said something more simple, but perhaps equally mysterious? What if we said the questions asked found empirical resolution because information came to the rescue? The idea here would be that philosophy is the kind of inquiry that humans turn to in impoverished informatic conditions, when they have enough information to formulate the question, but not enough to decisively arbitrate between its potential answers. This would be why philosophy is something that generally moves in advance of the sciences. When we initially encounter a problem, we necessarily have limited informatic resources to work with, and so, like children disputing shapes in clouds, have no way of distinguishing the patterns we think we see from the patterns that actually exist.

Nature, in this cartoon, is a kind of bottomless, multi-stable image. Scientific measurement and experimentation are the ways we isolate signals from the noise of immediate nature and so accumulate information. Scientific instrumentation is the way we access information from beyond the sensory horizon of immediate nature. Scientific institutional practices are the way we isolate signals from the noise generated by human cognitive shortcomings. Mathematics is the way we code and so manipulate this information. And philosophy, ideally, is the way we provide the information required to get these processes of scientific information gathering off the ground.

Questions, an old slogan of mine goes, are how we make ignorance visible. Questions, in other words, are how we make information regarding the absence of information available. Before questions, informatic sufficiency is the assumptive default: when you don’t know that you don’t know, you assume that you know all you need to know. The ancient Sumerians never worried about near earth objects or coronal mass ejections or so on for the same reason we don’t worry about any of the myriad things our descendants will fret about: they simply lacked information regarding their lack of information.

Why philosophy? Because we lack information. We are finite systems, after all, and you might expect that any intelligent alien species, as finite, would also have their own science and philosophy, their own histories of reaching and yielding. But what makes ‘information’ a better candidate for answering our marquee question than ‘knowledge’?

For one, it seems to enable a more nuanced account of the relation between philosophy and science. To ask, Why philosophy? is to also ask, Why not philosophy? which is to say, Why science and not philosophy? The account provided above, I would argue, reveals the conceptually unwieldy, cumbersome nature of ‘knowledge.’ Knowledge is an end product, the result of information gathering. As such, it’s explanatory utility is limited–extremely so. For example, you could say that philosophy is a form of human inquiry that turns on found information, what we simply have at hand when we raise a question–‘armchair information,’ you might say.

Does ‘armchair knowledge’ make any sense? Of course not. We call it ‘armchair speculation’ for a reason. Information, in other words, allows us to span the gap between mere speculation and knowledge with a term that admits comparative gradations. Answers posed in conditions of informatic insufficiency we call speculation. Answers posed in conditions of informatic sufficiency we call knowledge.

For another, information need not be semantic. Information, unlike meaning, can be quantified, and so expressed in the language of mathematics, and so amenable to empirical experimentation. We can, in other words, possess theoretical knowledge regarding information. Moreover, it reduces the risk of question-begging, given that meaning is perhaps the ‘great question’ within philosophy. If it turns out that meaning is the problem, the reason why we can only speculate–only philosophize–knowledge, then using knowledge to explain why we must resort to philosophy simply dooms us to speculation regarding speculation.

And lastly, information provides an entirely new way to characterize the history of philosophy, one that seems to shed no little light on the theoretical problems that presently bedevil a great number of philosophers. With information, we can characterize the retreat of philosophy and the advance of science in terms of complexity: the more complex the natural phenomena, the more information scientific knowledge requires. Thus, science has only now breached the outer walls of the human brain, the most complex thing we know of in the universe. Thus the preponderance of philosophy when it comes to matters of the soul.

In a certain sense, this narrative is obvious: Of course the complexity of the brain forced science to bide its time, refining and extending its repertoire of procedures and instrumentation, not to mention its knowledge base, before making serious inroads. Of course the soul became the stronghold of philosophy in the meantime, the one place it could reach and reach without worry of yielding. But what is surprising–even downright counterintuitive–about this tale is the fact that we are our brains. Of all the noise that nature has to offer, surely the signal most easily plucked, the information that hangs lowest, comes from ourselves!

And yet, arguably, nowhere are we more philosophical.

If philosophy is our response to informatic poverty, our inability to gather enough of the information required to decisively arbitrate between our claims, then philosophy itself becomes an important bearer of information. It is an informatic weather-vane. In this case, philosophy tells us that, despite all the information we think we have at our disposal via intuition or introspection, we actually represent a profound informatic blindspot.

Somehow, for some reason, the information we need to theoretically know ourselves is simply not available. Since the default assumption is that we are awash in information regarding ourselves, then something very peculiar must be going on. Essentially we find ourselves in the same straits vis a vis ourselves as our ancestors found themselves in relative to their environments prior to the institutionalization of science. We have plenty of information to theorize–and theorize we do–but not enough information, at least of the right kind, to resolve our theoretical disputes. In other words, we have only philosophy and its vexing consolations.

Thus the crucial importance of the question, Why philosophy? The fact that we endlessly philosophize intentional phenomena tells us that we quite literally lack the information required to gain theoretical knowledge of intentional or semantic phenomena. It’s important to note that we are talking about theoretical as opposed to practical knowledge here. When philosophers like Daniel Dennett, for instance, argue the predictive power and utility of intentionality, they seem to assume that intentionality as theorized possesses predictive power, when in point of fact, they are discussing predictive capacities that humans possessed long before the ancient Greeks and the birth of philosophy. The fact is, Dennett’s ‘intentional stance’ is a theoretical posit, a philosophically controversial way to theorize what it is we are doing when we predict what other systems will do. The fact is, we don’t know what it is we are doing when we predict what other systems will do. We just do it.

In other words, you have to assume the truth of Dennett’s theoretical account, before you can assert the predictive power of intentionality. But, as we have seen, we obviously lack the information required to do this–even though most assume otherwise. The question, Why philosophy? reveals that the information available to intuition and introspection is far more impoverished or distorted than it appears. If it were adequate, then first-person reflection would be sufficient for a first-person science, as certain psychologists and phenomenologists thought around the turn of the 20th century.

Why philosophy? in other words, allows us to side-step the default-assumption of sufficiency that plagues us when we lack (or fail to take into account) information regarding the absence or inadequacy of information. It reminds us that we are at sea with reference to ourselves.

And most importantly, it provides us with another series of questions to ask, questions that I think have the potential to revolutionize consciousness research and the philosophy of mind. We quite obviously lack the information we need, so the question becomes, Why?

Why do intuition and introspection provide only enough information for philosophy? Is evolution a culprit, or in other words, what kind of developmental constraints might be at work? Is neural architecture a factor, which is to say, what kind of structural constraints are involved? Given what neuroscience has discovered thus far, what kind of informatic constraints should we expect to suffer? Could ‘reflection,’ the act of bringing conscious activity (phenomenal or cognitive) into attentional awareness for the purposes of conscious deliberation, constitute a kind ‘informatic bottleneck,’ one that systematically depletes and/or distorts the information apparently available? Could intentionality be chimerical, a kind of theoretical hallucination? What brain systems cognize this information? Is there a relationship between the kinds of cognitive mistakes we make in the absence of information in environmental cognition and our various claims regarding conscious experience? How might informatic shortfalls find themselves expressed in conscious experience?

This is the perspective taken and these are the questions asked by the Blind Brain Theory. If the information that neuroscience is patiently accumulating eventually bears out its claims, then the stronghold of the soul will have finally fallen, and philosophers will become one more people without a nation, exiles in their armchairs.