Tuesday, January 4, 2011

The Existential Project

We do things for reasons.  This is not quite an axiom, but it seems to be a pretty fair description of how most human behavior works, particularly "higher level" tasks.  I don't just build a house on a whim without any intention of ever using it.  Likewise, I think we study certain topics and ask certain questions for reasons.  I don't just wake up one morning and compulsively research the chemical make up of six different amino acids.  If I should ever find the desire to know such information (not very likely), there would be some reason motivating that quest.

This all, I think, follows from the second axiom I laid out.  We as people think about the world that we experience.  Thinking is a worthless activity if it doesn't make some sort of sense.  We don't think strings of meaningless syllables, we think words and sentences, we think in a way that we "understand," and wrapped up in that concept is the idea of coherence.  For us to meaningfully understand the world, to think rationally about it, we have to organize our thoughts in some way that makes coherent sense.  Sometimes that drives us to study something more, to ask questions that as of yet we don't have answers to, to engage in some sort of academic exercise to "fill in" gaps in our understanding of the world.  As a product of our observation, the questions that people will ask and seek the answers to are often very different from one person to the next, a reinforcement perhaps of the first axiom.

A very basic question that we might ask is "why?"  Why do we seek knowledge at all?  Why do we try to understand the world?  Why do we ask questions?  Why am I even asking this question? This "why" question I think is what justifies the philosophical enterprise.  Some have answered that we seek knowledge for the sake of knowledge.  That to me sounds like the pretentious self-justification of someone in an ivory tower with no connection whatsoever to the real world.  But perhaps I am just not profound enough a thinker.  A better answer seems to me to be that we seek an understanding of the world because that understanding helps us to do things in the world.  But what things exactly are we trying to do?  I teach a group of fourth graders, and when I ask them why they might want to go to college someday the answer is usually some derivative of "so we can get smart and make lots of money."  In their mind, knowledge aids us in acquiring wealth.  That is certainly not an uncommon conception.  But is it a good one?  To me it seems very shallow and self-absorbed.  Admittedly, this is my predisposition as a Christian toward a particular conception of ethics in which helping others is more important than acquiring wealth for myself.  Perhaps that conception is wrong, perhaps Nietzsche is right and such ethics only results in my weakening myself and shackling myself down.  Perhaps we posit instead that the reason we pursue knowledge is because it allows us to gain power and influence over other people.  One critique of knowledge offered by some Post-Modern thinkers is exactly along those lines- knowledge is just a tool used by the powerful to oppress the weak.  As a graduate student studying theology and philosophy, I have a bit of a hard time buying that one, but perhaps that is just self-serving.  Perhaps I am the oppressor and I resent someone calling my bluff.  Another suggestion might be that we seek an understanding of the world because it helps us to solve our problems, to fix things, to end conflicts, etc.  This was the battle cry of the Enlightenment in the 17th and 18th centuries.  If we look at history since then, two world wars, several genocides, and the atomic bomb later, it doesn't seem like many problems have been solved.  But perhaps I'm just being too cynical.  The most ancient proposal, and the one that I find the most compelling, is that we seek an understanding of the world because such an understanding allows us to be moral people, to live a moral life.  It is important to note that moral does not just mean for the ancients things like not lying or not killing your annoying neighbor and her cat (I don't have such a neighbor, just to allay any suspicions).  For them it is rooted in the idea of a "telos" a goal toward which we are moving.  We all have such a "telos," they would argue and the moral life is the one that steers us toward fulfilling that goal or purpose for our lives.  The critic will argue that anyone who believes such silliness is being overly spiritual.  Who can really believe that everything or everyone has a purpose?  That's just an ancient myth, our modern conceptions know better.  We can build atomic bombs now, we don't need to appeal to such stories to tell us how to live our lives.

The conclusion that I am about to reach (if I want to keep my new years resolution to make these posts shorter) is in some ways not a very happy one.  The conclusion is that because we are subjective, we cannot start off with a ready answer to this question.  There is not another axiom to be found here that would take the form of "the pursuit of knowledge is for purpose x."  That, it turns out, is one of the questions that we must each wrestle with as we attempt to make sense of the world.  What purpose does the knowledge we seek hold for us?  At its heart, however, I think this question pushes toward a deeper question: what sort of person am I that I want this knowledge?  What is it that I want to do that requires this understanding?  That question points toward a project we can call "existentialism"- the project of shaping our own existence, of determining the kind of person that we are going to be.  To do this requires that we have an understanding of the world and our place in it, it requires a "philosophy" in the very general terms that I have sketched it.  But it also requires that we take ownership for the shape of that philosophy, for the way in which we approach the world, for the knowledge that we seek.

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