Teaching Philosophy in Schools


Over recent years there has been a growing movement pushing for the inclusion of Philosophy in schools.[1]

As a subject, Philosophy is broad. It can be separated into many sub-disciplines such as Philosophy of Religion, Philosophy of Mind, Ethics, and Philosophy of Science, to name a few. These sub-disciplines reduce back to three broad pillars of Philosophy: Epistemology, Metaphysics, and Axiology.

Regardless of where one’s philosophical interest sits, the essential skill set remains the same. This is the ability to reason. Philosophers produce rationally convincing arguments and critically assess the arguments of others.

In this fictional dialogue Socrates meets with Allison Fells, the Principal of Western Heights School, to discuss the inclusion of Philosophy in the school curriculum. Socrates has been running a successful Philosophy club at school and believes that students would benefit through the extension of the club into the regular school curriculum. Socrates argues that Philosophy equips students with the skill set needed to live the good life.

The Dialogue

Fells: Good morning Socrates. Please come in and take a seat.

Socrates: Thank you Ms. Fells. It is good of you to see me at such short notice.

Fells: I like to make time to talk to people when possible. I’ve been told that you would like to talk about the school curriculum.

Socrates: Yes, that’s correct. Specifically, I would like to talk to you about the place of Philosophy in the curriculum. There are no Philosophy classes at Western Heights, and I would like to discuss the possibility of introducing the subject.

Fells: You’re running a Philosophy club after school. From what I’ve been told, it is quite well attended. Why do you think we also need classes?

Socrates: The club only meets for one hour per week. The issues we discuss are deserving of more time. At most, an hour per week provides an introduction to Philosophy, but does not allow for any depth of discussion.

Fells: I understand what you’re saying Socrates. But I’m sorry to say that we don’t currently have the capacity to add a Philosophy class to our timetable.

Socrates: I admit that I do not understand the intricacies of timetable design, but it seems to me that it would be a relatively simple matter to add a subject. There are two empty classrooms. I could take one of them.

Fells: But where would you get the students from? They all have full timetables. The school curriculum is comprehensive and we need to cover a lot of material. We can’t simply pull students out of other subjects to switch to Philosophy.

Socrates: Perhaps it could be optional.

Fells: My concern is that students might join your Philosophy class at the expense of something important that they really need, like English or Mathematics.

Socrates: English and Mathematics are indeed worthy subjects. Are you assuming that Philosophy is less important than English and Mathematics?

Fells: I wouldn’t put it that way. What I mean is that English and Mathematics are needed, while Philosophy is interesting, but not essential.

Socrates: As a novice in the field of education I am eager to learn. What makes something essential?

Fells: Well, to put it bluntly, the essential subjects are the ones that prepare students to function well in society and get a job.

Socrates: Are you suggesting that the purpose of education is to prepare students to function well in society and get a job?

Fells: Yes.

Socrates: That seems rather a narrow purpose. Why does your school offer subjects such as music, art, and physical education? Are these taught so that students can function well in society and get a job?

Fells: Not directly. But they contribute to the overall student. They make the student a knowledgeable, interested member of society.

Socrates: So part of the purpose of education is to produce knowledgeable, interested members of society?

Fells: Yes, Socrates. And this contributes to their functioning well in society.

Socrates: It seems to me that if the purpose of education is to produce people who can function well in society, we need subjects that provide more than job readiness. This is why you include subjects such as music, art, and physical education. Would you consider these subjects essential?

Fells: I think these subjects are important.

Socrates: Allow me to pose another question. Would you think that education was serving its purpose if it was producing knowledgeable, interested, and well functioning members of society who get jobs, but who are unhappy and living in a state of despair?

Fells: I’d question why they are living in a state of despair, but I wouldn’t necessarily blame education.

Socrates: I understand why you wouldn’t want to blame education. However, do you agree that suitably educated people are able to assess their lives, make wise decisions, and thus avoid unhappiness and despair?

Fells: Possibly. But that does not lead me to think that the purpose of education is to help people avoid unhappiness and despair.

Socrates: We have agreed that the purpose of education is to prepare students to function well in society, have we not?

Fells: Yes we have, Socrates.

Socrates: Do you think people can function well in society if they are unhappy and in a state of despair?

Fells: I suppose it depends on the extent of their unhappiness, but probably not. I imagine their depression would cause problems. Some people might end up with drug addictions or the inability to commit to a job.

Socrates: So when I asked about knowledgeable, interested, well functioning members of society, who get jobs, but who are unhappy and in despair, I was imagining the impossible, correct? We can’t have well functioning members of society who are unhappy and in a state of despair. They wouldn’t function well.

Fells: It seems not.

Socrates: To function well in society, people must be happy, do you agree?

Fells: Based on our discussion so far, yes, I agree.

Socrates: Shall we describe people who are happy, knowledgeable, interested, and functioning well in society as living the good life?

Fells: That sounds like a reasonable description of living a good life.

Socrates: Okay. Let’s talk a little more about happiness and the good life. We have agreed that happiness is a component of the good life.

Fells: Yes, we have.

Socrates: So, it would seem that to live the good life, one must seek happiness.

Fells: That follows.

Socrates: Tell me, if you had never seen a bird, would you be able to seek one out?

Fells: I suppose not. I may stumble upon one by accident, but if I didn’t know what it was, I’d be likely to ignore it.

Socrates: So if a person needs to seek happiness in order to live the good life, it follows that he or she would need to know what happiness is. I think we should talk more about this. We have not yet developed a working definition of happiness.

Fells: It seems straightforward to me, Socrates. We all know what happiness is.

Socrates: I am not so sure. Tell me, Ms. Fells, if a person functions well in their society, but is entirely selfish, would you think they are living the good life?

Fells: Sure. Why not? They might be perfectly happy with the way they live their life. We have said that the good life is lived by those who are happy, knowledgeable, and functioning well in society.

Socrates: What do you think is the better life: one in which a person is knowledgeable, interested, functions well in society, but is selfish, avoids paying tax, and focuses on gaining material wealth; or one in which a person is knowledgeable, interested, functions well in society, helps others, pays his tax, and focuses not on material wealth, but on ensuring the health of his humanity?

Fells: What do you mean by “humanity”?

Socrates: In the past I would have used the term “soul”. Really what I mean is the state of the person as a just, benevolent, and humane being.

Fells: Okay. When you present it as a dichotomy in this way, I would be foolish not to agree that the second option is preferred. But in both cases, the person could be happy.

Socrates: Let us see if this is true. Is it your opinion that a person can achieve happiness by focusing on gaining material wealth?

Fells: I would say so, Socrates. They gain happiness from the things they buy.

Socrates: But if a person equates happiness with material gain, he needs to constantly acquire more possessions in order to be happy. How, then, could he ever achieve happiness? There is always something else to buy. Wouldn’t such a person simply have moments of pleasure, but always be wanting more, thus never being fulfilled and never achieving true happiness?

Fells: I can agree to this point Socrates. However, suppose that a person has gained as much material wealth as he wants. He doesn’t want anything else. Surely then he would be happy.

Socrates: Are you suggesting that the mere possession of this material wealth is sufficient to make this person happy?

Fells: Yes. He might be completely happy with what he has.

Socrates: Here you seem to be saying that his material wealth makes him happy because he is happy with his material wealth. Isn’t this circular? It doesn’t seem to provide us with an answer to what happiness is, does it?

Fells: You philosophers are annoying.

Socrates: You see that this is an important issue to settle, do you not? If people want to live the good life, and if happiness is a necessary component of the good life, then people need to know what happiness is. Now, you are suggesting that happiness is achieved through wealth and material possessions, but I am not sure this is enough.

Let’s continue. Do you agree that material wealth, in itself, is neither good nor bad?

Fells: I agree to this

Socrates: Very good. I think we are making progress. Tell me now, Ms. Fells, do you agree that wisdom is good and ignorance is bad?

Fells: I think so. I certainly think wisdom is better than ignorance.

Socrates: Okay. Now, is it plausible that a wise person will put material wealth to good use and achieve happiness, while an ignorant person may be wasteful and end up in a worse position, and thus achieve the opposite of happiness?

Fells: How so?

Socrates: Consider a famous performer who has amassed a vast fortune. This fortune itself does not produce happiness, so the performer decides to seek happiness in rich food. His health suffers, and happiness is elusive. The performer then attempts to gain happiness by throwing parties and drinking large quantities of alcohol. But this does not work. Eventually the performer turns to stronger drugs in order to satisfy his desire for happiness. The drugs are addictive and lead to a cycle of behavior that causes relationship problems and the loss of much of his fortune. Do you understand this example?

Fells: Okay Socrates. You make a fair point. Material wealth does not necessarily bring happiness. If bad decisions are made, material wealth can prevent happiness.

Socrates: Indeed. So the key to attaining happiness is not material wealth itself because material wealth is neither good nor bad. However, ignorant action can be bad and wise action good, so what’s important is knowledge of how to put material wealth to good use. And if we put the issue of material wealth aside, we see that this applies to life decisions in general. If people make poor decisions about their life, happiness will remain out of reach. Many years ago I suggested that the unexamined life is not worth living.[2] This is precisely what I meant. It seems to me, then, that wisdom is the route to happiness.

Fells: Can you tell me more?

Socrates: I am pleased to elaborate. We have agreed that happiness is not to be found in material wealth. Instead, happiness is found in the decisions one makes about one’s own life. Everyone has the ability to choose their life direction. The ignorant person may choose a direction that is focused on merely satisfying his or her desires. But the wise person can recognize which desires are worth satisfying and which ones prevent a sense of overall purpose and the ability to function well. The wise person understands human nature and how to bring out the best of their own humanity.[3] Achieving this is happiness.

Fells: This is much more complex than I had ever realized.

Socrates: Perhaps we should pause to summarize our discussion thus far.

Fells: Yes, please. That would be useful.

Socrates: It will be useful for us both. Please correct me if I am wrong. We have agreed that to be happy, one needs to know how to live a life in which the focus is not on the accumulation of material wealth, but is instead focused on one’s own humanity. We have also agreed that the purpose of education is to prepare students to be knowledgeable, interested, happy, well functioning members of society. We have called this the good life. So, it follows from what we have said that the purpose of education is to prepare students to live the good life.

Fells: Based on what we have discussed, I agree that the purpose of education can be summarized as preparing students to live the good life.

Socrates: Then I think we have our first premise in an argument for including Philosophy as a subject at Western Heights School:

Premise 1: The purpose of school is to prepare students to live the good life.

Shall we proceed?

Fells: You have captured my interest, Socrates. Yes, let’s continue.

Socrates: Excellent. Now, consider this proposition: The purpose of an Internet provider is to provide Internet access to its customers. Am I correct?

Fells: Yes, you are correct, Socrates.

Socrates: Would you agree that if the purpose of an Internet provider is to provide Internet access to its customers, then procedures and equipment specialized in providing Internet access to customers should be available within the company?

Fells: Yes, of course.

Socrates: If we apply this analogy to the field of education, we have the second premise in our argument:

Premise 2: If the purpose of school is to prepare students to live the good life, then subjects that specialize in equipping students with the tools necessary to live the good life should be offered in schools.

Fells: I understand your point, Socrates. But before you go on to suggest that we don’t have suitable subjects on offer, I need to remind you that we have a robust curriculum here at Western Heights. I believe our curriculum is sufficient to meet the stated purpose of education. Many subjects can prepare students to live the good life.

Socrates: I wonder to what extent your subjects do, in fact, equip students to live the good life. We have agreed that all subjects contribute to the development of a well functioning person, but not all subjects specialize in preparing students to live the good life.

Consider this scenario: suppose that the purpose of education is to prepare students to be excellent musicians. I can imagine some subjects incidentally covering elements of music training. However, I also know that music teachers specialize in running classes that offer musical training. On balance, what do you think provides the best guarantee that students will leave school as an excellent musician: having music covered in classes such as English and Mathematics, or having it taught as a specialized subject?

Fells: You are leading me to agree that it would need to be taught as a specialized subject. I’d be foolish to disagree when you word it this way.

Socrates: We agree, then, that it is better to offer a specialized subject rather than leaving it to chance. So, if Philosophy is the subject that specializes in providing the tools for living the good life, you must agree that we should offer Philosophy classes at Western Heights. What do you think?

Fells: I agree that if the goal of education is to prepare students to live the good life, then if Philosophy specializes in this goal, then we would be best to offer it as a class at Western Heights.

Socrates: Very good. This brings us to our third premise:

Premise 3: Philosophy specializes in equipping students with the tools necessary to live the good life

Tell me, how much do you know about Philosophy?

Fells: Not much to be honest. I haven’t had much time to explore it. I know it involves asking unusual questions and talking about religion.

Socrates: We do indeed ask questions in Philosophy. And some of those questions are related to religion, but many are not. Why do you think we like to ask questions in Philosophy?

Fells: I suppose questions provide a context for discussion and debate.

Socrates: Certainly, yes. But the end goal of Philosophy is not discussion and debate. The word “Philosophy” means “love of wisdom”. We ask questions to better understand what it is to be human. We also seek to understand our place in this vast universe. Sometimes our questions are unanswered, but our exploration of philosophical questions moves us closer to gaining clarity and knowledge.

Now, we have agreed that in order to be happy and live the good life, one needs to know how to live a life in which the focus is not on the accumulation of material wealth but is instead focused on one’s own humanity. Am I correct?

Fells: Yes, we did come to this agreement.

Socrates: How did we come to this agreement?

Fells: We talked through the issues and reached a conclusion.

Socrates: That’s right. We carefully worked through the issue. We reasoned. We have reasoned about what constitutes the good life. This is what we do in Philosophy. Philosophy is the subject that specializes in providing the tools with which to reason and gain wisdom, and we have agreed that wisdom is required for people to know how to live the good life.

I believe we have a completed the construction of the argument. May I summarize?

Fells: Please, go ahead.

Socrates: We have done well today, Ms. Fells. From our discussion we have built three premises that lead to the conclusion that Philosophy should be offered in schools.

Premise 1: The purpose of school is to prepare students to live the good life.

Premise 2: If the purpose of school is to prepare students to live the good life, then subjects that specialize in equipping students with the tools necessary to live the good life should be offered in schools.

Premise 3: Philosophy specializes in equipping students with the tools necessary to live the good life.

Therefore, Philosophy should be offered in schools

From here, I suggest that since Western Heights is a school, Philosophy should be offered at Western Heights.

Fells: Your reasoning is impeccable Socrates. I admit that although I find your approach rather annoying – you just don’t take “no” for an answer – I have enjoyed our discussion. Is this how you plan to run your Philosophy classes?

Socrates: My aim is to develop these skills in students so that they too can construct convincing arguments and assess the arguments of others.

Fells: The process is good, and you have convinced me that Philosophy is a worthy subject. Yes, it should be offered in schools. I cannot promise that we will include it, but I will certainly give it some careful thought and will consult with our school board of trustees. I hope you understand that I can’t commit right now.

Socrates: I am happy that you are willing to consider it. Shall I come back next week?

Fells: It may take longer than a week for me to work through this.

Meta-Philosophy: An Essay on the (F)Utility of Philosophising

My friends sometimes tell me that I shouldn’t philosophise too much but rather enjoy and experience life directly in a state of mindlessness. I have counter argued that such an attitude is only possible once you have convinced yourself of the futility of philosophising, which apparently is a process that you need to go through via the very medium of philosophy, which is reason.

The purpose of this essay is to explore for myself the (f)utility of philosophising as a means to come to “correct knowledge”, which Patanjali calls “Pramana” in the Yoga Sutras by reasoning this out in a quasi-philosophical manner. Correct knowledge as defined by Patanjali is knowledge obtained by direct untainted experience, deduction or truthful testimony. It is opposed to knowledge obtained by imagination, hallucination, speculation, incorrect reasoning or interpretation, from dreams or from memory.

I choose not to follow the traditional methodology of philosophy for reasons that will become clear in the course of this essay. Although I ultimately desire to develop my own alternative methodology, the present essay is a first exploratory attempt. It is a first brainstorm to order my thoughts, which by no means I claim to be exhaustive.

Whenever we use the word “philosophising” we have a certain meaning for this word in mind. Although each individual probably has his/her own definition of this terminology, for the sake of this essay I distinguish two classes of philosophising:

1) Philosophising by layman, which essentially amounts to reasoning and arguing about certain mental concepts, based on ill or fuzzy defined definitions and which relies on a non-systematic way of reasoning, which is allegedly based on “common-sense”.

2) Academic philosophy. As to this form of philosophy, Wikipedia gives a definition: “Philosophy is the study of general and fundamental problems, such as those connected with reality, existence, knowledge, values, reason, mind, and language. Philosophy is distinguished from other ways of addressing such problems by its critical, generally systematic approach and its reliance on rational argument.”

I did not study philosophy, so my type of philosophising appears to fall a priori in the first category. But I hope to be able to explore by rational arguments based on my common sense, in what way both methods have their inherent flaws and positive points or at least are ultimately (f)utile in their attempts to come to “correct knowledge”, in the sense that Patanjali uses the word in the Yoga Sutras. An analysis of Pramana, will have to wait until the end of this essay however.

As such this attempt is a kind of “philosophising about philosophy”, which makes it a kind of Meta-philosophy. Wikipedia defines this as follows: “Metaphilosophy (sometimes called philosophy of philosophy) is ‘the investigation of the nature of philosophy.’ Its subject matter includes the aims of philosophy, the boundaries of philosophy, and its methods. It is considered by some to be a subject apart from philosophy, while others see it as automatically a part of philosophy.”

In this sense my present meta-philosophical attempt is not futile, that -if it works out well- will save me from wasting time on futile future philosophising and possibly make clear which type of philosophising has utility for me. In this sense it is not part of academic philosophy, in that I intentionally choose to avoid the “generally systematic approach” of academic philosophy, whilst still relying on the rational argument.

One of the problems with the academic approach (as the ruling thesis of what philosophy is supposed to be) is that an essential part of its general systematic approach relies on providing new definitions of the terminologies used.

Although it is necessary to clearly know what one is talking about, academic philosophy often loses itself in a typical association-type think fever, the quagmire of semantics, leading to hopelessly long lists of definitions, before you have even started to reason. Although cumbersome, time-consuming and rendering the text to be read utterly boring, it seems an indispensable pre-condition.

But it often leads away from the very concept that one wants to study. Because every definition becomes a topic of philosophical study itself before one can get to the very concept that one wants to discuss. This is a kind of runaway of philosophical spin-offs of all the parts that are needed to describe a whole. This can lead to chicken-egg problems when definition of concepts are interdependent; where you need the chicken to define the egg and the egg to define the chicken, so that in the end you do not have a meaningful delimitation of either concept (and you can only merge the concepts into a meta-concept relating to the interdependency).

Because every terminology is described in terms of other terminologies, you get a repeating process where you probably can’t stop until you have given philosophical definitions of all the words in the dictionary. As academic philosophy is incomplete as regards this, it fails to properly apply its own methodology and is bound to work with common-sense and intuitive meanings of terminologies, sometimes without even being aware of that.

But there is a worse problem here: namely that the meanings of the very terminologies you wanted to use to describe a concept have been so distorted due to the academic defining process, that they are no longer suitable to define/describe/analyse that concept.

What we often see is that the accepted philosophical meaning of a terminology (I.e. accepted by the ruling paradigm in academic philosophy) is very far away from the instinctive or common sense meaning of that terminology. Whereas the original aim may have been to clarify an instinctive or common sense concept, the final concept with the same name that academic philosophy is describing is no longer identical to the topic that one wanted to treat. A serendipitously generated self-consistent piece of philosophy may have been generated, but the concept they deal with, the concepts they have defined, do not reflect well the instinctive or common sense meaning of that terminology. What Heidegger understands about “being”, “beyng”, “Dasein”, “Mitsein”, “Existenz” etc. has very little in common, with what you or I instinctively sense as the meaning of “being” and “existence”. The funny thing is that the academic philosophers are in a sense aware of these distortions, so that they use brackets, diacritical marks, and other symbols or slightly change the spelling of the terms like “beyng” (Heidegger) or “differance” instead of “difference” (Derrida).

Philosophers then have to go through a cumbersome process of discussing all different types of definitions given by different philosophers to a terminology, which terminology is for them the best approach of “instinctive concept” that they want to study, to finally try to give it their own subjective meaning. And I hope that this is done at all, because I get the impression, that much academic philosophy misses this point: that the philosophical process transforms the meanings of the concepts so much that it no longer corresponds to the original concept one wanted to ponder.

This shows that even academic philosophy is a highly subjective process. The meaning of terminologies is changing over time as the ruling paradigms change over time. Then there are attitudes of showing-off how smart and how complex one can reason. And it certainly doesn’t help to clarify things. You can only read academic philosophy texts if you’re a philosopher yourself, they are hopelessly complex and often do not well describe the point they want to make. I certainly don’t feel attracted to this obligation of having to go through everything that has been said in the literature on a given concept before I can make up my own mind on it. I’ll even put it in stronger terms: This process stifles your ways of getting a clear understanding of a concept. (No, I don’t want to define “concept” at this moment).

Perhaps I can illustrate what I mean with the following: I had studied classical guitar for many years, when I wanted to learn how to improvise. In the beginning this was not an easy process, because I was biased by all the melodic and rhythmic fragments that I had automatised in my study. I had developed a kind of blind spot for the possibility of new combinations. A friend of me, who had just started playing guitar, was composing the most interesting melodies and rhythms in jazz and blues and largely outperformed me when it came to improvising in this style. I had to “learn” “a vocabulary” of “melodic phrases” (licks) in jazz and blues in order to be able to jam with him. But it took a very long time before I started to develop my own set of licks and before I was able to spontaneously improvise new licks in the process of playing, based on hearing and feeling. I had the disadvantage of the so-called head-start. And in a certain way, for every skill such a disadvantage of a “head-start” can be present, including in philosophy.

Laymen philosophy (as antithesis) as I already said, suffers from ill or fuzzy defined definitions and relies on a non-systematic way of reasoning. Every amateur philosopher has his/her own instinctive definitions, which he/she has not clearly defined in terminological framework. This makes it very difficult to communicate. As everybody has had a different education and a different life-experience, the instinctive meanings of words given by different persons do not match. This is the basic source of almost all miscommunication in the world: the false assumption that our personal and cultural dictionaries match.

You can try starting your own philosophical enquiry into the nature of your experience, but as long as at least for yourself you have not clearly defined for yourself what you mean by the terminologies you use in your reasoning, you are bound to end up with fallacies.

If you have the rigour of going through the definition process to build your personal philosophical dictionary and vocabulary and you are careful not to diverge from your instinctive concepts by the seductive flow of redefining terminologies in ways that they no longer correspond to your initial instinctive process, you end up with a pair of extremely subjective philosophical glasses. They may help you to understand yourself, but they are worthless to share in communication, because the set of definitions is probably so boring, that no one will ever take the effort to read them. (I conjecture that most readers who started reading this essay won’t even arrive at this point of the essay, because it is such a boring topic).

But at least you may have gained some insight in your usual fallacies, so that you can avoid them.

Then there is still the danger that your way of reasoning is not following the principles of what is academically understood of reasoning and that you are introducing fallacies in you line of reasoning because you are not even aware of these fallacies. I am not going too deeply into this topic. It is well-known that logic, the basis of reasoning has its own limitations. But at least there is a subset of logic, which when applied in a correct way, gives reliable results in the majority of cases. At least this part of academic philosophy is important to study and to incorporate as a mastered vocabulary. It is a pre-condition for any attempt to philosophise.

Anyway, it is not because there are parts of the philosophical process that are inherently sound, that therewith the whole becomes sound and non-futile. For the whole to be sound, all the parts must be sound. In other words, it suffices to undermine one part of the academic philosophical methodology in order to render it useless.

A more problematic issue with reasoning, than the “logical process”, is the fact that (both in academic and layman philosophy) the premises of the logical argument themselves have not always been proven to be sound, correct or true.

The layman is often even not aware that the knowledge about the premises used is incomplete and that therefore the premises are not necessarily true. Worse, certain premises not only have not been verified, sometimes by their very nature they are unverifiable.

This problem reaches its culmination in “speculative premises”, which is a hopeless starting point to build a solid argument.

This leads us to further difficult philosophical issues of what is “truth”, what is “proof” et cetera, which I do not want to define here.

The academic philosopher can avoid such issues by first going through the whole process of philosophy for each of these terminologies, ending up with definitions, which are perhaps internally consistent, but which do no longer “feel” like being representative of “truth” or “proof”.

Especially in science as an extension of philosophy many premises are speculative. The very concept of a hypothesis is based on speculating what might happen. Therefore the scientific method uses a methodology to prove a hypothesis.

One of the worst problems with science as an extension of philosophy is that it has never proven its most basic tenet: That something must be proven by the scientific method for it to be true. It is rather so by definition. But that is a kind of logical fallacy as well: to do away with a problem, by making the problem part of the definition.

I do not wish to enter the discussion of what “truth”, “proof”, “being”, “absolute”, “relative”, “reality”, “illusion” etc. mean, because that is part of a philosophy itself. The purpose of this essay is to shed light on the futility of philosophising as such.

One thing I do wish to say about science, is that it is largely “inductive”: it suggests a pattern based on “strong evidence”, which gives it a certain probability. You get a cloud of dots and you connect the dots in a certain way, in which you derive an abstraction, a general trend of a certain correlation of two observable parameters. But the way you connect the dots heavily depends on your hypothesis. Aliasing shows, that there is often more than one way to connect the truth, an unless you are aware of that, you may be tempted to draw a straight line through every cloud, where perhaps a polynomial, a hyperbole, a sine or another mathematical expression form would have been more reflective of the underlying reality. There is only one logical rational inference process that gives irrefutable outcomes and that is deduction. Induction can at best predict a probable outcome.

In fact the scientist is sometimes so strongly biased by the hypothesis, that he tends to neglect “outliers (out-liars?)” that do not fit his/her hypothesis.

Moreover, what you are seeking to prove, you will often find proof for that. But you may not be aware that you have neglected other essential parameters or that methodological fallacies have crept in. If you would have tried to prove the opposite, you might have found proof for that too. If you are so lucky to realise that there are multiple possible ways to mathematically model and explain a set of data, so that you generate a number of parallel hypotheses, then it is still difficult to figure out which one reflects the underlying reality the best.

Scientists then often use Occam’s Razor for this purpose, which states that the hypothesis with the fewest assumptions should be selected.

But that principle has neither been proven in any way, nor is it capable of revealing hidden assumptions in the hypothesis that seems to have the fewest number of assumptions. Perhaps if one would have known all the underlying assumptions, it would have become clear that this assumption was not the one with the fewest number of assumptions at all.

Is science then a futile and precarious undertaking? Should we discard philosophy and science because often they inherently cannot give us certainty?

What I have done in this essay is shed doubt on science and philosophy as a means to come to consistent knowledge about ourselves and the apparent world around us, which leaves no doubt. They do not seem fit for that purpose in an absolute sense, that we would know everything with certainty. But as long as they give us a pragmatic attitude and probabilities of likely success, a certain measure of predictability, via which we can make our lives more manageable and avoid misunderstandings, they are welcome to me.

Another positive point is that by philosophically realising that we have an experiential and interpretative bias, which gives us a subjective perspective on what happens, we can become more forgiving towards others. Others may have experienced the same event from a different angle, have different memories about the event (memories tend to fade and to transform over time) and most importantly a different cultural interpretation and a different emotional experience of the event. As long as this is not clear to all parties, people tend to defend their “subjective truth”, often based on fear based, territorial or social motives, which they are not even consciously aware of. Worse, in such a process people sometimes attribute certain “intentions” to the person they have a problem with. These presumed intentions are purely speculative. We don’t know what is going on in the mind of somebody else. Even if accompanied by a certain body language, it is still interpretation. Unless you are telepathic it is guesswork one can better refrain from. When we realise that our “truth” is relative, we may become inclined to become more critical towards ourselves and more accepting towards others.

Another positive point of philosophical considerations as regards the working of the mind is that we may start to realise that whenever we use (pseudo) rational arguments to defend a certain stance, these arguments are often driven by the wish to prove the desired outcome of the stance. That means that our selection of arguments is heavily biased from the onset. The most honest way to scrutinise a stance would be to start to find arguments and proof to defend to opposite stance. But even that is no warranty for success. As I already said, the “Prover” in us will find proof for what the “Thinker” thinks/desires. We are normally so strongly driven by our passions, that we have a blind-spot for the passion-driven selectivity as regards the arguments we provide. One may even question whether we have free will at all; if there is ever any instance where we overrule our passions. Because even if a rational argument would overcome the desire to appease e.g. a physical passion, one could argue that our passion for rationality at that moment has overruled us.

In a sense rational techniques when used for self-observation can be very useful, as long as we are aware of our potential blind spots. I have mentioned a few, but I suspect there are more of them, and obviously as they are unrevealed blind spots, for the moment I am not aware of them. Let’s hope that the rational self-observation of my underlying motives will reveal further blind-spots. Any suggestions as to further blind spots are welcome.

There is also the issue that if one wishes to enjoy and experience life directly in a state of mindlessness, one must have cleared out all the mental and emotional blockages that prevent such a state. As far as I know myself, these are usually the consequence of loops in the mind regarding unresolved psychological issues. You can only resolve such issues, if you are aware of them and if you are aware of your motives to allow them to persist. Whereas you can call self-analysis a form of psychology, the rational methodology you develop to do so is also a form of philosophy. It is not by trying to be mindless that you will reach a state of being mindless. The thought patterns that prevent the mindless state have to be worked out. In my humble opinion there is no better way than doing this exercise of self-analysis in writing. Writing clarifies the thought processes and makes your stance clear to yourself.

If you are a master of martial arts, music or art and you can work from that blissful state of mindlessness, this is certainly an advantage, both as regards the result and the enjoyment of the process of the act. But in order to become a master, one must go through a painful process of relentless practice. All the movements of sequences must have been automatised. It is usually only then that spontaneous improvisation will occur.

There are of course cases of prodigies that master skills without having learnt them. Also certain yoga techniques open areas where suddenly proficiency arises, without any trace in the practitioner’s life of having learnt the particular skill. However, such occurrences are extremely rare. Even if such an emergent skill is attained by yoga, at least the practitioner has put in the required flight hours in the practice of yoga. That practice of yoga did involve self-study (svadhyaya), which is again a form of philosophising. So practice, at least for the layman, appears to be generally indispensable.

Now my ultimate target of this metaphilosophical analysis was, to see if philosophising in whatever way is a way to come to correct knowledge, Pramana. Then we must see what Patanjali means by the terminology Pramana. In Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras I.7 we learn that Pramana is the knowledge obtained by either direct sensory observation, inference (deduction and induction) or testimony.

With regard to direct sensory observation, we must be vigilant that our observation is not tainted by sensory illusions (such as optical illusions) or other types of hallucinations. As soon as interpretation enters the game, there is a risk of arriving at “incorrect knowledge”, which occurs when the mental concept and the sensory input do not match. If we can rule out sensory illusion, in such a case we can better question our mental concept.

Deduction is one of the major tools of philosophy. Here I agree with Patanjali, if it is done by deduction, this is a way to come to correct knowledge. I do not know whether the translation of the term “anumana” as “inference” correctly covers the intent of Patanjali and whether Patanjali solely meant deductive inference or also meant inductive inference. As already said earlier, inductive inference gives a good likelihood of repeatability of a phenomenon, but no certainty. I strongly doubt whether Patanjali intended to include this meaning.

As regards testimony, one must be certain that the person testifying is a “truthful person”. This of course is slippery ice these days. I most certainly do not trust the vast majority of religious texts, because they are full of internal contradictions. The only way here is by direct contact with a person or a presumed authoritative text that you have not been able to nab on untruthfulness or internal inconsistencies. And even then there is the risk of wrong interpretation. It seems advisable to try out the teachings yourself to verify if they also apply to you.

The knowledge, that you then obtain, is according to Patanjali “correct knowledge”. But we must still be aware that this is knowledge about how we experience the world. Our brain and senses filter information in quite an extreme manner, so that what is out there or the object of observation per se (what Kant calls the Noumenon) cannot lead to complete knowledge of the object. We can extend our senses a bit with technical tools, but then we enter the realm of interpreting data, which is an unsure way to get “correct knowledge”. Perhaps meditative techniques, such as “samyama” (see Patanjali III.4), where subject and object merge can bring us almost complete knowledge of an object. I have a good hope that is so, because as of yet Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras have not revealed internal inconsistencies to me. But Patanjali never uses the word “complete knowledge”. In fact Gödel’s incompleteness theorem deductively shows that absolute “complete knowledge” is impossible. (Noteworthy, this contradicts the notion of omniscience of God as in western religions. However the Rg Veda, the Puranas and other Hindu scriptures do not claim omniscience of God. They state that God does not know all his energies and is always enjoying discovering them).

One of the last questions I’d like to address in this brainstorm is: how can you ever know, that what you experience is not a form of hallucination? How can you be sure that your thoughts are your thoughts and not thoughts fed to you by a puppeteer? I pose this question not so much with regard to daily life experience, but more as regards the so-called mystical experience. I guess that as long as our experience does not enable, empower us to manipulate “apparent reality”, the assumed mystical experience can have been a hallucination. If it does empower us we can still be the puppets of a puppeteer we’re unaware of. I guess that in this case that distinction probably won’t matter to us at all. Like for a little child watching a demo of a video game who has the impression he is steering the car in that game it is probably very joyful.

So as long as I am not a master in acquiring correct knowledge, it seems philosophy is still part of my game. Utile instead of futile. But I am aware that my incomplete analysis may have been biased by the desire that this was the very outcome of the argumentation, that my argumentation may contain flaws and fallacies (please point them out to me) and that I have not sufficiently scrutinised the opposite stance and quantitatively weighed the different opposing arguments in a balance.

For today I stop my brainstorming, and promise to work out a personal philosophical methodology in more detail, that allows for a fairer scrutiny of the opposite (the futile) stance. Although one thing is sure: we can never be sure that we have all knowledge to come to a fair balancing, so that it seems as per Gödel’s theorem and as per the blind-spot to be able to see all possible vantage points, that the issue is ultimately undecidable. This notion then prompts me to continue to pragmatically apply my philosophy as long as I have no good reason not to do so.

Antonin Tuynman was born on 22-02-1971 in Amsterdam. He studied Chemistry at the University in Amsterdam (MSc 1995, PhD 1999). Presently he works as a patent examiner at the Eu