On the Falsehood of Philosophy: a skeptic’s pastiche of Schopenhauer

Unless falsehood is the direct and immediate object of philosophy, our efforts must entirely fail of its aim.[1] It is absurd to look upon the enormous amount of wrong that abounds everywhere in philosophy, and originates in the words and writings of the greatest thinkers themselves, as serving no purpose at all and the result of mere error. Each separate mistake, as it topples an intricate system of thought, seems, no doubt to be something exceptional; but mistake in general is the rule.

I know of no greater absurdity than that propounded by the jury of Whig historians in declaring failure to be negative in its character. Failure is just what is positive; it feeds its own generating process. Plato is particularly concerned to defend failure as negative. To idealize a world for Forms and eternal Truths. Absurdly, he seeks to strengthen his position by dialogue with a man who knew but one things, he knew nothing. For Socrates recognized that it is success which is negative; in other words, truth and fact imply some discussion silenced, some process of inquiry brought to an end. If we have truth then there is no need for gadflies.

When the gadfly bites: the best consolation for mistake or wrong of any kind will be the thought of past great minds who erred still more than yourself. This is a form of consolation open for all time. But what an awful fate this means for philosophy as a whole!

We grasp at truth like children on a tilt-a-whirl, oscillating between idealism and realism, the romantic and the classic, arguing in the epicycles of generations and circles of millennia. So it is that in our good days the breeze of progress ruffles our hair as we ignore the bend — our cherished school of thought rotating out of fashion.

In freshman year, as we contemplate our philosophy degree, we are like children in a theatre before the curtain’s raised, sitting there and naively waiting for the Truth to be revealed. It is a blessing that we do not know what history will teach us. Could we foresee it, there are times when students might seen like Sisyphus condemned to push the boulder of rational demonstration up the mountain of Knowledge, only to see it roll down again, and as yet all unconscious of what their sentence means. Nevertheless, every philosopher desires to stand atop that mountain’s peak; in other words to “learn to comprehend the language” of the First Philosophy as it “is written in this grand book — I mean the universe — which stands continually open to our gaze”. Instead, they realize what they are wrong about today, and they will see that they were even more wrong tomorrow.

He who studies the history of philosophy is like a man for whom the curtains reveal a conjurer on stage, but he lingers to witness the performance twice or thrice in succession. The tricks were meant to be seen only once; and when the circle of certainty to falsehood is not longer novel, its effect is gone. The metaphors are mixed, but the tilt-a-whirl is obvious.

If two philosophers who were friends as freshmen meet again when they’ve earned their different PhDs, after being separated by the English Channel during grad school, the chief feeling they will have from renewed dialogue will be one of complete disappointment at the certainty of knowledge; because their thoughts will be carried back to PHIL101 when they agreed upon the truths that lay beyond the curtain, promised to answer life — but now they cannot even agree on what questions are worth asking. This feeling will so completely predominate over every other that they will not even consider it necessary to give it words; but on either side it will be silently assumed, and form the ground-work for thinking of their craft as pointless.

If theories were brought into the world by an act of pure reason alone, would philosophy continue to exist? Would not a man rather have so much sympathy with the new theory as to spare it the burden of falsification? or at any rate not take it upon himself to impose that burden upon it in cold blood.

I shall be told, I suppose, that my view of philosophy is comfortless — because I am too skeptical; and people prefer to be assured that we can have certain knowledge of our world. Go to the mathematicians, then, and leave philosophers in peace! At any rate, do not ask us to formulate our doctrines as lemma-theorem-proof or a series of equations. That is what those rascals of science will do for you. Ask them for certainty, and you will get it at six sigma. Your science professors are bound to preach optimism; but for me it is an easy and agreeable task to watch history upset their certainty.

  1. What better way is there to celebrate TheEGG’s 7th birthday than by pointing out that all I’ve ever written about the world is probably false? It is the existence of falsehood that allows me to have the space and motivation to continually refine and develop my thoughts on the various topics that this blog spans. If we ever arrived at truth, dear reader, then we’d have to abandon this place. Of course, if you want to read the original essay then Schopenhauer’s On the Suffering of the World is widely available online. I’ve always enjoyed Schopenhauer’s prose, and so in this post I stole it. My writing above is not that much more than a Ctrl-F Ctrl-R of ‘suffering’ by ‘falsehood’ and ‘world’ by ‘philosophy’, with imagery and metaphors updated to keep pace. However, as with the original essay by Schopenhauer, I think something can be learned from this fatalistic view. From understanding Schopenahuer’s emphasis on suffering and anti-natalism, we can learn about the good life. Similarly, by prioritizing error and mistake over truth, I hope that to learn something, too. In this short post, I want to see what you, dear reader, think of this approach to writing. And if there is interest in developing this theme further then I can use the second half of Schopenhauer’s essay to expand on the tensions between science (or scientism) and philosophy.
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About Artem Kaznatcheev
From the Department of Computer Science at Oxford University and Department of Translational Hematology & Oncology Research at Cleveland Clinic, I marvel at the world through algorithmic lenses. My mind is drawn to evolutionary dynamics, theoretical computer science, mathematical oncology, computational learning theory, and philosophy of science. Previously I was at the Department of Integrated Mathematical Oncology at Moffitt Cancer Center, and the School of Computer Science and Department of Psychology at McGill University. In a past life, I worried about quantum queries at the Institute for Quantum Computing and Department of Combinatorics & Optimization at University of Waterloo and as a visitor to the Centre for Quantum Technologies at National University of Singapore. Meander with me on Google+ and Twitter.

4 Responses to On the Falsehood of Philosophy: a skeptic’s pastiche of Schopenhauer

  1. What I get from this is that Schopenhauer, after a brilliant insight into error, did not understand science and mathematics. But that’s OK, because many (most?) scientists and mathematicians don’t, either.

    Style: its hard to **not** envision Schopenhauer as standing behind a wooden lectern, delivering this as a speech to an appreciative audience of 50 or 100. The sentence and paragraph constructions are so … un-modern.

    Style: he formulates ideas by metaphor and analogy. Which is, perhaps the only way to talk about something new, to explain to an audience that has never seen the idea in question, or at least, not from that angle. But its also infuriating, because the analogy, carried too far, is false. It is insufficiently illuminating. It’s the grasping at straws by the drowning man.

    The manner by which philosophy is converted into hard science is to articulate the ideas, over and over, using ever-more complex analogies and metaphors, until the sheer weight and complexity is too great to carry the burden. At this point, the complexity is re-expressed with formulas, with mechanisms, with cause-effect feedback loops. And what was once metaphor: wind blowing through the hair as one clutches the tilt-a-whirl, gets replaced by a highly articulated set of linkages, a network of relationships and effects, having probabilities and weights and linkages. Thus is philosophy converted into science.

    • Thanks for the feedback Linas!

      I am glad that you found my view into error insightful. However, I don’t think that I misunderstood science and mathematics. Although I only bring it up in couple of sentences of the last paragraph, so there is probably much space for different readings. I will have to write much more to clarify.

      This comment might be as good a place to start as any. I hope that you do push back against it.

      In some ways, I tried to use this post to build on my previous article on Hobbes. Although most of this pastiche (minus details of the last paragraph) was actually written before the Hobbes post — so the coordination isn’t perfect. In particular, I try to distinguish between knowledge of things we created (and/or Platonic forms, if we view math as not created) and knowledge of the physical world. So when I write “Go to the mathematicians, then, and leave philosophers in peace!”, I mean it earnestly. The mathematician in their realm can provide a certainty that study of the physical world cannot. I understand this might be misleading, since in the equivalent line where Schopenhauer was sending his reader to the priest, he probably meant it as a dismissal.

      That being said, once mathematics is taken outside of the realm of the Platonic world of maths, it loses its certainty. Mathematics does not make science more certain in the way that mathematics is more certain. The two types of certainty are differences in kind, not degree.

      So, when I write that “but for me it is an easy and agreeable task to watch history upset [the scientists’] certainty.” I am referring to the repeated demolition of the ontology that grounds science. After each revolution, the basic ways that we conceive the world are fundamentally altered, and the old are taken as mistakes.

      Of course, a tilt-a-whirl is not the best analogy for this revolutionary demolition. Science does have an element of progressiveness to it. In fact, some historians like David Wootton argue that the original Scientific Revolution is the foundation of this progressiveness. But just because there is progress in science (under proper definitions), it doesn’t mean that we should interpret this as progress ‘towards the Truth’. It is a refinement and reduction of perpetual error. Finally, I prefer to avoid viewing science as some sort of general ‘improvement over’ philosophy. Little is to be won in that argument, except posturing for the tribe that we prefer.

      To further clarify my position on progress and error, let me turn back to the essay of Schopenhauer’s that I was imitating: the fact that human standards of living have increased, for example, does not invalidate his view that life is suffering. You can reduce suffering, while still realizing that there is no escape from it. Schopenhauer sought his refuge from suffering in art; I seek my refuge from error in math. On a historic note: I think that if Schopenhauer did not inherit from Goethe his negative position towards math then he might have also appreciated this haven.

      As for style: yes! Resisting the urge to shorten Schopenhauer’s sentences was difficult. I failed sometimes. But I did enjoy this flowery and imagery heavy style. I want to learn to achieve similar vivid levels of imagery in my writing. Except with shorter sentences.

      • Some short comments on math: Let me set aside the debate over platonic/non-platonic nature of mathematics … both sides are right, in various ways. The book “17 unconventional essays on mathematics” makes clear that there are at least … 17 sides to this debate.

        I like to view mathematics as the discovery/creation/elucidation of linkages of interconnected “things”. A formula overtly connects two variables. A proof is an articulated linkage that interconnects two formulas. As the HoTT book makes clear, a proof is a kind of “homotopic equivalence” of one formula/set of claims into another. The ones we study and write down and publish and teach are the ones that are the strongest, best, clearest. Exploring math is like exploring a filigreed maze; at some point, we get tired, and stop, because some passage looks insignificant or unpromising.

        How is new math actually created? Well, some of it really is by analogy: homotopy was originally defined for curves. And, yes, one can show that two proofs are homotopically equivalent in a certain precise sense. But to use that same word — a natural-language word embedded in an English language sentence — what justifies that? Is there a proof that the homotopy of curves really is the same thing as the homotopy of proofs? (Hmm. There might be but I’m not sure). At some point, the crispness and precision of predicate logic devolves into certain kinds of imprecision spoken and written language, where we communicate by metaphor.

        And, at some point, we sense that there is something there, but we can only describe it by metaphor. Its too unclear, too imprecise, to turn into formulas. And this is what philosophy is, as I understand it.

        There is a nice, clear example of this: the debate over “vis viva”. It turned out, in the end, that “vis viva” was both energy and momentum, and both of these were tangled up into one philosophical concept. Attempts were made to convert this concept into mathematical formulas, and, after much confusion, it turned out that there were two things: momentum, and energy, the formulas for which are similar … but different. And, I guess you could say that the concept of vis viva was wrong, in the end. But still, it was also right, in the absence of the greater articulations and linkages which were eventually uncovered and discovered.

        Are energy and momentum the end-all and be-all? No. Things like black-hole firewalls and the ER=EPR discussion clearly shows that physicists today are very much like drowning men, grasping at straws, arguing by analogy and intuition. I can give an example in math, too: the Hauptvermutung, as to whether all manifolds can be triangulated or not. Its all intuition and hand-waving and gut-sense, until one day, someone finds a way to be more precise. My claim is that philosophy is at the extremely-blurry end of this process; math is at the most-precisely focused end of the process, but still has more than enough blurriness to keep everyone busy.

  2. Pingback: Methods and morals for mathematical modeling | Theory, Evolution, and Games Group

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