Fushan kids back in bus

California ZephyrMay 2011:
Cross-Country Reality Check



Ever since meeting Alvin in Hong Kong, I have become more interested in philosophy, but perhaps not what the universities mean by the word "philosophy"  these days. Alvin was "putting the pieces of the puzzle together" on a personal level through a daily discipline of examining issues of importance while wondering around Hong Kong looking for bargains to eat. Unlike contemporary university philosophers, he was on a very limited budget. And since "support systems" for independent thinkers do not exist, his task was a difficult one. He was contemplating economics at the time—this was around 2008—while I was inquiring into the nature of reality. Coincidentally I ran into a book by Stephen Hawking that surprised me. He discussed how conclusions could be drawn without "solving all the equations."

Later on in San Francisco this led me to read his book The Grand Design. There he explains how reality in one world can be different in another, especially the subatomic. In short, while Newton's laws may apply here in this world, they don't necessarily apply there in another. In Hawking's thinking and work, physics and philosophy come together.

At the same time, I was reading a book called The Story of Philosophy by Will Durant. I liked Durant's historical writing but did not like his book on philosophy. He presented too many philosophers with many of them using vague language that only they, the philosophers, really understand. Moreover, he seemed too worshipful. In his philosophical writing, unlike his historical, Durant did not have the ability to rise above a concept and elucidate it. He waddled, struggling for clarity. Given my love for his historical writing, I was slow to come to this conclusion but reluctantly did.

In my quest to "know," I downloaded a couple of books on modern philosophy—I still prefer paper but was on the road—and began reading. I searched wikipedia.org as well. I learned some strange, interesting, and bizarre things:

In the strange category I learned that Martin Heidegger, the great German existential philosopher, was also a Nazi. Did his theoretical work on the "question of being" have no relevance to his own regards for actual fellow human beings? Astounding!  I learned that Descartes believed that animals did not have feelings, so he practiced vivisection on them without anesthetics. Did he take their pain and discomfort as a merely mechanical reaction?  It appears so. I learned something about Spinoza's concepts of substance, attributes, and modes. They were interesting concepts but complete understanding seemed always just out of reach. Per Bertrand Russell and Ludwig Wittgenstein, I learned the difference between the word "the" and "a" and  the true meaning of the sentence, "The King of France is bald." Or I thought I did. I learned about linguistics and, though abstruse, found linguistics interesting. It was at the center of many discussions.

I am still reading these books and exploring what I can say I truly know versus what I have "learned." To know requires work, personal experience, and exploration. You can read for answers but to know you have to think too. To learn means to believe what someone else tells you is true with the idea of taking an exam. To know means to discover the truth on your own. There is literally a world of difference. Or should I say "worlds"? Would you understand what I mean? Or would you laugh?

"Can you believe? He seems to think there are other "worlds" or some such ... Jeez!"

I have also developed a respect for logical argument. Logical argument must obey certain rules of deduction or induction; and for the results to be true, an argument must also be based on facts, not pet notions or prejudices. Most political debates would end in seconds if these rules were followed and "facts" were checked. It is the nature of politics to avoid such rigor at all costs. I am not advocating a perfectly logical world. But a politician who argues for the enrichment of his or her constituency at the expense of others, usually the poor, should be held accountable for his or her reasoning.

I have also noticed, while on the road, that many young people eschew  all standard sources of news and information—"You actually believe that?" I hear when I quote something from the New York Times—while claiming an esoteric source of their own. The result is some fairly unusual ideas. It pays to be skeptical but not throw away everything. You must read a lot, then examine what you read. Accepting as truth the opinions of some eccentric blogger with an axe to grind is not the way to enlightenment.

In short, I have become aware of the undercurrent of meaning in any statement and question it. When I hear House Speaker John Boehner say, "The fact is you can't tax the very people that we expect to invest in the economy and create jobs,” I look for the real meaning. I reduce his statement to a logical proposition:

 Higher taxes on the rich will cause less job creation.

And I ask if it is true. I find that his proposition is historically false. Then I seek his real meaning: Don't tax my constituency.

Speaker Boehner has "learned" to say things that further his cause. For him, furthering the cause is the test of his knowledge. He "knows" nothing. A Grand Deceiver? You be the judge. I'm still studying the issues.


True American Native Son