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The Beginning of Philosophy

How deeply have you questioned?
by Michio-kun

In Part I of The Experience of Philosophy by Kolak and Martin, an important question is implied, “How deeply have you questioned?”

At first glance, the four articles contained in Part I, The Trial of Socrates, Obedience to Authority, The Function of Education, and On Bullshitting and Brainstorming, appear to be uncorrelated. However, the articles together reveal how important philosophy is—how important questioning is.

The essence of philosophy is questioning everything in order to ultimately gain wisdom. By not questioning, we become servants to the ideas of others and lead a life of acquisition, ambition, arrogance, conformity, mundane tradition, boredom, death and decay. If we don’t question, we shall miss the whole point of life and the whole point of being human. These four articles tell us what happens when we do not question, and what happens to those who do question.

The Trial of Socrates by Plato covers the final moments of Socrates’ life when he was taken to court by Meletus, who charged him with impiety and corrupting the youth.

Socrates had a friend, Chaerephon, who traveled to an oracle and asked if there was anyone wiser than Socrates. The priestess said there was no one. This bothered Socrates because he did not believe any man was wise. He traveled to politicians, poets and artisans, and he found out they were not wise, so he questioned them. Through cross-examination, he exposed their ignorance and roused them from smugness. The people Socrates questioned became indignant toward him so they spread lies and prejudice about how he questions “things beneath the earth and in the heavens”, and then teaches the same to the youth. Socrates’ own curiosity and inquiry lead to his execution.

Socrates was accused by people who share a common characteristic, that of self-satisfaction. The artisans, poets, politicians, and wise-men reveled in ignorance and believed to know more than they actually did, so they stopped questioning. Socrates said, "The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing." Without realization of our ignorance, we can never hope to ask questions if we have accepted to know all there is to know.

Jiddu Krishnamurti’s own philosophy is closely related to that of Socrates, however, in The Function of Education, he discusses the meaning of education, and how society has missed the point. “Truth is a pathless land,” he said, “You cannot approach it by any religion, any sect….You are accustomed to being told how far you have advanced, what your spiritual state is. How childish!” He has become a world-renowned philosopher and teacher and his lifelong purpose was “to set people absolutely, and unconditionally free.”

Krishnamurti wonders, “What does this so-called education mean, and what is it all about?” The question is important not only for students and teachers, but for anyone cares about life. We go to school and learn about various subjects, compete with our peers for higher marks, and listen to our teachers talk about how important our education is for a future job. But is education merely preparing us for a job? Is that all there is to life? It is necessary to have a job, but if that’s all we live for, we void our lives of meaning and defy what it means to be human.

Education is a meaningless process unless it teaches us about life itself. Most people have fear in their lives and where there is fear, there is no freedom and without freedom, how can we hope to discover truth for ourselves? We learn fear from our parents at a young age. As we grow older, we learn fear from our friends, our teachers, our colleagues, our religious leaders, tradition, and society as a whole. We are afraid of what they will think about us if we do not safely and easily fit into a preconditioned framework for our lives.

Many wonder, “If we did not conform, if we revolted, would the world be in chaos and disorder?” Tell me, is the world already so peaceful and fearless? Are we not fighting endless wars fueled by politicians who seek power and control? Are we not torn by beliefs and distinctions of every kind perpetuated by selfish ambition? Is everyone not clinging to their own security? There is always somebody striving for power, and they all tell you they know what is right for you—the religious leaders, the politicians, the parents—and this is the preconditioned framework you are encouraged to conform to.

Look back to your childhood years, what did you want to become? Have you accomplished it? Are you working toward it? Maybe you never decided or thought about it. Education should help us to discover what we love to do and to help us work toward it. When we do something in life that we simply love to do, there is no first place, no flattery, greed, and boredom. Life suddenly has meaning when we do what we truly love to do, without the influence of authority, ambition and fear, and this is the only way to create a new society, a new world.

Stanley Milgram, a social psychologist, explains a shocking experiment in Obedience to Authority, performed from 1960 to 1963 that shows how normal people are willing to torture and kill other people by obeying authority.

The experiment is simple. A person is asked to come to a psychological laboratory where they aid the experimenter. The acts the experimenter asks the person conflicts with their moral sense. The experiment’s purpose is to show how far people are willing to go to obey authority. The teacher [the subject] is told that they are conducting a study on the effects of punishment on learning. The learner [an actor] comes into the lab and is strapped into a chair with an electrode attached to his body and is asked to learn word pairs, whenever he makes an error, the teacher administers electric shocks to the learner with increasing intensity for every wrong answer starting at 15, 30, 45 etc. to 450 volts.

You may be wondering why anyone would even begin the experiment at all. Why don’t the subjects simply walk out? The truth is disturbing, because nobody ever does. Even as the actor screams in agonizing pain and pleads to be freed from the experiment, the subjects continue on believing they are actually shocking the learner. The subjects protest and say they want to stop, but the experimenter simply encourages them to go on and the subjects obey. Two-thirds of those experimented proceeded to the final shock level of 450 volts.

Most conclude these are the monsters of society, but they are every day people from all professions, personalities, and social classes. Hundreds of ordinary people willingly tortured their victim because of an obligation to obey. This is the most important lesson we can learn from this experiment. Even when the destructive effects of the subject’s actions are apparent, few people ever make a break with authority.

A variation of the experiment shows something even more profound. The teacher gave the word pairs, however an actor aiding in the experiment had the responsibility to administer the shocks. Over 37 out of 40 people continued the experiment until the final shock level. This reflects how our own society works and war in general.

During WWII, there was no single person carrying out the act of killing Jews. The responsibility of an evil action completely disappears whenever there are more links in the chain of command. Adolf Eichmann was responsible for mass deportation of Jews to concentration camps. During his trial, his defenders say he was just doing his duty. All he had to do to commit murder on a massive scale was to shuffle papers in his office. Eichmann never actually filled the gas chambers, and even he was sickened when he saw the camps for himself. To get from Eichmann to the soldiers, there were many divisions in labor; nobody took full responsibility.

Although the story of WWII seems unrelated to questioning, it shows the consequences of being a puppet to another’s ideals. There can be both abstract and concrete outcomes, whether in Socrates’ trial, WWII, education or just having a meaningful existence.

The last article from Part I, On Bullshitting and Brainstorming by Kerry Walters, distinguishes two different approaches to philosophy and the value of each.

Many believe that philosophy has no real value, because it cannot directly be applied to real-world problems. These people are dubbed “bullshitters”. They presume philosophy is nonsense and a meaningless endeavor. Bullshitters are concerned with flattery and word artistry and don’t care or don’t understand the implications of their speech or writing. Philosophy then becomes a subject of temporary self-amusement rather than having a personal attachment to the person. The bullshitters don’t feel guilty for approaching philosophy in this manner. They are interested in the manipulation of words rather than ideologies. The brainstormer differs from the bullshitter in one major way: The brainstormer considers philosophy to be important to his existence, and his ambition lies with ideas rather than words. When examining a philosophical problem, the brainstormer does not approach knowing whether or not there will be any instrumental or practical applications. Attaining knowledge may be the only accomplishment.

Philosophy rarely gives definitive answers to any questions, but this does not mean the pursuit is meaningless. The brainstormer can obtain a better understanding of the question, and avoid generalizations and second-hand ideas in the future. Abstractions do have potential to influence a person’s objectivity and change their world view on religion, purpose in life, social orientations and how they think as a total human being.

We have to understand that everything in existence relates to philosophy in some way. Every belief is questionable, and how you approach questions is important. Most people choose to ignore them their whole lives, and it is inevitable for those people to be a mere puppet for others who claim to know truth. Wisdom can only be gained through yourself and can never be handed down by another person. That is what philosophy is, the pursuit of wisdom.

Written by: Michio-kun
5 June 2008

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