Does Philosophy Solve any Problems?

This question is asked a lot these days. If we were to ask it of a philosopher in what is usually defined as the ‘western’ tradition of thought then the answer would be no, it does not. Centuries of scholarly endeavour has failed to produce a consensus on any important problem. Apparently logical analysis does not reveal a theory that works. Every theory has been tested and does not pass the tests. No progress has been made since Plato. The area of study seems to doomed to failure, since every possible metaphysical theory is found to be logically indefensible.

If we ask a philosopher in what we usually call the ‘eastern’ tradition of thought then the answer may vary. Philosophy of the academic or scholastic kind, as opposed to the Socratic kind, cannot prove what is true about Reality. Reality might not obey the rules. Aristotle warns us of this. So perhaps the final answer would be no, it does not solve problems. Philosophy would be cartography, not actual exploration.

Bu this is a rather mystical view, and it is asking more of philosophy than we ask of physics. In physics we solve problems by creating theories, and over time the best theory emerges. In metaphysics we can do the same. Then the answer would be yes, it does.

A number of philosophers have explained how to solve philosophical problems. The solution would be to assume that all of the theories that do not work are wrong, that this is the reason why they do not work, and then to reject them. Simple.

That is to say, the solution would be to assume that western thinkers have got their calculations exactly right, spot on, but that they are not seeing the solution because they are excluding one theory from their consideration, one that they can never consider. This has to be excluded because it is mysticism, specifically nondualism, the very philosophical theory that western thinkers must reject in order to qualify for the geographical adjective. If they were to start investigating the philosophy of the Upanishads as a serious proposition then they would become no different from eastern thinkers. Because of this, all self-professed western-style thinkers must think that philosophy does not solve any problems. They must reject any solution offered by eastern thinkers prior to analysis simply in order to distinguish themselves as members of the opposite club.

The Buddhist sage Noble Nagarjuna logically proves that analysis can solve all philosophical problems in a text called The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way. in philosophy it has been found impossible to falsify his logical result and centuries of subsequent analysis have proved it over and over again.

His result: All positive metaphysical theories are logically indefensible.

This functions as a solution, and not a barrier to knowledge, because all we would now need to do for a solution is to infer from this logical result that all such theories are false. This leaves only one theory remaining, and this would be the solution for philosophy. This would be the only solution that western educated thinkers consistently refuse to consider, and this refusal is what distinguishes the members of the tradition. In this tradition the idea that philosophical problems can be solved would have to be deemed heretical. It seems almost obvious that the solution must lie elsewhere.

Regardless of its truth or accuracy as a description of Reality, in logic Nagarjuna’s view would work and this prevents us from simply assuming that philosophy solves no problems. Supporters of Nagarjuna would say that solving problems is the only task that philosophical analysis is for and that it is the perfect tool for the job.

The trouble is, of course, that nobody is going to believe that there might be a solution for philosophy until they’ve understood for themselves how it would work, and this would require knowing a fair bit about the problems of philosophy, while a person who believes that philosophy does not solve problems is unlikely to want to put in the work. The solution would be bound to seem ad hoc unless we have clearly seen the problem.

So, we must carry on as ever, with one tradition failing to make any progress and yet, nevertheless, refusing to think outside the box, and the other tradition having had it all done and dusted for a couple of thousand years or more but unable to find a way to explain the solution to anyone who doesn’t actually want to listen, and why would anyone want to listen when they already think they know that philosophy does not solve any problems? Pessimism is always an enemy of progress.

All this talk of ‘eastern’ and ‘western’ philosophy is misleading but convenient. Really there is just good thinking and not so good thinking. But ‘eastern’ and ‘western’ are a useful shorthand. We are in a situation where one of the two main tradition of philosophy cannot solve any problems but claims to know, we know not how, that any solution offered by the other tradition is wrong, while the other tradition insists that it can explain all these problems if only the other tradition would listen, and has a vast literature doing just this.  Yet both traditions are in complete agreement on the logical calculations, down to the last letter, and differ only on their interpretation of the result. They even agree that the western interpretation does not work. As usual for human society, there’s no making it up.

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5 Responses to Does Philosophy Solve any Problems?

  1. johsh says:

    There is the theoretical/subject called philosophy, and then there is different kind of philosophy of the common man, which is not theoretical or some field-of-study, but something that is real/tangible – It is “one’s life’s quest to make sense of existence”.

    I believe the eastern philosophy/thought (atleast ~1000BC-1500AD) is heavily based on the latter. Western started off like that too (early greek thought), but some-how evolved into a “field of study” , becoming/morphing into purely theoretical, and not personal/everyday-life-issues. The west found “religion” for that. Even scientists like newton could’t shed the hold of western religious thought; side note, thats the power of maya!

    In the west, probably one could get executed (heresy, or other religious persecutions), if they dare question “everything”. Most of buddhist thought (~400BC – up until now) IS TO question everything! And its done as an exercise in unraveling life’s mysteries – not simply because we can. Its a genuine, paramount, almost godly, effort. This kind of effort (aka “prayer”) in western thought is reserved for religion/god/jesus, atleast until few centuries ago.

    Even now, in the west, “The Quest” is not deeply personal, its purely materistic – physics, chemistry, biolgoy, space, etc.etc. Its all outward looking. Nobody even bothers deep contemplation. There is no compass. Directionless, lost. Its not even on the mind/horizon.

    As it is, everybody is busy “playing the maya’s game” – clueless, robotic (conditioned by western culture, society) life.

    At the core, everybody needs, or has, their own philosophy of sorts, for their thoughts (to make sense of existence).

    Ignorance is bliss, if you follow the (maya’s) program.

    Wisdom is hard, but it has the power to give you bountless joy, and ultimate freedom.

    If only “the west’s america” were about real freedom.

    Nature has a way to steer everybody there eventually.

  2. johsh says:

    philosophy is a tool, just like medicine, or modern technology/science. They all can be used to understand and be in sync with reality better, and if used properly, alleviate suffering (of different forms).

    There is no such thing as something being useless, only losing focus or getting lost (“maya”) – not “knowing”.

    It is all about suffering, one way or the other. And there is a state-of-mind you can get to, where you merge with reality, have no fear, achieve real free-will/freedom, AND gain ultimate wisdom. This has to be the focus, everything else is just temporary fix.

    It so happens, the “reality” is much simpler, and it doesn’t need advanced physics, or space exploration, to “see it”. That has been the focus of eastern(indian) “religion”/culture for the past ~3K years or more. (though, the last 500 years “The Western culture” is slowly (globalization) taking over the world, and india is getting clueless by the day. But cultures are hard to die, die they will).

    When you get a glimpse of the reality, you are humbled and empowered at the same time. Imagine living a fake, clueless life – there is nothing wrong with that, it is what is…but if you could, would you not a MORE genuine one ? I think philosophy can be helpful in this endeavor, probably more so than other fields. Because, one’s mind needs a structure of thinking. This structure has to be fluid, free, flexible. Philosophy can give you that. Physics/science/materialism ?? -> more rigidity…they are just good “play” tools, philiosophy(the “wisdom” kind) is much better.

  3. dondeg says:

    Hi Peter!

    Thanks for another nice post and thanks for pounding on this issue of Nagarjuna . For me at least, I need a few exposures before I really start to get it. As well, I just am not so familiar with Buddhism as I am with Hinduism to appreciate Nagarjuna’s work.

    Yeah, its a difficult thing about philosophy. It is why I wrote Experience. I pretty much agree with Josh that its people just simply caught up in the Maya. Words and ideas won’t break them out of it. Hell, physical reality can’t break them out of it, but instead sinks them deeper into the Maya.

    Speaking of which, I am all in reading Weyl now. Am reading The Open World at the moment. You’re right: he’s a total trip! I can see now how he influenced Chaitin’s thinking. I’m still in the learning phase presently. I have some judgements/evaluations forming, but its premature to say anything until I really understand him better. One thing is for sure, I am getting a much better understanding of all kinds of math. Thanks again for suggesting I read him!

    Take care and thank you again, Peter.



    • PeterJ says:

      Hi Don. Yes – a total trip! As for Nagarjuna, I would see ‘Fundamental Wisdom’ as a proof of Hinduism (but doubt that everybody would agree). Agree with Josh and you that words aren’t much use in transcending Maya. But I feel they can be useful for giving us some confidence that it ought to be possible to do so, and that Nagarjuna demonstrates the method. Two writers who both deserve a lot more attention.


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