Thursday, July 15, 2010

Purposeless Thought

It strikes me that there is something in us which induces us to engage in very involved, but pointless, thought on issues which have no significance to life as we live it.  We like to think of this exercise as profound and of transcendent significance, but I wonder whether there is any reason to do so. 

Each day, we interact with others and the world.  In doing so, we don't give thought to whether there is a world, or others, nor do we consider whether there is any basis on which we can know others or the world, or how we can have such knowledge.  We engage in life knowing full well that it is filled with uncertainties, but manage to muddle through for the most part based on past experience and intelligent, though not perfect, inferences concerning how people and the world in general "work."  We don't expect certainty.  We don't doubt unless we have cause to doubt.  We don't think except in connection with resolving certain issues or concerns or problems, or in connection with achieving some end, which may be a means to yet another end.

Why do we doubt, or at least purport to doubt, when we have no reason to do so?  Why do we insist on certainty in, e.g. knowledge or morals when we accept in the "real world" that there can be no certainty in most if not all cases, and indeed act without being absolutely certain in many cases simply because we must act if we're going to accomplish anything (we understand, in other words, that if we wait for certainty nothing will happen, and we want something to happen)?

Perhaps Dewey is right, and the quest for certainty is merely a holdover from the aristocratic disdain ancient thinkers had for ordinary life and its concerns.  It was felt that there had to be certain truths, as the perfect was necessarily certain and unchanging; mutable, changeable, temporary things are inferior.  Perhaps Plato poisoned us so completely that we engage in this quest and belittle the lives we lead to such an extent that we insist that "ordinary day-to-day life" is unimportant, or somehow wrong, or incomplete--insufficient for our purposes.

What, though, can those purposes be?  What do we achieve by seeking certainty, or doubting where there is no reason to doubt, or searching for some truth apart from what we do and how we live?  I know of nothing which we have achieved, except disagreement and endless speculation.  I don't think it's appropriate to speak of purposes, or problems, which are unrelated to what we encounter living in the world.  If we don't encounter them in the world, then thinking of them can achieve nothing in the world.  If such thought can achieve nothing in the world, why do we engage in it so readily, and even honor those who devote themselves to such thought with particular skill?

There are very real, very significant problems which we encounter in the world, as part of the world.  If we addressed them with the same skill and intensity as we have addressed problems which make no difference to our "ordinary life", I can't help but think we would be much better off than we are now.  Perhaps we are perverse, though, and don't really want to be better off.  Or perhaps we don't like the "real world."

We humans are strange creatures, dreaming of perfection but possibly incapable of bettering ourselves. 

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