“Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.” – Abe Lincoln
One objection that is often given to me in regards to the study of philosophy is that it doesn’t provide answers to the questions it prides itself on pursuing. What is truth? How can we know when we know? What is an ethical life? It seems like these questions are still out there, waiting to be answered.
For one, this objection is downright false. Answers are given to these questions all the time. Plato had an answer. So did Aristotle, and most others leading up to contemporary names. What the skeptic really means is that the answers are very cloudy and heavily argued, leaving much room for doubt.
Lacking Control Of Variables
Aristotle believed that the different academic pursuits were all essentially scientific endeavors. What differentiated them was their ability to be dealt with in a clear manner. While mathematics and natural science were easily measured and quantified, studies like politics and ethics were more confusing subjects. Even though facts could be drawn in and experience gained, the answers required an overarching knowledge of complex things; things un-measurable by his or even our standards.
Economists are constantly trying to solve this clarity problem in the stock market by looking for secret algorithms by which to predict patterns. It has proven to be a very difficult task.
Why is there such a difference between disciplines? It has everything to do with the amount of variables involved.
A scientist studying the effects of boiling a certain liquid has control over the environment. By limiting his variables to whatever he wants to study, he can see exactly what causes what. The causal connection is available for observation.
Other disciplines do not have this luxury. Psychology has come a long way to establish itself as a science, but even those in the field have an extremely difficult time accounting for all of the variables. For instance, one common tactic of experimenters is to make sure the person being experimented on has no idea what for. This is because we tend to change our actions when we know we’re being watched.
When you have to account for more variables, your answer is going to lack clarity.
Answers Are Still Possible
Is it a fool’s errand to try to answer these questions that so many philosophers are curious about? Is it useless to try to solve these kinds of problems for which clear answers may never be found?
I don’t think so. You see, while the answers put forth may be unclear or dead wrong, they still are meaningful. The investigator tries their very best to account for all of the variables involved. If they genuinely attempted to solve the problem, then they would have put their very best foot forward.
Even though clarity has not been found, a person is more likely to handle the problem when it arrives in a much better fashion.
Accuracy Through Training
It is common for even a highly trained professional to lose focus and fail at even the simplest of tasks when the situation is extremely stressful. Something as elementary as tying your shoes becomes impossible.
Those professionals try to counter this by purposely creating stressful situations where they must perform their duties. Firefighters are forced to carry a heavy doll through a building while being timed. Soldiers are yelled at while they try to perform simple tasks.
They are training for the real thing, but any man worth his weight in salt knows that you can never know for sure what is going to happen out in the field. You can’t account for all of the variables. What you want is a soldier, firefighter, or cop who is able to keep a clear head through a stressful situation, not necessarily the one who did well on all of the tests.
The study of philosophy is similar in certain regards. While the job is not nearly as stressful, the questions are thought to be important ones. A philosopher studying the question of how to live an ethical life is essentially training himself for the moments where those kinds of questions meet him.
A man or woman who has genuinely studied the topic of abortion will be able to act more genuinely if that problem were to ever creep up on him or her. One who has studied justice will be better able to handle a situation involving an unfair act. Studying the true nature of knowledge will ensure that your own knowledge is well-founded.
Sharpen Your Axe
Preparation is most of problem solving. If you want to react to tough situations in a tough way, you have to be tough. If you want to be a just person, you have to think about and study what it means to be just.
If you want to learn new things, you have to become aware of what it means to know and to learn.
Sharpen your axe and you will be better able to chop down the tree.