Is philosophy only about universal truths? Are human perspectives irrelevant?

Inthis thread, but really starting from around here, Naxos attempts to shoot down any merit to Existentialism (and also, by extension, any philosophical school I can think of) by claiming that any philosophical discussion that deals with any human concerns is ultimately irrelevant:

My counter is that Philosophy is, and always has been, about finding answers to human questions, that what Naxos is discussing is really Science, and that not being about “universal truths”, as Naxos puts it (but good luck in pinning him down on what that means,) does not render a field of study irrelevant or trivial.

I thought a new thread would move the growing hijack here. Any thoughts, Millions?

Well, one can describe the world as just so much microscopic particle interactions, and, if physicalism is true, obtain a complete description, which makes no reference to human-derived concepts, or, indeed, humans. However, one can also describe the world in terms of human concepts, without being wrong in doing so – indeed, on the relevant level, the description may be no less complete; and that description will certainly have more utility in certain contexts (even if economics ultimately reduces to particle physics, you won’t try to devise a quantum theory of the stock market – it’s simply computationally intractable, even if ‘possible in principle’).

That ‘my arm’ is just a ‘chunked’ description of skin, muscles, bones, cells, ultimately atoms and fields, doesn’t mean that it’s wrong to talk about my arm as a thing in itself, or, as some who misunderstand the concept of reductionism are occasionally wont to do, claim that ‘my arm’ doesn’t exist simply because it is not fundamental (this is often done wrt time: whenever somebody proposes a theory in which time is emergent rather than fundamental, you’ll see grandiose claims about how ‘time doesn’t (really) exist’ – that is simply false, as evidenced by the fact that it’s now a few minutes later than it was when I started writing this unnecessarily convoluted paragraph).

So different concepts have utility on different levels of description – it’s no use talking about love when one does particle physics; but similarly, it’s just as useless to talk about particle physics when making love. :wink:

When Naxos says that any term “within a theistic point of view” is “false and invalid by definition”, he’s wrong, and it’s no surprise to me upon reading the original thread that he didn’t even try to defend that assertion.

Obviously all human wisdom, whether it pertains to meaning or anything else, is either anthropocentric (“viewing and interpreting everything in terms of human experience and values”) or centered on higher levels of being. The idea that we should try to avoid being anthropocentric by eliminating anything that doesn’t apply to lower levels of being is absurd and it’s small wonder that very few people could take such an idea seriously.

I don’t know that everyone found it prima facie absurd- I didn’t really see anyone else argue with the dude. Hence this thread. Everyone may have had other reasons not to, based on their perceptions of Naxos (or me, or either of our posting styles), but in a 'net forum like this, silence is a kind of consent, IMO.

And it’s my resolve never to be surprised again, when it turns out I’m the only one holding what I consider the only sensible position.

I was thinking more in historical terms. As E. F. Schumacher has pointed out, it was simply an accepted fact in every ancient civilization which reached the point of having studies, that the aspects of the world confined to humans were the proper target of study, or at least most of it. Hence almost all ancient studies focused on philosophy, theology, history, literature, art, music, government, education, morals, values, … All the things that humans do which animals and plants don’t do, in other words. Even into modern times, the greatest bulk of intellectual activity focused on these things. There have been times when materialistic movements swept through the intellectual world, of course, seeking to reduce all humanity to animals or physical processes. We are experiencing such a fad in American academia at the moment. However, history strongly suggests that it won’t last too long.

All philosophical systems–Existentialism, Realism, even Nihilism–place primary importance on the answer to one fundamental philosophical question, then use that answer as a principle to guide speculative reasoning in other areas.

For example, Scientific Realism primarily attempts to answer the question “What is reality?”–i.e. it places primary importance on metaphysics, specifically that reality exists outside and independent of the mind/observers–and then uses its metaphysics as a guiding, fundamental principle in answering other profound philosophical questions, e.g. “What is Knowledge/Truth?” (only that which is confirmed to correspond to reality) and “What are the ethics of an act?” (that which produces an objective and measurable ‘positive’ for the entire affected group). Given the weakness of the answer to that ethical question, one can see how this approach has limits. But IMO every philosophical system works this way, though they each start with different fundamental areas of inquiry.

Existentialism’s primary focus is ethics; it puts moral questions first and foremost, then deals with other philosophical areas as details. This is the whole point of the mantra “existence precedes essence”–the particular life created and lived by an individual (existence) is more important than some abstract notion of what it means to be human (essence). More realist systems reverse this; the fundamental nature of being itself (essence) must be answered before one can tackle the question of particular examples.

Existentialism is absolutely a defensible philosophy, but it is also an easy target if one subscribes to a philosophy that says some other question (like a rigorous understanding of reality) is fundamental. I suspect you and Naxos are approaching the same speculative problem from different fundamental truths.

Philosophy is the love of/quest for wisdom/knowledge. It can be about anything (or, at least, anything that is not already taken by one of those hyper-successful branches of philosophy that we now call sciences). The earliest Greek philosophers were concerned with questions such as “What are the causes of thunderstorms and earthquakes?” and “What is the structure of the planetary system?” quite as much as as they were concerned with questions such as “what is knowledge?”, “What is truth?”, or “What is right and wrong?”. The former sorts of questions no longer get called “philosophical” only because the outlines of the correct answer are settled, and only some details remain to be filled in by patient measurement and experimentation (techniques that are fairly worthless before you have settled the broad outlines of what a proper answer should look like). It was also concerned (and still is) with “human” questions such as “how should the political system be bet organized?”, questions of a sort that are now contested both by philosophers and by quasi-scientists (i.e., specialized philosophers) such as sociologists and “political scientists.”

The notion that philosophy is only concerned with certain sorts of deep or “universal” questions (or, indeed, that is it is exclusively concerned with “human” questions) is an error caused by an ahistorical perspective on the subject. Certainly the types of inquiry that get called philosophy now are mostly about about that sort of stuff. But that is merely because over the nearly 3,000 years of the philosophical project, most of the other problems have been solved to the extent that filling in the details can be spun off into some more specialized discipline (sciences, social sciences, etc.). What still get called philosophical questions today are the really hard ones for which we still do not know (or cannot agree upon) even the broad outlines of what an answer should look like. These are often (but not always) very abstract and general, “universal” questions, so i t is possible to be deceived into thinking that philosophy is properly defined as the study of such questions. It is not.

Mind you, looking at the quotations in the OP, it is not clear to me that Naxos is saying that philosophy is about universal truth. It looks to me as though he is simply arguing a form of positivism, as if there were no epistemological problems about the foundations of scientific knowledge. (But I may be misunderstanding Naxos on the basis of these brief quotations.)

Well, yes, but the key word there is “systems”. By no means all philosophy is systematic in that sense (and it is none the worse for it). It is not necessary to have a complete, comprehensive theory of reality in order to work fruitfully on particular problems.

Here’s a simple litmus test for philosophical theories: If that fateful asteroid did not kill off the dinosaurs and humans did not have a chance to evolve, would that theory have any purpose, use, or application?

If not, then it’s social science and it is too dependent on personal and psychological factors of individuals, groups, societies and civilizations.

The crucial step is to acknowledge the irrelevance of humans to the universe. We can apply the term “philosophy” to anything we want. And there’s no problem in examining the behavior of human beings in individual or group settings, which is what all common philosophical theories are ultimately about – human behavior.

My point was that any such examination is bound within the limits of human bias which it can not escape, and it cannot hope to explain what the universe is about, how it works and what will happen to it.

I didn’t say Existentialism is worthless. I said it’s ultimately irrelevant to reality. All it can hope for is to have some partial relevance to human beings.

The difference is that particle physics is independent of the human existence, making love isn’t. So particle physics is a step towards describing reality, however approximate it is, and making love, while very enjoyable and worthy of the effort we make to enjoy it, is forever bound within the limits of the human existence.

It is all too obvious to me and to everyone else. It’s only human ego that can refute reality.

Take your favorite theistic claim. Does it apply to any life form that exists now or will ever exist in the Pinwheel galaxy? The answer is no. Therefore the claim is false.

All theistic claims are false by definition. That much we have evolved enough to be able to realize.

What do you mean?

I mean that we already know that the source of all theistic, religious, magical, superstitious, metaphysical, spiritual, and Oprah-like beliefs is the need for the human ego to be gratified with the sense that the individual commands the attention of an ultimate supernatural power, spirit, god, volcano deity, etc.

Which is false and even the theists know it. Their insistence of claiming unsubstantiated claims have psychological and social causes and it’s not based on reason.

Why do you give a psychological explanation?

Because there’s no other reason a human being will claim something false when they know it’s false.

Religion is a behavioral dysfunction. People band together and claim the same things so they can be members of the same group, discriminate against others, and have some fake sense of superiority by believing that a supernatural being has their attention.

Do insects have gods? No. Therefore there are no gods.

It’s only human ego that can refute reality; therefore, it’s only human ego that can verify reality. It’s the same human ego. Again, why do you give a psychological explanation?

Your questions are vague and your statement that only the human ego can verify reality is false.

My explanation is not “psychological”. The factor that causes people to claim something they themselves know is false, is psychological.

At this point, I don’t understand what you’re asking.

What else, besides the human ego, can verify reality?

Logic and/or Reason. Those concepts are intrinsic to human intelligence but independent of the human existence.

The claim in question is that anything “with a theistic point of view [is] false by defintion”. You’re claim that this is obvious to “everyone”. Well it’s not obvious to me, so your claim is wrong. And a quick check of recent surveys will show it’s not obvious to most other folks. And as I already mentioned, not for past peoples either. So why don’t you actually try to justify what you’re saying, rather than simply repeating yourself?

No life forms exist in the Pinwheel galaxy that we know of and it’s unlikely any ever did, do, or will, thus making your question vacuous.

How do you know this?

Your argument has already fallen apart in two places that I’ve pointed out, but I’ll go ahead and point out a third. You apparently think that claims are false unless they apply to beings is a distant galaxy. But consider a few examples:

Bananas are yellow.

Shakespeare is history’s greatest playwright.

Supply shortages cause inflation.

All true, none would apply to beings in distant galaxies, even if they existed, which they most likely don’t.

Which dictionary should I look in to find the definition you’re using?

First of all, who exactly is the “we” that you are referring to in this sentence? Secondly, how do you know these things which you claim that “we” know? Give me a cite.

Why yes, as it happens I agree that nearly everyone both theist and non-theist would probably agree that your statement was false. But I’m curious how you claim to speak for theists. Isn’t mind reading one of those things that you scientific materialist types generally don’t believe in?

Well, I think I’ve given you enough questions to answer. Please remember that I’m asking you to justify your claims, not merely repeat them.