Five years ago, I wouldn’t touch philosophy with a barge pole. Physics was my subject at university, and this provided an adequate enough explanation of the workings of the cosmos. For me, philosophy was obsolete – important to the Ancient Greeks, but of about as much use today as a chocolate teapot. Who needs frustratingly unprovable ruminations on the nature of life when physics provides handy bitesize equations to describe how the universe functions. Metaphysics? Schmetaphysics.
Since then I’ve made a U-turn. Although physics is good at explaining the ‘hows’, it is admittedly not so strong for the ‘whys’. For those, we have philosophy (and religion, and maybe football).
I’m not really sure what prompted the turnaround. My first proper introduction to the topic was a short cartoon strip version of the history of philosophy. From that, I started reading about philosophers who had interesting-sounding ideas and/or horse-hugging tendencies. The first philosopher I looked into was Søren Kierkegaard, a rather dandy-looking Danish fellow who lived during the 19th Century. I was intrigued by how he maintained his Christian belief despite his existentialism, and how he maintained his wonderful quiff despite living 100 years before the invention of Brylcreem.
The fact that philosophy and physics are actually quite snug bedfellows became clear after reading a book by Werner Heisenberg called, appropriately, ‘Physics and Philosophy’, in which he discusses the philosophical implications of his uncertainty principle. His theory, that both the position and momentum of an electron cannot be determined simultaneously, opened up a can of worms for philosophers. If we can’t be certain about the properties of fundamental particles, what does that say about our knowledge of nature? This probably isn’t a question that’ll be answered over a tea break, nor one that’s a matter of life or death unless we all wake up the size of electrons (‘The Borrowers Go Quantum’), but it’s interesting nonetheless.
So scientific advance tends to pour petrol, rather than water, on the philosophical bonfire (excuse the metaphor). Whole books could be (and probably have been) written on the philosophical impacts of quantum mechanics, genetic engineering, relativity and numerous other discoveries. Physics and mathematics also both owe a large part of their existence to philosophy, developing from the ancient philosophers’ forays into understanding, for example, planetary motion and geometry. Then of course, there’s logic, a branch of philosophy that is an important discipline in mathematics and computer science.
Apart from my unfounded skepticism, there are two other reasons that I think put me off learning about philosophy. Firstly, I don’t remember studying any at school…there was religious studies and humanities, but philosophy was completely absent from the curriculum. Not even a sniff of Plato!
Secondly, philosophy has a reputation of being a high-brow subject that only academics can get anything out of. Nothing gets my goat more than intellectuals who pepper their work with long words just for the sake of it, and so maybe brief glimpses of overly-complicated texts put me off. The mark of a good teacher is someone who can explain difficult ideas using everyday language; I recently got given Bertrand Russell’s ‘History of Western Philosophy’, and it’s a gripping read, partly because he makes complex concepts so accessible. Another person who does that quite well is this quick-talking Aussie bloke I stumbled across on YouTube (you might need to watch it twice to catch everything):
Maybe my current fondness of all things philosophical is a sign that Paris (where I’ve been living for the past 18 months) is slowly infiltrating my system. Either way, I’ve not yet joined the ranks of beret-hatted, mustachioed Frenchmen who ponder over Sartre on café terraces [/cliché].