I’ve stressed the — underestimated — value of examining ‘deep’ questions several times.
However, some deep questions are better than others: not all of them can be answered.
Those, you can safely ignore.
“The very idea of objective reality guarantees that such a picture will not comprehend everything. We ourselves are the first obstacles to such an ambition.” — Thomas Nagel,The View from Nowhere
Here’s an interesting thought.
Despite its completeness, a complete description of the world would not inform us about the stuff we really want to know, because it would contain only descriptive facts. In themselves, these facts have no value, nor any ethical or aesthetic content.
Everything else, everything that might render the thusly described world meaningful, resides elsewhere.
Still, the most human language can hope to accomplish is such a complete description of reality, because language has meaning only insofar as it designates something that is included in the description of the world.
If not, some think, these words fail to refer to anything.
Hence, we cannot talk about the point of life, the good, the bad, the valuable, the ugly and the beautiful.
And as Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889–1951) famously dictates in his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus:
“Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”
According to his early theory, we are mistaken if we think that we can express with words what things as ‘good’ or ‘beautiful’ are. A full account of the way things are would leave unanswered (but also unaskable) the most significant questions with which traditional philosophy was concerned.
In fact, attempts to discuss those matters only degrade our intuitive understanding of them.
“There is pressure from pseudo-philosophers everywhere to answer the eternal.”
Ironically, the person who, in human history, exerted the most pressure to “answer the eternal” was one of the most important figures in the history of Western thought.
I’m talking about Socrates (469 BC–399 BC).
This philosopher from ancient Greece was interested in definitions of concepts: specifications of something common to all and only the cases to which the concept applies.
Socrates was on a frantic quest to identify ethical concepts such as ‘justice’, ‘good’, and ‘virtue’ because he felt that having knowledge about such terms requires the ability to articulate what they precisely amount to.
According to him, if you can’t define it, you can’t know it.
For that reason, he demanded definitions as the correct form of explanation of knowledge.
Moreover, Socrates had high standards for what counts as a proper definition. Because he was looking for the essence of concepts as ‘virtue’, he wasn’t satisfied with examples.
In addition, he wanted his interlocutors to specify the common nature that makes all these different virtues into a virtue.
Walking around the Athenian Agora, Socrates discovered that no one could provide (for him) ‘adequate’ definitions of the things like ‘virtue’, ‘just’, ‘good’ and ‘beautiful’.
So, Socrates concluded, no one knows what these things are.
Asking these questions doesn’t merely degrade our intuitive understanding, but confronts us with our own ignorance.
“The idea that in order to get clear about the meaning of a general term one had to find the common element in all its applications has [mistakenly] shackled philosophical investigation.” -Ludwig Wittgenstein, Blue Book
According to Socrates, definitions form a necessary condition for knowledge.
Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900) disagreed:
“Perhaps Socrates should have asked himself: what is not intelligible to me is not necessarily unintelligent? Perhaps there is a realm of wisdom from which the logician is exiled?”
We can know things without being able to define the terms in which we express this knowledge.
Socrates’ link between definitions and knowledge arises from a too limited idea of ‘knowledge’.
We might know more about the good and the beautiful than we think.
Taleb goes beyond
Nietzsche teaches us that a linguistic problem in talking about a domain does not mean that it is impossible to have knowledge about that domain.
When this domain goes beyond a complete description of the world, can we have knowledge of it?
According to Nassim Nicholas Taleb, we can.
He argues that our inability to put knowledge about things like the good and the point of life into words is irrelevant, because it is beyond dispute that people do have knowledge about such matters.
Although he, like Wittgenstein, diagnoses that “almost anything around us of significance is hard to grasp linguistically,” he, in his book Antifragile, contends:
“There are many things without words, matters that we know and cannot do in the human language.”
That some questions about the meaning of life, about value, about the good and about the beautiful are hard to answer says more about the phrasing of these inquiries than it says about our supposed lack of knowledge.
Still, Wittgenstein instructs, we should be careful when attempting to answer them.
As we’ve seen, though, that does not mean that we are being stupid: it’s not a problem that we can’t answer those questions.
We can recognize this inability, without needing to solve it.
Some questions can be safely ignored, where taking that strategy does not mean that you are superficial.
That is not an admission of defeat, but a victory of freedom:
“[Confusion about life ceases to be a problem] once you realize that life is not a problem to solve. If you are too intend on making the pieces of a nonexistent puzzle fit, you miss out on all the real fun.” -Tim Ferriss, The 4-Hour Work Week
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