Slogans masquerading as philosophy

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  • ‘Deep’ thoughts that undo themselves

 

These are gems that are presented to demonstrate unparalleled sagacity on the part of the utterer. They are often employed as weapons to hit the supposedly less enlightened souls over the head with. Sometimes they are pressed into service to get out of discussions that are not advancing in the desired direction. Chances are that you would have encountered them too: somebody saying patronisingly, or as an excuse to quit a debate on a ‘victorious’ note, something like: ‘Well, one can never be sure of anything!’

Especially in the post-truth age, this is a particularly fashionable sentiment to have and express. And a politically correct one too: you have your truth and I have mine; let’s live and let live, and all that sort of thing. It sounds very wise all right. Until, as the peerless Gary Miller suggests, one asks the person who has made the claim, ‘Are you sure of this?’ Sometimes it becomes outright hilarious if he happens to reply (as many are known to have responded): ‘I’m positive.’

Also, in addition to it buckling under its own weight, this philosophy is impossible to practise in real life. Having epistemological doubt regarding the certainty of something is one thing. However, life is much more than epistemological games played sitting in an armchair with a cup of tea in hand. It moves on, continually forcing decisions on every human being regardless of any cute slogans that he may like to repeat to others and even to himself. And everybody must take those decisions based on his best beliefs at any given moment.

There are other such slogans that sound nice and deep but end up demolishing themselves. For instance, many theists who are of the opinion that reason has nothing to do with their faith are accustomed to saying that reason can lead one astray. (Some, although not all, of them are positively scared of any evidence that may threaten their beliefs.) The problem with this position too is that it collapses when applied to itself. For how else is one going to convince anybody of the truth of it? For when one has expended considerable time and effort justifying the proposition using all tools of reason at one’s disposal, all that the other party needs to do is smile and remind one that reason can lead one astray (the original statement). Indeed, reason can lead one astray if one makes an error in one’s reasoning– and this happens all the time. But how is one to know if one has been led astray. By reason itself, of course. Also, if unreason (as opposed to reason) is the key to the truth, how is one to know which brand of unreason to adopt (if neither one makes sense, and both disagree with one another)? Of course, one needs reason to separate the wheat from the chaff. Truth has just the one version; falsehood and confusion come in many varieties. Sense is like light, while nonsense has innumerable shades.

Slogans masquerading as deep thought are probably as old as humanity itself. And one would be justified, especially considering the social media and technology in general, in expecting that we are not going to be hearing the last of them any time soon

Many atheists and self-proclaimed science enthusiasts err on the opposite extreme. The slogan at play here being something like: ‘One should never believe anything without proof.’ (I’d be extremely rich today if I had a hundred rupees every time somebody told me this.) And yet, if one demands proof of the statement itself, they are at a loss for words after they have exhausted their repertoire of insults on you for asking for a proof of something so fundamental. The point is that it’s they who want everything to have a proof, not you. At best (which they finally must accept if pushed), it’s a maxim or truism, which is a far cry from proof, which was so strongly emphasised in the original rule. So, in effect, something is being demanded from others that isn’t being lived up to (can’t possibly be lived up to) by the man himself.

Slogans masquerading as deep thought are probably as old as humanity itself. And one would be justified, especially considering the social media and technology in general, in expecting that we are not going to be hearing the last of them any time soon. Only the other day I encountered this pearl of wisdom on a philosophy page: ‘All philosophy is mental onanism’. Since this was a philosophical statement itself, and if accepted as true, then this was just another instance of self-pleasure on the part of the sage propounding it. The sage himself appeared to be blissfully unaware of the quite delicious irony.