Monday, March 25, 2013

On Philosophy


From my Honors Colloquium II mid-term exam, part 2:

1.         In his key piece, Critique of Pure Reason, Immanuel Kant posits the idea that all human knowledge falls into two categories: a priori, meaning 'from before', and a posteriori, meaning 'from later'. A priori knowledge is gained independently from experience, is obvious, and requires no real effort to discern. A posteriori knowledge, on the contrary, is gained by experience or empirical evidence. Kant then categorizes our ability to know into two categories: noumena, which are things that can be perceived empirically, and phenomena, which can be discerned only through intuition. 'Real' things, or noumena, are merely representations of unknowns, or phenomena, which are interpreted through our a priori or a posteriori knowledge to reach an understanding, inasmuch as we can understand the universe.


2.         A thesis is an intellectual idea or postulate. An antithesis is the response to the thesis. Synthesis is the compromise between a thesis and its antitheses, which is in turn a new thesis. An example dear to our university hearts might be when college freshman weigh the pros and cons of their major. In my case, my thesis is that English majors do well on their LSATs, so it is a good choice for me, as a pre-law student. The antithesis is that if I do not get into law school, I would have earned a degree that qualifies me only for employment that I would prefer not to take. The synthesis is that I can always use my English degree to get into graduate school for an MFT license, which marries the thesis and antithesis, and begins a new thesis.

3.         When ethics/morals are judged within a culture or a set of circumstances, they are considered relative, as opposed to universal. Ironically, most cultures view their own relative moral standards as universal, and use them to judge other cultures.
One famous example of such a difference is the Hindu practice of suttee, or widow-burning, wherein a recent widow would immolate herself, or be immolated, on her deceased husband’s funeral pyre. When other cultures, most notably the English, encountered this phenomenon, they considered it deeply immoral and banned this practice, with one Englishman famously declaring that while the Hindi may have a practice of widow-burning, but the English have a practice of hanging those who burn widows. The Hindis could build their pyre, but beside it, the English would build a gallows. The threat was implicit and effective.
Another example of relative moralism are attitudes towards cannibalism, which runs through virtually all cultures at some point, but is largely considered immoral in modern times, to the point that people have chosen to starve to death rather than to eat ethically sourced human meat.

4.         There is a very basic philosophical idea that runs through the words of our youngest children and our oldest moral prophets, and that is to do unto others as you could have them do unto you. Confucius, Siddhartha, Jesus, Kant… They all endorsed this idea as the most basic premise for living in peace and respect.

5.         In regards to a social contract, consequentialism, utilitarianism, and pragmatism all address the moral value of our actions. In consequentialism, the morality of the action is judged by the outcome, allowing the ends to justify the means. Utilitarianism takes this one step further, in positing that the conduct should be aimed at making the greatest number of people the happiest, or sort of a ‘best value’ happiness. With pragmatics, the focus is on the effectiveness of the action towards reaching the goal, as opposed to the morality of the action or the goal.

6.         John Locke's philosophy of the nature of man holds that men are social creatures with an inherent goodness and worth. Locked believed that men have an intrinsic sense of ethics, and that people are essentially good. Locke stands particularly in contrast to both the theories of Thomas Hobbes and Jean-Jacques Rousseau in that Locke believed that men are good, whereas Hobbes and Rousseau believed that men were bad, for different reasons.

7.         The Ptolemaic view of the universe postulated that the Earth was the center of the universe, which was an idea implicit throughout mankind’s philosophy of the time. One God, one planet, the supremacy of man… These ideas gave way in the post-Galilean world where we know that the our planet and species are neither supreme nor omnipotent, and that the universe does not exist to please mankind.

8.         Existential philosophy, such as that espoused by Jean-Paul Sartre, emphasizes each individual’s place as a “self-determining agent for the authenticity of one’s choices”. Nihilistic philosophy, first posited by Søren Kierkegaard and expanded by Frederic Nietzsche, is the rejection of the idea that life has inherent purpose or worth. Transcendental philosophy is the idea that people have the intrinsic ability to understand Nature, and to use Nature to answer their own questions and to understand their own mysteries. Emerson, a famous 19th century Transcendentalist, defined transcendentalist philosophy as the idea that people can “trust the perfection of the creation so far as to believe that whatever curiosity the order of things has awakened in our minds, the order of things can satisfy”.

9/10.   In Newtonian physics, the world is orderly. In quantum mechanics, everything is uncertain. This is the extent of my recall and my remedial-math understanding.

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