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“I am sitting with a philosopher in the garden; he says again and again 'I know that that’s a tree', pointing to a tree that is near us. Someone else arrives and hears this, and I tell him: 'This fellow isn’t insane. We are only doing philosophy.”

― Ludwig Wittgenstein, On Certainty

Having studied Physics at university, I had always been sceptical about the practice of Philosophy. Philosophers to me seemed to do nothing more than argue about the definition of words. Moreover, the main areas of focus in Philosophy, such as metaphysics, are by definition unprovable and outside the realm of our testable experience, so at best the subject seemed to me to be an intellectually rewarding, but inherently impractical exercise.

My opinion on the practice of philosophy entirely changed however when I came across a copy of The Problems of Philosophy by Bertrand Russell, the first paragraph of which reads:

Is there any knowledge in the world which is so certain that no reasonable man could doubt it? This question, which at first sight might not seem difficult, is really one of the most difficult that can be asked. When we have realised the obstacles in the way of a straightforward and confident answer, we shall be well launched on the study of philosophy—for philosophy is merely the attempt to answer such ultimate questions, not carelessly and dogmatically, as we do in ordinary life and even in the sciences, but critically, after exploring all that makes such questions puzzling, and after realising all the vagueness and confusion that underlie our ordinary ideas.

This insight in the area in which Philosophy operates immediately makes clear its value, and it also immediately puts into perspective what we may call the limits of our scientific understanding. Science, in its most stripped back form, is a way of describing mechanisms. We postulate a theory, full of abstract objects like electrons, light, gravity, and even space and time. These objects however are not the things which are directly accessible to us in our experience, since all that we actually experience are what we call our sense-perceptions: a series of impressions in our mind of smell, colour, touch and so on.

Bertrand Russell - one of Britain’s most influential philosophers and a pioneer in analytic philosophy

Science abstracts these sense-impressions and then uses these abstractions, along with a good dose of logic and mathematics, to describe mechanisms by which these abstract objects operate. We then use the descriptions of these mechanisms to make predictions about how these abstract objects will behave in the future, and from this we can predict what our future sense-experiences will be.

Let’s take time as an example. In Physics, or at least in classical physics, time is linear and marches onwards at a constant pace. This seems intuitive to us as a concept, but it is worth noting that this is not how any of us actually experience time. When we are asleep time seems to jump forward, when we are having fun time seems to pass more quickly and when we are in dangerous situations time seems to slow down to give us more opportunity to react to what is happening. So in a sense, Physics abstracts our experience of time, and in so doing somewhat falsifies the “true” nature of time, by which I mean the experience of time that is directly accessible to us.

I do not mean to diminish the insight and tremendous success which science has in predicting our future experiences or what we can infer from science about the nature of the world. Just to say that there are meaningful questions and ways of thinking which are outside of the scientific method.

In The Problems of Philosophy, Russelll shows us how a philosophical investigation into the world can begin. Since all we have directly accessible to us are our sense-experiences, this must be the starting point for any philosophical enquiry, and so Russell begins:

It seems to me that I am now sitting in a chair, at a table of a certain shape, on which I see sheets of paper with writing or print . . . I believe that, if any other normal person comes into my room, he will see the same chairs and tables and books and papers as I see, and that the table which I see is the same as the table which I feel pressing against my arm. All this seems to be so evident as to be hardly worth stating, except in answer to a man who doubts whether I know anything. Yet all this may be reasonably doubted, and all of it requires much careful discussion before we can be sure that we have stated it in a form that is wholly true.

Having established what is immediately apparent to his senses, he then goes on to systematically doubt everything that at first seemed so intuitive, beginning with what he thinks he knows about the table:

To the eye it is oblong, brown and shiny, to the touch it is smooth and cool and hard; when I tap it, it gives out a wooden sound. Anyone else who sees and feels and hears the table will agree with this description, so that it might seem as if no difficulty would arise; but as soon as we try to be more precise our troubles begin. Although I believe that the table is ‘really’ of the same colour all over, the parts that reflect the light look much brighter than the other parts, and some parts look white because of reflected light. I know that, if I move, the parts that reflect the light will be different, so that the apparent distribution of colours on the table will change. It follows that if several people are looking at the table at the same moment, no two of them will see exactly the same distribution of colours, because no two can see it from exactly the same point of view, and any change in the point of view makes some change in the way the light is reflected.

So here Russell has said that although we think the table to be brown and to be of a certain fixed shape, the shape and colour as they appear to us are dependent on a myriad of other factors: the angle and distance we are observing the table from, the amount of light in the room, even the paint colour on the walls will change the light bouncing off the table and so change its appearance to us. He can conclude then that no two people are observing the exact same table, and that no one person can ever observe the exact same table at different times.

Russell continues this method of systematic doubt (first trailblased by Descartes which set the stage for modern philosophy), and ends up with the conclusion that our sense experiences cannot be the same as the objects we seem to be experiencing, and that, at best, these sense-experiences may be caused by real-world objects, but they are not equivalent to those objects.

Furthermore, since every experience we have necessarily involves a subject and an object (ourselves as perceivers being the subject), and all our experiences are mediated through our senses, the physical objects as they are in themselves cannot not be directly accessible to us. We can never hope to disentangle ourselves as the subject of the experience from the act of perception and thus we can never hope to know of the object as it truly is, standing apart from us. As an aside, interested readers may wish to take this further by looking at the work of Immanuel Kant, who said that even the categories such as space, time and causality are not inherent to the world-in-itself, but these are also added by us as subject onto the external world in order to make the world comprehensible for us.

At the end of the first chapter of his book, Russell sets the stage for the rest of his work by asking two fundamental questions:

  1. Do real-world objects exist as the causes of my sense experiences?

  2. If they do exist, what is their nature?

These two questions are then answered (to some extent) in the rest of the book and I highly encourage anyone interested to pick up the book and give it a go. It is eloquent and accessible in a way which almost all great philosophical works are not. I first read it ten years ago and it quite literally changed the way I think about problems, and the different ways problems can be tackled.

Of course when we look to describe the world we must use what we have learnt from science. Science after all describes the mechanisms by which the world operates and so must be an important part of any holistic theory describing the universe. But there are non-scientific questions and non-scientific modes of inquiry, not all of which are necessarily meaningless, and this is the domain of Philosophy.

Written by William Brooke, Director of Witherow Brooke

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