Recently, I stopped inside of a local Barnes & Noble near my workplace to grab an overpriced cold brew from Starbucks. Whenever I’m in one of these book stores, as rare as they are nowadays, I’ll always take at least 5 minutes to page through some of the clearance books.
After gliding over a few of the cooking and self-help books looking for anything that struck me as interesting, I was drawn to a particular publication that caught my eye instantly. Laying prominently on the third shelf up in front of me, I found a copy of “The Philosopher’s Notebook: A Creative Journal for Thinkers and Philosophers.”
Within, there are several sections of profiles of philosophers with a “for dummies” guide to their larger arguments, viewpoints, and assertions. After each section there are multiple writing prompt questions that are designed to make you consider the questions being asked and how you would answer and defend your point.
Being a lifetime lover of philosophy and asking questions about the world around me, I have decided to start a series of writing prompts from this book and detail my own personal feelings about the open-ended inquiries presented.
While I’m quite familiar with almost all of these philosophers and their ideas, it’s always important to take it back to basics when examining one’s life and purpose. You never know how your ideas may have shifted over time and these are ideas that you should always be considering.
“According to Socrates, virtue derives from the ability to think for oneself. Take a look at the following philosophical queries and write down your responses. These questions resurface in various guides throughout the book. As you work through this book, you might want to revisit your thoughts here to see if (or by how much) your perspective has changed.”
Can humans ever experience the world objectively?
It’s important to account for the dictionary definition of the word before answering the question. The textbook definition of “objective” is “not influenced by personal feelings, interpretations, or prejudice; based on facts; unbiased.” Utilizing this definition, I believe there is a part of human life that can be experienced objectively.
The obvious case is that of a baby, born freshly and brought gently into the world. During the point at which the first cognizant thoughts are formed, you are experiencing the world objectively. You’re born with no preconceived feelings or prejudice other than the need for survival necessities like air, water, and food. Everything you see is absorbed like a bathroom rug and your thoughts and feelings are formulated thereafter. Your cultural mores are discovered, your language is formed, your relational interpretation of the world into discernible thoughts has begun. From then on, your world shifts from wholly objective to purely subjective. You become an individual, but you are not born that way.
What happens to us after we die?
As people are probably tired of hearing me declare, I am an atheist. It’s not a means by which I hold my intellect about others and it is free of judgement, as long as the tenets of other religions and ways of thinking don’t impede on mine or my loved ones’ existence. It’s just always been a part of who I am, from my earliest memories being raised in a Catholic household. I was the kid who couldn’t swallow anything that was uttered in mass. I was sitting backwards on the kneeling pads using the pew as a desktop and doodling or playing with action figures. After all these years, at 31, my parents finally accept that this was not something I was doing for attention or to be rebellious, but that is truly how I feel inside. This needed to be said before addressing the idea of death and any sort of “existence” afterward.
I believe that we are born, we grow old, we get sick, and we die. Like any sound Buddhist, I have accepted these realities and am perfectly okay with them. To borrow from many who have said it before me, namely Neil Degrasse-Tyson, I find it more incredible that life has existed and flourished in the face of such cosmic apathy. So much of the world and universe could kill us and most life instantly, but life finds a way to survive. We are made of the same elements of life and matter as existed during the “Big Bang.”
To me, nothing happens after we die. Much like the time before we were born, it is not an experience that can be described. Nothing is just that: no thing. It’s not blackness or good or bad or apathetic. It is simply no thing. To me, that is incredibly comforting. There is no better idea of “final peace” or “final resting place” than the absence of all things. The whole heaven/hell/limbo things seems like so much drama and such a hassle. I’d rather just dissipate and not exist at all. I’m totally okay with that.
How free are we?
Much like the baby I mentioned earlier in this line of questioning, we are completely free from birth outside of the confines of our physical barriers and survival necessities. No, an infant is not free to buy a house and drive a car and stay out until 3am because they’re not able to walk, talk, or think in sophisticated enough terms to do any of those things. However, there’s no intrinsic law saying that they can’t, should these barriers be lifted.
Outside of our inherent mammalian desires to eat, drink, fuck and procreate, we are completely free to think how we want. Our biology definitely has influence, though. Our DNA always wants to replicate. Our organs require certain minerals, energy, and water to function correctively. These will have influence on our thoughts, but the end decision is still up to us.
Societally, no we’re not free. There are laws and records and ways in which the people who have the most power and influence over this particular reality control things. You can’t just do whatever you want without consequence. You can do whatever you want, truly, but there will be consequences and obstacles that are above your pay grade. Our freedom and our reality are dependent upon the people who hold the most power.
Does life have meaning?
In my lifetime, I’ve yet to find a better quote than this one from the “Wonders of the Universe” TV series by Brian Cox that sums up my ideas about the meaning of life so succinctly:
“Just as we and all life on earth stand on this tiny speck adrift in infinite space, so life in the universe will only exist for a fleeting, bright instant in time because life, just like the stars, planets, and galaxies, is just a temporary structure on the long road from order to disorder, but that doesn’t make us insignificant because we are the cosmos made conscious. Life is the means by which the universe understands itself.”
The idea that life has found a way through all of this chaos and danger is a meaning in and of itself. Life is significant because it exists and it continues to exist. Even in the darkest, most inhospitable corners of the earth, life finds a way. However fleeting and transient the timelines of our lives exist in the grand scheme of things, the experience is relative. The days feel long and the minutes wash over us, but we are alive and conscious and this is a precious, arbitrary gift from an unknown source.
From a semantic standpoint, also, of course life has meaning. Anything can have meaning. Meaning is dependent on the being appending meaning rather than the object itself. I could say that a feather falling from the sky onto my head is divine providence and tether that meaning to that object, so too can human beings attach whatever meaning they desire to their own lives. That is the privilege of self-awareness.
Is the universe intelligible?
There is a difference between “intelligible” and “solvable.” Of course the universe is intelligible. It is able to be understood in some capacity. The study of physics and astrophysics alone are examples of humanity’s successes as far as comprehending some small part of the universe. Essentially, any scientific trajectory is a small piece of understanding of the world around us. There are mathematical consistencies in some parts of nature. There are reappearing designs and structures. There are laws of movement and chemistry and biology that are able to be recreated in laboratory settings. There are some organized data sets. Yes, the universe in intelligible.
Solvable, though? Hell, no. Just like there will never be a “largest number” or “smallest element of matter,” there can never be a Rosetta Stone for the universe that just unlocks and solves all of its intricacies. There are infinite moving parts. There are infinite unknowns. For every bit of information we discover, there is an exponentially larger amount of information that we do not understand or have not even come across yet.
In the future, who’s to say that our laws of physics will not be challenged? What if there are additional elements or states of matter that have yet to be discovered? Science is self-correcting and its existence and continued truths are dependent upon pencils having erasers. The pursuit of knowledge and understand of the world around us is a fundamental part of human existence, but there will never be an end to this as long as humankind propagates.
Is there a god?
I’m going to sound like a bit of a hypocrite, but even as an atheist I cannot possibly rule out with certainty the existence of a god. I do not personally believe in any of the cultural gods that humankind has proposed thus far, but I do believe in modal realities. I think anything is possible. I think human perspective is incredibly limited to our biological structure. There could be dimensions of energy and things beyond our scope of sight that exist all around us. There could be a creator being that is able to manifest energy from nothing and experience time on a nonlinear path. I’m not saying it does or does not exist, but it could.
I don’t call myself agnostic, however, because I feel it is important for the progression of human thought to take a stand. Any argument that has a binary answer, someone could just say “I’m not sure.” I think this is a weak position to take and humanity needs the strong sides of the argument to find newer, valuable thoughts and ideas.
Again, this where the hypocrisy comes in. I label myself an atheist, but my lack of conviction about the existence of a god aligns more with an agnostic way of thinking. Call the cops, motherfucker.
Feel free to leave any comments or send your personal thoughts via email. I love civil discourse.