I’ve always been intrigued by philosophy.
Or rather, I’ve always been spending a lot of time asking meaningful but powerless questions. Might be the result of a brain that never ceases to work, and a personality that never ceases to doubt itself. Sometimes I wonder how enjoyable it would be if I could stop thinking so much. It has become very annoying, since my amateur ‘philosophical thinkings’ has grown into so much more than just ‘the big questions’. Too often my thinkings focus on the numerous trivialities of life – and as I, like a madman, ponder these trivialities, they ceased to be trivial and eventually elevate themselves into one of the ‘big questions’.
Now you might think that these ‘thinkings’ of mine can hardly be categorized as philosophy – philosophy is supposedly deep and elusive, full of long sentences few can undertand and long words few care to decipher. Well, that’s the image of philosophers’ philosophy – the philosophy in textbooks, the lesser philosophy. The bigger, broader, and nobler philosophy belongs to each and every one of us, educated or not, literate or not, intellectuals or not. Carried through life by the currents of probability, we all possess a kind of religious zeal toward ‘the truths’: how do we make it better? What’s the better way? Why is the purpose of all this? We think. We struggle. We fail. We beat on.
After all, when all the smart-ass-sounding four syllable words ending with ‘-ism’ are stripped away, philosophy is nothing more than a ‘love of wisdom’, a curiosity about how our lives should be lived.
The most prominent features of philosophy are its universality and immediacy.
Anyone can think about philosophy. Everyone does. Some spend less time on it. Some spend more. The crazy ones spend all their time. Some just think. Some think and prove. The crazy ones think and prove and make up a whole system out of it.
Philosophy can delve into any subject at anytime it wishes. Unlike the sciences, philosophy isn’t sequential; it simply jumps in, with no prerequisite for other knowledge – after all, philosophy only requires the most basic – but also the most profound, ominous, and seemingly arbitrary – knowledge, the common sense.
It seems that the birth of philosophy is a natural and inevitable phenomenon in any human society that is developed enough to tolerate people who simply write or teach to survive. The Ancient Greek, the ancient China, the ancient Egypt, the Mayans, the Babylonians… No matter how different their social and economic structures were, they all shared, as if following the only path, an almost fanatic obsession with the truth – the pursuit of philosophy.
And science. At their births they were simply the same subject. There was no philosopher who was not also a scientist, neither a scientist who wasn’t also a philosopher. After all, they both strived to analyze and understand the world in a systematic and logical approach. Just as few philosophical ideas were regarded as concrete and most under constant dispute, so was science. At that primeval age of thoughts, theories were establisehd by assertions, not concrete proofs. By modern standards, most of the ‘scientific’ theories at the time in fact share a closer kinship to philosophy than to modern science – Aristotle’s theory of the world being composed of four basic elements, for example, was a statement drawn out based on simple observations and logic.
Then, after almost two millenium, came the modern scientific method, which has taken its primitive form as early as 6th century BC in ancient Greek, but only truly flourished after the late Renaissance in the 17th century. From then on, science and philosophy seemed to have parted their ways. While science, mostly prominently physics, developed its own completed system of reasoning and experiment, philosophy still largely remained in its own realm of ominous logic and writing.
However, though their paths had began to diverge away from each other, science and philosophy were still very much intimately connected. Since the scientific principles, at the time, were still mathematically rudimentary and not yet deviated from common sense, most philosophers were able to, and did, concern themselves with the scientific progress and problems. (Consider, for example, Newton’s laws of motion, the Ideal Gas Law, the Law of Universal Gravitation)
Followed was the bloom in mathematics. By the 19th century, mathematics had already become so sophisticated and so complex within its own system that few scientists in other fields – chemistry, biology, physics – could truly master the most profound of mathematics, let alone philosophers who were, in general, much less proficient in the subject.
But that wasn’t exceptionally pressing. The most profound ends of mathematics were largely regarded as useless, inapplicable to the real world. Philosophers – along with other scientists – were content with using mathematics simply as a tool and no more.
The 20th century saw the final separation – or rather, the isolation of philosophy.
“Traditionally these are questions for philosophy, but philosophy is dead. Philosophy has not kept up with modern developments in science, particularly physics. Scientists have become the bearers of the torch of discovery in our quest for knowledge.” (A Brief History of Time, by Stephen Hawking, 1988)
Consider the flourish of quantum physics and Einstein’s General Relativity, and, later in the 20th century, the Standard Model. Physics had grown into such a mathematically challenging and counter-intuitive subject that traditional philosophy had lost its final grasp.
The gap only widened as time elapsed. Now, even the most remote, the least mentioned, the most ‘useless’ branch of mathematics has been proven to be deeply woven into the fabrics of the universe. Number theory, topology, high-dimensional mathematics – subjects that have been viewed as purely hypothetical even since their births, are now vital parts of modern physics.
In a sense, all has returned to where it had begun. It’s as if philosophy and science are two points moving along a circular path. They started at the same origin, but travelled in opposite directions. Further and further they diverge, yet eventually they come closer and closer, until they return to one. After all, they’ve been marching toward the same destination from the very start.
After this 1000-word detour, I suppose now I have to answer the question that should have been at the core of this post: what has all this to do with me? Simply put, I am doing a project for a course at my high school, and this is part of the requirements. This blog will – hopefully – chronicle my progress. This first post reflects my current – and also largely unsubstantiated and subjective – thoughts on science and philosophy. This is why I want to do this project.
The project will focus on the transition from traditional philosophy to modern mathematical/physics philosophy – hence the title of the project. The research can be divided into 3 parts: 1) the birth of philosophy – centred around Ancient Greek, 2) the golden age of traditional philosophy – Renaissance to 19th century, and finally 3) the ‘death’ of philosophy – 20th century.
What will come out of this in the end? I don’t know yet. Right now I simply want to know more, to look deeper into the evolution of our thinking over the past two millennia. We’ve always wondered about our lives and our world, but the way of our wondering has changed.
A research paper? Most likely. But that will hardly be the end of the project. Perhaps I’ll write a screenplay. And make a film out it. Someday.