TED Conversations

This conversation is closed.

Problems of idealism; Is there such a thing as an unnecessary question?

As the old age sentiment goes, "Dear student, there is no such thing as a dumb question."

I think most of us would agree that in fact there most definitely is. Throughout the average day we might come across a few of these redundant, repetitive, or intentionally idiot,/misleading (yes, some people ask obvious questions for reasons other than actually wanting to know the answer) ramblings spouted by our coworkers, students, peers, etc. For example, there is always the individual in a meeting or classroom that, for some reason, always seems to miss the direction or content of every other sentence.

These instances aside, though, could there possibly be this sort of phenomena occurring in philosophical discourse?

The types of questions I am referring to merit the labeling of "philosophical mind games." We can look to the instances of most of our first encounters with "philosophical thinking" for examples of what I'm speaking about; "Whoa bro, what would happen if I took a picture, of a picture, of a picture?, or "What if we're all dreaming right now and when we think we're having dreams, we're having dreams within dreams?". These youthful utterances are usually followed by the phrase "That's deep."

Admittedly, the first encounters with infinite regressions spark the intellectual engines and we have ridden into more sophisticated scopes of inquiry. I must also note that the philosophical spirit of questioning is very valuable and I in no way am arguing for the lack of this or diminishment of creativity.

But I find these sorts of questions quite dangerous when used for the foundation of philosophical paradigms. Solipsism, for eg., by exploiting perceptive limitation, comes to the ridiculous conclusion that there is nothing outside of ourselves. This similarly occurs with argument for idealism.

Could we not entertain these ideas as students of philosophy and critical thinkers without taking them any more seriously than a critical thinking exercise?


Showing single comment thread. View the full conversation.

  • thumb
    Sep 8 2013: I too have noticed that some of these ideas tend to be extrapolated in a way that logic cannot sustain to bizarre conclusions. Once they dismiss physical evidence simply as artifact, people often convince themselves that any speculation or fantasy is as likely or real as any other. From there I have seen people argue that people can imagine anything they choose into actual being and then to claim this conclusion is supported by modern science.

    If people act in certain ways based on conclusions they draw from a line of questioning or inquiry, can you call it "practically meaningless?"
    • thumb
      Sep 8 2013: Fritzie,

      This is exactly my point. I have a problem when self-proclaimed mystics like Deepak Chopra claimsthat rocks have consciousness, or that we could in fact be rocks with consciousness. It's a ridiculous extrapolation from the philosophical mind games I'm referring to in my post. One minute they question physicality, and the next moment consciousness is the ground of being. Popularized mysticism of this sort has been a detriment to philosophy in my opinion and when Quantum mechanics is invoked, it is a detriment to science.

      To answer your question, I guess it couldn't be "practically meaningless" given that individuals could act upon their beliefs "practically", but this is merely a semantic error on my part. Maybe we could work together to come up with an accurate term for these erroneous sorts of conclusions together?
      What we can agree on is that it is problematic when people use these lines of reasoning to found their world-views.
      • thumb
        Sep 8 2013: I understand your concern. Do you think that posing your question as "are there unnecessary questions?" may have diverted your discussion from your primary interest?

        It sounds now as if you are asking how to discuss particular kinds of philosophical ideas that tend to mislead or distract people from valuable learning.
        • thumb
          Sep 8 2013: Yes I do think I could've presented the problem more carefully. I had posted this as a question on my personal blog and transferred it over here so I could have a good discussion. My blog audience and the TED audience are very different so next time i'll structure the introduction accordingly.
      • thumb
        Sep 8 2013: You can go back up and change your explanatory narrative to make it more focused on your interest.

        People edit their words often for such a reason.
        • thumb
          Sep 8 2013: I'll work on that a bit later as I get a feel for where the multiple conversations are going. For now, you and a few others are up to speed on the direction I meant for this post.

          Could you elaborate on some of your thoughts on the questioning of materialism?
      • thumb
        Sep 8 2013: I will mostly need to leave this for others, but I think questioning whether anything is material is different from questioning whether everything is material.

        I think people should pursue for themselves whatever questioning helps them make sense of their lives. My concern is the way some special interests seize upon and sell to others scenarios that are not supported by research or reason and pretend that their position is the latest science (that scholars deny out of self-interest).

        That direction in popular culture- that sort of "capture"- prevents large numbers of non-specialists from keeping up with what modern science, for example, actually suggests. A division arises, then, between those who get the advantage of formal education in such areas and those who don't and may be completely misled.

        I have no issues at all with conclusions drawn and articulated as matters of faith but only those which pretend to consistency with the findings of contemporary science as practiced by scientists trained in the disciplines in which they do their research.
        • thumb
          Sep 8 2013: 1)Agreed.

          2) I think your first sentence is extremely important. The spirit of questioning and the spirit of curiosity are essential, there's no denying this. I should also clarify that mind-bending and challenging discussions on substance and "Ultimate Reality" both expand the depths of critical thinking skills, spatial conceptualization skills, and broaden the horizon of possibility for philosophy students or general readers. The problem is when the ideas are taken far out of the classroom. Maybe some of this is a pedagogical error? Is it possible that some professors might not make it clear that some concepts are just for exercise?

          3) As for the self-interested deceivers, I agree that it is reprehensible.
          But we must admit that some of the individuals spouting the claims actually believe what they say. To me it seems a bit of basic philosophical thinking gone awry and that is the point of this blog.

          4) Agreed. I strongly believe an effort needs to be made, on all fronts but most urgently in the sciences and in philosophy, to disseminate information. The average joe should be armed with the critical thinking skills and basic science topics necessary to be prepared to assess fantastic claims. Don't get me wrong here, I'm saying people are ignorant or ranting in a condescending tone. This is more an education reform type idea. I surely knew nothing about quantum mechanics or epistemology a few years ago and would've been a victim like many others
      • thumb
        Sep 8 2013: If an idea is not to be "taken far out of the classroom," I would have to question its value. Everything in the classroom should be relevant to life and thought outside the classroom.

        You are right that those who spread their understanding of things typically believe what they spread. Some ought to know better, though,

        Sometimes critical thinking is not enough. There are certain areas in which people will tend not to have confidence and will either defer to authority or see red flags of warning because they are aware of how many people pretend to expertise in those areas. You gave quantum mechanics as an example. There are also many false claims about neuroscience. There is a TED talk by a neuroscientist on this subject that has the word "neurobunk" in its title. Here: http://www.ted.com/talks/molly_crockett_beware_neuro_bunk.html
        • thumb
          Sep 8 2013: 1) I agree. That's essentially why i'm arguing for disclaimers to be attached to philosophy "bunk" as Ms. Crockett would have it. I was being careful not to outright dismiss things like idealism and solipsism; it would be a shame for it not to be taught. I would have to argue that nearly everything considered in an educational context is relevant to thought, at least in the sense that a student could compare viewpoints and lines of reasoning to that which he/she considers rational.
          You also seemed to misunderstand what I meant by "taken out of the classroom." When some thing is intended to be taught as an exercise or as an example of irrational thinking, it is taken out of the classroom and applied to daily life in the sense that individuals "know better" than to take a position defending it.

          2) I didn't argue that critical thinking was enough, but it sure is better than no framework at all. Most of us in academia, at least in science and philosophy, have embraced taking reputable authorities' word for it because of the reality of specialization. But before we do, we at least verify that the authority we look to is adhering to the rules that we've agreed provide the most un-biased and accurate conclusions within the given subject.

          3) Although the problem of general knowledge is outside of what I can argue for, leave that to Ken Robinson and other education reformers, It seems that academic and scientific authority figures need to pay more close attention to the problem were speaking about.
          Now, i'm not arguing for "scientism" or "atheism" in general, but popularizers of philosophy and science such as Bertrand Russell, Carl Sagan, Sam Harris, etc. who write books in a format understandable for academics and the people and take on folk-authority figures like Deepak Chopra do a service to both the people and academia. Would you agree?
      • thumb
        Sep 8 2013: Those in science and the academy are extremely well aware of the problem of popular misconceptions, pseudoscience, and so forth that you describe.

        Some address the matter head on in, say, TED talks or talks for Edge or other venues. Others simply say no to the many requests they receive from journals and conferences that do not adhere to the normal standards of rigor or method of reputable journals and otherwise devote their talents and creative energy to pushing the boundaries of their fields. In my opinion., we need many of our most brilliant scientists to focus on doing research and teaching and mentoring their students.
        • thumb
          Sep 9 2013: 1) yes, I know.
          2) I agree. But being a public intellectual requires just as much brilliance as being an efficient scientist. Those who have the talent of speaking, teaching, and public engagement are contributing to the cause in a way tantamount in value to that of a lab scientist. But we really shouldn't be debating this point. We both agree that regardless of where they do it, in the classroom, for academic journals, or publicly, there are those with legitimate authority-those that should be doing it. Again, though, it seems an unnecessary point to diverge upon.

          The most important part is that we agree on the value of sound and verifiable fact and it's place of value intellectually and practically.

          What I'm trying to illustrate is the sort of trickle down effect of the "unnecessary question" in the first place. Without taking the "bunk" seriously in the first place, there wouldn't be an army of New Age Mystics calling for the downfall of western science and the integration of mass-meditation to cure cancer.

Showing single comment thread. View the full conversation.