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I have seen several questions and discussions recently on this forum concerning p-zombies, whether or not what we call consciousness is a tangible entity or merely an illusion or elaborate scheme conjured up by the mechanism we call our minds, etc.

How are these, and such similar questions, relevant to our lives as humans, aside from providing us with amusement in the form of provocative philosophical discussion? "We are what we are", and it does not seem to be within our power to change the fundamental nature of our existence and consciousness.

I accept the idea of acquiring knowledge "for its own sake" - perhaps no endeavor befits humans more. But I do not see these questions and their potential answers as "knowledge", since they are only interesting theories and ideas but it seems beyond our ability to prove any such things, such that engaging in discussions of them could be considered "the pursuit of knowledge".

So: Why bother?

Note: the moderators have pointed to another question @ Is it meaningful to distinguish between two possibilities which are observationally equivalent?

However, my question actually disagrees fundamentally with the premise of that question, and I also disagreed with that premise in the comments there: My question is not about the relevance of issues that have no perceivable impact - I clearly stated here: 'I accept the idea of acquiring knowledge "for its own sake"' - an idea that flies in the face of the premise that question referred to. I require no "perceivable differences". Differences in vocabulary, in approaches to the same conclusion, in modes of examining a particular issue, these are all important, although there may be no perceivable difference once the conclusions have been reached.

My question is: Does the pursuit of knowledge include discussing issues which can never be conclusively proven, due to the nature of our very human existence? Are not such issues moot? Irrelevant? A mere intellectual exercise?

  • This seems to reduce to: what's the point of philosophy? --Maybe you could unpack the concern a little further -- talk about your hypotheses, what your research has uncovered so far? :) It can also help to try to specify exactly what might you be looking for someone to explain to you here. – Joseph Weissman May 23 '13 at 2:13
  • Interesting question though this is, it seems like a duplicate of this one. – commando May 23 '13 at 2:27
  • @commando - no, certainly not a duplicate. In fact, in my question I negated his. Read again... – Vector May 23 '13 at 3:23
  • @JosephWeissman - No, that is not the question. Read carefully please. Everything I wrote is relevant to the question. And my potential hypothesis is embedded in the question. Not every question must be LONG and erudite but CLEAR and well reasoned. What is unclear to you? Where is my reasoning flawed? And if it is, pose an answer and explain that. – Vector May 23 '13 at 3:26
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    The only way of knowing that something can or can't be proven is thinking about it. If you simply assume a question can't be answered/proven, then in the case you're wrong, you will never know. If thinking of those questions leads to proof, great! If it doesn't, then we will have a better understanding of the reasons why it might or not be provable. If we limit too much the things we think about in philosophy, we are risking creating blindspots. Besides, how is "intellectual exercise" a mere thing? Plus, it's fun as hell. – Koeng May 23 '13 at 16:54
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The only way of knowing if something can or can't be proven is thinking about it. If you simply assume a question can't be answered/proven, then in the case you're wrong, you will never know. If thinking about those questions leads to proof, great! If it doesn't, then we will have a better understanding of the reasons why it might or not be provable. If we limit too much the things we think about in philosophy, we are risking creating blindspots.

Besides, even if it's "intellectual exercise", it's not a mere thing. I understand and agree that we should be aware - at least in principle - of when to expect provable answers and when to expect an abundance of speculation. But it's not a clear-cut distinction and, as you said, intellectual exercise has intrinsic value. So in the worst case, mental workout.

Plus, it's fun as hell.

  • "Plus, it's fun as hell". This may actually be the best reason of all. I don't mean that as a joke: There is great value in learning to enjoy using your mind. – Vector May 24 '13 at 4:04
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I think it can be justified. Its not that a definite conclusion can be reached but a certain ecology of contingent conclusions that can be constructed that counts as progress. That other thinkers find the questions and the partial answers provoking revivifies an ancient question.

For example here is a question that has provoked an incredible amount of work through two and a half millenia, and where one can see progress being made, but no definitive conclusions being made (even if popular science makes it appear that in fact an end-point has been reached).

What is the nature of matter?

The school of Greek atomists whose most famous exponents were Leucippus & Democritus prompted by philosophical arguments by Paremenides and Zeno settled on atoms as the explanation for all natural phenomena as described in Lucretius poem De Rerum Natura. At that time technology and mathematics was far too primitive to permit direct observation and experiment. Were they forced to imagine and be able to construct an instrument that would provide evidence for their assertion before their philosophy should be taken seriously - then that philosophy would have been strangled at birth. But in fact their philosophy was taken seriously despite this lack of evidence. The arguments proved interesting and fruitful.

It was only this century that direct observation of atoms could be made via the electron tunneling microscope. This was over two and a half millenia later since the concept was first mooted.

Newton was inspired by them to invent a corpuscular theory of light. This in detail was wrong. But could be said to be partially vindicated by the discovery of photons.

The Ash'arite school of Islamic theology were inspired by them to declare that space & time are atomic. This idea has only been recently investigated via spin foams and spin networks in toy theories of quantum gravity.

Of course what is named an atom is not actually an atom as envisaged by the atomists. This would today be quarks.

The atomists postulated an irreducible swerve to account for free will - thus injecting indeterminancy into their physics. This was abandoned in classical physics until the advent of quantum physics.

What exactly is the nature of an atom? The Greek atomists viewed them as almost point particles, whereas the Buddhist atomists viewed them exactly as point particles but also as spherical this paradox being explained by a use of non-classical logic. Whereas the Greeks viewed atoms as permanent and eternal, the Buddhists viewed them as transient and temporary.

Atomic particles in quantum field theory are actually fields on spacetime. They are not points. Though they manifest themselves as such in interactions. Their nature is dependent on the topology of spacetime. Whereas the Greeks saw space as a stage for atoms to move in, here spacetime is co-opted in describing atoms.

Aristotle argued against the continuum being made of points, so would have rejected the idea of atoms being point particles, he may have been more inclined to string theory where the atoms are strings (and membranes).

Certain physicists (heeding Aristotle in the usual sense of this phrase) suspect that the physical reality of point particles is a (useful) fiction. One can say that the modern string theory is an attempt to do away with points (whilst in fact keeping them extrinsically). There is also an embryonic attempt to ground physics in Topos theory. This is a new mathematical discipline where the continuum is not made up of points.

So the debate of what is an atom carries on...

In reality, the definitive conclusions that have been reached are in fact contingent, but still true: old good theories are not falsified but made contingently true.

  • @MoziburUllah-So:"today's fact is tomorrow's mistake": a proof is only 'air-tight' within the horizons of our knowledge at that time. Ptolemy was 'proven' until Copernicus et al extended our knowledge such that Ptolemy became 'false' (although still observably true on some level). Newton was 'true' until Einstein et al did the same to Newton: Newton still 'works', but within limitations. So, we should never limit our pursuit of knowledge because of 'provability' or lack thereof. Scientific/analytical investigation is valuable for its own sake, adding to the body of our knowledge at large. – Vector May 29 '13 at 4:25
  • @ReallyRational: Yes, that is what I was getting at; this is why physicists talk about effective theories. But the stories are more subtle than that - Anaximander discovered the heliocentric system before Ptolemy won out with the geocentric one. Newton was aware that his theory of gravitation wasn't absolutely true as the idea of action at a distance poses philosophical problems. The same goes for his calculus. But they worked as effective descriptions - its their utility that is important. – Mozibur Ullah May 29 '13 at 4:42
  • "Anaximander discovered the heliocentric system before Ptolemy won out with the geocentric one" . Hmmm - perhaps further proof that "History is written by the winners". It might be interesting to write a history of science's 'losers', particularly those who later turned out to be 'winners', long after their time. – Vector May 29 '13 at 4:50

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