Monday, June 16, 2008

On the Existence of Unicorns

Life is often filled with questions...

If we're lucky some of them get answered in a lifetime. Hopefully most of the important ones get answered when the answers are needed. I'm thankful that they know with some confidence what's wrong with me when I am seeking medical care, for example. (Barring a misdiagnosis and that the treatment is appropriate). And if we try to answer some of the questions on an academic exam with "unanswerable", or "might take a lifetime", it would be wrong.

Different kinds of data demand different kinds of answers. Perhaps I meant to say that different kinds of answers demand different kinds of data. And like they always said there's a difference between open ended questions (questions that ask for more than a yes or no answer or more than specific data) and closed questions.

Then there are deeper existential questions that have to do with our very life. Questions about faith or belief and questions about the nature of reality. There are tough choices that we often face, and ethical dilemmas that require different answers to various questions.

We do the best we can.

Now some of what I am about to say, or some of the questions that follow, might sound strange to those who have never taken an academic course in philosophy, metaphysics, or philosophy of mind. And let me say before you rush down to the registrar's office, taking such courses doesn't automatically predispose anyone to be better equipped to answer life's questions. However such courses might help you to ask different questions, or perhaps change some of the "answers" you come up with. Some of the questions might even be better ones.

This in and of itself is an interesting thing to say, but you know answering life's questions has mostly to do with experiences, individual differences and histories, and the ability to be a good problem solver. Some of this cannot be taught in a college course, but it is taught in the school of "hard knocks" or the perplexing challenges of everyday living that we all must adress at some points in our lives.

I think that you would agree that many people who face tough decisions have never taken a philosophy course.

I am not slamming education or philosophy courses though, there is the simple but maybe hard fact, that education may improve one's critical thinking skills, that dialogue and spirited debate, that asking interesting or thought experiment questions such as one might hear in a philosophy course can improve one's analytical reasoning abilities. Such abilities are important to establish arguments in favor of certain truisms, or to get at better answers after all, aren't they?

Now, with a little tongue in cheek I get to the point of some of those questions that once seemed so strange to those first days in a philosophy course. I remember readily thinking "this is crazy" or simply a deeply felt "what??". I wanted to giggle.

These questions were questions like:

Professor pointing to a chair... "What is this?"

Professor pointing to a table... "What is this?"

Class answered: "Chair" or "Table".

Professor: How do you know?

Answers varied from: "It just is" to "That's what we were taught" to
"Everyone knows what it is unless you're a baby."

Professor (asked again): "How do you know?"

Eventually through the process of dialogue the class comes to some understanding thatthe answer signified by "what we were taught" may be closest to what is real, because it has to do with what we have been taught as a group (or culture) about what the object known as chair or table represents, or should represent. That is, it is a chair or table because we share the referent for that object as being a chair or table, and thus is an assigned meaning.

The professor then usually says: "what if you were told the chair was pig at first?" Would you not belive the object was pig? The implication was that words don't always mean the essence of the things they represent.

Then maybe the professor discussed Platonic forms by telling you that part of the meaning of chair implies that the chair has "chairness" and the table

Finally, I remember plenty of discussions about "explanatory fictions" or assertions as heuristic devices which if we couldn't explain away with any reliability, how could we explain anything that is named in sort of a token identity materialistic perspective?

For example, many people think that green unicorns or unicorns don't really exist. yet they are often referred to in folk knowledge, folk psychology, or folk tales, fables and fairy tales. Could it be that they really exist? Maybe they existed in the past? Maybe I shouldn't be surprised to see one strolling across a meadow someday. Maybe unicorns are somewhere else, but not in our point of reference at the moment? Maybe we have to believe they exist and then they will? (Or is that a delusion?). Who are we to make fun of green unicorns anyway? Or any unicorns? Who are we to say that Martians didn't really switch brains in our bodies while we slept and simply downloaded our previous memories? If that is true, or cannot be disproven, who are we to say it is false?

I remember Dr. Charles Marks, (Philosophy professor University of Washington)his face lighting up during such discussions (although I am sure his words were more elaborate than these)...

So I remember that unicorns dont really exist or haven't in my frame of reference...
at least until now...

;-) .>1=43001

'Unicorn' deer is found in Italian preserve !!

Is the fact of a genetic variation or "accident" any less evidence of a functional unicorn? ;-)

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