Conversations with Yang, Part II: Solvable and unsolvable problems, or Science vs. Philosophy

She’s a (budding) scientist, and i’m a (budding) philosopher.

Her:  I would rather work on solvable problems, moving from one solved problem to the next.

Me:  I would rather focus on unsolvable problems, because those are the ones that will always sustain my interest.

Her:  But you wouldn’t accomplish anything!

Me:  But i gain satisfaction in the striving, not the achieving.  Besides, don’t you feel a little sad inside when you’ve reached a definitive answer to your problem, and it’s time to put the seal on it?  It’s like saying goodbye to an old friend.

Her:  Yes, but i move on to other projects, and the cycle continues.

Me:  What if no other project you embark on lives up to that one?  Unsolvable problems can’t fail you in this way.  And if the striving is the more satisfying part than the achieving, then working on unsolvable problems would guarantee continued and lasting satisfaction.

Her:  What if you broke down a project that’s unsolvable in your lifetime into smaller, achievable bits, so that even if you can’t solve the big problem, you still get accomplishments every step of the way?

In the field of philosophy, i don’t know if anything is “achievable.”  The word just doesn’t seem to fit right with any philosophy-related task.  I guess we’ve arrived at the inevitable question:  What does it mean to do philosophy?  To me, it simply means to think critically.  About anything at all, whether real (or supposedly real) or imagined (or supposedly imagined).  You see, you have to be skeptical, because you can’t be sure of anything; that’s Rule Number 1.  And why do philosophers do philosophy?  If we had to go beyond “pure enjoyment” as an answer, i would say they are driven by questions that beckon them forward, lure them into further multiplying questions, all collectively helping them acquire a new way of thinking about things, of understanding things.  Above all, philosophers want to understand.

However, the scope of our so-called universe and our curiosity and imagination is so large that even if we wanted to and tried very hard, we couldn’t understand everything.  Although philosophers try to understand, they know they never will, because they can’t.  Remember:  nothing is for certain.  The point of doing philosophy is not to come to any answers, but to be able to come up with as many ways as possible of attacking the unsolvable.  Philosophy, then, is an effort—an effort to understand unsolvable problems.

Scientists, however, do not hesitate to make basic assumptions about the universe, because they know that in order to make progress, they need ground rules to work with.  The same could be said for philosophy in that premises are a necessary ingredient for arguments, but the difference is that philosophers do not seek to use these premises to solve problems; doing so would be a horrible disregard for the possible repercussions not only on society, but the human condition.  Imagine a nihilist “solving” the problem of a meaningless existence, and you’ll see what i mean.  Political philosophers might have a mind to solve societal problems with their philosophy, but i don’t think even they see their projects as “problems” to be solved.  A better term might be ideals to uphold.

All of this is to say that no philosophical question could be broken down into solvable parts, because no question in philosophy has an answer.  Science might be able to solve problems, but philosophy just can’t, nor does it want to.  Of course, that doesn’t mean that one is better than the other; they are simply two distinct ways of conceptualizing the universe, and each has different things to offer.

I think i’m always inspired by my conversations with Yang because she gives me a whole new way of seeing things.  The compatibility/incompatibility of science and philosophy and the merits of each have long been subject to heated debate.  Although i will soon be on the other side of the planet from Yang, i hope to make Conversations with Yang a regular feature on here, because the debate between science and philosophy seems to me a particularly important one, one which sheds much light on human thought.  Now i just need a theologist…  A three-way debate between science, philosophy, and religion would be quite illuminating.


Filed under conversations with yang, philosophy

5 responses to “Conversations with Yang, Part II: Solvable and unsolvable problems, or Science vs. Philosophy

  1. worldin1450

    I’m not sure if you took the last bit I said the way I meant it… I was thinking more along the line of breaking a problem that’s unachievable in your lifetime into smaller, achievable bits, so you still get accomplishments every step of the way, while knowing that the big problem (say, cure cancer), probable would not be solved by you in your life time.

    And for me I guess I associate achievements with completions. So in every step of life you achieved, or completed, say, high school, college, get a job, retire, etc. And while the actual event may be over, whatever you are thinking and exploring you carry with you to the next step. You would never stopping thinking about some problem in philosophy when you finished college, and you will continue to think about after you complete you PhD, publish your first book, even after your finish your career as, say, a professor. And I think that’s totally fine, since one thought always give rise to another, you never really reach some conclusion of something and just toss it away, but you build upon it. That’s the whole “standing on top of giant” thing.
    And I think if you think about “achievement” the “normal” way, as in accomplishments, you don’t really considered yourself achieving anything if you have the heart and desire to do better, because you can never be the best, there’s always something better. You can always work harder, you always have something you regret not doing (
    and I think that’s the root of my problems). So like unsolvable problems, it’s pointless to dwell on it for too long.
    And from what you said about philosophy I think one major difference between science and philosophy is that, while philosophy questions everything and take nothing for granted, science acknowledges that, and for the sake of moving forward, makes basic assumptions. These assumptions may not all be correct, but they were observed often enough that they are representative (like in ecology), or that they are so minutely important it’s okay to reduce a seemingly complex system to a more simplified one (like in physics). And some people take it for granted as they move on, while others would move forward for a bit and look back to wonder if they made the right assumptions.

    • n

      Ohhh, sorry for misunderstanding that last bit; i think i interpreted it the way i did because in philosophy, what you propose is impossible; no philosophical question can be broken down into solvable problems, because none of it’s solvable. I’m going to edit the post to reflect the meaning you intended.

      And i totally agree with you on that difference between science and philosophy; that’s a great way of putting it.

  2. Pingback: One big, unsolvable problem « thoughts on the loo

  3. worldin1450

    Man by being on the other side of the planet you could mean either physically or intellectually, but we may already be on opposite ends intellectually already.

    And regardless of location any conversations we have that might be in anyway inspirational will probably occur on this blog anyway…. hm…

    • n

      haha, yeah, i guess so, but that’s what makes our conversations so interesting, isn’t it?

      or we could have them on skype! or aim. oh, the possibilities! 😀

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