One big, unsolvable problem

“Life is not a problem to be solved, but a reality to be experienced.” –Kierkegaard

My second installment of Conversations with Yang has led me to another question:  Science and Philosophy may differ in their approach to problems, but what about the life of the scientist and the life of the philosopher?  How might the scientist and the philosopher differ in approaching life?

As evident from my last post, Yang would rather work on solvable problems for a living, whereas i would rather devote my time to unsolvable problems.  If each approach seems to offer its own set of advantages, and you desire both, then the logical course of action would be to work on both solvable and unsolvable problems.

So Yang would break down a big, unsolvable problem into smaller, solvable ones so she can have some kind of ROI, so to speak.  And we’ve already seen that that’s not possible in doing philosophy.

But what if “life” were modeled this way?  What if philosophy could be my unsolvable problem, and i had other, solvable problems to work through on the side?

In life, things seem to get achieved…i think.  I have trouble defining “achievements,” because i can’t say for myself that i have achieved anything at all, besides birth, maybe.  Achievement indicates completion, meaning having come to an end, and i don’t see anything i do as ending or have done as having ended.  Too often i dig up an old project i’ve “finished,” whether it be an artwork or a relationship—to experiment with, to improve, to extend into a new project—that none of my projects ever seem to “end.”  When i tell someone i’ve finished a project, what i really mean is that i’ve finished it for now.  Even if you have no desire or plans to take up a project again, does not the mere possibility of taking it up again indicate that they never truly end?

You might object, “But what about those things which you can’t take up again?  Like a class from a school you’ve already graduated from?”  Well, just how do you “achieve” a class?  Okay, here’s a better example:  let’s say you “achieved” a grade.  What did the grade “end?”  Did it end your class?  I don’t think so.  It was probably the term schedule that ended your class.  Did it end your record of scores?  If you’re being poetic, maybe, but conceptually?  That grade wasn’t just a number at the end of the list; it was an average.  The grade didn’t end anything.  It didn’t do anything.  It is just a symbol representing the average of the scores you received during the course of the class.  So listen up, students:  grades are not achievable.  Don’t ever let your parents tell you otherwise.

When i was starting to argue for an unsolvable-problem-only life project paradigm with Yang, i was envisioning my future as that of a philosopher, devoted to those undying questions without answers.  In my fantasy, i neglected that part we all participate in:  life.  But now that i think about it—i mean, really think about it—i don’t think anything is achievable in the true sense of the term and find it rather bizarre to wish for anything to come to an end.  Besides, isn’t life just one big, unsolvable problem?


Filed under career, philosophy

2 responses to “One big, unsolvable problem

  1. worldin1450

    I think it’s very cool that you want to start a “Conversation with Yang” series, like a column in a a paper? Haha I get so caught up on thinking about myself I don’t realize I can be influential… 🙂

    I got confused the first time I read this post, mostly because for me life is the mundane physical existence, where as I more associate science and doing science to be the same thing (but of course there are distinctions), and same for philosophy. So this way we both have to approach it the same way: we have to make sure we keep ourselves alive (and happy), and we go do the things we love, work in a lab or think about interesting problems. And I guess I think it this way because there is a physical requirement for doing science, i.e. a lab and equipments and stuff, whereas techniquelly you can just… sit at home and think about philosophy. We all have the animal part in us to stay alive, and the human part to do more than just eat and sleep (and not killed by your predator).

    And in many ways because science and philosophy approach things so differently the two disciplines are similar in their own ways. Because no philosophical problems can be solved we take the next best thing: for the intellectual satisfaction, for raising interesting points for other questions, etc, and as a discipline it has it’s own way of doing things, and that’s how philosophy survives. Whereas for science, it’s meaningless if science just looks at unsolvable problems, yet it also has a plethora of problems it needs to deal. We survive because there are constantly problems arising and we are always trying to conquer them. Else science would just… turn into religion, if we can answer all the questions.

    And I think philosophy also break things down, even if they don’t solve problems. You can’t think about all problems at once, or even once big problem, just like you can’t take an overall approach to cure cancer. You breaking parts of the problem down into smaller components, and them in a logical way, and like what you said about achievements, you don’t need to finish think about it, but just leave it for now as you move on to the next, and eventually you will return to it in a logical way anyways. And science does the same thing really. Breaking things down, once step at a time, except when we are done, we achieve something, we get a result, or solution, so if we do return to it we return to the solution, not the problem. (Maybe this is also why science thinks more linearly, where as philosophy in circles, which at times I just can’t stand, expecially if it’s someone who’s accomplished in both disciplines who tries to talk science…)

    So we are like parallel universes, totally different, yet the same.

    • n

      I basically agree with everything you wrote–well, almost everything. Every philosophical question is infinitely reducible, so i agree that philosophy involves breaking down problems as well. But i wouldn’t necessarily say that philosophical reasoning is by definition circular, though circular reasoning could certainly be present in a poorly formed argument. (“Circular reasoning,” or “begging the question,” has a very specific definition in philosophy.) Sometimes a line of reasoning may seem circular because there are no certain, decided-upon, proven facts in philosophy (so no universal rules), and as a result, an argument might require several lines of reasoning incorporating many premises about many different kinds of things. These arguments can seem like a long journey through all sorts of different places, ultimately arriving at one destination. And to make matters worse, some philosophers like to hop all over the place instead of following a more-or-less straight route. It’s just a matter of style.

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