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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.

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