A. Introduction to Philosophy: 1st Extract
The Possible World Machine
'Good morning, Dr Phillips. What'll it be today?'
'Just give me a pack of cough sweets and my paper. Thanks, Marjory!'
'What's up? You're looking a bit depressed.'
'It's my evening class. The first meeting is less than a month away, and I'm stuck with the same old problem: how can I keep my regulars interested, while not putting the new students off by assuming things they know nothing about? I mean, there's only a limited number of ways you can teach Introduction to Philosophy.'
'Are there really? I'm surprised to hear you say that!'
'Well, of course, there are many different problem areas we could tackle. Philosophy is a vast field, after all.'
'Easy to get lost, then?'
'I'm not afraid of that. It's no bad thing for the philosopher to feel lost sometimes. The feeling of not knowing your way about is part of the sense of philosophical wonder, which is one of the most important things I try to instil in my students. Too much guidance setting the problems out with neat and tidy beginnings and endings can sometimes be as bad as too little.'
'So there's no map of the world of philosophy?'
'No, Marjory, and there never will be. All I can offer my students are partial sketches of the landscape.'
'What is the difficulty then? If the subject really is as inexhaustible as you say, then it should be easy to find a new approach.'
'Sure, there's half a dozen different things we could do, each an equally effective way of getting into the subject. That's not what's worrying me. It's just that I feel there ought to be a different way of teaching than simply giving out lectures. Something that will liven things up, excite their imaginations.'
'You surprise me, Dr Phillips. Philosophy being such a serious subject, I mean.'
'That doesn't imply that it has to be dour! Humour, you know, can sometimes be used to make a serious point.'
'I somehow never saw you as a stand-up comedian. That's something I'd love to see!'
'So would I, Marjory. The trouble is, I'd have a hard time finding an audience capable of seeing the joke! And entertaining philosophy students wouldn't provide much of a living. I haven't got the talent for that, anyway.'
'What can you do, then? What is it you want to say?'
'I suppose the basic idea has to do with imagination and reason. Do you know the play Hamlet?'
'I'm not a complete dunce, you know!'
'There's a famous part where Hamlet says to Horatio, "There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy," or words to that effect. People quote those lines at you when you cast doubt on their cherished beliefs about UFO's or astrology, or suchlike. They mean to imply that rejecting a belief on the grounds of insufficient evidence is somehow proof of one's lack of imagination. But of course it's they who are the one's who fail to imagine the catastrophic effects on the fabric of human knowledge if their fantastical speculations were granted the same status as theories that stand or fall by the strict standards of science.'
'I think there might be UFO's. How can you be sure that there aren't?'
"'Might" is the operative word. All sorts of things might be the case, as far as our knowledge goes. But you don't believe something just because it might be so, do you?'
'I suppose not.'
'Well then. In their own way, philosophical theories have to meet just as strict standards as those of science. Only with philosophy, the test is not observation and experiment but reason and logic. A philosophical theory typically makes a claim about what must be the case or, what is the same thing, what is the case in all possible worlds on pain of a logical contradiction. In a way, you could compare it to arithmetic. However different the world might have been from the way it actually is, two and three would still have made five.'
'Rubbish! Suppose in some other world the number we call "five" was called "six". Then two and three would have made six! Admit it, I've got you there!'
'Ouch! You're confusing numbers with the names of numbers.'
'Oh, sorry. But what on earth are the things that the names of numbers name, then? I thought numbers were just marks on paper, after all.'
'I agree that what you've just raised is a fascinating question, but let's not get into that now.'
'You always say that!'
'Look, the question I want to stick to now concerns the subject matter of philosophy as such. Just what are philosophical theories about?'
'Well, all the times you've come in here you've never succeeded in explaining it to me.'
'I realize that! I've begun to think now that it's actually a mistake to try to state, in general, what philosophical theories are "about". That would be like a cut-and-dried definition of philosophy. The more clear-cut it became, the more the definition itself would look just like one more philosophical theory, that you could take or leave.'
'So what about imagination, then?'
'I'm coming to that. If you had a set of given assumptions and all you had to do was discover what followed logically from them, you would not need to use your powers of imagination the way philosophers do. The thing about philosophy is that there are no fixed starting points. That looks like a license for making up anything you like, but it isn't.'
'What I mean is that it's as if we've always been used to seeing things fit together in a certain way, and then we discover something that doesn't fit. We need imagination to get out of that kind of fix, yet more often than not it's imagination that got us into the fix in the first place. We discover possibilities by picturing them in our imagination, and those possibilities seem to show that the way we interpret the world as it actually is doesn't add up...'
'What a load of nonsense! What you're saying sounds like the joke explanation of cricket given to a foreigner. You know, the one that goes, "There are two sides, and one side is in and the other side is out. The side that's in stays in until everyone is out, and then the other side goes in," and so on. I'm sorry, Doc, but I just don't know what you mean by "things" not "adding up".'
'You have to know what the particular philosophical questions are.'
'I don't know what to say. It seems to me that you've got to do something to make the questions themselves come alive. If I was a student, I'd want to see not just abstract discussions of this problem or that, but human characters caught up in situations which forced them to confront philosophical problems.'
'You mean I should try using fiction?'
'Why not? Go on, give it a try! What have you got to lose?'
' I'm not sure my students would get the point.'
'Give them some credit! Anyway, you said you wanted to stimulate their sense of wonder, didn't you? Better still, why not try science fiction? I've got shelves of paperbacks I could lend you. My husband is mad about the stuff. Read a few and see what you make of it. Is that a deal?
'It's a deal!'