Monday, February 01, 2010

On philosophical puzzles

One of the attractive things of philosophy is that it racks your brains. This sounds weird, but actually it is this what philosophers do: racking their brains. I do not know how it is for other philosophers, but I become restless and get an unsatisfied feeling, when I haven’t thought about difficult problems or when I haven’t read a difficult philosophical book for some time. Happily, I have my blogs that I have to write each week. And in those days that I did not yet write blogs, I wrote articles or my dissertation. Actually, philosophizing is torture that causes happiness, at least for some, for it seems that there are people for whom it is real torture, by way of speaking.
That voluntary torture causes happiness or a kind of happy feeling, whatever this may involve, is probably an instance of a general human phenomenon. Masochism is one of its extreme cases. I guess such strivings are a special expression of the general human characteristic that man is not a passive being waiting till something happens that makes action necessary. No, man is fundamentally always looking for activity, trying to be ahead of the problems that may arise and setting goals. When there are no possible problems of life that need to be coped with, man makes problems for himself. We have a special name for such problems. We call them puzzles.

In a certain sense we can see philosophy as a puzzle on its own: Why philosophy? But also within philosophy we find puzzles. We can call them second-order puzzles. Being formulated this way, philosophical puzzles seem masochistic ways to chase away boredom. Maybe, for some philosophers they are, but most philosophical puzzles have serious foundations that relate them to questions of daily live. Take for example this puzzle from the philosophy of action, which I found in one of the essays of Donald Davidson: A man may try to kill someone by shooting at him. Suppose the killer misses his victim by a mile, but the shot stampedes a herd of wild pigs that trampled the intended victim to death. (originally it comes from Daniel Bennett) Or take this one by Chisholm: Carl wants to kill his rich uncle because he wants to inherit his fortune. He believes that his uncle is home and drives towards his house. His desire to kill his uncle agitates him and he drives recklessly. On the way he hits and kills a pedestrian, who happens to be his uncle. The question in these cases is: Did the shooter and Carl perform intentional actions by killing: did the killings happen to them or were they performed on purpose or maybe they are a mixture of both? In other words, were they guilty, responsible or liable for the killings and in what degree? It is true, one can discuss such cases as mere puzzles, and although they are for some nothing else, for others like judges they are puzzles with far-reaching consequences. Seen from that perspective, masochistically torturing your brain can even be useful and contribute to the happiness or unhappiness of other people.


Luzdeana said...

It's been a pleasure to rack my brains with this post. I've just learned how masochistic I can be.

Simon said...

I sometimes wonder if philosophers make mountains out of molehills
If you have time have a listen and see if you can come up with something obvious that they are missing. Hint: the Law

HbdW said...

You are right, but sometimes you must climb the mountain in order to see that it is a molehill. But it is true, often there is much fuzz about nothing.