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Weekly Alibi When the Seas of Argument Rise

By Steven Robert Allen

FEBRUARY 21, 2000: 

Think: A Compelling Introduction to Philosophy by Simon Blackburn (Oxford University Press), 312 pages, $22

Simon Blackburn, a philosophy professor at the University of North Carolina, has put together several philosophical books in the past, including Essays in Quasi-Realism, The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy and Truth. This book, Think, is unlike any of his previous work. He was motivated to write it in part because he feels that his profession has gotten a bad rap. He writes: "I suspect that all philosophers and philosophy students share that moment of silent embarrassment when someone innocently asks us what we do."

Our friend Blackburn has written this book as a defense of philosophy as a practical tool for making sense of the world in which we live. The point of this exercise is to show that learning how to engage in intelligent, critical reflection can be of great assistance "when the seas of argument rise." Over its two thousand year-history, the philosophical tradition hasn't come a long way toward answering the big metaphysical questions like "What is consciousness?" or "Is there a God?" What it has done, however, is give thinkers methods for revealing obvious fallacies in a whole range of deeply screwed-up arguments.

Think is designed to give the general reader access to some of the methods and ideas developed by thinkers from Descartes onward. It covers all the big enigmas that bother everyone -- the nature of knowledge, consciousness, fate, freewill, God, truth, goodness and justice -- dealing with each, one by one, in an orderly fashion. What the book does not do is give the reader any prefabricated answers to these riddles. Blackburn is less interested in giving us the answers than he is in showing us how to approach the questions. Although he occasionally offers his own opinion, he is careful to show that there is no easy way to access philosophical truth.

Blackburn has a great talent for sketching complex philosophical problems in astonishingly simple language. The book covers so many intellectual debates with such clarity and wit that it's difficult to describe just one. But I've got to throw you a bone, so let's consider this example by Schopenhauer designed to illustrate the unlikeliness of freewill. We all think that when we wake up in the morning we can do pretty much whatever we want. We can choose to go to work. We can choose to stay home and watch "Oprah." We can get in the car and drive to Taos. We can chop off our pinky fingers with a pair of good, sharp pruning shears. Certainly given all these choices we can make, we must have freewill.

Not so, says Schopenhauer. Imagine that water is conscious. It can boil, become waves, evaporate, turn to ice. What's more, it remembers that it sometimes boils, sometimes becomes waves, sometimes evaporates and sometimes turns to ice. It therefore thinks it can do these things, and attributes its various states to its own voluntary decisions. But what the water doesn't know is that it can only achieve these various states if conditions are right. It can't, for example, turn to ice if the temperature is too high. Wittgenstein makes the same point by imagining a leaf falling in the autumn winds, thinking to itself: "Now I'll go this way, now I'll go that way." In other words, merely because we think we are making free choices doesn't at all mean that we are actually making free choices. But does Schopenhauer's argument mean that we don't actually have freewill? Hell no. So do we have freewill or not? Hard to say. Blackburn follows Schopenhauer's example with a whole slew of reasons why we might, but the "evidence," as expected, is inconclusive.

It may give you a headache, but Think is still a fun book to read. Blackburn manages to convince us, against all odds, that philosophy does have practical applications. As he says in his introduction, "It is ideas for which people kill each other." Critical reflection allows us to step back away from the storm of angry debate to determine whether an argument is either fallacious, or entirely subjective -- in which case, intelligent minds must agree to disagree without tearing each other into bloody chunks. Philosophers, it seems, have no reason to be embarrassed about their vocation.

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