Economind on Philosophy

21/Jan/2016: Original article posted;

19/Jan/2017: Article revamped!


In this post, we will take a step back and off economics to consider something central to everything we have ever known. I may just be talking gibberish, but I hope the article is at least thought-provoking.

From walking the land to traversing the ocean, the sky and outer-space, the rapid progress in science has brought us immense power. Yet, as science evolves further and approaching its finest form, some of us seem to have lost sight of its true origin, the humble discipline that gave birth to all the fields of social and natural science: “Philosophy”.

Philosophy, the word itself stems from an ancient greek word, “Philosophia”, the combination of “Philo” + “Sophia”, or in modern English, “Love” + “Knowledge or Wisdom”. These two words, terse they seem, define the core of our species and the inception of human as a civilization.
Merriam-Webster defines philosophy as [the study of ideas about knowledge, truth, the nature and meaning of life, etc]. Wiki’s definition is even more specific: [Philosophy is the study of the general and fundamental nature of reality, existence, knowledge, values, reason, mind, and language]. While these two definitions seem to explain pretty well the entirety of the discipline, once we dig deep enough, we can even define philosophy as the father of all knowledge, or at the very least, as the primary ingredient that provided impetus to the creation of numerous areas of human wisdom. Why?

Because philosophy was born the moment we began asking ourselves questions, questions about our own existence, questions about our surroundings, questions about the past, the present and the future that lies beyond. What is life? How should we define “self”? What is consciousness? What is beauty? Is there an absolute end to our very existence? Do we really die when we die or will our consciousness still float around? Is there life after death? Are we alone in the universe? Is there god? Is the known physical world real or simply the projection of our own mind? Do I see the same red (or yellow or any color at all) as you do? What is this made of? What is that made of? How do we transform this into that? What is the cause and effect of this or that event? How do we get to that point? What will the future hold? What are universal rights? Who enforces rights? Are rights means or ends? Should we choose to pollute or starve? Are we doing the right things? Will the whole human race one day go extinct? Will we ultimately destroy ourselves?

These questions, and various others, are all encompassed by philosophy, and these questions were what led to the search for answers, to many inventions and discoveries of our modern time. Because such questions intrigue men, stimulate their intellect, and compel them to seek for more than they ever need for their own sustenance.

Sometimes, we tend to overlook philosophy due to the emphasises placed on modern social and physical science. But, all the answers to the most crucial questions that guide, not just the scientific progress, but also our life as well as our society and our world have their roots deep in philosophical ground. And while technical comprehension may lead to positive conclusion (common result unanimously accepted), there may still be dissention arising due to the conflicting philosophical basis of different individuals. For instance, though the UN has already defined universal basic human rights, the rise of social networking that brings along with it anonymity, widely accessible personal information, and the ease of propagation of ideas (whether true or false, and sometimes unfalsifiable — meaning it is not of scientific nature), has made once again imperative that we re-assess one of the elements of rights, the freedom of speech (i.e., where should we draw the line? Or, where does the boundary of the freedom of expression lie?). That is why, even with solid foundation of human rights in place, the dissimilarity in philosophical takes will decide how a person may interpret the written rule and how he may ultimately influence his surroundings. In that sense, the lack of philosophical sophistication makes it possible for individual rights to undermine collective rights. But, while failure to properly understand it can easily cause social instability, this core issue of significance is often ignored. We tend to stop thinking about it once a standard has been established, but as its essence is philosophical, the concept will evolve through time and state of society; thus, it requires our constant engagement.

Another well-known example pertaining to recent human history is that of the invention of nuclear bomb. While the better understanding of the nature of atoms and the subsequent development of nuclear physics resulted in the creation of nuclear weapon, the same principle is also being used in the building of nuclear power reactors that help solve the tremendous demand for energy. What resulted in the two contradictory routes, dark and light, no matter how you look at it was the difference in the employment of the mind, the philosophical claims scientists used to justify their creations.

Hence, I firmly believe that philosophical thinking and teaching will make a more well-rounded and intellectual-driven society of humans that think reasons, causes, and consequences; healthy-minded beings that do not merely live to pursue worldly pleasure; a race that works towards beneficial ends for all and not for the few. Sadly though, the developing nations are steering their social and economic development vehicle off this track. The sheer emphasis and promotion of science education and scientific progress is powerful and widely supported. Yet, the study of philosophy is often shunned or mocked despite the clear ignorance of the majority of the population about the discipline and its relevance to the backbone of both social and economic evolution. This is a scary path we are taking upon ourselves, not because we are not advancing forward, but because without firm philosophical guidance, we are marching blindlessly and because without the right set of philosophical lessons, we are lacking the ability to maintain social stability and spiritual development vital to the sustainable growth avenue in all aspects of life. We then turn to rely on external factors, on our genetically shared primitive brain that values (to an unnecessary level) the relative status, material possession, and the ability to retaliate and inflict damages physically and mentally on others (be it at individual or national level) to secure our ground and to feel fulfilled.

What does this have to do with economics? Everything. First, because in such a society like the one mentioned, its economy will respond and be shaped accordingly. For instance, demand for social status gives rise to luxury goods that have little to do with price, that add little value to the human long-run survival and prosperity. Such a demand is called Effective Demand (demand that allows certain market to exist). Second, because asking philosophical questions about wants and needs, insufficiency and abundance, was how economics emerged. The current understanding of how and why competitive market is efficient came into being largely, not only because of the sheer thirst for knowledge, but also from the need for philosophical justification for tolerance on the persistent social inequality (efficiency-equality trade-offs). In the same manner, many economic theories and practices were born. Education in philosophy is thus pivotal, but one can only hope that sooner or later we will all share this view.

Still, you may ask a simple question: “Is this argument for more philosophy along side science acceptable?”. Only you can decide for yourself, and only time will tell.

Until next time,