Fresno Bee, September 18, 2015
- Political speech is different from philosophical reflection
- Wonder, doubt offer an antidote to political distraction
- Wonder creates tolerance, humility and compassion
Political pomposity is fun. Say what you will about Donald Trump, but he is not boring. He gives the pundits lots to talk about. Demagoguery and punditry are entertaining.
Philosophers have long warned against political speech that moves us, without concern for truth. But we like amusing distractions. Many watch politics as a sideshow – paying more attention to the jokes and jabs than to the content. Some snarky commentators suggested, before the last Republican presidential debate, that the debate could be used as a drinking game, taking a shot with every mention of Ronald Reagan. Truth seems the least of our concerns.
We are distracted – but not very thoughtful. Technology doesn’t help. There is now even an app that measures boredom by tracking how often you fondle your phone. When the app detects boredom it offers up a new distraction, such as a link to BuzzFeed.
In the age of Internet addiction disorder, we are habituated to stimulation. The more distracted we become, the more distractions we crave. People become addicted to video games, pornography, Twitter and political news.
Philosophers have long warned about this. They recommend silent reflection and patient dialogue that breaks us free of the trivial nonsense that fill our lives. Philosophers advise disconnecting from the amusing drivel drifting through our minds.
Silent meditation and philosophical dialogue are, of course, countercultural. It is difficult to imagine a public figure in our loquacious era who would admit to doubts or who would wonder aloud about the complexity of the world.
Our culture encourages us to express opinions, even mean and ugly ones. Read the comments on YouTube for an example. We tweet, post and opine. But rarely do we listen or wonder or simply stop to consider our own ignorance.
Philosophy, they say, begins in wonder. Wonder gives birth to inquiry, dialogue and scientific discovery. Wonder also gives rise to tolerance, humility and compassion.
Wonder is often accompanied by doubt, which admits all that we do not know. This provides an antidote for the bombastic certainty we hear from the pundits and prophets. Demagoguery and dogmatism are defeated by the contemplative mood.
Many marvels prompt wonder – from the starry skies above to the moral law within. Given all of the mysteries of life, it is surprising that more people are not more cautious about what they say.
Wonder begins with very basic amazement about the fact of existence. Why is there something rather than nothing? Humble gratitude develops when we realize that existence is a rare and fleeting gift. But debaters can’t score points by puzzling about metaphysics.
Nor can politicians take the time that is needed to establish scientific certainty. The painstaking efforts of the natural sciences contribute to the experience of wonder and humility. Scientific knowledge deflates human narcissism. Species come and go. The universe is vast. The world is infinitely complex. And knowledge is a difficult process.
Wonder extends into the study of the human spirit. Compassion grows when we understand the breadth and complexity of the human condition. Our own cherished values, norms and institutions are temporary and local. How amazing that people are so different from one another.
Love, friendship and grief also give us plenty to wonder about. It is humbling to consider how deeply our own lives are intertwined with the lives of others. Poets have explored this theme in various ways. And art and beauty give us even more to wonder about.
Political bombast loses its allure – as does much of the drivel of popular culture – when deep questions plant a splinter in the mind. The demagogues and pundits bristle and bluff. Meanwhile the philosopher wonders and wanders in the depths.
This might mean that philosophy is utterly useless. Or it may be that wonder is a priceless good to be enjoyed for its own sake. Maybe wonder is a waste of time. Or maybe it is the key to a better life.
If you are interested in this topic, a public philosophy conversation will take place from 7-9 p.m. Wednesday at the Woodward Park Library. I will be there, along with Fresno City College professor Wendell Stephenson, considering the value of philosophy in the world today.