Thursday, February 01, 2007

Knowing what doesn't work

"I have not failed! I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work!" -- Thomas Edison

Philosophy has long been an interest of mine. Friends often say, "What's the point?" Little by little, I've been collecting answers to the question, and one answer is the value of "Knowing what doesn't work." In this case, what doesn't work alludes to the pitfalls of various philosophical arguments and positions.

As far as the mysteries of the universe go, many of the questions being asked today have been with us for most of recorded history, and many of the arguments, points and counterpoints are thousands of years old. Knowing what doesn't work can save you a lot of trouble--knowing the pitfalls of classic philosophical arguments can save you a lot of breath.

Take, for example, arguments regarding the existence of God. In the entry for Teleological Argument, Wikipedia offers a pretty decent history going back to Plato and Aristotle. With the"Intelligent Design" movement many of the classic arguments have once again resurfaced and, as is typically the case, many of the most fervent proponents seem oblivious to the history of the arguments.

Arguing that everything is so complex it has to have been designed immediately leads to a troublesome question asking who designed the designer (and who designed the designer of the designer, ad infinitum). And this isn't the only problem with the argument, as demonstrated by Hume.

The question of Intelligent Design is an area where Dilbert creator Scott Adams has generated a quite a bit of criticism from scientist and blogger PZ Meyers. There are two new posts on the subject from both bloggers this week.

Adams writes: "I take the practical approach--that something is intelligent if it unambiguously performs tasks that require intelligence. Writing Moby Dick required intelligence. The Big Bang wrote Moby Dick. Therefore, the Big Bang is intelligent, and you and I are created by that same intelligence. Therefore, we are created by an intelligent entity."

Meyers responds with: "Will Scott Adams never learn?"

Philosophy probably won't ever prove God exists, but it can show you the shortcomings in the arguments of those claiming proof. Even if you lack a solution, there's usually still great value in knowing what doesn't work, because that knowledge saves you from pursuing paths known to be fruitless. Edison understood this.


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