An Obscure Question: Is this an Age of Englightment, or an Enlightning Age? [or, are philosophical meanderings totally boring & impractical?]
Yes, I know, most of the visitors to this blog today just said, "I'll be back later," after reading this post's title! it's OK, I still want to talk about ideas and their practical necessity in our world. Certainly, it's a good exercise to ponder ideas, to think in the abstract and connect the imaginary dots. On the other hand, I find that the world of ideas (hence, philosophy) is a very powerful one. Haven't humans done beautiful and horrible acts alike because of ideas? Often, it doesn't matter if an impression or an idea is based on fact or fiction, it gives a reason for action. It justifies, pacifies, soothes, excites, and provides a sense of identity.
The clash between the ancient religion and Christianity was inevitable [photo from the Agora in Athens with a byzantine church in the foreground]
The values we hold are based on ideas too! Culture evolved because of certain concepts about life and the perceived necessary conditions for human survival. God originated as an idea, and religion was the result of what people thought [most people were told and believed as de facto] of the practical application of the divine.
Faith provided a path to salvation and physical immortality. Unfortunately, religious ideas haven't been very compatible with each other and frequently they operated in a zero-sum game, where it was believed that the survival of one meant the death of the other. So, for much of human history religion played an important role in war and the reasons for going to war.
I'm not concerned with the supernatural [not today in this post anyway] but with how a range of philosophical observations help explain and challenge human behavior. Philosophy becomes very real and applicable when an empirical approach is used. You observe, analyze, form conclusions & theories, and revise as necessary. It's a rather scientific approach. I like that. It's a great medium for humans to evolve upon. The challenging part is also very important, because it can provide fresh ideas and methods of improvement. But, I think only enlightened persons who value inquiry and are brave enough to face reality are comfortable with such a challenge.
The good news is that this elite club doesn't have membership fees, nor other requirements except an open, skeptical, deliberate mind--oh, and probably an interest for such exercises of the mind. With all the amenities and the benefits of a modern society, life isn't always easy, time & energy are limited, and our focus can wane into the trivial.
Jeremy Bentham a "philosophical radical" [radical during his time] said that humans have two masters: pleasure and pain, and, therefore, behave accordingly. These two "masters" can be used as a guideline for human interaction and for deciding on the role of government. He said, government should have the purpose of promoting the greatest good for the greatest number of people. Although, there are those who seek pain either for ..satisfaction or as a required means to an end, most people do prefer pleasure. Thus, a logical question would be, what is pleasure?
One of my favorite philosophers, John Stuart Mill, said it should be the individual who decides what constitutes pleasure; the same individual should be free to construct his own path to personal fulfillment. Mill put forth the Harm principle--which is very useful in deciding matters of privacy and public interest. The only acceptable reason for society to control individual behavior is to prevent harm to others. The individual's own good--either moral or physical--is not a sufficient warrant! This, of course, applies to people who are mature adults, not to children or to ..barbarians. In short, there's a personal definition of pleasure! In order to have that, rights of privacy are imperative.
We are who we are because of the environment we grow up in, our own efforts to enrich ourselves, accidental circumstances (luck), and availability of time & space to be ourselves. If the conditions of freedom and privacy change, then human character changes. I believe a liberal democracy offers the best possible conditions for the individual to fulfill his own potential. If this country is about property rights, let's not forget that you should own & be in charge of yourself.
But, shouldn't the light of reason prevail? As Immanuel Kant once asked, is this an age of enlightenment or an enlightening age? It's probably the latter. If we are to look around the world today many humans are hell-bent on total annihilation and destruction of reason and anything else that stands between them and their utopias. For a species, we are young and still primitive--although we have taken huge leaps of progress and we do have the greatest potential. If we allow ourselves to evolve that is.
One important act of maturity--or, in the process of getting there--is acting. Yes, observing and experiencing life can have a maturing effect, but taking the initiative and making choices is vital. A person should be an actor, not just part of a passive audience. That's why the conditions that foster freedom must be maintained, for freedom in this sense is a practical necessity!
We are creatures of convenience. Why not! But, there are a few things worth spending some time & effort on. Right? Convenience and laziness aren't identical. Thinking--critical and deliberate--is one worthwhile activity I reckon. Making decisions and assuming responsibility is hard too. At times we all want to regress to being children so we don't have to deal with life's adversities and demands. This is not a mature approach though. Sadly, too many modern humans are quite happy to remain in perpetual immaturity and let others make the decisions for them; it's much easier that way they reckon.
Those who have a choice, (usually those who live in a liberal democracy), have to answer a couple very important questions: Is it a worthwhile activity to lead an examined life? And, is it important to contribute a little bit to the conditions that foster human enlightenment?