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The origin of the word “philosophy” comes from the Greek words “philos” (love) and “sophia” (wisdom). Philosophy is the love of wisdom. To paraphrase Sir Isaac Newton, philosophy helps you see farther by standing on the shoulders of giants. Imagine how smart you can become by learning the greatest thoughts from the greatest thinkers in history. To get you started, I’ve summarized the ideas of some of my favorite philosophers1.

Parmenides of Elea (5th century BC)
Parmenides believed that truth could only be known through reason because our senses can deceive us. We may watch a table being carved from wood, and then destroyed in a fire. But creation and destruction are an illusion because the underlying material making up the table still exists after it’s burned. We arrive at the knowledge of this underlying, eternal reality through reason, and not through the perception of our senses.

Science is what you know, philosophy is what you don’t know.
-Bertrand Russell

Nagarjuna (150-230 BC)
Nagarjuna founded the Madhyamika (“Middle Way”) school of Buddhism. He emphasized the interconnectedness and essential emptiness of all things. Things are empty because they do not arise by their own power. Instead, they are dependent on pre-existing conditions that allow them to come into existence. When we eat an apple pie, it is broken down into nutrients for our cells. When we die, the cells in our body become food for microorganisms. Life is a never-ending cycle of change and transformation.

Is all what we see or seem, but a dream within a dream?
-Edgar Allan Poe

Rene Descartes (1596–1650)
Descartes wanted to know if any beliefs were immune to doubt. To find out, he used the “Method of Doubt.” He carefully examined each of his beliefs, and tried his hardest to find reasons to doubt them. Only one survived the test—his belief in his own existence (cogito ergo sum, I think therefore I am).

I have concluded that the essence of wisdom is to hold the attitude that knowledge is fallible and to strive for a balance between knowing and doubting.
-John Meacham

David Hume (1711–1776)
Hume divided all the contents of the mind into two categories: impressions and ideas. Impressions, or sense perceptions, are the result of the world impressing itself on our senses via light, sound, touch, smell, and other stimuli. Ideas are the lingering remnants of these sense perceptions. Our minds combine existing ideas into new, more complex ideas. The idea of a unicorn is the combination of the idea of a horse and the idea of a horn.

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

-Hamlet, Macbeth

John Stuart Mill (1806–1873)
Mill developed the philosophy of Utilitarianism, which holds that the morality of an action is a function of the amount of happiness or unhappiness it causes for others. A just action is one that results in the most good for the greatest number of people. This provides a general method for performing right actions and avoiding wrong ones.

The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.
-Spock, Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan

Karl Raimund Popper (1902–1994)
Popper proposed that no amount of empirical observation can ever conclusively verify a theory. One nonconforming observation is all it takes to falsify it. One black swan falsifies the theory that all swans are white. Science works by setting up bold and imaginative conjectures, and attempting to falsify them. A scientific theory gains support by repeatedly surviving attempts at falsification.

Popper showed that idea systems such as astrology, psychoanalysis, and Marxism, are pseudo-sciences because they consist of subjective opinions that cannot be falsified. According to Popper, “There is no truth, only progress.”

Maybe philosophical problems are hard not because they are divine or irreducible or meaningless or workaday science, but because the mind of Homo sapiens lacks the cognitive equipment to solve them. We cannot hold ten thousand words in short-term memory. We cannot see in ultraviolet light. We cannot mentally rotate an object in the fourth dimension. And perhaps we cannot solve conundrums like free will and sentience.
-Steven Pinker, How the Mind Works

  1. King PJ. (2004). One hundred philosophers: the life and work of the world’s greatest thinkers. Quarto.

Copyright © 2009 by Paul Lem, M.D.
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