Philosophers are often ridiculed, largely because so many of them are believed to have wasted their entire lives discussing how many angels could dance on the head of a pin. There are in fact some philosophers who do genuinely useful work: but for the work of one such philosopher there would be no Magic Schoolbook Web site and the argument for the liberation of children from school would still be going nowhere. Philosophy is not a joke subject: it's a very serious business.
indentPhilosophy has two main aims: one of them is to train people how to think better; the other is to discover new pieces of wisdom by working things out using logical reasoning. Most philosophers work in politics, again giving philosophy a bad name because so many of their ideas are absolutely stupid. Many others are religious and they try to derive sensible codes of morality from holy books. Others try to understand morality by working it out from scratch rather than by asking God. Many of the best philosophers call themselves physicists (physics used to be called natural philosophy): they are trying to work out what we are and where we came from, though these people are often blinded by mathematics and they have a tendency to make the mistake of believing that they understand things simply because they can fit mathematical formulae to them. Mathematicians are also philosophers, as are logicians and lingusiticians. Philosophy covers many subjects, but normally it is seen as the bits left over when all those other subjects are removed from it, the result being that philosophers are widely regarded as daft old men with beards who talk absolute nonsense while they puff away at their pipes. It certainly is a pity that so many philosophers were never taught how to think properly before they embarked upon their careers, because many of them are indeed completely stupid.
indentSo how do you train people how to think properly? Let's start with that ridiculous question about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. It may be a daft question, but that doesn't mean it isn't worth trying to answer it: we may not care about the answer, but it does make a useful exercise to show up the limitations of your thinking skills. Stop reading this for a while and have a think about how you might go about trying to answer the question, then read on to see how I have aswered it.
indentIf you're still reading this and you haven't stopped to think yet, then you're wasting a good opportunity to test yourself. My answer comes as a list of possible answers, each one qualified by a condition. (1) If angels don't exist, then the answer is none (no angels can dance on the head of a pin if no angels exist). (2) If the smallest angel's foot belonging to an angel capable of dancing is bigger than the head of a pin, and if we are only counting angels which are dancing on the head of that pin simultaneously, then the answer may be one, though it is possible that angels may have the supernatural ability to occupy the same space as other angels at the same time, in which case the answer depends on the number of angels in existence at the same time who have this ability and which are able to dance, minus the number of any who have been forced out through injury. (3) If we allow the angels to dance on the head of the pin in succession, the answer will depend on how many angels can exist during the lifetime of the pin head, how many of them can physically get themselves to the location where the pin is to be found, whether the pin head is available for them to dance on when they turn up (it may be closed for maintenance work), etc. (4) If angels are very small or if there exists a very big pin, and if they cannot occupy the same space simultaneously and we require them to be dancing simultaneously on the pin head, the number of angels that can dance on the pin head will depend on the amount of space required by a dancing angel and the area of the pin head, though this is complicated by the possibility that the areas needed by dancing angels may be overlapping as they can share some of the same space if they coordinate their dancing cleverly, and it is further complicated by the possibility that they may be able to dance on the sides and underneath surface of the pin head by using supernatural powers to defy gravity: a mathematical formula could be made to account for these variables. (5) Angels may have been banned from dancing by a crazy religious group like the Taliban...
indentI could go on, but you should have got the idea by now. If your answer was anything like mine, then you have the makings of a good philosopher because you have a creative mind and you can cope with complexity. If, however, your answer was left looking rather empty by comparison, then this is clearly something you need to work on. You need to discuss ideas with your friends/relatives/pets and compete with them to come up with new ideas which they haven't thought of. Coming up with any old idea will not do though: they must be rational if they are to count. Don't worry if your friends always win these competitions: they may always be better at this than you, but you will all be improving your thinking skills just by playing this game and it will make all of you more successful in life than you would otherwise have been. Here are some suggestions for things you might discuss: how old should you have to be before you are allowed to drive a car (bear in mind that some people are born many months early); is it always wrong to tell lies; if a tree falls down in a forest but there is no one within a hundred miles of it, does it make a noise? Remember never to confuse daft questions like this last one with the serious work of real philosophers: such questions are purely used as training exercises for beginners.
A couple of interesting ideas from philosophy:-Let's start with an attempt to prove that there is a god. Try to imagine something more powerful than God. You can't? Well then, that shows that God is the most powerful being in existence, and that in turn proves that he exists. Some people are actually convinced by this "proof", so if you are one of them you might like to think about a similar proof concerning fairies. Try to imagine something more fairy-like than a fairy. You can't? Well then, that shows that fairies are the most fairy-like things in existence, and that in turn proves that they exist. These arguments are of course not valid because they merely imply that something exists, and then turn that into an assertion that it exists. If there is no god it is in fact very easy to imagine something more powerful than God: a teapot is more powerful than any non-existent god.
Let's now look at an attempt to prove that there is no god. Part of the definition of God is that he is supposed to have created everything, but if he created everything, then who created God? Did he create himself? Religious people try to answer this first question by saying that God has always existed and therefore didn't need to be created. However, if God has always existed, then he did not create everything because he did not create himself, and if he did not create this most powerful thing in all existence, including all the supernatural powers by which he functions, then he runs using components and forces which are not of his own design. He is well and truly disqualified from being God. Religious people try to wriggle out of this by claiming that you aren't allowed to analyse God into components: he is his supernatural powers and they shouldn't be thought of as being separate from him. You'll have to make up your own mind which side you agree with.
More content will be added to this page later. Morality, religion and politics are particular interests of philosophers, so I have dealt with those subjects individually on other pages.