Philosophical Debates Everyone Should Know – Meaning of Life

Meaning of Life

Table of Contents
1- Is the world we live in really real?
2- What is consciousness?
3- What system should we use to make moral decisions?
4- Does free will really exist?

Since our existence, we have been asking questions about where we came from, why we are here, and whether there is a divine power that controls us.

Many of these questions have not yet been satisfactorily resolved. Perhaps they never will.

But by studying philosophy you can trace ideas and develop your own ideas at the same time. Even if philosophical debates are abstract, the way we approach them helps us to arrive at what we call truth.

In this article, we take a look at some of the key questions and ideas that philosophers have tried to answer throughout history.

1- Is the world we live in really real?

From the moment you enter the field of philosophy, you begin to doubt the existence of objective external reality. A version of this idea was popularized by the movie The Matrix.

How can you be sure that the reality you experience is real and not a simulation?

What is the source of your confidence that you are not just a brain in a jar?

Philosophers don’t need to build science fiction universes to ask these questions. If the external world you perceive is not real, there is not necessarily a real world that is hidden from you.

Your consciousness and your perceptions may be the only thing that exists. If this sounds absurd, imagine how difficult it would be to prove otherwise. Philosophers have followed different schools of thought on this issue.

Realists think that there is an objective external reality. There are various types of anti-realism. Idealism claims that reality is a product of our thoughts.

Phenomenalism says that it is a product of our perceptions and memories of past perceptions.

Beyond all this, there are debates about which aspects of what we perceive is real and which are not.

For example, some philosophers claim that the past, present and future are real, but that time is an illusion.

Others ask, even if the universe as it is now is real, how can we be sure that five minutes ago was also real, for example, that the universe was not recreated with all the contours of the past?

These questions also intersect with questions of physics. Quantum mechanics, for example, challenges our ideas about how static and measurable the “real” world is.

2- What is consciousness?

We all have a common intuition about what it means to be conscious. But this intuition is difficult to define. One debate about this is between dualism and materialism.

Dualists argue that the conscious mind is in some sense separate from the body. This is actually the intuitive way most people think about their own minds.

You think of thinking as a separate act, not as “I think with the brain in my head”. Monists argue that the conscious mind is all and only the neural activity in our brain.

Others still say that the mind is not separate from the body, but that the soul exists as a separate category. Many of these questions become apparent through comparisons with non-human animals and machines.

We can create a machine that can perceive different colours and move accordingly.

But can we create a machine that is conscious of this process, just like us?

This leads us to the question of whether any being outside of us is conscious. The philosopher John Searle put forward the Chinese room argument to draw attention to this question.

John Searle imagines himself as a person who speaks English but not Chinese in a room with a book containing a series of Chinese symbols. He can sort the symbols as the book describes, but he cannot understand the resulting writing. 

However, if the same experiment were conducted in English, he would be able to understand what the symbols mean. For an outside observer, there is no difference between using Chinese or English symbols. Because the observer has no way of knowing whether the man in the room understands them or not.

Searle used this experiment to illustrate the problem of consciousness in artificial intelligence.

How can we distinguish whether the machine is conscious or simply programmed to mimic consciousness without any inner experience?

Moreover, we can ask the same question in relation to any entity that claims to be conscious. Since there is currently no chance for a human being to experience what is going on in another person’s mind, we cannot know with certainty who is experiencing the consciousness, and who is merely exposed to an external stimulus and responds to it in a way that mimics consciousness.

3- What system should we use to make moral decisions?

One of the biggest questions in philosophy is how to distinguish right from wrong, that is, how to know what is the moral course to follow in any given situation.

A classic example to explain different moral systems is the “trolley problem”. Using scenarios and thought experiments like this, philosophers try to see whether moral principles work.

The trolley problem

A tram is approaching at full speed to the tracks where the villain has tied up five people. If the tram hits them, they will die. On a different track going in another direction, there is one person tied up by the same villain.

You are standing next to the switch on the railroad tracks. If you pull the lever, you will direct the fast-approaching tram onto one person and that person will die, but with this move, you will save five people. Do you think it is right to pull the lever?

If you want to test your instincts further, there are other versions of the problem. Suppose the out-of-control tram is again heading towards five people.

You are on a bridge with a very overweight man. If you push the man off the bridge, it will kill him. But his weight will stop the tram and save the lives of the five people on the tracks.

Would you push the man in this situation?

For most people, the instinctive answer to the first question is to pull the lever. But even though the number of lives lost and saved is the same in both cases, the decision to push a man is more difficult.

For some other people, neither pulling the lever nor pushing the man is acceptable. Because otherwise, the absolute rule against killing must continue to be obeyed, even if more lives are saved.

Others claim that the important thing is only to save as many people as possible.

It seems unlikely that we can design a system that gives the right answer to every moral dilemma or that we can all agree on. Nevertheless, decision-making is a valuable process in itself. After all, these are not just abstract questions.

Even life-and-death questions like the one above involve many different kinds of people who have to decide which life is preferable.

4- Does free will really exist?

Philosophy intersects with other disciplines, notably psychology, on the question of whether free people have free will. In its simplest form, free will is the ability to freely decide on actions.

For example, all of the moral decisions mentioned above are based on the assumption that we can choose between right and wrong options.

From a neuroscience perspective, it is possible to argue that we do not make this choice freely. From small changes, such as feeling more open to people’s suggestions after drinking a cup of coffee, to larger changes, such as the impact of depression on our decision-making, we are all subject to brain chemistry that affects the way we make choices.

From our sensitivity to caffeine to our susceptibility to mental illness, these changes are influenced by our environment, our upbringing and, above all, our genes. We may think we make our decisions freely, but this is probably not the case.

On the other hand, one of the tasks of philosophy is to fill in the gaps between scientific facts. One philosophical theory, determinism, is the idea that the future is determined by the laws of nature and the past.

According to determinism, even if you rewind time and move it a hundred times, everything will happen exactly the same way as long as the laws of nature remain the same. Some philosophers claim that determinism is incompatible with free will.

Others argue that our actions are completely determined, but that we are still free in the choices we make in carrying out our actions. This is an argument often made by religious believers.

God knows our actions before we take them, but this does not invalidate the choices we make. Others argue that determinism is wrong because it ignores the factor of chance. However, despite chance, we lack free will. These philosophical debates continue to evolve in the light of scientific developments. 

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