1 Mar 2022

I love philosophy - but not the kind taught in universities!

I love philosophy - but not the kind taught in universities!

The field of philosophy is as much as art as it is science. In my view, the goal of the field is to contemplate the perceived reality as the first step and then try to arrive at the reality which is functional (aka the art of getting things done!). I am not going to get in the age-old debate of objective versus subjective reality or what is reality. By functional reality, I mean the mental model which can assist one with making things happen in the real world - add tangible value to lives outside of the individual’s own. This is because it is scientifically and experientially (for me, personally) well-established fact that a human mind can loose a good amount of efficiency in just revving up the engine (excessive thinking instead of actions) and not actually get to the real stuff. So, the faster or sooner one’s mind can parse through the “perceived reality” to get to the “functional reality”, the more effective or impactful the person’s actions become in the real world.

Another way of looking the goal of philosophy is trying to answer the question that modern fields of psychology and behavioral-economics also attempt to answer: Why do we (humans) behave the way we do? in various contexts of life. In attempting to answer this question through contemplation, the philosopher (or the reader who intends to learn from the words philosopher has jotted down) is trying to bridge the gap between the “perceived reality” and the “functional reality”. The field of psychology also attempts to answer the same question but with more “mathematically oriented” approach, I would think. Also, it is relatively new field of study which came in picture in the 18th and the 19th century, I believe. Philosophy, however, has existed since 16th (have to double check the history fact here).

These facts and definitions aside - **the real question at hand is** - how does it relate to my life, desires, and well-being?

I have long been wanting to do a Ph.D. in philosophy thinking it is a doorway to understanding my own mind better. I have read a few books to explore the field. But I think what originally attracted me to this field and continues to fascinate me is - I can so tangibly apply what I learn from reading, observing, contemplating in my own life's laboratory. I can design experiments by hypothesizing “how would I like to respond to a certain situation?” and then observing “how much does my actual response deviate from my intended response?” and pondering “why does the actual response in many situations differ from how I would have really liked to respond?” And hundreds of such questions. So, to me philosophy really seemed like a tool for self-discovery.

From a famous Podcast, I learned the bitter reality that in today’s world, a Ph.D. in philosophy is completely different from how I have been fantasizing about it! It is about picking a known philosopher/poet/writer and then analyzing their work with the aim of understanding how they looked at things, what was their mental model aka perceived reality. If the goal of studying philosophy is to get into someone else’s head and try to understand their world-view, there doesn’t seem to be much room for relating my own personal experiences or analyzing what’s happening in the immediate surroundings/ today’s world. For philosophy to be a tool for self-discovery, the center of the study should be my mind’s functioning and the goal should be continually updating my mental model to bridge the gap between my “perceived reality” and world’s “functional reality”. And if the goal is to make the world a better place than I found it (or Steve Job’s famous statement about “bending the reality”) - then first step is to understand how it works! Meaning its “functional reality”!

Bottom line - I feel grateful that I didn’t choose philosophy as my Ph.D. major as it is not what I thought is was about!

I then further reasoned that if I had indeed chosen Philosophy as Ph.D. major, then I would inevitably have fallen for the trap of delivering what’s needed to get the degree. I would have struggled with trying to make peace with the methods to approach the discipline that are dictated by today’s academic environment. The discipline itself would have lost all its beauty in my experience when the spirit of self-discovery has over-shadowed by the pre-made mold that the academic community more or less imposes on a Ph.D. student’s mind to help them find funding sources and eventually add new publications to their department’s scholarly work list (in academia’s defense - it is one of the few agreed-upon measures of the performance in academia).

So, I am very clear on what I do not want - a doctorate in the field of philosophy! This doesn’t change the fact that I am still very much fascinated with the field. I am striving to develop the aptitude of not jumping on the immediate conclusions and instead ponder over things and situations I invariably encounter in day to day life - and perhaps most importantly respond instead of reacting to them. But I am convinced that a Ph.D. in this discipline is very likely not the way to further my goals of self-discovery.

Moreover, the best part is - my hands are not constrained to pick up philosophy books from library and reading them. If I read them by paying the utmost attention I can, I will slowly absorb the life-lessons from the great minds of the past - all without the unneccesary baggage of convincing my doctoral committee that I have grown smart! Anyway, I have found my “validation seeking” mindset to be one of the biggest barriers in my holistic growth. I am also aware of the fact that the same book I read today, if I read again at some point in the future, I will likely be able to understand it better. It is all the function of how much my own mental model of the world aka understanding of the real world has grown. In other words, how much distance my mental model has traversed between the “perceived reality” and the “functional reality”.

This whole contemplation about how a doctorate in philosophy will not help me achieve my goal of self-discovery has also, surprisingly, opened my eyes to the importance of the degree in science or tech that I am already enrolled for! Let me explain how:

Since the objective is to learn to stay in touch with “functional reality” - what can be better tool than a tech (piece of software)? Working on a software program is one of the most effective ways to stay “grounded” because I must be absolutely engaged with the process every moment or else the compiler pinches me! The program doesn’t bend its rules for me, I must learn the rules of its game and flex my mind’s muscle to make it generate the outcome I want it to generate!

A Ph.D. in tech is giving me this invaluable opportunity to dream up a “solution” and then bring it closer to reality by building a functional prototype.

“Don’t become a philosopher before you become rich.” - Read this quote from a successful actor.

It makes so much sense. What does becoming rich and being a philosopher mean, really?

Long winding answer - In today’s world’s context (first world) there is abundance of information, knowledge, reasonable access to computing resources (okay, with an execption: GPUs are costly to afford for passion projects and TPUs are barely available for even purchase for the individuals outside of 0.1% club). External barriers (except for the 9 to 5 grind) are minimized, only internal barriers exist. So, if an individual is able to cut through the chase and stay focused in one direction for long, it is possible to create value for other human beings, which eventually translates to wealth for that individual. Wealth - in the context of this discussion - is monetary. Wealth might mean different things to different people (health, relationships, love, freedom to live on their own terms, etc.). That’s a topic for another day.

Back to the “being a philosopher” part - One interpretation of the above quote, then, is - What’s the point of philosophizing ideas for others to read when one doesn’t know if the ideas actually are effective with respect to the “functional reality”? Whether those ideas work in the real world? On the other hand, if an individual has indeed taken the journey and completed it then there is value in sharing the insights they learned first-hand. Note that my intent is to not mix the processes of “self-discovery” and “wealth-creation”. They are different. Very much so. It is possible that an individual is able to create “material wealth” and is still a beginner in the realm of “self-discovery” or vice versa. The point is - the true value of philosophy is in its ability to at least offer effective and time-tested insights, if not very direct guidance, for navigating the internal and external aspects of life for an individual to achieve well-being and joy.