Is Philosophy the Answer?

Philosophy is the only discipline which, by its own definition, embodies the quest for knowledge and understanding of the nature and meaning of the universe as well as of human life. But after a long search of more than 5000 years, to which the greatest minds of human history have been involved, it has failed to provide any definite answer to such questions.

Bertrand Russell was a great thinker of the present world, whose life spanned almost a century. He spent almost his entire life in reading and writing on philosophical subjects. But he failed to evolve any credible ideology. Because of this failure, one of his commentators remarks that “he was a philosopher of no philosophy.” This is true not only of Bertrand Russell, but also of all other philosophers. Individually or jointly, they have failed to produce any philosophical system which might have provided a sound answer to the human dilemma.

The main concern of philosophy was to make a unified picture of the world, including human life. But the long history of philosophy shows that this still remains an unfulfilled dream. The Encyclopaedia Britannica in its 27-page article on philosophy and its history, admits that there seems to be no possibility of philosophical unification. The article concludes with this remark:

“In the contemporary philosophical universe, multiplicity and division still reign.” (EB, Vol. 14:274 [1984])

Why this failure? This failure is not of a chance or intermittent nature, but seems to be a permanent feature of the philosophical approach to reality. The Qur’an has drawn our attention to this fact, saying:

They put questions to you about the Spirit. Say: “The Spirit is at the command of my Lord and of knowledge you have been given only a little.” (17:85)

This means that the problem stems from man’s own shortcomings. The philosophical explanation of the world requires unbounded knowledge, whereas man has had only limited knowledge bestowed upon him. Due to these intellectual constraints man cannot uncover the secrets of the world on his own. So it is not the lack of research, but the blinkered state of the human mind, that stands as a permanent obstacle in the philosopher’s path to reality. It is this human inadequecy which explains the unexplainable.

For example, suppose, in order to unveil reality and the law of life, the enquirer starts from a study of human settlements. After a detailed survey, he comes to the conclusion that since society is composed of human beings, he had better focus on the individual, and so he studies human psychology. But there he finds that, despite extensive research in this field it has resulted in nothing but intellectual chaos. He ultimately finds that no unified system emerges from psychology. In despair of finding any solution to the problem, he turns to biology. His in-depth study of biology leads him to the conclusion that the whole human system is based on certain chemical actions and reactions, so, for a proper understanding of the human body he begins to study physics and chemistry. This study leads him to the discovery that, in the last analysis, man like other things, is composed of atoms. So, he takes to the study of nuclear science, only to arrive at the conclusion that the atom is composed of nothing but incomprehensible waves of electrons.

At this point man as well as the universe are seen as nothing but, in the words of a scientist, a mad dance of electrons. A philosopher ostensibly begins his study from a basis of knowledge, but ultimately comes to a point where there is nothing but the universal darkness of bewilderment. Thus a 5000-year journey of philosophy has brought the sorry conclusion that, due to its limitations, it is simply not in a position to unfold the secrets of the universe.

It is evident from the several thousand year-long history of philosophical inquiry that philosophy has failed to give any satisfactory answer to questions concerning reality. Moreover, there is a growing body of evidence that philosophy is inherently incompetent for the task undertaken by it. The need, therefore, is to find some alternative discipline that may help us reach our desired intellectual goal in man’s search for truth.