‘Well, If you didn’t want an answer, then you shouldn’t have asked me a question.’ That’s what I often think when people ask me about my point of view on a particular topic, and – subsequently – respond by looking disgusted and saying something along the lines of: ‘No, that is never going to work’, or ‘How can you ever think that?’
Every scientific discipline is divided in two groups of people: those who are prepared to utter original ideas and those that seem capable only of smashing down these ideas. This ‘force field’ between the forces of creativity and destruction is most prominent in philosophy, and then in particular in what I call ‘definition battles’. With the term ‘definition battle’ I mean philosophical discussions about – as you might expect – the definition of a term. ‘What is life?’ could be a question triggering a definition battle. But also questions such as ‘What is pleasure?’ or ‘What is altruism?’ are likely to lead to a definition battle. Let’s focus ourselves at the example of ‘What is life?’
I remember a philosophy teacher of mine asking the class what we believed to be ‘life’ is. With no-one seeming to make the effort to answer his question, I decided to give it a go. I came up with my interpretation – or definition – of life as ‘a natural process that has an end and a beginning and that is capable of keeping itself functioning solely by means of metabolic processes.’ You might find this definition inaccurate, but I hope that you can at least agree with me on the fact that it is a definition; a definite statement based upon which one can distinguish living from non-living entities.
After having given this definition of life, other students looked at me in disbelief, as if they saw fire burning. And then one of them asked: ‘But, according to your definition of life, a comatose patient wouldn’t be alive. After all, a comatose patient isn’t ‘alive’ solely by means of his metabolic processes; it’s is being kept ‘alive’ by means of external interventions (medical machinery etc.).’
I replied by saying: ‘Yes, I indeed believe that a comatose patient is not alive anymore.’ Then hell broke loose and students kept on saying that my point of view was wrong. Note: saying that my point of view was wrong; not saying why my point of view was wrong. Because how could they ever say that my point of view was wrong? It was, after all, my point of view, right? It was my definition for which I had – and gave – reasons.
I believe this case is exemplary for the manner in which people interact with each other: people ask each other about each others point of view, but whenever people really give their point of view, it gets – no matter what the point of view might be – shot down. This doesn’t necessarily have to be a problem; not if the opponents of the point of view have good – or at least any – arguments against the point of view. But what often seems to be the case is that the ones who criticize others don’t dare or unable to take a stance for themselves. Hence, whenever such an instance occurs, I always ask to myself: how can you criticize others, if you don’t know – or you don’t even dare to express – your own position? Based on what view of the world are you criticizing the position of others – in this case myself? And if you don’t even have a view on the world, how then can you say my views are wrong? Wrong based on what? Teach me. Please. How can I make my beliefs more reasonable?
I say that we should dare to make choices, even when it comes down to such delicate questions as ‘What is life?’ For if you ask a question, you should expect a definite answer. Because if you don’t expect to reach a definite answer, no matter how counter-intuitive this answer might be, you will inevitably get lost in an everlasting and non-value adding discussion. And worst of all: if you aren’t prepared to listen to any (definite) answer a person gives you, then you aren’t taking this person seriously. You ears are open but your mind is not. And lastly, as I mentioned before, you simply cannot judge others without occupying a position for yourself. So you need to have some sort of reasonably firm position in order to be able to criticize others. So please…share your position with us.
But what do you think?