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Philosophical Problems

Isaiah Berlin once said that the surest sign of a genuine philosophical problem is that you don™t know where to look for the answer. In general, we solve problems either deductively or empirically. Problems in logic, mathematical proofs, chess problems and the like, can be solved deductively we have a defined set of premises and rules to follow when we try to solve Fermat™s Last Theorem or find mate in three moves. Even if we can™t find the answer, we know what form the answer should take, and what steps count as verifying it. But if we want to build a bridge or measure the distance from the earth to the moon, we have to gather outside, empirical, data. How much weight will this material hold before cracking? How much will that particular design sway in the wind? There™s  no way to logically deduce such measurements you have to do the experiments. Berlin is suggesting that philosophical problems don™t fit into either category. Sometimes the way we ask a question shapes the problem. If I ask, What is the meaning  of life? what am I really asking? What would count as an answer? Does a life have a meaning the way a story does? Or a meaning the way a phrase in a foreign language does, that we someone have to translate in to familiar terms? What if I ask instead, What is the meaning of the ocean? The substitution, I think, reveals something of the confusion that arises from the very form of the original question. We can say what the ocean means to us, or the place it has in our life in terms say of making a living, taking vacations, mythology and so on. But when we try to ask a general, philosophical sounding question about the meaning of the ocean, we™re not really asking anything at all.

Questions like What is a good life? invoke competing answers that arise from different value systems. The question is meaningful within the terms of each of the competing systems, but there is no single logical argument or empirical procedure that everyone will agree is relevant to the answer. Aristotle said that everyone may agree that happiness is the goal in life, but then everyone immediately disagrees about what happiness is and what brings it about. Pleasure? Power? Money? Virtue?

Even when we share a belief system, there is no one answer to the question, How should I live? Emerson and Thoreau were best of friends, and together formulated the system of beliefs we now call Trancendentalism. Yet their lives couldn™t have been more different. Thoreau was a detached, solitary individual, never marrying or having a family. Emerson was a devoted family man and traveled all over the country giving lectures. The same holds true for us as Zen students or Buddhists. This practice does not define any single right way to live. We may choose to be married or monks, lead simple uncomplicated lives or work for IBM. We have to find our own way. But from the point of view of practice, what we have to watch out for are all the subtle should we carry around about what a good or Buddhist or Zen life is supposed to look like. True practice is not the pursuit of some abstract ideal. Practice is a gradual process of subtraction. Gradually we become aware of our self-centeredness, aware of the fear and anger that keeps us separate from our lives. As awareness slowly erodes these barriers, we more and more begin to flourish. What is flourishing? The natural expression of who we are in our lives - the natural functioning of our individual talents and abilities in compassionate (i.e. non-self-centered)  response to the life around us. The form that takes will be different for all of us. Big philosophical questions about the good life dont get answered so much as drop away. We don™t find the answers, we become our own answers.