Quest For Truth Remains an Uncertain, Often Unhappy, Pursuit (January 14, 1990): page L3 By: Timothy Chambers I have a love

/hate relationship with vacations. As a college student recently confronted with final exams, I spent many a stray moment fantasizing about the upcoming holiday break. I imagined myself reclining on a couch, soda in hand, catatonic before the bowl games—or, better yet, a “St. Elsewhere” rerun. But once finals ended and my vacation arrived, such hopes slipped from me like a bar of wet soap. The reason: At college, I belong to an odd race known as philosophy majors. This is the title the university gives us—our peers are not so charitable. “Oh, you are one of those ‘meaning of life’ people, aren’t you?” one of my dorm neighbors asked when she discovered my major. Yes, I confessed, my eyes dropping to the floor in embarrassment. I am one of those people. It is probably our character that earns us these cheerful rebukes. Philosophy majors have a habit of thinking too much at the wrong times—like during vacations when we should be sipping a Coke and cheering Notre Dame. So it is with me. I would love to relax, but my inner voice will not give up. “Hey,” it inquires, “what is the meaning of life, anyway?” So the soda (unopened) goes back to the fridge and the TV is turned off, its picture fading to a small dot, then disappearing altogether—like my hopes for a break from exertion. I grab a legal pad from the coffee table, and mull over philosophical questions so old they creak. Let me put it this way: If ideas were soldiers and reflection a battle, I would make the Joint Chiefs of Staff appear lazy. Such is the way of life for this philosophy major. In fact, the more time I rack up pushing pencil over legal pads, the more I envy people with other pastimes. I get particularly jealous of gardeners. The idea may seem silly at first, but I think gardeners have it made. To begin with, gardeners have a good idea of where to start in their endeavors. One has seeds and plants them. To make the task even easier, there is a further guidance about where to begin: Plant the seeds in healthy soul with few rocks, plant them where they will receive plenty of sunlight, and so forth. Right from the start, the gardener has an idea of how and where to begin. If only philosophers could boast the same. With philosophy, beginning is the most difficult step. What presuppositions should one carry into considerations of existence,

meaning and all of that? Is it proper to presuppose a wonderful God in the sky in an attitude of faith? Or should we adopt Descartes’ method (“I think, therefore I am”) and doubt everything short of ourselves? Sooner or later we philosophy majors find someplace to begin—but it is usually with great uncertainty, and violent disagreement among ourselves. If the uncertainty stopped with where to begin, that would be enough for me. But then there is the dilemma of where we are going. Gardeners have a fairly straightforward goal: Get the plants to grow, then harvest the fruits of their labor, be they flowers, vegetables or, literally, fruit. Philosophy offers nothing so definite where goals are concerned. Are philosophers to discover everything about the world? Or is our purpose simply ethical: to discover how humans should act, and what they should do with their lives? Is it both of the above? Neither? Perhaps philosophy is just an intriguing game without purpose—some cosmic hub in the universe to keep people from watching too many “St. Elsewhere” reruns. Actually, the option of watching reruns is looking better to me as time wears on. (Hey, what is time, anyway?) Add to these two problems the fact that gardeners have a method for pursuing their end, which philosophers do not, and my tour of envy is complete. Gardeners know, more or less, how to attain their goal once they begin—pick out the weeds from time to time, keep the soil nourished, and so forth. The rest is just a matter of being patient. Philosophy’s method, on the other hand, is a matter of debate. Is the meaning of life to be found through strict logic? Or is natural science the path to progress? Is ultimate Truth being flashed by deep-space pulsars in some cosmic Morse code? Or is the method simply patience, as the Zen Buddhists might affirm? Just wait, they say; enlightenment will come in its own way, at its own time. So that is the situation as I see it. Philosophy is ultimately uncertain about where to begin, where it is going and how to get there. These realizations seem to hit me hardest when I have free time. (School work makes it easy to avoid thinking.) Perhaps that is why gardeners appear to enjoy their vacations more than I do. It may also be why the agriculture majors on my campus always seem so happy.