Through the centuries, great minds such as Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Spinoza, Kant, Hegel, Locke, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, and Wittgenstein, have sought the Holy Grail of wisdom. In their own ways, they sought to divine the nature of the Good, the True and the Beautiful.
In our postmodern age, however, a time of relativism, skepticism and "suspicion," the Holy Grail seems ever more elusive. Nietzsche said that the closer one gets to a subject, the more problematical it becomes. Indeed, it is no longer apparent, as it seemed to be to thinkers of an earlier time, what exactly constitutes Beauty, Truth, and Goodness.
Nicholas Fearn, a philosophy graduate from King's College, London, and the author of Zeno and the Tortoise: How to Think Like a Philosopher (2002), seeks to shed light on perennial philosophical puzzles by asking: What do living philosophers have to say about life's greatest mysteries?
The German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) wrote, "All the interests of my reason, speculative as well as practical, combine in following three questions: (1) What can I know? (2) What ought I to do? (3) What may I hope?"
The threefold division of The Latest Answers to the Oldest Questions are similar to Kant's concerns: Who am I? What do I know? and What should I do?
In Part One, Fearn discusses the problem of the self, free will vs. fate, minds and machines, human consciousness and artificial intelligence, and bodies and souls.
In Part Two, he tackles the problems of knowledge and meaning, innate ideas, the language of thought, postmodernism and pragmatism, and the limits of understanding.
In Part Three, he deals with moral luck, the expanding circle (animal rights and vegetarianism), and the meaning of life and death.
If Fearn's book actually provided answers to such problems it would be a marvel. The "answers" in this book, however, are more in the nature of various and conflicting theories held by contemporary thinkers who disagree, and whose arguments and debates remain unsettled.
Calling his project "an audit of Western philosophy," Fearn consulted more than thirty of the world's most distinguished thinkers, among them John Searle, Bernard Williams, Daniel Dennett, Martha Nussbaum, and Peter Singer, for their insights on the human condition.
According to Fearn, his book "assesses the current state of the philosophical art, taking a wide view of what has been achieved in recent years in the most hotly contested areas, and examines the latest approaches to problems that were first tackled in the ancient world."
The British philosopher Bertrand Russell observed, "To learn how to live with uncertainty, yet without being paralyzed by hesitation, is perhaps the chief thing that philosophy can do."
Reading Fearn's current philosophical venture does little to relieve uncertainty. The title of his book is overly optimistic, promising more than it delivers. A better title would be The Latest Speculations, or Opinions, Concerning the Oldest Problems.
One should not come to this work, therefore, expecting to find some Copernican revolution in thought, some epiphany of philosophical wisdom. It is enough to eavesdrop on contemporary intellects and ponder their disputations, even if no definitive conclusions are reached.
Consider three experts in musicology disputing who is the greatest classical composer: Bach, Beethoven, or Mozart. Each could give excellent reasons for his or her choice, but no persuasive "answer" could be established.
Some philosophers propose the humbling theory that our brains, evolved over millennia to cope with survival in the day-to-day world, are not sufficiently equipped to solve the basic riddles of the universe. In short, we are not smart enough to arrive at "a theory of everything." Others would issue a caveat: At least not yet.
Fearn sprinkles his work with humorous anecdotes and witty quotations, such as this one from the great 21st-century philosopher Donald Rumsfeld: "As we know, there are known knowns. There are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns. That is to say, we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns, the ones we don't know we don't know."
Such profundity assures us that reason has its limits.