I remember once in a seminary class the professor was trying to emphasise a philosophical point, and was grasping for the name of someone who had written an essay that concentrated on the 'wrong points', as this professor put it. He couldn't remember the name, but said instead, 'that upstart philosopher from Harvard'.
At that point, I knew he meant Robert Nozick. I don't necessarily agree that he is an upstart, but I can see why academics of certain complexions and backgrounds might. In his book `Anarchy, State, and Utopia', he challenges conventional thinking on many socio-political theories of the current culture -- liberalism, socialism, and conservatism. This book irritated many people, and while it has somewhat faded from view, still remains a text that calls for consideration.
Nozick's follow-up book, `Philosophical Explanations', is the continuation of Nozick's philosophy in the areas of metaphysics, epistemology, and value. He continues his pattern of exploration (a particular word Nozick likes to use with regard to his method): `At no point is the person forced to accept anything. He moves along gently, exploring his own and the author's thoughts. He explores together with the author, moving only where he is ready to; then he stops. Perhaps, at a later time mulling it over or in a second reading, he will move further.'
This is indeed the manner I found this book most useful, in re-reading at different times to pick up on different aspects of the narrative and the theory. Nozick explores in the introduction the difference between explanation and proof -- proof requires (in most manner of logical thinking) a particular pattern of argument with dependent pieces being led in a certain direction of inexorable conclusion; explanation can be tentative, sometimes dialectical, subject to revision without throwing out the entire structure built.
This, obviously, is a problem for rigourous scholars and philosophers. It certainly gives a sense of the kind of subjectivism that liberal academia is constantly accused of, and angers those who are set on belief and discovery of absolutes. But in his discussion of how to take skeptics seriously, he addresses the problem of what becomes important for consideration.
That a skeptic becomes convinced of the argument does not solve the problem, for the questions remain even in the absence of the skeptic. It is to the argument. to the problem that philosophical explanations and theories must speak. That being said, there are some presuppositions that must be made at the start. This is precisely the area in which explanation becomes of more value than proof.
By using the method of explanation, one can modify the structure without 'breaking a chain' of proof that would require the whole structure to be abandoned. As we none of us can start from an objectively neutral starting point, this becomes an intriguing and valuable way of approaching the subjects.
Modern psychology, sociology, and political science strives to find patterns and 'expected events' in the lives of their respective individual and collective subjects. It is easy to see patterns that would support both the idea of free will and the idea of deterministic control.
The final chapter of this section deals with the meaning of life. Nozick offers no easy answers (so don't buy this book thinking that it has the meaning you're searching for!) -- the meaning of life is not a property imputed into the object (or subject). While Nozick does explore different considerations, ultimately philosophy cannot answer the question of the meaning of life in an emotionally and intellectually satisfying way. Nozick does explore what it means to have a God-based meaning attached to life, but this also has difficulties that philosophy has difficulty resolving. Is this where faith comes into play? Most probably, but a faith built on ignorance (particularly built upon deliberate ignorance) becomes more of a self-delusion than than a meaning.
Nozick finishes the book with philosophy connected in a value-based way to art, literature, and the humanities, in which many find those indescribable facets of the meaning of life. `We can envision a humanistic philosophy, a self-consciously artistic one, sculpting ideas, value, and meaning into new constellations, reverberative with mythic power, lifting and ennobling us by its content and by its creation, leading us to understand and to respond to value and meaning -- to experience them and attain them anew.'
This is not easy reading. This takes dedication, some philosophical background (particularly for the section on epistemology), and a desire for inquiry. Nozick's philosophy does not neatly fit the pattern of any particular philosophical school, so questions will arise from beyond the text. For the theologically minded (my particular area of concern at the present), the considerations here are important to take into account in avoiding many common intellectual blunders in theological explanation. Theology often draws on the explanation model of development rather than the proof model (as the proof model can fall to pieces very quickly with just a few assumptions challenged or removed). The themes and ideas contained here can help build a stronger theology (although Nozick might not have intended that as one of the purposes of this book!).