Worldbuilding as an exercise into philosophy
In the past, philosophy was considered in many cultures to be the ancient equivalent of what we now call science. There was much unknown, so it was often so that equal parts philosophy and theology were used to make sense of the world. Where logic failed, God could be invoked—the true importance of theology, to placate and satisfy our innate craving of knowledge where we had none. But for those that wanted more, that believed there to be a deeper meaning in everything, that wanted to explore and understand, philosophy saw its embers stoked.
Philosophers toiled over not just answering the unanswerable, but knowing the questions those answers demanded be asked. They used their inquisition, reason, and intellect to investigate and define the nature of the world and its fundamental questions with their theories, and that often led to them having great social and sometimes even political power. But since we as a species have begun to more thoroughly understand the world and conquer the unknown, philosophy has significantly degraded, and now appears to be merely relegated to those classes in school that next to no one wanted to take and the occasional podcast.
There is no longer a common need for a philosopher as a career or way of life. Adults go to their family, friends, faith, and figurehead to have their views affirmed, and rarely do they wish for them to be challenged. Random Internet searches have more sway over the average person than proper intellectual debate. Rather, it seems that once one reaches a certain age, there is no reason to be more inquisitive about the natural order—if anything, such wanderlust would lead to a purely scientific pursuit; where the erstwhile scientist would build upon the expectations and understandings of their predecessors, where thinking outside the box without suitable evidence leads to a steady lambasting by one’s peers.
The classical philosopher would make audacious claims and uncover earth-shattering discoveries while they would ponder the core mysteries of existence itself. Meanwhile, modern science has allowed the commoner to not have to worry about the inner machinations of the world, nor particularly care if some such discovery about it were to be made. There seems to be a baseline belief that since we already know so much, it is not important to question oneself, investigate new ideals, or accept new understanding. Science is the way forward, and arguing over things that cannot be scientifically reproduced (by other scientists) is pointless. Why bother hypothesizing about irrelevancy? Go cure cancer or something.
…At least that’s the vibe I get. Sources: me.
As I sometimes do, I stumbled into the Worldbuilding StackExchange. And despite the potentially sensitive topics of battle as a means to a pleasant afterlife, the voluntary euthanasia of the elderly by the sword, and battle-hungry suicidal private militaries, nearly all of the communication on the question has remained civil, inquisitive, and exploratory. Is this not reminiscent of the philosophers of old? Those types that would look at the state of something, and work backwards, trying to understand and rationalize it? Good worldbuilding at its core is, I think, a philosophic venture: you must explain and validate every meaningful detail of your world, and the only way to do that is through the lens of philosophy.
If you create a species, you must rationalize its features. If your species speaks a language, why do they speak it? Pray tell, how did they develop their ability to speak? Surely you can explain how their continent was formed, all those thousands of space years ago. Actually, what are space years? Explain those too. Are these not all led back to the fundamental questions? The same questions that philosophers have been pondering in aeternum? Apropos, existence itself.
In order to have a meaningful and well-versed world, you must use meaningful and well-versed philosophy. You must work from the present state, as so defined in your world, back to zero. Or, working forward, define an initial state of being: A deity, a big bang, a space lobster, whatever—that then spirals out of control and results in the foundation of the world. This foundation, when missing, and regardless of if it would be crafted from an initial state or after already having formed a current existence, often leads to a world feeling disconnected, haphazard, shallow, or ultimately lifeless.
So with philosophy being so important to worldbuilding, is it also not the perfect vehicle to explore the real world and to gain better understanding? We even do it already in our every day to a degree, with hypotheticals, what-ifs, and simple stories provided in argument of some existing supposition or to explain some arcane concept. Even if the layperson could not put into words the above, they could surely relate to it in more simple terms.
But I challenge you to go deeper: Create a fuller, close but perhaps not mirror image of the world at large, if not tangential, and build and explore through that. A world inspired by but disconnected from touchy current events, where anything goes, as long as you can rationalize it. Where, instead of defending one’s viewpoint with current examples and ideals, you must instead craft that alternate existence, before reasoning as to why things are, without defense or stigma. Work back from the hypothetical present, and see what it took to get there. Rather, consider whether that state would ever be possible in the first place, given the natural expectations of an imperfect base.
The results of such experimentation may not be immediately helpful. If so, then travel laterally. What are the current problems of that world? Introduce the human element, or species equivalent. Introduce flaws, introduce errors. Perhaps some more analogues from real-world events. What unrelated problems were overcame in the past? How will future be problems be overcome given the current situation?
What of all this musing and validation can be applied to the real world? To your current situation? To the past or future? How can you allow this introspection to modify your thought processes? Alter your stigma and assumptions about the world? Can you be more inquisitive?
By removing ourselves from the equation—by building a world without us, and looking at the situation from outside in, we can better view our own biases, our own silent misdirections in our way of thought. And should we propose a biased lore, if we are truly unable to separate ourselves, we must be able to rationalize that bias. It uncovers the painful truth of our own imperfections and feelings, even if we don’t want to admit it.
Of course, coming to grips with what is revealed is its own challenge.
Furthermore, I consider the idea of an alternate reality, a world tangential to our own, yet so sharing our problems and questions, not that dissimilar from the core tenants of theology. The concept of a heaven or hell, where people just like us yet not like us live in a state unrelatable yet so innately familiar. A study of gods and gremlins, their historic relevance and reverence. To some, it truly is nothing more than a study of story books, an explosive and captivating act of fantasy worldbuilding that has taken many hearts, minds and bodies over many years. But perhaps that concept is too vitriolic for what I am presenting.
This all might just be a roundabout and verbose way of saying “don't judge someone until you have walked a mile in their shoes”. But that aside, I think it’s interesting to consider the power of a story from a philosophical standpoint. Like how an engineer might start a seemingly useless venture in the name of research, a way to test those what-ifs and put theory into practice—a good story and the world it encompasses can be used to explore and question, and that activity can then be applied to one’s current circumstances and understanding. Stories also let us disconnect, help free us from perceived notions and responsibility. It lets us think freely in a disposable world with disposable rules.
This all hinges, of course, on imagination. Lacking it means lacking the ability to build a world confident enough to survive the philosophic questions one shall ask of it, and deep enough to extract suitable answers. As well, this requires the ability to separate oneself from that imagination. For those lacking in such necessary skills… Sorry, I don’t have any solution. Perhaps this isn’t for you. Try taking the second exit at the roundabout.