[Home]WhyPhilosophize

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I assume youíre signed up for this class because you want to learn about philosophy. Whether or not thatís the case, the purpose of this class is to introduce you to philosophy. And the purpose of this first chapter is to give you an idea of what philosophy is, and why anyone should want to study it. I am going to assume that you have thought a little, but not a lot, about some philosophical topics.

I could, but will not, simply start by giving a definition of "philosophy." It will be better instead to start by getting clear on what motivates someone to start doing this activity called "philosophizing" -- what motivates people to start thinking very deeply about life and the universe. Only when you understand why people take up philosophy will you be able properly to understand what philosophy is. So let me begin by explaining why people take up philosophy.

We find ourselves believing things that we donít understand. This is perhaps strange to say but itís true. There are all kinds of very basic beliefs we have, about God, ourselves, the natural world, human society, and human productions. But all too often, we donít understand what it is we believe, and we donít understand why we believe it. We have, as I will say, questions about meaning of our beliefs and questions about the justification or rationality of our beliefs. And we donít like not understanding. Let me give you some examples.

If you are like most Americans then you grow up believing in some sort of God. Most (but not all) of you would probably assent to the proposition, "God exists." But how many of you know exactly what it is you mean by the word "God"? Probably youíve thought some about it: "Well," you tell yourself, "God is the creator of the universe, and heís supposed to be all-powerful and all-knowing; and heís supposed to be some sort of spiritual and personal being." Suppose you believe all that. So now are you really persuaded that you know what God is? Arenít there a lot of questions youíd have to have answered before you could say you know just exactly what God is? For example, wouldnít you have to know what it means for a spiritual being to create anything? We have experience of bodies building houses and ships, but minds, as far as we know, create nothing but thoughts and decisions -- other mental things -- not physical objects like mountains, streams, and animals! And wouldnít you have to know what it means to say that God is all-powerful, or all-knowing? Does that mean that God can create a rock he canít lift? Surely these arenít simple questions.

Now these sorts of questions are only questions about what the proposition, "God exists," means. But very many people donít understand why they believe this. They have been taught it; they assume it, and act as though it were true. Some of you, those of you who do believe that God exists, of course have thought about why you believe this, and perhaps you have reasons, or explanations, such as the following. I have a simple faith and that is enough; I firmly believe the Bible, my parents, and my clergyman when they all together affirm that God exists; I believe I have had an experience of, and felt the influence of, God in my life; I believe the universe could not have existed, especially not without the great variety of life we see around us, if God had not created and designed it; or perhaps you believe it for a combination of these reasons, or for other reasons.

But at least in certain moments, when we are being perfectly honest with ourselves, we realize, or most of us do, that we are not quite sure whether this belief in God is perfectly justified. No doubt there are some sorts of people who are relatively unquestioning -- simple people, probably the salt of the earth and good folk -- and those people manage never, or hardly ever, to question their belief in the existence of God. But if youíre in this class I think I can assume that you are not that sort of person. At the very least, I think I can assume that you are interested in getting very clear on why belief in God is, or perhaps is not, justified or rational. You want to see the arguments on both sides.

When you start asking, "What is God?" and "Is belief in the existence of God rational?" and youíre uncomfortable because youíre not persuaded you know the answers, then you are motivated to do philosophy. In particular, you are motivated to study one area of philosophy called "philosophy of religion," which we will spend some time studying this quarter.

Now let me give another example of discomforting puzzlement that might lead you to philosophy. This time the puzzles are in ethics, the study of right and wrong. Again, there are puzzles about both meaning and justification. Do you know what you mean when you say that cheating is wrong? Donít simply say, "Itís something thatís bad -- that you shouldnít do." Obviously then youíll have to answer, "What do you mean by Ďbadí and by Ďshouldí?" We use these sorts of words all the time, these and other evaluative words like "good," "bad," "pretty," "ugly," "useful," and "useless."

Here the questions of meaning and justification are inextricably bound together. I canít say why I think cheating is wrong until I know what it means to say itís wrong; and very likely, once I have said what it means, Iíll know why I think it. The same goes with many other moral questions, about killing and letting die, about personal responsibility, about sex, about choice of career, about a million other things we live with every day. To know what it means to say they are right, or wrong, is to know why they are right, or wrong.

And of course nearly everyone finds themselves with beliefs about good and bad, right and wrong, the proper purpose or goal of a human life, and so on. But hardly anyone really understands these beliefs or knows why they have them, or whether they are really rational to have them.

You can, and some people do, go through life without answering moral questions. But I would go so far as to suggest that because some people have not thought certain moral questions through, they end up behaving immorally. And then they use an easy sort of skepticism, or relativism, according to which each person invents his own morality, to justify whatever behavior he wants to get away with. That is a profoundly anti-philosophical attitude.

And even if, as it probably the case with many of you, you believe yourself to be a generally good person but you also think that there is no objectively correct morality, youíre still stuck with a lot of puzzles. For example, do you really think that if someone were to accuse you of being not just a bad person, but a really bad person -- an evil person -- that your accuser would simply be expressing his opinion, and that it is just true for him and not for you? Isnít there some sense in which he is incorrect, period? Or consider the belief system of a typical Nazi-era German fascist, the sort of person who thought it was acceptable to kill millions of Jews just for being Jews: do you really think that those people simply had a different moral point of view from your own? Isnít there some sense in which those people were incorrect, period?

Questions about God and ethics are only the tip of the philosophical iceberg. If you find yourself dissatisfied with your fundamental ignorance about God and ethics, believe me, there are many other things about this universe that you are also fundamentally ignorant about. Philosophers are in the business of investigating all sorts of those things. Even things that, perhaps, you had not thought to ask yourself about.

If you study philosophy very much you will soon discover just how many of your basic concepts you donít understand. For instance, do you know what it means to say that one thing causes another? Do you know what rationality is? Do you have a firm grasp on what space and time are? Are you quite sure you know what you mean by the word "beauty"? And so on, and on, and on. The number of these most basic questions is breathtakingly huge.

And those are just the questions about meaning. Then you have to consider all the questions about justification you might not have thought about. Do you know why you think the sun will rise tomorrow? Do you think youíre perfectly justified in believing this? Perhaps, but try spelling out the reason. You probably, if youíre like most people, think you have free will -- youíre not determined or fated to do what you do, you have the ability to choose freely. But are you absolutely sure that this is correct? We live, by all appearances, in a world governed by strict laws, that scientists describe. Could your decisions be governed by the same sort of strict laws? If you think not, then why not? You probably think that the government should be doing some things and it shouldnít be doing other things. But why? As a philosopher you will not simply list the things you think government should do; you will say why you thinks the government should do those things. You will explain the purpose of any government, of having any official authority at all.

If you think carefully about this, you will find that your life is deeply informed by all sorts of basic assumptions you make. If you made radically different assumptions, you just wouldnít be able to go on thinking and living as you have been. Thatís one reason why some people are scared, or angered, by philosophical questions. These questions are powerful, precisely in the following sense: if you change your mind about one of these really fundamental questions, then you might have to change how you think about the world, and even how you live. You might have change religions or become entirely unreligious; you might have to act entirely different in order to conform with new ideas of morality you have; you might have to think much more carefully, and rationally, in order to live up to new standards of justified belief you accept; and those are just some of the more dramatic changes. Other, more subtle effects are too numerous to mention.

After all that you should understand pretty well, I think, the basic impulses that lead someone to start philosophizing. So let me list the main points Iíve made so far.

(1) We find ourselves with some basic, important beliefs, for example about God and morality.

(2) There are two sources of puzzlement, or discomforting ignorance, that leads people to philosophize about these beliefs: first, not knowing the meaning of the beliefs; and second, not knowing whether the beliefs are really justified or rational.

(3) No doubt people exist who lack almost all such puzzlement, but even their lives are deeply shaped and informed by their beliefs.

(4) But those people who are attracted to philosophy through the more dramatic topics like God and morality soon realize that the number and variety of beliefs that they donít really understand is breathtakingly enormous.


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Last edited February 3, 2001 3:16 am by LarrySanger (diff)
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