Saturday, April 26, 2014

Why I find philosophy valuable

I was nineteen when I first discovered "formal" philosophy, in the form of Plato's Dialogues. I'd been talking to a woman online (had a bit of a fling of sorts), and she mentioned that she could rave for hours about Plato. I got curious, and went to the library. I started reading some Plato, and fell in love. The style that Plato wrote in was that of dialogues, discussions between various people on matters they found important in the realm of philosophy (usually between Socrates and one or more compatriots), and I just loved it. But more than the style, I loved the questions of ethics that were being dealt with. Issues of justice, friendship, duty, etc.

These were questions that I had thought about in my own, undisciplined, way for years. What does it mean to be ethical or moral? What does it mean to live a good life? It seemed to me then, and it seems to me now, that in the realm of human interaction, there is no more important question than these.

Many people seem to think that the answers to these questions are easy, simple. I have never found them such. I suspect that one major reason people think them to be easy questions is that religious traditions purport to provide the answers, packaged neat and tidy and ready to go. Got a question? Check with your clergy, no thinking required. Tradition has the answer.

But tradition is often wrong. Take women's rights. For most of human history since the development of agriculture, women have been under the heel of one patriarchal society or another, a position reinforced by tradition and custom, as well as the law. Now, through the hard work of philosophy, most of us (at least in America and other western countries; the Middle East has a ways to go yet) recognize that those traditions were mistaken and wrong. True, there are people fighting to retain what's left of those oppressive traditions, but those of us who have concluded those traditions are wrong have come a long way in lifting women up from under that heel (with a long way yet to go, unfortunately). Tradition can be a positive thing, but not when it's allowed to cause or contribute to stagnation.

And yes, I meant it when I said philosophy is what got us to where we are, on this, and other political battles. Before any political fight to remove oppression and grant rights can get started, one must first engage the question of whether those rights should be granted in the first place. Are women the equal of men? Should a woman's place be in the home, having and raising children, or does she have the right to choose another life? Is "separate but equal" a meaningful phrase, or is it a contradiction? These are all philosophical, ethical questions of right and wrong.

But perhaps it would help if I brought it closer to home. Is it ok to lie to my wife when she asks if I like her new dress (assuming I don't)? Which is more important: soothing potentially hurt feelings, or telling the truth? You cannot tell me that this and similar questions have not crossed the minds of many a husband/wife throughout history. The question of white lies is something that even children end up facing at some point. And it's a philosophical question of ethics, regarding the value of truth, and when, if ever, it's ok to lie.

Some people consider philosophy to be "mental masturbation," something undertaken only for the pleasure of the philosopher, with no greater purpose to it. And the philosopher, of course, is some out of touch with the real world old white man sitting in his ivory tower, writing dense crap that no one reads or cares about. And I can see how some people could have that impression. However, I see philosophy all around us.

Is gut instinct or intuition a good reason to believe something? How about faith? Or should we only believe things that we have evidence for? These are questions of epistemology, or philosophy of knowledge, and what constitutes knowledge. They're questions that should be important to anyone who considers, for example, the question of whether a God exists to be important. They're questions that should be considered important to anyone who's ever served or will serve on a jury (for example, you have a gut instinct that a witness is lying, but no other evidence to back it up: what role can or should that instinct play in your deliberations?).

Does life have a meaning? If so, where does that meaning come from? What does it even mean for life to have meaning? If life has no meaning, is it worth living for other reasons? Can there be meaning in a universe as vast and ancient as ours, where we are but specks of carbon dust in the long run? These sorts of existential questions may be unimportant to some, but for others they can be matters of life or death. Many a suicidal person has struggled with these very questions when seeking to decide if they're going to live, or going to die.

In recent years we've seen many arguments about the role of government in health care. Should it have a role at all, and if so, what kind of role, and how big of a role? This is not just a political question. It's also a philosophical question about whether society in general should or should not provide for the health care of it's members, or whether individuals are responsible for procuring health care on their own. Frankly, politics and philosophy have a lot of overlap in my opinion. People talk about government not legislating morality, yet then turn around and demand certain rights from the government. When talking about rights, we are talking about morality. It then becomes not if the government should legislate on moral matters, but rather to what extent. And morality is one of the various realms that philosophy deals with. Indeed, society as we know it would not exist without the philosophy of politics and law.

At some point in our life, unless we die extremely young, we will all be faced with philosophical questions. We can't help it. Now, we can always just take whatever answer first pops into our mind when confronted with such questions, but many, many questions simply aren't that easy, and deserve us actually giving the questions time and effort to think them through. Not everyone needs to be a philosophy Ph.D. by any means. Even if that could somehow be practical, it's not strictly necessary. But we should take the time to listen to and consider the things that philosophy Ph.D's, who have spent years studying and considering these everyday philosophical concerns, are saying to us, just as we listen to and consider the things that our medical Ph.D's, i.e., doctors, are telling us. It doesn't matter if you always agree with them, but do take the time to think.

And if a philosophy Ph.D. isn't available, you can still think for yourself, and take the time to question. Frankly, I'd be surprised if it doesn't enrich your life.

Philosophy is everywhere. Accept it.

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