Now it is possible that you think science and religion can fill those roles and are better choices as they have more defined processes to follow. But further deliberation undermines those alternatives. Starting with science, it is difficult to imagine anyone in today’s world not considering science in thinking about philosophical issues. I want to make clear that I believe that science offers the most definitive answers to questions about the nature of physical reality and science-driven technology clearly is the best means to solve most everyday problems and enhance our daily life. Science is also incredibly useful in arguing many points in philosophy, such as the nature of the mind.

However it seems to me science breaks down when trying to answer larger questions such as those posed by ethics (right versus wrong actions) and metaphysics (e.g. free will). Science struggles with being molded to answer a question such as whether there is a God. It cannot easily answer questions about happiness, justice, beauty, or even love and friendship. It is best at telling us how the material world works, but is often not designed to answer many questions about why things are as they are. Psychology, to suggest a specific scientific field, can give us fascinating insights into human behavior, but is less well equipped to show us the means to contentment, self-worth, and human meaning.

On the other hand religion appears to be useful to many people, and I do not wish to detract or even argue against personal beliefs. However religion is based on faith which appears to be unevenly distributed among people and is of variable intensity even among its proponents. Religious experiences are so individualized that they appear unreliable or illusory. Religious dogma is strongly dependent on revelation which may be inaccurately or even untruthfully recorded throughout history. Spiritual texts are frequently enigmatic, metaphorical, and open to varying interpretations. Philosophy is useful within religion as a tool to analyze sacred documents. Moreover faith can be further strengthened by reason. At a minimum, philosophy is a tool that allows religious practitioners to develop an internally consistent understanding of their religion and faith, perhaps avoiding harms like those done in the name of religion in the past.

At the end of the day, the greatest scientists and theologians (for example Einstein and St. Augustine) have fallen back on philosophy as vital to understanding their beliefs about life, mankind, and the universe. I’ll take their word for it that philosophy has much to offer the thoughtful scientist and person of faith.

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“Life is the gift of the immortal God; living well is the gift of philosophy.” – Seneca.

The next logical question is why worry about philosophy? After all most people never study the field and live out their lives in relative satisfaction. I have two responses to this. First it is unlikely any but the most simple-minded can really live a normal life span without questioning the nature of the world and the meaning of their life. More likely, they choose a casual or superficial approach to such questions. The danger here is confusion and missteps, mainly in the form of erroneous thinking. That approach forces one to develop effective reasoning through trial and error and to repeat the long process of developing philosophy from scratch including reformulating arguments that have been thoroughly vetted throughout history. That legacy belongs to all of us and should not be cast aside or ignored.

Second one of the most certain things in life is that we all want to be happy and make a good life for ourselves, but that is unlikely to happen without some reflection. Any reflection will or should lead one to questions on the nature of the world, of happiness, of the purpose of life, and probably about the existence of God. A life without reflection is likely to lead to avoidable regrets, discontentment, and perhaps feelings of failure.

Philosophy, especially practical philosophy, can provide a pathway to optimizing life’s opportunities and potential while reducing the likelihood of flawed choices. Its demand for discipline in thinking improves the ability to think clearly about other matters such as work, relationships, and current events. It also adds another layer to your understanding of the world we live in. (to be continued next post)

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“Philosophy begins in wonder.” – Plato, Theaetetus.

Invariably every philosophy textbook and many philosophers’ main works begin with the surprisingly difficult problem of defining philosophy. I reluctantly join them…The Greek root is easy enough philo means love and sophia means wisdom; hence ‘love of wisdom.’ While this is strictly true till this day, it seems too vague to serve as a practical definition. Webster’s dictionary* offers 6 meanings:

1. The rational investigation of the truths and principles of being, knowledge, or conduct.
2. Any of three branches, namely natural philosophy, moral philosophy, and metaphysics.
3. A system of philosophical doctrine.
4. The critical study of the basic principles and concepts of a particular branch of knowledge.
5. A system of principles for guidance in practical affairs.
6. A philosophical attitude, as in composure and calm in the presence of troubles or annoyances.

Most general use of the word by philosophers probably refers to the first definition, and it remains the most important for me. However, for the purpose of this site, a combination of definitions 1, 3, and 5 will generally reflect my use of the word, philosophy.

The Oxford Guide to Philosophy** spends nearly 4 pages of small print to define and explicate the word, philosophy. I like the simplified ‘thinking about thinking’ as deep reflections on questions that defy easy answers is the crux of the philosopher’s work. It further divides philosophy into three parts: (1) Metaphysics – the theory of existence; (2) Epistemology – theory of knowledge; and (3) Ethics – theory of conduct and value. These will encapsulate the areas that dominate this site. However others might add additional fields that do not easily fit into these three categories such as: Aesthetics – the theory of beauty; and Politics – the theory of governance.

The Encyclopedia of Philosophy*** spends ten pages defining and explaining philosophy. Most instructive here is perhaps its dissection of philosophy as ‘critical’ versus ‘speculative’. The author concludes that philosophy is neither pure speculation nor pure criticism, rather it is ‘speculation controlled by criticism.’ This very nicely fulfills the needs of this site.

It is also worth mentioning that the word, philosophy, in its earliest usage effectively included all areas of knowledge. Natural philosophy eventually was subsumed into science, although there is still the field of philosophy of science. When reading early works it is important to keep this archaic use of the term in mind. Also history may not have ever been a recognized part of ancient philosophy, but there is the field of the philosophy of history more recently.

Philosophy remains difficult to define, but most readers’ notion of it should be satisfactory if the information above is unclear. Perhaps a few simplified definitions of philosophy as given by the philosophers themselves will also help.

“The art of life” – Cicero

“The scientific knowledge of man” – J. S. Mill

“The collective name for questions which have not been answered to the satisfaction of all that have asked them” – William James

“Total perspective, as mind overspreading life, and forging chaos into unity…all questions that vitally effect the worth and significance of human life.” – Will Durant.

“That primordial activity whereby self-respecting men seek to come to terms, not only with the ends of science or of art or of government, but with their own individual destinies.” – Henry D. Aiken.

“The aim of philosophy, abstractly formulated is to understand how things in the broadest possible sense of the term hang together in the broadest possible sense to the term.” – Wilfrid Sellars.

*Webster’s New Universal Unabridged Dictionary, 1996.
**The Oxford Guide to Philosophy, edited by Ted Honderich, 2005.
***The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, edited by Paul Edwards, 1967

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