Have you ever found yourself wondering why the world is the way it is, or why you sometimes feel completely at ease with your life and, at other times, completely confused about everything? Have you ever marveled at a spectacular sunset or felt exuberant for no particular reason and wondered why? These and other similar questions could very well have resulted with an unintended brush with philosophy.
Although the very mention of the word can be intimidating for some, (from the Greek philos-loving + sophos– wise – love of wisdom or knowledge) we all have had thoughts, ideas, and questions that are directly probed by philosophy. Should we be content and never wonder? Should we merely accept our lives and our world just as they are? Should we simply abandon the search for knowledge if it requires speculative thought?
The question of what matters in our lives is largely a matter of individual prerogative. For some of us, there are very few matters that are of consequence in life, and to others, the world and their lives are overflowing with concerns that require serious contemplation. But there is much more to our existence than simply being alive, and there are also limits as to how much we can resolve in a lifetime. Somewhere between disinterest and obsession lies philosophy.
The fact that we do exist infers that something caused us to exist. We did not decide, “Today, I will exist!” Modern science has been able to determine, with a reasonable degree of certainty, an explanation of the evolution of life on this planet, and most scientists generally agree on the basic concepts of physics that explain the development of the universe itself. Anyone with basic intelligence and reasonably functional senses can acknowledge themselves (self-awareness), observe the world around them (sense perception), and with good cause conclude that they exist (cognition). Rene Descartes (1596-1650), the French scientist and philosopher, expressed this idea in the now famous quote, “Cogito ergo sum, — I think, therefore, I am.” The true nature of that existence, and any conclusions that can be drawn from our study of it, constitute some of the central issues of philosophy.
As a species, our continued existence can arguably be attributed to our ability to think and to be self-aware, combined with our other inherited natural endowments for survival. When threatened with death, our natural inclination is to at least try to survive. The philosophical question, “Why?” is a natural one for any thinking person, and typically one of the first that we ask as children. The search for the answer is fundamental to our nature as human beings. Recent advancements in the scientific realm have raised other important philosophical questions. The discovery that our universe had a beginning called “The Big Bang,” immediately suggests the question, “What caused it?” Thus far, we have been unable to uncover the cause empirically, and it may be that the answer lies beyond the reach of science. Once we venture outside of empirical methodology, we enter the realm of speculative thinking and philosophy.
There are many other less profound questions from everyday life that can lead to this same kind of thinking. Unfamiliarity with the subject or reluctance to attempt an examination of it because of not knowing where to begin prevents many people from enjoying the benefits of philosophizing. In order to prepare to investigate philosophy, it is a good idea to establish a few ground rules that will make it easier to avoid some of the common problems associated with its speculative nature. In his book, “A Preface to Philosophy,” author Mark Woodhouse provides some very helpful suggestions for anyone who is interested in philosophy but is unsure where to start. He offers four basic traits for a good foundation:
1. The courage to examine one’s cherished beliefs critically – This is one of the biggest stumbling blocks for some people to overcome. We seldom challenge our beliefs on our own, but rather only when challenged by someone else. By initiating the examination on our own, we avoid becoming defensive or feeling criticized.
2. The willingness to advance or assume a tentative hypothesis and react to a philosophical claim no matter how foolish that reaction might seem – In order to appreciate and understand a philosophical argument, it is sometimes necessary to suppose that a particular claim were true. Then, ask yourself some questions and consider the consequences as if it were factual.
3. A desire to place the search for truth above the winning of a debate – The goal of any philosophic discussion should always be, above all, a search for the truth, not a competition among the participants to see who can demolish the arguments of the others.
4. The ability to separate one’s personality from the discussion content – Philosophic statements and discussion can sometimes cause emotional reactions due to the nature of the subjects that arise in conversation. If you can stick to the subject and judge statements on their merit alone, discussion will be more productive.
There are very few people who can produce grand theories in philosophy even after years of study. Even though you may have no previous background or formal training, your thoughts are no less valid or important. Philosophy is not some mysterious, ancient voodoo ritual. It is a common, everyday investigation of questions and issues that we all have thought about at one time or another. Although you may not have had an interest in the subject generally, you may be surprised to discover that some of the famous philosophers through history have spent years studying questions that you have also pondered. Many people do not even recognize philosophical thinking when they engage in it. It can begin with wondering if something is moral or ethical, and progress to something as complex as life after death or the nature of reality. Everyone inevitably ends up struggling with some philosophical issue, and if you can allow yourself to wonder, you can arrive at philosophy.