On God and the Philosopher (how philosophical thinking can lead to a life of godlessness)

This one is for all of my God-fearing friends who believe that God is all powerful, yet can’t make a rock so heavy he can’t lift it.

 

 

 
I’m out of the closet.

 

SPONGEBOB OUT

 

 

No, not that closet.

I’m out of the other closet. You know the one I’m talking about. I’m talking about that big, dark, sin-filled closet. The one no politician, professional moralizer, or conservative talk show host wants to be seen stepping out of. The closet that once you step inside you’re destined for fire and brimstone and eternal damnation.

The closet with the label written in great big shiny letters “non-believer”.

That closet.

I’m out of the atheist closet.

 

143-Atheists-are-coming-650x365

 

 

I will no longer tell people that I’m an agnostic or “spiritual”.
I will no longer say I am a “skeptic”.
I am an atheist.
I do not believe that God exists.
So far, I have not been struck by lightning.

 

WHAT HAPPENED TO THE LAST GUY I KNEW WHO SAID HE WAS AN ATHEIST

WHAT HAPPENED TO THE LAST GUY I KNEW WHO SAID HE WAS AN ATHEIST

 

I haven’t always been an atheist. I used to believe in God. I went to church (some) Sundays. I believed that Jesus is the reason for the season, voted Republican, and listened to nothing but contemporary Christian music. When people sneezed, I said “God bless you” –
And I meant it.

For a couple of years, this was my favorite song:

 

 
I believed that Jesus Christ was my personal Lord and Savior. I believed that His Father so loved the world that he sent his only Son to die for my sins.

I don’t believe any of that now.

 

 

KEEP CALM AND BELIEVE IN YOURSELF

 

Every atheist has a reason for why he or she doesn’t believe in God. I guess if I had to name exactly what got me out of believing in God, I’d say the reason why I no longer believe in God has something to do with studying philosophy.

I’d tell you that studying philosophy caused me to develop the philosopher’s habit of overthinking.

I’d tell you that I literally thought myself out of believing in God.

My explanation would go something like this: as a philosopher, I was dedicated to a life according to the Socratic Method. That, therefore, invariably led to questioning everything. And in turn, asking questioning everything lead to doubt. And in doubting what you you’re thinking – I stopped believing in God.

Really, it went just like that.

 

atheist logic

 

I can only describe my atheist conversion as nothing short of mystical. I was sitting right there in the church pew when I was suddenly hit by a revelation: God does not exist.

Since that day I’ve had no doubt that I don’t think that God exists.

I know that this all might sound like I’m anti-God. I’m not. I’m not even anti-other people believing in God. But then, I also don’t have problem with anyone not believing in God. And, as I said before, I don’t. I just never saw any reason for believing that God exists. Believing in the existence of an Omnicompetent Creator may be a satisfying answer to all of life’s mysteries for some, but as far as my immortal soul goes, I’m more than quite content with the fact that I’ve chosen to live without daily prayers, knowing that Jesus is the reason for the season, and living without that feeling of paranoia and guilt whenever I’d pass along the offering tray without putting anything into it.

Even though I knew I had exactly 28 dollars in cash in my wallet.

Being an atheist means not being afraid to look a Jehovah’s Witnesses’ face and I tell her that I not only refuse to accept her copies of the Watchtower and/or Awake! (Lord knows I wasn’t going to read them anyway), but that I also find the whole believing-in-God-and-accepting-Jesus-as-my-personal-savior-thing quite unbelievable.

 

thank god it's an aligator

I’ll tell you the truth, though. It’s not easy to tell other people that I don’t believe in God. To come out as a non-believer in a self-proclaimed Christian nation can be a bit of scary thing. I’m not just talking about feeling the fear of falling into that old philosophical trap of confirming the existence of God by denying that God exists.*

It’s scary because once you’ve confessed that you don’t believe in God, your mom, your former alcoholic, born-again, on fire with the LORD uncle – even complete strangers are compelled to inform you that rejecting God means your immortal soul is lost and doomed to burn in hell – forever.

It’s hard sometimes to hear that Jehovah’s Witness say as I’m politely slamming the door in her middle-aged face, “God loves you even though you don’t believe in HIM.”
The funny thing about being an atheist is, is despite my own comfort with my current state of godlessness, sometimes it seems that everyone else out there has a problem with uncloseted nonbelievers like me.

I’m not imagining this.

 

OK, I DABBLED INTO SOCIALISM BUT IT HAD NOTHING TO TO WITH BEING AN ATHEIST

OK, I DABBLED INTO SOCIALISM BUT IT HAD NOTHING TO TO WITH BEING AN ATHEIST

 

Americans on whole don’t think very highly of the godless. In a survey conducted by the University of Minnesota, 47.6% of respondents said that they would not approve of their child marrying an atheist, and less than half of Americans (45%) say they would vote for a qualified presidential candidate who does not believe in God. In that same University of Minnesota study 39.5 % said that atheists are the group least likely to believe in the ideals of American society.

This means that according to a significant portion of the American public, more Americans believe that card-carrying communists, anarchists, and Al-Qaeda jihadists are more committed to American principles than people who don’t believe in God.

 

anti god and anti american

 

Although atheists, secularists, and nonbelievers are an estimated 1.1 billion of the world’s seven billion human inhabitants, most Americans surveyed say that they are less likely to vote for an atheist political candidate than to vote for a woman, a minority, a Jewish, Mormon, or even an openly gay political candidate. In a study conducted by the University of British Columbia, researchers found that there is only group the public despises more than atheists.

Care to guess who?

You guessed it: Rapists.

The public trusts people who sexually violate others more than they trust an atheist.

 

ATHEISTS AND SEX OFFENDERS

 

 

I guess if you don’t like God, people don’t like you.

For the record, I find it comforting to see that a majority of Americans are willing to vote for a woman, a minority, or an openly gay candidate.

 

Honestly, one doesn’t need to know the stats on American attitudes towards atheists to know that things are bad out there for the average John Q. Atheist. We know that in the minds of (some) God-fearing folks, not believing in an Omnicompetent deity is un-Americanly bad enough, but there is a worse kind of unbeliever – the COLLEGE EDUCATED ATHEIST.

 

college atheist

 

It seems that as much as people dislike run-of-the-mill atheists, they especially dislike non-believers with a post-secondary education.

 

freshman atheist

 

In my book, Mindless Philosopher: How Philosophy Taught Me Everything I Needed to Know About Popular Culture, I purposefully evaded the topic of religion and philosophy of religion. In that book wrote that if time travel were possible, I would go back in time and tell myself under no circumstances should I take a philosophy of religion class. I wanted to avoid religion not because I’m anti-religious. I think if you have a personal belief in something, that’s fine.

 

We all gotta serve somebody, as Dylan sang.

My reluctance was due, in part, to my belief that: 1) any serious discussion on the topic of religion and/or philosophy of religion would fill a book in itself, b) religion is a topic best discussed by priests, ministers, and theologians – not by academics and philosophers, and, more importantly, 3) I don‘t believe God exists.

 

atheist jesus

 

 

I once said that if I ever experience a spiritual crisis I would more likely turn to my local clergy rather than a philosopher.

Well, unless that philosopher was Cornell West. He’s got a degree in theology.

 

The reason why, I think, is because unlike the average non-believer, who may or may not carry his atheism with a sense of shame, pain, or personal failure, the college-educated atheist has one special ingredient that makes him immune from any sense of humility: a college-educated attitude.

I actually said this to a professor in a philosophy of religion class. He told me I was in no “epistemic position” to make that kind of judgment.

Riiiight.

After years of post-secondary training, the college-educated atheist not only believes is there no God, but he’s delusional enough to believe that he’s right (and has the right) to say there isn’t.

 

philosoraptor atheist

 

I remember when I was a freshman in high school, my English teacher told the class that the college campus is a place where a believing man is doomed to lose his religion. He proclaimed, “If you start college as a Christian, you’ll come out godless.” I think he was trying to be helpful. He told us that college will turn you into a skeptic and that losing ones belief in God, at least so far as college is concerned, is inevitable.

America’s universities were no more than full-blown God-hating atheist factories.

After having gone to college and doing the philosophy thing it’s no surprise then, how I’ve turned out. According to what some folks, including my old freshman English teacher, believe about college-educated people, my atheism is typical of both college grads and philosophers. Most philosophers (including most philosophy professors) don’t believe in God.

It’s estimated that 73% of philosophy professors are atheists or lean towards atheism.

 

PROBABLY AN ATHEIST

PROBABLY AN ATHEIST

 

Looking at my high school English teacher’s prophesy, I’m beginning to think he wasn’t being overly pessimistic about our ability to maintain a belief in God in the face of academia-based anti-religiosity as much as he just plain got it right – many people do stop believing in God on college campuses.

 

Really, it’s true.

If you’ve never stepped foot on a college campus, here are a few stats you should know:

Individuals with a post-graduate education are more likely to identify themselves as atheists (This group also included self-professed liberals, Democrats, Independents, and people who live on the East coast).
A Pew Center study estimated that 20% of adults 18-25 (aka college age kids) classify themselves as either atheist, agnostic, or nonreligious, and more than one-half of non-religious Millennials (those born after 1981) state that they no longer practice their childhood faith at all.
According to recent data, church membership has steadily declined among younger Americans, with a growing number of young Americans professing no faith or belief in God at all. One fourth of Millennials identify as religiously unaffiliated. However, the number of older Americans who believe in God has remained relatively unchanged.  And college campuses have seen noticeable increase in the number of atheist groups and secular organizations.

 

stats on belief in god

THIS IS A NICE CHART WITH STATISTICS. BUT YOU KNOW WHAT THEY SAY ABOUT STATISTICS

 

Given the rise in the number of Americans getting college degrees and the popularly-held belief that atheists dwell in a godless moral vacuum, it’s no surprise that, in the minds of some believers, the prevalence of atheism among college-educated folks is a source of some concern. After all, how can America be “one nation under God” if we’re a nation of unbelievers? The college-atheism connection even led 2012 Republican presidential candidate, former Pennsylvania senator, Rick Santorum, to say:

It’s no wonder President Obama wants every kid to go to college. The indoctrination that occurs in American universities is one of the keys to the left holding and maintaining power in America … As you know, 62 percent of children who enter college with a faith conviction leave without it.

 

The accuracy of Rick Santorum’s comments and the public’s sentiments towards atheism aside, the belief that colleges are nothing more than atheist indoctrination factories is a real problem – and not just for believers.

 

atheism isn't a religion

 

 

It’s also a problem for philosophers.

Philosophers on whole are a bunch of non-believing people. God could point his finger directly into a philosopher’s face, announce his very existence, and he’d still be an ass about the existence of God. Anyone who has read the anti-theistic philosophy of Ayn Rand, Friedrich Nietzsche or Arthur Schopenhauer knows that it doesn‘t matter if God looks like this guy.

 

GOD

 

 

Or this guy:

 

smiling god

 

Or this guy:

 

sha ka ree

 

 

No matter what it looks like, most philosophers will never admit that HE exists.

73% of them as a matter of fact.

 

Unless you’re Alvin Plantinga.

 

THIS PHILOSOPHER BELIEVES IN GOD

THIS PHILOSOPHER BELIEVES IN GOD

 

 

Or this guy:

 

THIS PHILOSOPHER BELIEVES THAT GOD EXISTS, TOO

THIS PHILOSOPHER BELIEVES THAT GOD EXISTS, TOO

 

Of course this leads to the inevitable question: if the majority of philosophers and philosophy professors don’t believe in the existence of an all-seeing, all-knowing, all-powerful being, and colleges are nothing more than atheist indoctrination camps, why would university-trained folks want to think about, much less conjure up philosophical theories about religion?

That, my friends, is the question, isn’t it? Why would someone – especially a philosopher who doesn’t believe in God – want to know about God?

 

FOR THIS GUY, THE THOUGHT OF ASKING QUESTIONS ABOUT GOD IS THE SAME AS ASKING “X7863HSFI#OF!HOIFC?HIOF**H777 OIC&NK” WITTGENSTEIN SAYS GOD TALK IS ALL GIBBERISH

FOR THIS GUY, THE THOUGHT OF ASKING QUESTIONS ABOUT GOD IS THE SAME AS ASKING “X7863HSFI#OF!HOIFC?HIOF**H777 OIC&NK” — WITTGENSTEIN SAYS GOD TALK IS ALL GIBBERISH

 

Philosophy is defined as the love of wisdom. Philosophers believe that we gain wisdom through rational thought, reason and logical arguments. Religion, on the other hand, relies on faith. For the believer, religious belief and indeed, the beauty of religious experience, is the mysterious, spirituality and the supernatural; the unexplained. Something that can’t be explained or justified through the use of reason. Faith, unlike reason, cannot be mediated by anyone other than by God. One does not need logical proof; one simply believes.

The Danish philosopher and theologian Søren Kierkegaard argues we cannot rest our belief in God solely on reason. Kierkegaard states, if we choose faith we must suspend our reason in order to believe in something higher than reason. Kierkegaard doesn’t say reason is worthless, just that we can’t get to the truth of God’s existence through using reason alone. We require a leap of faith.

 

leap of faith 2

 

 

The problem with philosophy is that wisdom and reason are inextricably linked; one cannot claim to be wise if one’s wisdom is not based on reliable, rational evidence. As a consequence, faith and reason don’t necessarily go together. Religion and philosophy are like oil and water.

It’s often impossible to make them mix.

 

 

 ALTHOUGH SOMETIMES WHEN YOU MIX OIL AND WATER YOU MAKE A YUMMY VINAIGRETTE

ALTHOUGH SOMETIMES WHEN YOU MIX OIL AND WATER YOU MAKE A YUMMY VINAIGRETTE

 

 

Philosophical inquiry is understanding why people believe as they do. If we look at what people believe, what they think, how they act, we see that one of the sources of ethics and metaphysics is God. God influences us and our behavior; our metaphysics, what we believe is true. God’s word gives informs us the meaning of life. So does philosophy.
That means we can’t discuss philosophy without at least considering the role of religion.

No matter how any atheist, college educated or not, feels about religion or God, the majority of the Earth’s population, whether they bow to Jehovah or Allah; whether their God is Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Jain, Hindu, Invisible Pink Unicorn or Pastafarian, believe in the existence of an all-powerful being.

 

IS IT A GOD OR ONE OF THE AQUA TEEN HUNGER FORCE?

IS IT A GOD OR ONE OF THE AQUA TEEN HUNGER FORCE?

 

 

So it’s probably not a good idea that philosophers should totally ignore the influence of religious belief on philosophical thought.

 

Wait a minute. I’m an atheist. I don’t want to say that.

I need to rethink this.

 

 

 

* The “old trap” , for those who haven’t stepped into it, goes a little like this: by naming an object (in this case God), I am asserting that there is some object in the real world to which the name “God” corresponds. If I say that “God” does not exist, I am saying that that named object to which an object in the real world corresponds (God) does not exist, thus I am contradicting myself. So to avoid such contradiction, I will not name an object but state that I lack a belief in the existence of a being that is described as an all-knowing, all-seeing, omnipotent, perfectly good being (I shall steal a word from a former professor and use the word “Omnicompetent”). If you want to know what I just did to avoid the trap, read up on Bertrand Russell and definite descriptions… or not.

 

 

SOURCES:

1) http://abcnews.go.com/Technology/story?id=1786422&page=1
2) http://life.nationalpost.com/2011/11/30/religious-people-do-not-believe-in-atheists-study/
3) http://jezebel.com/5864303/people-think-atheists-are-just-as-bad-as-rapists-christ
4) http://cnsnews.com/news/article/gallup-liberals-democrats-grad-students-easterners-more-likely-be-atheists
5) Pew Center stat: Joanna Sharpless. “Faithlessness On the Rise?” 11/07/07. http://www.secularstudents.org/node/1848
6) The number of Americans with a four-year degree as of 2011, is 28%. http://chronicle.com/article/Census-Data-Reveal-Rise-in/126026/
7) Stats on Millennials: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/06/05/more-millennials-losing-their-religion_n_1571366.html?ncid=edlinkusaolp00000009
8) http://www.pbs.org/wnet/need-to-know/video/video-are-colleges-encouraging-atheism/13078/comment-page-1/
9) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Religion
10) http://dudeism.com
11) http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/philosophy-religion/

 

Kant Totally Allows Shameless Plugs

Some time ago, I wrote a book.

No, I’m not kidding. I wrote a book. With pages…. and words.

I think it’s quite dandy.

Did I forget to mention that it’s called Mindless Philosopher: How Philosophy Taught Me Everything I Needed To Know About Popular Culture, and that it’s available on Amazon?

this is the cover of my book… just in case you feel like buying it.

Like I said, I think it’s pretty dandy.

I wrote my book with all the best intentions; namely, people would read it and become philosophically enlightened. So far, that hasn’t exactly happened.

BUT then again, Nietzsche wasn’t popular until after he was dead.

Of syphilis.

Anyway, in the spirit of shameless self promotion, I’ve decided to post the introduction of my book here.

Enjoy. It’s pretty dandy.

INTRODUCTION:

WHAT IS PHILOSOPHY?

“The unexamined life is not worth living.” — Socrates (469-399 B.C.E.)

I know I shouldn’t say this, but I dislike Aristotle. Honest. I know that philosophers are supposed to get all hyped up and saucer-eyed over the ancient Greek philosophers like Socrates, Heraclitus, Thales, and whatnot, but given my druthers; I’d rather watch an all-day marathon of season two of RuPaul’s Drag Race or thumb through the latest issue of Entertainment Weekly or read the suitable-for-bathroom-reading of Deep Thoughts by Saturday Night Live resident sage, Jack Handey, or even re-read The Secret than to hear another lecture about Plato’s Beard.

I admit it. I am a philosopher.

I hate Aristotle.

Ok, maybe the word hate is a little extreme. When I was a kid, I was told never to use the word hate if I really didn’t mean it. I don’t actually hate Aristotle, as I have never met the guy, it’s just that whenever I’m reading philosophy, I’d rather be reading or looking at or doing something else.

No. It’s not even that I’d rather be reading, looking at, or doing something else. I like philosophy. I do. I’d truly like to believe that the practice of philosophy is the world’s second oldest profession (we know someone had to be around to conjure up some theory about the oldest profession). I’ve always liked philosophy, even before I’d ever heard of Aristotle or Socrates or Saul Kripke. Do you know those old TV shows where the host asks a bunch of little kids what they want to be when they grow up? Remember how some little kids know exactly what they want to do? When these kids grow up, they’ll tell you that they always knew that they’d grow up to be a doctor, a high school phys ed. coach, or an astronaut. Some people like priests and nuns even say that they were called to do the Lord’s work. Folks like that are lucky. When I think about my relationship with philosophy, if someone had asked me when I was eight years old what I wanted to be when I grew up (and I had an inkling of what philosophy is), I would have said that I wanted to spend my time thinking. I might have not have known the word “philosopher” when I was eight years old, but I certainly knew that I liked thinking about stuff. I guess I’m lucky that way.

Now, if I thought about how or why I found myself drawn to the systematic study of knowledge, morality, and existence, looking back, I suppose I’d have to say that it had something to do with jokes about Ludwig Wittgenstein and being a latchkey kid.

*     *     *     *

     I spent a lot of time alone when I was a kid, perhaps too much time alone. My mom worked evenings and my older siblings, who were much older than me, weren’t interested in hanging out with a kid still in elementary school, so instead of coming home to mom and a plate of warm peanut butter chocolate chip cookies, I came home to a cupboard full of Fruit Roll-Ups, an occasional squeeze pack of Capri Sun, and the comfort of a warm, glowing TV set. Now that we’ve grown older, many of my fellow latchkey kids have bemoaned their lonely childhood after school experiences, but from my own childhood experience, spending so much time alone after school meant that I had plenty of time to amuse myself with my own thoughts. In those hours spent alone staring at the television set, I discovered that I enjoyed thinking. I enjoyed thinking about anything and everything. My love of thinking was surpassed only by how much I enjoyed watching TV.

I’m not that old (I’m in my thirties. There. I said it), but I’m old enough to remember when MTV aired music videos 24-hours a day (I could lay down some anti-MTV rant about how the network formerly known as Music Television used to show actual music videos and now MTV is nothing but a reality TV show cesspool, but that rant has been overdone. Honestly, Bully Beatdown is more entertaining than any Adam Ant music video ever was or could ever hope to be), and I remember the big stink among music video fans when MTV added non-music video programming to its weekday line up. Those folks who complained about MTV’s non-music video programming way back when can claim they were soothsayers, and that their hubbub over non-music video TV shows on MTV fell on the same deaf ears like Cassandra warning the Trojans of their impending defeat at the hands of the Spartan army. They would be well within their rights to say so. But as every dark cloud has a silver lining, for me, the end of music television on music television shone one ray of sunshine: my philosophical awakening through watching Monty Python’s Flying Circus.

Thank God for cable television.

There are many firsts, no matter how much time has passed, that we will always remember: first kiss, first love, first non-all ages concert, first DUI… the first times that shape our lives and who we are. Every Monty Python fan remembers exactly which movie or sketch, where they were, and what they were doing when they experienced their first encounter with Monty Python‘s Flying Circus. When I watched my first episode, I knew that I thought the show was funny, but it was funny in a way unlike any other television show I’d ever seen. Monty Python’s Flying Circus wasn’t just funny, like Full House and Family Matters were funny; it was smart. The show seemed almost tailor-made for people who spent a lot of time entertained by their own thoughts. The day after my first episode I asked my friends of they had seen the incredible television that I had witnessed the day before. None had. When I tried to tell them what I saw, they were disinterested in hearing about what I’d seen. I couldn’t understand why they weren’t excited by re-enactment of the “Cheese Shop” sketch (my Michael Palin impersonation was spot on). I absolutely could not believe that my friends were unaware of, and worse yet uninterested in Monty Python.

I had discovered this wonderful thing and none of my fellow latchkey kids gave a damn about it.

I knew that my friends, even if they emphatically told me that they “didn’t give a rat’s ass” about Monty Python’s Flying Circus,had to know that they were missing out on something pretty special. They had to have seen that I had experienced the miracle of Python and I needed to share it with others. I was determined that my friends experience Monty Python. I sang “The Lumberjack Song” while hanging out with my friends after school, recite lines from the “Dead Parrot” sketch in the middle of English class, or attempt to explain to my dumbfounded and irritated friends why “Fish Slapping Dance” is so funny during lunch period. I would randomly yell “albatross!” and “my brain hurts” in public places. Nobody understood me. Nobody wanted to understand me. I felt alone. I reluctantly realized that Monty Python was the least popular thing I’ve ever encountered. Sharing it with my friends was hopeless. They would never be converted. Eventually I gave up.

For some time I was convinced that there was something wrong with me. I was completely in love with a TV show that no one else I knew cared about or wanted to see. In their eyes, Monty Python was British humor. They said it wasn’t funny. They told me the only people who were nerdier than Monty Python fans was people who like to think and I was both. So I hid my love of all things Python, stopped thinking so much, and learned to enjoy Jean-Claude van Damme movies just like everyone else. On the outside I appeared to be a perfectly normal person. I even learned to appreciate the Jean-Claude van Damme classics Bloodsport, Hard Target,and of course, Universal Soldier. Here’s the thing: I realize the reason why I became a Monty Python fan all those years ago was because there was something more to the humor than sketches with John Cleese yelling at the top of his lungs and jokes about Spam and naughty bits. I realize that it was then, during those afternoons spent alone after school, munching on Teddy Grahams, sipping on a can of Pepsi Clear that I first heard of Georg Hegel, Karl Marx, and Ludwig Wittgenstein. Watching Monty Python’s Flying Circus didn’t just make me laugh, it made me think, and for the first time in my life I started to think about what I was thinking. I wanted to know more about the men whose names I heard as punch lines. I wanted to know more, period. The something more that I wanted to know was philosophy.

*     *     *     *

     I read somewhere that an anonymous sage said, “the only difference between graffiti and philosophy is the word ‘fuck’ ”. I’m not so sure if that’s true. I may be a little slow witted, but I really don’t see the connection between the “187” scrawled in large English Gothic letters on the wall of the liquor store down the street from my house and logical positivism. Everybody has an opinion about philosophy, I guess. Back when I was a very moody, impressionable teenager, the pre-grunge era alternative rock band Edie Brickell & New Bohemians song “What I Am” that suggested that philosophy can be found on a cereal box.

That might be true.

Although not everyone may consider themselves philosophers, everyone has a general attitude on life or a set of rules that we live by; what we might call our “philosophy”. Our individual philosophies not only encompass our values and beliefs about what’s important in our lives, but our philosophies also include questions about the meaning of life, reality, knowledge, and morality. It’s probably safe to assume that most of us haven’t spent hours gazing at our navels or sitting under a bodhi tree to attain enlightenment about life’s big questions, but I doubt there is one person who has never questioned why we are here, what is the meaning of life, or what it means to be moral. The problem with philosophy is when we talk about philosophy (personal or in general), we often mistakenly assume that everyone defines “philosophy” the same way. As any professional philosopher will tell you, a clear and precise definition of the word “philosophy” doesn’t just pop out at you waving its arms and screaming, “Here I am. This is the real me. This is what philosophy is!” If we asked a hundred people what philosophy is we might get a hundred different answers. We know that the general idea of philosophy has to do with asking questions and looking for answers; but still, philosophers can’t exactly define what philosophy is. I think it’s safe to say that a roomful of philosophers will agree that the primary objective of philosophy is the pursuit of knowledge and wisdom, however, a consensus on one answer to one question (that question being “what is philosophy?”). Believe it or not, philosophers are people, too, and like most people, philosophers disagree about everything. Unfortunately for philosophers, who tend to prefer concise terminology, the definition of philosophy is ambiguous at best.

So then, what is philosophy?

Generally speaking, philosophy is divided among three main branches: epistemology, the theory of knowledge, metaphysics, or ontology, and ethics.  Within the three main branches of philosophy we find diverse areas of study such as: philosophy of science, philosophy of mind, philosophy of education, philosophy of history, philosophy of religion, political philosophy, aesthetics, medical and business ethics, philosophy of race, feminist philosophy, and New Age philosophy. The point of philosophy isn’t merely ask questions (although that’s important), nor is philosophy merely descriptive. Philosophy tells us how to act. Philosophy teaches us to think clearly and critically, to think about what we are thinking. Philosophy means never stop looking, always seeking, always examine our lives. Philosophy provides us with the tools we use to answer life’s big questions.

Understanding what philosophy is, however, does not remove the reputation that philosophy has earned over the centuries — it’s too technical and abstract. It’s too academic. It’s a waste of time. The somewhat negative image of philosophy and of philosophers is often well deserved. Philosophy is often extremely technical, even for those who study philosophy. Let’s face it; philosophers are often guilty of missing the forest for the trees (any one who has attempted to engage a philosopher in the simple act of chit chat  may have discovered that philosophers are incapable of answering simple questions, especially if the answer is yes or no). But, as much as we’d like to leave the philosophers to associate amongst themselves in their hallowed halls of academia, their habit of using appallingly technical language and alienating nearly every other human being who engages them in conversation is no reason to throw out the philosopher with the bathwater. At least before we toss Aristotle out of the tub, we should have some idea of what a philosopher is.

*     *     *     *