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The motivation to philosophize
What motivates someone to start doing this activity called "philosophizing"?
What motivates people to start thinking very deeply about life and the
universe? It seems that only when one understands why people take up
philosophy can one properly understand what philosophy is.
We find ourselves believing things that we do not understand. This is
perhaps strange to say, but it is true. There are many very basic beliefs we
have, about God, ourselves, the natural world, human society, and human
productions. But all too often, we fail to understand what it is we believe,
and we fail to understand why we believe it. We have questions about meaning
of our beliefs and questions about the justification (or rationality) of our
beliefs. And we--many of us--dislike not understanding.
Consider some examples.
The belief in God
Very many people grow up being taught to believe that God (some God) exists.
But how many people know exactly what it is they mean by the word "God"?
Probably they have thought some about it: "Well," they tell themselves, "God
is the creator of the universe, and he is supposed to be all-powerful and
all-knowing; and he is supposed to be some sort of spiritual and personal
being." But is that an adequate account of what God is? Are there not many
questions one would have to have answered before one could say one knew just
exactly what God is? For example, surely one would 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, surely, one would have to know what it
means to say that God is all-powerful and all-knowing. Does that mean that
God can create a rock he cannot lift? Surely these are difficult questions.
These sorts of questions are only questions about what the proposition, "God
exists," means. But very many people do not truly understand why they
believe this. They have been taught it; they assume it and act as though it
were true. Of course, many who believe that God exists have thought about
why they believe it, and perhaps they have reasons, or explanations, such as
* I have a simple faith and that is enough.
* I firmly believe the Bible, my family and society, 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
But at least in certain moments, when they are being perfectly honest with
ourselves, many believers realize that they are not quite sure whether this
belief in God is perfectly justified. No doubt there are some sorts of
people who are relatively unquestioning and those people manage never, or
hardly ever, to question their belief in the existence of God. But some
others, who have an impulse to philosophize, want to get very clear on why
belief in God is, or perhaps is not, justified or rational. They want to see
the arguments on both sides.
When one starts asking, "What is God?" and "Is belief in the existence of
God rational?" and one is uncomfortable because one is not persuaded one
knows the answers, then one is motivated to do philosophy. In particular,
one is motivated to study an area of philosophy called philosophy of
What is morality?
Here is another example of discomforting puzzlement that might lead one to
philosophy. This time the puzzles are in ethics, the study of right and
wrong. Again, there are puzzles about both meaning and justification. What
does it mean to say that cheating is wrong? One shouldn't simply say, "It's
something that's bad--that you shouldn't do." Obviously then one will have
to answer, "What do 'bad' and 'should' mean?" 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. It seems one cannot say why one thinks cheating is wrong until one
knows what it means to say it is wrong; and very likely, once one has said
what it means, one will know why. The situation is the same 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 an action is
right, or wrong, is to know why it is right, or wrong.
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.
Hardly anyone truly understands these beliefs or knows why they have them or
whether they are truly rational to have them.
One can, and some people do, go through life without answering moral
questions. Perhaps, at least in part, it is because some people have not
thought certain moral questions through that they end up behaving immorally.
It is possible to use an easy sort of skepticism, or relativism, according
to which each person can disregard morality or invent his own and thus
justify whatever behavior one wants to get away with. That is (or can be) a
profoundly anti-philosophical attitude.
Even if, as is the case with very many people, one wishes to be a generally
good person but one also thinks that there is no objectively correct
morality, one is still stuck with a lot of puzzles. For example, if one is
accused of being not just a bad person, but a really bad person--an evil
person--then that person's accuser would be sympathetically viewed as just
expressing an opinion, that this opinion is true for the accuser and not for
the accused? It seems, to many at least, that there is some sense in which
the accuser is incorrect, period? 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: did those people simply have a
different moral point of view from more tolerant, humane, contemporary
points of view? Is there not some sense in which the Nazis were simply
The multiplicity of philosophical questions
Questions about God and ethics are only the tip of the philosophical
iceberg. There are many other things about this universe about which we are,
most of us, also fundamentally ignorant. Philosophers are in the business of
investigating all sorts of those areas of our ignorance.
A bewilderingly huge number of basic concepts are poorly understood. What
does it mean to say that one thing causes another? What is rationality? What
are space and time? What is beauty, and if it is in the eye of the beholder,
then what is it that is being said to be in the eye of the beholder? And so
on. The number of these most basic questions is huge.
Those are just the questions about meaning. One might also consider some of
the many questions about justification. Why think the sun will rise
tomorrow? Surely we are justified in believing this, but why? Most people
believe they have free will. They are not determined or fated to do what
they do; they have the ability to choose freely. But is this certainly true?
We live, by all appearances, in a world governed by strict laws that
scientists describe. Could our decisions be governed by the same sort of
strict laws? If you think not, then why not? Surely, the government should
be doing some things and it should not be doing other things. But why? As a
philosopher, one does not simply list the things you think government should
do; one says why one thinks the government should do those things. One
explains the purpose of any government, of having any official authority at all.
Our lives are deeply informed by all sorts of basic assumptions. If one made
radically different assumptions, one just would not be able to go on
thinking and living as one had been. That is surely a reason why some people
are scared, or angered, by philosophical questions. These questions are
powerful: if one changes the belief about a truly fundamental question, then
one might have to change how one perceives about the world, and even how one
lives. One might have change religions or become entirely unreligious; one
might have to act entirely differently in order to conform with new ideas of
morality you have; one 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.
(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 do not really understand is breathtakingly