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PHAQs (Philosophically Asked Questions)


Q: What do philosophers do?

A: Of course, one thing that philosophers do is to teach others what philosophy is, and how to pursue it. But that is not what you want to know.

Philosophers try to answer certain questions, or solve certain kinds of puzzles. Both the questions and puzzles, and the proposed answers to them, have certain unique characteristics.

Philosophers’ questions expose unnoticed assumptions that may otherwise hold unwarranted sway over us; the questions philosophers ask are about fundamental matters having far-reaching impact across our systems of thought. They are in that respect very general. Philosophers’ answers are intended to be clear and precise, and governed by very strict rules for reasoned inquiry. 

Though a philosopher may share with a physicist an interest in the structure of the universe, or share with a psychologist an interest in the mind, philosophical questions are distinct from those asked within any other discipline or practice.


Q: What kind of questions or puzzles do you inquire about?

A: Perhaps an example or two from the various areas of philosophy will help.

Physics employs the concepts of space, time and causation. Philosophers wonder what these terms mean, how are they to be understood. Newton, for example, suggested that in his conception of time, it flowed like a river. Philosophers note that if time flows, it must flow at a certain rate, and that any rate of flow is a measure of change per unit of time. So Newton’s account, instead of explaining time, required the prior understanding of the idea. Philosophers try to dig deeper.

The law requires that for a person to be guilty of any crime they must show the requisite intent, they must have done what they did on purpose. In legal jargon this is called mens rea. Philosophers examine the fundamental issue of what is required for an action to BE one’s own, to be a product of your will.

These two examples, the puzzle about time, and freedom of the will, are topics in metaphysics, a main branch of philosophy. Both are fertile ground for philosophical inquiry.

One more example: Moralists urge certain actions as right, and others as wrong. Philosophers wonder about the nature of right and wrong acts: what is it about them that makes them so? Is an action wrong simply because it causes harm? But some harmful acts are surely correct things to do: say action taken in self-defence. Are actions right because they are an instance of some general duty we have? But what are these general duties, and what justifies these rather than some others?

Q: What does justify some views and not others?

A: In all of the above examples there is a general requirement to get at the truth, to say what is true. But what is truth? A first philosophical pass might be that to tell the truth is to utter a sentence which tells it like it is -- that is, the truth is a kind of correspondence between what one says and the way things are. But many have argued that one cannot make out how things are without first having a concept of truth and falsity. Theories of truth, then, are another philosophical arena.

But we can say at least this: theories and arguments which tend to track the truth (however that may ultimately be defined) are to be prized.


Q: Why so much emphasis on theories and arguments?

A: An argument cannot tell you what is true, but it can do two things of almost equal importance: it can tell you what certain given truths imply, what other claims follow from them, and they can preserve truth, insuring by correct argument that hard won truths are not thrown away by faulty reasoning. So the study of argument itself -- both formally and informally -- is another rich philosophical vein.


Q:  But isnt what is right or wrong, what is unjustified or unjustified, purely a matter of opinion? Isnt my philosophy, whatever it is, just as valid as anyone elses?

A: Most philosophers would find this a curious claim to make. First note that no one is prepared to make such claims in other disciplines. No one seriously entertains the idea that anyone’s opinion about physics or chemistry is just as valid as a scientist’s opinions. You may have a view about the chemical composition of water, but unless it is one which agrees with the relevant experts (who say that water is H2O) then your view is inadequate.

Philosophical views are much more general than those in other disciplines, however, and seem to allow for a great deal more speculation. But this does not imply that they are without stringent criteria of acceptability. These criteria include the justification of one’s central claims either by deduction from mutually acceptable, and more basic, premises, or by arguing that the proposed theory best explains the set of facts in question (with what is to count as the best explanation itself a philosophical question of some merit).

Any alternative view one might claim to hold will, equally, be asked to show its own justification from more basic and mutually acceptable premises, or how it provides a superior account of the facts that we are given.

To assert that a particular philosophical view is just the opinion of the philosopher who propounded it is to fail to do justice to the account such a philosophical view entails – its scope and its credentials.


Q: In my philosophy class, the professor explained the views of a philosopher who lived a long time ago, and then argued that they are mostly false. What’s the point of that? 

A: Much of the study of philosophy (and philosophy classes) is the exposition and dissection of the views of prominent philosophers, including, perhaps, your instructors. The great philosophers are just those who have seen the deepest into the various perplexities noted above, and whose views on these subjects have stood the test of time. Their views (including their mistakes) serve to articulate the problems, and orient us to their potential solution.

No philosopher can satisfactorily defend her or his views without making clear the strongest arguments against these views, and in doing so, demonstrating, by argument, how her view is successful where others are not. It is this brutally honest self-appraisal which is philosophys salient virtue and, for some, one of its most attractive features. Thus you will often find that your instructor presents his own views and then examines arguments against them as well as doing this for other philosophers.

In short, any successful philosophy avoids bias by contending honestly with its strongest opponents.


Q: There is a lot of emphasis in the above answers on clarity and meaning, and in making sense. Why?

A: We cannot make much headway in solving any perplexity if we don’t first come to some agreement on what we mean. Here is a simple example. One might wonder whether a tree falling in the forest where no one is present, makes a noise. This supposed philosophical puzzle is easily answered – we need only decide on what we mean by makes a noise. If we mean produces compression waves (sound waves) in the surrounding medium, then surely it does make a noise. If we mean, produces an auditory sensation in a listeners mind, then, by hypothesis, it does not make a noise.

 This puzzle is, of course, a simple one. But other concepts which play fundamental roles in our metaphysical, ethical, and political concerns are not nearly so happily resolved. What counts as a person? What is death? What, if anything, is a soul? What makes an act just? These, and many more (including, as we have already noted, the concepts of space and time, right and wrong) are only a few of the yet to be completely resolved philosophical problems. Finding an account for these concepts that does justice to our intuitions about their use, or which carves reality at the joints, is part of what it means to do philosophy.


Q:  Isn't Philosophy, or the study of philosophy, supposed to tell you the Meaning of Life? 

The concern expressed here IS one that is taken up by philosophers, some quite explicitly. The answers they give cover quite a range of possibilities, but some agreement among these disparate answers can be seen.

Viewed from far enough away (a distant planet, say), all life, or just human life, can seem meaningless, even absurd. Our lives are just a temporal blink in the cosmic time scale, effecting only an infinitesimally minute corner of a vast universe. And these are facts of which we are painfully aware.

Some have thought that this unease could be solved vicariously by positing a God, or Gods, whose own purposes could be attached to our lives. The point of existence would be then to adopt these purposes as our own. Others reject this solution, either because they find no reason to accept the existence of such deities, or because they insist that a truly meaningful life cannot be achieved vicariously.

Still others shrug off the sentiments which precipitate the problem. Bertrand Russell, for one, claims that no one really cares that the universe as we know it will end in 10 billion more years--and thus lacks an ultimate purpose. Nor should we care about the fact that our lives will come to a more or less abrupt end within the next century. One might wish to argue that my doing good acts can only make sense if they are done in order to balance some cosmic account of my character (and to gain some ultimate reward). But anyone who does make such an argument should also be able to find motivation to act in the acts themselves--after all, by hypothesis, they have already determined that they are the right thing to do.

In short, one might argue that the questions regarding life's purpose or meaning are badly framed. "What is its purpose?" or "Where is it to be found?" are all too easily answered: "there isn't one", and "nowhere", respectively. None of this implies, however, that an individual's life cannot be filled with purpose, meaning, and goals. It is only that these purposes are not something we discover in the world, as if they were new continents. Rather they are created and maintained by each individual. You make your life meaningful by the adoption of certain goals which you take to be important. You may even decide that the worship of God is what gives meaning to your life. But this works only when you recognize that you are making a decision, and not a discovery.