We didn’t ask for it. Life happened to us.
No matter how hard we try, we will all lose the game of life. Death is the price we pay for birth, a bargain we never made. We are born without knowing why we are here or why we have an insatiable desire to stay. Life is a constant struggle against ourselves as well as other people, species, and elements of nature. In quiet moments, when our minds are still, we ask ourselves just one question. Why?
The need for an intelligible world began with pre-philosophical cultures living in a fearful, unexplained environment. Religion was humanity’s first organized attempt to make sense of it all. Religion is based on imagination, special revelation, mythology, and superstition. Through imagination, we created our own origin stories and reasons for being. Prophets even claimed to have received personal communications from the Creator of the universe. Over time, deeply held beliefs developed around these mythologies. Superstition kept us from questioning religious truths for fear of our eternal souls. When that wasn’t enough, a powerful religious aristocracy violently enforced their dogmas. That said, religion has provided some valuable insights. We will discuss those insights in other articles.
Beginning in the 4th century BCE, Hellenistic Age ideas shaped modern mathematics, political science, biology, and economics. Western society owes much to these ancient Greeks. Philosophy was born during this rich period. It is the ancestor of science and offers a more complete intellectual system of inquiry than either religion or science. Philosophy is driven by skepticism and the desire for truth. Whereas science seeks truths about the material operation of the universe, philosophy seeks larger truths. Specifically, philosophy seeks fundamental truths about ourselves, the world, and our relationship to the world and to each other. It addresses the concepts of knowledge, personal conduct, and political governance.
Philosophers search for truths beyond the scientific realm and religious revelation. Unlike religious revelation, truths in philosophy are earned. Philosophers toil in the garden of reason, pulling out intellectual weeds through critical analysis. The fruit of the philosopher’s labors are reasoned answers to the hardest questions we face. Philosophers do this even if it leads to answers that undermine their own deeply cherished beliefs. Wisdom comes from getting it right, even if it is bad news. That is why philosophers practice disinterest, not to be confused with uninterest. Disinterest means that there is no ego or emotional attachment, only intellectual honesty. The inquiring mind is restless and fearful of self deception.
Ideas in philosophy may or may not be cumulative like those of science. Achieving an answer or new insight in philosophy may simply lead to another question. Improved data and technology generally lead to a greater understanding of the material universe. They do not, however, necessarily lead to a greater understanding of why we are here or how we should conduct ourselves.
So let’s ask ourselves a tough question. Philosophy can only provide reasoned answers to our most enduring questions. Scientific knowledge, on the other hand, is precise and materially improves our lives, whether its through medicine, travel, communication, or everyday conveniences. What does philosophy give us?
Foremost, philosophy teaches us how to think. This is evidenced by the existence of science, which may be philosophy’s greatest progeny. Philosophy teaches us how to think rationally. Imagine a world dominated by clear thinking and reason-directed passions. In short, it develops our intellectual prowess and explanatory power.
Philosophy provides us with more reliable answers about the nature of life than we can get from religion.
We have an obligation to our own rationality and intellectual integrity to analyze the dogmas and assumptions that surround us. There can be no sacred cows or unchallenged authority figures. At the very least, philosophy highlights our biases and uncovers half-truths.
You do not have to be part of a privileged class to be a philosopher. You do not have to be a religious leader or have access to expensive lab equipment, either. You only need the willingness and drive to employ reason in your life.
Perhaps it is not God, but our God-given reason that enables us to step out of the shadows and into the light, ready to engage life on our terms.
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