Thursday, 24 September 2015


Our roving reporter is back to discuss how philosophy can be a way of life.

RR:  Thanks for meeting me again.  Last time you said that philosophy can be just a hobby but that most philosophers take it much more seriously as rational inquiry about the Big Questions.  You also said that philosophy today is often thought to be a technical academic specialty that is not of much use to ordinary folks.  Hasn’t that always been the case?
No.  It is true that from ancient times philosophers have always speculated about the origin of the universe, the constituents of matter, how living organisms work, and so   on - what we today call science.  (And by the way, until recently, there was no sharp distinction made between philosophy and science.)  But there has always been a tradition of practical philosophy - how to think about your own personal morals, habits, and what it means to live a good life.  So there two main aspects of philosophy, the theoretical and the practical.
RR:  Right.  That’s what I want to talk about today.  You seem to think that philosophy can be a way of life.  How can that be?  Philosophical thinking is abstract, concerned with very general ideas.  Often it’s hard to understand. How can it be made a central part of a person’s day-to-day living?
First of all, to become a philosopher involves a certain attitude, a desire to know as much as possible about the universe and how to deal with the Big Questions.  It’s a craving for truth.  Call it deep curiosity.  Philosophy also involves the commitment to never allow an external authority - religious or secular - to determine what you believe and how you intend to live your life.  Reason alone will be your constant guide.  Call this deep skepticism. 
Once you have embraced this commitment, you need some skills.  You need to become proficient in critical thinking.  That requires work - basic training in logic which teaches how to analyze statements, how arguments work, how to distinguish between good and bad reasoning.  Then you need lots of practice applying those skills in everyday life.
Now let’s be clear.  To become a skillful critical thinker doesn’t mean you go around attacking the beliefs of everyone you meet at work or at a party.  As a philosopher, your main concern is with your own beliefs.  “Know thyself,” Socrates said.  Physicist and philosopher Richard Feynman put it even more strongly, “The first rule is that you must not fool yourself - and you are the easiest person to fool."                                                                                                                              

RR:  True.  We’re all vulnerable to confirmation bias, gullibility, wishful thinking, impulsive decision making, rationalization, and so on.  There are a lot of ways to be irrational.  And critical thinking is the only protection from these demons?
        It’s the only one I know of.  Without it, what have you got?  Successful living depends on our beliefs.  If we don’t learn to critically examine our own dogmas, hidden assumptions, and reasoning as well as our emotional patterns and social interactions, our worldviews and values will be determined by religion, tradition, ideology, or just by whatever ideas are in fashion at any given time.  Our lives will be other-directed rather than self-directed.  What kind of person do you want to be?  Conformist or philosopher?  Demanding the very best reasons for believing and acting is for me a matter of fundamental self-respect.
A great example of a critical approach to life is the method of skeptical doubt made famous by Rene Descartes.  After experiencing some kind of intellectual crisis, he decided to start from scratch by assuming that all his current beliefs might be false.  Then he set about to systematically identify some basic ideas that he couldn’t doubt and build up his worldview from those.
RR:  So the habit of critical thinking is the first ingredient of a philosophical life.  What else is involved?
Deep skepticism tells you what isn’t true, but that implies discovering what is true at the same time, or at least what you think is true.  For example, if philosophy frees you from a religious perspective, that has to be replaced with something if you are not to give in to cynicism or despair.  Most people adopt some version of secularism or scientific humanism.  Working out a theory of that sort is the the speculative function of philosophy I mentioned earlier.  That’s the task of putting together a worldview, a Big Picture perspective that is intended to show how all your concepts fit together.  The critical and speculative functions work together. 
RR:  Can you say more about how that works?
Sure.  Take Michael Shermer, for example.  Here’s a classic case of an individual who abandoned a religious upbringing to become a philosopher.  He has built a successful career as a public skeptic.  He founded The Skeptics Society, which has some 55,000 members.  In books, articles, courses, TV programs, and blogposts, he uses critical reasoning to expose pseudoscience and debunk all kinds of religious beliefs, ufo abductions, paranormal claims, health fads, and other kinds of nonsense and bs.
Shermer’s skepticism did not lead him to cynicism or nihilism.  Over time he put together a comprehensive worldview known as humanism.  It includes a theory of knowledge, a theory of reality, and a “science of morality.”  Those are the basic elements of anyone’s worldview.  I assume Shermer uses critical reasoning constantly to refine his worldview and revise it as new information and ideas emerge in the general culture.
RR:  This is starting to make sense.  If we commit to reason as our fundamental guide to truth, we take a critical perspective on all truth claims and with the pieces left over we try to construct some kind of overall theory about reality and life.  I take it this project never really ends; it’s a lifelong process.
Yes it is.  A philosopher can retire his professorship, but he can’t retire his beliefs - he knows they might be wrong.
RR:  From what you've said, it seems I am a philosopher, but not a very good one.  My worldview probably does s….. uh, have some holes in it, and maybe I’m not as critically sharp as I should be.  What do you recommend?
If you want a recipe, here’s a simple 3-step approach:
1.  Set aside an hour a day for philosophical reading and thinking.  Keep a journal.
2.  Learn how to think.  Study some logic texts.  Take a course.  Practice.
3.  Argue with friends, family, or whoever will put up with you. Try not to be obnoxious. 
In five years or so, you’ll start to get the hang of it.*  
RR:  Five years?  Isn't there something I can take, like the red pill in The Matrix? ...  Listen, I know you have other things to do, but I’m still missing something from our conversation.  Philosophy so far still seems too intellectual.  I see that learning to think and building a worldview are essential to becoming a philosopher, but I still don’t see how these can be applied to my day-to-day living.  Do you mind meeting again to talk about that? 
        Not at all.  Next week, same time, same place? Ok, coffee's on you.  I gotta go.

*  For more on this, see Richard Carrier, "How to Be a Philosopher" at

Thursday, 17 September 2015


Imagine that I'm being interviewed by Philosophy Talk's roving reporter* on the question "Is philosophy just a hobby?"

RR:  Well, is it?

One might think so - for example, in the case of retired philosophy teachers like me, since I am no longer paid to teach and/or publish philosophy.  Another example might be a person who just likes playing around with philosophical puzzles, much like a Sudoku or crossword puzzle enthusiast.  A third might be the kind of person who posts to a philosophical website from time to time but with little interest in philosophy at other times in her life.

However, take a look at the kinds of questions the great philosophers in our tradition have always asked - questions about life's meaning, right and wrong behavior, what constitutes a good life, whether God exists, and so on.  Do those look like hobby questions to you?

RR:  Ok, but I think we need a definition of philosophy before we go further with this interview. What exactly is philosophy?

Sure.  A few years ago at the Philosophers' Cafe, we began the season with a discussion of the nature of philosophy, and I wrote a blogpost about it, which is still on the website if you wish to read the whole essay.  For now, I'll just pull out the the basic definition, which by the way is about the same as you would get from any other philosopher.

Philosophy in our culture is not a body of knowledge or opinion, but the project of inquiring into the Big Questions of life. Its aims are truth and wisdom.  It relies on natural reason alone, taking nothing from religious or political authority for granted.  Reason in philosophy performs two functions:

· Critical function:  philosophers use logic and conceptual analysis to challenge theories, assumptions, traditions, authorities, clichés, and dogmas of all kinds.

· Speculative function:  the attempt to organize facts and ideas into a coherent Big Picture or worldview that makes sense of ourselves and the universe in which we live.

RR:  So philosophy is a rational approach to life.  But doesn't everyone consider themselves a rational person?  

If you ask someone if they consider themselves to be a rational person, they will probably say yes.  Who wants to be thought irrational, that is, 'nuts?'  Of course, most adults are rational enough to function in a modern society.  But look at the quality of their lives - widespread anxiety and stress, depression, high rates of addiction, ignorance, family dysfunction, religious and racial bigotry, celebrity worship, consumerism, vulgar entertainments.  Hardly a rational utopia.

Part of the problem is that we do not live in a philosophical culture.  People are not taught that philosophy has anything to do with their lives.  Unlike Swedish students, they're not taught any philosophy at all.  Philosophers themselves are like cloistered monks or cultists speaking in obscure tongues.  There are some good ones around, but none of them sit on parliamentary committees or task forces, and they don't run for office or anchor a talk show. It's no wonder most people think philosophy is too abstract and impractical, obsessive about trivial linguistic and semantic issues, irrelevant to their lives.  It may even be obsolete - Stephen Hawking says philosophy is dead.

RR:  The critics have a point, don't they? Who really needs philosophy, especially since it looks like an abstract academic specialty practiced by pointy-headed professors in ivory tower universities?

It's true that academic philosophy is too often guilty as charged, but that's not the only place where it lives.  Let's get out of academe and take a look at how philosophy is actually functioning on the street - in the lives of ordinary people who think it's important.  Would it surprise you to learn that philosophy can actually save your life?

RR:  It would. Are you serious? Has that actually happened? 

Yes, probably many times, but let's look at a specific case.  In his book Philosophy for Life and Other Dangerous Situations, Jules Evans tells how, as a teen-ager, he nearly ruined his life with drugs.  In university, despite doing well in his studies, he felt lost, socially inadequate, and confused about how to get his life on track.  He was afraid the drugs had permanently damaged his brain.  With the aid of Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) Evans started to heal himself by exposing and changing the erroneous beliefs that were causing him such emotional dysfunction.  When he discovered that CBT is heavily influenced by ancient philosophy, especially Stoicism, he began to study the stoics and to adopt their practices as an ongoing feature of his life.  Philosophy saved his life, he says, and he now shares his story and his philosophy through books and lectures.**  

RR:  That's an inspirational story for sure. But most people are not that desperate. Most are probably like me, normal in most ways, making a decent living, raising a family, enjoying the usual entertainments. I don't need philosophical therapy.  So what can philosophy do for a person like me? 

Well, that depends on what kind of person you want to be.  If you're satisfied with your belief system, your worldview, your values, and your assessment of yourself, then maybe philosophy can't do anything for you. Tell me, are you fully satisfied with your worldview and your way of life?  I doubt it.  By requesting this interview, you've shown that you are interested in philosophy to some degree, and - more than that - I suspect you know you're not as knowledgeable or as wise as you could be. Tiger Woods said some years ago, "My swing sucks." Then he went to work on it.  Now be honest: your worldview sucks, doesn't it? 

RR:  Don't be crude. 

The question is whether or not you want to do anything about it.  If so, let's talk next time about how philosophy can be, not merely therapy, but an entire way of life.

RR:  Hmm. Not very wise - that's one way to describe me .... By all means, let's do another interview. Next week? 

Sure.  It's been a pleasure.  

*  *  *  *

* Philosophy Talk is a weekly radio broadcast hosted by two Stanford University philosophers and featuring guest thinkers and audience participation.  Highly recommended.

** You can hear a Ted Talk by Jules Evans at  His book is available online from Amazon.

Saturday, 12 September 2015

Philosophers' Cafe September 9, 2015

The Meeting

This gathering, I thought, was extraordinary.  33 people attended, several for the first time.  My hopes for lots of interaction, sharing of ideas and stories, different points of view, and challenging questions were entirely fulfilled.  A great start to our new season.

My usual preliminaries included a couple of new initiatives for this year.  One is this blog which I hope all of you will use to take part in ongoing conversation about the topics of our meetings.  I will post additional essays from time to time about philosophical issues that I am interested in. My second new goal for the season is to conduct a group study of a book by Ken Wilber scheduled for publication later this year titled The Fourth Turning of Buddhism.

Instead of a formal talk, I began the discussion with a question:  “How many philosophers are in attendance this evening?”  Only a few hands went up, perhaps 5 or 6.  Nonetheless, most members had some good ideas about what philosophy is and what philosophers do.   Some of the ideas put forward in the ensuing discussion were:
  • Philosophy is about the meaning of existence.
  • Philosophers’ ask the Big Questions about life, ethics, and politics.
  • The word ‘philosophy’ means ‘love of wisdom.’  The ultimate goal of philosophical thought is wisdom or understanding.
  • Wisdom is the ability to apply knowledge appropriately to everyday situations.
  • Philosophy is an attitude built out of thoughts and feelings about our experience, a personal perspective on life.
  • Philosophy is more than a personal attitude; it seeks a universal perspective, insights and truths that can be accessed by anyone.
  • Philosophy may not have all the answers, but it has all the questions.  ‘Why’ questions seem to be part of human nature, as seen in very young kids.
  • The Serenity Prayer is a good example of a philosophy of life.
  • Academic philosophy too often obsesses about trivial issues that no one else is interested in.
  • Philosophical trends come and go, like fads in popular culture.
Clearly, for these thinkers, philosophy is not just an intellectual hobby.  It is also not just an academic specialty, as I will argue in a subsequent post.

In the second hour, I invited members to share stories about philosophical epiphanies they might have experienced in their earlier lives.  A philosophical epiphany is an insight or realization, occurring usually in a dramatic moment, that leads to a significant shift in the individual’s outlook on life or belief system.  I led with a story  of my own from my graduate student days.  At the time, despite having had considerable exposure to critical philosophy, I was still nominally committed to the orthodox Christian theology in which I had been raised.  Soon after the birth of my first daughter, it occurred to me in a flash of insight that this beautiful baby had come into the world entirely innocent, that the doctrine of Original Sin was not only false but pernicious, and that a benevolent God would not impose such a vile judgment.  That insight led quickly to the collapse of the entire edifice of religious belief I had imbibed from the Church of my youth.

My story was followed by a remarkable series of personal stories of transformation by other members of the group.  The honesty and trust conveyed in the telling of those stories was moving for everyone, I think.  Space issues prohibit my retelling of all of them (I don’t trust my memory to get them right anyway).  However, here are a couple of examples.  One member told of how, after losing both his wife and his daughter within a short period of time, he found within himself a source of resilience and strength to cope with his excruciating loss in a positive way.  Another told about a humiliating experience from the words of a cruel priest in a religion class she was forced to attend.  She was rescued by a group of other girls who rallied behind her and defended her openly before the priest, a lesson in the strength to be found in friendship.

I wrapped up the discussion by asking the group if, during these two hours, they had paid attention to what the others said, reflected on their ideas and stories, and related them to some extent to their own views.  Lots of head nodding.  Then I asked again, “How many philosophers do we have here tonight?”  Nearly everyone raised their hand, and rightly so.  It was a wonderful moment.

My comment

Transformational experiences like the ones I have described, when reflected upon over time, are usually unforgettable, and they often become part of a person’s outlook on life, part of their personal journey toward wisdom.  They can also become, for people who have an intellectual bent, occasions for philosophical reflection.  Loss of a loved one often triggers deep questions about the meaning of suffering, the existence of God, the awful reality of death.  Finding support and comfort from friends in a difficult time can lead to thinking about the nature of friendship in general and how to distinguish good friends from bad.  Reflecting deeply on experience is just what it means to do philosophy.  To develop the habit of reflecting deeply and critically on Big Questions is to make philosophy a way of life. In my next post, I will describe what a philosophical life looks like and argue that such a life is not an option solely for professional specialists in universities.  

* * * * 
I ended the evening with a quotation: 

     Let no one be slow to seek wisdom when he is young nor weary in the search of it when he has grown old. For no age is too early or too late for the health of the soul. And to say that the season for studying philosophy has not yet come, or that it is past and gone, is like saying that the season for happiness is not yet or that it is now no more. Therefore, both old and young alike ought to seek wisdom, the former in order that, as age comes over him, he may be young in good things because of the grace of what has been, and the latter in order that, while he is young, he may at the same time be old, because he has no fear of the things which are to come. So we must exercise ourselves in the things which bring happiness, since, if that be present, we have everything, and, if that be absent, all our actions are directed towards attaining it.

                   -  Epicurus of Samos, Greek Philosopher, 341-270 BC

Saturday, 5 September 2015

Last September’s Philosophers’ Café topic was “Truth and Its Enemies.”  As usual in discussions of this kind, a debate about absolutism vs. relativism occurred.  Are there absolute truths or are all beliefs/truth-claims merely relative to one’s culture or individual point of view?  Here are a few preliminary thoughts on the subject.  The short answer is yes, there are absolute truths, but my analysis won’t make absolutists very happy.
First, it's not clear whether the term 'absolute' adds anything to the concept of truth.  If a belief is true, isn't it absolutely true?  These days, people constantly use the word as a kind of emphatic substitution for 'yes.'  “Do you believe O.J. killed his wife?"  "Absolutely."  'Totally' is another one.  "Did you enjoy the concert?"  "Totally."  Perhaps in philosophy we can identify a more significant use of 'absolute' that might send our current inquiry off toward a more satisfactory understanding.  I'm not so sure.
What is the opposite of 'absolute truth' in our context?  We might think it's 'relative truth.'  What could that mean?  For one, it could mean that a given belief is peculiar to a particular culture, e.g. orthodox Jews believe they are God's chosen people.  When thinking about such examples, people often say, "Well, it's true for them."  Which is just another way of saying they believe it.  The opposite of this would be a belief that is true for everybody, meaning that it is something that everyone believes.  But that is not what people usually mean by an 'absolute truth.'  A belief shared by everyone might be wrong.
Religious dogmas, of course, are often expressed in absolutistic terms, but a claim by someone that the Bible or a Papal Bull contains absolute truths does not establish those doctrines as absolutely true.  They're just asserted as such with much "roaring and bawling," as philosopher Simon Blackburn puts it.
A more philosophically respectable notion of 'absolute truth' might refer to beliefs that cannot be wrong, that are true for all time - even in all universes - regardless of how many people accept them.  Are there such truths?  Absolutely(!).  Understood in their relevant contexts, I take the following to be examples of 'absolute' truths:
1.  Truths about my immediate experience here and now, e.g., I am seeing a computer screen before me.  Ok, I’m not always at my computer, so how can this truth be timeless.  It can’t, but there is a class of truths about me and my computer that avoids this objection.  The timeless version:  at time t, CM is seeing a computer screen before him, where t is a variable that stands for any particular time.  Many instantiations of this formal proposition, whether past or future are timelessly true.  (The present instantiation is ambiguous.)
2.  All truths about the past.  In the year 49 BC, Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon River on his way to Rome.  (Of course, that belief might be false, but if so some other statement will be true, e.g. it was in some other year that J.C. crossed the Rubicon or it was some other river, or even that J.C. never existed.)
 3.  All mathematical truths, e.g. the Pythagorean Theorem, at least when someone is thinking about it. 
4.  Many empirical generalizations, e.g. if you, a human constituted as all humans are at this time in history, step in front of a moving bus, you will be injured or killed.  (If you want to argue that this is only a highly probable truth and therefore not absolute, fine: state it as a probability and then that statement will be 'absolutely' true.)
It may be objected that my approach is just to throw a net over every kind of truth there is, leaving no room for an opposite to 'absolute truth' at all.  But that is my point - the term 'absolute truth' does not delineate a species of truth different from other kinds of truth.  The opposite of 'truth,' whether absolute or not absolute, is simply falsehood.  I propose dropping the term 'absolute' from this kind of discussion altogether.  Then we could get on with the really tough question:  what are the criteria of truth and falsity in beliefs?  
This is not to say there is no issue of relativism vs. non-relativism.  I am only suggesting that, because of the negative connotations of the word 'absolute,' a better way of formulating the issue would be in terms of, say,  'objective vs. relative.'  Thus, the question would be "Is objective truth about the world possible, or are all truth-claims merely relative to a person's culture or their own subjective belief system?"

Time: A Brief Consideration
“Time keeps flowing like a river,(song lyric, The Alan Parsons Project)
This is probably how most people think about time. It’s real; it’s been flowing for billions of years; we move through time from birth to death; time flies; it waits for no one; sometimes it flows faster than at other times. Hold on a minute - if time flows, how fast does it flow? One minute per minute? One hour per hour? This is the kind of nonsensical question that alerted me years ago to the fact that time is not what people commonly think it is.
The ‘river of time’ is a metaphor for a feeling we have that something is carrying us through life. We assume it’s something we have or don’t have in certain quantities (“She has too much time on her hands.”) The sands of time are running out. We can waste it; we can use it productively. We can measure it with pendulum clocks, stopwatches, and atomic clocks. In short, people think time is a metaphysical reality. It began to flow with the Big Bang and just kept rollin’ along like “That Old Man River’ for almost 14 billion years to the present day, and it will keep on rollin’ along until the Great Heat Death of the universe some unknown billions of years in the future.
Some people think we exist “in time” just as we exist in space.  St. Augustine, for example, used this idea to contrast with the existence of God, who is eternal and therefore not in time.  This is to imagine time as a kind of ever-moving container or medium in which we live and move like fish in water.  The 'river of time.'  This kind of thinking is obsolete.
Thanks to Immanuel Kant, logical positivism, and postmodern philosophy, we can’t think about time that way anymore. Our perceiving and thinking are limited to experience and whatever time is, we have to discover its nature within experience.  One obvious experience to begin with is our perception of change and motion.  Weather changes; the moon and planets move around, as do animals and people in their environments.  From earliest days, humans found it necessary  to invent systems of measuring the flow of events for ordering their memories and planning for the future.  Solar, lunar, and seasonal cycles were used by ancient peoples as natural clocks ("It is 12 moons since our last hunt.")   

Later, sundials were succeeded by pendulums, analogue and digital watches, stop watches, and atomic clocks that are clearly measuring devices.  What do they measure?   "Time, of course." But when pressed to show where in the world time is, people resort to metaphysics.  "Well, it's hard to say exactly, but it's out there somewhere.  Hardly satisfactory.  Happily, there is no need to postulate some mysterious metaphysical ‘river of time’ for the answer.  We don’t use clocks to measure time.  We use them to measure change or motion or the duration of events that we observe in the physical world.  Just as we use rulers to measure the lengths of objects and thermometers to measure heat, we use clocks to measure the changes or movements of physical objects or processes in our experience. What was the winning time in the 3d race at Belmont?  From the starting gun to the finish, the stopwatch shows 3m 9s.  Sometimes we need smaller units like microseconds.  Sometimes larger -  years and centuries to measure really big changes like the rise and fall of the Roman Empire, the Thirty Years War, or the universe from the Big Bang to now.  
And that’s all time is, a system we invented to help us manage our lives in an ever-changing world. And there is more than one system, each constructed to serve a specific purpose in a specific context.  Our familiar 24-hour watch is splendid for getting us to meetings 'on time' but not for understanding the structure of the cosmos.  For that we need Einsteinian space-time.  What is the real time?  Depends on what you want to do.
Time, then, is an artifact, a social construction, a system of ordering and measuring change and for making predictions. This fact has some startling implications.  Since only humans create artifacts, it follows that time came into existence, not with the Big Bang, but only when our ancestors evolved into linguistic societies where farming and business required it, perhaps around 6000 years ago.  The Big Bang itself, being a social construct, a theory, did not exist before scientists thought of it, and those 13.7 billion years didn’t happen until cosmologists used math to calculate the number.
So, is time real? You bet – real in the same way all artifacts are real, as objects or systems devised by humans for their various purposes.  If you still think there is some other, metaphysical kind of time flowing along ’out there’ in the ’real world,’ then tell me what observation or experiment I should carry out in order to discover it.