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

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