An Impassioned Defense of The Pursuit of Philosophical Questions

Olivia James has written a terrific post against atheists who dismiss the fundamental questions of reality and value on account of their being abstract, philosophical, and hard to solve. She describes the “emotional gut-punch” such questions can give her and complains that other atheists often are dismissive and invalidating about how important they are to people like her.

What I really don’t understand is how people assume that things like philosophical questions can’t have huge real world impacts for someone. real world impacts like…oh, say, just for a random example, whether or not you walk through your life with overwhelming depression every second of the day.

For most people things that are abstract like “why is there something instead of nothing” don’t lead to anxiety or impact their day to day lives in any major way. It’s the kind of question that you can go through your life being fairly uncertain about without it gnawing at you or without it causing any major fear. Or at least that’s what everyone tells me. Everyone SAYS that it’s the sort of thing that shouldn’t bother you, the kind of thing that doesn’t affect how you live your life, the sort of thing that is just a philosophical exercise.

Unfortunately for me, it’s not. I cannot understand how people think that it doesn’t or shouldn’t have a direct impact on your life whether or not there is a reason we’re here, how our morality is formed, how much access we have to reality. I cannot understand how people feel that it’s appropriate, logical, or acceptable to go through life without any sort of answer to these larger questions, because without these larger answers, we have no overall guiding compass that puts all the rest of our actions into a context, a scope. Answers to the deep philosophical questions are what should be guiding us through each choice we make in life. I don’t know how to make decisions without answers to some of these questions, just like someone who doesn’t have all the information about their cancer diagnosis would have a hard time pursuing appropriate treatment options.

Read more, it’s all excellent.

Living as rationally as possible means living with as clear an understanding of both reality and value as possible. I think it is lazy and irresponsible to dismiss the importance of rigorous and careful thinking on such subjects just because they admit of no easy answers and one cannot simply lean on experts to give you all the answers. Often atheists talk about the need to live with uncertainty but when they talk as though all thinking can be classed into two boxes: hard, nearly absolutely certain scientific facts in box one and pointless mental masturbation in the other box, they show little tolerance at all for uncertainty. They actually show an absolutist tendency, uncomfortable with ambiguity.

And the hard scientific facts the vast majority knows are from the reports of scientists. These are basically matters most of us learn completely from other people. Even scientists learn predominantly from other scientists not themselves. Most of what our actual critical thinking is free to do for ourselves is in areas still theoretical and open, either because they are outright “philosophical” problems or because they involve lacunae within scientific understanding that leave room for basically speculative conjecture and analysis since no strictly empirical solutions yet exist to decisively settle them. In other words, it is only really in the philosophical crevices most of us have room to critically think for ourselves and that even specialists who do technical scientific work are often engaged in when not narrowly working within their specialization. That’s not to say philosophers or other laypeople can competently address contentious scientific disputes, it’s to say that when scientists differ over important theoretical issues they engage with problems that have, at least for the time being similar indeterminacy problems and needs for conceptual and theoretical argumentation as philosophy is always concerned with, just scientists have these disputes within a particular area of knowledge with certain empirical and theoretical foundations worked out.

So it is disturbing to see people have so much contempt for speculative reasoning when it is the the actual area in which they have room to do critical thinking and actually engage in it while they simultaneously praise only those areas of knowledge that they can take on authority (even if it’s credible authority) and rehearsed arguments others actually developed and proved as true. This does not bespeak a love of critical thinking so much as a desire to feel like one has all the answers that can be worth knowing (and sometimes the even more questionable satisfaction in simply feeling superior to others on account of being better informed.)

The world is messy. A lot of the most important issues we have to face require the difficult work of being as precise with, and indefatiguably personally committed to, the messy and sprawling and interlocking conceptual issues that philosophy concerns itself with. But what could be more important questions than those about what is real, how we know truth from falsehood, what is of value, how we should live, what justice is and demands, what the self is, what freedom is (or is not), what gender is, what love is, what good religion is for (or not), what our moral obligations are and how to adjudicate moral disagreements most rationally, how our language maps reality, what our minds are themselves, etc., etc.? Being subjects not admitting of pat, conclusive answers does not make them bullshit, unimportant questions. They’re still the most important questions for human life. Bashing or ignoring philosophy does not mean you will be able to avoid having to answer these questions. It only makes it all the more possible you will answer them less reflectively. And in many cases that could mean answering them far worse. And in some cases that can be extremely consequential.

Your Thoughts?

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • Counter Apologist

    I stand somewhat in the middle. I’m an engineer, and my family says I was pretty much born to be one – my focus is always on what is practical and useful.

    On one hand, I can agree that simply ignoring these questions is a bad idea. Ultimately we answer these questions in how we act and live our lives (at least for some of them). Not thinking about these things largely means we run a greater risk of having poor answers.

    On the other hand, we have to recognize that we are dealing with questions that have no conclusive answers, and that at some point we must acknowledge that we must simply answer as best we can and actually live our lives as best we can. Here I show some sympathy for those who are able to just ignore the questions because to them, they were able to find an easy (enough) answer that allows them to live their lives.

    I do worry that such questions, or ignoring them at least, would cause suicidal thoughts in someone. I think that is a case where seeking some medical help is warranted. I say that only in the case of suicidal thoughts, not in the case where one thinks these questions are important.

    Maybe I’m engaging in a golden mean fallacy, but it seems this is a topic where what works for different people is something we’ll have to accept. Some of us find little use for the big questions and others feel the need to linger.

    FWIW, if I can drop a lin, I think there are some pretty good answers from an atheist perspective when it comes to “why is there something rather than nothing?” and “what is our meaning and purpose in life?”:

    • eamonknight

      Whereas I’m an engineer who’s planning to pursue a philosophy degree in retirement, and moreover the son of an engineer who earned a philosophy degree while he was still working (by evening courses during his 40s and 50s). I have a lot of the books he bought for that (mostly the standard lit like Hume, Descartes, etc.). So I guess it’s in the blood.

      Yes, we’re supposed to be all hard-headed and practical. And one can, for example, happily design electronics using the fiction that electricity is a fluid that flows from positive to negative, and knowing nothing more about transistors and chips than what’s on the data sheet — it’s all plug-in-manship and black-box-ology. But it bespeaks a remarkably incurious mind not to want to know at least a little about what goes on “under the hood”, and I’ll always be very grateful my education gave me at least a nodding acquaintance with the underlying physics, not to mention (professionally irrelevant) topics like basic thermo, chemistry and geology. Having broad knowledge is part of what it means to be a smart person. (Also, it comes in handy if you get into debates with creationists).

      Similarly, one should want to look under the hood of knowledge itself — not just: “Here’s the evidence for evolution”, but: “Why does this count as evidence, and that creationist crap doesn’t? What does it mean to *be* evidence?” And of course, there’s also moral philosophy, which (Sam Harris to the contrary) has not been entirely brought under the empirical umbrella.

      It’s silly to proclaim “All useful knowledge is provided by science; philosophy is superfluous”, and think one has settled the question, because that is, itself, a philosophical claim.

    • Counter Apologist

      I had disdain for philosophy while I was in school, I didn’t find a love for the topic until after I deconverted from being a fundamentalist to an atheist.

      If we’re going to diverge a bit, I’m of the opinion that the best engineers are the ones who have a decent understanding of science, and conversely the best scientists are those who have a decent understanding of engineering. At least for me, there was a pretty rigorous amount of science that I had to take along with the engineering courses. Sure a lot of that is professionally irrelevant (I don’t need the ins and outs of differential equations to do my job), but a lot of it is there to teach you “how to think” and approach problems from that kind of methodology.

      I don’t want to claim that all knowledge is provided by science, and I don’t think many of the “new atheists” truly advocate that position, but I do think a strong inductive case can be made for the primacy of science when it comes to talking about specific topics of knowledge, specifically how if we’re going to talk ontology, then anything empirical trumps the purely metaphysical conclusion, etc.

    • eamonknight

      I was already interested philosophy when I was a fundamentalist (not raised that way — I was a teenage convert). When I was ~13 (ie. a couple of years before my conversion) I worked out that I my awareness of my existence proved that I must exist. Dad then told me about this guy called Descartes…. I think Dad was proud of me ;-).

      What it means is that I’m just wired up this way. So when I became a Christian, it was still obvious to me that knowledge had to be grounded in something; that I couldn’t just say: “The Bible is true by definition, don’t ask questions”. My eventual apostasy was probably foredoomed ;-).

      And I have to agree with your final two paragraphs. Philosophy and empiricism need to inform and anchor each other.

    • Verbose Stoic

      And I have to agree with your final two paragraphs. Philosophy and empiricism need to inform and anchor each other.

      Considering that empiricism IS a philosophical position, it always annoys me to read things like this. Philosophy has never been hostile to empiricism or science per se, but generally — and, in my opinion, often rightly — challenges how useful those will be to conceptual or normative questions. If empirical or scientific data is relevant, philosophy, at least in general, will look at it … and if it isn’t, philosophy will say why it isn’t. The big flaw in, say, Harris’ book on morality is that he ignored all of the arguments for why science, per se, can’t really settle questions of morality and then declared that it could. But philosophers had been asking for hundreds of years if morality could be “naturalized”, and if at least some philosophical questions could be done using science. Most of those failed, leading to the skepticism.

    • Anton

      I don’t want to claim that all knowledge is provided by science, and I don’t think many of the “new atheists” truly advocate that position, but I do think a strong inductive case can be made for the primacy of science when it comes to talking about specific topics of knowledge, specifically how if we’re going to talk ontology, then anything empirical trumps the purely metaphysical conclusion, etc.

      I’ve read most of the New Atheists, and I think they’re just fine with the notion that all legitimate knowledge derives from science. They’re certainly responsible for the way the entire matter of religion has been framed as a scientific matter: isn’t Stenger’s book even titled “God: The Failed Hypothesis”? Harris’s book on morality was worthwhile reading, despite the fact that it was entirely based on the idea that neuroscience should be the foundation of our ethics.

      This sandbox slapfight of a Culture War isn’t going to go away until we dispel the illusion that it’s about ignorance and bigotry and delusion on Their Side, and reason and science and reality on Our Side. As a humanist, I absolutely want religion to acknowledge secular values, but let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater. The New Atheists are well within their rights to sell books, but the unremitting nastiness and polarization isn’t doing us any good.

    • Liralen

      Lots of engineers here, lol.

      I’m another engineer, but one who spent most of my life as an agnostic then relatively recently became Christian. I still have my feet planted in both worlds. My mother is a Buddhist and my in-laws are Calvinists.

      Even more recently, I learned that my former fundamentalist husband was raised not to trust his own judgment. It was one of those time-stopping moments when many things I didn’t understand about Christians suddenly fell into place. It was appalling to me, since I was raised in a very anti-authoritarian home. I was taught to trust my own judgment and to always question authority if I thought they were wrong.

      Olivia is still seeking someone or something else as an authority figure, otherwise she would not have been so affected by the opinions of other people. She needs to learn to trust her own judgment, but she really can’t if she’s feeling suicidal. Perhaps transfer that need for guidance to someone safely dead like Dan has done with Nietzsche? I’m way out of my depth here. I pretty much fit every negative stereotype about engineers lacking interpersonal skills. I’m worried about her and I just don’t know how to help her. :/

  • Anton

    They actually show an absolutist tendency, uncomfortable with ambiguity.

    Well said!

    I’m one of those old-school existentialists who feel that humans can’t acknowledge the absurdity of the universe, so they create systems to let them pretend they understand everything. Math, language, religion, and science all give Homo Sap the illusion that everything can be objectified, including humanity itself.

    My wife works at MIT in one of the humanities departments. She has plenty of horror stories about the condescension of the folks from the hard sciences, the way they denigrate the humanities as just silliness next to the manly scientific disciplines. It’s ironic that people here who argue for better science education scoff at the notion that philosophy is just as necessary as physics. They have no idea that their notion of humans as mere gene machines is unscientific, because they have no realistic understanding of what science is and isn’t.

  • Pito Rosario

    Yes ma’am/sir!