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?

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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.