[1.1] Philosophy as a Form of Inquiry.
As a way of building up to a definition of philosophy, let’s examine a list of questions that philosophers have attempted to answer:
· Is there a God? If so, what is he (or she, or it, or they) like?
· Is the existence of evil compatible with the existence of an all-caring, all-knowing, all-powerful God?
· Can religious faith be reconciled with scientific belief?
· Is the omniscience (“all-knowingness”) of God compatible with peoples’ free will?
· Do people have free will to begin with?
· What is a person, and what is it about an individual that makes him or her the same person over time?
· Is a fetus a person? If not, at what point in a human’s development does he or she become a person?
· What is the mind, and what is the relationship between the mind and the brain?
· What is knowledge, and do we know anything to begin with?
· What constitutes good evidence for a claim?
· Are there things about the world that humans are inherently incapable of knowing?
· What is it for an action or behavior to be morally good or bad?
· What is the morally best way for people to live?
· What is justice?
· Does morality depend on religion?
· Are there objective moral facts, or is morality simply a matter of opinion?
· Are any of our beliefs about anything ever objectively true?
Based on this list, you might already be starting to get a sense of what philosophy is… But what we need is a relatively precise definition…
The word “philosophy” derives from the Greek words for love (philo) and wisdom (sophia).
For the ancient Greeks, “philosophy” was love of wisdom. But while this might give us the beginning of an idea of what philosophers do today, we need to get more specific to really understand what contemporary philosophy is.
[Warning: not all contemporary philosophers would agree with the following explanation of philosophy. The nature of philosophy is itself a controversial issue among philosophers.]
Philosophy is an area of inquiry.
inquiry (df.): an attempt to discover truths about the world; research.
In this way, philosophy is like the sciences, historical research, investigative journalism, and detective work.
But philosophy is different than these other areas of inquiry in the following way: the truths philosophy attempts to discover involve concepts that are more fundamental (i.e., more general and pervasive) than those pursued by other areas of inquiry—concepts like God, reality, knowledge, truth, the mind and consciousness, free will, right and wrong. So philosophy is inquiry into some of the most fundamental issues that face all human beings.
philosophy (df.): the area of inquiry that attempts to discover truths involving fundamental concepts, such as the concepts of God, knowledge, truth, reality, the mind and consciousness, free will, right and wrong.
[Again, not all philosophers would agree with this definition of philosophy!]
As Elliott Sober puts it in the preface to your textbook:
The philosophical problems investigated in this book concern fundamental facts about our place in the universe. Many of us were brought up to believe that God exists, that there is a real difference between right and wrong, that we can freely choose what sort of lives to lead, and that it is possible for us to gain knowledge of the world we inhabit. A major goal of philosophy is to discover whether these opinions can be rationally defended or are just comfortable illusions. (xi)
[1.2.] Four Branches of Philosophy.
Traditionally, philosophy has been split into four branches:
metaphysics (df.): the area of philosophy that attempts to answer questions about existence and reality, especially questions about what kinds of thing exist; metaphysical questions include: “Does God exist?” “Does the soul exist?” “What is the relationship between the mind and the body?” “Do human beings have free will?”
epistemology (df.): the area of philosophy that attempts to answer questions about knowledge and rational justification; the word derives from the Greek episteme, meaning “knowledge” or “science”; epistemological questions include: “What is knowledge?” “Is knowledge possible?” “When is a belief rationally justified?” “What is the relationship between reason and faith?”
ethics (df.): the area of philosophy that attempts to answer questions involving concepts such as right/wrong, good/bad, moral/immoral, etc.; this is sometimes called moral philosophy; ethical questions include: “What is it for an action to be moral or immoral?” “Is morality objective or subjective?” “What is the best way for me to live?” “Is abortion (or euthanasia, or same-sex marriage, or the death penalty, or eating meat, or publicly funded healthcare, or etc. etc.) morally permissible or immoral?”
logic (df.): the area of philosophy that studies reasoning and arguments; it is particularly concerned with what distinguishes good arguments from bad ones. [We will see a definition of “argument” below.]
Studying the history of philosophy frequently involves studying how some of the great philosophers approached questions that fall into these four branches. Many of the upper-division philosophy courses taught at UWG cover specific periods or traditions within the history of philosophy, and they deal with how important figures dealt with questions in these areas.
[1.2.] Philosophy and Arguments.
Unlike the sciences, philosophy does not usually depend on specific sorts of empirical observation, gathering data, performing experiments, or making calculations.
But on the other hand, philosophers do not simply announce their theories to the world without any evidence to back them up. Philosophy depends on reasoning and evidence. Philosophers test existing theories, and develop new ones, primarily by reasoning. They give arguments to support their claims:
argument (df.): a set of statements some of which (the argument’s premises) are intended to serve as evidence or reasons for thinking that another statement (the argument’s conclusion) is true.
All mammals are animals. (premise)
All dogs are mammals. (premise)
Therefore, all dogs are animals. (conclusion)
This argument is displayed in a way that makes it very explicit which statements are the premises and which is the conclusion. But most of the time, when you come across an argument in your reading (even in your philosophy reading), it will not be indented from the margin, with each statement on a separate line. Normally, it will be written in prose form.
Further, the conclusion may come before the premises. For example, this argument could be written: “Of course dogs are animals; they’re mammals, and all mammals are animals.”
Other examples of very simple arguments include:
Socrates is a man. All men are mortal. Therefore, Socrates is mortal.
The barometer is falling sharply, so the weather is going to change.
Since it’s always wrong to kill a human being, it follows that capital punishment is wrong, because capital punishment takes the life of a human being.
A philosophical claim is only as good as the arguments that one can give to support it. Because of this, most (but not all) philosophical work consists in arguing in support of philosophical claims.
In philosophy, if you have a belief about what is morally right and what is morally wrong, you need to be able to back up that belief with good reasons. You need to be able to provide reasons for thinking that your belief is true. In other words, you have to be able to give an argument for your belief. This means that philosophy is not simply a matter of giving your opinion.
For example, suppose you believe that God exists (most Americans do!). If you want to think about the topic of God’s existence philosophically, you need to be able to back up that opinion with good reasons. You need to be able to provide reasons for thinking that your opinion is true. In other words, you have to be able to give an argument for your opinion.
Suppose you say, “God exists.” If I ask you why you think this is the case, then you ought to be able to give me a reason, e.g., “The existence of God is the only thing that could explain the existence of the universe.” Formatted differently, the argument you have given is:
The existence of God is the only thing that could explain
the existence of the universe.__________________
Therefore, God exists.
If you can give no reason for asserting that God exists, then, as a philosopher, I am within my rights to ignore you. All philosophical claims are like this.
This doesn’t mean that any reason that you give to support a moral belief is a good reason. Some reasons are bad. For example, suppose that in support of your claim that God exists, you say Fred the meth addict told me that he saw God last week when he was getting high. There is nothing stopping anyone from citing this fact as a reason for believing that God exists, but it is a really terrible argument.
It is essential that we be able to evaluate philosophical arguments, i.e., to tell whether they are good or bad. It is not enough just to rely on how we may feel about a given issue. Philosopher James Rachels makes the point in the following way:
When we feel strongly about an issue, it is tempting to assume that we just know what the truth is, without even having to consider the arguments on the other side. Unfortunately, however, we cannot rely on our feelings, no matter how powerful they may be. Our feelings may be irrational; they may be nothing but the products of prejudice, selfishness, or cultural conditioning. At one time, for example, people’s feelings told them that members of other races were inferior and that slavery was God’s plan.
Because people sometimes disagree in their views about philosophical questions, and because it is usually possible to give arguments for each side of a philosophical issue, we must be able to evaluate philosophical arguments. In other words, we must be able to tell good arguments from bad ones.
To do this, this we will eventually (on Wednesday and Thursday) consider some basic logical concepts.
[1.3.] What This Class Requires From You.
We will be looking at some philosophical beliefs that you may already hold, and we will be asking whether there is good reason to think that those beliefs are true. Some people may find this uncomfortable, or even painful. This will especially be the case if you have been taught all your life that some things should not be questioned but must be accepted on faith.
My job is not to force you to change your mind about anything. But I will require you to think about the reasons for some of your beliefs, as well as theories and claims that you may disagree with. What you will be required to do is demonstrate to me that you understand these reasons. If you don’t think they are good, that’s fine. But just saying that you disagree won’t be enough. You will need to try to articulate why you think this.
We will spend Wednesday and Thursday considering argumentation itself. We will then begin to consider several arguments for and against the existence of God; competing theories of knowledge; competing theories of mind; theories about free will; and finally (perhaps) some ethics. Throughout, we will be concerned with the arguments given for and against each claim that we examine.
Your job will be to master the concepts, theories and (especially) the arguments that we examine. You will need to be able to demonstrate to me that you have thoroughly and deeply understood the various theories and arguments we have studied. Some arguments are simple, but others can be very subtle and hard to grasp, so it is important that you dedicate a sufficient amount of time to reading, studying and thinking about them as we go along.
You will be given reading assignments on a daily basis. These should not be taken lightly. Reading philosophy is not like reading any other sort of writing. You will probably need to read some passages several times before they start to “sink in”. I recommend making lots of notes as you read. This will force you to actually think about what you are reading. If you don’t think about it as you read it, you may as well not read it at all. It won’t “stick in your head” like a novel or piece of history would.
Also, it will be helpful (not just in this class but in general) to have a good dictionary nearby and to look up unfamiliar words. You often need fully to understand a passage in order to understand the argument it contains. And unless you know all of the words, you may not be able fully to understand it.
[1.4] Objectivity and Fact vs. Subjectivity and Mere Opinion.
As you may have figured out by now, the word “opinion” frequently means the same thing as the word “belief.” This is important to remember, because you may be tempted, at various times throughout this class, to say: “But that’s just your opinion.” For example, when we begin discussing whether God exists, someone (me, maybe one of your fellow students) may assert that God does not exist. It is very tempting to dismiss this assertion by saying “But that’s just your opinion.” This sentence actually says two things:
I. It’s your opinion, i.e., it’s your belief, i.e., you believe it. This is trivial. Of course it’s that person’s belief—why would she assert that God doesn’t exist unless she believes that God doesn’t exist?
II. It’s just your opinion. This part of the claim is more interesting... But it is also ambiguous, in other words, it has more than one meaning and it is not clear which meaning is intended:
Interpretation #1 of “That’s Just Your Opinion.”
There is nothing but belief about the subject at hand (whether God exists), no facts of the matter to back up those beliefs or to make those beliefs true or false. Another way of saying that there are only opinions/beliefs and no facts of the matter about something is to say that it is a subjective matter.
subjective (df.): something is subjective when there is no truth or fact of the matter about it, only opinions/beliefs or feelings. For example, whether a dish that combines tuna, white rice and hot mango chutney is delicious is a subjective matter.
This is the opposite of
objective (df.): something is objective when it is independent of what anyone believes, thinks, or feels about it.
· For example, “it is objectively true that p” = “it is true that p, whether or not anyone believes that p.” It is an objectively true that the earth orbits the sun, that 2+2=4, etc.
· A synonym for “objective” is “real.”
In the definition of “objective,” the phrase “about it” is very important—some objective facts depend on what someone thinks (or feels, or believes) without depending on what anyone thinks (or feels, or believes) ABOUT THOSE FACTS.
In our example, what you mean when you say that it is only my opinion that God doesn’t exist is that there is no fact of the matter about whether God exists, i.e., whether God exists is a subjective matter, not an objective matter.
About some topics, this seems to be the right attitude to take. For example, whether a given food is delicious—there doesn’t seem to be a quality of “deliciousness” out there is the world that some foods have and others lack. There are facts about whether individuals like to eat certain foods, about whether a food tastes good to someone... but there is no fact of the matter about whether a given food is delicious.
But whether God exists seems to be different. It seems that either it is really true that God exists or it is really false that God exists and which is the case doesn’t depend on what anybody thinks about it. Whether God exists does not seem to be a subjective matter; instead, it seems to be objective. So if you say “It’s just your opinion that God doesn’t exist,” you should not mean Interpretation #1.
Interpretation #2 of “That’s Just Your Opinion.”
On this interpretation of “It’s just your opinion that God doesn’t exist,” what you are saying is: “You are wrong--your opinion/belief is false. God does exist.”
If this is what you mean, then you may very well be right. Whether what you say is right depends on whether God actually exists.
But it is not philosophical for you simply to assert that God exists and let that be the end of it. In philosophy, you are expected to have reasons—arguments—to back up your assertions. If you refuse to even try to give reasons for thinking that you are right and your listener is wrong, you have abandoned philosophical inquiry. Your assertion is mere
dogma (df.) “a point of view or tenet put forth as authoritative without adequate grounds.”
Interpretation #3 “That’s Just Your Opinion.”
Sometimes the speaker isn’t clear on the literal meaning of the words “That’s just your opinion,” but simply says this in order to stop the conversation. She is uncomfortable, or annoyed, or upset, or bored, and simply doesn’t want to talk about it (whatever it is) anymore.
There are a number of points related to all this...
A. When doing philosophy, you should avoid saying “But it’s only your opinion that...” This statement is ambiguous, and in philosophy you should avoid ambiguity and not leave your words open to interpretation. Instead make it clear which interpretation you intend. If you want to stop the conversation, you should just say “I don’t want to talk about this anymore.”
B. Our system of values gives equal worth to all people, but not to all people’s opinions (beliefs) and reasoning. “Everyone is entitled to his or her own opinion” is true, if it means that no one should be forced to believe one thing rather than another. But this does not mean that everyone’s opinions are equally good. Some opinions are true, others are false; some arguments are good, and some are bad.
C. Whether or not a statement is true is a different question than whether people believe that it’s true. There are truths that no one believes (e.g., how many times did Barack Obama sneeze on January 1, 2000? there is a true answer to this question, whether or not anyone believe that answer), and there have been (and probably still are) falsehoods that everyone believes (e.g., six hundred years ago, anyone who bothered to think about such things believed that the earth was flat).
[1.5.] The Trial of Socrates.
Many of the long-standing questions of philosophy were first formulated and explored by three philosophers of ancient Athens:
· Socrates (c. 470-399 BCE)
· Plato (c. 428-348 BCE; student of Socrates)
· Aristotle (384–322 BCE; student of Plato)
He is said to have been a stonemason by trade.
He took part in military campaigns during Athens’ war with Sparta and was known for his courage as a soldier.
He was homely in appearance: pop-eyed, bulbous-nosed, with a paunch and a shambling gait.
Despite his appearance, he had a following of young men who congregated with him on the streets of Athens and in their homes.
Most of what we know about him comes from Aristotle and (especially) Plato. Plato wrote no scholarly analysis of Socrates’ thought, only a large collection of dialogues (conversations) in which Socrates is a character. The dialogues aren’t transcriptions of actual conversations—they were all written after Socrates died.
Plato’s dialogues can be classified according to the period in which each was written:
Socrates is still the main protagonist, but Plato is working out his own views
Plato examines difficulties of his middle period writings; Socrates plays a smaller role.
The early dialogues probably represent Socrates’ own views. They proceed with Socrates questioning some person or persons about the nature of some concept (e.g. piety, justice, courage or virtue). At the beginning, the character with whom Socrates is conversing claims to know a lot about the topic at issue. Through Socrates’ probing, he is forced to admit that he really doesn’t know what he thought he did. So the early dialogues are mostly negative in content... we find out that, even though we thought we knew what piety, or justice, etc. were, we really never did.
Late in his life Socrates was brought up on charges of corrupting the youth and not believing in the gods of the state. Plato’s Apology tells the story of Socrates’ trial. We will discuss the Apology tomorrow.
Stopping point for Monday June 7. For next time, read the handout (Plato’s Apology) and be prepared to discuss it at the beginning of class. Also, remember that you will have a pop quiz on this reading and/or today’s lecture notes.
 I say that philosophy does not usually depend on these things because of the so-called experimental philosophy movement. See “The Experimental Philosophy Page,” URL = < http://pantheon.yale.edu/~jk762/ExperimentalPhilosophy.html >, retrieved on January 10, 2010.
 James Rachels, The Elements of Moral Philosophy pp.10-11, emphasis added.
 I derive this definition of the word “objective” from the definition of the word “real” given by the American philosopher Charles S. Peirce (1839-1914). Peirce is covered in American Philosophy (PHIL 3120; class web site: http://www.westga.edu/~rlane/american/). Peirce himself derived the definition from the medieval philosopher Duns Scotus (1265/66-1308). [http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/duns-scotus/]
 For example, facts about a person’s mental states:
· Amy thinks that Atlanta is beutiful..
· Bill feels sad that Michael Jackson died.
· Craig believes that Montgomery is the capitol of Alabama.
Each of these facts depends on what someone thinks, feels or believes. For example, the fact that Amy thinks that Atlanta is beautiful depends on what someone thinks: it depends on what Amy thinks, because it is a fact about what Amy thinks.
Yet, it is still an objective fact about Amy. It is objectively true of her that she thinks that Atlanta is beautiful. This is an objective fact about Amy’s mind.
It is an objective fact because it does not depend on what Amy or anyone else thinks about it. We cannot make it the case that Amy thinks that Atlanta is ugly simply by thinking that she thinks that. In other words, we cannot change that fact about her simply by our beginning to think that she thinks that Atlanta is hideous. This is what makes it objectively true of Amy that she thinks Atlanta is beautiful.
 The system of values I have in mind is liberalism in the traditional, broad sense of that term: the support of freedom, democracy, limited government, human dignity, and individual rights. It is an essential part of this view that all human beings are morally equal and that we all have inherent dignity. The philosophical tradition dealing with liberalism is centuries-old and very rich. For an overview, see Gerald Gaus and Shane D. Courtland, “Liberalism,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2008 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = < http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2008/entries/liberalism/ >.
This page last updated 1/8/2010.
Copyright © 2010 Robert Lane. All rights reserved.