A friend of mine, when I told him that I was a philosophy major in college asked me “What’s the difference between a philosophy major and a large pizza?” With a fair amount of trepidation I answered “I don’t know.” He replied, “A large pizza can feed a family of four.” I would often get inquiring looks from people when I told them I majored in philosophy in college; especially since I work in the IT (information technology) field. The question that is asked (or assumed) is why did I choose to major in philosophy? The answer to that question is the same now as it was when I graduated from college 19 years ago: Because I wanted to!
I won’t bore people with the story of my life, but I was re-enrolling in college after about a five year hiatus. I was originally a mathematics major at University of Illinois Chicago (UIC), and when I was trying to get back into school, that was the major I wanted to pursue. I ended up re-enrolling at Loyola University of Chicago and as part of the whole transfer process, there were some general education courses I needed to take. One of them was Introduction to Philosophy (PHIL 120). After finishing that class, I knew I needed to switch majors from mathematics to philosophy.
What was it about philosophy that attracted me to it; especially since I was a mathematics major? I was good at math; I received good grades at UIC as a math major. What attracted me to philosophy was the fact that it engaged my mind. Philosophy made me think; it made me think about things that — as a young 20-something — I rarely thought about. Philosophy engages topics that science — quite frankly — can’t deal with. Philosophy is about the search for truth and knowledge about the great why questions of life. As the etymology of the words attests, philosophy is about the love of wisdom. Regardless of one’s worldview, we should all desire to become wise and grow in wisdom. As Socrates said so many centuries ago, “The unexamined life is not worth living.”
One of the problems, as I see it, with our current cultural mindset is that it doesn’t encourage self-examination or critical thinking. Most of our public education is more about teaching our children what to think than how to think. To paraphrase a common colloquialism, we’re too busy giving people fish rather than teaching them how to fish. This is exacerbated by our entertainment culture that turns us into passive recipients rather than active participants.
My goal in this post isn’t to promote a particular philosophy or worldview. Rather I want to encourage people to think philosophically; to examine what they believe and why they believe it. Too often people uncritically accept things they’ve been taught in their youth — whether by parents, teachers, or clergy. This is not to say that we should automatically treat everyone with critical skepticism, or that everything we’ve been taught in our youth is wrong. My point is we should take inventory of our beliefs and presuppositions. We should examine our lives. Things we tacitly believed as children or as young adults may not pass the ‘sniff’ test later in life. It’s like King Solomon wrote so many years ago, “The one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him” (Proverbs 18:17). Things we believed early in life may seem absolutely correct until something (or someone) comes around and challenges our beliefs. If our beliefs are worthy to be believed, they should be able to stand under scrutiny; else we should abandon them.
Ideological dogmatism — whether it’s religious or secular or political or economic — is the enemy of critical self-examination. Ideological dogmatism, by its very nature, is authoritarian, and authoritarian ideologies rarely (if ever) brook any dissent. Ideological dogmatism encourages groupthink, which reminds me of the Borg from the Star Trek television series; it’s a collective, hive mind way of thinking that discourages individual thought and creativity. For ideological dogmatism to survive, it must quell all attempts to to break free of its authority. For example, during the middle ages, the Roman Catholic church instituted the Inquisition to quash all teaching that differed from official Catholic dogma. Similarly, Communist Russia would imprison anyone who dared to question the official position of the ruling party. Again, whether it’s religious of secular, ideological dogmatism must suppress any deviance from official doctrine in order to survive.
It shouldn’t surprise anyone that for humanity to survive and thrive, mankind should be free — free to pursue his own destiny, seek his own happiness, think his own thoughts. The great advances in human history have typically coincided with advances in human freedom. Think of classical Greece and Rome, or the Renaissance, or the Protestant Reformation, or the Enlightenment. These bursts of advancement came as men began to question the established dogma of their day and critically examined the prevailing worldview. Conversely, the greatest times of human oppression have come when certain reigning ideologies have ruled the hearts and minds of people with an iron fist.
So back to the question of this post: Why Philosophy? Philosophy is the love of wisdom and the search for truth. To be philosophical is to be one who values wisdom and truth and understands that human beings never stop learning. You don’t have to read Plato or Aristotle to be a philosopher. All you have to do is engage your mind and think! I believe we’re all philosophers and theologians by birth because we’re created in God’s image with rational minds that think.