After I had my first epiphany in Thailand, being changed by Buddhist ideas, I thought for a while that philosophy was the key to a good and happy life – that what we really needed to live well was to understand and think about the big questions of life. I see that attitude now as a young man’s naïve enthusiasm. As I read more Hegel, I’m particularly struck by how little guidance there is in there for living well. Living well requires reflection, yes, but above all the kind of reflection that comes out of practice. And I don’t primarily mean the meditation and meditation-like practices to which Yavanayāna Buddhists so often reduce the idea of “practice”, but the likes of therapy, exercise, and the very fact of going through daily life and learning from one’s experience and mistakes.
So what, one may well ask, is the point of philosophy? What good is it to follow the difficult and complex questions of philosophy, to try to understand the Hegelian dialectic or deontic logic or the Abhidhamma? Is it just a parlour game that happens to give intellectual pleasure to a few Aspergians with their peculiar obsessions?
Philosophy is an intellectual pleasure for most of us who study it, of course, and it would be transparently false to deny that that’s a main reason for doing so. But it’s not the only one. For me, the continuing value of philosophy is that it alone is able to find truth at the highest and widest level – truth about the basic and fundamental questions which we usually take as settled, but about which we may turn out to be wrong. For truth about many of these questions, people typically turn – rightly – either to natural science or to the traditions we call “religious”, sometimes separately but often enough in some combination.
It is in that combination, I submit, that philosophy really becomes necessary. The traditions we label “religious” have a hard time understanding each other; it is often even harder for natural science to reach any sort of understanding with them. When scientists try to speak with those from traditions we call “religious”, they typically end up talking past each other. But philosophy, at least, is something that both have reason to respect; it is the common ground on which truth can be established between them. So too, “interreligious dialogue” too often winds up in the mode of mere conflict resolution without getting close to truth: it might stop people from killing each other (certainly a worthy goal), but they remain as convinced as ever that the other is entirely wrong. It is philosophy, especially with a dialectical method, is able to find a deeper understanding that comes closer to the truth.
Philosophy, then, is the way that we can find a truth broader and more universal than the ones from narrower traditions. And yes, that list of “narrower traditions” does include natural science, which must necessarily do a miserable job of explaining value, and likewise cannot answer the epistemological questions about how we can trust empirical evidence and establish natural laws in the first place.
But there’s another important question to ask: why seek truth at all? For some people, that question would be disingenuous. The advocate of scientific atheism who believes it to be the truth, or the advocate of evangelical Christianity or Nichiren Buddhism who believes it to be the truth, already has an answer to this question. Such people already believe that finding ultimate truth is important; they just disagree about what that truth is. It is my contentious contention that philosophy will help them find a truth they do not now possess; they may dispute that contention, but they are agreed on the importance of looking for truth in the first place.
Yet there do exist people who simply don’t try to seek truth at all. They are purely pragmatic; they live their life just as it is and try to be good and happy people according to standards that have worked for them all their life, and don’t question whether those standards are true in any sense larger than that effectiveness. Do such people need philosophy?
Well, no, they don’t – not normally. Most people in history have not been philosophers and their lives have often been just fine.
Philosophy comes to matter for normal people when their normal way of being starts to be a problem. When the lifelong believer is rattled by suffering enough to doubt her faith. When the atheist starts being plagued by thoughts about deeper purposes in the universe or life than he has so far imagined. When the interfaith couple want not merely to tolerate each other’s differences, but to really understand each other in terms that make sense to themselves. When the life of a young utilitarian political activist reveals itself as fruitless.
When you see the problems with your normal way of being, then you need to think about it. You need to start asking the big questions that you didn’t need to ask before, questions often ridiculed but essential to someone in that position: “What is the meaning of life?” “What am I doing here?” “Is this all there is?” “What should I be doing with myself?” “What do I really believe in?”
Science will not tell you the answers to these questions, nor should it. The traditions we call “religions” have their answers, and for people immersed in those traditions those answers are good enough – until this point, where the answers they have been comfortable with start to break down. It is philosophy – whatever its tradition – that has proposed answers to these questions, and more importantly, has given the reasons that can make those answers stick.