Why Study Philosophy at All?

What is philosophy and why should we study it? Provisionally, let’s say that, at its best, philosophy is the devoted study about the truth of things in life—for example, whether life is purposeful, whether we ought to act one way or another, and what options we have. We should study philosophy for four reasons: (1) we are already implicitly engaged in philosophy; (2) our philosophical convictions guide our decisions; (3) Scripture commands us to become wise and to avoid foolishness. Lastly, (4) the main reasons to avoid philosophy turn out to be weak arguments. Let’s consider each point in turn.

First, we should study philosophy because we are already implicitly engaged in philosophy and we simply can’t get away from it. Just by living, making decisions, and pursuing goals in life, this necessarily aligns a person with certain philosophical beliefs. This may seem surprising, but a few moments of thought show this to be true. Everyone has philosophical convictions—that is, everyone has provisional answers, whether these answers are expressly stated or implicit, to philosophical questions. These questions may be broad, such as:

·        Does life have meaning?

·        Are there right and wrong actions?

·        Is philosophy important?

·        Is all of reality random?

· Is there an order beneath the fabric of our experiences and our lives?

·        Is there a God?

These questions are perfectly philosophical, and, in many cases, people have expressly answered these questions one way or another. For example, a recent poll asked, “Do you believe in God?” Only 1% had “no opinion.” The other 99% answered either “yes” or “no,” expressly endorsing one philosophical conviction or another. The popularity of any specific belief itself, however, proves nothing about what should be believed, but it does indicate something of what people do, in fact, believe.

All people have philosophical convictions of some sort. No single person could avoid having any philosophical convictions. Consider some traditional questions of philosophy: 1. What is reality? 2. How do know things about reality? 3. What is good for human beings? 4. What is worth pursuing in life? 5. What is the purpose of government? 6. What is life all about?

Whether a person provides any answers to any of these questions at all or even replies that any of these questions are irrelevant, demonstrates that they have philosophical convictions. Both answering and not answering this these questions shows that a person has philosophical convictions.

Most people stumble into philosophical convictions, inherit them, or simply inhale them along with the air they breathe. Because philosophical convictions are so easy to acquire, you would have to make a conscious effort to avoid affirming any philosophical propositions. But, to make this conscious effort, you would have to believe that it is good to refrain from endorsing any philosophical convictions (or to suspend belief when it comes to philosophical assertions). This belief, however, falls neatly into an enduring philosophical tradition: skepticism. This belief is a philosophical conviction, and, therefore, philosophical convictions are unavoidable and we should take care to adopt the right convictions. We are ships in an ocean, going somewhere, even if anchored. The anchored ship goes where it is anchored. Even this is a place. Stagnation is a state, just as growth and decay is a state.

Second, we should study philosophy because philosophical convictions guide our decisions. Our philosophical convictions include beliefs about why life is meaningful, how we ought to act, and about what our options are. These convictions are the reasons for our choices and decisions. In turn, our decisions connect to consequences that we care about. We should, therefore, take an interest in the philosophical convictions that shape these consequences.

Third, we should study philosophy because Scripture tells us that folly is a sin (Mark 7:22), and Scripture also commands us to seek wisdom. “The beginning of wisdom is this: Get wisdom. Though it cost all you have, get understanding.” (Prov. 4:7). Consider the import of ‘though it cost all you have’. Similarly, James states: “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him.” (James 1:5–6) “But,” James cautions us: “let him ask in faith.” (James 1:5–6) These commands (and similar commands) are often skipped over and minimized by those advocating a ‘simple faith.’ As will be shown, sound faith and a sound philosophy are interconnected, and therefore, a sound philosophy should be sought, just as much as the grounds for our beliefs, which in part, is the meaning of faith.

Fourth, indirectly, one might observe that reasons that are commonly harbored to justify or to ignore, the importance of philosophy are quite false. This will grow more evident as these articles progress, but for now, it can be directly stated that the popular notion of philosophy is misconceived. From these misconceptions, people tend to adopt attitudes against philosophy. That is, some convince themselves that philosophy itself must necessarily be unchristian, but this is just false.

These anti-philosophical arguments are certainly due to misunderstandings of what philosophy is about, both historically, and in practice. They might think, for instance, that philosophy is nothing but useless mental gymnastics, or ancient science that is now obsolete. Relying on these misconceptions, busy modern people might think philosophy is, at best, interesting in a vague and remote sense, and so they will not study philosophy. Against these misconceptions, I urge that, at its best, philosophy studies the best basis of our decisions, so that they lead us to both truth and goodness.

As we examine a proper understanding of what philosophy’s proper purpose and scope, and what philosophers look like when they are doing their work well, we can then deepen and refine our ideas about philosophy. We will see how our convictions and decisions tightly connect to our philosophical ideas, and how a proper conception of philosophy ties together theological wisdom with common-sense, and provides all people with a common basis for having productive conversations about our shared human experiences.