When people talk to me about studying philosophy, I’m usually met with similar questions. What’s the point of doing philosophy? When can you even use it? Here’s a lengthy paraphrase of what I sometimes say.
You already do philosophy all time and it’s the single most important activity in your life. You just don’t realize it. Every single reflective decision you make is an act of philosophy. Philosophy can be described as the activity of finding reasonable beliefs (then hopefully acting on them). When you decided to eat one thing over another, in so far as you reflected on your choice, you engaged in philosophy.
Why eat one thing over another? Does taste matter more than nutritional content? Does price matter more than quality? Does one meal look better than another? How important are aesthetics in your choice? None of these questions can be answered scientifically. No amount of beakers and Bunsen burners can tell you whether, forced to choose, you should eat the sandwich or the cookie. What informs your choice are reasons.
You might say, well obviously you should eat the more nutritious item. Maybe. But again this is a philosophical choice. If, in your food choices, you value health above all else, then yes. But should we value health above all else whenever we choose what to eat? Although perhaps trivial, this is a matter of philosophy and it’s something you do with every conscious decision you make. Philosophy is everywhere.
Which courses did you choose for next semester? What career are you pursuing? Do you pursue the higher paying job that you won’t enjoy yet allow you to live the lifestyle you want outside of work or the job that pays less but fills your life with a sense of purpose? Again, not even the most powerful microscope in the world can tell you what to choose. Your choice will depend upon weighing various reasons—that is to say, engaging in the activity of philosophy.
Which political candidate do you favor? Which political issues matter to you? Why these and not others? These are philosophical choices. Science can’t tell you what to value. In deliberately making choices in these respects—choosing some politicians over others, some issues and positions over others, you’ve done philosophy.
Do you believe in God or gods? Which one(s)? In so far as your answer is a product of weighing various reasons, it was a philosophical decision. The same is true if you don’t believe in any gods.
So, what’s the difference between taking a philosophy class and the philosophy I just told you that you do every day? Think of it this way. You also exercise every day: You walk to class, you walk to your car. You clean your house. You are exerting yourself physically and expending energy. You are exercising, albeit unconsciously. In the same way, you engaged in philosophy when you chose to read this article instead of watching another cat video on youtube.
When you go to the gym, exercise isn’t unconscious. It’s structured, it’s systematic, it’s rigorous, and there are determinate goals. Today is leg day. 5 sets of squats, 6-8 reps each and then on to deadlifts. It’s the same for philosophy class. We’re doing the same thing you already do every day unconsciously except it’s structured, systematic, rigorous, and there are determinate goals.
This month we’re studying free will. First we’ll read Strawson and systematically evaluate his Basic Argument. Then we’ll read Frankfurt and his compatiblism. Then we’ll look at the Libet experiments and the various interpretations of the results. Even if we get a bit tired we keep going, just like you don’t quite after the 3rd set of squats. You gotta keep squatting if you want good glutes. You gotta keep reflecting and reasoning if you want good reasons to believe one thing rather than another. The more you do it the better you get at doing it and slowly but surely people start to notice your gainz. You get into a debate and you flex your philosophical muscle. People notice. You notice. You critically evaluate some of your old beliefs and realize they’re founded on weak reasons. You change your beliefs. You’ve taken one step closer to Truth by discarding false beliefs. Dem gains are showing. It feels good, and so you continue. Welcome to philosophy.