Philosophical thought explores the many questions to the answers human beings readily accept, often without much contemplation. In a sense, we are all philosophers seeking solutions as we are transported through life on a train full of problems, traveling along tracks between uncertainty and reality. Mankind cannot help but desire exactness in its quest for correct choices when facing life's dilemmas, but reality is not so clear-cut. Philosophical theory, therefore, attempts to identify the problems of life and provide remedies or guidelines to achieve a more fruitful existence. Philosophical theories may supply some logical bases for examining human behavior, but often rationalized theories are diametrically opposed, leaving the philosophical explorer with a choice between conflicting propositions, none of which satisfy the inquisitive mind. Only through the continual search for knowledge can the thinker hope to achieve wisdom.
Consider the concept of free will. Human beings appear to act freely, to make their own choices, and to be responsible for the consequences of their decisions. People seem to be free when they wish to act in a certain way of their own volition, and are not prevented from doing so by some external constraint. Yet what if a person who considers himself free desires to act in a certain manner in order to fulfill a need? Does the necessity negate the freedom of choice? In a way, that person's actions have been caused by the necessity. One could reasonably conclude that a "universal causation" exists, directing human behavior - a theory known as Determinism (Burr and Goldinger 30). Nevertheless, it would seem quite contradictory, as "Libertarianism" suggests, that one should be held morally responsible for actions so totally predictable as to be pre-determined (Burr and Goldinger 30).
Attempts to resolve such conflicting issues morally would logically draw philosophical inquirers toward science in search of the truth. Yet "the advance of science has certainly tended to undermine any simplistic acceptance of religious doctrines and writings" which offer some solutions (Burr and Goldinger 116). Whether or not man's actions are directed, as well as any required moral responsibilities, presupposes the existence of a supernatural force or "God" that is scientifically difficult to verify. Human beings invent analyses through critical-thinking processes, often falling short of sound argument.
Take, for example, the sheer number of people fostering some religious beliefs in an Almighty Power. World religions may simply be adhering to the belief in God's existence to justify human action or to manufacture some moral order. Religious tenets may be no more than fallacious appeals to common belief. Or perhaps the proof of God's existence lies in the Scriptures, which provide nearly as little scientific evidence as widespread agreement does. And then, of course, there is the universe. The limited mental capacity of man can always examine the vast complexities of the solar systems in an effort to deduce the existence of a higher rationality as the only conceivable cause of harmony in nature. Or perhaps we should know God exists from the testimonials of those who have had "religious experience[s]" (Burr and Goldinger 118). Near death occurrences produce evidence of something more than "sensory experiences" in the minds of those willing to assume the existence of God (Burr and Goldinger 118). From the scientific perspective, theologians and philosophers who rely on faith to prove God or an Ultimate Cause do so without an evidentiary basis. That is not to say, however, that a Supreme Being does not exist, or that philosophers attempt to prove such reality. More accurately, philosophers explore available avenues to find the knowledge and seek the truth in relation to assumed reality.
Philosophers may consider whether or not the concept of morality is necessarily linked to a supernatural power at all. The term ethics suggests a moral code. As a branch of philosophy, Ethics deals with far more than standards of right and wrong. Moral philosophers seek better paths to the good life by examining personal happiness and societal promotion of individual well-being, independently of God's existence or proof thereof (Olson 3). Thus, morality and ethics spawn a variety of philosophical theories. Relativism, for instance, is a belief "that moral standards or principles are merely products of the society in which one lives" (Burr and Goldinger 196). Of course, such belief must consider whether or not the resultant standards are absolute or universal. Perhaps there can be more than one moral standard, depending upon societal norms, all of equal stature. If possible, are such standards determined by self-interest, the greatest benefit to all, or by "the golden rule" (Burr and Goldinger 197,198)?
Consider the hypothetical example of extracting a small stone from the Great Pyramid in Egypt. An egoist might view only the personal pleasure derived from the souvenir as his "highest moral purpose," thereby justifying the action (Burr and Goldinger 197). A utilitarian might weigh the consequences of his action in relation to the rest of the world. As such, he might conclude that taking the sample would have little or no effect upon others, thus rendering the act moral. Or he might conclude that if everyone took such a sample, the pyramid would be destroyed to the detriment of all, thereby rendering the act immoral. And the formalist would consider whether or not he would wish others to perform the same act in relation to himself (Burr and Goldinger 197, 198).
The above examples of morality and its relationship to society have been viewed from the perspective of the individual. The connection between morality and legitimate government merits philosophical consideration as well. Governments demand loyalty, as well as allegiance under color of moral authority. Thus, a democratic political philosophy espouses many propositions and attempts to convert such doctrine to reality to be realized by loyal subjects. From the philosophical vantage point, however, vagueness and ambiguity often plague political theory, fictionalizing government rhetoric like "all men are created equal" into propositions that must be tested if the truth be known (Burr and Goldinger 290). Is everyone created equal? Can those born equals develop unequally? Must a moral government treat all people as equals, even if they are not? The answers bear a relationship to the definition of equality, but even a universally accepted definition does not guarantee truthful answers. The truth lies with education, which deserves philosophical scrutiny before legitimate moral governments can even approach the equal treatment of those supposedly morally bound to its allegiance.
In addition to an explanation of man's freedom or lack of freedom, man's relationship to God, if any, and the human being's moral rights and obligations to himself and established governments, an examination into the nature of humanity is mandated within the context of philosophical debate. Simplistically, whether man is a physical being, a spiritual being, or both, must be established. What is known as the mind-body problem is philosophically perplexing (Burr and Goldinger 386).
Assume the nature of man as wholly physical (a view known as materialism or dualism). Upon death, the atoms and molecules giving structure to the human form would continue to exist, though the integral body we call human ceases to live on as an entity. "Death is ultimately just another transformation, from one configuration of matter and energy to another" (Chopra 280). Or assume, in the alternative, a nonmaterial soul in addition to the human physical form (dualism), having awareness continuing beyond death to function in some manner or dimension yet to be explored. Either assumption impacts upon human behavior. And consider also the possibility of the existence of the mind alone without a physical body to contain it (idealism), the body being but an illusion, as are all material objects. The reality of the human makeup determines whether the physical body actually experiences sensations, or whether feelings are mental illusions. The mind may cause bodily reactions or vice versa, or neither. "We don't know what happens in the brain when you think, …But we're pretty sure something does…" happen (Nagel 28). How it works will have to be discovered by science. And, of course, in the new age of technology, computers may ultimately out perform all rational human functions, rendering the machine better than man, if man has no soul (Burr and Goldinger 386-387, 389).
From Socrates, who considered the quest for knowledge the quest for virtue, even modern man understands that "the unexamined life is not worth living" (Thiroux 20). Likewise, Spinoza recognized "the pursuit of knowledge as the ultimate good" (Burr and Goldinger 465). Yet modern man differentiates science from knowledge, the former representing technology, and the latter power. "[F]or most people the value of knowing for its own sake must be subordinated to other values" (Burr and Goldinger 465). People accept space travel, not even bothering to view man's third or fourth attempts to land on the moon via television sets that magically broadcast with the push of a button. The work force binds itself to computers like a mindless slave chained to an oar. Americans believe that scientific processes work - they produce affluence. Questioning the "limits of knowledge" takes a back seat (Burr and Goldinger 466). The quest for truth is counterproductive. A practical and sensory approach to reality prevails. Why seek knowledge for its own sake when scientific technology provides immediate solutions to sensory needs? And why walk the path to futility, some skeptics say, when absolutes, certainties, and evidence beyond all doubt cannot be found? To the philosopher, questioning apparent truth produces knowledge, and knowledge may be truth - or it may not exist at all. Whether man can reason to find knowledge without reliance upon the senses, or can acquire knowledge through the senses is an exciting paradox for consideration by the philosopher.
The methodology employed by individuals (and societies) in the struggle to attain wisdom, consciously or unconsciously, defines the parameters of the individual's philosophy of life. "[T]he capacity to wonder and question" produces knowledge through the critical thinking process (Lewis 7). The soundness of one's personal philosophy determines the richness of the fertile ground which man relies upon for happiness. We are all philosophers, but only the active search for solutions can yield the practical wisdom all people desire.
Burr, John R and Milton Goldinger. Philosophy and Contemporary Issues. 7th ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1996.
Chopra, Deepak. Ageless Body, Timeless Mind. New York: Harmony Books, 1993.
Lewis, Donald. Defining the Humanities: Literature. Dominguez Hills, CA: California State University, 1997.
Nagel, Thomas. What Does It All Mean? New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.
Olson, Robert G. Ethics: A Short Introduction. New York: Random House, 1978.
Thiroux, Jacques. Ethics: Theory and Practice. 5th ed. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1995.