Someday (if I live long enough) I hope to write a book answering that question for the common man (I already have notes and outline). I'm just committed right now to several other projects that must be completed (as many already know). But I got to thinking I should at least publish some basic starter tips, which by following you can figure out on your own how to do philosophy and be a philosopher--by which I mean in a useful way, not a boring, useless, academic way. To that end I have four suggestions to get started on finding your own path. Make these the four pillars of your religion...
Task Number 1. Spend an hour every day asking yourself questions and researching the answers. Or at least an hour a week, by yourself, without distraction. Top questions being: Who am I? What do I really want in life? How do I safely obtain it? -- and to every answer to any of these questions then ask "Why is that the case?" and "How do I know that's true?" and "Are there other, better ways to answer that question?" And to any of those answers, ask those same three questions, and so on, all the way down the line.
Don't rely on just what you make up or think the answers are, but ask yourself "How would I find out what the real answer is?" or in other words "How do know if I'm wrong?" For example, are there any science-based books on it, or are there tests and experiments you could run or experiences you could collect to confirm you're not in error? Might there be things you haven't thought of? And if there are, how would you find out about them?
Philosophy isn't just sitting and thinking things through. Though it must always start there, it must always end with pursuing real empirical knowledge. That means research, investigation, self-education, it means finding what to read and reading it and it means testing things empirically to whatever extent you can. My book provides a basic starter epistemology, and lists further reading on how to get good at it (i.e. how to avoid mistakes and zero in on the best information), cf. pp. 49-61 (esp. pp. 55-56).
Note that all questions in science and philosophy are subordinate to the main three questions above. There is no use in knowing anything (like the ontology of time or the metaphysics of free will or the minutiae of foundationalist epistemology or any other debates you see professional philosophers occupied with) except insofar as it is necessary to know it in order to correctly answer those three questions. And as you explore the "Why?" of each answer of each answer, all the way down the line, you will eventually find yourself exactly there: asking why time behaves the way it does or what the difference really is between the future and the past; why our choices seem free or what that even means or if we should even care; why we trust our senses and thoughts in some cases and not others; and so on.
For example, answering how to safely obtain what you want requires knowing how the world works and what's in it, and what the actual consequences of any choice really are (in totum), which involves having to know a lot of things in science and philosophy, all of which in turn requires knowing how to reliably sort true information from false, and correct conclusions from flawed; likewise, answering what you really want in life requires knowing what the options really are, what your nature is as a person, and what you actually have to work with. Hence the questions of free will and the ontology of time (and so on) eventually become just as important as what job you're presently stuck in, or who you love, or what country you're in, or what responsibilities you now have, or talents, or skills, or personal problems, or what your body mass index is, or whether you're an agreeable or disagreeable personality, or have a drug addiction, or a prosthetic leg, or diabetes...
And on any quest to know these things (both the personally specific and the abstractly universal) you will face constant misdirection from people who are wrong, some honestly mistaken but some even outright lying, and thus you need to know how to tell these people apart, how to spot such claims and discard them, which requires yet more knowledge, not only scientific, but in terms of the logical analysis of concepts as well. And that's why "academic" philosophy seems so preoccupied with the latter. Atheists are most familiar with this problem in the matter of sifting through religious claims, especially when forcefully posed against them. But the same problems would remain even if religions didn't.
All in all, it's much more useful for you, in every way, to get to the Big Questions of Philosophy yourself. Instead of just jumping into a debate about free will, wait until you get there on your own, so you know why it even matters to you. Start with the questions that actually matter, and in pursuing the why and what of them you'll eventually come upon the more cerebral debates, and by then you'll have a better bead on what it is you are even trying to learn from that debate, hence why you should even bother, and what in that debate is really important.
|Philosophy for Everyone|
I already have a recommended reading list that will keep you busy for years (see Carrier Recommends), and it's roughly in order of sequential importance (and if you buy direct from there, I get a cut of the action from Amazon). But you needn't start there, or in that order. Start with books on topics that already peak your interest. From my list there, or from the many bibliographies in Sense and Goodness without God, or from anywhere. If Martha Nussbaum's Sex and Social Justice just sounds too good not to read, by all means start with that! (Certainly you'll enjoy it, it's a really good book). Or if you're a Firefly fan, you might like easing into the subject with Finding Serenity and Serenity Found. Or if you are really into music, try This Is Your Brain on Music or Musicophilia. In short, you can always find books where philosophy (and science) intersects with your greatest loves and interests or the questions that most intrigue you at any given moment.
Task Number 3. Politely argue with lots of different kinds of people who disagree with you on any of the answers you come to above. Do this as often as you can. Prioritize your debates to the questions that concern you most or where counter-claims appear the most credible or commonplace. Aim at sincerely finding out if they are right and you are wrong. To do that, get them to focus on why you are wrong in either of two clearly defined ways: Are there any logical errors or fallacies in your reasoning? (and if so, what? -- and why is it an error?) and: Are there any facts you have wrong or have left out of account? (and if so, what are their sources? -- and why should you trust those sources over any others?).
See if you can force them to the same stall point, where they can find no logical errors in your reasoning and can find no credible sources sufficient to establish the facts are other than you have found them to be. If they still disagree with you, you can stop talking to them. They are irrational. But even then the process will have improved your skills at reasoning and communicating (since one main task you'll find is in figuring out how to get others to actually understand what it is you are saying). But inevitably many of your opponents will catch your errors and lead you on quests to check facts that will teach you things you didn't know before. In other words, they'll correct you. And then you'll walk away more right about everything than you walked in. All progress in knowledge requires finding and discarding your errors. Hence if you never admit to any, you never get any closer to being right.
You will also gain and hone the vital universal skill of "checking facts" in and of itself, which you can then put to endless valuable uses in your own quest. Often all kinds of sources and documents and books and evidence will be touted as supporting a particular conclusion. The first thing you'll find is that this support is often illogical (the conclusions don't follow from the purported evidence--which requires finding out exactly what that evidence is purported to be, and sometimes even what the conclusion actually is, since occasionally your opponents will misrepresent even that). But the second thing you'll find is that when you actually check the fact claims in a source (by going to their source, or a better source, a source closer to the facts), the truth turns out to be quite different or more complicated, and often in precisely such a way as to render the conclusion logically invalid again, as when you reformulate the premise to align with the actual facts, the conclusion no longer follows from it.
Apart from the skills and knowledge this will develop in you, and apart from the errors and ignorance it will help purge from you, two priceless outcomes in themselves, it will also teach you the most important lesson of all: who is full of s**t, and who isn't. As you come to discover that certain sources of information routinely distort, misrepresent, and omit crucial facts, you'll be able to start making a list of whom you can trust and whom you can start ignoring altogether. It will save you an inordinate amount of time. This seems like an obvious thing, but you'd be surprised at how many people haven't quite figured this one out yet.
Task Number 4. Learn how to think. The most important skill of all may seem the most boring, but so is walking (or for the disabled, rolling), and just try getting along in life without doing that. You could bury yourself in formal logic and symbolic logic, but really what you need is just the basics of how to form an argument in a strictly logical way (and thus how to test any argument or line of reasoning, precisely by forming it in a strictly logical way), combined with a pervasive grasp of all the ways this can go wrong, meaning all the commonplace (and sometimes not so commonplace) fallacies of thought that plague the whole world, and almost certainly even you.
This is as empirical as any inquiry. Because you have to actually do it, to catch any errors or surprises in your own thoughts and identify the premises you must verify. It's thus like running an experiment, only on the logical validity of your reasoning. It takes time and effort and skill. Getting down the basics of how to formulate and test an argument with logic can be gleaned from online study, combined with practice. A good place to start is the Changing Minds website section on syllogisms, and the eight sub-sections linked therein. And for learning how to detect fallacies of thought, their List of Fallacies is among the most complete, although excellently supplementing and overlapping theirs is the Fallacy Files website, which I highly recommend. I guarantee you've committed many of these fallacies yourself, and you'll find them every day in news and editorials and political rants and speeches. Forewarned is forearmed--even against your own errors and self-deceptions; in fact, those especially.
Key skills to practice in this process include carefully defining terms (as often you'll find the question changes once you do that), starting with specific real-world examples and then abstracting from there (rather than the other way around, a very common mistake), analyzing what premises a conclusion is said to follow from (and thus not only whether the conclusion even follows, but what premises need to be confirmed as really true), and getting down to the root evidence any premise is said to follow from (any premise itself being the conclusion of yet another series of arguments). In the end, after mastering all this, you'll be a hundredfold sharper, you'll spot errors of reasoning instantly, know right away what facts to check, what questions to ask, and how to think clearly about everything that matters to you.
Fulfill all four pillars for at least five years and you won't need to ask me how to study philosophy. Not only will you have been doing it for five years, you will know all on your own by then how to improve that study over the next five. Everything that's important follows from this process: what's right and wrong, what's important and unimportant, beautiful and ugly, true and false, better and worse, worthwhile or a waste of time. You will thus be able to make yourself a better person, and enjoy a better life, a life of less error and ignorance and greater wisdom and contentment--all at least within the limits set upon you that you can't escape.