Tuesday, August 03, 2010

How to Be a Philosopher

In Sense and Goodness without God I open with an impassioned plea that everyone be a philosopher, that they replace all the devotion and time they spend (or are told to spend) on religion, all to doing philosophy instead. To which I'm often asked "How?" Indeed, someone on FaceBook just asked me that the other day.

Sense and Goodness Without God: A Defense of Metaphysical Naturalism
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.

Moreover, by starting with these key three questions of self-examination, you will also much more quickly hit upon your own flaws and mistakes and how to fix them or compensate for them. Because doing so will become a key element in achieving all that you really want in life, so any honest pursuit of the latter will lead you to the former. Indeed much of what you don't like about your life will inevitably turn out to be of your own doing, such that changes in your own behavior would have prevented them, or could yet undo them. That's perhaps the most important lesson of all. And it starts with asking who you really are, what you really want, and what will really obtain it. And then asking the why of every answer until you know your answers are as correct as you could ever expect them to be, or you discover you must Socratically admit all the things you don't really know. Which is always better than claiming to know what in fact you don't.


Philosophy for Everyone
• Task Number 2. Read one good philosophy book a month. Or at least one a season. This will often provoke tons of questions to occupy you in your daily or weekly hour of self-examination, but it will also fill your mind with new ideas and useful information and expose you to the kinds of things you should be thinking about in order to go about answering the top three questions of task one. It also exercises your mind, as you will constantly ask "How do they know that?" or "Is that really true?" or "How does that fit with what I already know?" or "Is there another way to conceptualize the problem?" or "Is there a way to test that claim empirically--and if not, can we really say that claim is true?"

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 Decision Lab's page on Syllogisms, the Logically Fallacious Encyclopedia of Fallacies, and Wikipedia's List of Cognitive Biases. I guarantee you've committed many of these fallacies and cognitive errors 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.


Jonathan MS Pearce said...

hi richard,

some mates and myself have set up a group of philosophers and theologians, and we meet once a month in a pub to discuss all manner of things. we are the tippling philosophers (http://www.youforum.cc/tipphilo/index.php). it has now become an obsession, and i am taking a masters in philosophy to satisfy my cravings. i have written a book on free will which i have just finished editing, and looking for a publisher. i can only agree that everyone should be loving their philosophy!!!!

incidentally, i used some of your research in my first youtube videos (on joseph of arimathea) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qwcoWerYTCc



hope that is ok. i am looking forward to your next book. keep up the good work.


AIGBusted said...

I like the pic under number 4. High heels and bare booty, yeaah!

Ben said...

Yeah, is number four about learning how not to be distracted in your thinking? FAIL

Mitaad said...

Yeah, I've seen the facbook comment.
Great post by the way, sure to spread it around.

Invictus said...

Nice post Richard. At work I'm thought of as a bit of an odd ball because of my interest in philosophy and other heady subjects. People are baffled by the notion anyone would have an interest in these types of things. That's hard for me to understand because the central issues of philosophy are, mostly, the types of things that you cannot avoid having an opinion on.

The problem is that a lack of dedicated thought doesn't stop anyone from holding fast to their opinions and disparaging those who disagree with them. I've had people who only days before expressed some staunch opinion on some Constitutional issue react in dismay at the sight of me reading a book about the Constitution. They can understand why anyone would read something like that. Being intellectually inclined can be a true source of joy, but it can sometimes make you want to bang your head on the table.

Lucretius said...

I had been waiting for Sense and Goodness to be available on Kindle. I noticed that the text to speech option was available which is nice for listening in the car. I don't know who decided that but thanks!

M said...

If im going to invest 5 years doing this i would like to first see some evidence that it will make my life so much better ^_^

Evan said...

@ AIGBusted and WAR_ON_ERROR

The nude photograph under task number four is actually a famous picture of Simone de Beauvoir, close friend and lover of the French existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre. It serves as a good philosophical lesson; when examining anything, go beyond any surface values or distractive qualities and look for a deeper meaning. ;)

And fantastic post, Richard. Thank you!

Pikemann Urge said...

The expectation among a lot of people is that you must have an opinion about a given issue. When you say that you don't, their reaction is shock. A similar facepalm moment to the one Invictus mentioned.

Philosophy is very practical - you don't even need to call it that. Which is probably why most people don't think it's necessary. They're already doing it, albeit in a primitive form.

One author of a book about theology relates a letter he received. The person wrote two full pages objecting to the practice of theology, and that all that mattered was a personal relationship with Christ. The theologian pointed out that whoever wrote the letter was in fact practicing theology! (An interesting aside: atheism is theology, too).

RE pic of Simone de Beauvoir, what's the deal with pics of naked women... who are wearing heels? Why on earth would you be naked and continue to wear shoes? NOT GETTING IT.

Richard Carrier said...

AIGBusted said... I like the pic under number 4. High heels and bare booty, yeaah!

Guess who that is.

(hint: there were three women depicted in sequence, each specifically chosen because they symbolize something...)

Richard Carrier said...

M said... If im going to invest 5 years doing this i would like to first see some evidence that it will make my life so much better ^_^

You don't need any more evidence than you already have. Given the immediately verifiable nature of the universe and your situation in it, it's logically necessary. To wit:

P(S) = the Probability that you will be Successful in achieving a better life

K = Knowledge and information about what you would actually conclude is a better life (once you are aware of what it is), and about what actions have what effects in terms of achieving that better life (either what you now believe it is, or will believe it is when better informed).

Actions and choices made without K necessarily have a low P(S), because whether the actual effects of your behavior will correlate with optimal desires will be a product of random chance (and even in the best of conditions, the odds of random behavior hitting a goal are no better than 50/50, and in most real-world conditions far less than that).

Actions and choices made with more K will necessarily increase P(S), because the more you know about what you really would want most, the more likely you will act to obtain it (i.e. the odds of obtaining it will necessarily increase from a base rate of chance--the inevitable effect of adding intelligent design to any random system), and as long as there is any K you lack, there will necessarily be some optimal desires you will be failing to pursue that, if you pursued them, would make your life better, or some actions that would better obtain those desires than you are actually undertaking (i.e. by definition, lacking some K is lacking knowledge of some such desires or some such cause-effect sequences, and the lacking of either necessarily has the stated consequence).

Thus, only as K approaches 100% will P(S) approach 100%.

Efficiency maximizes when gaining any more K will have such a small effect on P(S) that the resources spent to gain K will be greater than the happiness dividend (and risk aversion dividend) produced by your current P(S). But you can't know whether you have reached that point without doing enough philosophy to even know how to find out. Thus Catch-22: you have to do it.

Besides, the fact that doing all this is fun actually offsets almost the entire cost.

Richard Carrier said...

Simone de Beauvoir: Evan nailed it.

Except the point was more than that: there is an intended contrast between the aims and values, and actual resulting behavior and life results, between Sarah Palin and Simone de Beauvoir (hence the sequence of photos...next in line, the supreme albeit fictional power of Wonder Woman to deflect danger and obtain the truth, itself an icon of female power).

The one who never poses nude is superficial and vacuous and routinely makes the wrong choices oblivious to reality, while the other who was happy to pose nude for the public eye was a philosopher of some depth and self-understanding who did less harm to the world and lived so much more in it.

It was also meant to evoke (for those who knew the image), the disconnect between hypocritical feminist hostility to Beauvoir's action (and anyone's enjoyment of it), and their actual ideals of female liberation and power, which her image actually celebrates (and for those who didn't know the image and its context and cultural meaning, it evoked the effect of ignorance on our interpretation of what we observe).

Richard Carrier said...

Pikemann Urge said... Philosophy is very practical - you don't even need to call it that. Which is probably why most people don't think it's necessary. They're already doing it, albeit in a primitive form.


It's the difference between doing it well and doing it poorly. You wouldn't want a surgeon working on you poorly. So why would you want to do poorly when it's your entire life and happiness on the line?

Indeed, even finding out how to do it well, is itself doing philosophy. Thus its sink or swim. But you will be much better off taking seriously the task of learning to swim, than if you just splash wildly in any random direction and barely stay afloat.

Richard Carrier said...

Pikemann Urge said... Why on earth would you be naked and continue to wear shoes?

Because it's a photograph of her derriere, and high heels alter the female form in a fashion that's more visually stimulating. Hence the point of wearing high heels at all.

In particular, it tones the calves and glutes--making you look younger and more fit. And more feminine--the change in shape of the calf and rear are more in the direction of the differences in each already distinguishing men and women. It also makes you taller and thus you appear slimmer, without overtly advertising the trick (since the human brain erases shoes at a general glance, treating them as a part of the body).

Which makes the image even more apposite: the feminist controversy over high heels in general exemplifies my entire point--it being often illogical, divorced from evidence, and dismissive of the actual desires and aspirations of women. The reality is more complicated. High heels are sexy, but sufficiently bad for you that (like a lot else of use that we do) they should be employed only on special occasions.

Like being photographed bare-assed naked for a national magazine spread.

Morrison said...

Richard, your "The Christian Delusion" team has critizized the authors of "The Infidel Delusion" for going outside their "areas of expertise".

In your case, you have no higher degrees in Philosophy.

So you have gone outside your "area of expertise" in teaching people "how to be a Philosopher".

(By the way, on a Totally Irrelevant Side Note... the picture of "Beavoir" is most likely faked. Other pictures at the time show she did not have that slim a waist, and she just happened to be standing naked in high heels? LOL!)

Morrison said...

By the way, your talk about what is going to lead you to be a "better person" is ludicrous.

I don't think a man who has stated how he is going to be as MEAN as possible to his opposition is in a position to claim to be much of a teacher in any tradional sense.

That would be more the characteristic of the Propagandist.

Evan said...

Your Ad Hominem is showing...

Seriously. If you can't articulate your criticisms in a constructive manner, please go away. And you chose to air your fallacious grievances in a comment on a blog post concerning one of the most universally beneficial human activities, regardless of any specific religious affiliation. Doing so simply emphasized your ridiculousness.

Richard Carrier said...

Morrison said... Richard, your "The Christian Delusion" team has critizized the authors of "The Infidel Delusion" for going outside their "areas of expertise".

I am not them. So how is it rational to attribute to me claims that others have made?

Instead, look at when I have discussed the relevance of expertise, and what constitutes expertise, and you'll find no inconsistency on my end. If others are inconsistent, go tell them.

In your case, you have no higher degrees in Philosophy.

As I explain in Sense and Goodness without God philosophy is not a field in which one needs a degree--any more than a Christian must have a Ph.D. in ancient history or theology to be a devoted, practicing Christian, or a citizen must have a Ph.D. in political science to be a well-informed voter on issues of public policy.

Insofar as professional philosophers have expertise we lack, we defer to them to exactly that degree (hence in my blog I recommend people read them). But they don't really have much specialized expertise that's necessary for people to practice philosophy in the sense I mean.

That's why there is a difference between philosophy and history: the logical validity (or lack thereof) of a philosophical argument is self-evident and can thus be tested and confirmed by anyone, whereas knowing the truth of a claim about history requires vast experience and background knowledge that not just anyone has. Ditto the sciences (like psychology or cognitive science or cosmology or evolutionary biology).

My blog thus explains what I've done to become experienced in philosophy; the content of my book verifies that that experience has been extensive and is well-informed (and indeed routinely defers to experts with established credentials); and I've obtained professional status in the field by publishing peer reviewed articles in academic journals in the subject of philosophy.

Can you claim any of the above? If so, then critics will have been wrong to accuse you of being inexpert in philosophy. If not, you should turn your ire against yourself--because then it is you who doesn't know what he's talking about, having done nothing to become expertly informed in the subject.

Richard Carrier said...

Morrison said... (By the way... the picture of "Beavoir" is most likely faked. Other pictures at the time show she did not have that slim a waist, and she just happened to be standing naked in high heels? LOL!)

Simone was indeed quite slim, so I don't know what you are thinking of (see here and here). All photos at that age show she was tall and thin. Whose photos are you looking at?

As to why she's in heels, try paying attention to the discussion here. I answered that above. It was a photo shoot for a magazine (only artistically made to look clandestine...those silly French and their "art").

Morrison said... I don't think a man who has stated how he is going to be as MEAN as possible to his opposition is in a position to claim to be much of a teacher in any tradional sense.

Since I never said that, the fault here is with you delusionally believing I've said that (or deceitfully claiming I did, take your pick).

I said only that telling the truth must necessarily at times be mean, not that telling the truth is being "as mean as possible" much less that I planned to be or that anyone should be.

Phil said...

Hi Richard. Off-topic - is the email listed on your blogspot profile current? I emailed you recently and I'm not sure if you got it. I entirely understand if you are backed up by email, would just like to know if I addressed it properly or not!


Richard Carrier said...

Phil: You need to be more specific. I have over a thousand (no kidding) unanswered emails in my in box right now. If you can tell me the subject heading or the email address you sent it from or something I can check. Yes, the address here is current. But it can't hurt to check if it was addressed properly or got dumped somehow.

Phil said...

I didn't realize you were so incredibly backed up with email! My email's subject is "The beginning of time" and "Re: The beginning of time"

Richard Carrier said...

Got it! Just replied via email. Thanks.