Questions and answers

I am a philosopher by training. Recently, however, I’ve been wondering whether my interest in philosophy as such will endure. I have at present no pressing philosophical concerns. My intellectual curiosity, I like to tell myself, is the same as it ever has been. But the drive to find answers to some question or other has been oddly absent.

Three puzzles have driven the bulk of my philosophizing over the past decade: first, the nature of the mind or soul; second, the existence of God; third, the nature of morality. Nothing amazingly original, I know. But these were the questions with the most existential import for me. I was raised a Christian, and so I inherited ways of thinking about my world that left me with unanswered questions. In part through philosophy (and in part through science), I have answered these questions to my satisfaction. There is no soul, and the mind is what the brain does; there is no personal God; and morality is a social construct, a tool we use to get along together and co-construct a form of life. 

These are not original answers, of course. But it took me a while to come to them, and so they’re rather dear to me. Now that I have them, I’m just not sure what there is left to say. The rest seems to flow pretty obviously to me: life is short and absurd; beauty is a function of how we have evolved and been socialized to appreciate certain phenomena; the world’s religions and other ideologies are selling first (a false sense of) certainty and second a (sometimes true) sense of belonging; it’s nice to know the truth, but truth doesn’t always lead to happiness; happiness is pretty important; etc. etc. etc. 

The questions I currently find interesting aren’t really philosophical questions. I’m interested in the future of food and water, in global distributions of wealth, in science education and the popularization of empiricism, in ecology and evolution, in space exploration, in the future of technology, in population control, in politics… The theme that unites these is simply that these are practical matters. They’re questions about how to live in this world we’ve inherited. And in one sense, that’s the natural progression: first you figure how the world works, and then you try to figure out what to do with that knowledge. I can’t claim to have a complete understanding of the world, but I do claim to have ruled out a number of misleading pictures. (That’s something, at least.) 

In a sense, this is the real promise of atheism and of empiricism. Once you move beyond debating whose god is really real, or which afterlife really matters, you can get down to the business of really living–here, now, in this world. Once you clear the cobwebs, and move beyond the smoke and mirrors, you’ve got a shot at collaborating with other clear-sighted folk to make the world a better place. If that’s your thing. 

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