Philosophy, like Wagner's music, is not half as bad as it sounds. You
can read whole libraries of books trying to analyse what it is without
actually doing any! Yet we argue that the definition is very straightforward.
Philosophy is simply the attempt to answer one or more of the following
1. Do we exist?
2. If we do, How did we get here?
3. Now that we are here, What do we do about it? and
4. What is going to happen in our future?
You will find that all human queries fall into one of the above categories
or their sub-categories. Indeed, we challenge
anyone to find a meaningful question that doesn't fit. By this, we do
not mean that we believe everyone spends all their time trying to solve
one or more of the four questions! Most people spend most of their lives
entirely unconcerned by them, even unaware of them, usually because
they don't understand them; or they have what they consider to be more
urgent business (pah!); or they believe that they already know the answers
(when, perhaps, the truth is they often don't even know the questions!)
Philosophers are those of us who narrow the search to establishing, chiefly,
not just what the detailed answers to those questions might be, but also
how to ascertain whether or not a given answer is valid.
Let's expand on each one just a little at this stage.
The First Question: Do we exist?
This question probably looks absurd to the beginner. Don't worry. It
will make sense later. The question concerns itself with perception and
meaning. Firstly, how can we be sure that what we perceive is "real"?;
secondly what do we mean when we say something is real?; indeed
what do we mean by saying anything at all? If it doesn't seem possible
to ask such questions, bear with me. If you still don't understand after
the next chapter, you can ask for your money back.
The Second Question: How did we get here?
Is, of course, the parent question to all the empirical sciences AND
Religion. Here we should make something clear. Some hold what might
be seen as an arrogant view that Religion isn't philosophy because it
didn't make what might be considered to be an "honest" attempt to answer
the question. The more liberal view is that it doesn't matter
- for the purpose of definition anyway - how you try to answer
the question, or indeed whether you succeed. Philosophy is merely the
attempt to answer it. What we will show, however, is that you
can't get very far in answering this question unless you've got a satisfactory
answer to the first question. And, in part, the spectacular failures,
particularly by the monotheist religions, to answer the second question
arise because those who have leapt in at this question often haven't
understood the importance of the first question - which is why we rather
hope we can explain it to the unconvinced.
The Third Question: What should we do about it?
Can be paraphrased as "how should we behave?", which is, of
course, the starting point for all "moral" philosophy and all that follows
from it; Ethics, Politics, the Law and social Mores being the most important.
And here we clearly differ from, for instance, A J Ayer who argued
that moral philosophy is mere "metaphysics".
We shall demonstrate that the key to answering the question lies in
the answers to the previous questions and thus stands four-square with
his "serious" philosophy.
The Fourth Question: What is going to happen in our future?
Used to be "What happens after we stop being here?"
In other words "Is there life after death?"
But following a discussion in 2008, on the forum, I conceded that this was too narrow. Although life after death has always been and remains a huge human preoccupation, I believe it is right to acknowledge that the greater overall focus has been "The Future" and life after death is merely one - perhaps the most important but still just one - aspect of that concern.
In any case, academics will be even more surprised to see a question about the future on the "master list" of philosophical questions. On the one hand it would appear to be straightforward metaphysics ("wishful thinking" to the philosopher) (particularly regarding Life After Death) incapable of satisfactory analysis or solution and, on the other, our post mortem survival might even be a mere sub-category of questions one, two
For now we will merely say that many aspects of "The Future" have, without doubt preoccupied humanity for, at least, several thousand years. We view it as arrogant to dismiss such a universal fascination as unworthy of serious consideration. Moreover, though you may not like the answer, many questions regarding the future can be subjected to rigorous philosophical analysis, or at least to experimental hypotheses. Even the question of Life After Death doesn't necessarily evaporate under serious analysis. For a start, it raises a question of fundamental importance to any self-aware mortal organism - "Is death inevitable? and, if not, what can we do to avoid it?" (See, for example, the first part of Resurrection for one possible answer to that question)
Such questions have also been a fixation for many philosophers in the past if not the present and, though
we recognise the weakness of the argument we will conclude the point by saying that, ultimately this, and any other question is philosophy because it is what philosophers talk about!
So thats it, just four basic questions and you cover every enquiry ever
made by a human being.
If you can think of an exception, please send it here.
"Is this a question?" is the classic example of the serious attempt to
find an exception by paradox but this one falls neatly into the area of
the first question - Do we Exist? - as it forces us to confront the "meaning
"Will there be a hot dinner waiting for me when I get home?" is an example
of the attempt to find an exception by virtue of triviality. In fact this
question comes under the second category - How Did We Get Here? - because
the answer to it requires an explanation of how things came to be as they
are, and ultimately that includes how or whether your dinner will indeed
be ready when you get home!
"Will you vote Labour/Tory/Republocrat at the next election" clearly falls into the third
category - How Should We Behave?
"Can we communicate with the dead?" is a little bit of 2 and a bit more
of 4 - What of the Future - will we survive even Death? To answer that, we'll need to explain what
death is. (Come to that, we're going to spend a whole chapter discussing
what Life is) which is all part of "How we got here?" and then
of course we can discuss what, if anything, can survive death and just
how that might not only be possible, but as transhumanists
believe, almost inevitable.
Right now we're going to get seriously involved in the first question.
Well, Do We Exist?...
(Last Updated 12 April 2009)