Tuesday, November 7, 2006

This Week's Feedback

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Why Major in Philosophy?

This is a post I put up about a year ago and which I'd like to re-post because a number of students have asked what I thought the advantages of pursuing a philosophy major or minor might be:

In the course of my teaching I often encourage students to consider an undergraduate philosophy major because I believe that a study of the questions philosophers have addressed provides the most important background a thoughtful and intelligent student could acquire. Students often ask, though, what they can do with such a degree. My reply is that most majors don't do anything professionally with their degree but rather they find it excellent preparation for the sorts of careers they do choose to pursue. Employers in most occupations prefer to train their employees themselves in the skills they'll need, and most professions require graduate level work in a specific field. Philosophy prepares a student well for either path.

A friend sent along a link to a post by Dr. Roy Clouser, author of the outstanding book The Myth of Religious Neutrality, and professor of philosophy at Trenton State College, in which he addresses these same questions. His post is entitled Why Major in Philosophy? and it contains a lot of good advice for a young high schooler or undecided undergrad who thinks they might enjoy philosophy but isn't sure if it will prepare him or her for making a living. Clouser writes:

For most students arriving at college, philosophy is the one subject they've never had before so it's natural that it's one of the last they consider majoring in. It's also natural to wonder what the major is good for--after all, few people ever plan to be professional philosophers! Yet, year after year, students switch their major to philosophy, and others tell us they wish they'd discovered it sooner so they could have done so.

What these students discovered - surprising as it sounds - is that philosophy is the single most useful major in the entire undergraduate curriculum! (Yes, useful!)

It's true, of course, that not many people become professional philosophers. But neither do most history majors become historians or English majors go on to become novelists. The fact is that most students don't pick a major because they plan to make their living in that field. They choose a major based on their interests and on how well it will prepare them for the widest possible number of occupations after college. If you are deciding that way too, we can say this for certain: If you have the interest, philosophy is best possible major - hands down.

Let me explain.

Philosophy deals with theories about the most basic beliefs and values that people have. These include topics like the nature of reality and human nature, the nature and sources of knowledge and morality, the proper structure for society and government, and the nature of religious belief. It also studies theories about the nature of science, art, language, and law. In this way, every philosophy major is exposed to the most influential interpretations of the most important issues people face across the entire spectrum of human experience.

But more than simply learning about these issues, philosophy includes a keen training in logic and critical thinking - in the ability to argue and debate the truth of the various theories and viewpoints that are studied. It sharpens one's ability to spot difficulties, pose questions, and to weigh the evidence for and against the reasons given for any view on any topic. (A bank V.P. once told me that his logical training was the most valuable thing he got in his entire undergraduate education - even more valuable than his business courses.)

Even from this short description you may be able to see why a philosophy major is the best possible background for anyone who wants to deal with the public or who wants to write - whether as a novelist, or news reporter. It is also the very best major for those thinking of pursuing any sort of career in religion. And it should come as no surprise that law schools consider it the best background for the Law SAT and a career in law. (Speaking of standardized tests, the highest GRE scores consistently come from three majors: math, physics, and philosophy.)

But there's more. It seems that a solid background in the influential viewpoints over a wide range of issues, and an ability to think logically about them, is also splendid training for a career in business according to several top business schools. But what may be most surprising of all is that the records of some of the best medical schools show philosophy as the undergraduate major of some of their most outstanding alumni!

So, if you have doubts about the major that's best for you - especially if you are presently an undeclared major - why not make an appointment at the philosophy department to talk over your interests with one of our faculty? Philosophy might, at least, be the ideal minor subject for you even if you decide not to major in it.

I offer only one caveat. Philosophy departments, like departments in any of the humanities, often are loaded with instructors who favor a particular school or style of philosophy. Some of these styles may be deadly dull to students who expect their philosophy experience to be an exciting intellectual excursion into the best that's been thought and written about life's most important questions. The student who wants to major in philosophy would do well to check out what approach the department is inclined toward before committing him or herself to majoring in it.

The Road

I recently picked up Cormac McCarthy's latest novel titled The Road. It's a story about a man and his son, neither of whose names we ever learn, whom we come upon while they are journeying together through a post-apocalyptic world. They're trying to reach a vague destination along the coast, and the story is about their struggle to stay alive and avoid the evils which lurk along the vehicle-less highway they're following.

Their world is relentlessly barren, gray, cold, wet, and lifeless. All life, except for handfuls of human survivors, seems to have been extinguished in what we assume was a nuclear holocaust several years earlier. The lives of these remnants are reduced to finding food, staying dry and warm, and avoiding human predators.

McCarthy tells us very little about the man and his son except that they deeply love each other. The dialogue between them is spare, truncated, and taciturn but brimming with affection and mutual commitment. We do learn that the man doesn't believe in God, and this, I think, provides one key to how a reader might understand this compelling tale.

I wondered as I read the book whether McCarthy was consciously offering an allegory of life in a thoroughly secular age. The man and his son can easily be taken to be a synecdoche for the whole human race which finds itself journeying through modern life with no real destination and no real hope that there will be anything better for them when they finally get there. Along the road there are terrors and pain, a constant struggle to survive, to find food and shelter, but with no real reason to press on except that we love each other and want to live for those we love, and they for us. The man and boy are spurred along by the hope that they will find something, anything, along the coast that will help them survive, something that will give their lives point and purpose, but the man, at least, has no real expectation that there really is anything there.

The journey along the road is about as bleak as it can be. There's no meaning in anything. Justice and morality are as dead as the forests and streams through which they pass, except in the hearts of the man and the young boy. Their only delights come in finding a jar of preserved fruit, a can of beans or a dry blanket.

I don't know that McCarthy was trying to imagine a metaphor for the dismal emptiness and hopelessness of a world in which there is no reasonable expectation of life after death, but if he were, he couldn't have done it any better than what he offers us in The Road.

It's a book worth reading.

Believing in God

Atheistic philosopher Ken Taylor is puzzled that smart people can still believe in God in a technological age. The fact that we live in the modern world should, folks like Taylor think, preclude belief in pre-modern superstitions, as if belief is made obsolete by the development of air conditioning and DVD players.

Anyway, Taylor says this:

One should want to believe in the existence of god only if one is confident that such belief is capable of being ratified by either reasoned argument or direct experience.

Actually, no. One should want to believe in the existence of God because God is a necessary condition for there to be meaning, morality, justice, and dignity in life. God is also a ground for man's hope that there is life beyond corporeal death. Thus one might well be inclined to hope that there is a God and, finding no good arguments that dash that hope and several good reasons to think there is a God, is rational if he allows that hope to evolve into a belief.

At the very least, an atheist can, I think, argue the theist to a stand-still with counterarguments. If you start out neutral with respect to god and try to reason your way to his existence by appeal to any of the traditional philosophical arguments, you just aren't going to get all the way to positive belief, in my humble opinion.

But why start out neutral? Lots of people start out believing that God exists. They have reasons for their belief and no serious reason not to believe. So why shouldn't they continue to believe? A man might believe that his wife loves him although he can't prove it, but the inability to gain proof is no reason to asdopt a stance of neutrality. Why, if a person is convinced that God exists, should they somehow try to stifle that belief? Isn't that irrational?

The very worst that can be said for them [arguments for God's existence] is that they are all demonstrably invalid and incapable of compelling rational belief in the existence of god.

This is not true, either. The classical arguments for the existence of God fall short of being proofs, not because they are invalid, but because one is not logically compelled to accept some of the premises of the argument. For example, elementary forms of the Cosmological argument might run like this:

  • 1. Every event has a cause
  • 2. No event causes itself
  • 3. The coming to be of the world is an event
  • 4. Therefore, the coming to be of the world has a cause outside of itself.

This argument is perfectly valid, but it's not philosophically compelling for two reasons: First, it's possible to deny the first premise, and, second, even if the first premise is granted, the argument doesn't lead to the existence of the God of theism. It simply leads to some nebulous cause of the initial cosmic explosion.

Nevertheless, that is not nothing. The believer could hold that the first premise is reasonable, even if it can't be proven, and therefore conclude that the argument does suggest the strong possibility of the existence of a transcendent creative agent.

The problem with this approach, as I see it, is that if you take yourself to be positing god merely in order to endow one's life with meaning and you do so with no rational basis for really and truly believing that god exists, then you seem to be engaging in a kind of pretense.

The trouble with Taylor's statement is that by "rational basis" he means deductive proof. If deductive proof were the only rational basis we had for our believings then there would be very few things we'd believe. Among the things we would not be able to believe if we required certainty for our beliefs is that believing in God without proof is a "pretense". There is, after all, no proof for that strange claim.