Philosophy for Dummies

death-of-socratesWhen I tell some people that I am studying philosophy they, understandably, assume I want to be a Philosophy teacher. I think it would be cool to get my Master’s and become a teacher, but I have no illusions that it will actually happen. I do enjoy studying the subject of philosophy because it engages my critical thinking skills, which is something we are not taught to do often enough. This leads to a population that is woefully unprepared to discuss and answer the big questions. Sometimes we purposefully avoid knowledge, but sometimes we are willfully ignorant.

Philosophy is the study of knowledge, reality or our existence. We have those types of discussions every day without even knowing it, so philosophy shouldn’t be treated as some sort of esoteric study. It’s not about knowing who Hobbes, Camus or Aquinas are, it’s about understanding what contributions they made to our public discourse, or just knowing that they simply made an argument at all. Maybe that argument is something you agree with now or maybe it’s simply a point of view you cannot accept, but if you cannot accept it, you must have a reason for it. That would require critical thinking.

So, breaking down the major philosophical questions would probably help exemplify what I’m getting at.

Knowledge or “Epistemology”

What do you actually know and how do you know it? These are big questions, especially in the age of “fake news”. Putting aside the whole effort of getting fed information through memes, blogs and articles that cite anonymous sources, we seem to accept information willingly if it confirms to our biases or we reject it if it is contrary to our beliefs.

The biggest epistemological question that has been around for thousands of years is what people believe versus what they know in regard to the existence of a divine being. Sure, people may believe in something, but do they actually know it? This is a different question than whether or not there is a god or gods (as explained below under “Metaphysics”) because the epistemological question addresses knowledge. For those that claim to know divinity exists, philosophers and critical thinkers ask what their rationale is for that confidence and how can they prove it so that others may also share their in what they claim to know? I’m not going to get into too much detail around agnosticism and atheism here, but they are two different concepts. Agnosticism is “without knowledge” while atheism is “without belief in a god or gods”. To give a more relatable example, I will use one that the folks at The Atheist Experience use often because it really delivers.

Given a jar full of gum balls, one may believe there are an odd number (and have a 50% chance of being correct), or you can count them and know that there actually are 53 of them. So, I can be agnostic as to how many gum balls there are (if I don’t count them), but still be a believer in the odd amount, In terms of religion, as an agnostic atheist, I do not believe there are any gods (atheism), but I certainly don’t know it to be true (agnosticism).

Take, as an example, also, eyewitness testimony. People can be convinced that they know the perpetrator of a crime, yet, studies show consistently that eyewitnesses and memory are not reliable. One might believe they know the guilty party, but science may proves otherwise through something like DNA tests.

There are countless other arguments we make based on our beliefs versus our knowledge. Among them are the existence of life on other planets, Sasquatch, angels and ghosts.

For more on epistemology, look up Aristotle, known to be the Father of modern science.

Morals or “Ethics”

Moral problems hit us in big ways every day. When we discuss reproduction rights or homosexuality, as a culture, we are discussing moral issues. People who protest the death penalty may be doing so on moral grounds. Perhaps, you see someone at work acting in a way that rubs you the wrong way because you are making a moral judgement on that person. Maybe you think nothing of a person parked in a parking spot reserved for physically disabled people or expectant mothers, but maybe you are. Perhaps, you get angry when someone talks too loud in a restaurant or maybe you don’t. These are all potentially moral questions.

The famous example of our moral elasticity is the Trolley Problem. The scenario is that a runaway trolley is barreling down the tracks and it’s coming to a fork. You have control over the switch and can send that trolley to the left or the right. On the left track is a single person and on the left is a group of people. Who would you save? Most people would try and find a way out of the problem, but, eventually, most would want to save the most people they can, so they choose to save the group. Now, imagine that the group of people are drug dealers and the single person is a father of five small children. How does that change your thought process?

Another part of ethical philosophy is the question of nature versus nurture. Psychologists and other social scientists study this question as well. Where do we get our morals? Are they from our learned experiences or from evolution? Philosophy weighs in on this as well.

Aristotle wrote Nichomachean Ethics, if you want to try that one out, but other philosophers who have tackled ethics and that you may know are Plato (in Euthyphro, et al), Immanuel Kant and Jeremy Bentham. In “Euthyphro”, Plato addressed the question of divine command theory. The question there is whether or not something is moral because a god commands it. Interesting read and great argument. Bentham argued that morality is based on more utilitarian means, or, the more moral choice choice is the one that does the most good for the most people and causes the least suffering for the least amount of people. You can agree or disagree, but that’s the whole point of philosophy.


Anyone that know philosophy will tell you that metaphysics is the place to go for a lot of our most pressing and profound discussions. This is the field where big ticket items like free will and existentialism, the existence of god and the nature of our reality are debated. Aristotle himself called this the “first philosophy” with good reason. Metaphysics is a huge circle with many circles within.

I’ve written about the concept of free will and determinism before. The idea that we do not have free will can upset some people, but it is an important conversation to have when dealing with topics such as mental illness and crime. In order to try and find a solution to a problem, we have to try and understand the reason why it exists. For people that are mentally ill or are lifetime criminals, we have to wonder whether or not they are pre-disposed to a certain behavior that conflicts with social norms so we can find out how to deal with it. This is where the marriage of critical thinking and science is most important. We use the scientific method to gather data that we use to draw conclusions.

The nature of our reality is a huge philosophical question. Folks Like Nick Bostrom believe we live in a simulation. Think about that for a second. Rather, read his paper.

Descartes once said about our existence, “I think, therefore, I am”. This is the quintessential argument for consciousness that almost everyone has heard before. But, is it true? Do people in comas think? If not, then do they exist?  It’s a good question that philosophers can debate over.

Lastly metaphysics attempts to answer the “god” questions. Does one or many exist? Is it possible to know (see above under Epistemology)? Does the divine insert themselves into society and humanity or do they not? Every Sunday, I think, these questions are asked and there are different answers based on the religion and sect. We are all trying to figure it out.

In Conclusion

Philosophers are not flakes who talk about things that no one else talks about. They try to make sense of the big questions by debating with those that disagree with them. A good skeptic will always change their mind given new, more enlightening information, and that is what a philosopher is. A good skeptic. So, hug a skeptic today.

Author: TJ Dodenhoff

Part time philosopher, atheist and sarcasm professional.

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