The motivation to philosophize

What motivates someone to start doing this activity called "philosophizing"? What motivates people to start thinking very deeply about life and the universe? It seems that only when one understands why people take up philosophy can one properly understand what philosophy is. This article presents two possible motivations to philosophize; others might exist.

Puzzlement as a motive

We find ourselves believing things that we do not understand. This is perhaps strange to say, but it is true. There are many very basic beliefs we have, about God, ourselves, the natural world, human society, and human productions. But all too often, we fail to understand what it is we believe, and we fail to understand why we believe it. We have questions about meaning of our beliefs and questions about the justification (or rationality) of our beliefs. And we--many of us--dislike not understanding.

Consider some examples.

The belief in God

Very many people grow up being taught to believe that God (some God) exists. But how many people know exactly what it is they mean by the word "God"? Probably they have thought some about it: "Well," they tell themselves, "God is the creator of the universe, and he is supposed to be all-powerful and all-knowing; and he is supposed to be some sort of spiritual and personal being." But is that an adequate account of what God is? Are there not many questions one would have to have answered before one could say one knew just exactly what God is? For example, surely one would have to know what it means for a spiritual being to create anything. We have experience of bodies building houses and ships, but minds, as far as we know, create nothing but thoughts and decisions--other mental things--not physical objects like mountains, streams, and animals! And, surely, one would have to know what it means to say that God is all-powerful and all-knowing. Does that mean that God can create a rock he cannot lift? Surely these are difficult questions.

These sorts of questions are only questions about what the proposition, "God exists," means. But very many people do not truly understand why they believe this. They have been taught it; they assume it and act as though it were true. Of course, many who believe that God exists have thought about why they believe it, and perhaps they have reasons, or explanations, such as the following:

  • I have a simple faith and that is enough.
  • I firmly believe the Bible, my family and society, and my clergyman when they all together affirm that God exists.
  • I believe I have had an experience of, and felt the influence of, God in my life.
  • I believe the universe could not have existed, especially not without the great variety of life we see around us, if God had not created and designed it.

But at least in certain moments, when they are being perfectly honest with ourselves, many believers realize that they are not quite sure whether this belief in God is perfectly justified. No doubt there are some sorts of people who are relatively unquestioning and those people manage never, or hardly ever, to question their belief in the existence of God. But some others, who have an impulse to philosophize, want to get very clear on why belief in God is, or perhaps is not, justified or rational. They want to see the arguments on both sides.

When one starts asking, "What is God?" and "Is belief in the existence of God rational?" and one is uncomfortable because one is not persuaded one knows the answers, then one is motivated to do philosophy. In particular, one is motivated to study an area of philosophy called philosophy of religion.

What is morality?

Here is another example of discomforting puzzlement that might lead one to philosophy. This time the puzzles are in ethics, the study of right and wrong. Again, there are puzzles about both meaning and justification. What does it mean to say that cheating is wrong? One shouldn't simply say, "It's something that's bad--that you shouldn't do." Obviously then one will have to answer, "What do 'bad' and 'should' mean?" We use these sorts of words all the time, these and other evaluative words like "good," "bad," "pretty," "ugly," "useful," and "useless."

Here the questions of meaning and justification are inextricably bound together. It seems one cannot say why one thinks cheating is wrong until one knows what it means to say it is wrong; and very likely, once one has said what it means, one will know why. The situation is the same with many other moral questions, about killing and letting die, about personal responsibility, about sex, about choice of career, about a million other things we live with every day. To know what it means to say an action is right, or wrong, is to know why it is right, or wrong.

Of course, nearly everyone finds themselves with beliefs about good and bad, right and wrong, the proper purpose or goal of a human life, and so on. Hardly anyone truly understands these beliefs or knows why they have them or whether they are truly rational to have them.

One can, and some people do, go through life without answering moral questions. Perhaps, at least in part, it is because some people have not thought certain moral questions through that they end up behaving immorally. It is possible to use an easy sort of skepticism, or relativism, according to which each person can disregard morality or invent his own and thus justify whatever behavior one wants to get away with. That is (or can be) a profoundly anti-philosophical attitude.

Even if, as is the case with very many people, one wishes to be a generally good person but one also thinks that there is no objectively correct morality, one is still stuck with a lot of puzzles. For example, if one is accused of being not just a bad person, but a really bad person--an evil person--then that person's accuser would be sympathetically viewed as just expressing an opinion, that this opinion is true for the accuser and not for the accused? It seems, to many at least, that there is some sense in which the accuser is incorrect, period? Consider the belief system of a typical Nazi-era German fascist, the sort of person who thought it was acceptable to kill millions of Jews just for being Jews: did those people simply have a different moral point of view from more tolerant, humane, contemporary points of view? Is there not some sense in which the Nazis were simply incorrect?

The multiplicity of philosophical questions

Questions about God and ethics are only the tip of the philosophical iceberg. There are many other things about this universe about which we are, most of us, also fundamentally ignorant. Philosophers are in the business of investigating all sorts of those areas of our ignorance.

A bewilderingly huge number of basic concepts are poorly understood. What does it mean to say that one thing causes another? What is rationality? What are space and time? What is beauty, and if it is in the eye of the beholder, then what is it that is being said to be in the eye of the beholder? And so on. The number of these most basic questions is huge.

Those are just the questions about meaning. One might also consider some of the many questions about justification. Why think the sun will rise tomorrow? Surely we are justified in believing this, but why? Most people believe they have free will. They are not determined or fated to do what they do; they have the ability to choose freely. But is this certainly true? We live, by all appearances, in a world governed by strict lawss that scientists describe. Could our decisions be governed by the same sort of strict laws? If you think not, then why not? Surely, the government should be doing some things and it should not be doing other things. But why? As a philosopher, one does not simply list the things you think government should do; one says why one thinks the government should do those things. One explains the purpose of any government, of having any official authority at all.

Our lives are deeply informed by all sorts of basic assumptions. If one made radically different assumptions, one just would not be able to go on thinking and living as one had been. That is surely a reason why some people are scared, or angered, by philosophical questions. These questions are powerful: if one changes the belief about a truly fundamental question, then one might have to change how one perceives about the world, and even how one lives. One might have change religions or become entirely unreligious; one might have to act entirely differently in order to conform with new ideas of morality you have; one might have to think much more carefully, and rationally, in order to live up to new standards of justified belief you accept; and those are just some of the more dramatic changes. Other, more subtle effects are too numerous to mention.


(1) We find ourselves with some basic, important beliefs, for example about God and morality.

(2) There are two sources of puzzlement, or discomforting ignorance, that leads people to philosophize about these beliefs: first, not knowing the meaning of the beliefs; and second, not knowing whether the beliefs are really justified or rational.

(3) No doubt people exist who lack almost all such puzzlement, but even their lives are deeply shaped and informed by their beliefs.

(4) But those people who are attracted to philosophy through the more dramatic topics like God and morality soon realize that the number and variety of beliefs that they do not really understand is breathtakingly enormous.

Biological survival as a motive

One of the strongest genetic drives of evolutionarily-successful species, such as the human species, is survival. Knowledge of one's environment strongly promotes survival; with more knowledge one can better escape immediate threats. With even deeper knowledge, one can predict such threats and avoid them altogether. Since the powerful instinct to survive drives it, each person's lust for environmental knowledge can be so strong as to require nothing short of certainty. Given the human propensity to abstract, in time this desire can exceed simply assuring one's own survival and press further to investigate the foundations of reality and humans' purposes in it.

Genetic programming causes children to accept as absolute truth all information their parents, guardians, teachers, and other authority figures provide them. (One might infer the evolutionary origin of this programming: given that ecologies usually change gradually, those children with genetic tendencies to closely adhere to the wisdom of their parents, who survived well enough to bear and raise a child, would tend to succeed (evolutionarily-speaking) as their parents did.) Genetic influences never question this information, and the resulting uncritical world view can persist thoughout adult life. However, an authority figure can intentionally instill skepticism, or a child might innately develop it in response to intellectual conflict between two parties they cherish.

As an example of the latter, a child might have devout religious parents and also have a close friend whose parents strongly adhere to another religion. If the child and friend discuss their differing inherited religious positions enough, the child might eventually realize that both their parents and their friend's parents have equal claim to informational authority, or, put another way, neither has any absolute claim. Thus, the framework of environmental knowledge provided by the parents no longer fulfills the child's innate desire for certainty.

Regardless of how they become uncertain, for some people, this desire for certainty persists to become an ongoing pursuit: philosophy. The major branches of philosophy match those fundamental areas of life for which we desire certainty:

  • Philosophical methodology (logic)
    • How do we pursue certainty? How do we prove (or justify) that something is certain?
    • If we cannot acquire absolute certainty, how close can we get?

  • Epistemology
    • What is certainty?
    • What can we be certain about?

  • Metaphysics
    • What is reality?
    • What are the effects of our actions on reality?

  • Value theory
    • How should we act?
    • What should we appreciate?

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