Christopher Ullman is a professor at Christian Life College in Chicago, Ill. Dr. Paul Ferguson teaches there as well. Click here to read a bio about Christopher and navigate Christian Life College.
“The unexamined life is not worth living,” a Greek philosopher named Socrates confidently declared. Aristotle agreed, and enlarged the scope of inquiry to the entire world with an exclamation: “Philosophy begins in wonder!” But where does it end?
Ours is a skeptical culture. For good reasons and with honorable intentions, we are constantly urged:
1. Take nothing for granted.
2. Trust no one.
3. Doubt every fact.
4. Scrutinize every motive.
Therefore, we have been conditioned to judge a person to be highly educated who asks many questions. (After all, Socrates did.) Furthermore, it seems so profound when you can end every paragraph with a query. Finally, people think you are wise beyond your years when your important conversations always end with a sigh and a disclaimer: “But who can really know for sure?”
However, if philosophy succeeds at nothing but raising unanswerable questions, it is an abject failure, and an irresponsible waste of time. If you are leaving this class thinking “I will never understand . . . after all, who really does?” then we have failed.
For the study of philosophy to be worthwhile, for it to have any “cash value,” it must conclude some things. Indeed, philosophers throughout history have been bold enough to announce their conclusions about the nature of reality, rationality, knowledge, morality, beauty, justice, and the ultimate. What gave them the audacity to actually believe they had discovered truth? I believe they each held a faith in the human mind and spirit: answers could be discerned. I believe they each also held a belief in the world: the universe is a place of order and regularity; its sameness and the consistency of its operating overwhelm its anomalies. Their unspoken creed seemed to be, “If I probe deeply enough, if I reflect long enough, I will hit, or maybe stumble upon, the answers.”
For most of the time humans have been sniffing around for the scent of knowledge, they have NOT felt helpless and hopeless. Encountering the perplexity of many odors, the chaotic variety of tracks, and the confusing tangle of possible trails, they nevertheless have not abandoned the search. Because of their courage and their dogged perseverance, they enriched the world in which they lived with what they found. Their thoughts stimulated the generations of inquirers that followed them. Philosophers can do the same today.
it is an abject failure, and an irresponsible waste of time."
Philosophy can point the inquirer away from bad logic, mere appearances, unjustified opinions, uncritiqued moral assumptions, ignorance about injustices, apathy concerning beauty, and a shrugging off of the ultimate meanings. Philosophy can point the questioner towards arguments that work, reality that lives, knowledge that illuminates, goodness that ennobles, peace that endures, harmony that blesses, and purpose that energizes. Philosophy, however, never lays down its weapons against the unknown, never shrinks away from the battle. The stakes are too high, and the cost of failure is too dear. Believing we have found truth, could we be mistaken? Yes. Must we be mistaken? The answer to this must be a resounding NO, or there is no point in asking.
A wise man once promised, “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.” Later, one of his captors rhetorically whined, “What is truth?” His faith that answers exist, waiting to be discovered, made the first a hero by whose arrival on Earth many literally mark time. Disbelief that there is even a point to it at all made the second a mere footnote in history, known to us today only because for a brief moment he stood in the shadow of the first, then turned away.
Philosophy asks, “Which one will you be?” This is not a rhetorical question.