Thursday, September 18, 2014

Philosophy - What's It Good For?

In my last year at the University of California at Irvine, I switched majors from biology to philosophy. Friends asked me, "What good is philosophy?" What they really meant was, "Can you make any money at it?" I knew people with lots of money, but little meaning in their lives. They seemed to be lost in games and pastimes. They worked without questioning the purpose or value of their work. I was interested in meaning, not money, but the people around me didn't share my feeling. Most of them believed that only money was real.

In my search for meaning, I first turned to the study of logic, mathematics, and science. In my teenage years I encountered logical positivism. Logical positivism was an early 20th Century school of philosophy that claimed all the grand questions of traditional philosophy were meaningless. Questions like "What is the meaning of life?" or "Is there a God?" were meaningless, logical positivists asserted, because the answers cannot be verified. But questions like "Does the moon have an opposite side?" are meaningful because we can construct tests to prove or disprove any answer. We can build a rocket to the moon. But how can we verify the meaning of life, or the existence of God? The logical positivists saw no true/false test for these matters.

Of course, just because we can't prove or disprove God's existence doesn't mean he doesn't exist! Logical positivism lost its hold on me while I was a graduate student at San Francisco State University in 1970. I was moving toward 'meaningless' questions like: Why is there something rather than nothing? What is the purpose of life? Why is there evil in the world? Then I discovered Buddhism and other ancient spiritual traditions that addressed such questions. I was beginning to find real philosophy. 

Philosophy is not a word game. It is, as Plato explained, the "love of wisdom". Few students get to study real philosophy at college. Philosophizing is an extraordinary act. It requires re-thinking issues at the most fundamental level -- right down to questions of being. One winds up asking simple-sounding, childlike questions like "What is real?"

The world is adrift, without meaning. That is why so many become victims of political ideologies and extreme religious viewpoints that offer a sense of meaning at the expense of compassion, truth, and justice.

"Does philosophy help you make money?" My answer is personal. All the really amazing jobs I've held came from my grounding in philosophy. I became a computer programmer because my boss assumed that philosophy made one logical. I got promotions to higher levels of responsibility because I saw the "big picture" in the organizations I worked for. One day I found myself the acting CEO of several small technology companies in trouble. Why? Because my philosophical perspective gave me a high tolerance for ambiguity, which allowed me to go into unknown and almost unknowable situations again and again. So yes -- philosophy can help you make money. But meaning, understanding, and wisdom are the real payoffs.

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