Brief Answers to the Big QuestionsHere’s a question I’ve been hearing regarding Stephen Hawking’s new book, Brief Answers to the Big Questions: What business does a scientist have weighing in on the existence of God? This is asked as if someone who best understands the workings of the universe is utterly unqualified to make statements about its ultimate origins.

It’s surprising that people would resist wanting to hear what the foremost physicist of our times has to say about the origins of our universe. I think the answer is partly that they’re afraid of what he has to say, but that there is a also a deeper psychological explanation.

Continue reading “Stephen Hawking on the Existence of God”

Philosophy As a Way of LifePhilosophy has evolved over the course of its history in such a way as to have essentially split into two distinct disciplines: 1) philosophy as a way of life, and 2) philosophy as a technical discipline.

At its inception, in ancient Greece, philosophy was practiced, not simply studied. That meant, for example, that you did not collect arguments piecemeal from different sources and present them for rhetorical effect—this, to the Greeks, was nothing more than sophistry.

Instead, you immersed yourself within a particular school, internalizing a unique perspective by which you could orient your place in the world and practice living the good life. If you were a Platonist or a Stoic, you lived as a Platonist or Stoic, applying the relevant principles and developing the habits of mind that built your character according to the ideals of the school.

Continue reading “Pierre Hadot on Practicing Philosophy as a Way of Life”

Karl Popper SelectionsKarl Popper, a 20th century Austrian-British philosopher and professor, has the distinction of being lesser-known among the general population (compared to thinkers of lower caliber) while simultaneously being recognized by many philosophers and scientists as the greatest philosopher of the 20th century.

Sir Peter Medawar, winner of the Nobel Prize for Medicine, said, “I think Popper is incomparably the greatest philosopher of science that has ever been.” Sir Hermann Bondi, the mathematician and astronomer, stated, “There is no more to science than its method, and there is no more to its method than Popper has said.” Popper’s influence is also just as strongly felt today, as the physicist David Deutsch recently wrote a book titled The Beginning of Infinity: Explanations That Transform the World, which is essentially an extension of Popper’s ideas.

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Spinoza EthicsToday, we live a world deeply divided, where people derive life’s meaning from two incompatible sources, religion and science. To Benedict De Spinoza, this would have been a false dichotomy (like much else), as Spinoza, in his 1677 masterpiece titled Ethics, paved a brilliant path that reconciles both our spiritual tendencies and our rational capacities.

Spinoza’s ethics is, principally, about how to live the good life and achieve true freedom through a deeper understanding of reality. But, before can grapple with his moral philosophy and reconcile spirituality with reason, we we must first consider the true nature of reality as described by Spinoza.

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Mere Morality Dan BarkerIn his book Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis attempted to strip Christianity of all it’s superfluous elements to identify the “mere” minimum that can be shared by all Christians. In like respect, Dan Barker, a former evangelical Christian preacher turned atheist, has attempted to do the same with morality, in his latest book titled Mere Morality.

In doing so, Barker has demonstrated that not only does religion have nothing to do with morality, but that all of the “good” parts of religion are in essence humanist principles. To see how, we should first consider the definition of morality.

Continue reading “In Reason We Trust: Why Morality Has Little to do with Religion”

Rene Descartes MeditationsWe all hold innumerable beliefs with varying degrees of certainty, but few of us have challenged the veracity of those beliefs to the degree that Rene Descartes did in the Meditations on First Philosophy. Descartes wrote:

“Some years ago I was struck by how many false things I had believed, and by how doubtful was the structure of beliefs that I had based on them. I realized that if I wanted to establish anything in the sciences that was stable and likely to last, I needed – just once in my life – to demolish everything completely and start again from the foundations…I am here quite alone, and at last I will devote myself, sincerely and without holding back, to demolishing my opinions.”

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Francis Bacon Major WorksFrancis Bacon, often referred to as the father of empiricism, was an English philosopher, scientist, and early proponent of the scientific method, arguing for the advancement of scientific knowledge based on inductive reasoning and careful observation.

In the preface to his 1620 masterwork, the Novum Organon, Bacon wrote:

“Those who have taken upon them to lay down the law of nature as a thing already searched out and understood, whether they have spoken in simple assurance or professional affectation, have therein done philosophy and the sciences great injury. For as they have been successful in inducing belief, so they have been effective in quenching and stopping inquiry; and have done more harm by spoiling and putting an end to other men’s efforts than good by their own.”

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Theory of Moral Sentiments Adam SmithWhen considering the foundations of morality, the place to start, which is often overlooked, is in answering the following question: why do moral problems present themselves to us in the first place? Other animals don’t seem to ponder the moral implications of their actions, but humans do. Why is this?

To answer this question, a useful place to start is with theory of mind, which is the ability to mentally switch perspectives and to imagine the beliefs, needs, feelings, and desires of others. Children develop this capacity around the age of 4, and you can test for it by using the false-belief task. Here’s an example of how the test might go:

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Stoa_of_AttalosIn the spirit of both Plato and Aristotle, Stoicism is a version of eudaimonic virtue ethics that asserts that the practice of virtue is both necessary and sufficient to achieve happiness and contentment.

Founded in Athens by Zeno of Citium in 300 BCE, Stoicism has a rich history and several prominent historical adherents (including Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius), making Stoicism an eminently practical philosophy, concerned primarily with ethics, proper conduct, and emotional mastery.

Continue reading “A Short Guide to the Practice of Stoicism”