It is basic human nature to question. There is a curiosity inside all of us that leads us to wonder about everything. Curiosity leads to examination, which leads to contemplation. Through this process the mysteries of life and the universe are slowly discovered. But there are some questions that can never be answered with certainty. These questions make up the study of philosophy, and are considered using reason and logic. Two of the main arguments in philosophy discuss its value and the meaning of life.
Socrates, Bertrand Russell, Blaise Pascal and Thomas Nagel attempt in their own way to reason through these questions and form their own unique answers. In Bertrand Russell’s “The Value of Philosophy”, he discusses what philosophy is and why it is important. He concludes that the value of philosophy is rooted in its very uncertainty. He maintains that all those questions that cannot be answered are a part of philosophical discussion, and questions with definite answers are a product of the physical sciences.
When Russell is explaining in detail the value of philosophy he says, “These questions enlarge our conception of what is possible, enrich our intellectual imagination and diminish the dogmatic assurance which closes the mind against speculation” (Russell 12). For Russell, philosophy opens the mind and dispels ignorance and dogmatism, allowing us to think more freely and consider more possibilities. In Plato’s “Apology: Defence of Socrates,” Socrates also holds the view that philosophy is a necessary practice for all persons when he argues, “An unexamined life is no life for a human being to live” (Plato 40).
Socrates has just been found guilty of corrupting the youth and not acknowledging the gods of the city. Once the verdict is reached, he argues for execution rather than exile because he believes that his study of philosophy is supreme in his life and it would be more honorable to die than to flee and study philosophy elsewhere, under subpar conditions than those in Athens. Philosophy is important to him because it allows people to think for themselves rather than go along with what they are told to believe.
Russell and Socrates both uphold that the importance of philosophy come from what is does for the mind. Philosophy opens our minds, allowing unawareness and hypocrisy to dissipate. By questioning, we come to know more about the universe, and ourselves. However, Russell and Socrates do disagree on the certainty of truth. Socrates believes that there is certain truth, and one can reach it through reason and contemplation. Conversely, Russell maintains that everything is uncertain, but philosophy is still valuable because thinking of all possible explanations enlarges our minds.
Through philosophy we are released from presumption, obliviousness, and bigotry. Whether or not we can know the absolute truth, contemplation through reason still holds immense importance for human beings. I draw from Socrates as well as Russell when I consider the value of philosophy. Philosophy allows me to see the world for what it is, instead of being bogged down by the opinion of the masses, or the societal norms. Through reason I can consider the truth and it’s importance to me. Similar to Russell, I see that much of philosophy’s greatness lies in its uncertainty.
We cannot know for sure what the answers are, but through observation and thought we can form many possibilities, enlarging our minds to hold more than one solution to any given problem. Consequently this allows us to have a more open mind, and we can approach life with a broadened sense of self. Another question philosophers ask is “What is the point of our lives? ” The answer varies greatly between each individual, demonstrated by the separate thoughts of Socrates, Pascal, and Nagel. Socrates argues that it is worse than death to be unjust.
He gives some examples of what qualifies as unjust. Injustice includes: lying, injuring others, breaking the law of a just state, and hurting those who hurt you. Above all, Socrates argues that the point of our lives is to seek the truth. He condemns the sophists because they have no regard for the truth; they only appreciate material things. The sophists were a group of philosophers around the time of Socrates who taught the youth of Athens how to win arguments, whether what they were arguing for was true or not. Socrates maintains that this is not the way to live.
Life is not about money or material things, rather, the point of life is to be just, honorable, and true to yourself as well as the laws of the state. He even argues that one ought rather die than live a bad life. “I suggest that it is not death that is hard to avoid, gentlemen, but wickedness is far harder, since it is fleeter of foot than death” (Plato 41). Socrates claims that it is much easier to live in wickedness than die. Therefore, injustice and dishonor are two of the greatest evils and one should avoid them at all costs.
In “The Wager,” Pascal presents a view of life centered on belief in God. Similar to Socrates, he upholds that life is about pursuing the truth as well as living a good life. He argues for the existence of absolute truth when he states, “Is there not one substantial truth, seeing there are so many things which are not the truth itself” (Pascal 83). Pascal maintains that this “one substantial truth” is God, and reasons for His existence. He claims that in life, we have two choices: to believe in God, or to not believe in God.
We must accept the wager; we have no choice. There are four possible outcomes from this wager, according to Pascal. If God does indeed exist, and we so believe that he exists, we will gain infinite bliss; if we do not believe that he exists, then we are damned for eternity. However, if God does not exist and we believe the same, then we lose nothing, but we also gain nothing. If we believe that He exists and He does not, then we also lose nothing, but have lived a good life with faith, humility, and compassion.
Above all, Pascal wants us to believe. His main points are summarized when he writes, “If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing” (Pascal 83). We must wager, and we must believe in God, for He is the ultimate truth. Thomas Nagel discusses absurdity, which is the discrepancy between how seriously humans take their lives, and how uncertain life actually is. Everything is open to doubt, and that causes us to feel that our lives are insignificant, and therefore, nothing matters.
He maintains that humans deem life absurd through epistemological skepticism, or the view that nothing can be known with certainty. He presents five options, which vary from completely avoiding life’s absurdity to embracing it fully. His thoughts on absurdity and his solution to it are best portrayed when he states, “If…there is no reason to believe that anything matters, then that does not matter either, and we can approach our lives with irony instead of heroism or despair” (Nagel 27).
By accepting the view that nothing matters, we accept the view that believing nothing matters also does not matter, freeing us from absurdity. Nagel urges us to not despair, but also not take life too seriously. Pascal, Nagel, and Socrates present different views of how to make our lives worthwhile; but all agree that our lives should be spent in search of the truth, which is reached through honest reasoning and individual contemplation. When faced with the absurdity and uncertainty of life, Pascal and Nagel agree that suicide is not a legitimate escape.
It is not necessary and ends up robbing us of the possibility of infinite happiness or a life free from absurdity. I agree with Socrates’ view, that dishonor and injustice must be avoided in order to live a good and honest life. I accept Pascal’s wager, and am willing to place my bet on the existence of God, hoping to gain all. I have also experienced some of the absurdity Nagel discusses and have come to my own conclusions. I maintain that we should live for today. By living in the present we escape the fear of the future.
We do not get hung up on the uncertainties, but still acknowledge their existence. I also agree with Nagel that life should be approached with irony, and we should not take ourselves too seriously. Russell, Socrates, Pascal and Nagel all present plausible answers to the questions “What is the value of philosophy,” and “What is the purpose of our lives”. They use reason and logic to reach their conclusions. Through philosophy, we can broaden our minds and free ourselves from the dogmatism of society.
Once our minds are expanded, we are able to think with reason and discover, for ourselves, the truth. References Nagel, Thomas, “The Absurd,” In John Perry, Michael Bratman and John Martin Fischer, editors, Introduction to Philosophy: Classical and Contemporary Readings, Fourth Edition (New York: Oxford University Press) 2007. Pascal, Blaise, “The Wager,” In John Perry, Michael Bratman and John Martin Fischer, editors, Introduction to Philosophy: Classical and Contemporary Readings, Fourth Edition (New York: Oxford University Press) 2007.
Plato, “Apology: Defence of Socrates,” In John Perry, Michael Bratman and John Martin Fischer, editors, Introduction to Philosophy: Classical and Contemporary Readings, Fourth Edition (New York: Oxford University Press) 2007. Russell, Bertrand, “The Value of Philosophy,” In John Perry, Michael Bratman and John Martin Fischer, editors, Introduction to Philosophy: Classical and Contemporary Readings, Fourth Edition (New York: Oxford University Press) 2007.