Ten Things I Learned by Doing Philosophy
(and Science, Too)
Here are a few big conclusions I've drawn from my lifelong study of philosophy and of the physical and biological sciences. These conclusions are not all there is to my philosophical outlook; they are just the points that seem to be of greatest general interest. For more details, and to find the arguments that support the conclusions, explore the rest of my website. (Here are the links to a guide document and to my home page.)
- Mark Sharlow
1. People are more than just sets of material particles. Our bodies are made up of material particles, but this does not mean that we are just matter. A complex body made of small particles can have features far beyond the characteristics of the particles themselves. In the case of the human body, some of those features (including consciousness) go beyond the merely physical, and even could be described as spiritual. These spiritual features are natural, not supernatural - but they are truly spiritual nonetheless. We are not just matter.
The general conclusion that we are not just the matter that make us up doesn't apply only to people. It applies to everything in nature. Even inanimate things, like stones and clouds, are more than just the material particles that make them up. These objects are composed of material particles, but they have an existence of their own that is more than just the existence of their atoms.
2. Mind and consciousness are important in the universe. The physical universe is objectively real; it definitely is not "just in our heads." However, conscious observers like ourselves play a key part in the makeup of physical reality. Consciousness is part of the logical structure of physical existence. We are not just unimportant dust specks in the universe. Our minds do matter in the grand scheme of things.
3. Matter is not the only reality. Material things are not the only things in the real world. The real world also contains what philosophers call "abstract objects." Examples of abstract objects include the properties of objects (like colors and shapes), the relationships among objects, and the information that objects contain. These abstract objects are real entities, though they exist in a way different from the existence of physical objects. Some of these abstract objects play important parts in our consciousness. The spiritual features of people and of nature are among these abstract objects.
4. Mental contents are just as real as physical things. The items we find within our minds - like ideas, sensations, and feelings - are not just illusions or mere trifles. In their own way they are just as real as material objects, even though they are not "things" and have no substance of their own. These mental items are abstract objects (see point 3 above). They exist in the same way that computer programs and mathematical constructions exist. They exist in a different way from material objects - but still they are quite real.
5. Science is only one possible way of knowing the truth. There are other ways of knowing besides the scientific way. These other ways of knowing don't contradict science, but they do give us a lot of knowledge that science can't reach. Examples of these ways of knowing include philosophical reasoning, moral insight, and poetical and spiritual experience. Each of these ways of knowing has an important place in human knowledge. When understood correctly, none of these ways contradict science - but all of them yield some real knowledge.
6. Reason is more than just science. The ways of knowing that I mentioned in point 5 include some rational ways of knowing that are not part of science. People (including scientists) sometimes confuse science with reason. Some people think that if you believe in any knowledge besides science, then you're irrational. The truth is that you can be rational and still hold beliefs that don't belong to science. Even knowledge about spiritual questions sometimes has a rational basis if you dig deep enough. There are types of reasoning that are not scientific but that can reveal important truths anyhow. These other truths do not contradict science; they are complementary to science.
7. Spirit is real but is widely misunderstood. The spiritual features of people, including what we usually call the "soul," are abstract objects like the ones I mentioned in points 3 and 4. The soul is not a supernatural substance (which is what many people think it is), but the soul is quite real. Also, there is a supreme spiritual reality in the universe - and this supreme spiritual reality also is an abstract object. Some people think of this supreme reality as "God," while others call it "Tao," "Brahman," or other names. This supreme reality is quite real, but the religions often misunderstand it by portraying it as too humanlike and as supernatural. We are better off thinking of God as a spiritual presence that manifests within nature, instead of as a supernatural being.
8. There is no real conflict between science and spirituality. The main reason so many scientists don't believe in God is simple: the religions have handed them a wrong mental picture of God. The supreme spiritual reality (which some religions call "God") can exist even if the universe is just as science says it is. The same goes for some other important spiritual ideas, like the afterlife. Some forms of belief in an afterlife, either rebirth or a disembodied afterlife, are compatible with the facts of science.
9. People do have free will. You've probably heard the so-called "scientific" idea that people are predictable robots with no free will. Well, in reality we have free will even if we are predictable! What gives you free will is not unpredictability, but your ability to make your own conscious decisions. Conscious beings can appear to be completely predictable and yet still be free.
10. The study of philosophy is vital for the future of civilization. Nowadays many people, including many scientists and politicians, are ignorant of philosophy. This ignorance leads to a lot of unnecessary hostility, like the rise of intolerant forms of religion and the so-called conflict between science and spirituality. Even today's academic philosophers do not always understand the value of the great philosophies of the past. To reverse these trends, we should make philosophy part of our general knowledge. We must bring the great traditions of philosophy, both Western and Eastern, to the center of the public stage. Our future depends on it!
Page updated 9/3/2012.
Copyright © 2012 Mark F. Sharlow. Legal/privacy.