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Philosophical and Non-Philosophical Inquiry

Philosophical and Non-Philosophical Inquiry

Author: Glenn Kuehn

In this lesson, students will distinguish between philosophical and non-philosophical questions. 

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Source: image of Socrates, Creative Commons,

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Hello. I'm Glenn. And this tutorial for ethics will cover philosophical and non-philosophical inquiry. First, let's do a brief review, and then cover the objectives for this tutorial.

We've already addressed the idea that philosophy is the pursuit of truths that cannot be completely determined by empirical investigation. It is also important to keep in mind that in our pursuit of truth through philosophy, we are guided by logical argumentation, consistency in reasoning and our claims, and we want to remain as objective and dispassionate as possible.

In this tutorial, we'll cover two main areas of philosophical and non-philosophical inquiry. First, we will see the relationship between the projects of philosophy and science, and we will see how they use different methods towards the common goal of attaining truth. And second, we will explore several different perspectives on philosophical and non-philosophical questions.

In comparing philosophy and science, we can see that they both have the same goal of attaining truth. And if there were a bus that had its destination the terminal of truth, we can see that philosophy and science would both be riding on the same bus. However, they would be sitting in different seats. And the reason for this is in terms of both the method that they use and the certainty of the final conclusion.

They both have methods. There is the scientific method that works with reality and is based upon observation, research, and testing. There is also the philosophical method, which explores the nature of reality. It works with concepts, ideas, and perspectives. It offers theories and explanations, but unlike science, it does not require 100% certainty in order to make a claim of truth.

We can consider this in a couple of examples. First, let's take the question, do dogs feel love the way humans feel love? Both science and philosophy will probably want to address this question, but they will do so through different methods.

The scientific method would be to test the physical attributes and reactions that both humans feel when they claim to feel love and those that are observable in dogs-- things such as pupil dilation and biological and physical reactions. These can be measured. And the scientist may come to a conclusion regarding probability, but probably will not come to 100% certainty, and so will remain somewhat skeptical.

Philosophy will push this just a little bit further by considering the biological evidence, but also bigger questions that push us beyond science. Why do we want to think that a dog feels love? And we'll consider this as a possible reasonable belief.

This doesn't mean that philosophy is only for dreamers, because we still have logical argumentation to guide our thinking. We have a premise-- dogs feel love similar to humans. We have support for this premise in terms of experimentation, personal experience-- perhaps with our own pets-- and also consideration of desires-- why we want to think this.

And then we come to a conclusion. And we'll wonder-- is it a reasonable belief to hold that dogs feel love similarly to humans? And if we hold to this belief and the scientific evidence is not 100% conclusive, that's OK, because philosophical beliefs go beyond scientific certainty.

What we're concerned about in philosophy is reasonability. Is it reasonable-- considering the sum and the balance of all evidence for and against our situation-- to believe that dogs feel love as humans do? That is how philosophy can aid science and push it a little bit further.

Another example comparing scientific and philosophical approaches is regarding the question of karma. We could ask ourselves, is there such a thing as karma? Science will have to deal strictly with the evidence. And perhaps long-term studies could be done of people's choices and the consequences of those choices, and whether or not the consequences reveal a sense of coming around or coming back to the person who made the choices and whether or not the consequences were idiosyncratically appropriate to that person.

Philosophy will take the same premises and evidence, but extend it further to involve concepts and ideas about the nature of the universe. Specifically, is the universe organized or designed or operating in such a way that a sense of "you get what you deserve" is a result of the choices and consequences in our lives? Philosophy therefore pushes the question just a little bit further into the nature of the universe, whereas science will stick strictly with the evidence resulting from consequences.

Another way to distinguish philosophy is to contrast it with opinion. And in terms of philosophical and non-philosophical questions, it can be done in the following way-- if I were to ask you, in your opinion, what do you think of the color purple? And if you say, I don't like it. Why? Well, because I don't. That's an opinion. An opinion requires no evidence or reasoning behind it. And so philosophy never deals with opinions because we require reasoning and evidence behind our conclusions.

So a philosophical approach to the question of "what do you think about the color purple?" is to say, well, you know, I like it because of the following reasons-- it's a common color, it's cool, it's rare in nature, it's unique, it's the color associated with royalty and I feel good when I wear it. All of those answers appeal to the philosophical question of "what do you think about the color purple?" rather than the opinion.

Another way of understanding philosophical questions is to see them about something-- about another area of study or about another discipline. For example, when considering social or natural sciences, philosophy will ask these types of questions--

First, regarding evidence, we might ask, how much evidence do we need before we accept a hypothesis as true? We're questioning the level-- the quantity-- that is needed. Second, we might ask, what is relevant experience for testing a hypothesis? Here we're wondering about the quality of the experience and if it is or is not appropriate to the hypothesis that we are questioning. And third, we might ask, what does it mean to refer to something as a law of nature? Is the phrase law of nature appropriate use of language for considering the workings of nature?

And finally, we can see philosophical questioning as distinct from other forms of questioning regarding a single topic and how this shows a difference in approach. For example, the topic of gender identification could be addressed in the following ways--

A scientist might approach it by asking the question, do varying gender identifications have a biological and genetic basis? A sociologist might ask the question, how are different gender identifications portrayed in media? From a religious perspective, the question might be asked, what does the Bible or what do other religious texts say about gender identification? From a philosophical perspective, we could ask this question-- does one's gender identity affect the way one actually thinks and interprets experience?

These are different types of questions, different ways of addressing a single topic. And we can see the distinctions between philosophical and non-philosophical approaches.

In review, we reminded ourselves that philosophy is the pursuit of truth that cannot be completely determined by empirical investigation. And we also saw differences in philosophical and non-philosophical inquiry. We did this by comparing and contrasting philosophy and science to see how they work together. But philosophy goes beyond science to involve a greater perspective. We also saw philosophical and non-philosophical questions and lines of questioning, how philosophy avoids opinion, and how different disciplines approach a single question, with philosophy having a distinct approach.