What is Philosophy?
There is no quick and easy definition of what philosophy is. Therefore, to find out what philosophy is all about, one needs to look at the questions and issues with which the main areas of philosophical inquiry are concerned. So let’s have a look at four core areas of philosophy.
Epistemology is the study of knowledge and justified belief. Regarding knowledge, epistemologists attempt to answer the following questions: What is knowledge? What is its structure, and what are its limits? Do your really what you think you know? For example, you think you know that you have hands. Skeptics would argue that this is something you do not know. As the study of justified belief, epistemology aims to answer questions such as: What is it for a belief to be justified or reasonable? What makes a belief justified? Can one on reflection tell whether what one believes is justified?
Metaphysics deals with question about reality that physics cannot answer. About persons, the primary metaphysical questions are these: What am I? Am I a physical or a nonphysical kind of thing? Am I identical to the person I was several years ago? Do I ever have a genuine choice between alternative courses of action? About external reality (the world around us), some central questions of metaphysics are the following: What kinds of things exist? Obviously, there are physical things. (Idealists, however, have denied the existence of physical things.) Are there also nonphysical things? Some metaphysicians claim that nonphysical things do not exist. However, what about numbers? Don’t they exist? But they don’t seem to be physical things. What about squares and circles, thoughts and images? Do they exist? If they do, what kinds of things are they? Metaphysics is also concerned with the nature of individual things. When an object loses one of its parts, is it still the same object? A further topic of metaphysics is the nature of space and time. Are space and time parts of objective reality, things that exist in their own right? Or are they merely categories of the mind that are imposed on external reality? Finally, metaphysics is concerned with truth. Is there such a thing as objective truth? Or is truth relative to a person’s cultural, social, and historical background?
Ethics is about the moral status of human actions. What is it for an action to be morally right? What is it for an action to be morally wrong? When we concern ourselves with these questions, we want to know what it is that makes an action right or wrong. Is it its consequences? Is it the intentions of the agent? Or are actions right or wrong depending on whether they satisfy objectively true norms of moral conduct? Are there any objectively true norms of moral conduct? Or are all judgments about right and wrong relative to the cultural and social background of those who make those judgments? Questions such as these belong to the are of theoretical ethics. In addition, there is practical ethics, which aims at figuring out which actions are right and which actions are wrong. Issues that are discussed in a course on practical ethics include: abortion, animal rights, euthanasia, world hunger and economic justice, affirmative action, and pornography.
Philosophy of Religion deals with the question of whether God exists. Three famous arguments for the existence of God are the following. According to the cosmological argument for God’s existence, the nature of the cosmos (its being fine-tuned for life) is evidence for thinking that God exists. According to the argument from design, many aspects of the world reveal design, and therefore suggest the existence of a designer: God. According to the ontological argument, God’s existence follows from the concept of God. Since we have a concept of God, and since our concept of God entails his existence, we must conclude that God exists. There is also a well-known argument against the existence of God, based on the problem of evil. We think of God as being omniscient, omnipotent, and benevolent. If God is like that, he could and would prevent evil. But evil exists. Therefore, there is no omniscient, omnipotent, and benevolent God. None of these arguments have remained unchallenged. In a course on the philosophy of religion, you would study, among other things, the merits of each of each of these arguments.
Further areas of philosophy are aesthetics, philosophy of mind, political philosophy, philosophy of science, philosophy of biology, and philosophy of mathematics.