Philosophy: It’s Important!


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Philosophy matters. Yet, we find some people steeped in self-assured ideologies, whether it is scientism or zealous religion, continuing to declare that philosophy is a waste of time. Both sides cry out for practicality, and claim philosophy has no real life applicability. Hence, they declare it a form of idle mental exercise that leads to obfuscation and confusion rather than to clarity on matters of importance to everyday life and human flourishing. Interestingly, both sides also offer what they see as objective and descriptive answers to the challenges and conundrums we face in our everyday lives.

On the scientism end, we have those advocating for the scientific method as the arbiter of all questions regardless of what categories they deal with. On the religion end, we have those presenting us with their different scriptures and texts also claiming they have all the answers regardless of what categories of questions they apply to. However, neither group can explain why they stand above the rest with the ultimate Truth without engaging in endless circular reasoning arguments. It is either science offers all the answers because the scientific method works since it produces results that confirm that it works, or religion X is the one true religion of God because scripture X makes the claim that is the one true religion of God and God exists because we have Revelation saying He exists. I am right because I said so.

Philosophy, a word originating from the Greek philosophia, which means, “love of wisdom”, is defined according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary as “the study of ideas about knowledge, truth, the nature and meaning of life, etc.” The foundation of philosophy is the one thing that sets human beings apart from all other biological creatures – the intellect. It is our ability to use logic to examine the connections between propositions and their underlying assumptions in order for us to judge the strength of arguments and validity of conclusions before we make inferences and analogies. Therefore, attacking philosophy can be considered a type of anti-intellectualism and a people who ridicule philosophy are a people who ridicule the intellect.

The challenge with philosophy is its primary focus on the abstract realm of ideas, where it seems people who attack this field feel uncomfortable as they appear united in the position that knowledge that has no immediate or direct output as far they can tell is worthless, as the philosopher Patrick Stokes observes:

Philosophy has a particular vulnerability here because it’s not directly linked to any obvious economic output, it’s hard, and if you aren’t curious about ideas you’ll struggle to see the point of it. If you don’t view knowledge as having intrinsic rather than merely economic value, philosophy will be your go-to example of academic wankery.

Unfortunately, philosophy is one of those things you cannot get away from. Immanuel Kant noted in his Critique of Pure Reason that “in all men, as soon as their reason has become ripe for speculation, there has always existed and will always continue to exist some kind of metaphysics.” By virtue of being rational creatures, we necessarily engage in the process of philosophy in some form or another to varying degrees. The only relevant differences are whether we engage in doing good or bad philosophy, and whether we relegate much of it to others who do it for us. This is why a prominent theoretical physicist like Stephen Hawkins sounds intellectually shallow when he makes the ironically philosophical assertion that “philosophy is dead.” (Or may be he just wanted to leave a one phrase legacy behind that has the same resonance as Nietzsche’s “God is dead“.)

When scientists reason through a hypothesis, design experiments, decide whether the results are correlation vs. causation, and then state an implication of the findings, they are engaged in the philosophy of science. When physicians decide whether a biological event constitutes a disease or not and demarcate a seemingly arbitrary line for what constitutes a healthy condition, they are engaging in a field of philosophy called biomedical ethics. When Supreme Court judges debate cases pertaining to rights of citizens in a polity, their final rulings are products of philosophical discourses on what justice and equality mean and how they can be applied. In Islam, the whole discussion of Objectives of Divine Legislation, i.e., Maqasid Al Sharia, is a philosophical discourse that has direct implications on how rulings are derived for new issues arising in modern times due to scientific and technological progress, as well as the changing nature of society, politics and economics. The list of how philosophy impacts the world in every human endeavor goes on and on.

Without the study of philosophy, people like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, Lawrence Krauss, and the rest of anti-theist New Atheists who utilize science as a vehicle to promote their anti-religion fundamentalism will not be seen for the poor thinkers about religion, politics, and sociology they actually are. In fact, even Sam Harris who was granted a BA in philosophy from Stanford University was critiqued for being a crummy and incoherent philosopher who does not seem to do the basic research before writing on topics such as morality and Free Will. It is through bad philosophy that Harris can argue for racial profiling and torture to advance national interests, which are currently practiced by the U.S. government. In other words, Harris’ bad philosophy provides the intellectual cover for his followers to accept a government acting against human rights with impunity, and such bad philosophy finds a platform and following when people do not train their philosophical senses because they were told it was a “waste of time.”

In the context of Islam, self-declared orthodox or traditional adherents (regardless of what subgroup label they adopt for themselves) charge back against philosophy stating that the Quran and Sunnah (way of the Prophet ﷺ) have all the guidance a Muslim needs. In the words of Prophet Muhammad ﷺ’s cousin Ali ibn Abi Talib, “This is a word of Truth used for the sake of Falsehood.” Although a Muslim believes in that ultimate guidance is present in the Quran and Screen Shot 2015-11-10 at 1.47.42 PMSunnah, this does not mean the intellect has no place to ponder, reflect, and conclude accordingly. The religious ideologue believes that their own limited understanding of what is considered by Muslims to be a timeless Revelation can serve as a sufficient substitute for the continuous intellectual activity that attempts to understand the interaction between the eternal Word of God and the temporal presence and understanding of human beings. Moreover, the attack on philosophy is driven by fear more than anything else. It is a distrust in a claim made by the very people who attack philosophy. Namely, that while Islamic Scripture may contradict human whims, egos, and desires, it will never contradict the intellect. If that is the case, it follows that a philosophy, which holds sincerely to the intellect and recognizes when the egos and whims cloud thinking, will eventually lead one to acknowledge the guidance that Scripture claims it is a source of. Otherwise, if we cannot trust the intellect, why should we trust the Revelation that we supposedly accepted through our intellect, which in turn only makes one legally obligated to religious law when their intellect is sound?

Being about love and pursuit of wisdom, philosophy can also be defined as per Merriam-Webster’s dictionary definition of wisdom as the activity of applying one’s accumulated life experiences and scientific learning to discern inner qualities and relationships in order to arrive at the most proper judgment that places the right thing in the right place at the right time (interestingly, the last part of this definition of wisdom is also how Ibn Qayyim Al Jawziyyah defined it). Hence, approaching Revelation without an intellect conscious of its biases and prejudices, especially in the context of religious leadership is a dangerous thing. It will invariably lead to a state in which one sincerely believes they are guiding people when they are in fact either producing irrational ideologues or marginalizing and excluding others who did not find intellectual satisfaction in such an impoverished approach. Contrary to such a position, religion is not just about rulings, acts of worship, and being involved in a constant state of conflict with society and science.

Philosophy does not only have a direct impact on making one a better and more contemplative thinker. The enhanced awareness of one’s prejudices and biases can result in tolerance between different people and a better understanding of differences and their sources. Philosophy is the application of the advice given by retired South African Anglican Bishop Desmond Tutu, who relates it from his father in which he said, “Don’t raise your voice, improve your argument.” Most importantly, philosophy done right teaches humility, which from the Islamic perspective is more important than being a great “thinker”. No amount of thinking can pierce through the blinding veil of arrogance and the unjustified sense of certainty and self-importance. In an op-ed article for The Guardian, Michelle Sowey wrote about her observation of how primary school children attending her philosophy workshops intellectually and personally develop, stating that:

Studying philosophy cultivates doubt without helplessness, and confidence without hubris. I’ve watched kids evolve to be more rational, sceptical [sic] and open-minded, and I’ve seen them interact in more fair-minded and collaborative ways. As one 10-year-old said, “I’ve started to actually solve arguments and problems with philosophy. And it works better than violence or anything else.”

Does philosophy have limitations? As with any other human endeavour of course it does. From an Islamic perspective, the anchor point for one to be guided is Revelation. That was the point of Imam Abu Hāmid Al Ghazālī’s treatise The Incoherence of the Philosophers, which is mistakenly considered as the ultimate deathblow to all of philosophy for Muslims. Unlike modern orthodox Muslims, Al Ghazālī was not the type to throw out the baby with the bathwater. His attack was specific to 20 positions Muslim philosophers of his time were upholding that he brilliantly argued were logically inconsistent and theologically unacceptable. It is ironic that the revival of philosophy in the West is credited to Ibn Rushd (Averroes), a prominent scholar in Islamic legal theory within the Maliki School of Islamic law and seen as the Muslim philosopher who gave us modern philosophy. Although he recognized that not everyone is of the intellectual inclination for high levels of philosophy, he found it troubling that many orthodox scholars during his time were issuing blanket prohibitions against engaging in this natural human intellectual activity. In his attempts to revive philosophy among Muslims, he responded to such scholars and preachers by saying:

Those who prevent someone from reflecting on the books of philosophy when he or she is adept at so doing, on the grounds that some very disreputable people are supposed to have erred due to reflecting upon them, are like those who prevent thirsty people from drinking cool, fresh water until they die of thirst, because some people choked on this water and died.

The prominent Mauritanian scholar Shaykh Abdullah Bin Bayyah once said, “The only people I see who have a sense of wonder about the world are children and philosophers.” Ultimately, philosophy is about the practice of understanding oneself, the nature of existence, and deep curiosity about what makes something the way that it is. In the context of Islam, philosophy is about delving into the depths of the ocean of a Revelation that exalts wisdom and links it to Scripture. It is about gaining insight into the human condition and its significance. It allows one to go beyond the flashing distractions of natural phenomena to unveil the essence of creation. Its value cannot be overstated, and awakening the sleeping intellectual giant that made the Golden Age of Islam what it was depends on reviving Muslims’ interest in it.