Philosophy for Truth

There’s a fear that philosophy is going to lead us away from the truths that we already know.

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It’s a reasonable fear. The philosophical path begins by questioning many things, including many good things that will turn out to be true. The very act of questioning such things can have destructive consequences. The person who asks the questions won’t always have the capacity to follow those questions through to their best answers, or else by the time good answers are secured it may already be too late to undo some of the social damage our questioning may have caused.

What if a young woman, interested in philosophy, were to turn away from the religious faith of her family, ending up an atheist? What if a young man, interested in philosophy, were to turn away from the respectable progressivism he’d been raised in to embrace a far-right extremism? I’m not saying either of these are necessary conclusions of the philosophical journey, but they certainly are possible outcomes, and perhaps not uncommon today, and probably fairly undesirable, at least from the standpoint of the original community.

We might want to reject philosophy then, in favour of what we’ve always believed to be true, in favour of what a given community accepts as truth.

But to some degree, the questioning will happen anyways. Some people, certain young people especially, I think, have a seemingly natural inclination to question. Especially in today’s world, but even more generally, we might just have to accept that those who want to ask questions are going to ask them. So the questioning will come, and it might as well be at least somewhat directed by people who have thought these same sorts of things through before.

While the risk is that philosophy might lead us to falsehood in the process of learning to think, the eventual advantage is that later, the study of philosophy can itself be a safeguard against falsehood, and might in the end be the only real safeguard against misleading arguments.

The study of philosophy is necessary in order to be able to defend the truth from those who argue for falsehoods, because philosophy is what enables us to search for truth, wherever it might be found, despite any internal or external resistance to the truth, and also because it is what enables us to recognize and explain the faults that occur in erroneous argumentation. Philosophy is necessary, but perhaps not sufficient by itself, for the fight against destructive teachings and falsehood. In this way, philosophy is an ally in the safeguarding of the truth, not an enemy.

And if it comes out, in the process of studying philosophy, that some of the unexamined beliefs that we previous thought were true are actually themselves false, aren’t we better off having the opportunity to find out? It might be frightening, but it is worth the pain of giving up a part of our inherited opinion, in order to draw closer to the truth that is worth knowing and defending.

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