An Invitation to Philosophy

by Matthew M. Daude Laurents

In an introductory course, the first order of business would seem to be to identify the subjectmatter that is to be surveyed. If you sign up for a course introducing poetry or human anatomy, raising the issue of what the course is going to be about might seem silly. But in philosophy it’s not silly to ask a question like this, and there are some philosophical reasons why we need to ask what philosophy is. At any rate, the best practical reason for such a basic question may be that most people aren’t too sure what philosophy is about anyway. In fact, when people ask me what I do for a living, and I tell them I teach philosophy, they often think (after the usual jokes about my being a philosopher) that I am a psychologist. So, it makes some sense to start by asking, What is philosophy?

Getting Started

Whenever we ask a question like "What is X?" we usually expect something like a definition as the answer. In philosophy, this type of approach is problematic, mainly because different philosophical schools and traditions have been hard-headed about their own definitions of philosophy. It would come as no surprise that, from a particular point of view, armed with a particular definition of philosophy, other traditions can be labeled as fatally flawed, silly, or, worse yet, as not even "real" philosophy. So, what should I do in order to introduce philosophy to you? Should I give you a list of schools and their definitions? Would that take us to the heart of philosophy? I have reservations about that sort of approach: in all the competing voices, it seems to me something is lost.

One way through this mess might be for me to tell you which of these schools is correct. But again, each of the schools is convinced that it is the right way to do philosophy, and that conviction is usually accompanied by an equally deep conviction that everyone else is off base.

The lack of agreement among philosophers—even about very basic issues—has not gone unnoticed. Some people have taken this as an indication that nothing is going on in philosophy that’s important enough to justify our wasting time trying to figure it out, whatever it is. Some people have even argued that there is no such thing as philosophy to begin with. According to some of them, philosophy is actually a confused and nasty habit of language—and the sooner we all give up such bad habits, the better.

I am not one of those philosophers who reject philosophy, but I do recognize that trying to give an answer to the "simple" question, "What is philosophy?" is already a philosophical problem. Let's see why this is. Those who argue that philosophy is "alive and well," and those who think philosophy is a bad habit that should be broken—and every one else in between—all have views that depend on particular ways of thinking about the world (the "big picture"). So, a lot is riding on whose view of the "big picture" is correct. Even philosophers who argue that we can never know whose view is correct have reasons why we can't know, and those reasons themselves seem to depend on a view of the "big picture." So in a way, you can't really deny philosophy without being philosophical!

The striking thing about all these claims about philosophy is that the sorts of things people say to support their pet views are similar in certain ways, even if it's only a family resemblance. This suggests that doing philosophy may be what they all have in common, rather than some body of established "philosophical facts." So we might even say that what's important in philosophy is the method of thinking—thinking philosophically. I think this is a better approach, even though there will still be disagreement among schools of philosophy. But it makes me wonder what there is in the world to think philosophically about. It's like having a beautifully refined tool, but no job to do with it.

It may seem that we aren't making progress, since we have just rejected two main ways of approaching philosophy (definition and method). Actually, if we become convinced that a particular approach is wrong, then we have made some progress: at least we won't keep banging our heads on the same wall. A lot of philosophy has been about trying to figure out what the right questions are. So, if we can eliminate some questions because they get us off on the wrong foot (for instance, What is the definition of "Philosophy"?), we are that much ahead.

Still, eliminating questions that are obviously going to lead to problems doesn't really get us going either. We are going to need a clue, and I'm ready to propose one. Let’s set aside the problem of saying what philosophy is and see what it's like to do philosophy—"from the inside." This will also be a departure from the usual teaching strategy. Instead of the teacher-just-tell-me-the-answer method, let me conjure up an experience of philosophy for you, so you can start to get a grip on doing philosophy yourself. Here's the clue:

Let's begin at the beginning. Why would anyone be motivated to "do" philosophy in the first place? Where does philosophical thinking come from? What kicks it off? Let me tell a story.

The Story

The Accident

Picture a beautiful morning of motorcycling through the Texas Hill Country interrupted by a moment's distraction. Matthew misjudges a curve and slams into an old oak tree. He is mangled, bleeding. Someone passing by calls 911 on a cell phone. When the EMS arrives on the scene, it is obvious that he has suffered a major head injury: he is nonresponsive and unconscious. StarFlight airlifts him to a hospital, where physicians examine his injuries and discover that a large portion of Matthew's brain has been destroyed. The destruction is worst in the cerebrum—the part of the brain that plays a central role in all those characteristics that make us human. The emergency room team determines that Matthew's brain injuries are so extensive that he will never regain consciousness. The best outcome would be a "persistent vegetative state"—meaning, for our purposes, "brain dead." He is "alive" only by virtue of extensive life-support equipment: a ventilator, IV nourishment, drugs to stabilize his heartbeat, etc.

The medical staff now have time to think about what the EMT had told them as they were wheeling Matthew in: he was carrying a "living will" in his jacket—they would later learn that Matthew never left home without it. The staff had only considered the principal directive, which the EMT had read to them: "administer emergency intervention and life support as needed to prevent death, where 'death' means 'the cessation of life as commonly understood'." Now that Matthew is stable, they turn to the rest of his directives.

Matthew's living will stipulates that, in the event he becomes incapacitated, he wishes his two sisters, Melissa and Melinda, to determine jointly what course of treatment should be administered. He specifically states that they must agree—"after due deliberation of all available information, of course." The attending physician has Matthew transferred to the critical care unit and calls for the hospital social worker, who is given the task of contacting the sisters. According to Matthew's instructions, there is nothing for the medical staff to do now but wait for the sisters to arrive: only they are authorized to decide what to do next.

The social worker calls the two sisters and informs them of the accident and of Matthew's unusual instructions. He reassures them that Matthew is stable at this point, though his injuries are very serious, and that there is time for them to come to the hospital. Though they come from different cities, they arrive within minutes of one another. The charge nurse and the social worker were just escorting Melissa to the conference room to review Matthew's condition when Melinda arrives on the floor. As they continue down the hall, Melissa and Melinda exchange a half-hearted greeting. They all sit down. It was the nurse who spoke first.

"I'm afraid Matthew's injuries are very serious. He is comatose—totally nonresponsive. He has suffered a severe brain injury, and we estimate that seventy to eighty percent of his cerebrum was destroyed. The destruction was most severe in the frontal lobe, the part of his brain that made him the person he was."

"The person he was!" Melinda exclaims. "You're talking like there's no hope, that he's already gone!"

"What she means," Melissa offers, "is that his brain is destroyed. It can't be fixed, and it won't grow back." She paused; no one spoke. " Will he ever wake up?"

Just at that moment, Matthew's attending physician walks into the conference room. She has heard Melissa's question. She takes a seat and looks down.

"I'm Dr. Home—Matthew's doctor. Matthew's brain injuries are too extensive for him ever to regain consciousness. We are keeping him alive, and we can probably keep him alive indefinitely. That's all we can do."

"I know this is hard for you," the social worker adds, "but you need all the information we have—given Matthew's instructions."

"What do you mean?" the sisters say, together.

"Well," he continues, handing them the worn pages, "Matthew's living will has given you durable power of attorney—both of you, jointly. He wants you to agree on what we should do—whether we should continue to treat him, or . . . ."

"Or pull the plug?" Melinda says, looking at Melissa.

The Problem

Melissa and Melinda lean back from the table. Their initial reaction, understandably, had been shock, then sadness. As the hours passed and they reviewed the growing heap of charts, X-rays, and CAT scans that nurses and doctors kept bringing them, they began to realize that their problem lay deeper than the "facts" of Matthew's injuries. It had dawned on them that these things were tangled with deeper issues, issues they could avoid only so long. The basic question had been obvious from the beginning: Should Matthew be "unplugged"? They knew that this course of action would result in fairly immediate death, but they also knew that Matthew could be kept alive, perhaps indefinitely, by means of life-support equipment. What is to be done?

Time and again they asked themselves silently what had motivated Matthew to do this to them, to give them this responsibility. "According to my wishes, my sisters must make this decision jointly: they must agree on what is to be done." They read this sentence until they could recite it by heart. "They must agree . . . ." What could he have wanted?

"Let's go have something to eat, maybe some coffee," Melissa said, at last.

In the cafeteria, Melissa chooses a table near the window. No trouble, she thinks; it's not crowded at two in the morning. As they sip their coffee and try to eat a vending machine breakfast, Melissa ventures an appraisal. "This is how I see it. Matthew was produced by certain brain processes. Maybe Matthew just was those processes. Now, his brain can't process much of anything. So, from the instant Matthew's brain was destroyed, Matthew stopped being, er . . . Matthew, I guess.  You know what I mean. Since his brain is gone, he is gone. I don't think we can help by keeping his body alive."

"How can you say that?" Melinda retorts. "Is that all there was, just a brain? What about what makes Matthew the unique person he is? You can't just throw that away because his brain isn't functioning!"

"Melinda, I just meant . . . . Well, I just meant that, if his brain can't be repaired, then he's really gone. What else can we do?"

"His brain is gone—he's not gone."

Melissa was puzzled. "What do you mean?"

"Matthew isn't gone, even if his brain is destroyed. You aren't looking at the whole picture. You think that just because his brain is damaged there's no more Matthew."

"Yes, uh—well, yes. If his brain is destroyed there is no more Matthew. What else is there?"

Melinda was stunned. "His soul, Matthew's soul. That's what makes him the person he is, not just a brain doing whatever in his skull! You have to look at everything, not just the X-rays and blood tests!"

Melissa did not know what to make of this. "Melinda, how can we tell anything about 'souls'?"

"The real Matthew is a soul—and it's only temporarily housed in his body. While the body is alive," Melinda claims, "the bond between body and soul hasn't been broken. By pulling the plug and letting his body die, we are breaking that bond, cutting the tie between his body and his soul. What if it's too soon?" She stared out the window, into the night. "What if we're wrong?"

Melissa can't contain herself: "How can we be wrong if Matthew has a busted brain? What good will it do to keep him alive artificially? Not even himójust a body."

"We know about his brain. What I mean is, what if we're wrong for letting him die—for making him die? Are we murderers?"

Philosophical Reflections

Matthew has given Melissa and Melinda a lot to think about. No doubt they realize that their initial question (whether to "pull the plug") is only the beginning. The real controversy runs much deeper, and it has to do with what will count in their deliberations.

As you can see, Melissa subscribes to what we might call a "scientific world view," according to which the real Matthew is whatever Matthew is physically. All his characteristics, however lofty or noble, are rooted in his bodily nature. On her view, there is nothing else to consider than the "medical facts," since such facts exhaust what there is to say about Matthew and his condition. Having reviewed the physicians’ findings and diagnosis, Melissa asserts that the answer is really rather simple: no brain process means no more Matthew, and no hope of viable brain process means no hope for Matthew. Unplug what's left and make room for someone else. Matthew is already gone. However significant it may be for other reasons, Melissa believes that allowing Matthew's body to die does not amount to allowing Matthew to die. There is no more Matthew.

Melinda rejects this appraisal of the situation. She never denies the importance of the physical world and the "medical facts"; they just don't tell the whole story. On her view, things beyond the world of our senses must be taken into account as well. Her claim is that the real Matthew is rooted in a particular sort of being that is not touched with the hand or seen with the eye. That being is a soul. She is reluctant to pull the plug because there is no doubt in her mind that severing the tie between body and soul is a momentous event. Surely breaking that tie will affect the "career" of the soul: Will it truly benefit that soul? And she has an additional concern: Is she placing herself in moral jeopardy as well? What if it is murder?

Now, reflection on this story brings to light that the disagreement runs much deeper than a dispute over what should be done. Surely future action is in dispute here, but the more substantial disagreement is over how to approach the question of what should be done. Melissa and Melinda bring to this question different—perhaps incompatible—views of what must be taken into account in looking for an answer. Let us further stipulate that, contrary to American tradition, Melinda and Melissa decide to deliberate together rather than file lawsuits. It seems inevitable that, at some point in their discussion, this divergence of views on what counts in deliberation will surface. Consider for a moment why this is so: As Melissa makes her case for throwing out what’s left of Matthew, she will appeal to "facts" about the situation. The sort of fact Melissa is going to admit will be the tangible, "see-for-yourself" kind. (This is the sort of fact people commonly associate with science). Melinda may very well accept those facts, but she will argue that facts of that sort are not the only things in the world that count; there’s more to it than what we can feel, or see, or touch.

Worse yet, when Melissa demands that Melinda produce evidence for souls, the cards are stacked against Melinda by Melissa’s criteria for "good evidence." For Melissa, the only sort of evidence that should count is the tangible sort, and that is exactly what Melinda cannot produce, since, according to her view, souls, by definition, are not physical, not tangible. So, it appears that further discussion of what to do with Matthew (or Matthew's body) will be hindered by what each is willing to admit into the discussion as evidence. If the discussion is to proceed, then, it will have to move to an even deeper level, the level of trying to ascertain what should count in the deliberation. And here open the gates of philosophy.

A little thought will enable you to see that if they are to make progress in determining what should count, they need to find out what sorts of things there are in the world that might count. (Actually, they need to know a lot more—like how those basic sorts of things fit together and why appealing to some them "works" in giving explanations. We'll think more about these matters as our exploration unfolds.) And in order to know what might count, they will need to investigate the "big picture" of the world—in other words, they will find themselves asking about the ultimate nature of reality.

At the outset, each of the sisters knows (or thinks she knows) what there is in the world and what counts in deliberation. Borrowing a term from the great Spanish philosopher, Ortega, let's call an idea or view of the "big picture" a basic orientation in the world. The sisters' deepest problem is that they disagree about basic orientation. When we think about things in this way, we see that their initial disagreement about what to do leads all the way down to questions about the ultimate nature of reality. So, what they will have to look for is the (a?) proper basic orientation—the "best" or "most true" or something of the sort. But here is where the really serious problems begin: What does it mean to say that a basic orientation is "true" or "best"? How can basic orientations be compared? Can they be compared—or does each one stand entirely apart from all others?

So, we have (at least!) two big questions: What is the ultimate nature of reality? How can we get in a position to know anything about the ultimate nature of reality? The branch of philosophy that deals with theories of reality is ontology, and the branch that deals with matters of knowledge is epistemology. I envision Melissa and Melinda ending up in an argument about ontology and epistemology, with Matthew (or at least his body!), lying nearby, oblivious to it all.

I have not told this story in order to provoke a debate about whose view is correct (whatever "correct" might mean when applied to a basic orientation)—at least not at this early stage. There will be time for that debate (and others). And I do not expect you to understand every bit of the "technicalities" of these philosophical reflections; there will be time for that as well. What I am trying to show you is that we can (and do!) encounter situations that invite us to think philosophically.

In such situations—like the one Melissa and Melinda find themselves in—we are forced beyond what counts and what we count on in our own basic orientation, and we may end up having to examine what it means to have a basic orientation in the world. Notice that neither science nor religion can help: they already depend on a particular basic orientation within which they make sense. In fact, it seems that, from within a basic orientation it hardly makes sense to question the constituent elements of that orientation. From the inside, the elements of a basic orientation seem to have a claim on us that is "self-fulfilling." It's like using a map to find a certain city, and then—standing on Main Street on broad daylight—asking, "What if this map is wrong?"

Think of the quandary Melissa and Melinda are facing as a signpost pointing toward unfamiliar territory: that is where our exploration will take us.


This page was last updated on 03/01/09.