Most people have some notion from high school classes that a chemist fiddles around with beakers and a historian seeks information about the significance of past events. But what about those who study philosophy or religion? What does that look like?
Heinz’s wife was dying from a particular type of cancer. Doctors said a new drug might save her. The drug had been discovered by a local chemist, and the Heinz tried desperately to buy some, but the chemist was charging ten times the money it cost to make the drug, and this was much more than the Heinz could afford.
Heinz could only raise half the money, even after help from family and friends. He explained to the chemist that his wife was dying and asked if he could have the drug cheaper or pay the rest of the money later.
The chemist refused, saying that he had discovered the drug and was going to make money from it. The husband was desperate to save his wife, so later that night he broke into the chemist’s and stole the drug.
Should Heinz have stolen the drug?
Our classes help students develop the ability to put these thoughts into words and reflect upon them, and in doing so, they get better at thinking about problems of all varieties. Class discussions will explore how we think about this question, what reasons we consider to be important in answering it. Why might it be acceptable for him to steal it? Why might it not be acceptable? Yes or No answers just won’t cut it.
So, which is it: Should Heinz have stolen it or not? Many people have a strong feeling about this case, but just aren’t sure how to express why they think it would be right or wrong. Others want to insist that “it depends”. Still others want to note that it would be illegal, but might not be immoral.
How would you answer this question? What if you learned that the type of reasoning people give often depends on their gender? Their age? Their ethnicity or nationality?
The following statements seem to be at odds with one another:
- God is all-powerful
- God is all-good
- Evil and suffering exist
This highlights a tension in certain conceptions of God that stem from the Abrahamic religions—if God can do anything, and is all good, why is there evil and suffering in the world? God is powerful enough to eliminate it (or prevent it altogether) and if all good, would seem to want to prevent suffering to the greatest extent possible. So, why isn’t there (at least) less evil and suffering than there is? Or a total lack of evil and suffering?
So what’s the problem in the “Problem of Evil”? Well, it seems like someone couldn’t hold all three claims. So which one should be given up? The problem is not specific to any particular religion or denomination, but seems to arise for a certain conception of a higher power, and yet it’s not clear which of these claims could be given up. So what’s one to do? Does no such higher power exist? Or does a higher power exist but lacks some power or goodness? Is there a general answer, or only answers that depend upon a particular sacred text?
Studying religion and philosophy will allow you to see that each reaction, response, or theory that is made in attempting to understand these issues will be a mixed bag—it will solve some problems and bring about others. Each answer given will lead to more questions and issues that need to be addressed.
Can machines think? Can they be conscious? Can they act immorally?
Is free will an illusion? What if we knew that our “decision” to raise our arm came after the signal to our arm (through our nervous system) was sent?
If brain transplants were a possibility, would you rather be a donor or a recipient?
If you forgot who you were, would you still be you?
What makes a claim true or false? Is it that the right people agree with it or is it the way the world is that makes it true?
Did Pythagoras’ articulation of his famous theorem make it true, or was it true before he articulated it?
‘This sentence is false’. Is that true or false?
Is the set of all sets that are not members of themselves a member of itself, or not?
How confident can you be that the way you perceive the world is the way it actually is?
How can you be sure that you are not dreaming right now? Can you be sure that you are not in a situation like The Matrix or Inception?
Can we know something that is false?
Do we have moral obligations to anyone? Anyone other than ourselves? To our kin? To our community? To our fellow citizens? To fellow humans? To others in the cosmos?
Both astronomy and astrology are based on careful observations of the cosmos and involve some complicated math. What makes one a science and the other not?
If lying would lead to a beneficial outcome, would lying in that case be wrong?
Does a divine command (Don’t lie) make some action wrong, or is the action divinely commanded because it is wrong?
Why should harmful speech be permitted?
Where does political authority come from?
Do nations have obligations to one another (outside of agreements or treaties)?
Why participate in a democracy if you are not in the majority?
Do we owe anything to nature? Should we protect it because of its potential benefits to us, or do we have an independent obligation to protect it?
Can we prove that anything exists? God(s)? Material objects? Unobservable entities? Other people/minds?
What We Do
Those who study philosophy and religion wrestle with questions like these. Many questions in life are difficult to answer—what will happen if I expose this cell to radiation? Did the general sign those orders or not?—but the questions we wrestle with are difficult in a different way. The answers to the other questions may require years of work in a lab or an archive of old documents, but our questions are more elusive. Most of the time, our questions can’t be answered by inventing new technology or discovering a lost document.
The questions posed by philosophy and/or religion invigorate some and irritate others, but most people struggle to express what they think about the issues. These seem to abstract or they appear to lack definitive answers. It seems like you’d need to ask many other questions to address them too, so where do you even start? Well, that’s what our students learn how to do—they learn how to pose and think through these questions and the issues that arise in that process. They learn how to think about them and get clearer about what they need to understand in order to answer them. They learn how to critique their own attempts to answer these questions by learning how to critique the answers given by famous thinkers as well as those generated by professors and other students. This is critical thinking in overdrive and it’s this way of approaching difficult problems that is transferable to a host of other fields and careers.
Some of the problems we study in the department will be of pressing interest to you—they’ll keep you up at night—others will be good practice. Thinking about these things makes humans dizzy, but lots of the problems we face in our society are like this, and we need practice to be able to get better at understanding those problems.
Whether you consider yourself a religious person or not, or whether you think religion has played a positive or negative role in history, it is an incontrovertible fact that from the beginning of time, humans have engaged in activities that we now call religion, such as worship, prayer, and rituals marking important life passages. Moreover, religions have always asked fundamental questions, such as: What is the true meaning of life? What happens to us after death? How do we explain human suffering and injustices?
The answers different religious traditions give to these important questions are many and varied and often contradictory. But the questions themselves are ones with which humans throughout time have grappled, and probably will continue to grapple with into the indefinite future. Thus, one of the first reasons to study religion is simply to deepen our understanding of others and ourselves.
We also study religion in order to learn more about how different aspects of human
life-politics, science, literature, art, law, economics-have been and continue to be shaped by changing religious notions of, for example, good and evil, images of the deity and the divine, salvation and punishment, etc. By studying different religious doctrines, rituals, stories, and scriptures, we can also come to understand how different communities of believers-past and present, East and West-have used their religious traditions to shape, sustain, transform themselves.
More than ever before, the world we live in is both multicultural and global. We no longer need to travel across the ocean to visit a Hindu temple or an Islamic mosque or to meet a Sikh or a Jain. The chances are that you can find a temple or mosque within a few miles of where you live, and it is almost certain that you will be meet someone from any and all of these religious traditions on campus or on the street. This makes it even more essential that we cultivate our ability to understand and interpret other people's religious traditions.
Finally, the academic study of religion is inherently multidisciplinary. It draws from different disciplines in the humanities and the social sciences, such as history, anthropology, literature, art history, and political science. Studying religion thus provides you an opportunity to learn about a range of disciplinary approaches, and, even more importantly, the connections and linkages among them. In this way studying religion invites us all to think in a more interdisciplinary and integral way about the world and our place in it.
So, what can you do with a focus in religion? The study of religion helps you to learn how to think critically, listen empathetically, speak thoughtfully, and write clearly-all skills that will be of great use no matter what you go on to do in life. It will also help you to better live and work in our increasingly diverse society and global world. Students of religion go on to careers in a wide variety of fields including teaching, medicine, social service, law, journalism, international business, diplomacy, and, of course, religious professions of various kinds.
“The aim of philosophy, abstractly formulated, is to understand how things in the broadest possible sense of the term hang together in the broadest possible sense of the term. Under 'things in the broadest possible sense' I include such radically different items as not only 'cabbages and kings', but numbers and duties, possibilities and finger snaps, aesthetic experience and death. To achieve success in philosophy would be, to use a contemporary turn of phrase, to 'know one's way around' with respect to all these things, not in that unreflective way in which the centipede of the story knew its way around before it faced the question, 'how do I walk?', but in that reflective way which means that no intellectual holds are barred.”
“Philosophy is to be studied, not for the sake of any definite answers to its questions, since no definite answers can, as a rule, be known to be true, but rather for the sake of the questions themselves; because these questions enlarge our conception of what is possible, enrich our intellectual imagination and diminish the dogmatic assurance which closes the mind against speculation; but above all because, through the greatness of the universe which philosophy contemplates, the mind also is rendered great, and becomes capable of that union with the universe which constitutes its highest good."
“It’s easy to think that college classes are mainly about preparing you for a job. But remember: this may be the one time in your life when you have a chance to think about the whole of your life, not just your job. Courses in the humanities, in particular, often seem impractical, but they are vital, because they stretch your imagination and challenge your mind to become more responsive, more critical, bigger. You need resources to prevent your mind from becoming narrower and more routinized in later life. This is your chance to get them.”
“Doing philosophy means adopting a critical attitude towards received information or opinion. This applies both to information presented as authoritative and seemingly supported by evidence, and to information that is conveyed by means of an aesthetically pleasing and engaging story. In philosophy the aim is to acquire and exercise the capacity to assess and develop arguments for or against a certain position. Budding philosophers learn how to spot weaknesses in other people's arguments, but also how to anticipate objections when they put forward arguments of their own. Proficiency in philosophy translates into being able to weigh the evidence for and against a position, avoiding common fallacies when presenting an argument, expressing a thought clearly and persuasively, striving for coherence between existing beliefs and new hypotheses, and being prepared to revise hypotheses in the light of counterevidence. To what we then apply the philosophical method is to some extent up to us, and philosophers (just like scientists) have a variety of interests, from the nature of free will to nonhuman animal rights. In terms of content, then, philosophy is about understanding the problems that matter to us and applying analytical and argumentative skills to those problems, with a view to solving them or at least making progress towards their solution.”
--Lisa Bortolotti and Sophie Stammers
“Meaningful and creative experiences between people can be more compelling than all the ideas, faiths, fears, ideologies, and prejudices that divide them; and if such experiences can be multiplied and sustained over a time interval of sufficient duration, then any barrier that separates one person from another can be undermined and eliminated.”