When I was an undergraduate I remember once a student asking a famous visiting philosophy professor, known for his work in philosophy of science, about questions dealing with the meaning of life. He looked puzzled at the question, and harumphed that this wasn’t really a proper activity for philosophers at all, he preferred to stick to nice rigorously logical things. Now it’s true that figuring out how to make an argument clearly and logically, and understanding why a proposition is true, false, decidable, unknowable, etc., are some of the key low level disciplines of philosophy, at the same time they aren’t sufficient for defining the scope of philosophy. If we think of philosophy as an interdisciplinary field involving critically asking how we understand and think about different activities, we realize that while philosophy of science and math is certainly a vital field, but ultimately the most interesting question in philosophy comes back to ourselves: How should we live?
The philosophers who really thought about that lot are the ones who’ve stuck with me over the years. At the same time, when I look around in daily life, what I notice is that there is no philosophical discourse at all. Our culture is centered on entertainment and anesthesia, it does not encourage us to ask the really hard questions. On top of that, most people aren’t used to asking these questions, so that even if they encounter them, they don’t find it easy or appealing.
Some months ago I obtained some fresh insights. My wife had been introduced by a friend to the Menlo Park Presbyterian Church where she was very impressed by John Ortberg‘s sermons. Curious, I went along, and it struck a chord with me. He really does a great job of introducing complex questions and rendering them in a simple and often entertaining way, and gets people to really attack some of the hard questions in their life. What is changeable, and what is permanent? What can we control, and what can’t we? What options do we have even when there don’t seem to be options? And beyond these seeming abstract issues, it comes down to, how do we treat each other? How can we make a positive difference? Where do we find hope? How do we give hope? What struck me in listening each sunday was the extent to which the ideas presented resonated with a lot of thoughts I’ve had on my own. Obviously as a pretty large institution MPPC is many things to many people, and provides many services, (too bad we didn’t know about it when our daughter was little…), but for this amateur philosopher it provides a good community to further spiritual, ethical and intellectual growth.