This is the weekly Q & A blog post by our Research Professor in Philosophy, Dr. William Lane Craig.
Hi Dr. Craig,
Thank you so much for your work and ministry over the years. This fall I have started working towards an M.A. in Philosophy. As I begin studying philosophy academically for the first time, I have already received questions from friends and family asking about what I'm studying. I find though that when I begin explaining what philosophy is and why it is important, my friends and family seem lost about what I'm talking about and about what it's relevance is to the world. Even when I try to look up a definition of what philosophy is, I often find it's unhelpful as it's never defined in layman's terms or it comes across as too general of a definition.
My question then is this: How do you explain to a layman what philosophy is in a way they can understand? Do you have any helpful advice or tips you use? Also, how would you explain to someone how philosophy and studying it is relevant to one's life? I'm specifically studying metaphysics this fall and so any advice on explaining that to someone would be greatly appreciated.
Dr. William Lane Craig's Response
I remember when I was studying Philosophy of Religion at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, one of my classmates stopped by a local gas station to fill up. In talking with the attendant, he told him that he was studying philosophy at Trinity. To which the gas station attendant replied, “Oh, you’re gonna be a shrink!”
“No, no,” my friend said. “That’s psychology. I’m studying philosophy—you know, like Plato and Aristotle.”
“Yeah, they were shrinks, too!”
Every one of us who has chosen to study philosophy has to face the challenge of explaining and justifying to family and friends our choice of discipline. In view of the opacity of the word “philosophy” my advice is that you just explain to people that you’re studying the really big questions in life, things like “Does God exist?”, “Do we have a soul?”, “What is the meaning of life?”, “Is there life beyond the grave?”, “How do we know truth?”
I think most people would recognize that these truly are big questions. They might doubt the value of thinking about them only because they think that we can’t come to any answers. But that’s an invitation for you to ask, “Why do you think that?” and immediately you’ve begun a philosophical conversation with them. Ask them, for example, where they derive their moral values from. Share with them an argument for God’s existence that you find persuasive. Give examples where philosophical studies have enriched your life.
As an undergraduate, I thought that philosophy was irrelevant. I had the misimpression that philosophy was basically arguing that black could be white and white could be black. I used to torment philosophy majors by asking them what good their discipline was, and to their shame they were never able to explain it to me. It wasn’t until I read Edward John Carnell’s Introduction to Christian Apologetics that my eyes were opened. Carnell was asking questions like “What is truth?”, “How do we test for truth?” “Why think that Christianity is true?” These were questions I was vitally interested in! I began to see how important philosophy is in the articulation and defense of a Christian worldview. That task, in turn, is critical for the reception of the Gospel in contemporary Western society.
In being a Christian, you are already committed to certain philosophical positions, such as God’s existence, the objectivity of moral values and duties, the possibility of knowledge, and so forth. Therefore, as Stuart Hackett, my philosophy professor at Wheaton College, once said to us, “The question isn’t whether you’re going to be a philosopher. The question is whether you’re going to be a good philosopher.” The study of philosophy has immeasurably enriched my understanding of God and my love of Christian doctrine. I am not a philosopher in spite of being a Christian; I am a philosopher because I am a Christian!
Alvin Plantinga has defined philosophy as “just thinking hard about something.” I think that’s as good a definition as you can get! Let us think hard about the big questions to the glory of God!
This Q&A and other resources are available on Dr. William Lane Craig's website.