Gaurav asked:

I was an agnostic 3 years back. After reading some scientific books against god I became completely atheist. This transition however has not been an easy one. On the bright side loss of superstitious belief made me more rational, more free, which I admire however lack of single unifying belief system has left me confused. Someday I admire individualism other day I am impressed by existentialism yet on other day some other philosophy. I don’t just want to read philosophy want to live with it. I want to live as close to true and rational practices as possible. I also want philosophy to help me evolve as a person. But it doesn’t seem to be happening. Different schools of thought, different authors/philosophers, vast subject matter makes it all most difficult.

I am not being trained in philosophy so I cannot really give much time to this. Still I want to end the state of confusion I am currently in. Do you think philosophy in spite of contradictions among different schools can be made a way of life? Can it be practised? Which books will you suggest in different branches of this subject? Should I choose a single philosopher and read what he has to say on different matters? If yes, who can he be? Have you ever been in such a state of confusion. How did you come out of it?

PS I don’t want to read ancient books of philosophy. In my opinion modern authors have considered such matters and are more comprehensible.

Answer by Craig Skinner

You are doing better than you think you are.

All of us feel the way you do some of the time, and some of us feel that way all of the time.

You have evolved, it’s just currently uncomfortable. You have relinquished some of the views you had, without yet replacing them all by other definite beliefs. Quite right, you are open to argument, holding some views as provisionally-all-things-considered, and staying uncommitted for now on others.

At risk of making you more confused, your talk of ‘scientific books against god’ and ‘loss of superstitious belief’ makes me wonder if you are suffering from an overdose of the New Atheists (Dawkins; Hitchens; Harris; Dennett; Hawking to some extent) They do not give a balanced account of the theism/atheism debate. Rather than engage with the philosophical arguments, they rather suggest that the only reasons people have for being religious are ignorance and superstition, and once people are science-savvy, such nonsense will fade away. I suggest that before leaving the agnostic camp and setting up your tent in the atheist one, you try the views of a philosophy-savvy scientist, say John Polkinghorne’s ‘Science and Religion in Quest for Truth’, and of a philosopher other than Dennett, say David Glass’s ‘Atheism’s New Clothes’. If you have already done this, fair enough.

Philosophy as a way of life? Yes. Some earn a living by it. Mostly in colleges and universities, occasionally by teaching outside the academic framework and/or by popular writing. More often, philosophy illuminates other lifestyles or jobs, and clearly this is what you mean. But I think the idea that you will come across one ‘system’ that will end your confusion and yield many of the answers you seek, is a mirage. Maybe a problem-orientated, rather than system- or philosopher- orientated approach would help. Pick a specific point or area where you are confused or uncertain, think, read and discuss round it trying to reach your own view on the matter.

For example my own views on morality-without-god owe something to Plato, to Aristotle, to Kant, to Hume, to notions in evolutionary psychology, and to other influences including my own life experience. I suspect that like most people you don’t have somebody who is further along the journey than yourself to discuss things with and bounce your ideas off (admitting to an interest in philosophy tends to be a real conversation-stopper down the pub or at the dinner table). The only way round this is to sign up for some formal study with supervision and feedback. I suggest looking at what Pathways can offer. I used Pathways support for my distance-learning BA and found it excellent value, both philosophical and financial, and you can sign up for less ambitious (but still pretty rigorous) modules. You say you can’t give much time. I understand this but it could be time well-spent.

You will already have appreciated that certainty isn’t among the contents when you open the philosophy box. If certainty is what you want, stick to maths/logic, but even there it may just be truth-in-the-story of maths/logic, rather than absolutely.

Finally, I too am keen on modern authors, imagining that philosophy is more like science than art, and that there has been progress. How we might measure progress in philosophy, and whether there has been any, are themselves nice points to reflect on. Whatever, many of the ‘ancient’ writers (I include what BA students still learn as ‘modern’ philosophy, namely Descartes onward) show terrific wit and wisdom, and are more than worth studying in their own right. A few write badly, but no more so than among moderns.

All the best in your quest.