Life, Death, God, and High School

Today, philosophy is often considered useless.  It’s known as the stuff of history class – not English class, not the news, and certainly not conversation. Maybe you’ve spent a day in history class talking about Aristotle or Plato in the context of Ancient Greece, but delved no further than this.  Contrary to popular belief, philosophy is arguably the most applicable field of study, as no other topic deals as directly with the human condition.  Philosophers ponder existence, reality, and religion.

In an attempt to combat philosophy’s reputation as outdated and impractical, I talked to a couple of students at Newton South about issues eternally debated by philosophers to see what they had to say.  First, I sat down with junior Jack Kenslea.  Initially, Jack was understandably brief in his responses, but the topic of God really got him talking.  “I don’t believe God created the world.  When I was younger, I would’ve said I don’t [sic] believe in God, but I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s better to believe there’s some higher power,” he said, adding that his belief in God comes from “fear.”

The French philosopher Blaise Pascal similarly struggled with the idea of God’s existence, and to settle the debate he created a logical fallacy known as Pascal’s Wager.  Every person decides for themselves whether or not God is real, ultimately betting their life on the issue.  If you choose to believe in God, you should live your life in accordance with His virtues; that way if He turns out to be real, you’ll be rewarded for your service.  If you choose to live as though God is not real, you have more freedom in your life, but if God turns out to exist, you’ll surely face His wrath later.  According to Pascal, the drawbacks of atheism outweigh the freedom that comes with it.  Following Pascal’s logic, the rational man lives with a belief in God.  Jack, like Pascal, understands that you can choose to believe in God, that it’s not black and white; both came to the conclusion that it is better to believe than to live without faith.

Next, I sat down with Caroline Kern, a sophomore at the time, to hear her take on the same questions I asked Jack.  “I believe in some higher power,” she stated, “but to what extent, I don’t know, and no one does; that’s how it’s meant to be.”  More specifically, Caroline felt most spiritually connected with the “higher power” when outside alone, taking in nature.  “If what I’m doing helps me to learn more about myself or the world, I can always see the worth in it,” she continued. “Learning will always make me happy.  There’s nothing more pure than wonder.”  Slowly our conversation turned toward education, a topic that sparked Caroline’s interest.  Despite the fact that learning is what brings her happiness, “school misses the target.  It has good intentions: to provide a broad education,” she explained, “but school now has too many restrictions and requirements.  The focus is on achievement rather than the process.”

Caroline fits right in with Transcendentalists.  Transcendentalism, a philosophical movement that started in Massachusetts, began as a backlash to intellectualism at Harvard University.  Caroline, like Transcendentalists, finds spirituality alone in nature.  Writer and transcendentalist philosopher Henry David Thoreau famously spent two years, two months, and two days at Walden Pond in Concord, later detailing his experiences and preaching self-reliance in his book Walden.  For Thoreau, simplicity was synonymous with happiness, and in his time at Walden he strived to cut out as much as he could from his old life.  Thoreau, the rest of the Transcendentalists, and Caroline similarly critique the typical public education of their day.  Both find ordinary schooling inadequate, as it lacks spirituality and focuses on achievement rather than intrinsic fulfillment.

So what?  I talked to a couple of people about life, death, and God.  What good does it do you?  I could say, “look at all the complex, nuanced things your peers think about,” but that doesn’t help you much.  By talking to friends or even complete strangers about philosophy, however, you create stronger relationships and learn about yourself in the process.  It’s not reasonable to expect you to bombard your peers with questions about existence, but if you replace just some of your awkward small talk with these discussions, it can go a long way.  We think about these things all the time.  Happiness, for example, is possibly the most important thing in our lives, but how often do you think about what happiness is and where it comes from?  Hearing other opinions and sharing your own leads to a better understanding of yourself and others.  Learning about philosophy teaches you how to approach life’s problems, ask questions, and analyze what you take for granted.  

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