Philosophy For Dummies®


by Tom Morris, Ph.D.




About the Author

Tom Morris has recently become one of the most active business speakers in America due to his unusual ability to bring the greatest wisdom of the past into the challenges we face now. A native of North Carolina, Tom is a graduate of the University of the North Carolina (Chapel Hill) and has been honored, along with Michael Jordan, as a recipient of its “Distinguished Young Alumnus Award.” He holds a Ph.D. in both Philosophy and Religious Studies from Yale University and for 15 years served as a Professor of Philosophy at the University of Notre Dame, where he quickly became its most popular teacher, in many years having as much as an eighth of the entire student body in his classes. He is now Chairman of the Morris Institute for Human Values in Wilmington, NC.

Tom’s twelfth book, True Success: A New Philosophy of Excellence, catapulted him over the walls of academia and launched him into a new adventure as a public philosopher and advisor to the corporate world. Recent audiences include General Motors, Ford Motor Company, Merrill Lynch, GTE, IBM, the U.S. Air Force, Price Waterhouse, Arthur Andersen, Campbell’s Soup, Target Stores, The Dayton Hudson Corporation, Schlotzky’s Delis, NBC Sports, Business Week Magazine, The Bayer Corporation, Deloitte and Touche, Federated Investors, American Funds, Taco Bell, The American Heart Association, the Young Presidents Organization, and the World Presidents Organization, along with many of the largest national and international associations. His most recent book, prior to Philosophy For Dummies, is called If Aristotle Ran General Motors: The New Soul of Business.

Known by his Notre Dame students as “TV Morris,” this modern scholar is a former rock guitarist. He is also the first philosopher in history to appear in network TV commercials, where he has served as the national spokesman for Winnie the Pooh, Disney Home Videos, as well as being the only thinker ever to engage in early morning philosophy with Regis and Kathie Lee. He has appeared on CNBC’s early morning show Business Today, as well as on the NBC Today Show with Matt Lauer. Tom is known for bringing the insights of the great thinkers into the drama of everyday life with high energy and good humor. His message is helping to change lives and revolutionize business practices everywhere.



To Mary, Sara, and Matt — the greatest possible family!


Author’s Acknowledgments

I’d like to thank all the many dummies who helped make this book possible. Just kidding. They are all wise people. I’m especially thankful to Tami Booth, who suggested it and Kelly Ewing, who edited it. Reid Boates, my literary agent, encouraged me regularly to write at blinding speed and helped me to get flowers to my acquiring editor when I was late on a deadline.

I thank the thousands of Notre Dame undergraduates who helped me think through all these topics over a period of 15 years with their questions, comments, and loud laughter, as well as their occasional looks of utter perplexity. I’m also grateful to the many people in my business audiences around the country who have told me that they were thrilled that I was writing a book with this title — I think they typically wanted it as a present for their bosses.

I want to give the greatest thanks possible to my family, who supported me every day in a very intensive time of writing. But not even my tight deadlines put a stop to our beach walks, trips to guitar stores, and family snack times. My wife Mary, my daughter Sara, and my son Matt make me glad that I’m a philosopher, with no real schedule whatsoever. They offer me all sorts of fun and make wise comments on whatever subject I bring up. To all of them it is dedicated.


Publisher’s Acknowledgments

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About This Book

Conventions Used in This Book

What You’re Not to Read

Foolish Assumptions

How This Book Is Organized

Icons Used in This Book

Where to Go from Here

Part I : What Is Philosophy, Anyway?

Chapter 1: Great Thinkers, Deep Thoughts

A Few Nuts Spice the Cake

Socrates on the Examination that Counts

The Questions We’ll Ask

Chapter 2: Philosophy as an Activity

Outward Bound for the Mind

Mapping Our Way Forward

The Extreme Power of Belief

Chapter 3: The Love of Wisdom

The Triple-A Skill Set of Philosophy

Wisdom Rules

The Socratic Quest for Wisdom

Part II : How Do We Know Anything?

Chapter 4: Belief, Truth, and Knowledge

Our Beliefs about Belief

The Importance of Belief

The Ideal of Knowledge

Chapter 5: The Challenge of Skepticism

The Ancient Art of Doubt

Incredible Questions We Cannot Answer

Doubting Your Doubts

Where Do We Go from Here?

Chapter 6: The Amazing Reality of Basic Beliefs

The Foundations of Knowledge

The Principle of Belief Conservation

William James on Precursive Faith

Leaps of Faith

Part III : What Is the Good?

Chapter 7: What Is Good?

A Basic Approach to Ethics and Morality

Defining the Good in the Context of Life

Three Views on Evaluative Language

Teleological Target Practice

Chapter 8: Happiness, Excellence, and the Good Life

Memo to the Modern World

The Idea of Good: A Short Course in Options

Four Dimensions of Human Experience

The Ultimate Context of Good

Chapter 9: Ethical Rules and Moral Character

Commandments, Rules, and Loopholes

Character, Wisdom, and Virtue

Can Goodness Be Taught?

Part IV : Are We Ever Really Free?

Chapter 10: Fate, Destiny, and You

The Importance of Free Will

Foreseeing the Future: The Theological Challenge to Freedom

What Will Be Will Be: The Logical Challenge to Freedom

Robots and Cosmic Puppetry: The Scientific Challenge to Freedom

Chapter 11: Standard Views of Freedom

God, Logic, and Free Will

The Modern Scientific Challenge

Chapter 12: Just Do It: Human Agency in the World

Some Wisdom about Freedom

The Big Picture

How to Be an Agent and Get More than 15 Percent

Part V : The Incredible, Invisible You

Chapter 13: What Is a Person?

Guitars, Ghosts, and People

Glimpses of the Mind

Philosophical Views of the Person

The Contenders

Narrowing the Options

Chapter 14: The Case for Materialism

The Positive Arguments

The Negative Arguments

A Verdict on the Materialist Case

Chapter 15: The Case for Dualism

The Natural Belief in Dualism

I’m a Soul Man

Part VI : What’s the Deal with Death?

Chapter 16: From Dust to Dust: Fear and the Void

The Final Exit and the Four Fears

Chapter 17: Philosophical Consolations on Death

Don’t Worry, Be Happy

Materialist Conceptions of “Immortality”

Chapter 18: Is There Life After Death?

Philosophical Doubts and Denials

Arguments for Survival

The Light at the End of the Tunnel

Part VII : Is There a God?

Chapter 19: Two World Views

The Lost Beach Ball

The Great Divide

The Great Debate

Chapter 20: Theistic Visions

The Ontological Argument

Cosmology and God

A Designer Universe?

Religious Experience

Chapter 21: The Problem of Evil

Expectations of Theism

The Argument from Evil

The Great Theodicies

The Element of Mystery

Part VIII : The Meaning of Life

Chapter 22: What Is the Meaning of Life?

The Questions We Can Ask

Meaning and This World

God and Meaning

Chapter 23: Pascal’s Wager: Betting Your Life

Blaise Pascal: Philosopher-Genius

The Wager

Criticisms of the Wager

Choosing a World View Right for You

Chapter 24: Success and Happiness in Life

What is Enough? The Race for More

True Success

The Universal Conditions of Success

A Concluding Note on Happiness

Part IX : The Part of Tens

Chapter 25: Ten Great Philosophers




Saint Thomas Aquinas

William of Ockham

René Descartes

Immanuel Kant

G.W.F. Hegel

S¨oren Kierkegaard

Bertrand Russell

Chapter 26: Ten Great Questions

Is Philosophy Practical?

Can We Ever Really Know Anything?

Is There Ultimately an Objectivity to Ethics?

Who Am I?

Is Happiness Really Possible in Our World?

Is There, After All, a God?

What Is the Good Life?

Why Is So Much Suffering in the World?

If a Tree Falls in the Forest....

Bishop Berkeley speaks

What’s Stronger in Human Life, Rationality or Irrationality?


I only wish that philosophy might come before our eyes in all her unity, just as the whole expanse of the firmament is spread out for us to gaze upon! It would be a sight closely resembling that of the firmament. For then surely philosophy would ravish all mortals with love for her; we should abandon all those things which, in our ignorance of what is great, we believe to be great.

— Seneca (First century Stoic philosopher)

Philosophy For Dummies? What a concept! Is this the ultimate oxymoron, a contradiction in terms, or at least an impossibility in the making, an exercise in futility, on a par with Advanced Calculus For Toddlers, or Neuro-surgery For Nit Wits?

No. Not at all. The ancient philosopher Socrates (fifth century, B.C.) thought that, when it comes to the Ultimate Questions, we all start off as dummies. But if we are humbly aware of how little we actually know, then we can really begin to learn.

In fact, Plato (circa 428–347 B.C.), the close student of Socrates, passed on an interesting story about this. He tells us Socrates had learned that the Oracle at Delphi had proclaimed him to be the wisest man in Athens. Shocked at this announcement, he began to search out the men of Athens known for their wisdom and began to question them closely. He found out very quickly that, on truly important and basic issues, they didn’t really know very much of what they were thought to know, and what they themselves believed that they knew. On the basis of this experience, he slowly came to understand that his own wisdom must consist in realizing how little he really knew about the things that matter most, and how important it was to find out whatever we can about these issues. It’s not the complacent and self-assured intellectual who exemplifies wisdom, but the genuinely curious, open-minded seeker of truth.

Bill, reading aloud about Socrates:

“The only true knowledge is knowing that you know nothing.”

Ted, stunned:

“Dude — That’s US!”

— Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure

The word philosophy just means “love of wisdom.” This is easy to understand when you realize that love is a commitment, and wisdom is just insight about living. Philosophy is, at its best, a passionate commitment to pursuing and embracing the most fundamental truths and insightful perspectives about life.

Aristotle (384–322 B.C.) also had an insight we can use here. This great thinker, Plato’s long time student, and tutor to Alexander the Great (way back at a tender young age, when he was still just Alexander the Average) once said “Philosophy begins in wonder.” And he was right. If we allow ourselves to really wonder about our lives, about those things that we take for granted, and about those big questions that we usually manage to ignore during the busyness of our daily schedules, we are beginning to act as true philosophers. If we think hard about these things, and discipline our reasoning in such a way as to make real progress, we are beginning to act as good philosophers. But we can’t really live philosophically without acting in accordance with our insights. To be philosophers in the deepest sense, we must put our wisdom to work.

He is not wise to me who is wise in words only, but he who is wise in deeds.

— St. Gregory

About This Book

I’ve spent a good number of my years on earth wrestling with the questions that I will raise in this book. At the University of North Carolina, as an undergraduate, I majored in religion but took the equivalent of a double major in philosophy, turning my senior honors thesis in the philosophy of religion into my first published book. At Yale, I spent six years becoming only the second person ever to earn two master’s degrees and a joint Ph.D. between the two departments of Philosophy and Religious Studies. I wanted to leave no ultimate intellectual stone unturned. My doctoral dissertation formed the basis of what would become my next two books and launched me into an international adventure of questioning and understanding that form the deep background of what I intend to cover with you in this book.

The 15 philosophical books that I’ve written before this one provide the scholarly side of my preparation for this book. But the intellectual action in the lecture halls and seminar rooms of the University of Notre Dame, where I taught for 15 years, is what really began to rev my philosophical engine and show me the practical effect of great ideas in launching a good life.

In that time as a professor of philosophy at Notre Dame, I sometimes taught as much as an eighth of the student body in a given year. My most popular course was my freshman Philosophy 101, Introduction to Philosophy. It was anything but a death march through the history of philosophy — no plugging along, putting one footnote in front of another, dragging my charges through names and theories, dates, and titles regardless of their relevance or interest to modern life. My students and I took, by contrast, a lively, energetic look, filled with all appropriate drama and humor, at the fundamental issues that pose the ultimate context for the most basic understandings of life.

Philosophical questions often deal with serious issues, but we don’t need to be particularly somber in our approach to them. We can actually have fun thinking about things that matter. In my Notre Dame course, for example, I’d tell as many stories derived from the wild and weird events of everyday life at the end of the century as I’d take from the lives of the great philosophers throughout previous centuries. Personal tales from my own wild trajectory through this world often provided just the right imaginative boost necessary to help first-time philosophers see the importance of a particular philosophical question about life — and even glimpse the best path toward its resolution.

Philosophy is so awesome. Who would have guessed?

— A Notre Dame undergraduate

Since those days in the classroom, I’ve been living an incredible adventure as a public philosopher, engaged in soul searching and world-view building with people from all around the world and in nearly every walk of life. I’ve spoken to thousands of company presidents, military officers, and educators, as well as tens of thousands of managers, small-business owners, and front-line workers. And I’ve gleaned much more from them all than I ever imagined.

Extensive work in the world of business has shown me especially how many extremely smart people live in our time — those who regularly show great intelligence and even brilliance in their professional activities and who don’t want to feel like dummies in dealing with the ultimate issues of life, even though they may never get to think about such concepts in any extended or disciplined way. In these pages, I intend to use everything that I’ve learned to help you bridge some of those huge gaps that too often exist between academic philosophy and the practical concerns of real life that everyone faces daily.

The greatest philosophers always seek to understand life. They want to attain the deepest perspective they can about this world and about any other world that may exist. They take nothing for granted but question and probe in search of illumination, insight, and what some call “enlightenment.” We all want to understand the context within which we live and move and exist. And getting at least a good start on that task is the humble purpose of this book.

In the country of the blind, the one eyed man is king.

— Michael Apostolius

You don’t need to be a world-class visionary to benefit from looking more closely at the fundamental issues of your life. Any new measure of understanding is a move in the right direction.

In our look at the great philosophical questions, we will allow ourselves to ask basic and probing questions about what it is to be a human being in this world, what life is all about, and how we can live in the most satisfying ways. We ponder the most important things in life. We tackle head on some of those most fundamental issues that we too often dance around and never really address.

I love being a philosopher full time. People come up to me and ask me the most amazing questions. Sometimes they tell me the most incredible stories. It is such questions and such stories that will help us make our way forward, as I share them with you throughout this book for both intellectual and emotional leverage on the Big Issues.

Philosophical issues are all connected with each other in interesting ways. But I’ve written this book so that you can start anywhere or read different chapters independently of each other. Of course, if you start here and read on you’ll be following the order of my own thinking. But the point is that you need not. This is a reference guide that is for your convenience and is intended to answer at least many of the questions you might have about philosophy and philosophical thought.

Conventions Used in This Book

I’ve put quotes from great philosophers and other insightful thinkers throughout the text as a spice to our stew. You don’t have to read them to get what is going on in the body of the book, but, boy, you’d miss some great wisdom nuggets if you didn’t. You can turn this book open to almost any page and get wisdom that doesn’t come from me, but that I’m happy to bring you. You can also skip the boxed inserts that are shaded, if you want. They add subsidiary information or perspective on what I’m presenting, and are often lots of fun, but they are not absolutely necessary either. Also, be on the lookout for icons that will guide you to stories, great ideas, and things you might particularly want to think about.

I use the word “we” a lot in this book, and that’s not often done in the other ...For Dummies books. It’s for a special reason. In philosophy, ultimately, there are no authoritative experts. We are all in this together. I often ask you to consult your intuitions about something, and I sometimes suggest what we human beings usually arrive at when we do so. I sketch out the deep contours of experiences we all have. And I ask you to think through many issues for yourself. We are on a journey of understanding together. So feel free to talk back to me if you ever think I’m getting something wrong.

What You’re Not to Read

Sidebars, summaries, and bullet points are all for your convenience. They are not essential parts of what we have here, but are just helpful extras. Read them as you choose. And feel free to skip over them if time demands. You’ll still get the main ideas, but you’ll miss a lot of good stuff if you don’t check in to them at some point.

Also, catch yourself if you spend too much time staring blankly at a page, mesmerized. Philosophy can sometimes have that effect. And, please, try not to ever fall asleep with this book in your hands. It might give other people the wrong idea about the exciting, rousing, exhilarating enterprise of philosophy.

Foolish Assumptions

I am assuming that you are new to philosophy. You’re not new to all the questions of philosophy — you’ve been asking some of them since you were little. But I’m assuming that you are new to the discipline of philosophical thinking. I don’t take for granted that you’ve ever sat in a philosophy classroom, or even that you’ve ever donned a toga. I assume only that you sometimes wonder about life and this world, and want to get your bearings a little better.

In philosophy, it’s dangerous to make any foolish assumptions, so play along with me here. Hold on to your questions, use them to challenge this text, and be prepared to employ your own insights about life to evaluate what I say. If you are that rare reader who already has had a philosophy course, or proudly hold a (non-income generating) degree in philosophy, temporarily suspend everything you thought you knew, and let’s go at this afresh. If you did once have a philosophy course and have forgotten it all, it won’t be too hard for us to start anew. Welcome to my world of philosophy.

How This Book Is Organized

This book is divided into eight parts. Each part introduces you to an important area of philosophical thinking.

Part I: What Is Philosophy, Anyway?

This part gives you a basic orientation to what philosophy is and what philosophers do. Who were the great philosophers, and why have many of them been so controversial as well as influential?

We look at the importance of asking philosophical questions about your life, and see the role that beliefs can play in determining our experience of the world. This part launches us on the philosophical quest for wisdom.

Part II: How Do We Know Anything?

What is a belief? What is knowledge? How can we be sure that we get the real truth as we go through life? Our beliefs are the map by which we steer through life. It’s very important that they be accurate and guide us well.

In this part, I introduce you to some of the most important questions in the area of philosophy known as epistemology, or theory of knowledge. We ask what the role of rationality is in life, and what it takes for a belief to be rational. We examine some of the strangest and deepest questions ever posed to human beings by the ancient skeptic philosophers. And, finally, we look at the nature of evidence and proof and ask whether it is ever rational to believe anything without good evidence.

In this part of the book, we develop some tools that it will be helpful to have as we tackle some of the most controversial big issues of philosophy.

Part III: What Is the Good?

What is the status of ethics in this world of ours? Are right and wrong just subjective, or are there objective standards for human conduct? In this part, we take a look at a few basic issues for understanding the role of ethics or morality in life.

If you aren’t sure how ethical concerns relate to the rest of life, this is where I hope you’ll be able to get your bearings. We look at what character is and see the role of the Golden Rule in a good life.

Part IV: Are We Ever Really Free?

Morality presupposes freedom. You can’t be really praised or blamed for something that was not up to you. Many of our attitudes and emotions take it for granted that human beings have the freedom to chart their own way in life, or at least through the day. Do we? Or is free will an illusion?

In this part, we examine some of the most interesting challenges to the common belief that we are, at some fundamental level, free. We look at different philosophical views on freedom and try to work our way toward something that can make sense of our experience.

Part V: The Incredible, Invisible You

Are you just a complex organic body, or do you also have a nonphysical mind or soul? Is there more to human beings than meets the eye, even the eye aided by microscopes and MRI machines?

In this part, we address the age old question of whether there is a soul. We look at philosophical arguments on both sides of the question, and we try to evaluate what has been said. Am I a soul man or not? And what about you? This part can help you decide.

Part VI: What’s the Deal with Death?

In this part, we confront one of the most difficult topics we ever have to think about. We examine the fear of death in its many forms and then look at what philosophers have had to say to help calm us down when we contemplate the ultimate off-ramp from life.

I introduce you in this part to the arguments for and against there being life after death. Do we survive bodily death, or is it an absolute end? We see what philosophers have said, and we try to get our own bearings on this crucial issue.

Part VII: Is There a God?

Some have called this the biggest issue of all. What is the most basic reality there is? Is it material, or could it be spiritual? We look at the great debate over this issue and examine the major arguments pro and con.

One thing that we begin to see in this part is how all the major issues of philosophy connect up with each other. We are each constructing a world view as we live our lives. Is it accurate and insightful or not? This part can help you contemplate what the cornerstone of your world view ought to be.

Part VIII: The Meaning of Life

See, we don’t mess around in this book — we get straight to the big issues. I give you the major positions on the question of whether this life has a meaning, and then I give you answers. I actually say what I think the meaning of life is. Curious? You can skip straight to this, but I bet that, if you do, you’ll backtrack to put it all in perspective.

In this part, we also look at one of the most fascinating and controversial arguments ever devised by a philosophical seeker, Pascal’s Wager. Pascal claimed centuries ago that life is a wager. Are you making the right bet? Read this part to see.

Part IX: The Part of Tens

This is the part of the book that will put you on a fast track for impressing your friends with how much you know about philosophy. Are you in the need for weekend, party-size nuggets of wisdom and nibblets of historical insight about the great thinkers? Read this part. But after you’ve used what you discover here, be prepared to quickly go refresh your drink and reload your plate, leaving your conversation partners alone for a few moments to admire your unexpected erudition.

Icons Used in This Book

Throughout the book, I place icons to direct your attention to particular points of interest.


Next to this icon you can find information about some great philosopher.


This icon points the way to some great concept or brainstorm that can help you break through an issue or think about it differently.


A story from my life or reading accompanies this signpost. Expect vivid mental pictures. Or a concern over my sanity. Just remember, I am a philosopher.


This icon guides you to a piece of advice for thinking through a difficult issue.


This is our hazard sign. When you see it, beware of jumping to conclusions, or jumping off a bridge. This icon signals a philosophical fallacy or false step.

Where to Go from Here

This book is chock full of all those questions you may have long wanted to think about and talk with someone about, but have never had the time or opportunity to tackle head on. The best way to absorb all that I will be giving you is to share it with a friend or spouse. Talk about the issues you find here, share perspectives, compare thoughts and feelings with someone you respect. We all have to make our way in this world. And none of us is sure of all the answers. But if we can help each other think through the most fundamental questions, we can make amazing progress in gaining clarity about our lives.

I am giving you the perfect excuse to bring up topics that you may never get to talk to anyone about, on a normal daily basis. Tell them you’re reading a strange book on philosophy and that the philosopher has given you an assignment to ask someone else their opinion on any topic you feel the least bit puzzled about. And when they get intrigued by your newfound wisdom, and ask to borrow this book, just smile and tell them where to buy their own copy. You’ll want it around to go back over.

And tell me what you think. E-mail me your philosophical reactions at my own philosophical website,, where I and my band of merry philosophers can be reached at any time. I want to know what you are thinking about these issues. We’re all in this together!

Part I

What Is Philosophy, Anyway?


In this part . . .

In this part, we look at what philosophy is. What did all those bearded guys in togas actually start? And how should we view the philosophical search for wisdom now?