Most of the things I would call "philosophy" are in the main section "Topics of Social Importance". This section will be for discussions that probably wouldn't be as interesting to a general audience.

Related websites

  • To arrive at the edge of the world's knowledge, seek out the most complex and sophisticated minds, put them in a room together, and have them ask each other the questions they are asking themselves.
  • The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
    • This was the best resource I discovered while studying philosophy in college. I frequently raved about it to classmates and teachers. For any given topic I was curious about, it usually offered a much more in-depth treatment of a subject than I could find anywhere else.
    • That being said, it is not written for the casual reader. You may need to put in some work to understand a given section.
  • Reddit - Explain Like I'm 5 ← The questions here are generally not typical philosophy questions, but I like the concept of getting easy-to-understand answers.

Important Foreword:

  • it seems to me that a lot of philosophical debates end up boiling down to semantics. that is to say, a lot of the ideas people talk about ("truth", "justice", "love") are just words people use to refer to fuzzy things that don't have clear borders; people then argue about whether X qualifies as one of those words (based on their intuitions about the word in other situations) and there's no way to settle the debate.
  • here's BF Skinner saying what seems to me to be a very similar point:

Misc Links:
Scott Aaronson (MIT EE/CS Prof) on Philosophical Progress

As for the “social value” of philosophy, I suppose there are a few things to say. [...] [T]he Enlightenment seems like a pretty big philosophical success story. Philosophers like Locke and Spinoza directly influenced statesmen like Thomas Jefferson, in ways you don’t have to squint to see.
whenever it’s been possible to make definite progress on ancient philosophical problems, such progress has almost always involved a [kind of] “bait-and-switch.” In other words: one replaces an unanswerable philosophical riddle Q by a “merely” scientific or mathematical question Q′, which captures part of what people have wanted to know when they’ve asked Q. Then, with luck, one solves Q′.

Of course, even if Q′ is solved, centuries later philosophers might still be debating the exact relation between Q and Q′! And further exploration might lead to other scientific or mathematical questions — Q′′, Q′′′, and so on — which capture aspects of Q that Q′ left untouched. But from my perspective, this process of “breaking off” answerable parts of unanswerable riddles, then trying to answer those parts, is the closest thing to philosophical progress that there is.

…A good replacement question Q′ should satisfy two properties: (a) Q′ should capture some aspect of the original question Q — so that an answer to Q′ would be hard to ignore in any subsequent discussion of Q, [and] (b) Q′ should be precise enough that one can see what it would mean to make progress on Q′: what experiments one would need to do, what theorems one would need to prove, etc.

Individual philosophical questions

What is the meaning of life?

  • Other ways of phrasing it: "For what ultimate purpose am I here?", "Why does the universe exist?"
    • Some people also seem to use the question as a way of asking, "How should I be living my life to be happy / content / no longer questioning how I'm spending my time?"; in other words, they're envisioning the "meaning" of their life as being the thing that, once they're are doing it, will resolve some unpleasant feeling they currently have.
  • It seems to me that this question is a result of humans extending human concepts to things that shouldn't be thought of in human terms; it's anthropomorphism applied to the entire universe instead of to just a tree or a dog. here's a similar example: when I was a young kid I would sometimes cry at the thought of throwing away toys because I would imagine what it would be like to be a conscious toy and be thrown away, and I felt guilty about treating the toy so "badly". This was me applying a useful human tendency (compassion, placing myself in the position of another) to an arguably inappropriate target (a toy), and feeling bad as a result. I think humans have a natural tendency to try to understand the motivations behind other humans' or animals' behaviors, and I think that this "Meaning of Life" question is a result of applying this tendency to an inappropriate target (the Universe).
  • I think this is a bad way of thinking about life; thinking about life like this has made me feel depressed in the past and I've seen it make other people depressed [Q: Why does it make people get depressed? A: Maybe because it makes people feel unimportant, and people feel depressed when they feel unimportant.]
  • It seems to me that you do not need to resolve this question to be happy; it's a big red herring (in any case, at the moment I think the answer I describe above is the true one).  Just focus on meeting your needs (eat well, sleep well, spend a lot of time with people you like, have those people make you feel important, keep yourself busy/occupied/distracted).  I suspect when a lot of people say that they've found the answer to this question, they've really just found something to focus their effort on and feel important about (their family, their work, etc.).

Other people's thoughts

  • The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy - The Meaning of Life
    • After four years of philosophy in undergrad, I came away with the opinion that by far the best resource a person can read on any philosophical topic is the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy's entry on the topic.
  • Marty Nemko - What the Hell is the Meaning of Life?
    • Summary / key quotes:
      • When I was a teenager, I thought money was the answer. Then I tried noble work—teaching in the inner-city. Next, I tried prestige: got a PhD from Berkeley, became a professor. I’ve been trying the values route: focusing on what did I most value: work. To that end, I decided to be a career counselor. Many people find the meaning of life through relationships. Many other people find the meaning of life in religious faith. Is that all there is? I want to live as meaningful life as possible in the time I have. How the hell do I do it? Here’s my current thinking, subject to revision: It comes down to spending as much time as possible using my best skills (writing and speaking) to make a difference. I guess I should be grateful--that's a pretty full life. Yet somehow, I still feel empty.
    • Interestingly, he seems to use "the meaning of life" to mean, "How should I be living my life to be happy / content / no longer questioning how I'm spending my time?".
    • Note that he doesn't seem very happy in the article; I think it's because he hasn't met other needs, rather than any philosophical problem figuring out what the meaning of life is.  If I was helping him, I would try to go through Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs and figure out which of his needs he isn't meeting.  It might just be that he has a certain part of his brain that has been programmed (through his genes and/or environment) to always question his current actions, and he hasn't found a way to quiet that part of his brain.  I think this explanation connects well with the hypothesis he proposes at the end of the article: "Maybe I'm just constitutionally a kvetch [complainer]."
  • Tim Ferriss on the meaning of life, taken from the 4-Hour Workweek:
    • In the process of searching for a new focus [for your life], it is almost inevitable that the "big" questions will creep in. There is pressure from pseudophilosophers everywhere to cast aside the impertinent and answer the eternal. Two popular examples are "What is the meaning of life?" and "What is the point of it all?" There are many more, ranging from the introspective to the ontological, but I have one answer for almost all of them--I don't answer them at all. I'm no nihilist. In fact, I've spent more than a decade investigating the mind and concept of meaning, a quest that has taken me from the neuroscience laboratories of top universities to the halls of religious institutions worldwide. The conclusion after it all is surprising. I am 100% convinced that most big questions we feel compelled to face--handed down through centuries of overthinking and mistranslation--use terms so undefined as to make attempting to answer them a complete waste of time. This isn't depressing. It's liberating. Consider the question of questions: What is the meaning of life? If pressed, I have but one response: It is the characteristic state or condition of a living organism. "But that's just a definition," the questioner will retort, "that's not what I mean at all." What do you mean, then? Until the question is clear--each term in it defined--there is no point in answering it. The "meaning" of "life" question is unanswerable without further elaboration. [Source: The 4-Hour Workweek, pp291-292]

    • I think Ferriss has a good point, but I also think he's kind of dodging the question by not taking the further step of explaining to the questioner exactly what the questioner is curious about and what can be known about that curiosity.

Does "free will" exist?

My answer

As with my answers to many other philosophical questions, my answer is, "It depends on what you mean by 'free will'." We do have free will in the sense that we can make decisions "for ourselves" (using our own brains), but we don't have free will in the sense that the state of our brains is the product of our genetics and environment. So, "Yes and no".

Others' answers

  • Lindybeige
    • summary: "No, we don't have free will, but that doesn't change anything." IIRC this is basically what BF Skinner says.

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

  • I had to read this the fall of eighth grade; this is the book that made me reach a conclusion that I eventually found out had the name "determinism". If you haven't read the book yet i'd recommend you read it before you read the rest of my thoughts on it (there are plot spoilers below).
  • I think it's appropriately tragic that when people think of "Frankenstein" they think of the creature from the movies (an evil and stupid monster that is a killer by nature), because in the actual book you see that 1) the monster is highly intelligent, and 2) the monster starts off as innocent and loving as a puppy but turns bad because of the simple-minded way it is perceived by people (i.e. they treat it by default as an evil creature).
  • in my mind the whole book is one big build-up and draw-down from the monster's telling of his story; the monster's story is the real focus of the book. It was the first book to make me realize that everything bad (or good) that a person does can be traced back to prior causes that were out of that person's control. It doesn't seem that humans are blank slates (i.e. not everything a person does is from their environment post-birth), but it does seem that whatever isn't from the environment is from genetics (so people can be more aggressive or less empathetic or whatever).
  • my first reaction to the book was to think that the monster was completely blameless for his actions because it seems he could have been a perfect angel if he had been treated better. now i think that the whole idea of "blame" and calling people "good" or "bad" is just a heuristic used by humans to keep track of which creatures they should stay clear of and which they should trust. so in one sense the monster is to blame for killing all those people: from the perspective of any other possible human targets of the monster, the monster should be associated with (blamed for) those killings. in another sense the human tendency to judge creatures by their appearance is to blame.
  • so if you hear about a rabid/aggressive dog killing someone, yes you need to be careful around that dog, and yes it might be a good thing (in a sense) for you to be afraid of it and think it's a bad dog, but also realize the tragedy that this dog might have been the next Lassie if the circumstances of its life (and maybe a few of its genes) had been different. if the killing bothers you then what you should really focus on is 1) preventing that dog from hurting anyone else and 2) preventing circumstances that create rabid/aggressive dogs, rather than just railing on about how evil that dog was and how your dog would never do such a bad thing. it seems like a simple lesson but if you look at politics/gossip nowadays you'll see that people still haven't learned it (or maybe just don't have an incentive to act on it).

Should people pursue truth above all other considerations?

Probably not

What should I do? How should I behave?

What can a person really ever know for sure? How do I know I'm not in the Matrix?

FYI, in case you're interested: Philosophy has a division called "epistemology" that deals with this question.

Academic Philosophy

Things I learned from my philosophy major

  • Sometimes searching for the idea is the vast majority of the work involved in producing a good piece of work.
    • Examples:
      • One of the most-memorable things I heard about in my philosophy classes was that one of the most-cited papers was just 3 pages long.
      • When I was working on my senior "project" (I think of it as a thesis), I spent a year or two thinking up possible ideas, settled on an idea at the last possible moment (I think literally after the graduation ceremony), and then wrote the entire paper in 48 hours. And I think the idea I came up with was great, and totally worth spending that high a percentage of the total time searching for.

How I would improve the philosophy curriculum

  • Make the curriculum as long as it needs to be to cover the important topics, and no longer.
  • IMO it could be worth having students spend a full year just learning the LSAT, logic games, sudoku, the USA Today logic games, the process of deductive reasoning.
  • Really I should think about which courses I thought were BS and what I would replace them with.
    • The 4-hour philosophy-and-literature course, although that may have just been the professor.
  • Rather than stretch courses out by spending a ton of time studying various philosophers, maybe just cover the ideas they came up with and explain how they were mistaken or something. Like, when studying psychology, they don't really spend a ton of time covering the guys whose work has been surpassed. I do think it's useful to understand how the profession has made progress / advanced, but I think that's actually a different subject than learning about the actual content. It's like the difference between memorizing names and dates in your high school history class, and then studying history on your own to come up with general patterns in how history plays out. It's the patterns that matter, not the names and dates.
  • I thought intro to logic was useful / interesting...IDK if it was the most-important thing that someone could learn, though.


  • 2006 - Daniel Dennett - Higher-order truths about chmess
    • Many projects in contemporary philosophy are artifactual puzzles of no abiding significance, but it is treacherously easy for graduate students to be lured into devoting their careers to them, so advice is proffered on how to avoid this trap.