Dread—the driving force of some of the greatest minds to find answers to life’s biggest questions. An equally perplexing challenge is how to begin tackling such problems. By focusing on one dilemma and comparing how both schools of thought attempt to solve the problem, a hint may be revealed as to which approach to prefer. Philosophy is based on open discussion and human reasoning, as a result it is better suited than religion to explore what is beyond science—the meaning of life.
Within themselves, philosophy and religion do not produce a satisfactory answer because of disagreement. Two well known philosophers such as Friedrich Nietzsche and Aristotle give starkly contrasting answers to life. Nietzsche argues in his book “The Birth of Tragedy” that there is no inherent meaning in life at all, instead it is art that gives it meaning (p. 52). While, Aristotle would say that happiness is a central purpose of human life (pp. 2). Religion disagrees within itself just as much evidently. Each spirituality has its own entirely different doctrine. Disagreement is at the core of this search for “The Answer”. Through open discussion, this becomes a weakness for religion but a strength for philosophy.
The principle of symposium within religion was terminated when each religious historical figure claims his doctrine as the ultimate truth. Jesus Christ establishes Heaven and Hell as the afterlife in Christianity. Siddhartha Gautama, founder of Buddhism, proposes a path to enlightenment to go beyond life and pain. This list of differing teachings can go on indefinitely. The crux of disagreeing beliefs among religions is that it is treated as a dividing force. Any disagreement is enough grounds to simply separate oneself from a denomination and start their own. Albeit the controversy was not on the meaning of life, the most famous example of this was when Martin Luther started a cascade of dividing denominations with his 95 theses. Disagreement was present in the Catholic Church, their solution—division. Although relatively harmless when compared to religious crusades, the division of religion has only made the search for a single agreeable teaching even murkier because the amount of doctrines claiming to be the ultimate truth multiplies. In religion, disagreement is a drawback because not only does it cause separation, it is counterproductive against humanity’s attempt at finding a solution.
On the contrary, in philosophy, disagreement and discussion is at the heart of finding certain truths. Theorist Edmund Burke, in his dissertation “Of the Standard of Taste”, he demonstrates how two wine critics with differing critiques were partially wrong alone, but correct together. At a wine test, one critic tasted leather and another tasted iron while unknown to them there was a key on a leather strap at the bottom of the barrel. Both initially disagreed, but through open discussion, synthesized their findings and resulted in a true critique. This concept is not only limited to artistic taste, it is prevalent in all of philosophy. In other words, approaching “The Big Question” with open discussion and proactive synthesis aims humanity’s attempts in the correct direction.
Moving on from how both schools of thought handle disagreement and approach an answer, one must step back and consider what their views are based on after all. In the school of philosophy, theories are based on human reason, rationality and logic. Although not all religious beliefs are this way, most divine beliefs are based on pure faith. If enough steps are retraced, then it becomes evident that an assumption is at the root of any theory deduced thereof. It does not necessarily immediately discount its validity or mean that they are not true. Such theories are to be taken with a grain of salt because of its inherent uncertainty.
The advantage in philosophy is that it isn’t held back by uncertainty. Although religious beliefs on how to live life are hardly disputed, its claims on a higher power are based on an unverifiable argument and are indeed heavily disputed among religion. In Christianity, an elaborate and elegant afterlife is depicted, and Jesus is the guide to said afterlife. These claims are true, if Jesus without a doubt is indeed The Son of a Higher Power. The inability to neither prove or disprove Jesus’s divine affiliation, makes it a postulate at best—an assumption. This axiom ,based on pure faith, gives birth to Christianity and makes all theories of the divine derived from Jesus true. Islam’s axiom is Muhammad’s legitimacy as Allah’s prophet. Making a decision, or believing something to be true because of faith is, effectively a low risk gamble. Religion approaches the meaning of life by effectively gambling on an axiom, complicating the validity of its claims and falling on the wrong side of Occam’s razor, an english philosopher’s greatest contribution to human reasoning .
In philosophy, it is Occam’s Razor that declutters the sea of countless theories on the meaning of life. His razor is a principle that states the explanation that makes the least assumptions should be prefered. Occam’s razor does not confirm the validity of a theory, instead it merely serves a guide as to which theory to employ. What heavily differentiates philosophy from religion is that, assumptions are hardly used, if not entirely avoided. The basis for a theory on philosophy is usually deduced logically from given information rather than postulated. After observing the similarities between the real world and art, Plato deduced that Art imitates life. In a modern world context, neuroscientist/philosopher Guillaume Thierry conducted an 18 year study on the brain and concluded that the meaning of life lies in our brain’s ability to deduce meaning at all (pp. 2). The key point from this is that philosophers observed the subject matter first then through human reasoning and logic, deduced a verifiable argument backed by empirical evidence. In other words, assumptions were avoided. Occam’s razor states that the simplest theories with the least assumptions should be sought first. Philosophy approaches the meaning of life through basing its theories on verifiable arguments, empowering its certainty and earning priority consideration in the search for an “answer”.
Alas, philosophy is not perfect. Human reason is the pillar of philosophical thought, but it may just also be its crux. Since human reason is secular, it may only exist and operate within the secular realm—it is incapable of coming to a supernatural conclusion without making the leap of faith. Religion’s only advantage over philosophy is its ability to consider and theorize the celestial. Because the spiritual can neither be confirmed nor denied, this advantage is neutralized. In other words, philosophy’s limit is the heavenly realm, but because the divine realm cannot be confirmed the religious realm is no greater but no less than the known secular realm. Figuring out how to answer the meaning of life is just as daunting as the question itself. Religion approaches it by basing its theories on axioms.
On the other hand, philosophy deduces principles through observation and reasoning. It also improves its current theories through finding common grounds among disagreement as an indication of a certain truth. Religion’s ability to consider the divine proves itself to be no less but no greater than secular reasoning. Considering Occam’s razor, overall certainty, and its principle of open discussion, philosophy is indeed the school of thought better suited to explore what is beyond our observable life.