Is Philosophy Dead?

It’s currently fashionable for scientists to dismiss philosophy as a viable activity – some have even pronounced its death!  One branch of philosophy, which particularly gets singled out, is metaphysics.  For those of you unfamiliar with this term please note that I’m not referring to the occult or astrology; but, rather, to the branch of philosophical inquiry concerned with the nature of reality.  A metaphysicist will ask (and attempt to answer) questions like: What is truly real? What is personal identity?  What is the nature of the mind?  How do things persist over time?  What is a cause?  What is time?  Etc..

Unlike a scientist, a metaphysicist approaches these questions, primarily, through rational discourse.  They are more concerned with abstract generalizations than with explaining concrete particulars–with the theory underlying our scientific presuppositions than with specific details regarding particular things.  As Stephen Mumford explains:

“When we consider what exists, the philosopher’s answer will be at the highest levels of generality.  They may say there are particulars that fall into natural kinds, there are properties, changes, causes, laws of nature, and so on.  The job of science, however, is to say what specific things exist under each of those categories.  There are electrons, for instance, or tigers, or chemical elements.  There are properties of spin, charge, and mass, there are processes such as dissolution, there are laws of nature such as the law of gravitational attraction.  Metaphysics seeks to organize and systematize all these specific truths that science discovers and to describe their general features.”

A good example of a metaphysical problem would be the laws of nature.  Scientists, largely through observation and testing, attempt to detect and record regularities in nature in order to explain particular events (e.g. the falling of an apple).  These regularities, over time, become laws of nature (i.e. the law of gravity or the law of thermodynamics).  Metaphysicist’s, in contrast, are less concerned with explaining particular events, and more concerned with explaining the nature of the laws themselves.  Hence, a philosopher will ask: What are the laws of physics?  Are they objective realities that we discover about nature or merely a construct of the mind?

Both questions are extremely important, but the methods we use to arrive at a proper answer are very different.  One must primarily rely upon empirical methods (i.e. observation and testing) in order to explain particular events; but to answer metaphysical questions, one must primarily rely upon reason.

Because philosophy focuses on the abstract, and utilizes slightly different methods than science, many scientists are suspicious of, and even antagonistic towards it.  Without realizing, they slip into a form of anti-intellectualism known as scientism.  Scientism, to put it crudely, is a stunted or incomplete theory of knowledge.  It is roughly the belief that science is the only viable source of knowledge and that all other disciplines are either useless (e.g philosophy or theology) or incomplete.  Scientism’s adherents will typically claim that empirical methods, alone, are capable of giving us genuine knowledge about reality.  Thus, they proclaim the death of philosophy!

Immediately, however, one should be suspicious of this point of view: namely, because scientism, itself, is a philosophical position.  It is not possible to prove the claims of scientism through purely empirical means.  From the outset, therefore, it refutes itself and demonstrates why we need philosophy.

Fr. W. Norris Clarke brings up another important point, with regard to empiricist limitations on knowledge:

“One central flaw in all such theories of knowing is that they are in principle unable to do justice to the very subject or self that is asking the questions, since this is at the root of every conscious sense experience and quest for understanding, but not out in front of our senses as an external object to be sensed by them.  In a word, the inner world vanishes in its very attempt to understand the outer world.  The empiricist way of thinking also cripples the age-old natural longing of the human mind to understand, make sense of, its direct experience in terms of deeper causes not directly accessible to us.  The human mind cannot be satisfied to operate only within this straightjacket of an arbitrarily restrictive epistemology.”

Inherently, we all desire to find answers to the questions philosophers ask.  We all want to know the nature of ultimate reality and the value of our existence; we all want to understand how it is that we can know anything about the world; or what knowledge is to begin with.  Scientific research is incredibly important, and empirical methods provide us with a vast number of interesting facts about particular things in the universe.  Science, however, does not give us the deeper meaning behind these amazing discoveries.

Science has especially failed to provide us with any meaningful answers to the questions of personal identity and self consciousness—the “subject or self that is asking the questions” as Fr. Clarke just put it.  It gives us innumerable, and important, facts about our biology and brain chemistry, but it fails to explain the value or purpose of the observer.  More pointedly, it fails to provide a viable explanation for the self’s existence at all.  These questions, along with a host of others, are primarily the subject of philosophy and theology.

Philosophy is not dead–and as long as subjective knowers (i.e. human beings) exist it shall never be.  For Philosophy – the love of wisdom and the desire to understand the deeper, underlying, questions about the nature of our world – is rooted in and flows out of our very nature as beings made in the image of God.

Re-Posted from: Truth is a Man.


Can We Falsify God? Further Thoughts on God and Evidence

Summarizing last Thursday’s post and subsequent comments:

Let me state quite emphatically – we cannot falsify the statement, “God exist.” But before we celebrate too quickly…

For many atheists (and theists, oddly enough) comes the belief that for any significant statement claiming to be knowledge, there must be valid scientific data behind the statement. For instance, if John says, “Mr. Green killed Mary in the library with the candlestick,” he needs to have evidence showing that Mr. Green actually committed the murder. We could have a video of him doing it, a taped confession, fingerprints on the candlestick, blood patterns on Mr. Green’s jacket, and so on. This method of knowledge – having empirical data – seems to then be applied universally to all knowledge.

But is empirical, falsifiable data necessary for the foundation of all knowledge? The answer is no. The statement, “For a belief to be rational it must be empirically falsified” cannot be empirically falsified. In other words, it’s a self-contradiction. If we said, “Some beliefs, in order to be rational, but be empirically falsified” we could avoid the contradiction, but this would leave open the ground that some knowledge that is rational is not empirically falsifiable.

As I stated in the comments from the previous topic (much thanks to Arjan who suggested I add this into the original posting):

Correct. Evidence doesn’t suffice as a requirement for the reasonability in every belief. Since this is the case, we now have groundwork to see whether or not belief in God is rational or irrational without having to point to evidence. Also, I would contend that even if belief in God is rational, it doesn’t necessitate that the belief is true (what is rational does not always have to be true).

In other words, while some beliefs require physical evidence, other beliefs do not. That I currently exist does not need evidence as it is known to me a priori. That when I look at other people I know that they actually exist independent of my thinking has no evidence to support it, yet we would argue that it’s almost irrational to doubt that other minds exist. If a man claims his wife loves him he has no real evidence to point to in order to prove she loves him; he simply knows it. Even outward actions wouldn’t prove it as there could be an internal belief contrary to the outward actions (with the outward actions being performed as a matter of obligation); he simply trusts that she loves him.

Even if one were to make counter-examples and show why evidence is needed in some cases, such attempts are woefully inadequate and leave the emperor naked. The one making a universal epistemic claim must validate that claim in all instances of knowledge. Thus, it is up to the adherent of scientism to defend its assertion that all knowledge must be empirically falsifiable; all the critic has to do is point out one counter-example to show how such an epistemic system fails. Stating, “Well what’s your alternative” or calling this philosophical “mumbo-jumbo,” or even going on the offense against theism doesn’t change the fact that a hole has been poked in the wall of scientism and if not fixed the wall will collapse.

The whole point is that while evidence is necessary for many beliefs, it isn’t necessary for all beliefs, particularly when dealing with other minds. So is it reasonable to believe in God under such criteria? When we realize that traditional theism treats God as a person (that is, another mind) and not a scientific object, we see that we must approach the reasonability of God’s existence as another mind and not as an object of science. Some may argue this is special pleading or an attempt to avoid a debate, but it’s not. It’s simply setting the parameters of the debate to see whether or not belief in God is rational.

I would submit that the Ontological argument, specifically as recently argued by Alvin Plantinga, provides good grounds to show that belief in God is rational (though it does not necessitate that it is true; one can be rational, yet untrue). Logically it is air-tight. Though many people critique the argument they can rarely point out what’s wrong with it (if they follow the argument properly; most critiques of the argument are generally based on a poor understanding of the argument).

If I am correct, then believing in God is rational even if it is not falsifiable. The idea that we must falsify everything or have empirical evidence in order to obtain knowledge is a false epistemology to hold onto. Rather, if we work within the traditional elements of theism we see it’s far more appropriate to treat God as a person. This, coupled with the ontological argument, provides good grounds to state that believing in God is rational, though not necessarily true.

Birthers, Truthers, Deathers, and the Failure of Empiricism

Last Wednesday, President Obama decided to release his birth certificate to the general public in order to silence the “birthers” and the numerous people who doubted that he was, in fact, born in the United States.

Today, the president had decided not to release a photo of Osama bin Laden taken post-mortem.

In both instances, there are people doubting the validity of the claim. On the birth certificate issue, people are saying that the certificate is doctored up, or there are other bits of evidence that contradict the certificate. On the death of Osama, others are saying that we won’t produce a photo because Osama is actually dead (but even if one were produced, you know you’d have so-called ‘experts’ out there showing how it’s photoshopped).

We also have the “truthers” who deny that 9/11 was caused by a terrorist cell based out of the Middle East (the most simplistic explanation). Prior to the birth certificate, upwards of 20% of Americans doubted that Obama was born in the US. In a recent poll, upwards of 30% of Americans think the US government had something to do with 9/11. And rest assured that a multitude of Americans will doubt whether or not Osama bin Laden is actually dead.

What is going on in America? Do we just have an abnormally large number of people who are crazy, or is it something else? I would contend it’s something else. Continue reading

Hitler, Darwin, and a Question – Oh my!

I was asked the following question:

Did Darwin’s teachings on evolution necessarily cause Hitler’s view and actions of genocide?

I provided the following answer:

It’s a tricky connection. Naturalism does not necessarily lead to a belief in a superior race; but such a conclusion isn’t non-sequitur with naturalism either. That is to say, while one will not always conclude, “Genocide is okay” after reading Darwin, one can certainly use Darwin’s theory as a justification in his defense of genocide. (see: The Descent of Man by Darwin for Darwin’s view of the races).

Continue reading