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.


Nihilism and the Bible – The Vanity of Knowledge

Solomon ends chapter 1 of Ecclesiastes by writing:

I the Preacher have been king over Israel in Jerusalem. And I applied my heart to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven. It is an unhappy business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with. I have seen everything that is done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and a striving after wind. What is crooked cannot be made straight,
and what is lacking cannot be counted.

I said in my heart, “I have acquired great wisdom, surpassing all who were over Jerusalem before me, and my heart has had great experience of wisdom and knowledge.” And I applied my heart to know wisdom and to knowmadness and folly. I perceived that this also is but a striving after wind.
For in much wisdom is much vexation,and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow.

This passage might be more difficult for someone like me to accept, that even striving after knowledge is vanity. But why does Solomon say this? It seems that the Bible goes against thousands of years of philosophical knowledge. In fact, the irony is 600 years after Solomon, the Greek philosopher Socrates would teach that the pursuit of knowledge is good in and of itself.

In the modern age we love to use the phrase, “Knowledge is Power.” We encourage students to learn all that they can, but what use is it? All that we know goes with us to the grave. Even if we write it down, we suffer the same fate as those who engage in the pursuit of fame; the pursuit of knowledge, while more practical and a higher pursuit than fame, still has the same conclusion in nothingness.

What good is our knowledge if it is only temporary? What good is our knowledge if it only tells us how bad the world is and how vain the world is – as it did with Solomon – but tells us nothing of a solution? How wise is Nietzsche, who recognized the vanity of life, but who’s solution in the Overman was that of a madman? How wise are the postmodern skeptics who question this world, but then offer untenable solutions that further perpetuate the despair they sought to avoid? What good is knowledge when it cannot free us from despair?

Only knowledge founded in the pursuit of God is knowledge worth having. This does not mean we should only study theology, but merely in everything we learn it should, in some way, point back to God. When it is founded in God, it is eternal and therefore good. If it is not found in God, then it is temporal and therefore worthless.

#1 – Humble Calvinism

One thing must be understood: Calvin’s view of salvation is merely an extension of his overall view on God’s sovereignty. In other words, it’s extremely difficult to accept the “five points” without first accepting some presuppositions.

The first presupposition that must be acknowledged is that though man does take some part in the acquisition of knowledge, most knowledge is revealed by God and all knowledge is only obtainable because of His design plan (see “The Necessity of God in the Acquisition of Knowledge“). Calvinists would tend toward the idea that all “spiritual knowledge” (knowledge about God, salvation, sanctification, etc) is illuminated by God and that this illumination does not occur for all. In other words, though common knowledge or natural knowledge can be gained through the faculties God has supplied us with and can aid in spiritual knowledge, we can only know spiritual truths through the illumination of the Holy Spirit.

The second presupposition is that all truth is external, thus we have no influence on the formation of truth. Though our cultural backgrounds, educational backgrounds, family backgrounds, and other backgrounds can influence our understanding of the truth, truth itself is external to human experience. It is propositional, objective, and external to human thinking and experience. This means – tying in with the last point – that truth is imparted onto humans rather than coming from within humans. Any knowledge gained is merely the acknowledgment of what is already there, an acknowledgment that was also imparted onto the discoverer of the truth.

The third presupposition is that in all knowledge, humans are to keep the glory of God at the center. The first two chapters of Proverbs explain that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of all knowledge and that it is God who reveals knowledge to humans. This means that when knowledge is revealed to us, we are to use it in some way for God’s glory, not our own.

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