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.


The Triumph of Philosophy or, Why Lawrence Krauss is Just Wrong


In the above video, Lawrence Krauss speaks about the importance of students learning science and the greater importance of teachers feeling comfortable with what they are teaching. Certainly, Krauss is correct that our students are undereducated in American schools (overall, the United States is ranked 13th in the world in education, though that number is skewed by our appreciation for the liberal arts). Our teachers, likewise, are severely underpaid compared to their private sector counterparts. Why is it an engineer at a car company makes more money than the person who trained the engineer?

Moving away from where Krauss is right, let’s focus on the two points where he is just completely wrong.

1) Science is not the motivator behind the big questions of existence – those questions have been asked, and answers have been sought, long before the scientific method found its way into the world. In fact, the scientific method itself was born from the womb of epistemology. In asking “how can we know the physical world,” the scientific method came about. Thus, science is a child to philosophy, it is a tool of philosophy; the tool can never overcome the user.

Now, Krauss has a history of making philosophical statements and claiming they are scientific statements. In fact, when it comes to philosophy, Krauss is simply ignorant. For instance, he argues the following;

Philosophy used to be a field that had content, but then “natural philosophy” became physics, and physics has only continued to make inroads. Every time there’s a leap in physics, it encroaches on these areas that philosophers have carefully sequestered away to themselves, and so then you have this natural resentment on the part of philosophers.

Now, no philosopher would ever discount scientific discoveries, we would only claim that science is a tool of philosophy to test claims about the physical universe. Even some of Aristotle’s (and later philosophers) most erroneous claims about our world – such as the earth being the center of the universe – came from observations, not theoretical conjuring. That the ancients lacked the technology needed to gain a better understanding of the universe is quite irrelevant; the fact that they still based their ideas off observations shows the first use of science, albeit in a primitive manner, as a tool of philosophy.

Philosophy, not science, asks the big questions, mostly because science in its proper definition is incapable of asking questions. Asking “how does this work” is inherently a philosophical question. The scientific method cannot cause you to ask a question, it can only supply an answer to a question. While more questions will undoubtedly arise in the search for this one answer, each one is based on the curiosity of humans, which is by nature philosophical.

The problem with what Krauss is promoting is that it leads to scientism, or the idea that science counts as the basis of all knowledge. It also betrays an absolute ignorance of the importance of philosophy not only within scientific research, but as the controller of scientific research. Sure, it’s easy to discount philosophy when one is pursuing physics and see no consequences (at least no immediate consequences), but what about biology, specifically human biology? The study of human biology without the guide of ethics and philosophy (namely a basis in metaphysics) can and has led to eugenics. Even in this day there are numerous scientists who promote the abortion and even infanticide of “less than desirable” humans (of course, such an idea is promoted under the guise of compassion).

The point being that scientific advancement needs philosophy, just as a child needs a parent. In both situations, there is a need of a moral voice. Science cannot tell us why it is wrong to kill someone because of his or her deformities. Science cannot produce a value statement on life. Science cannot even tell us why survival is something we ought to strive after, and therein lies the problem with science: in terms of ethics, science can never supply us with an ought, but without an ought there can be no science. That is, if philosophy did not take its primary place in the ancient, medieval, and renaissance world, science would have never been born.

Thus, while science is important, it does not ask the big questions, nor can it answer the big questions. It can provide us tidbits of information and be used as a tool in searching out the answers, but it is not the end-all of knowledge and is eternally subservient to philosophy. One can use a hammer to build a house or to bash in the skull of an opponent, both of which hold scientific equations. Only philosophy can tell you why one is better than the other.

2) Krauss then argues that science and math teachers should be paid more than their humanities counterparts, mostly because of the field of competition out there. Yet, this ignores the fact that humanities degrees actually end up making just as much, if not more, than their hard science counterparts.

A person with a degree in the humanities, specifically philosophy, can turn around and get a job in human resources (which typically comes with a six figure average), marketing, speech writer, communications manager, content manager, legal analyst, and the list really does go on. Thus, if we base our teacher’s pay scales simply on monetary worth in the private sector, there is little to no difference between what a scientist is worth and what an English major is worth. If anything, those with degrees in the humanities have tended to show themselves more versatile in the jobs they can accomplish, which is why they tend to see more success outside the university.

If we want better qualified people teaching, then we need to increase the salary for everyone across the board. Of course, where the school is located will determine what field is more competitive. For instance, a computer engineer will face a more competitive field in Silicon Valley than in Fargo, ND. The school in Fargo would have to pay far less for the teacher than the school in California. Yet, the same remains true for the humanities. While I agree we need to pay our teachers more, the logic of paying a science teacher more because he could make more by not being a teacher is just absurd; every qualified teacher could make more by not being a teacher, regardless of one’s choice in degrees.

Many teachers in the soft sciences, in fact, face a far more competitive field than scientific research. Companies will shell out quite a bit of money right now for people who have a background in ethics. Due to the increase of the internet over the past two decades, content managers and proof-readers are needed now more than ever for websites. That sociology teacher or english teacher could make far more money in the private sector, even more than her scientific counterpart.

In the end, Krauss betrays his bias, that he thinks science to be the only thing we really need in this world. He gives lip service to English teachers, saying, “Well, at least they teach us how to write and communication is important,” but he views science as the queen of all learning. Yet, one can easily prove that science is not the queen of the sciences, nor is it even primary. It is a tool, one that we must learn and use, but never forget that it is nothing more than a tool to be used by the philosopher.

The Biggest Problem With Atheism

The “New Atheists” have made atheism in vogue among the popular masses. While agnosticism and atheism have been popular stances since the early days of the Enlightenment among the educated, until recently it wasn’t all that popular among the average citizen. In the past decade, however, that has begun to change. Chalk it up to the bravado of the New Atheists and their rhetoric, but don’t chalk it up to the content of atheism; that’s because atheism has no content, which is why no one should embrace it.

The biggest problem with atheism is that it tells us nothing about what is or what ought to be. If anything, in recent years, atheism has turned into nothing more than a giant rant against religion, specifically Christianity. Look at any of the popular books on atheism by atheists and it’s full of arguments against the existence of God. We’re told that God is evil, that God is impossible, that it’s irrational to believe in God, that we don’t need God in order to be good, and so on. In other words, all modern atheism does is show us what not to believe, but it puts nothing in the place of God.

We are told that we do not need God in order to be good; but sans God how do we define what “good” is and how do we create an ought to achieve that good? We’re told we don’t need God for the universe to exist; but sans God how do we explain the existence of immaterial laws in a universe that is supposedly solely material? Which came first, the matter/energy or the laws that govern the matter/energy? In other words, atheism tells us that God doesn’t exist, but if we grant this and go, “Okay, then what?” the atheist simply says, “Oh, I don’t have to answer that.”

Yet, and this is the problem with all skepticism, if no content can be provided as to what should be believed in the absence of what is rejected, then what value is the belief? Recognizing that atheism lacks answers to questions is a big reason for some people to turn away from atheism. After all, any child can mock something someone says, but it takes an adult to articulate why a belief is wrong and what should be believed in its stead. This is not to say that all atheists are children; there are some atheists who are making an attempt to explain why we should be ethical in the absence of God, why life has meaning, and so on. But these atheists are few and far between, and they’re getting fewer (either due to death or conversion to theism). The new atheists apparently want to say that life has meaning, life is unique and wonderful, and that universal ethics exist, but don’t want to supply any proper reasoning behind it. While “fanboys” of the new atheists laud their writings, other atheists (especially in academia) recognize that the new atheists have fallen short. In fact, my implication of there being two atheists is explicitly stated by other atheists (though I still think both types of atheism presented in the linked article are sub-standard as they provide no answers).

We look at the universe and through a process of deduction conclude that God is the most probable explanation. The atheist says no, but when we ask him to explain how something came from nothing, we get nothing (even Lawrence Krauss’ book completely falls short of its title). We’re told that we don’t need God in order to be good. When we ask why we ought to be good, we’re told it’s a matter of genetics and evolution. When we point out that we’re then determined and thus there’s no point to shame or praise, we’re told that we can still choose and that we ought to be ashamed for rejecting atheism. When we say that this is the language of free will (in fact, the mere act of attempting to persuade someone is acting on an implicit belief in free will), we’re told that everything is determined. Thus, atheism, in its attempt to prove God doesn’t exist discredits free will, but then seeks to persuade people to believe God doesn’t exist. This is simply one of many contradictions within atheism.

Having answers for the ought is important because the justification behind the ought is what changes society. Why ought I act a certain way? Why ought I pass certain laws? Why ought I care about suffering that is not my own? Why ought I show any concern for society? Ultimately, all atheism can say is, “Well evolution has caused this,” but that’s not an ought, it’s an explanation. Perhaps evolution has led the majority of humans to believe it’s wrong to murder for one’s own benefit, but where is the ought for humans who see no problem with that? And were we to provide an ought for why it’s wrong to murder, ultimately such a justification must be established in a strong metaphysic. But if our metaphysic is nothing beyond, “Something came from nothing as a huge accident” then our justification loses all meaning because it inherently lacks purpose.

Thus, the biggest problem with atheism is that it brings nothing to the table. It cannot create a metaphysic that holds any meaning because the metaphysic will ultimately lack purpose. Perhaps the new atheists can turn to existentialism, but once again we run into the problem; whereas existentialism taught that we provided meaning to our lives (which is something Kai Nielsen teaches), this belief doesn’t work because, yet again, it lacks the ought. Certainly the atheist can say that helping old ladies cross the street provides meaning to our lives, but we can counter that assuming the atheist metaphysic is true, pushing old ladies in front of cars equally provides meaning; neither action is good or bad, they’re simply actions (this is the conclusion Nietzsche came to). None of this is to say that atheists can’t be good – they are often better than many religious people – but it is to say that atheists lack justification for being good.

Of course, the problem of atheism isn’t limited to the realm of ethics, but that’s just the most obvious target. Atheism has no metaphysic, no justification behind its oughtness. Thus, while atheists may ask difficult questions or point to potential problems with theism, it ultimately lacks any substance or any reason for being good. Thus, even if the atheist points out that a reason for being good is false, it doesn’t mean we should disbelieve God, just that we should disbelieve the absoluteness of our reason; there’s still no reason to be an atheist because it simply has no answers. It might be able to question the explanations for “what is,” but it cannot provide its own explanation for “what is.” That is to say, atheism cannot tell us anything about the world around us, but can only question other theories that attempt to make and explanation, meaning atheism, ultimately, brings nothing to the table.