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.

What (Some) Atheists Just Don’t Seem to Get

In all the commotion from the other day, while most of the comments simply proved my point that many of the new atheists are incapable or unwilling to behave in a civil manner, some of the comments did stick out. Aside from the theme of belittling me (and let’s be honest, even if I had multiple degrees from prestigious institutions, I would still be treated as a buffoon because many of the commenters are intellectual bigots who are unwilling to face those who happen to hold different beliefs), one common theme emerged; believing in God simply cannot be rational, ever, at all, unless evidence is produced for the existence of God. Next to this idea is that philosophy and science simply do not mix. Both of these ideas, however, are highly flawed.

What is meant by “evidence?” Certainly they have in mind something of the physical sort that we would use in scientific experiments. If this is what we mean by “evidence” and “proof” then let me say upfront that no, I cannot prove the existence of God. But before any atheists begin to celebrate and proclaim “Mission Accomplished™” we should first look to see if knowledge is dependent upon such stringent requirements.

The philosophy mentioned above is a type of epistemology that could be called scientism, or empiricism, or positivism, or something along those lines (I refuse to nail it down to one epistemic theory due to the variation of comments that were left). For some of these atheists, science serves as the only measure of knowledge (that which can be reproduced or investigated physically). For others, they hold onto a form of empiricism by stating that only what can be seen can be known. At the base of whatever epistemic systems these atheists follow is the idea that something must be physically proven to exist; but does such a system accurately reflect the real world?

For instance, can I – utilizing the methods of science or physical evidence – prove that I exist or that I am currently conscious (not dreaming)? I could point to the fact that I am currently aware of the fact that I’m conscious, but this would be a circular way of thinking. In fact, the philosopher Paul Boghossian wrote in his book The Fear of Knowledge,

“Not every belief needs to be supported by some independent item of information that would constitute evidence in its favor: some beliefs are intrinsically credible or self-evident…What non-circular evidence could one adduce, for example, for the belief that one is currently conscious?” (117)

I would tend to agree with Boghossian that some beliefs are simply known a priori or are self-evident. That I am awake is a self-evident belief that doesn’t need any evidence nor can it have any evidence. In other words, while evidence is required for some beliefs – such as beliefs learned via experience – evidence is not a necessary requirement for knowledge. Of course, if evidence isn’t necessary for all knowledge then could it be true that evidence isn’t needed in order to rationally believe in God?

Some might argue that belief in God isn’t self-evident or an a priori belief. After all, all cultures at all times simply accept that they are awake and do exist, but they may differ on what type of God exists, if there are multiple gods, or if there are any gods. From here they would argue that we must therefore supply evidence for the belief in God.

Even in this case, however, the argument doesn’t make much sense. For instance, math is an abstract that lacks physical evidence (that it can be physically demonstrated at is more basic levels is a far cry different from having a physical form that we can observe). Certain rules of logic are abstracted, yet we know them to be true (such as the law of non-contradiction). Even our ability to put two items together is an immaterial reality, but one that we rely upon (i.e. there is nothing intrinsic in the number 6 that causes us to understand that when added to 1 we will gain 7; the act of addition cannot be physically examined, but we know it is true nonetheless).

When it comes to the existence of God, then, the lack of evidence isn’t sufficient to say that such a belief is irrational. Rather, one would have to show how a belief in God is properly irrational or how one lacks substantial reasons for believing in God. Again, one couldn’t turn around and say, “Well there’s no evidence” as the presence of evidence has no bearing on whether or not something is rational. Furthermore, if one can demonstrate from current evidence that it’s possible for God to exist, or merely that naturalism cannot account for something within the physical universe (such as a finite beginning to energy and matter, the existence of consciousness, and so on) then by default theism would be true, or at the very least highly plausible (due to this being a disjunctive problem, if one possibility is known to be false then the other is necessarily true).

It is this problem of epistemology that most atheists, specifically scientists, just don’t seem to get. When confronted with it, the default answer is, “Well I’m a scientist so I deal with facts and physicality.” This may be true, but it’s a poor excuse. For instance, if a woman tells a mathematician, “I love you,” he doesn’t say, “Can you provide the mathematical formula for your love? After all, I’m a mathematician so I only deal with numbers and formulas.” Likewise, saying, “I’m a scientist” doesn’t excuse someone from a faulty epistemology; philosophy will always reign supreme over science because ideas guide how we gain evidence and how we interpret evidence. The only way philosophy can disappear is if people stop thinking or having ideas while acting; since the interpretation of evidence requires thinking people, philosophy will always reign supreme.

Since the above is true, this means that science can never be divorced from philosophy. Thus, while the scientific method is perfect when conducting scientific experiments, we must remember to leave it there and not apply it to the whole of life. Yes, science has brought us computers, but it doesn’t tell us how to use them. Or more appropriately, science has brought us modern medicine, but it doesn’t allow for any guidelines on how such knowledge is acquired. Nothing in science says, “Don’t use unwilling humans as test subjects.” Science is amoral on this point. Rather, it is philosophy and reason that put parameters around such actions. All of this should show that while science is absolutely necessary and a good thing, it is still a limited field and shouldn’t function as an entire epistemic system for how we look at the world.

In this entire post I have not offered an argument for the existence God because there is no need to. For one, this is a blog post and I highly doubt that a blog post would sufficiently cover the arguments for the existence of God. Secondly, and more importantly, until one can accept that the reasonability or plausibility of a thing is not contingent upon physical evidence then there can be no discussion about God (or about much of anything else for that matter, if we are consistent with such an arbitrary epistemology). Until one can get over one’s bias and accept that theism can be a rational belief even in the absence of evidence, then why attempt to argue for the existence of God? If one is holding onto a self-contradictory and impractical epistemology, then one is flawed from the get-go, so any further introduction of arguments would lose purpose. If one is unwilling to realize that science has a role, but isn’t a metanarrative for how we should view the world, then it is simply a waste of time to try to convince the person otherwise.