Introduction to Philosophy

Why study philosophy? Imagine someone preparing to be a missionary in China. To prepare to reach people for Christ, they should mostly study the Bible, but it’d also be good to spend, say, 10% of their time studying Chinese culture so they could better understand how Chinese people think, what they believe, and how best to communicate God’s truth to them. Well, if you’re a Christian, then you’re a missionary! We’re all called to fulfill the Great Commission Jesus gave us—to go and make disciples. And if you live in the West (America or Europe), then you’re a missionary to Western culture. Therefore, it’d be good for you to spend at least some time studying Western culture so you can better reach Western people for Christ. That’s what this philosophy class is all about—how the thinking of western culture has developed and arrived at this postmodern mindset. Follow along with Adam’s Introduction to Philosophy class to learn about the worldviews, ideas, and thinkers that contributed to Western culture and influenced how we think and understand the world today.

Part 1: What Is Philosophy? Why Study It?

What is philosophy? Philosophy can sometimes be a hard word to define since our culture uses it in many ways. However, the academic study of philosophy could be broadly summed up by three areas of study: the study of existence (metaphysics), the study of knowledge (epistemology), and the study of ethics. Philosophy deals with big ideas that shape cultures, including ours, and the ideas of our cultures shape how we think. Philosophy attempts to answer ultimate questions: Why are we here? What is the meaning of life? If we want to understand how our culture thinks and why it promotes the ideas it does, we have to understand the philosophy that gave birth to those ideas and the history of how they came to be accepted.

Part 2: Faith and Reason, Augustine and Aquinas

Philosophy presents us with many ultimate questions about life. How do we find the answers to these questions? Thinkers have proposed both faith and reason as ways to answer them. Popular culture today presents faith and reason as if they are incompatible. Some say faith is just the failure of reason by choosing to believe something without evidence. Others say reason is inadequate and that we just need to make a “leap of faith.” Is this true? Are faith and reason really in conflict? Two very influential Western thinkers, Augustine of Hippo and Thomas Aquinas, would disagree. They both thought faith and reason could work together, that faith and reason worked best when they reinforced each other, not when they were separated.

Part 3: Plato, Aristotle, and the Scientific Revolution

Two ancient Greek thinkers who had an immense influence on Western thought and philosophy were Plato and Aristotle. Plato is known for his belief that universal truths, such as good or beauty, existed in and of themselves, not just in our minds. Plato believed that these objective, universal, absolute truths existed in a transcendent realm outside of us. Hundreds of years later, Augustine was greatly influenced by the ideas of Plato and said that Plato didn’t know it, but what he was actually describing was the mind and nature of God. Whereas Plato emphasized the reality of a transcendent realm and thought the physical world was merely shadows, Aristotle disagreed and thought the physical world was also important and could be studied and understood. Hundreds of years later, Aquinas took Aristotle’s ideas to heart in believing that both the transcendent and natural realms were important and could be understood. These ideas, emphasizing that the physical world could be studied and understood, led to the Scientific Revolution.

Part 4: René Descartes and Empiricism

The transition from the pre-modern era to the modern era began to take shape through the thinking of René Descartes (1596-1650) and his philosophy of rationalism and empiricism. Because of the uncertainty present in the attitudes of the culture of his day, Descartes set out in search of absolute certainty for his beliefs. To build a system to achieve absolute certainty, Descartes needed to find a foundation to build on: an idea that couldn’t be doubted. Cogito ergo sum: I think, therefore, I am. Descartes concluded that you cannot doubt your own existence because if you’re doubting, you must be thinking, and thus you must exist. Based on this foundation, Descartes said we could be skeptical of everything else and only believe those things we can prove with absolute certainty. Eventually in Western culture, Empiricism became the method to accomplish this, by using the data from our physical senses. These ideas subsequently influenced philosophers and scientists such as Francis Bacon, Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Isaac Newton.

Part 5: Scientism and Deism

In the 1600s and 1700s, modern Western culture tried to go down a path of using reason by itself. Descartes pushed Western philosophy from the pre-modern era into the modern era, and that gave birth to many new ideas. Descartes’ mistake was that he thought he could prove things with absolute certainty using reason alone. This led to a greater focus on science as the means of knowing reality, which led to scientism, the belief that scientific knowledge is the only type of knowledge that can be trusted to give reliable answers about the world. Scientism introduced a shift from thinking of science as a means to know God to merely a mechanism for human progress using only those things we can know through reason and nature. Because of this, the idea of deism became popular among Western thinkers. Deism is the idea that God exists but that He reveals truth to us only through nature, not through Scripture or special revelation.

Part 6: David Hume

In the 18th century, philosopher David Hume shook the thinking of the Western world when he challenged the empiricists of his day and claimed that absolute certainty was not actually possible to attain. He claimed that “all knowledge degenerates into probability.” If empiricism was right in claiming that all knowledge comes through our senses, through our experiences, then in fact we can’t be absolutely sure about anything, even things like causality, the laws of nature, and especially religion. David Hume is sometimes known as the most famous skeptic in history because he proposed that reason is a dead end and that there are no ultimate answers. David Hume’s ideas were so influential that Immanuel Kant, usually considered one of the greatest Western thinkers, built his philosophy as a response to Hume’s skepticism.

Part 7: Immanuel Kant

Immanuel Kant was a giant in the history of Western thought. In fact, one of Adam’s seminary professors claimed that many Christians have been influenced more by Immanuel Kant than by Jesus Christ. Kant was a pivotal thinker, standing at the end of an era of optimistic hope in reason and the beginning of an era of critiquing reason. Kant initially set out to rescue reason, science, and absolute certainty from Hume’s crushing skepticism. To do this, he shifted the focus of knowledge from the universe “out there” to our own minds “in here,” claiming that categories in our minds completely shape our understanding of the world. By doing this, he limited the reach of reason, deducing that we can only know with absolute certainty how things appear to our minds, not how they are in reality. Finally, Kant thought he had rescued faith by separating it from reason and placing beliefs in God or the afterlife beyond the reach of reason. However, he ended up redefining faith as being opposed to reason, an idea which is unfortunately still influential in our culture today.

Part 8: Evolution and the Mechanical View of the World

After Kant’s influence, some thinkers continued down the path of attempting to only use reason to understand the world. They concluded that there were no ultimate answers, because reason alone couldn’t give us ultimate answers, but reason could at least help us do science. They focused their philosophy predominantly on the physical realm, the phenomena of nature. If you reject the transcendent realm and limit yourself to only nature, you are likely to conclude that there is no ultimate truth. Because of this, the mechanical view of the world began to gain influence – viewing the world as nothing more than a machine controlled by the laws of nature. The theory of evolution was a pivotal development in this area, because it alleged that humans were just physical machines themselves, just a part of the larger machine of nature. These reductionistic views caused people to view things like morality, love, art, beauty, meaning, purpose, and humanity itself as not really valuable in and of themselves but merely as expressions of how nature and evolution had programmed us.

Part 9: Logical Positivism

Because of the influence of Kant, Western philosophy began to undergo a split in its way of thinking. Both sides agreed that reason was a dead end for ultimate answers, but some abandoned reason and embraced irrational faith while others stuck to reason but limited its scope. The thinkers who continued to affirm that only reason was useful became known as proponents of analytic philosophy. These thinkers wanted to make philosophy much more scientific. They rejected the transcendent realm beyond the physical world and hoped that analytic philosophy could correct the imprecise work of past philosophers in this regard. They developed more sophisticated uses of logic and focused on giving words very technical, precise definitions to help science pursue truth. Logical positivism was an even more extreme form of analytic philosophy which claimed that we can only posit or state things that can be empirically verified. Because of this, logical positivists believed that statements about the metaphysical weren’t true or false; rather, those statements were actually meaningless. Today, however, there has been a resurgence of the pre-modern way of thinking among analytic philosophers that rejects its initial naturalistic assumptions.

Part 10: Romanticism

When modern thinkers who tried to use reason alone to determine ultimate answers ran into a number of dead ends, some people turned to philosophies which emphasized that irrational faith by itself could give us meaning by looking within ourselves. One of the first movements against modernism that emphasized this way of thinking was called Romanticism, which was known for its paintings, literature, and music. Romanticism rejected the idea that reason and science were the ultimate forms of knowledge, because reason and science weren’t leading to greater moral and spiritual progress as was promised. Romantic thinkers also rejected that the universe and human beings were merely physical machines; instead, they focused on the inner life of passions, emotions, and desires and emphasized individual creativity and spirituality. Romantics understood these things as the non-rational aspects of human life that should be indulged. They redefined creativity as breaking away from established rules and traditions of the past and felt that through individual creativity you could create spiritual meaning in your life.

Part 11: Kierkegaard and Schleiermacher

Søren Kierkegaard arose during the Romantic era as an influential thinker and a prominent critic of reason. According to Kierkegaard, philosophers of the past tried to find meaning “out there” using reason, but they were looking in the wrong places. Kierkegaard said that true meaning was found “in here,” on the inside of each individual. Inside ourselves is where we find meaning to our lives in our passions, desires, and choices. Ultimately, Kierkegaard said that meaning was subjective, and it was so personal that it could not be communicated to anyone else. According to Kierkegaard, “Life is not a problem to be solved, but a reality to be experienced.” Kierkegaard advocated the idea of taking a leap of faith, making a personal choice to create meaning for ourselves based on our passions. Friedrich Schleiermacher, the “father of liberal Christianity,” took Kierkegaard’s ideas and similarly applied them to Christianity. He said that the Bible didn’t have to be literally true; as long as it provides you meaning in life, then it’s true for you. Schleiermacher’s liberal theology reduced Christianity to a mere inward feeling or experience.

Part 12: Friedrich Nietzsche

Friedrich Nietzsche was the famous German philosopher who lived at the end of the 19th century and provocatively declared that “God is dead.” By this, he meant that the idea of God in Western society was no longer influential. In a way, Nietzsche espoused a philosophy very similar to that of Kierkegaard, that we should look internally for meaning, but instead of finding meaning in Christianity like Kierkegaard did, Nietzsche was an atheist who found meaning in the human “will to power.” Nietzsche said that the way to achieve one’s desires or will is through power and force, but this becomes difficult when human desires conflict, because humans must compete to see whose desires will win out. By exerting power to fulfill our desires in life and society, Nietzsche said that we could overcome the emptiness of life. According to Nietzsche, this was all that life was about, and this principle is seen all around us in nature. Nature is the highest reality since there is no higher, transcendent truth. Therefore, Nietzsche was a moral relativist, who taught that what is good is what helps you fulfill your desires, and morality is determined by whether or not you are in a position of power.

Part 13: Existentialism

In the aftermath of World War II, a new movement of atheistic philosophers arose out of France called the existentialists, featuring prominent thinkers like Jean-Paul Sartre. Existentialism proposed taking two steps toward finding ultimate meaning and truth. First, you have to have an existential crisis where you realize that there is no meaning to life. This experience can be overwhelming and crushing when you consider that life is absurd and there are no ultimate answers out there. Sometimes fear of death, loneliness, or seeing arbitrariness in life could bring about this existential crisis that the existentialists said you should have. Second, you have to define yourself and create your own meaning to life through the free choices you make. “We are our choices,” said Jean-Paul Sartre. You are true to yourself and can discover your authentic self through this process of defining yourself through your free choices. Sartre affirmed that “Man is nothing else but what he makes of himself.” In existentialism, existence precedes essence.

Part 14: Structuralism and Postmodernism

Structuralism was a movement that started in anthropology and then moved into the field of philosophy. Structuralists opposed existentialism because they thought it overestimated the free will that human beings actually have. Structuralists said that people’s feelings and choices aren’t actually free because they’ve been programmed by their culture. The thought patterns, language, and concepts of our culture influence us to such a degree that it is impossible to break free of them. So, instead of you defining yourself, structuralism said that your culture is what defines you and gives you meaning. Out of structuralism grew postmodernism with thinkers like Rorty, Foucault, and Derrida. They said that truth is created at the group level and is relative to a culture and its worldview. Therefore, you are defined by the viewpoint of the cultural groups of which you’re a part – race, ethnicity, gender, sexual identity, income, etc. According to postmodernism, you don’t define meaning for yourself; being a part of your group creates meaning for you, and you can’t break free of how your group has caused you to think. Postmodernists said that there were no objective truths and that claiming to know truth objectively is just a way to gain power over other groups.

Part 15: Critics of Postmodernism

Many academic philosophers did not accept the philosophy that postmodernism offered. Some critics argue that we should return to a premodern way of thinking, while others advocate for a return to philosophies reminiscent of modernism. Recently, while logical positivism has mostly died out within academic philosophy, there has been a resurgence of premodernism. Contemporary premodern thinkers include philosophers like Alasdair MacIntyre, Richard Swinburne, John Hare, Robert Adams, Robert Audi, Alvin Plantinga, Peter Kreeft, Robert Koons, and many others. Another prominent critic of postmodernism is Jürgen Habermas, who leans toward Enlightenment modernism rather than premodern thinking. He thinks the Enlightenment needs to be complemented rather than discarded. Finally, one other notable critic of modernism and postmodernism was Michael Polanyi. He said that the roots of the problem could be found with those who attempted to separate faith and reason, which led to extremes of using only reason or only faith. Polanyi forged a middle path between the two extremes of modernism and postmodernism. He argued that all of our types of knowledge work the same way: all of them involve an element of faith because we cannot know anything with absolute certainty, but they still must be verified using good reasons and evidence. He said that while complete objectivity is not possible as modernism claimed, that does not imply that all knowledge is subjective, as postmodernism claimed.

Convincing Proof