Monday, October 13, 2003

Course on Intro to Philosophy

This course introduces students to key approaches, ideas, inquiries and issues of Philosophy in the context of their significance for/challenge to the project of thinking, living and serving Christ and community as informed, educated Christians. Through structured participative approaches, it will emphasise: (1) primary questions/foci/issues; (2) terms, tools and techniques used to address such issues with due regard for precision, clarity and cogency; and, (3) the use of the principle of comparative difficulties to critically reflect on pivotal elements, issues and impacts of the systems put forward by select ancient, medieval and modern/postmodern philosophers, in response to these questions. Through these explorations, the interaction of philosophy and Christian faith across time will also be explored, to discover whether biblically rooted, philosophically informed, prophetic intellectual and cultural leadership (e.g. as sketched in Acts 17:16 – 33) is possible and/or desirable. The participants will then use their findings to discuss the relevance and applicability of philosophical questions and approaches to current challenges faced by the Caribbean.


JTS: Intro to Phil
Session 1: Briefing Note
GEM 03:10:08

OVERVIEW: What is Philosophy?

INTRODUCTION: First, we need to clarify: what, why and how philosophy? Is it important and relevant to us in our situations? What are possible challenges to the project of living as Christian disciples, and how should we respond?

1. What? Why? How?

The Colliers Encyclopedia 1998 Dictionary provides a helpful summary, with which we can begin – but note that in philosophy, EVERYTHING, including the below, is open to debate:

phi•los•o•phy phi•los•o•phies [abbr.: ]phil.philos.
a.Love and pursuit of wisdom by intellectual
means and moral self-discipline.
b.The investigation of causes and laws
underlying reality.
c.A system of philosophical inquiry or
2.Inquiry into the nature of things based on logical
reasoning rather than empirical methods.
3.The critique and analysis of fundamental beliefs as
they come to be conceptualized and formulated . . .

Unpacking: philosophy = philo + sophia, loving wisdom (by looking beneath the surface of things).

Thus, one would ask, investigate through reasoned inquiry -- and try to live by “sensible” answers to -- hard but important questions about us, our world and “ultimate reality.” Since there are usually competing answers to such questions, and none of them will be without difficulties, then we would compare the difficulties and decide which alternative is “best.”

Over time, those who have investigated in this way in the Western Tradition have found it helpful to view philosophy as comprising several sub-disciplines:

 Metaphysics: critical analysis of worldviews, the pictures/models of the world that we all (but especially philosophers, theologians and scientists) build up.

 Epistemology: Is knowledge possible? How can we tell knowledge from belief, opinion or imagination? What are our rights and duties concerning knowledge?

 Logic: How to distinguish good reasoning from bad. This is the key analytical tool of philosophy.

 Ethics: critical analysis of right/wrong, duty, rights, decisions and expectations. This is the part of our personal worldviews we are most aware of.

 Aesthetics: Critical analysis of beauty. Is there more than just “the eye of the beholder” at work? Why did early philosophers come to view the highest good as comprising justice, truth and beauty?

 Philosophy of “X”: Extensions to specific areas of interest, such as Science, Education, Religion, Politics or Mathematics.
2. Worldview Analysis

The rest of philosophy unfolds from critical analysis of worldviews, so we need to clarify:

“In its simplest terms, a worldview is a set of beliefs about the important issues in life.” [Nash, 1992. NB: Authorities are used as “expert witnesses” that allow us to avoid going back to first principles every time we discuss philosophically. They are no better than their underlying facts, assumptions and reasoning!]

Worldview analysis therefore asks:

 What is ultimately real? [Metaphysics]
 How do/can we know and test/justify this? [Logic & Epistemology]
 How, then, should we live? [Ethics & Aesthetics]
 Often: what’s right/wrong and what should we do?

3. Philosophy, Science & Religion

Plainly, these have overlapping concerns; and so there has often been much contention due to divergent ways of approaching the major worldview analysis questions.

Indeed, it is a common perspective that philosophy arose as a challenge to religion and its ghostly superstitions, and has long since discredited it. In turn, Science emerged from philosophy as the natural world was studied, and in some minds, has completed the process, having discredited philosophy, especially metaphysics! However, these are now minority opinions, given the re-emergence of the worldview concept as central to understanding diversity in a pluralistic, relativistic, largely secularized age.

A brief comparison of the methods & issues could start with:

 Philosophy: asks and tries to answer key questions, through dialogue constrained by logic. Often, its practitioners challenge the validity of inferences from experiment and observation, as well as the concept that there is a “God’ who is there and is not silent.

 Science: Focuses on the natural (and human) world & advances testable/falsifiable models/theories as provisional knowledge that seeks to describe, explain, predict and control/influence. Often, practitioners are only vaguely aware of the inherently provisional nature of scientific knowledge claims, and are prone to dismiss as “worthless” anything that is not open to experimental tests or at least physical observation.

 Religion: Traditions and associated worldviews and lifestyles/cultures that centre on God (or a God-substitute), often in light of claimed “revelations” from God (or the substitute). Adherents as a rule seek to shape how they – and the wider community – live, in light of what they think God (or the substitute) wants.

Unfortunately, the resulting tensions are too often shaped more by heat than by light.

4. Testing Worldviews

Hasker, 1983, outlines that critical analysis of worldviews clusters around several key themes:

1. Factual adequacy: does a worldview account for and agree with the relevant “known facts”? Are there gaps, and/or contradictions to “facts”? Are “facts” so?

2. Logical Coherence: do the claims within a worldview (and their implications) support or deny one another? If two such claims/implications contradict, at most one can be true. (Both may be false, or may refer to empty sets and so are vacuous.) Sometimes, minor surgery is enough to correct this problem. Sometimes, major work is required. In some cases, the case is hopeless.

3. Explanatory Power: Worldviews should UNIFY the facts/entities of reality, showing how they relate, interact and/or work together. This allows us to understand, predict and influence/shape the world. (NB: In most cases, such world models are under-determined by the evidence.)

5. Presuppositions and Bias

It is especially important in such testing to focus on core assumptions (“presuppositions”), as they control other aspects of the worldview. Also, such assumptions are most powerful when they are implicit, so it is important to express them in words. They will always be present, as finite humans cannot prove everything, so we inevitably start with some things that are assumed, and relative to which we try to prove other things.

Such core assumptions typically focus on beliefs about God, man, the world, methods of inquiry, and virtues, duties and rights.

But equally, as Vox Day [?] an Internet columnist has observed, a psychology is a worldview’s characteristic way of dealing with reality. So, world-VIEWS strongly shape how we see the world, i.e. the core assumptions of a worldview can potentially warp our thinking and living. (In the extreme cases, deceptions and delusional fantasies or even outright madness lie down that road. It is a hallmark of such, that they are disintegrative and destructive in their effects on individuals and communities.)

Similarly, as Nash observes “A number of Christian writers have attempted to raw attention to the fact that the kinds of . . . thinking we find in science, philosophy and even theology are often strongly affected by nontheoretical considerations . . . it would be foolish to pretend that human beings always handle such matters impersonally and objectively, without reference to considerations rooted in their psychological makeup.” [1992, pp. 23 – 24.]

CONCLUSIONS: We have briefly seen how Philosophy is about asking hard questions about important issues, then trying to coherently answer and live by the answers. Consequently, the heart of philosophy is worldview analysis, in turn requiring epistemological and logical tools shaped by ethical concerns. Characteristic applications of such analysis lie in justice, truth and beauty in our lives, communities and world.

References & Readings
Hasker, William. Metaphysics. IVP 1983. Ch. 1

Nash, Ronald. Worldviews in Conflict. Zondervan, 1992. Ch. 1

Plato. The Cave. In The Republic. Try:

Stanford online Enc. of Phil:

An online Intro to Phil:

Suber’s guide to Phil on the Internet: