Ask a Philosopher: What Does It Mean To Renew Philosophy?

Ask a Philosopher:  I often get questions in emails about my blog or books.  I have been replying to these on email but decided I might also start posting answers as part of a series “ask a philosopher.”  Who wouldn’t want to ask a philosopher something?

Question: What does it mean to renew philosophy?

Reply: Renewal philosophy is the study of how to achieve knowledge of the answers to the basic questions philosophy has always asked.  In the history of philosophy attempts to give a theory of knowledge face challenges and result in the antinomy of skepticism and fideism (see: The Natural Moral Law).  The current stage of history is sometimes called post-modernism to denote that it comes after the failure of modernity in its bold claims to knowledge through philosophical naturalism and radical empiricism attached to the technological achievements of science.  This skeptical age of post-modernism is asking for a renewed attempt to find knowledge as a ground for public discourse and personal choice.

Skepticism, when consistently lived out, leads to nihilism.  Skepticism is supported by false antinomies that result in an impasse.  These are produced by uncritically held but shared presuppositions.  Examples of these are the tensions between hedonism/utilitarianism and legalism/deontology in ethics; or literalism/empiricism and allegoricalism/rationalism in interpretive theory; or naturalism and supernaturalism in metaphysics.  By shining the light on these presuppositions we can begin the process of examining them for meaning.

Skepticism, and its attendant nihilism, empties concepts of meaning.  This lack of meaning extends throughout a person’s worldview and a culture’s shared life.  When concepts are emptied of meaning then thought is not possible.  When thought is not possible there is a move made to non-cognitivism.

This renewal comes through application of the philosophical dictum: know thyself.  Specifically, know your basic beliefs.  Know how you have answered the basic questions of life and how these answers shape what you think and do.  This is true at the individual level, and this is true at the cultural level.

Knowing oneself involves application of another philosophical dictum: the unexamined life is not worth living.  This teaches us that to be wise we must seek wisdom.  Without seeking we will not be wise; we will not know the truth or ourselves.  If we are leading the examined life then we will know our basic beliefs.  If we are seeking wisdom then we will critically examine these beliefs for meaning and truth.  Individuals can lead the examined life, and cultures can lead the examined life.

The history of philosophy involves an attempt to answer basic questions that support all other questions (see: Retrieval Philosophy). For instance: 1) how do I know?; 2) what is real?; 3) what ought I to do?  The answers given to these questions shape what other questions are asked, and answered, and give rise to a worldview.  A worldview is used to interpret, or give meaning to, the experiences of life.  It shapes an individual and it shapes a culture.

Renewal philosophy attempts to: 1) study how these basic questions have been answered in the past and by all of the human philosophies/cultures that have come to expression in history; 2) study the dynamics of these answers in history as they work through a process of challenging each other and responding to each other; 3) apply these insights to the present age of skepticism as the world comes together in a new way in the pursuit of knowledge and shared human good.

If knowledge is not possible then it is futile to seek knowledge.  If we cannot know the answers to the basic questions outlined above then we cannot know the answers to questions built on these basic questions.  The work of philosophy, to know thyself, to lead the examined life, assumes that knowledge is possible.  It assumes that some things are clear because the denial of this is existentially and logically impossible (see: Philosophical Foundation).

To deny what is clear to reason about what is good is without excuse.  To seek what is clear will result in knowing what is clear.  The failure to know what is clear is culpable ignorance and results in the failure to do what is good.  By studying what is clear renewal philosophy also studies the reality of the problem of evil and the need for restoration from failing to seek wisdom.  This reality permeates human history and ours is a unique time of studying the need for restoration and how this is accomplished.

Renewal philosophy seeks to reinvigorate the study of the basic questions philosophy asks and to inspire a more in-depth understanding of how these questions shape all of human life, culture, and history.  Philosophy done in this way will result in a life full of meaning.  This is a renewal of philosophy, but also a renewal of our own lives.

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Ask a Philosopher: Why Study Philosophy?

Ask a Philosopher:  I often get questions in emails about my blog or books.  I have been replying to these on email but decided I might also start posting answers as part of a series “ask a philosopher.”  Who wouldn’t want to ask a philosopher something?

Question: Why Study Philosophy?

Reply:  Part of answering this question is knowing what is meant by “philosophy.”  Sometimes this means something like learning the history of ideas, or learning how to play complicated mind games.  Here I mean something different and I cover that in a video you can watch at this link.  This does not necessarily translate into studying philosophy at a university to earn a degree.  I will address this in another post.

Philosophy in the sense I am studying it begins with an attitude of the love of wisdom.  This means it affirms that wisdom is attainable in contrast to what can be called “academic skepticism.”  The Academy itself began in contrast to skepticism.  Skepticism is the claim that no knowledge is possible.  Instead, the professional teachers, called the Sophists, taught their students how to argue well for whatever personal conclusions they held.  These might be for personal gain or for some professional office.  Either way, it was taken for granted that knowledge was not possible and there were only personal opinions of varying complexity.  If knowledge is not possible then there is no rational justification to study (it might be a personal hobby at most).

So step 1 in answering this question is that we study philosophy because we love wisdom and we believe wisdom is attainable in contrast to skepticism.  Wisdom is both knowing what is good and knowing how to achieve what is good in life.  Philosophy addresses questions like “what is good” and teaches the tools to critically analyze various answers for meaning.  This is similar to what Plato did in founding the Academy, and can be called “classical philosophy,” but is dissimilar to what is done in much of “academic philosophy” today which looks more like academic skepticism.

In my book “Reason and Faith at Early Princeton” I look at the origins of Princeton and compare them to the origins of the Academy and think about similarities in progression from initial goals into academic skepticism.  I consider the image of Cicero giving a lecture with the ruins of the Academy as a backdrop.  There are common patterns that help explain this change.  These include a lapse into false dichotomies including empiricism vs rationalism, hedonism vs virtue/deontology, and monism vs dualism.  These are used by skeptics to argue that knowledge is not possible.

Why study philosophy?  Because you love wisdom.

Posted in Empiricism, Knowledge, Plato, Reason, Skepticism, The Good | Leave a comment

Some Things Are Clear

In my 2008 book “The Clarity of God’s Existence” I wrote about the principle of clarity.  In that work the principle of clarity states that if the failure to know God (unbelief) is without excuse, then it must be clear that God exists.  I set the context for this by considering the failed attempts of the Enlightenment and the failed attempts of the post-Enlightenment.  The skepticism of Hume and Kant and a low view of reason seem to have won the day.

Preface, “The Clarity of God’s Existence”

Philosophically, the Enlightenment began when Descartes made a search for clear and distinct ideas to serve as a foundation for knowledge. Currently, both secular and religious thinkers agree that the Enlightenment program failed. For instance, Alvin Plantinga denies that attempts to find such a foundation can succeed, and Kelly James Clark asserts that the Enlightenment had an overly stringent conception of rationality that should be abandoned for intuitive and common sense religious belief.  Similarly, Graham Oppy argues that while there are no successful proofs for a divine being, there are also no successful proofs against the existence of a divine being.  The only irrational position, according to Oppy, is to maintain that reason can prove anything about God’s existence one way or the other.  Even a recent edited volume which claims to be a defense of natural theology against the skepticism of David Hume concedes that there is no argument from natural theology that proves the existence of God such that it is irrational to maintain the opposite conclusion.  The book goes so far as to maintain that it is unlikely that any metaphysical claim can be proven in this manner.  The skepticism of Hume seems to have prevailed even in a book claiming to defend against Hume.

So what happened to the search for clear and distinct ideas on which to build a foundation for knowledge? It seems to have been abandoned in a two-fold process: first, inadequate candidates for clear and distinct ideas were used as foundations, and second these were shown to be insufficient by philosophers such as Hume and Kant. The important challenge from Hume and Kant is not their particular arguments against specific religious beliefs, such as miracles or scripture or the resurrection of the dead, but their critique of reason. It is the denial of the human ability to use reason to know about reality that is devastating and pervasive. As noted above, even those who defend religious beliefs against Hume have swallowed this pill of skepticism. The acceptance of the critique of reason is not incidental—the challenge from Hume and Kant is incisive and devastating to previous attempts to attain certainty about reality.

If nothing is clear, what are the implications? Specifically, if nothing is clear about basic features of reality, such as what has existed from eternity, can humans be held responsible or accountable for believing anything? There is a relationship between responsibility and clarity such that if a person is responsible to believe something, it must be clear, and if it is not clear then there can be no responsibility for belief. Or, if one wishes to admit of degrees of responsibility and clarity, then it can be affirmed that there is a relationship between the degree to which something is clear and the degree to which a person is responsible for belief. This means that the highest level of responsibility, such as everlasting punishment in hell, requires the highest level of clarity.

For something to be clear in this sense is for it to be based on clear distinctions, such as between a and non-a, or being and non-being. The denial of clarity involves the denial that there are clear distinctions—the opposite of what is clear is impossible because it denies the very distinction necessary for intelligibility. In such a case there would be no excuse for believing the opposite; one would be responsible for believing what is clear. Realizing that not everything is clear in this way, Enlightenment thinkers sought for a foundation of clarity. If the foundation is not clear then nothing else will be clear; alternative structures for belief such as coherentism still require that there are clear principles to guide belief (such as the law of non-contradiction). For Christianity the most basic belief on which the rest of the Christian worldview is founded is the existence of God. Furthermore, Christianity maintains that the failure to believe in God is inexcusable (the highest level of responsibility).

The following is not a proof for the existence of God. It is one step removed from that. The following is an examination of why it is important for Christianity to demonstrate the clarity of God’s existence. This will include needing to wade through numerous attempts by Christians to avoid the need for clarity, and insufficient alternatives to clarity such as plausibility, probability, warrant, or intuition and common sense. It will also require focusing as sharply as possible on the challenge to reason from Hume and Kant, and how previous theistic arguments have failed. While the topic of God’s existence always gets significant attention in philosophical literature, the need for clarity to establish inexcusability is conspicuously absent.

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Dialogue: Intuition

What is intuition and how does it relate to reason?  I talk about reason and common ground in my talk here.

In the comments there is a discussion about how to define reason and distinguish it from intuition.  Are the laws of thought just another form of intuition?

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Ask a Philosopher: Gnosticism

Ask a Philosopher:  I often get questions in emails about my blog or books.  I have been replying to these on email but decided I might also start posting answers as part of a series “ask a philosopher.”  Who wouldn’t want to ask a philosopher something?

Question: Dr. Anderson, you mentioned examples of Gnosticism in popular culture.  Isn’t Gnosticism the teaching that there is secret knowledge?  How does that line up with the examples of dualism or hierarchies of spiritual beings you gave?

Reply: Gnosticism can be defined in three ways.  One is epistemological and that seems to be the one you are thinking of.  This teaches that the knowledge needed to actually understand reality is hard to get and only given to a few through secret teaching.  Knowledge is not clear and not available to all in general revelation.

Another is metaphysical.  So, for instance, the Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy (2nd ed) says Gnosticism is “a dualistic religious and philosophical movement in the early centuries of the Christian church. . . They taught that matter was evil, the result of cosmic disruption in which an evil archon (often associated with the god of the Old Testament, Yahweh) rebelled against the heavenly pleroma (the complete spiritual world).  In the process divine sparks were unleashed from the pleroma and lodged in material human bodies.  Jesus was a high-ranking archon (Logos) sent to restore those souls with divine sparks to the pleroma by imparting esoteric knowledge (gnosis) to them.”  It is worth noting that in this view God is the one who fell, and the other heavenly beings (demons?) did not.

So this gives standard dualistic framework: matter is evil and spirit is good; there is a hierarchy of spiritual beings some working for humans others against humans; salvation involves imparting secret knowledge to humans.  The God of the Old Testament is only one of many spiritual beings (and he is not the highest power), he rebelled and did wrong, he made the material world which is evil or imperfect, and one must be saved from this world.

The third way to define it is ethically.  Because of its epistemology and metaphysics it gives a way of life or view of what is good and how to achieve it.  This is some form of ascending the spiritual ladder to more pure spirit or a higher form.  This is connected to how it answers the problem of evil.  Matter is evil and spirit is good.  Sin is due to a good spirit being stuck in an evil body.  Salvation involves climbing to a higher spiritual realm.  Humans have contact with these lesser spiritual beings who can be guides and give direction but God is distant and unknowable.  One can see the Greek dualist influences here from both Plato and Aristotle.  It would be an informative exercise to look and see how influential this is in pop culture, and how often Christianity is presented as teaching something like this rather than the historic Christian faith.

For instance, the Cambridge Dictionary says “Gnosticism profoundly influenced the early church, causing it to define its scriptural canon and to develop a set of creeds.”  The Apostles’ Creed rejects the Gnostic view of Jesus.  The Christian canon includes the Old Testament and affirms a unity between the two testaments.  Genesis teaches that God made the world and it was very good (matter is not evil).  Salvation is not an imparting of secret knowledge, but a regeneration and restoration from the condition of not seeking, not understanding, and not doing what is right.

Defining Gnosticism in these three ways helps answer your question and also helps us identify its influence and distinguish it from Christianity.


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Upcoming Event

I’m very excited to be attending the Evangelical Philosophical Society next week in Denver.  I will be moderating a session with Daniel Bonevac (professor of philosophy, UT Austin).  We will be discussing the role of natural theology in knowing God.  If you are in the area be sure to stop by!

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Dialogue: Necessary Conditions for Thought and Discussion

I continue to update the discussion below.  The initial topic is whether we can use reason to know God.  One step in that is knowing that we, finite minds, are not God.  We can infer what would be true of us had we existed from eternity in order to conclude that we have not existed from eternity.  But most of the discussion is on whether or not we can use reason to understand what is real.  One way to say this is that reason is ontological: it applies to being as well as thought.  If we do not share this as common ground we will be hindered from analyzing the initial argument.

What are the necessary conditions for thought and discussion?  Are there laws of thought?  Is there common ground for discussion?  Many of you have been asking me about my discussion with Spencer Hawkins on how to approach an argument.  Below is the public dialogue I had in the comment section of this youtube video.  The video itself is about unity among Christians and the role of general revelation.

In this discussion you can see the progress from the subject “what is eternal,” to his claiming that ‘a’ is ‘a’ is fallible while still thinking he needs an answer that would assume the distinction between ‘a’ and ‘non-a.’  He raises many side questions to try to divert attention from the original question but these are listed so that they can be dealt with one at a time.  The original question is the standard one for philosophical skeptics: can we know anything outside of our epistemic horizon, or our experience?  He initially wants to ask this about eternal being but in order to understand how epistemic horizons work we must first ask in what way they apply to us.  Ultimately, the philosophical skeptic cannot even acknowledge that ‘a’ is ‘a’ is not fallible and yet attempts to affirm that there is an excuse for failing to know if anything is clear.  Without ‘a’ is ‘a’ in place we cannot distinguish between self and non-self, God and non-God, eternal and non-eternal, being and non-being, and so are unable to answer why an eternal mind would have infinite knowledge.  There is no “reason” to continue; in fact, we have an rational obligation to avoid foolish arguments.

Spencer Hawkins

1:08:35 Gangadean’s argument that the human soul is not eternal is unsound: (1) I have one thought after another. (2) If (1) and my soul were eternal, then I would be eternal in time. (3) If I were eternal in time, then I would be all knowing. (4) I am not all knowing. (5) So, I am not eternal in time. I think (3) is wrong: it’s possible for a thinking soul to exist for an eternity and never possess all knowledge. For instance, if a person didn’t care about a particular subject, they would ignore or never seek out certain facts. So they could exist for an eternity and only know a finite number true propositions. Or an eternal person could lose knowledge as they gain it — they could forget or remember incorrectly. Since knowledge entails belief, if a person loses a belief they once had, then they no longer have it as a bit of knowledge. All of this seem possible, so (3) is not certain; thus, Gangadean’s conclusion that the soul is not eternal is not “clear to reason”. It seems to me the only way (3) is true is if we assume two things: a) that the soul’s memory is infallible, and b) that the eternal person is motivated to seek out true propositions in absolutely every domain (even the most boring and irrelevant). But, of course, neither are entailed by simply “existing eternally”. Gangadean seems to be merely smuggling those assumptions in without justification.

Owen Anderson

I wonder if anything at all is entailed by “eternally existing’? For instance, is what is eternal also the highest power?

Spencer Hawkins

(1), (2), (3) and (4) pretty clearly refer to the person reading or thinking about the premises. So what is implied is not a person with an infallible memory or one who is motivated to seek all true propositions in absolutely every domain of inquiry. Also, Gangadean seems to be unjustly assuming that no facts exist beyond his epistemic horizon. If his soul were eternal in time, it could still be the case that a set of undiscoverable facts exist, given his epistemic limitations. Donald Rumsfeld famously called such facts “unknown unknowns”. Ironically, the only way Gangadean could know that no “unknown unknown” facts exist is if he was all knowing!

Owen Anderson

@Spencer Hawkins That raises a few different issues: 1. Can we know anything outside of our experience? 2. What is implied by the “I” in the premises and then my initial question: 3. Can anything be entailed from “eternal.” Can we know that “a” is “a” beyond our experience?

Spencer Hawkins

​@Owen Anderson the question isn’t so much whether we can know “anything” outside of our experience, it’s whether we would, if we had no temporal beginning or end, know everything. Given our human epistemic limitations, flawed memory, and erratic motivation to seek absolutely every domain of fact, it seems to me (3) is false. It seems that human persons is implied by the “I” in the premises. (4) — “I am not all knowing” — is about the reader of the argument. Gangadean (or anyone who agrees with the argument) has the burden to show why (3) is true. Are you suggesting that from the concept of “eternal being” we can logically deduce “all knowing”? Can you prove it?

Owen Anderson

@Spencer Hawkins We could add those as more issues, like:

4. Does memory lapse affect my ability to know if I am eternal?

5. Do I need to know everything before I can know anything?

But before we could know if we can identify the temporal, changeable “I” with what is “eternal” and assess this argument, we would have to address your claim about knowing what is outside of our experience. If we can’t know that “a” is “a” outside of our experience, then we won’t make progress in assessing the argument for soundness. Can we know that “a” is “a” outside of our experience?

Spencer Hawkins

​@Owen Anderson you’re brining up questions that shift away from (3). We’re not asking whether memory lapse affects one’s ability to know if they are eternal, we’re asking a broader question, whether memory lapse affects one’s ability to know everything.

Here are the objections I originally had suggested:

a. Human beings lack an interest or motivation to seek true propositions in absolutely every domain. (For the sake of argument let’s drop the worry about epistemic horizons and assume that we don’t have epistemic limitations and can know things beyond our experience — the objection still holds.) So, even if you or I existed eternally in time, we could still lack some knowledge; thus, (3) is false.

b. Human beings don’t have infallible memory, so even if you or I existed eternally in time, we would never reach a point of possessing all knowledge. Thus, (3) is false.

If you affirm Gangadean’s argument and think (3) is true, what’s your justification? Do you have a deductive proof that “eternal being” logically entails “is all knowing”?

Owen Anderson

​@Spencer Hawkins Far from shifting away, I’m listing your questions so we can make sure we address each of them. Yes premise 3 is true and the argument is sound. We are working through questions you have about that starting with #1 above in the list. You aren’t sure if you can know anything outside of your epistemic horizons. So I’ve asked you if you can know that “a” is “a” outside of your experience? I’ve noted your broader question, but we can’t assess the soundness of the argument together if you don’t know that “a” is “a” outside of your experience.

Premise 3 is true if the finite and temporal self (the reader or audience, as you say) cannot also be eternal being. If the finite self has other limitations, like not seeking or incorrigible memory lapse, this only strengthens the premise. The structure of the argument is that “a” is “a”, and “a” is not “non-a.” Thus, the importance of “a” is “a.”

It is good that you focused in on this premise in a talk to Christians about the unity of the faith. This premise is about whether or not we can know that we are not God. Christians agree, are united, that the self is not God. It is affirming that, given the nature of God and the nature of the self, we can indeed know that the self is not God. To say that we cannot know if “a” is “a” outside of our experience is no excuse for failing to know God, and the difference between God and the self.

Spencer Hawkins

​@Owen Anderson You’ve merely asserted that (3) is true and the argument is sound. All you’ve done is respond with questions back at me, instead of actually defending the truth of (3). In fact, it seems you’ve shifted to a different argument, summarized as something like the following:

(i) Only God (and being infinite in power, knowledge, and goodness) is eternal.

(ii) I am not God.

(iii) Therefore, I am not eternal.

The question now seems to be, what is your proof for (i)? Can you show that the opposite of (i) is logically impossible? That is, how is it a logical contradiction to say that the eternal being only knows a finite number of true propositions, or that the eternal being’s power is limited in certain ways, or that the eternal being’s goodness is limited, perhaps by bouts of malevolence, say, when angels have sex with humans (Genesis 6:1-4)? Or simply, that “atheism is true”? How are any of those conceivable states of affairs like a “married bachelor”? If you can’t establish the logical impossibility of the opposite of (i), then it seems (i) and (iii) are not “clear to reason” according to your own standard.

Remember, I’m interested in hearing your deductive proof (or as Kelly calls it, “strong justification”) for (3), “If I were eternal in time, then I would be all knowing”, or (i), “Only God (and being infinite in power, knowledge, and goodness) is eternal” and (ii) “I am not God.” The burden of proof is on you.

You said, “[(3)] is true if the finite and temporal self (the reader or audience, as you say) cannot also be eternal being.” All this says is that if Gangadean’s conclusion is true (“I am not eternal in time”), then (3) is true. But that’s question begging and does not strongly justify Gangadean’s conclusion. You must first demonstrate the truth of (3) to show that the conclusion of the argument follows by logical necessity. The same is true with (i) and (ii) as stated above: you cannot merely assume that “the finite and temporal self cannot also be eternal being” to prove that “I am not eternal.”

It seems all of your work is still ahead of you.

Owen Anderson

@Spencer Hawkins I’m neither shifting away from your questions nor begging the question. I’m taking the time to list your questions and I’m affirming that I do think the argument is sound to clarify my own position.

You keep adding new questions that we can add to the list:

6. Can the perfect being be imperfect?

7. Does God show malice in Genesis?

8. In Genesis 6 did angels have sex with humans?

9. What would a mind know after having existed from eternity?

10. Can we cross an infinite past to get to the present?

I’m still focusing on your first question about epistemic horizons. That’s the opposite of shifting questions. Let’s stay on that one, don’t shift away or add more. If you aren’t able to know anything outside of your experience then you can’t know if “a” is “a”, or if “eternal” is “eternal,” and we can’t evaluate the argument.

Its good to bring up the married bachelors as an example because I think it is similar to what we are facing here in our discussion. Someone could say “I can conceive of a married bachelor” So then we’d need to clarify what each word means. So once we’ve done that and say “bachelor means unmarried man” then “married unmarried man” is a contradiction someone could still say “but why is that a problem, maybe ‘a’ can be ‘non-a’,” or “who are you to say ‘a’ cannot be ‘non-a’?” Or they might ask “why does bachelor have to mean that?”, just like asking “why does eternal have to mean that?”

So we don’t make subjective “conceivability” the standard, and we clarify ahead of time if the persons in the discussion are committed to ‘a’ is ‘a.’ You’ve asked me many questions. I’ve only asked you that one question to help answer your own question about epistemic horizons. Are you going to answer?

Like clarifying “bachelor,” once we do this with “eternal” the contradiction is there, but it was there the whole time. If someone says “I don’t see how a married bachelor is a contradiction, the burden is on you, all your work is ahead of you,” or they say “I don’t see why eternal means not temporal, the burden is on you, all your work is ahead of you,” they haven’t understood the words being used.

Spencer Hawkins

@Owen Anderson I don’t see why you don’t just get straight to the point. If you had a proof for (3), why wouldn’t you just offer it? Same with (i) and (ii)? Or are you under the impression that philosophical proofs only come by way of Socratic dialogue? That is, are you of the belief that formal proofs aren’t meant to be shown by an individual with her pen and paper (or computer and keyboard), but through a back and forth discussion, where you help draw out the deductive implications of an interlocutor’s questions? Or moreover, do you think your interlocutor must “affirm” each and every step of the proof for you to reach your professed conclusion? If so, I simply disagree. If you have a deductive proof, you don’t need me or anyone else in the room for you to meet your burden of proof.

For instance, you could simply define your terms, state how you will evaluate the argument, state your premises, and prove them.

To answer your question, I do, in a sense, “affirm” or “know” that ‘a is a’ beyond my own experience, but not in the way that you’re assuming. I don’t claim to be deductively certain when I claim to “affirm” or “know” the meaning of terms, the consistency that the world takes, and so on. I think human knowledge is fallible and the quest for a foundationalist (internalist) basis in incorrigible or infallible certainty is a lost cause. But let’s not lose sight of Gangadean’s proof that you think is sound: the question with (3) isn’t if we can know (given your definition of knowledge) some things beyond our experience, but whether, if you or I were eternal in time, would we know everything there is to know? You affirm (3). Why?

Owen Anderson

@Spencer Hawkins I don’t think we need to engage in dialogue in all cases, and there are times when we can simply state an argument.  Nor have I missed your point about whether epistemic horizons apply to an eternal being. To address that question we need to first back up and figure out what are epistemic horizons and this includes finding out how they affect us. You were concerned in your first post about whether assumptions had been smuggled in, so we need to see if you are doing the same. Your assumptions have kept you from being able to assess what is going on in the argument and then in our discussion.

These specific questions (can an eternal mind forget, be subject to decay) are ones I also had and ones my students regularly ask me. I have no problem answering them. But if one of the persons involved isn’t sure that ‘a’ is ‘a,’ then they won’t be able to go to that next step. They wouldn’t be able to affirm if a word is a word, what they are thinking is what they are thinking, their question is a question, a mind is a mind, eternal is eternal, a reply is a reply, or an argument is an argument.

Additionally, you quoted from someone who regularly slanders me and others I know. This affects whether the question is one in good faith to pursue and answer together.

On your end, I can imagine it would be difficult to understand why someone would think that an eternal being would have infinite knowledge given your fallibilism and empiricism. Its like saying: “I can’t believe in God because all is fallible, perhaps God is not God, eternal is not eternal, true is not true.” That would be a very confusing condition. If you make progress in understanding why ‘a’ is ‘a’ get back in touch with me so that we can discuss why an eternal mind would have infinite knowledge. Until then there is no “reason” to continue the discussion.

I know that many others are reading this and have been in contact with me on email with questions. Thank you! This has been a useful discussion to highlight when questioning becomes incoherent. It has drawn lots of attention to the video and I’m thankful for that. I can use this dialogue as a resource for others to help to illustrate what happens to a discussion when someone demands an answer but cannot even affirm that an answer is an answer due to their prior commitment to fallibilism.  There are different levels of fallibilism with different applications and this seems to be one that affirms “all is fallible.”  I’ll post it at my blog here:

In terms of epistemological assumptions, this has been similar to how Pontius Pilate questioned Jesus in John 18. When he asks Jesus “what is truth?” the discussion ends. What kind of answer does he want? A true answer? He doesn’t know what that is and wouldn’t recognize it. You can imagine Pontius Pilate thinking “I really stumped Jesus, he couldn’t reply,” while also not even knowing what truth is!

Many have told me they are surprised to see that a skeptic will go so far as to think ‘a’ is ‘a’ is fallible. We can watch and see if a skeptic can also have integrity with that profession. What would it look like to be consistent with saying each word in my sentence or question does not mean what it means? If you would like to discuss this with me, or why an eternal mind would have infinite knowledge and not be subject to memory loss or decay, follow my blog as I will update it.

Spencer Hawkins

@Owen Anderson I’m happy to hear that you acknowledge your burden of proof given your claims, however we are still without a proof for the original argument. If objections about a temporal eternal soul having a memory lapse and incomplete knowledge are common from your students, and if you don’t have a problem answering, why not just give an answer? Instead, you seem to be trying to shift a burden onto me to avoid shouldering your own — you’re shifting the focus to assumptions that I may (or may not) be making, and claiming that those assumptions prevent me from being able to assess the argument and our discussion. That is, you’re asserting that your infallibalist, internalist, foundationalist view is a coherent epistemological view (and perhaps the only coherent epistemological view), and you’re demanding that I “affirm” whole parts of your philosophy, including your view of the level of epistemic justification that we have for the laws of thought and the consistency that the world takes at every level of reality, before you’re willing to shoulder your burden of proof. This seems not only fallacious but an attempt to rhetorically hijack the conversation to keep it under your complete philosophical control.

But it doesn’t have to be like that. For one thing, I’m able to entertain philosophical ideas. I can “stand in your shoes” and attempt to evaluate the argument from your philosophical perspective, presuppositions and all. I’m not dogmatically committed to my view such that I’m unable to evaluate another philosopher’s arguments. And even if I was a hopelessly lost intellectual, you could still simply demonstrate the logical impossibility of the opposite of (3) and (1). My feeling is that you don’t have a very good proof, so you’re stalling, or you’re going to have to shift to a different argument (and abandon Gangadean’s) in order to make sense of your claim, and you don’t want to do that publicly. But I’m all ears, prove me wrong.

Next, I’d hoped that you’d be more charitable to my view. First, I’m not a card-carrying empiricist. As I already said, I do, in a sense, “affirm” and “know” that ‘a is a’ beyond my own experience. E.g. I affirm that the sun remains the sun even after it has set. I just think self-evident truths like the law of identity are grounded (or justified) through something like intuition or common sense, which is something you’ve said is “insufficient” (CGE, p. xv). Or perhaps Kant was right that ‘a is a’ is a necessary precondition of intelligibility, so I have a sort of transcendental justification for the law of identity. How far that reaches into the depths of reality, I’m not logically certain (i.e. I can’t logically rule out how things exist at the quantum level, or if, say, the law of excluded middle is universally true, or if other systems of cognition beyond our kin don’t make use of the LEM. If you can, I’m all ears).

Second, you’ve made a mess of fallibilism. I think fallible is a predicate of people, not (always) propositions. So I’m prone to mistakes in judgement, I can believe false things, and I can think I have a justification when I don’t. But my acknowledgment that I could be wrong doesn’t imply or entail that I am wrong. You seem to be making this slide: if one “affirms” fallibalism in any way, then one can’t reliably recognize the difference between “word and non-word” or “argument and non-argument.” But that doesn’t follow. For one thing, there are many kinds of falliblism. You haven’t shown that I’m incapable of having a coherent conversation by being a fallibalist. In fact, your responses to my comments demonstrate that I am capable of carrying on a conversation! Also, fallibalism doesn’t entail complete skepticism (at least you haven’t shown anything like a good argument to that end). I think it’s a kind of black and white thinking on your part to assume that epistemology is either infallibalism of the internalist, foundationalist sort, or total skepticism. It’s unfortunate that this assumption is built into Gangadean’s entire philosophy.

You said, “you quoted from someone who regularly slanders me and others I know. This affects whether the question is one in good faith to pursue and answer together.” I only know the author of reasontodoubt dot blogspot as ‘J’, and nothing more. All I do is read his articles (which I’ve found to be very helpful), and I’m not aware of any slander against you or anyone else. All I’ve seen are pointed philosophical criticisms against Rational Presuppositionalism. I will point out, however, that my citing a source that you may not personally like doesn’t affect whether what he says is true or whether his criticisms of RP are accurate. I’m still interested in hearing your proof for (3) and (1), or (i) and (ii). Or ‘J’ suggests that you prove the following claim: “‘X is eternal’ entails ‘X is the highest power.'” All this go-around, and still no proof. As you said, we don’t need to engage in dialogue and there are times when we can simply state an argument.

@Owen Anderson you said, “skeptic will go so far as to think ‘a’ is ‘a’ is fallible. We can watch and see if a skeptic can also have integrity with that profession. What would it look like to be consistent with saying *each word in my sentence or question does not mean what it means*?” I’m not saying that, and I don’t believe that. Being a fallibilist about the justification for the universal (ontological) application of the laws of thought does not imply that I think each word in your question doesn’t mean what it means. You’re confusing belief that p with belief that ~p. That is, I believe ‘a is a’ is universal. But, I acknowledge that my justification or knowledge that ‘a is a’ given all levels of reality is outstripped by my ability to prove it given your standard of proof (i.e. epistemic, absolute certainty). And in saying so, you’re accusing me of believing that ‘a is ~a’, when I don’t believe that for a second. In other words, your standard of proof is too high. You’re feigning epistemic certainty for the laws of thought given all levels of reality when you haven’t shown it. And, while I make this pretty straight forward point, you’re accusing me of believing ‘a is ~a’ (and you’re filibustering to stall the convo based on this mistake). This seems to be the kind of sophistry that philosophers try to avoid.

Owen Anderson

@Spencer Hawkins I don’t agree with most of the claims you make in your post about what I supposedly think. You’d like people to be charitable about your views so do the same. I don’t think that doubting p means you believe not p. Or that only deductive proof is permissible. Or that people only use the word “knowledge” to mean certainty. Or that I’m affirming an “infallibilist internalist foundationalist” view here. Or that I’m requiring “high epistemic standards” here. Or that we must prove the laws of thought. Or that we can only dialogue if you agree with me about everything.

Much of these misrepresentations most likely trace to your original source that you quoted. Whether or not your source sometimes says something true isn’t the problem. It is his regular use of insults and misrepresentations that is the problem. You say philosophers want to avoid sophistry and that is right. They also want to avoid those types of behavior. You’ve linked yourself to him from the very beginning of this thread and so that does affect if your question is in good faith.

I’ve been focusing on your first concern in every one of my replies since then. What are our epistemic limits? How do we understand our own fallibility and limitations? This is far from stalling or failing to have a good proof. Nevertheless, making those kinds of assertions is precisely what is slowing this down and undermining your claim to just want to deal with the question. I don’t want to shift to other concerns if we haven’t addressed this first one. What I am asking is if we have the necessary conditions for thought and discourse in place to continue on together and assess this argument. If not, it wouldn’t make sense to go on and talk about other subjects.

Where we are at now in addressing that question of epistemic horizons is this: You seem to agree that reason is transcendental, but that you do not know if it is ontological (applies to being as well as thought), is that right? You say there is still no proof. I’m asking if the necessary conditions for proof are shared given your views on your epistemic horizons. See my above comments about your example of the married bachelors:

“Like clarifying “bachelor,” once we do this with “eternal” the contradiction is there, but it was there the whole time. If someone says “I don’t see how a married bachelor is a contradiction, the burden is on you, all your work is ahead of you,” or they say “I don’t see why eternal means not temporal, the burden is on you, all your work is ahead of you,” they haven’t understood the words being used.”

Spencer Hawkins

@Owen Anderson As I said, you’re shifting a burden onto me. I don’t need to affirm anything for you to meet your burden of proof. You can simply state your justification for (3) and (1). Or, if you want, you can include what you think are the necessary conditions for thought and conversation, why they are necessary, and show how you’re not violating them. Instead, you’re trying to wrangle me into either affirming your view of the necessity of the ontology of the laws of thought, or shut me out of the conversation as a person who “denies reason”. It feels like a cheap apologetic ploy, tbh. Remember, all I’m asking is that you justify your claim that (3) is true and that Gangadean’s argument at 1:08:35 is sound (as you claimed). If you want to debate metaphysics and epistemology, let’s meet up for coffee.

You say that you don’t want to shift to other concerns if we haven’t addressed the first one, but what you’re calling the “first concern” (the question of epistemic horizons) was my third concern. My first and second concerns to (3) were, first, if a soul like yours or mine were eternal in time, the possibility remains that we wouldn’t gain all knowledge because we lack the motivation or interest to learn about every possible domain of fact, and second, we have faulty memory. Both of these possibilities seem to undermine the third premise of Gangadean’s argument.

If I have misrepresented your view, I apologize. I get the impression that your view is “infallibilist internalist foundationalist” not from ‘J’, but from Kelly, Gangadean, and yourself. For one thing, you’ve made it clear on this thread that you don’t agree with epistemological falliblism. Moreover, the Public Philosophy podcast has several lectures that lay out the Gangadeanian philosophy. Kelly explains how “knowledge” of the Good, God, human nature, and the soul, are “understood” through pure reason, or by the impossibility of the contrary, which Kelly proposes is the highest epistemic category (as opposed to imagination and opinion). Isn’t this an infalliblist conception of justification (or “certifiability”)? Isn’t it also internalist with respect to justification? A proof by negation doesn’t seem to be justified by anything like the traditional externalist conditions. And I’ve always thought the Gangadeanian epistemology was foundationalist, built upon the “basic things that are clear to reason”. So, please forgive me, but I fail to see how your view is not “infallibilst internalist foundationalist”. I’m happy to be corrected.

Owen Anderson


@Spencer Hawkins I appreciate your last post, thank you. In my own case I’m ok with some formulations of externalism. And some forms of fallibilism seem to be restatements of the doctrine of total depravity and thus potentially have Calvinist origins! One of the things my first book was about is precisely this point of how the fall affects us in our pursuit of knowledge.

None of this is meant to be a “cheap apologetic ploy” to label you as someone who “denies reason.” It seems to be just the opposite given how you began the conversation quoting someone who regularly uses insults. The same points and questions can be made without sinking to that level. Using terms like cult, ilk, Gangadeaneans, lazy, sloppy, is public on that blog and something you can see for yourself. By associating with that and not asking him to make the same points without sinking so low you’ve shaped how your question is heard. It is too bad and maybe it can be reversed by you noting it as a problem now that it has been more specifically brought to your attention. But your affiliation with that behavior does shape how you and I interact until you distance yourself from it.

I agree with you that this is a limited format and I want to add that it tends to be unnecessarily combative. This is not my preference and I’d like us to shift away from that together.

By way of contrast to what you suggest, my goal here is simply to identify where we disagree in order to assess if progress can be made. Ultimately the disagreement isn’t about whether an eternal being could forget or be subject to decay. That was only the occasion for this to come to the surface. Closer to it is that we disagree on whether reason is ontological. And more precisely we most likely disagree about whether anything is clear. We don’t appear to agree if there is a clear distinction between God and the self. I’m not even sure if we agree on what it means for something to be “clear.” If we have made it more clear about where we disagree then this is progress! We can refer back to this in future interactions.

Spencer Hawkins

I agree progress is made when we can identify our areas of disagreement. But my objection in this thread has been the same: why think (3) is true? You’ve affirmed “If I were eternal in time, I would be all knowing” is true, but you haven’t responded to the objections: if my soul were eternal in time, I’d lack the motivation to seek absolutely all facts, and I’d forget stuff; thus, (3) is false or Gangadean’s conclusion doesn’t follow. If we want to make progress, it seems you’d have at least three ways to proceed: first, you could give your justifying reasons for believing (3). Second, you could reject (3) if you think the objections are good. Or third, you can shift to a different argument and defend a different claim, perhaps something like “Necessarily, if X is eternal, X is all knowing”, or, “‘X is eternal’ entails ‘X is the highest power”. It seems you’ve opted for the third option, give your latest comments. Until your response is presented, let’s not lose sight of our disagreement over (3) and your burden of proof.

I also agree that conversations like these can become combative, and it’s best when cooler heads prevail. I certainly don’t mean to insult you, and I wouldn’t like it if others insulted you unnecessarily. But at the same time we can’t be snowflakes. Conversations about religion, atheism, heaven and hell, ethics, politics, and so on, require having thick skin (as I’m sure you’re aware being a professor). Consider things from my secular humanistic point of view: there is a level of insult that I personally receive from listening to people like Kelly and Gangadean speak. When I’m told that my view is “nihilistic” and “meaningless,” or lacks a coherent ethical system, or that I’m destined to spend an eternity in hell where I’ll experience endless boredom, guilt, and abandonment, it is offensive to me (especially when I don’t think they’ve successfully proven their case, and they’ve failed to address the strongest criticisms against it). Kelly has said some of these things to me in person. Even though I feel maligned, I recognize that’s the reality if Kelly and Gangadean’s worldview is correct. So I bite my tongue, and I don’t waste anyone’s time by complaining about how offended I am. I’m after truth, not a safe space. But I think the same should be true on your end. That is, if ‘J’ is right, then your (very) exclusivist philosophical/religious group is a cult. You should admit to that just as I, an atheist, admit that if Gangadean and Kelly are right, my eternal future looks pretty grim and there is an evilness and emptiness in my soul from not pursuing the correct religion. So I say, let’s be kind to one another, let’s try to have thick skin, and let’s stick to the good stuff: philosophical arguments. I think, if you can prove your claims that’s all you’d need to silence your philosophical critics!

Lastly, if you don’t like the term “Gangadeanean”, I will stop using it. But, it seems to be a very common practice in philosophy to name ideas after a person’s philosophical work; for instance, Humeans follow Hume, Kantians follow Kant, and Aristotelians follow Aristotle. It’s not meant as an insult. But if you take it that way, I will gladly use another term.

Owen Anderson

All of us in philosophy must have a thick skin about others thinking our views are false, or being told that if something we hold is true it implies something else that is false. And in religion we all need a thick skin in knowing some others think our beliefs are incorrect and could therefore lead to negative outcomes. You saying Christianity is false, or someone else saying Secular Humanism is false, is not at all the same as using insults. The best objection is to hold each other to being consistent and having integrity because this means we are affirming reason in the law of non-contradiction.

By way of contrast, we needn’t be involved in using insults or dishonesty. “Sloppy” and “lazy” are unnecessary insults. “Cult” is used because he is being dishonest about events behind anonymity. “Cult” has a specific meaning and does not apply to historic Christianity. So it doesn’t follow that if he is right about our views being false then we are a cult. That would just mean that historic Christianity (as summarized in the Westminster Confession of Faith) is false. It is an insulting term being used dishonestly and shuts down conversation. Much of what needs to be addressed is private and cannot be replied to on a public blog To say we won’t engage with him because we don’t have an answer, as opposed to because of his own behavior, is a perfect example of the dishonesty.

I hope you can see why your involving yourself with a source exhibiting such behavior is much more problematic than simply saying you think we are incorrect. You can come up with objections yourself without citing that kind of source. I’m not interested in having a proxy discussion with him through you. His private conduct toward me and others, and continued use of insults, is the reason I don’t interact with him in public spaces.

If you want to address the question of “what is eternal?” in good faith can we agree not to engage in that kind of behavior?

Spencer Hawkins

I can agree to not use terms like “lazy” and “sloppy” when addressing philosophical arguments. As I said, I am not here to insult you, but to discuss arguments, and I distance myself from any unnecessary insults. However, I don’t wish to shift to a different question in this thread before we’ve addressed your justification for (3). I’m hoping you will say something about why you think (3) is true, or offer an alternative argument to Gangadean’s (at 1:08:35). If that involves you stating your beliefs about what you think is eternal, and perhaps what you think is entailed by it, by all means, say so! But as you said, we don’t need to engage in dialogue and there are times when we can simply state an argument.

Owen Anderson

I notice that you leave out the most egregious of his regular insults, “cult,” and I’d need you to agree on not engaging with that one as well. I’m happy to discuss objections to historic Christianity and often do in my line of work. But there’s no need for such behavior. I’ll continue my reply below but will need you to address that one in your next reply before I continue this conversation.

Yes there are times when an argument can be stated without discussion but this doesn’t seem to be one of them. It is often the case that we need to back up and look at the interpretive assumptions a person is bringing to an argument. I’m currently at a professional philosophy conference and this is what most of the presenters do in their talks so it is standard procedure.

A couple of things, I think you’ve left out something important that he said in his reply to that question and so I don’t think you’ve captured his argument.

We still aren’t in agreement if we can even assess arguments. If reason isn’t ontological, reason doesn’t apply to being, then it won’t matter whether there is or is not a contradiction because perhaps there are contradictions in reality. I think reason is ontological. As I understand it you aren’t sure one way or the other. So you aren’t saying it isn’t, but you also aren’t saying it is. Perhaps the eternal is non-eternal and you’ve reached your epistemic horizons.

Spencer Hawkins

Two comments back I did mention his use of “cult”. But I will clarify: if you take it as an insult, I will refrain from using it. I haven’t used the term here. As I said, I wish to distance myself from any unnecessary insults. I’m not here to hurl insults, but to talk philosophy, particularly Gangadean’s argument at 1:08:35, which he argues, “If I were eternal in time, then I would be all knowing.” You’ve asserted the premise is true and his argument sound, but thus far we haven’t see a justification from you. Do you have good reasons to justify (3)?

I’m hoping that we don’t lose sight of the burden of proof that you have. And I’m not sure why you think that we must engage in Socratic dialogue for you to give your reasons for affirming Gangadean’s argument. Why isn’t this a case of you just stating an argument? Gangadean did just that in answering the gentleman in the audience.

Owen Anderson

Thanks for your clarification! Yes I do think Dr. Gangadean is right about the problem of being in time from eternity. But I think the formulation you’ve relied upon left out an important word he used. Maybe go back and formulate your own analysis of his argument instead of relying on another who has dishonest intentions.

He was able to give a direct answer because of common ground with the audience. And it is because of this shared common ground that the questioner quickly understood the argument and the conclusion.

In our case, we don’t have that. We don’t even agree that “a is a” applies to reality! Its not my burden to prove to you that “a is a.” And without that no other proof that you request is possible. It is a type of loaded question.

Spencer Hawkins

Which word did I leave out? Here is Gangadean’s statement of the argument at 1:08:35: “The soul is in time — we have one thought after another. If the soul were eternal, it would be eternal in time. If we were eternal in time, we’d have an infinite amount of time. If we had an infinite amount of time, we’d have… [all knowledge]. Do you have all knowledge? [No.] Then you’re not eternal.”

Formally (and charitably) stated, the argument would read:

(1) The soul is in time — we have one thought after another.

(2) If (1) and our souls were eternal, then our souls would be eternal in time.

(3) If our souls were eternal in time, then we would have all knowledge. (4) We don’t have all knowledge.

(5) Therefore, our souls are not not eternal in time.

Which word did I leave out, and how does it affect the argument? Why do you think (3) is true? We still haven’t seen a justification from you on this thread.

I do “agree” that ‘a is a’ applies to reality, in that I believe it does. However, I think we need to make two distinctions. First, between (A) the laws of thought as necessary conceptual truths, and (B) the laws of thought as both necessary conceptual truths and necessary ontological truths. I’m maximally confident (A) is true, and I’m not asking you to prove it or that you have a burden to prove it. What I’d like you to explain is the extent of justification you think you have for (B). Do you think the conjunction of (B) is clear to reason? Can you show that the other possibilities are logically impossible? I don’t see how you could ever do that. Perhaps the laws of thought are necessary conceptual truths, but are not universal or necessary ontological truths in some domains (e.g. quantum mechanics); thus (B) is not clear to reason. Or, do you think the conjunction of (B) is self-attesting or self-evident? Why think such a thing?

And second, we need to distinguish between a presupposition of experience and that which can be shown to be clear to reason about mind-independent reality beyond our experience. I think “the laws of thought apply to being” is a presupposition of experience, not something for which the contradictory can be shown to be logically impossible of the reality beyond our experience. The latter is your claim, and your burden to shoulder.

Owen Anderson

This is another good example of why we aren’t able to assess the argument. We can’t assess the argument because we don’t agree on whether the laws of thought are also laws of being (ontological). You don’t know if “eternal” is “non-eternal” in reality. And now you’ve repeated your claim that you can’t know if the laws of thought apply outside of your experience (“reality beyond our experience,” or your “epistemic horizons”). What is “eternal” is outside of your experience. Therefore, you won’t be able to know about what is eternal due to this epistemic horizon. You won’t be able to assess arguments about what is eternal. This isn’t a matter of who shoulders the burden of proof. It is a matter of whether there is sufficient common ground to have mutual understanding to proceed. As I noted above, it is a loaded question to maintain these limitations and yet ask for an argument.

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Ask a Philosopher: Why Do Philosophers Disagree?

Ask a Philosopher:  I often get questions in emails about my blog or books.  I have been replying to these on email but decided I might also start posting answers as part of a series “ask a philosopher.”  Who wouldn’t want to ask a philosopher something?

Question: Philosophy presents itself as the way to seek the truth and love wisdom.  However, philosophers disagree with each other as much as anyone else, maybe more.  Why is this?  Isn’t this proof that philosophy is a failure?

Reply: It is true that there is not much agreement among people who study philosophy.  Stanley Fish, a professor of English and Philosophy, said that anyone who thinks studying these subjects will make you a better person hasn’t spent any time around English and Philosophy faculty.

On a superficial level it might seem that philosophers are basically the same and so should agree.  If all things are the same, beliefs should also be the same.  Let’s take that as true, and the reality of disagreement as a given, then it follows that since the beliefs are not the same all things are not the same.  Something is relevantly different that gives rise to disagreement.

I see this as an opportunity to apply rational presuppositionalism.  Critical thinking is a kind of buzz word in the academy that becomes empty of meaning.  But we can renew it by using it to mean identifying our assumptions, or presuppositions, and using reason to test them for meaning.  Thus: rational presuppositionalism.  The philosophers who disagree can be asked questions to identify where their disagreement began.  This is true for philosophers of the past, say Plato and Hegel, as well as for philosophers alive today.

Some examples of where these disagreements arise: in beliefs about what is good, what is real, and what is authoritative.  These can be called the areas of ethics, metaphysics, and epistemology.  The more we are familiar with our own beliefs in these areas the more we will be able to identify them in the philosophers we are thinking about.  We can use it as a kind of exercise: pick a philosopher and identify the beliefs in each of these areas.  Then pick one that disagrees with this first philosophers and do the same.  Work back from less basic disagreements to the most basic disagreement between them.

Another way to start is from the other end: what does each philosopher believe is clear?  Does the philosopher start with intuition?  Experience?  A pursuit of happiness?  The forms?  Mathematics?  Or does the philosopher deny that anything is clear at all and embrace nihilism?

Finally, does the philosopher have integrity?  Does the philosopher live consistently with what is professed?  If the philosopher believes that all is matter or that knowledge is not possible, does the philosopher live consistently with this claim?  Or, if the philosopher claims that nothing is clear, does the philosopher live consistently with this claim?  If the philosopher claims to be committed to reason, is the philosopher able to show what is clear to reason?

The above gives three approaches for how to think about why philosophers disagree.  The order of basic questions, what is clear, and integrity.  If philosophy is the love of wisdom then we should expect philosophers, of all persons, to be able to show us what is wise by knowing what is basic.  The alternative to the love of wisdom and knowing what is clear is vanity and meaninglessness–a chasing after the wind.


Posted in Ask a philosopher, Basic beliefs, Meaning, Nihilism, Reason | Leave a comment

Ask a Philosopher: Humility

I often get questions in emails about my blog or books.  I have been replying to these on email but decided I might also start posting answers as part of a series “ask a philosopher.”  Who wouldn’t want to ask a philosopher something?

Question: Dr Anderson, doesn’t humility require philosophical skepticism?  It seems prideful to say something is certain.

Reply: Of course, it depends on what one means by “certain” and “humble.”  There is psychological certainty and objective certainty.  Psychological certainty means that a person is absolutely sure of something but may not have sufficient proof.  Such instances are examples are failing to critically examine one’s assumptions, or failing to think presuppositionally.  Perhaps a lack of humility is a part of this but I focus on the neglect of the examined life as the problem.

On the other hand there is objective certainty.  Some things are certain and we should know these things.  To deny that anything is certain seems to be the instance of pride.  It is a refusal to assent to reason as the laws of thought and instead places one’s own subjective desires and inability to understand as the standard.  Humility puts the self under reason as the laws of thought, rather than in pride rejecting the laws of thought when we don’t like where they lead.  Humility also requires integrity which means we live consistently with what we claim to believe.  In the case of those who deny that anything is certain integrity requires living consistently with this claim.  This includes that we can’t even be certain we are thinking or saying anything.

It seems to be that the philosophical skeptic is fueled by instances of superficial psychological certainty and is right to call these out.  But by making this a matter of pride vs humility (as opposed to the use of reason to think critically) the philosophical skeptic might fall into this as well by overstating the case.  It becomes a matter of pride to refuse to acknowledge that some things are certain.  Perhaps this is because in acknowledging this we must acknowledge having come short in not seeing what is clear and our pride fights against this.  It is the humble, or the meek, who are willing to accept this and change their thinking.


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Discussion: God and nothing

I remember hearing an interview that ran along these lines.  One person had just written a book about how the universe can come from nothing (which turns out to mean quantum foam).  This highlights how we lose meaning when we affirm that being can come from non-being.  There remains no distinction between them.  Perhaps being is non-being.

The interviewer asked the following:

S: So you say that God does not exist?

L: Yes

S: And you say that the universe can come from nothing?

L: Yes

S: So if God does not exist, and the universe came from nothing, aren’t you saying the universe came from God?


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