Ask a Philosopher: What Would Socrates Do?

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 is the Socratic Method?  Doesn’t it mean always doubt everything nonstop?  Or, never stop making noises that sound a little like questions?

Reply: I am covering this with my students and then saw this article above posted by a former professor of mine.  Would you have wanted to be around Socrates?  I admire him and often speak highly of him but sometimes I hear others say he would have been a pain in the neck.  Perhaps I relate to that as a philosopher.

The Socratic Method involves asking basic questions about what is being assumed in a discussion.  This can also be called rational presuppositionalism.  It is the use of reason to uncover presuppositions and test them for meaning. It is not the denial of the possibility of knowledge or the conditions for thought.

The Socratic Method involves questioning.  But not simply questioning.  Sometimes people think if they are still making noises then they are asking coherent questions.  It involves asking basic questions like “what is wisdom” and “what is good.”  These are basic because they are assumed by those that Socrates asks.  These persons assume they are wise or that they are good.  Therefore, they must know what it is to be wise and good and Socrates also wants to know and asks.  I don’t think we need to read a cynical motive into this although many who claim to imitate Socrates are doing so for ulterior motives.

So Socrates asks basic questions that are assumed or presupposed by those he is questioning.  But he also presupposes that knowledge is possible which is why he is on this mission.  Socrates is not a Pyrrhonian skeptic.  Pyrrho said that we cannot know and so withheld both assent and dissent.  He neither affirmed nor denied.  He wouldn’t agree that “a is a” and he wouldn’t deny that “a is a.”  Pyrrho himself didn’t write anything but we remember him from other philosophers like Sextus Empiricus.  These skeptics might spend their time showing that others do not know because they themselves do not believe knowledge (as Socrates understood it) is possible.

I worry that Socrates might get conflated with skeptics like Pyrrho or Sextus Empiricus.  Socrates asked basic questions and in doing this revealed that others do not know what they assume about basic things.  But Socrates did believe knowledge is possible and even thought he had come to know some things through this process.  Pyrrho did not believe knowledge is possible and instead withheld belief.  Socrates questioned the nature of knowledge but presupposed that humans can know as part of this process.

The Socratic Method involves asking basic questions about what is being assumed in a discussion.  This can also be called rational presuppositionalism.  It is the use of reason to uncover presuppositions and test them for meaning.

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Ask a Philosopher: Agreement and Presuppositions

Ask a Philosopher:  I often get questions in emails about my blog or books.  In this case it was in person at a research presentation.  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?

I am returning from giving some talks at Colorado Christian University.  I have posted links to my talks under the video tab.  These include this one where I discussed several issues surrounding the nature of religion and the purpose of the First Amendment.

One question that came up after the video was about how presuppositional thinking works.  The question was: “don’t people agree on less basic things all the time without first agreeing on more basic things?”  For instance, theists might agree that God exists while disagreeing between themselves about more basic things.

This is a helpful question to clarify how ambiguity works.  To think presuppositionally is to begin with what is basic and go from there.  Or, we can work backwards from a disagreement to where the disagreement begins at a more basic level.  This method does not say that we won’t profess agreement at less basic levels.

However, what happens in such cases is that we quickly find that there is a kind of ambiguity.  This is not ordinary ambiguity but philosophical ambiguity.  An example is that we might agree that I am looking at a computer while having many more basic disagreements.  And yet once we look at what it means for “I” to be looking at a computer we will find that we disagree even about this.  We have different understandings of human nature (are humans just bodies, do humans have a soul, what is a soul, are humans just ideas in the mind of another, etc) and what it means to look (do we see material objects, representations of material objects, ideas only, etc).  So even what appears to be an ordinary agreement soon evaporates.

This is all the more true for contentious but less basic issues like abortion or justice compared to an ordinary and uninteresting example of looking at a computer.  So this question ends up highlighting precisely how important it is to think presuppositionally.  It involves understanding the meaning of what is being said and how beliefs have presuppositions about what is real and how we know.  Can we make progress on agreement about basic things?

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Cool Hand Luke

Our philosophy club is having movie nights and one of them will be Cool Hand Luke:

“You keep coming back with nothing.”

“Yeah, sometimes nothing is a real cool hand.”

Luke is in prison for getting drunk and destroying municipal property (cutting the heads off parking meters).  He was in the Korean War and seemed to distinguish himself in combat but then lost his rank and exited a private.

Luke is an attractive figure because compared to his peers he is wrestling with the problem of meaning.  Whereas others are content to keep the rules, or find a comfortable setting for themselves, Luke wonders what the larger purpose is.  He says that there is only a lot of guys laying down a lot of rules and regulation.  What is the purpose?

Society and popular religion have not provided answers for Luke.  Or, the answers are arbitrary.  Either a kind of skepticism saying that we can’t know so we should adopt pragmatism (what works to get through life comfortably) or religious fideism telling us to believe without knowledge.  He asks for evidence that God exists.  He seems to think he has none:

We see this when Luke’s mother visits him.  In the background Harry Dean Stanton is singing the hymn “Just a Closer Walk With Thee.”  In this clip the dialogue with his mother is cut but we get the whole song.  His mother is dying and this is their last interaction.  She doesn’t have any answers for him but there is a kind of hopelessness and acceptance that it all came to nothing.  The religious answers are a kind of rule following in this life with the promise of blessings after death.  Christ is said to comfort us in our trials but there are no answers about why there are trials and suffering in the first place.  What is the purpose?

After Luke learns that his mother has died he sings “Plastic Jesus.”  This exposes the emptiness of popular religion and its devotion to objects that promise a blessed afterlife.  This form of religion tells us that if we have devotion to the right kind of idol we don’t need to worry about suffering and we will not be punished in hell.  There is no knowledge or meaning given in this religion.  It is arbitrary and cannot explain itself in contrast to the many alternatives found throughout the world.  Is there any meaning to it all?

Luke is put in the box after his mother dies because the guards reason that he might try to escape to go to her funeral.  After her funeral is over Luke is let out.  He then escapes.  After he is caught the captain tells him that if he obeys things will go well with him but if he disobeys he will suffer.  This is the arbitrariness of human rules that Luke has encountered and for which he wants some higher purpose.  As we watch them hammer in the nails to his shackles we are reminded of the nails hammered into Christ and we begin to wonder if Luke is a kind of Messianic figure.  Is this all just a matter of miscommunication?

Throughout, suffering is what serves to get Luke to stop and think.  Others harden themselves to suffering or accept it as part of life.  Luke does not.  This is true of the suffering he saw at war.  And it is true of the suffering he encounters throughout life.  The captain tells him that he will not get used to the sound made by the chains.  It is a reminder of his own failure to make sense of suffering.

As Luke attempts his final escape he ends up in an empty church.  He goes inside and asks if anyone is home.  Silence.  It is at this point that we see Luke is not a hero or a Messianic figure.  He is more than an anti-hero, he is an anti-Messiah.  The silence of the church and its failure to give answers past fideism has motivated Luke to find meaning.  In this he is more authentic and human than his peers.  But now he charges God with silence and offers excuses for his own failure to know.  Luke claims to have been seeking and wanting to know.  He blames God and says “you made me who I am.”

Luke is an anti-Messiah figure in that he does not recognize the reality of his own sin and need for redemption through atonement.  It is true that society and religion have not provided meaning.  However, Luke has had access to clear general revelation this entire time.  It is his rationality that has not allowed him to settle for less than meaning and it is his rationality that can see what is clear about God and the good.  His failure to see what is clear to reason is the root sin of not seeking, not understanding, and not doing what is right.  He does not repent of this or acknowledge it as sin while expecting others to see that their arbitrary rules are meaningless.

He performs a mock confession on his knees but doesn’t get the answer he wants.  What kind of answer does he want?  What is more clear than general revelation?  Does he want an audible voice from the rafters of the church?  Or a voice in his head?  Even such as these would be no more than the appeals to authority he is questioning.  What he needs to be able to do is use reason to make inferences about God and human meaning.  This will solve skepticism and avoid fideism with its appeals to authority.

When the police and guards arrive Luke laughs and says “this is your answer?”  But there is a senses in which Luke has had similar answers throughout.  He has no one to blame but himself.  Although he begins as an attractive figure because of his search for meaning he loses this as he devolves into his own irrationality and denial of what is clear.

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Summer 2019 Conference: Clarity Fund

If you are interested in studying the necessity of natural theology and the clarity of general revelation check out this link for an application for our summer conference with Clarity Fund.

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Ask a Philosopher: What is Critical Thinking?

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: All of my classes talk about critical thinking.  What is critical thinking?

Reply:  I’ve been in education all of my life and teaching at the college/university for nearly 20 years.  Critical Thinking is one of those perennial terms that is used and always encouraged.  But what does it mean? In educational settings it is often connected to learning to think for yourself.  In other words, critical thinking means to be able to assess messages and knowledge claims that are presented to you in order to know what they mean and if they are true or false.  And learning to think for yourself is an important part, perhaps the fundamental part, of education. It is the most basic kind of freedom. Without this freedom we aren’t truly free in any other way.  It is a kind of freedom that you must have for yourself and cannot be taken away from you by someone else. Those who aren’t free in this way aren’t aware of their bondage and coming to recognize the need for this freedom is connected to knowing yourself and leading the examined life.  Thinking you are free is not sufficient as one could believe he/she is free and yet not be free from uncritically held assumptions.

What is “thinking?”

My own studies and research have been about the structure of thinking and the origin of thinking.  That means I look at some of the formative thinkers that have studied this like Plato, Aristotle, Bacon, Descartes, Locke, and Foucault.  We will think about thinking as the formulation of concepts, judgements, and arguments.  Aristotle, in his Prior Analytics, begins by defining the parts of thought.  He speaks of premises, terms, and syllogisms, or, concepts, judgments, and arguments.  To understand critical thinking we must begin with thinking. It is self-evident that we think.  To deny that we think would involve thinking. It is also self-evident that there are laws of thought.  These are what distinguish thought from non-thought. Each of the laws themselves are self-evident and involve us in self-referential absurdity if we attempt to deny them.  They are not “proven” because they are the basis for proof. Care must be taken to avoid moving from the cognitive realm of thought into the non-cognitive realm of the mystical or practical when doing critical thinking.

Presuppositional Thinking

Aristotle, in his Posterior Analytics, helps us think about how our thoughts are ordered.  Our thoughts, or beliefs, have assumptions. Thinking is ordered from less basic (not basic) to more basic to most basic.  This is where critical thinking comes in.  Let’s call this presuppositional thinking.  We can recognize that our beliefs have presuppositions.  So for instance, the belief “I think,” presupposes that “I am,” which presupposes being (existence), which presupposes the distinction between eternal being and temporal being.  This is an example of a clear distinction (eternal/temporal, or always/not always). We can say something is clear to reason because we can distinction a from non-a or eternal from not eternal.  It is self-referentially absurd to assert that nothing is clear to reason (one would use reason to distinguish this claim from its opposite).  Any any belief requires concepts and concepts are distinguished by reason.

We can apply critical thinking to organize our presuppositions.  Let’s call this the conceptual map. It is a map of beliefs to show their relationships and allow us to see what can be known and what can be ruled out as impossible.  For example, if we were to map our beliefs about what is eternal we would have these four: 1) all is eternal; 2) none is eternal; 3) some is eternal; 4) some is not eternal.  We can ask of ourselves “what do I believe is eternal” and so locate ourselves on this map. We can also do this about the world’s religions and belief systems and find what each says about what is eternal.  In doing this we can then understand how they relate to each other and to the basic concept “eternal.” For instance, there are belief systems that claim “all is eternal” like Philosophical Materialism, Hinduism, and Greek Dualism.  Then there are those that say only some is eternal like Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.


Have you ever been disappointed in someone for not doing what they said they would do?  Or found that a person is inconsistent and they don’t seem to care? Integrity is that concern for consistency between our beliefs and between what we say and do.  Integrity requires critical thinking. If we have integrity we have a concern for consistency and we will want to analyze our presuppositions for meaning. We can call this rational presuppositionalism to distinguish it from reasoning without presuppositional thinking (rationalism), sense data or acquaintance (empiricism and mysticism), practical rationality (pragmatism), the claim that nothing is clear (skepticism), belief without understanding (fideism).  In the history of philosophy there are debates about the origins of our concepts and thoughts (Plato/Aristotle, Descartes/Locke) but these debates can also be thought about presuppositionally in terms of what is assumed about knowledge and being. To have integrity means to live consistently with the conclusions we reach. It means to put into practice what we preach.

Philosophers and Critical Thinking:

Earlier I mentioned Aristotle’s influence on helping us think about thinking.  There is no part of Aristotle’s system that some latter philosopher hasn’t criticized.  And yet we can benefit from Aristotle’s insight that there are some things which are self-referentially absurd to deny.  We begin thinking about thinking with concepts, judgments, and arguments. In his Novum Organum, Francis Bacon is responding to the use of Aristotle’s logic especially in the natural sciences.  In part, this involves an empirical question about the origin of ideas and the use of induction, and in part this involves a method for how to interact with the world so as to gain knowledge.  However, like Plato and Aristotle before him, and Descartes and Locke after, Bacon starts by affirming that we must begin by asserting that syllogisms are made up of propositions, which are made up of notions (concepts), and when these become unclear we can make no progress.  Critical thinking therefore begins by getting clear about our basic concepts. From these we form our basic beliefs and can offer arguments.

In his Third Meditation Descartes discusses innate ideas (not from experience) and in his An Essay Concerning Human Understanding Locke argues that there are no innate ideas and instead all of our ideas originate in experience.  Plato addresses a similar problem in the Meno by suggesting we get our ideas from a previous life.  Closer to our time, Critical Theory uses practical rationality to critique the purposes and structure of social institutions like the state and family.  Foucault, in books like The Order of Things, raises questions about social and historical influence on our formation of concepts.  These are critical in raising questions about assumptions but don’t get to our most basic presuppositions and their critique requires that some things are clear to reason.  

What is happening in these cases can help us with critical thinking as presuppositional thinking.  Each of these thinkers affirms the clear distinction between ideas but their explanation of their origins reflects the other presuppositions they have about human nature and being.  Integrity requires that we analyze these presuppositions before moving on to think about the origin of ideas.

Integrity, Knowing, and Showing

One of the quickest ways to stop someone from boasting about what they know is to say “prove it.”  If we had integrity we would be able to show what is clear. This might be true of any knowledge claim but here I am simply focusing on what is clear to reason.  It might seem contentious because we claim to know many things that we don’t or can’t show.  We have to be careful not to accidentally ambiguate the word know.  We might use it to be know how as in how to ride a bike.  Even then we could show it by doing it.  We might use it to mean know by acquaintance as in recognizing a person.  Even then we could show it by pointing out the person.  Here we are talking about knowing the truth of a proposition or judgment.  If we say “God is eternal” is true then we are presupposing the meaning of these terms and that they go together in a way that results in truth.  We all have beliefs about what is eternal but we may never have spent much time thinking about them or critically analyzing them for meaning.

As mentioned above, an example of what is clear is the distinction between eternal (always) and not eternal (not always).  This is the application of the laws of thought to our most basic concept. Critical thinking requires that we are able to identify our own belief about what is eternal and analyze it for meaning.  To analyze something for meaning is more basic than asking if it is true. If we don’t know what it means we can’t know if it is true. In analyzing a belief for meaning we are looking to see if the concepts involve contradictions.  

An Example: None is Eternal

Have you ever heard “you can’t get something from nothing?”  As an example of this consider the following application of critical thinking: “none is eternal” cannot be true because it means “being from non-being.”  Let’s thinking about why this is. “None is eternal” means “all is temporal.” This is just the rearrangement of the negative terms. And “all is temporal” means “all had a beginning.”  This is just to replace “temporal” which what it means. And “all had a beginning” is to say “all came into being.” Again, this is just to clarify what it means to have a beginning. And “all came into being” means “all came into being from non-being.”  This is because if all came into being then it cannot have come from another being since this too came into being.  It cannot be a beginningless series of beings coming into being since then this series did not come into being and yet the claim is “all” came into being.  

To say that being came from non-being is an example of the most fundamental confusion of concept.  It is to blur the distinction between being and non-being. It is to say that distinction is not clear.  We can get an egg from a chicken, but both are beings. To say that we can get being from either being or non-being is to deny that, on this point, they are different.  Or, it is to affirm that they are the same. But being and non-being (existing and not existing) are fundamentally different, or, this is a clear distinction and to deny it is to deny that anything else can be clear (since all other claims presuppose being).  If “none is eternal” cannot be true then its contradiction, some is eternal, must be true.  Something must be eternal. And we can remember above how the divisions between the world’s beliefs systems are on this exact point: what is eternal?  And the thinkers I’ve spoken about here (Plato, Aristotle, Bacon, Descartes, Locke, Foucault) have disagreements about what is eternal which then affect the rest of their system.

Conclusion Critical Thinking

Aristotle begin his Metaphysics affirming that all humans desire to know.  In thinking, our goal is knowledge. And even more than that, at its most basic level thinking is about being.  We think about what is.  Other questions that motivate us are about what is: Does God exist?  Why is there evil?  What is a good life?  In clarifying what critical thinking is my goal is to help us as we think about these big questions and in doing this become free to think for ourselves.  

Here we have defined “critical thinking,” and discussed what it means for something to be clear and why the laws of thought are self-evident.  We then thought about the role of integrity in critical thinking and how we apply critical thinking to basic beliefs about what is eternal. Critical thinking might be hard in one sense, but it is also getting us to what is clear to reason.  Much of what goes on in the name of critical thinking does not get us back to basic assumptions and their meaning. We should expect both that we can learn to think critically and that it is a lifelong pursuit. Returning to the idea of freedom: critical thinking allows us to be free because it allows us to identify the beliefs that shape our choices and therefore shape our lives.  We can critically analyze these for meaning.

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Ask a Philosopher: What is Justification?

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, thank you for your audio lecture on Gettier.  Obviously he made a mistake in his example due to ambiguity and weak justification.  Normally we don’t have certainty though.  Is it really necessary for justification?

Reply:  The various attempts to respond to Gettier involve trying to figure out the extra element needed for knowledge in addition to a true, justified belief.  I think we can resolve this simply by defining “justification” correctly and need not add some extra element.  But you are right that in most cases we don’t have certainty.  You might look at my reading here about doubt and the various sources of information and how they are doubted.  I also have a reading here on what it means to give an account.

Terms like “justified,” “warranted,” “account,” are used in other disciplines, especially law and business.  A police officer must have a warrant to search a home.  And a warrant does not guarantee that anything will be found.  But it means that certain external criterion have been met (as opposed to an internal “hunch”).  To be justified means that one’s behavior or case is explained and is not guilty.  Or to give an account means to explain how the numbers balance.  Perhaps a more direct term is “to understand.”

A colleague of mine at ASU wrote an article here.  He considers how there can be a kind of pressure to be a skeptic even when enormous evidence suggests the probability of error is very small.  He says: “Although there is no consensus about how it arises, a promising idea defended by the philosopher David Lewis is that skeptical pressure cases often involve focusing on the possibility of error. Once we start worrying and ruminating about this possibility, no matter how far-fetched, something in our brains causes us to doubt.”  He applies this especially to global warming, and it could be further applied to how scientists themselves understand and interpret evidence for or against global warming.  He says:

“Philosophers call scenarios like these “skeptical pressure” cases, and they arise in mundane, boring cases that have nothing to do with politics or what one wants to be true. In general, a skeptical pressure case is a thought experiment in which the protagonist has good evidence for something that he or she believes, but the reader is reminded that the protagonist could have made a mistake. If the story is set up in the right way, the reader will be tempted to think that the protagonist’s belief isn’t genuine knowledge.

When presented with these thought experiments, some philosophy students conclude that what these examples show is that knowledge requires full-blown certainty. In these skeptical pressure cases, the evidence is overwhelming, but not 100 percent. It’s an attractive idea, but it doesn’t sit well with the fact that we ordinarily say we know lots of things with much lower probability.”

So we can recognize that we don’t have certainty in many areas of life while we also use the word “know” in these areas.  Go back to my link above and look at the various kinds of information sources.  Most of these do not provide certainty.  Most of these can be doubted even when there is significant evidence.  How do we move forward and make choices in light of this?  How do we avoid allowing skeptical pressure to freeze us in inaction?

On thing worth noting about the Gettier problem is that the supposed knowledge claim is a claim about the future.  “The man with 10 coins will get the job.”  When this failed to come about Smith’s knowledge claim “let him down.”  It did not predict what would happen and so was worthless.  He may have used reliable mechanisms to form the belief but in the end it was of no use.  We want to be successful or accurate in our knowledge claims.  It is of little value to us if we can say we did everything correct, we “knew,” but we were still let down and mistaken.

What I suggest we do is consider the idea of larger context.  This will help us to draw good and necessary consequences.  So context, and good and necessary consequences.  If we knew what we need to know about some things then we could make the correct inferences about other things.  And these “things” are ordered.

This particular belief is nested in, or contextualized in, many other beliefs about the world.  These beliefs are ordered logically from less basic (not basic) to more basic to most basic.  If we were to press Smith (the man from Gettier’s example) to further explain the meaning of his sentence and the rest of his worldview in which it operates we would get a better picture of how he understands what is real and how he draws conclusions.  This would be true in other examples as well such as global warming mentioned above.

There is much valuable work done on when we can rely on our senses or testimony or other kinds of evidence that we can all benefit from.  However,  claims about probability must have knowns (8 times out of 100 known times x occurs).  The same is true for reliability and function.  For the context to be fleshed out we need to have some things that are clear so as to distinguish between what is probable and what is not probable.  All such claims presuppose the laws of thought (8 is 8, times is times, 100 is 100, x is x, etc).  We cannot get probability without the laws of thought and we do not argue from probability to the laws of thought (I believe them because they seem probable).

So we can contextualize our inability to have certainty in many areas of life by locating our beliefs as more or less logically basic.  And at the most basic level we can see if a person believes anything at all is clear.  We begin with some things are clear to reason so that we can then go on to establish what is probable and what is plausible and how to respond to doubt.  Doubt itself can be addressed. Radical doubt, which is doubt even that a is a, sets itself outside of all discussion.  We can use insights from someone like David Lewis to help us understand “skeptical pressure” and go further to see that some doubt, radical doubt, is incoherent.

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Knowledge and Justification

In this lecture I briefly discuss the definition of “knowledge” as a “true, justified belief.”  I then look at two attempts to raise problems with this definition.  One says that it is insufficient and the other that it is not necessary.  After looking at how these can be resolved through avoiding ambiguity and a weak sense of “justification” I then consider how knowledge aims at understanding.  Interestingly, regardless of one’s definition of “knowledge,” knowledge always presupposes reason as the laws of thought.

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All is Change

I’ve been working with a graduate student on Buddhist philosophy. We are especially looking at Buddhist epistemology. The First Noble Truth says: “All is dukkha,” which can be understood as “all is change,” or “all is impermanent.”  This can be applied in epistemology, metaphysics, and ethics. Here I am thinking about epistemology: all is change or impermanence and so knowledge as permanence is not possible (what we claim to know now will change—all is change).

We do not need to confuse this with humility. We should be humble and open to rethinking what we claim. Nor is this the same as recognizing the frailty of the human condition. We are prone to error and some would even say we are fallen.

Instead, this is a statement about the nature of reality itself. It is a kind of feedback loop: because all is impermanent there is nothing permanent to know; and, because all of what I know can change I would never know what is permanent.

This could be taken to be a statement about the limits of knowledge or about knowledge itself.  Our beliefs are always revisable. All beliefs can change because all is change. What we think we know today may very well change tomorrow. Or it might mean all of our beliefs change over time and even moment by moment.

This is incompatible with theism and is why Buddhist philosophy is sometimes said to be a-theist (that does not mean materialist). In theism God is eternal, permanent, real, and the human mind can have knowledge about God which is therefore lasting and permanent.

From this we can see how our presuppositions shape our epistemology. If we begin with “all is impermanent” we also end up with a specific view of epistemology. This presupposition is in the background of many contemporary theories of knowledge without having direct influence from Buddhism.  It is often difficult to even get this kind of presupposition into focus for a discussion to make progress.  Must we begin with “all is change?”  How can we know what to begin with?

However, I want to conclude by noting that all definitions of “knowledge” presuppose the law of identity. This is not just some definitions that speak about certainty. All knowledge claims are knowledge claims. This is true of the First Noble Truth. It affirms that all is dukkha and it does not claim “not all is dukkha.”  Does this indicate that something is lasting and permanent?

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Ask a Philosopher: What is Fideism?

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?

I recently gave a lecture on fideism and received some useful questions.

Q1: Didn’t Jesus say we should have faith like a child?

Reply: He also chastised his disciples for having little faith. He linked faith and understanding:  “You of little faith, why are you talking among yourselves about having no bread.  Do you still not understand?” (Matt 16:8-9).  So having faith like a child can’t mean having little faith and little understanding. Instead, it seems to be an example of “blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are the meek.”  The child’s total dependence on the father and lack of self life. As a child grows up and becomes more mature he remains a child to the father. So this doesn’t even mean that one is to remain three years old forever. But instead, one grows up and grows in maturity and understanding of dependence on God which is also a deepening of that child-like dependence.

Q2: But doesn’t everyone have a starting point making everyone a fideist?

Reply: No, not all starting points are fideism. Some  starting points need proof and some are inescapable. Starting with a claim like God exists, or all is matter, or this book is special revelation, is fideism. These have presuppositions that need to be identified and understood. Really the contrast for fideism is not proof but understanding and meaning. The fideist makes assertions and cannot follow up with understanding. It’s called a bald assertion or table pounding. Once one starts to try and justify or warrant the table pounding one is involved in proof and this can be critically analyzed for meaning. But in faith we understand and so can overcome trials or tests of faith (this is exemplified in Hebrews 11).

One can’t prove the very means of proof without relying on those means. This isn’t fideism. One cannot question if questioning is possible without becoming self-referentially absurd.  That “a is a” or “a is not non-a” are the source of proof and doubt and therefore cannot be proven or doubted. Asserting that God exists, or the Bible is the Word of God, or that you had an experience of God, the inner testimony of the Holy Spirit, are all claims that someone can ask for further elaboration on meaning and proof. Fideism is about where you start beliefs not about starting with reason.

Q3: Are you saying that someone is not a Christian if they can’t prove with certainty that God exists?

Reply: No, not at all. This question could be about how we define “Christian,” or about what is “justification,” or what is “sanctification.”  It seems that being a Christian is usually defined as believing certain things. For instance, that God the Creator exists, that I have sinned against God, that this sin requires redemption and that this redemption is only achieved through the atoning work of Christ.

What if we summarize this as all I want to know among you is Christ and him crucified (1 Cor 2:2). What does Christ and him crucified entail?  Christ as the Word of God incarnate making God known. We see how this is presented in John 1:1. And we see how Paul develops this in Romans. So this phrase about knowing Christ and Him crucified is full of meaning and implications.

Or we could think of this with the faith of Abraham. Abraham was the father of the faithful which is a comment on his depth of understanding which allowed him to offer Isaac. Abraham “reasoned” that God could raise Isaac from the dead (Heb 11:19). By faith he understood. Faith is the substance of things hoped for and the evidence of things not seen (Heb 11:1). It is that by which we understand that God created the world. (Heb 11:3). Our faith grows as our understanding grows and we see this in the lives of Abraham, the patriarchs, David, the disciples.

What happens both in us individually and in the history of the church is that questions get raised about the meaning of Christian beliefs as those beliefs are challenged. We see the faith deepened as these challenges are addressed in the creeds of the faith. This is true in the Apostles Creed, the Nicean Creed, and down to the confessions of the Reformation. So for instance, the Westminster Confession of Faith as a summary of the Reformation doctrines says the following in chapter 21.1:

“The light of nature showeth that there is a God, who hath lordship and sovereignty over all, is good, and doth good unto all, and is therefore to be feared, loved, praised, called upon, trusted in, and served, with all the heart, and with all the soul, and with all the might.”  

That’s a significant number of things knowable by the light of nature. It doesn’t say that one must know these and give proof in order to be a Christian. That is more like asking “do I have to know these things?”  Instead, it is saying “we get to know these things.” They are knowable.

We can take Hebrews 6 as a challenge and encouragement:

“Therefore let us move beyond the elementary teachings about Christ and be taken forward to maturity, not laying again the foundation of repentance from acts that lead to death, and of faith in God, 2 instruction about cleansing rites, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment. 3 And God permitting, we will do so.”

These are foundational things and Paul encourages us to get the foundation in place. They begin with acts that lead to death (the wages of sin is death) and faith in God (the eternal power of God is clear from the things that are made). These are foundational so that we can go on to maturity, they are not that maturity.

So to the original question, not every starting point is fideism, Christians aren’t defined by what they can prove, there is a distinction between justification and sanctification, and faith is related to meaning that deepens as we grow in understanding.

Posted in Ask a philosopher, Faith, Fideism, Meaning, Reason, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The Academy Lecture

I will be giving a talk this spring about the question: “What has Jerusalem to do with Athens.”  As part of the talk, I will discuss the Academy in Athens.  I make this part of my analysis of early Princeton in my book: Faith and Reason at Early Princeton.  There I draw the analogy between the founding of the Academy and the founding of Princeton, and the ruins of the Academy in which Cicero lectured and the postmodern Academy of today.

Cicero divided the history of the Academy into two parts, the Old Academy and the New Academy.  Others might find three or four.  I rely on his analysis for our purposes here.  The Academy began with Socrates and his Socratic method of questioning.  Socrates knew that he did not know, but he did want to know.  He wanted to be wise and did not want to be like those who thought they were wise when they were not.

To this Socratic method, Plato added mythological and metaphysical speculation.  The Old Academy continued the work of Plato and became involved increasingly in burdensome and speculative theories about the nature of the forms and mathematics. This was far from any standard set by Socrates for seeking knowledge.

The New Academy was reacting to this metaphysical speculation and wanted to return to the Socratic method.  However, to this original method was added the claim that knowledge is not possible.  Instead, the Socratic method was used to criticize other philosophies, especially the Stoics.  Perhaps the Stoics invited this with their belief that all is eternal and their adherence to the eternal return (made popular again in our time by Nietzsche).

This form of skepticism came to be called Academic Skepticism.  It is different than the original Socratic doubt.  Socrates doubted some things but he did not doubt everything (as is evident in The Apology).  Radical doubt is when even the necessary conditions for doubt are doubted.

The Academic Skeptics did not follow their radical doubt consistently but instead affirmed the ability to know probabilities and maintain practical ends.  This move to pragmatism is a move to the non-cognitive.  It is the move to power and we see it also in our day both in Nietzsche and his disciple Foucault.  Instead of analyzing beliefs as either meaningful/meaningless, and true/false, they are analyzed in terms of “what works.”  The problem is that what works, or satisfies, is a statement about the speaker and other belief commitments they have and not about what is real or true.

We can also see this move to the non-cognitive in the move to mysticism which is a replacement of true/false with acquaintance and relation.  The mystics “know” by acquaintance with the highest being and this relational experience is not analyzed for meaning or truth content.  Once it is analyzed in that way we enter into the area of belief formation and reason.  Both pragmatism and mysticism set aside the analysis of thought and reason and instead use non-rational categories.

Radical doubt will often use either pragmatic or mystical categories to critique the cognitive category of thought and the source of thought in reason.  However, this is a category mistake.  The mystic and the pragmatist either must remain in their non-cognitive category or if they begin forming beliefs about the non-cognitive they have entered into the area of rationality and thought.  While reason as the laws of thought might not apply to the non-cognitive mystical area, it does apply to any thoughts about the mystical.

An example of this more consistent form of skepticism was the school of the Pyrrhonians.  This school practiced radical doubt by abstaining from affirming any beliefs whatsoever (remember the Academic Skeptics tried to maintain pragmatic beliefs based on probabilities).  Even the principle of radical doubt was itself subject to doubt.  This school was consistent in seeing that if one holds to radical doubt then one cannot form any belief.  This is the move to silence.  “About that belief I make no comment (silence).”

In attempting to maintain pragmatic beliefs the Academic Skeptics relied on probability.  However, probabilities require knowns.  If nothing can be known then there can be no probabilities.  Instead, probabilities become plausibilities, or statements about what seems likely to me.  So that this or that will work is a statement about what I think is likely to satisfy me.  This is both subjective and possibly false.  That is, it is a statement about my own thoughts and I have no sufficient reason to think I am correct.  There is no reason for the rest of us to listen to this.  The Pyrrhonian was more consistent in withholding belief.

Later, in what we could call the founding of the Modern Academy, Descartes also begins with doubt.  Like Socrates, he doubts what can be doubted with the goal of finding what can be known.  He considers radical doubt in the form of his demon.  The Cartesian demon might be tricking him about everything and he looks for what it is that even this demon can’t doubt.  He sought for what is clear and that is commendable.  Where he came short in finding what is clear helps explain the trajectory of the Academy since his time and the postmodern condition we are in now.

Radical doubt as demonic doubt was present from the beginning.  It is there in the original temptation to doubt God.  “Did God really say you must not eat?  This is just because God knows you will be like Him.”  Or, “you should doubt that there is a difference between a and non-a, between God and non-God.  Perhaps you (the temporal) can be God (the eternal).”  One cannot have a conversation with a demon but must instead affirm what is clear to reason.

Radical doubt is lost in self-referential absurdity.  It doubts the very laws of thought (reason) necessary for doubt.  It attempts to criticize others but on what basis?  Its doubts are non-doubts.  Its statements are non-statements.  The Cartesian demon can make noises but not coherent sentences.  Sam and Dean may not be able to save you from this demon but reason can.

This returns us to the mission of Socrates and the original question of what has Jerusalem to do with Athens.  In The Apology, Socrates wants to know who is wise.  In Proverbs, we are told to get wisdom.  We are told to value it above all else.  And we are told that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.  There are some things we cannot doubt because they make doubting possible.

Like Cicero we may be lecturing in the ruins of the Academy.  If we want to renew philosophy so that it does not go through another similar cycle, we will have to find that lasting foundation for knowledge.  Some things are clear to reason.

Posted in Plato, Postmodernity, Reason, Skepticism, Socrates, Uncategorized | Leave a comment