A Lighthouse Upon a Hill: In Defense of Philosophers

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“All truths are easy to understand once they are discovered; the point is to discover them.” ~ Galileo

When you you have a maintenance or repair problem in your home, you call a contractor. When you want to get serious about losing weight, you join a gym or hire a personal fitness specialist. When you need help with a subject at school, you get tutoring. Whenever we debate some policy point, we consult subject matter experts. So why is it when it comes to so many aspects of our lives we are ready and willing to get help, except when it comes to critical thinking? I do not doubt for a second that we are capable of thinking for ourselves (we do it all the time), but why not try to do it well?

Whether it is at work or at home, or in a relationship we are pursuing, having a clear understanding of the ideas that are a part of everything we do is essential if we want to lead a good life. If you agree, then why not consult with someone who has made it their mission in life to examine these ideas? Why not have a conversation with somebody who is driven to think things through and explore ideas with others who share the same interests? Enter the philosopher.

I get it. I really do. Philosophy can be and often is a very esoteric discipline, steeped in its own traditions, vocabulary, key words, and eccentric figures. It is also the furthest thing away from the ‘hard’ disciplines of engineering, applied physics, and technical design. Philosophers themselves can get lost in their own sauce and become obsessed with notions that seem trivial, which is why many people perhaps think their PHI 101 class in college was equally trivial. However, we should not mistake the ‘softness’ of philosophy as weakness, nor the boredom you may have experienced in PHI 101 as indicative of the discipline as a whole. Just take a gander at PhilPapers.org to see the latest and greatest research that philosophers are doing. I guarantee there is something there for you.

If you are still struggling to understand why philosophers do philosophy, then consider a thesis that you probably endorse, which is that perception is not reality — things are rarely what they seem to be at first. If you agree with that thesis, then you ought to appreciate why philosophers try to investigate what reality really is as opposed to what it appears to be. Philosophers take that thesis very seriously, because they do not want to be led astray by their perceptions in pursuit of truth.

Philosophy is not the enemy of common sense, but in fact its underwriter.

But to be honest I think philosophy could use a bit of a makeover, a rebranding as it were. Traditionally and etymologically, philosophy is defined as ‘the love of wisdom.’ As much as I appreciate that definition, I do not think it adequately reflects what philosophy is and what philosophers do in practice, which is why I think of philosophy as the study and application of fundamentals. This definition in my opinion opens the door for everyone to do philosophy about anything because there are fundamentals in everything. From the sports we play, to the music we compose — even the Universe itself, with its constants.

To reiterate, by fundamentals I mean the basic, essential, and elementary principles or components of a given topic or field of inquiry. In the game of chess for example, knowing what each of the pieces are called and how they may move are the fundamentals of playing the game, because they are prior to more advanced aspects of the game such as openings and other tactics. In cooking food, the fundamental activity you are doing is managing heat. When you are trying to lose weight, it is all about burning more calories than you consume. Whatever it is you may find yourself doing or thinking about in life, there is a philosophy you can associate with it and fundamentals you can implement.

In Western civilization, the first people who took this mission seriously were the ancient Greeks, beginning with the Milesian school and other Pre-Socratic schools. They asked what we call ‘the Big Questions,’ such as why is there something rather than nothing? Why does anything happen at all? What kind of ‘stuff’ is everything made of? What are the fundamentals of cause and effect? To pursue answers of these questions is what establishes one as a philosopher, which is why Thales of Miletus in particular was considered by Aristotle to be the first philosopher in Greece.

What makes Thales unique is that he believed the Big Questions could be answered without appealing to myths, folklore, and superstition. His philosophy was that we did not need to consult oracles or shamans for insights as to why things happen, but that we could obtain insights of our own simply by observing and analyzing Nature herself in order to discover her secrets — her fundamentals if you will. These fundamentals would allow us to, for instance, understand the underlying principles as to why earthquakes happen. In Thales, the natural philosopher was born, the precursor to the modern day scientist.

Instead of simply accepting that some things just happen or are some way they are for no reason whatsoever, philosophers seek to understand the underlying and initial conditions for everything. Philosophers embrace a mindset of both exploration (in discovering new truths and formulating new concepts) and protection (making sure those truths and concepts are worthy of our belief and practice). In a sense, philosophers are the professionals who make the proverbial ‘Ivory Tower’ of academia into a ‘Great Lighthouse’ that shines the light of Reason on all things, as to show what is true, good, and beautiful in this world.

One of the reasons why I embraced philosophy was that prior to becoming an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church and pursuing a career in Christian ministry, I wanted to do so with a clear conscience. Simply put, I did not want to take my faith for granted any more. I figured that, if I was going to be in a position of authority as a preacher and practitioner of the Gospel, then I had to explore the fundamentals of my worldview and religious beliefs.

I was particularly motivated to conduct my own philosophical self-examination after doing a cursory reading of René Descartes, who in his classic treatise Principles of Philosophy (1644) wrote, “That in order to seek truth, it is necessary once in the course of our life, to doubt, as far as possible, all things.” Descartes’ rationale for making this rule is rather simple: our received worldview that we were taught as children has invariably biased our way of thinking, and so if we want to be sure we have found the truth as adults, then we need to learn to be independent thinkers. “You must unlearn what you have learned,” as a little green Jedi master once put it. “You must be born again” as another master once put it.

Descartes made no exceptions to his rule of doubt. In subsequent pages of Principles of Philosophy he argued that the only thing he could be absolutely certain of was his own existence. He realized that doubt itself is a mental activity, and that even if you were to doubt literally everything around you, what remains are your own thoughts. This is how he arrived at his famous maxim — cogito, ergo sum — I think, therefore I am. This maxim became the starting point for all other inquiries that Descartes made, because he developed a complete philosophical system around it.

What came to be known as Cartesian doubt, or methodological doubt, became a standard practice in the world of philosophers. It is for this reason that Descartes is considered by many to be ‘the Father of Modern Philosophy.’ (‘Modern Philosophy’ being understood as a departure from ‘Classical Philosophy’ that emerged out of ancient Greece.) This is not to say that all philosophers everywhere implement Cartesian doubt in their respective fields of inquiry, but in terms of picking a starting point, Cartesian doubt has proven to be quite effective. Although I feel obliged to say that individual results may vary.

Although, something that vexed Descartes in his writing was the possibility that some evil demon was manipulating his thoughts such that he could not trust even his own intuitions. A modern day version of this thought experiment can be illustrated by the Matrix films. In these movies, human beings are plugged into a computer network that fully simulates their physical reality, and they are completely unaware of this fact. Descartes would argue that in either case, he would still have the belief that there was some world around him that he was interacting with.

The point of the thought experiment is to discover for yourself the beliefs you hold which are undoubtable, even in radical cases such as the Matrix. For Descartes, these ‘undoubtables’ functioned as a baseline or measuring stick by which he could qualify and quantify his confidence in the truth of a particular belief.

Consider some basic facts that you think are obviously true, perhaps ‘the Earth is spherical.’ For you this fact is obvious because you have seen pictures of the Earth from outer space taken by satellites that other people saw getting launched into orbit. But was this fact always obvious to you? What about people who lived before the Space Age? Was it obvious to them? In contemplating these questions, we should probably recognize that what is obvious to one person may not be obvious to the next. So what gives?

In the history of philosophy many theories have been put forth to respond to this problem, but there are two which most philosophers keep coming back to — empiricism and rationalism. The empiricism thesis says that knowledge can be built and justified by experience and observation, whilst the rationalist thesis says that knowledge can be built and justified by making inferences and doing conceptual analysis. In my opinion neither of these have some sort of monopoly to the exclusion of the other. Rather, both of them give us mutually edifying frameworks to think about epistemology, which is the study of how we justify what we know.

One general example that illustrates how both cooperate can be found in mathematics. The basic functions of arithmetic (counting, adding, subtracting, multiplying, and dividing) can be empirically grounded in objects we can physically manipulate, but when these functions are abstracted into principles, these principles can be used to calculate things that you do not need to physically manipulate. When you learn how to combine 1 apple with 2 other apples and see that you have 3 apples, it is easy to understand that 1+2=3 regardless of the thing you are adding. In other words, the experience of adding apples together led to the formation of the concept of ‘addition’ which we then used as a basic rule for analyzing other cases where we added things together. How do you like them apples?

So when some fact seems obvious to you that is not obvious to someone else, I would recommend reviewing how those facts were formed and justified, either empirically and/or rationally. I used the example ‘the Earth is spherical’ earlier, and while we might be tempted to say our personal basis for that fact is perceptual — I am not sure you could honestly say that unless you have personally spent time in orbit. No doubt we have all seen pictures of the Earth from outer space, but that is not the same thing.

We would not believe ‘the Earth is spherical’ if we did not also believe the astronauts who took the picture, or did not also believe that the camera they used was functioning properly. And so even if ‘the Earth is spherical’ is a belief that was formed and justified empirically by one person, the acceptance of that belief in others is done so on a rational basis. Specifically, I believe ‘the astronauts who took pictures of the Earth are not lying to me’ because NASA expended a great deal of time, energy, and tax dollars to get them into orbit, and I should think lying about the pictures of Earth would be a betrayal to themselves.

So in the case of trusting the pictures of the Earth taken by astronauts, you might base your trust on the fact that you have taken pictures yourself of other things and so you can trust that photography is an accurate way of capturing empirical information. You might in turn base your trust of photography on the technology that makes it possible in the first place, which if given proper instruction and materials you could reproduce. You could also point out that if you were the astronaut who took the picture, you would have been in the same position to make the same observation that ‘the Earth is spherical.’

Given how empirical the chain of justification above is, you might be wondering how ‘the Earth is spherical’ could be the result of some rational process. Luckily, Eratosthenes can bail you out. To make his long story short, he calculated the circumference of the Earth by comparing the difference between shadows at noon between two locations (here is a diagram). On the assumption that the Earth had some sort of circular shape (which would have been a rational belief since the Sun and Moon appear circular), it would have been rational to trust the calculations that Eratosthenes did. But on the assumption that the Earth was spherical, a circumference would have comported to a meridian, which meant that it was also within Eratosthenes’ grasp to estimate the Earth’s surface area! How do you like them shadows?

Before I move on, what needs to be made clear in this example is that empiricism tends to dominate our knowledge-building and justification process. Even in cases where we may have some rational basis for knowledge-building and justification (such as trusting an astronaut’s picture), these cases seem to originate with circumstances that were empirical. This led me to conclude that when one acknowledges the centrality of empiricism in philosophy, one commits to a view of the world that is objective, which is to say — there are facts about reality are true regardless of what we might think of them.

But if philosophers are dedicated to thinking critically, and they agree that an objective reality exists, and they also agree that knowledge about this reality can be built and justified empirically, then why is there so much disagreement between them?

One landmark study that sought to map out the extent of the disagreements between philosophers was done by David Bourget and David J. Chalmers, in which they asked (and titled their paper): What Do Philosophers Believe? As it turned out, not 1 out of the 30 concepts they polled saw unanimous or even near-unanimous (>90%) agreement. In fact, the most-accepted position (with ~82% agreement) was non-skeptical realism about the external world, so even the question above is not entirely correct! Be that as it may, I think this paper ought to lead us to consider how these disagreements happen in the first place.

For starters, not all fields in philosophy are empirical and so they cannot be decided empirically. Take ethics for example. While it can be empirically decided that there are children in Africa who are suffering from hunger, our obligation to feed those children is not something that can be decided empirically, nor can any solution as to how you want to feed those children. Even if the cost of these solutions can be empirically measured, the ethical principle ‘we ought to go with the solution that costs the least and does the most good’ is not a principle that can be proven or disproven empirically. These issues can be summed up with the Latin expression — de gustibus non est disputandum — on matters of taste there can be no dispute.

Personal questions about meaning, value, purpose, thought, behavior, decision, and action cannot be examined through the lens of a microscope or measured with a yardstick. They are matters of taste, and thus matters of opinion, not fact! For example, suppose I claimed ‘Swiss chocolate is the best kind of chocolate in the world’ and then followed-up with ‘because Switzerland has the highest per-capita consumption of chocolate in the world.’ Although the ladder claim can be decided empirically, the former claim is just my opinion.

If the only lesson you learn from doing philosophy is developing a keen sense of what is fact and opinion, then you will go very far in your intellectual life!

Returning to the “What Do Philosophers Believe?” paper, one can easily see (on pages 5 and 6) that all of the positions that Bourget and Chalmers asked are matters of opinion, because none of them can be empirically disputed! Even the question of God’s existence (which I will endeavor to discuss in a future article) cannot be answered empirically, so it too is just an opinion. Given this, if virtually everything philosophers investigate and discuss are matters of opinion, then it should come at no surprise as to why there is so much widespread disagreement.

In Book V of The Republic, Plato recounts a dialogue between his teacher (‘Socrates’) and another student (‘Glaucon’). Towards the end of this dialogue, the two characters have an exchange about — you guessed it — the difference between facts and opinions. Depending on which translation of The Republic you read, ‘Socrates’ says something to this effect: “opinion lies between the spheres of knowledge and ignorance.”

Busting out an English-Greek lexicon can help us understand what Plato meant. ‘Knowledge’ is episteme, which is where ‘epistemology’ comes from, and as I mentioned earlier is about how we build and justify knowledge; ‘ignorance’ is agnosia, where ‘agnostic’ comes from; and lastly ‘opinion’ is doxa, where ‘doxology’ and ‘doxastic’ come from. Ah. Now we are finally getting somewhere.

Towards the beginning of this article, I defined philosophy as the study and application of fundamentals, and so we might turn this definition on its head by asking: what are the fundamentals of doing philosophy? Well, I think episteme, agnosia, and doxa can not only help us answer this question, but enrich our portrait of the philosopher overall— first as someone who ought to build and justify knowledge, second as someone who ought to teach and share knowledge as to correct or deflate ignorance, and thirdly as someone who ought to cultivate strong opinions and arguments.

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Clear and critical thinking-out-loud about philosophical and theological topics from the perspective of a Christian pastor.

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