I have a love / hate relationship with philosophy. By philosophy, I am not directly talking about the discipline itself (which is to seek wisdom) but how it is often applied by modern philosophers in particular. On the one hand, philosophy teaches us intellectual humility, but on the other hand, it produces doubt and confusion over ideas that are common sense or self-evidently true. Sometimes it can lead to a kind of radical skepticism, or if not that then at least a great uncertainty over what is true. As Descartes put it, “[t]here is nothing so strange and so unbelievable that it has not been said by one philosopher.” Philosophy must be wielded skillfully if you are to derive actual wisdom from it. To use philosophy skillfully requires that you start your beliefs in common sense in general, you refine common sense, and you go beyond (but not significantly contrary to) what common sense says. This is the only way, otherwise you will be led astray. For as Aquinas said, “A small mistake in the beginning is a big one in the end.” We must be really careful what we accept in philosophy or else it will darken our minds and affect lives for the worst.
Throwing Away Common Sense
Take Parmenides as a prime example. His idea was that change was rationally impossible, so change must be an illusion. Any person with a half a mind could see that this is false, and yet here we have philosophy pretending to prove (a priori) that there is no change, no material world, no external minds, or whatever else you can conceive. I hate it when philosophers take these ideas seriously to the point that they either (a) accept them as true or (b) reject the belief but still sympathize with that belief as rational or regard it as complex. But at the same time, there’s something I love about these ideas. Parmenides and Zeno are clever and offer some great intellectual puzzles. We should take their challenges seriously, but not as serious challenges to the truth of that belief but as a challenge to us to strengthen that belief. Skeptics show us where our justifications for a belief may be weak or faulty, and I absolutely love this. As wrong as Parmenides was, he helped form Aristotle’s philosophy so I cannot help but appreciate his argument. However, as brilliant as these thinkers may be, at the end of the day they’re still sophists. As an intellectual exercise to solidify our beliefs, challenges to common sense are great, but when those beliefs become real, we must abhor such beliefs because they darken minds and destroy worlds.
A classmate once asked, “How can you be so sure of your beliefs, Gil? I’ve been a philosopher for some years, but I still feel like I’m just traveling in a desert of ideas, not knowing which ones I should or should not accept.” Unfortunately this not all that uncommon. I think there’s a kind of intellectual honesty here, and that is an admirable thing, but what is not good is a mind without a compass that tosses to and fro, not knowing where it should go. Every man is endowed with a nature that necessarily inclines us to hold to certain principles, which function as our guide in the every day concerns of life. Without this guide, nothing could make sense. We need an internal compass throughout our intellectual journey. If we dispose of that compass completely at the beginning, middle, or the end, then we have lost sight of everything. I told my classmate that he was misled by the philosophers he read, who told him that he must abandon common sense because they were naive prejudices of the human mind. Common sense can be wrong on particular details, but it cannot be entirely wrong. If it was, you could not begin to say that it is wrong because you’d have to assume common sense principles like the laws of logic to say it. And that’s the source of his uncertainty: he threw away the very thing that could give him knowledge.
Confusion and Depravity
Sometimes philosophy gets overly technical and tedious. If a thing can be said simply, then say it that way. Do not add words beyond necessity to give the appearance of wisdom. It frustrates me when I read paragraphs of text from a philosophical work when it could be said in just a paragraph. Philosopher’s today tend to live in their ivory towers and publish articles that are so technical and specialized, that it is only of value to a select few. That’s not how philosophy was in the classical period. It was practical and technical when needed. Philosophy’s goal was obtaining wisdom for this world and the next, not just knowledge. Technical or difficult works are not always bad, but it is when it becomes your primary emphasis instead of knowing God and living well. What also frustrates me is when I am debating some philosophically trained individuals, they argue in a way that makes it into a match over who can outwit who as opposed to a discussion over truth. Recently I pointed out that an author denied my FB friend’s interpretation of his writing, but then this friend throws the “intentional fallacy” at me in hopes that it will stick. Philosopher’s can argue their way into anything and it can puff up their pride. We all want to be seen as wise. I’m guilty of it myself.
I especially hate philosophy because of the confusion and depravity that gets justified by it. Several people have told me that after they have taken a philosophy class, all it did was confuse them even more. Some ideas are surely too lofty for the untrained mind to obtain at the beginning, and that is a source of confusion, but often times the confusion is a result of bad philosophy. Good philosophy clarifies and leads us to truth. Confusion is at best a process of the mind’s struggle to reach that truth, it should never be the end result. Philosophy has also been used to defend depraved ideas like infanticide (see Peter Singer). Utilitarianism itself can in principle justify murder. I have a Christian friend on FB who claimed that abortion “is a highly complicated issue” and that “neither position is clearly, undoubtedly correct.” I could honestly not be more appalled. I would expect this from a secular philosopher, but it becomes more disturbing when it comes from someone who is supposed to have Christ’s wisdom. What’s happened here is that he has mistaken his statement for intellectual nuance and honesty when it’s really just sophistry and deception. Unfortunately philosophy today excels at obscuring what is clearly true. Men love to rationalize their sin.
This is why Paul says, “Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools…” (Rom 1:22). It’s also why Paul warns, “Be careful that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deceit based on human tradition, based on the elements of the world, rather than Christ.” (Col 2:8). This is a warning against bad philosophy. But good philosophy will be in accordance to Christ. Really then, good philosophy is what I love because it coincides with the intellectual and moral compass that God has placed into every man’s nature. But fallen as we are, men suppress the truth in their unrighteousness. It’s this kind of philosophy that I hate. Hate may sound like an overly strong word, but this is what the Bible encourages us to do. David says, “I hate and abhor falsehood…” (Psalms 119:163) and Paul says we are supposed to “destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God” (2 Cor 10:5). As far as is possible, we do need to do this with gentleness and grace, but sometimes we need to strongly rebuke the “wise” publicly like Jesus did to the Pharisees. Use wisdom to discern when and when not to speak harshly. I sometimes fail on this myself because I get so angry with people that suppress the truth, especially when it’s from the church, that I cannot help but confront them harshly. The wiser they appear to be, the angrier I get because they should know better. But instead they trade the wisdom of God for the wisdom of this world.
With all of that said, I will always love philosophy because I love wisdom. When it is done properly, it does a good job of helping us discover truth. But if you listen to people like Wittgenstein or Derrida, there is no truth, only an abyss of ideas. I prefer Scholasticism precisely I think it most closely aligns with common sense. Scholastic philosophers developed a beautifully polished system of thought that refines the rough revelations of common sense. Their metaphysics is not detached from their ethics or their epistemology; everything operates as a seamless whole where one idea entails the other. Nevertheless, I still appreciate a good handful of analytic philosophers like Alvin Plantinga or John McDowell because they got some important insights. I do not discount everyone who opposes my ideas. Not everything I hold to is common sensical, and some matters are just so difficult, that common sense has nothing to say about it. But what I do know is that I know something, and what I know is something worth dying for. I did not earn this knowledge; it was given to me by Christ, in whom all the treasures of wisdom are hidden. My hope is that I can spread His truth to the ends of the earth, and destroy any argument that sets itself against it.