Metaphysics (what is true?)

In western philosophy, the answers to “what is true?” or “what is real?” have fallen into three categories. Regrettably, the names for these categories each have different meanings in other contexts. Philosophers seeking to explain what is real tend to be materialists or idealists or realists.

Materialists, in this pursuit, are philosophers who say that only material things are real. In other words, something that cannot be detected and measured and described scientifically does not exist. God, then, does not exist. Angels and demons do not exist; fairies and jinn do not exist. Bigfoot and surviving Ivory-Billed Woodpeckers apparently do not exist, since material and scientific evidence for them is lacking and incomplete. The human mind or soul or spirit, as distinct from the body and its parts, does not exist. What we perceive as our mind or soul or spirit, according to a materialist, is entirely the result of mechanical, chemical, and electrical events within our bodies, especially in our brains.

Idealists, on the other hand, say that reality consists entirely of mind and thought, or of soul and spirit. The material world is an illusion. Dreams, hallucinations, and the tricks of illusionists can be offered as evidence that the material world is not real, since our senses that describe that world can be fooled. Paradoxes about the material world also reveal it to be an illusion. Ancient Greeks demonstrated that motion is impossible, since the fastest runner cannot beat a tortoise in a race if the tortoise is given a head start. By the time the runner reaches the tortoise’s starting line, the tortoise has gone a certain distance; by the time the runner reaches that point, the tortoise has again gone further. Our senses show us that the runner will pass the tortoise, but reason and logic seem to say that passing the moving tortoise is impossible. Reason and logic, therefore, support idealism, a world of ideas where material entities are results of those ideas and do not exist on their own. Goodness, beauty, quality, love: these things really exist. Their reality shapes the illusion which we often treat as the real world.

Dualists hold that material and ideal entities both exist; both are completely real. Science perceives and measures the material world but is incapable of evaluating the ideal world, the world of minds and spirits, the world of thought and feelings. Not every dualist believes in a god or gods; those that do believe generally attribute creation—the beginning and existence of material things—to the divine spiritual Being or beings. Most dualists describe each human being as compound, consisting of both body and mind, or body and spirit. As the material body can be dissected and seen to have various parts, so the ideal being can be sorted into mind, heart, will, soul, spirit, self, and perhaps other categories.

Most people who take time to think about what is real probably conclude that dualism represents the real world better than materialism or idealism. Many professional philosophers, however, have good reasons to opt for materialism or for idealism. Some are skeptical, for example, of the description of a human being as both material and spiritual—the philosophers refer to that model as the “ghost in a machine.” Other options have been considered—one ancient option which stands apart from these three traditional options, and other approaches that acknowledge duality in what is real but still consider either matter or mind/spirit to be the primary reality. J.

More about philosophy

Philosophy is traditionally defined as the search for what is true, what is good, and what is beautiful. Technical terms for those topics are “metaphysics” (the search for what is true, or real—which is followed by “epistemology,” determining how we know what is real), “ethics” (the search for what is good), and “aesthetics” (the search for what is beautiful, and how we recognize what is beautiful). Some twentieth-century philosophers willingly surrendered these searches to other disciplines that had branched off from philosophy. They conceded the search for what is true to science, accepting that whatever scientists recognize as real should be considered real. They conceded the search for what is beautiful to the arts, accepting that whatever artists recognize as beautiful should be considered beautiful. The question of how we know what is real was bestowed upon psychologists, and the question of what is good was bestowed upon sociologists. After all, perception is done in the mind, and psychologists study the mind. Ethics are governed (if not formed) by groups of people, and sociologists study groups of people.

What, then, is left for philosophy to consider? With philosophy left only as a branch on the limb of “liberal arts,” much of the work of modern philosophers concerns language and communication. This is, indeed, a fertile field to plow and plant and tend. The signs and symbols used to communicate ideas fascinate philosophers. Take the idea of 2, which can also be represented as II. It can be called two or deux or dos or zwei. For English speakers, it must be distinguished from the preposition “to” or the synonym of “also,” “too.” Once considered or communicated, though, this sign or symbol represents a powerful idea, an idea that contains more than two apples or two triangles. Philosophers even ask whether the number two exists apart from two apples or two triangles. If it exists as a pure idea, what makes that idea real? Would the idea of “two” exist without a mind to consider the significance of “two” beyond its representation in any pair of objects in the universe?

These questions restore philosophy’s function as a search for truth. Thinkers trained in a scientific approach may fail to appreciate the importance of determining whether the idea of “two” exists apart from the observer or exists only in the mind of the observer. For that matter, philosophers should ask whether science can observe and measure and comprehend everything that is real. Science does a good job studying those things it is designed to study, but other existing things may retain their being outside the reach of science.

Likewise, sociology is not equipped to determine whether a rule or requirement is good. Observing groups of people all over the world, sociologists might report that nearly all groups of people frown upon murder and stealing. That, in itself, does not make those actions bad. A scientist might weigh each individual in a group of people, then establish an average, or normal, range of weights, with abnormal extremes at both ends of the spectrum, but that would not mean that the median weight was the healthiest weight for those people. A sociologist might closely observe a group of people and count the lies told by those people, then establish an average, or normal, number of lies told each day, with abnormal extremes at both ends of the spectrum, but that does not mean that the median honesty was the most ethical honesty for those people.

In short, philosophers never should have limited themselves to studying language and communication, even though that topic is fascinating. Ancient Greeks made the same mistake when philosophy degenerated into sophistry, promising to teach speakers how to be convincing, no matter which side they took in a debate. The career of Socrates helped to correct that mistake. Philosophers need to keep asking the big questions: What is true? What is good? What is beautiful? Information from other specialties assists philosophers in their search for answers. Scientists and artists, though, cannot replace philosophers in the realm of human thinking. J.

Branches of philosophy

Although some early Christians rejected all secular philosophy, many other Christians found philosophy a useful tool to understand creation and to communicate with people living in the world. Church leaders came to regard philosophy as “the handmaiden of theology.” God and his revelation took first place, and the teachings of philosophy were not allowed to contradict the Word of God. Beyond that, philosophy had an honored place in the toolkit of Christian education, and also that of Jewish education and Muslim education.

In the Middle Ages, philosophy and education were expressed in what then were called the seven Liberal Arts. These began with the “trivium”—Grammar, Logic, and Rhetoric. These studies are in no way trivial: they remain the foundation of thinking and communication, including written composition and public speaking. The other Liberal Arts were Arithmetic, Geometry, Astronomy, and Music. A solid basis of knowledge in these areas prepared any student to specialize in other fields of knowledge, research, and understanding.

During the Enlightenment, appreciation of knowledge, understanding, and education underwent further revision. By modern times, two major boughs had grown on the tree of knowledge. They were called Science and the Arts. Even today, most colleges and universities grant degrees that are designated as either science or arts.

Branches on the bough of science begin with mathematics. This is the purest science, dealing only with numbers. Two is always two, whether it is represented by two apples, two triangles, or the two Natures of Christ. From the branch of mathematics grow further branches, including arithmetic, geometry, algebra, and calculus. Practical mathematics also are taught, such as accounting and statistics.

Physics is a second branch of science. Physics studies objects in the material world and analyzes their qualities and their movement. Astronomy was recognized as a branch of physics once Isaac Newton demonstrated that the heavenly bodies obey the same laws as earthly bodies. Nuclear, or subatomic, physics are another branch, one in which the geometry of Euclid and the physics of Newton no longer apply. Practical physics are found in the various departments of engineering.

Chemistry has become its own branch, although chemistry might be viewed as a more complicated field within physics. Alchemists began with a theory of four elements (air, earth, fire, and water). They eventually discovered a far more complicated table of elements. Theoretical chemistry and practical chemistry are not as easily distinguished as in mathematics and physics.

Biology is the next branch of the sciences. Biology studies living things, whether plants or animals or microscopic forms of life. The most important practical biology is medicine.

All these are pure sciences or natural sciences. On the same bough of sciences are the social sciences, beginning with psychology. Once uniquely identified with philosophy, the study of the psyche—or the self—was transferred to the sciences in the twentieth century, beginning with the work of Sigmund Freud. Along with psychology comes sociology. Psychology looks at human beings as individuals, while sociology studies people in groups. Among the practical branches of sociology are law, politics, and economics. Some schools even treat history as a social science, although most schools consider history one of the arts.

The bough of arts on the tree of knowledge divides into fine arts and liberal arts (also called humanities). The fine arts include visual arts, such as painting and sculpture, and music (which involves hearing rather than seeing). If fine arts involve the senses, then baking and cooking might also be listed as fine arts. But the fine arts also include literature—poetry and prose, fiction and non-fiction. History might also land here, as one of the literary arts, a branch of non-fiction. Drama also is a fine art, which branches further into the categories of theater and film

The liberal arts, or humanities, complete the major branches of the tree of knowledge. Most schools include history among the humanities. Other humanities involve the study of languages and the study of cultures. Religious studies are also included among the humanities. Ironically, the study of philosophy—once the essence of the entire tree—has now become a department within the humanities or liberal arts, merely one branch among the many branches of the tree.

Arguments for a third bough of the tree become increasingly common in the late twentieth century and twenty-first century. This third bough consists of vocational education, which focuses on neither science nor on the arts. Modern society needs plumbers, electricians, carpenters, auto mechanics, truck drivers, and hair stylists. Food preparation and service falls into the same category. Even many workers in health care receive vocational training rather than scientific or artistic education. One does not require knowledge of algebra or drama or history to be effective in any of these jobs. Debate continues, though, about how much exposure to science and the arts helps people to be fully human and to be happy in their vocations while living among their common human beings. J.

Philosophy

One might say that every person is a philosopher, just as every person is a scientist, and every person is an artist. We all seek to understand the world around us and what it contains; with a combination of observation and experimentation, we all try to gain information and clarity about our world. We all express ourselves, from time to time, by humming a tune or doodling a design or telling a story. We all ask the Big Questions, at least once in a while, such as, “Who am I?” and, “Why am I here?”

But only a few become professional scientists, studying a science and earning a degree and taking a paid job to work with science. Only a few become professional artists, making a living in music or painting or storytelling or another of the arts. Only a very few become professional philosophers, and most of them end up teaching about philosophy in universities. In general, people understand why science and the arts should be funded. They don’t always know why philosophers should be paid for what they do.

Probably the earliest humans were scientists and artists and philosophers. The Neolithic Revolution—that time when people began to settle in communities and raise food rather than hunting and gathering food—allowed more specialization in such matters. Stone Age people and Bronze Age people had thoughts and ideas about their place in the world. These thoughts and ideas tended to emphasize relationships. People knew who they were by seeing their place in their families and their communities and by understanding where they stood in relation to their environment and their gods.

About twenty-five centuries ago, after the establishment of the Iron Age, a new wave of thinking arose in the world’s most established gatherings of people. Many of these new approaches are studied today among the world’s religions: from China, Confucianism and Daoism; from India, Buddhism and Upanishad Hinduism; and from Persia, Zoroastrianism. Each of these focused more than earlier teachings upon the human individual as an individual. Each taught followers to look within themselves for virtue and for truth. These new approaches have been described as the Axial Age in religion and philosophy. But the Greek experience of the Axial Age differs in some ways from what was happening at the same time among other cultures.

Greek Axial thinkers approached the world with questions about its nature, and they tried to answer these questions without resorting to religious formulas. The earliest asked about the structure of the world—from what are all things made? One thinker suggested water, another suggested fire, and still another suggested numbers. Thinkers debated whether the true world is always in motion or always at rest. After a time, such discussions degenerated into sophistry, as teachers offered to train their students in rhetoric, promising that they could win any argument, no matter which side they chose to defend. But another series of thinkers broke the pattern of sophistry by asking about what is good. How do we define goodness? How do we recognize goodness? How do we make ourselves good? Socrates and Plato and Aristotle are associated with this approach, and the Greek and Roman worlds were shaped by their thinking and by the generations of thinkers who followed their approach.

The Greek word for this kind of thought is “philosophy.” Literally, that word translates into English as “love of wisdom.” But the translation only requires us to define two words instead of one. “Philo” denotes love as in friendship or loyalty; it is neither the erotic love of romance and marriage nor the “agape” love for God and for one’s neighbors. “Sophia” as wisdom is not the ability to learn and retain a list of facts, nor is it the mechanical ability to use those facts to shape and change the world. Wisdom is not even the steady and helpful thought process that has been mislabeled “common sense.” Wisdom is a broader understanding—but an understanding of what? The most helpful description of wisdom is to view it as pursuit of the Good, the True, and the Beautiful.

For Greek philosophers, wisdom was distinct from religious knowledge and comprehension. Earlier thinkers in Israel had said the opposite. “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,” the Bible says in the books of Psalms and Proverbs. Psalm 14 adds, “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’” Wisdom, as described in the book of Proverbs, resembles what the apostle Paul would call “faith.” For this reason, James wrote, “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach” (James 1:5). Thus, we encounter two competing paths to wisdom—one which has the thinker look within, seeking the Good and the True and the Beautiful; and the other looking to God, hoping to find in God the Good and the True and the Beautiful. Which is fascinating, since one of the major questions asked by those on the first path is, “Does God exist?” J.

Philosophy

Should Christians avoid philosophy? Is the practice of philosophy one of the dark arts, like sorcery? To answer this question, one might quote Colossians 2:8: “See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits [or principles] of the world, and not according to Christ.” That is, in fact, the only verse in the Bible that uses the word “philosophy,” although Acts 17:18 does mention the philosophers addressed by Paul in Athens.

If philosophy is worldly and evil—part of the human world that is opposed to God’s Truth—then Christians should indeed beware. One cannot walk through mud without getting dirty, and one cannot dabble in worldly affairs without becoming tainted by the sins of the world. Yet many things in the world are good and God-pleasing when used rightly but dangerous and harmful when used wrongly. Water sustains life, but it also drowns. Fire keeps a person warm, provides light, and cooks food, but fire can also destroy property and cause great harm to the human body. Money can be used wisely to serve God and to help one’s neighbors, but “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils” (I Timothy 6:10). Before rejecting all philosophy, a Christian must ask what is meant by philosophy and whether it is all the same. When Paul writes to the Colossians about human tradition and about elemental spirits or principles, is he hinting that some sorts of philosophy are dangerous but that a different philosophy might be beneficial? Is it possible to have a philosophy that is, as Paul says, “according to Christ”?

I maintain that Christians can be philosophers. Christians can read what philosophers have written, can evaluate those writings, and can benefit from those writings without being harmed. Christians can sort through the concepts and the methods of philosophy, approving what is used “according to Christ” while setting aside what comes from merely human tradition or from elemental principles of the world. For the God who created us gave us minds to think, minds to question, minds to explore and learn and grow. In his teaching, Jesus did not hand out answers to every question. Often he arranged that those who heard his teachings had to think about them, consider what he said, and put his words into perspective. God thinks, and people are made in his image. We are meant to think. Philosophy proposes questions and seeks answers. So long as the questions and answers do not separate the thinker from Christ, the Lord cannot disapprove of our philosophical efforts.

We ask many questions. “Why am I here? What should I be doing? What is this world around me? Can I trust my senses and what they tell me about the world, or is there more around me than I can see and hear and feel? How does it work that a series of sounds or marks on a page or screen can transmit thoughts from one mind to another? And what is it that makes some sights and sounds and scents and flavors more beautiful than others?”

We ask questions, and we search for answers. We search in our own minds and experiences. We search the opinions of other people we trust. We search the opinions of recognized experts, and then we think some more. The same apostle Paul who warned us about philosophy also encouraged us to think. He wrote, “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Philippians 4:8). That is how the Bible instructs Christians to think. And that, my friends, is philosophy. J.

The tenth day of Christmas

On this tenth day of Christmas, I realize that I have taken most of the Christmas season off from blogging… which was probably healthy, even though not a deliberate decision. Having entered a new year, I believe that it is time to move forward, to consider where I have been and where I am going, and to make plans in hope and in optimistic Christmas spirit.

We had a lot of family time together for Christmas, which was good… although I also found it necessary to retreat from the crowd and regather my energy. One of my gifts was a splendid commentary on the book of Daniel, and I have already read more than half of it. Other books were also under the tree, plus I invested some of my gift money in books which are on their way to my house. I was asked a second time last month to speak at a funeral. The funeral took place on December 31, so I used the opportunity to talk about last days and about our Christian hope as we live in the last days and look forward to the new creation.

The last several months I have been writing essays on history, drawing upon lectures I delivered in the college classroom when I was still a college instructor, before COVID hit. I probably have about ten to twelve more of those to write, and I hope to produce one a week for the next three months or so.

Meanwhile, as I have been reading through my philosophy library the past couple of years and have finally reached the twentieth century, I have been developing ideas for a book about philosophy. My thought is that this book will contain some characters and plot and drama—a student working on a doctorate in philosophy while working part-time in a store, a bungled hold-up involving a shooting, then time for recovery, followed by a trial. This plot will introduce opportunities to examine truth—truth as seen from different points of view, and the effort to discover a genuine truth behind those perspectives. But what I will write and post first will be some comments about philosophy that (I hope) will become narrative and conversation in the book, as the main character explains why he is studying philosophy and how it applies to “real” life. My goal is to produce one post a week for this project, and we will see how it goes.

Aside from that, posts will come as they come. They might reflect current events, weather, holidays, or life in general, as the mood strikes me. If I continue taking a break from time to time (as I did in 2021), that will mean that I am busy with other things.

I wish each of you the richest blessings in this new year. May it bring us joy and peace and reasons for hope. J.