What is Philosophy?

Dr Ben Holloway, Professor of Philosophy and History of Ideas, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary

I asked my first philosophical question when I was seven. I wondered if what I was experiencing was real. “Isn’t it possible that I am really lying in a laboratory plugged into a powerful computer? Everything I am experiencing could just be a computer-generated illusion.” The trouble was, I had no way to know that I was not suffering a computer-generated illusion. Anything I could do to prove that I wasn’t, including pinching myself, could just be something generated by the computer. And if there is no way to be sure that my experiences aren’t illusions, then everything I believe about the world is false.

It turns out that I am not the first person to have asked such a question. French philosopher, Rene Descartes considered something similar, and more recently Hilary Putnam wrote an article aptly entitled, “Brains in a Vat.” Good. I am not losing my mind. I just chose the right major, although, arguably, those two might amount to the same thing!

Philosophical Questions

Philosophical questions are sometimes strange, but they amount to a significant quantity of the history of human thought. What marks them out as philosophical is that they are usually almost impossible to answer in other disciplines; they are logically fundamental; and have far-reaching consequences.

Philosophical questions are usually divided into three main categories. The one asked by my seven-year-old self is epistemological. It is about knowledge. It asks whether we can have any. If we are all plugged into computers, and everything we experience is an illusion, then it appears the answer is no. Such a conclusion is a species of skepticism, the view that we cannot have knowledge or only a limited amount. Other epistemological questions include, what is truth? what must be true of a person for them to know something? And what makes beliefs rational?

Other questions are about the nature of the world. What kinds of things exist? What is time? Does God exist? Do we have free will? What is a human person? All these questions are usually categorized as metaphysical questions. They are about what is really real. Metaphysics is enormously helpful for our doctrine of God. For example, in articulating a coherent doctrine of the Trinity, theologians have used various metaphysical concepts such as substance, essence, and persons. Christian philosophers have always been keen on providing aid to difficult doctrines such as the Trinity, the incarnation, and other divine attributes.

Many of the questions we ask are about value. What kinds of things are good and what makes them so? Of particular interest is the value of actions. Actions can be good or bad in a unique way. They have moral statuses (forbidden, permitted, or obligatory). Philosophical questions about morality include what makes actions right or wrong, how we know, and what must be true of the world for morality to be objective rather than a matter of culture or individual preference. Questions of this kind fall under the category of ethics. 

In addition to the three main categories, there is a final set of philosophical questions derived from asking questions about other academic disciplines. Philosophers are famous for sticking their noses into other people’s business. The ancient Athenian philosopher, Socrates, was condemned to death for it! Still, there are good reasons for philosophical nosiness. There are all sorts of fascinating philosophical questions about science, religion, theology, art, education, history, law, politics, and language. These kinds of questions are commonly called second-order questions. Second-order disciplines are vital for showing the usefulness of philosophy for ministry. I have a particular love for these kinds of questions. Perhaps because I am as nosey as Socrates!

Philosophical Methods

A set of questions can’t be answered until one can find some appropriate method for answering them. The trouble with philosophical questions is that we often cannot work out where to begin. For example, I couldn’t work out whether I was a brain in a vat by conducting scientific experiments. Hence, ordinary scientific methods won’t be adequate.

The primary means of answering philosophical questions is by using logic. Primarily, logic is the study of arguments: what kinds of arguments are possible, and what makes them good. For example, here is the kind of argument my seven-year-old self was making:

  1. If I know that I am sitting in my chair writing this sentence, then I must be absolutely certain that I am not a brain in a vat.
  2. I am not absolutely certain that I am not a brain in a vat.
  3. Hence, I don’t know that I am sitting in my chair writing this sentence.

Responding to this argument requires showing that either premise (1) or (2) are false. We shall return to it during a discussion on skepticism. Meanwhile, can you think of a way to respond?

Assessing arguments such as the one above is the warp and woof of philosophical work. It is not that arguments are unique to philosophy. As we will see, we all use them. But philosophers have built up an enormous body of knowledge on the topic to attempt to answer their questions.

Is Philosophy Forbidden for Christians?

Philosophy sounds innocent enough but is there a theological reason to avoid it? In his letter to the Colossians, Paul writes, “See to it that there is no one who takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception in accordance with human tradition, in accordance with the elementary principles of the world, rather than in accordance with Christ” (Col 2:8 NASB). So, does Paul forbid philosophy?

In the verse, Paul is warning that some people might try to take Christians captive and carry them away from the faith. At the time of writing, many people earned a living through powerful speaking and rhetorical power. They might captivate an audience and ‘carry them away.’ Paul says that powerful speakers will use worldly philosophy to capture the minds of men and women. Hence, we should beware of those people. But Paul also tells us what they might want to take people captive to and with, namely, a “philosophy and empty deceit.” Surely, then, we should avoid philosophy altogether.

Although “empty deceit” and “philosophy” are conjoined, not all conjunctions are used for lists. They can also be used to indicate that one word is modifying the other. For example, if I told you I like my coffee nice and hot, you would take me to be saying that I like it nicely hot (rather than wanting my coffee to be nice and to be hot). Taken this way, Paul’s phrase should probably read “empty, deceitful philosophy” (see the NET translation for an example of this way of translating the phrase). If so, then philosophy itself isn’t bad even if some of it is empty and deceitful.

Even if one doesn’t accept this interpretation, Paul goes on to answer, “what kind of philosophy?” by saying, “according to men, according to the basic principles of the world, and not according to Christ.” His point is not that all philosophies are somehow intrinsically dishonouring to the Lord, but that some of them are.

Worldly philosophies are different now from Paul’s time. But Paul’s exhortation is still a good one. Present intellectual threats to Christians include moral relativism or relativism about truth. They include atheistic commitments, denials of the resurrection, and skepticism about the knowledge of God. Reading philosophy from a Christian perspective should improve our defences against these ideas. We will also be better equipped to help others avoid being carried away by them.

The most important point to remember is that philosophy shouldn’t serve as a competitor nor an authority over theology. Instead, philosophy should serve the theological task and, ostensibly, the ministry of the Church in the world. In the next post, I will attempt to describe the task of a Christian philosopher and philosophy’s benefits for Christians.

Dr Ben Holloway, Professor of Philosophy and History of Ideas, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary