In the end we must confess that we have no idea why there is no established body of metaphysical results. It cannot be denied that this is fact, however, and the beginning student of metaphysics should keep this fact and its implications in mind. One of its implications is that the author of this book … is [not] in a position in relation to you that is like the position of the author of [a] text … in geology … All these people will be the masters of a certain body of knowledge, and on many matters, if you disagree with them you will simply be wrong. In metaphysics, however, you are perfectly free to disagree with anything what philosophers have said in the past or are saying in the present. (Peter van Inwagen, Metaphysics, 2nd Ed., page 12)
Summary of the following by Ed.: All arguments at the most basic level are circular (a position of faith), as basic convictions (a synonym) cannot be avoided by anyone: common man or studied philosopher. Knowledge may not be defined by any criteria because there is none that is universally agreed upon and are constantly changing. Knowledge existed before there was every any science of epistemology or logic. “Within a particular system, the basic convictions are not only truths; they are the most certain of truths, the criteria of other truths…. One may not define “knowledge” in such a way as to require us to transcend our humanity in order to know.”
How do we know? That’s hard to say; but we do. Some circular arguments simply are more plausible than others. “Truth is a giant onion, for all true statements are onion shoots in disguise.” That argument is best interpreted as a circular one, the conclusion being presupposed in the reason offered. But there is something absurd about it. “Reason is necessary, for one must use reason even in order to deny it.” That too, is circular, but it seems much more plausible. A skeptic might say that the second argument seems plausible because it is our argument, while the first is not.
“Knowledge” itself is dreadfully hard to define. Logicians, epistemologists and scientists have devoted countless hours to the task of finding criteria for genuine knowledge. Yet knowledge may not be defined as the observance of any such criteria. Knowledge occurred in human life long before there was any science of logic or epistemology or biology, and people still gain knowledge without referring to such disciplines. These disciplines try to conceptualize, define, understand a phenomenon which exists independently of those disciplines. They do not make knowledge possible. And their concepts of knowledge change rather frequently. It would be presumptuous indeed to suppose that these disciplines have succeeded at last in defining everything which constitutes “knowledge.” Thus, if the recognition of plausibility in a circular argument does not fit any existing technical criteria of “knowledge,” then so much the worse for those criteria.
The fact is that recognition of such plausibility is a type of knowledge which epistemologists are obligated to note and account for. “Basic convictions” cannot be avoided; and such convictions may be proved only through circular argument. Therefore circular argument is unavoidable, at the level of basic conviction. This sort of circularity is not a defect in one system as opposed to others. It is an element of all systems. It is part of the human condition. It is altogether natural, the, that the term “knowledge” be applied to basic convictions, and if no technical account has yet been given of this sort of knowledge, then such an account is overdue.
Within a particular system, the basic convictions are not only truths; they are the most certain of truths, the criteria of other truths. If we deny the term “knowledge” to these greatest of all certainties, then no lesser certainty can be called “knowledge” either. And no epistemologist may adopt a view which, by doing away with all knowledge, does away with his job! Knowledge is not an ideal; it is not something which we strive for and never attain. It is a commonplace of everyday life. It is the job of epistemologists to account for that commonplace, not to define it out of existence. One may not define “knowledge” in such a way as to require us to transcend our humanity in order to know. One must defer to the commonplace. And “knowledge of basic principles” is part of that commonplace. (John Frame, “God and Biblical Language: Transcendence and Immanence.” http://www.frame-poythress.org/frame_articles/1974BiblicalLanguage.html
Philosophy as a Discipline
“It cannot be maintained that philosophy has had any great measure of success in its attempts to provide definite answers to its questions.” (Bertrand Russell in Classical Philosophical Questions, 567)
“Philosophy…. is uncertain in its own starting point, is in doubt concerning its own task and aim, and is divided into all kinds of schools and systems. There is not question of its steady progress in history; it has, especially in the period of Kant, broken down more than it has built up, and its defenders not infrequently give utterance to the opinion that the advantage which it has produced consists solely in the enlightening of insight into the essence of human knowledge, and that aside from this it is mostly a history of instructive and important human errors.” (Herman Bavinck, The Philosophy of Revelation, page 298)
“There is no significant body of knowledge that is taken to be universally true with respect to the subject matter of philosophy. Surely the fact that a discipline such as philosophy has had a few millenia to define itself, and has thus not been successful, is reason enough to set forth a positive commendation for another approach to the discipline itself.” (Scott Oliphant, Reason for Faith, page ix)
Some philosophers have argued that the central and most fundamental philosophical question is the nature of philosophy itself. Definitions of philosophy have differed radically, even among practicing philosophers. Often one group of philosophers has thought that another has badly mistaken the task of philosophy. Some have said that philosophy is the “queen of sciences,” the most general and universal science, as opposed to the particular sciences such as physics and biology. Others have denied that philosophy is a science at all. Some have argued that philosophy tells us about the ultimate constituents of the world, while other philosophers have rejected even the possibility of such an inquiry. Some have said that philosophy is basically a rational activity, centering in argument and the critical evaluation of evidence. But still others have denied that the use of reason is essential or that there are any convincing arguments in philosophy. (Geisler et al, Introduction to Philosophy, page 13)
In the case of competing philosophies … how can one distinguish the true philosophy, the philosophy which describes the real world, from a philosophy that is merely a tour de force, a consistent system no doubt, but one which applies to nothing at all? *Gordon Clark, Thales to Dewey, page 325)
The history of philosophy began with naturalism, and so far as this volume is concerned, it ends with naturalism. The Presocratic naturalism dissolved into Sophism, from which a metaphysics arose; and the metaphysics lost itself in a mystic trance. Then under the influence of an alien source, Western Europe appealed to a divine revelation. In the sixteenth century one group put their complete trust in revelation, while another development turned to unaided human reason. This latter movement has now abandoned its metaphysics, its rationalism, and even the fixed truths of naturalistic science. It has dissolved into Sophism. Does this mean that philosophers and cultural epochs are nothing but children who pay their fare to take another ride on the merry-go-round? Is this Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence? Or, could it be that a choice must be made between skeptical futility and a word from God? To answer this question for himself, the student, since he cannot ride very fast into the future and discover what a new age will do, might begin by turning back to the first page and pondering the whole thing over again. This will at least stave off suicide for a few days more. (Gordon Clark, Thales to Dewey, page 534—the last paragraph of the book)
“Just think of the Continental rationalists (Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz), who began with supposedly clear and distinct, “self-evident” ideas (notice their internal, subjective character), and yet derived from them radically and embarrassingly different conclusions about reality (dualism, monism, pluralism). Then consider the British empiricists (Locke, Berkeley, Hume), who traced the mind’s ideas back to individual sensation (notice again the internal, subjective locus), only to render a “substance” that unites properties inexplicable (Locke), to dispense with material substance (Berkeley), and then to lose altogether any mental substance or “self” that unites perceptions (Hume). As Kant concluded, to the degree the mind knows its own inner contents (constituted by its own activity in forming the input of the senses), it still has no knowledge of things-in-themselves outside the mind. The predicament is that man as a knower can never “get outside” the ideas formed within himself. When the unbeliever begins his philosophizing with himself at the center, he ends up unable to escape himself (subjectivism); and since every unbeliever faces the same dilemma, nobody can speak with authority about objective reality for anybody else (relativism).” (Van Til’s Apologetic, 315)
Christianity vs. Metaphysics and Epistemology
Perhaps not even one fundamental proposition of Christian doctrine has been made fully acceptable by ordinary standards of rationality; certainly none has been universally accepted by rational beings. As George Mavrodes remarked in commenting on an earlier draft of this paper, “That would seem to be precious little progress for 2000 years of work.” But acceptance by rational beings is not a decisive criterion in assessing philosophy. And, in any case, philosophical theology looks no worse in this regard than ordinary metaphysics and epistemology, on which human beings have been at work for half a millenium longer. What is more, Christian philosophy has unquestionably done far better than any other brand of philosophy in the number of its practitioners and adherents. Of course, progress in philosophy, Christian or not, is reckoned otherwise than by finding ourselves able to say, “Thank God that’s done.” Still, we do sometimes discover that an old, neglected concept or argument is not as bad as we had thought it was, and that is progress, too. (“Faith Seeks Understanding, Finds” in Thomas Flint, Ed., Christian Philosophy, 29)
Bertrand Russell: Philosophy Provides No Definite Answers
“It cannot be maintained that philosophy has had any great measure of success in its attempts to provide definite answers to its questions…. (philosophy) has not achieved positive results such as have been achieved by other sciences…. There are many questions—and among them those that are of the profoundest interest to our spiritual life—which, so far as we an see, must remain insoluble to the human intellect unless its powers become of quite a different order from what they are now…. The answers suggested by philosophy are none of them demonstrably true. Yet, however slight may be the hope of discovering an answer, it is part of the business of philosophy to continue….” (Bertrand Russell, “The Value of Philosophy,” in Robert J. Mulvaney, Ed., Classic Philosophical Questions (13th Ed.), 567)
Rationality Has No Definitive Analysis
“Some people are surprised (and disappointed) to discover the frequency with which philosophers have difficulty coming up with a totally satisfactory analysis of fundamental concepts…. the world is still awaiting a definitive analysis of rationality.” Ronald Nash, Faith and Reason, page 75
Scientists Do Not Agree On What Science Is
No generally accepted definition of what science is is agreed on by a majority of philosophers of science. Several alleged characteristics of science (repeatability, observability, empirical testability) have been offered, but none of them has succeeded. J. P. Moreland, Scaling the Secular City, page 199.
*Except that which is based upon the first principle of Scripture.