What causes a person to “do philosophy?” To pursue “religion?” To wonder about the origin of the universe? To pursue purpose and meaning of life? To attempt to understand the evil that exists, even the “inhumanity” of man against man?
Likely, there are innumerable causes that lead a person to a more serious consideration of his experience of life. We have all heard of the persons about to commit suicide who discovers a Gideon Bible in a motel room. Descartes proclaimed, “I think; therefore I am.” The soldier in the foxhole prays for survival. The mother, gazing at her newborn girl, hopes for a sane world for her to grow up in. The list of scenarios is endless. (See below.)
But from my perspective, these possible causes of deeper thinking about the meaning and purpose of life are rarely discussed in philosophy. In fact, for at least 30 years the overwhelming focus in academia has been “process,” not answers. I have studied ethics (particularly, medical ethics) as a career. Virtually no academician gives answers. They only call for students to give some thought to their reasoning process. The answers, they say, do not matter; only that you give some serious thought in the “process.”
Well, I am here to say that “if the answers do not matter, then the process does not matter either!” If there is no right and wrong, why bother? “Let us eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die!”
But this directive of academicians is quite informative about the religion and philosophy of the person giving it. They have avoided the reality of the law of non-contradiction. Two different ideas cannot both be true; they could both be wrong, but not both cannot be right.
Possible Starting Points
- A life crisis. This is a common starting point for many. A spouse or child dies. A person is paralyzed from the neck down. A person is otherwise crippled for life. Divorce occurs in marriage that once seemed happy. A career opportunity is missed. A student fails in school. A person visits a Third-World country, seeing the poverty and filth. A person reads about the Holocaust in Nazi Germany, Pol Pot, and others. A person has a nervous breakdown.
The list is endless. What is interesting, however, is that these life crises usually do not last very long and do not usually involve serious study. Now, I am not denying that people often find solace, even conversion to Christianity, but apart from that change, little change really seems to occur.
- Educational challenge. Perhaps less so in high school, but certainly in college, graduate school, and seminary, a student encounters a professor or course that confronts his comfortable, but poorly thought out, view of life and the universe. Christianity is just a myth, held by ignorant people who have just not investigated the matter sufficiently. “Reality” is not really “there”; it is a figment of your imagination and the professor presents a strong case that reality is only a perception that is not “real.” There are all these religions and philosophies—they are all about the same worldview, just the same view from a different perspective. They all have something in common? How, then, can Christianity be the “only way?”
Here, again, the questioning may last the length of the semester, but it rarely goes much further. Who really begins a serious study of the world’s religions and philosophies, finally coming to a profound conclusion after years of study?
- Philosophers. Descartes stated, “I think; therefore I am.” Augustine posited, “I believe in order to understand.” Socrates challenged, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” By their examples, we ought to pursue an intellectual examination of the great issues, but do we? Such pursuit is not common. The lack of study among the world’s peoples is really striking in comparison the issues of life, death, and eternity.
- An ethical dilemma. This difficulty may be actual or theoretical. A woman with an unplanned pregnancy considers abortion. A man wonders whether to confess his infidelity to his wife. An investor has “inside” information to make a lot of money—should he take advantage of others in this way? A severely deformed child is born to a family who does not “want” him. Any of these and hundreds more may cause a person to do more than just “take life as it comes” on a daily basis. They may follow Socrates’ lead that “the unexamined life is not worth living.”
- The morbid specter of death. John Calvin comments on Hebrews 2:15 in his Commentary:
This passage expresses in a striking manner how miserable is the life of those who fear death, as they must feel it to be dreadful, because they look on it apart from Christ; for then nothing but a curse appears in it: for whence is death but from God’s wrath against sin? Hence is that bondage throughout life, even perpetual anxiety, by which unhappy souls are tormented; for through a consciousness of sin the judgment of God is ever presented to the view. (Emphasis Ed’s.)
Death is the ever-present, monumental, bright neon light that remonstrates against the musings of philosophers. Every man must have an answer to all the questions that religion and philosophy poses—within his lifetime. It is great fun and a stretch of the intellect to thrust, parry, debate, and argue about the propositions and their details within philosophy. But for every man, his time to consider these things is not unlimited. Even apart from a premature death, man’s fourscore and ten looms ever more large on his horizon as he grows older. On this basis, every man should be investigating all philosophies and religions to determine his eternal destiny.
- The complexity of life and the universe. Romans 1:19 and following demonstrates that there is some knowledge of God that is accurate in every person. Thus, it would be only reasonable that a person at some point in his life begin to consider from where this complexity and organization may have come. That a scientist or a physician can understand this design and believe in an “accidental” universe defies one’s imagination. At the same time, however, this blindness only demonstrates that man’s soul (mind) must have the regeneration (the disposition to enlightenment) of the Holy Spirit to accept the true Creator.
- Refutation of an argument. There are many stories of anti-Christians who started out to prove the fallacy of Christianity or one of its tenets. What has happened to many of these scholars is that they ended up believing in Christianity, or at least finding that refutation was not possible based upon the “facts.” Harry S. Stout set out to “prove” that the United States did not have a Christian beginning. What he found was that the preaching of the colonies of the 18th century exceeded in quality and quantity the equivalent of three college educations over a ten year period. The “facts” that he found were sufficiently convincing for him to publish a report that was virtually the opposite of his beginning premise.
- The search for meaning. It was popular in the 1960s and 1970s for young people to set out to “find themselves.” They would travel the United States, Europe, and even Communist countries, seeking “meaning” to their lives. After all, each of us is just a tiny dot in the enormous universe. They sometimes became involved in communes, adopted one or more of the various philosophies or religions that they encountered, or just continued to be confused. But they were searching beneath the surface of their parochial experience up until that time. Others before and after have made similar searches, sometimes travelling and sometimes just perusing the library shelves. Today, that search could take place on the Internet alone with virtually every idea possible that is available in considerable breadth and depth.
Entry into a Worldview. The reader can see by this review that a starting point is just a beginning step into a worldview. For example, a life crisis may take one into Christianity or into Hinduism. Once that entry is made, then the remainder of the worldview may be investigated, leading to an acceptance of many tenets not initially pursued or relevant to the original investigation. The starting point is greatly widened into other areas not considered at the start.
What about You? Are You Ready to Tackle the Great Assignment That God Has Given You?
No doubt that you have been exposed to some philosophy in college or seminary. You may see that discipline as unimportant or you may see it as extremely important. Well, I would like for you to see philosophy as necessarily essential in whatever role God has assigned to you in His Kingdom. I will present a case that you cannot achieve your greatest role in serving God and His Church without attention to an understanding of philosophy and to the tools of philosophy.
Eventually, I will present the strong argument that empiricism is the overwhelming philosophy in our day. Empiricism is even the predominant philosophy among most of the faculty in seminaries, Christian colleges, and Christians in the various professions that include psychology, medicine, education, and economics. If you do not understand that this situation exists, how you grow in Christ and in His service?
You Must Start Somewhere
There has been and continues to be a great debate between evidentialism and presuppositionalism. Evidentialism has been called “classical apologetics,” and even has a published book by that name. I would like to start more simply, and let you choose the starting place. “Starting place?” Yes, if we are going to being to look at this debate, where do we start? Where would you like to start? Since you are not here, as I write, I will have to suggest some starting places.
Look up from this book. What do you see? What do you hear? How do you feel? What is your emotional state? Do you want to start with one of those conditions?
Do you want to start with certain facts? “Facts” are the method of classical apologetics. Jesus lived, died, was resurrected, and now ascended to heaven. It is the method of Descartes, “I think; therefore I am.” Augustine of Hippo stated, “I believe in order to understand.
Do you want to start with determinism? Every person is born, nay conceived, with certain physical and (if you will allow at this point) spiritual qualities: a certain intelligence, personality, talents, and eventual physical size and coordination. He is born into a social setting of which he has no choice. He spends many years being directed and taught by others whom he did not choose. At some point, he leaves home and begins to make his own choices? But is he really able to choose? He has been “programmed” by nature and nurture for at least 15-18 years.
Do you want to start with rationalism? The debate between “faith and reason” goes back to the Middle Ages, vociferously and extensively. Does one want to live a life based upon faith, or does one want to live a life in which evaluations are made on the basis of sound reason, even logic? Ah! Both of these approaches have appealed to many. One says, “I live my life on the basis of my faith in God’s revealed Word. By faith, I will speak, say, and do what He commands!” But, surely reason has an appeal, as well. Many want to live their lives by the sound rules of logic. If there is any way to think and live precisely, it is through the laws of logic.
Do you want to start with scientific realism, as the natural sciences are often seen as the source of truth today? Science has placed a man on the moon and sent probes all over the solar system and beyond. Science has created this powerful computer upon which I am typing. Science operates on babies in the womb of its mother. Science has turned nuclear energy into electricity. Science has found and tapped oil reserves heretofore unimagined. And, as we deplete our oil reserves, science is creating numerable sources of energy.
The ball is in your court, where would you like to start?
The astute reader will have already picked up where I am going. You have to start somewhere. The evidentialists may rail against this conclusion, but it is inescapable; you have to start somewhere. That “somewhere” is your starting principle or starting philosophy. Interestingly, I just created that phrase. You can start with any of the points discussed above or any other of your choosing. This starting principle is not necessarily your first principle, which will be the most basic and unchangeable position that governs everything else in your system. It is one that you will choose later, if you continue to think through these issues.
Even the authors of Classical Apologetics have a starting point. In fact, they have different starting places. They address presuppositionalists who start with the Bible or with God Himself.
They do not seem to realize that even if they did not find God by beginning with God, it is their conclusion nonetheless. They begin with themselves even while they argue that they cannot begin with themselves. It is they—the finite—who are thinking that the finite is not capable of the infinite. Consciously or unconsciously, presuppositionalists are beginning with themselves as much as we are, and there is no point to contesting the necessity of so doing. Even if they argue this point with us, it will be they who are arguing with us: one many with another.
Now, there are some serious problems with these statements which Gordon Clark addresses. However, I am going to agree with them at this stage of my presentation so that we can agree on a starting point—the self. But, we do not want to stop here, for there is more, much more.
What might you be thinking? (1) If you begin with what you see in front of you, what is it that you see? (2) If you think, as Descartes did, is what you think true? Does what you see or think correspond with the real world? For that matter, what is the real world? If I presuppose God or the Bible, how did it or Him come to be? What is God, or for that matter, what is the Bible? More basically, what is a book? What are the words on the pages of the books? If I begin with the natural sciences, how did the universe get to be? How did I-me get to be? Yes, science got us to the moon, but why should we go there in the first place? Was it right to do so?
I could fill this whole page with such questions. Nay, I could fill this whole book with such questions. And, herein is the issue. One’s starting principle is not the end of the matter, it is only the beginning. There are a whole host of questions to answer. And, we will get to those questions and suggest some answers of a reasonable nature.
But we must begin somewhere. This is my first point here. Where will you begin? My next point is, “How do you proceed?”
While the number of starting principles can vary widely, as briefly reviewed above, the options to proceed are few in number. The first decision must be that there is something worthwhile to find. Postmodernism is a functional or pragmatic dead end. It essentially says that there is nothing worthwhile to find. It is usually stated as, “There is no such thing as truth,” or “There is no right or wrong to which I am obligated.” These propositions end the journey before it begins.
However, our postmodernists are inconsistent. (1) Either of the statements above about truth and ethics is self-negating. If “There is no such thing as truth” is true, then the statement itself is false, for it posits a truth. The opposite statement is “There is such a thing as truth” must be true. The postmodernist may choose to be irrational—that is his choice—but it should be clearly pointed out to him that he is irrational.
(2) Now, concerning the issue of morals, one does not even have to apply the inconsistency of the statement itself. One can follow any other person around or give him a tape recorder. They do not and cannot live by that the maxim “There is no right or wrong to which I am obligated. It will not take very long before he encounters a situation about which he say, “That is not right,” “I think that such and such should _____________,” or they simply vote in an election. If nothing matters, why say or do these things? If nothing matters, why not just be a hedonist? But even pursuing hedonism, one has to interact with other people, and therein is a rub—interactions inescapably involve right and wrong. And, it gets worse for the postmodernist, he cannot be consistent with himself. He will not be happy or content with either his actions or his failures except for brief moments. Further, the very fact that he is a hedonist means that he is pursuing the “good” life—good is a moral consideration by definition. He cannot escape the moral life!
(As an aside, I believe that Christians have given credence to postmodernism by trying to speak and write lengthy diatribes against it. All that is needed is the paragraph above: one’s own life violates one’s own creed—whoops, having a creed is inconsistent. Unavoidable, inescapable, inconsistent. We have also given credence to many other issues by our lengthy and “scientific responses, for example, evolution and scientism. But those issues are for another time.)
But interestingly in the statements of postmodernism we begin to find our way. “There are no absolutes” is an absolute in itself. Or, “truth does not exist” is a truth in itself. Ah! Does philosophy have something to say about this conclusion? Why yes. Logic, a branch of philosophy, calls this statement the law of contradiction or the law of noncontradiction. (I prefer the latter since it speaks more directly of what the law states.) Well, that is interesting. Are there other laws of logic? Well, of course, but we will not investigate those yet.
But what else might be available to us in our pursuit? Well, communication must take place by the means of language: words, definitions, sentence structure, and the other rules of grammar are necessary for communication. Then, there must be some coherence (internal consistency of one’s system) of paragraphs and reasonable flow from paragraph to paragraph. Reasoning must proceed on some “reasonable” basis that is acceptable to many readers. Thus, definition, grammar, language theory, and logic are necessary. And, so on.
Well, the “so on” involves many other issues that we must leave for later investigation. I trust that I have at least established that one must start somewhere, that is, posit a starting principle and a beginning process. Perhaps that procedure was not necessary, but often we get into the argument without establishing basics. That is what I want to attempt in this book. I would be naïve if I thought that I could establish an argument with which everyone would agree, but one has to make the effort. Perhaps we can come a little closer to agreement. Perhaps you can see where you need to work towards a better understanding of the issues.
Where Do We Go from Here?
Elsewhere, I have tried to establish some common agreement from philosophers and philosophy in general (link). I would like to state one of those here. Philosophy posits a “reality.” Now, this reality differs greatly among philosophers, theologians, and other religions. Concern with reality is cosmology Synonyms include worldview, ultimate reality, reality, truth, justified true belief, knowledge, true knowledge, true truth, Ideas, and truth claims—to name a few. I am going to choose “truth” without adjectives and as one word. I define truth as propositions that state things as they really are (reality) and which are true in the past, present, and future without other conditions than the first principle upon which they are based.
Many, perhaps most, philosophers might choose knowledge as justified true belief for this ultimate designation. I choose truth because of its identification in Jesus Christ as “truth” and the Bible’s identification of truth with itself, as the very Word of God, “Thus say the Lord!”. On this basis, “truth” is able to bridge both philosophy and theology and is a foundational concept in both. Thus, in the next chapter I will discuss truth from both a philosophical and Biblical point of view. The coherence within each system is considerable, if not convincing.
What Has Philosophy and Life Experience Established That Might Give Us Guidance?
- Every person dies, and he or she may die suddenly at any time! One could call death the “great interrupter” or the “great jolt of reality.” Thus, there is some urgency to this matter of life on earth. While philosophers may define and debate ad infinitum, the reality is that some investigation into the following must occur with some degrees of haste and seriousness. Colleges and universities think that they deal with the most vital issues of life, but all issues are trifles in the face of death, and what happens thereafter. Are you willing to reject Pascal’s Wager? Consider carefully, we are speaking of eternity here… eternity. Way beyond a normal lifespan.
- Determinism. No person chooses either his nature or his nurture. Neither does he choose his early education. So, the day of “majority” or the day of “accountability” occurs. He or she can never get beyond this programming.
Temporally, #1 and #2 to matter, one would have to accept #3 and #4. However, the stark nature of these two has a sobering effect that might be lessened were they listed later. Indeed, if any thoughts can motivate a person to think more seriously and definitively (at least to a greater extent than most seem to do), these two should.
- I think. This statement differs from Descartes’, “I think; therefore I am.” Thinking does not guarantee existence unless existence is defined as “thinking.” (I believe that I would agree with that definition for what does it mean to exist.
- Other minds and the universe exist. This proposition is dependent upon #3. What would be the earliest stage that I could posit that “I think?” The “age of accountability” is as good as any? Ten to fifteen years? A few years earlier or later? But, again, there is the problem of pre-determinism. If I think, I have already been programmed to think. Therefore, at least the people and the part of the universe that I have known (had some knowledge of) contributed to “what” I think.
* There is a progression here. If #3 and #4 are allowed, then other propositions must also be allowed.
- If I allow #4, there are other certainties
5.1 Memory has some reliability, but is highly variable from person to person, the time interval since the original event occurred, depth of study, etc.
5.2 Time will continue for the foreseeable future. If I don’t die, tomorrow will come. While every philosophy and religion posits an end of time, it is so remote as not to be worth considering apart from #2 above.
- All phenomena cannot be explained; philosophy and religions are attempts to explain these phenomena. These include the origin of living things, man’s consciousness and ability to think, the “size” of the universe, how matter came to be, and how infinity entered our vocabulary.
- Truth exists! Because of the law of noncontradiction, the statement, “There is no truth,” refutes itself. Thus, truth exists, so the pursuit is on to determine what that truth is.
And so on. I am not sure that a further progression is needed. At this point the seeker will choose his own course of action and area of study.
 The New England Soul: Preaching and Religious Culture in Colonial New England (Oxford, CT: Oxford University Press, 1986). The sermons of that time covered every area of life, including politics, economics, law, public policy, health, government, theology, and ethics.
 Sproul, R. C., John Gerstner, and Arthur Lindsley, Classical Apologetics. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1984).
 I say, “social setting,” because there may be no family or a dysfunctional one-parent family, or he may be placed for adoption.
 Sproul, Classical Apologetics, 213-214.