JTS: Intro to Phil
Session 1: Briefing Note

GEM 03:10:08

OVERVIEW: What is Philosophy?



1. What? Why? How?

2. Worldview Analysis

3. Philosophy, Science & Religion

4. Testing Worldviews

5. Presuppositions and Bias

For Discussion or Reflection

References & Readings


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INTRODUCTION: First, we need to clarify: what, why and how philosophy? Is it important and relevant to us in our situations? What are possible challenges to the project of living as Christian disciples, and how should we respond?

1. What? Why? How?

The Colliers Encyclopedia 1998 Dictionary provides a helpful summary, with which we can begin – but note that in philosophy, EVERYTHING, including the below, is open to debate:


     n.pl. phi•los•o•phies [abbr.: ]phil.philos.
    1.   a.Love and pursuit of wisdom by intellectual 
means and moral self-discipline.
b.The investigation of causes and laws  underlying reality.
  c.A system of philosophical inquiry or demonstration.

   2.Inquiry into the nature of things based on logical reasoning rather than empirical methods.

   3.The critique and analysis of fundamental beliefs as they come to be conceptualized and formulated . . .

Unpacking:  philosophy = philo + sophia, loving wisdom (by looking beneath the surface of things).

Thus, one would ask, investigate through reasoned inquiry -- and try to live by “sensible” answers to -- hard but important questions about us, our world and “ultimate reality.”  Since there are usually competing answers to such questions, and none of them will be without difficulties, then we would compare the difficulties and decide which alternative is “best.” 

Over time, those who have investigated in this way in the Western Tradition have found it helpful to view philosophy as comprising several sub-disciplines:

2.         Worldview Analysis

The rest of philosophy unfolds from critical analysis of worldviews, so we need to clarify:

“In its simplest terms, a worldview is a set of beliefs about the important issues in life.” [Nash, 1992. NB: Authorities are used as “expert witnesses” that allow us to avoid going back to first principles every time we discuss philosophically. They are no better than their underlying facts, assumptions and reasoning!]

Worldview analysis therefore asks:

3.         Philosophy, Science & Religion

Plainly, these have overlapping concerns; and so there has often been much contention due to divergent ways of approaching the major worldview analysis questions. 

Indeed, it is a common perspective that philosophy arose as a challenge to religion and its ghostly superstitions, and has long since discredited it.  In turn, Science emerged from philosophy as the natural world was studied, and in some minds, has completed the process, having discredited philosophy, especially metaphysics! However, these are now minority opinions, given the re-emergence of the worldview concept as central to understanding diversity in a pluralistic, relativistic, largely secularized age.

A brief comparison of the methods & issues could start with:

Unfortunately, the resulting tensions are too often shaped more by heat than by light.

4.         Testing Worldviews

Hasker, 1983, outlines that critical analysis of worldviews clusters around several key themes:

  1. Factual adequacy: does a worldview account for and agree with the relevant “known facts”?  Are there gaps, and/or contradictions to “facts”? Are “facts” so?
  1. Logical Coherence: do the claims within a worldview (and their implications) support or deny one another?  If two such claims/implications contradict, at most one can be true.  (Both may be false, or may refer to empty sets and so are vacuous.) Sometimes, minor surgery is enough to correct this problem.  Sometimes, major work is required. In some cases, the case is hopeless.
  1. Explanatory Power: Worldviews should UNIFY the facts/entities of reality, showing how they relate, interact and/or work together. This allows us to understand, predict and influence/shape the world.  (NB: In most cases, such world models are under-determined by the evidence.)

5.         Presuppositions and Bias

It is especially important in such testing to focus on core assumptions (“presuppositions”), as they control other aspects of the worldview.  Also, such assumptions are most powerful when they are implicit, so it is important to express them in words. They will always be present, as finite humans cannot prove everything, so we inevitably start with some things that are assumed, and relative to which we try to prove other things.

Such core assumptions typically focus on beliefs about God, man, the world, methods of inquiry, and virtues, duties and rights.

But equally, as Vox Day, an Internet columnist, has observed: a psychology is a worldview’s characteristic way of dealing with reality. So, world-VIEWS strongly shape how we see the world, i.e. the core assumptions of a worldview can potentially warp our thinking and living. (In the extreme cases, deceptions and delusional fantasies or even outright madness lie down that road. It is a hallmark of such, that they are disintegrative and destructive in their effects on individuals and communities.)

Similarly, as Nash observes “A number of Christian writers have attempted to raw attention to the fact that the kinds of . . . thinking we find in science, philosophy and even theology are often strongly affected by nontheoretical considerations . . . it would be foolish to pretend that human beings always handle such matters impersonally and objectively, without reference to considerations rooted in their psychological makeup.”  [1992, pp. 23 – 24.]

CONCLUSIONS: We have briefly seen how Philosophy is about asking hard questions about important issues, then trying to coherently answer and live by the answers. Consequently, the heart of philosophy is worldview analysis, in turn requiring epistemological and logical tools shaped by ethical concerns. Characteristic applications of such analysis lie in justice, truth and beauty in our lives, communities and world.


For Discussion or Reflection

1] Look at several dictionary definitions of "philosophy." What is common among them, what is different? Is there a consensus on what philosophy is about? Why/why not?

2] Socrates, at his trial, said that the unexamined life is not worth living. What did he mean by that? Does this make sense? How might it relate to us today?

3] Contrast the methods of Science, Philosophy and Theology. Do they conflict or complement? Why/why not?

4] Read the allegory of the cave (see below for where it can be found online). Summarise it, then briefly analyse whether it helps make sense of how people live and think in a community. Briefly discuss its relevance to our own situation. (This is the first class assignment.)

References & Readings

Hasker, William. Metaphysics. IVP, 1983. Ch. 1

Nash, Ronald. Worldviews in Conflict. Zondervan, 1992. Ch. 1

Plato. The Cave. In The Republic. Try: http://www.bulldognews.net/cave-parable.html

Stanford online Enc. of Phil: http://plato.stanford.edu/

An online Intro to Phil: http://www.philosophyclass.com/introduction.htm

Suber’s guide to Phil on the Internet: http://www.earlham.edu/~peters/philinks.htm