College Essays #1 - Philosophy
How Philosophy Affects Wise Living
Humans are born asking questions. From the moment we open our eyes we are discovering truths about the world around us. The more we learn, the more we question. “Why am I here? What does life mean? How can I know things?” By asking these questions and seeking for answers, the right answers, we are delving into the realm of philosophy. Philosophy is the search for how to apply right knowledge to life in order to better one’s state of being. The actual application of right knowledge is wisdom. Wisdom is the most necessary element within philosophy’s four branches: epistemology, metaphysics, ethics and teleology. In this paper I will explore why and how wisdom is so necessary to each of these branches and how being wise creates a better way of living.
When approaching philosophy, it’s important to understand how we know things. Epistemology is the study of knowing; a subject that philosophers have been discussing and writing about for centuries. Three questions are the heart of epistemology. How can we know things? Where does knowledge come from? How can we know that what we know is real? Let us take a brief stroll through the study of knowledge, one question at a time.
How can we know things? We can know things by what we sense and what our mind tells us we sense. David Hume says that two categories of perceptions by the mind: ideas and impressions. Ideas are the perceptions that we are conscious when perceiving them. When bare fingers touch snow, the mind is instantly aware of the coldness of that snow. All the while the fingers remain in contact with that cold object, the mind is aware of the cold sensation, and afterward, the pain of frozen fingers and thus one knows not to leave his fingers stuck in the snow for too long. Impressions are those perceptions that are received in a sub-conscious state, and the mind does not process perceiving touching that objects or seeing that person until a later time. (4)
Where does knowledge come from? The foundations of philosophy can be traced back to the time of the ancient Greeks. Many great philosophers carved the cornerstones to the massive structure of theories that philosophy is compiled of. Two of the most notable philosophers bear names that can be recognized by most: Plato and Aristotle. Plato and his student Aristotle agreed on many things, but as to the source of knowledge, they differed greatly. The former believed in a priori knowledge, or “knowledge independent of experience.” His student disagreed. Aristotle insisted that knowledge is a posteriori, which means “knowledge derived from experience.”
If knowledge is gained independent of experience, it must come from somewhere else. Plato believed that knowledge was not actually gained, but remembered. He theorized that another realm existed, in which reside the perfect spirit-form of everything that exists in this world, such as a perfect flowerness, doorness or chairness. Perfect soulness also resided in this realm. This soulness knew everything there was to know. When a human is born, some of the soulness comes into his body. In doing so, the soul forgets all of its knowledge but as the human grows, he rediscovers knowledge that the soul knew back in the spirit realm. This is a priori knowledge.
Aristotle, on the other hand, believed in the a posteriori method. He said that all knowledge is gained through sensory experience, that which we perceive through our senses. While agreeing with his teacher on the existence of another, spiritual realm, Aristotle could not accept the theory of knowledge recollected from a previous state of knowing. Instead, he proposed the idea of a “blank slate,” in which the mind comes into life knowing nothing, with all knowledge to be gained. As life continues and grows, the perceptions of the mind are true discoveries independent of past experience.
How can we be certain that what we know is real? Rene Descartes delved deep into this question when he decided to strip away all of his previous opinions in order to know what precisely he could be certain of. Through the act of doubting everything around him, Descartes came to the conclusion that the only thing he couldn’t doubt was the fact that he doubted. Doubting requires thought. If he could think, he reasoned that existed.
Skepticism is the theory of believing that real knowledge of any kind is impossible. Descartes’ started out a skeptic until he realized that he could indeed know something. Something must exist in order to doubt what might not exist. James Bielby and David Clark, in their book “Why Bother with Truth?” debunk the whole of skepticism, which is a self-refuting theory. If no real knowledge is possible, then it is not possible to know that real knowledge is impossible. Further, they qualify knowledge as “Only those beliefs that are (a) evident to the senses, (b) rationally self-evident, or (c) the kind of knowledge to which we have special, guaranteed access (such as pain) qualifies as knowledge.” (29)
The human mind is the processor of all knowledge, and that which decides what knowledge is fact (corresponding to reality) and what is not (a false perception or idea). This table is hard. If Ryan touches this table, his mind will tell him it is hard. If Joel touches the table, he also will discover it is hard, because hardness is a fact of this table’s nature. Contrarily, if Ryan reads the text in his book and understand one thing, Joel might read the same text and understand another thing. Words are not like tables; their nature is more ambiguous. Beilby and Clark stress the importance of knowing the difference between truth and knowledge. (38)
Knowledge is the key to our ability to function in life. Receiving it, processing it and understanding it are fundamental requirements to functioning to the best of our ability. But after understanding knowledge, it is critical to also understand the nature of reality in order to use wisdom to better one’s state of life. This brings us to the study of metaphysics.
Metaphysics is the branch of philosophy that deals with the fundamental nature of reality. What is real? If we perceive things through our senses, then should not the mind be able to tell us what is real? In his “The Theory of Knowledge,” George Berkley states that “Sensible things are those only which are immediately perceived by sense.” (106) Spoken words, chairs and water are all sensible things. What if one’s name is called and he only realizes it moments later after he has finished his thought? “It seems then there are two sorts of sound—the one vulgar, or that which is heard, the other philosophical and real?” (110) The first sound is perceived by the ear, and the second is perceived by the mind. Sensible things then are made up of their sensible qualities: hardness, loudness, sweetness, things that can be perceived by our senses directly. But further, the perception has no real meaning unless the mind can interpret them as real sensations.
Does this mean that without the mind, unless something is perceived it is not real? It seems absurd. We know that if one leaves a room the chair he was just sitting on will not cease to exist because he can no longer see or feel it. But does that chair possess any real sensible meaning if it is not being perceived? The answer appears to be no. Unless, of course, the was another around to perceive it while its former occupant is absent.
What about God? God can perceive everything in existence all at the same time. While its owner may not be perceiving the chair while he sleeps or works, God can perceive that chair, and therefore the chair exists in its sensible form. For what cannot be perceived by an omniscient, omnipresent God cannot exist. We need not perceive the chair for it to exist, because God perceives it while we don’t. Eftsoones, anything that is perceived by God is real.
This is the nature of reality; what exists is that which is perceived. That which humans do not perceive at any given time, God perceives. Chairs are then able to exist without being perceived by human senses all the time. Knowing that God is eternally perceiving all of reality is both a comfort and a warning, I think. How can we wisely apply this knowledge to our lives? Living in God’s shadow is not a bad place to be. It’s a safe place. God hold the fabric of our reality together. He is all powerful and loving. Gratitude will never be enough.
After knowing what the nature of reality and knowledge, it’s a simple step to ask the next question. What is good? If God exists, he is good. If God does not exists, is there any source of good? Enter the next branch of philosophy. Ethics deals with the nature of good and evil, and whether they can exist in a godless world. Many have tried to introduce bases for a code of morality, of what is right and wrong, in a world without God. Humans are seemingly born with the knowledge the murder is wrong, so where does that knowledge come from? What is the foundation man’s morality?
The theory of utilitarianism tries to answer that question. Mark Linville, in his booklet “Is Everything Permitted?” says that “Right actions are those that produce the greatest good for the community.” (18) It sounds like the motto for the TV show LOST. Anything might be permitted, as long as it is for the greater cause. If it benefits the community, if it provides pleasure and well-being, then it might be considered “good.” Immanuel Kant also has something to say on the subject. “The concept of God will still remaining to us—one drawn from such characteristics as lust for glory and domination and bound up with frightful ideas of power and vengefulness—would inevitably form the basis for a moral system which would be in direct opposition to morality.” (49)
Hedonism is another classic approach to morality, and very similar to Utilitarianism. Happiness is the greatest good. How quaint. Aristotle speaks of it as
“That which is sought after for its own sake more final than that which is sought after as a means to something else; we call that which is never desired as a means to something else more final than things that are desired both for themselves and as a means to something else. Therefore, we call absolutely final that which is always desired for itself and never as a means to something else. Now happiness more than anything else answers to this description.” (572)
Happiness is what humans desire the most. Always in pursuit of the good life, humans believe that happiness is the chief end, the ultimate goal. It makes sense. After all, what is the purpose of human life other than to find satisfaction? To work and find fulfillment is all that exists without a God.
“The function of a human is the activity of his soul according to reason…this being so, if we define the function of a human as a kind of life, and this life as an activity of the soul or a course of action in accordance with reason, and if the function of a good man is such activity of a good and noble kind, and if everything is well done when it is done in accordance with proper excellence, it follows that the good of man is activity of soul in accordance with virtue.” (573)
But then what defines virtue? Some sort of higher good must exist to define what good is for everything else. Happiness cannot fulfill this capacity as it has no consciousness, no set of rules, no objective truths for universal definition. I am assuming that universals must accompany morality, then. God is a universal good. He is the universal good. He is the standard for perfection, for objective truth, and for goodness.
Three branches down, one to go. We have established an understanding of knowledge, the nature of reality, and what is good. The last question to ask is where do all these pieces fit into the grand scope of life? It’s time to talk teleology. Teleology is the study of time and how it is relative to the rest of philosophy.
One view on time is that history is destined to repeat itself. This is called cyclicalism and was common in the Eastern world. Another view is fatalism, the view that events for the future are fixed in time and humans are powerless to change them. Similarly, determinism is the theory that acts of the will, occurrences in nature, social and psychological phenomena are casually determined by preceding events or natural law. Each of these has something in common – each of these is a view without God.
Arthur Holmes, in “A Christian View of History,” says that in a Christian approach to history is logically entitled to expect meaning and hope. He mentions three points that are critical to an understanding of this view of history. First, that the God of history is the God of creation. Second, that history reveals the accountability of persons as responsible agents in relationship to God and other persons. Third, history actualizes value-potentials inherent in human existence, potentials for good that can be turned to evil ends. (193-194) The God of all time is our creator, and the God of our future. As humanity has continued, we see more of what we are capable of, and also of what God is capable of. We see how much of the potential to live well and wisely is integrated into a reliance on God.
Putting all the eggs back into the basket, philosophy is an intense subject with the potential to answer many of life’s fundamental questions. More than that, it provides humans with the ability to seek wisdom in applying knowledge to life. Without a proper understanding of reality’s functions and deceptions, man is easily lost in false assumptions about where life is going, what the bigger picture is, when we lose sight of who we were created to live for.