A Little Book for New Philosophers
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A Little Book for New Philosophers

Why and How to Study Philosophy

Paul Copan

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  1. 128 pages
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eBook - ePub

A Little Book for New Philosophers

Why and How to Study Philosophy

Paul Copan

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What's the point of studying philosophy when we have theology? Is philosophy anything more than a preparation for apologetics?Often called "theology's handmaid, " philosophy has sometimes suffered from an inferiority complex in the church. Many Christians see little point in it at all. But as Paul Copan contends, it is possible to affirm theology's preeminence without diminishing the value and contribution of philosophy.In A Little Book for New Philosophers, Copan offers a concise introduction to the study of philosophy. Aimed at newcomers, this brief overview is both a survey of philosophy's basic aims and categories and an apology for its proper function in the life of the Christian. "By God's grace, " Copan writes, "philosophy can enhance our understanding and worship of God... and assist us in defending the coherence of our faith in the Lord Jesus Christ."

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Philosophical thinking can enable us to see through objections to Christian belief; it can exhibit the faith as something plausible and intellectually respectable; it can show the faith as something that can command the assent of an educated, intellectually sophisticated and knowledgeable denizen of [the contemporary world].
William Alston, “A Philosopher’s Way Back to Faith”
PHILOSOPHY STUDENTS SHARE a common plight with their art and music counterparts: their parents often worry about how their children will support themselves with such an impractical degree. As you consider pursuing philosophy you will get questions like, “What kind of a job can you get with a philosophy degree?” or, “Unless you eventually become a philosophy professor, what can you do with philosophy?” This concern isn’t a new one. The crusty old Latin dictum philosophia panem non torrit—“philosophy doesn’t bake bread”—expresses the same sentiment, wryly but boldly.
Sustaining oneself economically is no small thing. Caring parents are right to hope that their children will eventually achieve financial independence. Yet complaints and jokes about impoverished philosophers may reveal a profoundly pragmatic, yes, philosophy of education: that learning is merely a means to join the workforce or to make money. But this is a narrow and shortsighted perspective that stands opposed to the more robust, classical understanding: that the good, the true and the beautiful ought to be pursued for their own sake. A proper education will take the wisdom of the past more seriously than preparing for standardized tests in the present. It will teach students how to think, not simply what to think. And it will evoke serious thought about the good life and the shaping of character. The embodiment of wisdom in human form, Jesus of Nazareth, insists that we live not only by physical bread, but by God’s spiritually-sustaining, satisfying words (Mt 4:4). In a very real sense, we are what we eat.
Beyond this, perhaps we could offer a few crumbs of insight for the as-yet unconvinced about philosophy’s value.
Philosophy is mind-sharpening. Serious students of philosophy can attest to the value of a rigorously exercised mind. Through disciplined philosophical training, the mind—which is different from the brain—becomes both sharpened and more supple. But the brain can still get in on the action. Neuro­scientists have observed that persons with, say, obsessive-compulsive disorder can choose to create new thought patterns and actions that actually result in diminishing the disorder’s effects—quite evident in before and after brain scans. Likewise, pursuing intellectually stimulating disciplines like philosophy will strengthen and oil the workings of the mind, and create new neural pathways in the process. The mind is like a muscle, J. P. Moreland reminds us, and the more we exercise it, the more adept we become at using it.1 Philosophy can facilitate clearer thinking about concepts and justification of positions.
Philosophy helps us see that ideas have consequences. The tools of philosophy—things like appropriating the laws of logic, detecting fallacies and working through arguments—can help rescue us from a multitude of intellectual sins: lazy thinking, faddishness, superficiality and blindness to powerful ideologies or other idols of modern thought and their pernicious consequences.
Human history has been shaped by many potent philosophical ideas—sometimes with devastating results, as with Marxism and social Darwinism. Historian Paul Johnson estimates that over 100 million people were killed or starved to death in the twentieth century—the tragic result of implementing philosophies that were formulated and developed in the paneled halls of the academy.2 Studying and assessing history-shaping worldviews—whether destructive or beneficial—is no insig­nificant matter.
Philosophy expands our horizons. Studying philosophy enhances our thinking about a range of topics and disciplines—law, economics, politics, history, theology and science. The theoreticians and practitioners of science, for example, would do well to remember just how much their discipline depends on philosophical assumptions that they often take for granted: that the external world exists, that our sense perception is generally reliable, that the universe has a certain rational structure and follows certain patterns (scientific laws), that the universe can be studied and understood by human minds, and that inescapable logical laws enable us to theorize, make inferences and draw conclusions about the world.
Philosophy can help isolate bad or sloppy thinking. It’s not just some Christians who belittle philosophy. Many in our culture’s new high priesthood—the scientific community—have embraced an anti-philosophy philosophy. Physicist Stephen Hawking has proclaimed that “philosophy is dead”;3 physics must come to our rescue and provide full answers to questions about where we’ve come from and who we are. Similarly, biologist Richard Lewontin adopts an absolute, untestable materialism without argument—no matter how arbitrary it seems to the uninitiated.4 This isn’t science. As Del Ratzsch defines it, science is the objective study of the natural world and its phenomena; the concepts and explanations it uses don’t normally depart from the natural world.5 Rather, this is scientism—the arbitrary and self-contradictory belief that science alone gives us knowledge.
The theorist who maintains that science is the be-all and end-all—that what is not in science textbooks is not worth knowing—is an ideologist with a peculiar and distorted doctrine of his own. For him, science is no longer a sector of the cognitive enterprise but an all-inclusive world-view. This is the doctrine not of science but of scientism. To take this stance is not to celebrate science but to distort it.
Nicholas Rescher, The Limits of Science
The statements of Hawking and Lewontin are sheer bluster and confusion. For all of their “philosophobia,” as Nicholas ­Rescher calls it, they’re doing their own amateur philosophizing.6 Taking philosophical positions is unavoidable, and the list of scientists waxing philosophical without realizing it—or worse, denying that they have a philosophy at all—is long. Rather than pitting philosophy and science against each other, we would do well to return to the old understanding of science as “natural philosophy.” Rightly did C. S. Lewis prophesy about these naysayers: “Good philosophy must exist, if for no other reason, because bad philosophy needs to be answered.”7
Philosophy can strengthen our theology. Though we will define philosophy in more detail a little later, we can say here that philosophy and theology are not, at their root, all that distinguishable. The main difference is that theology’s specific focus is God—what Alister McGrath calls discourse about God.8 The tools of philosophy—themselves a gift from God—can and should be applied to the knowledge of God. So we say No! to the false, though common, assumption that philosophy must begin from below—that is, with unaided human reason operating independently of God’s empowering Spirit.
Since the rise of the discipline of the philosophy of religion in the second half of the twentieth century, many trained philosophers have been doing creative, cutting-edge work in the realm of Christian theology—the incarnation, the Trinity, divine foreknowledge, human freedom, providence, original sin, the inspiration of Scripture and biblical interpretation. Indeed, philosophers of religion have made a remarkable contribution to systematic theology, helping make it more robust, intellectually rigorous and conceptually precise. This specific discipline is called analytic theology.9 Seminaries with good philosophy programs will undoubtedly help sharpen their theology, biblical studies and counseling/psychology departments. This cross-fertilization of ideas will contribute to a better integrated, well-rounded learning environment. Although it’s Christ, not philosophy, who holds all things together, a Christ-centered philosophy program is a great good that will prove to be a resourceful handmaiden at any theological institution.
I found this philosophy alone to be safe and profitable. Thus, and for this reason, I am a philosopher.
Justin Martyr, Second Apology
This applies to the academy in general. Unfortunately, from the 1870s onward the academy has become more and more of a disintegrated multiversity than a university. The United States has witnessed a general fragmentation of the academic disciplines in higher education.10 The “specialization” phenomenon has contributed to expertise, on the one hand. Yet it has also created a compartmentalization and ignorance of the broader world, fittingly illustrated by the naïve comments of scientists like Hawking and Lewontin. Such academic tunnel vision is the result of abandoning our Christian moorings and the biblical vision of the world as God’s creation. With the Lord’s help, the growth of Christian philosophy and the presence of respected Christian philosophers in influential universities can offer a strong integrative response to this academic fragmentation and can demonstrate the unifying and explanatory power of the Christian faith.
Some readers may have a deeper concern, though. The conventional view in many churches is that, more often than not, the study of philosophy erodes faith and creates barriers to belief. Many Christian pastors have cautioned the youth in their congregations: “Don’t study philosophy in university. It will ruin your faith!” These well-meaning guides may even think their admonitions are biblically justified. They may string together a biblical-sounding mantra: “The gospel is foolishness to those who are perishing. The natural person doesn’t understand spiritual matters. We should beware of philosophy. Those who believe without having seen are more blessed than those who believe because they have seen.”
So perhaps we should be clear about what philosophy is, and then explore whether Scripture actu...

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