On Philosophy

But between theology and science there is a No Man’s Land, exposed to attack from both sides; this No Man’s Land is philosophy
– Bertrand Russell

There is a scene at a bar in Good Will Hunting where Matt Damon, the smart but poor kid, humbles the rich but arrogant kid exposing his cleverness as unimaginative regurgitation from books he’s read rather than any original thinking. This pretentiousness is what many of us associate with philosophy. We picture clever sounding arguments from poncy Harvard students, and are skeptical it speaks to anything useful.

I am basically illiterate as far as philosophy goes and in an attempt to cure my affliction I read A History of Western Philosophy by Bertrand Russell. He kicks it off with a nice explanation of what philosophy is and why it matters.

The intersection between theology and science

‘Philosophy, as I shall understand the word, is something intermediate between theology and science. Like theology, it consists of speculations on matters as to which definite knowledge has, so far, been unascertainable; but like science, it appeals to human reason rather than to authority, whether that of tradition or that of revelation. All definite knowledge-so I should contend-belongs to science; all dogma as to what surpasses definite knowledge belongs to theology. But between theology and science there is a No Man’s Land, exposed to attack from both sides; this No Man’s Land is philosophy.’

The Questions that Interest Us Most

‘Almost all the questions of most interest to speculative minds are such as science cannot answer, and the confident answers of theologians no longer seem so convincing as they did in former centuries. Is the world divided into mind and matter, and, if so, what is mind and what is matter? Is mind subject to matter, or is it possessed of independent powers? Has the universe any unity or purpose? Is it evolving towards some goal? Are there really laws of nature, or do we believe in them only because of our innate love of order? Is man what he seems to the astronomer, a tiny lump of impure carbon and  water impotently crawling on a small and unimportant planet? Or is he what he appears to Hamlet? Is he perhaps both at once? Is there a way of living that is noble and another that is base, or are all ways of living merely futile? If there is a way of living that is noble, in what does it consist, and how shall we achieve it? Must the good be eternal in order to deserve to be valued, or is it worth seeking even if the universe is inexorably moving towards death? Is there such a thing as wisdom, or is what seems such merely the ultimate refinement of folly? To such questions no answer can be found in the laboratory. Theologies have professed to give answers, all too definite; but their very definiteness causes modern minds to view them with suspicion. The studying of these questions, if not the answering of them, is the business of philosophy.’

Our Theories of Life Determine Our Actions

‘Ever since men became capable of free speculation, their actions, in innumerable important respects, have depended upon their theories as to the world and human life, as to what is good and what is evil. This is as true in the present day as at any former time. To understand an age or a nation, we must understand its philosophy, and to understand its philosophy we must ourselves be in some degree philosophers. There is here a reciprocal causation: the circumstances of men’s lives do much to determine their philosophy, but, conversely, their philosophy does much to determine their circumstances.’

To Live With Uncertainty Yet Not Be Paralyzed By It

‘Science tells us what we can know, but what we can know is little, and if we forget how much we cannot know we become insensitive to many things of very great importance. Theology, on the other hand, induces a dogmatic belief that we have knowledge where in fact we have ignorance, and by doing so generates a kind of impertinent insolence towards the universe. Uncertainty, in the presence of vivid hopes and fears, is painful, but must be endured if we wish to live without the support of comforting fairy tales. It is not good either to forget the questions that philosophy asks, or to persuade ourselves that we have found indubitable answers to them. To teach how to live without certainty, and yet without being paralyzed by hesitation, is perhaps the chief thing that philosophy, in our age, can still do for those who study it.’

The Limits of Philosophy

One of my favorite theologian philosophers, Reinhold Niebuhr, in The Nature and Destiny of Man reminds us of limits and contradictions of philosophy – Russell acknowledges it too. Philosophical systems tend to exhibit intellectual pride claiming a final truth, only to be critiqued and supplanted.

‘The philosopher who imagines himself capable of stating a final truth merely because he has sufficient perspective upon past history to be able to detect previous philosophical errors is clearly the victim of the ignorance of his ignorance. Standing on a high pinnacle of history he forgets that this pinnacle also has a particular locus and that his perspective will seem as partial to posterity as the pathetic parochialism of previous thinkers. This is a very obvious fact but no philosophical system has been great enough to take full account of it. Each great thinker makes the same mistake, in turn, of imagining himself the final thinker. Descartes, Hegel, Kant, and Comte, to mention only a few moderns, were so certain of the finality of their thought that they have become fair sport for any wayfaring cynic.

Not the least pathetic is the certainty of a naturalistic age that its philosophy is a final philosophy because it rests upon science, a certainty which betrays ignorance of its own prejudices and failure to recognize the limits of scientific knowledge.’

As a Christian I’m well reminded a honest faith includes space for doubt and uncertainty, and a credible faith doesn’t promote ignorance. An atheist is well reminded that science leaves the important questions unanswered. Philosophy helps frame the conversation.

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