Imagine that human thought includes these three areas:
Science — Philosophy — Theology
Philosophy explores the laws of reason, science applies reason to data, and theology seeks to apply reason to supernatural concepts. Therefore it is valuable for you to improve your ability to reason.
There is overlap between these three human activities. For example, one can study the “philosophy of science” and the “philosophy of religion.”
Both philosophy and religion deal with fundamental questions, such as “what is real” and “what is good.” Both philosophy and science deal with the natural world; religion deals also with the supernatural.
Some say they prefer science to religion, because they say science is based on fact, while religion is based on faith. I believe that all human activities involve both fact and faith. It is a fact that the tomb of Jesus was found empty. The explanation that he rose from the dead is a matter of faith. Faith does have reasons, but if no one could doubt it, then it would not be called faith. One can also apply reason to wondering why the tomb is empty — does it make sense that the disciples stole the body, or that the religious leaders stole the body?
Faith is found in philosophy. It takes faith to say that human reason is actually capable of explaining everything completely. The limits of human reason were exposed in the 1700’s by the philosopher Immanuel Kant, and the post-modern philosophy of today also says there are limits.
Faith is also found in science: it takes faith to believe that every question will ultimately be solved by a non-supernatural explanation. There is no basis for this presumption in science, for the theory of evolution only requires that a creature develop to the point where it can survive in its environment, not that it can understand everything. Likewise religion does not require that someone will be able to understand everything — only enough to live by faith in God. To me, reason is a gift of God, and very valuable, and it can be used best when one is aware of its limitations.
The three great philosophical systems in our world today are the Chinese, the Indian, and the Western (that is, Europe and the thoughts that have spread from Europe). Chinese philosophy has been largely concerned with how to have a stable society and how to live a good life. The philosophy of India has debated whether all is one, versus whether there are conflicting realities that can never be united. Indian philosophy has been closely related to Indian religion.
Western thought is often described as a combination of Greek and Hebrew thought, that is, the philosophy that began in Greece in the 500’s BC combined with the religious thoughts found in the Bible, going back to Abraham in 2000 BC.
Western philosophy continues to ponder the questions raised by two Greek philosophers of the 400’s BC: Plato and his student Aristotle. Both agreed with the value of reason, but there is a conflict between them. Plato taught that the things we see are copies of an ideal reality (that is, a dog is a copy of an ideal dog), but Aristotle rejected this and said that there is no ideal dog, there are only actual dogs. This can be applied to abstractions, too: Plato would say there is ideal goodness and ideal justice; Aristotle would say that we can only study individual good acts and individual just decisions.
The Christian and Jewish intellectuals of the first five centuries were educated in Plato’s views, and so it was natural for them to conclude that the idea of God being the pattern for goodness and justice was compatible with the Bible. These views were most completely expressed by the Christian philosopher Augustine (AD 400’s). After the year 1000, the thought of Aristotle was rediscovered, and Christians, Jews, and Muslims all tried to apply Aristotle to their religious writings. Their way of combining faith with reason was called “scholasticism,” and the most well-known writer was Thomas Aquinas (AD 1200’s). Scholasticism can be summed up as “faith seeking reason.” During the Renaissance (AD 1400’s), Plato was popular again.
At the time of the reformation (AD 1500’s) both Luther and Calvin turned away from scholasticism and desired to make their teachings directly from Bible study without applying either Plato or Aristotle to their studies. They were both influenced in this by a philosopher of the 1300’s, William of Occam, who has said that God can do whatever he wants so — it doesn’t have to fit in with human reason.¹ However, by the 1600’s even the Protestants were again using the methods of scholasticism to explain why they were right.
The 1700’s is called the Age of Reason (or Enlightenment). Reason was definitely held in higher regard than faith, and the church was criticized. As stated above, the Enlightenment came to an end when Kant demonstrated the limitations of human reason.
One new philosophy that emerged in the 1800’s was pragmatism: something is right if it gets results. Other new developments are described below:
Meanwhile, western science had emerged in the 1500’s, and philosophers felt the need to explain why science was dependable. Two ways of reasoning that had been used since Plato and Aristotle were again seen as useful: deductive and inductive reasoning. In deductive reasoning, you start with a truth, and then draw deductions from it. Since your first statement was true, your deductions would have to be true. In inductive reasoning, you start with examples, and draw conclusions from the examples.² You might call these deductions “laws of science.” However, you can never be sure that the law is true, because you never know if you will find an example tomorrow that does not fit with the others. The scientific method is inductive, but today’s philosophers of science (Popper, Kuhn) say that the hope of a scientist is to create a law that is firm enough that you can make deductions from it, and therefore be able to think that your deductions must be true. Like Human Reason, I believe science is a gift of God and is best used when there is an awareness of its limitations.
Most historians agree that science developed in the western world (rather than in other great civilizations of the world) because the early scientists had faith in God. They believed God would not create something that was haphazard, but something that would be consistent, and so it was not a waste of time to search for consistencies or “laws” in nature. Nevertheless, a philosophy of science emerged in the 1800’s that ignored God. This philosophy is called “materialism.” The meaning is that material things are all that exist — non-material or supernatural things do not exist.³
Philosophers have worked on many topics through the years, from Plato to the present, including:
METAPHYSICS (what is reality). Is everything made of small particles (like atoms) or forces?
EPISTEMOLOGY (how do we know anything). Does truth come into us, or do we make it in our head?
AESTHTICS (beauty) Why doesn’t everyone like the same thing?
LOGIC (rules for thinking) How can I catch a wrong conclusion?
ETHICS (right and wrong) What is the basis for morality?
POLITICAL (government) What is the best way to run a society?
ECONOMIC (buying and selling) One book calls economists “worldly philosophers”.
The subjects studied by philosophers are useful, and I feel that a Christian can be a good philosopher and a good scientist because the Christian values both and knows the limitations of both.
1. The philosophy of William of Occam is called nominalism, that is, we can only study actual things that we can name. It is contrasted with Plato’s view, called Realism, because he said there are things that are real, but these are not the actual things we experience.
2. Drawing deductions from observations is also called the empirical method.
3. One example of materialist philosophy is called “logical positivism.”