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Philosophy: What's the Use?

March 25, 2012     Time: 00:21:19
Philosophy: What’s the Use?


Dr. Craig explores an article by philosopher of Science Gary Gutting concerning the practical use of philosophy and an apparent resistance of philosophy among cosmologists and physicists.

Transcript Philosophy: What's the Use?


Kevin Harris: Welcome to Reasonable Faith with Dr. William Lane Craig. Dr. Craig, we're looking at an article about philosophy entitled “Philosophy – What's the Use?” [1] It combines some of the things we've been talking about in the past podcast. In fact we'll bring up some of the things that Tim Maudlin is saying about philosophy and physics and cosmology that we talked about on the last podcast. But tell us about Gary Gutting—popular philosopher.

Dr. Craig: Right. He's a prominent philosopher of science who teaches at the University of Notre Dame and is highly respected in his field. So he's someone well-qualified to be addressing this issue about the use of philosophy.

Kevin Harris: Now, the first paragraph really glares out at me in that he says “There are, in particular, complaints that philosophy is an irrelevant ‘ivory-tower’ exercise, useless to any except those interested in logic-chopping for its own sake.” Now, the first thing I want to know, Bill, is what is all this response from prominent philosophers to those who are decrying philosophy? And we're seeing all this defense of philosophy. It may be because Hawking wrote that book and made that statement about philosophy being dead. But not only from Hawking; you'll just hear this all the time, that my philosophy is that there is no good philosophy. [laughter] You know, that kind of statement.

Dr. Craig: Right, or Lawrence Krauss' statement that philosophers are expert in nothing because he thinks that they are just engaged in navel gazing, as he puts it. So there is definitely depreciation of the field of philosophy among certain people who are not aware of what happens in the field.

Kevin Harris: But he says,

There is an important conception of philosophy that falls to this criticism. Associated especially with earlier modern philosophers, particularly René Descartes, this conception sees philosophy as the essential foundation of the beliefs that guide our everyday life. For example, I act as though there is a material world and other people who experience it as I do. But how do I know that any of this is true? Couldn’t I just be dreaming of a world outside my thoughts? And, since (at best) I see only other human bodies, what reason do I have to think that there are any minds connected to those bodies? To answer these questions, it would seem that I need rigorous philosophical arguments for my existence and the existence of other thinking humans.

Now, Hollywood is to blame for a lot of this. Being in the Matrix, and Inception is a new movie, a fairly recent movie, that deals with these brain in a vat type arguments. Talk about navel gazing! It's got everybody navel gazing on whether or not we're a brain in a vat. But he also is influenced by Plantinga here, it sounds like, on his work in God and Other Minds.

Dr. Craig: Yes, that's right. As you'll see later on in the article he says that foundationalism, such as represented by Descartes, is wrong. That's an incorrect use of philosophy. And if you think you're going to need to use philosophical arguments to prove that the external world exists or that there are other minds, you're going to be disappointed. The lesson of the last four hundred years has been that that route will lead to skepticism. But, he says, we don't need those kinds of arguments in order to believe rationally in the external world, the existence of other minds, or the reality of the past.

Kevin Harris: Well, Bill, I hear from Alvin Plantinga on foundationalism. And I'll read Roderick Chisholm on the problem of the criterion. And he does seem to say that knowledge is like the illustration that you gave earlier – that you have these foundation blocks and then this skyscraper built on top of it towering with knowledge. Plantinga says that your illustration doesn't say that at all; it's more like an empty lot with a few bricks here and there.

Dr. Craig: On the foundations, exactly. What Plantinga rejects, contrary to Gutting, is not foundationalism as such. And I think that this is a misunderstanding of many thinkers today who claim we live in a postmodernist era. They associate modernism with Cartesian foundationalism, and since that project has failed they think now we're in a postmodern situation where there is no certainty, no knowledge, language creates reality, each of us has his own reality for himself. That doesn't follow at all. What Plantinga's really rejecting is not foundationalism, but what he calls evidentialism. That is to say, that we are justified in believing something only if it is either incorrigible or it is self-evident or it can be inferred on the basis of evidence. [2] And Plantinga rejects that. He says that much of what we know is simply foundational, or basic. It's properly basic like our belief in the external world, or other minds, or the reality of the past. These are not inferences that we make from evidence. Rather, these are properly basic beliefs that are grounded in our experience. And in the absence of a defeater for those beliefs we're perfectly rational to go on believing that there's an external world around us or that the past is real. Only in the case that you would have a defeater, some reason to think that your belief is mistaken, should you give up such a basic belief.

Kevin Harris: It could be a little deceiving to untrained ears that Plantinga says that he's criticizing foundationalism, that that means there is no foundation for knowledge, and things like that. And as you just pointed out, he's not saying that. Obviously there are going to be some foundations—right?

Dr. Craig: Absolutely. And I don't think Plantinga uses the language of rejecting foundationalism—that's Gutting's characterization, even though he mentions Rorty and Plantinga. What Plantinga rejects is evidentialism, and he names it that. So he holds that certainly there are foundations to knowledge. He would say that not only are there self-evident beliefs like “if it is raining, it is raining,” or “2+2=4,” not only are there incorrigible beliefs like “I feel pain,” or “That looks white to me,” but he would also say there are properly basic beliefs like memory beliefs, beliefs based on testimony, sense perception, metaphysical beliefs in the reality of the past and in the reality of the external world, and on and on and on. Many of the beliefs we hold are held in a properly basic way and are therefore a part of the foundations of knowledge.

Kevin Harris: I've heard it also put that there are some things that we just tend to have direct access to; we know intuitively.

Dr. Craig: Well, I think we have that kind of acquaintance with ourselves. We have that sort of direct access to ourselves through introspection, our own mental states. Nobody could be mistaken about his own mental states.

Kevin Harris: Yet intuition is a misunderstood word, too—an intuitive grasp of it, or something. It's misinterpreted as a hunch or a gut feeling.

Dr. Craig: Right, or as something emotional like women's intuition. That's not what the word means when philosophers use it. I wish there were another word that they could use, but it's hard to think of another word. Maybe rational insight would be a better word. It's the sort of way in which you know that “if p implies q, and p, then q” or “if either a or not a.” You have a rational insight into that; a rational intuition that those laws of logic are true.

Kevin Harris: Yeah, isn't it funny that we say “I can see that” and we're not talking about our physical eyes, our vision. We're talking about something of what you're saying there, this eternal grasping, this knowledge, this incorrigibility.

Dr. Craig: We use that kind of language – don't we? – when we say “You can just see that the laws of logic are true.”

Kevin Harris: See what I mean? [laughter]

Dr. Craig: And it wouldn't be a physical sight, it would be a sort of rational insight. In fact Descartes talked about this as a kind of light of the mind, that you see by the natural light. I think this is what he meant by what today might be called rational intuition.

Kevin Harris: There's just so many people who seem to reject this. They prefer this skepticism instead, that we're just lost in skepticism, that we can't know anything. Is that what you meant by the fact that we need to reject a lot of what has been interpreted as postmodernism?

Dr. Craig: Well, what I meant by that was the postmodernist thinks the rejection of Cartesian foundationalism means that there are no foundations now for knowledge. It's like having a structure without foundations – if you can imagine such a thing – just freely floating. And that's not what we're led to. That's certainly not Plantinga's view or the majority of philosophers today. Postmodernism is lodged in the universities in places like the social sciences and literature, maybe religious studies, but philosophy has resisted like a bulwark the encroachment of postmodernism because it's so evidently irrational and self-defeating. [3] I mean, how can you make the statement “There are no foundations of knowledge” in an objective way because that purports to be an item of objective knowledge. It's a self-defeating position.

Kevin Harris: I think where I was going with it is, people often seem to want to prefer skepticism to admitting that there are some things that can be known. It's like “I know that we can't know anything.”

Dr. Craig: Again, that's self-defeating—isn't it?

Kevin Harris: Yeah, it is.

Dr. Craig: When you think of skepticism, why be skeptical? What reason could you give for being skeptical? The minute you give a reason you've undermined your skepticism because you've then begun to provide some sort of justification which you could be skeptical about. So skepticism is just self-defeating. It can't be rationally affirmed.

Kevin Harris: Talk about a futile mental exercise. “Here are my reasons for why I don't need reasons.” And the other point of that is that people tend to want to deny the reliability of our senses. But, Bill, like you say, don't we hold to the basic reliability of our senses telling us that there is an external world, unless there is some defeater that would override what our senses are telling us?

Dr. Craig: That’s right. You would need to have some reason to think that you've been given hallucinatory drugs or that you are a brain in a vat, or something of that sort. You'd need to have some reason for thinking that your senses are delusory in order for you to be justified in thinking that everything is an illusion.

Kevin Harris: Gutting goes on to say,

If you think that the only possible “use” of philosophy would be to provide a foundation for beliefs that need no foundation, then the conclusion that philosophy is of little importance for everyday life follows immediately. But there are other ways that philosophy can be of practical significance.

Even though basic beliefs on ethics, politics and religion do not require prior philosophical justification, they do need what we might call “intellectual maintenance,” which itself typically involves philosophical thinking.

Dr. Craig: Here what he's thinking of is handling defeaters. Suppose you had some views about, say, an ethical issue. For example, it's wrong to engage in war. Well, this might be challenged by someone who points out that a war that is defensive – in defense of innocent persons – would be justified. And then you would need to think philosophically about your view, about this defeater of your view, and come up with either a defeater of the defeater, or you would need to change your view in light of its being defeated. So he's thinking here about the ways in which one needs to deal with objections to one's view. What he calls intellectual maintenance.

Kevin Harris: So he's agreeing with Plantinga that we can have this basicality, this properly basic knowledge, that needs no further justification, but there is intellectual maintenance involved in these things. That's what I'm trying to get out of where he's going. I find that fascinating.

Dr. Craig: Yes, that's right. So you can have a properly basic belief, but that doesn't mean that it's indefeasible. Properly basic doesn’t mean indefeasible. That is to say, it can be held in a properly basic way but when someone comes along with a defeater of that belief then you need in turn to defeat the defeater if you're going to maintain your belief rationally. So Gutting gives the example of belief in God. Suppose you believe in God in a properly basic way, and someone presents to you the problem of evil and claims that the evil and suffering in the world is incompatible with God's existence. Now you're confronted with a defeater of your belief, and so you need to offer a defeater of the problem of evil in order to maintain your belief rationally. And these types of defeaters could be one of two types. One would be what we might call a refuting defeater. This would be a defeater in which you show that the objection is false; you actually refute it. You show the objection is a false statement. The other type of defeater would be what is called an undercutting defeater. What you would do there is not show the objection is false, but that there's no good reason to believe the objection is true. You remove its warrant so that there's no reason to think the objection is true. You've undercut the objection by removing its warrant. [4] Those are two ways in which you can handle defeaters. And these are very useful, frankly, Kevin, for those engaged in Christian apologetics because very often you will hear an objection to your view and you need then to assess, “What exactly in my view does this challenge? Does it really defeat my view if the objection is true?” And if you say “yes it would” then you need – if you're to maintain your view rationally – you need to undercut the defeater, or you need to refute the defeater.

Kevin Harris: If the task of philosophy, then, is to chase these defeaters down. I mean, you look at arguments and counter-arguments and I don't seen anything wrong, Bill, with coming to some conclusion, you know?

Dr. Craig: Exactly. And I guess one thing Gutting didn't mention is that one of the tasks of philosophy would also be to formulate defeaters of other views. You're not only maintaining your own view, but also formulating defeaters for why you think other views are inadequate.

Kevin Harris: Bill, he also says,

In addition to defending our basic beliefs against objections, we frequently need to clarify what our basic beliefs mean or logically entail. So, if I say I would never kill an innocent person, does that mean that I wouldn’t order the bombing of an enemy position if it might kill some civilians? Does a commitment to democratic elections require one to accept a fair election that puts an anti-democratic party into power? Answering such questions requires careful conceptual distinctions, for example, between direct and indirect results of actions, or between a morality of intrinsically wrong actions and a morality of consequences. Such distinctions are major philosophical topics, of course, and most non-philosophers won’t be in a position to enter into high-level philosophical discussions. But there are both non-philosophers who are quite capable of following such discussions and philosophers who enter public debates about relevant topics.

This emphasizes what you said about conceptual distinctions.

Dr. Craig: Yes, here Gutting says that one of the most important tasks of philosophy is to make conceptual distinctions, to clarify what our views are, what they mean, and then also what they imply; what is logically implied by the positions that we take? And he points out that philosophers are quite good at doing this. And this really is, I think, Kevin, just one of the major contributions of philosophy. Take the question, for example, of God's being eternal. Philosophers will say, well, to be eternal means to be without beginning or end. But there are at least two ways a thing can be eternal. One would be to be everlasting throughout infinite time, no beginning and no end, beginningless and endless temporal duration. But another way to be eternal would be to be timeless, to transcend time altogether. So when you theologians say that God is eternal, which one do you mean? Do you mean that he's timeless, or do you mean that he's everlasting throughout infinite time? Explain to us what you mean by this. Well, this is an illustration of how philosophy works and can be of help to theology in clarifying conceptual distinctions and then helping us to understand the logical implications of what we affirm.

Kevin Harris: And this has ramifications in everyday living and in government, like he's saying. But, Bill, it's like – on this same topic – it's like pulling teeth to get some of my atheist friends to do a conceptual analysis of what the cause of the universe would be like. And when you think about it, as you've said, well, there's only certain things that this would possess, this cause of the universe. It would be timeless and spaceless, and that leads us to two things—either abstract objects or something on the order of mind, a disembodied mind. Abstract objects don't cause anything (they don't stand in causal relations) therefore we have this. And by conceptual analysis we've defined concepts. What a great exercise. And we need you philosophers to do that for us. [laughter]

Dr. Craig: Yeah, I think that's right, Kevin. And I do sense when I read forums on the internet or see sometimes things in YouTube videos that there is a kind of laziness or resistance to doing this sort of hard conceptual analysis on the part of some people. They just sort of throw up their hands and say “Well, no one can know anything about these things” and they don't seem to have a very clear grasp of the concepts involved. And notice to make a conceptual analysis is not to commit yourself to the existence of anything. [5] For example, when we say that an immaterial, timeless, spaceless entity could be either an abstract object or an unembodied mind, we're not committing ourselves to the existence of either abstract objects or unembodied minds. We're just clarifying conceptually what sort of an entity a timeless, spaceless, immaterial object would be.

Kevin Harris: Bill, it seems that Gutting here has shown that there are more practical uses of philosophy and also more abstract uses in philosophy, that it covers all, it covers the concrete and the abstract, that it can apply to everyday and really philosophy can't be escaped.

Dr. Craig: Well, I would say in sum that he differentiates between two uses of philosophy. One would be an illegitimate use which would be trying to provide justification for beliefs that are really properly basic, and we don't need philosophy for that. But what philosophy can do is it can help to intellectually maintain our beliefs by showing them to be rational in the face of defeaters, and then it can also help us to see the implications of our beliefs and what our beliefs mean by making careful conceptual distinctions. [6]