Hello, interested parties . . . since your reading my blog, I assume you are interested in what I have to say. For this post, I have copied and pasted my final exam in my intro to philosophy class. At the end of it all, this is what I believe, making references to what I have learned in class . . .
What is being? What is real? Why do we exist? These are but a few of the questions philosophers have been asking for thousands of years. It occurs to me as I ponder them that these questions have something in common – they all begin with us. What does it mean to be human? Why am I not like the grass or the flowers or the animals? If I am sentient and intelligent enough to ask philosophical questions, to be curious about the world around me, that certainly sets me apart from the rest of the natural world. My ability to raise my head above the flora and fauna of the earth, look toward the sky and somehow reach out with my mind or my soul to whatever is out there is, in my view, what makes me different from all of creation. Descartes spoke truly those high-sounding words: “Cogito ergo sum.” “I think, therefore I am.” I can think, understand, feel, and dream. I am not simply a creature of instinct or drives. I think, therefore I know that I exist.
Plato thought the highest form of knowledge was obtained through the use of reason. Though I value reason quite highly, I must diverge from Plato on this point – if my own ability to reason is the highest form of knowledge that I may obtain, I am much to be pitied. Humans in and of themselves are too small; they are incomplete. Whatever I learn or think or know is still but a cup of water drawn from a vast sea whose end is beyond my ability to see. Like Thomas Aquinas I believe there are mysteries which lie beyond our ability to comprehend through reason alone. The ability to reason certainly defines us as human beings in a very significant way, but reason will only take us part way on this journey.
As we look at the world around us it becomes obvious that we are looking out at it from a particular perspective. We cannot really see ourselves as we are; we can only see our reflection. We can look down at our hands or our feet, but we cannot really look at ourselves in the same way we look out at the larger world. We are a part of it, but we are trapped inside our physical bodies. We can interact with it, but we cannot escape the view from behind our eyes. We are caged by our biases, locked up by our experiences of our world, or the lack thereof. We are utterly captured, believing that humankind is somehow the center of the universe. We shout our philosophical questions out into the universe, but we have no choice but to find the answers within ourselves. They will resonate with our personal thoughts, our preconceived notions, our angst, our bigotry, our loves, and our hatred. The answers will be tainted, infused with the particular odor of each one of us. Bacon’s Idols are inescapable. There will be no real answer, no real truth revealed from this heap of human thoughts, though there may be hints of it, faint shadows of truth and illumination. We are condemned to access only a small portion of the available knowledge of the universe. I must look beyond my own reason, beyond myself to discover truth that stands apart from my unique thoughts about it. I must always be on my guard against infusing ‘knowledge’ or ‘truth’ with my own prejudices.
Though it is good to approach philosophical questions with some measure of skepticism, I believe it is folly to be entirely skeptical. If I really thought I couldn’t know anything about anything there would be no point in thinking at all about anything! To follow the path of the Academics, to believe that “all things are inapprehensible”, or to suspend judgment as the Pyrrhonists did is to live life as a child, without understanding our place in the world or our affect on it. We would doom ourselves to always thinking but to no end. I will take the path of the modified skeptic: there are a great many things we can know, but we must always approach philosophical questions with humility, understanding that there are will always be a great many things we do not know. Even what I think I know must be reanalyzed in the light of new evidence. I must never be guilty of the serious error of assuming that what I think I know is all there is to know.
Moral judgments must have a foundation apart from what human beings decide is ‘good’ or ‘right’. The Idols of the Tribe, the Cave, the Market Place, and the Theatre are intricately interwoven into the very fabric of our thinking and our understanding, rendering our judgments less than perfect, to say the least. If something is ‘good’, it must be good because it is, in fact, good, not because someone has declared it to be so. Humankind may look upon the good and agree that it is good, but that declaration does not make it good. I believe that in Plato’s forms, we see a shadow of a much greater truth. ‘Good’ does exist out there somewhere; I believe that God exists and is good. Everything we call ‘good’ on the earth is a shadow of God’s goodness.
I do believe in God; to do otherwise would be an affront to my intelligence. The entire universe is filled with a beauty and complexity that assaults both our senses and our minds. As beings who thrive on creativity and invention, it is unthinkable that all we see around us simply popped into being without benefit of a creative genius beyond our ability to fully comprehend. To believe that everything came from nothing without benefit of a supreme intelligence is to place human beings once again at the center of the universe, a grievous error for anyone who values intellect and reason, in my view. For humankind to believe that there is no being or intelligence greater than ourselves is to believe that we are the pinnacle of intelligence, the center of the universe. This, in my view, is folly. The incredible complexity of life on this planet gives weight to the teleological argument, I think. Thousands upon thousands of life forms exist on this planet in balanced, symbiotic relationships. The earth glides strategically around the sun, and all of life on this planet could not exist if its position were off to the smallest degree. Earth alone has everything that is necessary for life to flourish here: atmosphere, solar energy, water, and more. The evidence for the intelligent design argument is heavily weighted in its favor, in my opinion.
Humankind will never be able to ‘prove’ that God exists or that God does not exist. There is no perfectly logical argument on either side of the debate. Therefore the best that we can do is to examine what we perceive to be the ‘evidence’ and decide for ourselves what we will believe. This is no way speaks to ‘truth’, because truth is what it is, irrespective of our opinions, evidence, experience, or belief. When we talk about what we believe, we are not talking about what is true. We are simply talking about what we have decided to believe is true, given the evidence. Only those who are committed to logic can rightfully be said to have weighed the evidence and come to an educated conclusion. Everyone chooses what to believe; they either believe that God exists, that God does not exist, or that they do not or cannot know whether God exists or not. To ‘believe’ because one has made a thorough investigation and come to a personal conclusion is admirable. To ‘believe’ because you’ve always believed or because your culture has taught you to believe is irresponsible.
It is my sincere belief that free will is God’s crowning gift to humankind, but man is not entirely free. There is much about my existence that is outside of my control – the place and time of my birth, my ethnic background, my genetic characteristics, my parents, the circumstances of my family, their socio-economic status, financial situation, etc. Freedom and ultimate control are not the same thing, neither are they mutually exclusive in my opinion. The raising of children provides us with a good example. Children are born into families every day. No one asks their thoughts or permissions. They enter a world that was already constructed. Little clothes have been bought for them, special furniture has been procured, and shelves are lined with books, toys, and all manner of items deemed necessary, all without their consultation. They grow in the environment provided for them, exercising their little free wills within pre-set boundaries. “Would you like to wear the red shirt or the blue one today?” “Do you want waffles or cereal for breakfast?” As they grow in their ability to reason, they begin to understand that there are consequences associated with the exercise of their free wills. “”You chose to come home one hour after curfew last night; therefore you have lost your precious electronic devices for one week.” The fact that I cannot choose the color of my eyes or the time period into which I was born does not mean I do not possess free will. Neither does the fact that there are consequences to my actions. It simply means that I exercise my free will within a pre-ordained framework. It means that I am part of an ordered universe. If I plant a sunflower seed I expect to grow a sunflower. If I neglect it, I can expect it to die. My free will does not demand the ability to plant whatever I want and grow sunflowers anyway, or that I be relieved of gardening tasks yet see big, beautiful sunflowers. I do not raise my gloved hand and shake my trowel at the heavens, upset because I do not have free will or that I reaped what I sowed. I had all the freedom in the world to plant whatever I wanted, cooperating with the sun, rain, and soil (which I did not create) and, finally, receiving the reward of my labors.
I do not believe God’s foreknowledge cancels out our free will. God’s knowledge of what is going to happen before it happens has much more to do with the concept of time. If God exists outside of time, the terms ‘past’, ‘present’, and ‘future’ have no context for him/her. In my opinion, the trouble comes in when we try to combine human existence within linear time and God’s existence outside of linear time. God may have fore-ordained that before my life is over I will have skinned a cat, but there are many ways to skin a cat, and I believe he allows me great freedom of choice as to how to go about it. I am both blessed with free will and cursed. Blessed, because God wants to see me explore, create, and flourish because of it, cursed, because I alone will bear responsibility for the consequences of those choices.
Political philosophy brings up many difficult questions. My foundational belief is that good government is government that works for everyone. I am not concerned about whether that government is ‘big’ or ‘small’. My concern is that we create within our societies truly level playing fields in which every person’s life contains the core ingredients of human dignity. The ‘capabilities approach’, introduced by Martha Nussbaum, focuses more on desirable outcomes than on specific just procedures to achieve those outcomes. A few examples of those ingredients are the ability to live a life of normal length in good health, the freedom to move about safe from violent assault, and to be able to laugh and play and enjoy recreational opportunities. In these examples we can see the priorities of the availability of healthcare and an adequate police force to maintain the safety and peace of society at large.
In contrast, Robert Nozick’s libertarian views place the rights on individuals on a higher plane than the right of society collectively. While I absolutely believe in personal liberty, I do not believe that liberty is absolute. I live in a world surrounded by people with whom I must interact on a daily basis – at the counter at Starbucks, at the grocery store check-out, in classrooms, restrooms, traffic lights, in my own home. Only if I were to live alone on a desert island without need of other people could I proclaim my individual liberty as paramount above all else. I believe human beings are social creatures, whether they are extroverts or introverts – we all need each other to survive. In contrast, Ayn Rand believed that rights are vested in the individual, never in the group, and that the state exists to protect individual rights. There is no philosophy that I loathe more than that of Rand; her Darwinian philosophy which exalts the brilliant and creative above the unthinking, undeserving masses denies the value of every person in society. It is elitist, proud, and unworkable.
In summary, I believe in a good God who exists both in our world and in a cloud of mystery just beyond it. I believe in the innate creativity and beauty of individual people and in our responsibility to each other and to our planet. I believe in our collective ability to create a just, peaceful, and beautiful world.