Why Philosophy Needs a GPS

June 22, 2016

by Scott Oliphint

The word philosophy means “love of wisdom.” Historically, philosophy has been characterized by a relentless search for wisdom, a single-minded and insatiable desire to set forth the fundamental aspects of human existence in order to guide human activity. In the words of the pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus, “Wisdom is to speak the truth and act in keeping with its nature.” Philosophy is concerned with the truth and with actions that are in accordance with the way things are. This requires some notion of just what “truth” is, and it requires that we know something of “the way things are.”

So what exactly is philosophy? Generally speaking, it is a theoretical activity that seeks to make sense out of the world in order to make sense of our place in it. In its activity, historically, philosophy has concerned itself with three broad categories: metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics.

What Is our Ultimate Reality?

Metaphysics asks and attempts to answer the question: “What is the nature of things in reality, and especially of ultimate reality?” In asking these kinds of questions, metaphysics seeks to get to the “essence” of a thing, or to define it in a way that promotes a deeper understanding of it.

The term itself was likely first used around 70 B.C. and attributed to some of Aristotle’s works. Aristotle wrote Physica to deal with the things that were physical or substantial, things that pertained primarily to the senses. But he also wrote a section that he called at times “First Philosophy,” sometimes “Wisdom,” and even at times “Theology.” One of his followers entitled the work Metaphysica, which means “that which is beside or over or above the physical.” Metaphysics, then, deals with that which is above and beyond the physical, that which is ultimate and real.

What Do We Know?

Epistemology is a term that came into philosophical vocabulary much later. It first appeared in German in the latter part of the eighteenth century as Erkentnisstheorie and then later came into English as epistemology. It is taken from the Greek word episteme and means “study of knowledge.” Philosophy’s task here is to study why, how, or whether we know something. Aristotle began his work on metaphysics with this statement: “All men by nature desire to know.” Here we see the interweaving of metaphysics and epistemology. Aristotle is saying something about the nature of man, which would have something to do with metaphysics. He is also asserting that it is a part of man’s nature to want to know, which touches on the area of epistemology. This discussion of epistemology together with metaphysics was typical of philosophy for most of its history.

Whenever we decide to go somewhere, the crucial thing to know is not where we’re going, but where we are.

Since the Enlightenment, however, the two disciplines have, for the most part, been separated, and metaphysics has been all but ignored. Though the discipline of metaphysics is currently making a comeback, epistemology took over the field of interest in philosophy at the time of Immanuel Kant (late eighteenth century).

What Is the Right Thing to Do?

Ethics—sometimes called moral philosophy—concerns itself with either of two primary categories. It may concern itself with so-called judgments of value, in which philosophers look at judgments of approval/disapproval, rightness/wrongness of an action, and so on. Or it may focus on so-called judgments of obligation, in which philosophers attempt to determine what it is we are obligated to do or not obligated to do in given situations or circumstances.

These three categories have constituted the bulk of philosophical activity since its inception. Our particular interest here, however, is the role of philosophy. More specifically, our interest is to argue for the proper place of philosophy as a theoretical discipline. How might we go about such an argument? There are likely a number of ways to attempt to put philosophy in its proper place and thus to determine its proper role. Our path of choice will be to focus on the subject matter of philosophy in order to clarify its place and its role.

As we saw above, philosophy’s subject matter is normally seen to be the three (broad) areas of metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics. Thus, it sets itself the tasks of asking broad and basic questions about reality: What is the nature of a thing or of reality itself? How can we know anything, and what is that knowledge? What is the right (or wrong) action to take in this particular circumstance, or in the world?

Where Are We and Where Are We Going?

Whenever we decide to go somewhere, the most crucial thing to know, first of all, is not where we’re going, but where we are. We cannot know which way we are supposed to be going until and unless we know where we are.

Let’s propose two different ways to try to figure out where we are (in order, eventually, to know where we’re going). The first way is a road map. Suppose we are in a strange place, but we have a fairly detailed road map that we are using to try to figure out how to get to our destination. The first thing we have to do is to know where we actually are. Perhaps how we got to where we are now is a bit of a mystery; maybe we seem to have simply “appeared” someplace. So we look around and notice that we are at the corner of Elm and Twenty-first Street. We look at the map, and lo and behold, there is the intersection of Elm and Twenty-first Street. We hope, therefore, to trace out a route and proceed along on our map, road by road, until we see our destination.

But it just so happens that we cannot find our destination, no matter how many roads we trace from Elm and Twenty-first Street. The problem, it seems, is that the intersection of Elm and Twenty-first Street on the map must be a different intersection from where we are. Maybe we’re in a different state from the one traced on our road map, or a different county or township from the one pictured on our map.

Christians are not left with a map that may or may not help with their current location. Christians have been given a view from above.

What we need is another map, a map of the correct state, county, or township. Once that map is secured, we can then locate the intersection of Elm and Twenty-first Street. But how will we go about finding the correct state, county, or township? Could it be that there are a number of intersections of Elm and Twenty-first Street in a number of states and counties? This could take some time. The best that we’ll be able to do is to try different road maps in hopes of finding in at least one of them where we actually are.

The problem with this method of determination is that we really do not know where we are. We have some idea of our surroundings, but to locate those surroundings in such a way that they conform to the map requires much more knowledge than we currently have. Not only so, but this method of discovery begins with ourselves and our own limited abilities. All we have to go on in seeking our location and destination is what little we know of what is around us. Attempting to move out with such scant knowledge in order to find our desired destination will virtually guarantee that we will never get where we want to go.

Using the scenario above, the second way to find out where we are is to use a global positioning system (GPS). We turn on the GPS, and within a few seconds the map is given on the screen, showing us exactly where we are. All that is left for us to do is to punch in our destination. Once we do that, we are shown how to get there, and how long it will take before we arrive.

Philosophy, by and large, in its quest for and love of wisdom, has tied itself to the first way above. It has sought to discover the answer to its three big questions by looking around its limited surroundings, using whatever maps may be available at the time, and moving inexorably toward some destination.

As the first way illustrates, little to no progress is made, because not only has philosophy remained ignorant of its own “location,” it has determined to assess that “location,” as well as its destination, beginning from whatever map is currently available. But just what that map is, or whether it can help us in our current quandary, is anybody’s guess. The best we can do is to keep employing different maps, hoping that, perchance, we might find where we are and thus get to our desired goal.

The first way has proved to be a failure; it has not allowed philosophy to move off its initial mark. It may continue to hold out hope that the right road map will one day appear. Until then, it will pick and choose road maps, in hopes that one will provide a way forward. But this will not do. What philosophy needs, and has needed all along, is a GPS. Its only hope for real progress is in adopting the second way.

Christian Faith and Philosophical Questions

It will not escape the alert reader that the three big areas that we have laid out as central to philosophy are also central areas of discussion in the Christian faith. It may be the case that the questions are phrased differently. It may be that most Christians would not ask, “What is the nature of ultimate reality?” or “How do I know that?” Even so, fundamental to Christianity is a response to both of those key questions.

The ethical questions have their answers in what God has said in his Word.

But there is a crucial difference in the Christian response to those questions. The response comes, first and foremost, not from Christians, but from God himself. In terms of our illustration above, Christians are not left with a road map that may or may not help with their current location. Christians have been given a view from above. They have a “GPS” that comes down from above to explain to them where they are and how they can get to where they need to go.

God’s Revelation Is our GPS

This “GPS” is God’s revelation in all its forms. It includes God’s revelation in creation, his revelation in his Word, and preeminently his revelation in the Lord Jesus Christ. Apart from God’s declaring himself and his will to us, we could not know how to please him, nor could we know what he is like. But because we have this revelation, we can begin to get to the truth of the matter with respect to the three big questions that philosophy has pursued these millennia.

So the answer to the metaphysical question that philosophy asks, “What is the nature of ultimate reality?” is “The triune God.” And his existence as the one God includes the three persons, each of whom is fully and completely this one God. Christianity understands that there is nothing more ultimate than God, and that he alone exists by virtue of who he is. He does not exist because of something else. He simply is. The only reason that we are is that he has given us existence.

Likewise, the initial answer to the epistemological question “How do I know?” is: “God has spoken.” Since God alone has the “view from above,” and since he has spoken in his Word and in his world, that which he communicates is true knowledge. When God says, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen. 1:1), it is the case that God created all things, and that before creation there was nothing but the triune God. In the same way that we can know where we are and where we should go because the GPS view from above shows us, so also we know who we are and what we are to do and be because God speaks to us.

More obviously, perhaps, what is right and what is wrong is precisely what God says is right and wrong. As God has revealed himself in various ways and at various times in history, he has made known just what is required to please him during those times. He has also made known what he requires of us, his creatures, throughout history. He has revealed himself climactically in his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ; and since Christ has come, he has revealed in his spoken Word, the Bible, just what our responsibilities are to him. The ethical questions have their answers in what God has said in his Word.

This piece is adapted from Scott Oliphint, Christianity and the Role of Philosophy (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2013), 5–15. Used with permission of the publisher.

Scott Oliphint

Dr. Oliphint (PhD, Westminster) is professor of apologetics and systematic theology at WTS.

Next Post...

No Prayer, No Mission

June 16, 2016

by William Edgar