An Introduction to the Origins and History of Philosophy


Busts of Sokrates, Antisthenes, Chrysippos, Epikouros / Photo by Matt Neale, Wikimedia Commons


By Dr. Philip A. Pecorino / 08.22.2015
Professor Philosophy
Queensborough Community CollegeCity University of New York


Philosophy and Wonder

Aristotle thought that Philosophy begins in wonder.  Wonder is some thing children do quite well.  It comes natural to them.  Unfortunately as a lot of us grow older we stop wondering and stop questioning and stop attempting to look at things in new ways or non-traditional ways.  We are rewarded for our acceptance and conformity to what is accepted by most people, for our adoption of whatever is popular.  Some of us stop wondering altogether.

Consider two “Stories”

One night a young mother brought her son (age 7) to class at the college where I was teaching an evening class.  Her babysitter was not able to be with her son that night. Well I entered the room and he was sitting in a desk next to his mom and was looking in a book and later was coloring in coloring books.  At the time I was about the same age as his mom.  We sat around in a rectangular arrangement in the room so that everyone could see everyone’s face.  I sat at a student desk in the midst of all the others.  We started in on the topic for that evening class.  After about 20 minutes, the little fellow said: ”Hey, when is the teacher going to get here?” to his mom.  She explained that the teacher was there and that the teacher was myself.  He was a bit surprised because I wasn’t at the front of the room and using the blackboard.  He settled back in and the class went on to its conclusion.   After class his mom and I were talking about something pertaining to the course.  We were standing outside in the evening air and her son was standing beside his mom with his head down and after looking at the dirt around the hedges that were around the sides of the building he started to kick at the dirt lightly with the tip of one of his shoes.  I noticed he was doing this while I was speaking to his mom.  I asked her how her son was doing in school and she told me he was doing fine and that he was an average student.  I stopped speaking to her and inquired of the young boy: “What are you doing there?”  “Nothing.” He replied.  Most likely he thought that he was doing something wrong.  “No, you were doing something.”, I said.  “What was it?”  “Nothing, “ came his response again.  “I saw you kicking in the dirt.  Weren’t you kicking the dirt?” I asked. “Yes” he admitted. “Well, why were you doing that?” I asked further.  “No reason” he answered.  “You must have had some reason.” I responded. “No!” was his next response tome.  “What were you thinking while you were kicking in the dirt?” I pressed on with my questions.  “Nothing.” He answered. “You must have been thinking something.  We all think something all the time.” I answered and then I got what I was hoping for.  “I was just wondering about the dirt.” He said. “Wondering what?” I asked. “Well, where did it come from?” he responded.  “You mean the dirt?” I asked. “Yeah” he said.  “Well it has always been her as part of the earth.” I answered.  Then he said. “No, I mean where did it come from before it was part of the earth?”  I was surprised by his question.  “You mean where was it before it was here?”  He answered with, “How would you even know where here was if there were no earth, if there was nothing at all?”

Now I turned to his mother who thought that her son was only an average and well behaved little man and said to her, “Did you know that your son is wondering about the sort of questions that got Einstein thinking about matters that led him to the theory or relativity.  Your son is thinking about matters or relativity versus absolute space and time and location!”

Well, nearly all of us when we are very young have questions about some of the most basic things that as we grow older we stop questioning and accept more and more what others tell us in many ways we must accept to be accepted ourselves. But it happens that some of us reach a point where we realize that:

NOT EVERYTHING WE BELIEVE IS TRUE.

Philosophy begins in a sense of wonder.  It begins when we wonder about what otherwise is taken for granted or assumed to be true.  I shall demonstrate how Philosophy arises in the West when a number of Greeks begin to wonder about the nature of the universe and about the nature of reality and the gods.    Wonder is a marvelous thing that we should cherish and hold on to as long as we can.  It is one of the hallmarks of youth.  Small children are filled with wonder.  Jesus, the Christ and Confucius have spoken highly of the minds of children.  Christ has said” Blessed are the children for they shall inherit the kingdom of heaven” and “To enter the kingdom of heaven, you should have the mind of a child.”  What is it about the mind of a child that merits such high value?  Is it the curiosity, inquiry and open-mindedness?

Now, here is the second story.  This one is for you to wonder at.

At night when there are no clouds you can look up through the evening sky at what is it most would say they see?  Nearly everyone would say that they see stars and the moon, if it is visible from their position at the time.  Now, when asked what are those stars? , most people know that they are suns as our own and that they are giving off light as our own does.  Many people would be able to answer that the suns are emitting light as they turn hydrogen into helium in a process that emits enormous amount of energy, a good part in the form of photons of light.  And when asked what name do most people give to what they are looking out into at might?  Many, most, maybe even all, would say “SPACE.” Maybe “Outer Space” But SPACE nonetheless.

This is the story that many of us have come to believe.  We look out into space and see many suns.  We know however that those little specks of twinkling light are very, very far away.  In fact, we are taught that they are so far away that the distance cannot be measured as we normally do for the numbers would be so large.  To make it easier the distances that the stars and galaxies are from earth are measured in light-years.  A light –year is the distance light travels in one year.  Light moves at over 186,000 miles per second-some velocity!   So, the light we see that we associate with a star at night has been traveling for some time to get to your eyeball.  One star is 70 million light years away.  A galaxy may be 350 million light years away.  Another star might be 125 million light years away and another 23     million and another 450,000 light years from earth.  Another galaxy may be 5 billion light years away.  Now since it takes quite a while for the light to reach earth by the time it does arrive at you eyeball the source of the light might not even exist anymore.  A star may have gone into a nova or supernova, burnt out, or been merged into a black hole!  A galaxy may have merged with another in a cosmic collision.

Now it may come as a shock to some of you to realize that when you look out into the evening sky and into what you are thinking of as SPACE that what you are looking at it actually a composite of different periods of TIME.  You are looking at a collection of pasts.  What you are looking at, the exact configuration or arrangement of those points of light , well that configuration of the stars (some are galaxies): DOES NOT EXIST as it appears to your eye, NEVER HAS EXISTED as an actual arrangement in space as it appears to your eye, and NEVER WILL EXIST as some of those stars have gone into nova or black holes and no longer exist even when you are seeing the light from them in the present that is your present.  What you and all other humans are seeing is an ILLUSION.  It is the illusion of a simultaneous present for all the sources of light that are striking the eyeball of the human observer.. .

The relative locations of the stars and galaxies you are viewing are not real and never have been.  You are looking at where things were different times ago.  What you are experiencing as “seeing” is the intersection of light rays from different times in the past.  The experience for those of us on earth is totally unique to us.

THINGS ARE NOT ALWAYS AS THEY APPEAR. 

A picture of an optical illusion. Taken at the Phaeno Science Center in Wolfsburg. / Photo by Diarb2008, Wikimedia Commons

I want you to think about that idea.  Consider how many things you may believe that may not be true.  Think about how many things you believe may have other ways to be examined, viewed or explained   other than in the manner you have come to accept as the only way or the one true way or as the truth.

We are going to look at the Greeks because they believed for a long time in stories that they took to be true and upon which they based their lives.  About the time of Socrates many Greeks were coming to question and even to disbelieve in those stories and when they no longer believed they were at a loss as to how they were to live their lives, in particular what were they to use as the basis for a GOOD life: a moral life. This was so because the moral guide that most were using was rested within those stories that now were being questioned or rejected as not being true.

Socrates wondered and questioned.  I wonder and question.  Philosophers wonder and question. This work shall encourage each reader to wonder and question.  Now many times I shall make an effort to have you look at things you take for granted as being true and look at them differently.  I want you to open up your minds to the possibility that things may not be as you think they are.

A dean at my college saw me one afternoon and asked me to come to his office.  I had been teaching there for only two years and didn’t know what to make of his summoning me.  I thought I might have done something wrong.  I met him in his office and he told me he just wanted to see how I was doing.  I was very young and full of enthusiasm and told him about all the exercises and projects I was doing with my classes and showed him my course outlines.  He was interested but he wanted me to relax.  He told me I should try to   keep in mind that if by the time the course in Philosophy was over I would have accomplished a great deal if some of the students, just  SOME of the students, would leave the course thinking that the universe was not just the way they thought all things were on the first day of the course. This is has become one of my goals: that some of you who read this text will come to consider that all things may not be as you think they are now.

 Socrates and Plato learned and taught that the senses are not to be trusted.  That wanted people to trust more in reason. Why? 

The senses can deceive you, and further, you should know better.

The sun looks to me to be

  •  not so far away,
  •  not so big and
  •  not so hot either.
  •  And I swear that the sun looks like it moves.

These ideas are  the result of what my senses tell me.

 I see these things every day with my own eyes.  Nothing could be plainer.

 Are these ideas true?

Chaos and Cosmos

People prefer order to chaos and it appears they are willing to pay quite a price for that order.  Humans are faced with a large number of important questions, such as: What is life all about?  Where do we come from?  What is the meaning of it all? How or where did the world come from?  What is the right thing to do?   Rather than figure out answers to these questions for themselves, most humans appear willing to accept those answers that are provided through their culture.  They learn them through their language, their religious belief systems, their educational system and other major social institutions.  Most humans appear ill suited to reject the answers of their culture or even to subject them to careful scrutiny.   Rather than live without answers and instead face the chaos, most humans accept the order as it is given to them.

COSMOS IS BETTER THAN CHAOS!

Over time there often develops serious questioning of the order, the foundation of the order and what is dependent upon it.  In order to maintain that order people need to turn aside from the criticisms and reaffirm their basic beliefs.  The reward for continuing in the beliefs is order.  The price they pay is to halt the questioning process. Many do so because they fear the result of displacing or surrendering the beliefs, they lose the safety and calm of the order. That order provides great mental COMFORT.

Centaurus Constellation / Public Domain

Here is a story that many of you might find quite illustrative, entertaining and educational.

Santa Claus

Now when I was growing up I learned about good old Santa Claus.  For many years I received gifts from Santa at Christmas time. However, I came to ask questions about the fat guy with the red suit with white piping and the reindeer and the North Pole house and factory, the elves, Mrs. Claus, the whole deal!  Whenever I asked questions such as, “but how does Santa get in here? We don’t have a chimney!”  I would be given an answer meant to assure me, to settle my doubts and restore me to the comfortable calm of being certain that there was a Santa and all would be well and work out.  “He’ll find a way.  He always does.  Don’t worry”

Well, I did worry.  I did have lots of questions.  As I grew older the questions grew and the answers became less and less acceptable.  “What about the other Santa’s?  What about the reindeer?  How big was the sleigh?  There are a lot of children in the world!  How does he get it done in one night?”  Now, I had friends my age who were believers and they would tell stories of Santa eating the cookies they left out for him.  I thought that those cookies explain how he was so fat, but there were other problems.  What about the reindeer?  No one ever reported seeing signs of the deer.  I am a city kid and I knew from my brief exposure to elephants at the circus, horses at parades and cows at expositions that large mammals were always dropping feces.  Where was the reindeer sh..?  I wondered.  It had to be somewhere!  All night long Santa working those deer!  There had to be signs somewhere, but there never was!

Those of you who are born in the United States or in Western countries that share in this story and those who spend a few years in a country that is predominately Christian quickly come to learn about the story of Santa Claus, whether you are a Christian or not, it does not seem to matter.  The holiday has been secularized and children from other cultures and religions are often, but not always, given gifts by family and friends so that the children will not feel slighted by the fat guy skipping them possibly making them think that there was something wrong with them or their family or making them feel marked as different from the other children.  Children also come to learn that there is no Santa Claus.  Oops, sorry if some of you didn’t know that already. Sometimes a child discovers the truth. Sometimes parents reveal the truth. Sometimes older brothers or sisters tease their younger siblings with the truth.  Occasionally it is an older friend or friend of a friend who, for any one of a number of motives, may reveal the truth.  And now we get to the point.  As long as we believe we get gifts, well we do not want to stop getting the gifts and so sometimes, we go on believing or pretending to believe so that the gifts will continue.  This can go on for some time but not forever, and not in the case of the Santa Claus story.

Now, despite the fact that people know that the story is not true many people go on telling the story to children.  They act as if it were true in the presence of small children.  They tease small children with warnings about being good or else they won’t get their gifts or asking children what did Santa bring you?  Why do people go on telling a story that they know isn’t true?  In this case the answer lies in what it is of value that people derive from the telling of the tale.  People who tell the tale to small children and bring them gifts in the name of Santa do so because it is fun.  They enjoy doing so.  They enjoy making small children happy.  And so the tale goes on because people experience values in doings so.  The telling of the tale assists children to learn the lesson that there is joy in giving, for Santa is joyful.  The moral: it is better to give than to receive.

The telling of a tale that isn’t true and the desire to promulgate it is part of what is known as a broken myth: a story we know is not true but we repeat anyway because of the values derived from doing so.

You will be challenged to consider many questions, many issues.  Some of the issues deal with matters concerning which you share in a belief system with many other people.  You will be challenged to consider the possibility that the ideas you take as given truths may not be true at all.  You will be challenged to consider looking at matters from another point of view.  It could just be that some of the ideas you have are stories, which may not be true.  Perhaps, people believe in some of these stories because, as with the Santa story, they receive gifts for believing.  They receive the gift of an order for their lives and they avoid chaos.  People cannot live with chaos and so they may on believing in a story that provides order in their lives even if it, like the Santa tale, has a lot of holes in it.  They may believe even if the stories have contradictions or are filled with many mysteries.

Now we learn from our culture a number of things and a way to look at all things.  We inherit through our culture a worldview.  Now what philosophers do is examine with a critical eye all things.  It may just be that elements of that worldview are not correct or true.  It could just be that some of our most cherished beliefs have flaws in them, such as in the Santa story, and we just don’t see them as yet.

Philosophy examines the most basic ideas with which humans think.  It takes as little for granted as is possible.  In fact it aims at taking nothing for granted and subjecting all ideas and beliefs to the examination of reason.  Here is the best definition of Philosophy that I have ever come across:

Philosophy is the most critical and comprehensive thought process devised by humans.

CUNY Philosophy Club, 1970 / Creative Commons

Philosophy is not the means by which humans have erected systems of beliefs to help them answer the most perplexing and important issues but it is the means by which those answers are evaluated, examined and found to be acceptable or else rejected.

Some of the earliest forms for the answers to life’s most basic questions have been found in the form of stories that were told long, long ago.  These stories were passed on from generation to generation.  The stories were told in the hope that those who heard them would believe them and be guided by them.  Such stories are called myths.  Myths may or may not be true.  The point about a myth is that those who pass them on hope that those who hear them will believe them and be guided by them.  In this manner you can think of the Santa Story as a myth, and a broken myth at that because most who tell the tales know that they are not true.  It doesn’t matter whether they are true or not.  The teller of the myth- intends for the audience to believe.

Ok let’s take a look at where we are.  Humans have a sense of wonder.  They ask all sorts of questions.  Humans want answers to the most important questions.  Humans want and need order in their lives.  They abhor chaos.  Humans can’t abide a mental chaos.  The earliest sets of answers to life’s most pressing questions appear to have been contained in and passed on through stories.  People like stories.  They learn a lot from stories.  People gravitate to the story, the gossip, the tales about the professor more than they focus on the lesson.  Some of the earliest stories meant to be instructive, answer questions and provide order are myths.  As time goes on within every culture there arise so many myths, so many stories that some people start to wonder about the stories themselves.  Some people even question the tales.  Are they true? They can’t all be true at once!  Which are true? How do we know?

Philosophy arises out of wonder.

Philosophy arises out of a cultural background.

Philosophy arises out of a questioning of the myths, the accepted truths, the beliefs and tales of a culture.  We will start by examining how Philosophy arose in the West out of the questioning of the Greek myths and ideas current in the time of Socrates.  We shall learn how Socrates struggled to find truth and wisdom and was put to death for his efforts to find true virtue and the GOOD.  We shall learn how Plato, Socrates’ student, changed his life around after that execution and took up the quest of Socrates to pursue Philosophy and what made for a Good Life and how Plato found answers to the questions that perplexed Socrates.  Plato found not only answers but also a method for humans everywhere to work out answers without needing to rely on memorizing the official answers of previous generations and to repeat them over and over again, despite obvious problems with them.  Before we get to these Greeks and the origins of Philosophy I think you may want to know why it is important to look at them.  In the next section we shall draw a number of parallels between our own time and that of the Greeks so that you can apply what we learn about them to our own times. You might also learn a few things that you could apply to your own life now!  That wouldn’t be at all undesirable.

Origins and History: The Greeks an Us!

Statue of Plato at the Athens Academy / Wikimedia Commons

At the time of Socrates (472-399bc) many Greeks were no longer believers in the stories of the gods and goddesses.  Those stories had provided them with guidance for their lives.  They had believed that they could not go against the decrees of the deities and that they should follow the examples of the gods and goddesses which they knew of through the stories they all heard and memorized and repeated.  They accepted ideas such a fate and destiny.  Now they were hearing the stories being challenged and some declared their disbelief.  The playwrights were raising questions on the stages.  Some thought they could choose from among the tales those stories that supported whatever courses of conduct they choose.  They believed that they could show that some god or other approved of the conduct because the god had done something similar.  There were many who believed that morality was individual and relative.

At the time of Socrates Greek culture was undergoing a major revolution.  They were transforming from an oral culture to a literate culture.  They were acquiring paper and so they could write down the stories and the plays and important ideas.  They no longer needed to memorize what they heard and repeat it as exactly as possible in order to transmit ideas.  Plato could write down ideas and examine them.  He could write questions and reasoned arguments for readers to reflect upon.

Today, there are many people who no longer effectively believe in the stories of the one god.  There are many who are convinced that there are no universal moral codes and people need to determine their own morality.  Further ,the West is being transformed from a literate culture to an electronic culture.  We are at the beginning of a period in which we are attempting to develop a morality for the new age.

Many no longer accept the idea of universal truth.  We shall be examining how we arrived at this point starting back with the Greeks at the time of Socrates.  What Philosophy became then and offered to people, it is still today and could offer to all of us if we were to pursue the philosophical approach to handling the issues and key questions.  All of the key issues in Philosophy were quite apparent in the works of Plato and Aristotle.  We shall take a rather brief look at the Greeks in order to understand how Philosophy arises within a culture and at the key issues.  We shall also make comparisons to the present time in order to appreciate the relevance of all of this for each of us today.

This text shall make use of a theory about education developed by Alfred North Whitehead.  Learning moves through stages.  They are:

  • Romance
  • Precision
  • Generalization

It starts with curiosity, a story, a problem. There is not much critical thinking at all.  In the second stage there is a great deal of critical thinking focusing on the problem and paying attention to consistency, coherency and the non-contradiction criteria by which thought is to be evaluated.  In the last stage there is a return to the flights of imagination again as the mind applies what is developed in the second stage and then applies it further.

There will be a good deal of story telling in the next chapter.  You may find it very interesting and even a bit entertaining.  In the remaining chapters the thinking will become more focused, intense and demanding.

BELIEF SYSTEMS, POSTMODERNISM  AND UNCRITICAL THINKING

Principia Philosophiae / Wikimedia Commons

As people grow and mature and learn they acquire beliefs and entire belief systems.  They do so through receiving and accepting as true stories about how things are in this world and in a realm beyond this one and through the beliefs implicit in ordinary language and its usages.  Thus are acquired assumptions and presuppositions for the thought processes entered into through life.  In the beginning those acquiring such beliefs want to be accepted and even valued by the various groups of which they are or desire to be members, so there is an emphasis on acceptance of the beliefs shared by members of those groups and not on review or criticism of them.  There is little, if any, reflective thought or critical thinking taking place.  Little is needed if the majority of group members are operating with the beliefs without questioning of them.

Once acquired the belief systems function as a basis for the acquisition of additional beliefs.  As another idea is presented it is placed within the context of the previously acquired beliefs and if the new candidate for inclusion is consistent with or coherent with the prior beliefs and ideas it is accepted as also being true.  This is the coherentist theory of truth.  The problem with that approach to truth is that there needs to be some other method for the establishment of the fundamental beliefs or else the entire structure of beliefs while internally coherent might not be supported by any evidence external to the beliefs themselves.

As belief systems expand they can reach a point where beliefs and ideas have been accepted too hastily and when a culture or individual reach a point where reflective thought can be afforded inconsistencies and perhaps even outright contradictions may appear upon reflection.  Upon the first realization of problems, the belief systems will not be abandoned altogether and will not even be thrown into serious doubt.  Rather there will be attempts to preserve the belief system through the introduction of qualifiers and alternate interpretations designed to account for what are to be termed “apparent” discrepancies.  This process will continue until the introduction of the qualifiers and alternative interpretations reaches a point where they generate the need for even further such qualifiers and the process then becomes so burdensome that the fundamental beliefs and ideas may then come under the most careful scrutiny and there is an acceptance of a need for an alternate set of beliefs that are more internally coherent and satisfying to demands of reason and the desire for external grounding.

This occurred in the time of Socrates when the many stories about the gods and goddesses were seen through the eyes of critical reasoning to be inconsistent and incoherent.  For Socrates a basis for the grounding of morality and the social order was needed other than that provided by the stories of the Greek deities.  In addition to sharing this realization with Socrates, Plato saw that the ideas and theories of the pre-Socratics were inconsistent and there was needed an alternate view of what made anything real and how one could know anything.

Now for Socrates, Plato and Aristotle the idea of the Greek deities came to make little sense in the light of reason and so the idea of a more abstract entity emerges with them as more satisfying as an explanation of origins and order.   Their ideas satisfy the dictates of reason for which they abandoned the blind adherence to the stories of their ancestors.  These are developments that mark the origins of philosophical thought in the West.

With other western religious belief systems there were also prompts to the development of a critical thought tradition. The early Hebrew deity is one that has apparent weaknesses and is not at all perfect in every way.  It is jealous and vindictive and unjust. For the Christians the idea of the Hebrew deity was not going to be acceptable to those who had come under the influence of the Greek manner of thought.    The Christians take the idea of the all perfect being , the source of all that is true , good and beautiful, from the Greeks and layer it over the idea of the single deity of the Hebrews.  The ideas about the qualities of the early Hebrew god when combined ideas about the Greek ideal deity have made for many problems.  The Western traditions treat the scriptures as being in some sense divinely inspired or authored and thus, for many in those traditions who are conservative and literalists, they carry the ideas of the early Hebrew deity along with them leading to complications as there arises the need to explain how an all good deity and an all merciful deity can be so cruel and vindictive as in some of the stories in the early books or chapters of the scriptures.   The Problem of Evil arises as an attempt to give an account that makes sense as to how an all perfect being could exist at the same time that there exists moral evil.  Troubles with a simple belief prompt critical reflection and the desire to use reason to support the belief system.  Consideration of the troublesome issues led to Augustine and Aquinas moving beyond the traditions of faith and into philosophical thought and a reliance on reason to interpret and defend key  beliefs in the Christian tradition.

In recent times people acquire beliefs and ideas that are originating from several different belief systems and periods: the classical, modern and post modern.  Unfortunately, most start out by an unconscious acceptance that has tem holding beliefs without question despite the many inconsistencies and incoherent features of the resultant collection.  They accept the ideas as true as they originate from authorities and as they are shared in by peers.   They accept out of a desire to be accepted and to please.   The general post modern culture promotes uncritical thought patterns and so there are no prompts for reflective or critical thought.

Among the contradictory beliefs are the ideas that are held simultaneously of relativism and absolutism, empiricism and idealism, freedom and determinism, materialism and a non-physical mind.  Among the many odd combinations of beliefs are:

  • A single deity must exist and everyone is entitled to believe in whatever they wish concerning the deity and it will be true.
  • Reality consists of physical and spiritual entities and reality is whatever any group agrees that it is.
  • There are moral wrong or evil acts and whatever people think is morally correct is morally correct for them.
  • There are evil acts and there is no one way to declare anything to be evil.
  • We must make moral judgments for our safety and survival and that no one should make moral judgments about other people and their behaviors.
  • There are true and false claims and truth is not objective.
  • There is knowledge and there is no absolute or objective or certain knowledge.
  • Science is to be valued and trusted and folklore, mythology and spiritualism are equally acceptable sources of knowledge.
  • Human behavior is the result of causal factors and of what is fated or destined for each human and humans are totally free to decide for themselves what they will do.

Philosophy emerges within a culture when the belief systems no longer answer all the important questions and there are realized to be problems with the accepted set of beliefs.  One of the many problems with the post-modern belief set is that there are no contradictions or difficulties with belief sets that need to be addressed because contradictions and inconsistencies are acceptable as there are no objective criteria for thought to satisfy and so there is no need for the formal school system to be developing critical thinking concerning them.  Instead there is an exaggerated and harmful accenting of the value of tolerance of all beliefs and beliefs systems.   Opinions are not to be distinguished from proven claims, there being no objective knowledge, and every claim is merely opinion.  The inherited beliefs and beliefs systems are not examined within the formal educational system as it is infused throughout with post modern relativism.  Many of the teachers are themselves possessed of the incoherent belief systems.

So, many students arrive in colleges with poor habits of mind and beset with beliefs that are incoherent and contradictory.  Further, they are possessed of beliefs that make the development of their critical thinking skills very difficult.  Some believe that all claims are opinions and that there is no reason for them to examine ideas and beliefs that they hold as they are entitled to hold whatever beliefs they choose to hold and they choose to remain within their social sets and to do so they believe that they need to continue to hold the belief systems that are popular with those groupings and in some cases define those groups.

Mental habits and belief systems are not easily disturbed or called into serious question when they perform useful functions for the believer and do so in a powerful manner.

Image result for belief system

If a belief system offers hope and consolation in the face of death of a loved one or anticipated death of one’s own self then there is a very strong impulse to retain those beliefs for fear of the intellectual chaos that is feared would result by the rejection of the familiar belief system.  Further, there is the fear that in accepting another belief system one is disloyal to those groups to which one belongs that hold that belief set in common. Perhaps most influential in the decision to retain the beliefs that comfort one is the desire to have a soul that survives the death of the physical body and to have an eternal life in unimaginable pleasure which are thought to be lost if the belief system is rejected for another in which such desires are not guaranteed to be fulfilled.

The ability to have control over one’s beliefs may also be so valued that many would exercise the choice to maintain the old comforting beliefs as a display of that ability thus maintaining the illusion of control rather than to view the choice of examination and possible revision or rejection of the belief system as another experience offering evidence of the ability to control some aspect of one’s life.  It is far simpler and economical to conserve beliefs than to consider revisions thereof. Accepting and continuing beliefs that one is presented with is far less taxing in effort than the careful and critical examination of belief systems and the evaluation and decision making involved in the development and maintenance of a belief systems that is coherent and supported by evidence.

People want to hold whatever beliefs that they choose to hold and give no account for them other than to assert their right to hold whatever beliefs they choose and to insist that they must be tolerated in doing so by all others.

One of the accepted beliefs is that of tolerance as a value of the highest social importance.  Tolerance is a value expounded upon in a post modern culture as supportive of the relativism that is an essential component of the post modern epistemology, metaphysics and ethics.  Tolerance is not to be questioned as a value as it is promoted as a cornerstone to a desirable social arrangement.

Yet tolerance itself is a disvalue as post modernists would have promoted it.  Tolerance is not respect.  To be tolerant is to put up with something.  It does not include accepting it or considering it as valuable or worthy.  Tolerance of people and beliefs is promoted but it is misguided and harmful whenever to be tolerant of behaviors and ideas would hurt individuals and groups in physical and emotional ways.

Those who advocate tolerance cannot possibly be sincere in doing so.  This is so because they do not advocate being tolerant of:

  • Rapists
  • Murderers
  • Child molesters
  • Racists
  • Misogynists
  • Intolerant Groups and Individuals

They cannot be tolerant of such people and expect their promotion of tolerance to be accepted by others.

Post modern pluralists continue to promote tolerance as if it were unqualified for they do not and expect no one else will subject their promotion to critical examination for such an examination would not be popular or “politically correct”. They continue to promote tolerance as if it were unqualified for they do not hold careful and critical thought as being valuable as they believe that such thought challenges relativism.  They also mistakenly believe that critical thinking is somehow intolerant of individuals, groups and behaviors and beliefs they wish to have accepted.  The formal educational system promotes an uncritical tolerance and the belief in such and value of such.

PHILOSOPHY, OPINIONS AND RIGHT ANSWERS

Most folks think very little about Philosophy.  Of those who do many have some erroneous ideas about the discipline and its history.  One of the most troublesome, for Philosophers, of the mistaken ideas is that it is about opinions.  This idea when followed by the ideas that opinions are all humans have with which to think and all opinions are pretty much of equal value, these two ideas run directly opposed to what philosophers are attempting to do.  Philosophers quest after wisdom, which for John Dewey, is the quest to use what we know to gain what we most value.  Philosophers do this by using critical thinking concerning all that humans claim to know and to value.  This quickly becomes a quite involved process, examining the meaning of the word “knowledge” and other ideas such as; reality, truth, certainty, and value, among many other basic terms.  Philosophers take positions on the questions, issues and problems faced by the most critical of thinkers examining the most basic concerns that humans can entertain with thoughtful reflection.

Philosophers use critical thinking and reason and evidence to support the claims that they make and the positions that they hold.  This is quite different than merely making a claim , a statement, which is supported by nothing and thus an expression of the speaker’s opinion.  Philosophers are willing to examine all claims and all positions with their supporting reasoning and evidence.  They examine it looking for any flaws or problems.  They want the most satisfactory, and at times satisfying answers and solutions, to the questions and problems.

PHILOSOPHY:  LOOKING FOR THE BEST RAFTS

Matrix Background / Wikimedia Commons

With Plato and his mentor Socrates we have a description of what Philosophy is about.   Humans are on a journey.  En route they face obstacles to overcome.  Major questions, problems and issues are like rivers that need to be crossed.  Now along one side of the river there are these rafts.  When you reach the river you may select any raft you want to use to get across the river.  There are many different types.  There are more than enough for everyone.  They differ in color, shape, materials, method of construction and size.  You want to select the best possible raft with which to cross the river.  No raft is perfect.  Each raft has a problem.  Each raft takes on water.  Some take on a lot and some very little.  Some are put together in a very shoddy manner and some are very well constructed.

Some people select the raft to use based on its color.  They like certain colors and have a favorite and that is all they care about.  Others select their rafts based on size and they want the biggest one they can find.  Each who selects has a reason and a method for the selection.  What a reasonable sensible person should want is the best possible raft that will carry its occupants across the river safely.

Philosophy is a method of thinking used to make the best possible selection of the raft which is the answer to the most basic questions that humans have about life, knowledge, truth, goodness, beauty, etc…

Philosophers hope to develop the best possible position and hope that it will do well when tested.  Over the centuries those positions philosophers thought were the best have been revealed to have problems.  New rafts were constructed and tested and found wanting again.  So, Philosophy is the quest for the best possible raft, knowing that it is highly probable that there is  no perfect raft.  As humans advance and progress and gather more experiences and develop more critical analysis and evaluation techniques philosophical positions are examined more closely and tested more thoroughly. Philosophy is a process. It is a method of thinking and as our knowledge grows so too will philosophy take all of it into consideration as the method attempts to produce the BEST POSSIBLE answers to the most important questions.

Some folks look for the “correct ” answer to a question or the “right” solution to a problem.  Philosophers have learned that what they do is look for the best possible answers and solutions.  So we shall look now at how Socrates developed a better method for finding the best answers and then we shall examine several important questions or issues and look at what philosophers have done with them over time.  In all of this the focus should be on the method of thinking that aims to arrive at the best possible, if not perfect, answers, solutions and positions.

But perhaps some prefer the comforts of beliefs even of blind faith to the effort at reaching positions closer to the truth.  For many this choice is a real dilemma presenting a difficult choice.  This sort of choice has been presented to humans in the story of Adam and Eve and again represented in the movie, The Matrix .


Originally published by Dr. Philip A. Pecorino, Queensborough Community College, City University of New York (CUNY), under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License license.

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