The Sum of All Philosophy – 8/15/2017

Martin Heidegger, the noted German philosopher, observed truly that we are placed in a world not of our own making, that we are regularly called to make responsible choices in situations that tempt us to expediency, and that our ultimate limit is death, which profoundly affects everything we think, say, and do.

Heidegger’s perspective, however, is entirely secular, and so what is the point of teaching us things that are obvious, with no foundation or hope to guide us?  Heidegger sees us as ‘thrown’ into the world, which suggests chance and leaves God out of it all.  A Christian, on the other hand, sees himself as created, not thrown.  His call to responsible choices is made on the basis of Biblical principles, rooted in an absolute morality tied to man as image-bearer, bound to treat other image-bearers graciously.  The Christian knows that death is ahead, with the perspective that sin is the cause, yet has an assured hope that replaces fear, a hope based on grace, salvation, and a certain resurrection.

Heidegger, like many secular philosophers, addresses the biggest, hardest questions of our existence, attempting to do so rationally with many words and apparently sophisticated arguments.  But his rationalism is built on nothing, since secularism / atheism / naturalism is constrained by the periodic table of elements and the laws of physics . . . everything is just molecules in motion and so responsibility, morality, and even personhood have no real existence, and death is just a slightly different configuration of the molecules in your body.  There is no point, no hope, no answers.  To try to find answers in naturalism is genuinely irrational.

Martin Heidegger 1889 - 1976

Martin Heidegger 1889 – 1976

The above is my summary of John Frame’s assessment of Heidegger’s philosophy, from Frame’s 2015 book, A History of Western Philosophy and Theology.  It’s a big book and extremely well-written, but I recommend it only if you are determined to tackle the subject.  On a number of occasions in my life I have fantasized that it might be ‘fun’ to go deep into philosophy, but always realized that to do so would entail pain, sweat, and tears equivalent to what I experienced between my freshman course in physics and my eventual Ph.D.  In fact, more pain, because secular philosophers generate gazillions of words, often obtusely and sometimes incoherently.  What I’ve really wanted was a serious summary of the field from a Christian perspective.  When I found Frame’s book, I had the ‘Eureka!’ moment.  Now, I am NOT going to try to summarize Frame’s book.  That would be silly.  As usual, I’ll just pull out a few points I think noteworthy.  To get an overview of the actual history of philosophy and theology in the West, buy the book.

Ultimately, for the Christian . . . the ontological realist . . . all philosophies can and must be evaluated from a Biblical perspective.  Frame does that, except for those moments when he loses his rationality because of his Calvinist upbringing.

Why study philosophy?  There aren’t a lot of jobs out there that will pay you for expounding on the differences between the ideas of Schleiermacher and Kierkegaard.  But then life isn’t primarily about money, is it?  Aristotle observed, “All men by nature desire to know.”  God built that into us.  Socrates:  “The unexamined life is not worth living.”

I see the history of philosophy . . . and theology . . . as important because it informs how we and others fall into error in both Biblical interpretation and the practice of the Christian life.  There are serious Christians who insist that the Bible is their only rule for faith and practice, yet fall into fundamental errors that can be traced to man’s anti-God philosophies.  I know Christians who disagree with me profoundly on doctrinal matters and would be offended for me to insist that my position is that of “Biblicist.”  After all, aren’t they Biblicists too?

Theology – Biblical theology – is properly the foundation for Christian philosophy, which is the set of principles by which we understand God and creation (metaphysics), how we know what we know (epistemology), and who we are and how we should interact with God and with others (ethics).

All systems of thought include a belief in something self-sufficient, something independent of all else.  For us it’s the Biblical God.  For Islam it’s Allah.  For Hinduism, it’s Brahma.  The Greek gods are different, since they inhabit an already existing universe; they are part of it, dependent on their environment.  Frame says that the Greeks believed in a ‘flux’ from which all things derive, called Chaos or Okeanos, which is the true deity of their religion.  Atheists believe that our universe sprang from a ‘Void,’ an ultimate ‘Nothingness.’  Buddhists call this independent nothingness ‘Nirvana.’  Yes, there is nothing new under the sun.  Of course, with the help of sci-fi fantasies, some atheists now imagine that a multiverse can replace the Void from which the Big Bang sprung.  Regardless of the details of the fantasy, it’s clear that the famously public atheists, like Carl Sagan of a generation ago or Neil deGrasse Tyson today, worship the stuff of creation, occasionally waxing poetic . . . Isn’t it marvelous to think that we are star stuff? . . . and other such pagan nonsense.

John Frame

John Frame

Frame echoes Cornelius Van Til in affirming the Biblical perspective:  “The great division in mankind is not that some worship a god and others do not.  Rather, it is between those who worship the true God and those who worship false gods, idols.”  Any denial of the true God, whether atheism or Roman Catholicism or Buddhism, is unbelief.  Unbelief is rebellion and rebellion condemns.  Only the true God offers salvation.  If your rebellion lands you in Hell, does it really matter that your false religion was somehow ‘superior’ to atheism?  In God’s eyes, there are only two camps, not a vast diversity of fascinatingly nuanced religions.

So Frame argues properly that all the basic questions of philosophy are religious in character.  Whether it’s metaphysics (God and the world), epistemology (what is truth and how do you know), or ethics / values (how should we live), it all starts with God’s word . . . and if you do start there, then everything makes sense.  If you don’t start there, you simply cannot make sense of the world.  What is the ‘sum of all philosophy’?  Biblical truth.  (That doesn’t mean it’s always easy, though.)

One of the fundamental questions of metaphysics . . . Is the universe one or many?  Parmenides, Spinoza, and Hegel insisted that despite the apparent plurality of things in the world, there is a oneness.  If that’s your position you are a monist.  Others, like Democritus and Leibniz, see the world as a huge collection of tiny components, distinct from each other and irreducible . . . atoms, in a sense.  If that’s your perspective you are a pluralist.

Dualists (like Zoroastrians) hold that there are two ultimate competing realities, good and evil, for example.  Aristotle and Locke held the commonsense view that there are a lot of individual things in the world, but you can lump them into general categories.  Therefore the universe exhibits both unity and plurality.  This commonsense view is, not surprisingly, also the Biblical view.  Yet the Biblical position goes beyond ‘common sense’ in that we see unity and plurality as the very foundation of existence because of the nature of the Godhead, the Trinity displaying fundamental unity and plurality.  Van Til’s view was that because God is both one and many, he made the world both one and many, no unity without particulars, and no particulars without unity.

For example, you can think of an oak tree as simply a collection of particulars . . . atoms.  But we recognize a unity among that collection of atoms and we call that unity an oak tree.  Indeed, we recognize an entire category we call “oak trees,” despite the fact that no oak tree is exactly like any other.  And so for dogs, poplars, and people, not to mention good deeds and bad deeds, beautiful and ugly.  In a truly mechanistic universe, where does the ‘one’ come from?  Who decides the categories? We do, but only because God does, which fact derives from his Trinitarian nature.

Blog 104 image - oak treeIn epistemology, we ask questions like, “What is knowledge?”,  “How is knowledge possible?”,  “How do we distinguish truth from falsity, reality from appearance?”  Epistemology involves a subject of knowledge, a person, an object of knowledge, what he knows, and a rule that determines whether the subject knows the object.  If you’re an optimist about whether you, on your own initiative, autonomously, can know the truth, you can call yourself a rationalist.  For you, human reason is the ultimate judge of the true and the false.  On the other hand, irrationalists or skeptics don’t have much confidence in reason.  John Locke and David Hume were empiricists, believing that sense experience is the ground of human knowledge and reason must be based on that ground.  Finally, subjectivists, which include the ancient Sophists and modern existentialists, believe that meaning and knowledge can be found within ourselves.

Value theory includes ethics and aesthetics, asking “What should we value most highly?”, “What is the highest good?”, “How should we make value judgments?”, “What’s right and what’s wrong?”  It’s obvious to the Christian that value theory is entirely dependent on whether God is there, God as revealed in the Bible.  If so, His word is the ground of ethics.  If not, anything goes.

Frame points out that a novice might imagine that he should start his study of philosophy with metaphysics, learning as much as possible of the structure of the world (universe), and then turn to epistemology and ethics.  But how can you gain knowledge of metaphysics if you don’t understand what knowing means?  Furthermore, if you have no ground for ethics, no sense of right and wrong, you can easily go astray in your study of the world and whether you should count something as true and accurate or false and misleading.  A scientist, for example, ought to make his measurements carefully, report them truly, and interpret them honestly, right?  In short, the three disciplines are tightly intertwined.  A philosopher (all humans belong to that category to some degree), must build his entire system as a system, not as disjointed pieces.

Frame  uses simple models to evaluate various philosophies.  In epistemology from a Christian viewpoint, he takes account of God’s involvement with His creation and with history via a 3-fold perspective.  He draws a triangle, the top vertex labeled “Normative Perspective,” the lower left vertex “Situational Perspective,” and the lower right vertex “Existential Perspective.”

In the normative perspective we see God’s authority expressed by Biblical revelation.  We learn in Romans 1, for example, that all of creation reveals God and that we have no excuse but to recognize His handiwork.  In the situational, we study creation and history and our personal place therein.  In the existential, we see the world as the locus of God’s presence, both outside us and indwelling.

Here, too, the three perspectives are intertwined.  We won’t do historical (situational) studies properly unless we fit them into Biblical history.  How can anyone properly see the history of Israel, including the perpetual conflicts in the Middle East, other than by Biblical prophecy?  If you don’t, and you’re a Western political leader, you will make hopelessly ineffective policy.  To understand God’s norms (laws) properly, we must apply them to ourselves and to others.  To have hope and meaning in life, we must have the existential understanding of God’s presence and active care in our lives.  Otherwise, what’s the point of anything, including science and history?

I like Frame’s analysis, but I find it startlingly ironic that it doesn’t work from his own perspective of Calvinist sovereignty.  Here is where he loses his rationality.  Under Calvinist sovereignty, wherein everything, every interaction of atoms and molecules, every thought, word, and deed of every man, woman, and child, every virtuous and every heinous act in history is foreordained and executed by the sovereign plan of God from eternity past . . . Frame’s triangle collapses.

Bubble chamber photo of particle interactions

Bubble chamber photo of particle interactions

Norms have no meaning because they cannot be obeyed by sentient, choosing persons.  The norms just are and what we call persons (us) either are or aren’t acting in accord, every act dictated by eternal plan.  Thus, when someone acts against God’s norms, that is actually in accord with the overarching norm of God’s sovereign plan.  God cannot even act in specific ways in history, because all acts, all interactions of particles and people and God, just are.  You could argue that God continually acts on particles and what I might call metaparticles – minds, souls, spirits – but God would be utterly constrained by His plan.  Yet even His plan was never constructed, because God is eternal, residing past, present, and future, not tied to the linear time line like we are.  His plan just is, just another way to describe the all-determined particle-interaction events of world history.  Therefore, there are no divine interventionist acts like what occurred on Sinai or at Pentecost, or on the Cross, or the Second Coming.  In short, Calvinist sovereignty is antithetical to Scripture.  It’s nothing but pre-determined particulars, one atom bouncing into another and then another, in the Calvinist’s case according to divine plan, in the atheist’s case according to the laws of physics, wherever they came from.

The existential is empty, too, because we as persons don’t exist.  We’re just collections of particles in motion . . . which is the same as the atheistic perspective.

In short, Frame’s models are just fine, as long as he discards Calvinism.

Frame properly makes the case that the sin of the secularist begins in epistemology, in the area of knowledge, because the unbeliever sees himself as autonomous, able to judge himself, others, the world, and God based on his own alleged rationality.  And so he gets metaphysics wrong, not recognizing the authority of God and the Bible, and he gets ethics wrong, which must be based on Biblical principles.  “Sinners do not want to live in God’s world, though they have no choice about it.  They recognize the truth to some extent, because they need to get along and to make a living.  But they would very much like the world to be different or pretend that it is.”

Accordingly, unbelieving politicians imagine that socialism will bring utopia, fornicators and adulterers and drunkards and drug users imagine that there should be no consequences for doing what they feel like doing, yet reality happens . . . God’s laws are woven into the reality of this world and into the mind and heart of every human being.  Life works only when you’re in sync with God’s reality.  We are not autonomous; to think so is to live in fantasy.

In the real world we see the one and the many, things that are the same and things that are different.  “For the general realities – apple, tree, man, woman, solar system, law of gravitation, virtue – are what they are because of the particulars that constitute them.  And we can identify the particulars only with the use of general concepts.  To identify the bump two inches from the stem of the apple requires us to think of the general concepts apple, stem, and bump.  Particulars are collections of generalities, and generalities are collections of things.  Universals and particulars define one another.”

So philosophers like Plato, Aristotle, and Hegel cannot understand the world by reducing it to pure generalities, and Democritus, Epicurus, and Occam cannot construct coherent philosophies by dividing the world into ultimate particulars.  “There is no ultimate universal or particular that explains everything.  Exhaustive knowledge is the prerogative of God alone.”

ribbon model of protein structure

ribbon model of protein structure

Non-Christian philosophers are always seeking alternatives to God . . . this is idolatry.

For example, Plato believed that perfect forms exist that are foundational to the world.  No one can draw a perfect square, but we somehow know what a perfect square is.  Similarly, we have concepts of treeness, horseness, justice, goodness, and so on.  Plato’s forms are perfect, immaterial, changeless, and intangible.

A problem with forms . . . What is Good in our minds derives from a myriad of examples of good things, good acts, good qualities, etc.  But what is the form for Good?  How can we know enough about the Good form to distinguish a good act from a bad act?  Even something as simple as a ‘tree’ . . . what is the ultimate perfect form for a tree?  And how can changeless forms account for change in the world?  In short, forms cannot do their job.  We need a foundation undergirding the forms.

You might think this is all silly and anciently outdated.  But Plato’s forms have made a resurgence today in evolution, as I describe in my essay on Structuralism.  Many scientists know that mutations and natural selection cannot begin to account for biological complexity.  The biology and the chemistry simply do not work to account for first life or for evolution into higher forms.  In desperation some are invoking the old idea of forms under the ‘new’ idea of structuralism in which DNA, protein structure, organs, and physical bodies must be attracted magically to fundamental bio-structures wired into the very fabric of the universe.  Yes, it amounts to mumbo-jumbo; nevertheless, the committed atheist will never admit the possibility of the Creator, just like the committed liberal will never admit how socialist policies degrade and destroy, no matter how many examples from reality you cite.

The Greeks did not believe in the God of the Bible; therefore, they had to explain the world without an independent Creator . . . they had to explain the world by means of the world.  This is common to unbelieving religions and philosophies that deny an absolute and personal Creator.  They always miss something crucial.  Hinduism and Buddhism see the ultimate state of being as impersonal.  The ancient Greek and Canaanite and other pagan gods were personal, but finite, not absolute, and constrained to exist and operate within the world.  Frame:  “Only the Biblical God is both personal and absolute.”

Liam Neeson as Zeus

Liam Neeson as Zeus

Frame properly criticizes the older, pre-Homeric Greek religion as governed by fate, not just regarding the inevitability of death, but everything in between birth and death, man enveloped by a “shapeless stream” issuing from mother earth.  Frame sees this fatalistic view in contrast to worldviews based on chance, but in both cases human beings are helpless and history is meaningless.  Indeed!  As Frame says, “Both types of worldview present a world that is not governed by purpose, goodness, or love.”

Frame is right, of course.  Isn’t it odd that he doesn’t see Calvinist sovereignty in just the same light, in which human beings are helpless and history is meaningless because all thoughts, acts, and deeds, all subatomic particle interactions in our brains are foreordained?

The Greek philosopher, Thales, was an extreme rationalist in Frame’s view.  Thales asserted that water is the fundamental substance of the universe, everything came from water and will return to water.  He was enamored with water, perhaps because of its ubiquity and essentiality to life, but he elevated it by armchair reasoning to the status of all.   That’s rationalism, a certainty that by power of reason a man can discern the essence of our world.  But Thales also believed that “all things are full of gods,” perhaps indicating that natural processes are infused with thought or mind somehow.  But then aren’t the gods or the world’s ‘mind’ made of water, too?  If our thoughts are just waves and wavelets, why should we trust one wave motion over another?  What’s true and what’s false?  And so, like the modern atheists, Thales leaps irrationally to trust his mind without any foundation for doing so.  Again, this is the rational / irrational conflict that shows up in any unbelieving worldview.

We can apply that principle to the Fall in Genesis.  “Eve was faced with two claims.  God told her that she would die from eating the fruit.  Satan told her that she would not die, but would become as God.  Eve should have disregarded Satan’s claim at the outset.  Instead, she asserted her own right to make the final judgment (rationalism).  But this claim presupposed that God did not exist as the ultimate determiner of truth and meaning, and that therefore there was no absolute truth (irrationalism).  Van Til says that every unbeliever is caught in this tension between rationalism and irrationalism.  Some emphasize the former, some the latter.  But when they get uneasy with one, they leap to the other.”

When sharing the Gospel with the unbeliever, you ought to come strong, with a presuppositionalist approach.  Tell him where you’re coming from and challenge him on his ultimate foundation for discerning truth.  If you come with a classical / evidentialist approach, you can go back and forth forever with detailed arguments, whether on the fossil record or the Big Bang or the historical validity of the Gospel accounts.  It’s his worldview that tempts / coerces / constrains / compels him to interpret or explain away all troubling evidence, no matter how convincing you think it to be.  Yes, use the details as appropriate, but make it clear that only the Biblical worldview makes sense of it all.  The unbelieving worldview is necessarily filled with mysteries and contradictions.  Make him see that.

Water is everything?

Water is everything?

Frame has a good bit to say about free will as the subject comes up through the history of philosophy and theology.  I’ll cite one brief passage.  The Greek, Epicurus, saw the world as made up of particulars, atoms, which always fall in one ‘cosmic’ direction.  Today we would say that atoms move according to the laws of physics, but Epicurus had essentially the same idea.  But to Epicurus, an atom would occasionally swerve in a way which accounts for human free will.  We’re able to act apart from causal determinism.

Frame asks how he can call that free will, since the swerve is uncaused, apparently random.  Is not our allegedly free will act just a swerve that happens to us?  “If I walk down the street and some atoms in my head swerve and collide, making me rob a bank, why am I to blame?  I didn’t make them swerve . . . the swerve happened to me, and therefore I am not responsible for its consequences.  It is like a chemical imbalance in my brain, making me do strange things . . . Should we not say, then, that such a swerve precisely removes our responsibility?”

Well, you can appreciate my astonishment to hear a Calvinist make such a critique.  Isn’t Calvinist sovereignty a method whereby every swerve is foreordained by God from eternity?  Does not that precisely remove our responsibility?


I’ll stop here.  In reviewing Frame’s ideas this essay reflects just the beginning of his book.  I love his book!  If you get it, you’ll learn a lot.  Just be alert to those occasions where Frame swerves a bit irrationally.

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