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
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
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.
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
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.
SYSTEMS, POST MODERNISM and UNCRITICAL THINKING
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
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
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.
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
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
Those who advocate tolerance cannot
possibly be sincere in doing so. This is so because they do not advocate
being tolerant of:
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.
Finally, 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.
for the BEST RAFTS
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 .
The Blue Pill or the Red Pill?