bookmark_borderWhat is Philosophy? – Part 1

The question “What is philosophy?” is an important question.  One reason this question is important is that we must answer this question FIRST, before we can answer any of the following questions:
Q1. Is philosophy a legitimate academic discipline?
Q2. Is philosophy useful?
Q3. Can investigation/inquiry/argumentation in philosophy produce answers to significant questions?
Q4. Can any significant claims be proven or shown to be more reasonable than their denial by use of the methods, tools, and/or principles of philosophy?
Q5. Is the philosophy of religion a legitimate academic discipline?
In other words, we have to have a clear idea of what we mean by the word “philosophy” before we can be confident in making any sort of general evaluation of the value or usefulness or academic legitimacy of philosophy.  I’m assuming the following intellectual principle:
P1: Don’t criticize what you don’t understand.
It seems to me, that we are IMMEDIATELY thrust into a bit of a logical bind here.  How can we determine an answer to the important and basic question “What is philosophy?” ?  This is itself a philosophical question.  In fact, it is a paradigm case of a philosophical question.  This question is analogous to a whole series of similar questions, all of which are paradigm cases of philosophical questions:
Q6. What is history?
Q7. What is science?
Q8. What is mathematics?
Q9. What is art?
Q10. What is literature?
Q11. What is biology?
Q12. What is psychology?
Question Q6 is NOT an historical question.  We can ask historical questions about the practice or development of “history” and “historical inquiry”,  but such questions require or presuppose some understanding of what we mean by the word “history”.  We cannot get started investigating the history of the discipline of history until we first have arrived at some level of clarity about what we mean by “history”.  This is a task for phillosophy.   Historians are welcome to investigate this philosophical issue, but when they do so, they are no longer doing history; they are doing philosophy.
Question Q7 is NOT a scientific question.  We can formulate scientific hypotheses and theories about the conduct or development of science, but such hypotheses and theories require or presuppose some understanding of what we mean by the word “science”.  We cannot get started on a scientific investigation into science until we first have arrived at some level of clarity about what we mean by “science”.  This is a task for philosophy.  Scientists are welcome to investigate this philosophical issue, but when they do so, they are no longer doing science; they are doing philosophy.
IMHO, the same reasoning applies to philosophy, except that we CAN do a philosophical investigation into the meaning of the word “philosophy”.  Although historical inquiry cannot, by itself, arrive at a clear understanding of the concept of “history”, and scientific investigation cannot, by itself, arrive at a clear understanding of the concept of “science”,  philosophical investigation CAN arrive at a clear understanding of the concept of “philosophy”.
But, suppose that I am mistaken.  Suppose that philosophy is useless and that no conclusions of philosophical investigation are ever proven or shown to be more reasonable than alternative views.
In that case, we are led to skepticism about not only the legitimacy of the discipline of philosophy, but to skepticism about the legitimacy of all other academic disciplines, including history, science, biology, mathematics, art, literature, and psychology.
If philosophy cannot help us to clarify basic concepts like “history”, “science”, “mathematics”, “biology”, and “art”, and “psychology”, then we literally don’t know what we are talking about when we assert claims like the following:
C1.  History is a legitimate academic discipline.
C2. Biology is a legitimate academic discipline.
C3. Mathematics is a legitimate academic discipline.
C4. Psychology is a legitimate academic discipline.
Even if historical investigation or scientific investigation could potentially help to prove one of these claims, or could show one of these claims to be more reasonable than the denial of that claim, we cannot make use of history or science without FIRST establishing what is meant by “history” or “biology” or “mathematics” or “psychology”.
One could, of course, simply stipulate a defintion for a word (like “psychology”) that refers to an alleged academic discipline, but that would be, apart from philosophical investigation and argumentation, a purely arbitrary and rationally unsupported starting point for scientific or historical investigation into that academic discipline.
Thus, it seems to me that unless we start out with the PRESUMPTION that philosophy can help us to clarify the meanings of words or basic concepts, there is no hope of ever establishing claims C1, C2, C3, or C4.  One must simply assume that philosophical investigation is possible, and make the effort to clarify the key concepts in these claims.  Only if one can acheive some significant degree of success in this task of conceptual analysis and clarification, will one be able to prove one of these claims, or be able to show that such a claim is more reasonable than its denial.
To be continued….

bookmark_borderA Catholic Blogger Offers a Very Thoughtful Reply to my Question about Prayer and Government

Dr. Gregory Popcak is a fellow Patheos blogger who blogs at “Faith on the Couch” in the Patheos Catholic Channel. He’s written a very thoughtful reply to my previous post, “Question for Theists: Why Is It Important to Begin Governmental Meetings with Prayer?” His reply is titled, “Prayer Works: A Psychological Case for Public Prayer and Graceful Governance.” What I like about his reply is that (a) he presents a secular case for prayer; and (b) he actually provides evidence for his position.
I’m still digesting his post. For now, I have two observations. First, I have a minor observation. He writes:

I suppose you could theoretically argue that you could get a similar benefit to civic deist prayer by simply asking the participants of a meeting to, “Please pause and reflect on how a benevolent third party who loved us all and wished the best for us would want us to behave”  but I’m not really sure how that would be different than what civic deist prayer already is and does

My observation is this. This paragraph instantly reminded me of the metaethical theory defended by atheist philosopher Michael Martin, namely, Ideal Observer Theory. I’m not sure what that means, but I thought it was interesting.

Second, I don’t speak for all atheists, but his post got me thinking about how such governmental prayers are commenced. As a thought experiment, imagine if all governmental prayers were replaced by moments of silence and all moments of silence were preceded by the following statement.

I [the person leading the prayer] know that our citizens have a variety of beliefs about God. I know that some of you don’t even believe in God. In light of that diversity, I’d like to briefly explain why I am about to lead a moment of silence at a government meeting. Please hear me out. I am not doing this to impose my views on you. Rather, my goal is that all of us work together to find mutually satisfying solutions to the topics we are about to discuss. Psychologists have studied what happens when people in conflict are asked to imagine what a third party, who loved all of them and wished the best for all of them, would advise them to do about their conflict. We have good, solid experimental evidence that when people are asked to do that, that causes people to be less concerned with their own agendas. Instead, it makes them more willing to seek mutually satisfying solutions. In that spirit, then, I want us to have a moment of silence. If you believe in a higher being, please think about how that higher being would want us to behave. If you don’t believe in a higher being, then please pause and reflect on how a benevolent third party who loved us all and wished the best for us would want us to behave.

With that said, let’s now please have a moment of silence…

I have no idea how that would affect the constitutionality of the moment of silence. What I do know is this. I, for one, couldn’t help but like a theist who said something like that, just for respectfully acknowledging the existence of nonbelievers in the room. I would also be grateful for the way the moment of silence is (hypothetically) framed.
Please check Pocat’s article out and, if you decide to comment on his site, please be respectful.