Philosophy versus theology

Michael asked:

Where does theology end and philosophy begin?

Answer by George Tsagdis

Aristotle gives three definitions of first philosophy or sophia (what would come to be known as metaphysics): i. the science of first causes (aitia) and principles (archai) of things, ii. the science of being qua being, iii. theology. A common problem of Aristotelian scholarship has been the harmonization of the three definitions. What does Aristotle mean when he defines the first philosophy as theology? What is this logos of God? First of all, what is God, if one can speak of God in accordance with the verb ‘to be’? In another famous definition Aristotle locates the essence of God in a thought that thinks itself (noeses noeseos). This thought is the first cause and the unmoved mover of the cosmos. Clearly then, if philosophy is the science, or knowledge, of the first causes it must think God: think the thought that thinks itself.

Aristotle is not alone in this tradition that recognises God as the very foundation of thought, a recognition strongly invested in the further Parmenidean premise that identifies thought and Being. In the history of philosophy God appears more often than not as principle and cause of both — and yet philosophy’s is a history of difference. It is interesting however to see that materialist philosophical thought has not always been severed from theology; the early example of Stoics, is telling in this regard.

All clearly hinges on the ways one attempts to think philosophy and theology. And yet, although God has died in so many ways and philosophy often wishes to think that it has detached itself from the discourse of this dead God, a discourse that constitutes its own history, this wish cannot be meaningful until a completely new thought is reinvented. It is important to trace what remains inextricable in the thought of philosophers who attempted most decisively to extricate themselves from theological themes, suppositions, tropes and so on (Wittgenstein, Deleuze, etc). First however, it is important to understand that the relation of philosophy and theology is not akin to that of any two disciplines, defined principally by their scope and methodology. If the first task of thought is to think itself, philosophy will, in the Aristotelian sense, forever remain divine.


Answer by Massimo Piglilucci

Distinguishing theology from philosophy is a tricky business. Broadly speaking, it is an exercise in conceptual demarcation, similar to the attempts to separate, say, science from pseudoscience [1], or philosophy itself from science. On the one hand, it is bound to fail if we understand such demarcation to be characterized by sharp, clear-cut boundaries. On the other hand, it seems obvious that there are differences between theology and philosophy (or science and pseudoscience, or science and philosophy), so that it makes sense to ask the question.

To begin with, then, it may be helpful to see that whatever criteria may turn out to be useful in such efforts do not form a set of necessary and jointly sufficient conditions. Take, for instance, one possible definition of a triangle: a polygon with three edges and three vertices. Having those characteristics is both necessary (without them, a geometric figure is not a triangle) and sufficient (they are enough to separate triangles from every other geometric figure). Philosophers have long agreed that complex concepts such as theology and philosophy (or science and pseudoscience) are simply not amenable to this kind of definition.

What then? We could adopt what is called a ‘family resemblance’ approach, famously advocated by Wittgenstein in a similar context (in his example, the definition of a game). Certain concepts (games, theology, philosophy) are loosely defined by a series of ‘threads’ that may or may not be instantiated in every single application of the concept. For instance, while games often have rules, they are set up as competitions, they are engaged in for fun, and so on, there are some games that do not have all those characteristics (e.g., in solitaire one doesn’t play to ‘win’), as well as other activities that may displayed them, and yet are not games (e.g., one can go hiking for fun, but hiking isn’t a game). Wittgenstein then suggested that the way we know what a game is hinges on the fact that we are able to point to certain activities and say ‘that’s a game, that’s not a game,’ which sometimes means that there will be situations were we are genuinely uncertain, not because we are ignorant of something, but because the activity in question truly has some, but arguably not enough, of the characteristics of a game.

How do we apply this approach to the question of the relationship between theology and philosophy? Well, both disciplines share a number of characteristics in common, including the fact that they are not directly concerned with empirical evidence (i.e., they are not sciences), they do not usually use symbolic reasoning of the type associated with math (though they may express some of their propositions in logical symbolism), and they both are best done by presenting formal or informal arguments in favor of certain conclusions, arguments that are in turn based on certain assumptions about whatever the subject matter at hand happens to be.

The main difference between theology and philosophy, then, seems to be that theology begins with a set of assumptions that philosophy does not have to, and normally does in fact not, accept: that there is a supernatural realm, featuring one (or more) entities called gods, who have a certain role in human affairs (and played a crucial one in the beginning of the cosmos), and who have a number of characteristics (e.g., they may be benevolent, all powerful, and all knowing, for instance). By contrast, much modern philosophy is carried out from a naturalistic perspective, i.e., without regard to (or even while downright denying) the existence of transcendental realms of the type that theology takes for granted. (That said, some philosophers do accept other types of transcendental realms, for example those that subscribe to mathematical Platonism [2] or modal realism [3].)

What further complicates the issue of separating theology from philosophy is that historically there was no such distinction, at the least during most of the Middle Ages in Europe. Certain important figures of the history of Western philosophy, from Augustine to Thomas Aquinas, were theologians. (Just like, say, important figures in philosophy were also scientists: Descartes, for instance.)

However, nowadays philosophy and theology university departments tend to be separate (and even when they are part of a single academic unit, often function effectively as separate), and theological and philosophical professional conferences and publications are also distinct. This seems to suggest that – while there are still areas of overlap (most prominently, in the field of the philosophy of religion), the relevant academic communities themselves seem to increasingly endorse the idea that theology and philosophy are different fields of inquiry. Of course, a more radical possibility is for a naturalistic philosopher to argue that – because theology is based on false assumptions (about the existence of the supernatural) – it is really an example of pseudo-philosophy, just like, say, astrology is an example of pseudo-science (because based on the false assumption that distant celestial bodies have a direct effect on human affairs).

[1] See, for instance: Philosophy of Pseudoscience: Reconsidering the Demarcation Problem, edited by M. Pigliucci and M. Boudry, University of Chicago Press, 2013.

[2] See: Mathematical Platonism, by M. Pigliucci, Philosophy Now, 2011.

[3] Confessions of a modal realist, part 1 and part 2, by L. Finkelman, Rationally Speaking, & January and 13 February 2013.


Answer by Tony Boese

To answer this question, I think it would be best to start by looking at the words themselves, and their respective etymologies. In particular, consider the first part of each conjunct. For Theology this is theoi which centers on that which pertains to the gods. In full, Theology would be, at least roughly, the study of the gods and their accoutrements and hangers on (demi-gods, angels, mythical creatures, etc.). In contrast, Philosophy begins with philos, which centers on wisdom. In full, Philosophy is the love of wisdom and all that we can get from and with it. Granted, wisdom is a bit of a term-of-art for we Philosofolk; however, this Wisdom/ God(s) divide should be salient nonetheless.

Of course, the natural next question is whether or not what it says on the tin is of any use. I think it is, and I think I have a sense of why many might think it is not. In short: Philosophy and Theology cover a lot of overlapping materials; however, what is less seen is that we do this in different ways and often for different reasons. For Theology the justification has its bedrock in what (the) G/g o/- d(s) (to cover as many bases as I can!) think and want. Even when the subject at hand is the unilluminated writings of other people, as opposed to scripture for example, it is likely that their subject is what said divine person(s) wants, or thinks. In contrast, the justification in Philosophy is supposed to be reason and logic. The argument must find its way back to a truth. It is best if it is a non-contentious claim, but any suitably stable and defensible claim will do. Up to a point in history, the (e.g.) Will of God was accepted among these grounding truths, and was a well touted one at that. In this period, which is one to which most people are exposed when taught philosophy (big name, historic texts, up to the enlightenment, as opposed to more contemporary pieces), is likely the locus of the equivocation. That said, if one tried to break philosophical ground on the back of scripture and divine will alone today, it would most likely not be well taken by the academy,

On a less rigorous note, the role of experience might be an important consideration. This is something mostly beyond my wheelhouse, both academically and experientially; however, I have heard it said and find it interesting if not also compelling, that Theology has a key experiential component. Theology is done based on experiences and reflections, both divine and mundane, both our own and others. Philosophy, in contrast, though often having an experiential element especially when resting on intuitions, can and some say should be done completely devoid of this. One can do philosophy entirely in the abstract and hypothetical, even reaching practicable conclusions via this method.

Finally, for sake of being through, I feel it important to note that there are possible exceptions wherein Philosophy and Theology are virtually exchangeable, or at least are directly in dialogue. A big one that comes to mind is Just War.


Philosophy as a way of life

Craig asked:

These days philosophy is often viewed as discourse (doctrine, argument, conceptual analysis) as a subject for intellectual study. But the Western tradition (Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Stoics, Cynics, Pyrrhonists, Epicureans) strongly emphasizes that philosophy is discourse plus a way of life striving for wisdom, and ancient accounts of philosophers often tell us how they lived rather than just what they said.

What, then, are the distinctive features of a philosophical way of life? And can one call oneself a philosopher without living such a life?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

There’s a book to look at (if you haven’t already) Pierre Hadot ‘Philosophy as a Way of Life’:

I have a connection to this. My student Martin O’Hagan, who was murdered by the ‘Red Hand Gang’ Protestant paramilitaries studied Hadot, according to this article by Michael Chase:

Chase is commenting on an essay O’Hagan wrote, ‘Philosophical considerations on discourse/ praxis’, which is on the Pathways web site:

It is a powerful piece, all the more so when you are familiar with the historical background (the Irish ‘troubles’).

Martin O’Hagan also has an ‘In Memoriam’ page on PhiloSophos, with links:

Martin never mentioned Hadot to me. I was given a copy of Hadot many years later by Rachel Browne, one of the ISFP Board members. It is essential reading if you are interested in this topic.

At the time when he was sending essays to me, I knew nothing about O’Hagan’s activities as a campaigning journalist. You can imagine my shock when the news came out (by a horrible coincidence, I was in Dublin at the time, attending a conference at UCD).

To your question(s):

Second one first. You can call yourself a ‘philosopher’ if your interest in philosophy is sufficiently serious, in exactly the same way as you can call yourself a ‘photographer’ if your interest in photography is sufficiently serious.

You don’t have to earn a living by it, nor do you have to practice it to the exclusion of all other activities. It is perfectly possible to be a philosopher and a photographer (as I consider myself to be, not necessarily ‘as good’ at both!).

On the other hand, you can’t call yourself a ‘physician’ unless you have a medical degree, regardless of how passionate your interest. That’s an interesting contrast.

Many people take snaps who are not photographers, and many people study philosophy or think about philosophical ideas who are not philosophers.

This is just a personal opinion (prejudice) but anyone who attempts to ‘practice philosophy as a way of life’ is someone I wouldn’t be too keen to know. I would be intensely annoyed that they thought they were ‘more of a philosopher’ than I am just because I don’t live as an ascetic or do spiritual exercises.


True contradictions and the Liar paradox

Adam asked:

I’ve been seeing this on the web lately:

"This sentence is false."


Answer by Craig Skinner

This is the shortest version of the liar paradox, so called because of the ancient tale of the Cretan who said ‘All Cretans are liars’ (Epimenides poem of c.a. 600 BCE actually says ‘The Cretans, always liars…’, but no matter).

As with the Cretan’s utterance, it’s paradoxical because, although it seems to make sense, we can’t say that it is true (as opposed to false) or false (as opposed to true).

Assume the sentence is true. Then what it says is correct. But it says it’s false. So it’s false. So, if it’s true, it’s false.

Assume, on the other hand, it’s false. Then what it says is incorrect. But it says it’s false. So this is incorrect. So, it’s true. So, if it’s false, it’s true.

The sentence is self contradictory.

Ways of dealing with this.

1. Ban self-referring statements, and say that comment about a sentence must be in a higher-level metalanguage. This is like Russell’s Theory of Types as a ‘solution’ to the set-of-sets-which-are-not-members-of-themself paradox. But It seems to dodge the issue. In any case you can avoid the self-referring sentence as follows:

* The sentence below is true.

* The sentence above is false.

2. Abandon true/ false bivalence, admit a third truth value of neither-true-nor-false, or both-true-and-false, or a null value (truth gap).

3. Accept that some contradictions exist. The sentence IS true, and the sentence IS not-true. There are true contradictions.

My preference is for 3. Some people go wild at this, saying that if we accept a single contradiction, then ANYTHING can be proved (the explosion problem). But I doubt this. If you’re interested, read Graham Priest In Contradiction 2nd ed Oxford University Press 2006.

Hegel held that there are true contradictions, but based this on acceptance of Kant’s antinomies (which are fallacious) and on arguments of his own which are incomprehensible (to me at any rate). But I think he was right.

Logic including true contradictions is called dialetheic logic or paraconsistent logic, and its proponents say that it is to classical logic as Einstein’s theory of gravity is to Newton’s — both get it right in ordinary circumstances, but the newer view is more correct and also gets it right in extreme circumstances.


Descartes versus the evil demon

Jamie asked:

Descartes in his meditations tells us that an evil demon controls all our perceptions, but the meditator retains the power willingly to suspend judgment, the cartesian demon cannot simply force its victim to have any arbitrary chosen belief. For example, it cannot install and run an arbitrarily chosen train of thought in the mind of the philosopher thereby making the philosopher believe whatever the demon wants. But how could Descartes be sure of that? If this was the case in our reality how would we know or discover it? and how could we deal with knowing it? I guess what I’m asking is are our thoughts and perceptions and even actions controlled by us?

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

Descartes can be sure because at the end of the demon’s insinuations there is no Descartes left, only a ‘thinking thing’. This res cogitans knows nothing other than that ‘it is’. As a self-contradiction results from its assertion of self-nonexistence, Descartes has now the option of assuming that this thinking thing, which has the capacity of knowing its own existence indubitably, must be an individuated thinking thing, i.e. a soul. From this it follows logically that the soul has at least one clear and distinct perception, namely of itself as an existent; and as this one thought does not exhaust the soul’s capacity for thinking other thoughts, it invites the conclusion that all equally clear and distinct perceptions of the soul would be equally indubitable, irrespective of any demon’s insinuations.

Candidates for such indubitability might be mathematical truths or mechanical laws and metaphysical ideas such as, ‘I cannot be the sole existent in the world’. As these evolve from the inside, i.e. from the soul itself, they do not depend on external verification, and therefore the demon has no power to demolish them. Accordingly there is a species of thought (ideas) that has power to validate perceptions by the senses. These include phenomena with features which are delivered to the mind and exhibit geometrical ratios, measurable volumes etc. Accordingly the back door is now open to the verification of sensory perceptions through the application of such truths and laws. Similarly, the mind has power to dispel superstitions, hallucinations and the like, because e.g. witches perform tasks which are impossible under mechanical laws and ghosts are phenomena without geometrical features.


Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

At one point in the First Meditation, Descartes considers the possibility that he is mad — and dismisses the thought without further argument. Was he right to do so? If an evil demon is messing with my very thought processes then the game is up. There is nothing I can do to defend my mind against the power of the evil demon.

Arguably, the over-arching assumption of the Meditations, which is never challenged, is that this is an exercise in reasoning. Whatever illusions and misinformation I may be bombarded with (by an evil demon, e.g.) the response comes from the exercise of reason.

So you are right that scepticism could be taken further than Descartes takes it. But the point was never simply to battle with the full-on determined sceptic; it was to use the idea of methodological scepticism as means of discovery of foundational metaphysical truths.

I think that the notion of an evil demon is incredibly important in metaphysics (still!) and have made a YouTube video on this topic, Return of the evil demon which you might be interested to watch.


Kant on lies and the axe man

Derek asked:

I thought it was pretty obvious that Kant was a moral absolutist and really meant that one must not lie, at any cost. If an axe murderer came looking for a victim, and asked you where the intended victim was, Kant insisted one must not lie even to save his life.

But I was in a conversation the other day and the topic came up. My interlocutor insisted that Kant didn’t really mean what he said, but rather it was a ‘thought exercise’.

What do you think? Did Kant really mean that one should not lie, even to save a life?

Answer by Craig Skinner

You are right. Kant was a moral absolutist about this and meant what he said.

His critics found this hard line difficult to accept. One of them (Benjamin Constant) suggested a way out. He urged that a duty to somebody arises from that person’s right. So, the duty to tell the truth arises from the listener’s right to hear it. But the mad axeman has forfeited his right to hear the truth, so I have no duty to tell him it.

However, Kant stuck to his guns, saying that the duty was not one to the individual listener (or to oneself), but to humanity as a whole. He replied:

‘Truthfulness in statements… is the formal duty of man to everyone, however great the disadvantage that may arise therefrom for him or for any other’ (‘On a Supposed Right to Lie Because of Philanthropy’, 1799).

So, how to deal with the enquiring axeman?

We find the answer in what Kant did outside the study, rather than in what he wrote inside it – ‘by their deeds ye shall know them’, as the Bible rightly says.

Kant’s writings on religion annoyed the king who thought them disrespectful to Christianity. He demanded Kant’s promise there would be no further writing on the topic. Kant replied:

‘As your majesty’s faithful subject, I shall in the future completely desist from all public lectures or papers concerning religion’.

The king was satisfied. But Kant knew the king wouldn’t live long, and when he died, Kant considered his promise void because it only applied to himself ‘as your majesty’s faithful subject’ and, with the king’s death, Kant was no longer his subject.

So Kant didn’t lie, but told a misleading truth.

And so it can be with the axeman demanding ‘Is he inside your house?’ We can’t say ‘No’ (a lie). We surely can’t say ‘Yes’. But we can say ‘I spoke to him down the supermarket about half an hour ago’ or ‘He often goes to the pub at this time’ (misleading truths).

Or when my old aunt Agatha watches me unwrap her birthday gift to me, revealing a hideous shirt I will never wear, and asks me if I like it, I can say ‘Wow!, thanks a bundle’ or ‘ I’ve never seen such colourful checks’.

So, it’s no lies for the Kantian, but sometimes misleading truths are in order. And the latter, unlike lies, don’t produce such problems with Kant’s Categorical Imperative, and so fit in better with his philosophy, but I wont pursue the detail of that here.


Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

In Kant’s moral philosophy the Categorical Imperative is a law of reason, like the laws of logic. Telling a lie can never be the rational thing to do, even if there are very strong ‘reasons’ for lying because of the predicted consequences if you tell the truth. Kant makes the point that if you thought the intended victim went left when in fact he went right and told the would-be axe murderer, ‘He went right’, intending to lie but in fact stating the truth, then you would share responsibility for the victim’s death. (Try this thought experiment out for yourself and see how you would feel.) More generally, we can never be sure of the wider consequences of an act which was intended to do good. For example, the wider consequences of your being identified as a ‘person who is prepared to tell a lie, when it is expedient to do so.’

How to deal with the axe man? There are various possibilities. If I refuse to say to say anything but glance my eyes left (intending to deceive the axe man) that isn’t a lie, on Kant’s definition. Then again, whether I say ‘left’ or glance my eyes left, the axe man can reason that any normal person would try to lie or deceive in those circumstances, and go right. Or it could be a double-bluff. So this becomes an exercise in game theory. In a world where all our choices are determined by game theory (including the choice whether to tell the truth or tell a lie) something precious has been lost, the foundation of our ability to communicate with one another. That’s the point Kant is making.


Free will and destiny

Larry asked:

What is the difference between free will and destiny?

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

This is really simple, Larry. Every human being has free will, and is capable of demonstrating it at a moment’s notice to any interrogator. This is not countered by pointing to limitations on its exercise, i.e. the interrogator might be a member of the Inquisition or my intention to walk out is inhibited by a locked door. Destiny on the other hand is a word we apply in hindsight, when we know what happened to a person or a community or nation. This becomes clear when we inspect the cognate word ‘destination’, which means ‘where we are going’. We can never be 100% sure that we will arrive; and the word ‘destiny’ shares this uncertainty. Hence a sentence like ‘it was Columbus’ destiny to discover America’ is an historically valid assertion; but for anyone to say it before it happened would have been nonsense or at best a wish and a promise. So the only valid use of the word ‘destiny’ is for what you already know to have occurred.


Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

Imagine that you are Oedipus and that the Delphic Oracle has just told you that you will kill your father and marry your mother. The Delphic Oracle is in direct communication with the gods, and never lies. You know, as an indisputable fact, that one way or another you will kill your father and marry your mother. If you flee the city, or if you hide away, or even if you attempt to kill yourself, the result will be the same, even if the details differ. The gods have decided your destiny and there is nothing you can do about it.

The Greek idea of gods moving human beings around like pieces on a chess board has since been replaced by the far more terrifying notion that there is just one God, all-powerful, who knows everything, past, present and future. If it is a fact about the future — a fact that God sees and knows with absolute certainty — that you will kill your father and marry your mother, then that is what will happen, regardless of what you intend. The original Oedipus had some freedom to choose how this terrible destiny would come about, you have none.

Over the centuries, theologians have argued over this problem of ‘free will and God’s foreknowledge’. Various attempts have been made to rescue a notion of free will worth wanting from this mess. I will not throw my two pennyworth in here, as I am not in the least bit tempted by the idea that there is a God who knows my destiny.