What Is Philosophy?
J.P. Moreland and William Lane Craig
Where am I or What?
From what causes do I derive my existence,
and to what condition shall I return?
Whose favor shall I court, and whose anger must I dread?
What beings surround me?
And on whom Have I any influence, or who have any influence on me?
I am confounded with all these questions,
and begin to fancy myself in the most deplorable condition imaginable,
inviron’d with the deepest darkness,
and utterly deprived of the use of every member and faculty.
DAVID HUME, A TREATISE OF HUMAN NATURE
Not every problem, nor every thesis, should be examined,
but only one which might puzzle one of those who need argument.
ARISTOTLE TOPICS 1.11 (105A1-5)
Ought not a Minister to have,
First, a good understanding, a clear apprehension, a sound judgment,
and a capacity of reasoningwith some closeness. . . .
Is not some acquaintance with what has been termed the second part of logic,
(metaphysics), if not so necessary as [logic itself], yet highly expedient?
Should not a Minister be acquainted with at least the
general grounds of natural philosophy?
JOHN WESLEY, ADDRESS TO THE CLERGY
You are about to embark on an exciting and fascinating journey—the philosophical
exploration of some of life’s most important ideas, ideas about reality, God, the
soul, knowledge and truth, goodness, and much, much more. Make no mistake
about it. Ideas matter. The ideas one really believes largely determine the kind of
person one becomes. Everyone has a philosophy of life. That is not optional. What
is optional and, thus, of extreme importance is the adequacy of one’s philosophy of
life. Are one’s views rational or irrational, true or false, carefully formed and precise
or conveniently formed and fuzzy? Are they conducive to human flourishing or do
they cater to one’s fallen nature? Are they honoring or dishonoring to the triune
God? The discipline of philosophy can be of great help in aiding someone in the
search for an increasingly rich and robust philosophy of life.
For centuries, people have recognized the importance of philosophy. In particular,
throughout the history of Christianity, philosophy has played an important role in
the life of the church and the spread and defense of the gospel of Christ. The great
theologian Augustine (354-430) summarized the views of many early church
fathers when he said, “We must show our Scriptures not to be in conflict with
whatever [our critics] can demonstrate about the nature of things from reliable
sources.”1 Philosophy was the main tool Augustine used in this task. In 1756, John
Wesley delivered an address to a group of men preparing for ministry. He exhorted
them to acquire skills which today are often neglected in seminary education but
which seminaries would do well to reinstate. And much of what he said is sound
advice for all Christians. For Wesley, among the factors crucial for the service of
Christ was a tolerable mastery of logic and philosophy in general.
Unfortunately, today things are different. Theologian R. C. Sproul has called this the
most anti-intellectual period in the history of the church, and former Secretary-General of the United Nations and Christian statesman Charles Malik warns that the
greatest danger facing modern evangelicalism is a lack of cultivation of the mind,
especially as it relates to philosophy.
This trend within the church is coupled with two unfortunate features of Western
culture: the rampant pragmatism in society with the concomitant devaluation of
the humanities in university life and the nonexistence of philosophy in our
precollege educational curricula. The result is that philosophy departments are
endangered species in Christian colleges and seminaries, and serious philosophical
reflection is virtually absent from most church fellowships. This, in turn, has
contributed to intellectual shallowness and a lack of cultural discernment in the
body of Christ.
But is philosophy really that important for the life, health and witness of the church?
Are God’s people not warned in Scripture itself to avoid philosophy and worldly
wisdom? And just what is philosophy, anyway? How does it help believers form an
integrated Christian worldview? How does philosophy relate to other disciplines
taught at the university?
2 THE NATURE OF PHILOSOPHY
Scholars generally are agreed that there is no airtight definition that expresses a
set of necessary and sufficient conditions for classifying some activity as
philosophical, conditions which all and only philosophy satisfies. But this should not
be troubling. In general, one does not need a definition of something before one
can know features of the thing in question and recognize examples of it. One can
recognize examples of historical study, love, a person, art, matter, sport and a
host of other things without possessing an airtight definition. Nevertheless,
definitions are useful, and a reasonably adequate definition of philosophy can be
How might someone go about formulating such a definition? Three ways suggest
themselves. First one could focus on the etymology of the word philosophy. The
word comes from two Greek words philein, “to love,” and sophia, “wisdom.” Thus
a philosopher is a lover of wisdom. Socrates held that the unexamined life is not
worth living, and the ancient Greek philosophers sought wisdom regarding truth,
knowledge, beauty and goodness. In this sense, then, philosophy is the attempt to
think hard about life, the world as a whole and the things that matter most in order
to secure knowledge and wisdom about these matters. Accordingly, philosophy
may be defined as the attempt to think rationally and critically about life’s most
important questions in order to obtain knowledge and wisdom about them.
Philosophy can help someone form a rationally justified, true worldview, that is, an
ordered set of propositions that one believes, especially propositions about life’s
most important questions.
Second, our understanding of philosophy will be enhanced if we observe that
philosophy often functions as a second-order discipline. For example, biology is a
first-order discipline that studies living organisms, but philosophy is a second-order discipline that studies biology. In general, it is possible have a philosophy of x,
where x can be any discipline whatever; for example, law, mathematics, education,
science, government, medicine, history or literature. When philosophers examine
another discipline to formulate a philosophy of that field, they ask normative
questions about that discipline (e.g., questions about what one ought and ought
not believe in that discipline and why), analyze and criticize the assumptions
underlying it, clarify the concepts within it and integrate that discipline with other
Consider biology again. Philosophers ask questions like these: Is there an external
world that is knowable and, if so, how does one know it? What is life, and how
does it differ from nonlife? How should someone form, test and use scientific
theories and laws? Is it morally permissible to experiment on living things? When
biologists talk about information in DNA, how should we understand this talk? How
does the biological notion of being a member of the kind Homo sapiens relate to
the theological notion of being made in the image of God or to the metaphysical
notion of being a person with legal/moral rights? These questions are all
philosophical in nature, and by examining