Friday, April 27, 2012

Nice But Not Necessary

I've been told that philosophy is only for a few, that it is too hard for the masses and to expect them to think philosophically is unrealistic.  Justification for this is given in a couple of ways.  Some think like Thomas Aquinas that the masses aren't smart enough.  Others think like John Locke that the masses are too busy. 

Because the word "philosophy" is ambiguous any reply must first give a specific definition.  For instance, I'd suggest that the persons who are claiming philosophy is only for a few are giving a philosophy.  The masses who defend themselves are also doing philosophy and living according to their beliefs.  I'm taking philosophy to refer to a person's worldview.  Since worldviews are constructed by answering certain basic questions and then drawing out implications into all areas of life, I'm also taking philosophy to mean the critical analysis of basic questions.

It is this last function of philosophy that people resist.  The idea that the masses, or the youngster, or the grandma, can critically analyze their basic beliefs appears to such persons incredible.  Such persons might say "it would be nice to prove that God exists, but it is not necessary in order to be a good [name of religion].  After all, my granny is a good [name of religion] and she can't prove that God exists."

My claim is: to the extent a person can answer basic questions that person can be asked to think about the meaning of their answers.  This is not the same as saying that a person must be up on the latest journal articles from obscure philosopher #5.  It means that if a person can believe "God exists" they can be asked to explain what that means, and deal with contradictions that might arise.  This includes the masses, the busy, the young, and the old.  It includes anyone who wants to have meaning.

My view is in contrast to saying that a true opinion is sufficient.  I've been told "well at least they believe in God."  If it turns out that God does indeed exist, then this person got it right on accident.  In fact, might it be that the person affirms "God exists" and this belief holds no meaning whatsoever?  To say this would be, or is, acceptable is to say meaningless beliefs are acceptable.  It becomes meaningless to say that God is perfectly fair/just, and condemns some for getting it wrong, but accept others for accidentally getting it right.

On the other hand, it might be that a person's opinion is false.  As humans we search for knowledge, and do not settle for opinion, because we do not want to believe what is false.  Do the young, or does granny, somehow not qualify and for them it is ok to believe what is false, or to accidentally be correct?

My claim develops further because I argue that if the highest good is to know the highest reality, then knowledge is not just nice but is necessary.  To accidentally believe true things about the highest reality is not sufficient to say one knows the highest reality.  Therefore, the nice but not necessary view is really saying that the young and granny do not need the highest good, they can settle for accidents in opinion.

I suspect the nice but not necessary view develops out of a focus on being saved to get to heaven.  Believing just enough to get a ticket to heaven is the goal, and anything else is nice but not necessary.  I don't accept this view of either the afterlife or the good.  It is a minimized view of the good consisting in other worldly pleasures in the next life, or a beatific vision where one directly sees God and this is the highest good.

By way of contrast I'd say that the highest good is knowing the highest reality, and this is not the same as going to heaven.  The good can be known now, and if the good is not known now it is not obvious that a person will have it later.

Finally, to reply that the masses don't think this way is simliar to saying that the masses do not live the examined life.  Socrates encountered this.  It may be true that the masses do not live the examined life, but that does not mean they should continue on that path.  I believe it is true that the highest good cannot be attained apart from living the examined life, and that both the young and old can live the examined life.


  1. Thank you for the post. I appreciate that you uncover the attitude of the person that says there are only certain persons who can do philosophy. We philosophize, even if not in the formal sense, when we choose to live some ways and not others. That is what I understand your argument to be saying. You brought up the idea of the minimal/simple view coming from a view of the good as getting a ticket to heaven. Have you ever had someone respond to the doxological focus that way as well: "Well, even in the doxological focus, how do you know when you have enough knowledge of God?" Do you think this kind of a statement is still smuggling in soteriology? How might you respond?

  2. I think it does sound like asking "what's the minimum I can get away with?", whereas if we believe something is the good then by definition we'd ask "how much can I get?"

  3. Some are very deep in their understanding of the Bible and have no concern for Natural Theology. How would a deep knowledge of Scripture be understood as "the minimum I can get away with?".

    1. I guess I'd ask this person about their neglect of natural theology. Is the chief end of man to glorify God in all that by which he makes himself known, in all His works of creation and providence, or only in special revelation? Their answer would help know how to assess their approach.