The Futility of Autonomous Speculative Thought
by Ellen Myers
My academic foray into philosophy arouses a variety of reactions. One agnostic, burnt out after having sampled a number of philosophies and religious cults, speculated (falsely) that I might be turning from the Biblical Christian faith to philosophy in search of better answers and warned me that it had none. A Christian friend prayed that I might fail to convince a philosopher friend of the truth of Christianity by philosophical arguments so as not to produce a pseudo-conversion.
By far the most common reaction, however, is lively interest, especially among young people, in what might be right and what might be wrong with philosophy. Specifically lam asked whether a Christian may choose philosophy as an academic career. Does not the Biblical warning "Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ" (Colossians 2:8) totally rule out philosophy as a legitimate Christian pursuit?
Strictly and literally interpreted this Biblical warning is not against philosophy per se but against anyone's using it to draw us away from Christ. There is no question about the danger inherent in philosophy. Philosophy consists of human thought. We are commanded to bring "into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ" (2 Corinthians 10:5). We cannot avoid thinking: we must continually think, as we must eat, drink or do whatever we do to the glory of God (I Corinthians 10:31). Yes, there is danger in philosophy, as there is danger in eating, drinking or any human activity. The danger is our becoming subtly or openly "spoiled" away from Christ in supposed autonomy. This is ultimately and fundamentally deadly like a branch cutting itself from its tree and root (cf. John 15:1-6): "For in Him (Christ) dwelleth all the fullness of the Godhead bodily. And ye are complete in Him, which is the head of all principality and power" (Colossians 2:9-10). We who are in Christ cannot receive anything from supposedly autonomous philosophy. On the contrary, supposedly autonomous philosophy produces whatever in it is valid because it is actually subject to and dependent upon Christ, the head of all things whatever.
Now philosophy tacitly or openly claiming autonomy and independence apart from Christ is simply human speculative thought cut loose of any "given" starting point. Its "starting point" is each individual thinker. Therefore the thorniest problem of self-proclaimed autonomous philosophy is the validation of its starting point with all philosophical implications of that starting point. This is apparent already when the overall definition of "philosophy" is attempted. Consider the following dictionary entry:
phi-los-o-phy: 1 a. Love and pursuit of wisdom by intellectual means and moral self-discipline. b-The investigation of causes and laws underlying reality C. Any system of philosophical inquiry or demonstration. 2. Inquiry into the nature of things based on logical reasoning rather than empirical methods. 3. The critique and analysis of fundamental beliefs as they come to be conceptualized and formalized. 4. The synthesis of all learning. 5. In archaic and historical use, the investigation of natural phenomena and its systematization in theory and experiment, as in alchemy, astrology, or astronomy; hermetic philosophy. natural philosophy. 6. All learning except technical precepts and practical arts. 7. All the disciplines presented in university curriculums of science and the liberal arts, except medicine, law and theology: Doctor of Philosophy. 8. The science comprising logic, ethics, aesthetics, metaphysics, and epistemology. 9. Any system of motivating concepts or principles: the philosophy of a culture. 10. A basic theory; a viewpoint: an original philosophy of advertising 11 The system of values by which one lives. 12. The calmness, equanimity, and detachment thought to befit a philosopher.
By this cluster of definitions all of us are philosophers! Even "archaic" philosophy in the form of astrology (definition 5) is still very much with us. The non-academic definitions of philosophy (9-12) need not now concern us. In our discussion of the foundation and validation of philosophy as an academic discipline we may, I think, limit ourselves to definitions lb. through 4, and 6 through 8. These partially overlap and also partially contradict each other.
They provoke instant questions, such as whether "fundamental belief" (definition 3) is not more than its conceptualization and formalization, thus introducing reductionism from the start, or whether the notion of "science" (definition 9) is identical to "science" in an empirical sense or stands itself in need of definition for philosophical purposes. A student of philosophy soon realizes that the most comprehensive and accurate definition of academic philosophy is "Always question everything."
A good Biblical definition of inquiry is the apostle Paul's exhortation, "Prove all things; hold fast that which is good" (I Thessalonians 5:21). Philosophy attempts to obey the first part of this exhortation. But it neither can nor does 'hold fast that which is good." It has no one evaluative standard by which it can determine once and for all (that is, "hold fast") what counts as "good." For since philosophy is speculative human thought starting with each would-be autonomous thinker, who will decide which thought is "better" than another thought? We know that it is not a question of majority decision either. Further, it is the philosopher's task, by definition, to question, not to establish the validity or "goodness" of anything. In short, philosophy cannot guide positively; it can at best raise doubt and further reflection.
In addition, philosophical inquiry is vitiated by the flux or change observed in all visible entities in time. Some philosophies claim that this flux or change is all there is to the universe; as Heraclitus reputedly put it, "you can't bathe in the same river twice." Other philosophies postulate a substance of absolute, unchanging "being" behind or beneath the visible, changing, "becoming" world. But if naturalistic, random evolution in a self-existent, self-contained universe as proclaimed by Darwin and his heirs be sufficient to account for the present universe, then not only the creator of the Bible but also any philosophical notions of a "first cause", an "unmoved Mover", a law of (permanent, absolute) identity and related aprioristic concepts are not merely superfluous but false, A command to "hold fast that which is good" can then at best serve us only for short periods of time under conditions of minimal change, and only in a relative, not an absolute sense. For nothing in a self-existent, selfcontained evolutionist world of universal flux can possibly be "good" absolutely, once and for all, unalterably because in such a world nothing is once and for all.
It seems to me that as long as some notion of a Creator, unchanging "being", and the like still hovers in the background of human speculative thought, philosophy can still give the illusion to its practitioners and the general public that eventually its perpetually questioning inquiry may provide real answers or an answer, The answer(s) would be reached by elimination. Philosophers have done their questioning for thousands of years, and seemingly got no further. But some day only the notion or notions impervious to philosophical questioning may be left over as "true." However, on evolutionist assumptions of universal and perpetual change this illusion cannot be consistently maintained.
Once the epistemological vacuum entailed by evolutionist premises is recognized and acknowledged by philosophers, they might ask whether it is worth going on with their questioning. They might reply that man being a speculative thinker cannot help going on questioning even though aware that he will never get answers. They might reply that the philosophical analysis of temporary, relative, transient problems will keep them busy enough. And anyway, philosophical brainstorming sessions are fun!
To some academicians "doing philosophy," however, going on and on with incessant questioning and arguing after realizing that no issue ever can or will be settled by this method may become unbearable. A deeper cause for disenchantment with philosophy is that analytical investigation cannot lead to knowledge of the subject under investigation. This is so because the very act of analysis destroys the subject which is being analyzed, for "analysis" means cutting the subject apart so its smaller segments may be examined separately. The philosophical critique of a subject resulting from the analytical method is actually not a critique of the subject as it really is, but of an artifact first torn apart by analysis and then reassembled as seems best.
The set of opinions and values held by the philosopher is a further source of falsification. Since philosophy apart from Christ is simply the would-be autonomous speculative thought of men, any knowledge it purports to convey is inextricably tied to the particular "bias" of the individual human inquirer. Furthermore, in addition to the subjective emphasis or "blik" of the philosopher there is the problem of built-in reductionism in approaching the problem. We asked earlier whether "fundamental belief" might not be more than its conceptualization and formalization. Deliberate exclusion of this or that aspect of a problem is not the only difficulty, however. Philosophy would-be autonomous human speculative thought fails as a method of acquiring knowledge not merely by reason of using analysis, but also because human beings are not omniscient. Inevitably bits and pieces of a philosophical problem or puzzle elude the human inquirer. Therefore any and all answers of autonomous human thought are not merely relative, tentative and temporary but of necessity contain a built-in error of incompleteness
As a matter of fact, autonomous philosophy, having no absolute, "given" starting point, cannot even make assertions of temporary, relative, probable "truth." St. Augustine stated the reason well almost fifteen hundred years ago in Contra Academicos; he pointed out the foolishness of academicians claiming to assert approximate or probable truth when they do not know what absolute, certain truth is to begin with. He illustrated this by the obvious deceptiveness of the statement that a man looks like his father if the person making the statement has never seen the father and has no idea what the father looks like. What reliability can be placed in any philosophical statement whatever if on the would-be autonomous thinker's own premises nothing whatever is to be taken as absolutely, certainly, once-and-for-all "true?" Not only has the philosopher never seen the "father" he claims the "father" can never be seen by philosophers' eyes. On modern evolutionist premises the case is even worse, for not only can the "father" never be seen, there is no "father." To go on "doing philosophy" (apart from Christ) under these circumstances requires, I believe, a peculiar kind of stoicism or a peculiar kind of addiction. For ultimately the epistemologically informed and consistent autonomous philosopher must doubt also the validity of his own doubt.
What conclusions can be drawn by Christians from all this? First of all, we who are in Christ find our starting point in Christ Who is our Alpha and Omega. We who "have the mind of Christ" judge or discern all things (I Corinthians 2:12-16). Our thought is not would-be autonomous and speculative but desires total conformity with Christ, the Word of God, our epistemological root.
Therefore, because we start with "captivity to Christ," we may confidently expect abiding results in our inquiry. It is not such a paradox after all: the branch which is cut off from its tree and root may seem "free" but is doomed to sterility and disintegration. The branch abiding, or regrafted, into the tree seems captive" but it alone bears fruit. We, who have met Christ the Truth and know what He looks like, have the right to assert approximate or probable truth. Our very tentativity or doubt is permeated with the justified hope that though we ourselves may not have answers or be in erro~ there is an answer. The observed flux and temporal change of this world does not invalidate our starting point the Personal, Timeless and Changeless Creator Himself in Person Whose very name is "I AM" (Exodus 3:14). The end for us is the abolition of all doubt and all uncertainty whatever in the Revelation and total reign of Christ.
Therefore Christians have every right to challenge the would-be autonomous academicians of this world. As C.S. Lewis puts it, "good philosophy must exist, if for no other reason, because bad philosophy needs to be answered."1 We need to challenge especially contemporary evolutionist philosophies on the grounds of their epistemological bankruptcy due to their willful rejection of the Personal Creator-God of the Bible. This is being done very successfully by Henry Morris, Francis Schaeffer, Josh McDowell or R.C. Sproul, to name but a few. They have immeasurable influence especially among college students who have realized, as did my burnt-out agnostic friend mentioned at the start of this paper, that autonomous philosophy simply has no answers whatever.2
Of course a Christian may have to turn his back on the entire autonomous philosophical enterprise once he sees that further discussion would be mere "striving about words to no profit" (2 Timothy 2:14), either with a particular person (when the Christian has said all God put on his heart and mind, with no more to be added), or else because the academic "establishment" of his particular locality or institution would pressure or compel him to at least outward conformity with human autonomous thought apart from Christ and its methods of inquiry and expression. To give in to such pressure would be to bow to an idol. However, a truly "pluralistic" spirit granting academic freedom also to Christians still prevails in some institutions and classrooms here and there. In addition, the Christian can use the "always question everything" motto of non-Christian autonomous philosophy to good advantage against that philosophy (remembering that his motto is but a copy of the Bible's exhortation "Prove all things"). One coming to Christ when already protessionally occupied in the teaching of philosophy may certainly consider that continued service "in the calling wherein he was called" (I Corinthians 7:20) may be his appointed task under God.
A final touchstone of human autonomous thought which ought to alert both Christians and also unbelievers to its futility is its use of language. There is an enormous "language gap" between academicians "doing philosophy" and laypeople. For example the simple word "I" is loaded as upon evolutionist philosophical premises there is no meaningful ("I" or "self". Evolutionist determinists have admitted that to use words like "I" or "choice" is a mere facon de parler. To admit that one is using language deceptively in this manner and then to go on doing it is unethical (see also Christ's warning in Matthew 5:37 and His terrifying warning of Matthew 12:36-37: "But I say unto you, That every idle word that men shall speak, they shall give account thereof in the day of judgment. For by thy words thou shalt be justified, and by thy words thou shalt be condemned"), Human autonomous thought, as already in Babel, results in confusion of tongues and non-communication. C.S. Lewis, himself a veteran Christian philosopher, prophetically and exultantly exclaims: "Oui Verbum Dei contempserunt eis auferetur etiam verbum hominis (They that have despised the Word of God, from them shall the word of man also be taken away)."3