Showing posts with label Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Show all posts

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

The Philosophy of Thomas Aquinas: Part 1: Aquinas’s Importance and a Short Biography

Before I start to tackle summarizing this first lecture on Thomas Aquinas' philosophy I'd like to introduce the professor that's giving these lectures. Peter Kreeft is a professor of philosophy at Boston College, and he has written over fifty books.  He's a passionate fan of Aquinas' work and makes no apology for his passion.  It makes sense because, and I agree with this sentiment, one learns the most about someone or something from someone who passionately agrees with that subject.  The teacher that disagrees with what he or she is teaching will never give the topic a fair shake.

Introduction: Why is Thomas important?  Well, the answer is fairly easy, almost every philosopher agrees that in the almost two thousand years that passed between Aristotle and Descartes, he was the most influential philosopher.  The fact that Thomas was a Catholic theologian does nothing to lessen his impact as an influential philosopher.  Also, his philosophy and teachings don't just appeal to Catholics, I'm a protestant (an aint-a-baptist, but that's another story) and I'm a big fan of Thomas for his theology and his philosophy.  This course will be seeking to deal with his works from a philosophical perspective.

Prof Kreeft lists eight things that make Thomas a great philosopher.  First and most importantly is his inclusiveness.  I love this particular concept as I try to use the same methods in developing my own philosophy. Unfortunately in modern philosophy there are so many dividing lines: rationalist/empiricist, idealist/realist, ideologically Right/Left, but for Thomas everything was middle ground.  I (more or less) agree, there are so many things where it's best to take a stance somewhere in the middle.  Obviously, there is still right and wrong, and I believe that one needs to seek truth and stick with it.

Second and related to the first is Thomas' ability to show how faith and reason, religion and philosophy are all perfectly compatible, in fact they are mutually beneficial.  He's a master synthesizer of views philosophical and religious.  He draws from virtually every philosopher and the many different views of those philosophers and combined them together before the modern age came and divided the different philosophical pursuits again.  Prof Kreeft also admires Thomas' ability to write both profoundly and clearly, though I don't have any personal knowledge of that idea.  I will probably pick up and read some of Thomas' works as a result of listening to these lectures.

Thirdly, is Thomas' longevity in his philosophical works.  Not only was he able to combine all those that came before him, but he set up philosophical ideas that are still applicable and moldable today.  It's a living philosophy that is able to include "new" ideas and keep changing and yet stay the same.  Fourth, is his patients and ability to slowly process things and then give the best most practical answer without oversimplification or over-complication.  The fifth is related, in that he had so many practical answers and a strong grasp on common sense.  I love Thomas' cure for depression "three things: a hot bath, a large glass of wine, and a good night’s sleep." (Quote from the modern scholar lecture notes.)  That seems so practical to me, and for all his aloofness Thomas seems very down to earth at the same time.

I also like this quote from the lecture notes, "[T]here are only three meanings to the term “good,” only three kinds of things that are really good, and thus worthy of our desire and attention: the moral good, the useful good, and the delightful good. So if it doesn’t make you a more virtuous person and if it isn’t a practical necessity that you really can't do without, and if it doesn’t give you pleasure, fagettaboutit!"

Next (sixth) is his simple, clear arguments.  He speaks quite a bit in syllogisms, the most basic form of logic.  Seventh, is the profound topics Thomas deals with, now to be fair philosophers often think about profound topics and Thomas is no exception.  Topics that are prevalent throughout his works: "God, man, life, death, soul, body, mind, will, passions, good, evil, virtue, vice, truth, beauty, time, eternity, being itself."  Amazing to think he was able to take such deep concepts and put them into simple syllogisms.

I'm not going to include all the biographical information Prof Kreeft talks about but if you're interested, read the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on Thomas, Prof Kreeft's book Summa of the Summa, and/or G.K. Chesterton's St. Thomas Aquinas: 'The Dumb Ox'.

I'm really looking forward to continuing this lecture series!

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Discovering the Philosopher in You Part 3: Truth: What Is the Nature of Truth?

As I move through this lecture series by Prof Colin McGinn on discovering the philosopher in each of us and dealing with the big questions in philosophy, I'm liking this prof more and more.  As far as philosophers are concerned, he seems quite down-to-earth.

Today's topic has to do with truth and the analysis of truth.  In the last lecture, we used the word truth several times and now we're dealing with analyzing truth itself.  According to these lectures, there are three common theories behind truth, the coherence theory, the pragmatic theory, and the correspondence theory.  One thing I have noticed though is how Prof McGinn seems to make powerful claims when most other philosophy teachings I've heard don't make simple straightforward claims like Prof McGinn.  Claims like, how there are these three theories but how the correspondence theory is the correct one and that the others are just quaint ideas that we discuss almost out of hand just to be kind to the ideas because they're wrong and there's no two ways about it.  I find this approach to philosophy surprising and slightly refreshing.  Anyways, on to the different theories.

Coherence theory: leaves out the world in so many, potentially dangerous ways.  Basically it says that something is true if it is coherent within a set of beliefs or belief system.  If a fact is consistent with your other beliefs or a web of belief systems, then it is true.  A slightly more basic way to put this is, if something is consistent with a large group of people's belief then it is true, like if enough people believe something is true, then it is.  Of course this goes against one of the things Prof McGinn has said a number of times, that one cannot force oneself to believe something that isn't true.  Of course technically, in this concept of truth, it's completely relative to the person/people involved.  This concept has no grounding in reality, which I'm sure is why it's considered a poor theory of truth.

The pragmatic theory: this (kind of) leaves out the world as well.  The basic idea is that whatever is good for one is true.  Like if I jump off this tall building it will be bad for me, and therefore it's true.  While this at least relates truth to reality there's an important distinction to be made.  The example in the lecture is of living under a despotic tyrannic government.  In a place like that it would be good for one's health to believe the propaganda that the government is good and wonderful.  If you truly believe otherwise, the secret police would be knocking on your door.  But that doesn't change the truth of the evil tyranny you're living in.  (Not that all tyrannies are evil.)

Last but not least, the correspondence theory: this is the most simple, straightforward of all these theories of truth.  It's simple, the truth is what actually is.  The statement that snow is white, is true, not because it is coherent with what I believe about snow, or the fact that believing snow is white is good for me in some way, but because snow actually is in fact, white.  The truth of the matter has nothing to do with one's beliefs or wants.  It is subjective, that is, outside one's wants or ideas.  Well, this concept brings up the topic of tolerance to which the professor gives a very good response: "Tolerance is not a matter of allowing that everyone believes the truth, no matter how much they disagree; it is having the policy of not persecuting people for their beliefs even when they are egregiously false."  Stating that truth is subjective is not intolerant, it's a fact.  It's not putting people who believe otherwise down, it's simply stating a truth about how facts correspond to reality.  There's no such thing as something being "true to me, but not true to you."  That's not how this works, it's either true or not, those types of statements are faith statements value statements relating to one's beliefs, not to truth or falsehood.

One last thing to say on this topic, there are different types of truth.  This discussion has been about factual truth.  I'm sure that later discussions/lectures will deal with value statements and moral truth.  That will come later I'm sure, so stay tuned!

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Discovering the Philosopher in You Part 1: Intro and Skepticism: What Do You Really Know?

I'm going to try something I've never done in this blog before.  That is, write a series of posts along the same vein.  This idea was sparked by a philosophy podcast from entitled "Discovering the Philosopher in You."  Well, the introductory podcast was very interesting, it's a series of lectures from a professor Colin McGinn about all the "big questions" in philosophy.  So, I've decided to write parallel blog entries for each of the lectures.  I downloaded the study guide as well, so I'm referencing that guide as well as the lectures. Without further ado, introduction and lecture one, Skepticism: What Do You Really Know?

By way of introduction I'll mention that these lectures and parallel blog entries are not in chronological order.  That's intentional, as Prof McGinn says, because all of the questions in philosophy are ancient questions that can't be answered.  It's not like we're coming up with new issues for philosophers to ponder over all the time.  Though I would say that doesn't mean that new problems don't come up every so often, but I'd say that these new issues are just new twists of old problems. Some of these questions include, what the ultimate nature of the world is, what the self is, whether we have free will, how our minds relate to our bodies, whether we can really know anything, where ethical truth comes from, what the meaning of life is, and whether or not there is a God.  These are some of the topics that I'll be covering over the next fourteen (or so) entries.

One thing of note in the lecture is how Prof McGinn describes Plato's famous cave parable.  The way it reads in the Republic is pessimistic.  It's like someone has chained the poor people in the cave and are manipulating their perceptions by walking behind them with stick-borne puppets making shadows on the cave walls.  The way Prof McGinn describes it is much more optimistic, that they aren't chained and that the people casting the shadows are just passersby.  I don't know the reason for his oversight, perhaps it's not oversight and that's the way it's described in other platonic writings.  I don't really know, but I thought that minute mistake, if it was one, was interesting.

The skeptical questions of what do I really know, leads down a long path ending with solipsism, and the other minds problem.  If you don't want to read those links, I'll summarize those ideas, solipsism is the idea that nothing else exists other than your own mental state.  There's also a temporal version of solipsism where we cannot know for certain that there was anything in the past or that there will be anything in the future.  All we can know for sure (sort of) is that we are knowing something right now.  The other minds problem is related to solipsism though more specific.  It's the idea that one cannot know that anyone else's mind exists.  We see others' bodies and actions and assume that they are analogous to our own minds but we can't know for sure that they're not just cleverly devised automatons or robots.  The problems that the skeptics, like Descarte raise, are many and there aren't complete answers to all of their questions, and on the surface it may seem like madness that can neither be proven nor disproven.  Prof McGinn talks about an interesting problem that skepticism can bring with its questioning all knowledge.  I'll try to summarize his points.

Suppose you had $10,000 in the bank, then when you check your balance, you suddenly find, without reason or expenditure that you actually only have $.10.  How would that make you feel?  Consider knowledge in the same manner.  We think we know so much, we think we have an intellectual bank account with 10,000 pieces of knowledge and with just a few jabs from skeptics we find that we actually only know 1 thing.  As Descarte argued "I think therefore I am."  Doubting is thinking, which is an action that only something that exists can do, therefore I exist.  But, with solipsism and the skeptical issues that's all we can know for sure.  Prof McGinn seems to say that these skeptical issues are detrimental to a one's intellectual wellbeing.

My personal views on this problem are a bit contradictory.  I love to play around with skepticism, but it's just childish play to me.  Are you reading my blog?  How do you know you're reading my blog?  How do you know you're not dreaming?  (Maybe because in a dream the writing would be better, haha!?)  The Matrix brings a scifi twist to skepticism.  How do you know that you're not plugged into some supercomputer that's feeding you all you think you're sensing?  Can you trust your senses?  Are you sure you're seeing red as I'm seeing red, or are you just calling purple red because that's what you've always been told?  These are fun but silly to me.  On the deeper issue of skepticism intellectually bankrupting people, I don't really see how it changes things or people for that matter.  I mean think about it, what if right now, the only thing that you actually know and can know, is your current thoughts?  So what?  Are you going to behave differently?  I presume not.  Therefore, if not knowing anything that you thought you knew doesn't actually change your life why worry about it?  I certainly don't and I hope you don't either.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013


WOW deep stuff!  There's a whole Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article (sixteen pages long in 12pt type!) about time.  Needless to say, my entry won't be anywhere near as comprehensive.  Which I'm sure you'll all agree that's a shame.  Ha!  Well, here goes.  As usual this discussion was inspired by the History of Philosophy podcast, this time it was an episode about Aristotle's view of time.  I've done a quick search on my blog alone and found that I've used the word "time[s]" approximately 126 times (before this entry of course, I've used the word six times in this entry alone!).  Of course not all those usages were the simple noun, time.

We use the word all the time, but what do we really know about time?  "I don't have enough time."  "I ran out of time."  "A stitch in time saves nine."  "Time flies."  Numerous other casual references to time pop up in conversation all the time.  What do they all mean?  Is time measurable movements as Aristotle seems to define it?  Is time an empty void to be filled as Plato seems to define it?  Both seem to be acceptable ideas/definitions of time.  And when it comes down to brass tacks does it really matter?  The argument is, sort of, moot.  It's a discussion piece but it ends up in the same regression to which epistemology eventually runs, there's the skeptical answer that no matter how you slice it, you can never know for certain that you're experiencing what you're actually experiencing and that it's not all a figment of your imagination/dream/Matrix/brain-in-a-vat.  It's very similar when it comes to time.

We can number or measure time, we call it a watch or clock.  We experience the passing of time, assuming that we can trust our senses, at least we can see change over time which is how we perceive as time changing.  Is that what time is?  Change?  Something more substantive?  Does time actually exist?  If there weren't any minds to perceive time, would it still exist, if it exists in the first place?  I certainly don't have any answers, in fact, I really only want to bring up the questions about this.  What do you all think?  Do you have the answers?  Sorry to be pessimistic, but philosophers have been arguing/considering these thoughts for years and no one really has all the answers, so I doubt you (though you altogether form a formidable intellectual force) will be able to answer these questions.

One parting thought, these questions of the existence of time bring up the concept of infinity that I've discussed before.  Aristotle, because his concept of time relates to movement requires that time be infinite.  Here's my synopsis of the argument.  If time is the measurements related to movement then it has to be infinite, because if there was something that moved the first movement of time, then there had to be time before time.  So, if time is something moving or at least related to movement then it must be infinite.  I'll sum up my view, as I've already mentioned.  Infinity in time is related to space in that physical universe cannot be infinite and therefore time cannot be infinite.  God, however, is outside space and time and is the infinite unmoved mover, and uncaused first cause of all causes.  That's just my view, no real answers just what I think.  Good luck with your search for your answers.

If the tsunami/waterlevel ever gets this high, pretty much the whole island is screwed.