Editor’s Note: At this point in the Understanding the Times project I’m digging into how each of the worldviews we’re considering look at ten academic disciplines. Theology and philosophy were last week, ethics and biology this week. The philosophy chapter was much more enjoyable than I thought it would be. Two things stand out in my mind from the writing process. First, the emphasis on “practical” concerns has made philosophical questions practically irrelevant, and second, it is really very difficult to understand the Christian worldview unless (1) we embrace the philosophical, (2) back away from a secularist/modernist understanding of truth, and (3) develop a biblically informed understanding of truth and also of goodness and beauty. Only then will we be able to understand what is so sterile and bankrupt about the New Atheist movement (as an example).
I’m approaching this with a little trepidation. I’m not sure how it will be received to have an apologetics book focusing as much on a defense of reality as a defense of truth. Reality is very much out of fashion these days.
Here’s the opening sequence to the philosophy chapter. All of this is before editing, so please forgive any errors.
Zhuangzi had a dream more than 2,000 years ago and philosophy students have been rolling their eyes ever since:
Once upon a time, I, Chuang Chou, dreamt I was a butterfly, fluttering hither and thither, to all intents and purposes a butterfly. I was conscious only of my happiness as a butterfly, unaware that I was Chou. Soon I awaked, and there I was, veritably myself again. Now I do not know whether I was then a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly, dreaming I am a man. 1
Some take Zhuangzi’s question as a serious challenge. Most find it amusing but irrelevant, a sort of parlor trick to provide entertainment during commercials. “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make any noise?” At the end of the day, who really cares?
These days, questions like “What does it mean to know a particular thing?” have been supplanted by questions like “What is the practical benefit to knowing a particular thing?” Should practical benefit be the only focus of our thoughts, though? If all material problems were solved and if poverty and disease were well managed, would the pursuit of knowledge still be worthwhile? The noted philosopher Bertrand Russell wondered about this and concluded, “It is exclusively among the goods of the mind that the value of philosophy is to be found; and only those who are not indifferent to these goods can be persuaded that the study of philosophy is not a waste of time.” 2
Professors plead with students to raise their eyes above what produces a practical benefit. “Focus on making a life, not just a living,” they say. It sounds good, but doesn’t a person need to make a living in order to have a life?
The question of what is really worth spending time on has led to many an awkward conversation between parents and their young adult children. Will Weaver captures the tension superbly in his short story “The Undeclared Major,” in which a student named Walter Hansen tries to break his choice of an “impractical” major to his farmer father:
“So how’s the rat race, son?”
“Not so bad,” Walter said.
His father paused a moment. “Any…decisions yet?” his father said.
Walter swallowed. He looked off toward town. “About…a major, you mean?” Walter said.
His father waited.
“Well,” Walter said. His mouth went dry. He swallowed twice.
“Well,” he said, “I think I’m going to major in English.”
His father pursed his lips. He pulled off his work gloves one finger at a time. “English,” he said.
“English,” Walter nodded.
His father squinted. “Son, we already know English.”
Walter stared. “Well, yessir, that’s true. I mean, I’m going to study literature. Books. See how they’re written. Maybe write one of my own someday.”
His father rubbed his brown neck and stared downfield. Two white sea gulls floated low over the fresh planting.
“So what do you think?” Walter said.
His father’s forehead wrinkled and he turned back to Walter. “What could a person be, I mean with that kind of major? An English major,” his father said, testing the phrase on his tongue and his lips.
“Be,” Walter said. He fell silent. “Well, I don’t know, I could be a…writer. A teacher maybe, though I don’t think I want to teach. At least not for a while. I could be…” Then Walter’s mind went blank. As blank and empty as the fields around him.
His father was silent. The meadowlark called again.
“I would just be myself, I guess,” Walter said.
His father stared a moment at Walter. “Yourself, only smarter,” he added. “Yessir,” Walter said quickly, “that’s it.” 3
In the end Walter’s father approves of Walter’s choice but wrestles aloud with how he will explain it to the rest of the family.
It is certainly not our goal to talk you out of investing your life in something of practical use. The Christian worldview concerns itself deeply with practical stewardship, especially economic productivity. “If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat,” said the Apostle Paul (2 Thessalonians 3:10).
Rather, our goal is to remove the false choice. It isn’t practical versus philosophical. It is practical, loving God with our strength, and philosophical, loving God with our minds. Jesus commands both (Luke 10:27).
- Zhuangzi was a Chinese philosopher writing at about the same time as Aristotle in Greece, three hundred years before the birth of Christ. See http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Zhuangzi for more information.
- Bertrand Russell, “The Value of Philosophy,” in John Perry, Michael Bratman, and John Martin Fischer, Introduction to Philosophy (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), p. 18.
- Will Weaver, “The Undeclared Major,” in Mark R. Schwehn and Dorothy C. Bass, editors, Leading Lives that Matter (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2006), p. 368.