Friday, April 26, 2019

Philosophy for Dummies

Or, as I can now say for the first time in my life: “Look, mom!  I won first prize!”

This video is a gem.  I am writing this post more because it helps me to gather my thoughts than I am to communicate with you – really, just watch the video.  After this, at least come back and read my concluding thoughts.

Philosophy can be described on three domains: Metaphysics, Epistemology, and Axiology.  It can also be divided into three eras: Pre-Modern, Modern, and Post-Modern.  One need understand only these six words, and one can understand the broad sweep of philosophy.  More words than fingers on one hand…so I don’t know if this is really for dummies….

Every philosophical concept falls into one of the following three domains:

Metaphysics: The study of ultimate reality; gives shape and order to the material world; its claims are either true or not.  Metaphysical claims include: God exists; the soul exists; the world operates according to the laws of logic.

Epistemology: The study of knowledge; how we know what we know; built on logic and subject to logical fallacy.  Epistemological claims are either true or not.  The combination of logic and evidence (two kinds of epistemology) give us the scientific method. Examples include: You are being irrational; we don’t know if God exists.

Axiology: The study of values; not true / false, but measures of degree or relativity; considers aesthetics and ethics.  “This painting is beautiful,” or “you should have done better” are axiological claims. 

The following are three ways of relating the above three domains:

Pre-Modernism: the pre-moderns began all philosophical thought with metaphysical claims; from this, they went to epistemology – their epistemology was built on a metaphysical foundation.  “How does epistemology conform to the metaphysics?”  This was always key.  “I am (a metaphysical claim), therefore I think (an epistemological act).”

Of the pre-moderns, the distinction between Plato and Aristotle is important and also relevant for Christianity and therefore how liberty developed in the West.  Both began with metaphysics.  Plato saw forms as something outside, abstract – an idea out there; the material world was less real than the ideal world – it was a shadow of the incorruptible ideal world.  This ideal world he labeled as “forms.”

Aristotle argued that forms don’t exist in some separate place; they exist in the things themselves.  The metaphysical world isn’t just something out there; it is in the things themselves. 

Take a human being: is it an abstract idea to which humans conform (Plato), or is it an intrinsic potential that he needs to fulfill (Aristotle)?  Christianity was heavily Platonic at its birth – there is an incorruptible essence out there (but not “in here”); through Augustine, Plato became the ruling architecture of Christian doctrine for a millennium.

Aristotle made his way back into the West through Aquinas; this gave Christianity both spirituality and materiality in the same place – in the same substance.  At the risk of starting a food fight, one can see Plato / Augustine in the Lutheran and Calvinist; one can see Aristotle / Aquinas in the Catholic.

Modernism: Placed epistemology in the first position – before metaphysics; metaphysics is either too hard or will eventually be discovered via our knowledge.  This transition is known as the Epistemic Shift; it is also commonly referred to as the Enlightenment. 

Descartes (rationalism): doubt everything.  Yet the act of thinking can’t be doubted, because doubt is a thought.  “I think (epistemological act), therefore I am (metaphysical claim).”  Hume (empiricism) removed causality, removing “is” from “ought,” thus separating ethical claims from metaphysics. 

Kant (Categorical Imperative): a moral law is binding if it can be universalized.  He attempted to reconcile Descartes and Hume; Kant made the distinction of the noumenal world and the phenomenal world – we can trust the sausage maker to make good sausage even if we are not allowed into the factory.

In metaphysics, the noumenon is a posited object or event that exists independently of human sense and/or perception. The term noumenon is generally used when contrasted with, or in relation to, the term phenomenon, which refers to anything that can be apprehended by or is an object of the senses.

Hegel (Rational Dialectic) came along and said Kant didn’t solve the Descartes / Hume disagreement, but made things worse.  Hegel offered that we will become inevitably and unstoppably more reasonable, until one day all human beings will think the same way. 

Hegel sees that the religious state is the least mature state for humans, but he believed it was the best we had during his time – it wouldn’t always stay that way.  As man properly matures, he will move from religious to ethical to aesthetic (where we all think the same), via his dialectic of thesis / antithesis.  This will be the path not only for the human race but also for each individual.  His defenders find in him the root of Marxism (we all meld into one perspective); his detractors saw individuality was the essence of rationality.

Along came Kierkegaard: Hegel had the three acts of human life exactly backwards.  Aesthetic enjoyment is the most primitive of human existence – think of the drooling infant, in his mind perfectly blissful.  Then he moves to ethical, finally the religious – the most sophisticated stage.  Only in this authenticity can man be reasonable and ethical.

Ultimately this modernist view (relativizing ethical principles) of the world made it impossible to universalize a conception of the good.  This gave birth to…

Post-Modernism: frontloads the axiological – values; post-modernism was jolted into existence by the holocaust – considered an inevitable consequence of the Enlightenment (because we lost sight of metaphysics).  Kant’s sausage maker didn’t make good sausage; the sausage maker turned out to be a Nazi (why he didn’t turn out to be a Red is another question entirely). 

Two options: go back to metaphysics, giving all humans dignity by acknowledging their metaphysical value (the soul), or go to axiology – frontload one’s ethical responsibility to equity (with no metaphysical basis) to one’s neighbor and pursue global justice.  The noisiest Post-Modernists have emphasized the latter. 

To expand: thanks to the Moderns, we don’t have access to objective truth – this idea didn’t originate with post-modernists, but with Kant.  Through an event like the holocaust, the link between the noumenal and the phenomenal was broken: once stuck in the phenomenal world with no trustworthy transcendental to mediate the noumneal world, we are stuck with subjectivity.  So the task of philosophy becomes the establishment of global justice.

This is why post-modernists question objective truth – there is no trustworthy transcendental; they see such objective truth-claims as veiled attempts to gain power over another human being – trying to get others to submit.  Post-Modernism is a desperate scramble to free the world from the secularist world of an unchecked Enlightenment Modernism.  Our age today is not so much a Post-Modern age but an age of competing modernities.

We are struggling to find metaphysics although we don’t describe it this way; we are trying to discover metaphysics via epistemology – our knowledge.  As this proves impossible, we are left with post-modern axiology – an attempt to frontload values.  We are grasping for something more than materialism, but we are living in an axiological world.

How do we resolve this?  Maxwell offers: have the metaphysical world reach out to you; this is what Christians have historically called “revelation.” 


This helps shed some light for me on the current discussion of the IDW – more specifically, of Jordan Peterson and why he has struck a nerve in some and a chord in others.  His fight is against post-modernists who are placing values at the forefront, whereas Jordan Peterson (who, while he won’t admit it, is also post-modern given my above understanding) wants to place metaphysics in a stronger (but not yet, it seems, leading) position. 

To place metaphysics at the front gets in the way of the moderns and Enlightenment – and Peterson is trying to use epistemology (knowledge) to develop his metaphysics; at the same time, he doesn’t want to abandon Enlightenment.  But we have been down that road already.  His fight is against the Enlightenment just as much as it is for the post-modernists against which he is fighting.  Peterson is doing so through metaphysics, the post-modernists he fights against do so through values.

I have asked before – and today I understand the reason for my question for Peterson even better than I did when I wrote it: what is required to be reintroduced that the Enlightenment destroyed?

The answer will not be found via epistemology – aka man’s knowledge.  It will be found in metaphysics.  And if Maxwell is right (as I believe he is), then this will be discovered only by accepting revelation – finding God from the top down, not from the bottom up.

Hence my view that for liberty to increase, Christian churches must take a proper (meaning Christ-like) role – as opposed to the role many of them take today.


  1. Great write up. I'll have to re-read it a couple of more times over the next couple of days, but it's great regardless.

  2. "The answer will not be found via epistemology – aka man’s knowledge. It will be found in metaphysics. And if Maxwell is right (as I believe he is), then this will be discovered only by accepting revelation – finding God from the top down, not from the bottom up."

    Being a Christian, I certainly have a mind to accept this proposition, but hasn't Hans Hoppe already done what you deny is possible?

    Starting with the correct epistemology (logical deduction from axiomatic truth), he's traced a logical thread in discovering correct axiology (private property rights, traditional family, Ten Commandments), and in so doing, has pointed toward the correct metaphysics (Christianity).

    Okay, so maybe he has not accepted the Christian metaphysic himself, but he does see the favorable consequences such a metaphysic can have on the axiology he sees as the only one consistent with the correct epistemology.

    Maybe I'm incorrectly applying these terms. How would you describe Hoppe's work in terms of the hierarchy of epistemology, axiology, and metaphysics?

    I do think I'm correct that he places epistemology at the top of the hierarchy, and this to me is interesting, because as you say, this was a prime characteristic of the Enlightenment, a development in human history that Hoppe himself has soundly criticized. I don't think he's done anything contradictory here. I just think he's used the fundamental Enlightenment tool (precedence of epistemology) in a more disciplined manner in order to re-discover and validate older truths that the Enlightenment itself by and large erroneously rejected.

    I would be fascinated to hear Jordan Peterson's answer to your question. I'm not much of a fan of his anymore though. I used to defend him, but his position on the Kavanaugh appointment tells me he's nothing but controlled opposition.

    1. ATL, you can see that sometimes my enthusiasm gets the better of me. In my post, entitled “Philosophy for Dummies,” of which I included myself in the first rank, I made such an absolute statement. Now that I am stuck with it, let’s see if I can do something sensible with it.

      From the post: “Metaphysics: The study of ultimate reality; gives shape and order to the material world; its claims are either true or not. Metaphysical claims include: God exists; the soul exists; the world operates according to the laws of logic.”

      I did not have in mind Hoppe. I had in mind the work of natural theology – finding God from the ground up, instead of from the top down (revelation). While I am not well-versed in this study, I am exposed to a couple of sources.

      One, of course, is Jordan Peterson – from whom I do not expect perfection, although I am impressed by how far a leftist professor from Harvard and Toronto whose life’s training has been to ensure that he believes that God does not exist – who seems to be working diligently to find God from the bottom up. He hasn’t succeeded yet, and I don’t think he can; perhaps that is the point – to prove to us that even the smartest intellectual cannot find God, so the rest of us should quit trying? Yet there are too many examples of people returning to church thanks to Jordan Peterson…so I won’t dump on him too much.

      Second, I only learned of the Gifford Lectures through the award of the annual “prize” (I guess that’s the term) to NT Wright. Apparently the entire point of these lectures is to find God through natural theology. They have been at it for several decades.

      To the extent Wright was successful (and it has been a while since I watched), he strongly leaned on things like the apostles witnessing and testifying to the Resurrection – seeing Jesus after He came out of the tomb. People believed this witness.

      Of course, we must believe the story (who can rise from the dead?) – or, I guess, we can believe it through the reality of the expansion of Christianity….but, then again, people will often believe the wildest fairy tales – even die for them; so I am not sure how strong a case this is.

      Paul VanderKlay will sometimes hold up a dollar bill; on the back, a pyramid with a gap between the main body and the cap – the Eye of Providence. There are a few interpretations of this – most less generous than his. The one he offers: whatever we build, there is always a gap between us and God. We must take a leap of faith at some point – just believe it: like the gap in the pyramid.

      So I wasn’t thinking about Hoppe. I was thinking about “God exists,” maybe even “the soul exists.” In reference to Hoppe’s work, you offer: “…and in so doing, has pointed toward the correct metaphysics (Christianity).” But what is meant by “Christianity”? Does it make a difference if we believe God exists (if we accept that the gap in the pyramid is there and will always be there), or do we just have to act in accord with a few of the commandments and a sprinkling of the Sermon on the Mount?

      I guess I was thinking this because as long as we build a foundation for things we think we can control, the structure will be both unstable and subject to manipulation by those who wish to control us. Perhaps coming to the understanding that no matter the foundation man builds, we will never be able to close this gap is necessary if we want a stable structure.

      You know, they tried finding God in Star Trek: The Final Frontier. They found a charlatan. Perhaps this is all man is capable of finding when he attempts to find the “omni” with our less-than-omni brains. What do we do then? Do we quit looking?

    2. BM, I'm not educated in philosophy and don't understand much of the content of this post. I do know one thing though. To answer your question, no, we don't quit looking. In many ways, God is unknowable and, no matter how much understanding we gain, we will never know everything. That realization shouldn't stop us from searching for the truth.

      In 1 & 2 Timothy, the apostle Paul urges us to find truth and even says that God Himself wants us to do so. He also warns us charlatans, so Star Trek wasn't unique.

      The biggest step I ever made on the road to finding the truth was to come to the realization that I didn't know it all. Since then, it's been a gradual trend toward operating in faith instead of my own "smarts". Heck of a lot more peaceful, too.

      You're doing fine. Carry on.

    3. Roger, you said it well - and reflect my thoughts on this matter. Thank you.

    4. "But what is meant by “Christianity”? Does it make a difference if we believe God exists (if we accept that the gap in the pyramid is there and will always be there), or do we just have to act in accord with a few of the commandments and a sprinkling of the Sermon on the Mount?"

      I'd have to say it does matter. That's a great question though. I think Hoppe is an agnostic, but in his "Coming of Age with Murray Rothbard" speech, he made it seem like he believed in an afterlife where Murray would be held in high regard among the other great thinkers in history. An afterlife would certainly require a God. But maybe he was just playing to the audience, many of whom would like to think of Murray in Heaven.

      " far a leftist professor from Harvard"

      Yeah, but at the end of the day Peterson is definitely a leftist, as well as a self-described liar. His goal of finding the social/psychological truth contained within the bible seemed to me for a while to be a noble one (and maybe it still is).

      But then I had a bit of an epiphany. Most of the worst ideas the West has been subjected to ignited in the popular mind precisely because they contained elements of truth borrowed from the bible, distorted of course and divorced from God.

      Progressivism, Socialism, Communism, and Fascism were all about creating a Heaven on Earth without God's help. They all took advantage of a few Christian principles, which they distorted and twisted to suit the ends of concentrating political and economic power.

      "They found a charlatan. Perhaps this is all man is capable of finding when he attempts to find the “omni” with our less-than-omni brains. What do we do then? Do we quit looking?"

      Can we find Him through reason or science? Probably not, but we can find reasons to accept His message as authentic. Looking for God is a perilous adventure. So many frauds are willing to offer their own 'truth' in exchange for money and control of your life.

      I don't think we give up though. I think reason's proper function is to help us recognize truth. Sometimes the ultimate truth is beyond our reason, and we have to accept that. At the end of the day, a Christian life requires a leap of faith. Reason will only get you so far, but it can get you a long way!

      I know St. Aquinas and St. Anselm have both offered their logical 'proofs' of God, though I'm not familiar with their arguments. Maybe that would be an idea for a post someday? I think Aquinas makes the 'First Cause' argument.

    5. ATL.

      Luke 9:49 “Master,” said John, “we saw someone driving out demons in your name and we tried to stop him, because he is not one of us.”

      50 “Do not stop him,” Jesus said, “for whoever is not against you is for you.”

      Mark 9:38 “Teacher,” said John, “we saw someone driving out demons in your name and we told him to stop, because he was not one of us.”

      39 “Do not stop him,” Jesus said. “For no one who does a miracle in my name can in the next moment say anything bad about me, 40 for whoever is not against us is for us.

    6. Well played. It's kinda hard to argue with Jesus. Lol

      I guess the only question is whether people like Peterson are really (on net) driving out demons or not. Or whether a society that values the Commandments and the Sermon can achieve success in abiding them without a sincere belief in God. I forget which one we're talking about.

      Or would the Commandments and the Sermon be more like "believies" to a population of agnostics and atheists? (apart from Peg of course)

      "I have a lot of beliefs and I live by none of 'em. That's just the way I am. They're just my beliefs. I just like believing them. I like that part. They're my little "believies." They make me feel good about who I am. But if they get in the way of a thing I want, or I want to [masturbate] or something, I f___g do that." - Louis C.K.

      (Speaking of C.K., the guy talks about masturbation all the time in his comedy, and people were shocked that he turned out to be a sexual deviant. I don't mind C.K. that much. He can be very funny. I just don't look to clowns when I'm formulating my positions on politics or life in general. It's just kind of funny how bad he is at life and how open and honest he is about it.)

    7. An argument from authority (argumentum ab auctoritate), also called an appeal to authority, or argumentum ad verecundiam, is a form of defeasible argument in which a claimed authority's support is used as evidence for an argument's conclusion. It is well known as a fallacy, though some consider that it is used in a cogent form when all sides of a discussion agree on the reliability of the authority in the given context.

  3. I have never heard about Modernism initiating the turn away from searching from objective/absolute principles towards subjective/relative principles. But it makes sense. Empiricism by its nature starts from finite data sources and starts to build understanding from there. But the process is a search for the universal/objective from the partial/subjective. Only once all the data is collated can the universal be known, or at least enough of the data to be representative of the universal. But even that sentence points to gap in understanding where the subjective aspect exists. We all approach the quest for the universal from our particular perspective. Since we all have a different perspective that leads to disagreement or the subjectivity (incompleteness) of our conclusions.

    Thinking back to Plato and Aristotle. Modernists try to define "form" by combining the data of each particular regardless of where the "form" exists.

    Interesting stuff and it blows me away where this article ends up with Maxwell's idea of revelation. That idea is true regardless of era too. No human could really confidently assert metaphysical truth without revelation. Plato and Aristotle tried but their effort, through the framework of logical analysis, came up short. But the Pre-Moderns had the right idea. The philosophers after them saw their inability to attain metaphysical understanding and instead of appealing to revelation appealed to Epistemology. The answer has always been revelation. You have to start with that. That sounds like the Reformed presuppositional apologetics of Cornelius Van Til.

  4. BM, you are doing fantastic work here. Can we call ATL your sidekick?

    This is a short and easy book that traces what you wrote through the arts:
    Escape from Reason by Francis A. Schaeffer

    1. Thank you.

      You can call ATL - as I do, along with many of you - a teacher. I appreciate all of you from whom I learn (and am forced to learn) so much.

    2. I'd be honored to be known as Bionic's sidekick, and if anyone's the teacher here, it is him. Though if he's going to be all humble, then I'd just as soon think of all of us as students (Bionic included), students who direct their own research and pick their own professors from among anyone anywhere who has something important and possibly true to say (or has said) in regards liberty, its attainment and its maintenance.

      Bionic is just our primus inter pares.

    3. I’m writing to say how much pleasure I get from reading this blog every day. Much of the time I’m overwhelmed with the sheer amount and depth of ideas presented here. Nevertheless, I persist and find myself wishing I had discovered this blog at its inception so I wouldn’t be playing so much catch-up. I’ve called myself a libertarian for a lot of years, so I also regularly read LRC and others, but this one, in my view, is the most interesting, and not to denigrate, but also the most entertaining. So, thank you Bionic Mosquito for this enormous undertaking on your part. Saying that, I offer this link to a lovely piece of music, because there are so many other things in life to enjoy in addition to our activities at this blog. Here is Elina Garanca singing Laudate Dominum. P.S. I had never seen or heard Neil Peart before you mentioned his work, and I find it, and him, awesome, even if I prefer Mozart. Peg

    4. Thank you, Peg.

      One of my favorite scenes in Shawshank Redemption is when Andy Dufresne locks himself in the office to play opera music over the prison camp's loudspeakers. Beautiful music in a meaningful role.

  5. I read that years ago. Scaeffer really hates Hegel. There is a guy town that studied under Schaeffer and would use movie scenes to illustrate philosophical ideas.

  6. I have been having problems posting. I do not know if previous posts have gone through.

    I recommend the movie "To End All Wars." It is an excellent movie.