Ancient & Medieval Philosophy: Introduction

Notes from Greg Bahnsen’s lecture series, Ancient & Medieval Philosophy: Introduction (1,2,3/24).

A. What is philosophy?

How it arises?
God told Adam that he was to have dominion over creation and gain control over the environment. He was to understand the world and use his knowledge the glory of God. Man is an inquisitive creature. As children grow they attempt understand the world in which they live. Our curiosity leads us to learn things about the world and control our environment. Curiosity leads us to ask about patterns that we find in the world and regularities that are observed. We also start organizing information into categories. As we look at these particular things in the world, we reduce these things into general laws. When we systematize the laws we are doing science. Science is the systematic attempt or the attempt to find systematic and general laws that will enable us to explain aspects of the world. Curiosity turns into the level of scientific thinking, which is systematic, it uses general laws to explain and it is about a delineated aspect of the world. When we do science three questions arise:

Firstly, regarding the extent of our scientific thinking. Is what we know all there is to know? This is a question about science and not a question that science can answer.

Secondly, even if you think science could tell us everything, we still have questions about the study of science.

Thirdly, how do we fit everything we have learned in a coherent package? How do we relate the two principles that the world operates mechanically and also by freedom? When we start asking these kinds of questions, we are now doing philosophy. It is the highest level of cognitive development.

Marks of a philosophical question
What characterizes a philosophical question?

Firstly, it is not straight forwardly answered by any special science.

Secondly, it can be given persuasive but contrary answers. There are alternative answers that have pros and cons for each of them.

Thirdly, it is not obvious how to resolve the conflict. All the questions of philosophy concern presuppositions and conceptual muddles that we find in any field of thought or area of human concern.

The Task of Philosophy
Philosopher’s have a critical and constructive task. Firstly, they are critically minded. They attempt to be analytical and cogent in their thinking. They are critically minded seeking reliable presuppositions on which we can live and think. They are also constructive in trying to fit together everything that we know about human experience and life into a worldview. A worldview is network of presuppositions, which is not verified by the procedures of natural science, but in terms of which every aspect of man’s knowledge and experience is interpreted and interrelated. These presuppositions are not verified by the procedures of natural science, since philosophy reflects upon the work of science. A presupposition is an elementary assumption. These presuppositions will be about the nature of reality, how we know what we know and how we live our lives.

Key Concerns/Divisions of Philosophy
The three basic divisions and questions of philosophy are: metaphysics, epistemology and ethics. Firstly, metaphysics is the study of the nature, structure and origin of what exists. Cosmology and ontology fall under the class of metaphysics. Cosmology deals with the origins of the universe. Ontology is the study of being/existence itself, but it is often interchangeable with metaphysics. Secondly, epistemology is the study of the nature and limits of human knowledge. Thirdly, ethics deals with the study of right and wrong actions and attitudes. Schaeffer’s “how should we THEN live?” means given our metaphysics and epistemology, how should we live in light of them?

B. When did philosophy begin?
It began with Adam and Eve. Although everyone does philosophy, not everyone does it well. The philosopher is marked by his self-conscious attempt in developing his worldview. Why do secular philosophy textbooks begin with Thales? Because the teaching of philosophy itself has its own perspective.

What is a biblical philosophy? Christianity is unique among all the philosophies and religions of the world because it holds an infallible, verbal revelation from a personal absolute God. Christianity is uniquely historical in character. It is an otherworldly and this worldly religion. God’s plan of salvation was when God the Son came down into space/time history to save mankind. Biblical history also an eschatological end when Jesus will come again.

Abraham lived 2000 years before Christ. About 1400 years before Christ, we have the exodus of Moses. They had a worldview long before the first Greeks were credited for starting philosophy in 600BC. The Christian philosophy of life is the oldest philosophy of life and the secularists begin later.

What is the basic biblical worldview?
Psalm 36:9 and Proverbs 1:7 says we must think God’s thoughts after Him. We believe that God created the heavens and the earth, and he is distinct from his creation. He is on a different level than we are; he also controls all things. We are to follow God’s commandments from our heart and love Him and our neighbors. Our metaphysic, epistemology and ethic teaches us that we are not autonomous. When man wants to be self-sufficient and autonomous he develops secular philosophy. The development of Greek philosophy assumes man’s autonomy and want’s to exclude the supernatural.

C. Where is meaning or order found for history?
Some say the entire universe is random and meaningless, but then why study and write on the history of philosophy? Others say history does show meaning but just because man imposes it upon history. The meaning of history then would be relative from person to person. Christians say that history is according to God’s grand plan. All historiography is done in terms of a worldview.

Biblical Principles for Interpreting History
1. A personal sovereign God created the world.
2. Man is made in God’s image to have dominion over the world.
3. Man’s problem is that he did not accept his task, and now he is seeking autonomy.
4. The pattern of history is that of enmity between believers and unbelievers.
5. All things will be restored and consummated at the end of history.

D. Enduring Questions
1. The way you answer these questions has consequences on your life.
2. The mindful of the antithesis that exists between believers and unbelievers as they attempt to answer these questions.
3. There is a dialectical tension in unbelieving philosophy. They struggle to bring things together.
a. rationalism and irrationalism: Everything has to be reasonable, yet there are aspects of reality that are beyond the reach of the human mind.
b. unity and diversity: Everything shows commonality and also individuality.
c. permanence and change. Is reality changing or unchanging?
d. monism and atomism: Monists say reality is ultimately one. Atomists says reality is made of different kinds of things.
e. universals and particulars: Concepts and their corresponding particular referents.
f. laws/principles and freedom/individuality

You must look for these dialectical tensions for a Christian perspective of philosophy.

Question 1 (epistemology): Man seeks to understand the world in which he lives. How do things happen and why do things happen? Look for how they justify their answers.

Question 2 (metaphysics): How do you understand nature?
i. What is the world made of?
ii. How is change possible?
iii. Is there identity in change?
vi. What is the relationship between the underlying stuff of which everything is made and the changing appearances of reality?

All of these question fall into two schools of thought in Greek philosophy: atomism and teleological idealism. Atomism tells us reality is made of many different kinds of things and there is nothing in the world beyond these things. Teleological idealism says there is purposefulness in the world. There is a reason why things happen in the world that goes beyond causation. There is also more to the world than the physical; there are patterns and forms of things. Both of these answers are naturalistic. They attempt to answer philosophical questions without submitting to God’s revelation.

Question 3 (epistemology): Is reason an instrument for obtaining objective knowledge of reality? Should we use an empiricist approach to obtaining knowledge or should we stop and reflect?

Question 4 (ethics): By what kind of values should man live?
i. Are there objective values?
ii. Is man morally distinct from the animals?
iii. Should reason control passion?
iv. What is the place of pleasure in making ethical choices?
v. What is the place of honor and justice in making ethical choices?
vi. What is the place of peace of mind/apathy in making ethical choices?

Question 5 (history): Regarding the antithesis between believing and unbelieving philosophy.
i. Is man’s mind self-sufficient? No, because man was created to think God’s thoughts about Him. Also, man needs to be redeemed from being lost in sin.
ii. Is there an objective moral order? Yes, man is more than an animal. He is created in the image of God, and God’s character is the standard by which man should live.
iii. Is there public truth accessible by reason? Yes, God has given us the instrument of thinking.
iv. What is man’s place in the universe, his dignity and his meaning in life? Man was created by God as the highest creature in the image of God. Man’s meaning in life is to have a personal relationship with God.


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