Defend the Faith: A Philosophical Primer

On what authority do we know what is, what is knowable, and what is right or wrong? In 1955 Dr. Cornelius Van Til, Christian philosopher, Reformed theologian, presuppositional apologist, and founding faculty member of Westminster Theological Seminary published his book The Defense of the Faith. It’s a profound and challenging book that has caused a bit of controversy in reformed circles. When studying Van Til’s work, the apologist would be wise in becoming acquainted with some fundamental philosophical concepts to fully grasp some of the tough problems the author deals with. Indeed, the relevancy of these concepts isn’t limited to the apologist. Though they may seem academic, most people have no idea just how much these ideas influence their own world views. For apologetics, or philosophy in general, this primer should give the student a good start.

The 3 Major Branches of Philosophy: Metaphysics, Epistemology, Ethics:

Metaphysics is the philosophy of being or reality. Specifically, Ontology is the study of the nature of being, reality or existence. Epistemology is the philosophy of knowledge. It is a critical inquiry into what is to count as knowledge, what kinds of things are knowable and whether anything at all can be known for certain. Ethics is the philosophy of morality. It is a critical inquiry into basic principles of good and evil, right and wrong. It is an inquiry of value and behavior.

Rationalism and Irrationalism:

Rationalism is the view that reality is a unified, coherent and explicable  system, and that reason alone can provide knowledge of the existence and nature of things. It employs a process of inference in order to reach its conclusions. Irrationalism, in opposition to rationalism, stresses the dimension of instinct, feeling, and will as over and against reason. It has its foundation in pure chance.

Universal and Particular:

General terms such as dog, beauty, kindness and so on are sometimes called universals to distinguish them from particulars such as this dog, this beautiful object, this kind act and so on. The question arises whether universals have existence apart from particulars (The Problem of Universals)

Monism, Dualism, Pluralism:

Monism is the view that reality consists of only one substance. The one substance may be material or spiritual, or perhaps indefinite. Physical Monism (Monistic Materialism or Materialism) is the view that the one substance is matter. Psychical Monism is used to describe the view that the one substance is spiritual, mental, or non-material. Dualism is the view that reality consists of two basic, distinct substances: one mental and one physical. It generates questions and theories about what relationship, if any, holds between the two distinct substances. Dualism stands in opposition to monism. Pluralism is the view that reality consists of many substances. It is often associated with Pragmatism (meaning resides not in propositions but in practical consequences-what works) and Cultural Relativism (meaning resides in terms of culture). Though Pluralism and Psychical Monism may appear antithetical to each other, at bottom, they are one.

Realism, Nominalism, Idealism:

Realism is the view that general terms (e.g. redness or hardness) exist and are distinct from particular instances of them (e.g. this red object or this hard object). There are two major forms of this view. Platonic Realism is the view that universals are real and that they exist independently of particulars. Aristotelian Realism is the view that universals are real entities, but their existence is dependent on the particulars that exemplify them. Nominalism is the view that universal or general terms are names only and do not refer to any existing thing (e.g. redness or hardness aren’t things as such). Idealism is the view that universal or general terms exist independently of that on which they might be predicated. This view maintains that reality ultimately consists of minds and ideas, and that matter has no existence independently of our ideas of it. Transcendental Idealism is a term used to describe the philosopher Immanuel Kant’s view that objects of experience are simply appearances, not existing outside our thoughts. In Kant’s view, the structures or mental principles through which we formulate our conceptions of the external world are transcendental because they are the basis of experience, and they are ideal because they are in the mind.