Dr. Owen Anderson, Professor, Philosophy and Religious Studies,
Arizona State University
The discerning heart seeks knowledge
Can we overcome ignorance? Can we achieve freedom from the hindrances of skepticism and fideism? If you’re like most of my readers you are already curious and interested in asking the tough questions about philosophy and faith. You spend time wondering about the basic questions in life and whether or not we can have true answers to these. You may have been frustrated with the emptiness of skepticism and fideism. But you also may have thought these are the only options. You were not aware that reason can be used to know what is clear at the basic level.
I study the classical questions in philosophy. These are:
- How do I know?
- What is real and eternal?
- What is the highest good?
Classical Philosophy has always wrestled with these basic questions. We can call it classical philosophy to distinguish it from other uses of the term philosophy. These questions are intimately tied to our need for meaning. We want to understand so that we can find meaning and make sense of our life. Meaning might mean purpose, or it might mean something more like understanding or making sense of or giving content. In pursuing answers to these questions we are doing both: finding our purpose in and through understanding. We find meaning through the use of reason by which we make distinctions, form beliefs, and construct arguments.
As I began to explore these questions I quickly became aware of a number of things:
- Contemporary academic philosophy is largely no longer interested in these basic questions.
- When contemporary academic philosophy does address these questions its interpretive presuppositions go unnoticed.
- Skepticism uses the reality of the pluralism of answers to justify the claim that knowledge is not possible or to change the definition of knowledge to accommodate something less than certainty.
In my own case, I became aware that when people had answers for these questions these were shaped by their background tradition. And then when their answers were questioned they quickly shifted to skepticism or fideism. This had also been true for me. I wanted my questions answered. I wanted to know: What is the historic Christian faith? What are we responsible to know? What are the consequences of failing to know God and the good? Perhaps the closest and dearest of all: why is there suffering in my life and the lives of others? What is the meaning of it all?
I came to these questions as I became aware of my own fideism and inability to give an account for my beliefs. I committed myself to the study of philosophy, religious studies, and history. I pursued a career in philosophy in order to devote myself to research of these questions, to studying these questions with students, and wrestling with how past and present philosophers answered these questions. During my career I have published seven books, achieved tenure and promotion to full professor at a major research university. This gave me a first-hand look at how contemporary academic philosophy works and the kinds of traditions it views as authoritative. What I wanted was knowledge. I was not interested in either philosophical skepticism or fideism. These were dead-ends.
My goal has been to overcome ignorance. There are many degrees and levels of ignorance so allow me to clarify. We will never know everything and shouldn’t pretend we can come close. What I am particularly interested in is combating ignorance at the basic level. Even more specifically: I want to combat culpable ignorance. This is ignorance of things at the basic level. If we are committed to the use of reason then we would know what is clear at the basic level. When we are exposed to our own failure to have done this we are confronted with a need to change our thinking.
There are implications of culpable ignorance in all areas of life. Lack of knowledge brings about meaninglessness and boredom. This can be seen in our individual life and in our public life. It has implications for family and church. Most often it is glossed over by skepticism or fideism. That is, rather than confess culpable ignorance we excuse ourselves and deceive ourselves about its reality by claiming that knowledge is not possible anyway or is not needed in matters of faith. Are we ready to change our thinking?
I know what it feels like to be overwhelmed by these questions. I haven’t discovered some secret nor am I perfect. The turnaround for me came when I recognized that some things are clear to reason. A commitment to reason is the necessary first step. If someone is not committed to reason then we will end up in foolish discussions. Or, if nothing is clear then this includes anything we say or do. Most people believe in the distinction between good and evil and hope that knowledge about these is possible. The mystery for them is how to actually achieve knowledge and work through giving rational justification to answer these important questions. That is the special skill set of philosophy, and that is what I am endeavoring to explore here.
You can join me in this pursuit through my blog posts, lectures which are posted here in audio/video, and the online courses I am developing. I often give lectures or host discussion on my books. If you want to contact me to schedule a lecture or for further study you can do so here.