Reflections on the Truth Project: Philosophy
I've been a part of several group studies which participated in Focus on the Family's the Truth Project, with Dr. Del Tackett as the instructor. Recently we have begun to do this study as a men's study at the local fellowship I am a part of. This is the first time I have participated in the study since beginning to pursue an advanced degree in philosophy, and I thought it might be beneficial to record some brief reflections on the 'philosophy and ethics' lesson in the Truth Project. I am recording this to serve my friends and family who may have participated or may participate in the future in one of these studies. I don't anticipate that anyone outside of my small circle of acquaintances will read this. That being said, if you are reading this and we are not personally acquainted, I want you to know that this brief reflection is not meant to criticize and attack, but to give some perspective on a topic that is not very familiar for those whom I hold dear.
To begin with, I must emphasize that I appreciate the Truth Project for what it is. Its goal is praiseworthy and there is much in it that is useful and challenging. In this particular lesson, I find the comment by R.C. Sproul to be accurate and concise.(1) He said something to the effect of "you can't bypass the mind to effect change in the heart." What he is speaking to is the common practice of believers today to ignore studying deeply the Word of God, and studying theology. It is a tragedy that this generation of Christians has such a shallow understanding of not only what the Bible says, but of the history and development of Christian Theology. Not only do we not desire to study, but we make excuses in the attempt to justify our intellectual inertia.
There are things to reflect on in this lesson of the Truth Project. However, I found the overall lesson to be somewhat disturbing in light of the misrepresentation of some key philosophical terms and discussion. It was evident that Dr. Tackett does not have a robust knowledge of the philosophers he references (namely Plato and Aristotle).(2) The discussion took a wrong turn almost immediately as he introduced the terms 'particulars' and 'universals'. Dr. Tackett associated the 'universals' of philosophy as the answers to the big questions (e.g. what is knowledge, how do we know what we know, how do we know we exist, etc.). He then showed a painting depicting Plato and Aristotle with Plato pointing up and Aristotle pointing down. Dr. Tackett says that Plato seeks the answers to the big questions by looking to the 'universals' while Aristotle seeks the answers to the big questions by looking to the 'particulars', stating that Plato had it right. He then gave an example of a cricket match, where it was necessary to know the 'universals' (i.e. the rules of the game) in order to understand the game of cricket. Finally, he also claims that both Plato and Aristotle ultimately failed in their philosophy because they were 'looking inside the box', by which he means that they were looking for a material explanation for the universe.(3)
Where did he go wrong? First of all, he does not seem to understand the philosophical discussion of the particulars and the universals. This discussion refers to the problem of the one and the many, which seeks to understand how it is that we apprehend one kind of thing (universal) in many different individual things (particular). In other words how is it that we see many different people, immediately know them to be of the human kind, and yet they are all different. This is the problem of the one and the many. The 'universals' refer to the form that is apprehended, while the 'particulars' refer to the individual beings that we apprehend the forms in. In the painting referenced above, Plato is depicted as pointing upwards because he taught the forms of things existed in a higher realm. The world around us is but a shadowy imitation of the world of the forms. He taught that goodness, justice, etc. were really existent things in some other realm. Aristotle is depicted pointing downwards because he taught that the forms existed in the particular things, and we know the forms through knowing the individual. Dr. Tackett sides with Plato, but he places the 'universals' within God, which is not what Plato does. Unfortunately he confuses a metaphysical consideration of the forms with an epistemological consideration.(4) God, because He is the grounds for all existence, is the ground for all forms. In a sense, Dr. Tackett is right with his inclination to say that the universals exist in God, but this is to speak of the metaphysical grounding of the universals. He is not correct, however, in his assertion that we know the universals through God. Aristotle is correct in his observation that we know things through experience. We know what cats are because we have experienced cats in the real world. Once having understood what a cat is, we are able to discern what is and is not a cat in our future encounters with real things in the world, because we have apprehended the form of cat-ness. We know the forms of things through our experience of individual things.
Furthermore, Dr. Tackett's analogy of needing to know the rules of cricket before it made sense does not deliver the conclusion he is drawing from it. The rules of the game explain the mechanics of how the game works, making the example more akin to demonstrating the necessity of the physical sciences in order to understand. If he wanted to demonstrate the 'universals' with a cricket analogy, he would need to point to things like what a cricket bat is, what a cricket ball is, etc.(5) The 'universals' in philosophic discussion being the forms of things, the example would revolve around the natures of things involved in playing the game of cricket, not the mechanics of how the game works.
Probably the most damning assertion he makes is that Plato and Aristotle sought to explain the universe by material causes. This is just patently false. While it is true that the philosophers who came before Plato (e.g. Anaximenes, Thales, Parmenides, etc.) looked only to material causes of the universe, Plato and Aristotle did not.(6) Plato taught that the Forms were in a realm of their own, and the world of experience is a mere imitation of those Forms. He also posited a demiurge which the Forms emanated from. These things are not part of the material universe, but are decidedly immaterial. Aristotle actually reasoned to a Prime Mover of the universe, which is not part of the universe. This prime mover is eternal, immutable, simple, and immaterial, sharing many of the attributes of the Christian God. Dr. Tackett errs in a big way on this point, leaving us to speculate as to why. It is my opinion that his presuppositionalism is the cause. He wants to make the case that we need to have a biblical worldview, and that the cosmic battle is one of the biblical worldview vs. other worldviews. He appears to be influenced by Francis Schaeffer and the presuppositionalists. The problem with presuppositionalism is that, while appearing to be pious, it is circular in reasoning, containing the conclusion of God in its premise.(7)
I hope you find these reflections helpful and are not discouraged, either by myself or by the Truth Project. It is a noble goal to be transformed by the renewing of our minds. The Truth Project – and Dr. Tackett – will help with this goal. However, don't simply trust that everything taught in the Truth Project is, well.... true. Evaluate what you study. I hope that my reflections help to clear up any confusions, and if you are confused by anything I've written, please let me know by leaving a comment.
(1) I find it interesting that R.C. Sproul participated in this and would like to see him comment on this particular lesson. I believe Sproul is a Thomist––and therefore by extension an Aristotelian. Considering Tackett's summary of philosophy and his declaration that Aristotle is wrong, I am curious to see if Sproul was aware of the content of this lesson or not.
(2) Tackett's bio lists his academic resumé as holding a Bachelor of Science, a Master of Science, and a Doctor of Ministry, none of which have a concentration in philosophy. His anecdote of his philosophy class also lends itself to the suggestion that he really is not well-informed to the history and conversation of philosophy.
(3) He gives the sense throughout this lesson that philosophy is wrong because it seeks natural explanations for everything. This is simply not true, which I speak to later in this reflection. Philosophy, during the time of the Scholastics, was known as Natural Theology. It was a way that we could learn about God. Philosophy is in fact concerned with reality, and reality is more than just matter. He seems to conflate materialist or naturalist philosophy with philosophy itself.
(4) To gain a good understanding of the critical issue of maintaining distinctions within philosophic discussion, see Étienne Gilson, The Unity of Philosophical Experience (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1999).
(5) I haven't the slightest knowledge of cricket, other than it is played with a bat, takes multiple days to play, and people watch it while drinking tea.
(6) For a great, in-depth understanding of the history of philosophy, see Frederick Copleston's set titled A History of Philosophy.
(7) The best person I know for a critique of presuppositionalism as found in (Van Til, Bahnsen, Schaeffer, etc.) is Dr. Richard Howe. You can find an excellent article on the issue on his website. Here is a link to the article: http://richardghowe.com/Presuppositionalism.pdf