Fundamental Questions in Philosophy

Contemporary or fundamental questions in philosophy are generally addressed early in a college student's education, whether for graduate or undergraduate requirements. One of the more common text used for exploring these issues is Philosophy and Contemporary Issues by John Burr and Milton Goldinger. This review presents some of the issues and questions covered within the text. As a side not, if your course does not already use this text as a resource you might want to use it yourself when approaching these philosophical questions in your course studies.

Free Will or Determinism

Do we actually have or exercise free-will or is our behavior determined? In the first chapter of this text, the argument of universal causation, moral responsibility, and predictability through the conflict between the viewpoints of determinism and libertarianism is presented. In general, we humans, tend to believe that the choices we make are our own. Is it possible though, that those choices are really pre-determined or pre-destined to happen according to our circumstances and our environment? If it is true that our behavior and decisions are predetermined, then our moral responsibility comes into question. Eventually, if our actions and decisions are predestined and predetermined, it implies that our behavior is predictable. This further creates the perplexing issue of, if we can accurately predict behavior because of our awareness of the cause, then this implies that we should have the capacity to change that behavior. This implied and potential control of behavior, completely contradicts the notion of predetermination; unless of course, even the pretense of control is predetermined. Wow, what an interesting brain teaser this chapter weaves. (Burr and Goldinger 30-31)

 Specific subtopics addressed in this chapter 

  • Cause and Effect.  The basic premise of determinism in support of universal causation is that every event has a cause. Everything we do, or think we choose to do, is caused by preceding events or actions. By identifying the laws that influence behavior, it should be possible to help people become more successful, productive, and happier people. (31)
  • Undetermined Human Behavior: The libertarian basic premise is that behavior is undetermined and principles of human behavior will never be pinned-down. If human behavior is undetermined, then it is also unpredictable. (32)  Libertarianism's argument against determinism thus becomes an argument against universal causation. For if is true that "all actions are the result of predetermined cause, then no actions are ones for which anyone can be held morally responsible" (32); we can't hold criminals responsible for their crimes because they were determined by cause.

God and Religion

Does a superior being such as what we usually refer to as God, an all-good, knowing, and powerful entity truly exist? (117)  This chapter explores the reasoning and rationalization of how people justify the acceptance, as well as their basis for the concept of God. One angle used to challenge the existence of God is by challenging the idea of an all-good, knowing, and powerful being exists that still allows evil in the world.  The argument against the existence of this type of God is then touted to be supported by the fact that evil does exist, therefore, an all-good, knowing, and powerful god can't exist.

  • In this chapter, "Does God Exist," pro and con views are presented by A. Cressy Morrison, Clarence Darrow, D. E. Trueblood, and Bertrand Russell. Morrison offers seven reasons why a scientist should believe in God; however, fundamentally the seven pro-beliefs equate to five arguments that are debated between these four well known and accomplished authors, philosophers and scientists. This is an excellent discussion and it is Russell that summarizes the five arguments best. Subtopics include:
  • Facts derived from Faith:  One of the major problems with the five arguments, as discussed by Russell, is the idea that the pro-believe arguments are all based on convincing people that something is factual if it's written or spoken enough, it then must be true. (117-118)  Fiction, faith and or belief become fact and truth if presented often enough, if used to explain away fears, used to allay fears, create fear or provide hope.  
  • The Empirical issue:  Another over-riding challenge to these arguments is the lack of scientific physical proof of the existence of God. A belief is nothing more than a hypothesis or theory until developed and proven empirically to be true. What is the implication if the belief was empirically, scientifically proven beyond all doubt? Many, if not most skeptics and non-believers would then become converts. Proof of this type would not only have major implications to social, moral and political behavior, it would also create a different set of problems and questions in science, especially physics. If an omnipotent, omnipresent, all-powerful, all-knowing, loving God was proven empirically and scientifically not to exists, for many believers, the purpose and meaning of life itself and what happens after death are completely in question. To prove the non-existence of God is to challenge the believer’s basis for individual and social morality. It also tosses out centuries of religious text that served as the guide books for communities, governments and political groups that justified their actions through those texts. The power over billions of individuals from the monotheistic religions such as the Vatican, Islamic leaders, the innumerable mass of Protestant churches and leaders would falter. The notion of a supernatural father-protector falls away. (117-119)

Morality and Society

What is right and what is wrong?  Is there only one right standard for all societies to live by or is what's right here, wrong there? (197)  Is there a basis or a set of rules to apply in all situations? This chapter presents the contrasts between ethical relativism and ethical absolutism. Relativism provides the position that the principles a society lives by are not universal and necessarily applicable in each society. Absolutism proposes that there is only one right principle or set of principles for all societies to operate under.

  • There are three theories concerning the "correct ultimate moral principle(s)": egoism, the only correct standard of conduct is self-interest; utilitarianism, the right behavior is that which brings the best results for all concerned; and formalism, based more on the avoidance of conflict and focuses on "proper behavior" versus the outcome of an action (197).  These positions on ethical behavior and principles of morality raise questions as to the morality of the death penalty, war, "cheating on your income taxes", so called little white lies, abortion, a nations obligation to support another nation in need, and societies feelings that we are currently going through a decline in societies moral values. (196-198)

State and Society

Can a democratic state be justified rationally; and, can it's superiority to other forms of government be shown on rational grounds? All governments rest their authority on a set of political philosophies that exist to provide parameters for which decisions and actions are made. One of the political philosophies of democracy is that all men are created equal. This chapter looks at this issue of equality and whether it was ever meant literally or meant as a social goal. Many proponents of the idea of equality often tie it to a right created or given by a divine creator God. What happens to this equality argument if there is no creator God? It’s quite common for societies to imply that their way of life is God-given. Even in the current world we live the idea that the democratic political philosophy includes theology about a superior being and predestination is prevalent. As you read and study this issue consider how the idea of equality can be justified without the need for a creator God. (288-290)

Majority Rule

Is the majority-rule notion more accurately stated as a majority-desire or the-best-answer-is concept? It can be argued that our laws are not determined by a majority vote of the people or citizenry. In many western societies, in particular, laws are determined by those we elect to represent us or representative we empower to represent and essential rule over us. Those same representatives are influenced by lobbyists representing special interests groups and the wealthy; as such, laws are not necessarily of the true best interests of the public majority. Does this mean that, the United State for example, is ruled by special interests groups and wealthy influential individuals that use the current social political mechanisms to manipulate the state/nation, in order to mandate the behavior of society towards their individual views?

  • A good vehicle for discussion on this topic is whether internet rights groups, media organizations, and other special interest lobbyists are abusing or appropriately using the first amendment of the U.S. Constitution and “freedom of press” to justify their right to publish anything they want to include false reporting, accusations or unsubstantiated stories about celebrities, cyber-bullying, classified military documents, your personal information (without your approval), pornography, unauthorized photos, and any other privacy issues. There are quite a few groups that believe they have the right to publish anything they want, true or untrue, as long as they themselves are not the victims of abuse. Are there any circumstances or issues that you can think of that should not be determined by majority-rule? What are your thoughts on public safety and national security and the use of free-speech and the first amendment as justification by some groups and individuals for stealing and publishing government and military classified documents?
  • And, as a final discussion topic for this issue of majority-rule, consider the impact of religious arguments: the majority of the United States is Christian, so does that mean that everyone should be forced to comply with Christian beliefs, become members of a Christian church and the government then submits to Christian leaders? This is the majority; however, if these were to be instituted, it would in turn violate the constitutional principle of freedom of religion and one of the cornerstones of the founding of the nation.

Mind and Body

We know that man is made up of identifiable material combinations of chemicals; but what about the non-material, something beyond what we can touch and examine in our laboratories? Here, in this chapter, we are presented with the argument of man’s soul:  Is there a construct, entity, something ethereal, incorporeal that goes beyond our physical presence? This chapter focuses on the "Mind and Body" problem, whether man as a whole, is simply a physical being, or more than physical. Religions, especially the Islamic, Judea-Christian, monotheistic faiths present man and woman as being of special importance in the world. Humans are portrayed as having importance beyond their bodies; that the mind is something separate and that there exists an immaterial soul, presumed to be made in the image of God. We return in this chapter to the argument of proof of a soul. How does one prove that man has a soul? The assumption of a human soul, for many people, is how they view themselves as being separate from the rest of the world’s creatures. For many believers, having a soul is also how man is linked to God. So what happens to our beliefs and self-image if it was proven that there is not soul, no self beyond the physical mass you see in the mirror?

  • Three opposing viewpoints are presented in this chapter: The Philosophy of Materialism, believing that man and all objects are only physical things; the concept of dualism provides that there exists a physical body and a non-physical mind; and idealism is proposed as an answer to the difficulties of other theories by proposing that there is no physical external world. The development and advancements in computer technology and robotics have theorists presenting the possibility that someday computerized robots will exist that can perform "rational processes of human beings".
  • Science has reached the point at which it has successfully created simple micro-organism life as published in many journals (research headed by Professor Floyd Romesberg of the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California). Now that science has demonstrated that man can create life, can man create man in a laboratory; and if so, does this mean that man is nothing more than a complex machine? (386-396)

Knowledge and Science

Does Mankind revere knowledge and is the pursuit and results of knowledge and science accepted conditionally? The pursuit of knowledge falls in two categories: "knowledge as an end-in-itself, independent of any use to which it may be put, and knowledge as a means to secure some other value." (464)  Knowledge and science represent power and the tools needed to gain power and accomplish personal goals; however, if the knowledge gained contrasts with our values, we will sometimes reject or ignore what has been presented.

This chapter proposes several questions of which three questions summarize the majority of the concerns:

  • What is the nature of knowledge, and the criteria that distinguishes genuine knowledge?
  • Does all knowledge come from experience, or reason?
  • What are science and the scientific method?

In response to these questions two proposed doctrines are presented concerning the nature of science and knowledge: Rationalism and Empiricism. Rationalism has the expectation of absolutism or the expectation of proof without any doubt. Empiricism uses the nature and methods of science, providing for consideration to the formal, conceptual, objective, and empirical science.

  • The Scientific Method, a successful problem solving enterprise has brought us to the point of the technology that exists today. This success has also brought forward critics that will take the other side of the argument and postulate that science has done more harm than good. The requirement to satisfy these skeptics is sufficient evidence that proves beyond all doubt. Arthur Murphy argues against this beyond all doubt rationalism and replaces it with common sense approach and beyond a reasonable doubt. (B&G 434-468)

Sum up

These philosophical topics reflect man's place in a social structure and what or why he or she participates and functions within that society. Although the God question does not have to be a social motivator for all social orders, however, these chapters are written more or less from a western world perspective and it is understandable that this question has an influence on social mores. If you have free will and the basis of your belief in a God or choice to not believe, how does that affect you moral view point? Is God a necessity to have a healthy moral society? And what about the Mind versus Body issue: if we are nothing more than a mass of chemicals and electrical impulses and gods, religions, souls and free will are nothing more than chemical-electrical impulses within the mind attempting to make sense of its environment, what does this say about social constructs?

Maybe that is the answer to all the questions, especially in regards to Mind and Body: our minds have a need to create solutions to unanswered or unclear questions, whether they are religious solutions or social constructs, social mores, scientific solutions that help maintain order for the sake of human survival; these choices we make freely.  Even the choice to believe in a god is a matter of free will; however, as to believe in a god (not religion since many religions have more gods and no gods) this may be more of a personal issue of fear and hope versus social benefit and survival. As you study these questions, consider exploring other writings of the authors presenting their views beyond what is in these chapters.

Works Sited

Burr, John R. and Goldinger, Milton. Philosophy and Contemporary Issues. 7th Ed. Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall, 1972. Pages 30-33, 116-20, 196-99, 288-98, 386-90, 434-69

The Thinker

The Thinker by Rodin
Credit: smallbones and Wikimedia Commons