One way to define Philosophy, is to note that it is that department of thought that addresses hard, core questions. Known to be hard as there are no easy answers.
Where, core topics include metaphysics [critical analysis of worldviews on what reality is, what exists etc], epistemology [core questions on “knowledge”], logic [what are the principles of right reason], ethics/morals [virtue, the good, evil, duty, justice etc], aesthetics [what is beauty], and of course meta issues emerging from other subjects such as politics, history, Mathematics, Theology/Religion, Science, Psychology, Medicine, Education etc. As we look at such a list, we can see that one reason why these are difficult is that it is very hard to avoid self-referentiality on such topics, opening up question-begging on one hand and self-referential, self-defeating incoherence on the other.
For striking example, in his 1994 The Astonishing Hypothesis, Nobel Laureate Sir Francis Crick [a co-discoverer on the structure and function of DNA], went on ill-advised record:
. . . that “You”, your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behaviour of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules. As Lewis Carroll’s Alice might have phrased: “You’re nothing but a pack of neurons.” This hypothesis is so alien to the ideas of most people today that it can truly be called astonishing.
The late Philip Johnson, of course, aptly replied that Sir Francis should have therefore been willing to preface his works thusly: “I, Francis Crick, my opinions and my science, and even the thoughts expressed in this book, consist of nothing more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules.” Johnson then tellingly commented: “[t]he plausibility of materialistic determinism requires that an implicit exception be made for the theorist.” [Reason in the Balance, 1995.]
This problem is fairly widespread, and a point that should be borne in mind when we try to argue on big questions. Regrettably, this seems harder to do than one might at first imagine.
However, Elton Trueblood, building on Josiah Royce, may have put a way forward on the table, though this turns on an irony. For, one of the points of consensus of debate is that error exists. For empirical evidence, kindly refer to primary school sums duly marked with the infamous big red X’s. (That’s why I went out of my way to use green as my marking colour . . . )
However, this is not just an empirical fact, it is an undeniably true and self-evident knowable truth. To see this, set E = error exists, and try to deny it ~E. But this means, E is . . . an error. Oops. So, we know the very attempt to deny E instantly produces patent absurdity, a self defeating self contradiction. But this simple result is not a readily dismissed triviality. No, apart from being a gentle reminder that we need to be careful, it shows that self evident, certainly knowable truth exists which instantly undercuts a wide swath of radical relativist views. Their name is Legion, in a post modern world.
We can widen the result, take any reasonably identifiable subject, G. Assign, that O is the claim that some x in G is an objective, i.e. warranted and credibly reliable truth. Try to deny it, ~O. Has o shifted away from G? No, it is still a claim on the subject matter G. So, it refutes itself. Once there is a reasonably identifiable subject, there are objective knowable truths about and in G. This is a first such truth. Of course on many topics, the second truth is, we know little more than the first truth. That is Mr Donald Rumsfeld’s known unknowns. Beyond lurk, the unknown unknowns.
BTW, Morality and History count as reasonably identifiable topics, as do Economics, Politics, etc. Controversy does not prevent us from knowing truths.
And, Dallas Willard et al (with slight adjustment) are right:
To have knowledge in the dispositional sense—where you know things you are not necessarily thinking about at the time—is to be able to represent something as it is on an adequate basis of thought or experience, not to exclude communications from qualified sources (“authority”). This is the “knowledge” of ordinary life, and it is what you expect of your electrician, auto mechanic, math teacher, and physician. Knowledge is not rare, and it is not esoteric . . . no satisfactory general description of “an adequate basis of thought or experience” has ever been achieved. We are nevertheless able to determine in many specific types of cases that such a basis is or is not present [p.19] . . . . Knowledge, but not mere belief or feeling, generally confers the right to act and to direct action, or even to form and supervise policy. [p. 20] In any area of human activity, knowledge brings certain advantages. Special considerations aside, knowledge authorizes one to act, to direct action, to develop and supervise policy, and to teach. It does so because, as everyone assumes, it enables us to deal more successfully with reality: with what we can count on, have to deal with, or are apt to have bruising encounters with. Knowledge involves assured
[–> warranted, credible] truth, and truth in our representations and beliefs is very like accuracy in the sighting mechanism on a gun. If the mechanism is accurately aligned—is “true,” it enables those who use it with care to hit an intended target. [p. 4, Dallas Willard & Literary Heirs, The Disappearance of Moral Knowledge, Routledge|Taylor& Francis Group, 2018. ]
Of course, that easily leads to the situation where false or tainted or materially incomplete knowledge claims can capture this prestige, so our knowledge institutions should be open to reform.
For this, an adapted JoHari window is helpful:
Coming back to focus, let us be on guard against making errors of self referentiality. END