Is Philosophy Work? Josef Piper vs. Donald Trump on Education and Work

Amidst the fury over the US government’s handling of immigrant families, news came out of Washington this week that President Trump is considering merging the Department of Education with the Department of Labor. Erin Dooley with ABC News quotes Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney:

They’re doing the same thing…Trying to get people ready for the workforce, sometimes it’s education, sometimes it’s vocational training – but all doing the same thing, so why not put them in the same place?

While there are many kicking back at Trump’s suggestion, if educators were honest with themselves, there has been a growing trend in higher education to tie higher education to the nation’s workforce – analogous to the way the minor leagues feed into MLB teams. In short, education has been relegated to preparing citizens entering, or those seeking to enhance or relocate, in the workforce.

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Big Data and Philosophy

Big data. We’ve all heard this phrase bantered about in the news and social media. Attitudes vary about what big data is and how it’s used. Some see it as an invasion of privacy (see Mark Zuckerberg before Congress), while others see its potential in making business more efficient and effective. Regardless of one’s attitude, though, we are in a new reality where big data is here to stay. As technology becomes more efficient and powerful, we are going to see an increasing role for data in how businesses are run, governments enforce its policies and laws, and how companies market their wares to consumers.

The field of education is not immune to the growing role of big data. I recently had the opportunity to hear Bernard Bull, PhD (Assistant VP of Academics, Chief Innovation Officer at Concordia University, Wisconsin) present at an online education conference. Though he dislikes the term, Bull identifies his work as that of a futurist—one who analyzes data to detect trends and patterns within higher education.

In his presentation, Bull noted how education institutions are already using big data in the areas of: college search and connection; student retention and success; student learning, progress, and mastery; organizational health; and learner connections with people and organizations.[1] For instance, institutions are using data derived from their students’ activities in their Learning Management Systems (LMS—sites like Blackboard, Canvas, and Moodle where courses are housed and students access the course work, grades, email, etc.) to detect patterns that may indicate risk factors such as attendance, overall GPA, performance within a class, and a host of other information that help administrators know how to better serve their students.[2]

Big data, however, is also influencing another areas of technology that may (according to Bull) soon impact education such as Artificial Intelligence (AI). The concept of AI has long fascinated humankind, and recently it has become a reality in our everyday lives. For instance, Siri and Alexa provide help and even guidance for mundane tasks like scheduling, directions, and even informing. What is not so evident in daily life is the significant strides made in AI. For instance, Bull notes that “we are on the verge of an age when artificial intelligence is inching, or sometimes leaping, toward noticing countless nuances.”[3] For instance, AI has progressed such that it has the ability to identify the various nuances of one’s facial expressions—the combination of muscles and their movements. Soon AI “promises to detect lies, fear and anxiety, interest, confusion, and more.”[4]

It is not too far in the future when AI will make inroads in education. Take an online math course, for instance, facilitated by AI. While a student performs their work in their college’s LMS, the non-human facilitator indicates patterns and trends (positive and negative) that helps direct the student’s learning to emphasize areas of concern. Also at the AI’s disposal is the student’s webcam that is on as the student takes the course, recording facial expressions and tones of voice that clue the AI to potential problem areas in the curriculum for the student.[5] While such a scenario is not reality right now, it is not so far-fetched in light of the progress made in technology and AI.

As higher education costs continue to soar, student debt balloons, and overall dissatisfaction grows regarding the value of one’s college degree for the workplace, higher education institutions are looking for ways to decrease their costs while increasing the value of their services. It is likely that institutions will turn more toward technology increase the value of their work.

How does this discussion apply to philosophy? The concern is not so much with the content of philosophy than it is with how philosophy is delivered. There is a growing trend among colleges and universities of cutting humanities degrees and/or departments in efforts to cut costs and to focus attention on degrees that meet workforce demands. Even if an institution does not completely cut out the humanities, the availability of courses in philosophy (and other humanities areas) are significantly decreased to make room for more “relevant” areas of study. What this means for the future, then, is that one interested in philosophy may find fewer options in where to study. Further, in order to find a viable job, one may have to minor in philosophy while majoring in an area that is marketable.

If big data changes (and it will) the way people choose their college, what institutions provide in terms of degrees, and what counts as relevant education for the workforce, then we need to reconsider how we deliver philosophy education. Here are some questions that come to mind:

  • Does the study of philosophy need to be wed to another discipline of study (as opposed to being a standalone degree)? Rather than doing general philosophy courses, develop philosophy courses within specific degree areas that relate the relevance of philosophy to that area.
  • Can philosophy be incorporated into a company’s training and culture? While this may seem far-fetched, Forbes recently published an article titled “Why Your Board Needs a Chief Philosophy Officer”. Sally Percy interviews French professor Christian Voegtlin regarding a recent trend of companies hiring in-house philosophers who help leaders to see their work in light of life’s big questions, as well as serve as “consultant, life coach, and strategist.”[6] As companies become more conscious of how their decisions have wide-ranging implications, philosophers can play a role in helping them connect the company’s work to the bigger picture.
  • Is philosophy education better served by occurring outside of formal higher education? Personally, I don’t like this question. I received my philosophy education in graduate school, and I am an adjunct professor of philosophy in a local college. However, if we philosophers are honest with ourselves, people’s attitudes toward philosophy and their understanding of what philosophy is is largely based on what philosophers produce. And much of what we have produced appears disconnected and aloof from daily life. If we were to place the education of philosophy in the context of daily life, perhaps philosophy’s value and relevance will be more apparent to non-philosophers (i.e. those who do not have formal education in philosophy).

 

These questions are not exhaustive. Nor does my asking them mean that I have the answers. What I hope my questions do is to get us talking about the changing landscape of higher education  and the workforce, and how it relates to philosophy education. We cannot simply sit by and hope against hope that how we deliver philosophy education will remain as it is.

Bull’s closing assertion in his article on AI is significantly relevant here: “The question is whether we are going to do the good and important work of helping to shape that transformation [i.e. change as a result of AI] in positive ways, or whether we will simply let AI take the lead through lazy thinking, naivety, technological fatalism, or something else.”[7] Likewise, we can watch continue to watch philosophy departments and courses be cut, or we can address how we can meet the challenges of a changing world. If we remain inactive, philosophy will devolve into irrelevance in the eyes of educators, business leaders, and the general public. However, if are proactive, we can demonstrate philosophy’s lasting relevance for all areas of life.

Post Script: I believe that philosophy has much to offer to big data—particularly how one interprets and uses data. As Bull asserted in his presentation, data is not value neutral. It “muzzles” some aspects of reality  while emphasizing other aspects. Further, as I’ve instructed my students, data is not self-evidence; it requires context and interpretation. We need people who see the bigger picture and don’t make data do or say more than it does. Philosophy is a vital tool in promoting a responsible utilization of big data.


[1] These are categories Bull identifies in his online article as well, “The Promise, Peril, and Possibility of Data, Analytics, and AI in Higher Education: A Framework (1 of 7),” June 13, 2018. Accessed June 14, 2018. Available http://etale.org/main/2018/06/13/the-promise-peril-and-possibility-of-data-analytics-and-ai-in-higher-education-a-framework-1-of-7/.

[2]Bull, “The Promise, Peril, and Possibility of Data”. Data is also being used to indicate patterns and trends of an instructor’s activity in an online classroom to ensure they are actively involved in their students’ learning.

[3]Bernard Bull, “How AI Will Transform Education & Why Now is the Time to Start Preparing For It.” May 31, 2018. Accessed June 14, 2018. Available http://etale.org/main/2018/05/31/how-ai-will-transform-education-why-now-is-the-time-to-start-preparing-for-it/.

[4]Ibid.

[5]This example is adapted from an example provided by Bernard Bull during his conference presentation. See also “How AI Will Transform Education & Why Now is the Time to Start Preparing For It.”

[6]Sally Percy, “Why Your Board Needs a Chief Philosophy Officer,” Forbes, March 9, 2018. Accessed June 14, 2018. Available https://www.forbes.com/sites/sallypercy/2018/03/09/why-your-board-needs-a-chief-philosophy-officer/.

[7] Bull, “How AI Will Transform Education.”

The Role of Philosophy for the Seminarian: Part III of my Interview with Dr. Cabal

***You can view my previous posts on this interview here: Part I, Part II ***

In Part III, Ted Cabal, PhD discusses the value of studying philosophy has for the seminary student.

So, in essence, it seems like as Christians we tend to throw the baby out with the bathwater when it comes to philosophy?

Dr. Cabal: I think so.  I don’t think there’s any doubt about it.

That is certainly correct, and it’s one reason, even though I’m embarrassed and ashamed of my early views of how I ridiculed philosophy, I am not ashamed nor unhappy that my earliest years in the faith were spent immersed in Scripture.  And, in one sense, I’m grateful that most of my early years were spent memorizing and studying the Bible text and learning bible languages, more than they were spent doing anything else, and for that I’m grateful.  So, I would argue that the seminary student should make sure they never fall in love with philosophy more than the Bible.  If you feel that happening, you got a problem.

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Dr. Mark Coppenger Interview: Final Thoughts – Philosophy, Just Do It

This post concludes my interview with Dr. Mark Coppenger (SBTS) in 2007 on the role of philosophy for the believer.  Here I offered my thoughts on my interview with Dr. Coppenger; I post my thoughts from 2007 unchanged for my sentiments remain the same.  I hope to write another post soon tying together my interviews with Drs. Cabal and Coppenger.

Thoughts:

Many people view, study and even teach philosophy as if it were just a collection of thoughts and ideas from the past with no real bearing on our lives today.  Dr. Coppenger likens this to the insect trapped in amber – it’s something interesting to look at, but it’s dead and useless.  Philosophy, however, is not a passive discipline. Continuing with Dr. Coppenger’s illustration, we should “crack open the amber, fire up that insect, and fly it around the room.”  In other words, we should interact freely with philosophy, for the issues dealt with in the past are practically the same issues we deal with today.  Rather than just merely studying philosophy, we should do philosophy as we study the thoughts and ideas of the past and seek to answer today’s questions.

I’ve had the opportunity to sit in three of Dr. Coppenger’s philosophy courses in the past two years – Apologetics, Worldviews, and Ethics – and he teaches philosophy the way he learned it, by getting right into the issues and getting your hands dirty.  Every night in class, we cracked open more amber-trapped insects and flew them around them room.  Though this form of learning is quite different from that which I’m used to (straight lecture), Dr. Coppenger taught me how to look at issues and what questions to ask – he taught me how to do philosophy.  More importantly, though, I realized how lazy a thinker I’d been and how I took for granted my beliefs.  So, I encourage you, if you have the opportunity to study under Dr. Coppenger, do it.  You will be challenged and stretched, but will learn much in the end.

written by Danny McDonald  © 2007, 2012

Dr. Mark Coppenger Interview: Part II

This is the second part of a three part series of an interview I did with Dr. Mark Coppenger (SBTS) in 2007 on the role of philosophy for the believer.

Danny:  I would venture to say that a small majority of Christians are called to study philosophy.  What would you say those Christians who are not called to study philosophy?  What are some things that you feel they can do to at least to be familiar with philosophy?

Dr. Coppenger:  I will first say this, that there are very few philosophers who write clearly.  You don’t have to be obscure to be a philosopher.  But, there are people who explain philosophy [clearly].  For example, the book Philosophy for Dummies by Tom Morris.  He has a Southern Baptist background and has taught at Notre Dame.   Just as I right now am listening to a book tape about basic economics during the Great Depression, and I am doing more particular studies of American painters from the Hudson Valley School, I broaden myself to see what’s out there.  People should become familiar with what’s out there and know the tools.

I think a simple course in logic is not a bad thing.  You have what’s called formal logic, which is like mathematics or geometry where you have symbols.  [And you have]  informal logic, where you go over the fallacies, where you can recognize what an ad hominem argument is, where you attack the person instead of his ideas. Where you can recognize an over-worked appeal to pity where you get the audience crying and off the issue.  A little review of those fallacies [would be beneficial].  To commit a fallacy doesn’t mean that your point is false, it just means that you got there in a cheesy way.  So, a little bit of that is good.

Socrates over said it when he said an unexamined life is not worth living.  I think a lot of unexamined things are worth living.  That doesn’t mean we commit suicide if we haven’t examined our lives.  But, I think that if you are raising your kids with a very firm conviction – this is what patriotism is, this is what kind of art should be on our wall, this is what zoning laws ought to be, this is how we should treat Shariah law if it crops up in our neighborhood – if you are teaching those things, I think there should always be a desire to walk around the issue, to be reflective.

As John Milton, I believe, said, “It is good to be promiscuous readers.”  By promiscuous, he didn’t mean reading tawdry books, but to be well read.  It turns out that a lot of philosophy in journals of opinion.  If you read New Republic, Weekly Standard, or Books and Culture, they are doing philosophical sorts of things.  If want to stand back and look at where something leads, be a reader; just be a reader.  You’ll discover as you read broadly that you’ve been breathing in philosophy and speaking philosophy.  It’s really rational, thoughtful reflection on the bigger questions of life.  It used to be that philosophers were cosmologists and they were dealing with things such as: What is the universe?  Is it earth, air, fire and water?  But, Plato really set the table.  Alfred North Whitehead said that all philosophy is a footnote to Plato.  What Plato did is, dialogue by dialogue, he put out a human concern so that, in one dialogue you talked about justice.  In other dialogues: friendship, courage, love, knowledge, art and beauty.  We’ve been wrestling with those questions ever since.  What is a just state supposed to be like?  What is it to be virtuous?  If I go into a 7-11, there’s beer in the back of the store and I know that I shouldn’t drink beer, is it more virtuous for me to struggle?  So I walk past the beer section several times and fight the urge and then get in the car?  Is that more virtuous, to fight the good fight every day?  Or, is it more virtuous to have a habit of not even going near the beer and it’s nothing to you?  Well, Aristotle would suggest that virtue is a habit.  What is praiseworthy?  What is to be sought – to be constantly fighting, or to have a more automatically thoughtful life?  Virtue, that’s an issue.  Courage, is it courage to get up and charge a machine gun [in war], or is it courageous to wait until dark and sneak around the flank?  What is courage?  So, just understand that the conversation has been going on for a millennia and it’s great to get in on it because it has to do with how you live your life.

One of the great fun things of philosophy is that its subject is everything.  If I am in organic chemistry, I’m going to be really focusing on amino acids and things like that, but in philosophy, one does everything from analyzing a presidential speech, to fighting off Richard Dawkins on atheism, to dealing at a block party whether or not [theneighborhood association] should have a green friendly lawn care service.  You do ethics, you do arts, etc.  Anything is out there.  There is philosophy of sports, philosophy of arts, etc.  It’s just great fun to have the worldview picture.

Danny:  So, it’s not something we should be afraid of.  Granted, there have been many weird philosophers out there, and in general, that’s probably what most people see and are afraid of letting their kids or themselves be exposed to.  But, being ground in God’s Word, Christians should not be afraid to go out there and get our hands dirty.

Dr. Coppenger:  It’s kind of the same as theology.  There’s a lot of scary theology and a lot of people have been messed up by theology, but there is a lot of wonderful theology in doing theology once you see how it covers and connects all kinds of stuff.  That’s a joy too.

Danny:  Is there anything else that you would like to add to those interested in studying more philosophy?

Dr. Coppenger:  It seems to me, and this is good for preaching as well, that if you are a promiscuous reader, in the good sense, then your vocabulary grows, you see things that you’ve not seen before and then you walk with people around an issue.  It’s when we become so insulated that we don’t get to test our ideas against anything else, so our mettle isn’t tested and tried in the fire.  Then we are always sort of frightened or vulnerable.  Now, we do understand that the Bible is true, we don’t have to re-establish that, so we’re not afraid that the Bible will be disproved or that we’ll lose our salvation.  But, you really want to be in there pitching thoughtfully when the ideas are flying around the room.  The more you read, the more you have illustrations, the more you see connections.  With writing, writing is re-writing.  You put an idea down and you walk away from it, then you look back and keep refining it.  Again, it’s an uncommonly stubborn attempt to think clearly, and you can watch people do it and you can join in on it.  C. S. Lewis models this beautifully.  Read how he wrestles with ideas in the book God and the Dock, where deals with the humanitarian theory of punishment.  He lines out four theories of punishment and walks around each theory, pressing and pressing each one to determine which is actually more humanitarian.  Again, a beautiful model of philosophy.

written by Danny McDonald  © 2007, 2012

Dr. Mark Coppenger Interview: Part I cont’d

This is a continuation of Dr. Coppenger’s background in philosophy and the misconceptions he’s seen others have of philosophy.  

Danny: Having that background and with your experience in philosophy, what are some misconceptions that Christians have and how would you answer them?

Dr. Coppenger:  First, let me mention one misconception that I had [of philosophy].  I did not receive this misconception from my dad or my teachers in college, but I thought you would learn what everybody said, and the more you did philosophy, the more you learned what everybody said.  Then you would recite what philosophers said, lining each of them up together and comparing their views.  Basically, I thought philosophy was a matter of assimilation, mastery and the like.

Early on, however, in grad school at Vanderbilt, I discovered that philosophy was something that you did, not just something that you absorbed or memorized.  Our class would have a two-hour discussion about one paragraph in a book by Alvin Plantinga, or Norman Malcum, or someone like this.  We would bring papers and just have at each other, discussing and critiquing each other’s view.  It was the oddest thing, but I came to realize that they were training me to be one who did philosophy, not just one who knew a lot about philosophy.  So, that’s flowed over into my understanding of philosophy.  Basically, you are not just filling notebooks, but you are trying to prompt people to be discursive, profitable, imaginative, critical thinkers.  When you are in the teacher’s lounge or on radio on an interview, you can’t say “I got to run back to my house to get my notebooks from seventeen years ago.”  You’re just doing it.  They will throw you curves.  So, you’re really developing the capacity to sort things out in conversation – to do reduction to absurdity, or spot a fallacy, or explore implications, that sort of thing.

Danny: And that’s exactly how you taught us in your classes, to get down, get your hands dirty and just do it.

Dr. Coppenger:  That’s just all I learned to do in graduate school.  I had one or two courses where we just filled our notebooks, but for the most part … I mean, I remember my first Plato course, the very first class I had in graduate school, and I thought that we were going to learn everything that Plato said and that was the whole thing.  Then we could learn to talk like learned Plato people.  But, the instructor was actually taking Plato seriously.  We’d read a page, and he’d ask, “Is Plato wrong here, or did he leave something out?”  Some would say, “Of course he’s wrong, he’s old!  That’s obviously something trapped in amber and we can just study it as something interesting.”  Not him, he cracked the amber open, we fired that insect up and flew around the room.  That’s what I learned.

I think, rightfully and understandably, people in the churches think of philosophy as something dangerous.  The only use of the word ‘philosophy’ in the Bible is in Colossians where we are warned not to let anybody spoil us through philosophy.  Paul is mixing it up with Epicureans and Stoics in Acts 17 on Mars Hill and they’re not on boards as evangelicals so to speak.  What’s happened today in a lot of cases in the state universities and colleges , you’ll have a burned out preacher or someone who didn’t believe much the Bible who end up getting into philosophy and their job seems to be to undermine the faith of the students.  So, the church sends somebody off to some state university and they’ll come home and don’t even believe what they learned in Sunday School.   These professors are talking about deconstructionism, they’re doing Derrida this and Foucault that, and it’s just lunacy.  Many people have seen their children and friends ruined by philosophy.

What most Christians don’t understand is that, in the history of philosophy, many great philosophers have been very serious Christians.  We just happen to be in a kind of a trough right now.  Now, I will have to say that there is a rebirth of Christian philosophy.  There are a lot of prominent philosophers that are believers.  So that’s changing.  But, philosophers have done a lot of damage, a lot of them think they’re smarter than the Bible, and they will take God out of the equation.  As Herschel Hobbs said, they’re like the paper airplanes with the rubber band engine – you twist the propeller, let it go, and you don’t know where it’s going to land.  These guys are flying all over the place.  In one of my classes this semester, Environmental Ethics, we learned about Peter Singer, who states that all cynthian (sic) beings are essentially alike, so if you think that man is more valuable than animals, then you are guilty of speciesism.  That’s just a wacky thing to say.  But if you take God out of the equation and you’re reasoning by yourself, there’s no telling where land.

So, I think that philosophy is something that people can be wary of; however, once they realize that there are some pretty strong Christian philosophers in history and today, then they can understand it’s [value].  I think it was William James who said that philosophy is an uncommonly stubbornly attempt at thinking clearly.  I like that definition.  It’s like the why question that kids ask where they keep asking the reason for something; philosophers are just that annoying.  They’re essentially pressing, pressing, pressing.  Most people work at a pretty superficial level.  They throw their slogan out, the other guy throws his slogan out.  You do your superficial shot, he does his superficial shot, and you just kind of huff and puff and go on, either saying “It’s all relative” or “I can’t talk to that guy.”  Whereas, the philosopher tries to say “Let’s examine this; let’s walk around this a little bit.  Why don’t you distill your position into a proposition?  Let’s put that out onto the table.”  If that’s true, you start to dig into the implications.  That is not what people normally do.  They’re not so careful in their thinking.  They’re more like launching bombs at each other.

So, I think that Christians can appreciate the role of a philosopher.  God gave us reason.  If you are like a couch potato and all you do is eat pork rinds and watch Home Shopping Network, then you are going to turn into Jobba the Hut on the couch; you are not being a steward of your body.  God gave you that body.  What I’m saying is that if all you do is listen mindlessly to music and work with slogans, never really pursuing an issue, then your mind is going to be a couch potato.  Philosophers are inclined, along with other academicians, to force us to do some calisthenics.  It’s not just the exercise, though; it’s the genuine pursuit of clarity of truth.  The Bible doesn’t speak explicitly about a number of things.  It doesn’t say whether numbers are actually eternal or whether they are logical constructions of humans.  It doesn’t say what cloning ought to be like or whether Rembrant is a better painter than Monet.  It doesn’t say whether democracy is better than oligarchy.  There are many things we deal with as humans that the Bible does not address explicitly, so then we turn to our reason.  Now, when theorizing gets so precise that you could mathematize something – for example, the early philosophers would talk about the cosmos, but after a while, physicists got to work and they got very precise and were able to formulate things of the cosmos – it becomes science.  There are many things that scientists can do.  But, there are things that cannot be settled by Scripture or by science.  For instance, what is the nature of science?  Science does not settle this.  Or, what is good art?  Or, what form of government is most prudent?  What about the separation of Church and State?  There is so much that people want to talk about and deal with that philosophers step in and they wrestle with these things.

G. K. Cherston says that if you don’t have a well thought out philosophy, then philosophy will have you.  You’ve got to be somewhere.  When George Bush says that we’ve got to bring democracy to the world, then we need to ask: “Alright, is that true, or is it that some people can’t handle democracy? ” Some would probably need a strongman in charge rather than a legislature.  Well, I can’t turn to Zechariah 3:12 or Matthew 4:5, so you do political philosophy.  If I’m trying to say: “Chicago shouldn’t spend $4 million to buy this piece of sculpture for Grant Park,” I can’t turn to Genesis 4:2 and say that this thing is shaped like a jelly bean, so it ought not be there.  Instead you do aesthetics.  So, that’s the sort of thing we’re talking about.

The next part in this interview deals with how Christians can become familiar with philosophy.

written by Danny McDonald  © 2007, 2013

Dr. Mark Coppenger Interview: Part I

This post, and the subsequent posts, originally appeared in my now defunct blog “Musings of a Wannabemuser.”  I want to repost this interview with Dr. Mark Coppenger of SBTS as it fits within the purpose of my blog and he offers some key insight into the role of philosophy for the believer.  I have left what I wrote in 2007 intact.

I had an opportunity to interview with Dr. Mark Coppenger, Professor of Christian Apologetics, of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary on October  9, 2007. This interview is the second part of an indefinite number of interviews designed to show the value of philosophy to the Christian faith.  What I intend to do in this interview is not to raise philosophy to a high standard such that it replaced the Gospel; rather, I want to make an awareness of its importance in the life of the believer and of the Church. 

Two primary areas are dealt with in this interview: general misconceptions of philosophy held by Christians and the professor’s answers to these misconceptions, and what Christians can do to familiarize themselves with philosophy.  As with my interview with Dr. Cabal, I first begin with Dr. Coppenger’s own ‘testimony’  in regards to philosophy.In editing the interview transcript, I try to keep it as close as possible to the actual interview.  By allowing this transcript to read conversationally as it appears on the recorded version, I intend for the professor’s thoughts to remain intact while avoiding the mistake of my editing misconstruing his intention.  I did clean up some obvious grammatical errors (mostly on my part!), make some clarifications, and leave out some redundant statements.  Overall, this transcript closely matches the recorded interview which I hope to post soon (as soon as I figure out how to post a file in .wav format).

Danny:  What is your history with philosophy – how did you come to know that you have a joy for it?  Did you ever have misconceptions about philosophy, and how do you answer those misconceptions?

Dr. Coppenger: My dad had a Doctorate in Church History and he taught at Baptist schools – Carson Newman, Belmont and Ouachita.  There weren’t a lot of trained Southern Baptist Philosophers back then, so they would draft some of the religion teachers and bible teachers, and he was drafted to teach philosophy.  So, I grew up on family trips hearing him talk in passing about philosophical things.  He would have names out there like Plato, or dialectical materialism, or metaphysics, and I just thought that was about the grandest thing on earth.  I would ask him questions about this and that, and in my junior high years, I remember thinking that [philosophy] was interesting.  Every now and then I would pick up one of his textbooks – he was teaching Church History, Greek, Theology and other things, but he also had this going – and so, I became interested in it.  Philosophy wasn’t, then, sort of scary or other-worldly, it was just something my dad did.

It was the 60s when I was in college (I started college in ’66 and graduated in ’70).  There was a lot of upheaval – cultural and intellectual upheaval: old verities were being questioned, there was innumerality, they were burning flags, anarchy was exotic, and people were smoking dope and having sex and all that kind of stuff.  Also floating around the campuses were some pretty strong anti-Christian thoughts (not my campus – Ouachita).  You had logical positivism – all religious talk is meaningless (Bertrand Russell, A. J. Ayer).  Then you had existentialists, people who were following John Paul Sartre; it was all just a sort of subjectivity, dread, cynicism and meaninglessness.  So, I got a missionary sense, like, “Wouldn’t it be great to be a Christian in the midst of all of this, to be a voice representing the truths of the Bible, yet philosophically competent?”  And so, I felt called.  My dad’s formula back then for God’s call was to follow your bent – your inclinations.  Look for the gleam as you take steps – is there a sense of rightness and wholeness?  Then, watch for open doors.  Well, the door opened, and I got a full scholarship to Vanderbilt.  One thing led to another, and I had my Ph. D.  So, it was basically hanging around my dad – picking up the language and being intrigued by it, pursuing it and then seeing it as a mission field.

Danny:  So you didn’t really grow up with some misconceptions about philosophy because you saw it practiced?

Dr. Coppenger:  Right.  My dad was a supply preacher and he taught at the college.  I would go with him as he preached at churches across Arkansas.  He was very sound.  My mother was a WMU leader.  So, we weren’t on the fringes of anything.  He just made it very normal that you would do [philosophy].

to be continued in another post…

written by Danny McDonald  © 2007, 2012

Interview with Dr. Cabal: Final Thoughts – Philosophy Serving the Gospel of Jesus Christ

Here are the links to the entire interview:

My Thoughts

As stated in the introduction to this interview, philosophy has been and still is largely misunderstood by most Christians [scholars and laymen alike].  If one views philosophy in a narrow sense as a discipline that only upholds those ideas that are set up against God, then his apprehension about philosophy is rightly understood to an extent.  Yet, to view philosophy in such a way is to completely misunderstand what philosophy is, its importance and its role; it’s akin to one refusing to eat meat because of the number of cases of high cholesterol brought about by fatty foods such as meat.  Yes, one can abuse the use of meat in his diet, but when eaten properly, one can receive the nutrition provided by meat intended for a healthy, well-balanced life.  Likewise, philosophy, when used properly, provides the necessary tools for one to develop a well-thought, well-defended understanding of the Christian faith (1 Peter 3:15).

Our ability to think rationally is a gift from God given to us when He created us, and philosophy is the discipline in which all aspects of life are sought to be understood rationally.  As such, we must not be unwise stewards of this gift, nor should we shun this gift.  Christians above all should take seriously our responsibility to “think hard about things,” thinking through issues and rightly applying the Word of God in all facets of life.  Let us not be found to be lazy thinkers.  Now, I must confess that I am guilty of lazy thinking more often than not.  For far too long, I’ve merely accepted for the most part the tenets of the Christian faith without seriously and thoroughly thinking through my beliefs.  But, through my recent philosophy courses, I’ve come to the realization of the necessity for believers today, especially myself!, to thoroughly think through issues and to understand the issues at hand in today’s day and age, and philosophy is a discipline in which one can learn to do so.  May we not view philosophy as that discipline designated only for non-Christians, but as that which Christians should champion for the defense of and furtherance of the Gospel of Jesus Christ for the Glory of God.  Philosophy, rightly understood under the authority of God’s Word, can be a valuable tool in the Christian’s hand.

What I want do not intend to say in this post and in my interview with Dr. Cabal is that philosophy is to be studied by all in the sense that all must be well-versed in philosophy.  Far from it!  Rather, I hope to show its importance in the life of the Christian and the importance of having some sort of exposure to philosophy.  We live in a world today that is increasingly hostile to the Gospel of Jesus Christ; we must be ready to give an answer for our faith and be able to understand and expose the false beliefs of this world.