Philosophy for Dummies (Tom Morris)

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RamistThomist

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Morris, Tom. Philosophy for Dummies.

Its title notwithstanding, or perhaps because of its title and format, this is the best introductory text to philosophy that I have read. It is not entirely a basic philosophy text, nor is it a philosophy of religion text. It is a mixture of both. It covers basic issues like knowledge and metaphysics, while exploring challenges to theistic belief.

Tom Morris, former philosophy professor at Notre Dame and author of classics such as Our Idea of God and Logic of God Incarnate, brings philosophy down to the bottom shelf, so to speak. As with all of Morris’s new books, he could not be boring if he tried. This book divides the topic along the standard lines of Philosophy of Religion, the early chapters covering issues such as epistemology. After dealing with knowledge and ethics, Morris explores the existence of God, the problem of the afterlife, free will, and the soul. Some of it, particularly the section on Pascal, can be found in other works. Accordingly, his treatment on the existence and nature of God, while excellent, can be found in Our Idea of God, which you should read.

While the book is from a Christian theistic perspective, Morris alerts the reader, and readers of all persuasions, to the various options and challenges on each topic.

Belief, Truth, and Knowledge

In terms of epistemology, Morris follows the standard model of knowledge as justified, true belief. Unlike some treatments of knowledge, Morris explains, perhaps in ways Plato could not always do, the connection between knowledge and behavior, as seen in the following equation: Belief + Desires = Actions. Knowledge is an “attainment” (46). “Believing is an activity; knowing is the intended result.”

Challenge of Skepticism

Knowledge, particularly as defined above, is simple–perhaps too simple. As Esther Lightcap Meek noted in Longing to Know, if Western philosophy was birthed in Platonism, its cradle was skepticism. Why do you believe what you believe? As Morris notes, “All of your beliefs about the past depend upon testimony, memory, or both, or else by sense-experience, augmented by testimony and memory” (63). But that is a problem: How do you know testimony and memory are reliable? We normally try to answer this question by appealing to our own memory to justify our memory, but this is circular reasoning.

In other words, you cannot logically prove that you did not come into existence five minutes ago with pre-formed memories. How can one respond to that? Morris gives us a tool: the principle of belief conservation.

“For any proposition, P: If
  1. Taking a certain cognitive stance toward P…would require rejecting or doubting a vast number of your current beliefs, and
  2. You have no independent positive reason to reject or doubt all those other beliefs, and
  3. You have no compelling reason to take up that cognitive stance toward P” (80).

Therefore,

“Sense experience, memory, testimony, and our basic-belief forming mechanisms are sometimes reliable” (83).

We can turn the tables on the skeptic: “Sure, I cannot prove I am older than five minutes, but you have given me no reason to think your position is correct. You cannot simply say, ‘Here is an outlandish claim, now prove me wrong.’”

We can also use “William James’ ‘Pre-formative faith.’” James argues that we have a rational warrant to sometimes go beyond the evidence “if the chance to so believe is a genuine option” (86). This is how detectives work. It is also how crossword puzzles work.

What is the Good?

Most people believe that there is an objective right and wrong–at least they do when they are treated unfairly, as C. S. Lewis eloquently stated. One challenge to this view is Non-cognitivism: there is no objective good. Value statements like “x is bad” only reflect my personal preference, basically saying “x boo!” It is open to several devastating defeaters. It gets rid of all moral disagreement. If someone is pro-choice and the other is pro-life, the non-cognitivist says they are not actually disagreeing about a fact, but this is silly. Moreover, as Morris asks, “Why do people cheer or jeer a proposition?” It is because a position is right or wrong.

Teleological Target Practice

According to Aristotle, “Something is good when it successfully hits the target for which it was intended” (quoted in Morris, 102). Morris does not bring it out, but this is similar to the claim made by Hebraic philosophers like Yoram Hazony and Dru Johnson that an object is “true” when it fulfills its purpose. For example, a true path is one that gets me to my destination.

Happiness and the Good Life

Four Dimensions of Human Experience

Similar to his If Aristotle Ran General Motors, Morris sees four dimensions of the human experience: Truth, Goodness, Beauty + the Spiritual. The first three, if not self-evident, are at least familiar. By contrast, the spiritual dimension aims to capture our deep need for the following: Unique, Union, Usefulness, and Understanding.


Ethical Rules and Moral Character

Hume was wrong to say all ethics is feeling, but he did capture an important point, one that Morris notes: “It is precisely people devoid of natural sentiment, that affection of fellow-feeling so natural to most, who commit heinous crimes and immoral acts” (130).

Character: the settled set of dispositions and habits (131ff).
Wisdom: An embodied form of deep understanding, or insight, into how things really are, and how then you ought to live.
Virtue: the strength or ongoing habit to act in accordance with wisdom.

7 Cs of Success

Conception, Confidence, Concentration, Consistency, Commitment, Character, and Capacious Enjoyment.

This material is found in his Art of Achievement. We will focus on conception. Conception has a telos or goal. A “telos” is a target we can shoot at. This is a clear conception of what we want. In order to have clear goals, we need to set them with our self-knowledge in mind. As Morris notes, “Goal setting is an exercise in self-knowledge.”

Pascal and a Life Worth Meaning

Taken from material in Making Sense of It All, Morris gives us not an argument for the existence of God but an argument for the existence of meaning in life. To make a crude oversimplification, it is an argument, not only for living, but even for business. A good wager will account for “expected value” (112ff).

(EV): (Probability x Payoff) - Cost = Expected Value.

Morris gives the following example. Gold (a horse) has a ⅔ probability of winning with a payoff of $300. Placing a bet costs sixty dollars. Silver, by contrast, “pays nine hundred dollars, and to bet on this horse costs only $20” (112-113). Even with only a ⅓ probability of winning, Silver is clearly the best bet.

The key strategy is not how much money I get at the end, but how I can quantify “the overall value of each bet.”

The goal here is not to get the person to believe in God. Pascal, rather, is seeking to structure our actions, which can sometimes condition our beliefs.

Conclusion

I read this in a few sittings. Philosophy aside, Morris has numerous engaging and amusing anecdotes. This actually would be a good book for a Freshman philosophy class. Barring that, it is a good resource for a thoughtful high school student.
 
Morris, Tom. Philosophy for Dummies.

Its title notwithstanding, or perhaps because of its title and format, this is the best introductory text to philosophy that I have read. It is not entirely a basic philosophy text, nor is it a philosophy of religion text. It is a mixture of both. It covers basic issues like knowledge and metaphysics, while exploring challenges to theistic belief.

Tom Morris, former philosophy professor at Notre Dame and author of classics such as Our Idea of God and Logic of God Incarnate, brings philosophy down to the bottom shelf, so to speak. As with all of Morris’s new books, he could not be boring if he tried. This book divides the topic along the standard lines of Philosophy of Religion, the early chapters covering issues such as epistemology. After dealing with knowledge and ethics, Morris explores the existence of God, the problem of the afterlife, free will, and the soul. Some of it, particularly the section on Pascal, can be found in other works. Accordingly, his treatment on the existence and nature of God, while excellent, can be found in Our Idea of God, which you should read.

While the book is from a Christian theistic perspective, Morris alerts the reader, and readers of all persuasions, to the various options and challenges on each topic.

Belief, Truth, and Knowledge

In terms of epistemology, Morris follows the standard model of knowledge as justified, true belief. Unlike some treatments of knowledge, Morris explains, perhaps in ways Plato could not always do, the connection between knowledge and behavior, as seen in the following equation: Belief + Desires = Actions. Knowledge is an “attainment” (46). “Believing is an activity; knowing is the intended result.”

Challenge of Skepticism

Knowledge, particularly as defined above, is simple–perhaps too simple. As Esther Lightcap Meek noted in Longing to Know, if Western philosophy was birthed in Platonism, its cradle was skepticism. Why do you believe what you believe? As Morris notes, “All of your beliefs about the past depend upon testimony, memory, or both, or else by sense-experience, augmented by testimony and memory” (63). But that is a problem: How do you know testimony and memory are reliable? We normally try to answer this question by appealing to our own memory to justify our memory, but this is circular reasoning.

In other words, you cannot logically prove that you did not come into existence five minutes ago with pre-formed memories. How can one respond to that? Morris gives us a tool: the principle of belief conservation.

“For any proposition, P: If
  1. Taking a certain cognitive stance toward P…would require rejecting or doubting a vast number of your current beliefs, and
  2. You have no independent positive reason to reject or doubt all those other beliefs, and
  3. You have no compelling reason to take up that cognitive stance toward P” (80).

Therefore,

“Sense experience, memory, testimony, and our basic-belief forming mechanisms are sometimes reliable” (83).

We can turn the tables on the skeptic: “Sure, I cannot prove I am older than five minutes, but you have given me no reason to think your position is correct. You cannot simply say, ‘Here is an outlandish claim, now prove me wrong.’”

We can also use “William James’ ‘Pre-formative faith.’” James argues that we have a rational warrant to sometimes go beyond the evidence “if the chance to so believe is a genuine option” (86). This is how detectives work. It is also how crossword puzzles work.

What is the Good?

Most people believe that there is an objective right and wrong–at least they do when they are treated unfairly, as C. S. Lewis eloquently stated. One challenge to this view is Non-cognitivism: there is no objective good. Value statements like “x is bad” only reflect my personal preference, basically saying “x boo!” It is open to several devastating defeaters. It gets rid of all moral disagreement. If someone is pro-choice and the other is pro-life, the non-cognitivist says they are not actually disagreeing about a fact, but this is silly. Moreover, as Morris asks, “Why do people cheer or jeer a proposition?” It is because a position is right or wrong.

Teleological Target Practice

According to Aristotle, “Something is good when it successfully hits the target for which it was intended” (quoted in Morris, 102). Morris does not bring it out, but this is similar to the claim made by Hebraic philosophers like Yoram Hazony and Dru Johnson that an object is “true” when it fulfills its purpose. For example, a true path is one that gets me to my destination.

Happiness and the Good Life

Four Dimensions of Human Experience

Similar to his If Aristotle Ran General Motors, Morris sees four dimensions of the human experience: Truth, Goodness, Beauty + the Spiritual. The first three, if not self-evident, are at least familiar. By contrast, the spiritual dimension aims to capture our deep need for the following: Unique, Union, Usefulness, and Understanding.


Ethical Rules and Moral Character

Hume was wrong to say all ethics is feeling, but he did capture an important point, one that Morris notes: “It is precisely people devoid of natural sentiment, that affection of fellow-feeling so natural to most, who commit heinous crimes and immoral acts” (130).

Character: the settled set of dispositions and habits (131ff).
Wisdom: An embodied form of deep understanding, or insight, into how things really are, and how then you ought to live.
Virtue: the strength or ongoing habit to act in accordance with wisdom.

7 Cs of Success

Conception, Confidence, Concentration, Consistency, Commitment, Character, and Capacious Enjoyment.

This material is found in his Art of Achievement. We will focus on conception. Conception has a telos or goal. A “telos” is a target we can shoot at. This is a clear conception of what we want. In order to have clear goals, we need to set them with our self-knowledge in mind. As Morris notes, “Goal setting is an exercise in self-knowledge.”

Pascal and a Life Worth Meaning

Taken from material in Making Sense of It All, Morris gives us not an argument for the existence of God but an argument for the existence of meaning in life. To make a crude oversimplification, it is an argument, not only for living, but even for business. A good wager will account for “expected value” (112ff).

(EV): (Probability x Payoff) - Cost = Expected Value.

Morris gives the following example. Gold (a horse) has a ⅔ probability of winning with a payoff of $300. Placing a bet costs sixty dollars. Silver, by contrast, “pays nine hundred dollars, and to bet on this horse costs only $20” (112-113). Even with only a ⅓ probability of winning, Silver is clearly the best bet.

The key strategy is not how much money I get at the end, but how I can quantify “the overall value of each bet.”

The goal here is not to get the person to believe in God. Pascal, rather, is seeking to structure our actions, which can sometimes condition our beliefs.

Conclusion

I read this in a few sittings. Philosophy aside, Morris has numerous engaging and amusing anecdotes. This actually would be a good book for a Freshman philosophy class. Barring that, it is a good resource for a thoughtful high school student.
Great review as always. I have to comment on the Hume part. Yes we cannot base our morality on feelings logically but if you don't feel bad about doing certain things something is wrong with you. Even psychopaths have some moral understanding. I've heard or read of several serial killers of adults who think people who kill kids are the scum of the earth, what gives?
Also, much less disturbing, you can always spot a habitual liar/thief in that if somebody does that to them they'll go overboard in their anger. Food for thought. Great job.
 
I was talking about this book with Tom Morris on Twitter and I got the first release of it and it's a very good book esp if you are into Philosophy.
 
I was talking about this book with Tom Morris on Twitter and I got the first release of it and it's a very good book esp if you are into Philosophy.
We used to be friends on Twitter, but I think he did a mass block one day based on some algorithm. I was a casualty.
 
He hates Trump and most GOP. He's kind of like Bill Kristol: personally conservative but an establishment guy through and through. I still like him, though.
yeah I deleted my request I promised myself not to get involved with any of those Philosophy people anymore.......... should start a Christian Philosophy group on Twitter/X
 
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