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Philosophy of religion and philosophical basics for beginners.

Analytic philosophy (and to a significant extent its continental counterpart) deploys many basic principles, guidelines, and rules of thumb for critical thinking (and, no: no matter what you have read - critical thinking is not bad.) There are far too many to catalogue in a post for beginners, and I am not going to try. However, I will cover seven of the best principles to reason by. They’re easy to understand and easy to use. You get maximum intellectual and critical thinking bang for a small effort with these. At the end I will use some philosophy of religion and ontology (the study of what exists and how) to demonstrate a couple of the principles. To begin with, here are a 4 of the most subtle and basic principles that are of great importance: 1 Don't ignore distinctions that matter

1 is exactly what it sounds like: if two things are not the same, then do not say they are the same (see also 3.) If there is some spatial, temporal, conceptual, normative, descriptive, or explanatory difference that will alter some outcome or evaluation in some setting: do not pretend it is not real. Clever reasoners are able to nearly instantly identify the distinctions and differences that exist in a situation, and those that matter most. Philosophers are known to be pedants for details. There is a reason for this. Details are where the information is. 2 Don't invent distinctions that do not matter or do not exist

Number 2 is the inverse of 1. It also means what it says. If you have two perfectly identical mathematical spheres then do not invent a way that they are (instrinsically) different in order to support some argument about – say – identicality. (Okay – so Leibniz fans will say that the two spheres cannot occupy the same position in space and time. There is no pleasing some folk. If anyone starts talking to you about quiddities and haecceities, then avoid them for the rest of the party. Those are advanced topics.) If there is no real or meaningful difference between two or more things that will impact your explanation or reasoning, then do not invent one and crowbar it in. A word of warning: smart people will spot this immediately, and you will be embarrassed. Fake details are fake information.

3 Don't equivocate on different concepts

To equivocate means to regard two things or concepts (concepts are not usually regarded as things, although I guess in a sense they are a kind of thing) as equal or identical (or even adequately similar for a purpose) when reasoning, explaining, or arguing, when in fact they are not identical – perhaps in accordance with 1 above. Equivocate is a big word for a reasonably simple principle. Equivocation in reasoning is almost always bad. It is closely related to confusion, conflation, and obfuscation. Just don’t do it. 4 Avoid contradiction This is bread and butter stuff for logicians and analytic philosophers. Anytime you have a contradiction you probably have a logical problem, or a basic problem in argument or reasoning. Generally speaking, something cannot be true and false at the same time. There are exceptions related to advanced topics about paraconsistent logics and logics that reject bivalence and the law of excluded middle – but these are too complex for this post. 5 Don’t confuse the subjective and the objective This is best explained using the familiar distinction of internal and external. If something is a product of your internal thought life, beliefs, intuitions, judgement, reasoning, opinions, and feelings: it is subjective. Another way of thinking about this is to say the subjective is about what is inside your head. It depends on the inner workings of the life and mind of a human subject – you. Everything else that has nothing to do with you and is not under the influence or control of your inner person and mind – is objective.


If you had never existed, then Alpha Centauri would still exist. Alpha Centauri is an objective fact, and its existence is an objective truth. Alpha Centauri has nothing existentially to do with you except that you are in the same universe and might learn about its existence if you objectively exist at the right time in history. Oh – and if you want to get all Carl Sagany – you’re both from the big bang and star stuff, and stuff. Apart from Saganistic flights of scientific fanciness, do not get your subjective internal idea of Alpha Centauri confused with the actual Alpha Centauri (see also 1 and 3). No matter how hard you think about Alpha Centauri, the real Alpha Centauri will simply go on ignoring you very, very hard, and will continue to insist on not being causally affected by you in any way whatsoever. To be fair, there are epistemologies and strange ontological theories – like Berkeleyan idealism – that say nothing can exist without being a thought in a mind. Actually, Berkeleyan idealism is about the only view that says that. It is hard to find a scientist or a philosopher that takes Berkeleyan idealism seriously anymore, but it is an important part of philosophical history.

British Empiricist philosopher David Hume was so convinced that people are unable to separate the subjective and the objective that he denied that reason was able to be objective at all. According to Hume, it is our sentiments, emotions, and feelings that override our reason, not the other way around. Hume was also the father of moral sentimentalism: the idea that moral reasons do not exist as anything but subjective sentiments we have about what we like or do not like.

I will add a sixth principle that you might recognise:

6 Do not multiply ontological entities beyond what is necessary for an explanation Ontology is the study of what exists in the world, or what is real. An ontological (or sometimes: concrete) entity is a thing (or in some cases an event, property, process, system, feature, or structure) that exists. It is different from abstract and fictional entities (although the philosopher Alexius Meinong might argue about this, but that is a more advanced topic). 6 is, of course, Ockham's Razor, or the principle of ontic parsimony. Ockham’s Razor does have some different interpretations (numerous, in fact). However, a common interpretation that one often hears is, in fact, wrong:

"The simplest theory is the best or most parsimonious"

In fact - this is not what 6 says at all. Your theory might be correct, but it might be astoundingly complex. 6 only says that if there is some entity that the theory does not need to explain something, then do NOT add that entity into the ontology - the group of existing things - that they theory deals with (philosophers call this the theory ontology or the ontology of the theory). Adding unneeded entities to ontologies willy-nilly is what philosophers call ontic inflation. Avoid it. Unless perhaps you are an abstract mathematician. If you are an abstract mathematician then go ahead and add abstract entities that might possibly be concrete ontological entities, somehow (this is also an advanced topic, and so we’ll leave the Platonist abstract mathematicians to their business here.) Number 7 is one of my favourites, and is easily found in any good guide to logical fallacies: the non sequitur. 7 Avoid non-sequiturs. Simply stated, this means that, if some fact B does not logically, strictly, necessarily follow from some fact A, then do not say “B because A”, or “B follows from A”, or “A means B”, or anything like that. At all. Just don’t do it. Logical necessity is a very specific technical concept. It means that if A obtains, then it must absolutely follow that B obtains. In the real world – except for logical tautologies – we rarely get this kind of certitude. Scientists have to use induction and experiment to discern with confidence what follows from what. The laws of nature make many things almost extremely likely – or certain enough for us to rely upon them (to ride bicycles, fly jets, and cure diseases). However, we have to be very certain, or have a lot of evidence and systematic scientific knowledge, to be confident that some fact B follows from some natural fact A

Non sequiturs are one of my favourites because they are easy to spot once you understand what they are. They are also probably the most common logical fallacy and error in critical thinking that most people do daily. In fact – most people do it almost all the time. People do 5 (subjective-objective confusion) an awful lot too. However, I am willing to make a subjective bet that people do non-sequiturs more often than confusion of objectivity-subjectivity.

An application to Philosophy of Religion and Epistemology

I will some of our principles for a very brief example in the philosophy of religion and epistemology. (Epistemology is the study of what knowledge is, how we get knowledge, and how we can say when we know something.) Let’s use a familiar situation to explore our principles in action. Ben – a friend and a believer – might insist that you should believe in a particular, very specific god with many very specific properties. Another friend, Ken – a different believer – insists that you should believe in a different god. Now you have a problem. You want to be friends with both Ben and Ken, but both of their gods are very different. Ken’s god has a whole list of likes and dislikes, and a huge number of personality and other intrinsic properties and features. Ken’s god is a male and gets angry about certain things, rejects certain other very specific things, and has very specific non-negotiable demands for believers to accede to unconditionally. Ben’s god has a different and only slightly overlapping set of intrinsic properties, and criteria and conditions. Both of these gods are supposed to be omniscient and omnipotent, and the only one that exists. You know that Ben or Ken – or both of them – simply have to be wrong. Otherwise there is a contradiction (4) afoot. You have to consider the very real possibility that either, or both, of Ken and Ben has a psychological problem: delusion or some other cognitive deficit. To make matters more interesting, another friend, Nissa, is a polytheist. Nissa has less rigid, and more pragmatic beliefs than Ben and Ken. She’s not overmuch worried – as Ken and Ben are - if her gods are actually real. To her, faith seems to be a means to some kind of pscyho-emotional end, or just a cultural or family duty, or else some kind of habit. She doesn’t reject Ken and Ben’s gods as irrational or illogical. She subsumes them under her own polytheist religion: apparently absorbing them into her religious conceptual schema. This of course also involves contradictions (4), as well as (1) – ignoring differences that necessarily would have to matter for these beings all to be real at once. Either Nissa doesn’t take faith very seriously, doesn’t really believe Ken and Ben’s gods are real but that it is meaningless to her, or she’s suffering a psychological problem that makes her unable to process basic reason. Perhaps she’s a psychopath and narcissist and thus confident of her own intellect even in the face of gross error. Even if Nissa is a folk, or effective, paraconsistent logician – so she doesn’t mind some level of contradiction: this is a difficult position even for professional logicians to justify.


Now, while we don’t want to commit a non-sequitur and assume that Nissa is necessarily – well – quite mad (she may have learned to play convincing social games to save herself having to deal with ignorant and stupid men, for example), there is not a lot of room to move in terms of reason and critical thinking. We could assume that our conception of critical thought and reason is just wrong, but that doesn’t seem to undo contradictions (4) and the other principles of philosophical logic involved. We certainly cannot commit a non-sequitur and assume that our formal reason and philosophical logic is necessarily fundamentally flawed. There is good evidence to suggest they are not. None of the subjective conviction that our friends of faith have is doing much to make their gods any more real. We might be forgiven for thinking that they have confused subjectivity and objectivity, or are equivocating on the two concepts in certain matters (3). If we want to keep our friends (assuming we’re okay with being around delusional folks a lot) we could use a simple trick involving equivocation and the omission of information. We could say that we believe in god. However, the god we believe in is not a monotheist complex personality like Ken and Ben’s respective gods. Our god is not even a person, but is an it. It’s an extremely minimalist god. It’s not even responsible for creating anything. It has no personality. It’s a very non specific god with no properties and no requirements. It’s not even aware of us, or else it doesn’t care what we are or what we do. It’s just the universe being partly and incoherently aware of itself (transcendental idealists and anthropic cosmologists don’t have to assume that the universe isn’t insane or confused). Maybe that will satisfy Ken and Ben. Nissa probably won’t care, but she definitely won’t marry any of us! Ken and Ben will both probably want their respective, very specific, complex god persons’ requirements to be acceded to. When it comes to their respective delusions, they’ll have an eye for detail and probably won’t want us to get away with equivocating on our vague minimum nature god, and their very demanding best-buddy saviour gods. It’s hard to believe that such a small number of relatively simple reasoning principles can be of such a great help in your everyday reasoning and problem solving. Pick a couple and try them when you are reading on line articles. Most importantly – remember to have fun (you can look up consequentialist and Epicurean ethical theory another time).

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