Philosophy and Theology: A Handmaid's Tale

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Philosophy has traditionally been called "the handmaid of theology." It is indeed the handmaid to theology-and to all other academic disciplines. Philosophers do conceptual housework, cleaning up after people and organizing their stuff-that is what "philosophy of__" is about: philosophy of science, philosophy of art, philosophy of religion and metaphysics-which can best be understood as philosophy of common sense.

A handmaid's job is not an easy one. Many people don't realize how much housework there is to be done and think we don't do anything. And some get annoyed when, in tidying up, we mess around with their stuff.

Philosophy and theology enjoy a peculiarly intimate relationship because they have traditionally been concerned with many of the same issues: the nature and existence of God, the possibility of postmortem survival, the problem of free will and human responsibility, and a whole host of questions about how we should live that fall under the rubric of ethics. Such familiarity breeds territorial disputes and theologians have sometimes been annoyed with us for messing with their stuff. So I almost subtitled this essay, "Why can't we just get along?"

Some of my best friends are theologians. We muse about our differences. I think one thing that is going on is that we have very different views about what philosophy is.

There has never been an industry standard for philosophy and until very recently philosophers have not reflected extensively on the nature of the philosophical enterprise. This is probably because in the beginning everything was philosophy. It was the other disciplines that became self-conscious about their programs and split off-natural philosophy which quickly evolved into physics, chemistry, biology and their various subdisciplines, mathematics, and, later, economics and the social sciences. Philosophy was what was left over, the residue that wasn't anything else. So philosophers just did it-and kept doing it.

The nature of philosophy is itself a philosophical question. What do I do? When my children were very young they were satisfied when I told them that I was a teacher, later that I was a professor; when they inquired more closely, I had no short answer, though to their distress I could give examples of what I was doing, the problems that interested me and how I dealt with them.

Philosophy analyzes concepts that figure in other disciplines and in ordinary life. It attempts to articulate our intuitions, to flush out any logical incoherence and fix it. Its method is deductive argument.

Some of the classic philosophical questions are: What are physical objects: do they exist independent of minds? How do we know? What is it to perceive a physical object: is it to be directly aware of an object or its proximate surface? If so, how do we explain illusion, hallucination, and other cases of non-veridical perception? What are persons: are they identical to their bodies or to some bodily parts, such as their brains? What is our criterion for personal identity: what is it that makes me-now the same person as me-five-minutes-ago? What is a work of art? What is a scientific theory? Do numbers exist? If so, what are they?

These problems are more vexing than they may appear to be at first blush and are not amenable to scientific investigation. They are peculiar in that even when all the data is in, even when we have all the facts, we still may not know what to say.

As a sample, consider the trivial but paradigmatic philosophical question inherent in the puzzle about the bear who walks a mile south, a mile east, a mile north and ends up where he started. How can that be? Most people get the punch line fairly quickly: he's a polar bear, get it? Nevertheless, explaining why this "works" at the poles but not on the equator takes more doing. Late at night, after I'd posed this question in class, a student called me to ask whether it "had something to do with magnetic fields. …