An Excerpt from “Philosophy, Reasoned Belief, and Faith” by Paul Herrick

Philosophy, Reasoned Belief, and Faith is written for philosophy instructors who want their students to take a deeper look at the classic theistic arguments and who believe that many traditional views can be rigorously defended against the strongest objections. The book is divided into four sections, focusing on philosophy of religion, an introduction to epistemology, philosophy of the human person, and philosophical ethics.

As far back as historical records go, human beings have asked fundamental questions about life, the universe, and the human situation. I am speaking of questions like these: Why does the universe exist? Does God or a supreme being exist? Why are we here? What is truth? How do we distinguish knowledge from opinion, right from wrong? Questions like these are fundamental in the sense that the answers we give to many other questions depend on the answers we have already given to these. The “big questions,” as they are sometimes called, are important because the way we answer them forms the foundation of our worldview—our general understanding of the universe and our outlook on life. Each of us has a worldview. And whether we realize it or not, the choices we make in life all reflect, to one degree or another, the worldview we hold.

The ancient myths record humanity’s first attempts to answer the big questions. Usually presented in the form of colorful stories passed down orally from generation to generation, myths can be found in the earliest documents of every ancient civilization. Here are four, from ancient Egypt, China, Africa, and Greece, respectively.

  • A god named Khnemu, depicted as a man with a ram’s head, built an egg. When the egg hatched, the sun popped out. Khnemu then “sculpted the first man on a potter’s wheel.” This is the origin of man.
  • In the beginning “there was darkness everywhere, and Chaos ruled. Within the darkness there formed an egg, and inside the egg the giant Pangu came into being. For aeons, safely inside the egg, Pangu slept and grew. When he had grown to a gigantic size he stretched out his huge limbs and broke the egg. The lighter parts of the egg floated upwards to form the heavens and the denser parts sank downwards, to become the earth. And so was formed earth and sky, Yin and Yang.”
  • In the beginning there was only darkness, water, and the great god Bumba. One day Bumba, in pain from a stomach ache, vomited up the sun. The sun dried up some of the water, leaving land. Still in pain, Bumba vomited up the moon, the stars, and then some animals: the leopard, the crocodile, the turtle, and, finally, some men. This is the origin of man.
  • In the beginning Chaos, the nothingness out of which the first objects of existence appeared, arose spontaneously. The children of Chaos were Gaia (the Earth), Eros (desire or sexual love), Tartarus (the Underworld), Erebus (Darkness) and Nyx (Night).

A new way to answer the fundamental questions of life made its first appearance in history in the land of the Greeks during the sixth century BC when a group of scholars there rejected the customary myths of their society and began seeking answers to the big questions on the basis of independent reasoning and observation alone. We know a great deal about these scholars because they put their hypotheses and supporting reasons into written form and circulated their thoughts for the sake of rational debate and discussion.

Their motivation sounds surprisingly modern. Myths, they argued, suffer from a fatal defect. Although they offer answers to the most fundamental questions of all, those answers are not backed by reasoning and observation. But if there is no reason at all to believe the stories they tell, then why believe them?

This insistence on reason and observation may sound commonplace today, it was a radical innovation in the early sixth century BC. Historians call the shift from mythical to reason-based explanations of the world a “revolution in human thought.”

The ancient Greeks named these independent thinkers “philosophers” (from the Greek words philo for “love” and sophia for “wisdom,” literally “lovers of wisdom”) and a new subject was born: philosophy—“the love of wisdom.” As the Greeks originally understood the word, philosophy is the search for answers to the most fundamental questions of all using unaided reason and careful observation alone.