Paul's Passing Thoughts

The History of Western Philosophy and Its Societal Impact on the Church – Part 4

Posted in Uncategorized by Andy Young, PPT contributing editor on February 7, 2017

The following is part four of an eight-part series.
Taken from John Immel’s second session at the 2013 Conference on Gospel Discernment and Spiritual Tyranny
~ Edited by Andy Young

Click here for part one
Click here for part two
Click here for part three
Click here for part five
Click here for part six
Click here for part seven
Click here for part eight

We continue in our discussion of the major contributors in the progression of Western thought. Many concepts and doctrines that we have traditionally come to think of as Biblical orthodoxy in reality have their roots in ancient philosophies. Here is a brief summary of the thinkers and their contributions that we have studied so far:

Thales – The first scientific approach to explaining reality as opposed to a pantheistic approah. The concept of one universal “stuff” and its various forms.

Heraclitus – Because everything is in a constant state of “flux”, man is unable understand the nature of reality. The first to introduce a division of reality. Two “realms”.

Parmenides – Precursor to Aristotle’s “Law’s of Identity” and existence. Existence is real, but change is not. Change is only apparent because of man’s faulty perception.

Zeno – The Dichotomy Paradox.  Movement was an illusion and plurality and change was impossible.

The Pythagoreans – Orphic mystics.  Introduction of the soul/body dichotomy.

The Atomists – Described a mechanical model for metaphysical concepts.  Introduction of determinism.

This brings us to part four, and we will pick up where we left off.


The modern disparaging term sophistry is used to describe someone offering a false argument for the express purpose of clouding the issue. The word’s origin comes from a professional class of philosophy and rhetoric teachers of the fifth century. The name became a criticism because of the way the Sophists conducted their teaching business.  At the time their great sin was taking money for teaching philosophy to the aristocracy, and they engaged in open deception. And the reason they engaged in open deception you will understand shortly.

Their goal when teaching the nobles was to win the argument by whatever means. Persuasiveness was a desirous skill in Athens because it was a means to political power and wealth, and the Sophists focused their instruction on these skills. Since they didn’t believe in truth, they saw no moral failing in their methods, and this made them villains to most of their contemporaries.

Actually, they were villains for probably two reasons. Plato didn’t like them at all. And most of what we know about them is from Plato. He often used them as straw men for Socrates to knock down. But the second reason they were considered villains was that they are credited with starting was is called “egoism”.   This is the “egoism” that everybody fears, the idea that the world is mine to conquer and your needs and rights don’t matter.

There were two main Sophists.  One is Protagoras, considered to be the father of Sophism.   The other is Gorgias.

Now I need to introduce you to another philosophical concept. This is called skepticism. Skepticism means there is no objective or certain knowledge. It is impossible to know anything absolutely. There is no absolute truth. If you hear somebody say that, they are a skeptic. Nothing can be known, and when I say nothing I do mean nothing. The Sophists where skeptics.

The Sophists said that there was no certainty to be had for any creature, and they sought to prove that every sense perception to any creature was necessarily invalid. Others had suggested that man’s senses were invalid, but the Sophists took this argument to new heights (or lows depending on how you look at it). They made an all-out attempt on the faculties of man to show that every sense perception is wrong, not just that man can be taken in by the occasional illusion or hallucination, but that man can never trust anything from his senses.

The Sophists taight that whenever we perceive, what we perceive depends on two factors. It depends on the object being perceived and the nature and condition of your sensory apparatus. For example, the colorblind man looks at a tree and says the tree is gray, but a man with normal vision looks at the same tree and says it is green. The same object, but different sensory outcomes. One man is sick, the other healthy. They both eat pie. One says it tastes sweet, the other says it tastes bitter. One man is in a hot tub and gets sprayed with water from the hose and says, “how cold!” Another man craws out of the Arctic Ocean and gets sprayed with water from the hose and says, “how warm!”

What was the conclusion the Sophists drew from this? The key factor in each instance was that the quality of the sensory apparatus determined the effectiveness of the experience, so that it appears that all sensory information is utterly subjective. How then can we ever know anything for sure? What is the right experiential knowledge? Who has it?

According to the Sophists, nobody. No one can perceive reality except as a subjective function of his specific senses. All we can ever know is that what you perceive right this second is what you perceive right this second. So the only certainty is, “it seems to me now,” because in a few minutes your senses will probably change. The inescapable conclusion then is that since the perceptions change from person to person and from time to time, each individual lives in his own private subjective little world.

According to the Sophists, there is no such thing as “truth”, there is only subjective experience.

luther-and-reasonNow watch what happens to man when this happens.

If the senses are invalid then reality is unknowable. If reality is unknowable then reason is useless. If reason is useless then truth is unknowable. They have just reduced man to less than nothing.

Here is the main argument for these conclusions. Everybody disagrees about what is rational. Who is to say what is really true? Since everyone seems to disagree about everything, the whole question must be hopeless. If man had a way of arriving at the truth, they would agree. The fact of disagreement means that reason is incapable of arriving at truth.

There was a second argument best expressed by Gorgias who offered up three propositions.

  1. Nothing exists
  2. If anything existed you couldn’t know it
  3. Even if you could know it, you couldn’t communicate it.

This is the most succinct statement for absolute skepticism, and you can see now why skepticism descended into complete subjectivism and complete relativism. There are no absolutes, and there is no objective truth.

Has anyone ever heard this before? Think about an aristocrat in the Bible, a government official, maybe taught by the Sophists. Think Jesus. Think crucifixion. Think of the words of Pontias Pilate, “What is truth?”

This was a predominant way of thinking for centuries.

It is the single greatest attack on human senses ever constructed. It is foundational for Plato’s teaching and then subsequently applied to Christian teaching from Augustine and on. So this perspective effectively crippled epistemology, man’s qualification for discerning truth, for over one thousand years. And you wonder why there was ever a time called the “Dark Ages.” It was dark on principle. It was dark metaphysically, it was dark because the “church” said it was impossible to know.

You actually see some variation of this in the modern day. But you see it in more subtle forms in very reasonable conversations about the nature of truth. On a blog, one individual by the name of “Ben” asked me a series of questions and made the following comments:

“…also by definition, truth must be absolute. Said another way, truth cannot be relative. This is not to say that all human action has a case-specific absolute, but that eventually, at some hierarchical level absolutes must exist. Most secular ethics are relative. To say, for example, that some morality naturally selects itself is relative. Utilitarians are relative, and obviously so is majority rule in all its forms.

“It follows then that absolutes must be derived from a source outside the human sphere. Any configuration conceived by humans, even unintentionally through biological processes, always reduces to relativism.”

What is the fundamental assumption about the nature of human existence? That man cannot fully grasp the nature of truth. This is skepticism at its root. Ben’s assumptions are two-fold. Ethics are the providence of a supernatural source, and the reason is because man is incompetent to know the truth.

When you hear a preacher talking about your cramped little subjective lives, he is staking a claim to the roots of Sophism. He is seeking to condemn individual men for their inherent subjectivism. Any time you hear someone say, “it is true for you,” they are giving away their philosophical pedigree. The Calvinist doctrine is true for me even though you are an Armenian with a bad attitude.

One final note on the Sophists and their politics. Remember I said that from the beginning that a philosophical progression starts with metaphysics and ends with politics. Our ethics that arrive from our metaphysical assumptions produce our government action. If you remove reason and senses from human existence, how do you deal with another man? What happens when another man does not accept your version of truth? The only method left at your disposal is the use of force to compel another into your desired behavior. This is the source of all violence in the world. When you remove reason from man and you assume that he cannot know truth, the only thing left is to treat every other man as prey.

Since there is no truth and there is no reason, this of course affects public policy. Your government and public policy is always an expression of your philosophy. And once reason is no longer valid the only means to deal with other men is violence.

(Remember when I said that Sophism became the definition of egoism? This was why they were such villains. This kind of thing is utter anarchy, and it’s not livable. Any rational human being recognizes this. Liberty and anarchy are not the same creature. We are often told that liberty is really anarchy, but that is error because it removes from man his fundamental apparatus of reason. You have two ways to deal with men, by force of ideas or force of violence. The moment we are pointing a gun we are no longer discussing ideas, we are no longer reasoning. So an argument is by far the better course of action because that can be engaged freely, which is the very definition of liberty.)

The Sophists are the first people to pose the Nietzschian will to power as the ethical ideal, which means that man’s primary social purpose is domination. And now you can understand why the Caesars were constantly waging wars of domination. It naturally followed that the ethical premise produced the political outcome.



There is some academic debate whether Socrates really ever existed or whether he was simply an alter ego created by Plato as a vehicle to deliver his own ideas. The debate doesn’t really matter though, because ultimately the development attributed to Socrates was crucial in the evolution of Western thought.

Socrates is the first philosopher to take up the task of grounding objective knowledge and objective morality into human existence. This is a huge undertaking considering the pervasiveness of Sophism to this point. Socrates’ focus was on the philosophical discipline of Ethics.  He had a specific approach that was ultimately systematized into Plato and Aristotle.

This was the approach. Socrates said that the reason people are confused, so habitually in disagreement, so endlessly mired in subjectivism, the reason they despaired at ever knowing the truth was because their concepts were never defined. Now that seems obvious to most of us, the need to understand the commonalities of a particular argument. Socrates went on to say that people will fight over the question of is a man good or honorable or virtuous and never arrive at a conclusion. Identifying this problem, for Socrates and his contemporaries, was an evolution of thought. We will never come to agreement until we can first agree over the definitions of good, honorable, or virturous.

The question then is what are the characteristics of particulars so that we can arrive at a definition? What are the particulars of good? What are the particulars of honor? What are the particulars of virtuous? For example, when we discuss honor, what is the common denominator that is the class called “honor”? To define the concept you must generalize what is common to the whole group of a class. So when you think of “circles”, you don’t have to think of every circle you have ever seen. You can simply see what is common to all circles.

universalsSocrates identified what was the need and the essential nature of what is called universals. This concept is huge. It is the dividing line of every system of thought that comes after. Universals are the set of properties common to every member of a class, and it is the basis of its classification.

Every item that can be categorized into a specific class is called a particular. Man engages in this process constantly. This is his unique ability, to reduce down to commonalities, to universals, a class. He doesn’t need to remember every single instance of a particular in order to identify it. Using the concept of universals he is then able to see any given particular and identify it by instinctively categorizing it into a given class.

Man’s conceptual faculty is what gives him the ability to understand principles and laws which in turn gives him the ability to predict the future. This is important. If I can derive a principle by generalizing a particular, then I can look into the future and see the application of that principle to other instances and reasonably predict an outcome. If my reasoning is valid, and I can understand laws, suddenly the world is not such a scary, confusing, chaotic place.

This is the importance of the difference between conceptual versus perceptual knowledge. Conceptual knowledge is founded on the recognition of universals. Perceptual knowledge is founded on what man understands from reality’s interaction with his senses, and that varies from man to man. Socrates goal was that if we can validate universal knowledge, we can answer the skeptics’ rejection of truth. Man must rise from the merely perceptual stage to the conceptual stage, and this is what stops the fights. At the conceptual stage, man can grasp a universal standard and end all argument and all subjectivism.

To be continued…

Click here for part one
Click here for part two
Click here for part three
Click here for part five
Click here for part six
Click here for part seven
Click here for part eight

One Response

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  1. John said, on February 8, 2017 at 8:11 AM

    Great article, John Immel. I have spotted so many people I know (in person, not in person, or in my huge imagination) in there; perhaps, I was spotted too. Anyway, back to what I perceive to be reality, more or less.

    Caesar: [interviewing a prospective tutor for his daughter] Sophistry? Uh, doesn’t that mean you know how to tell fancy lies?
    Appolonius: There’s great power in ambiguity, sir, but not all men use advantages to wicked ends.
    Caesar: Are you experienced teaching the young?
    Appolonius: Yes, I much prefer it to teaching the old.
    Caesar: Why is that?
    Appolonius: Because they exhibit more wisdom.

    (Quote is from the 2002 TV movie “Caesar”, which won nothing. Ever. Nowhere.) Yes, but some wisdom in the passage above, alright. You can fool some of the people…

    I chuckled at Luther’s quote. Substitute the word “reason” with “The Reformation” or “Calvinism” and it reads so much better, so much more natural and flowing. Luther was great at silencing his opposition too; where did that info go? Ah, it did not make it into in the sawrinn gawd’s church’s history books. Well, does that surprise me like a rattlesnake in the bathroom of a steaming warm cabin in the Rockies?

    I think Satan, starring as the serpent in the Garden of Eden, was the first sophist.

    This next bit comes from a favorite grammar site:

    The Lazy Sophism: Determinism
    “I knew an old man who had been an officer in the First World War. He told me that one of his problems had been to get men to wear their helmets when they were at risk from enemy fire. Their argument was in terms of a bullet ‘having your number on it.’ If a bullet had your number on it, then there was no point in taking precautions, for it was going to kill you. On the other hand, if no bullet had your number on it, then you were safe for another day and did not need to wear the cumbersome and uncomfortable helmet.

    “The argument is sometimes called the ‘lazy sophism.’ . . .

    “Doing nothing–failing to put on a helmet, putting on an orange shawl and saying ‘Om’–represents a choice. To have your choosing modules set by the lazy sophism is to be disposed toward this kind of choice.”
    (Simon Blackburn, Think: A Compelling Introduction to Philosophy. Oxford University Press, 1999)

    (Source: )


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