Paul Copan. A Little Book for New Philosophers: Why and How to Study Philosophy. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2016. See here to purchase the book.
Paul Copan teaches philosophy at Palm Beach Atlantic University.
As the subtitle of this book indicates, this book talks about the advantages of studying philosophy. It seems to be aimed at people who wonder whether they should pursue philosophy as an academic study, perhaps for a career in academia.
The book thoughtfully explores a variety of subjects: the increasing acceptance of theism within philosophical circles, arguments for the existence of God, the existence of the soul, verificationism, similarities and differences between the God of the Bible and the philosophical God (i.e., the picture of God influenced by Greek philosophy), the question of whether atheists bear any burden of proof, and what to do with religious doubt. Copan also defends the study of philosophy against Christians who regard it as antithetical to Christianity. Not only does Copan offer an alternative interpretation of Bible verses that have been cited against philosophy, but he also effectively argues that Scripture itself, along with Christian minds throughout history, have encouraged the life of the mind.
Copan also offers a lay-of-the-land of academia, as he speaks from experience as an academic philosopher. For Copan, Christian philosophers should exemplify the fruit of the Spirit in how they treat colleagues, including those with whom they disagree. This may sound obvious, but Copan offers practical advice on how to be a Christian in academia: how to view one’s own work, how to help others, and how being in a group of Christian philosophers can be important. Cohan also shares how he went through Coppleston’s series of books on philosophy, and that may be helpful to people who are seriously interested in the field, as well as people whose minds can easily wander when they are reading!
I would like to quote some of my favorite lines in the book, just to give you a taste:
“Practicing philosophy in the way of Jesus, for instance, requires that professors never publicly dismantle a graduate student’s paper at a conference” (page 81).
“So whether we publish much or little, whether our work is widely admired or falls stillborn from the press, we will be a faithful presence wherever God has placed us” (pages 82-83).
“My PhD advisor told me not to attempt anything earthshaking for my dissertation…He suggested I keep my nose to the grindstone, work hard and save any bold work for later” (pages 92-93).
And, as someone who wonders if James 1:6-8 condemns all doubt, I appreciated Cohan’s interpretation: “Actually, James is condemning a mindset of divided loyalty between God and the world—-a spiritual adultery” (page 103).
The book may help Christian students at secular universities to feel less alone when their Christianity is challenged. This book demonstrates that intelligent people have embraced Christianity and have pursued careers in academia.
This book, by itself, may not provide Christian students with sufficient arguments to use against atheists and skeptics, who can easily respond with “Where’s the proof for God’s existence?”, dismiss some arguments as wishful thinking, or see some arguments as “God in the gaps” arguments. Copan criticizes “God in the gaps” arguments as lazy, but he also seems to prefer theistic explanations because they at least attempt to account for things that puzzle naturalists. Naturalists would probably see that approach itself as a “God in the gaps” approach, believing that we should not dismiss the possibility of a natural explanation just because one currently eludes us. The book may still provide Christian students with a starting-point in addressing atheist and skeptical arguments.
A disappointment, in terms of the book, is that it did not really explore how Christians can be edified by philosophical insights. Granted, it talked about how philosophy can sharpen one’s mind, but, when it came to philosophy, it largely focused on the questions of whether God and the soul exist. Can philosophy do more than buttress what Christians already believe to be true? Can it teach them anything new? On pages 38-39, Copan refers positively to analytic theologians who “haven’t focused primarily on Christian apologetics or arguments for God’s existence…” Copan’s book would have been better had its horizons been broader.
The book also had somewhat of a siege mentality, in places: Christians must try to protect their faith, and Christians should hang around their own. I should stress, though, that, the opposite approach is in the book, too, as it encourages those interested in philosophy to learn the thoughts of major philosophical figures and to engage atheist and skeptical philosophers. Copan also has reasons for holding the Christian faith, which include arguments, its explanatory power, its satisfaction of human longings, and the experiences of the supernatural by people he knows. I doubt that Copan is insecure in his faith. It just seems that he is for exploration, but he wants it to arrive at Christian conclusions. Of course, there are atheists and skeptics who are the same way, with their own worldviews, but is there a way to be open-minded while holding a particular worldview, as opposed to being in a no-man’s land?
I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher. My review is honest!