The Fruitfulness of Arguing About Words

I find myself thinking a lot about the ways that modern analytics and medieval scholastics (and their successors) use the same terms to mean different things. Getting to the bottom of what each side means by a term often uncovers deeper disagreements than what might be apparent at first, or helps in characterizing an argument more fairly.

This is a case in point. At 12:50, Copleston and Russell have a bit of a tiff over the word “intelligible.” Copleston claims that Russell believes the existence of the world is unintelligible. This is not accurate, Russell says. Rather, he believes it is without explanation.

Both men soon move on to consider other points, but I think it is worth pausing to note just why each of these philosophers use the word “intelligible” in the way they do.

For Copleston, if something is without explanation, it is necessarily also unintelligible. This follows from Aristotle’s theory of hylomorphism and causes. A typical explanation of something names a litany of different kinds of causes: to explain a statue, Aristotle would refer to the marble it is made of (material cause), its shape (formal cause), the sculptor (efficient cause), and the sculptor’s intentions (final cause). Now, for Aristotle, the form of a substance is the intelligible part. The form is what may exist in the intellect as a universal idea. Of course, Copleston would treat the universe as an accidental unity, rather than a substance, but even such a unity is determined by an intelligible, accidental form.

If something is altogether without explanation, then it must be without a formal explanation (and without form). Thus, anything that is unexplainable is also unintelligible.

Russell, like much of the analytic school he inspired, sees intelligibility in very different terms, and thus, does not strictly link it with explanation. In his view, there are brute facts that cannot be explained by reference to anything, but can still be understood for what they are in themselves. This is precisely the difference between him and the scholastics on this point: for the scholastics, there is nothing a thing is “intrinsically” that cannot be characterized in terms of explanations. Russell’s understanding of objects and collections of objects is largely derived from that of early modern physics, in which there is no formal or final causality, and in which objects are comprised of basically inert matter. Thus, in Russell’s view, it makes sense to say that a thing is intelligible, but without explanation.

What Does It Mean To Be A Christian Philosopher? Part 3

I was hoping to write this post on the content that distinguishes Christian philosophy as such. But thesis and conference work is making that difficult for now. Instead, I will share some brief thoughts on the philosophical vocation.

In his Commentary on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, St. Thomas Aquinas writes that, “…a man happy in contemplative happiness seems to be most worthily disposed- inasmuch as he excels in that which is best in us- and also most pleasing to God, since he exercises his intellect in contemplating the truth and cultivates intellectual pursuits” (#2133, trans. McInerny).

For Aquinas, as for Aristotle, man is a rational animal. Rationality is the differentia that distinguishes man from other members of the animal genus. This rationality is manifested, for instance, in knowledge of universals, scientific demonstration, semantic languages, wisdom (whereby first principles are grasped), and in the exercise of the will- a faculty St. Thomas refers to as “rational appetite.”

The intellect, Aquinas argues elsewhere (#1872), is that which is best in us. It is also that which is most similar to God: it is immaterial, simple, able to contemplate, etc. It is principally due to his intellect that man is called imago Dei: the image of God.

Importantly, the cultivation of the intellect is not merely the work of technical rationality, as sometimes understood today. To be rational entails being morally virtuous. Aquinas does not conceive of philosophy in the professional, limited sense. For him, it is characteristic of the philosopher that he “acts honorably and rightly” (#2134). So understood, the philosopher is “dearest to God” (ibid.). Aquinas, in other words, carries on the classical pre-Christian understanding of philosophy. The ancient sages took seriously the literal meaning of philosophia: regarding their discipline and way of life as a “love of wisdom.” For Socrates, the practice of philosophy was even a “preparation for death.”

Given this, I would say the Blessed Virgin Mary ought to be regarded, in a real and important sense, as the exemplar of the philosopher. If we wish to understand how the Socratic mission (to take seriously the question: how should one live?) is to be carried out by one who abides by divine revelation, then she- in the execution of her vocation- is our example to both contemplate and imitate: in her devotion to Christ, the Wisdom of God; in her unspeakable humility; and in her submission to truth. Ecce ancilla Domini, Behold the handmaid of the Lord (Lk 1:38).

What Does It Mean To Be A Christian Philosopher? Part 2

Previously, I discussed a secular objection to the possibility of a Christian philosophy. Now I will rebut a Christian objection.

The most prominent contemporary argument against Christian philosophy is that it is an oxymoron. Introducing revelation into philosophical discourse renders it no longer philosophical, but theological. The proper autonomy of philosophy, so the argument goes, requires that it be utterly secular. A seminarian once argued this very point in a conversation with me. He contended that, if our conversation was to remain sheer philosophy, it was inadmissible for me to cite Scripture. “The moment you mention Jesus, you’re doing theology.”

It’s worth mentioning that one reason for the popularity of this view is the modern professionalization of philosophy. Today, philosophy is not principally considered a way of life or a habit of character, but rather, a practice that is characteristic of a career. Therefore, the phrase “Christian philosophy” sounds about as nonsensical as “Christian engineering.” This criticism also spills over into the treatment of theology. Thus, the contributions of St. Maximilian Kolbe, for example, are sometimes marginalized because he was not a theologian “in the professional sense.” Of course, neither were most of the Doctors of the Church.

On a deeper level, however, there is an epistemological error that lies behind the rejection of Christian philosophy, and this is rooted in a metaphysical error.

Making a brief detour: the Scholastics admitted the sufficiency of natural reason with regards to truths about nature- but this sufficiency holds merely in principle. In practice, in the midst of the variability of sensible particulars, the exercise of reason is prone to admixture of error. The latter point is a thesis anyone will admit, whether they hold there is an alternative to natural reason or not. However, the opponent of Christian philosophy adds something to this thesis. He does not merely hold that reason is sufficient to understand nature, but is prone to error. He asserts that the contents of revelation cannot help in the understanding of natural realities, as they are in themselves. Therefore, a radical separation of philosophy from theology is justified.

Such a radical autonomy for philosophy does not make sense, however, if the truth of revelation is accepted. This is the case, particularly in the light of two doctrines: the creation and the Incarnation.

Aquinas wrote that created entities possess their being in a manner analogous to illumined air possessing light. Created being is radically grounded upon divine Being. The Being of God, on the other hand, is utterly self-sufficient and superabundant. Aquinas points out that “Supreme Being” is an inadequate name for God, because it names Him relative to other entities, rather than as He is in Himself. Instead, Aquinas calls God Ipsum Esse Subsistens, that is, Subsistent Being Itself. Given this account of existence, it seems obvious that to understand created being on a deep level is, in part, to understand it vis-a-vis God.

The importance of this truth (that only God possesses being univocally) cannot be overstated. Bl. John Duns Scotus reflects on just this point in the opening of his De prime rerum omnium principio:

“O Lord our God, when Moses asked of Thee as a most true Doctor, by what name he should name Thee to the people of Israel; knowing well what mortal understanding could conceive of Thee and unveiling to him Thy ever blessed name, Thou didst reply: Ego sum qui sum; wherefore art Thou true Being, total Being. This I believe, but if it be in any wise possible, this I would also know. Help me, O Lord, to seek out such knowledge of the true being that Thou art, as may lie within the power of my natural reason, starting with that Being which Thou Thyself hast attributed to Thyself.”

Approaching this matter from another, complementary angle, we may say that any adequate explanation of a created entity refers to God. In the Aristotelian theory of “causation” (better described as explanation), there are four species of causality: material, formal, efficient, and final. With regards to any created entity, God is the first efficient cause, the formal exemplary cause, and ultimate final cause. To the extent this is forgotten, an explanation of an entity is bound to be incomplete or even false in important respects.

It is utterly irrational, then, for a Christian to “bracket away” his theological commitments when studying natural phenomena (including, by the way, political phenomena). Historically, the attempt to do so yields explanatory narratives that, far from being “neutral,” are simply incompatible with Christian orthodoxy. If God is not acknowledged as first efficient cause, formal exemplary cause, and ultimate final cause, then other explanations are posited to fill these voids or the need for such explanations is simply denied. In either case, the resulting picture of reality is not compatible, or is at least in tension, with a Christian one.

Turning our attention to the Incarnation: the revelation of God in Christ is the central event of history. The ramifications for philosophy are, in part, obvious. If Christ is “the wisdom of God” (1 Cor 1:24) and if, in Him, “…are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Col 2:3), then the Christian philosopher, who qua philosopher, is a “lover of wisdom,” ought to philosophize qua Christian.

To help show the ramifications of the Incarnation more concretely, I turn to the life of St. Justin the Martyr, the first Christian philosopher (d. 165 AD). St. Justin’s first philosophical mentor was a Stoic. He was followed by a Peripatetic, then a Pythagorean, and finally a Platonist. The latter remained Justin’s teacher for a considerable time: “I spent as much time with him as I could… and thus I made progress, every day I advanced further. The understanding of the incorporeal world entirely captivated me; the contemplation of the Ideas lent wings to my mind, so that after a little time I seemed to myself to have become wise. I was even foolish enough to hope that I was about to look on God, such being the aim of the philosophy of Plato.” (Dialogue with Trypho II, 6)

One day, however, St. Justin encountered an elderly man who wished to discuss philosophy with him. Time and again, Justin found himself trapped in a contradiction. He asked this man how he had acquired his wisdom, to which he replied, in part:

“In the most remote times, long before the day of any of these pretended philosophers, there lived certain men, happy, just, and beloved by God, who spoke by the Holy Spirit and foretold many things that have since come to pass. We call them prophets… Their writings still remain and those who read them with faith draw much and various profit, concerning both the beginning and the end, and all a philosopher ought to know…” (ibid VII)

St. Justin’s heart burned within him; “revolving all these things in my mind it seemed to me that here was the only sure and profitable philosophy. That is how and why I became a philosopher.” (ibid VIII)

The elder’s parting advice was, “…before anything else, pray diligently to God, so that He might open to you the doors of Light. No one is able to comprehend Truth, unless he is granted understanding from God Himself, Who reveals it to each one who seeks Him in prayer and in love.” (ibid VII)

I want to make a couple observations here. First, to repeat Etienne Gilson’s summary, “A man seeks the truth by the unaided efforts of reason and is disappointed; it is offered him by faith and he accepts; and, having accepted, he finds that it satisfies his reason” (The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy II, p. 25). Among the treasures St. Justin finds in Christianity is the knowledge of philosophical truths via a non-philosophical path.

Second, St. Justin’s concept of wisdom is inseparable from his acceptance of the Trinity and the Incarnation. At the heart of his notion of natural reason, one finds this verse from the prologue of St. John’s gospel: “The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world” (John 1:9). If the Word “enlightens everyone,” then there must be some natural revelation available to unbelievers. Supposing the truth of revelation, then: to practice Christian philosophy is nothing other than to consciously (rather than unconsciously) examine one’s philosophy in the light of “the light of the human race” (John 1:4). How could this possibly be deserving of criticism from the mouth of a Christian? God has spoken to us. “Oh, that today you would hear his voice; harden not your hearts” (Heb 3:15).

In the next post, I will start to examine the contents of Christian philosophy.

What Does It Mean To Be A Christian Philosopher, Part I

I’m taking a brief break from a semester thesis and wanted to write down some thoughts that have been turning around in my head. I’ll continue to come back to this topic as I find the time. I hope you find it interesting.

Can there be Christian philosophy?

First, it might be useful to ask whether there can even be a such thing as Christian philosophy. Some have answered this question in the negative. Bertrand Russell, one of the most prominent 20th century philosophers and a rather aggressive atheist, held there cannot be Christian philosophy, since philosophy must be, in principle, an open-minded pursuit of yet unknown answers, rather than a defense of pre-selected answers.

If we apply this description of philosophy universally, however, it seems over-rigorous. Russell himself, in the Principia Mathematica, devotes hundreds of pages to laying the grounds for proving that 1 + 1 = 2. Somehow, I cannot help but suspect that Russell held the truth of this equation very dogmatically, even prior to this work.

One’s “noetic structure” is the sum of one’s beliefs and these beliefs’ relations to each other (belief x justifies belief y, and so on). It is true that, in a Christian’s noetic structure, some items hold a privileged status: they do not stand in need of evidential, propositional justification in the normal sense.

But there is nothing unique about this. All noetic structures include such beliefs, often properly so: some of these are called properly basic beliefs. Non-controversial examples could include: “I see colors now,” or “I hear a sound” or somewhat more controversially, “Murder is ethically wrong.” Alvin Plantinga has included in his defense of reliabilism the claim that such beliefs as “God loves me,” or “God has forgiven my sin,” can count as properly basic.

I would hold, however, that the latter, theology-laden claims are inferential. They are propositionally justified on the basis of other beliefs, for example: “I was contrite for my sins,” “I just went to confession,” “The Church has the power to loose sins through the sacraments,” etc.  Now, there may very well be an intense experience of being forgiven. But the belief of having been forgiven is prior to such experience. Therefore, the belief does not arise because of it. In short, barring a special divine illumination, such beliefs as “God has forgiven my sin,” are not properly basic.

But even though theological claims are not properly basic, it is also clear they are not evidentially justified in the normal manner. What then, is the proper relation of evidence with respect to theological claims? This question will bring us to the topic of the “motives of credibility,” which seems like a good subject for a later time.

In the next post I want to round out the discussion of whether there can be a Christian philosophy by discussing a Christian objection to it. This post will include the conversion story of St. Justin the Martyr, who is normally regarded as the first Christian philosopher.

Eventually, I want to get into the content, method, and ends that constitute Christian philosophy as such, but I think some preliminary discussion is worthwhile.

Secular Irrationalism

I haven’t written a post in a long time, but a couple things have been gnawing at my mind as of late, and I really feel the need to express my thoughts on the matter.

It seems that contemporary man is very adept at spotting fallacies spoken by his religious debating partners. However, the strands of irrationalism that exists in secular circles go largely unnoticed. I believe this occurs because secularism and rationality are virtually conflated with each other, so as to be treated as co-extensive.

But of course, they are not co-extensive. Every belief (so it seems), including the beliefs dear to secularists, tag along with affective, emotive phenomena.

One of the common errors of irrational people is to attribute substantive and rational significance to what is purely affective. I want to suggest that secularists, far from being immune to this sort of difficulty, are perhaps especially prone to it. The reason for this, of course, is precisely because they are not on the watch out: the affective phenomena that arise in their minds when thinking in a secular way are treated as integral to secularism (and therefore, just as “rational”), no less than the thoughts themselves.

Allow me to clarify. Take a hypothetical secularists, “Joe.” Joe is studying astronomy, and in so doing he obtains an ever more profound grasp of his physically miniscule stature, relative to the universe. He is learning facts that are true and have been arrived at by highly reliable means. He is, in fact, engaging in a rational activity. However, certain feelings arise in him (quite distinct from any empirical facts he may be imbibing) in the meantime: first and foremost, there is the feeling that he, and the history of humanity itself, is ultimately insignificant; it makes no real difference what happens on earth.

Now, Joe may be fine at astronomy. But, being a typical pop-secularist, his philosophical training is nil, and he is not accustomed to sorting out such affective activity from his actual thoughts. His affectivity, in his own mind, receives the honorific badge of rationality. The feelings that arise during his study of astronomy are treated as just as worthy of our assent as are the empirical facts he learns. Anyone who disputes with him is irrational and a Pollyanna.

Now, how can we address Joe? I believe we could start by pointing out that any philosopher who gives a high place to human dignity (whether he or she is an Aristotelian, Kantian, Lockean, or whatever), does not do so on the basis of physical size, or physical size relative to anything else. The bases for human dignity that have been proposed include such things as: the capacity for contemplation, for happiness, for virtuous living, for possessing a good will, for enjoying eternal life, etc. At the moment, my point is not to defend any of these conceptions. My only point is that, regardless of philosophical tradition, any thinker who believes in human dignity would rightly regard the physical size of human beings as irrelevant to his thesis. Simply put, Joe has not provided a rebutting defeater for any actual thesis in favor of human dignity.

A more general point we could make is this: there is a simple test that all persons, secular and religious, can and should carry out if they are unsure whether a given sentiment is rational. First, simply take the affective phenomena and express it in propositional form. So, returning to Joe, he should formulate his feeling as a sentence that makes an assertion, such as “Human life is meaningless.” Second, make that proposition the conclusion of an argument. Third, take the observation or activity that prompted the feeling and express that in propositional form, such as “Human beings are physically miniscule in proportion to the universe.” Now, make that proposition one of the premises. So far, the argument looks like this:

1) Human beings are physically miniscule in proportion to the universe

2)

Therefore, human life is meaningless.

Now, how can we complete this syllogism to make a valid argument? The only way is to assert a correlation between physical size and meaning. The proposition would have to be something equivalent to: “The life of anything physically miniscule in proportion to the universe is meaningless.”

But why believe such a thing? Certainly, science itself (the exemplar of wisdom for the secularist) cannot provide an answer: there is no empirical test for worth or meaning. Also, the assertion strikes one as rather arbitrary. If the universe were cut down in size, perhaps by half, would the meaning of my life grow, perhaps by a smidgen? And why? Wouldn’t that be rather mysterious? And isn’t the whole point of the secular perspective to exorcise mystery?

I think it should be clear now, that the feelings which arise when engaged in a secular activity do not deserve extra points, and certainly do not deserve a free pass, compared to the feelings prompted by non-secular acts. We need to be vigilant in spotting affectivity and distinguishing it from actual thought, secular or religious.

There is another species of irrationalism I want to touch on: it occurs when a person places a disproportionate importance upon some belief or another, and thus, is committed to irrationally explaining away any evidence that seems contrary to it. Of course, this is a common error that we all commit, at least from time to time. In fact, it is an exaggerated form of a rational behavior: it is only rational to filter raw data through one’s current “working theory” and likewise to demand higher standards of evidence for giving up those beliefs that are closer to the core of one’s noetic structure (the sum of propositions that one believes in, and their relations to each other), and even to place some items beyond the possibility of being debunked (to give a non-controversial example, the laws of logic).

Scientists do this as a matter of course, particularly during periods of “normal science,” as Thomas Kuhn famously points out in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Thus, when new astronomical phenomena are discovered, the data is not used to test the theory of gravity. Rather, it is interpreted in light of the theory of gravity- in effect, it is made to fit the theory. Likewise, new fossil discoveries do not prompt an attempt to disprove evolution. Instead, the fossils are given their place within the theory. There is nothing wrong with this. It is exactly how rational thought proceeds. Of course, if the new data creates intractable problems for the theory, and if an alternative presents itself, all of this tranquility is thrown out the window (a crisis, possibly prompting a revolution in the field, takes place eventually).

Now, it seems clear to me that secular thinkers are willing to pay very, very heavy prices in order to preserve secular theses: particularly the idea that there is no God, or at least not a personal one, and that there is no soul. Even beliefs which are highly intuitive and central to virtually any noetic structure may be bulldozed in the attempt to protect these materialist theses.

To provide just one example (though several come to mind), it has long been noted that whether there is free will in some traditional sense really depends upon the ontology of man: whether he has an immaterial component (that is, what is normally referred to as the soul). After all, if man is just atoms all the way down, then his decisions and acts are simply a function of prior physical conditions and relevant physical laws. Freedom would be an illusion. This is why most philosophers (who are materialists) either disbelieve in free will or redefine free will so that it does not include the possibility of initiating choice or choosing things other than one does (instead, free will becomes a function of whether one is physically restrained, as in a jail cell, for example. An unrestrained person is free, even though, according to them, he cannot step outside the physical causal chain and choose other than he does).

Does anyone doubt that more traditional, strong views of free will would be more commonplace, if only they did not impinge on the demands of materialism? Of course they would be. But this brings us to ask, is materialism- the thesis that everything is material (there is no spiritual or otherwise immaterial stuff)- really more obvious than the existence of free will in the strong, traditional sense? I fail to see how that is even possible.

To put it another way, each of us has a very strong perception of the personal origin and efficacy of our decisions. So much so, that belief in free will is clearly the default position among us. In fact, even those who disbelieve in free will immediately revert to believing in it, the moment they cease philosophizing.

It seems to me that this is powerful evidence in favor of free will: the sort of evidence that comes to us from ongoing, intractable intuition is just about the strongest we have in such intimate matters. But the materialist, at least typically, does not treat this as evidence to be explained, but rather, to be explained away. Nothing, not even incorrigible beliefs, may stand in the way of materialism.

I say, if free will and materialism are in conflict, then so much the worse for materialism.

What It Means To Be Aristotelian

 

When I describe myself as Aristotelian, the oddness of this description is sometimes very striking to me. After all, I regard most of Aristotle’s teachings as false. Much of it is outdated science. Some of it is self-contradictory or otherwise inadequate. What then, do I mean by calling myself an Aristotelian?

In the past, I have contented myself by saying that Aristotle possessed a way of seeing that transcends the particular content of his philosophy and remains perennially valid. Now, I want to flesh out what I mean by this and list some Aristotelian teachings. These are positions I find myself referencing or arguing in favor of frequently, which I have gleaned from Aristotle or from thinkers who have developed his core insights faithfully:

aristotle_stone

Community is an intrinsic good, not a merely instrumental one.

Man is an inherently relational being. The glue that holds society together is not raw self-interest, but friendship.

There is no sense in speaking of a pre-political “state of nature.” Man is a political animal. For man, to live in a political society is the state of nature.

Community is prior to the individual. It is the matrix that permits the individual to live and even grow into a free, moral agent.

There are two great forms of dramatic art, each answering our aesthetic needs and revealing deep truths about our condition: tragedy and comedy.

There is “commutative justice,” which deals with exchange, as well as “general justice,” which regards distribution.

A mixed constitution is the best practicable form of government.

Politics ought to be determined by ethics. The political treatise is part of the ethical treatise, or at least subordinate to it.

Morality is not about social problem solving, utility, or even rights and duties, although none of these should be discounted. It is about becoming a good person: someone whose character is profoundly shaped by virtue.

Ethical thinking should focus, not on the question, “What ought I to do?” but rather, “How ought I to be?”

Morality is not merely a set of side constraints, such that we can choose our goals arbitrarily provided our behavior stays within certain parameters. Instead, to live morally is itself a way of life that requires active effort.

The fruition of virtue is happiness.

Moral truth is objective, but practicing it requires the virtue of phronesis (prudence), whereby one takes account of the complexities and particularities of real life.

We can know causal relations. It is possible to reason from effect to cause.

Composite being is hylomorphic: it is composed of an indeterminate substratum (matter) and a determinate, intelligible “part” (form).

Knowledge is a conformity between one’s mind and the reality one is contemplating. The object is made present to the mind, or to use the Scholastic phrase, “The intellect is determined by the object contemplated.”

Common names do not necessarily refer to merely conventional groupings. There are common natures.

Items in nature have teleological ends. Function and dysfunction are real.

Natural law is both descriptive and prescriptive. With the practical syllogism, one may move from a descriptive observation to a prescriptive conclusion; morality may be discerned from the real.

Metaphysics must be prior to epistemology. We should begin our philosophy with thoughts about things, not thoughts about thoughts.

All knowledge is ultimately rooted in experience. Nevertheless, our reason allows us to move beyond the confines of an austere empiricism, such as Hume’s.

There is a sharp distinction between thought, on one hand, and imagination on the other.

Essence is prior to operation: what a thing is is prior to what it does.

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