In my ongoing quest to finish a series of explanations and analyses on the Five Ways of proving the existence of God from Saint Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologiae I, q. 2, a. 3, I updated the translation of the Third Way which “is taken from the possible and the necessary” along with a graphical depiction of the argument as a flowchart.
I decided to start with a rather literal translation of one version of the Latin text because, in this case, the dispute about the text (and its translation) seem to make a difference in how one reads, understands and decides upon the effectiveness of the argument. The pretty standard reading and translation by the English Dominican Fathers (the Benzinger edition) does not seem to be the best, and it leads to a common misunderstanding of Saint Thomas’s argument with, many a critic accusing him of committing The Birthday Fallacy (to conclude from the fact that everyone has a birthday (one day on which each person was born) that there must be one day (the same day) on which everyone was born). The troublesome text and translation, it seems to me, contributes to the belief that St. Thomas argues from the fact that all possible beings at some time do not exist, to the conclusion that, (absent a necessary being) there was some time (the same time) when all possible beings did not exist, and that if this were the case (absent a necessary being (God), there would be nothing now.
As I say, this reading of the text and Saint Thomas’s argument are both troublesome. I cover the particular issue of the Birthday Fallacy in a recently published paper. But I hope to fit these insights into an overall explanation and analysis of the Third Way.
I also revised the graphical depiction of the argument as a flowchart to give a visual overview of how I understand the argument, and to include what I think are the most common and challenging contemporary objections. It will come as no surprise that I believe the Third Way is successful in showing that there must exist in reality a Self-Necessary Being which is the cause of the existence of everything that is real. (Or perhaps will be a surprise given that I do not think the First Way is successful.) I also link to an essay on how Saint Thomas is able to identify this Self-Necessary Cause as the God he believes in.
I am not sure the flowchart depiction is helpful for very many people, but it helped me sort out the logic and “flow” of the argument. At any rate, a more traditional text-based approach is in the offing.
A few weeks ago, Bishop Robert Barron wrote an op/ed piece for the New York Post bemoaning the singing of John Lennon’s utopian manifesto pop song “Imagine” at the opening ceremonies of the Tokyo Olympics. Quoth His Grace:
While its melody and arrangement are indeed beautiful, the lyrics are an invitation to moral and political chaos.
Consider the opening verse: “Imagine there’s no heaven / It’s easy if you try / No hell below us, above us only sky / Imagine all the people livin’ for today.”
I frankly can’t imagine anything worse. To say that there is no heaven or hell is to say that there is no absolute criterion of good and evil — no way of meaningfully determining the difference between right and wrong, no standard outside of the subjectivities of each moral actor by which to say any one agent is better than any other.
In his YouTube video on the same topic, Barron makes a connection to God more explicit. He declares at 2:41 that Lennon’s imagining is “an invitation into a very dangerous place, the place described by Dostoyevsky: Once you stop believing in God, anything is permitted.”
Overall, I agree with Barron; I have never liked Lennon’s song once I started paying attention to the lyrics, and generally along the same lines that Barron lays out in his op/ed and video: it is naïve, utopian, hypocritical and condemnatory of a caricature of patriotism and religion.
I do, however, have a couple of points of divergence with Barron’s analysis, one a quibble and one more substantive.
The crux of Barron’s denunciation of the message of “Imagine” is that the song advocates a rejection of an “absolute criterion of good and evil,” i.e., an objective moral standard which is to be found in belief in God. Imagining there is no heaven or hell, according to Barron, is denying objective right and wrong. Lennon may have (and probably did) not believe in God or objective right and wrong (see his song “God“). But as an interpretation of “Imagine,” one does not have to take the song so far as to be challenging objective morality.
“Imagine no heaven … no hell below us,” etc. seems to be Lennon’s critique of the carrot and stick of religion: the self-interested hope for heaven and fear of hell. He seems to me to be saying instead that we ought to be good, not to gain rewards and avoid punishments — pie in the sky/fire insurance — but for its own sake: “Imagine all the people/Livin’ for today.” I agree that Lennon sees religion, nations, wealth and acquisitiveness as sources of conflict, war and misery, but he shows this by contrasting these ‘evils’ with “Livin’ life in peace” and “Sharing all the world.” I agree that such contrasts are naïve, simplistic and based on libelous caricatures, but these contrasts are how Lennon structured his song. Likewise, Lennon’s contrast is not heaven/hell vs. no moral absolutes, but rather heaven/hell (self-interest) vs. here-and-now morality (altruism).
The more substantive point has to do with the sentiment expressed by Dostoyevsky’s dictum “without God, all things are permitted.” One of the most popular pages on the Thomistic Philosophy site is an essay explaining the Thomistic account of Natural Law. Given that St. Thomas Aquinas says that the natural law is the participation by human reason in the Eternal Law (the rational ordering of creation in the mind of God as He creates and sustains that creation), not a few of the web pages linking to my essay dismiss the Thomistic account as being hopelessly dependent on the Christian commitments of Aquinas and his followers. I fear that those who see the natural law as an objective, universal moral standard that nevertheless depends on a belief in God in general or the Christian God in particular are confusing two different senses of ‘depends on’ in its justification or explanation an absolute criterion of good and evil.
On the one hand, one can say that an objective moral standard of right or wrong depends on God in an epistemological sense: without religious faith (in a divine Lawgiver), anything is permitted (nothing is forbidden). That is, unless one believes there is a God who commands and forbids specific actions (and rewards good behavior and punishes the bad), human beings will not be restrained, but indulge anything and everything. I am inclined to think that is what Dostoyevsky had in mind. The extreme in viewing God as the epistemic ground for objective morality is often today called “Divine Command Theory,” which asserts that moral good and evil, right and wrong, are just what God commands (love your enemies) or forbids (do not steal) in his explicit and public revelation (the Bible). One only knows (and so can follow) objective moral norms is if they are spelled out in a public and explicit set of scriptures, and one has religious faith to accept them as divine revelation. Without God or belief in what He reveals, there is no right and wrong to guide human behavior; anything would be permitted. For reasons I am endeavoring elsewhere on this blog to explain, this epistemological dependence of morality on belief in God is an intellectual outgrowth and implication of nominalism that has haunted Western civilization since the 14th century. This is decidedly not what Saint Thomas means by natural law or its dependence on God.
On the other hand, one can say that an objective moral standard of right or wrong depends on God in a metaphysical sense: the natural inclinations inherent within rational human nature comprise a natural law as an objective, universal standard for morally good behavior, but without a governor (one who gives order and direction) of nature, there would be no order and direction in nature, and so no moral order to be derived from nature by rational human creatures. I agree with Barron that one needs a transcendent ground for moral absolutes, and absent that, all things become permissible; good and evil would only have subjective meaning. An objective, fixed human nature with inherent and immutable natural ends and purposes, however, can and does serves as that transcendent ground, even for those without any religious faith. Though it naturally points to God as the cause of nature and natural ends, one can discover and be bound by natural law without concluding to (or even inquiring after) the Divine Lawgiver as Author and Governor of nature.
Against this pretty basic misunderstanding of what Saint Thomas means by natural law, I felt the need to expand and update that essay. I expanded it to include more explicitly how Aquinas believes the natural law applies to all people, at all times, cannot be changed and cannot be abolished from the human heart. I also added an explanation how the natural law, for Aquinas, serves as the standard against which to judge whether positive human law is just or unjust, especially as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. makes use of this idea in his “Letter from Birmingham City Jail.” Hopefully the revised and expanded essay will give a more complete understanding of Thomistic natural law.
The greatest obstacle to understanding his Second Way, it has seemed to me, is determining precisely what Aquinas means by “the nature of the efficient cause” and “an order of efficient causes,” and how the Second Way is distinct from the First and Third Ways. For all three make use of efficient causes: motion, i.e., accidental change, in the case of the First, or generation and corruption, i.e., substantial change, in the Third. It seems unnecessary for Aquinas to use efficient causality in a general sense as the basis of a proof distinct from these two species of it.
In my treatment of the Five Ways in Context, I claimed that each way embodies and employs a distinct perspective on the physical world of which Aquinas pursues an ultimate explanation in God. It therefore seems unlikely that Aquinas would produce an argument for the existence of God that focuses on the genus of causality that is operative in two of his other arguments.
Nor did it seem to me that the efficient causality that he has in mind is the coming to be of substances, even though this is probably the most popular way of reading “In the world of sense, we find there is an order of efficient causes.“
For reasons I explain in the essay, I conclude that Aquinas is basing his argument from efficient causality on a third type of ‘change’ or ‘alteration,’ what he elsewhere calls immanent activity or operations of cognition and volition. Please view this exploration of an alternate reading of the Second Way here, and please share or comment.
Every Good Friday, the question is raised again, “Why did Jesus have to die?”
A common answer, though not really the Catholic answer, says that Jesus is a substitute victim, an innocent, and infinitely holy person, the Son of God, who suffers the punishment which sinners deserve in their place, and thereby frees them from this just punishment they deserve. He thus allows them to receive a reward of eternal life they do not deserve. God the Father, being infinitely just, demands a sacrifice for sin, but also being infinitely merciful, sends His Son, Jesus, to offer the only sacrifice that could pay that infinite debt.
To many people skeptical of the Christian gospel, this makes no sense, and seems to show that God is cruel and arbitrary in dealing with offenses against himself, as well as being abusive toward His Son. It is reasonably asked, could not God just forgive our offenses, as he asks us to do to those who offend us? As anyone might, in mercy, turn the other cheek, or cancel a debt owed to themselves, it seems God could simply not be offended by an offensive act. And if God cannot simply cancel and forgive the injury to his infinite dignity, but satisfaction must be made for it, it is not clear how a third-party might provide the satisfaction for an offence committed by someone else. For, while one might justly pay for damage caused by another’s actions as when I was a boy and my father paid for a car window that I shot out with a bb gun, or a kind benefactor could pay a traffic fine or gambling debt for another. Judicial, punitive sentences imposed on the person of wrongdoers are not transferable. A good and just God cannot just declare the punishment imposed as a personal sentence on one or all people as having been satisfied by substituting one prisoner for another, just as nobody’s father can go to prison or be executed in the place of his son. To many a skeptic, it is unfathomable how it is supposed to be an act of justice for the innocent Son of God to bear the punishment of death in the place of disobedient human beings.
The Catholic position, as articulated by Saint Thomas Aquinas, contends that the suffering and death of Jesus on the cross was not strictly necessary. God could have forgiven and redeemed us in some other way unknown to us. But, the cross of Christ is how God did choose to do it, and there are good reasons for it.
To be sure, Catholics believe that Jesus did suffer for our sins, and by his suffering, we are redeemed. But the cross of Christ does this as manifesting God’s love for us, as showing forth in a profound and supremely appropriate way the forgiveness God does wish to give freely. And further, Jesus’ suffering and death redeems and sanctifies humanity, for by it he realizes in his own human nature perfect love and obedience to the Father, and he becomes the means by which all who have faith in him can share in this perfect love and obedience.
In order to see how the cross is redemptive in a way that is not a substitutionary punishment, one needs to consider what we need redemption from. In his original plan for us, God made us for love, and not in just a human way, but as he loves, to share in his life in the Trinity of Love. That is heaven: loving God in the way God loves, and loving everything else God loves in the manner that He does: in the total self-giving willing of good for the other. But we, the human race, are not capable of this kind of love on our own.
Moreover, we failed at the love we are capable of. This was the first sin, and from it, all of us have been infected so that none of us loves humanly as we should. So, we “all have sinned and are deprived of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). Humanity, then, was (and left to itself, is) an enemy of God. As enemies, none of us can do anything to make peace with God since the offence against God, who is infinitely good and holy, is infinite. God is willing to forgive every sin committed, but human beings (prior to being redeemed) are not capable being friends with God, of acting in obedience to him. The only one who could make peace would be a man already at peace with God, who would do it on behalf of other humans. This Divine Mediator, the man Jesus Christ, does not just suffer what we should suffer. But his suffering is done in love, in perfect obedience to the Father, and so he does what no fallen human is capable of doing.
Left to ourselves, there is an infinite gulf between humanity and God, and it is a kind of debt and punishment, but it is made up for, not by an innocent third-party being punished in our place, but by God himself, as a man, acting with the loving obedience all people ought to give to God. Jesus, the Eternal Son of the Father, and God made man, by his perfect obedience to the Father (an obedience unto death, death on a cross (Philippians 2:8)) restores humanity to friendship with God. And being God, he rightfully inherits a place in the Kingdom of his Father (i.e. heaven). Or put in terms of love, Jesus perfectly loves the Father and atones for the lovelessness of mankind, and being God, is able to fulfill the purpose for which God made humanity: Jesus is able to love as God loves forever in heaven.
Jesus’ loving obedience in accepting the cross is an act of love, the most dramatic and revelatory act of the love that is God, which transforms the very sin which inflicts that cruelty and violence on him. The Jewish leaders, the people of Jerusalem who reject him, the Roman authorities who cynically use him, the soldiers who beat and ridiculed him, his disciples who deserted him, all are manifestation of human sin: your sins, my sins. But Jesus accepted this rejection, abuse, isolation, betrayal, brutal violence and made out of this our sin, his loving act. He, as it were, absorbs hate and sin with his infinite love and obedience, and thereby changes it. He makes of a cross of torture and execution, a means of loving those who are torturing and executing him, a means of displaying for all the world and for all time how completely and profoundly God loves those whom he created. And without such terrible sin, God could not have manifested the depth of his forgiving love. He could and does forgive, but there is no forgiveness without sin to forgive, and the horror of the sin which nailed Jesus to the cross is fitting (if not strictly necessary) to manifest the sublimity of God’s love and his wish for mankind to share in a life of that love forever (which is what heaven is).
Further, the manner of manifesting God’s love also redeems humanity. The cross of Jesus reconciles sinners to God, for those who accept what Jesus does on their behalf, in faith, are incorporated into him and participate in his saving act. His life of obedience to the Father becomes the life of obedience for everyone who, as his disciple, places their faith and trust in him. As St. Paul says, “Yet I live, no longer I, but Christ lives in me; insofar as I now live in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God who has loved me and given himself up for me” (Galatians 2:20). As he shares in our humanity, we share in his divinity, and are empowered by grace to love our enemies with supernatural love, and bear our crosses as his cross.
In this way, the whole of Jesus’s incarnation, but as culminated on the cross, is precisely how we come to be sharers is his divine life (2 Peter 1:4). Through the cross, through our sin and hate and selfishness and pride, God, in Jesus, loves us sinners into becoming his beloved children, brothers of the Eternal Son of God. The cross of Christ heals our estrangement from God, not by satisfying the blood requirement of a vengeful deity, but by fulfilling on our behalf the plan and purpose for which God created free creatures, capable but failing of human love. Not only does Jesus’ sacrificial love overcome our failure to love, through faith and being incorporated into him himself, as members of his very body, we become sanctified and by his grace love with a super-human, divine love – the very Love between the Father and the Son which is the God’s own inner life, the life of the Holy Trinity.
Today, January 28, is the Feast of Saint Thomas Aquinas. He is, of course, a great Doctor of the Church and perhaps her greatest theologian, certainly one her most influential thinkers. He is rightly commended for integrating natural reason (especially as exemplified in the thought of Aristotle) with the Christian faith, and so contemporary Catholics (and other Christians more generally) look to Saint Thomas as paradigmatically harmonizing science and religion. He was also a philosopher of noted ability and his insights into natural philosophy (physics), metaphysics, philosophy of religion, philosophy of mind, ethics and politics are still vigorously debated and defended even among secular academics. Not surprisingly, most of the attention paid to the Angelic Doctor focuses on the light he brings to the issues of our own day. However, the impact he had on his medieval contemporaries and their own rather intense interest in his person, perhaps more than in his writings, often gets neglected. This difference in focus is reflected in the two dates that have served as the day for celebrating his sainthood.
St. Thomas’s Feast Day on the general calendar for the Roman Church used to be the day of his death (or birth into eternal life), March 7, from the time of his canonization in 1323 until the reform of the liturgy in 1969 after the Second Vatican Council which restored a more penitential focus to the season of Lent by removing from it many saints’ day celebrations which had accumulated on the calendar over the centuries. Sometimes this shift in St. Thomas’s feast day is decried as another affront to tradition by Vatican II. What seems to often be overlooked, however, is that January 28 was an important commemoration of St. Thomas for the friars of his own Order of Preachers, the Dominicans, and it speaks to medieval preoccupations that differ markedly from our own modern concerns.
As is well known, on December 6, 1273, Saint Thomas had some sort of mystical experience while saying Mass in the Dominican convent of San Domenico Maggiore in Naples, after which he stopped writing his as yet unfinished magnum opus of the Summa Theologiae. Having only completed Quaestio 73-83 of the Tertia Pars on the Holy Eucharist, he was in the middle of his treatment on the Sacrament of Penance. Eventually, he confided to his secretary that he could write no more, since after what had been revealed to him, it seemed that what he had written was only so much straw.
Apparently, that very day, Saint Thomas was summoned to the Second Council of Lyon, where, as some authors have suggested, he would be made a cardinal of the Church, as indeed Saint Bonaventure, his Franciscan contemporary had been. Despite his mystical experience, friar Thomas dutifully set out for France and the church council. Yet fate, or Divine Providence, would intervene. (Queue ominous music.)
Saint Thomas never made it far beyond Naples when he fell ill on the journey, possibly hitting his head on a low hanging branch. He was ultimately brought to the Cistercian Abbey of Fossanova where he lingered for some times, and requested that the Song of Songs from the Bible be read to him, or as is sometimes related, he began a commentary on this text. Nevertheless, he soon succumbed to his illness or injury and died on March 7, 1274. Thus, as is usually the case, this date was assigned as his Feast Day when he was canonized in 1323 by Pope John XXII.
After his death, however, the Cistercians recognizing St. Thomas’s evident sanctity and already well-established intellectual renown, eagerly held on to his mortal remains as relics for a pilgrimage destination. The monks thus refused the entreaties of the Dominican friars to have him buried among his brethren. Supposedly, the monks translated his remains a number of times within the monastery, and in the course of one such journey, it was discovered that St. Thomas’s body was incorrupt and exuded a sweet fragrance. It has been alleged, perhaps libelously, that so intent were the Cistercian on retaining possession of St. Thomas’s relics, that they boiled his previously incorrupt body down to its bones, and hid them in a niche in a wall. [NB: I haven’t seen this account documented anywhere, but it was told to me (perhaps unreliably) when I was a young and perhaps naïve Dominican friar.] As is indicated below, however, various parts or bones of the body formerly known as St. Thomas were distributed around Europe, so his body did not remain incorrupt and intact forever.
Eventually, in 1369, at the instruction of Pope Urban V, after many and repeated requests from the Dominican Order, St. Thomas’s remains were returned to his religious brethren. It was on this date, January 28, that the relics of his body completed their journey from Fossanova in Italy and were interred in the motherhouse of the Order, the Jacobin Convent in Toulouse. To commemorate that day, the Dominican Order celebrated another Feast Day for Saint Thomas. After the reform of the general Roman calendar and March 7 was given again to the penances of Lent, the Catholic Church made the day Saint Thomas’s relics were returned to his religious brothers his Feast Day for the universal Church to celebrate his life, teaching and preaching.
There, in Toulouse, his remains remained until the French Revolution in 1789 when they were transferred for safe keeping to the Basilica Church of Saint-Sernin, but they were returned again to the Dominican convent in 1974 for the 700th anniversary of his death. Thus, under an altar in the Dominican church, a reliquary was constructed to serve as the tomb of Saint Thomas. (For more details about circumstances of the translation of the remains of St. Thomas up to their transfer to the Basilica of Saint-Sernin, see this article from Brevarium S.O.P.)
Apparently, though, not all of Saint Thomas’s relics are kept in Toulouse. The thumb of Saint Thomas resides in the Dominican church of Sant’Eustorgio in Milan, while a bone from his left arm is in an arm-shaped reliquary in the church of San Domenico Maggiore in Naples where he lived and taught. His other arm was given to the Dominican convent of Saint James in Paris, but that convent was suppressed and destroyed after the French Revolution. (I have not read what happened to this relic.) His head also was given for a time to the cathedral of Priverno in Latium, Italy, but it seems also to have been reunited with much of the rest of his remains and returned to the care of the Dominicans in Toulouse. Certainly Thomas Aquinas is not the most post mortem widely travelled or widely distributed saint of the middle ages, but rather, his case seems oddly typical of medieval interest in relics. Indeed, Marika Räsänen has recently published a study of the journeys and vicissitudes of St. Thomas’s remains as emblematic of the importance relics had in the height of the medieval period: Thomas Aquinas’s Relics as Focus for Conflict and Cult in the Late Middle Ages: The Restless Corpse.
While such intense interest in the relics of Saint Thomas seems to us perhaps somewhat odd and even macabre, even to the point of missing the true significance of his life and work, Saint Thomas himself acknowledges that such devotion is right and fitting as it is an extension of the honor and veneration that ought to be given to the Body of Jesus Christ. It is indeed for the Angelic Doctor one of the furthest expressions of the Incarnation whereby lowly matter is exalted and made worthy of honor by being united with a very Person God as the saints were temples and instruments of God’s presence in this very material world.
Now it is manifest that we should show honor to the saints of God, as being members of Christ, the children and friends of God, and our intercessors. Wherefore in memory of them we ought to honor any relics of theirs in a fitting manner: principally their bodies, which were temples, and organs of the Holy Ghost dwelling and operating in them, and are destined to be likened to the body of Christ by the glory of the Resurrection. Hence God Himself fittingly honors such relics by working miracles at their presence.
It seems this recognition of the sacredness of the physical is yet another refutation of that heresy, Manicheanism, the bane of all Dominicans, which saw matter and the body as evil and from a source other than the God of Spirit. It is fitting that what remains of Saint Thomas’s own substantial matter, his earthly body, should be the object of intense Catholic interest, and so sought-after by the medievals who understood, perhaps better than us moderns, that all creation, even the dust and muck of earth, is created by God, and is sanctified through His use of it for His divine purposes. It is fitting, too, that the day that saw Thomas’s own body transferred to its final (?) resting place should be the day the universal Church honors the Universal Doctor dedicated, among other concerns, to refuting Manichean dualism, and championing Aristotelian hylomorphism.
Today, November 15, is the Feast of Saint Albert the Great, or Saint Albert of Regensburg. He was a towering figure in medieval philosophy and theology and had such encyclopedic knowledge and an incisive mind that, even in his lifetime, he was called “the Great.”
Ulrich of Strasbourg said of Albert:
He was a man so superior in every science, that he can fittingly be called the wonder of our time.
Albert was born in Swabia in Germany around the year 1200 and studied at the University of Padua. It was there he encountered Blessed Jordan of Saxony and entered the Order of Friars Preachers, the Dominican Order. He went to the University of Paris to continue his studies where he received the degree of Master of Theology and helped to introduce the newly discovered natural, metaphysical and ethical works of Aristotle into the university curriculum.
Soon after Thomas Aquinas escaped the imprisonment of his family and was also able to join the Dominicans, he was, at the age of twenty, placed under the instruction of St. Albert the Great, first in Paris and later in Cologne. Because of his large stature and quiet nature, Thomas’ fellows called him a dumb ox, but St. Albert declared that Thomas’ bellows would resound throughout the world.
Saint Albert established and organized the Dominican House of Studies in Cologne, and is said to have consulted on the construction of that city’s impressive gothic cathedral.
Albert had a consuming interest in studying the natural world and conducted much research into various animals, birds, insects, plants and minerals. It is from these studies that he has been associated with alchemy and even acclaimed (or slandered) as a practitioner of magic and the occult. He, in fact, limited himself mostly to observation and classification, and did much to debunk more fanciful explanations for the workings of nature.
The aim of natural science is not to simply accept the statements of others, but to investigate the causes that are at work in nature.
Albert was elected provincial of the German province of the Dominican Order and was eventually appointed bishop of Ratisbon (Regensburg). He died in 1280 and was canonized and declared a Doctor of the Church by Pope Pius IX in 1931, and proclaimed Patron Saint of natural scientists in 1941.
I have always had a fond devotion to Saint Albert the Great as the Dominican House of Studies where I lived while completing my undergraduate degree was named after him, and on his Feast Day would have a special celebration. I continued the tradition when I came to Texas for graduate school, and my roommate and I would host legendary annual Saint Albert Feast Day Parties for all the grad phil and theology nerds of the University of Saint Thomas.
While procrastinating from actual studies, I found it asserted that St. Albert saw in what we call “the-man-in-the-moon” a visual depiction of the Tree of Knowledge, Adam and the Serpent, a celestial reminder to mankind of its original fall and sin. I’ve been trying to hunt down an image of this interpretation that I used for the invitation to one of the grad phil St. Albert parties, but to no avail. Thanks to the internet, though, (what would we do without you!) I was able to find a more recent presentation of what Albert says he saw.
According to Ewen A. Whitaker (source of the figure on the left, above), Mapping and Naming the Moon: A History of Lunar Cartography and Nomenclature (Cambridge UP 2003), Saint Albert describes what he saw in the shading of the Moon:
It seems to me that this shading is to be found on the eastern part of the Moon towards the lower limb, having the figure of a dragon which has its head toward the west and its tail toward the east with respect to the lower limb; the tip of the tail is not sharp, but large like a leaf with three contiguous circular segments. Above the dragon’s back stands the figure of a tree from which the branches proceed obliquely from the center of the trunk towards the lower eastern part of the Moon, and leaning against the oblique part of the trunk with head and elbows there is a man whose legs descend from the upper parts of the Moon towards the western part.
De Caelo et Mundo, Lib. II, tract. 3, cap. 8.
What is interesting is that, more in line with his reputation as a sober and careful observer of the natural world, St. Albert does not, as far as I can tell, give a theological interpretation for what he saw in these shadings of the Moon. Whitaker’s presentation does not either, but whatever I used for my party invitation, I remember did; but then, Whitaker’s work was published around ten years after the legendary Feast Day parties. (Whitaker does cite a source for his chapter containing this quote, J. W. Stein, S.J., Saint Albert le Gran et l’Astronomie, Specola Vaticana Miscellanea Astronomica 3, No. 102., p. 81-8, so maybe Fr. Stein asserts the connection with Genesis; I haven’t been able to find this article, either.) The theological interpretation seems like it would be obvious to a medieval thinker, especially as it was pretty common at that time (think St. Patrick and the shamrock as a sign of the Holy Trinity (though that particular example is probably apocryphal)).
Anyway, it seems St. Albert was more careful than what many modern writers give medieval thinkers credit for being. I recently read that we are, in a very fundamental way, pattern detecting animals, and that this leads both to apophenia (finding a pattern of connection between unrelated things or events) which is the source for wacky conspiracy theories or cultic (or at least superstitious) religious beliefs, and it leads to genuine scientific knowledge. But what distinguishes science from mere fancy is that science has a method to test the patterns suggested by making predictions that confirm (or disconfirm) the theory, devising tests of such predictions and then conducting the tests and observing the results. It seems to me that this is where one can find true creativity in science beyond dumb, passive observation: seeing patterns, proposing predictions and devising tests.
The nature of genuine (as opposed to superstitious) religious belief is harder to characterize in such a pithy manner. I think there is, and has to be, a sense in which true religious beliefs pass disconfirming test, and even confirming arguments (apologetics) but ultimately it rests on authority, but authority of a trustworthy nature (God and the Church He established and sustains). There are, too, tests for the trustworthiness of these authorities, which while not exactly proving that what God reveals is the case, they do confirm that God revealed it and that He should be trusted.
Anyway, Happy Feast of Saint Albert the Great, O.P., Patron of Scientists and model of restrained observation and of the harmony between faith and science.
I previously quoted approvingly Walker Percy when he posed to himself the option of holding to some worldview besides the Catholic faith, and queried himself the answer “what else is there?” Though himself a convert, I as a Cradle Catholic felt he summed up my experience of considering the various alternatives of worldviews, religions and philosophies against the one in which I was raised, and finding them all wanting. I suppose it must be true that whatever we each end up believing and believing in, is and must be the result of making choices against alternatives. I think for perhaps most Cradle Catholics, (as many Cradle Muslims, -Lutherans, -secularists) the choices for and against various alternatives aren’t usually as explicit as they are for converts, but we all make them nonetheless. I suppose the convert actively investigated “what else” there is in a way a Cradle Believer does not, and in the end with no little deliberation adopted some alternative, maybe even against repulsion or opposition. As a Cradle Catholic, I never saw the appeal of “what else” there is. But, like the convert, it was not for lack of consideration.
In previous posts on this blog, I indicated that I was intrigued, from my upbringing, by the description of God as being “all good and deserving of all my love.” I also made the perhaps audacious claim that you too, dear reader, could find meaning, peace and happiness by pursuing a relationship with God and that the best (most appropriate) way to do this was by being or becoming Catholic. I proposed that the reason not everyone is Catholic is that they, on the one hand, are repelled (not without some justification) by bad Catholics or, on the other, by opting for one of two broad alternatives to the Catholic Church: Protestantism or religiously skeptical secularism (under the (ironically) metaphysical umbrella of scientific materialism (aka physicalism)). I also argued, though, that these two modern worldviews are likewise ultimately the result of bad Catholics.
Since I myself wasn’t driven from the Church by bad Catholics, I managed to remain Catholic by rejecting both these intellectual alternatives. In these previous posts, however, I did not offer much in the way of a compelling case for the Catholic faith against these alternative views. I hope to begin to make that case now, and of the two considered alternatives I see as attractive to most people (at least in the United States), Protestant and physicalist, it seems to make the most sense to start with latter since if physicalism is true, God or an immortal soul would be impossible.
Like everything that has to do with whole worldviews, the case for or against any of them will be complex and, because of this, necessarily lengthy. I apologize for the length of this post, but feel it was unavoidable. I hope to show, however, that physicalism, despite supposedly grounding itself in modern empirical science, entails insuperable problems precisely as a basis for scientific knowledge, and so it can provide no viable alternative to belief in something non-physical (ultimately God and the spiritual human soul as such belief is embodied in Catholic belief). Along the way, I hope to show that physicalism’s failures stem from or are entailed by its denial of the reality of inherent objective natures; that is, it fails to the extent that it clings to, or unconsciously contains, the nominalism from which it sprang. The arguments against physicalism will thus likewise include arguments for inherent realism. Though I did not progress through these arguments in the way I am presenting them here, these are cumulatively the reasons (with regard to physicalism) I have remained Catholic, and (part of) why you should be, too (or at least should not be a physicalist).
As a first step in arguing against physicalism as one alternative to Catholic faith, I want to explore what knowledge is not, and cannot be (at least not exclusively as scientific materialists contend). An exclusive reliance on empirical science, and the physicalist worldview that thus results, fails to explain much of what we know to be true about the world and ourselves, but most damning, it cannot explain science itself, both its foundations and how it arrives at conclusions.
In subsequent essays I will propose more positively what knowledge is (what I will characterize as intentional conformity) and argue for inherent realism of essential natures over and against physicalist accounts of even sense knowledge, and against nominalism which is at the heart of such accounts. Indeed, I hope to show how modern empirical science itself rests on and aims to uncover inherent essential natures. Finally, I will argue that our grasp of inherent essential natures is evidence of our spiritual nature enforming what about us is also physical. This will show that we are at least partially spiritual beings, and will be further evidence that physicalism is false.
What knowledge is not, and cannot be (exclusively).
In my lackluster teenage years, I did manage to excel somewhat in math and science, and as one does in the affluent culture of an Orange County, California, all-boys Catholic college-prep high school, I supposed I should go to college and study for a career in engineering. I suppose my exposure to academic philosophy and theology in my senior year must have resonated with my speculative bent, for I found the mercenary pursuit of science in engineering to be rather hollow, and, coupled with academic setbacks, led me to re-evaluate not only my choice of career, but also my commitment to the Catholic faith.
Up to that point, I was like most people who appreciated the accomplishments of science, but was never exactly in thrall of the technological achievements. My experience learning to program the newly accessible personal computers caused me no little frustration, and left me rather underwhelmed by the marvels of which computers were capable.
Moreover, I suppose I became aware at this time of the anti-religious tendency of many a scientific devotee. Then, but more so in the decades that have followed, it has become commonplace in American culture to account for the rise of science by confidently asserting that what the gods used to explain (thunder, crop abundance or failure) gradually came to be explained by science, and so the gradually increasing success of science would mean (especially for the really seriously scientifically minded) that there would be a diminishing reliance on (or acknowledgement of) any gods (much less the One God favored by Theists (especially Christians)).
Of course (I hope it is obvious) such a story is an historical over-simplification, to the point of being misleading. But more importantly it misunderstands the nature of true religious (especially Christian) belief: while Catholic belief does make truth claims about the origin and purpose of life, the universe and everything (apologies to Douglas Adams), religious believers do not assert the reality of God primarily as an explanation for the phenomena of the observable world (though, as we will see, some observable facts about the world cannot be adequately explained without recognizing He is real – that is an argument for a later blog post).
Personally, at this point in college I became much more interested in and active in the practice of my Catholic faith, but even at that time, and increasingly since then by pursuing academic philosophy, I have seen ever more clearly that such an atheistic, skeptically scientific alternative falls short as “what else” could possibly a true appraisal of the life, the universe and everything (again, apologies to Douglas Adams).
Science, thus, is commonly thought to entail disbelief in (or at least a considered ignorance of (agnosticism about)) the existence of God or any god or other supernatural being. Instead what is proposed as an alternative worldview is scientific materialism (also known as naturalism or physicalism): a metaphysics in the sense of a description and explanation of everything that is (with unintended irony, since it pointedly does not go beyond (meta) the physical). This worldview even has its eschatological hope: that science can or will explain everything, and all (or almost all) human problems can and eventually will be solved by the wise application of scientific knowledge (unless human stupidity, or dumb luck, destroys us first). Scientific materialism or physicalism has three basic convictions:
Faith in empirical science as the only reliable source of knowledge about the observable world which comes through sense data and the necessary inferences from such data.
Science, in investigating the material origins of life, the universe and everything, has (or in principle can) discover a complete explanation in purely material terms, above all, by specifying the completely physical process (Darwinian evolution) by which every living thing, including ourselves, came to be.
Science, in specifying the material constituents of which everything, including living things, especially ourselves, has (or in principle can) discover a complete explanation in purely material terms, as being more or less complex physical processes.
Must all true knowledge be scientific?
To the first point, the success of science leads some to declare that the only true and valid way of knowing whatever can be known is scientifically empirical truth. In Finding Darwin’s God (Harper Collins 2002) Brown University professor of molecular biology, Kenneth R. Miller, documents the tendency of many scientifically minded thinkers, mostly evolutionary biologists, to embrace “a brand of materialism that excludes from serious consideration any source of knowledge other than science.” (185). Indeed, this exaggeration of the power and reach of science continues to be endemic in the culture. For instance, I recently came upon a superficial version premised in Woody Allen’s 2014 film Magic in the Moonlight and given voice in Colin Firth’s character, Stanley. Or again, the character of Steven/Esqueleto in Jack Black’s 2006 Nacho Libre, who resists the faith of Brother Ignácio because, as he says, “I only believe in science!”
Somewhat more seriously, in a recent video, Bill Nye (the Science Guy) comments at some length about the relative worth of philosophy versus science, describing philosophical questions as interesting but ultimately less valuable than the pursuit of science. He tells us he is skeptical of any argument that would lead to the conclusion that we should doubt the deliverances of our senses (that perhaps we are merely dreaming (ala Descartes) or a brain in a vat being fed false sensory inputs). “But the idea that reality is not real or what you sense and feel is not authentic is something I’m very skeptical of. I mean I think that your senses, the reality that you interact with – with light, heat, sense of touch, taste, smell, hearing, absolutely hearing. These are real things.”
What Nye seems to miss in these comments is that claims of the fundamental and systematic unreliability of the senses are the extremes of skeptical thinking, and to reject them is not itself a kind of skepticism, but to embrace reasonable, but non-empirical, assumptions, basic knowledge about ourselves and the world, on which sensation and thus empirical science is built. Nye rather blithely remarks that of course the senses are reliable; he is pretty secure in the knowledge of the causal expectations of tomorrow’s sunrise or that a hammer does in fact cause you pain if dropped on your foot.
Most tellingly, though, in one offhand remark, he elides a core question on which the value of science stands or falls as he avers “humans discovered or invented the process of science.” Well, which is it? For if science is just invented (as nominalists assert), it leads to just the sort of skepticism Nye casually dismisses. Rather, in order to have any claim to genuine (lasting, objective) knowledge, scientific conclusion have to be “out there,” objectively inherent in a rationally ordered world, in order to be discovered. Indeed, all these epistemic truths underpin any scientific conclusions one might draw from observation of quantifiable features of the physical world which repeated experimentation confirms of falsifies.
It’s good that Nye has a high degree of confidence in the reliability of the senses, that our understanding of the earth’s rotation allows for anticipating its future continued rotation, even so far as to acknowledge that he does in fact know such truths. But a moment’s reflection reveals that such knowledge is not gained by empirical observation, but that such observation depends on such knowledge. To view empirical science as the exclusive source of reliable knowledge is incredibly philosophically naïve since empirical science can easily be shown to rest on all sorts of non-empirical assumptions despite nominalists and skeptics (David Hume perhaps most famously) historically having claimed that these assumptions are not in fact known at all but merely our unjustified feelings. [As a side note, to his credit, Nye has acknowledged that his earlier dismissal of philosophy was unfair, and has since come to see the need to address underlying epistemological questions.]
There are indeed other truths a scientist must presuppose in order to draw scientific conclusions. For instance, among such non-empirical assumptions is the fact that physical laws apply universally across time and space. When Edwin Hubble discovered that distant astronomical objects were moving away from earth and each other (and that such objects surprisingly turned out to be separate galaxies), he did so by observing that their light produced absorption lines in spectra which paralleled the absorption lines of known elements, but that these lines in the astronomical spectra were shifted in the red direction of lower color frequencies. From this he reasoned that their light was appearing to him redder than it was in the stars due to the Doppler effect, as happens in sound when, for instance, a fire truck’s siren appears to have a lower pitch as it moves away from the observer. That the various elements each produce the same pattern of absorption lines in spectra of light in distant objects as they do on earth and that light can be “stretched” as sound can in the Doppler effect were not empirical observations, but reasonable, intuitive assumptions Hubble used to infer scientific conclusions from his empirical observation of the light from stars and the spectra they produce.
Now, none of these observations about the knowledge that must necessarily obtain in order for us to sense anything, or the assumptions we make about the consistency and knowability of the observable world, prove that God or a spiritual human soul exists. (Though, as I noted in a previous post, Bishop Barron credits to Josef Ratzinger an argument that such assumptions can provide the basis for just this kind of proof.) But they should tell us that empirical science is not the only, or even the most basic, way of discovering truth about the world. This will be important because when we do consider proofs for the existence and attributes of God, or for a spiritual soul, they will not be strictly scientific proofs, but rational arguments based on fundamental truths about the world and ourselves on which science itself rests. Despite not being strictly scientific (indeed because they are not) they have more, not less, probative force.
One might say that these assumptions about the basic reliability of the senses, the uniformity of laws and principles across space and time, and the principle of causality (in addition to logical and mathematical truths) are just the background against which all human action and knowing have to take place. Yes! Exactly! That is just the point. Human action involves ways of knowing more fundamental than empirical science, and science itself, as a particular sphere of human action and knowing, likewise depends on them, too. These observations, then, should indicate, as they have for me, that some alternative to scientific materialism or physicalism has to be true.
But the fact that there are non-scientific assumptions on which science depend (even if one can argue that they are empirically confirmed), is not the only, and to my mind not the most telling observation that militates against scientific materialism as the true alternative to Catholic faith. The very existence and reliability of science itself cannot be explained or supported in scientific materialist or physicalist terms, and this can be shown by considering the two perspectives from which it views the world, but most especially human beings, namely from the perspective of evolution and materialist reductionism.
Science as a Product of an Exclusively Physical Process, Evolution, Is Unreliable
Based on the standard account of the origin of living organisms from non-living material elements, physicalism asserts that everything, certainly everything on earth, is exclusively composed of physical constituents and the result of physical laws and forces. For instance, noted philosopher of mind, Paul Churchland provides what for him apparently is the most conclusive argument in favor of physicalism: “the argument from evolutionary history.
What is the origin of a complex and sophisticated species such as ours? What, for that matter, is the origin of the dolphin, the mouse, or the housefly? Thanks to the fossil record, comparative anatomy, and the biochemistry of proteins and nucleic acids, there is no longer any significant doubt on this matter. Each existing species is a surviving type from a number of variations on an earlier type of organism; each earlier type is in turn a surviving type from a number of variations on a still earlier type of organism; and so on down the branches of the evolutionary tree until some three billion years ago, we find a trunk of just one or a handful of very simple organisms. These organisms like their more complex offspring, are just self-repairing, self-replicating, energy-driven molecular structures. (That evolutionary trunk has its own roots in an earlier era of purely chemical evolution, in which the molecular elements of life were themselves pieced together.) …
For purposes of our discussion, the important point about the standard evolutionary story is that the human species is the wholly physical outcome of a purely physical process. … Our inner nature differs from that of simpler creatures in degree, but not in kind.
If this is the correct account of our origins, then there seems neither need, nor room, to fit any nonphysical substances or properties into our theoretical account of ourselves. We are creatures of matter. And we should learn to live with that fact.
Matter and Consciousness (MIT Press 1988) 20-21.
It seems to be a natural consequence of this naturalism that a natural process explains everything and so the natural process of evolution must explain all human behavior. Kenneth Miller documents just this tendency in evolutionary biologists and allied thinkers, like the philosopher, Daniel Dennet. Miller, indeed critiques Dennet’s
assertion that we can extend Darwinian analysis to solve problems in nearly any field in truly scientific fashion. Science works. And Darwinism is science. Therefore, he reasons, a Darwinian analysis of any discipline is also a scientific one. If that were true . . . it would lead to the conclusion that any trait, any character, or any behavior of any organism must be the direct product of natural selection….
Finding Darwin’s God 178-9.
Indeed, many have observed that there are many tendencies or predilections in human behavior, while inclined to result in false conclusions about the world, were nevertheless probably selected for evolutionarily because they favored proto-human survival. Among these are the human propensity to see patterns, especially human faces, in natural phenomena (pareidolia), and the predisposition to interpret bumps in the night, rustling in the bushes, as a potential threat or lurking predator. Such mistake-laden tendencies have conduced to survival in the hostile environments of our very distant ancestors, and so were ‘hard wired’ into human behavior. None more so, according to Darwinians such as Dennet, than religion.
Dennet’s view, widely shared by social psychologists and behavioral ecologists, would allow every aspect of human thought to be explained away as an evolutionary adaptation. As we have just seen, this applies to the capacity for language, but just as surely it can be applied to the capacity for religion. As a result, his view of evolution leaves no room for God except as a psychological curiosity to be studied and explained. Our abilities to imagine the divine, which are surely part of human nature, must exist because of natural selection. They surely do not exist because the Deity is real.
Finding Darwin’s God 179.
Thus, our species has been conditioned to believe in divine or supernatural agency by projecting on the world our proclivity for pareidolia and threat detection, among many other survival-favoring, but cognitively faulty, psychological proclivities. This line of critique of the truth-claims of religion in terms of its supposed evolutionary development is elaborated in much greater detail by Pascal Boyer in his Religion Explained (Basic Books 2001).
As a general account of human behavior and knowing, however, physicalism poses a serious threat to the very behavior that produced this account, namely empirical science. Indeed, as should be obvious, science is as much a part of human behavior as religion, and arguably is but a sophisticated form of recognizing patterns within natural phenomena. If, then, other evolutionary produced human behaviors have no necessary connection to, or even are poised to subvert, a true understanding of the world, science might be just as truth-subverting. The conclusive deliverances science should not, at the least, be trusted with any degree of confidence, and that include the intellectual framework of physicalism itself.
This basic argument has been developed in greater detail, though along somewhat different lines, by Alvin Plantinga
Science as a Product of an Exclusively Material Process, Reductionism, Becomes Incoherent
An even more damning implication for the reliability of science emerges from the physicalist view of human beings as exclusively composed of and reducible to their material constituents and the necessary physical laws which govern the interactions and behavior.
In addition to offering a complete, and completely material, account of the origin of living things, scientific materialism encompasses the more expansive yet fundamental claim that all that exist at all are physical things, their properties, and the necessary physical laws which govern and describe their past behavior and invariably predict their future behavior. Physical things themselves are nothing more than the ultimate physical constituents combining and interacting according these necessary physical laws. These physical constituents, together with the forces that determine their interaction and composition into complex bodies, ultimately developed into complex systems of interaction we call living things, defined chiefly by their ability to replicate themselves. But ultimately the living things are what they are, do what they do, exclusively because of the constituents that make them up, and the properties and forces they generate or are necessarily subject to. Nothing beyond the material world and its elements is believed to be required, nor even allowed, since scientific materialism presupposes completeness and adequacy of its physical explanations.
John Searle, for example, ends his book Minds, Brains and Science (Harvard University Press, 1984) by explaining how this physicalist understanding of human action plays out.
Our basic explanatory mechanisms in physics work from the bottom up. That is to say, we explain the behaviour of surface feature of a phenomenon such as the transparency of glass or the liquidity of water in terms of the behaviour of microparticle such as molecules. And the relation of the mind to the brain is an example of such a relation. Mental features are caused by, and ultimately realized in neurophysiological phenomena. … But we get causation from the mind to the body, that is we get top-down causation over time because the top level and the bottom level go together. So, for example, suppose I wish to cause the release of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine at the axon end-plates of my motor neurons, I can do it by simply deciding to raise my arm and then raising it. Here, the mental event, the intention to raise my arm causes the physical event, the release of acetylcholine – a case of top-down causation if ever there was one. But the top-down causation works only because the mental events are grounded in the neurophysiology to start with. So, corresponding to the description of the causal relation that go from the top to the bottom, there is another description of the same series of events where the causal relation bounce entirely along the bottom, that is they are entirely a matter of neurons and neuron firings at synapses, etc. (93)
Searle, however, clearly understands that this physicalist understanding of ourselves and our behavior is at odds with another very basic belief we have about ourselves, namely our personal freedom. Indeed, he is at pains to lay out clearly the nature of the conflict between these two conceptions of ourselves.
On the one hand we are inclined to say that since nature consists of particles and their relations with each other, and since everything can be accounted for in terms of those particles and their relations, there is simply no room for freedom of the will. … So it really does look as if everything we know about physics forces us to some form of denial of human freedom (86-7).
As many philosophers have pointed out, if there is any fact of experience that we are all familiar with, it’s the simple fact that our own choices, decisions, reasonings, and cogitations seem to make a difference to our actual behaviour. There are all sorts of experiences that we have in life where it seems just a fact of our experiences that though we did none thing, we feel we know perfectly well that we could have done something else. We know we could have done something else, because we chose one thing for certain reasons. But we were aware that there were also reasons for choosing something else, and indeed, we might have acted on these reasons and chosen that something else. Another way to put this point is to say: it is just a plain empirical fact about our behaviour that it isn’t predictable in the way that the behaviour of objects rolling down an inclined plane is predictable. And the reason it isn’t predictable in that way is that we could often have done otherwise than we in fact did. Human freedom is just a fact of experience. If we want some empirical proof of this fact, we can simply point to the further fact that it is always up to us to falsify any prediction anybody might care to make about our behaviour. If somebody predicts that I am going to do something, I might just damn well do something else. Now, that sort of option is simply not open to glaciers moving down mountainsides or balls rolling down inclined planes or the planets moving in their elliptical orbits.
This is a characteristic philosophical conundrum, On the one hand, a set of very powerful arguments force us to the conclusion that free will has no place in the universe. On the other hand. a series of powerful arguments based on facts of our own experience inclines us to the conclusion that there must be some freedom of the will because we all experience it all the time. (87-8)
Nevertheless, Searle believes that our (or at least his) commitment to the truth of the contemporary scientific view precludes the possibility of human beings really being free, our subjective experience notwithstanding.
Why exactly is there no room for the freedom of the will on the contemporary scientific view? Our basic explanatory mechanisms in physics work from the bottom up. … As long as we accept this conception of how nature works, then it doesn’t seem that there is any scope for the freedom of the will because on this conception the mind can only affect nature in so far as it is part of nature. But if so, then like the rest of nature, its features are determined at the basic micro-levels of physics (93).
In the end, Searle believes that we can’t help but think that we are free, even though we (or at least he) believes that all our actions are determined physically. He believes that our sense of freedom is rooted in the logical structure of viewing ourselves as originators of intentional behavior. But, in spite of this subjective feeling, he believes that modern science is committed to denying the truth of this feeling.
As long as we accept the bottom-up conception of physical explanation, and it is a conception on which the past three hundred years of science are based, then psychological facts about ourselves, like any other higher-level facts, are entirely causally explicable in terms of and entirely realised in systems of elements at the fundamental micro-physical level. Our conception physical reality simply does not allow for radical freedom.
(F)or reasons I don’t really understand, evolution has given us a form of experience of voluntary action where the experience of freedom, that is to say, the experience of the sense of alternative possibilities, is built into the very structure of conscious, voluntary, intentional human behaviour (98).
It seems, then, that intellectually one has a choice. Searle recognized the incompatibility of his contemporary scientific view (physicalism) with the feeling that he was free, and so he decided the scientific view was more well-grounded and chose to view his feeling of freedom as illusory. Likewise, depending on the horn of the dilemma the truth of which we are more committed to (theoretically or practically), we may choose that we have personal freedom, on the one hand, or that humans are only a collection of atoms, since it seems that both cannot be true.
To my mind, it has always seemed as though the denial of personal freedom that is entailed in the physicalist position should weigh decisively against its truth. As Searle points out, it is just a fact of our subjective experience that we make decisions freely. The denial of personal (libertarian (as opposed to compatibilist) for any philosophical sticklers out there) freedom makes complete nonsense of almost every aspect of social life: personal responsibility, promises, resolutions, pride, shame, regret, praise, blame, merit, guilt, heroism, cowardice, prudence and other concepts besides. For if we are determined by our physical make-up, personal history and environment to do what we do, none of these concepts would ever be fittingly applied – at least not once one knows that humans are physically determined. For it would be just as inappropriate (I dare say, incoherent) to praise or blame a clock for displaying the time accurately or erroneously, since a clock would be just as determined to exhibit the time it does according the same necessary physical laws.
But this determinism also makes a farce even of the supposedly privileged human behavior that informs us of its truth, namely empirical science and arguments in favor of scientific materialism. For, as we have seen, physicalism claims that every event in the world must be the necessary result of the physical properties of things (their ultimate atomic constituent parts) obeying necessary laws of physics and chemistry, and the necessity of this physical causality would apply to beliefs and conclusions which are themselves physical states of the brains of the people who hold them.
In this theory, brain states – like every other physical state – are ultimately the necessary result of physical properties of things (brains, neurons, neural transmitters, synapse firings) obeying necessary physical laws (brain chemistry). Thus, the brain states which instantiate the conclusion of any theory are the necessary physical result of prior brain states. Concluding brain states (like everything else) are completely described and governed by physical laws of physics and chemistry. Therefore, brain states which instantiate the conclusion of any theory are not the logical result of the meaning and truth of the premises. That is, the neural instantiations in a person’s brain of any conclusion are not the result of the meaning and truth of the neural instantiations of the premises which preceded them in the person’s brain.
But there is a tension here that mirrors, and as we’ll see below, includes the tension between physicalism and personal freedom. For, physicalism also claims to be itself is a theory, or system of beliefs, and as the result of a true and valid arguments, it is a set of conclusions logically based on premises, well-grounded beliefs about the physical world as a whole. As Edward Feser notes, when we entertain the meaning of propositions, as when making an argument or giving reasons for why we do what we do or believe what we believe
… there are logical relations between mental states that partially determine precisely which mental states one will have, if one has any at all. But there seem just obviously to be no such relations between neurons firing in the brain. It would be absurd to say – indeed, it isn’t clear what it could even mean to say – that “neuronal firing pattern of type A logically entails neuronal firing pattern of type B,” or that “the secretion of luteinizing hormone is logically inconsistent with the firing of neurons 6,092 through 8,887.” Neurons and hormone secretions have causal relations between them; but logical relations – the sort of relations between propositions like “It is raining outside” and “It is wet outside” – are not causal. There seems to be no way to match up sets of logically interrelated mental states with sets of merely causally interrelated brain states, and thus no way to reduce the mental to the physical.
Philosophy of Mind: A Beginner’s Guide (Oneworld Publications 2006) p. 68.
At most, the chemically causative properties of premising-brain-states which bring about argument-concluding-brain-states may incidentally parallel the logical implications of their semantic content (i.e., what the premises and conclusions mean), but such logical implications are not the true, i.e., physical, cause of the concluding-brain state. (Given, however, that propositions can be expressed linguistically in many ways, in many different speakers, the hope that semantic content would map to brain states according to the necessary type-type identity seems so unlikely as to be impossible; the empirical data from brain scans, at any rate, does not seem to support the incidental parallelism, either.)
And, if the meaning of the premises of an argument (their semantic content) do not provide the reason for holding the alleged conclusion, the argument is either invalid or false, or both (though perhaps incidentally (but non-causatively) sound).
Thus, it seems a logical conclusion, if not a physical necessity, that if physicalism is true, the premises of any argument never provide the reason a person holds to their alleged conclusion; brain chemistry is the true, i.e., physical, reason a person believes a conclusion. Thus, if physicalism is true, physicalism (and every theory) is false, or at least, irrelevant.
But, as with the undeniable truth of personal freedom, it just seems obvious that theories and arguments do explain (either well or poorly) and cause (by bringing about) what and why people believe what they believe. Indeed, part of being convinced by an argument is choosing to accept that the premises are true and the conclusion validly follows from them, and that one has an obligation to (which implies a freedom not to) accept the conclusion as true.
Given certain evidences, I “ought” to believe certain things. I am intellectually responsible for drawing certain conclusions, given certain pieces of evidence. If I do not choose that conclusion, I am irrational. But “ought” implies “can.” If I ought to believe something, then I must have the ability to choose to believe it or not believe it. If one is to be rational, one must be free to choose her beliefs in order to be reasonable. Often, I deliberate about what I am going to believe, or I deliberate about the evidence for something. But such deliberations make sense only if I assume that what I am going to do or believe is “up to me” – that I am free to choose and, thus, I am responsible for irrationality if I choose inappropriately. It is self-refuting to argue that one ought to choose physicalism. . . on the basis of the fact that one should see that the evidence is good for physicalism. . .
Gary R. Habermas & J.P. Moreland, Beyond Death, (Crossway Books, 1998) p. 65.
For all of these reasons, adduced and considered over many years, I must conclude that therefore, physicalism is false. There are, however, positive reasons I have come to accept for why an alternative understanding of knowledge is true, one consonant with (and as I am arguing, a precondition for) the truth of the Catholic faith. I will lay out my case for this alternative in another post.
There is an amusing story told about St. Thomas Aquinas I have always liked. Once, friar Thomas was invited to dine at the table of the King of France, Louis IX, who would eventually be canonized a saint, too. Brother Thomas, fell silent as the meal and conversation continued around him, lost in thought.
Then, suddenly, Thomas exclaimed, “That will settle the Manichees!” The other guests stared aghast at the apparently rude outburst. But the king recognized that the brilliant Dominican friar had been distracted wrestling with a philosophical and theological difficulty, apparently trying to answer those who view the material world as evil and deriving from an evil principle (as Manichees do). This is an issue dear to the heart of Dominicans as it was against just such heretics that St. Dominic set about his task of preaching that eventually led to the foundation of the Order of Preachers. King Louis accordingly called for scribes to take down the insight Brother Thomas had come to, lest it be forgotten.
Today is the feast day of St. Louis of France, host to St. Thomas Aquinas, and one who saw and supported him in his academic ministry. Ora pro nobis.
In my previous post I related that when I began to investigate how I might explain and defend the Catholic faith, I found that sometimes I agreed with skeptical critiques of distinctively Protestant beliefs, yet I was very convinced of the inadequacy of physicalist explanations of nature in general and of the human mind and rational behavior in particular. But I also found that I agreed with (mostly Protestant) Christian defenses of the belief in God and Jesus, yet wondered why Protestants, who made such extensive use of the Catholic tradition were not themselves Catholic. The debate over the truth of Christianity, at least in the United States, has been going on more heatedly in recent years in terms that pitted secular, scientifically-minded skeptics against Bible-believing Protestant Christians, who each, in different ways, are opposed to Catholic belief.
What this dynamic between Protestant Christianity and secular skepticism shows is not that religion and science are irreconcilable or that reason is inherently opposed to faith, but that both the modern understanding of faith and Christianity on the one hand, and of reason and science on the other are severely diminished and impoverished, and that back in the 14th century their shared flaws were baked into the systems of thought that have continued down to our own day. The opposition between secularism and Christianity (in a predominantly Protestant form) is, historically, at least partially the result of moral shortcomings for which people have, with some justification, always faulted the Catholic Church, and led, in the first place, to the division in Western Christianity between Protestants and Catholics. Precisely against such abuses and decadence of the Church of the middle ages, reformers such as Martin Luther sought to restore true Christian faith in, and worship of, God from the neglect of which led to church abuses. How they justified their reform, however, was to employ bad philosophy (which, also owing to ecclesial decadence, gained widespread currency in Europe).
Luther’s initial objections were to the practice of the selling of indulgences, but his theoretical and theological positions emerged arising from his personal spiritual upheaval alongside a novel reading of Scripture that was shaped and hardened by the manner in which the Church authorities in the 16th century confronted his critiques. The Protestant reformers, consequently, ended up opposing not just the sale of indulgences, but the reality of purgatory, along with the authority of the pope and bishops to discern true doctrine, by instead grounding their reforms in an autonomous authority of the Bible. To varying degrees reform-minded Christians denied the necessity or efficacy of the Catholic sacraments like baptism, Eucharist, confession and the ordained ministerial priesthood, a rejection which continues to our own day.
In undercutting the theological bases of the system of indulgences, knowingly or not, Luther and the first Protestant reformers embodied and utilized radically novel philosophical ideas (called nominalism, which I will shortly describe). This via moderna (“modern way” as nominalism was called) was forged over the prior 200 years from before the arrival of the Black Death, during the time of the Avignon Papacy (along with the subsequent Western Schism when there were two and sometimes three claimants to the papacy). These historical calamities of the 14th and 15th centuries, it should be noted, also help explain how these calamitous ideas became widely accepted. These ideas, as wielded by these reformers, emphasized God’s all-powerful, sovereign ability to act beyond human convention or comprehension, and thus provided a theoretical alternative to the Church they sought to reform or now oppose. For reasons I will discuss anon, nominalism begins with a recognition that each individual material thing is singular and unique, created individually by God who is in no way bound by what he has created, but who in his omnipotence is completely free to act and command as he wills. Supposing that each individual thing in its uniqueness has no necessary relation to any other, God’s will is not revealed through nature or any sort of natural law, but can only be known as he reveals it in Sacred Scripture, i.e., the Bible. God reveals that a debt of eternal punishment is due for human sinfulness, but similarly reveals that the sacrificial death of His Son satisfies that debt when He gives the sinner the faith to trust in Jesus’ sacrifice. Thus, the Protestant reformers looked to sola scriptura, Scripture alone, to discover what is necessary for sinful human beings to be saved from the punishment we deserve, which salvation comes through sola fide, faith alone, the subjective conviction and trust one discovers within oneself to accept the salvation offered by God in Christ through sola gratia, God’s free, unmerited grace or gift.
Ironically, the very same radically novel nominalist principles innovated and championed in the early 14th century also ultimately gave rise to modern experimental science in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, and the skeptical, secular attitude toward religion in general and Christianity (including Catholicism) in particular eventually became a sort of modern default intellectual position following the Wars of Religion throughout the 17th century. Nominalism, again beginning with a recognition that each individual material thing is singular and unique, claimed that therefore there are no essential natures of the things by which they are related to each other, and that the ability of human reason to treat things as belonging to identifiable and distinguishable classes derives from our ability to class them together under various concepts which we invent and label with “names” (nomen in Latin, hence nominalism) according to our own convention. Instead of knowing the objective universal natures or essences that things have in themselves, all we can truly know are what we observe of them through our senses, that is, their outward appearance and behavior. Thus, by repeated and controlled observation of the quantifiable aspects of things (like weight, length, distance, speed (distance over time), etc.), science confirms or refutes the theories it has devised to predict future behavior based on past observation. But the theories are mere human contrivance, educated guesses about how things will behave, and deemed “true” to the extent that they make accurate predictions.
After 500 years, these two inheritors of nominalism, Protestant Christianity (just in proportion that it embraces Bible-alone and faith-alone) and secular skepticism (grounding itself in empirical science), owing to a single common philosophical foundation, find themselves, especially in recent years, opposed not only to each other but to Catholic belief as well. There is, however, (and at one time, was dominant in the Christian West) a richer, fuller and truer understanding of the inherent rationality and sacredness of the world, but this was ruptured in the 14th century. These modern approaches to the world that emerged are laboring to achieve the coherence thinkers of the previous centuries realized, but with intellectual resources that are shadows of their classical selves. The richer, fuller and truer understanding of the world persists, however, in the Catholic grasp of God, the world and the place of humans within and between them. By contrast, both Protestantism and secularism are attempts to cope with the havoc wrought by nominalism, but since they are each built (at least partially) on the denial of the reality of objective natures which is the actual structure of reality, neither can provide a coherent picture of the world and moreover are constantly in conflict with each other.
This pre-modern, Catholic tradition from which nominalism arose and against which it reacted does not suffer from this breakdown. It is known variously as inherent realism or moderate (as opposed to extreme) realism or Scholastic realism and is found especially well-developed in the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas, grounded in philosophical insights of Aristotle. This recognition of the reality of objective natures does not merely posit, but discerns, that universals are, indeed must be, inherent throughout reality. Instead of viewing human concepts as useful mental contrivances, it recognizes that human rationality is fundamentally how we are in conformity with the rational structure (logos) of the natural world. Thus, from the side of the order of nature, inherent realism admits the power of reason to conclude to God who created the natural world according to his reason (Logos, the Divine Word), and who can be known through the analogy and participation running through this structure. Similarly, it recognizes that problem of evil depends on this analogical/rational structure since the disorder of evil depends on an underlying rational order of nature.
Robert Barron, in the essay “The Metaphysics of Coinherence,” from his book Exploring Catholic Theology, identifies this pre-modern insight as a recognition that reality shares in the in-dwelling of intelligibility precisely as created ex nihilo by a transcendent God, and as Augustine and Aquinas would argue, the “first principles and operations of the mind are nothing but a participation in the reasonability of the divine Logos, which became incarnate in Jesus.” Likewise, maintaining this Catholic sensibility “means holding to the radical intelligibility of being. If God has made all creation through the Logos, then all existence must be stamped with form, the mark of a knower” (p. 37). Indeed, as Barron notes, the young Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope-emeritus Benedict XVI) saw in this insight a means whereby one can conclude to the reality of God:
the universal intelligibility of nature, which is the presupposition of all science, can only be explained through recourse to an infinite and creative mind which has thought the world into being. No scientist, Ratzinger said, could even begin to work unless and until he assumed that the aspect of nature he was investigating was knowable, intelligible, marked by form. But this fundamentally mystical assumption rests upon the conviction that whatever he comes to know through his scientific work is simply an act of re-thinking or re-cognizing what a far greater mind has already conceived.
In his book Catholicism, Barron goes so far as to identify the mystery of the Incarnation as the essential, most distinctive characteristic of Catholic belief. He explains that while other Christians “hold just as firmly that the Word became flesh,” what is “essential to the Catholic mind is . . . a keen sense of the prolongation of the Incarnation throughout space and time, an extension made possible through the mystery of the church” (p. 3).
As I hope to show, the co-inherent metaphysical relationship works in the other noetic direction, too. Since existence is stamped with form or objective essential natures, nature can lead one to God as creator and rational orderer, and that when He became man in Jesus, his Incarnation extends and is prolonged in the life of the Church according to co-inhering created forms. From the side of Scripture and salvation, too, the Catholic inherent realist insistence on the reality of essential natures underlies the supernatural revelation and manifestation of God (since it is also an analogical manifestation of His reason) into the world He has rationally structured. Indeed, one can find in the Scriptures themselves, we Catholics believe, that this co-inherence of divine intelligibility in the world is also revealed. As the prophet Isaiah declares:
For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, my thoughts higher than your thoughts. Yet just as from the heavens the rain and snow come down and do not return there till they have watered the earth, making it fertile and fruitful, giving seed to the one who sows and bread to the one who eats, so shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but shall do what pleases me, achieving the end for which I sent it.
Isaiah 55: 9-11. Many other Scripture passages could likewise be adduced along this theme.
In this way, Catholic theology which is built upon metaphysical co-inherence undergirds and staves off the incoherence to which Protestantism subjects Scripture: revelation itself can go beyond the Bible alone, and so can offer more rational understandings of (according to an analogical, symbolic rationale) even the apparent violence and questionable morality in Bible, of Christ’s atonement (without invoking penal substitution), and of grace as the manner in which human beings become sharers in God’s being, along with other distinctively Catholic elements: sacraments, apostolic authority and magisterium. There is, in fact, a consonance of the Divine (Logos) with human reason (logos) and the rational order (logos) objectively inherent in the world which together are at work in establishing the reliability and historicity of Gospels and Jesus’s resurrection, along with Christ’s establishment and sustaining of His holy bride, the Catholic Church.
So far, these claims about the truth of co-inherent realism, along with the unique capacity of Catholic belief to rationally articulate God’s plan of salvation in Jesus according to this truth, are mere assertions on my part. They explain why I am Catholic, why I think other people are not, and why I think everyone, including you, should be too, but I admit, they still stand in need of a compelling case being made for them. Thus, in the presentations which will follow, I will make arguments for Catholic beliefs, and as I said, that the Catholic Church is the ordinary means by which we sinful people can achieve union with God through Jesus. These arguments will address God’s existence and goodness; how his goodness is not undermined by natural or moral evil, but in fact presupposed by, and manifested in, remediating evil; the historicity of Jesus, along with His claims to be God’s own Son as attested through His resurrection; Jesus founding of His Church in the 1st century AD and that it contained the distinctive marks of the Catholic Church: a teaching authority which together with Sacred Scripture preserves and hands on Who Jesus is and teaches, the sacraments He instituted to provide the grace to sustain this Church and to ultimately fit us for that eternal loving embrace of God forever which is the Beatific Vision mentioned earlier.
First, though, I need to show more completely what nominalism is, and that when it supplanted the Scholastic and Thomistic synthesis from which it sprang, it gave rise to and lives on in Protestant Christianity and modern secularism. Next, I will argue for the truth of inherent realism (i.e., the objectivity of essential natures) and how it accurately depicts the very structure of the physical universe which thereby makes sense of scientific rationality, as well. This understanding of the intelligible structure of the universe is the ground and framework for the arguments alluded above and which follow: for God’s existence, His goodness and other attributes, His revelation in Jesus Christ and foundation and configuring of the Catholic Church. The arguments for these Catholic beliefs are not new or unique to me, but what I hope will be helpful will be the highlighting of how the most coherent approach to Catholic belief depends on inherent realism, and that what in fact is the rational structure of reality can only be explained and as it were completed in the Catholic vision of God, revelation, sin, Christ, redemption and ultimate Beatitude.
An implication of this approach, however, is that it departs from advocating for “Mere Christianity” as proposed by C.S. Lewis (in a book of his of the same name) which is nearly universal in modern attempts to explain and defend Christian beliefs. Lewis proposed that an clear-eyed assessment of a person’s objective moral state and the evidence for God and Jesus would lead him to accept the truth of doctrines all traditional, historical and orthodox Christian denominations hold in common: that God is One, a Trinity of Person, that the Divine Son was born on earth in the person of Jesus Christ, and that Christ died to save all mankind from their sins and rose bodily in His resurrection. The particular Christian denominations are various ways believers have found they need to live out Mere Christianity.
I suggest that offering a rational defense of what is common to all Christian denominations requires an at least implicit recognition of the truth of inherent realism, which I contend, is incompatible, to more and less degrees, with any form of Christianity but the Catholic faith. If a Christian can successfully argue for the spirituality of the human soul, the existence, goodness, power and knowledge of God, the existence of Jesus, the reliability of the gospels in attesting to His resurrection, then that Christian should also accept the foundation of the Catholic Church endowed by Christ and the Holy Spirit with the magisterial authority which produced, canonized and authoritatively interprets Scripture, and which has continued for nearly 2000 years to administer sacraments to confer sanctifying grace whereby people are saved and share in God’s divine life. If one values rational inquiry, especially as far as offering a rational defense of Christianity, I contend, one ought to be Catholic.
So, to sum up, besides not truly knowing about the Catholic Church (sometimes owing to bad Catholics), the reason why not everyone is Catholic is nominalism (also the result of bad Catholics). Since nominalism is false, everyone, including you, should be Catholic. This might be a bit of an oversimplification.
Here is the plan for subsequent posts in which I hope to make the compelling case for being Catholic:
Reason and Reality: how we conform ourselves to the inherent rational structure of reality.
Evidence for the Existence of God: the source of nature and rationality.
God and Evil: Nature disordered and in need of redemption.
The Life, Death and Resurrection of Jesus: the rational evidence for His eternal origin and end.
Jesus’s Redeeming Life and Death: restoring divine order out of the disorder of evil and sin.
The Catholic Church: proclaiming the redeeming life of Jesus through Scripture and Tradition.
The Catholic Church: sharing in the redeeming life of Jesus through the Sacraments.
If it is true, as I have claimed, that a compelling case can be made that you (or anyone) can find ultimate fulfillment in knowing and loving God, who is all good and deserving of all your love, by living your life as a committed Catholic, it may seem perplexing that anyone is not Catholic (at least of those who have heard about the Church and been able to join it). Growing up Catholic, imagine my surprise when, around the age of ten or twelve, I came to realized that, in fact, not everyone is Catholic.
As it turns out, for a great many people, the Catholic Church is strange and, in some sense, repellent. To be sure, the Catholic faith has many and varied odd observances: processions with statues of the Virgin Mary at many and various shrines to her honor, archaic ceremonies and rituals, ministers dressed in the aristocratic attire of bygone centuries, funny hats of elaborate and elevated shapes, sacred meals, ceremonial washings, various kinds of anointings with holy oils. To outsiders, and to not a few insiders as well, the Catholic trappings can seem confusing and more than a little out of date. And this is to say nothing of the content of her teachings which many find magical and repressive. In the minds of many, especially since the 16th century, the Catholic church seems only to be a hollow religious institution engaged in empty formal rituals conducted on the mistaken belief that such practices will please or appease God and earn a place in heaven, perhaps after a shortened stay in purgatory. Or worse, many believe, the Catholic church to be a criminal enterprise existing to financially exploit the gullibility of believers, or at the worst to physically and sexually abuse children.
Now these crude caricatures do not portray an accurate picture of the Catholic Church, and those who are repelled are not really repelled by the Church as it truly is. As should be apparent to anyone whose knowledge extends beyond such caricatures or salacious headlines, the Catholic church viewed in its entirety is not inherently evil, but as I said, is the means of attaining union with an all good God. Sadly, however, many terrible atrocities have been committed by Catholic officials and ordinary members, and the vast majority of decent, faithful Catholics share in the outrage at such atrocities. Perhaps it stings more deeply among us Catholics, coupled as it is with shame and horror that our fellow members failed of the much higher ideals which we believe Jesus calls all of us to. When confronted by the evil which Catholics have done, sometime in the name of Jesus and His Church, we must admit that, sadly, these Catholic leaders have been just as bad as the worst of their culture’s and era’s non-Catholic contemporaries. All who are horrified by this evil share in common the belief that professed followers of Christ should act and be expected to act according to a higher moral standard. Those outside the Church, no less than those of us within it, who denounce these evils all believe that there is a standard of moral goodness and decency that many, many Catholics failed to live up to. My presentation of the Catholic faith here will not have much more to say about those Catholics who fall horrifically short of the ideals any decent person believes in, but I will instead focus on those ideals, the ideals or standards of common decency, as well as the ideals peculiar to the Catholic faith, and especially how those former ideals are metaphysically grounded so as to flower in the latter.
In one sense, it is understandable that critics of the Catholic Church should focus so much (I would say excessively) on the moral failings of her members, especially of her officials and clergy. How could an institution which produced such depraved members, members who rose to positions of leadership and power, and who used that power to such depraved ends? What gives force to this question is the implicit expectation that the officials who fall so short of any ideal of human decency, much less of any lofty or exalted Christian ideals of self-denial, self-sacrifice and disinterested love for those in their care, could not possibly be the product or an instrument of a God who is supposed to be all good and deserving of all love. It is certainly understandable if someone, laboring under such an implicit assumption, should reject the Catholic Church out of hand as an institution worthy of respect, admiration or emulation much less one attractive to join. It is certainly true that Jesus calls Catholics to higher ideals and better behavior, and indeed instituted the Church to teach them these ideals and equip and strengthen them for that behavior. Given her healing mission, it has been suggested, that since only the sick need a doctor, one should expect sinful people to be associated with the Church, seeking to receive, but also being the instruments of, God’s remedy for human sinfulness. I think this suggestion is too accepting of the moral weakness and failings of Catholics, clergy and laity.
This suggestion, though, does highlight what is, in fact, the primary thing the Catholic Church has going for it, namely that it is the instrument of God’s remedy for human sinfulness, and that He, not the sinful people who belong to the Church, is real and really at work in it. And the witness of those on whom the remedy has had its intended effect, namely holiness and conformity to an all good God, i.e., the witness of the saints, is evidence of the effectiveness of the medicine. That, and the fact that the Church still stands and carries on in spite of the corruption and horrible mismanagement of her leadership over the centuries. In spite of this checkered history, my presentation will focus on Catholic arguments for the reality of God, for Jesus as God’s Son and for His establishment and continued sustaining of the Catholic Church.
The Main Alternatives to the Catholic Faith
Besides, or in addition to being repelled by (I would argue) caricatures of the Catholic Church, there are thoughtfully considered (as opposed to emotionally motivated) alternatives to being Catholic, and the main ones that one finds in the United States are also the historical result of bad Catholics. Part of the reason I think I have stayed Catholic is that these alternatives never struck me as attractive or compelling.
The Catholic novelist and writer Walker Percy published “Questions They Never Asked Me,” an interview with himself where he asks and answers questions he always wished he had been asked. In this fictional exchange with himself, he reflects on how Catholic belief is possible given the alternatives to it:
Q: How is such a belief [in the dogmas of the Catholic Church] possible in this day and age? A: What else is there? Q: What do you mean, what else is there? There is humanism, atheism, agnosticism, Marxism, behaviorism, materialism, Buddhism, Muhammadanism, Sufism, astrology, occultism, theosophy. A: That’s what I mean. Q: To say nothing of Judaism and Protestantism. A: Well, I would include them along with the Catholic Church in the whole peculiar Jewish-Christian thing. Q: I don’t understand. Would you exclude, for example, scientific humanism as a rational and honorable alternative? A: Yes. Q: Why? A: It’s not good enough. Q: Why not? A: This life is too much trouble, far too strange, to arrive at the end of it and then to be asked what you make of it and have to answer “Scientific humanism.” That won’t do. A poor show. Life is a mystery, love is a delight. Therefore I take it as axiomatic that one should settle for nothing less than the infinite mystery and the infinite delight, i.e., God. In fact I demand it. I refuse to settle for anything less. I don’t see why anyone should settle for less than Jacob, who actually grabbed aholt of God and would not let go until God identified himself and blessed him. Q: Grabbed aholt? A: A Louisiana expression. Q: But isn’t the Catholic Church in a mess these days, badly split, its liturgy barbarized, vocations declining? A: Sure. That’s a sign of its divine origins, that it survives these periodic disasters.
This sentiment has always struck me, as a Cradle Catholic (one who stayed), as right on target: besides the Catholic Church, what else is there? It may not be perfect or completely satisfying, but no alternative, including the alternative of nothing, is better. Moreover, as the result of no little study, I have come to realize that these alternatives gave up some fundamental insights into the structure of reality which the Catholic faith retains. Consequently, I hope that seeing this for yourself, you too will stay (or become or become again) a practicing Catholic.
What I came to see is that the shortcomings of popes, bishops, monks, friars, nuns, priests and Catholics in general (of the kind we mentioned above) gave rise, in different ways, to the main types of alternatives to, and theoretical rivals of, the Catholic Church. Specifically, Protestant Christianity, with its emphasis on the Bible and personal faith in Jesus, is the most common religious alternative to Catholic belief and practice in the United States. But, grounded in a modern, scientific view of the world, the skeptical, secular opposition to religion in general and Christianity (including Catholicism) in particular is also prevalent in this country. Indeed, much of the discussion in this country about the truth of Christianity (implicitly, it is supposed, covering beliefs shared with Catholicism) is carried on against supposedly scientifically grounded skeptical and secular critiques. Yet in the dynamic of their critiques and replies, each participant, curiously, at various points faults the other for their departure from a rational appraisal of the world. Each of their respective departures, I will argue, betrays the inadequacy I sensed in their positions, and by a kind of intellectually implicit default, kept me in the bosom of the Catholic Church. As we will see below, I found something consonant with Catholic belief both in the critiques and arguments of each side of this debate as I sought a more comprehensive presentation of the Catholic faith.
The back and forth between skeptics and Christians plays out according to well-established themes and critiques. Secular skeptics, in the name of science, reject specific Christian claims which they contend are supremely irrational. Starting with more literal readings of the Bible by certain (though, to be fair, not all) Christians, many skeptics decry its seeming denial of what reason has discovered of the very old age of the earth and human society through archaeology, evolutionary biology, chemistry and astronomy. Likewise, these critics of Christianity shrink in horror when the Bible (mostly in the Old Testament) seems to advocate wholesale destruction of people and barbaric violence, such as in the stories of Noah’s flood, Abraham’s (near) sacrifice of his son Isaac, the slaughter of various tribes of ancient Palestine, among many others. These critics are doubly horrified if Christians should claim that this violence is not horrific owing to God’s prerogative to determine what is morally good and acceptable according to his sovereign will, and that these apparently evil acts are no such thing owing to the simple fact that God’s commanding them renders the actions not evil, but good. Skeptical critics resist such a justification of the apparent double-standard in Biblical morality precisely because it defies common and rational standards of right and wrong, standards the skeptic must ground on some notion of objective morality which itself rests on notions of human dignity.
(It should be noted, however, that Christians frequently do not grant that God arbitrarily determines Biblical morality either for Himself or for humans but instead they admit that God’s moral precepts revealed in the Bible have an objective basis. As with cases to be discussed below, this is an extraordinarily rationalist approach for Biblical Christians to take.)
When it comes to the central importance of salvation coming through Jesus’ death on the cross, secular critics likewise denounce the seemingly arbitrary and brutal requirement that someone die (especially God’s own Son) so that the rest of us may be pardoned (an idea known as penal substitution). If the God of the Bible is all powerful, surely He can simply choose to forgive sinners without having to demand anyone’s blood, least of all His own Son’s. In this, again, the secular skeptic is appealing to a natural and rational notion of justice.
On the other hand, countering more radical secular critiques of the life and miracles of Jesus, Christians marshal evidence and arguments that, perhaps surprisingly, they claim are similarly rationally grounded. Skeptics, for instance, critique Christianity by denying that the story of Jesus presented in the Bible is historically reliable, least of all the claims that He rose from the dead, and in extreme cases, they even deny that Jesus was a real, historical person in the first place. Against these claims, in order to demonstrate the historical truth underlying their faith, Christians, who otherwise lay so much stress on the Bible, argue on the basis of reason for the historicity of Jesus and his resurrection. Bringing forward arguments based on contemporary ancient sources, the nature of religious ideas and practices current in 1st century Palestine, the psychology of the apostolic witnesses among other forms of historical evidence, Christians appeal to rational arguments based on the reality of objective natures of human community and communication. We will in time examine and evaluate such arguments, but it is remarkable that Christians seek to engage skeptics on the ground of reason and nature.
Going deeper, when it comes to belief in God as such, skeptics exult in the empirical deliverances of modern science and the view that reality is completely explained (or in principle explainable) naturalistically, that is, in terms of exclusively material and physical features of the world. In critiquing the very coherence of the notion of God, secular skeptics point out supposed inherent difficulties in reconciling God’s alleged attributes: omniscience, omnipotence and omnibenevolence. For example, skeptics argue that God’s omniscience and omnipotence seems to be contradicted by His apparent inability to foresee or prevent his creature rebelling again Him, or that the pain and suffering He apparently enables seems logically incompatible with His supposedly being all-good. With regard to the problem of evil, though, skeptics seem especially conflicted, for their physicalism must require on the one hand that the everything is ultimately the result of mindless, purposeless necessary physical and material constituents and forces, and yet that the evil (human wrongdoing no less than natural disasters and diseases) are a falling short of the way things should be, are supposed to be. Christians similarly employ arguments based on the reality of the objective nature of goodness, knowledge, freedom and evil to offer answers to these charges of logical incoherence. And when critiquing arguments for the existence of God as cause of the existence and intelligibility of the world, Christians again champion the ability of reason to find an objective, natural basis for discovering a transcendent cause of the universe. Secular skeptics, however, deny the rational need for such a cause despite the fact that their whole confidence in science hangs on a relentless search for causes, and by rights this search ought to extend to the very foundational features of a rationally ordered and intelligible universe.
Finally, secular skeptics, precisely in their assertion of physicalism, undercut the very possibility and reliability of the rational enterprise. For, insofar a physicalist considers a human being to be nothing more than a process of interaction of material constituents or as the result of a purely physical evolutionary process, on the one hand, she must see each person’s every physical state (including their scientific conclusions) to be determined by necessary physical laws. Yet, the physicalist must also trust that she has arrived at this supposed scientific conclusions by logically related universal concepts. It is supremely difficult to see, on physicalist grounds, how a scientific conclusion could be the result of brain chemistry and of valid logical reasoning. In this way, the very rational nature of physicalism as a theory thus militates against its truth.
Thus, when I began to investigate how I might explain and defend the Catholic faith, I found that I agreed with skeptical critiques of distinctively Protestant beliefs about the Bible, morality, and Jesus’ atonement, yet I was very convinced (from my doctoral studies) of the inadequacy of physicalist explanations of nature in general and of the human mind and rational behavior in particular. But I also found that I agreed with (mostly Protestant) Christian defenses of the historicity of the gospels and Jesus’ resurrection, (certain) explanations of evil, and (certain) arguments for the existence and nature of God (especially in the forms given by St. Thomas Aquinas), yet wondered why Protestants, who made such extensive use of the Catholic tradition (Early Church Fathers and scholastic saints) were not themselves Catholic.
So, what is behind this conflict? Strangely, ironically, both the Protestant Christian and the secular skeptic who engage in polemics against each other, share a number of assumptions: Both value rationality but invoke it at different times: the secularist in favor of old earth, evolution and common sense of decency and justice; the Christian in favor of the historical reliability of the gospels, in theodicies to explain evil, and in arguments for God’s existence. Biblicist show distrust of reason by asserting the need to rely on revelation to know God’s creative action (and the history of life), what is morally good as pleasing to Him, and that His love is (counter-intuitively) revealed in Jesus’s sacrificial death. Secularist show their distrust of reason (to my mind) by inventing ad hoc explanations of gospels, offering rather contrived explanations of the resurrection of Jesus and rise of Christianity, but also by adopting of physicalist criteria of empirical knowledge, which undermine the foundations of science itself. Both view reason as coherence of the material world, but are varyingly skeptical about it providing an avenue beyond the material. Protestants ground themselves in a “given” by holding to God’s sovereign, inscrutable will manifested in the Bible; secularists focus on the incontrovertible “given” evidence of the senses and so are resolutely empirical. Both of these opposing positions, however, focus on such “givens” because of a philosophical upheaval in the 14th century, which contributed to, or at least was exacerbated by Church corruption of the sort we briefly alluded to before.
It is this upheaval and its relation to historically bad Catholics that we will examine next.