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 excelled 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 assert the reality of God not 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:
1. 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.
2. 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.
3. 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.
Explanations and defenses of the truth of the Catholic faith tend to be written by converts. Perhaps this is natural and to be expected: a convert, by definition, has changed his or her set or system of beliefs about God, Jesus, the Bible and the Church (among others) from alternative views, and has had to learn the new one through extensive research, study, thoughtful consideration, prayer, and often not a little anguish. Catholic converts often tend to be not only more committed than “cradle” Catholics (those born and raised in a Catholic household), having had to make a deliberate choice to enter the Church, sometimes in the face of fierce opposition, but they are also often better informed because of this research, etc. than those raised in the bosom of the Church. The reason cradle Catholics sometimes know less than their recently adopted brethren is probably manifold, no doubt including perhaps the less-than-optimal religious education in Catholic circles for the last two generations. But it also, no doubt, comes from the fact that growing up in an environment accepting of Catholic teachings, lifelong adherents might neither have challenged their fellows nor were challenged to explain the doctrines which they and everyone they know had always believed.
Because I fit more into in the latter group of cradle Catholics, I was a little at a loss for words when a religiously skeptical college student asked me, point blank, why are you Catholic. I had been Catholic my whole life, and while I was teaching philosophy of religion and various classes on Catholic doctrine, I had thought about various truths of the Catholic faith, but I had never had to give a complete account as to why I believed as I did. My upbringing, in a certain way, explains my current belief (I might believe differently had I been raised differently) but many other cradle Catholics with the same or similar upbringing as I are no longer practicing Catholics. Besides, I knew that this student (and now I) sought more than mere biography, but rather an apologia, a reasoned defense, of why I believed as I did. This is what I hope to offer in the series of presentations here commencing.
I wasn’t quite born Catholic (no one is) but was baptized Catholic within a few days of being born, and was raised Catholic in a family of ten children, with a priest for an uncle. I attended twelve years of Catholic school, and would go on to want to be a priest myself, for a time, before leaving seminary and earning a doctorate in philosophy (especially of Saint Thomas Aquinas) from a Catholic university in Texas. I think what set me on a path that would ultimately culminate in trying to explain and defend the Catholic faith was being told that God is “all good and deserving of all my love.” That last phrase comes from a Catholic prayer called the Act of Contrition (an elaborate way of saying ‘I’m sorry’) which I learned as a small boy in preparation for my First Confession.
I have prayed, and continue to pray, the Act of Contrition, throughout my life, and that phrase, “all good and deserving of all my love,” has always stuck with me, and goaded me to want to be a priest (for a time) and to want to eventually earn that doctorate. That phrase pushed me to want to understand how there can be a God who is all good, especially when there is a lot in the world that is not-so-good, especially in myself and my own actions (hence my praying the Act of Contrition and going to confession). It also made me want to know why or how He is deserving of, and so owed, all my love. It didn’t seem that this phrase meant I was supposed only to love God and nothing else since I was often confessing that I had not loved my parents or siblings as I ought, among other sins.
Obviously, my thoughts, while inspired by this phrase, were not circumscribed by it. My fascination with God being all good and deserving of all my love was not my only early theologically inspired musing. I remember about this time, asking my mother whether the Father, Son and Holy Spirit were God in the way various people together were Congress. She replied that she wasn’t sure how God is a Trinity, but she was pretty sure that that was not it. From these musings and many more questions I would raise, one thing they taught me was that simply because I, or some other Catholic teacher, could not answer a question to my satisfaction, and that in some respect I knew more about the faith to the extent I found their answer inadequate, I should not dismiss the Catholic faith out of hand, and certainly not at such a young age, because the teacher seemed to me deficient. I thought there should be good answers to such questions from some who clearly would know more than me, and so, after a pretty complacent high school career and brief foray into engineering in college (where I encountered some who challenged the truth of my faith), I found that there are in fact Catholics who did and do know more about the faith than I do, and who offer pretty good and compelling answers to such questions.
Pursuing questions such as these, along with a great many other factors, led me to learn, and over the years have confirmed me in the knowledge, that the Catholic Church provides the right and proper way, the standard way (with the help of His grace) to satisfy my debt to give God what He deserves, viz. all of my love. Hopefully, with this series of presentations, I will be able to show that you, too, can know there is a God who is all good and deserving of all your love, and that being Catholic is the appropriate way for you to do that. And, moreover, that this will constitute the most tremendous experience in the history of the entire universe: to achieve complete and utter fulfillment and happiness by being united forever in the loving embrace of God. I know! Pretty awesome!
But unless you are already Catholic, and Catholic at a pretty high level of popishness, these claims may strike you as literally unbelievable. Who can say there really is a God? And how good could he really be? All good? Maybe pretty good, and deserving of some of my love, but surely not all of it. After all, there are our spouses and children, America!, and cake for us to love. (Spoiler: we love these things rightly when they are part of all the love which we deservingly give God.) And being Catholic? Seriously?
It may seem, too, that I might be overselling the thrill of being Catholic. You may know some Catholics, or be one yourself, and it is a rare soul who regularly gives the impression of being engaged in the most tremendous experience in the history of the entire universe. Mostly, we Catholics are a reserved lot, normally not dramatically distinguishable from anyone else, (mostly) trying to avoid sin, especially mortal ones (or repenting of them – see the Act of Contrition, above), or doing our best simply to live out the truths of the faith, much less succeeding at such a task nor in understanding them all. And this is true; much of the lived-experience of what I am arguing for is not the thrill-a-minute I may have given the impression it is supposed to be. This most tremendous experience is technically referred to as the Beatific Vision, the eternal loving embrace of God, and it is ultimately the promise of heaven, so for most of us, we will literally die before experiencing the fullness of it. But some saints, we Catholics believe, experience a greater share of it before they die, and just about every committed Catholic has had some inklings and flashes of what this tremendous experience is like, and the life of faith is or should be one of living more deeply the truth that God has already embraced us in His infinite love, knowing it is true whether or not we always feel like it is. The truth of the arguments I’m going to present, though, do not depend on such spiritual experiences, and while helped by them, it is often the truths we cling to in faith which allow us to remain committed even when being Catholic doesn’t feel all that tremendous.
So, I may have set for myself an impossible task: laying out a compelling case that you can find ultimate fulfillment in knowing and loving God by living your life as a committed Catholic. To some readers, I might as well promise a stronger chakra by practicing nephomancy (cloud reading): no practice so arcane and odd would seem to conduce to a benefit so opaque. So, while it might be supremely unlikely that anyone would become a committed Catholic from simply reading what I present here, I might yet be able to explain and clarify what benefit we Catholics believe we derive from the admittedly odd observances that constitute living our faith, and to present a case for why living the Catholic faith makes coherent sense and coheres with the way we know the world is.
Periodically, I will add to and update this ongoing explanation for the truth of the Catholic faith (which, essentially, is why I am Catholic, and why you should be, too).
June 14, 2020 – Today is the Feast of Corpus Christi (The Body and Blood of Christ)
Saint Thomas Aquinas had a particular devotion to Jesus Christ present in the Most Holy Sacrament of the Eucharist. He was serving in the papal court when it was in residence in Orvieto, Italy, when a remarkable Eucharistic miracle occurred.
In 1263 a German priest, Peter of Prague, stopped at Bolsena while on pilgrimage to Rome. He was celebrating Mass in the Basilica of Bolsena, and when the moment of consecration arrived, the Host was transformed into Flesh. This miracle strengthened the wavering belief of the priest in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist.
Pope Urban IV was prompted by this miracle to commission St. Thomas Aquinas to compose the Office for the Mass and Liturgy of the Hours to celebrate the Most Holy Body of the Lord (Corpus Christi). One year after the miracle, in August of 1264, Pope Urban IV introduced Aquinas’s composition, and by means of a papal bull instituted the feast of Corpus Christi.
Since it was the will of God’s only-begotten Son that men should share in his divinity, he assumed our nature in order that by becoming man he might make men gods. Moreover, when he took our flesh he dedicated the whole of its substance to our salvation. He offered his body to God the Father on the altar of the cross as a sacrifice for our reconciliation. He shed his blood for our ransom and purification, so that we might be redeemed from our wretched state of bondage and cleansed from all sin. But to ensure that the memory of so great a gift would abide with us for ever, he left his body as food and his blood as drink for the faithful to consume in the form of bread and wine.
O precious and wonderful banquet that brings us salvation and contains all sweetness! Could anything be of more intrinsic value? Under the old law it was the flesh of calves and goats that was offered, but here Christ himself, the true God, is set before us as our food. What could be more wonderful than this? No other sacrament has greater healing power; through it sins are purged away, virtues are increased, and the soul is enriched with an abundance of every spiritual gift. It is offered in the Church for the living and the dead, so that what was instituted for the salvation of all may be for the benefit of all. Yet, in the end, no one can fully express the sweetness of this sacrament, in which spiritual delight is tasted at its very source, and in which we renew the memory of that surpassing love for us which Christ revealed in his passion.
It was to impress the vastness of this love more firmly upon the hearts of the faithful that our Lord instituted this sacrament at the Last Supper. As he was on the point of leaving the world to go to the Father, after celebrating the Passover with his disciples, he left it as a perpetual memorial of his passion. It was the fulfillment of ancient figures and the greatest of all his miracles, while for those who were to experience the sorrow of his departure, it was destined to be a unique and abiding consolation.
Opusculum 57, in festo Corporis Christi, lect. 1-4