Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Is Thomistic Philosophy Unintelligible?

The Maverick Philosopher recently wrote a post leveling against St. Thomas perhaps the most serious charge that can be made against a philosopher - unintelligibility. It's one thing to say that a philosopher is wrong; quite another to say that he is unintelligible. Such a philosopher doesn't even rise to the dignity of error, in the words of C.S. Lewis's tutor (as quoted in Lewis's autobiography.) The charge is so serious because philosophy is an ongoing conversation and voyage of discovery; even when a philosopher is wrong, he is still contributing to the conversation and furthering the ongoing cultural project even if only as an example of a potential mistake. The philosopher who is unintelligible, however, is merely creating noise and hindering the philosophical project; in other words, he is not really a philosopher at all but only a counterfeit.

Of course I do not think St. Thomas, or the moderate realism he represents, is unintelligible. I will provide a detailed defense of St. Thomas in a coming post. For now, I would like to make a broader point about the general approach to great philosophers. St. Thomas Aquinas has been an inspiration for, and deeply studied by, many profound thinkers since his days in the thirteenth century. If we study him ourselves for some period, but find him unintelligible, should we suppose that the flaw is in ourselves or in St. Thomas? Great philosophers are great precisely because time has demonstrated that they possessed an uncommon power of insight, which is why philosophers through the ages refer to them again and again. Now St. Thomas may appear unintelligible to us because he is in fact unintelligible; but he may also appear unintelligible because we as yet lack the uncommon power of insight which he possessed. Again I ask... which is more likely?

This point holds for all of the great philosophers through history - Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, St. Thomas, Hume, Kant, Hegel, Heidegger, Kierkegaard, etc. These philosophers all more or less disagreed with each other in various ways, but what makes them all outstanding is the uncommon insight they possessed. Their disagreements arise from the fact that their insight, while uncommon, is not always uniform. Kierkegaard, for example, may have penetrating insight into psychology and the subjective nature of existence, yet fail to have the fundamental metaphysical insight that St. Thomas had; while St. Thomas, for his part, might lack the psychological insight of a Kierkegaard. In any case, I find the dismissal of any great philosopher as unintelligible to be at least a very bold, and perhaps even a foolish move, for it implies that the great philosopher was speaking nonsense even in his own terms. And to know that, we must possess an insight into the philosopher's philosophy at least as profound as the philosopher himself, for there is really no other ground from which to justly make the charge of unintelligibility. And, for the last time, we must again ask ourselves the question: Is it more likely that I have penetrated to the depths of Thomistic philosophy and found it nonsense, or that I don't really understand what St. Thomas was talking about?

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Brooks on Happiness

Here is an opinion piece by David Brooks over at the New York Times on the subject of happiness. I'd like to focus on this paragraph:

The second impression is that most of us pay attention to the wrong things. Most people vastly overestimate the extent to which more money would improve our lives. Most schools and colleges spend too much time preparing students for careers and not enough preparing them to make social decisions. Most governments release a ton of data on economic trends but not enough on trust and other social conditions. In short, modern societies have developed vast institutions oriented around the things that are easy to count, not around the things that matter most. They have an affinity for material concerns and a primordial fear of moral and social ones.

This is yet another example of the modern mind struggling to discover the obvious. Most people vastly overestimate the extent to which more money would improve their lives? Isn't this exactly the lesson that has been taught through myth, philosophy and religion for thousands of years? Has anyone heard of the story of King Midas? Ah, but that's just myth and "sermonizing." Now we live in the "age of research" and can "back things up" with data; as though our ancestors (the "old sages") couldn't really know that money isn't the key to happiness because they hadn't crunched the statistics. Unfortunately for us, or at least those of us who are searching for the meaning of happiness through statistics, the old sages are still way out in front of us.

The old sages were right because they understood that happiness is a matter of fulfilling nature, whatever the actuarial tables might say. But this teleological point is too much for our modern minds, which has condemned intelligible nature to the bad, old philosophical Dark Ages of the pre-modern era. We moderns are too clever to fall for something as silly as a metaphysically intelligible nature; instead, we have something we think much better - data. Absent nature, what meaning does our data give to happiness? None really, which is why Brooks is left toting up the appearances of happiness, without being able to say anything significant about it.

It doesn't really help to say that married couples are happier than unmarried singles, anymore than it does to say that slim men are healthier than fat men. Of course they are; the real problem is how to maintain the one and avoid the other. Married people don't stay married because they like the statistics associated with it. They stay married, for long periods, because they have gained the wisdom and virtue to fulfill the married life. It is that wisdom that the unhappy need, not statistics. But such wisdom, if it is to be communicated, will necessarily refer to human nature and its meaning; in other words, it must bring in the old pre-modern metaphysical notions the modern mind seeks to avoid at all costs.

But that cost is any possibility of acquiring genuine wisdom. At best the modern mind can create the appearance of wisdom with its data analysis; for wisdom is only truly such if it reaches to the first causes of things.

“Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal; but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal: for where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”

Friday, March 26, 2010

Courtier's Reply and the Homework Defense

Edward Feser has an article here on what he calls the "New Philistinism." He's referring to the New Atheists who, he says, claim to refute classical theistic arguments, but, in fact, don't really understand them. What is worse, the atheists are apparently obdurate in, and even proud of, their ignorance. For their part, the atheists have coined a term for the theistic charge of ignorance - the "Courtier's Reply." The term refers to the story of "The Emperor's New Clothes", and refers to an imagined court official's reply to the claim that the Emperor has no clothes: "Have you not read the detailed discourses of Count Roderigo of Seville on the exquisite and exotic leathers of the Emperor's boots?, etc." (in Feser's words.) The point the atheists are making is that the theistic charge of ignorance is really an attempt to undermine the legitimacy of the atheist critique rather than answer it. The theist sends the atheist off on a research project which, of course, is never complete as long as the atheist remains in his atheism. If the atheist does not find St. Thomas's arguments for God convincing, it must be because he has not yet read Gilson or Maritain on St. Thomas. If he has read Gilson and Maritain but is still not convinced, it is only because he is yet ignorant of the writings of Anton Pegis on St. Thomas, and on and on.

I have some sympathy for the atheist's point about the Courtier's Reply, which I have long known by my own name, the Homework Defense (I think the Courtier's Reply is a much more elegant name.) It's a standard move of Darwinists, who reflexively refer you to places like whenever you raise questions about Darwinism. I know from my own experience that the homework never ends; or if you do faithfully manage to fulfill the homework assignment, your interlocutor is no longer interested in discussing the point and has moved on. Later, when you raise the same question with some other Darwinist, the previous homework assignment is rarely satisfactory; the new Darwinist will have a whole new assignment that must be completed before you are even qualified to ask any questions about Darwinism, and on it goes. One begins to suspect that the point of the homework assignments is not a genuine effort to further the conversation, but merely to deflect the questioner. This has been my experience with Harry Potter fans as well. It's not enough that I read the first one, two, or three books in the series before I am permitted to have an opinion about it. I've got to read the entire series through, as well as all kinds of secondary literature as well. (Potter fans don't seem to realize that this requirement undermines positive as well as negative criticism of the series prior to its completion. Yet much of the secondary reading I am assigned was written prior to the publication of the final book in the series. If John Granger could proclaim how wonderful the Potter series was way back in 2002, why couldn't I criticize it?)

The way to avoid all this back and forth about homework is to take the approach of Socrates: Deal with the arguments themselves and forget about the middlemen. What is important about St. Thomas's Five Ways is not who said them or when, but the content of the arguments themselves. That content stands on its own independent of whatever the historical origin of the arguments might be, the historical origin merely being "accidental" to the truth of the arguments. (This point comes from Kierkegaard, but it is true whether SK or Bozo the Clown said it, isn't it?) So instead of demanding that atheists further their research into St. Thomas, they should be directly presented with a clear formulation of the arguments themselves, and be asked to address those.

That is the way I use Kant in the philosophy of mind. The value of Kant is that he provides a set of approaches and questions about the mind that cannot be resolved by the standard, materialistic philosophy of mind popular today. But there is little point in criticizing someone's philosophy of mind by demanding that they research Kant; instead, research Kant yourself and ask pointed questions based on the inspiration Kant gives you. If you wish to credit Kant with the ultimate origin of your questions, fine, but that origin has nothing to do with their pertinence as questions.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Tipping Point, again

It turns out John Derbyshire says here what I say here, only with much more elegance.

The Tipping Point

I generally don't write about politics on this blog, but last night's events are too much to ignore. John Derbyshire is at his best writing about moments like these.

I tend to share Derbyshire's political pessimism, but not his general pessimism, since I believe the world is in the hand of a God Who has already saved it. God has promised that the Gates of Hell will not prevail against His Church, which is the only reason it is still around after two thousand years, but He has made no such promises regarding any particular political arrangements, including the arrangements detailed in the U.S. Constitution. They will come and go like any other political arrangements and, as Derbyshire points out, the normal political situation for humanity is rule by imperial despotism. We are slowly but surely headed back to this natural state of affairs. Conservatives will continue to manage some tactical victories, as the Wehrmacht continued to do against the Red Army after the Stalingrad debacle, but the strategic war has been lost.

The reason our constitutional arrangements are doomed is that they take for granted that the focus of citizen's lives will be something other than government. Government is an evil, albeit a necessary one, that establishes the framework within which individuals may pursue the true meaning of their lives, a way discovered by themselves and left unspecified by government. The main purpose of government is to protect the freedom within which the individual pursuit of meaning may occur. Conservatives tend to live according to this model, and do not like spending their time or energy thinking about government, since the focus of their lives is somewhere else (e.g. their family, their Church, their business..) I count myself in this group.

But there are always people for whom the improvement of the world through government action provides the primary meaning of their lives. Government, for them, is not a secondary thing to which we must devote some time before getting on with the primary things, but the primary thing itself. These people never get tired of trying to expand the size and scope of government, no matter how many defeats they may suffer, since the battle itself is primarily meaningful for them. Not so for their conservative opponents. The conservative congratulates himself on a tactical victory in holding back the incipient forces of government despotism, then returns to his Church, his family, and/or his business. Soon the "progressive" forces are back, with a new and even bolder plan to expand the government, based on the lessons learned from their prior defeat. Meanwhile, the conservative has not been planning how to defeat the next progressive assault on liberty, since he does not see the point of his life in battling progressives, but in getting on with his personal adventure in family, Church or business. This time the conservative loses the battle, and government expands accordingly. The conservative goes back to his life, and soon the progressives are back with yet another attempt at the expansion of government at the expense of liberty, and on and on...

This is why conservatives occasionally slow down the progressive destruction of liberty, but never roll it back. To roll it back would require a dedication to government on the order of a progressive, a lifetime commitment to actively counterattack the progressive Leviathan that matches the progressive dedication to feed the Leviathan. But the conservative is just the man who finds the meaning of his life in something other than the government and its workings. The conservative will never match the progressive passion when it comes to government, and when he tries, he finds himself becoming what he hates, as the Republicans became increasingly indistinguishable from Democrats the longer they stayed in power in the first decade of the twenty-first century.

I believe the Obama progressives know this, and understand that ObamaCare will never be rolled back by conservatives, because conservatives will never match the lifelong passionate commitment of progressives to sustain it. There will be a backlash against Obamacare in the 2010 elections, for sure, but soon after that, when it becomes clear that Obamacare is something that will take a long time of dedicated commitment to reverse, people will learn to live with it. It doesn't really matter what its costs or benefits are. The question is whether you will change the focus of your life away from your family and Church to the mission of rolling back Obamacare. The answer of most conservatives will be: No. Government and its workings is not the point of my life, and I will not make it the focus of my life, for then I will have lost in an even more fundamental sense.

This is the fatal paradox for conservatives, which is that preserving a political regime based on freedom requires a distinctly unconservative commitment to politics. It's why the natural political state of man is despotic rule.

More on Exceptionalism

The question of human exceptionalism reminds me of something Kierkegaard wrote about freedom: Freedom is never possible; to the extent that it is, it is actual.

What he means is that the creature who wonders if he is free, is already free, for the act of wondering about freedom is itself an act of freedom. Unfree beings like rocks, trees, dogs or great apes, are not puzzled by the philosophical question of freedom. But man wonders if he is free, and is therefore free.

I would extend Kierkegaard's remark to include exceptionalism. Exceptionalism is never possible; to the extent that it is, it is actual. A creature who wonders about his exceptionalism is already exceptional with respect to those creatures who never do, or can, wonder about their exceptionalism.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

God, the Good and the Evil

Terrific, deep exchange on the subject of God and evil over at Just Thomism.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Exceptionalism and Darwinian thinking

John Derbyshire has an article over at NRO on human exceptionalism.

It includes the usual Darwinian thinking to which I am instinctively repelled:

My meaning there was only to point up the hostility of religious creationists to ordinary biology and the lessons it teaches us — mainly, the lesson that Homo sap. is just one more branch on the tree of life, not gifted with any supernatural attributes.

My problem with Darwinism is that it puts the theory before the data. The question should be: What attributes does human being have, and are evolutionary explanations capable of accounting for them? The way it does work is: Whatever human attributes cannot fit into an evolutionary explanation, are therefore dismissed as unreal. So of course evolution can account for human nature; for whatever evolution cannot account for is excluded from human nature.

I am not talking about human attributes we know about only through divine revelation. I am talking about human attributes directly deducible from common sense and common experience. There is a man over there and a man over here; and I, a man, know them all and myself as such. We therefore share something in common, the form of "man", which allows us all to be known as "men." This form must itself be immaterial and the faculty that knows it - the intellect - must be immaterial. Therefore man has an immaterial component to his nature. It is this intellectual faculty that separates us from other animals - we are the "rational animal" - and is the basis of human exceptionalism. A rational animal is not just another animal.

This is a simplified presentation of the Aristotelian argument for the immaterial intellect, which St. Thomas later extended to prove the immortality of the soul. There is nothing here that depends on supernatural revelation, and the conclusion is "supernatural" only if we make an a priori restriction on nature to include only the material. Or if we make an a priori restriction that human nature can only include those attributes accountable by evolution.

If we don't prejudice our thought in these ways, then it is clear that human beings are exceptional insofar as we possess an immaterial intellect. The true question to then be asked is: Can evolution account for the immaterial human intellect? Evolution may be able to account for other aspects of human nature, but it is this aspect, the intellect, that is crucial. This is what Pope John Paul II was getting at when he said that evolution, while it is more than just an hypothesis, is incompatible with the truth about man if it is used to deny his spirit.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

The Devil, Religious and Secular

Here is a post at the Secular Right blog concerning the recent comments by Father Gabriele Amorth concerning exorcisms, the Devil, and the Vatican.

Now if you'd like to dismiss what Father Amorth says as nonsense, that's fine. What's interesting about Andrew Stuttaford's mention of it in the context of the Enlightenment ("How's that whole enlightenment thing going") is that, if you substitute "genes" or "memes" for "the Devil" in Father Amorth's comments, you've got a position that many Enlightenment followers would consider reasonable, and perhaps even scientifically established. The Enlightenment presents itself as hard-headed philosophical skepticism, but it always ends up in philosophical doctrines even harder to believe than the medieval notions it allegedly exploded.

There is a hint of this in Twain's comment where he mentions as an afterthought "On the other hand, very few neuroscientists believe in free will now either. Free will is just a useful fiction." Now I find it much easier to believe in the Devil, and even possessed men vomiting glass shards or pieces of iron, than I do that free will is "just a useful fiction." Free will is an obvious and undeniable reality that I experience directly every day; denying it as a "useful fiction" strikes me as incoherent. (If my belief in free will is merely a useful fiction, then isn't my belief that free will is a useful fiction, itself also a useful fiction? Then free will might actually not be a useful fiction. We haven't gotten anywhere, except possibly to increase our confusion.) The existence of the Devil or possessed men are, at least, straightforward propositions that make sense in their own terms. At least I know what it means to affirm or deny them.

The Enlightenment project was never, as advertised, a breakout from darkness into the sunny light of common sense reality. It merely substituted a lot of hard-to-believe propositions with other, even harder to believe propositions.