Thursday, March 22, 2012

In Defense of Philosophy

On the other blog, for which I occasionally write, we have been having an argument about the value of philosophy as opposed to modern science.  If I were ever inclined to tear my hair out ...  Anyroad, this is the post I wrote for that debate.


. . . invisibilia enim ipsius a creatura mundi per ea quae facta sunt intellecta conspiciuntur sempiterna quoque eius virtus et divinitas ut sint inexcusabiles . . .

(“For the invisible things of him, from the creation of the world, are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made; his eternal power also, and divinity: so that they are inexcusable. ” Romans 1:20.)

I realize, of course, that Tom R. has resigned from this debate, and that everyone else is quite possibly tired of it by now. That said, I started working on this post yesterday morning (!)—it will become very shortly clear why it took me so long—and I think, for anyone who has the inclination to wade through it all, it may serve to clarify some outstanding points in the conversation.

When Joseph first wrote about The Joke, I laughed.   As I suggested in my comments there, I never took The Joke quite as seriously as Joseph did—it was an old observation, funny, with a grain of truth in it, or so I thought.   But Joseph considered The Joke to be symptomatic of a larger societal ignorance of the value and purpose of theology and philosophy . . . and I am beginning to think that I may have to agree with him.   (The horror! as Kurtz would say.)

[Note: From here on out I am just going to say “philosophy,” since that’s what most of us have been beating about; but for the most part everything I say can be applied to theology as well, mutatis mutandis.]

Joseph defended philosophy in a shorthand with which philosophers are quite familiar, but which is not common among the general public.   He said that Philosophy dealt with Why questions, whereas Science dealt with How questions.

If one takes this claim on the most literal/grammatical level, it is manifestly absurd (and arrogant, as some of those commenting have charged).   But when an otherwise reasonable person makes what appears to be an absurd claim, the proper response, mon freres, is not to attack, but to request a clarification.   That was why I attempted to clarify Joseph’s statements in the combox: because it seemed that what he meant had been lost in the kerfluffle over what he said.   I was NOT trying to redefine the question to fit the argument, but trying to return the argument to what I perceived as the original—and also the more important—question: namely, What is Philosophy good for?
We—Joseph, Dena, and I—have been defending the value of philosophy by pointing out that it answers important questions science leaves untouched—questions like “What is the purpose of human existence?”This may seem to be beside the point. Of course science doesn’t deal with such questions; scientists (as Kyle points out) “are concerned with the causal relation between things.”

But the question of the purpose of man’s existence is also a question of cause—albeit cause of a different kind. In Aristotelian and Scholastic philosophy, four causes—or four kinds of “why” questions—are recognized. Aristotle defined the causes, or “why questions,” as follows (Physics, II:7):

The “why” is referred ultimately either … to the “what” … or to what initiated a motion … [or] for the sake of what … [or] the matter. The causes, therefore, are these and so many in number.

Aristotle’s somewhat cryptic listing requires some explication.

  • “the what,” formal cause: This is the shape of a thing, the arrangement of its parts, its definition, essence, form, laws of being.
  • “what initiated a motion,” efficient cause: This is any agent that brings about any change. It is the most familiar and easily identifiable type of cause, and the one which we tend to think of when we hear the phrase “cause and effect. ”It is the only type of causality with which modern science defines itself as dealing.
  • “for the sake of what,” or “that for the sake of which,” final cause: This is the purpose for which a thing is done, is made, or acts, or exists. It is most easily understood in problems of human motivation (see under Joseph’s original post Daniel’s example from the card sharp’s death). This cause also applies to the purposes of beings’ existence.
  • “the matter,” material cause: the stuff out of which things are made.
This is a VERY simple and simplistic rundown of the causes, by the way—and I am not attempting here to show that they form a reasonable or complete breakdown of “Why” questions (as Aristotle spends some time doing).

Clearly, then, as Kyle points out, “‘why’ is attributable both to the causal relationship (‘how’ as you three have put it) and the extensive relationship (‘what purpose’ as you three have put it).” But philosophers have traditionally treated the “what purpose” kind of why, or final cause, as being not only the one proper to their discipline (which no one denies), but also as being the most important of the Whys. In consequence, philosophical custom calls questions dealing with final cause “why questions,” while questions dealing with efficient cause are referred to as “what questions”—even though, obviously, both types of question can be phrased so as to use either word.

This custom may indeed sound a bit arrogant, or at minimum arbitrary, but it’s not actually unreasonable. Whether or not you consider final cause as the most important kind of “why” depends largely on what you consider to be of value. Science does many wonderful things; its greatest efforts are directed towards preserving and extending the health, life, and strength of the human body. But the greatest efforts of philosophy are directed towards the betterment of the human soul through virtue and the natural knowledge of God. If one believes in the soul and in God, mustn’t one then say that, at least in theory, philosophy is a more important discipline, the “why” of philosophy a more important why?

Thomas Aquinas makes a similar argument in the Summa. (Bear in mind as you read that in his day, theology and philosophy were called “sciences” too, and what we today think of as science was called “physical” or “natural science. ”) With regard to theology, Thomas says that “one speculative [that is, theoretical] science is said to be nobler than another, either by reason of its greater certitude, or by reason of the higher worth of its subject matter;” meanwhile, “of the practical [that is, applied] sciences, that one is nobler which is ordained to a further purpose. ”

If this is his defense of theology as being the “noblest” discipline—that theology deals with the supernatural end of man and the supernatural knowledge of God—then it seems that philosophy would be the second discipline, since it deals with the soul of man on a natural level, and the knowledge of God on a natural level. The physical sciences that deal with the body of man would be next in order, as the body is next in importance.

Of course, Thomas also notes that a discipline can be more important “by reason of its greater certitude. ” (His defense of the certitude of theology, though not directly relevant to this discussion, is well worth a read.) Could it not be that philosophy is SO uncertain that, despite the importance of its subject matter, it really isn’t important?

Thomas has an answer to that as well. He notes, almost as an aside, that even “the slenderest knowledge that may be obtained of the highest things is more desirable than the most certain knowledge obtained of lesser things …” But he also says, quoting Aristotle, that

“It may well happen that what is in itself the more certain may seem to us the less certain on account of the weakness of our intelligence, ‘which is dazzled by the clearest objects of nature, as the owl is dazzled by the light of the sun …”

Thomas is carrying on the Aristotelian distinction between “things which are clear in themselves” and “things which are clear to us.” This distinction is made by Aristotle in several places, including the Metaphysics, where Aristotle explains that the study of metaphysics presupposes the lower branches of philosophy and logic, which are clearer to us, and more familiar. Aristotle’s claim that the higher branches of philosophy, concluding with metaphysics, are clearer in themselves is based on than a complex philosophical argument (partly to be found in Metaphysics, VII). In its barest of bare-bones state, an argument for this claim could run as follows (again, please remember that for the Aristotelian, “science” means ANY knowledge reached through logic, including philosophy, ethics, geometry, astronomy, mathematics, physics, chemistry, etc.):

  • All sciences deal with reality (“being” or “existence” or “things that exist”).
  • Since it is the nature of science to deal with reality, that science is the most scientific, or the most a science, or the highest (“noblest”) of the sciences, which deals with things which are more real (“have more being”).
  • The forms of things are always more real (“have more being”) than the matter. This is clear from the fact that our knowledge of things and our definitions of them always relate to the form. For example, we define and distinguish a statue as differing from a log by their form or shape, even though the matter of both may be the same wood. Again, we distinguish an animal from a pile of chemicals to which that animal is reducable by the arrangement of those chemicals—again, the matter in both cases is the same (chemicals) and the form, shape, or arrangement of them makes the difference. Again, we distinguish man from the other animals not by the bodies that they share (the matter) but by the soul of man (which is his form, in Aristotelian and Thomistic philosophy). And it should be clear from these examples also that some forms (such as the soul of man) are more real (that is, more highly defined/refined) than others (such as the body of man).
  • Now if these things are accepted as true—that the form is always more real than the matter (even though it can be harder for us to study), and that sciences are more important when they deal with things that are more real—then it follows that a science is higher when it deals more with form than with matter, and those sciences which deal with higher forms are likewise more real than those which deal with lower forms. So the science that deals with the soul of man will be “higher” than the that science which deals with his body; and generally the more abstract science like mathematics will be “higher” than the natural sciences, which are more applied. And when we say that the science dealing with the soul of man is “higher,” we say this because the soul is, in the Aristotelian understanding, more real than the body.
This line of reasoning is adopted by St. Thomas (see in particular the Summa Theologiae, I:I:1, especially Articles 1 and 5, where he deals with how different disciplines are distinguished in terms of their importance).

Of course, this way of thinking about disciplines is completely counterintuitive, especially to the modern scientist, who tends to regard “reality” as referring chiefly or even solely to what he can sense. I do not expect my very incomplete and partially unsubstantiated abstract to convince anyone who is not already sympathetic to Aristotelian Thomism. But I would encourage readers not to dismiss this line of thinking out of hand—especially Catholic readers, because this line of thinking has the sanction of the Church, which considers Aristotelian Thomism to be a legitimate, valid, and fruitful use of human reason and logic—a worthy philosophy.

The Church has always taught (as Tom points out, quoting the Catechism) that “‘faith is above reason. ’”Faith is above and beyond reason, transcends reason. Faith is the champ; reason is the big palooka. Faith is the sun; reason is a rushlight. (St. Thomas, after a lifetime of some of the most brilliant philosophizing ever to be executed on earth, was vouchsafed a vision of heaven. His subsequent description of all his philosophizing? “Straw. Only straw. ”)

However, just as the rushlight can illumine some, though not all, of the things that are illumined by the sun, so reason, a. k. a. philosophy, can illumine some, though not all, of the truths that faith proposes. This has been the constant teaching of the Church, from St. Paul (Romans, 1:20, as quoted at the beginning of this post) to St. Augustine, to St. Thomas, to Leo the XIII, to the Vatican Councils, to Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI. For the proof of this, I would refer you to the bibliography at the end of this (already overlong) post. In the meantime, I will give you briefs of three instances of this Church promotion of philosophy: from St. Thomas, Vatican I, and Pope Benedict.

In his Summa Contra Gentiles, Thomas addresses non-Christians who do not accept revelation, but who are logical—that is, philosophical—thinkers. He sets out to do two things: first, to prove by philosophy those truths of the faith which can be proved by philosophy (e. g. , the existence of God), and second, to defend those truths of the faith which cannot be proven (“mysteries,” e. g. , the Trinity) from charges of logical inconsistency (Chapter 4). He explains that God has revealed even truths which can be discovered by reason because (1) many men are not bright enough to study philosophy, (2) most men are too busy earning their bread to study philosophy, and (3) some men are too lazy to study philosophy. He adds that even those men who have the ability, time, and inclination to study philosophy would only reach important philosophical truths (like the existence of God) after a long time, and they might easily make mistakes along the way. (For example, to fully understand and be persuaded by St. Thomas’ proofs for God’s existence, the Five Ways, one needs to have read and understood most of Aristotle’s writings first. That’s what we did at my college, and I can tell you it was no intellectual picnic.) St. Thomas goes on to note, however, that although philosophical conclusions may appear sometimes to contradict the truths of the faith, such contradiction is in fact impossible (Chapter 7). Quoting Augustine and St. Paul, he concludes that “whatever arguments are brought forward against the doctrines of faith are conclusions incorrectly derived from the first and self-evident principles imbedded in nature. Such conclusions do not have the force of demonstration; they are arguments that are either probable or sophistical.”

(As a side note, I would point out that St. Thomas has been prettily thoroughly endorsed by the Church. See Joseph’s recent post; also, see Leo XIII’s encyclical Aeterni Patris.)

As my second witness on behalf of philosophy, I give you Vatican I’s Dogmatic constitution on the Catholic Faith (note that this document is quoted and reaffirmed by Vatican II’s Dei Verbum). Among other things, the Constitution says:

The same Holy mother Church holds and teaches that God, the source and end of all things, can be known with certainty from the consideration of created things, by the natural power of human reason …

In addition,

[e]ven though faith is above reason, there can never be any real disagreement between faith and reason, since it is the same God who reveals the mysteries and infuses faith, and who has endowed the human mind with the light of reason. … [And n]ot only can faith and reason never be at odds with one another but they mutually support each other …

At the end of the Constitution, according to a long-standing Church custom that has been since done away with, several “canons” are proposed: statements which the faithful are required to believe. Two of them are particularly noteworthy in light of our present discussion.

2. On revelation, 1. If anyone says that the one, true God, our creator and lord, cannot be known with certainty from the things that have been made, by the natural light of human reason: let him be anathema.
3. On faith, 3. If anyone says that divine revelation cannot be made credible by external signs, and that therefore men and women ought to be moved to faith only by each one’s internal experience or private inspiration: let him be anathema.

Finally, the importance of philosophy was also defended by Pope Benedict in his seminal Regensburg Lecture, where he asserted that “even in the face of [today’s] radical skepticism it is still necessary and reasonable to raise the question of God through the use of reason . . . ” Benedict explains also why modern philosophy is in a state of confusion. In the late Middle Ages, the “so-called intellectualism of Augustine and Thomas” was opposed by “a voluntarism” which led to philosophical theories in which

God’s transcendence and otherness are so exalted that our reason, our sense of the true and good, are no longer an authentic mirror of God . . . As opposed to this, the faith of the Church has always insisted that between God and us, between his eternal Creator Spirit and our created reason there exists a real analogy … [T]he truly divine God is the God who has revealed himself as logos . . .

The new “voluntaristic” philosophy led in turn to “the modern self-limitation of reason.” In the modern world, the only things recognized as reasonable, decisive, and certain are those which can be “verif[ied] or falsif[ied] through experimentation. ”In other words—only sciences (in the modern sense of the word “science”) are thought to be reasonable and true; philosophy is no longer considered to be either. Benedict considers this to be a parlous state of affairs.

[B]y its very nature this method excludes the question of God, making it appear an unscientific or pre-scientific question. Consequently, we are faced with a reduction of the radius of science and reason, one which needs to be questioned.

… [I]f science as a whole is this [experimental science] and this alone, then it is man himself who ends up being reduced, for the specifically human questions about our origin and destiny, the questions raised by religion and ethics, then have no place within the purview of collective reason as defined by “science”, so understood, and must thus be relegated to the realm of the subjective. The subject then decides, on the basis of his experiences, what he considers tenable in matters of religion, and the subjective “conscience” becomes the sole arbiter of what is ethical. In this way, though, ethics and religion lose their power to create a community and become a completely personal matter. This is a dangerous state of affairs for humanity . . .

It is perhaps well here, since Benedict raises the point peripherally by his mention of the mistaken voluntaristic philosophers, to address something Tom says—namely, that “philosophy leads to differing opinions, which may be right or wrong. ” But so does science. So do all matters dealing with truth: wherever there is the possibility of truth, there will be the possibility of error. For every philosopher who pulled a boner, I can give you a scientist who pulled one just as bad—and I wouldn’t have to cherry pick from ancient and medieval scientists either; modern science and technology are quite capable of making mistakes. Of course, science has also made some brilliant advances … but so has philosophy. The difference is that philosophy’s most brilliant advances took place a thousand or two years ago, whereas the great advances in the physical sciences are taking place now. Can philosophy answer questions about the purpose of life? I and many other Catholics would say that not only can it answer such questions, it already has answered them: Aristotle and St. Thomas have answered them. Is there disagreement on this question? Clearly. But there is also disagreement on (to take but a few examples from modern science) particle physics, the origins of the universe, and the causes of cancer and autism. The lack of consensus or conclusions within the modern sciences doesn’t prove that the modern sciences are incapable of coming to a true consensus or conclusion. Likewise, lack of consensus within philosophy does not prove that philosophy is incapable of reaching a true consensus or conclusion. Benedict closes the Regensburg Lecture with a caution that relates closely to this point, and I think serves as a good epitaph to our whole debate on the value of philosophy. I’ll let the pope tell the story.

… I am reminded of something Socrates said to Phaedo. In their earlier conversations, many false philosophical opinions had been raised, and so Socrates says: “It would be easily understandable if someone became so annoyed at all these false notions that for the rest of his life he despised and mocked all talk about being—but in this way he would be deprived of the truth of existence and would suffer a great loss.” The West has long been endangered by this aversion to the questions which underlie its rationality, and can only suffer great harm thereby. The courage to engage the whole breadth of reason, and not the denial of its grandeur—this is the programme with which a theology grounded in Biblical faith enters into the debates of our time.

Sources and further reading:
Leo XIII, Aeterni Patris. In this encyclical “On the Restoration of Christian Philosophy” Pope Leo addresses the errors and fallibility of philosophy, while insisting at the same time that philosophy and reason are not destroyed by faith, but are strengthened by it and are roads to it. Particularly notable are his insistence that philosophy must be a “true science” (paragraph 6) and the praise of and emphasis on Thomistic thought, including Thomistic philosophy (paragraphs 14-31, effectively the second half of the encyclical).

John Paul II, Fides et Ratio. In his encyclical “On Faith and Reason” John Paul II deals with similar issues as Leo XIII did in Aeterni Patris. He continues the theme of faith and reason in partnership, and the praise of St. Thomas.

Benedict XVI, Regensburg Lecture. Arguably THE most important defense of traditional philosophy in the last 100 years. The pope is very erudite, so it’s hard to get through, but well worth the slogging if you can stick it.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church, nos. 156-159, which deal with faith and reason.

Thomas Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles, esp. Book 1, Chapters 4, 7, and 9. Thomas explains why God would reveal certain truths through Scripture and Tradition when those same truths are also knowable by philosophy/human reason.

Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, esp. the “Treatise on Sacred Doctrine” (i. e. , I:I:1). Here Thomas again talks about the relationship between faith and reason. Noteworthy: the validity of philosophy as a “science” (in the broad, medieval sense of the word) is taken for granted; what St. Thomas is trying to prove is that theology is also a “science” in the same sense (see Article 2). Also see Summa I:I:2, “The Existence of God” and the subsequent questions that deal with God’s attributes.   Throughout much of Summa I:I, and in Question 2 especially, Aquinas uses philosophical reasons to prove what is claimed in revelation.   It is Question 2 that contains the article (#3) in which Aquinas famously gives the “Five Ways,” all of which are philosophical arguments, based on the reasoning of Aristotle, for God’s existence.   Aquinas uses Scripture as well—for example, in his Article 3 use of God’s “I am Who am,” which surely ranks as one of the wittiest and most true ripostes in the history of argumentation.

Aristotle.   See the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy for a brief explanation of his theory of causality, or look to Wikipedia for a more simplistic but easier to read explanation of the same.   Most of Aristotle’s major works treat of causality in one regard or another, but the text most applicable to the present discussion can be found in his Physics, esp. II:7-8. For Aristotle’s discussion of the nature of man and the end of human existence, see his Nicomachean Ethics.

1 comment:

  1. Bravo. Well written and thoughtfully organized. Of course I agree with the content.