Metaphysical thought inquires beyond our sense experience, but is derived from it. We can understand something about the world beyond our immediate perceptions, and “come to a knowledge of the truth.” Philosophical reasoning, rightly employed, will bring us to many of the same truths as divine revelation, as truth, by its nature, is one. But likewise, a bad metaphysics, or a doubt of the possibility of doing metaphysics at all, can lead to a view that doubts revealed truth as well.
The problem of modern philosophical trends is not merely limited to the secular world, but has in many places crept into the writings and teachings of Catholic philosophers and theologians as well. While the Church doesn’t have an official philosophical position, she must guide and sometimes reel in those who wonder into dangerous territory. The problem has been addressed in different times and in different ways by the Church in the past and, more recently, by the encyclical Fides et Ratio. Certainly this work of Pope John Paul II contains other insights and addresses other issues, but we will here look at the problem of modern philosophy in a broad sense, and how the church document addresses it.
The two directions of rationalism and empiricism that developed in the modern period of philosophy, as emphasized by Descartes and Hume, respectively, contributed to a divorce between faith and science. Kant later attempted to reconcile the divergent views, but he also had to deny the ability to prove the existence of God, and many other metaphysical possibilities fell by the wayside in his system as well.
Fides et Ratio, or Faith and Reason, presented to the church in 1998, addressed the apparent divorce between faith and reason, and suggested the remedy to it. Faith and reason are not contrary to one another, and so faith will never be irrational, although it can be supra-rational, for certain. Likewise, reason, if not in line with the revealed truths of God, must therefore have an error in reasoning or otherwise. Truth is one, and although seeking it can certainly come through different means and explain the truth in different ways, it must always coincide.
As said in the forty fifth paragraph of Fides et Ratio, “Although they insisted upon the organic link between theology and philosophy, Saint Albert the Great and Saint Thomas were the first to recognize the autonomy which philosophy and the sciences needed if they were to perform well in their respective fields of research.” These two learned Dominicans understood that philosophy, by definition, had to come from human reasoning alone. Indeed, many articles of the faith that others tried to prove through philosophy were rejected by St. Thomas as being philosophically demonstrable. For example, St. Thomas argued that the eternity of the universe could not be disproved by reason alone. He also understood that the eternity of the world could not be proved positively either, and as a believing Catholic, believed in the worlds beginning as a free act of creation by God. What this example shows is that some truths are known only by revelation and through faith in that revelation, but while these truths are not philosophically provable, they are likewise never contrary to reason either. They simply transcend it.
Fides et Ratio continues “As a result of the exaggerated rationalism of certain thinkers, positions grew more radical and there emerged eventually a philosophy which was separate from and absolutely independent of the contents of faith. Another of the many consequences of this separation was an ever deeper mistrust with regard to reason itself.” This rationalism began with Rene Descartes.
Descartes was a believing Catholic, and there is no substantial evidence that he denied aspects of the Catholic faith. In fact, he states often that it is his intent to prove things such as the existence of God, but through reason, since our senses can be deceived. However, it is hard to understand what his position would be on such things as Transubstantiation and similar dogmas of the faith, given his views in other areas of metaphysics and the material world as well.
Fr. Benedict Ashley, O.P. lectures that “what Descartes is primarily saying is that we must for the moment turn away from the world of the object (the world of the senses) to the interior truth of the thinker.” Descartes does this because he doubts his sense perceptions can lead to any certain truths, since they often deceive us, such as when we are dreaming. In other words, only that which we can have no doubt of can be certain, and this cannot come from what we attain through our senses.
As stated above, Descartes aggressive change from the Aristotelian and generally Scholastic epistemology and metaphysics began a split in philosophical thought from his day forward. As Benedict Ashley says “On the continent of Europe it went in the direction of ‘Idealism’ saying that actually the material world does not exist, or if it exists, it is somehow a projection of the human mind. That a world outside the human mind, a reality outside the human mind is inaccessible.” This, to me, develops most faithfully the philosophy of Descartes himself.
However, across the English Channel, the dualism of spirit and material reality showed its emphasis in the latter. As. Fr. Ashley again states, “It begins [also] with the cogito ergo sum. What I really know is my own thinking. But it then says when I look at my thinking, what I find are sense impressions, and from the sense impressions, I have some idea that there is a material world other than my own mind. And yet, Empiricism, because it confuses the sense data and the power of the intelligence to analyze that data tends to say that intelligence, and its abstract ideas, are simply faint versions of our sensations. They do not give us the essence of things.” So once again, we cannot know the essence of things; we cannot know them as they really are. And without this, we certainly cannot know things beyond them (beyond the material, that is) or even confirm that anything at all exists beyond the physical.
What we have additionally with Hume, who stands as a giant in this empirical reasoning, is a denial of the ability to truly know causes. Just because we have always seen that every time “X” happens, “Y” has followed, does not, for Hume, demonstrate that “X” causes “Y,” or that when “Y” happens, we can be assured that “X” just took place. Hume would tell us that we must live practically as if these cause-effect relationships we perceive were real, but that we can by no means know that they are in fact a certainty. Of course, without a way to understand “cause,” even between two material objects, there is certainly no way to prove causes beyond them, such as a first mover. We cannot prove or disprove God, in other words, and all our knowledge of the world must be based on what we experience in what we now would call scientific method, although with Hume, even this gives us no certainty of knowledge. In the end, the main point for us here is that God and all revealed truth must be completely disregarded in our seeking to know the physical world, and therefore, can never be a corrective for it, keeping us from certain errors that, with a faith in God’s revealed truth, we might avoid.
Immanuel Kant, the German philosopher, tried to reconcile, to some degree, the diverging paths of the empirical and rational philosophies. His emphasis came to be placed on the “limits of knowledge which have been set by the nature of the human reason.” (Kant, Dreams of a Ghost-seer I, 2,) For Kant, our capacity to know is limited by categories of ideas into which we place things, and these prevent us from truly knowing the things-in-themselves. The end result is a lack of ability to know things metaphysical. We can try to describe them in their possibilities, and that mostly by negation, but we cannot demonstrate them to truly exist, or have any certain knowledge of them if they do.
Well, metaphysics is not in the realm of ideas for Kant but in the realm of subjective needs, a postulate of practical reason which makes it completely subjective.
All of this, of course, has led to a doubt of the possibility of metaphysics at all, and therefore doubt of any ability to have knowledge of anything beyond the physical world around us in a material way. This has led to the divorce we see between faith and reason, pouring over most especially into the field of the physical sciences. A return to a moderate realism in metaphysics seems to be the answer to the problem of modern philosophy and faith.
John Paul II, in Fides et Ratio, says that “[There is then] the need for a philosophy of genuinely metaphysical range, capable, that is, of transcending empirical data in order to attain something absolute, ultimate and foundational in its search for truth. This requirement is implicit in sapiential and analytical knowledge alike; and in particular it is a requirement for knowing the moral good, which has its ultimate foundation in the Supreme Good, God himself.”(Fides et Ratio, 83)
When we limit ourselves to an idealist or materialist philosophy, we have no way to attain to the higher truths that man must seek, especially as they pertain to our moral life on earth, and our knowing our own “ends” beyond this earth.
Pope John Paul II’s answer to the philosopher is exemplified in his statement in Fides et Ratio: “I believe that those philosophers who wish to respond today to the demands which the word of God makes on human thinking should develop their thought on the basis of these postulates and in organic continuity with the great tradition which, beginning with the ancients, passes through the Fathers of the Church and the masters of Scholasticism and includes the fundamental achievements of modern and contemporary thought. If philosophers can take their place within this tradition and draw their inspiration from it, they will certainly not fail to respect philosophy’s demand for autonomy.”