Monthly Archives: August 2012

In Defense of Icons

(This is a “starter” for a future post and not complete)

If we can speak of God in words, we can use icons. For are not both merely instruments that point beyond themselves? When spoken or written, words convey a meaning. We do not, upon reading or hearing, visualize the symbols, but that which the symbol points to. If I say horse, you do not think “H-O-R-S-E” but rather, ponder the concept of a horse. The icon, likewise, is a symbol that points to that which it represents. No more do I worship the Crucifix before me than I worship the sentence “Christ died for my sins.” The point of each is to convey a truth for me to reflect upon.

I cannot see how it is reasonable to arbitrarily call one symbol idolatrous and another permissible. Either we can present to the mind “material” for reflection (be it in words or in pictures) or we cannot. Either we can have an image (and words are for the purpose of creating an image in the mind of the one who hears or reads them) or we cannot. Either we should look upon icons and crucifixes and images that lead us to ponder God, or we should be absolutely silent and never think of these things at all.

Psalm 51 (50) Miserere: A Plea for Purification from Sin and a Heart Made Unclean

Miserere: A Plea for Purification from Sin and a Heart Made Unclean

“Lord, Open my lips, and my mouth will proclaim your praise.”[1]


Structure and Purpose of the Psalm 51


[David said] “As the Lord lives, the man who has done this shall surely die!  And he shall restore fourfold for the lamb, because he did this thing and because he had no pity.” Then Nathan said to David, ‘You are the man!’”[2] We must recognize in ourselves the times we have failed, and repent, for we have a Father in heaven who longs to shower us with His mercy, if we will but come to Him with a broken spirit and a contrite heart. The title given this psalm, Miserere: A plea for purification from sin and a heart made unclean, shows it to be penitential. In fact, it is, traditionally, the greatest of the seven penitential psalms.


“Have mercy upon me, O God, According to Your loving kindness; According to the multitude of Your tender mercies, Blot out my transgressions.”[3] The psalm begins by asking God to take away the psalmist’s sins, acknowledging himself as a sinner. “For I know my iniquity, and my sin is always before me.”[4] The freeing from sin asked for seems to follow a purification rite: “Thou shalt sprinkle me with hyssop, and I shall be cleansed: thou shalt wash me, and I shall be made whiter than snow.”[5]


But, like the sacraments, the rite is an outward sign of an inward grace. This grace, the merciful forgiveness of God, is expounded upon in verses 10-17, for example, “Turn away thy face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities. Create a clean heart in me, O God: and renew a right spirit within my bowels. Cast me not away from thy face; and take not thy holy spirit from me.”[6] Once he has received a clean heart from the Lord, he will, filled with the grace of the Spirit of God, spread the good news of God’s mercy, and “will teach the unjust thy ways: and the wicked shall be converted to thee… my tongue shall extol thy justice.”[7]


The third part of the Psalm is a short conclusion; a prayer for Jerusalem. “Deal favourably, O Lord, in thy good will with Sion; that the walls of Jerusalem may be built up.”[8] This may be a sign that the psalm is post-exilic, but certainly has a personally and communally spiritual meaning as well.


Psalm 51 in the NT


If we had chosen Psalm 110, this entire essay could be devoted to the quotations to be found in the New Testament. However, even if the New Testament authors do not directly quote from Psalm 51, they do allude to its themes and ideas quite often.


In the parable of the prodigal son, after having wandered away from his father and having lost his inheritance, the son repents, saying “I will arise, and will go to my father, and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven, and before thee.”[9] The psalmist did likewise, knowing that, though he has sinned against God and God alone, his father is merciful. Certainly, his father is “justified in thy sentence and blameless in thy judgment.”[10] But he rejoices in the return of the sinner. “When he was yet a great way off, his father saw him, and had compassion”[11] on him. This represents the Father in Heaven, to which David says “Have mercy on me, O God, according to thy great mercy.”[12]


In chapter 9 of John’s Gospel, Jesus encounters a man blind from birth. When the man, cured of his blindness (always an allusion to being released from the darkness of sin) answered the questions of the Pharisees by saying “Unless this man were of God, he could not do anything,”[13] The Pharisees “answered, and said to him: Thou wast wholly born in sins, and dost thou teach us?”[14] This closely mirrors the understanding of the Jews of what we call original sin, espoused by David in the psalm when he said “behold I was conceived in iniquities; and in sins did my mother conceive me.”[15] Several of St. Paul’s epistles directly elucidate this doctrine as well.[16]


When Christ prays for Peter “But I have prayed for thee, that thy faith fail not: and thou, being once converted, confirm thy brethren,”[17] before His passion, we may see a correlation to the psalmist’s words. For David had prayed, “Restore unto me the joy of thy salvation, and strengthen me with a perfect spirit. I will teach the unjust thy ways: and the wicked shall be converted to thee.”[18] We know that Peter fails and denies his Master on the night of His passion. But, restored through the grace and mercy of the Lord, Peter remains the rock to which Jesus can say “feed my sheep, shepherd my lambs”[19] Like the psalmist who will tech transgressors thy ways, Peter and his brethren are, now restored in grace,  fishers of men.


Psalm 51 and Augustine


Speaking to baptized adult Christians, Augustine begins “For today how many brethren of ours we think of, and deplore their going unto vanities and lying insanities, to the neglect of that to which they have been called.”[20] This is all too common today, and in every century. Those who are nominal in their faith are many. Often, in the history of the Church, people have thought of the priests and religious as those called to holiness. But we know that all are called to one and the same holiness. “Be you therefore perfect, as also your heavenly Father is perfect” [21] was spoken to all who would follow Christ.


I have often heard it said that “I would sin like David, if I could repent like David.” However, do we not sin worse than David, since we live under the law of Christ, with all the graces available to us now in the Church and the Sacraments? Nevertheless, when we fall, we have a great model of repentance. “What men should beware of, we have said; but what if they shall have fallen they should imitate, let us hear. For many men will to fall with David, and will not to rise with David…For this it was set forth, for this was written, for this in the Church often read and chanted: let them hear that have not fallen, lest they fall; let them hear that have fallen, that they may rise.”[22]


Augustine warns those who see that even so holy a man as David could sin in such a way, this should never lead them to permit themselves to sin. “David had set forth to himself none for a precedent as you have: he had fallen by lapse of concupiscence, not by the countenance of holiness: thou dost set before your eyes as it were a holy man, in order that you may sin: thou dost not copy his holiness, but dost copy his fall.”[23] Although this may seem something so obvious, man’s heart is such that it always looks to excuse itself.


Augustine goes on to speak of the true cause of sin, and the only thing that is to blame in the end. It is why, as the psalm will later declare, we must ask God to put in us a clean heart. “For from afar David saw her with whom he was captivated. Woman afar, lust near. What he saw was elsewhere, in himself that whereby he fell.”[24] We are reminded here of our Lord’s words, that “Do you not understand, that whatsoever entereth into the mouth, goeth into the belly, and is cast out into the privy? But the things which proceed out of the mouth, come forth from the heart, and those things defile a man.”[25] True, because we were born in sin (in sin my mother conceived me) we easily fall to outside influence, but as free creatures, it is from within that we fall.


An especial danger is that of the sinner, already ut of the state of grace, who thinks to himself “I have failed, why even bother?” Augustine comments “Sin with despair is certain death. Let no one therefore say, If already any evil thing I have done, already I am to be condemned: God pardons not such evil things, why add I not sins to sins?”[26] We need not despair, for all have sinned. “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just, to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all iniquity.”[27]


We know that we have an advocate with the Father, the Holy Spirit. He prays with us, bringing our prayers to the Father. When we pray in words inspired by Him, we cannot go astray. This penitential psalm is a blessing for us, for “Whoever you are that hast sinned, and hesitatest to exercise penitence for your sin, despairing of your salvation, hear David groaning…David himself has been sent to you. Hear him crying, and with him cry: hear him groaning, and with him groan; hear him weeping, and mingle tears; hear him amended, and with him rejoice.”[28] This is a psalm of repentance for us all, and David’s words are words we all can speak from our own hearts.


Psalm 51 and John Fisher


St. John Fisher was not shy to lay before the faithful the horror of sin. “Within us is the most stinking abomination of our sin, by which the image of the almighty God in us is very foully deformed and we are made his enemies indeed.”[29] We have sinned against God, who made us for no other reason than pure love. And we have rejected rather than returned this love in each of our sins.


Our situation, therefore, is one that should frighten us, should we ponder its reality. “If now, under me, there were such a very deep pit…and nothing held me and kept me up but a broken bucket…hanging by a small cord…secured and held up only by the hands of one I had behaved to as an enemy and adversary…would you not think me in a perilous situation?” [30] St. John Fisher believes this is a lucky situation compared to that in which the sinner who rejects God finds himself.


“Therefore, what shall we wretched sinners do?”[31]However, Fisher also expounds the love and mercy of God. Thankfully, it is God who is holding that cord. Anyone else would have let go. God, instead, sent His only begotten Son to redeem man. In psalm 51, we find the confidence, which is hope without presumption,[32] to ask God for His mercy.


God’s mercy is a cleansing of our soul, and the putting of a new heart within us. “Our soul can be compared to a tablet on which nothing was written. Nevertheless, with many misdeeds and spots of sin we have defiled and made it deformed in the sight of God. Therefore, it is necessary that it should be scraped, washed and wiped.”[33]The martyr then goes on at length to describe in detail his analogy of scraping, washing, and wiping.


An important topic in his commentary on this and other penitential psalms is that of the gift of tears. He is careful to be clear on what tears are cleansing, and what tears are rather defiling. “At times we weep, but it does not come from God. As when we suffer adversities against our will, our tears do not profit us at all but rather do us harm.”[34] We must remember that it is not suffering that cleans the soul, but love. It was not Christ’s great suffering itself that pleased the Father, but the love with which He did it. Our love, our repentance, is shown in tears of this kind, “caused by spiritual sorrow, as when we are sorrowful that we have so much displeased God.”[35]


Strongly demanding this inner repentance of the sinner, St. John Fisher in no ways neglects the truth of the need of the sacrament of penance and satisfaction. “[W]henever a sinner will turn away from his sin, truly confess himself of it, and make satisfaction, he will live and never die everlastingly.”[36] Fisher quotes this in the context of sacramental confession, and the need to submit oneself to the apostles, on whom Jesus breathed the Holy Spirit and said “Whoevers sins you forgive, they are forgiven them.”[37]


The commentator goes into great depth, speaking on this psalm, of the weakness of man and the mercy of God. God certainly recognizes the weakness of each person due to concupiscence and is mindful of the intentions, the will of the sinner to repentance.[38] He tells us to trust the Church, both in its teachings of what we shall do, and its judgments when we have failed.[39]


Certainly, the weight of sin upon the sinner is repeated throughout the sermons that make up this commentary. We need to know the filth that sin is, as an affront to God. “To thee only have I sinned”[40] But the joy of the sinner freed of sin is likewise declared. “None can express how joyful the sinner is when he knows and understands himself to be delivered from the great burden and heaviness of sin,”[41] as so many of us can attest to after leaving the confessional; a great weight seems to have been left behind.


Like the psalmist, we have laid our sins at the feet of Christ, and He “always lives to make intercession for us.”[42] And when we come before Christ, with “an afflicted spirit: a contrite and humbled heart,”[43] “What will he show? Everlasting peace to come upon his servants, upon those who are sorrowful and do penance for their sins.”[44]


Psalm 51 and the Liturgy


The whole Office regularly begins with an invitatory. This consists in the verse “Lord, Open my lips, and my mouth will proclaim your praise” (Ps 51:15) and Psalm 95.[45] We see, then, that Psalm 51 holds a central place in the liturgical life of the Church.


Every Friday morning, on the day that we remember the Passion of Christ, Morning Prayer contains Psalm 51. “The Liturgy of the Hours makes us pray it at Lauds every Friday. For centuries the prayer has risen to heaven from the hearts of many faithful Jews and Christians as a sigh of repentance and hope poured out to a merciful God.”[46]


Psalm 51, although in no official or doctrinal manner, has often been given by a priest to a penitent as a penance after Confession. Personally, I have come across priests who, after hearing my confession, have given the penance of “say whatever prayers you believe will lead you closer to God.” Whether or not this is good confessional practice, Psalm 51 is certainly a good option here. To chant the beautiful Miserere before the crucifix can’t fail to bring one’s heart to a desire to serve God better and to likewise feel the presence of His great mercy.

At the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, the Asperges, so called from the words intoned at the beginning of the ceremony, where the congregation is sprinkled with holy water, Psalm 50 is often recited. “After intoning the antiphon the priest recites the psalm Miserere or Confitemini, according to the season, sprinkling first the front and platform of the altar, then himself, next the ministers and choir, and lastly the congregation.”[47] This historically was done to move the congregation to a spirit of penance, and the practice dates back to sometime around the 10th century. Certainly, the miserere is appropriate for personal prayer in preparation, then, before assisting at the Mass.


Concluding Thoughts


The greatest of the penitential psalms is a masterful prayer for those who are ready to follow the words of our Savior who’s first words in the Gospel of Mark were “The time is accomplished, and the kingdom of God is at hand: repent, and believe the gospel.”[48] In the new heavens and new earth, where the kingdom is completely fulfilled, those who came to Christ with a contrite heart and a broken spirit will attain to eternal life, for “Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”[49]


If we look at this as the new Jerusalem, we may see the fitting conclusion of the psalm, which begs “Deal favourably, O Lord, in thy good will with Sion; that the walls of Jerusalem may be built up.”[50] Speaking of these walls, St. John Fisher tells us that “[w]hoever orders himself in this way, that by his inward sorrow he can have a contrite heart, is able and fit for the high building in the heavenly city, whose walls are not yet finished. A great many stones are lacking for those walls to be built up and completed…But it is appropriate that no stone should be taken up into such a noble building without being prepared beforehand as it should be and made fit.”[51] We cannot do this on our own, but we may ask with great and confident hope: “Have mercy on me, O God, according to thy great mercy.”[52]


[1] Ps 50:15 (numbering of the psalms are taken from the Douay Rheims when it is quoted, even though the title of this essay is of Psalm 51. Scripture quotes are form the Douay-Rheims unless otherwise noted)

[2] 2 Sam 12:5b-7a

[3] Ps 50:3

[4] Ps 50:5

[5] Ps 50:9

[6] Ps 50:11-13

[7] Ps 50:15-16

[8] Ps 50:20

[9] Luke 15:18

[10] Ps 51:4b (RSV)

[11] Luke 15:20 (KJV)

[12] Ps 50:3

[13] John 9:33

[14] John 9:34

[15] Ps 50 7

[16] Cf Rom 5:12; 7:14;Eph 2:3

[17] Luke 22:32

[18] Ps 50:14-15

[19] Cf John 21:15-17

[20] Augustine, Exposition of the Psalms, Psalm 51

[21] Cf Matt 5:48

[22] Augustine, Ps 51

[23] Ibid

[24] Ibid

[25] Matthew 15:17-18

[26] Augustine, Exposition of the Psalms, Psalm 51

[27] 1 John 1:8-9

[28] Augustine, Exposition of the Psalms, Psalm 51

[29] John Fisher, Exposition of the Seven Penitential Psalms, 98

[30] Ibid, 96

[31] Ibid

[32] Cf. Ibid, 116-117

[33] Ibid, 102

[34] Ibid, 103

[35] Ibid

[36] Ibid, 108, quoting Ezek 18:29

[37] John 20:23

[38] Cf John Fisher, 109

[39] Ibid, 112

[40] Ps 50:6

[41] John Fisher, 114-115

[42] Heb 7:25

[43] Ps 50:19

[44] John Fisher, 115

[45] General Instruction of the Liturgy of the Hours, 34

[46] John Paul II, General Audience, Wednesday 24 October 2001

[47] New Catholic Encyclopedia, Asperges

[48] Mark 1:15

[49] Matt 5:3

[50] Ps 50:20

[51] John Fisher, 136

[52] Ps 50:3


Great Blog by a Ph.D. Molecular Biologist and Microbiologist

Great Blog by  Ph.D. Molecular Biologist and Microbiologist Gerard M. Nada



On the ABOUT page, He says that “I rejoice in the knowledge and power that is at the disposal of my community…Along the way, we have lost something of ourselves as a race, something essential. The reductionism of the Twentieth Century has flashed back on us. We have come to see ourselves as less sacred, and therefore, less deserving of a unique dignity in all of creation.” This is Gospel truth
Check out the blog

Gilson and “Critical Realism”

For the written essay, please click here

Etienne Gilson and the Critique of “Critical Realism”

For an audio/visual reading of this essay, click here:

Etienne Gilson and the Relationship of the Realist Position with Idealism

(A joint effort by Benjamin Moser and Matthew Menking)

Étienne Gilson[1] was one of the best known Thomist philosophers of the 20th century.  He was born in Paris on 13 June 1884. He studied under many fine scholars, including Henri Bergson, and although he always maintained a respect for Bergson, his own thought was considerably different. When Gilson began to study medieval philosophy in depth, he saw strong connections with the thought of Descartes, including the use of many terms borrowed from scholastic thought, although modified in their meaning.


Ultimately, according to Gilson, the Cartesian experiment fails in its attempts to overcome skepticism and lead us to a certain knowledge of the real world. Instead, the method has produced almost nothing but skepticism, and the reactions to it have been the opposite extremes of pure empiricism or idealism.


Here we would like to offer a brief overview of Gilson’s criticisms of those contemporary realists who would like to do justice to the questions asked by the idealists and so set out using an idealist method to attempt to reach realist conclusions. We will then look at what Gilson says is the real answer to becoming a realist, which consists in making that realism a decision in the beginning.


Gilson’s General Criticisms of Other Approaches to Realism

                Gilson’s realism differed from a number of other approaches adopted by Thomists of his time.  Certain of these thinkers called themselves Critical Realists.  Their approach to the question of realism were varied.  Some, for instance, such as Cardinal Mercier adopted a “mediate” realism, inferring the existence of the external world in a manner similar to that of Descartes, while others, such as a Monsigneor L. Noel held to a so-called “immediate” realism, avoiding such inferences.

Gilson objected to critical realism.  To begin with, he was opposed to the very use of the term “critical” to distinguish these philosophies.  The term, in fact, had no clear, universal definition.  It was used at times simply to designate a refutation of skepticism, idealism or criticism – that is, a refutation which presupposes realism.  With this Gilson has no problems.  The term might also be used to distinguish a reflective, philosophical realism from naïve, common-sense realism.  While Gilson does not object to making this distinction, he thinks the use of such terminology as “critical realism” is unnecessary, for “at this rate all philosophy would be critical by definition, since all philosophy involves reflection.”[2]

If it is true that the mode of knowledge proper to common sense is infraphilosophic, naïve realism          cannot be elevated to the level of philosophy.  Therefore, there is no reason to use the expression,            as if it were necessary to distinguish, outside of philosophy, between realism that is naïve and one            that is not.  If it is naïve, realism is simply not philosophy; if it is philosophy, realism cannot be               naïve… We need not style ourselves critical realists for the simple fact that we are realists of the   reflective sort, which is the manner of philosophy itself.  So let us say that we hold a philosophical      realism and, since the problem only arises among philosophers, content ourselves with calling it                 realism, plain and simple.[3]

That is, if we are already engaged in philosophic discussion of realism then we are, by the definition under consideration, engaging in critical thought, and there is no reason to distinguish our position as anything more than realism.  To do so is redundant.  Furthermore, it “presents serious drawbacks.”[4]  For, if a “critical” in this case means something other than simply “philosophical,”  it will indicate a realism which is justified on idealist bases.  As Gilson says,

“If a realist…wants to use this term to signify that his realism is conscious of its foundations,        justified by reflection rather than the spontaneous judgment of common sense, either ‘critical         realism’ will simply mean ‘philosophical realism’ or else ‘critical’ will acquire a meaning distinct       from philosophical.’  In the latter case, experience shows and reason proves that it will become      necessary to justify realist conclusions with the help of an idealist method.”[5]

It is to this latter approach to realism – one that adopts an idealist method, the method of those very systems which it seeks to refute – that Gilson objects, and from which he distinguishes his own realism.

The systems to which realism is opposed all work within the paradigm set by Descartes: that one must begin with thought and, from that starting point only, reach things.

What do the systems which the neo-scholastic philosophers want to refute have in common? The          idea that philosophical reflection ought necessarily to go from thought to things. The        mathematician always proceeds from thought to being or things. Consequently, critical idealism            was born the day Descartes decided that the mathematical method must henceforth be the method             for metaphysics.[6]

Descartes himself, of course, tried to reach realist conclusions from his chosen starting point.  As this method was adopted by later thinkers, however, the very possibility of metaphysical realism was rejected.

That Descartes, although an idealist in method, was in intention a realist, is proved by his             Meditations on First Philosophy. We can also say that in asking himself under what conditions a          universal a priori mathematics is possible, he still left the door open for metaphysics as a genuine                 science. But when Kant carried the Cartesian method onto other ground and asked himself what    are the conditions which make Newtonian physics possible, he firmly shut the door on metaphysics                as a science, because all physics presupposes sensory intuition, which is plainly not to be found in                 the metaphysical ideas of the reason. Indeed, all idealism derives from Descartes, or from Kant, or         from both together, and whatever other distinguishing features a system may have, it is idealist to               the extent that, either in itself, or as far as we are concerned, it makes knowing the condition of being.[7]

This loss of the thing or being, Gilson maintains, is the necessary result of the idealist method.  For this reason he criticizes those attempts at realism which, in accordance with this method, attempt to reach being by beginning with thought.  To do so is impossible, he maintains, and those who engage in this endeavor are doomed to failure.

The Cartesian experiment was an admirable metaphysical enterprise bearing the stamp of sheer             genius. We owe it a great deal, even if it is only for having brilliantly proved that every           undertaking of this kind is condemned in advance to fail. However, it is the extreme of naivety to               begin it all over again in the hope of obtaining the opposite results to those which it has always         given, because it is of its nature to give them.[8]

If one begins with thought, rather than with the real being of external things, he has already trapped oneself inside thought.  “He who begins with Descartes,” says Gilson, “cannot avoid ending up with Berkeley or with Kant”[9]

The illusion, which people who make attempts of this kind suffer from, even when they struggle             hardest against it, is that one can extract an ontology from an epistemology, and, by this or that                method, discover in thought anything apart from thought. A something outside thought cannot be thought of. There could be no better formula to describe idealism. And by it idealism stands condemned, because philosophy can no more do without what is not thought (or things) than it can            do without thought itself, and if one cannot get outside oneselfto arrive at things when one makes             thought the starting point, that proves that thought is not the point one should have started from.[10]

History bears witness to the inevitable results of the idealist method.  We see not only the failure of Descartes, and the results of idealists like Kant and Barkeley, but the failure of those realists who have adopted their method.  Not that Gilson considers an historical analysis able to demonstrate the necessary impossibility of a critical realism.  “Such an approach is necessary yet insufficient, for the fact that ten, twenty or a hundred philosophers have failed to find the solution to a problem does not prove that the problem is impossible to solve.”[11]  None the less, it is telling that thinker after thinker has failed to solve the problem.  Furthermore, in the face of this, the burden of proof lies upon the critical realists.

Each time we have discussed some particular form of critical realism and found it lacking, others               have always claimed that another form of critical realism might overcome our objections.  And if        we then demonstrated the insufficiency of the next form of critical realism, still another was trotted              out.  The partisans of critical realism maintain that this process must continue until it has been            proven that their position is impossible as a matter of principle.  To this we reply that, if those who      maintain that critical realism is possible in principle never provide a factual demonstration, it is a     bit much for them to demand that their adversaries accept this doctrine on the strength of the                 promise of future proofs.  It is up to them to show that it is indeed possible… While waiting,       however, we may occupy our time profitably by demonstrating the inherent self-contradiction      involved in each critical realism which has been advanced up to now and inquiring whether this     self-contradiction is not coessential with the very question asked.[12]



Gilson’s Criticism of Some Particular Such Approaches

In light of the above considerations, let us consider some of the attempts at critical realism with which Gilson dealt. Gilson tells us clearly, and repeats it often, that “every refutation of an error founded upon the consequences of that very error must inevitably fall back into that same error from whose consequences it took its starting point.”[13] Some attempts at a “critique of the critique” are undertaken by well-intended neo-scholastic authors, but all seem to fail because of the premises they accepted from the idealist method they intended to refute. This is because “whoever sticks a finger into the machinery of the Cartesian method must expect to be dragged along its whole course.”[14]


One such well-intended realist is Cardinal Mercier. He posits the method of a “mediate realism” and attempts to justify the real object of sensible forms through the principle of causality. What the cardinal wishes to do, one thinks, is to take Descartes method and avoid ending up with the result of Berkley. In basic form, he wishes to show that the contingency of the impressions of objects on the senses prove that they are objectively “out there,” since it is not we who act on ourselves. “Either I am the cause of my sensations, or something other than myself is.”[15] We easily understand that they are not of our own making.


The problem is, many other solutions “save the appearances,” to say the least. Not only Berkley’s idealism, but the occasionalism of Malebranche, the parallelism of Spinoza, or the “pre-established harmony” of Leibniz all explain the data. These positions all imply that the contingent, “non-selfed” sensations are given from the mind of God (or a similar method) and not from an objective reality “out there.” It becomes quickly apparent that the principle of causality, merged to the contingent nature of those “things” which cause sensation, cannot be a legitimate proof of the objectivity of a material world. At best, a material world is merely one possible explanation of the data. We are forced to concede that a mediate realism is no realism at all, as it can in no way posit a direct knowledge of the things-in-themselves, not even being able to prove that there are indeed things-in-themselves.


Gilson then looks at the question of whether a realism can be both critical and immediate at the same time. This is viewed under the research of Monsignor Noel, whose thought on the work of Cardinal Mercier gives rise to some confusion in Gilson.[16] Noel claims to be in general agreement with Mercier, and Gilson gives some valid criticism to this claim. As far as Etienne Gilson is concerned, however, this disagreement of Gilson with Noel’s assessment of Mercier’s position has no adverse effect on consideration of Noel’s position in itself. The best explanation for some of Noel’s alleged agreement with the Cardinal’s work is that the monsignor is able to “read into” the Cardinal’s work his own, due to some ambiguities.


The term immediate realism holds that the mind is able to grasp immediately “a reality independent both of the thoughts which it represents and of the act of thought that apprehends it.”[17] But what do we make if the “critical” label here? The critical method seems to require an indisputable certainty. This would imply that some critical starting point precedes the philosophy in question. But if this is so, then that starting point holds itself superior to realism, for it is a starting point that holds epistemology as superior to metaphysics. If “being” is not first, it cannot become first after a prior principle. This is simply absurd, and realism demands that being is first. Realism, then, will always start with metaphysics as the judge of all other sciences, since it deals with first principles.


Realism, likewise, starts with the fact of the existence of the things-in-themselves. “As soon as one accepts the idea of immediate realism, there can, by definition, no longer be a question of the existence of the outside world.”[18] What, then, is the problem with this so called immediate realism? Noel does not really go straight to the real, to reality. He posits an apprehended reality, and then starts from the point of “the apprehended.” In other words, this immediate realism “is planning…to consider in the ‘apprehended’ real only the ‘apprehended’ without the reality.”[19]


What has happened here is a repetition of former problems. We have once again cut ourselves off from reality (only this time at a slightly varied point) and then begin to seek a way back. “Put in the simplest terms, the question comes down to what has been called ‘the problem of the bridge’.”[20] We keep isolating thought from things, or rather, knowledge from things, as if they were two spatially separated objects, and then seeking a way to reunite then, come up short.


Any time we make some such division, we start from the point of view of the idealist. Here, it is worth repeating: “every refutation of an error founded upon the consequences of that very error must inevitably fall back into that same error from whose consequences it took its starting point.”[21] Each cutting off of the knowledge of the thing known from the thing known will create an unbridgeable divide. The idealist, knowingly or not, always has an advantage in the discussion if we miss this. “All idealist objections to the realist position are formulated in idealist terms. So it is hardly surprising that the idealist always wins. His questions invariably imply an idealist solution to problems.”[22]


Like most false philosophies, there is a great coherence, even brilliance, in the system. It all holds together quite nicely as long as we accept just one little absurdity in the beginning. “One is mistaken in trying to refute it [idealist systems] by accusing it of not being logical enough. On the contrary, it is a doctrine that lives by logic, and only logic, because in it the order and connection of ideas replaces the order and connection between things.”[23] One would do well here to turn to ‘Godel’s theorem’ and reflect on its possible implications here.


Gilson provides an evaluation of a few other neo-scholastic authors. One author is Fr. Picard,[24] whom Gilson spends considerable time evaluating in his Thomist Realism, although he does not seem to take Fr. Picard’s arguments to be on the same level as those of Cardinal Mercier or Monsignor Noel. With each “critical realist” that Gilson evaluates the details differ, but it is the same conclusion that is drawn. One either starts as an idealist or as a realist. If a person thinks he can make this choice after a critical evaluation of the theory of knowledge, he has actually made the choice to be an idealist in the very act of this decision. This is a choice that is made in the beginning. We now turn to why one would make such a choice.


Gilson’s Own Methodical Realism

In Etienne Gilson’s A Handbook for Beginning Realists,[25]Gilson offers thirty points of reflection, each in the form of a single paragraph. We shall take a look here at the first in some depth, using points from the others to deepen our understanding.

“The first step on the realist path is to recognize that one has always been a realist; the second is to recognize that, however hard one tries to think differently, one will never manage to; the third is to realize that those who claim they think differently, think as realists as soon as they forget to act the part. If one then asks oneself why, one’s conversion to realism is all but complete.”[26]

1.   The first step on the realist path is to recognize that one has always been a realist.


Reaslism is, of course, the default position, the common sense position. Now one may reply that the philosopher is one who overcomes common sense. But this is not accurate. Rather, the philosopher is one who develops and forms what he knows, perfecting the use of common sense. The fact that realism is the common sense position is not an argument for one to accept a naïve common sense, but rather, to demonstrate the right use of the senses and the intellect in knowledge of the real world as they are.

Commonly, arguments are made against realism on the basis of a mistrust of the senses. One such argument is that, when dreaming, we do think we are knowing a real world around us, and yet this is not the case. From here, it is “proved” that our thinking we are reaching the real world “out there” with our thought is not realiable. “A man who is dreaming feels no different from a man who is awake, but anyone who is awake knows he is altogether different from someone who is dreaming.”[27]


Another similar argument is that of illusions. But we see again that it is on the side of idealism, not realism, that the trouble is unanswerable. The fact that there are visual (and other) illusions proves all our perceptions are not illusions. “The idealist only finds these illusions so upsetting because he does not know how to prove they are illusions. The realist has no reason to be upset by them, since for him they really are illusions.”[28]


2.   The second is to recognize that, however hard one tries to think differently, one will never manage to.

When Descartes wrote his Meditations, it certainly gave man something to think about, even if he was in no way the first to ponder such questions.[29] But even Descartes showed, as we have mentioned above, that he was “in intention a realist.”[30] Even he seemed to realize that his  awareness of himself as thinking thing was preceded by his knowledge of himself as a thinking thing. For the “greatest difference between the realist and the idealist is that the idealist thinks, whereas the realist knows…The idealist, however, because he goes from thought to things, cannot know whether what he starts from corresponds with an object or not.”[31] Do we not ask, if told by someone that “they are thinking” ask the automatic question: “thinking about what?”


3.   The third is to realize that those who claim they think differently, think as realists as soon as they forget to act the part.


Many of these idealist intellectuals have developed extensive and logically coherent systems in the manner of their dialogue and of their literary output. But when it comes to the actual living of ordinary life, simple conversations with them will almost always reveal a realist assumption, even if subconscious.  This is something that many would not even deny. Renee Descartes and David Hume would each tell you that you should live, not as a skeptic, but through your common sense reasoning. Descartes skepticism obviously derived from his subjectivism and idealism. Hume, a professed empiricist, showed many tendencies, however, of the rationalist in his skeptical thought. Both thinkers, however, acted upon their realist assumptions in their day to day activities whenever they were not actively contemplating their “new worlds.”


4.   If one then asks oneself why, one’s conversion to realism is all but complete.


Rather than being enlightened by a new vision of the truth, as an idealist might claim about their idealism, the idealist in reality has to keep convincing himself of the truth of his system. He must continually adjust the reality around him to fit into the mold of his preconceived system.


The realist, however, simply updates his “total experience” of reality and modifies his thought according to that reality. Rather than spending his efforts in “modifying” reality, he grows in understanding of that reality. When one tires of the fight to create his world and ponders simply living in it, he is all but a realist.


Concluding Thoughts

In discussing the possibility of escape from subjectivism, our author Gallagher stated that “Once we recognize that there is no problem of getting outside of consciousness, we have recovered an essential vantage-point.  To be conscious is already to be outside oneself.  We do not have to break through the container of consciousness, because consciousness is not a container.”[32]  One ought not to begin inside thought and try to find a way out, for that very starting point is an error.  One need not escape from subjectivism from within it, but need only avoid its false foundation.

This is similar to the position of Gilson.  If one is to be a realist, one must begin with realism.  He must begin with the self-evident real being of external things.  Not that his realism is naïve common-sense realism, for it is reflective and conscious of its own foundations.  But, there is no need to enter into the Cartesian endeavor of demonstrating their being, for their being is the starting point of our thought – it is the first thing we know, without which is no consciousness.  If we try walking down that road, we will never reach our desired destination.  If one is to be a realist, he must recognize that there is no bridge one needs to cross from thought to thing, and that if one employs the idealist, critical method he will never be able to build such a bridge.  In his words, “there is no middle ground.  You must either begin as a realist with being, in which case you will have knowledge of being, or begin as a critical idealist with knowledge, in which case you will never come in contact with being.”[33]  Being is the only sound starting point for philosophy.

While the last few centuries have seen the method of idealism tried and modified in so many ways in a critical attempt to secure our knowledge, the rapidly changing systems ought to tell us something of the instability of this project. True, “most of our contemporaries think that, at bottom, being a philosopher and adopting an idealist method are one and the same thing.”[34] But as philosophy is the love of wisdom, we must ask if our philosophy is bringing us an understanding of reality. Is that not its purpose? The realist needs to be careful to always let the world around him shape his understanding of that world, modifying his understanding as he grows. But at least the realist system places this demand on the philosopher.


While the study of philosophy itself is certainly important, in the end, we ought to be studying things, so as to have greater knowledge. “When an idealist genuinely thinks as an idealist, he perfectly embodies the essence of the ‘professor of philosophy’, whereas the realist, when he genuinely thinks as a realist, conforms himself to the authentic essence of a philosopher; for a philosopher talks about things, while a professor of philosophy talks about philosophy.”[35] These are certainly powerful words, spoken by a professor of philosophy, one of the greatest historians of philosophy of the last century, and all the while a true realist; a man of great wisdom.




A short biography of Etienne Gilson by Jon Cameron of the University of Aberdeen


Étienne Henri Gilson was born into a Roman Catholic family in Paris on 13 June 1884. He was educated at a number of Roman Catholic schools in Paris before attending lycée Henri IV in 1902, where he studied philosophy. Two years later he enrolled at the Sorbonne, graduating in 1907 after having studied under many fine scholars, including Lucien Lévy Bruhl, Henri Bergson and Emile Durkheim.


Gilson taught in a number of high schools after his graduation and worked on a doctoral thesis on Descartes, which he successfully completed (Sorbonne) in 1913. On the strength of advice from his teacher, Lévy Bruhl, he began to study medieval philosophy in great depth, coming to see Descartes as having strong connections with medieval philosophy, although often finding more merit in the medieval works he saw as connected than in Descartes himself. He was later to be highly esteemed for his work in medieval philosophy and has been described as something of a saviour to the field.


From 1913 to 1914 Gilson taught at the University of Lille. His academic career was postponed during the First World War while he took up military service. During his time in the army he served as second lieutenant in a machine-gun regiment and was awarded the Croix de Guerre for bravery upon relief from his duties. After the war, he returned to academic life at Lille and (also) Strasbourg, and in 1921 he took up an appointment at the Sorbonne teaching the history of medieval philosophy. He remained at the Sorbonne for eleven years prior to becoming Professor of Medieval Philosophy at the College de France in 1932. During his Sorbonne years and throughout his continuing career Gilson had the opportunity to travel extensively to North America, where he became highly influential as a historian and medievalist, demonstrating a number of previously undetermined important differences among the period’s greatest figures.


Gilson’s Gifford Lectures, delivered at Aberdeen in 1931 and 1932, titled ‘The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy’, were published in his native language (L’espirit de la philosophie medieval, 1932) before being translated into English in 1936. Gilson believed that a defining feature of medieval philosophy was that it operated within a framework endorsing a conviction to the existence of God, with a complete acceptance that Christian revelation enabled the refinement of meticulous reason. In this regard he described medieval philosophy as particularly ‘Christian’ philosophy.


Gilson married in 1908 and the union produced three children, two daughters and one son. Sadly, his wife died of leukaemia in late 1949. In 1951 he relinquished his chair at the College de France in order to attend to responsibilities he had at the Institute of Medieval Studies in Toronto, Canada, an institute he had been invited to establish in 1929. Gilson died 19 September 1978 at the age of ninety-four.


His works include: La liberté chez Descartes et la théologie (1913); Le Thomisme (1919, trans. 1924); Etudes de philosophie médiévale (1921); Saint Thomas d’Aquin (1925); Introduction a l’etude de S. Augustin (1929; trans. 1960); L’espirit de la philosophie medieval (2 vol., 1932; trans. 1936); La théologie mystique de Saint Bernard (1934; trans. 1940) Christianisme et philosophie (1936); The Unity of Philosophical Experience (1937); Réalisme thomiste et critique de la connaissance (1939); God and Philosophy (1941); L’Etre et l’essence (1948; trans. 1949); La philosophie de saint Bonaventure (1953; trans. 1965); Christian Philosophy in the Middle Ages (1955); Painting and Reality (1957); Elements of Christian Philosophy (1960); Le philosophe et la théologie (1960; trans. 1962).

[1]  See the Appendix at the end of this paper for a short bibliography by Jon Cameron of the University of Aberdeen

[2] Gilson, Thomist Realism and the Critique of Knowledge, tr. Mark A. Wauck, (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1986) 51.

[3] Ibid., 51-52.

[4] Ibid., 52.

[5] Ibid., 52.

[6] Gilson, Etienne (2011-10-12). Methodical Realism (Kindle Locations 32-35). Ignatius Press. Kindle Edition.

[7] Ibid., Kindle Locations 44-46.

[8] Ibid., Kindle Locations 95-97.

[9] Ibid., Kindle Locations 89-90.

[10] Ibid., Kindle Locations 160-161).

[11] Thomist Realism, 149.

[12] Ibid.,  153.

[13]  Gilson, Thomist Realism, 46

[14]  Ibid, 48

[15]  Gilson, Methodical Realism, 30

[16]  See Methodical Realism, 47-50

[17]  Ibid, 55

[18]  Methodical Realism, 48

[19]  Ibid, 49

[20]  Ibid, 13

[21]  Gilson, Thomist Realism, 46

[22]  Gilson, Methodical Realism, 93

[23]  Ibid, 99

[24]  See Thomist Realism, 87ff

[25]  This “handbook” is Chapter V in Gilson, Methodical Realism

[26]  Methodical Realism, 93

[27]  Ibid, 101

[28]  Ibid, 102

[29]  E.g., Augustine made a similar use of doubt as a tool for the refutation of skepticism.

[30]  Gilson, Methodical Realism, 12

[31]  Ibid, 94

[32] Kenneth T. Ghallagher, The Philosophy of Knowledge, (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1964), 47.

[33] Thomist Realism, 149.

[34]   Ibid, 79

[35]   Ibid, 95

INTELLIGIBLE BEING AND FIRST PRINCIPLES – Summary Points of Thomistic Principles

(please excuse the indentation issues. Not sure why its left-flushing everything)


Thomistic Realism  differs from

1) Phenominalism – philosophy of appearance

2) Evolutionism – philosophy of becoming

3) Psychologism – philosophy of the ego


Intelligible Being and First Principles

The first idea which the intellect conceives, its most evident idea into which it resolves all other ideas, is the idea of being. Grasping this first idea, the intellect cannot but grasp also the immediate consequences of that idea, namely, first principles as laws of reality:

1) “The intellect’s first act is to know being, reality, because an object is knowable only in the degree in which it is actual. Hence being, entity, reality, is the first and proper object of understanding, just as sound is the first object of hearing.”


2)  The being, which our intellect first understands is not the being of God, nor the being of the understanding subject, but the being which exists in the sense world.


3)  This doctrine rises above two extremes –

a)        that of absolute realism held by Plato; that universals exist formally outside the knowing mind.

i)                 Platonist realism claims to have at least a confused intuition of the divine being (which it calls the Idea of Good

b)       that of Nominalism, which denies that the universal has any foundation in individual sense objects, and reduces it to a subjective representation accompanied by a common name.

i)                  Nominalism opens the door to empiricism and positivism, which reduce first principles to experimental laws concerning sense phenomena


4)  Here lies the point of departure in Thomistic realism

a)        By reflection on its own act of knowledge the intellect comes to know the existence of that knowing act and its thinking subject.

b)       In intellective knowledge, the universal comes first; sense is restricted to the individual and particular.

c)        This limited moderate realism of Aristotle and Aquinas is in harmony with that natural, spontaneous knowledge which we call common sense

d)       These principles are laws, not of the spirit only, not mere logical laws, not laws merely experimental, restricted to phenomena, but necessary and unlimited laws of being, objective laws of all reality


5) Our intellect seizes at once its opposition to non-being, out of which knowledge arises the understanding of first principles, the first being the principle of contradiction: Being is not non-being.


6) Principles

a)        Non-contradiction: the declaration of opposition between being and nothing

b)       Causality or sufficient reason : Everything that is has its raison d’etre, in itself, if of itself it exists, in something else, if of itself it does not exist.

i)                This principle is subordinated to the principle of non-contradiction.

ii)               It is to be understood analogically, according to the order in which it is found, whether that order is intrinsic (the nature of a circle related to its characteristics): or extrinsic (cause, efficient or final, to its effects)

c)        The principle of substance: “That which exists as the subject of existence is substance, and is distinct from its accidents or modes.”

i)                This principle is derived from the principle of identity, because that which exists as subject of existence is one and the same beneath all its multiple phenomena, permanent or successive.

ii)              Inversely, being is now conceived explicitly as substantial

iii)             The principle of substance is simply a determination of the principle of identity: accidents then find their raison d’etre in the substance.

d)       The principle of efficient causality also finds its formula as a function of being: Every contingent being, even if it exists without beginning, needs an efficient cause and, in last analysis, an uncreated cause

e)        The principle of finality: Every agent acts for a purpose (or end). Depending on its level of being it may:

i)               first, a tendency merely natural and unconscious

ii)              secondly, this tendency may be accompanied by sense knowledge

iii)             thirdly, a tendency is guided by intelligence, knowing its purpose as purpose

f)        The first principle of natural law is derived from this principle: “Do good, avoid evil”  is founded on the idea of good, as the principle of contradiction on the idea of being. In other words: The rational being must will rational        good, that good, namely, to which its powers are proportioned by the author of its nature

Psalm 117

John Paul II states in his Wednesday Audience of November 2001, reflecting on Psalm 117  that “It is a short doxology, namely, an essential hymn of praise, that ideally functions as the conclusion of longer psalms.”

1 O praise the Lord, all ye nations: praise him, all ye people.

In Romans 15, Paul uses the first verse of the Psalm to invite the peoples of the world to glorify God.  Just before this, it is said “But that the Gentiles are to glorify God for his mercy, as it is written: Therefore will I confess to thee, O Lord, among the Gentiles, and will sing to thy name.”

Many of the Psalms have the people of Israel going so far as to call down a curse on the enemies of Israel. They glorify, certainly, the Lord, but also glorify Israel as the people set apart. Here, the Psalm is used by the great Old Testament scholar (if we may call him so) St. Paul as a call to all nations.

In Athens, Paul exhorts them “standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said: ‘Ye men of Athens, I perceive that in all things you are too superstitious. For passing by, and seeing your idols, I found an altar also, on which was written: To the unknown God. What therefore you worship, without knowing it, that I preach to you.’”

It is time for all nations to praise the Lord, the one true God. There had always been those who seek God but have not heard (how can they believe if they have not heard?) the revelation of His salvation.  One such example “was a certain man in Caesarea, named Cornelius, a centurion of that which is called the Italian band; A religious man, and fearing God with all his house, giving much alms to the people, and always praying to God.”

There are many like Cornelius today. Many who have not heard the truth but seek it. Of course, in their very seeking, the grace of God is at work in them. Undeservedly, God moves them ever closer, opens their hearts to the good news, and this is all to the praise of His great mercy:

2 For his mercy is confirmed upon us: and the truth of the Lord remaineth for ever.

Psalm 149: A Few Quick Thoughts

As it appears in the Douay-Rheims, Psalm 149 is prefaced with:


“Cantate Domino. The church is particularly bound to praise God. Alleluia.” It truly is a “Hymn on the establishment of the kingdom of the LORD”[1] and that Kingdom is the Church.


[1] Sing ye to the Lord a new canticle: let his praise be in the church of the saints.


“A festive atmosphere pervades the entire Psalm.”[2] I think the same can be said for the next and final Psalm of the Psalter as well. The last six psalms all begin with “praise.”


[2] Let Israel rejoice in him that made him: and let the children of Sion be joyful in their king.


“But as many as received him, he gave them power to be made the sons of God, to them that believe in his name. Who are born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.”[3] All are born of God in their first birth, but those born anew are those who accept their King, the Christ. It is they who, faithfully enduring til the end, will hear “enter thou into the joy of thy lord.”[4]


[3] Let them praise his name in choir: let them sing to him with the timbrel and the psaltery.


“it begins with the initial Alleluia and then continues with chant, praise, joy, dance, the sound of drums and of harps.”[5] We are told by St. Augustine that “to sing is the work of lovers.”[6]


[4] For the Lord is well pleased with his people: and he will exalt the meek unto salvation.


“The protagonists of the Psalm in the original Hebrew text are given two terms that are taken from the spirituality of the Old Testament. Three times they are defined as the hasidim (vv. 1, 5, 9), ‘the pious, the faithful ones’, who respond with fidelity and love (hesed) to the fatherly love of the Lord.”[7] “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the land.” This, as many of the beatitudes, goes against our first inclinations, but truly, it is the meek that inherit the new creation:


[5] The saints shall rejoice in glory: they shall be joyful in their beds.


[6] The high praise of God shall be in their mouth: and two-edged swords in their hands:


“Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.” [8] “For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.”[9]


[7] To execute vengeance upon the nations, chastisements among the people:


“The kings of the earth stood up, and the princes met together, against the Lord and against his Christ. Let us break their bonds asunder: and let us cast away their yoke from us.”[10]


[8] To bind their kings with fetters, and their nobles with manacles of iron.


We are told in the second Psalm: “The One enthroned in heaven laughs; the Lord scoffs at them. Then he rebukes them in his anger and terrifies them in his wrath, saying, ‘I have installed my King on Zion, my holy hill.’”[11]


[9] To execute upon them the judgment that is written: this glory is to all his saints.


“And Jesus said to them: Amen, I say to you, that you, who have followed me, in the regeneration, when the Son of man shall sit on the seat of his majesty, you also shall sit on twelve seats judging the twelve tribes of Israel.”[12]



[1]Dr. Daniel Van Slyke, Notes on Processional and Enthronement Psalms

[2] John Paul II, General Audience, Wednesday 23 May 2001

[3] John 1:12-13

[4] Matt 25:23

[5] Ibid.

[6] Augustine, Sermones, 33, 1

[7] John Paul II

[8] Matt 10:34

[9] Heb 4:12

[10] Psalm 2:2-3

[11] Psalm 2:4

[12] Matt 19:28

Evolution, Final Causality, and a Creator

Evolution, Final Causality, and a Creator


The order of learning as taught by St. Thomas Aquinas, is that we first sense the created world and because of the understanding we form of it come to know of the truth of its Creator. It is possible, though, to focus on the part and lose the whole, and this myopia has resulted in the current secular understanding of evolution, commonly called Darwinism, which has become one such reductionist belief of a great majority of modern man. Etienne Gilson finds this problematic and has explained that “[t]he pure mechanist in biology is a man whose entire activity has as its end the discovery of the ‘how’ of the vital operations in plants and animals. Looking for nothing else, he sees nothing else, and since he cannot integrate other things in his research, he denies their existence.”[1] Most discussions of evolution, in fact, end up centering on the question of chance, and, once established, it seems permissible for its adherents to do away with not only final causality (already a fatality to the reductionism already mentioned), but also the existence of God.

Our crafting a correct theory of evolution might enable us to come to a greater knowledge of the world around us and to an initial understanding of at least the existence of its necessary cause.

What is Evolution?

Catholics, although not obligated, are certainly encouraged to accept some form of evolution as the most coherent, scientifically verified, and likely material theory for the current state of species. “First, evolution, in its broadest sense, states that the world ‘began’ and gradually more and more complex substances developed.”[2] None other than Pope John Paul II said as much in his Letter on Evolution.[3] The point to be made here, before investigating some of the problems with erroneous theories of evolution, is that faith and reason are not opposed, and the Catholic Church itself has no opposition to such a theory, correctly understood.

We run into philosophical problems when the totality of the actual beings, these new forms, is reduced to a mere sum of the material parts involved. “In philosophical terms, different actual beings (substances with new forms) appear as time progresses.”[4] This reductionism is a constant temptation for scientists, whose observations are of the merely empirical, the measurable. If we say that a book is paper with ink marking bound together by covers, we are correct in as much as we say, but we err when we decide that a book is only those things.

We may ask the question here of the possibility of a million monkeys typing on a million computers for a million years and the question of their achieving “Hamlet.” The truth is, that an infinite amount of monkeys typing for an infinite amount of years could not generate the first sentence of Hamlet, unless we say that “Hamlet” is merely the arrangement of ink on paper. But Hamlet is an idea, and conveys concepts, abstracted thoughts, and many other things than require an intellect to recognize. Perhaps a single monkey could, in 5 minutes, type out the image of words to the first page of Hamlet, but it would not be “Hamlet” without the intellect recognizing it as such. The ink and the paper are there, to be sure, but much more than the ink and the paper.

Reductionism of this type can even take place in those who believe in the existence of a reality beyond the physical. Much of the error of modern reductionist science can be linked back to the views of such a believer as Descartes, who separated the human soul from the body in almost a complete way. Once this occurred, there seemed to be no way to put the two back together. The human body has now become the machine through which a human soul merely operates.

Animals, not having an intellectual soul, therefore become nothing more than their bodies, which are merely matter. Gilson makes the excellent observation “that primitives take a watch for an animal, but only the genius of Descartes has been able to take animals for watches.”[5] It is one thing for us to recognize our tendency to see a biological type of teleology of the kind with an intellectually known purpose “in” an inanimate object. But it is equally erroneous to reduce everything to the material as a correction.[6]

A Note on Charles Darwin and Herbert Spencer

Darwin preferred his doctrine to be taught under the understanding of epigenesis, where successive acquisition and formation of new parts occurs, rather than a strict evolution, which would posit the completed form in the seed that merely develops to its end.  “[True evolution is] the notion of all those who wish to make absolutely certain that the divine act of creation having once taken place, nothing new is added to the created nature.”[7]  Herbert Spencer should probably be credited with coining evolution in the modern scientific sense. He certainly made an effort to defend the proposition that it was he and not Darwin who came up with it, but history seems to have had its unchangeable victory in forever linking Darwin with the foundation of evolution. “Not only is it that Darwin did not teach evolution, but Spencer does not believe in natural selection.”[8] Spencer would be much closer to a Lamarkian (see the works of Chevalier de Lamarck, 1744-1829) than a Darwinian, as we understand the terms.

We need to emphasis the point that Darwin did not intend his thought to be tied with that of evolution. “At the time when Darwin elaborated his own doctrine of the origin of species, the word ‘evolution’ was already in use to signify something completely different.”[9] ‘Evolution,’ from the Latin verb evolver, is an old philosophical notion of the of the Stoics. The word evolution, indeed, cannot be found in Darwin’s Origin of Species until the 6th edition. It seems to have been placed there, not because it was fundamental to his own thought, but because of the intellectual atmosphere of the time.

In place of evolution, Darwin posited a quite different theory. “The authentic Darwinian principle is not that of evolution; it is that of the principle of selection.”[10] This is an important point, because among the majority of laymen, and likely among many scientists, these two theories are erroneously seen as synonymous. For our purposes here, however, we note this point and move on to theories involving chance and then the notion of final causality. I wish to simply affirm, with Gilson, that “the great discovery which was popularly attributed to Darwin was not the evolutionism of Spencer, but his own doctrine of natural selection under the Spencerian name of evolution.”[11]

Chance: An Explanation?

We see that, although he denies it several times,[12] the underlying and strong position a modern biologist such as Dawkins gives to the “explanation” of chance. Chance has been touted as the explanation for much in Darwinian theories of evolution. But an explanation should be a cause, for we have real knowledge when we have knowledge through causes.[13] Is chance, then, a cause?

Aristotle lists four causes, and these are the formal, the material, the efficient, and the final causes. Material and efficient causes play an obviously important role in the empirical sciences. However, it seems that whatever lies beyond these two causes is lumped into the “cause of chance” and left at that. If Aristotle is correct, however, chance is only virtually a cause. Chance is sometimes concurrent with the four causes; therefore, chance is a cause only by virtue of concurrence. There are certainly other possible explanations of the concurrence of events, and they should not be written off outright without justification.

Let us take the example of a chance meeting of two old friends. Bob and Sam meet each other, by chance, in the market. But chance is not a real cause of their meeting. Bob went to purchase a product at the market, and Sam went to file a complaint with the manager at the market. Since they did these at the same time, without knowledge of each others’ intentions, we say they met by chance. But all we are really saying is that the cause of the concurrence of these events is outside the intentions of the individuals. Chance, then, is not an explanation, but merely states the lack of a known cause for the concurrence of the two old friends being in the market at the same time.

Perhaps Sally, a friend of both, was able to arrange this meeting, apart from the knowledge of both Sam and Bob, for she did the favor of reuniting old friends. We may imagine other causes that were intentional as well. The point, for us, is that, for Bob and Sam, as well as any other party unaware of Sally’s intention, the meeting of Sam and Bob in the market would appear as chance. This is because they lack the explanation of their concurrent appearances in the market.

Chance, then, is no true explanation at all. It is more of a placeholder. Chance is the part of the puzzle where we say “here we lack knowledge of the cause.” This is fine, as far as it goes. But when we remove the placeholder and name “placeholder” as “cause,” we have decided that to simply state our ignorance is to state some knowledge. This is as far from the true goal of science as we could get. Materialist atheists tend to charge the theist with worshipping gaps, but the truth is, the theist recognizes the gaps in our explanation and tries to offer a real explanation rather than to push that gap as that explanation.

Final Causality and Teleology

Richard Dawkins makes an attempt to refute Thomas Aquinas’ fifth way, that is, the argument from design, which we can take as one instance of a teleological argument. He writes that “[t]he argument from design is the only one still in regular use today.”[14] This itself is erroneous, but Dawkins has already failed to give a real argument against the first four of Aquinas’ proofs, and so this statement is an instance of rhetoric designed to keep his reader from returning and investigating his “refutation” of them. He continues, stating how “[t]he young Darwin was impressed by it [a version of this argument by William Paley] but…the mature Dawkins blew it out of the water.”[15] In this section, Dawkins argument amounts to this: “Thanks to Darwin, it is no longer true to say that nothing we know looks designed unless it is designed.” His argument here is that, because Darwin was right, Darwin was right. The argument is both circular (and thus fallacious) and is an argument from authority (the weakest kind of argument).He does promise to return to the argument from design in a later chapter, but never really returns to a refutation of the teleological argument as presented by Aquinas. This is, after all, typical of Dawkins and his rhetorical rather systematically reasoned style. Other poor refutations given by Dawkins do not concern us for our purposes here.

Certainly, a biologist, a physicist, a chemist, etc., may rightly reject a teleology where rocks move toward a massive object, such as the earth’s surface, with an intellectually known purpose. But to refute teleology in this way is to refute a straw man, rather intentionally or through ignorance. “Much of the difficulty with teleology in nature arises from conceiving all final causality as intentional or cognitive and not sufficiently differentiating the cognitive from the terminative and the perfective.”[16] Gilson is at pains to remind us throughout his book that, as Aristotle so often stated, art imitates nature, and not the reverse. “Matter, form, and the end are real constituents of being, but they exist only in it and by it. This is what distinguishes the teleology of nature from that of art. The artist is external to his work…The end of living nature is, on the contrary, consubstantial with it.”[17]

Gilson then gives one of the finest examples to clear up our confusion on the “location” of this teleology in nature. “Whatever may be the transcendent origin of it, the teleology of the organism is in it as, once let fly by the archer, that of the arrow which flies to the target without knowing it, is in the arrow.”[18] It may be that Aristotle tending to “biologize” all of nature. He posited intelligences in the celestial matter, and professed that matter to be of a different type than earthly (mundane) matter. His statements that heavy things tend toward a resting place and that fire tends upwards could be taken as if these objects had an intellectual disposition to do so. But to misunderstand the exact “place” of the teleology and to remove it completely are two different things. We cannot, as the saying goes, “throw out the baby with the bathwater.”

Final Causality and the Question of God

One of the principles of metaphysics, in fact, of all thought, is the principle of sufficient reason. “Every being has the sufficient reason for its existence (i.e., the adequate ground or basis in existence for its intelligibility) either in itself or in another.”[19] Any being that does not provide the explanation from within itself of itself, must have an explanation outside of itself. A television exists, but we easily see that the fact of its existence and the reason for its existence are not the same thing. While it may take a moment’s reflection to see that the same thing applies to a natural item like a rock, it should be obvious that the fact of the rock is not the cause or reason for the rock’s being where it is, when it is, and lastly, “that” it is.

We may be tempted here to move directly from our topic of evolution and final causality to an attempt at a proof of the existence of God (and such an attempt would be completely valid). However, we need not take that leap here. Instead, we will look simply at final causality, at least for the moment.

Let us take the example, again, of the arrow that flies “intentionally” towards its target. We have no problem stating that this intention is not in the arrow as a cognitive intention. Nevertheless, we do not reduce to chance, at the moment the arrow leaves the archer’s bow, the question of whether the arrow will strike its target accurately or not. To do so would be to admit living in a world of utter chaos.[20] We cannot see this intention in the arrow, but in some way, it is there. To explain why the arrow strikes the target, we give a reason, and chance is not an explanation (unless we agree that all world class archers are simply those who have, by chance, hit more targets than the rest of us).

The problem is, as we said, that we do not “see” “where” this cause is. But we cannot simply deny its existence, any more than a man, now blind, denies there is anything out there that can be seen. It is merely that this cause, unlike, for example, the material, is not of the class that we can empirically test.

At this point, we can admit final causes without going so far as to admitting the existence of God (although following this through, I believe, will ultimately lead us to this conclusion).

Naturalism would admit that there are indeed final causes, but that these final causes are built into the totality of the universe. The sum total, therefore, contains all that is necessary within it to explain the occurrences of all within it. The tree provides the oxygen and the mammal provides back the carbon dioxide, the system, as a whole, self-explanatory. Theistic naturalism would go a step further and say that an intelligent being started this whole process, but, like a wind-up toy, built it and let it go. This is, perhaps, better called deism.

We can now approach the question of God in a scientific way alongside the metaphysical way. We see leaps in nature that simply are not explainable by theories such as naturalism. Perhaps naturalism can explain, through built-in potentialities in atoms, the possibilities of molecules, and through them, the possibilities of various reactions and conglomerations of larger objects, etc. But when we make qualitative jumps in being, such as from non-living to living beings, living beings (plants) to sensing beings (animals) and sensing life to intellectual creatures (man), we must explain this new “being” (remember the principle of sufficient reason).

While some solutions at this point try not to require the existence of a creator beyond the deist god who creates and abandons, by again trying to posit that all this potentiality is latent within the universe as a complete system, it seems not only to be a metaphysical issue, but one that requires the scientist to simply state facts rather than give explanations. Emergentism is one such “theory.” Emergentism states that it is a “law of nature” that higher beings emerge from lower beings. However, this is merely the stating of a fact, not the providing of an explanation. Stating that something is a law is simply a tautological “explanation” at best. The scientist must explain why it is a law of nature, or he has done nothing to advance our knowledge of the world.

Where Bertrand Russell had to, in debating the existence of a first cause, finally make the statement that “the universe just ‘is’ and we start from there, the scientist that denies a final cause outside the universe must make the “just is” statement of Russell each time a qualitative jump (mentioned above) in being is made.

We offer here, for reflection, one possible solution. If we understand creation in the Thomistic sense, we know that the universe, including its progress through time, is all one single act of a Creator. Therefore, viewed in time (as we must view it, at least empirically), creation of the material world is an ongoing process. In other words, the world, for us, may appear to have periods of interference from “outside” by the Creator, but to God, all things are “now.” The world is not changing; it simply “is.”

Empirically, we can only study our world as one that changes, that has movement. But recognizing that our point of view only gives us one dimension of that reality, we should not count out that there are other ways to study reality. For many empirical scientists, who today have a great hammer, every problem is viewed as a nail.

This is certainly not the only possible explanation. It does, however, fit the facts. It seems to be philosophically sound. It gives a real explanation to the empirical data of science. By “real,” we simply mean that it offers, in scientific terms, at least a theory. Rather than chance, which is no true cause at all, it provides an actual cause to the evolving world around us.


Many scientists hope to find a supertheory, or a “theory of everything.” However, if they do so by only seeking to explain everything through efficient and material causes, it is not only that we will be waiting a very long time for them to achieve this; it is an impossibility. Just because one posits a “great many box cars” it does not constitute the sudden appearance of a locomotive. In other words, multiplying the lack of an explanation by a “very long time” is multiplication by zero, producing a product of zero. It is their reductionism that will always be to blame. Our reductionist empirical scientist in this case is a typical Horatio. And “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”[21]

Etienne Gilson provides some wisdom here once more. “To hold final causality to be beyond science is one thing; to put it completely beyond nature is something completely different…he who loses himself in the contemplation of the form opens himself to the possibility of allowing many a secret to remain hidden in unexplored nature. But it is possible to take account of one without excluding the other, and that is all that we wish to point out…In brief, if there is in nature at least an apparently colossal proportion of finality, by what right do we not take it into account in an objective description of reality?”[22]The empirical scientist is free and should feel free to seek the efficient and material causes of the world around us. That is his role, and it is a worthwhile profession. But to overstep those bounds and claim that those two causes are all that is needed to explain everything would be tantamount to praising “spell check” to the point where the content of the paper matters not as long as the particular words are spelled correctly. Word processors have provided us great tools, but they still need an outside source to provide the direction, the teleology, the purpose of what is written. A million monkeys cannot write Hamlet, and a million years cannot write life into inorganic material.

We will, in other words, never understand the big picture of reality by chopping off its most important parts and trying to explain the whole by the little we let remain.



Appendix – Excerpts from Magisterium Is Concerned with Question of Evolution For It Involves Conception of Man by Pope John Paul II in a Message to Pontifical Academy of Sciences on October 22, 1996

“Taking into account the state of scientific research at the time as well as of the requirements of theology, the Encyclical Humani generis considered the doctrine of “evolutionism” a serious hypothesis, worthy of investigation and in-depth study equal to that of the opposing hypothesis. Pius XII added two methodological conditions: that this opinion should not be adopted as though it were a certain, proven doctrine and as though one could totally prescind from Revelation with regard to the questions it raises. He also spelled out the condition on which this opinion would be compatible with the Christian faith…

Today, almost half a century after the publication of the Encyclical, fresh knowledge has led to the recognition that evolution is more than a hypothesis. It is indeed remarkable that this theory has been progressively accepted by researchers, following a series of discoveries in various fields of knowledge. The convergence, neither sought nor fabricated, of the results of work that was conducted independently is in itself a significant argument in favour of this theory…

And, to tell the truth, rather than the theory of evolution, we should speak of several theories of evolution. On the one hand, this plurality has to do with the different explanations advanced for the mechanism of evolution, and on the other, with the various philosophies on which it is based. Hence the existence of materialist, reductionist and spiritualist interpretations. What is to be decided here is the true role of philosophy and, beyond it, of theology…

Theories of evolution which, in accordance with the philosophies inspiring them, consider the mind as emerging from the forces of living matter, or as a mere epiphenomenon of this matter, are incompatible with the truth about man. Nor are they able to ground the dignity of the person.

With man, then, we find ourselves in the presence of an ontological difference, an ontological leap, one could say. However, does not the posing of such ontological discontinuity run counter to that physical continuity which seems to be the main thread of research into evolution in the field of physics and chemistry?


Clarke, W. Norris, S.J. The One and the Many: A Contemporary Thomistic Metaphysics. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2001.

Darwin, Charles. The Origin of Species. New York, NY: Barnes and Noble Classics, 2004.

Dawkins, Richard. The God Delusion. New York, New York: First Mariner Books, 2006.

Gilson, Etienne. From Aristotle to Darwin and Back Again: A Journey in Final Causality, Species, and Evolution. San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 2009.

Jaki, Stanley L. The Savior of Science. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, July 2000.

Rizzi, Anthony. The Science Before Science. Baton Rouge, LA: IAP Press, 2004.

Wallace, William A. The Elements of Philosophy: A Compendium for Philosophers and Theologians. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1977.

Wallace, William A. The Modeling of Nature. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1996.

[1] Gilson, Etienne. From Aristotle to Darwin and Back Again: A Journey in Final Causality, Species, and Evolution.(San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 2009) 14

[2] Rizzi, Anthony. The Science Before Science. (Baton Rouge, LA: IAP Press, 2004) 249

[3] I quote at length from this letter to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, dated October 22, 1996, in an appendix to this paper.

[4] Rizzi, 249

[5] Gilson, 145

[6] See below, under Final Causality and Teleology

[7] Gilson, 59

[8] Gilson, 76

[9] Gilson, 59

[10] Gilson, 77

[11] Gilson, 77

[12] See Dawkins, Richard. The God Delusion.(New York, New York: First Mariner Books, 2006) 139, 168, etc

[13] “Scientific knowledge is judgement about things that are universal and necessary, and the conclusions of demonstration, and all scientific knowledge, follow from first principles (for scientific knowledge involves apprehension of a rational ground).” Aristotle, EN vi 6

[14] Dawkins, 103

[15] Ibid, 103

[16] Wallace, William A. The Modeling of Nature (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1996) 17

[17] Gilson, 148

[18] Ibid, 148

[19] Clarke, 21

[20] I will not here address the various issues of occasionalism, Hume’s denial of causes, problems of quantum theory, etc., even though they could all bring up valid points, alas refutable ones.

[21] Shakespeare, Hamlet (1.5.166-7)

[22] Gilson, 31-32, adapted