Category Archives: Philosophy

Philosophy is the love of wisdom. We believe that God is author of both Faith and Reason; Here is the “reason,” the background, the synthesis of reality!

Aristotle, Friendship, and Christ: a few random musings

In Book II, Aristotle discusses virtue in general, to include its essence, and that it is a mean between extremes, which will be vices of excess or defect. He will then examine the major virtues individually, although not thoroughly (that will come later) and completes Book II by asking how one attains these virtues.

 

He begins by discussing whether it is an action, a nature, or a habit. Looking at the first two options, it is shown that it cannot be the case that virtue is an action, nor is in our nature (although it is not contrary to nature). It must be, therefore, a habit. It is not contrary to nature, however, in that our natures have virtue in potency, but it is through [repeated] actions that these habits are actualized. Virtues are habits that dispose toward certain action. Virtues, then, are principles of action.

 

Now, man becomes virtuous by repeated acts, and these actions occur more easily by the possession of the virtues. It takes work, then, to form them, but when formed, they make similar work easier. This can be compared to the athlete, who must run to become a good runner, and yet, once a good runner, his running comes easier. It is reciprocal.

 

Operations producing the habit of virtue take place according to right reason, and so the virtues cannot be passions, which of themselves are morally neutral. In this way, Aristotle differs strongly from the Stoics, for example.  In commenting on Aristotle’s work, St. Thomas says that “He says first that to establish the definition of virtue we have to take for granted three principles in ‘the soul: passions, powers, and habits. Virtue must come under one of these, for he just said that virtue is a principle of certain operations of the soul.” The passions are not blameworthy or praiseworthy as such, but as we use them, in accord with right reason. Therefore, “A man is not praised or blamed because he is simply afraid or angry but only because he is afraid or angry in a particular way, that is, according to reason or contrary to reason. The same must be understood of the other passions of the soul. The passions of the soul, therefore, are neither virtues nor vices.”

 

Pleasure or sorrow is said to be a sign of virtue already produced. A man who does not steal, for example, but is saddened by the ‘loss’ of money or goods, does in fact do the right thing, according to reason, but he does not do it in the way a virtuous man would, for a virtuous man would not be saddened in the act, but rather joyous in having acted rightly.

 

We must consider not only that virtue is a habit but also what kind of habit, says Aristotle. The virtues will render good both the man and his work. Accordingly, Aquinas comments “The reason is that the virtue or power of a thing is judged by the best it can do… Now the utmost or best to which the power of anything extends is called its excellent performance. It belongs to the virtue of every thing, therefore, to render an excellent performance. Because a perfect operation proceeds only from a perfect agent, it follows that everything is both good and operates well according to its own virtue.”

 

The chief characteristic of virtue is the mean, and this mean is not simply the arithmetical average between the vices of excess and defect, but a mean according to the one possessing the virtue. In other words, there is no simple universal formula for determining the ‘exact’ measure of fortitude as opposed to cowardice or rashness, but rather, it must be in accord with reason, with the person so acting, and the circumstances of his action.

 

Now, virtue can be an extreme in the measure of goodness, and this is not contrary to virtue. This is easy to see in the intellectual virtues, for example, and in the theological virtues, where there is no ‘mean’ of faith, hope, or love. But the cardinal virtues are an extreme towards the recognition of the good and in being in accord with right reason. This is not contrary to their being a mean between excess and defect . Aquinas states it clearly: “precisely as it possesses the character of the best and as it acts or guides well in a determined genus it is an extreme. For an understanding of this, we must consider that the entire goodness of moral virtue depends on the rectitude of the reason. Hence good is in harmony with moral virtue according as it follows right reason, but evil has a reference to each vice, viz.: excess and defect inasmuch as both depart from right reason. Therefore, according to the nature of goodness and evil both vices are in one extreme that is, in evil which is thus shown to be a deviation from reason. Virtue however is in the other extreme, that is, in good which is characterized as a following of reason.”

 

As mentioned at the beginning of this summary, a discussion of individual virtues and vices follows. But as it is brief and will be expounded upon in detail in later books of the EN, we will forego any analysis here. Also, the mean and extreme in virtues relating to honors is discussed, and again, these will be discussed more thoroughly later.

 

Aristotle tells us of the opposition among the virtues and vices, and that this opposition of vices among themselves is greater than of the vices to the virtues. He also states that, generally, one extreme is more opposed to virtue than the other. For example, men are more inclined to excess in temperance than to defect, and likewise, we recognize cowardice as further than rashness from courage.

 

While all the above is certainly important, Aristotle never ceases to remind the reader of the practical nature of ethics. Therefore, the manner of acquiring virtues must be learned, but moreso, followed. The three  primary ways of acquiring virtues, according to the philosopher, are to avoid extremes, consider one’s natural inclinations, and beware of pleasures.

 

Reflection:

 

A virtuous man, a magnanimous man, cannot necessarily be known by his actions alone, for may have little virtue and yet seem to accomplish something great, while a more noble man does not accomplish a comparable outward task. While we fully seek to do great things for the glory of God, we do not know that He has called us to do great outward things.

We may be judged by men on what we accomplish in their eyes, and we should do everything we can with the intention of objective success in this world, declaring our successes to the glory of God and accepting full culpability for our failures.  But if outward success always followed from a right interior disposition, we may be tempted to pride.

All the virtues are interior dispositions that are preparations for doing the good, whether these good things come to fruition or not.  Not understanding this can lead to two related dangers.  We may, despairing of ever accomplishing great things, not seek to do the things daily that would possibly lead to the “great deed.” Likewise, if we fail to accomplish a great task that seems to have been set before us, we may tend to despair, having worked so long for, what seems to us, nothing. Again, God asks us to be faithful, not necessarily successful.

A soldier will train day after day, year after year, and may or may not ever enter into battle.  If he trains and never fights, he should be glad for the peace that has allowed it.  But if he grows negligent in his training, the battle that is suddenly upon him may prove his end.  Years of arduous training are suddenly seen to be worth it in the mere minutes of close-quarters combat. Likewise, we must train ourselves in the virtues daily, not knowing in what ways we may or may not be tested.

To quote my earthly father, “Life is too long to do nothing and too short to do anything great.  But great things are done in a short time by those who have been long in preparing.” We therefore strive at each moment to create in ourselves the dispositions, the powers, to meet our calling.

Advertisements

Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, Book V – Justice

After Aristotle has discussed the virtues that pertain to the passions as they relate to reason, he discusses the virtue of justice, which will be about relation between the agent and another. The question of justice to oneself is discussed at points throughout the Book, and is definitively answered in the last section.

 

I use here the division according to the lectures in the commentary by St. Thomas Aquinas:

 

Properly (885-1090)

 

Justice (885-1077)

 

Aquinas points out first that “concerning justice [Aristotle] proposes for consideration three differences existing between justice an the previously mentioned virtues”…the previous “are concerned with the passions…we took the mean and not the thing…Each of the afore-mentioned virtues is a mean between two vices, but justice is not a mean between two vices.”

 

Will, and not the senses more directly, is the proper subject of justice; justice is defined in the Catechism of the Catholic Church as “the moral virtue that consists in the constant and firm will to give their due to God and neighbor.” So justice is a mean in one way, in that it gives what is do, and not more or less (when we are speaking of strict justice). But true justice is found first in the will, and only then in the object, to which the will is conforming and striving. Therefore, an event can occur that is objectively unjust, but it may not be an unjust act on the part of the agent, who wills to be just, but mistakenly, and thus commits an objective unjustice.

 

Legal justice (885-926)

 

He says first that justice itself is a certain perfect virtue not in terms of itself but in relation to another. Legal justice is justice as relates to the community at large, that is, primarily, the polis or state.

 

Partic. Justice

Absolutely (927-999)

 

Aristotle then discusses distributive justice and commutative justice. The first of these deals with what the state or community owes the individual, and this in a proportionate manner, meaning it is based on what the individual contributes to society and perhaps to his rank or position. So a general may deserve more honor and a bigger house from the state. However, when it comes to communitive justice, this is not necessarily so. The general and the peasant will generally pay the same price for a new set of Reeboks.  Because of this more strict equality of communitive justice, economic issues get discussed by Aristotle, to include the coming into being and use of money as a standard of trade.

 

Relatively (1000-1077)

 

We are reminded, frequently throughout Aristotle’s account of the virtues, but seemingly more often during his treatment of justice, that it is reason and not man that should truly govern man. In legal justice especially, but in all three aspects of justice, man is the reasoner, but it is reason that is law, and not man arbitrarily.

 

 

Epikeia (1078-1090)

 

Its object (1078-1088)

 

St. Thomas clearly states the overall topic of this part of the treatise: ‘In Greek epiiches is understood as what is reasonable or becoming; it is derived from epi meaning “above” and ikos meaning “obedient,” because by equity a person is obedient in a higher way when he follows the intention of the legislator where the words of the law differ from it.’

 

Today, we often discuss keeping the intention of the law versus the letter, and often find that there arise cases where keeping the letter of the law is in direct opposition to the intention of the creator of the law in its original and universal conception.

 

Its subject (1089) and habit (1090)

 

The virtuous man is not a zealous enforcer of the law for vengeance’ sake, but rather, to make the offender better and safeguard the community. The habit, then, of equity is not a virtue distinct from justice, but a species thereof.

 

Metaphorically (1091-1108)

 

Aristotle lastly revisits a topic he has touched upon several times throughout the treatise on justice, once again affirming that, despite the arguments that appear to the contrary, a man cannot really do injustice to himself, and this because to do injustice requires it be against one’s will, and one so to commit injustice against oneself implies a contradiction.

 

Personal Reflection

 

Justice and Equity

 

The difference in justice and equity is certainly a debated point in Christian theology, and no more is it a more pressing and divisive topic than when concerning election. The main point seems to be this: that God, in justice, could let us all remain unsaved (not justified) and yet, He, by mercy, wills to save some. This salvation of only some is, then, certainly just, but most certainly not equitable.

 

St. Thomas states in his commentary that “The reason why not everything can be determined according to the law is that the law cannot possibly be framed to meet some rare particular incidents, since all cases of this kind cannot be foreseen by man. On account of this, after the enactment of the law, a decision of the judges is required by which the universal statement of the law is applied to a particular matter. Because the material of human acts is indeterminate, it follows that their norm, which is the law, must be indeterminate in the sense that it is not absolutely rigid.”

 

While I certainly do not have the space here to propose how this may give insight into the justice/mercy question and the will of God “that all be saved” is also in conformity with the fact that “few enter” and are saved (combined with God as universal first mover but creatures as true causes), I think that the above comment can indeed be a point of reflection on the mystery of God’s justice and election.

Summary of Nicomachean Ethics Book II

In Book II, Aristotle discusses virtue in general, to include its essence, and that it is a mean between extremes, which will be vices of excess or defect. He will then examine the major virtues individually, although not thoroughly (that will come later) and completes Book II by asking how one attains these virtues.

 

He begins by discussing whether it is an action, a nature, or a habit. Looking at the first two options, it is shown that it cannot be the case that virtue is an action, nor is in our nature (although it is not contrary to nature). It must be, therefore, a habit. It is not contrary to nature, however, in that our natures have virtue in potency, but it is through [repeated] actions that these habits are actualized. Virtues are habits that dispose toward certain action. Virtues, then, are principles of action.

 

Now, man becomes virtuous by repeated acts, and these actions occur more easily by the possession of the virtues. It takes work, then, to form them, but when formed, they make similar work easier. This can be compared to the athlete, who must run to become a good runner, and yet, once a good runner, his running comes easier. It is reciprocal.

 

Operations producing the habit of virtue take place according to right reason, and so the virtues cannot be passions, which of themselves are morally neutral. In this way, Aristotle differs strongly from the Stoics, for example.  In commenting on Aristotle’s work, St. Thomas says that “He says first that to establish the definition of virtue we have to take for granted three principles in ‘the soul: passions, powers, and habits. Virtue must come under one of these, for he just said that virtue is a principle of certain operations of the soul.” The passions are not blameworthy or praiseworthy as such, but as we use them, in accord with right reason. Therefore, “A man is not praised or blamed because he is simply afraid or angry but only because he is afraid or angry in a particular way, that is, according to reason or contrary to reason. The same must be understood of the other passions of the soul. The passions of the soul, therefore, are neither virtues nor vices.”

 

Pleasure or sorrow is said to be a sign of virtue already produced. A man who does not steal, for example, but is saddened by the ‘loss’ of money or goods, does in fact do the right thing, according to reason, but he does not do it in the way a virtuous man would, for a virtuous man would not be saddened in the act, but rather joyous in having acted rightly.

 

We must consider not only that virtue is a habit but also what kind of habit, says Aristotle. The virtues will render good both the man and his work. Accordingly, Aquinas comments “The reason is that the virtue or power of a thing is judged by the best it can do… Now the utmost or best to which the power of anything extends is called its excellent performance. It belongs to the virtue of every thing, therefore, to render an excellent performance. Because a perfect operation proceeds only from a perfect agent, it follows that everything is both good and operates well according to its own virtue.”

 

The chief characteristic of virtue is the mean, and this mean is not simply the arithmetical average between the vices of excess and defect, but a mean according to the one possessing the virtue. In other words, there is no simple universal formula for determining the ‘exact’ measure of fortitude as opposed to cowardice or rashness, but rather, it must be in accord with reason, with the person so acting, and the circumstances of his action.

 

Now, virtue can be an extreme in the measure of goodness, and this is not contrary to virtue. This is easy to see in the intellectual virtues, for example, and in the theological virtues, where there is no ‘mean’ of faith, hope, or love. But the cardinal virtues are an extreme towards the recognition of the good and in being in accord with right reason. This is not contrary to their being a mean between excess and defect . Aquinas states it clearly: “precisely as it possesses the character of the best and as it acts or guides well in a determined genus it is an extreme. For an understanding of this, we must consider that the entire goodness of moral virtue depends on the rectitude of the reason. Hence good is in harmony with moral virtue according as it follows right reason, but evil has a reference to each vice, viz.: excess and defect inasmuch as both depart from right reason. Therefore, according to the nature of goodness and evil both vices are in one extreme that is, in evil which is thus shown to be a deviation from reason. Virtue however is in the other extreme, that is, in good which is characterized as a following of reason.”

 

As mentioned at the beginning of this summary, a discussion of individual virtues and vices follows. But as it is brief and will be expounded upon in detail in later books of the EN, we will forego any analysis here. Also, the mean and extreme in virtues relating to honors is discussed, and again, these will be discussed more thoroughly later.

 

Aristotle tells us of the opposition among the virtues and vices, and that this opposition of vices among themselves is greater than of the vices to the virtues. He also states that, generally, one extreme is more opposed to virtue than the other. For example, men are more inclined to excess in temperance than to defect, and likewise, we recognize cowardice as further than rashness from courage.

 

While all the above is certainly important, Aristotle never ceases to remind the reader of the practical nature of ethics. Therefore, the manner of acquiring virtues must be learned, but moreso, followed. The three  primary ways of acquiring virtues, according to the philosopher, are to avoid extremes, consider one’s natural inclinations, and beware of pleasures.

 

Reflection:

 

A virtuous man, a magnanimous man, cannot necessarily be known by his actions alone, for may have little virtue and yet seem to accomplish something great, while a more noble man does not accomplish a comparable outward task. While we fully seek to do great things for the glory of God, we do not know that He has called us to do great outward things.

We may be judged by men on what we accomplish in their eyes, and we should do everything we can with the intention of objective success in this world, declaring our successes to the glory of God and accepting full culpability for our failures.  But if outward success always followed from a right interior disposition, we may be tempted to pride.

All the virtues are interior dispositions that are preparations for doing the good, whether these good things come to fruition or not.  Not understanding this can lead to two related dangers.  We may, despairing of ever accomplishing great things, not seek to do the things daily that would possibly lead to the “great deed.” Likewise, if we fail to accomplish a great task that seems to have been set before us, we may tend to despair, having worked so long for, what seems to us, nothing. Again, God asks us to be faithful, not necessarily successful.

A soldier will train day after day, year after year, and may or may not ever enter into battle.  If he trains and never fights, he should be glad for the peace that has allowed it.  But if he grows negligent in his training, the battle that is suddenly upon him may prove his end.  Years of arduous training are suddenly seen to be worth it in the mere minutes of close-quarters combat. Likewise, we must train ourselves in the virtues daily, not knowing in what ways we may or may not be tested.

To quote my earthly father, “Life is too long to do nothing and too short to do anything great.  But great things are done in a short time by those who have been long in preparing.” We therefore strive at each moment to create in ourselves the dispositions, the powers, to meet our calling.

Summary of Nicomachean Ethics Book III

Part I: Voluntary Action

Spontaneous and Involuntary

Compulsory action is said to be that that originates outside of the agent. A rock, for instance, never acts from an internal principle to move away from the center of gravity of the earth, but must be thrown, for example, to move upward. This principle of movement obviously comes from outside the agent. Such action is said to be involuntary. Action that begins from within the agent, however, is in the power of that agent (at least to some extent) and, in an intellectual subject, is said to be voluntary. It is voluntary action which is our subject in ethics.

Voluntary Action and Merit

Returning to the example of the rock, we do not blame a rock when it hits us in the head, but rather the person who threw the rock at us. This is in keeping with the principle of voluntary action, and it is voluntary action that deserves praise or condemnation. Even when, say, a snake bites us, we may attribute (in a way) voluntary action to the creature, and be upset at the snake for biting us, we still do not see the snake as having acted in an immoral manner, but rather recognize its action as in keeping with its [determined] nature. Not so, the human that bites us, for being an intellectual creature, the latter has true voluntarity to its action.

Involuntary and Ignorance

Of course, ignorance can change the voluntary character of an action. If the same human bit my finger, but thought he had grabbed his chicken fingers, then I may be upset (and my finger may throb), but I also recognize that his action was not morally evil in the way I would claim if he bit my finger on purpose. However, if the same person often bit peoples’ fingers, repeatedly making a similar mistake, we could certainly say that he has a moral duty to check what he is eating before biting into it. His ignorance may not be completely without personal fault. Not all ignorance cancels out moral responsibility, but only ignorance that cannot be (at east reasonably) helped.

Definition of Voluntary

So the definition of the voluntary seems to be ‘that which the agent himself originates in such a way that the agent knows the individual circumstances that concur with the action.’

Choice

Choice and voluntary are not identical, but choice seems to be a species of the voluntary. Choice means that the decision between alternative options (and simply ‘not to act’ is a viable option) are known and considered. Choice always has to do with the means toward and end, and we choose by pondering and then deciding to achieve our intended end in one way or another.

Counsel

We take council so as to make sure our choice aligns properly with it being voluntary, for as we said, we want to know the individual circumstances that concur with the action, and to know the truly best (that is, ‘good,’ in keeping with our true nature and true end) option to take. We take counsel especially in the practical arts, and in ethics most specifically, because there are no simple formulas, but as ethics is much like an art, many options in almost infinite different circumstances will exist in which we must apply the objective principles of moral science.

Object of Willing

The object of willing is the good. But, in each circumstance, and for the particular individual willing some action, the apparent good is the object of willing. It is necessary, for this reason, to seek counsel (whether from others or at least in personal reflection) so that the true good and the apparent good rightly align. This is what Aristotle says that ‘the virtuous person correctly passes judgment on each individual thing and in each case what appears to him is truly good.’

Aristotle wraps up the first half of this book by making clear that virtue and vice are within our power. He then goes on to refute other errors, such as the thought that no one is voluntarily evil (which overly emphasizes the intellect and disregards the will in moral education) and that we have no faculty of the cognoscitive good (but the true good and apparent good for each man does not mean that the true good is subjective).

Part II: Moral Virtues

Fortitude

‘A man is called brave principally because he is not afraid of death for a good cause nor of all emergencies that involve death.’

False Fortitude

True fortitude does not involve the actions of the daredevil or the uncontrolled actions that stem from wrath, because fortitude, like all virtues, must be in keeping the truly good and undertaken voluntarily and with right reason.

Temperance

Temperance is a mean dealing with pleasures, and this virtue pertains primarily to the sense of taste and touch, inasmuch as these same senses are those that least set us apart from all other animals (remember, our concern is ultimately that we are intellectual creatures, and our end as man is in keeping with this). ‘Temperance and intemperance then have to do with such pleasures as the other animals have in common with man. Hence gratifications of touch and taste seem to be servile and brutish.’

Part III: Personal Reflection

I spoke the least on fortitude above, but want to reflect on it briefly here. When we read Josef Pieper on fortitude, he emphasizes the fact that this virtue really does pertain primarily to a willingness to die in battle, and he also emphasizes the patient suffering of the martyr as the way we most clearly see (graced) fortitude.

I think of fortitude in its relation to the Christian life, and its special relation to the sacrament of Confirmation. Confirmation makes us soldiers of God.  It has been variously designated a making fast or sure, a perfecting or completing, as it expresses its relation to baptism. It is, after baptism, the next Sacrament of Initiation.  But what does it do?

“Now it has been said above (1; 65, 1) that, just as Baptism is a spiritual regeneration unto Christian life, so also is Confirmation a certain spiritual growth bringing man to perfect spiritual age. But it is evident, from a comparison with the life of the body, that the action which is proper to man immediately after birth, is different from the action which is proper to him when he has come to perfect age. And therefore by the sacrament of Confirmation man is given a spiritual power in respect of sacred actions other than those in respect of which he receives power in Baptism. For in Baptism he receives power to do those things which pertain to his own salvation, forasmuch as he lives to himself: whereas in Confirmation he receives power to do those things which pertain to the spiritual combat with the enemies of the Faith.” (Aquinas, ST III, Q.72)

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.

 

 

Appendix:

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)

INTELLIGIBLE BEING AND FIRST PRINCIPLES

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

Evolution, Final Causality, and a Creator

Evolution, Final Causality, and a Creator

Introduction

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.

Conclusion

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?

Bibliography

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

Bibliography

The following works will be consulted for my Epistemology project in PHL 620: Epistemology at Holy Apostles College and Seminary on “Realist Premises for a Realist Conclusion.”  The project will explore the history of attempts to come to a realist worldview using the premises of the critical method, and the failures to do so.

Gallagher, Kenneth T. The Philosophy of Knowledge. New York: Sheen and Ward, 1964. This work provides general background and historical information on the topic of epistemology and the various positions under which it has been viewed.

Gilson, Etienne. Methodical Realism: A Handbook for Beginning Realists. San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 2011. This work lays out in a clear way what it speaks of in the title. After several essays on the difficulties encountered by Thomists in their dealings with modern and contemporary epistemology, it lays out an outline, almost of meditations, on which one can build a strong foundation for a realist view of knowledge and of the real world.

Gilson, Etienne. Thomistic Realism and the Critique of Knowledge. San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 1986. In this work, Gilson analyzes several attempts of realist philosophers to show the truth of the realist position while engaging the adherents of the critical method at their own level; he shows why this ultimately must fail.

Gilson, Etienne. The Unity of Philosophical Experience. San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 1999. This work shows, by historical survey, the unity of the project of attempts at human knowledge. It shows how in each case that turns away from realism, realism is again sought, for it is at minimum the default position of the human intellect.

Wallace, William A. The Elements of Philosophy: A Compendium for Philosophers and Theologians. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1977. This work provides a general but densely packed overview of the discipline of Epistemology from a Thomistic Realist perspective, as well as being a useful reference for related fields, especially metaphysics and the history of philosophy.