Quid est veritas? Veritas veritas est?

Is Truth True?

Elliot Bougis

When I proposed (in appallingly feeble Latin) a motto, which was revised by my Latinate superiors thus: Potest veritas se defendere (Truth can defend itself), someone brought up Pilate’s question to Christ, “Quid est veritas? What is truth?” and asked me for some help in responding to arguments against truth in favor of relativism. This post is my effort to help that reader, and perhaps others.

Relativism is the idea, immensely popular in our age, that truth is different things to different people and cultures in different places and times. By now relativism is not so much a specific argument, as a general climate of thought in most of the world. It denies that there is something like absolute, universal Truth “out there”. Even if there were such an absolute reality, relativists add, we are not equipped to know it. We can never reach a “God’s eye view” of reality, which is what they take Truth to be. According to relativists, we are all confined to our own narrow perspectives and limited by our own cultural biases. There is not truth: there are many truths, all relative to the inquirer. …

Because this article is being considered for publication in a magazine, I can’t have it “published” online or in any other periodical, so, if you’d like to read it, email me at fidescogitactio AT gmail DOT com.

Is freedom the capacity to choose rightly?

Freedom as distinct from rationality

Michael Liccione has recently proposed identifying freedom as the capacity to choose rightly – see his post on Philosophia Perennis of September 9, 2008.  (It is fair to add that he makes this identification with an important qualification, to which I will turn later.)

It seems to me that to identify freedom, the control that we ordinarily think we have over our decisions and actions, in these terms is very problematic, and remains so even with the qualification he provides.

To identify freedom as a capacity to choose rightly is to identify freedom as one instance of the capacity for rationality.  For (I take it) a capacity to choose rightly is a capacity to make decisions or choices that are justified, because and for the reasons that justify them.  A capacity to choose rightly is a capacity to be rational in one’s choices and decisions.

But freedom, while it may necessarily require an accompanying capacity for rationality, is not to be identified with it.  And that is because freedom is a very special capacity.  It is, as Anselm (whom Michael Liccione quotes) rightly saw, a power – a capacity to determine.  Though what view we should take of the precise nature of this power is something we must now discuss.

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MacIntyre on Anscombe

Alasdair MacIntyre has written a review of a recent collection of papers by G. E. M. Anscombe for the Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews. The collection is G.E.M. Anscombe, Faith in a Hard Ground: Essays on Religion, Philosophy and Ethics, Imprint Academic, 2008, 273pp., $34.90 (pbk), ISBN 9781845401214. I mention this not only to draw your attention to the Anscombe volume, but also as an excuse to quote some of what MacIntyre has to say in his review about the immortality of the soul and, indirectly, about current trends in the philosophy of mind:

Philosophy plays a very different part in Anscombe’s discussion of the immortality of the soul. In what does the spirituality of the human soul consist? Any conception of an immortal substance “is a delusive one” (71) and the kind of immateriality that thought possesses provides no basis for ascribing spirituality to the soul, let alone immortality: “there is no reason whatever for believing in a temporal immortality of the soul, apart from the resurrection,” that is, the resurrection of Christ and the promise of the resurrection of the body. Anscombe adds that “there is no ‘natural immortality of the soul’ that can be demonstrated by philosophy” and she takes “the Christian doctrine of immortality to be the doctrine of an unending human life, happy or unhappy, after the resurrection and not the doctrine of an immortal sort of substance.” (77)

Yet this raises a problem: “it is also Christian doctrine that the soul is judged at death and then suffers or is in glory till the resurrection. Must one not have a theory of how it can exist?” Anscombe’s reply is to suggest that what philosophy might achieve is a cure for the impulse to search for such a theory. Catholic teaching provides no justification for any claim that “the soul has it in it to exist apart from the body” (78), and any picture that we construct would be “an idle picture,” one that did no philosophical or theological work for us.

My dissatisfaction with this line of thought may be no more than a sign that I have not yet subjected myself to the philosophical treatment that would cure my impulse to think otherwise. But I remain uncured. Anscombe’s initial arguments follow Wittgenstein’s closely. “Thinking is not an incorporeal process which lends life and sense to speaking” (1953). Indeed, but, as Anscombe remarks, although the concept of ‘thought’ is one that we all possess, it is difficult to give a satisfactory account of it and no one as yet has, although not for lack of trying. So perhaps we need to start out all over again, first rereading Plotinus and then taking encouragement from the recent plague of wrongheaded accounts of thought advanced by philosophers so anxious to make connections between thoughts and brain states in the light of recent biochemical and neurophysiological discoveries that they lose sight of thought itself.

The will to believe and the believing will…

Étienne Gilson says on page 83 of his Reason and Revelation in the Middle Ages that “faith is not a principle of philosophical knowledge, but it is a safe guide to rational truth and an infallible warning against philosophical error.” The point being that, while faith cannot provide rationally deductive demonstrations of this or that claim, it can provide the light and insight we need to direct our premises in rational investigation. We cannot philosophize by faith, but we can philosophize wrongly apart from faith. Since the content of faith, objectively given, is not an object of reason, it is not subject to purely rational strictures (much less to purely rational [i.e., deductive] demonstration, for which Anselm and Scotus argued in their ontological arguments). Because the content of faith is not an object of rational certainty, it is not an opinion at which we arrive, but is a testimony we accept as the Word of God. Moreover, because faith is not subject to rational demonstration, it is not arrived at by the intellect, but my a movement of the will, whereby the intellect arrives at truth it cannot grasp on its own without an elevating grace upon the pliant will.

This hold that faith places on philosophy has to do not with the supposed irrationality of faith claims, but with the very meaning of faith and reason as such. As soon as faith becomes an object of purely rational demonstration, it is eo ipso no longer an object of faith, and this in the same way your belief that I have brown hair is a ‘belief’ once you see (and thus know ‘scientifically’) that I do have brown hair. Accordingly, Gilson, citing St. Thomas in ST IIaIIae, q. 1, a. 5, notes that it is “impossible for one and the same thing to be an object of science [i.e., rational knowledge] and of belief for the same person…” (op. cit., p. 74). This disjunction is in order, since faith “implies assent of the intellect to that which the intellect cannot see [qua ‘scientific’ knowledge] to be true…” (ibid., p. 73). Further, Gilson argues, “if reason cannot prove them [i.e., dogmas] to be true, it cannot either prove them to be false” (ibid., p. 83). This is all of a piece with what we read in SCG I, 3:

Just as, therefore, it would he the height of folly for a simple person to assert that what a philosopher proposes is false on the ground that he himself cannot understand it, so (and even more so) it is the acme of stupidity for a man to suspect as false what is divinely revealed through the ministry of the angels simply because it cannot be investigated by reason.

As Gilson notes, St. Thomas’ anti-Averroist and, we might say, trans-Augustinian position on faith and reason stands in an interesting light, given the developments that ensued a few centuries after St. Thomas. For one thing, largely animated by Gehrard Groote, the Moderna devotio placed nearly all emphasis on our mystical perception of God, rather than any scholastic musings about Him. (Groote founded the fraternity of the Brethren of the Common Life in Deventer in 1381, and in 1475, a 12-year-old Desiderius Erasmus would enter the school for that fraternity.) This anti-scholastic, mystical attitude can be seen in Thomas à Kempis’ Imitatio Christi, as well as in the doctrine of Meister Eckhart (condemned in 1329 by Pope John XXII) about the soul’s union with God even this side of Heaven. It also finds expression in Luther’s excoriation of scholastic thought: “only without Aristotle can we become theologians.” (Cf. Gilson, Reason, pp. 86–94 for more details.) According to Ernst Cassirer, it also manifests in the development of Nicolas Cusanus’s thought. On page 13 in his The Individual and the Cosmos in Renaissance Philosophy, Cassirer states:

With the same assurance with which [Cusanus] denies the possibility of conceiving of the infinite by means of logical abstractions and generic concepts, he also denies the possibility of its conception through mere [mystical] feeling. In the mystical theology of the fifteenth century two fundamental tendencies stand sharply opposed to each other; the one bases itself on the intellect; the other considers the will to be the basic force and organ of union with God. In this dispute, Cusanus sides emphatically with the former. True love of God is amor Dei intellectualis: it includes knowledge as a necessary element and a necessary condition. No love can love what he has not, in some sense, known. Love by itself, without any admixture of knowledge, would be an impossibility. Whatever is loved is, by that very act, considered good; it is conceived of sub ratione boni. This knowledge of the good must spur on and give wings to the will, even though the What, i.e., the simple essence of the good in itself, remains inaccessible to knowledge. … The principle of docta ignorantia as ‘knowing ignorance’ re-affirms itself once again.

All of this suggests that there is a constant, inescapable tug on the rudder of Christian theology, which guides it back towards what Gilson calls the Augustinian family, a family characterized by St. Anselm’s credo ut intellegam. In that family, the will, drawn by love, always has an at least notional prominence over the intellective pursuit of truth that characterizes much of the Thomistic family. What I suggest for discussion is whether Cassirer underestimates the role of will in the scholastic account of our knowledge of God, since, as Gilson notes, where reason stops, grace must help the will to continue by faith. This point is made emphatically by James F. Ross in his papers dealing with cognitive voluntarism, available on his webpage).

Bush is… Obama is not…?

While I have been a distant observer of all things Bush for the last five years, having lived in Taiwan during that time, I have noticed one theme in particular. Bush is criticized by his many critics (fittingly) for being a talking suit of his party, an elite son of big money. He is also criticized for his lack of adequate prior political experience. He is just a glorified good ol’ boy who was given the election by the Powers That Be.

Now, what has struck me in the past few months of presidential campaigning is how both candidates seem to embody, for their detractors, various aspects of “the Bush problem”. McCain, for instance, is criticized as being too wealthy, and thus, implicitly, removed from the realities of the average American. It is ironic, nonetheless, how the rich always suffer this criticism––being detached from the concerns of the little people––and yet how they are also simultaneously held up as paragons of philanthropy and action-group support. It is a fact that the majority of charity has come from the rich, a fact that rests only very awkwardly with the idea that the rich just don’t know or care about those in need. In any case, let the criticism stand: McCain embodies the old money provincialism that we have endured for eight years under W. Bush.

As for Obama, he embodies something much more scandalous in the W., namely, his lack of serious political experience. He has been expertly crafted by his party to strike all the right chords in the liberal American ear. And while he may not come from money, there is no denying he now embodies a classic example of an inadvertently aloof academic “thinker” and “orator.” Obama is that quintessential punching bag, a lawyer, and one educated at Harvard no less! So, while he may not have sprung full-formed from the brow of the elite, he is now ensconced warmly in the embrace of the ivory tower and elite concerns. Just as Bush’s credentials from Yale were meant to balance his populist Texan charm, so Obama’s elite credentials are meant to balance his sporadic persona as a “normal American”, as a prophetic leader who did not gain his allure from years of elite training, but, mystically, from an inner compass of ebony wholesomeness.

What bothers me is that, insofar as people complain America fell for Bush’s polished image––all persona and little substance––, they are being blinded by their own complaints (or blinding others with them) to such an extent that we are being primed to fall for it all again in a new guise. Are we to imagine Obama’s handlers are any less real or influential than Bush’s? Are we to imagine one talking suit is better than another just because one is black and the other white? Or, at the very least, are we to imagine one inexperienced brain of the elite is better for being more eloquent? If one is making one’s criticism of a politician the fact that he or she is too much image and too elite, then I see no way towards a meaningful criticism, given what modern politicking means. By contrast, if one makes one’s criticisms of a politician specific legislative and moral points, as I do, then I frankly have very little concern with his elite attachments and moneyed detachments. The bottom line for me is one of principle, not one of comparing one political image against another. Insofar as Obama vigorously, indeed proudly advocates and underwrites the abortion movement in the USA, he is an absolutely unacceptable candidate for me or, I would say, any committed Catholic even basically cognizant of the Church’s teachings on the ethic of life and the gravity of sin involved in formally supporting a candidate that violates that ethic.

I have heard it argued there is no grounds for “voting your religion”. But this is as nonsensical as arguing we ought not “vote our values” or “vote our desires”, insofar as religion conveys and animates the most basic values and desires in our lives. We have no choice but to live, or violate, our own values, including our religious (or irreligious) values. To paraphrase Shakespeare, to our own selves we must be true––and it may just follow the night like the day, that we shan’t be taken in by any political image. In the world of modern American politics, we may only have smoke and mirrors to look into when we look into a candidate qua image––but at least if we make choices separate from the image, we can look ourselves in the mirror without shame.

Bring Out Yer Dead!

An article in The Economist describes the worries of bioethicists about what we might call the problem of deadly demarcation: the fact that vicissitudes in medical definitions of death appear to be subject to the growing trend of organ harvesting. In 1968 a committee at the Harvard Medical School recommended extinction of brain activity as the dividing line between living and dead, and the Vatican had no objections to the definition itself, asking only that there be moral certainty about when the definition fit in a particular case before life support was withdrawn. Prior to this time, complete cardiac arrest had been the standard criterion for death, but the argument was that, since the brain is the center of the personality it is a better indicator of, well, whether the person is really still there or not. This new definition was congenial to the promoters of organ donation, since in many cases internal organs are in better shape at the time of brain death than they would be if doctors waited until permanent cardiac arrest. Experts are now divided, however, over whether this definition really captures the proper moment, the dividing line between when one is to treat a particular body as  belonging to a person or as being merely a corpse.

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The Metaphysics of Naturalism

[This is a guest article posted for purposes of constructive discussion between a “naturalist” philosopher and Catholic philosophers. For myself, there isn’t much in its content that I can object to, even as an opponent of metaphysical naturalism. Perhaps that means I’ve misunderstood David. If so, that question would be a good way to start the combox. —ML]

by David Hirst

Metaphysical naturalism and scientific realism

Methodological naturalism – that is, the assumption, for the ends of scientific investigation, that explanations of physical phenomena are only acceptable when they postulate ‘natural’ causes – is a generally accepted element of the scientific method. There is, of course, no particular requirement that a scientific theory should not have recourse to ‘supernatural’ evidence; even so, the criteria of observation, prediction, and experimentation leading to reproducible results are not congenial to the introduction of such evidence. Indeed, the very success of the scientific method, and the concomitant paucity of evidence for any supernatural phenomena, is seen by some as providing strong evidence for metaphysical naturalism – the thesis that the arrangement of matter and energy in spacetime exhausts ‘what there is’. Nonetheless, metaphysical naturalism is not as easily defended as some of its more vocal contemporary supporters might wish to believe.

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