The Philosophical Development to Naturalism

Nature, Knowledge, and God .jpgIV. The Development to Naturalism

Today, over a century since the death of Immanuel Kant, both religion and philosophy still reel crazily under the impact of his thought. What is at root the same disease afflicts both of them. It manifests itself in religion as the perversion of dogma, and goes by the name modernism. In philosophy it consists in the denial of the ability of man’s mind to attain knowledge of any reality beyond sensible phenomena, and it goes by many names, of which the most proper is positivism. These errors have many sources, are nourished by many factors, and have grown out of the whole movement of modern thought from Descartes on through Kant and after him. But they were most deeply implanted in the scientific, philosophic, and religious mind by Kant’s philosophy. His apparently successful demonstration that knowledge is limited to spatio-temporal phenomena and relations gave a pseudo-scientific foundation for positivism. His substitution of practical reason for speculative reason, and his foundation of faith up on moral needs instead of upon objective truth, furnished modernism with its irrationalist basis.

I. Modernism. The essence of modernism in religion is the contention that religious dogmas are not to be understood as literal truths or statements of fact, but are to be taken as formulas expressing a truth or value of the moral order which corresponds to an essential religious need or experience of man. Modernists believe things which they do not think are true: thus many of them believe in the divinity of Christ, but do not believe that He is God. By believing in His divinity they believe that, morally speaking, the Godhead was manifested to men in the person of Jesus of Nazareth; this manifestation is both an experience of the Christian people and a need of the individual Christian. But actually, they think, Jesus was a man and was not God. Such a belief, such an idea of faith and dogma, find very easy expression in Kantian terms: the divinity of Christ is a necessary postulate of the practical reason, but it is not a ‘fact’ as physical events are facts; it is a regulative demand of Christian belief, but it does not constitute any literal truth that we may know. Modernism developed directly out of Kantian philosophy through Schleiermacher and Ritschl, two German Protestant theologians primarily responsible for modernist theology.

II. Positivism. John Dewey, in Baldwin’s Dictionary of Philosophy and Psychology, gives the following definition of positivism:

‘Positivism: The name applied by Comte to his own philosophy, and characterizing, negatively, its freedom from all speculative elements; and, affirmatively, its basis in the methods and results of the hierarchy of positive sciences; i.e., mathematics, astronomy, physics, chemistry, biology, and sociology. It is allied to Agnosticism…in its denial of the possibility of knowledge of reality itself, whether of mind, matter or force; it allied to Phenoenalism…in its denial of capacity to know either efficient or final causation, or anything except the relations of coexistence and sequence in which sensible phenomena present themselves.

The term is used more loosely to denote any philosophy which agrees with that of Comte in limiting philosophy to the data and methods of the natural sciences – opposition to the a priori and to speculation by any method peculiar to metaphysics.’

In the following chapters we shall use the term positivism in the second or wider sense given by Dewey, meaning not particularly the philosophy of Auguste Comte but the general attitude that limits the meaning of knowledge to the data, methods, and results of the natural sciences, and whose prevalence in modern thought is traceable far more to Kant than to Comte.

It is clear that this doctrine involves the denial of the possibility of metaphysics as Thomistic philosophers understand that study. Positivism denies the power of the human intellect to know anything except what is sensible and material; it limits knowledge to the phenomenal as opposed to the substantial. For a thorough-going positivist such a statement as ‘God exists’ is not true or false; as a supposed statement of fact it is meaningless, because there is no way of subjecting it to experimental test. The same is true of all metaphysical statements. They may have or lack pragmatic value; but they have no relation to truth or falsity. Positivism is worse than a philosophical error; it is the suicide of philosophy. It gives the whole field of knowledge over to the natural sciences, leaving to philosophy nothing at all of the knowable. It makes a philosophy a mere hanger-on in the court of the sciences. Positivism allows the philosopher to mull over the findings of the scientists; and while the results of this mulling may have some relevance in the realm of values, it can have none in the realm of fact.

III. Pragmatism. In the United States the positivistic tendency in philosophy took a special turn. What developed from it was a philosophy considered peculiarly American, although it had considerable influence in European circles as well. This was pragmatism, formulated by the great American psychologist, William James. It was a frank abandonment of the effort to attain to any absolute truths. It made truth something relative to particular situations. The truth of a belief was held to consist, not in any accord between this belief and reality, but in the fruitfulness which the belief showed when used as a principle of action. An idea is really a purpose; it places before the mind a given course of action with a certain desired result; it is true when the thinker acts and really attains the desired result. An idea which has produced desired results in many situations and for a long time may later fail to be fruitful. In that case it has become false. This is what has happened to many scientific theories, philosophical beliefs, and religious doctrines; they were true in their day because they gave rise to real satisfactions or values, but their day is done and now they are useless impediments in the mind. In such a theory of truth, it is clear, the will is more relevant to thought and truth than is the intellect, for truth is something in the realm of actions and ends. Practical reason has the primacy over speculative reason. James’s doctrine of the ‘will to believe’ is not altogether unlike Kant’s ‘practical reason.’

IV. The Outcome: Naturalism. What of the future? Leaving unforeseen factors out of consideration, it is not difficult to forecast. Indeed, it is hardly a forecast, because the inevitable end of Kantianism has already been reached by many molders of contemporary thought. Out of Kant’s philosophy sprang modernism, a religious heresy that has an inevitable tendency toward the denial of dogma, and positivism, a philosophical heresy that is more than a tendency, that is, in very truth, the denial of philosophy. The union of the two produces utter materialistic naturalism, the rejection of the supernatural and the spiritual altogether, the confining of man’s interest to this world entirely, and the seeking of all human ends in this world.

Modernism and positivism have been highly successful in their respective fields, and this success has very largely been due to the peculiar way in which they were contained in Kant’s philosophy. Outright denial of dogma, bursting suddenly into the religious world, can arouse only shock and rejection, and could not have succeeded as has modernism. The Kantian distinction between knowledge and the necessary postulates of man’s moral nature enabled modernism to retain dogma while, in fact, radically altering its whole nature. It eventually leads to the denial of all dogma, but that was not too easy to see at the outset. In like manner, honest, forthright sensism or empiricism of David Hume’s brand arouses philosophers to antagonism and rejection. Just as Kant’s philosophy seemed to allow room for religious truth, so it also seemed to allow room for metaphysical truth. In fact it did neither, since in both cases the ‘truths’ were rationally unknowable; but because it seemed to, the real denials of dogma and metaphysics that it contained were able to succeed. Today it has become clear that Kant’s postulates of the practical reason saved neither religion nor metaphysics; and the two errors that he sired so successfully are now uniting to inevitable, if incestuous, wedlock, and their offspring is naturalism. Modernism has destroyed revealed dogma, and positivism has destroyed metaphysics, and there is nothing left but science.

– Nature, Knowledge, and God, Brother Benignus –


– Lucas G. Westman

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