Apologetics, Metaphysics, Philosophy, Saint Thomas Aquinas, Saints, Theology, Thomism

Pope Leo XIII on Saint Thomas Aquinas – Aeterni Patris

Taken From the Encyclical – Aeterni Patris:

St Thomas Aquinas Framed and Labeled TSC17. Among the Scholastic Doctors, the chief and master of all towers Thomas Aquinas, who, as Cajetan observes, because “he most venerated the ancient Doctors of the Church, in a certain way seems to have inherited the intellect of all.”[34] The doctrines of those illustrious men, like the scattered members of a body, Thomas collected together and cemented, distributed in wonderful order, and so increased with important additions that he is rightly and deservedly esteemed the special bulwark and glory of the Catholic faith. With his spirit at once humble and swift, his memory ready and tenacious, his life spotless throughout, a lover of truth for its own sake, richly endowed with human and divine science, like the sun he heated the world with the warmth of his virtues and filled it with the splendor of his teaching. Philosophy has no part which he did not touch finely at once and thoroughly; on the laws of reasoning, on God and incorporeal substances, on man and other sensible things, on human actions and their principles, he reasoned in such a manner that in him there is wanting neither a full array of questions, nor an apt disposal of the various parts, nor the best method of proceeding, nor soundness of principles or strength of argument, nor clearness and elegance of style, nor a facility for explaining what is abstruse.

18. Moreover, the Angelic Doctor pushed his philosophic inquiry into the reasons and principles of things, which because they are most comprehensive and contain in their bosom, so to say, the seeds of almost infinite truths, were to be unfolded in good time by later masters and with a goodly yield. And as he also used this philosophic method in the refutation of error, he won this title to distinction for himself: that, single-handed, he victoriously combated the errors of former times, and supplied invincible arms to put those to rout which might in after-times spring up. Again, clearly distinguishing, as is fitting, reason from faith, while happily associating the one with the other, he both preserved the rights and had regard for the dignity of each; so much so, indeed, that reason borne on the wings of Thomas to its human height, can scarcely rise higher, while faith could scarcely expect more or stronger aids from reason than those which she has already obtained through Thomas.

19. For these reasons most learned men, in former ages especially, of the highest repute in theology and philosophy, after mastering with infinite pains the immortal works of Thomas, gave themselves up not so much to be instructed in his angelic wisdom as to be nourished upon it. It is known that nearly all the founders and lawgivers of the religious orders commanded their members to study and religiously adhere to the teachings of St. Thomas, fearful least any of them should swerve even in the slightest degree from the footsteps of so great a man. To say nothing of the family of St. Dominic, which rightly claims this great teacher for its own glory, the statutes of the Benedictines, the Carmelites, the Augustinians, the Society of Jesus, and many others all testify that they are bound by this law.

 

– Lucas G. Westman

 

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Apologetics, Metaphysics, Philosophy, Traditionalism, Wolfgang Smith

Wolfgang Smith: Preliminary Remarks

School of AthensThe contemporary debate between religion and science, faith and reason, creation and evolution will most likely continue to rage on for several generations. And no matter how ardently avoided due to the vitriolic annoyance of the modern cult of new atheist personality, the traditionalist will at some point have to wrestle with these debates despite the ill-conceived categorizations. The atheist may feel comfortable with these erroneously presumed classifications by mindlessly repeating the mantra that science has defeated religion, or that reason has won the day over faith, or that evolution is scientific fact while creation is a misbegotten magic fairy-tale, but these pontifications have very little to do with the crux of the disagreement between the opposing worldviews. The atheistic Weltanschauung requires these conflicts because the principles they are attempting to commandeer in support of their irrational dogma are undermined by their own materialistic presuppositions. The desperate hope for the atheist, then, is to go on sophistical autopilot by way of repetitious platitude in an attempt to persuade others to refrain from thinking in ways that transcend the procrustean reductions of materialism. The traditionalist, however, recognizes the perpetuation of these dialectical categorizations to be a fallacious starting point, a dead end program that ultimately traps a person in the corner of absurdity. There is no conflict between religion and science because “religion” examines revelation, which comes from God, through mystical contemplation of the theological recognition of divine mysteries, while science is a methodological study of those secondary causes discovered in nature that have been created and sustained by God. Faith and reason are not competitive aspects of the human mind and will; rather, they share a dynamically interactive relationship on the same spectrum of contemplation.

Creation and evolution, however, are at odds with one another and there is simply no way to get around this fact. This is where the conflict can become tricky. Evolution is claimed to be a scientific fact, whereas creation is dismissed as frank stupidity resulting in a staggering level of anti-intellectualism. These are the claims made by the atheist, inexorably linked to a Darwinism that perpetuates the erroneous notion that religion and science, and faith and reason are diametrically opposed to one another. Due to this interconnected narrative attacking religion, many contemporary Christian apologists have committed themselves to making peace with the secular sciences in order to analytically demonstrate, not necessarily the truth of revelation, but the compatibility of faith with secular reason according to a probabilistic epistemic theory. This maneuver has proven to be as disastrous as it is unnecessary. Rather than “sanctifying Christ as Lord in our hearts,” contemporary apologetics has knelt before the dictates of a phony secular prestige in order to look respectable.

Instead of prostrating before an ideological enemy, the traditionalist must set the terms of the debate by exposing the specious assumptions crafted by the atheist. The disagreement isn’t within the scope of scientific discoveries against the mythos of a bygone era of superstition; the debate is between a traditional mythos and a modernist anti-mythos pretending to be scientific. The sooner this is realized, the sooner the traditionalist might no longer be intimidated by illusory methodological prestige.

This is where the thought of Wolfgang Smith becomes vitally important for the traditionalist looking to confront the errors of modernist heresy. Smith is a Roman Catholic, an adherent to the perennial school of philosophy, and his credentials are notable,

“The author (Wolfgang Smith) graduated from Cornell University at age eighteen with majors in physics, philosophy, and mathematics. After taking an M.S. in physics in Purdue University he pursued research in aerodynamics. In those early years he distinguished himself by his papers on the effect of diffusion fields, which provided the first theoretical key to the solution of the re-entry problem for space flight. After receiving a Ph.D. in mathematics from Columbia University, Dr. Smith held faculty positions at M.I.T., U.C.L.A., and Oregon State University, where he retired as a Professor of Mathematics in 1992. In addition to numerous technical publications (relating mainly to differential topology), he has published five other books dealing with foundational interdisciplinary problems, and has become widely recognized as one of the foremost authors to offer a critique of modern science in light of traditionalist metaphysics. He has made it his mission to unmask conceptions of a scientistic kind which are today generally accepted as scientific truths, in the hope of opening doors which have been officially bolted since the Enlightenment.”[1]

These credentials indicate that Smith is well equipped to interact with the claims being made by the secular scientific community. In addition to his ability to interact with the technical rigors of modern scientific theory, Smith possesses the aptitude to philosophically engage the assumptions being posited as scientific breakthroughs when in actuality many of these so-called discoveries are themselves rationalized conventions. Indeed, these capabilities make up for various deficiencies within the contemporary traditionalist school when attempting to refute the modernist anti-mythos.

There are three deficiencies often hindering the total annihilation of the modernist anti-mythos:

  1. First, there are numerous Christians who have attained the necessary academic credentials to critically engage contemporary secular science, but often times these same Christians lack the ability to identify key philosophical issues important to the debate taking place between the opposing worldviews.
  2. Second, there are many Christians who have attained the necessary academic credentials to critically engage contemporary atheistic/naturalist/physicalist/materialist philosophy, but often times lack the ability to identify key scientific issues important to the debate taking place between the opposing worldviews. This results in an apologetic endeavor attempting to show that Christianity can at the very least co-exist with secular science, which in my view is totally inadequate. Another scenario that may take place is the appropriate recognition that the debate is fundamentally metaphysical and ontological, which results in the scientific community’s assumptions frequently escaping critical scrutiny.
  3. Third, the philosophical interaction with modern atheistic philosophy and secular science is most often not done from a distinctively traditionalist perspective, that is, many mainstream Christian apologists share the assumptions of the mechanistic metaphysical worldview that came out of the Enlightenment and overthrew the ancient, organic, hierarchic Christian view of reality.

Wolfgang Smith uniquely overcomes these deficiencies by not only having the scientific and philosophical acumen necessary to deal with the important issues under consideration in the dispute, but he also approaches the debate from a traditionalist perspective.

The result of Wolfgang Smith’s thought is an uncompromising traditionalist refutation of the modernistic atheism hiding behind the esteem of scientific discovery.

The refutation and reinterpretation constructed by Smith has three important phases in its process:

  1. First, it is recognized that scientistic ideology is masquerading as science, that is, method is being mistaken for metaphysics. The philosophical ideology of scientism not only reduces itself to an untenable absurdity, it also nullifies the possibility of properly interpreting authentic discoveries of the natural order.
  2. Second, once this illegitimate marriage between metaphysical ideology and the legitimate methods of science has been annulled, so to speak, authentic discoveries of the natural order can be separated from the modernist anti-mythos so that they may be reinterpreted in light of sacred tradition.
  3. The third and final step is taken when the authentic discoveries of the scientific community are newly reinterpreted in light of sacred tradition so that a fuller, more robust comprehension of the cosmos can begin to emerge. Instead of reducing the whole of reality to its atomized parts, the traditionally understood hierarchic created cosmos is once again free to proclaim the splendor of the Creator.

Wolfgang Smith is one of the most important, and yet unknown, Catholic intellectuals of our contemporary era. His thought is not only relevant for defeating the errors of the modernist anti-mythos, but also, for seeing reality through new eyes. Smith makes it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled traditionalist.

 

– Lucas G. Westman


[1] This summary of credentials is located on the back of his book, Science & Myth.

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Metaphysics, Philosophy, Theology

Analogia Entis & Catholic Metaphysics

MetaphysicsErich Pryzwara’s work, Analogia Entis: Metaphysics, Original Structure, and Universal Rhythm, provides important insights for understanding the analogy between God and creation. The introduction, which is 117 pages, is itself an important manual bringing to light the relevance of the debate between Pryzwara and famous reformed theologian Karl Barth concerning the analogia entis. Although these two men were friendly towards one another personally, they were in fact intellectual rivals. Barth’s claim was that the “analogia entis” is the invention of the anti-Christ, which seems fitting given the historical flamboyance of reformed detractors towards anything Catholic.

David Bentley Hart (who is a translator of Pryzwara’s book) says this regarding the rivalry between Pryzwara and Barth,

“It is, one must acknowledge, a controversial turn of phrase among some Christian thinkers: Karl Barth’s notorious, fairly barbarous rejection of the analogia entis as the invention of the antichrist, and the principle reason for not becoming Roman Catholic, was directed at Pryzwara’s book – a verdict that, frankly, speaks only of Barth’s failure to understand Przywara. Whether one takes Barth’s pronouncement, as Jungel and others have done, as a reaction against the remoteness from God that so empty a concept as ‘being’ actually suggests or, rather more correctly in all likelihood, as a rejection of what Barth took to be a form of natural theology, it is ultimately nothing but an example of inane (and cruel) invective. Nor does Barth’s later acceptance of the ‘principle’ of analogy, in the etiolated but more ‘dramatic’ form of an analogia relationis, improve the picture, as this more ‘existential’ proportions between God’s act and our response, without the correct ontological grammar to support it, has the very effect he so dreaded: it reduces God to the status of a mere being, in some sense on a level with us. To state the matter simply, the analogy of being does not analogize God and creatures under the more general category of being, but is the analogization of being in the difference between God and creatures; it is as subsersive of the notion of a general and univocal category of being as of the equally ‘totalizing’ notion of ontological equivocity, and thus belongs to neither pole of the dialectic intrinsic to metaphysical totality.”[1]

Intrinsic to reformed theology is a denial of any analogical understanding of the creation’s secondary causes with the Creator’s primary causal action. Pryzwara calls this reformed theology, dialectical. Consider this summary of Barth from Pryzwara,

“whatever belongs to the divine is diametrically opposed to whatever is human… The only relation to God and creature is… that of the absolute ‘No.’ We thus see here the actual antithesis to the Catholic concept of God in that the ‘analogy’ between God and creature is replaced with a pure ‘negation.’ Whereas the analogia entis proper to the Catholic concept of God entails the mysterious tension of ‘similar-dissimilar’…, in the Protestant conception of God the ‘similar’ is completely abolished. God is the absolutely and completely ‘Other,’ as Rudolf Otto conceives it, or the ‘No’ to the creature, the ‘No’ of a ‘Yes’ that alone is real and effective.”[2]

Continuing the explanation from the introduction,

“In other words, in Pryzwara’s view, inasmuch as it places all the emphasis upon divine transcendence, dialectical theology ends up denying the reality of God’s analogical immanence to creation. Accordingly, it fails to register the ‘both-and,’ which Catholicism affirms, of divine immanence and divine transcendence. Moreover, Pryzwara’s view, inasmuch as (in the name of revelation) dialectical theology overrides human nature and reason, making them strictly passive with regard to the divine, and inasmuch as it denies any natural knowledge of God, rendering null and void the revelation of creation, dialectical theology unwittingly falls victim to a form of ‘theopanism’ (inasmuch as salvation is the work of God alone, who works the salvation of human nature essentially without human nature and human cooperation.) Here again, therefore, Pryzwara sees a fundamental incompatibility with Catholic theology, inasmuch as the latter affirms the analogia entis, i.e., an ultimately inscrutable but real analogical relation between the saving God who works “all in all” and the real secondary causes of creation, which are vitiated by the Fall but whose integrity (and ability to correspond to grace) is never fully destroyed. For Pryzwara, however, in Barth’s early, dialectical theology, there is no relation – not even the vaguest of analogies – left to redeem; there is only contradiction: for human nature, which is fallen tout court, stands entirely under divine judgment. Thus, Pryzwara avers, for this type of theology, which rules out any notion of divine immanence, ‘Religion is essentially eschatology, and therefore essentially the opposite of Church.’”

A Thomistic understanding of analogia entis and participation are vitally important for Christian metaphysics; Analogia Entis: Metaphysics, Original Structure, and Universal Rhythm, is a unique contribution to the conversation.

 

– Lucas G. Westman


[1] The Beauty of the Infnite, Pg. 241 – 242

[2] Pg. 18

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Apologetics, Metaphysics, Philosophy, Psychology, Phenomenology, & Cognitive Science, Seraphic Orthodoxy, Theology

Thomism, Hylomorphism, & Personal Identity

Seraphic Orthodoxy, Hylomorphism, and Personal IdentityThe discussion of abortion is usually approached from the context of “rights” following the judicial precedent instituted by Roe v. Wade and Casey v. Planned Parenthood. One of the philosophical presuppositions undergirding the precedent of a right to abortion is the idea of bodily autonomy. For contemporary American culture absolute bodily autonomy is now an unexamined philosophical foundation protected by quips and slogans rather than sound reasoning. Those in disagreement with Roe and the succeeding precedent are faced with the difficult challenge of combatting sophists dedicated to sloganeering while at the same time being expected to perfectly articulate the pro-life position within an often-interrupted sound bite. Attempting to articulate a thorough refutation of abortion rights requires a Sisyphean effort when your arguments are kicked back down the hill every time some feminist shrieks, “My body! My Choice!” or “Free abortion on demand and without apology!”

In order to engage the abortion debate in a meaningful way the philosophical dispute must first be properly identified. The point of stasis is not at the level of political rights, but at the theological and philosophical level of personal identity, or what constitutes personhood. Moreover, to properly discuss personal identity at the philosophical level, metaphysical and ontological commitments must be discussed, which inexorably requires analysis at the theological level. To be sure, theology, metaphysics, and ontology are entirely wrapped up in the discussion of personal identity so these deeper issues are unavoidable.

When discussing issues of personal identity (or personal agency) our culture is systematically trapped in a strict either/or dichotomy. Either our personal identity is associated with our psychological attributes or it is associated with our bodily attributes. In our modern political discourse, there is no middle way offered to untie this tightened secular knot.

Professor Robert P. George argues,

Either the body is a part of the personal identity of the human being, in which case the human person, properly speaking, is a dynamic unity of body, mind, and spirit, or the body is a sub-personal dimension of the human being that functions as an instrument at the service of the conscious and desiring aspect of the self – the ‘person,’ strictly speaking, who controls and uses the body. The secularist position on issues such as abortion, infanticide, and euthanasia straightforwardly treats the body as a sub personal reality: a living human body is not a person, or, at least, is not a person until it comes to be associated (somehow) with a mind or other center of conscious self-awareness; and a living human body ceases to be a person not necessarily by dying, but ay any point at which it loses this association, which may be long after death. The body, as such, according to secularists, lacks the dignity of personhood – that is why they believe it isn’t necessarily wrong to kill ‘pre-personal’ or ‘post-personal’ human beings (fetuses, handicapped infants, the irreversibly demented, or other human ‘nonpersons’).[1]

Professor George continues,

“The dualism of orthodox secularism is not erased by the materialist insistence that the attributes of personhood are, ‘entirely a function’ of the physical structure of the human organism. For secularist liberals, it is the conscious, desiring, self-aware, and future directed part of the human being that is truly the ‘person’; it is the psychological attributes of consciousness, self-awareness etc. that confer ‘moral standing.’ By contrast, the living body, as such, is not part of the personal reality of the human being. And it is the status of the body as sub personal that accounts for the willingness of secularists to authorize the killing of human beings before they become ‘persons’ (fetuses and even infants) and after they cease being ‘persons’ (the demented, the permanently comatose, etc.) The dualism of orthodox secularism consists in treating the ‘person’ and the ‘mere living body’ as really separable. ‘Persons’ have dignity and rights; (their) ‘mere’ living bodies do not.”

Secularists, then, have tied themselves in an incoherent, ad hoc metaphysical knot that only recognizes rights within the dualistic nature of the functional human person (as they conceive of functioning) while denying this same dualistic nature to those they consider pre or post persons. In addition to this confused position, the supposed right to an abortion is associated with the concept of individual bodily autonomy while at the same time personhood is arbitrarily recognized only when conscious self-awareness is attained. To make matters even worse, the secularist view often influenced by materialist presuppositions, usually commits to a form of mind-body monism concerning consciousness, whereby the mind either emerges from matter or under the pretense of functionalism the mind is reduced to physical sensory inputs and outputs. What seems to follow from this secular materialist position is an incoherent appeal to consciousness as the defining attribute of personhood while at the same time reducing consciousness to an effective material illusion derived from biological operating features of the body. For the orthodox secular progressive, the person is defined by a consciousness that is nothing more than a physicalist illusion of chemical interaction.

Only a scholastic orthodoxy, informed by the tradition of Thomistic thought, and guided by the light of the Catholic faith can overcome the dilemma that has enslaved our contemporary modernist culture. In this essay I will articulate a view of personal identity which unshackles itself from the contemporary either/or tradition when considering these issues. After defending this view of personal identity, I will briefly examine how it can be informative when considering moral issues in the public square.

Scholasticism and the Human Person

Why should we utilize Neo-Scholastic Thomism on issues concerning personal identity? Why should we seek guidance from the Patristic Doctors of the Church, and the medieval scholastic theologians and philosophers when we are living in a modern, scientific era? The primary reason for doing so is to offer a philosophical view that is able to break free from the picture of reality our society seems to be trapped in; an unexamined either/or dichotomy between the mental and material instead of considering a both/and approach to personal identity. Moreover, these public policy issues demanding moral clarity are resting upon a more fundamental ontology of person than our public discourse allows. Neo-Scholastic Thomism, in my view, is able to untangle this tightened knot.

Thomism is committed to the theory of hylomorphism.[2] A hylomorphic philosophy of nature is an important component of the traditionally informed worldview, and emphasizes a specific structure and organization of the materials that make up the world we live in.[3] Most importantly, the hylomorphic philosophy of nature is ontologically hierarchic, metaphysically cogent, is consistent with the light of human reason, and participates on the spectrum of revealed truth concerning the created order. The emphasis of a dynamically unified, hierarchic composite structure and organization of the natural world provides ontological explanations for why various organisms possess distinguishing aptitudes for growth and development, reproduction, perception, movement, and cognition.[4] A philosophy of nature informed by the classical tenets of hylomorphic theory not only reconstitutes how it is that we can begin to understand our created reality, it appropriately challenges the mechanistic view of nature that has been popular since the Enlightenment.[5]

The distinctive philosophical principles of the hylomorphic theory of nature important for investigating personal identity are form/matter and potentiality/actuality. Things (objects) in nature are a combination of form and matter. To visualize this, Edward Feser gives an example of a red rubber ball.[6] The matter of the ball all by itself cannot be the ball because the rubber material could be something other than a ball, such as the sole of a shoe. Moreover, the form by itself is not the ball because the form is merely an abstraction that informs the material substance of the thing, in this case it is the red rubber ball. Since this is the case, only the form combined with the matter can give us the red rubber ball.

The red rubber ball can also be utilized in order to understand potentiality and actuality.[7] The red rubber ball has the potential to become a puddle of red rubber goo if heat is applied. When this occurs the red rubber ball’s potential capability of becoming red rubber goo becomes actualized. It is important to note that a potentiality can only become an actuality by something that is already actualized. For example, a match has the potential to melt the red rubber ball, but if the match exists only in the state of potentially hot it cannot melt the red rubber ball. Only when the matches’ potential to become hot is actualized can it then actualize the red rubber ball’s potential gooeyness.

These elements of a hylomorphic philosophy of nature are imperative for understanding the ontology of a person. On this view, man is a perfect, dynamic, and unified composite structure of form and matter, or body and soul. The ontology of personhood is not the body alone because not all bodies (matter) possess life, and it is not the soul (form) alone because the matter individuates the form. Henri Renard says,

“The soul is the active principle of life in the nature of man. It cannot be a body, since many bodies do not live. It is a form, not composed, not extended, not divisible, but simple; for it has neither essential nor quantitative parts.” He continues, “Man is a perfect unit, a composite of soul and body – two principles which form a natural, substantial unit, because they are transcendentally related to each other as act and potency. The soul actuates, the matter individuates; the soul is the principle of intellectual life, but it needs matter in order to know. It’s knowledge, which is primarily that of the corporeal world, is acquired though the instrumentality of the senses. For this reason, the soul needs the body for the extrinsic stimulus, without which it could never perfect itself.”[8]

From this standpoint, the hylomorphic view conflicts with the contemporary emphasis on the psychological component of the person as well as the emphasis on a bodily or “animal” component. Indeed, man is not the soul, but a composite of body and soul and the soul is the act and form of the body.[9]

Now that we have explained the hylomorphic philosophy of nature and the proper framework for the ontology of a person, we can posit the necessary and sufficient conditions for personal identity needed to persist through time.

On Thomism, a person X is identical to Y if and only if the soul and body are unified in a composite structure of body and soul. This conception of the person is able to direct our real world investigations of personal identity issues in a way that relates to our common intuitions.

How Do Our Intuitions Relate to the Thomistic View of Personal Identity?

The Bernard Williams essay, The Self and the Future, presents us with two thought experiments that lend support for the defense of a unified view of personal identity. The first thought experiment (scenario) provides two agents – person A and person B.  These agents have a “mentalistic” transfer of memory data. After the transfer takes place, the data from person B is in the A – body and the data from person A is in the B – body. Before the transfer takes place each person is able to choose which body will be tortured and which will be given $100,000. After the transfer either the A – body containing person B’s data or the B – body containing person A’s data, will have been tortured or received $100,000. The second scenario involves only one agent – person A. This agent is presented with the fact that he is going to be tortured the following day, but before being tortured their memory will be erased. The key element to consider from these two scenarios is that in scenario 1 the torture is far less of a concern than it is in scenario 2. This is based on whether a “mentalistic” component or a “bodily” component is tracked with regard to personal identity. Williams finds there are “first – personal” and “third – personal” concerns with questions about personal identity. Moreover, there are also “mentalistic” and “bodily continuity” considerations involved in examining issues concerning personal identity. Also, with this in consideration, Williams thinks these scenarios should run parallel to one another; the first-personal approach should focus on mentalistic criterion of personal identity and the third-personal approach should focus on bodily continuity. What actually occurs is to the contrary of Williams’s intuition. In the third – personal approach of scenario 1 we track a mentalistic criterion and in the first – personal approach of scenario 2 we track a bodily criterion.[10]

Following the thought experiments, a 6-stage examination of these two scenarios is presented to us in an intensified manner; (i) Person A has an operation resulting in total amnesia; (ii) add character changes; (iii) add fictitious memories; (iv) previous character changes and fictitious memories match someone else’s, namely, person B; (v) not only do the changes and memories match person B they are derived from person B; (vi) same as (v) but done for A to person B’s body.[11] On Williams’s view, there is no reason, in stages (i) – (vi), that we should deny the A-body person is identical to A. Hence, for Williams, there is no reason to deny the A-body person is identical to A in stages (i) – (vi).

Stages (i) – (iii) highlight the fear rationally obtained within scenario 2, that even if we have our memories erased prior to being tortured we still have good reason to fear the pain following the operation resulting in amnesia. Moreover, stage (iv) does very little to change the scenario in a material manner since the only change of condition is the introduction of person B into the stages. According to Williams, we can track our fear through all of these stages. Not only is there no material significance in change from (iii) to (iv), there is no causal condition introduced. Stage (iv) is merely saying we have character traits and memories that match another person’s, but it says nothing of their causal nature, that is, how we acquired them. Having character traits and memories of another person is not enough to introduce meaningful changes to individual personal identity. Williams lucidly points this out in addition to the immaterial nature of change between stages (iii) and (iv). The same can be said from stages (iv) to (v). Although a change persists insofar as a model of causal relation is concerned with character changes and fictitious memories, there is still no material significance between (iv) and (v). Significant qualitative changes have taken place, but there is nothing numerical to lose track of, as far as personal identity is concerned. Since this is the case, according to Williams, there is no reason the fear should be tracked from (i) – (v) but not continue to stage (vi).[12]

Our intuitions are related to the ontic-constraint provided within the scenarios life presents us with. The ontic-constraint can be understood as the ontological idealization of any thought experiment or model of reality being presented in order to examine personal identity issues. If the ontic-constraint is loosened to such a degree that its relation to “how-the-world-works” becomes less conceivable the thought experiment becomes ineffective. On the other hand, if the ontic-constraint is constructed in such a way that it closely matches our intuitions of “how-the-world-works” the thought experiment becomes effective.[13]

Scenario 1 represents a thought experiment that is ineffective. In scenario 1, the presentation can be likened to an amusing science fiction “what if”. The ontological construction of the thought experiment is fashioned in such a way that under consideration it is not taken seriously. This is the case for two reasons; first, the language employed is from the third person perspective making it less personal. We are not considering the data transfer or the element of torture as something happening to us. The second reason is that nobody believes such a thing is even likely to occur. It is not even conceivable to believe that scientists will ever be able to accomplish a data transfer such as this unless the human person and personal identity are mistakenly reduced to the operating functionality of a computer. It may be popular to analyze the mind/body problem from the perspective of hardware and software, but this thought experiment presupposes the legitimacy of modernist dualism. The empirical component of the thought experiment needs to relate to a plausible philosophy of nature. The first thought experiment fails this criterion because it lacks the ability to capture the body as a vital component of our personal identity; namely, it assumes the body (matter) can exist without the soul (form) and under the Thomistic tradition being offered this cannot occur. Our identity is not merely tied to the mentalistic or formal aspect of our human nature, but also, the medium by which our mentalistic content is acquired, which are the senses via the body. The empirical plausibility must relate to the ontic-constraint of the thought experiment in a meaningful way in order to properly grasp the metaphysical nature and ontological structure of personal identity.

Scenario 2 represents a thought experiment that becomes effective because it is related to our personal identity via direct acquaintance in a dynamically unified manner. The ontic-constraint is in line with how our intuitions and experiences are related to the world. The fear derived from scenario 2 is exponentially greater because the ontological structure of the thought experiment strikes at the heart of our direct and privileged access to our identity. This is the case for two reasons; first, the language employed is in first person. Instead of only thinking about some impersonal agent possibly being tortured it is us we have to worry about. And despite all of the qualitative changes that will take place in the experiment, no numerical changes in personal identity occur. If they did, there would be nothing to worry about, yet a lingering fear of being tortured remains. The second reason is the comparative presentation of the scenarios provides adequate reason to believe an operation could be performed that erases my memory, which is then followed by torture. Not only do we fear losing our memory, but we also fear our post-torture qualitative status shaping our metaphysical identity in ways unimaginable pre-surgery and pre – torture.  It is not that we cease to exist and a new identity obtains, rather, it is the case that our qualitative status has changed in traumatic fashion, which all persons deeply fear. The question is not if I will exist; the question is how I will exist. In this scenario the empirical plausibility closely relates to the ontic – constraint of our intuitions and experience of the world. Hence, we are able to detect the importance of a bodily and mentalistic criterion with regard to personal identity, or rather; the Thomistic conception of personal identity being a dynamically unified composite structure of body (matter) and soul (form) is not violated.

Applying Neo-Scholastic Thomism to Different Moral Scenarios

These considerations are beneficial for investigating real world questions pertaining to personal identity. Consider the question of abortion. Often times the arguments in favor of abortion in some way, shape, or form deny the personhood of the fetus. According to Thomism this is mistaken. Since the human person is necessarily a dynamically unified composite structure of body and soul, and these two elements exist at conception, the fertilized ovum all the way to delivery is a human person. The necessary and sufficient conditions for personhood are obtained at the moment of conception. An argument to the contrary of this position would not only ignore the hylomorphic philosophy of nature being endorsed, it also “ignores the fact that the development of the human body is a specifically human function, and therefore requires a human soul.”[14] Hence, we were all once fetuses, and we can successfully track our numerical identity along with our qualitative development if left alone to persist through time. Cutting off this path of development negates the potentiality of consciousness from being actualized in the human person. If we were to associate personhood to an economic actualization such as property ownership, while preventing a human life from actualizing this potential by denying the freedom to “develop” into a property owning person, the system has been arbitrarily rigged in favor of an ad hoc status. To claim a moral right to terminate a life because it has not actualized conscious self-awareness is to presuppose a dubious metaphysical picture of a supposedly recognizable demarcation of life and person.

Another question that is relevant for personal identity is whether or not a person’s identity remains while existing in a vegetative state. On the Thomistic conception of personal identity the answer is, yes. As long as the person is functionally alive, whether naturally or artificially, the body and soul would still be present, which preserves the existence of personhood from time t-1 to time t-n. Some may argue a person in a vegetative state would not be functioning as a human and therefore, even under the Thomistic conception of personal identity, personhood would become obsolete. Although this is something to consider, the argument forgets the important component of potentiality and actuality in the classically organic philosophy of nature. If a human person is unable to actualize a potential function it does not follow that personhood is lost. If this were the case, one could argue that if a person cannot actualize their potential to walk their personhood is lost. After all, the inability to walk is arguably a missing human function. For the same reason this argument would be rejected, the argument applied to a person existing in a vegetative state is rejected as well. Admittedly, losing the function to walk may be too simplistic because a person that is unable to walk may still possess conscious awareness. Instead of the inability to walk, we can consider a person’s inability to use their reason properly. A person that is severely mentally handicapped will never be able to actualize the potential to reason well, but this person is consciously aware of their existence, their surrounding environment, and experiences all the same realities other conscious human persons experience. What they lack is the ability to use their reason. If we were to substitute consciousness with the ability to reason as the defining factor determining personhood, something immediately strikes our moral intuition that it is intrinsically immoral to end the life of a mentally handicapped person because they may never be able to put together a well-formed syllogism.

Another important question is how does Thomism examine what happens at death? On this view of personal identity, the person no longer exists actually; rather, the person exists residually.[15] Person A exists as a composite of F/M (Form/Matter), or F/M unified brings forth the actuality of person A’s existence. At death, F/M are separated, and since the necessary condition for person A to persist through time is the unity of F/M the person cannot be identified solely as F or M. Hence, the person exists residually and not actually.[16]

Finally, we need to briefly examine what we are personally responsible for with regard to our actions. According to Thomism, it doesn’t make sense to talk about “actions of our bodies,” “decisions made by our minds,” “or things we only remember doing.” To ask the responsibility questions this way is to fall into the either/or dichotomy we are looking to avoid. Only human persons act, think, or remember. For example, if a person were to consume too much alcohol, become intoxicated and black – out they would still be responsible for their actions while being blacked – out, even if they did not remember anything in this altered psychological state. Remembering an action is a cognitive feature that can be altered or hindered while under the inebriating effects of alcohol. Nonetheless, it is still the person who acts while inebriated because the soul and body are united. Thomism, then, suggests that there is no way to divide the psychological and bodily components of action, thought, or memory that would relinquish responsibility of actions even while under the influence alcohol.

In this essay I have articulated a view of personal identity associated with Neo-Scholastic Thomism and a hylomorphic philosophy of nature. The strengths of this view are its unification of the human person, constructing thought experiments according to the effective ontic-constraint criterion, and providing philosophically relevant answers to questions about abortion, euthanasia, death, and responsibility of action. Hopefully, this view will become more influential because I think it can yield interesting advancements when answering relevant moral questions being examined in our culture.

 

– Lucas G. Westman


[1] The Clash of Orthodoxies, Pg. 34

[2] “The term ‘hylomorphism’ is a compound of the Greek words hyle and morph, which are typically translated ‘matter’ and ‘form’ respectively.” (Philosophy of Mind: A Comprehensive Introduction, Jaworski, Pg. 270)

[3] This fundamental understanding of nature has its roots in Patristic thought, and was endorsed by every major Scholastic thinker. St. Bonaventure and St. Thomas Aquinas, both Doctors of the Church, endorse a hylomorphic philosophy of nature despite their nuanced differenced due to commitments with the Platonic and Aristotelian traditions respectively.

[4] Philosophy of Mind: A Comprehensive Introduction, Jaworski, Pg. 270

[5] The orthodox mechanistic ontology of nature is beginning to be challenged by various philosophers. Some of them are Edward Feser, David Oderberg, William Jaworski, Tuamoa E. Tahko, and E.J. Lowe. Although it may not be formally recognized as such, a structural view of nature similar to hylomorphism is popular among philosophers of biology, biologists, and other scientists. William Jaworski references this situation in his book, Philosophy of Mind: A Comprehensive Introduction, Pgs. 271, 275, 276, 284, and 285. Even Thomas Nagel challenges the mechanistic understanding of nature in his highly controversial book, Mind and Cosmos.

[6] Aquinas, Feser, Pg. 13

[7] Feser also uses the red rubber ball to explain potentiality and actuality, and I am using his example.

[8] The Philosophy of Man, Pg. 37, 38

[9] The Philosophy of Man, Renard, Pg. 40, 42

[10] Williams, Bernard (1970). The Self and the Future. The Philosophical Review, 79(2), 179

[11] Williams, Bernard (1970). The Self and the Future. The Philosophical Review, 79(2), 172

[12] Williams, Bernard (1970). The Self and the Future. The Philosophical Review, 79(2), 17, 172, 174

[13] The term ontic-constraint and the phrase “how-the-world-works” is taken from Uskali Maki’s essay “The Way the World Works (www): Towards an Ontology Theory Choice.”  This essay is found in Maki’s book The Economic Worldview: Studies in the Ontology of Economics. In this essay Maki employs these terms to argue when choosing between models of economic theory the ontology of the model is highly relevant for which theory is the better theory. I find this to be an important insight when considering thought experiments in personal identity issues.    

[14] Reasonable Faith, Haldane, Pg. 138

[15] This could be understood as “continuity” vs. “connectedness.” At death, we would no longer exist in continuity as person A. Our residual personhood at death would only have features of connectedness to person A.

[16] John Haldane explains death in the Thomistic perspective in a way similar to this. I am borrowing his terminology to explain it in a way that better fits this essay, Reasonable Faith, Pg. 158.

Bibliography

Feser, E. (2009) Aquinas. Oxford, England: Oneworld

Jaworski, W. (2011) Philosophy of Mind: A Comprehensive Introduction. West Sussex, United Kingdom: Wiley – Blackwell

Benignus, B (1947) Nature, Knowledge, and God. Milwaukee, WI: The Bruce Publishing Company

Renard, H. (1948) The Philosophy of Man. Milwaukee, WI: The Bruce Publishing Company

Williams, Bernard. The Self and the Future. The Philosophical Review, 79(2)

Maki, Uskali.  The Way the World Works (www): Towards an Ontology Theory Choice.  The Economic Worldview: Studies in the Ontology of Economics

Haldane, J. (2010) Reasonable Faith. New York, NY: Routledge

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Apologetics, Catechism, Epistemology, Metaphysics, Philosophy

Life on Earth is Spiritual Warfare

Life Upon Earth is WarfareAfter the serpent deceived our first parents Adam and Eve, God revealed his plan to thwart the great enemy of those made in his image and likeness, “I will put enmities between thee and the woman, and thy seed and her seed: she shall crush thy head, and thou shalt lie in wait for her heel.”[1] In the fullness of time, Jesus Christ crushed the serpent’s head through his suffering, death, and resurrection; himself being wounded on the heel.[2] Christ’s Blessed Mother participated in the crushing of the enemy’s head by her fiat at the annunciation. Adam and Eve failed to properly do battle against the serpent, the New Adam and the New Eve soundly defeated that ancient enemy, the Devil. Being filled with hatred, and knowing his time is short, the Devil now wages war against holy Mother Church, “And the dragon was angry against the woman: and went to make war with the rest of her seed, who keep the commandments of God, and have the testimony of Jesus Christ.”[3]

The Devil and his demonic battalions prowl about the world seeking the ruin of souls. And while the soldiers of Christ follow their King in his command to baptize the nations, the Devil’s mercenaries are looking to subvert the order of the Great Commission. The weapons used by Christ’s enemies are as diabolical as they are numerous, but they only inflict damage when the soldiers of the Church Militant are unprepared to counteract the deceptive vilifications from the accuser of God’s people.

Christ has exposed the true nature of the devil as the father of lies, “You are of your father, the devil, and the desires of your father you will do. He was a murderer from the beginning, and he abode not in the truth: because the truth is not in him. When he speaketh a lie, he speaketh of his own: for he is a liar, and the father thereof.”[4] From the beginning of time to our current age, those who do the bidding of their father the devil will speak only lies against Christ and his Church, which is the “pillar and bulwark of truth.”[5] Truth cannot be defeated or proven false, so the only way to attack truth is to deceive and lie about the nature of truth. All truth participates in divine Truth. Those who are the enemies of truth do evil against its divine source. And because truth cannot be proven false, the only way to fight against it is to employ methods of tactical sophistry to confuse and lead people into the snares of sinful spiritual error. The devil did this with Eve in the Garden of Eden when he purposely confuses the command of God to not eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, eventually fooling her into believing his deception rather than following the will of God. Another examples is when the devil attempts to exploit Jesus’s bodily weakness after extensive fasting in the desert by misquoting the Sacred Page and challenging his omnipotence. And the devil now looks to twist and bewilder the minds of men so they might become comfortable in their sin, deny the faith, and disregard truth for the comfort of autonomous relativism.

The devil has been diligently working against the Church ever since her birth at Pentecost. Whether it is violent persecutions or damnable heretical movements, the Church has always been assailed by her greatest enemy and those willing to do his bidding. From the errors of Arianism to the synthesis of all heresies in modernism, the Church Militant has done battle for the sake of Truth, and she stands ready still for spiritual combat.

Modernism is the heretical plague of our current era, and a relatively recent expression of this heresy can be found in the New Atheist movement. This movement began as a rhetorically powerful battering ram for those looking to undermine religion in the culture and the public square. It has transformed into an aggressive program looking to employ its own antichrist evangel. Peter Boghossian provides a lucid description of the next generation of the new atheist movement,

“Street Epistemology is a vision and a strategy for the next generation of atheists, skeptics, humanists, philosophers, and activists. Left behind is the idealized vision of wimpy, effete philosophers: older men in jackets with elbow patches, smoking pipes, stroking their white, unkempt beards. Gone is cowering to ideology, orthodoxy, and the modern threat of political correctness.”[6]

He continues,

“Enter the Street Epistemologist: an articulate, clear, helpful voice with an unremitting desire to help people overcome their faith and to create a better world – a world that uses intelligence, reason, rationality, thoughtfulness, ingenuity, sincerity, science, and kindness to build the future; not a world built on faith, delusion, pretending, religion, fear, pseudoscience, superstition, or a certainty achieved by keeping people in a stupor that makes them pawns of unseen forces because they’re terrified.”[7]

Following this description, Boghossian provides a brief historical sketch of the movement and the direction he would like to take it,

“The immediate forerunners to Street Epistemologists were ‘the Four Horsemen,’ each of whom contributed to identifying a part of the problem with faith and religion. American neuroscientist Sam Harris articulated the problems and consequences of faith. British evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins explained the God delusion and taught us how ideas spread from person to person within a culture. American philosopher Daniel Dennett analyzed religion and its effects as natural phenomena. British-American author Christopher Hitchens divorced religion from morality and addressed the historical role of religion. The Four Horsemen called out the problem of faith and religion and started a turn in our thinking and in our culture – they demeaned society’s view of religion, faith, and superstition, while elevating attitudes about reason, rationality, Enlightenment, and humanistic values.

The Four Horsemen identified the problems and raised our awareness, but they offered few solutions. No roadmap. Not even guideposts. Now the onus is upon the next generation of thinkers and activists to take direct and immediate action to fix the problems Harris, Dawkins, Dennett, and Hitchens identified.

A Manual for Creating Atheists is a step beyond Harris, Dawkins, Hitchens, and Dennett. A Manual for Creating Atheists offers practical solutions to the problems of faith and religion through the creation of Street Epistemologists – legions of people who view interactions with the faithful as clinical interventions designed to disabuse them of their faith

Hitchens may be gone, but no single individual will take his place. Instead of a replacement Horseman, there are millions of Horsemen ushering in a new Enlightenment and an Age of Reason. You, the reader, will be one of these Horsemen. You will become a Street Epistemologist. You will transform a broken world long ruled by unquestioned faith into a society built on reason, evidence, and though-out positions. This is work that needs to be done and work that will pay off by potentially helping millions – even billions – of people to live in a better world.”[8]

There you have it, a declaration of war. It is a confrontation between the army of atheistic horseman and the Church Militant.

Let’s do battle.

Peter Boghossian’s Manual begins by highlighting the importance of defining the terms within the debate, “One could easily fill an entire book with faith deepities – many, many authors have. Christians in particular have created a tradition to employ deepities, used slippery definitions of faith, and hidden behind unclear language since at least the time of Augustine (354-430).”[9] Before presenting his definitions of faith, Boghossian says, “The word ‘faith’ is a very slippery pig. We need to get our hands on it, pin it to the ground, and wrap a blanket around it so we can have something to latch onto before we finally and permanently subdue it. Malleable definitions allow faith to slip away from critique.”[10]

On Boghossian’s view then, it is important to properly define what “faith” actually means so that it can be thoroughly refuted by a well-trained organization of motivated Street Epistemologists.

Without further delay, here are the two definitions of “faith” provided by Boghossian:

  1. Belief without evidence.[11]

And

  1. Pretending to know things you don’t know.[12]

In an attempt to bolster the justification for the first definition, Boghossian quotes atheist John W. Loftus, “My definition of faith is that it’s a leap over the probabilities. It fills in the gap between what is improbable to make something more probable than not without faith. As such, faith is an irrational leap over the probabilities.”[13] In summary agreement with Loftus, Boghossian argues, “’Faith’ is the word one uses when one does not have enough evidence to justify holding a belief, but when one just goes ahead and believes anyway.”[14] Finally, Boghossian says, “If one claims knowledge either in the absence of evidence, or when a claim is contradicted by evidence, then this is when the world ‘faith’ is used. ‘Believing something anyway’ is an accurate definition of the term ‘faith.’”[15]

In order to explain the second definition, Boghossian suggests that when the Street Epistemologist hears the term ‘faith’ used in a sentence, they should translate the word within the context of the sentence to mean, “pretending to know things you don’t know.”[16] Admittedly, this will make the sentence more “clunky,” but according to Boghossian, this translation will bring out the transparent irrationality of the faith claims being made.[17] In order to properly train his army of atheistic antichrist evangelists, Boghossian offers a useful table demonstrating what he means by such a translation,[18]

Faith Pretending to know things you don’t know
“My faith is beneficial for me.” “Pretending to know things I don’t know is beneficial for me.”
“I have faith in God.” “I pretend to know things I don’t know about God.”
“Life has no meaning without faith.” “Life has no meaning if I stop pretending to know things I don’t know.”
“I don’t have enough faith to be an atheist.” “I don’t pretend to know things I don’t know enough to be an atheist.”

 

Alternatively, if atheist is defined as “a person who doesn’t pretend to know things he doesn’t know about the creation of the universe,” the sentence becomes, “I don’t pretend to know things I don’t know enough to be a person who doesn’t pretend to now things he doesn’t know about the creation of the universe.”

“You have faith in science.” “You pretend to know things you don’t know about science.”
“You have faith your spouse loves you.” “You pretend to know things you don’t know about your spouse’s love.”
“If everyone abandoned their faith, society would devolve morally.” “If everyone stopped pretending to know things they don’t know, society would devolve morally.”
“My faith is true for me.” “Pretending to know things I don’t know is true for me.”
“Why should people stop having faith if it helps them get through the day.” “Why should people stop pretending to know things they don’t know if it helps them get through the day.”
“Teach your children to have faith.” “Teach your children to pretend to know things they don’t know.”
“Freedom of faith.” “Freedom of pretending to know things you don’t know.”
“International Faith Convention” “International Pretending to Know Things You Don’t Know Convention.”
“She’s having a crisis of faith.” “She’s having a crisis of pretending to know things she doesn’t know.”

 

Alternatively, “She is struck by the fact that she’s been pretending to know things she doesn’t know.”

These two definitions and their subsequent explanations direct the Street Epistemologist toward the proper understanding of the claim that faith is an intrinsically faulty epistemology. If these two definitions appropriately capture what it is people mean when they use the term “faith”, then it stands to reason that faith as a system of knowledge is not adequate to provide human beings with the suitable tools for comprehending our surrounding reality.

Boghossian’s critique of faith as an alternative epistemology, however, entirely depends on whether or not he has properly defined the word. Even a rudimentary examination of his definitions will uncover the fact that he has misidentified the term. But let’s go beyond a basic fact-checking mission and thoroughly analyze what the headmaster of this legion of Street Epistemologists is offering.

Consider the first definition – belief without evidence. I take this to mean that a belief is held without any evidence whatsoever concerning a specific truth claim about reality. In this context then, and according to Boghossian’s definition, belief in God or having faith that God exists, is held without a single shred of evidence in the affirmative for this belief. Rather than a gentle tilt, the scales of evidence would tip dramatically to the side of atheism. If asked where the evidence is for faith in God, the person claiming to believe through faith would be forced to answer, “I have no evidence, as the scale clearly indicates.” There is a significant difference, however, between belief without evidence and belief despite sufficient evidence. From the definition to the explanation, Boghossian moves from the former defined position to the latter explanation. Moreover, the quote offered by Loftus in support of the definition discusses an irrational leap over the probabilities, but an unjustified leap over the probabilities is different than taking a blind leap without probabilities in the affirmative for a specific belief. In agreement with Loftus, Boghossian suggests that “faith” is the term employed when belief is going to be held without enough evidence for said belief. Again, this is much different than believing without evidence.

The first definition is not only incorrect; it is totally confused. On the one hand the definition states that “faith” entails belief without evidence, and on the other hand, it is considered to be a leap over the probabilities, or when a belief is held without enough evidence. This is confused for at least two reasons. Loftus’s statement fundamentally misunderstands the potential relationship between what it might mean to use the term “faith” in light of specific probabilities of a belief being true. If it is believed that event X is 90% likely to take place, the missing 10% is not filled in by faith, as if probabilities were an epistemic container for justification. All this probability suggests is an increased justification for the likelihood of event X to take place. Acting on this probability is to trust in the methods informing the 90% probability of the event’s actualization.

The second reason this definition is confused is based on Boghossian’s shift from belief without evidence to belief without enough evidence, indicating that the term ‘faith’ could be defined differently than he has advocated. Belief without enough evidence alludes to the possibility that there is in fact evidence for a belief, but that the claims being made given the evidence publicly available are not warranted. For example, an evidence based claim for the existence of God could be the realist identification of design intrinsic to the natural order. An atheist may counter this view by suggesting the design we see in the natural order is illusory, and any theistic explanation of the illusion of design lacks epistemic plausibility. However, this explanation provided by the atheist would mean that belief is being held with insufficient evidence rather than the total absence of evidence. This example also hints at something important for the sufficiency of evidential claims, and that is the philosophical interpretation of what actually counts as evidence in the first place. An atheist claiming that design does not count as evidence for the existence of God due to an anti-realist metaphysical commitment toward the concept of design does not amount to the demonstration of a lack of evidence for the claim. What is actually taking place is the application of a differing philosophical interpretation of the evidence that is available.

The first definition then, is considerably muddled. It offers no substance to the debate because it is itself trapped between two different misunderstandings of what the term “faith” might mean when examined with malicious intent. Additionally, it presupposes a philosophical interpretation of what counts as evidence that lends a favorable hand to the atheistic naturalist position. So the first definition is not only wrong, it also begs the question concerning the nature of evidence.

What about the second definition? Does it offer anything of substance for the person looking to become a Street Epistemologist motivated to talk people out of their faith?

Not even close.

The suggested characterization of faith as – pretending to know something you don’t know – is nothing more than an accusation of moral ineptitude, rather than a realistic attempt to define a word. To claim a person is pretending to know things they do not know is tantamount to calling them a liar. It is itself an accusation requiring sufficient evidence to be credibly warranted as an epistemic indictment.

In addition to the sheer stupidity of the proposed definition, it is loaded with philosophical problems.

First, the Street Epistemologist must in fact know that a person is pretending to know something they don’t really know. In order to accomplish this they would need to have direct acquaintance with the reasons a person might have for a specific belief, which of course they do not have. And because the Street Epistemologist does not have direct acquaintance for the reasons a person might hold to a specific belief, they are the ones who are awkwardly pretending to know things that they in fact do not know. Second, the Street Epistemologist must know what it is a person is pretending to know before they can accurately say that any person is pretending to know something they don’t know. And if the only thing they would have to go by is the incoherent definition and explanation provided above as their justification for making this claim, then they are operating far outside the parameters of their own epistemic justification. Maybe the person is pretending to know something they don’t know, but the Street Epistemologist who is working from an inherently faulty definition of faith doesn’t actually know what it is that they are claiming a person is pretending to know. Third, the only way the fervent Boghossianite would know with any amount of plausibility that a person of faith is nefariously pretending to know something they don’t know is if their own philosophical presuppositions were themselves adequately examined and justified in their own right. Unless the Street Epistemologist can offer some alternative standard for truth that does not beg all the important questions, and can offer a worldview that does not violate its own standards of rationality, can they even begin to impugn a person of faith with an intrinsic moral fault such as pretending to know things they don’t actually know. Finally, to take the hubristic position that the Street Epistemologist knows that a person of faith is pretending to know something they don’t really know, is to transform themselves into an omniscient being that can probe the complex inner sanctum of the believer’s own subjective conscious cognitive capacities. They unwittingly claim to transcend the irrationalities of faith while being imminently present in the mind of the believer. This strangely eerie delusion hearkens back to the ambitions of Lucifer looking to dethrone God. In order to refute faith in God, they have made themselves gods, or as Scripture says, “professing to be wise they became fools.”[19]

So the second definition of faith offered by Boghossian – pretending to know things you don’t know – is an even worse failure than the first definition – belief without evidence.

Not only has Boghossian failed to properly define exactly what it is he is looking to refute, but he also advises his followers to ignore the actual point of contention between a theistic understanding of reality and its atheistic counterpart, namely, the existence of God. It is remarkably telling that Boghossian implores his followers to avoid disputes in the realm of metaphysics. He says,

“A solid strategy for lowering your conversational partner’s self-placement on the Dawkins’ Scale, and one that I repeatedly advocate throughout this book, is to focus on epistemology and rarely, if ever, allow metaphysics into the discussion. This is even more important in discussions about God – a metaphysical entity.”

Boghossian continues,

“In other words, focus on undermining one’s confidence in how one claims to know what one knows (epistemology) as opposed to what one believes exists (metaphysics/God). Instead of having a discussion about the actual existence of metaphysical entities that can neither be proven nor disproven, direct the discussion to how one knows that these alleged entities exists. (This may also avoid one of the most common retorts among uneducated, unsophisticated believers, ‘You can’t prove it not to be true.’)”[20]

Contained in these paragraphs is an endnote, further explaining why the Street Epistemologist must avoid metaphysics,

“Metaphysical discussions center on the furniture of the universe – what exists or does not exist. Bringing metaphysics into a discussion is usually fruitless and may even be counterproductive, in some cases pushing people further into their faith and metaphysical delusions. Conversations about what there is, as opposed to how one knows what there is, cannot gain cognitive traction because the entities in question (God, angels, demons) have no attributes that leave a footprint in the natural realm. Given this starting condition, there’s nowhere for the conversation to move. Consequently, these discussions almost invariably devolve into he said, she said.

One reason many people assign belief in God a high number on the Dawkins’ Scale is because they started with metaphysics and worked their way back to epistemology. That is, people started with the belief God exists and then asked themselves how they know this. This is confirmation bias. No discussion of alternative formulations of what there is (maybe there’s a God but it’s somehow limited, maybe there is a God but in creating the universe it extinguished itself) will divorce this self-interested bond with metaphysics.”[21]

These paragraphs further expose the explicit philosophical mark of sophistic pretentiousness among the New Atheist movement. Boghossian waxes laboriously against the allegedly deluded maniacs holding to a faulty epistemology of faith, which is comfortably defined in such a way that lends support to his atheistic presuppositions so that serious interaction can be altogether avoided, all while begging the most important metaphysical questions. It is transparently absurd to suggest that the very thing under dispute, namely, the existence of God to which faith would be extended given this metaphysical reality, should be ignored as a topic of conversation so that the seeds of epistemic doubt can be planted in the mind of a believer. If God is in fact among the objects of our metaphysical reality, it cannot be rationally suggested that belief in the existence of God is intrinsically delusional. Rather than entering into a serious, sophisticated, intellectually honest discussion with a religious believer, Boghossian is training his army of Street Epistemologists to openly engage in egregiously vapid and dishonest sophistry. Truth is not on the table in these interactions, rather, winning an argument against less astute adversaries is the goal. Nobility, then, has no place among the character of the Street Epistemologist. They are charlatans eager to spread lies.

Moreover, Boghossian ignores the fact that metaphysics is always in the philosophical driver seat. Every epistemological theory is going to presuppose a metaphysical understanding of the surrounding reality we participate. For example, the Cartesian “cogito” rests squarely upon the metaphysical bifurcation of reality according to the presuppositions of substance dualism. An externalist epistemology coupled with a functionalist solution to the mind/body problem presupposes metaphysical naturalism/physicalism. Boghossian shows his metaphysical cards when he asserts, “God, angels, and demons do not have the attributes which leave a footprint upon the natural realm.” This statement presupposes an unexamined metaphysical naturalism, which is also being coupled with a self-referentially incoherent epistemic scientism.

The metaphysical naturalism of the atheistic worldview is viciously circular in its statements concerning the nature of reality and how we attain knowledge about this reality. The circularities of the atheist goes something like this – science explains everything about reality, which we know because anything that science cannot explain doesn’t exist, which we know because whatever exists must be explicable by science, which we know because science explains everything about reality.[22]

Despite all of these devastating faults of the Street Epistemologist project, there is more damage to be levied against their fatuous game of semantic trickery.

Prior to the now recognizably defunct definitions of faith, Boghossian says that this term is notoriously problematic to define due to the slipperiness of meaningless religious deepities. This too is a false claim.

Consider these references for proper definitions of faith:


“In preparing and instructing men in the teachings of Christ the Lord, the Fathers began by explaining the meaning of faith. Following their example, we have thought it well to treat first what pertains to the virtue.

Though the word faith has a variety of meanings in the Sacred Scriptures, we here speak only of that faith by which we yield our entire assent to whatever has been divinely revealed.”[23]

Student: What is Faith?

Teacher: Faith is the first of the Theological virtues regarding God. It is His proper office to enlighten the intellect, rouse it to every belief which God reveals to us through His Church, even if it might be very difficult and more sublime than natural reason.”[24]

“Faith is man’s response to God, who reveals himself and gives himself to man, at the same time bringing man to a superabundant light as he searches for the ultimate meaning of life.”[25]

“By faith, man completely submits his intellect and his will to God. With his whole being man gives his assent to God the revealer. Sacred Scripture calls this human response to God, the author of revelation, ‘the obedience of faith.’”[26]

* The Catechism of the Catholic Church goes on to provide two individual examples of perfect exemplars of what it means to have faith, that is, assent to what God has revealed.

“To obey in faith is to submit freely to the word that has been heard, because its truth is guaranteed by God, who is Truth itself. Abraham is the model of such obedience offered us by Sacred Scripture. The Virgin Mary is its most perfect embodiment.”[27]

Faith is a grace – “When St. Peter confessed that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God, Jesus declared to him that this revelation did not come ‘from flesh and blood,’ but from ‘my Father who is in heaven.’ Faith is a gift of God, a supernatural virtue infused by him. ‘Before this faith can be exercised, man must have the grace of God to move and assist him; he must have the interior helps of the Holy Spirit, who moves the heart and converts it to God, who opens the eyes of the mind and ‘makes it easy for all to accept and believe the truth.’”[28]

Faith is a human act – “Believing is possible only by grace and the interior helps of the Holy Spirit. But it is no less true that believing is an authentically human act. Trusting in God and cleaving to the truths he has revealed are contrary neither to human freedom nor to human reason. Even in human relations it is not contrary to our dignity to believe what other persons tell us about themselves and their intentions or to trust their promises to share a communion of life with one another. If this is so, still less is it contrary to our dignity to ‘yield by faith the full submission of…intellect and will to God who reveals,’ and to share an interior communion with him.”[29]

Faith is a personal act – the free response of the human person to the initiative of God who reveals himself.”[30]


These definitions and descriptions tell us a number of things about the true nature of faith while simultaneously exposing Boghossian’s incompetent mishandling of the subject.

First, they provide a very clear, concise, and easily understood definition of the term – faith is an assent to what has been revealed by God. Far from being the impossible task of wading through the theological and metaphysical ‘deepities’ of superstition, the definition is easy to discover and comprehend if a person is willing to charitably interact with the relevant material. The fact that Boghossian relies on the support of an incoherent characterization offered by an embittered former evangelical is a manifestation of his own laziness rather than astute intellectual capability.

Second, these definitions and descriptions indicate just how wildly far off the mark Boghossian is in his treatment of the term. Faith is not based on a series of evidential probabilities weighed by the rationalist dictates of secular reason, but an assent to what God has revealed about himself, reality, and the salvific path toward beatific vision. The content and methods of faith are not the same as those utilized by the physical sciences, nor can the content and methods of faith be reduced to the standards of empirical verification. To suggest that a reduction like this is even possible is to fundamentally misunderstand the topic under discussion. A feat such as this would be as misguided as attempting to determine the qualitative literary properties of Tolkien’s work by bringing Lord of the Rings to a chemistry lab for empirical testing. Boghossian is recognizably guilty of committing a disastrous category error.

Third, these definitions and descriptions expose a central mistake expressed in the pontifications of Boghossian’s project, which is the treatment of faith as being a one-sided event in the life of the believer. Contrary to this mistreatment, faith is an assent toward something, namely, revelation. On Boghossian’s specious view, faith is treated as a leap into the irrational abyss of metaphysical nothingness. But this is not how the believer understands faith. There are two sides to the coin. On one side is the object of revelation – God – and on the other is man’s capacity to move in authentically free, and submissive obedience toward that object by an act of faith.

Fourth, by misunderstanding the interactive relationship between revelation and faith, Boghossian has entirely misrepresented any meaningful understanding of what a Christian epistemology might philosophically entail. The comparison of his cartoon version of faith as a faulty epistemic theory with that of his unjustified atheistic scientism is an exercise of duplicity.

Fifth, as previously indicated, the approach Boghossian takes on this topic begs the most important metaphysical question, which in this case is whether it is true that God exists. He takes it for granted that God does not exist, mocks the notion that a rational demonstration may be possibly articulated, criticizes erudite philosophical articulation of demonstrative arguments for the existence of God as nothing more than sophisticated semantic delusions, implores his followers to avoid even discussing the topic due to its metaphysical complexities, incorrectly treats faith as an illogical jump into a metaphysical chasm of absurdity, and shifts the dialogue from being a philosophical interaction to a psychological intervention. To say that this is philosophically problematic would be a significant understatement.

What is clear following this analysis is that Peter Boghossian is arming his battalions of Street Epistemologists with dull and damaged weaponry. The interactive maneuvers recommended in this Manual may have an affect on those who are uninformed and ill equipped for the battle, but they do not stand a chance against the Church Militant committed to doing spiritual warfare.

The Sacred Scriptures tell us that, “The life of man upon earth is a warfare.”[31] St. Paul advises us to,

“Be strengthened in the Lord an in the might of His power. Put on the armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the Devil. For our wrestling is not against flesh and blood, but against the Principalities and the Powers, against the world rulers of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness on high. Therefore take up the armor of God, so that you may be able to resist in the evil day, and stand in all things perfect.

Stand, therefore, having girded your loins with truth, and having put on the breastplate of justice, and having your feet shod with the readiness of the gospel of peace, in all things taking up the shield of faith, with which you may be able to quench all the fiery darts of the most wicked one. And take for yourself the helmet of salvation and the sword of the spirit, that is, the word of God. With all prayer and supplication pray at all times in the Spirit, and be vigilant in all perseverance and supplication for the saints.”[32]

If we do not put on the full armor of God when meeting those who look to do battle against us, whether it is the devil, the demons, or a Street Epistemologist preaching an antichrist evangel, we may fall prey to their wicked stratagems. To safeguard against this potential scenario, let us arm ourselves with the truth, which is the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The victory has already been won, now we must boldly walk toward the fire of spiritual warfare.

 

– Lucas G. Westman


[1] Gen. 3:15

[2] Douay-Rheims Holy Bible Commentary

[3] Rev. 12:17

[4] John 8:44

[5] 1 Tim 3:15

[6] A Manual for Creating Atheists, Pg. 16

[7] Ibid

[8] Ibid, Pg. 17, 18

[9] Pg. 22

[10] Pg. 23

[11] Pg. 23

[12] Pg. 24

[13] Pg. 23

[14] Pg. 23

[15] Pg. 24

[16] Pg. 24

[17] Pg. 24

[18] Pg. 25, 26

[19] Rom 1:22

[20] Pg. 79

[21] Pg. 98, 99

[22] A version of this circular explanation of naturalism can be found in David Bentley Hart’s book, The Experience of God.

[23] The Catechism of the Council of Trent, Pg. 11

[24] Catechism of St. Robert Bellarmine, Pg. 191

[25] Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd ed., Pg. 17

[26] Ibid, Pg. 44

[27] Ibid, Pg. 45

[28] Ibid, Pg. 47

[29] Ibid, Pg. 47, 48

[30] Ibid, Pg. 52

[31] Job 7:1 Douay-Rheims

[32] Eph 6:10-20

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Economic Method, Epistemology, Metaphysics, Philosophy

A Critique of Misesian Economic Methodology: Part III – The Heart of the Matter

  1. ludwig-von-mises The Anti-Realist Foundation and the Conflict of Realism

In the previous section we examined the influence that Kantian philosophy had on Wittgenstein’s work in his Tractatus. The conclusions made in the Tractatus provided the positivists a basis for advancing their ideas. These ideas were a form of radical empiricism, the natural sciences were the only way to attain knowledge of the world, and metaphysical claims were entirely meaningless. Moreover, elements of anti-realism are found in the work of the positivists. These considerations give us the evidence we need to question why Mises chose a Kantian route in his attempt to deflect positivist influence in the field of economics.

In this section my aim is to pin down the discord at the heart of the Misesian praxeological system. This discord occurs in two places; first, it takes place in the praxeological foundation itself; second, it takes place when we separate praxeology from how Mises practices economics. We have already witnessed various Austrian scholars recognizing the Kantian nature of Misesian thought.[1] In order to locate the anti-realism in Misesian Praxeology I turn to his book, The Ultimate Foundations of Economic Science (UFES),

“A new epistemology of rationalism aimed at the refutation of this integral empiricism. Leibniz added to the doctrine that nothing is in the intellect that has not previously been in the senses the proviso: except the intellect itself. Kant, awakened by Hume from his “dogmatic slumbers,” put the rationalistic doctrine upon a new basis. Experience, he taught, provides only the raw material out of which the mind forms what is called knowledge. All knowledge is conditioned by the categories that precede any data of experience both in time and in logic. The categories are a priori: they are the mental equipment of the individual that enables him to think and – we may add – to act. As all reasoning presupposes the a priori categories, it is vain to embark upon attempts to prove or to disprove the.”[2] (Emphasis added)

Mises Continues,

“Following in the wake of Kant’s analysis, philosophers raised the question: How can the human mind, by aprioristic thinking, deal with the reality of the external world? As far as praxeology is concerned, the answer is obvious. Both, a priori thinking and reasoning on the one hand and human action on the other, are manifestations of the human mind. The logical structure of the human mind creates the reality of action. Reason and action are congeneric and homogenous, two aspects of the same phenomenon.”[3] (Emphasis added)

Finally, in Human Action, Mises says, “Like logic and mathematics, praxeological knowledge is in us; it does not come from without.”[4] (Emphasis added) It is rather evident from these passages that Mises is more than a rhetorical Kantian. These statements are the pinnacle of explicitly Kantian proclamations about the categories of the mind in relation to the world. The category of action in the human mind is fundamental for Mises. Human action is the categorical axiom from which he constructs all of economics. Indeed, this axiom implies the categories of logic, regularity in nature, causality, time, and value.[5] Boettke strengthens this view by highlighting these and three other prerequisites of action as distinct categories of the mind. These prerequisite categories Boettke highlights are temporality, causality, uncertainty, dissatisfaction, an imagined preferred state of affairs, and beliefs or expectations with regards to the means utilized for achieving ends.[6] Mises is adding to the Kantian conception of categories of the mind, the categories of action he considers vital for the science of economics. Just as Kant removed the laws of logic from the external world by putting them in the mind safe from the attacks of Hume’s empiricism; Mises removed the prerequisite laws of action needed for economics from the external world by putting them in the mind safe from the attacks of positivism. This is the explicitly anti-realist nature of the Misesian praxeological foundation.

As soon as we have identified the perspicuous anti-realist component of Misesian thought, a realist component can be discovered as well. Mises says, “The starting point of all praxeological thinking is not arbitrarily chosen axioms, but a self-evident proposition, fully, clearly and necessarily present in every human mind.”[7] (Emphasis added) This statement seems coherent with the previously referenced material but later Mises says, “Although logic, mathematics, and praxeology are not derived from experience, they are not arbitrarily made, but imposed upon us by the world in which we live and act and which we want to study.[8] (Emphasis added) Boettke also references this position of Mises, but does not recognize it as being problematic – quoting Mises Boettke states,

‘The starting point of praxeology is not a choice of axioms and a decision about methods of procedure, but reflection about the essence of action.’ In our efforts to understand reality we do not choose the axiom we wish to begin with so much as it is chosen for us by the world in which we live. The axiom of action is in a sense imposed on us by the world.” (Original emphasis)[9]

Boettke continues,

“As the ‘filter’ through which we make sense of our surroundings, we must necessarily begin our understanding processes with the concept of purposeful action. It is the only means available to us for this purpose, as we cannot help but see the world through the ‘lenses’ conditioned by the unavoidable structure of our minds. If we desire to ground economics in the reality of the world, Mises maintained, we have no choice but start with the axiom of action. No other starting point can yield theory that illuminates the behavior of real individuals.”[10]

It is quite telling that Boettke, within the same paragraph, utilizes the language of realism and anti-realism in order to describe Misesian praxeology from which the action axiom is derived. How is it that our minds create the reality of action while at the same time the axiom of action is imposed on us by the world? How is it that the axiom of action is chosen for us by the world (external reality) and at the same time our perception of the world is conditioned by the unavoidable structure of the human mind? How is it that we can abstract off of the world that which the mind has already put on it? The answer of course, is it cannot. This conflict is not a nuanced interpretation in order to find a problem, rather, the problem is a contradiction located at the heart of the Misesian praxeological foundation – to claim that we put onto the world the very axiom that the world forces onto us is no different than saying that A is ~A.

The realism/anti-realism tension is more poignant when we move from the praxeological foundation to the actual practice of economics, or as Mises called it catallactics. Recall that Jorg Guido Hulsmann argued when we examine how Mises practices economics he is more in line with Aristotelian realism; Hulsmann encourages us to examine the economic work of Mises to validate this claim.

Following the suggestion of Hulsmann, I will examine Misesian economics rather than Misesian praxeology to find further elements of realism. In the first part of The Theory of Money and Credit, Mises discusses the origin and nature of money. In this section we find Mises discussing direct and indirect exchange,[11] supply and demand,[12] the division of labor,[13] the development of a medium of exchange,[14] gold and silver as money,[15] and finally the secondary functions of money.[16] All of the economic insights Mises elucidates in this section are discussed absent any reference to categories of the mind, the imposition of structural features of the mind onto the world, or any other kind of vocabulary suggestive of anti-realism. The language employed can be entirely recognized as realist since Mises is discussing all of these various facets of economics existing firmly in the external world independent of the perceptual capacities of the human mind. Furthermore, in part II, chapter II of the same book, we find more evidence of realism. While Mises, following the tradition of Menger and Bawerk, understand economic valuation of means and ends to be entirely subjective, this subjectivity leads to an independent objective exchange value of monetary functioning. Speaking of monetary exchange value as something independent and objective carries with it realist implications of understanding the economic world humans interact.

Additional evidence of realism can be found in the manner Mises refutes socialism and Marxism.[17] Mises argues the failure of these economic systems is the result of their inadequacy to conform to economic reality as we experience it. In his famous work, Socialism, he argues that centrally planned economies do not allow proper economic calculation and are destined to fail. When arguing against Marxism, Mises claims this system of economics is a revolt against reason,[18] Marxism is unable to withstand the devastating critiques of economists,[19] Marxist ideological – doctrine aims not at discovering economic truths of the world but rather to destroy the reputation of economic teachings discovered thus far in economic history,[20] and that Marxism is a purely mystical doctrine.[21] All of these arguments against Marxism are employed in order to lucidly expose the failure of this economic system to explain the economic reality of the external world. According to the critique of Mises, Marxism fails as an economic system due to the fact that it violates the economic laws discovered in reality, rather than violate the praxeological axioms introspectively discovered in the human mind.

Truths of the economic reality of the external world are what Mises was truly passionate about. This is what motivated him to build a system protecting the most important element of economics – purposive acting man – from the positivist philosophy he considered to be launching insidious attacks upon such a vitally important field of study critical for human flourishing. Although Mises was passionate, we cannot ignore the choice the Misesian system forces us to make given the realism/anti-realism tension embedded in the system itself. Indeed, it is more than a tension; it is a contradiction that must be eradicated. The Misesian praxeological foundation is saliently anti-realist and yet contains seeds of realism.   The evidence provided above thoroughly establishes the Misesian realist practice of economics when offering theory and refuting opponents. The unfortunate state of affairs Austrian adherents are now required to confront is the choice to either abandon the distinctive praxeological foundation of the contemporary ASE, or keep the praxeological foundation while abandoning the practice of economics from a realist perspective.

  1. What is the Path Forward for the Austrian School of Economics?

In the previous section, I exposed the contradiction at the heart of the Misesian praxeological foundation. Austrians are now forced to make a choice, either give up the anti-realist praxeological foundation so dear to contemporary ASE, or abandon the practice of economics from the realist tradition. These are their only options if philosophical cogency is virtue they would like to appeal.

While difficult for the contemporary adherents of the ASE, the correct choice at this juncture is to abandon the anti-realism of the Misesian praxeological system. Indeed, Mises was not a philosopher, but an economist. His primary concern was protecting the truths of economic reality from philosophies that would undermine them. Remember that by giving up the anti-realism in the praxeological foundation, I am not giving up the conviction that economics requires the appropriate philosophical interpretation. In my view, this interpretation must be committedly realist in the classical metaphysical tradition of the Ancients, the Patristics, and the Scholastics. A realist practice of economics requires a coherent metaphysical understanding of reality. It is my contention that classical realist metaphysics, combined with the appropriate moral philosophy informed by the teleological aspect of human action is necessary for the salvation of economics as a science.

 

– Lucas G. Westman


[1] “We provide evidence to show how Mises was influenced in his attempt to show how Mises was influenced in his attempt to justify pure theory by the philosophy of Immanuel Kant and also demonstrate that Mises’s application of this idea to the science of economics moves beyond Kant.” (Living Economics, Boettke, Pg. 195)

[2] The Ultimate Foundation of Economic Science, Mises, Pg. 10

[3] The Ultimate Foundation of Economic Science, Mises, Pg. 37

[4] Pg. 64

[5] The Ultimate Foundation of Economic Science, Mises, Pg. 31

[6] Living Economics, Boettke, Pg. 204

[7] The Ultimate Foundations of Economic Science, Pg. 4

[8] The Ultimate Foundations of Economic Science, Pg. 12

[9] Living Economics, Pg. 203

[10] Living Economics, Pg. 203

[11] The Theory of Money and Credit, Mises, Pg. 30

[12] The Theory of Money and Credit, Mises, Pg. 31

[13] The Theory of Money and Credit, Mises, Pg. 31

[14] The Theory of Money and Credit, Mises, Pg. 32

[15] The Theory of Money and Credit, Mises, Pg. 33

[16] The Theory of Money and Credit, Mises, Pg. 34 – 37

[17] If there is at least one area we are indebted to the Austrians it is their thorough and systematic refutations of socialism and Marxism.

[18] Human Action, Scholars Edition, Pg. 72

[19] Human Action, Scholars Edition, Pg. 74

[20] Human Action, Scholars Edition, Pg. 74

[21] Human Action, Scholars Edition, Pg. 80

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Economic Method, Epistemology, Metaphysics, Philosophy

A Critique of Misesian Economic Methodology: Part II – Historical Considerations

  1. Anti-Realism and Misesian Praxeology: Historical Considerations

ludwig-von-misesI have concluded the previous section by highlighting the fact that there is a conflict at the heart of the Misesian praxeological system. This conflict is between metaphysical realism and anti-realism. In order to understand why this conflict has arisen, I am going to examine the historical roots of this problem and how they influenced Mises.

The Misesian project motivated to overcome positivist influence in economics echoes a previous philosophical discussion between David Hume and Immanuel Kant. Hume argued in favor of a radical and revolutionary form of empiricism in order to challenge what he considered to be epistemological misconceptions advanced by the rationalist thinkers of the Enlightenment. Hume’s arguments concerned Kant deeply, awakening him from his “dogmatic slumbers.”[1]

Hume argued that reason was entirely inadequate to tell us anything about the external world. Far from an authoritative tool for discovering and validating truths about reality, reason was merely an instrument able to detect relations between ideas.[2] These ideas are acquired through the senses by detecting patterns in the external world, but these patterns were by no means necessary. This is most strikingly evident by Hume’s attack on causality. On Hume’s view, causality is not a necessary connection of experience between substances; rather, it is a pattern of sensory experience identified in events with no necessary connection between these sensory impressions. If we experience A, and B follows every time we experience A, we infer based on this pattern that A is causing B. Hume rejects this inference because he thinks we are not justified in making it. In fact, there is no justification for inferring that B will always and necessarily follow A, because all we have is a pattern telling us that event B follows the experience of event A. For all we know A could occur and event C will follow. Since this is the case, the law of causality undergirding the scientific method of examining cause and effect in nature is reduced to a sequence of impression whereby B is expected to follow A, but there is no justified and/or necessary connection between the pattern itself.

Kant was deeply troubled by the arguments of Hume because they strike at the belief of a rational universe that can be studied and understood by scientists utilizing the scientific method. If event B does not necessarily follow event A when conducting a controlled scientific experiment, the scientist would not be discovering essential truths about the natural world when discovering that event B follows event A. If Hume is correct, rather than discovering essential truths about the natural world, the scientist is only discovering instrumental truths that are merely useful, pragmatic postulations about the natural world.

Kant’s critical system, especially the Critique of Pure Reason, is a rigorous examination of the features that make thought about a world possible. Kant’s focus in the Critique of Pure Reason is on what can be known and what cannot be known.[3] The Critique was the culminating work of philosophy during the Enlightenment period in history. Although Kant agreed with Hume that sensory experience is vitally important, as well as primary in temporal order of attaining knowledge, he did not concede that it was the only way for us to move forward in our cognitive capacities when continually attaining knowledge.[4] Moreover, Kant concedes the Humean position that causality is not a part of our experience of the world. Nor are other laws of logic that have been routinely abstracted off the world of experience by traditional philosophers preceding the Enlightenment. Although the laws of logic are not in the world, they exist nonetheless in our minds as the logical categories that make experience of a world like ours possible. Instead of receiving the data of the world onto our minds tabula rasa, the world conforms to the categories of the mind. Kant believed that science and reason itself had suffered a serious blow due to the critical analysis of Hume,[5] but he also believed he was able to rescue science from the skepticism of Hume’s radical empiricism.

Kant’s aim in the Critique of Pure Reason, was to combine the necessary components of rationalism and empiricism, as well as realism and idealism. For Kant, rationalism and empiricism were closed systems that were unable to tell us anything about the world. Rationalism was a closed system because it could not get us outside of ideas in the mind, and empiricism was a closed system because it could not get us outside of the impressions we received from sensory data.[6] According to Kant, in order to get us to a world that is meaningful there needed to be a compromise.

The first move Kant makes in his system of thought was not against rationalism and empiricism, rather, it was against the methods of doing philosophy during his time. The new method Kant introduces is what he calls a “Copernican Revolution” in philosophy. Kant says,

Up to now it has been assumed that all our cognition must conform to the objects; but all attempts to find out something about them a priori through concepts that would extend our cognition have, on this presupposition, come to nothing. Hence let us once try whether we do not get farther with the problems of metaphysics by assuming that the objects must conform to our cognition, which would agree better with the requested possibility of an a priori cognition of them, which is to establish something about objects before they are given to us. This would be just like the first thoughts of Copernicus, who, when he did not make good progress in the explanation of the celestial motions if he assumed that the entire celestial host revolves around the observer, tried to see if he might not have greater success if he made the observer revolve and left the stars at rest.[7]

Kant continues to explain that in metaphysics, if we regard our intuitions as conforming to extended objects then there is really no way of knowing anything about these objects a priori; but if the objects of our senses conform to the “constitution of our faculty of intuition” then knowledge of objects a priori is quite possible.[8] Instead of the mind playing a passive role in the cognitive process, Kant views the mind as being active. Our minds do not conform to the world external to us; rather, the external world conforms to the activities of the mind.

Kant’s “Copernican Revolution” leads him to claim that the world has structural features that have never been considered. The most important structural feature of the reality as Kant sees it, is the separation of the noumenal world and the phenomenal world.[9] The noumenal world contributes content to the phenomenal world, and the noumenal self contributes form, structure, concepts, and categories to the phenomenal world through the transcendental activities of our mind. Two of the critical transcendental activities of the mind are the Aesthetic and Analytic components. The Transcendental Aesthetic contributes space and time, while the Transcendental Analytic contributes the categories. The result of this is the phenomenal world, the world of experience, the world that awakens our senses, must conform to the structural requirements of the noumenal self. The noumenal self brings order to the chaotic contribution of the noumenal world, and without the noumenal self or the noumenal world there would be no phenomenal world. There must be both in order to make sense of anything. This is why Kant says, “Thoughts without content are empty, intuitions without concepts are blind.”[10]

The result of this analysis is that the phenomenal world is empirically real but transcendentally ideal, and it is because of these two fundamental features of the world that if we do not exist, the world does not exist either. Since the world exists for us we must be present in order to give it order, and if we are not there to put it together through the transcendental activities of the mind, then there is no world at all. It is from this initial discovery and analysis of synthetic a priori judgments, that Kant is able to come to these foundational conclusions about the nature and structure of the mind and reality.

If we move to the twentieth century, we find that Kant’s concerns with Humean empiricism become Mises’s concerns with logical positivism. Although Mises has great apprehensions with positivist philosophy, it seems his only concern was with regard to positivism’s influence in economics. He gives no indication that he is worried about positivism becoming wedded to physics or chemistry, but only the social sciences.

I am sympathetic to the concern of Mises with regard to the metaphysical and epistemological claims made by the positivists. Although sympathetic, I am perplexed with his adoption of Kantian philosophy to combat the empiricism of the positivists. Indeed, it is Hume and Kant that give us much of the philosophical literature of the Vienna Circle in the first place. The positivists were heavily influenced by Hume’s empiricism, as well as the conclusion of Kant that we can only acquire knowledge of the phenomenal realm of reality.[11] Although Kant believed in more than the phenomenal realm of experience, the positivists saw no reason to hang onto the mystical and unknowable noumenal realm important to Kant’s system.[12] In addition to this, contrary to popular conceptions of Kant maintaining his epistemological rationalism, some philosophers argue that Kant was actually an empiricist.[13]

This section is important for our investigation of the Misesian system because the moves that Kant makes against Hume’s radical empiricism are the same moves Mises makes against the logical positivists.

  1. Kant, Wittgenstein, and Positivism

I have just examined the relevance of the debate between Hume and Kant. Now I am going to examine the influence Kant had on Wittgenstein, and in turn, the influence Wittgenstein had on the logical positivists. This is an important consideration because it demonstrates that Mises utilizes the incorrect philosophical tools to argue against the positivists.

The Misesian use of Kantian philosophy is even more difficult to understand when we consider the Kantian influence on the naturalist and empiricist[14] philosophy of Ludwig Wittgenstein. In the Tractatus Wittgenstein is concerned with what can be said and cannot be said about reality, while Kant’s focus in the Critique of Pure Reason was on what can be known and what cannot be known.[15] Kant’s central question was: What are the conditions necessary in order to have thought about a world? Wittgenstein’s central question was: What are the necessary conditions in order to say something about a world? While Kant approached his task in terms of physics, Wittgenstein approached his task from the perspective of logic and linguistics.[16] Despite the Kantian component in Wittgenstein’s thought their conclusions differed with regard to their emphasis. Kant believed that physics and mathematics were true a priori, and Wittgenstein’s picture theory claims there are no pictures true a priori; physics pictures the world but is not true a priori and mathematics is true a priori but does not picture anything.[17]

In order to develop the picture theory of meaning, Wittgenstein begins by asserting things about the world. In sections 1 – 2.0121 he argues the world is all there is, and within the world there are facts. These facts are either the case or they are not the case, but given the structure of the world we can know there is a case to be known based on the existence of atomic facts. Wittgenstein begins with facts and not objects (or things), because objects stand in logical relation to one another. Objects can only be known within states of affairs depicted, and what is depicted is a fact. For example, “the computer is on the desk” is a picture of a state of affairs where “computer” and “desk” stand in relation to one another via “is on the.” Moreover, this proposition can also be falsified if it is the case the computer is not on the desk but underneath it. Another way to understand why Wittgenstein begins with facts and not objects (or things), is if all we had were a list of things in the world we wouldn’t know anything about them. We can only know something about the objects when examined in relation to one another.

In sections 2.0141 – 2.062, Wittgenstein continues building on his previous account of the world. When analyzing the atomic facts of the world a structure begins to reveal or show itself.[18] This structure can only be meaningful if we can break complex propositions down to more simple propositions revealing the atomic facts that are being spoken about. States of affairs analyze to a structured arrangement of simple objects, and these objects can combine in all sorts of ways. If we cannot get to the atomic facts following analysis of atomic propositions, then analysis would not end in simples. If our analysis failed to accomplish this, we could not determine the meaning of a proposition. On Wittgenstein’s view, analysis of propositions and their structure leads to simples, and because of this, we can either say that X is the case or X is not the case. After analysis, the proposition can be found to be either true or false.

The notion of simples is significant for the picture theory of meaning. For Wittgenstein, atomic propositions are connected to atomic facts. A proposition is a logical picture, and this picture depicts a state of affairs in the world. On Wittgenstein’s view, the shared structure of a state of affairs depicted, and the proposition must resolve into a structured arrangement of structured names and objects. For example, n – n – n is an atomic proposition that shares a logical structure with the atomic facts o – o – o. If the proposition, “the computer is on the desk” is true it is the case that n – n – n corresponds with the truth condition of o – o – o. If the proposition, “the computer is on the desk” were false, it would be the case that n – n – n does not correspond with o – o – o. Moreover, if the proposition, “the computer is on the desk” were false, it would need to be the case that its falsity is understood by the truth of other propositions such as, “the computer is on the chair” and “the phone is on the desk,” which are also analyzable in the form of n – n – n/o – o – o as their verifying truth conditions. This will proceed until we are able to offer a proposition that corresponds to a state of affairs, because a proposition must connect to the world.

This is important because Wittgenstein is trying to get us to the world, and unless atomic propositions get connected to atomic facts, then our propositions can only be understood by using other propositions. In this case, where propositions are only understood by other propositions, we are never able to get to a world and we find ourselves trapped in a kind of meaning skepticism. In this form of meaning skepticism, propositions acquire meaning based on agreement between agents, and not there shared structural correspondence to states of affairs – meaning is interpretation all the way down.

After giving us an account of the world, and determining that the world consists of facts, he moves us forward by defining what a picture is. In sections 2.1 – 2.1511 Wittgenstein explains that pictures of objects depict states of affairs. Pictures give us the ability to express atomic propositions that are connected with atomic facts, and they derive their sense in denoting simple objects in a structure that is shared with our thoughts, language, and reality.[19] In other words, a picture representing reality can be expressed through language, and since the proposition shares a structure with the picture we can know whether the picture is true or false. Sharing a structure requires a structured arrangement of names and objects, and on Wittgenstein’s view, a proposition must connect to the world via this shared structure. This is why Wittgenstein says, “For the totality of facts determines both what is the case, and also all that is not the case.”[20]

The essence of what Wittgenstein is saying about a picture as representation is similar to his predecessors, but he also differs from them in an important way. His predecessors believed they could say something meaningful about the structure of language that is representative of reality. Wittgenstein’s picture theory of meaning differs from this view because the picture being expressed by language cannot say anything about the structure of reality; it merely shows it.[21] What is being expressed in language is what the picture is showing and what the picture is showing are the atomic facts of reality that exist in a state of affairs.[22] Since this is the case, the picture, language, and reality all share a structure and you cannot get out from behind the structure to say something about it. In order to do so, you would have to use the structure you are attempting to say something about in the first place.

What can we conclude from this theory? Propositions proceed from pictures of reality and these pictures are models for reality as we think it is.[23] All pictures are of states of affairs, and these states of affairs can be expressed by atomic propositions, which in turn can be broken down into atomic facts. If we cannot succeed in breaking down a complex proposition into simples then we cannot know whether a proposition is true or false. Everything else that can be derived from reality can be found in language when understood in this way. Since, this is the case, we can now understand that whatever can be said about reality can be said clearly, and whereof one cannot speak we should pass over in silence.[24]

The in depth examination of Wittgenstein’s picture theory of meaning is significant for demonstrating that 20th century adaptation of Kantian philosophy is not the tool to be utilized if defeating positivism is your goal philosophically. It can be clearly seen that like Kant, Wittgenstein thinks there is a fixed form that brings order to the content contributed to the world. On Wittgenstein’s view, the world consists of objects in relation to one another. The objects alone do not get us to a world, but only objects in relation to each other in a structured arrangement give us a world. When the form of the logical structure is combined with the content contributed from the world there is a state of affairs that can be determined to be true or false. Since this is the case, Wittgenstein concludes the natural sciences alone provide propositions about the world that satisfy his picture theory of meaning. The way Wittgenstein speaks of the form of the logical structure combining with the content of the world, stylistically mirrors the Kantian combination of the noumenal and phenomenal world.

Needless to say, the members of the Vienna Circle were quite euphoric over the Tractatus. Indeed, the interpretation they gave to the Tractatus provided the foundation needed to advance their positivist system of thought.[25]

These historical considerations demonstrate that Mises utilizes the incorrect philosophical tools to combat what he considered to be a system of philosophy that is dangerous for the social sciences. Moreover, the positivists were largely anti-realist so Mises should have been able to recognize that an anti-realist foundation for economics will not result in a complete overthrow of positivist influence in the social sciences. By adopting Kantian philosophy for the praxeological foundation Mises desired he unwittingly undergirded the threat of positivism he looked to defeat – anti-realism begets anti-realism, and mechanistic metaphysics begets mechanistic metaphysics. Mises has trapped himself in the modernist philosophical circle that provided the very basis for the positivist movement in the social sciences.

 

– Lucas G. Westman


[1] “Among Hume’s contemporaries Kant was almost alone in recognizing the destructive force of this attack on reason. As is evident from What Is Enlightenment? Kant was deeply committed to the Enlightenment ideal. Hence he was deeply disturbed by Hume’s argument.” (Kant and the Nineteenth Century, Jones, Pg. 12, 13)

[2] Kant and the Nineteenth Century, Jones, Pg. 12

[3] The Twentieth Century to Quine and Derrida, Jones, Pg. 217

[4] Critique of Pure Reason, Kant, pg. 136

[5] Kant and 19th Century Philosophy, Jones, pg. 10

[6] Critique of Pure Reason, Kant, pg. 170

[7] Critique of Pure Reason, Kant, pg. 110

[8] Critique of Pure Reason, Kant, pg. 110

[9] “These notions indicate Kant’s grand division of reality into the sensible and intelligible realms. The former concerns the domain of experience, and in this way is a synthesis of representations in the temporal, spatial and conceptual world. This is the domain of proper knowledge. The noumenon (Ding an sich), on the other hand, does not exist in the empirical realm of the phenomenon, but serves in the First Critique as its intelligible ground. It is not capable of being known however, but can only be thought.” (Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, Luchte, pg. 25)

[10] Critique of Pure Reason, pg. 193, 194

[11] Indeed, the philosophy of Hume and Kant were deeply anti-metaphysical. Hume famously argued to cast metaphysical works into the fire and “Kant’s attack on ‘speculative metaphysics,’ which purports to assert necessary truths about ultimate reality, is even more devastating than Hume’s.” (The Twentieth Century to Quine and Derrida, Jones, Pg. 10) This is yet another way the positivists were similar to Human and Kant for they to were anti-metaphysical.

[12] For example, “Kant believed that the transcendental deduction not only validates physics but also makes a secure place for ethics and religion; he had, he believed, limited knowledge to make a place for faith. No such line of reasoning was available to Wittgenstein.” (The Twentieth Century to Quine and Derrida, Jones, Pg. 218)

[13] For instance, Laurence Bonjour argues, “Thus, in summary, Kant’s apparent insistence in the existence of synthetic a priori knowledge entirely evaporates, and his position turns out not to be a rationalist position to any serious degree at all. The Kantian view of a priori justification, if consistently elaborated, provides no basis for even a restricted sort of synthetic a priori knowledge that would apply only within the realm of appearances: the original proposition P turns out not to be knowledge of any kind and very possibly not even true, while the implicit substitute P* must turn out, assuming that the Kantian account of the supposed synthetic a priori is itself justified a priori, to be analytic a priori.

Of course this last claim is extremely implausible, raising the possibility that if Kant had ever faced clearly the problem of the epistemological status of his own philosophical claims, he might have retreated into a more traditional rationalism. As things stand, however, it is clear that Kant is not a rationalist, but, most strikingly, does not even regard rationalism as a significant option. Whereas Hume, the supposed paradigm of empiricism, at least feels some need to argue (though not in these terms) that pure reason cannot yield knowledge of an sich reality, Kant does not seem to entertain such a possibility even momentarily. On the contrary, it appears to be from him self-evident that we can have no a priori knowledge of independent reality except that which is analytic and hence ultimately trivial.

For this reason, a Kantian view, in my judgment, doe not constitute a significant further alternative with respect to the issue of a priori justification and accordingly need not be accorded any further consideration. In particular, such a view has no apparent resources beyond those of moderate empiricism for dealing with the general problem, discussed in 1.1 above, of how observation-transcending inference and reasoning generally are to be justified.” (In Defense of Pure Reason, Bonjour, Pg. 25, 26.)

[14] Wittgenstein’s naturalism is best exhibited in this propositions, “The right method of philosophy would be this. To say nothing except what can be said, i.e., the propositions of natural science, i.e., something that has nothing to do with philosophy: and then always, when someone else wished to say something metaphysical, to demonstrate to him that he had given no meaning to certain sings in his proposition. This method would be unsatisfying to the other – he would not have the feeling that we are teaching him philosophy – but it would be the only strictly correct method.” (Tractatus 6.53, Pg. 153) His empiricism, although not as explicitly stated, is exhibited in this proposition, “This is connected with the fact that no part of our experience is also a priori. Everything we see could also be otherwise. Everything we can describe at all could also be otherwise. There is no order of things a priori.” (Tractatus 5.634, Pg. 121) Moreover, on Wittgenstein’s view, “As regards the ‘laws of nature,’ Wittgenstein did not hold that they are not laws, but that they do not hold of nature. Or, more exactly, he held that we have and can have, no evidence that they hold of nature. We are justified in using them when and to the extent that they ‘work’ – that is, we re justified in using them when they enable us to make prediction from what has happened to what will happen; to this extent Wittgenstein was a pragmatist. But that they are useful now is not evidence that they will be useful in the future; nor is the idea that they may turn out to be useful in the future evidence that there is any necessity, or ‘compulsion,’ in things that makes them happen as they do happen.” (The Twentieth Century to Quine and Derrida, Jones, Pg. 230)

[15] The Twentieth Century to Quine and Derrida, Jones, Pg. 217

[16] The Twentieth Century to Quine and Derrida, Jones, Pg. 218

[17] The Twentieth Century to Quine and Derrida, Jones, Pg. 232

[18] Although Kant would not have used the language of “revealing” or “showing” these words utilized by Wittgenstein are Kantian. The a priori form of the picture is what is shown and we can know this because it is expressed in the proposition used to describe the state of affairs. Just as we can examine our language and discover the a priori structure of a proposition, Kant believed we could discover the a priori categories of the mind by introspection. The same can be said of Mises. Mises held that we can discover the categories of action and hence the categories necessary for economics through introspection.

[19] Tractatus 2.221 – 2.222, Pg. 19

[20] Tractatus 1.12

[21] Tractatus 2.172

[22] Tractatus 3.11 – 3.2

[23] Tractatus 4.01

[24] Tractatus 7

[25] The Twentieth Century to Quine and Derrida, Jones, Pg. 246

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Apologetics, Epistemology, Metaphysics, Philosophy, Traditionalism

The Cartesian Blunder

Daniel J. Sullivan on Proof of External Reality“The French philosopher Descartes, in an effort to make proof doubly sure, demanded that we prove the existence of things outside the mind. We might be dreaming, he said, when we think we know the world of physical things, and there is no sure way of knowing the difference between the waking state and the state of dreaming.

Modern philosophy has in general followed Descartes on this point, demanding that we start from inside our own mind and prove both the existence of the world and of other human beings. This position is called subjectivism because it is based on the consciousness of the thinking subject, making the object of knowledge a part of the thinking subject himself, his ideas, feelings and so forth, so that there is no objective, external test of truth.

Descartes, when he demanded proof for the existence of the outside world, started a false problem which gave rise in modern philosophy to innumerable errors: a false problem because the question is asked in such a way that no answer is possible, as though we were to say, ‘Prove that Julius Caesar was the third President of the United States.’ The fact of the existence of the outside world is not an abstract truth. It is not a necessary truth, for any number of possible worlds other than our own is conceivable. The existence of the world of bodies of which we are a part is no more necessary than my existence or yours. It could have not been, just as we might have not been. That it exists at all is something that we discover, not prove.

Let us take a further look at the point, for it is of crucial importance.

All the beings we know by direct experience, including ourselves, are contingent existences; that is, they need not have existed, and they can go out of existence. To know that they exist in fact is to experience that existence directly, here and now. To know that the wall is brown, for example, I have to sense it immediately. I cannot take it on faith. If I take your word for it, a painter may be changing its color to green while you are telling me that it is brown. Similarly it cannot be proved syllogistically. In the very act of sating the syllogism that leads to this conclusion, the color of the room could be changed. We do not invent, or create the existence which form the field of our knowledge. We discover these existences, and there is no possible way of knowing what has, in fact, been given existence other than to discover it (many other kinds of existences than the ones we know could have been brought into being.)

For the philosopher to ask proof of the actual existence of contingent things, including his own existence, is to betray the evidence of the fundamental intuition of his senses and intellect. It is to ask proof for what does not need proof, for what indeed cannot be proved, since it is prior to proof and is implied in all demonstration.”

– Daniel J. Sullivan, An Introduction to Philosophy – 

– Lucas G. Westman

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Apologetics, Metaphysics, Philosophy

Metaphysics Always Buries Its Undertakers

Metaphysics The Fundamentals“Recent experience has also dashed hopes that one of the special sciences, such as physics or biology, could supplant metaphysics. Contemporary scientific theory raises far more metaphysical questions than it answers. For example, there are many questions about the fundamental nature of space and time that contemporary physics renders meaningful without being able to answer them. Is space or spacetime a real thing, in addition to the things that are spatially located? Are regions of space composed of dimensionless points? What gives time its direction (from earlier to later)?

The inevitability of metaphysics is demonstrated by the fact that even the would-be critics of metaphysics rely on tacit metaphysical assumptions. For example, Hume’s claim that all knowledge is either logical or sensory in nature presupposes that there is a relation of knowledge or acquaintance, which holds only between the mind and the sensations and ideas that it ‘contains.’ These presuppositions raise unavoidable metaphysical questions: what sort of things are these ideas, and how does the mind ‘contain’ them?

Consider also the post-Kantian or post-modern thinkers who insist that all of reality is a construction of one’s social community. Such a theory presupposes that communities or social practices exist and are able to construct theories or models of the world. In the end, these apparently anti-metaphysical schools of thought are nothing but alternative ways of doing metaphysics. The only way to avoid metaphysics is to avoid thinking.”

– Robert C. Koons & Timothy Pickavance, Metaphysics: The Fundamentals

– Lucas G. Westman

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Culture, Metaphysics, Philosophy, Traditionalism, Wolfgang Smith

Wolfgang Smith on Myth & Anti-Myth

Science and Myth“The tenacity and fervor with which the presiding paradigms of science are defended even in the face of plainly hostile data suggest that, here too, an element of ideology may be at play. Science is not in reality the purely rational and ‘disinterested’ enterprise it pretends to be; it is after all the work, not of computers, but of men. There is reason to believe that the paradigms of science are more in fact than cold, sober conjectures, mere hypotheses to be discarded in the face of contrary evidence. It appears that the top paradigms, at least, are weightier by far than that. In addition to their formal or ‘operational’ connotation, one finds that these paradigms carry a wider sense, a ‘cultural’ meaning, one can say; and it is mainly this broader connotation, which actually eludes scientific definition, that mainly communicates itself to the public at large, which in fact is incapable of comprehending its strictly ‘scientific’ use.

Now, it is this circumstance that in a way justifies our claim that science entails an element of ‘myth.’ I say ‘in a way,’ because it happens that traditional or authentic myth is something far greater, something that categorically exceeds the ‘mythical’ dimension of scientific paradigms. Let us say, then, that there are different kinds of myth, ranging all the way from the sacred to the profane, from the sublime to the trivial or absurd. We need, moreover, to understand that man does not live by ‘facts,’ or by ‘fact’ alone, but preeminently by ‘myth’”: this is indeed, culturally speaking, his daily ‘bread.’ What, above all, differentiates one man from another – again, from a ‘cultural’ point of view – is the presiding myth that directs, motivates, and informs his life. I contend that the stature and dignity of a person depend primarily on the myth he has made his own; in a way we become what we believe. And I would add: no more telling reason has ever been proposed for treading cautiously!

To comprehend the nature and function of ‘myth,’ we need, first of all, to get over the idea that myth has to do with what is imaginary or unreal, a notion which came into vogue in the course of what historians call the Enlightenment, when men thought that science had at last delivered us from the childish dreams of a primitive age. In this optic, myth was perceived simply as the antithesis of fact: at most a pleasurable or consoling fiction. One might go so far as to admit that such fictions may be indispensable: that our life would be intolerably drab and void of hope without some kind of mythical embellishment; but when it comes to the question of truth, it is to Science that we must look.

Such then was the prevailing view of myth during the age of modernism; but that phase, as one knows, is presently nearing its end, both philosophically and culturally. The new outlook, generally termed postmodernist, breaks with the old: the deconstructionist zeal, which in days gone by was directed mainly against established religious, cultural, and political norms – against everything, one could say, that smacked of tradition – has now been turned against the scientific enlightenment as well. There is logic in this, and a certain justice too; but yet it needs to be understood that the effects of the Enlightenment or modernity upon our Weltanschauung – and in particular, on our ability to perceive what science is actually about – have not been thereby canceled or ameliorated. Readers of Ananda Coomaraswamy will comprehend very clearly how much we have lost: that despite the material advantages of modern life, we have become woefully impoverished. In fact, we have arrived at the point of losing what is truly ‘the one thing needful.’ Cut off – as never before – from the source of our being, we have all but forgotten that life has meaning: a goal and a possibility which is not ephemeral; but needless to say, neither modern science nor its postmodernist critics can enlighten us in that regard. For this one requires authentic myth: the kind that belongs inextricably to sacred tradition as the paramount expression of its truth. Such myth, says Ananda Coomaraswamy, ‘embodies the nearest approach to absolute truth that can be stated in words’: a far cry indeed from the prevailing conception of myth as ‘the fictitious’!

Myth alone, however – no matter how exalted it may be – will not save, liberate, or enlighten us. Traditionally speaking, the illuminating myth must be received under appropriate auspices, which include conditions upon the recipient or disciple, the chief of which is sraddha, faith: there can be no spirituality, no true enlightenment, without faith.

Now, at this point, I say, that modern science touches upon the spiritual domain: it enters the picture, I contend, not as an ally to true religion, but perforce as an impediment to faith, and therefore as a spoiler, an antagonist. It is a case of opposing myths, of mythologies that clash: or better said, of myth and anti-myth.

Let us try to understand this clearly. We must not be put off by the simplistic look of traditional myth, its typically crude literal sense, remembering that such myth speaks, not to the analytic mind, but to the intuitive intellect, sometimes termed ‘the eye of the heart,’ a faculty which, alas, modern civilization has been at pains to stifle. Now, it is precisely on this level of understanding – the level of the authentic Intellect – that myth does in fact constitute ‘the nearest approach to absolute truth.’ What we have termed the ‘myths’ of science – namely, its paradigms, be they true or false – on the other hand, deliver such content as they have primarily to the rational mind; there is no mystery here, no reference to higher realms of truth. Quite to the contrary: these so-called myths offer a substitute, a ‘quasi-myth’ here below, a kind of idol of the mind, which impedes our spiritual vision. As a tool of science – as a paradigm in the strict sense – they have of course a legitimate use: think, for instance, of the now discredited Newtonian paradigm. The trouble with paradigms, however, is that they tend to become absolutized, that is to say, dissociated from the scientific process; and this is where the idolatry sets in. One transitions surreptitiously from the hypothetical to the certain, from the relative to the absolute, and thus from a science to a metaphysics. But not to an authentic metaphysics! True to its origin, that ‘relative rendered absolute’ remains unfounded and illegitimate, a pseudo-metaphysics one can say. It needs to be understood that a paradigm of science absolutized turns forthwith into an anti-myth.”

Wolfgang Smith, Science and Myth

– Lucas G. Westman


*Science & Myth, Pg. 17 – 19

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