Jacques Maritain Center: Thomistic Institute

Summer Thomistic Institute 1998

Ralph McInerny
Opening Remarks
Saturday July 18 7:30 pm

The Secularization of Science

In welcoming you back for a continuation of our sessions of a summer ago I am tempted simply to use again what I said last year. It was sufficiently forgettable that I could get away with it, but since it may be still on the website, you could discover my ruse and think that I am not taking my obligations as host seriously enough, so here are some thoughts to add to those of last summer. These thoughts are prompted, let me add, by something Peter Hodgson said to me a year ago, to the effect that our meeting was the first in his professional career where the participants both shared the faith and referred to it unabashedly as relevant to the proceedings. It is worth wondering why that is so rare and, more importantly, why we have perhaps been tacitly colluding with this privatization of religious faith.

Those of you who teach in Catholic institutions will not need me to tell you that the silence is at least as deafening there as it is in secular institutions. There is an anxiety to acquire academic respectability by acting as if the religious faith on which such an institution as this was founded has become irrelevant to the serious academic work going on here. Any mention of the possible relevance of the faith to what is taught is regarded as an unacceptable intrusion of alien forces, an assault on academic freedom. How odd of God to intrude on minds he has made from nothing.

A few years ago, at a meeting of a university-wide discussion group concerned about the Catholic character of Notre Dame, a colleague of mine gave a talk in which he began by citing a dozen or so printed remarks by scientists the net effect of which was that evolution completely exploded any suggestion that the world had been created. These remarks had appeared in popular publications. My colleague wondered what our scientists made of the claim that scientific research presupposes that religion is false. The reaction was instructive. No one, if memory serves, addressed the published remarks. There was a sense of terror in the room. What would people say if they knew that such questions were being raised at Notre Dame? That scientists who say their prayers and go to Mass on Sunday should take umbrage at the claim of colleagues that science disproved the faith seemed obvious. But they didn't. They accepted the agnostic or atheistic ground rules for the game they were playing. They were fearful not to. Not to do so would be to run the risk of ostracism.

It was a dramatic moment. My point, however, is not j'accuse. But perhaps we have all done the same. Perhaps Nicodemus is our patron too.


Over the past several years, I have been preparing the Gifford Lectures that I will begin to give in Glasgow as year from next October. This invitation is extended five years in advance of the date of the lectures, a fact that induces some trepidation since clearly with that much lag time one is expected to come up with ten lectures of some significance. Coming as these lectures do in the twilight of my career, they provide an occasion for retrospection as well as a chance to wonder what the future of the sort of thing one has devoted one's life will have. And that is what lies behind these Thomistic Institutes as well. They are meant to bring together people whose work will decide whatever the future of Catholic philosophy will be, what the future of Thomism will be.

Now in the course of preparing the Gifford Lectures, I have found it useful to pursue certain tangents which represent remote or proximate background for the lectures themselves. A monograph called Thomism as Philosophy is one result of this. The general title of my lectures is Preambles of Faith: in keeping with the original purpose of these lectures, I intend to discuss natural theology. That a Thomist should discuss natural theology may seem as obvious as can be, and so I would agree it should be. But things turn out not to be so simple. If natural theology is meant to cover such knowledge of God as we can acquired by natural reason, without the aid of faith and revelation, it has this characteristic precisely because it is a part of philosophy, indeed it is the culminating philosophical effort. The wisdom of which philosophy is the quest consists in knowledge of the divine.

Philosophical discourse generally can be defined as discourse which is grounded in principles naturally known to all. The principles of philosophy are what everyone already knows, they are in the public domain, knowable simply because of the natural cognitive equipment of the human person. Theology. on the other hand, is discourse whose principles are truths that have been revealed and are accepted as true on the basis of divine faith. Not everyone has the faith; not everyone accepts as true the principles of theological discourse. One is not equipped to do theology simply in virtue of the standard cognitive equipment of a human being. In the light of these definitions, it seems an easy matter to decide whether an argument is a philosophical or a theological one. Does it or does it not depend intrinsically on the revealed mysteries of faith? If it does, it is a theological argument.

This distinction was made with great clarity by Thomas Aquinas. Nonetheless, as we know, it was for a long time fashionable to hold that no philosophy had taken place from the end of antiquity until Descartes. During these ages of faith, whatever thinking went on, went on within the ambience of faith. Call such thinking theology, then, but do not speak of medieval philosophy.

We know that there is much more than a rigorous application of the distinction between philosophy and theology involved in this. Implicit in it is the view that real prescinds from the faith of the philosopher, if he has in, and must go on as if revelation never took place. Now as it happens, there was a thirteenth century controversy which foreshadows this secularization of philosophy.

Certain bumptious young masters in the Faculty of Arts at Paris became enamored of the Aristotle that was now available in Latin translation. Aristotle arrived in the West convoyed by the interpretations of Averroes and Avicenna and others. The young masters came to be called Latin Averroists because in reading Aristotle they took their cue from Averroes. These masters were of course Catholic; they professed the faith. But they sought to make the faith operationally irrelevant while they were doing philosophy. They notoriously taught as philosophical truths things in conflict with the faith, either directly or by implication. These were truths they found, with Averroes' help, in Aristotle. Hence the lists that were drawn up of The Errors of Aristotle.

What were these errors? The three most important were:

1. The world never had a beginning in time.

2. God does not know the world, but only himself.

3. The individual human soul is not immortal.

If Genesis is true, 1 is false. If God's eye is on the sparrow and knows the number of hairs on our head, 2 is false. If each of us will be accountable in the next world for what we do in this, 3 is false.

In this way, one can swiftly decide that these claims are errors and false. What is the rule? Whatever is in conflict with revealed truth is false. Far from being obscurantism, this is sweet reason itself. P. v. -P. If p, then not not p. This mode of reasoning is decisive for one who accepts Christianity as true. It would not, of course, be decisive for the non-believer.

Nor is it the only possible response of the believer. If the claim is false, then whatever arguments are presented on its behalf should be defective in some way. If the believer goes on to show this, then he has provided two arguments against the claim - one that is decisive for believers alone, another that is decisive for anyone.

Of course there is a textual, historical consideration, and one which characterized Thomas Aquinas's reaction to the spectacle of Christians publicly embracing as true what is incompatible with their faith. The truths they embraced were taken to be philosophical and they were taken to be teachings of Aristotle. Did Aristotle in fact teach these errors?

Did Aristotle hold that the individual soul is mortal and only a separate intellect immortal? This is a textual matter. Thomas, in a famous work, De unitate intellectus contra averroistas, argued that it is a misreading of Aristotle to ascribe this teaching to him.

So too he dismissed as a misreading of Metaphysics 12, where God is described as thought thinking itself, the conclusion that therefore God did not know his effects.

As for the eternity of the world - there is no doubt that Aristotle taught this. On this matter, Thomas wrote De aeternitate mundi contra murmurantes. His argument is complicated. He holds that the eternity of the world is philosophical undecidable, which would make any argument for or against it at best probable. But his subtlest argument has it that Aristotle is right in saying that the world did not come to be - as the result of a change. His reason is that change presupposes a subject, so there would have to be something antecedent to any such change, therefore the totality of things could not come about as the result of a change. But this does not preclude that the world came about by creation. Moreover, he holds that Aristotle's eternal world is a created one.

The Latin Averroist controversy is worth reflecting on, I think, in order to get a conception of Christian philosophy. In his famous Gifford lectures, The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy, Etienne Gilson responds to those who claimed no philosophy went on in the Middle Ages just because it went on in the atmosphere of religious faith. Just as a matter of history, he argues, a number of important philosophical truths were discovered in the Middle Ages, under the impulse and influence of the faith, which might not otherwise have been discovered. The dogma of the Trinity as well as that of the Incarnation, demands a clarity about nature and person. When this clarity was attained, it obviously had great usefulness in a theological discussion of these dogmas. But the clarity could stand by itself as a philosophical achievement. And Gilson multiplied such instances. Historically taken, there is simply no denying that there was such a thing as Christian philosophy, that is, the acquisition of philosophical truths under the impulse and inspiration of the faith.

John of St. Thomas's injunction, beloved of Jacques Maritain, philosophandum in fide, is susceptible of many interpretations. The secular mind reacts to it predictably. To wit: The great achievement of modern philosophy is to set religious faith aside, to begin at the beginning, to proceed with methodological rigor and accept no wine before its time. To do this, the mind must be swept clear of all presuppositions. Methodic doubt is a tool for accomplishing this. Whatever may clutter up our mind as we begin is under suspicion; it must be frisked and interrogated and credentialed only if it is impossible to doubt it.

Now whatever the case with Descartes himself - Gilson has pointed out the lingering Scholasticism in Descartes and Maritain, in The Dream of Descartes, has dwelt on the mystical beginnings of Cartesianism. Like Pascal wrote out a Memorial which he still had with him when he died in Stockholm. How many secular philosophers know that the Father of Modern Philosophy gave thanks to Our Lady of Loreto for the inspiration he had received in a series of dreams?

Nonetheless, there has grown up the idea that philosophy must begin with an empty mind, without presuppositions. By contrast, the believer is riddled with presuppositions which, in the manner illustrated by my remarks about the response to Latin Averroism, guide his thinking.

Of course it is a delusion to think that any thinker is without presuppositions - the very belief that one should begin without presuppositions is something the neophyte accepts from his mentor. It is not a natural stance to think that one's thinking is radically flawed.

One response to the secular thinker's response to Christian philosophy is, accordingly, a tu quoque. My colleague Al Plantinga has spent time formulating the unconscious presuppositions of the anti-Christian philosopher. Often they amount to a form of Naturalism, pretty much the presuppositions of those scientists in predicting the ultimate outcome of scientific investigation. Everything is physical; the laws of physics cover everything and what they do not cover is nothing.

It will of course seem a Pyrrhic victory to achieve agreement to the proposition that all thinking comes out of presuppositions, that there is an existential prius for everyone's thinking, and never more so than when the thinker imagines that he is a bodiless mind about to generate its first thought. This is unattractive because it suggests a relativism. You think in such and such a way because of your presuppositions and I think in such and such a way because of my presuppositions. All thought seemingly becomes ideology, that is, the conceptualization of antecedent commitments.

In the case of the influence of faith, the suggestion seems to be that every argument ultimately smuggles in and is dependent upon revelation. But this makes every argument a theological argument. The Thomist, however, is committed to the view that there are two kinds of argument, philosophical as well as theological. But if his arguments are made under the impulse and influence of the faith, how do they escape being theological?

Since it is certainly not desirable that one should put his religious faith in escrow while he pursues knowledge of the world, we can expect that his faith will be prominent in his own mind at least, and perhaps publicly as well.

But if his faith is influential in the way the believer pursues knowledge, so are the antecedent beliefs of the non-believer.

E.g. in cognitive science there are those whose research projects begin with the assumption that thought is merely a physical event which can be explained accordingly...this is an antecedent, apriori assumption, but it guides research and perhaps creates the impression that while the research has not borne it out, it will because, well, because thinking is a physical event

A believer is inclined to treat cognition as something more than physical...this has its dangers: introspection, a leap to the immaterial...but someone like Thomas accepted Aristotle's view that it was very difficult to establish the existence of the immaterial....the De anima is a tribute to that caution...

In any case, the two research projects begin from quite different and conflicting presuppositions. Does this relativize results, such that whatever is said can be parsed back into the presuppositions?

The only way to escape this is to maintain that there are common criteria for an argument's being cogent and valid...Alasdair McIntyre has drawn attention to how difficult it is for people in different "traditions' to communicate...from the point of view of Tradition A, which is said from the point of view of Tradition B seems ludicrous, and vice versa...McIntyre has some interesting things to say...among them that a tradition has to have within it the resources to deal with conflicts that arise out of its presuppositions..

So one might be able, from the viewpoint of Tradition A, argue that something proposed from the viewpoint of Tradition A, violates the presuppositions of Tradition A...

Left at that, this would amount simply to the fact that something maintained is incompatible with both Tradition A and Tradition B...but perhaps there is Tradition C...

What McIntyre is after is common principles, principles deeper than anything that could divide Traditions. There is what we think and we think it because of the way things are. Whatever the background out of which we argue there are common criteria for an argument's being sound and cogent that both believer and non-believer must meet.

We cannot hurry over the melancholy fact that people view their antecedent assumptions as self-evident and are likely to think that anyone who questions them is being irrational. The materialist cannot help smiling when others admit that they hope to prove the immateriality of intellection, the immateriality of the soul and the existence of God. He will find it difficult to take seriously any arguments proposed to prove these things. Disagreements often have their roots in these antecedent convictions and make it difficult for us to take seriously arguments whose conclusions would conflict with them. The response on the side of the believer to this in the Naturalist is not to say, "Let's talk about spiritual entities." Rather it is: "Let's talk about material things." Whether or not material things are all there is, it is with them that we must begin. It is on the basis of our knowledge of them that claims to their being non-material or immaterial events or things must rest.

If this were developed and it were shown that it is indeed the case that all human thinkers begin the formal pursuit of truth against a lived background that bends them one way of the other, the result would not simply be to equate the believer and the non-believer. It must also be recognized that the faith gives us an enormous advantage over the non-believer. The non-believer's antecedent convictions will involve a good dose of human faith: he trusts the community in which he has been raised, his mind is shaped by the contours of the language he speaks. However subjectively confident he may be about all this, his certainty will not surpass the causes of it.

It is because faith is certain, more certain with the certitude of adherence than the clearest knowledge, that a thinking that moves out from the Catholic faith carries with it the confidence that the research projects suggested by the faith are not merely contingent. The believer's confidence that his existence will never cease is not grounded on a philosophical argument, but when he goes in search of an argument for immortality he is on infinitely surer ground than the materialist who seeks to prove the opposite.

The ambience of the faith is thus of incalculable importance for the confidence with which we do philosophy. The believer is not tempted by nihilism, by skepticism, my moral relativism - by any of the trendy negations of our time. He has no doubt in the world that these things are false. If they were true, his faith would be false. When the believer sets out of undermine nihilism, skepticism, moral relativism, he has no doubt that he has advancing against errors.

This confidence and this certainty do not of course provide him with sound and cogent arguments. Such arguments are not the work of a summer day but require strenuous effort. But throughout that effort, the believing philosopher is certain where the truth of the matter lies. It is here that we must locate the animosity the non-believing philosopher feels for the believing philosopher. The former has nothing to match in solidity the faith of the latter.

Even if he allows that he too has antecedent beliefs, he will say that while he is in principle willing to alter those beliefs if telling arguments against them are made, the believer is not similarly open to refutation.

The response to this is yes and no. The believer can of course reply that if there ever should be telling arguments against the faith, if the contradictory opposite of a key belief were shown to be true, this would indeed tell against his faith. In some sense, he is ready to listen to any such claims. But the non-believer is right in discerning in this willingness an unshakable conviction that no such arguments will be forthcoming. Is this obscurantism. It is anything but. If the faith is true, what is contradictory to it is false. But the faith is true, ergo etc. It would be worse than obscurantist, it would be irrational, for the believer to imagine that a truth he holds on the guarantee of the divine veracity could possibly be shown to be false. But if it were, on the basis of p or -p, faith would be refuted.

For these and other reasons, Catholics must develop keen gratitude for the faith. They should see it as a tremendous help, not an impediment, to the pursuit of knowledge. They must refuse the suggestion that the faith must be completely set aside when the truth is being pursued. To do this would be to abandon an incomparable help to our pursuit of truth. While not apostasy, to acquiesce to this Naturalist demands tends to weaken the faith. It pushes us in the direction of Fideism - which is a species of Latin Averroism.

Nonetheless, while putting one's cards on the table, care must be taken in describing what one is doing and precisely the nature and extend of faith's help in the pursuit of the truth by the use of our natural powers. It is here that I have come to regret some Gilson ian remarks. Having made magisterially the point already mentioned in his The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy, namely that it is a simple historical fact that many philosophical truths were found in the ages of faith under the impulse of the faith. Gilson went further. Not only, he said, were these truths discovered by theologians in the course of doing theology, it is a mistake to try to separate them from their theological setting.

This seems to suggest, and sometimes Gilson seems almost to say as much, that these truths are intrinsically dependent on the theological context. But the theological context is one where arguments depend upon the revealed truths. Ironically, Gilson, having played such an important role in getting people to see that philosophy in quantity and variety was done in the Middle Ages and not simply theology, ended by suggesting that medieval thought was finally all theological.

One of the reasons the Church speaks out about philosophy is that the supernatural depends in various ways on the natural. It is a matter of revelation that human beings can, from the things that are made, come to knowledge of the invisible things of God. Let anyone who says differently be anathema, says Vatican I. Philosophy is the lingua franca between believer and unbeliever. It provides the means of responding to attacks on the faith.

In some quarters at least our contemporaries call into question the very capacity of the human mind to achieve truth about the world and ourselves. There is a fashionable nihilism and skepticism abroad. There is the widespread notion that moral judgments are mere expressions of subjective feeling. In this setting, in our times, it sometimes seems that the Church is not only the defender of the faith, She is almost the sole defender of reason, both practical and theoretical. Her defense proceeds out of the confidence of the faith. It is that faith that enables the Church to be a beacon in this darkness.

So too the faith should function in our professional work. John of St. Thomas was exactly right: Philosophandum in fide. We should do our philosophizing in the ambience of the faith.