The New Albigensianism, PART I: From Scotus to S.C.O.T.U.S.

For the most part, religious errors are reducible to four basic ideas.

  1. Jesus is not by nature both fully God and fully human (Arianism, Eutychianism, Monothelitism, Agnoetism, Mormonism, etc.)
  2. There are not three Persons in One God (Modalism, Unitariansim, Subordinationism, Partialism, etc.)
  3. Sanctifying grace is not a free and universally available gift absolutely necessary for salvation (Pelagianism, Semi-Pelagianism, Baianism, Jansenism, Calvinism, etc.)
  4. Matter is not essentially harmoniously ordered with spirit (Manichaeism, Buddhism, Albigensianism, etc.)

While the first three ideas are certainly prevalent in our own day, the correct doctrines are only available through the grace of faith. The falsehood of the fourth, however, is evident from a rigorous use of natural reason alone. Therefore, it is more blameworthy to succumb to that error.

We are seeing today the resurgence of the fourth error in four ways: the sexual revolution, radical feminism, the culture of death, and most recently, gender theory.

The three forms mentioned in the first list (Manichaeism, Buddhism, and Albigensianism) more or less say that matter is evil and needs to be done away with. The Manichees thought that matter was created by an evil god, the Buddhists think that matter is only a distraction, and the Albigensians (or “Cathars”) became so enamored with the thought of the spirit escaping its fleshy prison that suicide became a virtue… But we will talk all about the Cathars later, and we will find some striking similarities between this medieval rigorist dualism and some of the most recent value developments in the Western world.

The current manifestations of the fourth error do not quite say “matter is evil,” but they instead say that the determination of human matter (the body) is irrelevant to the good of the spirit, and/or that the spirit is one’s “true self” which can be served by the body according to one’s whims. Some proponents may claim they don’t believe in spirit, that is, immaterial reality (in this case, the “soul,” or formal principle of life), but when they speak of someone being “a woman trapped in a man’s body,” or something similar, they betray their real thoughts. Still, even if a person insists on denying the reality of spirit, it remains the spirit within him who denies it. There can be no “self-determination” without a self to determine, and if the body simply is the self, then how can there be real determination? There could then only be physical events without any meaning. This, of course, is contradicted by the very existence of “experience.” It is not merely a body which acts, but a person who experiences.

The error in its current expressions can be traced to Descartes, whose laudable project of attaining perfect certainty about the world was, ultimately, a disastrous failure. After shedding all opinions about which he did not have absolute certainty, he was left only with one meaningful truth: cogito, ergo sum. “I think, therefore I am.” No person could both think and not exist.

This was not new, as St. Augustine had come to a similar realization over 1,000 years earlier. The difference was the context and emphasis of the thought; to Augustine, it was an interesting idea coming out of nowhere and going nowhere. To Descartes, it was the foundation of every knowable proposition, and it led to the idea that human beings are essentially thinking (spiritual) beings rather than a body-soul composite… Think “soul trapped in body.”

This came after the ruins of the scholastic project. With the combination of the fixation on choice and freedom in Scotus’ work and Abelard’s troubling take on the problem of universals (how to account for similarities between different things), the stage for Ockham’s Nominalism was set. (See Gilson’s detailed description in his wonderful book, The Unity of Philosophical Experience.) It was Ockham who hammered in the last nail of St. Thomas’ coffin and who paved the way for the “cogito” to be intensely meaningful not only to Descartes, but to the entire Western academy. Nominalism’s dissociation of “things” from any real universal natures which would make those things intelligible as members of species was the first step towards overthrowing classical metaphysics. This “suspicion of being” understandably increased exponentially with the publication of Descartes’ Discourse on the Method, as it cast a serious doubt on the reliability of the senses themselves, doubt that many felt was unable to be overcome, despite a sincere effort to do so on the part of Descartes himself.

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Descartes: The Movie

The anxiety finally culminated in Kant’s “nervous breakdown”: a total rejection of metaphysics in the denial of the possibility of knowing “the-thing-in-itself” (noumena). From there, much of the academy generally either desperately tried to do without a robust metaphysics or desperately tried to pick up the pieces, and this theme continues today in the strange and fractured world of contemporary philosophy.

Ideas have consequences. As McIntyre shows so well in his book After Virtue in the case of “emotivism” (the position that ethical statements merely express one’s emotional preference for an action) a powerful idea that spreads like wildfire among the right academic circles can eventually stretch into the average home, even if subconsciously. A very well educated person may never have heard of G. E. Moore, but everyone from the wealthy intellectual to the homeless drunkard has encountered some shade of the emotivism Moore’s work gave rise to. The influence which both Descartes and Kant had on the academic scene in their respective eras was so vast and powerful, that it is not unfair to say that Western philosophy after the 17th century was in response to Descartes, and that Western philosophy today is in response to Kant.

The reaction to Descartes’ rationalism was first empiricism, then idealism. The reactions to Kant’s special fusion of rationalism and empiricism (that started “transcendental idealism”) which here concerns us were logical positivism and French existentialism.

Logical positivism is basically dead in academia, although the average militant atheist has taken a cheapened form of Ayer’s positivism to bash over the head of theists, and the general inertia of positivism remains in force in a vaguer “scientism” which hangs heavy in the air.

Existentialism, on the other hand, has become a powerful force in the formation of civil law. The following lengthy quotation is from Justice Anthony Kennedy’s majority opinion given in Planned Parenthood v. Casey (my emphases):

“Our law affords constitutional protection to personal decisions relating to marriage, procreation, contraception, family relationships, child rearing, and education. Carey v. Population Services International, 431 U.S., at 685 . Our cases recognize the right of the individual, married or single, to be free from unwarranted governmental intrusion into matters so fundamentally affecting a person as the decision whether to bear or beget a child. Eisenstadt v. Baird, supra, 405 U.S., at 453 (emphasis in original). Our precedents “have respected the private realm of family life which the state cannot enter.” Prince v. Massachusetts, 321 U.S. 158, 166 (1944). These matters, involving the most intimate and personal choices a person may make in a lifetime, choices central to personal dignity and autonomy, are central to the liberty protected by the Fourteenth Amendment. At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life. Beliefs about these matters could not define the attributes of personhood were they formed under compulsion of the State.

“These considerations begin our analysis of the woman’s interest in terminating her pregnancy, but cannot end it, for this reason: though the abortion decision may originate within the zone of conscience and belief, it is more than a philosophic exercise. Abortion is a unique act. It is an act fraught with consequences for others: for the woman who must live with the implications of her decision; for the persons who perform and assist in the procedure; for the spouse, family, and society which must confront the knowledge that these procedures exist, procedures some deem nothing short of an act of violence against innocent human life; and, depending on one’s beliefs, for the life or potential life that is aborted. Though abortion is conduct, it does not follow that the State is entitled to proscribe it in all instances. That is because the liberty of the woman is at stake in a sense unique to the human condition, and so, unique to the law. The mother who carries a child to full term is subject to anxieties, to physical constraints, to pain that only she must bear. That these sacrifices have from the beginning of the human race been endured by woman with a pride that ennobles her in the eyes of others and gives to the infant a bond of love cannot alone be grounds for the State to insist she make the sacrifice. Her suffering is too intimate and personal for the State to insist, without more, upon its own vision of the woman’s role, however dominant that vision has been in the course of our history and our culture. The destiny of the woman must be shaped to a large extent on her own conception of her spiritual imperatives and her place in society.

No doubt, a critical reader will observe some tragic oddities in this passage. We will table an in-depth analysis, but I do want to point out the bizarre idea that our beliefs can determine reality. One might be tempted to call this “relativism,” and there is indeed some relativism in the passage (the evaluation of the fact of whether a life or potential life is taken in abortion “depending on one’s beliefs”). Without denying this, I also assert that beyond a casual relativism, which might be more a product of a lack of reflection than a real worldview, Kennedy is a deeply committed existentialist. (Indeed, it seems that existentialism naturally disposes a person to relativism.) The thought that one’s beliefs define one’s personhood comes almost directly from Jean-Paul Sartre. The doctrine is: existence precedes essence. Essence is determined by beliefs and actions, according to the existentialist. Such an affront to traditional metaphysics would have been impossible without the aforementioned ideological lineage – Scotus, Abelard, Ockham, Descartes, Kant… Seeing Justice Kennedy through the existentialist lens also helps to account for the striking absence of respect for a human being who can’t believe or meaningfully act. After all, how can such a thing really be a person?

Today’s common philosophy of the Western liberal elite (and their spoiled millennial offspring) seems to be a chimera of these two diametrically opposed worldviews: positivism and existentialism. These ideologies have been filtered into the average home, and watered down in the process in such a way that they can appear to fit together. In this series of articles, we will thematically wind through a maze of philosophy, science, hashtag activism, and moral theology to understand the present crisis and to propose possible remedies for it.

After now having given a brief sketch of the ideological history, we begin next time with a look at the positivist roots of the so-called “New Atheism” and how an undue reverence for science has contributed to what I have termed the “New Albigensianism.”

Stay tuned…

 

Post by: Eamonn Clark

Main image: Carcassonne, France… one of the old Albigensian strongholds.

Main image source: http://en.destinationsuddefrance.com/Discover/Must-See/Carcassonne

Logical Positivism & the New Atheists

The 21st century has very few well-known intellectual movements to its name thus far. In fact, perhaps the only one that the average American (or Brit) would even be vaguely aware of is the “New Atheism.” Characterized by evangelical unbelief – that is, the spreading of anti-religious/theistic sentiments in an attempt to destroy all belief in God – and an unwavering belief in the monopoly of empirical science on knowledge, the New Atheism is not particularly friendly toward some of the most predominant thoughts arising out of Western philosophy, especially the existence of God. Despite its relative popularity, the New Atheism comes on the heels of the utterly failed school of logical positivism, and it is not to be mistaken for a serious philosophical movement.

Before examining the New Atheism (which is really not all that new), it will be helpful to reflect on the school of thought which helped give rise to it: logical positivism. Two of the largest figures in what is perhaps the only school of thought ever to become truly extinct in university departments of philosophy were Bertrand Russell and A. J. Ayer. After being exposed to the New Atheism for just a short while, one will quickly come to realize that Russell is something of a hero of the movement. However, since Ayer wrote the book on logical positivism that Russell said he had wished he’d written, it will be more helpful to look at Ayer’s seminal work published in 1936, Language, Truth, and Logic.

Logical positivism is fiercely anti-metaphysical, such that it makes Kant look like kind of a sissy. According to Ayer, there are really only two kinds of truth-apt statements: tautologies and propositions directly available to verification by the senses. “We say that a statement is factually significant to any given person, if, and only if, he knows how to verify the proposition which it purports to express – that is, if he knows what observations would lead him, under certain conditions, to accept the proposition as being true, or reject it as being false” (LTL, 35). Such an attitude places metaphysics and questions of value, according to Ayer, completely out of the realm of significance. In line with this, Ayer also espouses the emotivist vision of metaethics: “But in every case in which one would commonly be said to be making an ethical judgment, the function of the relevant ethical word is purely ‘emotive.’ It is used to express feeling about certain objects, but not to make any assertion about them” (LTL, 108).

It is just intuitively obvious that there are some kinds of truths that are not verifiable by the senses. As is so often repeated, “Man is a metaphysical animal.” An appeal to intuition is perhaps something of a cop-out, but to anyone who has thought about “the thing in itself” or a universal conception of some particular thing, it is clear that non-material things have existence and that on the heels of that existence closely rides significance. The problem is that one who is stuck in the materialism-positivism-scientism bent will have too narrow an idea of what “existence” is. (But of course, that one can have such an idea at all proves the point once again.)

There were other well-known criticisms of logical positivism. The most obvious is that the main ideas in the system are themselves unable to be true by the system itself. How is it that we verify by sense that there are no meaningful metaphysical statements? And is the thought that there are no meaningful metaphysical statements itself supposed to be taken for a meaningful metaphysical statement? W. V. Quine offered a sharp criticism of the analytic/synthetic distinction in his earth-shattering paper, Two Dogmas of Empiricism, and soon enough, the school of logical positivism was completely dead. Or was it?

If there are any New Atheists involved in the serious practice of academic philosophy such as one would find at a university, they are few and far between and do not seem to make much noise. However, this does not mean that it is irrational to conclude that there has not been any influence of the logical positivists on the New Atheists, however difficult it may be to trace the course of the influence in its entirety. The sort of men involved in the work of logical positivism were heavily influential on 20th century philosophy of science, so the intellectual heritage might very well have cut through there and into the minds of philosophically-curious scientists like Richard Dawkins.

Whatever the case, there are clear similarities between the New Atheism and logical positivism. There is perhaps not an overt disdain for metaphysics like Ayer and Russell had, but there seems to be a level of distrust that prevents them from understanding it. For instance, there is a general incomprehension of major metaphysical ideas like the deduction of the existence of a simple God. There is little concern with value-reasoning (even though the leaders of the movement constantly find themselves dealing with questions of value, such as the worth of religion, or the moral goodness of eliminating religious belief), and there is really very little attempt to understand anything in terms of essences, formal causes, or anything indicative of or contingent upon teleology (the study of natural purposes).

The most classic example of their collective metaphysical inanity is perhaps the most fundamental to the entire project of the New Atheism in terms of a philosophical critique. Just as nearly all of St. Thomas’ work flows out of his “Five Ways,” almost the entirety of the philosophical dimension of New Atheists’ project rests on objections to the traditional proofs of God’s existence. The foremost instance is probably the cosmological argument.

Misunderstanding the cosmological argument is easy enough to do for the layman; it requires a critical mind that can grasp abstract ideas like “act” and “potency” and “simplicity.” It should not, however, be too difficult for the full-time philosopher to understand. Nor should it be dismissed so easily by the skeptic: there are possibly serious objections to the cosmological argument, but it does not appear that any such objections are on the radar of the New Atheists. Rather, they just plain misunderstand it. For example:

“If the universe’s existence requires an explanation in terms of an intelligent designer, then why doesn’t God, with all of his supreme and complex attributes, beg for an explanation in terms of yet another intelligent designer, ad infinitum? Indeed, who designed the designer? Alternatively, if God can simply exist without requiring an explanation, then why can’t the universe simply exist unexplained as well, thereby removing the need to posit a designer in the first place?”

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The idea that this argument poses a serious threat to the cosmological argument is laughable, and indeed, it is almost embarrassing. Clearly, the God proposed in the cosmological argument does not possess “complex attributes,” or any “attributes” at all that are distinct from Himself. On the contrary, the universe is complex, thus necessarily implying a cause. Since there cannot be an infinite regression of causes (or else there would be no explanation for why there are any causes/effects at all), there must be some First Cause.

In his absolutely wonderful blog, Edward Feser notes that “most people who comment on the cosmological argument demonstrably do not know what they are talking about. This includes all the New Atheist writers.” The question is, why? Why is it that they do not understand it? Feser goes on: “[W]hile the basic structure of the main versions of the argument is fairly simple, the background metaphysics necessary for a proper understanding of the key terms and inferences is not.” Such “background metaphysics” might include a belief in or recognition of “actuality” being distinct from “potency.” This sort of language would be dismissed by Ayer as meaningless. Could a kind of hidden assumption of this thought account for the New Atheists having such trouble beginning to approach the cosmological argument? It is certainly a possibility.

God is not “a being” in the way that objects of empirical study are, although it appears that this is the current running through the entirety of the popular atheism generally fueled by the leaders of the movement. How else could the difficulties with the cosmological argument arise? This tendency to try to make something completely “beyond” the everyday kind of object to be very observable and even testable is indicative of distrust or even contempt for metaphysics. If the things of the immaterial world were really taken seriously by figures like Dawkins, they would not have such difficulties with the cosmological argument. Since the refutation of this argument is so critical, however, it is shameful that they do not even give a reasonably fair representation of it in their criticism.

Further evidence of this anti-metaphysical (and sharply anti-mystery) worldview is given in the widespread attempt to make “God” the object of scientific testing. After constructing a Bayes’ Theorem for God’s existence, Fishman concludes, “The fact that no devout Christian amputees have ever had their limbs grow back following prayers to the Christian God requesting limb re-growth is strong evidence that the Christian God does not exist.” Never mind that this is untrue – the deeper issue is that it is inconceivable to the New Atheists that perhaps God is wise to tests and chooses to abstain from participating in them, or that prayer is an altogether mysterious activity that will always escape science in some way. Instead, God is “a being” that can be measured, tested, and controlled just like any other being. This kind of God is not only rejected by the Bible, it is also rejected by Aristotle! It crams pre-conceived and wildly incorrect notions of benevolence, mercy, and intercession into the Christian (and Western) worldview.

Not only in the assessment of proofs for God’s existence is there a trace of logical positivism in the ideas of the New Atheism, but in the examination of value-claims as well. Dawkins writes:

“The question, ‘What is right and what is wrong?’ is a genuinely difficult question that science certainly cannot answer. Given a moral premise or a priori moral belief, the important and rigorous discipline of secular moral philosophy can pursue scientific or logical modes of reasoning to point up hidden implications of such beliefs, and hidden inconsistencies between them. But the absolute moral premises themselves must come from elsewhere, presumably from unargued conviction. Or, it might be hoped, from religion – meaning some combination of authority, revelation, tradition, and scripture.”

What is this “unargued conviction” he references? He does not say, but it is altogether likely that he means something very or indeed altogether subjective and/or arbitrary. He goes on to note that “some kind of liberal consensus of decency and natural justice that changes over historical time, frequently under the influence of secular reformists” provides us with most of our moral convictions rather than religion.

It might be shocking that Dawkins does not think that science can tell us about moral truth. It is maybe not that shocking that he does not appear to realize that he makes himself to be emotivist by this admission, if the foregoing explanation of “unargued conviction” is correct. If moral convictions are arbitrary or always subjective, and science can shed no light on the matter of moral principles, then we are left with an emotivist constructivism, since it does not seem that Dawkins would want to say that there can be “many moral truths” along the popular relativist line.

In the final analysis, both logical positivism and the New Atheism rest on turf highly unsympathetic to metaphysics and all things related. Being such, they both draw out the skeleton in the philosopher’s closet: science-envy. There are obvious remnants of Ayer and Russell in the work of the New Atheists, so regardless of how the influence came about it is clear that there exists one at least to some degree.

 

Main image: “atheos” from Ephesians 2:12