Motherhood and Human Maturity

(Part I in a series on motherhood and fatherhood)

So much of who we are comes from our mothers. We are who we are in relation to others – and the first relationship we had was being nestled nine months in our mother’s womb.

“Male and female He created them” – it is fitting that with these words our first parents are introduced, since our first experience of gender, our first experience of male and female, comes – not from our analysis of gender roles in society – but really and concretely, from our mother and our father.

“God created man in his own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female he created them.” Because we are male, because we are female, we are in the image of God. We are not made in the image of God as mere androgynous souls with consciousness; rather, we are embodied in our masculinity and our femininity. Our lives are circumscribed between motherhood and fatherhood – none of us comes into this world without a natural father, none of us comes into this world without a natural mother.

In a time hidden from our memories, that initial relationship with our mothers forms us at the core of who we are. No person has ever grown to maturity without first passing through their mother’s body. Try as they might, technology still has yet to eclipse biology.

(If you want to be overwhelmed with all the particulars of gestational biology, check out this video.)

 

From the first moment of our existence in the womb of our mother, we are surrounded by her, enveloped in her body. Her body supplies for every one of our needs. As our cells divide and develop, our blood takes nourishment and oxygen from her blood; there is an exchange of life. By the time a mother is aware she is with child, her maternal body has known this already for weeks. Before she feels the budding movements of the child’s limbs, she is already being moved by the child – morning sickness, new diet, the maternal nesting instinct to tackle stale projects. But more than that, her whole life receives a new trajectory; she holds a person within her – two souls in one body.

I recall an experience of a friend of mine when his wife was pregnant with their first child. He came back from work one day to find his pregnant wife lying on her bed with her hands over her womb, filled with wonder. She explained to her husband that she felt her baby move for the first time and was overwhelmed with the realization of her motherhood, explaining to her husband, “I am not alone in my own body.”

A mother after having her first child will often comment that, had she known how much of herself would have been taken in order to love her child, she would not have thought herself capable of giving so much of herself. Motherhood is an experience that requires all of her. It is a self-emptying love that cares fiercely and intimately for her child.

Maternity, femininity, female-ness – this is our first experience of gender; it is our first experience of life. We are born into – conceived into – this relationship with our mother. It is most natural to us. It is the strongest and longest lasting of human bonds. It is a natural communion. For the rest of their lives, the mother and child will retain something of that intimacy where they were truly two souls in one body.

Beginning from this indescribable intimacy, the child goes through a development. Birth requires a leaving behind of the original closeness of the mother. The dependence of the child on the mother continues – nourishment, locomotion, comfort, bathroom issues – but slowly begins to wane. When the child learns to crawl, a mother is pained to see his reliance on her lessened. When the child takes his first steps, every step is a step away from the mother. Motherhood is tinged with sadness. Watching her child grow apart from her requires all of that self-emptying love.

In my own mother, I’ve seen this self-emptying love every time a sibling leaves my parents’ house to depart for college – fourteen times (I have a big family) one of her children left home, fourteen times she’s cried.

A mother’s vocation begins in intimacy, and ends in separation.

A mother’s love makes room for the child to grow. All human life takes as its origin the intimacy of motherhood. Fatherhood completes the picture.

***

We see this reality of maternal separation lived out most radically in the life of our Blessed Mother. Jesus shared a hidden intimacy with Mary for nine months. At his birth, the shepherds find Him, not wrapped in the arms of His immaculate mother, but wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger – apart from her. When He is twelve, after being lost for three days in the Temple, He tells her “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” (Luke 2:49) At Cana, He begins His public ministry with what looks like a rebuke, “Woman, what have you to do with me?” Once while Jesus was close by, Mary tried to get through the crowd to see her Son, and He says, “Who are my mother and my brethren? Here are my mother and my brethren! Whoever does the will of God is my brother, and sister, and mother.” (Mark 3:33-35) Even at the foot of the cross, when she is with Him again, He gives her away, saying to her “Woman, behold, your son” and to St. John, “Behold, your mother.” (John 19:26-27) And then He undergoes the ultimate separation, giving up His spirit and dying on the Cross.

Here, we let Blessed John Henry Newman take over, with his reflection on the Thirteenth Station of the Cross:

He is Thy property now, O Virgin Mother, once again, for He and the world have met and parted. He went out from Thee to do His Father’s work – and He has done and suffered it. Satan and bad men have now no longer any claim upon Him – too long has He been in their arms. Satan took Him up aloft to the high mountain; evil men lifted Him up upon the Cross. He has not been in Thy arms, O Mother of God, since He was a child – but now thou hast a claim upon Him, when the world has done its worst. For thou art the all-favoured, all-blessed, all-gracious Mother of the Highest. We rejoice in this great mystery. He has been hidden in thy womb, He has lain in thy bosom, He has been suckled at thy breasts, He has been carried in thy arms – and now that He is dead, He is placed upon thy lap.

Virgin Mother of God, pray for us.

 

Main image: “Virgin of the Angels,” William Adolphe Bouguereau, 1881
Post by: Deacon Peter Gruber

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.

The_Matrix_Poster
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

Intercession and Science

Once in a while some zealous atheist, agnostic, or deist will throw down a challenge: “If God answers prayers, we should be able to prove it with an experiment. But we see no statistically significant difference between groups of sick people who are prayed for and groups who are not. Therefore: A) there is no God, or B) we can’t be sure if there is a God, or  C) God does not involve Himself with us.”

It seems like a strong argument at first. If God really does respond to intercession, then we ought to be able to observe that response in contrast with a lack of response corresponding to a lack of intercession. Intercession is an action, healing or whatever response is or would be an equal and opposite reaction, while on the other hand whatever is in motion tends to stay in motion – those who are sick or in need will continue to be so unless they are helped.

There are some problems with this argument.

First, let’s take a look at the Temptations of Christ (Mt. 4:1-11)… It is Lent after all.

  1. Turn stones into bread – Jesus could solve world hunger and win over all the crowds this way. (Jn. 6:26 – “Amen, amen, I say to you, you are looking for me not because you saw signs but because you ate the loaves and were filled.”) He responds, “One does not live on bread alone, but by every word that comes forth from the mouth of God.”
  2. Fly around Jerusalem – Jesus could publicly manifest Himself with abundant clarity in a way that would leave everyone in awe. (Mt. 16:4 – “An evil and unfaithful generation seeks a sign…” And in the same chapter, v. 17 – “Flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in Heaven.”) He responds, “You shall not put the Lord thy God to the test.”
  3. Make a compromise – Jesus could rule over the Earth without the Cross, without the public ministry, and generally without much effort. (Jn. 18:36 – “My Kingdom is not of this world.” And Lk. 24:26 – “Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and enter into his glory?”) He responds, “Get away, Satan! For it is written, ‘The Lord, your God, shall you worship and Him alone shall you serve.'”

Christ’s Temptations provide the first major counterpoint to the skeptic, which is that God is not primarily concerned with making this life easy for us. We are promised that we will receive whatever we ask in His Name (Lk. 11:9, Jn. 14:13), but we are also promised trouble and suffering, the acceptance of which is even a condition of discipleship (Mt. 10: 16-39). These two promises do not square with each other unless we see that Jesus does not mean we will be given whatever material convenience we want, like a genie would do for us, but that we will be given every spiritual gift truly suited for us for which we pray sincerely. Virtues are the goods which truly help us.

Furthermore, God is wise to our tests and designs (Jn. 2:24). And no, He does not care to play along. A mysterious kingdom needs a mysterious road to lead to it. The New Jerusalem is nothing like the New Rome. Citizenship in the one is gained by unyielding faith in a crucified carpenter as God Incarnate, while in the other citizenship would be gained by simple obedience to an opulent and benevolent dictator.

Let us consider another passage, Mk. 9:14-29, where Jesus heals a possessed child. The crowd gathers, and the boy’s father explains the damage the demon has done over the years… “But if you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.” Jesus does not take kindly to the word “if”: “‘If you can!’ Everything is possible to one who has faith.” Then we are given the famous line, “I do believe, help my unbelief!” Jesus rebukes the spirit and tells his disciples that this kind of demon only comes out “through prayer.”

This episode gives us an insight into the project of the public ministry – it is not primarily about fixing people’s inconveniences, it is about fixing people’s souls. Jesus waited to do a good deed until the boy’s father manifested faith… This was His prerogative, since He came to draw people away from the world to Himself. The Christ did not open a miraculous hospital, or an infinite soup kitchen, or an infallible psychic hotline; rather, He told people to beg for God’s forgiveness (Mt. 4:17), to sin no more (Jn. 8:11), and to extend faith in God to Him as well (Jn. 14:1). Fixing people’s earthly problems were and are for Christ merely a means to an end: moving people to repentance, conversion, discipleship, and finally perfection in union with Himself and the Father. Just because we don’t get exactly what material convenience we want, when we want, how we want it, does not mean that God does not exist or concern Himself with us. When He doesn’t give worldly help, even when asked sincerely, it’s because He knows that to give us some particular opportunity to forsake the world and cling to Him in abandonment to His will is better than to give us what we’re asking for. (Remember the dichotomy of promises!)

We are not in the same position. It does not belong to us to help others conditionally to the same extent as God because we do not have the same privileged insight into people’s souls that He has, and even if we did we would not always know how best to use that knowledge. Sometimes we can be quite sure that withholding some help will be good for another – like when we allow a child to “learn the hard way” – but by and large we have a duty to provide basic goods for others we encounter and are able to help. We do need to open hospitals. We do need to run soup kitchens. (No psychic hotlines, however.) In fact, we would never be able to show love for each other without the opportunity to do these kinds of selfless acts.

So, can we test God’s response to prayer and prove with statistically significant results that He does indeed answer them? As it turns out, we actually can. Anyone who prays earnestly and frequently for help to become virtuous and holy will become virtuous and holy. And you can survey the lives of the saints and see that this is indeed how they prayed.

I will now teach you a short but powerful prayer which if you repeat often and with sincerity will change your life radically by changing you radically: “Oh Lord, help me to become a saint as soon as possible and at any cost to myself! Amen.”

Don’t be afraid to have this prayer answered.

 

Post by: Eamonn Clark

 

Main image: screenshot from the film Aladdin (1992)

Science and Value: Why you can’t “just do science”

Science can never be “value-free.” If science in the broadest sense is “knowledge coming to be in us,” then it cannot help but be informed by one’s personal metaphysical schemata. To claim that a statement is objectively true is one thing, but to say that all have the same understanding of that statement is quite another. For the same word can represent different realities to different minds, so any kind of conversation about objective truths runs aground on the issue of “manifesting the essence” of what one intends to express the truth about. It cannot be done through human language (though perhaps it can be done through the Divine Word).

The empirical sciences do not by any means escape this problem, for they inherently involve a type of conversation: one collects data and re-expresses it. This is in no way different from any ordinary way of conversing. Saying that science is free of this “problem of expression” is like saying that truth can be told objectively and without any kind of interfering values in English but that it can’t be in French. The language of the most basic science consists in numbers representing quantity, and quantity is based on unity. The inductions made by those advancing to knowledge of such unities are pre-logical and can in nowise be considered as perfectly objective or “value-free.” The language of the more complex sciences is firstly based on the simpler sciences and consists essentially in words representing qualities, the original problem has in no way been avoided. Perhaps it has even been exacerbated.

However, the special place that “modern science” has earned is not wholly undeserved, and its (legitimate) practitioners are indeed to be given somewhat of an elevated authority. The relevant differentiae of “science” as a means of communicating truth is its rigor in observation, care in expression, and “plainness” of its object. By the latter I mean that the field of science generally extends to things that can quickly be made intelligible to the reasonable inquirer, whereas the truths of history or theology are less easily approached.

But that does not mean the less immediately intelligible sciences aren’t worthy of pursuit… theology in particular. Unfortunately, that is a popular attitude. Perhaps the occasional recollection that the whole project of “SCIENCE!” is dependent on more basic and invisible “values” would help correct this.

 

Main image: “Louis Pasteur in his Laboratory,” Albert Edelfelt, oil on canvas, 1885

Justice for Harambe? Sorry, not possible.

“What was that?”

“We just hit a raccoon.”

“Jonathan, don’t you think we should stop?”

“Oh trust me babe, that raccoon would not have stopped for us.”

I’ve had this hilarious exchange from Hot Rod in my mind recently.

There is a reason we say someone is “acting like an animal” when he’s doing crazy or immoral stuff… Animals have no real moral sense, no conscience, no supernatural end to which they are called. We don’t really think of them as guilty or innocent, except inasmuch as those words mean the existence or non-existence of some act.

To begin with, even asking the question sets one off on the wrong path: “Is there a morality gene?” All the dispositions of our bodies can ever incline us to desire are temporal goods (like pleasure or security), even if they are delayed in their acquisition in some way or are diffused among a community to which one belongs, UNLESS they are ordered somehow to the preservation of the species in such a way that it is altogether compulsory. Genetics, therefore, could only ever tell us why a person feels like doing x which will ultimately redound to his own temporal benefit in some way. And in animals, genetics are altogether compulsory, so the disjunction above is irrelevant for them.

In humans, these impulses can be intellectualized into rational selfishness, and certain kinds of structures of cooperation can indeed bring about a society that on its surface is stable and healthy. Read an Ayn Rand novel and you’ll get the idea.

But that’s not what real morality is. Real morality searches for the good in itself, not just for I me myself, even through others, but for others in themselves. Real morality moderates self-interest, while genetics can only incline one to seek his own good.

What about all those birds who are so committed to caring for their chicks? What about those elephants that cry for their dead? What about, etc., etc.?

If an animal does something we might call moral or right that does in fact only lend itself to the preservation of the species (which we would be tempted to call altruism), it is because it had an instinct to. Isn’t that the same as a morality gene? No, it is a gene that compels them to act in such a way, and the satisfaction for them lies precisely in the completion of an urge rather than “doing what is ‘right'” or something similar. There is no order to which a bear clings outside of itself when it protects its cubs – it has no reason for protecting them that it is aware of other than “because that’s what bears do.” We would call this a virtue if it was rationally chosen among other options, but the bear doesn’t have real rational options: it just has genes which force it to act in such a way. In fact, the very same impulse to protect its children would compel it to kill an innocent man, which we would NOT call virtuous.

“So what? It’s still bad to kill animals.” Well, while you chomp down on your burger tonight, think about what Cecil the Lion would have done to you (or your village) if given the chance. Think about what Harambe might have been about to do to that child. And so on.

We are not in a real community with animals, because they can’t communicate with us rationally. They can’t do that because they can’t reason. We are simply better and higher in the order of creation, as Genesis teaches. We have immortal souls, they do not. We can relate with God intellectually, they can not. We are called moral or immoral, they are not. This means that justice, with regard to animals, is nothing more than their proper temporal use as part of the goods shared among ourselves and God, and we expect absolutely nothing from them in return. The conclusion is this: unless you are killing animals for the sheer pleasure of destroying them, or the animal you kill is somehow important for human flourishing (like a cow that makes a family’s milk), or in killing them you are desensitizing yourself to human pain and death, you’re not doing anything wrong.

So there can’t even be such a thing as justice for Harambe. He’s owed nothing – especially since he no longer exists. But that won’t stop our culture from hashtagging more about a gorilla than about the innocent victims of abortion, or the news from covering Harambe’s death six times more than Christians recently killed by ISIS. As G.K. Chesterton famously opined, where there is animal worship, there is human sacrifice.

And anyway… Harambe would not have wanted justice for you.

 

Main image: By TKnoxB from Chemainus, BC, Canada – Flickr, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1826972

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

Scientific Realism vs. Instrumentalism: A Primer

From the outset, it’s clear who lost the “name game” here.

The scientific realist posits that it is the job of scientific theories to explain the causes of observable phenomena in terms of whatever may cause them. He includes unobservable entities in his consideration, as he believes firstly of course that such things may exist, and secondly that science does not consist only in predicting similar phenomena by forming a “law,” but also about knowing what it is that is occurring in such a transaction between the objects of study. In other words, it’s about finding out the whole truth.

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“YOU CAN’T HANDLE THE TRUTH!” (A Few Good Men, 1992)

Quite on the contrary is the position of the instrumentalist. However, the instrumentalist view does not go so far as the anti-realist, who says that there just plain aren’t any unobservable entities. Rather, the instrumentalist is agnostic as to whether or not there are such entities, and he avoids them in theorizing. He believes that it is enough for science merely to be able to predict the effects of observable events. Any statements made about things that cannot be sensed are regarded by him as almost altogether meaningless in themselves. Instead, they hold only an “instrumental” meaning for him; that is to say, he may see them as being useful for grounding a theory in. This might remind one of the pragmatism of William James, which said that “truth” is whatever is useful for thinking.

An example will help to illustrate these differences. The Higgs-Boson particle has not yet been directly observed, despite those successes in 2012 and 2013. The existence of this particle would provide an account for why certain particles have mass. The scientific realist is greatly interested in knowing whether or not there is such a particle, and it is these sorts of people who tend to want to build particle accelerators and telescopes. The instrumentalist is content with the “idea” of the Higgs-Boson, but he does not care if it really exists. It fills a gap that did not need to be filled. What the instrumentalist cares about is collecting enough data to understand that there is mass in certain kinds of things.

Instrumentalism is antithetical to the spirit of Christianity (and classical philosophy) as it bears on the motivation for natural scientific knowledge. We ought to want to know “what lies beneath,” because it reflects the beauty and wisdom of God… It is good for the soul to seek this kind of knowledge for its own sake, since that is one of the highest purposes of our existence. The “speciating principle” of man is his ability to reason and possess speculative knowledge, which therefore becomes primary in the determination of how he flourishes. Instrumentalism shucks this virtue and turns it into about gaining what is useful rather than what is good in itself.

 

Main image: The Very Large Array
By John Fowler – Flickr: VLA, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=23385127