Sunday, September 15, 2013

The Catholic Difference

I want to quote from Edward Feser's blog (despite the fact that I truly cannot stand him personally, particularly in re: his attitudes on certain hot-button issues!), to point out some of the really rich intellectual heritage of the Catholic Church.  I want to say why I think it makes such a positive difference for the RCC, and to demonstrate why I have, as I've often said, "Catechism envy."  I also want to talk about why I think this approach is the best - if not the only possible - way forward for Christianity as a whole.

At this post, Feser is getting ready to talk about "scientism, which entails a radical eliminativism"; "eliminativism" is a concept current in philosophy, I take it, and one that I may be gearing up to talk about, too - but that will come later.  What I want to point to here is, instead, the ideas from Aristotle from which, as I understand it, Aquinas worked, along with Scripture, and which form even today, as I understand it, the basis of Catholic theology and teaching.   This, I should point out, is only the first of Feser's nine posts on this particular topic; he's not just tossing off a few assertions and opinions and insults here - although he is doing that, too!   (This is one reason I continue to love and read the blogs.  Only on blogs do you find something deeper than sound bites, and really anything other than sound bites; sound bites have their place, too, but they certainly can't provide much intellectual nourishment by themselves.)   I am probably going to be posting as I read through these articles, slowly, one by one.  Keep in mind that I have no background in philosophy, so it will be slow going!

Here, Feser's setting up a later discussion by explaining the differences between "Aristotelian," Cartesian," and "materialist" conceptions of "mind and human nature."   (Clearly, he's putting his own spin on these things, and it would probably pay to investigate further; I'm most interested, though, in the things he talks about as being "Aristotelian," and how they seem to me to be related to Catholic theology.  And I'm also just interested in pointing out the manner and process of the thinking involved, and the depth of it.  I've bolded some of the content myself.)
Finally, we need to distinguish an Aristotelian conception of mind and human nature from either a materialist conception or a Cartesian one.  From an Aristotelian point of view, the other two conceptions involve a fallacious tendency to reify abstractions and/or to attribute to parts of a human being what can properly be attributed only to the whole.  The Aristotelian regards a human being as a single, irreducible substance that takes in nutrients, grows, reproduces itself, moves itself about, senses the world around it, has various appetites, thinks, and wills.  Aristotelians regard thinking and willing as incorporeal activities and the other activities as corporeal ones, but it is the one substance that carries out both, and even those Aristotelians who think that the intellect survives the death of the body (such as Thomists) do not think that the separated intellect constitutes a complete substance in its own right, but rather the human being in a radically diminished state To use an analogy I’ve made use of before, just as a sentence is a single entity with both physically definable properties (such as the chemistry of the ink in which it is written) and properties not so definable (such as its semantic content) so too is a human being a single thing despite its radically different aspects.  (The difference being that a sentence is a kind of artifact and a human being is not.)

From an Aristotelian point of view, the Cartesian conception of human nature grotesquely distorts it in several ways.  First, it abstracts from matter its mathematically definable features -- ignoring aspects that are not so definable, such as substantial form, immanent teleology, and secondary qualities-- and then reifies this abstraction, redefining “matter” as that kind of stuff which has these mathematically definable features, and only those features.  Second, the Cartesian abstracts from human nature its mental aspects and then reifies them, resulting in the notion of a “thinking substance.”  Third, whereas the Aristotelian sees what is distinctive about our minds as their intellectual capacities, such as their capacity for grasping universally shared concepts, the Cartesian tends to focus on conscious awareness, understood as something private, directly knowable only via introspection.    Fourth, the Cartesian then slaps together his desiccated notion of matter and his reification of introspected conscious thought and calls the resulting aggregate a “human being.”  For the Aristotelian, this is a little like squeezing every last drop of juice out a certain piece of fruit, peeling off the skin, drying it out and throwing away the pulp -- then putting the dried out skin next to a glass of the juice and saying “An orange is what you get when you put this dried skin next to the glass.” 

The materialist, meanwhile, lops off the one abstraction (the thinking substance), keeps the other (the mathematicized redefinition of matter), and insists that only what is reducible to the latter is real.  He is like the man who says “No, no, an orange is just the dried out skin by itself,” considers this a great advance in understanding (backed by Ockham’s razor, no less), and accuses those who disagree with him of holding that an orange is an unwieldy composite of dried skin and glass of juice.  The right view, of course, is that an orange is what you had before the juice and pulp were squeezed out, and for the Aristotelian what a human being is (and indeed what natural substances in general are) are what we had before Cartesians and materialists got hold of them.  (Contemporary property dualism is essentially a middle ground position between materialism and Cartesianism, accepting their desiccated view of matter, and tacking on to it the “juice” but without the “glass.”)

So, OK.  I gather from this - correct me if I'm wrong, Aristotelians! - that the Aristotelian is taking a holistic view of human nature, and maintains that this view is crucial when thinking about anything having to do with human life.  And this, it seems to me, is the base assumption from which the Catholic conception of "natural law" is derived.  Natural Law, as I'm beginning to understand it, assumes a teleology of human life that is real and exists (i.e., it is something God wills and/or creates), and that always points toward the "flourishing" of the human person.

But in fact, it really doesn't matter at all for my purposes if the above assumption about Natural Law is correct; what matters to me here is that if Aristotle-plus-Aquinas is at the heart of Catholic theology, and if this concept - the holistic view of the human being as described above - is at the heart of their thinking - well:  that's exceedingly important, just by itself.

Leaving aside for now whether or not Feser has caricatured "materialist" and "Cartesian" conceptions of the human being:  the holistic Aristotle-Aquinas conception has to be accepted as superior to any other way of thinking, since it considers the human being to be an integrated entity.   I'm not sure quite yet how to show that integration is the optimal state for the humans being;  I'm just going to assume it for now, by pointing out that its opposite, dis-integration, is clearly understood to be a highly negative process in all cases.  Disintegration describes the extreme breakdown of the physical, mental, emotional, or spiritual in human beings, and is an occasion for grief whenever it occurs.

That's one point.  Here's another, and just as important if not moreso:  these are fundamental philosophical ideas.  And philosophy is just that way of thinking that examines unexamined assumptions at depth.  We are all suffering, in my estimation, from a very serious lack of this kind of thinking - not only in the church, but also in the world as a whole.  Philosophy is no longer considered to be essential, but mostly an ivory-tower pursuit and time-waster.  In particular, we've all grown dependent on subjective thinking, which is by definition, well, subjective and thus has no particular relevance outside our own context.  It simply can't help us if we're trying to think about, for instance, "why we say the Creed in worship," or whether or not we should use "Father" and "Mother" as priestly titles.  Personal opinion, in other words, is no way to run a church, and no way to talk to anybody outside it about what faith is actually about.

My thesis is this:  Christianity has come unmoored from its philosophical and theological foundations, and no longer makes sense to anybody who doesn't already adhere to it.   In addition:  even many who do adhere to it don't seem to grasp even its basic principles (i.e., "love your neighbor and pray for your enemy").  Further:  that this is going to be a serious problem for everybody, except the Catholic Church, going forward.

More later.

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