MacIntyre Post #4: Know the universe, know God

Aquinas’s claim is not just that theology and philosophy must be consistent…but also that failure to understand the universe of finite created beings inevitably issues in a defective knowledge of God. Why so?      We understand God as creator in part through a study of the natural order of things and of the human place within that order. Errors about that order and about the human place within that order give rise to errors about God himself and our relationship to him(75).

This is why the problematic philosophy of science today gives so many people wrong ideas about God and his existence. Science is not a belief system, but a method of investigation. Observing natural phenomena needn’t exclude the philosophical claim or possibility that God exists.

We ignore philosophy, pretend that it doesn’t matter, when what that really means is that we unwittingly accept certain philosophical premises. One of the most popular is that the method of natural science–which is to just observe nature–somehow provides metaphysical grounding for all human meaning. By establishing a type of empiricism, it cuts out all possibility of spiritual matters simply by default. But examined closely, there is of course no empirical reason to be a strict empiricist. It is helpful for explaining natural events, but there is no reason to extend empiricism into an epistomology or metaphysics or anything else. Yet this is what we tend to do nowadays.

Thus a philosophically and theologically consistent view of the natural sciences could view nature with just as much accuracy but instead come away with an awe and reverence for the Creator.

Most importantly though, what I want to take from this quotation is the idea that an unquestioned philosophy can become a theology (or lack of theology) that isn’t based on anything.

In what ways do you see our understanding of the natural world affect our understanding of God?


MacIntyre Post #3: Emergence of the University

It was because the thirteenth-century European universities, developing out of conjunctions of the academic ambitions of masters, the desire for increased power by rulers, and the striving for upwards mobility by students, became scenes of intellectual conflict, places where the fundamental issues that divided and defined the age were articulated, that their history provides the setting for the emergence of the Catholic philosophical tradition (65).

Interesting. MacIntyre posits that this set of factors made philosophy important and laid the groundwork for arguments to happen about the nature of things. He lists student ambitions, professor ambitions and the ambitions of the rulers as the contributing factors because they intersected and conflicted.

This shows at least one thing that I hadn’t thought about before I read it: that universities were never pure palaces devoted to learning simply as a good in itself. It always involved ambitions of the players comprising the system, but still, I think there is a difference today.

Looking at the university nowadays, we still find that the students have ambitions (to get jobs), that professors often seek academic glory or at least prestige, and certainly the rulers seek to use universities to provide qualified candidates for jobs and generally to fix society. Legislators tend to think that if we can just get enough kids through college, all societal ills will evaporate.

Somehow, I don’t think these particular ambitions converge today to make the university a setting for philosophical conflict. Rather, students and rulers see it as a tool.

MacIntyre doesn’t think universities today deal with philosophy adequately either. What do you think? What factors would make the university a philosophically challenging place? Are they the same factors that did this in the Middle Ages?

Augustine: Does Happiness Require Truth? (God, Phil., Univ. Post #2)

The late-classical skeptics (just as their Greek predecessors) had denied that the possibility that anyone could know anything certainly. Augustine, then, poses this question to the skeptics, says MacIntyre:

in his Contra Academicos he posed the question of whether it is possible to attain happiness while still only a searcher for truth rather than as one who has achieved it. (25)

Augustine believed that true happiness could not be had while still uncertain of our actual goal in life or what true happiness consisted in.

Today, many people claim to believe that “everything is relative” or that we can’t really know truth. I think Augustine’s question applies well: What does it mean to be happy if we don’t know what goodness or happiness really are? Because if we can’t know truth or anything beyond relativism, how can we really know what those two concepts really mean?

Augustine responds further that somethings can be known certainly, even if the amount of certain knowledge is limited.

 “ ‘if I am deceived, I am.’ ….I am deceived neither in believing that I know nor in believing that I love. What I love may not be what I take it to be, but that I love it, whatever it is, is certain” (26).

Thus, there are always two things we can know: that we exist and that there is something outside of ourselves that our loves (or desires) are directed at.

Lastly, Augustine unsurprisingly posits that we need knowledge of God to truly be happy and know truth and this knowledge only comes through grace.

Interestingly, he notes the biggest obstacle to receiving this grace is our own capacity to distract ourselves.

“What deprives us of the knowledge of God also deprives us of self-knowledge: an indefinite capacity for distraction by external trivialities and a craving for self-justification, so that we either do not attend to what is within or, if we do, disguise from ourselves our thoughts and motives. And in areas where our sexuality exerts its power, we lose our capacity for self-examination” (28). (referenced Conf. 10.35-37)

How true is this? I can’t help but think of the internet and the myriad ways we distract ourselves nowadays from thinking about things that truly matter. And I’m sure I do it just as much as anyone else.

And without knowing God, he says, we cannot truly know ourselves.

To connect to the first post, I think distraction is a big reason we avoid philosophy and tell ourselves that it is irrelevant anyway.

God, Philosophy Universities: Why Philosophy Matters

I recently read, “God, Philosophy, Universities” by Alasdair MacIntyre, a philosophy professor at Notre Dame. In it, he examines the development of the Catholic philosophical tradition and calls for a renewal of philosophy that addresses real, human questions and which reigns in the university ideology-run-astray that all disciplines have nothing to say to each other and that philosophy is generally irrelevant.

This post is the first in a series in which I will present quotations from the book with a few thoughts. So, here goes:

“The warring partisans on the great issues that engage our culture and politics presuppose, even when they do not recognize it, the truth of some philosophical theses and the falsity of others. If we are to evaluate their claims, we had better know something about philosophy and, if we are Catholic Christians by faith and commitment, something about Catholic philosophy.” (Intro. P. 1)

“Plain persons in our society think of philosophers as very different from themselves—and about the professional teachers of philosophy in contemporary universities they are manifestly right. Yet the obvious differences between the two…should not be allowed to obscure the relationship between questions asked by philosophers and some of the questions asked by plain persons. All human beings, whatever their culture, find themselves confronted by questions about the nature and significance of their lives: What is our place in the order of things?…How should we respond to the facts of suffering and death? What is it to live a human life well?” (9).

Basically, philosophy really does undergird everything from political positions, to arguments, ideologies and ideas for how to structure society and our relationships with others, ourselves and of course, with God.

Yet, MacIntyre says (and I agree), we tend not to recognize this. Instead, we think of philosophy as something that doesn’t matter. The tragedy of this is that such an attitude makes us incapable of understanding, analyzing, criticizing and consciously choosing from the plethora of philosophical opinions out there today in the public square. Ie, what is Republicanism really based on? or Democracy? or secularism? or charity? or liberty? Are these ideas right? Are they completely right?

Additionally, a failure to examine these ideas and understand them critically makes us unable to see beyond the rigid and small categories that they create. Ie, could there be something besides Republican or Democrat? Is there a way of viewing society that is neither capitalist nor socialist?

These are examples drawn from public affairs, but I think they suffice to illustrate the point.

Our debate and dialogue is impoverished because as a culture we tend to reject the tools required to really take ideas apart and understand them–that is, philosophy.