Progress in philosophy and theology in the long view

Why does philosophy seem to make so much less progress than science?  Professor J. L. Schellenberg addresses this often-asked question at Aeon magazine.  He quickly touches on some common answers.

  1. Philosophy deals with inquiries for which a proper methodology has not yet been developed.  Once real progress starts being made, a subject stops being a branch of philosophy and becomes a science.
  2. The point of philosophy isn’t to answer the big questions, but for each individual to refine his or her soul by struggling with them.  By its nature, it must be done anew by each person.
  3. Philosophical questions don’t get answered but they do get refined.  We now have a more precise sense of what the problem of free will is, for example, and this is progress of a sort.

I think there is merit in each of these points, but Schellenberg suggests another.  Perhaps the big questions of philosophy are just really hard and take longer than a couple of millennia to solve.  It is not unreasonable to hope that the human race will survive for tens or hundreds of thousands of years.  On such timescales, philosophy hasn’t be around long and may still be, looking back from a hundred thousand years hence, at a very immature phase.  The task of philosophers for the coming centuries may ultimately preparatory work:  discarding dead ends, developing tools, achieving small but solid initial results.

Suppose this is true.  A fully adequate metaphysics should be fully faithful to the given data of experience (here and below, I shall be vague about what constitutes the given “data”, this being itself a matter of philosophical dispute.) and fully systematic in the sense of coherent, logical, interlocking, but such a philosophy may not be on the horizon.  Then one can choose to do metaphysics descriptively or systematically, but in either case one must be humble.  The descriptive metaphysician must not paper over tensions where it is unclear how the truths they ascertain can be consistent with each other.  He must also be clear where his articulation of the given ends and tentative extrapolation begins.  The systematic metaphysician, for his part, must resist the temptation to declare that which is unaccounted for in his system to be illusory.  There is an analogy for this division in the theoretical sciences.  The former (descriptive) is like building a phenomenological model, which does not pretend to give fundamental explanations; the latter (systematic) is like building a toy model, which hopes to illustrates some key feature of underlying reality without pretending to be a complete description of this reality.

This distinction also helps us think about how theology should be done in these millennia of philosophical immaturity.  The theologian is confident that all the truths of revelation are consistent with fully adequate philosophy, and such fully adequate philosophy would most likely clear up the apparent tensions between revealed truths.  However, he knows that he cannot wait for such a philosophy; the souls in intervening centuries must be cared for.  For him, revelation provides additional given data, and Christian descriptive metaphysicians must adequately accommodate this data right away.

It is to be expected that existing philosophical systems–Thomist, Scotist, Cartesian, Leibnizian, Hegelian, Whiteheadian, etc–will all be at least somewhat inadequate to the data including revelation, and usually–if their Christian adherents are truly honest and rigorous–at least in part in conflict with orthodoxy.  This is not necessarily a worry.  These philosophies are to be regarded as toy models.  Christian philosophers are encouraged to investigate and improve upon them.  Such philosophers only become heretical when they take their philosophy to have more authority than revelation and declare the truths which contradict their system false.

The Church of course cannot tolerate that.  Given the immaturity of philosophy, she is quite justified in dismissing philosophical objections without answering them.  Immature philosophies will tend to see conflicts between truths that are actually reconcilable.  Christians today sometimes wonder why God let so many generations live in darkness before sending His Son.  Future Christians may marvel that God sent His revelation so early to a humanity that could not yet make sense of it.  Because He was so generous, the Church had to labor for millennia to protect the sense of revelation from being rejected or reinterpreted to fit within the confines of our undeveloped powers of reasoning.  Perhaps the rebuke to our intellects will turn out to have been good for us.

It is likely not possible to get from our current ignorance to the true and adequate metaphysics without passing through many inadequate models.  And the models can only be improved upon if philosophers are able to be rigorous and clear about their systems’ inadequacies, including their heretical implications.  Papering over paradoxes discourages needed progress.  So does declaring unresolved paradoxes to be mysteries, whose resolution is beyond the reach of human reason.  There may indeed be such mysteries, but we should be suspicious of claims to have found them, as they run the risk of causing us to give up too early.  We may indeed find it more difficult to accept that some level of understanding is out of reach to men of our time than it would be to think it beyond the capacity of human reason altogether.

I won’t claim that we really are millennia from an adequate metaphysics, but it is possible.

12 Responses

  1. IMO the biggest limiting factor on progress in philosophy is how hard it is to falsify. Compare it to the hard sciences where you can empirically test a theory, or to mathematics where you can usually analytically check whether the theorem you just proved (or “proved” as the case may be) holds in concrete cases. You can’t do that easily for many philosophical questions; even a negative proof ending in an absurdity (the way Wiles cracked Fermat’s last theorem) is vulnerable to another philosopher saying your result isn’t actually absurd.

  2. Good post.

    I see the 3 big systems in contention:

    1: Naturalism.
    2: Super-naturalism.
    3; Idealism/Rationalism.

    An example of the first is David Hume; a example of the second is Aquinas; an example of the third is Plato.

    Naturalism (or metaphysical naturalism) could claim to be true, if not fully complete, as it is justified by current scientific knowledge. Of course, “naturalist” philosophy pre-dated the rise of modern science.

    Naturalists could claim that most of the great metaphysical questions/problems have been answered:

    1: God (atheism).
    2: Mind or consciousness (a consequence of evolution and the specific architecture of human brains).
    3: Free will (incoherent to begin with, but determinism, at least at the “macro” or “medium sized dry goods” level is true or should be presumed to be true).
    4: Values (values come to exist when creatures who can value come to exist, which results from Darwinian processes).

    Good examples of modern naturalists are John Mackie; Simon Blackburn; Dan Dennett; Owen Flanagan and Alex Rosenburg.

    Good examples of modern idealists/rationalists are Thomas Nagel and Derek Parfit.

    Most (academic) philosophers are either naturalists or idealists/rationalists, with the naturalists apparently the leading group. When one adds in the scientists, this becomes much more pronounced.

  3. Ideas are a natural fit for the human mind, so if one could be sure that idealism is true, one might feel confident that one knows the main thing there is to know. Suppose naturalism is true. In knowing this, does one know the main thing there is to know, or does one only have a negative truth (that supernaturalism is false), with the positive truth having to wait until science has completed its work? Is the basic outline of the scientific picture of the world in view, with only details to be filled in, or could our understanding of nature still have major upheavals ahead? Just learning that, say, quarks are made of smaller particles just as nucleons are made of quarks wouldn’t upset anyone’s worldview, but if space and time turn out to be emergent phenomena, that would certainly upset my basic picture of nature. (Maybe it’s just me, but it bothers me more that I’ll probably die without knowing the true nature of spacetime than that I’ll die not knowing how to reconcile freedom with predestination.) Suppose supernaturalism is true. It would remain true that our understanding of the supernatural Entity is extremely confused. Theology doesn’t give me that satisfactory feel that mathematics does of everything clicking into its necessary place. Too much hand waving. Too much vague use of words like “infinite”.

  4. Yes, the reliance on scientific knowledge is naturalism’s greatest weakness and, also, its strength.

    One good definition of naturalism or a prediction or necessary condition is that there are no irreducibly mental entities. That whatever intentional entities exist, they emerge from more basic, non-intentional material or physical constituents.

    “In knowing this, does one know the main thing there is to know, or does one only have a negative truth (that supernaturalism is false), with the positive truth having to wait until science has completed its work? Is the basic outline of the scientific picture of the world in view, with only details to be filled in, or could our understanding of nature still have major upheavals ahead? ”

    Very much depends, of course. However, many naturalists seem to view the current state of affairs as having “basic outline” with only “details” to be filled in.

    Thomas Nagel’s Mind and Cosmos is an interesting, honorable, but an ultimately failed (as in fully justified) attempt to sketch out the possible contours of what a non-supernatural, idealist/rationalist system could look like.

    Technological and scientific “progress” is not likely to be kind to either to either super-naturalism or idealism as this century continues. However, it will also mean that man or human nature is demystified and, very likely, dehumanized as well.

    How many people are aware of the fact that you can buy a gadget that allows you to control a cockroach using a remote control? Probably very few people and the rest would consider such a thing unlikely or impossible. However, the same principles that apply to the roach can apply to man.

    Coming back to philosophical disagreement, one wonders how much of it is a consequence of personality and temperament. William James and his “tender-minded” and “tough-minded” approach.

  5. “These philosophies are to be regarded as toy models.”

    I concur but you will get a lot of pushback from Thomists.

  6. ^It seems to depend on what we mean by “Thomism”. “Thomism,” the system, may need to be regarded as a toy model. (Or not – I’m not sure why the “system” of the future would be something new or different, rather than a continuation or perfection of something that currently exists.) But there are many truths associated with Thomism that are not up for debate for Catholics: the distinction between substance and accidents, the 24 Theses, the teleological view of ethics, etc.

    I’m also not sure that what we’re looking for is a model, per se. It is simply true, regardless of whatever place it may have in this or that model, that there are such things as substances and accidents. The tendency to think in terms of systems seems unhelpful to me. St. Thomas was wrong for most of his life regarding the Immaculate Conception, but that error didn’t invalidate the many other true things he said, and it doesn’t seem indicative of an underlying flaw in his “model”, in the same way that an erroneous prediction in one of the physical sciences may indicate such a flaw. On the other hand, Scotus was right about the Immaculate Conception, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that he’s hit on a deeper underlying principle in the process, such that we would be compelled to accept other parts of his model – for instance, that Christ would have become incarnate even without the Fall.

    From what I can tell (which isn’t very much), it’s part of historicizing modernity to look back at prior thinkers as creators or synthesizers of “models”. They themselves seemed to be concerned simply with truth, which is why St. Thomas was perfectly comfortable using and amplifying Aristotle, St. Augustine, and Dionysius, despite the fact that they were, respectively, the first of the Aristotelians, the founder of the “Augustinian school,” and a dyed-in-the-wool Christian Neo-Platonist. Insofar as any of them said what was true, they are worthy of emulation, without the necessity of adopting the constellation of positions which in our minds are constitutive of their systems.

  7. Dark Reformation101,

    I agree that this is a useful definition of naturalism. Let me probe the boundaries.
    John Searle has argued that mental phenomena are in some sense irreducible but are materially caused (in a way that he says is not property dualism but sounds a lot like property dualism). That is, causal reduction is a weaker claim than formal reduction, but I would suppose that it is still naturalist in a broad sense.

  8. Tuscon Traditionalist,

    Indeed we must distinguish what I mean by Thomism. Aquinas himself wasn’t concerned with staying on one side of my descriptive/systematic distinction. There’s no reason he should have done just one or the other, of course, but the failure to distinguish has encouraged him and his followers to paper over difficulties rather than seeing in them opportunities for fundamental improvement.

    To me, the Thomist metaphysical principles and arguments are more dubious than the truths of faith they are meant to prove. I take a positive view of Aquinas’ work considered as a stab at explaining and justifying these truths, one that hits on a lot that is right and will thus form a part of some future, more adequate system. That I am required by ecclesiastic authority to accept certain Thomist propositions makes me no more positively disposed to the philosophy, since I evaluate the philosophy by how compelling its arguments are, not whether I know they are true by some other light.

    I would resist the demand that I not only, say, believe in God but believe that Aquinas’ arguments for his existence are conclusive, because I don’t think that they are. For that matter, I can and do hold all the following in my head at once: 1) the persistence of personal identity after death is an established truth of the faith, 2) the Thomist philosophy of mind is elegant and captures a lot of the truth about the mind-body relation, and 3) the natural inference from this philosophy of mind is that personal identity does not persist after death. Of course, Thomas did not agree, and we could argue about who’s application of Thomist hylemorphic dualism is correct.
    My point is that since I regard Thomism as a model and not “the truth” these conflicts are not a problem for me. They’re just an indication that the model must be improved–details added, clarifications made–to make it more faithful to the truth. And the best way to get this process going is to find, honestly acknowledge, and focus on these conflicts.

    I’m glad you brought up Duns Scotus, because he’s an example of how Catholic intellectuals were at work doing this the very generation after Aquinas. And, indeed, Scotism is in many ways an improvement over Thomism, because Scotus benefitted from Thomism but put everything he worked on to more rigorous analysis.

    As far as I can tell, the idea that the Catholic worldview depends on Thomism (not only the truth of its assertions but also the validity of its arguments) only comes after Aeterni Patris. It would be unfair to say that this has been a big problem for the Church. Nowadays, most professional theologians reject large swaths of the faith and Thomism with it, and the distinction between the two doesn’t much interest them. Still, I have sometimes wished that Leo XIII had just recommended scholastic philosophy in general rather than singling out one schoolman in particular.

  9. Interesting reply.

    Firstly, not sure what you mean by “formal reduction”. Do you mean “formal” in the sense that Aristotle would?

    In any case, from your reply, the definition can perhaps be sharpened.

    Regarding ontological reduction and epistemological reduction it sounds like Searle is a ontological reductionist and, therefore, a metaphysical naturalists but is not an epistemological reductionist.

    (In fact, Searle seems to claim that he is a the opposite. He is not an “ontological “reductionist” but a causal one.)

    Searle sounds like he is a non-reductive physicalist. So he fits one half of the naturalist definition well in that the cause of consciousness is natural or physical.

    The difficulty it seems is that he claims that consciousness is real (a real property) and cannot be reduced for it has a “first-person-nature.”

    A naturalist can agree that C is real and that first-person feels are AN essential part of consciousness. However, C is not supernatural, mysterious or idealist for an essential or necessary condition of C is that it is physical (physical facts and processes) and AN essential or necessary condition of the explanation of C is that it is physically caused and realized.

    Have you seen any of this BTW?

  10. Bonald,
    It may be that your physics background is raising scruples where none should exist?
    Physics is study of inanimate bodies. It has no competence over living things. Even animals or plants are outside its purview. A lot of problems resolve if we do not take physics to have a sort of veto.
    I wonder if you have read Schumacher’s A Guide to the Perplexed. It talks about this very question.,

  11. I’m not sure what you mean by this. In one sense, living things clearly are described by physics. Their motion obeys energy and momentum conservation. They have determinate mass, heat capacity, electrical conductivity, and so forth. Everything one knows about torque applies to muscle movements; everything one knows about hydrodynamics applies to blood flow. On the other hand, for living things one can “factor out” a higher degree of intelligibility. One can speak about how organs interact with each other without descending into chemical details. Many things possess higher intelligibility of this sort. One can understand a computer program without knowing anything about electronics, just trusting that circuit components can somehow appropriately embody logical operations. This factored higher intelligibility is closely related to formal causality.

  12. Bonald,
    Physics treats living things as non-living, there being no category of “living things” or “life” in physics or even chemistry. So, the characteristic patterns or activities of living things go unrecognized by physics. For instance, the sensorium that animals possess.

    It is very curious that while Aquinas recognized three divisions of the things according to the freedom they have— inanimate things that move by necessity, the animals that move by instinct and man that moves freely, the contemporary discussion only considers the dichotomy of motion by necessity and free motion, and entirely omits the position of animals. I suppose all the moderns, even those committed to super-naturalist position, consider the animals to move by necessity. But it is entirely unproven though. Hence this is one instance, where the modern philosophy has regressed.

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