God, Philosophy, Universities

Alasdair MacIntyre has produced an introduction to the Catholic philosophical tradition, based on a class he has taught to beginning graduate students at Notre Dame University.  MacIntyre has two preoccupations.  The first is to identify the characteristic beliefs that unite those in the Catholic intellectual tradition, particularly regarding the relationships between theology, philosophy, and science.  The second is to consider the social embodiment of Catholic intellectual effort.  What structures are needed or have been used to carry it out?  How must people be trained if they are to participate in it?

MacIntrye himself is, obviously, a moral philosopher of some note.  I had been a bit worried that his idiosyncratic communitarianism might color his narrative too much, as it certainly did in Whose Justice?  Which Rationality?, in which he presents his image of society as a sort of moral philosophy debating club (an image that could only appeal to a moral philosopher), with morals being the rules that keep the club on track, and taking this to be somehow a Thomist position.  Fortunately, that doesn’t happen.  The book is very well balanced.  Metaphysics and ethics are both covered.  Augustine, Aquinas, and Newman receive the most attention–which is certainly defensible–but Boethius, Anselm, Scotus, Ockham, Descartes, and Pascal are given some not entirely negative attention.  He even mentions some more contemporary Catholic non-Thomists such as Edith Stein and Elizabeth Anscombe.

The chapter on Augustine is quite good.  In it MacIntyre introduces his first point about how philosophy and theology should relate.  Faith purifies the intellect.  Only in relation to God to we see ourselves truly.  Otherwise, our self-knowldedge is bound to be obscured by pride, defensiveness, and prejudice.  As MacIntyre puts it, the Confessions had to be written as a prayer.  In discussing Ibn Sina and Aquinas, MacIntyre presents the cosmological argument.  He makes an excellent point that theists and atheists see their differences differently.  The atheist thinks that he and the theist agree on everything in the universe, except that the theist believes (unjustifiably) in one more thing.  According to the theist, he and the atheist disagree on everything, because they disagree on the intelligibility of finite things.  God provides an ultimate explanation, an ultimate ground of intelligibility, for finite beings.  The atheist doesn’t agree that finite beings have that sort of intelligibility.  MacIntyre also gives the clearest explanation I’ve read on the Thomist position of the body-soul relationship.  According to Aquinas, the soul performs immaterial acts (making it more than a material form), but it is individuated by the body it informs (making it less than a separate substance).

My main criticism–which will be entirely unfair–is that MacIntryre usually feels the need to discuss his subjects’ more unfortunately famous thoughts.  I almost wonder if it’s a conspiracy among secular philosophers to make sure that every major Catholic philosopher is remembered only for his dumbest thought.  So, for example, Anselm is mainly remembered for his ontological argument, Aquinas is mainly remembered for the Five Ways, and Pascal is remembered for his wager.  MacIntyre defends his subjects a little, presenting Anselm’s Reply to Guanilo (which makes much better points than the original Proslogion) and arguing that maybe Pascal wasn’t speaking in his own voice in the Pensee concerning the wager.  I would have rather MacIntyre had ignored these issues and focused on the more impressive, but less discussed, contributions of these thinkers.

So, what defines the Catholic philosophical tradition?  MacIntryre is grateful to Pope Leo XIII for rebooting Thomism, but he disagrees that the Catholic philosophical tradition is simply identical to Thomism.  Refreshingly, he even acknowleges that there are some problems, like the problem of individuation, that Thomas failed to solve and are unsolved still.  Joining this tradition means being inducted into some live debates, and allowing oneself to be informed by the history of those debates.  True, the debates take place in a context of consensus on key issues, and MacIntyre, in a surprising but welcome move, supports the right of the Magisterium to intervene in philosophical debates to maintain this consensus and keep the intellectual project on track.  One crucial feature of an authentic Catholic intellectual culture is the felt need to bring all the separate intellectual disciplines into some overall conceptual unity.  This is the job of philosophy and (since it is ultimately God that is the source and summit of this unity) theology.  Therefore, MacIntyre doesn’t like the way the modern research university is organized, because each discipline goes its own way, with philosophy being just another specialty.  We must reject secular models and organize ourselves appropriately for the great task ahead.  And what task is that?  Nothing less than the reunification of human knowledge and the confution of the Church’s enemies.

This sounds great, and I’d even like to chip in on this project of Catholic intellectual unification (and hopefully I do, in my very small way, through this blog) as long as I get to keep doing my specialized work too.  As MacIntyre recognized, we need both.

16 Responses

  1. Thanks for the review! I’ll definitely try and get a copy of the book.

    I’m curious, though, as to why you think the Proslogion argument and the Five Ways “dumb”. Certainly, they wrote more impressive things, but that hardly qualifies the arguments in question as dumb or sub-par.

  2. I mean, Sts. Anselm and Thomas wrote more impressive things.

  3. Hello Leo,

    The Proslogion argument is easy to shoot holes in, although I think Anslem’s reply to these criticisms makes more valuable points than the attempted proof itself. Thomas makes some very dubious assumptions in the 3rd and 4th way. Regarding the 3rd way, why is it that if something can possibly not exist, then necessarily it must not exist at some time? Even if we grant that, why couldn’t there be an infinite succession of transient objects? Regarding the 4th way, it is flat-out wrong that the maximum in every genus is the cause of all in that genus. The most beautiful woman in the world is not the cause of every other woman’s beauty, etc. If St. Thomas meant something else, he should have said so rather than basing his proof on such an obviously wrong statement. The frustrating thing is that you and I both know St. Thomas is capable of careful, penetrating argument, but introductory philosophy books and anthologies will often include the Five Ways as its sample of Thomism. If all we knew about Thomas was the Five Ways, we wouldn’t think very highly of him.

  4. Regarding the third way, Brandon Watson of Siris fame had an interesting post up a while back, which see.

    I haven’t studied the Fourth Way in great depth, but I suspect that an interpretation can be given it that makes sense of his otherwise bizarre principle. I tentatively outline such an interpretation in an early post on my blog (which I promise I’ll update soon!).

    Anyway, I agree that making the Five Ways an example of St. Thomas is rather silly, if only because it makes precisely zero sense without context.

  5. Also, why are you counting St. Edith Stein and G. E. M. Anscombe as non-Thomists? The later Stein has a definite Thomistic-Scholastic bent, and Anscombe was about as much a Thomist as is MacIntyre himself. Not necessarily a critique, I’m just curious what your standard is.

  6. Hi Leo,

    I wouldn’t necessarily be comfortable saying that they’re not Thomists, but MacIntyre treats them as non-Thomists, and since I was reviewing his book, I just followed his classifications.

  7. “… why is it that if something can possibly not exist, then necessarily it must not exist at some time?”

    Only for necessary beings is it true that the probability of their nonexistence is zero. [Everything I now proceed to say about your question is just an elaboration of this fact.] If there is some possibility that a being B may not exist at some instant of time – i.e., that ~B – then given an unending series of such instants, the probability that ~B will occur at a given instant in the series is (some positive quantity x such that x ≥ 1)/(an immensely large quantity, Q, of instants in the everlasting temporal series). For any given instant of the series, the probability of ~B is x/Q. Very small, perhaps, but greater than zero. x must be ≥ 1 because the smallest positive number of instances in which any sort of potentiality may be concretely actualized is 1; if the number of instances of ~B is less than 1, then it is zero, so that, necessarily, ~~B – which would be to say, that B is a necessary being, when under our gedanken experiment it is contingent. [Necessary beings are not quantal this way, but contingent beings are necessarily quantal.] So, any “probability x of ~B > 0” translates to “probability that ~B will happen at least once.”

    OK; but notice now that because every one of those instants of everlasting time will eventually be traversed, therefore the number of instants in which ~B will occur in the series as a whole is given by (Q)(x/Q) = x ≥ 1. The probability of at least one instance of ~B is 100%; so, ~B is certain to happen somewhere in the series.

  8. “… why couldn’t there be an infinite succession of transient objects?”

    An everlasting series might be infinitely extensive, but so long as it has a beginning, a first instance, then sooner or later every one of its instants will be traversed. But if a series is without beginning, and is infinite in both temporal directions, then it will take an infinitely long time for any of its instants to be traversed. The traversal will never reach any of the instants. So it will never reach any of them.

    “Regarding the 4th way, it is flat-out wrong that the maximum in every genus is the cause of all in that genus. The most beautiful woman in the world is not the cause of every other woman’s beauty, etc.”

    Right; Eurasia doesn’t cause Maui. But Eurasia is not the maximum. No creaturely island can be the maximum. Absolute maxima, than which no greater can be conceived, are not to be found in creatures.

  9. My last suffered from a hasty edit on my part. Here it is, with the error corrected:

    … why couldn’t there be an infinite succession of transient objects?”

    An everlasting series might be infinitely extensive, but so long as it has a beginning, a first instance, then sooner or later every one of its instants will be traversed. But if a series is without beginning, and is infinite in both temporal directions, the traversal will never reach any one of the instants, because to do so it would first have to traverse an infinite number of its predecessors. So it will never reach any of them.

    “Regarding the 4th way, it is flat-out wrong that the maximum in every genus is the cause of all in that genus. The most beautiful woman in the world is not the cause of every other woman’s beauty, etc.”

    Right; Eurasia doesn’t cause Maui. But Eurasia is not the maximum. No creaturely island can be the maximum. Absolute maxima, than which no greater can be conceived, are not to be found in creatures.

  10. “Only for necessary beings is it true that the probability of their nonexistence is zero”

    I disagree. Here’s an example. Suppose one lived in a deterministic universe governed by Newtonian physics–hardly a metaphysical impossiblity, as far as I can tell. Let’s say this universe is made up of two massive particles in gravitationally bound orbit around each other, and that the only way particles are destroyed in this universe is by colliding with each other. According to the laws of this universe, the two particles will orbit each other forever and never collide. The probability of a collision and consequent destruction is exactly zero. And yet it is still a contingent fact that they will never collide. The system might have had zero angular momentum, in which case a collision would happen. It just so happens that it doesn’t.

  11. But noncollision is not nonexistence. It is an actual event, or a series of actual events, occurring in an actual causal order. The 2 particle world is either contingent or necessary. If it is contingent, then there is a chance that it might cease to exist in just the sort of orbital stability you describe, either by simply winking out of existence, or by ceasing to obey its own natural law, or by a transformation into a different sort of world. There is in principle nothng to prevent these things from happening; this is what we mean by saying that they are possible; and by saying that something is possible, we are saying that it could really happen. Thus to say that “x is possible” *just is* to say that “there is a positive probability that x.” All of this is captured in the statement that “~x is not necessary, but rather contingent.”

    If your 2 particle world is necessary, there is no such chance. Likewise for its constituents.

  12. Hi Kristor,

    That’s interesting. I’m not sure how one would assign a probability for the laws of nature to abruptly change. Actually, in your setup, one specifies a probability of such a thing happening per unit time. I agree, of course, that if this probability/time is greater than zero, than the probability of it happening at some time goes to 1 as the time covered goes to infinity. But to me the idea of something being contingent, i.e. not logically or metaphysically necessary, is something different from saying that there’s a nonzero probability of that something ceasing to be true in a given stretch of time. The latter implies the former, but not vice versa, at least as far as I can see.

  13. I see what you mean. I see also that I have been expressing myself in terms that are too intratemporal. Rather than thinking in terms of a thing winking out of existence at some point in a temporal sequence, we should properly think of contingency and necessity in supratemporal terms. Consider the configuration space of all possible concrete instances of being, each with its attendant properties (including those relating to its historical antecedents and circumstances in such worlds as admit of its concrete inclusion). Each locus in that space is an unique intersection of the values of all the Platonic Forms; so, e.g., the locus therein of a red equilateral triangle would be fairly proximal to that of a scarlet equilateral triangle. You could call that configuration space, as Borges did, the Library of the Possible; Julian Barbour calls it Platonia. It is not a concrete space, but rather only ideal. A concrete cosmos with its history would be assembled by adstraction (the opposite of abstraction) from that configuration space; Platonists would say that adstraction is participation.

    All right then; for a locus z in that space – a possibly concrete thing – to be contingent means (among other things) that there is some locus L somewhere else in Platonia that, if it were concretely instantiated in an instance of concrete being, would render z incompossible in the same cosmos in which L was concretely instantiated. So, z is quite possible, except that it is incompossible with L.

    Across the set of all possible concrete instantiations, then, there is some subset that rules out the concrete instantiation of z. This is not the case for a necessary being: part of what we mean by calling a being necessary is that there are no possible concrete instantiations anywhere in the configuration space that rule it out. There can be only one such necessary being, but that’s a subject for another day. It is enough for now if we remember just that virtually all the nodes of Platonia are contingent; there is some positive probability that they will not be instantiated.

    So, call the set of nodes of Platonia S. It is, obviously, infinite (it has an original locus, but again, that’s a subject for another thread). Say that node z is very very likely to be instantiated in almost any concrete world, because it is incompossible with only one other node – call it ~z – in Platonia. So, z’s likelihood of failing to be eventuated in any cosmos is 1/S. Across all possible worlds, then, it fails of concreteness in just those worlds that instantiate ~z. In the infinitely many mansions of sempiternity, the likelihood of ~z is infinity*1/infinity.

    The saltation in this argument is in the very last sentence above. It does not imply that all possible worlds are instantiated, but only that those possible worlds are instantiated that generate net positive values. Unless ~z is totally evil in every respect (which it could not be; Platonia is the space of all possible actualities, and a totally evil being would lack the value of actual existence – “totally evil being” is a contradiction in terms), it will therefore find instantiation in at least one world. And in such ~z worlds, there will be no z.

    The saltation to the notion that somewhere in sempiternity all the compossible worldly values implicit in Platonia are eventually realized is ultimately justified by the reflection that omnipotence, not being constrained by any ontological budget, would actualize maximal possible value across all worlds.

    I hope that this transposition to a supratemporal frame will not seem like a dodge.

  14. Is this “Platonia” like the space of possible worlds that othere philosphers talk about? I agree that for any contingent being, there is some possible world where it doesn’t exist, and for any destructible being, there is some possible world where it ceases to exist, but that doesn’t get us anywhere, because only one of these worlds is really actualized.

  15. Platonia is a configuration space of possible actual events, rather than worlds. So a given node in Platonia might be actualized in any number of worlds, or in any number of alternative histories of a single world.

    How do we know that only one world is actualized? Maybe that’s the case, but prima facie that would make no more sense to me than the notion that only one planet should be actualized, or one star, or one tree.

    I don’t mean to flog this subject, it’s just that your criticism of Thomas piqued my interest. I don’t think that Thomas would lose anything by agreeing with you that a contingent thing would necessarily cease to exist sooner or later. We don’t even need to imagine a world of perfect gravitational symmetry to see that this might be true. After all, why should any world, once it has come into being, ever go out of being?

    It seems to me that Thomas gets everything he needs from the reflection that a contingent being can’t be causa sui.

  16. Please remember that St. Thomas’s Five Ways sum up detailed arguments he wrote in later in the Summa Theologica and others in the Summa Contra Gentiles.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: