Daily Archives: February 28, 2009

Whatever happened to philosophy?

A few weeks ago, I blogged about a Vatican conference on evolution which refuses to allow discussion of intelligent design. I contended that intelligent design, as such, is an exercise in neither science nor theology but philosophy: looking for what the implications of science tell us about the greater reality of the Cosmos.

When Aristotle developed the science we call metaphysics, he was doing just that. Many in professional philosophy question the exact meaning of “metaphysics” in the titles that later scholars gave to Aristotle’s works. Literally “meta” means “beyond,” so “metaphysics” could be “the *science* that is beyond physics” or it could just be “the *book* that comes after Physics.

In either case, Aristotle’s book that we know as Metaphysics takes the principles he outlines in the book Physics and uses them to try and find clues about the ultimate origins and purpose of the universe–to look for the definition of what it means “to be,” and to seek out what we call “God.”

Once Christianity took over, that became the paradigm of philosophy: searching for God through nature; looking for what we can know about God and what we can know about morality through human reason.

Somewhere around or after the Enlightenment, however, Christians seemed to decide that this was a futile effort. It became generally accepted (for reasons that remain unclear to me) that Aquinas’s adaptation of Aristotle was disproven, and that such efforts by Christian apologists and theologians to seek God in science are futile. Part of the blame for this is to be placed on the Protestants. But another part is to be blamed on the Darwinists. Perhaps *that* is the real danger of Darwinism to Christianity.

Evolution itself does not disprove God. There were disputes between established science and the Bible long before Darwin. But when Marx co-opted Darwin’s research, those inclined to atheism found themselves a kind of “atheist Bible,” and it became their absolute dictum that science could disprove religion.

Protestants, not used to philosophy, along with some facets of the Catholic world, rebelled but implicitly accepted Marx’s argument. They turned against science.

And, somehow, in the past 2 centuries, philosophy has largely been abandoned in general. The formal discipline of philosophy was relegated to an abstract academic department.

The movemeent led to several innovations in philosophy:
1 . The Marxist-Darwinist paradigm opened the door for a new wave of ethicists, mainly the Pragmatists and Utilitarians.
2. Metaphysics lost its original purpose and floundered a while. At first, philosophers mostly abandoned metaphysics, considering it a “done deal,” and turned to epistemology (positivism, hermeneutics, phenomenology).
3. To the extent it remained, metaphysics became a matter of abstraction–existentialism.

What was left of Christian philosophy was subsumed into apologetics (the argument of my undergraduate thesis was that C. S. Lewis, had he lived in a previous age, would have been considered a Christian philosopher, as well as an apologist).

Before, it was taken for granted that scientific inquiry pointed to God, but that we had to turn to phliosophy for the process. Now, it is taken for granted that “science” is sufficient in itself. We have people like Richard Dawkins and P.Z. Myers practicing bad philosophy and caling it science. I say “bad philosophy” not just because they’re wrong but because they are amateurs trying to practice metaphysics while still calling it science. They are basically denying not just the necessity of theology but the necessity of metaphysics as a discipline. They do not acknowledge the methodologies or fundamental questions of both disciplines. Instead, as I’ve argued elsewhere, atheists are marked by their lack of desire to explore anything outside their comfort zones.

We have heard, since the death of William F. Buckley, Jr., that conservatism needs a “new Buckley.” In a very interesting critique of talk radio, John Derbyshire criticizes how the conservative movement has allowed itself to be run by its “low brow” propagandists.

Derbyshire’s argument is complex, and I’m not going to critique it in this post. However, I will emphasize what I agree with, and what I’ve said for a long time: American conservatism lacks a philosophical leader. I would argue that contemporary progressivism lacks one, as well. Both spectrums argue entirely from buzzwords and presuppositions. Neither side really engages in introspection any more. Neither side stops to examine its first principles or whether its agenda fits with its first principles.

Derbyshire compares Rush Limbaugh very negatively to WFB and quotes Obama supporter Chrisopher Buckley saying as such. It’s hard to say. WFB at his worst was more offensive than Rush can be, and Rush at his best is fairly philosophical. The Way Things Ought to Be is really a good book. It is certainly oriented to a popular audience in style and tone, but it outlines a fairly consistent conservative worldview.

Over the years, though, Limbaugh has become arrogant; he has become what he originally railed against, and his drug issues didn’t help. There are certain matters, especially the ones pertaining to Bush Derangement Syndrome, where Rush’s commentary loses the underpinnings of conservative principles. One of the onse that grates me the most is his insistence that conservatism is optimistic.

Conservatism may or may not need a Buckley, but it definitely needs a new Ruseell Kirk.

Meanwhile, as I’ve commented many times before, religious conservatism handicaps itself by being too religious. Recently, in a Catholic Answers forums thread, I made a comment about Natural Law. The reply was that Natural Law was a controversial subject even in Catholic circles, that a recent Catholic Answers thread on the subject got so heated that it was locked.


Protestants say, “It’s in the Bible.” This leads to secularists basing their arguments on a) dissing the Bible in general or b) quoting passages of the Bible that ssupport *their* cause.
Catholics say, “The Church teaches that . . .” This leads to the question, “Why should I care if I’m not Catholic?” or “The Church may teach it, but most Catholics don’t follow it.”

Thus, I stumbled this evening on William Saletan’s New York Times review of Embryo by Robert P. George and my friend (and, hopefully, future Ph.D. advisor), Christopher Tollefsen. Saletan seems genuinely puzzled at the “novelty” that George and Tollefsen base their arguments on science, rather than religion. They try to formulate a scientific definition of human life. It’s basically the same thing many pro-lifers have done for decades, only with the sophistication of professional Catholic philosophers. Saletan, however, doesn’t get it. He relies on the old liberal argument–a religious one–that we must talk about whether the embryo is an “individual” or a “person”.

In the classic episode of Star Trek: the Next Generation “The Measure of a Man,” which originally aired 20 years ago(!), JAG officer Philippa Louvois asks, “Does Data have a soul? . . . I don’t know if I have a soul.” She rightly gives that question up to “philosophers and saints,” though she does so by making the legal declaration–later echoed in Planned Parenthood v. Casey–that people have the right to determine for themselves whether they have souls.

So, again, Christian discourse in public fails because we are not used to philosophy as social discourses. Christiaans who *try* to argue philosophically, in even teh most “lowbrow” manner, are generally undercut by our culture’s complete denial of the possibility of philosophical inquiry.

An articulate, intelligent Christian is put on cable news (forget the alleged agendas of different networks; they’re all the same this way), up against some screaming, cussing, acid-tongued liberal “comedian”. The Chrisitian speaker (whether it’s the late Jerry Falwell or the late Fr. Richard John Neuhaus or the very current Dr. Janet Smith) tries to make an articulate position but is cut off, outshouted, and dismissed as a fool for his inability to keep it up.

We need more philosophers. We need to return philosophy to the center of disciplines. That our social discourse has dissolved to shouting and satire, so that even the most basic philosophical aproaches to discourse are rejected outright, is one of the surest signs of our society’s impending collapse.