Friday, December 31, 2010

Aquinas, Descartes, and Schaeffer

This post consists of the fruit of some investigations related to a combox discussion on this post. My interlocutor suggests that Schaeffer is correct in proposing that Aquinas paved the way for Descartes. I deny this for the reasons already presented in that post and in the subsequent comments. Here are a few more hopefully helpful bits on the subject. As an aside, I think it’s worth noting that it is Descartes who is regarded as the father of modern philosophy and not Aquinas.

John Peterson writes in Aquinas: A New Introduction, with respect to metaphysics:

[T]he temptation is to conclude that Aquinas was a Cartesian before Descartes. For both philosophers avoid the extremes of materialism on the one hand and idealism on the other. They both deny either that all is matter or that all is mind.

Yet there are important differences between the two philosophers. That is partly due to the fact that Aquinas was less of a Platonist than was Descartes on the matter of persons. For Descartes, a person’s soul or mind is a complete substance, just as it is for Plato. But for Aquinas, who is here closer to Aristotle, a person’s soul is not a complete substance in its own right but rather the form of his or her body. For wider philosophical reasons, Descartes rejected outright the analysis of natural things into form and matter. For that reason, he could not and would not have applied the form-matter schema to the analysis of persons. So even though they are together in denying what is now called identity materialism (as well as, for that matter, epiphenomenalism), the two philosophers part company as regards the sort of thing the spiritual human soul is, i.e. whether it is a complete substance or the (incomplete) form of a substance. [p. xi, available here; emphasis added]

In my view this is a fundamental difference for the present discussion. On the one hand it is consistent both with Descartes’ rationalism (which Aquinas did not share) and with his famous insistence upon starting his philosophical inquiry with himself (or, to be more precise, with his own rational powers)—which Aquinas also did not share.

In a related vein we find the following in The Cambridge Companion to Aquinas. Joseph Owens writes there:

Common to both Aristotle and Aquinas is the tenet that all naturally attainable knowledge originates in external sensible things. By their efficient causality transmitted through the appropriate media, the external things impress their forms upon the human cognitive faculties, and thereby make the percipient be the thing perceived in the actuality of the cognition. The awareness is directly of the thing itself, and only concomitantly and reflexively of the percipient and of the cognitive acts. The external things remain epistemologically prior. From this viewpoint both Aristotle and Aquinas remain radically distinct from modern philosophers, who from Descartes on base their philosophy upon ideas or sensations or vivid phenomena, instead of immediately on external things themselves. Likewise, both Aristotle and Aquinas remain just as distinct from postmodern thinkers who look for their starting points in linguistic and historical formation. [53; emphasis added]

So we see here that Owens too traces the beginnings of modern philosophy not to Aquinas (pace my interlocutor) but to Descartes, and identifies a “radical distinction” between the two.

In the Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on Descartes, we read the following:

Descartes rejected the Aristotelian philosophy as soon as he left school. … [I]t is probable that what dissatisfied him most in what he had been taught was natural philosophy. [Page 4, which may be seen here]

If Descartes rejected the philosophy, how can it reasonably be said that he was dependent upon Aquinas?

Elsewhere we read:

Descartes did not publish anything until he was forty years old, largely due to his fears of censure.

Why would he fear censure if his views were consistent with those of Aquinas? Answer: he wouldn’t. But he did, because they weren’t.

And again:

Descartes self-consciously rejected the philosophical heritage of scholasticism, and attempted to formulate a new philosophical method and construct of new system of philosophical knowledge. It should be noted that Descartes did concede to theology the role that it occupied in the mediaeval period and still occupied in the church of his day; yet justifiably historians attribute this concession to his fear of persecution of ecclesiastical authorities. His statement, “That we must believe all that God has revealed, even though it is above the range of our capacities” (Principles 1.25) is anomalous in his system based on systematic doubt. [Emphasis added]

I think it’s pretty clear that we may safely deny any substantive Thomistic influence on Descartes. Schaeffer was wrong.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Fed Up

I am weary of the "enhancements" that Google has added to Blogger. It's bad enough that I get the stupid "URI too large" error when posting comments on others' Blogger blogs; it's ridiculous that it also happens to me on my own blog.

I'm not going to say that I'm shutting down The Supplement, but blogging shouldn't provide irritants. Since Google seems to think that irritants are a useful part of the blogging experience (since they've added this particular irritant), I'm going to [mostly] give this up.

I'm sure I'll still post from time to time. Given this year's performance, I suppose people are used to that now already. But I'll look elsewhere for my US RDA of irritants. I don't need to get them from here.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Waste Not, Want Not

I wrote the following in reply to Ken, in a thread over at David Waltz’s. But Blogger decided that it was too long and would not allow me even to preview it. Fine. So I split it into two smaller pieces, intending to post a single comment across two physical comments. But when I tried that it complained—during the process of posting—that the URI was too large, even though the parts were several hundred characters under Blogger’s limit. Whatever. Blogger people, fix this junk. It is ridiculous for limits like this to exist on a discussion forum.

So I gave up on the thread.

But since I don’t want the time I spent writing this to go to waste, here it is in its entirety. I wonder if Blogger will allow that?

Ken wrote:

Just asserting that doesn't prove your point.

You wrote that in response to this remark of mine: “As we’ve said repeatedly, the problem is with the Reformed doctrine of perspicuity,” something that I said by way of excusing you from fault with regard to the difficulties you have had in providing a complete list of things that you say are necessary to believe in order to be saved. Are you saying that the problem really is with you, and not with what you believe? I seriously doubt it.

Works pretty good for all conservative and Reformed, doctrinal Protestants. (about things essential for salvation; not secondary issues, which are the things churches disagree over)

And yet in this thread you have been demonstrably unsure about providing The List of things which a man must believe in order to be saved. You began with “a stab” at some of those essentials; when the rather obvious weakness of this was pointed out, you reversed course and said that your first list was actually complete. But uncertainty returned before you even got the latter comment posted, and you reserved the right to change your mind again later.

Meanwhile, as was shown, TF is absolutely panic-stricken at the thought of providing The List at all. He just refuses to do it, pretending (I suppose) that this is a course of moderation. But it isn’t. It isn’t because he knows as well as you do yourself that not even Reformed people agree about those essentials.

Furthermore, it is a question-begging qualification to suggest that the Reformed doctrine of perspicuity “works pretty good” for Reformed folks. You may recall that the doctrine doesn’t claim to be relevant only for Reformed folks; rather, the WCF’s language unambiguously asserts that anyone (Reformed or not, educated or not) can readily discover the things that must be believed in order to be saved. So the fact not only that the Reformed can’t and won’t agree about The List but that Protestants in their entirety cannot do so categorically demolishes the value of the doctrine. It is worthless.

Actually, Protestants are quite unified on the essential doctrines for salvation; which I pretty much think I covered.

With all due respect, this remark seems to me to be absurd, given the fact that you yourself aren’t even sure that you provided The List. “Pretty much” is pretty inadequate, in my opinion, when one is discussing things that must be believed in order to be saved. A single deviation would land someone in hell. And you’re not 100% sure about The List—a List of things which are just absolutely clear in the Bible (if the doctrine in question is true)???

I gave you a list of the clear things, for salvation. Most all Protestants would agree with that list.

So much for “quite unified.” :-)

You say, "it doesn't work". What do you mean by that? Work to produce what?

Here is what the WCF says: “those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation are so clearly propounded, and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them.”

If that was actually true, it ought to be child’s play to provide a list of all and only “those things.” But the falsity of it is clear in that Protestants absolutely disagree about such things. So, to answer your question, the doctrine does not work in the sense that no one can tell us what “those things” actually are: all of them, with no omissions and no extras whatsoever.

And the effect of this is that Christians are left to decide for themselves what “those things” are. And that is just plain wrong (besides being divisive, as the history of Protestantism shows).

Does the RCC list of de fide dogmas for salvation actually work? How do you know they work?

First off, attempting a tu quoque here does not get you off the hook for the problems in what you believe yourself. :-)

Secondly, the Church does not pretend that literally every Catholic must be able to explicitly profess adherence to literally every dogma, because She understands that not everyone is gifted with the time, talents, and treasure necessary to know and understand them all. Intellectual ability is not a prerequisite of saving faith; it is sufficient that a man sincerely intend to believe all that the Church professes. Consequently your tu quoque fails, in that the Church neither claims that all dogmas are readily accessible to all men nor that they are required to explicitly believe all of them. Explicit faith is definitely to be preferred, and laziness in pursuit of it is certainly culpable, but men are not called to things that are beyond their gifts.

[Catholic dogmas] certainly did not produce unity, for Luther and Calvin and all the Protestants after them did not fall in line, so it didn't work.

I wonder whether you think (mistakenly, as it turns out, though I do not blame you for it) that the primary fault of the Reformed doctrine of perspicuity is its effects upon unity? No. That is a serious effect, certainly. But what I had in mind is more the fact that Protestant disunity about those essentials that are allegedly guaranteed by this “perspicuity” demonstrates the epistemological weakness of the doctrine.

Getting back to what you said in the last quotation: Catholic dogma does not possess the intrinsic power to compel submission. If men (like Luther and Calvin) sin by refusing to exercise the divine virtue of faith, that is a fault on their part, not a defect on the part of the Truth.

Reformed Protestants may have even more real spiritual unity on the essentials than Roman Catholics do.

Paraphrase: “All the people in this tiny room—who happen to agree with [most] of what I believe—have more unity than a billion Catholics.”

Heh. Well, any sufficiently-small group of self-selecting individuals would indeed have a high degree of unity. Yes. But that is a poor measuring stick for truth, in my opinion.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

St Augustine and Material Heresy

Being wrong is one thing; being wrong because you don’t know any better is another thing entirely. So St Augustine writes:

If, Honoratus, a heretic, and a man trusting heretics seemed to me one and the same, I should judge it my duty to remain silent both in tongue and pen in this matter. But now, whereas there is a very great difference between these two: forasmuch as he, in my opinion, is an heretic, who, for the sake of some temporal advantage, and chiefly for the sake of his own glory and pre-eminence, either gives birth to, or follows, false and new opinions; but he, who trusts men of this kind, is a man deceived by a certain imagination of truth and piety. [De utilitate credendi 1]

I suppose I could add another option (besides just being mistaken) to the non-pejorative possibilities for those who disagree with us: being deceived. And St Augustine shows here that different types of errors warrant different sorts of responses. Generally speaking (for those of us who do not happen to be Doctors of the Church…) the first sort of response ought to be in the range of humility.

But I digress. The point that I wished to make with this post is that there is nothing novel in the Catholic Church’s insistence that the sons and daughters of actual heretics (that is, those who have been formally condemned by the Church as such) are not guilty of formal heresy when they follow in their parents’ footsteps. They err, certainly, if they believe the same heretical things, but they are just not in the same boat with the leaders.

Elsewhere we have seen that St Augustine said basically the same thing.

But though the doctrine which men hold be false and perverse, if they do not maintain it with passionate obstinacy, especially when they have not devised it by the rashness of their own presumption, but have accepted it from parents who had been misguided and had fallen into error, and if they are with anxiety seeking the truth, and are prepared to be set right when they have found it, such men are not to be counted heretics. [Letter 43]

So we see that Augustine agrees with the Catholic Church. We should not be surprised to learn that this is the case; after all, he was Catholic. He doesn’t use the words “material heresy,” but the idea is clearly present, as is the distinction between that and formal heresy. There’s nothing “progressive” or “liberal” about the Church saying today that Protestants are our brothers in Christ by virtue of their baptism, nor in denying that they are subject to the anathemas of Trent. It’s simple justice.


“As a general rule, people, even the wicked, are much more naïve and simple-hearted than we suppose. And we ourselves are too”—Dostoyevsky

I think that the second sentence really makes this remark really hit home more. It’s tremendously easy (especially on the Internet) to make the jump from wondering why Joe Bob doesn’t agree with me to concluding that the answer is so totally obvious that his disagreement cannot possibly result from anything other than bad faith, stupidity, or culpable ignorance. But when I go down that road I ignore at least two other explanations: I’m wrong myself, or Joe Bob is just simply mistaken: not devious, not doltish, and not uninformed.

I think that Dostoyevsky’s observation gets at the root of the thing. Sure, it’s possible that Joe Bob is Satan’s bagman. Yeah, he might be as dumb as a bag of hammers. Yeah, he might not have read all the coolest books like I have. But in the end it’s far more likely that Joe Bob is doing his best, and he happens to have reached different conclusions than I have. No malice, doltishness, or ignorance necessary. After all, if we look around the world we find smart and well-informed people on opposite sides of practically any question that you might happen to ask. Yet it’s tremendously easy to just be a jerk and think the worst of the other guy.

I don’t want to be a jerk. I’m going to try hard not to be. And I don’t want to waste my time bickering with jerks. There are better things to do.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

St Augustine Accepted Church Authority

St. Augustine accepted the authority of the Catholic Church, unlike Protestants who vainly wish that he was one of their own. Says the Doctor of the Church:

This religion can be defended against loquacious persons and expounded to seekers in many ways. Omnipotent God may himself show the truth, or he may use good angels or men to assist men of good will to behold and grasp the truth. Everyone uses the method which he sees to be suitable to those with whom he has to do. I have given much consideration for a long time to the nature of the people I have met with either as carping critics or as genuine seekers of the truth. I have also considered my own case both when I was a critic and when I was a seeker; and I have come to the conclusion that this is the method I must use. Hold fast whatever truth you have been able to grasp, and attribute it to the Catholic Church. Reject what is false and pardon me who am but a man. What is doubtful believe until either reason teaches or authority lays down that it is to be rejected or that it is true, or that it has to be believed always. Listen to what follows as diligently and as piously as you can. For God helps men like that. [Of True Religion 20, in Augustine: Earlier Writings, p. 235; emphasis added]

Now of course we must not conclude from the complete absence here of any mention of Scripture that St Augustine held the Bible in contempt. Far from it. But at the same time, it would be absurd to suppose that he held the authority of the Catholic Church in contempt. Far from it! As we see above, he held that the Church has authority to define dogmas and to condemn heresy, and that God blesses those who accept what the Church teaches.

An interesting side note here (apart from the primary point that he submitted to the Church’s authority and urged others to do the same) is that he evidently held to some form of doctrinal development. For he anticipates that there will be subjects about which we may find ourselves unsure of the truth, but which will be settled by decree of the Church. It seems reasonable to infer that such decrees may not already exist in every case, so that the expectation is for some questions to be definitively settled in the future. This is not the only place where he has expressed such an opinion; he also did so in On Free Choice of the Will. See here.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

St Augustine on “Fitness”

Sometimes we hear Protestants complain that arguments from fitness for some belief or other are invalid. For example, when we say that it was fitting that Our Lady’s virginity should have been preserved, Protestants get upset as though it proves nothing.

Here is something that that St Augustine has to say about arguments from fitness.

When this is known it will be as clear as it can be to men that all things are subject by necessary, indefeasible and just laws to their Lord God. Hence all those things which to begin with we simply believed, following authority only, we come to understand. Partly we see them as certain, partly as possible and fitting, and we become sorry for those who do not believe them, and have preferred to mock at us for believing rather than to share our belief. [Of True Religion, 14]

By his measure we would say (quite reasonably, I think) that an argument from fitness is not so certain as one based more upon reason. This fact does not mean that arguments from fitness are without any validity at all. Similarly, it seems clear that he does not consider them to be contrary to reason. Lastly, there is more than a hint here of St Anselm’s saying, “I believe in order that I may understand:” the pattern in the quotation above is to begin by believing what the Church teaches, and to move from there to understanding.

I concur with Augustine’s careful understanding of the usefulness of arguments from fitness (see another example here): they certainly aren’t as good as demonstration, but they are not without value, either. In any case, the purpose of this post is merely to highlight the fact that St Augustine stands in the long tradition of the Church in affirming the use of such arguments, and Protestants distance themselves from him when they reject them.