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Into the Dark Wood

Louis Dupre, in Passage To Modernity: An Essay in the Hermeneutics of Nature and Culture [1]:

Only when the early humanist notion of human creativity came to form a combustive mixture with the negative conclusions of nominalist theology did it cause the cultural explosion that we refer to as modernity. Its impact shattered the organic unity of the Western view of the real. The earliest Ionian concept of physis had combined a physical (in the modern sense!) with an anthropic and a divine component. The classical Greek notion of kosmos (used by Plato and Aristotle), as well as the Roman natura, had preserved the idea of the real as an harmonious, all-inclusive whole. Its organic unity had been threatened by the Hebrew-Christian conception of a Creator who remained outside the cosmos. Yet, through his wisdom, support, and grace, he continued to be present in this world. At the end of the Middle Ages, however, nominalist theology effectively removed God from creation. Ineffable in being and inscrutable in his designs, God withdrew from the original synthesis altogether. The divine became relegated to a supernatural sphere separate from nature, with which it retained no more than [a] causal, external link. This removal of transcendence fundamentally affected the conveyance of meaning. Whereas previously meaning had been established in the very act of creation by a wise God, it now fell upon the human mind to interpret a cosmos, the structure of which had ceased to be given as intelligible. Instead of being an integral part of the cosmos, the person became its source of meaning. Mental life separated from cosmic being: as meaning-giving “subject,” the mind became the spiritual substratum of all reality. Only what it objectively constituted would count as real. Thus reality split into two separate spheres: that of the mind, which contained all intellectual determinations, and that of all other being, which received them.

Meaning that in modernity, there is no essential meaning. The world is not an icon, but a screen onto which we project our minds.

UPDATE: Reader Dave comments:

change_me

But in the context of what I understand of your religious and cultural archaeology I think the way I’ll go is that the challenge is not to preserve or recover a mode of thought – that genie is out of the bottle – it’s to recover the original impetus of that way of thinking, which I say is the direct experience of the living God.

Not only way of thinking, but way of living. That brought to mind something the Orthodox priest Father Stephen Freeman wrote about nominalism, realism, and Orthodoxy [2]. He concludes:

It is popularly said of Orthodoxy that it is not a set of beliefs, but a way of life. In many respects, this is simply a manner of saying that Orthodoxy is not a nominalist view of the world, but a revelation about the world itself.

Those who stand outside inquiring should ask themselves: did Christ come to assert a set of ideas, or did He come to reveal a way of living? If the latter – then it is not just inside the head.

UPDATE.2: Today, Sunday, it is raining outside, and I am bound to my chair in the living room, suffering from a bad back, but it is an opportunity to read this newly translated Russian novel, Laurus [3], set in medieval Russia (the New Yorker writes about it favorably here [4]). I have never read a novel like this story of its title character, a mystic peasant and pilgrim. It’s the kind of novel I set down after a few chapters, pick up my prayer rope [5], and pray. Why is that? Because, I think, the book immerses you in a world of the spirit, in a very Russian way. I can’t know what it would be like to encounter this book if I had not been praying and living as a Russian Orthodox Christian for the past nine years, but I can say that it is like walking into a room that I’ve never entered, but that seems weirdly familiar. Even though the world of the protagonist is very, very different from my own, I keep reading along and thinking, yes, that’s it, that’s the way it is.

I found this snippet from an interview with Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury [6], who is a very serious reader of Dostoevsky. It illuminates things:

LC For those of us steeped in Russian culture, the relationship between literature and religious thought always seemed very inspiring, but it’s exotic and strange from a British viewpoint. How would you describe it?

RW The key for me is the concept of “personalism”—a fascination with the unfathomable in each person. Russian personalism comprises a sharp reaction against collectivism, which, as we know, is odd given the dominance of collectivist tendencies in Russian history. But there’s a tension there. There’s a wonderful expression of personalism in Boris Pasternak’s novel Doctor Zhivago, when Yuri Zhivago speaks of a time when “There will be no spare people any more. Everyone counts.”

LC There’s also a long-standing tension with western individualism in Russian personalism, isn’t there?

RW Personalism creates a kind of way through to community and freedom at the heart of human life. It doesn’t set individual dignity and integrity against anything. Dostoevsky dismisses western individualism as “wills asserting themselves against reality, as opposed to finding the way through from personal freedom to the freedom of God.”

LC Can we unpack that? It seems important, but the language can be offputting for contemporary readers.

RW Dostoevsky and some of his followers would say ethics is not about good and evil; it’s about truth and falsehood, reality and illusion. The right way to live doesn’t amount to a series of approved actions. It’s about living in recognition of reality. [Emphasis mine — RD]

LC I like this idea of a true reality beaming its message out from Dostoevsky’s great novels, but on the face of it it’s so airy-fairily metaphysical I wonder whether we can persuade many people today to buy it.

RW Reality is an underlying conviction of harmony. The sense that there is a unity to human experience, that somewhere every river runs into the same sea.

This made me understand what Father Stephen Freeman was getting at. I see now that living out Orthodoxy amounts to be retrained to live as if nominalism were not true. That’s how it feels from the inside.

72 Comments (Open | Close)

72 Comments To "Into the Dark Wood"

#1 Comment By Irenist On October 26, 2015 @ 3:04 pm

@Eamus Catuli (again):

Maybe a spatial metaphor is better. Like Midgard, the human penchant for narrative conceals the Hel-ish reality of chaotic nature red in tooth and claw below, but still reflects the Order above–so it won’t do to gaze with Machiavelli and Marx only downward when founding our philosophy of history.

#2 Comment By EB On October 26, 2015 @ 3:25 pm

[NFR: This complaint doesn’t make sense. If they see the world in a nominalist way, it doesn’t matter if they are aware of the name for it. Come on. — RD]

If you’re trying to say that “nominalism” has polluted us even though it’s only happened through contact with modern culture, I can’t argue that. But I don’t see how you can retrieve a faith (or a world) if the terms of argument are meaningful only to 1% of the people. I guess you would say that’s how religion works: the experts who are orthodox have to drag the rest of us along. I don’t see it that way, and my experience has been otherwise.

#3 Comment By grumpy realist On October 26, 2015 @ 3:38 pm

DeclinetheEnjoy–or later–what about the effects of WWI on Western Thought, particularly, enshrinement of authority in stated authorities?

(I never did understand where Relativism came from in the first place. Relativism seems a particularly revolting result from a bunch of French philosophers who were spending more time blitzed out on absinthe at the cafe than they were on actually studying something about the Reality they were so dismissive of. Einstein had come up with Special Relativity and everyone in physics was in a tizzy, so the philosophers had to come up with something with the term “relative” in it as well. Has to do something about the ability to write sonorous phrases in French, methinks.)

#4 Comment By Eamus Catuli On October 26, 2015 @ 7:00 pm

@Irenist:

A medieval monastery could inculcate Scholasticism into a boy from the refined courts of Tuscany and a lad from the wilds of Tipperary, and get two thinkers who thought much alike. When you send an Afghan and an African to Western or Westernized universities to study the natural sciences, it’s hardly surprising to observe a similar effect.

I anticipated this objection. Yes, to the extent that they accept the results of modern science on its own terms, and/or become scientists themselves, people from the varied cultures I mentioned have been Westernized. But that (to me) is just another way of saying that the techniques for understanding nature that were developed (mostly) in the West are available to and can be learned by anyone, regardless of cultural background. Which still points to essential facts about nature being independent of culture and independent of the observer’s presuppositions. Which it seems you fully concede, anyway — as I expected you would since you never take ridiculous positions.

Maybe a spatial metaphor is better. Like Midgard, the human penchant for narrative conceals the Hel-ish reality of chaotic nature red in tooth and claw below, but still reflects the Order above–so it won’t do to gaze with Machiavelli and Marx only downward when founding our philosophy of history.

Right. Look, as I said, I love the history of ideas; if it weren’t so cost-ineffective, I would have got my Ph.D. in that instead of in English. I just think that while we’re at it, we need to keep at least one toehold in the real world.

#5 Comment By Jones On October 26, 2015 @ 7:24 pm

@Irenist

“LOL. Would that I had some fancy dissertation to write: I’ve never seen the inside of a philosophy classroom. Just another online autodidactic crank, I’m afraid. Still, I could stand to rein it in hereabouts….”

Whaaat? That’s impressive. And I was just kidding, of course, your comments are always interesting to read.

A non-academic with an avocational interest in Ibn Khaldun though . . . that’s something.

#6 Comment By MH – Secular Misanthropist On October 26, 2015 @ 7:36 pm

@grumpy realist, moral relativism is actually an old concept dating at least as far back as the ancient Greeks (hence the Protagoras quote up thread). Essentially any civilization that has contact with another finds some norms of the other civilization’s norms abhorrent, and vice versa. While both civilizations believe their norms are correct, who’s moral norms are correct in an objective sense?

For example the Saudis think beheading people for sorcery is morally necessary while we find it reprehensible. Which one of us is correct and how could we prove it to the other objectively? A relativist would conclude there is no ultimate right or wrong, only cultural contexts that define it in a local sense.

#7 Comment By red6020 On October 26, 2015 @ 8:06 pm

Irenist: “I agree. I just didn’t see Dave trying to say that Faith wasn’t at all intellectual so much as not shaped and energized by the heart; perhaps I misread him.”
Maybe. It just sounded a lot like the talk coming out of many Modernists in the Church today. (And I don’t mean that as an insult or as a “no true Scotsman”, I mean I hear it from the same men who embrace Modernist doctrines)
“So rather than what Pius X of course rightly called the synthesis of all heresies, might we here have just a difference in emphasis?”
It seemed to me like Dave was saying faith proceeds out of the “direct experience of the living God.” I read Dave as endorsing St. Pius X’s characterization of vital immanence, “[faith] has its origin…in a movement of the heart, which movement is called a sentiment. Therefore, since God is the object of religion, we must conclude that faith, which is the basis and the foundation of all religion, consists in a sentiment which originates from a need of the divine. “ Especially because of the characterization that we can’t recover past systems of thought, presumably the theological systems of the past.

Dave: “@red6020, thank you, I appreciate the comment. I suppose to explain myself further, I’m not arguing for the primacy of experience over belief, just that religious life is lived, not solved.”
Of course, sort of what I was getting at when I mentioned the Fr. Freeman quote. But religious life is both lived and has some intellectual content.
“That all this is not ultimately an intellectual assent is for me a recognition of the gap that exists between our understanding and the inscrutability of God. For me to assume I can know some things is hubris. Even when mired in doubt and pessimism, it seems to me the limitation of our understanding is something we tend to underestimate.”
I would say that “faith” can be used in different senses. If we are talking about “the Catholic Faith”, as in religion, then intellectual assent surely is not the sole basis of “the Faith”.
However, I would qualify that faith is that supernatural virtue by which man firmly and certainly assents to all of Divine Revelation. The ability of Christians to have faith only happens through cooperation with Divine Grace. Therefore, we can have faith and not doubt, since doubt would be a withholding of assent. The gap between what we can know on our own and what God must reveal to us is truly large, but it is bridged by grace. This doesn’t mean we know everything, i.e. we need not have explicit faith in all points of faith. However, we are bound to believe these secondary articles implicitly, i.e. be ready to believe them.

Irenist: “This is tangential, but I thought of this sort of trad complaint….In all sincerity—because it’s obviously of vital import to any serious Christian—what insight about the liturgy am I missing here?”
Are you getting at that the Novus Ordo also worships God? If so, then I agree. Naturally, Christ is still offered and the liturgy doesn’t completely obscure that fact. However, many of the allowed “options”, e.g. versus populum or communion-in-the-hand or churches-in-the-round, do focus the liturgy on the people. A problem can still be found in the content of some of the prayers.
But not all Traditionalist complaints about the liturgical reforms of the 1950s/60s are about man-centeredness.
“There’s certainly something to this. But modern secularism is at the root of most of these defections from Tradition, and modern secularism has many roots besides an insufficiently intellectual account of faith.”
I would argue that Modernism is the adoption of modern secularism in the Church. Naturally, Modernism, defined as a Catholic heresy, has far more “content” than just “an insufficiently intellectual account of faith”. Nonetheless, this Cartesian view of reality is arguably at the source of most of the errors of modern secularism.

Rod: “But having it all in your head is not the same as living as a Christian. There is nothing “modernist” about that.”

I don’t mean to deny that Christianity is simply “having it all inside your head”. My point was that Fr. Freeman pitted “a set of ideas” against “a way of living”. I was merely pointing out that it’s a false choice. Christ came to propose both.

#8 Comment By red6020 On October 26, 2015 @ 8:13 pm

@DeclinetheEnjoy:
“More likely the Black Death removed God from the equation… I mean how do you link the Divine to a world shattered by that?”

Seriously? This poses a problem as opposed to everybody dying of natural causes?

Both cases involve God being the cause of someone’s death. If God is a “murderer” for killing people off via the plague, He is a “murderer” for killing people off via old age.

I don’t mean any personal disrespect but this is one of the atheist “conundrums” that I just have never gotten.

#9 Comment By Michael Guarino On October 26, 2015 @ 10:44 pm

I know Jones is too busy, but do you have time to enlighten us a bit on why and how Jaynes pwns Quine? Thanks!

He just doesn’t. There is not a decent theory to reestablish the analytic/synthetic distinction, certainly not in the sense Kant or Hume would have used it. And reductionism still fails spectacularly when attempted with any technical rigor. Drop those and you really are left with Quine’s field of force impinged upon by experience.

I mean, I love Bayesian analysis, and think the people using it in epistemology are doing valuable work, but the deeper issues are still quite unsolved (as they should be: they are not solvable).

#10 Comment By MH – Secular Misanthropist On October 27, 2015 @ 6:55 am

@red6020, death is never something people relish, but at what phase of life it occurs in can have a profound effect. For example the death of a parent is hard, but expected. But the death of a child can be crushing.

#11 Comment By Hector_St_Clare On October 27, 2015 @ 8:34 am

If God is a “murderer” for killing people off via the plague, He is a “murderer” for killing people off via old age

In fairness, the Black Plague is a particularly unpleasant way to die, and (unlike slow-developing ailments) in a particularly sudden, rapid and unprepared way. I don’t think that it counts as God ‘killing people off’, and I don’t think particularly egregious examples of suffering and death are arguments against God, and they’re certainly not arguments for atheism- at best they’re arguments for qualifying God’s power, goodness, willingness to get involved, or all three. But its not hard to see why dying of the plague is a more striking example of what’s called ‘natural evil’ than dying of old age.

In reality, of course, the high middle ages did see some revolts against church authority (folks like the Joachimites, Albigensians and others), but they happened around 100-150 years *before* the Black Death, not afterwards.

#12 Comment By red6020 On October 27, 2015 @ 11:11 am

@MH – Secular Misanthropist & Hector_St_Clare,
My point is that original comment assumes either a) we have some right to get killed quickly/painlessly or b) we have some right to not get killed at all. There’s no objective basis for such a “right”, so the objection is incoherent. Or it applies to all examples of death or all examples of pain and doesn’t address the issue the rise of Nominalism or Atheism. (This is disregarding that there wasn’t a significant rise of atheism in the 1300s) In every other age (including our own) we’ve had death and disease. The fact that the deaths occur in a short amount of time or are particularly gruesome could just as well be seen as MORE evidence that God is involved, not less. After all, that is a common reaction amongst people in different times and places. Following the original line of logic, if the End Times begin tomorrow Protestant Christians are “raptured”, wars breakout, diseases spread, people die, etc. this would be a falsification, not verification, of Fundamentalist claims. That would be odd and contrary to what everyone else would think. Naturally, I get the emotional appeal to the Black Plague as a painful death, but DeclinetheEnjoy appealed to it as an example of widespread death which, again, happens every day.

#13 Comment By MH – Secular Misanthropist On October 27, 2015 @ 1:23 pm

@red6020, the objection is that omnibenevolence, omniscience, and omnipotence form an inconsistent triad. Taken together they imply that God has a duty to ensure your bullet A true, since we know bullet A is false, then this limits the nature of God in some way. A maltheist throws out omnibenevolence, while an atheists throws out all three.

#14 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On October 27, 2015 @ 1:48 pm

Physics and chemistry are an imperfect foundation for sustaining life, and the complexities of biochemistry are ridden with imperfections and misfires. Thus, sometimes we get beautiful babies living to a ripe old age, becoming parents and grandparents, but, sometimes we get a modified genome that reacts with human biochemistry to deliver Bubonic Plague, sometimes we get ALS, sometimes we get gays, sometimes we get sickle cell anemia.

That’s in the nature of the material universe, whether or not one accepts the notion of Original Sin. God’s job is not to wave a magic want and render it all perfect, but to pull us through that universe to the point where we can transcend it.

#15 Comment By Irenist On October 27, 2015 @ 2:43 pm

@Eamus Catuli:

I love the history of ideas…. I just think that while we’re at it, we need to keep at least one toehold in the real world.

Sounds like we’re in total agreement there. Back to the bit about science, then:

I anticipated this objection [with Scholasticism as a counter].

That surprises me not at all. You are of course a thinker both subtle and charitable. Of course, I say this right before I uncharitably attribute to you an unsubtle argument that you’re probably not really making! Please consider it an invitation to clarify what you are actually saying (if you wish).

the techniques for understanding nature that were developed (mostly) in the West are available to and can be learned by anyone, regardless of cultural background.

Sure. But depending upon how we define “cultural background,” either the argument proves too much, since, e.g., Buddhist techniques for attaining satori and Orthodox Christian paths to theosis also usually claim to be open to all seekers, or the argument is circular since it pre-defines “culture” in such a way that it excludes (ir)religious objections that might block hesychastic techniques of disclosing reality from use by a non-Christian, but not religious objections that might block scientific techniques of disclosing reality from use by, say, a Creationist who takes a Plantinga-influenced view of literalist Biblical inerrancy as for being her a properly basic belief (my citation of Plantinga’s views on warrant are not an endorsement, just an example).

IOW, while I’m not at all denying for a second that science is as paradigmatically culturally neutral as any human activity could be, I’m just not in love with this particular *argument* for establishing the credentials of science as objective, since I think it’s parasitic on science’s self-definition as excluding subjectivity, etc. To be sure, experimental hypothesis-testing with replication is, I agree, a very fine technique for discovering knowledge about the natural world—the best we have or likely ever will have. But the hesychast says that hesychasm is a way to experience the Uncreated Light that shone on Mt. Tabor, and that the only way to test that is to try it (possibly for a lifetime of monasticism) and see the Light for yourself. Scientists have good, principled reasons from excluding that kind of “replication” from their methodology. But it seems to me that the force of your argument derives from those decisions about what counts as neutral, public evidence of objective truth, in which case the argument really is circular: science is objective because it’s scientific.

I’m not here at all concerned to challenge science’s particular way of distinguishing justified true belief from mere opinion. Instead, I want to note that sorting such objective knowledge (episteme, orthos doxa) from mere opinion (doxa) is pretty much the entire epistemological project back at least as far as Plato. Science has a particular kind of techne (craft knowledge, know-how, technique) for generating a certain kind of theoretical knowledge (episteme, orthos doxa). Ortho-dox hesychasts have a praxis for attaining a different kind of “theoria” altogether. Deciding what ways of learning count as generating true knowledge, true “ortho-doxy,” pretty much just is epistemology itself. Here, I think I’m (likely uncharitably) pattern-matching your probably anodyne point (“science is true”) with analogous arguments I see in science-religion contexts that for me boil down to “yeah, religion gives you feelings, but science’s results are publicly replicable in a scientific way by trained scientists,” which feels like saying “since science has solved epistemology, we can use science to demonstrate that science has solved epistemology” which of course is structurally akin to “Since the Maharishi is omniscient, you can stay right here in the compound and ask the Maharishi about your worries about whether he’s really omniscient—he’ll be sure to know the answer!”

Again, none of this is to quarrel with the discoveries of modern natural science, to which I gratefully and delightedly defer. It’s just to say that this sort of “argument from culturally neutral public replicability” seems to me fatally circular, since “culturally neutral public replicability” is self-definitive of science as a methodology. In logical terms, I’m saying that while I of course think science is sound, IMHO this particular argument for its soundness seems invalid.

Which still points to essential facts about nature being independent of culture and independent of the observer’s presuppositions. Which it seems you fully concede, anyway — as I expected you would since you never take ridiculous positions.

Well, you’re very kind to say I never take ridiculous positions: plenty of commenters here would disagree! And sure, the facts about nature are objective—but our stance toward those facts and our sense of the reliability of our means for getting at those facts, are matters of our subjective and intersubjective (in the sense of a Habermasian discursive community, say) presuppositions.

Now, as you’d imagine since you’re always kind enough to read me charitably, what I’m not at all saying is that “science is socially constructed so it’s all just as subjective as religion” or any such Sokal Hoax-style nonsense. Nor am I exactly making the old religious “even the scientist has to have ‘faith’ that the external world exists and her senses aren’t deceiving her when she reads her instruments” sort of argument, although I may be somewhere in that ballpark, although very much without the typical Evangelical combox apologist’s appeal to fideism as a properly axiomatic foundation for warrant that usually mars such arguments.

What I am trying to gesture toward is both the specifically methodological understanding of realism about our “manifest image” (in Sellars’ phrase) of nature outlined in Gilson’s “Methodical Realism.” (“MR”). Gilson describes Descartes as having trapped himself in his own head by founding his attempt to escape from solipsistic doubt about res extensa upon the cogito that assured Descartes to his own satisfaction of the existence of his own res cogitans. Gilson goes on to discuss how post-Cartesian epistemology assumed Descartes sharp dichotomy between the subjective mental and the objective physical, so that Locke ended in empiricism (which overemphasizes Descartes’ extended matter), Berkeley in idealism (which overemphasizes Descartes’ cogitative mental), and Hume in skepticism about induction rather opposed to how science actually operates (despite logical positivism’s later failed effort to make a go of a Humean “observed regularities” substitute for inductive ascertainment of causality), and Kant ended up elaborating an analytic/synthetic distinction that not only paralleled the Cartesian cogitative/extended distinction, but likewise remained unable to get outside human subjectivity enough to have any confidence that we are able to grasp external reality objectively.

To unpack that, I’ll first echo Michael Guarino in saying that Quine’s “Two Dogmas of Empiricism” shows Kant’s distinction to be untenable. Part of what Quine does with that is to propose a coherentist epistemology (and ontology), which Rorty of course takes in a very pragmatist direction. Gilson makes a somewhat (only somewhat!) similar move in “MR.” As I reconstruct the steps in his argument from memory (so don’t trust my ordinals in these paragraphs), Gilson first notes the traditional Thomist presupposition that our commonsensical manifest image of reality really does make contact with nature, because indeed we are part of that nature. (Gilson doesn’t get into this in “MR,” but part of the context here for me is that the Thomist is a hylomorphist, so she takes not just the human brain to be a compound of matter and form, but also, say, a rock. IOW, there is no Cartesian divorce between mental and material—both our subjective minds and the objective world are part of a hylomorphic continuum without any radical break: there are no formless objects, and objects’ forms are what render them intelligible.)

Gilson’s second move is to anticipate the objection that his position amounts to a mere naïve realism of the Thomas Hutcheson sort, blissfully ignoring the manifold errors of sense that render the commonsensical manifest image an unreliable guide to reality. Gilson briskly concedes the occasional deceptions of sense, and the need to deepen and correct the commonsensical manifest image with the deliverances of hypothesis and experiment. (E.g., evolution designed us to perceive a manifest image of a world of medium-sized solid objects like lions and thrown stones moving at Newtonian speeds at or near the Earth’s surface. But obviously the lion is made of cells, the solid-seeming stone consists of atomic nuclei surrounded mostly by empty space, and both would behave differently at light speed or in microgravity, etc.)

But third, Gilson then makes a somewhat phenomenological move. (On my own reading, not in the sense that he explicitly invokes Husserl or something.) He notes that whatever the errors of sense or the (undisputed!) need to correct and deepen our manifest image with natural science, it unavoidably remains the case that such science presupposes our commonsensical ways of knowing if it is to have any data to interpret and amend. (Again, even the sophisticated instrument must still have its results read off by some human.)

Fourth, Gilson stresses that the Thomist begins with an ontology of the manifest world, and then builds an epistemology that presupposes what sort of world we’re in. This of course “stands Descartes on his head” by beginning with the world before addressing epistemological worries, rather than beginning with solipsistic skepticism and then trying (and inevitably failing) to recreate the world (almost) ex nihilo.

Fifth, Gilson says that we have to judge between the merely methodological choice of starting points made by the Thomist vs. the Cartesian (or Humean or Kantian trapped in the Cartesian project). Gilson happily concedes that there was nothing illict in principle about Descartes’ starting from epistemology, or with founding that epistemology on something like the cogito. It’s a part of the philosophical landscape that cries out to be explored, and thinkers as diverse as Pyrrho and Buddha have ventured into nearby regions. But the project was like the (pre-climate change) quest for a Northwest Passage: worthy trying, but it turned out that Hudson couldn’t get to Cathay that way. Likewise, Descartes’ project would’ve been a great philosophical foundation for realism about the reality of the manifest world (as amended by science) if it had worked. But after watching geniuses like Kant struggle to complete the project, we see that it can’t work: it started out from the wrong place, and can’t get where it wants to go. You cannot get to the world from the cogito.

Gilson sums up with the rather pragmatist (again on my own reading, and speaking loosely) dictum that we ought to judge our philosophical starting points by their fruit. Despite the best efforts of centuries of work by thinkers of genius, the Cartesian tree is fruitless. From those roots, we always end up in the barrenness of Humean or Rortyean skepticism at worst, and in the best case only in the abortive budding of Kantian epistemology, that posits an intersubjective reality, but cannot assure itself of its objectivity.

What the Thomist does instead is simply to grasp the nettle and say that we must found our worldview on a trust that the world as revealed to us is real simply as a methodological axiom. Because when we assume the world is real, we can start from the world and build an epistemology that explains why it is a knowable sort of thing. We can start with what the manifest images gets right (like reading those instruments correctly), and take the errors of sense (the old chestnut about how a stick looks bent in the water, say) and the pathologies of the brain (case histories of which are such a morbid focus in modern philosophy of mind) as special cases of these. What the Thomist takes the post-Cartesians to do is to take the errors of sense and pathologies of mind as paradigmatic, and then treat accuracy as a special case of error. (Now, that is often a great approach in mathematics—where, to take an elementary example, the point you want on the Cartesian grid is in a sense indeed a special case of all the points that aren’t the solution to your algebraic equation—but it sterilizes the tree when applied to epistemology.)

As you’d anticipate, I want to tie Gilson’s point into the Quinean one. Quine both dissolved Kant’s dichotomy as described above, and insisted that the foundations of science are ultimately no more solid than those of a methodology for spinning a coherent web of beliefs, rather than an immediate grasp of the objectively real. Gilson (again, without any explicit citation of phenomenology, coherentism, or pragmatism—those parallels are my own) makes a similar point: realism about external reality is merely a method for finding facts, and thus cannot ever be a fact found by our method.

All this is a long preamble to circling back to why I think your argument is circular. Science is a method for discerning and classifying the ontological furniture of reality. Likewise, philosophy is a method for classifying what we discern in contemplation of our manifest (and scientifically amended) image of the world, and theology for classifying what, say, the mystic or the Bible reveals about God, and pure mathematics for discovering and classifying mathematical ideas. I am not at all suggesting here that these methods are applicable to the same things, or (presently) trying to argue that they are of equal validity.

My present point is much narrower. I want to say first that all of these are methodologies, and second that none of these methodologies is obviously (a key qualification) in a position to stand in judgment over the others. Decision between them, or synthesis of their deliverances, is a sort of “meta-methodological” inquiry, if you will.

How to begin such an inquiry? Well, in a completely different context, MacIntyre talks in many of his books about aporiai in different ethical traditions. For instance, in Three Rival Versions of Moral Inquiry (“3RV)”, MacIntyre says that, say, the Nietzchean, the scientific positivist utilitarian (whom MacIntyre confusingly [to any Diderot scholar, at least] dubs “the Encyclopedist” after the way the 1911 Britannica allegedly represents this view as settled Edwardian conventional wisdom), and the Thomist cannot meta-ethically defeat each other, because their starting points are incommensurable, their axiomata like apples and oranges. But as traditions explore the topology of the landscape of ideas, they (re)discover the same incessant questions, and then either find a way through them, or hit a wall—the latter eventuality being of course an aporia. Such an aporia can be a mere anomaly (like the precession of Mercury for Newtonianism before Einstein came along) or a failure at the very heart of a tradition’s project, like a failure to find the Northwest Passage in a tradition whose overriding goal is to do just that. MacIntyre then steps back and looks at the internal history of the Thomist synthesis, which he characterizes (IIRC) as more or less Aquinas transcending (ethical) aporiai in Aristotle with Augustine, and vice-versa. He then takes that sort of meta-ethical success as a paradigm for how we ought to adjudge rival traditions, and unsurprisingly (I think I can even hear the eyes rolling in the TAC peanut gallery) claims that Thomism solves various aporiai for the Nietzchean and the Encyclopedist, and that thus, without even having to get into meta-ethical quagmires of incommensurables, the Thomist ethicist ought to be able to convince the Nietzchean or the Encyclopedist of the grander scope of Thomism on the Nietzchean’s or Encyclopedist’s own terms. (I say “grander scope” in that the insights of Augustine or Aristotle are kind of enfolded within the Thomist synthesis as the Thomist understands it, or much, much more loosely, in the way that Newtonian mechanics is now a special case of quantum and relativistic theories, which thus also envelop Newton in a grander tradition).

BTW, in case you’re wondering, MacIntyre doesn’t really deliver on that aporia-solving IOU in 3RV, which is a problem with a lot of his books, frankly. Look at “After Virtue” (“AV”): non-aretaic theories are incoherent and misuse the old vocab, therefore a recovery of virtue ethics would be nice. Someone should totally recover it. Also, “the therapist” is an unsavory character, and Greek tragedy has a lot of insight to offer. This is why I recommend Foote’s “Natural Goodness” to the aretao-curious now, and not AV, even though it’s obviously a great book, and a great rec especially for specifically BenOp (as opposed to virtue-ethical) inquirers wanting to grok the whole “communities with shared, thick understandings of virtue” bit.

Anyhow, as you’d again anticipate, I think that MacIntyre’s “method of aporiai” (if I may) is applicable beyond meta-ethics. Obviously, something broadly akin to it is at work in Kuhnian discernment between scientific paradigms (like in the clichéd Newton/Einstein Mercury example I cited above). And I think Quine’s coherentism (and even the more sensible insights of Rorty’s pragmatism) are both (very, very broadly) in the same ballpark with regard to the sort of “meta-epistemological” or “meta-methodological” disputes I’m talking about above.

And thus MacIntyre, for me, complements Gilson: the Cartesian stance is fruitless (ending in skepticism and relativism), but Thomist methodical realism allows us to build a workable ontology (yielding a workable epistemology)—it bears fruit. Thus, the method of aporiai allows the seeker after philosophical foundations to follow Christ’s adage to judge a tree by its fruit.

Now, I anticipate that Occam’s Razor will be unsheathed now, and a partisan of scientism will comment that Thomism may “work” insofar as it generates an ontology, but that it’s dysfunctional because the ontology it generates is full of made-up nonsense (souls, God, forms, teloi, etc.) that don’t actually exist. And that’s a very fair complaint! But this comment is already humongous (I wonder if I should just blog things of this length and post a link to my blog in these comments—I’ll defer to anything Rod asks, of course), and I have to get back to work. So, like MacIntyre, I’ll just say that I think the Thomist ontology both better saves the phenomena (gets through the aporiai) and is a defensible account of what really does exist. But I’ll pull a MacIntyre and leave that as an IOU for another thread or blog post. (Quoth Arrian’s “Anabasis” [IIRC ], “Men never hold themselves to the standards of Alexander’s courage or generalship, but how quick they are to imitate his drunkenness, and plead his example as excuse!” Thus me and MacIntyre. Sorry, folks.)

So here, I just want to argue that “science is true” is an assertion that:
1. Ought to be judged “meta-methodologically,” without presuming the methodology of science itself; and
2. Ought to have this meta-methadological judgment in its turn judged by whether Gilson’s methodical realist account of Thomism does a better job coping with the aporiai noted by the likes of Descartes, Hume, Kant, Popper, or Quine (and maybe, maybe Rorty) than science’s own internal resources can do in solving these aporiai identified by these more (or less!) “pro-science” thinkers following science’s own internal logic and modern (post-Cartesian) workaday scientists’ usual self-understanding of the foundations of their field.

Some other time, I (or far better, someone more literate and more numerate than me, like Mssrs. Guarino, Jones, Lancellotti, and Scalas) might like to take up that debate. But all I’m doing here is laying out what I think the terms of such a debate ought to be.

@Jones:
You’re very kind, thanks.

A non-academic with an avocational interest in Ibn Khaldun though . . . that’s something.

Oh, not really. I think I’m unremarkable there for two reasons:
1. I was a history major for undergrad. One of my most absorbing electives was a survey of the history of Islamic civilization. Not only did I get to discover Muslim historians of genius like al-Tabbari and Ibn Khaldun, but I got to read Western historians ranging from the old-school likes of Montgomery Watt to the (then-) newfangled likes of Janet Abu Lughod to the mid-twentieth century masterpiece of Marshall Hodgkin’s “Venture of Islam” trilogy, which last I simply cannot extoll highly enough: Hodgkin’s Midwestern Quakerism gave him a humane sympathy for and empathetic identification with Islamic strivings toward soberly austere iconoclasm and a truly just social order [the titular grand, civilization-inspiring “adventure,” in all its utopian excitement and pragmatic wisdom alike] that IMHO is unparalleled in a Western writer.
2. Certain conservative, neo-conservative, neo-reactionary, and even “race realist” writers and bloggers have latched on to asabiyah as a good shorthand for what they bemoan Western decadence as lacking. E.g, many years ago, Robert Kaplan (who’s sort of a neo-con, I think?) wrote an Atlantic article contrasting the robust asabiyah of the Istanbul slums with the chaos he saw in shantytowns elsewhere in the Third World, and drew the conclusion that Islamic civilization had much better “muscle tone” than many other economically developing peoples, and arguably even than many economically developed peoples. So in the same way that everybody has roughly heard of Galileo and identifies him with scientists being oppressed by religion, there’s a pretty broad space in the right-ish blogosphere where people who’ve never read a word of Ibn Khaldun himself still have a good enough grasp of what they’ve read Razib Khan on the Unz Review or somebody from the reacto-sphere saying about asabiyah that it moves from their passive to their active vocab. Which, provided neither they—nor I!—hold forth as Ibn Khaldun experts, is IMHO a useful terminological development. Indeed, I’m as often as not thinking merely of that sort of broad Kaplanesque sense of relative cultural “muscle tone” (or flabby obesity, in the postmodern Western case) when I mention asabiyah as I am of Ibn Khaldun’s broader Gibbon/Toynbee-esque proto-cliodynamics* of civilizational rise and fall. *(Speaking of bloggers, Peter Turchin cites Ibn Khaldun as a forerunner of the whole project of cliodynamics [FWIW; YMMV], hence my description.)

@ MH – Secular Misanthropist:

@grumpy realist, moral relativism is actually an old concept dating at least as far back as the ancient Greeks

I agree, and the rest of your comment summed it up admirably.

@red6020:
You might well be right. I’ll leave the Dave-exegesis to Dave.

Are you getting at that the Novus Ordo also worships God? If so, then I agree. Naturally, Christ is still offered and the liturgy doesn’t completely obscure that fact. However, many of the allowed “options”, e.g. versus populum or communion-in-the-hand or churches-in-the-round, do focus the liturgy on the people. A problem can still be found in the content of some of the prayers. But not all Traditionalist complaints about the liturgical reforms of the 1950s/60s are about man-centeredness.

It sounds like we’re on roughly the same page, then. Thanks!

I don’t mean any personal disrespect but this is one of the atheist “conundrums” that I just have never gotten.

Well, this might go back to the whole intellect/emotion thing. In theory, dying of old age, or as part of the Israelite genocide of the Amalekites, or of plague, or of the infamous Lisbon earthquake, are all equally exercises of God’s omnipotent sovereignty, and in all four cases, you’re dead. But the latter three have an emotional salience that the first does not, just as being widowed can lead to dryness and doubt in a way that reading about someone else being widowed obviously does not. Whether our personal grief and outrage at more salient human (or animal) pain is a source of “experiential” wisdom about the nihilistic absurdity of the universe, or merely an instance (as almost all the ancients and medieval would’ve agreed, in every civilization) of the passions clouding the intellect, is a big part of what’s in dispute between Modernists and Thomists, and I think a lot of even good-faith, argumentatively charitable atheists inadvertently beg this question because the premise that the former stance toward the emotions is correct seems self-evident to them after a secularist (or Pentecostal or MTD) upbringing. Logically, not living painlessly forever should be enough to motivate theodicy’s Problem of Evil. But emotionally, most of us non-transhumanists and non-Buddhists aren’t as horrified by mortality and suffering per se as we are by really egregious examples of same.

@Michael Guarino:
Oh, I agree with you about Jaynes and Quine. I’m just open to bayesian correcting me, if we happen to be wrong. (Dunno about you, since you seem much more solidly educated than my own inevitably unevenly read autodidactic self, but I’m wrong a lot, and need all the help I can get.)

#16 Comment By Irenist On October 27, 2015 @ 3:15 pm

@Jones:

Erratum: Maybe the historian was Hodgson, not Hodgkins. No time to look it up. Either way, really, really great.

#17 Comment By Eamus Catuli On October 27, 2015 @ 5:28 pm

Irenist, have you ever considered that maybe you know too much for your own good? I mean, I’m delighted but also feel a little guilty about having said something that you felt needed 3,000-plus words in response.

Seriously, I hope Turmarion is reading this and decides to weigh in. You philosophical acumen — this is not false humility — is just way beyond mine. I feel as if you’re glossing the whole history of Western philosophy, while I’m kicking a stone and reporting that my toe hurts.

In logical terms, I’m saying that while I of course think science is sound, IMHO this particular argument for its soundness seems invalid.

OK, maybe you’ve answered this already — in which case, my apologies — but then why IS it sound? As you can see, to go back to that stupid Rorty example, it really interests me that, for instance, it appears to casual observation that the sun goes around the earth; however, earthbound calculations and theories determined that the earth actually goes around the sun; and now that we can send interplanetary spacecraft around the solar system, we discover that this is absolutely right: the spacecraft wouldn’t get where they’re going if their trajectories were computed according to Ptolemy. And, moreover, anyone, in any of the world’s many cultures, would agree about this if properly informed.

How is that so? Also, was I imagining things when I said, above, that it seems as if on this particular thread, given these particular issues, the conservatives are coming off like the radical relativists, and it’s the liberals like myself who are saying, “Guys, there’s an actual reality here that’s independent of what anybody thinks about it”?

#18 Comment By Michael Guarino On October 27, 2015 @ 11:39 pm

Okay Irenist, word limits. (I kid, I kid.)

So here is my gloss, and I won’t go into the Thomism because Irenist has that covered.

Much of early modern philosophy relied on a prioritization of epistemology. Descartes, Hume, Locke, Kant are largely concerned with foundations of knowledge. Obviously there are exceptions, Spinoza perhaps.

The intuition makes a lot of sense. Explicating knowledge itself should be relatively simple, after all you can create knowledge through purely rational devices, mathematicians do it all the time. And if you can just explain knowledge, all the other philosophical disciplines are unnecessary. Who needs metaphysics when you already have access to justified, true beliefs about the world?

Problems of meaning were always lurking in the background, but were largely obscured by the fact that earlier philosophers psychologized everything, thinking in terms of doubts and ideas instead of statements and proofs. Reduction of meaning to epistemology turns out to be nonsense though, as in verificationist accounts of meaning. You always end up with the fact that an individual claim about a physical event relies on a logically nonprimitive notion of being “at” a place and time. And that the qualities evidenced in experience are definitionally complex and significant enough to completely change your epistemology (you cannot use probability theory if ratios are not appropriate analogy for “chance”).

We know this precisely because so much advancement had been made. We formalized reasoning in languages where proof and truth are easily defined, and were able to use it not only to formalize mathematics but see where it applied elsewhere. Carnap’s Aufbau really was a technically impressive attempt at a reductionist account of science (the reason reductionism is so important is because logical syntax can do most of the constructive work once you nail down the primitive statements). But since we know exactly what needs to be done, we also know exactly what is left unaccounted for.

What is unaccounted for is basically metaphysics. Quine doubled down on naturalism. Thomists like Irenist do not restrict themselves to such a small world, but basically understand the point: epistemology cannot be primary. Regardless, serious thought on how those old questions are settled is again in order.

#19 Comment By Michael Guarino On October 27, 2015 @ 11:47 pm

Oh, I agree with you about Jaynes and Quine. I’m just open to bayesian correcting me, if we happen to be wrong.

I think we can be pretty confident bayesian is going to talk about Bayesianism, in which case he is working a bit upstream of the problems Quine was concerned with.

#20 Comment By Michael Guarino On October 28, 2015 @ 12:03 am

OK, maybe you’ve answered this already — in which case, my apologies — but then why IS it sound?

Science isn’t sound in any standard sense of the word.

#21 Comment By Michael Guarino On October 28, 2015 @ 12:51 am

BTW, in case you’re wondering, MacIntyre doesn’t really deliver on that aporia-solving IOU in 3RV, which is a problem with a lot of his books, frankly. Look at “After Virtue” (“AV”): non-aretaic theories are incoherent and misuse the old vocab, therefore a recovery of virtue ethics would be nice. Someone should totally recover it. Also, “the therapist” is an unsavory character, and Greek tragedy has a lot of insight to offer. This is why I recommend Foote’s “Natural Goodness” to the aretao-curious now, and not AV, even though it’s obviously a great book, and a great rec especially for specifically BenOp (as opposed to virtue-ethical) inquirers wanting to grok the whole “communities with shared, thick understandings of virtue” bit.

Actually, what I recommend to people interested in virtue ethics is Susan Wolfe’s [7].

It was what my ethics professor used to introduce the topic, and it was the first time I encountered something that felt like wisdom in that class. (It is also only 22 pages)

#22 Comment By dave On October 30, 2015 @ 8:34 am

@red6020. Thanks again. Don’t know if you will see this or not, been away and the thread is slipping downstream but wanted to clarify. I think it’s relevant. My original comment was in the context of the Benedict option. And I had in mind the Rule – say in chapter 4, which opens:
First of all, love the Lord God with your whole heart, your whole soul and all your strength…”
That’s first. As far as discernment, that’s covered in other parts. Chapter 3 has a section on summoning a council.

The question I was trying to bring forward, and what I think makes this comment relevant, is the primacy of the relationship of God versus the primacy of culture. In Dreher’s project, in what I’ve read and been able to understand, the impression I’ve gotten is that by preserving a culture, we preserve the environment in which Christian worship can flourish. I am wondering if that is an accurate understanding of his intent, and then how good of an approach it is. It seems to me the Rule is soaked through with seeking the presence of God.

I hang with a lot of secular humanists, and they see religion with some amusement. It’s considered some bronze age cultural artifact. That someone would attempt to order one’s life around these ideas is looked at as naive at best, bizarre and disturbed at worst. To me, that’s the biggest hurdle. What I read here is so often culture culture culture, and what I get from the Rule is God God God. And it is difficult, in some circumstances, to talk God. It makes everyone uncomfortable. I mean, look how quickly our conversation moved away from a discussion about the experience of a living God to an intellectual discussion of theology and philosophy. It’s how one escapes ridicule in polite company.

I am not trying to claim some sort of religious superiority or courage – fail is what I do – nor am I dismissing the value of a vigorous theology, but that what the monks were about was seeking a holy life, not preserving some sort of culture. Yes they are intertwined, but I think the slight change of emphasis makes all the difference in the temper and strength of the ensuing community. Hope that makes sense.