We live in a time when philosophy has a bad name. Indeed, any expression of interest for this subject matter by a university student is likely to make his peers cringe or leave them wondering whether the poor fellow has lost his wits.
Defenders of philosophy take pride in pointing out that it is the intellectual discipline to which the three greatest minds of all time – Plato, Aristotle and Saint Thomas Aquinas – gave the highest priority.
However, modern philosophy – that is, the part of philosophy that began in the 17th century with Descartes and evolved into a multiplicity of intellectual movements such as rationalism, empiricism, idealism, Marxism, nihilism, existentialism and deconstructionism – is unlike anything that Greek and medieval philosophers practised. It is also contrary to common sense.
The single common feature of these modern philosophical movements is their claim to be based on the absolute autonomy and self-sufficiency of reason. In their more recent manifestations, they even go so far as to affirm that there is no true rationality other than scientific, thus denying the value of metaphysical thought. The amazing thing is that this claim, according to which there can be no true knowledge outside of science, often referred to as scientism, has produced nothing except skepticism and relativism. Today, modern philosophers doubt just about anything, including the very possibility of arriving at any kind of truth except, possibly, scientific truth. This is easily verifiable: relativism reigns supreme both in the media and academia.
The dismal record of modern philosophy and, more generally, of modern thinking is attested by many thinkers, whether Christian or pagan. In Orthodoxy, G.K. Chesterton notes that modern philosophy is a form of inner despair in that “it does not really believe that there is any meaning in the universe.” In his biography of Aquinas, he notes: “Most modern philosophies are not philosophy but philosophic doubt.”
C.S Lewis, himself an academic, thought likewise. In The Screwtape Letters, he introduces us to a senior devil instructing a junior devil on the best way to get those “sorry human creatures” to sin. Based on his long experience, he scolds his junior accomplice for assuming that rational arguments are the best way to steer them away from God. Conceding that such arguments might have been efficient “a few centuries earlier” because humans “were prepared to alter their way of life as the result of a chain of reasoning,” the senior devil goes on to explain:
“… with the weekly press and other such weapons, we have largely altered that. Your man has been accustomed, ever since he was a boy, to have a dozen incompatible philosophies dancing about together inside his head. He doesn’t think of doctrines as primarily ‘true’ or ‘false,’ but as ‘academic’ or ‘practical,’ ‘outworn’ or ‘contemporary,’ ‘conventional’ or ‘ruthless.’ Jargon, not argument, is your best ally in keeping him from the Church. Don’t waste time trying to make him think that materialism is true! Make him think it is strong or stark or courageous – that it is the philosophy of the future. That’s the sort of thing he cares about.” [Italics added for emphasis.]
Chesterton and Lewis are not alone in thinking that modern philosophy is bunk. According to its own most distinguished representatives, modern philosophy now finds itself in a cul-de-sac. The three bestknown philosophers of the 20th century – Ludwig Wittgenstein, Martin Heidegger and Richard Rorty – all ended their careers by stating that philosophy had nowhere to go after them. It had reached an ultimate dead end. More specifically, according to these three figures of the 20th century philosophical hall of fame, there is now only one absolute certainty: the attempt of the human mind to secure a solid foundation for knowledge launched by Descartes some 400 years ago and vigorously pursued since then by the Enlightenment and its acolytes has failed miserably. Moreover, we are told, any future effort to pursue this undertaking is a priori bound to fail.
This tremendous failure is due to modern philosophy’s utter denial that the human mind can grasp reality as it is. It systematically refuses to admit that the human intellect can arrive at a true representation of the external world by means of abstraction and understand its real nature. It bluntly rejects the idea that a thing may have a “nature” (i.e., an organizational principle ensuring the unity of its different parts and allowing for an understanding of its internal workings or of its internal coherence). It admits only one thing, which is the possibility for the human mind to ascertain the quantitative aspects of reality. Modern philosophy is tainted in its very principle because, unable to content itself with saying that reality can be quantified, it goes on to claim that it is impossible for the mind to go beyond the quantification of things. To Socrates’ Know thyself, it substitutes its own motto: Outside the quantifiable, no salvation. This is the same as saying that all that can be known of the universe and of its mineral, vegetable and animal components is to be found in the natural (empirical) sciences. Any judgment that is not scientifically grounded is thus perceived as nothing but some kind of hoax or fabrication.
Contemporary scientists tend to agree with this view. British astrophysicist Stephen Hawking argues in his book The Grand Design that “philosophy is dead” because it has “not kept up with modern developments in science, particularly physics, [and] scientists have become the bearers of the torch of discovery in our quest for knowledge.” Bertrand Russell says pretty well the same thing, albeit more succinctly: “Science is what we know, and philosophy is what we don’t know.”
No wonder then that philosophy is now so often ignored or viewed as esoteric. Yet we should not despair. As the great French Thomist philosopher étienne Gilson noted, “Philosophy always buries its undertakers….” Gilson is right, of course, if only because we simply cannot do without some philosophy or other, whether good or bad.
Even those who claim that science is the only way to sound knowledge engage in philosophy, albeit unwittingly. Even those who argue that only empirically falsifiable or verifiable statements can lead to true justified belief are not being scientific when they make such a statement because the statement in question is itself empirically unfalsifiable or unverifiable. The basis for their scientism is dogmatic rather than scientific. The inevitability of philosophy is also illustrated by the fact that we cannot help but make moral arguments (i.e., arguments of moral philosophy), even when we claim to be morally neutral. In dealing with human affairs, there is no such thing as moral neutrality. For example, we often hear from people who frown at traditional morality that any appeal to morality, especially in sexual matters, is tantamount to discrimination (i.e., being judgmental) because, allegedly, morality has no objective foundation. But people who make such an argument don’t realize that they are being radically inconsistent: they are, in effect, saying that they have a moral objection (discrimination) to anyone other than themselves making a moral objection (about certain sexual behaviours).
In short, there can be no social or intellectual life without some kind of philosophy or other. But, happily enough, Christians, and particularly Catholics, have good reasons to value philosophy as a rigorous and sound intellectual method of seeking the truth.
In his book, On the Way to Jesus Christ, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI) says that while our faith is the very foundation of Christianity, it is also faith that “first acknowledges the dignity and scope of reason.” He goes on to add: “Reason is critical of religion in its search for truth; yet at its very origins, Christianity sides with reason and considers this ally to be its principle forerunner.” This is an aspect of Christianity that sets it apart from all other world religions, and particularly from Islam, which views God as pure will rather than as Logos. The Church regards conversion to the faith as not only a change of heart but also what Ratzinger calls “a positively intellectual journey.”
All this may seem quite strange in a time when both the media and academia would have us believe that there is absolutely no relationship between faith and reason, or between philosophy and theology, and that, indeed, the two are incompatible. Yet we can show not only that faith and reason are not in conflict but that there is a symbiotic relationship between the two. Why should a relation of love and trust not also be a source of rational knowledge? To understand the nature of that relationship, we must understand what faith and reason are.
Reason means knowing something to be true on the basis of either what our senses tell us or what our mind or intellect tell us. Knowledge acquired through our senses is sense knowledge, also known as empirical knowledge (i.e., knowledge of material and quantifiable things). Knowledge acquired through our intellect is knowledge of abstract truths, like logic, mathematics and metaphysics. Faith means believing something to be true, as opposed to it to be true. There is faith when a truth claim is accepted not on the basis of solid evidence but rather on the basis of the testimony of someone else. We believe something because we believe someone. The act of believing something can never be entirely separated from the act of trusting someone. This does not mean, however, that faith is “blind” to evidence. Indeed, faith is usually reinforced by some experience that it cannot fully explain, as when I trust my doctor in such a way that I am confident that his prescription will relieve my pain, although I can’t explain how it does so. The same is true of religious belief: Christians believe in the Resurrection because they have been told of it by witnesses.
What this means is that faith and reason are quite different. Faith requires a free assent of the will, while reason calls for compelling evidence or selfevident truth (first principles). However, the two serve a common purpose, which is to act as foundations in our quest for truth. Put another way, both make sense only in relation to truth. Reason is a way of understanding truth, discovering it or proving it. Faith is a way of discovering it and of acquiring a sense of its unlimited scope. The truth discovered by faith is never exhaustive, never perfect. Its object is too rich to be entirely contained by the categories of reason. That’s why we refer to it as a mystery, (i.e., as a reality, aspects of which are beyond the ability of reason to grasp fully). A mystery is not something irrational but rather something partly rational and partly supra-rational.
What this means is that faith and reason, theology and philosophy, must work together. One needs the other and vice versa. Today, faith is being attacked on several fronts, and we must account for our faith in terms that are understandable to that growing part of modern society best described as neo-pagan. This requires intellectual tools accessible to all (i.e., reason and philosophy). Christians must acquire intellectual training that enables them to address the big questions raised by contemporary culture, including the following:
What are the extent of belief and the role of authority?
Is it illogical to deny the existence of God? (The answer is yes.)
Why is there evil in the world?
What is the meaning of life?
How should one live?
What kind of society should we build?
Modern philosophy, through the modern media, sought to provide rational answers to these questions and failed. Its failure has ushered in a culture of despair about the meaning of life and about human ability to know and to reason clearly. Ours is a world that views itself as intellectually and morally superior to anything past. Yet it is a world where not only faith but also reason and logic are treated with contempt, and where ideological thinking is overtaking objective knowledge and common sense. That is why our world is no longer called modern but postmodern. After giving up on faith, it has given up on reason. It is an increasingly barbaric world. Only people inspired by a genuine Christian faith can overcome the barbarism.
In an encyclical titled Fides et Ratio, published in September 1998, Pope John Paul II described faith and reason as “two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth” and emphasized that “God has placed in the human heart a desire to know the truth….” He also encouraged Christians to pursue philosophical endeavours on the basis that “the more human beings know reality and the world, the more they know themselves in their uniqueness, with the question of the meaning of things and of their very existence becoming ever more pressing.” The letter may serve as a good starting point for anyone wanting to participate in the effort to fill the void created by modern philosophy.