Thursday, September 22, 2005

The Intellectual Ambiguities of Contemporary Culture

These are the study questions for Lecture 3. This is much more familiar territory for me, or I should say more recent territory. Most of the classical philosophy I learned was in high school. Everything from my junior year through graduate school was modern or postmodern. It's interesting for me now to think how wrongheaded subjective modern philosophy is. Maybe wrongheaded isn't the right term, but it does seem to start from a position of skepticism.

What is "the turn to the subject" in modern thought?

The shift of focus from the object to the subject, the external world to the interior world of thoughts. Descartes was attempting to address the increasing skepticism concerning the capacities of reason and our ability to reconcile experience and faith. He turned his attention away from the world of objects an inward to the thinker, the subject. This turn is immortalized in the words cogito, ergo sum (I think, therefore I am). One could doubt their own understanding, but he or she could not dubt that they were doubting or thing.

An aside: Ambrose Bierce's Devil's Dictionary proposes a different formulation od Descartes' words: cogito cogito, ergo cogito sum. I'm pretty sure his Latin is really poor, although I find his sense of humor wickedly amusing.

What are the differences and similarities between Cartesianism and Kantianism?

Cartesianism assumes that God would not provide us the capabilities to sense our world and be fooled by our senses. He assumes that what we sense is real and trustworthy. Kant assumes that we project certain preconceived notions on to sense data. His position is more like the Sophists, that we can't truly know the world of the senses. We can only know what we project onto it. Whereas Descartes accepts that we can, through reason, come to have certitude, Kant holds that our scientific construction of the world is limited by the data we have. It never tells us about the world itself, and it cannot arrive at the truth about reality. At best, what we get is a picture that is consistent and compatible with the sense data we have.

How is British Empiricism grounded in Cartesianism?

Like Cartesianism, empiricism starts from the perspective of the subject. However, while Descartes continues to put his trust in reason and in the inner subjective experience as the source of truth, the empiricists trust in fact and observation. We analyze thought and find sense impressions, from which we can know more about our world.

Why have the modern popes favored Thomism as a model for Christian philosophers and
theologians?

Thomist thought reconciles materialist and idealist thought. In that sense, it brings together and affirms both faith and reason. Most of modern thought approaches from the self. The danger of this approach is that every self becomes a new and different vantage point, one colored by its own development and context. Such a standpoint cannot point to absolute truth, only to a subjective understanding of the self and the world.

Why must Thomism incorporate modern historical and scientific knowledge while preserving its middle-of-the-road epistemology?

Faith and reason cannot be at odds with each other. Only by reconciling the two can we attain the truth. Because of the need to reconcile faith and science, we need an epistemology that treats sense data and the findings of science with due respect. St. Thomas built a strong case for Catholic doctrine starting from the Aristotelian stand point that we learn about our world through sense data. St. Thomas took this point further by demonstrating that we can reasonable conclude the existence of God and the truth of many Catholic beliefs based on on analysis of sense data and the world in which we live.

At the same time, we cannot abandon that which cannot be measured or seen. Much of the truth we accept is revealed truth rather than human thought. We cannot deduce morality without reducing it to a bunch of contingent rules. We have to accept that some truths speak to us from beyond the material (the value of human life, love, honesty). Science cannot prove these ideas to be true or false. We know them only through revelation. Maintaining these spiritual values, however, has a tremendous impact on the quality of material existence.

In a world where the truth of scientific thought can be demonstrated, we must have tools that can reconcile the world of science and the world of spiritual. Thomism provides such tools.
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