« | Main | Robert Barro on Foreign Aid »

November 24, 2007

Comments

Joyless Moralist

I don't have time to write another endless missive right now, but I'll say a few things. Here's what I don't understand about your post at all: what do you take philosophy to be? Is it supposed to be purely instrumental, just a tool we use for social conditioning or furthering political ends or what have you? Because that's the only way I can make sense of statements like:

"Medieval philosophy didn't seem to be working; that was why Descartes was able to knock it down."

Well, if by "knock it down" you mean "seduce others into questioning the deep metaphysical truths that had been foundational to Christianity since its earliest centuries", then yes, he succeeded. Sometimes people do succeed in spreading erroneous lines of thought pretty far, though. There were, of course, available answers, which have been handed down by a noble line of great thinkers from that time to this. But the moderns have some intelligent advocates too, and sometimes they succeed in winning converts too.

"Most of Descartes' life overlapped with the Thirty Years' War, in which Europeans were killing each other on a huge scale because of religious differences. Obviously whatever philosophies were available were failing to procure agreement, or to keep the peace."

So, a philosophy should only be accepted if it procures agreement and brings peace? That's bad news for Christianity; Jesus indicates that there will be great turbulence, both religious and political, up through the Second Coming and especially right before. So by its own testament, Christianity will not meet either of your criteria -- at least not without fairly extreme divine intervention.

I realize that I was the one that first referred to things that were "working", but I didn't mean to propose a wider societal litmus test. I was only pointing out that we do seem to know things without going through these sorts of mental contortions; in our actual process of learning, the metaphysics does come before the epistemology. I grant that there is always, in this approach, some chink open for doubt. That's just the nature of mortal life. But note, we don't *actually* start out our lives feeling that we have no resources with which to pursue truth. People *decide* to give credence to this problem.

As to my feeling hostility towards Descartes: of course I do. He was subversive in the worst possible way. He was a brilliant man who decided to devote his intellectual gifts to razing the foundations of Christian faith. And he knew full well what he was doing. The Meditations on First Philosophy is a kind of intellectual seduction; the tone of honest, wide-eyed simplicity is like the innocent eye-batting of the prostitute posing as an unspoilt innocent. Such a person deserves to be spoken of with contempt. You take more or less the same when speaking of John Calvin, or Daniel Dennett, or others whom you take to be both influential and deeply flawed. And Descartes has done far more damage than either of those two gentlemen.

Just contemplate the Cartesian proposal for a moment in this light. He is suggesting that, as soon as you have attained good use of reason, you should proceed to deliberately tear down all of your beliefs, from the belief that God created to the universe to the belief that your mother loves you. To your truest friend you must say, "I don't even know whether you exist, to say nothing of trusting your loyalty." To the most beautiful natural scene you must say, "I have an impression of some pleasing sensations inside my own mind, but that's about all I can really vouch for." Of Christ you must say, "I do not know the man." Everything sacred must be eradicated. You might protest that this is only a *provisional* destruction... but is it? If it's to be sincere, you must be prepared to sacrifice any of these beliefs permanently, which, in fact, his predecessors largely did. You want to get these good things back through a more "latitudinarian" approach to evidence, but this is precisely what the Cartesian approach does not allow.

To put it plainly: the Cartesian approach to philosophy, if taken as seriously as he means it to be, is entirely incompatible with Christian faith.

Joyless Moralist

"If it's to be sincere, you must be prepared to sacrifice any of these beliefs permanently, which, in fact, his predecessors largely did. "

Sorry... I meant "successors."

Nathan Smith

Well, you respond to your first point yourself: "I realize that I was the one that first referred to things that were 'working'..."

Yes, exactly. I was trying to figure out in what sense you could have meant that. I certainly believe that philosophy's purpose is to discover truth, not to procure societal agreement, which is why an analogy to language, which *is* instrumental and arbitrary, can't get us very far.

"I was only pointing out that we do seem to know things without going through these sorts of mental contortions..."

Seem, to whom? What if you're living at a time when Europe is riven on confessional lines and European explorers are encountering many strange foreign peoples with completely different beliefs? At such a time, you know that most of what you *seem* to know is denied, perhaps even regarded as absurd, by many or most other human beings. How do you know that you are right and they are wrong?

re: "in our actual process of learning, the metaphysics does come before the epistemology."

This is hard to know, because our actual process of learning starts in infancy, and the amnesia of childhood-- to my mind, a fascinating psychological and philosophical problem-- hides from us the memories of how the process began. And of course, it depends on your presuppositions about the relationship between metaphysics and epistemology; a metaphysical statement may come with a tacit epistemology. "This is a pineapple (because my mother tells me so)." I think we have to be agnostic about this.

To JM's philippic in the second to last paragraph, I guess I'd say that (a) whether or not it was a provisional move in Descartes's case-- surely it was!-- it might well be a provisional move in our case, (b) I'm not sure who Descartes's successors are but if we are to take him to be a formative influence on the entire modern world, so that we are all more or less his successors, then the modern world has abundant belief in the sacred and in Christ and in the loyalty of friends and in natural beauty, *in toto* far greater than what existed in Descartes's day, and that is partly a function of our intelligence which is partly a function of our greater epistemic rigor which was fostered by Descartes's provocations, (c) while it may sound bad to doubt things that we hold dear, if those things really *are* true, they should be able to meet the challenge, and our belief in them will be more well-grounded.

re: "the Cartesian approach to philosophy, if taken as seriously as he means it to be, is entirely incompatible with Christian faith."

Well, there might be a sense in which this is true. The initial "doubt everything" move in the Cartesian approach is not an attitude characteristic of a Christian, who believes in Christ, and is not willing to stop believing in Him. But the Cartesian approach to philosophy might be a *path to* Christianity. Descartes's purpose, of course, is not to reject true beliefs, but to reject false ones. My admiration for Descartes is partly rooted in personal experience. I was born into a false religion. At some point I realized that what authority told me, my faculties could not accept as truth. I had to make a choice: to believe "on faith" in the tendentious (and I now think, false) sense in which that term is used there, or to doubt it all (for once I began doubting, how was I to decide to doubt one thing and not another) and try to discover what I could using my own faculties. I chose the latter, and my search led me to Orthodox Christianity. Now, I won't claim that my doubting/testing of my beliefs was quite as thorough as Descartes's, or that my eventual credal resting-place was uninfluenced by the beliefs I was raised in. But in kind, if not in degree, I think my own path indicates an important sense in which the Cartesian approach is not only not incompatible with the Christian faith, but is a pathway to the Christian faith, perhaps even a prerequisite to a robust Christian faith, since a belief which is based on consciously considering and rejecting alternatives may be stronger than an unexamined belief. Christians may be nervous when they watch their children engage in Cartesian doubt, but we *want* members of other faiths to doubt the tenets of *their* religions. For missionary purposes, Cartesian rationalism can be useful to Christianity.

re: "You want to get these good things back through a more 'latitudinarian' approach to evidence, but this is precisely what the Cartesian approach does not allow."

But why? Descartes sought to doubt everything that could be doubted. He whittled down his beliefs to the *cogito*, which he thought (and I agree) was impossible to doubt. He tried to rebuild knowledge on that foundation. If (as is generally assumed) he failed, then it's hard to see how Descartes could deny us the right to look around for other foundational introspective truths that we regard as similarly indubitable, and even if we accept a somewhat lower standard of indubitability, it seems to me we do not entirely depart from the Cartesian spirit. Even if we embrace the full spectrum of Chestertonian "common sense," or C.S. Lewis's inductive move that if the soul has a desire for God, that is evidence that there is a God, the spirit of Descartes-- of restless questioning, of seeking truth using our own faculties, of trusting introspective evidences against outside authorities (in Descartes's day, that of the Church; in our day, typically those of 'SCIENCE')-- seems to me to be there. Descartes would no doubt caution us that common sense is sometimes mistaken, and the warning would be useful; but there may nonetheless be many rocks which we find that the spade of doubt cannot dig out.

Finally, Joyless Moralist alleges that "Descartes was a brilliant man who decided to devote his intellectual gifts to razing the foundations of Christian faith. And he knew full well what he was doing." Now, I am not qualified to judge this biographical claim. If Descartes really was an anti-Christian or an atheist trying to destroy Christianity, that doesn't seem particularly relevant to philosophy-- an insincere objection still, if cogent, needs to be answered-- but it would be relevant to my personal attitude to Descartes. My feeling would not be one of contempt, however, but of pity, that he lacked a belief which, first, I think is true, and second, is for me a source of great joy. One can't blame the guy too much for concealing his atheism, since that would have been dangerous in those times; the blame lies wholly on the wicked men who, in a satanic perversion of the Gospel of Christ, decided to try to compel faith with the sword.

Nathan Smith

Let me add that I'm not claiming that even a more "latitudinarian" variation of Cartesian rationalism is an entirely adequate epistemology. I do think an attitude I have characterized as *faith* is needed, in such meta-propositions as *there are patterns in the world,* *there are other people,* and God. I think one or more of these propositions is needed for a sane worldview. In that sense, the Cartesian project failed, but through its failure-- which Hume brought to a climax-- it laid bare the nature of *faith,* if that is the word, that was needed in a way that had not been done before, while making things harder for the faith-as-intellectual-dishonesty that can only excuse coercion or create disunity. I am grateful for the Cartesian project both as an unattainable ideal of intellectual honesty, worthy of inspiring emulation even if it is slightly quixotic, and as a vaccine against shallower forms of rationalism, such as materialism.

Nathan Smith

One more thing. When Joyless Moralist writes: "Of Christ you must say, 'I do not know the man.'", she is alluding to St. Peter's betrayal of Jesus on the eve of His crucifixion, but she is also unconsciously alluding to the title of *The Jesus I Never Knew,* by evangelical writer Phillip Yancey. The meaning of Yancey's title is that the real Jesus that he discovered when he really began to study the life of Jesus was so different from the stylized cartoon character of his Sunday school classes as to be 'the Jesus he never knew' in childhood. Peter said "I do not know the man" because of cowardice, but it is a different matter to say, as a frank confession of the inadequacy of one's understanding or of one's faith, "I do not know the man," and take that as a reason to study and to deepen one's spiritual life in order to get to know the man. There are doubtless many nominal Christians who in truth "do not know the man," and think that they do, and who must recognize that they don't if they are to progress. And all of us "do not know the man" as well as we ought, or as we may hope, by the grace of God, to do in the fulness of time. I think this sense of "I do not know the man" is closer to the spirit of Descartes.

The comments to this entry are closed.

My Photo

Only use a payday cash advance as a last resort.

Categories

Blog powered by Typepad