A question for NickJanuary 9, 2011 — Deacon Duncan
I’m glad to see that Nick shows no signs of being a hit-and-run commenter, nor is he here to harass us with mere thoughtless trollery. He is engaging in real issues, he’s giving forthright answers, and when he speaks he does so with care and thoughtfulness. His tone may strike some as, shall we say, disrespectful, but in my opinion he is absolutely and 100% entitled to it, and he is welcome to continue. We will gain his respect only when and if we earn it.
In the interests of focusing on the heart of the issue rather than on tangents, let me begin by conceding that Nick has read more books on the subject of the ontology of good, Thomist philosophy, and so on, than I have. He has recommended Budziszewski, so I will give him a go. (Nick, would Written on the Heart be a reasonable starting place? When you have kids in college, the $10 book has certain attractions over the $70 hard cover, which is what Amazon is charging for The Line Through the Heart.)
Meanwhile, I do have an on-topic question for Nick, which might open up some common ground for fruitful discussion.
My question concerns the validation of academic inquiry, with a special emphasis on the needs of the layman. Academia, the land of intellectuals and scholars, is a rather diverse landscape. It gives us cosmology and particle physics, and it also gives us postmodernism. It has its triumphs and its failures, its breakthroughs and its fads, its wisdom and its foolishness. For many people, it’s almost a cabal—we don’t know what they’re doing, and if we try to get involved, we find the discussion wrapped in an almost impenetrable layer of technical jargon, inside references, and non-obvious assumptions. Are they giving us the next big Answer, or is this just another postmodernism in the making?
That’s not my question for Nick, but I’m leading up to it. The point is that having a lot of publications and citations and academic popularity is no guarantee that your conclusions have meaning and value outside the ivory tower. If there were a major academic discipline dealing with, say, the philosophy of aerodynamics, then we could get some idea if the leading figures in the movement were correct by having them design a flying machine. If it just sits on the runway waggling “perfect” appendages until it finally tips over and bursts into flame, then it’s probably safe to conclude that the philosophers behind it had fallen into the uniquely academic trap of being brilliantly persuasive rather than brilliantly accurate.
That only works for disciplines that have a tangible output, however. Where a discipline is concerned entirely with intangibles and metaphysics, there’s a substantially increased risk of proceeding on the basis of conclusions that have been verified only by consensus rather than by objective measurement against a real-world standard of truth. The popularity of a given philosophy, and the eloquence with which it is defended and explained, are not in themselves any guarantee of real-world accuracy. Indeed, in the absence of an “experimental metaphysics” branch of philosophy, there is a substantially increased risk that one’s conclusions will owe more to rhetorical strengths than to actual fact—that the silver tongue will outweigh the gold standard.
Nevertheless, there are criteria that can be used to at least weed out those conclusions which are flawed by logical fallacies, self-contradictions, or substantial inconsistencies relative to real-world facts. And this, finally, is where I arrive at my point.
My question is this. If Thomistic philosophy is successfully representing real-world truth, I would expect it’s “tangible,” flying-machine-on-the-runway product to be a description of real-world morality that was coherent, consistent, and logically valid. In Mere Christianity, however, C. S. Lewis did not present a logically valid description. For example, in Chapter 1, he writes,
The idea was that, just as all bodies are governed by the laws of gravitation, and organisms by biological laws, so the creature called man also had his law — with this great difference, that a body could not choose whether it obeyed the law of gravitation or not, but a man could choose either to obey the Law of Nature or to disobey it.
Wherever there is talk of disobedience, you are necessarily assuming the existence of two Observer/Participants, each of whom has intentions about how the principal Participant “ought” to behave. The disobedience consists of a difference between the behavior as practiced by the principal Participant, and the behavior as intended by the second Participant. This is in Chapter 1, mind you—the starting point of his argument for Moral Law.
In the absence of intention, there can be no “disobeyable” laws, because there is no intent that you should behave in any particular way. The only laws that exist apart from intention are laws that describe real constraints on what can and cannot occur. Such laws cannot be disobeyed, because they describe what can and cannot happen, and if anything happens contrary to such a law, it merely proves that the law is not an accurate description of what can and cannot happen, and thus is not a genuine law.
By asserting the existence of a disobeyable Law, therefore, Lewis is implicitly assuming, in his premise, the existence of the intentional law-giver that is the goal of his conclusion. In fact, we might even accuse him of naive animism—accounting for observed real-world phenomena by arbitrarily attributing them to invisible intelligent agents. By incorporating the assumption of an independent Observer/Participant into his definition of “law,” he biases the fundamental vocabulary of the discussion, and makes it difficult or impossible to argue the case, using his terms, without being led inevitably to the predetermined conclusion.
Granted, I don’t think that’s entirely Lewis’ fault. It’s easy to accidentally incorporate an assumed Observer into your basic terminology. Take the concept of “imperfection” for instance. Everything is a “perfect” instance of itself; things are “imperfect” only to the extent that they differ from what some Observer thinks they ought to be. To define “perfection” is to assume the existence of a Person with intentions regarding which characteristics and behaviors are “right” for some particular thing.
But I digress. My main question is about Mere Christianity, and about Lewis’ apparent failure to produce a logically valid introduction to Thomistic thought. A sound and correct philosophical foundation should have made it easier for Lewis to produce a coherent and non-fallacious summary, albeit a potentially incomplete one. How then do you account for this discrepancy, and given this problem why should we, as laymen, conclude that Lewis’ Thomistic philosophies are anything more than just another fad, like postmodernism?