The Scope and and Methodology of Philosophy of Religion

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Philosophies-of-disciplines, while not a return to the ancient and medieval view that philosophy encompasses all knowledge, allow philosophy to “invade” other disciplines and discuss their foundational principles. The philosophy of science, for example, discusses such topics as the nature of theory change, the nature of scientific explanation, scientific realism vs. nonrealism, and the demarcation of science from nonscience, among others. Its complexity has grown amidst the recognition that scientific methodology differs from discipline to discipline, and the “unity of science” thesis seems dead for now.

A similar growth in complexity has affected contemporary philosophy of religion. The initial struggle in the establishment of philosophy of religion as a subdiscipline involved separating the field from Christian theology. To what degree should philosophy of religion be tied to a particular religion. After all, if it is the philosophy of religion, rather than the philosophy of the Christian religion, its scope would be broader than a philosophical examination of Christian belief and practice and broader than monotheistic faith in general. However, Western philosophy of religion is dominated by examination of monotheistic claims about the existence of God, the attributes of God, the problem of evil, and life after death. Take most undergraduate (and graduate) texts in the field in the United States and in the UK, such issues dominate the textbook. If someone wants to study the philosophy of East Asian religions, the student usually takes courses in a religious studies department.

Strangely enough, methodology seems to fit such divisions. For example, analytic (or Anglo-American) philosophy of religion focuses on monotheistic claims. This has been consistently the case since the 1955 publication of the anthology edited by Antony Flew and Alasdair MacIntyre, New Essays in Philosophical Theology. This anthology marked the rebirth of philosophy of religion in Anglo-American philosophy after its short sleep when logical positivism dominated analytic philosophy. The trend of focusing on traditional monotheistic claims continued in an influential anthology edited by Baruch Brody, Philosophy of Religion: An Analytic Approach (first edition 1974) and later anthologies and textbooks as well as most articles in the field. Following Alvin Plantinga’s lead, some analytic philosophers of religion used analytic methodology in the study of Christian theology; examples abound, including Plantinga, Richard Swinburne, and Eleonore Stump. Sometimes this approach is labeled “philosophical theology;” and sometimes it is classified as “philosophy of religion.” Neo-Thomists, from the analytic tradition, more traditional Thomistic positions and Transcendental Thomism, followed this focus as well. For those interested in a broader philosophy of religion, the later Wittgenstein offered them the opening of classifying religions in terms of language games. D. Z. Phillips held that religious language does not make truth claims about reality but functions in particular expressive ways within religious communities in guiding worship and practice. The process philosopher Rem Edwards used such a Wittgensteinian approach in his classification of religious beliefs and practices in his 1972 text, Philosophy of Religion.

Continental philosophers of religion took a broader approach and generally did not limit their study of philosophy of religion to monotheistic traditions. Their use of the phenomenological approach to the study of religions allowed them to discover both similarities and differences between disparate world religions without dealing with religious truth claims. A good example is the widely used textbook by James C. Livingston, Anatomy of the Sacred, now in its sixth edition. Even though Livingston’s book uses phenomenology, a well-established philosophical methodology, it is generally classified as a book in religious studies and not as a book in the philosophy of religion.

Process philosophers who work in philosophy of religion are interested in religious truth claims and often focus on similarities between world religions. Recently prominent have been meetings between Christian process philosophers and Buddhist philosophers in order to foster interreligious dialogue.

In 2014 a book by the Eastern Orthodox philosophical theologian, David Bentley Hart, was published, entitled, The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss. His own methodology could be called eclectic, and he finds similarities between Hindu and Christian conceptions of God, an interesting conclusion for a conservative Eastern Orthodox scholar. His book could be classified as Christian theology, philosophy of religion, or philosophical theology, given the fluidity of such terms in the West.

My question is, “Is such apparent narrowness in Western philosophy of religion necessarily a bad thing?” I do not believe so. Areas of contact between Hindu, Buddhist, Jewish, Muslim and Christian philosophers are growing, even among traditional Christian thinkers. In addition, India has a rich tradition of Hindu philosophy of religion, which is difficult to separate from religious studies—a similar situation to that in the West. Although American society is increasingly diverse, and religion is in rapid decline, the dominant cultural force religiously remains Christianity and to a lesser extent, Judaism. The inroads Muslims are making only introduces another monotheistic faith into the fray. Students should be, in my judgment, exposed to Western ideas first and then to ideas from other traditions so they can make accurate comparisons between traditions.

Methodologically, in the field of philosophy of religion, pluralism should be welcomed. Whether a philosopher of religion uses analytic methods, phenomenological methods, or the careful but not mathematical logic dominated approach of traditional Thomists—each method has its uses. It would be a positive development if analytic philosophers would study East Asian and African religions using that approach. Another positive approach would be more dialogue between phenomenologists and analytic philosophers. Each should be more familiar with the other’s methods.

My own approach to methodology in philosophy of religion is eclectic. I approach the field as a traditional Scholastic with affinities for both Thomas Aquinas and Duns Scotus. I tend to keep my arguments in English rather than putting them in symbolic form, so I do not share the emphasis of analytic philosophy on formal logic. It seems to me that analytic philosophers are often unaware of the limits of formal deductive logic. It does not, by itself, capture well inductive and abductive thinking and ignores intuitive knowledge and what Scholastics label “connatural knowledge.” Phenomenology is useful in describing religious experience, although eventually I will get to evaluating truth claims. I am not sympathetic with postmodernism with its tendency toward epistemological relativism. Subject-wise, I focus on Christian beliefs, although I am open to insight from other religions if they help solve a problem on which I am working. My first philosophical love is metaphysics, and I tend to approach problems in the philosophy of religion from that standpoint, although I realize that metaphysics influences epistemology and vice versa. Overall, I could pigeonhole myself as a “pragmatic eclectic Scholastic,” although I would never expect or want other people who work in the field to follow that particular approach. Any philosopher of religion, regardless of method or focus, should be willing to learn from anyone, no matter what method he or she uses.

Parapsychology and Positivism

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Auguste Comte

Although “mainstream” psychologists may disagree, in its attitude toward science, parapsychology competes with psychology for being the most conservative of the sciences. Now there are parapsychologists who do not resemble the original positivists in the line of Auguste Comte or the twentieth century logical positivists in any respect. The late John Beloff was a good example. Today Allen Gauld is in that broad tradition of scientists open to philosophical insight. He appealed to the works of philosophers as well as those of scientists in his work, and he was among the most philosophical of professional parapsychologists. For the most part, I have seen little evidence of positivism among the members of the Society for Psychical Research in the U.K. This is a credit to that organization, which has traditionally held a “big tent” for not only scientists, but also for philosophers, theologians, and other scholars in the Humanities. I will not name them, but there are parapsychologists who believe that philosophy and theology should play no role in either truth claims or theories concerning the various aspects of psi. They desire that parapsychology should be respected as a science like any other field of science. In this respect they are similar to psychologists, who often believe the old-fashioned positivist view that science is the only path to knowledge of reality. Thus even metaphysical issues such as the existence of God, if not amenable to scientific study, cannot be about truth claims. That such a position is a philosophical position seems lost on some psychologists and parapsychologists. Organizations with this line of thought may, from time to time, publish historical studies in their journals, but philosophical papers are almost nonexistent, and all other papers take a quantitative psychological approach to parapsychology. For all the good work J. B. Rhine did to put experimental parapsychology on a firm foundation, his approach also tended to be narrower than the approaches of the Society for Psychical Research and of the American Society for Psychical Research. Some writers today distinguish psychical research from parapsychology, holding that parapsychology takes a more narrow approach to psi, focuses almost exclusively on a “scientific method” of procedure, and deals very little with the issue of survival after death. When I first became interested in parapsychology, I thought that this was inaccurate, and that currently psychical research and parapsychology are coextensive. As I talk with more people in the field, I find more philosophical materialists who also tend to hold that science is the exclusive source of reliable knowledge about reality. I wonder if F. W. H. Myers would be welcome to present a paper at some contemporary gatherings of parapsychologists.  By eschewing philosophical approaches, these parapsychologists may be blind to their own philosophical biases, biases that are present among scientists in every field of study.from physics to biology. I appreciate the open approach to the field taken at the University of Virginia. The research professors there do careful empirical research, but with a true interdisciplinary focus that takes account of the best work in, for example, the philosophy of mind. In a field that necessarily deals with phenomena about which many disciplines make knowledge claims, it is important for practitioners have an open mind and that they be well-read in a variety of fields. I would also encourage those psychical researchers who desire to revitalize psychical research in the United States to communicate with one another and perhaps organize to revitalize the field and keep it from being lost in a plethora of statistics.

Accreditation and the Tyranny of the Social Sciences

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College and university accreditation and re-accreditation has become a nightmare. Accreditation agencies demand “continuous quality improvement” to be documented by quantifiable data. Following a model that has wreaked havoc with teachers in the public school system, specific departments at a university and the university as a whole must not only form a mission statement, but formulate a series of goals and objectives to meet those goals. The objectives must be measurable in a quantitative way. Some departments require not only a list of goals and objectives for the course, but also for each week of the course. Standardized group final exams are becoming more common in certain fields, such as the physical and social sciences. The comprehensive portion of the final exam may have some of the same questions year to year so that a department can track “improvement” in students’ ability to answer certain questions covering key goals of the course.

Such a social science oriented quantitative approach to education works neither in the physical sciences nor in the humanities, and I doubt it works in some social sciences either. Science involves critical thinking, something that is more than a quantifiable measure and often involves “abduction,” an inference to the best explanation that is as much an art as it is a science. The “social science approach,” a fortiori, does not work in the humanities. Students must do some memorization of facts in the humanities as in any other field,  and they can be “objectively” tested over such facts. The humanities, however, are about critical thinking, forming a world view, interacting with the great events and texts of history, reading Plato, Aristotle, and other great philosophers who sought wisdom. Wisdom uses knowledge, but refers to the practical wisdom (prudence, or what Aristotle called phronesis) to make the best decision about how to live the good life in a specific situation. A conception of the good life implies a world view, a vision of how all things fit together into a whole. World views are by nature qualitative, not quantitative. They demand weighing different and sometimes contradictory perspectives. That is why it is important in philosophy to allow faculty to use the textbooks and the approach they choose, rather than having a “cloned” approach to teaching a course. The trend toward conformity in academia has been accelerated by pressure from aggressive accrediting agencies.

There is a line of thought in the social sciences, which is also present among some scientists who work in the natural science, that nothing is real unless it is quantifiable, including knowledge (I doubt that this line of thought has room for “wisdom”). Many psychologists, especially, take a totally quantitative approach to what they are studying. As the most conservative of sciences, psychology tends to fit better into nineteenth century though rather than into twentieth and twenty-first century thought. The situation seems like the revenge of Jeremy Bentham‘s often criticized “hedonic calculus” that tried to quantify an exact measure of pleasures and pains. The basic idea of quantifying everything has been broadened to the idea that one can operationally define any learning task and test to determine whether students have actually learned. Can Plato’s view of the Forms be operationally defined? What about the significance of World War I in the development of interwar continental philosophy? Can wisdom be operationally defined? What about truth, beauty, and goodness? The accrediting agencies are attempting to destroy what is most valuable about education–becoming wiser, with a better ability to think critically and to make judgments, exposure to different world views, the privilege of discussing differing positions with a professor. To say that qualitative measures are allowed is disingenuous since even those “must be measurable”–how? There must be a quantitative rating scale. Hopefully college and university faculty will encourage accreditation agencies to re-examine this current trend toward a bad social science model of evaluating educational quality.

Anti-Religious Bias in Medical Ethics

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A few of my medical ethics students (not by any means the majority) object to my including such a large component of religious ethics in my teaching. Such an attitude is not surprising–it is another instance of religion’s increasing exclusion from public life and debate (Fr. Richard John Neuhaus‘ “naked public square,” but it is nevertheless disturbing. The founders of the great Hippocratic tradition of medicine (and ethics) were Pythagoreans, and their thought cannot be understood apart from Pythagorean mysticism. Roman Catholic scholars were producing texts in medical ethics as early as the seventeenth century, and taught medical ethics as a university course long before the contemporary bioethics revolution began in 1966. Roman Catholic concepts such as the principle of double effect and the ordinary-extraordinary care distinction have become a part of the ethical vocabulary in medicine.

In addition, Protestant scholars, such as Paul Ramsey and James Gustafson, have made important contributions to medical ethics. Jewish scholars, such as Hans Jonas and Leon Kass, have also contributed to the field, with Professor Kass serving as the chairman of the President’s Council on Bioethics during the Bush administration. Muslim scholars are beginning to be published in both mainstream medical and in medical ethics journals. At a practical level, understanding diverse religions is important for any health care provider.

The terms of the debates over key bioethical issues such as abortion and euthanasia cannot be adequately understood without understanding the religious arguments involved in these debates. I am not denying the possibility of a consistent secular ethics; I am saying that, as a matter of fact, de-emphasizing the religious aspect of medical ethics is irresponsible, period, and would be more irresponsible for me from a scholarly/teaching point of view.

What is more disturbing than students’ attitudes, which may be as much due to lack of exposure to alternative views (especially for those students who are “rabidly secular”), is the increasing exclusion of religious points of view from medical ethical debates. This exclusion is not absolute; journals such as the Hastings Center Report occasionally publish articles from a religious perspective, as do some other journals in medical ethics, but this is becoming increasingly rare. The false Enlightenment assumption that religion is only a private, subjective matter is part of the problem. Such a view reveals utter ignorance of the function of religion in personal behavior and in society. As one of my teachers at UGA once said, “I would never be such a damned fool as to claim that religion is only a private matter.” He was a liberal Protestant and not a raging Fundamentalist, but he understood the function of religion to be inherently social. He also understood that religions make claims about reality, and such claims can be broadly tested against human experience in general, although there will always be an element of faith and of mystery in religion.

Increasingly, I find a small group of students who could be called “misotheists”–they hate God or at least the notion that any Creator exists. Since these are mostly science students, I would guess they were encouraged to believe such things by some of their science teachers, as well as by the strict methodological atheism of modern and contemporary science. Far too many science teachers make sweeping metaphysical claims regarding religion being a superstition and claim that such a view is “scientific.” Of course this is really the philosophy of “scientism,” the view that science can explain all reality and that any reality claims that go beyond a mythical “scientific method” are, by their very nature, not part of reality. Such a view needs to be justified by argumentation, but neither the scientists who accept scientism nor students are willing to present arguments–their hostility to religion is palpable. Other students (and atheists and agnostics in general) are angry ex-religious people who have rebelled against, perhaps, a harsh religious background (or maybe they just want to get laid and don’t want any religion to get in their way). Since misotheism is, like scientism, an emotionally-based position, there is no rational way to get most people who hold such views to think them through.

I admit I’m frustrated. It is becoming increasingly difficult to be a religious believer who teaches in a college or university. They follow the logic of the eighteenth century Enlightenment, adopting not only its positive side (toleration for different points of view) but also its negative side (the total secularization of the academy). Even in religious schools, the logic of the Enlightenment leads many faculty be be atheists or agnostics and to minimize the role of religion in public life. It is sad that this attitude has spread to future health care providers.

Atheism, Agnosticism, and Psychologists

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A 2006 study in Sociology of Religion found that 50% of American psychology professors were atheists and 11% agnostic, making psychologists less religious than professors in any other field, including the other sciences. What is it about the field of psychology that lends itself to a non-theistic world view? The problem seems to be that psychology remains stuck in the nineteenth century, both in its overall world view and in its naive conception of science.

The nineteenth century non-religious intellectual usually rejected belief in God because there seemed to be no role for God in a Newtonian cosmos. Although Newton himself was a theist who believed that space is the “sensorium” of God, his followers generally saw no need for God in a mechanistic universe; as the French scientist Laplace famously said concerning God, “I have no need of that hypothesis.” A world of machines governed by deterministic laws could exist on its own without any God to sustain it in existence, a fact that the Irish philosopher George Berkeley recognized despite the problematic nature of his own idealistic metaphysics. The Newtonian world seemed to leave no room for “God, freedom, and immortality,” and Kant felt forced to accept at the level of phenomena a godless, deterministic universe, but affirmed God, freedom, and immortality to be postulates of practical reason. As Kant himself eventually realized (in his posthumously published writings), his view, at best, implies that human beings must act as if God, freedom, and immortality exist, but that these things belong to the unknowable realm of noumena about which we must remain agnostic.

After Darwin interpreted biology in terms of a Newtonian mechanical world view in his theory of evolution by natural selection, some intellectuals who hated the abrogation of any spirituality from the world turned back toward Descartes‘ dualistic philosophy in which mind is free, mind can exist after death, and with God being a great Mind, the fact that matter is determined by strict Newtonian laws does not oppose freedom and spirituality. Some of these intellectuals focused on alleged empirical evidence for mental powers above the physical and for survival of death by a mind, and thus the philosopher Henry Sidgwich and the classicist turned psychologist F. W. H. Meyers founded the Society for Psychical Research in London in 1882. Later, in 1885, the American Society for Psychical Research was founded, with the philosopher and psychologist William James serving as its second president. By studying phenomena such as telepathy, clairvoyance, psychokinesis, and mediumship, these intellectuals desired to discover an empirical basis for the mind having powers beyond the standard interpretation of Newtonian laws. Although influential for a time, the Society suffered from vicious attacks from defenders of the strict Newtonian paradigm.

In England and in the United States, idealistic (in England) and pragmatic (in the United States) systems of philosophy were overwhelmed by the early analytic movement in philosophy, including the logical positivists. The Vienna Circle in the 1920s and 30s supported the position that only empirically verifiable statements or tautologies such as those found in mathematics and logic were meaningful. In psychology, the earlier open-mindedness of William James was replaced by the dogmatic behaviorism of John Broadus Watson which was continued by B. F. Skinner. Watson, influenced by the Vienna Circle, excluded all considerations of consciousness and other “unobservable” behaviors from psychology, focusing only on observable behavior as shown in stimulus-response behavior in mice and other animals. These animal “machines” were thought to be appropriate models of the behavior of “human machines;” thus both non-human animals and human beings were considered to be “automata.” God, as an unobservable entity, could have no meaning in such a world view.

Later, the cognitivist revolution in psychology overwhelmed behaviorism, but even cognitive psychology uses mechanical models for human cognition and behavior. Computational models, connectionism, neural network theory, and even functionalism are all basically mechanical models of cognition. They have difficulties dealing with the first person perspective of consciousness and both qualia and intentionality. With such a mechanical model of nature, there is still no room for a deity. Even with the quantum revolution in physics, which seems to oppose both absolute determinism and a mechanical model of the universe, most psychologists have stubbornly held on to the Newtonian world view, leaving no room for belief in God.

Psychologists, with some important exceptions, accept a nineteenth century view of science that has its ultimate origins in the thought of Francis Bacon in the seventeenth century. The notion of one “scientific method” in which the scientist collects observations, formulates a hypothesis, and tests the hypothesis through observation has been discredited by both philosophers of science (Popper, Lakatos, Kuhn, Feyerabend, Laudan) and scientists (Kuhn was a physicist, as was Michael Polanyi, an important critic of the “received view” in the philosophy of science). Although physicists and chemists who actually do cutting edge research recognize that there are actually multiple methods in science, as well as some biologists (though some radical Darwinians are just as extreme as most psychologists), psychologists still retain an outmoded view of science and of the “scientific method.” They also tend to believe that science is the only reliable source of knowledge, ruling out knowledge via philosophy, religion, art, and literature. Scientists in other fields are not as closed-minded, and this leads to more openness to the possibility that a God might exist.

Psychologists need to move into the twenty-first century since most of them bypassed the twentieth century and stayed in the nineteenth century. They need to examine how changes in sciences such as physics have called to question the Newtonian world view and mechanistic model of the universe. They should read work in contemporary philosophy of science that challenges their naive hypothetical-deductivist system and take it seriously instead of merely dismissing it. They should be open to all empirical data, including actually reading articles on psi, instead of finding one or two “straw man” articles to attack in their introductory textbooks on research methods. Finally, they should be open to the possibility that there are other means of gaining reliable knowledge than a narrowly conceived “scientific method.” Only then will academic (mainly experimental) psychologists be open to other views than atheism and agnosticism concerning the existence of God.

Universal Terms and Reality

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The problem of universals is one of the oldest problems in philosophy. From Plato and Aristotle to Boethus, Abelard, and the other medievals to the modern and contemporary periods philosophers have discussed whether universal words such as “man,” “dog,” “oak tree” or “water” exist in themselves, are mere labels for objects we group together for our convenience, or do not refer to things, but to objective similarities between things. Extreme realism, such as held by Plato, holds that universal terms such as “dog” refer to the Form “Dog” that exists in a spaceless, timeless world separate from the empirical world, and which is known by reason, not by sense experience. The opposite view, extreme nominalism, associated with Foucault and Derrida (although whether this is their actual position can be debated) holds that “dog” refers to what any society labels particular animals they wish to group together as “dogs.” There is no essence of dogness, no set of necessary and sufficient conditions for dogness to which the term “dog” refers. Finally, moderate realism (the position of Abelard (perhaps–I think so), St. Thomas Aquinas, and the Blessed Duns Scotus, asserts that universal terms refer to objective similarities between natural kinds of the same type, to a set of, say, necessary and sufficient conditions that make a dog a “dog.” The trend since William of Occam has been toward conceptualism, such as Occam’s notion of universals as labels that refer to similarities between entities that have some basis in extramental reality. He sounds like a moderate realist; some interpreters call him a “realistic conceptualist.” In his own day he was interpreted as a nominalist, and whatever his position may have been, philosophers after Occam gravitated toward nominalism. This trend accelerated the split between faith and reason that ended the Medieval synthesis. The end stage of this process is found in Nietzsche’s work, which supported nominalism in the sense that all meanings are culturally constructed and do not have an objective basis in extramental reality. Contemporary English Departments at many universities, especially in the United States, tend toward a radical nominalism and linguistic constructivism in which universal words refer to whatever fits a particular society’s interest. Even though I agree with the notion that meaning is flexible, since I accept the medieval four-fold model of meaning in Biblical interpretation, there remain limits to the scope of meanings that a word can have. Meaning occurs in context, and a particular context may both increase the number of possible meanings of a term, but it can also lower or eliminate the possibilities of other meanings. “I am going to the bank” makes sense if the person saying that also adds “to go fishing.” If he says, “I am going to the bank to withdraw money,” that eliminates the the other meaning of “bank” as “bank of a river.” Natural kind terms clearly refer to entities that are objectively similar. Sure, a beagle does not look like a Rottweiler, but they are both carnivores, they both bark, they can interbreed, and they have similar genetic codes and similar causal powers. There is no need to posit the existence of “Dogness” in any transcendent world independently of actual dogs. “Dogness” might exist in individual dogs in the sense that it refers to the set of necessary and jointly sufficient conditions to make a dog fall under the universal term “Dog” (or another term, such as Canis, used in another language. Thus my own sympathies are with Aristotle’s and Aquinas’ moderate realism: universal terms refer to objective similarities between things that are necessary and jointly sufficient for an entity to be the kind of thing it is. Universal terms may also hint at universal ideas or patterns in the mind of God through which He created the universe and the things in it. This view, dating back to Augustine, was picked up by the Medieval philosphers such as Aquinas, and did not fade until William of Occam denied it in the fourteenth century. Moderate realism evades the problem of arbitrariness found in postmodernism as well as the over-transcendence of Plato’s world of the Forms. I am hopeful that it will be adopted by philosophers outside the Thomist school, since as Richard Weaver pointed out in his fine book, Ideas Have Consequences, nominalism helped lead to the idea that nature, including human nature, is infinitely malleable by human ingenuity. Realism, whether ultra or moderate, helps to form a stable society in which human nature and nonhuman nature are both respected. Moderate realism avoids the problems of Plato’s doctrine of participation by placing the entity to which a universal term refers “in” the individual substance. Now substance, I believe, following Fr. Norris Clarke, is “substance-as-relation,” so that the intellectual content of the object observed would “seek” (metaphorically speaking) to communicate itself as far as possible–and the observer would strive to communicate was much as possible. Through such joining of information the mind becomes “intentionally one” with the object perceived, and thereby knows it, not exhaustively–but the actual information he receives is accurate to a degree. If this is the way communication between being and mind takes place, there is no need for transcendent Forms, but there is a need for “forms” with a small “f” to guarantee stable behavior patterns among natural kinds.

Does Thomism Really Avoid the Lockean Epistemological Gap between Idea and Thing?

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John Locke thought of himself as a realist (not in the Medieval sense of accepting the reality of universals, but in the modern sense of believing in a mind-independent world). Yet it seems that his philosophy leaves no room for any knowledge of that alleged world, as Berkeley and Hume pointed out. Locke believed that all knowledge comes by means of sense experience (thus he is an empiricist, as opposed to being a rationalist such as Descartes–it is ironic that in his hierarchical classification of knowledge Locke lists intuitive knowledge as first, demonstrative knowledge as second, and sensory knowledge as the lowest form of knowledge, barely to be called knowledge). Locke believes that knowledge arises by means of ideas in the mind. Whether these ideas are images or something else remains a subject of debate among Lockean scholars. In any case, Locke believes that that a quality is the power to produce an idea in the mind. Primary qualities are actually in the thing-in-itself, and our ideas of primary qualities are isomorphic with the actual structure of the physical substance we perceive. Primary qualities are measurable, and include size, shape, and mass. Secondary qualities are not in the thing itself; our ideas of secondary qualities are not isomorphic with the actual structure of the material substance. However, the primary qualities interact with human sensory organs and with the human brain to produce ideas of particular colors, odors, sounds, and tastes. Thus, secondary qualities have a partial basis in the thing-in-itself despite the lack of isomorphism between idea and thing.

The classic problem with this view is that Locke claims that we are only aware of our own ideas. We do not have any direct access to the material substance, to the thing-in-itself. In fact, substance is just that which underlies the qualities, a “something-I-know-not-what.” But if we lack access to the thing-in-itself, there is no way to compare our ideas to the actual object allegedly causing those ideas to determine which qualities are primary and which ones are secondary. Access to knowledge of extramental reality seems impossible, and a trip down the phenomenalist brick road of Berkeley, Hume, and the sense data theorists of the early twentieth century. Such an idealistic journey is not what Locke wanted to make. Idealism has serious difficulties; the source of the ideas (our own minds? the mind of God) remains a mystery, and the orderly nature of the phenomena we experience is left unexplained unless a person takes the Berkeleian route of positing God to explain natural laws. Direct realism is another option; the label of “naive realism” is a pejorative and is a blatant attempt to beg the question regarding the truth or falsity of direct realism. As for the straw men critics of direct realism try to knock down, no direct realist has denied the possibility of illusion. It is Berkeley and Hume’s phenomenalism that cannot distinguish between illusion and reality except by taking Hume’s route of more vivid ideas (which he calls impressions) being the most “real.”

Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas were both direct realists. Aquinas accepted the idea that knowledge comes through the “phantasm,” or sensory image, from which the mind extracts the intelligible content from a material substance. Thomists today often say that the difference from Locke’s view is that Locke believed we have access to ideas, not the thing in itself–it is the ideas that we know. In contrast, Aquinas believes that it is through the phantasm that a person gains some knowledge, albeit limited, of the thing-in-itself. But does this really avoid Locke’s problem or does it evade it by a kind of word game?

After reading more of how contemporary Thomists deal with the epistemological gap, I must back away from my earlier position that Thomism does not avoid an epistemological gap between mind and thing. Contemporary Thomists believe that humans have evolved as part of their environment, not as creatures separate from their environment. Even thought knowledge is of “external” things, there is a communication of intelligible content from object to subject–agent causation is not limited to human agents. The phantasm contains the information that human beings extract to help them to live in the environment in which they are embedded, to the point that the person becomes “intentionally one” with the thing-in-itself. While Duns Scotus posited intuitive knowledge of an object as existing in addition to a rather traditional Aristotelian account of knowledge, I am not sure that such an intuitive knowledge is necessary for human beings to get by in the world. If such intuitive knowledge exists (perhaps in the form of psi), such knowledge could speed up our apprehension of a thing and determine whether or not it is dangerous. But if the mind is not considered a container, but as one way of an organism’s acting in the world, that seems to eliminate the Lockean gap between idea and thing. The phantasm becomes that “by which” a person apprehends some aspects of the being of a thing.

 

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