Good, Evil, and Science, Fr. James Brent, OP (audio)
This is lesson 16 from a series entitled Aquinas 101, offered by The Thomistic Institute. Each lesson comes out weekly, with a short video (3-5 minutes) and audio lecture (30 – 50 minutes) and a reading or two.
Brent proceeds in three parts: first, Aristotle’s philosophy of nature – the world of form and finality; second, the mechanistic materialism that replaced Aristotle’s philosophy – the world of power and control; third, he will propose a way forward to integrate these two. He offers some interesting thoughts on our contemporary situation in society – it is no coincidence that the meaning crisis and interest in some philosophy other than “material” are occurring simultaneously.
First, form and finality: in this world, there is a basis in nature for moral claims, and humans have the ability to know this basis – both Christian believers and unbelievers. He begins with Aristotle as an example, but this view isn’t bound or limited to Aristotle.
What follows are examples of forms and functions, with the end or telos of each respective kind. We live in just such a world, and it was a pagan philosopher who laid this out. Human beings are capable of at least some eternal truth without learning it from the Scripture – or to look at it another way, all men are in search of God.
He offers some of the sayings from the sages of Delphi: practice justice, respect your parents, follow god. Well, Christians can agree with this. Paul offers in Romans 2:
14 For when the Gentiles, which have not the law, do by nature the things contained in the law, these, having not the law, are a law unto themselves: 15 Which shew the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and their thoughts the mean while accusing or else excusing one another;
So, what is “good”? Each thing is good to the extent it realizes the proper end, or telos, for its kind. If a bald eagle didn’t soar, or an apple tree didn’t produce fruit, we would say something was wrong with it – it is a factual, objective assessment, not a subjective one.
So, what of human beings? We are to live according to reason. But it is reason tempered by Scripture – this is not an “anything goes” reason, one unbound by morality, but reason grounded in God’s wisdom. Hence, Natural Law as developed in the Aristotelian-Thomistic tradition fits neatly inside this window – or, perhaps, properly bounds this window.
Brent turns to the second part: the world of power and control – what comes by rejecting the world of form and finality. In this world, there is no basis in nature for shared moral evaluation and agreement. The difficulties here begin with William of Ockham and his concept of nominalism. Nominalism denied the concept of universalism – denying that there were forms or essences universal to a type.
Form and finality compromised the sovereignty of God, argued Ockham. Was God bound to abide by the form and finality of His creation? Ockham denies this to be the case; God was not bound by this. Hence, there are no universals, only particulars. Agents do not act according to their nature, as there are no natures. Agents act according to power or control, not nature.
I am aware that this opens a theological can of worms. I am not sure how to comment beyond recognizing that Ockham introduces an arbitrariness that would make it difficult for a mustard seed of faith to grow.
If the values aren’t written in the form and finality, there is no basis of moral evaluation and judgement. If the values aren’t written into the fabric of forms and final causes, where will one find the truth of such judgements? One could conclude that such values are not true at all; yet this would make for an unlivable world.
We are then left with an arbitrary God, or with our appetites (hedonism, utilitarianism), or in our autonomous reason and arbitrary legislation. A current fad in this regard is something akin to intuitionism – our intuition figures it out. Yet we live in a world of interminable discourse and futile disagreement – so where is this “intuition”? Why has this intuition not figured anything out, instead, perhaps, opening the door wider for ever-diverse disagreement?
This is the world of power and control – not at all in conformance with the Bible, and not at all conducive to a world of liberty. The human person is unsafe – in every aspect of the term. This opens the door to what Brent calls the hermeneutics of suspicion. He offers Marx, Nietzsche and Freud as examples of those who have brought this forward. It seems to me that much of the modern world to even include post-modernists – in reaction to the Enlightenment – is reacting in the same way.
Theirs are attempts to find liberation and safety from the fundamental and threatening forces of power and control – it is the same thing that libertarians battle against. Yet, in the case of Marx, Nietzsche and Freud, the post-modernists (and many libertarians), it is an attempt via self-salvation. But all this leaves us with is competing battles for power and control – or control of power.
So, what is the way forward? This is the third part of the lecture. One can affirm on philosophical grounds both the science of form and finality and the findings of contemporary science. Brent offers a group of contemporary philosophers known as the River Forest Thomists: Aristotle offered highly generalized truths; modern science offers necessary particulars. These need not conflict.
The metaphysics of form and finality are better suited for the purposes of ethics (and liberty) than is power and control. Something or someone will govern. Does liberty have a better chance in a world governed by laws deduced from the nature of humans or governed by humans unbound by such laws?
I believe the question answers itself. And there is no third way.