The Catholic Thing
HOME        ARCHIVES        IN THE NEWS        COMMENTARY        NOTABLE        DONATE
Benedict, Dawkins, and the Fullness of Reason Print E-mail
By Francis J. Beckwith   
Friday, 15 February 2013

In his most eloquent account of the relationship between faith and reason – the 2006 Regensberg address – Pope Benedict XVI argues that the modern understanding of reason that restricts rationality to the deliverances of the hard sciences is incapable of offering a rational justification of itself, and much of anything else that makes life worth living. “Modern scientific reason,” the Holy Father writes, “quite simply has to accept the rational structure of matter and the correspondence between our spirit [i.e., mind] and the prevailing rational structures of nature as a given, on which its methodology has to be based.”

In other words, the modern person who wants to limit rationality to the hard sciences must stop his inquiry and not ask why nature is intelligible and why our cognitive faculties are ordered towards the understanding of nature.  These are just “givens” about which we should not rationally inquire, since to do so would mean that scientific rationalism is not the limit of reason. Benedict writes that “this aversion to the questions which underlie [the]…rationality” of modern scientific reason “endangers the West” and “[we] can only suffer great harm” because of it. The modern world denies reason’s “grandeur” and thus cannot summon “the courage to engage the whole breadth of reason.”

Within hours of Pope Benedict’s announcement that he would resign the papacy, confirmation of the truth of those theological insights came rushing through cyberspace in a variety of comments issued by the Holy Father’s most hostile critics. It would be a mistake to say that the irony was lost on these pundits, since the irony was never within their grasp to begin with.

With minds uncritically formed by the Zeitgeist that the pope powerfully explained in his Regensberg address – combined with an unwillingness to extend reason’s power to their most cherished secular pieties – these critics, despite their own native intelligence, would not likely understand what they do not realize they do not know.

Although I could provide several examples, one stands out as that than which no greater irony can be conceived. Soon after Benedict announced his abdication, the eminent science writer and Oxford professor, Richard Dawkins, sent out this tweet: “I feel sorry for the Pope and all old Catholic priests. Imagine having a wasted life to look back on and no sex.”

If you know anything about Dawkins, you know that he is the quintessential scientific rationalist, denying that anything that cannot be captured and quantified under the categories of the hard sciences, or traceable to them, is outside the purview of reason – and that anything outside that purview is de facto irrational. For this reason, Dawkins, as the pope would put it, has an aversion to asking questions that cannot be subsumed under the rubric of scientific rationalism.

So let us explore the reason that dare not speak its name. Dawkins, as is well known, maintains that reason – understood as equivalent to scientific rationalism, which has established the truth of evolutionary theory – requires that we deny that nature is designed, and thus is not infused with intrinsic purposes or proper ends by which we can issue moral judgments.

Setting aside his ungrounded belief that evolution per se is inconsistent with intrinsic purposes and proper ends in nature, it should be clear that Dawkins’ scientific rationalism means that his anti-papal tweet cannot be a deliverance of reason. 

After all, for one to claim that a life of priestly celibacy devoted to Christ and his Church is a wasted life requires that one know what a fulfilled life would look like. But such a life is an ideal, and thus is not like an empirical claim about the natural world. It is not an object of scientific inquiry. One cannot point to it, as one would point toward Pope Benedict or Richard Dawkins, though the intellect can be aware of this abstract truth when assessing Benedict and Dawkins by it.

Just as we know that a blind person ought to have sight because we know what a human being is by nature and how his parts and properties are ordered toward certain ends that work in concert for the good of the whole, we also know what excellence and virtue are before and after we see them actualized in our fellows.

But given his diminished understanding of reason, Dawkins must deny that even he can issue such judgments by means of his rational powers. Consequently, on Dawkins’ own account of reason, his verdict on the pope’s life is the cerebral equivalent of covert flatulence gone terribly wrong: not silent and not deadly.

 
Francis J. Beckwith is Professor of Philosophy and Church-State Studies, and Resident Scholar in the Institute for Studies of Religion, Baylor University. He is co-editor (with Robert P. George and Susan McWilliams) of the forthcoming A Second Look at First Things: A Case for Conservative Politics, a festschrift in honor of Hadley Arkes.
 
 
The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.

Rules for Commenting

The Catholic Thing welcomes comments, which should reflect a sense of brevity and a spirit of Christian civility, and which, as discretion indicates, we reserve the right to publish or not. And, please, do not include links to other websites; we simply haven't time to check them all.

Comments (17)Add Comment
0
...
written by Jack, February 15, 2013
Dr. Beckwith,
That last sentence made my day. Nice piece.
-jlk
0
...
written by Manfred, February 15, 2013
If one wants to read a recent example of Pope Benedict's use of Reason, one should read his address to the Roman Clergy on February 14, 2013 in its entirety in which he states that it was not Vatican II which has caused all the "calamity" of the last fifty years, but rather the "Virtual Council" which was caused by the Media. You see, it was not the papacies and hierarchies of the last fifty years which ordained homosexual men, who built the cathedral in Los Angeles, who allowed clown masses, who covered up for predator-priests and cost the American Church THREE BILLION DOLLARS in settlement costs, who caused millions of Catholic souls to leave the Church. It was all due to the media and the force it exerted at the Council. I think this man's retirement is quite timely.
0
...
written by Nick Palmer, February 15, 2013
Finally, what a delight to "hear" a voice of reason in Prof. Beckwith acknowledge that Pope Benedict's Regensberg Lecture was not a "mistake." I have no idea where this ridiculouos narrative got such currency. Fr. Schall in his wonderful book put the "mistake" theory to rest, in my mind.

I can only pray for Mr. Dawkins and his ilk. What hollow lives. I thank God daily that I am not the pinnacle of creation. There's great comfort in being a creature, and being loved by an approchable God who is beyond my most vivid imagination.
0
...
written by athanasius, February 15, 2013
I could write pages on this topic, but let me make two points:

1. Faith and reason must work together and be consistent with each other because both come from God, who is truth itself. They are just two different ways of knowing. We see two examples in our world today that emphasize one over the other to bad result:

a) Secularism, which denies faith. But since reason cannot on its own fully explain creation, and people cannot really deny their innate desire for God, this way of thinking leads to totalitarianism where the state (as represented be the "elite" strong) becomes a very unloving god. European socialism and its cousins are examples.

b) Fideism, which denies reason. But since a faith that denies and contradicts reason leads to arbitrary and capricious rule, it denies God's eternity and his intellect. It also leads to totalitarianism where men explicitly recognize a deity, but that deity they recognize is not the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob but really a creation of arbitrary "elite" strongmen. This is the god of rebellious and immature teenagers. Islam and some forms of "cult leader" groups are examples of this.

Faith and reason together lead us to the true God, who is Love, Truth, Goodness, and Beauty. He is Being itself. He has a perfect intellect and a perfect will that act together and are eternal. Being eternal, God cannot act arbitrarily.

America and Europe are both trending towards secularism, but the muslim immigrants are using the holes in the secularist theories to stealthily impose the fideism of Islam after secularism collapses of its own weight. We must promote the truth of Catholicism to counterbalance both forms of extremism back to the center.

2. The interesting thing about these "scientific rationalists" is that their theories about the "natural" creation or eternal existence of the universe have underlying premises (such as Mr. Beckwith suggests) that actually require a greater amount of faith to believe than the faith claims of the Bible.
0
...
written by Jacob R, February 15, 2013
Beautiful.

Like most militant materialist atheists, Dawkins contradicts himself every time he opens his mouth!

He gives us an incontrovertible, scientific exposition of what ails his soul every time he claims to tell us what is decaying the souls of Christians.

He says that BXVI is tired. Perhaps. But he's obviously growing quite weary from his never ending battle with the religious. No matter how much he proves them wrong in his own mind, they go on believing and even at times calling his beliefs into question.

Despite all of his success, and all the respect he gets in the secularist world, he's incapable of making a profound change. He's like Sarah Silverman. She thinks she's a great comic, but drug and sex addicts just need someone who makes them feel a little less crappy about themselves.
0
...
written by Other Joe, February 15, 2013
athanasius, you have neatly explained why the Truth can set one free - and why the inverse is also correct.
0
...
written by Andrew Flattery, February 15, 2013
Athanasius - that beatifully stated. What further reading can I do on your examples of secularism and fideism?
0
...
written by Patrick, February 15, 2013
This is a good analysis. It's also something that's been said before, to little effect, apparently. There have been many attempts made to point out to Dawkins and his followers how their philosophy is irrational. Yet they soldier on...

The biggest irony of all is probably how the New Atheists, or, as I like to call them, the Dawkins Fan Club, are themselves far more insular, cultish, dogmatic, and bigoted than almost any Christian.

You can read some of the response tweets to get a sense of what I'm talking about. There is no evidence, logic, or hardly even sense. Ridiculously defamatory claims, such as that Benedict himself molested children, or that the Catholic Church burns homosexuals to death, are chanted repeatedly like mantras.

Despite my attempts to be charitable, and to hope that Dawkins and his followers have valid criticisms to make of Christianity, in the line of people like Friedrich Nietzsche, Bertrand Russel, or Isaac Asimov, I am forced to conclude that they are little more than a cult of narcissists.
0
...
written by athanasius, February 15, 2013
To Andrew:

I suggest starting with BXVI's Regensburg address, especially Father Schall's book that includes the address and adds excellent analysis.

JPII's encyclical on Faith and Reason is also excellent.

You also should look into the writings of Peter Kreeft (see www.peterkreeft.com. He has audio courses on faith and reason and on the philosophy of Aquinas. He has a book on understanding the Bible, a summary of the catechism, and a book on the philosophy of Jesus all of which present well reasoned explanations of the faith. He is very good, and very faithful to the magisterium.

Finally, on EWTN's shopping website, you can get a DVD set with Fr. Robert Spitzer, SJ, called "Finding God through Faith and Reason". I watched this on EWTN some years back, and it is excellent in how he explains how reasonable it is to believe in God, and how unreasonable it is to believe we are all just a random occurrence of physics.

Happy reading and viewing.
0
...
written by Lamont, February 15, 2013
@Manfred, BXVI is not trying to shift the blame for the scandals which have rocked the church. He is just pointing out the fact that no one involved with the second Vatican council anticipated the shift in culture which led to the rejection of the natural law and its replacement with a moral relativism that threatens to undermine the very foundations of western civilization. That shift in culture was driven by the media in all its forms such that even priests and religious began exploring their sexuality and promoting choices and lifestyles that celebrate the rejection of traditional moral values.

Benedict has chosen to step aside at this time because he has recognized the need for a younger stronger warrior Pope to lead the Church in this battle.
0
...
written by Manfred, February 15, 2013
@Lamont: The Popes who took the name Pius had one trait in common-they all fought heresies and heterodoxy. Pius IX wrote the Syllabus of Errors in 1867. Pius X wrote Pascendi and Lamentabili in 1907 and he vanquished the Modernists in his time. One should read these encyclicals to see that many things condemned in them are now allowed by the Church. Religious freedom (in the traditional sense),ecumenism, immanentism, to name a few. He was a SAINT,the last Pope so honored by God. Pius XII saw all of this coming and wrote that he could foresee a time when the red lamp would no longer glow in the Sanctuary (Mediator Dei?).He died in 1958. Paul VI effectively ended the use of excommunication as a discipline for seriously wayward Catholics. Benedict declared that we no longer live in the time of the Syllabus. The whole thrust of Vat. II was the Church had to change. THAT THOUGHT of itself is Modernism! Any scholar worth his salt knew exactly what was occurring and the evidence of this is the "war" at the Council between the modernists and the integralists who stood with Sacred Tradition. Even educated, serious lay Catholics knew in 1965 the Council was a disaster. The last fifty years have proven them correct. I would have more respect for Benedict if he simply said: We had it all wrong!
0
...
written by kent, February 15, 2013
Beckwith's piece is premised on Dawkins' embrace of scientism, but witness the following statements from Dawkins' The God Delusion:

"Perhaps there are some genuinely profound and meaningful questions that are forever beyond the reach of science" (xx).

And more pertinent for the present piece:

"We can all agree that science's entitlement to advise us on moral values is problematic to say the least" (80).
0
...
written by Francis J. Beckwith, February 16, 2013
Kent:

The Dawkins disclaimers are not inconsistent with my claim that he is "the quintessential scientific rationalist, denying that anything that cannot be captured and quantified under the categories of the hard sciences, or traceable to them, is outside the purview of reason – and that anything outside that purview is de facto irrational." Admitting that science may not be able to address every question is not the same as denying that answers to those questions are outside the purview of reason. It is one thing for Dawkins to claim that science cannot advise on moral values, but it is quite another for him to claim that beliefs about the proper ends of life--e.g., that the Pope and other priests have lived wasted lives--are deliverances of reason while maintaining at the same time there are no actual ends of life that we come to believe as a consequence of knowing human nature, which is what in fact he has claimed throughout his career.

Here's an example that may be helpful. Suppose I were to say that beliefs about beauty are not about the world as such but merely subjective reactions to the world. And the reason why I hold this belief is because I am a scientific rationalist and deny that anything in nature can have intrinsic value, that any "value" those things may have come from subjective perceivers. So, for example, the Pieta' would not be beautiful if all minds vanished from the face of the Earth. In that case, I could not say that X is wrong in not believing the Pieta' is beautiful, since I do not believe that the Pieta' is intrinsically beautiful. In the same way, to say that the Pope and other priests have lived a wasted life, on scientific rationalism, must be grounded in the subjective perceptions of Dawkins and not on anything in the world, e.g., human nature and what that tells us about the proper ends of that natural kind. Now, if Dawkins then says, "We can all agree that science's entitlement to advise us on moral values is problematic to say the least," that would not count one wit against that judgment. He would just be announcing the obvious: "science," the paradigm of rationality, has nothing to do with one's subjective perceptions of proper ends (or beauty). It would also be consistent with his claim that "perhaps there are some genuinely profound and meaningful questions that are forever beyond the reach of science" Again, this would not be telling us anything we didn't know given his scientific rationalism. Yes,"perhaps" (that's a speculation, not a claim, by the way) issues of value and beauty are outside the reach of science, just as other non-rational enterprises are outside the reach of science. So, these disclaimers really don't do the work you think they are doing.
0
...
written by kent, February 16, 2013
Thank you for your response, I can see your point and how it impacts what I said.

Still, I'm not sure that one needs to have any notion that human life has objectively proper ends to be entitled to say that someone has wasted his life. Consider this definition: "A 'wasted life' is a life guided by fundamental goal(s) that cannot be accomplished because their object(s) do not exist." On this definition, lifelong alchemists wasted their lives because the structure of reality dictates that lead cannot be turned into gold. Similarly in the case of clerics: for Dawkins their lives are wasted because in his view there is no God for people to be brought closer to in this life and no heaven for them to arrive at in the next (two of the main goals of clerical service, I would surmise). I don't see these judgments as based on a view of the proper ends of human life. It seems to me that moral relativists, nihilists, and the like can make judgments about which people have wasted their lives if by that they just mean to point to people whose lives have been guided by illusory goals. If you like, judgments about which lives are wasted turn out to be scientific judgments. Of course wasted lives might inspire sympathy and pity in those who judge them such, as Dawkins says he feels for the Pope and old priests, but I'm not sure this needs to be inflated into anything normative; maybe it can just rest at the level of Humean sympathy. What do you think?
0
...
written by Achilles, February 16, 2013
Manfred, from where I am sitting, you appear to be an ideologue- as if you are your own magisterium and the interpreter of the divine economy. My personal choice between your interpretation and the words of our most excellent Holy Father seems to me hardly a choice at all. I take Pope Benedict XVI and I can't imagine that you would suggest to others that they take you over him. If the contrast between you two were not so stark and if it was difficult to know which of the two of you is more humble, wise, learned, holy and all the other attributes that woudl define the Holy Father, what about obedience? Would you really foment disobedience? What direct accusation of heresey that you are leveling at the Holy Father and Pope John Paul II?
Do you not feel anything for those of us that are not as intellectually astute as you claim to be? What is this church you would have sheep less in admiration of the Holy Father than I join? Is the Holy Father the head of the Holy Roman Catholic Church or are you?
I choose the Holy Father.
0
...
written by Tony Esolen, February 17, 2013
Mr. Dawkins has no philosophical training, so that he really doesn't know how frequently he contradicts himself. For instance, his famous example of how a computer program can produce several lines of Hamlet by "evolving" -- basically, by saving any letter that randomly shows up where it should -- is a stunning example of the fallacy of petitio principii. That is, the program must "know" Hamlet to begin with, in order to save the proper letters to that end -- so he ends up incorporating a telos into the program, just to "prove" that we can arrive at Hamlet without a telos. How can somebody make a mistake that egregious?

Anyway, as soon as somebody says, "I believe that there is nothing other than atoms," he has smuggled into his sentence a whole lot of ontology and epistemology that the content of the sentence itself cannot justify, and he has contradicted himself, unless he is willing to say that "I" is simply a placeholder, for the sake of convenience. If Dawkins were consistent, he would know that his scientism rules out more than God. It rules out the perduring identity of any object for more than an instant; and a fortiori the perduring identity of a living thing in a constant state of material flux. If he were consistent, he would admit that, whether or not God exists, one thing is sure: Richard Dawkins does not exist.
0
...
written by Tony Esolen, February 17, 2013
Another thing: Physical law. You must infer laws from their effects, but they themselves are not material. It is odd to suppose that, ontologically, the individual objects that obey the laws are superior to the laws they obey -- that is upside-down logic. If the law X accounts for the actions of individual objects A, B, and C, it seems absurd to suppose that A, B, and C are the governors of the law X -- but that is what some philosophers resort to now, lest they admit that the material world is intelligible only because it obeys laws that are not material, AND that are ontologically prior to the objects themselves.

Write comment
smaller | bigger

security code
Write the displayed characters


busy
 

Other Articles By This Author

CONTACT US FOR ADVERTISERS ABOUT US