The Catholic Thing
Good Philosophy Answering Bad Print E-mail
By Francis J. Beckwith   
Friday, 01 August 2014

Every summer, since 1996, I have lectured at Summit Ministries in Manitou Springs, Colorado, at the foot of Pike’s Peak. It is a two-week summer camp for Christian young men and women between the ages of 16 and 22. During those two weeks, students listen to lectures from professor-types like me, engage in a variety of physical activities (e.g., hiking, sports), pray, read Scripture, and meet in small groups with other students. It’s quite an operation, and I am honored to be part of it. This summer, I have already spoken at three of the two-week sessions, with two more engagements remaining in August.

One of my talks, “Five Campus Dogmas,” a lecture I’ve been giving at Summit for the past three years, deals with the sorts of assumptions – rather than explicit beliefs – that a Christian student is likely to encounter. but not necessarily discern, attending a secular college or university. So, what we cover are not direct critiques of Christian faith, but philosophical assumptions that often bypass the critical faculties and subtly weaken belief.

The thing I most like about this lecture is that it affords me the opportunity to introduce the students to the joys of philosophical reasoning and why so many great Christian minds throughout history – including St. Augustine, St. Anselm, St. Bonaventure, St. Thomas Aquinas, C.S. Lewis, St. Pope John Paul II, and Alvin Plantinga – saw (and see) in this enterprise a way of thinking that is both congenial and supportive to their exposition of the Gospel.

One of the five campus dogmas we cover is the belief that all that exists is the physical world. Often called materialism, it is the view that everything in the universe – including you, me, the dog, the park bench, and the planet Jupiter – is ultimately reducible to matter.

I do not offer the students a conventional critique, such as a cosmological argument for God’s existence, which, if successful, shows that there exists a non-physical, transcendent, necessary being on which all contingent reality exists, and thus materialism is mistaken. Rather than point to the universe outside them, what I do is aim for the universe within them, showing that much of what they take for granted in terms of their mental lives is seemingly inexplicable under materialism. Among the several examples I provide is a lovely argument offered by the Dominican Friar, Fr. Thomas Crean, found in his book, God is No Delusion: A Refutation of Richard Dawkins.

The most intriguing of the several arguments presented by Fr. Crean begins with this question, “What is ultimate, mind or matter?”

First, he asks us to consider necessary truths. What are those? He writes: “Something that is not dependent on chance or human choice, but which has to be the case,” such as “the proposition that the circumference of a circle is equal to twice its radius multiplied by π.”

Second, there are several things we can say about this proposition:

  • It does not depend on the material world. For, Fr. Crean explains, “material things are subject to this law; they don’t create it. The circular cross-section of a tree trunk. . .does not cause it to be the case that the circumference of any circle will equal 2πr.”
  • Thus, he concludes, “necessary truths are independent of the material objects that they govern. If there had never been a material universe, it would still have been true that the circumference of any possible circle will equal twice its own radius multiplied by π.”
  • But if a necessary truth does not depend on the material universe, where is it if the material universe does not exist? In a mind, since it is an abstract object and abstract objects require minds.
  • “So,” writes Fr. Crean, “if we agree that certain things are true independently of material things, we must admit that at least one mind exists independently of material things.”

Another dogma I cover is this claim: because of the explanatory power of Darwinian evolution in accounting for biological change over time, it is no longer intellectually respectable to believe that the universe’s apparent design can be attributed to God.  As I point out to the students, the problem with this view is that it assumes that divine action is in competition with scientific theories.

So, if a theory, such as Darwinian evolution, can account for increased complexity of biological organisms, God is superfluous. Unfortunately, some Christians buy into this mistaken view of divine action and eventually abandon their faith, since the “God” in which they believe “exists” at the mercy of scientific impotence.  To quote the Hulk in the recent Avengers film, “Puny god.” (Thanks to Ed Feser for giving me that one).

On the classical view of God – the one embraced by virtually all serious Christians, Jews, and Muslims until very recently – the universe’s intelligibility as a whole requires his existence. Thus, Darwinian evolution can never, in principle, displace God’s creative power, since contingent reality itself, including the entire Darwinian scheme, points to something beyond itself. Think about it: all scientific theories – even those that appeal to chance – presuppose order. For example, natural selection, the engine of Darwinian evolution, cannot even get off the ground without pre-existing laws and the apparent striving of organisms to some natural end.

My approach to the Summit students has been, for quite some time, shaped by the words of C. S. Lewis: “To be ignorant and simple now – not to be able to meet the enemies on their own ground – would be to throw down our weapons, and betray our uneducated brethren who have, under God, no defense but us against the intellectual attacks of the heathen. Good philosophy must exist, if for no other reason, because bad philosophy needs to be answered.”

Francis J. Beckwith is Professor of Philosophy & Church-State Studies at Baylor University.
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Comments (11)Add Comment
written by Michael Paterson-Seymour, August 01, 2014
Materialists gaily refute themselves out of their own mouths.
Materialists present their arguments in words.
Certainly, words are configurations of material objects, ink marks on a page, sound waves in succession &c
But words have meaning; they can represent material facts (or possible facts or states of affairs).
The relationship between a word and the fact &c that it represents, its meaning, is not a material fact or relationship.
Semantics is not one of the physical sciences; neither is logic; neither is ethics.
written by Nick Palmer, August 01, 2014
“In our world,” said Eustace, “a star is a huge ball of flaming gas.”

“Even in your world, my son, that is not what a star is but only what it is made of. And in this world you have already met a star: for I think you have been with Coriakin [the master on the island of the Dufflepuds].” (Voyage of the Dawn Treader, CS Lewis, page 117, HarperCollins eBook)
written by Jack,CT, August 01, 2014
Proff Beckwith, simply wonderful!
written by grump, August 01, 2014
I'm kind of with Lucretius on this one: The universe consists of atoms and the void. There's nothing else. To quote Thomas Hardy: "There is something worse than blindness; that is seeing something that isn't there."
written by Jon S., August 01, 2014
Thank you, Professor Beckwith, for another excellent column. Do you recommend that Catholic students attend a Summit Ministries conference? It would seem so, but I don't want to put words in your mouth. Catholic students need something like this, including those students who attend "Catholic" high schools and colleges where I am afraid your five campus dogmas also hold more sway than they should. Please elaborate on your other four campus dogmas in future posts to TCT.
written by Athanasius, August 01, 2014
Darwin's theory depends on there already existing an initial living cell. It does not explain how life began in the first place. Neither does any other scientific theory I know of. Our current understanding of science seems to point to a supernatural action that began life in the first place.
written by Tony, August 01, 2014
Dear Grump: This translator of Lucretius disagrees with you.

The old materialist did not account for the very laws upon which his materialism was based. He is always talking about law, but he doesn't ask about the ontological status of law. He talks about good and evil, but he doesn't ask about the ontological status of good and evil. He talks about reason, but not about the ontological status of reason. He assumes that individual persons exist, that they think, that they have free will (!), but he does not ask about the ontological status of those things.

His greatest scorn he directs at those Stoics that talk about harmony and Providence -- and it's notable that neither he nor Epicurus had any real affinity for mathematics. The ontological status of number is a real thorn for the materialist, because all mathematicians are Platonists when they are working, whatever they may say when they are at leisure. That is, they believe they are discovering things that really exist, and not spinning figments of the human imagination.

Take the example of the circle. It is an object that is mentally perceived, and that alone. It is strictly speaking invisible, intangible, inaccessible to the senses. It has no dimension. No one has ever seen a circle, and no one ever will. Yet we know, with absolute certainty, all kinds of things about the circle.... Or take the electron, even. The electron is one thing, but the law that governs (note the verb, that even scientists use!) the behavior of the electron is quite another. Now, no scientist says that there is something absolutely necessary about the electron. That is, the electron as it is, governed by the law as it is, did not have to exist. There is nothing about existence that mandates the existence of a particle of just that mass and just that behavior. So then, a greater reality underlies the reality of the electron (namely, the law that governs the electron's behavior), and a greater reality underlies the reality of the law (namely, a lawgiver).

Some people will try to evade this issue by positing a multitude of universes. But that only multiplies the problem -- AND at the same time it violates the empiricism they say they uphold. For those universes in turn would require an explanation, and then necessity could not be one. Could not, unless they say that ALL POSSIBLE UNIVERSES must exist! But what can that mean? It cannot mean that there is universe 1, universe 2, universe 3, and so forth, because that would amount only to a countable infinity, and not a plenum ... There are more numbers between zero and one trillionth of one trillionth than there are positive integers; the infinity is of an entirely different order.

To see the absurdity of the position that ALL POSSIBLE UNIVERSES must exist, we would have to believe that a universe out there exists in which everything that happens in this one happens also there, except that at noon on the 3rd of January, in 1993, Mrs. Beatrice Drabble of Keokuk, Iowa, picked her nose in Universe A, but did not pick her nose in Universe B...
written by grump, August 01, 2014
@Tony, I bet even Plato, who dreamed of an "ideal" circle, would admit to seeing a real one.

While the idea of "universals" is grist for the intellectual and philosopher, it appeals more to the imagination than reasoning. To investigate "ontological status," as you put it, is mere tergiversation rather than the willingness to accept the limits of human understanding and acknowledge only what we can empirically know. What is unknowable, therefore, remains mysterious given that "man's wisdom is foolishness to God." The dark glass that screens us from seeing clearly won't be lifted until the next world, we are told.

Plato's approach to understanding the world reminds me of this satirical description: "a philosophical position which posits abstract objects almost palpable enough to trip over."

And, so, until the light prevails, I would say Lucretius was on to something when he said: "Life is one long struggle in the dark."

written by myshkin, August 01, 2014
There's a subtle problem with Fr. Crean's argument that would never have occurred to anyone prior to the mid-1980s. But first let me unpack the brief version Dr. Beckwith gives in his post.

In St. Thomas Aquinas' "Commentary on Boethius De Trinitate" (which I highly recommend to TCT readers, especially in Armand Maurer's annotated version), Thomas demonstrates that numbers, mathematical truths, and logical "necessary" truths are beings of second intention. This means that like Fr. Crean states, they exist in the minds contemplating them. They don't exist in some Platonic heaven, nor are they non-existent as some later nominalistic thinkers held. As far as St. Thomas had experience of, this meant that if something was a truth of reason, it existed as a consequence of the power of reason in all rational beings.

If things had stayed as they were in St. Thomas' time, Fr. Crean's argument would not have a problem. But recent developments in Artificial Intelligence do raise a problem. Several years ago I was writing a program which employed Russell's λ-calculus to do automated theorem proving. It was based on Peter Andrew's work at Carnegie-Mellon. The program was developed to the point that, provided the definitions and axioms of Euclid's Elements, it proved every theorem (and more) that are in that ancient text. Of course this included the C = 2πr theorem that Fr. Crean uses in his argument. Now the problem becomes, what was the status of that theorem within the physical computer? The machine derived it itself, that is, no human simply typed it in, so it was not simply a representation of a truth of reason existing in a rational mind. It indeed existed as a physical colloquy of electrical charges, and had been derived from a prior physical colloquy of electrical charges by the computer.

Let me be clear: this DOES NOT refute Fr. Crean's or St. Thomas' claims, since it says nothing about how human reason derives rational beings. But it does show that it is possible for mathematical and logical truths to be developed and proved outside of any mind. St. Thomas in his day was not aware of these sorts of AI programs.

Of course one can always say that some human (in this case Bertrand Russell) had to develop the λ-calculus in order for such AI programs to work. And this returns us inevitably to the traditional Proofs of God, namely from Causality. So my point, after this long post, is that try as you might to find others, the traditional Thomistic Proofs of God are still the best ones.
written by Francis Beckwith, August 01, 2014

Thank you for your thoughtful comments. I appreciate them.

I am familiar with St. Thomas' commentary. And as a Thomist, I agree that abstract objects, including necessary truths, do not exist in some Platonic realm. However, and here I can only be brief, if there are necessary truths, and if they don't exist in a Platonic realm, and if they must exist in a mind, then there must exist at least one mind that is ontologically qualified to "house" necessary truths. Only a necessary being is qualified.

As for your other point, the theorem wasn't in the computer, since the computer is not a mind. It is a calculating machine. Whatever symbols and their combinations the programmers may use to represent mathematical truths--and any combination of these symbols the machine may produce to represent a legitimate inference from those mathematical truths--are not the truths they represent. We come to know those truths when we read the outputs, because we know what the calculating machine spits out represents these truths, but they are not the truths themselves. Those are in our minds.

Here's an example. Suppose I have a logic software program that allows me to plug in anything to a modus ponens: If X, Y; X; therefore, Y

So, suppose I plug in..

If Socrates lives in Athens, then he's Greek
Socrates lives in Athens.

The computer spits this out:

Socrates is Greek.

This phrase was not typed in by the user. Yet, it is a necessary inference from the premises I plugged into the modus ponens. Did the machine acquire a new thought? No. It has no thoughts at all. It is a calculating machine and not a mind. It cannot "know" anything.

BTW, I agree with you that the traditional proofs are better. My point was to offer a different angle to the students that they are unlikely to hear in their college experience.

Again, thank you.
written by Benedict Augustine, August 02, 2014
What a neat exchange between Myshkin and Beckwith. That would be an issue that I could easily trip over. Well spoken on both sides.

Grump needs to revisit the original post. Simply shrugging and agreeing the Lucretius, even after Tony and Beckwith laid out proofs for an exclusively intelligible reality in some depth, does not constitute an intellectually justified position. There's more to the universe than matter and void. The first comment brings up the obvious point that words and the logic they express do not have any material reality but only serve as physical symbols of a rational reality. The materialist position, like the relativist position, is innately contradictory.

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