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In Defense of First Philosophy

Recently on this page, William E. Carroll made these remarks [1]: “It’s literally impossible to argue philosophically (about substance, accident, matter, body, change, etc.) with someone who refuses to accept the first principles of philosophy, or who reduces all first principles to the natural sciences.” He is referring to thinkers like Richard Dawkins who maintain that rationality is equivalent to the deliverances of the natural sciences.

In this way, what was traditionally known as “first philosophy [2]” cannot be a rational enterprise until its claims can be verified by the natural sciences. This, of course, is not possible, since first philosophy involves the first principles of thought and being, and thus any first principle that depends on a more fundamental truth or reality would not be a first principle. For this very reason, some philosophers, including some Christian philosophers, have abandoned first philosophy, choosing to model their intellectual projects after the natural sciences.

It is, undeniably, an attractive move, since the natural sciences have been so successful. But is that really a good reason to abandon first philosophy? After all, free markets have been incredibly successful in producing unparalleled prosperity in the developed world. Does that mean that we should extend its understandings of “goods” to account for the good of family life? If parents begin to think of their children as commodities whose value is determined by the free market, is that more rational than our immediate belief that our offspring, by virtue of being human persons, are intrinsically valuable beings of immeasurable worth?

But the critics of first philosophy are worse off than the free market reductionists. For first philosophy is literally undeniable. First, when a critic like Dawkins distinguishes rational enterprises (i.e., the natural sciences) from non-rational enterprises (i.e., religion), he grounds his judgment in what he believes are the necessary and sufficient conditions of what constitutes a rational enterprise. But that judgment is no more a deliverance of the natural sciences than the judgment that “hip hop is not poetry” is a deliverance of either hip hop or poetry. It is an exercise in philosophical reasoning about first principles of rational thought. It is first philosophy.

        Richard Dawkins does not practice what he preaches

Second, critics often issue normative judgments that depend on the reasoning of first philosophy. Take, for example, Dawkins’ criticism of the career path of paleontologist Kurt Wise.  In The God Delusion, Dawkins laments that even after earning a bachelor’s degree at the University of Chicago and a Ph.D. under the renowned Harvard paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould, Wise did not abandon his belief in young-earth creationism, the view that the first chapters of Genesis should be interpreted literally and that the Bible teaches that the earth is less than 10,000 years old.

Although, as I have noted elsewhere [3], I share Dawkins’ puzzlement with Wise’s tenacity, there is something strangely, and delightfully, non-scientific about Dawkins’ lament. He writes [4]: “I find that terribly sad . . . the Kurt Wise story is just plain pathetic – pathetic and contemptible. The wound, to his career and his life’s happiness, was self-inflicted, so unnecessary, so easy to escape. . . . I am hostile to religion because of what it did to Kurt Wise. And if it did that to a Harvard educated geologist, just think what it can do to others less gifted and less well armed.”

This is an odd lament for someone of Dawkins’ philosophical leanings, for he denies that nature, which presumably includes Wise, has within it any intrinsic purposes from which we may draw conclusions about our moral obligations to not frustrating those ends. Dawkins claims [5] that Darwin has shown us that natural teleology of any sort, including intrinsic purpose, is an illusion, and thus maintains that belief in teleology is “childish [6].” (This, by the way, is rhetorical bluster of the worst sort, since as virtually anyone who has studied the subject knows, Darwinism may count against some versions of design but not all, as Ed Feser [7], Etienne Gilson [8], and my former professor, James Sadowsky, S. J. [9], have convincingly argued.)

In order to issue his judgment, Dawkins must know something about the nature of the sort of creature Wise is and the obligations that such a creature has to his natural powers and their proper function. But since Dawkins cannot discover the human being’s intrinsic purposes or our obligations to them by the methods and means of the natural sciences, he opines – when he is not lamenting another person’s life choices – that these purposes and obligations must be illusory and to believe in them childish. Yet Dawkins’ brief against Wise depends on these “childish” illusions.

The key to escaping such counter-intuitive dead-ends is to abandon the failed project that the methods of the natural sciences are the model of rationality for all human endeavors. But don’t just take my word for it. Just observe how Richard Dawkins does not practice what he preaches.

Francis J. Beckwith is Professor of Philosophy & Church-State Studies, Baylor University, and 2016-17 Visiting Professor of Conservative Thought and Policy at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Among his many books is Taking Rites Seriously: Law, Politics, and the Reasonableness of Faith (Cambridge University Press, 2015).