Archive for the ‘Philosophy’ Tag

Philosopher Children Make for Better Politics

This article in the New York Times brings up an under-discussed topic: teaching children philosophy:

“The world is a puzzling place and when you’re young it doesn’t make sense,” Professor Wartenberg says. “What you’re giving them is the sort of skills to learn how to think about these things.”

Professor Wartenberg has written a book, “Big Ideas for Little Kids: Teaching Philosophy Through Children’s Literature” (Rowman & Littlefield, 2009), to spread his experiment to more elementary schools. His focus is on teaching undergraduate philosophy students how to work with children, and his decade-old course at Mount Holyoke, “Teaching Children Philosophy,” has led many of his students to pursue careers in early-childhood education.

“A lot of them don’t know what to do after college,” he says. “If they want to do something with philosophy, this opens up an avenue.”

Professor Wartenberg also says that philosophy lessons can improve reading comprehension and other skills that children need to meet state-imposed curriculum standards and excel on standardized tests. With a grant from the Squire Family Foundation, which promotes the teaching of ethics and philosophy, he is assessing whether his program helps in the development of argument and other skills.

The view that children can do philosophy and engage in conversations on metaphysics, ethics, aesthetics and epistemology challenges the view of child psychologist Jean Piaget who claimed that children under the age of 12 were not capable of the sort of abstract thinking required for philosophical analysis. Matthew Lipman, however, founder of Philosophy for Children, disagrees, claiming that the insatiable curiosity of children makes them ripe for engaging in philosophical dialogues. According to Lipman’s approach, the teacher acts as a sort of “midwife to the thoughts of the students” (to use an expression from Plato). The idea is not to teach students what Plato or Descartes thought, but rather to teach them how to think.

Literature turns out to be a wonderful place to begin, as the following exchange over The Giving Tree illustrates:

Ms. Runquist’s students managed to fit philosophy in between writing and science. This was their sixth lesson of the year, and by now they knew the drill: deciding whether or not they agreed with each question; thinking about why or why not; explaining why or why not; and respecting what their classmates said.

Most of the young philosophers had no problem with the boy using the tree’s shade. But they were divided on the apples, which the boy sold, the branches, which he used to build a house, and the trunk, which he carved into a boat.

“It’s only a tree,” Justin said with a shrug.

“The tree has feelings!” Keyshawn replied.

Some reasoned that even if the tree wanted the boy to have its apples and branches, there might be unforeseen consequences.

“If they take the tree’s trunk, um, the tree’s not going to live,” said Nyasia.

Isaiah was among only a few pupils who said they would treat an inanimate object differently from a human friend.

“Say me and a rock was a friend,” he said. “It would be different, because a rock can’t move. And it can’t look around.”

This gave his classmates pause.

In book VII of The Politics, Aristotle addresses the question of how people should be educated in an ideal city according to both the end and means of education. The end of education is eudaimonia, a life of flourishing or as we say, happiness. Whereas practical reason makes important contributions to eudaimonia in terms of making decisions conducive to health and financial success, ultimately, it is the speculative intellect which contributes most directly to the ultimate end of education and the achievement of eudaimonia. While Aristotle definitely thinks that children are not born in command of their reason, but must rather be trained, he clearly thinks that by the age of seven, children should be engaged in the most basic and foundational forms of philosophical inquiry, and should be learning the intellectual habits (counsel, understanding, wisdom) which are integral to the philosophical life. Active, creative, and democratic conversation among children creates adults who can engage in active, creative, and democratic conversation. Young philosophers, according to both Aristotle and Lipman, turn into good citizens.

Opponents claim that children need to be taught “useful” subjects like math, science, and reading, all of which are conveniently-suited to standardized tests, and that philosophy is a luxury which our already-undereducated children cannot afford. Lipman, however, started working on developing philosophical tools for children during the Vietnam era, during which he claimed “many Americans were too accepting of authoritative answers and slow to reason for themselves — by college, he feared, it would be too late.”

It seems to me that with all the unproductive back and forths between liberals and tea-party conservatives, the gross misunderstandings on both sides in the debates on health care reform, the vitriol we see in coverage of the Roman Catholic Church in recent weeks, and countless other examples point to the fact that even the best brains among us do not know how to have a conversation, to reason about ideas, and to listen and compromise with those who hold divergent views. Perhaps teaching kids philosophy isn’t such a worthless idea after all.

More on Metaphysics

As I mentioned in my last post, I am doing a series of articles on Matthew Levering’s new book entitled Scripture and Metaphysics: Aquinas and the Renewal of Trinitarian Theology, largely in hopes of starting an ecumenical conversation between traditions like the Church of Christ that tend to be sola Scriptura, and traditions like Roman Catholicism that tends to be heavily philosophical. The point of this blog is to probe deeper into the subject of metaphysics, in order to understand why Levering’s project is so important.

In the last post, I said that Protestant theology tends to reject metaphysics in favor of using Scripture to understand God. This claim, however, requires some clarification. There are several different ways of “rejecting metaphysics.” As I mentioned before, metaphysics is simply the study of that which is not physical like God, angels, demons, and the soul. One way which a person could reject metaphysics is by rejecting that any such metaphysical or immaterial realm exists. This is a move frequently made in the modern sciences, and is sometimes called materialism, meaning that only a material realm of reality which is subject to empirical inquiry exists.

One example of a materialist rejection of metaphysics is found in this recent op-ed from the New York Times evaluating the selection of Francis Collins as the director of the National Institute of Health. Collins is a geneticist and former head of the Human Genome Project, and he is also a practicing Catholic and believer in God. Collins actually wrote a book called The Language of God which tries to show how faith and new developments in genetics are not at odds, but are rather mutually reinforcing (a good Thomist position). The author of the op-ed, Sam Harris, is not so much uncomfortable with Collin’s belief in a God but rather with his position that some things “including an immortal soul, free will, the moral law, spiritual hunger, genuine altruism, etc.” are beyond scientific scrutiny. Harris writes,

As someone who believes that our understanding of human nature can be derived from neuroscience, psychology, cognitive science and behavioral economics, among others, I am troubled by Dr. Collins’s line of thinking. I also believe it would seriously undercut fields like neuroscience and our growing understanding of the human mind. If we must look to religion to explain our moral sense, what should we make of the deficits of moral reasoning associated with conditions like frontal lobe syndrome and psychopathy? Are these disorders best addressed by theology?

Collins holds the position that he does because he believes in a metaphysical realm that cannot be the subject of scientific empirical inquiry which by definition can only study material phenomena. Harris, on the other hand, rejects such a metaphysical realm. If there is a reason, according to Harris, that we think that free will, morality, and suffering are mysteries, it is simply because we have not developed sufficiently sophisticated scientific methods to study these phenomena (For a good argument that probes materialist rejection of metaphysics on a deeper intellectual level, check out this from First Things).

Christians, however, who reject metaphysics, do not do so in the same way as Harris. Christians are not materialists, meaning that they do accept a metaphysical realm. Christians who reject metaphysics do so on different grounds, namely, by rejecting the validity of metaphysical speculation or philosophical arguments to talk about God. Christians who reject metaphysics tend to claim that everything we need to know about God has already been revealed to us in Scripture, and so rather than using philosophy to talk about God, we need only to open the Bible.

There are two big reasons why that position is a problem. First, say you have an atheist or agnostic scientist or believer in science like Sam Harris and you want to talk to him about Christianity. Opening up the Bible and reading about all that God has done is going to do little to persuade someone like Harris to accept the Christian claims of faith. But say instead you close the Bible and use a metaphysical argument to engage Sam, perhaps an argument from Aquinas. You might say something like, “Sam, our senses tell us that everything is in motion, and that things are set into motion when they are acted on by something else in motion. But things were not always in motion. For example, the theory of the Big Bang tells us that before time, there was no molecular motion at all, but something must have initially set things into motion. This first mover, we can reasonably say, is God.” (For the record, this is Aquinas’ first way of five for demonstrating reasonably God’s existence).

Now Harris may or may not be convinced by such an argument, but the point is, that such an argument, which is a metaphysical argument, has the benefit of being able to show how the God which Christians take on faith is not beyond reason. Certain things can be known about this God through ordinary human reasoning. Now, faith in the living God of Israel, fully revealed in Jesus Christ, cannot be attained through mere rational speculation, but is rather an effect of God’s grace. But Aquinas believed, and I think rightly, that we can make ourselves more or less amenable to faith. Sam Harris is not going to be made amenable to faith by reading the Bible, but he might be by rational, philosophical, and metaphysical arguments. Get him convinced enough that faith and reason are not in conflict, and he may get to the point where he can actually open the Bible and read it with a certain degree of docility. So metaphysics can be a powerful tool for evangelization.

The second reason that rejecting metaphysical arguments in favor of a sola Scriptura position to understand God is a problem is that God as revealed in Scripture does not always seem to make a lot of sense. For example, a Christian may site Psalm 118, “O give thanks to the LORD, for he is good! for His mercy endures forever” and make a claim along with the Psalmist that God is good. But then somebody could open the Bible and read 2 Samuel 6 where Uzzah, a seemingly good guy and servant of God, reaches out to touch the ark of the covenant to keep it from falling, and God gets angry and strikes him dead. A person reading this passage could claim that such a God is not good. Or a Christian could say that God loves peace and mercy and cite the numerous Biblical passages which support this, like when Jesus says “Blessed are the peacemakers” or in the Old Testament:

“If your enemy is hungry, give him food to eat; and if he is thirsty, give him water to drink; for you will heap burning coals on his head, and the Lord will reward you.” (Prov. 25:21,22)

“Seek peace and pursue it” (Ps. 34:14)

But then someone else could open the Bible and look at the following passages and draw a very different conclusion:

Observe what I command you this day. Behold, I am driving out from before you the Amorite and the Canaanite and the Hittite and the Perizzite and the Hivite and the Jebusite. Take heed to yourself, lest you make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land where you are going, lest it be a snare in your midst. But you shall destroy their altars, break their sacred pillars, and cut down their wooden images. For you shall worship no other god, for the Lord, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God (Exodus 34: 11-14)

<blockquoteYou will chase your enemies, and they shall fall by the sword before you. Five of you shall chase a hundred, and a hundred of you shall put ten thousand to flight; your enemies shall fall by the sword before you. For I will look on you favorably and make you fruitful, multiply you and confirm My covenant with you. You shall eat the old harvest, and clear out the old because of the new (Leviticus 26: 7-9)

Reading these passages, someone could make a very valid claim (as lots of people do, and they frequently abandon their faith as a result) that God is actually not peaceful and merciful, but is rather capricious and wrathful, going so far as to command genocide, one of the greatest of atrocities.

Levering says that it is all too easy to read these passages and others from the Bible and create an idol out of God. Our idol may be a wrathful God who sends down punishments on the wicked and hates his enemies. Or our idol may be a revolutionary God involved in radical societal reform and social justice. Or our idol may be a God who loves and accepts all his creatures, no matter what they do. Or our God may be a strict authoritarian who has set down rules in Holy Writ and fully expects his creatures to follow them.

All of these understandings of God are present in Scripture and thus all of them have at least some element of truth. But Levering wants to argue that taking any one of these understandings of God on its own, despite its scriptural warrant, is still making an idol out of God.

Levering wants to make the claim in his book that a basic metaphysical assumption about God is that God is reasonable, and thus, we can use our reason to understand and explain these seeming conflicting passages about God. That is, if we put metaphysical speculation about God into dialogue with scriptural exegesis about God, we can come up with an understanding of God that is richer, truer, and less prone to idolatry. We will go into the details of how Levering thinks this should proceed in later posts, but he basically wants to argue that Thomas Aquinas’ metaphysical assumptions allowed him to resolve apparent conflicts regarding God as God is revealed in Scripture. Metaphysical speculation allowed Aquinas to make sense of Scriptural accounts of the seeming capriciousness of God and scriptural accounts of God as unchanging. Aquinas’ metaphysical speculation allowed him to make sense of the Christian claim that God is good, despite Scriptural evidence to the contrary. Aquinas’ metaphysical speculation allowed him to make sense of the fact that God is one, despite the fact that Christianity hold that Jesus and the Holy Spirit are also God. And Levering thinks that these are exactly the tools that Christians need to today in order to understand God and enter into greater union with that God.

Celebrating God’s Revelation on the Feast of the Epiphany

Today, the Catholic Church observes the Feast of Epiphany, which celebrates the revelation of God to humanity in the person of Jesus Christ.  The Gospel reading for Mass today is the story from Matthew of the revealing of Jesus Christ to the wise men.  The fourth century pope Leo I (also known as Leo the Great) has an impressive homily for today’s feast:

What wondrous faith of perfect knowledge, which was taught [the wise men] not by earthly wisdom, but by the instruction of the Holy Spirit! Whence came it that these men, who had quitted their country without having seen Jesus, and had not noticed anything in His looks to enforce such systematic adoration, observed this method in offering their gifts unless it were that besides the appearance of the star, which attracted their bodily eyes, the more refulgent rays of truth taught their hearts that before they started on their toilsome road, they must understand that He was signified to Whom was owed in gold royal honor, in incense Divine adoration, in myrrh the acknowledgment of mortality.  Such a belief and understanding no doubt, as far as the enlightenment of their faith went, might have been sufficient in themselves and have prevented their using their bodily eyes in inquiring into that which they had beheld with their mind’s fullest gaze. But their sagacious diligence, persevering till they found the child, did good service for future peoples and for the men of our own time.

In light of today’s feast, I think it is appropriate to present a few reflections on what this feast celebrates–the revelation of God.

Thomas Aquinas introduces the Summa Theologica with a discussion of revelation which he calls “knowledge of God” outside of what could be known by human reason alone.  The truths in which revelations consists cannot be grasped by the natural intellect but must nevertheless be accepted on faith.  These truths are invisible, which Aquinas backs up by quoting Hebrews 11:1  “faith is the revelation of things hoped for and the conviction of things unseen.”

These truths are also eternal, not like the knowledge of this age which passes away.  Here, Aquinas draws on 1 Corinthians 2:6-10:

Yet we do speak a wisdom to those who are mature, but not a wisdom of this age, nor of the rulers of this age who are passing away.  Rather, we speak God’s wisdom, mysterious, hidden, which God predetermined before the ages for our glory, and which none of the rulers of this age knew; for if they had known it, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.  But as it is written: “What eye has not seen, and ear has not heard, and what has not entered the human heart, what God has prepared for those who love him,” this God has revealed to us through the Spirit.  For the Spirit scrutinizes everything, even the depths of God.

An example of such knowledge which exceeds what the natural intellect can achieve on its own is knowledge of the Trinity.  No amount of scientific experimentation will ever yield proof that God is one God in three persons.  No philosophical method can ever lead to the conclusion that God creates, redeems, and sanctifies.  These are called “theological” rather than philosophical truths, and they must be believed to be known.

Human reason can, however, come to some knowledge of God without the light of revelation.  Aquinas says that human beings were created with intellects that naturally seek out the causes of phenomena they observe in the world.  The Magi, for example,  saw a strange star and sought out its cause.  But the cause was not simply some astrological phenomenon, but rather, the unique work of a God revealing himself to the Gentiles.

Because the things we observe in the world are caused by God, human beings can “know that God exists in a general and confused way” (I, Q. 2, art. 1).  We can know God made the stars without really knowing the God who made the stars.

We can also know God as the source and the end of our quest for happiness.  All people desire happiness (beatitude) which is found ultimately only in God, a conviction that provides the foundation for Aquinas’ moral theology.  However, this knowledge regarding God as the source of our ultimate happiness is also confused because not all people know what their happiness consists in, some believing it to be riches or fame or pleasure (which I talked about here).

This general and confused knowledge of God can be demonstrated in five ways, all of which proceed from an observable effect to God who is the cause of this effect.  These five ways will be the subject of another blog post but in brief they are as follows: (1) God is the first mover of all of the universe, put into motion by no other; (2) God is the first efficient cause; (3) God is the only necessary thing amidst all other contingent things which exist; (4) God is the greatest gradation of Being, the most perfect thing of all other things which exist; and (5) God is the intelligent designer of all things which seem to have been made by something for a purpose.

The “five ways” are philosophical ways of talking about God, but they just scratch the surface.  Revelation opens up to us knowledge of the essence of God, not just what God appears to do, but what God is.  The perfection of this revelation is found in the person of Jesus Christ.  By the mystery of the Incarnation, we are brought to knowledge of “the goodness, the wisdom, the justice, and the power or might of God–‘His goodness, for He did not despise the weakness of His own handiwork; His justice, since, on man’s defeat, He caused the tyrant to be overcome by none other than man, and yet He did not snatch men forcibly from death; His wisdom, for He found a suitable discharge for a most heavy debt; His power, or infinite might, for there is nothing greater than for God to become incarnate . . .’” (Damascene, De Fide Orth. iii, 1, cited in Summa Theologica 3, Q. 1, art. 1).  For this reason, Aquinas argues, it was fitting that God become incarnate, so that we may see Jesus and know God.

Aquinas says that humanity’s whole salvation depends on this knowledge of God revealed in Christ.  “Therefore,” he writes, “in order that the salvation of men might be brought about more fitly and more surely, it was necessary that they should be taught divine truths by divine revelation.  It was therefore necessary that besides philosophical science built up by reason, there should be a sacred science learned through revelation” (I, Q. 1, art. 1–the first article of the Summa Theologica, for what it is worth).  We celebrate this revelation today, the Feast of the Epiphany, and like the three Magi from afar, we too would do wel to fall prostrate at the feet of our savior, and pay him homage.

What is Metaphysics and What Use is it for Christians?

The word “metaphysics” has its origins in Aristotle’s corpus, meaning literally “after the physics.” In his treatise On Physics, Aristotle studied the natural world; his concern in On Metaphysics is the world beyond the natural, that is, the immaterial world. Aristotle considered metaphysics the first philosophy (prôtê philosophia) because it had as its object the first causes of things, and he considered it a theological science (theologikê) because it culminated in considerations of God’s existence and nature.

Metaphysics, however, is distinct from theology as a discipline, and the main difference is in their starting points. Theology starts with the authority of God revealed in Scripture and made manifest in the articles of faith. It is a revealed science, meaning that we cannot empirically prove theology’s starting principles such as the incarnation, the resurrection, or the ascension. We take these matters on faith.

Metaphysics takes as its starting point the sensible world, which is the same starting point as physics. The metaphysician studies things which can be empirically validated in the natural world and finds in this intelligible traces of that which is not natural and which cannot be empirically validated—God. It is on the study of God that theology and metaphysics converge while still remaining distinct as disciplines.

One may ask why metaphysics would be necessary at all for those who have faith. The idea behind this objection to the use of metaphysics is that we have the truth concerning God revealed to us in Scripture, and thus we need only study that to know God. This is not a new objection. Thomas Aquinas and his teacher Albert dealt with “some who in their complete ignorance want to oppose the use of philosophy. This is especially true among the Dominicans, where no one stands up to contradict them. Like brute animals they blaspheme against things they do not understand.”

Instead, Albert and Thomas shared a robust confidence in the use of reason to illuminate and deepen knowledge and understanding regarding matters of faith. They thought this possible because they saw faith and reason as two different approaches to the truth. So long as both kept the eternal and immutable truth as their subject, faith and reason could never be contradictory. Moreover, Thomas adamantly advanced the position that metaphysics could greatly supplement theology, and that those who “by bringing [philosophical arguments] into the service of faith, do not mix water with wine, but rather change water into wine.”

In a Quodlibet written near the end of his life, Aquinas distinguishes between two types of theological disputes. The first uses only revealed authority to make its arguments, a type of disputation that can only take place among those who accept the given source of authority. For example, Catholics and Protestants can debate about issues like the Incarnation and the Resurrection because both accept Scripture as an authority. However, Christians cannot debate on the same terms with atheists, because atheists do not accept Scripture as an authority. Instead, Christians must resort to the second type of disputation which uses rational philosophical arguments to lead the hearer to truth. As Aquinas says in the opening question of the Summa Theologica, “God is constantly at work in the mind, endowing it with its natural light and giving it direction.”

Although the mind is capable of coming to knowledge of the truth without faith, this knowledge is limited and partial. Metaphysics can tell us something about God—for example, that God is one, that God is eternal, or that God sets creation in motion—but it is the supernatural illumination of faith which strengthens and elevates the intellect so that it is capable to contemplate God face to face. As Aquinas says in the Summa Theologica I, Question 3, art. 1, human intellect may fail and be deceived, “but the light of faith, which is, as it were, a faint stamp of the First Truth in our mind, cannot fail, any more than God can be deceived or lie.”

For Christians in dialogue with Christians, metaphysical language provides a means of deepening our understanding of the tenants of our faith such as the relationship between the three Persons of the one God or the relationship between the two natures in the one Jesus Christ. The very first Christian Counsels relied on metaphysics to develop the creed that Roman Catholics and some branches of Protestants recite in church every week. Metaphysical reasoning can also illumine Scripture. When YHWH tells Moses “I AM who AM,” he is using metaphysical language. The Gospel of John is replete with metaphysics, and without metaphysics, the creation narrative in Genesis is just a myth.

But metaphysics is also indispensable if Christians have any desire at all to converse with their non-believing neighbors. The ability to talk of God as the Unmoved Mover, the first efficient cause, or the only necessary being among contingents (I will explain what these mean in a future blog) will ultimately yield more fruit in bringing the atheist or agnostic to at least acknowledging God as logical conclusion than will citing Scripture. Most importantly, the use of metaphysics will show non-believers and believers alike that theology is not an irrational science.