By William Deatherage
The following article is based on what we call Theoretical Applied Theology and should not be taken as dogmatic or doctrinal Church teaching. Its intention is to provoke thought by bringing in outside subject interests to interact with Theology and propose ideas that stretch the imagination, even if someday proven wrong. I appreciate all feedback but would rather wait a little to discern better responses, rather than immediately answering.
Abstract: Classical and Enlightenment based observation have added much to our understanding of how we know things, but modern philosophy has offered some new and innovative ways to look at the world in a more holistic manner. Post-Enlightenment thought has gone largely unnoticed by many Catholics, but many of its ideas are surprisingly quite compatible with Church teaching. As society becomes more pluralistic, it is advantageous for the Church to apply modern philosophical techniques to understanding others and aiding in evangelization.
- The Enlightenment: time period known for its dependency on studying the material world and rejecting many concepts from classical metaphysics
- The Disinterested Observer: the scientific process that involves a strict separation between observer and observed
- Classicism: time period starting with Ancient Greek philosophy that dominated academia until the Renaissance; this time period accepted the material and metaphysical/spiritual as valid sources of knowledge
- Empiricism: the type of science that relies on collected data; traditionally done in a manner that separates observer from observed
- Abstraction: the idea that we can analyze specific qualities of objects on their own
- Reality (Heidegger): the common plane of existence that all humans share
- World (Heidegger): the construct that every mind generates which is shaped and formed throughout the person’s lifetime; determines how humans view reality
- Paradigm: a system of theories regarding how the world works
“Well, that’s just a point of view.” It seems like no phrase comes up more than this when discussing morality and ethics. Such a sentence is often invoked to try ending arguments; because of this it has garnered much usage among those who seek to avoid arguments and great ire among those who seek to engage in discourse. Particularly for many Catholics, it almost reeks of a relativism that the Church has rightfully avoided for millennia. What does this sentence actually mean, though? And perhaps more importantly, does it have any merit? In this article I will be addressing two flaws, one from the Enlightenment and one from Classicism, as well as how modern philosophy has attempted to correct them. Finally, I will discuss this subject’s relevance to Church teaching.
Flaw #1: The Enlightenment
I choose to start off with talking about the Enlightenment, even though it’s the more recent of the two time periods, primarily because its issue is not native to its era. This is the separation of observer from observed.
Let’s say Birdie (Manager of Clarifying Catholicism for Benedictine College) has a hamster. Birdie, being the good Music major that she is, decides to run an experiment on how Mozart impacts the hamster’s behavior. Thus, she installs a small speaker for the little guy to enjoy some tunes. She makes sure to stay as invisible as possible from the subject to avoid interfering with the experiment and makes observations from beyond the cage. Birdie has effectively separated herself, the observer, from the hamster, the subject.
As science has illustrated over time, there is indeed great merit in separating observer from observed to accumulate accurate data. This style of knowledge was pushed to the forefront of modern academia by empiricists in the late 1600s and 1700s, such as David Hume, who claimed that knowledge should be rooted in the observable. However, an integral aspect to observe well, according to many of these thinkers, was a distinction between observer and observed for effective experiments to occur.
So, during the following centuries, a divide grew between observer and observed. Though not only did the scientist need to keep far away from their experiment, but they could have no interest in the outcome, meaning they were solely there to collect the data. This would be referred to by many as “the disinterested observer. In order to gain any authentic scientific knowledge, this method had to be employed. Some extreme empiricists went as far to say that this was the only way we could ascertain undisturbed and unbiased knowledge. However, this is where some issues arise.
Let’s say Birdie’s hamster blinks a few times while Mozart is playing. Is that significant? What if it does a backflip? Or grows ten times in size? Or files its taxes? Which of these are significant? Here we reach a significant (ha) roadblock in the Enlightenment’s pursuit of mechanizing scientific/observational progress, which is the following: who determines what is worthy of our observation?
This is especially important in discussions about human nature. Philosophy, social science, psychology, and even theology all involve understanding what makes us humans and how we can make sense of patterns of our behavior. When you think about it, is it even possible to observe human nature from a disinterested and unbiased point of view if it is humans who are performing observations? This is especially concerning when it is understood that a fair amount of Enlightenment philosophers, from Descartes to Hume, attempted in varying degrees to draw conclusions about human nature from this outsider’s perspective.
This first flaw was highlighted by Martin Heidegger in his Being and Time. I’m not going to even pretend for an instant that I thoroughly understand the text (few really can) as it is one of the most difficult philosophical works to wrap your head around. Later I’ll explain Heidegger’s solution to this problem. For now, I’d like to move onto the second issue.
Meh. Typical Hamster behavior
Flaw #2: The Classics
This’ll make me some friends. Millenia ago, the Ancient Greeks came up with an idea that Christians adored for centuries, preserved by the great St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas: abstraction. Abstraction is the idea that it is possible to separate certain qualities from an object when we observe it. For example, Birdie’s hamster weighs half a pound. But the hamster’s weight doesn’t make it a hamster, necessarily. Nor does its color, shape, hair length, etc. We can basically separate all of the hamster’s qualities when we talk about it: this is the process of abstraction.
Of course, this also has value in the scientific world. We all have qualities that we can make observations on that aren’t integral to what makes us human. We can abstract our weight and choose to study that. If we do so, we can find trends in weight. Or we can abstract the color of our eyes, the shapes of our noses (Socrates had a snub nose according to legend) and see trends from them as well. We can abstract every single quality on its own and study it to the most microscopic level, right?
If you’ve caught on to my writing style, you can probably guess I take issue with this. Here it goes, then. Imagine blue. Just blue. Not attached to an object at all. No, it’s still attached. C’mon! Abstract the blue. Only blueness. Not a blue object, but blue itself. No dimensions. No space. Just pure blueness.
This problem was highlighted by Immanuel Kant. It is absolutely impossible to imagine any object without attaching it to time or space. And when we attach it to time and space, it kinda loses the point of abstraction, as how I envision a shade of blue might be a bit different than how Birdie does. This puts abstraction in a really rough spot. For example, it used to be believed that we could all come to a consensus on qualities, like what the color purple is; anyone who disagreed was simply labeled disordered. Now we know that every individual eye perceives just a little differently (even if only on a microscopic level) than others. So, if we can only envision or imagine what we THINK is purple, how can we be so sure that’s the purple everyone else sees? This may seem like a mundane point, but in the scientific world it can make all the difference when understanding how our bodies respond to the world around us.
Abstraction is, therefore, perhaps more complex or not as universal as we may once have thought. But if our senses are flawed, how can we truly know anything? And, if we can, how can we know? I’d rather not get too deep into this, as the basic fact like “if you are reading this you exist” already demonstrates that there are immutable truths that cannot be denied (I dare you to try and deny your own existence. See how far you get). The bigger question is HOW we should look at the world. At that, it’s finally time (ha) to dive into some good ol’ fashioned existentialism.
Never thought this would be relevant again. Wikipedia lists it as “The Dress”
Martin Heidegger didn’t like considering himself an existentialist. Nonetheless, Being and Time remains one of the most important works regarding the subject written in the 20th Century. It addressed the two problems I posed and many more, as Heidegger claimed that throughout all of Western philosophy, we have been dodging the question of what it actually means to exist.
Let’s start with the observer-observed issue. Heidegger did not particularly like the idea that we separate ourselves from what we sense. Instead, he preferred to see the world through a more holistic lens. He writes “Thus “phenomenology” means […] to let that which shows itself be seen from itself in the very way in which it shows itself from itself.” Heidegger, as well as the increasingly influential anthropological movement, preferred to see the observer as a participant in what he or she observed. In fact, Heidegger urged people to “throw” themselves into reality. It is precisely this type of thinking that shifted anthropology from a field where British noblemen studied tribes from afar to one where field researchers immersed themselves in tribal rituals and customs to understand them from the inside. Yes, the observer is now interested, but because of that interest, they are able to see things from a genuine new perspective: a new world as Heidegger would call it.
Think of it like this. Many grade schools have a “Parent-Teacher Conference Day,” where the parents not only meet with the teachers, but sit in on their classes for a few minutes at a time. Where would you think the parent learns more? In the classroom or hearing about the classroom from their kids? This is a bit of a trick question, though, as both experiences offer valuable knowledge. While the parent sitting in on a class indeed yields a powerful perspective, it is one singular perspective. What if the parent enjoyed gym class because they were an amateur basketball player while statistically more kids got bullied during the period? These are important questions to ask, especially as Catholics (took me three pages single spaced to finally mention religion) to think about when understanding not only other religions, but ourselves. What biases are we predisposed to? How has our upbringing impacted the way we perceive the world around us? How can we be expected to evangelize to a world we often feel separated from and therefore do not always understand?
This is not to say that Catholics should cast aside all teachings and semblances of morality, rather it speaks to the importance of refining one’s worldview. A worldview is essentially the complex interconnected perceptions and ideas that form the way we look at reality. They impact our habits, our observations, our judgments, and many other integral qualities. The more we learn about others, the wider our worldview is stretched. We live in a broken world, but so did Christ. He did not descend from Heaven on a golden chariot, nor was He really treated as a king. He dined with tax collectors, prostitutes, and sickliest folk who were outcasted from society. As Catholics, we are called to do the same. We cannot expect to know the world by reading about it out of a newspaper, nor can we expect the world to convert if they read the Catechism. Instead, we must make an active effort to engage with the world, and the world will engage with us. By broadening our understanding of the world, it will get to know Christ better.
This only addresses one set of problems. For clarification, I must assert that Heidegger did not consider Empiricism to be useless, rather he dismissed it as the “be-all-end-all” of knowledge.
Who knew science wasn’t all objective and stuff?
A Classic Problem
Context matters. For Heidegger, discovery was never about how we actively learn about objects, interrogating them for all their information. Our approach to knowledge before Heidegger was often built on biased presuppositions or motives. Much like a cop interrogating a criminal, we tend to make observations about objects already knowing what we think is important to us. Instead of doing this, I must draw more attention to the quote I already mentioned, specifically the how the object “shows itself to be seen.” This is key. Simply by living and allowing things to be the way they are, we can find out so much more than if we come in with a preconceived agenda. This is where the issue with abstraction arises.
How much can we know about chalk when we study it on its own? What happens when we abstract every aspect of chalk: its whiteness, its smell, its taste (yes that is a thing), its molecular composition. What can we know about chalk just from sitting there and thinking about chalk and its chalkiness? But is it even possible to think about chalk on its own? Do its minerals not need oxygen to retain their properties? Does it not require time and space to even exist? This very simple, yet fundamental, observation highlights the importance of context. Objects are nothing without context, and the past two millennia’s philosophical efforts (according to Heidegger) were so focused on abstracting qualities of things from context that it forgot to look at reality as it really is: interconnected.
Now, we take the chalk and strike it across the board. But in order for such an action to happen, we must move the chalk across the board. This requires our interest (already breaking a rule of Empiricism) but more importantly, smashing the chalk into the board, colliding the chalk and all of its chalkiness with the board and all of its boardness. The collision between chalk and board is, therefore in reality, a collision between two (three if you count the hand) objects that produces a totally new and fuller understanding of how our greater reality works. None of this was accomplished by abstraction, but rather by allowing the chalk to leave its mark (literally).
Heidegger sees man as a kid in a candy store, with a sense of wonder and awe that (though he does not admit it) harkens back to Aristotle’s writings on the gift of wonder. Coming full circle, Heidegger offers a post-Enlightenment affirmation of the Classical notion that it is not just good to wonder, but wonder makes us human. For Heidegger, we do not exist because we think. At least, we do not exist in a human way because we think. All animals think to a certain extent. But what makes human existence special? We exist (as humans) because we care. The very fact we pursue the big questions of philosophy and theology, questions we may never have the answers to, makes us human. We naturally want to get involved in the world, and our relation to this world is quite important when ascertaining truth.
If only he could’ve abstracted good from evil, though (Heidegger was an early supporter of the Nazi party)
German is a fun language because if a scholar does not believe that an adequate word exists which can define something, he or she simply invents a new one. “Dasein” is a mashup of “da” and “sein” roughly meaning “there” and “being.” For Heidegger there is a vast difference between simply existing as any object or animal would and existing as humans are meant to.
Heidegger writes “Dasein exists as an entity for which, in its Being, that Being is itself an issue. […] In its projection it reveals itself as something which has been thrown. It has been thrownly abandoned to the ‘world’, and falls into it concernfully.”
Simplifying this significantly, to be in an authentic human sense is to wonder, or pursue interest and care in all things. This is what the ideal man does: the man who is there: dasein. When we fail to wonder, we fail to be in the most authentic human sense. When we lose our authentic humanity, we are no better than the insentient things that merely exist for our observation. We are not really “there.” Pope St. John II has written extensively on the subject of authentic human participation in his The Acting Person, which I strongly recommend. While the connection between Pope St. John Paul II and Heidegger isn’t immediate, I guarantee you’ll find many extraordinary similarities between their ideas of man’s longing for authentic being. The work itself is elusive and can be found at https://www.amazon.com/Acting-Person-Analecta-Husserliana/dp/9027709696 for purchase.
Even in media authenticity is important
An Intellectual Calling
One last thing. I might touch on this subject in a bit more depth, but in short, I am a strong believer in the Catholic intellectual tradition: St. Paul’s “test everything, retain what is good.” What distinguishes the Catholic Church from other faiths, in my opinion, is twofold: its unity (a subject for another day) and its intellectual tradition. The number of Catholic scholars who have made advances in philosophy, theology, social science, and psychology is staggering, but I am legitimately concerned that not enough is being done to integrate modern philosophical projects, such as Heidegger, into Catholic philosophy. Again, this will be subject for another day, but I believe the idea of worldviews, which has been highlighted by some Vatican II scholars, is integral to the future intellectual pursuits of the Church.
So, leave you all with this quote from Thomas Kuhn, one of the most important, yet controversial, philosophers of our time. He writes “Under normal conditions the research scientist is not an innovator but a solver of puzzles, and the puzzles upon which he concentrates are just those which he believes can be both stated and solved within the existing scientific tradition.”
Kuhn is often accused of being a relativist, which I staunchly believe he is not. He pioneered the idea of the “paradigm shift” or the notion that different schools of thought are not inherently inferior to others, but are merely different ways of looking at the world. That said, some styles of thinking are objectively better at retaining their consistency and utility to helping us solve puzzles. Nevertheless, when we look at science, philosophy, and other studies through the lens of paradigms, it not only helps us to see more options, perspectives, and worlds that are worthy of investigation, but it also gives us a deeper appreciation for the past.
It’s a stereotype that faith has traditionally held a monopoly over the term “mystery,” whereas for the longest time science claimed to offer clarity and objectivity. But now, Thanks to Kuhn, science sets sail on a voyage exploring an ocean of mystery. In the Church’s eyes, these are God’s mysteries of the natural world. As scientists who study the material and theologians who study the metaphysical, it is integral to open our hearts and minds to new ideas that might frighten or even disturb us at first, while holding onto the basic truths that are given by God and the nature of existence.
First thing that popped up when I looked up “Scooby Doo Meme” Google is scary.
After reading my article on materialism, a friend of mine asked why I was so skeptical of what we know and how we can know it. I responded that I think observation is all about solving mysteries. When he asked me how I defined a mystery, I responded simply with “reality.” It is both overwhelming and wondrous that no matter how well we study anything in this world, we can be assured that God knows it better than us. In fact, God knows ourselves better than we do (which suggests many things about the flaws of consciousness). Sure, we have some pretty clear-cut dogma that stems from Christ’s teaching: love your neighbor, don’t throw the first stone, fig trees are evil, etc. But when you think about it, Christ left an awful lot to be reasoned out. Just as philosophically we are given the tools of a priori knowledge (inherent truths that we know by mere existence) to explore the world, dogma also provides us with an assortment of tools at our disposal to understand Christ’s divine mysteries. We must test all knowledge and shift paradigms, and this can only be accomplished by avoiding all arrogance that I fear many fiery young Catholics embrace all too quickly (I once did). The worlds we construct may crumble, but there’s a beauty in knowing that everything will be okay. Knowledge is all about humility to God’s divine will, and if we detach ourselves from our egos and venture outside our comfort zones by exploring new worlds, we just might find God waiting for us at their inner cores.
It is also important to note that just because we are in the world, we are not of it. Heidegger and Kuhn are not theologians, and they distance themselves from spiritual ideas (for good reason). What sets many religions apart from world-immersion is the idea that there exists a higher plane of existence beyond our comprehension. However, what further sets Catholicism apart is the notion that we can experience the essence of that higher existence by studying, immersing ourselves in, and caring for the world.
The Enlightenment Flaw
- The Enlightenment project attempted to create a scientific method that separated observer from observed to give a more accurate and unbiased view of what truth is.
- This process included discouraging all interest scientists may have in a subject, a “disinterested observer.”
- The fatal flaw in this Enlightenment idea is that humans, by nature, determine what aspects of the observable we find interesting. To even begin the scientific process, we have to define terms that we find interesting, or noteworthy to us.
- g. if testing how a hamster reacts to Mozart, we must determine which actions it does to be worthy of our attention.
- Thus, it is actually unreasonable to expect observers to be detached from the scientific process, or that they should tout their methods are objectively freer from bias than others.
- Thousands of years ago, the Ancient Greeks pioneered the idea that qualities (e.g. the color blue) can be analyzed on their own, separate from the objects they belong to.
- This was called abstraction
- The problem with abstraction is that it is impossible to think of or imagine a quality without being attached to an object; we always envision things in time and space.
- This is further complicated by the fact that we sense even the most mundane things differently on a microscopic level.
- This doesn’t make abstraction useless, but it certainly makes it less reliable as a sure-fire way to understand our surroundings.
- Rather than separate observer from observed, Heidegger recognized the value of a holistic approach to learning, where man sees himself as an observer but also a participant in reality.
- This is especially true in anthropology, the study of cultures, which was initially facilitated by disinterested observers, such as many European colonialists who preferred to watch tribes from a distance, but soon shifted to a study where researchers observed by participating in their rituals.
- Heidegger’s mentality was that rather than interrogating the world for knowledge, we humans give reality an opportunity to reveal itself to us participants.
- That said, Heidegger does not deny the benefits of empiricism, rather suggests that to gain a more complete view of reality, we must immerse ourselves in it.
- Regarding abstraction, Heidegger again found it valuable, but also limited. Instead, he preferred to look at the unity of things and their context in reality. So, rather than study an object’s composition out of its context in reality, Heidegger sought to explore how the object interacted with others.
- g. abstracting the qualities of a chalk versus using the chalk in various contexts to understand its properties better
- Interestingly enough, Heidegger’s insistence that knowledge is revealed to us if we open ourselves to it harkens back to Aristotle’s value of wonder
- Given Heidegger’s emphasis on care, he does acknowledge that not all people take the time and make the effort to maximize their care, and thus live authentic human lives. Instead they would rather just pass-through life, going through the motions in the background. These people do not live an authentic life of care. They are, as Heidegger says “the they.”
- Heidegger, thus, invents a special term to refer to being in its most authentic state: Dasein.
- Existing in the Dasein sense is to show care and interest in pursuing knowledge.
The Catholic Intellectual Tradition
- There is much value in Heidegger’s notions to the Catholic Church, primarily regarding how it should understand and interact with modern culture.
- Essentially, the Church can either take an approach of metaphysical abstraction or empirical separation, both which primarily target parts of knowledge, or it can take a more holistic approach to the complexities of worldview.
- This is not to say that the Church has been wrong in the past, rather it is a rather innovative method that I would recommend the Church look into more.
- Additionally, the lack of interest modern theologians have shown in modern philosophy disturbs me. At the very least, the writings of secular philosophers like Martin Heidegger are important and influential, so they deserve some investigation.
- Further expanding how academics approach methodology is Thomas Kuhn, who insists that schools of thought formerly understood as exclusive or competing are merely different ways of looking at the world. These are called paradigms.
- In many ways, paradigms resemble worldviews.
- That said, paradigms do serve a central purpose of solving puzzles, thus implying that not all paradigms are consistent as the others, or equal. Many critics of Kuhn accuse him of being a relativist, but this idea that humanity should choose the most consistent paradigms to retain largely is his saving grace.
- In this context of problem-solving, the Church actually fits well, Christ having equipped us with faith and reason, the tools to solve all problems the world presents us with.
- Reality and mystery go hand-in-hand. Only God has the fullest of truth, leaving man with a wide blue ocean of mystery to dive into.
- Dogma exists, but it is few and far between. It is far from situational, which is why the Catholic Church concentrates so much on developing the intellect of its members.
- As Catholics, we must be okay with being wrong both institutionally and intellectually outside of dogma. Modern theology should focus on making intense propositions, many which will be proven wrong, on issues that afflict out times. However, this all must be done with a graceful air of humility.
- However, just because we are called to be in the world, we are not of it. While we exist on this Earth, it is important to recognize the beauty and wonder God sets before us while reminding ourselves to not cling onto the material world.