Friday, January 2, 2009

Personal Aside: Fr. Ernie on Certainty, Who Blundered Us Into Skepticism… and Who Devised a Route to Combat It.


“The big philosophical problem with our society today, “ said Fr. Ernest Kilzer OSB on April 7 , 1948, “is…what? Let me ask someone who has been dozing in this class since I began this morning at 9 a.m., Mr. Francis. Mr. Francis, you have been sitting with your eyes closed—and I am sure reflecting on the deepest cross-currents of modern thought. Tell us what is the greatest philosophical problem in our society today?” It is, what? You say “I don’t know!” That is exactly right, Mr. Francis, exactly right. It is a lack of certainty. Congratulations, Mr. Francis, for hitting the nail right on the head. The great dividing line between philosophies is this: some thought systems maintain we can know things. But some insist we can only know our own minds. So by answering my question, Mr. Francis, you have put into words the case for relativism.

“How did we blunder into relativism? Let me ask someone who unlike Mr. Francis has been listening and writing doggedly in his notes…someone like, Mr. Mulready. Mr. Mulready, how did we blunder into relativism? Who was the culprit? Ah yes, perfect! It was William of Ockham [1285-1349]. He made the fatal error of contradicting Thomas Aquinas. Aquinas as you know from being with me for the past two years, insisted that there is no overlap with truth. Truth is knowable, Aquinas said and I say, by reason and revelation. But William asserted that philosophy and theology are entirely separate. It is my contention that Thomas is correct which is why when you study philosophy with me, gentlemen, we also study theology—one and inseparable. Now let’s be clear: William of Ockham was a well-meaning sort. He didn’t seem to have been contaminated by religious skepticism. He simply denied philosophical foundations for religion because, in his words, he sought to free theology from rationalist shackles. But as well-meaning as he was, his followers have gone astray.

“How have their gone astray, Mr. William Augustine? . Anyone with the name Augustine should leap to the chance to reply. You say—what? Yes, Mr. Augustine, you do reflect your namesake today: Ockham meant well but to follow him is to give up any hope whatever of achieving, in this life, a positive philosophical understanding…and so Ockham unleashed a whirlwind of error that has beset us to this day, forces he could not possibly contain after setting them free. Where we are today, gentlemen, is due to William of Ockham! It is because of him that we feel we can never know the nature of anything and thus cannot grasp the objective standard of good and evil. With him starts a flow that rushes down the line…to the point where someone tried to stop the runaway train. Mr. Roeser tell us who that was and what he sought to do. Mr. Roeser, arise and speak! Yes, it was Rene Descartes and what did he state initially in order to stop that runaway train…Mr. Vetter. Mr. Vetter doesn’t know.

“Well I will tell Mr. Vetter and all of you. Oh, Mr. Roeser’s hand is up again—first time I’ve seen that this term, Mr. Roeser. Tell us what Descartes tried to do to stop the runaway train unleashed by William of Ockham. Descartes did what? What? Yes, `cogito ergo sum’ from which h he concluded that he exists: ‘I think, therefore I am.’ But since Descartes concluded that the only thing we can be sure of is our own existence as conscious beings--`cogito ergo sum’—modern philosophers maintain that we can know nothing but…what, Mr. Arth? Yes exactly. We can know nothing but our own subjective states.

“I ask, gentlemen, is that a fallacy—that we can know nothing but our own subjective states? I see a universal nodding of heads. Yes, it is a fallacy. How can we be mis-led? By…what, Mr. Doerner? Of course, by our senses? I saw you out on the football field last Saturday, Mr. Doerner, where you misjudged the velocity of the ball coming to you. You reached out but calculated wrongly and the ball fell between you and the man blocking you. But fortunately we won that game with Bemidji, thanks largely to you, Mr. Doerner. But the senses can deceive and Descartes maintains he can never rely on the senses with the certainty he wants. He can always doubt what they report.

“ As Descartes said--a stick is thrust into the water. As soon as it is thrust into the water, the stick looks crooked. We conclude: say, by thrusting it into the water, we have bent the stick! We pull the stick out of the water and find: not so. But there is a terrible contradiction based on the Descartes formula. What does `I think therefore I am’ really mean? It means the modern thinker begins and ends the thinking project in his own mind. He can never leave that mind. And so, gentlemen, with no way of knowing what reality is outside his own mind, he is a prisoner—concocting subjective, agnostic theories about what is going on outside. Nice try, Mr. Descartes—but you have not improved things from William of Ockham. You have led us down the path to Hobbles, Locke, Hume and Bentham and the whole crowd of today’s subjectivists and emotivists to the point where some of us cannot distinguish the elementary difference between good and evil.

“And yet…and yet…universal skepticism is ridiculous. To one who says he cannot be sure of anything, ask him: Are you sure? When he says he is, he contradicts himself and says he is absolutely positive there is no certainty. Some say all propositions are meaningless unless they can be absolutely verified. And what is wrong with that apparently reasonable thesis, Mr. Doherty? Mr. Doherty, rise. Tell us. Yes! Wonderful! That statement itself cannot be empirically verified.

“”So where does that leave us, gentlemen? We abjure skepticism saying that it is an innate contradiction to say we are sure there is no surety. But on the other hand, with Descartes’ theory it leaves us living within our own mind, grappling with what we know inside our mind but cannot verify outside. There is an answer, gentlemen but the bell is ringing and we will delve into this next time. Let me give you a clue as to where the answer is. It is in the theorems postulated by the Angelic Doctor. And who was he? Mr. Fahey thinks he knows. Yes—hurrah! He does know. Aquinas. How exactly Thomas has given us all a roadmap to respective surety next time…if you can wait, that is, with baited breath to see how he develops his answer. That’s all for today, gentlemen. I will give you a hint as to the examination next week. It is all about skepticism. Isn’t that helpful? Now, begone.

More at some future time.

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