No News is New

A Catholic view on old heresies in the news

Category: Enlightenment

Aristotle -> Aquinas -> Atheism, Part 4

Proof 2: First Cause

Drawing on the previous proof of the first mover, Aquinas says there should also be a first causer.  Because we can deduce a single eternal source of motion from the fact that some things move, we can work in the same fashion to show that because some things have causes there must have been a first cause to set those causal chains in motion.

This works well because Aristotle was looking at change; how one thing can become another.  His word for motion had a much broader sense to it, and could encompass the idea of the motion of cause to effect and not just object to object.  Because our modern idea of motion is much more limited, this proof fleshes out what the first proof showed.

The proof also allows us to see the emphasis Aquinas placed on universals, which follows from his acceptance Aristotelian thought.  The two universal concepts (motion and cause) are proved the same way.  This is in contrast with the nominalism of the Franciscans Scotus and Ockham.  In nominalism there are no universals, only particulars which happen to appear similar to each other.  Subsequently we can only understand movement or cause in so far as we actually experience those things happening in particular cases.  We are unable to reason about first causes or motion because we have no experience with those things, so Aristotle (and consequently Aquinas) are seen as overstepping the bounds of reason.  In other words, if we could reasonably reason about these things, Aquinas would have a great proof, but regrettably we cannot reasonably reason about them, so they don’t provide good proofs of God.

Nominalism reintroduced the division between faith and reason in such a way that further fostered scientific development.  If we cannot reason about things we don’t experience, we better pay a lot of attention to all that we do experience.  By paying such close attention, the experimental side of science was confirmed and supported to the expense of metaphysics.  In a sense, we still live with this legacy.  Science even today only answers how things work the way they do, not why.  We have laws of science, but no reasoning as to why laws should exist rather than chaos.  The current understanding of metaphysics in our world is woefully inadequate.

Further, this division between faith and reason is also being lived out in daily life.  Recall the atheist picture showing all the contradictions in scriptures, and the religious picture of dinosaurs living with people, from part 2.  The denial of universals is part of why this division exists.  Some religious people deny scientific reasoning and some atheist people deny the contextual faith distinctions in scripture.  When we rely upon universals like Plato and Aristotle, this division can be erased.  By focusing on particulars and denying universals, we end up dividing reason and faith.

Recall from the last post how Dawkins considers Aristotle to be making the vaguely phrased, “unwarranted assumptions”.  A far better critique is to deny universals exist, as the nominalists did.  While this denies such abstract universals as “Love” or even “Tree”, it does successfully denude Aquinas of any meaningful claim to proof of God’s existence.  Again though, this denuding of Aquinas is only because it first denudes Aristotle of any room to reason about things people haven’t directly experienced.

The Freedom to not look at Porn.


This article discusses one of the recurring findings of modern science, that pornography’s impact upon the brain is similar to the impact of substances (drugs & alcohol) upon the substance abuser.  What that means is that the freedom of the user can become a slavery over time.  Merely to approach the baseline of normal one might need to continue using.  This consequence of regular pornography use is one out of many the reasons the Catholic Church finds pornography sinful.  One way to understand the morals of the Church is to understand that the breaking of those morals (a.k.a. sinning) are actions that limit our freedom.

We can see how important the moral law is to our freedom when we understand the context it was given in.  The Isrealites just left Egypt, and had crossed the Red Sea, and then God gave the law to them.  It would be foolish for God to make a people free only to enslave them to a law, but it makes perfect sense to prescribe a law which might help ensure their continued freedom.

If what I'm saying is confusing, I suggest watching "The Prince of Egypt", put out by Dreamworks in 1998.

If what I’m saying is confusing, I might suggest watching “The Prince of Egypt”, put out by Dreamworks in 1998.

One aspect of that law given around 1400 BC (an approximate time for the life of Moses, which is closer in years to Jesus than we are!) is that we should have right sexual relationships (cf. the 9th commandment), and pornography corrupts that sexual communion by changing brain chemistry.  The result is can be an addictive need for pornography, which progressively narrows the freedom to make choices in regards to sex down to only a screen.  When we don’t cherish our sexual freedom make the appropriate choice of monogamy, we can loose our sexual freedom.  Pornography, which is so easily available, accelerates this loss of freedom, but any misuse of our sexuality starts us down that path to sexual enslavement (and I’m not referring to the kinky kind of enslavement).

By understanding that the Church desires we be free people, we can understand why she says we shouldn’t use pornography.  It’s not out of a desire to be conservative or old fashioned, but because she loves us so much that she desires our freedom.

In this we re-imagine our freedom to understand it not as a freedom to do as one pleases, but the freedom to keep ourselves from enslavement.  My understanding is that during the Enlightenment the modern idea of freedom took hold, a freedom to do as one wishes as opposed to doing what is necessary to keep our freedom of will.  The Enlightenment changed the implicit meaning of freedom from having a freedom of will into having a freedom of body.  I can’t seem to dig up where I found this factoid, so I could be wrong here.

Enlightenment and Happiness

The historian Christopher Dawson wrote that the heresy in the above article is the “last of the great European heresies”.  Sadly for the news cycle, this heresy isn’t new, but a heresy of the Enlightenment, which started up around 300 years ago.

The Enlightenment prized reason above all else.  This could be seen as the result of a chain of paradigms.  Catholic theology now and in the Middle Ages saw faith and reason as two parts of a whole.  The Scholastics like Thomas Aquinas used faith and reason together to illuminate each other and guide us to God.  The Protestant Reformation (and this is a gross over generalization) thought the reasoning of the Scholastics and the Catholic Church sundered our relationship to God by overcomplicating it.  That is why even today Protestants use the detailed reasoning of Catholic theology to bash Catholic theology.  This is one example:

The response from the Enlightenment to this extreme distrust of reason was not to go back to a unity of faith and reason, but to go to the other extreme of trusting only reason.  Kant said, “Dare to reason”, and this could be seen as a response to Protestants not daring to trust their intellects.

Phenomoniologists like the Anglican Bishop George Berkeley took this reason to the extreme.  Anything that couldn’t be felt wasn’t real.  For Bishop Berkeley, this even meant matter wasn’t real.  We can only know our senses, not any externals that those senses might adhere to.  Interestingly enough, Bishop Berkeley goes on to use the lack of proof for the existence of matter as a proof of God.

However, for most people, this pivot to reason from faith simply undermined a belief in a God who wants communion with us.  Hence President Jefferson and many of the other founders of America, because they were so effected by the Enlightenment, saw God in the way a Deist does and not as a Christian does.

If God is reduced to this impersonal being, it’s easy to see how an increase in physical well-being and material goods could replace Him, like the linked to article suggests.  God is not measurable physically, so he must be a crutch to rely upon when we are physically weak so that we can perceive our world as better than it actually is.

The premiss of the article is straight up Enlightenment.  All we exist as is physically measurable.  God isn’t necessary precisely because he’s not physically measurable.  As our physical stuff becomes better, we won’t need God.

This is contrary to the Catholic conception that we exist not for matter or stuff, but for relationship with others and God.  The Catholic view of life fits well with social research on happiness, which suggests generosity with wealth, communion with others, and viewing life positively are the tickets to a happy life.  So while the article might show people think happiness is found in stuff and without communion, the core appeals of Christianity will still remain.  Christ has conquered sin and death, so we can view life positively knowing the battle is won, goods are meant to be given away so that we can “store up treasure in Heaven“, and the whole point of our existence is communion with God and neighbour. Christianity hasn’t stopped offering a path to happiness.  As the Carmelite nuns in Paris during the French Revolution said, “In the world, people like to say that the monasteries are full of victims, slowly consumed by regrets, but we protest before God that if there is true happiness on earth, we enjoy it, in the shelter of the sanctuary.”