Thursday, April 17, 2008

A foolish "philosopher" in need of reproof*

Hail, O Reproof of foolish philosophers! ~Akathist Hymn to the Virgin Mary

Sedes sapientiae, ora pro me!

(With a tip o' the ol' beanie to The Sci Fi Catholic. His post on the issue first brought it to my attention.)

So apparently there is a Christian girl named Gina DeLuca. She attends school at Suffolk County Community College. She is taking an Introduction to Philosophy course. Apparently her "philosophy" professor has used the course as an opportunity to belittle her and her Christian faith and has, it seems, given her poor grades because of her faith. Needless to say, she contacted the American Center for Law and Justice to defend her freedom of religion and to seek a just grade.**

Now, I do not have enough information to competently judge Gina's performance in the course. Maybe the professor is a fool and at the same time Gina actually deserved to be graded poorly rather than the professor's foolishness causing him to act unjustly in giving her a poor grade. That is between Gina, the professor and the school; and now--for better or for worse--the legal system.

The ACLJ's letter to county attorney Christine Malafi can be found here. (WARNING! PDF!) The letter contains some choice quotes from the professor. These I do have the knowledge to competently judge. And so, in the interest of the truth of things and defending the faith, I shall.

To Gina's comment that she "can KNOW the material, without having to BELIEVE it," the professor responds as follows:
[I]t is clear that knowledge is linked to belief and that KNOWLEDGE is a justified true belief. If you do not believe that X is true then you can not claim to know that X is true. What you do is to deceive yourself and others by claiming that "I can KNOW the material, without having to BELIEVE it." What you do is MEMORIZE and REPEAT without understanding. You have no understanding of what it means to know something.***
This is obviously false.

In offering my critique of what the professor says, I will accept the definition of knowledge that he offers, viz. justified, true belief. But even with this definition of knowledge being accepted, the professor is still wrong. He is either guilty of the fallacy of equivocation or of holding to absurdity. The professor is either not addressing the same knowledge that Gina is or he is violating the principle of non-contradiction.

Gina is saying that she can know what a philosopher or school of philosophy taught without having to believe that said philosopher's or school of philosophy's principles, conclusions &c. are true. It is perfectly possible for Gina to believe that some philosopher or school of philosophy taught X, to justify her belief by the reading of primary and secondary sources and for her belief to be true. Thus she would have justified, true belief.

The professor is arguing that Gina cannot know some position of a philosopher or of a school of philosophy is true without believing it. This is equivocation, since it was not at all what she was talking about. Moreover, if the professor actually was talking about knowing what a philosopher or school of philosophy taught rather than knowing that what they taught was true, then his position is absurd. For example, one could not know both what Hegel taught and what Kierkegaard taught, since--according to what the professor has said--knowing what Kierkegaard taught would require holding his positions as true, while knowing what Hegel taught would require holding his positions as true. But this is an impossible absurdity, because Kierkegaard's teachings include teaching that Hegel was wrong! One cannot hold both that Kierkegaard's teachings are true and that Hegel's teachings are true, since Kierkegaard's teachings are that Hegel's teachings are false. One cannot hold both A and not-A at the same time and in the same respect, and that is exactly what the professor is arguing for if he is not equivocating!

The next quote from the professor states the following: "There are problems with any single being having all the properties traditionally assigned to the deity of the Western religions." He then goes on to give some examples of what he believes these "problems" are. There is nothing to indicate that he has any idea that these problems have been answered, nor to indicate that if he knew of these answers he engaged them in some way to show why he believes them to be false. Perhaps he has done so and this was simply not quoted in the letter. Since, however, the letter is all most of us will see of his thoughts on the subject, I will now attempt to answer them point by point.

Objection 1: "If the deity is ALL POWERFUL would it not have the power to create beings that would know what GOOD was without knowing or committing EVIL? If this is not possible then how is the being ALL POWERFUL?"

Reply to Objection 1: According to the Catholic tradition, God did exactly that. Our first parents, in their state of original justice, knew good and not evil. This is because they were human, and thus they had the power to possess intellectual knowledge. Now, that which is primarily known is being. And in knowing being, they also would come to know it as desirable, i.e. as good.

Now, evil is nothing except privation, the lacking of some good in a being that should have that which it lacks. Thus, evil is not being per se, but only per accidens, since it can only exist through something that has being.

Now, the professor is here speaking of moral evil. A moral evil is a human action that lacks the fullness of being proper to it. Ever action can be said to have being insofar as it exists, even though it exists per accidens. To deny that actions have being would be the equivalent of saying that no action ever existed. But if no action ever existed, then no effect of an action could ever exist. This is absurd, so we must admit that actions are beings. In their state of original justice our first parents had not yet committed any actions that lacked the fullness of being proper to human actions. Since evil only exists per accidens, it can only be known through that which exists per se, since that which exists per accidens only exists through that which exists per se. But until our first parents committed an action that lacked the fullness of being proper to human actions, no moral evil existed, since moral evil can only exist through some moral agency, viz. the moral agency of our first parents. Thus, until our first parents committed the original sin and lost for themselves and their posterity original justice, they knew the good, including moral good, without knowing moral evil.

Now, the professor seems to mean not only the actual knowledge or moral evil, but even the potential knowledge of moral evil, since he speaks also of committing evil. Why, if God is all powerful, did He not create beings who did not have the potential to commit moral evil?

To this we must reply as follows: to say that God is omnipotent is not to say that the divine power is capable of bringing into existence all that can be thought. It is to say that the divine power is capable bringing into existence all that is possible to be brought into existence. Now, those things which violate the principle of non-contradiction cannot be brought into existence, because that would require they both exist and not exist at the same time and in the same respect, which is absolutely not possible.

To create a moral agent that is incapable of moral evil would violate the principle of non-contradiction. To wit: A being either possesses its end, the fullness of its existence, its perfection either per se or per accidens. God is ipsum esse subsistens, the fullness of existence itself. Thus only He possesses the fullness of existence per se. All other beings must possess their end and perfection per accidens. This is because any being that is not its own act of existence is a being that receives existence limited by some potency. Now, that which has some potency is capable of possessing accidents. Thus, the perfection of a being that is not its own act of existence is through superadded accidents which actualize its potentialities in proper proportion to its nature. For example, man is perfected by acquiring those habits called virtues.

But insofar as a being is capable of possessing accidents of certain modes, it is not only capable of acquiring and possessing those accidents which bring about its perfection. It must also be capable of not acquiring those accidents that would bring about its perfection--as man is capable of not possessing grace--or of possessing accidents that are contrary to its perfection--as man is capable of possessing those habits called vices that are contrary to virtue. Thus any being that is not its own act of existence, that does not possess its perfection per se, must be capable of failing to achieve its perfection. Now, any limited moral agent possess potentiality insofar as it is limited. Thus any limited moral agent must not just be capable of acting to acquire the accidents that are its perfection, but also of acting in such a manner as to fail to acquire said perfecting accidents or to acquire their contraries. And thus the existence of a limited moral agent that is incapable of doing moral evil is a contradiction, since to be a limited moral agent is to be able to do moral evil by definition.

Now, the professor might ask "Why then did God not create unlimited moral agents?" But this to would be a contradiction. Beings are differentiated by their potency. A man, for example, is differentiated from other men by his particular matter. But matter is that which is in potency, since it is capable of receiving many different substantial forms. In the same way, immaterial beings are differentiated by their essences, since essence relates to existence as potency relates to act. Only God is unlimited and possesses no potency, since He is ipsum ese subsistens, the subsisting act of existence itself. For God to create another unlimited being would require that He create another being that possesses no potency, another God. But this is impossible, since the only way to distinguish between God the creator and the created God as different beings would be if the latter contained an admixture of potency. But any being with an admixture of potency is neither God nor unlimited by definition. Thus the creation of unlimited moral agents would violate the principle of non-contradiction, since said created unlimited moral agents would have to both possess potency and not possess potency at the same time and in the same respect.

Objection 2: "If the being must make EVIL to make GOOD then how is the being ALL GOOD?"

Reply to Objection 2: Good does not require evil to exist, but rather vice versa, as was explained above. This suffices to reply to the objection.

Objection 3: "If the being is ALL KNOWING and thus knows in advance that there will be a use of FREE WILL that produces EVIL and then goes and creates FREE WILL then the being has made EVIL and is not ALL GOOD."

Reply to Objection 3: The effect of a middle cause can only be reduced to the first cause insofar as said middle cause is subordinate to the first cause. Insofar as a middle cause goes outside the order of the first cause, the effects of said middle cause are reducible only to the middle cause, not to the first cause. For example, insofar as a student gains knowledge, said knowledge can be reduced to the teacher as first cause, since the teacher teaches in order to bring about knowledge in the student. But insofar as the student remains ignorant, said ignorance is reducible only to the student as cause, since the failure to gain knowledge is outside the order established by the teacher.**** Thus, since evil is, by definition, outside the proper order of things as established by God, evil cannot be reduced to God as cause, but only to the immediate agent.

Objection 4: "Another problem with the deity being ALL PERFECT is that the being would need to possess all perfections and if freedom is a perfection or a good thing as opposed to its opposite being not god [sic] then the deity that is all perfect would also need to be free and yet it cannot be free as it is not free to be or do anything that is less than perfect or the very best possible. As it cannot be free it is NOT ALL PERFECT."

Reply to Objection 4: This does not follow. Something is not said to lack freedom because it is not able to do what is not in its nature to do or be what is not in its nature to be. For example, man is not said to lack freedom because he is not capable of flight under his own power. Nor is man said to lack freedom because he cannot be a stone. Thus God cannot be said to lack freedom because He is incapable of doing what is not in His nature to do and being what is not in His nature to be.

Now, the professor might respond that this answer is opposed to the divine omnipotence, but this would be speaking falsely. As was stated above, the divine omnipotence consists in being capable of bringing into existence all that which is capable of being brought into existence. And as was also stated above, that which is not capable of being brought into existence is that which violates the principle of non-contradiction. For God to do what is not in His nature to do or be what is not in His nature to be would violate the principle of non-contradiction, since it would require Him to both be and not be God at the same time and in the same respect.

Here ends the professor's objections and my replies to them.

The professor states that "there are problems with the SET OF BELIEFS associated with the one deity of the Western religions." But if this is true it certainly does not follow from the arguments he has presented.

The final statement of the professor quoted in the letter is as follows:
Now for those who believe in the GOD of the Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition they must believe in a single being with characteristics of being: SUPREME, ALL POWERFUL, ALL GOOD, ALL PERFECT, ALL KNOWING, ETERNAL etc... Why must they? Well, because they have no choice either they believe in the GOD of those traditions or else they make up their own ideas and they are then actually moving out of those traditions and are giving good example of the post modern relativistic, subjectivist tradition of the Twentieth Century. The religions of the West have very clear ideas about the DEITY they have at the center of their beliefs. These religions have doctrines and dogma that the faithful must accept.
How would I respond to this?

I would agree with it. Insofar as I am Catholic "I believe and profess all that the Holy Catholic Church believes, teaches, and proclaims to be revealed by God." That is what it means to be Catholic. But what of it? Nothing about this makes what I believe absurd or illogical. The professor has certainly not, as far as I know, written anything that demonstrates my faith to be such. Indeed, in my own personal life I spent a large part of my undergraduate studies slipping away from the Catholic Church and the faith of my fathers because other things provided more immediate and powerful enjoyment. I was a deist at best, an agnostic at worst. It was not until I began the study of philosophy that I realized that the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church possessed the fullness of Truth. The idea that philosophy and reason are opposed to faith is absurd, as any competent study of the history of western philosophy would show.

I do not know if Gina has a case against her professor for being unjust in his grading. But she certainly has a powerful case for his being a fool.*****

* I say "philosopher" because error is not philosophy. It is rather the abuse of philosophy, as the Angelic Doctor says in his In Boeth. de Trin, q. II, a. 3c.

** N.B. Apparently the chief council for the ACLJ has come out in favor of waterboarding. This is bad, since torture is intrinsically evil (See Gaudium et Spes, 27; Veritatis Splendor, 80). It does not, however, undermine the justice of Gina's claim.

*** All formatting as in original letter.

**** This example assumes that the teacher truly and properly teaches.

***** "Fool" being taken in its philosophical definition, viz. "one who does not possess wisdom."


Peter said...

Great response.

Have you ever thought of numbering your footnotes rather than use more and more asterisks? Just a thought. :-)

brendon said...

Thanks, Peter.

I've used numbered footnotes before. It's a good thing to do when there get to be more than one or two. But I wrote this over a three or four hour period and I simply didn't expect there to be so many notes. And when I was finished I didn't feel like going back and changing them. So the lack of numbers here is laziness, pure and simple. Which probably isn't a good thing, so mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa. I'll try to remember to use numbers from now on, since it would be easier to read.

I appreciate the feedback.

Brandon said...

Excellent discussion. I was somewhat floored myself by the obvious equivocation in the response to Gina's claim about knowing the material without believing it.

Tim said...

Wow -- that is one ignorant professor. If he were part-time faculty in my department, I'd chew him out good. If he did it again, I'd fire him.