The other day, someone wrote a Facebook post asking sincerely how to respond to the assertion of a relative that “dogma is bunk,” that in order to survive the Catholic Church needed to drop this mad insistence on her dogmatic assertions and learn to serve people’s needs “where they’re at.” Essentially, a summation of Pope Francis’ entire pontifical approach thus far.
I replied, “What use is dogma for getting to heaven? What use is math for building a bridge?” Dogmas are simply statements of objective reality regarding the nature of God, precisely as mathematical axioms are statements of objective reality regarding the nature of the material realm. Without math, the nature of material reality remains obscure; without Dogma, man makes errors regarding the nature of God. Both kinds of errors can be disastrous.
But the fact that the relative felt free to state his dogmatic opinion, without the slightest awareness of the irony, that “dogma is bunk,” as though it were an irrefutable axiom, was a product of bad philosophy, not bad theology. The inability of contemporary man to recognise a logical contradiction, (and the consequent deterioration of his sense of irony) are a direct result of the philosophical corruption of recent centuries. Descartes started that ball rolling when he said the only thing he knew for sure really exists was his own thought that he exists, and it’s been plunging down the hill every since.
For a long time, I have thought I ought to write a layman’s guide to bad philosophy. If you responded to that sentence by thinking, “There’s no such thing as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ philosophy; all philosophy is just a matter of personal opinion and preference,” you will have neatly demonstrated precisely what I was talking about. The idea that philosophy is a matter of more or less pointless speculation conducted in a hermetically sealed academic environment by tenured specialists – having no material bearing on the lives of ordinary people – is itself part of a manifestation of a series of grave philosophical errors.
I have a good friend who teaches modern philosophy at a Canadian seminary. One day, I asked him, “What exactly do you teach about modern philosophy?”
“That it’s bad.”
There is a reason that in the olden days, candidates for the priesthood were carefully guided through an intellectual training that started with a thorough grounding in good philosophy, before moving on to theology, the “queen of sciences.” Philosophy may not be the way to God or divine things, but it is the way to train the human mind to recognise real things from false things. And in those olden days, one of the first tasks of philosophical training was logic, the Laws of Rational Thought, all of which are grounded in the notion that there really is such a thing as the Real, and that it can be aprehended by human reason.
Once again, everything I need to know in life – including the necessity of the logical apprehension of the Real – I learned from Star Trek. In the third season episode, Spectre of the Gun, you will recall that the intrepid landing party is faced with a strangely fragmented fantasy, created for them by a race of alien telepaths, in which they find themselves in a Tombstone, Arizona in 1881, being forced to participate in a recreation of the gunfight at the OK Corral.
Throughout the episode, everything Kirk, Spock, McCoy and Scotty do to avoid the inevitably deadly encounter fails. They try to escape, only to find the way barred by a force field; they try to fashion a tranquilizer out of chemicals from a 19th century apothecary shop. Finally, they try to simply not turn up for the fight. At every turn, the aliens render their efforts useless.
Finally, Mr. Spock realises that the situation is not merely hopeless, but unreal. What has been happening, if the universe still functions according to its laws, could not be happening. They could not be in 19th century Arizona. The town and people could not be real.
The failure of the apothecary chemicals to produce a tranquilizing effect twigs Spock to the reality of the situation: “Physical laws simply cannot be ignored,” he tells the others. “Existence cannot be without them.”
“We are faced with a staggering contradiction…Physical reality is consistent with universal laws. Where the laws do not operate, there is no reality. All of this is unreal…We judge reality by the responses of our senses. Once we are convinced of the reality of a given situation we abide by its rules.
“I know the bullets are unreal, therefore they cannot harm me.” Spock saves the day by mind-melding with the others to lend them his disciplined Vulcan conviction of the absolute necessity of the Real and the categorical rejection of anything that is unreal.
Yes, yes, I know; Star Trek is the template of the New Paradigm, or at least so Gene Roddenberry intended it to be. His ideal society of the United Federation of Planets, socialistic, materialist and godless, is a traditionalist’s nightmare. But at that early stage, the New Paradigm was still unconsciously clinging to many of the ancient human social order’s Natural Law assumptions, and the lack of deep reflection on the limits of his own vision allowed much good sense and moral orderliness to come through by accident. At any rate, I absorbed a lot of useful things from a childhood of daily after-school re-runs, including an unshakable faith in the ability of logic to apprehend reality, in spite of all distraction and illusion.
Star Trek taught me how important philosophy is to the apprehension of the Real. Get your philosophy wrong, (as Aristotle said) start with erroneous assumptions, and whatever structure you create in life will inevitably fail. The need to start with sound philosophy is akin to starting a bridge with sound mathematics and a keen eye on the laws of physics.
When I was younger, it was the rage among my contemporaries to believe you could construct your own “personal philosophy,” that is, you could figure out a way of looking at life and conducting your affairs that made no reference to anyone else’s ideas. This was considered being brave and independent-minded. Some even went so far as to assert that one was obliged to “create your own reality,” to free one’s self from the limitations of arbitrary and obsolete social dictates. (The fact that the only people who ever functionally achieved this ideal were criminal psychopaths seemed not to have occurred.)
After I had come to my senses somewhat, a young man I knew was engaged in this project of developing his own philosophy. He would come to me with his ideas, and each time I disappointed him by naming the philosophical concept he had been inventing, and the men who, usually hundreds of years ago, first articulated it. As I think about it now, I ought to have read him the passages from Ecclesiastes about there being nothing new under the sun.
I think my young friend clued in eventually and realised that he could accomplish nothing by attempting to entirely re-invent all the philosophical disciplines by himself. I’m also happy to say that I think my warnings about the futility of modern academic philosophy departments was heeded, and I remember seeing him last clutching a Penguin edition of the Greeks.
The philosophy that reigned at Dalhousie University in those days was deconstructionism. The irony of academic deconstructionists, busily re-inventing language to express no thought any human being has ever had, snootily disparaging Thomists for trying to find clear ways to describe reality, seems to have been widely missed. Modern philosophers have closed ranks, joined hands and engaged in a never-ending circle dance on the head of the most uninteresting pin ever created. Their determination, like my naïve young friend above, to discover a personal, subjective standard for reality, has made them profoundly boring and rather sad.
I attended one of the public lectures at the philosophy department of Halifax’s premier institution of learning, and came away wondering what sort of useful work these poor idiots could be given in a sane social order. Really, if all reality can be deconstructed, why not their own notions as well? What point of even talking about it if there was no underlying and transcendent Real to existence?
But the day we consider the possibility that there is something Real to pursue, something so magnificent that it could be the foundation of everything real in our universe, is the day that philosophy springs into grand, fascinating technicolour life. When I learned that good philosophy is a method of finding out what is true, I was like a child again discovering extraordinary alien wonders of life by lifting up a dull rock at the beach.
I would venture to add that to the enormous social harms of bad philosophy – including the violent deaths of uncounted millions of innocents by the resurgence of utilitarianism – has been the banalization of human life, to make life seem like a petty, pointless daily shuffle towards a meaningless end. It is the stuff of all dystopic science fiction. The assertion that reality consists only of the material, has, I submit, created a global crisis of meaning; a strictly material reality is boring, futile, completely uninteresting. Why should any of us care about the delights of nature, of waterfalls or bird song, if they mean nothing, if they point to nothing other than themselves?
One of the sins modern churchmen will have to address on the Last Day is having participated in, instead of opposing this terrible modern crisis of meaning. By having failed to oppose the degradation of philosophy with something more attuned to the demands of the Real, they have abandoned their duty. The neglect of the Church of its pursuit of the Real through the traditional philosophical disciplines has left us not only with heretical priests, it has left the World in charge of determining for us what is and is not Real. And what a dull universe it has created.
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