Sunday, July 8, 2012

The Door is Open

The desperate situation of philosophy—that is to say, the desperate situation into which reason obsessed by positivism has maneuvered itself—has become the desperate situation of our faith. Faith cannot be set free unless reason itself opens up again. If the door to metaphysical knowledge remains barred, if we cannot pass beyond the limits to human perception set by Kant, then faith will necessarily atrophy, simply for lack of breathing space.
Truth and Tolerance, 135

Reflection – Hi, folks, I’m back! ‘Real-time Fr. Denis’ blogging here. Cana was great (as it always is) – a week of hot, sunny days and cool evenings and a genuinely nice bunch of families to share it with. Returning to Madonna House yesterday I found the place packed to the rafters with young’uns who have rolled in for our MH summer program. Nice!

Well, back to business. And it’s my favorite business today – philosophy! Ratzinger’s critique of positivism is a core element in his writings over the years. ‘Reason obsessed by positivism’ is a good turn of phrase. His point has been that the positivistic approach to human reason is arbitrary and unproven, and that our insistence on limiting reason to that approach is entirely unwarranted and deeply harmful to the human project.

Oh yeah—not everyone reading this is trained in philosophy… so what is positivism again? It’s the theory of knowledge that limits the known and the knowable to the immediately observable and the scientifically demonstrable. If you can’t measure it in a laboratory or touch it with your hands, it either simply doesn’t exist or at any rate is entirely beyond your knowledge and hence utterly irrelevant to your life.

Of course, positivism is inherently self-contradictory. The ideas expressed in the above paragraph are not objects of sense perception, nor can they be demonstrated in a laboratory. Therefore, by strict positivistic criteria, they do not exist, or are unknowable and hence irrelevant. Positivism is disproved and ruled out… by positivism. An intellectual theory that begins by cutting its own epistemological throat is perhaps open to criticism, eh?

And so Ratzinger has critiqued it, extensively and fairly unanswerably (in my opinion). Positivism simply has no persuasive force. Meanwhile, the effect it has is to render any kind of penetration into the deep mystery of life and humanity impossible. Forget about faith for the moment—any kind of inquiry into what it all means and how we are to live is ruled out a priori by scientific positivism.

I remember reading some blogger or other on the internet saying just that. “Well, we can’t really know anything about the meaning of life, so why bother with it, and just get on with having fun and doing what you think you’re supposed to do!” Positivism in action—and I think there’s an awful lot of people who have never stepped inside of a philosophy classroom who live out of that. Trickle-down philosophy—the bane of our times. If you don’t think for yourself and come up with your own philosophy, one will be given to you—and it will probably be some version of logical positivism.

Who says we cannot know anything about the meaning of life? Really, sez who? The whole human quest for wisdom and justice is based on their being something out there to find. And meanwhile, Mr. Positivist has in fact snuck in a conclusion about what it all means anyhow. “Let’s just have fun”—aka hedonism, aka ‘pleasure is the point of life.’ And ‘do what you think you’re supposed to do’—aka there is a moral order, and such a thing as ‘what we are supposed to do’. Where it comes from and why we are beholden to it is left unanswered…

Meanwhile, the door to metaphysical knowledge (that is, what things really are and what reality really is) is not really barred. It has been swinging open all these centuries, and thinkers unbound by Kant and Comte and Russell and Hume have been merrily going in and out of it all along. And the real possibility of metaphysical knowledge makes faith possible, credible, viable, intellectually respectable, vibrant and strong.
So to those of you who have faith and maybe are not so intellectually or philosophically inclined – take heart! Faith may be many things, but it is not ridiculous or nonsensical or anti-intellectual. And to those reading who may have rejected faith as this, defend your position! Ratzinger has raised a formidable critique of Comtian scientific positivism, and it needs to be answered if the anti-faith, anti-metaphysical position is to be maintained.


  1. "An intellectual theory that begins by cutting its own epistemological throat is perhaps open to criticism" Nice! Welcome home Father. And thanks for challenging us (I would include non-positivists like myself) to "defend [y]our position". Otherwise, why on earth would anyone want to believe?

    1. Yes! Welcome back, it is good to hear your voice again! Even though, I can barely understand what you are talking about!

      I am wondering... Is it possible to be a little bit Hume and a little bit Kant? Does Ratzinger pick one camp?

      Also, I downloaded the book you wrote about yesterday. I hope you about it a lot....because I am probaBly going to need a lot of help with it. :).


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