Friday, August 29, 2014

To all who admired Burgess Laughlin, I'm sorry to say he has passed away. Please find his obituary message on his main website:

Burgess, you will be missed.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Gregg's "Tea Party Catholic"

Samuel Gregg, Tea Party Catholic: The Catholic Case for Limited Government, a Free Economy, and Human Flourishing, New York, Crossroad Publishing, 2013, 260 pages.

The title of this book, The Tea Party Catholic, suggests the book is about politics. The subtitle shows the author is writing about the principles of politics not the day-by-day parade of politicians and their supporters. Still, why on The Main Event would I write about a political subject? After all, the focus of The Main Event is on the conflict between reason and mysticism, which is an epistemological issue. My hope in reading this book was to see at what point, if any, the Catholic author would resort to mysticism in his argument for "limited government, a free economy, and human flourishing."

As usual, the following is a collection of notes rather than a formal review of the book.

AUTHOR'S PURPOSE. The writer of the Foreword, Michael Novak, says "Gregg means to foster three world-transformative ideas: limited government, religious liberty, and economic liberty." (p. 1)

Gregg himself distinguishes the "free enterprise Catholics" from other supporters of "free enterprise." In particular Gregg disavows "people like the pro-capitalist but militantly-atheistic philosopher Ayn Rand." He says, "[t]he Catholic case for limited government, the free economy, and religious liberty is very different from that of many self-described libertarians, let alone Randians." (p. 22) The key difference, Gregg says, is that the Catholic argument for free enterprise holds that free enterprise permits human flourishing, that is, "the excellence that every person is capable of realizing through the reasonable use of their freedom—an excellence rooted in our very nature as the imago Dei [image of God]: a being called to freely embrace all those goods that make us flourish precisely as human beings rather than embrace mediocrity." (p.23)

Explaining the nature and scope of these freedoms to Catholics—indeed anyone interested in understanding distinctly Catholic as well as particular natural law arguments for economic liberty and limited government—is this book's purpose. (p. 28)

AUTHOR.  Samuel Gregg left his native Australia to obtain a doctorate at Oxford University. There he worked under the supervision of John Finnis, an expert on natural law. (p. 1) Moving to the USA in 2001, Gregg began writing a series of books which "steadily established his leadership" in the movement working for three interconnected ideas: limited government, economic freedom; and religious liberty. (p. 1)

Novak says Gregg is qualified in three ways to achieve his purpose: He has "a strong grasp of the natural law." He understands  "the long Catholic intellectual tradition." He is motivated by "profoundly Catholic reasons." (p. 1)

SUBJECT. The main title is misleading. The book is not about the Tea Party in the United States, nor about the author's role, if he has any, in it. The subtitle accurately states the subject of the book. Gregg presents the specifically Catholic case for limited government. He bases his argument on Catholic principles.

Gregg says the Catholic position in favor of limited government differs from other positions because of the Catholic position's grounding in "Catholicism's specific understanding of the nature of human freedom. For Catholics, human freedom in turn is grounded in what man is—an individual, sinful, social being graced with reason and free will—and directed to ... 'integral human flourishing'." (p. 36) Thus, this Catholic position on limited government is tied to the supernatural through grace (which means God's gift).

Further, "... the coherence of these positions [on the desirability of limited government] stands or falls upon the Catholic conception of human flourishing...." (p. 37) Citing Pope Gregory VII, Gregg supports the idea that "full freedom in the Christian sense can only be realized through the freedom of life in the Lord in eternity." (p. 38)

The fact of sin and human imperfectability reminds us that the fullness of the flourishing we seek lies in the world which is to come, the gates of which have been opened for us by Christ's Resurrection. (p.49)

Gregg says "the central thesis of this book is that Catholics who underscore the cause of economic liberty can—nay, must—invest the cause for limited government with the same moral depth that Catholics have brought to other issues." (p. 23)

When discussing such subjects, Gregg references Catholic sources such as Augustine and William Ockham, but also other writers such as Cicero and Hegel. Gregg also frequently quotes the writings of popes who have lived in the last 200 years. Gregg seldom directly cites the Bible.

STRUCTURE. The book arcs from the history of Catholicism in the USA, to the present socially conflicted state of the Catholic Church, to an explanation of the principled argument that Gregg offers, and finally to examples of applications of the principles.

The Introduction presents the current situation among Catholics in the USA—including their many disagreements with each other—and the history that led up to it: Since the late 1800s, Catholics generally supported government intervention in the economy; however Gregg sees evidence now of a shift away from economic interventionism: the rise in the 1980s of new generations of Catholics wanting to limit the welfare state; and the spectacle of Catholics publicly debating among themselves—for example, in 2012 Vice President Joe Biden, a Catholic Democrat, debating against Paul Ryan, a Catholic Republican.

Chapter 1 ("Catholic and Free") presents the core of Gregg's philosophical and theological argument in favor of limited government and free enterprise. Chapter 2 ("An Economy of Liberty") looks at the issues in the proper relationship between government and the economy. 

Chapter 3 ("Solidarity, Subsidiarity, and the State") explains two Catholic concepts. Solidarity is materially and spiritually supporting individuals in need. This is an application of the "the commandment to love our neighbor as we would want to be loved ourselves." (p. 101) Subsidiarity is the principle that says that in helping the poor people, superior organizations, such as governments, may assist but not displace the voluntary activities of individuals, families, and businesses who are closest to the problem. For example, a welfare program from Washington, D.C., should not replace a particular Texas parish's effort to feed the hungry people in its neighborhood.

Chapter 4 ("The First Freedom") describes the history and nature of the freedom of a follower of a religion to live according to his beliefs. Chapter 5 ("But What About ...?") examines several current issues to illustrate the principles that Gregg thinks should guide Catholics in political controversies.

Chapter 6 ("A Patriotic Minority") describes Gregg's view of the role Catholics can take in today's culture in the USA. He sees a continuing decline of modern liberalism among Catholics and "signs of considerable renewal in the Church in America." (p.197)

EVALUATION. Gregg is a well organized and moderately clear writer. Non-Catholics can learn the basic principles that Gregg advocates, but finer points may be unclear without studying Catholicism. Careful reading shows non-Catholics that Gregg, like many Catholic intellectuals values integration. He attempts to tie principles he learns from revelation, via the Church, to living amidst conflict in modern society. 

Gregg's integration is not objective, that is, drawn, logically from sense-perceptible facts of reality, but it is an attempt to provide a systematic plan of action. That makes Catholicism formidable, possibly the most dangerous advocate of mysticism in our culture today.

Burgess Laughlin
Author of The Power and the Glory: The Key Ideas and Crusading Lives of Eight Debaters of Reason vs. Faith, described here:

Monday, July 21, 2014

McCool's "From Unity to Pluralism"

Gerald A. McCool, From Unity to Pluralism: The Internal Evolution of Thomism, New York, Fordham University Press, 1992, 248 pages.

This post is partly a review of McCool's From Unity to Pluralism and mostly a collection of notes that might aid my own project on the conflict of mysticism and reason in the USA in our time.

SUBJECT. McCool tells the history of a certain movement of European Catholic scholars (theologians and philosophers) in the 1800s. These scholars, the Neo-Scholastic movement, wanted to counter the tide of modernist philosophy that was tearing down religious culture. The modernist philosophers ranged from Descartes (1596-1650) to the successors of Kant (1724-1804).

In particular, some Neo-Scholastics looked back to the worldview Thomas Aquinas had developed. They thought (wrongly) that he had developed a worldview that integrated the insights of other ancient and medieval Christian philosophers—such as Augustine and Bonaventure—into a harmonious whole. They also thought (1) that this supposedly integrated worldview had been shared by other Christian intellectuals in the medieval Christian world; (2) that the worldview had been lost at the end of the Middle Ages, and (3) that the worldview had been recovered by post-Renaissance Catholic theologians such as Francisco Suarez (1548-1617). Thomism, these 19th Century Catholic intellectuals thought, was potentially a unifier for modern culture, a culture disintegrating under the effects of post-Descartes philosophers such as Kant.

These first Neo-Thomists, in the early and mid-1800s, held a vision of Thomas's philosophy as resting on an epistemology of "common sense realism." In this epistemology, a concept in the mind comes from a thing in the world. For Neo-Thomists, the starting point of philosophy, therefore, is sense-perception, not Descartes' cogito. (p. 29) Cogito ("I know") as the starting point of a philosophy is subjectivist; it has no anchor in reality independent of one's own mind. Thus Thomism was radically opposed to the major post-Descartes philosophies.

In 1879, Pope Leo XIII's encyclical Aeterni Patris officially confirmed the Neo-Thomist estimation of Thomism and directed the Church to incorporate Thomism into higher-level Church education (the universities and seminaries), thus presumably disseminating Thomism to the remainder of Catholic culture. This approach was to be the Church's defense against Modernism (atheism, moral relativism, personal subjectivism, and so forth). Further, the Church would use Thomism, Leo XIII hoped, as a foundation on which to stand while conducting a "dialogue" with contemporary philosophies. (pp. 1 and 9)

McCool's purpose in the book is to trace the trajectory of the Neo-Thomist movement from the late 1800s to the 1960s: its rise, expansion, disintegration, and fall. (p. 2)

STRUCTURE. The general order of the book is chronological. Selecting from many individual intellectuals in the movement, McCool focuses on four main intellectuals (theologians, philosophers, historians) who shaped the internal evolution of the Neo-Thomist movement: Pierre Rousselot (1878-1915), Joseph Marechal (1878-1944), Jacques Maritain (1882-1973), and Etienne Gilson (1884-1978).

CHRONOLOGY. Unfortunately McCool does not provide a chronology of persons and events in this complicated history. A chronology would have simplified the reading. Here is my brief version:

1225-1274: Thomas Aquinas lives.

c. 1820: Luigi Taparelli d'Azeglio, the pioneer of Neo-Scholasticism, begins influencing Giacchino Pecci to admire Thomism. Pecci is a young seminary student who will fifty years later become Pope Leo XIII. (p. 5)

1846: In Naples, Gaetano Sansaverino founds the first academy devoted to the philosophy of Thomas. One of Sansaverino' students is Salvatore Talamo, who later recommends to Leo XIII that Thomism be made the only philosophy taught in Catholic schools. (p. 12)

1878: Matteo Liberatore (1810-1892), a prominent Neo-Scholastic who, along with other writers, has campaigned publicly for the restoration of Thomism, writes a draft of the encyclical that will become Aeterni Patris. (p. 12)

1879: Pope Leo XIII (reigned 1878-1903) issues his encyclical Aeterni Patris (On Christian Philosophy), calling for a revival of Thomism as an answer to the threat from Modernist philosophers. (pp. 5 and 6)

1879-1962: Through support from the papacy, Neo-Thomism acquires a privileged position in Catholic philosophical culture. (p. 5) Here "privileged" means that the support for Neo-Thomism is coming from the hierarchy that administers the Church, not from laymen, who are the vast majority of Church membership. The support (McCool says on p. 32) includes replacing seminary professors who do not support Thomism with Neo-Scholastic professors.

c. 1900: A third generation of Neo-Thomists arises. Trained in northern European universities (not Italian seminaries) they are familiar with—and ominously more sympathetic to—the philosophies that Neo-Thomists should counter, as Pope Leo XIII had hoped. Four intellectuals of this generation are the main subjects of this book: Pierre Rousselot, Joseph Marechal, Jacques Maritain, and Etienne Gilson. (p. 34)

1900-1950: This period is the "Thomistic Revival." (p. 34) This period ends because leading Neo-Thomists themselves no longer believe Thomism alone is adequate as a philosophy and theology. (p. 35) Acceptance of pluralism—the idea that different periods inevitably give rise to different philosophies—dominates Catholic intellectual culture by 1950. (p. 35)

THEME. McCool's theme is straight-forward: "... [Neo-Scholastic] Thomism's own internal development had to lead inevitably to the undermining of the nineteenth-century conception of [Thomism] which had inspired [Leo XIII's] Aeterni Patris." (p.3) Because the 19th Century Neo-Scholastics inadvertently (or perhaps with wishful thinking) created a false of view of Thomism (that it harmonized the, in fact, discordant philosophical voices of ancient and medieval Catholics), their efforts were ultimately unproductive. The leaders of a movement cannot make accurate plans for changing their culture if they are working from false historical premises.

The following two paragraphs, at the beginning of Chapter 7, summarize much of the book: 

In Aeterni Patris Leo XIII envisioned two main paths he was confident would lead to the recovery and authentic development of St. Thomas' own philosophy. One of these was ongoing dialogue between Thomists and other contemporary philosophers; the other was rigorous research into Thomism's historical sources in the texts of the medieval Doctors [the leading theologians] and their [later] commentators. (p. 161)

As we have seen, Neo-Thomism's dialogue with contemporary [19th and 20th century] philosophy, far from promoting its own internal unity, led to the emergence of systematic pluralism among Thomists themselves. ... Marechal and Maritain were poles apart in their understanding of the nature and function of Thomistic metaphysics. Like Marechal, Rousselot was extremely open to Kantian and post-Kantian idealism. … Gilson, like Maritain, believed that Thomism and idealism were fundamentally incompatible and attempts to reconcile the two were bound to end in failure. (p.161)

OBSERVATIONS ON THE NEO-THOMIST MOVEMENT. Following are notes I have drawn from McCool's insights about the Neo-Thomist movement. Some of these insights, properly generalized, might apply to other movements.

First, in the perspective of the struggle between reason and mysticism, why would the rise or fall of Thomism be important? Thomism, like all Catholicism, tries to "integrate" the supernatural and the natural. Thomas at least worked inductively from observation of this world, thus philosophically maintaining some contact with it. The post-Cartesian rationalists looked inside their own minds, not at the world. (p. 20) A revival of Thomism might offer a chance for Catholicism to move toward a more objective worldview.

St. Thomas' metaphysics does not descend, as do the post-Cartesian systems of metaphysics, from an intuitively grasped God to finite and sensible reality. Starting from sensible reality and discovering its structure through metaphysical analysis, it follows an ascending order from the world to God. (p. 20)

Second, movements do not perfectly overlap with organizations. A new movement might win the allegiance of some members of an established organization, but not others. The result can be conflict within the organization. For example, consider the Society of Jesus. Some Jesuit scholars were enthusiastic supporters of the idea of making Thomism the official philosophy taught in Catholic schools; other Jesuits were indifferent; and still others opposed the suggestion. (p. 13)

Third, even if they are not concise and always clear, books written by members of a movement do influence other members of the movement. An example is the massive five-volume work on theology by Joseph Kleutgen, whose works were published successively for 20 years (1853-1874). Its influence continued into the early 20th Century. (p. 21)

Fourth, for decades, the Neo-Thomist movement also used the textbooks of Neo-Thomist leaders to convey their view to the next generation. (p. 32) Books are transmitters from generation to generation as well as disseminators within a generation.

Fifth, after the first, pioneer generation of Neo-Thomist thinkers, no deep thinkers  followed in the second generation. Equally limiting was the failure of the Neo-Thomists to disseminate Neo-Thomism among the lay intellectuals in the Church. (For example, most Neo-Thomist writings remained in Latin.)

EVALUATION. I would recommend this book only to a specialist focusing on theological and philosophical history of European-American Catholic intellectual culture in the last 150 years. Reading is often difficult and the author provides few aids such as a chronology or brief biographies for the main characters..

Burgess Laughlin
Author of The Power and the Glory: The Key Ideas and Crusading Lives of Eight Debaters of Reason vs. Faith, described here:

Friday, June 6, 2014

A Donor's Network for Reason Activists

This is a preliminary draft for initial review and public critique of its clarity, feasibility, and pitfalls. In comments, remember the rules of etiquette, including the need to state your name. Reason activists and potential donors can privately ask questions or express interest at

PURPOSE. A Donor's Network for Reason Activists (DNRA) intends to help certain activists connect to potential donors.[1] The donors hope their grants will enable activists in the U.S.A. to create cultural products that will disseminate the idea of reason—its nature, its applications, its implications, and its history, as well as its opposition to mysticism.[2, 3] DNRA's purpose is not to reward activists for existing projects, but to ease their financial struggle in creating and distributing future projects.

RATIONALE. The Objectivist movement—the movement that promotes Ayn Rand's philosophy of using reason alone to understand reality and guide one's life—is more than fifty years old. Particularly through The Ayn Rand Institute, proponents of Objectivism have made her philosophical writings available for study. Others, through public commentary and discussion groups, have further disseminated her philosophical ideas. Still others are laboring to apply the principles of Objectivism—particularly its ethics of egoism and politics of capitalism—to issues debated today.

A need remains for specialized activists to champion the key idea of each fundamental branch of the philosophy.
  • In metaphysics, philosophical naturalism: We live in one world, and every entity in it has a particular nature.
  • In epistemology, reason: It alone is our source of knowledge.
  • In ethics, rational egoism: The individual should be the beneficiary of his actions.
  • In politics, capitalism: The sole purpose of government should be the protection of individual rights from aggression and fraud.
DNRA supports one specialization: promotion of the idea that reason is one's only means of knowledge, rejecting mysticism in all forms. 

Ideally, DNRA will give small donations each year to individuals who are full-time activists specialized in promoting reason and rejecting mysticism. Unfortunately in the U.S.A today there are no such individuals. However, there might be other individuals who are working on the sort of individual projects that a full-time, specialized activist would undertake. DNRA's small donations will support such projects.

PLAN. No money will pass through DNRA. Money will flow directly from individual donors to individual activists. Perhaps I will be the only donor. The amounts I can donate will be small, totaling perhaps $2000/year.

REQUIREMENTS FOR ACTIVISTS. To receive a donation that will support your activist work, you must:
  • Be planning to produce a particular intellectual product, suitable for public dissemination, that supports reason by examining its nature, or its applications, or its implications, or its history, or its contrasts  to mysticism. Example products are: a book, a conference paper, a videotape of a lecture, an online transcript of a lecture, an online magazine essay, or a website devoted to reason or some major aspect of it.
  • Submit a brief proposal: What is the product you expect to create and offer to the intellectual public? When will it be available? How will it promote reason in U.S.A. culture? Describe the planned product in enough detail to allow a potential donor, if any, to make a decision about supporting it; and, after completing the project, describe the product so that interested viewers can decide whether to obtain it. The proposal should also provide (1) your name, (2) location, (3) contact information,and (4) current professional affiliation, if any. I will not make these last four items public but I or you will make them available to potential donors, if any.
  • Make the completed product available to the public, either for purchase at a competitive price or through other access (such as an open library archive).
  • Allow DNRA, in a public list of achievements, to identify the completed project (your name, the product title, abstract of the product, type of product, and the product's location for access). 
EXAMPLES. Existing products that would certainly qualify if proposed today are: 
  • Ayn Rand's lecture, "Faith and Force: The Destroyers of the Modern World," a lecture read at Yale University in 1960, and then printed in Philosophy: Who Needs It, 1982.
  • Ayn Rand's book, Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, originally published as a series of articles in the periodical, The Objectivist, and re-published in 1990 in an expanded second edition.
Imaginary products that would qualify are:
  • A paper describing reduction, a tool of reason, for an academic conference.
  • A video explaining the nature of reason to young people mature enough to begin philosophizing.
  • A podcast surveying the types of mysticism active in our culture today.
  • An essay focusing on a particular current controversy, showing the way in which reason could solve the problem.
  • A lexicon of reason, that is, a short book that defines reason, its components, and the manner in which they relate to each other. 
  • A lecture demonstrating the use of reason in a particular historical setting—for example, a scientist solving a problem. 
  • A speech for a wide audience, championing reason by defining it, illustrating it, and suggesting the consequences for our lives if it were widely and consistently applied, even if only by intellectuals.
  • An essay explaining why there is one reason but many forms of mysticism.
  • An essay refuting the Christian, Muslim, and Judaic idea that we can use both reason and mysticism in some sort of compromise.
UNSUITABLE EXAMPLES. Examples of projects not suitable for donations from DNRA are: 
  • Products which treat reason tangentially.
  • Products created by using reason but not explaining it, its applications, its history, or its implications for the other branches of Objectivism.
  • Products that focus mainly on "reason" as it appears in non-objective philosophies such as Catholicism or Kantianism—unless the author fully compares each form to actual reason as characterized in Objectivism.
  • Products that commit the fallacy of the frozen abstraction by equating reason with mathematics, logic, or science (such as physics).
SUMMARY. A Donor's Network for Reason Activists offers small donations in trade for seeing new products become available for promoting reason or fighting mysticism in the U.S.A. today.

Burgess Laughlin
Author, The Power and the Glory: The Key Ideas and Crusading Lives of Eight Debaters of Reason vs. Faith, described here:

[1] DISCLAIMER: Donor's Network for Reason Activists has no connection—commercial, organizational, or philosophical—to The Reason Foundation (, Reason magazine, or any other entity that happens to use the word "reason" in its title.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Is James Randi a full-time, specialized activist for reason?

Here, on May 16, 2014, I asked for the name of anyone in the USA who is a full-time, specialized activist for reason. I received several suggestions. One was James Randi (b. 1928). Is he a specialized activist for reason?

Unfortunately no one has yet published a biography of James Randi's long, productive career. Trying to decide whether Randi is worth furher investigation as a candidate, I studied three publications, one about and two from Randi. First, the long and informative Wikipedia article [1] does nothing to substantiate the claim that Randi is a full-time, specialized activist for reason. To the contrary, the article makes clear that, though Randi likes reason, he has been focused on two other goals: 
  • GOAL 1: Investigating the claims made by a variety of individuals, such as advocates of extrasensory perception, and, where those claims are shown to be false or even fraudulent, overturning ("debunking") the claims.
  • GOAL 2: Defending the methods of science, and, as a corollary, refuting pseudo-scientific claims (for example, by supporters of homeopathy). Thus Randi rightly takes both a positive approach to science and a negative approach to pseudo-science (and "flim-flam" in general).
Randi explains and supports science, but he is not a full-time, specialized promoter of reason. Science is not reason. Science uses reason in particular ways, but is not the same thing as reason.* Nor does Randi, as far as I can tell from the titles in his list of publications, contrast reason with mysticism, thereby explaining both reason and mysticism.

The second publication I examined was an informative and entertaining lecture by James Randi on his own channel, "skeptitube." This video is apparently a recording of a lecture he gave at Caltech in 1992.[2] Here Randi describes himself as a "skeptic." He says nothing about promoting reason. He conducts an imaginary experiment. The conclusions he draws are severely limited, which is appropriate for science. A philosopher, by contrast, can survey the world around him and draw general or even universal conclusions—for example, about the nature of reason. Randi's lecture supports science, not reason. They are not the same.

A third sampling of Randi's long list of works is an article he wrote for an online journal he apparently established. The article is "Science, Pseudoscience: the Differences."[3] Once again, the subject is science, not reason. And once again Randi is an able defender of science, but he has little to say about reason. Minor points in his article raise questions about Randi's philosophy, particularly his epistemology. For example, after placing the words the truth in scare-quotes, thus throwing doubt on the idea, he says that truth is unreachable, "though in spite of Zeno's Paradox, we do eventually and essentially get there. But let's not examine that can of worms." (p. 1 of a five-page printout) 

Does Randi think that truth is possible? Or is Randi a philosophical skeptic, a person who believes that knowledge is impossible, at least to some degree? Either way, his dismissal of discussion of a "can of worms" is not the stance of a specialized, full-time activist for reason. Such an activist would welcome every opportunity to strengthen confidence in reason by solving puzzles about it.

Randi also makes clear (p. 1) that he opposes religion because religion is based on faith and rejects "reason, investigation, and logic." Randi does not go further in describing either mysticism or reason. So, here too there is evidence of Randi's personal support of reason but no full-time specialization in activism for reason.

In summary, working only from these three samples and from his newsletters which I read decades ago, I can say James Randi has had a long, productive, successful career as a defender of science and an exposer of "flim-flam." He is not a specialized, full-time activist for reason. Randi's relationship to reason is analogous to the imprint a seal makes in wax. The imprint in the wax is a result of the seal. Likewise, Randi's work in supporting science is a result of his respect for reason, but respect for a subject is not the same as specializing in promoting it.

Burgess Laughlin
Author of The Power and the Glory: The Key Ideas and Crusading Lives of Eight Debaters of Reason vs. Faith, described here:

For the meaning of reason, see my post on August 25, 2009:

[1] "James Randi," May 18, 2014,

[2] James Randi, lecture on proving the negative,, 1992. I am not certain of the location and time of this lecture.

[3] James Randi, "Science[,] Pseudoscience: the Differences,", no date of publication.

Friday, May 16, 2014

$100 Finder's Fee: Can you name a full-time activist for reason?

I am offering a small finder's fee to the first person who can identify a specialized activist, in the USA, working full-time to support reason as a specialized subject. Identify means providing the activist's name and a link to him. Support means explicit, sustained advocacy as a career path. Reason means the human faculty that integrates sense-perceptions into concepts, creates principles, forms generalizations, develops theories, and so forth—all following logic as the art of noncontradictory identification of the facts of reality. 

(An example of a specialized activist is Alex Epstein of Center for Industrial Progress. For the distinction between specialized and general activism:

The specialized activist for reason would be taking steps such as:
  • Collecting a flood of examples of the use of reason, from history and today.
  • Showcasing the tools of reason: induction, deduction, reduction, analysis, and so forth.
  • Defining reason at various lengths, for a variety of audiences.
  • Showing the benefits of reason in our world today.
  • Contrasting reason with mysticism—examples of it, its nature, its many forms, and its consequences in history and in life today.
The specialized activist for reason would engage in various tasks such as:
  • Writing weblog posts.
  • Producing videotapes or podcasts.
  • Welcoming interviews on radio and television.
  • Engaging debaters on university campuses and elsewhere.
  • Writing magazine articles.
  • Lecturing on reason in general or specific facets of reason and mysticism.
  • Conducting seminars.
  • Teaching classes.
  • Writing books.
If you know of such a person (or organization), please comment below or email me at

Burgess Laughlin
Author of The Power and the Glory: They Key Ideas and Crusading Lives of Eight Debaters of Reason vs. Faith, described at

P. S. — If you are aware of no such person but you think there should be a full-time activist for reason and you would be willing to support him, please tell me. Perhaps we can collaborate, if not immediately, then perhaps in the future. My resources are small, but I am prepared to donate $2000/year to that person to support his work. 

In the movement that supports a philosophy of reason, the time has come for someone to speak for reason: full-time, radically, and at length.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

BkNotes: Nichols's Conversation of Faith and Reason

Aidan Nichols, Conversation of Faith and Reason: Modern Catholic Thought from Hermes to Benedict XVI, Chicago, Hillenbrand Books (Liturgy Training Publications), 2011, 222 pages.

AUTHOR. Aidan Nichols is a Dominican theologian. (p. iv) He is a "historical theologian" (p. 1), that is, he focuses on studying the history of theology. He is also a "fundamental or dogmatic theologian, concerned to found more securely the faith of the Church." (p. 1) Thus he is both descriptive and prescriptive in his work. He seeks to draw his prescriptions from the descriptions. (pp. 1-2)

AUDIENCE. In his foreword to Conversation of Faith and Reason, Matthew Levering (a professor of theology, University of Dayton) says that Aidan Nichols, the author, wrote Conversation for readers "looking for high-level discussions of how humans come to know, to desire, and to express the truth about God and human beings"; the book is not for readers "who seek popularized depictions of faith and reason." (p. iv) 

Levering's warning to readers is understated. Unless you are already familiar with the issues and history of this subject, you will need to read slowly, take notes, and research some of the many names that Nichols includes in his complex account. This slim book requires a lot of effort, but it helps identify the roots of Catholic activism for the Church's support of both faith and reason (as the Church defines it).

SUBJECT. Conversation of Faith and Reason is a chronological examination of Catholic theologians as they examine the nature and interrelationship of faith and reason (that is, theology and philosophy) within the Catholic worldview. The Table of Contents outlines the book. Each of the eleven chapters discusses one or two theologians. The period which the book covers is mostly 1800 to 2005, but the author—and the theologians he discusses—refer back to Bonaventure, Thomas Aquinas, Anselm, Augustine, and others. Most of the theologians examined in the main chapters were Europeans who were, at one time or another, working in academia. Five of the thirteen men in the debate also became popes.

The chapters are:
1. Introduction.
2. A Kantian Beginning: George Hermes.
3. A Catholic Hegel? Anton Gunther.
4. The Response of Fideism: Louis Bautain.
5. Magisterial Interventions: Gregory XVI and Pius IX.
6. Return to the Schoolmen: Joseph Kleutgen and Leo XIII.
7. Embodying the Leonine Project: Etienne Gilson.
8. The Philosophy of Action: Maurice Blondel.
9. The Dispute over Apologetics: From Blondel to Balthasar.
10. A Synthetic Outcome? John Paul II's Letter Fides et Ratio.
11. From Cracow to Regensburg: Benedict XVI.

The introduction features a brief history of Catholic views of the nature of faith, from the Old Testament writers to the Council of Trent (1545-1563). The Council declared that there are two kinds of faith. The first is a merely human faith: We accept a revelation as believable because it fits within what we already know as acceptable. The second is divine faith: We accept a revelation because God, the supreme speaker of truth, said it. To have this sort of faith, the believer must have received God's grace. (p. 15)

So far as authoritative or classical sources for Catholic thought are concerned—Church Fathers, doctors, ecumenical Councils, papal definitions of doctrine, there the position, taken by and large, may be said to stand as the nineteenth century opens. (p. 15)

THEME. Most of the book is devoted to presenting and discussing the main Catholic theologians of the 19th and 20th Centuries. However, to anyone studying Catholic philosophical or theological activism today, the author's own views are key. He is an activist through his teaching and writing.

The main point of the book is that the selected theologians have understood reason, faith, and their relationship in a variety of ways. Sometimes popes were able to synthesize those varying views; and sometimes popes overruled some of the interpretations. For example, Pope John Paul II's encyclical Fides et Ratio (1998) identifies the sides of the debate, says Nichols. (p. ix)

What are Nichols's definitions of reason and faith? He draws from three sources: "Scripture, Tradition, magisterium." (p. 2)

Faith comes from hearing. It is the welcoming acceptance of a message issuing from Christ and his apostles, an 'apostolic preaching' which ... is confirmed by divine acts. These acts may be outer and public in the form of 'signs' of some description ... or they may be inner and altogether personal, invisible movements within the human soul. ... To sum up the conclusions so far: for the New Testament, taken very broadly, faith is the reception of a message. (p. 3)

Nichols says that Saint Paul believed faith to enable individuals to "only glimpse its own object remotely." (p. 4) Saint John, however, thought of faith and knowledge as nearly synonymous. (pp. 4-5) Faith, according to John, is essentially mystical. (p. 5) 

In discussing Augustine's saying, Crede ut intelligas ("Believe that you might understand"), Nichols defines "believing." "What Augustine meant by 'believing' is, at its most intense and comprehensive, a form of religious understanding where, under the enlivening action of charity, faith 'expands into a theological elaboration and mystical penetration' of its own object." (p. 7) Nichols further offers Thomas Aquinas's definition of faith as "the habit of mind whereby eternal life begins in us, causing the mind the assent to things that do not appear." (p. 5)

Nichols also discusses definitions of reason. Among the beliefs of the Latin Church fathers, Nichols says, "reason" meant "reasoned account" or "coherent explanation." (p. 5) Following the laws of logic is a necessary condition of rationality, but not a sufficient one. (p. 17) In looking at Enlightenment era thinkers' views of the nature of reason, he finds major differences. (p. 17) Nichols is a moderate pluralist: He sees various traditions each having its own meaning of "reason." However, he does not surrender to pluralism. He suggests a minimum definition of (1) following rules of logic in (2) argumentation from principles and to principles. (p. 18)

Nichols thinks that humans have one form of reason, the form they share (in a limited way) with God's reason. If you set aside that sharing, then there are a variety of forms of reason ("multiplicity of rationalities"). He names metaphysical reason, existential reason, and aesthetic reason. Divine reason is the unifier, for those who believe in God. (pp. 19-20)

The sentence that best captures the theme of the book is: "Revelational thinking assists both conceptual amplitude and argumentative solidity, desirable qualities of philosophical reason as such." (p. 211)

STYLE. Nichols is generally clear when he relates the history of the "conversation" among Catholic theologians—the names, places, and times. Nichols is often unclear when he attempts to describe the theological views of those theologians. One reason might be because the theologians wrote about subjects that do not exist, such as God, the Holy Spirit, and revelations. Clearly describing the nonexistent is difficult. A second reason for lack of clarity in Nichols's account might be that his sources, the theologians he examines, were themselves unclear in their own explanations. Some were influenced by Kant and Hegel, who wrote in a floating, rationalistic and therefore vague style. 

(By rationalism I mean the notion that the key to correct thinking is merely to make sure that all of our conclusions follow syllogistically from our premises, never mind where those premises come from; reason, by contrast, begins with sense-perception and proceeds inductively and deductively from there.)

Here is an example of rationalistic writing:

In its activity, divine grace constitutes a higher principle which overarches natural created reality. In giving access to this higher principle, faith englobes reason without truncating it. Divine grace in its essential supernaturality is not counterposed to the natural experiencing, reasoning and knowing subject as though it were antithetical to that subject in the latter's native modes of moving around the world. ...The difficulty about faith for post-Renaissance people is that they do not approach their rational and free 'I' as naturally  ordered beyond itself. Not surprisingly, then, Christian faith, originating in the divine action of revelation, loses for them its proper intelligibility. (pp. 18-19)

CONCLUSION. For a slow, careful reader, Nichols's Conversation of Faith and Reason offers a convenient one-volume summary of Catholic theologians' views of faith, reason, and their relationship. Though the book focuses mostly on the 19th and 20th centuries, it also surveys the Church's long earlier history. Unfortunately the book is difficult to read because of the author's style.

Burgess Laughlin
Author, The Power and the Glory: The Key Ideas and Crusading Lives of Eight Debaters of Reason vs. Faith, described here: