Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Is Doubt Faith's True Method?: A Lesson for Michael Patton from Aristotle

By After Frans Hals [Public domain],
via Wikimedia Commons
Michael Patton over at Credo House Ministries recently wrote a post that's been getting a lot of attention in the biblioblog sphere. In it, he argues that Roman Catholic scholarship is fundamentally an oxymoron.

Patton argues that Descartes method of doubt, though flawed, provides the basis for what constitutes scholarship. We doubt that we might know better. Since Roman Catholics, apparently, aren't allowed to doubt, they're simply going to end up defending preconceived notions. This, Patton says, is not scholarship, and if anyone who identifies as a Roman Catholic doubts, they obviously aren't a true Roman Catholic.1

There's plenty of critiques to be made of his argument, and indeed many have already been made. Rod at Political Jesus has critiqued the notion of intellectual freedom inherent in Patton's definition of scholarship. Jeremy of Unsettled Christianity criticizes his view of what Roman Catholicism is, and Brian of Near Emmaus argues that if Patton's notion of scholarship would also condemn Evangelicals. My friend James Arnold will also being discussing the post on Evangelical Outpost later today discussing Patton's notion of scholarship.

I'd would also like to discuss the notion of scholarship expressed here, specifically his application of Cartesian doubt. I will also explore an Aristotelian notion of sciences and apply it to the subject at hand.

I am no fan of Descartes, but Patton has, like many of his peers, misunderstood Descartes project. Yes, Descartes set out to doubt in order to find a firm foundation, but once that foundation was located, he felt secure in trusting it that he might build further upon it. Doubt for him was a tool, not a way of life as it was for the skeptics. This meant that doubt would eventually be left behind. Further, doubt only played a role in building up Descartes epistemology and metaphysics. It was not, for example, the driving force when he studied anatomy.

Descartes doubted everything he thought he could, came to the conclusion that he could not doubt his own existence, and using a very strange ontological argument moved from there to the existence of God. Once God was secure, Descartes felt he could securely believe in the existence of the outside world. On the basis of that security, Descartes could then rely on the apparatuses of that world (such as senses) without continuing to doubt them. Likewise, a Roman Catholic (like, say, Descartes) could begin by doubting the church, but after testing it come to believe in papal infallibility. Once that was done, papal infallibility could then be used as a firm basis for making other decisions about truth. I'm not saying anyone would be right to come to this position, nor that it could even be done. What I am willing to say is that we all do this in a myriad ways throughout our lives. The vast majority of things any of us hold to be true, we hold to be true on the warrant of others whose testimony we trust.

This brings me to the Aristotelian notion of science. Aristotle believed that there is a series of sciences, not just one, and that each had its own principles. The science of logic, for example, would depend on certain basic principles such as the law of non-contradiction2, while physics would depend on certain presuppositions about physicality. No science can critique its own principles, instead these are set by other sciences higher than it. For Aristotle these sciences existed in a strict hierarchy. At the top of all of these would stand metaphysics, and from that science you would derive the primary principles of the lower sciences. We might very well doubt the strict hierarchy of sciences affirmed by Aristotelian, but the basic principle seems firm. Good literary critique follows very different laws than good astrophysics.

We can even see the basic sense of how one science takes as givens what another asks as questions in modern physical science. A chemist, for example, will take as given the basic principles of modern physics, making use of them in doing his chemical work. Indeed, a given chemist will assume most things about chemistry to be true except the very specific things he is testing for.

So how does this apply to Roman Catholic Scholarship? For the Roman Catholic scholar, the major area of scholarship upon which his being a Roman Catholic could have any bearing would be theology. Theology, like logic or physics, is its own science and will have its own principles. But what are those principles? The fact of the matter is there's no easy answer to that question, and different faiths and denominations will have different answers to it. For the Protestant Evangelical, the primary principles for good theology will be sound exegesis of infallible scripture, likely coupled with certain basic Evangelical traditions and experience. The Evangelical can of course question these principles, but one can't rightly call him an Evangelical unless he accepts them. It is only once he does accept them that he is doing Evangelical Biblical scholarship. Likewise, the Roman Catholic confession comes with certain principles underlying its interpretation of the science of theology. This includes scripture, but also includes tradition and papal authority. The Roman Catholic can of course doubt these principles, but once he has accepted them he can freely use them, just as Descartes could freely use God in his philosophy once he was convinced of the existence of the divine. The Roman Magesterium leaves many questions in theology unanswered, and the Roman Catholic scholar can explore these questions freely, his method will simply be different and rely on dogmas established by the church (rather than scripture alone). This is a different scholarly method than the pseudo-Cartesian Evangelical one Patton favors, but it is no less scholarly than it. At least, it cannot be shown to be less scholarly unless we can discover a higher science that can show us definitively what the best principles are for theology.
1. Based on what he says in the comments, Patton's notion of what makes one a true Roman Catholic (or a true Evangelical, or a true atheist) is the specific propositional content of your beliefs. A Roman Catholic, on his view, has to believe everything the Magesterium teaches to be Roman Catholic. The problem is that this imports an Evangelical Protestant view of identity into Roman Catholicism. However, what makes one a member of the Roman Catholic faith is a much more ecclesial matter. If you are baptized as a Roman Catholic (in fact, if you're baptized in a Trinitarian format) you are a Roman Catholic. You may not be in perfect communion with the church, but your identity is set by the sacrament, not by the propositions you affirm.
2. An proposition cannot be both true and false at the same time.