Faith, Wonder, and the MethodJOSHUA SCHULZ
The adoption of a technocratic view of reason altered an established, richer view of reason in several ways.
Many writers have lamented that the modern university teaches means but not ends. For instance, in an address on "The Aim of Liberal Education" given the University of Chicago in 2003, Andrew Chrucky argues that modern education aims at teaching 'facts and theories' and 'techniques of persuasion,' but deliberately avoids discussions of 'what purposes that knowledge will be used for.' He points out that this is like teaching someone how to make a bomb without ever discussing what it is appropriate to blow up. Modern education focuses on 'amoral cognitive skills' while neglecting the moral and emotional education we require for human flourishing.
The reasons for this systematic neglect are legion, their roots reaching back to the European Enlightenment. The Enlightenment changed our notion of reason, and hence our understanding of the aim of education. For the ancients and medievals, whom I'll simply call the 'ancients,' the wise man is a man of vision, e.g., the poet who sees beautiful similes among diverse things, or the philosopher who seeks ever higher truths to contemplate. In contrast, the wise man of the Enlightenment is the scientist and technician, the man of method. Here is how René Descartes explained the motivation for the change in the opening chapter of his Discourse on Method:
Having a "method" makes reason egalitarian, the dunce the equal of the genius; it democratizes reason. One need only follow the steps of his method, Descartes argued, and truth — objective, verifiable, unarguable truth — will be discovered without (or often despite) much intellectual talent. With the Enlightenment's great propagandist, Francis Bacon, Descartes argued that aims of the scientific method include technological mastery, the relief of suffering, and political peace. For modernity, the cosmos is not a poem to be unfolded and contemplated — an interpretive enterprise whose subjectivity inevitably invites disagreement, war, and distraction from the more important business of relieving man's mean estate — but raw material we can use for the satisfaction of human desire. To know something is to be able to put it to use. Unlike art, which seeks out the meaningful heart of things, the method only seeks how they work: "hypotheses non fingo," as Newton put it.
The adoption of this technocratic view of reason altered an established, richer view of reason in several ways.
First, it led the modern world to divorce truth and goodness. The ancients understood the world to be teleologically ordered to ends both naturally (through internal principles) and divinely (by Providence). As a result, they did not carve the world into what we moderns call 'facts' and 'values.' Indeed, the teleologist would regard the concept of an 'objective' world, one containing no values, as inadequate and incomplete a description of the world as the concept of a private realm of 'subjective' values whose validation needs pay no attention to truth. The arborist, for example, a good teleologist, considers it both natural and good for trees to reach their branches towards the sun because doing to facilitates their flourishing as living things. (How else do plants grow?) Marriage is good for the same reason: because it creates persons and communicates culture in a way that facilitates our flourishing as naturally social beings called to complementary, interpersonal, agapic love. (How else does one love a child?) In a world of inherent ends, goodness is coextensive with being: to exist is to be good. Thus, cleaving the world into facts and values fails to cut at the joints. If the world is also created for the glory of God, its goodness limns giftedness. To know the world is to be grateful for it. Thus the wise man worships.
Modern thinkers have rejected teleology, however; the scientific method requires patterns, powers and predictions, but neither ends nor explanations. Hence it cannot distinguish between what is natural (a normative, metaphysical concept) and what is normal (a statistical concept). If something happens frequently enough, even if what happens is contrary to the nature of the thing in question — say, a statistically significant disposition in human beings to drink Draino — the modern thinker will find himself compelled to call that aberration natural (it happens, after all, in 'nature'). Since the statistics are ambiguous — some people like Draino, some don't — the modern thinker will rightly deny that we can read morality off the statistics, and accuses the ancients of doing precisely this, of the so-called 'naturalistic fallacy.' The ancients did no such thing, of course, since teleology is a metaphysical concept, not a statistical one. Every schoolboy can explain why, on the one hand, being popular doesn't make something good — try that for jumping off bridges — and why drinking Draino isn't good for a biological being even if one finds it enjoyable. Because they grasp the inbuilt order of things, in other words, the ancients can distinguish between something's appearing good to you and something's being good for you. Modernity is blind to that difference, and can only understand claims about what's 'good' as the arbitrary and unjust projection of one's capricious desires onto the canvas of an objectively 'neutral' world. The link between truth and goodness has been broken.
Augustine said the same thing of the mountains, that they cried — "We are not He, look higher!" — and both Plato (Rep. 500c) and Aristotle (Met. 12.7, 1072b4) saw the sublunar world move out of love for a greater Beauty.
In contrast, the Empiricist psychology of modernity considers the mind to be, at its best, a passive recorder of data, one that goes bad when it distorts or biases that data by reorganizing it. Thus the moderns considered imagination a threat to the usefulness of the mind. The method, it was thought, would eliminate such distortions by reducing observation to measurement and inference to calculation. In other words, the method would eliminate subjectivity by reducing the world 'information,' the incoherent idea that truth comes in context-less, un-theory-laden, narrative-free chunks. For the traditionalist, in contrast, imagination was the first stage of understanding, the iris of the eye of the soul. Speaking a great truth required poetry, or at least a passable metaphor. The reason for this was not the post-modern one that truths are only meaningful within an (arbitrary) web of belief, but the ancient one that because the world is naturally symbolic, only the bright containers of poetic truths can frame the fullness of being precisely by acknowledging its essential limitlessness. Speaking truly means speaking "up"; the highest expression of language is liturgical. Thus the wise man worships.
Finally, consider the fact that modernity's egalitarian method conceives of truth, and our grasp of it, in radically new ways — that is, the divorce of truth from Truth. Gone is the idea that some objects require one's being appropriately disposed, morally and intellectually, to know them properly. Yet how else does one come to appreciate great works of art — or a woman, asks Roethke — without first being moved by them? (If seeing beauty only required having eyes, the dog-faced baboon would have as much aesthetic taste as Socrates!) How else does one come to see the goodness of the moral life, if one is not aware of its fineness? (Aquinas says the virtuous person radiates honestum, suggesting that the immoral life is both superficial and ugly [ST 2-2.168.1c].) How does one come to believe the truths of faith unless one seeks salvation in humility? Only the penitent man hears the voice of God, who is as if silent to the hard-hearted.
Here we fathom the deep antipathy between the method and faith. Scientism, the view that everything real is knowable by the method (cf. Descartes, Discourse on Method 2.11), assumes the mundanity of the cosmos. If the world is polyphonic in the way suggested above by Dante and Aquinas, then scientism must stop its ears and treat faith as a siren's song. For faith is the virtuous response of the intellect to a reality that exceeds the mind's capacity to comprehend, just as love is the virtuous response to a reality whose goodness transcends the use of human concupiscence. Scientism and its method are therefore systematically deaf to the voice of divinity, and the technocratic ideology of modern education is atheological when it is not explicitly atheistic. Put otherwise, insofar as our dispositions do no work in modernity's method — the whole point of the method is to eliminate them — then art, faith, and morality, and the Beauty, Truth, and Goodness they aim at, are reduced to an unreality beyond reason's ken. Thus does modernity pit the sciences against the liberal arts and the Faith (they contain no knowledge, it is said).
Yet is is precisely as beautiful, true and good that we are attracted to things as ends. The modern predicament is thus, in a sense, the opposite of the ancients: possessed of awesome power, we have little that is genuinely worthwhile to accomplish. If truly fulfilling action requires a worthy final end, as Aristotle and St. Thomas and countless others have argued, then a university that cleanly and totally separates the study of ends and means does a moral, spiritual, and intellectual disservice to its students. It makes monsters of them, turning them into spiritually deformed beings who will use their Promethean abilities to service small and childish desires. Whatever our technical abilities, Aquinas would say, without a wholesome vision of the end, the life of modern man is an aborted one, having never truly begun. Thus worships the modern man.
The above observations are neither new nor complex, and the practical conclusions to be drawn from them will not be original or sophisticated either. Nevertheless, here they are.
The first thing to be learned from the above analysis is that teaching students technique without awakening their love for a subject is less effective pedagogy than engendering love and skimping on technique. A passionate professor who can rouse his students to wonder will develop students who are independently motivated to seek the truth. Like Romeo, having grasped the value of an end, the lover searches for means. Sharing the beauty of one's subject, therefore, will always be more important than accomplishing measurable 'learning objectives.'
Yet beauty cannot be grasped by a mundane mind. Such minds must be prepared by a course of study that encourages one's imagination to grasp the great analogy of being. One should study poetry, history, languages and literature along with the sciences, not only insofar as they prepare one for advanced coursework, but because they introduce the soul to its proper objects. Obviously, such a course of study should be undertaken prior to one's training in a profession or academic discipline.
The second thing to be learned is that students who have methods and means but no definite ends will either require extrinsic motivations to practice their discipline (money, power, or pleasure), or else will give it up. I think the first option most likely. A restless man with means but no ends will search for ends he can apply himself to, ends which will often be contrary to the ends of his craft, as Socrates once told Thrasymachus. Business will aim at personal profit rather than the material reproduction of society; art will titillate rather than edify; medicine will enhance rather than cure. Universities would do well to note that there are no natural limits to such desires, that unless they teach students to ask about the food that truly satisfies, the fare provided will fail to satisfy the human soul. "Be not thine own worm," George Herbert reminds us: to satisfy such desires, the soul must eat itself.
Joshua Schulz. "Faith, Wonder, and the Method." Front Porch Republic (January 30, 2013).
Reprinted with permission from the author, Joshua Schulz.
THE AUTHORJoshua Schulz is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at DeSales University. He holds a Bachelor's degree in English Literature and Philosophy from the University of Nebraska at Kearney and a Ph.D. in Philosophy from Marquette University. Among his publications are articles in the American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly and Essays in Philosophy. He serves as editor of The Maritain Notebook for the American Maritain Association. Dr. Schulz teaches Catholic sexual ethics in the marriage preparation program of the Diocese of Allentown and, along with his wife, also teaches courses in natural family planning through the Couple to Couple League. More of his writing is available at philosophystone.com.
Copyright © 2013 Joshua Schulz
Not all articles published on CERC are the objects of official Church teaching, but these are supplied to provide supplementary information.