Saturday, January 23, 2010

Being and not Being

I bought Peter Kreeft's Summa of the Summa for my daughter because she asked me for it. Since her mother is wont to throw any books my daughter has that appear to have any connection with orthodox Christianity in the garbage, I have been safekeeping the book at my place.

This morning I decided to read Kreeft's introduction, which I found to be excellent. Much like the kinds of comments that a good professor of Thomistic philosophy or theology would be making to students as they made their way through the arguments. For anyone really interested, I recommend simply reading the whole thing, which is rather brief to begin with, about 12 pages. On page 21 I came across this gem:

Why so many footnotes instead of longer, more general introductory essays for each section? (1) Because with St. Thomas general ideas are not adequate, though they are necessary; we need to understand him in specific detail; (2) because we need help understanding specific passages, which general introductions cannot supply; and (3) because this technique trains our minds, which all too often are accustomed to be satisfied with vague generalities, especially in philosophy and theology.
In other words, because we need the specifics, we need the specifics, and we need to avoid mere generalities! Excellent, excellent and excellent. Then he continues:

St. Thomas thought of philosophy and theology as sciences. As a philosophy teacher I repeatedly discover that science majors find St. Thomas easier (at least at first) than humanities majors (especially sociology, psychology, and communications majors).
This got me to wonder why that is. Or, to be less ingenuous, I have noticed a similar thing with respect to the level of discourse by Catholics on the Internet, and how little most voices have to offer! I mention "Catholics" because I am one, and because when I was growing up, there were far more men and women making specific, logical arguments about reality and society, than I seem to encounter these days, except in a few places.

I attribute it to the lack of formation given to most Catholics over recent decades. Unlike in my student days, when "theology majors" were rare except among those studying to be priests or religious, its seems that today, every other person who feels the need to write has a degree in Religious Studies or Theology. And most of what they say seems to have very little impact. The only group worse at communicating seem to be sociologists and communications majors!

I think it goes back to Hegel and Kant. Their deformative systems have a characteristic that is critical to this issue, and it comes right at the starting points of their "systems". (Kreeft points out in his introduction, by the way, that Thomism is systematic, but not a system.) It is easiest to see in the case of Hegel.

When Hegel speaks of "non being", he defines it as the negation of "being". In other words, non-being is an existent which merely contradicts being.

Let's try an example. "The ball is red; the ball is not red." Both propositions are about an existing thing, a ball. One asserts its color, the other denies its color. The color, an actual reality, is either red or not-red, but in both cases, it is colored. This is called univocal predication, and is the province of formal sciences, logic and its offshoot, mathematics. The question of existential predication does not come up.

Existential predication is about whether something is or is not, in actual point of fact, in reality. If Einstein asserts that Newtonian physics is fine, as long as we correct it slightly to account for special, and general relativity, he is saying that the universe is something like Newtonian physics says it is, but that the mathematics (the physical model) needs to be "corrected" in order to truly model reality, by those quantities that account for relativistic phenomena (which usually only manifest discernable differences at great distances or great velocities). Einstein is using reality to correct an existing model.

This is a statement about what is, and what is not. We are not given a choice between two ways of understanding the universe, relativistic and non-relativistic, which issue in some third understanding (the Hegelian dialectic), but a denial that the universe is really like simple Newtonian physics, and an assertion that the universe is actually Einsteinian.

An even simpler example. "the universe is large" vs. "the universe is not large" is at the level of formal predication; whereas "the universe is" vs. "the universe is not" is at the level of existential predication.

To get back to our religious topic, when Christ said "This is my body", he was not speaking as a Hegelian; he meant, "this bread" which you see, "is ontologically my body" (after the Blessing) which you do not see. Were he being purely "logical", He could only have said, "this is not my body", which was obvious to everybody within earshot, and would no more have needed saying, than it needed to be said that "this house is not my body".

I do not know how any Catholic, much less great Catholic theologians, can be anything but a realist. In fact, it must be that realism must be one of those curious things which the church has called "proxima fidei", because while not being strictly revealed, it is so close to a proper grasp of what is revealed, that it is a near "neighbor" of faith.

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