Volume > Issue > Briefly: February 2001

February 2001

The Wedge of Truth: Splitting the Foundations of Naturalism

By Phillip E. Johnson

Publisher: InterVarsity Press

Pages: 176

Price: $No price given.

Review Author: James E. Tynen

In The Wedge of Truth Johnson sends an urgent dispatch from the front lines of the culture wars. His “wedge of truth” is a set of facts and insights that are beginning to crack the brick wall of the modern mindset. The wedge threatens the dogma of Darwinism, but Johnson makes it clear that the wedge’s ultimate target is the naturalism embedded in so much of modern thought.

Johnson is a law professor at the University of California at Berkeley, and author of several books on Darwinism and related subjects. He gladly includes himself as one of the ringleaders of a group of intellectuals and researchers who are forging that wedge. Johnson says that these combative thinkers are embarrassing Darwinists by showing that natural selection cannot cause the development of species.

These wedge-thinkers are the nucleus of the “Intelligent Design” movement, a group of open-minded thinkers who base their opposition to Darwinism on science itself, rather than a “literal” reading of the Bible.

Darwinism is a big brick in the wall of modernist thought, and that is why certain scientists and their popularizers, who laud open-mindedness and skepticism, are so close-minded about natural selection and react so violently to any skepticism expressed about Darwinism.

But, Johnson writes, Darwinism is so fatally flawed that, like the Soviet Union, it could fall apart at any moment. Perhaps Johnson’s most important point is that we are reaching a crisis in the culture wars: Darwinism cannot be defended on rational and scientific grounds, so its defenders must smear anyone who questions it. And this is not merely an ivory-tower quarrel: Johnson says that Darwinism ultimately leads to a belief that “nobody has a right to life.” Yes, the quarrel is that serious.

Moreover, the issues raised in this book are quite relevant to the debate over the Catholic identity of Catholic colleges and universities. If Johnson is right, there is an urgent need for Catholic intellectuals who can think outside the box of conventional, secularizing thought and support the “wedge of truth” at this crucial time. It would be a shame if Catholic institutions of higher learning fail to produce such thinkers when they are needed most.

Those who would like a quick introduction to the “Intelligent Design” debate will find The Wedge of Truth a great place to start. The writing is clear, concise, and readable, without condescending to the reader. Those familiar with the debate may want to check it out as an excellent update. Readers concerned about the drift of today’s prevailing culture should read it to learn more about the most ominous trends — and the most hopeful.

Dependent Rational Animals: Why Human Beings Need the Virtues

By Alasdair MacIntyre

Publisher: Open Court

Pages: 172

Price: $19

Review Author: Christopher Kaczor

Alasdair MacIntyre of the University of Notre Dame, author of numerous books and articles including the groundbreaking After Virtue, is arguably today’s most distinguished moral philosopher. Not only creativity and breadth of vision distinguish MacIntyre from his colleagues but also the integration of sociological, historical, philosophical, and religious considerations into a coherent whole.

His claim to originality is strengthened by his recent book Dependent Rational Animals, which addresses issues that contemporary analytic philosophers have largely ignored, such as parenting, weakness, vulnerability, and interdependence. Although some feminist philosophers have addressed these issues, MacIntyre does so within the context of the findings of biologists, zoologists, and a newly “biological” Aristotelian ethic. He connects the discussion in Dependent Rational Animals with his previous efforts in After Virtue and Three Rival Versions of Moral Inquiry, noting continuity and discontinuity with these works.

An important shift for MacIntyre is the acknowledgement of the role of biology for ethics: “Although there is indeed good reason to repudiate important elements in Aristotle’s biology, I now judge that I was in error in supposing an ethics independent of biology to be possible — and I am grateful to those critics who argued this case against me — and for this for two…reasons. The first is that no account of the goods, rules, and virtues that are definitive of our moral life can be adequate that does not explain…. our initial animal condition. Secondly a failure to understand that condition…will obscure crucial features” of human development. MacIntyre thus offers an important alternative to the Grisez-Finnis-Boyle ethical project that divides “is” statements from “ought” statements. Although MacIntyre touches upon the issue of the relationship of evaluative to factual judgment, I hope he can offer us a more extended treatment of the issue in the future.

MacIntyre spends a great deal of time addressing the similarities and differences between the rationality of man and other animals. He emphasizes what other philosophers have typically down-played, ignored, or treated only briefly: that human beings are rational animals. Those philosophers have tended to emphasize the rational aspect of man to the neglect of the animality that makes man so dependent on so many people throughout the course of life. This, in turn, led to a conceptualization of the good life that failed to account for the fullness of reality, which for human beings includes dependency. The evidence given by experts studying bottle-nosed dolphins and other large-brained animals led MacIntyre to question the contemporary philosophic consensus that nonhuman animals do not have beliefs. Much of the early part of this volume is committed to explaining the inadequacies of, and narrow field of examples used by, previous philosophers when talking about nonhuman animals, leading them to exaggerate the differences between human and nonhuman animals.

In addition to theoretical concerns, MacIntyre’s work has a great deal of import for everyday ethics. He notes, for instance, that discussions of end-of-life treatment characteristically presuppose that the disabled person is just receiving care and the caregiver is receiving nothing in return. Far from being “useless,” MacIntyre suggests that the needy and dependent can teach the healthy and less dependent important lessons. Persons who are severely disabled, such as those in a persistent vegetative state, teach us what it’s like to have another person’s well-being completely in our hands, which helps us understand how much we owe those who cared for us when we were similarly vulnerable as infants. MacIntyre suggests that an index of how well a community is flourishing is how it treats those “least capable of independent practical reasoning, the very young and the very old, the sick, the injured, and the otherwise disabled….” Communal and individual flourishing can only take place in the context of an affirmation of the dignity of each human being, even the most disabled. The virtue of acknowledging dependence is a necessary element of human flourishing.

MacIntyre also touches on other central issues of human life almost entirely ignored by contemporary philosophers, such as teaching, coaching, and parenting. What makes a good parent, and what must a child learn to become a more independent practical reasoner? Good parenting involves educating not just the intellect but also the passions and desires. Without such character education, the intellect will fall into error. Bad parenting is typically a moral — not merely an intellectual — failing.

For MacIntyre, ethics touches our everyday lives. In a sense, one might say that the target of MacIntyre’s book is the culture of death, where one’s value is determined by one’s productivity, rationality, or market value. I wish that MacIntyre had made a critique of abortion, which seems implicit in the book. If our worth does not hinge on our present exercise of rationality, the unborn should not be stripped of their dignity.

The Silence of St. Thomas

By Josef Pieper

Publisher: St. Augustine's Press

Pages: 122

Price: $11

Review Author: David Vincent Meconi

The Catholic mind is unique in its ability to treat silence and festivity simultaneously. Only a deep appreciation of both the inexhaustibility and unmistakable goodness of the created order can elicit both repose and revelry. The German philosopher, Josef Pieper (1904-1997), saw this connection more clearly than most: God’s creation bespeaks both His mystery and His joy. Best known for his classic, Leisure: The Basis of Culture (St. Augustine’s Press, 1998), many of Pieper’s shorter essays have unfortunately remained unread in the English-speaking world. We are thus greatly indebted to St. Augustine’s Press for translating and reprinting many of the works of one of this century’s great Thomistic thinkers.

The Silence of St. Thomas is a collection of three essays Pieper wrote between 1940 and 1953. The first, a brief biography of the life of St. Thomas, includes an excellent analysis of the philosophical debates and the newly discovered Aristotle of the 13th century. As the title suggests, Pieper focuses on Thomas’s appreciation of the indispensable role of stillness before God. Worried that scholars have made too much of Thomism’s rationalism, Pieper stresses the asceticism of Aquinas’s assent and shows that his lifelong search for God brought him to a via neagativa, a Mystery that left him silent.

The second essay analyzes this silence and the recognition that “man, in his philosophical inquiry, is faced again and again with the experience that reality is unfathomable and Being is a mystery — an experience, it is true, which urges him not so much to communication as to silence.” But St. Thomas is no modern skeptic; he never denies that absolute truth is ascertainable, for it is only in his encounter with creation that man comes to see both what is as well as the unfathomableness of what God has made. Or, as Pieper says, “Only when a man comes into visual contact with light does he realize that the sun’s brightness altogether transcends his power of vision.” This learned ignorance is a key part of Thomas’s theology; it fuels his understanding of the virtue of hope.

The timelessness of Thomism is the subject of the third essay. By timelessness is meant the ability of St. Thomas to be open to and thus converse with the whole history of thought, and Pieper shows that the philosophia perennis supports many of modern philosophy’s insights but also stands as the corrective to many of its errors.

In In Tune with the World (1963), Pieper studies the nature of celebration and asks an essential but overlooked question, one which every undergraduate in America should be forced to answer: What does one mean by festivity? Pieper rightly points out that celebration is never an absolute; celebration must always have a reason. He of course does not want to deny the intrinsic joyousness of festivity, but the question nonetheless remains: In what does one rejoice, why does one dance? We celebrate when we anticipate or possess that which we love, and, therefore, festivity is rooted in the affirmation of the goodness of what is. “There can be no festivity when man, imagining himself self-sufficient, refuses to recognize that Goodness of things which goes far beyond any conceivable utility; it is the Goodness of reality taken as a whole which validates all other particular goods.” In this way, shows Pieper, there can indeed be worldly, but never merely profane, celebration. The reason one rejoices is hence an “expectant awareness” of the good one has and the good still to come, best exemplified in the Christian’s celebration of Easter and every Sunday thereafter. In an age when most cannot answer why they “party,” Pieper’s work reminds us that, in the words of St. John Chrysostom, only where love rejoices can there be true festivity.

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