And thus Mr. Dennett's work has something deeply in common with Mr. Gunton's. The nature of human consciousness, the nature of rationality, the nature of the self, the problem of meaning, and the problem of totalitarianism - key problems of the age - do seem bound up with the mystery of the Trinity, Creation, Original Sin, the Incarnation, human freedom, and our Redemption.
At the conclusion of Darwin's Dangerous Idea, a highly speculative discussion that nevertheless may end up being right in important respects, and one that is rooted in his profound grasp of current evolutionary theory, results in many areas of cognitive science, and some current and historical philosophical inquiry, Mr. Dennett ends up suggesting that the task of preserving traditional religions in the modern world may be comparable to the task of preserving otherwise-inviable species of animals in zoos, and claims that he has articulated a more sophisticated pantheism that is the rational alternative to irrational religion. [p. 519-20] But this is an example, not of why orthodox Catholic scholars should dismiss the modern world, but why that world needs engaging and healing.
No doubt Mr. Dennett's concluding remarks will strike orthodox Catholics as in need of healing, but they also require engaging, and not only because other moderns might tend to agree with Mr. Dennett. For Mr. Dennett understands his project as an attack on traditional ideas - religious or not - about human being, human consciousness, and meaning. In other words, he does not attack Catholicism, or even religion, except in the course of demolishing many widely-held traditional and philosophical ideas about those matters. Mr. Dennett's book is about those ideas, not about religion per se.
After outlining a case for "strong" evolution as a consistent principle that applies no less consistently to human beings than to any other creature, Mr. Dennett's reasoning appears to go something like this: if traditional conceptions about human being, human consciousness, and meaning are defeated by "strong" evolution (and they may in fact be unsustainable), then Catholicism (all religion) must fall also (Mr. Dennett does appear to take this case also as established, seemingly as a mere by-product of his larger effort), and so, (he continues) here is my one-page preliminary suggestion toward a rationally-sustainable substitute for traditional religion.
But Catholicism itself, more specifically, Christ himself with his Bride, the Church, is of course the only fundamental answer to all difficulties. Father Donald J. Keefe SJ's Covenantal Theology [Keefe DJ (1996). Covenantal theology: the eucharistic order of history. Revised edition (2 vols. in one, with Appendix). Novato, California: Presidio Press.] already answers both Mr. Gunton and Mr. Dennett from within the Catholic context. What Mr. Gunton calls "created rationality" versus the "divine reason" of the tradition, Fr. Keefe terms the "radical historicity" that has always been the center of Catholicism versus the "cosmological" context that has been the referent of nearly all Western theology and therefore of much of Western activity since Parmenides.
Indeed, Fr. Keefe, simply by taking orthodox Catholicism seriously, has a much clearer understanding of the same issues that Mr. Gunton, a Protestant discovering them in the just complaints of the modern world against Christendom, sees as through a glass, darkly. One way this is evident is in Mr. Gunton's apparent belief that locating freedom in the will is unexceptionable, but the consequences of doing so are troubling. Thus Mr. Gunton naturally talks as if the root problem were the problem of certainty as the problem of authority as the problem of totalitarianism: how does one maintain human dignity in the face of a presumed Christian duty to submit oneself to "a set of propositions to be imposed upon a passive 'faith'." [Keefe p. 228] But this conundrum arose only after "the 'authority of God revealing himself' began to be understood as the authority of a command directed to obedience, not the authority of truth directed to understanding." [ibid. p. 228]
Like Zeno's paradox, the irresolvable difficulty is a consequence of the deficiencies of the entire historical conceptual framework within which the supposedly "reasonable" question is posed. This Mr. Gunton understands, as did the classical thinkers who posed Zeno's paradox, but like them, he is not quite certain what needs to be reconceived. His diagnosis of the problem is far more powerful than his tentative solutions. Fr. Keefe's powerful answer to the same difficulty is that theology needs not so much to be reconceived as to be converted or more solidly converted to the radical historicity of God's revelation in Jesus that has always been proclaimed in the Church's Eucharistic and otherwise sacramental practice and in its declarations of faith.
Jesus Christ's life, death, and resurrection is a free act, one not determined by or made necessary by a prior cosmology outside of history, but one instead radically historical, a pure gift of the Triune God, a gift ever present in the Eucharist, that once and for all redeems the world by establishing the New Covenant. The blunt historical this-ness of this pure gift of love, and its perpetual presence in the Eucharist, is fundamental. There is no dehistoricized "place" outside of or beyond that one which conditions or interprets it.
Thus a radically historical reality is inevitably a Catholic reality is inevitably a sacramental reality centered in the Eucharist. This Real Presence is the lynch pin of the real, the font of all meaning, because the Eucharistic Event creates all that is real, and without that Event, which is simultaneously the Good Creation of the whole world and the superabundant sacrificial gift of the Redeemer, no-thing, no-meaning, would be. The blunt historicity of the Triune God's saving act will always require an equally blunt historical response: either the sacramental lived worship of faith, or rejection of everything that is real, and men are at all historical times completely free to choose either.
But Mr. Daniel Dennett's project [in Dennett 1995] to establish a thoroughgoing "strong" evolution for human being and for meaning is exactly to demolish a dehistoricized cosmological context and to argue for radical historicity. He believes that the success of his project renders meaningless not only religion, notably Christianity, but a characteristic impulse that has been a living temptation perhaps since time immemorial. This is why he proposes a pantheism: we clearly need something, but something historical.
It is very important to notice that Mr. Dennett, by arduously endeavoring to combine his extensive grasp of current cognitive science and his professional (if thoroughly modern) grasp of philosophy with a consistent appeal to a "strong" conception of evolution, demolishes the cosmological impulse not merely in "religious" thought but everywhere, and spends far more time demolishing it within secular modern thought, not excluding dehistoricized cosmological manifestations within the argument of prominent current evolutionary theorists. In every case Mr. Dennett argues that it is unnecessary, and intellectually and scientifically dishonest, if very, very tempting, to appeal (using Fr. Keefe's terminology) to a dehistoricized cosmology (what Mr. Dennett calls a "skyhook") in order to argue for the existence of meaning in the cosmos.
In other words, in this he ends up at exactly the same place as Fr. Keefe. The real message of the best science of our day regarding evolution then, is not that a "strong" theory of evolution is incompatible with Catholicism but that it is incompatible with "divine reason," explanation by appeal to a dehistoricized cosmological context that conditions or necessitates history, which, though such appeal is a feature of nearly all Western theologizing since its origins, always was and always will be incompatible with Catholicism. All possible "skyhooks" are incompatible with Catholic Revelation - even when those skyhooks are employed by St. Augustine or St. Thomas.
Mr. Dennett demolishes the possibility of skyhooks, and thinks he has demolished Christianity. Fr. Keefe (if I read him accurately) might reply, you have instead demolished everything (within Catholic theologizing as much as anywhere else) that Christianity is not. Thus, as seen through the light of faith, a radically historical "strong" evolution is incompatible with virtually everything except Catholicism. From its very origins, in all that makes it Church, (that is, in sacrament and dogma, though infrequently in its contingent theologizing), the Church has been an unvarying witness to the reality that the meaning of the world is radically historical.
"Strong" evolution perhaps demolishes sola fide and sola scriptura and Deus unus and a great many other things, including the idea of an "objective" rationality available by "stepping outside" all historical context, but it does not demolish Catholic dogma founded in the Church's sacramental and preeminently its Eucharistic practice. The root fact (or rather, the root act) of really real history is: Jesus Christ is Lord. The sole alternative to a free confession of that, a confession which is the completely free historical choice to live sacramentally and therefore historically in Christ, as Fr. Keefe so pointedly makes us aware, is exactly the nihil, a nihil that very much includes the cheerful liberal pantheism of Mr. Dennett.
And so the central question of life remains, "But who do you say that I am?" [Mark 8:29 RSV] And one is tempted to appeal to St. Thomas's notion of synderesis to understand, given the Redeemed and Good Creation brought into being in Christ (but as Fr. Keefe notes over and over, contra most school Thomists, not otherwise "naturally" available), just how close a brave and resourceful thinker such as Mr. Dennett can get to the Truth, without human freedom ever being in the slightest jeopardized.
Thus cognitive science, the science that studies the human mind (as its current premiere project), is a physical science. It does not study only the human brain, nor only "those parts" of the human mind that are physical, for within any such delimitation a skyhook is appealed to. And, according to Mr. Dennett, science not only asserts but already provides powerful evidence for it to continue to assert that there will never be any need for a skyhook to study anything, even the human mind, nor, according to my reading of Fr. Keefe, does Catholic Revelation disagree with this.
Therefore, it should be said clearly: the human mind is not a metaphysical reality. It is a creature, and like all creatures it is created "in Christ;" that is, just like the rest of the Good Creation, it has its saving meaning only in Christ. Cognitive science is a physical science. It is no less such than physics itself. But it is only when one confuses Catholic Revelation with what it emphatically is not, a dehistoricized cosmology, that this represents any problem whatever to Catholics. It may be a long time before most Catholics readily grasp that, contra St. Thomas himself, man's "intellection" is a completely physical activity, and that this in no way undercuts Catholicism, because Christianity, at least in its fullness; that is, within Catholicism, is radically historical. Nevertheless.
Here is a 'doctrine' for you: there are no qualia (for a definition, see just below). All possible qualia are skyhooks. All possible skyhooks are not only unnecessary to both science and Catholic Revelation, they are incompatible with both. This purported dogma is hardly a truth of the Faith, nor is it science. But both Fr. Keefe and Mr. Dennett, in their separate ways, demonstrate that this "doctrine" is at least as compatible with both Catholicism and science as the contrary, and equally doctrinaire, contentions.
One of Mr. Dennett's major projects [in both Consciousness Explained and Darwin's Dangerous Idea] can be seen as an effort to reduce all words like qualia (supposedly, properties as they are experienced as distinct from any source they might have in a physical object - all qualia are obvious skyhooks) to the status now reserved to words like phlogiston and aether: while perhaps helpful for a time, they now actively interfere with scientific inquiry. In opposition, for example, to the arguments of Mr. John Searle [Searle J (1992). The rediscovery of the mind. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.] Mr. Dennett demonstrates that whenever the word qualia is related to human consciousness, its meaning always seems to get confused and obscure, and (the key move) inevitably turns out to be unnecessary to a grasp of the topic.
In other words, qualia as a term related to human consciousness appears to have no definition, just as phlogiston has no definition, except with reference to a theory of physical reality and of fire specifically that is now understood to be incoherent and inadequate. So "phlogiston" now has a definition only in the sense that "square circle" has a definition, and Mr. Dennett does much to put words such as "qualia" in the same category. If the "ineffable" nature of human consciousness (from which presumably may be derived the inherent dignity of human consciousness - a heresy in itself, since the dignity of human consciousness is not necessitated by any immanent dehistoricized quality in it but rather it receives its dignity, fully within history, as completely free gift in Christ) depends on the existence of qualia, then the ineffability of human consciousness appears to depend on incoherence. It would appear, on preliminary analysis, that skyhooks represented by words like qualia are not only scientifically incoherent, but are invoked in order to preserve a heretical place for human dignity.
But the point is not that Catholic Revelation has an opinion on qualia, but that Catholic Revelation does not require Catholics to believe a skyhooker like Mr. Searle, nor a skyhooker like any creationist, and certainly not a skyhooker like that crypto-totalitarian dehistoricized pantheist "evolutionist," Fr. Teilhard de Chardin, because, whatever any natural science may posit or not posit about the object of its own inquiry, Catholicism is radically historical, and asserts that all meaning is in Christ and is therefore radically historical.
Indeed, Fr. Keefe's entire two-volume work could be read as a kind of proof text for why both science and postmodernism had to have flourished in the West first: because Catholicism is radically historical. Most postmodernism, rejecting Christ yet understanding the radical historicity of meaning, rather evidently asserts the nihil. And most scientists trivialize the postmodern critique of science, not only because most postmodernism asserts the nihil so plainly, which makes postmodernism seem just silly to them, but because they do not yet understand how fundamentally what they do (rather than what they may say about what they do) relies on the radical historicity of meaning.
In fact Fr. Keefe says explicitly that the inexhaustible knowability of things, and thus the inherent inexhaustibility of the physical sciences, is a consequence of the essential freedom of the Good Creation, the radical historicity of meaning, which is the source of genuine surprise. The Theory of Everything is the half-humorous, half-serious name for one of physics's current projects, but a real Theory of Everything; that is, making Everything dependent on a theory dehistoricized from that Everything, is completely anti-scientific as well as impossible, because it eliminates from the world its capacity to surprise, its free meaning, its radical historicity.
So the inexhaustible knowability of the Good Creation in Christ; that is, its radical intelligibility, is a function of its radical historicity in Christ. Thus Fr. Stanley Jaki's [Jaki SL (1978). The road of science and the ways to God. Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press.] memorable observation that science was "stillborn" in every culture except the Christian West takes on even greater salience. Not only Greek, but also, for example, all Great Wheel cultures, are ultimately pessimistic about history and seek meaning in a dehistoricized cosmology. [Keefe]
This fundamental pessimism about history was a brute fact everywhere except the West, a pessimism from which in some cultures may have flowed not just a pessimism about the radical intelligibility of the cosmos but more practically a kind of inability to conceive or indifference to the whole idea of understanding the cosmos by following the facts wherever they might lead; the cosmos, being necessitated by a dehistoricized cosmology, was because of that not all that interesting. Thus built into the idea of science in the West was not just the intelligibility of history but its free meaning, its ability to surprise.
Only in the Christian West, as a matter of historical fact, did it become possible to conceive of meaning as a surprise from history, to conceive of history as a potential overturning of dehistoricized cosmological necessity instead of as a mere support of it or emanation from it, and thus it became possible to conceive of science as a project, as a sustained (because sustainable) human enterprise. And so the pessimism about the radical intelligibility of the physical and historical world that was simple reality everywhere else, perhaps making even the idea of science (indeed, the idea of a great many other things) an unthinkable thought there, given the radically historical daily presence of the Eucharist, was a pessimism that was only a steady temptation in the West.
But the consequences of this reveal both the stark need for the Sacrifice of Christ perpetually offered in the Eucharist, and for man's continued participation in it. For if the meaning of the world is radically historical, then, absent Christ, the radical intelligibility of the world, and thus the possibility of real historical increases in our ability to understand it, depends on it not being fallen; in other words, on pantheism.
Catholic apologists have identified various intellectual weaknesses in pantheism. One could also take apologetic advantage of the example provided by the founder of radically historical scientific pantheism. [Dennett 1995] For what is the solution to the problem posed by those who do not agree that the victor in the current struggle ought to be the Emergent Liberal Scientific Moral Consensus (with Mr. John Rawls, according to Mr. Dennett, its most profound current articulator)? Why zoos, of course. As a first step.
However, apologetic arguments divorced from proclamation of the Faith are inherently defective. The Catholic claim is that the fact of the matter is that Man Fell, and that any rationality worthy of the name must begin there. All pantheisms will inevitably be found to be rationally defective, because none face the facts.
At root pantheism must rely on the idea that, however far man himself falls, the cosmos will always catch him, and correct him. This is the scientific faith at its root, but the moral uncertainty within history reveals to the believer that, although the secular scientist's faith is eminently sustainable, it has the wrong object. Whatever its superficial or even its scientific sophistication, as seen through the eyes of faith pantheism has an inherent goofiness about it, a whiff of Dr. Pangloss in every pantheism, for if it is not in Christ, the cosmos has no loving arms.
But for Catholics, man's fall is free, with the pun at the center of the dogma. Man's primordial Fall was a moral act, a free human choice, and it was a "free fall," the nightmare of falling without end and never waking up. The universe will not catch man's fall and correct him, and there is no "skyhook" he can thrust up that will rescue him either. Man's fall is always completely free, in both senses, until time itself ends.
And much postmodernism, on the other hand, sees the radical historicity of the meaning of the world, in essence accepts the Fall, but rejects Christ, and thence sees the perpetual mutual free fall of all men, with the concomitant loss of the radical intelligibility of the cosmos, as a kind of swirling and temporary coalescing, the condition of the souls in one circle of Dante's Hell, now re-identified, not exactly as Paradise, but at least as the Really Real. Thus radically historical science that rejects Christ leads to pantheism, and radically historical postmodernism that rejects Christ leads where it leads, and who can say which resultant circle in Hell is the deeper?
Ironically all this reveals that both science and postmodernism, and in their purest forms (that is, their most brazen and unapologetic forms, but unsullied by any rejection of Christ), far from being enemies of the Church, or at best strangers to her upon whom she must keep a wary eye, are not only the Church's own dear children as a matter of historical fact, but are also children who may well serve as the Church's best friends in her mission to evangelize the modern world. For the meaning of the Good Creation in Christ, as both the Church's sacramental practice and her proclamation of Faith has attested from the beginning, is radically historical.
It thus becomes obvious that the real Culture War, which (unlike the one presumed to be going on) is being fought in large part prior to evangelization rather than as a genuine rejection of it and is world-wide rather than one between modern men in the West and the Church, is between those who assert that meaning is dependent on (some) dehistoricized cosmology and those who assert that meaning is free, radically historical.
In this real War it is also obvious that very few combatants, and very few allies, have as yet been properly identified, even by themselves. When both science and postmodernism insist that the sacred, whatever it is, is completely unavailable within any dehistoricized cosmology, and is only available within a context that is radically historical, Catholics should wholeheartedly agree with them, for in the end both science and postmodernism learned this truth from the Church herself, who in her sacramental practice and in her proclamation of Faith has taught this from the day blood and water flowed out of Christ's side.
Many Christians, including many orthodox Catholics, wander about on the wrong side of the conflict, if only in what they say, rather than what they do. Nevertheless, the conflict exists, and the modern world has brought it to a head only because Christendom itself has passed on an un-Christian weakness for skyhooks that it inherited from the Greeks. Further, victory in this War will not bring any man to Christ, but will only allow Christ to ask him his question more plainly: "But who do you say that I am?" [Mark 8:29 RSV]
Thus, given the reality of human freedom, Catholics may not propose that greater understanding of the conflict will of itself be saving for anyone, nor may Catholics rule out the possibility of some saved and some damned choosing to change places upon understanding the rivalry better. But clarifying the nature of this genuine War and which side Catholics must take in it may provide believers with renewed hope of bringing the Light of Christ to the modern world, not only to scientists, postmodernists, our dissenting "modern" Catholic brethren, and to all others, but also to ourselves, so that the whole world can more plainly see not only just what is at stake, but also the staggering enormity of the radically historical Surprise that is the font, among many other things, of all the other good surprises and therefore of the inexhaustible intelligibility of the Good Creation: the utterly free, completely unconditioned, and bluntly gratuitous gift of the Father sending the Son to give the Spirit, establishing the New Covenant in the Redeemer's Sacrificial Offering ever-present within history in the Eucharist, the Eucharist that daily creates, redeems, and sustains the Church, the Bride of Christ her Head.
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