Is There a Way Back to Undeniable Reality and Universally Binding Norms?

thomas-aquinasIt is easy to suppose that we think and understand the world in substantially the same way that those who lived in the biblical age did. But in important ways this is not so.

We today tend to “live in our heads” a lot more than did the people living in biblical times and even those who lived up to and including the High Middle Ages and the Scholastic Period. Prior to that time, the “real world” was taken to be largely self-evident. By “real world” I mean not just the physical world but also to a significant degree the metaphysical (literally, “beyond the physical”) world.

For the ancients, the metaphysical world included non-physical (but still real) things such as justice, mercy, love, desire, and truth. It also included the characteristics or qualities by which we group and understand reality (e.g., “green-ness,” or “tree-ness”); these are often called “universals.” There were also more technical categories into which things were grouped such as those of biology: kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, and species. Other disciplines employed similar categorizations that, while metaphysical, were considered to be real and reliable ways of explaining the world.

In the 13th and 14th centuries, a school of thought later called “nominalism” began the move away from this sort of thinking. It proposed that universals did not exist at all but were instead merely constructs of the human mind.

But if these things were merely constructs of the human mind and not somehow rooted in reality, then these man-made constructs could be “un-made.” Thus began the journey away from the “real world,” which led to less and less confidence in our ability to even posit a “real world” out there to which we could refer and take as a given.

Less than 300 years later, Rene Descartes was so despairing that anything definitively existed outside himself that he could only say, “I think therefore I am.” Beyond himself as a thinking and doubting agent, all bets were off. Was there actually anything reliably and objectively real outside his own mind? He couldn’t be sure. What was real and what was merely a construct? Who could say for sure? Such skepticism (which is largely useless for daily life) took a long time to reach the masses of people outside the universities, but today it has. We currently live in a post-nominalist, post-Cartesian, post-Kantian world, deeply infected by Nietzsche’s nihilism.

Yes, welcome to the modern age, in which “reality” is increasingly up for negotiation. Relativism and skepticism reign supreme and we can “rationalize” just about anything in our own little world of one. Everything is just an opinion; something can be true for you but not for me. And we actually congratulate ourselves (as “tolerant” and “open-minded”) for spouting these logical absurdities!

Even we who strive to be faithful Catholics are often imbued with nominalist thinking that often rears its head in casuistry, aspects of “manual theology,” and rationalist thinking and tortured legalism. There is no time here to explain the problematic qualities of these except to say that they amount to an overreaction and seek to solve the problem inside the deeply flawed system they critique. It tends to amount to little more than lipstick on a pig.

How do we find our way back out of the flawed intellectual system to which we are heir? It seems a little like asking an amnesiac to find his own way home.

One way to begin is to realize that human nature has not changed, even if our intellects have suffered. As a moral theologian and pastor, I have found it helpful (in recovering some moral sensibility and common ground) to speak to the universal human longings and inclinations we all share. These are longings and inclinations so basic that they almost go unremarked upon. They are so basic as to be practically undeniable.

St. Thomas Aquinas (drawing from Aristotle) lists five fundamental human inclinations and shows how they form the basis of (morally) good decision making. St. Thomas (and certainly Aristotle) lived before the nominalist divide cast doubts on our ability to know and contact reality as reality. He lived in a time in which people were more confident in their ability to seek the truth, find it, and conform to it. Thus St. Thomas could propose a moral system based on virtue and our common inclination to the good, the true, and the beautiful, rather than rooted in laws and mandates to be obeyed for fear of reprisal. Though sober about human sinfulness, St. Thomas could still confidently appeal (in his pre-nominalist world) to this shared propensity to make progress out of sin through virtue.

So we amnesiacs do well to look to these inclinations that St. Thomas confidently asserts and recognize how universally they still apply today: from the atheist to the most firm believer, from the worst sinner to the most blessed saint. I will list them in today’s post and develop them further tomorrow.

  1. The natural inclination to what we see as good
  2. The natural inclination to self-preservation
  3. The natural inclination to the knowledge of the truth
  4. The natural inclination to sexual intimacy and the rearing of offspring
  5. The natural inclination to live in society

I realize that in simply listing them here, I may cause many questions and/or doubts to arise in your minds. I will attempt to address these in tomorrow’s post.

Now just because we have an inclination doesn’t mean that we always get it right. While we all share a longing for what we see as good, it does not follow that every apparent good we seek is an actual good. What is evident, however, is that everyone naturally reaches for what he thinks (even if erroneously) is good and not for what he sees as disgusting, loathsome, or harmful. Our natural inclination to the good is not always correct in its aim, but the inclination itself is so universal that it cannot be denied.

This universal inclination is a way out of the individualism, skepticism, and “living in our heads” that is so common today. It is a way back to the universals that must form the basis for recapturing a reality that binds and instructs us all.

I’ll provide more on the particulars tomorrow if you’re brave enough to come back for more!

Disclaimer – I realize that for trained philosophers my layman’s summary of 700 years of intellectual and philosophical trends may cause concern, and it may incite a desire to provide more information and/or to expound upon distinctions I’ve failed to make in this essay. But please remember that I write as a pastor for a general audience, not as a professor addressing graduate students. I want to point to the forest and not get lost in the details of the thousands of trees. At some point too many details obscure the message. Much more can and should be said on the subject (You may say that brevis esse laboro, obscurus fio (when I labor to be brief, I become obscure.)). So please forgive my broad summary. And if you’re still not satisfied, then please write a “readable” book (of fewer than 1000 pages) with the details. 😉

5 Replies to “Is There a Way Back to Undeniable Reality and Universally Binding Norms?”

  1. I am, therefore I think. And eat. And read. And laugh. And….

    That’s the best way to get out of your head, I’ve found.

    1. You’re right Greg. I simple reversal of Descartes’ word order solves all of our problems. No need for thousand page books. 😉

      “Repleti sumus mane misericordia tua et exultavimus et delectati sumus in omnibus diebus nostris.

  2. Back in college when I was taking philosophy, I listened to this “nominalism” idea with bemusement, because (as I pointed out to more than one teaching assistant and professor, who concluded I was unintelligent for saying it) it sure is funny that one talks of the non-reality of things in the same moment they avoid burning their tongue on a cup of hot coffee. (If nothing is real, if there are no real objects outside of ourselves, and all is in one’s mind, then simply changing one’s mind about whether the coffee is hot should prevent the burn, no?)

    I do understand the insight that our perceptions happen in our head via our organs (eyes, ears, nose, taste, touch: in our brains), but to go from that to the idea that there is no concrete reality outside of our heads doesn’t really bear out for the blind man who steps off a curb into traffic.

    I look forward to your further thoughts on this problem.

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