Voluntarism, a Critical Error of Our Times

Part of the reason for the mess we’re in today is a philosophy called voluntarism. Some mistake this word for volunteerism, which refers to the use of volunteers or the willingness to be a volunteer, offering one’s services in some capacity without compensation. Voluntarism is something quite different and is of the darkness.

Voluntarism is the view that the will overrules the intellect and that truth is something asserted or willed rather than discovered by the intellect and proposed to the will for obedience. Voluntarism holds that something is true because one says it is so.

Among the more extreme examples of this today is transgenderism. Although one’s sex is easily determined, most often by sight, some feel free to dismiss this evidence and simply assert that they are something else. If a man states that he is in fact female (or one of some fifty other designations) it is said to be true simply because he asserts it—and all are expected to overlook the obvious evidence to the contrary. Thus, something is true by the mere assertion of the will; something is true because one wants it to be or because one says it is.

Another less radical but more common example of voluntarism is shown in the dismissive comment “Well, that may be true for you, but it isn’t true for me.” This is subjectivism in that the determination of truth moves from the object to the subject. This philosophy holds that there is no objective truth; things are not true in themselves but rather because someone (a subject) says they are. Thus, subjectivism and voluntarism are strongly connected.

Voluntarism did not arise out of nowhere. Like many heresies and errors, it comes from a selective emphasis on one truth to the exclusion of others. The cycle of erroneous action followed by overreaction has led to today’s situation in which some people live isolated in their minds, insulated from the created world that manifests the truth of God. Bishop Robert Barron notes,

The roots of this perspective are old and tangled, stretching back at least to the Middles Ages. In that period, certain philosophers emerged, most notably John Duns Scotus and William of Ockham, who argued for a maximalist understanding of God’s power. God’s free will determines, they maintained, the nature of reality in all of its dimensions…. [Even] ethical principles are valid because God says so (Arguing Religion, pp. 38-39).

Prior to this, theologians up to and including St. Thomas Aquinas held that God commands something because it is good. It is not good merely because God commands it. In this view, there are things that God, even though omnipotent, cannot do: He cannot do evil, cannot lie, cannot sin. This is because evil of any sort is a privation, a lack of something that should be present. God cannot sin because in doing so He would deny his very self; He would no longer be perfect and thus no longer omnipotent. It is a kind of linguistic fallacy to say that because God is omnipotent, He can do absolutely anything. The All-Holy One cannot will or do that which is unholy and yet remain All-Holy. He who is the Truth cannot lie and yet still be the Truth. The All-Perfect One cannot will or do that which is imperfect and yet remain All-Perfect. Thus, God’s perfect power (His omnipotence) exists in His being perfect God without privation of any sort.

Scotus, Ockham, and others, in seeking to emphasize God’s power, so exaggerated it that they distorted His very nature. They asserted that God can will whatever He wants, and the mere willing of it makes it good rather than that it is intrinsically good. In this view, right actions are right simply because God approves of them, and wrong actions are wrong merely because God disapproves of them. This is theological voluntarism. In it, God’s reason is largely eclipsed by His will. In effect, His will is arbitrary because His mind and His reasons for commanding something do not matter; all that matters is that He wills it. This is an attractive idea if you want to highlight God’s power, but I would argue that doing so overshadows God’s goodness and reasonableness. Something is not good because God commands it; He commands it because it is good. He commands reasonably; He commands what is intrinsically good and what is best for us.

Theological voluntarism had long held sway among Muslims, but in the 16th century it began to spread among Christians, mainly Protestants. It appealed to those who held to the sola scriptura premise; they were less interested in arguments from creation or natural law—it was enough that God had said something and that it was in the Bible. Who needed to demonstrate the reasonableness and goodness of what God commanded? Or so the thinking of theological voluntarism went.

How did theological voluntarism become the human voluntarism we know today? Bishop Robert Barron details the process well:

As is often the case in the history of ideas, a strong position tends to awaken an equally strong opposition, and this happened as modern philosophers went about their work. A God seen as oppressive and arbitrary in his freedom was … [in varying stages] construed … as the enemy of human flourishing. Feuerbach declared his atheism with the shout, “The ‘no’ to God is the ‘yes’ to man.”… Nietzsche extolled the Ubermensch (superman), a hero in whom the will to power is so intense that it shatters any moral and intellectual systems that would constrain it. … Sartre asserted that existence precedes essence. Human freedom comes first, and then, on its own terms posits meaning value and purpose (Arguing Religion, pp. 40-42).

Thus, in stages, human voluntarism came to replace theological voluntarism. Atheists rejected God, but not the God of ancient Christendom. They rejected a willful God, one whom they saw as oppressive, arbitrary, and willful. This was a God of power, devoid of love; this was not the God who willed in conformity with what was good and what was best for us but one who did what He pleased—it was this God who was ushered to the door.

Man triumphantly took the place of God, declaring, “I will do what I want to do, and I will decide whether it is right or wrong.” In this human voluntarism, bold assertion often overrides even the most obvious realities.  A controlling opinion of the Supreme Court of the United States stated, “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life” (Planned Parenthood v. Casey, 1992). A man can now “be” a woman simply because he says it is so. A Catholic leader or politician who defies Catholic teaching can say that he is a “practicing Catholic” and it is so simply because he says it is so. People speak of “the god within” or of “the god of their own understanding,” claiming the absolute right to design their own god (who just so happens to conform with what they think) and worship that god. We used to call this idolatry. This is human voluntarism. Forget reality, forget reason, forget evidence, forget revelation. Things are what one says they are. The will triumphs over all. Truth must give way to power, the power of the will.

The problem, of course, is that different people want different things. Welcome to the power struggle brought about by human volunteerism, the tyranny of relativism and subjectivism. It looks like its only going to get worse as many double down in asserting their will over everything and everyone. Every man becomes an Ubermensch, asserting and imposing his meaning, refusing to discover the reality of God’s creation and to learn from it humbly.

We who strive to remain sane in times like these can only run to the true God, our Father, who loves us. He is the Lord, who commands what is good and what is best for us. He does not merely impose His will. He is a reasonable Lord. He is Love, and He is Truth. Although He is all-powerful, He cannot lie and will not hate. He wills only the good for us. Cling to Him as never before and know that whatever He commands is good and is what is best for us.

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: Voluntarism, a Critical Error of Our Times

Pulling up Roots from Reality – A Review of a Cogent Analysis of the Post-Cartesian West

René Descartes
René Descartes

Over the years I have attempted to trace the philosophical disaster of our modern world. Certainly the fundamental roots can be traced back to the breakdown of the medieval synthesis, the rise of nominalism, and the doubts of Descartes. These introduced a disconnect from reality. Descartes introduced a radical doubt in anything seen or experienced, and this disconnects us from reality. If we pull up roots from reality and the revelation of creation, we live increasingly within our mind and out of touch with reality.

Welcome to the modern, post-Cartesian age, a strange landscape in which reality and stubborn facts aren’t considered too important. (N.B. To me, it is a strange paradox of modern times that we idolize the physical sciences; I have written more on that topic here: On the Cartesian Anxiety of our Times.)

Two of the most extreme examples of the disconnect from reality in our times are the celebration of homosexual activity and so-called transgenderism. If a “cultural Neanderthal” like me suggests that the design of the body speaks against homosexual acts by a simple consideration that the biology of sexuality is violated, I am greeted with responses ranging from blank stares to indignation (“What does the body have to do with it? It’s what I think and feel that matters!”) And thus the disconnect from reality and the retreat into the mind and psyche is complete.

How did we get here?

A few years ago, we priests of the Archdiocese of Washington attended our annual professional day. In reviewing my notes from that conference, I was once again inspired and instructed by the teaching of Msgr. Brian Bransfield, who was then the Associate General Secretary of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. He presented a brief, cogent description of the stages of our collective journey out of reality and into the self-defined world of personal opinion and the mind. It was really an aside within a much longer talk, but I am always appreciative of those who can see and describe the stages of our current malaise.

Allow me to quote from Msgr. Bransfield and then supply some commentary of my own. Please direct any criticism at me, not him, since I am merely excerpting from a larger talk (and context is important).

Here is the excerpt I’d like to discuss:

We can trace the fragmentation of the last four hundred years in steps:

  1. To establish clear certainty in his search for knowledge, Descartes set up a dualism between the material and spiritual.
  2. And in the dualism [he] introduced a separation in which he set man’s internal mind in opposition to external reality.
  3. [Next, he] … elevated the mind (the thinking subject) and reduced the external, objective world of concrete reality.
  4. Man’s understanding of himself and the world has been in a downward spiral ever since. Only the mind and what the mind says is reality, is real.
  5. [And] thus there is … a collapse between the mind and reality. And in the collapse, reality loses.
  6. [And so] reality becomes a mere label (nominalism). The child in the womb is not called a child; it is labeled something else. A refugee seeking asylum is not called a person, but is labeled undocumented.
  7. [So] the mind now “creates” rather than conforms to reality.
  8. Relativism is born; the thinking subject is … autonomous. Notice that word: “autonomous.”
  9. And [thus] the ultimate absurdity is enthroned: nihilism, nothing—not as a privation but as a positive reality. There is nothing, no relation between reality (be it the child in the womb, the prisoner on death row, or the immigrant on the border) and our conscience. There is no communion between reality and the mind.

Let’s look at each point in detail. Msgr. Bransfield’s description is in bold, black italics while my meager commentary is in plain red text.

We can trace the fragmentation of the last four hundred years in steps:

Notice the use of the word fragmentation. If we live in our heads rather than in reality, then there is very little to unite us with one another. If what I think constitutes my reality, and if the same is true for you, then we are fragmented rather than united because there is nothing outside ourselves to unite us. Each of us is living in his own little world, not in a shared experience called reality.

  1. To establish clear certainty in his search for knowledge, Descartes set up a dualism between the material and spiritual.

This began the disconnect between the actual world and what we think. Descartes entertained or struggled with radical doubt; he could not be sure that there was really anything “out there,” that is, outside his own mind. The only thing he knew for sure was that he existed, because he was a thinking agent. (This was the source of the memorable “Cogito ergo sum” (I think therefore I am)). That is all that was certain for Descartes; everything else might have been a dream or deception.

Thus the wall of separation between the thinking mind and reality was introduced.

By the way, radical doubt, though an intriguing theory and one we have all wrestled with a bit, is wholly useless at the end of the day. One cannot possibly live by it. Such folks sit on chairs that may or may not be there and avoid walking into walls that may or may not be there. But of course they are there. The doubters ignore the overwhelming evidence of reality in theory, but must navigate it in actuality. Their theory of radical doubt is useless and they violate it at every moment.

But useless though it is, the theory has proven quite intoxicating to the decaying West, which loves its dualisms and prefers conflict to synthesis.

  1. And in the dualism [he] introduced a separation in which he set man’s internal mind in opposition to external reality

And thus begins the retreat out of reality and into our minds. We start to live up in our heads and think something is so just because we think it to be so.

  1. [Next, he] … elevated the mind (the thinking subject) and reduced the external, objective world of concrete reality.

What we think becomes more important that what actually is. Thought, opinion, and feeling trump reality. Many people today do not even sense the need to check what they think against the facts. They don’t believe it’s necessary because thinking it makes it so.

Today we often hear phrases such as “That may true for you, but it’s not true for me.” Or (more humorously) “Don’t confuse me with the facts; my mind is made up!” And thus what we think trumps reality. We actually start to believe that statements like “Truth is relative” are real arguments (they are not). It’s really just lazy “living up in our head” and a stubborn refusal to engage reality.

  1. Man’s understanding of himself and the world have been in a downward spiral ever since. Only the mind and what the mind says is reality, is real.

This partly explains the shredding of tradition and the iconoclastic tendencies of the modern age. Who cares what the ancients said or thought? If you and I (who are contemporaries) can’t even agree on what is real, and if all that matters is what I think, then why should what I care what you think, let alone what someone who lived centuries ago thought? If we all just live up in our heads rather than in reality, then what do I have in common with you let alone with The Founding Fathers, St. Thomas, or Jesus for that matter. All that matters is what I think; everything else goes in the shredder.

  1. [And] thus there is … a collapse between the mind and reality. And in the collapse, reality loses.  Exactly!
  1. [And so] reality becomes a mere label (nominalism). The child in the womb is not called a child; it is labeled something else. A refugee seeking asylum is not called a person, but is labeled undocumented.

And thus the modern battle over terminology: pro-abortion or pro-choice, baby or fetus, fornication or cohabitation, homosexual or gay, redefining marriage or marriage freedom, refugee or “undocumented” (or even worse, “illegal alien”).

So much hinges on terminology, semantics, euphemisms, and redefinition; thought overrules reality. If we can influence thought, then reality doesn’t matter. Never mind that a baby has been dismembered alive, this is all about “choice” and “reproductive freedom.” And “sodomy” is such an unpleasant reality; let’s just call it “gay love.” And men can call themselves women and we are supposed to say, “Isn’t that nice.”

It’s as if we suppose that our terminology and thoughts can somehow change reality. They cannot. But in this post-Cartesian fog we’re in, that is exactly what we suppose. Away with reality; all that matters is what I think!

  1. [So] the mind now “creates” rather than conforms to reality.

 Yes, or so we think.

  1. Relativism is born; the thinking subject is … autonomous. Notice that word: “autonomous.”

And here is where things begin to get scary. Reality is what I say it is. No one gets to tell me what to do or what to think; I should answer to no one.

As Pope Benedict warned, while this attitude marches under the banners of tolerance and freedom, the ultimate result is tyranny.

This is because if you and I cannot agree on something outside ourselves to which each of us is bound (e.g., reality) and to which we must answer, then we cannot appeal to that. Instead we must resort to the use of power to enact our view. Raw power—be it political, economic, or merely the power of popular opinion—is now used to impose agendas. Appeals to reason, common sense, justice, religious values, and even to constitutional parameters are becoming increasingly difficult.

In the video below, Fr. Robert Barron laments that we can’t even have a decent argument anymore since we seem to agree on so little; we just end up talking past one another. The final result is the use of raw power. Reality is what I think; I am autonomous. If you don’t agree with me, at first I will first ignore you. If that doesn’t work, I will work to marginalize you, to eliminate your influence. And if necessary, I will destroy you.

Welcome to the dark side of the Cartesian divide. 

  1. [And thus] the ultimate absurdity is enthroned: nihilism, nothing—not as a privation but as a positive reality. There is nothing, no relation between reality (be it the child in the womb, the prisoner on death row, or the immigrant on the border) and our conscience. There is no communion between reality and the mind.

Yes, today we witness the exaltation of nothing, the outright celebration that “nothing is true.” Indeed, we live in self-congratulatory times where many, if not most, applaud their nihilism as being “open-minded,” “tolerant,” “humanitarian,” and so forth.

But as Msgr. Bransfield points out, all this really does is to sever communion. There is nothing humanitarian about it because there is no real communion between human beings possible when I just live in my own head. Further, there is nothing to be tolerant of because there is nothing out there (outside what I think) to tolerate. And there is absolutely nothing open-minded in any of it, because it is the ultimate in close-mindedness to say, “Reality is what I think it is, and that settles it.” For the modern post-Cartesian, tolerance is “your right to agree with me.” Being open-minded means you agree with me. And humanitarianism is only what I say it is.

So here we are in a post-Cartesian malaise, with the vast majority of us living up inside our own heads. In this climate the Church must keep shouting reality.

It is dark now and it will likely get darker. But reality has a funny way of reasserting itself. Our little collective experiment in unreality will necessarily run its course. Let us pray that our reintroduction to reality will not be too harsh. But I am afraid that it will be.


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. 😉