Alright, today’s post is a doozey.
I had the distinct pleasure of attending Homebrewed Christianity’s first Theology Beer Camp this past weekend. The event was something in between a kegger, a youth group sleep-over for adults, and an academic conference, only without any of the illicit sex of the first and second or the severe boringness of the third. Aside from the top notch beers in which we received the chance to partake, the persons on stage and in the audience were absolutely top-notch as well—sincere and amicable learners, questioners, thinkers, and partiers. It was a distinct pleasure to get to know many of you both theologically and personally, perhaps too personally at points, seeing that we learned much of the nature of love-languages and divine arrows. I greatly appreciated getting to share my story and thoughts with you while simultaneously learning the beauty of your stories in the process.
In a strange turn, however, I want to take the mantle of the good Dr. Cobb, whose intellectual alliance I don’t often seek given his propensity for process thought and my propensity for truth (Boom shakalaka). However, I’m deeply grateful for his Saturday talk and especially his recognition that Catholic schools may need to take the lead in reforming higher education given our usual rejection of the distinction between fact and value, even if he did go on to sing nanny-nanny at the Gospel of John and the creeds.
To recap, Cobb’s point was this: we buy into a false distinction between fact and value, and this is of great concern. Education, while it should be a bastion of intellectual discourse in fact and value, has ejected the discussion of values like a body rejects the Nora virus—in a smattering of unintelligible spewing—disallowing not only truth-driven talk of value at a broader cultural level, but also a value-driven talk of fact within the Academy. He’s overall right here.
Let’s talk about why.
We start with Aristotle, the homecoming-court runner-up of western philosophy given his dependence on the homecoming court prince, Plato, and king, Socrates. Aristotle systematizes something given in all three thinkers: that the human mind and the world to which it’s attached works through four different causes when thinking. Here’s what Cobb meant. When we look at a chair (dear God, philosopher, why is it always a chair or a cup with you philosophers?), we can note that it’s made of something, likely a mix of wood, plastic, and metal. We can ascribe to this materiality the name cause, since it’s intrinsic to the being of this particular chair and say that it could not be without it. Matter, thus, forms a cause.
Second, we ask how this chair comes to be. Given our economic system, it’s likely through an underpaid worker in China. These persons, based on the blueprint of the chair, have made the thing, brought it into existence, and are thus what we’d call the efficient cause.
But we just mentioned a blueprint. The blueprint’s important because without it, the chair is merely a pile of wood, screws, and cancer-inducing plastic. It has no shape, form, or function. Thus, Aristotle recognizes a formal cause, which is the definition of the given being at hand.
Finally, this blueprint contains purpose, value, and meaning. The chair’s made for something, and this something is connected directly to its definition, of which the chair, when it fulfuills its function, is being a chair well. The purpose of the chair is “to be sat upon,” and Aristotle calls this the final cause.
Okay, so what? Why does the chair matter? In itself it doesn’t, but it rather represents a broader view of nature and how it functions. Creatures in the world never exit as isolated, they always share in a broader eco-system of sorts, fulfilling a purpose in the sustenance of such. Ecosystems themselves always form broader systems doing the same, all of which ultimately come to reflect the creator of this cosmos, God, in a series of moving and interrelated parts of ever greater complexity. Thus, to know what a creature is in its fullness, including ourselves, is not merely to know where we came from and whose sperm touched whose eggs to create what kind of eyebrows. It’s to know our function within the cosmos as a whole.
Aristotle says we’re to take the uniqueness of what we have, reason, and imbue all parts of our lives with it. That’s great. But, from a Catholic perspective, especially that of Laudato Si, grace completes nature and faith reason, and we see a liturgical end to the whole of creation—that humans, existing in a unique position between “heaven” and “earth” are to lead a cosmic liturgy (what I call a cosmic drum circle in my Homebrewed Christianity Guide to God), from which all creation redeems a God-inspired meaning rather than some sort of meaning subject to human control, will, and sin, which is exactly what we do at the St. Kateri Institute (www.carroll.edu/kateri) with high school youth at Carroll College, my academic institution.
Cobb could likely agree with a chunk of what I just wrote until I go all Catholic with some of this b.s. That aside, the question why does he think we don’t think in these ways today?
Today, when we think cause, we think primarily in terms of efficient causes—what causes what to become what. We also give credence to material causation, although we don’t call it that. But we altogether neglect a separate and separable notion of the formal and final causes. Why?
Descartes writes in his Meditations that a knowledge of final causality, from whence we derive purpose, depends on a knowledge of the divine mind. He says that God, in God’s infinity, cannot be known except in that manner and that we’re better off not questioning the ends through which God makes things but rather deciphering the material causes that allow us to change things. In other words, it does little good for Descartes to know that cells, for instance, serve a broader purpose with the ecology of a body by nature as a heart serves the circulatory system; that doesn’t solve any of our dilemmas concerning human life other than bringing a little subjective meaning. No, he wants to know what causes the cell to be formed. If he can know that, he can know what can stop a cell from being formed, which will yield further insight into how to artificially stop a cell from being formed. If we apply that logic and knowledge to parasites, for instance, we can come up with new ways to medicate and kill parasites as they’re forming, giving human life a little longer to be diahrrea-free.
To simplify even more, we simply say today that you can’t see or measure final causes, so, you know, it’s not real. Of course that’s a bunch of crap, as you can see in this marvelous blog. Either way, the empirical science, which have become synonymous with knowledge for us, only focus on what makes x do y and how so it can insert remedy z to help prevent such from happening through medications or cause it to happen through weapons.
I have a great contestation that our only form of knowledge is found in the sciences, which, lucky you, I have and will write about more (See chapter 7 of the Homebrewed Christianity Guide to God, Becoming a Consistent Atheist). But the basic and important question we now have regards a question that persons are at least somewhat familiar with: the sciences can make any number of things happen, but should they? Because we’ve lost an evaluative framework for understanding ourselves, our places in the world, and how we ought to function in relationship to our fellow creatures—which we’ve lost because of the academic rejection of the study of value, according to Cobb—we have no ability to say what we should and should not create anymore. We simply have a dry will-to-dominate all things so as to make human life more pleasurable, which, by the way, is why Adam talked about the necessity of reforming human desire.
So what if I disturb the beautiful landscape to mine for copper so long as I get the very laptop upon which I type this blog out of the deal?!
For Cobb, and for me, we have to get over this false separation of fact and value. After all, the desire for fact can only come from the value of facts, and our evaluation that they’re important! But if we don’t overcome this gap, we cannot learn to see who we are and what we’re meant to be in this world.
So when Cobb says that Catholic institutions may be our saving grace, it’s because we’ve obstinately refused to reject value given our penchant for telling you precisely what God’s Incarnational purposes are in all things through not only scripture but also Aristotle and Aquinas.
And that’s the Catholic-Jesus truth!