An Old Debate Revisited


Warning: Maximus Quibblius follows. Please do not infer from this anything other than the deepest respect for the person whose work is so examined. I do this for a point I keep trying to make, somewhat unsuccessfully and that is--the validity of an argument depends for its success upon acceptance of the terms, definitions, and postulates upon which the argument is founded. And that acceptance is a good deal more slippery and less clear than might at first be thought.

From another blog I love (do you get the impression I am fickle--well I am--why do you think the blogroll is so long. There isn't anything on it that I don't love for some reason), Minute Particulars we get the usual incisive, quite intelligent commentary. In this case a remarkable meditation on action, object, and moral theology or philosophy. Explained with aplomb and lucidity, with one small faux pas that I must quibble over:

I raise this because I'm beginning to suspect that some folks have become inured to claims that human beings are substantially unique among all beings of the Universe. For Catholics, this inattentiveness would surely be a grave failure to contemplate and cherish the Incarnation and its inexhaustible implications for human beings, human nature, the human person, and the startling fact that every human being was willed freely and deliberately into existence by the Creator:

It is the first sentence that gives pause, and again, it is a matter of language. Which beings are not "substantially" unique as a class? One of the ways you determine the class and order of a group is to sequence the cytochrome C from the mitochondrial DNA (assuming the beings you are studying have organelles--but let us leave that aside for the moment). That difference in chemistry is indeed a substance-ial difference by any meaning of that term. Then we have the problem of what "substantially unique" might mean. Does it mean the substance of the creature (however one defines the term: mechanistically or philosophically) is unique, or does the term in fact mean that it is "nearly unique." If the latter, what then is nearly one-of-a-kind--there are merely two, three, or four of that kind? I must accept that I probably don't quite understand the term substantially unique because it may refer to a philosophical entity and set of propositions with which I am not sufficiently acquainted.

Now, what I have articulated above is a quibble that I wouldn't really bother with normally because it is perfectly clear from context the manner in which Mr. Mark (whose last name slips my mind at the moment, so please pardon the infelicity) places it. However, that argument will have implications for my overall quibble.

My real objection is of another sort. Who is to say that the incarnation did not have some substantial effect on other beings we know not of? We do not know all of the beings in the universe--we don't know even all of those on Earth--although we are sufficiently well acquainted to see that humans have no close correlatives here. We certainly don't know all of those in the Solar System--though here again, we are sufficiently aware to suggest the truth of our Blogmaster's proposition. However, we do not know that elsewhere in the Universe God did not see fit to create another similar form of life. Biblical revelation is silent on the matter, as is (at least presently) the universe.

So my quibble is that we can only speak substantially of what we know with some degree of intimacy and as the state of the entire universe is largely an unknown the first proposition can have only the contextual meaning and the effectiveness of the argument is thereby inhibited. Unless we define substantially in the first sense outlined above, we cannot know for certain if there is a substantial difference. If we do speak of substantial difference in the terms I outlined above, then the argument sinks of its own weight as there is no creature that is not substantially different from any other.

The solution is simple and consists of two parts: (a) Steven should stop quibbling; and (b) we need to limit the proposition above to what we know can be proven and is true. Therefore we can say, of all of the creature we know of in the universe, Human beings are substantially unique as a class.

Now all of this is what comes of being too much a reader of science fiction in my youth, and too hopeful that someday we'll encounter others "out there" who will help us to better understand our place in creation.

And the point of all of this is not that the argument is malformed, but that reason can and will produce constructs in which small errors gradually propagate to abrogate the entirety of the argument. The problem is the ability of any individual to recognize the inherent small errors in the articulation of the argument. We all say things the way we say them. For the person speaking, what is said is perfectly clear, but the person hearing may have no real understanding of what is said--or may have an understanding that is completely different from that of the speaker.

Now, our PoMo friends leap upon this incongruity and suggest that it is impossible to communicate--that meaning is substantially within the person making the expression and it is essentially incommunicable to others as they are quite differently constructed. I would take exception to this as well because refinement of the argument can produce an articulation that, unless we are being unbearably obtuse, most, if not all can agree upon the meaning of. Now, that does not mean that they will agree with the proposition, but they can at least agree that it has some meaning outside of their solipsistic ally constructed realities.

This is often how I feel in the sea of theological arguments. A says Rahner is heretical in his teaching on the Eucharist. I read Rahner and from what I can make out there is nothing particularly heterodox. I'm not sure I understand the need for the new articulation--but that is another matter entirely. B says Balthasar is heterodox in his articulation of the population of Hell. C says that Garrigou-Lagrange is ultramontane and irrelevant to any real philosophical/theological debate of the day. And so it goes. What does one who is substantially ignorant of all the niceties do? Research is nearly impossible because you must pick a place to stand, and the choice of that place will inevitably affect the outcome of your research. As an example, John da Fiesole (whose opinion on these matters I respect greatly) does not care for some aspects of the theology of Balthasar. Mr. da Fiesole may be accurate in his assessment. But might it not also be that Mr. da Fiesole is analyzing Fr. Balthasar's work as a Thomist facing a theologian who is not working from a strictly thomistic base? Might the lack of agreement be the result of different ways of argumentation and what constitutes "proof?" I can't say because I have insufficient grasp of either Aquinas or Balthasar to say one is right and the other wrong; however, my inclination would be to agree with a person whose judgment in these matters I trusted. On the other hand, Mr. Serafin, whom I respect and admire greatly, thinks a great deal of Balthasar's theology. Admitting my ignorance, I am now in a quandary--which opinion should I follow if I lack the time, ability, and discernment to properly articulate my own?

So I'm back to my question--how does the average layperson discover were the truth is in this thicket? And I must conclude that unless one is seriously dedicated to the pursuit either professionally, or as a serious part of one's vocation, it is a thicket better avoided. We walk in dangerous territory when we walk unprepared, and I can be swayed by Aquinas, Balthasar, Küng, or Cullen if I don't know where I'm going. I have read all of these, and I find that the reasoning of each is persuasive. I can rely upon the magisterium of the church to point me in the right direction (I can safely disregard select teachings of the latter two theologians--though one does risk tossing the baby out with the bathwater). However, the church rarely makes a statement about the correctness or lack thereof of a theologian whose work is not substantially flawed or in error. For example, I have read nothing from the Vatican with respect to Rahner, Balthasar, de Lubac, or any number of others who are, in various arenas attacked--justly or unjustly. And the sad part of this is that I cannot say whether the commentators are correct or incorrect in their assumptions.

Where am I going with this? I suppose I simply wish to say that one needs to be most selective and extremely careful when studying any aspect of theology--a caution to which I am sure no one would object. Obviously such study should be done after and as part of prayer, with guidance from the Holy Spirit. And finally, the results of one's researches should be laid open to the criticism of all and sundry and submitted to the authority of the Holy Mother Church (as is true of all of the great works of the Saints) and redacted and corrected according to authoritative teaching.

As all of that is far too exhausting to contemplate, I think I will read with great enthusiasm the wonderful defenses and analyses others propose. I will ask my ignorant questions and make my stupid statements to try to correct my own misapprehensions. And I'll stick with someone who I can understand and who speaks to me--St. John of the Cross, St. Teresa of Avila, St. Therese of Lisieux. My brain is not a razor, and I put myself in danger when I try to use it as one. So expect the same speculations, ruminations, and sometimes simply idiotic meanderings that you have always seen here. But time and time again, I will return to this roost--the skeptic of theological speculation--occasionally poking a finger at it, but trying to avoid the tar-baby syndrome.

[Mr. Mark's (is it Sullivan?) complete argument which, despite the impression you might get from the nonsense above, is well worthy of your consideration, may be found (eventually) here. I say eventually because it is the first post on the blog right now, and until another crops up, the direct link does not work.]

Later: Correction incorporated to attempt to more truly represent Mr. da Fiesole's position--which, by the way, I do not fault.

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This page contains a single entry by Steven Riddle published on April 24, 2003 9:15 AM.

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