Sunday, April 15, 2007

The Pope and the Cartesian Legacy

In his now infamous address in Regensburg, Pope Benedict XVI attempted “a critique of modern reason from within.” This critique is, ultimately, a critique of a naturalism, or scientism, which reduces the legitimate uses of reason to empirically verifiable truths. Benedict’s critique follows two lines, through which he attempts to show that modern reason is itself grounded in a fusion of Hellenism and Christianity, a fusion that cannot be repudiated either by the sciences or by theologians without an essential loss. First, he argues that science itself depends on a recognition of the world as rational, as subject to laws which human reason is capable of grasping. Scientific reason by itself cannot account for this correlation between the knower and the known; the grounding of scientific reason must, therefore, lie in a deeper and wider application of reason. In this regard Benedict invokes the Greek conception of logos and the Platonic tradition, which, ultimately, goes back to Parmenides' famous claim that thought and being are one. Second, and somewhat more obscurely, Benedict argues that the tradition of Western rationality also assumes a religious and an ethical ground, a ground that establishes a community, and which scientific reason overlooks at its peril. As Lee Harris nicely demonstrates, the reference to Islam and violence fits into this argument: Benedict’s goal is not to condemn Islam, but rather to insist that the rational community required as a backdrop for the sciences is a community grounded in an ethics and a faith that are fundamentally rational. If the West had not accepted reason over violence as a means of addressing conflicts, there could be no such thing as modern reason. Thus, insofar as modern reason cannot address faith and ethics, it denies the social conditions of its own possibility.

Benedict’s argument is confusing, in the first place because he does not clarify the relation between these two weaknesses of modern reason and, in the second, because his account may strike many philosophers as somewhat outdated. On the point of ethics, for example, Benedict claims that
the questions raised by religion and ethics, then have no place within the purview of collective reason as defined by "science", so understood, and must thus be relegated to the realm of the subjective. The subject then decides, on the basis of his experiences, what he considers tenable in matters of religion, and the subjective "conscience" becomes the sole arbiter of what is ethical.

The conflation of ethics and religion here is problematic; this conflation, I think, hurts Benedict’s cause more than it helps. But also, he paints a view of ethics that found its heyday in Logical Positivism and is now largely out of date in philosophy. At the same time, however, Benedict has a point. First, insofar as he is considering modern reason as a cultural, rather that simply academic philosophical, phenomenon, he may well be right in arguing that ethics is now seen as a subjective matter. Second, if we look at philosophical ethics, the major taxonomy by which moral philosophies are categorized remains, despite challenges, a division between cognitivism and non-cognitivism, a division that is itself based on questions of the relation of truth in ethics to truth in the sciences. That the sciences give us truth is presupposed; that ethics is capable of doing so is in question. In this sense, Benedict is certainly right—modern reason approaches ethics through the lens of the sciences, and reason is thereby prevented from reaching its full potential.

But it is also very odd that the main, or initial culprit in this move is, in Benedict’s picture, Immanuel Kant. The reason is that Kant narrowed the scope of what we can know to theoretical reason, and placed questions of ethics and religion in the domain of practical reason and outside of knowledge. Now, though this formulation does rest on a correct reading of Kant’s preface to the First Critique, there is now something of a consensus that in his more careful moments Kant distinguishes between knowledge (Wissen) and cognition (Erkenntnis), and that practical reason can give us the former, if not the latter (it is really the Kant-inspired Romantics, like Schleiermacher, who attempted to sever faith from reason). Furthermore, far from restricting the scope of reason to the physical sciences, Kant makes the practical into the genuine domain of reason. Truths about ethics and religion are, for Kant, given to us through reason and are therefore immune to empirical falsification. He was thus arguably the strongest supporter since the Greeks of the view that religion and morality are accessible to reason and must be evaluated on rational grounds. Moreover, on the other issue Benedict raises, that of the rationality of the empirical world as an assumption of modern reason, Kant did perhaps more than anyone before or since to build a foundation for this coherence of knowledge and the known.

I think the true transition to modern reason, as Benedict conceives it, occurs in Descartes. Famously, in laying out his approach in the “Discourse on Method,” Descartes suggests the following approach:

as for the opinions which up to that time I had embraced, I thought that I could not do better than resolve at once to sweep them wholly away, that I might afterwards be in a position to admit either others more correct, or even perhaps the same when they had undergone the scrutiny of reason.

This method, of course, is carried out in the “Meditations,” where complete skepticism is used to clear the way for certain knowledge sanctioned by reason. But of course, as is well known, Descartes leaves something out of this doubt. While he is engaged in his doubt and reconstruction, he must still live in the company of others, he must still act, and therefore he must have principles on which to act. He thus resolves
to obey the laws and customs of my country, adhering firmly to the faith in which, by the grace of God, I had been educated from my childhood and regulating my conduct in every other matter according to the most moderate opinions, and the farthest removed from extremes, which should happen to be adopted in practice with general consent of the most judicious of those among whom I might be living.
This move—to doubt all received opinions except those of custom and faith—is described by Descartes as a matter of expediency or prudence. And in the “Meditations,” he begins upon the course of establishing his skepticism with the claim that “it is the part of prudence not to place absolute confidence in that by which we have even once been deceived.” Prudence, in other words, is not itself placed in doubt; instead, it is prudence that first occasions that doubt itself. We can then see three underlying issues occurring in Descartes’ analysis:

(1) Prudence is the assumption by which we ground the method of philosophy and which in turn motivates that method.

(2) Morality, at least in the form accepted by the community to which Descartes belongs, is assumed as a truth not to be questioned.

(3) Consequently, since the method of doubt involves clearing the ground of received opinions in order to find a rational foundation for true replacements for those opinions, the ground of morality cannot be found in this way, since morality was not placed in doubt as part of the method.

The result of this approach is that whatever grounds morality later receives in Descartes’ work are not moral grounds—they are grounds derived from the knowledge he reaches through the application of his method. There is a dual move involved here: morality, specifically as involving the customs of a community, is assumed in the investigation; by means of the same move, morality is later based on scientific grounds and is thus deprived of its own sphere of rational inquiry. It is therefore not surprising that modern reason, on Benedict’s account, largely limits itself to the sciences and simply assumes a moral community as its foundation: that, after all, was the starting point of the founder of modern philosophy.

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