Monday, December 6, 2010

Do Absolutes Exist?

Over the weekend we received a question from a reader of this blog. We like questions even more than comments, because 1) it shows that people are reading and thinking about what we write instead of merely reacting, and 2) by responding to a substantive question we have our next blog posting already written. You have no idea how much time and effort this saves. (We're not lazy, though, just "thrifty" and "efficient.") Anyway, "RW" asked,
In "Nation" of November 29, 2010, author Benjamin R. Barber, in his article "America's Knowledge Deficit" states:

"There are, of course, many issues that cannot be judged by empirical evidence or objective truth. The existence of God is one of them; the nature of justice is another. These are normative rather than empirical claims."

I have been reading Mortimer Adler's autobiographies; this assertion, with respect to "Justice", seems somehow incorrectly stated. Barber later references Aristotle in the paragraph, which concerns the political sphere.

Am I misunderstanding something?
You aren't misunderstanding anything, RW. It appears, however, that Barber is. He is clearly approaching absolutes from a different direction than Adler, Aquinas, or Aristotle, and is twisting (probably without even realizing he is doing so) things to fit within his assumptions, the "small error" from which larger errors grow.

Over the past several years, I have come to the conclusion that the most basic problem in our society is the tendency to base the natural moral law — the absolutes the capacity for which defines us as human — on the will of something we believe to be God. Ultimately, as Dr. Heinrich Rommen pointed out in his book on the natural law, this leads to positivism, moral relativism, and, finally, to nihilism. In effect, by basing our personal interpretation of something on what we have decided is God's Will, we are making ourselves God. The only absolute turns out to be that there are no absolutes. There is a "knowledge deficit" because you cannot know anything for certain. Even the rank materialist cannot be sure that what he is seeing, touching, or even thinking is "real" in the sense of being absolutely real. Something might, after all, be fooling his senses; all truth becomes "normative," i.e., subjective.

A will-based orientation necessarily confuses applications of an absolute principle with the principle itself. Since applications even of an absolute principle cannot be absolute (society, as Pope Pius XI explained, being in a state of radical instability, and is always in a state of flux), will-based thinkers necessarily conclude that there can be no such thing as an absolute, such as God or justice.

In contrast, Adler, Aquinas, and Aristotle, as well as Maimonides and Ibn Khaldûn base the natural moral law on God's Essential Nature (Substance) which is self evident in His Intellect. In the belief of the three main monotheistic faiths, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, humanity is created in God's image and likeness, i.e., we share somehow in God's Nature, which is based on absolutes, God Himself being the ultimate Absolute. This is manifested in our "analogously complete" ("equal" — although that's not a good way of putting it) capacity to acquire and develop virtue. Man, while not perfect, is perfectible, becoming more fully human as he acquires and develops virtue, the "habit of doing good." Man being a "political animal," we acquire and develop virtues ("pursue happiness"), among which the chief "temporal" virtue is justice, by exercising our natural rights to life, liberty (freedom of association/contract) and property within a just social order. Of these, property is not the most important, but it is the most basic, as it gives us the power to exercise our rights to life and liberty without being dependent on others.

Within the framework of the natural moral law based on the Will, Barber is absolutely (if you'll excuse the expression) correct: because each individual necessarily has a different opinion of what constitutes God's (or whatever we've substituted for God) Will in a particular situation, and this Will always appears to be changing, we cannot know for certain the nature of absolutes such as justice. The existence of God or justice becomes a matter of opinion, not a reasoned conclusion; it is based "on documents of faith" (usually faith in one's own godhood), not "on the reasons and statements of the philosophers themselves."

Barber's basic assumption, however, is in error. The merest child can tell you the nature of justice: it's rendering to each what each is due. If, for example, you proclaim to your ten children that you are going to "treat them all equally" (we'll ignore for the sake of the argument that 1) it's impossible to treat all your children equally and be just, since each has different needs at different times in his life and 2) treating everybody exactly the same is rarely just — do you punish or reward everyone for what one has done?), and you give ten dollars to nine of them and one dollar to the youngest, the youngest will immediately inform you that you've been unfair, that is, unjust. Why? Because you announced what each was due, and then didn't deliver. The nature of justice is clear: render to each what each is due.

The existence of God is a little more complicated — although the virtue by which we render to God what God is due also comes under "justice." It's called the virtue of "religion." By the process of inductive (not deductive) reasoning, we can prove God's existence. All around us we see effects, e.g., creation itself, humanity's concepts of good and evil, etc. Since there can be no effect without a cause, we necessarily conclude that every effect we see must have had a cause. Each cause must, in turn, itself have a cause, and so on, back to the beginning, to an "uncaused cause." We call this absolute — that is, un-dependent on anything else — source of all subsequent effects "God."

Stephen Hawking recently tried to assert that gravity is the "uncaused cause," but gravity is defined as the attraction between bodies (the natural force of attraction between any two massive bodies, which is directly proportional to the product of their masses and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them.) . . . and gravity did not cause the bodies from which it derives its existence. Gravity does not, therefore, meet the definition of an uncaused cause. Hawking begged the question, failing to realize that you cannot prove — or, more especially, disprove — the existence of an immaterial Being by material means, or by deductive reasoning. It is not that God and justice are "normative rather than empirical claims." It is a question as to which method of reasoning applies, inductive or deductive, and whether or not you can reason logically.

Recently the Catholic Church celebrated its annual "Feast of Christ the King." Pope Pius XI instituted this feast in 1925 and put it at the start of the Church's liturgical year to emphasize the importance of the restructuring of the social order in conformity with the precepts of the natural moral law based on God's Essence, achieved by organizing and carrying out "acts of social justice," as Father William Ferree, S.M., Ph.D., "America's greatest social philosopher" and CESJ co-founder described in his 1941 doctoral thesis, The Act of Social Justice (1943), and summarized in Introduction to Social Justice (1948), a short pamphlet written for high school students to orient them for participation in "Catholic Action."

CESJ works to carry out the program of Catholic Action from an interfaith orientation. In the long run, we seek to effect reforms in education to bring it back into conformity with what Adler and others have called "the philosophy of common sense," i.e., Aristotelian/Thomist philosophy (or Maimonides or Ibn Khaldûn if you're Jewish or Muslim, respectively). Most immediately, we work to reform the tax and monetary systems as detailed in "Capital Homesteading," thereby addressing humanity's material needs in a more just manner so that each individual can then be free to develop more fully as a person, that is, to acquire and develop virtue and so fit him- or herself for his or her final end.