Monday, July 2, 2012

Lies, Damned Lies, and Definitions, IX: The Road to Nihilism — Scotus

In the previous posting in this series we made the claim that the natural law is based on God's Nature, which is self-realized in His Intellect, and that, therefore, the existence of God and the precepts of the natural law are discernible by the use of reason alone. We also noted that the popes have consistently taught that abandoning this Aristotelian/Thomist understanding of the natural law is at the heart of today's moral relativism. This is manifest especially in our area of concern, the Just Third Way that, in sharp contrast to virtually all other social theories that currently afflict the world, incorporates the natural law-based binary economics of Louis Kelso and Mortimer Adler.

The claims of binary economics are therefore shocking to any adherent of today's mainstream schools of economics or their offshoots. Being based on reason, binary economics is a serious threat to all economics based on faith. The differences between binary economics and (for example) Keynesianism do not get argued on the basis of reason, but on articles of the Keynesian faith, i.e., that the State is greater than God, that human labor is the sole factor of distribution (and is none too clear on who or what is producing marketable goods and services), that you can consume without producing, and that it is impossible to finance new capital formation without cutting consumption and accumulating cash.

The question becomes how we ever got into such a state of affairs that more closely resembles Alice's adventures through the looking glass than anything approaching reality. It may be no coincidence that economists, when they're trying to demonstrate their cleverness, frequently head chapters on inflation in their books with the passage in which the Red Queen tells Alice, "here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!" — the implication being that if the government doesn't keep printing money, everything will come grinding to a halt. The fact that this statement is made in a land where everything is reversed and nonsense reigns doesn't seem to occur to them.

The idea that the State can do everything at the same time that the individual is utterly helpless has its roots in the philosophy of Duns Scotus and his emphasis on the "primacy of the Will." That is, the natural law is not based on God's Nature, self-realized in His Intellect, reflected in His special creation, humanity, and thus discernible by reason alone. Rather (as Heinrich Rommen explained it),

"For Duns Scotus morality depends on the will of God. A thing is good not because it corresponds to the nature of God or, analogically, to the nature of man, but because God so wills." (Heinrich Rommen, The Natural Law. Indianapolis, Indiana: Liberty Fund, Inc., 1998, 51.)

That is (as Mortimer Adler might have put it), the basis of the natural law shifts from our knowledge of what is right and wrong discerned by observation and argument, to our opinion as to the meaning of something we accept as the word of God as discerned by faith. This may sound trivial to many people, but the implications are staggering. Knowledge is always true. As Adler explained in Ten Philosophical Mistakes (New York: Macmillan and Co., 1985), "false knowledge" is an oxymoron. An opinion, however, may be true or false.

Asserting that knowledge — truth — can change puts you in a very equivocal position. If something is true, it is as true, and is true in the same way, as everything else that is true. Asserting a change in knowledge (e.g., "That may be true in science, but it is not true in religion") makes you a liar.

Opinions, however, are subject to change all the time. Even an opinion that you believed to be true and certain knowledge must change when you are confronted with irrefutable evidence or argument to the contrary. You were simply mistaken (certainly not a liar), and are being intellectually honest when you discard a demonstrably false opinion to accept knowledge supported by evidence and argument.

. . . . unless, of course, you hold that opinion by faith, and not by reason, however flawed. That turns your opponent from a participant in a reasoned argument into a liar who is out to attack your faith. The objective truth of what your opponent presents becomes irrelevant. This is because, being based on faith, your supposed truth is presumably more true than anything based on mere reason.

This throws everything into a cocked hat. There are no more absolutes; everything is subject to change based on the strength of someone's faith in whatever he or she accepts as the word of God. Thus, as Rommen explained,

"Hence the lex naturalis [natural law] could be other than it is even materially or as to content, because it has no intrinsic connection with God's essence, which is self-conscious in His intellect. For Scotus, therefore, the laws of the second table of the Decalogue were no longer unalterable. . . . an evolution set in which, in the doctrine of William of Occam (d. cir. 1349) on the natural moral law, would lead to pure moral positivism, indeed to nihilism." (Rommen, op. cit., 51-52.)



Lee Faber said...

1. Where have the popes claimed the abandonment of thomist (specifically thomist) natural law theory results in modern relativism?

2. You and your sources distort the thought of (blessed) Scotus. Scotus thinks that God is a most ordered willer, whose acts of will are in conformity with right reason. God's actions ad extra are contingent, sure, but God cannot, for example, order a creature to hate God. Now for Scotus the natural law is the second table of the ten commandments. But obviously some of these are contingent, because in fact in Scripture itself we have examples of God commanding people to do otherwise (stealing from the egyptians, slaughtering entire tribes come to mind), and Aquinas' circuitous explanations of these events were not convincing then or now.

Michael D. Greaney said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Michael D. Greaney said...

(I removed my previous comment because of a misspelling.)

Please read more carefully. I did not distort the thought of Duns Scotus. That was left for William of Occam and other heretics. There is nothing wrong with Scotus's thought except that people have seriously misinterpreted it, as explained in this article:

As for the popes claiming that abandonment of the Thomist concept of the natural law results in relativism, you may want to refer to Leo XIII's Æterni Patris, St. Pius X's Pascendi Dominici Gregis, Pius XI's Studiorum Ducem, Blessed John Paul II's Veritatis Splendor, and Benedict XVI in a rather large number of allocutions and talks, e.g.,

You might find Heinrich Rommen's analysis in his book "The Natural Law" more useful than trying to disparage the Thomist thought that the Church has declared normative and an infallible guide.