Wednesday 9 July 2014

Natural Law and the Instrumentum Laboris on the Family: part 5


In previous posts, I've been mulling over the appropriateness of 'natural' in natural law. Essentially, I've concluded that its primary meaning is not supernatural (ie not morality derived from revelations such as the Bible). But to conclude that is not supernaturally derived does not mean that it doesn't bring God into it. And it is on that point that this post concentrates.

One of the most misunderstood aspects of the Catholic understanding of reasoning without the aid of revelation is that the existence of God and a number of his key attributes are held to be provable by reason. Crudely, if natural law is about what people would come up with walking round the world and thinking about it without the aid of the divine authority of the Church and the Bible, one of their conclusions would be that God exists (and is good, all powerful etc).

Most atheists -and I suspect most Catholics- assume that God's existence is part of faith. But Catholic teaching is quite clear on this [here]:

What the author of Wisdom and St. Paul and after them the Fathers and theologians had constantly taught, has been solemnly defined by the Vatican Council. In the first place, as against Agnosticism and Traditionalism, the council teaches (cap. ii, De revelat.)

that God, the first cause (principium) and last end of all things, can, from created things, be known with certainty by the natural light of human reason (Denz., 1785-old no. 1634)

and in the corresponding canon (can. i, De revelat.) it anathematizes anyone who would say

that the one true God our Creator and Lord, cannot, through the things that are made, be known with certainty by the natural light of human reason (Denz., 1806-old no. 1653).

However, it is not held that any particular proof (eg Aquinas' Five Ways) is certainly sound. This results in a pattern familiar from previous posts. There is the (commonsense) claim that belief in God, in everyday sense of rational, is correct, much as I have argued that there is a commonsense claim that reflecting on 'what human beings are like' is a good basis for thinking about morality. Furthermore, there is the (eg) Thomist development and intellectualization of that commonsense approach where arguments (eg) about the dependency of forms on God are developed using a subtle and technical vocabulary. (See Ed Feser here.)

Now, the Thomist (or more broadly Scholastic approach) I shall put aside. It can look after itself and, like any highly technical philosophical argument, has to be dealt with in highly technical philosophical terms. Thomists will argue that, in the end, natural reason  and natural law depend on the development of such technical arguments. Most atheists think they can knock these arguments down in a couple of sentences: they clearly can't. The key point to remember here, as Feser for one has gone on relentlessly about but which still doesn't seem to hit home, is that the basic shape of these arguments is that if you accept the metaphysical apparatus of Aristotelian metaphysics (forms, essences, act and potentiality etc) then you are committed to the soundness of the arguments for the existence of God. (And of course the preparatory argument here is that, for various good reasons, you ought to accept the Thomist/Aristotelian understanding of metaphysics -not for 'religious'  reasons, but because it makes sense of the structure of the everyday world of objects and change.) That's going to be a very long and involved argument on both sides of course. Tough. That's what you've got to do if you're going to engage at that level.

But the everyday, commonsense approach is simply to note the obviousness of the existence of God. Most peoples have believed in it (here). The Enlightenment -that much trumpeted cleansing of superstition- generally put it at the heart of reason. Thus, Samuel Johnson, the key force behind the Enlightenment in the US:

Now, if it be asked, from whence does this Light derive, whereby all created minds perceive, as by a common standard, the same things alike to be true and right –I answer, that I have no other way to conceive how I come to be affected with this intuitive, intellectual light, whereof I am conscious, than by deriving it from the universal action and presence of the Deity, or a perpetual Communication with the Great Father of Lights… [p13, Elementa Philosophica here.]

(For some Scottish Enlightenment examples, see previous post.)

The various atheist campaigning organizations make a great deal of the advance of secularization in the UK and elsewhere, but (deliberately?) confuse the question of a declining influence in organized religion with a decline in the belief in God. For example, in an entire BHA page dedicated to 'good news' about declining belief, I can't find a single direct reference to belief in God rather than acceptance of particular religious dogmas or churches. (Tucked away, in a passing thought, is a rare honest admission in this area: only 10,357 people in the 2001 census describe themselves as atheist: that's about 0.02% of the population.)

Trying to find figures in this area was a bit of an eye-opener. In search after search, I found items described as 'rise of atheism in survey' or something similar, only to discover, when I actually looked at the figures that this was a survey about decline in religion or church adherence rather than decline of a belief in God. For example, the Metro headline is:

Census 2011: Christian numbers fall with atheism on the rise

The number of Christians in England and Wales fell by more than four million in the last decade, the 2011 census has suggested, while the number of people identifying as atheists increased by six million over the same period.

Unfortunately for the accuracy of the story, there was no question about atheism (or even, more precisely, about the lack of belief in God (and I say that because the Brights -doubtless because they are so bright- have a tendency to describe themselves as atheists whilst praying and believing in God) in the 2011 census. In fact, this is a story about the decline of organized religion: 25% in the UK now describe themselves as having 'No religion'.

I could go on here, but from the BBC survey in 2004 -described in the Wikipedia article as showing that 39% of people in the UK don't believe in God- in fact shows that only 16% describe themselves as simply not believing in God, whilst, of the remaining 23%, roughly equal numbers describe themselves as believing in a Higher Power (11%) or as being a 'spiritual person' (12%).

Whatever the details here, there is a clear pattern. Whilst organized religion is struggling, belief in God or a Higher Power or a Spiritual Dimension to life is vastly stronger than the sort of materialistic atheism pushed by Dawkins et co. (And remember this is the highly secularized UK: outwith Western Europe, the figures for genuine atheism would be far smaller.) This, of course, is what you might expect from the Catholic analysis: all reasonable people know that God exists; only some of those people will have the grace to believe in the truths of Catholicism.

What to make of all this? Natural Law qua law rests on the idea of a lawgiver: God. As Anscombe argues:

To have a law conception of ethics is to hold that what is needed for conformity with the virtues failure in which is the mark of being bad qua man (and not merely, say, qua craftsman or logician)--that what is needed for this, is required by divine law. Naturally it is not possible to have such a conception unless you believe in God as a law‑giver; like Jews, Stoics, and Christians. But if such a conception is dominant for many centuries, and then is given up, it is a natural result that the concepts of "obligation,” of being bound or required as by a law, should remain though they had lost their root; and if the word "ought" has become invested in certain contexts with the sense of "obligation," it too will remain to be spoken with a special emphasis and special feeling in these contexts.

Therefore, if you a speaking to a (genuine) atheist, to talk of natural law is to make an assumption about the existence of God that you are not entitled to: whilst the Catholic will explain that this is simply morality based on human reason unaided by revelation, the atheist will (rightly) interpret this as morality founded on the existence of God. When I noted (in my first post in this series) that I began blogging with doubts about the wisdom of using the description 'natural law' it was more this question of law that made me pause. And, of course, if you are talking to a genuine atheist, you need roughly speaking to go back to reflecting on morality, probably along the lines suggested by Anscombe: a return to reflection on what human beings are. There is no particular problem for Catholicism here: in essence, it means a return to Aristotle's ethics of virtue and eudaimonia (the fulfilled life) which already forms the foundation stone of Catholic teaching. You just have to drop the idea of law. One way of conceptualizing this -as I argued previously- is to get back to the Greeks. From that point of view, taking about natural law is misleading and unhelpful.

On the other hand, if we take seriously the evidence (both philosophical and empirical) that belief in God is as much part of our nature as belief in tables and chairs, the idea that divine guidance and articulation as law is as reasonable as any other part of morality shouldn't be abandoned so quickly. And this is quite important: instead of assuming that we are addressing a secularized society which no longer believes in God, we need to realize that we are addressing a secularized society that still believes in God but thinks, roughly, that Catholicism is just a highly primitive version of that belief. I'm not quite so clear about where that leaves us in terms of what we then do, but it strikes me as clear that simply relying on the Bible (as in the Instrumentum Laboris) is unlikely to help. Far better, I suspect, to start a conversation along the following lines (my words):

Look, we both agree that New Atheists have an incredibly crude, materialistic understanding of the world. We both agree that there is Higher Power or meaning in the world: let's explore that and let me show you how Catholicism (unlike other forms of Christianity) takes seriously the way that ordinary human experience and commonsense has to be at the foundation of our world view.

I'm also tempted to start laughing at atheists as a matter of policy or at least treating their speculations as no more than an amusing parlour game. I mean, it's all very well as a philosophical debating point, but, really, no higher power? Come off it! (This is probably more the result of a character defect on my part than a sound strategy, so feel free to ignore it. On the other hand, for those infected with similar 'non-commonsensical' thoughts (such as a Cartesian disbelief in the existence of the external world), the best policy really is to josh them out of it. Is it really so clear that even secularized Britain is so far gone that it too doesn't realize the inherent absurdity of a merely materialistic view of life?)

In sum:

In this post, I've focused on the element of law in the term 'natural law'. I've concluded that it does cause some difficulties, in that it rests on the idea of the existence of a lawgiver, God. That's one reason for moving away from it. On the other hand, the existence of God is a matter of commonsense reasoning rather than faith -and, despite a mendacious publicity campaign- belief in God and a divine order is much, much stronger than belief in revealed religion. From that point of view, retention of the term law as a reminder (and consequence) of the existence of God has its advantages, not least the avoidance of conceding ground (on the rational belief in God) that we should be chary of leaving simply to faith.

(I would add, as a footnote, that there is an issue regarding the word law that, even if the existence of God is conceded, in our anomic times, seeing him as a lawgiver rather than (say) a facilitator (!) is perhaps culturally problematic. I leave this thought without taking it further.)

In the next, final post, I will pull all these various posts together and try to reach some sort of conclusion.

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