A blog by the magazine's editors and contributors


Another Response to Gary Gutting

I would like to commend and expand on Matts engagement with Gary Guttings On Being Catholic. I agree with Matt that it is both worth reading and that it, in some respects, falls short of its promise. As Matt suggests, it fails to offer the kind of apologia for the teachings of Catholicism that would entice any reflective and honest intellectual to embrace them. So, if assent is considered the highest form of intellectual respect, Gutting is not going to receive very much of it. However, Gutting makes clear that his apologia is not an apologetics aimed at conversion. He set for himself a task that is at once more modest and more ambitious. Matt rightly concedes Guttings humble task of seeking a stance that many fellow Catholics and even some non-Catholics will find respectable, but he fails to mention Guttings more ambitious task: to hold onto both "the Enlightenment and the Catholic Church.For students of philosophy and many Euro-American Catholics, the Enlightenment and the Church are often pitted against each other as the thesis and antithesis driving the dialectic of ideas that has determined the modern conversation about religion in the public sphere. This is the intellectual battle royale, the academic steal-cage death match, of our time. So, Guttings promise to reconcile these two strains of thought in a single personhis selffinds him trading-in his Clark Kent glasses for a Superman cape in the world of ideas. What is more, he does not propose to reconcile just any generic enlightenment with Catholicism, but the Enlightenment of Voltaire, Hume, and the founders of the American Republic [by which I assume he means Jefferson]. This is an important detail of Guttings set-up, because not all seventeenth- and eighteenth-century enlighteners were created equal when it comes to the philosophical hospitality that they extended to religion. And Gutting, true to form, proposes to take on the least hospitable.This is important for understanding Guttings metaphysical agnosticism, which Matt rightly identified as the Archimedean point by which Gutting proposes to lift his Catholicism out of the dark ages of superstition and into the light of contemporary philosophical credibility. It will be enough in this response to take up just one of Guttings radical enlightenersDavid Hume.

Matt generously summarizes Guttings metaphysical agnosticism as preserving the space of uncertainty that might, indeed, be necessary for faith. Fair enough. But what does it mean to be certain? I can be certain that 2+2=4. I can be certain that the sun will rise tomorrow. I can be certain that I love my wife. I can also have been certain about something that turned out to be wrong: But I was certain that you were going to be there! For the philosophers of the Enlightenment, the important question had to do with the constraints placed on claims to certainty, and in Hume, Gutting has chosen the enlightener who placed perhaps the narrowest constraints on what could count as a proper claim to be certain. For Hume, all ideas must be traced back to impressions that come to us through sense perception, if we are to be certain about them. Beyond this, once an impression enters the mind as an idea its vividness begins to degrade, such that only the most immediate connection between impressions and ideas can be the most certain.Famously, this meant that, for Hume, cause and effect could never be something about which we could be certain, because causes are only connections that the mind draws between ideas. They are not objects about which we can have sensory impressions, and therefore could never be vivid enough as ideas to aspire to the level of knowledge. I can never know that one billiard ball striking another causes the second billiard ball to move. I can only observe the motion of one and then the subsequent motion of the other. Humes account of certainty then is a rather blunt instrument: either I am currently having an impression of something that is creating a vivid idea in my mind about which I can claim certainty or I have a fading notion of somethings having been or some connection between ideas that may or may not have any foundation in sense experience and thus no certainty. It is with this butter-knife epistemology that Gutting proposes to do metaphysical brain surgery. A rational defense of religion with one arm tied behind his back. A philosophical hole-in-one with a pitching wedge. get the idea.Given Humes account of certainty, it is no wonder that Gutting must remain agnostic about metaphysics. Hume is notoriously agnostic about everything. He attributes observations concerning the laws of nature to custom and moral claims to a certain feeling that we bestow upon certain behaviors. Certainty is not something that I can properly attribute to all sorts of claims from the sun will rise tomorrow to I love my wife to murder is wrong. We can say, Based on my recollection of past impressions, the sun is likely to rise tomorrow. Or, Based on customary interpretations of the way I feel and behave when my wife is around, one might say that I love her. Or, Based on the relative sense of aversion that people feel to witnessing the wanton killing of innocents, murder is icky.As these last two examples indicate, however, Humes philosophy does not just pose a problem for metaphysics, about which Gutting is happy to be agnostic, but it also undermines any commitment to the two things about which Gutting claims not to be agnostic: an ethics of love and conscience. Thankfully, Hume is not the only philosophical offering on the Enlightenment buffet. His slightly younger contemporary Immanuel Kant quickly saw that Humes radical skepticism, though decidedly admirable for its philosophical scrupulousness, would undermine certain practices that we simply cannot seem to doubt. This includes sensory experience itself, which requires the category of cause and effect in order to gather what are otherwise discrete and chaotic impressions into the unified world that is assumed by just about everything we do. Similarly, our moral practices require some notion of freedom, otherwise there would be no reason to hold ourselves or anyone else responsible for anything. For our purposes, this notion of transcendental freedom will suffice if we want to rescue Guttings notion of conscience from Humes skepticism.Gutting wants to go even further than Kant, however, who was relatively happy to simply preserve the most basic and uncontroversial practices of natural science and common sense ethics by positing some very minimal supersensible notions. Gutting wants an ethics of love. Traditionally, I think we can say that love is distinguished from other normative concepts, like law, by three features:1) It involves a commitment that goes beyond, but does not exclude, publicly accessible modes of accountability, like democratic deliberation or autocratic command. If I loved my wife only because I was commanded to do so or because it was decided that I should by popular vote, we would hardly call what I was doing loving. Rather, love involves some internal commitment that cannot be judged empirically; at least in the way that Hume understands such judgment.2) Love is particular. I love this person as my spouse and not just any old spouse. Of course, this is controversial, even in Christian ethics, since we are called to love all of our neighbors, including those that might be considered enemies, and as such, the love we are called to seems to be universal. However, as universal, it would seem also to be generic. I dont have to love John as a unique individual; I only have to love him as an instance of neighbor. This is where the (dare I say, metaphysical) specificity of Christ, about which Gutting seems agnostic, becomes important. If Christ is the model for this ethics of love, then we have to love all people as Christ loved them, i.e. in their particularity. Of course, Christ is not the only model of this kind of universally specific love, but the more general philosophical claim involved in the doctrine of the Incarnation, i.e. that the universal is the particular and vice versa, is one that cannot be ignored, if we are talking about love.3) Lastly, love trumps all other commitments, including self-preservation. Once again, this is controversial, and it requires us to invoke Christ as a model, but not exclusively. If I claim to love someone, I am not simply saying that I will consider this commitment when it is convenient for me or expected by my normative community or commanded by some other authority. Rather, I organize my whole life around that commitment such that it is regulatory for all of my other commitments. This is what love is. For Christians, the Cross is the image of this radically supervenient commitment: To love is to love unto death. Once again, we are confronted with the kind of commitment that extends beyond the bounds of what Hume would consider to be properly rational, insofar as it literally takes us beyond the bounds of sense into that realm where eye has not seen and ear has not heard. Again, Christ is not the only model of self-sacrifice, but it is difficult for me to see how self-sacrifice does not involve a metaphysical commitment to some thing that exists beyond the bounds of what Hume would consider to be certain.As Kant said of Humes continued commitment to science and common sense ethics, I submit that Guttings metaphysical agnosticism cannot maintain a rational commitment to his ethics of love. He might retreat to a pious celebration of romantic sentimentalism or love as a custom, but in that case, he has simply chosen Hume over Christianity, even when the latter is translated into a non-sectarian ethics of love. All he is left with is a kind of semantic love and a semantic Catholicism. On this account, all professions of love only report a certain correspondence between ones behavior and some publicly available definition of the word lovee.g., As the poet would say, I love you. Mutatis mutandis, all professions of faith mark a similar correspondence between my behavior and the observable social practice called Catholic. This strikes me as a rather desiccated account of love (and Catholicism), and in Kants sense, one that does not quite correspond to the practice of loving in which we seem spontaneously to engage. In short, love (and Catholicism) is metaphysical (the rest is just semantics).To bring this rather long discussion to a close, I should say that Humes is indeed a respectable position, as is the kind of nominal Catholicism that Gutting affirms. By all accounts, Hume was a perfectly decent guy. After a long day of speculatively dismantling his rational belief in his own "self," for example, he claimed to unwind by playing backgammon and dining in the company of friends. As they say, he was the kind of guy that you would want to have a beer with, and, I would add, the kind of parishioner any pastor should be happy to count as a member of the congregation (no excommunication necessary!). He also seems to have been pretty moral. After all, sentiments can get you pretty far. Thankfully, not too many of us find it agreeable to witness the wanton killing of innocents (or, for that matter, the guilty). In this sense, the new atheists are absolutely right to say that the metaphysical doctrines that many religions affirm are in no way necessary for common sense notions of ethics (but, of course, Thomas Aquinas account of natural reason already beat them to this particular punch). But, what about an ethics of love? An ethics that is grounded in the reasons of the heart? An ethics that is able to recognize every person in his or her particularity. An ethics that will go all the way, pay the ultimate price, stake being itself? What, I ask, could be more metaphysical?

About the Author

Eric Bugyis teaches Religious StudiesĀ at the University of Washington Tacoma.



Commenting Guidelines

  • All

While I think Hume was technically correct, Kant was more realistic. He agreed that some things, like the existence of God, are unprovable, but that we all still cast our votes for these things with our actions. There's a great video lecture by Keith Ward on Kant and he says Kant described faith like this ... "The practical forces you to a decision that theoretically you can't make. - theoretical agnosticism but practical commitment." He says that though we can't prove we have some moral obligations, like love of the kind Jesus had for everyone, Kant says we still act as if those obligations do exist - example: Martin Luther saying "Here I stand. I can do no other."

Two notes --Hume was a jolly guy, but I wouldn't call him "perfectly decent". He thought, for instance, that adultery is OK if you don't get caught. This seems to be predicated on the princple that what is evil is what makes someone else feel bad. For Hume, in the end all value is a matter of feeling.A metaphysical note: transcendental notions (including thing, being, one, true, good, beautiful) are *not* a variety of genus (general class). They do not have a super-universal sense, though their referents include all beings. Genera leave out specific differences. The transcendentals leave out nothing that is real. They are (according to the ancients) characteristics or ways of understanding *all* things. And it seems to me that love, insofar as it is a feeling/affection which is attracted to every good, is a transcendental feeling. The problem, of course, is that not all beings seem to be good, and, therefore, they are not all lovable. By the way, that word "feeling" is ambiguous. In philosophy it can mean only the sensory, lower level attractions and animosities directed at sensory things, or it can include higher level/spiritual "emotions". Hume, admitting the reality of *only* sensory data and knowledge, cannot possibly reach the level of the non-sensory. Most conspicuously, when he looks among his sensory data he can't find anything that is a "self", so he concludes there really isn't even a self, there is only a "bundle of perceptions" one calls "myself". (Very Buddhist of him.) And out goes higher level love, intellect, choice, and all the other realities that a closer look at the data in consciousness reveals if one looks carefully enough. He doesn't even reflect on the "consciousness of..." stuff which is different from the objects of consciousness. All of this remains problematic for all of the citizens of Enlightenmentland. It is also why (my broken record starts to play again) Nagel's apostasy from such thinking is so important -- he breaks with the great purely sensory tradition of the Enlightenment, using the very *method* of the Enlightenment, i.e., critical thinking.

Ann: Thanks for your comment. All of this metaphysical stuff gets pretty complicated very quickly. I don't know the ancients and medievals as well. But I think it's safe to say that for Hume anything supersensible was metaphysical, and anything supersensible was not real. Kant wanted to carve out a space between the physically sensible and the metaphysically supersensible, with his notion of "transcendental." The "transcendental" was physical (in a sense) in so far as it was the condition of the possiblity for some spatio-temporal practice (e.g. freedom makes morality possible), but it was also supersensible insofar as he granted Hume (who famously "woke him from his dogmatic slumber") the point that such "transcendentals" were not available to intuition. This is to say that there is no "intellectual" sense that perceives (has an impression of) "freedom." (This is where Kant departs from the ancients and medievals, I think.) It is simply what must be presupposed by moral practice, which we can perceive as "real" in space and time. The question is: Is Kant's "transcendental" also "metaphysical"? Hume would say, "yes." Later critics of Kant, like Heidegger, would say, "yes." I think Kant would say that the "transcendental" necessarily leads to the metaphysical (the transcendent) as something like the condition of its possibility. If finite freedom makes morality possible, what makes finite freedom possible? A supremely free being (i.e. God). All that's important for my response to Gutting, however, is that *Hume* would have thought the "transcendental" is "metaphysical." Thus, if love is a transcendental, as you say, on Hume's account, it is still metaphysical. For what it's worth, I agree with those that say that Kant's notion of the "transcendental" is "metaphysical," since freedom, for example, is either real or it isn't. When I make moral judgments, I'm not just assuming for the sake of argument that someone is free; I am performatively claiming that they are free even though I cannot immediately preceive this freedom. So, I am affirming a reality that excedes my spatio-temporally limited capacities to know. This is what most theologians would probably call faith, and it is decidedly *not* agnosticism.

Crystal: Thanks for your comment. I agree on the Hume versus Kant adjudication, but with one important caveat. Hume is "technically correct," if you grant his "technical" account of certainty as confined to immediate sense impressions. Though, I suggested in the original post that this might be an overly scrupulous account of certainty, which is philosophically not very helpful. Thus, Kant is more realistic, because he can account for more of our reality. I am less comfortable calling Kant "theoretically agnostic," but (pace Ward) I realize this is a controversial point in Kant interpretation. My uncomfortability is related to my worry about Hume being "technically correct." Kant might be "theoretically agnostic," if you mean by "agnostic" the absence of knowledge, and you define knowledge as immediate sense impression. But, of course, for Kant, unlike Hume, there are lots of things (like cause and effect) that Kant thinks are philosophically very important. So, again "theological agnosticism" doesn't do much for us except to indicate that I am most certain about what I am perceiving right now, but that accounts for a very small part of our "experience."As for love, here I will have to now disagree with Ann, who said that love was a "transcendental." At least, for Kant, I don't think it can be, as I tried to indicate in the orginal post. Kant cannot quite get us to "love of the kind Jesus had," because he would be very uncomfortable with a kind of obligation that is radically subject-centered, particularly oriented, and supervenient. For him the practical life must be public, universal, and embraced as an end in itself, which is to say it cannot allow for any teleological suspension for the sake of any higher ends (like love). For Kant, a "hear I stand" position (like Luther's) would be morally untenable, because you couldn't demand that all people act that way. If everyone was going around claiming, "Here I stand; I can do no other," then everyone would be claiming a kind of immunity from moral judgment on the grounds of something like personal vocation, and morality as a universal practice would fall apart.I think you are right, though, that love has this character, and it also has the character that we love who we love irrespective of their goodness (or, at least, God loves them that way, and we are called to love as God loves). This is where Ann and I might also disagree. For Kant, this would be somewhat monsterous, since the good simply is what is embraced for its own sake without any extra commitment (i.e., love). So, there ought to be no question of a supramoral love as the condition of the possibility (the "transcendental") for embracing the whole system of good and evil that we call human morality. And yet, human beings do seem to need such a love, which is to say that we do ask the rather monstrous question: Why be moral? In this sense, it seems that we cannot help but be metaphysically curious, which again does not seem to be the same thing as being "metaphysically agnostic."

Eric =It's very difficult to compare medieval and modern philosophers because they often use the same physical symbols (e.g., "metaphysical", "transcendental") but the *senses* they associate with the symbols are rarely the same or even much alike. For the Greeks and medievals the "transcendentals" are concepts/notions which one way or another describe *all* beings, including all the purely material ones all the way up to God. For the moderns the "transcendent" generally connotes only that which is beyond the material, and includes it includes the spiritual (if such exists), Yes, Kant tried to salvage physics (he began as a physicist, not a philosopher), but I don't think he managed to save it. In some ways I think he's philosophically naive, as are most of the moderns who typically don't know the progress, clarifications, and new problems raised by their ancients. (Few of them knew what went on between the Greeks andDescartes.) Consider Kant's own notion of the categorical imperative -- it's not describable in physical terms, yet he naively grants that it's quite real. Even his own system shouldn't allow him to do that. One thing that most of the philosophers seem to agree about (besides the value of logic) is that there is indeed a physical level of reality. (Even those who think that every reality is mental think that there are mental things that are dimensional in some way. See Berkeley, for instance,) The big chasm is between the materialists (called "reductionists" these days) and the dualists (those who think there is evidence of both matter and spirit). Those who think that the *only* kind of data we have is physical data hold that we are never warranted in positing anything beyond this physical physical, ie. nothing transcendent in their sense of the term. In effect, they define reality as physical reality, thereby defining spirits, including God, out of the realm of possibility. What surprises me about Gutting is his apparent "agnosticism" about the spiritual dimension. Has he never done a phenomenological analysis of the data within his own consciousness and found some realities that can neither be seen, heard,smelled, tasted, etc? Does he, for instance, deny any knowledge of the reality of acts of choice? It seems to me that choice is a free act and that we know it directly -- our choosing is simply there. If he does admit we know choosing, that would seem to be inconsistent with his great appreciation of "the ethics of love"? And what about his view of logical realities? Does he consider logical concepts to somehow be sensory realities? Or is he agnostic about them too? Since the development of contemporary logic the philosophers of logic and math have been forced to look again at the logical/metaphysical concepts of necessity, contingency and possibility (which has ironically turned some of them into metaphysicians!). Surely Gutting doesn't think that all possibilities are actual sensory entities of some sort? And what about Frege's argument that an intellectual act of negation is itself a spiritual reality, being a non-physical act, i.e., one which can neither be seen, touched, tasted, etc.? Frege, of course, was (GASP!!!) a Platonist, but the contemporaries tolerate him because of his giant status as mathematician and logician. (More inconsistency on the part of the contemporary champions of Enlightenment skepticism,) I wonder what Gutting learned in his "metaphysics" and epistemology classes in college. True, if he went to a Catholic college in the old days his courses in all probability were not set up to consider the epistemological problems posed by Hume. (I think that in fact Hume's problems have not all been solved. But at least a few of them have.) Still, given Gutting's emphasis on love (some types of which are non-sensory realities) I cannot understand why he is agnostic about the transcendent. You don't have to believe in God and angles to know the spiritual reality of some human acts. They alone can take you past physics and biology. True, we don't understand everything about all spiritual realities, but we do know something about them. The apophatic way has its merits, but it's not the whole story.

Eric,Thanks for the response. BTW, I liked your past Kant post, The Parallax of American Religion, also.I only had one class in college on Kant and we spent the whole semester trying to understand just the introduction of the Critique of Pure Reason ;) Since college I've been trying to catch up with help from the internet, stuff like this video on Kant from Susan Neiman ... .... And there were some of the Harvard Justice class videos on Jant too: this one on Kant and freedom ... ... and this one on Kant and lying ... ... but still, I have to struggle to understand all this stuff.

Ann: Thanks for the very helpful response. I appreciate the difficulty in comparing the medievals and moderns. My teacher Denys Turner is always suspicious that Kant is just trying (and probably failing) to reinvent the wheel that Thomas Aquinas already built. Though I do think that something happened in the Enlightenment (as you say, Hume's problems are still with us), and therefore we do need a new philosophical wheel. I don't think Kant gets everything right, but I think he has some tools to think about the place of religion in modern society, and they are better tools than Gutting's particular enlighteners seem to have.So, I think we might still quibble over some things (e.g. I'm not sure that we have *direct* knowledge of "things" like choosing (which is not to say that we have no epistemic access to them), and I would want to more clearly distinguish between the apophatic and the agnostic), but we absolutely agree about the untenability of holding onto "metaphysical agnosticism" and an "ethics of love."Crystal: Thanks for your response. It's always nice to find another Kant enthusiast. As you say, he is very difficult, but I find him endlessly fascinating!

Eric ==I admire a lot of Kant, but i think that ultimately he didn't save the objectivity of sensory perception. I think that it can't be saved, not to Hume's satisfaction, but that isn't too important. What is important,I think, is our experience, however cloudy of certain spiritual givens (e.g., self, concepts, acts of the will), and these do allow metaphysics in the Aristotelian sense to be developed. An unpopular notion these days, but it seems that the worm is turning. I'm with the rationalists, Greek, medieval, Enlightened, or contemporary, so long as they grant the limits of logic in dealing with the transcendentals (in the Greek, medieval sense of the term). Lucky you to have had Denys Turner! Great scholar:-) And speaking of Turner, I think that negation -- or should I say the *concept* of negation (which sounds like an oxymoron) is at the root of a lot of our metaphysical problems. But the new Aquinas will have to clarify that whole area. (Hmm. I don't know what Thomas had to say on the subject, but I do know that Scotus said, "We do not love negations best". Double hmmm.)

Ann: Yes, I feel very blessed to have been able to work with Denys, who is both an amazing scholar and just a all-around great person. I agree with you about the importance of "negation." There is still much more to be said (or *not*... or *un*-said) about it. Thanks!

According Matthew Boudways interpretation of Gary Guttings On Being Catholic, a reflective and honest intellectual, believes some of the churchs teachings but not others, and some of the ones he believes may require a bit of reinterpretation. Did I miss the part where Gutting signs the Cafeteria Catholic Manifesto? Gutting is then accused of metaphysical agnosticism. This is a screeching non sequitur. Boudway should re-read Guttings text. Gutting is simply trying to say that theistic metaphysics should not be read literally. Indeed. Nothing should be read literally. Is metaphysical agnosticism wrong? Where does St. Thomas say that we can know God directly? Is the current of thought exemplified by the metaphysics of Nicolai Hartmann all wrong? Without denying anyone the right to practice metaphysical gnosticism, Id like to point out that it is also known as fundamentalism. According to Guttings accommodating definition of Catholicism, Boudway tells us, one could presumably still be a Catholic while believing that the story of Christs Resurrection is a parable. Gutting doesnt say that. Gutting says: The historical stories, I maintain, are best taken as parables illustrating moral and metaphysical teachings. Where does he mention Christs Resurrection? To make things worse, Boudway confuses content and from. By definition, Christs Resurrection cannot be a parable. A parable can only be an utterance about the Resurrection. Undeterred, Boudway continues: One could even remain a Catholic while claiming to be agnostic about the Trinity or, for that matter, the existence of God. Is Boudway implying that believing in the Trinity is not enough, that indirect knowledge of God is not good enough, if one desires to remain a card-carrying Catholic? Are we witnessing the rise of a new dogmatism which will condemn the writings of Gary Gutting, a serious Catholic philosopher, to the Index librorum prohibitorum? In that case, I will hasten to buy all of his books, before some new intellectual Savonarola decides to take matters into his hands. According to Boudway, Gutting knows there are lots of people both inside and outside the Church who would say that what he is describing isnt really Catholicism. There was a time when the writings of Aquinas were rejected as not really Catholic. Fortunately, the Church ultimately ruled against his narrow-minded enemies. Indeed, it is not up to self-proclaimed church ideologues to rule who gets to be Catholic. Being Catholic is not an ideological issue. Despite its flaws, writes Gutting, the Catholic tradition of thought and practice is the only stance toward religion with which I feel at home.Boudways reaction to this moving, heartfelt statement is stunningly arrogant: Whatever the strength of Guttings argument for remaining a Catholic if thats the only religious tradition one has ever known, it does not appear to furnish an excuse, much less a reason, for becoming a Catholic. This is not an argument! Gutting talks about feeling at home. Having, once again, misunderstood Gutting, Boudway allows him to stay. The native heretic will be grudgingly tolerated, but not the immigrant. In other words, a convert, such as Ross Douthat, may not use Guttings arguments to justify his conversion. A true orgy of hubris and arrogance!

Zoran: I think the question is how does one distinguish between "metaphysical agnosticism" and a kind of philosophical apathy toward metaphysics? Hume seems to leave us with the later, at least if Kant is to be believed. Kant, though, was no metaphysical dogmatist. He would agree with Thomas that we can have no knowledge of God, but he did say that we could have "rational belief" concerning metaphysical claims (indeed, we have to have such belief). So, the problem is that the categories of "agnosticism/gnosticism" are simply to blunt to be philosophically helpful when parsing metaphysical claims. They are always going to say too much or too little, and I'm afraid that Gutting says too little.

Add new comment

You may login with your assigned e-mail address.
The password field is case sensitive.

Or log in with...

Add new comment