Another Response to Gary Gutting
Eric Bugyis April 3, 2013 - 10:30am
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. Awell...you 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 is currently working on a PhD in philosophy of religion at Yale University.