Friday, October 19, 2007

On Being a Catholic Philosopher

Some people have asked me to address the question "Can one be a Catholic and a philosopher?" as a result of various provocations (including a recent blog post in which the question came up, but which I've not had time to read). I paste below a very quick email in response to these requests.
Haven’t had a chance to look, but it's hard for me to imagine what the point of the question is. The only interesting question I can see in the vicinity is this: do one’s commitments as a Catholic prevent one from having the intellectual freedom to do philosophy as it should be done? The answer to that question is also clearly yes. Every philosopher has certain commitments which are or nearly are “ungivupable” because of what seems most clearly true to them. Sometimes these are called our “intuitions”. Some intuitions are stronger than others and sometimes they shift. For many (I’d guess most) philosophers there are certain intuitions which are pretty strong and stable, for example that there are no true contradictions. I don’t take seriously the idea that there are, but I know there are smart people who think there’s something to paraconsistent logic and I’ve been convinced in the past of the necessity of certain deviations from classical logic, so I’m not 100% certain that there are no true contradictions (though I don’t even at this point know what it would mean to say that there are). An even better example is the Moorean response to skepticism. I’m very convinced that there is an external world. Much more convinced than I am of the disjunction of the conjunction of all the premises of all the skeptical arguments of which I am aware. I don’t take skepticism seriously in that I’m not the *least* bet tempted to believe skepticism. However, I do take it seriously as a *puzzle* I’m convinced that we learn a lot about rationality when we consider the skeptical puzzles. Nevertheless, it’s conceivable to me that things could change. Likewise, I’m quite convinced that Catholicism is true. I’m not very tempted to believe any objection to its truth of which I am aware. However, I do take such objections seriously in that I think there is much of value to learn from pondering them. Still, it’s conceivable that things could change: if I became more convinced of the conjunction of the premises of some argument the conclusion of which entailed the negation of the core claims of the Church, then I’d stop being a Catholic. In short, that Catholicism is true is one of the things about which I count as being rationally convinced. So other, less-certain items have to make room for it (just like they have to—to different degrees—the law of non-contradiction and the existence of the external world). But I’m a good neo-Bayesian, so I don’t have 100% confidence in anything. All propositions are negotiable. A better question is Can a Naturalist be a philosopher? It has been noted that naturalism is not really a philosophical approach to anything, but rather a stance or attitude (see van Fraassen’s essay in Kvanvig’s volume on Plantinga and recently my colleague Ney “Physicalism is an Attitude” but there are others in between such as Perry’s “antecedent physicalism”). It’s essentially a kind of fideism, but fideism has been condemned by the Church so though it is an option for Naturalists and Protestants, it simply isn’t an option for Catholics (modulo what’s said above). The use of the terms "certitude," "certainty," and "doubt" have pretty narrow usages in traditional Catholic epistemology, so don't be mislead by statements before Vatican II on the subject.