Mark McNeil

mcneiltheology.com

Philosophy Articles

This page is devoted in articles on specifically philosophical topics.  Although related to theology, these articles are written with only an appeal to reason and no direct appeal to the contents of Christian revelation.  Although obviously motivated by Christian concerns, these articles can be read by those who do not share Christian convictions but are committed to following the insights of reason wherever they may lead.
        
Catholic Christianity has a high regard for philosophy.  Philosophy is a vitally important expression of the "image of God" in the human person.  The power to wonder and question, the real inspiration of genuine philosophical thought, reveals the potential depths of the human intellect and freedom.  One hotly debated topic in the 20th century in certain Catholic circles revolved around whether or not there is such a thing as "Christian Philosophy."  On the one hand were those who insisted that the very notion of Christian Philosophy is a contradiction in terms since to introduce our faith-commitments into the context of philosophy fundamentally alters the its nature.  On the other hand, there were philosophers who were convinced that the insights of faith give direction to the philosopher much like reading the answers at the end of a math textbook enables the student to more easily solve a problem.  Even though the Christian can admit that his faith directs and informs his thought it is also possible for him to develop lines of reasoning that do not depend on any explicit appeal to the contents of faith.  A Christian is then honest about the fact that he wants to defend certain conclusions because of his beliefs but he may also contend that it is possible to offer that defense on purely philosophical grounds.

It is also worth noting that all philosphers have presuppositions and basic world-view commitments.  Long ago Aristotle persuasively showed that if every axiom of thought has to be justified by a more basic axiom of thought one will be inevitably caught in an infinite series of justifications.  The result, of course, is that no final justification will be found.  There must be starting-points or "givens" from which the rest of human knowledge and reason must proceed.  These "givens" should be basic or foundational to all thought and experience.  They "justify" themselves or show themselves to be foundational and indubitable precisely because the denial of them will result in the collapse of all knowledge.  The classic example is the Principle of Non-Contradiction.  A cannot be both A and non-A at the same time and in the same way.  In other words, a thing is what it is.  If this is not true, all knowledge and speech collapses.  If any particular thing could simultaneously be anything else, no stability exists in thought or communication.  It is from such basic principles that Aristotle, Aquinas, and countless others have developed systems of logic, metaphysics, physics, and the many other disciplines that are built on the conviction that human beings have the capacity to discover truth.  

I might add the fact that human beings encounter a world that is other than ourselves is another axiom of human experience.  The world of experience imposes itself on our sense organs and provides the basic data of our reflection and reasoning.  If we deny the axiom that affirms the reality of the world and our ability to experience it and think about it, we will inevitably find ourselves trapped within our own minds with little hope of escaping.  One need only think of the philosophical connundrums that resulted from Rene Descartes' systematic doubting.  Very few think he was successful in his method of escape and the history of philosophy leading through the likes of Leibniz, Spinoza, Hume, Kant, and, now, the Postmoderns, shows that the best of minds that operate from the skeptical orientation of Descartes are unable to overcome his philosophical dead-end. 

To continue, another fundamental aspect of our experience is the motion or change that characterizes the world about us.  Whether we look internally at the flow of thought that is always present in the mind or externally at the world of flux and change about us, we are confronted with change or "becomingness."  It is this basic feature of the sensory world that led minds like Aquinas and others to the conclusion that there must be an unchanging ground or source of all reality that explains "becomingness."  The logic is fairly simple.  When something comes to be, some potentiality has been actualized.  Something that was not but could be actually came to be.  The possible thing that became actual is not a sufficient explanation for this "becoming."  Some actual, logically prior cause accounts for that actualization.  Since there cannot be an infinite series of dependent causal relationships that precede any given, present effect (since an infinity never ends and therefore we could never arrive at a present "effect" if an infinity had to precede it), it must be that the causal relationships we see now are finite in number.  When we reach the end of the finite series, then, we must be looking at a self-explained, uncaused ground of the world of becoming.  We call this self-existent, eternal, uncaused, source of everything, God.  Of course, there are other axioms of thought implied in this conclusion (e.g., principle of causality) that should be discussed.  My present goal is not to antipicipate all concievable objections but simply to offer a classic example of philosophical interests that overlap with theological interests.

Philosophy considers not only questions pertaining to ultimate causality, logic, and knowledge, but also questions of morality.  What should we do?  Why is there evil in the world?  Is morality objective or merely subjective?  is there a natural law?  What motives are there to obey it? 

The following essays, and, hopefully, many more to come, are intended to offer examples of Christian philosophy.  Even if one is not a Christian, the arguments made can be persuasive and even convincing.  It is this feature or goal of these articles that makes them "philosophy."

 A Reply to Stephen Hawking's book, The Grand Design.  A critical appraisal of a famous scientist's recent atheistic interpretation of modern physics and cosmology.  Focuses on the philosophical/logical errors of this book and defends the existence and necessity of God given what we know of this universe.

Is the Universe Infinite?  An article inspired by a few weeks of discussion with one of my "Augustine and Aquinas" classes several years ago.  Includes an analysis of the meaning of infinity, distinctions in the use of this term, some reflection on "space" and contemporary cosmology.  Concludes the universe is potentially infinite inasmuch as there is no necessary limit to the expansion and creativity within the universe but also that the universe is not actually infinite insofar as it near reaches true infinity since it is always a measurable, finite collection of finite things.

The Real Problem with Abortion.  An article I wrote years ago that is available on various websites.  I've gotten much good feedback based on this effort to identify the central philosophical issue in this moral controversy.

 
What Does God Want of Me?  An article written in reply to a student's challenge that God's purpose for human beings should be more obvious than it is.  I make use of Aquinas' approach to human nature in order to provide a response to this question.

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