Many years ago, one of my professors at Fordham told me, “I mostly judge students' philosophical talents not by the answers they give but by the questions they raise.”
Recently this remark sprung up from the “caverns” of my memory, and I appreciate its wisdom a lot more now than when I first heard it.
We all have landed in a complex and mysterious world, and inevitably, having a rational mind, we are bound to raise questions about the why and wherefore of our existence.
Who am I? Why am I on this earth? What is truth? What is morally good and morally evil? What are the things which matter most?
Tragically enough, one can also raise meaningless and unnecessary questions, or questions which, if ever answered, do not shed light on the purpose and meaning of human life. Why am I five foot and five inches tall and not five foot and eight inches? Why do I have brown eyes and not blue eyes like my father? Why was I born in Belgium and not in China? An answer to these questions would certainly not help me to have a better understanding of the mystery of human existence.
The great thinkers throughout the ages – and by great I do not mean famous but wise – are those who have raised key questions, and tried to shed some light on them. Our debt to Plato, to mention but one name, is immense: his key interest was, “What is truth?” His teacher and mentor, Socrates, convinced him that this should be our great concern, (“I am interested in nothing but the truth”).
Philosophy is the “love of wisdom” and there is an essential bond between “wisdom” and “truth.” Alas, not all people “labeled” philosophers have been lovers of wisdom. They like to wear the “cap” of philosophers, but certainly do not deserve to be called wise. This is alas, often the case, and for diverse reasons, one of them is their being more concerned about showing off their “cleverness” than about seeking truth. Moreover, there are truths which are definitely not of their own liking and therefore are cleverly challenged.
Just as there is a hierarchy of truths, there is also a hierarchy of errors, and last but not least, a hierarchy of stupidities. It is a topic worth investigating into.
There are unnecessary questions, but there are also inane questions which make us worry about the sanity of the person raising them.
Suppose that someone asks: why can't two and two make five? We would be taken aback; if by two we mean two, and by four we mean four, the answer is self evident. Yet, reading a book of the great missionary, Father Henry van Straalen (who spent half of his life in the Far East), this very question was raised by a “famous man”, named Suzuki, a teacher of Zen Yoga. The latter told the missionary how erroneous it is to see logic as an indispensable tool in human life. Precisely referring to two and two is four, the same oriental thinker claims that for some people two and two could be three or five. “One might refuse to accept this fact, but fact it remains.” (See Zen Demystifie, H. van Straalen, S.V.D. Beauchesne, p. 94). To limit two plus two to a single answer is, a bit “narrow minded.”
If the fundamental laws of logic and thrown out of court, one wonders whether any intellectual exchange is meaningful.
Alas, this inanity can also penetrate into the key domain of ethics: the question of moral good and moral evil. That people can disagree about what Dietrich von Hildebrand calls, “The merely subjectively satisfying,” – something the importance of which depends exclusively upon my subjective likes and dislikes – disagreements are to be expected being given the very nature of pleasure. One person likes Coca Cola; another would dub it a “cultural sin.” There are also “goods for the person” that all men share: they refer to what benefits the development of the human person.
But when it comes to the very core of ethics: moral good and evil, we touch upon a domain in which there “should be” harmony between human beings, for all of them have the same destiny: to know and love God, and enjoy Him forever in heaven – if they have obeyed the divine laws given through Revelation or inscribed in the human heart.
Once this “natural” law is challenged, and rejected, we find ourselves in a world of moral chaos which is bound to end in disaster.
To make this more concrete let us imagine the following scenario: Rip van Winkle, after waking up for a while, did go back to sleep. This time, it is a much longer one. He wakes up today, after having been asleep for over a hundred years.
Let us put in parenthesis the overwhelming experience of finding himself in a world of mind boggling technological discoveries which have radically revolutionized man’s daily life. Electricity, radio, television, supersonic air planes, trips to the moon, the internet, computers, iPods. Not only is the list endless, but practically every single day, a new invention is sold to a public fascinated by progress and the tacit assumption that one day, man will be God.
Prayers had some justification at a time when man was helpless toward the forces of nature. Now “science” has proven how right Feuerbach was when he claimed that what man called God was a human projection of all the admirable talents that were lying in his nature.
Clearly the last century has proven that all that was needed for man to become god, was a bit more time.
Poor Rip, deafened by noise, confused by the wild succession of images on television set, decides to look a place where sanity is hopefully still respected. The answer seems simple: colleges and universities. As a matter of fact, on the walls of one of them, it is written that, “We are on the side of truth.”
Being interested in science, he enters a classroom where zoology was the topic: on that particularly day, it was devoted to pigs. The professor was certainly a “scholar”: every possible feature of these much maligned animals was at the tip of his fingers. He clearly was an “expert” on pigs. Toward the end of the class, he became more and more eloquent and informed his students that the weight of a pig’s brain is exactly the same as the one of the normal human person. Just before the bell rang, he drew the conclusion: this should prove that we have absolutely no right to declare human beings superiors to animals. The information I have shared with you proves it. It is sheer prejudice on the part of humans to declare their superiority.
This was another blow for poor Rip, and upon leaving the classroom he shared his concern with a fellow student. The latter looked at him with surprise: don’t you know that we now have progressed much farther: a famous professor has now convinced us that a healthy monkey is much superior to a crippled human being. The obvious conclusion is that to kill the monkey would be a crime. To get rid of a “misfit” is in fact, an act of charity; why burden the parents with a sick child? Why burden society with endless medical expenses?
Rip was discouraged but he refused to give up hope, and reasoned that a zoologist, proficient as he might be, is after all not qualified to teach ethics. He now enters the department of philosophy, and sits in another class dedicated to good and evil. Alas, Rip was in for another depressing surprise. It did not take long for the professor to convince his students that what we call the moral law is what is dictated by the particular society in which we live. We should refrain from passing moral judgments on societies whose moral code differs from ours. The conclusion was crystal clear; it is sheer arrogance to claim that we know what is good and evil, and then impose it on other people. The future of the world, universal peace depends upon our broadening our outlook and accepting other people’s “lifestyle.” The greatness of modern man is that he has finally liberated himself from the narrow shackles imposed upon us by the “dark ages.” The future is bright: we are now free.
In desperation, Rip now enters the department of religion, and attends a course called “Comparative Religions.” Once again, religion is interpreted as an expression of a particularly culture; hence, its different ceremonies, its different beliefs. They are all valid for a particular people, and one of the great progresses advanced by Biblical scholarship is to have demystified the Bible, and shown convincingly that miracles were popular ways to expounding particular religious views. Thanks to scholarship we have finally we have finally gained an objective and scientific approach to the Bible.
Now Rip is totally shattered. He leaves a place of high learning, and hope to recover by taking a strong cup of Starbucks coffee. He happens to sit next to two men discussing the imminent elections in the United States. The incumbent president is highly praised: not only does he favor the “rights of women over their bodies,” but he has no objection to late term abortion, and even to partial birth abortion. Rip hears for the first time, that the doctor delivering a baby is entitled to kill the baby when it is half out of his mother’s womb. The same president is praised for having recently fully endorsed same sex “marriage” as recognizing the rights that everyone has to follow his own lifestyle. One thing leads to another: embryonic cell research and euthanasia are defended; it is man’s right to experiment on living tissues to guarantee “medical advances,” and every person has a right to choose the moment of his death.
Now Rip is close to collapse. The world he had landed in is an insane asylum. But being trained by his Christian education to try to be charitable, he prefers to come to the conclusion: “I did not wake up; I clearly am having a nightmare.”
* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.