Monday, June 18, 2007

Something new...

I've had a lot of people ask what I do. Well, I am wife of Todd, mother of Miriam, and everything else constitutes about 5% of my life. In that 5%, I am working on a master's thesis in philosophy and I listen in on two dead white guys--Descartes and Pascal. Their give-and-take has helped me so much in understanding what it means to be a Catholic, a child of the modern world, and how to navigate the waters of faith, reason, religion, and science. Since Todd is a scientist and I'm ... not, the whole thesis has helped me find a way to talk with him about philosophy, theology, and science in one conversation. And that's gold!

So, here's the overview (the one I submitted to the prof.) of the thesis, which is currently on Chapter 3.

"The Enlightenment sought a purely rational basis for understanding moral world that would determine, beyond all dispute, the first principles of thought and the fulfillment of human desires. The history of its failure to do so is well-known: in the three-and-a-half centuries following Descartes’s call for those “clear and distinct” ideas that would free philosophical thought from contention and muddle, mankind strove to live by reason alone for the improvement of the human condition. The central requirement of its method was that it assume there to be no essential connection between the physical mechanics of, say, the human heart and its “final cause.” The result was a world of rationally-determined purposes without inherent ends, artificial goods with no transcendent meaning. As Blaise Pascal observed from the beginning, the modern mind is necessarily “neutral, indifferent, suspending judgment on everything, not excluding ourselves.” In an effort to find himself on certain ground, modern man lost his way and, per Pascal’s prophecy, himself.

Pascal not only criticized, however, but also offered an alternative to the Cartesian philosophy. As Lucy Beckett writes,

'The alternative is to choose to trust a tradition in which to think, to judge, to live, because we discover that a tradition does exist, a collaborative achievement of coherent intellectual effort with a long history still accessible, that confirms our experience of what we have found--using, quietly, words we cannot do without--to be good, beautiful, and true. What we may then discover is that the tradition we have come upon makes more and more sense to us, makes more and more sense of our own lives, which begin to take on the very unity that turns out to be real and full of infinitely explorable meaning (Beckett 3).'

For Pascal, the intellectual tradition making most sense of the human condition is that made possible by the Incarnation--the Word made flesh and dwelling among us. In the unity of God and man, the fragmented pieces of man’s experience of his own condition come together to form that “infinitely explorable” whole, a whole in which each piece’s meaning becomes clearer if not clear and distinct. Men are capable of knowing both more than Descartes allowed and less: a more complex understanding of human thought, based on experience, will recover both the mathematical and physical sciences as well as man’s self-knowledge. To that end, Pascal rejects the rejection of the essential, unifying principles of classical philosophy while embracing the scientific method for the purpose of mastering the material world’s mysteries. It is the tradition of the ancients and Christian thinkers, he claims, that allows him to do so. "

That's the project. We'll get back to Aristotle tomorrow. Hoorah!

[Oh, and you really should check out Lucy Beckett. Her book, In the Light of Christ, is a smashing collection of essays on various Western thinkers from Aeschylus to Augustine, from Dante to Newman, from Pascal (!) to Pope John Paul II.]

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