Recovering the Metaphysical Character of Truth
In his poem The Road Not Taken, Robert Frost presents a picture of man standing in the clearing of a forest, stuck at a fork between two paths. Deliberating between them, the narrator begins the poem by saying,
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth.i
The narrator studies each option carefully, wishing he could travel down both roads without picking between them. Ultimately, however, he selects, “the one less traveled by,”ii and proceeds forward. The power of this poem lies in the effect of that choice, the effect of the decision to commit to one of the two roads; the significance of choosing and committing to one path determines the rest of the traveler’s life.
In many ways, the story of the development of our modern epistemology (i.e. what we believe we can know about the world) is the story of our refusal to leave Frost’s clearing. Faced with the choice between multiple paths of metaphysical and ontological beliefs (i.e. ways of understanding what reality is and what actually exists), we’ve figured out a way to avoid the whole drama of Frost’s traveler: just don’t commit to either path. Influential currents in modern epistemology encourage us to withhold commitment from “unprovable” beliefs and remain in the clearing: a neutral, objective, and detached space from which we can “rationally” evaluate all paths without entangling ourselves in their vagaries. It is this epistemology which underlies modern attacks on faith as an illegitimate mode of knowing truth; the truths of faith, known without “certainty,” are considered unrespectable alongside the “proven” truths of science.
This paper will argue that our modern understanding of epistemology essentially has its roots in a metaphysical error committed by the 17th century philosopher Rene Descartes. To solve the problems created by modern, Cartesian epistemology, we need a restored Thomistic metaphysics. First, I will look at Descartes’ epistemology and the metaphysical mistake underlying it, and then I will examine Thomas Aquinas’ metaphysics and the epistemology produced by it, demonstrating how it avoids the errors of Descartes and makes room for the knowledge acquired through faith.
The Cartesian Worldview and Its Modern Manifestations
Before talking directly about Descartes, however, we must explore the background concept of deductive reasoning. Deductive reasoning proceeds by way of a simple mechanism: one starts with initial, purportedly self-evident, intuitive premises—“first principles”—and reasons from these first principles to further conclusions. Now, Descartes’ skepticism is a sort of extreme and exclusive devotion to the method of deductive reasoning. Thus, in his Discourses on Method, Descartes asserts, in the words of modern philosopher Larry Arnhart, “that one can find truth only by sweeping aside all preconceived ideas, so that knowledge can be constructed step by step on firm foundations.”iii That is, he “begins by doubting every opinion,”iv an approach that has now been given the name “skepticism.” Descartes thus sets aside all knowledge and ideas, particularly knowledge and ideas produced by our experience as humans living in the world. Indeed, the appeal of this approach lies in a seemingly innocuous desire: Descartes wishes to gain a supposedly truer, more certain description of reality.
It is impossible, however, to doubt every opinion, for, as explained above, deductive reasoning depends upon first principles with which it must begin. Hence, in order to know anything at all, Descartes must provide something to start with, some unproven assumption or premise. Thus he introduced his first principle, what has now become a famous axiom: I I am.v It is precisely here where Descartes really starts to separate himself from his predecessors, for he twists common sense around by supposing that it is not our being which enables our thinking but rather our thinking that enables our being; rationality, or “thinking,” has been made ontologically prior to being or existence.
Underlying this epistemic error is Descartes’ commitment to a metaphysics (a theory of what reality consists) that has come to be known as Cartesian dualism. Dualism is the metaphysical doctrine that there exists in the world both material things and spiritual things; the most common example of the latter is the soul or mind. It is contrasted with materialism (only material things) and idealism (only spiritual things). There are, however, many different ways of understanding dualism. Cartesian dualism consists in a dualistic system in which mental-spiritual substances are divided from material-physical substances as two separate realms, thus in a way justifying the aforesaid ontological priority of thinking: since the mind can be said to be a mental-spiritual substance, it can preexist the material brain specifically and body generally. It is in his metaphysical commitment to the independence of the mind from the body that Descartes falls into the epistemological error of supposing that thought is prior to and independent of the body’s existence.
The combined result of these factors is an extremely mechanistic worldview. All human knowledge and thought, in order to be true knowledge, must be capable of being derived through deductive (that is, abstract and disembodied) reasoning from the first principle of I think therefore I am. Truth, reality, what is, has become equated with certainty. To put it another way, truth has been detached from its contextual setting, from its existence in the world, and become “timeless and fixed” instead of “historical and changeable.”vi Reality has become entirely logical since it can be reached via deductive reasoning from Descartes’ first principle, and hence it is predictable and mechanical: it can be controlled. One might say that Descartes has substituted a description of reality for reality itself: what matters is not what one experiences but the logical explanation of that experience.
Descartes’ epistemology, and the worldview it generated (which is in fact the prevailing worldview of many modern intellectuals), has left us with several problems. The human intellect has made good on the initial desire of Frost’s traveler to avoid commitment; the modern world gives preeminence to a detached, objective, third-person mode of inquiry. It is not hard to see how such a view proceeds directly from the mechanistic skepticism of Descartes. What is perhaps more interesting is the way in which modern scientism, the common assumption today that scientific knowledge is more certain and therefore superior to all other modes of knowledge, evolves out of this mechanistic skepticism. Scientism arises from a misappropriation of Descartes, applying his method of deductive certainty to science. Proponents of scientism take over Descartes’ view that scientific knowledge is obtained through objective, third-person, detached experimentation, and the application of Cartesian principles to science has fallen into a serious error.
Scientific experimentation proceeds by way of inductive reasoning, that is, from the observation of particular, contingent phenomena, rather than from deductive reasoning, and as such does not produce any kind of necessary, logical truth. However, in popular perception, this distinction has been lost—in part as a result of the tremendous technological achievements of modern science and its undeniably effective and powerful predictive accuracy. Thus scientism has elevated scientific knowledge to the highest pedestal of certainty and value. In other words, we have mistaken scientific knowledge, which considers for its subject particular and contingent phenomena and develops generalizations (theories) by idealizing such observations, as being prescriptive rather than descriptive. We think a chemical combustion reaction is what makes cars go, instead of thinking that chemical combustion describes how cars go. In this way, scientific “facts” quickly become elevated to equal status with metaphysical facts, sometimes even replacing the metaphysical fact: thus protons and electrons are thought to be just as real, if not more real, than apples and oranges. Rightfully do we admire and value the predictive and explanatory power of scientific models, but we must not confuse explanations of what happens with the happening itself.
Descartes’ work has also lead to modern relativism and agnosticism, for it teaches us to regard non-scientific truths (such as truths about morality and God) as unknowable and ultimately unintelligible. Indeed, a consequence of Descartes’ skepticism is that any knowledge or experience that is not explained by or does not follow from a mechanistic model does not merit the status of truth or reality but is rather a subjective sensory experience. Truth and reality are determined by certainty, and the non-mechanistic knowledge and experience of persons does not qualify as certain. Hence, anything outside the scientistic framework of reality must be doubted as uncertain and thus is ultimately unintelligible: one cannot possibly make a truth claim about such things which are unknowable by their very non-mechanistic nature. Finally, Descartes ushered in modern materialism, the belief that all reality is material (no soul, no mind, no God): by positing his unique understanding of the soul as fundamentally unrelated to the body (by way of Cartesian dualism), Descartes introduced into our thinking, including much Christian thinking, an essentially insupportable idea of the soul that has tainted philosophical dualism ever since.
Problems with Cartesian Epistemology
Since materialism, scientism, and relativism are popular positions in the academy today, many may not find Descartes’ legacy in these areas troubling. There exists, however, another, crucial error produced by Descartes’ philosophy that is obviously problematic, namely the artificiality of knowledge. It must be remembered that logically certain knowledge is an idealization or generalization of reality and thus is characterized by an intrinsic artificiality. Descartes himself admits, in Book II of his Discourses on Method, that he must ignore certain particular details and smooth over imperfections, “…even pretending there is an order among things which do not follow naturally a sequence relative to one another.”vii To put it in clearer terms, if the intelligibility of material things depends upon our ability to fit them into the mechanistic models of our deductive reasoning, then intelligibility is no longer an intrinsic quality of things. Intelligibility is rather something external, something which humans, by detaching themselves from their subjectivity and forming an “objective” perspective, apply to material things and thus incorporate such material things into a mechanistic model. Knowledge has become limited to only being about things; there is no knowledge of things. Instead of knowing an apple as apple, we limit knowledge of the metaphysical or real apple to a description: a red fruit round in shape that grows on a tree, etc. Moreover, not only are we faced with this epistemological limitation but also a further metaphysical limitation: having lost any kind of intrinsic intelligibility, things must also lose any kind of intrinsic meaning, nature, or purpose, a fact recognized and often lamented by modern existentialists.
A Solution: Replacing Cartesian Dualism with Hylomorphic Dualism
Is it possible to avoid these conclusions? The solution, if it exists, must be looked for in the foundations, the underlying assumptions, at the heart of this modern worldview. We must return to the very origins of Descartes’ thinking and consider the error therein: the error of looking for certainty instead of truth, of letting epistemology determine metaphysics, of making the world conform to the mind rather than letting the mind conform to the world. Thus it is in striking at the heart of Descartes’ commitment to his unique understanding of dualism that we can restore a sound epistemology. Concerning this error, the 20th century Thomistic philosopher Jacques Maritain writes, “In demanding from the outset, by an imposed postulate whose conditions have not been critically examined, that one should livingly put extramental being ‘out of bounds,’ the possibility is practically and by presupposition admitted of stopping thought short at a pure object-phenomenon, i.e. of thinking of being while refusing to think of it as being.”viii
Here we can look to the philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas. Drawing from Aristotle, St. Thomas reinforced Christianity’s insistence on an intelligible extramental reality (Creation) by propagating a metaphysical system which has come to be known as hylomorphic dualism. Hylomorphism considers (physical) things as “composites of matter and form, and that in the case of a living thing, its soul is to be identified with the form of its body.”ix Thus Aristotle speaks of the vegetative souls of plants, the appetitive souls of animals, and the rational souls of humans. The hylomorphic dualism of Aquinas adds to this the assertion that the human soul is uniquely, among the forms of material things, subsistent, implying that it is capable of existing after death in separation from the body.x
In contrast, the central error of Descartes lies in his separation of thought from being. He can be said to have made the mistake of separating the extramental thing from the mental object, a separation made most clear in his substance dualism dividing mental-physical substances from material-physical substances:
His [i.e. Descartes’] capital error was the separation of the object and the thing, in the belief that the object is inside thought…but like an imprint stamped on wax. Thereby the intentional function disappears, the known object becomes something belonging to thought, an imprint or portrait which is innate, and intellection stops at the idea (regarded as instrumental idea). This portrait-idea, idea-thing has for double a thing which resembles, but which is not itself attained to by the act of intellection.xi
It was precisely here that we noted the artificiality of knowledge under Descartes’ theory: since the mental object is merely a kind of “imprint” of the real thing, one can never come to knowledge of the thing but only about it. Under the metaphysics of Aquinas’ hylomorphic dualism, however, there are no such problems, for the extramental thing and mental object remain intimately connected via the intelligible form of the thing. Responding to the various ways in which modern philosophers influenced by the dualism of Descartes have misunderstood the relationship of the extramental thing and the mental object, Maritain writes,
Philosophical reflection has neither to reconstitute the thing apart from the object as a necessary hypothesis, nor to suppress the thing as a superfluous hypothesis, which is a contradiction in itself, but to affirm the fact that the thing is given with and by the object, and indeed that it is absurd to wish to separate them. On this point a truly critical critique of knowledge, one which is entirely faithful to the immediate stuff of reflective intuition, is in accord with commonsense in its apologia for the thing. In Thomist language, the thing is the ‘material object’ of the senses and the intellect, while what I have here called the object… is its ‘formal object’: both the material and the formal object being attained at once and indivisibility by the same perception.xii
Thus Thomas’ superior understanding of dualism allows him to reject Descartes’ epistemological errors. This alternative metaphysical foundation of epistemology can be perhaps mostly clearly expressed in a reversal of Descartes’ most famous axiom: instead of I think therefore I am, St. Thomas’ first principle may be formulated as something akin to I am (therefore I think). To put it another way, Aquinas begins with the principle of non-contradiction: a thing cannot simultaneously be and not be. Unlike the first principle of skepticism, which begins with thought (properly speaking, a thought about thought or knowledge), Aquinas, influenced by Aristotle, begins with being: Aristotle “believed the mind was never directly aware of itself” but that “rather, the mind was aware of itself only concomitantly through its direct awareness of external sensible things.”xiii Cartesian skepticism begins with a reflective thought about reality rather than the lived experience of reality. It is precisely here, moreover, that Thomistic epistemology avoids the aforementioned artificiality which characterizes the mechanistic world of Cartesian skepticism and all its modern reincarnations: Thomistic knowledge unabashedly begins with reality, with things, with what is, and is always seeking knowledge of things, even when producing knowledge about things.
Three Advantages of Aquinas’ Epistemology
The epistemology that follows from Aquinas’ metaphysics has, at least, three distinct advantages. First, Aquinas gives immense prominence to the person and the personal act of his intellect. In his book Sources of Christian Ethics, Fr. Pinckaers writes that “knowledge, and the vision it brings, must be understood as happening at the heart of a personal relationship. It engages the entire person: the mind, where wisdom dwells; the will, which desires and love; the imagination, the sensibilities, even the body.”xiv Indeed, Aquinas conceives of knowledge as a kind of becoming, a conception intimately connected with the metaphysical priority he gives to being: unlike Descartes, who thought of knowledge as a kind of picture of an extramental reality, Aquinas thought knowledge was something much more dynamic, consisting not of “the production of anything” but rather of a kind of “act of existence of super-eminent perfection.”xv To know “is, by an apparent scandal of the principle of identity, to be in a certain way another than what one is; it is to become another thing than oneself…to be or become another in so far as it is another…”xvi This rich, dynamic account of knowledge stands in stark contrast to the commonly accepted modern epistemology, an epistemology which privileges third person, objective, detached observation and encourages skepticism towards the reliability of personal experience. Second, according to Aquinas, knowledge, beginning with the sensory input of lived experience, proceeds from the unity of a contingent, particular extramental thing (e.g. that specific apple) to the isolation of necessary, universal mental objects or essences (e.g. the concept of an apple, the concept of redness, etc.) before reaching its perfection in a return and “re-integration” into the integral and unified contingent, particular extramental thing (e.g. that specific apple as apple).xvii The erroneous thinking underlying modern scientism can be understood as cutting off the final “re-integration” stage of this process: by confusing the idealized and generalized theoretical apparatus of modern science with metaphysical reality or even replacing metaphysical reality with such physical causal theories, our epistemology delegitimizes the intimate, personal experience of metaphysical reality, rich through the inexhaustibility of its innumerable particular and contingent things in which Thomism argues knowledge reaches its perfection.
Third, Thomism distinguishes between perfect and imperfect knowledge rather than certain and uncertain knowledge. It is here that Thomistic epistemology, unlike Cartesian skepticism and its modern offspring, gives due deference to metaphysics, thus avoiding the modern slip of transforming truth into an epistemological concept rather than letting it be the metaphysical reality it is. When we speak of truth today, we often think of it as merely something which is known with certainty. However, within the Thomistic system,
truth does not depend on our certain knowledge of it but rather simply represents the affirmation of metaphysical reality, of what is. Furthermore, instead of concerning itself with the purely epistemological question of certainty, Thomism emphasizes the question of perfection, a question of meaning rather than of method. Aquinas talks of knowledge as growing towards a perfect conformity with reality.
To see the significance of this difference, one can look at how it affects our conception of moral truth (what is right or wrong). This critical shift from the question of certainty to the question of perfection or conformity to truth makes possible a repudiation of moral relativism, for the flaw has been shifted from moral truth, denied as a result of its seeming uncertainty, to the moral subject, the person whose knowledge of moral truth is incomplete yet capable of progressing towards completion. It is in this way that we can recover the significance of personal conversion and moral development: in the skeptic system, there is no joy in gaining new knowledge, for the new knowledge is not achieved or discovered through personal effort but merely demonstrated and proven. In Aquinas’ system, however, new knowledge intimately involves the person and reflects a renewed alignment of oneself with the order of Creation.
In The Degrees of Knowledge, Jacques Maritain asserts that there is “an obscure and powerful teleological motivation…precisely not to be led to a certain end, to avoid a certain final conclusion”xviii which underlies all of Descartes’ thought and indeed all of modern skepticism: by admitting the possible non-reality of everything, one refuses to embark on the grand journey of metaphysical reality, of being. Like the traveler in Frost’s poem, one prefers the clearing of skepticism to the uncertainty of the life of faith and reason and reality. Maritain further writes,
While an exclusively reflective philosophy [e.g. Cartesianism] does not judge what is, but the idea of what is, and the idea of the idea, and the idea of the idea of the idea of what is, and all this with a tone of superiority because it has not stained its hands with the real or run the risk of its scraping the skin off them, the courage proper to natural philosophy as to metaphysics is to face these extramental realities, to turn its hand to things and judge of what is. And their rightful humility is to take their measure from things—which is what idealism will not do at any price.xix
At the heart of Thomistic epistemology lies a commitment, so innocuous as to amount to little more than common-sense, yet strangely absent in the skepticism of modern thinking: the unabashed commitment to the existence of things outside the mind. Thus Maritain argues that Thomism is the only truly realistic philosophy, for it alone is willing to accept the extramental reality of the world and to let our theories and principles of knowledge “take their measure from things” rather than forcing them into artificial mechanistic models.
iRobert Frost, Mountain Interval (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1920), Bartleby.com, 1999, 12 Feb. 2012, .
iiiLarry Arnhart, Political Questions: Political Philosophy from Plato to Rawls (Long Grove, IL: Waveland Press, Inc., 2003) 136.
vDescartes also proposes a second first principle, namely the existence of God, but for the purposes of this article this latter first principle will be ignored. Descartes actually derives this second principle from his own existence, given the first principle of I think therefore I am (Arnhart 138). Thus, treating the erroneous error of the initial first principal suffices.
viIbid. It is important to clarify what I mean when I seem to indicate that truth is “changeable.” This is not to say that a truth changes but rather that things change and that the result of such constant change in things is that truth, insofar as it describes reality, changes, for reality has, so to speak, changed.
viiiJacques Maritain, The Degrees of Knowledge (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1938) 123.
ixEdward Feser, Philosophy of Mind: A Beginner’s Guide (Oxford: Oneworld Publications, 2006) 246.
xiJacques Maritain, The Degrees of Knowledge 155.
xivServais Pinckaers, The Sources of Christian Ethics, trans. Sr. Mary Thomas Noble (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1995) 11.
xvJacques Maritain, The Degrees of Knowledge 137.
xviiJacques Maritain, Existence and the Existent (New York: Random House, Inc., 1966) 17.
xviiiJacques Maritain, The Degrees of Knowledge 132.
Chris Hauser ’14 is from Barrington, IL. He is double majoring in Philosophy and History modified with Medieval and Renaissance Studies.Tags: apologetics, Aquinas, Christian, Dartmouth Apologia, Dartmouth College, Descartes, epistomology, God, philosophy, Robert Frost, truth