Existence and reality : an essay on method directed at the vindication of the traditional Christian metaphysics as a valid attempt to designate the meaning of reality

Pearson, Clive Walter Ingram (1955). Existence and reality : an essay on method directed at the vindication of the traditional Christian metaphysics as a valid attempt to designate the meaning of reality PhD Thesis, School of History, Philosophy, Religion, and Classics, The University of Queensland.

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Author Pearson, Clive Walter Ingram
Thesis Title Existence and reality : an essay on method directed at the vindication of the traditional Christian metaphysics as a valid attempt to designate the meaning of reality
School, Centre or Institute School of History, Philosophy, Religion, and Classics
Institution The University of Queensland
Publication date 1955
Thesis type PhD Thesis
Total pages 242
Language eng
Subjects 220315 Philosophy of Religion
220309 Metaphysics
Formatted abstract

The immediate inspiration of the following investigation is that so distinguished a scholar as Professor A. E. Taylor can give as his Judgement of such an impressive and massive cosmological construction of modern thought as represented in the philosophy of A. N. Whitehead, that 'it would be even better than it is if it were influenced a little more by St. Thomas and a little less by Spinoza.' (Some thoughts on Process and Reality.) The implication is that the highest reach of modem thought brings out clearly something that had to come out sooner or later, that one of its most pressing needs is some synthesis with the great tradition of Christian scholasticism, which for the most part it has felt free to despise; and more particularly, that if that great tradition were to be taken as seriously as the early Greeks or the post Cartesians, the result could be an extension of the range of reason.          

If what thus comes up for consideration is that the scientific denial of the claims of the traditional Christian metaphysics (e.g. Nietzsche's assertion that science proves the non-existence of God) cannot be strictly true of the nature of the method of modern science precludes it from dealing with the issue at all. Two requirements therefore present themselves as basic to the attempt at synthesis: a critical account of what the method science can accomplish (and not the prior equation of knowledge itself with what it does accomplish) and an attempt at understating what the issue of mediaeval thought was. 

The need for the performance of the former task is in the simple observation that there is no such thing as science at all, but only sciences, in all of which no man can be an authority. The general habits, such as careful attention to detail, are themselves not above the criticism that preoccupation with evidence of one kind may impair a man’s power of dealing with evidence of a different kind. Even where the only question posed as the basis the theism is whether the facts of nature bear witness to its truth, we ought to mean the facts of as a whole, in their whole general intelligibility, and not just the facts of physics or biology. Whether such a general intelligibility is possible is subject matter of another range of reason, and by the very nature of the case beyond the pronouncements of the special sciences even in the denial.

Meanwhile within the special sciences, there is a great outstanding characteristic of processes which any refinement of their general method leaves unaccounted for: that of the countless ways that events may run in accord with the known laws, they run in just the way that they do run to make the individual event, that, while being the basis of, is unknown in its individuality to, the method of science.

The charge of irrationalism laid at present against the claim to truth of the traditional metaphysics deserves investigation at least to the extent of getting rid of what prima facts presents itself as a possibility; that it is only the logical outcome of what A. E. Taylor does not hesitate to call scientific half rationalisation.

The excuse for a return to the range of reason involved in the traditional Christian metaphysics, if there is any excuse for it at all, can only be that exact science and true knowledge are not co-extensive, and indeed that the delimited departments of all the special disciplines that are taken to make up sciences, even when added together, can exist only in virtue of a connection with extra-scientific knowledge. Conversely, it is not to exact science itself that we have to go to decide whether all our trustworthy knowledge is scientific: so that a modern limitation to thought is possible in that type of man referred to by Taylor (Does God Exist) as ‘the scientific man who is most eloquent in denouncing all metaphysics but is himself perpetually talking bad metaphysics under the impression that it is science.’

It has been to the detriment of the traditional metaphysics based on extra-scientific claims as to the range of reason, that later thinkers starting from precisely the same assumptions as the philosopher Hume, (that is from the purpose of recognising no knowledge but scientific knowledge) have not had the courage to proceed to what must be in every case the same conclusion: that if this supposition is in fact made it will eventually make nonsense of the notion of knowledge itself. As Taylor points out (and his opinion is quoted here, both because of the obvious breadth of his scholarship and his willingness to argue out the scientific case on its own ground) to set other knowledge aside simply on the grounds that it is not physical science is a deep seated moral offence, and nothing better when he who does it is designated D.Sc., F.R.S.. 

The almost universal extension of scientific method irrespective of the subject matter being investigated, will impose a limitation on thought itself if in fact a historical survey can show that ideas have been entertained by men of intelligence which are not accessible to the method. It is claimed here that this is in fact the relationship pertaining between the Christian scholasticism and modern thought, and that that which Aquinas at any rate may lay claim to have accomplished which is not a possibility at all to modem thought based on scientific method, is an attempt at reality culminating in the establishment of the meaning of existence. The fading from men's mind of the idea of creation, for instance, is a less noticed event than its development in fit. Aquinas, and no real concern is felt following the loss of a significant idea. Even where Whitehead takes as his fundamental concept 'creativity' he understands by it an essential becoming which results in the confining of thought to the realm of finite existence: on the other hand that thought which limits itself to the investigation of finite existence. and it is wholly scientific, is not competent to pass judgement on that which it accepts, but which is other than its concern: for while it is the very fact that existents in this world are limited or finite and therefore of a certain nature, as distinct from other existents, that makes scientific investigation of them possible, it is also true that they are known as finite existents, and this itself poses a meaningful question of another type; that is, how is it possible that that which exists only in virtue of being what it is, and is therefore not the sufficient reason for its own existence, can in fact be at all. Thus referred to being the range of reason passes beyond the existential assumption of the scientific method, and whether or not it attains the infinite, at least approaches the meaning of the finite in another way. To the extent that the Christian Scholasticism thus approaches the question of the meaning of the reality of that which taken as real is the substance of scientific investigation, it sets itself up, not in opposition to the pronouncements of science but as other than that which it is in the power of scientific method to accomplish. If this claim can be justified, and it is the intention of the following chapters to do so, the modern experiment which ignores altogether the Christian Scholastic tradition understood as performing its distinct task, and then prefers the absence of intelligibility to any admission of its own limitation, sins against reason itself. 

The signs of the times are best read in discussions about the existence and nature of God. It has become the habit (most Gifford lecturers) to treat the subject through recourse to religious and mystical experience, and rarely to that which is the only certain rational foundation of the ideas implied - metaphysics itself properly understood in relation to its own proper object. Thus understood the method of metaphysical reasoning is probably not that which Kant is generally supposed to have overturned, and which always remains confined to the weighting of probabilities: for its object is precisely that which the general rational account of this world understood as the classification and systematisation of all its parts fails to embrace, that is, the meaning of its very existence in face of the postulation of its possible non-existence without the violation of any logic.

 The interesting situation that has arisen as regards metaphysics with the implicit equation of knowledge itself with classifiable knowledge, has been brilliantly outlined by Etienne Gilson in the following comment on a definition of philosophy offered by William James (From Being and Some Philosophers: Preface) "These remarkable lines are more than a mere statement of James's own view concerning the definition of philosophy in general. They actually re-enact the whole history of that definition from the time of the Greeks, up to our own day. At the very beginning James still seems to maintain the classical notion of metaphysics conceived as a wisdom, that is, as a knowledge of things in general by their ultimate causes. But it immediately appears that the causes he has in mind are neither things nor beings. As James conceives them such causes are more or less ultimate according as they are more or less general, so that philosophy becomes to him what has been termed by another philosophe r as the 'speciality of generalities.' Thus transformed from the science of what is first in things into the science of what is most universal in thought, metaphysics presently undergoes a second metamorphosis, in that the intrinsic generality of its principles becomes in itself broadness in scope. Now broadness is not quite the same thing as generality . . . . . . . In other words generality was still related to things, whereas broadness is an attribute of mind.' Gilson thus passes to the observation that the result of the whole process upon philosophy itself is that the very essence of philosophical knowledge is merely to express a certain attitude purpose and temper of conjoined intellect and will where the only dogmatic tenet held as valid is that if a philosopher is reasonably sure of being right, it is a sure thing that he is wrong. It is here contended that the continuance of this trend will make philosophy to be generally accepted, as it is accepted in some quarters at present, as a meaningless enterprise: but that it will do so because philosophy in general and metaphysics in particular has lost the existential birthright that it had in the traditional scholasticism, and whose absence in modern thought is a limitation severely limiting the scope of possible certain knowledge. Meanwhile the imposition of a self denying ordinance as to the meaning of existence in the traditional sense is not itself the proof that the traditional metaphysics cannot be what it claims to be, that is the science of things in general by their ultimate causes, which is the caused sequence of knowledge which duplicates the caused sequence of being. 

In addition to the trend to which Gilson has drawn attention, the following observations are also to be considered. It was the assumption for example, of the philosopher Locke, that perception is nothing but sensation and that the realities we perceive have no characteristics not of the sensible order. Substance therefore can be defined only as the 'I know not what support' of the sensible qualities. If such a definition of substance is refuted by following philosophers, the possibility of some other definition of substance should present itself for consideration, since what is refuted is simply Locke's definition of substance, and that definition by no means exhausts the observation made during the history of philosophy. But what in fact occurs in British philosophy is that the refutation of Locke's definition is taken to be the refutation of the meaning of substance altogether so that it comes to be held that the mere particulars of sensory awareness are construed by the mind into what we mistakenly believe are external beings. The operation of mind is the building up of artificial complexes on the basis of accidental similarity, Russell (in Analysis of Wind) holds for example that events are strung together by the action of the perceiver, in spite of the objection put up that since he is a string of events himself, it is difficult to see who does the tying. Thus as Mascall says, "Substance has ceased to denote anything but a persistent pattern of sense data or a constellation of mental states. Although the tendency to hold that sentences which purport to be about substances are not logically reducible to sentences which are wholly about sense data has come to exist, even this cannot be interpreted to mean that substances exist: it is equally consistent with the view that sentences which purport to be about substances are about nothing at all." 

But the whole point is that the rejection of substance is made without any consideration of the one argument that makes sense of experience, and was in fact held by both Aristotle and Aquinas, as the basis for the postulation of substance and the intelligibility pertaining to it: that is, knowledge of beings of the sensible order grasped in a perceptive act including both sensation and intellection in which the very basis of knowledge itself is that the act of apprehension is the reception of the sensible species by the sense, accompanied by the abstraction of its intelligible content by the intellect, which, passing through the species obtains a direct, knowledge of the thing itself. It is known that the thing is individual, and a substance, by turning to the image from which the mind derives its clear ideas. So that the tragedy of deducing from the correct rejection of wrong ideas about certain notions, the total discrediting of the notions themselves, or to put it another way the discarding of a significant idea because of a false interpretation, is that this itself becomes a further limitation to the range of reason. 

What has been said of substance applies to the notion of cause understood metaphysically, and to the notion of existence itself. So that it is taken that the first task in the rehabilitation of reason is the rehabilitation of fundamental notions which, because they are fundamental are the measure of the attempt of thought to attain its highest object, that is, reality. 

The meaning of certain fundamental notions, it is argued, cannot be consistently doubted or abandoned without abandoning the whole noetic enterprise of man. Such notions are those of substance, cause, and pre-eminently, existence. They alone reduce themselves to the certain apprehension of God in His creation.

Keyword Reality

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