First, I want to thank Matt for all he does. Not every Statistician to the Stars has risked career and fortune to teach an extraordinary and fruitful revolution in statistics, but he has. Matt is also not afraid to write about other things, like metaphysics, that All The Very Best People Nowadays seem to think are laughable, and don’t pay any attention to, and think we shouldn’t, either. To his credit, Matt disagrees.
But…I am going to present some facts not in dispute, and from them I am going to argue that however useful classical Thomism (or outlines of it from modern proponents such as Edward Feser and Peter Kreeft) may be, we already know that classical Thomism has to be seriously flawed and therefore is not going to be the last word on metaphysics.
I’m going to look under the hood of classical Thomism for a second, and without taking the engine apart, show you one place where it has has plainly ‘gotten stuck’. By ‘getting stuck’ I mean a long-standing dispute within the inquiry that’s never been resolved.
When an inquiry mires down in that sense, then one logical possibility is that reality is being its typical annoying self and prodding a previously-unknown sore spot within the inquiry. Reality is exposing some unresolved incoherence or other deficiency in the theories and assumptions that the inquiry is currently using, even if nobody has yet put their finger on exactly what the specific difficulty is.
So, I can only suggest, I can’t logically prove, that classical Thomism ‘getting stuck’ means that there’s something not quite right about classical Thomism’s fundamental assumptions, theories, and methods. But I can prove that around 1600 AD, about 300 years after St. Thomas’s death, in just the sense I mean, classical Thomism did bog down, and that it has remained at the same place, in all the years since.
The problem at hand was providing within the classical Thomist framework a coherent account of human freedom (and hence and crucially, of each man’s individual moral agency and responsibility), while at the same time providing a similarly coherent account of efficacious grace and Divine Providence.
Two competing camps of Thomists, at the time represented by Jesuits on one side and Dominicans on the other, vehemently opposed one another. And, remarkably, 400 years since the 1600s and counting, the issue has never been satisfactorily resolved within Thomism. You don’t hear a lot about it, but they’re still at odds. You can look it up:
Vast as was the subject of that controversy, its principle question, and the one that gave its name to the whole dispute, concerned the help (auxilia) afforded by grace; while the crucial point was the reconciliation of the efficacy of grace with human freedom.
Finally, after twenty years of discussion public and private, and eighty-five conferences in the presence of the popes, the question was not solved but an end was put to the disputes. The pope’s decree communicated (5 September, 1607) to both Dominicans and Jesuits, allowed each party to defend its own doctrine, enjoined each from censoring or condemning the opposite opinion, and commanded them to await, as loyal sons of the Church, the final decision of the Apostolic See. That decision, however, has not been reached, and both orders, consequently, maintain their respective theories, just as any other theological opinion is held.
Please note that the entry in the Catholic Encyclopedia states that the issue has never been resolved. A coherent account, satisfactory to all, that simultaneously honors the reality of human freedom, and hence safeguards the reality of man’s real moral responsibility for his actions, while also respecting the reality of efficacious grace and hence of Divine Providence, has so far not been achieved within classical Thomism, even after all this time.
In 1607, the Pope finally in effect told the disputants to go home, shut up, and make nice; and nothing much has changed since then.
Yes, we might laugh, but c’mon — is human freedom real? is each man truly morally responsible for his actions? is there such a thing as Good? does it all matter? does God really care about us, and is He truly active in this vale of tears? — these are, just possibly, real questions.
My mission is thus not to laugh at the questions themselves, but to point out something that is true but not widely known: classical Thomism really has stalled regarding some matters that bystanders might consider important, and the problem persists, even after all this time.
To be precise, it’s not that some individual Thomist hasn’t resolved the problem to his own satisfaction. That was already the case in 1600. The problem then as now is that these individual ‘resolutions’ have not adequately persuaded other Thomists, who have been able to find what they consider to be substantial flaws in them.
I think that the issues involved: being able to provide a coherent account of human freedom, and hence, of man’s moral responsibility for his actions, while also providing a similarly coherent account of the efficacy of grace and divine Providence, are pretty serious.
And I have directly suggested that classical Thomism has remained static, and on some issues that you or I might consider to be non-trivial, may mean, despite the enthusiasm of modern day proponents of classical Thomism such as Edward Feser and Peter Kreeft, that there’s something not quite right with classical Thomism’s fundamental assumptions and theories, and thus, that it might not be the final word in metaphysics. Or, by extension, in ethics, in philosophy, in theology.
We don’t ourselves have to pinpoint the exact difficulty within classical Thomism to suggest this possibility, either. We don’t have to be the mechanic and know how to fix the problem to look under the hood and observe that something is in fact, broken.