Our society would be so much better if everyone would just listen to me and do what I say. I write that, of course, in jest. Well, partly in jest. Yet that kind of vain sentiment is widespread across not only social media, but on the 24-hour cable news cycle, traditional media, and even in interactions between family and friends.
Just the other day someone told me that he no longer bothers talking to his extended family, because, in his words, “They’re a bunch of conservative, Catholic bigots” (he didn’t know I probably fit his criteria of such a person). It is this kind of simplistic, self-serving thinking that avoids grappling with alternative perspectives that has landed us in a polemical mess. All of this will heighten as the undoubtedly caustic 2020 elections approach.
However, by looking at a recent anthology of testimonies by philosopher converts to Catholicism, readers can find a more honest and effective manner of evaluating and debating controversial ideas. “Faith and Reason: Philosophers Explain Their Turn to Catholicism,” edited by Brian Besong and Jonathan Fuqua, features conversion stories from many well-known intellectuals. There are contributions from prolific author and academic Peter Kreeft, highly acclaimed University of Texas professor J. Budziszewski, and the University of Chicago’s Candace Vogler, among others.
Two stories in particular caught my attention. They exemplify what it looks like to have a strongly held conviction undermined, reconsidered, and ultimately abandoned for something more coherent and lucid. The first is from Edward Feser, notorious both for his defense of the death penalty and his provocative debates with Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart. The second is from Bryan R. Cross, a professor of philosophy at Mount Mercy University.
Attempt to Understand Where Others Are Coming From
Feser, once a “cradle Catholic” turned atheist, was teaching philosophy to undergraduates in California when he realized that the section of his course on the existence of God was incredibly boring. The debate over God’s existence, Feser explains, is typically taught as “some manifestly lame arguments for a silly superstition,” versus “some obvious objections that an eight-year-old could have come up with.” This seemed, even to Feser as an atheist, a bit bizarre.
Some of the greatest minds of the Western intellectual tradition—such as Thomas Aquinas, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, Sir Isaac Newton—were theists. Many others, like Thomas Jefferson, were deists. Yet the contemporary secular academy makes any belief in God, no matter how unambitious, seem ridiculous. In response, Feser did something radical for the academic world. He began to consider what “could be said in support” of classic theistic arguments.
This is the first invaluable lesson for our era of distemper. Feser writes: “You cannot be confident that you have given an idea a fair hearing until you make a serious effort to understand how a rational person could find it plausible. This is especially important when considering ideas you find alien or unattractive.”
One might call this intellectual empathy, or charity, in that it makes a good-faith effort to understand and appreciate alternative opinions. This is radically counter to the current zeitgeist where, safe in our echo chamber sub-cultures, we vilify our opponents and their positions. We’ve become stuck only collaborating with our ideological sympathizers and shaking our heads at those silly fools across the aisle.
Once Feser came to this intellectual metanoia, he was able to more objectively evaluate not just arguments for the existence of God, but Thomism and the broader Christian tradition. He realized, in turn, that even academic philosophers “are as prone to prejudice, ignorance, and circular reasoning as anyone else,” and that his fellow atheists “could be motivated by wishful thinking, special pleading, and otherwise irrational habits of mind.”
Through a series of fascinating intellectual moves one could describe as a chess match inside Feser’s head, the claims of theism, and ultimately the Catholic Church, placed him in “checkmate.” He is now one of the best, if often overlooked, polemical prizefighters not only of Catholicism but the broader Christian tradition. His penetrating attacks on atheism, in turn, have made it look superstitious.
How Bryan Cross Learned to Reach Across the Aisle
Dr. Bryan Cross, a professor of philosophy at Mount Mercy University, came into the Catholic Church via a different route, although his story offers no less potent lessons. Cross comes from a long line of devout evangelicals, and took his faith seriously from a young age. Yet he encountered epistemic problems with the evangelical framework that undermined his ability to make arguments that carried weight in the wider culture.
Cross realized that the Protestant doctrine of sola scriptura, or scripture alone as a measure of divine truth, was incapable of resolving debates in the public square regarding moral truth. Having originally studied to be a physician, Cross wanted to argue against physician-assisted suicide but found arguing from scripture alone insufficient to persuade those who didn’t already accept the truth of the Bible. Something more fundamental (and philosophical), was required to communicate truth that didn’t simply presume the authority of holy scripture.
After entering training at a Protestant seminary, Cross’s intellectual struggles intensified. Cross soon perceived that Protestant biblical exegesis was “tacitly importing many philosophical and theological assumptions into the process by which we arrived at our interpretations.” Moreover, although these presuppositions were often presumed to be neutral when arguing with others, they were anything but.
This, Cross discerned, was question-begging — “an exercise of circular reasoning, presupposing the very point in question.” From this realization came Cross’s most important discovery, influenced by the writings of Notre Dame philosopher Alisdair MacIntyre:
If we try to compare two paradigms by presupposing the truth of one of them, we are not authentically comparing them on their own terms. … One cannot rightly adjudicate rationally between two paradigms merely by presupposing the truth of one of them. Doing so is a kind of self-deception because one makes it seem as though one is arguing for a position … when in the paradigmatic assumptions underlying one’s argument one is merely assuming the truth of [one’s] paradigm. … And we typically engage in these question-begging criticisms of positions in another paradigm because we are not yet seeing the other paradigm, because we are viewing only pieces of it, from the point of view of our own paradigm. And that, in turn, is typical because we are not seeing our own paradigm; we are seeing only its material constituents.
In other words, criticism of others’ beliefs or ideas is often informed by various unstated presuppositions that stem from an unquestioned broader worldview. For example, pro-abortion advocates often rest their arguments based on certain presuppositions regarding the nature of freedom. And, as Cross has argued on this website, LGBTQ supporters’ arguments assume certain beliefs about human nature.
Recognize Not Everyone Begins With Our Assumptions
People often fail to accurately interpret other positions because they evaluate them based on criteria stemming from their own paradigm or worldview. These criteria may or may not be at work in the opposing paradigm. If they aren’t, then it’s hard to have a clear, honest dialogue.
When conversations begin with everyone indefatigably presuming their own frame—and its underlying conceptions— each side automatically believes their arguments to be true and other side’s to be false. This is ground zero for why American public discourse has become so corrosive.
Part of the solution is to recognize and evaluate the presuppositions underlying various arguments, as well as the broader paradigmatic framework at play. Cross offers an anecdote that shows how to do this effectively.
When in a late-night debate at college, his brother kept asking him questions about his belief in divine command theory. In effect, Cross’s brother was pressing him, in a charitable yet rhetorically effective way, to consider the premises underlying his thinking. The more Cross mulled over his brother’s questions, the more he began to perceive the fault lines in his the framework of his reasoning.
I have seen Cross—a friend of mine—employ this same approach to great effect on internet comment threads on religious, philosophical, and political issues. We need to be doing more of this. Recognize, however, that it requires a lot of patience.
Helping someone else unpack the rationales behind his or her intellectual worldview takes time, but it’s vastly more personable and effective. It proves that you aren’t trying to score points but to understand your intellectual opponent as people. While you charitably critique their thought, you’re humbly opening yourself up to have your own paradigm questioned.
We must all be willing to at least contemplate the possibility that we might be wrong. If we don’t entertain such possibilities, any attempt to change opposing minds, and improve the content and tenor of public discourse is fruitless.
“Faith and Reason” may be an anthology of Catholic conversion stories, but it offers readers something broadly ecumenical and intellectually interesting. Although philosophers have a reputation for the enigmatic, these stories are nothing of the sort. Rather, they offer America a roadmap for how to consider and interpret the many competing intellectual streams of our era. As Jesus Himself so succinctly summarized the intellectual humility and introspection found herein, “He who has ears, let him hear.”