Four Catholic Guideposts of Philosophy: Part II

Stated briefly, the four guideposts are: 1. Creation metaphysics; 2. Hylomorphic anthropology; 3. Realistic epistemology; and 4. Objective ethics. I did not originate these four categories but have found them to be very accurate and insightful. These guideposts help us to understand ‘why things are the way they are’. Equally helpful, these signs help us to identify sophists, those who engage in word-craft for self-profit and exploitation of others. Let us consider the meaning of each of these signs.

Creation metaphysics is concerned with the general causes of being. It answers the question why things are the way they are. It is rooted in or compatible with purpose, intention, the Divine Mind. The alternatives to creation metaphysics are a Cosmic Event or reductive materialism. A cosmic event is one of random generation. Chaos produced the universe and whatever order one might find in it.

Reductive Materialism is a view of creation that everything real is material. One reduces what one can know about being to the level of those things that can only be measured. Love, justice, truth, person, freedom cannot be measured, thus not known, and are only at the level of opinion.

Hylomorphic anthropology is the idea that the human being is an embodied soul, soul and body together. Hylomorphic is from the two Greek words hyle which means matter, lumber, or stuff and morphe which means form, soul, essence, or that ‘which it is’. Anthropology comes from the two Greek words anthropos man and logos study. Together the words point to the study of man, and are concerned with the questions what is man, how should I live, what should I do, etc…

One contrasting point of view is that man is only a body, mechanical, robot. This philosophy is materialistic and is concerned with what gives me maximal pleasure now because when I die, I die. Suffering has no meaning and there is no immortality. Live for today for tomorrow we die. Final cause, telos, is discarded and ethics becomes situational.

The other point of view to holomorphic anthropology, one shared by Gnostics, in one form or another, is that man as a subset is only a form, thought or soul. The body is a shell or prison to be discarded; the only thing that matters is our soul. This is a tempting ideology when our bodies or those of our loved ones are suffering. The Incarnation and Ascension of Christ, points to the value of our body, both now and when glorified.

Realistic epistemology is the sign that man does have the capacity to be in touch with the world. Epistemology comes from the two Greek words episteme (knowledge) and logos (reason, word, study), which taken together is the branch of study that concerns itself with how man knows something, what is happening in our minds when we know something. Realistic points to the certitude that man can be in touch with real things. A realistic epistemology says, “I really am reading this blog.”

This point of view is contrasted with an idealism epistemology, which posits that we don’t know existences. There is an unbridgeable gap between the subject (the person’s mind) and the object (the world out there). We can know the content of our thoughts but we really don’t know if it is accurate. An idealistic epistemology says, “ It APPEARS that I am reading this blog. I don’t have any real knowledge that this is a blog.”

Solipsism is an extreme form of idealism. In this philosophy, we only have consciousness without any capacity of the mind to get outside of oneself. I have my point of view and you have yours and there is no power to set it right. Some might wonder, how could anyone ever hold this position? I propose mass hysteria is an excellent portrayal of such a phenomena. Idealism and solipsism leads to agnosticism because we really don’t know anything outside of our consciousness. Maybe the cat exists or not, no way to know for sure and it really does not matter as mater itself is unimportant.

Without a realistic epistemology, we cannot have certitude of the real order of things, especially about the natural world and the soul, and then we cannot have truth. Man is created for truth and without certitude of it he becomes fearful and despondent. He is stuck in a kind of agnosticism about everything, especially those things that transcend the physical world, the metaphysics of things. This agnosticism has devastating effects on theology, because it ultimately says that we cannot know the doctrines of our faith.

Objective ethics is rooted in creation metaphysics, hylomorphic anthropology, and a realistic epistemology. The object, not the subject, determines the rightness or wrongness of something. Objective ethics is one of accountability and accuracy. A subjective ethics is one where a person is not responsible for their acts. An objective accounting of ethics might have extenuating circumstances for acting but it does not fully dismiss the person from the responsibility of knowing what is true or good. The object, the other person, by the subject, me, sets what I should do. Should I lie? It might be advantageous for me to do so, but other people are owed the truth. It is good for the other person, and ultimately for me as well, to tell the truth. Abortion kills an innocent human person. The object of the act is the unborn person, and thus sheds light on the morality of the choice.

Relativism by contrast is that anything goes because good or bad is set by the subject. It is an interior measures not an exterior one. The subject decides the ethics. Subjectivism goes even further in that all that anyone knows is what is good for them. One cannot get to the other person because of one’s own consciousness. Conventionalism is the philosophy that the culture sets the ethics. It is how we have always done something, and so society should always do it this way.

With our destination to truth before us, four guideposts to illuminate our journey, and in the company of friends of goodwill, let us consider the major philosophies and see what we might glean from them. It is an arduous and perilous task but the reward, making sense of our world in general and our lives in particular, makes the cost worthwhile.