Doing Philosophy

Above: The Devil and Dr. Faustus Meet. From Wellcome Images.[https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:The_Devil_and_Dr._Faustus_meet._Wellcome_L0031469.jpg]

Observing my futile attempts to sell my old bicycle in a desert, a wise old Mongol trader told me that to convince a hesitant customer, one should tell a story about a friend from a foreign country.  Make one up, if necessary, he said, but do not talk about yourself: You are not sufficiently interesting.  I shall disregard this sage advice, however, because philosophy is an intensely personal pursuit, which is the first thing that scientists must understand about it.  Philosophy is not just learned, but it is done. You may have done it already, but I need to convince you to try to do it well, which is why I must speak of my own difficult journey into doing philosophy.

From Science to Philosophy

Do you remember your first physics experiment? I do. It was in 5th grade.  A teacher dropped both a nail and a hammer, after asking us which would drop faster.  None of us predicted what actually happened ---they fell at the same rate --- and I was hooked.  I kept being fascinated by physics and its ability to understand fundamental things about the world that seemed hidden in plain sight. Later, as a chemistry student, I studied a lot of quantum mechanics and got deeper and deeper into its mathematics. As I reflected on it, it seemed as if before my inner eye the world of chemicals and their reactions dissolved into pure mathematics. What had happened to material substances? Where was life? The next day, I picked up a few biochemistry textbooks and my PhD would be in biochemistry. 

My graduate work took me from biochemistry to cell biology, after which I turned to biomedical research, and then became a Franciscan friar and a priest.  “I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses.  Choose life so that you may live” (Dt. 30:19).  But what is life? I ought to know after all this study, yet I could not give a definition.  And what about the power to choose? Do we really have it, and if we do, is it what gives human beings their special dignity?  These questions now interested me not just as a scientist but also as a student of theology.

Philosophy was not a priority to me, but the importance of theology was obvious.  I wanted to understand Scripture and what it meant.  Hence, I studied theology.  But philosophy, what was this even about? It seemed like a language game where the best move was not to play.  What could it accomplish?  Modern science has given us true understanding of the whole cosmos and broad consensus about the nature of material being.  Had it not shown philosophy to be left behind by real knowledge?  I wanted to take my scientific knowledge right into theology, without stopping to learn how philosophers had once muddled the clear waters of scientific inquiry.

But of course, by considering together two different fields of knowledge, by asking questions about the compatibility of faith and science, I had already begun to do philosophy.  I was already a member of the motley crew of its practitioners.  The question was not whether I would do philosophy.  The question was whether I would learn to do it well.

Academic Philosophy

Living in modern academia, you would easily be excused for thinking that the Westphalian Peace principle suffices to let the multiple ways of scholarship coexist: Cuius regio, eius religio.  A university has scholars in many disciplines, and groups of scholars with related interests form departments. In each department and its corresponding discipline, rules are established for proper scholarship.  The department’s chairperson represents the unity of the department’s scholarship and enforces, through no more than gentle prodding, one hopes, the standards of what is considered the right kind of progress. Between departments, there is neither competition nor conflict, as all fish in their own pond.  Each field seeks knowledge in its own way. Other than administrative policies, there is little left for the university to act as one about, except maybe to recall from time to time that this was not how it began.

Alas, this abandonment of universitas, a comprehensive united body of knowledge, is unacceptable for those who now again ask the very first questions.  You can ask, what is poetry, what is matter, what is joy?  But what does it mean to say, “what is?”  Foundational questions about being must be asked, for if they are not asked, we can only talk of each science in isolation.  Knowledge could not become a synthesis and a comprehensive foundation for the well-lived life.  Anybody asking a question that simultaneously engages two distinct fields of knowledge, such as science and theology, must understand that the very act of asking the question is doing philosophy.

Not all scholarship can be productive professionalism. Studying knowledge and being for itself is an activity of leisure, if not the work of dilettantes, court jesters, and gadflies.  A true philosopher ought not want to be a professor whose productivity must be measured in publications and graduates.  Instead, he should sweep the floors of academia to listen unnoticed during the day and reflect on it in the evening. Philosophy is neither the queen of the sciences nor their handmaiden.  By the art of synthesis, it places different kinds of professional knowledge into life’s larger context.

Reductionism

If you are a scientist, then you will tend towards reductionism, or reducing complex phenomena to simpler ones that are fully within the grasp of our understanding.  What, for example, do you perceive in the beauty of a human face that attracts you?  You could study the brain state caused by signs of reproductive fitness in another, and you could explain this brain state through the evolutionary history of the human species.  Would this be all of it, or some of it, or none of it?

In my judgment, the correct answer is, “none of it.”  Beauty is an overarching concept before and beyond the sum of its effects studied in different disciplines.  Neuroscience and evolutionary biology explain aspects of the experience subsumed in the perception of beauty.  But when we perceive beauty, we recognize something beyond the concrete categories of being.  Beauty has something to do with being itself, transcending all categories of being.  In exploring this question, we do philosophy. We will weigh the pros and cons of various arguments, we take a stance, we defend it.  Philosophy is more than knowing what is taught in a textbook.  Doing philosophy is also learning from the thoughts of others and avoiding the errors already refuted, but philosophy is not a reductionist enterprise.  We join in a dialogue, beginning with listening and asking basic questions, but eventually contributing our own insights and looking for their place in the thoughts of others.  We see right away that science is intimately intertwined with bigger questions. The way these big questions are discussed lets us place our scientific knowledge into a larger context.  This is not to question the results of science or take non-scientific interpretations back into science, but to speak of science and its insights when bigger questions are at stake.

Reductionism comes up not just in discussions about consciousness and the mind.  The mind as understood by the human sciences is not reducible to the body as understood by the natural sciences, and this leaves us with what is called the mind-body problem.  But accepting the scientific knowledge of the body and then pointing to the immateriality of the mind to argue against reductionism is problematic.  The functioning of the embodied human mind is now reduced to a disembodied and abstract mind in a body understood reductively.  Such thought just sets up the field for dualist reductionism, with two realms of being, the body and the mind, both reductively abstracted from lived being.  Carving out safe spaces within the fundamentally reductionist project of modern science does not suffice.  We must do philosophy.

Starting Places

Where do we start doing philosophy? In my own case, it began with trying to understand what makes someone a human person.  Is it human DNA?  Or consciousness?  Or the potential for consciousness encoded in human DNA?  It cannot be DNA, though.  Cell lines grown in the lab have human DNA, but they are not human persons.  And consciousness comes late to human beings and does not last throughout life.  Animals have consciousness, and some more than some of us. 

In practice, DNA comparison suffices to define biologically human through comparison with the DNA of existing human beings. Normally, DNA comparison suffices to unambiguously assign an individual specimen to a species.  My preferred definition for a human person is this: A human person is an unambiguously biologically human being that has its own human future.  In an embryo, I can clearly see that it is human and meant for a future which is not the same as the pregnant woman’s future.  It is meant for a separate lifespan with a separate life story.  It is a human being in its own right.  In contrast to this, human cell lines also have a future, but it is not a future of their own, as they are mere artifacts. 

What I offer here as my definition of human being is not reductionist biology, not an empirically determined essential quality, but interpreting scientific observations or doing philosophy.  When I asked myself how Christian philosophers of old attempted to answer what it means to say, “a person,” I found a 12th-century definition by Richard of St. Victor: Intellectualis naturae incommunicabilis existentia (the incommunicable existence of an intellectual nature).  This differed from a 6th-century definition given by Boethius: Naturae rationalis individua substantia (the individual substance of a rational nature). In the 13th-century, Thomas Aquinas answered: Incommunicabilis subsistentia naturae rationalis (the incommunicable subsistence of a rational nature).

Incommunicabilis was the word that captured my attention.  It indicated something about the human being that could never be fully shared, never be fully known to another.  We can never know another person completely. Indeed, we do not even know ourselves completely.  The encounter with another person is an encounter with the infinite, as our knowledge of another person is finite but never complete, no matter how long we study the other person.  I realized that according to Richard of St. Victor’s definition, a human being could never be identical with what is scientifically knowable about him or her. In other words, a Star Trek Transporter --- which assumes that the whole person can be measured and transmitted as information --- will never be possible.  Should one be invented, I will know that Richard of St. Victor was wrong, but for now, I find his insight convincing.

At this point, I was caught in the conflict between two different ways of knowing: Knowledge by way of the empirical science of nature, and knowledge by way of understanding of human life and being a person.  It seemed as if knowledge came in two entirely different ways that were nevertheless one, but it was impossible to know how. It reminded me of the wave-particle dualism in physics.  Maybe complementarity of scientific and human knowledge, the empirical and the human, was the furthest I could go.  But then I discovered the work of Robert Spaemann and his philosophy of the human person. Spaemann himself did not leave us with a philosophy of science, but it seemed to me that there was one implied in his thought about nature and the human person. Most important for me was how he explained that ontology and ethics both originate in the human awareness of being. Not only was ethics, which is the art of living well, now connected with ontology, which grounds knowledge of material being. They also share a starting point: The human being.

Too many think that we can start with atoms or elementary particles, but philosophy cannot presuppose the truth of modern physics. Too much would already been given away to one way of knowing, and one far removed from life.  Physics, too, must be questioned. One might expect to find that physics describes reality correctly, or at least approximately correctly, or will do so soon, but the question of its place in the comprehensive knowledge of reality must be asked.  And this, of course, is doing philosophy.

Embodied Material Being

The trouble with materialism is that it assumes that we know matter.  This is an odd supposition, especially if it means equating matter with physics’ knowledge of matter.  Inasmuch as we know matter primarily, we know it through the material nature of our living bodies, and this experience is quite different from the knowledge of physics.  Indeed, the knowledge of physics fails us when it is most important to us: First, the difference between living and non-living matter, and second, the nature of a living body’s mind.  A theory of matter that explains nothing of the lived experience of matter or the personal awareness of a material body is really a very strange candidate for a comprehensive worldview. 

This takes me to the current state of my philosophical inquiries, which is my interest in the work of Edith Stein.  At the beginning of her masterpiece, Finite and Eternal Being, she wrote that this is a book “by a learner for fellow learners.”  Like all learning, it is work in progress, and philosophy is always meant to be just this.  She was a phenomenologist, a student of Edmund Husserl, and the writing style in this philosophical tradition is definitely not for casual reading.  It explores ever more minute distinctions in our perceptions of being and beings through a very careful and sometimes creative use of language.  As I can read her in my native German, I find her thought articulated in words and phrases whose place in life is well known to me.  I may not understand everything, but I get the big picture that she draws.  But translated into English, it feels like a technical treatise by an expert for other experts.  I have no doubt that professional philosophers can study her in the excellent English translations that have been prepared. But the vitality of her thought and her closeness to life as an embodied conscious experience of a material world is more easily accessible in her own language. 

Much more should be said about Edith Stein and her importance to understand the relationship between faith and science and making sense of material being.  My plan is to study more closely how she uses Aristotle’s works and how this is different from others who have claimed to have reconciled Aristotle with modern science.  What I have found so far suggests to me that her use of phenomenology together with Aristotelianism and medieval scholasticism allows us to speak of the human experience of material being without the reductionist oversimplifications that some modern Aristotelians let creep into their work.

Our philosophical answers even after integrating all the sciences can never grasp the full truth of any real being.  Not only a human being, but also other beings, especially living beings but also non-living beings, have at least a small amount of incommunicabilitas. The scientific understanding of material being is never identical with the real being before us.  When we accept this, then we can do philosophy, and we can let our knowledge of physics and other modern science of nature help us in making sense of our life without the errors of reductionism.

[Fr. Joachim Ostermann, OFM, received his Ph.D. in Biochemistry from the University of Munich in 1990. He became a Franciscan in 2009, professed solemn vows in 2013, and was ordained to the priesthood in 2014. As a postdoctoral fellow at the Sloan Kettering Institute and Assistant Professor of Biochemistry at Vanderbilt University, he studied the mechanism of intracellular protein trafficking. Later on, his career continued as a Director of Research in Canadian biotechnology companies, using proteomics to understand disease mechanisms. After entering the Order of Friars Minor, he earned an M.Di.v from Newman Theological College in Edmonton, Alberta. Apart from his pastoral work, his interests are the Franciscan view of nature as a corrective for the place of modern sciences in contemporary worldviews. His book Remembering Francis: Making Sense of Modern Life was published in January, 2021, by Franciscan Institute Publications.]