Letters to the Editor
Letters to the Editor

Letters to the Editor

FAITH Magazine September-October 2009


Dear Father Editor,

I am glad you feel, as I do, that our exchange has been a constructive one (Letters, May 09). However, if you should begin to feel that - in the words of your reply to Mr Skarpa - "the debate is going nowhere", just let me know: I too have a concern for the patience of the wider readership.

Well then, in the first place, I should like to register agreement with you on one point at least, so we can identify the common ground. I would align myself with you against the positions of Dulles and Schonborn (and Gilson) insofar as they say that modern science by its very nature excludes the consideration of formality. Stephen Barr is of course quite right to say that, even if scientists sometimes don't acknowledge it, formality is right there at the heart of science. Yet, I do think that form has not been accorded its proper 'dignity' as cause in scientific discourse (which Barr admits is proper to it) - because methodologically speaking, science concentrates upon efficient and material causality. Even though scientific experiments are yieldingnon-reductionist results, these results are achieved by reductive method. Many influential scientists seem unable to go beyond this method, and so they lack an adequate vocabulary for the non-reductive results they achieve. This touches upon the "limitation of reason" identified by Pope Benedict at Regensburg.

Now, passing on to what you identify as your "main concern": thomistic epistemology. Let me begin with your assertion that "modern realism must

acknowledge that all knowing is context relevant in much the same way as the physical realm". If we understand this in an unqualified sense, no knowledge could be had at all, because in order to know one thing, I would have to know its "dynamic relationship" to everything else, which would be impossible. We must therefore understand the context dependent character of knowledge in some other way.

In Thomas's thought, knowing is context dependent in a number of ways; indeed, he sees acquiring new concepts as a process of spotting and understanding specific differences -and how can one spot a difference unless one also has a context from which something can stand out? For example: if my only experience of animals up to time x has been of dogs, then my definition of "dog" will be the same as my definition of "animal"; if however at time x I chance upon a gecko, then my definition both of "animal" and of "dog" will change, because now "animal" has to include the very different reality of a gecko (it becomes a genus), and "dog" will now relate to "animal" as to a broad epistemological context (genus) of which it is a specifically differentiated part (itbecomes a species). Now -bear with me! - someone else might have only encountered crocodiles, iguanas and newts by timex; so when he encounters the gecko, he will have no reason to differentiate between "animal" and "reptile", until such times as he should see a dog or cat or chimpanzee. All this is to show that Thomas does in fact see the process of acquiring knowledge as "context relative". But let us be clear: the specific difference, which in relation to a known genus makes a new concept, is rooted in a discrete and specific datum of the senses, which in its turn is based on real difference in the physical world. While in the physical world differences have a history and a relationality as ancient and as wide as the cosmos, in the intellect they are considered intheir specificity - their "formal" specificity - relative to the intellectual "matter" or "context" of the genus. So "context relative" means something quite different in the fields of conceptual knowing and material being.

Does this make our knowledge false by reducing the radical fluidity and interconnectedness of the universe to the fixity of a concept (the 'intelligible expression of an essence')? No -because the universal species is always dynamically ordered towards knowing the real. This touches upon your critique of Thomas' dictum that "the understandable species is not that which is understood, but that by which the understanding understands". Here we have, not two exclusive meanings of the verb "to understand", but two stages of the one intellectual process of knowing the singular under the aspect of universality: the intellect perceives a specific difference and so comprehends the essence of a thing (first stage); then it is in a position to define the thing itself bymeans of what it has comprehended, in an act of judgment (the "return to sense-images" - conversio ad phantasmata - the second stage). First we comprehend the universal (potentially present in sense-data); then we are able to know the particular in a way that goes beyond mere sense-knowledge. I see these stages as complementary rather than exclusive; and if Thomas's teaching is not clear from this one text, we should look for other texts and trustworthy commentators to help out.

There are other things I would like to add, but as I said, I don't want to test your patience! So one short point, then a conclusion: I would not agree that the universal 'form' or species is the "same identical form" as the form as causa essendi. Recall that in Aristotle as in Thomas, "form" covers a notoriously broad range of meanings: the best I can think of as a common definition is "a certain determination of a given substrate". In the present case, the substrates are clearly different - and this affects the nature of the determination (form) in a decisive way. In thomistic terms, form-as-intellectual-species is a "likeness" of the knowable thing, ordered towards the same, and adequate to the knower's task of knowing. Thomas says that true knowledge is the "adequation ofthe intellect to the thing": this means that the intellect makes itself similar -according to its own mode of being and operating - to the thing known (it also means, incidentally, that a more adequate grasp of things known adequately is a future possibility). Thus, there is no flying or leaping of forms, no hovering back and forth between the two stools of world and mind. If that is how one reads Thomas, no wonder one wants to embrace something a bit more "down to earth"!

Yours faithfully
John Deighan
Scots' College


We are grateful for having reached significant "common ground", namely that "form has not been accorded its proper 'dignity' as cause in scientific discourse", and our common denial that "modern science by its very nature excludes the consideration of formality". However in terms of this "nature" of science, rather than common scientific "discourse", we would disagree that "methodologically speaking, science concentrates upon efficient and material causality", thinking that the Barr quote makes this point (see also our current editorial, under "science does observe the form".)

We would indeed affirm that "in order to know one thing, I would have to know its 'dynamic relationship' to everything else". We know all things partially, with reference to their environment, including ourselves as a non-absolute knowing mind. All things are in a hierarchical, kaleidoscopic network of formal "contexts". Realism would make us demur from the statement" 'context relative' means something quite different in the fields of conceptual knowing and material being." A mental concept of a genus immediately refers to, relates to, an actual and context or function in the universe.

An aspect of realism is being able to say that "The individual Red Rum is truly a horse." Universality seems to be intrinsic to individual things and this seems to be a problem for scholastic form-matter hylemorphism. In this theory the individual form-matter composite of Red Rum is distinct from the individual Shergar. In the scholastic theory of 'knowledge by abstraction' the form of 'horseness' is abstracted from the phantasm of Red Rum, because it is unintelligible and particular in its state of being immersed with individualising matter. This theory involves denying intrinsic intelligibility, and thus universality, to the form immersed with matter - by being abstracted the form becomes universally intelligible, as the species impressa.

This stage of the knowing process has as its object the intelligible universal form. The second stage is invoked to make the unintelligible individualised form the object of the process. Whilst our spiritual intellect's knowing of physical things is said to need as object the uniquely knowable universal, the final object of our spiritual, intellectual knowing is proposed as the non-universal individual. Yet it was because this couldn't be such an object of the intellect that abstraction was proposed. It seems to be in this context that the second stage process is termed a personal 'judgment of existence', and thus the whole process is, as Mr Deighan terms it, "orientated towards the real." This does not resolve how the particular is truly universal. It still maintains the veryunscientific scholastic belief that individuality is an unintelligible metaphysical principle.

This scholastic emphasis is all maintained through the "real distinction of essence and existence" such that whether something is fictional or is truly part of the actual network of

relationships that make up the actual cosmos under God is irrelevant to defining its (static) essence. So a horse in a novel and in actual existence can have exactly the same essence, even though clearly its metaphysical relationships with spiritual mind are radically different. These latter relationships are irrelevant, in this vision, to what something is, its essence.

Mr Deighan's last paragraph suggests a way out of this which seems to give significantly different identities and functions to the form in the individual thing and the form in the mind. He thus sensibly moves away from a crude correspondence theory of truth, but towards something in which the realism of our universal knowledge is no longer so clearly defended.

We think that modern science's discovery of the inter-related, hierarchical unity of all the parts of the cosmos provides a solution: namely that individuals are defined through their universal relationships - see for instance our Sept 2006 editorial: The Catholic View of Matter: Towards a New Synthesis.


Dear Father Editor,

Faith movement is engaged in the vitally urgent and important task of trying to forge a new synthesis of Faith and Reason - the subject of one of Pope John Paul ll's encyclicals.

In the 18th century we saw an attempt to supplant Christian Faith with Reason itself. The reductive and mechanistic tendencies that were inherent in this have their legacy in the ecological crisis and sense of alienation that we witness today. If God is acknowledged it is only in a Deistic, radically distant sense.

The Romantic Movement with its stress on the primacy of feelings and the imagination, arose as a counterblast to the aridity of the 'mechanists'. But the excesses of the Romantics have led to the moral and intellectual vacuity of the hippy/new age culture with its acceptance of drug taking and general flight from reality. Here, if God is acknowledged, he/she is identified with Nature itself.

In the light of the above, I would suggest that to revive our Western culture what we really need is a synthesis of Faith, Reason and imagination, for 'where there is no vision the people perish' {Proverbs).

Scientists are the great exponents of the rational intellect: the mathematical order underlying the visible universe is truly astonishing. But great scientific breakthroughs often begin as intuitions, insights, great leaps of the imagination. It is the great strength of science that its speculations are open to verification through empirical testing.

However, recent scientific advances in the realm of the quantum world have shown that there comes a point when objective testing and validity is no longer possible. We can only talk in terms of probabilities and admit that the mind of the observer is an active participant in what is going on. Scientists are also taking on board the need for a more organic and holistic approach to the material world.

The acceptance of the role that the imagination sometimes plays in scientific advance together with the recognition that 100\% truth and verification is impossible to achieve can indicate how a synthesis of Faith, Reason and Imagination could come about, and our Trinitarian Faith is ideally suited to play a pivotal role.

In this (admittedly oversimplified) vision the Father is the planner, the organiser, the Divine rational source that gives creation its unity. The Spirit is the Divine creative energetic principle working in all of diverse matter forging it into ever more complex and integrated systems until it reaches its peak in Man who is co-creator of beings, relationships, art, architecture, music, machines, literature, laws, sport etc., etc. 'The Glory of God is a man fully alive'.

But as indicated, we can sometimes overstress either the Transcendence or Immanence of God, it is Jesus Christ who provides the bridge; who provides the reality check (particularly on the cross); who keeps our feet planted firmly on the ground whilst allowing our imagination to soar across the heavens. Christ is both Icon of the Father (who is thus revealed as being far more than a merely rational super-being) and true Man, the real peak and summit of all creation, and exemplar of man, who will one day gather up all the diverse workings of the Holy Spirit and present them as a glorious symphony in the presence of Our Father in heaven. Creator and creation will be united in perfect harmony and bliss.

This is my vision but I have to stress that it makes more sense when viewed through the lens of panentheism rather than through creation ex-nihilo with God specially creating individual souls for each human being.

Yours faithfully
G J Egan
Fairview Avenue


Dear Father Editor, I was very pleased to read, in the Cutting Edge column of the July issue of Faith magazine, the brief summary of two recent breakthroughs in adult stem-cell research.

The Church is portrayed by the media as being completely opposed to stem-cell research, and relatively few people are aware that there are two completely separate areas of research, namely embryonic stem-cell research, which involves the destruction of human embryos (and is therefore opposed by the Church), and adult stem-cell research.

Part of the ignorance is due to the media dropping the terms "embryonic" and "adult" when reporting on stem-cell

research; since most of the reports have concentrated on justifying the creation of cloned human embryos for research into and treatment of neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson's, "stem-cells" has become synonymous with "embryonic stem-cells" in the public imagination. Even the current GCSE Science curriculum focuses on work with cloned embryos when referring to stem cells. Adult stem-cell research is barely mentioned; the fact that the successes, in human treatment terms, have come from the use of adult stem-cells is glossed over.

This use (or misuse) of language to obscure unpalatable truths is not new. In July 1996, I wrote an article in Faith magazine explaining how the transplantation of foetal tissue, which had progressed further than many people had realised, was being reported in misleading ways, with scientists going to great lengths to avoid direct references to a human foetus. I suggested that IVF technology would soon be used to create embryos as "tissue banks." The difficulties associated with obtaining nerve tissue at the correct stage of development and differentiation from aborted embryos means that foetal tissue transplantation is no longer in favour, but the creation of human embryos specifically as sources of stem cells, and the push to use "spare" embryos from IVF treatments is gatheringmomentum.

Much more needs to be done to alert the public to the treatment successes obtained through the use of adult stem-cell research.

Yours faithfully
Mac McLernon

Faith Magazine