In this interview, R. Scott Smith discusses the implications of his latest book, In Search of Moral Knowledge
(IVP Academic), including how the Enlightenment has shaped our thought-patterns and how a common taproot has animated both ‘postmodern epistemology’ and ‘philosophical naturalism’:
In Search of Moral Knowledge is born out of your own teaching experience. What are you called to teach graduate students in the foundational areas that your book also addresses?
I wanted to give grad students (and upper division undergrads, too) a good handle on the crucial factors affecting us in ethics today. I wanted to give a good grounding in moral theory, before we turn to address our many applied ethical issues today.
Ever since I studied with J.P. Moreland, I realized the importance of understanding morals in terms of metaphysical and epistemological issues. E.g., how we come to know which moral properties (principles, virtues) are valid depends upon what kind of thing they are metaphysically. Yet, for a lengthy time now, in western academia, we have suffered a breakdown in knowledge. How can we make good on our various claims? This is nowhere seen more than in ethics, and religion and theology. Yet, as I came to see while studying with Dallas Willard, this breakdown in epistemology is due fundamentally to a breakdown in metaphysics. Specifically, I think it is due to a loss of essences, including universals. We simply cannot know any universal moral truths if there are no universals. And if there are no universals, then we are left with just particulars, including our many particular claims in ethics and religion, which is exactly how many people see things today.
So, how do we make good on our various moral claims (not to mention religious ones), especially in today’s pluralistic setting(s)?
Many have proposed their answers, yet very few people get down to what I think is the root problem – i.e., a metaphysical one about the rejection of essences, with its enormous theological implications. And, not just any epistemology will allow us to have knowledge, or so I think. I think our abilities to have knowledge of reality depend upon the reality of essences and our being a unity of body and soul.
If the various philosophical and cultural/historical moves rejected essences and instead embraced permutations of nominalism, and these led to a breakdown in being able to make good on our various moral theories and claims, then we need to revisit those moves, to see to what extent they are justified. And, perhaps we need to recover an earlier view that had been rejected. This is why, having seen Willard’s example, I think we need to understand these moves made in the history of ethics (and epistemology, metaphysics, and theology). For what if those earlier moves were mistaken? We need to examine them, to see just what we ought to conclude, to understand how (and why) we ought to live now.
In this, I think we should find that the Christian God, and Christianity, understood as embracing essences, a robust body-soul dualism, and universals, is the best explanation for what morals are, and how we can know them. So my book serves also as a full-blown argument for the existence of the Christian God.
In recent years, you’ve published two other books that have some overlapping interest with your new book: Virtue Ethics and Moral Knowledge (Ashgate, 2003) and Naturalism and Our Knowledge of Reality (Ashgate, 2012). In general, how does In Search of Moral Knowledge extend the argument that you’ve developed in these other books?
In Search of Moral Knowledge updates my understanding and assessment of the postmodern turn from Virtue Ethics, particularly in the works of Alasdair MacIntyre and Stanley Hauerwas. In the earlier book, I understood their views more along the lines of how we construct our “worlds” by how we use language in our respective “forms of life.” I based that view on MacIntyre’s understanding of how concepts are embodied in the social world, and how Brad Kallenberg expressed a Wittgensteinian view as language and world being internally related. However, in light of a letter from MacIntyre, and a separate critique from James K.A. Smith, I came to see the “postmodern turn” more along the lines as Jamie states it; i.e., that everything is interpretation. So, I update and alter my earlier understanding, and then I assess that “new” understanding.
My assessment of naturalistic ethics in In Search of Moral Knowledge is an extension of my overall argument in Naturalism and Our Knowledge of Reality. In Naturalism, I argued that on the basis of the ontology of naturalism, we cannot know reality. In the new book, I summarize and apply that argument to naturalism and ethics, to help show that the fact side of the fact-value dichotomy is false.
Sometimes accounts of ‘postmodern epistemology’ simply begin with a ‘linguistic turn’ in philosophy. But part of your contribution to this discussion has been to show how the ontology and epistemology of philosophical naturalism has been influential here. Why should someone understand the conditions and contours of postmodern epistemology from the standpoint of philosophical naturalism as a historically developed set of a ideas?
There is at least one reason why the virtue ethics of Aristotle and Aquinas has had great staying power. In Virtue Ethics, and here, too, I try to show that a metaphysical view that has no place for essences will undermine virtue ethics. At least in terms of historical development, I think postmodernism is a further development in the same overall trajectory of naturalism, and even nominalism. I do not think there is room for essences on any of these views, and postmodernism now takes that stance and applies it to words and their meanings. Derrida, and Dennett and Quine too, realize that without essences, there is no “deeper fact” to what a text means; it simply points on, beyond itself. It leaves the meaning of a text as just a matter of interpretation, without any definitive stopping point. This is due fundamentally to a loss of any place for essences.
In Part One of the book, you offer a “short history of Western ethics.” What do you find to be the most consequential ways for how the “the Enlightenment period” has shaped the fact-value dichotomy?
In that overall period, several factors came together. There had been a series of events in history and science, such that science came to be seen as the paradigm of how we have knowledge. There was great pressure and impetus (especially in the states) for theology to be done scientifically. Along with that emphasis came the stress upon empirical methodologies to give us knowledge. Plus, ontologically speaking, the view was becoming more commonplace that the universe (and humans) are mechanisms.
While not necessarily entailing a denial of the reality of immaterial entities (God, souls, mental states, essences, universals, etc.), these emphases also fit with Bacon’s scientific method, in which he focused on just material and efficient causes, not formal or final ones. These views were worked out in that period along with empiricism (the view that all knowledge comes by way of the five senses) and nominalism (the view that there are no universals, but only particulars, and so without essences, it seems). These views helped set the stage for the rise of naturalism.
So, the view of science that we have inherited from the Enlightenment’s influences (and some before then) have led us to understand scientific knowledge (which is the basis for the facts we know) in terms of empirical methods, and that is often understood in terms of an ontology that is devoid of immaterial realities. Or, if they exist, we cannot know them as such – they play no role in our having knowledge. And without essences, morals and spiritual claims to knowledge really are but particulars, not universals, and subjective, not objective.
In terms of ‘idea grip,’ as Dallas Willard would say, can we really ‘overcome’ the fact-value dichotomy without overcoming some significant ideas from the Enlightenment?
I do not think we can without doing what you suggest. To help overcome the fact-value dichotomy, several factors will be necessary, I think. In part, it will involve refuting the fact side, that knowledge uniquely comes by way of the sciences. Thus, scientism is one such idea, whether in a strong or weak form, that will need to be repudiated. Another key will be to show that there is more to what is real than what is empirically observable (due to the loss of essences from naturalism and nominalism).
We also need to show that we can, & often do, have knowledge in ethics (and religion, theology). But I think this two-pronged approach will require a refutation of naturalism and anti-essentialism, including nominalism. This book, along with my Naturalism and Our Knowledge of Reality, are attempts to do just that.
Lately, though, I have been bringing in more lines of thought, including the effects of the “split” upon evangelicals, especially in the states. Our evangelical predecessors in the 1800s and thereafter placed a strong emphasis upon having knowledge of objective truths in all aspects of life by “common sense,” which was thought simply would confirm Scripture. Objective truth was preferred over the subjective, which is a deep legacy of the Enlightenment.
Now, knowledge is important, in that, as J.P. Moreland has said many times, Christianity is a knowledge tradition. We need knowledge, but we need that in conjunction with an intimate relationship with Jesus. That is, we are to live in a deep heart and mind unity with Him, with His heart and mind. His word is to abide not only in us, but we also are to abide in Him (Jn 15:5). We are to love Him with all our being – including both our minds and our hearts. But the “split” discourages and even undermines that unity. By stressing knowledge of reality as the desired goal, while relegating ethics and religion to the realm of the subjective, the “split” undermines the relational aspect of Christianity, instead pressing us to understand the Christian life along the lines of knowledge of objective truths, yet abstracted from a deep, intimate relationship with Him.
So, in western cultures, where we tend to see ethics and religion as personal, subjective, and a matter of opinion, Christians, having been influenced by the “split,” often tend to see their relationship with Jesus as something to be based on believing (& obeying) objective truths. But while that appeals to the mind, it does not necessarily (or easily) touch the heart. That is, it is all too easy for Christians to live out of their “heads” than out of both their minds and their hearts. Yet God wants us to be deeply united with both His heart and mind. If we are not deeply abiding in Him, in relationship with Him (which, out the very nature of relationships, must involve many subjectivities), then we will tend to not be truly abiding in Him. But that is a disaster, for then we will tend to be living in our own strength, not His; and apart from Him, we can do nothing (Jn 15:5). To the extent we live in our own self and strength, we will undermine the fullness of His Spirit in us, and we also will give room to the influences of Satan in our thoughts and hearts. I think a grave danger we face as western Christians today is to value knowledge over relationship with Jesus, even though in Him are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge (Col 2:3), and we have been given the mind of Christ (and access directly thereto, 1 Cor 2:10-16).
Not only that, He wants our hearts and minds to be deeply united within ourselves, lest we live as bifurcated individuals. God wants us to be whole, well-integrated people, who do not live merely out of just either our hearts or our minds. If we go to seed on the mental, we can know all sorts of truths, but without hearts of compassion, love, kindness, and even power. In that way, we may have knowledge of truth, but not in its fullness. If we tend to emphasize the heart over the “head,” we can value experience at the expense of knowledge, but that too can lead to all sorts of errors. We need both mind and heart unity – in ourselves, which comes from Him, and with Him. (I think this also dovetails closely with reading and practicing God’s written word (Scripture), and listening to His voice, in relationship with Him.)
If moral knowledge is best accounted for by an ‘essentialist’ framework., how can a post-/anti-/non- essentialist view of knowledge, persons, and morality, etc. motivate/justify their claims?
There are various ways thinkers have advocated for ethics to be based on such frameworks, whether that be Hobbes, Hume, Kant, Bentham, Mill, Rawls, Korsgaard, or naturalists, relativists, or postmoderns. Some, for instance, try to shift knowledge to be a matter of something we have from a particular standpoint, or context, as with MacIntyre or Hauerwas. Knowledge then becomes a matter of what we know from our situated standpoints.
What I think is interesting is that in each of these cases and people I just listed, none of them have any place (or use) for essences, or universals. All embrace, or presuppose, nominalism. Yet, they too have to try to come up with some way(s) to account for moral “phenomena,” such as 1) human life involves morality, however that is to be understood; and 2) there are various morals we all seem to know, such as justice and love are good, and rape and murder are wrong. In the cases of these various theorists, how we know what is moral trades upon how they have defined what kind of things morals are. So, they have to come up with some ways to know these and other facets of morals that will square with nominalism. In some way or another, since there are no essences on such views (or, at least, they play no role in them), these views must be forms of constructivism. Without an essence, there is no defining quality, thereby leaving morals up to us. (And that’s a major reason why I think the fact-value split is so attractive to us; it allows us to think we can live out Gen 3:5 – that we can be like God, defining good and evil, and even reality.)
How does the Christian tradition provide ‘resources’ for overcoming the fact-value dichotomy?
Despite some attempts to conceive (or reconceive) the Christian tradition along nominalist, physicalist, or postmodern lines, I think all these fail, for a number of reasons I have raised in this book, my Naturalism book, and other essays. I think Christianity is best understood as supporting substance dualism, the existence of irreducible mental properties, and universals. (On the latter, see also my essay in Philosophia Christi 15:2). I think this enables us to make sense of many, many important facets of reality, along with Scripture’s claims. E.g., I think that because concepts are universals, many people literally can have the same concept in mind. Because there are essences, there is a fact of the matter of what I meant when I wrote this book, or this sentence. Not just any interpretation goes.
There also can be facts of the matter of the nature of the fetus, the infant, and even the elderly. If there are essences, like humanness, which is instantiated in particular souls, there can be intrinsic properties, like moral worth. I see that as being grounded in our bearing (metaphysically) the image of God. Also, due to the reality of a universal human essence, God the Son really could take on a fully human nature (yet without sin), and thus be able to substitute for us and atone for our sins.
Indeed, if there are universals, there really can be universal morals. And if we all share in a common human nature (as image bearers), then these morals can apply to each of us. Plus, universals as just abstract entities that exist as brute facts (Plato’s view, e.g.) does not really explain why these morals apply to us, or why we should obey them. But their being grounded in God’s character does accomplish that.
Moreover, due to this common human nature, there are some morals we all know to be so, whether by general revelation (such as in Rom 1, 2), or Scripture. There also are some spiritual truths we know – such as that God truly exists (which we may suppress). If so, then there are facts to be known in these areas, and the “split” is false.
R. Scott Smith is Associate Professor of Ethics and Christian Apologetics, Biola University. Previously at epsociety.org, Naturalism and our Knowledge of Reality was discussed by Paul Gould and EPS President Angus Menuge.