The thought police Brief Answers To Big Questions; 1. Is the Pope catholic?

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
The Papal gauntlet has been ceremoniously thrown down. He and his church "challenge philosophy to recover and develop its own full dignity". The challenge comes via his latest encyclical, Fides et Ratio (Faith and Reason), which provides a stern telling-off for philosophers and some helpful advice about how they should go about their work.

Bemused philosophers may well wonder what they've done wrong. The Pope singles out two things in particular. Firstly, philosophy is guilty of "abandoning the investigation of being" and has "concentrated instead upon human knowing". Secondly, this focus on knowing "has given rise to different forms of scepticism and relativism". What philosophy should be doing is focusing on questions of universal concern: "Who am I? Where have I come from and where am I going? Why is there evil? What is there after this life?"

One could complain that while the Pope wouldn't dream of telling physicists what they should study, he doesn't flinch from telling philosophers what to do. The measured response is to consider his accusations seriously. When one does so, it turns out the Pope has simply got philosophy wrong.

For example, his injunction to work on the fundamental questions he sets out sounds most commendable. But it misses several crucial points. First of all, many philosophers do concern themselves with fundamental questions of being and value, but their answers are not always those the Pope would want. Take the question, "Who am I?" Philosophers working on the nature of consciousness and personal identity are enquiring into just these questions of who and what we are. But I somehow think their answers, which frequently take all consciousness to be fundamentally dependent upon the brain and which have no place for the soul, are not quite what the Pope is after.

Some of the other questions have been answered in ways that would make the ageing Pope tremble. "Nothing" may seem like a dull answer, but not when the question is "What is there after this life?" And as for evil, Nietzsche's brilliant account of how the very concept is a Christian creation, designed to keep the meek meek and the priestly caste in power, is probably not what the Pope had in mind either.

Secondly, the Pope misses the point that a great deal of philosophy is not and never has been about the questions he raises. Since Plato, we have been considering the nature of knowledge, the meaning of meaning and the status of the physical world. If this isn't part of the "desire to discover the ultimate truth of existence", then so be it. Such questions have always been a good deal of what philosophy is about. To say philosophy should not work on such questions is like saying composers should write only symphonies and not concertos.

The biggest problem of all, however, is that the Pope is not in a good position to advise anyone on philosophy. Philosophy has to be enquiring; it can take nothing on faith, and its methods are based not on the blind acceptance of authority, but on establishing truths by reason and argument. The Roman Catholic Church, on the other hand, is based upon unquestioning faith, the uncritical acceptance of the Bible as the word of God and, most unphilosophically of all, the doctrine of papal infallibility. It is a rich irony that a man who believes his word is to be taken as gospel, with no recourse to critical examination or reasoning, is lecturing philosophers on how to do their job.

Julian Baggini is editor of 'The Philosophers' Magazine' (subscriptions: 0181-643 1504). Send comments on The Thought Police to Nick Fearn at