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Pursuing Truth in the Catholic University

by Marcella Linn

Recently in one of my freshman philosophy sections, a student calmly noted that while she accepted the logic of St. Thomas Aquinas’ proofs for the existence of God, she ultimately rejected the conclusion that God exists because she believes in the Big Bang Theory. Imagine her (and the rest of the class’) shock when she learned that it was a Catholic priest who proposed the theory. While this anecdote reveals much about the general concern students have about the apparent tensions between faith and science, it also reveals something about the assumptions students have about truth and its pursuit. Students generally seem to reject the idea that faith has any place in the pursuit of truth and instead believe that these things are contrary to one another. If this is so, then either the Catholic university is poorly suited for the pursuit of truth, or it must do so despite its faith-based mission rather than because of it. In what follows, I will show that, in fact, the Catholic university is better equipped than its secular counterparts for pursuing truth.

Over three decades ago, St. John Paul II had much to say about the pursuit of truth in the Catholic university. Indeed, he states in Ex Corde Ecclesiae that the task of the Catholic university is “to unite existentially by intellectual effort two orders of reality that too frequently tend to be placed in opposition as though they were antithetical: the search for truth, and the certainty of already knowing the fount of truth.”   In addition, he claims that the truth a Catholic university seeks is holistic, not partial. While useful knowledge associated with technical expertise is valued, it is the “free search for the whole truth about nature, man and God” that distinguishes the Catholic university from secular universities.   He describes this pursuit of truth as “disinterested” and “impartial.”   Here I want to focus on the apparent tension between seeking truth impartially and being certain of knowing the “fount of truth.” Catholic universities have many constituents who are not Catholic, and some may find this tension to be more than apparent. Many associate impartiality – especially in matters of nature, man, and God – with a beginning that is free of commitments to any one truth. We must be, they presume, like empirical scientists who simply observe the world and report on its various facets.

There is an analogous problem in contemporary moral theory. In relation to questions surrounding free will, some worry that since decisions we make can be traced back to a mental disposition that produced the decision or action in question, we never truly act freely; our actions are always determined by our values or commitments, and we cannot act independently of them. “So what?” one might say. Don’t we nonetheless freely choose what we value and to what we are committed? Some deny this, too. Determinists, for instance, question whether those choices are themselves free. They argue that the basis of one’s choices – one’s desires, beliefs, attitudes, goals, and in general, one’s motivational structure – is not freely chosen, but rather, is determined by a host of factors: one’s natural dispositions, upbringing, early experiences, the circumstances one happens to face, etc.   For instance, a person might happen to value being generous because she was fortunate to have generous family members. Had she not been exposed to models of generosity, or by contrast, had she been exposed only to thievery and crime, she would not have developed in such a way that would enable generosity in her. In short, if the values we have are themselves inheritances of our natural dispositions, experiences, or upbringings, then determinists wonder how they can ground free action and subsequently moral responsibility.

Even in deciding to act against or to affirm our previously held values – in choosing to reform or solidify our characters – determinists point out that we make these decisions in some context. We may be prompted by some environmental factor, inspiration from a friend, a new experience, or some other such influence that causes us to change. At the very least, we make the decision to reform or solidify our characters in light of the values we already have, which are nevertheless traced back to our earlier experiences, nature, or upbringing.   Perhaps I never became generous, but I value generosity because of my natural sympathy towards others and so I now choose to habituate this trait. In other words, there is a concern that having a starting point that is not wholly one’s own creation undermines freedom because that starting point pushes us in one direction over another and we are not the ultimate source of it.

I find my students are quite taken by this line of reasoning. A student once told me at the beginning of her second class with me that, despite engaging with responses to it in our previous class, she was still “haunted” by the determinist argument. Many students have also voiced a similar sentiment in class discussions or papers. I often have students who want to reject determinism, but still struggle to see where it fails and instead emphasize that they simply cannot accept it. Some make consequentialist appeals that if it were true, things would be chaotic, so we must reject it. Even philosophers who disagree with it find it difficult to ignore. Nearly three decades after a book-length response to determinist arguments, one philosopher writes in an article on the topic that she will refer to it as the “Troubling Train of Thought.”

Just as our actions reflect our values and raise questions for determinists about freedom, so too does a search for truth that is grounded in faith raise questions about that search’s impartiality. For if a Catholic university’s search for truth is grounded in faith, it begins with trusting that God is the source of all beauty, goodness, and truth rather than questioning the source of truth. Like all choices and actions, the inquiry begins from somewhere. And just as some doubt the freedom of a choice or action that traces back to something not wholly self-created, so too might they doubt the impartiality of an inquiry that begins with the presumption that God is the source of all truth.

I think the source of the problem that causes students to be convinced and troubled by determinism is the same as what causes many to see as antithetical the “two realities” to which St. John Paul II refers. This source is the assumption that an impartial search for truth or a free action must start from nowhere; that it must be free of any commitments, be they to other truths, the Truth, values, goals, etc. For otherwise we are, as they may claim, biased or partial, begging the question, or mere products of our biology, environment, and circumstances.

Identifying the problem is one step. The next is proposing a solution. To do so, we must see that just as an action that begins from nowhere could never be free, a so-called “impartial” search for truth that is free of commitments cannot generate a proper ground for knowledge or truth. If, for instance, we attempt to take the ground out, to start without any commitments, to free our choices completely of determination and our inquiries of a starting point, what follows are choices and inquiries that are arbitrary and indistinguishable from luck. If, for instance, my choice to harm another human is not in some way traced back to a value, belief, goal, attitude, or some other aspect of my will or character, but instead occurred just as likely as my choice to refrain from harming another, then it seems to be a matter of luck that I happen to go one way rather than the other. If I had no reason to act one way over another, no basis for my choice, then my choice lacks any ground from which to establish it as something I did. And without that ground, the choice is arbitrary, not free. 

Consider whether it would be any better to be free of commitments in the case of a person with an excellent upbringing and character. For that person, doing the right thing comes immediately on account of her good moral training and character. And it seems that the fact that she cannot act against the demands of morality is something that contributes to – rather than detracts from – the goodness of her character. For what would her ability to act contrary to her good character add to the value of her actions? If her actions are grounded in the right reasons, would being able to act on bad reasons or no reasons add value and make her choices freer? My intuition is no; in fact, this ability to act otherwise would instead detract from the goodness and freedom of her action. This is certainly a different conception of freedom with which many students (and modern thinkers) operate. Rather than exercising freedom from any influences, true freedom rests in the ability to conform one’s actions to what is true and good.

Similarly, if we are to begin an inquiry, we must begin from somewhere or our search will be arbitrary and will not bear much fruit. At some point of any teacher’s career – hopefully early on – one learns that trying to generate or sustain a class discussion without any parameters will not produce a fruitful a dialogue. To generate good discussion, it must be focused and include some conditions or common ground. Simply asking, “what did you think?” will not work for an undergraduate discussion. In cases where it does, this is often for older students, and only because they have already developed some grounding in the methodology or are familiar with the ideas from which they can begin deep inquiry in their respective fields. In the same way, when seeking the whole truth, we must start from somewhere. What we desire is that our discoveries and beliefs align with the truth, not that they are free from all commitments, especially the confines of reason.

So what if, rather than starting from nowhere, we start, not from certainty in God, but from particular commitments, such as commitments to the views of a political party, an ideology, or the methods of sociology or of science? Could we then escape the problem of arbitrariness or luck? Perhaps we can; we could then find some ground for our subsequent beliefs or commitments. But in starting from human institutions or belief systems, we thereby sacrifice the impartiality we seek. In the attempt to resolve one concern, we reintroduce the initial concern.

To truly resolve the issue, we must consider what the impartiality of the Catholic pursuit of truth looks like. When explaining the impartiality that is distinctive of Catholic universities, St. John Paul II claims “by its Catholic character, a University is made more capable of conducting an impartial search for truth, a search that is neither subordinated to nor conditioned by particular interests of any kind.”   As Catholics, we seek the whole truth – the universal truth: one that is not limited in scope or by political, ideological, sociological, or scientific commitments. It is also not bound by the method of any one academic discipline. Rather, the research and teaching of a Catholic university seek to integrate knowledge from different fields, answer broader questions about the meaning of scientific and sociological research findings for the human person, concern themselves with ethical implications of method and discovery, and promote dialogue between faith and reason.   Since it is not merely partial truths we seek, which can be discovered by specialized disciplines, we must not begin from any particular beliefs or methods relative to one discipline, but from the universal truth. When starting instead from the view that only the scientific method promotes impartiality or only a particular political party or view is correct, individuals begin their inquiry conditioned by some human view, belief, or method to which they are partial. By contrast, the Catholic inquiry into truth begins from the universal truth, which is not constrained by human interests, but rather, transcends them.

On a practical level, the solution here ties the basic mission of the Catholic university to pursue truth to its mission of evangelization, especially when it comes to forming “men and women capable of rational and critical judgment and conscious of the transcendent dignity of the human person.”   Without God at the center of our inquiry, our pursuit of truth is either free of all commitments and thus arbitrary or confined to the methods of a narrow discipline and thus partial. And so, allowing students to encounter Christ throughout their formation provides the foundation they need to pursue truth impartially. Rather than being biased, the Catholic university is instead best equipped for the impartial pursuit of truth.

In sum, we need a fount of truth, a rational base, or else inquiry becomes partial or arbitrary. Only God, Truth itself, can serve as that base without sacrificing impartiality. When we have such a base, we are enabled to pursue truth “without fear, but rather with enthusiasm” because it enables us to fulfill our nature as human beings made in the likeness of God.

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1    John Paul II, Ex Corde Ecclesiae, encyclical letter, Vatican Website, August 15, 1990, http://www.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/apost_constitutions/documents/hf_jp-ii_apc_15081990_ex-corde-ecclesiae.html, sec. 1.

2    Ibid., sec. 4.

3    Ibid., secs. 4-5.

4    This argument is put forth by Galen Strawson in “The Impossibility of Moral Responsibility,” Philosophical Studies 75 (1993): 5-24.

5    Ibid., 14.

6    Susan Wolf, “Character and Responsibility,” The Journal of Philosophy 112 (2015): 356.

7    John Paul II, Ex Corde Ecclesiae, sec. 7.

8    Ibid., 15-19.

9    Ibid., sec. 49.

10  Ibid., sec. 4.

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Marcella Linn

Marcella Linn is a lecturer in the philosophy department at Loyola University Chicago. Her research uses interpretative work on Aristotle to address contemporary topics in ethics and social psychology such as the nature of character, moral luck, the empirical adequacy of character, and moral responsibility. She regularly teaches courses in ethics and judgment and decision making as part of the university's core curriculum.

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