Almost no one operates without some metaphysical paradigm, if indeed anyone does. Being a modernist-postmodernist kind of thinker, I have gone along for decades assuming that whatever those metaphysical premises are, they are simply unprovable. At some point, a person just has to decide what she’s going to accept. That view traces back to Kant, and Kierkegaard, if I’m not wildly mistaken. It’s still one of the available paradigms, as far as that goes.
Apparently, however, the metaphysical rationalists are making a comeback. This is down to the postmodernists having pointed out how ubiquitous metaphysics actually is in real life, and how surreptitious, I imagine. And while the neo-scholastics haven’t won me over completely, I have been deeply smitten by the “necessary independent foundation of reality” argument made by Joshua Rasmussen in How Reason Can Lead to God.
Part of the smittenness comes from seeing that this argument essentially correlates with Paul Tillich’s Ground of Being. In fact, it makes that Ground of Being idea look Aristotelianly ancient, rather than 50s modern. Rasmussen’s presentation also sheds light on Tillich’s notion of “ultimate concern” and its relation to the “power of being.” In fact, it begins to look like, if we were willing to do the homework, we’d find Tillich’s Systematic Theology was mostly a project of slapping a fresh coat of terminological paint on Thomas Aquinas. I feel someone could have told us all this in seminary, but better late than never.
The independent foundation argument goes something like this: there is something rather than nothing; for that to be the case, there must be something in reality that is capable of being on its own, independently of anything else. Working out the logic, which Rasmussen does, you come up with something in reality that just is, necessarily, upon which other things that can either be or not be depend. The argument is as old as dirt, actually, maybe even literally. But it’s striking to me that “we” have come to think it’s a kind of stupid argument. It’s actually a lot less stupid than most people who think it’s stupid, including me a few weeks ago, seem to think.
[Edward Feser, another contemporary scholastic, thinks modern historians of philosophy are not sufficiently familiar with the argument, and for that reason don’t present it properly in contemporary history of philosophy texts and classes, and for that reason think it’s more easily refutable than it is. As in, it’s easier to dismiss a straw man than the real thing, almost always. It was this observation that first impelled me down this particular path of investigation in the first place.]
It also struck me how entirely compatible the independent foundation argument is with Hindu Brahman. Which makes sense. And which also helps makes sense of the tremendous popularity of Hinduism in the 19th century with a particular cultural stratum, or so it seems to me.
Overall I found Rasmussen’s book really interesting and valuable. It’s possible that some of that comes from not knowing enough classical philosophy of religion to think it’s the same old thing in a new cover. But mostly, I think, it’s because he is presenting some old points in new ways, and also making some new ones based on recent philosophy of possibility.
His language is extraordinarily plain, simple, and clear throughout, and he uses clear, relatable examples. Both of those qualities are high virtues in philosophy texts, according to me. A high school student could read this book and understand it. Mostly I appreciated that, and found the presentation kindly rather than condescending. In any event, the book is blessedly free from overbearing patches, another philosophical rarity.
His very first chapter in particular is a marvel, as well as a lethal challenge to some of the wishful-thinking apologetics that flows so freely on the internet, the kind that is engaged in building a fence around untenable ideas:
If you want truth, aim for it. You are more likely to hit a target if you aim to hit the target than if you don’t aim at it. If you want truth, seek truth.Rasmussen, 11.
I would recommend this book for that chapter alone. It brought me to tears, of recognition, and of joy.
I found myself a hard sell when it came to his points about intrinsic “positivity” and “value.” Some of that may stem from terminological problems, some of it may come from my deeply ingrained subjectivist perspective on reality, but I think some of it may come from un-worked-out gaps in the argument. Or, I could be wrong about that. It’s my new research agenda.
At one point he begins talking about the existence of “kingly creatures” – human beings – and I confess I thought he could have done better. “Regal” is a word, for instance, or even “imperial.” That’s assuming he really wanted to draw on the language of ancient political arrangements to communicate the idea of creatures possessing a degree of sovereignty or autonomy.
I appreciated this book and Rasmussen’s reasoning very much. Surprising as it turned out to be.
Notes on: Rasmussen, Joshua. How Reason Can Lead to God: A Philosopher’s Bridge to Faith. IVP Academic, 2019. [An installment of the Read Me Project.]