Thursday, June 28, 2012

Why Progressive Notions Are Wrong

There's a rather execrable post on Vox Nova essentially proposing that the Church needs to figure out an epistemology of "infallibility" that accounts for "the fact" that Church teaching has changed in certain areas. "Religious liberty" is the test-case here, but one can imagine the usual litany of concerns: slavery, usury, burning heretics, etc, blah blah blah. It's funny how it's always these socio-political-economic teachings which are the subject of alleged "change" (or calls for further change); something I'll address in this post.

In itself, I have no trouble conceding that the approach has changed on many of these questions. Everyone notices. It is only the neoconservatives who pretend there is a total constancy (in the ossified sense) when there isn't. Both trads and liberals alike (and especially renegade trads!) recognize that the Church's stance towards, say, liberal democracy and pluralism changed markedly at Vatican II. I have always said this didn't bother me, because the change is one of prudential approach. It really isn't supposed to be a change in principles or absolute values, so much as a change in how we engage the world. And so when the circumstances/situation change, the approach changes. In many ways, these "changes" just amount to being realistic about the practical situation on the ground in the world.

Where it gets concerning is when these natural (if not always well-advised) changes in approach based on changes in the situation of the world...are blended with a progressive narrative about those changes in the socio-political-economic sphere in order to conclude that (under the assumption that modern world arrangements are "better" than those in the past and represents an upward social/political/economic "evolution") the values or emphases or approaches adopted by the Church in order to engage the more recent situation are likewise "better" or represent moral or spiritual "progress." I think this is very dangerous, and so I wrote the following which I've expanded on here:

The problem is that the “humility” of “we were wrong (then)” is actually just equivalent to the arrogance of “we know better now.”

This sort of progressive narrative is ultimately groundless, because we have to ask something like “Where exactly is this ‘new knowledge’ coming from?”

Has there been new Revelation? No. 

Where then is this “better understanding” coming from, and by what standard can we be sure it is “better” as opposed to simply different?

Generally, the issues in question are those of morals (as opposed to “faith”/dogmatic questions). The latter can indeed develop by increasingly precise formulations or the evolution of concepts (like the Immaculate Conception) that nevertheless can be "discovered" implicit in the logic of the original axioms. This development can be compared, I suppose, to the development of pure Mathematics by way of proofs.

However, moral issues are a different category. Morality cannot be said to develop like Math along some sort of road of greater and greater synthesis and discovery from axioms and basic logic. If there are things the Church has only taught explicitly later in the dogmatic sphere (say, defining transubstantiation), it’s never like she taught the opposite before hand. Things weren’t as advanced in the past, but they certainly weren’t contradictory.

Yet this sort of contradiction is exactly what is proposed in a "progressive" narrative about moral issues. “We know better now.” It’s not just that you’re saying we didn’t know as much as in the past, but that somehow something in our knowledge changed.
The analogy here, then, seems to be less the development of Mathematics, and more the development of the natural empirical sciences which proceed with the gathering of experimental data. But this analogy seems problematic to apply to the moral sphere as well. Is does-not-equal Ought, so in moral questions…what sort of “experimental data” could really advance our knowledge? 

 Revelation could. But there has been no new Revelation since Christ and the Apostles. Maybe I could concede that there could be progress in spiritual consciousness, in theoria, along the lines of greater achievement in holiness and contemplation and mysticism that would lead to new moral awareness.

But I hardly think that's the sort of empirical input that the progressives are claiming has led to the "evolution" or "advancement" of moral knowledge (that's certainly never the sort of evidence they cite!) For one, it’s pretty clear that mysticism and contemplative life was a much more widespread phenomenon in the Middle Ages, say. And I really think a notion of greater holiness in later ages of history is faulty; there is spiritual progress for the individual, not for the race as a whole, exactly because the spiritual project is "designed" in such a way that divinization is approachable in a single human lifetime, exactly because when it comes to sanctification, the individual is irreducible and holiness is incommunicable. It would be that sort of arrogance once again, and naïveté, to imagine that we are living in an Age of Saints more than any other in history, or to act as if we somehow inherit, merely by living later in history, some sort of "rolling snowball" of holiness.

And yet, it seems to me, there must be some concrete change which would justify a change in the moral beliefs. If someone is going to claim that a previous hypothesis or theory or idea has been disproven, there has to be some reason. Something that disproves it.

Yet, as we have shown, when it comes to moral questions it cannot be simply greater progression along some sort of pathway of mathematical-style proofs (which would deepen knowledge, but never contradict the past.) We know it's not new Revelation. And I really have a hard time buying the notion that somehow sheer experience (ie, empirical data) has “disproven” our old hypotheses, because the only sort of data that could even possibly prove a moral “ought” (mystical experience) has not in fact increased or become more widespread.

So what do we know now, that we didn't know then, that makes it impossible to hold the values they did in the past? What new information or data do we have that is incompatible with the old hypotheses? It's not that we discovered flaws in their logic (indeed, you can read the medieval justifications for the heretic-burning order of Christendom; they knew, and answered, the potential objections with perfect logic.) It's not that we got new Revelation. It's not that we reached deeper levels of contemplation than their Saints. It's not that we learned that burning makes people suffer (trust me, they knew that!) 

So what is it? I challenge any progressive to tell me what new data we have gained or new syllogism we have demonstrated which makes the old values impossible or "superceded" in a clearly unidirectional irreversible (ie, progressive) way.

I hate to sound like a Marxist…but it seems to me that the only “new information” on which this alleged “knowing better now” is based is simply the evolution of socio-political structure, which is itself based on evolution of the economic structure/means of production, which is based, in turn, on mere technological progress.

But that hardly seems the grounds for making an absolute value judgment that is anything other than historically contingent. As I said above, trying to apply the progressive principle of empirical knowledge (which, indeed, does only tend to increase and build-on and supersede itself) to the moral highly problematic, as (because "is" is not "ought") only a certain type of experience (namely, Revelation, and possibly mystical experience) can be said to provide any sort of experiential data for moral knowledge. And yet the arrogance of the progressivists would place the grounds of our "knowing better now" simply in the values that arise ambiguously from our social structure. 

Of course, they'd never admit this context-contingency. To them, even if the moral "progress" can be shown to coincide with and merely mirror the alleged social "progress" (ie, the evolution of political/economic system), they think they are actually discovering "better" values that remain "more advanced" in an absolute way (in many ways, it seems, just because they come later in history and thus are defined as "more evolved.") And yet, even if we accept the analogy of "evolution"...greater complexity is not always good. The modern world certainly is more complex and larger in scale, but that could just mean magnified evil. This is the premise of dystopian literature (and there is no better dystopian piece than the Book of Revelations.)

It is quite a leap to assume that just because a given socio-economic-political order corresponds to a more advanced stage of technical knowledge...this means that this order is, in itself, also "more advanced." And to make the further leap to judging the same thing about the values that suggest themselves from this structure seems the height of folly. Perhaps, prior to heaven, the "best" stage of technology, temporal polity, and spiritual value or moral development... do not, in fact, coincide, but rather happen at three different times. Maybe the latter two "peak" well before the former (and maybe do not have their "golden age" at the same time as each other either; the moment when temporal society or happiness is maximized may not be the moment moral development was maximized.)

And indeed, in the biological world, "evolution" does not always even mean greater complexity. There are known cases of creatures which have towards forms we might think of as "more primitive," and yet this, of course, involves a value judgment that even the scientists who study evolutionary biology reject (they would caution against a reading of evolution as "progress" or "advancement"). It would be mistaken, I think, and the very definition of Secularism, to read a sort progressive "teleology" into the playing-out of natural history. Ours is a God who bursts into history with radical intervention at certain points (specifically, the First Coming and the Second Coming) but other than that there is no moral or spiritual "advancement" for mankind as a whole. At the very least, this idea is not CatholicThe Catholic position is "Save yourselves from this corrupt generation."

Indeed, by buying into the “we know better now” narrative which reaches certain premises (like “religious liberty” in the Liberal sense) based simply on the form of economics (in this case, for example, I think the resonance is pretty clear: The Good is privatized ideologically in a marketplace of competing ideas because goods are privatized materially in a marketplace of competing products)…one actually winds up being “chained” to The Age as much as our forebearers, and may wind up being just as “superceded” when the substructure once again changes.

The “progressive” narrative about human moral development thus actually winds up simply serving whatever the current regime is.

1 comment:

Agellius said...

This reminds me of a discussion I had recently, in which someone argued that the Galileo episode demonstrates that the Church can be wrong on issues such as female ordination and artificial birth control (interpreting the Galileo episode as one in which the Church "taught" geocentrism but later reversed its "teaching").

But it seems to me that if the Galileo episode shows anything, it shows that the Church made a mistake in trying to use scripture to prove the facts of physics. Therefore using the Galileo episode to argue that the Church could change other teachings as well, is to argue that further information could be discovered about men and women and priests which would disprove what we previously believed about men, women and priests, causing us to slap ourselves in the forehead and realize that male-only ordination was like Galileo all over again.

But what, specifically, have we learned about men, women and priests that we haven't known from the time the Church was founded, that has a bearing on whether women should be ordained?