Back when my two sons were still a captive audience during car trips, I naturally sought to teach them philosophy and theology. “What is the first question of philosophy?” I would ask, and they soon knew to respond, “Why is there something rather than nothing?” I would continue with “What is the first precept of moral theology?” To which they would reply, “Do good and avoid evil.” I would then recount a story from my life, or a movie, or the Bible that would illustrate somewhat these basic tenets.
Everything worked well in our drive-time universe until one day the older boy responded to the first question with “How do we know there is not nothing if all we can know is something?” Not to be outdone, the younger one added, more personally, “How do I know something I do is good or evil?” Like a true philosopher dad, rather than provide answers, I said, “Those are very good questions that some of the smartest people in history have wrestled with for thousands of years.” I could see in the rearview mirror the puzzled looks of two boys who suspected they’d been had. Here was the man they absolutely trusted pretending he had an answer for everything, when all the time he was just leading them down an uncertain path. An uprising was in the making.
“Of course,” I said quickly, “some answers are better than others. And we can look to steady guides like St. Thomas Aquinas and the teachings of the Church.” Ever honest, even in the face of rebellion, I admitted that “It is true though that the further we get from the basic principles, the more difficult it is to discern truth from error and right from wrong. So, your questions are valid and maybe we could address them when we have more time.” Inside every innocent-looking kid, I learned, there is an anarchic existentialist waiting to pounce—a simmering Sartre, a rebellious Rousseau. The rearview frowns told me they had concluded that in the end dad’s great car lessons were just like school—limited and ultimately boring. Why should they care?
Indeed, that is a question we all face countless times each day, from the ringing of the morning alarm to the beckoning of the bed at night. Why care? Or, more deeply, why life?
Well, as I eventually told my sons, the modern age has lost its sense of awe and excitement over the simple fact that something, anything, exists at all. Just because we have split the atom, we think we have opened the mystery of life itself; there’s no cause to thrill over the rays of a rising sun or the texture of a silty beach. Been there, done that? Not only is that attitude a huge assertion of hubris (“Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?” God asked Job), it also shuts us off from the possibility of learning anything outside of our preconceived notions of reality. How often do you hear someone today say, “Wow, I didn’t know that!” More likely, we hear, “Hmm, let me google that.” There’s a strange conceit that a person who carries a smartphone actually possesses all the information that the phone can tap. It’s great that we can carry the equivalent of the Library of Congress around in our pockets, but I worry that such ease of access is turning learning from an active, dynamic mental workout to a more passive pursuit. Information is not the same as knowledge, and it’s very far from insight or wisdom. The word “cogito” conveys activity of the mind, a grasping and digesting of a thought or idea, the creation of something new. Today, it seems, we leave the cogitation to computers as we concern ourselves with collecting “data” for “processing.”
Personally, I knew our culture was doomed when my younger son, who is in eighth grade, reported that his history teacher, after years of saying he would never accept Wikipedia as a source, claimed that the website had developed to the point that it could be reliable for some research. I’ll believe that, I replied, when a desperate, college-grad Wikipedia salesman comes to the door.
But to return to the conversation with my sons. “Why is there something rather than nothing?” As I explained during our drive time, the older boy’s challenge of “how do we know” shifted focus from the substance of the question to the nature of the language. What do you mean by “something” and “nothing”? In doing so, he underscored the sad state of philosophy today, which has become more a debate about words, signifiers, and whether we can know anything at all. Indeed, philosophy seems to be stuck at the level of an adolescent’s door-slamming self-negation: “I never asked to be born!”
But there is something in the world (there is the world itself!), and it is different from nothing. To simply apprehend and express this fact is to become a philosopher. In some way, it is to look out at all that is around me and recognize that it is good (cf. Gen 1:31). It is to affirm the realism of Aristotle and Aquinas (who referred to the Greek as The Philosopher)—a thing is good in so far as it is, in as much as it exists. If you stop to look at the insignificant ant underfoot, in all its weariless cooperation and work, you will be amazed and gain a deeper insight into life. Whether you believe the world always existed, as Aristotle did, or that it was created by God, as Aquinas did, there is a primordial goodness to existence—to existing—that belongs to the thing itself.
There is a world of things that we intuit, apprehend, acknowledge, inherit, classify, categorize, change, exchange, use and exist with. The question, “Why life?” is a search for meaning, but it requires first the apprehension of a thing, of something, that exists apart from whatever I may say about it. Here lies the chasmic divide in philosophy: It’s not just about whether a tree falling unobserved in a forest makes a sound, but whether that tree exists. Whether it possesses, in itself, an active being, or whether it exists only in the meaning of the mind. (Echoes of that most modern drama Hamlet.) Here lies also, sadly, the divide of our politics, culture, and economics. This is the question: Whether we see the world—and all the many relations of man, animal and nature—as a reality to be discerned and respected (call it “Nature and Nature’s God”), or whether we see things as endlessly fungible, a function of perception and language, which can be conformed to human desire and will. Is the child in the womb truly human; does it have a nature apart from the status we assign?
I think my sons, on a long drive, actually understood what I said—that is, sort of, in a way that will make them think about it more and more. After a short silence, the younger one said, “So what about good and evil?”
We’ll leave that for another drive-time blog.