The Francisco de Vitoria University and the Vatican’s Joseph Ratzinger–Benedict XVI Foundation presented the 4th and 5th Expanded Reason Awards some days ago, as the final act of the 5th Expanded Reason Congress, in which university professors and researchers from the United States, the United Kingdom and Spain reflected on ‘Man in contemporary science’.
The aim of the Congress was to take a deeper look at reality, which places science on the path of respect for and service to mankind and the world. Thus, researchers and university teachers dialogued with philosophy and theology from within their speciality, as Daniel Sada, rector of the Francisco de Vitoria University, pointed out at the awards ceremony.
By coincidence, the meeting took place in the middle of Laudato Si’ 2022 Week, which ran from May 22nd to 29th, to mark the seventh anniversary of Pope Francis’ encyclical on the care of creation.
Throughout the five previous Awards, the Expanded Reason Institute, directed by vice-rector Maria Lacalle, received papers from all over the world, and professors from Catholic and non-Catholic universities participated. Among the winners of the previous Awards were professors from Oxford University, Austral University, Notre Dame, Navarre, Seville, La Sabana, Loyola Chicago, and the Università Campus Bio-Medico in Rome.
Michael Taylor of the Edith Stein Philosophy Institute and the International Laudato Si’ Institute, is one of this year’s laureates. Taylor is a visiting professor at Thomas More College of Liberal Arts in Merrimack, NH, and holds degrees in Philosophy, Bioethics, Biology and Environmental Studies. One of his best-known works is The Foundations of Nature: Metaphysics of Gift for an Integral Ecological Ethic. It was this work which we discussed in our conversation.
Professor, can you comment on some of the ideas you raised at the Congress? Specifically, at the round-table discussion on wonder about the world.
— We started talking about wonder and reality: the importance of wonder as a help to our understanding reality and indeed reason itself, and their relationship, which is that reality itself is beyond our understanding. By opening ourselves in order to experience wonder and to go deeper into it, we’re helped to be intellectually humble. Intellectual humility isn’t saying that we can’t understand the mystery – and so remain in an intellectual attitude of knowing that we don’t understand, and being in a state of ignorance – but rather, following St Thomas, intellectual humility means trusting that we can understand reality, trusting in our senses, trusting that we can know the truth, but at the same time knowing that we can’t know it exhaustively.
This is the great error of the modern, overly-scientific mentality, scientism: to distrust our intellects. And so we end up thinking that if we can’t understand something fully, it isn’t real, or if reason can’t grasp something fully, it isn’t real. This is an intellectual pride which doesn’t want to accept that reason has limits.
We talk about the limits of reason: if there is a limit, it means that there’s something beyond reason. Then, with that in mind, we have to shape our attitude, our search for knowledge, conscious of that reality. There are things we can know with great certainty, empirically; and there are things we can know with reason, but not scientifically: and in those things we can be helped by philosophy and human reason.
And then there are things that we can know only by Revelation. It’s the task of theology to apply reason to Revelation. Great emphasis was laid on how wonder opens us to whole panorama of healing human reason, because it’s been badly ill-treated today. And as Plato says, wonder is the beginning of philosophy. He was quite right. Wonder is also one of the first experiences of children, and Christ tells us that we have to become like children. We need to appreciate this.
What exactly is the ‘metaphysics of the gift’ that you wrote about, and also spoke about at the Congress?
— The ‘metaphysics of the gift’ isn’t my invention; it follows the whole Catholic, Aristotelian, and Thomistic tradition, and was further developed by St John Paul II and Benedict XVI – St Thomas Aquinas didn’t do everything! But it does develop from his ideas, because they’re extremely lucid. For the metaphysics of the gift, we have to understand that every person who lives in the world and makes decisions about his or her life is showing that he or she has a metaphysics: that is, in simple terms, a concept of reality. And one thing that the modern world likes to do is to deny metaphysics, because metaphysics speaks of the immaterial, and since the modern world is materialistic, it doesn’t want to talk about this; it states that metaphysics doesn’t exist. And that’s why it isn’t much studied.
But to say this is in itself a metaphysics – very negative, perhaps, but it’s an idea of how things are, a reality. There’s a lot of blindness in our world. The metaphysics of the gift is called that (and I’m not the first one to do it) because a gift opens us to gratitude, to humility, to experience, to know that we aren’t self-sufficient, to what comes to us from outside. And this is extremely important, because in this way we’re impelled to seek the giver, the donor, who is ultimately God. But simply by using just their reason, through philosophy, non-believers can access these ideas, and they can then decide whether to accept them or not.
A gift opens us to gratitude, to humility, and pushes us to seek the giver, you say. And you referred to the gift of existence.
— In St Thomas’s metaphysics, the gift also refers to the gift of existence, and that was his great contribution to philosophy and medieval metaphysics, because neither Aristotle nor Plato had a very clear concept of the act of being: for both of them, things were eternal, forms were eternal, existence was carried within the form. But what St Thomas explains is that the form, which is active in matter, is passive with respect to the gift of existence, the act of being. This act of being is what keeps everything in existence; it’s God’s gift, which is creation.
Creation isn’t something that happened in the distant past; it’s happening now. It describes a relationship for all things and for all of us, who aren’t the source of our own existence. Only in God does existence correspond to essence: God is his existence, and this existence is eternal. In that sense, we philosophers don’t say that God exists, but that God is existence itself, and everything created exists thanks to him.
The metaphysics of the gift starts from this idea, but it can also be observed in all things, because every effect shows signs and characteristics of its cause. All the goodness, beauty and rationality of the source, of God, and also of his relatedness – and here I’m referring to the Trinitarian ontology, three Persons in one God – is seen in all creation. You see it in ecology, in food chains, in the way that all things are related one to another, in the ways that animals and plants strive to continue living and to create the next generation. And all such things appear to us as truths, as good and as beautiful.
There’s another important point: from the empirical, scientific viewpoint, we can’t understand things as true, as good and beautiful, in the most profound sense, in the Catholic sense, for science makes everything neutral (and this is false), because everything created is good by its very existence, even a mosquito. This is a fundamental metaphysical principle. This is something we need to recover.
The natural world isn’t a machine. You can’t just swap the pieces around; you have to treat nature differently.
You also proposed an ecological ethic, as opposed to the dominant view of the natural world marked by a mechanistic vision. Is that correct?
— Yes, it is. The modern world is based on scientism. This must be distinguished from science, which is the search for truth employing an empirical method. If you absolutize the method, you end up in scientism, and you finish by interpreting all of nature as if it were a machine. It’s very easy to do this, and very natural, and the analogies can be helpful. But the metaphysics of the modern world is like that: it treats what is natural as if it were a machine.
Modern scientific method teaches us how to manipulate things, and then this is how at times we treat nature, ignoring its telos, its proper end as given by God in its essence, and we ignore its dignity, meaning here that each thing exists because it is receiving the gift of existence from God. That should at least make us think. I’m not saying that it’s wrong to eat the meat of an animal, but we should at least show gratitude and understand that it is a gift given us. God wanted the animal to live, and he also wanted it to help us preserve our own existence.
Ecological ethics sometimes treats things this way. It reasons, well, if you’re going to pollute one area, it means you have to fix or preserve another, and it doesn’t really matter what. I was surprised to see that today, airlines say they don’t have a carbon footprint, because they pay a fee to balance the equation. It doesn’t work like that. I repeat, the natural world isn’t a machine. You can’t just swap the pieces around; you have to treat nature differently.
You also speak of defending the dignity of nature, which, if we haven’t misunderstood you, means defending the dignity of human beings.
— That’s right. From metaphysics we understand that everything that has been created has its own dignity, according to its essence. A stone isn’t the same as a bird, but both are good, insofar as they are beings, and all are loved or wanted by God. I understand that often, in the current situation, animal lovers, for example, want us to value animals as we do human beings, and that we shouldn’t mistreat animals. But at the same time they’re pro-abortion. Wait a minute: does everyone have the same dignity, or not? Or how is it? I think that the defense of life, the defense of the dignity of the person, is absolutely essential, and isn’t in opposition to the defense of the dignity of nature and of animals.
It is very interesting to know that, when the Poles were struggling against Marxism, they said that they didn’t need of an enemy in order to affirm the value of the human person and the values of the Gospel: but Marxism did. Marxism needed an enemy to attack, and so to justify its very existence and its struggle.
The same goes for the defense of the dignity of the human being. And this can be seen in the writings of St John Paul II. At first he often spoke about the dignity of the human being: in fact, he was one of the main founders of personalism, which opposed Marxism. But two months after the fall of the Berlin Wall, on January 1st, 1990, he began to speak about the dignity of creation. What happens is that the dignity of the human being is founded on the dignity of creation; we are creatures. In this sense, I speak of defending the dignity of nature, as a basis for defending the dignity of the human being.
In the light of your arguments, let’s speak for a moment about Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si’. Seven years after the publication of this encyclical, how would you summarize some of its contributions?
— The vision I’m talking about is present in Laudato Si’. There are people who want to manipulate the document, and say that it’s only about climate change, or about being activists or politicians. No, it isn’t that. The vision of Laudato Si’ is very profound; it’s the vision of what it means to be created or about creation itself. The first step isn’t to go out into the street and protest. The first step is to stop, to be silent, and to contemplate nature, to contemplate the beauty of creation, and above all the creation of ourselves. We are the high point of creation. And that doesn’t mean that we can do whatever we want, but rather it places a great responsibility on us. That’s the vision that underlies the encyclical Laudato Si’.
And the next step?
— When you adopt a prayerful attitude, open to understanding the gift of creation through contemplation, then you can work on the virtue of prudence, for it helps us make practical decisions to live in our daily lives.
Obviously, living a simpler life, one which uses fewer resources, is an obvious way forward. We live in a technocratic world, and we’re constantly being encouraged to think that happiness is to be found in having many things, in doing many things, in traveling to many places. But the richness of creation that Laudato Si’ describes is that everything we need, everything the human heart desires – goodness, truth, beauty – can be found, and found at best, in a simple life that pays attention to what’s essential in creation; that we shouldn’t worry too much about what we have or can have; that we live close to the earth. It’s very dehumanizing not to know where our food comes from, to have to eat things that always come in plastic packages, not to see a tree or a bird in its natural place in the world.
But this is very difficult for many people. It also brings a revaluation of work and agriculture – not a mechanistic, modern agriculture, which uses chemical products for everything, but a simpler agriculture, a bit more rustic. I believe that people realize that this kind of life, close to nature, has an intrinsic value which helps us live better and also understand our faith better. What Paul says in Romans 1:20 is that the invisible God makes himself visible through his creation.
There, in creation, we can understand God. If we live in a world completely built by man, it becomes difficult to see God. I think we need to become aware of this.
We are the high point of creation. And that doesn’t mean that we can do whatever we want, but rather it places a great responsibility on us. That’s the vision that underlies the encyclical Laudato Si’.
Here we conclude this thought-provoking conversation with Professor Michael Taylor: to be continued. Pierluca Azzaro, secretary-general of the Vatican’s Joseph Ratzinger–Benedict XVI Foundation, also took part in the award ceremony; he reminded us that this cooperation ‘began six years ago, at the end of the Congress on the topic: Prayer, a force for changing the world, to mark the 5th centenary of the birth of St Teresa of Avila.’
The 2021 Congress was also addressed by two professors who likewise had been honored by the Ratzinger–Benedict XVI Foundation: Tracey Rowland (2020), an Australian, and Hanna-Barbara Geri-Falkvitz (2021), a German.