On Colin Brown and Philosophy

Recently, some friends of mine, in an email exchange, mentioned Colin Brown’s book Philosophy and the Christian Faith (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1968). I like Brown’s Philosophy and the Christian Faith except for the part about philosophy! In my (perhaps not so) humble and modest opinion, he is wrong on a number of crucial points. For the sake of intellectual stimulation among my nearly one dozen readers, I thought I’d post my thoughts I sent back to my email friends. To be sure, I broach a number of philosophical points, many of which demand explanation and defending. Still, I wanted to throw these observations and criticisms out to my readers.

On p. 25, Brown says

“But the originality of Aquinas lies less in any new insights of his own than in his capacity to produce a brilliant synthesis of previous thinking.”

Gasp! This could not be more wrong, even if you disagree with that new insight that Aquinas did bring. Aquinas’s use of his notion of existence taken together with his use of the essence/existence distinction leading to his conclusion that God is ispum esse subsistens—substantial existence itself (whatever all this means) are virtually inestimable in their originality as well as their profundity. This is true even if one suggests that Aquinas’s notion of existence was influenced by Pseudo-Dionysius (which he seems clearly to have been), by the Liber de Causis (which, again, he seems clearly to have been), and other neo-Platonic antecedents, and that his notion of the essence/existence distinction was inspired Avicenna’s Metaphysics. So I’m not suggesting that such notions entirely arose ex nihlo in Aquinas’s thinking. But how he pressed these notions in service in his philosophy seems unprecedented. By way of self-promotion, I’m giving a paper at the Evangelical Philosophical Society meeting this November (2016) in San Antonio titled “Aquinas on Existence and the Essence/Existence Distinction.”

On p. 26, Brown characterizes Aquinas’s theistic arguments as a “false step.” Granted that Christians of different stripes differ as to the soundness of certain theistic arguments, Brown’s rejection of theistic arguments and natural theology is global and stems from his quasi-presuppositional approach (which I, not surprisingly, reject). To be sure, Brown does have his criticisms of Van Til. As such, he is clearly not a straightforward Presuppositionalist. Perhaps he could be characterized more of a fideist when he says

“But the existence of God is not a matter of rational deduction. Rather it is a profound inner intuition that makes us aware of God and of the relation of the created order to him.” (p. 250, emphasis added)

I cannot let it slip by that, as for the classical tradition from Aristotle through Aquinas, the theistic arguments WERE NOT a matter of “rational deduction.” This, too, is an all-too-common misunderstanding of the nature of these argument (if not also a misunderstanding of the nature of deduction). They were, instead, metaphysical demonstrations. There is a difference.

On. p. 27 he says, regarding the Unmoved Mover argument (Aquinas’s “First Way” in his Summa Theologiae I, 2, 3 which is taken from Aristotle Physics VII, 1, 241a24),

“But on closer inspection certain gaps and flaws become visible. The very least of these is the objection that, in the case of the Unmoved Mover, the argument leans heavily upon an outdated, Aristotelian pre-scientific view of the world.”

This is a very common mistake made by non-philosophers, to wit, the failure to distinguish a metaphysical point on the one hand and the physical illustration utilized to make that metaphysical point on the other. Because (perhaps rightly) one rejects the physics of Aristotle as false, it does not follow that Aristotle’s metaphysical point is also false. All one would need to do (if, indeed, a given metaphysical point is true) is to change the illustration with a different physical illustration. This distinction is deftly made by Edward Feser in his lecture “Natural Theology Must Be Grounded in the Philosophy of Nature, Not Natural Science” given at the Science and Faith Conference, available for viewing on You Tube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mgVh8aJPPN8 and which I highly recommend.

On p. 28, when examining whether an argument for a cause of the world and an argument for a designer of the world are pointing to the same being, he says

“It is true that the Christian belief in God as the Creator means that he is the ultimate cause and designer of the universe. But this is an article of faith based on an awareness of God over against ourselves – not a rational deduction to be drawn by those capable of following certain arguments.”

But Brown’s analysis (which becomes more evident as he develops his thought in the next few pages) is faulty precisely because he isolates Aquinas’s Five Ways from the arguments that Aquinas goes on to give right after his Five Ways. It would be like criticizing a detective by saying that the detective’s conclusion about who the murderer is fails, yet the critic has only looked at what the detective said about the footprints and has ignored what the detective went on to say (in the same context) about the finger prints, the gun shot residue, the eyewitnesses testimony, the video surveillance footage, and the confession by the murderer. To proclaim that the footprints do not warrant the conclusion about who the murderer is, is to display an embarrassing ignorance of the detective’s entire case. This is what Brown has done. Even if it turns out that Aquinas’s case for God’s existence and attributes does not carry, it is certainly not for the reasons that Brown advances.

On. p. 28 he says

“The conclusion of the argument (that there must be an uncaused cause or an undersigned designer, etc.) denies one of the argument’s initial premises (that nothing can cause or design itself).”

Goodness! Am I reading this right? Brown thinks the statement “There is an uncaused cause” denies the statement “Nothing can cause itself”? Can Brown not see that the claim that there is an uncaused cause is not contradicted by the claim that there cannot be a self-caused cause?

On. p. 272, he says

“The traditional rationalistic [nota bene] arguments for the existence of God will not hold water. … It brings no honour to God to resort to dubious arguments in his defense!”

Not surprisingly, I disagree. One might try to defend Brown’s statement by pointing out the qualifier ‘rationalistic’ (hence my ‘nota bene’) as if Brown was distinguishing the classical arguments of Aristotle and Aquinas from the “rationalistic” arguments of Descartes or Leibniz. But later on Brown refers to the “classical debates of thinkers such as Descartes and Kant.” Oh my! The arguments of Descartes and Kant were anything BUT classical debates in the relevant sense regarding the theistic arguments. They rejected the categories of Plato and Aristotle at the most crucial points, especially as exemplified in the thinking of Aquinas. Am I being uncharitable here? Could it be that Brown is not characterizing Descartes and Kant as classical, but instead is saying that the debate subject (i.e., the existence of God) to which Descartes and Kant direct themselves is a “classical debate”? Even so, granted that the subject of God’s existence is the “classical debate” to which Brown is referring, the content of that debate when treated by Descartes or Kant is anything but classical, being, as it is, free from most of the metaphysics of Aristotle.

I’ll end with this; with perhaps the most self-serving criticism I have of Brown’s thinking. On. p. 287 he says

“A good case could be made out for saying that there is no such subject today as philosophy. It is not a subject in its own right, such as chemistry, English history, or modern languages. In the nature of the case it has no autonomous subject-matter.”

In this he reminds me of A. J. Ayer and his Language, Truth, and Logic. For a relatively modest response to Ayer on this and other points (and this is more of the self-serving part), I might suggest my article “On the Function of Philosophy” Christian Apologetics Journal 7, No. 2 (Fall 2008): 57-82. More aggressive defenses of the fact that philosophy indeed does have its own subject matter are readily available like Henry Babcock Veatch’s Two Logics: The Conflict Between Classical and Neo-Analytic Philosophy (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1969). In my opinion, once one understands exactly what it is that philosophy is uniquely equipped to examine, he is well on his way to seeing exactly what it is that commends the classical tradition (or, more to the point, Thomism) above contemporary analytic philosophy. The up-side of all this for me is that it spurs me on even more to finish my book tentatively titled Defending the Handmaid: How Theology Needs Philosophy. It’s coming along ever so slowly.

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5 comments on “On Colin Brown and Philosophy

  1. Jeff Spencer says:

    Get busy on that book!

  2. clarkbates97 says:

    I’m not familiar with Brown’s work so I can’t comment on him outside of your quotes, but it seems to drip with the arrogance of other scientific studies when commenting on philosophy.

    I’m reminded of Hawking’s now infamous statement in The Grand Design that, “Philosophy is dead.” Yet he then proceeds to engage in philosophy for 200 pages; bad philosophy at that.

    For Brown to assert that traditional rational arguments for God’s existence do not hold water after demonstrating such a faulty understanding of Thomistic theology is not unlike arguing against quantum physics on the basis of Newtonian science.

    While you say that Brown is not a traditional presuppositionalist, he certainly demonstrates the lack of grace and excess of ego that seems to be all to common from that crowd.

    • Toward the end of the book, Brown does give some place to philosophy as he sees it, so he’s not (in principle) as bad as Hawking. I like the quantum/Newton illustration, but I fear that it’s even worse for Brown. At least Newton had many things right regarding celestial mechanics. It’s just that the celestial mechanics couldn’t apply to the sub-atomic realm. With Brown, he just gets too many things wrong altogether.

      Regarding the nature of universals, Brown wrongly labels the moderate realism of Aristotle as “conceptualism” (p. 19) though this term would better fit the thinking of Ockham. (See Edward Feser’s “Teleology: A Shopper’s Guide” in his Neo-Scholastic Essays (South Bend: St. Augustine’s Press, 2015): 28-48.) He misleadingly characterizes Aristotle as holding that universals exist in the realm of “thought” instead of the more accurately in the “intellect.” At least he does recognize that Aristotle maintains that these universals in thought “stand for something which is actually there which gives unity to the diversity of the world of our experience” (p. 19). But even here, “stand for” is not a good phrase, since, as a universal, they can be in two places at once. To say that they “stand for” something suggests the representationalism (or epistemological dualism) of Locke that inevitably leads to skepticism (as my brother Tom shows in his Objectivity in Biblical Interpretation N.c.: Advantage Books, 2004).

      Though it is consistent with his attitude toward philosophy throughout his book, Brown wrongly juxtaposes the “Christian faith” with “pagan philosophy.” While such a characterization might resonate with Christians who have little acquaintance with (much less understanding of) philosophy, it is a tendentious one. How useful is it for Brown to say “Greek arguments and concepts were used to defend Christian ideas and vice versa” (p. 19)? Imagine someone talking about the categories of grammar. Is a direct object “Christian”? How about the subject/verb agreement or the agreement of a pronoun with its antecedent? Are these “Christian ideas”? Do they arise from the “Christian faith”? If one points out that a particular word in the Bible is a participle, is he using “pagan” (or any other such characterization) categories “to defend Christian ideas”? The questions are absurd. Instead, these grammatical categories reflect aspects of reality. Thus, to shoehorn these categories into the template of “Christian” vs. “pagan” is wrong. Likewise with some of the categories of philosophy. Sound philosophy deals with aspects of reality such as cause, change, natures, existence, goodness, and truth. Being aspects of reality itself, they necessarily include Christian truths. But it is wrong to characterize a particular philosopher’s notion of one of these categories as “pagan” vs. “Christian” merely because it arose from some ancient Greek. Instead, the criterion should be whether it is true or sound.

      For (perhaps to some) obvious reasons, I largely focused my criticisms on Brown’s treatment of Aquinas. Time and space will not afford me the opportunity now to weigh in on how Brown treats other philosophers. Though I can understand it (as Brown is certainly not alone in this), it is disappointing that he fails to treat the distinctions between modern empiricism (Locke, Berkeley, Hume) from classical empiricism (Aristotle). Indeed, like most I’ve read who treat the history of philosophy, he does not even recognize a such thing as classical empiricism. (My thanks to Ed Miller and his Questions that Matter that alerted me to the distinction decades ago when I first started teaching philosophy.)

      In Brown’s defense, he does get some things right. His summary of Plato, though brief, is true enough (pp. 15-16). He rightfully recognizes the similarity between the Medieval debate over universals to the modern debate over the nature of language and its object (p. 19). This is something Henry Veatch discusses in his Realism and Nominalism Revisited (Milwaukee: Marquette University Press, 1954). Brown’s definition of the representative view of knowledge on p. 62 (what I above called ‘representationalism’ or ‘epistemological dualism’) together with his treatment of its failings are good; as is his appeal to E. L. Mascall together with Mascall’s comment about “inferences” vs. “apprehension.” (pp 65-66) Further, his comment about Hume is spot on. “He pursued the representative theory of knowledge to the bitter end.” (p. 68)

  3. David says:

    Looking forward to the book! Thanks for the article. ~Blog reader number 12

  4. Fair critique, imho 🙂

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