The Robin & Boom Show #16 – Modernism, Postmodernism, and Virtue, with Dr. Phillip Cary

Is it possible to infer values about what we ought to do from facts about how the world is? This question introduces a major problem within meta-ethics, which is how to philosophically justify ethical obligations. In this interview, Dr. Phillip Cary explains how these difficulties in meta-ethics arose out of the political, philosophical, and scientific context of the 17th and 18th centuries. Building on the work of Alasdair MacIntyre, Cary suggests that we have been left with the fragments of a once coherent tradition. The rise of Postmodernism offers a unique opportunity to return to this earlier tradition, and to recover a context in which discussion of virtues make sense. Questions covered in this podcast include:

  • Is it possible to philosophically justify ethical obligations?
  • What is the central Postmodern insight?
  • Is the anti-traditional bias in Modernism itself a type of tradition?
  • What is the good for which human beings were created?
  • How is training in virtue tried to the pursuit of wisdom?
  • In what way do traditions create a context for virtue and rationality?
  • Does Hume’s famous is-ought gap show forth the failure of the Enlightenment project?
  • Can competing traditions speak to each other?
  • How does a recovery of teleology or final causation help us affirm a truth about the good?

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Functional Nominalism and Contemporary Political Discourse

I wanted to expand on some themes that Jason and I talked explored (albeit tangentially) back in the second episode of our podcast.

In this show I observed that in America today we are involved in the futile act of attempting to construct various political philosophies without reference to more foundational philosophical and anthropological questions.

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The Robin & Boom Show #02 – Politics in America and Europe

Jason Van Boom and Robin Phillips discuss the political climate in America and Europe, including areas of difference and cross-fertilization. During this conversation they explore the importance of symbols, metanarratives, tribalism, and operational philosophical assumptions that animate contemporary public discourse.

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Colson Center Series on Nominalism is Back Online

I occasionally receive requests for links to the series of articles I wrote for the Colson Center from 2012-14 about Nominalism and Realism. Unfortunately, the Colson Center lost all my articles when changing servers, and hence these articles have been unavailable. However, I have gradually been republishing all my Colson Center articles on this blog, and thus I am happy to announce that my entire series on Nominalism and Realism is now available at the following links:

Since writing those articles, I have also authored a three-part series to explore the question of whether John Calvin was a nominalist. Here are links to that series:

Was John Calvin a Nominalist?

Was John Calvin a Nominalist or a Realist? Does this question even have meaning? What were the primary influences of this theology?

Last year (or was it earlier this year?) I published a three-part series addressing these questions and exploring the nominalist roots of John Calvin’s theology. Here are the links to my articles:

The ‘Christian Perspective’

From my article ‘The Abstraction of God and the Culture Wars (Nominalism 7)

“Often the Christian perspective on culture comes to amount to little more than colonizing isolated issues, which are assessed in terms of a divine will that has already been abstracted from any larger sense of teleological and ontological order. Failure to recognize an inner-logic within the world (including human nature) often leaves evangelical spokespersons unable to point to the normativity of Christian moral order, or the fittingness of God’s commands within any scheme larger than, and antecedent to, mere will. A result of this functional nominalism is that Christian contributions to the public discourse can become largely unintelligible to those in different ideological communities. Worse still, such unintelligibility is seen to be inevitable and unavoidable, thus disincentivizing Christians from exploring new and creative ways to communicate.”

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2016 and the Triumph of Nominalism

if liberty really does require that questions of ultimate meaning be relativized, as our Supreme Court has claimed, then all that is left for public conversation is to see who can yell the loudest.

if liberty really does require that questions of ultimate meaning be relativized, as our Supreme Court has claimed, then all that is left for public conversation is to see who can yell the loudest.

As the tumultuous year of 2016 draws to a close, new political forces, impulses and ideologies dominate American public space and demand to be taken seriously. From the surprising groundswell of support for socialism that we saw in the Democratic primary to the political potency of social media in the Presidential election, it is clear that American politics is entering a new era where the winners and losers can no longer be easily quantified according by familiar canons.

However, one force that has been all but overlooked this year, but which remains central to understanding the emerging political scene, is the triumph of philosophical nominalism.

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The Fittingness of Biblical Ethics

From my Colson Center article ‘The Abstraction of God and the Culture Wars‘:

In talking about sexual morality, it is typical to find pastors, Christian spokespersons and lay people alike, operating as if there can never be any question of a right-ordered nature that precedes and animates God’s commands: we simply need to know what the rules are and to keep them.

Under such a scheme, all the ordering of our world is deliberate ordering and creation becomes radically contingent. It thus becomes difficult to speak of certain sexual patterns as being “rightly ordered” or “fitting” in any sense more general than, or prior to, God’s pedestrian commands.

Indeed, it is easy to slip into assuming that for God to be truly free and all-powerful, the categories by which our moral and material lives are ordered must be wholly the result of God’s disposing will and not rooted in structures antecedent to His commands, such as the fixities of His nature that find expression in the inherent patterns embedded in creation’s design.

Among evangelicals from legalistic backgrounds, this functional nominalism often finds expression in the notion that the only objective criteria for making decisions is sin-avoidance. In areas where the category of sin does not apply, the only criteria to influence our decisions is personal subjective choice. There are thus no categories with which to talk meaningfully about the telos of a thing, or the internal logic of nature’s ordering, independent of moral questions about right and wrong.

This type of abstraction from teleology turns creation into a playground for us to do with as we like provided we do not sin, while the criteria for determining what counts as sin is truncated to specific divine commands interpreted independently from the teleological-directedness of how creation is. (The recent flare-up in Moscow Idaho’s food debates hinge on this very problem, as do some of the modern music myths that have taken the church captive in recent years.)

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Ongoing Series on Nominalism vs. Realism

I’ve been publishing some articles with the Colson Centre dealing with the debates between the medieval nominalists and realists, looking at the relevance these debates have for issues in contemporary culture.

Throughout this series I hope to show that these seemingly archaic philosophical distinctions are actually of profound practical significance for how we understand our world today, in everything from sex to food. To read these articles, click on the following links:

Also see my series on Nominalism and John Calvin:

And finally, here are some misc articles on other subjects that address issues of Nominalism vs. Realism:

Realism and Moral Communication

From ‘Gay Marriage and Creational Realism‘ (part 5 in my 6 part series on nominalism vs. realism)

For the nominalist, in order for God to be truly free and all-powerful, the categories by which our moral and material lives are ordered must be the result of God’s disposing will and not rooted in structures antecedent to His will (i.e., the fixities of God’s nature or the inherent patterns of creation). The nominalist will thus find it difficult to speak of things being “fitting” or “rightly ordered” in any sense more general than, or prior to, God’s pedestrian commands….

Unfortunately, the impasse of communication that persists in the “gay marriage” debate has left some Christian thinkers suspecting that genuine dialogue with unbelievers about the meaning of marriage is impossible. The thinking tends to run something like this: if someone doesn’t share our Christian worldview, there isn’t much we can appeal to when defending traditional marriage. Moreover, why would it even make sense for the other side to listen to us given that they don’t share the worldview that gives rise to our understanding of marriage in the first place?…

If the Christian understanding of marriage arises from the raw command of an omnipotent God arbitrarily constituting the world in a certain way that might just of easily have been otherwise, then I agree that there is little we can say about the moral constitution of the world to those who do not share our theocentric worldview. On the other hand, if we are realists then we believe that God’s commands about sexual ethics flow out of the teleological directedness intrinsic to creation itself. Under the realist scheme of things, it becomes possible to appeal to unbelievers on the basis of that ordering without needing to invoke explicitly Biblical arguments.

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