Copyright (c) 2000 First Things 100 (February 2000): 2-5.

Natural Law and Metaphysics

I was puzzled by many aspects of Phillip E. Johnson’s exposition of the Grisez“Finnis natural law theory in his review of my book In Defense of Natural Law (November 1999). One mistake, however, is so fundamental and important that it cannot be passed over in silence. Professor Johnson says that the “project” of Germain Grisez and John Finnis, which I defend, “is to save natural law by reestablishing it on a secular foundation that does not appeal directly to those metaphysical claims that modern science rejects as outdated.”

I cannot imagine where Prof. Johnson gets such an idea. Nowhere does it appear in the writings of Grisez or Finnis, nor do I say anything remotely like it in my book or anywhere else. Nor can it be inferred from anything they or I do say. Above all, it isn’t true.

The Grisez“Finnis project is to provide a reflective critical account of the first principles of practical reason and identify the moral requirements that express the integral directiveness of these principles, thus providing rational guidance for human choices.

To that end, they and their collaborators (of whom I am one) state reasons and make arguments. The project succeeds or fails just insofar as our reasons are good or bad, our arguments sound or unsound. Indeed, for all intents and purposes the “project” just is the reasons we adduce for the positions we adopt and the arguments we make in support of those reasons. Of course, Prof. Johnson and other critics are perfectly entitled to reject our “project.” They should, however, state what they find wrong with our reasons and arguments. To substitute speculation about motivation for a critique of reasons and arguments is certain to be idle and likely (as in this case) to occasion serious inaccuracy.

Prof. Johnson says that we “try to avoid calling attention to the fact” that our “project rests on metaphysical assumptions that the dominant scientific culture rejects” (though, tellingly, he says this in a sentence that ends up actually quoting Grisez, Finnis, and Joseph Boyle precisely as acknowledging that their view presupposes many currently controversial metaphysical and philosophical anthropological theses). But it turns out that Grisez and his colleagues have an odd way of “trying to avoid calling attention” to their metaphysical views: Grisez has written one entire book defending them ( Beyond the New Theism ) and coauthored another ( Free Choice: A Self“Referential Argument , with Joseph Boyle and Olaf Tollefsen), and Grisez, Finnis, Boyle, Patrick Lee, and I have all forthrightly and vigorously criticized materialism, determinism, and other orthodox secularist metaphysical beliefs throughout our writings (including, it bears mentioning, in my writings in First Things).

Like Aristotle and Aquinas, we believe that a sound metaphysics attends to four related but distinct orders on and in which human reason is brought to bear: the orders of nature, technique, logic, and morality. Unlike Kantians, we decline to reduce the moral to the logical order; unlike utilitarians, we refuse to reduce morality to the order of technique; unlike some who claim the mantle of Aquinas, we do not reduce the moral order to the natural. Like Aquinas himself, and for his very reasons, we defend the irreducibility of the moral order: its first principles are, as he said, per se nota (known by grasping their meaning and reference) and indemonstrable (though standing in no need of demonstration).

In respecting and defending this irreducibility, we are no more concerned to “establish natural law on a secular basis,” or to “avoid appealing to metaphysical claims rejected by modern science,” than was Aquinas himself.

Does this mean that for us (or for Aquinas) ethics is entirely independent of metaphysics? Of course not”any more than it is independent of logic. As Prof. Johnson himself concedes, Grisez and Finnis acknowledge that a sound ethical theory requires a correct understanding of such metaphysical truths as the irreducibility of human intelligence to material substances, the reality of free choice, and, indeed, the irreducibility of the moral order to any other.

Robert P. George
Princeton University
Princeton, New Jersey

Phillip E. Johnson replies:

My point was not that Germain Grisez and John Finnis, much less Robert P. George, are friendly to materialism. They are not. It was that they seem to have wanted their natural law system to be independent of metaphysics, so that even a materialist could accept it. Perhaps despite my best efforts, I have failed to understand the Grisez“Finnis system or its purpose. In that case I am in distinguished company, because “you just don’t get it” is the persistent theme of Professor George’s replies to the system’s many academic critics. This makes me suspect that the most salient characteristic of the “new natural law” is its impenetrability to outsiders, including sympathetic outsiders who are professors of jurisprudence. Since natural law is by definition supposed to be accessible to ordinary human reason, this is a serious defect.

Cosmology and Creation

In my opinion, Professor William E. Carroll is terribly wrong in his view that the Big Bang does not lend support to the scriptural account of creation (“Aquinas and the Big Bang,” November 1999). Though he does an excellent job of laying out Aquinas’ position on creation and change, he draws a line between natural science and metaphysics that effectively disconnects them.

If the state of contemporary science is irrelevant to the metaphysical conclusion that there is a Creator, then the metaphysical conclusion that there is a Creator must likewise be irrelevant to the state of contemporary science. On this point, Prof. Carroll would please many a secular humanist. They reject metaphysics as irrelevant nonsense and say that science, stripped of all its interesting and important theological implications, should serve as the rule in settling every question of public policy.

Prof. Carroll also seems to say that the natural world does not give us any evidence of a Creator God. The attribute of “being” is all one needs. But surely the discovery of enormous complexity at the microbiological level is supporting evidence for the traditional argument from design. So too the scientific confirmation of the Big Bang theory: surely it lends remarkable support to the scriptural account that creation occurred at the beginning of time. I agree with Prof. Carroll that Big Bang cosmology does not gives us “scientific confirmation” of the view that creation had such an origin, but it does offer scientific evidence for that view. And it is this strong scientific evidence that is the basis for the distinct, but nonetheless complementary, metaphysical inference that there is a God.

If Scripture is right when it says that nature displays the goodness of God, then what scientists tell us about nature will always remain important for metaphysicians. We live in a time when there is increasing support from science for the view that there is a Creator God. This ought to bring joy to the heart of every Christian. If the reverse were true, we would live in a time when our faith would be increasingly threatened.

Our faith is at stake in the world. Metaphysics cannot be an abstract easy chair into which we comfortably settle. Metaphysics requires the Christian to be constantly engaged with the facts of experience in search of the hand of God.

Edward J. Furton
National Catholic Bioethics Center
Boston, Massachusetts


Regarding William E. Carroll’s “Aquinas and the Big Bang”: A theist ought not be overly cowed by Stephen Hawking et al. Hawking is a titanic intellect, and he is able to speculate in realms far beyond most of us. It is good to be clear, though, that speculation is precisely what we are being offered in the various “quantum fluctuation” or “no“boundary” proposals”speculation driven, moreover, by a metaphysical preference for a universe without a Creator. The physicists in question are not simply asking, “How might the universe have begun?”; they are asking, “How might the universe have begun so as not to require a Creator ?” That is, they are a priori narrowing their field of inquiry simply because, for whatever reasons of their own, they prefer their universe to come with no Creator attached. What we have here are the speculations of some of the best modern physicists, impressive in their own right, but not the same thing as “the best of modern physics.”

Without getting bogged down in technical detail, it is also worth noting (as Professor Carroll does) that virtually all of the “no“Creator” proposals wind up invoking a concept of nothing that is not quite “nothing””either “nothing“plus“the“quantum“vacuum” or “nothing“plus“the“laws“of“physics,” or some other version of what Keith Ward has called “a very complex and finely tuned nothing.” They have not yet worked all the way back to St. Thomas’ “uncaused cause.”

Once upon a time, God was excluded from scientific consideration on the grounds that He was “unobservable””there was no way to empirically verify His existence, or hang a gauge on Him to measure Him. Now, though, we are offered Hawking’s “imaginary time” or multiple universes as possible explanations for the origin and very specific nature of our universe. Yet both of these propositions are in principle “unobservable.” God’s existence can at least be inferred from His effects, but these others are simply placeholders for the atheistic premise. It all starts to look like what one wag has called an “atheism of the gaps,” retreating to hidden corners where not only can no one look, but no one can possibly look.

Craig K. Galer
Lansing, Michigan

William E. Carroll replies:

It is precisely my contention that Big Bang cosmology does not “lend remarkable support” for “the scriptural account that creation occurred at the beginning of time.” The “beginning” referred to in Big Bang cosmology is not the absolute beginning that is central to the doctrine of creation. To recognize that creation is a claim in metaphysics and theology is not to deny the importance of knowledge in the natural sciences for both metaphysics and theology.

Edward J. Furton is correct in observing that metaphysical reflection cut off from the insights of the natural sciences can easily become barren and irrelevant. But a failure to recognize the appropriate domains of the various disciplines of inquiry leads us away from the truth in each.

The subject of my essay was not the degree to which arguments from motion or from purpose in the natural order conclude in a knowledge of God. Such arguments, however, require not only the evidence of the natural sciences but also the insights of natural philosophy.

Aquinas was always careful to reject bad arguments used to reach true conclusions. Big Bang cosmology is not evidence for creation: cosmology accounts for changes in things and creation accounts for the existence of things. To deny that Big Bang cosmology supports the doctrine of creation is not to deny that the world of nature provides a way to know God.

As Craig K. Galer correctly observes, the use of variations in Big Bang cosmology to deny the existence of a Creator involves metaphysical (and, I would add, natural philosophical) presuppositions. When Stephen Hawking writes that the universe he describes would just “be,” and hence would have no need for a Creator, he reveals an extraordinarily naive metaphysical notion of what it means to be.

Aquinas’ analysis of creation allows us to recognize”and to reject”the metaphysical nonsense that accompanies much of the discussion about Big Bang cosmology. This seems to me to be a particularly important contribution for contemporary scientists, philosophers, and theologians.

On Dulles on Weigel on JP II

While thanking Father Avery Dulles for his thoughtful review of Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II (November 1999), I should like to clarify one point of fact for the record. The subject of my possibly writing a papal biography was first broached in a conversation I had with Joaquin Navarro“Valls, the Holy Father’s press spokesman, in May 1995. The Pope became aware of this discussion and, at a dinner in December 1995 that was also attended by Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, John Paul II encouraged me to take on the project, at the same time promising his cooperation. But the Pope did not initiate the idea of my writing his biography, as some might mistakenly infer from Fr. Dulles’ statement that “The Pope, in fact, asked George Weigel to write this book.”

George Weigel
Ethics & Public Policy Center
Washington, D.C.


I immensely appreciated Avery Dulles’ thorough review and critique of George Weigel’s biography of John Paul II, Witness to Hope . I do think, however, that Father Dulles missed an extremely important point, i.e., John Paul II’s insistence that he be “understood from inside.” Here Woj tyla, the phenomenologist, is stating the key principle not only for understanding his true self and the substance of his humanistic philosophy, but also Vatican II’s projection of Christ as God’s solution to what it means to be a human being in the modern world. Weigel’s methodology in this book can be a first step for us to discern this whole series of interlinked understandings.

(The Rev.) John F. Kobler, CP
Chicago, Illinois


The Affable Chesterton

In “Chesterton and the Thereness of It” (Public Square, November 1999), Richard John Neuhaus writes that Chesterton understood that “the Church is about truth.” Another comment refers to Chesterton’s “civility and affability in the many disputes he relished.” Yet Chesterton was not very civil or affable in references to Protestantism and Martin Luther. If the Church is about truth, should Chesterton not have acknowledged that it was because of Luther that the Catholic Church recognized that the practice of indulgences was contrary to Christian truth?

George Weber
Portland, Oregon

RJN replies:

To my knowledge, Chesterton did not disagree with Luther on the sale of indulgences. It is true that he was frequently dismissive of the Reformation. Had he encountered worthy interlocutors representing the classic Reformation traditions”and it is a pity he did not”I have no doubt he would have done so with his accustomed civility and affability.

Anti“Racist Racism

Richard John Neuhaus’ observations on Bishop Joseph Fiorenza’s condemnation of those who voted in favor of California Proposition 209 as “racists” were far too gentle (“The Magisterial ‘We,’” November 1999). The bishop is surely in need of a little fraternal correction. He is obviously advocating “affirmative action.” Affirmative action is a code word for policies which require, principally, that some individual be unjustly deprived of a right or benefit solely because of his race so that the right or benefit in question can be conferred on another, less qualified person, on the basis of the latter’s race. This is the very definition of the racism that the good bishop correctly condemns. It is completely contrary to the charity we should have for all of our neighbors in their unique, God“given individuality. It’s treating them simply as members of their respective herds.

Edward Kramer
North Olmsted, Ohio

Articles by Various

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