WeeklyTech #137

On the need for intellectual inquiry

A few weeks ago in the Supreme court nomination hearings, Senator Marsha Blackburn (TN-R) asked a question to then Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson to define what the term woman means, to which the judge responded that she was not a biologist and could not answer the question. Political theater in the age of televised hearings and social media soundbites aside, this type of question has a clear answer given our common sense understanding of what it means to be biologically a man or woman, as well as how God has clearly spoken to our nature as human beings made in his image. Outside the throes of the sexual revolution bent on redefining sexuality in our own image and by our own desires, this question would have struck most past generations as completely ridiculous given the clear distinctions between the sexes and the biological realities at play.

Well after the around the clock media coverage of the hearings and Judge Jackson’s subsequent confirmation to the high court, I bring this question back up because while it has a very straightforward common sense answer, it also reminds me of the need for deep philosophical and theological thinking as it encourages us to consider what is means in this instance and to inquire deeper into our nature as human beings. What does it even mean to be human? Is our nature simply tied to our attributes as male or female? Or is there something even more profound that defines what it means to be a man or woman? Asking these questions in no way doubts the clear created distinction between men or women, nor does it give credence to our culture’s fixation on defining our own realities under the auspices of expressive individualism and the pursuit of complete moral autonomy.

Outside of the political and cultural agendas at work in this particular situation, I think it can be a worthwhile pursuit to think deeply on these types of questions instead of just appealing simply to common sense. We should pause and dwell on these types of foundational questions not in a pursuit of defining our own realities, but for understanding the God-given realities of our common life together in more robust and profound ways.

Writing about the need to think deeper on some of the most foundational questions of metaphysics and epistemology, the German philosopher Immanuel Kant writes in Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysic,

To appeal to ordinary common sense when insight and science run short, and not before, is one of the subtle discoveries of recent times, whereby the dullest windbag can confidently take on the most profound thinker and to hold his own with him. So long as a small residue of insight remains, however, one would do well to avoid resorting to this emergency call…Sound common sense and speculative understanding are both useful, but each in its own way; the one, when it is a matter of judgements that find their immediate application in experience, the other, however, when judgements are to be made in a universal mode, out of mere concepts, as in metaphysics, where what calls itself…sound common sense has not judgement whatsoever. (10)

While Kant here is speaking to the need to think deeply about questions of science, nature, and metaphysics, I think that his point about not immediately appealing to common sense when a “small residue of insight remains” can be an instructive point for all who are called into the life of mind. Those to whom God has called and given the abilities to pursue a life of intellectual work must step past the easy answers or trite platitudes when faced with deep questions on some of the most foundational aspects of life. This does not mean that one must seek to redefine the realities that we know instinctively but that we do not stop our intellectual inquiry at the level of common sense. This is one of the main reasons why I love the study of theology, ethics, and philosophy. Each in their own way push us past what might seem to most to be common sense to seek greater depth and knowledge of the questions at hand.

Many have rightfully shown that the answer to the question asked of Judge Jackson is straightforward and common sense — especially in a time of massive discord being sown by those seeking to define reality by their internal desires and feelings — but it also points to the need to think deeply about what something is (metaphysics) and how we know something to be true (epistemology). Both of these philosophical disciplines naturally coincide with ethics which is what we are to do in light of truth.

In an age of rampant confusion on the most basic aspects of human existence, we not only need to be resolute in speaking to the truth of what God has spoken but also to seek deeper answers than simply claiming something is common sense. While the answers may be common sense, those called to the life of the mind are designed by God in order to press further into the nature of reality and God’s created order as we seek to equip the Church to “always [be] prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks [us] for a reason for the hope that is in [us]; yet [to] do it with gentleness and respect.” (1 Peter 3:15)