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An Aquinas Evening at the Old University Building of Malta

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On Monday the 28th of April, the Faculty of Theology and the Theology Students’ Association held an Aquinas Lecture in Aula Magna, at the Old University Building of Malta. Their guest speaker was Professor John Cottingham, an English philosopher and Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at the University of Reading.

Professor John Cottingham’s arguments first revolved around “Human restlessness”, as it was put in the hand-outs that he had conveniently left for us on our seats. He argues that as human beings, we tend to transcend, or go beyond ourselves, in our actions and thoughts. We as human beings hope to find a greater purpose or meaning in what we think and do. Professor Cottingham said, “There is restlessness in the human spirit.”

From a Darwinian perspective, all feeling and thought is simply a desire for progress; a tribal response. Yet Professor Cottingham argues whether we can explain these urges in a biological way. This restlessness, though it may be natural, would still require an object. Thomas of Aquinas would say that no natural desire is empty.

St. Augustine writes about this “human restlessness” in his Confessions, saying: “Thou hast made us for Thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in You.” Augustine acknowledges God to be the answer for this desire in our hearts. We seek our origins, and our hearts long for the Creator who has made us.

Professor Cottingham also proposed “The cosmological dimension”, that which pertains to the cosmos. He mentioned the Big Bang Theory, which explains the expansion of the universe from a singularity. What was before the beginning of the Big Bang is still a mystery.

Professor Cottingham mentioned “The prevailing perception that naturalists have of a closed cosmos”, that there is nothing beyond the cosmos, transcendent or supernatural. He even mentioned Bertrand Russell’s famous quote about the universe: “The universe is just there, and that’s all.”

Russell’s quote flies in the face of science. Cottingham said, “The whole magnificence of science is the quest for the fact that there must be something.” Russell just closes the doors on research with his “just there, and that’s all.” Cottingham believes in a LOGOS, a cosmic rationality.

The Gospel of John starts this way: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” The “Word” is Christ. In the original Greek, the word used for “Word” was LOGOS, a Greek philosophical term which means “the reason for life”. Christ is “the reason for life”. Cottingham is looking for the “reason for life” as the heart of the cosmos. For him, “A raw contingent universe is very hard to contain.”

Cottingham’s third argument, “The experiential dimension (transfiguration, irradiation and the ‘sacred’)”, focuses on human experience. There are moments when we experience something that is “beyond” ourselves, or where an ordinary experience goes into a shift. Cottingham quotes William Wordsworth’s The Prelude:

“A virtue, by which pleasure is enhanced, That penetrates, enables us to mount, When high, more high, and lifts us up when fallen.”

This ‘virtue’, or experience, Cottingham argues, is the transcendence that we experience in this “drab mundane way of our life”. Naturally, not everyone will accept this view. Cottingham mentioned the New Atheists, like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, who would dismiss these moments as something psychological, the results of the over-workings of a neurone firing brain. But Cottingham believes that “to try and psychologise all urges could do us harm. There is something called forth by something out of us.”

Cottingham quotes Descartes’ Meditationes. Descartes contemplates on God,

“[A]nd gaze at, wonder at, and adore the beauty of this immense light, so far as the eye of my darkened intellect can bear it.”

In the fourth argument, “The phenomenology of value”, Cottingham examines the existence of objective moral values, “the goodness of compassion” and “the rawness of cruelty”.
We have seen the world wounded with cruelty and wars that eradicate people like germs. We know deep down in our conscience that evil is in the world. “No matter what we feel about cruelty, it remains wrong”, even if another culture endorses it. Slavery of minorities and the weak is a traditional example. “These are truths that we cannot deny.”

We hope to reach something higher than to remain in suffering and neglect. “In our transcendent impulses, there is something that is drawing us to something more absolute.”
Cottingham’s last argument was subtitled “Eternal values versus Darwin and Nietzsche”. Charles Darwin mentions moral values in his book “The Descent of Man”:

“… actions are regarded by savages… as good or bad, solely as they obviously affect the welfare of the tribe… The conclusion agrees well with the belief that the so-called moral sense is aboriginally derived from the social instincts…”

Our moral sense is just derived from tribal instincts, which allow our species to survive. It is literally the survival of the fittest. Our rules of conduct are culturally based and subjective. The times and mentality of the people change, so what was prohibited in the past may now be endorsed. Objective moral values do not exist.

If that is so, then Cottingham believes that “if you side with Darwin, then whatever you do, along with values, will become subjective.” The end justifies the means. Cottingham truly believes that there exist independent and universal objective values. The sexual abuse of children is universally wrong, even if the abusers suffer from a psychiatric disorder that makes them experience a primary or exclusive sexual attraction to prepubescent children. Go along with Darwin, and your “values are contingent and can be changed.”

Nietzsche believed that humans invent the values of good and evil. He questions the value of values, or whether morality is intrinsic. Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil is also quoted in the hand-out:

“Morality today is a herd-animal…”

Cottingham actually called this quote scary and one of the most disturbing of quotes of the twentieth century. “Such an idea leads to very disturbing results.”

In the last few minutes, Cottingham mentioned traditions in religions and evaluated even more on morals. “[Morals] don’t manifest themselves cold on the table, but allow reflection. We are to ask if we’re satisfied with deflating experiences, such as the genetic lottery and chance.”

This is what Professor Cottingham wants us to reflect on. This was his intention, that we would question our personal philosophy and perspective on life. Shall we decide to accept our life as neurological discharges with no objective moral values, and have our nature merely defined by random chance and causes? Or shall we look beyond these, and look towards the transcendent, and discover the Logos?

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