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Materialistic dogmas and bad conclusions

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St. Thomas Aquinas, citing Aristotle, once wrote: “a small error at the outset can lead to great errors in the final conclusions.” What he means is that given the nature of reason, if any one of your premises is mistaken, no matter how trivial it may seem to your overall project, your conclusions may turn out to be wrong, very wrong.

A great example of what St. Thomas means can be found in a TED talk that my brother Jim suggested I watch. In “What Explains the Rise of Humans?”, Professor Yuval Noah Harari argues that the homo sapiens dominance of the earth is best explained by the human imagination’s ability to construct certain “stories” about “fictional entities” that provide the means by which we can, in large numbers, cooperate with one another. Among these fictional entities are God, human rights, and the value of paper money.

Although Professor Harari is an engaging speaker and his talk rhetorically attractive, the philosophical credentials of his theory left me with more questions than the theory has the resources to answer.

Let’s begin by asking this question: How does Professor Harari know that these “stories” about the divine, natural rights, and a nation’s currency are “fictions”? He does not say. All he does is assume that the correct account of reality is materialism, the belief that the only things that are “real” are those physical things that are subject to quantifiable measure.

As he says about the nature of human rights:

“Human rights, just like God and heaven, are just a story that we’ve invented. They are not an objective reality; they are not some biological effect about Homo sapiens. Take a human being, cut him open, look inside, you will find the heart, the kidneys, neurons, hormones, DNA, but you won’t find any rights. The only place you find rights are in the stories that we have invented and spread around over the last few centuries. They may be very positive stories, very good stories, but they’re still just fictional stories that we’ve invented.”

So it turns out that because human rights (not to mention, God) cannot be detected by the instruments and methods of the natural sciences, they are not part of “objective reality.” But like the country singer Johnny Lee, who once sang of his vain search for love in “single bars” and with “good time lovers,” Professor Harari is looking for rights in all the wrong places. He is, as the philosopher Edward Feser puts it, like “the drunk who insists on looking for his lost car keys under the lamp post, on the grounds that that is the only place where there is enough light by which to see them.

Read more at the Catholic Thing.

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