Have you ever thought about how beliefs are justified? Have you ever had a disagreement with someone over an intellectual issue and wondered about how to resolve it? What's the difference between just believing something and knowing it to be true?
Jay Carlson, a rising senior from Dillon, S.C., wonders about these things himself. Specifically, the philosophy major wonders what to do with disagreement among philosophers. Why is it that very smart people often cannot come to a consensus? And can we get beyond this disagreement?
This is the impetus for Carlson’s Community of Scholars project this summer. He’s actually using his project as a segue into his honors thesis this fall, so the fact that he is tackling a project of such immense magnitude isn’t as daunting as it would otherwise be.
“There have been lots of times where I have said, ‘What have I gotten myself into?” laughs Carlson. “But the good thing is that the stuff I’m unable to get to, I can get to this fall.
“I’m one of those who doesn’t like to leave any stones unturned. It’s very easy in philosophy to find one answer only to create another question, and pretty soon you are down the rabbit hole.”
The rabbit holes in this case lead to 20th Century philosopher Bernard Lonergan, a Canadian philosopher who died in 1984. Lonergan was a Jesuit priest who taught at a seminary in Rome for a large portion of his career. For this reason it has taken a while for his philosophical ideas to come to light.
The idea that Carlson is focused on is the one that all branches of philosophy are not mutually exclusive, even if they say they are. It’s a tough sell, and Lonergan is admittedly swinging for the fences. Imagine trying to get all of the world’s religions to come together in such a way.
“What I want to find out is if he hits it out of the park or if it’s just a warning track fly ball,” says Carlson. “What I want to accomplish is to engage Lonergan in the larger discussion of epistemology, because he doesn’t get a whole lot of treatment in mainstream philosophical circles.”
It’s all very complicated, but Carlson tries to sum it up succinctly.
“Because you have all these different schools of thought in philosophy, where this person says this and that person says that, the only thing philosophers agree on is that there are vast amounts of disagreement,” he says. “The question is, if that’s the situation we’re in, how do we make sense of it all? Do we just say we all agree to disagree and try to get along as best we can? Lonergan says no.
“Roughly what Lonergan says is that we can use all of the schools of thought to arrive at a higher viewpoint. A larger system that embraces all of them. He says none of these people are completely wrong…they’re all grasping some element or fragment of truth. The trick is to take those fragments and unify them. Make them into a higher system that makes sense for all of them.”
If it makes your head hurt even thinking about it, imagine what Carlson is going through.
“I’m trying to take the vast amounts of information that have sort of avalanched on top of me and coalesce them or have them congeal into something workable,” says Carlson. “What I have found so far is that Lonergan is running parallel to two traditions I have been studying.
“In large part, I’m trying to explain those two parallels, and also the bigger picture. While many say that if you want to achieve that higher viewpoint that combines multiple traditions, you have to say there is something fundamentally wrong with one of the traditions, Lonergan disagrees. He says they are just pieces to a larger puzzle.”
Carlson has been busy putting a similar puzzle together. In a way, he’s swinging for the fences himself.
“It’s daunting, but it’s worth it,” he says.
That’s what the Community of Scholars is all about.