Fr. Spitzer’s Brilliant Examination of the Whole of Reality

We have, with the publication of Fr. Robert Spitzer’s quartet of books on "Happiness, Suffering, and Transcendence”, a major event in Catholic intellectual history, indeed in the history of philosophy.

We began…by noting that our view of consciousness is the new field upon which the academic and cultural battle between materialism, panpsychism, and transcendentalism is being waged. We now see that the outcome of this battle will not only affect our personal view of life’s purpose, the world, human dignity, and human value, but also the culture’s outlook on these important ideas and ideals. Jesus’ proclamation that ‘the truth will make you free’ (Jn. 8:32) is particularly important here—for if we and the culture falsely underestimate our purpose, dignity, value, and destiny, we will also unnecessarily restrict our freedom and potential to reach beyond the material world into the domain of perfect truth, love, goodness, and beauty.” — Fr. Robert Spitzer, SJ, The Soul’s Upward Yearning: Clues to Our Transcendent Nature from Experience and Reason (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2015), p. 267.

I.

Let me begin by saying that these remarks are not properly a “review” of the extraordinarily brilliant book cited above. Robert Spitzer is a Jesuit colleague from many years; we taught together at Georgetown for a number of years where he was a most popular and effective teacher. He studied at Gonzaga University, St. Louis University, the Gregorian University in Rome, the Weston School of Theology and the School of Philosophy at the Catholic University of America under Paul Weiss and other members of that most distinguished faculty. His dissertation on the objective nature of time remains something of a classic.

Spitzer is currently at the Magis Center in Southern California where he has continued to develop a coherent overall synthesis of all branches of knowledge into one intelligible whole. I know that sounds impossible but no other way is adequate to describe the work and mind of Robert Spitzer. His academic background covers almost every field from business to science to literature to metaphysics to studies in Scripture. His earlier books, especially his Cosmological Proofs for the Existence of God along with his work in questions of life and ethics, are themselves testimony to a most comprehensive mind. He is frequently on EWTN and runs the Napa Institute; he lectures widely to business and professional audiences. Besides these accomplishments, Fr. Spitzer’s eyesight has been such that he can barely see. He has learned to remember what he needs to know. Yet, he seems to remember everything by being read to or using various devices on the computer.

Robert Spitzer, in addition to being a mesmerizing speaker and teacher, has, as this book attests, a clear and organized mind that knows, like Aquinas, where everything belongs in its proper order. One of the pleasures in reading The Soul’s Upward Yearning is surely its awareness of the reader who can be overwhelmed with the technical language and demonstrations necessary to make its points. Everything is repeated, reduced to clear argument—then said in another way, then repeated, later summarized. Spitzer deals with the most difficult of concepts in physics, cosmology, psychology, and philosophy. To read him is itself a philosophical education of a kind that few teach anymore, not merely because they do not have Spitzer’s range of knowledge, but they do not see how things from differing disciplines fit together. Spitzer was also, to add another dimension to his career, president of Gonzaga University. He can recount vividly the continued rise of its famous basketball team in which he had a hand.

This book is Volume II of a Quartet of four books under the general heading of “Happiness, Suffering, and Transcendence”. Volume I is titled Finding True Happiness: Satisfying Our Restless Hearts (Ignatius Press, 2015). What I deal with here is the second volume of this quartet of books. The first volume is on happiness, a thorough and complete analysis of this reality in our lives. The second volume deals with what goes on inside of us, what do we know and how do we know it. The third volume addresses revelation, that is: What is it that is revealed to us and how does it relate to what we are and know? The final volume concerns the consequences of our freedom, both the questions of suffering and those of evil, along with the opposite of what our final destiny looks like. All together they simply provide a liberal education the likes of which can be found in few if any colleges today.

II.

The first thing to note in reading Spitzer is that the word “clue” often appears in what he is presenting. The word appears in the sub-title of this book on Yearning, a word he takes (as his introductory passage indicates) from St. John of the Cross. But, as the similar introductory passage in Volume I attests, the theme also comes from Augustine’s “restless hearts”. The questions of most concern to human beings begin here—inside of us. Spitzer’s approach commences with what we experience in ourselves and how we explain what we find. Unlike Aquinas and Aristotle, though not opposed to them, he begins with introspective desires and longings which we all have whether we like it or not, the desire for happiness, the longing for an explanation of things, ourselves, our existence, included.

But Spitzer is nothing if he is not at the same time thoroughly scientific and reasonable. This is where the word “clue” comes in. Spitzer knows scientific method backwards and forwards; he respects what it is and what it claims for itself. In this sense, this book is a thoroughly scientific book, provided with all the daunting scientific evidence needed to make his points. But these books are not only “scientific arguments”. They are also meditative reflections, even catechetical lessons and apologetic inquires. These books are thus multi-layered. They are meant for the scholar, the well-educated, and the common man, as well as for those who doubt that any case can be made for reason or the coherence of the Catholic understanding of things. Yet, it all fits together. There is something quite exhilarating in seeing these relationships spelled out in a manner that, with a little effort, we can follow.

Spitzer follows Newman’s famous notion that many strands of thought, many different arguments and experiences can come together to provide a “proof” that each of the arguments by itself may not be able to provide. Thus, while “science” cannot provide a definitive metaphysical proof of either the immortality of the soul or of the origin of the universe, it can provide many “clues” that taken together leave little room for doubt that these positions are valid. Scientific method, Spitzer recognizes, can always be improved or modified by new evidence. It thus can bring up probable certainties that lend themselves to more certain metaphysical reflection.

In this sense, Spitzer makes all the required distinctions of argument and approach. He does not intend to prove more than the evidence of a given discipline can establish. On the other hand, he also sees that reality—what is—has a certain order that we know more and more about, both the order of the cosmos and the order of living things, including ourselves. Thus, Spitzer always begins with facts that he spells out. He does not hesitate to begin with what is most known to us. He understands the vast amount of modern scholarship that is designed to explain the universe and man in terms of determinism or chance.

The two appendices of this book are devoted to what we know about the order of the cosmos as a scientific project, its extent, age, and origin. This is a clear and succinct summary of the evidence and perhaps should be read before reading the book. The second appendix deals with Stephen Hawking’s “proof” that there cannot be a God who stands at the beginning, a “proof” that Spitzer shows is invalid from the beginning. Both of these additions are masterfully stated. In a sense, they are “outside” the main text of the book because their focus is scientific argument as such.

But scientific argument itself presupposes a clarification of what goes on inside of ourselves. Do we have the power and capacity to know what it out there? Spitzer understands the usefulness of beginning with our being, our feelings, our will, and our mind. It is not that these latter interior activities do not have scientific studies made about them. They do, and Spitzer uses all of this evidence. What he is after, however, is an explanation of the whole. He realizes that each of us is a whole capable of knowing what is not ourselves. Not only are we capable to know, but we yearn and long to know the truth. The intricacies of knowing this truth is what this book is about.

The book begins with two studies of the fact of human testimony about religion, with Rudolf Otto’s account of the human experience of an “Other” that appears to us as the complete beginning or explanation. He next covers Mircea Eliade’s account of the religious sense as it has appeared in human history among almost all peoples. Can such experiences be simply overlooked as having no scientific basis? He finally examines the irreligious man in the light of what happens to him when he does not believe, again in terms of testimony and empirical evidence. The issue of conscience, especially as it appears in Kant and Newman, is considered. Finally, Spitzer interestingly deals with Tolkien and Harry Potter as testimonies of man’s understanding of a struggle between good and evil in human history.

III.

With this reflection on what the presence of God has meant in human history and how it has been dealt with, Spitzer comes to his central chapter on the inner nature of human thinking and its implications. He shows that any reflective examination of what happens when we think leads logically to the fact that there is something immaterial about our thought. While brain and thought are related, thought is not simply a physical operation. Spitzer’s section of the meaning of the word “why?” is positively remarkable. This “why” question alone leads us to the notion that questions have answers and that answers presuppose that things can be explained. And if they can be explained that implies a mind as the source of this explanation. This is nothing other than a mind that thinks itself, a mind that is bound by body, space, or time.

What Spitzer does next is to go through the philosophical proofs that follow from the notion that all being is true, the transcendental—omne ens est verum. This concludes in the notion that a transcendent truth grounds our understanding of things, an understanding that is the origin of the order we find both in mind and in things. Spitzer recounts these proofs from Aquinas and Lonergan, among others, but within the context of classical thinking on God’s existence. Spitzer is always careful to present the essence of each step, usually in syllogistic form.

Obviously, Spitzer has two audiences in mind: the learned and the ordinary thinking man. His text is designed to satisfy both kinds of readers. This line of thought leads to the notion of God as a “completely intelligible reality” who grounds the restricted truth found in things. Spitzer’s transcendental arguments do not argue from thought to things, but demonstrate what it must be to think the truth. Again note that Spitzer here is thinking of how each of us proceeds in knowing and explaining the reality we confront. As one reads him, it becomes evident that the reader is guided to think for himself and to see that there are objective and careful ways to deal with these issues of how we know and what we know.

On the basis of this approach, Spitzer next considers the other transcendentals: the good/just, the beautiful. He follows our desire for a love that is unconditional, for a justice that is complete, and of a beauty that is fascinating. He does not think that we can actually achieve such perfections in this world; he is not a modern political utopian. He points our rather that each of these experiences leads to a transcendence lodged within the reality of these experiences themselves. His examples and arguments are clear and well put together.

These considerations too are “clues” about what we are and what the world is. They each converge, as does the true, on the fact that God exists. This is the best conclusion from these experiences and reasonings. Spitzer then presents a highly sophisticated proof for the existence of God. As a preface to this proof, as it were, he briefly presents what he explains in more detail in the first appendix and in his earlier book on the Cosmos. This is the scientific status of the nature and origin of the universe.

IV.

Basically, the universe is about 13.7 billion years old. Evidence from various sources shows that the cosmos must have had a specific beginning, before which nothing finite existed. This beginning did not presuppose a pre-existing material thing. He deals carefully with various multi-universes, bubble, and string theories designed to escape the logic of the Big Bang evidence. An incredibly fine order is found in the universe. Without it, human existence could not have appeared in the universe. This is the “anthropic principle” that leads us to suspect that the purpose of the universe was to have intelligent life within it. Indeed, as I have argued elsewhere, the world is not complete unless there is found within it also beings that could understand it. Spitzer’s book explains why this is reasonable. This order found in the universe could only be properly explained by concluding to the existence of a transcendent mind outside of the universe capable of knowing and creating it. This “mind” was itself the being that simply is.

But all along, Spitzer retains his concern for each of us finite human beings seeking to know what and who we are. This brings him to the question of our own personal immortality and destiny. Spitzer, again on legitimate scientific grounds, is willing to be open to the possibility of revelation’s capacity to assist us in understanding what we are. This is largely what Volume III is about but here he sees the need to assure us that the use of revelation is not as such irrational as much scientific and philosophic reasoning insists that it is. He shows how thinking of the cosmos itself and the nature of the rational creature within it can make reasonable why God might want to explain certain things about his life and ultimate purpose.

The last section of the book deals with the question of the possible transcendence of the human soul of each person. This issue was already central to Plato, as Spitzer understands. What he does is to give us further “clues” that is reasons why this just might be the case. Spitzer spends a lot of time on the modern studies of “near-death” experiences that have been recorded in various studies in recent decades. He does not say that these testimonies absolutely prove that we live after death. But they are strange to explain by any other hypothesis. Likewise, the studies in human self-awareness, if we reflect on them, give us some further grounds in our own experience for concluding to the soul’s immateriality and permanence. How, for instance, can we be aware, at the same time, of our own selves and of knowing something else? We could not do this holding together if it were only a question of physical items.

In short, we have here a major event in intellectual reflection on our nature as it is confronted by the nature of things. Spitzer has the background that enables him to see where these various studies come together. He can distinguish clearly what is coherent from what is not. There is something magisterial about this work. We can only be grateful that Spitzer’s health and freedom from other assignments have left him free to complete these works. He has talked to me about them for many years while he was thinking about them. I find it particularly satisfying that these four volumes will all soon be available. In the meantime, we can start with the first two volumes. They will take time to read, absorb, and think our way through their clarity and depth.

As I think of it, we have here a major event in Catholic intellectual history, indeed in the history of philosophy as such. In recent years, the Catholic mind has been distracted by social justice and has tended to drift away from studies in the truth of things. Unless we first have this latter firmly grounded, all else tends to become, alas, an exercise in ideology. If I might put it this way, we have here a book that understands why metaphysics must remain central if we are to deal with cosmology, theology, justice, literature, business, or science.

About James V. Schall, S.J. 158 Articles
James V. Schall, S.J. taught political philosophy at Georgetown University for many years until recently retiring. He is the author of numerous books and countless essays on philosophy, theology, education, morality, and other topics. His most recent book is Reasonable Pleasures: The Strange Coherences of Catholicism (Ignatius Press). Visit his site, "Another Sort of Learning", for more about his writings and work.