On the one side are those who believe in a moral order that governs the created world and is independent of the mind or will. Things have natures that are an essential part what they are, and these natures unite them and dictate how they are to achieve excellence. Human beings, for example, exist as either male or female, and they have corresponding natures that inform them of how they are to act in order to achieve excellence or fulfillment as human beings. This is the traditional view accepted by Aristotle, Augustine and Aquinas, etc. Peter Kreeft put it nicely: “People do not determine reality; reality determines people. Reality is not simply what people make or do; reality is what God is and does.” (Three Philosophies of Life)
On the other side of the debate are those who reject the notion of universal natures that bind any particular group together. There is no such thing as a human nature, just individuals who, like atoms, are completely autonomous of one another. This is a rough sketch of a very sticky debate within philosophy, but the main point is the dividing line separating those who accept the idea that reality exists independently of the will, and those who believe that the ingredients making up “reality” are nothing but artificial “constructs” of the mind. According to the latter view, there is no such thing as, say, male or female. These are simply “binary constructs” invented by society over the centuries. Only today, in 2017, are we finally beginning to emancipate ourselves from such “rigid” constructs, thereby entering into a “fluid” existence where one is free to define himself as he wishes. (In more extreme circles, even male and female pronouns are seen as archaic remnants of this construct business, so bizarre, gender neutral pronouns are making their way into the lexicon.) This is the view accepted by our secular, post-Christian society, and it most conspicuously plays out in the ubiquitous debate over transgender “rights.” If someone identifies as either a male or female, that process of identification alone is sufficient for the establishment of the fact, regardless of appeals to biology or nature. If someone who is white identifies as African American, that is sufficient, regardless of appeals to genealogy or ethnic background.
So, is reality whatever I say or think it is, or is reality independent of what I say or think?
It’s an old debate, but it does in fact manifest itself in surprising places. In her blistering critique of the president, Gale Sheehy, writing for The Daily Beast had this to say:
In the course of his first hundred days, Trump has appeared to be increasingly out of touch with the reality in which the majority of us live. His pathological propensity to lying is not the worst of it. . . . It raises the question, is this president floating in his own alternative reality?
We asked Dr. Robert Jay Lifton, the eminent former professor of psychiatry at Yale University and today at Columbia University: Is Trump an abnormal personality? “Trump creates his own extreme manipulation of reality,” he says. “He insists that his spokesmen defend his false reality as normal. He then expects the rest of society to accept it — despite the lack of any evidence.” This leads to what Lifton calls “malignant normalcy”—in other words, the gradual acceptance by a public inundated with toxic untruths until they pass for normal.
But what is “reality,” Gale? Independent of any political discussion about President Trump, this is a fascinating excerpt. It is the secular left that has made the discussion of reality so arbitrary today. And it is the secular left that has established a “reality” that is dependent on the whims of the individual, autonomous will. The Daily Beast is a well-known bastion of secularism and relativism, especially on “LBGT” issues. It regularly promotes transgenderism as a normal thing that should be universally embraced. But this critique of Trump and his “malignant normalcy” turns the relativists’ argument against them.
Sheehy sees the “manipulation of reality” as characteristic of something “abnormal.” But what is abnormal? Sheehy and her ilk are the same people who’ve constructed an entire system of thought built upon the premise that “normal” is nothing but an artificial social construct of traditional, Judeo-Christian society. Dr. Lifton laments “the lack of any evidence” of this or that claim Trump apparently makes. So, in this case it seems, empirical evidence is in fact important, as it leads one to an irrefutable conclusion. But empirical evidence indicating gender/sex, that is to say biology, is ignored in favor of a capricious will. You can’t have it both ways. You can’t cling to reason when it suits you, but then ditch it once you decide to make things up on the fly.
In nurturing relativism, the left has created a monster that even it is no longer able to harness. Their own arguments have turned back to undermine their positions.
* Featured image: Francisco de Zurbaran’s Apotheosis of Saint Thomas Aquinas