Real Alternatives on Decisive Issues: A Response to Alcibiades Malapi-Nelson, Mark Shiffman

Author Information: Mark Shiffman, Villanova University,

Shiffman, Mark. “Real Alternatives on Decisive Issues: A Response to Alcibiades Malapi-Nelson.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 5, no. 4 (2016): 52-55.

The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers. Shortlink:

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Image credit: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, via flickr

My thanks to Dr. Malapi-Nelson for his attention (2016) to my article (2015) and some very kind words he had for it. As a part-time classicist and Socratic philosopher, it is of course an unusual delight to be criticized by an Alcibiades. I am put in mind of Plutarch’s life of that flamboyant character, which seems to suggest that Socrates made Alcibiades less destructive by making him realize that his hyperbolic desires were inherently insatiable, thus reigning in his tyrannical impulses by rendering him incapable of taking his political aims too seriously. There may be some analogy to the effect I would like to have on the extravagant fantasies of transhumanism, with their potential for destroying humane limits in the name of an infinite dissatisfaction with given reality. (I think Bob Frodeman and I are pulling together on this, however mismatched a pair of draft animals we may otherwise be.) 

On Orthodoxy and Heresy

It’s worth stressing some initial points of agreement between Steve Fuller and myself.

1) The scientific-technological enterprise that is a dominant force in modernity leads by its inner logic to a transhumanist agenda.

2) That enterprise gathers its momentum within and implicitly carries forward with it some distinct theological underpinnings.

3) The character of that theology is Gnostic and Scotist (and thus also anti-Thomist). We have a shared aim, though for very different reasons, of mitigating the general cluelessness on these points, and that is the main reason a dialogue of some sort seems worthwhile.

Malapi-Nelson raises what is surely one of the central difficulties for carrying on that dialogue, which is the distinction I recognize between orthodox and heretical forms of “Christianity” and the question implied in those quotation marks: whether proponents of heretical doctrines can honestly (i.e. non-self-deceptively) call themselves Christian. I could take the sensible and rhetorically accurate out he offers, that in my article I was addressing mainly an audience who would accept this distinction, but this would more or less end the dialogue. I would speak to my community of discourse and Fuller would speak to his, and we would agree to disagree and go our separate ways. That would be possible, but presumably Fuller wanted to invite me to join SERRC because he thought I had more than that to offer.

Someone judging by Malapi-Nelson’s critique, on the other hand, might gather that I am some kind of Catholic Thomist fundamentalist on a witch-hunt for heretics, at whom I apparently “recoil” (3). Probably not an unreasonable reaction to those whose theology aligns with that offered by the serpent in the Garden (“You will become like gods”), but not really my style. So I’ll try to clarify where I’m coming from on the three heads of questioning put forward by Malapi-Nelson, namely 1) the invocation of heresy, 2) the overreaching pretensions of modern science, and 3) the narrative of human self-transcendence.

I am prepared to accept much of what Malapi-Nelson proposes for specifying heresy. The identification of heretics as those “outside the Catholic communion due to doctrinal (and not schismatic) differences” is not a bad starting point. A more fully worked out articulation of the Catholic view on that communion can be found in the document Dominus Iesus, promulgated in 2000 by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith under Josef Ratzinger. It distinguishes Churches not in full communion (e.g. Orthodox), ecclesial communities (varieties of Protestantism) and non-Christian religions, all exhibiting different degrees of actual or virtual communion.

As some reactionary Catholics have pointed out, this is not the same line taken by the Council of Trent on Protestantism. Unless Malapi-Nelson wants to join them in calling for the excommunication of Pope Benedict as a heretic, I will clarify that I am with that pontiff in not considering all Protestants heretical, and will invite Malapi-Nelson to come up to date with the development of Catholic doctrine on that point. By implication from this document, heretics would be those who call themselves Christian but do not accept the original Nicene Creed (which lacks the filioque dividing Catholics and Orthodox). This would apply in several ways to the old Gnostics, as they deny that Christ was incarnate and crucified, and that the God he represents is the one who created the world.

One final point on the intra-Catholic issue: I am quite prepared to admit that Jansenism can produce heresy, and that in some respects it actually has done so in American Catholicism, by way of all the Jansenist Irish priests who have been so influential on the direction American Catholicism has tended to take (both its Puritanical-dualistic tendencies and the “progressive” reactions against them). In fact they probably figure into the genealogy of Steve Fuller’s heretical turn; but that begins to get personal and speculative.

Contemplating Modern Science

For purposes of the extra-mural conversation, there is insufficient scope here to provide a defense of the category of heresy as a critical tool. The best I can do is take up Malapi-Nelson’s offer to consider Francis Bacon. One of the great heretical doctrines is that human beings construct the means of their own salvation. This, however it may dress itself up in God-talk, amounts to functional atheism. If we do not receive from God both wisdom and guidance greater than we can provide for ourselves and corrective of our tendencies to sin, if we don’t place our reliance continually upon God in worship and prayer but undertake the construction of the Tower of Babel, then we profess by our actions and bearing that we don’t need God. Deism is simply a contraction for Dishonest Atheism.

In his beneficent efforts to enlighten me Malapi-Nelson proposes that “one could kindly suggest the author to contemplate the operative framework of Modern science” (2). Since I have been doing just that for about twenty years, I will simply ask him not to be so patronizing. My critical engagement starts out from Nietzsche, Husserl and Heidegger, inflected by Jacob Klein who was a student of the last two and who offers important correctives to all three (which also entails corrections to the Kuhnian and Foucauldian approaches to the history of science). I share a good deal with Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si’, which Fuller recognizes as a serious alternative to his position on science and technology. Perhaps I could recommend that Malapi-Nelson and others read my introduction to my translation of Aristotle’s De Anima, and perhaps also Leon Kass’ “The Permanent Limits of Biology” and David Lachterman’s brilliant study The Ethics of Geometry. I am currently undertaking a considerably more rigorous examination of the origins of that modern framework as I prepare my translation and study of Descartes’ Rules for the Direction of the Mind. In short, I take this critical questioning of the framework of modern science quite seriously. Perhaps some day when I know Vico better, Malapi-Nelson and I can have a constructive dialogue on what light Vico has to shed on that questioning. But to suggest that I just need to catch up with the scientific revolution is not even in the ballpark of a criticism.

Likewise the suggestion that I should be reminded that thought “occurs inside human craniums” (4). Certainly I would have to be living under a very thick rock to be completely ignorant of basic anatomy and physiology, and the neurological substratum of cognitive activity. A competent critic will have to specify what the study of the material conditions of thinking can tell us about whether our thought can be informed by and conformed to intelligible formal principles inherently structuring the being of things. Is the concept-constructing function that Aristotle ascribes to imagination permeable to intelligible principles of formal unity or not? The claim of the classical tradition from Heraclitus to the 13th century is that Logos is not “intra-cranial” but rather something we can participate in. The framework of modern science is premised upon the exclusion of that claim and thus can never ground a meaningful refutation of it.

Seeking Real Alternatives

This brings us to the main point of my counter-narrative. I don’t care about the numerical labeling (except insofar as it suggests that the horizon of modern science and its transhumanist outcome differ more profoundly from the classical and orthodoxly Christian traditions than the biology of 150 years ago differs from today’s). I do care about how one attains a sufficiently free standpoint to articulate or understand a real alternative to the Scotist-Gnostic horizon of modern scientific consciousness. For that, one has to see that Malapi-Nelson’s historical suggestion has it backward.

The modern thought of the 17th century that finds univocity so appealing is one already shaped—above all in its understanding of the scholasticism it is lampooning—by the limiting horizon of Scotist and Nominalist thought. There is a much stronger form of Platonic-Aristotelian thought that these early moderns never rose to the level of engaging, an account of the natural world and our knowledge of it premised upon a metaphysics of participation and a theology of analogy. This provides a standpoint from which the adequacy of the modern scientific framework can be fruitfully questioned. Any historical narrative that simply says we have moved beyond it is a complete evasion.

If I were merely “uncomfortable” with this development because it is “inimical to the Church” (3), maybe a bit of Prozac and a verse or two of “Let us build the City of God” would be called for. The fact is that there are real alternatives on decisive philosophical and theological issues at stake between modern scientific thought and the classical Catholic tradition of reflection. The inability to see that these questions are unresolved, and that the modern horizon of thought hampers our ability even to formulate them, I consider to be a failure of the human capacity to transcend the confines of our own constructions. In short, my point is not reactionary, but Socratic.


Malapi-Nelson, Alcibiades. “Transhumanism, Christianity and Modern Science: Some Clarifying Points Regarding Shiffman’s Criticism of Fuller.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 5, no. 2 (2016): 1-5.

Shiffman, Mark. “Humanity 4.5.” First Things (November 2015): 23-30.

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