Saint Mary’s College hosted Scottish philosopher John Haldane for the 2012 McMahon Aquinas lecture, sponsored by the Edna and George McMahon Aquinas chair in Philosophy. Haldane spoke on “Life, Mind, and Evolution” on Wednesday, September 5, addressing the sizable crowd of students, professors, faculty, and clergy who gathered to hear the lecture subtitled “A Tale of Two Thomases.”
Haldane is the Director of the Centre for Ethics, Philosophy and Public Affairs at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, as well as Chairman of the Royal Institute for Philosophy in London. He also serves as Consultor to the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Culture in Rome. Haldane holds fellowships with the Royal Societies of Arts in London, the Royal Society of Edinburgh, and the Order of the Holy Sepulchre, as well as numerous American, English, and Scottish universities.
In his introduction, philosophy professor Michael Waddell called Haldane a “gifted humanist and deeply religious thinker” who has “an expansive mind reminiscent of Aquinas himself.”
Waddell holds the Edna and George McMahon Aquinas chair in Philosophy. The chair was established in 1999 by Joyce McMahon Hank (SMC ‘52) in honor of her parents, with the intention of ensuring frequent and engaging discussion of Aquinas on campus.
At a Catholic institution rooted in the liberal arts, the open and educated discussion of prominent intellectuals at St. Mary’s inevitably involves Thomas Aquinas, the preeminent philosopher-theologian of the Catholic tradition.
However, the second ‘Thomas’ to which Haldane’s lecture referred was a bit enigmatic for many audience members.
“When I saw the title ‘A Tale of Two Thomases,’ I figured Haldane was going to be outlining two interpretations of Aquinas, or drawing out internal contradictions or something,” said Theresa Smart, a graduate student in philosophy at Notre Dame. “I had to laugh at myself when I realized he actually meant two Thomases!”
The second Thomas was philosopher Thomas Nagel, whom Haldane called one of the most significant analytical philosophers alive today.
Haldane began his lecture by giving a basic introduction to anti-realism and realism, illustrated through a romanticized description of a southern Indiana landscape. He continued to mention other philosophical viewpoints, such as egoism and presentism. Demonstrating the variety of philosophies existent today, Haldane explained that “these are deeply conflicted times”: ethical, moral, and political problems polarize people and groups more than ever, and debates become especially divisive.
After briefly discussing politics, Haldane moved on to the sharp division in evolutionary science, particularly Biblical creationism versus scientific naturalism. Haldane argued that these viewpoints are more than empirical theories; because they involve organization of the universe, the emergence of life, and the origin of mankind, these questions are entirely metaphysical.
After discussing evolution, Haldane moved into his two Thomases, first discussing Nagel. Drawing ideas from Nagel’s new book, “Mind and Cosmos,” Haldane connected Nagel’s defense of naturalism to fear of religion itself. An admitted atheist, Haldane quoted Nagel’s declaration that “I don’t believe in God and, naturally, hope that I’m right in my belief… I don’t want the universe to be like that” (Nagel’s The Last Word).
Nagel’s viewpoints contrasted sharply with the philosophy of the second Thomas. Haldane argued that Thomas Aquinas actually would have welcomed Darwin’s evolutionary ideas and their explanatory power. Haldane concluded that both Thomases are oriented toward a common reality; furthermore, Haldane believes Thomas Nagel still has time to discover truth in theism.
“I actually found the person of Thomas Nagel fascinating,” said Smart. “I had never heard of him before, but I was intrigued by how his intellectual honesty seems to bring him to the brink of faith in God, but interior revulsion to the very idea of a universe with a God keeps him an atheist.”
Haldane shared that he was sincerely “delighted” by the Saint Mary’s campus and its “congenial setting.” He was also impressed by the Church of Our Lady of Loretto, located behind Saint Mary’s on the campus of the Sisters of the Holy Cross, calling it a “testament to art in service of faith.”
“On the whole, I enjoyed the lecture and the breadth of ideas and disciplines that Haldane touched upon,” Smart said, “though sometimes I had trouble following his argument closely!”
“There were some points that were beyond my current ability to comprehend,” agreed Heather Donoghue, a junior philosophy and management information systems major at Saint Mary’s College. “However, Professor Haldane’s visit has left me yearning to explore and discover as much as I possibly can. I know I may not be the next Aquinas, but to be able to reach out and share the knowledge I have with others in both my immediate environment and the world at large is a position I hope to be in one day.”
Haldane rounded out his visit to South Bend by giving a second lecture on Thursday afternoon, addressing “Beauty, Art and Nature: Plato, Plotinus and Land Art.” Some students, including Donoghue, were then able to share a meal with Haldane for a less formal interaction with the professor.
“The lunch was something I will cherish for a long time to come,” said Donoghue. “After his very long trip from Scotland to Saint Mary’s, he was still willing to sit down and discuss everything and anything we threw at him. Professor Haldane’s enthusiastic approach to life, as well as to his philosophical musings and studies, is something I find encouraging and hope to achieve as a philosophy major. I can’t thank him enough for taking the time to share his knowledge with our community.”
Grace Urankar is a junior at Saint Mary’s College. She only recently gained access to her Notre Dame Gmail account and was greeted by 118 messages. Despite her love of multiple inboxes, she is best contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.