Thomasfest celebrates 60th year

Newswire photo by Ryan Kambich/Kevin Thomas | Thomasfest Lecture is an annual landmark event hosted by the philosophy department. The lecture, started in 1958, features influential speakers in the field. This year’s keynote lecturer was alum Dr. Chad Engelland.

“What needs to be explained is why there should be a world in which there is existence at all.”

So began Xavier’s 60th Thomasfest Lecture, the landmark event hosted each year by the philosophy department that has featured some of the most exciting and eminent thinkers in the field since its inception in 1958.

This year’s keynote lecture was delivered by something of a hometown hero, Dr. Chad Engelland. Currently a professor of philosophy at the University of Dallas, Engelland began his academic career here at Xavier, where he studied as an undergraduate under some of the professors in the audience at Wednesday’s event. Since graduating, Engelland has published widely — producing three books since 2014 — and he has quickly become a respected name in the field of philosophy.

Cheerful and witty in his home environment, Engelland’s talk fixated on a question both mundane and staggering, “Why is there something rather than nothing?” He explained that each day, we take for granted that everything and everyone around us exists. Rarely do we pause to stop and ask ourselves why it is that the world we know is precisely the way it is in all of its uniqueness and little peculiarities.

He promised no easy answers from the outset and instead aimed to clarify how it is we go about addressing that very fundamental question concerning our existence. This course of study, he explained, was inspired by an “explosion” in interest regarding the matter in recent years, as much philosophical inquiry has been circulating about the meaning of the “Ultimate Question.”

There are, it turns out, three major ways that philosophers and thinkers have approached the question: the scientific, the transcendental and the metaphysical.

The scientific approach to the Ultimate Question hinges on a mathematical explanation of the universe. In an ever-expanding cosmos, thinkers such as Stephen Hawking have attempted to mechanically model existence from its origin at the Big Bang.

The question is then reframed as, “Why did the universe unfurl itself in the Big Bang?” according to Engelland, providing a more straightforward mechanistic method for understanding existence through mathematical inquiry.

Engelland proposed that this vision is incomplete. The very act of human inquiry into the order of the cosmos betrays something unique underlying the question: the human capacity for wonder at the composition of our universe. This wonder, Engelland said, goes beyond a simple mechanical view of human existence and thereby demonstrates a pathway into a transcendental understanding of the question.

This transcendental approach, illuminated in the work of German philosopher Martin Heidegger, places greater emphasis on the conscious experience of existence, examining the way in which you might perceive and take joy in the existence of a good friend, for example.

Engelland posits that the joy we feel in the moment when a good friend walks into the room is the expression of a transcendental celebration of existence, and that momentary feeling tells us much about how we perceive and understand our own existence. This subjectivity contextualizes the objectivity of the scientific approach and puts it in more human terms that we can understand in our everyday lives.

While the first two approaches speculate on how existence came to be and is experienced, the final approach, the metaphysical, tries to understand why existence is.

Theologians such as Thomas Aquinas and Julian of Norwich have largely dominated this approach, pointing to theistic explanations of the goodness of existence as the reason for why we exist. Engelland argues that our very enjoyment of the good things in existence is the reason for existing.

“Love makes the difference between being and non-being,” he said.

Engelland’s lecture was met with a host of questions from the assembled philosophy faculty and others in attendance. Dr. Timothy Quinn, chair of the philosophy department, expressed satisfaction with his former student’s talk.

“It’s especially gratifying to bring back a former student,” Quinn said. “I thought it was a very engaging lecture, you could tell by the discussion afterward. He intended to raise a lot of questions and indeed he did. I found it really a very fine and interesting talk, well aimed at the audience.”

Speaking on the importance of the Thomasfest, Quinn continued, “It’s the principle lecture the philosophy department has…It’s a time for all of us to gather and celebrate the significance of philosophy at Xavier. It’s a tradition that really must continue.”

By: Ryan Kambich ~Copy Editor~