What’s the difference between a physical and metaphysical account?

It’s easy to object that someone is really making a metaphysical claim when they claim to be making a scientific one – but what exactly does this mean?

Minimally, one might mean that someone is making a claim that is not experimentally verifiable or reducible to physical laws. To leave it at this, however, tells us nothing about metaphysics, since the pure negation of verifiability tells us nothing positive. Informing me that a doctrine contains non-verifiable statements tells me about as much as informing me that a box contains several objects that are not snow. What do I know about the contents of either after hearing this?

One might say that metaphysics studies being as such while all other sciences treat of being under some restriction. This explanation has some value – scientific journals after all don’t publish many studies on being or existence, and no one seems to bother looking for “laws of being” - and so there certainly seems to be something to distinguishing science and metaphysics in this way. The difficulty is that this does not seem to be a way in which anyone confuses metaphysics and science.

The challenge thus becomes how to account for metaphysics as non-empirical in a way that ties it somehow to being as such. We can do this by considering the lights of judgment,  that is, the various lights that constitute the evidence of diverse sciences.

All knowledge begins in exterior sensation and involves the intellect and interior senses, but each of these three is a distinct mode in our single act of knowing, and so we can judge a single thing known according to three diverse modes in our single cognitive act. Said another way, just because our experience arises from sense it does not follow that we must judge that experience in light of what we know from the exterior senses as such, since this is not the only light in virtue of which we can consider the experience.

As St. Thomas explains it, natural science (which we call just “science”) is that category of experience that arises from exterior sense and is judged by the light of the data furnished by the exterior senses themselves; metaphysics is the category of experience that arises from the exterior sense and is judged by the light of the intellect. By empirical we mean that experience is to be judged according to the way they are known by the exterior senses as such. Said another way, in order for something to count as evidence in natural science, it has to be given in experience according to the way experience is in the exterior senses. All evidence requires some light under which a thing appears as evidence, and that light in natural science is the exterior senses. Metaphysical evidence is not manifested by the same light, and so is not empirical, since it judges experience as known by the intellect. And because what is first known by the intellect is being, ti follows that metaphysics is non-empirical and about being for one and the same reason, namely, the proper object of the intellect as intellect.

Understanding the diverse lights of judgment or evidence helps us divide diverse concepts that are easy to muddle if we are not careful:

1.) Species. For the metaphysician, a species is the proper intelligible nature of some reality. This intelligible nature is discerned according to the way it is present in the intellect: that is, as first known generally and then more distinctly by way of precision in the general concept. Metaphysics is, on the consideration of species, very close to logic and makes much use of it, but the two remain distinct since metaphysics never takes experience as known (or being as known) as the subject that it studies. Metaphysics remains about being as being, logic about the more restricted notion of being as known. Natural science, on the other hand, is not primarily concerned with species according to their intelligible structure, but in the way in which they can be given in the exterior senses as such. This makes species principally a multiplicity of individuals taken as principally multiple. Species thus means principally a population or multitude of traits.

2.) Causes. In sensation, a cause presupposes some actual thing that it must act upon, and thus a cause must always depend on some other in order to exercise its causal power. But as present in the intellect, cause is formally distinguished from dependence, since dependence is a way of being an effect of another. Thus, creation (that is, causality that presupposes no subject) is a possibility in metaphysics whereas it is not a possibility for natural science.

3.) Motion. In the way it is given to sense, motion is the most knowable and obvious of things. The natural scientist thus takes motion as a primarily known reality that is perfectly evident in itself. When judged in light of the intellect, however, motion is the least known and even least knowable of things. Motion is a tremendous problem for the one who judges experience by intellect, for the first thing known by the intellect is being whereas motion as such is becoming, which is a the same time essentially related to being and yet opposed to it. Motion will eventually require the metaphysician to make a division within reality as such into more primordial concepts; whereas the physicist resolves all other realities to the given reality of motion.

4.) Quantity. The natural scientist resolves all thing to experience as given in the exterior senses, but the primary and foundational reality in this order is quantity. All natural science, therefore, progresses by becoming more quantitative.  Metaphysics, on the other hand, progresses more by its transcendence of the quantitative order, by progressing towards spiritual reality.

Besides these four, there are all the differences that were treated of in the body of the post: there are distict senses of “evidence”, “judgment”, “experience”, “known by sensation”, etc.

And I left off the whole universe of things that provide their evidence from the light of the interior senses – that is, mathematical reality. Mathematicians don’t wade into the dispute about science and metaphysics, though they could. But there really is a whole universe of mathematical reality out there – even though the mathematicians always seem to want to keep it to themselves.

Schopenhauer’s critique of equivocal causes

Bill Vallicella links to an illuminating post he wrote about Schopenhauer’s critique of cosmological arguments.  The heart of the argument is this:

All change presupposes a subject of change.

Causality is a change.

Causality presupposes a subject of a change.

But to presuppose some subject is not to cause it, and so it is false to say that the ultimate natural subject that changes from this to that is caused. The subject is natural because a subject of change is nothing but a changing subject and so if the end result is natural, the subject is too.

Schopenhauer’s argument does a particularly good job at isolating the Kantian idea that, (to put it charitably) even if God could cause the world, it would be  a very different sort causality. Everyone understands the sort of causality of, say, one thing pushing another or one hot thing making something else hot, but the sort of causality that terminates a cosmological proof is a very different thing. Thomists can often play too loose with the idea of God being a “cause of being” or even “the first in an order of subordinated causes”. Do we even see these sorts of causes?

A larger problem is that the cosmological proof appeals to the idea that univocal causes are caused by equivocal ones – but whereas St. Thomas and Aristotle set forth very clear instances in nature of equivocal causality, most have fallen with the old physics. No one thinks, say, that “man comes from man and the sun” – by which Aristotle meant that, though John might generate John Jr., it was the sun that generated man as man, and thus contained within itself all the perfections of man, though in a higher way. Equivocal causes were once, quite literally, as plain as day. Anyone could just look to the sky and see them. But we cannot see them any more, and even if we could, we would not see them in the heavens. In effect, Schopenhauer’s argument in Thomistic language is much briefer:

All causes are univocal.

Cosmological arguments require non-univocal causes.

There is more than one response here.

1.) Causes as such do not depend on a subject, since causes as such don’t depend on anything. To depend on another to exist is to be an effect, and no cause as such is its contrary. The conclusion of the first argument we gave is therefore not necessary, and if the major is true the minor is false.

1a.) As a corollary, the divine causality most of all satisfies the notion we have of a cause. Because casuality by nature is distinct from dependence on another, and whatever requires a subject to cause depends on it, then a cause which presupposed no subject in its causal action would most of all satisfy what we mean by a cause.

Whatever one might learn from Schopenhauer, ther is one thing that needs to be utterly rooted up and thrown out – his judgment of metaphysical thing by the imagination. The sense that causes need some subject on which to act does not arise from considering them as known, but from false imagination. It is the cause as imagined that needs a subject or must be always univocal. Judged according to intellect – that is according to the intelligible notion of causality –  the need for a subject is a deficiency or imperfection of causal power.

“Cause” in St. Thomas’s axioms of causality

I wouldn’t presume that everyone comes to the idea of a cause in the same way, but at any rate everyone has some notion of one thing arising from another, or the transfer of something from A to B. St. Thomas called this influx. A notion like “responsibility” comes after this, and easily leads to confusion. A lightning bolt might be responsible for destroying a house or killing a cow, but this is a broader sense than the notion of influx from one thing to another, for no one thinks that it is destruction that is the thing transferred, or that death goes from the lightning bolt to the cow, even while the one is responsible for the other.  The word cause, however, is said both of this influx and thing that is responsible, though there are diverse orders among the meanings. In the order of our knowing, cause meaning responsibility is first since it is more general and indistinct; in the order of being or reality, cause meaning influx is first since influx does not happen because of responsibility, rather responsibility depends on influx.

All of St. Thomas’s axioms of causality apply to cause meaning influx and not responsibility. “A cause produces a similitude” or “an effect is pre-contained in the cause” or “nothing gives what it does not have” are absurd and obviously false when said of something merely responsible – the truth of the axiom that “nothing (that is, no cause) gives what it does not have” does not require that murderers are dead men or that one who yells “fire” is a riot. The axiom is not speaking of what is merely responsible for X but of an influx that gives rise to X.

Cause as influx can occur in two ways: either what inflows is present in the same way in both cause and effect (as when one moving thing makes another move, or one hot thing makes another hot); or in diverse ways (like when gravity makes something heavy; or when latent heat heats something). This is the basic division of univocal and equivocal cause, though it is incomplete until we consider the influx from the point of view of the perfection of bringing-into-being.

Evolution and teleology

I was struck by St. Thomas’s account of the ultimate interior end of the universe:

Now, in the order spoken of before, in which the rational Plan of divine providence is observed, we have said that the first is the divine goodness as the ultimate end… second is the numerical plurality (numerositas) of things, for the constitution of which there must be different degrees in forms and matters…

And so immediately under the order to God as an extrinsic principle, the ultimate good is the numerousness of things, a numerousness that is most of all verified in the division of one species from another by form. Note that, in this context, the numerousness of species abstracts from time – extinct species would thus be a contribution to diversity in the sense St. Thomas is speaking of here. Again, when we speak of a species here we abstract from the division of species and subspecies, and other such precisions.

Processes like selection and drift are unintelligible and superfluous except in relation to this sort of diversity, and so must be understood in relation to the chief interior end of the universe. Notice that this is a far more intimate and profound union between creatures and the creator than is usually posited by theistic evolution. Theistic evolution might posit intentional action in the making of the first species, or in occasional actions correcting or directing the process; but when we consider evolution as teleological according to the good St. Thomas suggests, it is not merely connected with an end so far as the need for the first living thing to arise (in which case evolution would only be teleological in the principle it arises from) nor is it only connected to intentional action at the occasional moments where God might step in and direct it; rather, it is teleological so long as there is any diversity in species at all, that is, always and in its own intelligible structure. Moreover, this end is not simply any old end – but the ultimate intrinsic end of the universe itself. Does theistic evolution ever connect evolution to a good of the universe, still less the greatest intrinsic good of the universe as such?

All this is perfectly consistent with any particular instance of selection and drift being utterly unpredictable as to its particular result. The goal that the process is working towards is not this or that particular species, and everything that atheist philosophers say about the utter-chanciness, unpredictability and absence of particular design in the process is true. It’s just that the goal is far more general, obvious, and separated from any particular instance of selection – which considered in themselves are each completely random.

Brute Facts

For Anscombe, a brute fact was opposed to a moral fact. Moral facts required certain dispositions of the perceiving subject (like maturity or good education) in order to be perceived whereas brute facts did not. Discerning that the sky is blue certainly seems different from discerning that a loving father’s discipline is good, though both are certainly facts, and one must mark off this distinction by fixing some sort of adjective. I’m not crazy about the adjective “brute”, but it will have to do.

Anscombe’s division has its limits. Aristotle (and all who followed him) makes a great deal out of the fact that sick persons cannot discern even what are called “brute facts” by the above definition. Men in fevers think spicy foods are bland, sweet foods are bitter, pungent things are odorless, etc. Indeed, Aristotle continually appeals to this as an analogy to explain the discernment of moral facts, that is, he argues that moral facts require a right disposition just as brute facts do. But again, this only shows that Anscombe’s division has its limits, which she no doubt admits herself.

Somewhere along the way, however, brute facts became unmoored from their relation to moral facts. As it stands now, a “brute fact” is supposed to be something that has utterly no explanation. It is not clear that there are such things, or even if they are possible. The first difficulty is that this account distorts what we first suppose a brute fact would have to be. If brute facts are “unexplainable facts” then statements like “the sky is blue” or “two plus two is four” cease to be brute facts, since one can give an explanation for why both are so. Another difficulty is that it is doubtful we have any criterion to discern brute fact, since no one has a very good sense of how to divide what can be explained from what can’t be. It might mean something to speak of facts that have no  explanation for the moment or on this or that hypothesis or school, but to claim that something has no possible explanation simply speaking is an odd claim – and at any rate if we could ever discern such a thing we would call it a mystery and not a brute fact. But doesn’t it make more sense to say that a mystery is the opposite of a brute fact?

Another problem with the account is that “explanation” means far more than one thing. It is not the same thing to prove (or explain) that something is so and to prove why it is so, as any scientist would tell you. That said, both require different sorts of explanations and proofs – sometimes even very elaborate ones.  If we take brute facts simply (that is, without some limiting qualification), it follows we can’t even establish that they are so. But if this is the case, then how in the world are they facts?

But perhaps a brute fact is supposed to be that which is not explained by something else, but itself explains other things. In this case, a brute fact is identical with a first principle or universal law or an axiom. But, here again, this is just not what we call “a fact”. When we speak about the “facts of a biologist” or the “facts of physicist”, or “the facts of an experiment” we aren’t talking about their fundamental axioms and laws. The facts of the science are things known even prior to the science itself while the fundamental axioms are not. Who thinks that the goal of science is to explain facts by facts (brute or not). If this were true, how is there any room for theory? Aren’t facts exactly the things we are supposed to explain?

And how would we distinguish such facts from the tautological or sheerly happenstance, since none of these things has an explanation either? There is no explanation for either a.) why did the earthquake happen while I stepped in the bathtub? or b.) Why are butterflies butterflies? But one can explain the lack of explanation- on the one hand there is mere chance conjunction of things, on the other hand there is only logical reflexive duplication. Neither have the same explanation for why they have no explanation. Both are at least mildly ridiculous. So is this what a brute fact comes to – the ridiculous?

De Koninck and Contraception

In a comment thread on his own blog, Arturo Vasquez says:

I read somewhere that the Thomist philosopher Charles de Koninck was an advocate for a change in the Church’s position on artificial contraception. It would be interesting to find his arguments concerning this matter.

He was such an advocate. In fact he died in Rome (+1965) before he was to have an audience with the Pope to advocate the change. His most prominent student, Ralph McInerny, makes mention of this in a eulogy he wrote in The New Scholasticism shortly after De Koninck’s death.

There are two aspects to De Koninck’s advocacy: (1) he argued that spacing births was licit; (2) he argued that the use of the birth control pill as opposed to other forms of artificial contraception might be licit. For the first, I’ve read the original texts that De Koninck wrote himself, for the second I’ve had to reconstruct his opinion from other sources.

The first opinion now strikes us as superfluous. In De Koninck’s own day, however, there was perhaps an air of celebration in raising it, so far as it around the turn of the century we started to notice as a culture that children were more likely to survive. It’s hard to appreciate just how far infant mortality has dropped in the last half-century (note that this chart is of mortality in the very prosperous United States). Human beings didn’t tend to relate to children as persons who would be around very long until very recently: as Roy Porter points out, in the last few years we have seen death as something that comes for the old – but for all the rest of human history (even in very civilized societies) death was seen as primarily something that comes for the young. At any rate, De Koninck argued that a parent doesn’t just generate offspring but must raise them too, and so generative acts need to take into account the need to educate (with all the time and resources this demands). This argument is now taken for granted and is not very controversial – and it’s not clear to me that it was ever terribly controversial (people have limited family size for millennia in ways that the Church had no moral interest in). The question was raised to clarify and answer and not to resolve a doubt.

The second point is a real controversy, but the terms need precision. The question is explicitly about the whether it is licit to take hormones to space births. The vast menagerie of other artificial contraceptives are not considered and, as far as I can tell, were simply assumed to be illicit. They were already condemned by the Church, and at any rate De Koninck himself never raises the question of their moral licitness. For that matter, I’m not sure that he ever raises the question whether artificial contraception as such is licit – which is exactly the question that contemporary Catholics are so interested in. De Koninck seems to take for granted that the use of barriers, for example, is a different sort of thing than putting progesterone in one’s body, and this is central to understand his argument.

The context of the controversy is crucial here and it goes a long way to explaining the controversy. Remember that De Koninck is arguing about a pill that has been available for less than five years. It was new and seen as an utterly distinct form of birth control (the Catholic doctor who developed it saw it as a great moral achievement – a morally licit contraceptive that simply mimicked the body’s own natural infertility). Note carefully that there is nothing intrinsically unnatural in suppressing ovulation with a hormone – the woman’s body does it all the time naturally, and not as a failure (as with miscarriage). The dispute is therefore whether doing this intentionally was analogous to, say, insulin injections so far it it helps the body do something or respond to some circumstance in a way that the body would do itself if it were only more powerful or well-adapted to the environment.  The question is a very good one even now, but it is not exactly the same question as “is artificial contraception licit?”  De Koninck’s question is unavoidably about a new technology, and (in this limited sense) we simply can’t raise the question he was raising any more – the pill is just not new to us.

Interestingly enough, the debate is no longer about De Koninck’s question, but about the more fundamental question “is artificial contraception licit?” We owe a great deal to the genius of Karol Wojytla for not just raising the question but providing a way of speaking of it (he was the primary author of Humanae Vitae). The unity we see  in all artificial contraception owes much to him.  Whether one advocates it or condemns it, we owe a lot to Wojytla in unifying the pill and other forms of contraception into a single moral category – a moral category that is today assumed by both sides of the debate. The moral debate over this category is still very new, and it is not clear that either side has yet put forward its best case. The pill is arguably as significant to Church doctrine as Arianism, and responses to Arianism did not just pop out fully formed from the first person who dealt with it. The debates are messy, they drag on for centuries, they lead away millions and confuse the rest, both sides feel convinced that their argument is utterly airtight and beyond rational objection, and everyone moans for years that people have been moaning about the problem for years. That’s just how it is. On the upside, eventually such debates get resolved by, say, a St. Augustine or St. Athanasius. John Paul II was our first. My God, I miss him.

The opposite of a real relation

Normally, saying that something is not real is a way of saying it is merely apparent, false, fictitious or phony. Nevertheless, the whole category of relation is an exception to this. Calling a relation not real – such relations are usually called “of reason” – does not mean we imagine a relation where none exists. It means that the terms of the relation do not depend on one another to exist.

Relations are first understood through the prepositions that signify them, that is, they are things that are of another or to or towards another. The grammar is purely instrumental here, our interest is in the reality spoken of.  Nevertheless, the definition is not formal enough: if we really want to specify a sort of being called “relation”, then relating must enter into its very being. For such a being, not-relating must mean not-being. This gives us a second account of relation: and though the second is more formal the first is more intelligible. So what do we do now? We can’t just call the first account of relation a phony account, as though it were merely a mistaken account to articulate what a relation is. The first account of relation isn’t like geocentrism, that is, something that was simply wrong and can be more or less be completely supplanted by another account; it simply wasn’t formal or precise enough, like when we say that tension is actually a tension gradient. To say that the first account captures nothing of the reality of relation cuts too far. Such relations allow for rigorous analysis, and not jsut because we understand them more easily.

Abstraction from conscience

All of the popular TV and movies that I grew up watching abstracted from the reality of conscience. All the criminals, villians, or persons who did bad deeds tended to be that human impossibility: the sane sociopath – that is, a normal and otherwise sane person who does evil and is otherwise untroubled by remorse or the desire to confess. The suave, Mephistopheles – style superbadguy was the rule. All wrongdoers could lie continually to authority with a straight face, and tended to suffer no obvious psychological corruption from doing terrible things (which happens even to those who do terrible things with some justification – soldiers sent to war frequently have a very difficult time dealing with the things they had to do- even the things they did justly). Murderers (even those who killed out of passion) were always caught by the great cunning or powerful technology of the detectives, and not – as is more likely to happen- by simply confessing to get the whole matter off their chest.

Somewhere in this critique there is room to mention the glamorous, attractive prostitute with all her teeth; the sexual libertine who doesn’t live in a shabby and cheap environment, etc.

Part of this might be the restrictions of the medium itself- it is no easy task to translate the interior world of conscience into the the visual medium of contemporary popular media. One simply can’t make much of a movie out of Tolstoy or Dostoevsky.

Reasoning in science and poetry

St. Thomas argues that the use of metaphor and image – which for him occurred chiefly in poetry but occurs in all fine art – was a kind of rational discourse. The testimony of artists is terribly mixed about this: on the one hand Dickens was quite clear that he wrote A Christmas Carol as a sort of argument; on the other hand artists bristle at the claim that they are moralists or that their art is an allegory for a larger point - and no one tends to experience art as though it were primarily an imperfect attempt at demonstrative or scientific discourse. So how is the use of an image a sort of rational discourse? Is it just “philosophy for the mob” or some other degraded thing?

Notice that St. Thomas is dividing various modes of rational discourse. The problem of the relation of poetry and science concerns the nature of a modal distinction, and strange way in which things that differ in mode are in one sense unified and in another sense opposed. Modal distinction always needs to be understood by two opposed accounts: one which unifies the things different only modally and another which opposes them.

To take a concrete example, it is difficult to read Dostoyevsky and not see him as persuading us to one particular answer to the consequence “If God does not exist, all is permitted”. But he is certainly not doing it in the mode that a moral scientist or metaphysician would use, and this difference in mode is a great consequence. When a metaphysician gets a hold of that consequence, he will cast God and moral prohibitions in metaphysical terms: God will become “the supreme value” or “the source of obligation” or, “an internalized voice of a parent” or “a construct invented for social order”. The discourse takes place in the infinite, wide open space of logical possibility. There is an indifference to any particular case, though not because what he concludes in irrelevant to it but because his mode of discourse doesn’t treat of it as particular. This mode of discourse makes Dostoyevsky’s question incredibly difficult to deal with: the infinite, wide open space of abstract discourse makes for too many counter-examples; it makes precision on what exactly the question is claiming difficult; it presupposes a great amont of previous metaphysical work; and the metaphysician’s indifference to the particular leaves off what is most significant in moral questions, making it seem that we are missing the heart of the manner. Most importantly, the sort of law that one speaks of when he asks if all is lawful apart from God is an interior, intimate and personal reality, and the scientific method does not strike anyone as the proper or poportionate tool to deal with such things. But, of course, Dostoyevsky does not raise or treat the problem in a demonstrative or scientific mode. He avoids the problem of the infinite counter-examples and indifference to the particular by not working within logical, abstract space but within the concrete space of the novel- for logical, abstract space is too unruly to raise the question in a precise way or deal with it in a satisfying way; but the space of the world created by Brothers Karamazov or Crime and Punishment gives the question an immediate force and a very clear answer. Most importantly, Dostoyevsky uses a tool that is more proportioned to manifesting interior, personal realities. The poetic mode of discourse gives Dostoyevsky a sort of algebra that can solve a problem very quickly and easily that Euclidian geometry could only solve with great difficulty, if at all. One simply sees that Raskolnikov or Ivan or Smerdyakov have a presence of God within them that both commands goodness and makes them human. Something is utterly and irretrievably lost when the philosopher reads Brothers K and then decides to try to deal with the question in the mode proper to his own discourse. Isn’t there something boring, futile, and vain about a bunch of philosophers all trying to figure out if Dostoyevsky is “right”? This does not mean that we cannot refute Dostoyevsky, but rather that such a refutation has to happen in the mode proper to poetry: and there really are such refutations – the comic book villain or suave, glamorous, unconflicted movie-villain is certainly one such. It is a contradiction in the world of Brothers K for there to exist a healthy, sane, otherwise normal person that relishes evil. If such a character were true in the mode that poetic discourse has truth (or if such a person could really exist), then Dostoyevsky would certainly be refuted.

The Power of the Gospel

The Jews seek signs and the Greeks seek wisdom. Notice that both signs and wisdom are in the cognitive order; both are perfections of intellect. Notice again that they exhaust the ways God is manifested in the cognitive order: signs are God’s peculiar and special manifestation of himself; wisdom deals with his general manifestation of himself in nature and the human person.

Nevertheless, Paul mentions these things to condemn them, or at least to critique them. But the condemnation has a context: he wants to oppose God’s cognitive manifestation of himself with the power of the Gospel. Power is related to action and thus to the order of the will. The Gospel consists precisely in this power: I am not ashamed of the Gospel, for it is the power of God (Rm. 1: 16) When placed relative to this, both signs and wisdom are ways of being short of the Gospel. Intellect is prior to will – and though this gives it primacy in one way it confers on it an imperfection relative to the Gospel itself. The search for signs and wisdom become a substitute for the Gospel so far as one rests in them as prior perfections of intellect alone, whereas the Gospel consists in a perfection that comes after this.

Augustine’s conversion serves as a model for what Paul is speaking of here. Augustine spends a number of years trying to deal with his intellectual objections to the faith: the problem of the origin of evil; the putatively vulgar style of the Gospels; the apparent truth of astrology; the spiritual nature of God, etc. But after he resolves all these problems, he still finds that there is a bondage of his will, and this is his last challenge. The intellectual problems were extremely difficult, but they are child’s play compared to the problems of the will. Augustine deals with his intellectual problems with flair, genius, and comparative ease - but in dealing with his own iron will, he experiences a nervous breakdown and a sense of absolute powerlessness (scroll down to Chapter 8). Again, even after Augustine dispels all of his intellectual problems, he still finds that he is not converted, and he has not yet experienced the power of the Gospel. He is simply a man who knows what he needs to do but refuses to do it. In fact, Augustine’s conversion happens after reading a passage that tells him nothing new! He converts after reading St. Paul tell him, in effect, “stop living a carnal life”. But Augustine already knew that the Gospel told him to do that – this was exactly his problem with the Gospel. The passage that converted him was one that he would have seen as a depressing condemnation of his whole life had he read it a half hour before. The difference is that, at the moment he read it, he experienced the power of the Gospel that turned a command that condemned him into a precept that governed his life. Nothing changed on the intellectual level – all that changed was that one and the same thing went from condemning him to empowering him.

The Gospel has intellectual and moral components; it asserts truths and makes commands. But the Gospel is most formally the interior unification that is experienced as not simply the awareness of truth or goodness but also as the empowerment to live that truth. It is a light that dispels all the gloominess of indecision, wondering, doubt, and the iron grip of those habits that we only discover after months of regret over being unable to change them. The whole world is looking to know something, and it raises question after question, hoping at one time for miracles and at another for insight. This is all fine, but even if we could satisfy every intellectual problem, this would only lead to the final confrontation in which we experience the heart of the Gospel, for dispelling the intellectual problems brings us only to the ultimate enemy: the iron will that, though formed willingly, oppresses us unwillingly.

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