Brentano’s Kalam argument

I’ve been unimpressed by attempts to defend the Kalam, but I was deeply impressed by Brentano’s defense of it.

Thesis: if any activity or process is measured by time, it must have a beginning. 

N.B. When we speak of a thing measured by time, we include not only parts of larger processes and activities, but even the sum or totality of them.

1.) If some process lacks a beginning, it cannot be at any determinate part of its process at a given time. The consequent is absurd, therefore, etc.

Take the simplest case of an object moving inertially in a straight line. The factors that determine where it is are its velocity, the amount of time it has been moving, and where it started moving. Assume that the third factor is removed. Then we are left with nothing that determines why the object is in one place rather than another. All there is to the motion is how fast it moved for how long, neither of which can account for it being in any determinate place.

2.) Assume that some object has been moving for an infinite time at speed V and has reached location N. Therefore, if it moved at .5V it would have reached .5N. Call this .5N point M. But then the distance to M (.5N) is equal to the distance from M to N (.5n) thus, a finite line is equal to one which has no beginning, that is, a line having two endpoints stretches to a line with no endpoint; or a finite object is the same length as an infinite one, all of which are impossible.

Objection: Brentano can only account for a process of unlimited continuity. What if the process was the infinite repetition of some finite sequence? Why would it be impossible to have a universe where an object was created, moved ten feet, and was annihilated, and this repeated ad infinitum?

Response: The same can be reached starting with the number of times the process has happened. Let the number of repetitions be N, and the turnover duration be doubled getting us M repetitions. We then get an M that is equal to .5N.

These observations were made many times after Brentano. The basic rules of algebra do not allow for the infinite to enter into equations as a quantity. If we start with ∞+1=∞, then, if we subtract like quantities we get 1=0.

God as a Cartesian self

Tim Wilson sets out Descartes as an example of someone who thinks that a human would not change at all if one turned off all their unconscious powers. Reason is so separate from physical processes that to separate it from them would not change its activity, and  reasoning in turn is seen as exhaustive of everything that is human. Defined in this way, Wilson makes short work of the idea that humans are Cartesian selves. Human conscious experience involves an awareness of up and down, spontaneous familiarity with our native language, a quick ability to react to threats, familiar faces, an instinctive desire for food, mates, theoretical accomplishment, etc. These are all givens that we suffer in thought and which already structure conscious experience before the self does anything for itself. There is real self-activity in spite of all this, but it occurs like an executive activity that works in the context of a large bureaucracy and an already extensively established order.

The characterization is not a fair account of Descartes (who took mechanism as the first, simplest, and most fertile hypothesis of matter – which it is; and who suggests the infamous pineal gland hypothesis as one idea among many), but it does interesting theological work. Compared to human persons, God is a pure self, that is, a self that is anticipated by the supposed Cartesian self. In every way that our consciousness is conditioned, God is simply a self. We make ourselves what we are only with difficulty and after forming habits which can never have the tenacity of nature itself, whereas God is pure self-activity – all that he is traces back to him, as though chosen from all the possibilities of existence. That said, he does not choose from some palate of possibilities in making himself what he is- this would be just another sort of determination prior to his self activity. Possibility therefore cannot be some domain independent of and prior to divinity. Rather, God is an infinite fullness and possibility is the shadow of this- a purely empty space marking out the derivatively existent and not-yet existent imitations or partial reflections of divinity. It is the “face of the deep” spoken of in Genesis.

But to leave it at this would leave out something crucial. To divide God from the derivative world of possibility gives us only a first and third person perspective. God in speaking to himself is the “I AM”, and in referring to the world of possibility can speak of an “it”, that is, something that falls outside of the ambit of his act of speaking and thought. But what about the second person perspective? To deny this of God would require us to deny that we have this perspective within ourselves in virtue of being selves, and as a proper perfection of it. This seems like explaining something very important away.

Building a place for family and contemplation

***Guest post!!!

You may have noticed that there have not been any posts for the past few days. Or, at least, I hope you have noticed! That’s because my husband has been “up north” working on a new building at our family cabin.  James has often commented that the modern world offers a third way between the contemplative’s life, which heretofore has been lived away from the world precisely so that he can have the quiet and peace to be able to contemplate, and the married-family life which, with all of its demands affords little or no peace, quiet or time for contemplation.  Technology gives everyone in the industrialized world access to most of the writings of all the great thinkers; modern conveniences give most people adequate leisure time to think if they have the skills and inclination to do so.  And “up north” is the place that my husband most loves to be and to contemplate – it is spectacularly beautiful, peaceful, isolated, and yet, because of our cabin, it can be filled with all sorts of wonderful family time too.  But there is no internet (thanks be to God), so he can’t blog from up there.  Here is a glimpse of the work he has been doing though, to build us a better place for family and contemplation.

This is where construction on the future shower/tool house left off at the end of our last trip.



We (by which I mean the men) hauled in a lot of boards…




But a single day of labor by James, his dad and two brothers, yielded great returns!


This was at the end of day three. (The kids and I left on Sunday – more can get done with fewer “helpers”…)

Created with Nokia Smart Cam

Don’t let her darling curls fool you… she’s a rascal, this one.



This is what it’s all about: time with the ones we love!



Cousins, learning to shoot and making memories.


We celebrated grandma’s birthday with fresh peach cobbler and caramel rolls. (That is my contribution, the food!)








Someone found her fingers!


Omne quod movetur and the meaning of life

Aristotle’s axiom that everything mobile is moved by another also has an application to final causality. We have a sense that the various goals and meanings that natural things pursue would not be worth much, if they were the only sorts of purposes or goals there were. There are clearly purposes in giraffes seeking mates or in the feeding of pets, but to posit only purposes of this kind still leaves it open whether there is any value to purposive action. This is the sense to our thought of  “but what does it all mean?”

One possibility is to say that the larger meaning, like the more localized meanings, must be given by us. This would preserve the sense that everything indeterminate in itself must be determined by another (if it is) but the claim seems desparate. Tracing any goal back to mere human artifice gives us the sense that we’ve transcended it or seen through it.

Following out this line of reasoning gets us to something all would call God, but the Euthyphro dilemma should make us careful about what we mean by “giving a meaning to meaning”. We can’t see this meaning as a motive for creation, for example, whether the motive is freely chosen or necessary, nor can we see it as merely built on top of the various local meanings of feeding, planning a trip, etc. It has to be immanent to the actions while not being limited to them. In this sense it can be compared to the relation between thought and word: a thought that means something of itself while a written word, while still meaning something “of itself”, only has this in relation to a thought. Considered in this sense, the first truth known about God is that he must transcend the difference between the entitiative (which is indeterminate with respect to meaning) and the intentional (which isn’t).

Steering the middle course

-One philosophers attempt to “steer the middle course between two extremes” is another guy’s muddle, or attempt to have it both ways, or failure to follow though on his principles.

-What does it come to other than “the middle position is right, if it is”? It would be different if the middle were a synthesis, or a transcendence of two extremes.

-Perhaps it’s the sense that we are all approximating an ideal, and so truth will be an average.  Still, this is overly optimistic. There will always be other ways of eliminating extremes, say, negating the genus they both belong to.

Unification and the trans-human limit of knowing

Here’s a unification:

Acceleration and slowing down are both possible values of F=ma


Acceleration and slowing down are the same thing.


Uniform motion and rest give the same result to the equation F=ma


uniform motion and rest are the same.

We can fill out these ideas in various ways, e.g. by the various thought experiments pointing to inertia, or by pointing to the fact that we can’t detect or feel a difference between uniform motion and rest or between A accelerating into B or B decelerating into A. But everything hangs on the equation. Without the equation, both conclusions are mere esoteric philosophical opinions.

1.) Note that the argument rests on seeing the symbol as the proper expression of reality. The word “motion” obviously means something different than rest, but the symbol “a” unifies them as identical values (zero).

2.) A grand unified theory would be a unification of being and nothingness; or at least of the physical and non-physical. The model of all model would be its own anti-model. It might even predict “anti-being”, whatever this would…

3.) The simplest account here is that unified contraries are the same qua symbolized, and the attempt to identify reality with its symbol collapses us into an anti-scientific world where everything is everything is nothing is something. “Scientific metaphysics” is a contradiction.

4.) But to leave it at this would not explain why the symbolic unification works. The gibberish one hits with the thought of scientific metaphysics – with equations having being as a symbolic value – captures something real. We understand motion in its identity with rest or acceleration in its identity with gravity.

5.) The simplest account here is that we’re working from an idea that we know things to the extent that we transcend the differences among them while still preserving them. We want models and math not because they are symbolic or even because we understand math well but because the math transcends, or at least can be understood as transcending. But this universalizes the problem to apply to knowledge as such – which means that perfect knowledge is either a contradiction or achieved by a mind in another state.

6.) But increase in qualitative magnitude (better and worse, truer and more false, more and less square, etc.) differs from increase in quantitative magnitude (numbers, lengths) because the former exists relative to some maximum (cf. the first two axioms of Leibniz’s Metaphysics). A number can become bigger without ever approaching a biggest but a surface can’t become bluer except by approaching the bluest (say, by a paint approaching the color you’re mixing into it.) But no qualitative maximum is contradictory, therefore, etc.

7.) This mind in another state is either potentially human or not. If not, the natural desire for perfect knowledge is impossible. My suspicion is that this violates (6) as well.

The sense that only the universe acts

The familiar argument against free will really proves that only the universe acts – the attempt to isolate any smaller system as a source of action would, so the argument goes, would remove it from the laws of nature. But what would it mean to say that only the universe acts? Leaving aside the implausible idea that the universe is an organism, all this could mean is that it acts because there is nothing else to act upon it. But this is no more reason to act than not to act; and to get action out of this would be to try to get something out of nothing.

We can make the universe infinite in time and so deny that there was ever a set of initial conditions with nothing before it. But all this would be is to respond to the question “what does it mean to say the universe acts?” by saying that it has always done so.

This is not a critique but an argument that we seem to have reasons to think that the universe both must act and that there can be no coherent account of what it would mean for it to do so.


The denial of free will and omne quod movetur

The contemporary argument against free will given by Harris, Gazzaninga and many others (and found ad litteram from Lucretius to Einstein) makes an appeal to the major premise of the classical theistic argument that everything in motion is moved by another. After reducing reality to fundamental inert particles, motion can only be initiated from another. To initiate motion would mean to have no need of some energy source, but no motion is of this sort.

That said, omne quod is broader than the modern version of it used in the free will argument. St. Thomas, for example, reduces the truth of the premise to material causality, or to the fact that mobiles need parts forming a larger whole. This reminds one of the modern form of the argument, where nothing in motion can be isolated from a larger system. Either way, the premise deserves a larger hearing in philosophy of science.

The claim that abstractions are non-causal

- From the moment I heard it, I’ve had an allergy to the claim that abstract differs from the concrete by being non-causal.

- This means either that speech is being left out or that speech is non-causal, and both options seem ridiculous. Either way, the very axiom we use to express the idea (i.e. the abstractions we use in the hope of causing knowledge) is left out of what the axiom is supposed to capture.

-As a consequence, we deny the I-thou relation any causal power.

- If you claim to see that Platonism is axiomatically wrong, you’ve made a wrong turn somewhere. It might be wrong, but you need to do a lot more work to prove it.

-If speech is left out of the causal picture, so (presumably) is all semantic information. So the axiom would rule out the possibility that all information is semantic.

-Making God concrete as opposed to abstract gives rise to the Euthyphro problem irresolvable. It also renders an account of divine simplicity impossible, and all denials of divine simplicity are pushed by force of logic to a god that is a material being.

-The concrete is particular, and no particular is formally causal. Causality formally transcends the genus of particular causes. It would be truer to say that the concrete is non causal.

- And no, it won’t do to say that the axiom arises from a more restricted view of Aristotle’s causes. Abstractions are efficient causes. An advisor is an efficient cause (he’s actually the example that Aristotle gives of efficient causality in Physics II. 3), which makes advice a cause of the same order.

What if Scriptural revelation started now?

The point of the question is to reconstruct revelation from the beginning with whatever is its analogous matter in our own time, with a hope of getting a clearer view of the sort of thing revelation is.

Notice first that revelation is not a genre of writing, still less a style or a form. “Writing revelation over again” is not the same sort of thing as writing in hexameters again, or writing long, Russian-style serialized novels, or haiku, or Ciceronean rhetoric. Revelation is not even necessarily writing – it includes all sorts of songs, descriptions of land divisions, legal codes, etc. and the people who write things like this are not writers in a straightforward sense.

For revelation to begin again would involve writings that constituted a nation; and it would not be some conspicuous hegemon or grand imperial power but a far more modest notion, say, Guatemala. Revelation would thus start with scandal and offense: one part of the world is giggling and groaning at the thought that Guatemala would be God’s chosen focus and the Guatemalans are offended at the giggles. The groans are coming from, for example, American political theorists who are wondering why God would choose Guatemalan political ideas and legal traditions as the documents that will live forever in a Scriptural canon; or from scientists at Caltech or CERN who are horrified by the idea that Guatemalan science will now be the backbone of the cosmological picture that will be used in the wisdom literature.

Over time, some sort of narrative would grow out of this scandal. Let’s assume it’s the same narrative that actually arose in Scripture itself: God chooses the weak and makes them strong. In light of what’s just been said, we must stress that the “weakness” we’re speaking of includes even the weakness of being less true. It would be pointless to argue against groaning American political theorists that Guatemalan political theory is secretly superior to all of their original ideas, and even more pointless to fantasize about Americans getting their ideas political  from the Mayans (the way that some people fantasized that the Greeks got monothestic ideas from Israel). Again,it would be pointless to argue with the physicists at CERN that they ought to revise their theories in light of  Tz’utujil mythology. All of this is a rejection of the scandal that God chooses the weak. He doesn’t choose them because they are adorable in their smallness (like baby seals) or somehow more spiritually pure. To reason like this is to reject revelation as decisively as someone who rejects its divine origin because of its condoning of geocentrism or genocide.

But it is also helpful to consider another possible narrative that Scripture decisively rejects, sc. the Socratic account of humility. Socrates also saw himself as chosen by God, and he also saw himself as humble and lacking the possession of truth, but he understood this to mean that God’s true message was that all human knowledge was not worth much. In the Socratic narrative, God chooses the weak to show the reality of human weakness. On a Socratic account, the whole point of using, say Tz’usujil mythology was to show the physicists at CERN that none of their findings are ultimately better than a pre-modern myth. But this is also not true: God does not choose the weak to prove that weakness is given by nature but in order to make the weak strong.  

Strength, however, is any sort of perfection, and God does not appear to be interested in all of them. He chose a people with a weak cosmology, but he did not empower them to deliver a true one; he chose a people with a very non-progressive and unenlightened morality but he did not give them the full bloom of an Enlightened one; he chose a people with a much more rudimentary and unpolished rhetoric but did not give them polished and refined one (this last point was a great scandal to a young Augustine). What he gave this nation was the full revelation of himself in the incarnation of his son, who in turn gave the Holy Spirit that all persons, in the fullness of time, might be made divine though conformity to the image of the Father. This is at once an obviously more perfect good and one that is much harder to verify – a perfect rhetoric or Enlightened morality would be a lot easier to provide evidence for. For that matter, it would be a lot easier to verify persons who were just made divine right now, and who walked about the earth with resurrected and glorified bodies.  The early Church, in fact, could not stand the idea that this final moment would be put off for very long – in fact, one might even read Christ himself as unable to bear that this moment would be put off too long. But here we are, almost two millennia later, in the tension that Christ’s revelation has neither gone away or been fulfilled.

And so there is a scandal of revelation at almost every turn. God chooses the weak, but not because the weak are secretly adorable or clever; and he chooses the weak not to show the rest of the world that they are nothing but that he might glorify the rest of the world with a better good than any of the ways in which they are better than the weak. This greater good, moreover, is not one given right away, but one requiring a gamble to be made in the face of a scandal.

And so if revelation were started now all the same objections to it would arise as have already arisen. It is pointless – or at least unnecessary – to try to hide or find some hidden good in Scripture’s erroneous cosmologies or glorified genocides or bad rhetoric or moral backwardness or misguided religious ideas. God chooses the weak, with all of their backward ideas, misguided zealotry, cultural prejudice, copyist mistakes, half-baked guesses about the future, ignorance, sloppy writing style, and all the rest of it. All the glories of the people come along too, but these are no more necessary to the revelation than the other stuff.

All this might be taken as degrading Scripture, but I insist that it isn’t. Scripture marks a unique moment where, as Dei Verbum puts it God chose men and… made use of their powers and abilities, so that with Him acting in them and through them, they, as true authors, consigned to writing everything and only those things which He wanted. This does not mean God agreed with their intentions in writing the words, but he agrees to all the words all the same, in a way that he does not do in any other writing. We have what we are certain are divine words, but we are equally certain that there are times when these words must diverge from the intention of the human beings who wrote them down. Revelation will always be essentially an enterprise of starting from the effect of some intention, and trying to reason back to what the intention was, ever mindful that the intention of the human mind writing them might be a blind alley, a mistake, or perhaps even a monstrosity (unlike Islam, the Judeo-Christian tradition does not insist that prophecy or revelation must come through the saints. cf. John 11:51 And this spake he not of himself: but being high priest that year, he prophesied that Jesus should die for that nation.) Seen from this angle, the errors of scripture are necessary guideposts and crucial reminders that we can’t just read off meaning from the sense of the words, whether we take the “the sense of the words” as fudamentalists do when they make their supposed “literal readings” or if we take it as Liberal theologians do when they make an exegesis of the original historical meaning of the text.

Scriptural revelation, whenever it would be given, requires a method of moving from a word to the divine intention of the word. It requires that the divinization promised in the revelation be already to some extent accomplished so that it might inform exegesis not by mere human science but by the very mind of the one who we desire to hear speaking in it. Scriptural exegesis is therefore by definition prayer as opposed to science, i.e. it is placing one’s mind in the domain of divine intentions. This is the way in which science and philosophy are considered as handmaids to theology, and apart from this ascent, theology is just more human reasoning that could be done better by the devil himself.

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