The transcendence of being

Hypothesis: Physics and mathematics are those discourses in which Nominalism involves no immediate contradiction. 

By “Nominalism” I mean the claim that predicated natures are beings of reason.* When we say “John is a man” then the predicate can be viewed without immediate contradiction as an ens rationis, abstracted from the concrete reality of “John” or “this man”.

But there is an immediate contradiction in assuming the same thing about “John is real” or “a being”. The real is divided by contradiction from the unreal or the being of reason. One is free to see “being” or “real” as the limit of abstraction, but the limit is not homogeneous with what leads up to it – at the most general level one hits something that does engender a contradiction if it is seen as merely logical, abstract, or ens rationis. 

But to leave it at this would give us the universe of Parmenides. Being is common to all and so undivided; if it is real, then all is undivided, i.e. one. For the same reason, all beings are alike and the only possible source of difference is non-being – but this is the same as saying that there are no differences at all.

To explain the world we actually find, however, where there are beings – we need to say with the Manualist tradition that being is transcendent, that is, being is limited neither to the abstract nor the concrete; and that it is equally a source of likeness among all things and also the differences we find among them.

What is fascinating about this is that it requires that subsistent being would be at once abstract and concrete – that is, both like an abstract Platonic form or natural law and like a person; and it predicts that subsistent being would be at once completely unified and differentiated. The first claim is the only way one could satisfy Plato’s problem with how God could be worthy of worship (i.e. The Euthyphro dilemma); and the second is a doctrine that has only ever been advanced by Trinitarians.


This includes both Nominalists strictu sensu and Ockhamists and the various other Medieval Conceptualists. It also includes all those Aristotelian-Thomists who try to be “moderate realists” by placing the universal ante rem in the mind of God. If anyone cared to ask me, I do think this position is just Nominalism.


Image and likeness

In dealing with Genesis’s description of man as “image and likeness” Augustine notes that not every resemblance is an image: two ball bearings are as like as one pleases, but the one is not the image of the other. Image involves two things that are not just alike but which share a likeness arising from one being the cause of the other (like your face in a pond). Likeness, on the other hand, is a sort of equality. Image is not a reflexive relation: If you are an image of me it follows that I am not (and cannot be) an image of you; likeness is, however, correlative: If I am like you then you are like me. One difficulty is that the word “likeness” gets used of both image and likeness, but this is a problem of words: I’ll here call the non-reflective relation “image” and the correlative one “likeness”.

Now some things are persons and others are not. Among Trinitarian persons, there is only likeness and no image. Among things that exist, some are images of persons: all creation is the image of the Trinity, all artifacts are images of some person’s idea. But some things are both image and likeness: created persons.

Now it is plausible to claim that Scholasticism is very good at accounting for creatures as images but not as likenesses. Scholasticism bases any account of God on an argument about whether he exists at all, but this existence can only be established by way of a causal relation to the world. This causal relation is direct in the cosmological argument; but it is all-but-immediate in the ontological argument as well (i.e. if God alone must be, then he is the cause of all that need not be). Scholasticism thus gives us a God to which all else stands as image as opposed to likeness. If God is nothing but a cause, then created being can be nothing but an image as opposed to a likeness. But this obviously overlooks just how one can have created persons, which will in turn make interpersonal relations between God and man impossible.

Now clearly Scholasticism can never make creatures the sort of likenesses that one finds among Trinitarian persons. But it still has to clear some room for likeness as opposed to the mere likeness of an image. St. Thomas does this in three ways:

1.) By the account of man as dominus (lord) of his own action. By placing this account of the person at the beginning of the second part of the Summa, St. Thomas makes the whole second part an account of the person as dominus. He is clearly striking a note of likeness as opposed to image.

2.) By the account of charity as divine friendship. This includes the idea of man’s natural spiritual state while at the same time opening up a way to a friendship that transcends it. It is the first objection to the possibility of divine friendship that St. Thomas addresses.

3.) By his account of the beatific vision. Here St. Thomas argues that beatitude consists in one’s knowledge of God simply being God. He puts this negatively, to be sure, preferring to say that “God cannot be known by a similitude (i.e. an idea of God)”.

4.) By prayer. Thomas defines prayer as a sort of causality exercised by creatures, though it obviously includes reference to God doing something.


Beauty’s light into other transcendentals

Say we count beauty as a transcendental, but that we then also try to take account of the 19th century insights about the difference between the beautiful and sublime. Though tied together by aesthetic experience (in the same way that goodness is tied together by moral experience or truth by intellectual experience) we nevertheless can distinguish two distinct levels of beauty and sublimity – the first being proportioned, elegant, and attractive while the second is overpowering, breaking beyond all bounds, and inspiring something like fear. Again, there is enough overlap between the feelings to recognize that they are somehow aspects of a single aesthetic experience, but there is enough difference between them that no single term describes what they have in common.

It’s interesting to consider how this sort of insight might apply to the other transcendentals. Perhaps truth has a similar sort of division into the proportionate/elegant and the transcendent; or goodness into what is appropriate to the nature of something and what bursts beyond all limits of the nature.

Considering the intrinsic transcendentals, it gets a little harder to see what we would mean: what is proportionate or elegant unity as opposed to transcendent unity? Alterity?

All this suggests the Scotistic idea that the infinite and finite are prior to the transcendentals, though we would move too quickly if we saw God alone as the instance of infinite transcendental. There are suggestions (at least) of infinity beneath the level of the divine.

The possible worlds ontological argument.

Understanding logical possibility through the theory of possible worlds makes the logical argument from evil more or less impossible. Defined most uncontroversially, a possible world is just a list of all possibly true and consistent propositions, and so the logical problem of evil requires us to say that there is no possible list of propositions consistent with God being all good. But there is obviously many such lists: like one that begins by saying “God is benevolent” and then proceeds to list off only wonderful things done by him; or one that repeats “and God did this for the greater good” like an antiphon after every statement in the possible world.

And so if we’re going to try to prove the logical impossibility of God, we’re left with only incoherence arguments. The first offerings of this class (like the various forms of the stone paradox) have had widely accepted and straightforward answers for a long time. More sophisticated incoherence arguments can be made, but they tend to arise at very high degrees of abstraction and idealization of the divine, leaving untouched various less philosophical accounts of God. While I myself am committed to these sorts of very abstract and ideal accounts of divinity, it’s clear to me that even a being that fell short of them would still deserve to be called divine – a “deus” that the various theistic arguments conclude to.

If this is right, the possible worlds hypothesis requires that God be taken as a logical possibility. This wouldn’t mean much except that while any creature might

a.) exist

b.) Not exist and be (logically) able to

c.) Not exist and not be (logically) able to

For God (b) is not an option since it requires something the possibility of one and the same thing being created and not. This leaves only (a) and (c) – God either exists or is logically impossible.

Evidential arguments from evil

Once upon a time, philosophers refuted the existence of God with logical arguments from evil which tried to conclude to the logical impossibility of God. These proved unworkable: it was too easy to find merely logically possible defeaters since even an outlandish, fanciful, far-fetched and emotionally unsatisfying theodicy could still be logically possible. This caused everyone to switch to evidential arguments from evil, which admitted the logical possibility of God but claimed that we should assign him a vanishingly small probability. But “vanishingly small” is still not zero, and so such arguments were committed to quantifying the (now given) logical possibility of God.

But this approach can’t work, and it ends up proving the opposite of what it aims at. If a creator God doesn’t exist, then the only way we could get one would be to create him, but a creator-creature is a pretty straightforward contradiction. This means that

(a.) if God doesn’t exist then it is impossible for him to exist.

The problem is that the evidential argument from evil ends up making (a) into an argument modus tollens, and so ends up proving the existence of God.

How motion is a state

Newton defines uniform motion as a state. Many Thomists have balked at this idea, even seeing it as a contradictio in adjecto. “States” describe things that are steady over time, and motion is unintelligible as describing something remaining the same over time. True, “uniformity” is a state, but (a) uniformity describes both the motion and rest, and so to focus on mere uniformity is not at all what Newton means, since it is obvious and uncontroversial that such motionas and rest are uniform like that. and (b) Einstein extended the identity of motion and rest to include non-uniform motions.

One resolution to this is to say that Newton’s “state” is not being opposed to “the dynamic” but as opposed to an activity, that is, to what motion and rest are to living things. An alligator does not rest in the water out of inertia but in an ambush, which is the same reason that it pounces. The living, in other words, unifies rest and motion as two sorts of activity while inert things cannot unify them in this way. But it can unify them as different states. But what does this mean?

It is clear from Newton’s definitions that inertia is what Thomism calls a “secondary cause”. Inertia never initiates motion but only responds to the causal action of something else. Inertia is not existence but resistence, that is, it is not a state existing of itself but a response to the activity of another. If we are right to make inertia a law of inanimate body – and the tremendous explanatory power of assuming this seems to require that we do so –  it follows that the inanimate is borrows its rest or motion from the living, and cannot have this as its activity but only as a state. 

If we accept this account we can preserve the truth of Aristotle’s account of natural motion while avoiding its insupportable conclusions. Aristotle is right that if any motion at all is natural, then some local motion is natural, and local motion cannot be natural without natural place. But he was wrong to think that natural place had any intrinsic sense when said of the inanimate as such. The inanimate has its motion or rest not of itself in an absolute sense (the way fire tended to an absolute “up” or earth to an absolute “center”) but only by way of borrowing its state from the activity of the living. It is natural for the inanimate both to move and to rest in the same way that it is natural for the living to do so, but the inanimate has this as a participated stasis.

It is really only in this way that either life or freedom is possible. As soon as nature is given an absolute tendency of itself – as soon as inertia initiates as opposed to reacts, or laws initiate things as opposed to describing the progression from a given initial state – then the inanimate is of itself closed to exterior influence and so cannot be an instrument of the living or the free. The “causal closure” of the universe is really a claim for the primacy and closure of the inanimate or physical – which is not at all what inertia or physical laws are describing.

Christ’s teaching on poverty

One of the greatest challenges to my own faith was Christ’s teaching about the elevation of the poor. It simply makes no sense to me to see any special spiritual significance to mere poverty. By itself it does nothing to improve behavior or adherence to law, and for every “smiling face in an impoverished village” that gets mentioned in sermons there are just as many savage and violent faces, to say nothing of the cheerful faces among those in penthouses or lake homes. But I think my challenge was based on confounding two separate elements in Christ’s teaching that need to be kept separate. I’ll call these two elements “the older account” and “the newer account”.

The older account of Christ’s elevation of poverty imputes a mystical character to to it, as though the condition itself was a sort of prophesy. The newer account is not mystical but practical and political: we must elevate the poor above others because the rich, so the reasoning goes, have the means to fend for themselves but the poor need advocates to advance their interests. On the first account, Christ elevates the poor because of a mystical vision of what Francis would call “Lady Poverty”; on the second he is modeling how a social and political leader should act and speak so as to ensure justice.

Notice that the newer understanding is based on the idea of human equality. We advocate the rights of the poor in an effort to ensure equal access. The older understanding is based on the idea of hierarchy and ordered separation. On the new understanding, poverty is ultimately an evil that, of itself, is hostile to justice and so needs to be remedied by the polity; on the older understanding it is a sort of blessing that sets someone in a group above another group. Both elements seem necessary to the Christian message – on the one hand the poor have a unique likeness to Christ who though he was in the form of God, emptied himself. At the heart of the Incarnation is this sort of acceptance of poverty, along with all of the spiritual theology that teaches that the goods of this world and those of God are in some sort of contradiction (here I’m thinking of John of the Cross, who sets the material and the spiritual as playing a zero-sum-game). But this account becomes nonsensical on the political or economic plane. Advocating poverty as an economic policy is either exploitation or contradiction.

So, at the moment, my resolution to Christ’s challenge is to divide the economic sphere* from another sphere of existence. This other sphere does not admit of an easy name – it is at once symbolic, spiritual, and prophetic while not being in every case a sphere of existence leading to better morals or cheerfulness. This second sphere has a likeness to the sacramental order, where, for example, marriage is at once symbolic, spiritual, and prophetic while at the same time being a secondary state. I’m bungling this last point but I won’t erase it since there’s something there.


*”Economic” is also too limiting a name. Persons are not equal in a merely economic sense, and ensuring this equality of state is not limited to economics. But this sphere, however broad its scope, is limited by the other one.

Metaphors for sex as the raw material for gender

Let’s take for granted both the contemporary distinction between sex and gender and that sex is the “raw material” for gender, i.e. that sex is the biological basis for the social construction of gender.  This leaves two crucial unexplored questions: (1) how different are the raw materials of masculinity and femininity from each other and (2) how great a distance is there between the raw material of sex and its completing form of gender?

Different raw materials are more and less like each other, so if we are to see men and women as different raw materials, are they different like Kevlar and feathers? Butter and margarine? Analog and digital? Here the metaphors won’t do much – there’s really no way around just laying out the various male-female sex differences: characteristic hormonal levels, propensity to aggression, hand strength, number of nerve endings in skin, skeletal structure, amount of striated muscle, communication patterns, amount of body hair, love of cooperation or competition, body mass, alcohol tolerance, distribution of intelligence, non-verbal communication skill, average height, extraversion…

What’s more essential to understand the “raw material” idea is what might be called the distance between the material and the final thing. The distance between plaster and a statue, it seems, is much greater than the distance between coffee (beans) and coffee (the drink) even though both the plaster and the beans are the raw material for the statue or drink. The plaster is so formless and indeterminate with respect to the statue that it stands like one to infinity; the coffee is so determined to the drink that we use the same word to refer to both, and the only variations are within a pretty narrow range of strengths. We have another example of what I here call a short distance in the difference between a musical score and its performance, which seems to close that there seems to be an identity between them. Both just are Beethoven or Debussy or whoever.

And so while everyone can admit a distinction between sex and gender, this doesn’t determine how long or short a leash gender roams around on. If it is like clay to a shape or sound to a language, then gender is a form so different from its matter that the matter (sex) is barely worth mentioning. If it is like coffee and coffee or a musical score and its performance, then gender is so much a proxy of sex that gender is almost not worth mentioning.

Gender difference is thus a function of two independent unknowns: the distance between sex differences (A) and the distance of these sex differences from gender (B). One gets the sense that more traditional accounts of men and women saw A as large and B as small, where we are more likely to see A as small and B as large, or perhaps we see B as so large as to render sex differences unimportant.

Notes on sacred time

- A friend argues that the laws of nature are symmetrical with respect to time because of the resurrection of the body. We canot find a physical sense to the arrow of all things being lost to the crashing Niagra of entropy, because all will be recovered from it again.

- One widely dispersed theory in eschatology holds that after death we wake immediately to the resurrection since only beings in space-time experience time, and so our last experience in this time must coincide with our first experience in the resurrection. Ratzinger critiques this idea from an interesting angle: it requires that the saints are no longer active in history, which seems a non-starter for anyone who would be committed to the Christian idea of resurrection in the first place. Ratzinger’s insight leaves open the question of the temporality of the saints, however, and opens up an interesting line of inquiry into how this sanctified temporality relates to the mundane time of the viators.

-I explain the Hypostatic union through the unity of self and body: I am not my hand, but in touching my hand you touch me.  And so identity: body:: Christ’s divine person : human corporality and therefore temporality. Temporality – this one we enjoy now – is God’s – not in the crude and extrinsic sense that he made it and is in control of it, but in the sense that my hands are mine.

Charles Taylor: a Christian at a Good Friday service will feel closer to the Passion than he felt last October, even though in terms of calendar time he was closer to it last October.

-Marking out time in a linear manner requires something that counts as the first event, but we find none in physics. The birth of our own universe can only seem like it counts as one in a relative way. We no sooner find a beginning of time then we raise the possibility of a multiverse system. The linearity of time, and the fact that it is here now, cannot have physical meaning.

-While blessed angels help and fallen ones tempt, there is no opposite action of the damned souls corresponding to the intercession of the blessed souls. The damned occupy a time that is divided from causality – it is a time that just “goes on forever”, as an image of the old preacher metaphors about the bird who brushes its wing against a mountain every thousand years until the mountain is all gone. The blessed souls are caught up in an activity they love and which makes time fly by; the damned – like those sentenced to watch the bird – have nothing to do but mark off insipid and largely meaningless events forever, punctuated by vast stretches of time where nothing happens.

There’s the burning too.

-The universe burns on both ends: the seraphim and the damned.

Arguments for the death penalty

The only argument for the death penalty that seems to have any purchase in the contemporary conversation is one that argues by proportionality: some crimes are so bad that they deserve death, or (to speak in slogans) we need the ultimate punishment for the ultimate crime. But this whole line of argumentation seems to beg the question since “the ultimate punishment” clearly has to be the ultimate just punishment, and we can’t help ourselves to the assumption that the penalty is just while we’re trying to establish that it is. Likewise, “the deserved” either is the just or presupposes it. Anything deserved is justly so; and nothing unjust is deserved.

St. Thomas’s argument that the death penalty is needed to defend the body politic seems pretty hard to swallow in the face of modern technology. This seems to be St. John Paul’s critique of the death penalty, at least in modern industrialized nations: while justifiable in principle, its justification requires the peculiar and no longer applicable circumstance that those who would use it have no other reasonable means to assure that a convicted prisoner will never kill again, and saying this in the face of Supermax prisons is not very believable. This argument also undercuts any Scriptural support for the death penalty, since it was clearly limited to times and places in which the circumstances necessary to make the death penalty just still applied.

I write all this reluctantly since I have no moral repugnance toward the death penalty and even have a strong desire to have it applied both more often and more broadly than it is. But I can’t see any reason to do so and so I suppose I need to give up on the idea.

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