from Anselmianism to the Trinity

Assume the word “God” is the name for a nature* that, while remaining a true nature, is nevertheless not a logical abstraction but a true reality. Three things follow:

1.) Like any nature, “God” can be said of many individuals.

2.) Unlike any nature, “God” is not a mere logical abstraction, but is as equally real as what it is said of.

3.) Like any nature said of many, it is categorically different from any individual or number of individuals it is said of. To think that “canine” is a fourth member that can be added to Lassie, Fido, and Checkers is a category mistake; just as thinking one could add “even number” as a fourth member to 2,4, and 6.

From (1), God can be said of many – Assume it is said of three. But, from (2) such a predication of the nature “God” does not require that there are three Gods as opposed to one, for “God” subsists of itself and not merely in the individuals who it is said of. From (3) this God subsisting in itself is not a fourth being in addition to the three; nor are the three individuals the second, third, and fourth instances of the nature which subsists.

If by the word “self” one means an existent, intelligent being, then “God” is a self from (2) and the persons are each selves from (1). But this does not give us four selves from (3). Nor, from the juction of (1) and (3) do we have to say that each of the persons is the other.

Taken in this way, when Trinitarians deny that there are three gods, what they mean is that the nature does not have a merely logical existence, but is, if you like, a self. This self-as-nature has all the properties that can be attributed to divine nature, while preserving what is necessary for something to count as a nature, i.e. ability to be predicated of many.

But doesn’t this bring us to the point of saying that the divine nature is absolutely unique as divine but communicable as nature? And Isn’t this to speak of an incommunicable communicable thing?  But I think all this comes to is an opposition between nature and individual for us, which is precisely what (2) is trying to deny.

The mystery is that uniqueness and communicability reduce to a common source in existence, which is manifest in the fact that existence is simultaneously the most general and most formal of predicates; it is simultaneously what makes a thing differ from the non-existent, fictional, abstract, and other while also being something that does not allow for any difference among existents.

If this is right, it explain why Thomists deny haecceity: it would be superfluous since existence is at once the most abstract and most concrete of forms. This, however, seems to make “existence” a mere pointer word, indicating a convergence of the abstract and concrete that is not presently intelligible to us.


For the purposes of this post, the following words are perfect synonyms of “nature”: essence, abstract form, form, divinity, idea, sort of thing etc.

Sinful flesh

Western theology has put together its theology together, felt it complete in its conceptual structure (even allowing for a great deal of problems, perhaps even intractable problems), and then looked down only to see that it needed to explain sinful flesh.  This becomes unavoidable in Western Catholic Mariology, but reverberates though the whole of sacred doctrine.


I don’t see how my wife would be any less offended and wronged by my decision to marry a mistress than simply to keep one, and so polygamy seems to be just institutionalized adultery. Since institutional adultery seems in direct contradiction to even the loosest broadly acceptable view of marriage (even the most progressive legal accounts of a marriage, for example), polygamy cannot be allowed, Q.E.D.

But by now we all know the template of the response to claims like this. There’s certainly some non-zero percentage of the population that falls somewhere on the spectrum from open to polygamy all the way up to feeling that they need polygamy to live a fulfilled life, and so the argument I just gave will be something between completely ineffectual and ridiculous to totally offensive. Again, laws against polygamy almost certainly drive some non-zero number of families underground, and who is confident enough in any abstract argument to make some child suffer for it?

For all that, I’m left with the sense that infidelity is wrong and that polygamy is infidelity. I’m stuck with the sense that there would be something wrong with my wife if I asked her If I could keep a mistress and she said “sure, if you marry her”. Such a wife wouldn’t understand something about being a wife, and she’d be degrading herself those who looked to her as modeling a role of what a wife is – and this would all remain true no matter what her feelings were on the matter. In fact, the more enthusiastic she was for the arrangement, the further she would be from understanding what she was. All one could read in her enthusiasm is a metric of self-imposed degradation, like a slaves who love their masters or a rape victims who are convinced the crime was totally their own fault. For her to be okay with polygamy is just a failure to understand the reality and importance of fidelity and the equality of spouses, not just for marriage but even for her own value as a person.

Rational God in an infinite universe

Though Aristotle clearly wants to prove the existence of God in the physics, it’s not clear exactly where he sees the proof as done. For St. Thomas, it seems to suffice to prove that there is some first mover of all things in motion. St. Thomas is probably thinking something like this: Whatever is natural is in motion, but the first mover is not in motion, so the first mover is something beyond nature. Joseph Bobik objects to this by pointing out that both Aristotle and St. Thomas thought that there were supernatural agents other than God, but St. Thomas seems to be able to counter this pretty easily – his whole account of motion is one that appeals to the division of act and potential, and so even if we posit multiple supernatural movers the proof still concludes to the most actual of them.

But all this involves St. Thomas’s presentation of the proof as metaphysical, which is not the presentation Aristotle gives in Physics. In that text, Aristotle concludes to God’s existence precisely from concluding to a being with infinite power. Motion, so Aristotle argues, must be infinite and relative to one mover, and so there must be some one, infinite reservoir or arche of the actuality that must pre-exist all possibilities that could arise in an infinite time.

The reason why St. Thomas didn’t advance this proof in his own writings are well known – he thought we simply had no way to figure out whether the universe must be infinite in time or not, and so he thought that Aristotle’s proof fails at its first move. But St. Thomas’s reason for this, where it is not simply a critique of Aristotle’s arguments, seems to be theological, and so relies on a pre-established decision to see the world as a creation arising from an inscrutable decision that we can, at best, only be told about by God himself. As a matter of purely physical theory, therefore, the possibility of knowing whether the universe is finite or infinite cannot be ruled out, and many physical theories will appeal to the necessity of both hypotheses. Theologians ought to be ready to see God just as much in an infinite universe as a finite one. As far as I know, no one has yet tried to update Aristotle’s physical proof to apply to the various modern and contemporary hypotheses about the infinite universe.

Two objections to divine goodness

William Rowe points out some difficulties with the claim that God is essentially good.

1.) Doing an evil thing is logically impossible for something essentially good. But then it seems God is essentially incapable of doing things that finite creatures can do, and so essential goodness seems to be a kind of impotence. Rowe’s example is “to torture an innocent person for no good reason”.

2.) If God were essentially good, we would neither praise nor thank him for what he does. No action arising essentially is praiseworthy or belonging to something we should thank. You might as well thank heavy bodies for falling or impute some moral value to the sky for its being blue.

The first difficulty was dealt with extensively and decisively by the Augustine and Anselm (Confessions Bk VIII and Proslogion c. 7). One can speak of a power to do evil, says Anselm, only in the way one might speak of a baby language or artificial leather, i.e. the power to do evil is no more a power than artificial leather is a kind of leather or baby language is a sort of language; and so to lack such a power is no more to lack power than running out of artificial leather means running out of leather. The person who would torture the innocent for no good reason has almost no moral power, for he neither does something he enjoys nor even something he wants to do.

The second objection is more interesting, but one opening move might be to point out that we only praise things so far as they are necessary and unchangeable, since we only praise someone for what he has actually done, and what one has done belongs to the unalterable past. So necessity of the action can’t be opposed in every way to praise or thanks, since some necessity and fixity of the action is essential to the very praise or thanks itself. Viktor Frankl explores this aspect of time extensively, pointing out that the purpose of freedom is in some sense to construct the past – to make an unalterable testament to what one has done in response to the question of what they will do in the face of life, especially in the face of suffering.

A second move might be to point out that finite goodness is never so concretized as to make a single ideal that is preferable to all others. One cannot be determined to the good in the sense of being directed to one and only one option. Among finite goods, at least, there is essentially an arbitrary element, and therefore free will is necessary for any action made in the face of finite goods, even if we posit an absolute determination to the good. God’s will is thus completely free in the face of finite goods even though he has an essential and unalterable orientation to the good, and even to what is best. Even if the best possible world could exist (and it can’t) it is not numerically one thing, and so even if God we’re logically determined to choose it, he would require free will to make an actual world.

Thus, God’s essential goodness, from which actions can be viewed as coming with necessity, is also essentially free as well, and so can be praised in the same way we now praise the choices of our fellow persons.


It would be interesting to compare the relation between haecceity and what might be called super-haecceity. Super-haecceity is the idea that Socrates is individuated by not by haecceitas but by Socriety, and “Socriety” is said equivocally of all persons named Socrates, just as each proper name is. For example, my son might be called James too, but his James means him and mine means me, and neither one means some general thing that we share in common.

My first guess would be that Haecceity just is super-haecceity, and that the latter simply draws out the fact that haecceity can only be known by pure negation. This raises the question of whether we can understand it theoretically at all, or whether Haecceity is really the last signpost at the end of theoretical inquiry, pointing to that which is real but incapable of generalization.

Similar questions arise about the very idea of person, a term which means to go beyond mere community of nature to something positive, though this positive feature is incapable of the sort of generalization that science demands of subjects. Even calling it “a positive feature” distorts its character, since no feature is multiplied when persons are, any more than a dim room get more light if we bring in low calorie food.

Thomism and common sense (2)

- Philosophy exists in the space vacated by common sense, but this does not mean that we fill up that space with whatever contradicts common sense; it means that common sense becomes one source of hypotheses to be argued for or against. It becomes one voice among many, and not necessarily one that will have priority in any given case.

- Some non-negligible percentage of persons who read this post and the last one have been punching armchairs and keyboards in exasperation, screaming “What in the world do you mean by this ‘common sense’ – how is this even one thing!?!” Let’s list off some possible meanings: (a) the ‘intuitive concepts’ that Analytic philosophers talk about. (b) the ‘reasonable man’ standard used in legal cases. (c) the ‘man on the street’ idea, understood in a more or less intuitive way (d) the ‘man on the street’ idea, understood through things like polls, questionnaire responses, etc. (e) whatever is axiomatic, understood as axios, i.e. worthy of being a starting point of reasoning. (f) the Chestertonian sense of that which preserves sanity.

Leaving aside (f), none of these gives us any distinct philosophy or even would commend a philosophy to us. This true by definition for (a) and (d), and also for (b), which is a legal expedient. this leaves us with (c), but this is difficult to understand in a way that doesn’t reduce to (d) or (a) or with (e), which specifies only a starting point of reasoning, not a place that is necessary worth ending up at. cf also cryptonymous Bill’s comment on the last post.

- Stay for a moment on the ‘man on the street’ sense of common sense. If you live by this guy, you’ll die by him too. Sure, maybe he’ll agree that motion exists, but he’ll also say that not all lies are wrong, Euclid’s fifth postulate is self-evident, whatever man can do God can do just as well (see what Ockham does with this), matter and form, if real, are beings (which means Aristotle falls to Parmenides) that nothing can actually exist if its not actual (bye bye, prime matter) or, most importantly, that the practical life is more preferable than the life of theoretical understanding.

And once you start taking polls about what the common man believes, philosophy will become ridiculous, morality will lose all sharp distinctions, and you’ll be able to make more or less anything reasonable.

- The say A-T is “common sense” does not describe anything distinctive to it, but is simply a kind of marketing. You can’t find a sense in which A-T is common sense that wouldn’t also be true of Scotism or Pragmatism or even the more moderate strains of scientism (like Elliot Sober or John Searle).

-   No philosopher has insisted more on being common sense than Berkeley, and no one is assumed (in my mind wrongly) to be further from it. The irony here contains an argument – Berkeley presses a crucial question about what exactly is evident, or given in common sense.

- The claim to common sense is, again, a sort of marketing that usually distorts the real issue in play. Take the dispute between Aristotle and Parmenides. Here, Aristotle is assumed to have the high-ground of common sense as the one who defends the reality of motion. But a close look makes the issue much more problematic: Parmenides, it turns out, wrote extensively about nature, but he assumed that to speak in this way was to follow “the way of mortal opinion”.  So the issue between Aristotle and Parmenides turns out to be not whether we can give some account of mobile things, but whether this account rises to the level of episteme. Aristotle says yes, but both Parmenides and the 20th century scientist say no. Simialr things surface when we consider other obvious violations of common sense. No one is assumed to violate common sense more than Berkeley, but an actual reading of his texts shows us a man more zealous to keep himself in line with it than anyone.

Thomism and common sense

Thomism is not a philosophy of common sense. One cannot point to a single distinct tenet in it as an example of something folksy, commonly believed, or as obviously and inarguably better than its contrary. Just look as some of the tenets in question: the metaphysical primacy of esse, the negation of spiritual matter, the denial of the Ontological Argument, abstracted sense being as the proper object of the human intellect, the rational demonstrability of psychic immortality, analogous predication of positive traits said of God, the single esse of Christ, the status of lying as an intrinsic evil, the primacy of intellection in beatitude, etc. There’s no account of common sense that even allows it to raise questions like this, much less to resolve them.

But I want to make a more general claim, sc. that all philosophy exists in a space that’s been set apart from common sense. To explain this, let me lay out the major philosophical debates in the eras that I know something about:

Major Disputes in:

1.) Ancient Hellenic Philosophy

a.) Whether anything is moving.

b.) Whether we can be certain about something.

c.) Whether we know everything by remembering it from the separate world we lived in before birth.

2.) Medieval Philosophy:

a.) Whether we all think with the same intellect

b.) Whether we need God’s help to know certain things.

c.) Whether abstract ideas exist only in the mind or not.

d.) Whether words like “exists” means the same thing when said of God and creatures.

3.) Modern and Contemporary Philosophy (the part I care about, at least)

a.) Whether one needs a mind to think.

b.) Whether a word is just a kind of symbol.

c.) Whether all arguments can be made in one logic.

d.) Whether time exists, or any objects of thought apart from thought.

None of these questions can be raised by common sense: in fact, to the extent it can address the questions, common sense dismisses them and takes the answer as obvious. This is why philosophy can only exist by putting common sense aside.

But wait, don’t we find the supposed “philosophies of common sense” on the side of the common sense responses to these questions? Of course there’s something moving, common sense tells us, and Aristotle defended just this idea. But there are two problems with this: first, it doesn’t work in all cases. Consider the four disputes in Medieval philosophy. Common sense might have an opinion about (a), but it has nothing to say about (b), and it would probably resolve (c) and (d) in favor of someone like Ockham. But Ockham never gets called a philosopher of common sense. But there is a second, more fundamental problem: common sense of itself would not allow any of the questions to be raised. It won’t let us question whether anything is moving, and so won’t allow us to eventually formulate the distinction between potency and act. Common sense doesn’t side with Aristotle against Parmenides, Plato, or Heraclitus, it brushes all four of them aside as raising silly questions whose answers are obvious.

So let’s drop the idea of common sense in philosophy. It doesn’t seem to do much work outside the practical, everyday world anyway. It might tell up how to avoid falling in wells, but it isn’t of much value in looking at the stars.

Energy and divine activity (2)

Why believe that, if energy is always conserved, that some activity or motion must always be? Why can’t energy be simply latent? Isn’t some energy potential?

Distinguish the potential or latent into the counterfactual and the actual. To explain: wood in a world with no oxygen would be counterfactually flammable, but not actually flammable. In the same way, potential energy in a world with no actual motions to serve as trigger events would be counterfactually potential, but not actually potential. But potential or latent energy cannot be merely counterfactually potential, as we have to be able to locate it in a causal series of actual forms of energy. The conservation of energy in the real world can’t be established by conservation in a counterfactual world. This commits us to a world with actual trigger events, i.e. a world where real motions and activity are not just possible, but necessary.

For example, if you say a coin has real purchasing power, you’re committed to the idea that there is some actual population that accepts it. Minae, shekels, lire and Deutsche marks have only a counterfactual purchasing power, and so one can’t convert from actual currency into them. But it is precisely just this sort of conversion that allows for conversion laws.

An Aristotelian take on the conservation of energy and divine action in the world.

One objection to the possibility of divine action in the natural world comes from the conservation of energy. The objection is applied both to the special action of God in the world (see Plantinga’s extensive discussion in Where the Conflict Really Lies) and even more generally to any action of God on the world (see David Papineau’s claim that the discovery of the principle was a watershed moment in Naturalism).

I don’t see any way out of Plantinga criticism that the principle assumes a closed system, which is itself a criticism already given in the Thomist manuals (see, for example, E. Filion, who considers the Plantinga’s argument only worthy of fourth place in his series of refutations.) That said, it’s much more paradoxical to notice that that because the conservation of energy is a way of saying that motion and change can never come to be or pass away, it is equivalent to Aristotle’s first principle in a proof that God must act on the universe.

From Physics VIII.6:

The following argument also makes it evident that the first mover must be something that is one and eternal. We have shown that there must always be motion. That being so, motion must also be continuous, because what is always is continuous, whereas what is merely in succession is not continuous. But further, if motion is continuous, it is one: and it is one only if the first mover and the moved that constitute it are each of them one, since in the event of a thing’s being moved now by one thing and now by another the whole motion will not be continuous but successive.

The order of argument seems to be this:

1.) Motion necessarily is 

Energy is essentially a source of motion, and it is impossible for energy to come to be or pass away, therefore, etc.

(for a fuller account of how even potential energy depends on some actual motion, see the next post.)

2.) Therefore, motion is continuous.

If it is not continuous, some hiatus is introduced into the series. But if some hiatus is introduced, energy ceases to be into this hiatus and comes to be on the far side of the hiatus.

3.) if continuous, therefore one. 

Whatever is undivided is one in being.

4.) A motion is one necessarily with respect to its mover. 

 If two men are moving, is it one motion or two? If they’re in a charging army, it’s one; if they are two randomly chosen pedestrians, it is two. What counts as one motion therefore needs some reference to the agent cause.

5.) Therefore, there is some one mover that is necessarily one and eternal.

Now at first glance it might look like this is exactly what energy is. But if this is the case, then no two previously distinct lines of energetic activity could merge; and energy could never be used as an instrument, since all instruments are essentially moved movers. But this is not so.

6.) Therefore, behind energy, there is some mover and agent, necessarily one and eternal. 

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