Sic et Non on evidence

A: … What, like we don’t have video of him?

B: Well yeah, I suppose so.

A: But no one I know thinks he’s the sort of thing you can videotape. Maybe you could expect to have this sort of evidence for Olympians – though even then I’m not sure.

B: That’s not the way the Bible talks about it. The heavens are opening all the time, lepers are being healed, fire is coming down out of heaven, smoke is covering Mt. Sion. That seems easy enough to videotape.

A: “All the time” seems too strong. About half the Old Testament miracles are during the exodus to the Holy Land, which is a relatively short period in salvation history. After that, the miracles are mostly for Elijah, with a few famous ones in Daniel. The videotaping standard won’t even work on that many of them: sure, it would be impressive to see fire come down on Elijah’s altar, but would it be that impressive to see Daniel all night in the lion’s den? If you saw the widow’s son rise from the dead, wouldn’t you just assume he revived?

B: Ah ha! You don’t even find the evidence impressive! Maybe Daniel just got lucky (The Romans couldn’t always make lions eat criminals) Maybe Elijah just got lucky – there are all sorts of stories about people with no vital signs reviving.

A: I took it another way. Big, videotapable miracles seem to happen at phase transitions in Salvation History: the shift from Israel being a group of landless slaves to being a nation; the shift from this nation ruled by kings to being ruled by prophets; the shift from their being a nation to being a wandering people, etc. The first shift is the most significant and accounts for half the miracles, most of the rest occur at the second phase, and a few happen at the last, along with some outlier miracles on the fringes. A Christian would expect the greatest concentration of miracles to occur with Christ, and then for the great public miracles to cease.

B: So we’re in an inter-miracle period.

A: Like the vast majority of history. Scripture records two thousand years of narrative history, and not a hundred years of it are great times of miracle. Even that overstates the case since we certainly don’t mean that we find a hundred years of continuous miracles when we add them all up.

B: But then there really isn’t evidence.

A: I was only trying to speak to your claim that Scripture makes us expect that miracles happen all the time.

B: Okay, but that just leaves you proving a small point but losing the main one. When we look closer at Biblical evidence, we see that it’s either unconvincing (a lucky man in a lion’s den) or that it only happens in rare, transition moments of history. But we need evidence do get us to believe now!

A: But if miracles happen primarily at transition points in Salvation History, then they’re not meant to get unbelievers to believe but to get believers to change their beliefs.  If anything, Scripture doesn’t hold out much hope for the power of miracles to cause unbelievers to believe. Consider Pharaoh. Consider that the plot to kill Christ was a response to the raising of Lazarus. Consider the final moral of Lazarus and Dives.

B: You can’t deny that a world with more signs and evidence is one where more people would believe. You can’t doubt that if everyone saw the heavens open up that belief would be far more reasonable.

A: I think that’s exactly what we’re disagreeing about. Your idea of God is a counterfactual opposed to both what we know about God by reason (which gives us no reason to expect videotape-style evidence or great theophanies) and what we know by revelation (since Scripture sees miracles as for believers) Just where are you getting this view of God that tells you he should open up the skies for everyone? What source of evidence can you appeal to prove this is the sort of thing that a God would do?




Sic et Non, Souls and Pre-existence

A: So, if the eye were an animal, vision would be its soul.

B: That’s what he says.

A: And you take that to mean that vision is both cause and effect of the eye in different ways: that we have a harmony (now called a “mechanist”) account of soul as an effect of complex parts, while the soul is also a source of genesis and continued existence.

B: Right. Vision explains facts about embryogenesis, why the body attacks certain things causing eye disease, and why it takes in certain nutrients that allow it to rebuild cells in the lens, to nourish the muscles that adjust focus, to swat out and flush out particles that fly into the eye, etc.

A: All this doesn’t object to the historical fact that eyes were selected for by chance, and might not have arisen from any plan in nature.

B: I’d prefer to say that but chance plays a role in the plan, like a coin-flip that the beginning of the game or the number-jostler in a bingo game, but sure, all this is in keeping with eyes arising from chance.

A: Fine, but your basic idea makes no sense. Speaking about vision prior to the eye is like talking about waterless waves or knowledge without a knower. In fact, I think this is exactly what you’re arguing for! If the mind were an animal, knowledge would be its soul!

B: But this is just how we find nature. Embryogenesis, immune responses, building tissues, etc. are all execution of plans. If “Plan” is too much of a metaphor, we might say that the present part of all these actions (talking in the right nutrient at time T) is clearly a part of a larger whole (nourishing the muscle at T + x). What is happening makes no sense except in relation to a whole that is both given and coming to be. In fact, this is just what a “process” is, and nature clearly follows processes.

A: You’ve got to pick: either the whole exists or it is coming to be.

B: Why’s that? Isn’t this just a variant of the Parmenides/Aristotle problem?

A: Maybe that’s right – we could take Aristotle’s final cause as being a way of saving the truth of Parmenides (and later Einstein). Every process must be somehow whole and given – for Aristotle it is given through the he ho heneka or “for the sake of which”.

B: The final cause.

A: Right, if by “final” we mean “the whole”, or complete actuality.

B: If that’s how we take it, then natural things are never whole all at once.

A: Right. They’re historical too, and to exist like that is to never be all at once.

B: So now you want history to be a whole in one sense and not in another? Or is that what I was saying?

A: You’re the one who wants wholes to both be there and not be there.

B: Yes. What else is a process? It’s paradoxical, but that’s just how we find nature.

A: So are you saying that, so far as nature is a unified process, it is already given even while it is being worked out?

B: Yes. That’s true of any process. Try to picture “pregnancy” in a way that could forever do without a timeline stretching from conception to implantation to birth. Still, at any given time one has either conception or implantation or development or birth. Saying that pregnancy is a whole process is a large part of what one means by its having a “final cause”.

A: But aren’t we proving too much now? Now everything is a whole, including all of nature! Why is it not alive?

B: I’m happier proving too much. This is another reason why we lose sight of soul. Let a thousand souls of things bloom.

A: This is pantheism.

B: Or maybe “soul” is only a whole that somehow depends for its being on the process.

A: There you go- wanting a soul to depend on the thing that arises and to pre-exist to it.


If they tell you, then, See, [the Messiah] is here, in the desert, do not be stirred up; if they tell you, See, he is there, in hidden places, do not believe them.

Mt. 24: 26.

The hidden places are the ταμεῖον, which is defined functionally as a place that is one’s own or personal. Luke uses the same term in “Whatever you say in the ταμεῖον shall be shouted from the rooftops”. In other words, it is the opposite of “public space” or “common space”.

And so false Messiahs will come either from outside the city or from spaces closed off from public view.

Working out an idea about history

A: Let’s critique history.

B: Like what?

A: Like Kant’s critique of metaphysics.

B: That didn’t leave all that much. Certainly very little of what was left before.

A: Maybe not. I want to give an account of history as unscience. 

B: Understand it as the opposite of science, then.

A: Right.

B: But hasn’t that critique been quietly playing itself out? Who would ever write a book like Hegel these days? We’d all roll our eyes and snicker at grand claims of universal structure in history. No one would ever teach history as a science these days.

A: I think this is a verbal solution to a much more difficult problem. Sure, we don’t use the word “science” but we treat the thing we’re studying as a scientific entity.

B: Explain.

A: We divide it up into stages of natural progression like it’s an organism. We pull back from the data and see eras like “Middle Ages” and “Reformation” and “Enlightenment”.

B: Sure, these are rough and inadequate generalizations and everyone recognizes that these days.

A: But that’s being understood on an analogy to the sciences too. A scientist will, say, disregard friction when watching things roll in order to get a clearer view of the main law governing the roll. But what if there is no underlying law to see? What good is the simplification?

B: So this is the sort of vanity you see in history?

A: Yeah. I want to turn simplification, which is so effective in science, into an analogy against history.

B: Why say there is no law though? Isn’t there a logic to decision that plays itself out over time?

A: No – a law is timeless but action is not.

B: Say more.

A: Laws are essentially predictive but history will never give us anything predictive. A predicting historian can’t be anything more than lucky. History never gets beyond time to law. How could it? What good is this simplification process?

B: That goes way too far. Look, human action has effects on the world, and some actions have way more effect than others. You can’t tell people to stop noticing this.

A: Ah! Now we’re getting somewhere. History is becomes collective psychology.  How were human beings affected by events and what effects did this lead to. Once we have a descent idea of psychological mechanisms, history should be a cinch.

B: And I suppose you think we have none.

A: Look, the history of psychiatry is not exactly a heroic narrative of success. How many Schools have been formed and lost? Is there anything more quaint than a 60 year old theory about a case file? I see no reason to think that 60 years from now they’ll read ours in the same way, and so on ad infinitum.  Is schizophrenia any more defined than neurasthenia? Sure, maybe we have a little more data, but all the categories are inadequate.

B: You and the extremes!

A: And you are always counseling a confused moderation that never says anything definite.


Mechanism and soul

The melody is both entirely responsible for the structure of the music box and entirely produced by it. Analogizing to biology, Mechanism limits itself to the second move, explaining how cell functions and the activities of life are just ways of playing out genetic information. Notice first that, even if this Mechanist project is possible, it is in no way opposed to an account of soul that not only arises within structure but is also prior to it.* There is also, however, discontent with the Mechanist project within biology itself, even if popular biology is quiet about it. Strohman summarizes the basic problem:

Genes specify information necessary to make proteins and the genome provides a collective informational source. However, by itself a genome is passive: DNA, for example cannot make itself, and cannot construct a protein never mind an actual cellular function. DNA has been called the book of life by HGP [human genome project] scientists but for many other biologists DNA is not a book but simply a collection of words from which a meaningful story of life may be assembled.


*If the soul is the sort of thing the ancients thought it was – an ultimate cause of life in the living – we could not expect to find it by our contemporary methods until our sciences were complete. We want to start with the sort of causes most known to us, and even with these our account has a dizzying complexity that no one would expect to be complete any time soon. In fact, “complete science” might be as contradictory as “final hypothesis”, and for the same reason. So Mechanism might relate to soul as something it approaches at an infinite limit. Physics might relate likewise to God.

Souls encoding in bodies

Soul: Whatever a living body has that its corpse lacks.

Answer 1: this is some complexity or arrangement of parts, appropriately energized. The proof is that if we put together the right stuff in the right way and hooked up to the right energy source, it will, ipso facto, be alive.

Problem: some things only arise from a complexity of arrangement because they cause it. A melody only arises from the music box because it was a principle that determined how the music box was built in the first place; webs only catch fly-sized things because they were spun with > fly gaps.

When Aristotle says “if the eye were an animal, vision would be its soul” he means to speak about vision in the same way that melody is responsible for the way the music box is built.  Notice we’re not talking about selection of the eye but its embryogenesis. Selection involves a lucky fit with an environment: embryogenesis does not.

If this is what soul is, then we come to understand the soul of things by looking to what operation sets them apart from other things. Man’s soul is said to be rational so far as, unlike either animals or machines, he deliberates over means and relates to objects as true.

Christ’s not knowing the final hour

But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.

The scandal of the passage for orthodox trinitarians is familiar; but one of the simplest responses is to read it as a part of a larger whole that is given fully in Christ’s last revelation:

It is not for you to know times or epochs which the Father has fixed by His own authority; but you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be My witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth.

Acts 1: 7-9

While the operations of the Trinity in creation are indistinguishable (otherwise we would not need revelation to know them) their operations in salvation history are not; and so the Son does not know the time of the final revelation because to set this is the work of the Father. The Father thus constructs the formal structure of times which break forth in revelation,  Christ is the one revealed (“you shall be my witnesses”), and the Spirit is the one whose power effects the revelation (“You will receive power when the Holy Spirit, etc.”). Christ no more knows the hour of salvation than, say, the Spirit knows the message that is revealed, which is not far from how he is actually spoken of:

When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine; therefore I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.
John 16:10-15

In other words, the “knows not” language is a way of speaking of the order among the distinct work of the trinitarian persons in the work of salvation history. If we wanted to describe the equality of the persons in this work we would have to give a different but complementary description – perhaps one that appropriates St. Thomas’s metaphor of the flower, i.e.   The work of the Father is to set the conditions that of themselves bring forth the flower, the Holy Spirit is the energy of the flowering, and the Son is the flower itself. More simply, we could point out that to effect salvation or be the final revelation is proper to God alone.

Scripture and truth value

One element in a Scriptural theology is to notice that a large and significant part of Scripture lacks truth value. The language of praise, rejoicing, adoration, exultation, glory, imprecation and even complaint cannot be analyzed in logical ways, even if we can buttress or support them with claims having truth value.

A further move might be the claim that this sort of speech is what Scripture is ordered to.

The mystery of The Trinity from the word “trinity”

-So: is threeness three or one?

Like any abstraction, it is clearly one, but this explains it only so far as it is an abstraction. Quaternity is just as one as threeness or trinity. So there must be a true “three” in threeness or trinity.

-Like an iridescent surface, which contains the information about two colors, “trinity” contains information about two quantities. Again, what color is black hair in a comic book: black or blue? No, what color is it really? 

-If humanity existed, would it be a human? In one sense, yes, since this is all one means in shifting from an abstract to its concrete. In another sense, no, since humanity is not a human. This is how a Trinity would be three, if it existed.

-Ultimately, abstract forms differ from concrete ones because the concrete cannot actualize all possible perfections of of the abstract. Humans must be introverted or extroverted, male or female, personable or lone-wolfish, preferring things definite and final or open-ended, but humanity must contain all of these possibilities. So what if we just removed this discrepancy by a transcendental unity of perfections that are multiple?

Media massacre-binging

This is one of those times when it’s difficult to avoid binging on corporate news-product. Under normal conditions, my consciousness of TV news falls somewhere on a spectrum between watching wallpaper and seeing a skunk on the path, but events that auger wars are things that I probably don’t have enough character to avoid getting sucked into. Not having enough character to simply ignore it, I’m stuck with a three-part work-around policy.

1.) Give in. Feel all the shock. Listen obediently to the experts. Experience the hurried, thrown-together look of the on-site reporter. Be convinced he cares (how could he not?). Bite into the hook they give you before they cut to commercial. Experience a homicidal or Nationalist urge or two (how else can you deal with these fanatics?) Find yourself eating more comfort food or blowing some money at Target or Walmart. Later that night, feel like things are different now and that this will lead to a long overdue new era. Experience a thrill at the possibilities.

2.) Spend an hour or two with the opposition. Chomsky is a contrary voice for anything in the news, though for the present story I watched Graham Fuller too. Experience the event as eminently rational, even what you yourself would have done or sympathized with were the shoe on the other foot. In fact, experience how this event is just the normal human response of someone who felt like you at stage 1. If President Netanyahu were killing persons in the Midwest with, say, cruise missiles, drone strikes, or embargoes that tolerated mass-starvation, I could understand someone dancing the streets if group of Kansas college kids shot up a diner in Tel-Aviv.

3.) See what I’m left with. Since step #2 can’t debunk #1 or make it any less awful, and since it even makes the event worse by depriving me of the comfort of believing that everything that is horribly evil must be craven, insane, and Disney villain-esque, I’m left trying to make sense of evil done rationally.

In part, all these events are a history of confirmations of Murphy’s law. The massacre was a failure in the eyes of those who did it (there’s never been one where the killers weren’t planning on death tolls ten times higher). That said, the motive for the massacre was a previous government sponsored massacre that failed through half-measures, unavoidable mistakes, folly and hubris. The motive for the government massacre was another atrocity, and the government planners responding to that atrocity marched off with very reasonable hopes, high spirits and patriotic fervor… and so on ad infinitum.

Yeah, yeah, cycle of violence and all that. But none of this argues for pacificism, moral equivalence, or even the futility of the cycle. It’s contrary to experience to say that violence never solves anything or that all aggressors are equal. But violence can be just while still being a failure. Appreciate the place of just war theory in the Summa.

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