One of the first things we know about knowledge is that it is nothing like the known. In all knowledge, even sensation, what is outside is inside. What is separate from consciousness is present to it. Knowledge is so totally different from the things known that knowledge is best understood by the negation of things known.

Ramble on Kant- updated

While re-reading the Critique of Pure Reason, I was struck by how Kant’s central critique of metaphysics is that things like God and the soul are “meaningless” or that they have no “signification”. Kant does not need an elaborate “theory of meaning” to say this: “to signify” means at least to have correspondence with something known, and outside the limits of space and time there is not something even possibly knowable.

What Kant says is true, but it is only half of the pertinent truth. The other half of the truth is that something is not possibly knowable unless it is outside the limits of space and time. This is true even of sense knowledge. Knowledge consists essentially in overcoming the limits of space: for that thing there is inside my consciousness here. Memory does the same with time- for just as consciousness overcomes the opposition between here and there, memory overcomes the opposition between then and now.

Kant’s philosophy provides a helpful locus for the empirical nature of our knowledge; it consists both in the limitation to space and time and and in overcoming the limitation of space and time. We could not even be limited to knowing spacial and temporal things without transcending them.

Kant starts halfway. Before one questions whether things conform to our understanding or whether our understanding conforms to things, there is an anterior question of the kind of conformity which constitutes knowledge. Kant starts with his “Copernican turn” but there is an anterior question of the kind of existence that makes knowledge possible at all.

Why does Christ Use Hyperbole?

One of Christ’s most striking teaching tools is hyperbole: “If your hand offend you, cut it off”; “whoever says ‘you fool’ is liable to Gehenna”; etc. The explanation of hyperbole is frequently left at mere deflation of the sense: we explain that people shouldn’t cut their hands off, and that not every use of bad language is a mortal sin. The difficulty with leaving the explanation at this is it doesn’t explain why the exaggeration was used. The whole explanation of hyperbole can’t be that the one using it meant less than he said. If this were all he meant to do, he would have just said less himself.

One suggestion would be to say that Christ uses hyperbole to convey the idea of an unreachable limit: “cut off your hand” in this case means to say “you will never cease to have something that is in danger of leading you to sin” or “you will never be able to totally remove all that could lead you to any sin” or more optimistically “the work of perfecting yourself must be continual”. This idea of hyperbole signifying the unreachable is suggested by Christ’s monetary examples: when he speaks of the debt of a servant which clearly signifies the debt of sin, he calls it a debt of 10,000 talents. One talent was 6000 denarii, and one denarius was a days wages. The implication is that no one could ever pay off his debt of sin.

The doctrine of the Gospel is the doctrine of perfection, as St. Thomas says, and in some respects perfection is an infinitely approachable limit: “be perfect, as your Father in heaven is perfect”. Christ’s teaching is better than any other at laying out this infinite approach to perfection with the greatest clarity and the greatest economy of words.

If one makes an argument that X is fitting, it doesn’t follow that non-X is unfitting. “Fitting” need mean nothing more than “consistent with” but to fail to be consistent is not the same thing as to be inconsistent. In the case of arguments or the fittingness of divine activities, we have the additional problem that we can see the need for multiple perfections in God, but we cannot see their unity. That God would extend his friendship to man is consistent with his goodness, but it does not seem consistent with the sublimity of his nature over man. Revelation decides the issue, and reason can subsequently show how this was an option consistent with what God is.

The Mystery of Divine Friendship

Aristotle claimed that God could not be a friend to man since there was too great a disproportion between their natures, and Plato claimed in the Republic that God keeps as far away from man as possible. What is a christian to make of these statements, given that Christianity consists essentially in the belief that God is a friend to man?

The denial of divine friendship was pious and reasonable. Friendship is hard enough among two individuals of the same nature, how much more so among those of diverse ones? We have a hard time being friends with people who we have thousands of things in common with. How could God and man even meet to be friends? The chasm between temporal and eternal existence is unfathomable. We don’t even know how ignorant we are of eternal realities.

It is true that given the revelation that God chose to become a friend to man, we might give arguments that it was fitting for him to do so. God is the highest good, and it is proper to the highest goodness to communicate itself to many. Similarly, man seeks the the highest truth by a divine impulse (nature) and so it was fitting for God to share his life with man. But neither of these arguments can be understood to mean that it would have been unreasonable or even unfitting for God not to share his life with man. To take a more extreme case: once God makes his triune nature known, we can see it involves a certain fittingness: God has the perfection of community within himself; God, the fullest act, is fully communicable etc. But this does not mean that it would have been reasonable to say that God was “three persons” before he revealed this truth. Piety would have dictated that we call the first cause and supreme actuality one person, if at all.

As soon as man forgets that the friendship of God and man is essentially mysterious, he starts imagining some aspect of himself that forced God to descend from the heavens. God must have somehow lacked  something that only man could provide. God must have wanted to be one with us so much because we were so wonderful and godlike, or else so much more experienced than God because of all our sufferings and pain, etc. All of this belittles and degrades the Incarnation. One of the most difficult things to understand about any act of God with respect to creation (whether creation or redemption, or the continuation of either act) is that such acts are absolutely magnanimous. Try though we might, we cannot ever discover any motive for the act on the part of God.  We will never be able to locate some good in creation or redemption that God would have lacked if he had chosen not to do either. As hard as it may be for us to understand, even the Incarnation gave no good to God that he lacked. The words of the Creed are to be taken in an absolute sense: For ourselves and for our salvation, he descended from heaven. Every other gift gives something to the giver, God’s gifts give something only to the receiver.

When we take a closer look at our inability to understand the divine magnanimity, it shows us that in fact the difficulty in understanding is entirely from our own end. All of our acts of giving and benevolence involve some perfection accruing to ourselves. With us, any act of virtue gives something to the one doing the act. But there is nothing in the idea of “giving” that involves “receiving something for the act”; just as there is nothing in the idea of “motor” that involves “being in motion”. Man can never be perfectly gratuitous.

An aspect of the development of doctrine

In theology and philosophy, it is quite common for controversy A to give rise to response B, and then from the truth of response B other thinkers develop doctrines C,D,E.. For example

A= Arius

B= The Trinitarian persons are distinguished by relations

C= Augustine and St. Thomas’s doctrines of the Trinity


A=Parmenides says mobility is impossible

B= Aristotle develops the idea of potency and act

C= All of medieval physics and metaphysics.

When A disappears, the whole occasion for developing B and C disappears as well, and people easily start thinking, “what do we need these doctrines for?” The doctrines no longer have the cultural urgency that gave them birth. They are answers to a question no one is asking.

On Physics Borrowing from Mathematics and Metaphysics

The first inquiry into nature began in opposition to metaphysics. Aristotle took it on himself to show that a science of nature was possible, contra Plato and Parmenides. In order to found the science, Aristotle had to borrow various terms which belong to metaphysics. When these terms are used in the context of physics, the terms are natural, and not metaphysical (the “act” and “potency” used in the definition of motion are borrowed, but in physics they only extend to mobile being, not to being as such).

The second inquiry into nature began in opposition to Aristotle’s physics. The metaphyscial objections of Parmenides no longer bothered anyone, and so no one particularly cared about borrowing various metaphysical terms to explain natural things. The interest was instead on extending the scope of mathematical physics, which advances by borrowing truths from mathematics. When used in the context of the science of nature, the truths are natural, and not mathematical, as Aristotle himself showed in the second book of his physics.

(in calling these two approached “first” and “second” I am stateing a purely contingent fact. It simply happened that one science developed before the other. The two inquiries into nature are so distict that Galileo could have very well written before Parmenides. There is nothing in mathematical accounts that make them dependent on previous metaphysically-borrowed accounts. One does not need to know about matter and form and causes in order to measure the rate of a free fall.)

In both cases, the benefit and the danger of borrowing is the same: certitude. Mathematics and metaphysics are characterized by a certitude that is simply not possible to attain about natural things as such. Both mathematics and metaphysics deal with immobile things, but nature is essentially mobile. Nature cannot exist apart from a part that is unintelligible to us. The certitude of both goes bad in different ways: on the one hand, we cannot spin out all truths about natural things simply by meditating on their definitions, on the other hand we cannot imagine that nature is really nothing but the clarity of mathematical formulae and laws. Both borrowed sciences confer a benefit that the other one fails to provide: metaphysics allows us to say some really unchangeable and categorical statements, but only about nature in general; mathematics gives us an operable and predictive knowledge of the concrete things in nature, but only a hypothetical knowledge.

It’s sober men who seek to worship stones.

We set a faceless idol in our heart,

confirming thoughts that God could disappoint.


We never think the idol is alive-

We want it drawn out from the underlife. 

The stone is symbol for the source of things.


On its altar, we will offer reasonings

and give him praise in scientific words

As ground and father of the universe.

Man sees the cosmos naturally. We open up our eyes and there it is. Our nature is such that it corresponds to the cosmos and is proportionate to it. Our nature is to be the cosmos by an immanent act. We are therefore a part of the whole by a perfect correspondence to the whole. 

What would the cosmos look like without man? It wouldn’t look like anything. The angels do not need to sense it to know it, and the mere animals do not know it when sensing it. An eagle doesn’t need to relate to the things he sees as “cosmos”- that is superfluous to him. It suffices that he see nest parts, mates and fishes- and he need not see these as any unity. The universality of intellect continually forces us to pull in more and more of the cosmos by physical perception. We have a physical awareness of a physical thing; the universality of the object of our mind (what material things are) perfectly corresponds to the cosmos (we rise above this object not by seein the immaterial, but by a judgment about the material).

Can there be an infinite number of forwarded e-mails? Yes, in the sense that there is no intrinsic limitation on the number of times they can be sent to another. But no in the sense that we simply do not know what we are saying if we do not see that they point to some first. Non-living activity, contingency, generation, and even nature itself are like forwarded mail. They presuppose the one that is necessary, uncreated, supernatural, and supremely alive.

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