What kind of being has an awareness of being?

What must be true of us if we can be aware of  “is”, which we are whenever we say it of anything?

We look at the world and somehow know everything about it. The one who knows “is” and “is not” can never be surprised by anything. That’s all there is, and anything else is too. This is omniscience of some description. Omniscience is knowing all that can be known, and all that can be known either is or is not. What else is there?

There is some sort of limitation on human knowing too, but this limitation is not the easiest thing to square with a being that knows “is”. How can one know everything, but still be limited? We can accept that this is what we are, but an unqualified omniscience would make much more sense and be more what we meant. “Is” reveals something divine about a human being that cannot be adequately verified of a human being. We are, as it were, a bad example of what we mean by the most basic words in our language: “is” or “am” or (as St. Thomas would expand the notions) “good” or “true” or “one”. The words “is” or “good” (when not said of what we happen to know first) usually come with implicit asterisks, which refer to a footnote that reads “I don’t mean this so much as something else.”

The word nature first signified birth. While this root did not carry over into English, the ideas are inseparable, as “birth” is often a synonym for nature, or is used to speak  to it: “the mass of mankind was not born with saddles on their backs, nor were a favored few born booted and spurred, ready to ride them”

Political notes

-Socrates thought up a city to get a better view of what a person was.

-The Right underestimates the comfort that the Left has promised for a hundred years now. By an imperceptible drift, this comfort is now the common goal of us all. I know I seek it, and that I was raised to- and I don’t think my life is all that uncommon.

-Anyone who tries to understand justice will be overwhelmed by how immense it is. Plato builds an entire city in thought to understand it; the fifth book of the Ethics towers over the discussion of all other virtue; and St. Thomas’s treatise on justice is a colossus that takes several months to read. Justice was too big, and so we vivisected it- cutting off limbs like “right”, “duty”  “law” “obligation” and “religion/liturgy/ sacrifice”.

Wholes, parts, and “the totality of all that is”

Vox Day received the following objection:

God is either:

1. The Totality, the sum total of the All, the Infinity of Existence, the totality of Nature.


2. Something less than the Totality.

If the first, one is a pantheist (a divinity all Christians deny). If the second, then:

… is it possible for a being who is something less than the Totality of all things to be the creator of all things and have power over all things? No. It is not logically possible. A limited being cannot reach everything (by definition).

Is it possible for a being who is something less than the Totality of all things to be everywhere at once and to know all details about all things? No. It is not logically possible. A limited being cannot reach everything.

Parts of the second half of the dilemma are not worthy of the argument, like the laughable claim that if someone is less than X he cannot know X (less how? in size? Do I have to be larger than the room I am in to know what color it is painted? He acts as if God needs sensation to know!) Likewise, if “the totality of all things” is the set [creator, creature] then there is no contradiction in one member of the set being the creator (hint, it’s the first one). Likewise, if the totality of all things is [overseer, seen] then the overseer is certainly “less than the whole” as this objection envisions “whole”, but he’s still an… overseer.

There is also the metaphysics 101 problem of assuming that “the totality of all that exists” is something homogeneous, that is, a single uniform “stuff” or “account” such that all that it is said of is somehow greater than a part of what it is said of.  A pikestaff and a half hour are parts of the “sum total of all things that have length”, but pikestaffs do not impose some sort of limitation on time. The existence of meter sticks does not mean that there is therefore a finite number of hours in the universe- even though the objection above assumes that any one part of “being” imposes a limitation or a finite existence on some other part. Now it is true that in the set [pikestaff, half hour] one has two things, and any one thing is less than the two; but the word “thing” is itself just as analogous as “length”.

What we mean by the word “be” or “existence” is not most of all verified in the things we sense or imagine, even though we know these things first; just as “a difficult math problem” is not said most of all of basic arithmetic, even though these are the first sorts of math problems students find difficult. The Angels must find it kind of cute when we say we “exist”.

A better argument for anti-accommodationalism

All of the recent arguments against the compatibility of religion and science are awful. Coyne popularized the argument and Sean Carroll tried to defend it, but both arguments disappear under analysis: see Brandon or Martin Cothran.  The arguments are so bad that it’s hard to pull nuggets of truth out of them, which is regrettable. While Coyne and Carroll might not have put their finger on the scandal of revelation, revelation is a scandal to human knowledge (or at least can be) and it’s important to get this scandal right in order to avoid erring either on the side of thinking that divine and human knowledge are absolutely irreconcilable, or on the side of thinking that human knowledge can never give an impediment or scandal to revelation.

First of all, the discussion of “science” and “religion” is mired down by the terms being too broad. “Religion” presents the greatest problem- it simply does not have sufficient unity to say anything relevant to the question of accomadationalism (any boat that has liberal Massachusetts Episcopalians, Young-Earth Evangelicals,  Unitarian Universalists, and Rain-dancing shamans in it isn’t going to sail one way or another towards “science”). Let’s limit ourselves to Catholicism, which boasts a billion adherents and has a massive corporate structure that can define terms and then punish heretics for denying them. It has the added benefit of claiming that it cannot change its mind about certain things.

So let’s put the scandal of revelation right out in the open, catechism style:

Q.) Does Catholicism make testable, empirical claims about the natural world?

A.) Yes.

Q.) What are some of these claims?

A.) That all human beings are one species, and that they all share a single male ancestor.

Q.) Is it possible that some empirical science could give evidence, even to the point of establishing a scientific law, that the empirical claims of Catholicism are false?

A.) Yes. There would be no contradiction in that happening.

Q.) What would the Catholic response to such a law be?

A.) It would insist that the law was false.

Q.) Could the Catholic Church specify exactly where the flaw in the reasoning was ?

A.) No. It could only say that the conclusion was wrong. It could not give the proper reason, belonging to the science itself, for why the conclusion was wrong.

We could put the possible scandal in even more straightforward terms:

Q.) Does Catholicism make testable claims about contingent facts in the empirical world before it has tested them, and does it further insist that these claims are not subject to change in the light of new evidence?

A.) Yes.

So there you go. It’s not difficult to see these claims as being “a stumbling block to the Greeks”. How can one possibly justify such beliefs?

Note that the Catholic faith is not merely an assent to a fact- but an assent to a fact as revealed. Suppose some guy went out, read all the apologetics texts in the world, discovered  arguments for every article of the Creed, and found his arguments completely convincing. If this is all there is to it then, to put it bluntly, he’s still damned. Faith only saves when we assent to the proposition as revealed. The proposition we assent to might be reasonable too- it might even admit of strict demonstration- but our knowing a reason for it is not what saves. A proposition only saves when we hold them as proceeding from, and known in the light of the divine mind.  If one thought that an article of faith was falsifiable- even when it concerns a testable claim- he simply would not have saving faith.

To deepen the scandal, the Catholic believes that he holds to the revealed proposition in virtue of a special light of faith, which is incommunicable and non verifiable. We claim to see things others cannot! Flesh and blood has not revealed this to you…etc. I would sympathize with someone who thought faith was arrogance. I imagine this is what it might look like to someone who does not have it.

So there is a kind of Catholic anti-accomodationalism. As Catholics understand it, “religion” and “science” can make incompatible claims about empirical facts just as easily as Einstein and a 12th Century peasant can make incompatible claims about physics (funny how no one cares if you talk down to 12th century peasants). The Catholics add scandal to this by defining their empirical claims with very exact detail, and insisting that they will not change, no matter what evidence is marshaled, and that if the scientist contradicts them he must be wrong, even if they cannot say exactly how. The Catholic, in fact, denies NOMA with a vengeance: for certain empirical claims, there is one absolute and ultimate authority, with the power even to judge science- The Church.

Note on Miracles

The day after the multiplication of the loaves, a crowd approached Christ:

they said to him: Rabbi when camest thou hither? Jesus answered them and said: Amen, amen, I say to you, you seek me, not because you have seen miracles, but because you did eat of the loaves and were filled.

John 6: 25-6

For someone who defines a miracle as “an act outside the laws of nature”, or in some such way, Christ’s critique of the crowd makes no sense: they didn’t seek out Christ because they were fed in some natural way. That several thousand people ate from five loaves and were filled was the miracle, so how could someone seek him because of one and not the other?

There are many correct answers- one good one is to say that an act outside the laws of nature does not give everything that is essential to a miracle. Miracles are fundamentally kinds of manifestation, not fundamentally kinds of “law violation”.

the Holy Ghost provides sufficiently for the Church in matters profitable unto salvation, to which purpose the gratuitous graces are directed. Now just as the knowledge which a man receives from God needs to be brought to the knowledge of others through the gift of tongues and the grace of the word, so too the word uttered needs to be confirmed in order that it be rendered credible. This is done by the working of miracles, according to Mark 16:20, “And confirming the word with signs that followed”: and reasonably so. For it is natural to man to arrive at the intelligible truth through its sensible effects. Wherefore just as man led by his natural reason is able to arrive at some knowledge of God through His natural effects, so is he brought to a certain degree of supernatural knowledge of the objects of faith by certain supernatural effects which are called miracles.

ST. II-II q. 178 a. 1 co.

In this sense, where there is no theophany, there is no miracle.


Monogenism and the faith: a solution.

In the comment thread to the last post, Joseph Bolin gives a lovely distinction that harmonizes the scientific opinion on monogenism with a Christian claim to monogenism. The distinction has the added benefit of resolving the the tension by showing that it arises from assuming something unnecessary to monogenism.

Monogenism means that all persons now living share a common ancestor. As applied to Christianity, monogenism is the claim that all potential Christians (all persons on earth from the first century until now) have a single common male ancestor. To assume that this single ancestor was at some point the only person in existence is an additional and unnecessary assumption. My cousin and I are of one  family through our grandfather, which would be true whether our grandfather was the only person who existed or not; in the same way, Christian monogenism requires that all persons be cousins through some common male ancestor, regardless of whether this ancestor was the only person who existed. The present findings of genetics make it unlikely that a common male ancestor was the only person who existed, but whether he was or not has no effect on the truth of monogenism. Deciding that we all have one ancestor does not decide if this ancestor was part of a larger population or not.

The confusion over monogenism arises from a classic sophistry: mixing up the senses of a word. The prefix “mono” often indicates that there is one and only one thing to which the word is prefixed: monotheism means there is one and only one God; monotone speech is speech in one and only one tone; monochrome color schemes mean there is one and only one color; but monogenism does not mean that there is one and only one common ancestor, still less that this one ancestor was at some point the only person to exist.

As it turns out, there is good reason to believe that there is at least one common male ancestor of all human beings, even though there is no reason why we should judge that this individual was the biblical Adam-sc. that single male anscestor through whom we are all called to a good higher than nature, and through whose sin we failed to attain the economy of grace.  Notice that the “Y-Chromosome Adam” is an individual who, in addition to being a common ancestor of all human beings, has had at least one male progeny in his line in every generation that followed. The biblical Adam and the Y chromosome Adam need not be the same person- and in fact the Y-chromosome Adam was less likely to occur than the biblical Adam.

Monogenism and the faith

I become more and more convinced that the supposed conflict between the theory of of evolution and the Christian conception of creation is a sheer historical accident with no ultimate rational basis. If we tweaked one or two accidents of history, Christians might now insist (just as unreasonably) that the fixity of the species was contrary to the faith. This is not to say that there are no tensions between the Christian account of creation and contemporary science- for while evolution is a sideshow, there is a real tension about the necessity of the doctrine of monogenism, or the descent of all human beings from a single set of ancestors. The following seems clear: in our present theories of genetics, all human beings could not have arisen from a single set of parents, if these parents were genetically identical to us. If one argues that monogenism is essential to the faith, he must either claim that the the present theory of genetics is wrong or that the first set of parents were not genetically identical to us. The faith, however, does not tell us which claim we should make, and there is not even an iron-clad case for monogenism being essential. Pius XII’s statement about monogenism, to my mind, is a masterpiece that was meant to shut down the question until it could be dealt with by cooler heads.

The question of monogenism centers around the transmission of original sin, if “transmission” is indeed the right word for it. Original sin is not a birth defect, as though there were some Adamite feature of DNA that appeared after he sinned and has been passed on ever since. St. Thomas gies the obvious refutation to this idea of original sin: if it were simply birth defect, it wouldn’t be a principle of merit or the lack of merit. The necessity of monogenism, therefore, cannot reduce to the need to have a genetic or physical propagation of original sin in the mode of a birth defect. Original sin seems to be just that Adam didn’t provide us with something that allows us to attain a good beyond nature, combined with the reality that God actually called human beings to a good beyond nature. Since we are called to good beyond nature, it is a sin for us not to seek it, but, thanks to Adam, we didn’t get the tools we needed to attain the goal.

The necessity of monogenism, therefore, seems to arise from God calling only Adam and his descendants to a good beyond nature. Those who did not descend from Adam are thus not called, and cannot properly be said to have original sin. There are some difficulties with this point. Why not say God simply calls all nations, and that none were redeemed through Adam? Were all nations condemned because they are descendants of Adam, or simply because he did not redeem them, regardless of whether they are his genetic descendants? On either account it is true that Adam is the principle of condemnation for all nations, that “in Adam all die” and “through the transgression of one man, death entered the world”, but it is only if all nations are called because they are the genetic descendants of Adam that monogenism becomes necessary. Again, even to make a covenant with a man and all of his descendants does not mean that others are not somehow called: there are famous cases of those who are not Abraham’s descendants being called to convert to Judaism, and so the call of Abraham came to them even though they were not of his line. Some were even the ancestors of Christ. These points are only difficulties- they are set down here as open to refutation.

Naturalism and the defintion of nature

Contemporary naturalism is the doctrine which insists that nature is whatever is not supernatural, and/ or whatever natural science tells us it is. This is rather like insisting that a man is whoever is not superman, and/or whatever the science of man tells us a man is. This sort of definition would be fine if nature could not be understood in terms of more well known or basic concepts, but a few years’ reflection on Arisotle’s definition of nature shows that isn’t so:

Principle and cause of motion and of rest

in that of which it is [or “interior”],


as such,

and not per accidens.

The bold face is the genus, the rest is the specific differnce, with the terms progressing from more general to more specific. Each of the terms is broader, more well known, and easier to understand than “nature”. It took me a few years reflection to see that that’s what I meant when I used the word “nature”, and I suspect that this is simply how long it takes.

Distinction, finitude, and divine things

In the third argument against the infinity of God, St. Thomas objects:

What is here in such a way as not to be elsewhere, is finite according to place. Therefore that which is a thing in such a way as not to be another thing, is finite according to substance. But God is this, and not another; for He is not a stone or wood. Therefore God is not infinite in substance.

St. Thomas responds saying:

The fact that the being of God is self-subsisting, not received in any other, and is thus called infinite, shows Him to be distinguished from all other beings, and all others to be apart from Him. Even so, were there such a thing as a self-subsisting whiteness, the very fact that it did not exist in anything else, would make it distinct from every other whiteness existing in a subject.

Summa theologiae, I q. 7 a. 1

What exactly does the response respond to? It seems that the objection rests on the claim that “if something is distinct, it is by that fact finite”, but St. Thomas claims this is false since the distinction of God from things follows from his infinity.

The crucial note in the proof is that it argues by analogy: because two things distinct in place must be finite, so two things distinct in substance must be finite. Without the analogy, one is left starting off with the consequence “if the natures (substances) of two things are distinct, both are finite”, which no one would accept, since the obvious response is that the nature or substance of something infinite is distinct from a finite thing. The analogy to bodies therefore does all the work in making the objection seem probable- and it works by tricking the reader into imagining all things as existing in place. This trick about the divine infinity is part of a larger set of tricks we are prey to when we consider divine things: as soon as we think of the distinction between God and creatures, soul and body, natural and divine operation, etc as the distinction between something here and another thing there, we have already made one of the deadly sins of theology, that is, and error that will give rise to an indefinite amount of other errors.

The important truth in the objection is that spacio- temporal existence, or whatever is in place (or “space” as we moderns call it), is, by that very fact, finite and limited. Any claim to a veritable infinite requires existence separate from the spacio-temporal world of change and corruptibility (and vice versa), as St. Thomas will show over the next three articles in the question.

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