The absence of metaphysical distinctions.

One can place various statements next to each other to show that “is” or “exists” or “being” cannot mean only one thing, but this needs to be balanced against a previous idea of the unity of the “is”. There is no question that there is some sort of unity to the “is”, that is, an absence of distinction.

Parmenides gave the simplest account of the unity of the is: all being is one, undifferentiated, immobile, unchangeable, etc. This follows somehow from the first principle of our thought: the principle of contradiction. This principle is our knowledge of the absolute exclusion of the is and the is not; and is thus some absolute grasp of an “is”. The principle articulates an absolute which sounds the death knell of any sort of absolute mysterianism- the absolute character of the “is”  makes it impossible that there could ever be a mode of existence so lofty or so faint that it is not somehow revealed by the principle of contradiction. But doesn’t this absolute intellectualism reveal some unity in being? Isn’t there an awareness that all lies open to mind? Given that mind is one, how can this lying open to mind not be one?

Again, being as lying-open-to-mind is called “true”. St. Thomas insists that being and true are divided only in ratio. Ratio in this case is opposed to “real”- being differs from true like six differs from a half-dozen. So isn’t the unity of things in mind really the same as being in things? Why is the following consequence not valid: I am one, thus all being is one?

But the consequence is valid! But- and this qualification is crucial- it is valid only in the way that being follows from myself. Now being does not flow from me as a condition, but rather in the order of verification. My mind can testify to the unity of being- and can testify to it infallibly- but it is not responsible for it. The reality or causal responsibility for the truth of my testimony follows from a mind other than my own.

“I am one, thus all being is one” is true in different ways for different “I’s”, but with an order among them. One causes, others testify.

Metaphysical or ontological distinctions

If you’re going to do metaphysics, or explain the difference between a metaphysical account and, say, an empirical or scientific one, it helps to know the sorts of things that metaphysicians do. A large part of this is drawing metaphysical or ontological distinctions. So what are these?

Metaphysics studies being, and being is first known to us (in a way we can work with it) through the use of the word “is” or “exists”. We aren’t studying the word, of course, as though metaphysics were grammar, but we look at different uses of the word to see the different way things are. The things revealed by the word are frequently quite different, and these differences show us differences in being. To use some old stand-by’s:

1.) What is, exists now

Homer is a poet.

Homer exists now as a poet.

2.) Grass is green

Green is an EM wave

Grass is an EM wave.

3.) John Brown is no more

The statue of John Brown is no more.

But the first statement means that he died, therefore we mean that the statue of John Brown died.

4.) John is a man

man is a species said of many

John is a species said of many

5.) If something can burn paper, it is at least 451 degrees F.

This gasoline can burn paper.

Therefore this gasoline is at least 451 degrees F.

These arguments show the absurdity that follows from thinking that “is”means one thing. All of them force some distinction in the word “is”, and thus manifest an ontological or metaphysical distinction. The first is the ontological distinction between the per se and the per accidens: when one uses “is” in the first sense, he means it as such, when it indicates existence; when in the second sense, it prescinds from this meaning. The second is the ontological distinction of substance and accident. If what is as an accident were substantial, definitions of predicates could always be said of subjects, but they can’t be. The third ontological distinction is between the living and the non-living. In things that are alive, to be is to be alive. There are also some other ontological distinctions that follow the different modes of immanence, but leave those aside for the moment. Suffice to say that “is” doesn’t mean the same thing when we say John is or Fido is or God is. The fourth is between the being of the mind and the being of things (and no, putting quotation marks around man in the second statement doesn’t change anything)

The last contains the idea of “is” within “can”. The first “can” is a can that is, the second can is a can that is not. By the second, we don’t mean that it is in no way, only that it does not exist in the same way as the first sense does. This is the ontological distinction between potency and act.

Notes on Thomism and ID

– One straightforward difference between the fifth way and ID is that the fifth way, by definition, rules out naturalism whereas ID does not. All ID proponents admit that the cause they seek to prove might be a natural cause; but- and this doesn’t really need to be said- the cause St. Thomas seeks to prove cannot be a natural cause. This is one of those differences that it is easier to admit than to see the significance of. These notes are an attempt to flesh out the significance of this difference.

-ID proponents that try to appropriate St. Thomas would be better off focusing on the more natural arguments he gives for intelligent causes, say Summa contra Gentiles III 23, which considers whether the causes of generation are moved by an intelligent principle (St. Thomas answers yes, and then explicitly says that we cannot know whether this intelligence is God or something else) St. Thomas thought that celestial objects were the causes of generation- an opinion that still has some truth to it, though it is not clear how we would synthesize the proof with our more refined observations. (His commentaries on De Caelo et Mundo and De Generatione et Corruptione would also be good sources.)

-ID is anticipating the moment when empirical science will actually find and need to posit an equivocal cause. Equivocal causes transcend their effects, and exist in a higher mode of existence. St. Thomas posited all sorts of natural equivocal causes- indeed, for him the earth was the aberrant exception where there was mere univocal causality of one animal making another animal, etc. Most of the universe was incorruptible nature that exercised a more eminent mode of natural causality. Perhaps out of his Mercy, God has not allowed us to find equivocal causes yet, since as soon as we find a real universal cause in nature we will spend the next two hundred years claiming that it explains away the need for God. Groan. For example, evolution (that is, the constellation of causes that gives rise to diversity of populations over time due to selection and drift) is not a true equivocal cause, but it is close enough to one to make people chatter forever about how it does away with the need for creation. Again, the Higgs-Boson (or whatever it was) was most likely a real equivocal cause of things- and people spontaneously called it “the God particle”.

-Our present empirical science is allergic to real heterogeneity of nature, and not without good reason. Heterogeneity is diversity (or, as we say, “dualism”), and in some sense the absence of simplicity, and so we can only be forced into it at gunpoint. ID is, whether they know it or not, arguing for a real heterogeneity and diversity of orders in nature: the intelligent and non-intelligent; or at least the universal/ equivocal and the particular. It is looking or a new kind of natural cause. I think such causes are there to find, and that scientists will probably find them eventually, but I’m not exactly looking forward to the moment that they do. Again, it will just lead to another few centuries of that “intellectually fulfilled atheist” stuff; perhaps another round of whatever the physics equivalent of social Darwinism is, etc.

-For St. Thomas, once one uses natural observations to show there are supernatural beings, the science of nature terminates. Such proofs are not simply speaking in one science: asking what science theistic proofs are in is like asking what country the border of France and Germany is in. The same is true for the proofs that the soul is immortal. If ID wants to find a godlike thing by natural science- natural science full stop with no qualifications- it’s going to find an equivocal natural cause. Irony of ironies, it’s more in keeping with Dawkins’s religious agenda to promote something  like ID. I’m not saying that natural truth can ever be opposed to supernatural truth, but only that, in actual fact, the finding of equivocal natural causes would b a real boon for atheists and naturalists, given our present intellectual climate.

-What is mechanism? Homogeneity. We treat all objects as though they were instruments, and we ignore principal agents, or take them for granted. “Why gas explodes” marks the moment where the engineer and the mechanic stop understanding the car.

God and physical light

After hearing a professor explain St. Thomas’s claim that every statement of the Creed must be taken in the literal sense, I asked abut the statement that Jesus is “light from light”. The straightforward answer is that “light” is used in a second imposition. “Light” when it is taken in its first imposition as the physical stuff made up of EM waves is said of God only metaphorically. That said, there are some subtleties involved here, especially in light of the transfiguration, Paul’s vision of Christ on the road to Damascus, and the manifestation of Christ to John on Patmos. In all these cases, Christ manifests his divine glory, and in all these cases, there is a vast effusion of light in the physical, EM wave sense. Calling God a “shield” or a “sword” or a “lion” is a metaphor plain and simple- we never have to deal with Christ appearing and looking like a sword or an animal. But the light of the transfiguration does not seem to be a symbol (like the lamb slain in heaven) it seems to be simply what God emits when present in his glory.

Light in the physical sense is first known as the principle of vision, and thus of the principle of knowledge par excellence, since some sort of EM wave seems to be the only way that sensation could have access to information from the whole universe. If we had no sight, it wold have taken us forever to know that stars exist- if we ever could have known- and what knowledge we have of them would seem extremely arcane and abstract (presumably, we would have to come to know the sun first through some reference to feeling heat- but this wold have taken forever, and would be a highly speculative endeavor at that.  Just think of all the theories we would have devised to explain why it was warmer during daytime!) Again, without vision, or access to the information o some electrical or magnetic wave, all our information would be very localized. Our next most distant sense- hearing- is immeasurably more localized than sight. Even if we developed the most perfect hearing possible, it is doubtful that we would be able to have access to information that was more than a few minutes run away. Perhaps the light emitted by the glorified body is tied to this sort of universal manifestation. But this does not seem right. Light is only manifestative by an exterior imposition.

How is revelation given to many?

Assume there is no dispute over the one from whom divine revelation comes. Presumably, calling it divine revelation is enough to settle the issue. But to whom is it given? The question seems trivial, but it is of critical importance.

Revelation is given to more than one person. It is therefore given to many (“many” as opposed to “one”, not as opposed to “few” or to “all”). The controversy starts here: is it given to the many as many, or to the many as one? This is one of the issues at the heart of the Protestant/ Catholic divide (or what is left of it, anyway.)

Notice that if the revelation is given to the many as one, the following critiques become quite correct: “of course he is distorting the Christian truth; he is not speaking within the community”; or “you were led astray because you wanted to have a personal relationship with Jesus, where personal is opposed to communal (not as opposed to impersonal or dispassionate or experiential)” or again “these are good ideas, but you really need to check them against the beliefs of the community”. On the other hand, if revelation is given to the many as man, the following critiques become correct: “you have set some believers over others, as if revelation was given to some men through others” or “you look for truth in public dogmas, when in fact truth is given in personal experience”.

If revelation is given to the many as many, believers are homogeneous and equal. If it is given to the many as one, this unity can only consist in a unity of order (revelation clearly does not make one substance) this requires different roles for individuals within the very context of the revelation. This difference is crucial. If given to the many as many, revelation is prior to any community we might establish, and can exist without it. The public exercise of the community (what came to be called liturgy) is separable from the revelation. If revelation is given to the many as one, then all revelation is essentially liturgical.

All this makes a difference in the consciousness with which we read Scripture. We can all, of course, still read it at home by ourselves, but if revelation is given to the many as one, then we read it as one would read a Missal or Sacramentary. The words are spoken within the community, and our personal experience of the words is as parts of a larger whole. If revelation is given to the many as many, our personal relation is a sort of whole and complete thing.

Note on the “two books”

The first few hundred times I heard the image of the “two books” of creation (the book of nature and the book of revelation), I thought it was a pleasant description of how one can read truth in nature and the Bible- but all this does is rewrite the metaphor by replacing “books” with “reading”. A more subtle reading of the metaphor might see it as speaking to the contents of the books themselves. In the book of revelation, God himself enters as a character and writes himself into the story. In the book of nature he does not. The book of nature reveals something of God, to be sure, but in the manner of “characters in search of their author” as McInerny put it. For the author to write himself in (the Incarnation) or for him to interrupt the narrative with facts about his own interior life (the Trinity) makes for a completely different sort of story (a story that changes as startlingly as if Shakespeare interrupted Julius Caesar to give an account of life in Stratford- upon- Avon).

The metaphor about the two books, therefore, manifests a truth about the importance of secondary causes. God’s not being a character in the book of nature is precisely what allows for his greater presence in the book. Presence within nature in this way connotes deficiency in nature and the a limitation in divine power, since he becomes a character that we write into the beginning to get things started, or whenever we can’t explain how the plot developed the way it did. Paradoxically, by not being present at all, God becomes present all the way through, the way Shakespeare is present in his plays. But the entrance of God into the mutable and changeable world is always revelation. It is a peeling back of  the very “narrative” of nature.  I’m tempted to cal it an intrusion into nature; not in the sense that it is unwelcome, but in the sense that it is so startlingly different. The image of two books captures this difference well. We are not talking about different chapters in one book, but a whole different light of knowing.

The relation from intellect to the real is in the volitional order

I went to a bookstore trying to find Rousselot, but I ended up reading Van Riet’s two-volume work on 19th and 20th century Thomist epistemology. A summary: it’s two volumes of Thomists giving answers to (what became the) Cartesian problem of certitude (i.e. how do we avoid being external world skeptics/ idealists; how do we know what we know is real, etc.) Perhaps because I went there to look for Rousselot, I was struck suddenly by this: the question of whether the mind relates to the external world is simply the question of whether man relates to the external world. But for St. Thomas, the relation from man to the real, as real, falls under the order of the will, not the intellect. By intellect, things are properly in the knower; it is by will that the man (and thus the man knowing) relates to the reality of things. This is why there are only two immanent acts in a human being. If intellect sufficed to determine the relation of man to the real as such, will would not be necessary.

If this is right, it explains the maddening quality of the idealist/ realist debate. The whole debate amounts to an attempt to pound in a nail with the claw end of the hammer. We are seeking to solve things that fall under the volitional order with non-volitional tools.

Augustine and the rhetoric vs. religion debate- UPDATED

Augustine once had many reasons for rejecting Christianity, but one of the most fruitful ones to examine was his rejection of Scripture since it was not written in the high style of classical Roman rhetoric. There are two responses to this:

1.) The objection is objectively silly. It is not even correct to say that Scripture lacks a high style, since this would imply that a high style was appropriate to it. The directions on the side of a cake box do not lack a high style, as if the judgment that they fail to have it would ever be appropriate. Some discourse no more lacks high style than women lack tree bark. Perhaps Scripture is more interested in telling us how to do something; or perhaps it sees itself as being addressed to all persons, even rubes and children. More to the point, the objection is clearly culturally parochial. Rhetoric was the means by which one achieved strength and status in Roman society. This does not make high style the measure of any mode of discourse. In fact, given our contemporary disposition to go cluck-clucking at any attempt to universalize the goods of ones culture to all cultures, we might be tempted to see this objection as chauvinist.

2.) The objection is reasonable. High style is not some secret code that snobs use to communicate to each other: it is a real perfection of human speech, and is still recognized as such. Isn’t it reasonable to assume that if God spoke language that he would speak it at least as perfectly as a human being? When Muslims argue for the divinity of the Koran because its style is so sublime, or the Greeks argued for the divinity of the Iliad for the same reason, they certainly have a point.

Augustine’s solution to his dilemma is brilliant:  Scripture evidences no high style, but it attains the goal of high style more perfectly than the style itself. Augustine famously learned from Ambrose that Scripture speaks in allegories, but  Scripture is not an allegory the way Narnia is an allegory: it is an allegory because history itself is a discourse standing for another. The basic argument of (2) above is correct: God should speak in a way that is more perfect than human speech: he does so by making the things themselves signs for things to come. While man’s eloquence might persuade another to act, and might make things happen by disposing persons to do them; God’s eloquence is the very action of history. But this is not to deny the force of (1).  The force of Augustine’s objection was not really from the element of truth in it (which in itself would not be enough to make anyone except classically trained Roman rhetoricians avoid the faith) but more the cultural opinion that happened to afford a great deal of value to style. This “outsider perspective” that we bring to Augustine’s problem is valuable.

Note, in what turned out to be a perfect self-refutation of his earlier position, that Augustine turned out to be one of the greatest masters of high style only after his speech became suffused with the Scripture itself. Much of Augustine’s writing is simply a mosaic of Scriptural quotations. What he once rejected for vulgarity in the end became the principle of the greatest and most refined voice in the pantheon.

Our culture, of course, does not value skill at rhetoric but skill at science. The dilemma and resolution are the same in form. On the one hand, it’s important to keep an outsider perspective on the things we deem as invaluable or as the sine qua non of refinement and learning, as though when God does not show us the sort of learning that we find valuable that we can conclude that this learning is lacking from Scripture. At the same time, so far as there is an element of truth in our opinion, Scripture will satisfy it more perfectly than our human arts, even if, when measured by these human arts, it delivers nothing.

A theme for a sci-fi story that I’ll never write

The original miniseries “V” was released when I was about eight. At the time, Aliens terrified me (not that I knew any- I just found such characters extremely unnerving) and so while I listened to others in my third grade class speak of the show (with fear), I would not even be in the house if it was on.

I matured. “V” got remade last year, and I’ve been watching it- half for the thrill of remembering old fears, and half as an excuse to watch TV. The show is dull, and a continual tease that never delivers. These are not deal breaker problems, but one plot device  in the show comes close to being one. I don’t read much sci-fi, but I’ve still seen the plot device many times: aliens are rational, men are emotional. The awful V’s are reptilian, non-emotive creatures that calculate their way through life; and the V’s that turn against the nefarious plots of their fellows are all reptiles who have developed an emotional life.

I don’t find the plot irksome because I’m a cheerleader for reasoning and suspicious of emotions. I find it irksome because the sense in which reason is divided from emotion does not give rise to two things which can either have the character of an absolute. Each is appropriate to diverse situations and in diverse degrees, and are thus situation- relative. I wish I could write my own science-fiction story as an illustration of this. The story has no doubt already been written, but here’s my pitch…

… A group of humans explores a planet where the native population of humanoids is extremely technologically advanced, but hyper-emotional and unstable. Think Italians with the emotional instability of six year olds and the pathos of Russians. Spilt milk raises four minutes of howls and laments and existential crises, which are quickly forgotten and the technological work resumes. Something like:

(milk spill)

-(silent stares, horror, the first sobs and hyperventilating leading to screams) HOW CAN THIS HAPPEN!!! HOW COULD YOU DO THIS. JUST LOOK AT IT! SPILLING EVERYWHERE!

-look at it! we will never be able to save it! NEVER! (sobs start again with new intensity)

-just look at the shape of the spill! so formless, so empty! How could God let such a thing exist! What if everything is a spill?

(Enter the human visitors. One tries to calm everyone down by saying “Okay guys, we can just wipe this up”)

-Wipe it up? WIPE IT UP? And try to pretend we never saw anything?

-Yeah, Is that your earthling response to everything- just to ignore the truth of things in front you?

-Maybe you can wipe it off the floor, but who can wipe it from our minds? Is that all it takes with you heartless humans? No wonder you all kill each other, fight endless wars, and have never developed as much technology as we have! You don’t care about anything!!! (Aliens hug each other, looking with a sense of betrayed innocence at the humans. Sobs continue.)

Biology in the sub-basement

Waterwheels are ways of taking part in the action of a river, and cars of taking part in the action of explosions. Natural motions can be fed though conduits, and it is the feeding of a natural motion through a conduit that sets a machine apart from a mere tool, even a quite complex tool. A Greek crane run by oxen or slaves (living beings as opposed to sheerly natural powers) does not quite rise to the level of being machine.

Machines have always suggested the possibility that life, sensation, consciousness and intelligence could be explained as simply ways of taking part in a natural motion. A Greek crane never suggested the possibility of explaining life; but a mechanical clock, motor, and computer all have. There is certainly a simplifying desire in this, but it is more the case that there is a sense that this is all life or knowledge could be. Take a living, knowing thing and eliminate all the purely natural actions and forces. What’s left? Isn’t there simply nothing?

The answer is yes, but the conclusion does not follow. Take away nature and there is no life, just as if you take away all objects of knowledge there is no knowledge; but it doesn’t follow that knowledge is simply the multitude of things one might take away. Knowing is these things, but also something more- sc. the unity among them in a single  experience. A living being is also one thing. The knower transcends his objects; the living being transcends his body, in the sense that the life of a single individual is present in any part, though not always in an absolutely homogeneous way. There is some way in which the presence is more intimate in the brain and the heart than in the pinkie toe; and more in this than in, say, a random carbon atom in my forearm (still, the unity of the whole is not absent from even that part. That atom in my forearm is still mine. If it ever became a very valuable thing, it would be a theft to remove it from me)

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