8 / 30 / 10

You can analyze everything into its smallest pieces, and understand them so intimately as to explain everything about the motions and activities of the thing they make, but if you want this swarm to be a cat or a tree you need substantial forms – souls – and all that comes with them (similar considerations apply to the analysis of a being though time, say, in its descent from a common ancestor). It takes some elaborate principles which are offensive to imagination and  incapable of quantification and manipulation to preserve the being of the beings around us. One does not need to keep forms or souls in  mind – you can do a great deal without knowing anything about them – but to deny them altogether either explicitly or by implication will immediately dissolve the very thing we are supposed to explain.

On a fruitful opposition between Christianity and science

About a month ago, John C. Wright had a debate about the opposition between Christianity and science. One piece of evidence brought up (against John) to show an opposition was the claim that “Pope Gregory’s opposed the railroad”. One response to the claim was that it was a lie. But assume the claim is true. I’ll be blunt: good for Gregory, moreover, this is an opposition between science and Christianity, and we’d be better off if there were more of it.

First, my suspicion is that Gregory knew he was fighting a lost cause, or at least a rearguard action. This is important, since I don’t think the fight was about whether there would be railroads or not, but about what sort of witness or signpost would be left at that moment in time when railroads overran the world. The glory of the railroads is obvious and easy to celebrate, but Gregory’s protest is a powerful and necessary antistrophe which, if ignored, distorts our understanding of the march of science and technology- that is, what we now call “progress”. To make this critique requires being outside of the values of what now gets called science.

Notice that this isn’t exactly a debate between Christianity and science. Railroads are not “science”, nor were they developed by scientists, but by inventors and industrialists. A list of great scientists won’t mention Thomas Newcomen and James Watt, to say nothing of J.P Morgan or Cornelius Vanderbilt. Science and invention are two different kinds of genius, and those skilled at one are rarely skilled at the other (Edison stands out) Nevertheless, we identify the scientist and the machinist since both see the success of their enterprise as increasing our power over nature. Thus, the two share a common goal. For other reasons, the advance of one is a boon for the other. For example, the railroads did a great deal to advance scientific consciousness. It was railroads that put everyone on a single man-made clock, and stole a job that had belonged to the sun for thousands of years and handed it over to a machine. We no longer see time so much as any natural change or motion, but as the position of the hands on a machine – which is exactly how the scientist wants us to see it. Distances were no longer understood in terms of motions over them performed by men or animals, but by machines. Our consciousness of space and time became mediated by a single machine. The concrete details of human life became exactly what scientists had been saying they were in fact for many years – the working of a machine. We therefore started thinking of immense stretches of land as a single unit incorporated into a mechanical  circulatory system. A vast mechanical/ electrical nervous system sprung up alongside this – first a telegraph, eventually the television camera

In other words, we were building a Leviathan-machine. The benefits of the system are well-known and need not be mentioned here. For the same reason, the benefits that those in ages before us could not enjoy are also clear. But it is still an open question how someone who lived in the past would react if they saw how we live now. Even after we told them that they could be clean, well fed, and live for thirty years more, they still might recoil in terror from our life or at least be very conflicted about accepting it. They would find it horrifying and hilarious that a man could sit in a room thousands of miles away, looking at nothing but a camera lens, and convince people that he could understand their situation do something about it. What could he possibly know about my situation? It’s hard enough to come up with a plan that can help ten different people in the same room- which would be clear enough to anyone who has tried to organize people he actually knows. Yet the Leviathan promises to help people it’s never known and never met. The discipline and co-ordination that is required to run a railroad gives ideas to others, like salesmen and politicians. If we can be all drilled into shape well enough to co-ordinate an interstate and international train schedule, why not drill the same discipline, except to do different things, say, things to the benefit of the salesmen and politicians?

But wait, this last part isn’t what I meant to say. That was a critique of how the Leviathan- machine could be abused. In fact, there is a downside to the Leviathan-machine itself. Human beings can’t have human political or social relations with more than a few thousand people over a few dozen miles – I’m reminded of Aristotle’s striking  claim  (to us) in the Ethics that it is obviously impossible for a city to have 100,000 people. But the Leviathan gives powerful incentives for a human being to live within the machine- city: we get our news from national sources, we see politics as primarily national if not international, we entertain ourselves with shows that are watched by million and billions, we admire celebrities that are celebrities to billions, etc. All of this places us in a context where we are no longer having human relations with others. We live within a world consciousness where we cannot do anything but see. There is no smells, physical contact, need to express oneself, etc. There is no interaction. If not for television, we would all be speaking to our neighbors and acting within our communities: not because of any great civic virtue or love of neighbor, but simply because it would be the only way to keep from going insane.

In other words, we have entered into the nervous system that sprung up alongside the railroad. Our consciousness is conditioned and determined by life within a vast machine that we have lived in since birth. We are more well fed, healthy, and prosperous than any group of persons who has ever lived, but to think that we didn’t lose something very precious and worth remembering as a trade-off is just silly. If nothing else, we didn’t evolve to live life this way. Gregory saw this and let himself be crushed and mocked by the march of history. I say good for him. He gave a testimony to something that was worth remembering, and it was quite fitting for a Christian to give such testimony. Christianity is based on the love of neighbor – that is, a love of the ones who happen to be around you, and with whom we evolved to have human interactions.

Ignorance as opposed to wonder

I’m intrigued by the argument that just as there is no “God in the gaps” there’s no “naturalism in the gaps” either. I’m not sure if it’s true outside of some particular contexts, but it seems right that my not knowing the cause of X doesn’t allow me to say “God did it” any more than it allows me to say “it could only have a natural cause” (notice that the opposition is not “God did it” or “nature did it”. Naturalism requires more, sc. that natural causes are the only possible causes.)

But at any rate people who give the sorts of arguments that get called “God in the gaps” (this is a perfect example of one that would be open to the charge) have never meant that God must exist simply because some cause was utterly obscure or unknown. No one says “I don’t know how to jibe relativity with quantum theory, there must be a God” or “Science can’t explain what “time” means in a black hole. There must be a God.” It’s not our ignorance of nature but our marveling at it that gives rise to the thought that God must be. Marvel or wonder is a sort of ignorance, and we often articulate the experience of wonder in expressions that look like expressions of pure ignorance, viz. “science can’t explain how P”, but ignorance isn’t the only feature of the experience, and its certainly not the most important feature of the experience.

The experience of marveling or wondering is the sort of experience that is clearest and most vivid in the experience of a miracle. Even if one does not believe in miracles, it is obscurantist and irrational to insist that there is no imaginable experience, which if it occurred would have to be seen by all as miraculous. Keith Parsons (the irony of his last name always makes me chuckle) said he would convert if all the stars in the sky arranged themselves to say “Turn or burn. That means you, Parsons”. Parsons didn’t have any strict criteria here- it’s not clear by looking at his example exactly where one should place the dividing line between what is obviously miraculous and what is not- but he still sees that there is a line. In other words, everyone is open to the possibility that they might have a miraculous experience, the question is simply what would count as one.

What gets called “a God in the gaps” argument is really a kind of wonder and marveling. So far as wonder or marveling is in the one who is wondering, it’s altogether possible that what is wonderful or miraculous for one person is not for another. Scripture frequently points out that things that are obviously miraculous to some are rejected by others (Some hear a voice from heaven, others hear thunder; some hear the same speech in many different languages, others mock it as the raving of drunks, etc.) There is no reason why the same experience can’t have a natural counterpart.

Everyone experiences wonder or marveling, but contemporary people have conditioned a certain response to this, namely that we must strive to place the phenomena in certain kinds of categories that allow for the eventual manipulation and control over it. Our marveling is thus more like a manifestation of our own divinity – it is seen as an opportunity for us to dominate the thing we are experiencing. When we see all that stem cells can do, we don’t marvel at nature, but see it as advantageous to us. Whatever one says about this, it is at least clear that this is a different sort of consciousness than the one that allows for us to see miracles.

8 / 27 / 10

So far as we understand nature as conformed to our art, the truths we find have an essential relation to our intellect. These are the facts about nature, all verifiable and as repeatable as things on an assembly line. All other truths about nature have only an accidental relation to our intellect, and so we can’t “touch them” so as to move them around and make them do our bidding. They aren’t the repeatable facts that, if doubted, we can simply make for the one who might doubt. We can look but not touch.

Truth is conformity to intellect, but nature is not first conformed to our intellect. Our intellect is accidental to the orientation nature has to the divine mind. We’re something like mice in an elegant hotel: we are sheltered by the place just as much as the patrons, but there are constant reminders that the place we are living is not made principally to our intellect.

For the self-evidence of the impossibility of infinite causal regress

Richard Hennessey follows a critique of the First Way given by Paul Edwards. Both note that St. Thomas says

But [a series of moved movers] cannot go on to infinity, because then there would be no first mover, and, consequently, no other mover

They then draw a representative line of causes:


Edwards then objects:

This argument fails to do justice to the supporter of the infinite series of causes. Aquinas has failed to distinguish between the two statements:

(1) A did not exist, and
(2) A is not uncaused.

In other words, there’s no necessity for A to be a first cause in order to do its work – any second cause will work just fine. As Hennessey says more than once, he’s not denying that there is some A, only its “first causiness”.To put his argument another way, he is claiming that STA gives us two options: either A is the first cause, or there is no A. But this is an obvious false dichotomy, there could be an A that is a second cause.

Notice it makes no difference to the Hennessey’s argument whether one says that the causes in question are per se or per accidens, simultaneous or successive, etc. and so he’s right to object that those who divide different sorts of causes aren’t touching on his objection. He’s simply noting a false dichotomy in STA that is grounded in the saint’s failure to distinguish A being a first cause from A being at all.

Hennessey sets the bar pretty high for those who would disagree with him, since he says that St. Thomas’s premise is simply “not evident”. His post suggests a stronger disapproval, sc. that the premise is wrong – but at any rate I’ll argue against his stronger claim and say that the impossibility of infinite regress is evident.

There are two sorts of causes:

1.) Causes that are not effects.

2.) Causes that are effects.

Notice there is no difference between saying “a causal chain is infinite” and “all causes in the chain are 2’s”. The two statements express the same reality. The whole question of an infinite series, therefore, is whether all causes can be 2’s.

If all causes are 2’s, then causal power is always derived from another.  In concrete terms, this means that any time we find a cause, we will have to say “Ah, this thing has the feature of being a cause, but we know it got that feature from some other being”. The only reason we don’t see this is an absurd claim is because our notion of cause is cloudy and abstract. Consider if we actually gave this sort of explanation for a more concrete feature of things, say, the stability of the earth. The earth clearly has a stability that is there to be explained: we can build houses on it; we pour foundations into it; we leave landmarks and permanent statues in it, etc. Now everyone agrees that it is impossible to explain this stability by saying that the earth rests on a giant tortoise. Why so? Can’t a giant tortoise have the requisite stability to explain why the earth doesn’t move? Yes, but any stability tortoises have would have to come from another – it’s not as if they have stability in the way that triangles have three sides or men are risible. But there would be nothing wrong with the “tortoise hypothesis of stability” if infinite causal regresses could really explain the features of things.

Infinite causal regresses, in other words, are manifestly and evidently ridiculous things – it is only because causality is a fainter, less concrete notion to us that we don’t see this immediately, and even without having to think about it. In any concrete instance of explaining things, we can see right away that infinite causal regresses can neither explain or be the source of the being of anything. All of them are tortoises invoked to explain the stability of the earth, or little men behind our eyeballs invoked to explain consciousness.

The upshot is that explaining anything, from heat to stability to consciousness, requires the reduction to some first cause. We know this naturally and don’t  suggest otherwise unless we are confused about what we are  saying. In this sense, the finite causal regress of any feature of things – causes included – is known spontaneously by everybody and is therefore per se nota, or self- evident in the strongest sense of the term.

Forgetfulness of destiny

Again, we have a word “happiness”, but we think it is more or less the sort of thing that one can measure by phone surveys. No amount of invoking “flourishing” can change this. There is a similar forgetfulness about the concept of destiny. Philosophers seem to be embarrassed by the idea. Destiny is not a hard reality to us, like bricks or our rights or intrinsically interesting lives of celebrities or baseball. It is more a fuzzy, harmless reality, like a faded inspirational poster in a high school  counselor’s office or the name of a yacht. Who would ask questions about his destiny? How quaint!

My suspicion is that secular people like ourselves have no place for destiny. So far as we are secular and naturalist, there is only this life and oblivion – the first can’t be the destiny of this life, the second is worth forgetting.


Substitutes for things

There is no name for the error that we commit when, say, while we are considering universals, we think that we can let the true, sensual world recede from consciousness and be replaced by a sort of “idea blackboard” on which we can let various ghosts fight with each other or be placed in various labeled bins. Generally, we can let the actual world recede from consciousness and consider the substitutes for the world (words, symbols) in a way that involves a forgetfulness of what they substitute for. This is always a danger since we cannot think without some substitute world (words and symbols are not the things themselves, nor are they equal to them). The danger of our thought is always this substitution that it must make for the things themselves; the virtue of our thought is in whatever the virtue of substitution is.

8 / 21 /10

Empiricism is supposed to be the doctrine that all knowledge arises from (and for some is limited to) sense experience, but it’s striking how many people can be called empiricists who don’t admit anything like a normal sense experience. Normal sense experience encounters objects that are rough and scratchy, multicolored, bland or sugary with too much cumin, etc. There are colors that clash or go well together, smells that give rise to seemingly random intense memories, taste experiences that we will go miles out of our way to have, etc. But a good deal of empiricism (say, that of Locke or the doubters of “qualia”) doesn’t admit the reality of any of these experiences. All that’s there to sense is a coloring-book outline of the world, which we, the disembodied observer, view from an observation deck behind six inches of plate glass. Carry this sort of empiricism far enough, even the coloring-book shapes will fade into an equation. Such empiricism has the odd effect of insisting on the primacy of sense and yet cutting us off from anything sensuous. Perhaps only poets are real empiricists, or at least only those who don’t try to replace the sensual world with a substitute.

God’s non-historical histories

Christ instructed his followers that they cannot know the day or hour of his coming, and his followers have been ignoring the instruction ever since. Barely a single significant disaster or crime  can pass without someone seeing it as a sign of the end of the world. All these predictions make for side-splitting comedy, though not simply because they are universally proven wrong, or because the predictors are habitually unfazed by the failure – all this is all a minor subplot in the great comedy. The great comedy is that such prophesy works from a view of history that is distinctively human, while any account of God’s return requires a view of history that is exclusively divine.   Those who think they can predict the end of the world think that they can read such an account of history in Scripture, but in turning to the actual pages of Scripture, one gets a view of history which is utterly unlike anything a human being would write, and utterly unlike the sort of historical events that we think foretell the end of the world or the great workings of providence.

To understand this, consider the reasonable response to being told to teach a class on ancient history, or write a book on it. The product would be primarily a story of great powers, significant battles that determined the fate of these great powers, terrific calamities that affected millions, great works of art and culture, catastrophic falls and corruptions, etc. Turning to, say, the book of Genesis gives us almost nothing of this. By the time the book begins speaking in more or less plain historical terms, it is telling the story of a nomad who becomes a farmer, struggles with infertility,  wins a battle that would be utterly forgotten by history if not for Scripture, and various other small sundry life events. The story goes on to tell stories of feigned prostitution, incest, the building of small altars, petty infighting and family squabbles, dating, shady business deals, familial reconciliations,  etc. It was as if we asked God to write a book of contemporary American history and he comes back with a story of county politics in Tomah Wisconsin. Why is he telling us this story? In fact, was it even history at all  when it was being written and heard? If your grandmother tells you the sorted and exciting story of your family tree, you don’t then to call her a historian for doing so.  Even if all of granny’s details are true down to the last word, history requires a sort of obvious grandeur and public significance that her story does not have.

But yet we constantly try to write our own divine histories with the sort of details that God never quite bothers with in his own histories. September 11 is the end of the world, we can find it in a bible code! Great event X was a punishment for the dramatic Federal action of doing Y, and for the large, well recognizable evil trends in our culture! There is widespread attrition in Church attendance, Jesus is coming soon! Kids and queers are having sex, this must be the end of the world! This is a view of history that would have skipped over Moses to tell the story of Ramses, skipped over Ezra to tell the story of Cyrus, and ignored Christ to tell us about Tiberius Caesar. We simply don’t have the kind of intellect required to tell a history that could situate the end of the world in contemporary events, in fact we don’t even have an intellect that is capable of understanding the prophesies of it concretely until after the fact.

There are also a few critics of Scripture that work from the same notion of history as those who think they can see the end of the world. Where is Arimathea? Where are the contemporary accounts of Mary Magdalen? Why don’t we have more evidence for the life of Christ? The reason is simple: to write about such persons was not to write history. What historian could teach a class on contemporary America by telling the story of his life in a small, break off religious sect?

Two notes on mechanistic philosophy

-A machine is a complex tool made to serve human beings. By “complex” I mean it has some measure of autonomy (in practice, this usually means that its power source is not an animal). Interestingly, Christians have a sort of mechanical philosophy of nature so far as they think that it is a complex structure made to serve human beings. This is afar closer likeness to a machine that what usually gets called mechanical philosophy, which is an entirely different and even opposed thing, since this second kind of mechanical philosophy is predicated on the notion that nature isn’t made for any purpose at all.

One might object to this (in a way reminiscent of Heidegger) that the Christian mechanism and mechanist mechanism both end at the same result: nature is used for human beings. This overlooks the difference that the Christian is not committed to believing that nature has no intrinsic purpose of its own in addition to being for human beings, and one can only make sense of a law written within things (on their hearts, that is) if there is in fact such an interior purpose written on things. To take an obvious example, human beings are natural beings, and the Christian is not allowed to use another human being as though he had no purpose of his own. Similar considerations apply the human body. To take another clear example, nature cannot be made into idols, or into other beings whose very use would be evil. This is why man is told in Genesis not to use the earth, but to keep it.

– Mechanist philosophy says that nature is like a machine by its nature and operation – the latter because it works by the push and pull of forces; the former because the whole is not a being. If anything, only the elemental parts are beings. I couldn’t add anything to the critique of force as given here;  and the notion that only the elemental parts of things are beings is just plain silly. Among other things, the following sentence becomes true: “I am not a being”. One would be hard pressed to find a more refutable philosophy.

« Older entries