Is it an experience of evil that destroys marveling at nature, or just the affectation of objectivity – the aloofness and detachment that we think should characterize good method? The coldness we expect from science is does not allow for marvel. White coat, bent over, squinting into the apparatus. Is wonder or marvel killed off by… what, manners? A kind of etiquette?

The Evil-god objection to the Fourth Way

One objection to the Fourth Way is that it seems to be able to prove the existence of some greatest evil being.  It’s not that St. Thomas didn’t see the objection, it’s that he was opposed – to the very core of his being – to ever treating a question outside of its proper place within a larger whole. When he finally gets to treating the question of the cause of evil in the Summa, he poses exactly the objection that the his impatient reader has been wondering about since he read the Fourth Way:

Objection 3. Further, as we find good and better things, so we find evil and worse. But good and better are so considered in relation to what is best. Therefore evil and worse are so considered in relation to some supreme evil.

The response would clearly appeal to evil as a privation, but the exact way in which STA does it is lovely:

Reply to Objection 3. Increase in intensity is in proportion to the nature of a thing. And as the form is a perfection, so privation removes a perfection. Hence every form, perfection, and good is intensified by approach to the perfect term; but privation and evil by receding from that term. Hence a thing is not said to be evil and worse, by reason of access to the supreme evil, in the same way as it is said to be good and better, by reason of access to the supreme good.

Note he is not denying the existence of a highest evil, but denying what it would mean to be the highest evil. He denies that a maximal evil is the proper measure of lesser evils, or if it is taken as a measure, that this measure is can exist or be intelligible apart from its relation to the supreme good.

(A second response would be to point out that there is a limit to how far evil can recede from a term. Given St. Thomas’s account of the infinite, “An infinite evil” would require that evil that could subsist without a subject – which is impossible for any privation.)

Marveling and its opposite

Among all arguments that get called “design” arguments, I can see a clear value in a.) those that are based on the intrinsic final causality in nature and b.) those that are based on marveling at nature. I’m skeptical of all others. The second sort of arguments are best when most  immediate – having more than one step in the argument usually kills them, and trying to capture the argument in words usually falls flat.

Describing marvels can easily come out as though we are describing our own ignorance.  But though there is an element of ignorance in marveling no one finds mere ignorance marvelous or desirable. There is something incommunicable in the act of marveling – like an engaged person who suddenly realizes what is coming and says “I’m going to get married”. It’s not that he didn’t know this  fact before or that he recognized some new fact that related to this, but that he has insight into a fact that he and everyone else knows. When he tries to explain what he saw, all he can do is repeat the same fact that everyone knows, perhaps while he stresses the word “really”- “”Whoa…I’m really going to get married…”.

There is also an opposite experience to this marveling at nature. Call it R.  It’s hard to look at the ephippiger wasp’s method of feeding its young (as Darwin did) or the mating habits of the praying mantis or black widow without having at least a mild case of R. The sheer size of the universe with all of its vast empty parts also might incline us to the same thing. Some argue that the whole story of evolution is R, but a more time tested example would be the painful death of a young child.

Philosophy might have a role to play in arbitrating between marveling and R, but I’m not sure how much of one. The sort of argumentation proper to rhetoric and art is more appropriate here. Perhaps it’s simply a lesson that nature prefers to teach herself.  But this would be to put it in a way to be marveled at.

The ugliness of a finely-tuned universe

While I am critical of Roderick Long in the previous post, I thought his critique of “fine tuning” arguments was quite good:

As for the claim that the universe is “fine-tuned” to support life, this claim presupposes that physical laws other than the present ones are possible. But as an Aristotelian, I reject any form of possibility other than “compatibility with the nature of the actual world.” Just as explanations make sense only within the realm of existence, so the distinction between possible and impossible does so too.

I’ve been bothered for a while that “fine tuning” arguments, since without assuming that nature is essentially chaos in need of order, there is simply nothing for God to tune up. Nature taken in this way is essentially chaotic, disordered, and unintelligible, and all that is chaotic, disordered and unintelligible is ugly.

Again, the essential disorder of the universe which is “tuned up” in fine tuning arguments is either purely logical, or it really belongs to nature. Taken the first way, there is no real fine tuning of the universe; taken in the second way it presupposes a sense of nature that no one has ever experienced. I certainly agree that if water did not expand when it froze that life would likely not arise, but I’ve never experienced water as undetermined to this state, and I have no reasons to assume that such water is possible. I agree that if molecule X had different forces, it would not be stable, but all my experiences with the molecule X show it with the forces it has. In fact, without these, it would simply not be what it is. This is also true of its parts, and the parts of those parts all the way down.

Fine tuning arguments play on one of the great blind-spots of modern thinkers- the muddling of logical and real possibility. The arguments can only swiftly reach a conclusion because we think we can go from imagining things happening in a different way to concluding that there is a real possibility that they could have been so. Descartes famously  muddles these two when he assumes he must take an evil deceiver as a real possibility (indeed the true original sin of modern thought is not “how do I know that I know?” but the more fundamental error of identifying logical and real possibility). Again, Analytic philosophers – especially the theists – are prone to make the same sort of mistake (Plantinga’s argument for mind-body dualism is a good example; so is the popular Analytic claim that God exists because he is possible; and  in general the interest one takes in the ontological argument is proportionate to the degree to which he muddles the diverse kinds of possibility… and talk about “possible worlds” is a category of its own in this confusion…)

A response to an objection to “Why something as opposed to nothing”

Roderick T. Long responds to the question “Why something rather than nothing” (ht- comment no. 1):

I regard [the question] as incoherent. It makes no sense to ask for an explanation of the whole of existence – whether that whole includes a God or not. Any attempt to explain existence has to appeal either to something in existence or something not in existence. If it appeals to something that’s already in existence (be it God, quarks, or whatever you like), then you’re not explaining all of existence; and if it appeals to something not in existence, then you’ve offered no explanation at all.

I would let this pass except that Mr. Long says he is an Aristotelian. But then the problem with his argument becomes obvious – for he is assuming that “existence” is a single class of objects, such that all things either are in that class or outside of it. But Aristotle’s whole philosophy – from the Categories to the Analytics to the Metaphysics – is an emphatic denial of seeing existence or being in this way. The unity of the concept “being” is not from its being a homogeneous whole but rather from its being an order of meanings that have reference to some first. To think that man has a concept of existence like Long imputes to him here, that is, a big, Venn-diagram style concept of existence into which theists include God and atheists exclude him is to consider existence in a way that is absolutely opposed to what Aristotle teaches. In fact, I’d argue that the first thing we know scientifically about being is that it is not this way. Being is not a genus. Being is thus essentially diverse: it just is the unity of order from A to B, and there is no sense “C” that we can circumscribe around A and B after we find them.

This is why it not only makes sense to speak of a being that is responsible for being, it is exactly the sort of question that one should ask about being when they understand it as it is. Being is defined by its order or hierarchy, and so in understanding it we strive to understand the difference between what is at the summit of the hierarchy and what participates in it.

First draft of a response to Zarri’s dilemma

Jason Zarri and Brandon have had a few exchanges over an argument Zarri gave that started off as this:

(1a) Suppose that God’s existence is compatible with possible worlds which are disordered and hostile to life.
(1b) Then the existence of God cannot explain the order and life-friendliness of the universe because those characteristics are no more likely if God exists than if He doesn’t.
(2a) Suppose that God’s existence is incompatible with possible worlds which are disordered and hostile to life.
(2b) Then there are significant constraints on what God can will, for then God cannot actualize just any possible world

Thus, either we can’t conclude to God’s existence from the orderliness of the world (1), or God is not free (2).

I very much like the argument because I think that in struggling with it one can get a good look at the true nature of freedom. To respond, consider two parallel arguments, first:

1.) Suppose that Michelangelo’s skill is compatible with a sloppy, uninspiring sculpture filled with rookie mistakes.
1a.) Then the artistic skill of Michelangelo cannot explain the Pieta, because  that sculpture is no more likely if he exists than if he doesn’t.

or again,

1.) Suppose the house-builder’s skill is compatible with making an uninhabitable, uncomfortable dwelling that is ill-suited to life.
1a.) Then the house builder’s skill cannot explain a house that is actually inhabitable, because that is no more likely if he exists than if he doesn’t.

The parallel arguments fail because of the double sense of what it means to have an artistic skill. On the one hand, all art is open to contraries simply because it is rational – the doctor’s knowledge can kill as well as heal, like Plato says early on in the Republic. In this sense, we can say that art is open to both what is befitting and what is not. On the other hand, while artistic skill is open to making contraries, the freedom of the artist is not understood in relation to his power to make bad art. We don’t tend to say that the great artist is free to create inept or substandard work, or work that falls away from the ideal, even though such work is contained within a rational potency to make things well or ill. Whatever Bach’s freedom consisted in, it was not in his power to make good music or dreadful cacophony; and while there have been critiques of Shakespeare’s craft even very early on (“he can’t write an exit line for a fool!”) no critic has ever seen in these supposed lapses of judgment a greater Shakespearean freedom.

To conclude: even though art as such is open to good and evil, we don’t understand the freedom of the artist in relation to his power to make good and bad art. While art might differ from nature in being open to multiple possibilities, the  good artist differs from the bad one by a different standard; and in concluding to the existence of God in the sort of inference in question, we are concluding to a great and consummate artist.

(this argument is incomplete, more later)

10 . 23 . 10

If we saw a concept or word as a kind of unity among many, we could distinguish it by its different kinds of unity. The mind makes one kind of unity out of seeing several trees or several men, and another after seeing the divisions between cause and effect, substance and accident, and even in the various things it calls “one” or “unified”. The general division is therefore between the unity of homogeneity and the unity of order (which presupposes heterogeneity).

A distinction in dream logic

I have been fascinated for years by St. Thomas’s teaching on the knowledge we have while dreaming. A few instances:

And so that its knowledge might be perfected and distinguished even unto the singular things, it is necessary that [the soul] gather knowledge of the truth from singular things… But it is nevertheless not to be doubted that the soul is impeded from receiving the influx of the separated substances by its bodily motions and distraction (occupatio) of the senses; which is why  some revelations arise in those sleeping and impaired in their sensation, which does not happen to those using the senses.

Et ideo ad hoc quod eius cognitio perficiatur, et distinguatur per singula, oportet quod (the soul) a singulis rebus scientiam colligat veritatis… Nec tamen dubium est quin per motus corporeos et occupationem sensuum anima impediatur a receptione influxus substantiarum separatarum; unde dormientibus et alienatis a sensibus quaedam revelationes fiunt quae non accidunt sensu utentibus.

The foreseeing of the future that happens in dreams is either from the revelation of the spiritual substances or from a corporeal cause, as we said when we treated divination. Both happen more perfectly in those sleeping than those who are awake, because the soul that is awake is distracted (occupata) by exterior sensibles, and so is less able to perceive the subtle impressions of spiritual substances or other natural causes. But when we consider the perfection of judgment, reason is stronger in those who are awake than those who are sleeping.

praecognitio futurorum quae fit in somnis, est aut ex revelatione substantiarum spiritualium, aut ex causa corporali, ut dictum est cum de divinationibus ageretur. Utrumque autem melius potest fieri in dormientibus quam in vigilantibus, quia anima vigilantis est occupata circa exteriora sensibilia, unde minus potest percipere subtiles impressiones vel spiritualium substantiarum vel etiam causarum naturalium. Quantum tamen ad perfectionem iudicii, plus viget ratio in vigilando quam in dormiendo.

The reference in the second quotation to the discussion of divination is II-II q. 95 a. 6 co.

How to approach this? Perhaps we can start here: one of the common experiences of dreaming is “I saw person X, but I knew they were person Y” or “I was in place A but I knew it was place B”. Again, dreams regularly involve all sorts of bizarre plot lines, changes in scene, etc. This can be taken in two ways. On the one hand, we can say that we accept this “dream logic”  because judgment is not working well. Taken in this way, “dream logic” is an imperfection of thought. On the other hand, we see in the dream a coherence and intelligibility that is not bound by what is necessary for the intelligibility of the sensible, corporeal world. Taken in this way, the dream is a striking example of our transcendence of the physical world and so manifests a perfection of thought.



Some explanations and inspirations from the Fourth Way

Stephen Law’s argument that no theists have ever argued for the infinite goodness of God is understandable – why should he be expected to know the Fourth Way, which concludes that there must be some infinite good (that is, a good not limited by a subject)? The Fourth Way can be stated as a simple consequence: we sense and experience that some things are more or less good, therefore there is some Absolute and unlimited summum bonum. The argument can be interpreted in more than one way. Here are some possible explanations:

1.) If the absolute and unlimited good had only a potential existence, then it could not be the limit of the actual goods that are more or less good. Potential limits do not limit actual things.

2.) Because there really is a more and less, what is maximally and absolutely good is possible. But for X to be possible requires either that X exists or something is capable of making it. It follows either that there is some absolute and maximal good, or a being that has all that is necessary within himself to give rise to one. Either way, there is some absolute and maximal good.

3.) What is said of things is said most of all of that which it is said of first and per se, that is, first and by its very nature. But every investigation into a thing seeks that which the thing belongs to per se and first. Thus, because it is impossible to investigate what good is, there is some absolute and maximal good.

And some suggestive approaches:

4.) If the human will loved the finite good, it would have to love it as finite. But good cannot be loved in its termination and the finite limit terminates the good. In loving the good, we love it first of all as infinite, and find it repugnant as finite.

5.) The will seeks what is absolutely good by its nature. But natural desires are formed and actualized by an environment in which their objects can be found. The will thus finds God in a kind of environment in which it lives.

God is “morally” good because of his divinity

Edward Feser has a thorough response to Stephen Law’s “evil-god” challenge. Law’s challenge is that no theist system has any more reason to posit a (morally) good God than to posit a (morally) evil one. Feser observes that Law has very little awareness of what classical theism called “evil”, and that his arguments against what he does understand are ineffectual. I’m not interested in Law’s challenge since it is a dialectical game that can continue for as long as he refuses to define what he means by good or evil, even in a moral sense. So long as Law is just putting one set of evidences with their respective hypotheses, then he’ll have a case for God being good and evil. This is a feature of dialectics, however, not a feature of theology. I’m interested in another point.

I’ve ranted more than once about the difficulties in calling God “morally” good (or morally evil, for that matter) since it’s hard to see how anyone could argue that the divine nature is eternally chaste, moderate with his food, thrifty with his income, and so forth. If there is any sense to God being morally good, it is that his will is upright, which is to say that it is perfectly ordered to the goals that it ought to pursue. But on this account classical theism throws up another impediment to Law’s evil-god challenge, for there is a very long tradition that argues that God just is the goal that a will ought to pursue. There is a very long tradition holding that the ultimate rectitude of a will consists in striving to become as much like God as possible, and thus that the attainment of the divine life is the goal of all moral action. On this account, God is a moral being simply because he exists – indeed,  has possesses the goal of morality infallibly simply by being divine.

Arguments for this sense of happiness are clear in the pre-Socratics, they are given their locus classicus in Plato’s Theatetus and Book X of the Ethics, and they are found all over the place in Scholastic thought. St. Thomas gives any number of rational arguments for the claim here and here (and in the many chapters around this latter point).


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