A look at existence (pt. 1)

In response to the question “why something [existing] as opposed to nothing”, Blue devil Knight responded that the question can be taken in two ways:

1. Why (historically) did there come to exist something rather than nothing.
2. Why (now) is there something rather than nothing.

Number 1 presupposes that there was nothing at some point, and something replaced it. The big bang could be taken as evidence for such a thing I guess, though of course this is quite controversial as a physics issue.

Number 2 I have no idea. Matter and energy on average don’t disappear over time, but are simply transformed. Since there was matter and energy yesterday, I’d expect the same today.

This is exactly the sort of objection that modern Thomists need to speak to. We can wax eloquent about “esse” or “existence” for our whole career, along with speaking about creation being “the cause of existence” or God being “ipsum esse subsistens” without ever getting a good look at what existence is. Why is “what exists” other than matter or energy? For that matter, since (for me) to exist is to live, how is it obvious that God is causing my life? Is “life” the sort of thing we see the need of being caused by another? Why is God not “matter and energy itself”? What is there about the things around us that makes us think that their existence is like a light that requires a sun that no one can see? The first step in speaking to any of this is to get a good look at what we mean by “being” or “existence”, and to figure out if any of the simple or reductive accounts of it are adequate to explain our experience of it.

Aristotle would call BDK’s account false since “what exists” is a particular or individual thing, though matter and energy are not. If matter and energy just are what survive from A to B, which is exactly BDK’s contention (and he is getting matter exactly right), then neither A nor B exists simply speaking. Matter is indifferent to particularity the way that existence is not. This is a general problem with materialism – it simply can’ t explain why individuals exist, since it attributes existence only to what does not belong to this individual as this. There is an important element of truth in materialism for everyone can see that existence somehow must “be true of all things” or “belong to all things”, but it simply cannot belong to all things the way that one subject (matter or energy) belongs to many things.

But to say this, however, opens up a paradox as strange as anythign in quantum physics: for “existence” must be not only particular, but common to all. It is at once intrinsic and yet common, it is both indifferent to many and at the same time the constituitive of the particular and distinctive. We lose somethign by having to say this in words. Better to see it by looking at the things. My existence (say, what I encounter in the cogito) is both entirely mine, with my own distinct notes and all the elements of my own personality, and yet is a perfection shared with you. The same thing that an animal loses in death is what is has in common with all that is.

Forgive us our trespasses, etc.

The Christian discovers in his relation to others that he can’t find any evil in them worse than the evils he has in himself. This is simply the Christian contribution to our self-knowledge. The consequence of this is that we cannot condemn others without condemning ourselves. Christ stressed this repeatedly, so much so that it is clearly at the heart of his teaching about the human condition.

The obvious objection to this is that we can discover all sorts of evils in others that are worse than any we have committed. I’ve never committed a genocide or even a murder. All this is true, but it is a distraction from the main point, since it sees human evil only on its most superficial level. Evil is like a giant retail corporation, and the “big events” of evil – the murders and petty acts of lust and fights and wars and drunkenness – are like the cashiers and the store managers: they are the most visible face of the organization, and they run it on the ground level, but they aren’t the main ones in charge. Driving out the cashiers and store managers is rewarding, but on another level it simply opens up our awareness of the evil that has been in control all along, and in the face of which we can find no evil in another that is not already in us. This is why even the saints have the (otherwise confusing) habit of insisting that they are sinners. It is not kowtowing or Eastern-style self-abasement, or even the Socratic recognition of one’s own ignorance and littleness in comparison to God; it is an expression of a bona-fide anthropology. It is precisely by becoming more holy and more good that the saint recognizes that he has all the evils of the whole world, and so far as he does he is responsible for all the evils of the whole world.

Again, driving out the “big event” evils is not easy or of little value- it is the necessary first step. But driving them out only shows us the deeper and more inveterate level of evil as a disposition of the will. That is, even after we drive out the visible face of evil in us – the “big events” of evil – there still remains that iron disposition of the will that looks at goodness and just says no.  The spirit wishes but it does not will.

3 / 27 / 11

Take Descartes as articulating, in a signal way, what it is for us to think like modern persons. So what does he show us we are looking for? Certainty. The rest of the mind in something fixed and immovable.

But if certainty is the goal, how do we get there? Descartes works from a dialectical notion of certitude: what is contrary to doubt. Given his definition, he seeks certitude by an act that, though simple, was not so much simple as bold: he’ll simply doubt everything he can. Certitude is an inability to be broken down, so why not just smash the whole universe and see what is left?

The theological account of the Gospel Christ

In reading St. Thomas on the Incarnation, one gets the sense that one of the chief motives for a theologian speak of the Incarnation is to correct the errors that arise from theologians speaking of the Incarnation – for even though everyone who speaks about X wants to correct the erroneous things said about X, the theological consideration of the Incarnation has elements that go beyond this general desire for correction. One reason for this is that it is a different thing to speak of God becoming man in the abstract, and to articulate what it means for God to become man as this is described in the Gospels.

If we had to think up the simplest account of God becoming man, it would be something like a.) God “dwelling in” a human person or b.) some sort of moral union of perfection or c.) God manifesting himself in a human form, as a sort of super detailed hologram or d.) God moving and acting in a body that was lifeless in itself, but moved like a sort of puppet (though the best and most convincing and lifelike of such puppets, to be sure). I stress that we shouldn’t denigrate any of these accounts, as though they amounted to nothing – since if any of these things happened it would be miraculous and wonderful.  The problem with them is not that they are absurd or ugly or unfitting but simply that the Gospels never present Christ in this way.  Christ doesn’t refer to himself as God’s dwelling place, nor do we get any hint at the unreality or lifelessness of his body, nor any hint that God is moving him as though he is at a remote location.

The Christ one finds in the Gospel is concrete and therefore less amenable to the sort of simplicity that characterizes the abstraction of theory. The Christ of the Gospels is a being one can fall down and worship, that is, a being whom you can look at and say “he is God”; whereas the simplest abstract theory would require that you could only say “God is there; or at least more there than in other places” or “he is closest to God” or “Look, this appearance shows us God”.

Forgetting nature

While discussing the Book of Romans, my theology class was struck by the paradox of the first chapter:

God is clearly seen through nature

The natural world is seen by everyone

God is seen by everyone

The conclusion was false, so we tried to figure out which premise was false or accidental. The minor premise (here the first one) was from Paul himself, and none of the qualifications we could find to place on it did away with the paradox. The major premise seemed obvious: who doesn’t see the natural world around them? But as we turned over the premise in our mind, it seemed less and less obvious, and more and more false. In the world we found ourselves in, we didn’t see nature. We live in a world of straight lies and right angles, drawn in absolute space, all of which nature is indifferent to. All the plants and animals we see are domesticated, and our relations to them either are part of this domestication or characterized by an annoyance when they don’t keep to the rules of domestication. We rarely see anything born or die, and we tend to see both birth and death merely as problems in need of anesthesia.  The rhythms by which we order our lives are not set by lights in the heavens but by lights we make for ourselves. The stars – which have always been  the cause of our wonder and awareness of the splendor of the universe – are all blotted from view. Real nature is largely unknown, and so we flip flop between seeing it as hostile, then divine; between seeing it as all powerful and in control of us, then powerless before our technology and in need of our help.

(Digression: is it any mystery why contemporary society is so obsessed with sexual activity, so much so that even the Church had to suppress its centuries long proclamation of the superiority of virginity and continence? Sexual activity and love is the last encounter with nature that a contemporary man can have. What else can we think about at night with nothing but concrete underneath us and a starless sky above us? And what is night for us anyway except the position of a switch on the wall?)

I’m not a Luddite or a back-to-nature advocate. I don’t want to live in nature or without the benefits of contemporary civilization and I doubt anyone who reads this does either. Arguably, the life we have made for ourselves is simply better. But it comes with trade-offs and leaves us blind to certain things.

Nic Eth. 1.3

Aristotle says that the goal of ethics is not knowledge but action, so much so that one cannot profit from listening to ethical lectures until he has a firm resolution to act on what he learns. Failing in this, we think that ethics is the sort of thing that we simply talk or write articles about – though we might certainly talk or write in great earnest.

Being as the first thing known

We know two things with great certitude: the exterior sensible world and our own selves by way of reflection. Depending on which we start with, we get very different views of being. Considered in light of the sensible world, “being” is whatever comes forth from the great, undifferentiated quantitative solid that forms the backdrop of all we sense and imagine. “Being” is either the formless gray extension that all things have in common, or each individual numbered thing that is cut off from that extension. Seen in this way, being is homogeneous or common, uniform, undifferentiated, and best revealed by a quantitative consideration. 

How different is the view we get of being when we consider our reflection on ourselves! Here, being is an intrinsic principle, existing prior to mere extension and using extension to express itself. Being does not arise out of the undifferentiated void, but is a locus of individuality that is somehow opposed to the sheer homogeneity of the merely extended. Here, being is an incommunicable self, not a division from a common homogeneous group.

Since both of these views are of one object, they must be complementary. There is a unity in the thing we are knowing, even if we know it best by two very strikingly different paths.

The literal and historical sense of Scripture

In treating the senses in which Scripture can be read, St. Thomas saw “literal” as synonymous with “historical”. This sense, however, was nothing more than when “words stood for things” and which was opposed to the figurative senses. Note that there is nothing in such an account that can explain Scripture as historical – for words stand for things even when one is not writing history.

Nevertheless, this raises the question of what we are supposed to do when history develops to such an extent that it means a good deal more than what is merely opposed to a figurative reading. For St. Thomas, one was reading Scripture literally – and therefore historically – when he read God’s statement to Moses “I am who am” as speaking to a metaphysical claim that was only articulated by philosophers 2000 years after Moses.  There is no time when, in considering the divine name, St. Thomas gives a historical account in the sense of history that is familiar to us. In fact, we would oppose the sort of analysis that St. Thomas gives of the divine name to a historical account.

This creates a problem for Thomists – and for Scholastics in general since none of them had a very robust sense of history – about what to say about the relation between literal readings and historical ones.

The Christian sense of omnibenevolence

While the argument from evil demolishes the most naive or unreflective sense of “omnibenevolence” (doing every possible good, or all goods that a human being would be bound to do) it does not touch the most properly Christian sense of omnibenevolence. Just as we would call a being all-powerful if he performed an act of infinite power (even if he only did it once) so too we would call a being omnibenevolent if he performed an act of infinite benevolence. Again, the measure of benevolence is the greatness of the gift, and whoever gives a gift greater than any that can be thought has a benevolence greater than any one that can be thought. But Christianity consists in believing that God gave the world a gift-than-which-nothing-greater-could-be-given.

The concrete universal in science and literature

One perfection of knowledge is to be publicly verifiable. Such verifiability is most apparent in scientific experiments: you write an equation that relates work to distance, and then show by increasing distance (say, with some pulleys), one can get more work done with the same amount of force; you predict an that an eclipse will happen on some day, and then it does. There is something divine in this sort of perfection of knowledge – a sense that we have transcended time by a power to predict things to come. But what exactly does the sublime character of this sort of the experience consist? It is at least this: we see something universally true in a single concrete experience. We don’t just see an event, but a law.

This sort of perfection always has an aspect of artistry or performance art not just in making the experimental apparatus but in gathering people to look up at the sky and see the eclipse. Literature and poetry strive to create the same sort of manifestive concrete experience. It is not just any concrete experience that they construct, but a manifestive one. This is one aspect to Aristotle’s claim that poetry is more philosophical (we would say scientific) than history. There is a real likeness to the sort of perfection of knowledge that is most manifest in the experiment. Just as we can get an insight into all forces by seeing a pulley under the right cognitive conditions and get an insight into the whole universe by seeing an apple fall, so too we get an insight into all totalitarianisms by reading Orwell’s or Kafka’s characters, or an insight into all infidelity by reading Anna Karenina. It’s no objection to point out that reading Animal Farm gives only a fallible knowledge of totalitarianism that might need revision – the same can be said of seeing the pulley. The multiplication of books of literature gives its own sort of confirmation – it has its own way of coalescing into a universal law.

« Older entries