Anti-Platonist note

Plato has a difficulty reconciling his theory of forms with his doctrine of personal immortality. The forms are the stable foundation of  being, not just intelligibility. The forms are in fact what, for Aristotle, just are being or ousia – i.e. the stable reality in which something having no existence of itself inheres (What Aristotle called substances were, for Plato, as groundless and unstable as accidents). But Plato also insists that the soul of every man has existence of itself, which therefore cannot be lost. This soul grounds a personal immortality and the multiplicity of possible outcomes that individuals might suffer after death. And so the giver of existence is one, and yet souls are givers of existence, and many. What gives?

One resolution might be to distinguish existence and life – the soul has life of itself, but not existence of itself, and so it cannot cease living but might cease existing. Plato seems to move this way when he defines soul as the self-mobile. Such self-mobility (which for Aristotle is immanent activity) might be another state apart from the pure flux of physical being and the pure intelligible stability of the ideal forms.  On this account, we say that the soul gives life but not existence, which means that the soul itself has a contingent existence, that is, that it might exist or not. Perhaps this means that the immortality of the soul can be adduced if the soul is given, but the soul is not a given on the basis of existence alone.


Plato [claims in Parmenides 128d]… that Zeno was not trying to prove that motion was impossible but that, if continuity consists in parts, if it can be analyzed into discrete quantities or synthesized from them, motion is impossible… All the extant arguments of Zeno are directed at the same end, by demonstrating the inconsistencies of a materialistic pluralism to prove that continuity is uncomposite and so that Being is unique. In so far then as Aristotle believes that the continuous does not consist in separate moments he mistakes his opponent, for he is arguing against Zeno’s adversaries and not against Zeno.

H.F. Cherniss, Aristotle’s critique of the presocratics, p. 157.

Platonic notes

-It doesn’t make much sense to posit something common to some multitude, and then say that it is, in fact, a multitude. Things are alike because alike in form. Fine. But if there are many forms these are alike too. We simply rest the earth on another turtle.

-One doesn’t explain X by invoking X. This is question begging or, at best, instrumental or accidental causality, like when we say one hot thing made another thing hot. If forms are many, however, we only explain particulars and multitudes by positing more particulars and multitudes.

-How does “a form in the thing” make any more sense than “a form outside a thing”? In either case, one is localizing form in space, that is, giving it qualities that belong only to accidents (like quantity) and matter (that gives bulk). We all recognize it is nonsense to conclude that a six foot tall man has a six foot tall soul. But why should “interior form” make any more physical sense than the six foot soul?

– One can’t have it both ways: either “first substance” is the prime analogate of being or God is, and it is nonsense in Aristotle’s thought to try to unify the two.


The argument from evil in the gospel

There are at least two arguments from evil in the gospels, that is, claims that some evil is incompatible or counts as evidence against either the existence or goodness of God. One occurs while Jesus is walking to the tomb of Lazarus:

Jesus wept. The Jews therefore said: Behold how he loved him. But some of them said: Could not he that opened the eyes of the man born blind have caused that this man should not die?

(John 11 35-37)

That is, the one who does miracles failed to save Lazarus from death, which bespeaks either inability, ignorance, or malice. But the one who does miracles is either God or his representative, and so the failure to heal Lazarus counts as evidence against God’s benevolence, knowledge, or existence. The narrative places this argument in between Christ’s great promise “I am the Resurrection and the life” and his proving this by raising Lazarus. The text is showing that the argument from evil occurs between the promise and its fulfillment. Notice that after the fulfillment,  Christ does not so much confound his enemies as change the terms under which they are his enemies, since after Lazarus’s resurrection, those who are against Jesus go from merely questioning him to advocating his death.

Many therefore of the Jews, who had come to Mary and Martha and had seen the things that Jesus did, believed in him.  But some of them went to the Pharisees and told them the things that Jesus had done.

The chief priests, therefore, and the Pharisees gathered a council and said: What do we, for this man does many miracles?  If we let him alone so, all will believe in him; and the Romans will come, and take away our place and nation.  But one of them, named Caiphas, being the high priest that year, said to them: “You know nothing.  Neither do you consider that it is expedient for you that one man should die for the people and that the whole nation perish not.”

(John 11 45-50)

The refuting of the argument from evil does not win everyone over to theism, but intensifies our opinions about God.

The other argument from evil occurs in Matthew 16. Immediately after Peter confesses that Jesus is divine, Christ is described as telling his disciples about his approaching suffering and death. And Peter taking him aside, began to rebuke him, saying: Lord, this shall never happen to you. The rebuke makes perfect sense: since God is good, he most certainly would not allow himself to suffer the worst possible evils. For Christ to suffer evil would count as evidence against his divinity. Christ’s response is as emphatic as it is familiar:

Turning to him, he said; Get behind me, Satan, you are a scandal unto me: because you savour not the things that are of God but the things that are of men.

(Matthew 16:23)

In the divine plan, evil is cancelled not by avoidance or by the sort of providence that keeps it from ever arising, but by forgiveness, that is, by a person cancelling the debt that is owed to him by choosing not to savor it or demand its rectification, but by incinerating it within his own heart. Evil is the matter of offering or forgiveness, and so is meant to be destroyed by eliminating any possibility that we might encounter it, but by negating it after it is encountered by offering or forgiveness, or generally, by incorporating it into a meaningful life.

The ship of Theseus

If we replace all of the parts of X, did X change?  We have problems either way: if X is nothing but its parts then it didn’t change but was simply replaced by something else; and if it is something other than its parts, then something other than X changed. Either way it is false to say “X changed”. Even if we don’t go to the limit of changing all the parts of a thing, the problem still remains, since there is still the riddle of the thing changing when its parts do.

The answer might turn out differently depending on what thing we are speaking of: to change the parts of a car might not be the same as to change the parts of a living thing or to change the habits, concepts, and memories that are the parts of the field of consciousness. But at the very least it is a dead end to deny that living things change when their parts do- maturity and growth are changes. So what does this say about the relation of “a thing with parts” to “the parts of a thing”? If the change is real, then there has to be not only some reality beyond the parts of the thing (or else there is only replacement and not change) but the parts have to be some how incorporated into this reality (or else the thing wouldn’t change when its parts do). Call this reality beyond the parts F.

The dispute between Aristotle and Plato focused on whether F entered into the being of some group of parts. For Aristotle,a natural thing was nothing other than something with an intrinsic F, and F was most of all what deserved to be called nature (an artifact, by contrast, had an extrinsic F, and a thing was artificial when this was extrinsic to it). Plato denied an intrinsic F to anything with parts, and in this sense denied the sharp distinction that Aristotle drew between what was artificial and what was natural. Properly speaking, modern science is not interested in this sort of question since it does not raise the question of how change is possible, but in the measure that it denies a sharp difference between nature and art, it is closer to the Platonic notion.

Religion: of a people or just of persons?

“Spiritual but not religious” is a slogan, and like any slogan it sounds insipid and simple-minded to those who take issue with those who use it. Still, I’ve been fascinated by the quasi-concept religion for the last few weeks, and as a result I now find the slogan fascinating (the interest started by finding the work of William Cavenaugh, who argues that the idea of religion is not so much a coherent and stable classification as a tool we use to marginalize certain practices. He gives a good overview of his work here.)

Assume that both spiritual and religious persons want to stand in some relation to divine things. We seem to call this relation religious when it is either:

1.) Ritualistic and formalized

2.) Ritualistic and formalized, and performed by some community

3.) Ritualistic, formalized, and performed by some community where there is an order among the persons relating to God, that is, some persons mediate this relation for others.

There are those who deny being religious in all these senses, but as one moves from 1-3 the denial, it seems to me, seems more and more reasonable to the one who describes himself as spiritual. There are some spiritual persons who deny any place for formalism and ritual, desiring that any time they relate to the divine it must be spontaneous. This is a pretty extreme position, and it seems hard that one would maintain it for any amount of time. All our activities tend to settle into habits, and habits in this sphere of activity count as rituals. This sets into relief the strongest critique of ritual – it is a habit, and habits are easily critiqued as mechanical and therefore inauthentic. In this sphere of activity, mere formalism is particularly insipid, and it has a long history of critique even within the most formalized of religions themselves: Thus saith the LORD: To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices unto me?  … I delight not in the blood of bullocks, or of lambs, or of he-goats (Is. 1:11 cf. 1 Samuel 15:22 and Proverbs 21:3).

But to have rituals is not the same thing as to have communal or public rituals, which constitute religion in sense 2. For one who is spiritual and not religious in this sense might have personal rituals (times for meditation, communion with God, etc) but they deny this ritual any communal expression.  Communities seem particularly prone to the critique of inauthenticity that is leveled against ritual. It’s hard to imagine a merely personal ritual whose whole meaning and goal is forgotten, but everyone has experience of communal rituals that have become merely pro forma and mindless. Even worse, we’ve probably all seen rituals that have corrupted into the exact opposite of what they were supposed to be: I hate, I despise your religious feasts; I cannot stand your assemblies…Though you bring choice fellowship offerings, I will have no regard for them (Amos 5:21).

But one who is spiritual as opposed to religious in sense 3 is leveling a different sort of critique, and is claiming that religion is a fundamentally different thing than the one who is not religious in sense 1 and 2. Here the problem with religion is mediation. For those who are religious in the first two senses, religion is immediate. Though there is a community for those who are religious in sense 2, the community itself is not religious. Religion is some order to God, and a community is a multitude of persons relating to each other, and so a religious community must be the order of a multitude of persons among each other to God, that is, some persons mediate religion for others. More simply, communities are not just persons sharing a common goal, since there can be common goals even among those who don’t know each other.

The dispute about religion can be cast as a dispute over whether religion is of a person or, in addition to this, of a people.  What is most personal is the center of the person, or the heart, and clearly authentic religion is from this heart. No authentic religion can be indifferent to the offering of the heart. But beyond this, there are also claims that this personal expression must be present within the people of God. We can also put the question in terms of holiness: Is it only the person that is holy, that is, set in order to God (irrespective of whether there is one such person or many); or is there beyond this a holy people, where a multitude is ordered to God in virtue of an order to God among themselves?

The attraction of pan-dialectics

Call a reasoning dialectical when it bases knowledge on objects that owe their existence to the human mind and choice: objects like measurements, models, idealizations, numeral systems (as opposed to just numbers), etc. Voilà, science is dialectical. So what?

To owe existence to the human mind is opposed to what exists. What owes its existence to the human mind might either exist or not, but the same cannot be said of what exists. Don’t get hung up on the language: we’re only speaking about the experience of thinking about X and recognizing that it doesn’t need to be real just because we can think about it. But the foundation of the dialectical is exactly the X-ness of X.

Objection: but all knowledge is based on things that owe their existence to the human mind and choice: we think with words, that are formed by agreement just as much as meters or base-10 numeral systems, and we can’t think without concepts, which certainly owe their existence to a mind.

Response: To use something to know is not the same as to make it an object of knowledge. An object of knowledge, for our present purposes, is something that must be known about Z in order to do Z-ology. But scientific units, for example, are given in conventional units like meters and base-10 numeral systems and must be known in order to pursue the various disciplines of study.

But the basic answer is simpler: concepts aren’t results or things owing existence to the mind, they just are the mind in actual operation. In the measure that words are taken as mere signs of this operation, they are also mind in operation. The word also has a social and material component to it, but we only focus here on the unique element in it that can be considered as nothing but mind in operation. Example: both the skill of making and a cabinet belong to craftsman, but the first is simply his being a craftsman, the second something that owes its existence to him. What we say about “the skill of making” extends to the tools used (which is why we can say both the carpenter and his hammer drive in a nail).

Objection: But measurements, models, etc. all take part in the concept as much as words do, so they too are just expressions of the mind.

Response: This is plainly false. Meters can be put up next to the things they measure. Things that register force can be forced. Clocks are in time. But it is meaningless to speak of R-O-S-E being put up next to the red flower in my back garden. The two things do not interact.  Similar considerations apply to models, even models in thought: each part has to correspond with some real part in the thing they are modeling. Numeral systems have to have as many divisions as the things they strive to number. Words are properly tools of mind and must correspond to its needs and exigencies. Words interact with the concept, that is, the mind in action or at work, and in this sense just are the mind at work, even though there is also an element in the word distinct from this.

As soon as one sees language as nothing but a product of mind or the result of some agreement of language users, then all reasoning will be dialectical. Nothing will keep this from infecting with is thought about the concept: which will itself become a product of mind and not mind in action or at work. As a result, mind itself will become absolutely and utterly empty – a complete cipher that is nothing of itself but makes all to be known and to be by its free creation out of its nothingness. To be known or even knowable can only be to owe ones existence to the human mind.

This possibility of pure creation – which is in fact divinization without the need of God – is the magnet that attracts us to making all things dialectical or scientific, and the human mind in its present state must be fascinated and horrified by its attraction to it.

Bonaventure and St. Thomas on sources of knowledge

St. Bonaventure lays down three principles of mind, that is, three sources or gates through which the mind draws information:

Our mind has three sources: one is from corporeal, exterior things, by which [mind] is called animality or sensuality; another between [its parts] and in itself, by which it is called spirit; and a third above itself, by which it is called mind.

mens nostra tres habet principales. Unus est ad corporalia exteriora, secundum quem vocatur animalitas seu sensualitas: alius intra se et in se, secundum quem dicitur spiritus; tertius supra se, secundum quem dicitur mens.

St. Thomas never quite denies such a claim outright: there are always suggestions in his thought that the human mind has more than one source of information, but it is practically impossible to read him as affirming what Bonaventure says here. This makes St. Thomas either more nuanced or more muddled, depending on how one reads texts like, say this one, or whether one accepts the coherence of the “middle course” that St. Thomas tries to draw between materialism and dualism. Even if one accepts it, there are times where St. Thomas can be evasive, as when he answers the objection that, if we knew only by sense, there could be no metaphysics by saying:

Sensitive knowledge is not the entire cause of intellectual knowledge. And therefore it is not strange that intellectual knowledge should extend further than sensitive knowledge.

(objection 3 to the nearest link)

One is left only shouting at the text: COULD YOU SAY MORE?!?!?! We might, in fact, be running up against the conceptual problems of understanding a knower that is a hylemorphic composite. My head hurts.

God and the principle of contradiction (pt. 1)

I’ve been trying for a week to articulate a theological rule and I can’t get it right. Here’s something like what I want to claim:

You cannot say anything about God’s properties without some idea of why God exists at all.

The motivation for the claim is that one can read contemporary philosophers discuss Molinism, the Trinity, Open Theism, predestination, etc. without ever being able to detect a reason why they think God exists at all. The debates about God thus become parodies of what Russell said about mathematics: one never knows what he is speaking about, or whether what he is saying is true.

One objection to this is to say that one can say all sorts of things about God without knowing anything about God in particular. Contradictory properties, for example, can’t be said of any subject, and so we can have theological arguments about, say, divine simplicity just by noting various logical contradictions in the idea of simplicity. Now it’s true that contradictories cannot be both true of some subject, but it’s false to think that a consideration of the subject itself is not relevant to what will count as contradictory. The compatibility of contradictories or contraries depends on their mode of existence. Light drives out darkness in the space in a room, but light constitutes darkness in a definition, and both can be unified in one power (say, a light switch) whether that power be active (like my intention) or purely passive (the light bulb). If the definition of darkness were real, it would have light as essentially constitutive of its subsistent reality; and the active power to case both things just is a reality. But if we started from an idea of the existence of God, even a very basic notion would tell us he is a spirit, which gives us a good reason for thinking he is more to be understood though the sort of existence and idea has than the sort of existence a space in a room has. Again, even very basic notions of God see  him a power that causes the universe, and this also gives us reason to see all properties in the universe (even contradictory ones) as in him so far as they are beings to be caused. A power to actively cause contraries (like my ability to make the room light and dark) contains both contraries in itself in an uncontroversial and very intelligible way, but in a way that would be contradictory if we tried to have both contraries exist in one complete space. And so we cannot blithely assume that we can take some idea like divine simplicity, the Trinity, etc. and critique it by finding logical contradictions that we suppose would be true of any subject, whether God or a creature. What counts as a contradiction cannot be determined apart from some agreement about the subject one is speaking of. It is only because the default setting of our thought is to material substances in time and space that we can assume a broad agreement for what will count as contradictory, when in fact what will count as contradictory is not the same for material beings and for a supposed subsistent idea, or even for the active material and physical powers we find in present in space and time, which actually contain real contradictories (in first act, not in second).

And so arguments about God’s “properties” (I dislike the word, but Analytic philosophy has said it so long and loud that no other word fits anymore) are fallacious if there is no stipulation or agreement about why God exists at all. If the argument is from revelation, we still need to work from an idea of God that specifies what will count as a contradiction when we speak of him. If, for example, your revelation tells you that God is truth, life, wisdom, and other such things, this counts as at least prima facie evidence that a concrete being can be an abstract one, or that some abstract beings subsist. If you don’t want to accept this revelation prima facie, but critique it, say by critiquing the supposed logical coherence of the identity of a concrete and abstract being, you cannot turn to some supposed intuition of the universal repugnance of the concrete and non-concrete, since all this would amount to is a repugnance that would obtain if we assumed everything existed as some of the things that exist in the space-time continuum (physical active powers are not included). But this is itself a contradictory assumption. How can all beings exist as only a part of them do?

Divine simplicity and freedom

I’ve known more than one Analytic philosopher who was concerned that divine simplicity is incompatible with divine freedom. Simplicity is complete absence of potency to be one thing or another, that is, total determination to one mode of being and operation, but freedom is incompatible with total determination to one operation. So what then?

If we consider the indetermination of the freedom so far as it does not possess some determinate good, then freedom is not a perfection or a good. The lack of good is not a good. So far as we take freedom in this way, we don’t call God free; and so far as freedom is taken as a perfection, and therefore said of God, we throw out the idea of indetermination-in-the-sense-of lacking-good and keep only the more central perfection (say, self- possession, or being the Lord of ones action.) We might even keep the idea of indetermination so far as we mean that God’s action is not forced by another, or so far as he is responsible for it.

Again, the divine freedom, so far as there is a thing, cannot be defined without bringing in the notion of creation. The Son, for example, does not proceed from the Father’s will, but if this is the case, the divine freedom cannot be defined without relation to the imperfection of creation, and divine freedom is not taken as an absolute perfection, as though the possibility of freedom would remain if the imperfect (that is, creation) were not possible.


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