Two truths in theology and history

I’m fascinated by the intersection of historical claims and the Christian faith, but not enough to do the hard work of figuring out how history works. There does, however, seem to be a tension between history and theology, even while the Christian theology has an essential and irreducible historical core (and this in all the senses of “history”, not just “”concrete facts in the past” but “the inquiry into and exposition of past facts”)

Assume we have, say, rock solid evidence that Pilate was a no-nonsense judge, with no scruples about killing anyone for the sake of order (I’ve heard historians modify or contest this, but assume that it is firmly established). Turning to the Gospel accounts, we see a much more sympathetic Pilate, with a clear pragmatic side, but with genuine human feeling for Christ. Furthermore, obvious motives suggest themselves for why the early Church would want to make Pilate more sympathetic. So there is a tension in the accounts. So it seems we have evidence that, to bluntly avoid euphemism, the Gospel writers made stuff up. It’s of course not logically impossible that the Gospel accounts are true – perhaps Christ was an unusually sympathetic character to deal with, perhaps Pilate felt uncharacteristically soft and merciful on that chance day in April, etc. But history can’t move forward by allowing everything that is logically possible to be taken as a real possibility. This would utterly cripple the historian, and it is a bizarre criterion in itself. And so history seems to require taking the probable as the reasonable, and, in the case of Pilate, this seems to make it reasonable to assume the Christians made things up.

Now, of course, this is utterly repugnant to orthodox Christianity, so what then? The Christian can point to the fact that it is possible that the accounts are true, but is it necessary that he be able to transmute possibility into a historically reasonable claim? So do we have some sort of “two truths” doctrine here? In fact, if historical truth is what the theologian calls a probable opinion, and the theologian can admit that some historical facts need not be the ones that are most probable given the historical evidence we have, is there even a tension between the two truths? Why can’t something that is in fact false be what is most probable given the historical evidence that we have?

St. Thomas and the hiddenness of the inquiry into being

St. Thomas distinguishes two different ways of developing an idea: we either develop the idea on its own level of universality, or we develop some of the various less universal ideas that fall under it. Taken in the first way, we would develop the idea of animal by considering animals as animals (When do we have an animal as opposed to something else? What are the main sorts of animals? At what point did animals emerge in history? ) taken in the second way, we’d develop the ideas that we have of elephants or apes or mosquitoes or men, etc. Again, these are two ways of developing one idea, and so there is going to be an obvious dialectic between the two approaches. Nevertheless, the first approach is decidedly “horizontal”, that is, it stays on a certain level of universality and always stays on it, while the second approach develops an idea on a completely different plane of universality. In visual terms, the first develops an idea horizontally at one level of universality, the second develops the idea vertically by filling out lower levels of universality. Nevertheless, on this second approach, we still develop these lower ideas themselves “horizontally”, and so the two levels of analysis never intersect.

And so the development of any idea can be compared to drawing one-dimensional lines across a two-dimensional plane or possible analyses, that is, any line of inquiry has an infinite penumbra of forgotten reality, or indefinite analyses that are omitted as not only unconsidered but unconsiderable. Any line of analysis is only a line drawn across a plane of being – and this is true even of the line of analysis called “metaphysics”. It is certainly true of any line of analysis called “science”. Since “being” is the whole field of intelligible reality, then being is hidden to an indefinite degree in any line of inquiry, no matter how developed – even if it is infinitely developed by an ideal mind – so far as that mind is knowing by concepts more or less universal.

(N.B. What is crucial to the image is the division between the two lines of inquiry, so far as a higher one never meets up with or leads to the conclusions of the lower one. The “space” we visualize between the two lines of inquiry is of no value to the example, since degrees of universality are not infinite.)

We might even push the infinity of this penumbra further by noting that even our consideration here is limited to modes of universality. If we considered the methods of approach, we add a third dimension to things: for we not only can consider them by methods of analysis but also by artistic methods: poems, novels, myths; by demonstration or dialectics;  in their historical or philosophical character, etc.. These are different sorts of universals manifesting the idea in a different mode, and so the inquiry into being is now comparable to a three-dimensional solid that we still traverse with one-dimensional lines of inquiry.

(N.B. One counter-point to all this would be St. Thomas’s idea that human knowledge can be filled out and perfect, and that it in fact reached such a state in Christ. A central point of this claim is that there is a single term of inquiry: the species specialissima of things. A full account or critique of this idea of the hiddenness of things would have to take these into account.)

Argument for Buber and Marcel

Say that epistemology from Plato to Bergson was right to make the fundamental opposition of knowledge the opposition of subject and object. On this account, “object” is “whatever the subject knows” or “whatever is outside his cognitive power”. So what about when I speak to you about some object? I’m not speaking to an object about an object. “Speaking to an object” is just wrong – it’s the language of a disease, the language of autism. One can’t speak to an object – even when he is speaking to an animal or an inanimate thing, and certainly not when he is speaking to someone. We can say we are speaking about some thing even when we are discussing a person as a person, but we can never be speaking to something. The relations between I-you and I-it are not the same, but are four really different relations made from three terms, and the third (it) proceeds from the first two. Objects, therefore, can’t be constituted by being outside of me but properly by being outside of us so far as this “us” is constituted by the double relation I-you.

Aristotle’s theohedonics (pt. 1)

Aristotle does not go so far as to say that pleasure is the ultimate good, but he comes as close to it as one can get. The claim, however, comes with Aristotle’s striking and radically new account of what pleasure is, which argues, inter alia, that physical pleasures are not pleasures simply speaking and that nothing that comes with a vicious or degraded action can be called pleasant at all.

Aristotle’s definition of pleasure seems drawn from two principles: 1.) pleasure is something one is aware of, and so belongs to things that have knowledge (whether of sense, reason, etc.); and – a premise that follows from this 2.) pleasure should be understood by considering the way an activity like sight or knowledge is complete. In developing (2) Aristotle compares being pleased to actions building or walking and notes that pleasure is is whole and complete from the moment the action begins while building is not. After a few paragraphs of examples, Aristotle claims that pleasure is simply not a motion at all, and it therefore is not in time. Time is essential to some X only if the being of X requires development or change, but pleasure of itself is defined in opposition to this. Aristotle pushes this opposition further by claiming that changeable existence is the source of inconstancy, absence, and loss of pleasure.

It follows from this that the standard or measure of pleasure is the eternal knowledge and activity of a supremely and eternally existent being. The search for pleasure even in finite beings suggests a theistic proof  so far as it admits of no perfect explanation except when seen as a participation in the divine life.

J.W. Dunne’s incompleteness theorem

J.W. Dunne gives an example of a painter which (I think) can be appropriated to making a very suggestive incompleteness theorem.

Consider a man who wanted to paint the entire universe. He gets a canvas and starts painting the landscape in front of him, figuring that the rest of the universe will just involve filling in the details. He soon recognizes, however, that he has forgotten to include himself in the landscape. So he adds himself in, only to recognize that he now has to paint himself adding himself in. The regress doesn’t have to go though too many steps before the painter figures out that the picture must always be incomplete; and it is no more or less complete if he draws himself in or not. The mere fact that the painting is produced by someone requires that there must be some reality that it leaves out. But every science and art: metaphysics, physics, philosophy, myth, etc are produced. None of them, or even all taken together, can avoid leaving out some reality – though not just some reality, but a crucial, causative, fundamental one.

The division of thought from physics by dimensionality

Ruyer gives an explanation of “existing in a dimension” in his 1952 book Neo-finalisme that has since been given in other popular accounts of physics (Ruyer says that the explanation was popular even in his day). The explanation turns on considering what it would take to hide something from a being existing in one dimension, two dimensions, etc. For a being living in a two dimensional world (a “flatland”) we could hide a treasure simply by putting it inside a circular vault – though someone living in three dimensions outside of this could “magically” rifle the vault without even having to open the door. Those of us in the third dimension could, that is, pick out the treasure without even having to touch the walls of the vault, and just as easily make it reappear “from nowhere”. The residents of this flatland are not completely unaware of this sort of magical power, however – for they could see themselves as having a similar transcendence to those living in “line-land”. In line-land, the residents hide their treasures by putting them on the other side of points; though the residents of flatland could rifle this vault without even having to touch the point-wall, and could put the treasure back again “from nowhere”.

Ruyer draws a gorgeous conclusion from this: to be in a dimension means to have all the objects of a lower dimension “layed-out in from of oneself” in plain view. Said another way, it is existence in ones own dimension that allows for hiddenness, while at the same time making all in the lower dimensions unhidden. For us, three dimensional things are “solids”, just as two dimensional things are solids for those in flatland, and points are solids for those in line-land. This “solidity” consists in rendering things opaque to sensation. Solidity is whatever makes things invisible, untouchable, or somehow resistant to sense. More importantly, this “solidity” enters into language as “the real” or “the substantial”, and it is incoherent or “against common experience” that being would be anything other than the “solid”.

But not quite. The analogy shows us an aspect of the non-categorical concept of being that we already possess. We can  make higher dimensions thinkable and therefore such transcendence of a given dimensionality must enter into the possibilities of being at least in the intentional order. No given dimensionality can be essential to our notion of being. There is no value of N-dimensions that can serve as the limit of the one who understands being. This understanding is distinguished at its root from the understanding that is systematized from sense observation, i.e. science. To the extent that we are three dimensional, our physics will always be three-dimensional, or take this as a fundamental principle; for these three dimensions will be “space” in the same way that a 37-dimensional being would have a 37 dimensional physics which would take “space” as obviously 37-dimensional. “Three dimensions” would be nothing but a “mathematical abstraction” whose “real existence” would be an insurmountable problem in the philosophy of mathematics (no doubt there would be “Platonists” who argued that three dimensional beings “really exist”). For such a physics in higher dimensions, nothing in our “space” would be hidden or inaccessible – he could touch our spleen without having to go through our skin, and see any food in our stomach without having to look through anything (this would, in fact, require only a 4 dimensional existence, but we exaggerate for the sake of the ontological point). Taken in this way, physics is essentially dimensionally bound discourse, that is, a discourse that takes some given dimensionality as the standard of “the real” or even of “being”. One can define his terms as he chooses (though even here there are limits) but this cannot do away with the trans-categorical notion of being, truth, good, unity or otherness that cannot be restricted to taking some given dimensionality as a principle for the real.

Divine incoherence?

Victor Reppert links to an argument that no idea of God is coherent. Thesis one:

The words used to describe the deity seem at first sight to make sense. He (for it’s almost always “he”) is all-powerful, all-loving, all-knowing. He is the source of morality, and will punish the wicked and reward the deserving for all eternity. However, when unpacked, these phrases have no more meaning than Lewis Caroll’s Jabberwocky.

This might make for an interesting dialogue with theologians. St. Thomas, for example, argues that because…

 God is simple, and exists, we attribute to Him abstract names to signify His simplicity, and concrete names to signify His substance and perfection.

God is known both though abstract names (justice, personhood, dignity) and concrete names (person, just).  There is therefore some incoherence in our idea of God so far as we have no third class of terms, transcending the abstract and concrete, which unifies both in a single concept or reality. This problem of abstract and concrete naming is simply an extension of the more basic problem that, for St. Thomas 1.) God is only act (or “Pure Act”) and 2.) all subjectivity is potency. There is, therefore, no subject of pure act. If by “God” we mean that there is some subject with divine attributes, then there is no God. We can say God exists, but not that there is a subject of the divine existence. Do these ideas cohere? Don’t we have more the sense of forcing ideas together and holding them there like two repellent poles of different magnets? I’m pretty confident that what St. Thomas is saying here is true, but this does not mean that I think his idea of God comes together in a perfectly coherent way. Cajetan makes this point in a particularly emphatic way: and tough he makes the point in relation to the question whether God is Absolute or Relative (from trinitarian relations), the point he makes applies to what we have said here to the question whether God is concrete or abstract:

We err when, setting down the division between the absolute and relative as a principle, we imagine that this distinction between the absolute and relative is somehow prior to God; and that we consequently believe that we must place him in on one side of the distinction or the other. He is both opposites, since God is prior to being and to any of its oppositions: he is above being, above one, etc.

Cajetan even argues that this is necessary:

It is necessary that this be the case: for it is necessary that watever is most simple in itself be maximally one, and that one adequate formal ratio correspond to it, otherwise there would not be one thing that was per se and commensurately universal intelligible by which everything is known.

For Cajetan, the very possibility of distinction requires that this rest on an intelligible basis that transcends distinction. So far, this is pretty commonly accepted metaphysics. But the thomistic tradition – at least the part that goes through Cajetan – goes further by pointing out that if some reality is the basis for intelligible distinction, it must be prior to any of these distinctions. The basis of all distinction cannot be some subject falling on one side of the distinction. But even “being” is for us one side of a distinction, which is precisely why the first principle of our thought is the principle of contradiction. Thus, on this argument, the basis of our knowledge is a third option beyond p or ~p.

This points to an interesting and significant disagreement between atheists who give arguments from incoherence and natural theologians. We disagree about the significance of the lack of coherence we have in our notions of God. For the atheist, our inability to form a single, unified – or coherent – concept that brings together all that we know about God proves the idea is ridiculous and unthinkable; for the others, it is exactly what is necessary for thought, that is, (to develop an idea in Chesterton’s Orthodoxy) thought requires an unthinkable basis.

Christ’s pluralism

Aristotle begins his first great discourse on pleasure with an unexpected remark:

The study of pleasure and pain belongs to the province of the political philosopher; for he is the architect of the end, with a view to which we call one thing bad and another good without qualification.

So, for Aristotle, there seems to be a single court of final appeal for what is good or evil: political philosophy or statecraft. It’s crucial to see that this is an eminently rational opinion – one which Aristotle no doubt thought was logically necessary: if we lack one single court of final appeal, how will we avoid chaos and anarchy? If one person or body is not ultimately in charge, how is anyone in charge? Admitting two “final judges” means that some disputes are unresolvable even in principle- unless we are so polyannic as to assume that they will never come into conflict.

And yet this crazy pluralism is exactly what strikes Christians as necessary and reasonable since we recognize the necessity of civil society while at the same time having no religious civil code, even while we claim to make final and definitive pronouncements affecting the civil order. I have usually read Christ’s claim that he “brought not peace, but a sword” as simply another way of his restating that he is a “sign of contradiction”, but I wonder now if there is not a more radical sense to it: Christ insisted in the integrity and even autonomy of civil power and his Church, even though he knew that one need not wait long to hit upon some point upon which they disagree. Again, Christ develops his idea that he brings a “sword” by saying that “from now on five in one house will be divided: three against two, and two against three. Father will be divided against son and son against father…etc” Note first that Christ describes the world (before his return) as a “house divided”. This strikes a very ominous note, given that Christ is very clear that such a house cannot stand since it is set in fundamental contradiction with itself. Further, this contradiction is of father set against son: that is, the division in political order goes all the way to the root of political order.


-Ruyer: There is a contradiction between making intention and consciousness a pure effect of neural activity and the development and use of anesthetics. By definition, to use anesthetics is to make consciousness act upon neural activity. Something similar can be said about soundproofing a room or pulling the shades in order to get to sleep. For that matter, the choice to kill oneself – or, better, to find meaning in death – point towards the same thing.

– Say that Neutrino-faster-than-light experiment actually was confirmed. After a news-cycle of stories, we would go back to teaching Relativity as if nothing had happened, and it would be reasonable to do so. One sparrow doesn’t make a spring, and we have a great deal more conformational experience of Relativity than can be undone with a single result, no matter how confirmable. The same goes a fortiori for experiments against free will. The experiments are weak and objectionable as they stand – but even airtight results would objectively deserve no more than a shrug. It is only our fascination with evil – the glamor of evil – that makes us think otherwise.

-Heidegger is right that prior to any choice or awareness we are thrown into things, and find ourselves swept up in a stream that simply is going. Our past is already determining our future so far as the future is the set of possibilities we confront. This is the condition prior to life (or prior to the disclosure of being – which makes it being itself) – a dynamic, flowing, condition that man can never take control of – or, said another way, we can only control it in a way that already takes the dynamic, flowing condition as a given.

A poor-man’s version of the argument might go like this: [1.) man’s horizon of being is historical], but history does not progress like tree development progresses – i.e. through something like an atemporal form working out its possibilities in time. There is something deserving to be called a species or nature or eidos of a living thing- not in the sense of a classification but in the sense of some governing principle set over a process of development to maturity. But [2.) history has no eidos,] and so being – at least so far as being is that field of disclosure where entities can appear, which is exactly what Heidegger thinks it is – has no eidos.

Aristotle tamed the motion of the natural world by making all motion analogous to life – i.e. the working out of an eidos. But Aristotle himself saw that this wouldn’t work if history had to enter into an account of the reality of things, that is, if we called on history to do the work that philosophy (to his mind) had to do. If it ever came to this, we’d be better off handing over everything to the poets (which seems to be something like what Nietzsche suggested).

Dekoninck deserves mention too – for he saw God as supreme over history, as man’s good within it (a life lived according to prudence), and yet also saw that history had no eidos.  One can only speak of God’s providence as a per se cause of being so far as the per accidens is also a part of being too. It’s hard to see how this is anything but the insistence that God is the per se cause of what has no per se cause, but even if one was not so glib with it, there is still a rapprochement between CDK and Heidegger. In other texts, CDK will say that history enters into being only on the side of matter, by which he probably means matter so far as it is not dominated by form (or eidos). In the measure that form dominates matter, it either is a man or is tending to one.  This is why CDK says that, if nature were given immediately after the big bang, one could necessarily conclude from this that man must come forth from it. If this is laughable, what are we left with?

Don’t always distinguish

In the (corrupted?) Scholastic tradition, “distinguish” has become a fraternity password or cheerleader-slogan. All problems and paradoxes are seen as mechanically calling forth the need to “distinguish!” The irony is that what is most loveable in the great Scholastics is not their distinctions but their syntheses and unifications. Distinction itself is purely ad hoc, arbitrary and hateful unless it can reduce to some evident principle that allows for the distinction itself.

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