The asymmetry of defeasibility for atheists and Christians

Victor Reppert links to a defeasibility argument. The giver of the argument claims that it is a prerequisite of rational discourse about theism or atheism for the arguer to be able to state under what conditions he would not believe what he believes. Reppert gives one critique of the argument, but mine is different from his:  even if we take a bird’s-eye view of the question of theism and atheism, putting aside the question whether one side is right, we don’t need to think that both sides must be equally ready to declare defeasibility conditions. Belief is not the same thing for a theist and an atheist since for the theist this belief is bound up with another (namely, God) while for the atheist it is not. Perhaps if we consider believing merely as an epistemic response to evidence we can insist on equal defeasibility conditions, the fact remains that there is more to, say, Christian belief than response to evidence. Belief is also a personal relationship with another, and so to ask such a person for defeasibility conditions is to ask him for the conditions under which he would sever or destroy his relationship. But not all relationships come with specified conditions under which they can be severed. You can’t ask me for the conditions under which I would divorce my wife or disown my children or nullify a federal law. I’m bound by vows and natural laws to certain relationships that don’t come with conditions for severance, or at least no condition that just allows both parties to just nicely go our separate ways.

So at the very least, there does not seem to be parity between atheist and theist defeasibility demands. The relevant belief is not a matter of personal relationship for the atheist as it is for Christians and other believers.

An epistemic infinity paradox, suggested by Naturalism and fine-tuning arguments

Scientists are confronted with things the sciences can’t explain all the time – why do research on something that’s been all figured out? Most of the things that aren’t explained are passed over without notice, but every now and again one finds some non-explained things that cause persons to wonder if we shouldn’t explain them by appealing to God (e.g. the “fine tuning” of the constants in the Standard Model, the low-entropy of the early universe… I’ve even seen fine tuning arguments based on the fact that ice floats). This sense that the absence of a physical law is of theological significance hits some more than others – for some the thought is like a daydream that they would feel strange to say out loud and for others it’s a hardened axiom that we could only fail to acknowledge if we were under the grip of a malevolent, materialist ideology. To someone who sees these problems as interesting research areas, and even chances to win Nobel prizes, such theological speculation is infuriating or at least inappropriate.

It seems that the two responses are mutually exclusive and exhaust all options: either the cause is natural or above nature. But it is possible for both approaches to the problem to be substantially correct. Human knowledge, especially as extended in the sciences,  is infinite, and so we can always expect both that we will find a scientific answer to a scientific question while at the same time knowing that to complete this process once and for all would involve a contradiction. Science is infinite but (or therefore) not possibly complete, and so it must relate to the unknown-that-must-be-explained as necessarily explained by a natural cause but never in such a way as to move closer to a totality. The Naturalist is thus right that the universe is causally closed in the sense that there will never be some phenomena that will not eventually be reducible to a natural cause, but this happens precisely because a complete science is a contradiction and so the very ability we have to always find a natural cause also guarantees that this search cannot terminate in a complete explanation. Infinite causes and descriptions are not all possible causes and descriptions.

And so the experimental sciences have an infinity-paradox of their own in that any given phenomena can be explained by a natural cause while (necessarily) not all can be. When we deny the finitude of the ignorance that is gradually driven out by the advance of the sciences, then the “God in the gaps” ceases to be a fallacy, for even an infinite advance of the sciences cannot exhaust that which must be explained in relation to some cause.

Physics and me-paradoxes

– Motion is only relative. But somehow I still know I am moving my arm, finger, mouth.

-If the past or future exists, who is preforming my conscious acts? If I’m not aware of doing them, aren’t they being done unconsciously?

-When I am treated as a complex wave function, I don’t count as an observer. So how do I count as an observer?


an anthropology

An intellect must transcend what it knows, and so be ontologically superior to it (in the Kantian sense of “transcends”)

The declension of intellects terminates, which requires subintellectual being as such.

The material universe exists so that the lowest intellect has something to know as a proper object.

The subintellectual realm, though known by the lowest intellects, must still be known by a means appropriate to it, and so is known somehow by sensation.

Sensation must arise in a way appropriate to a subintellectual realm, and so by chance, random selection, and in ways with no essential or intrinsic connection to intellect. Providence itself must work within mere narratio or the chance of history.

Sensation is not merely the proximate organs of vision, but the nerve endings, brain, etc.

The brain at once allows for thought and is utterly outside of it, just as the subintellectual exists only to make a sort of thought possible and yet is the only thing existing outside of intellect.

Catullus on the confounding or destruction of number

Catullus poem V climaxes in the poet asking three times for a thousand then a hundred kisses. Anyone reading this (especially teenage and twenty-something Latin students) finds it hard to avoid simply counting them up. Catullus seems to recognize this and so immediately includes that he wants “many thousands” more.  But the genius of the poem is what he adds immediately after this as a conclusion:

conturbabimus illa, ne sciamus,  11 we will confuse that [number] so as not to know it
aut ne quis malus inuidere possit,  12 or lest some malicious could blight them, 
cum tantum sciat esse basiorum. 13 when he knows that our kisses are so many.

We will confound/ confuse/ destroy that number (conturbabimus), lest we might know it, or lest anyone might blight it when they look on it.  It would be degrading to count kisses or think that we were the master over them. The sign of love, in order to signify the love at all, must confound number and measurement. No one would miss the point of the poem more profoundly than the one who set the number of kisses equal to (4.3 x 10^3) + (1000x), and the conclusion of the poem shows exactly why this is to miss the point. Catullus knows that we are somehow the master of those things that we can count or number, which is why the mastery of nature is based on analysis through some measure-number.

Love for man is friendship and so presupposes something equal to us. It does not have the sort of ontological inferiority that is presupposed to the things we are justly able to measure and therefore dominate. While measure-numbers can enter into love  in various ways (anniversaries being an obvious case) they cannot enter into it as signs of limitation or termination, i.e. as signs of “exactly this much and no more”.  A 35-year anniversary that was taken as terminating the marriage would, whatever else it was, not be a sign of the friendship of the marriage itself. Any measure-numbers of love only make sense as participations in some unlimited thing, of the life that is perfecta possessio et tota simul.


A separate but related idea:

To know, properly speaking, involves the transcendence of an object and therefore superiority to it, and so Thomism says that the proper object of human knowledge is something-or-other concretized in sensible matter. As one physicist put it ( in a half-ironic but very illuminating way which betrayed far more about physics than even he could have known), reality is what we can put in a box. But this leaves the obvious problem of how we know either what is equal or superior to us. What do we say about the sort of thing that can’t be put in a box – i.e. would be destroyed if it were limited, tagged, and caged?

This is why Aristotle predicates the very possibility of knowing what is higher than us – metaphysics – on the necessity that the gods are not jealous, i.e. that they might share their own knowledge with us. Commenting on this, St. Thomas says that metaphysics is deo mutuatum, i.e. knowledge that is borrowed from God. No one knows quite what this means, but an entry point into the idea is through the consideration of how we know our friends as friends (where “friendship” is taken in the broad – and I think more correct – sense that includes both philia, eros and agape.) This can’t be knowledge properly speaking either, even if it is knowledge in some way.

The plotlessness of porn

Porn is plotless. I don’t just mean it happens to have no plot (which may or may not be true) but that plot is something is inessential and even repugnant to it. I remember seeing an ad in the sports page like “any three hours of Adult video for twenty bucks!” This conjures up the image of a vendor measuring out yards of film like fabric or rope and then chopping it off at some requested length. Where one starts or finishes is of no value, nor does it matter how many different reels he bundles together. Obviously, you couldn’t sell other sorts of movies by making random cuts in the narrative.

Two conclusions:

-Etymologically, obscene means “off stage”. It’s not that the acts of themselves are dirty or bad or good for adults to watch but not children, but that they are incompatible with things that happen on stage – stories, development of characters, etc. There are disputes at the margins here that I don’t want to get into (what about Nabakov?!!?) but obscene can still count as a literary and aesthetic critique. It makes for bad literature because it is incompatible with the essential structure of literature. The obscene is outside of the structure and alien to it – think of the cliche of the teenage boy flipping to “the page” in Tropic of Cancer. And yes I know that they do the same thing in the Inferno to read Dante say “shit” or in The Iliad to read about heads falling to the ground with the teeth still chattering. But there is still plenty of ways to see the obscene as anti-art, especially as anti-literature.

-Much of sexual morality only makes sense when we see sexual acts in the larger context of life. If life simply stopped after sexual activity, the way it can in a video edit, then we might form a far different judgment about it than we do. Adultery in porn might happen in some disconnected fantasy world that can be neatly cut off with edits from ones actual life, but adultery in actual life is an immeasurably messier and nastier business. The idea of no sex except between a man and woman married for life might make no sense at all when considered abstractly or according to a few anecdotes or movie-characterizations, but it makes a good deal more sense in the actual concrete web of human relations in which we find ourselves.

One downside of this is that traditional sexual morality is, in fact, more difficult to defend than one might hope. The traditional morality does not make sense when taken as a mere application of a priori rules, nor does it make much sense when sexual activity is considered in abstraction from human life.  Its strongest case is in the concrete experiences of thousands of different contingent consequences, but this makes both universal rules and anecdotes hard to argue from. Any one adulterer might ruin his life, but the way in which it got ruined was in large part contingent, and anyone who hears his story might imagine that he could avoid the same consequences. Any one guy might have sex outside of marriage and think things work out fine, it is only from larger experience that we might see he is the exception to the rule or that he only thinks it all worked out because he has no idea what he is missing. Again, another problem is that so much that is wrong with the acts is interior: the sense of divided loyalty, of betrayal, of not wanting persons but merely satisfactions, etc. I’m not arguing here – my whole point is that an abstract argument is of limited value. But I would claim (to end on the original point) that the abstraction of sex from life that one finds in porn, i.e. its essential plotlessness or anti-plot character, trains us to see sex outside of life. We see it in a way it cannot exist, and so it cannot clearly manifest itself as good or evil.


If we could identify all truth about the world with (one portion of) logos, we would instantly lose all sense of why it was significant or important to do so. It would simply be a fact, certainly not worthy of reverence and even devoid of significance. Idem aliter: if the sciences disappeared tomorrow, or died in a blaze like some great civilization, would there be any scientific lament over their loss? Isn’t it pure gibberish to speak of “scientific lament”? Isn’t it as ridiculous as trying to imagine a scientifically created monument?

(Comte – the first partisan of what’s now called “scientism” – is interesting to consider in relation to all this. We have the blueprints that he drew for temples of reason to be set up to honor the “saints” of science and reason. Such temples never caught on since, as I’m arguing here, they are radically incompatible with the fundamental claim of Positivism, which of itself has no ability to see that truth is venerable or even significant, only at best adaptive or useful.)

Mythos cannot be dismissed as a mere way of identifying with a group or as an awareness that gives us no truth about the world, as opposed to the “hard facts” and “evidence” of logos. It is not what contemporary people call subjective when they mean false. To reduce all truth to logos would be like trying to understand the area of a triangle by reducing the height to the base.

Seeing the truth of mythos through monuments

There is a truth claim to a monument. First and most obviously this subject is monumental- that is, of historical significance, worth remembering, and worthy of reverence. This is why there is something absurd, ugly, and ultimately false in the monuments and personality cults of, say, the Soviets or the North Koreans. For the same reason, the monument can only symbolize but cannot completely create reverence. It concretizes cultural reverence, which itself must be judged by and based on the nature of things.

The truth of the monument is a particularly vivid case of the truth one finds in art, and which can only be found in art. We cannot replace the monument with a proposition, nor do we experience the truth of the monument in a propositional manner. One does not conclude to the truth of a monument, he simply stands within it. Again, the truth of a conclusion or an axiom can be had without entering into its significance, but the truth (or falsity) of the monument cannot be. And so while we first spoke of the truth of art as the logos speaks of truth (as a proposition), this was only for the sake of illustration. The truth of mythos is other than this, though it is just as much of a truth.


Notes on Rousselot’s “What we call science, St. Thomas called art.”

1.) Both science and art necessarily rest on idealizations. Literature has characters, painting has subjects, science rests on idealizations of experience that either cannot be confirmed or cannot exist: inertia, black boxes, ideal gasses, test particles, gravitational falls (that do not have to overcome inertia), closed systems, etc. (Duhem mentions several pages worth more).

2.) For all of its PR about seeking truth, real life science frequently only cares about this to the extent that truth can make things. Quantum Theory from the 30’s to the 90’s make for a good case study of this. If something gets practical results, those who question its theoretical foundations are marginalized or completely ignored (de Broglie, Bohm, and even to some extent Einstein.)

3.) Art has always claimed a special place in giving meaning to life since beauty get pride of place as an answer to the chaos or disorder of life (which is particularly clear in monuments and memorials). Our contemporary opinions on science seem to tug towards the idea that the sciences should take over this highest function of art, either by appropriating to themselves the power of mythos or (what might come to the same thing) by showing us that this highest function is based on a lie and an illusion.

Comtemporary visual art (pt. II)

(Part 1 here)

A: But then what about the other sort of contemporary visual art: the sort that makes the news reels, and which we all tend to associate with “contemporary visual art”?

Painter: Something like Cy Twombley? His stuff sells for big money.

A: Exactly.

P: Well, a lot of that stuff is motivated by relativism: the denial that there is any art; the claim that art is whatever it is for me; the idea of “who’s to say what’s art and what isn’t?”

A: Relativism gets mentioned a lot, but there’s something unsatisfying about the answer. One problem is that no one ever considers himself a relativist – and the reason is because, even if he really were a relativist, his relativism can only consist in a way of seeing all things relative to some absolute. So what must be absolute for someone like Twombley?

P: I hadn’t thought of it that way, but it seems right that this whole thing would have burned out long ago if it were nothing but an adolescent moaning about “what is art? Who’s to say?” But there is a more substantial argument or even insight at work. Ever since cubism and through the various sorts of expressionism, abstract art, etc, there is a sense that the concrete image is not what the artist is trying to capture, but something spiritual behind the concrete.  There’s something really true about this. If you’re trying to convey to the world what it is for you to look at your daughter, they’re going to have to find more than her picture in a random pile of kid pictures. You want them to see the significance of the picture.

A: Wow, what an argument! Contemporary visual art is at once a critique of beauty and a claim to perfect it beyond being a mere striving after beauty!

P: Huh?

A: Contemporary art is trying to push beyond form (and in this sense, dispose of beauty) while at the same time attain to the transcendent reality behind form (and in this sense, attain what beauty has always been striving for.)

P: That seems right. The artists of the last hundred years or so are at their most sympathetic and understandable when they explain how they are reaching for some spiritual reality beyond the materialism of the concrete image.

A: But you wonder if it all doesn’t fall under the Greek proverb that the one who strives to be a god becomes a beast.

P: (laughing)

A: I don’t get it.

P: I was reminded of what I did last week in class. I feel kind of guilty about doing it. We were just talking about Cy Twombley, right? So I showed the class a few slides of Twombley’s stuff. The whole idea was to not judge things to quickly but to try to pull out the artistic elements in them. So the students all said nice things about Twombley – if you were there you might have even given that eloquent defense of transcending beauty. But then, without telling them, I started showing slides of art made by chimps.

A: You got me.

« Older entries