Knowing God as opposed to naming him (iii)

My central interest in the divine names is this: we name God using both an abstract and a concrete names, but while we have no name which transcends this difference (and so no one adequate name for God himself), it is not clear that we have no thought which transcends it (our thought of being or reality or whole, etc. might have a sort of infinity that cannot be captured by a word.) In some ways, this is an odd position to find myself in – shouldn’t I just be able to look in myself and know if I know something that transcends the difference between the abstract and the concrete? Still, there are obvious reasons why I become confused about what I was seeing inside myself as soon as I try to speak of it.

A propos this There is a fascinating text from Contra Gentiles III. 51 which argues that God alone can be the happiness of the intellectual nature because he alone transcends the division between what we name in abstraction or concretion.

A substance that is subsisting of itself is either nothing but a form or a composite of matter and form. Now what is composed of matter and form cannot be the form of another because the form that is in it is contracted to a particular matter…But something that is only a form can be the form of another since its being is such that it can be participated in by another – which we showed was the case with the human soul (supra. Bk. II)  For if it could not be participated in by another, it could not be the form of something, for it would be determined in itself just as a material thing is determined by matter. Now just as we can consider this in substantial or natural being, so we can consider it in intelligible being, namely, because the perfection of the intellect is the true, so too the intelligible thing that would be nothing but form is truth itself. But only God is truth itself, since truth follows existence and God alone is his own existence (supra. Bk. II)

Now other separated substances are not  pure forms in the intelligible order, but are forms possessed in some subject: e.g. no true reality is the truth any more than a particular being (ens) is being itself (ipsum esse). So it’s clear that the divine essence can be compared to a created intellect as the intelligible species by which it understands; which is not the case for the essence of a separated  substance.

substantia quae est per seipsam subsistens, est vel forma tantum, vel compositum ex materia et forma. Illud igitur quod ex materia et forma compositum est, non potest alterius esse forma: quia forma in eo est iam contracta ad illam materiam…. Illud autem quod sic est subsistens ut tamen solum sit forma, potest alterius esse forma, dummodo esse suum sit tale quod ab aliquo alio participari possit, sicut in secundo ostendimus de anima humana. Si vero esse suum ab altero participari non posset, nullius rei forma esse posset: sic enim per suum esse determinatur in seipso, sicut quae sunt materialia per materiam. Hoc autem, sicut in esse substantiali vel naturali invenitur, sic et in esse intelligibili considerandum est. Cum enim intellectus perfectio sit verum, illud intelligibile erit ut forma tantum in genere intelligibilium quod est veritas ipsa. Quod convenit soli Deo nam cum verum sequatur ad esse, illud tantum sua veritas est quod est suum esse, quod est proprium soli Deo, ut in secundo ostensum est. Alia igitur intelligibilia subsistentia sunt non ut pura forma in genere intelligibilium, sed ut formam in subiecto aliquo habentes: est enim unumquodque eorum verum, non veritas; sicut et est ens, non autem ipsum esse. Manifestum est igitur quod essentia divina potest comparari ad intellectum creatum ut species intelligibilis qua intelligit: quod non contingit de essentia alicuius alterius substantiae separatae.

Courting as opposed to dating

Alan Bloom mentions in passing that “Dating is the dessicated shell of courting”. Though I think I get what he means, the formulation obscures more than it reveals.

First of all, we still use the word “courting”: google the word a bit and you get all sorts of interesting hits that show the word gets used all the time outside of romantic relationships. For example, it gets used all the time in business and marketing: we easily speak of  “courting sales for your small business” or “courting Heinz for the mustard account” or “courting customers for Windows 8”.  What we mean is that our primary goal in what we are doing is to persuade someone into making a commitment that they wouldn’t make of themselves unless we put in some serious work. Courting has no value apart from inking the deal, so much so that no one would want the process to be longer than necessary. Ceteris paribus, we’re better at courting to the extent that we can minimize the amount of time we spend before inking the big deal, though we know that a big deal is only a big one if it’s going to take a good deal of time to close.

But this is not how we tend to look at dating. The end goal is vague and even seen as repugnant, and we don’t see the point as getting it over as getting to a permanent deal as quickly as possible. Most teenagers or twentysomethings do not see dating as the sort of thing you should get over as quickly as possible, and they are offended by the thought that you should have to talk someone into a permanent deal. Shouldn’t they just like you more or less from the get-go? We know what romantic courting would be but we don’t want to do it because we don’t view the relation of men and women as needing it. Courting persons is for salesmen or businessmen – not for lovers.

Right or wrong, dating sees non-marital romantic relationships as ends in themselves and not as preludes to anything. Such relationships are not pre-marital, except accidentally. Dating also comes from a more irenic view of the relation between men and women – men don’t have to go out and “win women” or work to convince them to be brides, and they even see it as degrading or unjust to have to do so. Women are perhaps less convinced of the value of dating over courtship (it’s hard to see how dating is more in their interest, as it deprives them of a great deal of leverage and makes women have to move faster in romantic matters than they naturally want to go) but many of them have to play along and pretend to like guys from the beginning.


Thinking of vs. naming God (ii)

What is the relevant difference between thinking of and naming God?

Aristotle: words are signs of thoughts whereas thoughts are similitudes of things. If the answer is here, it’s in the opposition between signs and similitudes.

Aristotle again: words are substitutes for things, which (in addition to whatever else they do) serve a social function. This second point, however, can be taken as just a development of the first: signs are substitutes while similitudes are not; and signs are essentially to make something known to another, whereas similitudes are not.

So let’s assume that the peculiarity of thoughts about God is that they take place in the sphere of transcendentals, or things that are not limited to any one category. This even seems to be true of what we deny about God: change, being caused, the physical, being in a genera, etc. are not limited to a category, but are very illuminating when denied of God. So if this were the right approach, then the relevant difference between naming and thinking about God is the difference between the signs of the transcendental and the similitudes to the transcendental.


Thinking of vs. naming God (pt. 1)

A: So we agree that St. Thomas thinks God is ipsum esse subsistens?

B: Yes.

A: This doesn’t seem to be one idea to me, but two. Ipsum esse is an abstract term, that is, it is opposed to “this” or “that” esse or existence; and “esse” is an abstract term anyway. But to say something is “subsistent” requires that we see it as concrete. But we have no category that transcends the abstract and concrete. Every name we use is either abstract or concrete.

B: I’ll allow your first two claims, but the last seem too fast and loose to me: Let’s label them:

1.)  Every name we use is either abstract or concrete, therefore

2.) We have no thought that transcends the abstract and concrete

But the first is a statement about names, and the second is a statement about categories. There are two errors here: the first is that the first claim doesn’t allow you to say anything about categories except so far as they are principles of names; and the second is that, even if one concedes that we can conclude from 1 to 2, we still have thoughts that are neither abstract nor concrete. Abstract and concrete are categories of names, and not all of our thought is categorical.

A: What are these thoughts that are neither abstract nor concrete?

B: Our thought of reality, thing, existence, whole, perfect, actual, and many others. Even “cause” is neither abstract nor concrete, it seems to me. I know what I mean when I say that I was moved by the desire for justice, but in this sense an abstract thing is motivating me and therefore is a cause.

A: I’ll have to pass over that last claim about causes – though pretty much every contemporary philosopher disagrees with it. There is a more basic problem: reality is just an abstract term.

B: But this a feature of language and not of thought. Categories are just tools for organizing things you already know, not limitations placed on what you can know. Categories presuppose non-categorical thoughts. Consider it this way: a category is like a limited sphere of discourse or of some nature. We can visualize it like a branch on a Porphyrian tree. But your idea of being or reality or whole (or a hundred other things) is not a category.

A: So you are saying that ipsum esse subsistens admits of no unity in the mode of signification, but it can still have some sort of unity in thought?

B: I think so, though the connctions between thought and naming is very intimate, and so we’ll need to say more about this.

Calvino’s Card Game and the appearances of nature

Von Uexküll  said that nature teaches no doctrines, it simply presents appearances that a scientists can take as answers to the questions they ask. The idea can be given concrete expression (and universalized) by Calvino’s Card Game metaphor.* Put briefly, you come to a party and a host escorts you to a table where everyone is completely silent. A card game is in process and you are dealt a hand, but the cards are no the familiar suits but have tarot-like images on them. One player after another lays down a card face-up, moving in clockwise fashion so that you become convinced that your turn is coming up. So what do you do?  All options are in play: it’s not clear whether you should play this game at all, and you could choose to play or not on the basis of a thousand different motives. Maybe you bolt from the table because you think this is an occult seance or maybe you stay because you think the same thing. Maybe you keep sitting because you are just the sort of person that lets situations play out, or maybe you stay because you think the cards are pretty, or maybe you despise the game but find one of the players attractive. But if you stay, you’ll probably try to figure out what to do by looking at the cards (though it’s not a given that the cards are what you should be looking at).  So someone lays down a card with a man holding a sword triumphantly while standing over a dead lion, the next lays down a card with a red dragon. Both cards are also festooned with a good number of curlicues and decorative patterns, some being other pictures, others numbers. So what are you supposed to do? You need to find some sort of pattern (what Aristotle would call a paradigm or form, but which also gets called a rule) in order to play, but where will you look for it and what sort of ability will uncover it for you? What does it mean to act well? If the paradigm is a narrative, that is, if all the players are attempting to tell an unfolding story, then you need poetic or myth-making or literary skill to play well. If this game is an expression of some sort of basic mathematical pattern, then you need mathematical skill to play well. IF this is all some elaborate seance or religious ritual, then you need occult skill or priest-craft in order to play well. That said, you also might be able to convince everyone you’re playing well (even yourself) without in fact knowing the rules at all. Perhaps there just happens to be some mathematical structure in a paradigm that isn’t fundamentally mathematical at all, the way that Shakespeare’s plays were divided into five acts. Then again, there could just as easily be a narrative appearance to something that is fundamentally mathematical.

And so Von Uexkull’s point can be universalized: nature appears to us (which is not the same as saying nature is an appearance) but the appearances are not such that the scientific account is objective while the literary or religious account is not. Objectivity is the way in which the players of the game respond to our plays or to each other, or perhaps the way in which they respond well to our plays. But the very possibility of this response cannot be entirely separated from the paradigm, pattern, or form we are working from. This paradigm/rule/form has an obvious subjective element, but at the same time one of the reasons we value this element is because it facilitates playing well, i.e. because it is the actual rule or form at play in the game. In fact – and this is one of my main take-aways from Calvino’s card game – patterns, forms, rules, and paradigms all transcend the opposition between the subjective and objective. If they did not, there is no sense to objectivity at all – which in turn makes an idea like “subjectivity” either false or superfluous. Subjectivity and objectivity, and even the knower and the known, are all of themselves in darkness, and are only brought forth by that form which illumines and instantiates them without being limited to either of them.


*What follows is not the same as what Calvino said, but his Card-Game metaphor is so powerful and universal it is inevitable that it get told in many ways – some of which he might well have thought totally missed the point. But his metaphor was bigger than any one expression – like the “brain in a vat” or the evil deceiver,  it could never be kept within the confines of what its author wanted wanted to say.

If the Trinity is the height of revelation, what could the revelation be?

Principle: The Trinity of God is the summit of all revelation.

So we have to speak of the Trinity in a way that faithfully conveys the idea of it being the greatest thing that could be revealed. But if modalism/ Sabellianism is true, then, at its heart, the revelation of the Trinity is nothing more than God does three different things. But we need no revelation to know this, so it makes no sense to call it the greatest possible revelation. Again, if Arianism is true, then the revelation of the Trinity amounts to saying God has a special relationship with the most special creature; but this is a tautology, and so we obviously need no revelation to know it. (We can leave off a discussion of Tritheism, since it is not a doctrine anyone advances but only an accusation of the ineptitude of another’s belief.)

So what about utter mysterianism? First of all, the name is inept – what one means to say is that the point of the revelation of the Trinity was to show that God was wholly unknowable. But this seems to be an even worse option than the other two since the whole point of revelation is to make something known to another. If the point was simply to convince us of ignorance, why bother saying so much about the Son and the Holy Spirit? Either the revelation of the Son and the Spirit tells us something about God or it doesn’t; if so, then mysterianism is false; if not, then the revelation is false – though one would only posit mysterianism to explain the truth of some revelation and so, on this second option, mysterianism becomes superfluous. If we say there is no Son of God, we need no theory (whether mysterianism or any other) to give an account of what role the Son of God might play in the life of God himself. Muslims or Buddhists are not mysterians about the Trinity, they simply do not assert that such a being was revelaed,  and therefore have no need for a theory of the revelation.

Substance, accident, relation (pt. II)

Substance is existence simply, accident is dependent existence, relation is co-existence.

Dependency in existence is inequality with respect to it, while co-existence is equality. Therefore relations are distinguished from accidents according to their existence.

While relations are not substances, they suggest substances: a parade, a church, a family and a state are all constituted by relations. Corporations, though constituted by relations, very much suggest persons. Still, this is a metaphor and so what is said relatively is not said substantially.

Objection: there is an inequality in all the things you mentioned; in fact, relations seem to be nothing but a way of standing to a first thing. Where is the co-existence that makes for equality?

Response: to know any of these as unequal requires more information than knowing they are relative, whereas ontological inequality and subordination is of the definition of an accident.

Substance, accident, relation

ST 1. 28. 2.

In the genera, apart from that of “relation,” as in quantity and quality, even the true idea of the genus itself is derived from a respect to the subject; for quantity is called the measure of substance, and quality is the disposition of substance. But the true idea of relation is not taken from its respect to that in which it is, but from its respect to something outside.

We explain the quantity, quality, place, moment, etc. in relation to the thing that is so much, or such a sort, in some place, at some moment, etc. But we explain relation with respect to the other that the thing is relative to.

The word “Trinity”

There is a genius to even the word “trinity” as a name for the mystery. Grammatically, the word is easy enough: when Latin wants to turn an adjective into an abstract noun, it adds “-itas” to the word stem; and so, for example, if you want to turn “heavy/ serious” into “heaviness/ seriousness” you take the stem “grav-” and make it “gravitas”. This “-itas” ending then falls into English as “-ity”, which gives us “gravity” or our target word “Trinity”.  So “Trinity” means exactly the same thing as “three-ness”. But what does it mean to say the threeness is GodThreeness is not a not a triple, for example; is it no more triple than the force of gravity is heavy. If trinity were triple, it would be referred to in the plural (trinities), but it isn’t. Like all nouns in the singular, if it subsisted as it is signified it would be one and not many; and so if the trinity so subsisted, it would be one. Following the Thomistic rule set out below, we speak of the simplicity of God by using abstract terms. But trinity is precisely such a term.

A divine uncertainty principle

Objections to St. Thomas’s doctrine of divine simplicity get made from all sides. The objections are usually ones St. Thomas formulated himself, and so one can always got to the relevant texts to get a response. But he also formulated an interesting principle about the divine simplicity that he never used to respond to objections:

Because we know and name God from creatures, the names we give to God signify what belongs to material creatures…. And because in material creatures  what is perfect and subsistent is compound… whereas names given to signify simple forms, signify a thing not as subsisting… for instance, whiteness signifies that whereby a thing is white. Therefore, since God is both simple and subsisting, we attribute to Him abstract names to signify His simplicity, and concrete names to signify His substance and perfection, although both these kinds of names fail to express His mode of being, inasmuch as our intellect does not know Him in this life as He is.

And so when we want to understand the divine simplicity, we should use abstract names as opposed to concrete ones, and so it follows that to the degree that we want to understand God as existent or as a subject with properties, we cannot understand his simplicity; and to the extent that we get a clear view of his simplicity, we lose sight of his actual existence. A theistic proof might show God is real, but the development of this proof requires seeing that God is reality. But the second horn of this dilemma must be kept as a real dilemma: it is too easy to simply collapse the abstract name down into the concrete one.  If we took the statement that God is reality in a pantheistic way, for example, we would simply collapse the claim “God is reality” into “God is all these real things around us” which silently replaces the abstract name with a collective name (which is simply a mode of concrete existence). Again, if we understand “God is reality” or “God is truth” as meaning that God is some sort of property or feature of real things or of true thoughts, or even that he is some exemplar or supremely true or real being, we again silently replace the abstract with a concrete subsistent thing. In fact, saying “God is being/reality itself” can easily be understood as a vacuous honorific. The characteristic thomist divine title, Ipsum esse subsistens, is, for us, necessarily a dual idea: we cannot simultaneously understand Ipsum esse (Existence itself, which is the summit of his simplicity) and subsisting. The title has to be understood as specifying what is for us a duality which we can know reduces to a reality which we can only know as behind the duality.

And so on the one hand, if we are to have any sense of the divine simplicity, it has to be based on an account of why we think God exists at all; but on the other hand we have to recognize that we only understand this simplicity in the measure that we separate our ideas of simplicity from our ideas of what is concrete and existent. There is a divine uncertainty principle (purely epistemic) that stipulates we can understand either the divine existence or the divine simplicity, but not both with precision. To the extent we understand God as existing, we will be unable to see his simplicity, and vice versa. This could serve as a general response to many objections to the doctrine of divine simplicity.

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