Dialogue on some corollaries of metaphysical arguments

A: … and that’s a version of the cosmological argument that I think is sound.

B: Look, we could argue over the details of this argument all day; people use logic to prove all sorts of things, but these logical arguments all get us nowhere.

A: I don’t get it – you call the argument “logical”, but as opposed to what? Would you prefer an illogical one? A poetic one?

B: No, I guess I was thinking about your premises: you say things like “if something is contingent, then it is caused by another”. But you don’t point to any data when you say that, you just rely on it having an intuitive appeal.

A: You wan’t data for that? Okay… here, look at this rock. It could get picked up, or not. (Picks it up, drops it)  There. Something contingent was caused by another.

B: But that’s not what I meant by “data” – I mean that there’s nothing empirical in the argument that we could use to make predictions or test.

A: But isn’t that true of the Pythagorean theorem too?

B: Yes, but mathematical things are strange and we don’t understand them very well. At any rate, I am only talking about things in the world, and so mathematical ideas aren’t relevant. As long as you’re making a claim about the real world, which you are, you need empirical ideas that are useful and testable.

A: So your working from an idea that there are “mathematical things” and “things in the world” the whole problem is that speaking about God is a claim about the world?

B: Right.

A: But God isn’t in the world – that’s the whole point of the argument, isn’t it? “The world” is whatever we see around us, and God is divided from that as a cause from an effect. In this sense, even though he is not a mathematical thing, he is divided from “things in the world” just as mathematical things are. Given this, we should expect arguments about divine things to be proven in a different way than empirical or mathematical things.

B: You can’t have it both ways: if you are going to set up a cause-effect relation between God and the world, there has to be some interaction between them – otherwise the world will do what it does regardless of whether God exists or not.

A: No. Causal interaction is a purely  empirical thing. Interaction is a mixture of two homogeneous things, or of two things that combine to form a whole, and God and the world aren’t homogeneous, not do they mix to form a whole.

B: You’re dodging my main argument! If God and the world, on your system, don’t make up a single whole, then this is the same as saying the world is a whole by itself, i.e. it will do what it does whether God exists or not.

A: Again, this is only if you identify action with interaction, which I think is a purely empirical thing. I’m talking about a Creator and his creation, which cannot be understood as a relation of mutual interdependence to form some whole. To put this in a more Thomistic way: there is a real relation from creation to God, but no real relation from God to creation. There are no equivalent values for divine power and creaturely existence – it’s not as if one can make them two sides of an equation, or set about looking for “divinions” as pure wave-particles of divine activity. But my basic point still remains that you can’t identify action with interaction, even if for no other reason than simple arithmetic: an action is one action and an interaction is two that coalesce.

B: Again, this makes no sense. You want God to be a cause of something without having a real relation to it. So some cause-effect relation is real, but it is not a real relation? This is pure contradiction!

A: But this is only if you smuggle in the idea of dependence into causality, i.e. it’s only if you tacitly start assuming that a cause is also an effect. This obviously isn’t logically necessary, and it would be logically impossible of an absolutely first cause, which is exactly what I’m claiming God is. You’re the one asserting contradictions, saying that the absolutely first cause has to somehow also be a dependent effect.

Real relations require real dependence- we agree on that. But I’m saying that in actions that are not interactions, the relation is asymmetrical – there is a real relation from effect to cause but not from cause to effect.

B: But this asymmetry leaves us with two totally different sets of laws. We’re stuck with wildly irreducible dualisms.

A: I think that’s exactly what I’m insisting on – or maybe even something worse. I think there is a tetrism or trinism. There are three irreducible sciences for “The world” for “mathematical things” and for divine things. This is basically what St. Thomas argued for, at any rate. But this is not to say there aren’t some points of contact: each science informs the other in various ways while specifying an intrinsically divided set of cognitive objects.

Against atheism, but not for sacred doctrine

Rational arguments for the existence and nature of God are usually taken as apologetics for Christianity, but they might just as easily be turned into polemics against it. Christianity consists in a doctrine that exceeds the powers of reason, and so a purely rational God can be turned into just another stick to beat it with.

If science keeps going, sooner or later it will find the need to reduce phenomena to a divine cause, as is clear from the fact that the progress of science consists in a reduction of phenomena that objects only intelligible to higher and higher cognitive powers. But when it reaches this term, it will just be turned into a rational theism that people will oppose to Christ.

Ramble on the causal closure thesis

The best arguments for Naturalism appeal to the causal closure thesis, which says that (the chance of) every physical effect is fixed by a fully physical prior history. So, to avoid an unacceptable proliferation of causes, any prima facie non-physical cause of a physical effect will need to be included in that physical history.  

But light clearly causes things (tanning, photosynthesis, warming, vision…) though time only belongs to things moving more slowly than light.  So it is not the case that everything which is causally prior is itself a part of a causal history. Some of the causes of historical things are not themselves historical.

The constant velocity of light, moreover, is not an outlier phenomenon, but the absolute to which the spacio-temporal world relates and is determined. The velocity of light defines time by fixing the limit within which temporal duration occurs; and like any limit, it is not unequivocally a part of the thing it limits.

One of the constant features of physics from Aristotle to Einstein is to explain the relative in reference to the absolute, which requires dividing the physical into strata. These strata have been redefined over the course of physics: Aristotle saw them as the terrestrial and the celestial; Newton saw them as the phenomenal world and “absolute” space and time (which was later assumed to be physically instantiated in the aether); and Einstein saw them as the slower-than-light world of massive objects and the realm of objects moving at c. But in all these cases we divide the spacio-temporal from a background structure that makes it possible while not itself being intrinsically measured by it. This absence of measure is crucial so far as measure is essential to the very intelligibility of physical entities. We can, of course, divide up sections of the absolute and pretend to measure them, but this division is purely extrinsic to its nature, since to make it intrinsic would requires the “relative-absolute”, i.e. a square circle.

Thus, one of the constants of physics and chemistry is that the metrical pre-supposes a backdrop that is not itself metrical. Place, space, time, and motion are actors that require a stage that is neither in place, nor spacial, temporal, or mobile. Epistemically, they are not metrical and therefore not univocally intelligible. The attempt to make nature a single, homogeneous causal structure ends up making any causal account of nature impossible. We thus posit our own thesis in opposition to the “causal closure” thesis, namely the intelligibility of homogeneous causal structures presupposes a heterogeneous cause. One can make the celestial sphere, or absolute space, or the speed of light physically homogeneous only if they postulate some supernatural or transphysical cause. But it would seem that any physics requires uniting the absolute and the relative in some way into a homogeneous “physical” realm, therefore, etc.

Now any talk of the supernatural or transphysical raises the idea of God, but this is not the first supernatural thing that relates to the intelligible structure of physics. Physics is first of all a unified realm in relation to sensation, particularly touch assisted by sight. But sensation cannot be unequivocally transphysical, but is in some way homogeneous with the physical world, and thus itself relates to a higher sort of transphysical cause. This is intellect; which itself is not totally transphysical in every way, which in turn puts it in relation to another, heterogeneous cause. What we call God (at least so far as such a nature is revealed by this principle) is whatever is heterogeneous simply speaking and without qualification. If one objects that suhc a being should not be called God because it is impersonal, and might just as well be a blind force, we respond that it is given by the argument that such a cause transcends matter, sensation, and intellect, and therefore cannot be sub-personal or subconscious.

Now physics does not prove its own intelligibility but presupposes it, and so physics never hits upon the supernatural or transphysical cause. But this is all “methodological naturalism” comes to – sc. the assumption of an intelligibility that is taken for granted, though explained by something else. This supernatural cause is intelligible in a proportionate way to how absolutes are intelligible by relatives.

An account of explanation

One account of “explanation” might be a statement about which it is meaningless to ask why it is so. Example: “heat is a sort of molecular motion” or “(adding two evens gives an even because) the combination has a midpoint” or “the note A is 440 hz”. If you do give causal accounts, they are taken from other genera of causes, for example, a historical account of the work of Heinrich Hertz and its development, or because molecular motion somehow fits into the glory of creation. But we do know that there are times when to ask “why” is a failure to understand the question one is asking. This is not because we hit upon a “brute” fact, but because we have found out precisely what something is, at least within the relevant genus of causality. This task is somewhat easier in things that exist because of our will, like “A” being 440 hz (and these might in some sense count as brute facts) but in the case of natural things the why question only becomes “meaningless” when we have found exactly what they are, having ruled out other hypotheses, derivative and participatory realities (like “fire is hot”), and secondary and instrumental causes.

One objection: this is an account of an ultimate explanation, and not an explanation as such. Response: all explanations other than the one here called “ultimate” are relative to it, and so only count as explanations in a qualified and secondary sense. They are participatory, secondary, and instrumental explanations; adequate for some practical purposes, but not in the properly speculative sphere of explanation – speculative since it treats of objects in themselves and not in relation to us.


Describing knowledge. Nothing is easier to draw than a picture of a tree, then a picture of a human head with a little tree in it (maybe with an arrow coming off the first and pointing towards the eye.) But it is impossible to experience any of the elements of the drawing – you can’t go out to your yard, look at an actual tree, and then experience the “objective” one redoubling and making itself immanent in a “subjective” one. Do you ever experience anything crossing over into consciousness from some alien realm? Do you ever experience consciousness entering into the exterior world to look for objects, and then coming back?

Video of photons going through Coke bottleBut where is the picture of the photons that landed on the film? Sure, we’ve got a record of photons that hit a coke bottle, but what about the ones that hit the camera? You could set up another camera to record those photons, but then the question repeats itself ad infinitum. 

-I can look into a mirror and see my own eye, but the thing I see has no power of vision, and so is not an eye. Proof: Nothing goes blind if I put my hand over the eyes in the mirror. That by which one sees is never seen. The same is true for light, as just shown.

But this is only unqualifiedly true of sense knowledge, i.e. actually seen photons and actual seeing organs are absolutely invisible to the one seeing them. In the first step beyond this, the human mind is capable of knowing the same thing by which it knows, though it can only do this objectively by way of some mediating image (like the picture of the tree-with-tree-in-the-head spoken of above). At the step above this, the necessity of the mediating image drops away, and the intellect is present to itself, and a disembodied spirit no longer needs a model, an analogy, or a mathematical formula to visualize (intuit) itself or anything else. Nevertheless, in a disembodied spirit there is still a division in being between the subject knowing and the object known, i.e. object and subject are not one substance or existence. At the highest possible level, this division in being between subject and object drops away in the consubstantiality of the Logos and the Father.

The opposition between concrete/proper and abstract

So I’ll run my hand over the wall and describe it with abstract nouns: roughness, hardness, etc.

Taken one way, all these traits are there and felt and so are as concrete as anything. But then how is the abstraction getting a hold of something opposed to the concrete?

Is it that the abstract characterization views the thing experienced as an example? This would justify our tendency to identify the best example of something with the abstract idea, e.g. If you want to know what bossiness is, spend some time with my daughter, etc. Or is it that I want to speak about something that is non-unique? On this account, even if my wife Jessica has haecceitas, she doesn’t have Jessicaness since there is no such thing to have, except purely equivocally (If, say, there was some stigma associated with girls named “Jessica”, though this is not even in the same category as the name)

True, we can resolve the problem merely verbally by pointing out that the abstract is not the concrete or proper. But the point here is to see the way in which we don’t see them opposed.


I Sentences 3.4.5.

(Though this very early argument it is substantially similar to the way St. Thomas answered this question throughout his career, this particular response is, in many ways, simply astonishing.)

Whether the rational powers are always in act with respect to the object which they are the image of  [namely, the soul and God]


It seems not. 


2.) Aristotle says that we cannot simultaneously understand many things. But the soul sometimes understands things other [than God and itself] and so it does not  then understand itself and God at that time.


3.) According to Augustine, in order for the soul to understand itself, an intention of the one knowing is necessary, by which it has an idea which leads it to know the thing. But sometimes the soul understands itself by such an intention. So since we do not sense ourselves always to understand the soul and God, it seems that our intellect is not always in act with respect to these objects.


Sed Contra:


Aristotle says that the agent intellect always understands but this most of all seems to happen with respect to things that are always present to it, namely the soul and God. So it seems that the soul is always in act with respect to these things.

Augustine says that whatever is in my memory, that I remember. But the soul and God are always present in memory…


I respond: 


As Augustine says, there is a difference between thinking, discerning, and understanding (intellegere). To discern is to know one in thing by its difference from others. To think is to consider a thing by its its parts and properties, as though “to think ” (cogitare) was like “to shake things up” (coagitare) But to understand (intellegere, or perhaps “to see”) is nothing other than an undivided intuition of the intellect on an intelligible thing present to it. And so I say that the soul does not always think about or discern God or itself, because then anyone would naturally know the whole nature of his soul, which is scarcely attained by a great amount of study; for the mere presence of the thing does not suffice to know it in any way, since it has to be known as an object, and the intention of the one knowing needs to set out towards it. But to understand only requires an intuition, which is just the the intelligible presence of the thing (in some way) to the intellect – and in this way the soul always understands itself and God indeterminately, and, as a result, has an indeterminate love.

That the soul always understands itself can be understood in another way. As Aristotle says, everything that is understood, is only understood by the illumination of the agent intellect received into the possible intellect; and just as every color is seen in light, so every intelligible is seen in the light of the agent intellect, not as an object but as a means of knowing.


to the second:


Aristotle is talking about understanding which is the complete operation of the intellect distinguishing or thinking about something, and not as “understanding” is taken here.


Concrete experience of time

Try this: plan to do something simple in the more or less immediate future. I’ll keep it simple: I’ll type the letter “H” after I’m done with this sentence (and after I press enter for dramatic effect).


There it is. What was that like?

It wasn’t at all an encounter with something given, as though I flowed into some slice of reality where I was already pressing “H”.  So what was it?

I could call the experience as “linear” but this is a metaphor – no actual lines were involved in the experience.  I could draw (or just imagine) a line from one place to another and call it a time magnitude, but the experience was not a line; I could measure the experience with the presumptively periodic motion of a clock, but the experience was not a periodic motion; I could make symbols for all these substitutions and see all the algebraic relationships that obtained among them, but they would all remain substitutions, even if they perfectly mapped over the experience (which is, after all, presumably what we want in a substitution for something).

So what did I do when I set out to do something in the future? The language may not track the reality of the experience – it wasn’t that I set out to do something in the future, I just decided to do something that could not be complete at the moment of decision. By way of opposition, this seems to be something very different from wishing. I can wish to do something in the future – like going to Paris or learning to chant Homer again – since when I do this the future seems to play more of a role. The present is taken up and crowded out with all sorts of activities that have nothing to do with going to France or learning Greek, and so I enjoy these goals in the only way that I can. They can glimmer as thought-oases unconnected from any actual activity that could bring them about. But even then the desire is to have these things, not to have them in the future. So what I seem to be doing is to have something that happens to be unable-to-be-possessed except by antecedent activity. Taken in this sense, the future is con-existent with the choice to do something. It is an epiphenomenon resulting from the way in which things can be possessed.

As Plato points out in Symposium, goods are possessed either in the sense that we look to get them or look to keep them, but in both cases there is an inadequate existence of what we have, in the sense of something lacking. In this sense time always involves dissatisfaction, even if we have no experience or intuition of non-temporal possession.


DA1 and DA2 as interpretive structures for revelation

For us, divine activity is usually something we visualize as out of the ordinary, and which breaks in on the normal flux of everyday life (call this “DA1”). But there is another account of it (call it DA2) which is clear in Paul’s claim that we know that all things work together for good to them that love God that sees all things that happen falling under a divine action in some way or another. Just how they fall under it is a riddle that we can either theologize or not (one familiar theology, for example, attributes the evils and strokes of bad luck that befall us to God’s “permissive” will, another attributes such things to secondary causes and not to the first cause.) But we don’t need a theology to accept the Pauline claim, and we might even develop a theology that argues that we lack the categories that would allow for a robust account of the divine action in the world of the sort that Paul describes.

As much as we might like to reject one account of divine activity for the sake of the other, so that we might have a “law-like universe” that is only a DA1 or a “one story universe” that is only DA2,  they are simply two irreducible aspects of creation.  Creation gives being, which requires on the one hand that something other than God truly is and acts, and in this sense has its own ordinary operation, causality, and normal flux of life that revelation can only  break in upon or build upon (DA1); and on the other hand it is precisely being which is given, so that apart from the act of giving there is only the realm of absolute nothingness that mirrors created being (DA2). Viewed in relation to the creator, creation is contingent being, which means we can either consider it as being, in which case it exists by itself and acts of its own, or in its relation to is inherent possible non-being, in which case the divine act is what allows for anything to be at all, even if it is wicked, accidental, or a result of bad luck.

While DA1 and DA2 are both necessary accounts of divine revelation, they do not always explain the Scriptures equally well. Revealed statements like Behold the fowls of the air: for they sow not, neither do they reap , nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feedeth them, (Mt. 6:26) or [God] provides food for the cattle and for the young ravens when they call (Ps. 147: 9) or All creatures look to you to give them their food at the proper time (Ps. 104: 27 cf. Job 38) are ridiculous on an account of the divine activity in DA1. It’s not as if we can view animal feeding as outside the flux of normal animal life. At other times, it is clearly better to read the revelation as a DA2- as in the case of divine signs and wonders.

But the distinction between DA1 and DA2 is most helpful and illuminating in distinguishing some of the more scandalous parts of Scripture. How, for example, should we read And God said, ‘Take now thy son, thine only son Isaac, whom thou lovest, and get thee into the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell thee of (Gen 22:2)? Taken as a DR1, we would reconstruct the scene as Abraham going about his ordinary day when suddenly the clouds open, the air shakes, and Abraham is taken by surprise by the divine voice. Taken as a DA2, the idea to sacrifice the son arises within the context of the normal course of life – perhaps for Abraham it is simply what everyone does to prove that they are completely devoted to God. Whether Abraham is mistaken, invincibly ignorant, the victim of a perverse culture, etc. is entirely beside the point – DA2 includes under providence the mistakes, deformities and ignorance of secondary causes, whether they are natural, moral, or cultural. For all we know, Abraham wrestled with this idea of child-sacrifice for years and was terrified of complete devotion to God since he knew that this would require that he sacrifice what was dearest to him (isn’t everyone terrified that total devotion to God means that they will have to give up something they can’t live without?) Perhaps Abraham finally caved to the necessity of sacrificing the child. But at any rate, when we take the revelation as a DA2, it was not some Kierkegaardian “suspension of the ethical” or some irrational plunge into faith but exactly the opposite, namely an application of ordinary, everyday ethical demands. After all, the demands of the true God certainly can’t be less than the demands of Moab or Molech, can they?

Seen from this angle, the revelation of the ram on Mount Moriah is not God “changing his mind” or providing Abraham with some dramatic object lesson, but simply Abraham’s awareness that God does not demand this sort of sacrifice, that Abraham does not have to give up what is most dear to him, and that child-sacrifice is not devotion but something else. This does not mean that the revelation was not dramatic, life-changing, and truly divine. In fact, it might be best to understand it as a DA1, i.e. a divine wonder that breaks into the ordinary, ethical world that demanded Abraham sacrifice his son. The division between the DA1 and DA2 thus gives a theoretical structure to explain Chief Rabbi Cook’s claim how the Abrahamic sacrifice was meant to end child sacrifice forever.

Similar analyses can be done of “God hardened Pharaoh’s heart” and perhaps even the Amalekite massacre.

Commentary on Luke, 12: 19-20

And I will say to my soul, Soul, thou hast much goods laid up for many years; take thine ease, eat, drink, be merry.

But God said unto him, fool, on this night thy soul shall be required of thee: then whose shall those things be, which thou hast provided?

1.) Fool. The OT reference is clear “The fool says in his heart, there is no God” (Ps. 14 and 51, cf. Pr. 10).  Whether this atheism is thought out or not, its essence is speaking to ones own soul as a content consumer of abundant consumer goods: I will say to my soul, soul, thou hast much goods. There is a logic to the position:  If my harvest gives me contentment, God seems superfluous. This is a variant on St. Thomas’s second objection against the existence of God: it seems that everything we see in the world can be accounted for by other principles, supposing God did not exist. What good is divine providence when we have already provided for ourselves?

2.) then whose shall those things be, which thou hast provided? Notice what God doesn’t say in judgment: there is no reference to the rich man’s eternal destiny – no judgment that the folly of practical atheism is that it lands one in hell. This is because the judgment is far more radical, since it is a clear echoing of Ecclesiastes (esp. 2: 18-19), which places the actions of the rich man within the context of universal vanity. It’s not that the rich man is happy now and will pay for it later – his very actions now are vain, i.e. the goal they aim at does not exist. But what exactly is this non-existent goal or context?

3.)   Soul, thou hast much goods laid up for many years. The rich man’s soul sees his goods as existing throughout an indefinite future. He does not see himself as having goods for a fixed number of years, or for some years, but for many years. But our life is not characterized by an indefinite future, but by a fixed term of years: on this night thy soul shall be required of thee. The “on this night” need not specify a time during the next 24 hours (we learn very early on in Scripture not to take days as meaning 24 hour periods), but rather it is simply a definite time.  The rich man is not living as though his life has a definite end which he is, in fact, continually in the presence of. His prosperity is an anesthetic, i.e. a way of rendering life more pleasant by numbing his awareness of the challenge that it poses – and this is an attempt to live in a world that does not exist.

There is a deeper reality in play here, which, again, Ecclesiastes speaks to: [God] hath made every [thing] beautiful in his time: also he hath set the eternity (עולם) in their heart.  The very reason why the heart sees consumer goods stretching indefinitely is because the heart desires “holam” (עולם) or the totality of all time and place. This is not at all a sentimental point – Nietzsche was perhaps the least sentimental person who ever lived and still insisted that All joy wants eternity for all things (AS Zara. IV c. 11). But the reality of death requires that consumer goods cannot exist in this way (and on this point both Nietzsche and the Gospel agree).

No one can desire a good as limited, which makes desire essentially unlimited. And yet the necessity of death places a hard, fixed limit on our ability to possess. This leaves us with three coping strategies:

a.) Ignore the problem, perhaps after giving a reason why it is a pseudo problem, or not. This is perhaps the most common strategy – and the one the rich man chooses. Construct a fantasy world of indefinite possession.

b.) Say that life is simply absurd. Why should we expect the universe to give us what we want? We arose by chance, with cognitive abilities and desires that were suited to eating, drinking, copulating, and swinging from one branch to another. Somehow, our evolutionary history selected for a desire for unlimited goods, but it was not an adaptation to any unlimited good existing in reality. Perhaps it was some noble lie that allowed for better group cohesion. Who knows?

c.) We can claim that the desire for an infinite good is an adaptation to an unlimited good existing in reality. We see no such good in the world around us, simply because we lose all such goods in death. Human life, even now, cannot be limited to the world filled with goods lost at death.

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