Rant on “From conception to natural death”

The modern Catholic trope, endlessly repeated, is that we should “respect life from conception to natural death.”

“Natural” death as opposed to what? Violent death? Death as a penalty? Are we supposed to disrespect the lives of those who die, say, accidentally?

Does anyone even have any idea what a natural death is? I know what death by natural causes is, but even then I don’t say the person who experienced it suffered a natural death. More to the point, “natural causes” is simply a euphemism, not any rigorous statement about reality. “Death by natural causes” says no more about nature than “restroom” says about rest. And so we are left with no idea at all of what this terminus of respect is supposed to be. 

Why not just “from conception onward” or just “till death”?

(My suspicion is that the slogan started off as a well-intentioned attempt to speak against the death penalty, but it led to a half-witted, overly complex, and incoherent statement)

On a contemporary theological thesis

Thesis: A Christian has hope that all persons will be saved. 

I have no strong opinions on the thesis, but it does contain the danger of distorting and trivializing the virtue of hope. Faith, as Paul tells us, is the substance of things hoped for, which means that hope is that which proceeds out of the substance of the faith, i.e. it is the confident expectation of that which faith promises will come to pass. For example, if you believe that scripture inerrantly reveals that Christ will judge the world, then you confidently expect that to happen. Even if something of the faith is not precisely a future good (like the Catholic’s belief that the canonized are in heaven or that Mary was immaculately conceived), we still confidently expect to see the truth of it if and when we are saved, and in this sense any truth of the faith might fall under the virtue of hope.

But the sort of hope that the thesis speaks of is very different from this, to the point that it seems to be not hope at all but a wish. Fr. Neuhaus, a proponent of the thesis, does just this:

We know that some are saved. At least Catholics know, on the basis of infallible teaching, that Mary, the mother of the Lord, is saved…. With respect to all the faithful departed, we are invited to have a generous expectation, “that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope” (1 Thessalonians 4:13)

But in fact Catholics don’t know that some are saved: they accept this as being de fide. True, we are certain of the teaching, but it remains based on faith. Neuhaus’s argument only makes sense if a Catholic’s hope for all to be saved is opposed to his supposed knowledge that the canonized are saved, but what Neuhaus calls knowledge is precisely what hope is. Since, by his own terms, we are forced to see the “hope” that all are saved as less than this,  then we are not talking about the virtue of hope, with its confident expectation of things that the faith promises, but simply of a wish.

And that’s my concern: the thesis clearly leans on the idea of hope, but it understands hope in a way that opposes it to the things we confidently expect to proceed from the truth of faith, that is, to what scripture calls hope. If the thesis were re-worded so as to make it clear that what were were really toying with was the idea that universalism or apokatastasis was de fide, then my objection would be removed, but I also suspect that the thesis becomes immeasurably more controversial.

An Aristotelian theory of recollection

1.) The agent intellect makes intelligible things

2.) An agent makes any form in virtue of possessing that form in itself either intelligibly or  naturally.

3.) Whatever the agent intellect makes it already possesses either intelligibly or naturally.

4.) Thus, the agent intellect possesses the intelligible forms of all things.

5.) That which an intellect possesses is somehow known.

6.) The intellect obviously does not know all forms in a conscious way, but comes to know them from sensible things.

7.) Whenever the knowledge of one thing causes us to think about something else somehow known, this is called recollection.

8.) Thus, the soul learns all things by recollection.

Trinitarian notes

-A divine person is a relation without being a relation of some “divine stuff”, in a way similar to how light is a wave without being the waving of aether.

-All relations are correlatives and so are simultaneous in being, but we can distinguish them into what is (1.) a relation of cause and effect and (2.) what is not.

In cause and effect, the simultaneity and co-existence of a relation brings with it an order or procession of the effect from the cause. this is being typed at the same time I’m typing, but the former is an effect of the latter. But not all correlatives are of cause/effect, and we can consider (a) parts, like left and right (b) the parts of a motion (c) the letters of a word. This means, crucially: there can be things that come after other things without being caused by them. “A” comes after “c” in “cat”, but is not caused by it; 5 comes after three in counting but is not caused by it. We can make sense of a procession of one thing from another without being caused by it.

– Divine persons, like all relations, are

(a) Simultaneous, (though in the case of God means “co-eternal”)

(b) Equal in being, (though in the case of God means absolutely one, uncaused, and identical with his real essence)

(c) Formally not a relation of some stuff (though in God this formality is the totality of the being of the relation).

-The one God is a relation to a relation, i.e. the Holy Spirit relates to the one reality Father-Son. The Father-Son is impossible without the distinct relations of Father and Son.

-Equality in being follows unity in being. All relations involve equality, even the causal ones, but this unity is either unity of nature or an order of distinct natures.

-If the trinitarian persons are parts of God, then each person/subject is not identical to what God is. But to be equal in being means, in the case of God, to be identical in subject and essence. Therefore the persons are not parts of God.

-There is not even anything properly divine about having an identity of subject and essence: even angels and Platonic forms have this.

-When we say both person/ subject and essence are identical, we say that if they exist they exist equally. IF such a being exists, then nature and person are distinct rationes of one reality, like the concave and convex in (.

-Aristotle was fundamentally wrong to object to Platonic forms on the basis that their substantiality was opposed to their universality. Plato was indeed right that all things are intelligible in light of an essence that is the same as its individuality. STA only adds to this that the first such being must also be identical with his existence. Nothing else could explain why we actually know.

-Moderate realism is not the idea that the universals “exist in the divine mind”. God needs no universals to know anything. Rather, the unity of person and essence is that which allows anything to be known. It would be better to say that moderate realism states that God is a universal, i.e. an individual who is the same as his essence. We do not know in the divine mind but in the divine reality. On this account, Aristotle was right that the Platonists were right to invoke forms, but they erred in simply making them eternalized versions of material things.

-The essence of God is proven identical to the individual and absolutely one by totally different proofs. The identity of essence and person in God means that, viewed from the perspective of individual, it is also the one and only one essence, and vice versa. It does not mean that there is one and only one perspective of individuality.

-We speak about God by introducing notional distinctions into realities. This does not mean that the nature is real and the persons are notional. It simply means that we have no mental category for what transcends the concrete and the abstract, and so we can only speak about a being that so transcends it by adopting a particular notional stance.

Substances, accidents, AND PARTS

I’m tempted to say there’s nothing that is more fatal to overlook in Aristotle’s theory of substance and accident than the very first qualification he places on it:

By being ‘present in a subject’ [an accident] I do not mean present as parts are present in a whole, but being incapable of existence apart from the said subject.

Notice that Aristotle explicitly, and from the very beginning, divides the sort of being that parts have from dependent, accidental being. In fact, Aristotle seems to state outright that parts are, or at least can be substantial:

The fact that the parts of substances appear to be present in the whole, as in a subject, should not make us apprehensive lest we should have to admit that such parts are not substances: for in explaining the phrase ‘being present in a subject’, we stated’ that we meant ‘otherwise than as parts in a whole’.

This precision is particularly important to keep in mind when we consider Aristotle’s Psychology and anthropology. On his account, the soul is a form and all forms are parts (see Metaphysics V c. 25) and thus no form has a dependent existence.  

Form is a unique kind of part, not made up by a division in quantity but in being – it gives self-existence to the thing it informs which, in the case of the living, makes it act for itself. On the lower levels of life, this self-action is unconscious or subconscious, and yet it is still necessary to posit self-activity to account even for the life of plants (cf. Anthony Trewavas’s essay here.) Form is, if you like, an energy making things act for themselves and be a responsible locus of what would be, apart from this energy, an action for which nothing at all is responsible. Merely happening before an effect does not suffice make a cause responsible for the effect  since both instruments and secondary causes come before their effects.

So long as this self is merely subconscious non-conscious it is nothing to itself, and so has no reason to exist apart from the totality it forms along with physical processes. But in the measure that we rise above the subconscious and non-conscious selves (which, in human persons happens just barely), it follows that form is informing itself, and so when it is separated from this unconscious substructure, it will be only consciousness as such – which is one sense we can make of Aristotle’s claim that “When mind is set free from its present conditions it appears as just what it is and nothing more: this alone is immortal and eternal.”

Notes on physical and self-causality

-What do we do with the fact that to be morally or personally responsible for something is not the same as to be physically responsible? The difference might be starkest in cases of causing by omission – say I see someone eating bad clams but I hate them and so decide to do nothing. This is a clear case of moral or personal responsibility for something (sickness) even though I took no physical action at all to cause it – in fact, the absence of some physical action is exactly why I’m responsible.

-Or again, what sense can we make of “to trigger” or initiate a physical process? It seems that if something exerted physical causality (pushing, pulling, twisting, heating etc.) it’s viewed as part of the process. But then we lose the reality of triggering and initiating. we need to posit a self-active reality. Say we look at the sun come up, hit a leaf, and trigger photosynthesis. Taken as a physical process, there is just photon A hitting chemical structure B causing result C. But the causal chain does not catch the self-activity of the “B” structure (the leaf), which is, in fact, just using the sunlight as a resource, i.e. as an instrument.

-What is first in chain of physical causes is still instrumental, or omne quod movetur ab alio movetur. 

-Action reduces to what is acting for itself: minimally, action requires that there be a self, even a subconscious one, and which relates to all objects of its physical environment as instrumental.

-We might posit some grand chain of physical causes, and trace them all back in a block universe so as to leave absolutely no action out. But to do so will never explain action. The unbreakable chain of physical causes and laws are instruments of self. Like all instruments, they impart something of their reality on the agents that use them, but we can’t confuse this with causal primacy.

-Plato spent half the time saying that the first causes were abstract forms; but the other half of the time he way explaining action by the self-active. All actions are of the living, or, if there is more than one sort of life, of the highest and best sort of it.

Physical theory and I

Assume mathematical physics, even to this day, is based on inertia, which involves the claim that no physical theory can determine a difference between rest and uniform motion. But then when I move my hand it cannot be captured by physical law, since I do know the difference between moving and resting.

Related to this, the objects of physics has a left side that stays constant: the left side of your couch changes when you flip it around. My left and right stay constant through changes. More broadly, features of my consciousness are determining the features of my reference frame, as opposed to vice-versa. Things are left or right in relation to me.

Time differences might prove interesting too: time for physics is whatever the clock says, and so if some clock read an hour earlier, then it would go back in time simpliciter. But for me, the act of going back an hour in time would be something I could look forward to; and if I were to take a trip to the future and back I could remember the future.

All these differences have to reduce to some reality that is, by definition, outside the principles of physics and so outside of the physical world. A soul would do nicely.

A metaphor for relative being

Consider the various descriptions of political entities or states: some are dependent (i.e. colonies or terriories of another nation) others declare themselves independent; and in the end they might “coexist” by each recognizing the sovereignty of the other. Note that coexistence is different from dependent existence: we don’t say that dependent polities coexist with their protectorates since to “coexist”, as that bumper sticker rightly assumes, requires equality in being among the correlatives.

This is one way of pointing to why it makes sense for STA to divide relations from dependent reality, that is, to divide relations from accidents, even though we have no examples of the two ever really separate. Said another way, relations always involve some equality between the correlatives – even if, like cause and effect or Father and daughter, there are obvious inequalities in being. This is why they are not repugnant to the divine being, and can be used in Trinitarian theory.

Ex nihilo (iii)

St. Thomas argued that every naturally necessary being was being created by God, which meant the direct creation of elements, the celestial bodies, and the human soul. We mean more or less the same thing by “soul” as he did, but our ideas of elements and of celestial bodies have changed in various ways.

Elements: For STA, these were the simplest and most fundamental species of material causes. What we now call elements are composites of simpler material causes, and so they do not count as examples of what St. Thomas called an element. For us, the term “element” is for us a relic of an earlier time when we thought the things we were talking about (carbon, oxygen) were the simplest material causes. It’s not clear what in modern cosmology counts as a thomistic “element” or whether something field-like or particle-like is playing this role. What we are looking for is something that makes more complex things and is itself ungenerated, where “ungenerated” means something more than the element’s transition from a virtual to an actual presence. For example, I can make a pile of carbon from all sorts of organic things, but this is not the same thing as making carbon in the heart of a dying star. The latter, however, is generation in a true sense and therefore proves that carbon cannot count as an element in the ancient/medieval sense.

Heavenly bodies. This translation is more straightforward. In the ancient/medieval tradition these were the sources of motion in corruptible things, which means that they played the role now played by energy.

Both the elements and the heavenly bodies/ energy are necessary beings and essentially incorruptible. Just as the heavenly bodies could only change place and this change of place was at the foundation of an absolutely necessary system, so too energy can only change modes and it stands at the foundation of a closed system and can neither be generated nor pass away. So too the “fundamental particles” (if there are such things) are not generated or corrupted from any more fundamental material reality.

Now it has always been a separate question whether the source of motion and the elements are distinct in substance. For the ancients, the question had an obvious answer since the elements were down here and the sources of motion and work were up there. But for us, the question is far more complicated. The function played by the heavenly bodies has been made immanent to things, which raises the question whether this function is being played by a reality that is not really distinct in being from the elements.

And so we run into a pretty common problem that ancient physics was very good at seeing the sorts of things that were logically necessary in a physical theory even though they were wrong about the things that played these roles while we, on the other hand, have all sort of fantastic data to answer the question but can’t figure out what is playing what role.

Creatio ex nihilo (ii)

Creation ex nihilo means only that God did not create physical states from physical states. But from what did he create them? Here we have two possible responses, either that the question misses the point (or is otherwise incoherent) or that God created from his own substance.

1.) Maybe we mean this: to speak of causing something “from which” we are speaking in the order of material causes, i.e. things that persevere through changes. In this sense, what we mean is that there is some thing that perseveres through a change which itself came to be, but not from some subject. Some subject was just there without arising from some previous subject. If we go looking for some previous state or disposition of the material, it is simply not there. Taken in this sense, what we mean is that (a.) there is something that counts as the first material cause and (b.) God is creating it. I say “is creating” because this cause, by definition, does not have a material substrate that keeps it in existence. If it did, then it would have a prior material cause and thus not be first.

2.) This action of the divinity is unintelligible except as a coming forth or procession from God himself. As we’ve just seen, divine action plays the role that matter plays in material things, that is, it’s endurance accounts for the endurance of the material thing throughout its changes. In this sense, God serves as the matter of created things. This involves two things in the cosmos: on the one hand those things that, being of minimum actuality, are still first in the order of material causes, sc. the chemical elements, or at least the most basic of these, or at least of the physical reality out of which these most basic elements arise. On the other hand, it involves the reality that, though natural, cannot be the term of a physical change, namely the human soul.

These primary realities are eternal, since God serves as their matter. The first is eternal by way of motion to continually increasing disorder in a way that continually generates time, pouring forth indefinitely and towards no term. Considered of itself, it is a potency without a corresponding act. The second is eternal by being an unchangeable this to the greatest extent that can be allowed to a natural being – it is a person, or at least the fount of a person, to the greatest extent that nature allows.

Creation is thus not some –poof- of all things into the black void, but the divine decision to place his substance under two physical realities: the first material cause or causes and the individual human soul. God does not create, say, rabbits or uranium, even though they would completely cease to exist without his action, and even though he intends the universe to have both. The precise nodes of creation are those first elements or proto-elements and the souls of persons.

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