Note on explaining existence

Keith Parsons asks:

Why would, say, an electron or a quark (considered fundamental particles in the Standard Model) need any help in remaining in existence?

The bare fact that he listed two existent things makes the response clear: if something “remained in existence” because it was an electron, then there could be no such thing as quarks. But if some X can’t exist because it is an electron, but there is nevertheless an instance of it, then we need something other than electrons if we’re going to account for existence. Electrons explain a good number of things, like spectral lines or the fact that every electric charge is a multiple of 1.6 x 10^-19 Coulombs, but no one in the history of the world has proposed them as an explanation for existence. Again, we stress the reason: if something existed because it was an electron, there could be no quarks; in fact, if something existed because it was this electron, there could  not be that one. And so the first criterion of what would explain existence is that it be totally unique and unrepeatable. It follows from this immediately that it could never be the object of scientific law, which require repeated observations of things of the same sort.

Since that which explains existence is unique an unrepeatable, the various existent things it explains cannot exist in the same way that it does. If they did, this would be the same as saying that its existence was repeated in them. And so this explanation of existence is separate from all which is repeatable, or which exists as a result of this. It can be none of the particles of the standard model, or the totality of the universe.

And so an explanation for existence is something totally unique and unrepeatable, divided from the universe, but not in such a way as to make two co-equal beings. And so the explanation of existence commits us, minimally, to an intellectual assent to a Neoplatonic One. We need, moreover, to understand this mode of explanation in a way other than the mode that looks for regularities among symmetrical and therefore repeatable systems. Scientific knowledge is a flat-head screwdriver to this Philips- head problem.

The deep irony of Sam Harris

In response to Ed Feser’s critique of New Atheist argumentation, J.J. Lowder responds:

[T]hat [sort of argument – ed.] is not what atheists who specialize in the philosophy of religion say.  In fact, not one of the best and most capable atheist philosophers of religion in the history of philosophy ever gave this Courtier’s Reply — not Mackie, not Rowe, not Schellenberg, not Q. Smith, not Draper, not Martin, not Oppy, not Phillipse, not Sobel, not Salmon, not Grunbaum…

I found this deeply ironic when put next to Sam Harris’s claim (given, for example, in his debate with Deepak Chopra) that he had no time for esoteric or philosophical accounts of God since this is not what the majority of persons meant by God. Whatever his motivation for this, it does have the benefit of allowing one to treat God as, by definition, the product of an unreflective and unsophisticated mind that never developed its conceptions of the divine with an eye to having to defend them from attack. A dose of gandersauce, however, lets us treat atheism in the same way, and so judge it according to its most popular and least academic formulation, which, judging by Lowder’s list, includes Sam Harris.

To be fair to Harris, unreflective Christianity has a good deal more political power which his popular brand of atheism lacks. But this seems to be a mere historical and geographical contingency. A whole society of atheists would provide just as much embarrassment for reflective atheists as a society of Christians provides for reflective Christians. Most people don’t have a rigorous or systematic account of God for the same reason that most people don’t have a systematic account of their pipes or their nervous system.

That said, the problem is deeper than this since both reflective atheists and Christians depend on their the mass of persons who are either atheist or Christian. I’m embarrassed by creation museums, end-of-the-world Anti-Christ miniseries, campus preachers, and the occasional Jack Chick pamphlet, but it’s still comforting to have enough of the populus in general agreement with you to make a political difference.

Cruel gods of physical theory

Since we account for changes by appeals to governing factors or laws, there is a logical necessity to base the accounts of changeable things on something unchangeable. This leads physical theory to conclude to the existence of some unchangeable being that explains all physical reality with absolute determination. This has led to the belief in various cruel gods, i.e. beings that are both physical and yet unobservable and non-interactive, and which make free action and (ultimately) an adequate account of the physical impossible.

For the ancients, the heavenly bodies played the part of these cruel gods, determining behavior and making astrology seem possible and scientific. Even St. Thomas had to take this seriously, allowing that the heavenly bodies were dispositive causes of human action. Later on, we grew less optimistic about being able to identify exactly what the deterministic causes were, but the success of mathematical law convinced us that the causes were either mathematical or shared in the logical necessity of mathematics, and so now the laws themselves became the cruel gods that determine all behavior.  All this culminated in Einstein’s block universe, where all things are already accomplished and given in advance. We’ve moved beyond the necessary efficient causality of the Ancient world to an intrinsic necessity of formal causality. The universe itself is the cruel, deterministic ice-god.

But physical law, or whatever it is that physical law is describing, is an instrumental cause. It presupposes initial conditions which can be engineered to achieve desired outcomes. The law or whatever-it-is is therefore open at both ends and so is just as much an instrument as a pair of tongs or a grocery cart.

Seen from this angle, the trans-physical or immaterial is thus what sets initial conditions to achieve outcomes, and so it prior to and impossible to describe by law. The iron- necessity of the law is of the same order as the actual iron making a pair of tongs: it serves as a dependable conduit to the intentional causality of the end.

The cruel god of the physical theory arises from a desire to place absolute necessity in something physical. Any attempt to do so not only makes free choice impossible but makes the physical world also impossible. We will posit some physical thing which at once interacts with the changeable and yet does not itself change, which gives rise to the observable and yet cannot be observed. Any account we give of the physical will become incoherent, having to allow both for things that do not interact, change, or be observed.

The conclusion is to let God be god of the universe and stop trying to conclude to strange physical gods. Let the universe remain just what it looks like: a place of interaction, the observable, and change, and let the God be the unchangeable reality that we are led to by the logic of scientific explanation.

Notes on the Eucharist

-It is “this is my body” not “this becomes my body” because nothing makes the transition from the earthly to the heavenly. The heavenly is not added to some earthly foundation.

-The Eucharist only makes sense in a cosmos that needs to be transformed. It’s materiality has no place where the reality of the material is exhausted by the mechanical.

-God is person and is absolute, and so the personhood of man is somehow contingent and/or secondary. If we find goodness in finding God we find what a person is too. In this sense our personality is decentered.

-The sacramental is a scandal to metaphysics as much as to physics.

-What would be true of place or time for there to be a Eucharist? “This is my body” said of Galilee, the cloud of ascension, the right hand of the father, the presence at Calvary.

-If it is real, I don’t even remember what I thought was true once.

-The modern doctrine of appearance vs. reality applied to Eucharist. A noumenal/phenomenal account.

The Trinity, idealizations, fictions, and the formal character of relation

The heart of St. Thomas’s doctrine of the Trinity is that relation, considered formally, is not in another. This allowed him to identify the persons with relations without making them derivative or accidental beings (while at the same time dividing them from the absolute being of God).

I was thrilled to find an argument from John of St. Thomas that appealed to the same fact to explain (non negative) beings of reason, understood broadly to include anything that intrinsically depends on an act of reason to exist (as opposed to art, which depends extrinsically on reason to exist). This broad class includes fictional characters, scientific idealizations, imagined possibilities, counterfactuals, Russellian teapots etc.

What is incapable of existence is either something positive or nonpositive. If it is nonpositive, then it is a negation; if positive it can only be a relation, because every positive and absolute being is understood not in relation to something else but as having its own independent being, and whatever has independent being is either a substance or an accident… [R]elation alone is not repugnant to being conceived without reality, for it expresses not only the concept of “being in” but also the concept of “being to”. As a consequence, when taken precisely, relation does not express existence in the thing itself, but the extrinsic order to a term. And so relation can be a being of reason, understood as neither in something else or in itself, but as a pure “to another” without any existence in a subject in any way.

Cursus Philosophicus V. 1 On the nature and division of the being of reason, a. 1.

Other thomistic accounts of existence

-What makes the difference between something known to us as known and as outside knowledge.

-That by which something is intelligible to us without being intelligible to us.

-That which, in ficta, is purely relational. Ontologically, a unicorn is a relation, not a substance. The termini of the relation exist, but are not unicorns.

-What all has per se but which God alone has first.

-The one thing that cannot be conveyed by any piece of information in a definition.

-What cannot be isolated by abstraction.

-The principle of a definition ex parte the defined. The intellect is the principle of the definition ex parte the definition. Again , we divide “principle of knowledge” explicitly from “thing known”.

-That which, by being left out, makes every definition of a finite thing.

-That which, being absent, makes a universal explanation which is perfectly intelligible to us an imperfect god. A law of nature is a lovely thing, and perfectly intelligible to us, but no god. Because the intelligible to us leaves off existence, it will make the universe either absolutely static (in fact, a pure equation) or absolutely dynamic (where even the laws of logic are contingent).

A declension of intelligences and objects

1.) Object and subject are one in being and in actuality.

2.) Object and subject are one in being but the first is the act of the second.

3.) Object and subject are divided in being, and the first is the act of the second.

The first is all intelligibility, subsisting by itself, or at least with no division into potency and act.

The second is its own intelligible universe, but in such a way that it is still in potency in its subjective acts, even if this potency is actualized by something that is one in being with it. This is the angel.

The last is the universe and the human person.

And so our analogue to an angel or to God is universe-man, or the universe so far as human beings are both contained in it and yet contain it intentionally.

For the angel, all that is a world to us is something that they draw out from within themselves; for God all that is possible to be a world is something drawn out from within himself.

The universe is therefore infinite because it is the proper object of an intelligence, but the man who now knows it is a seed or a merely initial stage of himself since he was made for an infinity that he cannot achieve in the state he now finds himself in. The universe is not a display piece meant to startle or amaze him but a proper object which exists only to be unified to him.

Idealism therefore is prophetic or anticipatory. It anticipates the time when the whole of the universe is coterminous with what is understood. But it errs in seeing this as achieved already, as though there were no real division left to be overcome. Idealism thus gets its typical character of including everything and yet having no richness of detail, a mere hollow sketch or placeholder for a full understanding.

Realism is right to set the universe in opposition to the human intellect, but it is wrong to give it an objective being apart from being the proper object of this person’s mind. The object is not an alien beast on which we inflict violence to make universals.

Marketing theology and philosophy

Catholic theologians and philosophers have spent at least 50 years worrying over whether their theology speaks to modern people. A clear instance would be Ratzinger’s Introduction to Christianity, though one could read the whole of Vatican II in a similar way. Protestantism had a 200-year head start in worrying over this, making it either the vanguard or the canary in the mine, depending on what thinks about the problem.

One factor to take into account in evaluating this is that “to speak to someone” is just a synonym of “to persuade someone”, and for the last 50 years the overwhelming number of persuasion-acts that have affected us are from advertising. Advertising is our paradigm for persuasion simply because of its sheer ubiquity. Chances are that there are at least five logos within reach of anywhere you are: sitting at my desk I see one on the phone, one on each Kleenex box, two on the pencil sharpener, three on the computer, one on the dry erase marker… and this is before I count any that are on my clothes, my glasses, my zipper… as an artist friend tells me, we are surrounded by art, but most of it is invisible – though not in the sense that it is forgotten but in the sense that, as T.S. Eliot put it, it makes the music that is heard so deeply that it is not heard at all.

All of these logos make a largely unconscious language of persuasion. All things efficient or powerful have clear, angular, and dynamic looking logos, and are made with the “motion color” materials like silver, grey, black or deeper blue (sometimes white) all things appetizing draw from another palate with yellows, red, oranges, green etc. and have rounded-type logos. Make a hammer as sturdy as you please – no one is going to buy it if your advertising aesthetic is used by Burger King or My Little Pony. Make the tastiest burger in town – no one will buy it if it’s in a black wrapper with silver and blue angular writing.

All this is a roundabout way to show that the desire to update theology is not a cry for new theology but for new marketing. The Vatican II buzzword of “pastoral” theology is itself marketing. It’s pointless to try to swap out, say a Thomistic approach for a Kierkegaardian approach, or to swap out historical perspectives for more logical ones. Changing the content does nothing, it’s the form that needs updating. There are at least three elements to this updated form:

1.) Be brief and bullet-like. Advertising has conditioned us to expect that persuasion must be more or less instantaneous. No one can follow a paragraph as long as Locke or Newman anymore. I don’t mean Newman was verbose – he never used a wasted word. But Wittgenstein is the new model. Philosophy like a programming language or a soundbite. (A return of the disputed question might be an improvement.)

2.) Seek out the image, story, or example over an argument. The brevity we have become accustomed to in advertising makes us mant to see something immediately as true as opposed to having to reason laboriously for it. Everyone knows the Chinese room, the trolley problem, zombies, possible worlds, etc. Few Analytic philosophers can get from one end of a thought to another withotu using some far-fetched and wildly improbable illustration. The success of Dan Dennett (or, on the opposite extreme, Chesterton) seems in large part that he is an interesting storyteller. Raymond Ruyer could write whole books that moved from one masterstroke image to another, although little of his work has been translated out of French.

Giving examples is, of course, nothing new, but the centrality of the story over the argument is something distinctively post-modern. Our insistence on “evidence” means as evidence as opposed to argument. We want to just see the truth. We are skeptical of any multi-stage process of reasoning.

Methodologically, this supports the use of abductive and/or analogous reasoning over either deductive or inductive reasoning, that is, we should start with tentative ideas and point to some facts that make one hypothesis more probable. Scientific mythology makes us (irrationally) more convinced by evidence than by self evidence; more certain of the probable than the certain. We’ll repeat a single scientific test as though it’s gospel while being suspicious of the Pythagorean theorem.

3.) Emphasize ambiguities where possible. Advertising accustoms us to see persuasion as coming in a morass of competing and conflicting acts, and so ambiguities are essential to establish ones bona fides. Even the most strident dogmatist can find many to bring forward. Pure consistency and clarity is understood to be ideological and therefore a sort of rationalization. This is particularly the case in the Anglosphere, which tends to express itself tentatively even without the post-modern love of uncertainty making an additional contribution.

This is makes exception to rule 1. If you are giving a lengthy description of how ambiguous are difficult a problem is, people can follow it and believe it. If you insist on one dogmatic point at the end of this, or at some point during the flow, people will accept it as gospel.

The infinity of scientific law

-The laws of nature are infinite in an interesting way: they all presuppose initial conditions that they don’t specify, and so they have no terminus a quo, and most of them do not specify any final state* and so they have no terminus ad quem. 

-The laws are conduits from the initial condition specifier to the goal specifier. To say that causal natural laws render free choice or spiritual activity impossible is to completely miss their fundamental structure of being open on both ends.

-Laws are just another instance of omne quod movetur ab alio movetur. The “other” is the one specifying initial conditions and goals.

-But doesn’t this deny immanent teleology? No. STA is clear that the infinite motions of nature are for the sake of life, that is, for the sake of those things that can specify goals and so must have some power to specify conditions. Even the immanent teleology of the purely physical is instrumental to the higher order powers of life.

-Life must come forth from nature, since it is one with it. But we only know of one process by which it could do so: pure chance. This requires the amount of merely natural material to be immensely larger than the amount of living matter, so much so that life in comparison to the totality of nature will seem negligible. The magnitude of the universe does not dwarf life or make it insignificant: it is a condition of its possibility. The physical had to make itself practically infinite to achieve its deepest purpose: completion by life.


*The octet rule or the the various equilibrium rules (heat, liquids, rigid bodies) might be exceptions to this. But even here “final states” in the merely physical are not purely final. An equilibrium state, for example, is just as much a terminus a quo as a terminus ad quem. This is another way in which laws of nature are infinite.

The phenomenology of a free choice

Do something random.

Note first you have to think about what that means: asking “what?” or “what do you mean?” ruins the imperative. The mind then turns to a category of actions set down in advance or suggested unconsciously as “random”. You try your best to just let it happen without thinking about it, that is, to let the subconscious take over.

Now consider the times when you are part of a group that is trying to deliberately choose some course of action. The choice might come with a vote, or a few key concessions by objectors, or by a few people in the group just giving up. But there is almost always some amount of time when the writing is more or less on the wall, and when we become aware that the results have been set from some time ago.

Both are things that people call “free choice”. Both involve contributions from pre-conscious factors. The first has to turn to a pre-set  category of “random” looking actions, and no doubt if we studies these we would find various social and subconscious influences. The second often involves the awareness that the writing is on the way, and that the plan has already been set before the definitive act that sets it.

But here’s the main point: anyone can concede the basic phenomenology of the act of choosing without seeing the subconscious or pre-set factors as doing away with the freedom of the choice. There will always be conditions on the act of deliberation, but to do away with choice altogether requires seeing even the deliberation as illusory.

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