Dialogue on God as beyond existence

A: I just can’t make sense of the Thomistic idea that God is not a being, or that he is outside being. It seems like I know what I mean when I say something is or is not, and if God exists, then he is; and if not, then not. How can anyone talk me out of the idea that I have an idea of existence that is common to everything?

B: St. Thomas says things like these because he speaks of God as a cause.

A: Well, causes either are or aren’t, right? I’ve got a box in my head marked “exists” and another marked “doesn’t exist”, and everything has to go in one or the other. This is just the principle of contradiction.

B: So you recognize something common to everything, and that everything must really have/be it or not?

A: Exactly.

B: We Thomists agree to this, but we think it shows exactly the opposite of what you take it to show.

A: How?

B: Because if anything is common to many things, then none of the members of that multitude could be the cause of it.

A: Why not? Assume there’s some torch that lights everything else on fire, or someone who knows X and teaches it to everyone else who knows it. What’s so odd about this? Isn’t this how things normally happen?

B: That might be so, but all these examples just help themselves to the thing they want to explain. Sure, given something on fire, or some one that knows X you can explain how something else on fire, or someone else coming to know the thing. It certainly counts as some sort of explanation to simply assume the explanans, but we have to put  some pretty heavy qualifications on what we mean by an explanation in order to count this as one.

A: That works for those particular examples,  why can’t the class of existent things be like a barber how shaves everyone, including himself, or a doctor who heals everyone, even himself? Here you have a member of the class explaining everyone in the class. God is in the class of existent things because he causes existence in himself along with everyone else. Someone is healed in exactly the same way (say, by taking medicine) regardless of whether they are a doctor or not. So why doesn’t everything exist in exactly the same way too?

B: But a doctor isn’t sick because he’s a doctor, nor does being a barber make one shaggy. The sick have doctors among them only accidentally. No member of the group as such heals themselves. This matters: you can’t learn much of anything about sickness by studying the knowledge that makes someone a doctor; nor can you learn to shave simply by learning all you can about facial hair.

A: So where does that leave us?

B: Saying that you can’t explain something common to many things by pointing to any of the members of the group, unless you’re taking it as given, or you muddle together distinct groups.

A: And so if my idea of existence is really common, then I either have to take God’s existence as a given or be only saying he exists accidentally.

B: Right – except it’s ambiguous to “take existence as given”. What it means here is that you wouldn’t explain existence even of creatures. Remember, this was the first example that came up.


From Nominalism to immaterialism

Berkeley makes perhaps the most striking move from Nominalism to immaterialism, arguing that the individuals given to sense need not and cannot depend on matter for their existence. Leibniz opens up a different way of moving from Nominalism to immaterialism which, if less striking, is still very powerful. Nominalism (though it is not alone in holding this) holds that only concrete individuals exist, but no spacio-temporal thing is an individual. The minor premise is the first conclusion reached in Monadology. 

1. The monad, of which we will speak here, is nothing else than a simple substance, which goes to make up compounds; by simple, we mean without parts.

2. There must be simple substances because there are compound substances; for the compound is nothing else than a collection or aggregatum of simple substances.

3. Now, where there are no constituent parts there is possible neither extension, nor form, nor divisibility. These monads are the true atoms of nature, and, in a word, the elements of things.

To be clear: nothing which we have ever called an atom is a Leibnizian monad. From Democritus to Dalton to our own day atoms have had parts or something like them, but, by the same token, all atoms have been a sort of approximation of monads: Democritus denied they had size but gave them shape; Newton seemed to think that the parts of things had no important differences made by spacial extension but nevertheless made up spacial extension; and our own account of electrons seems to simultaneously give them spacial and non-spacial properties. But it’s not the case that an atom is even the best approximation of a monad. A horse or cat gives us a clearer view of what it is to be monad, as both have the same sort of indivisibility that an element has but are more familiar to us. Nevertheless, the cat or horse is not monadic so far as they have extended parts in space, but so far as there is something determining those parts to being a this. The individuality of a cat, manifested not just in metabolism but even in its being a this, is something like a man juggling lettered blocks which – even though he had no intention of this happening – spin in just the right way as to always spell exactly the same word in the arc of his juggling. It is precisely this source of unified identity over time that counts as monadic, which is broader but nevertheless includes Aristotle’s notion of substantial form.

Coffee and the separated soul

St. Thomas has many strands of his account of the separated soul that seem hard to harmonize: on the one hand he says it is not a person, on the other hand he says it gets access to higher objects and attains certain higher rational perfections. The tradition that followed him had to deal with the confusion of how STA both claims that the separated soul is not a person and yet is committed to saying that it is a person in a state of privation. Edward Feser brings both strands of argument together with the idea of a dog missing most of its limbs and sense organs. In one sense it’s a dog, in another sense it’s not a dog any more. The metaphor does a good job at capturing how extreme privations of X can leave us with something that is both X and not X, and it also does a good job at capturing STA’s clear commitment to the goodness of the body and its essential connection to human life and consciousness, but it does not do justice to STA’s clear commitment to, and explicit approval of, the idea that the separated soul is in certain ways more perfect than the soul in a state of union with matter.  In fact, it’s hard to see how one could ever strike a balance between these two demands.

Till coffee comes to the rescue.

If artificial things = M, some M’s are such that we say we have an M when we have just the proximate matter. This is why we say we bought a bookshelf at IKEA when we only bought bookshelf parts, or we bought a model airplane when we only bought a box of injection molded parts. Other times, we say we have an M when we have something more formal and less material: this is how we buy coffee and Kool-aid.*

So if we take Kool-aid (the powder) as a formal cause of Kool-aid (the drink) then we have an analogue to the soul in separation and in union. Death is like the evaporation of all the water from the drink, leaving us with only the powder. This harmonizes the three disparate elements in the thomistic account:

a.) It explains why we refer to both the form in union and separation by the same word. They don’t share a mere lazy name in common either, but the likeness of names speaks to how we can identify both the drink and the powder by the same taste, color, etc. At the same time the metaphor

b.) Allows a clear sense in which the separated form is not the thing in itself. Kool-aid is essentially a drink. It also

c.) Allows a sense in which the separated form is more perfect. Separated Kool-aid, for example, will be sweeter simply in virtue of being less diluted.


* I say “more formal” because, in the strict sense coffee beans and Kool-aid are proximate matter, just as the bookshelf is. The form of coffee is whatever it is that your coffee maker imparts. Still, by the same reasoning super glue is only the proximate matter of superglue, since it cannot fasten (i.e. perform the very act that defines it) until it is exposed to the atmosphere.

Even under this qualification, the metaphor can still do work: it might help to explain STA’s obscure metaphor of “immersion in matter”. Some sorts of matter are clearly more and less like matter- water is more like matter in coffee; air is more like matter for superglue, etc.

Heraclitus and the physical (pt. 2)

1.) We have experience of dealing with things of the same description as the ship of Theseus, and they show us that artifacts have individuality by participation, that is, to the extent that they relate to an extrinsic agent or efficient cause.

2.) While physical things have substantial forms and so have a being for themselves that artifacts lack, they have the same lack of individuality that an artifact has.

3.) This lack of individuality is either from lacking it altogether, or because the individuality is always in flux.

4.) But natural things, just as artifacts, cannot lack individuality altogether, thus they have an individuality in constant flux.

5.) This constant flux arises because the individuality of the physical as such arises is defined by the totality of its accidents; esp. where it is, when it is, what position it is in, etc. In the animate, however, substantial form gives the entity a self-action to the individual (i.e. non-abstract) entity.

6.) Self-activity is thus divided from the physical. You (who remain the same) cannot step in the same river twice. By way of opposition, you can speak to the same person or pray to the same God twice.

7.) Leibniz’ indiscernibility axiom shows that there is a more and less in what counts as the same individual. At the defining limit of this, the individual must not be measured by categories like when it is, where it is, what position it is in, what acts upon it, etc.




Heraclitus and the physical

The following is an idea that Brentano tries to develop into an argument for non-physical existence. I’m here reformulating it in my own terms.

Hypothesis: a physical thing becomes a different individual if it changes at all, even in place or with respect to time.

I take my coffee cup downstairs to write. There has to be some sense in which it is the same one upstairs and down. Let’s look at the possibilities for why it is the same:

1.) It’s the same concave-and-behandled mass of porcelain.

2.) It’s fulfilling one function throughout the whole trip. If the handle broke off on the steps and I just happened to see something that would work just as well as a handle, then I’d talk about a putting a new handle on the same cup. If all the parts of the cup were replaced in the same way, I’d still call it the same one.

But the function is something I impose on a thing from without: it’s no more intrinsic to porcelain than a yoke is intrinsic to an ox. But the the intrinsic causes mentioned in (1) are only realizations of the goal that is extrinsically affixed, and so are likewise extrinsic.

This leads us toward the idea of substantial form. But the substantial form in the inanimate is not very good at giving us an individual. When I speak of “this paint” I’m either talking about the sort of thing it is (forest green, say) or I’m remarking on it being in some one container, or something like this. But none of these things make “this paint” an individual. True, this substantial form with this matter will give us a “this”, but the work of specifying the “this” will have to fall to the accidents.

Now any inanimate thing can have a participated individuality: a Stradivarius violin, for example, participates so strongly in the individual who made it that it would take very few modifications to destroy the individual it is. The ship of Theseus, however, is whatever ship that makes the journey to Minos once a year, and so we could just as well replace it with another ship without it ceasing to be the individual it is (as happens frequently with Air Force One). But these are all extrinsically affixed individualities. What sort of individual is an inanimate thing in itself?

So it seems that the inanimate (or the physical as such) either is no individual at all, or its individuality includes all specifying accidents, which alone specify it as this rather than that. But the first option seems impossible, since there has to be something in virtue of which the inanimate is a concrete reality as opposed to an abstract one. So this leaves us with the totality-of-accidents account, in  which case the physical as such is best described in Heraclituswise: you cannot step in the same river twice, and the coffee cup I brought downstairs is not the same one that arrived there.

But there is an element in Heraclitus’s claim that goes overlooked:  you can’t step in the same river twice. The river’s individuality – it’s existence – is forever unstable and in flux, but the you is not. In this sense, Heraclitus’s insight is a critique of physicalism: the stability of the self is essentially divided from the existence of the physical. The reality of substance, based as it is on the observation that the real is concrete and not abstract, can only be verified if the real is principally not the physical.

This realization of individuality admits of more and less. Leibniz’s indiscernibility axiom won’t allow for the (veritable) individuality of the animate to be all of the same kind, and the animate as such, existing in time, can never be the same individual simply and without qualification. Individuality simply requires transcending time and spacial location simply and not in various qualified ways. The indiscernibility axiom thus develops into a cosmological argument, which in turn supplies a standard for a declension of existence so far as the existent is individual.


What it means to say things move in the universe

We pulled into the gas station and I was amazed by the number of bugs that had flown into the grill of the car. But then it hit me that this was not the best description of what happened. Or was it? If you’ve ever driven in snow, you’ve had the sense that the flakes were flying into the headlights, but it’s probably silly to see it in this way. Making the car a stationary frame of reference would lead to an odd account of how snow fell; and doing the same to explain bug splatter gives us an odd account of how fast the bug can fly. For all that, he looked like he flew straight at me.

The familiar resolution is to say that there is no such thing as an object in motion, only moving-with-respect-to. Motion is seen as a transcendental relation.  Of as relation, it is neither being itself, nor in another, but to another.

There are two such relations, either a part with respect to a whole or a whole with respect to its part. An object moving with respect to a background or reference frame is a part of the whole space of the reference frame. A walking man, however, (regardless of whether he is going down the street or going backwards on a moving sidewalk) is moving as a whole because his parts are changing position.

On this account, the universe is clearly moving in the latter way. But how is the universe a whole? This seems like an odd claim: no one thinks that there is a Chastekio, that is, the entity formed by me and the innermost moon of Jupiter. So why is it not even more ridiculous to think that the whole universe is an entity? One response is to doubt the analogy: just as no one thinks there are Chastekios, so also no one thinks there is a lugshield, that is, an entity formed by a lug nut and a windshield, but there are still cars. But why are there cars, though? This is only because we can appeal to a unity of function or of intention: a car is a whole either because it is the best thing to act carwise or because some automaker intends it to be one thing. But in virtue of which of these is the universe one whole? If we take a function view of its being whole, we are saying that the universe is universing, which makes it either an organism (like a horse) or an instrument (like a combine or machine); and if it is one whole as the result of intention, then either we or some other being is making it to be what it is. But to place this being within the universe itself is impossible, thus, it would have to be outside of it.

But why can’t the universe be a whole simply because it’s all there is? Only because “being all there is to something” does not make that something a whole, as this description applies just fine to chastekios and lugshields. There is nothing more to the former than myself and Io, and nothing more to the latter than a lug nut and windshield.

Experiments and intelligence

While arguing that plants have intelligence (though an Aristotelian would call it sensation), Anthony Trewavas claims that one of the main reasons why “plant intelligence” was so difficult to discover is that plants in a laboratory do not display the behavior that is so forceful in arguing for such intelligence. After all, plants in a lab live in a stable environment, with all their needs catered to by grad students, and are subject to (at worst) only contrived and isolated stresses. Lab-plants are cut away from the hurly-burly of live, complex environments and look stupider than they are as a result.

The finding generalizes: intelligence is a forsight by which we dominate an environment, but intelligences knowingly working within contrived environments take those very contrivances into account, and use them as shortcuts or labor saving devices.  The grad student watering the plant is being used by the plant as an extension of its roots, such that the roots themselves need not make any special effort to do anything fascinating. Again, Pavlov’s dogs used Pavlov as an extension of their nervous system-  he was simply a sixth canine sense for detecting food, even if he proved to be less than a perfectly reliable instrument.  What appeared to be conditioning of the dog was equally the dog’s assumption of a person into his nervous system.


Brentano’s Kalam argument

I’ve been unimpressed by attempts to defend the Kalam, but I was deeply impressed by Brentano’s defense of it.

Thesis: if any activity or process is measured by time, it must have a beginning. 

N.B. When we speak of a thing measured by time, we include not only parts of larger processes and activities, but even the sum or totality of them.

1.) If some process lacks a beginning, it cannot be at any determinate part of its process at a given time. The consequent is absurd, therefore, etc.

Take the simplest case of an object moving inertially in a straight line. The factors that determine where it is are its velocity, the amount of time it has been moving, and where it started moving. Assume that the third factor is removed. Then we are left with nothing that determines why the object is in one place rather than another. All there is to the motion is how fast it moved for how long, neither of which can account for it being in any determinate place.

2.) Assume that some object has been moving for an infinite time at speed V and has reached location N. Therefore, if it moved at .5V it would have reached .5N. Call this .5N point M. But then the distance to M (.5N) is equal to the distance from M to N (.5n) thus, a finite line is equal to one which has no beginning, that is, a line having two endpoints stretches to a line with no endpoint; or a finite object is the same length as an infinite one, all of which are impossible.

Objection: Brentano can only account for a process of unlimited continuity. What if the process was the infinite repetition of some finite sequence? Why would it be impossible to have a universe where an object was created, moved ten feet, and was annihilated, and this repeated ad infinitum?

Response: The same can be reached starting with the number of times the process has happened. Let the number of repetitions be N, and the turnover duration be doubled getting us M repetitions. We then get an M that is equal to .5N.

These observations were made many times after Brentano. The basic rules of algebra do not allow for the infinite to enter into equations as a quantity. If we start with ∞+1=∞, then, if we subtract like quantities we get 1=0.

God as a Cartesian self

Tim Wilson sets out Descartes as an example of someone who thinks that a human would not change at all if one turned off all their unconscious powers. Reason is so separate from physical processes that to separate it from them would not change its activity, and  reasoning in turn is seen as exhaustive of everything that is human. Defined in this way, Wilson makes short work of the idea that humans are Cartesian selves. Human conscious experience involves an awareness of up and down, spontaneous familiarity with our native language, a quick ability to react to threats, familiar faces, an instinctive desire for food, mates, theoretical accomplishment, etc. These are all givens that we suffer in thought and which already structure conscious experience before the self does anything for itself. There is real self-activity in spite of all this, but it occurs like an executive activity that works in the context of a large bureaucracy and an already extensively established order.

The characterization is not a fair account of Descartes (who took mechanism as the first, simplest, and most fertile hypothesis of matter – which it is; and who suggests the infamous pineal gland hypothesis as one idea among many), but it does interesting theological work. Compared to human persons, God is a pure self, that is, a self that is anticipated by the supposed Cartesian self. In every way that our consciousness is conditioned, God is simply a self. We make ourselves what we are only with difficulty and after forming habits which can never have the tenacity of nature itself, whereas God is pure self-activity – all that he is traces back to him, as though chosen from all the possibilities of existence. That said, he does not choose from some palate of possibilities in making himself what he is- this would be just another sort of determination prior to his self activity. Possibility therefore cannot be some domain independent of and prior to divinity. Rather, God is an infinite fullness and possibility is the shadow of this- a purely empty space marking out the derivatively existent and not-yet existent imitations or partial reflections of divinity. It is the “face of the deep” spoken of in Genesis.

But to leave it at this would leave out something crucial. To divide God from the derivative world of possibility gives us only a first and third person perspective. God in speaking to himself is the “I AM”, and in referring to the world of possibility can speak of an “it”, that is, something that falls outside of the ambit of his act of speaking and thought. But what about the second person perspective? To deny this of God would require us to deny that we have this perspective within ourselves in virtue of being selves, and as a proper perfection of it. This seems like explaining something very important away.

Building a place for family and contemplation

***Guest post!!!

You may have noticed that there have not been any posts for the past few days. Or, at least, I hope you have noticed! That’s because my husband has been “up north” working on a new building at our family cabin.  James has often commented that the modern world offers a third way between the contemplative’s life, which heretofore has been lived away from the world precisely so that he can have the quiet and peace to be able to contemplate, and the married-family life which, with all of its demands affords little or no peace, quiet or time for contemplation.  Technology gives everyone in the industrialized world access to most of the writings of all the great thinkers; modern conveniences give most people adequate leisure time to think if they have the skills and inclination to do so.  And “up north” is the place that my husband most loves to be and to contemplate – it is spectacularly beautiful, peaceful, isolated, and yet, because of our cabin, it can be filled with all sorts of wonderful family time too.  But there is no internet (thanks be to God), so he can’t blog from up there.  Here is a glimpse of the work he has been doing though, to build us a better place for family and contemplation.

This is where construction on the future shower/tool house left off at the end of our last trip.



We (by which I mean the men) hauled in a lot of boards…




But a single day of labor by James, his dad and two brothers, yielded great returns!


This was at the end of day three. (The kids and I left on Sunday – more can get done with fewer “helpers”…)

Created with Nokia Smart Cam

Don’t let her darling curls fool you… she’s a rascal, this one.



This is what it’s all about: time with the ones we love!



Cousins, learning to shoot and making memories.


We celebrated grandma’s birthday with fresh peach cobbler and caramel rolls. (That is my contribution, the food!)








Someone found her fingers!


« Older entries