Miracles, laws, theism and otherwise.

Let’s say you want to give an argument against miracles, and you define a miracle as violating the laws of nature. Leave aside the problems with God “violating” nature for a minute (which sounds as impossible as burgling one’s own home or fornicating with his wife), and focus on just the laws of nature. These things are either in our heads or outside them, and if in outside them they either transcend nature or are immanent in it.

If they are in our heads, as mere descriptions or Humean habits, expectations, and guesses about what will happen, then a “miracle” only means something astonishing or very unexpected. An argument against miracles would be an argument against God being able to astonish us, or at least astonish us in a sufficient way. Possible, but it seems a bit strained. 

If the laws transcend nature, they are, well, transcendent realities that remain ever in themselves while at the same time governing all things. They stand outside of time while controlling all within it. It’s hard to tell this apart from a divine action. This seems to commit us to a theism of one kind or another.

If immanent in nature, we might have a possibility of having both atheism and a critique of miracles. But we’re committed to a Aristotelian view of nature, which is notoriously difficult to separate from theism.

Taking God’s “moral perfection” seriously – UPDATED

Assume that, as some versions of the argument from evil put it, God is a “morally perfect being”. Assume also that suffering exists in the world. To make the second fact tell against the first, we need to articulate a code of divine ethics, and locate prohibitions against suffering somewhere on it.

To approach this, start with the following moral claim: it is wrong to take the life of X merely because it vexes us. Clearly, the truth of the claim depends on what X is. We could make a list of descending values (M)  like this:  the act would be a terrible thing to do to a child, a perverse thing to do to some highly valued animal or possession, a pretty insensitive thing to do to a dog, an unobjectionable thing to do to a mole, a perfectly understandable act to do to a moth, and to do it to a weed would almost seem to have no moral significance at all. So when we try to articulate God’s ethics with respect to, say, allowing the suffering of the innocent, what is its analogue on M?

The question is made more problematic if we consider the principle that governs what is better or worse on M. There’re a lot of accounts of what the principle is, but St. Thomas’s account of why man can kill plants and non-human animals is a good place to start:

There is no sin in using a thing for the purpose for which it is. Now the order of things is such that the imperfect are for the perfect, even as in the process of generation nature proceeds from imperfection to perfection… Wherefore it is not unlawful if man use plants for the good of animals, and animals for the good of man

So what happens when we add that God and angels are more perfect than human beings? If this is the principle governing things, it suggests we are a little further down on M than we might wish. Whatever our feelings might be, the logic doesn’t leave much wiggle room: if the strata of perfection determine moral action, then if we introduce a sort of existence that is as many levels above us as we are above plants, such a being’s moral treatment of us be analogous to our treatment of plants. So what do we conclude if we posit a being that is infinitely many strata higher above us than we are to plants?

Of course this could be taken as a charter for a divine monster. I insist that it isn’t – it really is an attempt to take the idea of a “divine moral perfection” seriously, as opposed to simply assuming we know what it means – which seems to make divine ethics a mere  instance of human ethics. The idea of the “divine monster” might in fact have some heuristic value: if the principle above is right, we have reason to conclude that a divine moral perfection is most manifest in an action that would be the greatest possible monstrosity for a lower being – like sentencing someone to hellfire for a single offense after a life of virtue or demanding a genocide. Again, if God were as high over us as we were to plants, we might suspect that his moral obligations to us were best reflected in our obligations to plants. But God is infinitely above this, which makes us suspect that his moral perfection would consist in a removal of all limits and obligations that we observe between ourselves and other persons and entities – and so God is made perfect by actions that are monstrous for us.

But there’s more than one kind of monster. Just as it would be wrong for us to degrade and torture and animal, so too it would be degrading for us to incorporate it into a fully human life – to attempt, as Caligula did, to make a horse rule the senate. It’s monstrous both to torture a dog and to marry it. But if God is made perfect by what is monstrous for us then the incarnation or theosis is a real perfection of God. Both hellfire and its remedy become divine perfections by the same principle.

To sum up: the argument from evil depends on at least a rudimentary account of divine ethics. My contribution to the effort is the following truth: the divine moral perfection is most manifest in actions that are monstrous for lower creatures. As a consequence, evil – even an evil putatively committed by God, if such a thing were possible – would most manifest divine perfection. By the same principle, the Incarnation and theosis of lower creatures is in keeping with the divine nature.


The controversy over existence as analogous between creation and creator

Taken most broadly, to be told that “being” or “existence” is a term with analogous uses is as uninteresting as to be told that it has a universalized spelling. English words are analogous as frequently as they have uniform spellings – color and colour or hylomorphism and (the well-intentioned but mistaken) hylemorphism being exceptions to the rule, if they even amount to this. A term has analogous uses whenever the same sound or spelling has different meanings which are related in some way other than by sheer accident, and this is the rule for all terms in a language.

So sure, being has analogous uses. And water’s wet.

The controversy over the analogous use of “being” and its cognates reduces to a question of whether it is used in this way when said of God and creatures. St. Thomas’s claim that being is said analogously of the creator and creatures can be simplified down to this:

A secondary cause and a primary cause are named analogously

The creator’s existence is the primary cause of the (therefore secondary) existence of creatures.

The major premise is an observed feature of primary and secondary causes. We mean different things when we say that the plane and the pilot can fly; or when we say that both a means (like dieting) and an end (looking attractive) are things we want; or when we say that fire and mean molecular motion heat things, or one of the Watergate burglars and Nixon were responsible for the break-in, etc. This sort of analogous naming occurs in every genus of causes. The minor premise is almost analytic: “creation” clearly means to be responsible for existence as such, but there is a question whether we should say that the existence of the creator is what gives rise to the existence of creatures. 

Existence or being is clearly an intrinsic cause of things – a sort of form. For example, I’ve repeatedly used the idea of “heat” and “mean molecular motion” as examples of the being of God. But this seems to point us in the direction of making God somehow the very existence of things, just as it is precisely the mean molecular motion of fire that allows it to heat things. To straighten this out, we need to take another look at the old debates over active and passive creation.

Considered actively, the act of creation just is God. Taken passively, it is a creature, but we are not exactly sure how to take it. The dispute between Thomas and, say, Petrus Olivi was over whether passive creation was an accident in things. St. Thomas said it was, though it was a very peculiar sort of accident, sc. one that did not proceed from the created substance.  Olivi disagreed and argued, inter alia, that if creation were an accident it would have to be either separable or not, and both options were untenable.

From the safe distance of one looking at an abandoned controversy, this all seems like a dispute over words. All sides agree that something essential to accidents is lacking when we call creation an accident, which leaves only a judgment call of whether what remains is accident-like enough to warrant calling it an accident in an extended sense. It’s probably better just to gather up all the ways in which it is like an accident, and the ways in which it is not. Here are three ways in which creation is both like and unlike an accident: 

1.) Accidents modify substance. Created existence is not an accident so far as it adds nothing to the created substance. We mean exactly the same thing by 100 thalers whether we suppose they exist or not. That said, there is obviously a difference between the two things just mentioned – as Brentano points out, there’s 100 thalers worth of difference. So created existence in one sense makes no difference and in another sense makes all the difference to created substance.

2.) Accidents proceed from substance. All sides agree that the act of creation does not proceed from created substance – this involves the contradiction of making creation the creator. But if we say that it proceeds from the substance of the creator we still need to make some qualifications. This is true so far as God’s will is God himself. This identification also raises the need for more explanations: God’s will cannot be identified with his substance so far as his substance is necessary, but the act of the will cannot be contingent since we cannot reduce the contingency of creatures to another contingency. Straightening all this out will take awhile. Suffice to say that in one sense creation proceeds from the substance of God and in another sense it does not.

But it’s fascinating to consider the sense in which creation is an accident not proceeding from the divine substance. Taken in this precise sense, it is an accident with no substance beneath it at all. This opens up an exciting avenue for Sacramental Christians since this is exactly the description given of accidents in the Eucharistic species. Creation is, as it were, a sort of consecrated host without Christ; it is an ontological emptiness to which the corresponding ontological fullness is not God, but the Eucharist.

3.) Accidents are posterior in being to substance. In this sense created substance is prior to the act of creation, not because it actually exists, but because the act of existence has a limitation that it is incapable of being transcended. Existence comes after essence in the created so far as it cannot be infinite, but only comes after an intrinsic limitation.

This intrinsic limitation of essence in one sense makes the creature intelligible, and in another sense is completely incapable of making the creature intelligible. On the one hand, the fixity and determination of essence is crucial for us to understand that a thing is this and not that; in another sense what has no act of existence is not just unintelligible but actually impossible. A fictitious character can never be determined in every way that a real thing is (was Hamlet right or left handed?) but every existent thing is perfectly so determined. Thus, it is impossible for a fictitious or merely possible thing to come to exist. This is why Barry Miller can argue that things become intelligible only when they exist.

A declension of unities

More or less in order, the unity of

1.) the unity of the persons in Trinity

2.) the human nature and divine person in Christ.

3.) the indwelling of the Trinity in the soul by grace

4.) active and passive creation

5.) the knower and known

6.) the powers of intellect and will in the intellectual soul.

7.) essence and existence in a creature

8.) matter and form.

9.) substance and proper or essential accident

10.) substance and quantity, then quality, then the rest of accidents.

a.) the angelic wills in friendship

b.) angelic wills in illumination of a superior to inferior.

c.) friendship between persons by sacrament

d.) friendship between persons according to virtue, then pleasure, then utility.

A critique of knowledge leading to determinism

Determinism seems to arise from a way of understanding the unity of being and truth. If we are to understand the universe, it must fall under some general law; if there is a definite activity it is the sum of all previous activities, each of which has has a definite description and therefore yields one and only one definite result. So go the popular contemporary arguments against free will, which function just as well as arguments against the reality of life (and this is exactly how they are used when taken as refutations of souls).

Another variant on this argument is that omniscience requires that all things be determined. If all is open before God’s gaze, then the future is as fixed as the present. That this argument commits a modal fallacy* has been known for a long time, but there is nevertheless a strong idea that knowledge eliminates contingency, and so absolute knowledge – whether by God or science – eliminates it absolutely.

One response to this is to claim that all knowledge – or perhaps just all human knowledge – requires novelty and surprise. Information theory makes novelty an index and measure of information. On this account, a completely known universe would have nothing to tell us. And what could possibly be more boring or less worth knowing than a universe where all was given in advance? There’s a reason why telling the surprises of a movie is a spoiler.

A closer look at the arguments for determinism suggests that they confuse the present modality of time with the only temporal perfection. Knowledge, it is assumed, has the effect of making all times present, and of seeing all things in light of a law that unites everything in an eternal now. But why can’t the future have its own contribution to the perfection of knowledge, say by providing a field of pure contingency and therefore of surprise and novelty? On this account, the present is not “the necessary” but the moment of decision where future contingency and surprise runs through our will on the road to past fixedness.

R.C. Neville develops an idea of God like this somewhere: that his eternity is not limited to an eternal “now” but includes also an eternal novelty and surprise at the future and an infinite givenness and fixedness of the past. Something like this idea is necessary if we see love as a perfection and yet have understood Plato’s critique of this idea in Symposium.


When we try to prove that all things happen of necessity by saying “If something is known by God, it necessarily will happen” then we either mean (a.) he sees it as present, and whatever seen as present is necessary or (b.) that which God sees happens necessarily. If the first, then this tells us nothing about how future things arise, only that, for one who sees them as present the things have the same necessity as present things have for us (if we see Socrates sit, then it is necessary that he sits). But if we mean (b.) then we have obviously begged the question and assumed that things happen necessarily from the get go.



The many from the one

The Neo-Platonist axiom that the many proceeds from the one might first be understood in the sense of units: we can only get a bunch of X’s by having one X at a time. This takes “the one” in the axiom in terms of the material causality of a parts making a whole. But the axiom is both meant to be self-evident, and to yield more interesting results, when considered in the other modes of causality.

The objects of a discourse are many, but there is something making them one. This happens self-evidently when “the one” is taken as the human mind, which gathers together, say, all living things to form biology. But this would only explain how the objects could be known by us, not how they could be discovered. The unity among the living is not made by us in every way, but is also found in things. Just as we have insight into a source of knowledge from the procession of the known multitude from the separate one, so too there is an insight into a source of existence from the procession of the existent multitude from the from the separate one.

This source of the existence we discover in things is outside of all discourse about multitude. It is not an item either enumerated or capable of enumeration. We find in it a sort of individuality which we too often erroneously attribute in an absolute sense to ourselves, since for us total uniqueness would be alienation. The source of existence is not knowable by us insofar as all that is known by us is repeatable: even the one sun we know can be imagined as happening many times.

The one that is a source of existence is not in time, for all that is in time is not only identified but re-identified. It is not in space, for whatever exists in such a way is the same as whatever might replace it where it is.

The one is a reflection of intelligence: it gives the unity in discourse that is discovered by our mind. There is therefore something of mind in it so far as mind is an echo and sympathy with its work, but it is not a mind beholding things as though they could be discovered by it.

In addition to the more ancient insights into the one given here: qualified but very real unknowability, eternity, non-temporality, there is a need to incorporate new insights about the value of novelty and surprise in its knowledge, and the transcendental perfection of the second-person point of view, and the perfections of diverse personalities.

Critique (2)

If all actions in the inanimate world are interactions without being agent-patient relations, then where do we place the act-potency relation in the inanimate world?

1.) The living is the act of the inanimate. One possibility, suggested by Aristotle himself, is that the inanimate is only a potency to be moved by something else, making the “something else” by definition alive. We can view life either as something that arose when it found a way to exploit or ride upon the inanimate, though ultimately it has to be responsible for the inanimate. This commits us to a universe organism and/or some separate life that account for how the inanimate is in motion.

But to leave it at this would make the inanimate world a world of pure potency, and perhaps even non-being. This is intelligible if we abstract from the separate life that gives rise to the totality of the being of the inanimate, but not if we consider that life that exploits or somehow saddles the inanimate world.

In the living, we find many of the sorts of things that cannot be verified in the inanimate: the womb is clearly a natural place for an embryo, the eye-socket for an eyeball. There is a clear arrow of action and being acted upon when I use a straw to drink soda, though the we find only interactive activity in nature itself between mouth, fluid, and atmosphere.

2.) The whole cycle of an inanimate thing is the act of both the parts of the cycle and the matter composing it. Nature clearly has a preference for cycles, and these are obvious and unobjectionable wholes. The water cycle, taken as a whole, is the act to which both evaporation, condensation and water itself are potential parts.

3.) Negative entropy is the act of something. Entropy is an index of privation, and so its contrary is the act of something. Just what entropy’s proper potential is, is not clear.

4.) The system is the act to which its components are in potential. Depending on the system, inanimate parts have different activities. A golf ball hit on the course will not perform exactly the same action as one in outer space.

1 and 3 are related somehow, as are 2 and 4.

A critique of Aristotle’s physics in Aristotle’s terms

One way to express the critique of Aristotle’s physics in his own terms is to say that, while he was right that every action or change involves act and potency, he thought this meant there were agent-patient relations in the inanimate when in fact there are only interactions. 

Take an interaction between two inanimate things A and B. To posit an agent and patient is to add something to this interaction, namely that there is an order from the one to another. Such an order requires a way to determine which is potential and actual, and therefore which is perfecting and which is being perfected. If we are speaking of local motion, it requires that one impart a motion (and so be in motion) absolutely and not in a way that is essentially dependent on the hypothesis of something being at rest. If we are speaking of a qualitative change (let’s take heating) it means we need an absolute way to know that the interaction between A and B is one where A is heating B as opposed to being a case of B cooling down A.  

Now Aristotle obviously knew that one thing couldn’t push another without itself being pushed by it, but he thought that there must be some way of determining which was pushing per se and being pushed per accidens. This is one reason why he posited a center and boundary edge to the universe, since they were fixed locations that made it in principle possible to determine what was pushing and what was being pushed. The case of heating was a bit trickier: here Aristotle was committed to the claim that heating was more perfect than cooling, and so heating was occurring per se and cooling only per accidens. The same would have to be true of chemical reactions: making water from gas would have to involve either a perfecting or corruption per se, and the opposite per accidens.

While it is perhaps logically possible for a theory one day to give absolute place values and orders of perfection to heating, chemical reactions, and other inanimate interactions, this does not seem to be the smart way to bet, and we seem to learn a lot more about nature by assuming that such things aren’t there. If, for example, there are no absolute place values, then local motion is always relative to a background, which is the charter for both inertial reference frames and the identity of acceleration and rest in a gravitational field. Again, seeing chemical reactions as a matter of the per se generation of more perfect substances seems to point in the direction of some most perfect inanimate substance – like gold – which gives us something more like alchemy than chemistry.

Adding agent-patient relations on top of physical interactions did give us the ordered cosmos, with a hierarchy of movers and mobiles, along with all the grand-unified ideas of the common good of the whole universe. But there was a dark side to all of this too, as it tended to point in the direction of fatalism and astrology. All of St. Thomas’s struggles with astrology were based on the idea that there had to be a first agent mover of all motion, and it’s unclear to me whether his response to it could really survive a robust defense of the causal closure thesis.    

Revelation informing reason

 We can know the future only so far as we can see into causes, which in turn requires the claim that these causes will act uniformly throughout time. But such a claim is not based on insight and cannot be confirmed, making it by definition prejudice.

But what will be – whether in the course of nature or the will of God – makes a difference to what we are now. It is very different to work on the scientific assumption of a uniformity of causes than on, say, the Islamic last judgment or the glyphs of the Hopi prophecy rock. But depending which we are working from, we get totally different answers to the questions like what am I and what is the significance of the world and what happens in it? But these are pretty clearly questions that touch on everything. 

So what then? From the point of view of human reason, we’re stuck having to choose among irreducible prejudices. As far as reason can tell, choosing to believe in the uniformity of causes is just as much of a prejudice as choosing to believe in anything else that is neither based on insight or able to be confirmed. All reason can do is wait and see, but it still has to act now. 

In the face of this, we can only choose the prejudice of the uniformity of causes if we view our own reason as the best option, which means either that it is all we have or all we can know that we have. This still does not make it reasonable: a prejudice is no less what it is for being the only one we have. For action to be reasonable and actually based on insight we need a revelation of the structure of history, given by someone in a position to know. The rational need for this will, of course, give rise to a whole history of wishful thinking, guesswork, self-deception and outright lies about what the historical structure is, and this does make for complications in someone looking for the true revelation. There will be continual and perhaps intractable debates over what sort of criteria we need to establish the true revelation, along with debates of what God needs to do to have gone far enough to have revealed anything. But the fact remains that we are not spectators to teh problem – our whole nature is bound up in it and the necessity of answering the question, and the adequacy of the answer we have given, is always being pressed on us. 

Space, time and the real (2)

So how is matter an interior principle of the real?

The first account of this is to look at the sort of action that we ascribe to matter. If we want to explain why a rock fell, we point to some physical property like its desire for the center of the earth (Aristotle), or its being tugged to the center of mass of the universe (Newton), or a monadic perception of all bodies in the universe that plays out its pre-established nature in their presence (Leibniz) or its bending of space (Einstein). But if we want to explain why the rock fell on the head of an enemy after being carefully rolled off a cliff above him, then any sort of physical explanations like the ones just given become superfluous. Even if one thought that all actions and causes will be given physical accounts – even those seemingly caused by the human will – he still doesn’t think that the explanation of why the rock fell will be in both instances traced back to the matter which is an intrinsic principle of this rock.

Matter is thus an intrinsic principle so far as we can trace some sort of action back to it. All sides seem to agree that the sort of action we are looking for is one that is determined to a result, which seems to mean that it is determined to a result so far as it has idealized circumstances and precisely given initial conditions. Recent theories want to make room for a merely probable determination, but this seems to differ from total determination only by having rougher edges, not by being a different sort of action.

But idealized circumstances, determination to results not yet occurring, and initial conditions all point to matter having to do its work in a system, that is, as a part of a larger whole. If we want to know what the material thing will do, it’s not enough to be told about it, we need to know something about its environment.

But the thing and its environment can only form a single action if one of two states is true:

a.) The thing relates to the other things making its environment as an agent to instruments or

b.) All the things in the environment are instruments to something else.

Now B is just an instance of A when the “something else” is  material thing, and so either we posit immaterial agents or B reduces to A. But let’s consider A. This requires that there be some way, in principle, to tell the difference between what acts and what is acted upon. There does not, however, appear to be any such way to tell these apart in a physical system as such. Take the we-trod example of two billiard balls hitting each other. Let’s isolate this as a purely physical system by making it happen in outer space. Did the one hit the other that was resting? Vice versa? Were neither at rest but each moving with velocities that added together to get the result? The question is in principle unsolvable. The example universalizes to matter acting on space, or any other change resolving to local change, which is to say all physical changes.

And so either there are non-material sources initiating action or nothing at all initiates action. Since the second is a dead end, we need some source other than matter to account for the very action that matter performs. This is not to make matter inert or without a distinctive, intelligible contribution, only to say that it is not a sufficient cause.

These non-material sources are either within matter or not. As within them, they are monads or substantial forms. It is not clear at this point that more is necessary to account for the action that defines matter.

But does positing a substantial for within things give us any insight as to which is the agent? Let the two billiard balls each have a substantial form. Does this give us an in-principle way of telling which acts on which? Substantial form has to do more than this to account for action. The substantial form or moand, whatever it might do, needs to make agency identifiable, even in principle. It seems there is no way to do this without introducing self-action within things, thereby giving them, at minimum, what plants have. Accounting for the action of matter therefore requires life as a prior cause.

Matter is thus an interior principle of the real so far as it is capable of being an instrument for life, or to a form making things alive.


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