Thomism and common sense (2)

– Philosophy exists in the space vacated by common sense, but this does not mean that we fill up that space with whatever contradicts common sense; it means that common sense becomes one source of hypotheses to be argued for or against. It becomes one voice among many, and not necessarily one that will have priority in any given case.

– Some non-negligible percentage of persons who read this post and the last one have been punching armchairs and keyboards in exasperation, screaming “What in the world do you mean by this ‘common sense’ – how is this even one thing!?!” Let’s list off some possible meanings: (a) the ‘intuitive concepts’ that Analytic philosophers talk about. (b) the ‘reasonable man’ standard used in legal cases. (c) the ‘man on the street’ idea, understood in a more or less intuitive way (d) the ‘man on the street’ idea, understood through things like polls, questionnaire responses, etc. (e) whatever is axiomatic, understood as axios, i.e. worthy of being a starting point of reasoning. (f) the Chestertonian sense of that which preserves sanity.

Leaving aside (f), none of these gives us any distinct philosophy or even would commend a philosophy to us. This true by definition for (a) and (d), and also for (b), which is a legal expedient. this leaves us with (c), but this is difficult to understand in a way that doesn’t reduce to (d) or (a) or with (e), which specifies only a starting point of reasoning, not a place that is necessary worth ending up at. cf also cryptonymous Bill’s comment on the last post.

– Stay for a moment on the ‘man on the street’ sense of common sense. If you live by this guy, you’ll die by him too. Sure, maybe he’ll agree that motion exists, but he’ll also say that not all lies are wrong, Euclid’s fifth postulate is self-evident, whatever man can do God can do just as well (see what Ockham does with this), matter and form, if real, are beings (which means Aristotle falls to Parmenides) that nothing can actually exist if its not actual (bye bye, prime matter) or, most importantly, that the practical life is more preferable than the life of theoretical understanding.

And once you start taking polls about what the common man believes, philosophy will become ridiculous, morality will lose all sharp distinctions, and you’ll be able to make more or less anything reasonable.

– The say A-T is “common sense” does not describe anything distinctive to it, but is simply a kind of marketing. You can’t find a sense in which A-T is common sense that wouldn’t also be true of Scotism or Pragmatism or even the more moderate strains of scientism (like Elliot Sober or John Searle).

–   No philosopher has insisted more on being common sense than Berkeley, and no one is assumed (in my mind wrongly) to be further from it. The irony here contains an argument – Berkeley presses a crucial question about what exactly is evident, or given in common sense.

– The claim to common sense is, again, a sort of marketing that usually distorts the real issue in play. Take the dispute between Aristotle and Parmenides. Here, Aristotle is assumed to have the high-ground of common sense as the one who defends the reality of motion. But a close look makes the issue much more problematic: Parmenides, it turns out, wrote extensively about nature, but he assumed that to speak in this way was to follow “the way of mortal opinion”.  So the issue between Aristotle and Parmenides turns out to be not whether we can give some account of mobile things, but whether this account rises to the level of episteme. Aristotle says yes, but both Parmenides and the 20th century scientist say no. Simialr things surface when we consider other obvious violations of common sense. No one is assumed to violate common sense more than Berkeley, but an actual reading of his texts shows us a man more zealous to keep himself in line with it than anyone.

Thomism and common sense

Thomism is not a philosophy of common sense. One cannot point to a single distinct tenet in it as an example of something folksy, commonly believed, or as obviously and inarguably better than its contrary. Just look as some of the tenets in question: the metaphysical primacy of esse, the negation of spiritual matter, the denial of the Ontological Argument, abstracted sense being as the proper object of the human intellect, the rational demonstrability of psychic immortality, analogous predication of positive traits said of God, the single esse of Christ, the status of lying as an intrinsic evil, the primacy of intellection in beatitude, etc. There’s no account of common sense that even allows it to raise questions like this, much less to resolve them.

But I want to make a more general claim, sc. that all philosophy exists in a space that’s been set apart from common sense. To explain this, let me lay out the major philosophical debates in the eras that I know something about:

Major Disputes in:

1.) Ancient Hellenic Philosophy

a.) Whether anything is moving.

b.) Whether we can be certain about something.

c.) Whether we know everything by remembering it from the separate world we lived in before birth.

2.) Medieval Philosophy:

a.) Whether we all think with the same intellect

b.) Whether we need God’s help to know certain things.

c.) Whether abstract ideas exist only in the mind or not.

d.) Whether words like “exists” means the same thing when said of God and creatures.

3.) Modern and Contemporary Philosophy (the part I care about, at least)

a.) Whether one needs a mind to think.

b.) Whether a word is just a kind of symbol.

c.) Whether all arguments can be made in one logic.

d.) Whether time exists, or any objects of thought apart from thought.

None of these questions can be raised by common sense: in fact, to the extent it can address the questions, common sense dismisses them and takes the answer as obvious. This is why philosophy can only exist by putting common sense aside.

But wait, don’t we find the supposed “philosophies of common sense” on the side of the common sense responses to these questions? Of course there’s something moving, common sense tells us, and Aristotle defended just this idea. But there are two problems with this: first, it doesn’t work in all cases. Consider the four disputes in Medieval philosophy. Common sense might have an opinion about (a), but it has nothing to say about (b), and it would probably resolve (c) and (d) in favor of someone like Ockham. But Ockham never gets called a philosopher of common sense. But there is a second, more fundamental problem: common sense of itself would not allow any of the questions to be raised. It won’t let us question whether anything is moving, and so won’t allow us to eventually formulate the distinction between potency and act. Common sense doesn’t side with Aristotle against Parmenides, Plato, or Heraclitus, it brushes all four of them aside as raising silly questions whose answers are obvious.

So let’s drop the idea of common sense in philosophy. It doesn’t seem to do much work outside the practical, everyday world anyway. It might tell up how to avoid falling in wells, but it isn’t of much value in looking at the stars.

Energy and divine activity (2)

Why believe that, if energy is always conserved, that some activity or motion must always be? Why can’t energy be simply latent? Isn’t some energy potential?

Distinguish the potential or latent into the counterfactual and the actual. To explain: wood in a world with no oxygen would be counterfactually flammable, but not actually flammable. In the same way, potential energy in a world with no actual motions to serve as trigger events would be counterfactually potential, but not actually potential. But potential or latent energy cannot be merely counterfactually potential, as we have to be able to locate it in a causal series of actual forms of energy. The conservation of energy in the real world can’t be established by conservation in a counterfactual world. This commits us to a world with actual trigger events, i.e. a world where real motions and activity are not just possible, but necessary.

For example, if you say a coin has real purchasing power, you’re committed to the idea that there is some actual population that accepts it. Minae, shekels, lire and Deutsche marks have only a counterfactual purchasing power, and so one can’t convert from actual currency into them. But it is precisely just this sort of conversion that allows for conversion laws.

An Aristotelian take on the conservation of energy and divine action in the world.

One objection to the possibility of divine action in the natural world comes from the conservation of energy. The objection is applied both to the special action of God in the world (see Plantinga’s extensive discussion in Where the Conflict Really Lies) and even more generally to any action of God on the world (see David Papineau’s claim that the discovery of the principle was a watershed moment in Naturalism).

I don’t see any way out of Plantinga criticism that the principle assumes a closed system, which is itself a criticism already given in the Thomist manuals (see, for example, E. Filion, who considers the Plantinga’s argument only worthy of fourth place in his series of refutations.) That said, it’s much more paradoxical to notice that that because the conservation of energy is a way of saying that motion and change can never come to be or pass away, it is equivalent to Aristotle’s first principle in a proof that God must act on the universe.

From Physics VIII.6:

The following argument also makes it evident that the first mover must be something that is one and eternal. We have shown that there must always be motion. That being so, motion must also be continuous, because what is always is continuous, whereas what is merely in succession is not continuous. But further, if motion is continuous, it is one: and it is one only if the first mover and the moved that constitute it are each of them one, since in the event of a thing’s being moved now by one thing and now by another the whole motion will not be continuous but successive.

The order of argument seems to be this:

1.) Motion necessarily is 

Energy is essentially a source of motion, and it is impossible for energy to come to be or pass away, therefore, etc.

(for a fuller account of how even potential energy depends on some actual motion, see the next post.)

2.) Therefore, motion is continuous.

If it is not continuous, some hiatus is introduced into the series. But if some hiatus is introduced, energy ceases to be into this hiatus and comes to be on the far side of the hiatus.

3.) if continuous, therefore one. 

Whatever is undivided is one in being.

4.) A motion is one necessarily with respect to its mover. 

 If two men are moving, is it one motion or two? If they’re in a charging army, it’s one; if they are two randomly chosen pedestrians, it is two. What counts as one motion therefore needs some reference to the agent cause.

5.) Therefore, there is some one mover that is necessarily one and eternal.

Now at first glance it might look like this is exactly what energy is. But if this is the case, then no two previously distinct lines of energetic activity could merge; and energy could never be used as an instrument, since all instruments are essentially moved movers. But this is not so.

6.) Therefore, behind energy, there is some mover and agent, necessarily one and eternal. 

Thomas and Scotus on a question of divine infinity

The objection:*

If God existed, (i) he would have to be infinite in being and perfection, but (ii) no being is infinite in being and perfection. Proof for (ii) what is here and not somewhere else is finite in place and position; what is today so that it was not yesterday nor will be tomorrow is finite in time and duration; and what does one thing and not another is finite in action and power, and so whatever is this thing and not another is finite in being and perfection. But if God existed, he would be this divine thing and not something else, like a man, a stone, or a piece of wood. 

St. Thomas’s response:

The fact that the being of God is self-subsisting, not received in any other, and is thus called infinite, shows Him to be distinguished from all other beings, and all others to be apart from Him. Even so, were there such a thing as a self-subsisting whiteness, the very fact that it did not exist in anything else, would make it distinct from every other whiteness existing in a subject.

Scotus’s Response (As given in Scotus academicus, etc. By Claude Frassen)**

Scotus responds in 1. dist. 1. q. 2. n. 36 “I deny the consequent, for the place and time in which a thing would be not in another place or another time is finite – for if it were infinite, the antecedent would be false… If, per impossibile, there were some infinite place where something was (ubi) it would fill up any other place where something could be; so that it would not follow that this body is here in such a way as to not be there.  Therefore it is finite according to the place in which it is, for the “here” cannot be shown to be the case except in finite things. Thus Aristotle says that if a motion were infinite and the time were infinite it would not be the case that the motion would be in this time and not in another, and so [Aristotle thought] it must be finite in time. [moreover, it does not follow] from the fact that a thing is this singular and determinate being that it is finite; for the determinate is opposed to the indeterminate and not to the finite, because something can be infinite and also determinate – for if there were an infinite line, it would still be a determinate thing since it would be a quantity and not a quality, relation, or substance; but it would nevertheless not be less infinite.

The responses share considerable overlap, especially if we compare STA’s first response with the second Scotistic response, but there is an obvious note of difference: St. Thomas wants to immediately shift the consideration away from the infinite to the self-subsistent and unrecieved-into-another, whereas as Scotus doesn’t. The crucial difference seems to be that St. Thomas argues that the mere fact that a form would not be received in matter would suffice to make it infinite, and so all we need to do to account for the infinity of some form is point out that it is not in matter (see the response in the link given). Scotus seems to think that one needs more than mere separation from matter to establish infinity.

One could, however, read the “per impossibile” in Scotus’s response as meaning that all material places are finite precisely as material, and so separation from matter is formally what constitutes [the relevant sort of] infinity, which would put him in agreement with STA. But my suspicion is that St. Thomas does not think we have a distinct concept of the infinite whereas Scotus does. Existing infinite things, for STA, are nothing other than self-subsistent things, whereas for Scotus we seem to be able to understand existing infinite things formally as infinite.


*I take the Scotist formulation of the objection because it is more fleshed out.

**Respondet Doctor in 1. dist. 1. q. 2. n. 36, negando consequentiam , et rationem disparitatis profert, quod locus et tempm in quibus res esset, et non alibi, aut alio tempore, sint finita : nam si essent infinita, falsum esset antecedens: etenim, inquit Doctor : Si esset aliquod ubi infinitum, per impossibile, et corpus inflnitum, repleret illud ubi ; non scqueretur: hoc corpus est hie ita quod hon sit alibi : ergo est finitum secundum ubi, quia ly hic non demonstrat nisi in finitum. Ita secundum Philosophum, si motus esset infinitus et tempus infinitum , non sequeretur: iste motus est in hoc tempore, et non in alio : ergo est finitus secundum tempus. Ita ad propositum oportet probare illud quod demonstratur per hoc ens, esse finitum…. ex eo quod sit hoc ens, singulare et dcterminatum, non sequitur exindc quod sit ens fini- tum ; determinatum enim opponitur quidem indeterminato, non autem finito ; quia aliquid potest esse ens infinitum et simul dcterminatum, etenim si dsretur linea infinita, esset ens determinatum, quia esset quautitas, et non qualitas, nec relatio, nec substantia ; propterea tamen non minus esset infinita.

Possibility and Agency

(N.B. This started out as a one sentence note, and ended up ballooning into a Cosmological Argument with a whiff of Medieval Voluntarism. The ideas are very rough and should be taken dialectically)

In defining omnipotence, St. Thomas distinguishes two ways in which something is possible (1) in relation to some power and (2) absolutely, or from the very relation of the terms. Another way to understand the distinction is from the order of causality between the agent and what is possible, i.e. some things are possible or not because of the presence or absence of some agent or condition: this is the sense in which its possible to get a cell phone signal in Manhattan but not in the wilderness of Ontario. But the reverse can also be true, sc. that the one cannot have an agent or condition because a thing is not possible: the reason why no one can draw a four-sided triangle, stand while sitting, or make the true false is because such things are not possible.

So far, this gives us three conditions:

1.) X is possible because there is an agent or condition (cell phone network in Manhattan)

2.) X is impossible because there is no agent or condition (no cell phone network in Ontario wilderness)

3.) An agent or condition of X is impossible because X is impossible. (no one has the skill to draw square circles)

These three options seem to create a hole into which a fourth option can drop:

4.) An agent or condition of X is possible because X is possible.

My suspicion is that, while we can generate possibility 4 by moving symbols and words around, this option is actually monstrous. Option (4) can only be real under two conditions: (a) if agency and possibility are ontologically on par, with no ultimate order of dependence in existence or (b) if possibility is ontologically prior to agency. (A) seems ruled out by the very terms of (4), which speaks of a causal and therefore ontological priority. This leaves only b, which amounts to the idea that all actuality somehow arises out of an undifferentiated field of possibility, and what is by definition the absence of actuality or agency is taken as an agent giving rise to the actual. Thomists will recognize this doctrine as equivalent to the one advanced by David of Dinant, though Avicenna’s idea that possibility was a field of being apart from and independent of God amounts to the same thing.

While in our own experience of agency we experience a dialectic between what is possible and our agency, one which makes it the case that the agent has to modify what it can do in light of the real possibilities of the world, this is not the same thing as to make possibilities given apart from agents. These conditions must arise from a previous action of agency, even if they are given to some agent. We are therefore logically constrained to say that agency as such is not a correlative to possibility, and that, as such, agency acts ex nihilo. We allow for other sorts of agents, of course, but we describe them as agents under some qualification, and which can only be agents at all in dependence upon agency as such.

This argument does not rule out possible worlds, whether in Lewis’s sense or in Ruyer’s more interesting sense of a future that is at once open and conditioned by some sorts of necessity. But it does conclude that either option is ontologically secondary and derivative, and an instrument of a higher agency.

But this argument I’m giving here does seem to commit me to defining omnipotence by way of pure negation: there is no power, whether divine or human, to do what is impossible; but it also seems that we can’t say that because something is absolutely possible, therefore the divine power extends to it. The “because” in that last sentence can’t be understood in an ontological sense, but only to our way of understanding things. Ontologically, we have to say that a thing is possible because it is an object of divine power. Ockham probably gives an argument like this somewhere.


An objection to the problem of divine hiddenness (2)

My main objection to Schellenberg’s argument from divine hiddenness is given below, sc. that one cannot set up a mode of relationship to God that satisfies premise (1). But one can also object to a background assumption in the argument – namely that Schellenberg’s argument does not seem to allow for obstructions to a relationship with God that might come from outside of our own personal resistance or lack of capability. All of our relationships to others occur in broader social and institutional contexts, and we cannot abstract from the ways in which these contexts give rise to a resistance to God or render us otherwise incapable of relationship with the divine.

Say you’re speaking with a feminist about whether you are sexist or that you’re a reporter from one of the major networks speaking to a conservative about whether you are biased against conservatives. You might insist in right earnest that you are not at all biased and that you harbor no personal animosity against them, but both the feminist and conservative have reasons to doubt that this is enough to prove your case. After all, there aren’t just your own beliefs in play, but also the social and institutional structures in which your beliefs live and move; and it’s altogether possible that these structures and institutions are committed to injustice against women or conservatives. You can’t just neatly divide your personal beliefs from these structures since you are part of these structures precisely as a person, and there is good evidence that persons can exercise bias even apart from what they take to be their personal belief.

While I believe that there is more to original sin than just this social or institutional corruption, there is at least this sort of corruption in play. This makes it difficult to neatly cut off our own supposedly personal desire and non-resistance to God from institutional structures that involve a more systematic and widespread resistance, and into which we are born and live.

This is, in fact, one of the reasons why some Christians insist that God’s action cannot be merely to one person at a time, each taken in atomo and as cut off from others. Divine action must be mediated by a social structure and institution, like a people of God or a Church, since this is the only way to drive out the resistance we have to God as members of certain institutions. If this is right, it is precisely Church membership that obviates the problem of divine hiddenness, and absent this there will always be the sort of resistance that, by the premises of the argument, makes us unable to expect a relationship with God.

An objection to an argument from divine hiddenness.

Jeffery Jay Lowder relates an interesting pro-atheist argument from J. L. Schellenberg:

(1) Necessarily, if God exists, anyone who is (i) not resisting God and (ii) capable of meaningful conscious relationship with God is also (iii) in a position to participate in such relationship (able to do so just by trying).
(2) Necessarily, one is at a time in a position to participate in meaningful conscious relationship with God only if at that time one believes that God exists.
(3) Necessarily, if God exists, anyone who is (i) not resisting God and (ii) capable of meaningful conscious relationship with God also (iii) believes that God exists.
(4) There are (and often have been) people who are (i) not resisting God and (ii) capable of meaningful conscious relationship with God without also (iii) believing that God exists.
(5) God does not exist.

I very much enjoyed meditating on the argument (and the parallel treatment of it here), though I suppose my role as a natural theologian commits me to making an objection, so here goes.

While Lowder anticipated objections coming from (4), which is what most of the commenters actually objected to, I’d rather respond to (1). To set up the problem, start by noticing that there are two ways which theologians claim make us “capable of meaningful conscious relationship with God”, (A) some sort of rational awareness or (B) by a free gift or revelation from God. Let’s take “rational awareness” broadly enough to include mystical or religious experience, which gives us three possible avenues to a conscious relationship to God:

A1.) By way of argument, say the cosmological argument.

A2) By way of mystical insight or religious experience.

B.) By the free gift of God revealing himself to us.

But none of these ways are such that we would expect a person to be able to establish “a relationship.. just by trying”.

To A1.) I am someone who is convinced that cosmological arguments work, and I suspect that something like the Ontological Argument works,* but I’d never think anyone could come to see God exists in this way merely by trying to understand the arguments. The arguments are difficult, the objections mount quickly, and it took me years of triumph and disappointment to get to the conviction I have now. I’ve also taught these arguments to a good number of students without having any confidence that they would understand them, much less that they could understand them just because they tried to do so.

In fact, if we mean any sort of rational approach to God, its hard to see how (1) makes any sense. No one thinks that a person would understand, say, physics or how to play violin just because he did not resist doing so and was capable of learning the subject matter.

To A2) Religious experience is essentially passive, and, at any rate, no one expects it to occur just because we don’t resist it and are capable of such an experience. To give a parallel example, assume that everyone at some point in their life is open to falling in love at first sight or developing an interest in the stars. Even under such an assumption, we certainly don’t expect everyone to fall in love at first sight or become astronomers. We need something more than capability (or even talent) and non-resistance to something happening.

To B) The whole idea of grace is that it is given to the undeserving. Contrary to both 1(i) and 1(ii), grace presupposes some sort of resistance and some degree of being incapable of relationship with God. There are elements of freedom as well, but the dominant note in the relation of grace will always be God’s initiative to the undeserving. Because of this, any claim to merit grace simply speaking, whether by one’s capability or non-resistance, fails to see the very reason it was called grace in the first place.

As a general response, I don’t think we have any idea of what would suffice for us to establish a relationship to another just by trying, as (1) speaks of. I’m not convinced I could establish a relationship even with an animal just by trying. I might be able to sketch out some prerequisites to relationship, and perhaps find a necessary cause or two, but relationships do not seem to be exhausted by meeting prerequisites – if it even makes sense to speak of establishing them in this way.


*I not only think they work, I think they establish some sort of relationship between God and myself. I’ve used the cosmological argument as a prayer before, and I think it gives a sort of color and structure to one’s relationship with God.

Augustine’s argument for psychic immateriality

Ed Feser has a great post on Augustine’s argument for psychic immateriality that impresses me with how terribly I often read Augustine: had I just read the argument he cites in De trinitate I probably would have brushed it off with a vague sense that it has to have a mistake somewhere, but the more I had to wrestle with Ed’s presentation the more this vague sense of general Augustinian wrongness faded away. Sadly, I habitually assume that Augustine’s arguments are in need of being tuned up or recast in order to be acceptable. An obvious reason suggests itself for this: I’m used to encountering Augustine as the raw material of competing systems (Franciscan, Thomistic, Calvinist, Mystical, Contemporary)  and so I’m habituated to seeing Augustine as saying nothing definite but still being an authority of world historical significance (!).

The argument:

But if [mind] were any one of [the elements], it would think of this element in a different manner from the rest.  That is to say, it would not think of it by means of an image, as absent things or something of the same kind are thought of which have been touched by the sense of the body, but it would think of it by a kind of inward presence not feigned but real — for there is nothing more present to it than itself; just as it thinks that it lives, and remembers, and understands, and wills.

Some clarifications:

First, I use “mind” as shorthand for what thinks, and which within this thought also knows it “lives and remembers, and understands, and wills”.

Second, I’ll use “atoms” to stand for whatever the elements are, or whatever proportion or arrangement they’re in.

Third, there is a difference between knowing that something is and knowing what something is. We can know that there is lightning without knowing what it is, or that there is a mind without knowing whether it is material or immaterial; biological or mechanical or spiritual, etc..

The argument:

1.) Mind knows the mind without having to meet itself or form a theory about itself.

The reason I know that I have a mind is not because I met it in the kitchen this morning and it introduced itself. I also didn’t posit mind as a theory to explain various other facts since it is essential to theories that we don’t take them as facts given from the start, but that there is mind is given from the start.

2.) The mind is atoms.

Assumption for reductio, as the Analytic guys say.

3.)* Therefore, atoms know atoms without having to be encountered in the world and without us having to form a theory about them.

The knowledge spoken of in the conclusion is either knowledge that something exists or knowledge of what the nature of the thing is. 

If it’s the first, we obviously don’t and can’t know that atoms exist like this: we needed a century of arguments from Dalton to Einstein to establish merely that there were such things, even before we gave an account of what they were. And no one would suggest that, even if atoms were as factual as fire (which they’re not)** that we could know that they exist a priori. We still have to meet a fire somewhere to know that there is such a thing.

But if we can’t know that atoms exist in the way the conclusion describes, a fortiori the same process can’t tell us what their nature is.

The conclusion is false and the first premise is given from experience. Therefore (2) is false. Q.E.D.


One objection to this is that it commits the fallacy of the accident, cf.

I know a man is approaching

The man approaching is Socrates

Therefore I know Socrates is approaching

And so just as a man can be coming without us knowing he is Socrates, so too a mind can be atomic without us knowing that it is atomic. After all, just as it’s not the same thing to be a man and to be Socrates, so also it’s not the same thing to be a mind and to be atomic.

But if there is any such fallacy, it’s from confusing that something is and what it it, but both are impossible, as shown above.

Another objection is that the proof proves too much: if an atomic mind would know that there are atoms, wouldn’t an immaterial mind know that there is the immaterial? But if this is true, what do we need the proof for? It seems we’d just see the reality of the immaterial a priori. 

But far from being an objection, I think this is a very good illustration of the difference between a physical and metaphysical argument. In the physical, we tend to know that something is by direct evidence to the senses, whether by seeing its physical substance or interaction. But metaphysics does not prove that things are in this way, but by seeing that things are as opposed to what is physically present by physical substance or interaction. All our arguments about the physical start by sensing the thing or something it is interacting with, while all our proofs in metaphysics start by proving the existence of something that is neither sensed or interacting with the sensible world. This is why an atomic mind would be immediately known to be atomic, but an immaterial mind has to be known by proving its separation from the sensible world.

*That’s a DARAPTI syllogism, folks. You don’t see many in the wild.

**Even the pictures of atoms by scanning electron microscopes are still mediated by a theory – there is more to the process than just magnifying an image.



A dead assumption in God foreseeing

The problems of God foreseeing are well known – if things are known in advance, nothing can be free; if God saw some evil happen, he should have stopped it; if God foresees his own action, even he can’t change his own mind, etc.

I’m not interested in solving the problem, only in pointing out something that is (sometimes? Often?) assumed and implied when we consider the problem, but which no one thinks is true when it is made explicit, namely Foresight is guessing or prognosticating, which is later confirmed or disconfirmed. Presumably, no one thinks that God’s foresight consists in his being the most perfectly talented guesser, or a perfectly well-informed pundit. No one thinks, for example, that my bringing a ham sandwich to work today confirms a previous divine claim that I would do so today.

But what is this foresight if it is not guesswork followed by confirmation? We must mean it is some sort of immediate vision: with God seeing all points in time like we see all the spacial parts in our horizon.  God sees things “before they happen”. But we can’t mean that God sees X before X exists; since under such a condition there is no X to see. The best he could see is some image of the event to come, not the event itself. If, for example, I tell you that I saw the September 11 attack before it happened, you’ll assume that I had some sort of vision or dream, but a dream is no more a vision of the event itself before it happens than it is a vision of the event itself after it happens. The vision substitutes for the event whether it is seen before or after, and so the actual event confirms it after happening. But this is exactly the sort of guesswork-confirmation model that no one thinks God is involved with.

Or assume that the vision is not a substitute. Assume that, while sleeping some night in, say, 1996, you really were watching the September 11 attacks happen. But if this is our ontology, we’re saying that in 1996 you watched them happen in 2001. So we can’t simply say that you saw them happen before they happened since you watched them happen in 2001, which is when they happened.

And so if we expose the assumption – believed by no one – that God does not foresee in the sense of guessing or predicting and later being borne out or confirmed, we are left with an ontology that this foresight consists in being able to see a thing happen when it does at the same time as before it does.

And so the answer to a question like “Why did God not stop some sin before it happened” is in a certain sense very simple: i.e. because, like us, he saw the sin when it happened. Indeed, it is necessary for both God and man to see a thing happen when it happens. In the same way, whenever God sees our choices, he also sees them in the exact same vision when they happen.  This seeing when the event happens is essential to the vision, whatever else might come with it.

This can be read just as well as a refutation of omniscience: one might just say it’s incoherent to see something when it happens and not when it happens in one and the same vision. But this is what’s God Knowledge comes to, not some infallible prognostication, or God seeing all things that will happen in his head before they do.

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