Note on time

A friend points out that we distort the nature of time by an image of it as spacial. What we have to negate about space to get to time – namely its indifference to direction and the fact that what it measures and contains is present simultaneously – really just negates space altogether. It’s as though we were trying to visualize something as a triangle with more than three corners. Such a strange claim more deserves to be called an anti-metaphor, since it could only stun and baffle the mind with a contradiction one has no idea what to do with. Rather than starting with space and trying to negate features of it to get time he suggested starting with a sensory experience other than the vision or touch that gives us space and instead understanding time though the sense of hearing. On this account, time as most fully and paradigmatically manifest in music.

Notice in this we lose or at least soften the paradoxes of infinitesimals or moments. These are simply the anti-metaphors of time as spacial. The continuity of time is not a mere slurring like someone goofing around with a slide whistle but also a structured and discrete set. There are notes to time, giving a duration to the present as a single unity. The passing of time is one that only makes sense within a whole structure, though with structure we find ourselves back with the spatial metaphor.

Evolutionary Theodicy

For largely accidental reasons, people have not used evolutionary explanations in theodicy. Why not say that the problem of pain and suffering (whether human or non-human) arises because the animal is the result of multiple adaptations and not design? Sure, if anyone designed animals he would give them all and only pains that worked as helpful signals – so that they would be motivated to avoid all and only deleterious behavior and never experience any inappropriate level of pain or suffering. But animals are a sum of adaptations and accidents, many of which serve no purpose in the environment in which we now find ourselves. It would be great if I found eating five servings of vegetables as pleasant as ice-cream and martinis, and no doubt if I designed human beings I would make them like this. As it happens, I am not designed to fit into this particular easy-to-find-fat environment but inherited my fat-desires from ancestors who benefited from having them. My body, and the body of every animal is a whole archaeological dig of different systems, many of which are ill-adapted to its present circumstances, or even to the peculiar existence it now has within its own species. For all I know, the system that causes extreme pain in us traces back to a beneficial adaptation in protozoa. Or perhaps it was always an accident arising from other adaptations and was never of itself an adaptation. Or perhaps it has just survived in spite of itself. Who knows?

But how is this a theodicy? 

Put briefly, to the question “couldn’t God have made animals so that they might not experience pain?” we answer “God doesn’t make animals, i.e. design them. He is not responsible for their existence in that way”. If one insists that God could have designed animals in a better way if he wished to, we can say that by acting this way he would have lost all the goods of adaptation, in much the same way that we now give free-will defenses for other sorts of evil. Just as free-will defenses argue that moral evil were allowed for the sake of the greater good of a moral universe, so too evolutionary theodicy argues that pain and suffering were allowed for the greater good of an evolutionary universe. Here we might with no small thrill appeal to all the Naturalist panegyric directed at natural selection – all that “tree of life” stuff and Dawkinsian Universalism comes to mind. If evolution is such a unifying, simple, fecund and all-but-omnipotent explanatory principle, then isn’t the universe far better off with it than without it?

And what theist could pass up the sheer joy of quoting Dawkins as a support?

Thomists get this evolutionary theodicy for free, since we never based a cosmological argument on design as opposed to adaptation. The Fifth Way, for example, starts from action with a predictable terminus, and this is common to both designed and adapted systems. DVD players run just as well off of wall sockets (which were designed to convey an electric charge) as off of cigarette lighters in cars (which were not, but merely adapted to the purpose). Both systems act in predictable and structured ways, and this is the way in which nature depends on intelligence.

Job and the Argument from Evil

Job can be considered in relation to three others:

1.) Job to his friends. This relationship is hard to evaluate but the end is at least clear: his friends are dismissed in contempt by God without comment or response while Job gets a lengthy if pointed response.

2.) Job to God. God does not explain the reason for Job’s suffering, nor does he answer his prayers. True, God responds to Job but not in the way Job asks for – as one who might present himself for interrogation or dialogue.

3.) Job to the reader of the Book of Job. This is a third perspective which is rather like God’s perspective. We, unlike Job, can see exactly why Job suffers, sc. the devil is testing a hypothesis about Job’s fidelity.

Start with (3). Notice there is no sense of a ‘divine contest’ alluded to in the text between God and the devil. God asks if the devil saw Job, and the devil responds that Job’s righteousness would not withstand trial. God neither contradicts him nor suggests the idea of a trial, but only allows Satan to act under certain constraints, and the text gives no reason for either. Satan returns to extend his power, and God allows for the extension under constraints but again gives no reason. The sense the reader gets from this is simply that the Devil is allowed to sin in the same way anyone else is. The only thing God seems concerned about in both exchanges is that the Devil might recognize Job’s holiness.

To (1), what’s interesting is that God’s rebuke of Job is still a better response than his friends get, in spite of the fact that his friends seem more eager than Job to justify the ways of God. The lesson seems unmistakable: neither Job nor his friends know what is going on, but the friends are worse off for assuming they do. This might be a critique of theology, but it’s interesting that this is exactly Socrates’s account of his own philosophical life in Apology. 

To (2) God never mentions the actual reason for Job’s suffering, even though the reader is told of it at the beginning of the book. All the evil afflicting Job traces back to a free choice, nothing is mere nature or bad luck. God couldn’t make imperfect volitional beings without allowing for imperfect volition, and so for sin, and so God could only strike out the source of Job’s suffering by denying existence to Job himself. But God nowhere gives this rather straightforward reason. He sees the better response as a series of rhetorical questions aimed at proving that Job is not partial to a perspective from which suffering could make sense. Suffering, we are left to assume, is something that only makes sense in the context of the generation of the universe as such, in all of its minute interaction and complexity, not only as it exists now, but as it exists throughout all time. And so Gd’s rebuke turns out to be a sort of shadow cast from a much brighter source – Job sees that his suffering corresponds not to anything temporal or finite but to the universe as such in its very source of generation.


The natural explanation, the cosmological argument, the miracle.

Mary and sinful flesh.

The mind-body problem vs. sinful flesh, glorified body, sacramental presence.

Knowledge first recognizes, i.e. sees again. Plato.

No one recognizes the completely novel, he’s just stunned. Nothing is learned.

For Catholic children, Jesus is not a story but a statue, a Medieval station of Veronica wiping his face, an absurdly large baby in manger, a saint book with Saint Sebastian and the arrows or Maria Goretti with pretty flowers, a sanctuary candle that somehow never goes out. If this is nonsense, it’s preferable to sense.

Learning is a familiarity from which we take only the novelty.

God purely knowable, a kernel without husk. Therefore unknowable.

Creation is the recognized.

Christians pray to an abstract noun. -ity.

We call it trinity and not triple because the members are not parts of a whole. Trinity, like unity and duality, is one in nature, but 3 and 1 and 2 respectively in exemplification.

The desire to refute divine impassibility is a misplaced desire to know God through Christ.

The Five Ways prove that nature exists in media res. 

Birth control, as a public policy question, is “what sort of poverty can you tolerate?”

God knows all facts, but he needs animals to sense them for himself. He needs humans to man-know. Rousselot: and so they need animals and man to exist.

God wills instruments for their modalities e.g. He does not need senses to know, but to know by their modality.

Science is a convention billed as “This is what we know!” where the admission price is “Show what you can do”.

God cannot act through non-divine modalities without creation.

Lost category of moral infection. Adam becomes incomprehensible.

Why Adam? We should have all gotten a chance! But then salvation is not a common good.

Can we make sense of the universe as divine speech without being speech to us? Eavesdropping? Radio signals we can’t decipher? So who are they to then? Alchemy.

Nietzscheanism: we could live with discovering it was false – we discovered a truth was unbelievable.

Marveling requires ignorance but is still insight.

Marveling is not debunked – there is just another insight. “You were amazed by that animal structure but it was just evolution!” Nonsense, Truths don’t displace only falsehoods.

e.g. a new truth is a shift of attention. Shifts displace.

Overlap between the Five Ways and contemporary science

The overlap between the Five ways and, say, fine tuning arguments is that both target something that requires explanation but which lacks a physical explanation. But this overlapping space is pretty uninteresting: there are all sorts of physical things that lack physical explanations for which no one expects to find a supernatural explanation. We don’t have a good account of, say, parthenogenesis in turkeys, but we have no reason to expect that a natural cause will fail to plug the gap. Cosmological arguments arise when we find a causal gap in our understanding that has to be plugged by something we can’t understand as natural. St. Thomas thought he found just such causal gaps when he identified the need for immobile moving causes (1st way), things that exist by definition (3rd way), things that are good, true, etc. per se and primo or not by participation (4th way) and when he found an intelligence that was responsible for natural motions (5th) St. Thomas thought all these gaps were filled by the supernatural since, respectively, (1st) if something is natural, it causes motion by moving (3rd) if something is natural, it doesn’t exist by definition (4th) if something is natural, it isn’t convertible with the good, true, dignified and (5th) if a natural intelligence (like a man) causes a motion it makes art, not nature.

If we’re going to make cosmological arguments from the things provided us by contemporary science, we need to identify what science takes as common to nature as such. One impediment to this is that science prides itself on seeing nature as continually surprising and open-ended. Still, if we can’t identify something peculiar to nature we certainly loose any sense of “methodological naturalism”, which would mean we lose all ability to know if we are giving a natural explanation at all. And so science relies on some a priori criteria to identify nature.  But just what are these criteria? Oddly enough, they first seem to be not descriptions of nature but of our knowledge of it: it must allow for experiment; of falsifiability; of being subsumed under a list of repeatable phenomena; of being mathematically modeled, etc.

But then what would count as supernatural under such a description of nature? Notice that in light of the criteria just given nature itself becomes something that is capable of being controlled by us, at least in principle. A thing can only be an object of experiment if we can set up artificial situations in which a thing will act as we want it to in response to the situation, and to the extent that this is true it must be an object of control. Again, if the natural is ultimately law-based then, since law specifies action in response to manipulated variables, law gives an in-principle way of manipulating the natural. On this account, the supernatural is known precisely in a gap that is causal but unable to be manipulated.  Now in a certain sense this links up with the account of nature given by the Five Ways – being manipulable requires potential and so can never characterize an immobile mover – but this doesn’t show us how we would find a gap of “lacking all potential” using the sort of tools that physical science gives us.

But if we take out account of nature as manipulable seriously it seems to make the supernatural logically implicit in the definition of the natural: manipulation presupposes extrinsic activity, and so to define nature as the manipulable defines it in relation to extrinsic causality. Nature can only arise subsequent to positing a source in relation to which it becomes actually able to be controlled. Nature is thus a certain way of being caused by a person; and so if there are natural persons (as we seem to be) they too must stand to what is simply personal. And by this all understand God.

Yearly reflection on the Execution of Louis

Fr. Neuhaus thought that, as a Protestant, one of the central questions he had to ask himself as a Protestant was “Why am I not Catholic?” The sense was, presumably, that his existence consisted in an act of separation, and that to lose sight of the reasons for this separation is literally to lose all sense of oneself. For the same reasons, an American has to ask himself “Why am I not a monarchist?” Our defining act is a defiance, a negation, and contradiction of monarchy, and to lose sight of the reasons for this leaves us with a fundamental blindness over who we are and what we are doing.

The rejection of all kings is the first sense of All men are created equal. There is no reason to cast about for what grounds or establishes this equality, as many have tried and still try to do, since the equality of all is not a positive state but the rejection of any hierarchies given in advance as structures of political justice. As Jefferson put it, enlightenment politics consists in seeing that some men are not born with saddles on their backs, and others born ready to ride them by the grace of God. Human beings are not born like bees, that is, into a political structure given in advance. All political structure has to be made from the raw materials of nature, which produces leaders by chance, if at all – it certainly doesn’t produce them in a way that can be clearly identified, like a leader always begetting a leader. To assume that rulers and ruled are given like this is, so the reasoning goes, a fundamentally lazy, essentially incompetent and ultimately unjust arrangement. To assume that God provides for political order by making executives sire only executives is a phony doctrine of providence.

The equality of all persons is an act of defiance that immediately raises an urgent question. In our defiance, we see ourselves as awaking to the fact that the king is just another man. All his demands for obeisance, ring-kissing, bows, etc. along with all of his claims to a special competence (or at least mandate) to rule are so much phony pretense. But the thrill of throwing him down leaves us with nothing given in advance. God and nature no longer provide for us, except in the sense of arbitrarily producing leaders that we can’t identify (if they do). But then we get the question: so what do we do now?

Again, the doctrine of the equality of all men takes all of its thrill from its initial act of defiance, not from our recognition that God has given us some single trait or characteristic in equal measure. It’s not as if Jefferson looked around in 1776 and saw, for the first time ever, that everyone was equal some relevant feature of political power. But can’t we just read the Declaration and see just these positive traits? Aren’t they life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, which are fleshed out more fully in Lincoln’s Ottawa speech? True, Jefferson mentions equality of rights to not be killed, enslaved or imprisoned (i.e. “life” and “liberty”), but all he can mean by this is the equal right of all not to suffer unjustly in these ways. These lofty “rights” are “equal” in the sense that justice must be equally applied, but this is implicit in the very idea of justice, whether applied by a King or not. The King has no more right to kill or enslave someone unjustly than an elected assembly does, and to recognize this isn’t based on some profound insight into the nature of rights but is simply a statement of the first principle of political reason: justice must be done and injustice avoided. The principle is true, to be sure, but it’s nothing that could separate you from your King – it’s not even something the King disagrees with. The only cash value of these equal rights to life and liberty is in the determination of what is just and what isn’t, and one can’t defy kings by claiming they are making such a determination. Rather, the equal right that Jefferson is speaking about consists in the claim that neither God nor nature has given us a clear indication of the one fit to rule or be ruled, and our “equality” consists in nothing except the absence of this greater or less.

We should thus be very suspicious of any sort of political piety directed at or based on the Declaration. The equality of all men is a certain denial of the work of providence. It is not a total denial, but it is inseparable from one. Equality means God does not provide in advance those who are greate rand less in political power – therefore we must throw down all who claim to rule by divine right* and take care of ourselves in a world that has no interest in providing us with political rulers. Reason must act alone on the raw material of nature with an aim to making a political order out of things blindly thrown forth. For all we know, nature might provide us with the perfect raw material for a monarchy in one generation, for a republic in another, and for nothing at all in the next.

The equality of all men is thus a denial of Kings, or more broadly the denial of the justice of hereditary rule. Any just political order has to be made by reason, which by its nature cannot claim to speak with the voice of God. This can be read as a great advance of secular and even atheist politics, but it need not be read this way.


This is NOT the same thing as the much more narrow doctrine of the divine right of kings. Not everyone anointed to rule, for example, pretends to the sort of right James of Scotland spoke of.

Grade inflation

What gets called grade inflation is actually a change in the scale we use for evaluation (Brandon has made this general point many times).

If you look at the traditional descriptions of the letter grades, it’s clear that they are describing a bell curve with a two standard deviations and a C as its apex. The 70-79% range and the decades on either side of it were doing exactly the same work as the IQ test does with its 100 average and standard deviations of 15. On this model of grading, the goal was to maximize students in the 70 range, and to have about as many A’s in the class as students who flunk out. The B and D grades would inform you about some acceptable deviation from what was most common.

But no one takes the grades as meaning this now. Teachers expect the student to acquire a certain amount of information, and “A” means to acquire it perfectly while “F” means a complete failure to acquire any of it. The B and C/D grades serve to indicate which of these poles you’re closest too, with the C/D together serving as a broad warning zone that one is approaching failure.

Clearly, the letters have stayed the same while taking on completely incomparable meanings. We haven’t inflated the grades, we’ve utterly changed what they mean. No teacher I know ever tries to get Gaussian results, though they are just as easy to get as any other result (it’s no harder to correct or construct a test with a bell-curve paradigm than the one I have now.) Part of the problem is that we’ve lost the sense that bell-curves should always be descriptive of achievement; but a more salient reason for the change is that we’ve started to see education as more the imparting of information than as a contest to identify those who can best internalize and manipulate that information. If you want a bell-curve, you have to do more than just ask the students to get the information you are telling them, and we tend to see this as unnecessary and even unfair. We view an “A” as something that anyone should be able to achieve, which requires that the path to it should be laid out in advance. The bell-curve, on the other hand, sees “A’s” as an exercise of genius and uncommon insight, that is, as found down a path that relatively few can find for themselves.

The new system is more egalitarian, but also more moralistic: since an A is defined as open to everybody and requiring no genius, we view each letter grade that falls away from it as indicating more and more laziness and failure to act. The new system thus hits the student twice: he is not only more and more ignorant as he falls away from the A but also more and more lazy, shiftless, willful etc. The older system lacks this overbearing moral character, but it is certainly far more elitist. There is no a priori answer to whether a system should target egalitarian moralism or elite deviations from a bell-curve.

Seen in this way, much of the scandal of grade inflation collapses into tautology: if “A” means complete achievement of rules set down in advance, then of course the average grade at an ivy-league school should be an A. The Ivy league selects for just the sort of person who habitually does this. We should expect A’s in general to be more common now since ability to follow a pre-set path is far more common than genius. Again, we can lament that “B is the new C” or even that A- is the new C, but all this only tells us about comparable relative numbers that are made by completely different standards. It’s not an inflated currency (where a dime is now a dollar) but a changed standard of value (where a dime changes to happiness).

All this doesn’t mean that we’re at a standoff – there are arguments to be made both ways about the merits of both systems. Just what standard you use will depend – indeed is already depending – on what you think education is. If it is largely or entirely about conveying information and measuring how well persons do at following a trail marked out in advance, then our present grading system is a better metric. If you think education is about identifying those who have most penetrated into information so as to creatively manipulate it and understand its ramifications beyond any path that can be laid out in advance, then the bell-curve is a better metric.

Cognitive dissonance and the rational agent

Cognitive dissonance theory was a response to the rational man theory in economics, and so there was a ready-made reason for it to present itself as a proof that man was an irrational actor. Much of the popular literature on cognitive dissonance tries to make exactly this point.

But a middle position between the two might be to point out that, for us, “to be rational” means to have some sort of concord between belief and action, or between our general principles and the concrete applications in which we find them. By nature and blind necessity we will tend to this concord and consistency. The given in human life is that our lives must be truth preserving, and there must be a sort of logical validity between ideals and situations, beliefs and actions. But this does not mean that the most reasonable of two options will be chosen, or even that it will be chosen given enough time and a large enough sample set. If you punish pickpocketing by hanging, then the only possible response of a rational actor would be to utterly stop pickpocketing. This doesn’t happen. And so rational-agent theories probably don’t have the right account of rationality, but they are right to insist that our actions happen for reasons, and even that they are consistently checked by evidence in one way or another; and the pop-cognitive dissonance writers have to give up the rhetoric of human beings having no rational motivations, since the consistency we seek to establish in eliminating dissonance is sought precisely as truth-preserving. It is a properly rational consistency.

To repeat the example from logic: human motivations and doctrines necessarily tend to validity, but they tend to soundness only contingently and are fixed to truth or error in this further sense by additional factors. One such factor is, of course, the evidence for our beliefs and their outcomes, but this is primarily material and accidental. The more salient factors are our own habits of action and belief are good or evil, i.e. whether we have virtue or vice. That said, much of life lacks the determination of fixed habit and so is characterized by the waffling and conflicted interior state that translators of Aristotle are stuck calling “incontinence”, where a belief is now forcing us to change behavior and later the same behavior forces us to change belief.

The basic description of action then seems to trace all the way back to Aristotle: a human action can always be analyzed into causally prior principles, one of which is a general rule and the other a belief that links this general rule to an action to be concretely done. So long as the causally relevant factors of my action are, say, “all food should be healthy” and “of my options, X is healthy and Y isn’t” then I’ll find myself eating a big bowl of X. If I find myself eating Y, it’s either because I’m working from a different first or second premise, not because I’ve given up acting for reasons altogether. The premises in question here are at all levels of consciousness – we are usually working from how the action feels, if at all. But without these premises we lose any sense of what “dissonance” or “consonance” could mean.

Divine Hiddenness, pt. 2

Strange Notions cites an objection that has come up here a few times before:

“[O]n standard theisms, God supposedly loves us, and so desires our ultimate well-being. But that ultimate well-being necessarily involves having a positive relationship with God, and in order to have such a relationship one must first believe that God exists. So if God really existed and really loved us, He would make sure that all of us believed in Him. Yet the world is full of rational persons who blamelessly fail to believe in God. Consequently, one must give up some aspect of standard theism, and the aspect it is most sensible to drop is the very idea that God exists.”

Note first that the target of the objection is defined far too broadly: a Calvinist would be mystified by the positing of a world of blameless persons, all of whom God wants a positive relationship with. A Stoic or Aristotelian would be confused about how anyone could ever get the idea that God loves us and desires our ultimate well-being. A Muslim might be confused about how one could ever claim that Allah sees me and all of my family as blamelessly remaining infidels. A whole host of pagan religions might wonder why the objector completely fails to see the reality of the hatred or fickleness of the gods. Christian Universalists might insist that this is exactly why God will save everyone in the end. So are these all not “standard theisms”?

Sure, we all know that the objection is targeted at contemporary “unconditional love for everyone” Christianity. But even then the objection might be missing the point. These sorts of teachings might well be given pastorally, and things played in a pastoral key can’t simply be the target of this sort of theological objection. If I tell a little old lady that all she has to do is say prayers and trust in God, it would be crazy to make this a universal principle and then target it with systematic critique. It would be crazy even to universalize this advice as pastoral – as though a pastor would say exactly the same thing to an angry druid who barged into his office and demanded to be told about Methodism.

But let’s assume we can find some sort of systematic theology that God loves us and desires our well being universally. This still wouldn’t be enough: we’d have to find a theology which insists that God wants this in the sense that he wants it to be accomplished right now, in spite of any resistance we might have to the change. Good luck with that.

The deeper problem, however, is with an unthought supporting the objection, which is something like “if God wants to talk to me, I’m right here waiting”. This is simply to treat our predicament as though it were not deeply committed and given over to all sorts of impediments to divine relationship, impediments that arise not just from our own choices but also from broader social conditions. We might assume that these impediments would be obvious to us, but this is a colossal blunder to appreciate the usual course of our inner life. This passage from Tolstoy’s Resurrection  explains what I’m gesturing at:

It is usually imagined that a thief, a murderer, a spy, a prostitute, acknowledging his or her profession as evil, is ashamed of it. But the contrary is true. People whom fate and their sin mistakes have placed in a certain position, however false that position may be, form a view of life in general which makes their position seem good and admissible. In order to keep up their view of life, these people instinctively keep to the circle of those people who share their views of life and their own place in it. …

And in this manner Maslova had formed her views of life and of her own position. She was a prostitute condemned to Siberia, and yet she had a conception of life which made it possible for her to be satisfied with herself, and even to pride herself on her position before others…

This problem is compounded through our social existence among others doing exactly the same thing, and so what was convincing enough as merely a personal opinion of our faults becomes even more convincing when it is glorified in a philosophy, a heroic work of art, a beloved song, etc.. The upshot of this is that even if we are speaking of God’s unconditional desire for a relationship with us, the right metaphor to compare this to is an abused wife’s unconditional desire for a relationship with her husband. I personally know women in this position, and there are husbands who might well insist to their dying breath (in the face of documented and indisputable abuse of every kind) that they did nothing wrong. There’s nothing even controversial about claiming that this is the usual state of affairs: you could conclude to all of it a priori from the basic findings of cognitive dissonance theory.

The fact of the matter is that this is exactly the wrong conclusion to draw from the hypothesis of divine love. The correct and rational response to such a hypothesis is the horror over the unspeakable crime that have all committed and keep cluelessly committing. If God really loves us, then at the heart of existence there is an unspeakable wounding, abuse, and sorrow in the heart of God himself. Hell is simply the place we flee to in the face of what we’ve done, or perhaps the infinite continuation of our kidding ourselves.



Note on the supposed quantifier shift in the Third Way

The Third Way defines generation as what did not exist at some time and later does. But everything cannot be generated, since then nothing would exist. The “everything” is used broadly to include both substances and whatever they’re made of. So taken, if everything – cars, matter, ducks, elements, energy, etc, – is generated, then all you have to do is count backwards from now till you have absolutely nothing: no space, cars, ducks, matter, energy, God, angels, whatever.

Accusations of a quantifier shift require that we take “everything” to mean “all individual substances”, and not in a way that includes the internal principles of the substances too.

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