Knowing the future

-The desire to know the future is powerful and largely pre-conscious. Before we can even question the idea, we already find ourselves assuming that it’s out there like some space that we are continually walking into.

-In discussing time, Aristotle mentions that before and after are first said of space* and then of time. This strikes many first time readers as odd (sure, we while on a trip through So-Cal we might ask “Is Ventura before Santa Barbara?” but is this really the first sense of “before” we think of?) but the point is very good – we spontaneously think of time as a space, but not space as a time. The past is “back there” and the future is “in front”

-Taken as a space-walked-into, we’ve never actually verified that there is any such future. As Ruyer points out, we can dive into the other car, but not into the accident.

-There are occasional hints of a future “out there” in phenomena like déjà vu or the testimonies of religious witnesses. All of these have a dream-like character, however, and are usually only clarified after the fact. The point of prophesy is not to give bullet-point predictions but to testify to various transcendent (and not merely timeless) realities.

-True, one timeless reality is the plan of God, but “plan” here is simply “the divine idea of temporal creation”. As such, it is a transcendent reality and cause that, like all such things, unifies what is diverse in what it transcends. This unifies time, but it also unifies the necessary and contingent, the free and the determined. Eternity is a timeless and unchanging “now”, but it is also one that brings together total fixity and determination along with the total positive indetermination of freedom. Neville is faithful to St. Thomas’s idea of transcendence when he describes God’s “eternal now” as having all the perfection of the fixity of the past, the conscious awareness and givenness of the future, and the possibility/indeterminacy/ openness to freedom of the future. Obviously, this problemitizes any simple idea of a “divine plan” that has scripted out the future “in advance”.

-Science doesn’t make predictions, it makes claims about what is invariant in time and so will be true any time it is tested. Einstein’s claim about light bending around the sun in an eclipse didn’t have to wait till 1919 to be true. In fact, it’s precisely because we can’t predict that the prediction is useful in science – we can’t be biased by the future because we can’t know it.

-You might as well say that the claim “cats are mammals” is a prediction that we can verify by going out and finding one nursing its young. The point of science is not to know future events but to know what things are, and what a thing is is in invariant in time. This is why nouns have no tenses.

-We want to understand time as the score when it is the music itself. The score exists all at once and we merely read through it while the music has to be bracketed by non-existence in order to be at all. We might see all the notes on the score at once, but to hear them all at once would not be the music.

-From Parmenides to Einstein, all block universes are committed to the idea that what we see is real but what we hear is “subjective” or doxa. What we see is just “there” but what we hear requires memory and so is dependent on us. But the error here is obvious. Of course we hear “what’s there”, and of course there are auditory structures just as there are visible ones (and sight depends on memory too – you wouldn’t actually see something move without remembering where it was) We can’t give perfect objectivity to sight and then just deny it to hearing, even if we try to distinguish primary and secondary qualities.

-The problem of the future reduces to the problem we have in unifying vision and hearing. Vision requires that all exist at once, hearing requires that all does not exist at once. This reduces further to the finite object of our cognitive powers, which both is something and can only be so by not being something else. This reduces further to the first principle of our thought, which only understands what things are by comparing them to what they are not and cannot be (i.e. the principle of contradiction.)

-Any non-divine intelligence or cognitive power depends upon what a thing is not to understand what it is. Vision needs negative space to know definitions, our minds need the principle of contradiction, and angels need some multitude of concepts to know any one concept. The problem of time is a logical implication of this. Even angels presumably have some analogous puzzle about it.


*though he calls it “magnitude” and not space, and the two are quite different. Space is a hypothetical container of magnitudes, which Aristotle thinks can’t exist.


1.) Event A happens, which was predicted by almost no one (except sometimes when its immediate antecedents were given, and even then…)

2.) Predictions pour in that B will follow from A somewhere down the line, though not as an immediate consequence. B is some marvelous Utopia or apocalyptic hellhole. The arguments for B are all logical, the parallel cases to what happened the last time are airtight and convincing. The experts are enthusiastic and/or solemn.

3.) We become concerned and anxious, consume news media and watch more ads, don’t realize that we’re buying more shampoo. Resisting this while it happens is as impossible as not being unnerved by finding a giant spider in the bathroom.

4.) We muddle along, move on to the next shiny event A prime, the world stays the same as it ever was.

5.)  Goods and evils arise out of the actual event A in complex, muddled, largely unforeseen ways. Historians looking back at A find it far more difficult to trace out lines of causality than those who had the infinitely harder task of figuring out where the lines of causality would go before they happened.

The theology of gifts

Grace is a gift. But a gift has an interesting nature that is set apart from both fruits of labor (like wages, our children, or things we make in our shop) and from other goods that we get in a purely arbitrary manner (like lottery prizes, etc.)

Compare and contrast: (a) a wage, (b) a lottery payout, and (c) a gift. We’ve normed all three examples to be goods given from another, but the contrasts are more interesting.

Ways in which (a) and (b) are set apart from (c).  We’ll call the first two X and the gift G

1.) X is a matter of justice, G isn’t. This is why X, as a rule, is given according to preset rules and G is not.

2.) X resolves or takes away debts while G seems more to cause them.

3.) X is a largely impersonal exchange, which does not regard the person as such. Wages are usually given just for tasks, and lottery winnings are given with absolutely no regard for the person at all. G is never given like this. Even purely pseudo gifts are made with the pretense of recognizing something valuable in the person (Congratuations, Joe Blow, you’ve been pre-approved for a Amex Platinum card!).

Given this, here are some ways in which the ontology of gifts might solve some theological problems:

1.) The general Euthypho problem. The general Euthyphro problem is about the intrinsic goodness of things (usually moral actions) in relation to the divine will. If God loves them out of justice, then the goods must be independent of his act of will; if they have no such goodness, then God wills them to be good purely arbitrarilyBut the ontology of gifts suggests a middle course – things have an intrinsic goodness, but not one that can be conceived of as an antecedent claim on the divine will. On the other hand, the fact that the goods have no antecedent claim on the divine will does not mean that they are called good purely arbitrarily. This last mistake confuses a gift with a lottery winning.

2.) The Volunatarist/Fransciscan vs. Intellectualist/Dominican problem of grace. Along with a not unrelated problem of God’s antecedent will, this is the intellectual antecedent of the Reformation, and so lies at the heart of modern Christianity (for a very good brief treatment, read McGrath’s The intellectual origins of the Reformation, esp. p 80-81). Does grace reduce to justice, i.e. does God set us some system that allows us to perform actions in expectation of some reward (it would be, to be sure, a “supernatural” system), or is grace given apart from any system, and so in a more or less arbitrary manner? Clearly, once one has recognized the ontology of gifts the false dilemma becomes immediately apparent.

Grace is an entirely personal interaction (so far, the Reformers were right) but it is not purely extrinsic imputation or arbitrarily assigned righteousness. Again, Trent’s basic point was that grace was divine adoption, i.e. it was a gift not of something impersonal but of the most intimate of personal relations, namely a familial bond. Even on the natural level, so far as adoption is a gift it’s hard to imagine a gift that enters more intimately into a person.

While what we call grace is normally set apart from nature, it might be better to also see grace as the paradigm case of a divine gift, while nature is a less clear and less perfect instance of a gift.

Two Eschatologies

The end of the world must either be an interruption in human life or an event that occurs after the race has passed away. There are suggestions of the first in Scripture (Mt. 24:40) and in the creed (“judge the living and the dead”), but these ultimately turn out to be ambiguous (“living and dead” seem better understood as speaking of the saved and damned, for example, which is what judgment is about.)

The second interpretation is the better choice. The two judgments have distinct objects and so are not muddled together, and so just as God gives a private judgment to those who have run the course of their life and meet their end either by nature or man, the general judgment happens in the same way. Death is the price to be paid by human life in all its forms, not just by individuals but by the merely human collectives that they form.

The judgment is therefore not coming to save us. It won’t interrupt social evils or break in upon them before they run their course, or leap in front of nature before it finds the keys to making human life just the food source for some other sort of life (like bacteria). We’re in this to its bitter end.

The One, Trinity, and Incarnation

Higher ways of causing or existing unify what is diverse in lower ways. 

Examples: We can understand something through its opposite, but we can’t sense a thing through its opposite (except perhaps as an illusion or mistake). What the general or CEO gives as a single command requires a multitude of subordinate actions. The higher and more ultimate a goal is, the more it can explain diverse actions with proper goals that are unrelated or incompatible. When you understand what X is, you unify all of X’s, whether actual or possible. Rows and rows of carpentry tools, each with their own limited operation, would have no reason to exist apart from the hand (ditto for the dependence that other tools have on the eye). Higher friendships provide goods that would take a multitude of lower friendships to provide.

Sometimes this higher way of causing or existing is specialized in the lower ways (like the hand tools, the architect, CEO). Sometimes the higher mode in some way depends on the lower one (sense and reason). Sometimes the higher mode gives a sort of dignity to the lower (sense and reason again, a great leader and is subordinates). But these are not always necessary. In the case of friendships, for example, the higher neither specialize, depend on, or give any dignity to merely lower ones; and the nature of a thing doesn’t relate in any of these ways to what takes part in it. There’s no reason why all friendships might not be of the higher sort, and there just is nothing in the formal order other than what the thing is. So each of these qualifications is not essential to being a higher and lower cause or existent. But the unification of what is diverse in lower causes is always necessary.

At the limit of causality and existence, all that causes or exists in any way is unified in The One. To call it The One does not preclude, but in fact requires, that it be described both as one and as many. Again, it does not preclude it being other but requires that it both be self and other. Finally, it does not preclude it being both concrete and abstract, or as individual and intelligible nature. So far as it is “The One”, we speak of ourselves as monotheists, but this speaks precisely of the transcendent unity of one and many, and so our monotheism allows for a multitude in divinity. Again, so far as The One is both self and other, we must understand it as a knower and so a logos, and this self-logos binary is itself spoken of by the same one-many binary. Finally, this self is both a concrete subsistence in the self-logos and also an abstraction. Moltmann was therefore wrong to say that the Augustinian account of the spirit was false because it spoke of the Spirit as “The love between two persons”, and so gave us a “binity” and not a Trinity. This “love” is an abstraction from two concrete beings, to be sure, but this does not give us a “binity” but is a gesture in the direction of how The One is both abstract and concrete. The unity of self-logos, which can only be understood by an act of loving, is not precluded from being God and a self by being an abstraction from concrete selves.

While The One is both self one and many, self-other and concrete-abstract, this does not mean it is any or every other and any multitude, for it cannot be the other an multitude that it causes. Understood as cause, it must always be absolutely and sharply divided from its effects. Still, we can’t help but see causality as a gift of existence, and so if there is to be the gift of existence at all, there must be some unification of created and uncreated existence. At the limit of this unification we must have Incarnation.

But doesn’t all this rationalism violate the necessity of revelation and mystery? Not at all. The One must always be understood as behind the diverse curtains of one-many; self-logos; and abstract-concrete. Any attempt we make to push behind these curtains in fact only uses one curtain to cover the other, while it continues to cover The One. We can call The One “a cause” of both curtains, but this does not allow us to see it-him as one as excluding many, or a self as excluding logos, or a concrete being as excluding abstraction. So far as we limit all possibility to what is one to the exclusion of many, etc., we also judge that The One is (or are) impossible.

For St. Thomas, the universe was performing a single activity. It was a series of nested spheres united by causal orders and acting with a unity of operation. The sphere of the sun governed generation, for example, and the sphere of Saturn governed conservation. Even the angels were viewed as being created at the same time as the physical cosmos, and (the sub-seraphic orders) were put in change of tending to the physical in various ways. Though the Universe was not a substance or unum per se, it nevertheless had the order of a machine, such that no parts were superfluous and each part was functionally relevant to every other part. Moreover, the universe had no natural history – it was simply a series of nested and interactive spheres since the moment it existed.

This vision of the universe was what St. Thomas had in mind when he spoke of a “common good of the Universe”, and it’s clear on this conception that such a good was what was principally intended in creation. Dekoninck tried to preserve this teaching of the common good on a new understanding of the universe by fleshing out a new understanding of the universe as united in the single operation of approaching* the generation of some fixed number of rational beings (i.e., either us or aliens). Though one could arguably see this as the goal of the older, Thomistic universe, CDK’s vision was less grounded in physics and more in metaphysical accounts of matter and causality, with an IOU written to fill out the details from physical science later. There are, it seems to me, a good many problems with this new vision, even if not all are fatal:

1.) What we mean by the physical universe is not given to sensation. We no longer see spheres that give a significance to place or are tied together by clear lines of sensible influence. All that is driving the universe now is the desire of matter for form.

2.) We develop a sort of interaction problem between the physical universe and the angelic order, in that we lose any point of contact between the universal causality of the angels and the physical universe. On the old system, the universal causality of the angels touched the cosmos at the point where one had universal physical causes.

3.) It’s not clear how the new methods of science can deliver on the IOU. We don’t discover the order of the universe  by noticing the interactions how substances build up a universe by progressing from part to whole but by progressing from phenomenon to law.

4.) We have no idea of how to make the cosmos a physical order without it being an order of position or place, but our present understanding of the cosmos seems to make it an axiom that position or place is not essentially diverse. This is the familiar “Copernican principle”, i.e. physical laws are symmetrical with respect to all places.

*An actual rational being requires an act of special creation and so can’t be produced by the universe as such.


-One important sense of “meaning” is simply “good”, or perhaps it is a way of speaking of some sense of the good. Certainly most questions about the meaning of life, the universe and everything are really just questions whether life is good. In these cases, “Meaning” seems to be the approved way to discuss questions about the good.

-One sense of universal cause is just what the thing is. If we find out that X is what heat is, and X is different from fire, mammal blood, and the Mojave in July, then X counts as the universal cause of all these. But this is universality in the formal order – Aristotle wanted more to speak of universality in the order of agents. Here it seems harder to get a clear universal cause in nature, though we have them clearly in human affairs – the mastermind of a conspiracy is more a cause of the crime than the goons who pull it off.

My 7yo Daughter: Zero is the only number that adds to itself.

Me: What do you mean?

D: One and anything else aren’t one, except when you add zero; and zero is the only thing that when you add zero to it, stays zero.

M: So what do you think this says about zero as a number?

D: it’s a sorta number. We could call it a fumber. Or a mumber.

-0+0=0 is interesting to consider in light of the axiom that the whole is greater than the part. The infinite is another case, though the problems with the infinite and equations happen more quickly (with zero, they really only occur with division.)

-Adding nothing can’t be simply the same as not to add.

Facts and morals

Status quaestionis: Sex ed, economics, and political science are not viewed as moral fields of inquiry. In this sense we see the moral as opposed to the scientific, since science deals with straight facts and not the various moral interpretations that are put upon them. But smoking, thinking bad racial thoughts, being “Anti-American” or “against equality”, or “not standing with the President during the war” etc. are all immoral, though we insist that this is read straight off the facts.

Look, I’m more prone than anyone to interpret this cynically. It seems like mere moral hypocrisy and/or an expression of will to power. At the very least, any naive or unqualified attempt to either identify or divide morals and facts ought to be viewed with suspicion.* But if we give the facts the benefit of the doubt, we might read them as reflecting this: we divide morals from facts to indicate a lack of consensus, though we recognize that mere consensus would never suffice to make something moral. So there is a broad consensus that smoking is wrong, and so it can be considered immoral; though we recognize that it can’t be moral simply because of the consensus. On the other hand, there is no broad consensus that the Gospel is true, and so we can’t base morals off of it, even though we recognize that whether it is moral or not has nothing to do with consensus.

One problem or qualification we would have to make in this is that there were certainly times when there was more consensus that the Gospels were true than that smoking was harmful, though even at these very times we were more zealous in being anti-smoking than pro-Gospel. I’m thinking of the first no-smoking sections of the Late ’80’s or the first smoking bans if the mid-90’s. But we might just say that all sides agree that not all consensus is equal – the consensus with a scientific case is better than mere popular consensus, say.


*Yes, I recognize the problem that sentence has with self-reference.

Debate among curricula designers.

A: Religion will probably last forever, but only because it shamelessly promotes itself.

B: Huh? Where is it advertising? Its special promotion deals?

A: That’s not what I mean. Assume the university [we work at] promoted itself like religion does. We’d demand everyone gather together and kneel before the divinity of, say, the statue of the arrowhead and mark all the transitional and principle events in life (like birth and marriage and death) with ceremonies that had to reference the university. This would be pure nonsense, of course, but it’s nonsense no matter who demands it.  Its dehumanizing to grovel in this way before anything.

B: Well, don’t we end up with this sort of blind devotion before the arrowhead? What about the football team?

A: That’s not the same at all. People criticize sports teams all the time, and we tolerate those who aren’t into it.

B: Well, there are pretty strong social pressures to like the team, rally around it uncritically, etc. We do tolerate those who don’ follow it, but we wouldn’t tolerate anyone who disparaged it as publicly as you disparage religion.

A: That’s all outlier phenomena. Maybe we have a little harmless groupthink that we don’t police to strictly. Imagine having an Inquisition or a fatwa or throwing people in pogroms over love of the football team, after all. But the general message of the University is entirely opposed to this. We want students to think for themselves.

B: Given all you said so far “thinking for yourself” means marking the events of life in a way you determine yourself, and not bowing uncritically before anything.

A: Exactly. What else could it possibly mean?

Dekoninck v. Eschmann, the basic argument


1.) All sides agree that personal dignity is a crucial concern in modern thought.

2.) Dignity is a sort of good.

3.) Common goods are higher than peculiar, proper goods.

4.) Therefore, the dignity we have from the highest common good, sc. God and the universe, are higher than any good we have as the peculiar, proper individuals we are. Various strains of modern thought are perverse for not recognizing this.


1.) All sides agree that personal dignity is a crucial concern in modern thought.

2.) A person is a unique sort of existence, distinct from all other things in the universe, and not just in a way that a part is distinct from a whole.

3.) Therefore personal dignity is the sort of thing that needs to be understood apart from all other things in the universe.

Notice that, if this way of putting it is right, CDK and Eschmann both start with an idea of personal dignity, but CDK wants to understand this through the notion of dignity whereas E. wants to understand it though the notion of a person. E’s problem is that STA doesn’t say much about his second premise, and even argues that the crucial notion that sets person apart from nature (sc. “individual”) is a logical term that names something unknown to us (see ad 3 here).

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