A thesis in predestination

Thesis: God, looking out over the whole of history and seeing those who will freely cooperate with grace and those who will not, chooses to create only the former.

The thesis can be taken either as articulating a mode of Universalism or as an objection to it. At least one student has come to me asking ‘Why did God just not do that?” Avoid all the problems of predestination and empty out Hell while we’re at it!

The Thomistic response, given for example by Sebastian Walshe, points to some value that the damned give to the whole. Just because it would be better for Joe if he were never born, it doesn’t follow that everyone else would be better off if he weren’t. One could turn this mere non-sequitur into an axiom: our lives are enriched by everyone, no matter what their eternal destiny. Even if one cuts himself off from the family, this is no reason to wish they had never been born.

Richard Dawkins and the Incarnation

Lloyd Gerson objected to Dawkins’s selfish gene theory by noting that nothing – genes included – lives any longer by reproduction. It’s not as if anyone thinks that having kids will add years to your life. But Dawkins’s whole theory of the gene can be viewed as a response to this since he denies that genes are the chemical bits within the cells, or anything else that can live or die. While “gene” is more a placeholder for a unit of genetic information than an agreed upon structure, no physical structure is a gene but merely encodes them. Asking “where is a gene?” is like asking where the song Chopsticks is. There is probably sheet music for it somewhere, but we wouldn’t destroy the song by burning that page; there are particular performances of it, but the song doesn’t cease to exist when the performance does; and all this is just as true of my memories of the song or your ability to play it. Anything with a particular, concrete existence – whether in ink, air, neurons or soul – merely encodes the song.

The gene, which generalizes to the meme, is exactly what Plato called form, and which has proven a concept that Western thought has found it extremely difficult to live without. Dawkins’s teaching on genes is just an instance of the Scholastic axiom that first actuality is for the sake of second, or that the structure of things is caused by something we want them to do.  We explain the structure and powers of a human being in exactly the same way we explain the parts of a can opener – we engineered it by starting with an action we wanted to happen. For Dawkins, this action is simply the continued existence of the gene by its continual encoding, and which makes it a unit of natural selection.

But does the gene pre-exist its encoding, or does it need the encoding to exist? The two are obviously incompatible, and the first renders the second superfluous. But we can solve the paradox easily if we recognize that the gene isn’t striving to avoid non existence, but to communicate the existence it has. In other words, it isn’t existence or survival that the gene is striving for but incarnation. The gene transcends material existence, but it did not view this transcendence as something to be grasped at.

The First Way and nature as infinitely subtle

The First Way allows for the possibility that we will always be able to find some natural explanation for some fact of nature, but every explanation will involve something that falls outside the account of nature we give to explain the fact. Aristotle could give no account of the power that moved the planets in orbits and thought that they were in need of a spiritual mover; Newton then accounted for this power as gravitational action on an inertially moving body, but this left him in need of some mover to impart this inertial motion and so accounted for this with a spiritual mover. Laplace and Kant did away with Newton’s spiritual mover through the nebular hypothesis, but nebular formation ended up reducing to the laws of matter which in turn involve fine tuning – and so here we are again with some arguing that the fine tuning is caused by God while others insist we’ll find a natural explanation. The Naturalists are right that we’ll eventually discover some natural explanation of the fine tuning, but it will have its own undetermined values that will again give rise to the God vs. Natural explanation debate.

And so the First Way allows for the possibility that “Supernatural explanations will have a poor track record” and that we will continually be positing a “God in the gaps”, but it also shows us that all natural explanations will contain an undetermined element which will demand something outside what can be considered natural by the parameters of the explanation. To return to the example, Aristotle thought nature was exhausted by finite motions, and so when he located an infinite motion he had to invoke a supernatural cause; Newton posited inertial motion as a naturally infinite but this gave no account of the motion’s initiation or direction, and so when he saw the need for an initiated directed motion he had to invoke a supernatural cause; Laplace and Kant thought they could account for the direction and initiation of motion by the laws of chance starting from a formless cloud, but this turned out to presuppose fine tuning for the elements, at which point we hit the limit of present understanding. There’s no reason to expect this process ever to end. Perhaps nature is simply inexhaustible to this sort of analysis. But St. Thomas gives an argument that this inexhaustible character – or infinite fullness – must itself be an effect of pure actuality.

One benefit of seeing the First Way in this manner is that it is precisely the infinite fullness of nature that we see as dependent on divine causality. Nature is not some open-ended pipe that demands a god to blow into one end but a structure that allows for levels of analysis that become more and more simple and intelligible without end.

The AFE, Utopia, and the cross

Brian Green Adams summarizes the argument from evil (hereafter, AFE):

The problem of evil argues that there are inherent contradictions between the attributes of omnibenevolence, omnipotence, and the evil and or suffering we seem to observe. Christians typically believe God possesses these attributes, so if he could not, then the God they believe in could not exist.

Adams gives an articulate and forceful account of the argument which seems targeted towards the sorts of objections one hears against it, and so one can’t fault him for overlooking my idiosyncratic objections to his case. That said, my first objection is that (as with all other AFE’s) we continue to get no accounts of why any actual theist thought God was good or powerful in the first place, even though there are multiple ways of understanding the relation of God’s goodness to the evil in the world and relatively few of them allow for an AFE.

The Greek tradition saw moral evil as arising either from a general ignorance (Socrates/Plato) or from a momentary willful ignorance (Aristotle). But – and this was the crucial assumption – the Greeks thought God alone could be completely without ignorance. Two things followed : God alone was perfectly good, and human life could not exist at all without the possibility of evil. The Greek view of divine goodness therefore rendered an AFE impossible. This was not merely a speculative theory: Greek tragedy lives in a context where ignorance is unavoidable, and even if one minimizes it as far as he can the remainder will still suffice to trip even the most blessed and fortunate person into ruin. Greek morality also reflects this unavoidable element of evil. Aristotle is clear that morality is the sort of action only appropriate to one who lives a life between a beast and a god, and so when the AFE speaks of God’s supposed benevolence or moral perfection they are appealing to ideas that Greeks would have found absurd, even while they continued to insist on the integral goodness of divine beings.

The AFE thus operates under the assumption that the Greek view of the world is wrong, and that there is a real possibility (and not just an imaginable one) that human and animal life could exist without evil. The AFE is thus a critique of tragedy and a sort of testimony to the real possibility of Utopia. How else could we find fault in God for failing to create it?

Christianity, of course, does insist that Utopia actually existed and will come again. This requires it to concede that Utopia is a real possibility, and so far as this goes it allows the possibility of an AFE. But anyone who accepts the Christian testimony that God wants us to live a blessed life free from evil has to accept with it that the means to attain this is through conformity to the Son, and above all in his patient acceptance of evils. And so the AFE becomes impossible again, for while the Christian makes a blessed Utopia a real possibility which God could create, he insists that suffering and evil have a necessary role to play as means to its achievement. Briefly, a Christian cannot raise the argument from evil without denying his need for discipleship to Christ – without denying the cross – which is exactly what makes him a Christian.

In the modern era, however, both Christian and non-Christian philosophers started arguing for a new sort of research program, one which would, in Descartes’s words, be a relief to man’s estate. This Cartesian program came to associate knowledge with relief from evils, which invited the inference that a complete knowledge would be nothing other than a complete relief from all evil. But surely God had such a complete knowledge, right? At this point we finally get a view of divinity that could give the AFE real bite. I say “could” because we can only make the argument after we have rejected both the Greek and the Christian accounts of divine goodness and the evil in the world. Against the Greeks, we need to assert the real possibility of a Utopia that God could bring about; and against the Christians we have to assert that this Utopia cannot (or at least should not) be brought forth eschatologically though the cross. But, if this is right, what god is being denied by the AFE?

That was the end of the post proper, but here is a whimsical postscript. When we take a close look at the god who is denied in the AFE, he seems to be one who

(a) denies the truth of the tragic view of life, even as it might manifest itself in an idea like original sin.

(b) denies the truth of the cross.

(c) Is one who would prove that he exists – and so is worthy of worship – by entering into the project to relieve all human suffering.

So perhaps the AFE isn’t talking about God at all, but Antichrist.

A simplification of an argument by Josiah Royce

1.) Let the reasonable, whether intellectual or moral, be defined relative to an ideal knower or reasonable person. Thesis: this ideal knower must actually exist.

2.) Objections: (a) Ideal knowers are essentially hypothetical. (b) Ideal knowers are principles of knowledge and not principles of existence. (c) Ideal knowers are counterfactual and so their real existence need not even be possible.

3.) Respond: Ideal constructions in the physical world differ from those in the cognitive world. Physical ideals are either (i) facts about the world that make no difference in our measurements: assuming the earth is flat when making a mid-range artillery shot; assuming a test particle has no mass. This is not purely arbitrary or subjective: Measurement requires parameters, which allows (requires?) us to ignore what falls outside them. (ii) An attempt to isolate a principle which may never (or even can never) really exist in isolation. A perfectly smooth road illustrates purely inertial motion, even if no such motion could ever exist.  These cases generalize: in the first something that really exists is unnecessary to our knowledge of it; in the second our knowledge of something does not require that it really exist.

But things that exist in the cognitive realm cannot always be subsumed under this general division, since their being is their being known. For example, error and truth exist in minds or not at all, and so to relate these to an ideal knower requires such a knower to really exist in order for these things to really exist within knowers that are not ideal. But by hypothesis a speculative error is that which is erroneous to a knower with all possible information, and so such a knower actually exists.

4.) All objections relate to idealizations of extra-mental reality, as mentioned in the response.

God and logical being

0.) Consider the idea that God is that than which nothing greater can be thought, but the think of the greater as being in logical universality, the way “animal”  is greater than “dog” and “living” is greater than “animal”.

1.) This can be taken either to mean that God is the most general genus, or that we are unable to capture or locate God in any genus. The first is a claim about God’s existence, the second about our knowledge. The first is substantially false but with a suggestion of the truth; the second is a cornerstone of St. Thomas’s apophatic theology.

2a.) The first is crazy so far as no one intends to call something God when he calls it real – the question whether Narnia exists is not a theological inquiry. The element of truth is that being is a point of contact between God and the universe, and like all points of contact it can be considered either in relation to what came before, and so is God himself, or according to what came after, and so is creation. This is why being is not just the most general concept we can think of but is also the most formal. In the first sense it is the vaguest of vague things, in the second it is the perfection of all perfections.

2b.) And what do we have to say to Quine or Kant, who would see being as a relatively uninteresting logical concept? I’ll do them one better and argue that, so far as we try to capture being in a formal system, the concept is not just uninteresting but impossible. Lo, I am more a Positivist than any Positivist, more extreme in denial of metaphysics than any of its critics. How?

3.) Logical universals might be taken either as genera or as effects of some universal cause (like art might be taken either as a genus of things or as an effect of the human mind; or the way life might be a genus or that which is ultimately explained by a complete biology). In this sense, only “being” puts us in immediate contact with God. If we consider “life” we explain it not just in relation to divine action but also secondary causes. But if we insist that being fall into some formal system, the concept is impossible (Russell’s paradox, Gödel, the halting problem, etc.). Since this arises from problems of self-reference, being cannot be seen totally as an object but also as a self-intuition. “Being” must be present to a self that is present to itself. The human mind cannot achieve this perfectly, because for us it is a different to think of something and to use it in an act of self-recognition. Only a mind with no division or incompletion in its cognitive act could have a concept of being simpliciter. Thus if being is intelligible, God exists; and if we dwell on the imperfection of our knowledge, metaphysics is impossible. Our notion of being, as St. Thomas says, must be borrowed from God if we are to have it at all.

4.) And yet we cannot start with some general idea and winnow it down until we describe God. We can only do this in things because of the difference between what they are and their reality, but there is no such division in God. If we could define him, we would need no additional information to know he really existed. But our power to define cannot do this. Either “God” self-evidently exists, or we have no non-divine self-evident concepts in light of which we might describe him. ;Both seem false.

5.) And yet causality or cause is not a general class. Causes within a genus are not causes formally. Thomistic apophatism is thus compatible with drawing causal inferences from the world to God; and the subsequent description of God as a sort of cause is not a way of locating him in a genus.

What’s evidence?

Say I asked you to give evidence for the existence of atoms, and so you stood up, went to the sink, filled a clear glass with water, threw in a dash of soot from the fireplace and said “Voilà!”  I look at you in puzzled confusion, and so you put a wooden ball in my left hand and a lead ball in my right and then say “there, d’ya get it now?”  

So far as evidence is what you point to in order to prove your case, you’ve done just what I’ve asked. The jitters of the soot in water were one of the clinching pieces of evidence for atomism, and the differing weights of identical volumes was one of the most ancient pieces of evidence for it. While there’s no reason to take these examples as showing us something common to everything we call evidence, they do show that it is possible that evidence be a lot more than just what you point at to prove your case.

The word “evidence” therefore sometimes (often?) means not “something you show me” but “something you show me while telling me a story about it” or “something you show me while giving me an argument about it”, and since there’s no intrinsic limit on how complicated a story might be, how abstruse an argument might get, how much IQ, study, humility, or moral rectitude might be required to accept a story or argument, the demand for “plain evidence” for everything seems to involve a good deal of ignorance about what exactly evidence is.

The humdrum thing you point at (soot jiggling in a jar) might have no proportion to the magnitude of the thing it is evidence for (the composition of all bodies in the universe). So what are we to make of the claim that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence? This obviously isn’t true if evidence is just “what one points to to prove the case”: jiggling soot is hardly an extraordinary thing to point to, though a claim about the composition of the entire universe clearly is. So it must mean that an extraordinary claim requires an extraordinary story or argument in defense of it.*

*Though one supposes that whatever proved an extraordinary claim would be ipso facto extraordinary, making the claim tautological. The “extraordinary claims” postulate is thus not a standard for judgment, but merely tells us that if an extraordinary conclusion is given, the proof itself is extraordinary. The claim is this no more interesting than saying “if an action ends illegally, it is illegal”.

Information theory and Greek philosophy

– The relationship between formal systems and human thought shows the insight of the Neo-platonic account of soul as “what returns to itself by a complete return”. From Russell through Godel and Turing it was clear that the formal system will always be at odds with itself if one allows self reference, which humans do every time they are aware that they know something.

– There is a sort of recollection theory in the fact that no perfectly random sequence can encode anything, since the code thus demands redundancies and so things already known. To know anything (i.e. to receive something encoded in sound waves, light, nerve stimulation, etc.) requires already knowing something (i.e. what allows for redundancies in the encoding). One can account for this by saying that human beings have a definite organic structure, but only if one sees this organic structure as possessing knowledge before it receives any nerve stimulation. While Plato could have distinguished between the before of time and of causality (which would make the baggage of reincarnation and pre-existence unnecessary) his general point is simply to locate the thinking part of man in something pre-existing physical cognition, and it seems that he’s done so.

-A friend published an argument that started with Feynmann’s saying many times that it is incomprehensible how energy can be measured in so many different ways, and that all the units in which it is measured are like so many currencies that can be exchanged for each other according to pre-set rules and within certain definite limits. So taken, energy itself seems to require nothing more than the rules for exchange, no longer requiring any non-formal reality.

-James Gleik related a story of a woman who brought a message into a telegraph station and asked for it to be sent. The operator dutifully tapped out the message and asked for the fee, but the woman responded that he obviously hadn’t sent it since she could see it right in front of him. But if he did in fact send the message, then what is a message? Not the ink and paper, since it was sent through the control of a circuit; but not the circuit either, because it could have been sent an indefinite number of ways. So on the one hand something is necessary to send the message in; but on another hand anything will do. This is exactly what Aristotle wants to call matter – in one sense it is essential (you need something) but in another sense all there is is form (since anything will do). This might serve as either a criticism or a modification of Wheeler’s “it from bit” idea, or the idea that there simply is no such thing as non-formal physical reality. This is true so far as one can encode into anything, and so “what one encodes into” can never have a definite description. But such a thing is still intrinsically necessary to the information.

-If a formal system cannot account for self-reference, this seems to prove the real possibility of a complete knowledge that (unlike our own) can be had apart from a formal system. But I think one can argue from such real possibility to the real existence of the same, and so of a separated soul or angel or divinity. Some analytic philosopher might work it out, but the bones are this: if a separated intellect is really possible, then the truths that it knows are really possible. But at least some of these truths are necessary, so a necessary truth of a separate intellect is possible. But necessary things by definition either exist or are impossible, and we’ve shown that a necessary truth of a separate intellect is not impossible, therefore etc.




A way in which morality depends on God

David Berlinski has a quip that there shouldn’t be anything demeaning in expecting human beings to act worse when their actions are not being policed by God, since we already expect them to act worse when their actions are not being policed by police. I want to consider a way in which this fact is also compatible with believing that if there were no God, our moral beliefs and actions would not change all that much.

The police almost never intervene in my life now, and so to take them away wouldn’t deprive me of all that much. If there were days that I knew the police weren’t looking, I wouldn’t expect myself to start murdering or raping or pillaging. I’d expect to do pretty much everything I already do.

Pretty much. The speed I drive would probably change appreciably, not just because the only reason I don’t drive faster is because of the highway patrol, but also because a good deal of other persons would be also driving faster. “No cop day” would become a byword for highway craziness, and since you need to go out there anyway you’re going to have to take part in it. You’re going to have to act more reckless even if, as an abstract matter, you are morally opposed to being reckless. The analogy to theism is this: even if “losing an invisible cop in the sky” would not directly change my own moral convictions, if it changed the convictions of a great deal of others* it would end up changing how I act. Even if only the weak-minded need God to behave well, to deprive them of this would leave me acting worse.

More profoundly though, to point to the fact that I would act more or less the same whether the cops are there or not seems to miss the very reason we have cops in the first place. It’s not as if we put them there to look over people in in the normal, mundane state in which most of life gets conducted. Even pretty awful criminals spend 99% of their life doing things that no cop could cite them for: sleeping, watching TV, cooking macaroni, whatever. We need the cop for the extreme situations, like times when you’ve drank too much, are being egged on by others, are frazzled and pushed too far by some jerk, or for the times when, for all your clarity of moral conviction, morality just seems boring or pointless or something we can’t be bothered with. The general principle is this: we don’t need extrinsic, fear-based checks on our behavior in its everyday, mundane circumstances, or even for some more or less great temptations and trials; but it’s unrealistic to think we can count on always finding ourselves within these limits. Our moral life must recognize some limit beyond which we need fear of violence to keep ourselves in line, and it shows a marked lack of self-knowledge for a person to think he has such moral control that he will never need this. Most people don’t need this fear most of the time, and so far as this goes to lose all these sources of violence and fear won’t change much. We only need it when we are not ourselves.

And there’s the rub: even if moral person is totally motivated by beliefs that he holds for himself, we are not always ourselves. Our moral equipment simply can’t be counted on to act of itself beyond limits that are more or less broadly given. The state is the only non-voluntary association we can count on to provide this violence we need to be moral, but it cannot provide for all the violence we need without becoming a totalitarian horror. At any rate, the state is just a set of relations among persons who all have the same need for violence as we do.

It’s at this point that we’re stuck having to rely on God to be moral, since we can’t be moral without some extrinsic fear of violence beyond ourselves, and God alone can provide this to the extent we need it.** This picture of God as a necessary source of fear and trembling is perhaps not very flattering, but this is because it’s an inference made from a part of ourselves that we not only don’t want to face, and which we have a very difficult time even recognizing in our everyday mundane existence,*** because it is not who we are. 

Are there atheist and theist accounts of this? If we have this sort of need of God, then we seem to have exactly the sort of incentive we need to imagine he exists, even if he doesn’t. God is simply a princess Alice story we tell to keep kids in line. But atheism is both a fact and a belief, and for this belief to be reasonable depends not just on the fact but on there being one class of persons who need extrinsic fear of violence and another that doesn’t. But this isn’t so.


*As far as the argument goes, it makes no difference whether it would change them for better or worse. All I want to target here is the idea that if my own moral convictions don’t change, then my moral actions will not change. Human actions are more deeply socially related than that, even for all our prisons, housing communities, zoning laws, and ghettos walled-off or divided by highways.

**Children have parents and adults can form voluntary networks of moral support, but these are either transitory or have the same problems we see in the case of the state.

***Notice that we have a hard time not just anticipating these actions (I don’t think I would ever act like that) but even remembering them. Even when forced to remember those times we can find ourselves saying, with no exaggeration, “I don’t know what I was thinking” or “that wasn’t me”.

A Comment on the Song of Songs

The Facts

-The Song of Songs is the most lengthy description of erotic love in all of Scripture, and yet it does not so much as suggest marriage or bearing children. It does not even mention the moral law. The closest one gets is an admonition “to not awaken love until it is ready”, which is the antiphon or chorus or central message (SoS 2;7; 3:5 ; 8;4).

-Several of the passages are difficult to read except as descriptions of fornication, and none need to be read in a way that rules this out.

-The Song of Song nowhere mentions God, the Law, the Holy Ones.

-Biblical literalism or fundamentalism reads the Song allegorically as spontaneously as it reads Genesis literally. The Douay version even gives chapter headings explaining how the contents of some chapter are simply and elliptical or convoluted way of trying to speak about Christ (here the text sheweth the Love of Christ for his Church…). Even if this is true, it leaves the central question completely untouched: why describe such a relationship as sex with no reference to marriage, children, morality, or even God?

-Why is the Song of Songs a wisdom book? The designation has a clear reference to the matter of Job, Proverbs, Psalms, Wisdom, Sirach, etc. The Song seems just thrown in. Leaving aside whether Solomon wrote it, what is Solomonic about it?

-There is and has been no society that can appropriately discuss the Song. Modest societies will we scandalized by the explicit sexuality and will rush to allegorize way too quickly; and societies like our own that are more comfortable discussing the explicit sex will be scandalized by its complete lack of reference to any moral structure.

The Theory

The Song of Songs describes a state of love as absolute and completely justified in itself. In absolute contradiction to Plato, it refuses to see love as a contingent good that stands in need of  being fulfilled by that which is good in itself. Love is God.


But it isn’t and can’t be so now for us. It can only be so when God has made a complete communication of his own existence to us. Saying “Love is God” now is only true for God and the saints.

Love has a historical character and is divided between the time of viators and the time of the eschaton. Note that when Christ says “in heaven they are neither married nor given in marriage” he is responding precisely to a description of marriage which is treating it so far as it is a vehicle for inheritance, the continuance of the family line, and even as a remedy for the mortality of spouses. It is because of this element in marriage that it has a necessary tie to procreation and exclusivity.* But Scripture and experience are clear that there is another element in love as well.

We can’t just distill out this element of love since its historical character is integral to it. Nevertheless, erotic love is the easiest for us to visualize or understand as an absolute. To take it in this way is, in our present state, immoral, and so the Song uses sex with no reference to morality as a way to speak of eschatological love. Seen from this angle, the problem with the Sexual Revolution is that it wants the absolute too soon – in the words of the Song it wants “to awaken love before it is ready”.

*The exclusivity of marriage follows an analogous reason to the one given for private property – just as property is usually treated better if it is tended by one who owns it, children do better when they are raised by those who generate them. But private property will not remain in the life to come. Monogamy also gets another note of meaning as a sign and sacrament of the unity of Christ and his Church.

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