Fleshing out the Fourth Way

The Fourth Way is a general argument that God is X to a maximal degree where X is “things like” (huiusmodi) good, true, dignity, being, etc. This means that God is most of all what we mean by these things, and even though we call other things good this is only because the first things we name are not the highest instances of what deserve that name. We can show this by looking at the great number of things that the Fourth Way is talking about in particular:

1a.) Being. A being exists just as a pair is even, i.e. by definition. But while some group that is by definition even can cease to be even by ceasing to be, what by definition exists can’t cease to exist. The individual we could call a being could only be an individual whose non-existence would involve a contradiction. This is no individual in the universe (all of them have a genesis) nor the universe (which is not an individual but a collection)

2a.) True. A thing is true when it exists relative to an intellect, but a thing only exists relative to a creator.*

2b.) Power. Power is the ability to be responsible for the existence of another.


3a.) Good. A good satisfies an appetite and so the highest good satisfies the highest appetite. But everything desires to exist and all intellects desire truth, and both of these terms are divine from 1 and 2.

Corollary 1: what we seek for ourselves requires going outside ourselves. The desire to for existence  is not limited to our mere desire not to die.

Corollary 2: Here is another vantage point to see the shallowness of understanding divine goodness as “moral perfection”

3b.) Dignity. Dignity belongs to a thing so far as it is an end and not a means. But the highest good, as such, can never be a means but only an end.

3c.) Person. If the person is subordinate to a non-personal highest good then objectification, alienation and the degradation of persons are the highest good of a person. The consequent is a contradiction, therefore, etc.

1b.) Life. To live is to exist in what acts for itself. But a person acts for himself.

4.) One. One is the negation of division, but things are divisible so far as they await some further existence in space, in time, or of their intrinsic matter. But to await further being, as such, is not to be.

5.) Devotion. The limit of devotion is worship. 


Objection: Being heard does not require existence to a divine ear, so truth does not require existence to a non-divine mind.

Reponse: This illustrates the difference between the objectivity of sense and of intelligence. Sense objectivity is content to attain the thing as it is for the one sensing. Whether you’re a dung beetle or not will affect you awareness of sweet-smelling things, whether you are a polar bear or not will affect what temperature is too cold or oppressively hot. But intelligence seeks an objectivity that is just the thing itself and nothing more – the pure object unconditioned by subjectivity. But to attain this requires a pure “being seen” from no perspective, i.e. from no limited vantage point. What we mean by objectivity, and so truth, cannot involve a vantage point within the things we seek to understand.

This allows another development:

2c.) Beauty. The beauty appropriate to this sort of thing is sublimity, and the sublime is that which overwhelms the cognitive powers. But perfect objectivity totally overwhelms all created cognitive powers, therefore.


The Pro-National Suicide argument

The contemporary Right bemoans the suicide of the nation state while either overlooking or not being bothered by the many reasons why persons are both sick of the nation state and have good reasons for wanting it to die. I have no opinions on the matter other than that it is confusing, but since everyone reading this already has a few heartfelt reasons to love the nation state I’ll here give some of the reasons for wanting it to die.

1.) 1914-1945, our Thirty-Years’ War. Just as the Thirty Years’ War was a critique of Christendom the two World Wars were a critique of the nation state that replaced it. The World Wars start with a nationalist assassination, though this was really just pretense for the exercise of a general sense that the nations must fight, and the whole affair culminates in a genocide done for the sake of national purity that was only halted by other nations that (a) were willing to let 20 million of their citizens die and (b) now proved themselves willing to use technology that could kill even more. Whatever good a nation state could provide, it had to be worth accepting the very live possibility that everyone on earth might die in a nuclear fire that could be precipitated by causes that were as unintelligible and chancy as the one that was supposed to have started all this killing (a Serbian national kills an Aristocrat and/or we try to kick some Germans out of Poland and for this we end up killing 98 million persons?)

2.) Our preference for the cosmopolitan. The large cities in nations have two conflicting elements: they are at once expressions of the national strength and character and are internationalist patchworks of ethnic neighborhoods and places to experience, in effect, alternatives to one’s own nation. Because everyone is more impressed by the different than by the familiar, this second element became dominant among the city natives. Add to this the usual contempt that all city dwellers have for those outside the city, and you get a growing sense that nationalism is a provincial, small-minded, redneck idea.

3.) Nationalism outgrew its founding mythology. “Nation” is just the noun-form of natus, meaning “born”. The sense is that Nations are made by natives, i.e. by a people sharing a common blood and birth who were tied together by the cultus of art, language, cuisine and religion. It may be possible to have this in a population of a few thousand, but as the population increases national unity requires more an more abstractions and categories that, while they may reflect something really biological or cultural, come with a large dollop of arbitrary construction, e.g. “white” or “Christian”.  How much reality is there in a category including both the Irish and Romanians, or the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the SSPX? This applies just as much to any of the elements just mentioned if they get too large: if any group you call “Irish” has a million persons in it chances are it will have just as much arbitrary construction. Nations thus demanded a source of unity that their increasing population could not provide.

4.)  Nationalism is protestant.  The charter of the nation state and the more successful protestant political philosophy are the same, even though it certainly was adopted by some Catholic* countries. The catastrophic decline of confessional, high church and nationalist protestant churches could not help but make the nation state unintelligible and anachronistic. We don’t have enough data to decide if a secular nation will be able to provide the sort of cohesion that the nation once got from a common cult, but in one sense this is impossible since anything that replaces religion will have to be relatively more superficial than it.** One simply cannot appeal to anything deeper and more significant than the gods and the eternal destiny of the person. You might debunk it, but there is a logical impossibility in transcending it.

5.) Disgust at racism. Every regime demands its citizens prefer it to all others, and nation states are inter alia racial. Whatever else it is, Nationalism just is a sort of racial preference. Our crusade against racism is therefore both a cause and an effect of our disgust at nationalism.


*That said, whatever one says about the practice of Catholic nationalism there is a contradiction at its heart. “Catholic” means “international” or “worldwide”, and the Church has insisted on this from St. Peter till Pope Francis.

**If we can’t have unity by cult, the only deep unity we can have is from biological or genetic affinities and urges. which runs afoul of objections (3) and (5). This was implicit in Nation all along, as (3) argues. But the whole program is now tarred with the brush of National Socialism.


Transcending time and the resurrection

On Feser’s Survivalism post TOF modifies a prominent eschatological thesis:

[T]ime is the measure of motion in corruptible being, and that which is non-corporeal is not corruptible. Thus, the portion of the soul that survives death does not experience the passage of time, but experiences “all time at once.” IOW, for the departed, it is already the resurrection, just as it is “already” any other time. So in particular, they already have their restored body.

Ratzinger critiqued the slightly but significantly different claim of “dying and instantly waking at the resurrection of the body”, saying that to skip over all time until the resurrection means that death separates the saints from action on history and this could never be a Christian eschatology. Ratzinger didn’t see – as TOF did –  that death is not a separation from history but a transcendence of it.* Again, one of the commenters on the thread tried to critique TOF by saying that separated souls experience “discrete time”. This is true, but this is the time that logical processes or inferences take and it therefore cannot be brought into commeasuration with clock time. Discrete time is nothing but the requirement that one think with more than one thought – it has no reference at all to any tick-tocking.

All this is in keeping with the best route forward in eschatology, which is to take to heart R.C. Neville’s metaphysics of transcendence and understand God, the angels, separated souls, and the resurrected as possessing a mode of existence that is all the perfections of time: not just the existence of the present but also the fixity of the past and the open possibilities of the future. Again, we don’t mean that they have the existence of this present, but that they have the existence of every present, the fixity of every past, and the open possibilities of every future, and that they possess them “at once” – not in some present but in the sense that they do not possess any one to the exclusion of the others. Their existence preserves as a unity all the perfections that are diverse and exclusive at lower levels.

*For a definition of transcendence, see the last sentence of this post. The one previous to this one. he he… I mean what  preserves as a unity all the perfections that are diverse and exclusive at lower levels.

Riddles of hylomorphic humans

(I number the points to make it easier for you to object. There is little intrinsic progression of the ideas. )

1a.) All sides agree that the divine cannot be hylomorphic, there is a dispute over whether angels have a different sort of matter than cosmic things, and its clear that the theory is a perfect explanation for the individuation and mobility of natural things. Human beings cannot be perfectly assimilated into any of these groups. We know that there has to be some way in which we use an analogy or negation of hylomorphic theory to explain the intrinsic constitution of humans, but eschatological questions quickly show the underdevelopment of our theories.

1b.) Aristotle’s striking and mystical language in De Anima III.5 is an attempt to describe just such a negation and analogy – commentators have always read this passage as speaking of an undivided agent intellect for all persons, but this would be a nonsensical thing to include in a treatise on the soul. It’s better to just read it as a first sketch of how one has to speak about that dimension of the human person whose intrinsic constitution cannot be hylomorphic, and which therefore is not individuated or numbered or even properly a species.

2.) The Franciscan/ Dominican dispute is still open over whether Christ would have become incarnate whether there was sin or not, and for the same reason it is an open question what role death would have played if not for the fall. The perfect innocence of man allowed for threats, and the first Adam might well have been called to accept death in the same way the second Adam was. As it stands, we got a death that was ambivalent but slanted overwhelmingly towards hellfire, which was clearly a great and horrible evil. But perhaps without a fall death would have still been the way to the resurrected body, though with none of the risk of hellfire.

3.) Hylomophism demands that corruption and generation are two dimensions of a single process. In human beings, however, a properly personal element survives this process. Taken in this way, hylomophism points to an idea of death as the rebirth of the person. This is not a dismissal of death – the person really dies. But this death of the person is only logically distinct from the regeneration of that person. Given the fall, we are much more cognizant and terrified of the corruption than the rebirth (indeed, the prospect of rebirth is mostly horrible). Without the fall, however, it’s hard to see how we would not be far more cognizant of the rebirth. We could presumably just look around at the glory around us to see what death would bring us.

4.) So far as hylomorphism is an account of the eduction or induction of forms from matter, it does not apply to human beings. Our form is a created one, and creation is not generation or even a sort of motion. Other things are created too (the basic elements and forces and the cosmos as a whole) but none of these is a person or properly personal element.

5.) St. Thomas’s main problem was accounting for why men had bodies if they did not need them to know. His response is that they needed them to know fully and completely.  This conclusion is demanded by the sense that man has an unchanging species and this species is material. But St. Thomas has already modified the sense of what it is for a human being to be material: every other animal cannot exist without matter whereas man has an intrinsic order to matter. But is this an intrinsic order to the corruptible matter it now has, and with which it was first created? If so, then the spiritual resurrected body cannot be a perfection of it. If not, then some sort of separation of soul and corruptible body is necessary in order for it to attain to the spiritual body that it is intrinsically ordered to. Death.

6.) Our anthropology is very difficult to separate from our theology or mythology. Religions impress on us that we don’t have a clear enough sense of what death is to know what a human is without them. Philosophy sees the suggestions of the religions and is incapable or ruling out all of them. We can know man dies, but we can’t tell if this is something horrible or desirable or ambiguous or contingent. Reason can’t tell us, net-net, whether this is a gain, a loss, or two completely incomparable states. It cannot rule out a further historical state (Resurrection, Mormon heavens, a Norse death of all things including the gods, etc.)

7.) St. Thomas: the resurrected body is one with form perfectly adequate to its matter. Objection: the elements already have this, but they do not suggest the resurrected body. No one has gazed on a cloud of gas or a lump of iron and been impressed by its likeness to the risen Lord.


The survivalism debate

Edward Feser distinguishes two accounts of post-mortem existence:

Survivalism is the label that has come to be attached to the view that the human being in some way continues to exist after death.  It is defended by (among others) Thomist philosophers like David Oderberg and Eleonore Stump.  Corruptionism is the label that has come to be attached to the view that the human being ceases to exist after death

Feser’s fundamental argument for his own survivalism is:

The human soul exists after death.  But a soul is a substantial form, and a substantial form only exists when informing the substance of which it is the form.  So, the substance of which the human soul is the form must exist after death.  But that substance is a human being, where a human being is a single substance rather than two substances.  So, the human being must exist after death.

Here’s my friendly challenge to both sides:

This debate fails to address what people – including Thomas – mean by existence after death, and when we consider existence after death in this way Feser’s views are best described as a sort of corruptionism. 

I don’t say this in search of a fight but in the hope of pressing a point where I see Thomism needing development. Now let me explain my challenge:

Life and existence are sorts of act, but act is either first act (mere existence) or second (acting and operating). Most people who raise the question of life after death – including Thomas – mean life as a properly human second act, e.g. an act with some conscious awareness of the isle of the blessed, or a Near Death Experience, or its punishment, purging, or beatitude. True, the Greek and Hebrew underworld suggest something like mere existence without operation, but both of these proved to be muddled and unsustainable ideas that had to be resolved into either accepting post-mortem second act or denying post-mortem existence altogether, and neither is an acceptable position for a Christian philosopher.

Feser’s arguments for survivalism are consistent with the denying the (second act) existence of the person after death, and his anthropology points decisively in this direction. He’s always compared the separated soul to a mutilated animal, but a maximally mutilated organism cannot have its highest operations in second act. St. Thomas partially agrees with this so far as he denies that a separated soul understands things by abstraction, which is the highest personal act of the person in union with the body, but to leave it at this would ignore Thomas’s extensive discussion of the soul’s non-abstractive cognition when separated from the body.

Put in modo Scholasticorum:

1.) People have always understood the question of “existence after death” as the existence in second act of the person, not mere first act existence or the maintenance of an act of any kind that is not properly personal.  Those who deny such existence after death deserve to be called corruptionists. Call them reformed corruptionists.

2.) Feser gives no account of the existence of the person in second act and his anthropology cannot support one since the highest operations of an organism are incompatible with the greatest possible mutilation of that organism.

3.) Therefore, Feser’s thomism is a denial of what people have always understood as the existence of the person after death and can reasonably be understood as a kind of corruptionism.

I think St. Thomas’s anthropological committments are unstable and that the best way to harmonize them all is to recognize that hylomophism has a limited scope of applicability to the person since the theory arose to solve the properly natural and inter-cosmic problem of becoming and human existence is not limited to the properly natural and inter-cosmic. A soul in separation is not a mutilated person but in the second of his three stages of life, the first two of which a philosopher can understand. Informed by revelation, the hypothesis I’d want to explore is that physical death is a punishment only in connection with vice (though this vice became practically unavoidable by the same act that gave physical death) and the Resurrection is not a mere return to union with the body but a transcendence of the person in a state of union and separation.

Nagel, meaning, and good

In What Does it All Mean? Thomas Nagel first notices that our question “what is the point of it all?” arises because we want not just each of our individual actions to have a point, but also for them all to have a point within the larger context of our life. Christians in turn want the events of their lives to have a point within the larger context of the provident order of the cosmos, and presumably this order has a point in the context of some still larger plan including the angels, etc. Nagel, however, notes a problem in this context-dependent way of “having a point”:

If one’s life has a point as a part of something larger, it is still possible to ask about that larger thing, what is the point of it? Either there is an answer in terms of something still larger or there isn’t. If there is, we simply repeat the question. If there isn’t, our search for a point has come to an end with something which has no point.

Nagel’s proof is sound, but it proves only that philosophers lost something crucial in the 20th century when they stopped talking about goods and the good and tried to have the same discussions about the meaning of and having a point (or, contrariwise, “being meaningless” or “pointless”)Both goods and meanings are directed and intentional, but the paradigm of meaning is the signification of language, where meaning is only had within a context that does not itself signify or mean anything. The social context of language (ignore its non-contextual reference to an idea) gives meanings to sounds by an arbitrary ad placitum imposition, and in this sense everyone accepts that meaning can arise from what has no meaning. At some point in an etymology you hit a meaningful sound for which there is no other reason than an arbitrary decision.

Goods, however, do not trace back to contexts but to appetites and desires. When we frame the question in this way, Nagel’s observation is re-framed as the fact that human beings want a greater good than just the good that comes from any of the individual actions of their lives. Human beings seem peculiar in wanting this – as far as I can tell, we are the only animals that are cognizant of life having a narrative totality, and therefore able to be a successful or failed narrative. This narrative in turn makes essential reference to a larger narrative, and it’s not easy to see how good or evil can just arise at lower levels of the narrative when they are not present all the way down, a point which Nagel himself makes in his chapter on value in Mind and Cosmos. 

To frame the question of our goals in terms of goods raises the question of what it would take for there to be a good that was entirely commensurate to an appetite that desired it. A purely commensurate good would clearly be “the point of it all” which would need no further justification, being all that could be desired. All other goods that a being desired would stand to it as part to whole, not in the sense that the lower goods constituted the higher one, but in the sense that they were all incomplete foretastes of it. Plato sketches the outlines of such a good in the Diotema speech of the Symposium, arguing that no temporal good can fit the bill since to possess it leaves us with the unsatisfied desire to keep possessing it. Temporal goods are thus parts of trans-temporal goods. St. Thomas clarifies Plato’s underlying reasoning here.

The problem of agents and energy

Neo-Scholasticism and modern philosophy ceased being puzzled by agent causality, which was a very pronounced philosophical problem until we collapsed into ignoring it. The basic problem is that our simplest account of agency – i.e. some sort of transfer of “oomph” from cause to effect – can’t work. This transferred oomph is either the agent or not: If not, then oomph obviously doesn’t explain agent causality and if it is then we hit the obviously false dead-end of claiming that the agent literally turns into its effect, i.e. we claim that hockey players and sticks literally transform themselves into pucks and then travel across goal stripes. Explanations of agency as transfer are thus either nonsense or non-explanations.

And so while Scholastics tend to say that the scientific revolution threw out final and formal causes but kept agent causes, this doesn’t go far enough. Agent causality was ignored too, replaced by instrumental or quasi-material causes like force or energy. And though we raise the logical possibility of these things being instruments it is hard to see how there is even an in-principle possibility of science articulating what force and energy could be instruments of. If science is a complete account of nature then it is occasionalist; and if there is agency in nature then there are more intelligible accounts of nature than can be provided by natural science. Scientific Naturalism dies either way, and the only models we have for dealing with either possibility are Scholasticism or Early Modern Rationalism. If you want to avoid either Thomism, Leibniz, or Malbrancian Occasionalism, good luck with that.

Weaponized Russell

Whitehead points out that while Einstein’s theory replaced Newton’s, it also showed exactly how far Newton’s extended over the range of phenomena. It was only in being refuted that Newtonianism became perfectly defined; and we did not know exactly what it was about until we saw we needed another theory to tell us about phenomena. We thus can get perfect clarity about the structure of a theory only from our reason to abandon it. If this is right, the truth of science is described by a weaponized form of Russell’s claim about the truth of mathematics: we never know what science is about until we know that it is not true. 

Contra Pinker on religion

-The content of Pinker’s observations about the connection between religious ritual and human cognitive mechanisms all ring true, but he frames these observations as debunking religion when in fact they might just as well be sermon material for priests who are seeking to explain the purpose of their rituals. I’d bet that Pinker himself knows this, and if he were challenged he’d explain how he was simply shocked, shocked that anyone would take his description of psychological mechanisms as proving that their objects were false. This would save him from the charge of being uninformed about something psychologists have known clearly since William James, but it would place such an absurdly large disclaimer on his comments that it’s hard to see why he would bother to make them.

-Religion is unnatural in the same way any education is. We might naturally learn language or know how to nurse, but the higher achievements of human life require symbols with powers of totem and taboo. I hand out a lot of grades, I work in a place that has both uniforms and dress codes, I’ve had to participate in ceremonial pomp and meals, we have sports teams that are treated as vicarious personifications of the school and are supported with chants and symbols etc. Schools* do all this to recognize the great good that we offer through the education, and the sense in which this overcomes our natural desires is only a sense in which natural desires must be overcome.

-The science of the scientist is, of itself, just as hidden as the God of the priests and consecrated persons. The great majority of persons have no more direct or distinct experience of God than they have a justified insight into scientific claims, and the way in which they could learn the science for themselves if they only had the time and talent is the same way in which they could become preternaturally holy and achieve the unitive way if they only had the time and talent.  If I, lacking the science, trust your testimony about dark matter or global warming (probably after it’s backed up by anecdotes, a gesture at some data, the social pressure to believe, and my sense that you just sound like a smart guy) then I’m in a cognitive state called faith. Taking a pragmatist approach, we come to know the value of science by its fruits in technology just as we know the value of religion though the holiness of the saints. In good logic, Pinker sees the value that many give to holiness as disordered and mistaken,  but there are all sorts of persons who say the same thing about technology.


*And the military, and (some) corporations and all nations and supreme polities…

Catholic Aporia

From today’s Theology 12:

1.) It is always disordered to choose the lesser good and not the greater good.

2.) Marriage is a lesser good than celibacy.

3.) It is sometimes right to choose to marry.

So one is false and/or we’re equivocating somewhere. All three claims are well-established points of Catholic theology, the last two as parts of a theology of marriage and the first as an account of what the disorder of sin consists in.

When this first came up I resisted the student’s first move, sc. to try to divide what they called the objective good of celibacy (which saw it as better in general or ceteris paribus) from the subjective good (a good that took into account circumstances and other individuating factors). True, Scripture is clear that celibacy is a gift, and the choice spoken of in (1) requires that the greater good be a real possibility, which would not be the case for those not given the gift to choose the higher good. But something seems fishy and quietistic about this sort of response, and so I’ll suggest a different, more mystical one.

Marriage is a sacrament and so limited to the life in via. There are no sacraments in the escahton, but all sacraments by nature are ordered to attaining that life. But one of the few things we know about the final escahton is that it is a celibate existence: For in the resurrection they neither marry, nor are given in marriage, but are as the angels of God in heaven (Mt. 22:30, Lk. 20: 34, Mk. 12: 20) Thus marriage qua sacrament is ordered to the celibate life, and so does not differ properly in the end chosen but in the mode of choosing it. There is thus an equivocation in (2) since marriage is not in the final analysis a lesser good but a lesser means to the same good.


« Older entries