Celibate Marriages

There is a longstanding question among Catholics over celibate marriages, especially how the marriage between Mary and Joseph can be legitimate. The same Catholics routinely live in celibate marriages by getting married civilly and not being sexually active until the Church ceremony.

The human person and intuition of being

Take your dog to see the statue of liberty and he’ll have the same visual experience as you will (and an immeasurably more rich and precise olfactory experience) but he won’t see it as fictional or symbolic. For the same reason, if you take him for a jog in front of United Center in Chicago he won’t relate to the statue of Michael Jordan as historical, since we can’t see something as real or historical without being able to set it apart from the fictional or symbolic.

This is the first possible meaning of an intuition of being, i.e. to relate to the world as real in a way opposite to the false, fictional, counterfactual, non-existent etc.. Notice that this is not at all the same thing as having a language or a symbol system: the dog doesn’t need to compare the real to the fictional in order to announce the presence of an intruder, an enemy, or a pheasant in the brush. In fact, animal communication is indefinitely perfectible within the realm of what might be called the areal or afictional, making the raptor communication of Jurassic World a live possibility for animal intelligence, even while only human beings can relate to the objects of communication as real, fictional, or even possible. Viewed as a power perfected within the a-real or a-fictional, animal intelligence is not an approximation or approach to human intelligence, no matter how sophisticated its symbology becomes. It is true that development of intelligence is proportionate to more and more complex symbol systems, but this complexity does not put human intelligence on a continuum with animal intelligence.

Annihilation and survival: A rapprochement.

In what sense are belief in an afterlife and belief that death is the absolute end compatible? The logic of the terms seems to make this hopeless: life either ends or it doesn’t, right? A closer look complicates things, and seems to show a landscape where most of those who believed philosophically in an afterlife were also committed to the idea that death was an absolute end of human life in a robust, unqualified way.

Philosophical accounts of the afterlife are accounts of human cognition. Plato comes first, with a theory of learning that builds all knowledge around a sensory core. The theory of recollection is always a recollection from sense data, so that a disembodied soul could exist in the Platonic theory but it could not recollect, and all attempts to articulate the direct vision it will have are not systematic or literal but mythical and allegorical. After death there is a knowledge of things themselves, but without memory, speech, or the passive reception of anything tangible.

Having no truck with myth or allegory, St. Thomas relies heavily on negation to articulate a theory of an afterlife. The soul is said to know by turning to itself and its own act, but STA is clear elsewhere that the soul’s own knowledge of itself is a habitual act that is concomitant with reflecting on sensible givens. There seems to be even less content here than in Plato, since the object of the intellect is no longer seen as recollected but as continuously abstracted, whether from intuition or from memory. .

Aristotle seems to describe the sort of cognition that a disembodied intellect can have in De anima 3:5, but the passage is so obscure that a long history of commentators think Aristotle inexplicably stops talking about the soul in 3:5 and decides to talk about God. it’s better to read the passage as a literal account of potentially-disembodied cognition, though the hiatus between 3:5 and the rest of the text is apparent. He is no longer clearly talking about a self, at least so far as self involve a coherence of memory or of a unified intellectual action. The soul is no longer present to the world but to itself and to nothing more.

In one sense, my argument is tautological. We can have no intuition of post-mortem existence before we have that intuition. What I stress is that, on all accounts of post mortem existence, the intuition or learning of all objects we have ever known must be taken away, and we not only cease to be in the cosmos but we also cease to be cognitively present to any exterior domain. This is not a matter of sloughing off the body and entering into the light, which is just another metaphor that we can’t cash in for any literal value. The soul leaving the body doesn’t go out into the room or to anywhere at all, since “place” is just another metaphor.

This allows a good deal of room for a claim that death is a real end or annihilation of the self. When Sam Harris points out that the thought that your soul goes somewhere when it does is as silly as thinking that your eyesight goes somewhere when you’re blinded, he is biting into a truth that needs to be preserved, but it can be preserved by all those who defended a rational sense of personal immortality. Nothing about you “goes anywhere” when you die. The cognition is of nothing auditory, tactile, savory, quantified, colored, nor of any idea that is elicited or built off of these. It’s hard to put your finger on anything on such an account of human cognition that makes it different from annihilation. But for all that, the immortality argument remains just what it was.

The only cash value of the “soul leaving the body” seems to be an account of death that sees it as the soul entering into itself.

Why acting on the world requires a different sense of “exists”

Claim: Asking whether God exists or not is like asking whether complex numbers or non-Euclidean geometries exist. The word “exists” of him doesn’t mean the same thing as asking whether dark matter or Santa Claus exists.

Objection: But God is supposed to act on the world: he moves things, causes things, performs miracles, responds to prayers, etc. If you make his existence as different as non-Euclidean geometries, then you cease to make his action continuous with the world at whatever point he is supposed to act.

ResponseThis muddles the difference between acting on the world and a physical action, which are as different as acting on a car and the action of a car. The objection assumes that to act on X requires that you use the sort of powers X uses to act – which would commit us to seeing a veterinarian as having a skill that was first possessed by dogs and horses.

The normal way of taking “act on” is to act from the outside, i.e. to take the action as not homogeneous or continuous with the thing on which it acts. If God exerted some force on the world or added new energy to it he wouldn’t be acting on it. It’s therefore precisely because God acts on the world that he cannot exist in the same way as the world, or act by the force, energy, momentum, etc. that perform the actions in a physical system.

Quod omnia appetunt.

The good? That’s easy. It’s whatever you want.

The crisis is that (a) we don’t know what we want and (b) when we know what we want – to learn a language, write a book, repair our relationships, kick a bad habit, become a better person – we always find ourselves doing things other than what we need to do to get there. We act nothing like the person we would act like if the if our work towards our goals was monitored by a powerful and persistent third party.

What is an experience of a spiritual soul?

A hundred years ago the immateriality of soul was only seen as verifiable through paranormal powers: telekinesis, ESP, knowledge of the future, astral projection, table-turning, reincarnation or whatever. Everything else was taken as an embodied cognition that could be lost just as it could be impaired. But if human persons have spirits then spirit can’t just be exercised in its vastly infrequent and evidence-thin paranormal experiences, there must also be some spiritual dimension to mundane, everyday experience. So what is it?

Human consciousness differs from other animals by having knowledge itself as one of the things it knows. Other animals see physical things better than we do, but we also see physics; other animals have better perceptions of living beings than we have, but we can perceive biology. It’s our loss that we don’t have access to a physical science that might be developed by animals with radically different organs than our own or access to a philosophy of mind that might be devised by animals with nine brains, but we appear not to have it because there is none on offer. Until the aliens show up, we’re left as the only animal that compares what it knows to the world to see how it measures up.

But knowledge of knowledge is the act of a spirit, as is clear when we compare it to cognition by physical organs.  We can smell a scent or taste a flavor but it’s meaningless to speak of the smelling of smelling or taste of taste. Even if we installed a third eye on a swiveling gooseneck we could only use it to see an eyeball, not to have vision of vision. Again, even if we hacked into the electrical signals in the eyeball or the occipital lobe that are interpreted as vision, the vision would still be in the interpretation, not the signals. We can see an organ just fine with another organ, but not the cognitive act of the organ, which is experienced within the organ or not at all. Where organs do the knowing there is no knowledge of knowledge, but this is what our experience of knowing most of all is.

Knowledge of knowledge, i.e. self reflection, is first of all what allows us to be a self or “I”. For all the deflationary philosophy thrown at the term, it remains the guarantee of both our spirituality and the possibility of our complete corporeality. When I say, for example, “I am digesting” or “I am sunburned and in pain” I identify myself with my body, even though doing so is only possible in virtue of reflexive spirituality. The stale division of theories of mind into dualist/ monist is, at best, the sort of crude first approximation that nature/nurture was, since it is precisely the dualism of the person into spirit and what is other than spirit that allows him to be fully identified with his body. The impressive acts of self-recognition done by chimps, elephants and magpies do not require their knowledge itself to be known to them and so ground what is, for us, an “I”.

Self reflection is also why we experience things in the world are true or false, i.e. as agreeing with our beliefs about them or not, or even how we can have beliefs at all. It is why I can form hypotheses or make guesses about the world and see if they’re right.

And so the experience of the spiritual soul is first of all our experience of being selves believing things as true or false, in other words, it is an experience of normal functioning human consciousness running across all levels of IQ and even across altered and impaired modes of consciousness. Drug users, for example, don’t cease to be selves experiencing things held as true or false. Without this basic human experience one cannot even say what he’s experiencing, though even apart from out ability to articulate the experience we still have it.


Conscience Theory of Divine Command

CTDC  states that the sacrifice of Isaac, the ban of the Amalekites, and other OT moral horrors are the voice of God as the voice of conscience. Abraham was morally certain that (for example) to hold back the sacrifice of his son is to concede that his God is not worthy to be offered all goods. Again, Abraham becomes convinced beyond all doubt and after much reflection that to hold back what he loves most from sacrifice is to merely continue the sacrifice of Cain, or to concede that the Moabites alone recognize the true God. The revelation of the Ram on mount Moriah is the voice of God in the more traditional and straightforward sense, and not as conditioned by conscience.

The general lesson is thus apart from revelation, even the most prudent and pious will experience feeling morally bound to goods which are, in fact, monstrosities. Given the circumstances in which conscience finds itself, even the paradigm of holiness will be morally obliged (through conscience) to perform the gravest of evils. A fortiori, the conscience of the imperfect will bind us to a monstrosity every other week.

Suffering and maranatha

-We trust advice on suffering only from the suffering. So this cannot be advice.

-There is a challenge in shifting from “permission” to maranatha. “Why did God allow this” is anwered, for believers, by some sense of purpose or reason, but we are incomplete if we rest here and perhaps not even faithful to the true horror of the original suffering. When will the Lord not just justify but reverse this?

-“God permits” is not “God greenlights”. Think Lincoln permitting slavery vs. Douglass permitting it.  Douglass allowed for perpetual slavery, Lincoln allowed only a road to ultimate extinction.

-The critique of Christianity as opium is first addressed to those who have fallen into the comforting despair that we can merely be consoled and not redeemed.

Job and Satan. The free will defense includes the devils.

-Satan’s non serviam is his own interpretation of what God called him to.

-The Fall made suffering just. The Incarnation made it an evil that demands justification.

-“When the Son of Man comes, will there be faith on earth?”, i.e. when the final eschatological promise is revealed, will anyone have been waiting for it, crying out for it, even demanding it? Or did we just get tired of seeing the same sky everyday? There is an eschatological despair in our sense of the heavens as the paradigm for necessity/ determinism.

-In Christ man demands a new heaven and a new earth. His physicality is the assurance of a new physical world where all is justified and reversed. Those in the early church who expected his immediate return were not tricked by some botched reading of an obscure prophesy, they simply saw Christ as physical and drew the obvious inference.

Metaphysics isn’t physics

In the face of this objection:

We understand that God exists

We do not understand what God is/ his essence

Therefore, God’s existence is not his essence.

STA says:

Existence (esse) means two things: either the act of the essence, or the composing of a proposition made by joining a predicate to a subject. Taking existence in the first sense, we cannot understand God’s existence nor his essence; but only in the second sense. We know that this proposition which we form about God when we say “God is,” is true; and this we know from his effects.

The point generalizes to the intellect or to any transphysical reality as such. To say that the objects exists, as Frege would put it, is not to say that we have an intuition* of it on which we can base a later discourse about their nature but to say that we can form true propositions about them by way of causal explanation. This is not at all the same thing as positing theoretical entities in physics, since the formal definition of these always involves some sensible thing like a reading on a gauge or a splatter-pattern on a photo plate. Unseen causes in physics are never formally unseen, though they do intimate the sort of causal explanations that ground metaphysics by not being seen in themselves but by proxies.

The absence of intuition of the metaphysical divides it formally from physics, and gives it an entirely different sense of evidence, proof, object, and claims to existence. The Naturalist demand for evidence or proof is almost certainly question-begging, since metaphysics does not claim to give one an intuition of the object either in itself or by some sensible proxy. That said, the Naturalist demand might be more charitably understood as a demand for the beatific vision.


*This is intuition as it was used from Ockham to Kant: the immediate presence- and so existence – of the object. It is certainly not “intuition” as used in Analytic philosophy, where it seems to mean an uninformed prejudice.

Friendship and Incarnation

STA argues that both intelligence and will are unifying powers, but they differ in that known things exist in the mode of the knower while chosen things have their own proper existence. Because of this, it is better to know things below us than to love them, and better to love things above us than to know them. I use “better”  to refer to both terms of the relation – both the higher and the lower are better off if the higher knows more than he loves, and the lower loves more than he knows.

Among equals, therefore, the ideal state is friendship, or the state where our knowledge of the other always keeps pace with our love of him and our love always shows more things to be known. If we were all friends we would have no need of lower sorts of organization. The city of pigs needs no politics. But this is an eschatological vision, not a universal plan for present life. For now, we enjoy the friendships and accept the rest.

The God we discover by natural theology more knows us than loves us, and it is better that way. Providential order sees to it that each thing has its place, and it is precisely because God transcends us that we can accept his totalizing rule for life in a way that would be totalitarian and inhuman if it were exercised by another human. It is both horrifying and blasphemous to see this sort of honor given to human beings.

The Incarnation preserves this order while opening an entirely new dimension within it. God remains provident while becoming friend in a robust and literal sense.

« Older entries