Four senses of Universalism

A comment on the last post argues that 1 Cor 15 is a assertion of universalism in some sense. I agree with this, but there are at least four kinds of universalism.

1.) The contemporary sense is that, one way or another, after the last soul drops dead or leaves Purgatory then all will enjoy the beatific vision and Hell will be empty.

2.) St. Thomas is universalist so far as he argues that all are members of the mystical body under the headship of Christ. But he doesn’t see this as requiring (1) and will even go on to argue a few articles later that the Devil is the head of some men.

3.) The Pauline sense of universalism is that salvation is now open to all and is no longer restricted to the Jews. It’s just universalism in this sense that defined his missionary work and which defines him as Apostle to the Gentiles, i.e. to all nations and not just the Jews.

4.) But none of these is exactly the universalism of 1 Cor 15. The universalist passage is nested in the larger argument:

12 If what we preach about Christ, then, is that he rose from the dead, how is it that some of you say the dead do not rise again? 13 If the dead do not rise, then Christ has not risen either; 14 and if Christ has not risen, then our preaching is groundless, and your faith, too, is groundless. 15 Worse still, we are convicted of giving false testimony about God; we bore God witness that he had raised Christ up from the dead, and he has not raised him up, if it is true that the dead do not rise again. 16 If the dead, I say, do not rise, then Christ has not risen either; 17 and if Christ has not risen, all your faith is a delusion; you are back in your sins. 18 It follows, too, that those who have gone to their rest in Christ have been lost. 19 If the hope we have learned to repose in Christ belongs to this world only, then we are unhappy beyond all other men. 20 But no, Christ has risen from the dead, the first-fruits of all those who have fallen asleep; 21 a man had brought us death, and a man should bring us resurrection from the dead; 22 just as all have died with Adam, so with Christ all will be brought to life. 23 But each must rise in his own rank; Christ is the first-fruits, and after him follow those who belong to him, those who have put their trust in his return.[3] 24 Full completion comes after that, when he places his kingship in the hands of God, his Father, having first dispossessed every other sort of rule, authority, and power; 25 his reign, as we know, must continue until he has put all his enemies under his feet, 26 and the last of those enemies to be dispossessed is death.[4] God has put all things in subjection under his feet; that is, 27 all things have been made subject to him, except indeed that power which made them his subjects. 28 And when that subjection is complete, then the Son himself will become subject to the power which made all things his subjects, so that God may be all in all.

Paul is arguing against the claim that Christ rose but others will not. Paul takes this as the claim that Christ rose but, in general, the dead do not rise, which might be some variant of the idea that miracles are possible as one-off wonders but are not things that a reasonable person counts on. Paul’s response is to assert on his own authority that Christ’s resurrection is the first event of a much larger project. He rises as “the first fruits” in a multistage process that is accomplished by a cooperation of God and man in Christ. Christ first subjugates every rule, authority and power to himself and “puts all his enemies under his feet”. This is all a clear allusion to the King-of-Israel in mentioned in the Psalms and the Son of Man discourse in Daniel, which are themselves both universalist doctrines that describe the eschatological exaltation of Israel over all nations, though Paul clearly wants to extend this discourse to the “disposition of death” as the final enemy to be subjugated, i.e. Israel’s definitive accomplishment is the conquest and subjugation of death. This reading is compatible with any of the universalisms we described above, but it doesn’t commit us to any of them. Perhaps subjugating death is to eradicate death of any kind, even the eternal death of Hellfire, and this would certainly be a Universalism (1); but perhaps death is subjugated by taking away any further ability of the damned to tempt the living, fight the Church, or increase their numbers, which could be any kind of universalism.


Background assumptions to 1 Tim. 2:4

A dispute with a colleague over whether the crusader’s cry was Deus Vult or Deus Lo Vult led to a Wiki page that claims it is an appropriation of 1 Tim. 2:5 deus vult omnes homines salvari or “God wills all men to be saved” which is apparently is woven into the Pope’s pallium and is featured on the crests or seals of many bishops.

I never solved the “lo” problem but it led to an impressive example of the force of the background assumptions that we bring to interpretations. 1 Tim. 2:4 is nowadays seen as the paradigm Universalist text. In the Crusader’s reading, 1 Tim. is a call to battle: God wills all men to be saved, all are saved by hearing the gospel and being delivered from the oppression of the infidel, therefore etc. QED. We hear the same text and think something like “God wills all men to be saved, God is all powerful and will always get his way, therefore all men will be saved no matter what we do.”

What’s fascinating in these background assumptions is the understanding of power. The Crusader understands divine power as diffusive: when God wills something then others need to get moving. For the Universalist power is seen as concentrated: one has power to do things by himself without the aid of others. Power for the crusader was measured by the extent to which others took part in your power; power for the Universalist is vested in one to the exclusion of others. The dispute between the common good and the proper good is unmistakable. Many of you have already thought of subsidiarity, though it can now be coordinated with the primacy of the common good and a critique of Universalism.

The argument from evil can also make the appearance, since it seems to share with Universalism the belief that power is something that allows one to act by themselves to the exclusion of others. In the Crusader’s mentality evil related to omnipotence in that the latter was maximally capable of getting others involved, and so presupposed that those others could bungle their tasks or abuse their authority. Oddly enough, he might be prone to thinking that omnipotence and goodness would lead us to expect evil. If you get everyone in the universe involved, you’d expect someone to drop the ball somewhere. For us, power is measured by the job performance of an individual, and the more power you have the more you can do without the wills of anyone else needing to matter.




New approach to the Christian doctrine on lying

The traditional Christian doctrine on lying, sc. that all lies are evil and unjustified even if they are understandable or lesser evils, is thrown into bold relief when it is placed next to the Islamic account of lying, which reads exactly like the Christian attempts to justify lies, though with a greater vision of the consequences involved.

The Islamic teaching on the permissibility of lies has a spectrum of interpretation. The more permissible stance is easier to chase down since it gets quoted by critics of Islam, though it needs to be read with the sort of skepticism anyone would show to hearing about an interpretation from its enemies. Nevertheless, it’s hard to explain away the presence of a tradition in Islam that points to justifying speaking falsely with the intent to achieve a sufficiently large good or avoid a sufficiently large evil. It’s clear that not everything goes, but this might make the doctrine only more confusing.  Islam would probably balk at an all-out consequentialism, but this proves a difficult genie to keep in the bottle if you allow it for lies.

The less permissible stance toward lying goes about as far as one can go toward the traditional Christian idea, and attempts to argue that the proof texts for lying are talking about, say, thoughtless oaths and promises (which Christians also don’t hold people to) or that the various words for “deception” are poorly translated. But even this most restrictive stance breaks from the Christian tradition on the necessity of martyrdom (see. around 28:00 here). A Muslim is allowed to lie about his faith in order to avoid torture or death. While there is clearly a sense in which the Muslim is willing to die for the truth, this does not include dying for the truth one proclaims for himself in speech.  Truth as opposed to lie is not an absolute value in Islam, and the immediate consequence is that confession-martyrdom cannot have the value that it has in for Christians, where it is the definitive and foundational Christian witness. Sanguis martyrum, semen ecclesiae. 


Platonic theology (2)

1.) Every multitude presupposes and is secondary to the one. 

If it is twelve, it is both one twelve and twelve ones. To be this multitude that iterates this thing requires coming after what is one.

2.) Temporal existence is necessarily a multitude. 

What is peculiar about it is its inability to exist as one, its inability to have all the goods that can belong to its nature at once. And so the temporal necessarily presupposes what is one.

3.) The One presupposed to temporal existence is non-temporal. 

If not, it is temporal and therefore a multitude by (2), which is contrary to (1).

4.)  The non-temporal One is the cause of temporal existence. 

Whatever is (a) prior in existence to something, and (b) its sine qua non is a cause.

5.) All evils are caused in time by temporal agents. 

Evil consists in taking some good as an object which excludes some other good. But to have one good to the exclusion of another is peculiar to temporal things (2).

Objection: Some goods intrinsically incompatible. Being a man rules out being a woman, being extravert rules out being introverted, being a loner rules out being agreeable. It is therefore the character of the goods themselves and not their temporal existence that makes them incompatible.

Response: These are not ruled out for the same matter. The atoms that now make a male might later make up a female, as happens all the time when one animal eats another. Both can be in one substrate at different times.  The presence of the common fundaments of the universe guarantees that it is not the goods themselves that oppose each other, except ex hypothesi that we view some temporal thing as fixed at one moment in time in which, as temporal, it can never remain.

6.) The eternal One causes all that is in time except its evils. 

From (4) and (5).

7.) The eternal One is good. 

That which is the cause of all in time except its evils is good.

Note on Neoplatonism

1.) Eternity is unified while time is diverse or multiform, i.e. what is peculiar about time is that all its perfections cannot be had together while all the perfections of eternity are.

2.) Evil requires that choosing one good exclude another, and so eternity is necessarily good and things in time are contingently good or evil.

(N.B. the life of the damned is eternal only in the sense of continuing for all time, and so is a sort of temporal existence.)

3.) Because eternity is the paradigm for unity, in the measure that a thing is one is is good, and vice versa.

4.) Because the contingent reduces to the necessary, causality follows the Good and the One.

No agents are mechanical

The interaction problem:

 All agent causes are mechanical

non-physical things are not parts of a machine.

So non physical things cannot be agent causes.

“Mechanical” can be broad enough to be any push-pull set up running off an energy source, or even anything you could blueprint as running off some energy source to produce an effect.

Charles Taylor (in his article Cognitive Psychology) provides some reasons to doubt the major premise, the main one being that a machine is doing whatever it is being used to do, but not every agent fits this description. Human beings can be up to things without being used for anything.

The village battle scene in Predator, (skip to 2:28) starts when a pick up truck that is being used as a water pump is modified to become a missile. So was the machine in question for transporting cargo, pumping water, or destroying targets? Qua machine, of course, there is no answer to the question, which is why machines are re-purposed all the time. Is that hole in your dashboard a cigarette lighter or a power jack for a DVD player?

Natural beings use this sort of re-purposing all the time: panda’s thumbs, building a reward system on top of a reptile brain, using water-adapted organs for land-based animals, etc. Qua mechanisms, there is nothing they are up to. In order to account for how the animal is up to something you need to do more than give a mechanical account of it, which Descartes realized and concluded in good logic that the brute animals aren’t up to anything. At the bottom of their actions there is nothing like a self but only the ontological cipher of a pure automaton.

Mechanical philosophy, even understood broadly to include the way in which it can make room for fields or indeterminism, can’t describe even machines so far as they are up to something or engaged in an action. So in fact no agent causes are mechanical, at least so far as we take an agent as some entity that is up to something that couldn’t just as truly described in many other ways.

The “potential intellect” of De anima 3:4

A careful reading of Aristotle’s supposed “passive” or “potential” intellect shows that he explicitly avoids describing intellect in this way. His exact description is:

1.) If mind is like sensation, then it is a certain way of being acted on/ suffering (πάσχειν τι). The reason for the hypothetical and the “ti” qualifier is clear in the next sentence.

2.) He draws as an immediate conclusion that the part of the soul that thinks is impassive (ἀπαθής) and yet able to receive (δεκτικός) the point of the counterfactual in #1 is now clear: Aristotle wants to compare mind to sensation so far as both pick up on the reality of the world but he wants to explicitly deny that mind is potential or passive.

3.) He later seeks to set aside even the way in which sensation is impassive from the way in which intellect is, sc. both are impassive qua cognitive, but intellect is impassive by total separation from material. This suffices to divide it from nature (φύσις), though A will give an account of intellect εν φύσις in 3:5.

4.) Aristotle does seem to argue that intellect is always in some way a capacity (δύναμις) but this is not to be read as speaking of a passive intellect, but simply of the fact that we can know things without thinking of them.


De anima 3:5 (part 3: objections and responses)


1.) Aristotle’s first move in describing intellect is to call it receptive. It suffers or detects objects from the exterior world and so is essentially passive. Aristotle then proves that it is not only passive, but nothing actual before it thinks, and so, as described, it has no power to actualize itself. This requires positing an active intellect to explain how mind thinks at all.

2.) Throughout 3:4 Aristotle uses passivity and potentiality metaphors, including the tabula rasa. These are balanced out in 3:5 by pointing to the corresponding actuality, sc. a making or actualizing intellect.

3.) We need no account of the actual sensible world – we can just open our eyes and see it. But the actual intelligible world needs to be made actual. It is not simply given as though it were a scientific object in front of us.


1.) The conclusion that Aristotle derives from the receptivity of intellect is its being impassive (apathes). He further assumes that the first objection one would make of his description of intellect in 3:4 is that its impassivity would make it unable to interact with the material world. To assume that soul is passive is not only against the littera of the text but it assumes that Aristotle is giving an account of intellect that is unable to do the one thing that intellects do. It is to assume that Aristotle’s description of nous is of something unable to think.

The fundamental problem with the line of reasoning in the objection is that it misunderstands the receptivity of intellect as the inertness or inactivity. It misunderstands the difference between the receptivity of cognition and the receptivity of matter.

2.) The point of the tabula rasa example is to support an argument that mind is impassible in the face of an interaction-problem objection. The point is that an interactive system could not be a mind any more than a chalk-covered blackboard could be a writing surface. Interactive systems presuppose the interacting parts are both actual before they act, and the negation of this is exactly what is peculiar about mind. The interaction problem is a failure to understand what mind is in the same way as it would be a failure to understand writing with chalk if we thought we had to chalk-up the board to get it ready for writing.

3.) The world is given as scientific in the same way that it is given as sensible: as an object of experience that presents us with the problem of whether it is only an object or also a feature of the mind-independent world.

De Anima 3:5 (part 2)

(I became dissatisfied with STA’s account of the agent and possible intellects around six or seven years ago and have been trying to come to some conclusion about the matter since then. The two posts of this series are the closest I’ve come to an answer)

0.) Approach De anima 3.5 with the assumption that it is an attempt to respond to the question of how mind is the same as its object but does not always think (raised at 430a 4-7).

1.) This explains why this is the question posed two sentences before 3:5 begins and is not answered.

2.) It explains why 3:5 concludes by establishing a sense in which mind does always think and which it cannot always think.

3.) The rival position is one made canonical by St. Thomas, namely that 3:4 is an attempt to speak of the passive intellect and 3:5 speaks of the active one. This reading fails to account for the facts we pointed out in #1 and #2 and fails to account for the things discussed in the chapters. C. 4 and c. 5 are not attempts to speak of principles of mind but of mind as such. Neither a passive or active intellect thinks, but the entities described in chapters 4 and 5 do think.

4.) Still, it is very reasonable to read 3:5 in the way that I’ve just argued is mistaken:

Since in every class of things, as in nature as a whole, we find two factors involved, (1) a matter which is potentially all the particulars included in the class, (2) a cause which is productive in the sense that it makes them all (the latter standing to the former, as e.g. an art to its material), these distinct elements must likewise be found within the soul.

And in fact mind as we have described it is what it is what it is by virtue of becoming all things, while there is another which is what it is by virtue of making all things: this is a sort of positive state like light; for in a sense light makes potential colours into actual colours.

5.) “Mind as we’ve described it” is one reading of toioutos nous, but it need not refer to 3:4. The sense could be “mind in light of the distinction just given”. So how do we  read this as describing minds and not principles of mind?

6.) Aristotle’s claim is that since everything in nature has material and an agent, so too mind in nature has material and an agent. But “material” means mind so far as it strives to become all things but is incapable of being more than a few of them. It is hemmed in by physical limitations or the ways “in which human nature is in many ways a slave”. This is why Aristotle opens 3:5 with a claim about all things in nature (en apase te phusei, etc.) Mind so far as it enters nature has to be characterized by “matter” i.e. limitation and desire for forms that can never be completely acquired.

7.) Mind as maker or agent is present in nature in a completely different way, since to be an agent in nature does not require being a natural agent. The first unmoved mover, for example, acts in nature without being a natural being. Aristotle’s point in speaking of an agent intellect is to describe that there is something about it which, can act in nature without itself being natural.

8.) If we wanted to speak of “agent intellects” and “possible intellect” we would say this: Mind in itself is not natural but is capable of acting in nature. Considered in this way it is “agent intellect”. So far as we view it in nature it is “possible intellect”, i.e. it takes part in the limitation and desire for being that characterizes all natural things. These two elements are “present in the soul” because the soul is both natural thing and source of life, which latter need not be natural.

9.) This makes the traditional Thomistic teaching on passive and agent intellect largely superfluous, but there is an element in the controversy which was crucial to keep in mind, sc. the essential personality of intellect. Personality as present in nature is a limitation, largely subconscious, hemming in freedom, and in a large part of the population incapable of even rising to literacy. Personality as separate from nature (as “agent intellect” in our sense) is simply a self, which is always seeking to break out in nature but is frustrated by the strictures of embodiment. The Christian doctrine of resurrection cannot be understood as some sort of return to corporality in this sense of frustration, possible retardation, corruption, hemmed in freedom, etc. Christ’s resurrected body is not even properly historical.


De anima 3.5

hypothesis: the point of 3:5 is only to answer the question raised immediately before the chapter, i.e. “we must ask why the mind does not always think”. A’s answer is that mind does always think, when it is itself and nothing more. Being presently a part of a compound that is “something more”, it does not.

The hypothesis has the value of logical continuity, which is much shakier on other accounts of 3:5. A’s explanation of nous first argues for its proper nature as what is nothing actual before it operates, in contradistinction to all embodied cognition, and then talks about the operation or object of intellect as opposed to an object of embodied cognition. He then raises two objections to his idea of intellect: the first is the interaction problem and the second is how mind can think itself. A’s response to the second involves the claim that for unembodied beings the object and power are one thing, which raises the large and pressing problem of how a man could ever be not thinking, which is the problem he is trying to solve in 3.5.

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