News notes

-Hard cases make good news.

-News thrives on novelty and therefore on exceptions. To treat news as calling for a law is to fundamentally misunderstand that news-stuff is contrary to law-stuff.

-We’d be closer to justice if we forbade any law to be passed in response to a news story.

-News trains us to only treat the dramatic as serious or worthy of reverence. Our “thoughts and prayers” must be directed at the screaming mother, lone survivor, deluged city, or chaos seen from a helicopter. Systemic problems must be either ignored or find a way to riot on film.

-Is there a grosser hypocrisy than the earnest somberness of the anchorman? I warn you: some of the images you’re about to see are disturbing… our thoughts are with the families. Ohc’mon. You live for this! Your thoughts and prayers are for another one just like it next week!




A critique of Chomsky on the mind-body problem

Chomsky claims the mind-body problem is incoherent since we have no idea what would count as a body and therefore no idea of how something could be different from it. He supports this by an appeal to the history of science. Among early-modern scientists before Newton, it was assumed that body meant mechanical system, i.e. that whose motions could be reduced to the simple machines. On this assumption, it was clear that mind was not a body, but after Newtonian gravity science gave up on the  idea that simple machines could adequately describe physical motions. Having no sense of what a physical activity was, we could not define mental activity in opposition to it.

Chomsky’s argument turns on the claim that describing the universe as a machine means that it must reduce to simple machines. While Newtonian gravity showed that nature was not a machine in this sense, it intensified the view of nature as an interactive system, and all interactive systems can be metaphorically described as machines.

We can see the advance in the view of nature as interactive from the beginning of physics. In Aristotle, the cosmos was interactive only at the lowest level. While things on earth would react on what acted on them, the earth didn’t act back on the heavenly spheres that were responsible for its activity.  In the earliest forms of mechanical philosophy the cosmos could be interactive but need not be – just because everything is a machine doesn’t require that the whole thing be a single machine. All the cars in the lot don’t form a single set of interactions. But in after Newton the whole visible universe is really an interactive system. A man waving his hand on earth can calculate how much he is pulling on Andromeda.

There was one exception to pan-interactionism in the Newtonian system: absolute space and time. Both had effects on the visible world (cf. Newton’s Bucket) though the visible world could not act upon either of them. All the events within the theater of the world were interactive, but they had no effect on the theater itself.* Relativity took the last step by making systems background dependent, i.e. matter and energy now interacted with the space in which they moved.

So while the advance of physics dropped the idea that the world was a machine in the sense of being reducible to simple machines, it has confirmed our sense that the world is a machine in the sense of being an interactive system. The safe place to bet on the next revolution in physics is on something that will make the universe even more interactive, e.g. Lee Smolin’s idea that even the laws of nature interact with nature itself and therefore change over time.

The history of physics therefore points to a notion of physical existence as interactive. In Aristotle’s terms, we have deepened our awareness of nature as a system of moved movers, or in Neoplatonic terms as a system of secondary or instrumental causes.

While we might continually treat natural things like energy or the laws of nature as unmoved movers, or even posit an unmoved mover like absolute space in our system, but physics advances by shoving unmoved movers out of the system of nature. Leibniz claims that physics might even be destined to purge unmoved movers from natural systems forever, or, said positively, to continually deepen its awareness of nature as a secondary cause.

On this account, mind or spirit is exactly what the ancients and Medievals said it was: a self-moving cause of motion which, qua self-moving, did not move by interaction. At the lowest level this spirit is simply life – even the life of plants. The mind-body opposition is just a level of separation that begins with the opposition between the animate and inanimate and intensifies to the level of the opposition between the unmoved mover and the total system of moved movers called the universe.

*Newton was the last physicist to see that this unmoved mover he placed at the foundation of his system could not be a natural being but would have to be divine. After him, we simply stopped asking the question, though if we took energy or the laws seriously as real causes we’d have to recognize that they were divine actions.

The interaction problem as a category mistake


Interaction is mutual action and therefore demands homogeneity. Wherever causes of motion are not homogenous with mobiles, there will therefore not be interaction. This is clear from diverse genera of causes: the arsonists intentions cause combustion without an interaction between the two; the shape of the molecule give its properties without the properties interacting with the shape. This is also true for agent causes so far as they are distinguished formally into agents and instruments: any force that a pilot exerts on his controls or the digestive tract exerts on food is exerted back on it, but the same cannot be said of the act of piloting or digestion, which describes the action precisely as primary and secondary cause.



Why can I know that a thing is w/o knowing what it is?

Thomism teaches that we can know that God is but not what he is. The same limitation characterizes anything not given in sense intuition, and so the whole of metaphysics as such, including substantial things like angels and soul and all else that can characterize them per se like causes, being, goodness, person, dignity, free choice, etc.

But how can I claim that I don’t know what God is when I say so many positive things about him like cause, person, good, etc? Don’t I have to know what I am talking about before I show you whether or not there is such a thing?

By “knowing what” Aristotle and STA mean defining or at least making the first move in defining, and the first move in defining is specifying a genus. Inability to know what something is therefore =  inability to locate it in a genus.

So if you wanted to claim this:

Everyone who knows that something is knows what it is

You’d have to claim this:

We can locate everything we know in some genus.

But the possibility of category errors make it clear that there are irreducible genera, and so we can recognize the likeness among things (genera) without reducing them to some genus. If all knowledge placed things in a genus we could not know distinct, irreducible genera at all. From this perspective, all knowledge of the homogenous is contextualized in knowledge of the non-homogenous.

If all likeness were homogenous then we would get a version of the third man argument, i.e. if A and B could only be alike in virtue of a genus C, then even to speak of a likeness between this genus and that one would require a third genus which, qua genus, would be itself like the other two and so  require a fourth and a fifth, a sixth and a seventh, and so on without ever explaining anything.

If not every likeness is homogenous, then likeness is not in a genus. Nevertheless, one can use the term genus to as describing any likeness, as when Aristotle says that the dispute over “whether pleasure is good” is a dispute about its genus. This use of the term is so loose as to be metaphorical.

We might visualize diverse genera as Venn circles in distinct spaces, but this is a metaphor for something far more interesting. The “space” of these circles is our knowledge that something is without knowing what it is, IOW, the space of these Venn circles is our knowledge of things like God, free choice, angels, persons and (of course) being. In the order of discovery, the knowledge of this common space comes only after our knowledge of things in genera, but as a structural or non-conscious possibility things are very different and our knowledge of things like God is the context in which sensible things can be known.

Sathya Sai Baba as Atheist argument trope

Both Sam Harris and Bart Ehrman use Sathya Sai Baba (SSB) to dispute the probative value of New Testament miracles. Many testify that SSB performed miracles, claimed to be the Son of God, and rose from the dead. What criteria for belief can a Christian give that wouldn’t apply to SSB?

Googling about for a few minutes gives one the sense that Harris is making too much of the story (as far as I can tell, the consensus is that he is a guru who might reincarnate in 2030, and the reports of his life paint the familiar picture of the gnostic-cult leader.) But let’s grant Harris and Ehrman that the testimony to his miracles and his claims to be divine deserves a look. What then?

Here’s an opening move: Why not take SSB as evidence for Christianity against Harris’s and Ehrman’s atheism? If anything one would expect out of A and not out of B counts as evidence for A then the dead guru would count as evidence for Christianity over atheism, since Christianity requires its adherents to believe persons other than Christ will claim to do miracles and be divine, but nothing in atheism demands this. Atheism is just the absence of god-belief, right?

The atheist has a pretty quick fix for all this: add some theoretical component to his absence-of-belief that makes him expect that both Christian and SSB testimony is false or unbelievable. At this point, however, we Christians are waiting with bated breath over what this theoretical component is.

The options are limited: either we’ll get the pseudo-Hume a priori argument against miracle-testimony or be left with an inductive critique of each set of miracle claims, and if it is this latter then the atheist will be just as on the hook for his absence of SSB belief as the Christian is.

One suspects that the upshot of this is that both sides will quickly lose interest in making the inductive case either for or against SSB, whether to show that his case is just as good as the Christian one or nowhere near as solid. This might lead to a few entertaining minutes of, say, Bart Ehrman trying to defend the divinity of SSB against some other Christian’s conviction that he’s just another platitudinous gnostic cult leader, but I can’t see this line of argument getting very far. Better for both sides to admit that neither one of them is interested in diving into the nitty-gritty details of all the reports, testimonies, and miracle reports around SSB and so neither side is interested in making his inductive case, whether to show it’s just as strong or not as strong as the Christian case.

IOW, Sathya Sai Baba is a wash for both sides. Let’s drop him.

The astonishingness of Christ

It is obviously valid and even unavoidable to read the Sermon on the Mount as a set of distinctively Christian doctrinal teachings, in the same way that the Four Noble Truths are distinctively Buddhist or the Five Pillars are distinctively Islamic. But to read them in this way predicts a very different response to the one they received:

[W]hen Jesus had ended these sayings, the people were astonished at his doctrine:

29 For he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.

Mt. 7 : 28-29

The Scribes point to the authority of the Law, but Christ is continually developing the Law by his own authority, i.e. “It was said of old _____ but I say to you _____”. Christ isn’t pointing to some new truth but to himself, and this is in fact a very astonishing thing.

All religious teaching is a witness to some higher truth, and this witness is often given by one who has lived the teaching to which he gives witness. Buddha teaches enlightenment, Moses teaches the law, Socrates-cum-Plato teaches the primacy of self-knowledge and the devotion to beauty and form, Islam teaches the final prophesy or witness to the sovereignty of God, etc. Jesus gives witness too: his life is to do the will of the Father. But what the crowds find so astonishing in Christ is that he goes beyond a witness who practices what he preaches by making himself the object of prophesy. He doesn’t just “come into the world to give testimony to the truth” he also insists that he is the truth. This is all said explicitly at the end, but everyone is picking up on it from the beginning.

How could Christ have gotten away with this? Imagine a pastor who went into an evangelical church and spoke analogously to him, viz. “Your Bible says that ____ but I say to you_____”. Imagine going into a Mosque and saying that he is the fulfillment of Mohammed’s prophesy. It’s hard to imagine the magnitude of the personality that would be required for the reaction to this to be astonishment and not ridicule, simple offense, or sheer embarrassment at the self-delusion of the speaker. What was it about Christ that kept the crowds from reacting to him with self-pity and eye-rolls? How could the Pharaisees have seen him as an offense and a diabolical threat and not a deluded narcissist?

Sure, the miracles were there, but this doesn’t seem to be in play in the response to the Sermon on the Mount. His hearers aren’t conflicted, thinking “I dunno, he sounds like a maniacal egoist, but what about the miracles?” Everyone is simply floored by the magnitude of authority on display. No one can get to the point of even feeling illuminated or offended or puzzled by what Christ says since they can’t seem to get past the uncanny fact of his presence which runs through every word of the Gospels. For example, one of the great puzzles of Christ is how decisively his words are taken by even hostile hearers, e.g. when he proves the resurrection of the body to a group of skeptics by appealing to nothing more than the words spoken at the burning bush he isn’t met by any follow-up questions. Why no follow-up to the parable of the unjust steward? His response to paying taxes?

Discipleship to Christ is not just fidelity to what he teaches but having Christ himself. The substantial existence of masters other than Christ does not enter into our discipleship: if someone other than Aristotle said the things that Aristotle said they would be just as true, but if Christ’s words are said by another they are not just as true, and no one takes them as such. In one sense all this is Christianity 101 – who could miss the crucial role played by one’s “personal relationship with Jesus”? What I want to stress is how astonishing this central Christian reality is, and how astonishing it has always been. Great religious personalities are rare but we can at least make sense of them, but Christ goes beyond any claim of a saint or a sage or prophet by insisting that the truth he gives witness to is himself. If we are honest with ourselves, we recognize that we don’t even know what this means to say this about a man.



Objectivity demands:

– there be something common between knowers and knowns or,

-what makes knowers know is what makes beings be.

This can happen in three ways:

1.) The knower’s knowledge is the source of being. The knower sees all being as a way in which things might participate in him.

2.) The knower is equal to the being of beings. If there is some knower whose knowledge is the source of being, then he can make all that makes being be = all that makes a knower know.

3.) The knower is not equal to the being of beings. This sort of knowledge would remain on the surface of things and never attain to their kernel, even to knowing that there is such a kernel.

The three modes of knowledge are the divine, the intelligent, the sentient.

Human beings must reconstruct what the being of beings is from sentient information, and so are only equal to being as such so far as knowing that it is, although this knowledge can be developed in the familiar ways of negation, causality, analogy.





Eros: initial and continuing

Shelley’s notion of marriage is that it lasts as long as love does. It’s easy to be offended by conclusion but agree to the premise, namely that love is something that strikes one at the beginning , and that staying in love therefore requires keeping the force of this strike alive.

It would be stupid to deny that love really does strike at the beginning, for example by saying that the initial crush of love was just “infatuation” or “feelings” or some ersatz love. It would be better to take it at face value as what love is at the beginning, with all the thrills of any initial adventure. In fact, lots of beginnings come with the thrill of novelty and the intoxication of maximal possibilities. It doesn’t just happen with eros but with the first stages of political revolutions, or after your favorite candidate wins an election, or after your NFL team drafts new players.

These guys could really be the answer we are looking for! Yay!

Assume that the guy/ political revolution/ football player really turns out to be exactly what you are looking for. In what sense is this a continuation of your original feeling? None of them would continue the original feelings of anticipation and promise: The original revolution continues by settling down to widespread acceptance, enshrinement in law, children taught from formal textbooks about the glories of the early years, etc; the promising candidate continues his initial promise settling down to work, being wildly successful and being remembered fondly.

So why would Shelley think love is simply the initial thrill of novelty and maximal possibility? Part of this belief requires holding that this initial thrill isn’t for anything, i.e. it cannot be fulfilled or carried on. It can only last as a single dissipating tone, not as the first note of a larger melody.

This is in one sense right: love is the fulfillment promised, not a promise of fulfillment. It is what human beings are for, not some appetizer that gets us ready for the main course. The error comes in thinking that the whole of love could be given in any one experience or stage of experience, and therefore would be finite.

Mockeries and trials of God

The most well-known mockery of Christ is the third sorrowful mystery or crowning with thorns, but Herod’s mockery is described at greater length and gives us an insight into the dynamic at work:

And when Herod saw Jesus, he was exceeding glad: for he was desirous to see him of a long season, because he had heard many things of him; and he hoped to have seen some miracle done by him.

Then he questioned with him in many words; but he answered him nothing.

10 And the chief priests and scribes stood and vehemently accused him.

11 And Herod with his men of war set him at nought, and mocked him, and arrayed him in a gorgeous robe, and sent him again to Pilate.

12 And the same day Pilate and Herod were made friends together: for before they were at enmity between themselves.

The same dynamic gets a more compact description later:

36 And the soldiers also mocked him, coming to him, and offering him vinegar,

37 And saying, If thou be the king of the Jews, save thyself.

In both cases the mockery of divinity is connected to the unfulfilled desire to see divine things, and is therefore a distortion of a desire human beings cannot help having – who wouldn’t want clear proof of God’s existence, if any proof could be given? Bertrand Russell certainly demanded it, and died and atheist  convinced he didn’t get it. It’s cliché in Naturalism to insist that God might exist, for all we know, but we simply see no evidence of this in the natural world.

And doesn’t the truth of the faith demand that the whole point of human existence is to one day get a clear vision of God’s power? Faith isn’t permanent but will pass away in knowledge. What can be wrong with the desire that God show himself to us and make himself more evident? Isn’t this just the Maranatha prayer?

But it’s clear in both passages quoted above that the desire for a revelation of divine power has made a subtle but decisive shift to a desire that God perform at our command. Herod has heard about Christ for a long time and desired to see him – but why didn’t he go out to see him? Almost certainly because if Herod went out he would have to become an audience member or one in the crowd. Herod “was exceedingly glad” because now he has Christ in his own court. Now Herod can have his performance without the humiliation of having to go out and stand with the riffraff or having to sit at the feet of some master. The soldiers have Christ on their court in an even more forceful way – they’ve just nailed him to a board and hung him to die.

The mockery of Christ is therefore our natural response to wanting knowledge of the divine without first taking him as master. God will show himself, but not to one who places himself in the emperor’s box and demands that God perform like a gladiator.

The skeptical objection is easy to form – oh, so God’s existence and power will be clearly seen after we’ve already submitted ourselves to it. But this is not how evidence works! Anyone can delude himself into seeing something as divine evidence after he’s imagined himself a student of a divinity!

The objection has important strands of truth but ultimately gets everything backwards. It is impossible to see something as God when demanding he perform in a court where we stand as emperors or judges. We couldn’t take anything that was beholden to us or who performed on demand as God and so to demand that something perform for us is already to assume it isn’t God. Neither is this sort of stance detached and objective. The question whether God is live or dead is far more significant than whether a power line or lion in the bush is alive or dead, and a detached and objective way of treating a downed power line or a very still lion is with care, deference, and extreme respect.

The demand that God perform is therefore inherently absurd, and the mockery is some reflection of this inherent absurdity.


Short rant on possible worlds

My first introduction to possible worlds came after a question I raised that, boiled down to its essentials, made the following claim.

Contingent events are those that can be otherwise.

Past events, as past, cannot be otherwise.

Past events, as past, are not contingent.

The immediate response came from someone who objected “but every past event can be otherwise, and it in fact is otherwise, in another possible world!”

This is where, as the kids say, I got off the bus.

My responder thought I made an obvious oversight or was stuck in a hopeless aporia that could only be set right by the recognizing possible worlds; but from the moment he spoke until now possible worlds have struck me as fetishism, superstition, and the madness of crowds.

So is possibility temporal? I say it is, PW analysis says it isn’t. One can have a PW analysis that changed by the temporal progress of the real world, but I’m pretty sure there would be a problem with this.* For the moment, what I’m critiquing is any PW analysis that sees, for example, past events as permanently possible in some PW. I’ve got three arguments:

1.)  If you ask me whether raw cookies can be baked, there is no answer to this that doesn’t relate them to time. There is an obvious contradiction in saying that raw cookies can be baked now or at one and the same time since this would mean “to be raw” could be “to be cooked”. I also can’t act on the past – say by throwing something there in the oven –  and if a state requires something impossible then the state itself is impossible. Thus, raw cookies can be baked only relative to their future. But possible worlds analysis does not allow for these temporal qualifications.

2.) If there are PW’s,  all possibilities are true at once. But of what are they all true? They can’t all be true of this same thing in the real world, since, as just shown, this changes throughout time. So they must be true of a different thing from what is in the real world. But then what use are they for describing the possibilities of the real world? It’s nonsense to claim that when we say “this dough can be baked” we mean that “something else is baked.”

3.) If there are possible worlds, possibilities are actual. But the possible and the actual are contraries, and so the claim “the possible is actual” is the same as saying the straight is the curved – an impossibility that doesn’t become more palatable by saying it occurs in some other world. It is true that the straight is possibly curved, but if we use this to explain the statement that is true in another possible world then we introduce another possible world on top of the one we’ve already posited – a turtle on top of a turtle on top of a turtle forever.

*If one saw PW’s as just modalities of the real world, and as continually updated by the progress of the real world this would evade everything I’m saying here. But under such a description the possible worlds would be constantly changing, and so a PW would itself be relative to another PW, ad infinitum. 

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