Fidelity in Christianity and Naturalism

Faith seeks understanding in one way though reasoning and in another way through itself. In itself faith tries to ripen into vision of the depths of its object of absolute commitment, and through reasoning it is occupied deepening its faith.

Any act of fidelity, whether to God or a political regime or the military or a spouse, is  the expectation of things hoped for on the basis of an exceptionless commitment. This committment must go beyond what rational discourse could justify since, among other things, it demands commitment in the face of an uncertain future. “I will follow you as long as it is reasonable to do so” cannot be an act of fidelity, and even if it were it would stand on a fidelity to reasoning, i.e. “I will be reasonable no matter what, and no matter how much I might desire to be deceived or take vacations from reasoning in the many ways that humans do so by ecstatic encounters or drug use.”

Christianity in fact demands just such an oath, declaring that lies and stupefaction are always wrong. It seems to be in the minority in insisting on this, however. Islam allows for lies to be good within very narrowly defined constraints, as do most commonsense theories of truth telling. Sure, it’s fine to have values, but if crazy persons threaten your life over them, why not tell a lie and live to fight another day? Reasoning is great, but it’s not so wonderful as to rule out an actively seeking the occasional perversion of the faculty through hallucinogens.

True, Islam and commonsense morality only allow lying in very narrowly defined cases, but this is a window to the fact that the basis of the morality is somewhere other than an absolute commitment to reason. The very word “Islam” (submission) indicates that they are fully cognizant of what their basis is – but what about commonsense morality?

The reasoning of commonsense morality is, again, the logical process of waking up to one’s foundations in a fidelity to nature. Naturalism will get nature, but not a nature whose fickleness and cruelty can be chalked-up to sin, the demonic, or to being a stage in a general plan leading to a definitive revelation where it will all make sense and good will triumph. Beauty will be a god, but cruelty will be too, and to everything there will be a season: a time to heal and a time to kill.

The sin against the Holy Spirit

Anyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but anyone who speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come.

Mt. 12: 32

This should be read against the backdrop of Psalm 71: For my enemies speak against me; those who wait to kill me conspire together. To speak in this way, however, is to become a participant in redemption, even if an unwilling one.

In another sense, the evil we do does not contribute to the good of all, including ourselves. It’s this sense of evil that is the sin against the Holy Spirit, manifesting as an estrangement with no intrinsic limit to it.

In one sense all sin is overcome in a good offered to everyone, including the sinner, and the paradigm case of this is the crucifixion of the Son. In another sense all evil is perpetual alienation and an acceptance of infinite darkness, and the paradigm case of this is the extinguishing of the Spirit: What we have received is… the Spirit who is from God, so that we may understand what God has freely given us. (1 Cor. 2: 11)

The words of Christ are therefore not a cryptic reference to some super-evil or retorsive sin* that Christ elsewhere forgets to mention, but a catechesis on the nature of sin, which in one sense is the felix culpa of the sinner in another sense his acceptance of infinite darkness.

*My favorite example is the claim that the sin against the spirit is the rejection of forgiveness. As if Christ would need to tell us that forgiveness cannot be received by those who won’t receive it! What other time did Christ deem it necessary to reveal a tautology?


That Plato describes the concept at the center of his thought as participation is particularly apt.

Participation belongs to some multitude, but cannot be accounted for by calling on the resources of that multitude. The first baseman doesn’t participate in the catcher, other basemen, and fielders, nor does he participate in all of these and himself. To say that he participates on the team – as he does – is to introduce a source of unity that is both separable and inseparable from the members in interesting ways.

To articulate the likeness and difference between this source of unity and the members it unifies is one of Platonism’s central tasks, and its failure to do this adequately is the main source for its dismissal. The relation of all the players to each other needs to be both compared and contrasted to the relation they have to the team.

If participation is to work at all it needs to work as an account of becoming. Plato seems to be on solid ground when he sees form or logos needing to come first and serve as the means for gathering elements into a unity. One has to decide what sort of team he wants to form before he can know which player to pick. In fact the need for form is deeper than this, since even in order for random combinations to be anything requires that some sort of logos by which they can be identified. You can only know that the monkeys at the keyboards have succeeded in typing Shakespeare if you already have a copy of his work.


We abandoned the idea that (physical) science needs apodictic certitude centuries ago, but we transferred our desire for it to the scientific method, which is seen as giving absolute certitude so far as the only remedy for bad science is more science, and never anything extra-scientific.

All this assumes that we can discern the structure and exercise of the scientific method well enough to recognize it in controversial cases, but it’s pretty clear that we can’t. Verification and falsification don’t work well enough to, say, keep whole departments of scientists from working on string theory or even to keep the occasional scientist from dabbling in NDE’s, telepathy, or Intelligent Design. Neither criteria seems to be able to solve our on-again-off-again beliefs about whether to repressed memories or racial science are scientific. This is as it should be, since one can give verificationist and falsificationalist criteria for Acupuncture, packets of sexual virility pills sold in gas stations, or even Jack’s magic beans without suggesting that any of them are scientific. If I could run a double-blind placebo test of claims made for Jack’s magic beans, I have no doubt I would show the claims false, but verificationism and falsificationism both demand that this would simultaneously show that magic bean claims were scientific.

We can have interesting and robust conversations about whether a claim is true or false, but arguing over whether it is scientific or not is all leaves and no fruit. This is probably some corollary to Gödel’s proof, perhaps a variant of our inability to give formal criteria for what will count as a formal system.

Artificial Wisdom

Turing’s imitation game confounds the difference between servile and non-servile activities. The machines that drill, weave, or run addition algorithms are doing the same sort of thing as the human beings who were tasked with the drudgery or swinging hammers, weaving, or computing sums, but a computer that beats grandmasters at chess isn’t doing what the grandmaster is doing. Deep Blue won by running n-possible outcomes ahead and picking the highest probability path while grandmasters win by abductive reasoning, taking risks, looking for strategies, playing the man, etc. The grandmaster isn’t compensating for an inability to visualize n-moves ahead either – he already knows that the overwhelming number of possible are foolish or pointless. For that matter, I’d already know not to sacrifice the queen on the third move, but if it’s a possible option the computer will faithfully spend a few nanoseconds computing its probability. Why not? So long as you can consider 107 moves per second you can waste some time with all the idiotic ones.

So far as all we care about is winning the game, chess is quasi-servile and mechanical. In this sense, Deep Blue wins. But so far as we also marvel at the shrewdness of a grandmaster and his power to abductively hit on effective paths, as opposed to stumbling on them by the brute force of considering a hundred million possible paths, Deep Blue and the grandmaster aren’t even competing.

Why value shrewdness? Because we know that actual minds face an indefinite and infinite chaos that make shrewdness and wisdom necessary to find one’s way forward. Prudence is the heart of the human virtues and is dedicated to confronting just this undefined chaos. While the brute force of computing power can do marvels in defined circumstances, prudence does not have the luxury of objects that are well-enough defined to allow us to move forward by any amount of brute force.


Larkin’s anaesthetic

If mind has no activity in anesthesia, being comatose, being asleep, etc. then how can it have activity after death? 

Divide human life on three axes: (a) eating/reproducing, or any assimilation or division that gives rise to life (b) The physical assimilation of objects and (c) the non-physical assimilation of objects. Height and width are analogous to physical life, depth to intellectual life.

It is possible for physical life to continue with sensation taken to an absolute minimum, whether from dormition, brain damage, general anesthesia, etc. So long as physical life continues (and it will continue uninterrupted on axis-a) things on axis-c have to respect the total absence of sense data. Life on the intellectual dimension must be one reflecting zero sense input.

But if axis-c survives the cessation of physical life it is no longer describable as lacking sense data any more than a straight line can be described as lacking a perpendicular but is just what it is, and nothing more (De anima III.5.) A single straight line is not the same thing as a cartesian co-ordinate system with a Y value of zero.

After death, mind is not what it is in anesthesia or sleep. Larkin’s description of death as The anaesthetic from which none come round conflates the privation of sensation with the negation of sensation, which is the same thing as confusing, say, lacking a steering wheel (which is almost always a serious problem) with not having a steering wheel (which can be said even of God).


Lucas on Gödel’s proof

Summary of the second paragraph here.

Thesis: In any formal system* there exists a proposition that (a) is not provable in a formal system and (b) we can know to be true. 

1.) Given any formal system, let proposition (P) be this formula is unprovable in the system

2.) If P is provable, a contradiction occurs.

3.) Therefore, P is known to be unprovable.

4.) If P is known to be unprovable it is known to be true.

5.) Therefore, P is (a) unprovable in a system and (b) known to be true.

*sufficient to give us arithmetic.

Fundamental and transitional explanations

Physics reduces things to conserved quantities, and so tells us how we can get an effect given a cause of the same kind, although all “cause” and “effect” mean is that the action we have now is the latest manifestation of the same action earlier.

By “action” physics means includes both actual and potential actions. Energy is one because all its modes are capable of moving an object over some distance, though capable could be either actually or potentially. In general, a quantity is conserved because we unify what it has done or is doing (its act) which what it can do (its potency). This gives us a conflicting relationship to time. On the one hand the only thing that makes the conserved quantity causal is its priority of being distinct in time; on the other hand we define the conserved quantity in a way that unites what it is as what it will do, which requires uniting all its actions in time.

Physics is a way of explaining physical actions given physical actions just as the theory of evolution is a theory of explaining life given life. Just as the problem of abiogenesis is pre-evolutionary the problem of the initiation of physical motion is pre-physical. Biology will play a role in explaining the origin of life even though it is a pre-biological question, and physics is in the same boat on the question of the origin of physical motion.

The basic axiom in play is that giving the origin of X is a hybrid problem on the border of the science of X. The borderline is marked by a moment when explanation ceases to be proper to a discourse but becomes somehow more fundamental, which is how most understand the origin of life from physics.

It’s an open question, however, whether physics is more explanatorily fundamental than biology. If the best physics can do is say that life is some happy accident of physical activity we haven’t explained life but merely defined it as an accident of a system with no structural relationship to the production of living things.


The “substance” in substance dualism and its denial

Substance dualism is meant to be a theory of thought, but how does it work as a theory of substance?

Both the theory and its critics seem to assume mind is a substance since it is a subject of properties or performs operations. Socrates, however, would be a substance for the same reason, so we get a Socrates/ mind-of-Socrates substance dualism even if we are materialists.

Or not. Assuming materialism wants to avoid a matter/emergent Socrates substance dualism, it can always just deny that Socrates or mind are substances. The only subject of properties is matter, with both Socrates and mind being accidents of these basic building blocks. Which accident is Socrates? Maybe position? Relation? Just arrange matter in the right order and you can frankenstein yourself any Socrates you want, right? So Socrates is the relation of substances arranged Socrates-wise.

Somewhere along the way, however, the definition of substance shifted. It started out as a subject of action but it came to mean any smallest part of some acting whole. Assuming we’re not speaking past each other, at some point we took it as axiomatic that the actions of wholes are nothing beyond the actions of their parts. 

It follows that an ultimate or complete analysis of things would reduce them to partless realities. But – and this is the crucial point – if analysis gives us substance it hits something ultimate. And so any analysis of physical things into substance cannot be into an extended body but only into Leibnizian monads, i.e. into substantial forms.

Materialism is in one sense right that Socrates and mind are not substances, but they’re wrong that entities with mass, charge, motion, inertia, etc. could serve as the substance of things. More exactly, matter can serve as substance only when appropriated by form, though this appropriation is probably made so as to constitute the whole that arises from the combination of the formal and material parts. And so substance, as Aristotle shows in Metaphysics Z, is first of all substantial form, then matter, then the composite of the two.


Heidegger through the problem of universals

1.) Put Heidegger’s fundamental thesis like this: metaphysics is the study of the Being of beings, not simply beings. Understand this to mean that all metaphysics has failed since its ultimate explanation of things was some version of “this being is explained by that one”. Plato explained the sense world by relating to the world of forms, Aristotle explained the physical world by relating it to thought-thinking-itself, Hegel explained the historical world by relating it to Spirit or Idea, etc.

2.) Epistemology repeats this problem by explaining objects though ideas, though this dispute cannot be insulated from metaphysics since it rests on a metaphysical distinction between object-stuff and subject-stuff, between objects of thought and the universals or forms. This repeats the same mistake of thinking that explanation relates one thing to another.

3.) Make a fresh start. When you learned numbers by looking at numbers of objects, in one sense you learned something new since the object you come to learn is different from the entities in which it is exemplified. But in another sense it is not another object since getting the idea of two from looking at a bunch of pairs doesn’t feel like changing the subject. It feels like seeing more deeply into the pairs. Insight is not seeing another object, that one sees as “the universal” which he might then choose to relate to “the particular” that he saw first in time. Insight is en-lightenment of things, or the lighting-up of objects.

4.) Being is therefore not a universal but the lighting-up of beings. For that matter, “Number” is not a universal but the lighting-up of numbers of things nor is “Man” some universal abstracted man but the light that shines within the individual persons in our experience.

5.) If we take the problem of universals as how to relate one world to another, Heidegger is answering the question in a radical way. Neither being nor understanding can consists in a relation to something. Heidegger preserves and even generalizes Nietzsche’s fundamental thesis that the world is not to be related to an unseen world of abstractions, ideas, Laws of Nature, or God.

6.) Heidegger deepens Nietzsche’s atheism. For Nietzsche, the fundamental mistake is to relate reality or the objects of thought to an unseen world, and so all unseen worlds are seen as mistaken. Heidegger makes the mistake so profound as to even allow for a sort of religion, though one of which metaphysics would be completely non-cognizant. When we stop talking about metaphysics to dance around the maypole, sacrifice a goat, walk in a torchlight procession or fall down in worship we are not simply extending our metaphysical speculations by, say, recognizing some world that was acknowledged or even denied in our theories.

7.) Onto-theology fails for the same reason the problem of universals does, not just because explanation-by-relation is wrong but because, more deeply, all discourse is radically finite. We cannot extend philosophical insight over the all possible discourse. The lighting up that makes metaphysics possible cannot be carried over to religious discourse, whether to affirm it or deny it. as Heidegger put it late in life, if he wrote a book of theology it would not mention “being” once.



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