The Ontological Argument

Every time I teach the Ontological Argument I talk myself into it. 

1.) When I say “think of X” I mean think about one thing and not a collection. I’ll allow “universe” to be X, but not “God and universe” or “God and chocolate” or whatever.

2.) If you think of X but can think of something better, then X was not God.

3.) Contrapositively,  “God” means “that than which nothing greater can be thought.”

4.) By “a better idea” among two contradictories I mean the one you’d prefer to be true. If p and ~p had buttons you could press to make them true, the “better idea” or “greater idea” is the button you would push.

5.) We can add these as predicates to any idea to get contradictories: (A) ______exists in mind alone and not in reality, and (B) _____ exists in mind and reality.

6.) Among good things, almost all can be either (A) or (B). This is clearest when we confuse (B)’s with (A)’s in the experience once called “acting in vain” or “all for nothing”. You go to the store because of your (B) idea of yogurt or fruit snacks or whatever, but it turns out that, unknown to you, it was an (A) idea.

7.) Among good things, (B) is the better thought or greater thought. Among evils, (A) is.

8.) The unique property of TTWNGCBT is the contradiction that arises when we try to take it with an (A) predicate, since by #4, you could have a better thought, and so TTWNGCBT = ~TTWNGCBT.

9.) If one contradictory is impossible, the other is necessarily true.

10.) Anselm is claiming that “God does not exist” is relevantly similar to “English does not exist” or “my mind does not exist”. We get a performative contradiction as soon as we grant #2. #2 also rules out Guanilo’s parody arguments since it is altogether possible that something could both be a perfect island and we could think of something better.

11.) STA’s critique of the proof* is extremely brief, but it is consistent with Brentano’s critique that the proof involves an equivocation on “is”. To clarify this we’ll posit a few silly terms.

Assume amammalism is the belief that whales are not mammals, and mammalism is the belief they are.  STA seems to be arguing amammalism and mammalism are on par with atheism and theism, and just as cetologists can’t turn either contradictions in amammalism or the necessary truth of mammalism into the existence of whales, theologians can’t turn either contradictions in atheism or the necessary truth of theism into the existence of God.

The analogy is so bad it’s hard even to say it without it falling apart. The meaning of atheism is explicitly tied to an existence claim while amammalism is not. Similar problems arise with Brentano, who parodies the argument by saying it is equivalent to “Every shoemaker is a maker of shoes, but you can’t make shoes unless you exist, so every shoemaker exists”.  Here again, the analogy fails. If you fixed the terms to make it equivalent to the OA, you’d have something like “an ashoeist is one who thinks there are no shoemakers, but there is a logical contradiction in ashoeism, so necessarily,  shoemakers exist.”

12.) Kant seems to think that if existence were a predicate then those who disagreed about whether something existed would always speak past each other. We couldn’t disagree about whether you had 100 ducats unless the ducats themselves did not contain existence as a predicate. But even if existence belonged to something by definition we could still disagree over its existence for the same reason that we could disagree over the solution to an unsolved theorem even though one solution is contradictory and the other necessarily true.

His response is “it cannot be argued that [TTWNGCBT] actually exists, unless it be admitted that there actually exists something than which nothing greater can be thought; and this precisely is not admitted by those who hold that God does not exist.”

First Way, visually.

Take motion as change over time, and so the proof is about things on timelines.

Make a timeline of any story, e.g. the pig goes from baby to adult to bacon to human muscle.

The timeline is a horizontal line with vertical slashes going down for baby, adult, bacon, muscle.

The vertical slashes are called acts or actuality. The horizontal line is potency. 

At the vertical slashes, there is no motion, so

Everything in motion is in potency. 

The line of potency we drew is not the only one that goes forward. The pig could become a football, a breeder pig, an object to catapult at muslim armies to break morale. Potency is to all of them, so to account for why something moves to the one and not the other requires something other than the potency. So

Everything in potency is caused to move by something else. 

But then the conclusion is

Everything in motion is caused to move by something else.

Take the totality of something elses, whether infinite or finite. By the principle of contradiction, this grand conjunction of causes is either in motion or not.

If in motion, then the conjunction of all moving causes is moved by something else. But there is nothing outside of all. So

Something causes motion without being in motion.

Given how we’ve set up the problem, This means there is something that causes motion whose action is not on a timeline, i.e. that is eternal or unchanging.

A Christian aporia of history

An aporia like this haunts modern biblical scholarship:

1.) Some theological claims are historical.

2.) Theological claims are made from the privileged standpoint of the believer.

3.) Historical claims are not made from the privileged standpoint of the believer.

The point of (1) is that at least some Christian claims require that a historical event occurred. The resurrection would be a paradigm case. (2) arises because theological claims require that Christians place constraints on possible conclusions that other believers do not, e.g. we have to believe that Christ resurrected even before we systematically examine the Gospel texts whereas a Hindu does not. (3) is based on the idea that if we call a Marxist or Hindu claim “historical” we expect that it should be verifiable by any observer, not just Marxists or Hindus.

My response is that “history” is equivocal, meaning either (a) something that happened or (b) something that we judge to have happened in light of the best objectively available evidence we have at the moment. Claim (1) requires only history in sense (a), claim (3) demands the much stricter sense (b).

No Christian sect requires the truth of (1) to require history (b), and the demand is probably impossible. God could no more demand that a historian’s best evidence always lead to theological conclusion X than he could demand an astronomer’s best evidence always lead to heliocentrism. For the overwhelming majority of the time we have been doing astronomy, our best evidence didn’t lead that way. Sciences aren’t just bodies of objectively available evidence, large parts of them (some argue all of them) are progressive and continually revisable. When did God ever promise that our best efforts would preserve our faith, especially our best efforts at this moment?

My argument is easier to make than to stick to. It takes a pretty strong stomach to hold to belief in the teeth of your best evidence going against it, and it’s frightening to contemplate that apologetics has no divine guarantee.

The iconoclastic world

The Protestant side of the Reformation was passionately and even primarily iconoclast (especially in the Swiss/Reformed tradition, and a fortiori in the Radical Reformation), but the Catholic side seemed to concede much of their point by shifting to an emphasis on interior spirituality in St. Teresa, Ignatius, and John of the Cross. There are caveats in the Catholic case (the Reformation involved an intensification and clarification of the doctrine of the eucharist) but on the whole all sides doubled down on interior piety, either smashing sacred images, statues, and exterior devotions or accepting their diminished role in the spiritual life.

The interiorization of the spiritual affects everything:  Cartesian dualism is just secular iconoclasm, evacuating all numinous power or symbolic existence from the exterior world and placing it entirely within the mental world, which is so cordoned off from nature that our fundamental philosophical problem becomes how we could ever get from the world of significance and meaning back to what is purely physical or natural.  Cartesian iconoclasm becomes the familiar scientific picture of the world as devoid of hermeneutics, which now exist only between our ears.

Even to us, trying to limit the numinous to the world between our ears is not entirely believable. It’s not as if anything or everybody could cause hypnotic states, induce placebo effects, be taken as especially sacred, etc. The power of charismatic persons or the numinous power of holy places, statues, etc affects changes in the physical world, often to the point of causing healing, and even if the beliefs of those who involved are essential it’s still obvious that the charisma or numinously charged object plays a causal role in the process.

Our ideas of charisma or numinous power are in tension: We seem convinced that a researcher who heals you by developing a pill really cures you while one who heals with a placebo doesn’t. This is why the plot of Dumbo makes sense to us: it wasn’t the feather that made him fly, but his belief in himself. If this were all there is to it, however, then any object could induce a placebo effect, though relatively few objects and persons can do so. Placebo belief in the person is essentially passive, and very few agents have the causal power to affect beliefs.

The numinous is as much a feature of the human environment as violence or sexuality and so is a part of our social and evolutionary history. Even if a sacred economy is made up or fictitious it is no more or less so than an economy of gold ducats, and the iconoclastic desire to purge sacred images, priests, sacraments suggests the same utopianism that seeks to eliminate private property. So some Christians (Catholics, High Anglicans, the Orthodox) seem to want to set up a wise economy of the sacred, and remain vulnerable to the charge of setting up an irrational or exploitive one, other Christians (the Reformed, Anabaptists, Rationalists) want to do away with the whole economy and leave the soul alone as the only created sacred value.

I’m prejudiced to my own side, but it’s hard to see how the logic of iconoclasm can leave a Bible or even Christ. This same conclusion is as old as the Reformation itself, being drawn by Sebastian Franck (1499-1543), a former priest turned reformer who dismissed the Bible as a “Paper pope” and came to see even Christ as a finite manifestation of the spirit of God that can be found in all men at all times. Now that’s iconoclasm.

Libertarian free will and the swerve

After articulating a view of the universe that made all actions follow necessarily from initial conditions, Lucretius felt the need to modify the picture to account for free choice. He did so by introducing his infamous “swerve”, or completely unpredictable and uncaused atomic motion. The argument fell stillborn from the text and was a cause of embarrassment and amazement, since it’s obvious that I would be no more free if my actions were caused by a random a swerve than by an atomic cascade as old as the universe. Put analogously: it’s an interesting philosophical question whether the tree that fell on a dog killed it randomly or necessarily, but no resolution to the question will find the tree guilty of a free choice.

The swerve is therefore not a sufficient cause of freedom, but how could it be necessary one? It seems to be a sort of condition that the person could exploit to get to a goal that would be rigidly forbidden to them if all things were determined a tergo. Swerves would thus function as material or instrumental causes allowing for free agents to modify the universe in ways that would not be possible if it were purely deterministic. The atomic swerve is thus necessary not on the side of the agent, but on the side of the thing acted upon.

That’s all set up for a more interesting thesis: many discussions of free will misdefine it in a way that allows the swerve to count as free will. If free will is “the ability for some human action to be otherwise” then it’s a swerve, i.e. no different from a particle that might follow universal laws or “act otherwise” by swerving. So defined, we might do interesting work about what is necessary for the universe in order for it to be a locus of free action, but we’re not one step closer to explaining the free action of agents. When defining freedom by contingency or indeterminacy we cease to talk about free agents and start talking about patients or environments of action. It’s peculiar to matter that it “can be otherwise”. Spirit is what acts by itself.

The consequences of conflating freedom and contingency are easiest to spot in confusions about how God could be absolutely perfect and yet freely create or act upon the world. If freedom is contingency this is impossible, but contingency is not necessary formally on the side of the agent but on the side of what is made. All that the free creation of a necessary being means is that it is ex nihilo. 

Free action in humans is messier since qua natural beings humans are moved movers, i.e. our actions are a melange of active and passive elements. Nature is essentially passive, and so qua natural human beings are more a locus of their free action than a source of it. The central nervous system is thus a source of our freedom by being the first thing apt to receive it, or the first and innermost environment of free action. Whether this is “substance dualism” depends on the answer one gives to whether a central nervous system without this addition of a free principle is a substance. I say it isn’t, and that it’s not even a nervous system, but at best a corpse.

On my own idiosyncratic reading of Aristotle the potential and agent intellect are really just intellect in the state of union with body and in the state of separation; and in the same way there is a potential and agent free will. There is a difference between the two that is central to the moral life, however, because while potential intellect can only known things in themselves when they are beneath intellect, potential free will can love and hate even things above itself as they are in themselves. This gives potential free will a union or separation from what transcends it that cannot be given to it intellectually. Potential free will is thus essentially a disciple who does not walk by sight.

Sexual confusions

[James] Martin’s speech warned: “Don’t reduce LGBT people to the call to chastity we all share.”

“LGBT people are more than their sexual lives,” he said, “and if you talk about chastity with LGBT people, do it as much with straight people.”

If I am going to do this I’ll need a good deal more theory and clarification than is on offer since no one has an adequate understanding of sexuality to account for all the things we want it to be. We’d expect this given that sexuality has biological, social and economic dimensions that bear no comparison to what they were from time out of mind until 100 years ago. In bullet points:

    • The basic facts of procreation that any seventh grader knows (conception occurs when sperm and egg meet in fallopian tube during a very short period of fertile days in the middle of the cycle) have been definitively known for less than a human lifespan.
    • The first year when a majority of Americans did not live in household economies was 1850, i.e. marriages stopped being business mergers only very recently (do you think business mergers should happen because employees fall in love?)
    • The scientific consensus that women are not defective men – that there are actually two sexes and not two modes of one sex – is also comparatively recent.
    • Human sex drives and fertility were biologically adapted to a biosphere where six births were necessary for replacement (given mortality rates) but both the natural drives and fertility exist while the biosphere doesn’t.
    • The commitment of time and substance to raise children has massively increased in the modern world.  The amount of time that children are in close proximity to parents both inside and outside the house has massively increased even in my own lifetime. In a nation like Japan where this time commitment is expected to be maximal, male-female domestic copulation (what used to be called “marriage” or even “sex”) is in danger of extinction.
    • The idea that love was the sine qua non of sexual relationships as opposed to a nice thing to have did not become widely believed or even possible until the Twentieth Century.
    • The widespread acceptance that sexual orientation was not a deviation from a heterosexual norm has occurred only in my own lifetime, and the insistence that sex itself is normless was not a significant voice in the conversation even ten years ago. The most Liberal of psychologists would have seen gender confusion as a symptom of something like Borderline Personality disorder in, say, 2005.

You get the idea. Any one of these would have demanded a new theory of sexuality, but all of them together demand a synthesis beyond what Aristotle could figure out.

I haven’t forgotten the Martin quotation. Most charitably interpreted, he seems to want sexual liberty to be understood analogously to how we now understand religious liberty. Catholics are on the record as calling, say, Lutheranism “heretical” but the consensus today is that everyone should get past these differences while still acknowledging them. To bring this within hailing distance of sexuality, Catholics see Lutheranism as an “intrinsically disordered” theology but Dignitatis Humanae demands that we say it belongs to the natural law to allow Lutherans to be a part of civil society qua Lutherans. So Martin wants “The LGBT community” : 21st Catholicism :: the “heretical” : 20th Century Catholicism.

Sadly, we’re just as confused by religious liberty as by sexuality, and even if we weren’t the analogy leaves massive problems, like

  • If religious liberty is the secular public sphere, is sexual liberation the asexual public sphere?
  • We had a longstanding religious-secular division that could develop into religious liberty, but what corresponds to this in the sexual realm? Should we be ruled by eunuchs?
  • Sectarianism arose with a heavy doctrinal component that allowed clear articulations of agreements and disagreements, but divisions in sexuality do not arise in this way. There are precise and robust ways in which one can compare and contrast sectarian theories, but no way to do so with sexuality. This absence of a theory makes it difficult even to know where to start. For example, in virtue of what is the “LGBT community” a community, even abstractly? Is anyone bothered that L, G, and B are all ways of relating to other persons (in, say, “a community”) while “T” isn’t? I can understand why people said that sexuality is not procreative, but how is it not a way of relating to other people?  Can we talk about this somewhere off the minefield of taboo words and mandatory virtue-signaling?*

All this is before we cast any judgment on religious liberty. To say that sexuality and religious liberty share a crucially relevant feature is not to say whether this tells for or against both of them. Like everyone, I have my sympathies with the sentiments of my time, and these argue for religious liberty so strongly as to make it self-evident. But we all know how many things have been believed like that. 

*”Not on your blog, Chastek, since you don’t allow comments!” Fair enough.

Vocations as harmful

I spoke to someone studying the psychological effects of those who leave convents. She had left the convent herself under the most benign circumstances: she took no vows and had a medical condition that prevented her from staying. For all that, the psychological devastation took her 10 years to work through. Part of the problem was a psychological crisis over the idea of a vocation. Contemporary Catholics understand strong religious commitments as vocations, and dutifully spend years trying to “discern their vocation” and are supposed to enter convents because they believe they’ve discerned one. Now either they have or they haven’t, if so, then those who leave have to understand that they were dumped or abandoned; if they not then all the feelings of discernment that they were so certain of having have to be viewed as deceptions. For the devout, there’s horrors either way, and it’s a given that anyone who cares about these sorts of questions is devout.

Vocation discernment leads to at least some severe psychological traumas, so what’s the benefit we’re getting that balances out a cost like that? True, there is some trauma in leaving a life one love whether we interpret this as a vocation or not, but it’s hard to see how vocation talk doesn’t make the problem more extreme than it would otherwise be. So is it worth it?

(Is vocation talk part of the contemporary creep of commitments before vows? My sixteen year-old students celebrate “six week anniversaries”, have “prom-posals”, view interest in others as “cheating” (as opposed to being a sign of a rival courter)… As far as I can tell, no one dates casually. To be alone with anyone at all for any length of time is a social signal of intense, lifelong devotion and it’s been like this for almost forty years.)

If we shifted from vocations to vows we might mitigate some of this shock, or at least get a more realistic account of how God calls human beings. Our felt and lived theology sees “the call” as a sort of interior locution and any subsequent vow as a human institution to celebrate God’s action. But it might be healthier and closer to reality to see the interior locutions as human institutions and conventions and the vow as God’s action in calling. On this interpretation “discerning one’s vocation” is primarily something you do after taking a vow, i.e you come to appreciate your way of life as clearly and definitively willed by God, no matter what interior locutions you might have felt or might be feeling.

The 95 Theses

-None of my histories mention whether the 95 theses were actually debated. It would make sense if they weren’t since Luther is doing a lot more than proposing debate topics. One can’t exactly debate

62. The true treasure of the church is the most holy gospel of the glory and grace of God.

63  But this treasure is naturally most odious, for it makes the first to be last (Mt. 20:16).

64. On the other hand, the treasure of indulgences is naturally most acceptable, for it makes the last to be first.

65. Therefore the treasures of the gospel are nets with which one formerly fished for men of wealth.

Okay…. Let’s debate, or something.

The point of contention is loosely the thesaurum ecclesiae that grounds the economy of merit, but Luther can’t mean for any of these theses to start a disputed question. The 95 theses are at least partially using the scholastic format for rhetorical ends, like Lucretius or Parmenides used a poetic format for philosophical ends. It’s hard to escape the idea that Luther’s hybrid involves a certain unwillingness to take disputation seriously, even if many of the theses are brilliant, topical, and very interesting.

-It’s also inarguable that Luther is scoring points. Under a list of theses that he claims are on the minds of the laity, we get this quasi-rhetorical question:

“Why does the pope not empty purgatory for the sake of holy love and the dire need of the souls that are there if he redeems an infinite number of souls for the sake of miserable money with which to build a church?” The former reason would be most just; the latter is most trivial.

Why indeed? The whole doctrine of indulgences rests on the treasury of the Church which the pope can dispense by his power to bind and loose. So why not demand that the pope empty out purgatory every day – or even twice a day if a rich enough donor dies?

-This sort of objection stinks of the sort of problem one gets stuck in after forgetting how one got into the problem at all. Purgatory is an unavoidable consequence of two commitments that the majority of Christians share: (1) there is a minimum set of requirements for salvation (e.g. saying the Jesus prayer, having a deathbed confession, avoiding mortal sins) and (2) the perfect holiness of the saints goes way beyond this. Since going to heaven means being a saint, something after death has to make up the distance between (1) and (2). Purgatory is therefore not some exotic feature of the post-mortem landscape that possessed theologians in a medieval fever-dream and which they set about to find in some hidden corner of Scripture: it’s demanded by the double meaning of “the saint” as (1) anyone justified and (2) only those with the fulness of sanctification. You can have an interesting debate about what takes someone from (1) to (2) – and I wish we had a lot more debates about it – but not whether such a thing is necessary.

-You can question if pain is necessary. Pain is obviously suggested by the metaphor of the fires of purgatory, and Luther certainly took them in this way. The metaphor of “purification by fire” has an unmistakable value in speaking to the difficulties of conquering the sensible appetite and renouncing attachment, but it’s easy to lose sight of this in the ghoulish popular images of purgatory which can seem less like they are fed by the gospel and more like they are fed by the cortisol-titilation that we now seek from slasher movies. More to the point, there is something flatly absurd in taking these fire-metaphors in the crude, popular way: It’s not as if we can literally fry people into moral improvement.

-For all that, any account of the gap between (1) and (2) that makes it easy and painless to cross is a betrayal of the gospel. To think that Jesus instantaneously and painlessly accelerates one from a barely-saved shlep to Saint Francis levitating in stigmatic ecstasy is at least as stupid as the idea that we can fry people into moral improvement. You gotta pick up the cross somewhere, in this life or the next. And that’s probably the unavoidable fact of purgatory, hidden beneath all the inarguably perverse distortions that were fit for critique and reform.


The exteriority of cognitive soul

-If the soul is the form that makes something living in act then the soul as knowing is outside the body. The form making the cognitive is the form in the world that makes for experience. For cognitive life, to experience is to live, and the form that makes for experience is the form in the world.

-Life that eats destroys forms in the world by assimilating them. Life that knows preserves it.

-Aristotle’s answer to the problem of the exterior world is to say that cognition differs from nutrition precisely by preserving the forms it assimilates in their alterity from the self. On this account, the cartesian problems of the exterior world tacitly assume that knowing could be a sort of eating.

-My intestines and my brain have been working for all my life, but only one has a world. For all I know why intestines assimilate far more objects than my brain can, but intestinal assimilation never produces a world.

-Sensation barely preserves the form in the world. Depending on the physiology of the animal, the form it takes in is hot or cold, loud or quiet, pleasant or disgusting, hard or soft, predator or prey, one color or many, etc. This is not so with the real or the fictional/imaginary, living or dead, the true or false, substantial or accidental, actual or potential, cause or effect.

-Unlike, say hot or cold, things are definable apart from our knowledge of them because our knowledge is not constituted by our subjectivity.

-The immortality of soul is not so much because some subject remains but because intellection is not subjective. Something intellects, but its cognition does not constitute the object.

-The jaw or elbow is literally a machine, the nervous system is analogous to one, intellection is the negation of one.

-The separated soul has a perspective in the sense of having agency, but not in the sense that there is a perspective in a painting.

-In separation the soul “is what it is, and nothing more”. That is, the world is what it is, and not what it is to a being of our proportions, physiology, place in world.

-Intellect gives rise to will, but there is an objectivity and subjectivity of will. To rejoice that the thing is as it is, or to hate that it destroyed what it is, is objective.

-We know the temporal by escaping time. Both the story and the science give us a type with its whole historicity, like Hamlet present in all the acts or the rock cycle present in all its stages. A thing is not present in the universe like this.


Papal non-infallible high reliability

Since Amoris and intensifying with his amending the catechism, commentators have compared Francis to Honorius and John XXII as straightforward examples of papal error. The comparisons are interesting because they seem to take for granted that these instances are rare. If by “these instances” one means times when popes have either changed their own pronouncements (like John) or been condemned by their predecessors (like Honorius) then it might well be true that they are rare, but any account of error would include more than this.

The assumption seems to be that even when popes are not infallible they are highly reliable, but what would the theology of non-infallible high reliability look like? It seems to invite parody, viz. “Practically error free!” or “99.44% reliable since AD33!”

Perhaps the divine character of the magisterium justifies both infallibility and high reliability as integral parts of the teaching office. Magisterial authority can’t fall immediately from the infallible vox dei to having no more authority than the man on the street. But taking this idea seriously problematizes infallibility since presumably high reliability can approach infallibility without limit. Could a teaching show all the marks of being of the infallible magisterium for, I dunno, 2018 years and then be shown to have belonged to the merely highly probable magisterium, simply by being contradicted?

Since infallibility is dependent on what the Church has always taught there is no way to have a completely new infallible teaching, but the question here is about the problems we have in identifying the teachings of the highly reliable magisterium in opposition to the infallible one.


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