Logical structure of Athanasius’s Divine Dilemma

1.) The human race is evil. 

We’re not evil in every way or on every occasion, but we frequently human badly: valuing short term satisfactions over long term ones, giving into our desire for lesser goods, being inordinately self-interested or self-abasing, struggling to be moderate. Why else is “doing whatever you want” taken to mean “being naughty or wicked”?

2.) Either (a) God made us this way or (b) he didn’t. 

Almost no one has ever believed (a), giving it the rare distinction of an opinion too stupid for even philosophers.

(b) divides into two options. Either (c1) God didn’t make us because he doesn’t exist or, like an Epicurean god, doesn’t care about human life, or (c2) Something other than God – let’s call it a creature – is responsible for the human race being evil.

(a) is neither rational nor Christian. (c1) is rational but not Christian. So the only possible Christian option – and really the only way to have a benevolent God and evil humans – is (c2)

3.) The creature who is responsible for human beings being evil either (a) had full, culpable knowledge of what exactly he was doing and how his actions would lead to the the human race being evil or (b) not. 

If (b), however, a benevolent deity would not allow humans to be evil as a consequence of his action.

4.) So the human race is evil because someone knowingly and culpably acted in such a way that the evil of the human race was a natural consequence. 

We don’t know what he did, but one can assume that human beings would have been born good if only we had X, some creature was made responsible for the existence of X, and he deliberately destroyed it.

5.) As a response, God could either (a) do something or (b) do nothing. 

If (a), the whole race would be lost for the sin of one, which is unfitting with divine mercy and paternal care. But if God “does something” this can’t mean taking away the consequence. To take away a consequence that one culpably incurs is to break a promise made, and one can’t establish a relationship with another – which would be the whole point of taking away the consequence – by breaking promises at the same time.

So God appears to be trapped by the demands of his mercy and his fidelity, by his goodness and his making of a promise.

Notice how much of this dilemma is parallel reasoning to the argument from evil. Athanasius at times seems to be giving a sort of theist account of the argument from evil, or articulating the only way one can square a benevolent deity with the evils in human life. The Incarnation is the resolution of the aporia in (5).

Plato’s moral division of the person (3)

Reason desires the real as real, and so our ontology of the real or existent has to account for it as an object of desire. It’s hard to see how the “thin” accounts of existence or the real do this – when I  reject the opportunity to cheat because I want real honors and not fake ones, am I acting out of the love of a number, as in I “desire the number of my honor not to be zero”? Do I reject life in an experience machine out of a desire for a merely logical predicate?


Mary fount of faith

Mary was present at both Annunciation and Pentecost, so no person of the Trinity ever came to earth except in her presence. The mission of the persons is to the whole world, but it starts from a single room sanctified by the Marian presence.

This suggests the metaphor of Mary as lighthouse and landing zone. Through its corruption the world collapsed into non-being, so much so that there was no space marked out in all the gloom for the definitive revelation of God. The world lacked the solidity in itself to bear this revelation unless it was heard first, and therefore first transmitted, from the mouth of the Mother of God.

The first revelation of the Trinity came to Mary, which means that even Jesus heard it first from her. Christ’s unique vision of the Hebrew Scripture, which he came to see as ordered to the definitive revelation of God’s Son who would give up his life so as to send the Comforter and Paraclete into his Church, came in the way all religious instruction comes: from ideas one develops from what he first hears from his mother. That faith comes from hearing includes the humanity of Jesus.

Again, The faith is fundamentally the mysteries of the Trinity and the Incarnation, and both were first revealed to Mary, making her the font and prime mover of the faith handed over to the people of God. The words of Scripture are essentially Marian words, and they continue to be so in their progressive development in the preaching of the Apostles, the symbola of the first Church councils, the witness of desert monasticism, the reflections of the fathers, the preservation of Rome in the East and the growth of Europe in the West…



The revelation suffered a wound in the Schism from which it is still recovering, but the Marian tradition continued – even if wounded – from Scholasticism to Vatican II in the West and in a less excitable and drama-filled way in the East. The split might reflect a weakness in the world that never can quite bear the full unity of the Church, which on the one hand develops as empire and in another way under empire. The pre-and post Constantinian Church is therefore mirrored in the Church under Islam and the Church as European power. But it’s clear that that era is now over, though the next one hasn’t come.



Plato’s moral division of the person (2)

Apparent goods don’t divide from real ones as false to true or illusory to substantive, but as what is not necessarily real from what is.

Apparent goods are either (a) common to all animals or (b) unique to humans. We’d almost prefer if  (a) were not real: given the choice between eating a real brownie and doing the same thing in the matrix, the second has lots going for it. One can get everything he wants out of the experience with none of weight gain. (B) goods are less amenable to being enjoyed in the matrix – it’s hard to be impressed with respect, glory, and esteem given by illusory beings – but there is still no contradiction in seeking illusory honors, which people in fact seek all the time when they cheat on exams or lie about what they’ve achieved.

But to desire the real precisely as real, irrespective of how successful we are in attaining it, is a distinct formality from either of these. For all that, it is still perverse to be indifferent to the reality of (a) or (b), which is part of the reason why cheating or hedonism are both moral evils.

Praeter intentionem

Since my kids are always citing “eating the whole tray of brownies” as a paradigmatic sin or moral evil, here’s an analysis of that action into typical elements.

1.) N-minutes worth of continuous, superabundant chocolaty enjoyment.

2.) The weakening of the will to resist future temptations.

3.) Some harm to health.

4.) Living one’s life secretly and in shame.

(1) is the only element of the action one intended or could intend in it. But (1) is a real good that anyone would, ceteris paribus, want someone to enjoy. It’s (2)- (4) that make the action evil.*

So the choice between good and evil is not between different intentions, but between an action that is wholly willed and one that is partially willed, i.e. between willing all we know about an action willing only part of what we know about it.

*They make it evil not just separately but in conjunction – so (3) by itself is typically not that bad, but in conjunction with (2) it’s considerably worse, i.e. almost all people will recover from the health harm with ease, but to injure health in a way that makes future injuries more likely is very much worse.

Plato’s moral division of the person

What is the basis for Plato’s division of the person into reason, spirit, and appetite?

Plato is trying to explain action and therefore something relative to the good. The triple division can only be into different modalities of goodness.

Goods divide into the apparent and real. Any real good is absolute, but apparent goods must appear to something. Things can appear to a person in two ways: in a way proper to persons and in a way common to persons and animals. So we get

Reason: The power that apprehends goods as such, or absolutely

Spirit: The power that apprehends apparent goods proper to humans

Appetite: The power that apprehends apparent goods not proper to humans and therefore common to non-human animals.

The goods of appetite are the most well known and we can fill out most of the day by passing from one to the other. Warm blankets and soft beds give way to warm breakfasts and coffee to soft chairs to filling dinners to cold, boozy drinks and a warm kiss and blankets again. While there is an obvious human element in all of this (more on that in the end) the pleasures as such do not need an apprehension of reality in order to be enjoyed. We enjoyed the goods of appetite years before we realized the world was real and could be spoken of truly, and they are apparent precisely for this reason, not because we have to assume they are illusory or evil or degraded.

The goods of spirit comprise the wide class of things done for glory or the respect of others. Students seek grades, men want to be seen in sports cars, women get their hair done, Achilles slays Trojans, etc. Such goods, while properly human, consist in being seen and judged in a certain manner by others and are therefore apparent.

Beyond this we can seek something precisely as true or real, or in a way that is not indifferent to the reality of the experience. Animals wouldn’t be dissatisfied by lives spent in Nozick’s experience chamber, nor would it make the experience of eating a brownie any different. The life of glory is different, so far as it seems like it would be a lot easier to enjoy eating a brownie in the experience chamber, even knowing it was fake, than to enjoy being praised by others in the same place while knowing they were fake. But while the reality of those who praise us is closer to the real it is also not identified with it since there is nothing at all to glory or esteem beyond the opinion of others. If everyone respected you for riding a dragon, the respect would be real even though the event was not. Again, apparent goods, while not illusory, are not inherently opposed to illusion.

Adding reason to a being that knows the other sorts of goods doesn’t mean it shuns the other goods but that it begins to care about their reality, just as Nozick’s point is not that the goods of appetite are bogus but that we care about their reality. It’s just this human demand that all goods be real that requires that reason lead the appetites, and which specifies the manner in which it should lead them. For example, a desire for unlimited consumption of food doesn’t respect the reality of food, but is like a wish to consume it in an experience chamber that would edit out all consequences that attend this sort of consumption in reality. Pornography likewise denies the reality of sexual experience, which is always situated in a life of persons which can’t simply cut to the next scene. The demand for reality in the goods of spirit is perhaps more straightforward: we don’t just want respect but want to be respectable.

Reason is capable of both abstracting goods, i.e. considering one way in which they are real while neglecting another and of caring about the reality of goods as that which alone apprehends the real as such. Taken in the first sense it becomes capable of moral evil, in abstracting the good of something from its other salient and attendant realities. Taken in the second sense action is properly practical and theoretical, with the moral as a subset of the former.

Scientific socialism?

Apparently Dawkins is adopting Steven Pinker’s line that science/enlightenment has led to universal human improvement in a way that religion has not (for “religion” read Christendom, the Islamic Ummah, or any regime on earth before Europe @1800). Fish gotta swim, though, so the other half of the book is Dawkins playing to the mob and walking the fine line between annoying theologians while not saying anything with enough substance to challenge them.

Pinker’s line of argument is impressive and suggestive while never quite escaping the whiff of post-hoc reasoning.  One would of course be an idiot to miss the coinciding upward trend lines of irreligion, the boons of engineering and scientific theory, and a general growth in Liberal and humane views of the person and other animals – and Pinker makes this picture much more clear than one can gather from mere common sense – but the causal picture is too obscure and incomplete to do anyone’s apologetic work: Secular, Christian, or otherwise.

There is also a crucial missing piece of the puzzle, namely a definite stand on the question is socialism scientific or enlightened? There is clearly no doubt about its claims to be scientific and enlightened, nor is there any doubt that it was present in enlightenment thought from the beginning: in Marx, to be sure, but as one who drew inspiration from the Jacobins and gave rise to a worldwide movement that continued to do so.

Depending on one’s answer to the question, the body count of “science and enlightenment” will go up by… what… six to eight orders of magnitude? Along with this, one gets the invention of systematic terror, the concentration camp, the gulag, the liquidation of populations, the technological surveillance police state, the systematic, theoretical and intentional destruction of family life, etc. If it were just the Jacobins we might write it off as a fluke or a coincidence, or a small cost when weighed against the growing world-wide standard of happiness, but of course we also have to explain the Bolsheviks, Khmer Rouge, Castro, Tito, and Maoism. All this points to a very large and inveterate possibility inherent in science and enlightenment, and not just isolated acts of scientific wickedness like the Tuskegee experiment or or the Hiroshima Bombing or historically recent but potentially catastrophic scientific side effects like Climate Change. No: socialism was there from the beginning, worldwide, and never left. It appears to be as much a part of science and enlightenment as vaccines and the ending of slavery. Outside of gulags, of course.






Morality’s public desire

Consider the moral principle common to all these:

-A woman yells at her children and is ashamed when she realizes she would never yell like that publicly

-A working husband fantasizes about having an affair with an intern. He notices that one component of the fantasy is that both the fantasy itself and the action that would realize it cannot be publicly known, and he realizes something wrong in this.

-A gang member wants to perform some humane act but doesn’t, because he is afraid that the other gang members might find out about it.

Shame is clearly a component, but I’m interested in the basic need to make one’s moral choices in public.

The public character of acts differs. There is an obvious sense in which sexual relationships aren’t public. For all that, spousal sexual relations are public in a way that extramarital affairs or co-ed hookups aren’t since marriages are public, and the public knows what marriage entails.

Actions that can’t be done publicly require an evil either in the action or our peer group, and this evil creates a dissonance that is particularly hard to avoid and needs to be addressed more or less immediately.



The media contradiction

1.) We form our opinions about by watching media that make money by commanding attention.

2.) Media commands attention by telling stories about the novel and shocking, and therefore about events and persons outside the norm. Man bites dog, etc.

3.) We treat persons in stories as if they were typical or revelatory (man biting a dog must make some sort of sense, falling under some general rule, right?) This tendency is exacerbated by the repetition of similar novel stories (If you hear about men biting dogs all day, who wouldn’t imagine he saw a trend?)


Maximizing choice

-The fascination with and maximization of choice requires prioritizing the sorts of choices that can be maximized, namely those that don’t generate long-term commitments.

-If we declared a day where one could “do whatever they want” it would be understood as a day of hedonism and violence. Why? In part because “what we want” and “what we choose” are maximized choices, which belong to things with fewer long-term consequences, or, more formally, to things that are only done to the extent that we don’t think about or try to avoid the long term.

-As a rule it’s dangerous to analyze slogans, but there is a logic to pro-choice. One prioritizes the choice that allows for more choices of the same kind and which leaves one with just the life and commitments with which one is familiar and not with new ones that are scary, life-long and unforeseeable, and which usually increase one’s dependence on and duties to others.

-The desire to live in the immediate and neglect the long term is the desire to regress to animality. It’s a flight from spirit, whose proper domain is the eternity that contains the totality of time, and which is enjoyed first of all by a divinity whose existence as a person is his co-existence with others.

-So maximized choice is the regression to animality and thus to an (unreachable) limit where one cannot choose at all.

-Choice as maximized is opposed to vow, but choice in reality is perfected in vows.


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