Divine Names

0.) The proof that God exists shows that a necessary cause has contingent effects. Given such a proof, with all its objections met, one goes on to discuss how to speak of God.

1.) A name of  necessary cause is true of it either (a) even if its contingent effects are not given or (b) only if its contingent effects are given.

2.) What is given only relative to the contingent is contingent, and (b) is such. Therefore no (b) name taken formally is said of a necessary cause as such.

3.) (a) names are either negations or not, e.g. immaterial or spiritual is a negation while omnipotent or good are not. No negation formally constitutes the substance of anything. Negative names said of God, however, can be taken as indicating the way in which God transcends creation, and so can be said of the divine substance insofar as the negation signifies transcendence or eminence. So while a negation does not formally describe a necessary being, it can describe it eminently.

4.) The distinction between names taken formally and eminently also applies to (b) names. Creator taken formally takes creatures as given, but taken eminently it describes the power or action of the necessary cause, which is not a contingent accident of such a cause. Savior taken formally requires a creature to be saved, but taken eminently it can describe the act of mercy or hesed qua divine attribute and action, which is identical to divinity. Said another way, if we take hesed or rakham (from root raham) as divine attributes describing the divine goodness, they are identical to his essence and so are (a) names even while mercy taken formally involves a relation to the imperfect and broken, and as such is a (b) name.

5.) The original distinction of divine names into (a) and (b) allows a certain (c) class for negations taken formally and not eminently; and it allows for (b) names to be (a) names if taken eminently and not formally.

ST 1.3.6

1.) If God and a creature share something essential there is something essential to God that is not a divine existent, namely what the creature shares with him.

2.) Everything essential to God is the divine existence, since his essence and existence is the same, so God shares nothing essential with creatures.

3.) Our ability to form a genus begins with what is essentially common to many.

4.) Therefore we have no ability to form a genus common to God and a creature.

Response to Poidevin

Necessary facts, then, cannot explain contingent ones, and causal explanation, of any phenomenon, must link contingent facts. That is, both cause and effect must be contingent. Why is this? Because causes make a difference to their environment: they result in something that would not have happened if the cause had not been present. To say, for example, that the presence of a catalyst in a certain set of circumstances speeded up a reaction is to say that, had the catalyst not been present in those circumstances, the reaction would have proceeded at a slower rate. In general, if A caused B, then, if A had not occurred in the circumstances, B would not have occurred either. (A variant of this principle is that, if A caused B, then if A had not occurred in the circumstances, the probability of B’s occurrence would have been appreciably less than it was. It does not matter for our argument whether we accept the origin principle or this variant.) To make sense of this statement, ‘If A had not occurred in the circumstances, B would not have occurred’, we have to countenance the possibility of A’s not occurring and the possibility of B’s not occurring. If these are genuine possibilities, then both A and B are contingent. So one of the reasons why necessary facts cannot causally explain anything is that we cannot make sense of their not being the case, whereas causal explanations require us to make sense of causally explanatory facts not being the case. Causal explanation involves the explanation of one contingent fact by appeal to another contingent fact.

Le Poidevin, Robin. Arguing for Atheism: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion. London: Routledge, 1996.

The inference is from an antecedent being true within a conditional to the antecedent being true in itself, and so it is an instance of the fallacy of secundum quid and simpliciter. Even if we grant that If A then B requires If ~A, the ~B it does not follow that ~A is true or even possible; e.g. everyone Poidevin is arguing against agrees that if God did not exist, creation would not exist, while still agreeing that it is impossible for the antecedent to be true by itself.

If Poidevin wants to talk about contingency in the real order he’s going to have to speak of the passive potencies of things, or the ability of things to receive new actualities. We know, however, that one can save a drowning person without being saved from drowning or burn a witch without himself being burned, etc. But if we know some being can be conferred on an effect that was not conferred on its cause, then why can’t contingency be one such being? In fact, if we take contingency as meaning dependence on another, then all effects are per se contingent in a way that no cause is as cause. This last problem I take to be particularly fatal to Poidevin’s argument, since what he’s arguing is that causes, as causes, are effects, which is the same as saying that what is first, as first, is not first.

But isn’t the whole problem God’s necessary causality and the contingency of created being? Sure, but if we have an account of causality as conferring actuality to the extent this is possible, then all we have to say is that contingency results not from contingency in the cause, but from the deficient actuality in the effect. The divine necessity gives rise to the contingent since to do otherwise would involve a contradiction at least analogous to the creator causing an uncreated effect. Even if God acted necessarily in creating the world, the world would still be contingent simply because or its deficiency in being. It doesn’t matter if one insists that “contingency” means “can be otherwise,” since any effect can be otherwise, since every effect is from another, and so cannot be what it is in virtue of itself.

Divine simplicity and matter

Given: The nature or essence of something is one. Essence or nature is simply whatever has some real definition; if there are various related analogues or a family resemblance among things, they are not nature or essence as here understood.

1.) There is something capable of being now this nature, now that. Cows and wheat have different definitions but each feed off the corpse of the other. There is thus something neither wholly one nature nor the other but capable of being informed by both. This is the first sense of matter.

2.) There are multiple individuals of one nature. Given the nature is one, there is something other than the nature but capable of receiving one. This is the second sense of matter.

3.) Both 2 and 1 are the same principle, since what can be either this nature or that is the same thing as can be multiple things in one nature.

4.) What exists by itself is actual, and matter is not by itself actual; so what exists materially has something of its essence that does not exist of itself.

5.) The divisibility of the matter allows for (2) and the indeterminacy of the matter allows for (1,) but both divisibility and indeterminacy follow from the difference of matter from nature; a difference which is in one sense matter’s being other than the unity of nature (allowing for division) and in another sense being other than its definibility, which is integral to it as given.

6.) What has no potential also has no matter. In one sense this means it is spirit, and in another sense it proves that its substance did not come to be, but it’s just as evident that the nature as such must subsist. Even what exists in indestructible matter still exists in potential. The nature subsists by itself and cannot be multiplied.

Procession from virtue

I was daydreaming about empirical problems, though no one in particular… did the lockdowns reduce fatalities? Does sleep training newborns lead to anxiety or separation problems later on? Like anyone I was thinking about them as matters of collecting data and running it through an algorithm. The empirical, in other words, first shows itself as mechanical – facts go in, charts come out. It seems we achieve the Leibnizian ideal: no one argues, we only sit down and calculate.

This account overlooks that the truth of empiricism is downstream from virtue. What if someone’s data conflicts with the company paying for his study? What if his results compromise his ability to get tenure? What if his results are too bland or controversial to get published? The empirical ideal of course demands that none of these things matter to him, and we simply follow the data wherever it leads, but whenever one does this it does not arise from the mechanical nature of empiricism but only from the virtue of the empiricist. Truth will only come out of one of those scenarios if the researcher loves truth more than mere advantage, is willing to suffer for goods greater than himself, has the courage to stand up to powers that can easily crush or destroy him if they don’t get what they want, etc.  So while the allure of the empirical is that we could move beyond moral messiness and disagreement and solve all our problems with systems and algorithms, the allure is false. In seeking to transcend moral disagreement we become the dupes of any con man who knows statistics.

So empiricism only works as an instrument of virtue, and of a particularly robust virtue that loves truth more than self to the point of willing to suffer large losses for it. One critique of empiricism (or just “science”) is its inability to provide this foundation for itself, and of its indifference to this foundation in the structures that it sets up for itself. Who teaches the cardinal virtues in STEM schools? (stop laughing) Empiricism demands extensive habits of temperance, fortitude, and devotion to the common good, which demand a lot more than that a researcher declare his affiliations at the end of a paper.

Unless he has virtue, the respect we have for scientists or their method is no different than the tribal respect for a witch doctor or a sports fan’s trust in his lucky socks and pregame rituals. Science is just as able to be used as a totem as magic dolls, rain dances or lucky socks, and apart from virtue this is, in fact, all the power that a study can have. The fantasy of “pure science” or “following the data” is literally a magic spell, since it is a means of gaining control over others by totem and taboo.

Getting the cogito right

Since Descartes, we’ve thought we can start with the mind and then work our way outward – if at all – to the reality of objects. While this is certainly a plausible reading of Descartes himself, and one made popular in the slogan that he initiated a turn to the subject, it is not the best reading of him. Descartes rejoices to find the mind not qua theater of ideas but precisely as existent. The cogito is not a discovery of thought but a discovery of a reality. He rejoices in the mental qua extramental! The cogito is the premise from which he argues for the sum of real existence.

While the cogito gets to the exterior world it attains it only just barely. The object is iridescent and fragile, threatening to collapse at any moment into a theater of ideas. Descartes doesn’t even seem convinced he has made a complete escape. Nevertheless, the sum is a definitive escape, even if Descartes keeps arguing in favor of a more expansive one to the reality of the whole external world.

By the end of the Meditations, however, Descartes has firmly established a puzzle about the relationship between the interiority of consciousness and the exteriority of existence. He first bases the certitude of existence on the cogito, but then bases the certitude of the exterior world on God’s own interiority to the self, Who gives rise to subjectivity as if He is a font at the bottom of it. God’s inability to deceive characterizes his work of giving rise to the subject, and the act characterizing a nature that could only arise from truth must itself give rise to truth.

On the fear that love is self-interest

A common fear among young persons is that love might be nothing but self-interest. I doubt this could be confirmed by polling data since the fear isn’t constantly present and it’s object isn’t tangible, but my own experience confirms that the fear is widespread.

One might be tempted to blame this on lack of experience. One of the main crosses of youth is to have more desire for love than experience forming it, but the experience done well is the best way to reassure that the whole process moves from an initial rush of emotion that is saved from collapsing into self-interest by the intoxication of losing one’s mind to the couple working for common goods that are greater than any one person could enjoy by himself. The first such common good is the relationship as such and the second is e.g. shared possessions, family life, and kids. It’s hard to find oneself at the end of this process and still believe it is self-interested: When giving your whole paycheck is something you don’t even think about, and no one is even keeping track of who does what for whom, self-interest is not the most explanatory hypothesis.

But then one could get one of those really objections, e.g. “How do you know that you’re really not just motivated out of self-interest?” The question calls to mind Satan’s question to God: i.e “Sure, Job constantly prays, speaks of you, and sacrifices many good things for your service, but how do we know he’s not really engaging in a cosmic tit-for-tat, offering worship so long as he gets divine benefits?” The apparent reasonableness of the question masks the cynicism of a profound interior emptiness. Goodness can be apparent, to be sure, but there is something demonic in one’s response to Job’s saintliness being exhausted by questioning its sincerity. The cramped and suffocating feeling of wondering whether love is ever selfless is something of an interior experience of the diabolical psyche.

Selfless and selfish pop up a lot in discussions like this. Any self-reference or even self-awareness is seen as possible selfishness, so it seems that as long as one is loving consciously he can’t shut the door on the possibility. This conflates self-reference (which is simply an aspect of self-consciousness) with immoderate love of one’s self-worth (which isn’t) but perhaps this sounds too much like begging the question to someone doubting whether all love is selfish. The truth of the matter is that love usually has to transition from a primitive stage where one’s self-interest is relatively more pronounced to a mature stage where the couple is working for a common good as described above. The fear that love might just be selfish is therefore the fear that its growth will be stunted, and this is a legitimate fear. There are lots of impediments to pair bonding, and the sexual revolution is particularly blind to all the ones it promotes.

But the most interesting aspect of the fear that love will be selfish is that the possibility of selfish love is ensured by the same principle that allows us to escape it, namely rationality. No animal is self-aware and so can’t deliberately choose its own interests. Awareness does not demand the self-awareness that compares itself to the world even while it perceives it, i.e. that possesses truth. This basic self-awareness allows at least for the possibility that one might judge himself worthy of having all other things ordered to himself, giving rise to a selfishness that the teens fear and in which Catholic theology recognizes the essence of mortal sin in the city of man that loves itself to the contempt of God and therefore to the contempts of right love of other persons. At the same time, rationality alone makes possible the objective awareness of things that allows us to love them as they are, even to the point of identifying our good with their own.

The feet of clay vs. hagiographical treatment

The present telling of the story of Thomas Jefferson would go something like this: while he did great work to advance human rights and establish structures of justice, this legacy has to be balanced against his owning of slaves and his treatment of Sally Hemings. Call this the “feet of clay” treatment. This approach replaced the older account of Jefferson that idealized him as brilliant statesman, patron saint of American egalitarianism, the folk hero of rural bucolic Americana, and larger than life genius-scholar-author of The Declaration. Call this now-replaced account of Jefferson “the hagiographical treatment.” For the moment I’m not interested in the truth of either account. We can fight about the merits of writing the Declaration and the merits of the Sally Hemings charges (many do both) but what I’m interested in is the contingency of the feet of clay and the hagiographical accounts. Why pick the one over the other?

Hagiographical accounts are obviously still with us. Just as a feet of clay account of Jefferson would have found no popular expression but only popular contempt and censure in 1900, a feet of clay account of, say, Martin Luther King can find no popular expression but only censure and contempt in 2022. To even write that last sentence is probably contemptible enough, but there are enough facts in the biography of both men to justify either reading of their lives.

Assuming we don’t adopt a cynical view of the matter, and say that all there is to any hagiography or feet of clay account is some group advancing its interests, the explanation for why one historical figure gets the treatment he gets should appeal to a postulate like this: the common good for which the person works is more definitive of their lives, and even a more objective account of them, than weighing their virtues and shortcomings on some sort of moral balance. If a person works for a high enough common good their actions are sacred and this is the decisive fact about their life, if the common good they act for is of only contingent value – as Jefferson’s is clearly now seen to be – then it lacks a justifying sacrality, meaning that Jefferson’s life gets handed over to a pro/con evaluation of its virtues and shortcomings. Of course the one making this evaluation is himself appealing to a common good high enough to be sacred, as is anyone who raises a question whether this or that common good deserves its sacrality. The interesting question in all of this is what deserves to be sacred, and how the power of the sacred can be harmonized with truth.


Why does God give grace to some and not others?

Grace is a new birth transforming a slave or possession into a child. Give yourself the same power. Lay out all your possessions in front of your mind and ask what principle you would use to determine which would become your child and which would remain as it is. Would your car make it? What about the door to the upstairs bedroom? Your Penguin copy of Montaigne from that course you took in college? Assume you picked none of these. Is this better or worse than picking one of them? Did you commit an injustice against the door by letting it remain what it is?

It’s hard to see what principle would guide the choice for one thing over another. Any wisdom with answers to such questions would be drawing from far deeper springs than human thought. But any charge of injustice arising from your not transforming a possession into your child is clearly insane.

Divine possession to son

By nature any creature is a divine possession over which God exercises the right of abusus. In this order human beings are a very valuable possession, even bearing a natural desire to see God, but a possession all the same. Like any possession, the broken human is disposed of and forgotten, bearing with him any punishments he has accrued, and so it belonged to divine wisdom and goodness to provide for a place to dispose of us. A universe without a Hell is a city without a sanitation service, as both would be worse off without those latter goods. 

By grace the creature becomes a child of his divine Father, so it is unthinkable he be damned. The transition from possession to son is clear in many place, but perhaps most of all from Galatians 4 : 5-7, where grace is given that we might receive our adoption as sons. we might receive adoption to sonship. Because you are his sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, “Abba, Father.” So you are no longer a slave, but God’s childHere “slave” is simply a human owned like any other object disposable by right. Such things exist for the sake of their possessor, and so exist only at the possessor’s good pleasure. There is nothing tyrannical or even unfitting about this: for a lower thing to be disposed of at the whim of a higher thing is exactly as the way things should be, and more so to the extent that the higher being is higher – and God is infinitely so.

One criticism of at least some forms of universalism would be their failure to appreciate the transformative power of grace, or their failure to understand the transcendence of divine being over created being. This transcendence makes God stand to all creatures, even rational or angelic ones, not as a Father to a son but as an owner to his goods. Grace is not the healing of what was already born a son, but a lofty possession with a desire for God being born again as son of a loving Father.

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