Fleshing out “a necessary being”

Leave it to the imagination and we’ll form only primitive and ridiculous ideas of a necessary being. When I catch my own imagination I’ll find it visualizing contingency by a circle popping onto a screen and then off again, which I guess makes necessity a sort of screen-burner existence. At other times necessity seems to be announcing itself as a sort of extremely durable stuff (diamond would be too distracting or flashy, so maybe something more like the gray plastic they used to make “Unbreakable” brand combs out of.)

All nonsense, of course. Necessity is first of all the rational, which Plato says explicitly in the Timaeus and which Bertrand Russell is assuming when he tells Copleston that necessity is a feature of propositions. This rationality is most evident in mathematics and logic where it is seen as belonging to them as formal (or abstract) systems, and it needs to be extended to some degree beyond these in order to allow for the axiomatic principles that structure various discourses, though we’ve taken to calling these sorts of things “logic”.

But this seems to lead to a crazy idea of a necessary being as a formal or abstract idea. But isn’t such a being supposed to be real and active, and even personal? We encounter the Euthyphro problem in a different application, confused over how the greatest possible being can be both an unchangeable ideal  (a formal abstraction) and also a god (an intelligence or living).

But the answer, as Augustine figured out, was in ourselves, since man himself overcomes the opposition between the abstract and the concrete. My abstractions are concrete as mine and abstract as themselves. It is precisely this that allows you and I to share the same idea, for the same idea is both one between us and wholly contained in two. Human beings in fact have only the most primitive means of overcoming the abstract and concrete: angels can share the very act of their intelligence as such without having to transmute it into some sensible form first, and the divine, as it turns out, shares not just his intelligible act but even his act of existence among Trinitarian persons.

And so “necessary existence” is really communicable existence, i.e. existence that can be shared or taken part in. A “necessary being” is first of all only a logical abstraction which is communicable but does not exist of itself. The human person in which the abstraction exists transcends the opposition between the abstract and concrete by attaining to a mode of existence where his life itself becomes communicable.  Human beings lack necessary existence to the extent that they are closed off from others, and greater degrees of necessity are indexed by transcendent degrees of shared life, at the limit of which we find the Trinity and the communion of saints.

(Q: If you run necessary being through the Fourth Way, and you assume the Trinity is possible, does it follow there is one?)

On despising politics

The Qualifications:

A.) This goes without saying, but the politics of reading and discussing Plato, The Federalist, Marx,  STA’s defense of Mosaic Laws, or even the untelevised statecraft that horsetrades and hears people out is not the politics I’m talking about. And no, it’s not always easy to divide this from televised politics, but I think we can all manage.

B.) Part of this is simply personality – my “A” score is zero. No, seriously zero. 

The Case. 

1.) How can everyone not be disgusted at the vanity of it all? Shift a news cycle, and everything one cared wildly about is deleted and replaced with a new outrage. Weren’t we just at war with Eastasia?

Coheleth’s word vanity was hebel whose first meaning was breath or smoke. The analogy is perfect: smoke oppresses and dominates the senses of everyone in a closed room but floats off harmlessly out of doors. In an artificially restricted consciousness vanities so dominate that they are the only things on your mind, but they’re meant to float off as the harmless waste products that they are.

2.) True political thought (cf. A) is at its best when, holding to a clear principle, it is capable of seeing multiple points of view, presenting them in the best light, and attempting to articulate the justice that each side anticipates. If anything, it is an immunization against televised politics. I can’t imagine anything more opposed to Plato or Publius than pre-packaged totalized ideologies or “arguments” resting on appearance and taboo.

3.) The centerpiece of televised political “thought” is the prediction. It’s been demonstrated that these predictions fare worse than chance, i.e. it would be more rational to base your political predictions on the entrails of birds or flipping a sacred coin than to trust your own cogitations about them. But the deepest problem with these is that they confuse insight with self-fulfilling prophesy. Mary “predicts” that Bill is “coming to take her rights away” because she can see Bill’s character and understand his motiviations. She’s probably partly correct, but she’s also creating conditions that make that action more likely: cutting off solidarity with him, upping the antagonism so that neither side can resolve conflicts except by violence, forcing Bill to find friendship and companionship with the other people Mary thinks are coming for her, etc..

4.) Just as the prediction has found an all but impossible combination of stupidity and fallacy, the gaffe found an all but impossible way to combine irrelevance, uncharity, and lack of imagination. Obama makes an off-mic comment to a donor at a rally and ten years later people still incant it as though it were the deepest, most telling insight into his personality (as opposed to, I dunno, him making conversation, telling someone what they want to hear, a crack made in frustration, a lame attempt to be funny or smart, a momentary emotion that he had no strong desire to act on, a needle in the haystack of even the words he said that day, etc.) ditto this for Dan Quayle reading a cue card with the word “POTATOE”.

5.) I’ve mentioned many times before that what was called politics until about a century ago can’t be compared to what we call politics now since politics is not scalable. The 10,000 citizen association that Aristotle was thinking of when he spoke of man as a political animal, or the Friary or 300 member parish that St. Thomas had in mind when speaking of the common good as the highest good can’t be scaled up six orders of magnitude to the 300,000,000+ modern USA. I take a great deal of pleasure and fulfillment from the smaller social networks I’m a part of, but I’m quite sure that I’m closer to the common good by going to a public debate about a traffic semaphore than in voting in a national election.

6.) Look, on average people buy more stuff when they’re fearful or outraged. The news isn’t informing you, it’s prepping you for commercials.

On falsifying faith in a divine word

One can’t believe that God said X to those he loves and that X is false, and in this sense it is absurd to talk about what could falsify faith or to think that a believer is naive or engaged in special pleading for lacking falsification criteria.*

Arguendo, all our beliefs might be mistaken, but it does not follow that all can have falsification criteria, only that, say, what falsifies our belief in X is impossible to specify before we find ourselves calling it false. I may go from believing the gods tell me to cut out the hearts of my enemies to believing God tells me to love my enemies, but this does not make it logical in either case for me to specify falsification criteria. I can only have a general openness to truth and see what I find. I cannot be open to changing my opinion but it’s contrary to experience to say I only ever do things that I was previously open to doing.

Here’s my basic point, which I think is given from both reason and experience: Just because you might get a good reason for changing your mind does not mean you could have had that reason in advance, even as a vague sketch or outline. And so one can recognize that he might be wrong about anything he believes and still insist that it is impossible for him to give any criteria that might refute his belief in the divine word, or that he is even open to the possibility.


*Look, “falsification” only survives in the shallower end of pop scientism. The idea is dead among most philosophers of science and many Naturalists. That said, it’s important to note that “falsification” means not just identifying something that would refute your belief but also treating it as a possibility that you can’t dismiss a priori. And so even though falsification criteria have been largely abandoned, a more restricted view of falsification that ruled out exactly what faith wants to do with experience might still seem rational. So briefly, we can distinguish

a.) Popperian, traditional falsificationism: P is scientific iff it is falsifiable. (This idea has been abandoned.)

b.) Weak falsification: It cannot be rational to rule out some historical or physical facts a priori. (Faith claims to do even this on the basis of divine testimony while no other discourse claims to do so.)


On a recent free-will experiment

Scientists recently gave test subjects a task that they could only perform correctly 20% of the time but the subjects reported doing it correctly 30% of the time.

(take a minute to ask yourself what conclusion(s) you would draw from this over-reporting)

While one natural interpretation of this would be to say that the participants were lying, the scientists eliminated that possibility by giving the participants slightly more time to think about what they were doing, which caused their reported success to fall to 20%. The scientists concluded that free will was an illusion, arguing that our “choices” are, in fact, subconsciously determined behaviors that get post-hoc justifications geared to painting us in a more flattering light as free, independent, and more successful than we in fact are.

This experiment is valuable but overly limited by the presuppositions of the contemporary neuroscience-free will debate. We can throw more light on the findings if we shift to another interpretive register, in which the experiment manifests something like this:

1.) The object of freedom is truth. This is the true heart of the experiment. The disconnection between word and reality or thought and reality is exactly the evidence that proves one is not free. The experiment would have been far more appropriately done by a group of evangelical scientists trying to manifest the truth of Jn. 8:32, and I say “manifest” because the experiment assumes that the truth makes one free, and then finds a conclusion in keeping with this.

2.) There is a flattering lie in the heart that enslaves us. Since freedom is impossible apart from truth and we find some subconscious tendency away from truth, our subconscious is to some extent enslaved. Most of us are willing to admit to the more minor manifestations of this corruption of the heart: telling fish stories, leaving off unflattering details, making close calls in favor of ourselves, etc (and this is most likely the sort of behavior that the experiment was observing). But this corruption of the heart is often far from innocent: I’ll clean up my act tomorrow, I deserve a little fun, I’ve had a hard day and can’t live without it, I’m just doing my job/ following the rules, If you wanna make an omlet…

3.) The lie is a sort of self-assertion. The experiment is really saying “we have a subconscious bias toward our own competence and ability, even to the extent of rejecting truth”. Exactly. But there is already a vast literature in place that has explored and named this domain. The general name for self-assertion-unto-the-rejection-of-truth was sin, when sin enters into consciousness it becomes culpable, and when the culpable becomes habitual it becomes vice. These illusions of vice congeal and support each other in collective ways to form what Augustine called a city that was based  on the assertion of self to the rejection of truth.

4.) The free will-neuroscience discourse is a subconscious metaphysical-ethical system. From the point of view of this system, describing it as such is seen as “debunking” it, but this is just one of the disagreements I have with the met.-eth. system in question since I say met-eth. can be true. Their system can introduce general concepts like “illusion” but not “pride”; “subconscious” but not “the heart”, but either description is just as well borne out by the facts.

The scientific fact is seen as separate from values except where the values themselves are scientific (viz. skepticism, passing peer review, citing borrowed sources, being secular, etc.) Scientific values are assumed to have a worldwide acceptance which is simply observed and in no way created by the scientific establishment. Obviously, thirty seconds of reflection completely dispels this… uh, illusion. The scientific establishment is recent, conventional, and in no way arose spontaneously but is rather a system of institutionalized gatekeepers that intentionally (but more often systemically) patrol scientific values by a hundred different means. Again, I don’t say any of this to discredit the truth of the values, only the claim that the consensus arises spontaneously, has always existed in some form for as long as there was “science” (as opposed to being created between the World Wars) and is preserved by only by the innocent and free desires of reason itself and not by hundreds of different sticks and carrots.



Lived vs. clock time, or Einstein vs. Bergson pt. II.

1.) Joe and Mary are married. Joe gets into a time machine and goes a thousand years into the future, but gets lonely and marries someone else. Upon return he tries to explain to Mary that he isn’t an adulterer because she was long dead when he married the second time. The justification is nonsense – there is no sufficiently distant time any more than there is a sufficiently distant place.

2.) Joe gets a three-year sentence for stealing cars which he must start serving it tomorrow (January 16, 2099). Joe gets into his time machine, goes a thousand years in the future, and lives out the rest of his life. He then has his corpse shipped back to January 15, 2099 and has his lawyer explain that he was found dead before the sentence could begin. More sophistry – the punishment demanded a portion of his life, not a portion of calendar time.

3.) Joe’s teacher explains to Joe that Einstein has proven there is a block universe and any moment of his life from cradle to grave is already given to some observer, or even to an indefinite number of observers. Joe then explains that he spent a little extra on his cell phone so that it gets coverage everywhere in the universe and works with all possible alien technologies, and so he happily starts dialing around to find the guy(s) who can observe the rest of his life. His teacher clears his throat and sadly has to explain to Joe that the very physical theory that gave him the block universe makes this procedure impossible. The information about how Joe will be then cannot be a signal given to Joe now.


There are at least two different sorts of time here which share significant overlap but cannot be identified. There is a time of life where we take vows and are faithful (1) or must pay in punishment (2) or in which we can receive physical signals (3) and there is a calendar or clock time that is spooled out and chopped up by machines. Calendar or clock time has all the feel of being more objective – just look at those sharp, straight lines that make the calendar boxes or the whirring count of nanoseconds on the atomic clock! But the suppressed premises are both fascinating and legion, like:

a1.) Why is something more objective when it is the result of a process we devised? We don’t normally think of artificial actions or productions as more objective.

a2.) Say we accept Kant’s famous answer in the preface to CPR. Does the a priori concept of time suffice to give us a both the lived time that is essentially bound up with moral life (1 and 2 above) or even the lived time of an observer that enters integrally into physical theory?  (3 above)

b1.) How did we figure out that what we stripped out lived time was exactly what stripped it down to its essentials? What insight into time was this based on?

b2.) Isn’t it safer to assume, by parity of reasoning, that clocks strip things down to their essentials in the same way any measuring device does? In one sense a scale gets down to what’s essential in a thousand pounds of apples and a thousand pounds of oranges, but not in such a way as to make their color, cost or size accidental. We can’t confuse what is accidental to a mode of considering X with what is accidental to X. Putting a 200 pound man on a scale does not prove that rationality is accidental to him.

c.) If clock time is not time in its simplest most essential form, what is it?


*Another paradox here is how relativity theory can be true for Joe if it is based on things that are unobservable in principle to him. It’s one thing to say that we haven’t found a test for something yet or that Joe isn’t clever enough to pull off the test, but to deny any test in principle counts as some sort of evidence against a physical theory.  

Is substance dualism about substance? (pt. II)

Aristotle identifies three elements in substance: tode ti or “a ‘this'”; koris or separability and being to ti aen einai, which Latin Scholastics named by turning the verb “exist” into a noun: essentia. The first two criterion are pretty basic: substance is something you can point at and which can be divided from any other individual. The last criteria is more obscure but also more fundamental – in Aristotle it seems to end up meaning form (and whatever else form needs). This is why Aristotle in De anima II will describe soul as substance (along with what the soul needs) and why substance pure and simple is what is form pure and simple, i.e. the separate forms that Aristotle concludes Metaphysics VII  with or that he proves must exist from motion in Metaphysics XII. When he considers nature as such he knows that form alone is not a possibility, and so in that discourse essentia is form and the matter that form needs, though even here he insists that nature is more form than matter (the inconsistencies that some commentators have tried to hang on Aristotle on this point can be cleared up by noting that speaking about to ti aen einai as cuch is not at all the same thing as speaking about it in nature).

Now if we raise the question of what “substance dualism” of the human person would mean under this sort of scheme many questions immediately vanish and other ones come into sharper focus. If we limit our account of substance to the first two criteria we might get our taboo Cartesian dualism, but this becomes untenable as soon as the third criterion enters in, though for incompossible reasons. If the person were a separated substance that for some unknown reason happened to be tied to a body at the moment then we wouldn’t have substance dualism – the substance would be the soul pure and simple. On the other hand, when form needs something other than form the form is not a substance though it is still “more substance” than the other thing. Under this description form is a part of substance as opposed to a substance while it is uniquely comparable to the whole. Either way, there is nothing deserving of the name “substance dualism” in Aristotle’s description of substance. What we have instead is a much more interesting description of the person as not his soul to the extent that he is a natural thing, i.e. to the extent that he is mobile in Aristotle’s sense and therefore an unactualized self. 

(And now to shift gears entirely to a highly speculative first-draft eschatology)

Christian anthropology and eschatology beg to be grafted onto this sort of scheme and to provide it with a logical development. The separation of soul from the body is the moment when further unactualized possibilities of either perfection or degradation cease. Human virtue can longer be improved or lost and vices can neither plunge into further degradation nor be repented of. Note carefully that this is true so far as we are talking about the unactualized possibilities that are properly natural, i.e. that fall within the ambit of the cosmos as it is presently constructed. All that the person has achieved or failed to achieve as a natural being has come to a close and stands in need of a definitive judgment. But there is no need to describe the soul as looking back to nature as the domain of unactualized possibilities. A separated soul is not in a state a privation like a mutilated animal since mutilation differs from death by the continued function of some integral or essential part, and if any body part is integral or essential to the separated soul then the very notion of a separated soul is contradictory. The separated soul is a complete person but is no longer an ens mobile. He no longer looks back to the domain of unactualized natural possibilities nor has any ontological orientation to it.

The resurrection of the body is not necessary because the soul has some unsatisfied longing to return to the cosmos but because the person shares a common destiny with the cosmos that is itself destined to be remade and born again. Just as death marks the point where all cosmic possibilites of the person cease and are judged, the apocalypse of Christ marks the point where the possibilities of the cosmos come to an end and are reborn without judgment into beatitude (the cosmos, after all, never sinned). Man is remade and resurrected only in the context of the definitive rebirth of a new cosmos – “new heaven and new earth” –  though he must enter into it after a judgment his actions as a member of the cosmos that has passed away. In his own passage from the cosmos, he was judged only on his own virtues and vices, but in the general judgment he must be judged for all the effects his just or unjust actions had on others, whether human or non-human.


Is substance dualism about substances?

Aristotelians who hold that soul and body are separable cannot be considered substance dualists according to their own account of substance since Aristotle explicitly distinguishes substance not only from accidents but also from the parts of substance (see parts 2 and 5) and he defines soul and body as parts of a hylomorphic composite.

For that matter, Plato can’t be considered a substance dualist since he doesn’t regard the body as substantial, but only as a fleeting accident projected on the screen of the spacial-void.

It is only in Descartes that we get soul and body divided as a res from a res, but even here it would be silly to think that Descartes thinks that both are equally substantial.  It is very doubtful that he would ever say that matter has anything like what the self discovers in the cogito since it might exist but it is certainly not a self, and extension never suggests anything like the ontological concentration and self-setting-apart that one needs for a bona fide substance.

This is not just a dispute about language but points to an oversight in our accounts of substance dualism. If all we mean by “substance” in substance dualism is “what can exist separately” then everyone becomes a substance dualist about everything. We can donate organs, graft cells, tissues, and tree limbs, mix chemicals to form compounds, break apart the parts of atoms etc, and so everyone is a substance pluralist – even materialists. Again, any act of reproduction involves some part of a thing breaking off and attaining its own existence (this is true of both reproduction in the normal senses and of generating an identical twin. For that matter, it’s true of any cell division or DNA transcription) and so all these things should involve “substance dualism”. But this is probably an indication that we aren’t hitting what we’re targeting with the word “substance”, since even Descartes’s division of a res from a res isn’t enough to give us a duality of substance except in the sense that everyone accepts it.


The most well-understood and agreed upon personality trait in the FFM is neuroticism, or the tendency to experience negative emotions. The word is more popular as the name of a mental illness or irrational tendency and, to be honest, the FFM description of it is hard to distinguish from this. While we don’t know exactly how many negative emotions one should feel and so it’s not clear that neuroticism is an irrational or diseased response to the world, many other indicators point to it being a trait with no discernible upside. It’s hard to give a plausible reason why nature would select for neurotics, the trait is a good predictor of heart disease, and having no standard for how many negative emotions a person should feel seems to be an argument for never having them at all. Positive feelings are better than negative ones when all else is equal, and the absence of any standard makes this the case.

My N-levels are on the higher side of average while my wife’s are very low. I’m the one cursing at traffic while she tells me that it’ll all be fine and I’ll make the flight; I’m the one who talks to others by telling jokes about what went wrong that day in while she smiles about all the fun and interesting things she did and all the problems she solved; my insomnia gets caused by all the things that could go wrong or the things I did wrong and hers gets caused by thinking about all the things she has yet to plan or do. Since both of us are equally sincere and rational, it’s hard to see what the upside in my approach to the world is, and the more I monitor negative emotion the more it seems irrational and even an absence of insight. After all, things normally work out, most of what you think you botched are things that other people thought were either great or that they didn’t even notice, and even if neuroticism gave some insight it would be hard to argue that it was worth an increased risk of heart attacks.

So neuroticism is a confused and maladaptive response to the world –  a cross to bear and (we can hope) to be retrained. It was a tolerated mistake in our evolutionary history, like our bad backs, relatively narrow hips, or our propensity to any other disease. All the ancient ethical systems sought to train us out of neuroticism: Stoicism insists that our responses are up to us and that we should reject the disheartening, Epicureanism saw the whole point of ethical habituation as minimizing psychic pain, and Christianity divinized the command to not worry, revealed that all works out for the good of those who love God, that and commands that we should rejoice always.

God in the gaps theology

1.) The problem with the God in the gaps is that we name something divine which deserves to be brought to light as caused naturally.

2.) Naturalism: once you’ve given an account of where the thing came from and what it did, what else is there to explain about it?

Both can be interpreted as a natural theology that sees God as the cognitive horizon. St. Thomas did not have a horizon metaphor but his metaphor of God as the light of intelligence comes to the same thing: both are things that objects must enter to be seen but, in entering, must be divided from what they enter.

In the First Way, this horizon-light is suggested by the fact that moved movers can be infinite while never being total. In the Second Way, it is suggested by the fact that an efficient cause is necessary beyond the ones that form intelligible models and systems of interaction. In the Fourth Way, God is horizon-light within which we can place any transcendental predicate which has a relative relation to another and thereby forming a whole from the multitude.  The horizon-light is that in which things arise (3rd) or are intelligible by their ends (whether this is in existence or operation… the Fifth Way)

The Berkeleyan theory of the world as a sort of thought-veil that God projectively-perceives and we passively-perceive can be taken in the same way. For a separated intelligence prior to the beatific vision, this veil is the the intellect itself onto which God project-perceives the forms that

The (underappreciated) Medieval problem: If these are all creatures, are they substances or relations? At the level of metaphor, you might as well ask the congregation whether the veil hides the bride or identifies her.

An ontological argument

Consider the following predicate:

The English language.

In knowing what the predicate means, you concomitantly get information that such a thing exists. Behold! An Ontological Argument! The same would be true of other predicates: vision (since you read it) reading (ditto) meaning and, as Descartes figured out, self or person or thought. Even if we grant that no predicate considered formally contains information about whether it exists concretely this does not rule out other features of a predicate that can provide information about concrete existence.

This is relevant to Anselm’s proof since it is not limited to a consideration of the predicate that than which, etc. or greatest conceivable being as taken formally but also includes a reference to the one who hears his argument and understands the terms and the referent. This makes it perfectly analogous to the Ontological Arguments given in the first paragraph where, in diverse ways, the mode of knowing the predicate provided information about its existence, even if, like Kant, we insist that an existential judgment is never required from any predicates considered formally.  

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