A theory of the Immaculate Conception

The Immaculate Conception is often explained by a container metaphor, i.e. holy things are kept in holy places, fine wines are kept in perfectly clean vessels, etc. The metaphor has value but has all the usual limits of metaphor and, in general, fails to address the ultimate reason for the doctrine.

The limits of the metaphor are that (a) being a mother involves much more than being a container, and so to explain Mary qua container fails to account for her actual role as mother of God and (b) any argument for Christ not entering into a sinful womb (considered as a container) is an argument against entering into a sinful world, that is, it’s an argument against the Incarnation. Obviously, any defense of the Immaculate Conception that argues against the Incarnation has made a wrong turn somewhere.

But a mother involves a more than containment: it involves being the source of existence for a person. In Mary’s case this involves being the source of existence for a divine person, which requires a ne plus ultra degree of elevation by grace. Given grace is incompatible with original sin, Mary’s maternity is incompatible with any degree of it also.

To flesh out the main idea: grace is not simply a restoration of human nature but an elevation to a properly supernatural and divine level. Sanctifying grace can just as easily be called deifying grace. Mary’s act in salvation history required a degree of grace that made her in a robust sense equal to the Father, i.e. a degree than which nothing greater can be thought. Given grace is a remedy for the loss of original justice Mary escapes original sin to a degree than which nothing greater can be thought.


An impediment to Naturalism

Naturalism is a scientific metaphysics, but metaphysics is a study of what is and science is a bewildering, disorganized discourse on what is. I don’t mean the obviously false claim that scientific topics are disorganized but that its existential and predicative discussions of what is are. For a metaphysician reading scientific literature, it is often impossible to tell how scientists want “is” claims to be taken. Here are the first half-dozen possibilities:

1.) The reductive. This is the familiar one: the subject is nothing but the predicate, and the one stands to the other as the unreflective to the precise sense of a term. Uncontroversially, in this sense sunrise is the westward spin of the earth.*

2.) The equivalent. In this sense a dollar is 63 rubles, 32F is 0C, etc. This sense is often connected to…

3.) The causal or potential. Malaria is a parasite carried by mosquitoes and a gallon of gas is 114K BTU’s.

4.) The idealized. This sense of “is” identifies a thing with something ideal and frequently impossible. C is the speed of light, inertial bodies travel in straight lines, X is the rate of attraction for a test particle.

5.) The mathematically defined. GTR is Riemannian, sinusoidal functions are complex numbers, etc. This is a hybrid claim since existence claims in mathematics are justified by proving the absence of contradiction in an idea but this does not suffice to justify an existence claim for a physical thing. Attempts to get beyond the hybrid character of the claim can easily lead to…

6.) The simple or utilitarian. In this sense a thing is the simplest way to calculate it.

While there are a few clear examples of each “is”, most uses are foggy and all but unassignable. In what sense is matter energy, or kinetic energy so much potential energy, or is one light cone intersecting with another, etc? To make things worse, any given scientific argument or term might be formed from any number of these senses, which leads to a further bewilderment of what to do with the hybrids formed by the combinations. Can something be causal (3) if part of its definition is from (4) or (5)?  What scientific definition doesn’t avail itself of (4) or (5)? Can (6) be the foundation of any meaningful ontology? What criteria will divide (1) from (2) and (3), and which is more commodious to the de rigueur idea of “emergence”?

I doubt these problems are tractable or even easy to contain. Science is probably better understood as systematic indifference to metaphysics than as proto-metaphysics.

*That said, reduction is itself a fuzzy idea, as is clear from this brief introductory summary in the SEP:

The term ‘reduction’ as used in philosophy expresses the idea that if an entity x reduces to an entity y then y is in a sense prior to x, is more basic than x, is such that x fully depends upon it or is constituted by it. Saying that x reduces to y typically implies that x is nothing more than y or nothing over and above y.

But everything in the first sentence is a description of God and creatures or the soul and the body! It is only the second sentence that says things inconsistent with this.

The mania of faith (2)

The goodness of anything we’d be willing to die for is something about which we have a degree of certitude (i.e. assent to some claim or fixity in it) equal to scientific certitude. Scientific or at least putatively scientific movements (Marxism) can create this level of devotion, but only in an impersonal sense since science as such can only be had about what is abstract. What one dies for when he dies for a scientific movement is not this country or party, but for this and for anything else that would be relevantly similar. But saying “I pledge my life to you and to whoever or whatever else might be relevantly similar” is not something one can say out of love (try the line  on your spouse.)

And so if to be willing to die out of love is possible, we need a certitude equal to the highest form of scientific certitude while nevertheless not being scientific. Said another way, we require there to be some rational way to give a degree of assent equal to what we give to the self evident, while it is nonetheless not given to something self evident or anything that follows from it. This is the sort of object we have in mind when we make an oath of fidelity or (if we replace the abstract noun with a concrete one) when we have faith in something.

Atheism vs. the Death of God, a dialogue

A: Neither of us thinks that God exists, but what’s the problem you have with science, reasoning and evidence?

B: Well, you think God doesn’t exist. I don’t see why it matters. God is just dead like disco is dead or like naïve patriotism was dead after World War I. Who cares whether disco still exists somewhere, or whether some group of nobodies are still naïve patriots? They’re all throwbacks or museum pieces or hobbyists or whatever.

A: I don’t see how you can’t care whether God exists, but at least we both agree that God doesn’t matter.

B: No, we don’t even agree about this. You think he doesn’t matter because we should be faithful to truth. But why be faithful? We prefer to be deceived all the time! In fact, look at where your commitment to “science, reasoning and evidence” will take you. You believe it shows you that you are purely physical, yes?

A: We both do.

B: And whatever is physical can be save and recorded someplace?

A: Of course.

B: So your science will eventually save or record you someplace. I’m sure you have hope that it will be a place of pleasant experiences, yes?

A: Of course

B: The first lie! Your Love of truth is satisfied by the illusory afterlife of a brain in a vat! Now, in real life the vat will be controlled by someone who will simply decide what your afterlife will be, and you will grovel before him and give him any worship he wants to ensure you go to the happy place. So look how your “love of science” leads to the second lie!  Your love of truth is fulfilled by illusion, and it turns even the real world in which you live into a network of masters and the slaves who flatter them! Illusion, Illusion, Illusion!

A: So what’s your option?

B: I have no idea. But whatever we are is over and the next must come. Your own pretense to value truth over illusion and deception is only the last, or one of the last critiques of the person. Science leads to a desire to control all, and so to control even fidelity and value. But our attempts to control these are all mockeries: preferences for illusions, flattery, forgetfulness and domination.

The mania of faith

Faith, says STA, is like opinion so far as both are the assent to a proposition that is less than evident, but faith differs from opinion by being unwavering and completely certain. But this seems like satire – isn’t this exactly the sort of New Atheist account of faith that an apologist is supposed to dismiss as silly and uninformed? STA is literally defining faith as absolute certitude in the absence of evidence! Who wrote this part of the Summa? Richard Dawkins?

That said, faith is an inescapable part of human life. Every sports fan has faith in his team,  not in the sense that he always thinks they will win or that everything they do is good, but because his commitment to them is unwavering. That your team is to be praised or loved is not a belief formed from a cool-headed evaluation of its merits, and it is not to be thrown out by a careful evaluation of a team that might be more worthy of your devotion. Students develop the same sort of faith in schools, along with a corresponding hatred for the school’s rivals. Faith can have reasons, but never ones that could justify the sort of devotion we give to the team or institution.

Faith is responsible for the better and more personal parts of life, since every vow and every pledging of one’s life is an act of faith. A cool-headed evaluation of reasons could not justify the unwavering and absolute commitment that spouses make to each other, citizens make to their regime,  or soldiers make to their country. As Chesterton put it, no soldier will die for pay. This degree of fixity, commitment, and certitude does not arise from seeing that the object of the vow in merits the degree of assent but because, as John Paul II said somewhere, love can’t be entered into on a trial basis. You either commit to the whole thing before you know the whole thing, or you’ll neither know it nor love it.

So faith turns out to be the fullest flower of the teaching that Plato gives in Phaedrus: The highest gifts are the convictions that come to us from the gods as mania, beyond the reach of reason or evidence.

There’s a large scholarly consensus that one lasting legacy of WWI was the destruction of faith. Love of country, honor, and patriotism all became conditional commitments tinged with irony. Faith was for rubes and suckers – nothing more than buying into to a self-interested propaganda campaign of the rich and powerful. My own generation (I’m as Gen-X as they come) prides itself on “knowing” this too, but this is probably related to living through the highest divorce rate ever (and a corresponding dip in the marriage rate). Both of these generational facts have a dynamic relationship with the losing of religious faith. The Nietzschean death of God is both cause and effect of a corresponding death of God and family, i.e. the belief that faith in the fatherland or in fathers is no longer believable.


Reversing the modal definition of possibility

Defined modally, possibility is what exists at one time and not at another, making time a backdrop or domain of the possible. This is incoherent for all sorts of reasons: it makes time static and overly space-like; it leads to contradictory notions of different times existing at the same time; and it makes the accident of when something exists into a substance.

So why not flip the order of existence: possible existents are the backdrop of time. Time is thus an abstraction from the concrete fact that (unactualized) possibilities are incompatible both with other possibilities and with their actualities. Briefly, time arises from the way in which possibilities fall under the principle of contradiction.

Substance from Eucharist to God

The distinction between substance and accident preserves the fact that what we know is distinct from how we know it, that is, we do not yet enjoy the beatific vision.

The desire to do away with substance as unintelligible (say, in Rahner or Schillebeeckx trying to articulate a teaching on the Eucharist apart from transubstantiation) will collapse the quo and the quod of sensible objects in a way that is only appropriate to the spiritual, and so paradigmatically to pure act. Rather, to locate the Eucharistic change in substance is to place it in that domain of existence that most testifies to our knowledge being in via, i.e. as related to an object that will always be beyond our modes of knowing. Since the Eucharist is the crown of our existence in via, STA’s account of its existence is more appropriate than the contemporary attempts to do away with it on behalf of a supposed physical theory that has done away with substances.


Progress in physics

The shift from ancient/qualitative to classical/quantitative physics intensified the axiom that all motion (and so all natural activity) is really change of place, while simultaneously intensifying the axiom that all change of place is dependent on intelligence.* And so the progress of physics has been the gradual awakening to the fact that nature is intrinsically ordered to intelligence.


*Aristotle saw all time as requiring a contribution from intelligence in order to exist, since there could be no time without intellect comparing what exists to what doesn’t (whether past or future). Aristotle himself could not have kept this fact about time limited to time, since time itself is defined with motion and motion in turn defined nature, as STA pointed out in his commentary on Physics. The Galileo-Newtonian doctrine of inertial motion makes the difference between uniform motion and rest rely on a fiat of the observer and so of his intelligence.

Math but not Spirits (2)

We assume that asking whether God exists is relevantly similar to asking whether dark matter or black holes exist, but what if it’s more like asking whether a mathematical entity exists, like Euclidean or Riemannian quantities or complex numbers? IOW, to exist is to be defined and to not exist is to be contradictory.

Things are either possible or impossible, and either exist in fact or don’t. Verbally, this gives us four quadrants of description:

                Exist in fact          Don’t exist in fact.
Possible                        2                       1
Not-possible                         3                       4

Things in quadrant 3 can be disregarded, since they are only a verbal and not a logical possibility. But only material (or at least contingent) things can exist in quadrant 1. Anything necessary, like abstract entities or spirits* can only be 2 or 4.

The tendentious calls for “evidence” that God exists (as though evidence could only mean one thing) are simply demands for a material god who could “make a difference to the universe” by either existing or not. The interaction problem amounts to the same thing.

The Dionysian commonplace that “God is not an existent but outside existence” is true, but it can be said just as much of complex numbers too. All its means is that there are different criteria and methods for establishing existence,** which we shouldn’t forget is admitted by any Naturalist.

*I say “spirits” and not just God or the absolutely necessary. True, a finite spirit is somehow contingent, but he is no less contingent than a mathematical quantity, and we have no problem with inferring the existence of these from their possibility.

**At least of positive existence. There are evils and vices too, but this is a different there are or est than in there are complex numbers or Deus est.

Being an informed media consumer

Start with what Creighton has labeled “The Gell-Mann Effect“.

1a) Whenever you read or hear a news story on something you understand you find it as falling somewhere on the spectrum from completely mistaken and uninformed to, at best, a charming first approximation to the truth with only a few points likely to cause complete misunderstanding in a reader.

1b.) This doesn’t just happen when the reporter tries to speak about your area of expertise but also when he tries to quote you, tell your story, or give an account of an event you were at.

1c ) But then we turn to read a report outside our area of expertise or of an event we weren’t at and we treat it as though it were an immediate apprehension of the thing itself. Every quotation becomes perfectly salient, not out of context, and perfectly descriptive of the speaker’s state of mind. Every agent in the story is accurately described with his/their motives made perfectly clear. Every story is just what an informed reader would focus on to get a well-balanced appraisal of his life and times.

Then, the consequences:

2.) So our normal cognitive state while reading the news is the illusion of objectivity. We habitually relate to the media as though they were im-media-te. We habitually misjudge the value of “unbiased reporting” relative to reporting that is open about its biases and its partiality to one side of the story.

3.) We see the news as it is only when it reports about something we know, even though knowledge about something usually renders the media story superfluous. We see the media as it is only when we don’t need it.

4.) The (national) media does not exist as a noble watchdog of democracy but because we want to have a multi-million person polity and so demand that some story be told about it. A truly human response to a news story should leave us saying “That was a very suggestive account, I wonder what actually happened?” But if we related to all news this way it would be unbearable to read as much news as we do. We need the story to be im-media-te and objective too badly, and this is because we want to live in a megapolis too badly.

5.) And that was always the point of the story:

And the whole earth was of one language, and of one speech.

And it came to pass, as they journeyed from the east, that they found a plain in the land of Shinar; and they dwelt there. And they said one to another, Go to, let us make brick, and burn them thoroughly. And they had brick for stone, and slime had they for mortar.

And they said, Go to, let us build us a city, and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.

The tower needed to reach to the heavens to give us a God’s eye view of our megapolis. We cannot be a people all at once unless we can see our people all at once. We can’t exist as a whole without “making a name for ourselves”, i.e. telling a story about ourselves in grand heroic style as a battle between the noble an wicked gods.

6.) The media is serving a priestly function in the same way that the tower-builders were. I don’t call it a priestly function out of contempt (my life revolves around priestly functions) but as a critique. Does anyone think the media is equal to such a task? Is it obvious that we are better off with pundits than with diviners looking at bird entrails or the ravings of an intoxicated priestess? At least in the latter cases there is an explicit recognition that only God can have a God’s-eye view of things.

7.) The Babel story is a critique of the attempt to attain God’s eye views from technology alone, as though the understanding of time and contingency can be had without religion and prudence. The reporter or pundit will only have something to say when he treats life and work as equal to a genuinely priestly task.

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