The ethical problem

One necessary condition of Aristotle inventing ethics was that the ultimate end of human life is not evident. What’s worse, the end is not just inevident but we have strong initial convictions about it that can’t bring ourselves to believe.

The ultimate end of human life has to at least be what you would do if all the needs of life were met. So if one knew all his needs were taken care of, what then? The young shrug at the question and assume (or fear that) this is as far as one could go, and the occasional boy thrills at the thought of playing video games forever, but a shrug is no answer and if we exist for amusements then life is a joke.

[T]hose things are both valuable and pleasant which are such to the good man; and to each man the activity in accordance with his own disposition is most desirable, and, therefore, to the good man that which is in accordance with virtue. Happiness, therefore, does not lie in amusement; it would, indeed, be strange if the end were amusement, and one were to take trouble and suffer hardship all one’s life in order to amuse oneself. For, in a word, everything that we choose we choose for the sake of something else-except happiness, which is an end. Now to exert oneself and work for the sake of amusement seems silly and utterly childish

Eth. 10 c. 6

The “what then?” that follows this is one of the background questions of human life that Aristotle tries to push to the foreground. We live for something but the common attempts to answer what it is can’t be taken seriously. The popular answers are sometimes sentimental,* sometimes it’s a joke, and no amount of backgammon or tending one’s garden deals is a healthy response to the problem.

*Included among the sentimental answers, and maybe even the chief among them, is the idea that “everyone has to answer the question for himself” which is simply our refusal to face a question that can’t be answered without judging the lives of others, no matter how loathe we are to do so.

Faith as opposed to evidence

Sometimes we know something for ourselves and other times we trust that others know it, e.g. sometimes I know where the bathroom is other times I ask someone in a position to know where it is. Call the first act knowledge and the second one faith. So I have faith in P when I trust someone else knows P.

So taken, knowledge and faith do not differ in certitude since certitude is nothing but to take P as known as opposed to mistaken and both take P in this way. I can’t have faith you know P and believe that it is mistaken or false. Note that faith won’t arise from my believing you have an opinion about something. If I ask you where the bathroom is and you respond in a way that I take as being merely your opinion the discussion is superfluous, since if all I wanted was an opinion I could have thought one up myself. Our discussion might suggest new ideas to me about how to act, or suggest certain things could be be the case, but it won’t terminate with me having in faith in you.

So faith is like knowledge because we take P as certain, but the one with faith does not have the evidence that P is true, since the evidence of this is, for example, a memory of just where the bathroom is supported by having been there many times. You have evidence of P when the truth of P is evident or obvious to you.

Faith is therefore by definition certitude without evidence, and viewed on this axis demanding evidence for faith or seeking to proportion faith to evidence fails to understand faith at all. To take the position seriously is to deny faith altogether, which would make most learning impossible since most of the time we learn things by asking others we take to be in a position to know, whether we ask them directly or indirectly though reading their books.

Another sense of demanding evidence of faith is to look for some reason to trust someone. This is an extrinsic motive for belief, where extrinsic means the evidence we get to believe the guy knows P is not the proper evidence of P. As soon as one gets the proper evidence of P he ceases to have faith and proceeds to know the matter for himself, though his very act of coming to know gives him an additional extrinsic motive to trust the guy about a matter sufficiently like P.

The theological virtue of faith is nothing more than to believe that some P is known by God. Like all acts of faith it has certitude without evidence, though in this case the certitude one can have is so great as to give the faith a properly scientific character, since it is logically impossible to believe some premise is known to be true by God and that it could be mistaken.

Problem of evil

In responding to an objection concerning the possibility of salvation for righteous non-Christians, Thomas responds:

If, however, some were saved without receiving any revelation, they were not saved without faith in a Mediator, for, though they did not believe in Him explicitly, they did, nevertheless, have implicit faith through believing in Divine providence, since they believed that God would deliver mankind in whatever way was pleasing to Him.

Summa Theologiae 2-2.2.7 ad. 3

Thomas is giving a sort of minimum necessary belief in the mystery of Christ, namely that fallen men who don’t know of Christ do not believe in him in any way till they believe that God will deliver from evil. If so, beneath this threshold of belief the fallen cannot be saved at all even by extraordinary means.

Christianity is fundamentally the faith that God delivers from evil. Part of this deliverance involves binding the perpetually unrepentant, but while this is a divine perfection mercy is more characteristic of God as he could not relate to the creature at all without first raising it out of non-existence. The details of how divine justice and mercy will work out in concrete cases is impossible to know without looking back on the whole of human history, which is not a perspective viatores can have. For all we experience of the end of history (i.e. nothing) it’s just as reasonable that God will conquer as evil will. One either trusts that God will set things right or believes that evil will never be set right, and if evil is never set right it acquires a sort of divine property since, without deliverance, the injustice and wrong it affects lives on in sæcula sæculorum. Our faith options are either in divine goodness or the quasi-divinity of evil that no power can justify or deliver from.

So it seems both faiths are right so far as they concern the destiny of the one who believes, with faith in God’s deliverance being of itself ordered to perpetual deliverance from evil and faith in the quasi-divinity of evil of itself placing the believer under its perpetual dominion.

Languages and Individuals

Matter is the principle of individuation, but in material things beneath human beings this material individuation is just multiplication or sheer division of a uniform mass. One ball bearing is not another, but they are little more than cuts in one block of steel. But human material is proportioned to intellect and so different human persons are less like different ball bearings and more like different languages. Each person that arises is less replaceable than Greek or Latin.

Nature, quiddity, essence

De ente et essentia sees one reality described as nature in its order to operation, quiddity in its order to definition, and essence in its order to existence. Again, there is a principle of action proportioned to the second act of proper motions and rest, intelligibility proportioned to first operation of the intellect and culminating in the distinct knowledge of definition, and either a principle by which esse is limited by reception in another or an account of ipsum esse subsistens as a sort of thing, i.e we can say it is the essence of something to be ipsum esse subsistens.

The perfection of nature is in proper operation and so in goodness, the act of quiddity is not brought forth in re but from intelligence and so is truth, and where essence is perfected it limits an esse received from ipsum esse subsistens. Nature perfect apart from operation is power, quiddity perfect apart from definition is the foundation in re of receptive intellect, but it seems like the attempt to view essence in the same way means one is either talking about God or absolute non-being, as the divine essence doesn’t create demiurge-like by actualizing ready-made receptacles for limiting esse.

Nature, quiddity, and essence are descriptions of something that Thomas calls essence. This suggests a sort of primacy within the trinity of names for the order of things to existence, since it is only through this order that one can have anything at all. Thomas first divides essence as being considered precisely as real as opposed to being that belongs to anything which the mind uses the copula or its equivalent to understand, and which therefore requires a sort of indifference to what exists in re since we must form judgments not just about realities but also about fictions, impossibilities, non-beings, etc.

The rational perfection of the non-reasonable

Why does God demand we believe what we cannot know, prove or intuit? I suspected the reason would be something stern – to humble the mind, remind us of our lowliness, etc. Isn’t this how we’re supposed to read God’s words to Job from the whirlwind?

Thomas’s answer is that it was necessary to the perfection of reason. To simplify:

1.) The perfection of subordinate requires two distinct perfections (a) what it can do by itself and (b) what it can only do in conjunction with another. For example, tools are subordinates and a computer must both do things by itself (autocorrect, run programs) and in union with another (write sentences, be turned on and off.) If a spatula is going to fulfil what it was made to do, it needs both to hold its shape and run over hot surfaces (which it does by itself) and be moved around under pancakes (which it does in union with another.)

2.) Created reason, as reason, is subordinate to God.

3.) Reason can reason, think, prove, intuit etc by itself.

4.) Therefore, the perfection of reason requires something it can’t reason, think, prove or intuit.

So taken, if we consider a rigorous skepticism even apart from any of its conclusions it is only compatible with atheism* since limiting the perfections of reason to what reason can know can only be reasonable if reason itself is not a subordinate nature.

*Taken broadly to include all of Plato’s divisions of atheism – the denial of God’s existence or his care for human beings.

Augustine’s liturgical case against Universalism

If the damnation of some were not eternal…

…[T]here is no reason why the Church should not even now pray for the devil and his angels, since God her Master has ordered her to pray for her enemies. The reason, then, which prevents the Church from now praying for the wicked angels, whom she knows to be her enemies, is the identical reason which shall prevent her, however perfected in holiness, from praying at the last judgment for those men who are to be punished in eternal fire.

City of God Bk. XXI c. 24

Though Augustine here argues against a peculiar if very clever form of Universalism (see c. 18 of the link), his argument generalizes to the idea that Universalism is contrary to the liturgical tradition of the Church, sc.

Universalism is mercy to all individuals

If mercy is to be shown to all individuals, there can be no exception to the individuals the Church prays for.

There are and always have been exceptions, viz. liturgical prayers for Lucifer.

The case generalizes further if we note that the liturgy frequently acknowledges eternal fire but never prays for those within it.


Pleasantries like hello, goodbye, how are you? are words that have different meanings than when (materially) the same words are used in conversation. For example, to ask “how are you doing?” to a person whom you’ve just met means something different from your therapist asking the same question several minutes into a session. Again, the Latin vale is from valere meaning “to be strong.” When used as a pleasantry it is the word one uses at the end of a conversation and translates as the English goodbye, but if one said vale in the midst of a conversation with someone whose strength was fading and needed encouragement it would be translated as be strong! The Spanish vaya con Dios is, as a pleasantry, again simply the English “goodbye” while if it occured in a conversation it would be go with God.

Pleasantries are generally short, have scripted responses, and occur outside conversation whether to start it, end it, as interruptions within it, or as replacements for it. They’re the sorts of words one can generally learn on the first day of a language course.

Compliments often function as pleasantries: how does everything taste? is, as a pleasantry, not asking for criticism or subtlety and the response everything’s great! is not a considered critique or even a judgment about the food. One can ask how something tastes to elicit a criticism (just ask Gordon Ramsay) but when he does the question is not a pleasantry.

Pleasantries are frequently misunderstood in moral discussions of lying. When one asks someone having a horrible day “how are you doing?” as a pleasantry, the true and correct answer is “fine” since any other answer is a failure to understand what the words mean. The words of the question are not eliciting a self-report or confession of mood but signify something else which not only aren’t conversational but could even be used to signify the refusal of a conversation. Ditto with the supposedly infamous question “how does this dress look?” As a pleasantry the true answer is “great!” while as an elicitation of a criticism the answer will demand a true judgment of the dress, though even this is conditioned by the demands of social refinement.

Those low in agreeableness or somewhere on the autistic spectrum might find pleasantries difficult to understand and perhaps even insipid. This is normal – people are foolish in all sorts of ways.

Thomism and the thin theory of existence

Asked to articulate why one would believe the thin theory of existence, BV* carefully laid out their argument:

1) ‘Pegasus does not exist’ is true. Therefore:

2) The sentence in question has meaning. (Only meaningful sentences have a truth value.) 

3) If a sentence has meaning, then so do its (sentential and sub-sentential) parts. (Compositionality of meaning.) Therefore:

4) ‘Pegasus’ has meaning. Therefore:

5) Something is such that ‘Pegasus’ refers to it. (‘Pegasus’ is a proper name, and the meaning of a proper name is its referent, that to which it refers.) Therefore:

6) ‘Pegasus’ refers to something that exists. (Everything exists; there are no nonexistent objects; one cannot refer to what does not exist for it is not there to be referred to.) Therefore:

7) Pegasus must exist for it to be true that Pegasus does not exist.

The argument put me in mind of Thomas’s opening distinction in De ente et essentia:

We should know that, as the Philosopher says in Book 5 of the Metaphysics, something is said to be a being [ens per se] in two different senses: in one sense, [only] those things [are called beings] that are sorted into the ten categories; in the other sense [calling something a being] signifies the truth of a proposition. And the difference between the two is that in the second sense everything can be said to be a being of which a [true] affirmative proposition can be formed, even if it posits nothing in reality; it is in this way that privations and negations are said to be beings, for we say that an affirmation is the opposite of negation, and that there is blindness in an eye. But in the first sense only that can be said to be a being which posits something in reality.

De ente et essentia c. 1

When we say “Pegasus does not exist is true” there is (i) the being of “is true” and (ii) the being of the existence denied. Both are the sort of being Thomas calls the “truth of propositions” since (i) is both about a fictional subject, and explicitly says it is considering the truth of the proposition. (ii) is a clear negation of existence. In addition to this, steps 2-4 are formally concerned with signification or meaning, which definitely seems to fall on the side of being as true. So the Thomist would see the whole argument as a sort of insight into the being proper to the truth of propositions. This is clearest if we insert the qualifications starting at (5):

(5) Something is such that “Pegasus” refers to it (and this something exists with the being that is the truth of propositions)

and then

(6) Pegasus’ refers to something that exists (with the existence that is proper to the truth of propositions.)

and then

(7) Pegasus must exist (with the existence belonging to the truth of propositions) for it to be true that Pegasus does not exist

The sense of (7) is that it is correct that given a thing exists with the truth of propositions it need not exist in reality, which is indeed formally true about what exists with the truth of propositions.


*To be clear, BV is a tremendous critic of the thin theory.

Disputed Question on existence a se

1.) It seems that a Democritean atom* (DA) exists of itself. For what always existed did not arise from some other and the DA has always existed. Therefore it did not arise from another.

2.) What cannot not be exists of itself. But a DA cannot not be because it is fundamental and indestructible. Therefore the DA exists of itself.

3.) The fundamental principle in any science is what exists by itself, but the DA is a fundamental principle in physics. Therefore it exists of itself.

Sed Contra. What exists of itself causes all things that exist by another. But no single, individual DA causes all things, even in the physical universe, and a DA exists as a single individual. Therefore, no DA exists of itself.

I answer that: The Democritean atom is whatever physical entity we take as unbreakable and indestructible into which other physical things are broken up, so to ask whether it exists by itself is to ask whether an unbreakable or indestructible physical entity exists by itself. Now indestructible and unbreakable involve negations of a possible destructive agent and so require specifying the domain in which one negates possible destructive agents. If a single stone was in an empty universe it would be indestructible since, ex hypothesi, there are no agents in the universe capable of destroying it.

But the DA is indestructible in a more fundamental way than such a stone. In negating destructive agents for a DA, we do more than simply imagine a world with no destructive agents but prove that the actual world can’t have them, like so: since no object is more simple than the particle there can be no agent capable of bringing about an object more simple. If X can’t be done, there can be no agent capable of X. So if a quark is fundamental and fills up S amount of space, it is impossible to take that quark and break off something that would fill, say, 0.8S. Thinking such particles are destructible is to fail to understand what fundamental means.

None of this shows that a DA exists of itself, even in the physical order. Even granting that a physical particle cannot be destroyed by being resolved into more simple parts it does not follow it cannot cease to exist. Particles are not the only entities in the universe and they might be destroyed into these entities or arise out of them.

Even if we assume that everything in the physical world resolves to fundamental physical entities, it still does not follow any of them exists of itself. If X exists of itself then if we understood what X is or the nature of X would know in that very act its existence in fact, but we understand what a thing is by an abstraction which considers it apart from its existence in fact. So if a physical entity exists of itself there is a physical entity whose essence is not knowable in any possible physics, and this is either impossible or amounts to nothing more than the analogous extension of the word “physical” to name an entity which by definition transcends the subject of physics or the study of nature, i.e. to begin speaking about the supernatural.

Response to objection 1: What has always existed means either (a) what exists at every time or (b) an entity presupposed to time itself and causing it. DAs exist only in (a) and not in (b), and so the argument only follows the existent is limited to what exists in time, i.e. the physical. But if all beings are physical then none exists in itself, as was shown.

Ad. 2. A DA cannot not be only in the sense that it cannot be resolved into more fundamental particles, but this is both logically and factually compatible with its ceasing to exist, and so it does not follow that it exists of itself because it cannot not be.

Ad. 3. Physics does take the DA as a fundamental principle, but the subject matter of physics cannot contain an entity that exists of itself, as was shown.

*Assuming it or something like it exists, of course. A large part of the post involves being open to the question of whether there are any such things. That’s why I avoided talking about “fundamental particles,” not because the post doesn’t say things relevant to what such a particle could be, but because I wanted to talk about fundamental physical entities as such, not the entities as they happen to be understood in contemporary, modern, or ancient theory.

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