Celebrate monism

-Naturalism is the opposite of dualism, and so is a monism. Why celebrate monism, especially in epistemology?

-Naturalism’s claim to be a monism is belied by its attempt to exclude the supernatural while holding onto natural sciences and mathematics and logic. Who thinks there is a monism covering all this?

-Monism would require way more than just relations between discourses (making math the tool of science, say).

-“The sciences are our best method for discovering reality”. What “dualist” needs to deny this? STA would never doubt that we’re better at discovering reality that can be sensed than reality that is given any other way. Discovering something as best does not establish a monism at all – it works just as well as a case for pluralism.

-Anything sensed requires matter to be and be known, any formal structure abstracted from sense requires matter to be, but not to be known. But it would be contradictory to say forms could not be without matter, and in formal systems, what can be must be. Voilà, spirits.

-Naturalism is in conflict with all the other areas of philosophy that celebrate pluralism. Why do we demand science to be some strongman to save us when we demand this nowhere else? Try demanding this in gender studies, political theory, etc.


Math but not Spirits (4)

Say you spend the first day of algebra learning about the nested hierarchies of numbers: naturals, wholes, integers, rationals, etc. and then you wonder if any other sorts of numbers exist. Later, when you find out about the complex numbers (or even the h and j numbers my students told me about today) you find out that the answer is yes.

In some other context (like a philosophy class) you’re talking about substances or the status of abstractions and someone asks whether numbers exist. No one is quite sure what to think, but since everyone agrees that a number isn’t something you could display in a zoo or spot in a telescope we guess that the answer is no.

And so we have two senses of exists that lead to totally different answers to the question of whether numbers exist. Exists (1) seems to belong to anything that can be an object of discourse, i.e. something with discoverable properties, unlike a the properties of fictional beings that can have no existence beyond what is actually given on the page. As BV points out somewhere, real objects differ objects like Hamlet because there is no fact of the matter whether Hamlet is, say, left-handed or green-eyed apart from what is already present in the text. Exists (2) is anything given by sense or the instruments of sense. At the beginning of De ente STA called existence (1) the truth of propositions while existence (2) is something in one of the ten categories.

The objects of metaphysics exist (1) and don’t exist (2).  No one is looking for God in a telescope or for the soul on an fMRI. These sorts of objects have a long history of being described as formal and no one seeks forms of any sort like this. But while no form depends on matter to be known, it some do depend on matter to exist. Not all forms can be of this kind.

What’s stage two?

The degree to which anything is significant or life-altering is can’t be given in well-defined units, but it’s reasonable to take an unplanned pregnancy as being about as significant and life-altering as getting an injury from a car accident. Some percentage of both will be no big deal, involving an initial shock or inconvenience that soon gives way to situation-normal, but these percentages are not significant enough to keep either event from being a cause of concern. In both cases something is involved that can permanently and profoundly affect someone’s life, loved ones, and society in a way they don’t want.

But if any group of drivers suffered injuries from car accidents at the rate at which contraception fails, no one would let them drive. Rates of contraception failure per year are measured in percentages while even the most accident-prone drivers (drunken teenage boys, say) have injury rates given per capita. Whether we recognize it or not, even the most effective forms of chemical contraception leave us with a crisis of unplanned pregnancies and so can only ever be the first move in a two-stage response to unplanned pregnancy. Line up all the hard-case testimonials as you want of poor women surprised by pregnancy – so far as your only response is contraception you won’t get the numbers below crisis level.

At this point we can either allow abortion as a backstop or take steps to minimize the shock caused by having a child. The two responses might not conflict logically but they do conflict practically – any response to lessening the blow of unplanned pregnancy will probably require incentivizing the strengthening of social relationships while abortion does away with what would be the foundation of any strengthened relationship. At any rate, the contraception one uses disposes us to one option or the other. Chemicals and barriers before conception dispose to using chemicals and throwing up barriers after it (so much so that both chemicals are now delivered in the same pill) and accepting the parameters that nature works within before conception dispose one to accept them afterward.

The logic of ST 1. 6. 1

(Original Text)

Whatever could produce something entirely out of itself in such a way as to divest itself of nothing would have to contain all that it produces within itself and continue to contain it. 

This is analytic and borders on the tautological. It is arguably a counterfactual truth, but a truth nonetheless.

Creation is to produce something entirely  out of oneself so as to divest oneself of nothing. 

This is slightly more controversial (there are Eastern-influenced accounts of creation that consider it as a sort of divine self-divestment or clearing of a space for creation) but it is not even clear that such an account would count as “divine divestment” in a sense that is in play here.

So whatever creates contains all that it produces within itself and continues to contain it. 

What creates contains what it produces in a complete or perfect way, and so contains any good that the created seeks in a complete and perfect way. 

In this sense, the creator must be desired by the creature. No matter what a creator created – even if he made a whole race of persons to experience infinite pain in Hell from the first moment of their existence – he would still have to be seen by such persons necessarily as good.

Praising God who could not do evil

The Problem:

If God could not do evil, why praise his goodness? In fact, why think that he is good at all, at least in the way that persons are good? You might as well praise water for being wet – which might make some sort of mystical or poetic sense but it seems hard to take in any familiar or philosophically serious way.

-Let’s start with Paul Draper’s example of what God could not do: torture small children for no reason. Why add “with no reason”? This makes the impossibility a subset of things done for no reason, and all the relevant senses of “God” involve a being for whom this is not a possibility. But then we are not making a moral claim so much as a logical claim: a being that always has his reasons cannot act for no reason. 

-God’s willing of the good is necessary, but it is not the sort of necessity that characterizes logical deductions or a deterministic universe. The necessity of God’s willing the good arises  from the impossibility of any of his thoughts being subconscious or mistaken. For an agent to be morally evil it does not suffice that (a) the agent act out of belief;  these beliefs  also (b) must be able to be subconscious or mistaken. The deterministic universe has a necessity from lacking (a), but God’s actions are necessarily good by lacking (b). We praise God for the same reason we praise any persons: for performing good acts intentionally; and we fail to praise the necessity of things in a deterministic universe for the obvious reason that they lack (a).

-Pure Act is absolutely determined and with no possibilities for further development or alternate action, but it is so precisely because it acts from an intelligence without limits. Physical or natural necessity, on the other hand, arises because the natural thing has no self of its own and so no source of action of its own. Secondary causes can contribute something to the action of another, but the action remains determined by another and so already determined.

-We are confused by the doctrine of determinism because we think a being with no self can act by itself. We come face the reality of God’s pure activity thinking that it must make him laking in a self.

-Doing evil requires a being that need not think about what it knows, which is possible for both angels and humans. We can’t do something we know is evil while we are thinking about it as evil. Some reframing of the evil always comes first, or some conscious decision to stop thinking about what we know.

-The idea that God could not be praised because he could not sin is like the idea that Christ could not have solidarity with the human experience for the same reason.

Ramble on interpreting the Hellfire passages in Scripture

Feser and David Bentley Hart have gone another round arguing about Universalism, and Hart’s last word on the subject is that Feser needs to deepen his understanding of Scripture. Now Scripture study is not my field, and I doubt I even qualify as a well-read amateur, but I’m pretty sure I know what Hart is gesturing at: proof texts for eternal hellfire are part of the Apocalyptic genre of writing, and any attempt to form dogmas from them cannot pretend the prima facie sense of the Apocalyptic is dogmatic. 

Apocalyptic literature is a sort of fiction. Fiction can teach, and much of the Apocalyptic literature is dedicated to doing so, but even straightforward statements of fact in Scripture are easy to bungle. Abraham fathers both both Ismael and Isaac because of interpretations of the revelation given to him that he shall raise a child out of his body, but the line of salvation goes only through Isaac. In a world where polygamy is normal and your wife is infertile, when God tells you that you’ll have a biological child it’s rational to assume you should conceive with someone other than your wife. As it turns out, that’s not what God meant. But this is revelation at its most straightforward and propositional before it introduces intentionally obscure metaphors in now defunct literary idioms. To point out that Apocalyptic writing is strange and enigmatic does not prejudice the result toward skepticism about the horrors of judgment and fire, but it does put us on notice that the plain sense of Scripture might be anything but.

To start with an example that is not apocalyptical as such but it still telling, Christ’s condemnation of Judas “better that man etc.” can be read as hyperbole. We don’t need to read it as a condemnation any more than we should read Christ as commanding us to cut off our hands, put out our eyes, or see our inability to telekinetically uproot trees and throw them into the sea as a sign we lack faith. Christ exaggerated to make points all the time. I don’t happen to think Christ is exaggerating, but showing this requires a good deal more than treating the text in isolation and then forcing dialectical options on people. There is, at any rate, one problem with the passage even if we read it as a condemnation since this would be prima facie be an argument for the reprobation of the damned (i.e. what often gets called “predestination to Hell”). Judas isn’t dead yet, after all – but the most Catholic traditionalists who see Judas as condemned by Christ also deny the doctrine of double predestination.

All this is before we try to understand what a metaphor like fire is supposed to be teaching us, and what it would mean to describe the fire as everlasting. For my own part, I see the beatific vision as so wildly exalted and disproportionate  even to the sort of good that would make us perfectly happy that it is odd to see it as any failure of divine mercy to grant it to someone. Hell is just the failure to be granted this almost ridiculously infinite gift of deification. There is a long tradition of carving out spaces in Hell that seem indistinguishable from what most persons call heaven, with the Limbo of the Fathers or infants being a sort of Elysian fields with no pain and perfect earthly harmony. Still, you wonder what you would think of missing your chance to be deified. At the moment it seems better than hellfire, but this sort of moment isn’t  the one we’ll have to live with for eternity.

I’m pretty sure I missed the main point I was trying to make, but that happens.



A template for the Five Ways (2)

Articulating a template for the Five Ways might start by coining a term like “chain relative”

Chain relative: Whenever A exists relative to B, such that B itself can be considered as an A existing relative to B. Let a chain relation between a and b be aCRb.

Example: left is relative to right, but the thing on the right can itself be considered as something on the left of another thing. A son exists relative to a father, but that father can also be a son existing relative to a father, etc.

The paradigm for the Five Ways is thus:

1.)   Some aCRb have a’s given to sensation. Among this subset:

2.) Some aCRb exist relative to b’s that are not a’s (b~a). Among this subset:

3.) Some b~a deserves the name God.

The chain relatives of the Five Ways are mobile and mover, what has an agent cause and agent cause, the contingent and the necessary, the more and less something to what is most (and these properties are themselves relative to degrees of being); and what has a goal without intelligence and what has goals with intelligence. The first two are easy to see, but the last three also appeal to chain relatives: the generated/ contingent reality of the Third Way relates to what is necessary, but this necessity itself divides into what is necessary by another (and so in some sense is contingent) and what is necessary by itself. The Fourth Way does not try to argue that God is the greatest good, but that things like goods have to be proportionate to beings, and God is the greatest among beings. The fifth way does not demand that everything that acts by intelligence is God (how could it?) but that, in effect, there must be something that acts entirely out of its intelligence without having to presuppose any given substructure of nature, subconscious drives, received ideas, etc.

Ivan’s thesis (2)

We also see the connection between immortality and morality though Blondel’s analysis of human action. On the one hand, there is an absolute egoism to human action since any good we seek, whether peculiar or common, is always self referential.* Reference to will defines goodness. On the other hand, the self cannot be an absolute center since there are circumstances in which death is preferable to life.

The reality of soul and the eschatological arc of human life that comes with it are therefore attempts to come to terms with an element that shows itself as integral to human action and so to any possible morality. There is no morality where human life makes no sense, and human life makes no sense except where good is both absolutely self-referential and something conditioning the value of the self. It’s hard to see how anything other than soul can explain how one of the goods of life is the conscious renunciation of life.

Seen from an ontology of action, soul is an attempt to explain how the person both really dies and this death can be a good for him. While St. Thomas is often seen as stressing the element in this idea of soul (i.e. the soul is not I, the separated soul is not a person, etc.) it would be better as seeing him trying to keep Aristotelian categories open to the eschatological and moral imperatives of a broader vision that has to preserve both the terror and true annihilation of death and the fact that this death is either an exaltation and degradation of the person who suffers it.  The abstract and overly narrow attempts to force us to choose between a Substance Dualism in which the self is the soul in opposition to some corruptible non-self and a Naturalism in which the self is utterly corruptible overlook what is involved in making the action of this self possible in the lived world.

*I trust that everyone is mature enough to know the difference between being self-referential and being selfish, proud, or narcissistic, or even being “self-interested” in a way that is opposed to being “public minded”.

A defense of Ivan’s thesis

Ivan’s ThesisImmortality is necessary for morality.

The Logic: 

1.) No immortality, no God. “Immortality” means any eschatological renewal and judgment. Absent such an eschatological reckoning, good does not ultimately triumph and evil is not decisively overcome. Thus, the argument from evil is sound and God does not exist.

2.) No God, nothing sacred. God is the paradigm and fulness of the sacred and any notion of the sacred that might remain or be appealed to in an atheist culture is living on borrowed time.

3.) Nothing sacred, nothing inviolable or out of bounds. The sacred is what is set aside and removed from profane use and so marks a limit beyond which man absolutely cannot go. When these limits are sacred, however, they can be beautiful, ennobling, and conduits of transcendence. We may not be able to enter the sacred space but it is still a place we can be next to. When we lose the sacred, the limits on action become mere taboos: speech codes, groupthink, hypersensitivity, totalitarian micromanagement, moral posturing and elitism, etc.  These can be enforced for a generation or two but generate resentment and disgust leading to an inevitable backlash which takes its greatest joy in the transgression of the secular ersatz “sacred”.

With nothing out of bounds the secular world is powerless before the demands of power and the hard cases generated by moral absolutes. When what we want and the demands of real life run into the absolutes that are no longer taken as sacred, the absolute will give way and soften. To some extent this will happen even with the sacred, but the backlash against the ersatz secular sacred makes any absolute far less stable and perhaps even ultimately not worth the trouble. Any things or groups defended by taboos will probably end up worse off than if they had been left to fend for themselves.

And so the pop-summary of Ivan’s thesis that without God all is permitted can be defended as a claim about the sacred. Without the sacred, we have nothing sturdy enough to stand up to power and concupiscence, to give meaning to hard cases, or to compensate for the resentment that arises from ruling things outside the pale. Even where secular and purely rational morality defends real goods, they aren’t doing those goods any favors.


The God of the Third Way

The God of the Third Way is what is necessary by itself. The Third Way explicitly recognizes the possibility of necessary beings other than God, but it only insists that they are necessary by another. But we obviously can’t claim in the midst of a proof for God’s existence that the universe or matter are necessary by another because God made them; and if we have some criterion that establishes that the universe is necessary by another, then why don’t we just apply that criterion and dispense with the Third Way? How do we keep the Third Way from either begging the question or being superfluous?

One response is that St. Thomas is working from a hypothetical account of the what is necessary by itself, perhaps like

If a thing is necessary in itself, then knowing its definition would suffice to make us know it exists.

To justify: one sense of “in itself” is “by definition”, and the necessary (in the context of the Third Way) is what exists at all times.

It’s pretty clear that no physical thing could be necessary in itself: a cogito argument could make us know that a certain physical individual exists but individuals are not defined, and any physically defined entity requires information beyond the definition to make its existence given. When we run any necessary thing other than God through this, all of them fall short of being necessary in themselves, but we still need the Third Way to establish that there is at least one thing that is not just necessary, but necessary in itself.

The Ontological Argument is close at hand in all of this. STA seems to think that the conditional is true but that we don’t in fact know the definition of what is necessary in itself. This requires some account of what we’re doing when we isolate essentially true and convertible accounts of God as unmoved mover, agent cause without agent cause, necessary being in itself, etc. but part of the answer would consist in the  fact that individuals are indefinable.


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