Ex nihilo

Fr. Kimel quotes Thomas Jay Oord as representative of a current in Contemporary theology:

The Bible does not affirm creatio ex nihilo. Instead biblical authors consistently say that God creates out of something. When exploring options for how Christians might best think about God as creator, it’s difficult to overemphasize this biblical point: According to Scripture, God creates from something.

Biblical writers offer various descriptions of the “something” out of which God creates. In Genesis, the Spirit works with tohu wabohu (formless void), or what is often translated “primordial chaos” or “shapeless mass” (1:2). God creatively transforms chaos and shapelessness into something new: the heavens and the earth (1:1). God creates out of something, even if the “something” is initially vague, disordered, or messy.

Genesis also speaks of the tehom, the “face of the deep,” over which God hovers when creating (1:2). The “deep” is a something, not literally nothing. Many biblical scholars believe tehom signifies the presence of primeval waters as God creates the heavens and the earth. The New Testament’s most explicit theory of initial creation, 2 Peter 3:5, supports this view: “Long ago by God’s word the heavens came into being and the earth was formed out of water and by water.” Water, of course, is something not nothing. … In sum, we search Scripture in vain for passages supporting creatio ex nihilo. Biblical writers say that God initially (and continually) creates from something.

Two claims:

1.) The Bible gives no support for Creation from nothing

2.) The Bible supports creation from something.

I think both fail.

Oord speaks as though Genesis said “in the beginning there was a formless void, and God created the heaven and earth from it”. But the text clearly doesn’t say that. God creates heaven and earth (presumably, all there is) and within this there is a void or deep. I think Oord is right to see Genesis as asserting that the void is non-created or somehow “just there” (more on that in my conclusion) but he is wrong to take it as some sort of material that God initially worked with. If one takes “heaven and earth” as being everything (and what else is there?) then Scripture gives no indication there was any matter from which they were made, and this is exactly what creation ex nihilo means.

Just to stress the point: God doesn’t make things out of water as a material (except for the sea, but more on that in a moment). He doesn’t pick up a lump of watery chaos and then roll it between his palms to make a snake, or scatter the water into the sky to make stars.

But then what do we say about the sea which is separated from the land, or the waters of heaven and the waters of the earth? These are described as separated, which seems to imply that the waters, at least, are a sort of matter God worked with in forming things. An initial response is just the one given in the first paragraph: God works with them only after creating heaven and earth. But a deeper response has to identify the mythic role that the waters are playing in this account. Specifically, I think Oord thinks this passage is talking about material when in fact it is speaking about privation and a failure to exist.

The Genesis account makes the analogy of light : darkness :: earth : waters by separating each from the other. Following Augustine, we note  that God does not call the darkness good or bless it, which indicates that the light and darkness in question are metaphors for moral and ontological goodness, like privation and existence, evil and good. But doesn’t this sort of analysis break down in the opposition between earth and sea? After all, the sea brings forth life, just as the earth does, and it seems to be called “good” for doing so. But this proves false on a closer reading, for two reasons (1) when God commands the earth to bring forth, it brings forth life of itself, but when he commands the sea to bring forth, God himself creates (cf. Genesis 1: 11 with 1:21) the implication is that the earth will bring forth good things from a goodness it has of its own while the sea will only bring forth good by someone acting against what the sea is of itself. Furthermore, (2) when God blesses the earth he blesses it, but when he has the sea bring forth animals he blesses them. And so both the light/darkness and land/ sea parallels are in fact ways of speaking about moral and ontological categories: the first divides the blessed from the cursed, the second shows that God imposes an order on evil and goodness such that the former will always end up giving rise to the latter. Evil (and indeed, any failure to exist) is not just divided from goodness, but forced to be an instrument for bringing it forth.

In other words, I’d level three objections to Oord’s claim: (1) his argument arises as though from a text that says “in the beginning, there was the waters”; (2) it fails to see the significance of God not using the water or chaos as a material, which is a support for the idea of creation ex nihilo; and, (3) by seeing chaos as somehow material, one can’t do justice to the ways in which Genesis uses darkness and water to speak of moral and ontological categories. Water isn’t material: it’s the privation and the failure to exist that is a necessary consequence of giving rise to something other than God – and this is why Scripture seems to speak of them as uncreated. In fact, a further analysis of the use of “the waters” in Scripture and the Church will point to it as a symbol of the death that life in Christ arises from.

Some might point to 2 Peter 3 as a text that speaks of water as a material, “Long ago by God’s word the heavens came into being and the earth was formed out of water [LXX “ek”] and by [dia] water.” but it’s clear from the above that a material account of “out of” is not necessary. “Out of” does not need to indicate a material cause, and might even indicate the opposite of one. “A man being out of prison” does not indicate the prison entering into some man’s being, but his separation and division from it; and making “through” or “by” water is perfectly consistent with the account we gave above of evil being a sort of instrument by which God brings forth good. Further, this interpretation is more consistent with the text of 2 Peter, since the author immediately proceeds to say that these waters overwhelmed and destroyed the earth in the flood.


– Christ reveals a real division between the individual and the person. The Boethian definition of person as individual is either inadequate, or the word “individual” is an intentional term being used as a placeholder for some unspecified reality. STA suggests the latter by saying that “individual” is an intentional term used for an individual substance which, like all individual substances, is unknown to us.

-Hylomorphism requires that form as such is universal, since the thing both  is and is known by the same. But then soul as separate is mine. This is one reason why Aristotle’s account of soul as separate in 3.5 is so odd. He’s trying to articulate a sort of existence where the division between individual and sort of thing is beginning to break down.

-Cajetan’s account of “symmetry” to the body, St. Thomas’s “immersion in matter”. Metaphors at the exact moment when one wants science. Is this an apologia for myth?

-Moderate claim: the division between form and matter starts breaking down for the human soul in separation

More extreme claim: what “person” is to human nature so (some name we haven’t coined) is to canine nature; and there also the same real division between them applies.

– The problems raised against universals have parallels with individuals. Both are intentional terms.

-Call this the A-T-Nominalist position: the universal is known, but does not exist; the particular exists, but is not known. It’s hard to see how this isn’t more a critique of metaphysics than an extension of it.

-So perhaps we put existence and intelligibility as opposites on a continuum of the intentional. They are mingled together only to the extent that we have neither in their purity.


Educating rage. Take rage seriously as a desire to destroy some evil affecting you. But what if violence is unable to pull this off? What if Zossima is right that

[A]ll these sentences to exile with hard labor, and formerly with flogging also, reform no one, and what’s more, deter hardly a single criminal, and the number of crimes does not diminish but is continually on the increase. You must admit that. Consequently the security of society is not preserved, for, although the obnoxious member is mechanically cut off and sent far away out of sight, another criminal always comes to take his place at once, and often two of them.

What is said here about state force would apply just as well to all forms of dominance: fighting, sarcasm, cutting others off from the group, backbiting, shaming by persons or the press, etc.

So rage is fulfilled only by what actually can stamp out evil from the heart. In this sense Christianity seeks not to drive out rage, but to fulfill it. This is true of all rage, whether human or divine.

Our Father as a single narrative

(The prayer is seen as a though it spoke of the Father as a light or energy bursting forth into the world, giving strength and illumination, and driving out all that is opposed to it.)

1.) Holy is your name: 

Holiness is order to the divine, and so also the divine presence in things. The name of the Father gives us the power to open a source of light, giving action and energy.

2.) Your kingdom come 

For the kingdom just is the light and energy that pours forth, whether through a society (the Church) or an individual (the heart).

3.) On Earth as it is in Heaven.

It is the very same power of the kingdom here as there, though it exists here in a process of revelation, i.e. as a mystery

4.) Give us this day

The power is fully earthly, not seeking to banish the material but to be entirely integrated to it. It is not just for “spiritual” goods but for “physical” goods – though in fact it is more of a critique of this sort of division.

5.) And forgive as we forgive

The kingdom not only dictates how we should stand to goods but to evils as well. The light first drives out darkness by making us renounce the action of darkness.

6.) Lead us not into temptation.

One can forgive and still find the evils attractive. Let even this appearance be driven out.

7.) Free us from the Evil One/ evil.

Free us not just from the attraction but even from the source of this attraction, both within us and outside of us.


If consent were the only moral criteria for an activity then, keeping the activity the same, a complete consent would always make a better activity than a hesitant, wavering, and uncertain one. But this isn’t so – it’s not taken as a mark of moral progress for someone to go from being hesitant about prostituting themselves to gaining a full acceptance of it.

Again, absence of consent is sometimes exculpatory.

Both these are variants of familiar refutations, and no one would need to make them at all if not for our abject terror at the thought of having to speak about The Good, which leads us to look for all sorts of substitutes for good and evil, like consent, biology, health, etc.

Knowing substance

One of the crucial elements of STA’s doctrine of the soul is his denial that the powers of the soul are its essence. This means that when we speak of the rational or intellectual soul we are naming it by a power that is really different from what the soul is. A human being is not a body unified to intellection, though this is easy enough to imagine (provided we make intellection a luminous smoke with cognitive power). Rather, intellection and human corporeality issue forth from some unknown reality with the power to actualize and unify both. We call it the rational soul not because it is reason, but as a sort of honorific.

STA clearly takes this question as foundational and very problematic. It’s the first question he treats of in the question of the powers of the soul, he raises an unusually long set of objections to his thesis, and his response is particularly strident and emphatic, with both of his supporting arguments introduced by saying “it is impossible that…”

There are signs, however, that STA has a difficult time giving a coherent response to the question. Consider his responses to arg. 1 and arg 7:

ad. 1 [K]nowledge and love as referred to the soul as known and loved, are substantially or essentially in the soul, for the very substance or essence of the soul is known and loved.

ad. 7 substantial forms, which in themselves are unknown to us, are known by their accidents; nothing prevents us from sometimes substituting accidents for substantial differences. [n.b. this claim is made explicitly about reason, not about purely material substances- ed.]

So do we know the substance of our own soul or not? To be fair, this is another question that STA treats at great length, but it’s not clear how even a lengthy response can do the work he needs it to do here.

I don’t know that there is any properly Thomistic answer to the question of the knowability of substance, which seems to be the general question which the problem of the soul brings into bright relief. St. Thomas (who is underappreciated for the things he refuses to talk about) seemed to take this general problem as something he would stay largely silent about.

Codes vs. machines

David Berlinski points out how odd it is to look back at some of the 19th century demands for mechanical accounts of complex living structures, since we now expect the explanation to be coded or executed from instructions. At first this seems to change nothing at all, since it seems like reading a code can be just as mechanical as the action of a gear-box or the cotton gin. How is, say, an old IBM computer responding to a punch-card hole any different than a crankshaft responding to the force of the piston?

But an information system requires an explanation for why parts with no determinate relation to one another nevertheless have that relation in fact. You don’t need to specify that a eight-tooth gear will cause an 80-tooth gear to have 10% of its RPM’s, but you do need to specify that “hole in punch card here” will cause a device to “turn on electricity in this circuit for 15 milliseconds”. One could have had “hole in punch card here” mean absolutely anything that the machine could do, and could have made the thing turn on for 15 milliseconds by any signal whatsoever. The arbitrariness of the relation between the cause and effect in a code requires an explanation beyond the mere interaction of the parts involved.  Briefly, an information system adds to a mechanical system the idea of the causes of themselves being entirely indeterminate to their effects. In fact, shifting to a code-based account of nature is a way of abandoning and critiquing the search for mechanical causes.

In fact, we need to do more than just account for why one thing will mean/cause another, since one of the settled points in philosophy of language is that symbols take their meaning not just from arbitrary stipulation but from a community of symbol users. Information systems arise not just from mind and will, but from a community of speakers.

While it might seem natural to spin this into a cosmological argument, this is not the best interpretation. I think the codes we’re finding in nature are more dialectical entities, that is, realities that come from mixing mind with the cosmos in order to make it more intelligible. In fact, I think we were doing this even when we saw nature as mechanical, since the mechanical can only exist as an instrument of the living. There is a subjective and personal element behind the actions of nature, but in meditating on information and code the subject we find is ourselves. The basis of this possibility is what I was arguing a few posts ago: there is no ontological division between nature and art, which allows us to truly understand nature as such by understanding it as an artifact.


A discourse can’t be both timeless and progressive. Where knowledge is progressive, we’re interested only in what is most up-to-date and we expect the level of insight to be inversely proportionate to the temporal distance from now. If we want to establish whether someone is an authority in a progressive discourse, it suffices in large part to simply be told when he wrote.

Few contemporary persons would require a justification of  progressive discourses. We are all impressed that, in them,  knowledge is continually improving; the consensus of truth gets larger and larger; the technical vocabulary becomes more and more exact, verified, and powerful; the literature becomes more objective, detached, and even oracular. One gets the sense that the discourse is really getting somewhere. But this isn’t every possible perfection of a discourse – there is also a value in a discourse that stretches throughout all time. It is precisely by discoursing on things that we are most human, and so a complete absence of timeless discourse would leave us without an insight into the humanity of our ancestors, and it would leave our descendants with no insight into our own humanity.

This division between progressive and timeless discourse is one of the better divisions between the sciences and the humanities, and it helps to explain why the humanities is such a terribly mixed bag. There is almost nothing intrinsic to the subjects of Latin, History, English Lit and Philosophy that links them all together other than that they are all particularly good paths into timeless discourse. This seems to hone in on just what we love most about the humanities, sc. those moments when we feel we get an insight into the way things have always been and always will be, or an insight into things that deserve to be never superseded but remain forever. For all of its power, this is one perfection that must be denied to the sciences. For them, failure to advance is not a perfection, but a sign of death and stagnation.

Two small qualifications:

It’s impossible to keep the progressive and timeless entirely distinct. Even philosophy makes real progress in certain areas, and even the sciences can learn by going back to the first insights made into a theory. But  one can only mix the progressive and timeless to a very limited degree. The division is about as close to a bright yellow line as one gets in a field this broad.

Philosophy, literature, and the other timeless discourses have some ability to come to a final or definitive expression. I doubt very much that we will ever improve on the 19th century novel, Shakespearean lyric and psychology, the scholastic disputed question,  Baroque-Romantic musical composition, etc. There are golden ages and centers of genius in timeless discourses. But this simply means that the timeless character of the discourse isn’t spread evenly over all history. There are clumps and bald-patches.

Meditation Three

Take a central claim from Meditation Three: the idea I have of God could only be caused by God. 

Try taking an experiential approach to the claim. Descartes is clear that the whole sensible world might just as well be a dream world, and so let’s assume that one’s idea of God and all other ideas are taking place in a dream. But seeing God in a dream is not the same thing as seeing something strange, unseen before, or even illogical. It is difficult to wake from a theophanic dream without taking it as significant. Even if we don’t see God, but feel like we’ve been attacked by some malevolent spirit or enlightened to see something beyond our natural powers (like a premonition of the future) it’s hard to wake up and think that it was all in your head. People thus naturally tend to think that an idea of an existence greater than yourself, especially if experienced with great vividness and clarity, arises from a source higher than yourself. 

Thus one of the simplest accounts of what Descartes is driving at in the Third Meditation is that he takes the the mode of knowing God in philosophy as relevantly equivalent to the mode of knowing God by religious experience, i.e. the encounter in thought of an absolutely simple, all-powerful, eternal being (no matter what philosophical propaedeutic one needed to see it) is the equivalent of a mystical, intuitive encounter with this being in a dream. Just as the encounter in the dream carries its own evidence so too does the philosophical articulation of what God is, even apart from any argument whether God exists.



The humanelic

If the eye were an animal, then vision would be its soul. 

De Anima, Bk. II c. 1

Aristotle picks an organ with a single function. Picking “mouth” gives us not the single act of vision but a whole class of actions, e.g. of chewing, breathing, kissing and conversing, and this group of actions does not enjoy a single name. Maybe in honor of Aristotle’s entelikia, and with an eye to making an adjective, we could coin a suffix -elic to describe the group. So chewing, breathing, etc. are all mouthelic; just as grabbing, punching, handling, pinching etc. are all handelic. If the throat were an animal, its soul would be throatelic.

On this account, the human soul is the humanelic. And so “soul” adds to “human being” just what “mouthelic” adds to “mouth”, i.e. it adds a shift from considering the thing as just some thing “there” to considering it as the (obviously) unified source of all the mouth can do. Soul is not opposed to body but to the thing other than a source of action. Clearly there is some overlap between body and “what is other than a source of action”, since body is characterized chiefly by its inertia (inactivity), but merely being physical or extended isn’t what one wants to target as the opposite of soul. Soul is opposed to “stuff” or whatever could be one thing or another. It is precisely this that makes it a form of matter anima forma corporis. 

And so we see first that the soul/body opposition, and the supposed opposition of them as invisible/visible is misleading. Is that which unifies chewing, kissing, and speaking invisible? Perhaps as a unity, but anyone can visualize a mouth. But if mouth were an animal, it is just this unity (what we called the mouthelic) that is its soul.

The humanelic is invisible in certain ways, though not as soul but in ways that everyone seems to agree on. We all recognize that there is a danger in mixing up the epistemic/logical  and ontological/ physical worlds, or with “confusing the map with the territory”, which means we recognize that the conceptual and moral world plays by different rules than the physical one. In this sense the humanelic must be at least partially characterized as non-physical. If these humanelic elements exist, then asking whether they can die, decompose, or corrupt is like asking if an oak tree can be modus tolens or a field equation can be prudent. This doesn’t quite address the problem of “continued consciousness” (which is how immortality is usually understood), but it helps to position the question for a further inquiry.

The Physics of Relics

A colleague asked how one would describe the Catholic teaching on relics. I was struck that the first few reasonable explanations were completely false. True, they help bring the saint to mind; true, they aren’t prayed to with latria but with some declension of it; and it’s even true that the relic will (presumably) be reanimated in the resurrection of the body. But the Catholic idea seems to go beyond all this so far as it imputes holiness as belonging to an inanimate object, and not just as an observer-relative property. Holiness is a physical characteristic, and it can characterize both the animate and the inanimate. This is why Catholics are often confused about what to do with desiccated blessed palms, worn-out bibles or even broken statues. We can’t just throw them away, and not just for fear that someone might be scandalized. We wouldn’t feel any better about throwing them away hidden in a box.

Now in one sense there’s nothing odd about having physical properties unknown to physics. All proper sensibles are like this (taste, color, texture, etc.). But we also can’t just see these properties as observer-relative. All this is in contradiction to our idea that, by looking around, we just look at the natural world.

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