Debate among curricula designers.

A: Religion will probably last forever, but only because it shamelessly promotes itself.

B: Huh? Where is it advertising? Its special promotion deals?

A: That’s not what I mean. Assume the university [we work at] promoted itself like religion does. We’d demand everyone gather together and kneel before the divinity of, say, the statue of the arrowhead and mark all the transitional and principle events in life (like birth and marriage and death) with ceremonies that had to reference the university. This would be pure nonsense, of course, but it’s nonsense no matter who demands it.  Its dehumanizing to grovel in this way before anything.

B: Well, don’t we end up with this sort of blind devotion before the arrowhead? What about the football team?

A: That’s not the same at all. People criticize sports teams all the time, and we tolerate those who aren’t into it.

B: Well, there are pretty strong social pressures to like the team, rally around it uncritically, etc. We do tolerate those who don’ follow it, but we wouldn’t tolerate anyone who disparaged it as publicly as you disparage religion.

A: That’s all outlier phenomena. Maybe we have a little harmless groupthink that we don’t police to strictly. Imagine having an Inquisition or a fatwa or throwing people in pogroms over love of the football team, after all. But the general message of the University is entirely opposed to this. We want students to think for themselves.

B: Given all you said so far “thinking for yourself” means marking the events of life in a way you determine yourself, and not bowing uncritically before anything.

A: Exactly. What else could it possibly mean?

Dekoninck v. Eschmann, the basic argument


1.) All sides agree that personal dignity is a crucial concern in modern thought.

2.) Dignity is a sort of good.

3.) Common goods are higher than peculiar, proper goods.

4.) Therefore, the dignity we have from the highest common good, sc. God and the universe, are higher than any good we have as the peculiar, proper individuals we are. Various strains of modern thought are perverse for not recognizing this.


1.) All sides agree that personal dignity is a crucial concern in modern thought.

2.) A person is a unique sort of existence, distinct from all other things in the universe, and not just in a way that a part is distinct from a whole.

3.) Therefore personal dignity is the sort of thing that needs to be understood apart from all other things in the universe.

Notice that, if this way of putting it is right, CDK and Eschmann both start with an idea of personal dignity, but CDK wants to understand this through the notion of dignity whereas E. wants to understand it though the notion of a person. E’s problem is that STA doesn’t say much about his second premise, and even argues that the crucial notion that sets person apart from nature (sc. “individual”) is a logical term that names something unknown to us (see ad 3 here).

Notes on Dekoninck v. Eschmann

(With a kind word for Eschmann, since he never gets one)

-Distinguish two claims: the common good is a higher good than the proper one; and persons as persons exist for themselves and not for another. The first claim is really just given by definition, though the definition and the existence of the thing defined are not evident, and so CDK does very important and admirable work in elucidating them. But Eschmann is clearly not interested in the first question at all. As CDK himself notes, Eschmann simply skips over the whole discourse.

-The peculiar debate rules of the time – this was the high water-mark of Leonine manualism and Gerrigou-Lagrange – dictated that the debate be entirely a debate about what STA said. This is fine, but it seems that what Eschmann wanted to say was simply that the Boethian definition of a “person” is ontologically inadequate, even if it is adequate to some purposes, sc. to point to the difference between nature and individual.

-A better way Eschmann could have put his question was to reformulate just what “person” looks like on the CDK scheme: CDK is loathe to grant any special status to the person beyond the rational nature: for him, all God ultimately wants to fill out all the grades of the universe, and given that he can’t have rational natures without having persons, he’s stuck having to make persons in order to get his universe to look right. Put like this, it seems like we’ve made a wrong turn somewhere. True, CDK would insist that it’s better for persons to be intended primarily as natures; and that there is something diabolical in wanting to not be a part of the universe. But Eschmann seems to be insisting that this is to miss something crucial about persons.  But what exactly is that?

-Eschmann might have done better to revisit the old problem of the supposit in Christ. Christ is an individual of a human nature but he is not a human person. So what exactly does the person add to human individual? There has to be something. CDK does not seem open to addressing the question: for him, person is just an instance of the nature, occupying some strata in a declension tumbling down from angelic nature (not Gabriel or Raphael) to prime matter.

-Here’s another way of putting the question: we have no name for “person” in any other individual (animal or plant), and none is necessary. We can name a dog, but there is no name for what is named. “John” is the name of a person, but Lassie is the name of … what? Some unnamed thing – the unnamed  “individual of a canine nature”. Answering just why we need a name “person” but not for what Lassie is is just the sort of thing that Thomism isn’t very good at, and that the 20th century was much better at.

-It might have been better to hear a debate between CDK and someone like Martin Buber, though it’s doubtful that they have enough common ground to fight over or fight from. Buber would almost certainly take CDK’s common good doctrine as it relates to persons as the apotheosis of degrading rational theology, seeking to account for I-thou in terms of I-it. The “it” (the “nature”) is taken as what God chiefly intends, and the “thou” is only a side effect of wanting to fill out the grades of the universe.

-One problem is a fundamental axiom in Thomism that I spoke of before: all diversity for STA reduces to hierarchy. Diversity exists only because some structure or declension of value must be built up from it. The diversity of persons would have to be no different, but Eschmann seems very much against this. Diverse individuals can be willed other than merely accidentally, or as parts of a whole. This is, at least, if the individuals are persons.

-Another problem is that the universal causes that are so crucial to CDK’s vision of the universe don’t exist out there as organizing cosmic principles. As far as we can tell, only individual minds and their products (like language or money) are universal causes, and there are none in nature as such (like stars, the sun, the spheres, etc.). Eschmann could have raised the possibility that an account of person might just be that STA was wrong, and that only persons are universal causes.

-James Reichmann wrote that STA’s philosophy is ultimately an account of individual beings as beings, and Scotus’s is of individual beings as individuals. If this is right  then the question of persons is exactly the sort of problem that will set the limitations of Thomism in bold relief.

Different senses of “God cannot be known by human beings”

(All of these can be used either by atheists or theists, though almost all of them were integral to the system of a theist philosopher.)

1.) Human beings know only what can be abstracted from matter

God cannot be abstracted from matter.

2.) Human beings must know things intellectually in a general way before they know them distinctly.

Whatever can be known in a general way is not identical with the general way in which it is known

God is identical with any general existence he has.

3.) Human beings know things so far as they can produce a similitude of the known thing within themselves.

Anything produced is created

No created thing can be a similitude of an uncreated one.

4.) He who knows, transcends what he knows

Man can transcend God in no way whatsoever.

5.) He who knows, illuminates the thing he knows and gives it an intelligible existence it would not have without him.

God cannot be given any mode of existence whatsoever.

6.) We can know a creator either as acting by a plan, or not by a plan.

If by a plan, then there is some reality outside of himself, if not by a plan, he is not an intelligence at all.

7.) We can understand a creator only as producing necessarily or contingently.

If by necessity, he is bound, if contingently then he does not explain the contingent existence that arises from him.

But the creator must both act freely and explain the contingent existence that arises from him.

8.) What is known, is known as one thing among potentially many.

God is in no way potentially many.

9.) If creator is intelligible, creation is intelligible.

To understand the creature itself, we have to understand it as either really possible before creation, or not.

But real possibility is real existence, and so there was either real existence of a creature before creation, or the creature is impossible.

But the creature is neither impossible nor really existent before creation.

10.) What acts and what receives are understood as having one action.

In creation, the action is God himself and the existence of the creature is receptive.

But no one action can be both created and uncreated.

11.) In order for a thing to be known by another, that-which-is-knowable about it (usually called “essence”) must be separable from its actual existence.

God’s essence and existence are not separable.

12.) God can be known only if he is known to act on another

Whatever acts, acts from its power to act.

Whatever acts by power has potential existence (sc. to the action)

God is in no way potential.

13.) We can know only what can be properly described by an abstract or concrete term.

But God cannot be properly described by the abstract, since he exists, nor by the concrete since we predicate the abstract of him (I am the life)

14.) We can know only some X when we recognize that it is different to say “X is” and to say “X is X”.

If we understood God, we would see that there is no difference between saying “God is God” and saying “God is”.

15.) If we knew definition of God, we would see he exists.

It is impossible for us to know a definition that provides us information about whether the defined thing exists.

16.) What we can know can be defined.

God cannot be defined.

17.) What can have no positive content to its description cannot be known.

The positive content of a description is given to us only by direct sensation.

18.) Whatever can be known, can be known as “something”.

Whatever can be known as “something” is not necessarily distinct from a creature, for a creature is also known as “something”.

God is necessarily distinct from a creature.

19.) We can know those objects whose knowledge gave some adaptive advantage.

Knowledge of God is does not give an adaptive advantage.

20.) We can understand creation only as the First Cause giving something other than itself the power to exist and act.

Everything other than the First Cause is a sort of instrument and so does not act of itself.

21.) We can know actions only as immanent or transitive

Immanent action never leave the one acting, transitive action presupposes some other on which to act.

But the act of creation both leaves the one acting, and does not presuppose some other on which to act.

22.) We understand only what exists by itself or by another.

If God exists, then a creature is not a substance since it exists only by another.

But I am a substance and am not God.

23.) We know things so far as they act on us, the way light acts on an eye or sound on the ear.

A thing acts on us not as it exists in itself, but as it appears.

God does not appear to us.

One way in which morality requires (a specific sort of) religion

The claim that one cannot be moral without religion means any number of things, many of which are false, dubious, or incompatible with each other. But what follows is one of the few ways in which I think the claim is right.

Here’s a basic moral predicament: we’re born into a world with concentrations of influential power,* and this power uses its influence to persuade all persons of the truth of a morality that is, in fact, merely in its own interests. Since no morality can make the good of the whole be merely the good of a part, this morality will be essentially false and inhuman, and since it’s in the very nature of influential power to persuade and produce conviction, all persons will be persuaded and convinced of a morality that is essentially false and inhuman. There will always be dissent from this morality by a few, and sometimes by many, but any widespread conviction can effectively self-police itself even without some cartoonish, deliberate conspiracy to do so, since any widespread conviction makes dissenters ipso facto cut off from influence, without resources, and, of course, just weird. 

All sides agree that these concentrations of influential power are concentrations of money and/or political power, but we should also acknowledge that relationships that trace back to sexual activity (spouse and family) play an important role, if for no other reason than that they are the conduits that transmit this power though time in a way that keeps it concentrated to a few.

So what’s the solution?

The Left’s solution is radical: break these power structures and diffuse their power into a democratic and socialist system. The problem here is obvious, though – all this will end up doing is concentrating power in a larger part, not in the whole. The Right’s solution seems to be to try to limit the power of large political structures (i.e. to end “Big Government”), but this seems to be little more than folly and wishful thinking. Qui custodiet custodes? 

But we can’t exist as social beings without some sort of capital, political order, and sexual bonding, so what do we do?

I see no solution other than by agreeing as a society to impute moral superiority to those who utterly renounce money, political power, and erotic love. The power of politics, capital, and familial exclusivity will remain, but it will always be checked in its attempt to set up a false morality that orders the good of the whole to the part. Both Eastern and Western cultures have hit on this solution through monastic institutions.

In the West, the moral power of monasticism was torn down in the Reformation, and we can even define much of modern morality as an attempt to come up with one moral vision for everyone, such that there are no essentially higher and lower moral lives. It is in the rejection of “monkish virtues” that the Reformation, and the modern world that issued from it is at once most persuasive and – to be blunt – most short-sighted. True, as an abstract matter it would be wonderful if every man were his own priest, and all persons could be saints, and a life of dutiful industry and family life were morally equal to renunciation, but in the concrete world in which we live all this high-minded equality ends up doing is removing the one effective check to the false morality and false consciousness of partial, corporate interests. If we don’t  knowingly idealize the life of monks we will end up unknowingly idealizing the interests of a corporation or a mob.


*The only difference between the Right and the Left is who gets labelled the influential power. The Left sees it as being businesses and sometimes established religion, the contemporary Right sees it as media conglomerates and universities.

Experiential definition of happiness

Polly Young-Eisendrath defines happiness as the state of experience in which you have no desire to be doing something else. She sees the state as occurring in lovemaking, absorption in a hobby or practice of a skill, etc.  She designed the definition to dovetail with the larger research into flow, though the Buddhist influence on the definition is apparent, sc. through her highlighting the loss of a sense of self.

1.) The first value of the definition is that it ties what we are targeting in classical ethics to a concrete experience. Aristotle’s account is that happiness lacks this reference to a sample or foreshadow of the thing we’re striving for.

2.) Heraclitus, seeking to give an account of nature, said moving, it rests. It’s facile to see this as the account of some continual flux – it’s rather an account of immanent action or of total self-absorption in activity.

3.) It’s easy to forget that the division of act and potency makes operation the act of existence. Operation is more intended by nature than substance. This is common to art and nature – when we make a car we simply want whatever can do car-like activities – and if we could get a feather or a pile of pebbles to do it we would just as soon use them as two tons of steel, rubber, and wires. Artists want what an artifact does – the substance making it up plays a purely functional role to this end.

4.) We have no name for the perfect immanent operation in anything but humans. Persons have virtue, but what about iron or orange trees? But this unnamed activity is what nature drives at in making what it makes.

5.) The cyclical character of nature is given, and therefore its intrinsic eternity. For Aristotle, this eternity was homogeneous – oranges from oranges and chimps from chimps forever. For us, the eternity is heterogeneous – animal populations are not homogeneous forever; the elements can be made heavier or broken apart in stars, etc. One of the shortest definitions of evolution is heterogeneous natural eternity. 

6.) Nature absorbed in its work = monad = perception without (self) consciousness.

7.) The eternity of nature is given even if its cycles only can be wound back so far or extended so far. A clock is intrinsically eternal, even if made at some time past and doomed to crash at some time future. A clock is not a lit fuse or a timer.

8.) It is against nature to rest in existence. Existence is lost or fulfilled in operation.

9.) Honestly, the first thing I thought about when getting lost in a task was blogging. I tested the hypothesis by trying to find myself in the action. I honestly don’t know what to say in response. In being absorbed in the problem one is both a conduit of the solution and a source of it. The solution is both found and made. So… “Lost and fulfilled” and now “found and made”? Egad, what is nature?

10.) The analysis of four causes opens up a greater unity of nature than we usually appreciate: all becoming involves both extrinsic and intrinsic causes.

11.) STA argues that there is an identity of operation and existence in God. Is this a consciousness always active but never lost in the action? Or is it an existence having no need of an action to complete itself, and so being an “action of itself”?

Confusions in curricula

When we start by dividing a curriculum into sciences and humanities, we immediately run into the problem of what to do with math – no small problem given that it’s usually the thing most consistently studied. One response is to say that math is “the language of science”. Taken in the most straightforward sense, the description is unsatisfactory since this isn’t what mathematics is but only one limited way in which it is used. Math is only the language of, say, physics in the way that physics is in turn the language of engineering, but we don’t assume that the physics is a sort of pre-engineering. What we seem to mean by this “language of science” description is that it’s given that science has to be in a curriculum, and so one will need to know some math as a propaedeutic. But this description is also unsatisfactory since math is included in the curriculum even apart from this – we want to prepare students to understand compound interest, making change, using and converting various metrical systems, etc. This is before we say anything about what we want them to know about math simply as math. I suspect that if we took this “math as pre-physics” description seriously, we’d actually be able to make math much simpler. The math that a 12th grader has to know to find his way around a science is usually a lot less involved than the math we are asking them to learn in 12th grade math.

So maybe what we’re assuming is that the science-humanities binary describes different ways of knowing the world. On this account math only enters as a tool for knowing science and not the humanities. This description will probably work until we try to figure out what to do with logic. But it’s odd to assume that curricula are limited to knowledge of a world – even assuming this excludes math. Everyone assumes that we should teach composition, some course on persuasion (rhetoric, marketing, debate, public speaking, etc.) and some course on the fine arts. Are these supposed to be “the language of the humanities”? The description seems forced and clumsy, perhaps because we teach science with an eye to making students scientists, but we don’t teach classical authors or literature with an eye to making students authors. One learns algebra in order to do algebraic things in physics, but we don’t learn composition or grammar in order to compose or grammatically discuss things in literature or philosophy. Perhaps science is just something one must do and not just study (Think Feynmann’s quip about birds and ornithology). But then it sure seems like we should be doing more of it in the curriculum.

The odometer view of evil

We use body counts as a metric for how bad wars were. On this account, WWII is the worst war, at least of the last few millennia of Western history. On the other hand,  when measured by a moral criteria of war, it turns out to be one of the best wars, since it largely satisfies the first three of the four criterion for a just war (though it had significant failures in observing proportional response). As wars go, this is (sadly) about as just as it gets.*

While one can’t treat body counts in war as purely accidental to an evaluation of the evil of a war, the criterion tells us more about population sizes and technological wizardry than about evil as such. We can try to avoid the population-size problem by looking at deaths per size of population, but no one knows exactly how to evaluate the evil of such a ratio (is it worse to wipe out 2% of the American population in 1860 or 85% of a population of a mid-sized African tribe?) and so the temptation to just tally up body counts is hard to avoid. Still, this odometer view of the evil of war comes with significant limitations, which have already been mentioned but develop more fully as:

1.) Body counts as such don’t make wars good or evil. Though it is not an unrelated metric, it’s something like evaluating whether a steak is good by looking at how large it is. Sure, part of the value of a steak is that it’s not too large or too small, and there are some contexts in which it will be called good or bad on its size, but what one means when referring to whether it was good or bad is not a quantitative measure. Likewise, the proper criteria for a war is not bloodiness but justice, and while body count can be an element in this, it can only be so on the basis of a previous evaluation of justice.

2.) It’s more a statement about technology than war. Both the making and the recording of body counts are largely a statement about sophistication in mechanical technique. One has to ship the millions of men to some place, along with massive amounts of materiel, then equip them with tools that are capable of killing with great efficiency, etc. But all this technical wiz-bangery doesn’t change much in the fundamental fact of war. After two governments have specified some swath of ground on which young men are supposed to kill each other, an existential fact has been made to which technology adds very little. In this crucial sense technology and its effect seem peculiarly inept at capturing the reality of war.


*I speak only of the rather limited number of wars that I’m familiar with. Specialists or hobbyists might, for all I know, be more optimistic about the number of wars that meet all four of the criteria for just war.

The underdetermination of evil

The main problem with the Argument from Evil is its dependence on gratuitous evils, but a lesser problem is that evils are experienced both as refutations of design and as paradigm cases of things that must be somehow meaningful but can only be so if God exists. Great evils are both used as arguments against God existing and as things which send many back to the Church. Sure, one can be cynical about people being chased back to church in the face of evil, but we can be just as cynical about a person who tries to tell others what their sufferings have to mean.


Notes – Some of which are crazy

– A fact is just a metaphysics you can get away with.

-I keep trying to work out the details of an epistemology that says that you know whatever you respond to by saying “yeah, that seems right”. We know when we have evidence, and evidence is an unwieldy and sprawling confederacy of notions.

– Some things exist because we agree that they do: if we praise or glorify something he is praised and glorified. Such a being is given a real power he did not have before.

-Praising or glorifying someone doesn’t just change how we respond to him, it changes the person himself.

– Any power to create a society has a power to affect things internally from extrinsic relations.

-We know that interaction between conscious beings is different from a physical system.

Buber: God needs you for what is the purpose of your life. Here’s a variant: God needs you for those things that owe their existence to you. But this sort of existence is fullest in praise, blessing, adoration, glorification. It is this sort of action that gives rise to both the nation and the Church.

-The creator needs us so far as we are creators, so far as things owe their existence to us.

Value is goodness that owes its existence to us.

-When a thing owes its existence to a finite will, the action of the will is made perfect when it transcends itself by giving up its power over the thing it creates. This is why to take a vow is to negate the possibility of reneging, or to use money or a language requires most of us to have no power to change its meaning or value.

-Until we have no power over the meaning of what we say, what we say can’t be correct.

-We produce language in part out of a desire to speak the truth, but we can’t speak truth until the language is no longer our production.

-Say we really change God by our act of praise, blessing, adoration, glorification. Traditional theology would take this as a refutation of the point. But the basic truth of immutability is preserved since the action of a finite will is not complete until it has bound the finite will itself.

-Praise changes God only in the way that a created language expresses truth.

-Part of this is the fact that no one individual praises God fully – it must be done by the Church. I’m not exempting Christ from this.

Scotus: the act – potency binary was developed to explain univocal causes; an equivocal cause can bestow an actually already possessed by itself.

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