The argument of Humanae Vitae

1.) Before 1960, all known forms of contraception were either barriers or poisons and so could be easily categorized as contradicting the (more or less biological) nature of sex.

2.) After 196o synthetic estrogen became widely available and could suppress ovulation, making pregnancy much less likely (failure rates between 2-10%). Unlike barriers and poisons, women’s bodies release estrogen to suppress ovulation all the time. So long as the only Catholic objection to contraception was its being a barrier or poison which interfered with a natural process, the Pill was licit.

3.) If there is something wrong with artificial contraception it could no longer be based on appeals to defending the integrity of a natural process. The easy condemnation of biologism was lost. What it was replaced with is articulated in Humanae Vitae pp. 12 ad 13, which argue that willful suppression contradicts love of one’s spouse (12) and God (13).

4.) HV speaks of the inseparable connection between the unitive and procreative significance of marital sex, and somewhere along the way the became the “dual ends of the sexual act”. The only point HV is trying to make, it seems to me, is that contraception is wrong because it is loveless, which is such a bold claim that everyone has been assuming that it must be saying something else. The point is not that marital intercourse has two autonomous goals that Catholics have to try to simultaneously both keep in view, it’s the much more striking claim that an essential condition of loving someone erotically is wanting to have a child with them, at least so far as this means doing nothing to suppress fertility.

5.) Claiming this does nothing to remove the usual objections. What about elderly marriage? Marriage to women with hysterectomies? HV might be content to just claim that the eros here can only be imperfect, though accounts of a type of thing don’t take peculiar circumstances into account. Just how far one can develop this idea of degrees of imperfect eros might be an interesting research project.


Even if we ignore everything unique about Christian marriage, its status as sacrament is a prima facie objection to the possibility of Christian divorce. Christian churches, as far as I can tell, have never raised the possibility of a formal process that could undo a sacrament – there is not even a name for what, say, “unbaptizing” would be. Among Catholics and Orthodox this problem is even more acute by being repeated in several other sacraments. What would “unconfession” be? Or unconfection of the Eucharistic species? True, there is some sort of dispensation from Holy Orders, but the priesthood as sacrament is seen as indelible.

Any notion of Christian divorce either has to see it as non-sacramental or has to give some account of unsacramenting. Option 2 is as unknown both to history as to spellcheck, and so the possibility of Christian divorce rests on denying it’s a sacrament. Some Reformation churches did this long ago, but it is not a viable option for Catholics.

Catholicism seems to be in the process of looking for a tertium quid between marriage and divorce: a sort of yet-to-be-defined pastoral status that nullifies the binding character of the vow while still not recognizing any formal process like divorce. This new status, as far as I can tell, would not be the result of any one-size-fits-all process but of personal consultation and spiritual guidance but would still have to somehow unsacrament a previous marriage. While I get the reasons for wanting this to be so, the cost to our understanding of the sacraments is usually not factored into the discussion. The cost in question is pretty clear: even if all of sacraments depend on ministers to be accomplished, they are chiefly the exercise of God’s fidelity to the Church, which leaves us with no account of unsacramenting that avoids imputing infidelity to God. This is one of the main reasons why marriage is the paradigm for understanding all of God’s relations to his Church, and why the tradition of the Church saw marriage as indissoluble and as sacramental in a mutually-implicating way.

A grue-bleen theodicy

Compare the argument from Pseudo-Empiricus:

If God is willing but not able to get rid of evil, how is he all-powerful?

If not willing but able, how is he good?

If willing and able, why is there evil?

And a parallel argument from someone halfway through watching A New Hope:

If George Lucas is willing but not able to avenge the destruction of Alderaan, how is he the script writer?

If he is not willing but able, how is this movie not utterly nihilist?

If he is willing and able, why is it not avenged?

An overlong account of creation

An atheist claim at Strange Notions:

[I]f God exists, then prior to creating anything, all that existed was pure perfection. But at present, there exists a universe made up of finite constituents. That fact is more surprising on theism than it is on a view which states that the natural world is an uncreated, causally-closed system.


[I]f God is to have reasons to create at all, those reasons would lead him to create one or more of what philosopher Evan Fales calls perfect creatures. A perfect creature is a person just like God in every way but whereas God is uncreated, a perfect creature is created. A perfect creature is maximal in his power, his knowledge, and most importantly, his moral perfection.

Something is fishy in the foundations of the argument though, since all these same premises could be evidence against the existence of God from the fact that we don’t have perfect houses. What, aren’t houses “finite constituents” of the universe? Look, there’s one over there!

So are we supposed to restrict ourselves to just natural things?  If Lassie has a genetic disease making him an imperfect dog, are we to assume that the theist position is that the imperfection is a feature of Lassie’s creation by God? Doesn’t the fact that it is a genetic disease require that it arise from his ancestors?

If you want to talk about creation so far as it is set apart from the productive activity of the universe, then you can’t just take a finite thing and force one to choose whether its features are created or Naturalist. Your account of creation demands some hypothesis about the contributions from secondary causes, and these hypotheses run the gamut from Berkeleyian divine-mind-projection theories and various forms of occasionalism to the Scholastic Molinist-Thomist theories to Darwin’s well-known if continually overlooked framing of his own evolutionary account of as an account of secondary causes. But on any account what we actually find in any supposedly created universe is always conditioned by secondary causes, and so where these cannot bring forth perfect persons they will neither be found nor intended to exist in creation.*

We either have to take “creation” as primary-cum-secondary causes or as the primary cause in its opposition to the secondary, and either way breaks a straightforward inference from the features of things to the act of creation. What is odd about the Strange Notions debate is that both debaters are working from the same incoherent conflation of these two meanings since both assume that if creation occurs we should be able to take any feature of the universe as directly related to creation, which is something like taking any act of the executive branch as an act of the president. There is, of course, some sense in which every executive action is from the president, but any account of how this occurs hangs on a latticework of qualifying features like co-operation, delegation of authority, initiative and latitude in subordinates, spheres of competence, and the toleration or suppression of incompetence, mistakes, or mutiny.

So how should be understand the primary : secondary cause relation, where “creation” is sometimes understood as both the first term alone and as the confluence of both terms? Here’s a theory:

Creation is the communication of existence to what is other than God, and one of the simpler ways of dividing this from the action of secondary causes is to divide what causes existence from what causes becoming. By existence we mean the unreachable limits of both ends of the Porphyrian tree, which can neither reach existence as some highest genus nor as a concrete particular this. All concepts are therefore dynamic entities with a trajectory both upwards toward what is at the limit of abstraction and a trajectory downwards toward what is the principle of all human intellection in sense. Without existence as a downward limit of conceptualization concepts could not be about anything, without the upward limit they could have no intelligibility, and so to do away with being at either limit is to lose both the possibility and foundation of concepts.

When we say that the creator is the cause of existence or “why we have something or not nothing” what this involves is primary causes : secondary causes :: being : conceptualizable.  On the one hand, this means that all human concepts are proportionate to secondary causes and are only appropriate for knowing them, on the other hand human thought can know these concepts as trajectories to an unreachable limit and so as dependent on a non-conceptual other than serves as a foundation. In one sense this non-conceptual other is nature, both in the subconscious structures of mind and the sensory givens of the world, but it must be nature as ordered to truth and not mere human prejudice, which requires that this foundation either be or arise from intelligence.

More to the point, the dynamic character of concepts can only be unified by being if being overcomes the opposition between the abstract-intelligible-formal and the concrete, i.e. by what lacks physical genesis while still being a source of action, and what is entirely present in both the world of sense and of abstract being while nevertheless being infinitely removed from either. It’s either this or its source that we call God as creator.

The truth of Naturalism is the same truth Kant found, sc. that existence as such is not found among concepts and therefore is not the object of properly human science. But this overlooks the complementary fact that existence is an unreachable limit of the concepts themselves in such a way that it can be known as truth-preserving while overcoming the opposition of the necessary existence of the intelligible and the self-existence of what requires personality or something transcending it. And any claim that it isn’t interested in me has to get past the obvious objection that it is structuring my thought right now.

Where the account of creation assumed at Strange Notions fits in this is anyone’s guess.

*That said, even if the universe is complete in space it is not complete in time, and so any definitive ruling out of “perfect persons” could only be done from the end of history.

An Ochkamish Nominalist argument

1.) God is omnipotent.
2.) Omnipotence = can do all that is logically possible.
3.) Therefore, all that is logically possible is really possible.
4a.) If things have essences, then some things that are logically possible are not really possible.
4b The proof) Let some thing with an essence perform all actions that are logically possible. At least some are not real possibilities since essence, if it does anything, imposes limit on possible actions.
4c.) And so if some thing has an essence, then to perform all logically possible actions would have to both be done and not be done by the thing, which is a contraction.
4d.) Therefore, either no thing has an essence, or some logically possible actions are not real possibilities.
5.) But all logically possible actions are real possibilities.
6.) Therefore, no thing has an essence.


This argument fails to distinguish what is possible with respect to the absolute power of God from what is possible for creatures considered in their finite existence. As finite, it is analytic that the creature is limited in his powers to act. Distinguo 4b and deny conclusion.


Where a possibility is really absent from a subject, it is impossible for it to come to be by any power, whether human or divine. Therefore the problem remains.

Objection 2

God is the source of the existence of possibilities, and so if he were to cause some things to come about by divine power, we simply judge that he also causes a possibility to come forth also.

Response 2

I concede the argument, but deny that such a possibility can be introduced into any finite essence, since to introduce a possibility into a finite essence against this essence would be to make an essence that both can and cannot do something. Example: if it is of the essence of brute animal that it not reason, it is impossible that a brute animal reason. Yet brute animals can reason by the absolute power of God, as is clear from Balaam’s ass. Thus the argument remains.

Chain relatives and the Fourth Way

I’ve claimed that all the Five Ways begin with a type of chain relative, i.e. repeatable relations like “being to the left of” or “being fathered”. But what about the Fourth Way? STA seems to mention no chain relatives at all, but simply says right out of the gate that things that are more and less good, true, and dignified, etc. (GTDE) exist relative to something maximal. Nevertheless, we understand the claim better if we take it as a conclusion for a reductio ad absurdum that assumes the GTDE has no maximal but is only relatively greater and less.

Start here:

[The] bald assertion of a difference between fair and foul things, virtuous and vicious actions, offers no standard whereby to determine their difference no reason for the similarity of all fair things qua fair and for their difference from all that are foul. So long as these are only characteristics of material individuals no standard can be found, for to measure individuals against one another is to seccumb to relativism.

Harold Cherniss, The Philosophical Economy of the Theory of Ideas. 

Logically, things are either more or less GTDE only relative to each other or ultimately to something maximal. Said another way, iff we take the more and less GTDE as a chain relative where something less relates to something greater, with the greater in turn being something less relative to some greater, etc; then this either goes on without ever requiring some ultimate, or some ultimate is required. But if the first, then GTDE is arbitrary and consists in nothing more than the irrational prejudice. I stress that it is an irrational prejudice to set it apart from what we are doing when we declare something better by hypothesis, since the whole point in treating something as if it is greater in GTDE is to find out what is in fact greater, i.e. to discover some standard why things are more and less what they are. But to assume that all one ever has are chain relatives is to dogmatically rule out discovering anything that is truly better in fact, and so to deny any point of framing hypotheses about it. But it is reasonable to form hypotheses about what is more or less GTDE, and so these things must exist relative to something maximal.

This throws light on an important difference between what is more and less in mathematical and virtual quantity. Mathematical quantities are given in greater or less on some continuum or set of ordered points, say, the number line. This number line fixes what is greater or less in terms of position or direction: what is to the right is greater than what is to the left. But in order to develop the analogue to position or direction in virtual quantities we need some standard S1 different from the things which we order. If S1 is itself variable in GTDE to S2, then unless S2 is given we cannot be sure even of the “direction” we have set up for the things falling under S1. The difference between the more and less in quantity and the GTDE is that what sets the direction of the greater an less in quantity is not itself a quantity, but what sets the order of, say, goods is itself a good. This is why the order of integers need not have a greatest but the order of virtual quantities must, and why, even though things greater and less in virtual quantity are chain relatives that can have an indefinite order of things merely relatively greater and lesser, it is impossible that all virtual quantities be of this kind.

Experiential axes of nature

-Physics takes us closer to nature on one axis only by taking us further away from it on another.

-Taylor bases his theory of the secular on the “buffered self” who is insulated from any intrusion of other intelligences. Concretely, this is accomplished by buffering ourselves from nature: we approach it though intelligence and clinical experiment rather than experience and co-existence; we leave the work of growing things, tending them, and killing some of them off to small groups of experts; we exempt ourselves as much as possible from natural rhythms and limits by electric lights, temperature controls, and our extension of motor and sensory powers by transport and communication, etc. We don’t need to denigrate one axis in the face of another, we simply need to drop the epistemic monism that makes us assume we have to pit one against the other.

-“What value is there in a buffered life? Do you want to believe in fairies?!?!” Sure, fairies don’t exist, but neither do test particles, ideal gasses, black boxes, frictionless surfaces, perfectly inertial motion, or a quantity of kinetic energy that is somehow both cause an effect of the same particular motion. Sometimes the non-existent is an indispensable light to seeing the existent. People who talked about fairies weren’t just entertaining themselves, nor are we.

-To see the existent. Our metaphors and analogs to understanding reality tend to come from the visual and tactile, but this throws an important axis of nature into the shadows. When we approach nature through the audible, its relation to the non-existent becomes crucial. Unless we remember what is no longer an object and anticipate parts of it that are not yet given audible objects cannot form a structured whole. The whole visual universe pretends to exist at once, as does the thing we grab. The audible whole demands Augustine’s distensio animi, i.e. a lived experience that has to go outside the given and existent into the world of the anticipated and lost, and tie it together to what is in front of us. Again, sometimes the non-existent is an indispensable light to seeing the existent.

-Disclosing things to a finite mind requires covering and backgrounding other things.

-We assume the pre-moderns were terrified by nature and so put gods behind it to make it tolerable. 200,000 years of neurosis, broken by industrialization!

Types of gratuitous evils

The philosophy of religion of the last 30 years or so has done a good job of showing that the argument from evil has to rest on gratuitous evil, but there is no consensus or even much inquiry over what exactly such an evil is. Sure, gratuitous evils are somehow pointless or not leading to some greater good, but this can happen in at least four ways. Evils might be justified as ordered to either (a1) an actual good or (a2) a possible good and the evils themselves can be considered either (b1) in particular or (b2) in general.

(a1)(b1) If evil has to be justified in this way, then every particular evil has to be seen as ordered to actual greater good. If we can’t see any concrete good greater arising from the fawn that’s burned in the forest fire or little Timmy dying of cancer, then the evil is gratuitous. If we further stipulate that the good that has to arise has to be peculiar to the evil in question and that it can’t be eschatological or far remote, g-evils seem plausible.

a1b If evil has to be justified in this way, then there must be some actual good that arises out of an evil, but only so far as it is a sort of thing. On an account like this, we might say that our bad backs were a consequence of bad luck, and the bad luck was allowed so that backs could be generated by natural processes like selection. This does not give a justification for bad backs as such, but only a justification for allowing things to happen by selection. Still, there is a concrete good that arises from allowing evils like bad luck, sc. the efficacy of secondary causes. If a g-evil is one that lacks a justification like this, they seem a good deal less plausible.

(a2)(b1) On this account of evils, every particular evil is justified because it makes some greater good possible, but there is no necessity that this greater good ever come about. So maybe the point of my back pain is to make heroic charity possible or inspire others to flee from complaint at my bad example, even though I never develop any charity and no one else leaves off bellyaching. It’s unlikely that all evils could be justified in this way, but this does not preclude an indefinite number of them being so. On this account, the justification of evil opens up to counterfactual possibilities which would be remarkably hard to calculate even in a single case, especially once evils start causing each other.

(a2)(b2) On this account, evils are justified only in general, and an indefinite number of them might lead to no actual greater good at all. So perhaps the fawn that burns in the woods is only justified as an instance of animal pain, but animal pain existed only for the sake of a good which, while making it possible, never came to pass. The amount of counterfactuals now become incalculable and the parameters of possible goods are probably unknowable.

These justifications are orthogonal and all or none of them might play a role in a possible theodicy. If we assume all justifications have to be type-1, the burden on theodicy is very high and we might even let Rowe get away with assuming that it’s obvious that there are g-evils.

A right to truth aporia

Let a person lose a right to truth whenever the truth would foreseeably and materially contribute to his doing an evil. And so the (sigh) Nazis at the door (groan) lose their truth rights for the same reason that an insane man loses his gun rights.

But why is it shameful to lie one’s way out of martyrdom? It’s worse than this: in lying your way out of martyrdom the one you are lying to by definition lacks a truth right, so your public profession of faith would be a case of giving someone something they have no right to. So now we’re committed to a morality that turns martyrdom into a sort of theft or despoiling of goods. We’ve probably made a wrong turn somewhere.

So maybe we add an epicycle and describe truth rights as being lost whenever truth would foreseeably and materially contribute to doing an evil to someone other than yourself. Even of we get past the stink of the ad-hocery, this still leaves us with something of a Monty Python martyr trial: three believers get tried together and, while each person confesses they are guilty the other two loudly protest “No he isn’t! We’ve never seen him before!”  After all, we can’t just say that the others should keep quiet: that would be the moral equivalent of doing nothing when the suicidal man had a gun.

So the flip side of right-to-truth claims is that they involve a limitation on professing fidelity. Religious faith would be a paradigm case, and other sorts of fidelity would be limited a fortiori. Right to truth claims seem to have some difficulties accounting for our need not just to know truth but to be faithful to it.

Leibniz, the Fourth Way

Leibniz’s Discourse on Metaphysics opens with a proof logically equivalent to the Fourth Way:

Whatever is more and less with no greatest possible is not more and less perfect

So (by contraposition) whatever is more and less perfect is such relative to the greatest possible perfection.

His first claim is supported by an insight into numbers, which admit of no maximum and are not better or worse by being more or less. We can hit the same conclusion by considering privations: if a threshold has to be the same width as a 30” door, there is no maximal way it can fall short of being that size, since falling 30″ short would leave one with no threshold at all. And so if anything is better and worse, there must be some greatest possible perfection.

The Augustinian tradition established that the greatest possible perfection is God. In giving a critique of idolatry, Augustine pointed out that if one could think of something better than the object they were considering, then the object they were considering was not God. So by the same contrapositive move  Leibniz made, God is the object than which nothing greater can be thought.

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