First half of a Sermon

1 Beloved, believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God: because many false prophets are gone out into the world. 2 Hereby know ye the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesseth that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is of God: 3 And every spirit that confesseth not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is not of God: and this is that [spirit] of antichrist

1 John 4:2

“I suspect most of those looking for advice on how to discern spirits take John’s advice as cold comfort. In fact, what comfort can a pastor take in this advice? We deal with sincere and devout young people questioning whether they should get married, or go on a mission; with devout middle aged persons who want to discern how much of their income to give to the people of God or how to stop yelling at their children; with devout older persons who cannot tell how to respond to their children who do not go to church or make peace with family members that they’ve become estranged from. What would happen if the pastor told all of these persons to seek out that “spirit that confesseth that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh”? Shouldn’t he expect a blank stare? All these persons have taken this for granted since Sunday school. So perhaps we should be content to read this passage in it’s historical context: it’s a condemnation of Gnosticism that denied the physical body of Jesus. We do not struggle to divide Gnosticism from the Gospel and so this passage can be read only by interested historians.

“But are we ready to sell the Incarnation short like this? is it just the triumph of a certain sect, which now for us is just a background for the faith, with no cash value in everyday life? If this really were the case, wouldn’t it serve more as a critique of our Sunday school belief? One thinks of Schleiermacher writing a book on the people of God and relegating the Trinity to a three-page appendix. The Trinity! Just imagine! And yet Schleiermacher’s reason is exactly the one we are seeing now: if a belief makes no difference in how we act, what value is it to us in discerning spirits, since how to act is usually what we want to know when we are discerning spirits!  Can it really be of any value to us to reflect that “Jesus Christ is come in the flesh”? Schleiermacher borrows this sentiment from Kant, who develops it at great length in Religion within the Limits of Reason AloneWhat Kant says here about the Trinity applies just as much to the John’s doctrine of the Incarnation:

But if this very faith (in a divine tri-unity) were to be regarded not merely as a representation of a practical idea but as a faith which is to describe what God is in Himself, it would be a mystery transcending all human concepts, and hence a mystery of revelation, unsuited to man’s powers of comprehension; in this account, therefore, we can declare it to be such. Faith in it, regarded as an extension of the theoretical knowledge of the divine nature, would be merely the acknowledgment of a symbol of ecclesiastical faith which is quite incomprehensible to men or which, if they think they can understand it, would be anthropomorphic, and therefore nothing whatever would be accomplished for moral betterment.

“One can almost hear the echoes of Hume’s fork: if it has no value for life, commit it to the flames! What can we say to this?

“There is in the Apostle’s formulation a clear reference to God becoming man, but it is clear that the flesh takes center stage in the formula. We must confess a divine person in the flesh, i.e. not just in a complete, concrete human nature but with all the weakness of that human nature. Augustine has already shown that “flesh” means “man”, but always with the overtone of man in his distinction from God and so as finite, limited, knowing relatively little, and able to be wounded, suffer, and die.

“But isn’t this the first repudiation of the Kant-Scheiermacher hypothesis? Jesus Christ has not come as something that needs to be translated into moral terms, as if Christ is a symbol for the moral life that would be just as illustrative whether he actually lived or not. No, God has come in the flesh. He is not an instance of a moral doctrine but the divinization of the mundane. Kant is offended by anything that goes beyond the intuitions of the mundane world, and yet John insists that these very intuitions have to be seen as things now suffused with divinity: What John calls “Christ” is not made meaningful in the measure that he can find a place in human action or concepts; these mundane concepts now have their ultimate value in their reference to a divine mystery. What could possibly be a more appropriate Johannine label for the Kant-Scheiermacher hypothesis than anti-Christ? 

“John is in fact far from giving a doctrine with no practical value – he’s setting forth the opposite practical project than one we are familiar with: one where the challenge is to see the mundane as waiting in eager anticipation for the revelation of the Son of God. Go back to that pastor seeking to give counsel: has the one seeking how much he should give really come to terms with the fact that money has been divinized through Christ’s use of it? I very much doubt it – most of us see money in the same way Kant would. It’s useful for practical life and any reference it might have to Christ is “a mystery transcending all human concepts, and hence a mystery of revelation, unsuited to man’s powers of comprehension… if they think they can understand it, would be anthropomorphic, and therefore nothing whatever would be accomplished for moral betterment.” But it’s pretty clear that if we see things in John’s way our approach to our money would be very different…


“Common sense notions”

Objection: Rational theology rests on common sense notions and unreflective, logical intuitions but science has shown that these are unreliable.

Response: Rational theology and science have exactly the same relation to common sense notions: they sometimes offend them and sometimes accept them.

An electron might offend common sense so far as it has to spin twice to go around once, but then part of the argument for the existence of electrons is that every observed charge is some multiple of 1.602 × 10-19 coulombs, i.e. the whole is a sum of its parts. One and the same common sense account of part-whole relations gets accepted or rejected. The first oddity that Planck discovered about QM, namely that energy transfer is non-linear, was what Einstein appealed to for a “common sense” proof for the existence of photons. These photons – proved by common sense appeals to the fact that the action of things follows their existence – clashed with the common sense proof that light was a wave since it produced interference when passed through a slit – because action follows existence.

In the same way, rational theology uses some common sense ideas and offends others, often in the same proof. There is nothing common sensical in an entity that transcends the concrete and abstract, that causes without interacting, that can have distinct moments of action without any intervening action, etc. But for all that, all of these things characterize human ideas, i.e. they provide for the possibility of “common sense”.

All this is unavoidable since the human mind explains the familiar by the unfamiliar and the unknown by the known. These two imparatives easily conflict and need to be set in harmony by any scheme of explanation. Common sense (or better, the axiomatic) has to be accepted in some places as “the most known” and rejected in other places as “the familiar”. There is probably no a priori scheme that will allow us to determined what stays and what goes, at least not beyond the widespread agreement that it will be hard to get on without the principle of contradiction. Notice that my argument here is retorsive: this paragraph is itself both an appeal to common sense notions and an offence against them.

Mania and metaphysics

Religious experience demands not just a super-physical or supernatural subject but also a mode of consciousness that transcends the mundane and everyday. To see what is above nature requires a different sort of experience than the one that evolved to know nature and is proportioned to it. This is why hallucinogens play such a large part in so many forms of religious experience, even if they ape the real thing. There is no mundane consciousness of the gods, as though they could show up as guests on Crossfire or take audience questions, a la Kirk’s “what does God need of a starship?” at 1:40 here.  Our experience of the divine involves the mania that Plato describes in Phaedrus.* 

Most theistic proofs are faithful to this so far as they all terminate in an object which we fail to understand through mundane experience. A first Mover is not the first element of a physical system, and though we manifest him by sensation he is not experienced by mundane sensations or brain states; the God of the Ontological Argument is understood by a sort of failure of thought, i.e. an in-principle inability on our own part to think of something greater. It’s harder to see how consensus gentium** arguments or the (to my mind hopeless) fine-tuning arguments present us with anything demanding mania, but maybe someone could figure out a way.

Like all experiences of a soul-in-a-body, these have a physical component, and so their value is not given by the experience alone. There are spiritual critiques of religious experience (see St. John of the Cross and Jonathan Edward’s critique of enthusiasm) just as there are secular critiques of it. All the same, there is no metaphysics apart from allowing the rational character of mania. No supermundane objectivity, no supermundane objects.

*Apologies for the aesthetic whiplash involved in back-to-back sentences shifting from Star Trek V to Plato’s Phaedrus. 

**Consensus gentium does not claim to establish much of anything about God but only that there must be something reasonable about the human practices that acknowledge him, and mania is a clear element in these practices. Still, the whole affair is Bayesian and extrinsic, and it’s very difficult to separate it from the way in which human beings reasonably anthropomorphize things (i.e. as a first attempt to understand them).


-As an argument for atheism, Russell’s teapot* can only be addressed to someone with no religious experience or theistic argument, and who is presumptively justified in this. But if you get to assume that, who needs an argument?

-Even if we assume a person with no religious experience or theistic argument, is the teapot supposed to prove that they have done their due diligence or that they are justified in their predicament? Are we really supposed to think that, having discovered we have no religious feeling or natural theology, that we can write off the search for it in the same way we can write off the teapot?

Dan Barker: God is incoherent, since he is supposed to be both perfectly merciful and perfectly just, but perfect justice consists in giving exactly what one deserves and mercy consists in giving them less than they deserve.

Response: Nothing responsible for evils is a virtue, and so mercy could not consist in giving less evil than justice doles out. It follows that mercy must consist in giving goods even beyond justice, i.e. giving rise to both the good of justice and something more. The paradigm case for this is the death of Christ, fulfilling the divine decree that all men must die while making the death of one man something in virtue of which death could assimilate one to divine life. The act of creation does this as well, for to establish the existence of all that is due to something (justice) is itself an act that is not due to the thing so established (mercy).

-A: Just look at this map. Clearly, the religion you accept is determined most of all by where you were born.

B: Just look at this map. Clearly accepting atheism is determine most of all by where you were born. Look at all those atheist concentrations in China, Vietnam, and the Nordic countries.

A: Exactly. But atheism doesn’t claim to be a revealed religion where God is supposed to choose who believes in him.

B: But revelation is not opposed to national religion – you’ve heard of the Jews, right? The Puritan City on the Hill?

A: But why invoke divine transmission when a human one will do?

B: Now we’re back at the Reformation and Monophysite controversies. If the priest forgives sins, who needs God; and if God forgives sins, who needs a priest? If Christ the man sufficed to redeem sinners, why make him God; if God sufficed, why the Incarnation? All the great monotheisms involve the claim that God’s work is broadly sacramental: the Jews place God in a nation or temple; the Christians place him in a man and sacrament; Islam places him in a book. You want him to be in a culture as opposed to being just divine. There is a degree of truth in this so far as you think that culture as such is not divine, but no one thinks God works apart from some concrete, experiential medium like a nation, man, preacher, or book.

*The teapot objection need not be taken like this, but it often is. See Dan Dennett here.

Time and causality, or scientific models are like nature

Brandon Vogt and Sean Carroll agree that causality requires the flow of time. This Humean claim, which is axiomatic among philosophers of science and at least a few philosophers of time (cf. Brody, Smolin, Unger), is one I’ve found bewildering since grad school. I’ve already wrote at length about how the claim involves an equivocation of the temporal and causal senses of “after” but today I’m going to take another approach.

1.) That any Christian could believe the claim is baffling in the face of all the Christian metaphysics that insist on entities that are caused but not temporal. This includes the human soul but also all the separated substances, and St. Thomas follows most biblical angelologies I am aware of by arguing that creation is mostly composed of the angels (response to objection 5).

2.) Even apart from Christian metaphysics, logical implication and mathematical construction cause conclusions while not requiring temporal duration.

3a.) If we try to say that physical entities differ from logical and mathematical ones precisely in being causal, then what we’re doing is like saying that only winged-things fly and so airline pilots don’t. The claim can avoid being purely verbal only if you do the further work to flesh out what you’re saying. As it happens, I think any attempt to flesh out this sort of claim in a scientifically acceptable sense will collapse into contradiction and nonsense, and this for at least four reasons:

3b.) Even if we could flesh out the sense of how causality exists among the physical and not the mathematical or logical, this only gives rise to the further problem that what we now call science defines its units with both mathematical and logical constructions. Time equals things. It is a variable that is multiplied, divided, added, shifted around in an equation, and plotted on a graph. Physical time is therefore formally mathematical and so, ex hypothesi, formally timeless. Notice that this is true before we ever have an Einsteinian block-universe – it’s all there from the beginning by definition. And so if the contemporary physicist starts by trying to separate physical causality from mathematical implication he is guaranteed to end up in contradiction.

3c.) There is nothing odd here – the instantiation of any scientific concept involves contradiction. All of them involve isolation, disregard of complicating factors, idealization, disregard of outlier cases, etc. which is impossible to achieve in a physical system. Note that the sense of impossible I’m using is very strong – I mean logically impossible. An inertially moving body only moves in a straight line if there are no other bodies, but if there were no other bodies it would be unable to move at all (all motion is relative to some other body). Time is the same way: physics uses a notion of time that is infinitely precise since it can determine the error of any given clock, but an infinitely precise measure of time would have no duration and so could not even serve as a measure. Measuring with an infinitely precise time unit is to try to measure out a line in points. Physics is thus non-temporal by definition, since the notion of time it has is contradictory.

3d.) Relativity is seen to require a block universe, but it is not clear whether this is right. Relativity requires that any event that has temporal extension for one observer can be simultaneous for another, i.e. whatever is temporal to one person (i.e. separated from him in time) is not temporal for another. Even if we lay aside the fact of entanglement (!) which requires a single time for any two locations of the universe, it is fallacious to claim that if all events are non-temporal to some observer that there is some observer for whom all events are non-temporal since the first “all” means “any” and the second means “the whole”.  But if there is no observer for whom all events are non-temporal, in what sense is the universe “a block”?

What we have, in fact, is another case of what was mentioned in 5. The block universe requires specifying some sense of “now” across all reference frames and then showing that the now of some observers in in front of it or behind it.  In other words, it requires positing the existence of a now across all reference frames so as to make it a part of the definition of the denial of a single now. You can watch Brian Greene go through all the steps of the process starting at 21:53 here. All this is fine if we remember that the physical instantiation of scientific concepts involves contradiction, since they are formally tools for knowing and not principles of existence.

3e.) The basic fact in play is the one TOF pointed out a while ago: science moved from being the handmaiden of theology to being the handmaiden of engineering. It makes things that work. Scientists can take off their scientist cap and don a philosopher’s, and then go on to claim that nature is like the things that work, but the “like” always involves some distance from what nature actually is, and it is impossible even in principle to know how great this distance is. The likeness allows us to know something about nature, but saying “this is nature” of any scientific concept will mire the whole concept in contradiction.



-Scientism: Replace key terms with logical equivalents:

“Knowledge must make testable predications!” = “Knowledge must find a way to affirm the consequent!”

“Knowledge must admit of a well-defined theory!” = “Knowledge must posit unobeservables to account for observable things or other unobservables” (we posit a force or a bend to account for an apple falling, and dark matter to account for some forces or bendings)

“Knowledge must be falsifiable!” = “Knowledge must be somehow unknown!”

-As everyone knows, science was once called “philosophy”. Then scientists decided to settle for the apparent.

-The merely apparently true can be constructed. Hence, technology.

-Science has the bewildering committement both to unbreakable laws, in which human freedom is impossible, and to hypothesis, in which all discourse begins with a free, unconstrained construction of the human mind.

-Science needs a world in which all is predicatable but is somehow also based in information, which is never required so far as things are predictable. We don’t need to deliver messages whose whole content was known in advance.

-A strong AI either needs a subconscious or it doesn’t. If it doesn’t, then how is it an intelligence? If it does, then what hope do we have of making one? “Subconscious program” is a contradictio in adjecto.  You might as well write subtext.




Reasonable expectations

Rational certitude, no matter how well founded, will never produce as forceful a conviction as non-rational certitude, e.g. the feeling of conviction that we have over beliefs that are defended by social taboo, the control of social benefits, the works of popular art, custom, or the structures of the various associations we hold dear. The certitude produced by these latter things are examples of what Aristotle would call things that are not reasonable but can obey reason.

As soon as we’re arguing it’s an indication that we’re outside the domain of the non-rational certitudes. The one allowed to get angry or dismissive in public controls them.

Any rational conviction produced by religions, the scientific establishment, or the university is relatively insignificant compared to the non-rational certitude they produce.

Objections and responses

Sean Carroll: If you found yourself in a world where there was no evil, the commands of God were clearly laid out to all, and all people had always believed the same religion, you would take this as evidence that God existed and his religion was true. In this world we have none of these things, and so you must take their absence as evidence to the contrary.

Response: If I were trying a case and had three eyewitnesses against the defendant, I would take the third one as evidence. By Carroll’s logic, if I only have two eyewitnesses I have to take this as exculpatory.

Some absent evidence proves the opposite of what its presence would prove, but it needn’t.

Carroll 2: The universe could just be a brute fact. Just “there”.

Response: It’s fascinating to argue that the world can only be explained by physical concepts by appealing to concepts that have no application in physics. What good are brute facts in physical theory? Why is there no entry for them in the index of physics textbooks? Perhaps there is no answer to why, say, a radioactive particle decayed at a precise time T, but what this means is that radioactive decay : to precise times :: mixing cookie batter : to the precise locations of chocolate chips. The regularity and pattern is collective across events and not distributed through each particular event. One explains the process better if he drops the assumption of that sort of precision, and so the apparent “brute fact” is really antipodal to brutishness.

Again, some outcomes are unforeseeable and in this sense are without any law-like explanation, like many of the outcomes of complex systems. But even if this counts as a brute fact, physical theory does not call the universe a brute fact in this sense. THE UNIVERSE!! YOU NEVER SEE IT COMING!! At any rate, if one did mean this it is congruent with a theistic explanation. There’s no meaningful prediction of what an artist will make either, especially one with all possible skill. Either he tells us his plans or we have to wait to see what he does. So there is at least one sense of “brute fact” that describes the universe as a procession of the divine art.

As I’m not actually talking to Carroll but to a considerable number of theologians I’d add that there is something creepy and with a whiff of the demonic in this attempt to reduce the universe to the brutish and irrational, which brings to mind the cognitio nocturna of the fallen angels. There is a sense in which physics takes us closer and closer to the irrational so far as it takes us closer to matter, and so to the absence of the actuality and intelligibility, but this can be taken either as a descent into the irrational (as Carroll takes it) or as a deeper and deeper awareness of how the totality of the universe has something essential within it that refers to another for any actuality that it has. To take even the accidents of the world as irrational is always possible, but this itself is congruent with the argument Hopkins makes in Pied Beauty.

Poorly defined

Sean Carroll: The idea of God is poorly defined. One never knows what to verify, and it seems to be compatible with all outcomes.

Response: Try being a philosopher trying to get a definition out a physicist! Consider just energy: is it a mathematical convenience or a real mover of things? Is it a cause of motion or an effect of it? Is it a mere ability to do something or the actual doing of it? Does it require that ability to act and action be identical? If energy changes states, is there something other than energy responsible for this change? Is it one thing that changes states or a whole class of different things, which doesn’t so much change as cause something in another? When you say energy is the same as mass or the same as momentum times velocity or work or a unit like joules/ watts, etc…. does this mean it is nothing other than these things, or that you can use one to get the other, or that one causes the other, or that they are some higher, transcendent thing above all these finite conceptualizations? Is energy basically just kinetic and potential or is it the never ending list of different states? Just what are these “states” anyway?

No matter how you answer any of these questions, I have a long series of follow-ups along with demands that you refute a set of claims from those who think your answer is demonstrably wrong. I have a longer list of questions about many other physical concepts. And just wait till we get out of physics and start talking about chemistry, biology, psychology…

Bottom line: Carroll is right only in a way that makes his point irrelevant: all things are defined relative to the sorts of arguments and discourses we want to have, and there is a large, irreducible variety of these. At the moment, energy is defined inside of a discourse that has no interest in the sort of questions I just raised and God is defined in a domain that has a great deal of interest in these sorts of questions. Notice I don’t try to make some neat divide between the domains as “science” and “ontology” or anything like this, since these words are only opposed to one another when they are used as taboos to stigmatize supposedly legitimate and illegitimate domains. I think the above questions are the sorts that scientists should be interested in but which they show little interest in because of societal taboo, self-selection, educational history, the establishment pressure coming from grants and employment and prestige, and yes, because of at least a few rational desires. The scientists are not unique in this as there are certainly similar constraints on those who talk about God.

Being outside the Porphyrian tree

One of the first things we figured out about being/the real/ a thing was that it is transcategorical, which is easiest to visualize by saying that it can never be a node or a branch on a Porphyrian tree. So long as you are trying to grasp it by the rules of definition you will never locate all that you mean by it. That cluster of ideas that the Greeks tried to catch with on or the Latinate with ens is just as appropriate to the top of the tree as to the bottom, since only the lowest level of the tree escapes logical existence and only the highest level of the tree can be said of all things. There is even a reason to put it somewhere midstream in the tree, as when philosophers divide “being” into “real being” and “mental being”.

Some responses and corollaries that have been drawn from this:

1.) We can see “the one” as both the one in number and what includes all things, and all that arises between as our concepts. So taken, The One is beyond all conceptualization. The One bookends conceptualization and allows it to progress from some point and terminate at some point. But the “generalization” we depart from is not continuous with the conceptualizations that it gives rise to, neither is the “particular” we converge on. The scare quotes are to recognize that being is neither general nor particular, and there is an important sense in which nothing is in such categories.

2.) Being is most known to us, both because it is whatever is concrete taken in its concreteness, and whatever could be intelligible and therefore abstract. Man is a mind-body or soul-matter composite, but such a being would be a contradiction if the concrete and abstract had no nexus in reality.

3.) Critical philosophy cannot be an attempt to bracket possible knowables, since being is known and it cannot be bracketed. We have a chance at a critical philosophy from a claim about what sort of concepts cannot be linked together, since concepts need to be capable of being conduits from being to being, form the “general” or the “particular”.

4.) The Phaedo account of causality gives a crucial role of abstractions/ things in themselves in causing the concrete or particular actions, e.g. nothing is living except by the presence of life. This leaves open the possibility of further refinement while still insisting that no further refinement eliminates the character of the abstract that causes. We eventually range all actions under the causality of the good, which, like one and being, is beyond both ends of the Porphyrian tree.

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