A socratic morality

1.) Morality is an explanation of how to be happy.

2.) Being happy means getting and doing what you want.

3.) The word “want” gets used in two ways. If you’re the only one who knows that the bridge to a free ice cream cone will collapse under my weight and make me fall to my death, we might have the following exchange:

You: James, you don’t want to take the bridge.

Me: Of course I want to. Look, ice cream!

In the exchange you’re not denying the sense in which I want to go over the bridge, in fact, you probably said what you said because you assumed I wanted to cross it. So we have two meanings of “want”, viz:

You: James, you don’t want1 to take the bridge.

Me: Of course I want2 to. Look, ice cream!

Want2 exists from ignorance of something relevant to the decision in question and so is a privation of want1.  But privations of an action are alienans modifiers of the action, so want2 is not a kind of want. As Aristotle explains in Nic Eth. III.1,  in the measure that we’re ignorant our actions are involuntary, and so far as something is involuntary it is also unwanted.

4.) Being happy means getting and doing what you want, but privation of wants are not wants. Figuring out what we want is therefore a problem, and one that requires a good deal more work taking an inventory of what we want to do, even if we really, really want to do it, or even if we are convinced we were born wanting to do it.



Short argument for penal substitution

Many theologians are critical of penal substitution (I’m thinking of Stump, Charles Taylor, Tim Staples, i.a.)  but it’s probably too late in the game to say it plays no role at all in the theory of atonement. Better to display a face of the theory that avoids the common criticism that it gives no place to divine charity in work of atonement. Here’s a suggestion.

Penal substitution means the guilt of our sin is transferred to Christ, and the most familiar case of the transfer of guilt to one who did nothing wrong is a parent being responsible for the actions of his child. When I pay the price for my daughter throwing a rock through my neighbor’s window it’s not because I’m negligent or encouraged her action – I’m responsible by the same connection that allows me to decide what language she’ll speak, what school she’ll attend, whether she’ll be raised a Buddhist or atheist or vegan or given technical education. As STA put it, Filius est aliquid patris,  and under that description I both set some very important details of her life and have the guilt of what she does transferred to me even when I am personally morally guiltless.

On this account, our sin is transferred to Christ because Christ is God, God is the father of the human race, and the guilt of children can be transferred to the father. So taken, penal substitution can be made into a way of foregrounding the fact that the human race is the family of God.

On unconditional commitments

Humans have a basic need for unconditional commitment (UC) with others.

Marriage vows are a paradigm articulation of UC. One simply denies a long list of conditions that might nullify commitment. Familial relationships are also UC, and so if someone asks you why you deal with difficult family members it’s enough to respond that “They’re family”.

People have varying needs for UC just like they have varying needs for food, but both needs are basic. To find out that someone has no UC’s at all – no spouse or family or others to whom he is bound by vows – is as much of a tragedy as to find out he has no house or food to eat. Extreme privation of food and of UCs destroy life in different ways, but both are necessary.

Any relation that rests only on the ongoing choice of the members to associate is conditioned and therefore not-UC. UC is therefore only perfect to the extent that it is fixed by something exterior. Whenever this is fixed by choice, it is called a vow or oath.

UC’s are distinct from friendship and what is usually meant by love for three reasons:

(1.) Everyone needs UC’s but many have impediments to forming friendships. Babies and toddlers are obvious cases.

(2.) UC’s are used for reasons beyond friendship, like property claims, inheritance, deciding who gets to visit a hospitalized patient, etc. Even if friendship is an ideal for spouses it is something they can work toward and therefore need not have ab initio.

(3.) We needs UC’s among groups which are too large for everyone to be friends. Soldiers need them to their nation and army, citizens to their state, the religious to their Church, etc. Vows and oaths of unconditional commitment are usually necessary when one has to be willing to die for something.

At the limit of extending and valuing UC’s we find the Christian ideal of charity for all human beings in imitation of Christ’s redemptive sacrifice. The Fatherhood and fraternity of God is understood to extend not just a UC but also friendship to the whole human race.



Brief angelology

1.) There must be something about angelic knowledge that makes it essentially different from both human and divine knowledge.

2.) All knowledge consists in some relation between knower and object.

3.) Divine knowledge is the cause of creation, human knowledge is an effect of creation and so angelic knowledge as simultaneous to creation (this conclusion is heuristic, not demonstrative).

4.) Knowledge is simultaneous to creation when one and the same esse that God makes present in creation he simultaneously makes present in the angelic mind. Esse thus flows simultaneously in re and in the mind of the angel.

5.) So far as God makes esse present by making it totally present, it is also totally present in the mind of the angel.

6.) So far as esse has future contingency is not present in the world, so it is not present in angelic knowledge either. Angelic knowledge of the future excludes the reality of future contingency, and vice versa.

7.) All knowledge is of two kinds, speculative and practical. As practical it is the source of action. Some existence thus flows into the angel as a source of action.

8.) As a source of action, the angel is located in place. Because his power to act is finite, his place is finite. Angelic place is thus the extent of his power.

9.) Because two powers cannot be equally exercised on one locus of power, two angels cannot be in the same place. It would be like having two complete authorities over the same object of law.

10.) The form of myself flows into all angels as known simultaneously with making me exist. From 9. it can also flow into one angel as an object of practical knowledge. Such an angel is one guardian angel.




The first part of Socrates’s second city are the guardians, who are those allowed to use violence in support of the laws of the city. Since they use violence in response to their confrontation with evil and so there is some low-hanging fruit to pick in describing them: they need to be physically imposing, they can’t be gentle or overly reflective, they can’t be the sorts of persons who are overly bothered by evils in the world since they will spend much of their day confronting the worst parts of the city. The first novel and striking claim Socrates makes about the guardian is that he has to be philosophic in the way that dogs are philosophic.

Dogs exist because some wolves figured out the value of associating with humans and the humans in turn saw the value of a wolf who had figured this out. In other words, a wolf is an ambivalent species capable of recognizing the value of reason or of being blind to this and simply running with the pack. The wolf needs a leader and will find it either in reason or in the strongest beast like itself. Those that were philo-rational just are dogs, all the other wolves look on humans as just another slow-moving sack of meat or a gun-toting god to be avoided.

Socrates’s point in speaking about guardians is to speak about the soul, and the point seems to be that there is a part of the soul that must be deputized to use violence. This part needs to be imposing and resistant to its confrontations with evil, that is, it needs to face the beast and not be kept up at night by its ugliness. The part that faces this down is the wolf-become-dog or the beast that both sees the value of reason and who has been taken in by a reasoning power that sees the value of such a partner.

The Athanasian theory of atonement

1.) Man is the image of God

2.) Somehow, this image was defaced/injured/deformed. Call this “the fall” or “original sin” (neither of which are Athanasian words).

3.) The consequence of the fall is death. Athanasius sees this as both a natural consequence and the result of God’s promise that death of the human race will arise from some sin of the human race.

4.) In the face of the fall, God could either fix man or let him die. This produces a seemingly intractable dilemma since for God to simply fix man requires that he renege on his promise (#3) but God would be dishonored by a defaced image of himself. The story of creation is also apparently a human story, and so to end the story in failure is to say that the story of creation itself is a failure. The problem seems even more intractable since the just response to a defaced image is to fix the image and destroy the defacer, but the fall consists in the image defacing itself.

5.) God becomes incarnate and dies. This keeps God’s promise that all humans must die, but now death becomes a way in which humans become an image of God.

On this account, it is precisely the death of Christ that saves from “original sin” since it is only after the death of God that those who die can be in the image of God.

And how does this jibe with The Son of man came…to give his life as a ransom for many (Mt. 20 Mk. 10)? The act is certainly a “ransom” in the sense that he who did not need to suffer a natural consequence chose to suffer it so that another might be freed from bondage, but not because any payment was handed over to death or Satan (whatever that would mean). Again, the act in some sense “satisfies the justice of the Father” since it is in accord with the decree that all men must die (#3), but not because the Father needed a scapegoat for his bloodthirst.

6.) On this account, the paradigmatic act of the Christian is the martyr offering his death in conformity with Christ, though most of Christian life consists in offering lesser evils in such conformity e.g. to offer ones pains, privations, sorrows, sins, etc. On the christian account, this sort of offering is the fundamental humanizing act or act of human flourishing, at least until they pay the natural consequence for sin in their own death.

7.) It’s just in this last sense that A’s account of atonement is preferable to “substitution” or “penal atonement” theories. Substitution was often understood in a way that we had no idea how to apply it to our life whereas A’s atoning theory demands being lived. Christ “substitutes” or “takes our place” or “pays the price” only in the sense mentioned in #5.

8.) Obviously, man is not restored to being the image of God in the way he was when first created, and neither does our status as an “image” consist in reason or will or personhood. “Being an image of God” consists in the conscious conformity of one’s life to the divine life. “The fall” or “original sin” were just the fact that we have no reliable way of doing this apart from Christ, and the point of the Incarnation – of Christianity –  was to make this sort of conscious conformity possible again.

On this account, the fundamental human mystery is just what Genesis says it is. We are called to conform our lives to God, i.e. we are “his image”. That we have very little idea of how to do this by our natural resources is the first fact of “the fall” or “original sin”. That Christ makes this possible again, especially in his death but by extension to every evil, is “atonement”.


Ontology of nature known experimentally

1.) Define nature as what we know by experimentation. Any operational or verificationist definition does so.

2.) Experimentation is how things act by themselves under controlled conditions.

3.) So nature is what we know of how things act by themselves under controlled conditions.

4.) Leaving aside freely chosen actions, any action of a condition we control is fundamentally an accidental form while anything acting by itself is fundamentally a substantial form.

You set up a lab experiment to prove the ideal gas law by putting a thermometer on the bottom of a piston, cranking up the pressure, and showing the temperature go up. Temperature is defined operationally as what some fluid does in a thermometer and pressure as what happens when the piston compresses. But thermometers and pistons are accidental forms. If we take the experiment as an action then the only substance that acts simply speaking, as opposed to responding to an already initiated action, is you. 

5.) Experimenters abstract from their causal role or assume that the action that occurs in nature arises from some agent relevantly similar to themselves.

It’s here that the ontology of nature-as-experimentally-verifiable becomes interesting. Let’s move on to that.

On the one hand, abstracting from our causal role does not effect the various unities we discover in causal laws. So the ideal gas law is ultimately taken to show a formal unity between pressure, volume and temperature through the kinetic theory of heat. But this sort of unity abstracts from what something happens in nature – the mere unity of P, V and T can’t explain why in this particular instance heat went up, since the unity would just as easily explain why it might have gone down. So why does anything happen?

Some substance relevantly similar to an experimenter is acting. What would a relevantly similar action require? Either (a) it is pushing up agains the action of another substance incidentally or (b) it has some natural intentionality seeking to subordinate another substance to its own goals. If (a) the activity is an incidental side-effect of a substance that was tending to something else, which leaves us with essentially the same sort of agency as (b), where some natural agent is intending some goal or another.

If this is right, what we call “natural laws” are the conditions under which natural substances work to achieve whatever goals they strive for. The laws give accounts of a marketplace where agents interact and exchange. Certain quantities are conserved in the same way that exchange rates or common instruments of value are conserved.

Marketplaces abstract from particular goals. If you want shoes and I want pie the market where we meet can’t be shoemaking or pie making but needs to serve as a common interface for both. In this sense – of neither making my pies or your shoes – markets have no goals. This is common to all interactions, which exist to facilitate action and articulate its costs, and so to be devoid of the goals of those whom it facilitates.

So it is not just the algorithmic or mathematical character of laws that make them non-teleological but their interactionist character. But this interaction is non-teleological only in the way all interactions are such, sc. that the interaction is taking place only in virtue of rules that are impartial to the goals of the instructing substances. The forces of nature are thus blind in precisely the same way that justice is blind. 

This leaves us with the same phenomena of “blind forces” we’ve always had which consists in an indifference to outcomes, but the blindness is not due to being brutish but in having an ideal of intelligence. Like any market system there are strokes of bad luck and catastrophe typical of complex interactions of any system with finite resources of power and intelligence.

If nature is this interactional marketplace for natural substances, then what we call “natural substances” are a different order of existence than what we call “nature”. We see the natural substance only so far as it is living in the marketplace and not in its proper existence as one using the marketplace to attain various goals.

The natural substance this becomes supernatural, and all action as such is supernatural, and asking how this supernatural being interacts with nature is the same sort of question as asking how consumers interact with a market. In one sense this the question is confused, since consumers don’t interact with the market any more than money changers interact with exchange rates. No one acts with anything that merely facilitates his activity with another.

It would be better to say, however, that when nature is defined operationally or through natural laws then we are abstracting from nature as substance acting for itself. In actual fact the “interaction problem” arises because we have imagined interactive forces as substantial or acting of themselves when in fact they abstract from precisely what acts from itself. Free will and intelligence are just one way in which nature acts by itself by having a form of its own.


The myth of spatio-temporal homogeneity

Classical physics led to the cosmogonic myth of a physical world of absolutely undifferentiated homogeneous space-time. The real world was the blackboard world, and any spaces of special importance like one’s birthplace, a sacred rock, the site of a great battle, the place where one got engaged, planet earth, etc were not set apart from others by any objective reality.

It probably doesn’t need to be said that in calling it myth I’m not calling it false. Though it’s likely that this world of classical physics did not start as a myth, any account of the cosmos has deep taproots in myth that will become quickly explicit.

I call the world of physics a cosmogonic myth only when it it taken as a limiting or at least fundamental account of reality. If you think homogenous space is just a working hypothesis and only one possible filter among many that allows us to understand reality then it ceases to be a cosmogonic. If you believe there is a more fundamental account of the world than the world of classical physics, then this other fundamental account is your cosmogonic myth.

Here’s my definition of a cosmogonic myth:

A story that goes beyond the evidence of the experience and which cannot be taken as literally or historically true, but which nevertheless gives a sufficiently large community of believers insights into the fundamental nature of things that are significant enough to evoke feelings of awe and amazement and that they use to understand the fundamental meaning of their lives.

1.) A story that goes beyond the evidence of the experience. If we take the story as a limit to possible explanations, the story denies any intrinsic structure to time or space, whether leading to up to human life or to an eschatological consummation in the future. Obviously, none of us have experience to affirm or deny an eschatological consummation of the universe, and whether we affirm or deny that the universe has led up to some event that took place in it (the creation of persons, the Incarnation, the revelation of the Koran, etc) depends on things that go beyond experience.

2.) The story cannot be taken as literally or historically true. No human being is so creepily detached as to deny all objective reality to the significance he attributes to certain times or places. We can’t live without orienting moments in time like birthdays or anniversaries of weddings/ battles/ traumas/ significant events, and we can’t treat all spaces as fundamentally homogenous, as though there were no difference between our home and a bus stop, a bathroom and a graveyard, a church and a mall, the earth and outer space, etc.

If any account of reality can’t be lived in without being a parody of an autistic teenager, it can’t be taken as literally true or historically the case.

3.) [S]ignificant enough to evoke feelings of awe and amazement and that they use to understand the fundamental meaning of their lives. This fear or acceptance the homogeneous and therefore infinite world-myth has been clear from Pascal to Sagan’s pale blue dot.



Conventional ideals

Whatever you set up as a human ideal will be rare. Part of this is that any ideal is rare since the ideal is opposed to the average. Some ideals – call them conventional ideals – are valuable not just for those who attain them but also for the vast majority of persons who take them as ideals. Where the conventional ideal is honor and war-strength few attain it, but it makes the plots of those who tell stories and the curricula of those who teach, and so in turn determines what stories we find entertaining, the students we find brilliant and promising, the achievements we celebrate as heroic or condemn as depraved, what counts as “vibrant” or “dead” in culture, etc.

Conventional ideals are independent of the actual ideal of human life and can either more or less approximate it or be largely contrary to it. It’s unlikely that any higher civilization can escape having such an ideal. As Werner Jaeger puts it, the fundamental fact of the history of culture is that higher civilization springs from the differentiation of human beings into an aristocratic and lower class, where the aristocratic element becomes the prime mover of a culture that will forever carry its reflection.


Note on form

Form = what a thing has that makes it impossible to be something else*.

Matter = what a thing has that makes it possible for it to be something else.

Change requires both. Assuming there is some unchangeable substance, by definition it is non-material form.

Why call the thing that can be otherwise matter? Because something is more fundamentally matter to the extent that it survives more and more changes. Things are more elemental to the extent that they are maximally present before and after changes.


*The “Something else” is either another accident or another substance.

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