Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Intelligent Artistic Design

Whether or not the universe has an intelligent designer, the concept of "intelligent design" that is often bandied about by cosmopundits is completely useless as a scientific notion, since it is both untestable and incompatible with the sort of materialism required in contemporary science. Don't get me wrong: I believe that the universe does, indeed, have an intelligent designer. But there is no reason to believe that the universe itself provides any evidence for that claim, contrary to what some folks desperately want to believe. To believe it requires an a priori metaphysical commitment on the order of, well, the same sort of a priori metaphysical commitment required to believe in materialism. You either accept it or you don't, and no amount of empirical testing can compel belief in one commitment to the exclusion of the other.

Now comes a report in yesterday's online edition of the New York Times that some scientists are engaging in some speculation of their own about possible intelligent design, but this time it's not the cosmos but medieval Islamic architecture that is the object of speculation. Peter J. Lu, a physicist, thinks that the geometric patterns found on many instances of medieval Islamic architecture exhibit the characteristics of quasi-crystals, mathematical objects only fully understood by modern scientists less than three decades ago.
The findings, reported in the current issue of the journal Science, are a reminder of the sophistication of art, architecture and science long ago in the Islamic culture. They also challenge the assumption that the designers somehow created these elaborate patterns with only a ruler and a compass. Instead, experts say, they may have had other tools and concepts.
What was that you were saying about not drawing inferences of like causes from observations of like effects? Oh, that doesn't apply here, you say? Hmm....

Mr. Lu's thesis adviser, Paul Steinhardt, who helped him with some of his research, was not quite as enthusiastic, perhaps, as his student:
Dr. Steinhardt said in an interview that it was not clear how well the Islamic designers understood all the elements they were applying to the construction of these patterns. “I can just say what’s on the walls,” he said.
Ohhh.... But hope springs eternal in our youth:
Mr. Lu said that it would be “incredible if it were all coincidence.”
Yep, it would just bowl me over to find that the universe, er, I mean, those buildings, did not have intelligent designers after all. But come on, now, let's give credit where credit is due:
“At the very least,” he said, “it shows us a culture that we often don’t credit enough was far more advanced than we ever thought before.”
What's that you say? Those morons knew about geometry? You mean they weren't just sitting around in caves painting pictures of bison on the walls? Man, this is revolutionary.

Speaking of giving credit where credit is due, let's get back to science.
In a separate article in Science, some experts in the math of crystals questioned if the findings were an entirely new insight. In particular, Emil Makovicky of the University of Copenhagen in Denmark said the new report failed to give sufficient credit to an analysis he published in 1992 of mosaic patterns on a tomb in Iran.
Oops! Man, I hate when that happens! Did I say "revolutionary?" I meant "unremarkable". Sorry about that. More importantly, however, let's, um, get back to science!
The article quoted two other experts, Dov Levine and Joshua Socolar, physicists at the Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa and Duke University, respectively, as agreeing that Dr. Makovicky deserved more credit. But, the article noted, they said the Lu-Steinhardt research had “generated interesting and testable hypotheses.”
There you go! The magic word: "testable". There are some testable hypotheses in there. Like, these patterns look just like quasi-crystals. Yep, you can test that one pretty easily, and it looks like lots of folks have done just that.

I wonder what the other "testable" hypotheses are supposed to be? After all, this is science we're talking about here, not some kind of fundamentalism.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

The Ascent of Love

When I was in the 7th grade I had an overpowering crush on a girl in the 6th grade by the name of Cynthia Shook, whose beauty, to my 13-year-old brain, excelled that of any other entity in the ordo creationis. The crush was a rather consuming one: whenever I saw her in the halls at school my heart would begin to palpitate and I would get a feeling in the pit of my stomach not unlike the feeling one gets on the morning of an extremely important final exam that one has failed to study for. Years later, when I thought I had forgotten about her, I saw her at the student center of the university where I was an undergraduate, and I was rather surprised to find that my reaction to seeing her was virtually unchanged, in spite of the fact that I was rather seriously involved with another woman at the time.

Such experiences are probably rather common in the lives of adolescents, but I didn't begin to understand it fully until I read Plato's Symposium. If you don't remember the conversations in there or if, by some travesty of justice, you've never actually read the Symposium, at 202a Socrates and Diotima are discussing the question whether Love (that is, the god Erôs, though clearly it's meant to be a metaphor for the Platonic concept of Love Itself) is ugly or beautiful, and Diotima introduces the notion of human understanding as a means to elucidate what she has in mind.
"What do you mean, Diotima," I [Socrates] said. "Is love then ugly and evil?"

"Hush," she cried. "Must that be ugly which is not beautiful?"

"Certainly," I said.

"And if something is not wise, it must be ignorant? Do you not see that there is a mean between wisdom and ignorance?"

"And what may that be?" I said.

"Right opinion," she replied, "which, as you know, being incapable of giving a reason is not knowledge (for how can knowledge be devoid of reason?), nor again, ignorance (for neither can ignorance attain the truth), but clearly is something that is a mean between ignorance and wisdom."

"Quite true," I replied.

"Do not then insist," she said, "that what is not beautiful is of necessity ugly, or what is not good, evil; or infer that because, as you agree, Love is not beautiful and good, he is therefore ugly and evil; for he is a mean between them."
The suggestion that there can be intermediary stages between two extreme manifestations of some property was probably one of Plato's most significant and interesting discoveries. It is something that we take for granted these days, but for the ancient Greeks, at least until Plato came along, it seemed valid to infer that, say, justice is just because it is not unjust. They saw opposed properties as contraries rather than contradictories, and this rather severely limited the scope of their conceptual space.

In Plato's metaphysics we begin to see an analysis of the scala naturae that attempts to explain (even if in rather metaphorical language) how it is that human understanding progresses from meager beginnings to full comprehension via a series of ever more precise abstractions from the domain of experience. For Plato, this sequence of abstraction is not a process of discovery but of recollection, because he believed that the fundamental objects of knowledge are already familiar, in some sense, to our rational faculty right from birth. It is the very essence of the rational faculty to have knowledge of these fundamental objects (or substances, ousiai), and so in a certain sense every human being desires, by nature, to acquire knowledge in the sense limned by Plato in his epistemology. Although we do have other desires, material as well as intellectual, it is this desire for knowledge that, at least in principle, ought to govern the best sort of human life. On this account, even the love that we feel for other human beings is really nothing more than a material manifestation of the immaterial (or spiritual, if you will) desire of the intellect for knowledge.

Our intellect desires different sorts of knowledge, because knowledge has different sorts of objects. But there is one object of knowledge that, in a sense, surpasses all others in power and dignity: the object of knowledge that is the Form of The Good Itself. Plato illustrates this metaphorically with a story about an ascent of sorts in the objects of love (210ad):
"These are the lesser mysteries of love," Diotima said. "He who would proceed aright in this matter should begin in youth to visit beautiful bodies; and first, if he be guided by his instructor aright, to love one such body only, and in it he should engender beautiful thoughts; and soon he will of himself perceive that the beauty of one body is akin to the beauty of another; and then, if beauty of appearance is his pursuit, how foolish would he be not to recognize that the beauty present in all bodily forms is one and the same! And when he perceives this he will abate his violent love of the one, which he will despise and deem a small thing, and will become a lover of all beautiful bodily forms; in the next stage he will consider that the beauty of the soul is more honorable than the beauty of the body, so that someone even of slight beauty, but virtuous in soul satisfies him, and he loves and cares or him, and brings to birth argument of the kind to improve the young until he is compelled to contemplate and see the beauty of institutions and laws, and to understand that the beauty of them all is one family, and that personal beauty is a trifle; and after laws and institutions he will go on to the sciences, that he may see their beauty, being not servilely in love with the beauty of one youth or man or institution, himself a slave, mean and small-minded, but drawing toward and contemplating the vast sea of beauty, he will create many fair and noble thoughts and notions in boundless love of wisdom; until on that shore he grows and waxes strong, and at last the vision is revealed to him of a single science, which is the science of beauty everywhere.
The higher mysteries of love, which Diotima goes on to explicate for Socrates, consist in the study of the Form of Beauty Itself, an eternal and unchanging object of the sort most deeply desired by the soul.

For Plato, then, the physical love that we feel for one another is but a manifestation of a deeper intellectual longing for the Form of the Good. The Christian version of this story holds that the physical love that we feel for one another is an image of the deeper love that we have for God and he for us. It is something that is built into our very nature, that we cannot avoid. It is as automatic as that sense of jitters that I used to get when I saw Cynthia Shook walking down the hall. Of course there is a biological explanation for that, but the materialist who focuses on the physical explanations will necessarily miss the metaphysical truths that make the physical explanations true. My early crush was soon replaced, as is everyone's, by a more mature form of love, and that more mature form was itself replaced by yet another, even more mature form. Eventually I found myself married, with children, feeling ever deeper loves not only for my family and my fellow humans, but for my creator as I made the ascent from mere crush to love of God. It is a journey that never really ends in this lifetime, for our final cause is the Beatific Vision, which will serve as the final step in the ascent.

In a scheme such as this we can see quite easily why love of one's enemies is better than love of one's friends. Even sinners love their friends, but to love one's enemies requires a more profound understanding of what love actually is, a deeper experience with loving and a more complete knowledge of what the proper object of love is. Lent is a rather useful time for experimenting with this, because we are asked to abandon our lusts in favor of loves: by immersing ourselves in prayer, we abandon our lust for time to ourselves in favor of love of God and neighbor; by fasting we abandon our lust for material comfort in favor of love of God and neighbor; by giving alms we abandon our lust for material possessions in favor of, well, God and neighbor. In abandoning these lusts in favor of loves, we learn to experience love, we habituate ourselves and teach our soul-body compounds to prefer the one over the other so that we may continue the ascent more easily, more naturally. Soon we come to see that the distinction between love of God and love of neighbor is not a genuine dichotomy, because there aren't two loves, but One Love. If we make it that far we have a better chance of making it to that state where the One Love is all in all.

New Ecclesiastical History Blog

Mr_jargon, who recently has commented on some posts at this blog, has started a new blog himself whose focus will be ecclesiastical history. It is called Neochalcedonian and, if it is possible to tell such things from comments left at other blogs (such as this one), I suspect that it will both interesting and learned. I will be checking there regularly to see what's going on. Readers of my recent posts on Farrell's book will know that I am particularly interested in the historical context within which ecclesiastical history takes place, and this would appear also to be among the central concerns of Neochalcedonian. Good luck to mr_jargon, and good reading to everybody else!

Friday, February 23, 2007

New Edition of Nestle-Aland Scheduled

Here's some exciting news for you bibliophiles and textual critics out there: the 28th edition of Nestle-Aland is scheduled for publication later this year or early next. Nestle-Aland is the standard, scholarly edition of the Greek New Testament.

I don't know that the 28th edition will represent a significant change over the 27th in terms of information in the apparatus criticus (the Greek text itself hasn't changed since the 26th). Apparently the apparatus will be made more "user-friendly", but I've seen no indications that it will include a greater variety of witnesses. Indeed, the apparatus in the 27th edition was not significantly fuller than that in the 26th. The 28th edition will come with a CD-ROM, however, and that should facilitate things very nicely.

I will probably get the 28th edition. I always get the new edition. It's getting kind of expensive, as the new editions appear with rather alarming frequency these days, and I have this rather unhealthy passion for leather-bound editions, which aren't cheap. I tell myself it's worth it, and I always make it a point to actually use them (I read the New Testament in Greek from cover to cover every Lent as a kind of devotional practice), unlike some of my books.

I hope the CD-ROM has nice pictures on it.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Some Virtues of the East

In my dealings with Orthodox writers, bloggers, apologists, and clergy I have formed a very personal opinion about Eastern Christianity in general that will perhaps come as a surprise to some, but not to all: I wish that Western Christianity could be more like it. Because this is a very personal, intuitive attitude, it is difficult for me to explain, in quasi-technical terms or philosophical jargon, just what it is, exactly, that I am reacting to, but here are a few thoughts about ways in which the West could benefit from being more like the East.

1. Spirituality. Whether clergy or layman, young or old, scholar or punk blogger, the Orthodox whom I have encountered manifest a life of deep faith guided by prayer, communal liturgy, and lectio divina that is both striking and admirable. Obviously there are always exceptions to such things, and I certainly can't claim that my sample is either large or representative, but I do think that the contrast class differs in some obvious ways with what I have felt from my Orthodox brethren.

2. Separation from the world. As I watch our culture slide ever more thoroughly over the edge of materialism, hedonism, and secularism, one cannot help but notice the numbers of folks calling themselves Christians who either will not or cannot fight the prevailing tide. Again, my experience is limited, but the Orthodox whom I have met are not so timid about rejecting the values of the world. Western Christianity certainly has its representatives in this struggle, but - - again, in my limited experience - - there seems to be a greater density of resistance from the East.

3. Theological insight. Metaphor can be a wonderful thing, and Orthodox theology is filled with wonderful metaphor. Very often I think this reflects a deep insight intot he ineffability of certain truths: we cannot say what such-and-such is, but we can say what it is like, and thereby come to have some form of experience of it that is communicable in some small degree. The West can be so analytic that some of these insights are lost.

4. Charity. Christian charity requires two things: love of God and love of one's fellow men. We cannot say that we love God if we do not love our fellow men, nor can we say that we love our fellow men if we do not love God. Putting the two together means that our love cannot be compromised by ungodly ideals: when our fellow men are in need of fraternal correction, we have a duty to offer it, and when we stray from God, we have a right to receive it (correction) ourselves - - charitably - - by our fellow men. The Orthodox whom I have met appear to know, more deeply than many, precisely what this cardinal virtue requires. It is easy to point out the errors of others, less easy to point them out charitably, with love and Christian fellowship, in a spirit of guidance and fraternal care. Again, there are always exceptions, but for the most part I have to say that I am impressed with the degree to which charity informs the lives of the Orthodox whom I have encountered.

Of course, all of these virtues are also present in some degree among Western Christians, and I don't mean to imply otherwise. I'm talking about an intuitive feeling based on my own, personal, and limited experience, an experience of a community that seems admirable and good, and one wants very much to share in what is good to the extent that one can. For this reason I have particularly enjoyed my recent inquiry into Maximos, Palamas, and the essence/energies distinction, because it has afforded me an ample opportunity to see these virtues up close, and spread out over the course of history. It is wonderful and inspiring.

Augustine and Maximos on Free Choice

As I mentioned in my post on the metaphysics of Saint Maximos the Confessor, Joseph Farrell does an admirable job of putting his explanation of the theological themes involved into their historical context. This feature of his analysis is strikingly evident in his assessment of the problem of free choice in the two Saints. After noting that the differences between East and West often amount to problems in the order and manner in which the West frames its questions, he puts Saint Augustine's position into the context of Arianism on the one hand and the simplistic analysis of Saint Gregory of Nazianzus on the other:
For the Arians, the opposition of Christ's will at Gethsemane to the Passion was a true opposition, and therefore, Christ was not God. For St. Gregory of Nazianzus, the same confusion of opposition and distinction held true, but that meant rather that Christ's words - - "Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; Nevertheless, let not what I will but thy will prevail" - - indicated that the Son had no special will of his Own in contradistinction to the Arian position. For St. Augustine, there are indeed two wills in Christ, the divine and the human. But, because he, like the Arians and St. Gregory of Nazianzus, cannot disentangle distinction from opposition, these two wills are opposed.
The importance of this, for Farrell, lies in his belief that this reading of St. Augustine explains why, in Farrell's analysis, St. Augustine treats Christology as a whole as somehow subordinate to the theme of Predestination, and this is what he means when he speaks of the West putting questions in the wrong way or in the wrong order. Nor does it end with St. Augustine:
If this point were to be put in scholastic terms one would perhaps say that the treatise on Christology is a part of the much broader treatise on predestination, or providence, as is indeed the case in the general arrangement of the Summa Contra Gentiles of [St.] Thomas Aquinas, where in the first book God in His essence and attributes is discussed, followed by three intervening books [that] discuss providence, and finally by the last book entitled Salvation in which the persons of the Trinity are discussed. In this general arrangement one may perhaps see the seeds of the modern "Christologies from below" being already sown.
I think Farrell is on to something here, though I'm not sure I would follow him in his conclusion that the West generally muddles issues that the East sees with preternatural perspicacity. Certainly the doctrine of Saint Augustine has a tendency to make some of us nervous, while the view of Saint Maximos, grounded as it is in metaphysics rather than logic, has a certain appeal. I doubt that it is warranted to go much beyond that as a general conclusion about the relative merits of East and West.

Where I think Farrell tends to stray, if that is the proper word, is when he appears to endorse the rather muddled metaphysics of later Greek theologians whose positions are more political than philosophically nuanced. This is particularly the case with the claims, made rather strenuously by Photios of Constantinople, that a confusion between Person and Nature lay behind the West's mistaken endorsement of the Filioque.
Most importantly, Photios asks whether the Spirit's procession is to be seen as a procession from the one divine person of Christ, or from His two natures, the point being, that if one could so confuse person and nature, the[n] the Spirit might just as easily be said to proceed from His humanity, since that, technically, was anointed, and therefore Christ.
It is rather ironic that Farrell does not submit Photios to the same critical scrutiny here as he did earlier and so effectively in the case of St. Augustine, for here is a clear case of putting the cart before the horse and coming up with an incorrect analysis due to a mistaken method of putting the question. As we have already seen in the posts on the Filioque controversy (for example, here, here, and principally here), Trinitarian doctrine cannot be understood independently of the predicational analysis of the metaphysical structures involved, and from that point of view it is quite clear that it is not a confusion of Person and Nature that explains the West's commitment to the Filioque, but a desire for coherence (a property that was not always essential to the style of Photios). Be that as it may, Farrell rightly locates the Filioque controversy within the context of the Spanish Adoptionist heresy (though that connection is well known among scholars of the problem) and likens Saint Augustine's doctrine of predestination and his "bottom-up" Christology to the metaphysical confusion underlying the Adoptionist controversy.

While that is, indeed, an interesting connection, I doubt very much that it is necessary to establish the attractiveness of Maximos' idea that the two wills in Christ are not opposed in the way that Saint Augustine imagined. It gives a kind of genealogy of Augustinianism, but it can hardly serve as a refutation of it, any more than Nietzsche's genealogy of morals establishes the arbitrariness of all moral discourse. More to the point is Farrell's intuition - - surely correct - - that divine simplicity is underinterpreted in the writings of St. Augustine. Simplicity is not a univocal term, but Saint Augustine tends to treat it as though it were, and this leads him to assert that whatever is true of God is necessarily true of his attributes as well, one the grounds that the notion of truth itself with regards to a metaphysical simple can only be understood in this way. Augustine's motive for treating God as an essence rather than a substance was not without merit, however (De Trinitate 7.5.10):
[if God may be called a "substance"] then there is something in him as in a subject, and he is no longer simple; his being, accordingly, would not be one and the same with the other qualities that are predicated of him in respect to himself...But it is wrong to assert that God subsists and is the subject of his own goodness...that God himself is not his own goodness, and that it inheres in him as in a subject.
Arguably there are more sophisticated ways to handle the problem that Saint Augustine has set himself, but I think Farrell pushes his thesis too hard when he uses this maneuver on Augustine's part as a pretext for asserting that
the question for St. Augustine then became one of securely maintaining the real distinction of persons in the face of a simplicity [that] had already nullified the real quality and distinctions of the attributes amongst themselves. Here the subordination of the persons and attributes to the essence in the ordo theologiae also provides St. Augustine with the means to attempt to distinguish the persons from each other. Having assumed an absolute, definitional simplicity, the persons can no longer be absolute hypostases, but are merely relations, since the names Father, Son, and Spirit are terms relative to each other.
Unless sincerity of assertion can persuade, this fails to persuade. While it seems sensible to say that St. Augustine has maintained "an absolute, definitional simplicity" that may not hold up very well under intense critical scrutiny, in the absence of any non-polemical definitions of persons, hypostases, relations, and the metaphysical structures behind them, this particular claim falls rather flat. Sadly, it is just such a non-polemical explanation that Farrell fails to provide.

This does not diminish the importance of Farrell's book, of course: in many ways it is quite clever, and it is certainly a stimulating read. In particular, he manages to make some very good historical sense out of the position of Maximos on free choice; I will turn to that topic in a subsequent post.

Insight Scoop

I've just come across a smart blog at Ignatius Press called Insight Scoop, apparently written, for the most part, by Carl Olson. Yesterday it featured a post about a possible re-union between some Anglicans and Rome. Mr. Olson is surely right when he speculates that the possibility of re-unification is perhaps being overstated in the press, but the story is still an interesting one. You can read it here.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Joseph Farrell on the Metaphysics of Saint Maximos

In an excellent little book published by St. Tikhon's Seminary Press (Free Choice in St. Maximus the Confessor, South Canan, Pennsylvania, 1989), Joseph Farrell advances a novel and intriguing interpretation of the metaphysics of St. Maximos the Confessor. Whereas the dominant paradigm tends to interpret his metaphysics as more closely aligned with those of St. Thomas Aquinas, Dr. Farrell finds in them a harbinger of St. Gregory Palamas. Although this interpretation is unusual, I found myself largely in agreement with the words of Bishop Kallistos (Ware), who writes in his introduction to the book that Dr. Farrell
possesses a penetrating and creative mind, and he is gifted with unusual powers of analysis and insight.
Certainly the crucial word here is "creative", but one cannot help but admire Dr. Farrell's ability to present his case with scholarly care and Christian charity.

According to Farrell, St. Maximos draws a metaphysical distinction between Person, Energy, and Essence, and, as Farrell puts it:
These categories are not mere conventions of speech for St. Maximus, but rather correspond to distinct metaphysical realities. They are not therefore each names for the same, absolutely simple "Something." Thus, while God is simple, this simplicity is not to be understood along the lines of the definitional model of simplicity, where the term functions as a great metaphysical "equals" (=) sign.
As Farrell notes, St. Maximos' blurring of the link between metaphysics and predication is marked by a notorious sloppiness in the use of the Neoplatonic distinction between "Being" and "Having". In bringing about this break from the pagan metaphysics within which the terminology had its origins, St. Maximos really is closer to Palamas, whose own work was rather representative of what the Byzantine philosophy of his day was capable of. St. Thomas, by contrast, writing a full two generations before Gregory was even born, manages to present a brilliant little treatise on the distinction between being and essence that preserves the connection between metaphysics and predication while at the same time managing to captivate both friends and critics to this day.

Farrell puts Maximos' analysis of free will into the context of the controversies with the Monotheletes. For them: choice is dialectical and therefore must be confined to the historical arena...
For Maximos, by contrast, the human will achieves its deified aspect in Christ, which has the effect of ensuring that the saints in heaven will choose only the good for all eternity while maintaining their freedom. This is a fascinating maneuver on the part of Maximos, but it also illustrates a rather interesting maneuver on Farrell's part. He notes that Maximos' method and doctrine made possible the Council of Constantinople in 680:
It is the dogmatization of the Dynamic of Cyrillic Chalcedonianism, a dynamic [that] permits the use of christological terminology in a triadological context. It is thus possible to speak of a real distinction not only between the divine essence on the one hand and the divine energies on the other, but also the divine energies amongst themselves.
In the case of the early Ecumenical Councils what is not said is often as important as what is said. Farrell appears to think that in permitting certain forms of language and theological speculation the Council was at the same time dogmatizing them. In other words, Farrell interprets the Council as doing something that I have suggested ought not to be done: mandating a certain form of metaphysics. It seems unlikely to me that this is, in fact, what the Council was doing, particularly in light of the historical context of political rivalry and social upheaval in which the Council had its origins. As a method for disambiguating certain concepts and helping us to make some sense (some sense) of a very difficult theology, a variety of metaphysics can be very useful, but by itself it cannot settle such theological disputes once and for all. However, surely Farrell is right to see in the definitions of the Council the theological contributions of St. Maximos, since this serves to place the work of the Council in the broader context of the debate with the Monothelites, which was also a central concern of St. Maximos.

For Farrell, however, St. Maximos represents, in his doctrine of free choice among the saints in heaven, a genuine departure from the theological analysis of St. Augustine on the matter of free choice and predestination, and it is to this topic that I will turn in my next post in this thread.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

On Growing Up Intellectually

Something that Mike Liccione posted recently at Sacramentum Vitae caught my attention and has been percolating in my mind ever since. In discussing the recent debate between Andrew Sullivan and Sam Harris over the existence of God and the usefulness of religion (is anyone else reminded of the Monty Python routine where the existence of God is to be determined by a wrestling match between an atheist philosophy professor and an Anglican bishop? God exists, by the way, by two falls to a submission), Mike ruminates on his own intellectual history:
I myself haven't bothered overmuch with the Harrises and the Dawkinses because their arguments are no better, no more original, and no more numerous than those which I had heard in various bars and dorm rooms by the time I was a sophomore at Columbia.
I think the operative word here is "sophomore." In case you've never been a student of etymology (when I was a classicist I used to have to teach a service course on etymology and word-formation--that alone was a sufficient motivation for me to abandon the discipline and become a philosopher), the word "sophomore" is a combination of two Greek roots, "sophos", meaning "wise", and "moros", meaning "fool". A "sophomore" is a "wise fool" in the sense that he has just enough education to be able to join in some rather sophisticated discussions, but not enough to be able to contribute anything worthwhile to them. And, if you've ever taught college sophomores, you probably know as well as anybody that there's nothing quite so tiresome as a person who thinks he knows more about something than he really does. (Actually, if you've never taught college sophomores and experienced discourse with an arrogant jerk who thinks he knows everything, you can simulate the experience just by reading my blog.) When I think of the many scholarly books written over the years by thoughtful, intelligent people in defense of theism, I am rather startled at the paucity of the atheist response to that literature. It is rather easy to find complex and sophisticated defenses of the theistic position (I think a good place to start, actually, would be the trilogy written by Richard Swinburne, The Existence of God, The Coherence of Theism, and The Evolution of the Soul, all published by Oxford University Press), but it seems that the recent books by Dawkins, Dennett, and Harris are about as good as the atheist's defense gets, and that speaks more eloquently than any argument from evil. (I realize that it is petty to point this out, but I'm not above being petty: many of the books in defense of theism, such as those by Richard Swinburne, are published by reputable, academic presses like Oxford University Press; one cannot help but note that the publishers for Dawkins, Dennett, and Harris are Houghton Mifflin [official publisher of The Lord of the Rings!], Penguin [snort!], and Knopf [well, at least it looks nice], respectively.)

This is not merely a recent phenomenon, so we can't blame it on the banalization of academia that seems to be endemic since the 60s. Bertrand Russell, writing nearly a century ago, argued in much the same way that today's atheists do, unable to summon anything like a convincing argument, and in some cases resorting to patently bad ones ("Christianity can't be true because so many Christians are such awful people"). Indeed, I would say that the last interesting argument against theism was not an argument against theism at all, but an argument against a certain kind of method: Hume's argument, in his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, claiming that it is invalid to infer like causes from like effects. This takes care of the so-called argument from design, at least as it was known in Hume's day, but it is hardly an effective argument against either the existence of God or the usefulness of religion more generally.

Nor do things get any better as one progresses further into the past. The Renaissance had no better arguments to offer, and in antiquity the arguments against theism were grounded in assumptions that no self-respecting atheist would accept today (arguments for theism weren't much better, but that's a different story). One begins to wonder whether atheism isn't so much an intellectual position as a kind of adolescent posturing. Many adolescents reject religious belief; some of them, apparently, never grow up. When they do, perhaps they will write more rigorous and interesting arguments in defense of their atheism. Or perhaps they will awake from their dogmatic slumbers and see the light.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Another Aristotelian Distinction Lost

One has to admire the proponents of I-957 in Seattle, which ties the legitimacy of marriage to actual procreation, if for no other reason than their willingness to use conceptual entailment as a consideration in the formation of policy, in spite of the fact that their attempt is a rather lame one intended not to actually bring logical consistency to legal policy but rather something quite different: to embarrass their opponents into abandoning legal restraints requiring marriage to be heterosexual-only. At the same time, one cannot help but smile at the conniptions the opponents of the proposal are having, since they could make the whole thing go away fairly easily if they wanted to, while at the same time putting an ironic twist into the ending by flummoxing the proponents of the initiative.

Whenever I teach Aristotelian metaphysics and introduce the notion of essential natures, some student will invariably bring up what he thinks is an obvious and final nail in the coffin of such views: particulars often fall far short of their putative essential natures in terms of their actualized capacities. For example, it is part of the essential nature of human beings to be rational and bipedal, but the sort of student I'm talking about appears to take great delight in point out that some people are actually born with handicaps, either mental or physical, that make it clear, at least to this putative student, that there can be no such things as "essential natures". Stupid old Aristotle, why didn't he think of that? It just goes to show you how easily 2400 years of the Western Intellectual Tradition can be toppled by a single act of 18 year-old intellectual illumination. But I digress. The difficulty with this objection is that it ignores (or probably just forgets, if it ever knew) the distinction between a set of capacities that define an essential nature and the physical working out of those capacities in a material being. For example, we may think of a recipe as something like an essential nature of something like a cake. If I want to see what, say, a German chocolate cake essentially is, I can turn to the recipe in the cookbook. There are the ingredients, the instructions, and maybe even a beautiful full color picture, all glistening with frosting and nuts and maybe with a slice tantalizingly taken out and placed on a plate...OK, Carson, get a grip on yourself. Anyway, we all know from sad experience that when we try to produce what is in the book we often fall far short (especially when the book is a very expensive one). It does not follow from this failure to produce what the recipe says that the recipe does not exist. The essential nature of the kind homo sapiens is rational and bipedal, but when that form is enmattered, the vicarious nature of matter can interfere with the way in which the essential nature gets manifested and you can find all sorts of variation in the material particular. This is, in fact, an important element in Aristotelian metaphysics: matter is the principle of individuation. If matter did not produce variety then all human beings would be perfectly identical. The unfortunate side of this is that some variation is not optimal when it comes to functionality.

Anyway, suppose we define "marriage" as a state in which procreation is the final cause. This means that having procreation as a purpose is a part of the essential nature of the state of marriage. Does it follow from this that any state in which there is no actual procreation fails to be a marriage? The answer is no. Only when there is no capacity for procreation would there fail to be a marriage. There need not be any actual procreation at all for the essential nature to be realized in a given enmattering. Those who propose limited marriage to heterosexual couples are proposing, in their own lame way, that homosexual marriages lack a capacity that heterosexual marriages do not. I say this is lame because, of course, one could easily quibble over how to define this capacity. Should we say, for example, that infertile people ought not to be allowed to marry? Well, if we are to be Aristotelians about this, we don't need to say that, because we could always point out that male and female, taken as kinds, by definition have the capacity to be fertile as an element of their own essential natures, whether or not any particular instantiation of the kind does. But this does not remove the arbitrariness of granting legal recognition only to procreation-ready marriages.

This brings me back to the point with which I ended my first paragraph. This whole argument depends on the state recognizing certain forms of friendship. Now, conservatives find themselves in something of a predicament here, because they tend to favor the status quo and while they approve of heterosexual marriage they do not approve of homosexual marriage, and the reasons for both the approval and the disapproval tend to be rather arbitrary and ill-defined. For some (for example, Christians), the reasons may be religious, but it is no less arbitrary for the state to favor one form of friendship over another for religious reasons than to do so for purely aesthetic reasons. Non-religious conservatives have often suggested that the state has an interest in procreation, since it tends to work in favor of the continued existence of the state, but this reason will fail to defend heterosexual only marriage, since as long as some marriages are heterosexual then this goal will be available, and it is remarkably implausible to suggest that by recognizing homosexual marriage we diminish the likelihood that heterosexuals will continue to reproduce. The answer, it seems to me, lies in the state not recognizing any kind of marriage at all. I really don't see that it is any of the state's business to recognize my, or anyone else's, marriage. Marriage, as such, is Sacramental, and need be recognized only by the Church. What should be at issue is not "marriage", but some kind of contract between friends to live together under certain conditions of joint property. That sort of thing is already widely available in most states, and in fact it is often handled without state intervention. Ohio does not mandate recognition by employers of domestic-partner relationships, but Ohio University recognizes them anyway. In fact, I was on the Faculty Senate when they voted on it, and the faculty were practically falling all over themselves to make their support of the recognition clear, going so far as to vote to suspend the rules of procedure so as to bring the proposal for recognition to a vote three months earlier than would ordinarily have been possible. There were two people who tried to present arguments against the proposal, and they were ridiculed and literally shouted down. So it is implausible to suggest that such recognition will never come unless the state intervenes.

This sort of solution will flummox the proponents of I-957, I think, because they don't want the state to bow out of "marriage" recognition entirely, they want to get domestic partnerships recognized as marriages. I may be wrong about this, but I myself don't see anything about domestic partnerships that Christians ought to oppose, other than the whole sex-outside-of-Sacramental-marriage thing. But that is a problem not only with homosexual domestic partnerships but with heterosexuals who live together outside of matrimony. It's not a "gay" problem in the first place, so it's not a problem with gay domestic partnerships, and the state has no business regulating it.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Determinism is Dead

Stephen Barr is probably my favorite science writer these days: he is both an authority in theoretical particle physics at the Bartol Research Institute at the University of Delaware, and an orthodox Roman Catholic who believes, as do I, that science and religion are not only compatible in the sense that they do not contradict each other, but they are, in the words of John Paul the Great, the two wings of human experience that together lift us to knowledge of the Good and the True. So I was particularly excited when the March number of First Things appeared in my mailbox today sporting a tidy little essay by Professor Barr entitled “Faith and Quantum Theory.”

The article presents an argument that I find quite congenial, having made a version of it myself over ten years ago (see Robert Brandon and Scott Carson, “The Indeterministic Character of Evolutionary Theory: No ‘No Hidden Variables’ Proof, But No Room for Determinism Either,” in Philosophy of Science 63 [1996], pp. 315-337. The article is available online if you have access to JSTOR. Otherwise, you’ll just have to wait until the movie comes out). The upshot of both his and my articles: Determinism is dead. Not just dead as in, we can’t figure out how to make it work. Dead as in, it’s metaphysically not possible unless you’re willing to commit yourself to a metaphysics that is, in a word, insane.

Sometimes, when I teach the history of Presocratic philosophy, I will have students who ask questions about the metaphysical schemes of the Pythagoreans, questions about the viability of such schemes and about the very motivation behind seeing the world in the way that they did. If you’re not familiar with the Pythagoreans or their schemes, one aspect of their thought that has made them rather notorious is their proposal that the observable world is, in some sense, reducible to numbers or, as Philolaus proposed, known through numbers. To understand this proposal fully would require a rather detailed knowledge of ancient metaphysics and philosophy of mathematics, so I won’t go into more detail here. Suffice it to say that, when I get these questions from my students, I’m often tempted to point out that it is not all that different from what contemporary physicists are prone to do. We, too, represent the world numerically, particularly in the form of scientific equations but also in the form of predictions and explanations that are expressed in terms of probabilities.

Now, if you are a determinist, you view these probabilities as epistemic in nature. That is, if someone tells you that there is a 30 percent chance of rain tomorrow, if you are a determinist you think that what is meant by that is that, if only we knew everything there is to know about a particular weather system, down to the disposition of every last material particle, then we could say with 100 percent certainty whether it will rain tomorrow or not. But we cannot have that kind of complete knowledge of such a vast and complex physical system as the entire atmosphere of the earth, so our prediction reflects a certain amount of uncertainty on our part that is due to our lack of complete information.

There is another way to interpret probabilities, however, and it is much more congenial to both quantum mechanics and evolutionary theory. We may call this the metaphysical interpretation, because it posits that probabilities reflect, not limitations in our own knowledge of the physical universe, but the stochastic properties of a non-deterministic universe. That is, on the metaphysical interpretation of probabilities, we say that there is a certain chance that something will happen not because we do not know for sure what all of the variable are that will lead to one outcome rather than another, but because it is genuinely undetermined, at the time of our prediction, which outcome is going to take place.

Although he does not say much about this in his article, Professor Barr notes that this view of probability is congenial not only for quantum theory, but also for those who endorse the idea that the human will is free. As I mentioned in one of my earlier posts in this series, if the universe is a purely deterministic place, where materialism is the only correct metaphysics, then our wills cannot be free. So if you happen to believe that your will is free, it seems that you have to abandon either materialism or determinism. Some will want to abandon both, of course: the Christian must, in my view. But even if you are wedded to your materialism it might be time to dump that dinosaur, determinism.

We can’t, of course, take it for granted that our wills are free. Part of the point of these explorations of mine is to enquire into whether it is, in fact, possible to make any sense out of human freedom. It is worth emphasizing, however, that unless global determinism is false, we cannot be free. That is a controversial view (it was denied, for example, by Hume, and continues to be denied by the more dogmatic compatibilists), but I will not argue for it, since I doubt that many of my readers will find it all that problematic. In these matters, much depends upon one’s starting points.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Students for a Dainty Society

When I was a young college punk at Kent State University way back in the 1970s, the SDS had already sunk into irrelevance, but they at least tried to keep up appearances of being tough, staging loud and boisterous protests around the campus in which ragged jeans, dirty T-shirts, and very long hair (hey, it was the 70s--we listened to Foreigner) were all de rigueur. So what are students for a democratic society up to these days? Well, here's a nice passage from a story about the SDS here at Ohio University (my emphasis added):
The students never did get to present their demands to [Ohio University President Roderick] McDavis. When they arrived at Baker Center's ballroom he was not there.

"There's the dean of students," someone said, pointing at Terry Hogan, who had followed the group to the ballroom. "Let's give [the demands] to him."

The others agred (by a show of hands) and made Hogan pinkie swear that he would hand deliver a list of the demands to McDavis. Hogan pinkie-swore, and OU sophomore Gui Guenther read the list of demands aloud to Hogan.
YEAH baby! I'm sick and tired of being hassled by the Man! Off the establishment! Hey, who drank my latte?!

Man, how the mighty are fallen. I think that if I were Gui Guenther, I would crawl under a rock and hide out there until I turned 30--how embarrassing for him to have his name associated with this milquetoast version of "student activism."

Oh, what were they protesting, you ask? U.S. involvement in Iraq? Warrantless wiretapping? Gitmo? Read it and weep:
Graduate Student Senate president Dominic Barbato shared his hope for a future Ohio University where "the free and open green space will not require bureaucratic red tape for students to use it."
Um...OK...has anybody seen my AC/DC 8-tracks?

Saturday, February 03, 2007


One day when I was in graduate school I was walking across campus with a fellow student when we ran into another student who had gone to high school with my friend. They started chatting, catching up, and my friend's friend asked her what classes she was taking. Among the ones she mentioned was the course in metaphysics that I was also taking. Her friend looked surprised and excited.

"You know," she said, "my father is one of the foremost metaphysicians in the country!"

My friend and I exchanged glances. Here we were, enrolled in a graduate-level seminar in metaphysics, and neither one of us had ever heard of one of the foremost metaphysicians in the country. Were we getting a proper education? Was Duke University ripping us off? Was David Sanford, our teacher and himself one of the foremost metaphysicians in the country, really a fraud who had neglected to mention this great metaphysician in class?
Not to worry. It turns out that my friend's friend had a different meaning of "metaphysics" in mind than we had. By "metaphysician" she meant somebody who studied the "occult arts". Her father wrote books about channeling and levitation.

The word "metaphysics" has an interesting history. The discipline itself may be said to go back as far as the 6th century B. C., but we first find the word, if it is a word, associated with a group of treatises by Aristotle. Aristotle himself did not give these treatises the title "Metaphysics". Indeed, he did not even group these treatises together as a single work. Rather, the title derives from the Greek expression ta meta ta phusika, "the things that come after the natural things", and it refers to the fact that the materials contained in this fourteen treatises were thought by somebody somewhere to be appropriate subjects of study to take up after studying the phenomena of the natural world. We don't know who put that title on these treatises. It might have been Andronicus, a 1st century scholar who was among the first to collect the works of Aristotle together and organize them topically. It might have been one of the librarians at Alexandria. (One wag suggested that the title really refers to the place on the library shelf where you might be able to find these treatises: "They're right down there, just after the treatises on nature." Unlikely.)

After antiquity metaphysics became the cornerstone of most philosophical enquiry. It was "the queen of philosophy" just as philosophy itself was the queen of the humanities. Aristotle's own proper name for the subject matter contained in those treatises was "First Philosophy", or "Philosophy in the proper sense of the word", so you can get some idea of how he viewed the topic. Or perhaps I should say "topics", since the fourteen treatises are not marked by the kind of thematic unity one might like to find in a sustained philosophical investigation. Aristotle himself characterized "First Philosophy" in four different ways: the study of first principles; the study of being qua being; the study of substance (in the philosophical, not materialist, sense); and the study of theology.

That last one is rather interesting for the Thomist, since St. Thomas Aquinas, famously, held that theology is not a branch of philosophy at all, but rather philosophy is the tool of theology (this is a rather controversial way of reading the Angelic Doctor's position, but it is enough to point out that he certainly did not regard theology as a department of philosophy). In holding this he was surely right: theology requires a revealed foundation, which philosophy cannot do (there are those who claim that philosophy itself requires logic as a "tool"--this is why, for example, Aristotle's logical works came to be known collectively as "the organon" in the medieval period: "organon" is Greek for "tool" or "instrument"). So a particular metaphysical scheme cannot possibly be a prerequisite for doing theology, since metaphysics itself is a department of philosophy and not something that theology needs to presuppose. Anyone who works in theology knows that they must have some view about metaphysics, of course, but it cannot be a requirement of what they do that they assume this or that metaphysics.

Hence we cannot require, as a matter of orthodoxy or de fide teaching that a Christian theologian adopt Platonic, or Aristotelian, or Thomistic metaphysics. There are some metaphysical schemes that the Christian must reject, but none that he must accept on pain of heresy. Metaphysics will be useful as an explanatory tool, and in certain cases it may be well-advised to declare the rejection of certain metaphysical viewpoints off limits (hence the Tridentine anathema against those who reject transsubstantiation), but the theologian is remarkably free in this particular sphere.

This will be an important thing to keep in mind as we progress in our investigation of Augustine, Maximus, Gregory, and free will.

Dr. William Tighe on the 39 Articles

There a very interesting historically-oriented discussion of the viability of the 39 Articles for Anglicans today over at Pontifications by Dr. William J. Tighe. It's a good thing that Dr. Tighe is writing for Pontifications, seeing as how Fr. Kimel no longer exists (if he ever did).

Friday, February 02, 2007

Is One One or More Than One?

If you can even understand that question, you're already ahead of me. I pose it more as an introduction to a distinction between Plato and Aristotle that will ultimately affect how we view the difference between, say, Maximus the Confessor and Gregory of Palamas, in their account of the nature of God.

For Plato (and later, the Neoplatonists, whose vocabulary so thoroughly permeates the Fathers), naming is not the conventional matter that we tend to think it is. We look at a word like "snow", and we note that it has a certain meaning because of the way that it's used, but we could just as easily associate any other set of phonemes with that use. We could, for example, say "niege" to refer to snow, or "Schnee", or "geblorgenstoff". Since the name is merely conventional, all we need to do is to teach it to people, and it will mean what we want it to mean. Plato, by contrast, wrote an entire philosophical dialogue, the Cratylus, in which he argues that there is a certain natural necessity to names. "Snow" can only properly mean snow if it is the appropriate name for that thing, and it can only be the appropriate name for that thing if it manages, somehow, to represent the thing that it names. Representation is left rather vague, but it is clear that it is not merely conventional: there are, apparently, objective criteria regarding what can count as a good representation.

Plato's reason for taking this stand is because he thinks that names refer, rigidly, to entities that exist independently of the way in which we experience the world. I may experience snow as one sort of stuff, but my experience of it may be quite different from the experience of snow that is had by a little old lady from Naples, Florida. The two of us could talk about "snow", of course, but there would never be any guarantee that we have identical mental content when we refer to the stuff named by "snow". But for Plato, there is something that causes snow to be snow, something that causes two equal numbers to be equal, something that causes a human being to be a human being. In short, anything that is anything--and on Plato's account everything is something, is caused to be the thing it is by other things that are separate from it. I am caused to be a human being by Humanness Itself; two equal numbers are caused to be equal by The Equal Itself. The Equal Itself exists separately and independently of any particular things of which equality may be truly predicated. In fact, it could be the case that there are no two things anywhere in the universe that are equal, and the Equal Itself would still exist; there could be no human beings anywhere, and the Human Itself would still exist. Because Plato wanted to promote a kind of philosophical discourse in which understanding of these causal entities formed the basis of philosophical wisdom, he also promoted a use of language that was realist and naturalist in its attitude towards reference. It is not a commonly held view today, but it makes a certain amount of sense. Well, if you lean far enough towards Platonism.

A feature possessed by every such causal entity (The Equal Itself, Humanness Itself, etc.) is metaphysical unity. That is, each of these entities is one thing, and none of them can be "decomposed" into component entities. Although it is a controversial view, some folks claim that in the earlier stages of working out this theory of causal entities Plato held that entities such as The Human Itself could not be understood to be an amalgam of other entities such as Animal Itself + Rational Itself + Bipedality Itself, even though what "human" seems to mean to Plato is something along the lines of "rational bipedal animal". Plato appears to change his mind about this, because in a dialogue called Sophist he explicitly says that all entities, including these causal entities, have a share of what he calls the megistê genê, the greatest or most important kinds. Among the megistê genê are the causal entities Being Itself and One Itself. These are important entities since anything that is anything clearly has Being Itself as one of its causes, and if the thing is a metaphysical unity then it must also have the One Itself as one of its causes. But what about Being Itself and the One Itself? Well, since the One Itself clearly is, it must have Being Itself as one of its causes. And since Being Itself is a metaphysical unity, it must have the One Itself as one of its causes. In short, the two entities have a mutual causal relationship.

It could be that "cause" is not the best word for this relationship, even though Plato clearly intended to posit these entities to explain why it is that things are the kinds of things they are. He himself uses the word methexis to denote the relationship that exists between these "causal" entities and the particular things that they cause. Methexis is often translated as "participation", but that is rather unfortunate, since it means little to most people, and what it does mean to the few who specialize in Plato is hopelessly vague. A better translation, in my view, though no less vague, is "having a share in." It may not be clear what is meant when someone says "Socrates has a share in Humanness Itself" as a way of saying "Socrates is a human", but it at least has the virtue of being a more literal translation of methexis, which is a compound of the preposition meta (along with, in combination with), and hexis (a having, or being-in-a-certain-state).

A significant difference between Plato and Aristotle is that, while Plato insists that any given name may only denote a single, causal entity and, hence, have only one meaning, Aristotle maintains that it is much simpler to admit that many words are equivocal. To give you an idea of what Aristotle is getting at, consider the word "good". For Plato, "good" is the proper name of the causal entity that causes any particular thing that is good in any respect to be good in the respect in which it is good. So, for example, we may say "Socrates was a good man", "This is a good wine", and "Rest and relaxation are good", and Plato would insist that the one word, "good", as differently as it is used in each setting, ultimately means the same thing in each case. The difficulty is to figure out what it means, if it must mean the same thing in each of these very different cases. The word, in short, is univocal, according to Plato, because, as we said above, it is a rigid designator of a certain causal entity which is simple and non-decomposable. But Aristotle held that we may simplify things immensely by allowing that the word "good" means different things in different contexts. That is, it picks out something quite different when said of a man, like Socrates, or of a wine, or of a certain activity such as relaxing. In other words, what it is for Socrates to be a good man is something different from what it is to be a good wine, and we cannot reduce the two things to one thing.

Although Plato and Aristotle have very similar metaphysics in many respects, this is a rather famous point of departure between them. On Aristotle's view, Plato's metaphysics is needlessly complicated and otiose, while his own system has a salutary perspicacity that cuts the Gordian Knot of entangled meanings and references. Well, I'm sure we all feel that way about our metaphysics, so who can blame him? But consider the entity called the One Itself. For Plato, the One Itself must, of course, be one simple thing, unqualified by anything else. The One is One, as it were (even though there is that difficulty in the Sophist of saying that the One Is, but we will come back to that in another post). Aristotle, in Book 10 of his Metaphysics, holds that the word "one" has many meanings, and although there is a certain family resemblance to those meanings they are clearly different enough for Aristotle to maintain that the word is just plain multivocal, not univocal. The One, it seems, is actually Many. For example, a television set is "one thing" even though it is made up of many parts; a marble is "one thing" pretty much because it has no parts; a biological species is "one thing" because it has a single nature.

What about God? Is God a metaphysical unity in the sense that he is simple, that is, non-decomposable into constituents of any kind, including properties? Or is he, as Christians are prone to say, Three-in-One and One-in-Three (and what, after all, would that mean)? After reviewing the metaphysical stances of Plato and Aristotle one may be tempted to say that the answer to this question will depend upon one's metaphysics. The Fathers, as I remarked above, tended to use the linguistic machinery of the Neoplatonists (though they were not, obviously, Neoplatonists themselves, either in intent or in the content of what they said). This means that their metaphysical language is closer to Plato's than to Aristotle's. It is only with the "rediscovery" of Aristotle in the West in the 13th century that we find Aristotelian metaphysics cropping up and growing in importance, principally in Western theology. But they were theologians, not philosophers, and their use of philosophical terminology and concepts is amazingly sloppy for folks who were working very hard to clarify things. Perhaps the worst case of sloppiness (worst in the sense of causing the most trouble later on) is the confusion of the concepts "being", "essence", and "inherence". It's only fair to point out that there's a fair amount of confusion among these things in Plato as well, but it's not as bad as it gets later on and anyway whatever confusion there is in Plato is usually due not to his own lack of clarity but to the fact that he wrote his philosophy in the form of literary dialogues that were principally intended to be used pedagogically.

Anything that is has an essence, including God. God is also said to have properties. These properties are called "energies" in the Fathers, and a rather interesting question arises about how to understand the following claims:

1. God is One (that is, God is a metaphysical unity).
2. God is God (that is, God "has?/is?" an essence).
3. God has energies (that is, God "has?/is?" properties).

In particular, (1) appears to conflict in some way with (3), at least if one is a Platonist. If you assert that God is one in the sense of being identical to either his essence or his energies, there appears to be a conflict with both (2) and (3), since these assertions are cast in the form of predications, which suggests that they consist of a subject and a predicate, which would only be meaningful if the subject and the predicate were distinct. The situation is famously made much worse by the doctrine of the Trinity, which I discussed in an earlier post. For now, I will merely point out that we are clearly on very slippery metaphysical ground here, and are in dire need of specialized senses of "identity" and "unity" and "oneness" in order to make any progress. As we will see, this mess works itself out in very different ways in Maximus the Confessor and Gregory of Palamas. Maximus is much the earlier writer and it may be fair to credit him with a better sense of the metaphysics, but that is not at all a clear call. I will explore their views in upcoming posts.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

The Irony of the Particular

Once a semester there was a “dies academicus,” when professors from every faculty appeared before the students of the entire university, making possible a genuine experience of “universitas”: The reality that despite our specializations which at times make it difficult to communicate with each other, we made up a whole, working in everything on the basis of a single rationality with its various aspects and sharing responsibility for the right use of reason — this reality became a lived experience.

Pope Benedict XVI
13 September 2006
It is common enough these days to hear the expression "The American Church", or "The American Catholic Church", or "The Church in America", or something along those lines. I've used the expression myself, usually in a pejorative sense, to refer to what I perceive as those quirks of American individualism and laissez faire liberalism that have oozed into the culture of our religion the way sludge sometimes oozes into my basement. There is an irony in all of this, because the word "catholic" comes from a Greek expression, to kath' holou, which means "universal". The expression is found very commonly in philosophical writings to refer to the philosophical notion of a universal, something that can be predicated of more than one thing (for example, in some ways of reckoning things, "blue" represents a universal, because lots of particular things can be called "blue" without entailing that those particular things are identical with the concept of blueness). It came into theological use very early, referring to the Church that is "universal" in the sense of including all particular believers, regardless of where or when they live and move and have their being.

In philosophy (and in theology), the universal is opposed to the particular. If you are a Platonist, you hold that universals cause particulars to be the kinds of things that they are (for example, the universal "blue", or "blueness itself", as Plato would have said, causes all particular blue things to be blue). Particulars depend upon universals on this view, but universals do not depend upon particulars in any way. For this reason, any but a pejorative use of the phrase "the American Church" seems to me to be rather pointless. The emphasis, in my opinion, should always be on the universal, the traditional, the timeless, not on the particular, the experimental, and the ephemeral. This is not to say that there is no place for the particular in theology: there always has been. Since ancient times, the prerogatives of local practices were always taken into account by the Church universal. Indeed, Saint Theophylact notes with approval the fact that Saints Cyril and Methodius worked hard to preserve local particularities while passing on the universal truths of the faith as they spread the faith through the Balkans. The idea that all Churches of the Latin rite should come under a single set of rubrics dates only to the 16th century. When looking back over the last 40 years of liturgical and theological experimentation in "the American Church", however, one begins to get a sense for the incalculable value of the universal and timeless.

There is a certain irony here, it seems to me. American individualists seem to glory in the American Church experience, and they like to think that it is peculiar to their brand of Catholicism. Those old world ways are so, well, old-worldly. And yet to draw such distinctions is not very small-c catholic, it's more particularist in orientation, even when we factor in the enormous diversity of a worldwide, that is to say, small-c catholic, religious experience. The American Church, which tends to see itself as so progressive, so ahead of the curve, so leading-edge, turns out to be, in some ways, the most provincial. In fact, it glories in its provinciality.

Nor does this seem likely to me to change, at least not any time soon. Certainly not in the next two or three years, as our bishops will be falling all over themselves trying to find ways to help out political candidates who oppose them on just about every front except the economic one. It's at times like these that one finds most appealing the idea of a universal church that is not afraid to tell people the truth.