Development of Doctrine IV

Both here and at Sacramentum Vitae, I’ve been involved in a long-running debate about the development of doctrine with conservative scholars from each of the three major Christian traditions.  (By ‘conservative’ I mean those who believe that the “faith once given to the saints” is definitive, fully and publicly identifiable in Tradition and Scripture, and may neither be added to nor subtracted from.) Unsurprisingly, though for quite varied reasons, many of those scholars are hostile to the Second Vatican Council’s claim, in Dei Verbum (emphasis added), that the

tradition which comes from the Apostles develops in the Church with the help of the Holy Spirit.  For there is a growth in the understanding of the realities and the words which have been handed down. This happens through the contemplation and study made by believers, who treasure these things in their hearts (see Luke, 2:19, 51) through a penetrating understanding of the spiritual realities which they experience, and through the preaching of those who have received through episcopal succession the sure gift of truth. For as the centuries succeed one another, the Church constantly moves forward toward the fullness of divine truth until the words of God reach their complete fulfillment in her.

When I began writing about DD a few years ago, I believed that that a mutually fruitful understanding of DD could be reached across confessional lines on scholarly grounds alone. I now find that belief naïve. The purpose of this post is secondarily to explain why, and primarily to move the issue to the level I believe it needs to reach.

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Good thing for the Scholastics…

A blogger named unBeguiled, with whom I have interacted before (e.g., concerning nothingness and existence), recently cited page 109 Edward Feser’s The Last Superstition:

“Angels, not being material, are pure forms or essences on Aquinas’s view, but even with them their essence needs to be combined with existence in order for them to be real, so that they too are composite.”

He then complained:

Putting aside whether parsing the nature of angels could ever be rational, how could anything be both “pure” but also a “composite”? Professor Feser’s muddled book is rife with this sort of linguistic deviance.

In response, one reader added:

Angels are pure “essences”? What does that even mean?

I can’t help thinking about Gen. Jack Ripper in Dr Strangelove and his obsession with Purity of Essence and the need to protect it by starting a nuclear war.

The passion people pour into meaningless phrases continues to amaze me.

Sigh. You’d think the Middle Ages had never happened. Good thing for those hoary old Scholastics they never had to face down such mighty objections.

Two is a pure form, a purely formal object, the essence of which is strictly independent of any material instantiation of it. Once “2” gets written on paper or typed onto a computer screen, however, it is “dematerialized” and thus becomes a composite of a ‘2’-essence and a materially specific existence. Every instance of “2” instantiates the essence of 2, but no composite instantiation of it in material existence exhausts the essence of two, since it can always be instantiated in its essential purity by some other material instance. That is, we can’t say this instance of 2 is “more truly” 2 than that instance of it; they both enjoy the identically pure essence of 2, but do so in materially, compositely specific ways as they happen to exist. Hence, while a written “2” enjoys a composite existence, it does so by virtue of the pure essence of 2 informing the matter involved.

The same goes, although even more vividly, for all formal operations, such as addition, subtraction, modus ponens, and so forth. Every instance of such formally pure operations enjoys a composite existence when it is dematerialized, but no physical set of instantiations can exhaust the essentially pure formality of any such operation. Hence, any physically instance of a formal operation partakes of a formally pure reality that exceeds the power of physical computation. Any instance of, say, addition could always be challenged and revised as but a covert case of “quaddition.” Kripke, Goodman, the grue problem, etc.

To get the full story, read James Ross’s “Immaterial Aspects of Thought” here

Beware the Magnevonian Myth!

In an earlier post, “Actions and events…” (at my FCA blog but also available here), I described three bodily motions (a., b, and c.), which, though they all look the same and produce the same effects, are not the same action at all. I claimed that intentionality, as a non-physical ascription of formal coherence, needs to be “layered” onto a., b., and c. (and onto all such scientifically observable realities), otherwise they are “behaviorally… and neurologically… indiscernible.”

A commentor on my blog disagreed, however, by saying, “…the [neurologically distinct] brain states would be discernible, not indiscernible. From one brain state we get swatting the fly and from the other we get waving.”

I believe preempted the commentor’s objection in an ensuing paragraph of the post to which he was reacting, but I did so too cryptically. So I will highlight my garbled answer from the earlier post, and then offer a better, fuller defense of what I meant by it. I said:

The critic that … [deploys purely neurological] descriptions of all behavior is oblivious to the fact that we can only imagine a coherent difference between the a., b., and c. actions at the neural level because we already know how those actions are formally (viz., teleologically) distinct. We know the brain phenomena will be different “on the inside” because we already know the actions in which they are involved are formally different “on the outside.” If, however, we strip away the explanations of the actions that I gave in listing them, they are effectively indiscernible.

I realize now (for the second round of reader responses) that I should modify the phrasing of my point about “indiscernibility.” I muddled things by using words in a way that appear to be contradictory. So, to clarify: …
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The steps you take are not the steps taking you…

Imagine you are walking on a mildly populated sidewalk downtown one afternoon. You walk from your office, to the elevator, then out the doors, along Park Street, turn onto Haven Street, and finally reach Bends (on step #N), a local sub shop. It is a logical necessity, that at every point along your way, you traversed every step along your way. That is to say, each step is an integral part of the event series which brought you from your cubicle to Bends. If, ex hypothesi, “your taking a 99nd step as you walk to Bends” were magically erased from the universe of facts, then when you take step #98, you will stop, never reaching Bends. Even so, is it true to say that the steps you took along the way were what caused you to move along the way? Is it true to say that step 98# caused step 99#?

Imagine further that, in this semi-magical universe (or, for a more mundane reason that I’ll stipulate in a moment), just as you are a few steps away from entering Bends, it is suddenly transported across the street. Whereupon, as an accustomed inhabitant of such a universe, you turn on your heel and cross the street to the relocated but happily still nearby Bends. (The more mundane version is that you were under the impression that Bends was at the corner of Haven and Plainview, but in fact it is across the street. Once you see your mistake, you change course.) In this case, can we really say there was something about the physical constitution of your (N-1)th step and its efficent-causal power which caused you to end up at Bends?

On the one hand we must admit that if any or all of the steps were “erased”, you would not reach Bends. On the other hand, we cannot reasonably claim any one of the steps caused any of the others, and therefore neither that the steps themselves caused your arrival. As a larger truth, constituent events (such as the steps) which take place in a whole action are causally subsidiary to the whole event.

[I anticipate two classes of objections, but I will stop here in order to see what the cat drags in. Then, if the objections I have in mind do show up, or perhaps others I don’t foresee, I’ll continue this post.]

Desire and de-desire…

You are sitting at a coffee shop (hopefully not Starbucks?) when you begin to eavesdrop on two philosophy grad students bickering.

“A person is free to act as he desires,” says the one, wearing an orange sweat shirt and blue jeans, “but he is not free to choose his desires. He may choose to suppress some of his desires, but that is just because he has an overriding desire. Follow that back far enough, and it’s electrons and quarks doing what they do.”

You always knew there was something elementally compelling about materialism. You raise the mug to your lips, but are caught in mid-sip by the other fellow’s retort.

“But,” he says, “what if I have a desire, call it d1, to divest myself of a certain other desire, d2? Can I really be said to have d2, since I don’t desire to have it, and, consequently I ‘de-desire’ its object? Conversely, if I still have d2, can I really be said to have d1? Presumably, if I am subject to my desires, then having d1 entails not having, or effectively suppressing, d2. But the very presence of d1 requires that d2 still be operative.”

You pretend to be sipping slowly from your mug, making a subdued but apparently engrossed show of perusing the funnies.

“What are you driving at?” asks the first fellow in orange.

“I mean,” answers the second fellow, wearing a dark green flannel shirt and khakis, “what decides between these antagonistic desires? Brain states? But then, why refer to desires at all?”

Suddenly, the fellow in orange notices you noticing them, and asks you for your opinion on the matter.

What would you say? With whom would you side? Why?

I love laughing when I read…

“In Part III, we begin the study of philosophy itself from the perspective of cognitive science. We apply these analytical methods to important moments in the history of philosophy: Greek metaphysics, including the pre-Socratics, Plato, and Aristotle [ca. 600-300 BC]; [_________________________; ] Descartes’s theory of mind and Enlightenment faculty psychology [ca. 1500-1800 AD]; Kant’s moral theory; and analytical philosophy. These methods, we argue, lead to new and deep insights into these great intellectual edifices.

Philosophy in the Flesh, George Lakoff & Mark Johnson (New York: Basic Books, 1999), p. 8.

Apophatic humility…

In Scholastic theology, three methods of analogical inquiry were used in discussion of God: the via causalitatis, the via remotionis, and the via eminentiae (or, excellentiae). St. Thomas, for instance, treads the via causalitatis in the first ten or so chapters of the Summa Contra Gentes, where he argues from the effects of the Creator to the existence and nature of the Creator. Since, however, His effects are woefully inadequate to convey God’s nature in a fitting way, the other two viae are invoked by the Scholastics to balance out the limited gains of the via causalitatis. God is a maker of effects, yes, but He is very “remote” from the limitations of makers as we think of them. His divine remoteness as Creator stands out principally in the way that He creates ex nihilo, whereas lesser makers always have to rely on some medium or tool or model outside themselves. The method of remotion is a constant reminder to us that our best arguments about God and our highest praises of Him are still far removed from what and how He actually is in se. As the IVth Lateran Council stated in 1215, “between the Creator and the creature there cannot be a likeness so great that the unlikeness is not greater [semper maior dissimilitudo in tanta similitudine].”

Further, the aspects which we can ascribe to God by analogy with lesser created things (by way of the viae causalitatis et remotionis), we must ascribe to God in an “eminent” or “excellent” way. Thus, by invoking the via eminentiae, we speak of God as a wise artisan, but eminently and supremely so. God is not simply a rough idea of love, but supereminently love; the Father not simply a paternal pattern, but a supereminently good father, etc. This trifold methodological tension is integral to Scholastic theology.

Critics of Scholastic theology, and Christian theology in general, often mistakenly assume that apophatic, or “negative”,  theology is a specifically Christian sort of obfuscation (as they would call it). But I believe apophatic limitations are a part and parcel of basic human thought, and that the Scholastic emphasis on God’s transcendent “otherness”, safeguarded by the via remotionis, is just a forthright way of connecting existential apophaticism to its Source.

Daoism is among the most apophatic belief systems known to humanity. The locus classicus is of course chapter 1 of the Daodejing: “道可道, 非常道。名可名, 非常名。Dao ke dao, feichang dao. Ming ke ming, feichang ming.” (I leave it to the reader to view the translation via the link.) The basic idea is that, whatever you can think or say about the power (德) and the way (道), and however close you might get to it, you are still far from describing or knowing the highest reality in itself.

Similarly, in chapter 28 the ‘power of the way’ (道之德 Daozhide) is portrayed as an uncarved block (or “unwrought material,” J. Legge) which, though formless and empty, yet holds within itself the fullness of all possible forms. Hence, the Dao defies our attempts to visualize and explain it. In the same chapter, the infant (or fetus) is lauded as a symbol of Daoist strength; though weak, immobile, untrained and unshaped, yet the infant possesses greater power than all just by being open to all forms and all levels of growth. Likewise, while God is entirely simple, yet He contains within Himself the fullness of being and all possible forms of created beings. Consider William Riordan’s comments in Divine Light (2008, Ignatius Press, p. 128) on Denys the Areopagite’s theology of the divine names:

God is described as great [μέγας] because of the multitude of His gifts (δορεάς: doreas), which are the perfections that He gives to His creatures. The myriads of creatures come forth as outgushings or springs (τὰς πεγαίας: tas pegaias) from Him, and yet He is in no way diminished. … But God is celebrated as small [μιχρός: micros] because He, in His perfections, “penetrates without hindrance through everything” (το διὰ πάντων αχωλύτως χωροΰν: to dia panton akolutos choroun). … Denys is drawing attention to God as the Small, who as Wisdom, permeates all beings.

Nor is there any shortness of apophaticism in Hinduism. Indeed, I think this sort of “natural apophatic-theology” is a classical component of all great human traditions. Even modern exact science has come to realize, grudgingly for some, perhaps, that even our best models are always true-but-only-rough and tentative approximations of natural reality. Our most secular theories, then, are subject to the a kind of Scholastic via remotionis. As Niels Bohr said, “If you think you can talk about quantum theory without feeling dizzy, you haven’t understood the first word about it (Wenn es Ihnen beim Studium der Quantenmechanik nicht schwindelig wird, dann haben Sie sie nicht wirklich verstanden).” Coincidentally enough, Bohr was a Daoist most famous for his Taiji-like principle of complementarity.

There is, thus, an apophatic humility proper not only to most philosophical traditions but also to modern natural science itself. I think this is so because all reality stems from God in variously analogical levels of likeness to and conformity with His own supernature. Even in personal relationships, we come to see that there is an inner mystery about even our most intimate friends which surpasses, remotionally, as it were, our most complete descriptions of them and our most vivid experiences with them. Nothing fully discloses itself in purely cataphatic terms, not even a stone. Thus, existence reflects the Creator’s revealed hiddenness in levels of analogy proper to their own corresponding laws of being.

Alvin Plantinga vs. Daniel Dennett

Prosblogion has a fascinating account (with many posted comments) of the “debate” last month (really a paper and response with questions) between Alvin Plantinga and Daniel Dennett on the compatibility of theism with science. Highly recommended reading.