As we come to the end of the Nativity season (on the Julian calendar), I would like to wish everyone a last Merry Christmas! Christ is born!
Well, yesterday, I received a letter from a young Latin friend that included the following passage:
I’ve also been thinking a great deal this week about omnipotence and what—if any—constraints there are upon the omnipotence of God. I understand and accept the argument that God cannot lay down his own divinity, but I’m stuck on the square-circle problem. I’m told that Augustine thought it was a ridiculous question unworthy of an answer, but it makes sense to me that God should not be bound by logical laws. After all, he is certainly not bound by physical or moral ones, of which he is the source. How are logical laws different?
The square circle problem is that God cannot make a square circle. Below is my response, which might interest you, though Andrew may find it distasteful that I am posting a letter online. But hey—it’s fascinating stuff and it’s Sunday . . . give me a break!
Well, I would like to add some two pence pieces to your theological question. I believe that you are quite right to consider the square circle problem with physical and moral laws in mind. Your difficulty, however, comes from your seeing God’s essence as a binding or a limitation on God rather than seeing God’s essence as God—as understood by God.
Reality is an expression of what God is . . . necessarily limited and imperfect—for it is not God but his image—but nonetheless it has its being from him. What reality is and that reality is depend radically and wholly on that which is beyond being—God.
Eastern Christians, following Platonic language, deny that God exists . . . rather, God is the source of all existence. God is not a being among beings, but the source of beings . . . i.e. God is “beyond being.”
Western Christians, since the late Middle Ages, have expressed this idea in more Aristotelian terms . . . God is being itself (esse), not a being (ens).
Beings (entes [plural of ens]) do not have being (esse) in their own right. Existence (existentia), or that something is, does not belong to their essence (essentia), or what they are.
The argument for this is pretty simple, though nominalism rejects it (wrongly, in my opinion). Take any particular thing—such as an apple. If the existence of an apple (that an apple is) is the same as the essence of an apple (what an apple is—its nature), then anything said to exist would have to be that apple. All that could exist would be that apple. For you equate the existence and the essence of the apple. This is obviously false, as existence is said of many things that are not apples—that is, things that have essences other than that of the apple. Thus, essence and existence are distinct in particular things.
For Western scholastics, this separation of essence and existence does not apply to God. What God is (God’s essence) is existence itself (God’s existence). All other things have existence because God imparts it to them.
I would not use that language, but it points to the same reality. Orthodox Christians would not call God’s essence existence . . . for God’s essence is unknowable, though God is the source of all essence and existence in creation. He supplies the beingness of all beings (and holds them in being . . . “watchmaker” deism is metaphysically quite foolish and infantile), and he supplies the essence—the whatness—of all that exists. Everything reflects the divine essence in its limited way. Rational beings—men—reflect God’s image in a special and privileged way, but all reality reflects God. There is nothing else to reflect . . . for God creates ex nihilo—and the reason, the “logos” of reality, comes from God himself. Being is God’s expression of himself.
The Greek word logos means both word and reason . . . and logical principle. The Fathers understood the second person of the Trinity as the divine logos, just as the scriptures state. Ponder the richness behind the doctrine of creation through the logos.
Anyway, you can see how Mohammedanism and Calvinism are similar departures from the Christian tradition and from reason. For they hold that God creates arbitrary things arbitrarily. They separate the divine will from the divine reason and the divine essence, and by doing so, they rob God and the world that he makes of reason—their deity and their cosmos are mindless, just like that mechanistic pagan philosophers of old that Socrates attacks (and the mechanistic scientists today who reduce the world to atoms swirling in the void). It requires such a theological position to hold that God could will good to be bad and bad to be good . . . for it makes God’s will arbitrary and incomprehensible—even to God himself. It makes God a being . . . a limited, imperfect being in time, subject to change—divided and irrational. In short, it makes God worse than a good man. Therein, you can see how unenlightened piety can result in terrible blasphemy. For the Mohammedans, like the nominalists and the Calvinists who came later, posited what they did from a sense of piety . . . how can God be constrained? Yet, they understood not what they did, and the consequences have been disastrous.
With this understood, your theological knot unravels. For the metaphysical, logical, moral, and physical laws are not arbitrary matters but rather expressions of what God is, albeit mere glimmers and shadows of the really real. They are not constraints upon God but reflections of God. God “cannot” break them because “breaking” them has no meaning. There is nothing besides God and his creation. God acts . . . God does not do nothing, to use an odd expression. God can do anything that can be done, but ideas and actions that violate reason are not real ideas or actions. That is why God cannot do evil . . . because evil is nothing, and, so, evil cannot be done. We speak casually about evil and irrationality as if they were real beings, but strictly speaking, they are unintelligible nothings . . . placeholders in our language that we use to describe the state of things when it is not as it should be.
For instance, demons qua demons do not exist. Yet, we speak of demons as being real. What we really mean is that there are angels who are real who forsake and fall short of what they are. We say that certain acts are vicious. As acts, they have reality, but as vice, they are bastardizations of moral action . . . lacking some sense of being and intelligibility.
Thus, God cannot make a square circle because a square circle is meaningless. It is nothing. That is not an indictment of God’s power but a description of being. It is not in the order of reality—that which reflects God’s own divine order—to allow a square circle. That we can say a square circle is equivalent to babble . . . for it has no meaning. If it had meaning, then God could make it and certainly has made it—for it would exist in our mind, and nothing could exist in our mind which was not eternally in the mind of God. All possibilities are present to him. A square circle is not a possibility.
Note, however, that the limitations of our reason do not limit God. For our reason is but an image of the divine reason. Yet, what we intend when we think of a square and what we intend when we think of a circle are pretty exhaustively known to human reason. Even as men, we can see that they are incompatible. Yet, there are many things that might be rational to God that seem perplexing to us, due to our limitations, but obvious contradiction cannot be one of them. Otherwise, our reason is meaningless and useless. Pietists are happy to say that, but they don’t really reflect upon the logical consequences of their stated opinions. Again, piety can lead to blasphemy.
Many blessings to all, and, for the last time, Merry Christmas!
Roman Catholic priest, thinker, writer, speaker, and editor and founder of First Things journal Richard John Neuhaus died yesterday. In his honor, First Things reposted his essay “Born Toward Dying” that you may wish to read. It is a mix between near-death autobiography and a somewhat Christian version of the Phaedo. I was fortunate enough to have met him once after a talk that he gave at the John Paul II Cultural Center a few years ago. May his memory be eternal!
I commented upon the passing of Neuhaus in a letter to a friend yesterday in which I marvelled at the lights in the darkness of our inane times. We should be ceaselessly grateful for such luminaries:
When I consider how unworthy our era is of any blessings, it is humbling to think of how many shimmers of truth and sanity have manifested in the world during the past century. Considering just mainly English and French speakers, the list is impressive—to name just a small sample: Gilson, Lewis, Maritain, de Lubac, Popovich, Elliot, Orwell, Chesterton, Danielou, Voegelin, Lossky, Aron, Berry, Kirk, Anscombe, Tolkien, Plantinga, MacIntyre, Strauss, Findlay, F. O’Connor, von Balthasar, Bozell, Schmeeman—not to mention several hierarchs, including the present and preceding Roman pontiffs. Anyway, it is probable that the culture and population at large are the worst that they have ever been in the history of civilization. Never before have so many believed in so much that was so wrong. Nonetheless, it is also possible that we have not had the same level of insightful and wise thinking and discourse in the West, on the part of a growing minority, since the Renaissance. Several centuries of diseased modern ideas have given us both sets of facts. Perhaps, there is hope for the West.
Whenever you get caught up in a fit of desperation, wondering where are our Cappadocians, our Ciceros, and our Thomas Mores today, just consider those names and the thousands like them who have maintained nous in an anoetic age.
My super-genius friend Andrew and I rarely disagree about matters of import, but we do part ways in our understanding of imperfection as evil. For Andrew, all imperfection is the same in kind, and imperfection is evil. Thus, for Andrew, God’s act of creation necessitates the introduction of evil into the world. For anything that God brings into existence must be imperfect; it cannot be God, and as other from God, it lacks perfection. Therefore, evil enters the world as the world is made; it may be parasitic upon creation, but it is a co-existent parasite.
My objection to Andrew’s theory is that it makes God responsible for evil as such, and I find such an idea abhorrent and blasphemous. One might object to my objection as one not rooted in philosophical principle but in emotion or in doctrinal loyalties. I disagree. If God is the Good or its source, and if evil is nothing but the disorder of a being that causes it to diminish and to flee from its source, then God would be the source of being and anti-being. I contend that the opposition between good and evil—of being and anti-being—is not the same as other oppositions which God transcends and which find their mutual source in God. For all of these oppositions are aspects of being, but evil is opposed to being as such. God’s act of creating would be a contradiction if good and evil had their source in God.
A cantankerous metaphysician might claim, following old Parmenides, that the world is really a confused mixture of being and non-being. Things asserted to be are not just as they are. If you make any positive statements about anything formal or particular, you simultaneously and implicitly assert that they are not many other things. The even is not odd, and the pear is not an apple. Each being is not everything else. Hence, reality demands both being and non-being. From the Eleatic to Plato’s Sophist to today, we can see how such a statement makes sense.
Yet, I claim that non-being in the sense of negation within the matrix of reality is not the same as nothingness—evil or anti-being—which is the negation of being as such. God is the source of being and non-being, but we ought not to claim that God is the source of nothingness. That would indicate that God’s act of creation is paralleled, Hindu-style, with God’s act of destruction—and not creative destruction, by the way. Such a cosmic view makes good and evil equal forces from their transcendent source beyond good and evil, the dualism of which annihilates all of our ethical views where we privilege being over nothingness.
One with a taste for destruction might cheer for such a transvaluation of all values, delighted to see the human prejudice in favor of being, permanence, intelligibility, and goodness overthrown as a relic of superstition. Myself, I cannot accept that human pre-philosophical and philosophical thinking has been completely wrong since the dawn of time. If accepted, the consequence of such a radical change in values would render the world and our experience of it unintelligible. Consider what it would mean if you equally asserted the opposite to every practical decision following a judgment of whether something were good or bad.
Now, one could argue that we men must keep to our system of values wherein we favor the good. For it could just be the lot of men to strive for the good rather than evil . . . a matter of cosmic arbitrariness. We have been so constituted to desire and to pursue being and to flee annihilation, but from that, we should not anthropomorphically claim that God and the universe value as we value. Such a view is ethical chauvinism.
Yet, this answer still renders the universe unintelligible. According to such a view, we cannot transcend our preference for the good, though such a preference would be somewhat accidental to the nature of reality as a whole. It is the nature of reason to transcend provincial perspectives when it becomes aware of them. Such a view, then, does violence to reason and consigns it to perpetual moral near-sightedness.
In contrast, I hold that our minds are capable of understanding the order of being and that human reason is an image of the divine reason. We may be ignorant and limited, but our most precious instrument does not betray us in such a fundamental way. In the defense of my assertion, I merely offer the consequence of the alternative. If we are fundamentally unable to determine the order of being—if we are unable to understand what is true and what we ought to do—then any theory issuing from human minds is bunk.
This is the argument of ultimate retortion. One might argue that the philosopher makes a leap of faith in believing that human reason is capable of knowing the truth. Yet, one who starts with any other assumption refutes anything that follows from his lips. If you hold that we are not able to know the truth, then why should anyone listen to you, as what you claim is surely not true—including your claim that we are not able to know the truth? Thus, it is a necessary assumption to make when one affirms the ability of human reason to understand the truth of things. Perhaps, I am obtuse here, but I cannot see how any dismissal of our general understanding of goodness—something fundamental to human thought and life—would not result in a self-refuting nihilism.
If I am correct, then God cannot be the source of both goodness and evil. Rather, good alone exists, and evil is the unintelligible disorder that diminishes a being from being what it ought to be. Non-being, then, is not the same as evil, since non-being is necessary for any limited thing; anything besides God necessarily lacks the perfections of everything that it is not. To be something means not being something else. Evil, by contrast, is the state when a thing falls short of being what it truly is.
Here, then, is my main disagreement with Andrew. I hold that there are three types of imperfection, whereas he holds that all imperfection is of the same kind—namely, limitation and not being God. First, there is the imperfection inherent in limitation, where being and non-being are said of a being. All created beings are not God, and they likewise are not other created beings. They thus lack many perfections—those which are not properly their own—and in this sense they are imperfect. Second, there is the imperfection of potentiality. Perhaps, I am committing a transgression of Aristotle here in bringing up potentiality, but it seems to me that particular things that come to be often have natural stages of imperfection proper to them. An acorn is an imperfect oak tree, as a baby is an imperfect man. The seedling and the embryo are potentially perfect in what they are by nature, but, at such young stages, they are imperfect. Third, there is the imperfection of evil, where a particular thing, unintelligibly, falls short of being what it is. I call this sin—the missing the mark of being and of doing what we ought to be and to do. This third kind of imperfection is evil.
If we accept these distinctions, we can see that the first two are necessary parts of reality. The first is a necessary imperfection in a creation other than the limitless, transcendent, and all-perfect God. The second imperfection is necessary in a world of becoming, where particular things in time come to be and pass away. God, in his act of creating, is the author of such types of imperfection. The last kind of imperfection, however, ought not to exist. Indeed, we say that it does not exist, though we are aware of its metaphysical corruption. Evil has a bastardly parasitic presence in the world, but it ought not to be. The first two imperfections are not blameworthy, though the third, when it involves men and their actions, incurs blame. It is sin. The first two types of imperfection are intelligible and orderly, whereas the last mars the cosmos.
Perhaps, I have Christianized Platonic metaphysics with these distinctions; though, with Origen, Augustine, Bonaventure, Thomas, and others, I think that the Gospel perfects the best of pagan wisdom.
I remember some classroom arguments in a medieval scholastic philosophy course that involved divine foreknowledge. The issue was whether human beings are actually free if God knows what they are going to do. The distinction between necessary and contingent truth known necessarily or contingently bubbled to the discussion’s surface, and my peers’ opinions seemed to coalesce into accepting that God can know future contingent things necessarily but that mortals cannot. Were human beings—contingent temporally bound creatures—to know the future, then our freedom would be questionable.
I cannot reconstruct the argument well because it never made much sense to me. I am not even sure what contingent really means. Necessary truth is easy—things are necessarily so if they cannot be otherwise, due to their nature and to the nature of the universe. Mathematical relations are necessarily true. Historical facts are often offered as examples of contingent truths—it is conceivable that Caesar would have not crossed the Rubicon. A parallel universe would be intelligible to us in which Caesar instead decided to retire in Gaul and sip Gallic wine unto the end of his days. As Hume would say, matters of fact—contingent truths—have no contradiction. They do not repulse our minds but rather appear as possibilities.
Yet, I wonder if things are contingent only in their intelligibility to us. I confess that I have pondered the issues of freedom, determinism, and the rest of those webs for many years with little success. I frankly do not understand reality. Yet, I stagger along and try to make sense of things as I can. I am more comfortable—to use an irrational word—with determinism because it seems more intelligible. What does it mean for something to be undetermined? What does free choice really entail? I don’t know.
Regardless, I never understood why it mattered whether God or human beings had knowledge of necessary and contingent things. God must know all things, and I suppose that God’s knowledge of them is truth in the highest meaning of truth. Divine truth is truth simply, whereas truth as perceived by limited creatures would seem to be limited and, hence, distorted, as well. If there is a natural difference—beyond our means of understanding—between necessary and contingent truth, God surely would know it. Yet, human knowledge is a limited knowledge of God’s knowledge—it is an image of real knowledge as known by the divine mind. If that is true, then what difference does it make whether God or man perceives some truth? For all cognition seems to be a participation in the Logos.
Maybe, Platonists just have an easier time with these matters. Past, present, and future are merely causal directions in Platonism. Our “now” is not a privileged present moment. From eternity’s perspective, our now is no more now than the moment when Caesar crossed the Rubicon or the moment when human beings will land on Mars. We tend think with an attitude of temporal chauvinism—that our framework of past, present, and future is the true one simply—true for God. However, it is only relatively true for us. What is really true, absolutely, in our temporal framework is the causal relationships. That X precedes Y, or that Y precedes Z (not in the alphabet but as variables for events) is true for everyone at all times. Yet, whatever event that is happening in our now is no more present to God than any moment in creation. For God transcends time and is its creator. That is what eternal means . . . Aristotelianism has muddied the West’s theological waters by reducing eternity to everlastingness.
So, from a Platonic perspective, that God knows “the future” is simply a matter of God knowing one part of the historical continuum of created time and space that happens to be in our future, though such a future is not God’s future. The other medieval arguments for God’s knowledge of contingents may be fine—that God knows all things by being their creator, that God knows all the consequences of his movement as the perfect prime mover in knowing himself—yet, these are unnecessary arguments to salvage human freedom with divine foreknowledge. For God has no “foreknowledge”—it is simply that God’s knowledge can appear as foreknowledge to temporal beings such as ourselves.
As such, it does not seem that revelations of such knowledge to human beings would affect the status of freedom at all. However revelation works—if there is a distinction between revelation from above (such as to the prophets) and revelation from below (through natural reason), as Avery Dulles suggests, or if there is no such distinction and all knowledge is the result of the human mind’s being open and purified to the world as it is—it seems that revelation offers the human mind a glimpse of reality through the work of God . . . by creation or providential grace. Is it so different to have a vision of historical events in one’s future than to realize the truth of the Pythagorean theorem? If one accepts the fundamental ideas of Christian theology—that there is an omniscient and benevolent God who cares for his created mankind—then, such truths do not appear so radically dissimilar. They are both instances of God’s sharing of truth with minds created in his image.
However, what if one did not accept Christian theology? What if one were a materialist, instead?
It is not my intention to offer an apology for Christianity in this post. My reasons for being a Christian exceed this particular topic greatly. However, as human knowledge of future contingents is the subject at hand, I cannot ignore my own personal experience, for which I do not see how materialism could account.
Since I was a small child, I have had dreams of events that subsequently occurred. I do not like the term “prophetic dream” to describe my dreams because prophesy has much more to do with relaying God’s will than with the degenerate common English meaning of fortune telling. I do not know what term would be better, though. After looking around on the internet, I read “precognitive dream” on several sites, but that terminology also does violence to our language. It does not make sense. “Predictive dreaming” is ambiguous, as we could all say that a thirteen year old boy has predictive dreams—ones that we could predict, knowing about thirteen year old boys. Prescient dreaming may be a good choice, but it lacks the sexiness of “prophetic” in an entry title. So, I’ll stick with prophetic dreams, with the caveat that we should suffer no prelest in thinking too highly of ourselves as especially appointed messengers from God.
Well, some of these dreams can be explained away as coincidence. Human life is predictable in that most things are expected and follow patterns. If I dreamt of eating pancakes and then woke up to my mother’s serving pancakes, I should not be surprised. Yet, I sometimes dream of things that cannot be easily dismissed.
I bring this up because of a recent event. One of my brothers works at a local pharmacy. On the telephone, he told me a few weeks ago that his store was robbed. I remember thinking how terrible it was that he had been at the store twice in the past year during a robbery—you know, what is our society coming to and all that woe mongering. When I came back home for Thanksgiving break, I brought it up again to him. He said that the robbery was the first time that the store had been robbed. I asked him about the robbery from several months ago, perhaps in the spring, and he said that there was no earlier robbery. However, I have distinct memories of his telling me, in person, of the robbery. I also remember relaying the story to other friends and family members. He said that he never told me of a robbery until two weeks ago—on the phone.
So, it is possible that I had a dream about the robbery and of the subsequent conversations concerning the robbery and that I remembered the dream as fact. It is also possible that I simply dreamt of an event that, while not likely, could result from some strange subconscious anxieties that I have about my brother’s working at the pharmacy. I am not aware of any such anxieties, but I would not be of subconscious ones. It could be mere coincidence.
Yet, this sort of thing has happened many times, and one such occasion cannot be reduced to generalities because of its peculiarity. Last year, one of my co-workers started looking for another job. Around the summer of A.D. 2007, I remember her, clear as day, telling me about one of her interviews. She told me that during the interview, a delivery man entered the office where the interview was being conducted and interrupted it. He had a shipment of many boxes of paper, and he did not know where they should go. The interviewing panel explained that the delivery was a mistake, either in its timing or in its goods. They then asked my co-worker what she would do in such a situation. I remember laughing when she told me this, as she emphasized the “Can you believe it” factor and the bizarre unfairness of the episode. Throughout the story, I imagined the event in my mind, as I do when I hear people talk. So, I had a memory of the interview as I imagined it in my mind, along with the sense perception memory of her telling me it.
Well, last autumn, at least three months after I remembered this conversation’s taking place, I walked in on the same co-worker’s telling another co-worker about her latest interview, where a shipment arrived, chaos ensued, and the woman who was interviewing her asked her what she would do in that situation. I then asked, in amazement, how such a thing could happen to her again. She looked up at me quite puzzled. Then, I told her about what she had said earlier in the year, and she was astounded. There had been no earlier interview, though I remembered it. Rather, I foresaw something before it came to pass.
I do not accept any dismissals of this story as coincidence. I do not witness job interviews or hear about them. I certainly do not know of any other interview interruptions so as to have a generalized view of interviews that would make me dream up something like this coincidentally. I do not see how any such explanation makes sense. Yet, what does make sense? How can I dream about the future?
Yet, I am not sure that the two events recounted above were even dreams. I have had prophetic or prescient dreams that I remember as having dreamt, but I simply remember these two events as if they had happened. This bothers me, naturally, as I could start a chain of unproductive worrying about all that I know that may not have yet occurred. It is almost Truman Show-esque—there is no need to question one’s knowledge of reality until one finds it repeatedly unreliable. I suppose that I am still some time away from interrogating people whether ABC about their lives is true.
Dream or inexplicable memory, how could one explain away such experience from a materialist perspective? Of course, a materialist might accuse me of lying, but I am asking how I could hold to materialism with such personal experience. I find the materialist world view quite unable to explain a multitude of phenomena and human experience, but as our topic is this particular sort of knowledge, how could it be so? For that matter, how could any consciousness be so? It astounds me that so many rational, intelligent people have such opinions about the world . . . Why? For if all is atoms swirling in the void, what does intelligence or intellection mean?
Prescient dreaming or knowledge seems to be rather common. From passing “déjà vu"experiences to detailed knowledge of peculiar and detailed events, it seems that our temporal minds frequently glimpse a sight beyond the horizons of our time frame. Should this even surprise us? For we can understand the Pythagorean theorem.
In my studies, I have come to the conclusion that false intellectual modesty has been disastrous for Western civilization. For when a society no longer believes that it is possible to arrive at truth—or that there is no truth—men are reduced to the level of irrational animals. Without the ability or the will to consult reason, force alone decides. Ignorant power rules through violence in the absence of science. In this unhappy state, we witness the transformation of human society into a savanna of beasts, where, as Thucydides states, the strong do as they may, and the weak suffer as they must.
Allow me to do a bit of violence myself in insufficiently surveying where such intellectual “humility” has surfaced in the West. This is a mere post, not a research paper; so, cut me some slack.
It seems to me that the possibility of denying truth or men’s ability to attain it waited until the advent of philosophical thinking in ancient Greece—it appeared alongside its opposing complement of affirming the existence of truth and the intelligibility of the world. Before this critical reflexion began, it seems like the Greeks were as any other pre-philosophical people. They experienced and reflected upon the world mythically. Having benefited from (or having been cursed by, depending on your point of view) critical analysis, we would call such a state primitive, naive, and superstitious. From the Homeric Greeks to the ancient Slavs, Celts, and Germanic peoples to the cultic civilizations of the East even unto the modern barbarians of the Americas, Africa, and the Pacific islands of the last centuries, we see a similar mythical world view. I think that this is the natural state of man—a pagan who understands the world symbolically in, by, and as expression of divine and human action.
I do not mean that pre-philosophical peoples have no understanding of what philosophy entails, such as the good, virtue, values in general, the beautiful, existence, knowledge, spiritual concerns, and the like. What I mean is best shown in an analogy with language. All human beings have language (insofar as they are raised and they live in a human community). All languages have a grammar. Hence, all mature, social human beings utilize grammar and have a working knowledge of it. Yet, as far as I know, no human group reflected systematically upon grammar until the Greeks. Every person has a working knowledge of a subject and a verb, but only human beings who have followed in the ancient Greeks’ steps of systematic and analytical thinking can explain the parts of language. An argument can be made for the appearance something akin to Greek philosophy in ancient Hinduism, but Indian philosophy and its progeny never broke free from its mythos. The Greek discovery—the birth of philosophy—occurs in stepping back from something intimately known and employed in life and in examining it rationally. Inspections, distinctions, conditionals, and other abstractions constitute this new form of analysis. The anti-rationalist may argue that this is the original sin of Western man, and from the Greeks, the infection has spread throughout the entire world in modernity. For such a philosophical enemy of philosophy may suspect that we are not up to the task of disfiguring and disassembling ourselves; that we have compromised natural wisdom and wholeness in the search for reality’s hidden secrets. We have heard many such prophets over the millennia, and they can easily point to the troubles that philosophy has brought into the world. For them, it is the forbidden fruit that does not even deliver knowledge but rather weakens us into a worse state of ignorance than before. It should be no surprise that the anti-rationalist frequently makes his jeremiad from the temple.
We see the development of philosophy in certain Greek cities leading up to the classical era. Early natural philosophers like Thales and Anaximenes attempted to find an underlying material element to everything. Anaximander proposed an early mechanistic theory to explain nature. Later pre-Socratic natural philosophers like Leucippus, Democritus, Empedocles, Anaxagoras developed atomism and more refined mechanistic theories. Heraclitus developed logic and taught that logos is the formative principle of the world, while the Pythagoreans and Eleatics advanced mathematics and sought the underlying reality of the world beyond materialist metaphysics—with them, the quest for being as such entered human awareness.
Other early Greek philosophers began to explore the distinction between nature and convention. What is true must be what is according to nature, and yet different cities hold different and contradictory beliefs and customs, where all cannot be correct. Xenophanes, for instance, is famous for attacking men’s anthropomorphizing of the gods:
But mortals deem that the gods are begotten as they are, and have clothes like theirs, and voice and form.
The Ethiopians make their gods black and snub-nosed; the Thracians say theirs have blue eyes and red hair.
Yes, and if oxen and horses or lions had hands, and could paint with their hands, and produce works of art as men do, horses would paint the forms of the gods like horses, and oxen like oxen, and make their bodies in the image of their several kinds.
Later on, the rise of the sophists throughout Greece pushed this relentless exposing of convention to the point of relativism. As Protagoras reportedly stated, “Man is the measure of all things; of the things that are, that they are, and of things that are not, that they are not.”
The sophists made philosophy the enemy of the city in the eyes of concerned citizens. They undermined the city’s religion, value system, and way of life. They educated the sons of the wealthy and instilled values in them quite opposed to the education in honor and civic valor that the tradition prescribed. Politicians and poets attacked philosophy as a Trojan horse that, if accepted, would ruin the city. Aristophanes—comedian, conservative, and defender of the city—frequently mocks the so-called wise in his plays. I myself am not aware of how the city’s religious cults reacted to philosophers in general and to sophists in particular, but I assume that they were not welcoming to this new class of wise men.
The dangerous questions initiated by the philosophical critique of tradition and the suspicion that what was held to be true by the ancestors may not really be true according to nature reveals the fragile relationship between philosophy and the city, as Plato, Aristotle, and their intellectual prodigy note. Leo Strauss wrote his entire life about this relationship, and the dispute reverberates across history. Yet, this type of questioning also raises our particular set of problems to the level of human awareness. Is there something to know, and are men able to know it? If one man can know something, is it possible for him to share that knowledge—is knowledge communicable? Or, is knowledge simply the mental state of one man with his experiences and judgments, without any reference to something beyond that mental state? Most early philosophers strove for knowledge that transcends custom, but the sophists largely dismissed that possibility. Certainly, some sophists attacked the possibility of knowledge according to nature due to its difficulty and perplexities. Human beings are often mistaken; why should we think that we are right when so many others who were wrong thought the same? Other sophists preached relativism for immoral reasons. If you are a wealthy young man with ambitions, why should you allow piety and social customs to hold you back; for these are mere human constructs? The sophists were there to counsel you to look beyond good and evil—for a fee, of course.
Every educated person in the West today should have to study the classics thoroughly. Such study is invaluable, as the Greeks and the Romans appear to have encountered all of our modern philosophical, social, religious, and political problems, debates, and solutions. We ignore them at our peril.
Well, the Socratic moment occurred as sophists were traipsing across Greece. Socrates was a type of sophist himself, but he never charged his interlocutors or disciples money for spending time with him. Like the sophists, he went around to people and undermined their confidence in the own opinions. Like the sophists, he spread skepticism and doubt about conventional belief. He did not, however, give up on the pursuit of wisdom. Just because the truth is hard, just because nature loves to hide, as Heraclitus stated, we are not thereby excused from pursuing the examined life. Socrates taught intellectual humility—he frequently admitted that he knew nothing—but he did not disparage knowledge or reason’s ability to obtain it.
Though following in the footsteps of his philosophical predecessors, Socrates, philosophy’s midwife, delivered unto the world the birth of all subsequent science. Among his students was Plato, and among Plato’s students was Aristotle. Later schools and movements sometimes hearkened back to the pre-Socratics but always and inevitably through the Socratic filter of Plato and Aristotle. I cannot overstate their importance, in substance or in history. Given our time’s unthinking belief in progress, we subconscious Hegelians might assume that twenty-three centuries would have vastly improved human understanding of man’s basic questions. I think that this is false. Even given the worthy successors of Plato and Aristotle, such as Plotinus, Thomas Aquinas, and Immanuel Kant, I do not think that they eclipsed Plato and Aristotle but rather that they explored certain problems better.
In their works, Plato and Aristotle defend philosophy from the accusations of the tradition and from the bad reputation of the sophists. They affirm the intelligibility of the world and the ability of the mind to know the world, and they grant a level of awareness to traditional and common opinion while also showing how such conventional opinion points to but falls woefully short of truth. Socratic wisdom demolishes human intellectual conceit without rendering the philosophical quest itself hopeless and vain.
I have spilt much ink (or spent bytes) on ancient Greece because I think that the debate can be seen in its totality. There is traditional wisdom (in law, in the poets, in the religion, and in the customs of the people) threatened by philosophy, which claims superior or exclusive access to truth. Then, there is a mutated philosophy that metastasizes into a relativism destructive of tradition, philosophy, and itself. As I stated above, this situation occurs again and again throughout history. As this new Greek culture inculturated the Mediterranean world and beyond, the same disputes arose. The Jews first tackled the conflict between Athens and Jerusalem, an argument that has affected all thinking Abrahamic peoples since. Indeed, Christian theology would not have been possible without Hellenic philosophy—no one would have been moved to question cultic teachings without such cross-pollination. Themes such as theodicy and purpose lay nascent in Homer, Hesiod, and the Hebrew scriptures, but philosophical thinking and its tools unleashed the potential of sacred texts. Despoiling the Egyptians of their treasures, Church fathers such as Justin, Clement, Origin, Gregory of Nazianzus, and Gregory of Nyssa took what they saw as valuable in pagan philosophy and used it in theology. However, others such as Tertullian, Augustine in his later years, and hordes of ascetics in the desert deplored human reason’s attempts at knowledge as useless or destructive vanity. When the followers of Muhammad began to read the Greeks, there were waves of controversy in the dar al-Islam, the fruits of which subsequently reentered the Greco-Roman-Christian tradition in the high middle ages as Western Christians began to read the works of Al-Kindi, Al-Farabi, Avicenna, Averroes, and Al-Ghazali. Again, the tensions between tradition and science, faith and reason, revelation and philosophy created a storm of intellectual activity in the scholastic world. Latin Averroists, traditional Platonists, new knowledge synthesizers like Thomas, and old fashioned ratioskeptics fought for the mind of the West in disputes that significantly altered Western Christendom ever after.
Hatching from these historical disputes, nominalism entered the world on behalf of Christian humility and piety. English Franciscans like William of Ockham no longer found realist arguments—that there were such things as forms, essence, or natures—convincing. I’ll address the birth of nominalism again, as I think that it is, historically speaking, the most significant intellectual development since classical times. Yet, it is clear that piety was an important influence if not a sufficient cause of nominalism. For William and like-minded thinkers thought that forms or essences restricted the omnipotence of God. Thus began the revolution of the West seven hundred years ago. I would boldly argue that all of modernity, qua modernity, traces back to this development.
From Socrates to the coming of nominalism, the West did not lose faith in its ability to know. The Academy after Plato was a center of philosophical skepticism, and skeptics such as Pyrrho played the Socratic gadfly among philosophers. Alone, skepticism would have been like toxic bleach, but enough other philosophical currents flowed in Hellenistic times that skepticism’s influence was diluted. In such a state, it provided a service of intellectual hygiene in philosophy. The traditionalists kept their old ways, the priests kept their rites, and the poets kept their wisdom. Rabinnical Jews hostile to philosophy felt secure in the Law, while Christians adverse to Athens found sure footing on Christ and his gospel. Even the early nominalists thought that human knowledge was possible. William and his associates developed an advanced logical and epistemological model to safeguard human knowledge, and they were devout followers of the trustworthiness of sacred scripture. Yet, in denying essences and the human ability to know them, William set the stage for the overturning of all knowledge. He is the distant patriarch of Luther, Calvin, Hume, pietism, Kant, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Protestant fundamentalists, and the much less respectable postmodern twits.
You can see how Calvinism rose out of nominalism; in Averroist language, the Reformation was the theological image of nominalist philosophy. As Luther said, reason is a whore and unable to attain knowledge. Our fall from grace destroyed the divine faculty of reason so greatly that we must depend on revelation for religious guidance. Sola scriptura then is a desperate grab for some steady post when the rest of the world crumbles after nominalism. Yet, why should one believe religion at all? If we cannot trust our mind’s ability in some matters, why should we trust its fideism in holy books? The Enlightenment was the response to this dilemma. With nominalism’s having rendered metaphysics impossible, or so they thought, philosophy’s task would consist in understanding physics, or at least how nature appears to us. Even if such knowledge does not arrive at a true understanding of the world, at least it can be useful in technology. We need not intellectually affirm or truly understand the existence of selves or substances in order to deliver a missile through a fortress wall. Intellectual pursuit, then, comes to aim after general laws—tendencies and relationships of actions that follow other actions. The “why” of earlier philosophers is replaced by the “how” of modern researchers. Contemplation of the whole and of the greater—the theoria of the ancients—is forgotten as the practical mastery of nature comes to drive the West’s intellectual development. We still live in this age.
The modern period of philosophy is admirable and impressive; Bacon, Descartes, Hobbes, Newton, Locke, Spinoza, Hume, Berkeley, Leibniz, Kant, and others are quite insightful and, at times, breathtakingly brilliant. Yet, with the partial exceptions of Descartes, Berkeley, and Leibniz, they more or less follow and yet thereby try to get beyond nominalism. If you throw out revelation and still want access to knowledge, how is such possible? Their epistemological models, explorations of empiricism and its limits, and attempts to unravel the implied knots provide an impressive edifice. Nonetheless, I suspect that such is a mighty castle built upon a cloud of unreason. Not only do I think that nominalism itself is unsupportable, but I also think that their efforts to get around it fail. For these thinkers generally do not critically start at the foundations but rather accept that they can have access to tools that their own principles remove from them.
Hume is an easy example. In An Enquiry concerning Human Understanding, Hume argues that all of our mental content comes from the senses, either of external things or emotions felt. When sensed, these impressions are vivid, but as time goes by, they fade into ideas. As ideas, they are so weak that the mind freely manipulates them into various combinations to give us our entire mental content. What, then, about essences—or definitional abstractions? What about our understanding of causality? He states that custom, ingrained in us throughout life, molds our mental landscape. We have no understanding of causality; we simply notice that certain actions always follow other actions. We have no understanding of a horse as such; rather, we have empirical information of different particular things that we call horses because they resemble each other. Reinforced experience makes such knowledge steadier and readier because it is based upon more impressions.
Hume is fun to read because he makes explicit arguments, uses clear language, and never asks you to rise beyond everyday thinking. However, his epistemology cannot address several problems. First, he notes that the principles of mathematics are simply known, but he does not explain how his system makes such possible. Indeed, he spends a considerable amount of time refuting the idea that the human mind has access to any knowledge that comes not through the senses, but he refutes himself and does not explain how such knowledge fails to undermine his theory. Likewise, his memorable argument about the missing shade of blue undercuts his own case, and he just passes it off as a peripheral matter. In the example of the missing shade of blue, Hume notes that people who have always been blind have no understanding of color, which helps his argument that all mental content must come from impressions. Yet, he admits that a man who has been shown a sequence of blue shades that he had never before seen would be able to imagine a particular shade missing from the sequence. Even if you could argue that our minds can separate blue and white qualities from those various shades and then recombine them in different ways to get the missing shade of blue, Hume would still have a problem. For Hume’s theory does not seem to allow for that sort of abstraction—color is so basic that we would have had to see each particular shade for it to be in our mental content. Were we able to dissemble the shades into constituent color parts that we had never seen before demands noetic powers that Hume denies us. We evidently can make unicorns by matching up disparate ideas in our memory, but no real abstraction takes place in such action. Abstraction, for Hume, is simply the fading of an idea so that its vagueness allows it to substitute for other faded ideas that it resembles. Such is not what would have to occur to analyze a shade of blue.
Moreover, Hume’s dismissal of universals relies on his principle of resemblance. Like all nominalists, he argues that the mind groups objects that resemble one another and calls them somewhat arbitrarily by the same name—hence, the nomina of nominalism. However, how can things resemble one another without in fact being the same in some respect? This is the retort to nominalism, and it is a problem that they cannot overcome. They fall to the level of image-thinking, as Plato writes, and make intellectual judgments based upon unreflective crude sense perception. How is it that X is a horse, Y is a horse, and Z is a horse, if there is no such thing as “horse.” For nominalists, “horse” is simply a mental placeholder in the mind of the person who groups together sets convenient to group. Yet, they cannot justify why such placeholders readily present themselves to the mind. Resemblance begs the question, “Resembling in what way?” At some point, a list of characteristics will be given, and such a list will be applicable to X, Y, and Z. If the nominalist protests that each horse’s characteristics merely resemble the characteristics of each other horse, then, we ask the same question at a new level. This process cannot go on interminably; things resemble each other because they share something. Our minds intellect that shared something somehow, and we group and categorize accordingly.
The most momentous philosophical revolution in thousands of years occurred without good reasoning. I find this improbable and shocking, and yet, it is so. I suspected that I would finally find a good argument for nominalism, rather than simply a thoughtlessly inherited opinion, in reading William himself. Yet, it is as if he could not see the basic, truly foundational problem. Once you keep the nominalist from getting away with resemblance on the cheap, his entire system’s raison d’être ceases to be.
Why should we care about some pedantic dispute from the middle ages, or why should the intellectual path of Western civilization bother our attention today? Well, to begin with, it is a matter of truth. Practically, as well, this matter of truth has had momentous civilizational consequences. The nihilism of the modern world, the crisis in the human sciences that Husserl articulated generations ago, the rampant relativism in the West today and the emasculating, soul crushing meaningless and despair that it engenders—these are signs of a disease that has slowly spread throughout the world. The pious might claim that such is the result of the West’s rejection of God, but it was the Western rejection of reason, ironically out of religious devotion, that led people to heathenism. For nominalism at its core denies the intelligibility of the world and the ability of man to know it. As mentioned above, the first nominalists and their philosophical successors attempted to salvage aspects of the world’s knowability and of the human mind’s powers. Yet, they were all insufficient to the task; once you make a part of the world necessarily unintelligible, you render the whole unintelligible. For a particular man might be ignorant of many things and still claim knowledge of other things. However, if you state that the world as such is unintelligible in certain aspects, you begin a destructive process of misology. For the claim that some part of the world is intelligible while another part is not is a claim about the world as a whole. For that claim to stand, it undoes the unintelligibility of the part about which it claims to know (that it is unknowable). An instability is thus built into nominalism, and it is simply human rationality at work when such a system self-destructs—its logical conclusion is an impossibility.
It is helpful to remember that many early opponents of philosophy were trying to protect what they thought to be good—the ways of their gods and fathers. In dismissing reason, though, they opened themselves up to a mighty river wherein they have no oars—and irrational religiosity is a difficult stream to navigate without drowning. Nominalism was a medieval variation of this stance. Christian logicians threw away their respect for human reason to know things because it was for them impious to affirm that the mind of man knows the mind of God or that the objects of man could be the objects of God. In their attempt to respect God, however, by debasing man, they have rendered man less than human. God creates man with mind, and that mind, though infinitely inferior to God, is meant to function as an image of the divine mind. The human mind working at its proper best understands the logos of the world, first seen among the pagans by Heraclitus and furthermore proclaimed by the prophets. To stop short of affirming the absolute intelligibility of the world and of our ability to know it is to kill reasoning. Man, robbed of reason, is a beast. Thus, it should be no surprise when we see what such a mindless beast does.
Philosophy literally means the love of wisdom, as everyone seems to know but then somehow quickly forgets once that small bit of etymological insight is mentioned. I think that we cannot forget that most basic definition, for philosophy involves a love, an intense love, for wisdom, for truth, and for the “real”, whatever that may be. Other further definitions and distinctions that university types commonly make are often misguided, in that they divide philosophy from the paths to truth and wisdom that do not fit nicely into their latest classification of human knowledge, academic methodology, and the human experience.
Philosophy is not only that phenomenon of critical thinking that has dominated Western thought for almost three millennia or what others may call various forms of east Asian religious and folk wisdom, but it is, I think, the love of truth and the most basic desire to understand and to commune with everything. It embraces inquiry into the most transcendent realities, wonder at the world around us, and inspection into the depths of our minds and souls. For its material, for its evidence, philosophy takes the whole and aims for the whole. The philosopher loves the whole of wisdom.
Now, to what extent critical thinking involves skepticism, the overturning and murdering of mythos, and the other specific characteristics of much of the history of Western thought is a mystery to me. The jury is evidently still out on that case. However, let us demand that it consider all the evidence rather than slipping into sloth and idiocy in attempts to narrow and bracket the tough questions.