The plausibility of theism; notes on the history of philosophy

The problem

Why are the arguments for theistic philosophies not convincing to most modern men?  The exasperated Thomist can point out that most of these modern men have heard only caricatures of these arguments at best.  This is true, but skeptics could not ignore or misrepresent our beliefs so easily if it weren’t for a more serious problem.  Alasdaire MacIntyre has pointed out that the difference between theists and atheists runs deeper than most realize.  It’s not that theists believe in the same things as atheists but just add one more (divine) object; the existence of God changes how we understand everything else.  Thus, that creatures are in some sense receivers of being is the key to understanding them, not just a claim needed to make the cosmological argument run through only to be forgotten once it has served this task.

Most theists, myself included, have failed to carry out such a philosophical revolution in our heads.  Most of the time, God is just “one more being” in my head, having little to do with how I understand the other items of my world.  Our concepts and categories are dismissed not because they are deemed not convincing but because they are deemed not useable.  By “usable”, I don’t mean “useful”; I mean “applicable”.

For example, the basic Aristotelian categories are somewhat difficult to apply to inanimate matter.  Things like photons, crystals, automobiles, and stars have far more intelligibility than meaningless heaps, but it’s not clear that they are full substances.  We can hammer them into the Scholastic categories, but the results often seem forced and unenlightening.  With the overthrow of Aristotelean physics, there was a great retreat into metaphysics.  Science cannot touch our philosophy because it deals only with being at the most general level, deriving truths that must hold for any empirical world.  The danger of this separation is that we can no longer apply our concepts to the empirical world, and–as any teacher will tell you–if you don’t know how to use a concept, you can’t really understand what it means.  Metaphysics was not meant to stand in isolation.  Between science and metaphysics lies ontology (“natural philosophy”) which interfaces both and joins them into a single worldview.  It was a positive feature, not the matter of embarrassment we make it out to be today, that Aristotle’s physics and metaphysics tie so seamlessly together.

I would say the main reason Catholic philosophy has the following it does is because natural law ethics is usable, and even nonbelievers can admire the way it enables careful reasoning about tricky bioethical problems.  In fact, problems of ontology may provide an opportunity for ambitious theist philosophers to open a second intellectual front.  Contrary to what some say, science does not ignore formal causes and neither science nor math are concerned exclusively with quantification, yet the ontological status of core theoretical objects such as space, time (other than the present), wavefunctions, and emergent orders remains uncertain.  (Similarly for the social sciences.)

Descartes reconsidered

Rene Descartes is philosophy’s whipping boy, attacked by Schoolmen and the current year establishment alike, so most fail to appreciate the sheer magnitude of this man’s positive accomplishment.  Descartes is accused of splitting the world into extensive matter and mind, but plurality is a true feature of the world.  The philosopher’s first task is not to explain, but to describe, using whatever features the subject’s intelligibility suggest.

Aristotle did this too.  He started with ontology, focusing on living things.  His ontology is animist in spirit, and for any organic being–from plants to polities–it works brilliantly well.  When considering life, Aristotelian categories can be evaded only by a perversely stubborn will, and the moment it lets its guard down, implicit Aristotelianism comes rushing back in.  When a man goes to the doctor, he forgets any foolishness he just wrote about organ function being an illusion of natural selection.  Aristotle’s ontology is more unified because he planted his flag in the middle level of being, while Descartes planted two flags on either extreme.

Descartes’ great offense was to notice that animist ontology applies poorly to gobs of inanimate stuff, while on the other hand, consciousness clearly does have the unity and indivisibility of a single substance.  Say what you will about the Cartesian replacement ontologies; there’s no doubt that they are extremely usable.  Descartes didn’t just suggest that thinking of matter geometrically might yield insights.  He invented analytic geometry, formulated the law of conservation of momentum, and explained the rainbow.  His meditations on the mind are the beginnings of phenomenology.  His famous systematic doubt was an intellectual exercise for getting at the structures in his consciousness, not any real uncertainty regarding the extra-mental world.

Life is the middle term between mind and inert matter, and Descartes’ categories reveal their inadequacy clearly in this middle.  Aristotelianism captures life well but fails on the edges, although less spectacularly.  (For example, teleology/virtue ethics is true as far as it goes, but doesn’t really capture the normative force of morals on the ego.)  Aristotelians may justly boast that their master didn’t rest at ontology, but pushed upward seamlessly into metaphysics, while the extension of Cartesianism into metaphysics, the work of Malebranche, was deemed un-insightful and soon forgotten.


Whig history

Both Thomists and the secular establishment agree on the same historical narrative, although with reversed value judgments.  Aquinas and the Enlightenment are the two poles, and everything in between is understood to have been fundamentally transitional, a mixture of the medieval and the atheistic, historically important for the role it played in shifting the mixture toward the latter pole.  Nominalism, the Renaissance, the Reformation, the 17th century, the Enlightenment…how many times can realist Scholasticism be overthrown?  If Erasmus already did it, shouldn’t we credit Galileo and Descartes with something else?  Now, I grant that the 18th century Enlightenment philosophes were the prophets of today’s secular order, but those other movements deserve to be understood on their own terms, not as transitional states to today’s spiritual desert.  Acknowledging this allows us to appreciate the breadth and diversity of the Christian philosophical tradition.

Also the continuity.  Isn’t it weird that two near-contemporaries like Dante and Petrarch, both admirers of Latin literature in equal measure, should be placed in opposed historical eras, the one “medieval” and the other “Renaissance”?  And yet, a movement certainly was afoot in the 14th and 15th centuries to re-appropriate the wisdom of pagan antiquity.  A not unworthy goal, exemplified as well by that remarkably broad-minded 13th-century Renaissance man, Thomas Aquinas.

Turn to the 16th century and pick an exemplary representative, like Luther.  It would be preposterous to see Martin Luther as a transitional figure, a mix of Aquinas and Voltaire.  That century’s passionate concern with soteriology was sui generis, operating on a different plane from what came before and after.

I confess an affection for the 17th century and its mathematician philosophers.  We shouldn’t lament their taking inspiration from the clarity and beauty of mathematics, nor their project to integrate their new sciences with their genuine (if sometimes idiosyncratic) religious convictions.  The disaster for Christendom was that they did not succeed.

17 Responses

  1. Things like photons, crystals, automobiles, and stars have far more intelligibility than meaningless heaps, but it’s not clear that they are full substances.

    Photons are substances.

    Automobiles are not substances, but are still fairly easy to analyze: they are artifacts, which means that their final cause (and thus their unity) does not come from within, but is imposed from without by human purposes.

    You are right that things like stars are definitely not substances, but are also not mere heaps. I haven’t come across how Aristotelians handle them, but will let you know if I come across them.


    BTW, an organ is another kind of thing that is not a substance. An organ has a distinct purpose from other organs within a single biological substance, but do not have an independent existence.


    I’ve said before that one of the problems we have is that human beings don’t automatically differentiate between different kinds of objects like substances and artifacts. We also don’t automatically differentiate between different kinds of attributes like specific differences, properties and mere accidents. But not all of these different things are metaphysically equal.

  2. > Photons are substances.

    This is not clear to me. If one is dealing with a wavepacket, is it the packet itself that is the substance or the momentum eigenstates into which it can be decomposed?

    > Automobiles … are artifacts.

    I am not sure that I’m satisfied with using “artifact” as an ontological category. Certainly it is accidental to the object at hand that we have a use for it, but we seem to be recognizing a unity that’s already there, an internal coordination that is more notable in, say, a motor than a stick used as a lever.

  3. The way I look at it, photons don’t possess actuality. They’re only potential ‘light’. The substance is in the light, but nobody really knows what substance is. We know lots about a physical world that isn’t actual and little about a substantial one that is.

    I doubt that there is much to differentiate artifacts from other objects, except that they have an extra effective cause.

  4. This is not clear to me. If one is dealing with a wavepacket, is it the packet itself that is the substance or the momentum eigenstates into which it can be decomposed?

    I think there is a lingering modernism here. You have to think of final cause as primary not material cause.

    I am not sure that I’m satisfied with using “artifact” as an ontological category. Certainly it is accidental to the object at hand that we have a use for it, but we seem to be recognizing a unity that’s already there, an internal coordination that is more notable in, say, a motor than a stick used as a lever.

    Human beings can impose a quite a bit of unity on their creations, but that definiteness come from our definite nature (along with, to some degree, the definiteness of material out of which we fashion an artifact). The automobile derives its purpose from us. This also works even when there are no conscious purposes in the original substance. A beaver dam derives its final cause from the beaver.

    An object which you find but do not alter and then use for a certain purpose is an instrument not an artifact. What makes a chair or a rock in middle of the road a weapon is my use of it.

  5. > Photons are substances.

    This is not clear to me. If one is dealing with a wavepacket, is it the packet itself that is the substance or the momentum eigenstates into which it can be decomposed?

    The photon is the substance. the wavefunction describes qualities of it (namely, its momentum and position).

  6. Thursday, thanks for that. Our thinking has strayed so far from the real, it is difficult to get refocussed, especially someone as dim as me.

    Arkansas, have you ever seen a photon? Doesn’t it disappear at the moment of measurement, not having actuality prior to this collapse of its vector field? The wavefunction only describes possible quantities of it (physics ignores qualities). Heisenberg has proved that one cannot describe its actual specific momentum and position. When one measures either its momentum or its position, this instantaneously collapses its vector field. But, is it now, post-collapse, a photon? All we know in terms of substance is that the wavefunction collapse of a lot of photons provides light. The substance of light can not be demonstrated to be photons, can it? On the one hand, we have the physical world (or do we, it isn’t actual) and on the other we exist in a substantive corporeal world that Aristotle seems to have managed to get a better handle on than anyone since, or so it seems to me.

  7. A photon is usually defined as a momentum eigenstate (precisely defined momentum, completely undefined position, i.e. a plane wave). There’s clearly some degree of idealization going on here, since in real life we always find wave packets with at least a small spread of momentum and some degree of localization. We can think of these as being composed of waves of definite wavenumber, but it is certainly possible that in doing so we are reifying what’s really just a Fourier transform.

  8. The wavefunction only describes possible quantities of it

    The wavefunction describes possible momentum and position values. The numerical quantity of a particle isn’t a subject of quantum uncertainty.

  9. Arkansas, we’re only splitting hairs. My point was just a little pedantic, but I thought the distinction was important. It was your use of the word ‘quality’ that I was getting at. Not because you were wrong, but because of the old problem that began with Galileo, when he dismissed qualities as a mental construct, amplified by Descartes, and asserted that measurable quantities were the only true reality. Of course, momentum and position values are indeed quantitative and numerical, though not measurable simultaneously. Quantitative values are those which are measurable, qualitative ones are those which are not, for example, colour or odour.

  10. I wasn’t referring to the qualitative/quantitative distinction. My point was that quantum uncertainty doesn’t affect the question of a photon existing or not.

  11. In what sense does the photon exist? Bohr said that the quantum world was not real, Heisenberg that it was somewhere between potentiality and actuality. We never detect a photon, only its interaction with a measuring device. Have you read Wolfgang Smith-that’s where I came across these intriguing ideas?

  12. Existence is irreducible. Either a thing has being, or it doesn’t (potentialities don’t exist in themselves, they exist only in the things in which they adhere).

    We know that photons exist because we can detect their action in the world. Again, being vs. non-being is not a subject of quantum uncertainty.

  13. Then again, it would seem to be possible to build a state without a definite number of photons.

    Certainly something associated with the electromagnetic field really exists. Perhaps photons are it, or perhaps they’re just a useful abstraction.

    I now think I misspoke when I said it was a problem for Aristotelianism that the categorization of photons is difficult. Simply by using the word “photon”, I already invoked a certain ontological reading of the physics which is not directly present in the math of U(1) gauge theories or in experimental data. There is a leap, even if we find it a “natural” one. It’s the job of a good metaphysical system to tell us how to read the math and the data. It’s certainly worrying if one’s system of choice can’t get a handle on the problem at all, and its a defect (and an opportunity) that from what I’ve seen little serious work has been done on these lines by scholastics (or, to be fair, anyone else). But insisting that photons turn out to be one of some given set of categories (substance, material component, accident, …) prejudges the issue of whether or not a proper reading of reality may demand different entities (of which photons are only models) altogether.

  14. I emphasise that while protons are potency rather than actuality, the light which is the outcome of photonic vector collapse is actual, but that we therefore cannot say with any certainty that the substance of light is photonic. Could be that our perspective is distorted by our temporal being? Is Creation not a continual ‘now’ from the Divine perspective, rather than something done over a period of time. Past, present and future are all in the now for God and are all simultaneously created, with His vertical causation being the first cause of all these vector collapses, the transformation from potency to actuality. Thus, the physical world is the field of possibilities from which the actualised universe is drawn. From our perspective, this all happens in time and space, something mysteriously necessary for a universe that privileges us with free will. I am sorry that I lack the powers of expression of you chaps, so I’m probably not making myself very clear.

  15. I wouldn’t have a problem in believing in “something higher”, my difficulty is in believing in a personal God, especially in a fully God and fully man being (Christ).

    I understand that this kind of “spiritual but not religious” attitudes today tend to be popular largely because most people are liberals, they want something that feels good but does not put the kind of demands and restrictions of real religion on them. But I am very conservative, this is not my reason.

    It is more like that I see personhood as a bad thing, not a good thing. Of course it depends on what you call personhood. For me a person is someone trapped in the duality of this I want, that I don’t want, this attracts me, that does not attract me, this is pleasant, that is painful, and so on. In this sense of course animals are persons too which means personhood is not even the best way to express this. Perhaps, it should be called “subjectivity”. That is what I see as a bad thing. A limited perspective, that things that hit this body in a pleasant way are good and things that hit this body in a painful way are bad. This subjectivity is what I understand as personhood and see it is a bad thing that people should try to overcome in spiritual practice. And pretty sure “something higher” does not have this.

    Now I understand that serious Catholic theologians don’t actually understand God in overly personalistic ways. I took it from Ed Feser who criticizes “theistic personalism” or “superman theology” mostly with focusing on the de fide dogma of divine simplicity: God does not consist of parts, nor does He change. So for example the idea of God getting angry at you and punishing you cannot be literally true as it would mean a change in God’s mental state which does not happen. Feser writes that the personalistic features of God are mere analogies: God has things that men can understand as something analogous to human love, for example, but not the same thing. God is no mere superman.

    Still it does not entirely reassure me. I think Christianity and Abrahamic religions too easily fall into superman theology anyway. I mean, begin with the very word “God”, Deus, Theos, etc. which was obviously borrowed from pagan religions. Iupiter was a deus. And Iupiter was clearly nothing but a superman. Nothing more. So deus used to mean supermen, and borrowing this word for describing something not-a-superman is not that ideal. People constantly talk about God in a personalistic sense, like God’s ire (anger) and judgement, which would imply a change in God.

    I think we can all agree that humans have a natural tendency to believe in superman-gods, something like Iupiter. Pretty much every culture came up with it. It is how our brains work. We project our social life, social structure into the cosmos. So in societies where fathers were extremely important, people naturally imagine a Zeus, a Iupiter, a deus, who is a superman and the father of gods and men both.

    It seems Christianity largely tried to “hijack” that natural pagan tendency towards a higher theology. So God is still called Father, very much like Zeus, but now is not a superman but the Ground of Being. Zeus was not unchangeable, had no divine simplicity, could get angry and then you could try sacrifice or prayer to beg him to stop being angry with you. The Christian God is unchangeable, won’t get angry at you today but stop being angry with you after you say 100 prayers yet mostly people try exactly this kind of stuff. This “hijacking” of pagan superman theology towards a higher theology does not seem that much successful.

    Buddhists seem to have tried a different way: to counter-act this tendency to believe in supermen, focused strongly on the non-subjective, non-personal elements of the “something higher”, for example one popular term is “absolute level”.

    Which has its own set of issues. Buddhism is very good at getting this “things that hit me pleasantly are good, things that hit me painfully are bad” overly limited subjectivity out of people. But it has a philosophy that has nothing to do with the everyday world, it has no political philosophy except Western Unitarianism-Liberalism imported and rebranded, it tends to result in monks living in ivory towers having almost no contact with and hardly and spiritual guidance for the general population and so on. It is not perfect at all, it has good mind-training but many other social aspects of religion Christianity does a whole lot better.

  16. So my point is this. It is a given that the human mind having a very strong tendency to project human social structures to the universe, thus believing in supermen gods. It is a given and religions basically have to decide what to do with this given.

    Christianity decided to try to cut with the grain. Take people who naturally believe in Father-Zeus-the-superman and tried to move them as much as possible towards Father-the-unchangeable-ground-of-being. But most people would not move much in that direction, essentially they stay idolators. (Well, perhaps Christ has to be fully man besides being fully God precisely that the natural, instinctive idolatorous worship directed at Christ-the-relatable-man is sort of channeled into actual God worship?) By cutting with the grain, Christianity could work with people as they naturally are, and thus create something that works socially very well. At the price of most people still idolating a superman as being unable to do much else.

    Buddhists decided to focus on a small elite (literally, “I came to only those who have only a little dust on their eyes”) who are able to completely cast away person-idolatry and take a leap into an Absolute Level that is not a person in any sense we normally experience persons. But such a radical cut against the grain resulted in only a few people really understanding it, and thus the price was having small elites in ivory towers who cannot really deal with the society at large and don’t have much to say to them.

  17. Hello Dividualist,

    I share your dislike of the prospect, or perhaps the inevitability, of being trapped in my own subjectivity and my own willfulness, although I don’t go so far as wanting to have my own personality abolished. (That would certainly solve the problem, though.) My preference would be for my mind to be able to receive objective truths and valuations from “outside” which I could then subjectively appropriate. This was my main argument for following a ritualistic, “superstitious” religion in my “Preliminaries to Catholicism”.

    That essay does not deal with your other concern, though, about anthropomorphizing God. I don’t know what the solution to that is. (I’m not even sure if I understand the concept of divine simplicity myself. There’s that objection that God knows about his creative acts, that this knowledge must be as contingent as the acts themselves, and it’s hard to see how God’s necessary and contingent properties can be identical. I know the scholastics say this isn’t a problem, but I’m not able to follow their arguments for why it isn’t a problem. Which just shows that I must be tentative when writing about theology, because I don’t understand it that well.)

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