Thursday, December 13, 2007

Best. Website. Ever. least if you're a Catholic. The Vatican hooks us up with one stop shopping for a host of important theological documents, including verse-by-verse commentaries on Sacred Scripture. (Angels cap tip to Dr. Philip Blosser.)

Sunday, December 09, 2007

More on Cappadocian epistemology

From Verna E.F. Harrison, Grace and Human Freedom According to Saint Gregory of Nyssa (Edwin Mellon Press, 1992), p. 39:

Basil defines epinoia in Adversus Eunomium 1.6 and describes how it functions. "After the first thought (noema) comes to us from the senses (aistheseus), the mind's subsequent reflection (tou noethentos epenthumesin), which is more refined and precise, is called epinoian." Our knowledge of an object begins with the sense. Then our intellect analyzes and processes the sense data into conceptual knowledge. This conceptual knowledge is at once more precise and more distant from the object than the original sensation. It is more precise because it analyzes the sense data into various qualities perceived as appearing in the object, such as color, shape, hardness, and size. It is moredistance because the object appears as a simple substratum (hypokeimenon) to the senses, while the intellect understands it as a complex of different qualities.

[JP--Greek transliterated, citations omitted]

The footnote to this paragraph states:

Basil borrows most of the vocabulary and conceptual framework of his epistemology from the Stoics. This includes the concept of katalepsis or comprehensive grasping of the object of knowledge, and also the idea that the human person acquires knowledge from impressions received by the senses whose qualities are analyzed by the intellect. The important categories of the substratum (ousia or hypokeimenon) and its manifest qualities or properties (poiotes) also come from Stoicism....

Gregory follows his brother in utilizing this Stoic conceptual framework. However, he is perhaps clearer in his expression of the implications of transposing it into a Platonic world view. David L. Balas, "The Unity of Human Nature in Basil's and Gregory of Nyssa's Polemics against Eunomius," Studia Patristica 14 (1976) 275-281, addresses this question. He shows that for Basil the one ousia common to all of humanity is the material substratum shared by all other sensible things as well. Gregory, however, regards the human ousia as intelligible and as shared by the angels, though he also recognizes the bodies are consubstantial with each other. As Balas indicates, he even appears to have emended the text of his older brother's Adversus Eunomium to make it agree with his more Platonic position on this point.

As we will see from passages of the Contra Eunomium cited below, Gregory understands essentially the same process of epinoia which operates in human knowledge of sensible objects as operating also in human knowledge of intelligibles, including God. This means that like the Platonists he understand the intellect as having a faculty of perceiving intelligibles analogous to the bodily faculty of perceiving sensibles. This is clear from a number of texts where he speaks of the mind having a choice between contemplating God and focusing its attention on material things.

[JP--some citations omitted]

On the different role of Stoic metaphysics in Western thought, see my earlier posts Spirit as Divine Substance and Stoicism and Western Triadology. Note that Tertullian's concept of spirit as a kind of material is similar to Gregory's idea of a spiritual substratum shared by the angels and humans. However, one can also discern the distinction between Gregory of Nyssa's (Neo-)Platonized view and similar applications of Stoic thought in the more Aristotelian metaphysics found in the West and in Middle Platonism more generally.

As Michel Rene Barnes describes one example (pp. 18-19).
it is Mt 5:8 that provides the scriptural witness to the fact of vision occuring at the endtime. I would hazard to say that the over-all eschatological character or logic of Augustine’s theology as a whole later became so pronounced and structured that a specific witness to the eschatological timing of the vision enjoyed by the pure of heart was unnecessary. As we will see, the eschatological placement of the fulfillment of Mt. 5:8 is something that Augustine shares with Hilary; I will show, moreover, that the doctrinal circumstances in which Augustine invokes the Beatitude are identical to the circumstances in which Hilary invokes the Scripture passage in his work on the Trinity, namely in order to refute a doctrine of the Son’s intrinsically visible and therefore subordinate status.

The corresponding footnote explains:

However, I do not want to leave the impression that an eschatological and Trinitarian understanding of Mt. 5:8 such as Augustine offers is the only possible orthodox understanding of that Beatitude. Gregory of Nyssa, for example, in his sermon on this passage, concludes that the promised vision of God is an interior vision of the restored image of God in us, insofar as we are the “image and likeness of God”. Here the Matthew passage is not an “end-time” or eschatological promise, nor is the object of that promise - i.e., the sight of God - externalized, or as Augustine would put it, a “face-to-face” vision. A Greek position more like Augustine’s can be found in Clement of Alexandria (a statement that is true for many subjects) at Stromata V.1.

I would submit that this is at least prima facie evidence that underlying metaphysical commitments about the objects of knowledge contributed to the increasingly divergent notions pertaining to the vision of God. One can see directly the modifications in the theory of knowledge to fit with the Platonic metaphysics in the East (and despite being more Western in his conclusions on the vision of God, Clement of Alexandria likely initiated those modifications; see, e.g., this work). If nothing else, I think it must at least be recognized that the dogmatic conclusions, particularly regarding apophaticism, in the East should be placed within their proper framework of the Platonic metaphysics, and they ought not to be read onto the West, which operated outside of that framework to a large extent.

How can you dislike this guy?

Apart from sheer envy, I can't think of any reason anyone could say an unkind word about this year's Heisman winner. He's yet another example of how sports remain one area that lacks the prejudice about Christianity somehow precluding excellence in performance. Guys like Tebow and his coach Urban Meyer (yes, he's named after a Pope) are open about their faith while still being acknowledged at the top of their respective professions. Even just at Florida, one might add Catholic Billy Donovan, a back-to-back national championship winner. This is, of course, not going to make me root for Florida. As Donovan pointed out to Urban Meyer, Notre Dame doesn't have a monopoly on Catholic loyalty, and I don't root for a team based on religion either. But it's just refreshing to see guys like Tony Dungy, Bret Favre, and Tim Tebow succeed. Here's hoping Mike Sherman's tour at A&M will turn out as well!

Friday, December 07, 2007

East and West: Differences in metaphysical method

Elliot Bougis asks a good question about what a Thomist is to make of the Palamite idea of the beatific vision.

I think Elliot has diagnosed the problem correctly:
The confusion, I think, in the debate, is to hear that, in Thomism, the intellect “becomes” what it perceives and then to assume that because we shall perceive God in essentia, we shall become divine essentially. Rather, while our intellect does “become” divine by apprehending the divine essence, we still remain human by virtue of only our will being perpetually drawn to God.

That's essentially an Aristotelian theory of knowledge, glossed with the Thomist correction of being in terms of act and potency. Michael Sullivan, Lee Faber, and I have been talking through some of the implications here.

I've been reconsidering some books that I have read about Cappadocian epistemology, particularly Nonna Verna Harrison's Grace and Human Freedom According to Gregory of Nyssa, Laird's The Grasp of Faith, and Douglass's Theology of the Gap. It's become apparent to me that the Cappadocians are operating under the Plotinian theory of knowledge and infinity and that they have nothing like the Thomist metaphysics in view. There's nothing intrinsically wrong with that, although I happen to think that Thomas's metaphysics is superior as an explanatory paradigm, but regardless, I think their concept of apophaticism is not absolute. Rather, it is peculiar to the epistemology in which they and their opponents (particularly Eunomius) were operating. ISTM that St. Thomas was talking in terms of metaphysical concepts that simply weren't in view at all for the Cappadocians. And IMHO that is exactly how a Thomist ought to see them, as an explanation offered by someone who did not have the Thomist metaphysics in view, to which the Thomist view can add clarification and explanation.

In my view, the entire Thomist metaphysical theory, including epistemology, was simply unknown at the time. Thomas's metaphysics (or indeed any Scholastic metaphysics, including Bonaventure, Scotus, and Suarez) was simply nothing like Plotinus's or Aristotle's, apart from using the same words. But I would say that the path to this innovation had begun far earlier. Even Augustine had already set the stage regarding the inadequacies of the philosophical concepts with which he was dealing, although he never developed a rigorous metaphysics to replace them.

In that regard, ISTM that the whole West (e.g., Ambrose, Hilary, Simplicianus, Jerome) followed Origen in method but not conclusions, examining the applicability of philosophical concepts to Christianity but also being willing to admit where the concepts were inadequate. If they reached a wrong dogmatic conclusion, rather than discarding the method entirely, the West was content to point out that they had made an error or taken some particular idea too far. In other words, if some philosophical approach reached a wrong conclusion, they were content to discard the approach. Because they weren't married to this one notion of philosophical knowledge, they could be eclectic in philosophy. That versatility, perhaps best exemplified by Augustine, characterized Western Christian thought and (I would argue) Western scientific thought all the way to the present day.

What that enabled theologically was exposition of dogma. The theological conclusions had authority, so the Fathers were authorities regarding their conclusions, but like Aristotle with Plato, their philosophical explanations could be criticized and improved, opening the possibility of development. Hence, you could have disputations with authorities; even respected authorities were not immune to dialectical criticism. There was a Glossa Ordinaria; there were commentaries on the Sentences. In the case of theological authorities (like Scripture or the Pope), there was still utility in theological method in terms of conceptual improvement of one's own understanding, effectively giving more clarity or effect to the theological authority. (See my comment here.) In short, there was a gap between how something was examined qua theological authority and how it was examined qua philosophical authority, and the philosophical understanding was always revisable even if the fact of the dogmatic authority was not, much like the way one can revise a scientific explanation without changing the fact of the experimental data. Note that this is a separate issue from the formality of dogmatic authority addressed by the canonists; the interaction (and confusion) of those concepts is a whole 'nother can of worms.

In the Byzantine mindset, by contrast, theological authorities were theological authorities precisely because their theological conclusions were immune to dialectic. That was related to the entire concept of what knowledge of God meant, as I outlined above. The Thomist account of knowledge implicitly included a notion of potency so that one could have real knowledge even without identity with the mode of existence of the things known. But in the Byzantine theory, the knowledge of God pertained to the mode of the object, and the object was unknowable by its nature. Thus, the very type of understanding that was said to have theological authority was timeless, unchangeable, immune to dialectic. It was the same eternal experience of all Saints throughout time. On that concept of authority, the notion of applying philosophical knowledge to God was simply a contradiction or an impossibility.

This is why Byzantine philosophy simply stagnated. Neoplatonism was a dead end without some impulse from the theological side to expand its explanatory concepts, because it couldn't locate the cases that presented problems. But the theological side was saying that the concepts simply could not be expanded to describe God and that philosophical methods could only be used as tools against heretics in reductio ad absurdam of their commitments to that method. Effectively, the Eunomian controversy killed the possibility that philosophy could be used to illuminate theological concepts, leaving the only way to resolve disputes being the sheer authority of the common experience shared by the saints. Personally, I see know reason why the East, cognizant of the conceptual development, would cling to an outdated notion of philosophical theology from a philosophical system that turned out dead.

I don't think that the East lacks anything for experience of God, but I think that the East is woefully inadequate in their intellectual understanding of this experience. A dogmatic adherence to an outdated metaphysics strikes me as exactly the opposite of what the Cappadocians were counseling. They were condemning philosophy as Eunomius was using it, but I seriously doubt they would have done the same if they had the Thomist metaphysics explained to them. But the East has never been able to get out of this intellectual rut, and it's now to the point that the West understands what the East means to say better than the East knows itself (at least if Florence is any indication). And it's been wedded to ecclesiology, so you have the Orthodox Church identified with a senseless concept of itself based on a metaphysical system that is about a thousand years out of date. That's a bit brutal, but like I said, ecumenism really isn't my area. My Scholasticism beats your Neoplatonism every day and twice on Sundays, and no one can reasonably say that they are the same thing. Frankly, if you are expecting this stuff to ever make sense to you from a Thomist perspective, I hope you are not holding your breath.

That being said, I think Zubiri's sentient intelligence holds out hope for rehabilitating the Cappadocian account (and perhaps even reconciling the two sides). The "notes" in Zubiri and the way they reveal the formality and substantivity of the thing de suyo and their relation to the essence are actually close to the way energeiai reveal the hypokeimenon in the Cappadocians. You'd still have to discard some of the entitative notions, but I think it could ultimately provide a coherent metaphysical underpinning for the position. And it would not be critical of the Western position any more than Zubiri is critical of certain notions of classical metaphysics (quite frankly, I think that St. Thomas, correctly interpreted, was similarly critical, and I suspect this is why Thomist Frederick Wilhelmsen complimented Zubiri's metaphysical understanding). But the Orthodox would have to be willing to work on the matter, and I see few signs of that development.

Until that happy day, I think we lump the anti-dialectical polemic along with sola scriptura and intelligent design as pure intuitions that have no real application as a description of reality. It's fine if you believe them, but I don't think they actually have any real meaning, and I haven't seen any evidence that they will ever be given a real meaning. JMHO.

Monday, December 03, 2007

A change in the Crimson (Catholic) tide

I've been quieter than usual both at my blog and the other blogs I read. Those who know me as a college football fan might write this off to the time of year. And to be fair, as a fan, I've had a pretty stunning run of luck lately.

For starters, when the Crimson collided with Yale this season, both were undefeated in conference for the first time since The Game of 1968. For those unschooled in the history of The Game (or indeed, college football), the '68 Game was the one in which Harvard scored 16 points in the last 42 seconds to tie a vastly more talented Eli team, inspiring the immortal Crimson headline "Harvard Beats Yale 29-29." This year, however, it wasn't nearly that close: Harvard 37, Yale 6.

Then there's my beloved Texas Aggies. Despite having a lame duck coach, we still managed to beat the hell outta t.u. for the second straight year. And to replace said lame duck, we got an extraordinarily high character guy (and devout Catholic) in Mike Sherman. Good times are coming in Aggieland, and I've got scoreboard against both of my archrival schools for a year. Hard to complain.

Heck, even the missus got in the act. Following one of the craziest seasons in college football history, it was only fitting that the craziest coach, who had both won and lost the craziest games all season long, somehow managed to fall into the national championship after the craziest of upsets: both #1 and #2 losing in the last weekend of the season. So Dr. Prejean's Bayou Bengals get to duel the Stinking Buckeyes in a Bourbon Street Battle for all the marbles, and the crazy coach is even staying put in Cajun Country, which is fitting because we Cajuns tend to be a little crazy ourselves. That's a pretty cool ending to an emotional roller coaster of a season. And, apropos to the title of this post, the gris-gris the state of Louisiana put on Little Nicky Saban appears to have worked (it's not just War Eagle; it's WarHawk!).

Alas, while I could blame my Internet ebb on those pleasant distractions, that wouldn't be the truth. The truth is that I got sick, mostly because I couldn't seem to avoid any of the microbes my kids kept bringing home. I hate being sick, and I really hate missing work from being sick, so naturally I tried to work through it, and that just left me laid out for my days off. Of course, that meant I had no time for the Internet or much of anything else, which caused me to have time to think about how I was spending my time generally. Providentially, on one of the days I was stuck in bed musing about how much time I was wasting in bed, I had a chance to watch Flock of Dodos. I liked the documentary the first time I saw it, but it left even more of an impression at a time when I was consciously pondering whether I was spending my time in a productive manner.

For those who aren't familiar with Flock of Dodos, filmmaker Randy Olson's thesis is essentially that the intelligent design movement, despite being thoroughly unscientific, still manages to succeed in persuading people because of its intuitive appeal, the skill of presentation brought to bear by its proponents, and the lack of any fundamental commitment to a discipline that keeps them honest about reality. He says that ID remains at the level of intuition, but it fails to progress to the level of actual scientific discipline, so it competes instead at the level of uncritical acceptance of "common sense" beliefs. The problem is that actual scientists are woefully inadequate at competing on this level, which threatens them with extinction for failure to adapt to their adversaries (hence, they are a "flock of dodos"). Olson repeated the observation in response to Ben Stein's Expelled, which attempts to portray the attack on intelligent design as some sort of conspiracy by Darwinist, an ironic charge given that the production company staged an elaborate charade to get interviews with scientists.

Given the subject of my thoughts at the time, I immediately perceived that Scriptural authority without the infallible authority of the Church is the same sort of premise as intelligent design: an intuition that simply cannot be advanced into any sort of coherent explanation of reality. It cannot be judged by meaningful metaphysical standards; indeed, it refuses even to operate on that level. Instead, it is simply advanced as an intuitive appeal to common sense. In the end, that simply doesn't mean anything as a description of reality, just as the notion of Scripture as an ultimate authority or the only infallible authority doesn't mean anything as a description of reality. Likewise, the "internal witness of the Holy Spirit" is thoroughly vacuous as a description of theological revelation. An identical argument could be made for this notion of canon as something "self-authentication" or received only passively rather than by the ratifying act of the Church. These assertions appeal to the intuition, but they are senseless as a description of reality; they refer to no real thing. As Zubiri says, "Infallibility is the organ of the historical identity of revelation. It is an organ of historicity. And this is precisely what makes it possible that there be a progress. The opposite would be to leave revelation in the hands of a motion, without knowing what it is going to give of itself in the course of history. Clearly, there is no progress except where we have a substrate of identity, whether in revelation or anything else." And just like the so-called scientific hypotheses based on intelligent design, what is built on a premise unfettered by any discipline to reality cannot be connected to reality either.

As I explaned over at Sarabitus, I don't see how ad fontes or any sort of Reformation of the Church can possibly have the nature of revealed theological dogma. It is an amusement for intellectual historians trying to develop a theory, though for the Reformers the game was deadly serious. But ultimately, the very attempt at using this method to re-form the Church disconnects the understanding of revelation from what it actually is in its historical reality. It can provide nothing as revealed, because it defines what is revealed based on intuition rather than a given reality, thus giving no basis for reform. It fundamentally misunderstands the ontological nature of divine authority.

I don't say this to suggest that there is no theological understanding in Protestantism. Michael Liccione explained how it is possible for Protestants to believe in certain revealed truths as revealed by recognizing the authority of the source implicitly. The problem is that they have no way of knowing when their intuition happens to be right or wrong. They can believe error as divinely revealed, and with no discipline to ground the speculation in metaphysical reality, they are in a perpetual state of doubt. Like the ID movement, it is nothing but a testimony to the biographical state of one's own mind. And for my money (or more properly, for my soul), I don't think that religion can be a matter of not really knowing.

What that suggests to me is that as a scientist, ecumenism is simply not my place. I have been forced to consider the fact that I have been spinning my wheels and exhausting my energy attempting to address apologetic concerns, when that is not my expertise. I am a scientist, and that is the method in which I am proficient. Subjective motivations to accept or reject these sorts of intuitions and receptivity to the Gospel and are the realm of apologetics, not science, and scientific methods are inapt for dealing with those concerns. Nonetheless, Olson's criticism is well-taken; I think there needs to be a better explanation of why scientific disciplines produce true knowledge. I hope to be able to provide some of those explanations, particularly by explaining where lack of clarity about these disciplines has led to problems. For now, at least, that is what I see as the most productive use of my blog, so that is what I will endeavor to do with it.