Friday, November 13, 2009

Let me be your instincts

Continuing with the theme of the previous post, we'll summarize what was covered last time, and then move on to motivating some of the intuitions of the Western theological method. In so doing, I hope to dispel whatever anxiety might otherwise result from a bugaboo called the ordo theologiae, which, as I will point out, doesn't actually mean anything once you get behind the different intuitions, despite being a favorite club wielded by anti-Western Orthodoxy.


To recap the metaphysical distinction, what distinguishes St. Thomas (and I would argue St. Augustine) from Pseudo-Dionysius is the metaphysical concept of the good. Rather than rewriting the whole buildup to that point, I'm going to skip to the end and steal a summary from Scott Carson:


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

What we did last time was to dig into that distinction a little more, specifically as it pertains to operations. For Plato, Plotinus, and Pseudo-Dionysius, the Form of the Good is "beyond being in dignity and power" (link is to Prof. Carson's summary). Given this sort of univocal causality, the Form of the Good is ultimately the source of being, leading to all of the various operations of the individual things. But in Thomist metaphysics, this Aristotelian notion of everything tending to be good in its own way is then supplemented by the notion of ultimate good that is the end and perfection of all things. Turning back to my black hole analogy, its mode of existence is not like anything around it, but it is the ultimate containment of all things and thereby affects everything around it. Thus, it is not that the good produces operations to mimic its own operations, but that the good produces operations that tend to itself.

The implications of this metaphysical reversal are manifold, but from a theological perspective, almost all of them can be reduced to the role of operations and their relation to God. But to understand how those pieces fit, we have to trace the history of some prominent figures in Western theology.


The easiest way to see the difference is in the original source of Western Trinitarian language: Tertullian. In Against Praxeas, Tertullian notes that the Three are One in quality/condition (status), substance (substantia), and power (potestas), but Three in order (gradus), aspect (forma), and manifestation (species). Tertullian's use of prosopon (person) parallels that of his contemporary St. Hippolytus of Rome; both use the term to refer to a concrete manifestation or an individual presentation. Likewise, both emphasize the commonality of substance by virtue of the commonality of power, although Tertullian's concept is somewhat metaphysically primitive. Specifically, Tertullian's idea still leans too heavily on his notion of substantia in a Stoic sense, as a kind of metaphysical "stuff" that takes various forms through its characteristic modes of action. Thus, even when he concedes the Son's separate entitative existence, it is not clear that he has truly come to grips with the concept of an absolute commonality of essence and power, as opposed to the Son being the result of a power's expression. What is notable about St. Hippolytus particularly, though, is that there is a notable reversal of the pagan order from the Chaldean Oracles, which starts from separate powers being taken for granted and then establishes the commonality of essence. Hippolytus is only the first of many Western theologians to start from the commonality of the essence and to use powers as a concept for indicating unity in diversity.

Subsequent Latin theology oriented itself around the increasing realization that the earlier emphasis on the Son's visibility by Novatian, Hippolytus, and Tertullian as against the Modalists could present a polemical difficulty with Homoian Arians, who used this emphasis on visibility to argue for a difference in nature. This was related to the notion of "two-stage" Incarnation, in which the Son only became active during the economy, a notion that was taken to a defensive extreme by Marcellus of Ancyra. But note that although it could be taken to extremes, no less a Father than St. Athanasius himself refused to condemn the Marcellan view, which strongly suggests that he did not consider this overemphasis the kind of fatal error entailed by Arianism. In any case, after recognizing the problem, numerous separate solutions to this difficulty were advanced by subsequent Western theologians. In what follows, I rely primarily on Michel Rene Barnes, The Power of God, and Mark Weedman, The Trinitarian Theology of Hilary of Poitiers for the details of the theology, and L. Ayres, Nicaea and its Legacy, for the overall approach.

The first Western theologian to see the difficulty in the position was likely St. Phoebadius of Agen. Phoebadius appreciated the difficulty and saw the need to equate power (virtus) and substance (substantia) within Tertullian's and Novatian's overall scheme of the communion of substance. In that, he made arguments similar to those made by St. Athanasius arguments in favor of the Son's consubstantiality of the Father as the "Power and Wisdom of God" (1 Cor. 1:24). He affirmed the eternal generation of the Son, and although he did not explicitly tie "the Father is greater than I" (John 14:28), he does deploy John 1:13, 5:29, and 10:30 in like manner to Novatian as against any suggestion that the Son has a lesser power. On the whole, Phoebadius represents an increasing awareness of the difficulty poised by Homoians and the willingness to deploy the older Western concepts against this concern, introducing new concepts such as the eternal generation in context of the communion of substance. But he does not arrive at a complete Trinitarian theology.

Marius Victorinus proposed what was probably the most original of the solutions. Likely inspired by the tripartite division of powers in the Chaldean Oracles, he argued that the Trinity was like three powers: to be (esse), to live (vivere), and to understand (intelligere). While he shared to some extent the notion of a common power, for Victorinus, the power analogy was more complex. For Victorinus, the completion of powers was in relation to some other thing: sight needs light to see, fire needs air to burn. So what Victorinus took from expressions like "light from light" was not a simple and identical derivation, but rather this sort of completion of the power in the Trinitarian roles, each supplying its own so that the entirety of the substance would be self-contained. Thus, for example, it was sight that supplied its own light, fire that supplied its own burning. The purest example was the pure act of existence itself, which would be the ultimate, imparticipable, infinite power beyond all being, and this appears to be indebted to some extent to the anonymous Neoplatonic commentary on Parminides. But what is notable even in this case is that he appears to be situated clearly within the context of the Homoian debate and Western theology more generally. And as with St. Hippolytus, there appears to be a reversal in terms of placing the essence as transcendent and developing the very concept of power as an explanation for unity in distinction. Although Victorinus would not ultimately work out all of the implications of these ideas into a coherent synthesis, what is interesting is that he probed at the very same points that later would be elaborated in the Western theological tradition, particularly in St. Augustine's famous psychological analogy for the Trinity.

This brings us to what must be legitimately viewed as the golden age of Western patristic theology, beginning with St. Hilary of Poitiers and going through St. Ambrose to the greatest Western doctor of all, St. Augustine. This is the time period in which Western theology, although influenced strongly by Alexandria theology, came into its own. The fateful divergence came on the issue of operations, and while it was not apparent to anyone in the East or West that the course was being set for separation, the inevitability of the divergence was already there. And just as a avalanche can start with a tiny bit of snow, so did this historical flow begin with a single word: forma.

We have seen that there was a growing awareness in the West of the need for commonality of power to indicate commonality of nature, but there was simultaneously a sense of working within an existing tradition. We saw earlier that this tradition included Tertullian's use of the term forma in a way that would have been entirely alien to a truly Platonic framework. That distinction began to widen with St. Hilary's theological use of the term in the context of Phil.2:6-8, which was his exegetical key to demonstrating the consubstantiality of Jesus with the Father in response to the Homoian Arian critique. In some ways, what St. Hilary said paralleled the generally "pro-Nicene" theology described in detail by M. R. Barnes, relying on the technical understanding of power (virtus) as an observable, causal effect of nature (natura). But the rigorous causal connection between form (morphe) and nature (physis) in the East is lacking in the West, which in turn opens up different metaphysical options and arguably even demands them.

Recall first that the context for the Homoian critique is that the visibility of the Son must demand that the Son is not consubstantial with the invisible Father. That provides the motivation by what Barnes called a "double bind." St. Phoebadius started to force against the first binding with his insistence on the commonality of power showing a commonality of nature, but he does not leverage the concept of personhood. St. Hilary does, and he uses the concept of forma as being a distinctively personal expression of the nature to do it. Hence, Hilary links the Son's visibility to his forma, His act of expressing His nature. When He emptied Himself in the kenosis of Phil. 2:6-8, He abandoned expressing Himself as God directly, deferring this to the common glorification of humanity in the eschaton. Thus, while His divine nature was shown indirectly through His exercise of the divine power, in that He produces effects that only God can make, there is a sense in which He makes Himself personally visible over and above this kind of expression. That is what the notion of forma expresses in this context, the way in which the nature is made present both concretely and personally, in like manner to St. Hippolytus's notion of prosopon.

When I say that this observation demands a different metaphysical framework, I mean that it appears impossible that a strongly Platonic understanding of morphe, in which there is a real existence of universals either independently or in Dionysian fashion as "things around God," can be reconciled with this notion of forma. If physis just is the expression of morphe, then forma cannot help but be caused by natura, and forma must necessarily fall on the side of consubstantiality rather than individuality. Likewise, the forma of the divine nature must in some sense be beyond the notion of form entirely. In the Platonic metaphysics of participation (methexis), this would make knowledge or vision of such a form impossible, as it would be identical to knowing God Himself. But St. Hilary considers this forma at least potentially visible despite his explicit acknowledgement that he considers the nature to be infinite (infinitas), which might well make him the first author in East or West to introduce infinity as a positive term for divine power and transcendence (see Weedman's summary).

The difference can be seen by way of contrast with the doctrinaire approach of St. Basil the Great. The Cappadocian Father follows an essentially Stoic epistemological framework, with the substratum (hypokeimenon) knowable by its qualities (poiotes), which are either common (koine) or individual (idia) (a schema also known in the West through Cicero). But Basil then maps this idea directly onto knowing the concrete nature just by its activities, exactly as one would expect of a Neoplatonic metaphysics. Although he rejects the Platonic theory of naming, which separates him from Origen and Eunomius, he still uses seeing/knowing/experiencing the power of nature through its effects characteristic of the developed Neoplatonic understanding. His account of the Trinity is therefore straightforward: "What is not individual is common." One sees the acts and knows thereby the actor (i.e., the person, individual) and the nature (common) through its energies.


Here we arrive at the place where St. Augustine changes the course of Western theology. Had there not been so great a Doctor as Augustine, it is entirely possible that this parallel tradition would have gone the way of the Antiochene tradition exemplified Mar Diodore of Tarsus and Mar Theodore of Mopsuestia. In marked contrast with the Western tradition, the eventual advocate of the Antiochene tradition was the venal Nestorius, who not only failed to see the problems but also failed to demonstrate the intellectual humility that would be required to realize that his own philosophical framework would necessarily be inadequate to the task. Although the tradition would be preserved by the legacy of St. Ephraim, St. John Chrysostom, and the Syriac Neoplatonic tradition from which Pseudo-Dionysius emerged, it was deprived of intellectual authority in its own right by the Nestorian debacle and further denigrated by Justinian's subsequent attempt to ally with the Monophysites.

But the West was not in such a situation. The intellectual milieu in which St. Augustine arrived, the Milan of St. Simplican and St. Ambrose, more closely resembled the free, eclectic intellectual community of Alexandria than the staid and tradition intellectual formation of Asia Minor. This was not to say that Constantinople and Caesarea did not form some brilliant and creative minds; Gregory of Nyssa obviously speaks to the contrary. But the authority of the Platonic philosophical tradition was simply undeniable, and even the Christian responses were made either within or in contrast to that metaphysical framework.

On the other hand, there has been no shortage of effort expended on trying to box St. Augustine into all manner of philosophical traditions. The account that probably held sway as the normative explanation was the middle ground espoused by Peter Brown, where Augustine begins his theological career as more of a Neoplatonist and gradually shifts to a more consciously Christian rejection of these ideas. Robert O'Connell famously held the more extreme view that Augustine retained a Neoplatonic belief in preexistent souls through the entirety of his career. More recently, Carol Harrison in Rethinking Augustine's Early Theology also advocated the thesis that St. Augustine had not essentially changed from his earlier Neoplatonic position. The position I myself have found most intriguing is the one advocated by Gyorgy Heidl in Origen's Influence on the Young Augustine, which argues that what originally set the young Augustine's soul on fire was his encounter with Origen but that the encounter was toned down to the more moderate reference to "books of the Platonists" in the Confessions. That seems right given the atmosphere in Milan that I described and the later embarrassment suffered by another great Doctor of the West, St. Jerome, over Origenism.

In what follows, I will advance the thesis that, no matter Augustine's position with regard to Neoplatonism, either he modified his own account from Neoplatonism on specific issues in a way that made the derivation irrelevant or, even in the worst case, he erred but his inheritors offered correction. Had his works been accepted on sheer authority, then we might have had a reason for greater concern that his own personal beliefs had swayed the opinion of the Western Church, but Augustine himself was not the bishop of some great historical see steeped in political influence. He was no Pope; indeed, he had to appeal to the Pope just as another other bishop might. His historical legacy was simply because other theologians saw the utility of Augustine's ideas in articulating Western theology, and if they read something into Augustine that wasn't there, it nonetheless is the case that the reception of his view was based on this interpretation.

Precisely because of his powerful influence in this regard, St. Augustine ranks with St. Cyril of Alexandria as one of the most calumniated Church Fathers. But with all of this intellectual history, few people have taken Augustine's position as a theological, rather than philosophical, defense of the Western tradition, with M. R. Barnes and L. Ayers rare exceptions in this regard. As a result, the accusations against the Doctor of Grace are taken far too seriously. And just as it took solid scholarly work that took the theological reasoning seriously to vindicate St. Cyril, such as J.A. McGuckin, as against those who were sympathetic to Nestorius, beginning with F. Loofs, it will take serious consideration of the theological surroundings for St. Augustine's thought to be farily understood.

To speak to that understanding, there seems little doubt from the introduction to De Trinitate and Augustine's Letter 118 to Dioscorus that Augustine believed his project to be theological, not mere philosophical speculation, so the real surprise is that the emphasis on the philosophical and speculative project has proved so persuasive. From the theological perspective, Augustine's reasoning seems to me to be quite straightforward from St. Hilary's position. To situate Augustine's thought, then, we should note 3 positions taken directly from St Hilary:
1. The exercise of powers is connected both to natura and forma.
2. But the forma can also be directly and immediately visible by the pure of heart, as it is in the eschaton.
3. The natura itself is infinite, and this is how the powers show the nature (i.e., by doing things corresponding to an infinite nature).

What Augustine introduces to these elements are the concepts of operation, end, and relation. Augustine's explanation is as follows. First, he conceives of operations as fundamentally relational for the nature, which is to say that the operations bear an essential relationship to some end. Second, he argues that the rational operations of the human soul tend to a certain end according to their finite mode. Third, by analogy, he argues that in God Himself there can be only analogous relations meeting the further condition that they are infinite and comprehensive, i.e., the condition imposed by divine simplicity. Because these "operations" are comprehensive and unlimited, however, they are utterly unlike finite operations in that they are actually existence itself.

It is useful at this time to draw a contrast with St. Basil, one can clearly perceive the difference in St. Augustine's project. For purposes of distinguishing, I will call St. Basil's description the properties account of rationality, and I will call St. Augustine's formulation the operations account of rationality.

St. Basil's concern in the properties account is the Eunomian critique, viz., that statements of knowledge about God must then map properties onto nature. This results from the properties metaphysical account; if one claims knowledge of properties, then, one must necessarily be claiming knowledge of the nature. Then, it is simply a question of picking the "best" name for God, which Eunomius said was "Unbegotten." To defeat this critique, St. Basil notes first that even mundane natures are known only by their energies, and this is all the more true for the divine energies, which are not even known in themselves rationally but only by their effects. This erects a double wall in which the divine Persons are known, but even their properties, and a fortiori their nature, remain cloaked in mystery from the intellect.

St. Augustine's concern is the Homoian critique, which maintains that knowing anything about a person necessarily entails a difference in nature from what is unknowable by nature. St. Augustine is concerned, therefore, to explain how the divine nature is only known indirectly through its operations; this he has in common with St. Basil. But where he diverges from St. Basil is on the question of whether these operations are known by characteristic properties (poiotes) or by relations. For Augustine, it is the unique relation of the intellect to God that determines what one knows. Like St. Basil, Augustine says that God makes Himself visible by God's own specific acts of will; there is no such thing as natural visibility of God. And like Basil, Augustine also maintains that even these manifestations do not provide comprehensive knowledge of God, so there is still the double wall between God and man even for ousia. But because of the difference on how the intellect operates, Augustine does not deny that what is known about God is real, in that it is a perception of the intellect as object. It is simply not comprehensive.

In articulating this view of the intellect further, I am indebted to Michael Liccione for pointing out to me the truthmaker account of knowledge about God and divine simplicity developed by Jeffrey Brower and outlined in two articles available online, as this account fits perfectly with what I have outlined regarding Augustine's view. Augustine's notion is that the actions of the divine nature serve as a truthmaker for the finite intellect without what is known being something in God.

The second linked article by Brower points out "If God exists entirely a se, he cannot depend on anything in any way at all, not even in the way that a subject depends on its properties (in order to exemplify them).... This same basic pattern of reasoning pervades traditional philosophical theology, and lies behind not only Aquinas’s Aristotelian-based formulation of divine simplicity, but also standard neo-Platonic formulations of the doctrine." No matter the metaphysical formulation, one has to find a way to articulate a causal relationship between God and human knowledge without reading the properties into God, and thus disturbing the divine simplicity. This requires an account in which the intellect participates by its operation, thus allowing the divine essence to serve as a truthmaker, but does not essentially become God by comprehending the divine essence.

We can therefore now articulate the distinction between the properties and the operations view more or less rigorously. On the properties view, the nature is manifested, but not comprehensively, by its energies, so that true knowledge about the energies is not knowledge of the form and neither is it knowledge of the nature. On the operations view, the operations of things with respect to one another demonstrate a real relation to the form, which expresses nature and provides knowledge by impression of the form on the intellect. With respect to the forma Dei, however, the form acts as the ultimate end for all operations (that is to say, all natures act in relation to it). Consequently, the manifestation of the divine form is sui generis.

We can bring this immediately back to the differences identified in the previous post between the Dionysian view of the good and the Thomistic view of the good. We see that these views essentially correspond to the view of how creation manifests the good, in that Dionysius has the good expressed by energies and Thomas has the good expressed by serving as the final ends of operations, drawing all things to him. Again, there does not seem to be a compelling need to draw a contrast between these views, as they are in many ways complementary.

A central commonality of the views is that one cannot directly experience God absent an entire personal disposition toward God. St. Hilary and St. Augustine both emphasized that even in Heaven the forma Dei would only be visible to the pure of heart; metaphysically, this is because one cannot actually view God as God without recognizing Him as the ultimate end of all operations, including both will and intellect, being the ultimate good per the Scholastic explanation. And obviously, on the properties account, one cannot experience the energies of God without a proper disposition of the soul purified of the passions by asceticism. So despite whatever differences may persist between East and West in this regard, the notion that the Western view advocates an "intellectual" or "rationalistic" view in the beatific vision is abject nonsense.

The divergence arises in a couple of areas: the visibility of God before the eschaton, the nature of miracles, and the nature of God's operations ad intra vs. ad extra. The difference regarding the visibility of God before the eschaton results from the different metaphysical accounts of vision. In the properties account, the experience of energies must be univocal at all times, so that "seeing God" in any sense must always be uniform. Hence, if experience of the Son is the path of encounter to God now, it must have always been. The operations view must, on the other hand, consider the nature and kind of the operation itself, for how each operation tends to God is what specifies each finite kind of thing. Because the experience of God is different in Heaven than on earth, there must be some difference in the relation of God to man, and the relation of the intellect toward God. This is conveyed in Western theology by the distinction between "knowing" and "seeing" with the intellect.

The nature of miracles also differs. In the properties view, it is the unique operations of the divine Person demonstrating His overarching divine power that displays the divine nature. Because Jesus does the kinds of things that only God can do, He shows that He is of one nature with God, even though we do not know that nature. In the operations view, the display operates somewhat different, because the Western view holds that we know God's forma but we do not see His forma in miracles. Rather, we reason to God, with the assistance of faith, by observing the change in relationship of things to Him.

To explain what I mean, we might take the example of Jesus walking on water. On the properties view, what is miraculous is the energy of the person, as here, in the doing of the theanthropic action of waterwalking. On the operations view, what is miraculous is the water responding to Jesus in this way, which is not its ordinary natural relationship to a man. To take the specific example of Matthew 14:28-33, for example, the properties view would have St. Peter divinized so as to be able to walk on the water, while the operations view would have the water behaving in a different way by the changed relationship between Peter and Jesus. In both cases, when St. Peter's will loses harmony with the divine operation, he begins to sink. The difference is subtle here, but if it is overlooked, then the much larger differences can be glossed over.

Lastly, the formulation of the difference between God's actions ad intra and ad extra is different. In the properties account, the actions of begetting and proceeding, as pertaining to nature, are inscrutable, as they do not directly pertain to the energies, although we can know that there is an eternal energetic procession by knowing God's energies. Hence, there is an absolute transcendence of the immanent Trinity from the economic Trinity. The operations account has a similar distinction, in that the ad extra operations all pertain to some finite mode of existence tending toward God in some way, while the ad intra operations are infinite and therefore unknowable except in how things tend to them (e.g., we know that there are divine ideas and intellect in God, but only to describe how things were created and continue in existence and know truths). But there is an in-built linkage between the economic and immanent Trinity in that if we know of real relations to Persons of the Trinity, as we do from the Christian life, faith, and revelation, then we can also reason that all three Persons exist in absolute logical relation to one another. As noted in Brower's article above, when we analogize these relations to the operations of intellect and love, it is solely to indicate this purely logical interdependence, not to suggest an ontological analogy to the operations of God, which is impossible. That is ultimately why St. Augustine's psychological account was considered both useful and persuasive in the West, as it fits consistently with the theological developments that I have already outlined.

So now we have looked in detail at some theological background in this disparity between the Dionysian Eastern view and the Scholastic Western view. I hope that this will be useful in promoting in better understanding between the two views. And as I mentioned at the start, I hope also to have illuminated why there is not a rigorous need in the West to have an ordo theologiae that follows immediately from experience of a divine Person, in that the Western view metaphysically permits one to know God through the actions of other natures with respect to God as well as through the actions of God Himself. And this again corresponds to the distinction of the role of the good in metaphysics that I pointed out in the first post. In the future, I would like to apply this understanding in detail to Eastern criticism of Western theology that I believe to be unfounded based on these distinctions.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Remember: Don't DO Anything! Nothing!

I'm sure Peter Kreeft would agree that God would make an excellent surfer if He ever wanted to be, the reasons for which are summarized well in this clip. Why? Because God does everything He does without trying, absolutely effortlessly. Even according to His human nature, the Lord Jesus Christ lacks deliberation between alternatives; He simply does what is right in perfect harmony with the divine will. His personal exercise even of His human faculties is marked this effortless lack of trying. That's not to say that He doesn't suffer; the Agony in the Garden is evidence of that. But there's no hesitation. Even when He shrinks in His human will from the suffering, His personal resolution is immediate and "natural," in the sense that He just does it. For those who were perceive the Agony in the Garden as some sort of internal struggle, Scott Carson's summary of the account in the Gospel of John is helpful:

He is not afraid of dying there, indeed in the High Priestly Prayer he makes it very clear that he knows exactly what is going to happen, he knows that it is for the best, and he knows that it is the will of the Father, and he is perfectly jiggy with going through with the whole thing. There is no trace of the sweating of blood in chapter 18 of that Gospel, and if there were, it would ring very hollow, following so closely upon the triumphalism of the High Priestly Prayer.

So why have I knocked the rust off my old blog to raise this issue? Is it just to admit that I am not so far along my path to sanctity and purity because Forgetting Sarah Marshall cracks me up? (Seriously, there are some scenes in that movie that no one should see ... ever. If you're going to watch it, at least have a fast-forward handy.) Although that makes a pretty good contrast from the mode of willing I'm describing, the answer is "no." The point is to emphasize that the entire way of looking at God as *doing* anything as God can't be taken all that literally, and the Western theological account simply points out that God doesn't need to do anything in order to make things happen. That's counterintuitive, so the point is best made by contrast, so I'm going to use something that seems to me to be a well-written summary by Jay Dyer as a foil.

What's particularly interesting about this summary is the following definition of terms:

(1) Persons- or Hypostases (also subjects). answering the question “Who is doing it?”
(2) Energies answering the question What is it that that They are doing?”
(3) Essence or Nature or ousia, answering the question what are the they, that are doing these things.
(4) Nestorius said there were two personal subjects in Jesus incarnate – the Son of God joined to a human person, Jesus of Nazareth. This was condemned at Ephesus and in St. Cyril.
(5) Absolute divine simplicity (ADS or DDS) is the normative western (Catholic & Protestant) view that all relations and attributes and actions in God are irreducibly and isomorphically identified with His simple nature or essence. God is actus purus – pure act, with no potentiality. To will is to be in God, and the Persons are also identified with the simple essence. God supposedly is what He has and does. Simplicity in this sense means no distinctions and no composition – irreducibly one.
(6) Analogia entis – the standard Latin and mediveal west’s way of reasoning from creatures to the divine essence/substance. This characterizes cataphatic, or positive statements about the divine nature as is found in western theology.
(7) Enhypostatized – the mode of a thing, in this case the mode of persons. Thus we say nature is enhypostatized, or exists only in the mode of particular persons or subjects. There is, then, no human nature that is not actually instantiated in some individual human person.

I mentioned this was a well-written summary, but it is a summary of solely the Eastern view, and the dispute will be over parts (5)-(6), which inaccurately follow from treating the West as if it affirms (1)-(3). The West does not, because as I said, God doesn't DO anything, except by analogy.

The confusion comes over the notion of actus purus in the context of Western theology. There isn't a tendency to interpret this term as "fully acting," which applies an essentially anthropomorphic view of God. There's nothing wrong with that as an image, any more than there is anything wrong with the various anthropomorphisms of the Old Testament, where God is described as changing His mind and the like. And it can be a useful image for answering certain metaphysical problems. But where it becomes dicey is how literally it is applied in the metaphysical context, and that's where the criticism of the West goes off the rails, because actus purus doesn't mean "fulfilling every potentiality" or even "fully acting" except in a very limited and qualified sense of acting.

What actus purus means is "purely actual" in the sense of "actually perfect." (5) states that God lacks any potentiality, but what actus purus means is that God lacks any potency, and not just any kind of potency, but passive potency. What "passive potency" means is "an ability to be perfected by the act of another." But God has plenty of active potency, which is the capacity to be act in relation to other things. In fact, God's active potency is literally unlimited; at any point in time relative to any other existing thing, He always could have done otherwise. Of course, the concept "could have done otherwise" is a bit murky in this context, for reasons that I hope to make clear later.

Now we arrive at the following question: what is meant by "perfect" in this context? For that we have to delve into some metaphysics, and while it may not be entirely apparent, there are at least two distinct concepts here: one referring to good and the other to nature. The former refers to the absolute ranking of existence and the latter to the ranking of the thing relative to that thing's end. But what might not be immediately apparent is that the former concept is esse, the act of being itself, and the latter, essentia, the nature. Now remember what we said earlier about potency and particularly passive potency which is the real capacity to be perfected by the act of something else. All finite beings are by nature composites of act and potency, because they can all be perfected by something else.

And what does it mean "by nature?" It means that they are perfectible by the natural operations of the thing. That is what it means for something to be perfected according to its nature. Yet there must surely be some relationship between perfection by nature and perfection in the sense of the good, i.e., in the sense of absolute existence. There is, and that is the important metaphysical concept that St. Thomas introduces.

St. Thomas first takes Aristotle's notion that things innately have a telos, the end of their perfection, by virtue of their nature. Things' operations tend toward that perfection; this is referred to as final causality. But Aristotle simply takes this for granted, while St. Thomas thinks it needs an explanation. And here I'll defer to Edward Feser, whose words below I believe to have spliced so as to accurately preserve his intetion:

The Platonic teleologist, like the teleological intentionalist, affirms teleology but regards it as imposed by a divine intelligence from outside (e.g. by the demiurge of Plato’s Timaeus). The Aristotelian teleologist also affirms teleology but regards it as immanent to the natural order rather than imposed from outside.
Unlike Aristotle, who leaves it at that, Aquinas thinks that the existence of final causes nevertheless requires an explanation, for the reasons sketched in my previous post on teleology; and he also thinks that this explanation must lie – not might lie, not probably lies, but necessarily lies – in the existence of a divine intellect which conserves the order of final causes in being from instant to instant.
the situation here might usefully be compared to the debate over the problem of universals. Nominalism and conceptualism are essentially anti-realist positions, regarding universals as artifacts of language or the workmanship of the human understanding rather than having any objective basis. Platonic realism takes universals to exist entirely independently of either the natural world or of any mind. Aristotelian realism takes universals to exist only in the particular things that instantiate them and in intellects which abstract them from these particulars. Scholastic realism – the position of Augustine and Aquinas – takes what is in effect a middle ground position between Platonic and Aristotelian realism. Like the Aristotelian realist, the Scholastic realist affirms that universals can exist only in either their concrete instantiations or in an intellect. But like Plato, he also affirms that they nevertheless have a kind of existence beyond those instantiations and beyond finite, human intellects. For universals pre-exist both the material world and all finite intellects qua ideas in the infinite, divine intellect, as the patterns according to which God creates the world.

If there were ever a point that something can be screwed up, this is it. This is where many extremely smart Thomist commentators lose it (to say nothing of Augustinian commentators on exemplar causation), and that includes some extremely smart people. W. Norris Clarke. Eleonore Stump. Norman Kretzmann. Actual heavy hitters. So stay with me for a minute, because if you get off the rails here, you'll lose the whole point of the distinction.

Remember what I said about the relationship between good, esse, and perfection? St. Thomas, per the doctrine of divine simplicity, says that God's esse and essentia are the same thing. But if you aren't very, very careful here, you might tend to read the idea of essentia up into God, which would lead to the erroneous conclusion that, just as creatures convert potency into act through operations to achieve perfection, so God is simply a fully actualized essence in the same sense, i.e., a fully operational essence. That is, more or less, the position taken above with respect to saying that God is pure act "with no potentiality," that "He is what He has and does." But this is the opposite of what St. Thomas means.

To understand the problem, it is necessary to take account of the distinction between the senses of "perfect" that I mentioned above. What St. Thomas means in saying that God is actus purus is that He is not perfectible at all in the sense of goodness but is already perfect. Likewise, what St. Thomas means by divine simplicity is exactly that He needs no other parts for perfection, which completely excludes the interpretation of divine simplicity as a fully operational essence, because the operation of essences to God is a reflection of being perfectible, viz., of being composites of act and passive potency. Thus, any sense of God as a fully operational essence directly contradicts what St. Thomas means by divine simplicity. That is what I mean when I say that God doesn't DO anything; He doesn't operate some power of the nature to produce effects.

St. Thomas's meaning here is made clear by his explanation of creation by the doctrine of bonum diffusivum sui, the self-diffusion of the good. I cannot add to the excellent explanation given by Fr. Bernhard Blankenhorn on that subject, so I won't even try. I will simply cite his conclusion: God creates natures by final causality. And because this amounts to God willing Himself as end according to particular means, what this means is that God not only has the power to do literally anything that is logically possible (since there are infinitely many ways that possible things could tend toward God) but also has absolute freedom and liberality in the choice of means, since if there are many means to an end, all of them are free possibilities to one who wills the end. How he does this is naturally completely opaque. And by "naturally," I mean the term quite literally; as created beings, our entire natural power extends to doing, so we have literally no idea what it would be like to produce effects without any doing or working.

The closest mundane approximation I can envisage is the black hole; we see it by other things tending to it, but it cannot be observed directly. We see God through the operation of things, and that provides us with a "natural theology" in the literal sense, but all we can really see are the limits of what our intellect can tell us. In other words, we know Him as only the really existing good, the telos toward which all things operate, but we know nothing of His essence. We know that He is in that sense, but not what He is. That is all the analogia entis says: we know God exists, and we know His manner of existence by contradistinction from our limits.

That should suffice to dispense with (5)-(6), but there remains a bit of an explanatory problem. It is apparent from (7) that the Eastern view is clearly NOT the Platonic view described by Prof. Feser above; the Eastern Fathers clearly deny the Platonic belief that natures exist independently of existence. But as I said earlier, it is equally clear from (1)-(3) that it can't possible be the view described as Scholastic either. So just what's going on here?

The answer to that question is that the Eastern view corresponds to yet another middle position that I would call Dionysian realism, after the pseudonymous author identified with the disciple of St. Paul, although Andrew Louth noted in Denys the Areopagite at p. 89 that this is "nothing more than the concepts of the Cappadocians couched in unfamiliar language." This position can be identified in contrast to the Plotinian realism, in that Plotinus would have the One, the nous, and the world-soul all having a kind of necessary existence by virtue of the necessary existence of the ideas themselves. Pseudo-Dionysius rejects that move by placing the operational existence of the divine ideas themselves under the good, while placing the existence of God above every essence or even any concept of the essence. Thus, the energies are placed under the good will of God, while the essence of God is placed above all being, hyperousious ousios. Again, I don't want to reinvent the wheel, so I will simply refer to an article to Bogdan Bucur that nicely summarizes the Dionysian scholarship. But note one crucial failure at p. 13: Prof. Bucur relies on Harry C. Marsh's equivalence of Aquinas's view with the Proclan unparticipated, participcated, and participating triad, and it is clear from Fr. Blankenhorn's work that St. Thomas's view of participation is the Aristotelian notion of final causality.

The ultimate result of the differences here is that St. Thomas and Dionysius have a drastically different metaphysical notion of what good is. Because of that difference, while both refer to the good in terms of God's free distribution to creatures, their metaphysical explanations are entirely disparate. Likewise, the function of the divine ideas could not be more different. For St. Thomas, they are exemplar causes in the manner of final causality; for Dionysius, they are something like formal causes. But another point cannot be understated: neither one of the explanations is remotely Plotinian. Both explanations deny a core tenet of the Platonic metaphysics regarding the necessary, independent existence of the divine ideas.

And in the end, once this difference is perceived, the evidence for the conclusion seems so obvious that one wonders how it could have been missed. It surely cannot be a coincidence that at the very beginning of the Summa, St. Thomas takes issue with St. John Damascene's account of knowledge of the divine (which is directly based on the Cappadocian/Dionysian account) and does so by alluding to the very concept of the good, developed from Boethius, that I have been describing. ST I, q. 2, a. 1. It would indeed be a bizarre coincidence for St. Thomas to deliberately disagree with a Church Father, whom he clearly recognized as an authority, without having in mind a very clear reason for the disagreement, and the fact that he specifically alludes to the section of Boethius that he himself uses in his account of natural theology seems far too fitting to be a coincidence. Although there is ample evidence in numerous other texts for the thesis I have been advocating, that argument is surely a pointed piece of proof of the very same thesis: that St. Thomas appealed to the metaphysical concept of the good through final causality, one that was different from the Dionysian account but also one that clearly excluded any Plotinian idea of a fully operational essence.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Making me work

The title of this post refers to the effect of Mike Liccione's reply to me and Scott Carson's reply to both of us. That's because they've convinced me that my previous post has outlined a theory of development by abduction that is not specific enough to be helpful. As Dr. Carson said, "Possibly all they mean by this is that, when doctrine develops, what the Church is trying to do is to come up with the 'best explanations' for its doctrines." That was left open as a possibility in my post, and while I think it may be what Dr. Liccione had in mind, I consider my own proposal a bit different, so I need to do some work to say why that is.

To begin, let me say that I agree with Dr. Liccione that it is unlikely for there to be any knock-down experimental test that will distinguish among the three. And I agree with Dr. Carson that abduction requires that "you already know a lot of stuff," which is to say that there is a background of factual knowledge. The reason that I have proposed an abductive model is that ISTM that the situation is therefore very similar to what we often encounter in physical science, which is that we are convinced that there is some objective reality behind observables, that we have instances of observables, but that we have no obvious way to test what is "behind" the observables so as to distinguish between the theoretical understandings. When one encounters this point in science, one doesn't ordinarily give up, particularly when there might be some possible way to distinguish among theories in the future or where there is some substantial practical value in proceeding even when you aren't quite sure why it works (I'm thinking specifically of medicine there).

Now a substantial difference arises, and it is worth quoting Dr. Carson's well-considered criticism here:

Add to this mix the fact that abduction, like induction, is an inference pattern that is aimed at explaining empirically observable phenomena, not at unpacking the meaning of assertions. It is intended to connect observables with hypotheses, not to make clear the semantic content of previous utterances. Furthermore, abduction, like induction, always requires an inference to something new. That is, the conclusion of an abduction, like the conclusion of an induction, is a linguistic representation of a fact that is not contained in the premises.

If that's true, then I concede that the completeness of revelation necessarily requires that "this immediately rules out both induction and abduction as an inferential pattern by means of which the Church may explain her teachings, since both provide conclusions in which something new is asserted, as I pointed out above." But what I would suggest is that "a linguistic representation of a fact that is not contained in the premises" should instead be "a linguistic representation of a fact not known to be contained in the premises." What I hope to make clear is why that distinction is meaningful after a quick diversion.

The diversion is to say that I am not making hay to build what I know to be a straw man. It seems that every time anyone starts speaking rigorously about doctrinal development in the Catholic tradition, he is immediately accused of reducing the Christian kerygma to dogmatic propositions, of buying into an Enlightenment-based/Cartesian desire for epistemic certainty, of replacing the Christian faith with a propositional idol, or more commonly, of all three of those things at once. I don't think either Dr. Carson or Dr. Liccione are doing anything of these things, and I find most of those accusations ridiculous. My point here is not to share some warm, fuzzy, hippy-dippy sentiment about the love of God being SO much bigger than what we can express in words blah blah blah. 'Nuff said.

On the contrary, what I have in mind is a much "harder" version of epistemic uncertainty, analogous to what we have in science. It is intended to respond to the frequently-made charge that Catholics have no more certainty than anyone else because we ourselves are not infallible in our interpretation of Catholic dogma, and further, even those in authority are not infallible in knowing the principles behind their authoritative decisions. Probably the most glaring example is the large portion of the bishops at Nicaea who signed on the doctrinal statement with extensive mental reservations, arguably interpreting the statement in a way entirely compatible with Arianism and incompatible with what would later become recognized as Nicene orthodoxy. Nor is the Pope himself infallible in terms of holding a "key of knowledge" so that whatever he says is authoritative not only insofar as it was made binding but also in terms of the particular reasons given, as was made clear by Pope John XXII. So the infallibility of the Church is not of the sort that implies infallible propositional knowledge of the content of revelation, as counter-intuitive as that conclusion might seem.

So if even the people who author the dogmas and propose them as definitive and irreformable don't know the principles behind them in their fullness, then what sort of principles are we talking about? The reason that I draw the analogy to science is that the infallibility of the Church is similar to the infallibility of the law of non-contradiction in science, which is to say that reality can't be self-contradictory. Likewise, the mind of God is not self-contradictory, meaning that God's revelation is not self-contradictory. But as in science, what we see are particular events, and those are primarily rejections of heresies as being destructive, negative propositions in some particular context. Newman's pithy statement is best: "No doctrine is defined until it is violated." The circumstances of this collision, the particle tracks they leave, form the data from which we attempt to discern principles.

I believe the analogy is apt even for the Catholic Church in the objective sense, whether or not one happens to accept (as I do) that this is defined in terms of communion with the Holy See. This is because, if we accept that revelation is real and complete without entailing full comprehension of the dogmatic principles involved, then the revelation in question must be akin to the operation of physical laws is the cosmos in terms of uniformity and consistency of operation. Like those physical laws, the principles of operation of the Church, the normative guidelines for behavior, have always been evident in what She does and how She operates. But what we directly see is what has happened in some or another situation, just as we might try to discern the biological principles in an organism in its response to stimuli.

When I speak of the Catholic HC as being abductive, I mean it in this sense of taking fixed points and positing the principles behind them. What I mean to say is that if the hypothetical structure is based on papal authority, ascribing dogmatic significance to papal decisions and illuminating principles thereby, then what emerges are clean, explanatory principles for not only distinctively Catholic events but also numerous others. Just as theories of common descent and physical unification theories explain more by taking on more to explain, so the Catholic HC is capable of cleanly subsuming not only what it uniquely sees as authoritative but also the other Christian HCs do.

On that reading, simply trying to figure out "what the texts say" or "what the author intended" is inadequate, because what is really necessary is an explanation for why the texts exist in the first place. Why did the Christian community do this thing and not that thing? The underlying normative principles driving the action of the Church never change, but the question is our understanding. In that respect, our understanding assuredly can become better, even if the object of study never changes. In that respect, I sympathize entirely with those Scripture scholars who have adopted a more communitarian and less author-centered approach to Scripture (like the late Fr. Raymond Brown), but where they have gone astray is in their disregard for the supernatural in their science. They have moved their vision from identifying the principles of operation of the Church to studying narrowly mundane explanations, and thus, they have ceased to be students of Sacred Scripture, instead studying the mere Bible.

I would then interpret the closure of public revelation in the same way I would interpret the uniformitarian assumption in science. Whatever principles of operation (which might be accurately called divine energies) were operational in the Church were entirely established by the death of the last Apostle. Indeed, I would argue all such principles were documented in Scripture even if it was not immediately apparent why this or another event was so documented (such as John's vision of the Queen of Heaven in Revelation as a precursor of the Assumption). Every action of the Church qua Church is according to a divinely directed principle established from the beginning, and just as there is no such thing as half a principle, there is no such thing as divine action mixed with error.

I think this notion of finding and unifying principles is at least at home with the account of faith given in question 1 of the Second Part of the Second Part of the Summa along with the account of sacred science at the very beginning. Unlike the Apostles, we do not have the extraordinary wealth in experience of spending every day observing the actions of Christ and having our lives directly ordered by Him. Consequently, we have to muddle through synthesis and analysis of propositions (which are themselves only ulteriorly related to the unseen object of faith itself) in order to get a hazy understanding of what was presented to them as an immediate unity, although still short of the beatific vision. Even with respect to Scripture, however, the Angelic Doctor notes that even the manner of writing truths in Holy Writ requires a level of study that is frankly unattainable to many people and that much of Scripture is revealed with an ulterior purpose to illuminating some other doctrine, which isn't going to be clear without a clear vision of the unseen object of faith. What is provided to us with assurance is that there *is* such a sense, that all of the articulation does genuinely assemble the parts coherently (if we submit to them), just as the law of non-contradiction is the self-evident basis of our confidence in the physical sciences.

With respect to distinguishing as among the three hermeneutical circles that Dr. Liccione mentioned (Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox), I agree that there can be no absolute adjudication between them, because there's is no rational argument that can compel submission by faith to the dogmatic premises. What is possible, and this is where I think I am somewhat more optimistic about the prospects, is that one can investigate what best accomplishes that sense of unification. The criteria are subjective; there is no denying that, nor could there be unless the conclusion were to be rationally compelled. But I think there is a reasonable basis for thinking that Catholicism is the best explanation for the particular dogmatic events of Christian history in that it contemplates from the very beginning the inclusion of the normative principles that cause the particular modes of rejection of heresy.

In my view, Catholicism provides a system that takes for granted the lack of immediacy to the Apostles AND the inevitable failures of human reason with respect to keeping a coherent, organized, unified picture of faith intact. Therefore, it was proposed from the very beginning to have a corrective for these things rather than depending on a bundle of propositional truths that can't possibly be maintained in perfect integrity given real human beings and the limitations of reason. Heresies and schisms will always introduce new fractures, and unless there is a built-in reason for thinking they will be repaired, there's no reason to think they will be short of the eschaton or that there is anything that can't break or isn't already broken (Scripture included, contradicting Christ's own testimony that it can't be). That argument is essentially neutral with respect to the truth of the premises; it simply looks at the mechanism of operation and the degree of reliance on ad hoc providential intervention.

What concerns me about denying the effectiveness of these sorts of techniques is that it would seem to suggest that there is no useful illumination provided by the same sorts of techniques that we use in physical science or other areas. There's no question that we're far along enough at this point that there are three dominant Christian theories, but people still have to be able to articulate the relative superiority of their theory for its chosen purposes, even if it isn't going to persuade adherents of the others. Otherwise, what's it all for? So I think that if we can at least start with some basic principles identified for divine revelation, much like the scientific conviction in the "unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics" and experimental devices, we at least have a common platform for communicating. If there's no reality in which we can point to the same objects and say that they're the same things, then I'm not sure how we stay away from religious discussions turning into a kind of rambling pseudo-science that (unfortunately) is what the general view of religion and metaphysics is.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Theories of Christian dogma

I have recently become emboldened to speak more strongly on matters of doctrinal development. This is because I believe that discussions on the subject have been dancing around the facts that I consider dispositive of the issue. I find the occasion of Michael Liccione's reply to an objection to be opportune for setting out why I believe the discussion has heretofore allowed so many escape trails to be blazed. Since Dr. Liccione kindly mapped out the battlefield in his earlier post on hermeneutical circles in Chrisitan communions, it remains for me only to deploy the forces rightly so as to cut off the retreat.

I view the following as the key statement in Dr. Liccione's reply:

ML>> I have long argued that a species of induction, namely "abduction" or "inference to the best explanation," is the standard form of DD.

This states the basis for a number of Dr. Liccione's posts on not merely distinctively Catholic doctrines (DCDs) but also supposed "contradictions" in Catholic dogma. By claiming abduction as such an ordinary method, Dr. Liccione also deftly draws out both an explanation of why there must be an authority in order to preserve an objective sense of dogma:

ML>> In general, explanations are evaluated in terms of a certain set of criteria: e.g., consistency (is the explanation consistent with what we already know?), capaciousness (does it cover everything that calls for explanation?), parsimony (does it avoid making assumptions and positing entities beyond what's necessary?) and other criteria depending on the subject matter. But the application of such criteria, though partly objective, is also subjective to some extent. In an ecclesial context, the application relies to some extent on the sensus ecclesiae. The consensus patrum is certainly an expression of the sensus ecclesiae; but is it the only normative one? If so, why? If not, what else is there? I remain firmly convinced that, the more seriously one grapples with such questions, the more reasonable the teaching of Vatican II on DD will come to seem.

But why not simply join the battle plainly at this point? The Catholic hermeneutical circle is the abductive explanation for the objective sensus ecclesiae. The difficulty with claiming this or that doctrine developed by abduction, even if that doctrine happens to be the authority of the Pope, would to me take too narrow a view of the strength of abduction. If we are going to use abduction as a criteria for what to believe in this or that other case, then why not use abduction to determine the best global theory of authority?

In speaking of the physical sciences, Paul A.M. Dirac said at various times during his life that "a theory of mathematical beauty is more likely to be correct than an ugly one that fits some experimental data," "there are occasions when mathematical beauty should take priority over agreement with experiment," and "it is more important to have beauty in one's equations than to have them fit experiment." What Dirac had in mind was the simplicity of the underlying principles, the ease of applying the quantities to physical phenomena being investigated, the flexibility of application to new difficulties, and the clarity of how pieces related to one another. Unquestionably, that sort of "beauty" is likely not apparent to one who has not toiled in physical investigation, particularly with respect to the criterion of "simplicity" (which has much in common with "divine simplicity" in that regard, like Chesterton's report of the woman who said "If this is God's simplicity, I'd hate to see His complexity"). But as in the case of master craftsmen, those who dedicate their lives to crafting mathematical descriptions of physical phenomena can judge quality in ways that seem obscure to the untaught.

A good measure of the beauty of a theory in this regard is the amount of explanatory apparatus one has to deploy in order to resolve phenomena that do not emerge naturally from the principles. Those with many additions are "ugly" in the sense Dirac gives above, and it is more likely that there is some minor inconsistency or error in the theory that works well on its own principles than that the creation of Frankenstein's monster is going to prove better in the long run. That was largely the reason that quantum mechanics, relativity, and thermodynamics were deemed acceptable despite their counterintuitive application to physical phenomena. Consider the opposition from Einstein ("God does not play dice with the universe"), Schroedinger ("I don't like it, and I wish I'd never had anything to do with it"), Michelson (who disbelieved the result of the experiment bearing his name disproving the existence of light-bearing ether), and Boltzmann (requiring a "molecular chaos assumption" in the equation on his tombstone bearing his name, the one he hoped would explain the behavior he was forced to assume). Ultimately, putting something in to "fix" these theories in that regard would have been too artificial (the jury is still out on Einstein's cosmological constant and Dirac's opposition to renormalization, which might just end up being at least partially right).

This diversion into physical law is made not only because it was my primary interest for most of my life but because it is the paradigm case for abductive explanations. And I think it illuminates one of the biggest problems with attempting to look at particular instances of development of dogma rather than the strength of the theory as a whole. In the larger sense, the Catholic hermeneutical circle described above is not merely a theory of the function of the papacy but a far more general explanation of how Christian revelation operates.

On the strength of a very few principles that are not ridiculously controversial in Christian history (that Peter was constituted head of the Apostles, that the Apostolic office is successive in some sense, that there is some succession of the Petrine charism in Rome) along with some relatively simple principles about how this authority operates (communion with Peter's successor is a prerequisite for formal communion with the Church, the infallibility doctrine of Vatican I), one has a consistent explanation for essentially every bit of Christian dogma in a couple of millennia and not only distinctively Catholic dogma. This isn't to say that there aren't counter-intuitive principles at work here; it's certainly not a simplistic explanation. But it is a simple explanation, in that once the work is done to make sure the principles are right, one isn't hunting around all over the place for external explanations of why this or that dogma is held.

But the explanation of those things is not the limit of the theory. What is perspicacious about the theory is its explanation of why things were done in this way as a whole in a way that motivates not only Christian dogma but also metaphysics, science, and morality more generally. That's what I think is truly persuasive (and beautiful) about the Catholic religion. The difficulty I find with even other Christian sects (and moreso with other religions) is that even what we have in common is an explanatory dangler, one of those ugly lashed-on assumptions, in other sects. That is least obvious with those having the most in common with us Catholics (particularly Eastern and Oriental Orthodox), but true nonetheless. Moreover, they look ugly in terms of relying on explanations of facts that are even *more* counter-intuitive than anything the Catholic theory requires, like the lack of institutional continuity with the people preserving Scripture in Protestantism's account and the regional, ethnic character of Orthodoxy vis-a-vis Catholicism (with the concomitant great Western apostasy supported by Franco-Roman conspiracy theories). But I would emphasize with Dr. Liccione that liberal theories are the worst of all in this regard, because they explain and motivate nothing except the ratification of one's own feelings.

To bring out one particular hobby horse of mine (with which Dr. Liccione might not agree), I happen to also think that there are tremendous explanatory problems in any account that relies on Scriptural or patristic authority to the point of conflicting with biological evolution (likely including polygenism) and plant/animal death before Adam. The intrinsic finitude of biological processes, the metabolic nature of cell death and generation, the fossil record, and the like strike me as absolute facts of existence to the point of being undeniable. That is one of those cases where I would have to modify my explanatory apparatus so drastically that the resulting theory would be too ugly for words, a "chimera" in the strongest connotation of that term. In those respects, I think Catholicism clears the hurdle of abduction quite nicely, because it explains death in terms of creaturely finitude without vitiating the larger sense of purpose (exactly as one might expect from a tradition that had been dominated by Aristotle to a greater extent than Plato, but that is another hobby horse that should probably be kept closeted). St. Maximus's notion of fruit falling in Eden without rotting, on the other hand, would require some pretty massive modification.

Thus, pace Perry Robinson, I think the reason large numbers of converts to Catholicism don't even see the need to investigate Orthodoxy to a great degree is that whatever anomalies might be raised about Catholicism are far more easily explained within the theory than adopting a less elegant theory to explain a few particulars, thereby creating many more. And pace kepha, this IS the normal way I would go about any other mode of inquiry, because I personally think the scientific method (in the abductive sense I described above) has the jury system completely beat in terms of usefully describing reality.

In terms of kepha's argument regarding the reliability of the American adversarial jury system, I think it is probably a toss-up with the inquisitorial civil system in terms of the accuracy of retrospective application of legal principles to past events with some relative advantages depending on the circumstances (individual or corporate defendants, technical nature of the case, etc.). It's not terrible, but it is certainly uncertain enough that people who are probably (and some cases even certainly) in the right still end up paying millions of dollars to settle arguably frivilous suits, which I think indicates that faith in the jury system is far from absolute. And that also introduces a level of self-selection that probably biases the overall reliability to cases where there is really enough ucnertainty that a jury determination is desired, so the reliability of the actual jury system would not necessarily correlate well with its use more widely.

More importantly, determining the legal principles is always left to judges (the authoritative jurisprude, though subject to appeal), and the jury is instructed by the judge how to apply those principles to the case before them. Moreover, the judge tightly controls what facts the jury gets to see, which reflects that people often aren't capable of accurately judging reality in uncontrolled circumstances. We don't have anything like those restrictions in picking and choosing information in most cases with religion (except maybe for children), meaning that the jury system is completely inappropriate to scientific inquiry. On the contrary, even the jury system provides robust support for the sort of scientific, theoretical inquiry, since it leaves matters of law to judges and has a complicated appeals process for assessing the success of these models over significant numbers of cases. Thus, even the example kepha cites implicitly relies on the reliability of the scientific method I have outlined here.

Never mind

I was trying in my last couple of posts to clarify a distinction. But I honestly think now that Zippy has seriously impaired his own power of reason on the subject to the point it is not even worth discussing these matters with him. It's like talking to a liberal. I'd already seen the false victimhood tactic used on me on his blog, but now he's gotten worse to the point of utterly separating himself from any kind of real metaphysical basis on which moral theology is formed.

He's now equated contraception with hatred of children, invented a specious distinction between act and omission to perpetuate his irrational reading of Veritatis Splendor, suggested in analogy to stolen property that a past vasectomy permanently renders someone's reproductive system intentionally contracepted even if the person really changes his mind, and endorsed extremism in opposition to abortion to the point of directly contradicting the Holy See's prudential guidance on capital punishment ("every outlaw abortionist swinging from a gibbet"). He's a wacked out liberal in the guise of a conservative, just like the rad-trads, except he doesn't even have the defense of at least appearing consistent with what was done before. There's no touchstone to reality in any of this; he's just asserting his own positive interpretation as normative without subjecting it to any methodological scrutiny. Like other liberal positivists, he's in the "grip of a theory" with which there is no reasoning.

I don't know what's going on with this guy, but we shouldn't tolerate this sort of wild and unmoored speculation just because he happens to agree with us on the conclusions sometimes, any more than we tolerate any other brand of liberal positivism with regard to Catholic dogma. As I will argue in my development of doctrine post, there is room for healthy speculation, but this is an example of what it isn't.

Friday, January 23, 2009

A physicocausal account of double effect

In response to Zippy Catholic's invitation to come up with a new term for the account he describes in his post, I would submit "physicocausal account of double effects" as an alternative term. The reason for the first change that "physicalist" seems blatantly inappropriate for an analysis that views the physicocausal aspects in terms of the intent (meaning proximate end in this case) for one's behavior. The reason for the second change is that my physicocausal test is only intended to classify effects as directly or indirectly intended, irrespective of whether that causes them to be classified as intrinsically evil.

Zippy's description appears to be correct in the main:

The approach we must reject goes something like the following: We take the decision a person makes to act, figure out the intended end for which he makes it, and construct a physical account from what he does to the achievement of that end. Everything which is a physical cause leading up to his desired result, then, is considered to be intended; anything which is not causally prerequisite to achieving his end, on a physicalist account, is considered to be unintended[* Other language is sometimes used to label what I have labeled intended and unintended. One traditional way is to refer to the intended and the indirect voluntary; another is to say directly intended and indirectly intended. But these are merely semantic choices about how to label things, and do not as far as I can tell change the substance of what we are discussing.].

In order to resolve ambiguity, I would replace "intended end" with "proximate end." In other words, it is the immediate physicocausal result of one's behavior that one desires to achieve and nothing more remote than that. I would also add "permitted" as a synonym for "unintended," "indirect voluntary," or "indirectly intended." Most Catholics (and indeed, most non-Calvinist Protestants) can intuitively grasp that God, even though he sustains in existence the actions of evildoers, merely permits evil rather than intending it. The mundane concept being used for the theological analogous term in this case is identical to the one I have in mind.

So far, so good. Then the picture starts getting murkier:

His act is intrinsically evil if and only if any of the things he intends (on this account of intention) is evil.

First, this account is wrong. On the physicocausal account of double effect, if there is a moral species of act in which the act is intrinsically evil merely by indirectly intending some effect, then the physicocausal account of double effect would simply say that it was indirectly intended, being entirely agnostic about whether indirectly intending that effect is evil or not. It makes no judgments about whether the action is evil or not; perhaps there are species of conduct in which indirectly intended effects make the action intrinsically evil. All the physicocausal account of double effect says is that if the evil effect is intended as proximate end or means, then the action is definitely evil and therefore cannot be weighed proportionally against any good. Note that it doesn't matter whether the action is intrinsically or extrinsically evil, and really, all of this discussion connecting the concept of intrinsic evil to double effect is simply irrelevant.

Second (and this is the reason I say this is murkier), I am not aware of a single species of intrinsically evil conduct that is evil solely on account of its effect. About the only pathological case I could conceive offhand was one with a masseuse who knows a married man is attracted to her, who is repulsed by the idea, but who is in desperate need of payment and so agrees to perform a therapeutic massage in exactly the same professional manner as she would for any client. I would argue that this could be intrinsically evil as adulterous conduct even though the effect could arguably be considered a side effect of what would otherwise be a therapeutic massage, a neutral or good act in itself, because she knows that this ordinary action has a side effect of inflaming the married man's passions. So it could be that knowingly inflaming someone's passions is evil no matter what the direct intent of one's actions are. That would seem consistent with immodesty more generally, since there are probably numerous people who mean nothing by wearing light clothing in warm weather but ought to know with certainty that their potentially innocuous choice will be an occasion of sin for others.

The reason I bring this up is as follows:

Basically, this account of intrinsic evil takes the principle of double-effect to apply to all acts, and elevates the double-effect requirement "the bad effect must not cause the good effect" to the status of a rule which determines whether or not an act is intrinsically immoral.

Even without doing further work we can see that this approach is fundamentally question-begging. Rather than applying the principle of double-effect to an act which is not intrinsically immoral, this approach applies the "bad effect must not cause the good effect" rule - which in reality only applies to acts which are not intrinsically immoral - in order to conclude that the act is not intrinsically immoral.

Furthermore, this account of intrinsic evil renders the requirement "the act must not be evil in its object" nonsensical. If the rule "the bad effect must not cause the good effect" is the very thing which tells us whether the act is evil in its object, then the inclusion of the additional requirement that the act must not be evil in its object is superfluous nonsense.

In the first place, this is simply false, because the physicocausal account actually includes both intended ends and means, not merely means. But the bigger trouble is that it seems to presume "the act must not be evil in its object" is NOT superfluous. That is debatable for exactly the reason I stated above: namely, I can't think of any clear case in which a species of intrinsically evil conduct is defined so that merely indirectly intending an effect makes the conduct intrinsically evil.

To put the point more plainly, "double effect" analysis simply codifies what St. Paul says regarding not doing evil so that good may come of it, so that if evil is being done, then no good effect can offset it (and that applies with regard not only to intrinsic evils but actions that are evil by intention or circumstance as well). In other words, it specifies conditions in which proportionality cannot be applied, thus restricting what can legitimately be called a "double effect," and it then requires proportionality even in those cases. That's precisely why there is a well-known 3-point formulation of double effect analysis:

1. Intentionality. The good effect and not the bad effect must be intended.
2. Causality. The good effect must not be caused by the means of the bad effect.
3. Proportionality. If (1) and (2) are met, the bad effect must not outweigh the good effect.

There can be additional details to these analyses. In particular, the causal prong is often evaluated by the "if by a miracle" test, more aptly described as the "test of failure" to determine whether a particular effect in the causal chain, if removed, would terminate the chain of causality. But those three requirements are the basic conditions for "double effect."

Sometimes, an alternative formulation is given with another step:

0. The act must not be good or morally neutral, nor intrinsically evil, in its object.

Now, it isn't clear to me that there is even one case where an act is classified as intrinsically evil for intending the evil effect as neither ends nor means but only as indirectly intended effect. But as a strict matter of logic, it could be the case that such a class exists, meaning that (0) might not be entirely superfluous. Or perhaps it is simply intended as a clarification in cases (like the masseuse above) where an argument might be made that the evil effect is indirectly intended, in order to forestall rationalizations. In any case, (0) is certainly a step that is so rare in catching any scenario not already caught by (1) or (2) that one could argue that it is very close to superfluous, to the point that some moral theologians don't even consider it necessary and rely on the 3-point test instead.

What is important to realize is that the physicocausal account of double effect is directed only to steps (1) and (2), and all it says is that if (1) or (2) is met, then the action clearly cannot be evaluated under double effect. It is agnostic as to step (0), and generally, it is agnostic as to whether the act in intrinsically evil or not, because that doesn't matter for double effect purposes anyway. If it's an evil act, whether extrinsically or intrinsically, it can't be done for the sake of any other good. What is absolutely clear, however, is that (0) is not some sort of separate test for moral object or intrinsically evil conduct with (1) and (2) pertaining solely to ulterior intention or circumstances. If anything, that's exactly reversed. (0) is only directed at catching those few pathological cases that are not already caught under (1) or (2).

More or less, double effect, which applies to any action that is evil intrinsically or extrinsically, should not be confused with the determination of whether something is intrinsically evil. You might need to look at remote intentions to determine if something is intrinsically evil (as in the case of theft), and you might need to look at remote intentions to determine if an effect is proportional under double effect. But just looking at remote intentions in both cases does not make the analysis identical.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

A simple misunderstanding?

Zippy Catholic has put a finer point on the parameters separating his view from my own, and I think it will clarify several misunderstandings to understand where it is right and where it is wrong. But there is a threshhold interpretational question that must be resolved first. It is stated in a previous post thusly:

This objection is problemmatic. Veritatis Splendour tells us: One must therefore reject the thesis ... which holds that it is impossible to qualify as morally evil according to its species — its "object" — the deliberate choice of certain kinds of behaviour or specific acts, apart from a consideration of the intention for which the choice is made ... .

If we cannot determine the object of the act without considering the intention for which the choice was made, then Veritatis Splendour is self-contradictory, with all that that implies -- basically the encyclical is a meaningless jumble of words with enough apparent meaning that people can make it appear to say whatever they want it to say.

In the linked post it is stated this way:
But beyond that, Veritatis Splendour tells us that we must reject any moral theory which makes it impossible to qualify as morally evil the choice of certain concrete actions or kinds of behavior apart from any consideration of the intention for which the behavior was chosen.

I titled this post a "simple" misunderstanding, not to say that the diagnosis of the problem has been "simple" but that if the disagreement is what I think it is, then it turns on single interpretive question upon which every single disagreement with my position has turned.

The question is simply this:

What proposition constitutes the negation the following equivalent propositions from VS?

Those equivalent propositions are:

"it is impossible to qualify as morally evil according to its species — its
'object' — the deliberate choice of certain kinds of behaviour or specific acts,
apart from a consideration of the intention for which the choice is made or the
totality of the foreseeable consequences of that act for all persons concerned"
or the equivalent formulation of the proposition

"it is impossible to qualify as morally evil according to its species the
deliberate choice of certain kinds of behaviour or specific acts, without taking
into account the intention for which the choice was made or the totality of the
foreseeable consequences of that act for all persons concerned"

Let us begin with the glaring interpretive difference on the term "intention." My definition of the term, which I think is quite reasonable given the modifier "for which the choice is made," is that this is an ulterior intention, which could also be called a further intention or a remote intention or motive. Since John Paul II uses the term "proximate end" to describe the intent to perform the act according to the species, I would argue that this "intention" excludes the formation of the will required for the act to be what it is. In other words, I would maintain that the threshhold intent required for the choice to be some kind of species is simply part of the "choice," as contrasted with the intention for which the choice was made or the totality of the foreseeable circumstances.

There is, however, a countervailing interpretation that could be invoked to maintain that the choice of behavior is just the choice to do some particular concrete physical action irrespective of why one takes the action (the latter "why" being interpreted as intention). Thus, if the particular concrete physical action is done with some foreseeably certain effect immediately resulting from your physical action, then your chosen behavior necessarily includes the choice of that effect, irrespective of why one does it. Suffice it to say that I consider this interpretation wrong, but let's take is as being correct for the sake of argument.

Given the latter interpretation, one might take this proposition to mean that one can always classify intrinsically evil behaviors AS intrinsically evil apart from consideration of intention or circumstances. But I argue that this is a far stronger claim that is entailed by the denial of the propositions demanded by VS. Indeed, all one needs to be able to say to deny these propositions is that there is even one case in which is it possible to qualify an act as morally evil according to its species irrespective of the intention for which the choice was made or the totality of the foreseeable consequences of that act. I will refer to the former formulation as the "strong denial" and the latter as the "weak denial." I maintain not only that the "weak denial" is all that is required by VS but also that the "strong denial" is a false proposition that cannot be maintained.

As to the "weak denial" being an adequate negation of the principle, this follows simply from modal logic. "Impossible" simply means "not possible in any case," and the negation of "not possible in any case" is "possible in at least one case." So if we affirm that it is possible in at least one case to qualify a behavior as intrinsically evil (i.e., the weak denial), then we have denied the proposition.

I do, in fact, affirm that there are cases in which simply willing to do the behavior can be classified as intrinsically evil, completely irrespective of intention for which the behavior is done or the totality of foreseeable consequences. The clearest case is any sexual act of a type that is intrinsically sterile. There is no possible rationalization and no possible circumstance under which that act can be anything other than intrinsically evil. Likewise is the case of artificial contraception done for the purpose of regulating the number of births. Therefore, I affirm the weak denial.

As to the "strong denial" being false, we can take the case of theft, an intrinsically evil behavior which is the taking of property contrary to the reasonable will of the owner. Whether the owner's will is reasonable in opposing the taking of property must necessarily involve the use to which the property is planned to be put. This is because if the intended use of the property being taken is, for example, to avert starvation, to protect houses from being destroyed by flame, or other similar motives, then an owner's will to resist the taking would not be reasonable. Consequently, "theft" simply cannot be assessed according to its moral species, which includes evaluating the "reasonable will of the owner," without considering the remote intention for the use of the property.

Consequently, even on the variant interpretation of the term "intention" that I reject, it does not follow that anything more is required than the weak denial.

Now I can take this argument one step further, and argue that the variant interpretation is the one that actually makes nonsense of the meaning that VS intends to convey. The reason that I say this is because theft is an example of intrinsically evil behavior cited as what cannot be done even for good motives. But theft hardly qualifies as behavior that can be classified as intrinsically evil irrespective of the reason it is done, since the use of the property is essential for knowing whether it can be classified as theft in the first place! Consequently, the interpretation of VS that says that intrinsically evil behavior must be subject to classification based on the concrete choice of bodily action with all of its certainly foreseeable consequences irrespective of why that choice is made would render the case of theft completely irrelevant, since it clearly cannot be classified as intrinsically evil without regard to remote intention. It requires us to think that VS refutes the universal proposition, then digresses on to some other class of error completely distinct from the one being condemned, and then proceeds to flip willy-nilly between the two for the rest of the encyclical.

This is why I have always followed the rather conventional belief that "intention for which the choice is made" refers to an intention extrinsic to the "intention" (more specifically, "proximate end") required to classify the choice according to moral species. If you need to know why someone does something to determine whether it is evil, then that doesn't count as "intention." Taking property, for example, is a physical action that could be intrinsically evil but that cannot be determined as such without accounting for the remote intention of what one intends to do with the property. You can't even classify the proximate end of the action absent some reference to remote intention, since the intended use of the property is an essential element of what one is doing in choosing to take it and thus what the chosen behavior is in itself.

That suffices for the present point. I could (and plan to) subsequently argue that foreseeably causing the death of an innocent is precisely the sort of act that cannot be classified as intrinsically evil without reference to the reason one is using the means that cause the death, much like the taking of property cannot be classified without reference to why one is taking it. But there remains an intervening concern about double effect, and I will argue that my interpretation makes sense of it.