Minute Particulars

"...minute and particular." -- Enormous Generalities

Tuesday, December 23, 2003


In the wonder of the Incarnation your eternal Word has brought to the eyes of faith a new and radiant vision of your glory. In him we see our God made visible and so are caught up in love of the God we cannot see (Christmas Preface I).


Sunday, December 14, 2003


One of the wonderful things about raising a child, my boy will soon be two years old, is that you get to discover all kinds of things you might have missed growing up. I don't think I've ever sat down and figured out how to make the five platonic solids out of some cardboard from a cereal box and some tape. Now, had I originally gone to the above link, I'd have had no trouble making the things and I would have realized that the five Platonic solids were in fact the cube, dodecahedron, icosahedron, octahedron, and tetrahedron (not that I'd have known them all by name).

But I was going from my scant knowledge that there were five Platonic solids and that each surface of such a solid is a polygon with equal sides and angles (I guess regular polygon is the term for these), like an equilateral triangle or square. We whipped up a tetrahedron, then a cube, and then, not realizing that there were two more possible Platonic solids made from triangles, we moved on to a pentagon. Have you ever tried constructing a fairly precise pentagon? I discovered, after the fact, a nice resource that shows you how to construct all kinds of shapes with just a standard shaped book. We finished the dodecahedron and I was feeling pretty confident that the next solid could easily be made with hexagons (though I'll admit that it did start to occur to me that there must be a hitch if there are only five solids possible). After trying to tape a few hexagons together I realized that we were going to have a hard time making a solid out of hexagons (unless you toss in an occasional pentagon, which is how some soccer balls are made). I then found the above link and discovered the other two Platonic solids and the mathematical reason that only five are possible. Still, if it weren't for my son, I can't imagine ever sitting down and trying to figure out what kind of solids you can make out of triangles, squares, and pentagons with cardboard, tape, and a very eager two-year-old.




I'm indebted to Tom of Disputations for pointing out an area that I'd left insufficiently nuanced in my musings on the Immaculate Conception in the post below. Some or many may still take issue with my interpretation, but let me try to clarify one aspect of my post a bit more.

Look again at the word "conception" (note that conceptio is the word used in the Latin) in the declaration:
We declare, pronounce, and define that the doctrine which holds that the most Blessed Virgin Mary, in the first instance of her conception [in primo instanti suae conceptionis], by a singular grace and privilege granted by Almighty God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Savior of the human race, was preserved free from all stain of original sin, is a doctrine revealed by God and therefore to be believed firmly and constantly by all the faithful
Obviously "conception" as used by Pius IX was not meant to be a scientific term, "scientific" here in our contemporary sense of proposing a model for how we think something works, in this case, a model for biological conception. I'm no historian of science, but certainly when the encyclical was written in 1854, "conception" could not have implied our current understanding. But the word means something and it was used with some principle or principles in mind. The context, of course, is everything; but certainly there is a fundamental meaning of "conception" that we ought to be able to use to anchor our interpretation. This meaning, depending on your source, is:

From Latin dictionaries I have access to:
conception, action/fact of conceiving, pregnancy; idea/notion/formula/system *

1) conception in the narrow and proper sense of the word
2) conception in the broad sense of the word, anything generated, fecundation (Deferrari)

conception (becoming pregnant) (Bantam Latin/English)
From various English dictionaries :
1) formation of a viable zygote by the union of the male sperm and female ovum; fertilization.
2) the entity formed by the union of the male sperm and female ovum; an embryo or zygote.

the act of conceiving in the womb; the initiation of an embryonic animal life.

the act of becoming pregnant; fertilization of an ovum by a spermatozoon
Now, I'm not proposing that the meaning of "conception" as used in the definition of the dogma can be solved by looking in dictionaries, but we can surely use such definitions to get us in the ballpark of what the word means in context.

The old Catholic Encyclopedia explains:
". . .in the first instance of her conception . . ." The term conception does not mean the active or generative conception by her parents. Her body was formed in the womb of the mother, and the father had the usual share in its formation. The question does not concern the immaculateness of the generative activity of her parents. Neither does it concern the passive conception absolutely and simply (conceptio seminis carnis, inchoata), which, according to the order of nature, precedes the infusion of the rational soul. The person is truly conceived when the soul is created and infused into the body. Mary was preserved exempt from all stain of original sin at the first moment of her animation, and sanctifying grace was given to her before sin could have taken effect in her soul.
But if Pius IX really meant "animation" or the moment of "the infusion of the rational soul," why did he use conceptio rather than animatio in the definition of the dogma? There is a clear difference between these two words in the traditional exposition of these ideas. Aquinas distinguishes the words in his usage, for example in his Questions Whether the Blessed Virgin was sanctified before animation? and Whether Christ's body was animated in the first instant of its conception?. I don't think the meaning of these words had changed much by 1854 when the definition was made.

My initial problem with the above explanation from the old Catholic Encyclopedia, an article probably written around 1910 or so, is that its morphing of "conception" into "animation" is justified in terms of a philosophical anthropology that may no longer pertain to the development of human beings. Our understanding of biology, especially DNA's role in human development, makes the notion of an "order of nature" which precedes "the infusion of the rational soul" difficult to maintain. This, of course, is not to say that our current scientific model is the truth, but our ability to apply the principles of philosophy to human conception and animation has been enhanced by our vastly greater powers of observation. It seems evident that at conception the fertilized egg is unique among all species of fertilized eggs given its complement of DNA; and while many argue this is not a human being, I don't think anyone really argues that this is not a human fertilized egg. This observation, I think, immediately cinches things up a bit in our understanding of when an organizing principle of life, more specifically a human organizing principle of life is responsible for human development. The principles haven't changed so much as when and where we apply them

The traditional notion that something that is not a human being precedes the infusion of the human soul after conception seems difficult to maintain now. It seems clear that the organizing principle of life, in the first moment of conception, is a "human organizing principle of life." Given our observations of the detail and specificity present in a fertilized egg in the moment of conception, observations only recently available relative to the long tradition handed down from Aristotle and Aquinas, any such succession of organizing principles of life would seem to be human organizing principles of life since they shape a unique species of being from fertilized egg to adult human being. But given this, why the insistence upon "succession." Why can't the same human organizing principle of life, a human soul, remain from conception to death?

More recently, in his General Audience of June 12, 1996, Pope John Paul II states:
The proclamation of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception expresses the essential datum of faith. Pope Alexander VII, in the Bull Sollicitudo of 1661, spoke of the preservation of Mary's soul "in its creation and infusion into the body" (DS 2017). Pius IX's definition, however, prescinds from all explanations about how the soul is infused into the body and attributes to the person of Mary, at the first moment of her conception, the fact of her being preserved from every stain of original sin. (emphasis added)
John Paul II seems to suggest that Pius IX did not have the infusion of the soul or animation in mind in his definition, but rather, the person of Mary.

My suggestion in the below post, which I'll admit may have been left a little too loosely secured to its foundations, is not that the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception explicitly implies that a human person is present in the first moment of conception as conception is understood in contemporary biology, but that it assures us that a human person is present in the first moment of, well, of what? Perhaps we'd say philosophical conception, the moment when a substantial change occurs and the resulting substance has a human principle of life, a human soul. But then the term "animation" would have sufficed and the implication would be that a person is present in the moment when a human soul is infused into a body. I think the implication is deeper and strikes to the core of our origins. As Pope John Paul II suggests, the doctrine "prescinds from all explanations about how the soul is infused into the body . . . ."

Perhaps by "conception" the doctrine means to suggest the very act in which a human person is created by God? But, and this was my point, certainly the use of "conception" points us to the very origins of a human being, to the initial place where human nature is evident and exists in a manner that is intelligibly human. Our intelligence and use of tools have given us the ability to peer into a cell at the moment of a change that will culminate in a human being, the moment when there is an intelligible, specific being present. The doctrine implies that this point of our origin, the point when, regardless of the terminology or model of our current scientific, nature manifests itself in a unique, human manner (e.g. the combination of DNA), is the point where a human person is present.




In the previous post I mentioned the interesting warning from Aquinas that we should be careful not to claim that something which is fundamentally indemonstrable by reason can, uh, be demonstrated by reason. I posted it in preparation for this post. I received a few emails about my LOOKING IN THE RIGHT DIRECTION post below that inquired if I was suggesting that a revealed truth could be demonstrated by reason. I'd thought my statement:
While reason cannot arrive at revealed truth (else such truth is not "revealed truth" strictly speaking, a truth requiring revelation), revealed truth can point us in the right direction and let us get our bearings when we use our reason.
would make it clear that I was doing no such thing.

The reason some thought I was making such a claim might have something to do with my use of the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception as an example. I still think the example makes my point, but the use and meaning of "conception" in the definition of the doctrine is not as clear as it might be for my point. In the above post I unpack some of these issues; but this quickly moves away from the point of my original post. So let me, to put the LOOKING IN THE RIGHT DIRECTION post to rest for now, use a less ambiguous example of what I have in mind.

In Evangelium Vitae, #60, Pope John Paul II writes:
Some people try to justify abortion by claiming that the result of conception, at least up to a certain number of days, cannot yet be considered a personal human life. But in fact, "from the time that the ovum is fertilized, a life is begun which is neither that of the father nor the mother; it is rather the life of a new human being with his own growth. It would never be made human if it were not human already. This has always been clear, and. . . modern genetic science offers clear confirmation. It has demonstrated that from the first instant there is established the programme of what this living being will be: a person, this individual person with his characteristic aspects already well determined. Right from fertilization the adventure of a human life begins, and each of its capacities requires time--a rather lengthy time--to find its place and to be in a position to act". Even if the presence of a spiritual soul cannot be ascertained by empirical data, the results themselves of scientific research on the human embryo provide "a valuable indication for discerning by the use of reason a personal presence at the moment of the first appearance of a human life: how could a human individual not be a human person?"
Now, my original point was that Church Teaching, such as the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, teaching grounded upon revealed truth, can be used to point us in the right direction in disciplines, like philosophical anthropology or even contemporary science, which strictly speaking (and rightly so) don't accept "revealed truth" as a valid premise to any conclusion one arrives at within the discipline.


Saturday, December 13, 2003


Aquinas used an interesting phrase in his answer to Question 46 of the First Part of the Summa Theologica: materiam irridendi (an occasion to be laughed at, mocked, or ridiculed). He uses it in his warning that believers shouldn't state things in such a manner "so as to give occasion to unbelievers to laugh, thinking that on such grounds we believe things that are of faith." The issue was the interesting philosophical debate about whether one could demonstrate that "the world did not always exist." His point was that believers will appear silly to unbelievers if they make claims that are irrational, in this case claiming they can demonstrate with reason something that is an article of faith.

The temptation to claim that we can demonstrate from reason alone that the world did not always exist -- the eternal world of Aristotle or even some current cosmologies which posit an eternal oscillation of Big Bangs -- was and is irresistible for some; in fact, unless you think about what demonstration really means, the intuitive answer from most of us would probably be something like, "Well, of course the world couldn't always exist."

But as Aquinas explains:
By faith alone do we hold, and by no demonstration can it be proved, that the world did not always exist . . . . The reason of this is that the newness of the world cannot be demonstrated on the part of the world itself. For the principle of demonstration is the essence of a thing. Now everything according to its species is abstracted from "here" and "now"; whence it is said that universals are everywhere and always. Hence it cannot be demonstrated that man, or heaven, or a stone were not always.
Any demonstration involves our ability to abstract universals from the "here and now;" but these universals are "everywhere and always" and so there will be no distinction between a universal derived from something that always existed or something that did not always exist. When we demonstrate something we do so wearing always-and-everywhere tinted glasses that make everything appear to us as if it always existed. And so the question of whether something always existed can't be demonstrated.


Monday, December 08, 2003


While there are plenty of theological discussions about the meaning and importance of the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, I wonder if other fields of knowledge have brushed it aside too quickly as irrelevant. You'll find the doctrine here, the crux of which is:
We declare, pronounce, and define that the doctrine which holds that the most Blessed Virgin Mary, in the first instance of her conception [in primo instanti suae conceptionis], by a singular grace and privilege granted by Almighty God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Savior of the human race, was preserved free from all stain of original sin, is a doctrine revealed by God and therefore to be believed firmly and constantly by all the faithful
If we acknowledge that any "doctrine revealed by God" is true and that such a doctrine can never contradict reason, then this doctrine is invaluable for philosophical anthropology, the study of human nature in the light of reason. While reason cannot arrive at revealed truth (else such truth is not "revealed truth" strictly speaking, a truth requiring revelation), revealed truth can point us in the right direction and let us get our bearings when we use our reason.

One directional beacon the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception gives us is the notion that a human person is present at conception, a truth that philosophy, unaided by revealed truth, seems to struggle with. The beacon arises from the following fact: if a person is "preserved free from all stain of original sin" and this preservation begins "in the first instance of her conception," then a person must be present in the first instance of conception.*

Now you might object, well, sure, that's great if you're a Catholic philosopher and you're willing to leave philosophy and the light of reason at various points in your inquiry to see further by the light of faith; but such evidence is inadmissible in philosophy or any discipline that seeks truth in the light of reason alone. And to that I'd respond, Well, yeah, that's actually kinda' tricky.

While it's true that any discipline which purports to work exclusively in the light of reason cannot come to conclusions that depend on revealed truths, such disciplines can use the light of faith to point them in the right direction and eliminate some avenues of speculation.

What I'm suggesting is that a philosopher who grasps this implication of the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception can be confident that no one can demonstrate that a human person is not present at conception. If such a demonstration were possible, then reason would be contradicting faith and something would have to give. And so, speculation about whether a person is present only after the point were twinning is not possible (14 days), or only when the organs are sufficiently developed, or any other such muttering will necessarily be erroneous.

Perhaps a further clarification is needed. Notice that what is stated in the doctrine is not that a human person is present at conception. That, I'm suggesting, is implied. Rather, what is stated is that the doctrine that "the most Blessed Virgin Mary, in the first instance of her conception, . . . was preserved free from all stain of original sin" is "a doctrine revealed by God." In light of this we might ask: Is the implication that a human being is present in the first moment of conception, strictly speaking, a revealed truth? If you say yes, then philosophy will never be able to demonstrate the truth of this implication. If you say no, then philosophy can, in theory, demonstrate it. But notice that however you answer, you can still say with complete certitude that any philosophical theory (or scientific theory) that proposes that a person is not present in the first moment of conception is wrong.

* - It's possible that the conception of the most Blessed Virgin Mary is the only instance of a person being present in the first instance of conception, but this seems a bit ungainly. It seems that the preservation is required from the first instance of conception because a person is naturally present from conception, not because Mary was the only human person present in the first instance of her conception.


Saturday, December 06, 2003


The Human Person: Animal and Spirit, by David Braine, has been an important work for me in my meager attempts to understand traditional philosophical approaches to human nature. One thing that Braine insists upon, and I haven't found this specific analysis elsewhere (which isn't saying much since I don't know much of the literature in the field), is the uncanny similarity between dualistic and materialistic approaches:
[I]t is little realized that the principal objections to dualism apply equally to the kind of materialism which for some is now philosophical or scientific orthodoxy. And it is this sameness of dualism and materialism and the sameness of the problems to which they give rise that give us the clue to what is wrong with both and the clue to the understanding of the special character of the higher animals, and therefore to what is involved in the character of the human being as an animal.

The basis for considering dualism and materialism together is easily seen: for materialism to get going at all in its main contemporary form it is an absolute condition that one should have established a dualistic pattern of analysis of what goes on in human life. That is, before mental states and events can be identified with brain-states or events, or regarded as "realized in the brain," these mental states and events have to be conceived in a way which makes them purely "inner," logically segregated from the "outer world" and the "outer man" with his behaviour in the way which is characterized of dualism. But it is precisely this dualistic analysis which is open to philosophical objection.
If you read my ACTUAL FINAL CONSENT TO THE ACTION post below you'll notice that I have in mind Braine's concern about a "purely 'inner,' logically segregated from the 'outer world' and the 'outer man'." But what's really interesting is how Braine shows that this dualistic approach is exactly what is going on in materialism:
It is vital to be absolutely clear about this sameness of structure between contemporary materialism and the dualism which precedes it. It is not just that both involve regarding the human being as a composite or aggregate of parts in certain relations, material parts or material parts plus a supposed immaterial part (the mind or soul). Rather what needs to be grasped is the sameness of the analysis of mind-involving states and goings-on in general -- even where these seem to involve the body -- the sameness in the analysis which for both materialist and dualist goes before the reduction of human being and animal to the supposed parts.




This sad story, Man who lost state aid cut off from ventilator, the follow up, Judge refuses to reorder life support , and the final report, Man dies after being taken off of life support, didn't seem to get much play in the media. Other than the important and difficult moral questions that rear up and the troubling trend of loved ones fighting over what to do, there was a further issue that caught my eye:
Schmidt's seizure came a month after he and thousands of other Oregonians lost their prescription-drug benefit because of state budget cuts. In Schmidt's case, the state stopped paying for two drugs, including Lamictal, an antiseizure medication that costs $13 a day. He ran out of pills eight to 10 days before his seizure, his family said.

His hospital bill for the first five weeks ran 64 pages and totaled $272,364 -- about $7,200 a day. That does not count doctor fees. His care in the convalescent homes costs about $7,000 a month, not including several much more expensive hospitalizations. The total bill is likely in the $1 million range, his family said.
First, there is the staggering fact that a man is on a ventilator because he couldn't get access to medication that "costs $13 a day." In addition to this, the rhetoric of the first article seems animated more by the fact that we could have saved some money than the fact that every human being is precious.

On the one hand, it's outrageous that his daily medication was not available. On the other hand, it's outrageous that we point out that a person could have cost us $13 a day rather than $7,200.

A good indication of what society considers important can be glimpsed in the rhetoric that intelligent, well-intentioned people use to make their point. So, I guess I'm wondering why using economical or utilitarian notions, e.g. "for just $13 a day we can avoid paying thousands of dollars later on," seems to be more effective than something like "justice requires that every person have adequate healthcare."

Yes, I'm being deliberately naive in my example to make a point. Surely money is a great motivator and only a fool would refrain from using financial rhetoric in principle. I understand the effectiveness of simply running the numbers: eliminating healthcare for the poor will cost taxpayers more in the end. But even if we admit the efficacy of this strategy, isn't there something a bit troubling about how deep these principles have penetrated our approach. While much good may come from an economic approach which highlights how it's more cost-effective to provide medication to patients than to wait until they have to be treated in a hospital, I do wonder if such an approach is really the most effective in the long haul.

Most of us would probably agree that, in theory, "it is not possible to understand man on the basis of economics alone, nor to define him simply on the basis of class membership" (Centesimus Annus). But I wonder if we as a society are really convinced of this in practice. And I wonder if understanding our condition, as John Paul II writes, "in a more complete way . . . within the sphere of culture" is getting harder to do because the culture itself is getting harder to assess:
Man is understood in a more complete way when he is situated within the sphere of culture through his language, history, and the position he takes towards the fundamental events of life, such as birth, love, work and death. At the heart of every culture lies the attitude man takes to the greatest mystery: the mystery of God. Different cultures are basically different ways of facing the question of the meaning of personal existence. When this question is eliminated, the culture and moral life of nations are corrupted.




I recently discovered that my wife has been bowdlerizing Mother Goose. When I read Mother Goose to my son, who will soon turn two, I sometimes change the words to see if he's paying attention. For example,
Pease-porridge hot,
Pease-porridge cold,
Pease-porridge in the pot,
Three days old
As soon as he hears the "three" he shakes his head and says "Oh!, Niiiiiiiine!"

Recently, I got a little confused by one of his corrections. We were reading:
There was an old woman who lived in a shoe,
She had so many children, she didn't know what to do;
She gave them some broth without any bread,
She whipped them all soundly, and put them to bed.
When I read the last line he shook his head saying "Oh!, kisssssed, kissssed." I didn't know quite what he was objecting to so I read the last line again. And again he said "Oh!, kisssssed, kissssed," and gave me the quizzical look that signals, I'm only now realizing, that he thinks I'm a bit dense.

It was only after my wife overheard us that I discovered what was going on. It seems my wife has been reading "kissed them all softly" instead of "whipped them all soundly." She makes the world soft and warm and fuzzy for him; and I get the quizzical look.


Friday, December 05, 2003


Chesterton's "The Secret of Father Brown" has an interesting passage where Fr. Brown explains how he is able to solve murder mysteries:
“You see, it was I [Fr. Brown] who killed all those people.”
“What?” repeated the other [Chace], in a small voice out of a vast silence.
“You see, I had murdered them all myself,” explained Father Brown patiently. “So, of course, I knew how it was done.” . . . “I had planned out each of the crimes very carefully,” went on Father Brown, “I had thought out exactly how a thing like that could be done, and in what style or state of mind a man could really do it. And when I was quite sure that I felt exactly like the murderer myself, of course I knew who he was.”
Chace gradually released a sort of broken sigh.
“You frightened me all right,” he said. “For the minute I really did think you meant you were the murderer. Just for the minute I kind of saw it splashed over all the papers in the States: “Saintly Sleuth Exposed as Killer: Hundred Crimes of Father Brown.’ Why, of course, if it’s just a figure of speech and means you tried to reconstruct the psychogy — ”
Father Brown rapped sharply on the stove with the short pipe he was about to fill; one or his very rare spasms of annoyance contracted his face.
“No, no, no,” he said, almost angrily; “I don’t mean just a figure of speech. This is what comes of trying to talk about deep things. . . . I mean that I really did see myself, and my real self, committing the murders. I didn’t actually kill the men by material means; but that’s not the point. Any brick or bit of machinery might have killed them by material means. I mean that I thought and thought about how a man might come to be like that, until I realized that I really was like that, in everything except actual final consent to the action. . . .”
This is a great passage. When I read it recently, it dawned on me that Fr. Brown's technique might be useful to highlight important aspects of the role of intention in morality.

Here's what I mean. First, can a detective really be like a murderer "in everything except actual final consent to the action"? I guess it depends on what we mean by "like a murderer." We might imagine how someone planned a murder in every detail and then say that we have an idea of how the murderer went about it. But would we really say that we "thought and thought about how a man might come to be like that" until we realized that we really were like that "in everything except actual final consent to the action”? I don't know. Something seems amiss here. Later in the story Fr. Brown states,
I am inside a man. I am always inside a man, moving his arms and legs; but I wait till I know I am inside a murderer, thinking his thoughts, wrestling with his passions; till I have bent myself into the posture of his hunched and peering hatred; till I see the world with his bloodshot and squinting eyes, looking between the blinkers of his half-witted concentration; looking up the short and sharp perspective of a straight road to a pool of blood. Till I am really a murderer.
I guess I'm wondering if there's a strain of Cartesian dualism creeping into Fr. Brown's theory. The "I have bent myself into the posture of his hunched and peering hatred" seems a quite appropriate emphasis on the incarnate and holistic nature of human beings. But can one really bend oneself into such a posture and not hate, and not murder? Something doesn't quite click with this.

So, how does this touch upon moral theory? Well, we might ask: Is there a difference in moral intention between someone trying to commit a murder but not carrying it out and someone who actually carries out the murder? I suspect many would answer, in the context of moral intention rather than the legal implications, that there is very little if any difference. The problem is that I think we aren't being consistent in our thinking about moral intention if we don't distinguish trying from actually doing. And while I think it's understandable that the intention of someone planning to plunge a dagger into a victim might seem indistinguishable from that of someone actually plunging the dagger into the victim, I think we head down the disastrous road of moral dualism if we don't insist that there really is a difference, and a substantial difference at that, between the two intentions.

Our intention when we try to do something and our intention as we are doing it are very different. They can only be thought of as essentially the same if we are willing to cleave our human condition into interior and exterior experiences that aren't necessarily linked.


Wednesday, December 03, 2003


Disputations has a nice response to this post by Fr. Tom about whether God can know "actual future events."

Aquinas touches on this in the Question, Whether the knowledge of God is of future contingent things?:
Now God knows all contingent things not only as they are in their causes, but also as each one of them is actually in itself. And although contingent things become actual successively, nevertheless God knows contingent things not successively, as they are in their own being, as we do but simultaneously. The reason is because His knowledge is measured by eternity, as is also His being; and eternity being simultaneously whole comprises all time. . . . Hence all things that are in time are present to God from eternity, not only because He has the types of things present within Him, as some say; but because His glance is carried from eternity over all things as they are in their presentiality. Hence it is manifest that contingent things are infallibly known by God, inasmuch as they are subject to the divine sight in their presentiality; yet they are future contingent things in relation to their own causes.
That obscure "presentiality" is the translation of, well, praesentialitatem, which is simply "the state of being present."

Something occurred to me after reading the following from the above post by Fr. Tom:
Traditional doctrine on God holds that God cannot create logically contradictory things (he cannot make 2+2=5, for example), without this reducing his omnipotence. Is there not a parallel also for omniscience? By definition, future being is potential, because the passage of time is that passage from potential to actual. To speak of "actual future being" when all future being is, by definition, potential, seems to be a logical violation. To deny that God knows "actual future being" is no more destructive to God's omniscience, then, than my previous example is to God's omnipotence....
I'm more and more convinced that whenever you see squiggles like "2+2=5" or "square circle" in writing that purports to be about God's omnipotence, you're sure to be reading something that is likely not going to hold up to much scrutiny. Notions like "square circle" are placeholders for contradictory terms. And yet, when they're used from one sentence to the next, they slowly seem to gain meaning and create the illusion that there's something to them, that "square circle" is a notion just like "square" or "circle." When someone says that God cannot create a "square circle," he's really said nothing, or at most, "God cannot create a blixeldorfmen." Even that's not quite right since "God" implies omnipotence and so one can't really mean "God" in such a statement once one says "cannot create," since "cannot create" contradicts "omnipotence." And so we're left with "Hargmorlimbick cannot create a blixeldorfmen." But even this isn't quite right since "create" in the context of God implies creation ex nihilo, and thus saying cannot create ex nihilo is the same as saying cannot "bring something that cannot be into being from not being" which might as well be "strumkinlordle gumbledink." So we end up with "Hargmorlimbick strumkinlordle gumbledink a blixeldorfmen," which is about as sensible as saying that God cannot create a square circle.




There was a bluster on a popular blog a while ago about using a line of the type, "Do A, expect to die of B." The line was used as a comment and link to an article on California politics. The "A" kind of worked since it could metaphorically apply to politics; the "B" was a disease that seemed unrelated to the article. I'll admit I was at a loss as to what the point was (there was a later discussion about how naming the disease was a thumb in the eye of some and an exercise in anti-PC expression, but I still don't understand it's use in the link). It's old news now, and I'm not writing to beat a dead post here. In fact, I'm not linking to the post because it's really not fair to sit back and cherry pick whenever someone swerves into a perhaps unintended consequence of an offhand remark on a post that is now weeks old.

I'm not so much interested in the specific words used as I am intrigued at what lies a little lower, the implicit assumptions by those who saw no problem with the use of the statement. Obviously, statements that link human actions with the kind of death one can then expect are invoked all the time to dissuade us from certain actions: smoking, eating poorly, driving recklessly, and so on. But I'm bothered by the attempt to evoke moral implications from the simple tying together of a human action and the kind of death one can then expect.

Regarding the general formula "Do A, expect to die of B" and implying certain moral points from it: in a certain and profound sense, these kinds of statements aren't saying much. After all, to live is to live dangerously. Any life that is social is risky. In breathing and moving and engaging others, we take risks that presently or eventually will lead to our demise. From willingly mingling with other human beings who carry all kinds of potentially harmful critters, to driving a car, to eating food provided by others, to all kinds of possibilities, one's actions are always going to have consequences upon one's health and well-being. And while the consequences might be beneficial or harmful in the short term, in the end we all surely die because of something we've done, whether it be foolishly stepping in front of a speeding truck, contracting a disease because we didn't live in a bubble all our lives, or simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time. One way or another, intended or not, we're going to die from something we do, whether we started doing it 20 years ago or the moment right before we died, whether we "should have known better" or were a completely innocent victim.

Making statements that link human actions with the kind of death one can then expect is saying very little of any substance. And if the statement is used to imply a moral lesson, then it's likely to be a morally suspect claim. It presumes that by establishing a link between actions and the kind of death one can then expect we will know something about the morality of those actions.

I suppose versions of these kinds of statements can be rhetorically effective:
- smoke cigarettes, expect to die of lung cancer
- eat fatty foods, expect to die of a heart attack
But such statements seem awfully superficial when we attempt to draw out a moral lesson from them.

I know several very wise and holy people who smoke a lot. Should they not smoke? Probably. But saying, "Stop smoking," would strike them as both obvious and a little weird. It's a little like being at a pub with such a person and discussing the finer points of one of the Beatitudes, or some nuance about the procession of the Divine Persons, or whether this passage in King Lear suggests that "we imitate the descending movement of God . . . [when we] turn ourselves toward the world," and you suddenly blurt out, "Put that cigarette out!" or "Stop eating that greasy food!" You're not quite wrong in your concern, it's just a bit superficial in the context.

I guess that's what I'm getting at. Statements meant to suggest some moral implication about human beings that are of the "Do A, expect to die of B" type seem superficial because they're either saying very little or making a claim that lacks any context. Such statements presume that we might actually fathom the depths of the human heart by a specious causal statement. And the danger is that we might reduce another human being to a type, an abstraction, a kind of person who does a certain kind of thing that they ought to know will lead them to a certain kind of death.