David Hart: “Conceptual grammar” allows knowledge

Something can be incandescently obvious but still utterly unintelligible to us if we lack the conceptual grammar required to interpret it; and this, far from being a culpable deficiency, is usually only a matter of historical or personal circumstance. One age can see things that other ages cannot simply because it has the imaginative resources to understand what it is looking at; one person’s education or cultural formation may have enabled him or her to recognize meaning where others will find only random disorder.

Do Better People See More?

Do good people perceive anything at all that evil people do not?  Anything?

Once this line is crossed, we must allow for the existence of persons, castles, dragons, and unicorns that the good can see and the bad cannot. If there is any moral dimension at all to percipience, and if we allow that everyone is morally imperfect, then it follows that we must allow for the existence of things we cannot perceive.  Well, yes, you say:  the very big, very small, or very distant.  No, we aren’t just talking about the things that telescopes or microscopes can’t yet see.  This logic says the Demiurge may be sitting in the next armchair.

A commonplace sentiment?  No, this is more than the romantic wish-dream of the artsy types. It’s hard, cold logic that sitting next to you as you read this can very well be a person who is invisible to you because of the moral nature – not the cognitive power – the moral nature of your eyes.

None of this is a comment on probabilities, of course.  Just because we must allow for the existence of dragons and fairies does not mean that dragons and fairies are probable.   They are not more probable because they are possible, and the probability that a certain thing exists is often confused (by supernaturalists from my camp) with the cold logic that this same thing must be allowed to exist.  These two questions have nothing to do with each other.    The materialists like to argue that nothing can exist that all of us can’t perceive; the religious like to argue that because God must logically be allowed space to exist, He must therefore exist.  Both views are nonsense,  ditches on opposite sides of the rational road where emotional warriors crash and spin their wheels for a lifetime.

Science is that method which seeks to drain the moral dimension from perception.  Before it can be labeled “science” an experimental result must be repeatable by any experimenter, whether morally good or bad.  So, for those who hold that science is the only source of knowledge, any perception that changes with the character of the observer cannot be part of the knowable universe.   The empiricist (a scientist is not necessarily an ontological empiricist) is a cultivator of an impoverished perception.

The universe is either material or mystical. Once you pass this fork in the epistemological road, there are no degrees; each road leads all the way to the Many or the One. The universe is either divided into smaller and smaller particles described in more and more numbers, or language and numbers end in: One. People choose between these approaches to at early ages.   The universe you live in is the one you LIKE.

Bruce Charlton: “…an assumption as an empirical finding…”

This is, perhaps, the most frequent logical error of humans, especially intellectuals, to present an assumption as an empirical finding. It is the reason why scientists, especially biologists, are so often atheists – science rules-out divine explanations as an assumption of science; but scientists learn this assumption as a habit, and mistake it for a discovery of science.

via Bruce Charlton’s Miscellany: Miracles, history and religion.  (In the comments.)

The Necessary Oomphalos

Apparent Age is a fringe thought. From the view of the typical secularist it is one of the craziest uncles in a crazy family of religious ideas. When the evidence of an old universe first put pressure on the literal reading of Genesis, some sincere creationist argued that Adam must have had a belly button, that he must have appeared 30 years old right down to his inny oomphalos a minute after he was made. So then, goes the argument, the universe might appear 13.5 billion years old, but it is really 6,000 years old, but with a belly button, put there by God’s finger to fool us.

Is it surprising that this Oomphalos idea has been ridiculed? It’s been characterized as arguing that God builds trickery into His creation. And Christians weren’t pepared to defend that systematically, so we took to ridiculing our own uncle. Even though we believe that God made the world by His word, we wouldn’t be associated with such an unsophisticated notion as that “apparent age” nonsense. But it won’t do. Us supernaturalists need to think this thing through and admit that any belief in miracles is also a belief in apparent age. There is no such thing as a miracle that does not alter the apparent age of the object of the miracle.

We need to embrace our inner kook. We need to move our crazy uncle from the closet under the stairs out onto the front porch and paint OURS on his forehead. Not because he is useful, but because if you believe in miracles at all you are an Oomphalist. You can’t conceive of an act of special creation which doesn’t involve apparent age. It has nothing to do with trickery, and everything to do with the character of things as reified time. Time is what things are. To make a thing, or alter a thing, is to manipulate time, or nothing at all.

I don’t know if Adam had a bully button — I don’t know why he would — but if you think he existed you must picture him with human parts of some kind..say..hair? Hair, then. And if you could pluck one hair from his numbered head and analyze it scientifically, how old would it appear? Can you even conceptualize a hair that appears 10 seconds old? Isn’t a hair, by definition, a thing that has grown over time? Isn’t the age of the thing intrinsic to the thing? I mean, everything is a product of a certain process, and it is not also something else alongside that. The essence is in the elapsed time, not, again, somehow alongside it. Take another miracle story: Jesus turns water into wine. Look at the wine five minutes after it was created and tell me how old it is. The physical process of fermentation is the very definition of wine. I’m sure there are chemical measurements that can quantify the amount of fermentation and elapsed time. That wine looked like old grape juice or it didn’t look like anything at all. Jesus wasn’t trying to trick anyone; He was just making real wine.

The most accurate imagining of creation in literature must be the creation scene from The Chronicles of Narnia. Read it again: trees don’t just materialize out of thin air (materializing from air is a modern, jejune innovation), they grow, but quickly. After all, isn’t the meaning of “tree” a certain product of light, air, water, and dirt? If God would try to make a tree that was not a product of light, air, water and light it would not actually be a tree. How many rings could you have measured on the trees of Eden, the morning they were made? To think you are obligated to imagine an Eden tree without rings is an insult to God’s work. Whether they grew in a nano-second or a minute or in a fashion such that sequence itself is not applicable, I don’t know, but let’s not imagine them without rings, nor imagine Eve without glorious shining tresses. God saw His work, and thought it good.

The age of the wine at Cana is not apparent; it’s actual. There’s no meaning of the word “age” outside some physical metric. When the metric equals five, the age is five. That’s all the word means.

So it isn’t that the age is an appearance or a trick: the Cana wine really is 5 years old a scant 5 minutes after it was made. It is actually, literally, chemically 5 years old. If you manage to recover from the docetism that has been baked into your neurons by our post-enlightenment sun, you would be unable to imagine a thing apart from its accumulated physical metrics.

But this is not an argument to offer to skeptics or scientists, because it can’t be used in their work. If the universe appears 13.5 billion years old on a scientist’s instrument, it is actually that old. We can believe that God made it 6,000 years ago if we want, but it is not accurate to say it is now 6,000 years old. It is not.

Singularity sings AND dances

The content of the word “God” and the content of a word like “singularity” are nearly the same. They are close enough to be functional synonyms.

The differences are due to different levels of exegesis. The God adherents have spent more time reasoning about their concept, so there is more articulated content on the books. The “singularity” adherents have an aversion to sounding mystical or using the word “person”, so they stop the conversation sooner and go to dinner.

The content of both is “everything that exists”. Let’s denote this as x. It’s easier to type.

Now before you call me a pantheist, let’s acknowledge together that self-awareness is part of the data set of existence. So it’s not possible, except through studied self-hypnosis, to avoid thinking of x as a person. Person.

I know there are big objections to talking about God as “everything that exists”. But I think those arguments are largely semantic; we believe that everything has originated in God, so we must believe that what originated in Him is still in Him. And, if you are a theist, you can’t conceive of anything that  did not originate in Him, so you can’t conceive of anything that is not in Him.

Similarly, everything that exists comes from the singularity. If you are aware of something that is not from it, then you don’t have a meaningful singularity.

I realize that if you are not a theist you don’t attribute to the origin anything like self-awareness, so you object to the word “person”, or “personal”. But let’s just note that whatever you mean by the word “person”, it comes out of whatever you mean by a word like “singularity”.

It doesn’t matter whether or not you think this is projection. If you do, if you think only persons are self-aware but the singularity is not (how would you know?), you are positing that some quality, feature, pattern, or other word of your choosing exists in the data set you call “me” but did not come from the singularity. I’ll leave you with that for now; I’m sure you can overcome it by assertion or mockery.

The Ethic of Happiness Kills the Conscience

In Romans 3: 12-16, the function of the conscience is to hold us accountable to the ethic of fidelity. But in its dark opposite, the ethic of happiness, the conscience has no purpose.

The evangelists of the happiness ethic like to tell themselves, in the quiet of the night, that their pursuit of happiness is constrained by respect for others. Pursue your inner meaning, sure, but do no harm. So they would say that the function of your conscience in the happiness ethic remains wholly traditional; it should register guilt when you hurt someone.

But this is sophistry. On the page it reads well, but in real life it soon is meaningless, because the definition of harm has been stripped down. In real life the pursuit of personal happiness leads to absence from the lives of people we owe. Absence, when presence is owed, is betrayal. In real life betrayal is violence. In real life, for the self-actualizers, hell is other people.

The art of the modern ethic of happiness is the output of the movie and television industry in America. The protagonist in movies and television is constantly rationalizing — and being rationalized by his god, the writer — as he betrays or neglects loved ones. (Indeed, someone has said that the essence of modern drama is the rationalization of promiscuity.)

We are supposed to like this protagonist as he follows his dreams; after all, he doesn’t kill or maim. But the camera simply passes over absence. The camera easily glosses matters such as infidelity to his spouse and neglect of children. What is owed these loved ones is large, large enough to occupy everyone for their lifetimes of indirect happiness. But in pursuing direct happiness you can feel good that you didn’t assault them or stealing their money while still ravaging their souls by your absence.

The camera won’t see what you SHOULD have been doing. You can consume your attention for decades with rich and difficult work that might even win you a Pulitzer, while your child grows up certain that her father hates her. And you could make it to your deathbed within this ethical universe with a silent conscience.

Uncertainty Principle

There is an ancient distinction between the synthetic and analytic operations of the intellect.   The synthetic operation builds parts into wholes, the analytic operation breaks wholes into parts.   The distinction seems to have lost its usefulness among sophisticated people, as thought becomes a mess of mush.  But reductionisms flourish from this amnesia, as minds forget that one mind cannot do both operations at the same time on the same object.  

So synthetic assertions always melt away under analytic scrutiny.  This is normal; it says nothing about the synthetic assertion itself.   You can’t see wholes with a parts-instrument; likewise, you can’t see parts with a wholes-instrument.   That wholes are more than the sum of parts is not a confirmable proposition, because you can’t validate decibel measurements with a spectroscope.

Tolkien: Eucatastrophe

“…the sudden happy turn in a story which pierces you with a joy that brings tears (which I argued it is the highest function of fairy-stories to produce). And I was there led to the view that it produces its peculiar effect because it is a sudden glimpse of Truth, your whole nature chained in material cause and effect, the chain of death, feels a sudden relief as if a major limb out of joint had suddenly snapped back. It perceives – if the story has literary ‘truth’ on the second plane (….) – that this is indeed how things really do work in the Great World for which our nature is made. And I concluded by saying that the Resurrection was the greatest ‘eucatastrophe’ possible in the greatest Fairy Story – and produces that essential emotion: Christian joy which produces tears because it is qualitatively so like sorrow, because it comes from those places where Joy and Sorrow are at one, reconciled, as selfishness and altruism are lost in Love.”

The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, # 89 (7-8 November 1944).

(bold mine)

Some Other Thing With A Toe

We know we evolved the ability to run because, well, we can run.  We have structures which allow us to run because we run. We know we de-evolved the tree-climbing structures because, well, we don’t have them.  And other creatures have them. So it must be true that we used to have them, because other creatures have them.

If you have a toe and I have a toe then we must have come from some other one thing with a toe.  It is not possible that we both came from Some Other Thing With a Toe because, well, that would require Capital Letters and occam’s razor requires us to write in all small letters if we can get by with it.


It is amazing to me that so-called sophisitcated thinkers can even form the concept of a “minimal” god.  What does that even mean?  What is a “minimal” person?  Does that mean we think we need a god to get it all moving but let’s not let him be anything but a cosmic retard?  Do these people not realize that once you open the door to a god of any type you have conceded that you must look for his own self-definition?  That you no longer have any defense from the threat posed to reason by the concept of revelation?  That what you must next do, logically, is sort among all the claims of competing revelations for the one that most answers the questions implied by the human experience?

A “minimal” god? Don’t insult yourself. He either made, knows, and loves us or he is not. And if he loves us he entered our flesh, was crucified under Pontias Pilate, amd rose again on the third day.

Why proofs of God don’t work

We claim there never was a nothing. We claim that first there was God, then there was something.

By definition, the effect cannot be greater than the cause, so the something is less than the God thing. Because it is second and therefore less, the second thing cannot comprehend the first thing.

The something is rational and comprehensible in its nature, because we are on its level, and comprehension is a species of circumscription. Hence, science. By definition, you can mentally circumscribe all that is not ontologically bigger.

But all beings equal to you or bigger than you, you cannot comprehend. You cannot fully comprehend another human, for example. Hence, supra (not anti) reason.

The God thing is also rational and comprehensible to every intelligence larger (of course, there are none.) To those smaller intelligences, He is partly comprehensible and infinitally not comprehensible. Not because He withholds, but because He existed first.

The method of thought is the same in all instances: we wonder so that we might know. We wonder at creation, then know it by science. We wonder at God, then know him by faith (which is NOT blind belief, but is a specific mode of knowledge.)

Occam’s Razor: the data set decides the game

That explanation of the universe which best explains all the DATA using the least number of entities is the one to be preferred. Most atheists simply do not believe an extra entity, called “god”, is necessary to explain the DATA. What changes for some of them as they near death is not that they perceive something new they never perceived before — no, they simply allow into the DATA SET perceptions they previously DID NOT INCLUDE IN THE DATA SET.

If mankind universally wishes for eternity, and dogs (presumably) do not, then that wish is, in itself, data which any proposed cosmology must account for. It not only is data — it is critical data, since it is among the things that distinguish the species from other species.

How much explanatory power does an explanation hold if it systematically ignores more data the more complex the organism? This is a sign it is false.

Athens, Jerusalem, and Mecca

There was an Aristotelian thread and a Platonist thread in Christian thought from early on.

Aristotle himself was lost to the West for a while — not because of some mythical “stranglehold”  the church had on larger society, but because of the cultural disaster called the fall of Rome, which took centuries to recover from.

Greek was preserved by Christian and Moslem scholars,  then Aristotle was translated into Latin.   The church set about incorporating Aristotle but Islam finally rejected him.

Aristotle was propogated, debated, and refined by Christian academics.  There was at least two related but distinct debates going on concurrently:  Platonic metaphysics vs. Aristotelian metaphysics, and Aristotelian logic vs. Aristotle’s content.   BOTH these debates occurred within Christendom.

Much of the tension over empirical methods was a debate between Aristotle and Aristotle:  the implications of Aristotle’s logic versus Aristotle’s earlier “observations”.

None of this is to say there was NO resistance on the part of the church to scientific conclusions which seemed to contradict scripture — there was, but recognize that huge debates which CONTRIBUTED to the elaboration of the scientific method took place within the church, among men who were devoted sons of the church and scientists in germ.

Science is Aristotle’s method.  After Aristotle’s substantive errors were cleared out, the Renaissance and Enlightenment flared up, in a SPACE created by Jesus.

In the Christian West, Jesus’ words inserted a SPACE between the state and religion.  The separation of church and state is an implication of Jesus’ attitude to the state in the NT.

Islam lacks the words of Jesus.   Hence, there is no space between secular power and real or imagined religious truth.  In Islam, the natural tendency of religions to demand compliance with their worldview choked off Aristotle when his method began to produce conclusions at odds with Islam.

In Christendom, there was a great struggle, but the Jesus space survived and expanded to allow the Aristotelian explosion of knowledge in the Modern West.

So science comes from Aristotle’s brain,  plus Jesus’ attitude toward coercion.

Significant Knowledge Is Of Persons

There are two classes of entities in the universe:   persons, and things (which are made by persons).

All persons are infinite, all things are finite. (Actually created persons are potentially infinite while divine persons are actually infinite, but that’s a different subject)

Since “comprehension is a species of circumscription” (St. Gregory Nazianzen) persons can know things fully but other persons partially.

Knowledge of entities lower on the ontological scale is by cognition, while knowledge of entities equal or higher on the scale is by love.

There is an innate epistemological gap between persons and things but no such innate gap between persons.

Things are therefore known at an ontological distance by the analytical faculty which circumscribes and breaks things down into smaller things, thus making quantification possible. (We call this science in its most pure form). This knowledge is provable yet less personally meaningful. Which does not mean it is less useful; it is used to control and shape the material universe. Morally, you can legitimatey control and shape what is lower on the ontological scale.

Persons are known by closing the ontological gap in acts of love. This yields knowledge by participation (see Charles Williams and Owen Barfield), not analysis and this knowledge is less certain but more meaningful. It is less certain because it cannot be checked by backing off to enough ontological distance to do an act of analysis.

It is ok, though, for this knowledge to be less certain because it is not used to control and shape; its use is simple union of persons (friendship), with no external objective.

The act of knowing a person analytically reduces the object of the knowledge into a thing and yields false results. This fallacy is variously caled reductionism or perhaps scientism – the belief that all knowledge can be reduced to the scientific method (see Jacques Barzun).

(You can either know a particle’s velocity or its position but not both; you can either know an entity as a thing or as a person, but not as both.)

The act of knowing a thing by participation is called romanticism and yields false results.

This is not to say you can’t feel affection for things; of course we do. And we also can think analytically about people or God.

But not all affection is love and not all thinking is knowledge. And the order is important; we can feel more affection for things as we understand them better scientifically, and we can think better about people and God if we are thinking about them through the knowledge love produces.

(Applying the analytical faculty to the residue of love is called theology; this is the discipline whereby we reduce the fire of love to concepts the mind can grasp. The purpose of theology is conversation between friends, whose purpose, yet again, is love — and the pattern repeats forever. This progressive oscillation in friendship between the intellect and love shortens its wavelength as the friendship grows until the two — the mind and the heart — unite in what we call, from the outside looking in, ecstasy. What do we call it from the inside? Nothing. It is a sigh. Language is transcended in love.)

So we know by thinking, and we know by loving. Each faculty is good and each has its proper object. The two glories of man are science and friendship. Science is how we keep the Garden; friendship is what the Garden is FOR. (see Genesis 1 and 2)

There are, of course, volumes to write in further subdividing thinking and loving, but this one simple distinction, allowing epistemology to follow ontology, is foremeost.

David Bentley Hart: “…actus essendi subsistens…”


In purely theoretical terms, the question of the transcendent source of reality is an ontological—not a causal—question: not how things have come to be what they are, but how it is that things exist at all. And none of the customary post-Christian attempts to make the question of being disappear can possibly succeed: even if physics can trace all of time and space back to a single self-sufficient set of laws, that those laws exist at all must remain an imponderable problem for materialist thought (for possibility, no less than actuality, must first of all be); all the brave efforts of analytic philosophy to conjure the ontological question away as a fallacy of grammar have failed and always will; continental philosophy’s attempts at a non-metaphysical ontology are notable chiefly for their lack of explanatory power. In the terms of Thomas Aquinas, there is simply an obvious incommensurability between the essence and the existence of things, and hence finite reality cannot account for its own being. And if this incommensurability is considered with adequate probity and clarity, it cannot fail but lead reflection towards something like what Thomas calls the actus essendi subsistens—the subsistent act of being—which is one of his most beautiful names for God.

Of course, very few persons ever have an occasion to think of reality in terms so abstract. But I suspect that this recognition of the sheer fortuity of existence—the sheer impossibility of anything’s essence ever being adequate to its existence—is what a certain sort of phenomenologist would call a “primordial intuition.” Though we may not all have concepts available to us to understand it, all of us experience from time to time that kind of wonder that for Plato and Aristotle is the beginning of all philosophy, that sudden immediate knowledge that existence is something in excess of everything that is, something not intrinsic to it, something strange in its familiarity and transcendent in its immanence. This is an awareness so obvious that there may never be a theoretical language sufficiently limpid and innocent to express it properly, but in it is a wisdom basic to all reflective thought. To fail to see it requires either an irredeemably brutish mind or a willful obtuseness of the sort that only years of education can induce. And this, I venture to say, is why atheism cannot win out in the end: it requires a moral and intellectual coarseness—a blindness to the obvious—too immense for the majority of mankind.

Argumentum Perrenia

OK, so I made the Latin up…perpetual arguments, the ones that have been going on long enough that everyone should have figured out the debate is not actually progressing in either of the two antagonistic directions.

Here is the short list, you could add your versions of these:

  • Whether God exists, or not
  • Whether the cosmos appears intended, or not
  • Whether physical objects are connected to supra-physical entities, or not
  • Whether immateriality exists, or not
  • Whether disinterested love exists, or not
  • Whether freewill is an illusion, or not

By now you are ready to say “nominalism vs. realism, in different forms”.  Well, sure, but what is not as commonly understood is that repeated patterns of logic do get clarified and then named over time, but not “solved”, and that it is the naming that is useful.   We name logical patterns in order both to use and to avoid them, to push off from them, move beyond them.  As long as we did not understand the pattern “nominalism vs. realism” we were doomed to rehearse it in perpetual ambiguity.

These perpetual questions are remarkeable for the naive optimism that attends them, at first.  It is youth that thinks “soon, just around the next corner, there will be the final definitive fact or argument that will finally clinch my side of the argument.   One more book, one more essay, one more seminar.”   But, no.

Continue reading “Argumentum Perrenia”

Ashcan Christianity

Ashcan authenticity:  “The most ugly version of anything is the most authentic one.”

The term “Ashcan”  comes from the school of painters, I think.  These painters felt they should show the seamy and ugly side of the subject.

But it is not just painting; many disciplines or communities have an ashcan stage.   As a corrective, a stage on the way,  it is not always stupid.  It can be healthy IF the good, true, the beautiful are not drowned out in the process.  Because, after all,  any worthwhile discipline was born to love the good, true, and the beautiful, and it still exists solely for that first love .    When the work of such love becomes lazy and focused on a superficial prettiness it can be good to expose the bone beneath the skin, to infuse new vigor into the school of dilettantes.   But the mistake is to extract this one occasional, purgative stage from a larger dialectic and transfix it on the blackboard as a static and unbalanced definition of reality.

One of the cliched emotions of adoloscence is a rejection of the values of your elders in a defiant embrace of what they consider degenerate.   The bitter teenager denies the truth of the elder, and proclaims that the foul is really the  truth.   This proclamation has all the volume and cleverness of every 16 year old who is discovering his own fascinating yet angry mind.   It’s the Satan-complex, projecting onto the screen of the universe your own bitter vision.   Intelligent people should be tired of this by now.

But the avant-garde in every discipline is largely comprised of this tired, bourgeois sentimentality, which nurtures a cult of “authenticity”,  obsessed with the ugly as the sum of the truth.   Goodness is no longer believed, and indeed the very possibility is mocked.  It is most obvious in secular art.  Hollywood, for example, hates virtue.  They want “complex” characters, which means they want to see a corrupt thread in the heart to balance out every twinge of goodness, because when they look out onto the universe, no-one looks good.   Entire movies are dedicated to defending the viewpoint of Milton’s Satan, that goodness is unfair and cruel and fake, except for the good of self-actualization, which trumps all.  Think Pleasantville;  Eden is sepia, we all need to Fall, into technicolor.

What are the roots of Ashcan Authenticity?

Continue reading “Ashcan Christianity”

First they came for the gods, but I wasn’t one, so…

Sage – Leithart.com

He adds, “In an essay called ‘The Empty Universe,’ C. S. Lewis, who understood intimately the cultural effects of the assumptions undergirding modern science, observed:’At the outset the universe appears packed with will, intelligence, life and positive qualities. . . . [Yet] [t]he advance of knowledge gradually empties this rich and genial universe: first of its gods, then of its colours, smells, sounds and tastes, finally of solidity itself as solidity was imagined. . . . The same method which has emptied the world now proceeds to empty ourselves. The masters of the method soon announce that we were just as mistaken (and mistaken in much the same way) when we attributed “souls,” or “selves” or “minds” to human organisms, as when we attributed Dryads to the trees. . . .’


On Touching Nerves That Supposedly Don’t Exist

Why ought monkeys acknowledge they are monkeys? « Once More With Feeling

I don’t think I’ve ever seen any other reaction from an atheist (bear in mind my experience is limited) who ever responded to the quesiton, no matter how gently put, of an objective basis for ethical judgments, without getting angry.

This is empirically true. But, it is oddly understandable, since it’s function is to avoid mental trauma. When you get angry at the very posing of a question, it means you don’t want your own mind to overhear yourself discussing it.  This arises from the same sentiment that impels adults to protect children from hearing about atrocities or sex before their maturity.

The oddness in this case is that the protecting adult and the oblivious child live in the same mind.  The child is the materialist part, who enjoys his fairy tale and doesn’t really want a parent.  Just slide supper under the door and leave him alone.