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What is Classical Theism?

ClassicalTheism1

NOTE: This is the first of a three part series on classical theism by theologian Thomas M. Cothran.

 

Over the last few years, Stephen H. Webb has waged a crusade of sorts against classical theism, especially with respect to its notion of divine transcendence. Webb has authored, by my count, no less than 10 articles on the subject at First Things1, and similar critiques have also been central to his books Mormon Christianity and Jesus Christ, Eternal God. Perhaps surprisingly, Webb is not an atheist. He is a philosopher and theologian, and a Roman Catholic.

To hear Webb tell it, the core tenets of classical theism are foreign to Christianity, emigres of Greek extraction. Webb concedes that the mainstream Christian view since the Patristic era has been classically theist. He suggests, however, that this consensus was established by “elite theologians” because of their “embarrassment” of more original but less sophisticated Christian doctrines. At this decisive and distant moment in history, elite theologians opted for Plato against Paul.

The classical notion of God which emerges from this Hellenic, Jewish, and Christian synthesis is, on Webb’s account, inconsistent (or at least sits ill at ease) with traditional Christological and Trinitarian dogma. Moreover, classical theism’s insistence on God’s transcendence rests on a scientifically outmoded and philosophically defective view of matter.

Webb therefore levels two distinct charges:

Theological charge: classical theism’s assertion of divine transcendence is incongruent with Christian doctrine.

Philosophical charge: classical theism’s assertion that God transcends matter is based on an antiquated notion of matter.

Although Webb is a religious believer, atheists may be tempted to coopt some of his arguments to the service of anti-theist polemic. If the classical notion of God—that is, God with an capital G, rather some object in the universe—can be eliminated, then the remaining gods will quickly topple with the merciless onslaught of the empirical sciences. If Webb’s critique of classical theism is right, then most mainstream religious traditions have been, at a stroke, debunked—along with the main thrust of the classical Western metaphysical traditions.

And, while atheists will not agree with Webb’s theology, his theological argument that Christianity and classical theism do not agree with one another directly serves the anti-theist cause. For if Webb is right, Christians can be separated from the theistic herd and, deprived of its intellectual resources, made easy prey. After all, if Christians do not subscribe to divine transcendence, then they (unlike classical theists) cannot entirely avoid the stereotyped notion of God as a bearded man in the sky, or a glorified extra-terrestrial.

Faulty notions that originate within Christian theology often migrate to the secular world. For example, the voluntarist notion of freedom—unconstrained choice—originated in debates about God’s omnipotence but migrated to political philosophy with—to my mind—some unfortunate and overlooked consequences. My purpose in this three part series, then, is simply to caution atheists against the effects of taking up certain theological castoffs. The attempt to present classical theism as an academic luxury divorced from any organic connection to living faith runs contrary to both Christian history and the substance of Christian beliefs.

Classical Theism Defined

What is classical theism? Classical theism refers very generally to the way most of the great theological and philosophical traditions have conceived God: as the cause of all finite being, the ground of the good, eternal, immutable, transcendent of space and time, perfect, omnipotent, immaterial, infinite, and omniscient.

These very general lines are, of course, construed differently in the various traditions, but the general picture stands out clearly. Classical theism is perhaps most readily explicable by its negations: God is not a being that has come to be, he does not change, he is not limited by space or time, nor indeed limited in any way. God is not an effect, he does not depend on anything more fundamental. God is not a finite spirit flitting about the cosmos like a ghost; he is not a being differentiated from other beings simply by a greater degree of power or knowledge. God’s mode of existence differs from ours as the infinite to the finite.

This view is, by and large, held by the mainstream of the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim traditions; it is the common inheritance of the most influential classical forms of the Western metaphysical traditions; and it may be found by many forms of Hinduism, Taoism, and certain quarters of Buddhism.

By identifying these similarities, however, I certainly do not mean to give the impression that classical theism is a single tradition. It is a post-hoc identification of the convergence on a general sense of what is meant by “God.” Not every classical theist affirms everything I’ve listed (certain Greek thinkers didn’t think of God as infinite, for example.) And even while agreeing on the general marks of divinity, how those are construed differs even within particular religious traditions. God’s omnipotence, even within medieval Catholic theology, was construed very differently by Aquinas and Occam. Careful thinkers avoid reducing classical theism to one of its articulations.

Still less does classical theism entails a particular ontology—whether Platonist, Aristotelian, Thomist, Hegelian, Vedantic etc. There is no “classical theist” theory of being or of matter. Classical theism is a common notion of God abstracted from the great religious and philosophical traditions. It is not a single school of metaphysical thought.

Despite these differences between concrete religions and philosophical traditions, the convergent belief that all finite being depends on an eternal, omnipresent, omnipotent, and transcendent source—God with a capital “G”—is strong enough to identify classical theism and to talk about it coherently.

What Does Webb Think Classical Theism Is?

What I have just said about classical theism should be entirely uncontroversial. Unfortunately, Webb’s portrayal of classical theism is tendentious, inaccurate, and often unrecognizable.

Consider Webb’s essay “Is God More Like A Rock Or The Idea of a Rock?” Webb characterizes “classical theism [as] a formidable consensus that includes Plato, Origen, Augustine, and Aquinas.” Webb explains classical theism in terms of the following dilemma:

Is God more like a rock or the idea of a rock? If you had to choose one or the other, which would it be? … Rocks represent matter at its most obdurate state, while ideas transcend matter altogether. Ideas are the proper activity of the intellect. They live in minds, while rocks don’t live at all.

Classical theism takes the option that God is “much more like an idea of a rock than a rock,” because classical theists deny that God is a discrete being in the world. For classical theists, “God is absolutely simple, immaterial, and indivisible…. That makes God much more like an idea of a rock than a rock.”

Classical theists conception of God as more mental than real is accompanied by an eschatology.

All physical things, according to classical theism, will come to an end when God is all in all, because matter, being formless, is the absence of the divine…. We will arrive in eternity to find ourselves in the mind of God. There will be no bodies, or persons, since persons are bodies with their own individual thoughts. Needless to say, God will no longer think about rocks, or even the idea of a rock, since God’s thinking is identical to his creating. Will God even, in the end, think about us?

This description of classical theism is so idiosyncratic that neither Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, nor even Origen would count. Aristotle fails to qualify because he regards the physical world as eternal; Aquinas, Origen,2 and Augustine because they, like all orthodox Christians, believe in the resurrection of the body; Plato because he regards pure being as second in the metaphysical order. Indeed, if Webb has mapped out the criteria to be a classical theist, then it appears that “classical theists,” like their God, exist only in the imagination.3

Where, then, does Webb’s “classical theism” come from? Webb has cobbled together notions from a broad variety of thinkers—pagans, Christians, Platonists, neo-Platonists, Thomists,—into a sort of Frankensteinian theism. Webb’s description of classical theism eschatology mixes more or less at random the Christian scriptural tradition (”when God is all in all”) with Plotinian eschatology, Platonic and Aristotelian notions of matter, and elements of subjective idealism. The result is a set of doctrines that bear no organic relation to one another and that is not actually held together by any real thinker. The difficulties and incoherences Webb notices in the resulting Frankenstein results from its piecemeal creation in Webb’s writings, but are not often present in any particular theist’s articulation of his beliefs.

But one does not need to know the ins and outs of the history of metaphysics or the distinction between real and intentional being to know something is wildly off with Webbs’ account. And the initial implausibility descends to patent absurdity upon reflection. Someone who regards something as existing mentally but not really thinks of it as imaginary. When I think of Sisyphus’ stone as having mental but not real existence, I think of it as imaginary. This is not to say that I think of Sisyphus’ stone as mental rather than real and that I also think of it as imaginary. To believe something has mental but not real existence is just what it means to hold something as being imaginary. As with Sisyphus’ stone, so with God. If Webb is right about what classical theists believe God to be, then classical theists advocate belief in a God they themselves think of as imaginary (or at least more imaginary than real).

Some of the trouble seems to arise from Webb’s misunderstanding of how the classical tradition uses the word “Idea” (eidos). Webb is very specific about what he understands “ideas” to be: the sort of things that “live in minds.” Rocks, on the other hand, exist independently of our minds. But this is not at all how classical theists use the term “idea.” “Idea” is a term of art in Greek philosophy. The Platonic tradition uses “idea” to refer to a subsistent form; that is, a form that exists independently of both our minds and of matter. The Oxford Guide to Philosophy, for example, points out that our modern notion of idea as “entities that exist only as contents of some mind … must be distinguished from Plato’s Ideas or Forms, which are non-physical but exist apart from any conscious beings.”4

For the Aristotelian tradition, on the other hand, the eidos exists as a form typically (though not always) in composition with matter. In no case does “idea” refer primarily to a concept living in our minds, as Webb thinks.

Webb’s account confuses classical theism with contemporary religious non-realism—namely, the notion that there really is no God outside how we choose to think of the world. When one has conflated Thomas Aquinas with Don Cupitt, one has left the realm of the history of ideas altogether.

 

NOTE: Stay tuned for part two of this series on Wednesday.

Notes:

  1. Stephen H. Webb’s author page may be found at https://www.firstthings.com/featured-author/stephen-h-webb
  2. Origen clearly taught that the resurrected would have bodies in eternity. “Let no one, however, suspect that, in speaking as we do, we belong to those who are indeed called Christians, but who set aside the doctrine of the resurrection as it is taught in Scripture.” See e.g., Contra Celsus V.22
  3. Webb may have had Plotinus in mind with the claim about the final annihilation of matter—though he does not mention him—but Plotinus would have been excluded because, as for many Platonists, being is for him subsequent to the One in the philosophical order.
  4. Ted Honderich, ed.,The Oxford Guide to Philosophy, p. 416 (2005, 2nd ed.)
Thomas M. Cothran

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Thomas M. Cothran is a writer that lives with his wife and son in Lexington, KY. He blogs occasionally at thinkingbetween.blogspot.com.

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  • Firstly, thank you very much for this article. I 'feel' that this kind of approach whose purpose is directed more to education than conversion, or evangalisation, per se, is what is really needed on this site. There is a lot to think over here. May I just state what question, that has been recurrent in my attempts to understand this problematic both historically and 'philosophically'.
    Kant, delineates three 'Ideas' that of freedom, immortality and God. He is most emphatic in isolating this term, 'idea' from other concepts such as notion or concept, for instance.
    It has thus been problematic for me to distinguish what is meant by 'idea' with respect to both his 'Transcendental Idea-lism', and the critique that Kant's introduction of phenomenology, denies the what? - 'one of' the classical theistic interpretations that empirical realities as well as the concept of God, are 'real' and not merely 'imaginative-or-idea-l'? I feel the confusion regarding this, is perhaps not due merely to my individual ignorance on this subject. But as Kant's Copernican revolution in the main, primarily distinguishes the limitations within human reason in so far as know the 'absolute'? or 'primary' 'substances' etc. what ever you want to call it - noumena, etc. would it be fair to suggest that Kant's philosophy does not differ so drastically from the 'norm' as one might think. (Be that norm Aristotle or Platonist, etc.) for Kant, (my interpretation is not denying the reality of the Real), but rather our limitations with respect to our knowledge of same? Just wondering here!!! (It's my old problem of distinguish the real from the ideal again, and again and again, At least I am conscious of my own incoherence, (which is quite common may I suggest with respect to these 'problems'). :) Thank you.

  • Theists' theological disagreements among themselves are sometimes useful in atheist apologetics, they generally draw out how some conclusions that one theology will extol as obvious, reasonable, and fundamental to their faith, will be seen as remote, unreasonable, and potentially heretical to their faith. Just about every tenet, fundamental or marginal of any religious tradition is disputed, quite often by intelligent and serious people who are well educated in the field.

    What actually seems obvious is that, if a god exists, his nature, and the correct theology has not been made obvious and it is hard to think why this is. If faith is belief based on a reasonable interpretation of accessible evidence, why would god not clarify what he is, and what he expects of us? At least to the point we could find general agreement on fundamental attributes. Leaving open to the free willing individual to live consistently with this or to rebel.

    Anyway, the disagreement here is one which I have encountered many times in these pages, which is the ontological status of thought. It has been suggested that the nature of thought entails the existence of a second immaterial substance, which is a prerequisite for God of Classical theism to exist.

    I have pointed out that I think such an inference is unjustified and is based on the same fault in reasoning as described above. Namely that out thoughts must necessarily be connected to some existent immaterial substance. That we have abstract thoughts, such as Jazz, or being, or justice, that then there must be some kind of non-material reality in which theses things "exist" timelessly, spacelessly and so on.

    I don't think this follows, and an alternative explanation is more likely. Our thoughts are neural activity. They are changing electrical signals in the brain. They somehow give rise to an experience of conscious thought which is entirely mysterious to us other than it is related to the neural activity. The mystery doesn't entail anything, it is just that, a mystery. It is not necessarily impossible that the explanation for our conscious experience is the result of immaterial substance, such as a deity, or some natural immaterial explanation. But we have nothing that points to this. We have some evidence that our thoughts are related to material activity in the brain. (Something not at all obvious in centuries past I might add.)

    These concepts of jazz and justice and so on, are loose categories that we as humans use as labels for sets of material events. These categories are very vague and their boundaries by no means agreed. But there is a difference between a thought (a concept) and a thing the thought relates to. We have a concept of a real boulder. We may also think that this boulder actually exists materially. We have a concept of sysiphus' boulder, we do not think it relates to a real boulder, but an imaginary one.
    Sysiphus' boulder is not real, but the concept of it is. The events and matter that one might say fall within the category labelled "jazz" all exist materially, so does the concept of this category, but there is no reason to think anything additional actually exists. We can say the same for the concept of "being" and other abstractions.

    • Kevin Aldrich

      Artigas argues an alternative view to yours in "The Mind of the Universe":

      I think our universe exhibits rationality, functions by using information, has a certain kind of creativity, and makes the existence of human beings who are rational and creative, possible. All this requires a divine foundation and a participation in God's creativity.

      • Phil Rimmer

        The nature of our thought, the qualities of its metaphorical nature, the heuristics it comes to employ, the aesthetics that guide it are increasingly analysed, understood and directly observed. Creativity, problem solving, stereo-typing, categorising, narrative generation all have viable models based in the grey jelly itself. Infant brains (essentially neotenous) come with far less formal prewiring than other primate brains (hence our unique level of infant dependency) and grow dramatically after birth in a wildly overwired and cross-coupled way. From 18 months onward the brain wiring is pruned away in an entirely statistical (Hebbian) manner, wiring to the cognition of most useful forms to minimise energy demands. Brains are hugely costly and heuristics to reduce processing create compressed meta data as a proxy and cognitive fill in. etc. etc. I would gladly expand on this if required...

        • Kevin Aldrich

          How does the brain being something physical address what Artigas says?

          • Phil Rimmer

            The very particular creativity of the brain is an artifact of its particular mode of fabrication from gene expression though to early operation in cultures.

            The "certain creativity" of the universe is a semantic slight of hand that overly suggests a commonality of type here and that unreasonably begs the question of a creator. Evolution is "creative" in similar fashion and in an entirely open handed manner.

          • Kevin Aldrich

            Artigas does not beg the question. In my quote, I present his thesis which he takes about 350 pages to support. I know you reject his second sentence. What about his first?

          • Phil Rimmer

            The first sentence multiply begs the question answered in his second sentence. The Universe uses information. The Universe is creative. These formulations are not needed for a properly accurate description of its processes (like the thermodynamic drive of complexity in a non steady state condition) unless you want to summon a creator and a user of information.

          • Kevin Aldrich

            The first sentence does not beg any question. It simply describes what scientific progress reveals about the universe.

          • Phil Rimmer

            And uses anthropomorphic language to do so.

          • Kevin Aldrich

            Living things do not operate on the basis of genetic and other information?

          • Phil Rimmer

            anthropomorphic

          • Kevin Aldrich

            What does that mean?

          • Phil Rimmer

            If Artigas is not describing the Universe but instead is describing genetic evolution as a user of information and in some sense creative then he is saying something far less profound and interesting. He has the remaining 99.999% to anthropomorphise as well. Self-catalysing chemistry has the quality of information and a simple added process of a consistent selective process from circumstance can appear creative.

          • Kevin Aldrich

            In order for physics, or chemistry, or biology to *use* information, the information has to be in those things in some way. I think that is what he means by "functions by using information." This is akin to what a human mind does, right?

          • Phil Rimmer

            Then I have to profoundly disagree. There is no information but what has the appearance of information in retrospect. Information encodes a specific intention carried forward.

          • Kevin Aldrich

            A zygote contains genetic information that it uses to "assemble" itself.

            But it is interesting that you used the word "intention."

          • Phil Rimmer

            The language fools us easily and because most of our words (particularly verbs) were created for human interaction and writing interesting narratives has us use these for inanimate actions as well to add emotion and encourage engagement, we no longer notice it happening.

            Information is intended for use. A zygote has no intentions. It uses nothing.

          • Kevin Aldrich

            Artigas has to agree with you that only higher forms of life have intentions and only exercise them for limited uses.

            Things don't need intentions to utilize information. They just need a way to do so. This is something which everything in the universe does from subatomic particles to teenage boys burping on cue.

          • Phil Rimmer

            Things don't need intentions to utilize information.

            My point is this needs us to define it so, to say these chemical reactions due to these chemical components but not these other reactions and components constitute information. "Information" is a human construct imposed on them. Do the sequence of protons in the nucleus of elements that give the sequenced nucleosynthesis in the heart of stars constitute information? Or is the chemical environment that alters gene expression information too? Or the stages of an inorganic self catalysis? Isn't all chemistry information by the same token?

            In our world information is something generated or gathered for a purpose.

            Kevin, I do realise I'm fighting a losing battle here, as genes are habitually described as information. I still believe it to be an anthropomorphising error.

          • Kevin Aldrich

            Well, you might give Artigas' book a try. You might find it a blast to read.

          • Phil Rimmer

            I may if only I could overcome my apologetics allergy. So often my concerns are semantic on these things. Still to show good fai...fai...intention I have downloaded 14 pages to have a mooch through.

            We look at young mammals and think how cute they are so like us, they way they play, and squabble and make up and vocalise their feelings. We are entirely wrong. We are like them. They were like this tens of millions of years before us. It is we who have mammal behaviours and ungraciously love them for their "humanity".

            It is entirely possible to project backwards into earlier and earlier life and detect a fractal form of simpler behaviours and (then) phenomena that helps form a substrate for the next higher level. Thus, great initial simplicity is driven to complexity to speed through the passing flux of (solar) energy and hurry us along to the heat death...

            Quasi information (at least having the appearance of) becomes information. Quasi intention becomes intention with brains and an hypothesis generating cortex, that can reflexively model the world so that it may cortically peer a little into the future. Then of all the chemical reactions that may just happen they can be grouped like thus and so.

            Topology may lie at the heart of root forms in our genetic adventures. I'll swap you Artigas for Andreas Wagner and "The arrival of the Fittest." This is a summary of major work done by his team in Switzerland, that shows a real underlying pattern in the solution space available to evolutionary pressure. Genetic solutions to a specific selection pressure (eg devising a new photosensitive protein for light detection) have been found to be some million times more available than previously thought. Proteins functionality is a matter of complex shapes with specific formal juxtapositions much more than specific elements being in the right positions. Massive topological congruence seems to abound in the array of all possible proteins. More than this, solutions appear more or less uniformly right across the "library of all possible solutions". And more than this they are gathered together in related crossing strands that greatly increase the opportunity for multifunction genes to mutate without having a catastrophic loss of other functions.

            Well, I suggest this will provide a rather stronger new brand of apologetics. God, the simple weaver of fecund topologies.

          • Kevin Aldrich

            I don't think Artigas would disagree with that--he is arguing based on the findings of science not trying to build arguments in spite of science. I don't think even Aristotle/Aquinas would disagree. They saw human beings as rational animals.

            Artigas' project is to use philosophy to build a bridge between science and Catholic theology. The philosophy is the philosophical presuppositions behind modern science as informed by the feed back the progress of science.

          • Phil Rimmer

            I think he should argue strongly against ideas of fractal and thermodynamic tendencies which necessitate a movement from the simple to the complex.

            All his "theogenerative" work is still to be done. The atheist-terminating philosopher is entirely untroubled by the simplest of beginnings.

            (I think really I should say something on the lines of fractal-like rather than fractal.)

          • Kevin Aldrich

            He is done arguing.

      • I see no reason to make that inference. Most of the universe is not creative.

        • Kevin Aldrich

          I'd say you are wrong about that, since, at least, stars are synthesizing more complex elements everywhere. And in our solar system, the universe has created you. So, our universe does exhibit a certain kind of creativity.

          • Depends how you are using creativity. Stars are undergoing nuclear fusion, when hydrogen atoms are subject to enough energy, they will fuse and turn into helium releasing a great deal of energy. This is a natural process that requires no information or rationality. It does not require that the star reflect, process information, make decisions, or anything we would associate with what we would consider human creativity. It is an inevitable process according to natural laws. It is automatic, I would say the opposite of what we mean by human creativity.

          • Kevin Aldrich

            Of course it is a natural process. Of course the thing undergoing change has no awareness. Of course it is not human creativity.

            Nevertheless, there is now something there that was not there before and something more complex that came about because of the inherent potentiality in the earlier condition. That is an example of the creativity within the natural order.

          • No, it was all there before and after. matter was rearranged. There was nothing particularly complex in my view.

            End of the day I agree that it is all natural order. But that is naturalism. Not theism.

          • Kevin Aldrich

            Maybe you are confusing creation with creativity. Creation is making something from nothing. Creativity is combining things that already exist to make something new.

    • "Just about every tenet, fundamental or marginal of any religious tradition is disputed, quite often by intelligent and serious people who are well educated in the field."

      I don't think this is true, and merely asserting such a general pronouncement doesn't make it so. But even if it was, what are you suggesting? That disagreement equates to falsity? That if many smart and good-willed people disagree about something, then at best we can't know anything about that topic or, at worst, the topic has no truth value?

      "What actually seems obvious is that, if a god exists, his nature, and the correct theology has not been made obvious and it is hard to think why this is."

      How are you defining "obvious"? Do you mean self-evident or do you mean evident through right reason and reflection? Or do you mean something else? Either way, this doesn't seem obvious to me at all. In fact, it doesn't even sound convincing.

      I see know reason to assume that God's nature should be self-evident, especially since God is categorically distinct. We wouldn't expect an ant to have self-evident understanding of human nature, yet the ant and the human are closer, metaphysically, than humans are to God.

      "If faith is belief based on a reasonable interpretation of accessible evidence, why would god not clarify what he is, and what he expects of us?"

      This is begging the question--it assumes that God hasn't clarified who he is or what he expects of us. Catholics believe he has, as do a billion other Christians around the world.

      "At least to the point we could find general agreement on fundamental attributes. Leaving open to the free willing individual to live consistently with this or to rebel."

      This is precisely the case now. As Cothran explains, the overwhelming majority of people over the last 3,000 years have understood God in the classical way. It's only in recent centuries that a small group of free-willing individuals--spearheaded by Scotus's univocal conception of God--have rebelled against that view.

      "It is not necessarily impossible that the explanation for our conscious experience is the result of immaterial substance, such as a deity, or some natural immaterial explanation. But we have nothing that points to this."

      We do. We have strong philosophical arguments which demonstrate that the mind is not the brain; that our thoughts relate to, but are not identical to the neural activity in our brains.

      But I'm genuinely curious: what sort of "things" can you envision that point either toward or away from the claim that consciousness depends on immaterial realities? How could one, conceptually, show or disprove them?

      (As I'm sure you're aware, to say, "I don't know" to those questions, or just to chalk it up to a yet-unknown mystery, is not to pose a serious argument against such immaterial realities.)

      Another follow-up question:

      You say that, "The events and matter that one might say fall within the category labelled "jazz" all exist materially, so does the concept of this category." Where, materially, can I find the concept "jazz"? Does that concept exist independently of human minds, so that if every person on earth suddenly died, the concept of "jazz" would vanish permanently? Or do concepts exist independently of human minds, such that they aren't located in any single person's or group's brain?

      • If you can give me one that is both theological and generally agreed, fine. No disagreement does not entail all are wrong, it does distinguish theology from most other disciplines. Truth is inaccessible to us, the vast disagreement on theological issues suggests that the lay person should not express much confidence in any theological conclusion.

        I am using obvious in the sense you expect, evident from observation, based on induction. The fact of huge disagreement on major theological issues makes it obvious to me that if a god exists, it did not clarify these questions.

        I would t expect a god to be self evident, but evident in some way, if he expected humans to accept that he exists.

        I do not think if a god exists he has made himself evident or clarified his nature and what he expects. I think among the billions who have rejected Christianity are many intelligent open-minded people who are simply genuinely not convinced.

        I disagree that people for the last 3000 years have understood God in the classical way. I think Hundus, Bhuddists have a very different theology, I think most Christians believe god to be a being in the world, not being itself.

        I dispute the philosophical arguments that suggest immaterial substance is real. I think they just label certain aspects of mental activity as immaterial. If who when we investigated the brain we found that changes to it rarely if ever affected our consciousness and mental states, if personalities did not change drastically with conditions like Alzheimer's disease, schizophrenia and brain damage, these would leave open the question, but I think they make any non-brain element of mental activity much less likely.

        I do not know how to justify the existence of substance dualism, or to provide evidence for it. This is why I reject it. It is up to those to demonstrate a rational basis to accept the claim. Substance dualism is not the default position.

        Concepts are thoughts, they are brain states, from what I can tell. Every time a person holds that brain state, the concept exists. Every concept will be different. I don't say they are independent. They are dependant on previous brain states, observations, other material facts and so on.

        • DJ Wambeke

          If who when we investigated the brain we found that changes to it rarely if ever affected our consciousness and mental states, if personalities did not change drastically with conditions like Alzheimer's disease, schizophrenia and brain damage, these would leave open the question, but I think they make any non-brain element of mental activity much less likely.

          At the risk of telling you something you may already be aware of, what is being specifically rejected in this analysis is something akin to a Cartesian substance dualism. What is not being rejected here is a "direct realist" conception of the mind that would be more typical of the Aristotelian-Thomistic tradition. The A-T view would actually expect there to be correlations of the sort between brain/mental activity that you point out.

          (There are, obviously, other arguments that potentially can be marshalled against the A-T view; I'm just clarifying that while you may be (correctly, in my view) disputing an immaterial substance here this specific line of argument does not preclude an immaterial aspect to mental/intellectual life.)

          • I am defining material as any matter/energy captured by the standard model of physics. If nothing other this is being advanced I have no dispute. I wouldn't use immaterial to refer to any mental activity that fits my materialist definition, as this confuses the subject by suggesting that a Cartesian dualism is at play.

          • DJ Wambeke

            Yeah a lot depends upon how exactly one defines terms like "material". And its the word "activity" that I think is easy to get tripped up on. Insofar as the Cartesian view tends to conceive of the immaterial entity doing something (analogous to physical processes), just in some non-perceivable immaterial realm, the A-T view rejects that, as you do.

            You said that you think "concepts are... brain states". How do you define "brain state"? (Can more than one individual have the same "brain state", as when they are thinking of the same concept?)

          • Well if the immaterial doesn't do anything, has no mass or energy, how is it that we should speak of if existing?

            I would call a brain state an electrochemical neurological arrangement over time. Concepts, thoughts are what those neurons are doing when they fire. I think, given the incredible complexity of neural connections, it is very unlikely that any two humans have ever had exactly the same concept, on a neurological level. But probably similar.

          • DJ Wambeke

            You're exactly right that no two humans have exactly the same neural connections. We all have different sets of particular experiences which get wired into different neurons and arrangements of synaptic connections between them.

            It's interesting to me though that you equate "concepts" with those brain states. The cool thing about humans is that all we ever have are collections of particular experiences, and yet we nevertheless abstract general concepts from them. To use a geometrical example, the circles you have encountered in your life are completely different from the circles that I have encountered. And yet we both have an understanding of what a circle is, and can distinguish between things that are circles, and things that are not (e.g. pentagons). Furthermore, we can even distinguish between circles and other things of which we would have no direct sensory experience (e.g. megagons - 1 million-sided polygons).

            Lest this example seem too mathematically abstract to be real (technically there is no object in existence that is a circle; there are just objects that are circular) it's not really all that different from the way we intuitively deal with all the regular objects of our experience that do exist (birds, rocks, raindrops, etc.) and which the scientific method helps us to learn more about (and even discover more objects than what basic experience provides). Doesn't matter if it's a black hole, a set of fish gills, or a higgs-boson particle; they are all objects that humans look at (with the aid of equipment if necessary), and based upon experience and experiment, abstract some concept of what it is. It's possible for those concepts to be incomplete (or possibly wrong for a time) of course, but, at the end of the day, if we truly are grasping something real about those realities we are grasping some real and not expressly physical aspect of their existence. (I'm making an assumption here that your definition of "material" actually doesn't negate this not-totally-physical aspect of reality.) For example, higgs-bosons have a certain nature; that is, they are a formation of physical stuff that inherently operates a certain way that we can empirically detect. This nature is an objectively true part of reality whether any human has seen one or not. When humans do investigate them, however, their nature - that not-physical aspect of them - is what we develop an understanding of. Just because that nature isn't a material thing doesn't mean it's not a very real aspect of reality.

            So it seems to me the potential weakness of your equation of "concepts" with "brain states" is that it makes "concept" into a strictly physical thing and doesn't acknowledge that non-physical aspect of everything in existence that our intellects, despite the fact that we are made of matter, nevertheless seem to access.

          • William Davis

            To use a geometrical example, the circles you have encountered in your life are completely different from the circles that I have encountered. And yet we both have an understanding of what a circle is, and can distinguish between things that are circles, and things that are not (e.g. pentagons).

            One of my personal interests is artificial intelligence. What you are describing is considered one of the final objectives, and it is usually referred to as invariance. This has recently been achieved with vision, i.e. deep modal networks (biologically inspired) can recognize things like cats, faces, shapes, symbols (letters and numbers) ect. One company has an AI that can read Captcha with around 90% accuracy...I think that's better than me. I can post a number of links if you like. Here is one good (though rather technical) paper on the subject if you're interested (you seem pretty intelligent so I figured I shoot for something substantial), though I can post other less technically posts.

            http://ai.stanford.edu/~wzou/thesis.pdf

            My point, in the end, is that this abstraction is not something only humans can do (even a dog can do it at a primitive level). Of course these narrow AI systems are not generally intelligent, by any means, but achieving that seems to be simply a matter of time, though it does come with some serious dangers. In other words, "rational souls" will not be unique to humans, and it seems clear to me, that our minds are what our brains do (the materialist definition of mind).

            With regard to the rest of your comment, I don't see how there is anything immaterial (i.e. not matter or energy) going on in anything in physics. The rules of physics are our abstractions based on inductive reasoning, and exist as different types of memory.

            http://www.human-memory.net/types.html

            Here are a couple of papers on how this likely works, sparse distributed memory seems to be the most robust theory of how our brains actually encode knowledge, and perform induction/abstraction:

            https://cocosci.berkeley.edu/tom/papers/ApproxInferenceWithSDM.pdf

            http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4009432/

            Better understanding of how we do this seems to directly improve AI, and brain researchers are now using AI to better understand how the brain does this...it's creating a fascinating feedback mechanism.

  • Joe Aboumoussa

    Sounds like Webb is flirting with a form of Nominalism.

  • Stephen Webb's idea of God makes more sense to me than the God of Classical Theism. God's a being. She exists. She does things. Maybe she's made of atoms (That'd be wonderful! We could learn more about how God works, then!) If made more explicit, this God would be falsifiable. So far there's not much evidence that Webb's God exists, although maybe fine tuning qualifies.

    The God of Classical Theism seems like Carl Sagan's dragon in the garage. Unfalsifiable. Doesn't have any properties. God's not even a being. What's the difference between the God of Classical Theism and no God at all?

    • Kevin Aldrich

      In classical theism God has no being or properties?

      • To quote Fr Barron:

        It is not so much that Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins disagree with Thomas Aquinas on the existence of God; it is that neither Hitchens nor Dawkins display any real grasp of what Aquinas even means when he speaks of God.

        To a person, the new atheists hold that God is some being in the world, the maximum instance, if you want, of the category of "being." But this is precisely what Aquinas and serious thinkers in all of the great theistic traditions hold that God is not. Thomas explicitly states that God is not in any genus, including that most generic genus of all, namely being. He is not one thing or individual—however supreme—among many. Rather, God is, in Aquinas's pithy Latin phrase, esse ipsum subsistens, the sheer act of being itself. ( https://strangenotions.com/what-god-is-and-isnt/ )

        If this is correct, God doesn't have being. God is being. God doesn't have properties. God is identical to his properties.

        Classic God couldn't have the property of goodness, because then Classic God would be part of the genus of good things, and Classic God doesn't share.

        • Kevin Aldrich

          Paul, it is one thing to say that God is in a class by himself and another to say he has no class.

          • He is not one thing or individual—however supreme—among many.

            I think this means that he's not in a class at all, not even a class by himself.

            As to whether God has class, https://lh3.googleusercontent.com/-uZ_mPhIo1to/UTTgIre0exI/AAAAAAAAAR8/_U-iv5JKklY/w851-h314/151123-Swag%252BIs%252BFor%252BBoys%252BClass%252BIs%252BFor%252BMen-facebook-cover.png

          • Kevin Aldrich

            He is not in any class that a created being is in. That does not mean he does not have being of a totally different kind. Or as you like to say, she.

          • I think that classical theism, at least Aquinas's form, would have it that God isn't part of any species or genus. If God were part of a genus of one, then God would share the property "is a part of a genus of one" with everything else that is part of a genus of one, like the angels. According to Aquinas, every angel is a different species and genus (and would be of a different genus even if they had matter, all this in Summa, P1 Q50 Art 4). But God, according to Aquinas, isn't contained in a genus at all (Summa, P1 Q3 Art 5).

            Now maybe there's some technical distinction between "class" and "genus". If that's the case, then I'm even more confused by classical theism. And even more left in the dark about what difference this kind of abtract God makes vs no God at all.

          • Kevin Aldrich

            How does to being in a class make you not exist?

          • I don't think not having being means not existing. I just can't make sense of the idea. God doesn't have being but God is being. I suspect the whole idea's incoherent, but I don't know. It doesn't seem to be connected to the rest of reality, anyway.

          • Kevin Aldrich

            The essence of Paul Rimmer is joined to his act of existence. We know they are separate because one day, unfortunately, they will be unjoined.

            God's essence and existence are one thing.

          • I just read in a Stanford article - that quite simply stated, the 'essence' is the predicate of a proposition in which the subject and predicate have an 'identity'. (This of course cannot be accurate enough, for more reasons than 'one'!!!!) And besides I'm sure to run into further confusions in regard to the 'definitions' (essences?) and mix-up between what constitutes, essence, form, substance, etc. etc. Is it true that the truth is that it is difficult to find any commonality 'at all'!!!! when it comes to 'reason'......????? (Just wondering). I am 'that' (no is???) I am.
            Subject - God. Existence - see Russell on this one. - he says it (i.e. IS) does not denote existence. - I am. Essence. Thanks.

          • Paul, this article has pushed me into reading up on Plato's forms, (Stanford). It is amazing how complex these arguments are, and it is most dismaying how the arguments have changed through history, first with Aristoteleanism, etc. and later the scholastic analysis, up to the present with the language analysis of the pragmatic and post modern and even analytic schools of thought. So what is most 'dismaying' to me, is that I can find no consistent, coherent, thought throughout the whole history. I only wish I was smarter, and able to do so. That's what happens I guess when you're born a 'female, and went to school in the forties and early fifties when as I know now the teaching of such things as math and the sciences was - terrible, (not in the sense of the terrible god).

            But one thing gives me hope. and that is that all of these efforts are attempts to clarify just what language, and thus consciousness is. This may be thought of within the merely human context, or on the level of what constitutes the thought of language say, as 'The Word', or within a universal context, or abstract context, (see I'm already in trouble with words here), that as language we cannot 'explain'. How did language happen - an answer of course that this propensity for empty language even, was given by God. Sometimes when you don't or can't know - can you not have the excuse of not knowing by going for the 'simplest explanation' - :)

            But thinking again, all of these arguments over the centuries have always been 'important'. And perhaps there are precedents of later thought to be found in the earlier 'contemplations' of reason. For instance, we marvel today, excuse the 'we' - I meant those august scientists at the discovery that a set of all sets would produce the contradiction of Godel's discovery of the paradox of self reference - etc. etc.and thus according to the ancients they could 'reason' that God could not be the set of all sets. So today 'they' are arguing the same problematics, with the substitute of computers, rather than God, as perhaps the ideal of consciousness? languagescraps.blogspot.com/.../lacans- mirror-stage-and-hofstaders-gdel (Edit. Sorry it wasn't there - couldn't find it again, Penrose and others. So please accept this instead: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/self-reference/ Really sorry about that). So it goes with all the arguments of angels being genus, etc. etc. all in an ordered hierarchy- which I wonder - is this hierarchy real-ly necessary. I wish I could think. But I'm going to try some more on these issues. The point I am attempting to make is that these 'arguments' about God, etc. are not 'in vain', may I say!!! (Or the Good, or Forms, etc.) and indeed I am not going to admit the possibility that any of these idea-l may have/be 'real') I am too aware of the arguments put forth concerning the difficulties of discerning what constitutes empirical reality, from Descartes to G.E. Moore's attempt to 'idenity' the hand, and 'the' and 'univocity', et6c. etc. etc.
            Even the skeptics on EN, are still involved in the problems of 'the'-ology within this context. Why can't they just leave the whole thing alone? No. They have to contribute with the cause of a 'negative theology'. (I wish I could just leave it alone too, especially because I 'know' I'm not very intelligent).
            But on what is perhaps the main 'difficulty with this post - they are forgetting all about the distinction between 'reason' and 'revelation'. Catholicism, has kind of lost it in this regard since, I believe, they adopted some figures as C.S. Lewis, Chesterton, et. al. as the models of the rationality of thought!! (My intended sarcasm - ban me if you will,) but sometimes I agree with the evil overlord on the quality of these articles, although I haven't their scientific acumen. I think actually, I would be better off if I made an honest attempt, (doomed to failure I'm sure) simply to understand some Stanford articles on Plato. Sorry. I just felt the need to rant.....YThanks.

          • Michael Murray

            reading up on Plato's forms,

            I think tomorrow NASA's New Horizon's probe will give us the best pictures yet of Pluto's form :-)

          • Thanks very much Michael, for your 'indulgence' with respect to my comment. I hope you don't have to pay for it in any way. (LIke I just read recently that Martin Luther was an Augustinian priest,monk, whatever, which for me explains a lot). So yes, 'form'. Pluto's 'form'. shape, whatever - in what way will this help make our ideas concrete. "Concrete"? Who knows what kind of matter will be discovered? Obviously my words are too 'obtuse' for any kind of rational understanding!!!! Perhaps I belong either within the codex or on the index. Edit: Oh! I get it - Pluto and Plato. I think I also confused Popper and the Pope -er!!!

          • Alexandra

            God is at a higher order than beings.
            It's a hierarchy. Its like difference between the universe and stars within the universe. The universe is at a higher order than the stars.

            The hierarchy in Aquinas is Existence, essence, genus, species...etc. Each is a subset of the other. So everything has existence. You can't have genus if you don't exist.

            God has Existence and essence only. (No genus or the lower subsets.)
            (Existence is that you are, essence is what you are.)

            Human beings have all the categories of the hierarchy-existence, essence, genus, and so forth.

            What can be confusing is that God's existence and essence is at a higher order than human beings essence.
            That is because God's essence is his existence.

          • Alexandra

            "Now maybe there's some technical distinction between 'class' and 'genus'."

            (May you or Kevin forgive me if I am interfering or putting words in your mouths.)
            I think when Kevin says "class" he is referring to what Aquinas calls "essence". And when you say "class" you are referring to "genus".

            The divine essence is existence itself. God's essence cannot be anything other than existence. And God cannot be a genus due to what Aquinas terms the "simplicity" of God - no composite, no distinctions.

          • Kevin Aldrich

            Thanks. Please keep interfering.

        • Ladolcevipera

          One could say that God as the highest principle transcends all and therefore may be said that he is the non-being that transcends being. To such a being one can only ascribe properties as goodness etc. in an analogous way. If God exists he is totally unknown to us. God does not even know himself because he is One. If he knew himself that would mean that there is a split between the one who knows and the object of his knowledge. Does that make sense?

          • Kevin Aldrich

            Except for ascribing human qualities to God by analogy, you don't make sense.

          • Ladolcevipera

            Not to you, no. But then metaphysics is a lot broader than catholicism.

          • Kevin Aldrich

            A non-being that transcends being?

            God is totally unknown?

            God does not know himself?

            None of those statements make sense to me.

          • Ladolcevipera

            For Plotinus the "One" is the abolute simple first cause of all. It is both self-caused and the cause of everything in the universe. We can only grasp it indirectly by deducing what it is not. Even the name "One" and the verb "is" are analogous. The One is beyond and outside all categories and orders of being. It does not know itself because this would imply duality of knower and known. From the One proceeds all being as a by-product of self-contemplation.
            You'll find the same line of thought with Eriugena. For him the infinite, transcendent and unknown God is beyond being and non-being. As with Plotinus, through a proces of self-articulation the Unknown makes himself known. This self- articulation is the whole of reality or nature. Nature includes both God and nature.
            I think Spinoza echoes both Plotinus and Eriugena where he claims that the entire universe (including human being) are modes of God. Deus sive natura.

          • ben

            In order for any 'thing' to exist, existence must be possible.
            Can any 'thing' exist and yet be totally, completely, utterly unknown? That is, at no time in the 'past', neither now, nor at anytime in the future.
            I aver: that, no, it is not possible to exist and yet be eternally unknown.
            Therefore, for existence to be possible, it must be known to be possible.
            God is is.
            God is Being which is present to Itself.
            God knows God (i.e.,God knows Himself)
            God said to Moses: "I Am who is, tell them that I Am sent you."
            God the Knower is named Father, God Known is named Son. The Son is the perfect and infinite Image of the invisible Father.
            Jesus said: "The Father and I are One." Jesus said, "All things have been committed to me by my Father. No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him." (Matthew 11:27)
            We humans, made in the image of God, reflect on our own existence in a finite and incomplete way because of our temporality. God, the eternal timeless, knows Himself all at once, totally and completely, there is nothing for Him to learn about Himself.

          • Ladolcevipera

            "God" is not a "thing", so nothing that applies to things, applies to "God". What we mean by "being" can only be said of "God" in an analogous way. We have no adequate language to express the inexpressible. So we can only be silent.
            Another thing is this eternal appeal to the Bible. It is your Alpha et Omega, but certainly not mine. It is one way to situate yourself within a wider context, but it is a symbolic way. Had you been born in another faith, you would have believed other explanations of the universe with exactly the same utmost conviction.

      • Steve Webb

        If God is simple, then God does not have attributes or properties other than what God is. All of his attributes are identical with each other and with Him. There is no "aspect" of him that is different than any other aspect. Thus, we cannot really talk about Him at all!

        • Kevin Aldrich

          We can talk about him by analogy to created being and the aspects of being we can discern in created being.

    • "The God of Classical Theism seems like Carl Sagan's dragon in the garage. Unfalsifiable."

      A couple of problematic things implied in this example. First, that unless something is falsifiable, we shouldn't believe it. But in experience, we would all disagree with this. There are many things we believe through self-evident principles or through philosophical reflection that can be falsified in the scientific sense.

      Second, this assumes that philosophical arguments for are unfalsifiable. Yet they easily can be. If one of the premises is shown to be flawed, one of the terms vaguely defined, or if the argument uses fallacious logic, the argument, and thus the conclusion, has been falsified.

      "What's the difference between the God of Classical Theism and no God at all?"

      One is real and the other isn't; the first corresponds with reality and the second doesn't.

      • Correct me if I err, as usual. But I think Popper was talking about a theory being falsified by the lack of empirical evidence. In the sense of dogma that cannot be falsified, it is perfectly appropriate, according to my limited understanding that the dictates? (is this the correct word) can be regarded as 'infallible'. Indeed, such 'dictums?' would be a kind of tautology. Here's Popper: http://science.martinsewell.com/falsification.html Thanks. I try.

      • George

        is yahweh one of those things we should believe in even though it is unfalsifiable?

      • Darren

        Brandon Vogt wrote,

        There are many things we believe through self-evident principles or through philosophical reflection that can['t] be falsified in the scientific sense.

        I am not so sure that I do. Perhaps I am wrong, though. What sorts of "many things" did you have in mind?

        • Phil Rimmer

          Miracles are not possible.

          • Darren

            Phil Rimmer wrote,

            Miracles are not
            possible.

            I am afraid I do not follow.

            Are you making the (tangential) claim that miracles are not
            possible or are you proposing, “miracles are not possible” as an un-falsifiable claim that someone (me) might make?

        • George

          I can only think of the three basic assumptions right now:

          1. The outside world exists.

          2. My senses are mostly accurate. (or is it sometimes accurate?)

          3. I can learn things about the world from experience.

          I think that's how they go, the three basic assumptions everyone has to make, including the Protestant pressupositionalist apologists, who try to shove yahweh into the number one assumption spot.

      • I didn't forget about your comment. I think you are correct regarding falsifiability. Strictly requiring falsifiability would remove quite a bit of interesting science. Also not all of reality can be described scientifically.

        Because of this, I don't know how to respond to the rest of your points. There's something that seems strangely ghostly and unimportant about the classical theism God, but I don't know how to put this feeling into words.

        I'll think about it. Thanks for pushing back.

    • Peter

      Fine tuning suggests that a superior mind ordered the universe, but then who ordered the universe of that superior mind, another superior mind from another universe? Is there an infinite sequence of universes where superior minds order succeeding universes? I don't think so.

      Since, for each universe to exist, it would have to be ordered by a mind in a preceding universe, there must originally be a supreme mind which is not from any universe, a transcendent mind if you wish.

      If there were no original mind outside the universe to order the first universe, there could be no first universe containing the first superior mind, and there could be no successive universes containing successive supreme minds.

      • Maybe the superior mind always existed. Maybe it's uncaused. That'd be part of what it means to be God, I'd imagine.

      • William Davis

        Another possibility. There is no fine tuning, only a random parameter distribution with each successive big bang. Thus, we just happen to be in a universe that can contain life, which most universes cannot because of the change in parameter tuning.
        It's also possible that the universe is infinite and contains an infinite array of these parameters, and we obviously find ourselves in the area of the universe that can produce sustained life, an observational selection effect. These parameters could also vary over time. The idea that these parameters is simply an assumption, perhaps not even a well warranted assumption considering.

        • Phil Rimmer

          Indeed, how could it possibly not look fine tuned? We have no idea of the number of failed universes, just as we consistently fail to understand the mind boggling number of failed mutations needed to allow us to evolve to the level of cosmologists. Yet all those failed opportunities existed. They happened at our scale exactly between 10^35 metres and 10^-35metres so we could see for ourselves the numbers of failed mutations. Comprehending outside of "our" range is not so direct. There is, however, no reason to think the failures might not be equally numerous.

  • Kraker Jak

    It has been said that a picture is worth a thousand words. Let me say this about the piece.

    • Alexandra

      An atheistic sheep perhaps? ;)

  • Kraker Jak

    It has been said that a picture is worth a thousand words. Let me say this.

    • ben

      Typical (and expected) of your insults and name calling...
      You show nothing but contempt; but, you keep coming back???

  • David Nickol

    Webb has authored, by my count, no less than 10 articles on the subject at First Things . . . .

    That's good enough for me. I don't think First Things would publish something if it weren't true.

  • Kraker Jak

    I think I understand now :-)

    • Thanks KrakerJak. Just finished a 'rant' to Paul Rimmer, which was set off by thinking about the continual and on-going contest of ideas throughout the 'tradition'. I keep going back to Heidegger's -We know not 'how' we think - and perhaps indeed 'what' thinking is. (Perhaps I should not have said 'we' - I'm not really attempting to 'isolate' myself)......Thanks for your humor.

  • Kraker Jak

    Pardonez moi.....but who exactly is Mr. Cothran and what are his qualifications, not for writing the article but question his academic qualifications to critique Webb? If there was anything in the intro of the article that included some sort of bio of Colthran...then I missed it and I apologize for my failure. I am visually impaired, I kid you not. Thomas M. Cothran is a writer that lives with his wife and son in Lexington, KY.

    I even googled the man and did not find much. He may be a writer but so are so many. Surely that is not a qualification in and of itself?

    • Ladolcevipera

      My thoughts exactly. I have read Webb's essay "Is God more like a rock or the idea of a rock?". I wouldn't formulate the question like that, but I recognise Plotinus, Eriugena and maybe even Spinoza's modes of God. I am under the expression that Mr. Cothran is willfully misunderstanding Mr. Webb, but I could be wrong of course.

      • Kraker Jak

        I am under the expression that Mr. Cothran is willfully misunderstanding

        I don't think that he is willfully wrong....I try to give the benefit of the doubt to anyone and everyone....who does not have an obvious agenda.

      • David Nickol

        Intended insult recognized and noted David.

        I don't think insult is the right word. Perhaps implied criticism would be more accurate. I was just trying to point out the irony of your complaining about the lack of supplied information about Thomas M. Cothran when you use a pseudonym (and hide your comment history).

        Information on Cothran is not all that hard to find, but is of little relevance. He's a lawyer, not a philosopher or a theologian, but that does not mean he is not sufficiently well informed to have something worthwhile to say to Strange Notions readers.

        You are just being an a$$ David.

        Intended insult recognized and noted. :P

        • Michael Murray

          There is a possibility that Kraker has long been a popular name in the Jak family.

        • Ladolcevipera

          Contrary to what you say I think it is important to have information on the author in order to be able to assess his views on the matter. I read Mr. Cothran's article twice and found it difficult to understand his argumentation. Mr. Webb's essay was cristal clear to me. The fact that Mr. Cothran is not a philosopher explaines why his critique partly misses the point Mr. Webb wanted to make.
          As to the use of Avatars I am not altogether happy with that. When I first registered with Strange Notions I was asked to choose an Avatar (or so I thought). I found it a strange question but I obliged. I cannot change it now because it has become my "trademark". If requested, I'll give my full name.

    • David Nickol

      If you had been able to come up with a long list of "credentials" for Thomas M. Cothran, would that change what you think of his post?

      At least he is writing under his own name.

      • Kraker Jak

        No..but it would give me pause if I knew he was other than just a high school grad with some cred? You are just being an a$$ David. I know that you don't hold me in any esteem because of past comments to you. So live with it if you can:-) Wannabe?

  • bdlaacmm

    I am so glad that I am neither a philosopher nor a theologian. I am perfectly happy with "[Jesus] is the image of the invisible God" and "To have seen me is to have seen the Father." Does it for me. Don't need any more.

    • Ladolcevipera

      Afraid to use your brain?

      • bdlaacmm

        Nope.

        • Ladolcevipera

          Then use it! But remember thinking may be dangerous for unchallenged dogmas. Sapere Aude!

          • Alexandra

            From your responses on this thread I think you are misunderstanding both bdlaacmm and me, but I don't want to take things too off topic from the OP.

            What this OP shows (and many posts on SN) is that there is rich intellectual tradition in Catholicism. I think the claim that we are uncritical or unthinking is unsupported.

          • Ladolcevipera

            I am familiar with the rich intellectual tradition in Catholicism. I think @bdlaacmm:disqus 's comment does not live up to it when s/he says:

            I am so glad that I am neither a philosopher nor a theologian. I am perfectly happy with "[Jesus] is the image of the invisible God" and "To have seen me is to have seen the Father." Does it for me. Don't need any more."

            This sounds like an uncritical acceptance of "truths" that were passed on to him/her.

          • Alexandra

            Not for the assent of faith because it requires more than evaluation of knowledge. So even if someone accepts knowledge uncritically the assent of faith, which reveals truth, is not blind. You must still use reason.

          • Ladolcevipera

            Reason is the ability of the mind to think and make judgments.

          • Alexandra

            What I'm alluding to is yes, reason is needed, but the assent of faith (to truth) is not just an intellectual pursuit, it's a spiritual one. So there is this interplay between faith and reason. In fact, I think it's primarily a spiritual one.

            I thought the way to know and understand God would be entirely through an intellectual pursuit. (Reason). (I bought a lot of books on Aquinas!) And I really tried. I could relate to "Faith seeks understanding".

            What I didn't know is anything about the spiritual experience. I didn't even know what spirituality was. But developing a spiritual life is essential to know God. And this was nurtured by my life in the Church.
            So it took time before I could give reasons for my Faith.

            This has helped me:

            "Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth; and God has placed in the human heart a desire to know the truth- in a word, to know himself- so that, by knowing and loving God, men and women may also come to the fullness of truth about themselves."
            Pope John Paul II, Fides Et Ratio: On the Relationship Between Faith and Reason: Encyclical Letter of John Paul II
            And as I mentioned the OP I linked is also really great.

          • Ladolcevipera

            So there is this interplay between faith and reason. In fact, I think it's primarily a spiritual one.

            I can agree with that. Reason may lead to the conclusion that there must be something that transcends our knowledge of the universe. That is the point where metaphysics and faith meet, but also where they differ. Believing is a leap of faith (hopefully) based on sound reasons. I have sound reasons not to jump... But yes, I understand what you mean by a spiritual life. :)

          • Alexandra

            Thank you for your comment. I appreciate it. :) When it comes to faith it should never go against your reason. Reason and Faith should be in harmony. If you have faith without reason it becomes superstition. Take care. :)

      • Alexandra

        There is a difference between Wisdom and knowledge. It sounds like bdlaacmm has chosen the better part.

        • Ladolcevipera

          Wisdom is based on knowledge. It is the ability to discern and judge which aspects of that knowledge are true. Knowledge comes first. Without knowledge there cannot be wisdom.

          • Alexandra

            Agreed.

    • William Davis

      Am I correct that most of the people you associate with are Catholic?

      • bdlaacmm

        You are not correct.

        True, in all likelihood, 100% of the people in my parish church are Catholic (else why would they be there?), but I do spend most of my time outside of church.

        • William Davis

          I apologize I worded that terribly. I should have said, are your parents and children Catholic? Were you raised Catholic? If the answer to these two questions is yes, I'm not surprised that you have no interest in rationalizations for your religion. The status quo is plenty for most people, especially if their emotional needs are satisfied by their religion. Just curious, especially since you bothered to post such a comment :)

          • bdlaacmm

            I never said I have no "interest" in them. I actually find them fascinating. My point was they ultimately do not matter to me, in the sense that I lose no sleep over "the nature of God". When I wish to speak to Him, or if I am trying to discern His will toward me, or if I am just curious as to what He is like, I need look no further than Jesus. He Himself said that it was sufficient to see Him in order to see the Father, and I take Him at His word.

            That's one reason why the Rosary is such a perfect prayer. (I recite it every night just before going to bed.) Through a cycle of 20 Mysteries one contemplates specifics event in Christ's life and uses their stories to draw one's own self ever deeper into the story of God, all the while thinking about how they apply to me personally, to my family, and to the world today.

            The reason I bothered to post, was perhaps to inject a bit of sanity into what could so easily become a chasing down a (quite unnecessary) rabbit hole. All too many people lose themselves turning over every rock, trying to find God, when all the while He's standing right in front of them, in the Person of Jesus.

          • William Davis

            Nice explanation. The Jesus stuff doesn't work for me because I don't believe his was God, but I get similar effects, neurologically from mindfulness meditation, and my own versions of contemplation. I won't try to get into which is more effective, as that is complex and depends on, to a certain extent, the individual person and their social environment, but there are clear similarities.

            The goal of this site is to convince people to believe via reason, it doesn't really work. The kind of personal experience you describe (along with social factors) is the only real path. Since we comprehend the mechanisms at work, there is no real way for many of us to believe, and the field with the highest concentration of atheists is neurology/psychology, (http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=104310443). I'm an engineer, not a neurologist, but I find the subject very interesting as an improved model of how my mind works seems to improve it's effectiveness. Thanks for the explanation and best of luck :)

          • bdlaacmm

            "Since we comprehend the mechanisms at work, there is no real way for many of us to believe"

            That's like saying, "Since we know how the eye works, there's no reason for many of us to see." Isn't it more likely that all those neurological/psychological explanations of religious experience are valid because they are reflective of our minds reacting to actual spiritual events, just as seeing is dependent upon there actually being light?

          • William Davis

            Ok. Buddhism seems to generate the best "eye", so it must be more true than Catholicism ;)

            http://www.businessinsider.com/how-scientists-figured-out-who-the-worlds-happiest-man-is-2012-11

            http://marc.ucla.edu/workfiles/pdfs/MARC-mindfulness-research-summary.pdf

            There is no evidence of the supernatural affecting reality, just people's brains. Isn't that a little suspicious? Prayer only works for those who believe, Christianity only works because of belief. Don't take my word for it, take the writer of the gospel of Mark (Chapter 6 first)

            He left that place and came to his hometown, and his disciples followed him.2 On the sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astounded. They said, “Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands! 3 Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary[a] and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?” And they took offense[b] at him. 4 Then Jesus said to them, “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.” 5 And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them. 6 And he was amazed at their unbelief.

            Notice is says Jesus could NOT do deeds of power there, not that he couldn't. Matthew, who clearly was copying Mark changed it up, realizing this was a little embarrassing..Matthew 13

            57 And they took offense at him. But Jesus said to them, “Prophets are not without honor except in their own country and in their own house.” 58 And he did not do many deeds of power there, because of their unbelief.

            Notice it got changed to DID. All Mark let the secret out of the bag here too, Mark 11

            23 Truly I tell you, if you say to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ and if you do not doubt in your heart, but believe that what you say will come to pass, it will be done for you. 24 So I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received[c] it, and it will be yours.

            Notice you receive it if you believe you received it. This is generally known as the placebo effect, and it's quite clearly in the oldest gospel (which also has no account of the resurrected Jesus, only women finding an empty tomb and a man saying Jesus is risen). Harnessing the power of belief/faith is incredibly useful, and I actually use it myself, though I understand what I'm doing, and use it wisely :)

          • bdlaacmm

            " Isn't that a little suspicious?"

            Nope.

            "Prayer only works for those who believe"

            Of course. That's kind of like saying "Aerobics only works for those who exercise." Duh.

            "Matthew, who clearly was copying Mark changed it up"

            Uhh... Mark was written after Matthew. Read your St. Jerome, who was writing a lot closer to the events than we are. I'll take his word for the order in which the Gospels were written (unless you have PROOF (not just speculation or "scholarly opinion") for some other order).

          • William Davis

            I'll take his word for the order in which the Gospels were written (unless you have PROOF (not just speculation or "scholarly opinion") for some other order).

            No problem "Marcan priority has been accepted by most scholars since the late nineteenth century and forms the foundation for the widely accepted two-source theory.. This link goes into the reasons in great detail, and why using Mark as a source is probably the best theory:

            https://bible.org/article/synoptic-problem

            Jerome was born nearly 300 years after Mark was written. That's like you commenting on what happened in Thomas Jefferson's day ;)

          • bdlaacmm

            I specifically said do not cite "scholarly opinion", and what do you respond with? This: "has been accepted by most scholars".

            Amazing.

            By the way, I must have read shelves full of books on "how the New Testament was written" over the years. I've haven't yet seen anyone present anything other than opinion or even speculation as to why we should not accept the order in which they are presented (the "Jerome order").

            I personally am convinced that 99.9% of so-called "Biblical scholarship" is people wanting to get attention, make a name for themselves, gain tenure, and/or sell books. It's not very exciting to say, "The order in which the Gospels were written has been known since the Early Church, and we have no good reason to doubt their word on it." That doesn't get you on the lecture circuit. Novelty and controversy are the Big Sellers.

            And you fell for it.

          • William Davis

            I still don't know why you would believe Jerome, since he lived such much later, but it's obvious you aren't open to evidence or argument, you just blindly believe what the Church tells you. Not sure why you "fell" for what the Church claims without evidence. Are familiar with argumentum ad hominem? If not look it up. The fact that you dismiss biblical scholarship is an insight into your lack of critical thinking, which was also demonstrated by your original comment. Nothing I can do about that. Have a good weekend (and I'm sorry it bothers you so much that some of us actually care about the truth) :)

          • bdlaacmm

            You say, "That's like you commenting on what happened in Thomas Jefferson's day." But don't you think a person as brilliant and educated as St. Jerome writing today would know one heck of a lot more about Jefferson than some scholar in the year 3715?

            Any "blindness" here seems to be entirely on your side. I can't put it any more diplomatically: You fell for it. And by the way, "ad hominen" is only a fallacy when the charge is not true. Just as there occasionally really are True Scotsmen.

            And if you honestly "cared for the truth", you would never dream of dismissing someone (me) whom you've never met with baseless accusations of not being open to evidence or argument. Read my opening statement. I'm very open to them - it's just that in the end of ends (and think about that term before you hastily respond), they're but a pastime, a diversion, a hobby, an amusement, a puff of wind - hardly anything to base one's life (and soul) on.

            And by the way, I love you, man! What you write does not "bother" me in the least. I just got back from daily Mass, which I go to at my parish church. We prayed Day Four of the Perpetual Novena to the Divine Mercy (you can look it up). The intention today by chance (or design) happened to be for non-believers. Here was today's prayer (I prayed it for you):

            "Most compassionate Jesus, You are the Light of the whole world. Receive into the abode of Your Most Compassionate Heart the souls of those who do not believe in God and of those who as yet do not know You. Let the rays of Your grace enlighten them that they, too, together with us, may extol Your wonderful mercy; and do not let them escape from the abode which is Your Most Compassionate Heart.

            Eternal Father, turn Your merciful gaze upon the souls of those who do not believe in You, and of those who as yet do not know You, but who are enclosed in the Most Compassionate Heart of Jesus. Draw them to the light of the Gospel. These souls do not know what great happiness it is to love You. Grant that they, too, may extol the generosity of Your mercy for endless ages. Amen."

          • William Davis

            Thanks for the well wishes :) I don't think I dismissed you, I think I judged you accurately from the information you've given me (which, of course, is limited). I'm glad Catholicism makes you happy, and you definitely seem to be in a much better mood after your mass. How can I argue with that, right?

          • bdlaacmm

            Amen to that!

  • Steve Webb

    Matter is that which cannot be thought (since it is pure potentiality) for the Greeks/ancients/classical theists. This is true too of God (who is pure actuality, absolutely simple, and thus beyond representation or intuition). It is a question whether even God can think of "prime matter" or create it (what would it be if God created it? It is not a substance! Is it an idea? of what?). The puzzles I raise in that little article are meant to show how problematic it is, from the perspective of classical theism, for material objects to exist in heaven, when heaven is equated with the beatific vision of God. By the way, David Hart has come around to agreeing with me on this. He now thinks that Aquinas's view of heaven does not allow for dogs to be there, or any other "substance" that is not (identified with) rationality. If our resurrected bodies are going to be material (which Thomas agrees but has a very hard to conceptualizing), then we will be objects of a sort in heaven, and we will know God as something diffferent from us. We will be in some kind of space and time, and if we know God, then so will God! Otherwise, there is no hope for us (Paul!).

    • William Davis

      I've never seen a good reason why heaven couldn't exist in the material universe at some future time. From my laymen reading of the Bible (and some scholars agree with this) it seems to be what Paul is trying to get across. We are asleep (dead) until the resurrection.

      To be honest, this idea reminds me of the religion of some futurists like Ray Kurzweil. His "heaven" (for the most part) will be everyone resurrected in a simulated universe after the accessible universe has been converted to computronium.

      Interestingly enough, this view, called Omega Point Theory came from a Catholic Priest. Perhaps work in this direction would be helpful for those of us who find Aquinas and Aristotle interesting but not at all compelling (I'm an atheist primarily because I can't help but think materialism with supervenience is correct and explains so many things, including the variety of worldviews and philosophies in the world).

    • I initially missed this comment, but this is a good example of the sort of reckless generalizations that I am cautioning against: "Matter is that which cannot be thought (since it is pure potentiality) for the Greeks/ancients/classical theists."

      This recklessly and incorrectly attributes the view that matter is pure potentiality to a host of people who don't hold this view. For example: it's not true of most of the pre-socratic philosophers (e.g. Thales, Anaximenes, etc.) or the Greek atomists. It is nonsensical to say that many of the Greeks like Parmenides thought that matter is pure potentiality when they denied the existence of matter (or at least did not make the distinction between potency and act required to say that matter is pure potency). Plato himself probably didn't hold the view that matter is pure potentiality (though an Aristotelian Whig history of philosophy might try claim otherwise based on Plato's notion of the receptacle).

      What you've done is attributed a basically Aristotelian or neo-Aristotelian (in the case of those like Plotinus or Aquinas) and attributed it to not only Greek philosophers generally, but all the ancients and classical theists as well. It is a wild overgeneralization.

      • Steve Webb

        Well, your own rhetoric ir more reckless than mine. Of course there was a variety of opinions, especially among the Commentators. My favorite alternative to the consensus position on prime matter is Philoponus, whom I am writing about right now in a book on prime matter, and of course, I have written a lot about Ibn Gabirol. But for the purpose of blogs, or even more lengthy scholarship, refering to a consensus among the Greeks concerning prime matter is not reckless. It is not even wrong. The context alone makes it clear that I am talking about the Greek shaping of classical theism. When people talk about Greek philosophy, they usually (actually, always) mean Plato, Aristotle and their heirs, not the pre-Socratics, who were a fascinating but obscure bunch. So I won't reply any more to your posts. Thanks,

        • I frankly don't know what to make of the claim that "when people talk about Greek philosophy, they usually (actually, always) mean Plato, Aristotle and their heirs, not the presocratics ...." (Of course, you threw in the whole ancient world too, not just the Greeks.) The entries for ancient Greek philosophy in Wikipedia and the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy--introductory level articles for the general public--all mention the presocratics, as does every introductory text in the history of philosophy I am aware of.

          But it's not just the presocratics who don't advance a doctrine of prime matter as pure potentiality. Neither does Plato (unless one ventures a tortured reading of the receptacle), the Epicureans, the Stoics, or the skeptics--which collectively were vastly more influential in the ancient Greek world than Aristotle's school.

          If the kind of sources on which you depend for your argument are so inadequate that they don't even mention the main schools of ancient Greek philosophy, it would explain a lot.

          • Steve Webb

            I have an extensive discussion of Plato's views of matter as well as the Stoics in my book, Jesus Christ, Eternal God: Heavenly Flesh and the Metaphysics of Matter. In a short blog, written for a wide public and without benefit of footnotes, referring to the Greek philosophical view of prime matter is an acceptable abbreviation for a long history of arguments on the topic. That I go into great detail on the various schools and their views on matter in my scholarly work is something that is a matter of public record. Your attempts to belittle me for things I wrote in a blog by nitpicking about my generalizations about Greek philosopher are not worthy of further conversation.