Etienne Gilson on Metaphysics

‘The question then arises: Should the repeated failures of metaphysics be ascribed to metaphysics itself, or to metaphysicians? It is a legitimate question, and one that can be answered in the light of philosophical experience. For indeed that experience itself exhibits a remarkable unity. If our previous analyses are correct, they all point to the same conclusion, that metaphysical adventures are doomed to fail when their authors substitute the fundamental concepts of any particular science for those of metaphysics. Theology, logic, physics, biology, psychology, sociology, economics, are fully competent to solve their own problems by their own methods; on the other hand, however, and this must be our fourth conclusion: as metaphysics aims at transcending all particular knowledge, no particular science is competent either to solve metaphysical problems, or to judge their metaphysical solutions.’ (Etienne Gilson, ‘The Unity of Philosophical Experience,’p. 249)

Physics, Metaphysics, Physics

I’ll be the first to say that a lot of physics and a lot of metaphysics goes right over my head. Whoosh. Modern analytic philosophy, which is what most folks mean when they say metaphysics, is about as comprehensible to me as advanced mathematics (I’m terrible at math). A lot of modern physics, at least the mathematical parts (which is a lot) is the same – whoosh.

However, I do try and keep up at least somewhat with the latest developments of the broader ideas and underpinnings of metaphysics and physics – especially physics, which is way more metaphysical than a lot of folks think it is. Philosophy of physics and the broad metaphysical ideas behind and under modern cosmology are just as important, and in my mind way more interesting, anyway.

I say all this to pick a fight with something Tim Maudlin says in his great book, ‘The Metaphysics within Physics,’ :

‘Metaphysics is ontology. Ontology is the most generic study of what exists. Evidence for what exists, at least in the physical world, is provided by empirical research. Hence the proper object of most metaphysics is the careful analysis of our best scientific theories (and especially of fundamental physical theories) with the goal of determining what they imply about the constitution of the physical world.’ (p. 104)

Now, it should be fairly obvious the issues here: the definition of ontology. Ontology is not the study of what exists, ontology is the study of being, or existence (you can be real anal and dispute whether or not those two words mean the same thing. I’m not going to). Being as such, not this or that particular thing that has being – or existence as such, not this or that thing that happens to exist. Being qua being. This is a pretty significant thing to get wrong.

A more concrete example: metaphysics studies how it is that change is possible (Parmenides, Heraclitus, Aristotle) and not this or that example of change (a chemical reaction, for example). What Maudlin does is to shift metaphysics from being the study of the absolute fundamentals of reality to a slightly more abstract form of empirical science, which analyzes various empirical theories. That isn’t metaphysics, that is just normal thinking.

In a nutshell, Maudlin’s scheme is that we derive metaphysics from physics, and further, ontology from physics. Our notions of existence comes from physics. Earlier in the same volume:

‘First: metaphysics, i.e. ontology, is the most generic account of what exists, and since our knowledge of what exists in the physical world rests on empirical evidence, metaphysics must be informed by empirical science.’ (p. 78)

I’m tempted to say that simply knowing what exists gives us no knowledge past bare sensory knowledge of particulars, which doesn’t really lead to knowledge of any kind, which is what Maudlin is setting out to do by analyzing various theories. But why restrict our knowledge of what exists to the physical, as Maudlin implicitly does? Twice above he says that whatever exists in the physical world is supported by empirical, or physical evidence. But that’s only trivially true – obviously, if something exists in the physical world, it will have physical evidence. But it doesn’t follow from that that the only notions of existence, or what exists comes from the physical world.

This seems to be a tangled way of thinking, which has its origin in Maudlin’s confusion of what metaphysics is. Now, as I said above, this isn’t my game. Analytic philosophy ain’t my thing, so it’s possible I’m quite wrong in my analysis. But what I see, in another nuthsell, is (a) a confusion of terms (ontology as the study of what exists), which leads to (b) the idea that our only knowledge of what exists is physical. To make ontology the study of what exists is to make metaphysics and ontology, as stated above, a slightly more abstract brand of empirical science.

Note on Strengthening Faith

When someone says something in regards to, say, a fact of science, that ‘it strengthened their faith’, what exactly does that mean? That acquiring this particular piece of empirical knowledge somehow increased either the quality or quantity of their faith? How would this work? I see statements like that often, but I’m not sure what is really meant by them. One believes in God – does learning X mean that now they really believe in God? Or that if there was any doubt, now there isn’t? But suppose X hadn’t been found out. Would said faith be weaker than if X had? I doubt that very much – I have a hard time imagining a devout Christian would have their faith shaken by not coming across a certain fact – if they did, then that would serve simply to show the folly of basing one’s faith in God upon a particular empirical fact.

Or suppose that the opposite of X, Y, had been found out. Would that have weakened said faith? I doubt that, because I don’t think what is meant by ‘strengthening faith’ is that X actually increases the quality of one’s spiritual confidence in God, or corrects a deficiency or weakness in said faith, but rather that X simply affirms what is already believed. I know my wife is a lovely person, but when she makes a nice dinner or cleans up the kitchen, I don’t say, ‘wow, that really strengthened my belief that she’s a nice person.’ I already know she’s a nice person – dinner simply serves to confirm what I already know. A poor analogy that’s best not pressed too far, but it serves the point.

Anyway, my point is that I don’t think most folks who say that X strengthens their faith actually mean that. From a theological perspective, God strengthens my faith – not any particular empirical or metaphysical fact. I think it was Newman who said, ‘I believe in design because I believe in God, not in God because I believe in design.

Divine Simplicity: East, West, and Barth

Divine simplicity is the idea that God is not composed of any metaphysical parts – He is one. This is based on the Shema – ‘hear, or Israel, the Lord our God is one.’ There are two main ways of thinking about this that have dominated: the Latin tradition and the Eastern tradition – Barth’s is different from both of these.

The Latin tradition holds that God is absolutely simple in His essence – His existence is His essence, which is His power, which is His goodness, etc. God is utterly one. While we may distinguish between God’s attributes, there is no real distinction in God Himself. God is one in His simplicity.

The Eastern tradition takes a different route. God’s essence is supremely unknowable – we know God through his energies, or workings in creation. The energy/essence distinction avoids simplicity because the energies are distinct from the essence, but don’t think of this as a kind of kantian mediator, or thing-in-the-middle; God’s energies are really God, so in knowing God’s energies (such as His grace, love, mercy), we really do know God. Nothing can be said about the essence, since it is the absolute ontological chasm between God and humanity

Barth takes a decidedly different approach, known as actualism. Instead of taking the Eastern way, which he regarded as a product of subjective apophatic mysticism (he was quite wrong about the apophatic tradition, but that’s for another time), and the Western way, which he saw as abstract metaphysics, he begins with God. God as He is. As He reveals Himself. Barth refuses any kind of speculation and begins his discussion by asserting that God is the Living god, to be known on His own terms.

For Barth, the issue isn’t so much of existence and essence (though he uses that language) so much as act and being. God’s being, who He is, is what He is in His works. God’s being is in His act. His act is revelation – His self-revealing. God is who He is in His act of revelation. So, instead of God’s existence being His essence, His being is His act, and His act is revelation. God’s being is revelation, ergo, God is revelation.

So, in a nutshell, Barth basically affirms the medieval and Latin tradition of existence being essence – he simply gets in a very different way. Whereas the Latins arrive by means of metaphysics (what Barth would call speculation) Barth arrives by means of the self-revealing of the Living God. This shouldn’t be new territory for those familiar with Barth – he was famous for his rejection of metaphysics, natural theology, and speculative metaphysics about God and the nature of God. Torrance would do a good job of mellowing out Barth’s thought and giving a place to natural theology and metaphyics.

These are more or less the two dominant positions, as well as Barth’s – questions, comments, criticisms welcome.

Camels, Minimalism, Anachronism, and Kenneth Kitchen

‘Camels were last and least of Abraham’s possessions (Gen. 12:16), and in his time were used solely for the long-distance, desert-edge trip to Harran and back by his servant to obtain Isaac’s bride (24:10-64 passim). They were among the last named in Jacob’s wealth (30:43; 32:7, 15) and again were used solely for the long trip from Harran back to Canaan (31:17, 34). The desert-traveling Midianites used them (37:25). This is remarkably little. Then, at the time of the exodus and after (thirteenth century at the latest), they occur once among Pharaoh’s transport animals (Exod. 9:3) and twice in lists of creatures not to be eaten (Lev. 11:4; Deut. 14:7). Not much of a presence at all!

What about external sources between circa 2000 and 1200? We first consider the early second millennium (vaguely patriarchal), for which we have the following: from Egypt, a camel skull from the Fayum, “Pottery A” stage of occupation, within circa 2000-1400; from Byblos, a figurine of a kneeling camel, hump and load now missing (originally fixed by a tenon), about nineteenth/eighteenth century; from Canaan, a camel jaw from a Middle Bronze tomb at Tell el-Far’ah North, circa 1900/1550; from north Syria, a cylinder seal of the eighteenth century (of deities on a camel), in the Walters Art Gallery; and from mentions of the camel in the Sumerian lexical work HAR.ra-hubullu, going back in origin to the early second millennium….

[T]he camel was for long a marginal beast in most of the historic ancient Near East (including Egypt), but it was not wholly unknown or anachronistic before or during 2000-1100.’ ( Kenneth Kitchen, ‘On the Reliability of the Old Testament’, p. 338-339)

‘Abraham did not want his son to marry a Canaanite, so he sent his servant to Paddan Aram (as the Haran region of north Mesopotamia is called) to secure a bride for Isaac. With ten camels and adequate personnel, the servant heads the caravan towards his master’s Aramean kinsmen. The mention of camels here and elsewhere in the patriarchal narratives often is considered anachronistic. However, the correctness of the Bible is supported by the representation of camel riding on seal cylinders of precisely this period from northern Mesopotamia”

“It is often asserted that the mention of camels and of their use is an anachronism in Genesis. This charge is simply not true, as there is both philological and archaeological evidence for knowledge and use of this animal in the early second millenium BC and even earlier. While a possible reference to camels in a fodder-list from Alalakh (c. eighteenth century BC) has been disputed, the great Mesopotamian lexical lists that originated in the Old Babylonian period show a knowledge of the camel c. 2000/17000 BC, including its domestication. Furthermore, a Sumerian text from Nippur from the same early period gives clear evidence of domestication of the camel by then, by its allusions to camel’s milk…For the early and middle second millennium BC, only limited use is presupposed by either the biblical or external evidence until the twelfth century BC.’ (Kenneth Kitchen, full source here.

David Bentley Hart on Existence

‘Physical reality cannot account for its own existence for the simple reason that nature – the physical – is that which by definition already exists; existence, even taken as a simple brute fact to which no metaphysical theory is attached, lies logically beyond the system of causes that nature comprises; it is, quite literally, “hyperphysical,” or, shifting into Latin, super naturam. This means not only that at some point nature requires or admits of a supernatural explanation (which it does), but also that at no point is anything purely, self-sufficiently natural in the first place. This is a logical and ontological claim, but a phenomenological, epistemological, and experiential one as well. We have, in fact, no direct access to nature as such; we can approach nature only across the interval of the supernatural. Only through our immediate encounter with the being of a thing are we permitted our wholly mediated experience of that thing as a natural object; we are able to ask what it s only in first knowing that it is; and so in knowing nature we have always already gone beyond its intrinsic limits.’ (David Bentley Hart, ‘The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss’, p.96)

More Reading Notes 2/15/14

I finally got Pelikan’s Reformation book in his history of doctrine series. It’s been outstanding so far – I’ve zeroed in on the discussion of Luther, justification and the theology of the cross. Something I learned was Luther’s emphasis on the Christus Victor theme, which, while all Christians sort of believe that at some level, definitely lost some emphasis in the medieval period. Luther focused on it to a degree I had not realized. While I’m fairly familiar with the justification doctrines Luther puts forward, this has also served to flesh out the subtleties in his thought in that area. I hope to learn more of the subtleties and nuances in Reformation thought.

Apart from that, I’ve done a large amount of reading in the classical metaphysical tradition, specifically the Aristotelean (sp?) theory of act and potency and the debate surrounding divine simplicity/energy-essence distinction. The main thinkers I consulted on act/potency include Aquinas, here, Aristotle, here, and Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, whose writings on the topic can be found here. I read Hart on simplicity several times over in ‘The Experience of God’, who, while Orthodox, takes a decidedly Latin approach to the whole affair, but still maintains that God in his true nature is unknowable, whereas the E/E distinction doesn’t hold to the absolute divine simplicity of the Latin tradition. I also consulted Barth, in C/D 2.1, pages 457-461, who affirms divine simplicity by tying it to the freedom and simplicity of God’s love, which is par for the course for Barth. This led inevitably to thinking about the role of apophatic and cataphatic theology – which is a whole ‘nother discussion.

‘Mapping the Mind’, by Rita Carter has also been great – a fantastic entry-level book on the physiology/biology of the brain and brain science, technical, up-to-date, covering all the major areas, but easy to read. I’m learning a great deal about neurons, synapses, grey matter, chemical reactions, and lots of other fun things.

Earlier this week I spent some time reading Plantinga’s ‘Warranted Christian Belief’, specifically the sections dealing with foundationalism. This was sparked by someone asserting that unless one had self-evident propositions one couldn’t have knowledge, and God served as the self-evident thing. Plantinga more or less points out a big flaw, namely that foundationalism is self-referentially incoherent – it makes demands that it can’t meet. Fantastic book all around, and highly recommended.