Ontology: A Historiographical Sketch

Ontology is all the rage right now in philosophy (as much as anything in philosophy can be, anyway). New volumes on ontology and metaontology are popping up with increasing frequency, but there’s a bit of a lack of studies of ontology from a historiographical perspective, which is a shame, because it’s a fascinating thread to unravel (if anyone knows of any, please, point them out!).

Aristotle, in the ‘Metaphysics‘, said of metaphysics:

There is a science which investigates being as being and the attributes which belong to this in virtue of its own nature. Now this is not the same as any of the so-called special sciences; for none of these others treats universally of being as being. They cut off a part of being and investigate the attribute of this part; this is what the mathematical sciences for instance do. Now since we are seeking the first principles and the highest causes, clearly there must be some thing to which these belong in virtue of its own nature. If then those who sought the elements of existing things were seeking these same principles, it is necessary that the elements must be elements of being not by accident but just because it is being. Therefore it is of being as being that we also must grasp the first causes.

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The Theological Roots of Thought Experiments in the Middle Ages

Prompted by a fruitful exchange on the Facebook, here’s some historical notes on the roots of thought experiments.

Perhaps the most important event in the history of thought experiments comes in the surprising form of a condemnation of a specific style of natural philosophy – the Condemnation of 1277, issued by Etienne Templar. This condemnation had as its focus a number of Aristotelian propositions, all of which were taken to impugn on the power of God to do whatever He wanted (so long as it didn’t involve a logical contradiction), which included God’s inability to create multiple and different worlds from the actual world, the necessity of all things that happen in the actual world, and constraints on God’s ability to move the heavens in a rectilinear way.

An immediate consequence of the Condemnation was a focus on God’s power for ‘natural impossibilities’ – events with conditions that were impossible from within the received Aristotelian physics. Out of this focus developed two senses of the hypothetical: one concerned with defending Aristotle, the other with moving past him.

The former can be most clearly illustrated by Albert of Saxony:

‘In the fourteenth century, for example, Albert of Saxony, an influential scholastic arts master and natural philosopher, assumed the truth of the eternity of the world and also the existence of a fixed quantity of matter in the world. From these assumptions, he concluded that over an infinite time, this limited quantity of matter would have to furnish bodies for an infinite number of souls. In the course of an eternal period of time, the same matter might serve as the human body of a number of different souls. On the day of resurrection, however, when every soul receives its own material body, a finite quantity of matter would have to receive an infinite number of souls. This was a heretical state of affairs, because one body – indeed every body – would have to receive more than one soul. Albert’s response to this dilemma was typical for natural philosophers who had to contend with theological restrictions. He explains that “the natural philosopher is not much concerned with this argument because when he assumes the eternity of the world, he denies the resurrection of the dead.” Albert simply dropped the inconvenient theological consequences from his discussion but retained the eternity of the world for the sake of the argument. By such appeals and devices, medieval natural philosophers could assume the truth of almost any condemned proposition, provided that they did not proclaim it to be categorically or philosophically true.’ (Edward Grant, ‘The Foundations of Modern Science in the Middle Ages’, p. 80-81)

The more significant sense of the hypothetical, however, turned on God’s power to do anything short of a logical contradiction. This had the effect of encouraging speculation about the world and the way it could be, even though it was ‘naturally impossible’ given Aristotelian physics. The key point to note here isn’t that Aristotle was overthrown or subverted. By using God’s power as a vehicle for speculative natural philosophy, an important meta-counterfactual began to come into view: that the world could coherently be conceived in non-Aristotelian terms. Counterfactuals ‘according to the imagination’ soon became a hallmark of late medieval thought:

‘Natural philosophers actually devised an expression to epitomize this approach when they referred to such counterfactuals as secundum imaginationem, that is, “according to the imagination. The Condemnation of 1277 played a significant role in generating counterfactuals. Many of the condemned articles compelled the acknowledgement of God’s absolute power to do whatever he pleased short of a logical contradiction. Examples of counterfactuals that were derived from the Condemnation of 1277 include the possibility of other worlds, vacua within and beyond our world, and the possibility that God might move our world with a rectilinear motion. In each of these examples, medieval natural philosophers sought to derive consequences within an assumed framework of Aristotelian physics, even though what they initially assumed was impossible in Aristotle’s system. What emerged were a series of interesting speculations, or, as we might say, thought experiments, in which certain Aristotelian principles were challenged and, to some extent, subverted.’ (p. 147-148)

From these counterfactuals emerged new conceptualizations of the world, many of which would be inherited by the early moderns and which would give impetus to the scientific revolution. By clearing the space for non-Aristotelian concepts of the world to be coherently conceived, the groundwork was laid for the assumptions that would drive the scientific revolution:

‘A significant natural impossibility that derived from the condemnation of 1277 involved Article 49, which made it mandatory after 1277 to concede that God could move the world rectilinearly, despite the vacuum that might be left behind. More than an echo of this imaginary manifestation of God’s absolute power reverberated through the seventeenth century. When Gassendi declared that “it is not the case that if God were to move the World from its present location, that space would follow accordingly and move along with it,” he was using the supernatural motion of the world as a convenient support for his belief in the absolute immobility of infinite space. As spokesman for Isaac Newton, Samuel Clarke (1675-1729), in his dispute with Leibniz, also defended the existence of absolute space when he argued that “if space was nothing but the order of things coexisting [as Leibniz maintained]; it would follow that if God should remove the whole material world entire, with any swiftness whatsoever; yet it would still always continue in the same place.” Finally, the power of counterfactuals is nowhere more impressively illustrated than in the principle of inertia, which Newton proclaimed as the first law of motion in The Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy (1687): “Every body continues [or perseveres] in its state of rest, or of uniform motion in a right line, unless it is compelled to change that state by forces impressed upon it.”  In medieval intellectual culture, where observation and experiment played negligible roles, counterfactuals were a powerful tool, because they emphasized metaphysics, logic and theology, the very subjects in which medieval natural philosophers excelled.’ (197)

The Natural Theology of Negation

In ‘Christianity and Classical Culture‘, Jaroslav Pelikan spends a good deal of time on the topics of both natural theology and negative theology, or apophatic theology, in the thought of the Cappodicians. The Cappodicians were concerned not only with the dogmas of the Trinity, Holy Spirit and so on but also with interacting from the classical Greek culture in which they were steeped, and they had no hesitation in appropriating what they took to be parallels between classical thought and Christian thought.

A key example can be found in Gregory of Nyssa, whose overall method was what we might call a method of ‘circumcision’ – so named because he took there to be a number of doctrines in classical thought (creation, for example) that in and of themselves were sound but needed to have the corrupting aspects cut away, as it were (in this case, Gregory cuts away Plato’s doctrine of the co-existence and co-eternality of matter with the creator).

Gregory’s method, then, looks something like this:

(1) find parallels between classical thought and Christian thought

(2) tease out the truths in the parallels

(2a) from (1) and (2) establish a kind of ‘natural theology’

(3) cut away the contrasts – the corrupting philosophy attached to the parallels

Gregory can thus point to a ‘natural theology’ or ‘natural religion’ – he is fond of saying ‘Does not nature say the same?’, when arguing for Christianity, and provide some answers to objections to his faith. This was a key task for the Cappodicians and indeed their apologetics overlap considerably with their evangelistic and pastoral concerns (at times it is difficult to even distinguish between the three).

Taken in an unqualified sense such a method poses grave dangers – it is but a step from the above method to drawing positive statements about the divine on the basis of created, finite things, and this was a danger of which the Cappodicians were fully aware. It was with this danger in mind that they expounded their negative theology:

‘To protect themselves against distortion, whether accidental or deliberate, any “proper conceptions about the divine nature”, therefore, needed to begin from the fundamental premise that the divine nature was “unlike anything known” that might be used in speaking about it.’ (Jaroslav Pelikan, ‘Christianity and Classical Culture’, p. 45

Such was the language of negation – the recognition that there was no way for human thought or language to ever comprehend fully the divine. There is no perfect analogy – any analogy had to proceed with the presupposition that while it may be an understandable analogy it is ultimately an inadequate one. Apophatic theology thus serves as a guide or a boundary marker within which reason is free:

‘For negative theology could be construed not only as a limitation on the mind but at the same time as a liberation of the mind, setting the human reason, as the image of God, free to pursue its speculations within the boundaries that had been set for it.’ (p. 57)

It is not reason itself, however, that recognizes these limits. This recognition comes through faith, a mode of knowing given through grace, and it is faith that recognizes and accepts the transcendence of God – for Gregory, the divine has its being where thought does not reach.

An interesting contrast may here be noted between the Cappodicians and Aristotle. The latter held that being qua being is the proper object of human inquiry and the end of human reason – the former held that apart from faith, the divine being was hidden from human reason and in fact was not comparable to any other thing that existed or could be known:

‘Apophatic metaphysics, then, was inseparable from apophatic epistemology, whose fundamental axiom was: “The divine being is to be known only in the impossibility of perceiving it.” The divine being – to whom, at Athens in the very first confrontation between Christianity and classical culture, the apostle Paul had applied a quotation from a pagan Greek poet, “In him we live and move, in him we exist” – could not be compared to any other beings to which the terms “being” and “knowing” had ever been applied. In the case of these other beings, a growth in human knowledge meant an increase in understanding and comprehending the subject, but here it meant the opposite, an ever deepening awareness of the incomprehensibility of the subject.” (p 55)

There is, then, a twofold payoff to be seen here: faith both fulfills and refutes reason. The former it does by means of the latter: faith allows us to know God – thus fulfilling reason – by showing us that we cannot know God – thus refuting reason – by showing us the limits of reason.

Postmodernism, a Failure of Nerve?

‘Postmodernists nearly all reject classical foundationalism; in this they concur with most Christian thinkers and most contemporary philosophers. Momentously enough, however, many postmodernists apparently believe that the demise of classical foundationalism implies something far more startling: that there is no such thing as truth at all, no way things really are. Why make that leap, when as a matter of logic it clearly doesn’t follow? For various reasons, no doubt. Prominent among those reasons is a sort of Promethean desire not to live in a world we have not ourselves constituted or structured. With the early Heidegger, a postmodern may refuse to feel at home in any world he hasn’t himself created.

 Now some of this may be a bit hard to take seriously (it may seem less Promethean defiance than foolish posturing); so here is another possible reason. As I pointed out, classical foundationalism arose out of uncertainty, conflict, and clamorous (and rancorous) disagreement; it emerged at a time when everyone did what was right (epistemically speaking) in his own eyes. Now life without sure and secure foundations is frightening and unnerving; hence Descartes’s fateful effort to find a sure and solid footing for the beliefs with which he found himself. (Hence also Kant’s similar effort to find an irrefragable foundation for science.)

Such Christian thinkers as Pascal, Kierkegaard, and Kuyper, however, recognize that there aren’t any certain foundations of the sort Descartes sought—or, if there are, they are exceedingly slim, and there is no way to transfer their certainty to our important non-foundational beliefs about material objects, the past, other persons, and the like. This is a stance that requires a certain epistemic hardihood: there is, indeed, such a thing as truth; the stakes are, indeed, very high (it matters greatly whether you believe the truth); but there is no way to be sure that you have the truth; there is no sure and certain method of attaining truth by starting from beliefs about which you can’t be mistaken and moving infallibly to the rest of your beliefs. Furthermore, many others reject what seems to you to be most important. This is life under uncertainty, life under epistemic risk and fallibility. I believe a thousand things, and many of them are things others—others of great acuity and seriousness—do not believe. Indeed, many of the beliefs that mean the most to me are of that sort. I realize I can be seriously, dreadfully, fatally wrong, and wrong about what it is enormously important to be right. That is simply the human condition: my response must be finally, “Here I stand; this is the way the world looks to me.”

There is, however, another sort of reaction possible here. If it is painful to live at risk, under the gun, with uncertainty but high stakes, maybe the thing to do is just reduce or reject the stakes. If, for example, there just isn’t any such thing as truth, then clearly one can’t go wrong by believing what is false or failing to believe what is true. If we reject the very idea of truth, we needn’t feel anxious about whether we’ve got it. So the thing to do is dispense with the search for truth and retreat into projects of some other sort: self-creation and self-redefinition as with Nietzsche and Heidegger, or Rortian irony, or perhaps playful mockery, as with Derrida. So taken, postmodernism is a kind of failure of epistemic nerve.’ (Alvin Plantinga, ‘Warranted Christian Belief)

Those Links Tho

To start off, two articles on Biblical historicity – the Exodus and Jesus, respectively:

Did Jesus Exist? Searching for Evidence Beyond the Bible:

‘The sources normally discussed fall into three main categories: (1) classical (that is, Greco-Roman), (2) Jewish and (3) Christian. But when people ask whether it is possible to prove that Jesus of Nazareth actually existed, as John P. Meier pointed out decades ago, “The implication is that the Biblical evidence for Jesus is biased because it is encased in a theological text written by committed believers.2 What they really want to know is: Is there extra-Biblical evidence … for Jesus’ existence?”’

Was There an Exodus?:

‘Proofs exist in geometry, and sometimes in law, but rarely within the fields of biblical studies and archaeology. As is so often the case, the record at our disposal is highly incomplete, and speculation about cultural transmission must remain contingent. We do the most we can with the little we have, invoking plausibility more than proof. To be plain about it, the parallels I have drawn here do not “prove” the historical accuracy of the Exodus account, certainly not in its entirety. They do not prove that the text before us received its final form in the 13th century BCE. And they can and no doubt will be construed by rational individuals, lay and professional alike, in different ways.’

Atrium Carceri’s original soundtrack for the PC game ‘The Old City: Leviathan’ is outstanding and worth listening to immediately (and I recommend listening to it as a whole). Fans of the genre will recognize Atrium Carceri as one of the premier acts in dark ambient.

The Coast Guard’s Most Potent Weapon During Prohibition? Codebreaker Elizebeth Friedman:

‘To convict the accused, Woodcock had to link them to hundreds—if not thousands—of encrypted messages that passed between at least 25 separate ships, their shore stations, and the headquarters in New Orleans. Defense attorneys demanded to know how the government could prove the content of enciphered messages. How, for example, could a cryptanalyst know that “MJFAK ZYWKB QATYT JSL QATS QXYGX OGTB” translated to “anchored in harbor where and when are you sending fuel?”*

Elizebeth Friedman, the prosecution’s star witness, asked the judge to find a chalkboard.

Using a piece of chalk, she stood before the jury and explained the basics of cryptanalysis. Friedman talked about simple cipher charts, mono-alphabetic ciphers and polysyllabic ciphers; she reviewed how cryptanalysts encoded messages by writing keywords in lines of code, enclosing them with letter patterns that could be deciphered with the help of various code books and charts rooted in the schemes and charts of centuries past.’

The Scripture Principle in the Didache:

‘When teachers speak, therefore, they must speak in accordance with what has been said before–an utterly Pauline stance found already in Galatians 1. Thus Didache 11: “Whosoever, therefore, comes and teaches you all these things that have been said before, receive him.” The author presumes that his audience is capable of testing the teaching to which they are exposed by some other standard, namely, the standard of what they have already received (ταῦτα πάντα τὰ προειρημένα).’

Music’s Address:

‘“Music,” writes Roger Scruton (Soul of the World, 175) “addresses us from beyond the borders of the natural world” and thus “requires us to respond to a subjectivity that lies beyond the world of objects, in a space of its own.” It’s one of the intimations of a world outside the natural world describable by science.

But music is made of sounds, and sounds are vibrations, physical events. Scruton of course knows this, but his point is that there is something more to hearing music than there is to hearing sounds. Music is irreducible to the sounds that make it up.’

Moral Facts:

‘On the one hand, a moral fact is simply the fact that I am obliged to do something, and to deny that there is a fact of the matter here is a non-starter. You might as well deny that there are birds. Sure, I suppose you could make some abstruse taxonomic argument that birds are really just dinosaurs, but it has no power to work as a magical incantation to make parakeets vanish from cages or chicken disappear from my sandwich. If I want to walk out of the store with five pizzas and a tub of ice cream, I happen to know that I’m obliged to pay for them, to do so with dollars, and to wait in line to do so. Telling me that this is an ‘opinion’ is a failure to grasp both the situation I find myself in and the epistemological stance I have to it.’

The Theory-Ladeness of Observation:

‘…most importantly, it must be grasped that those who argue for the theory-ladeness of observation are not making the rather uncontroversial claim that different observers see the same thing but interpret what they see differently. Few would dispute that. Even the most avid foudationalist admits that of course holders of rival theories interpret the “data” differently, each in the light of his or her own theory. However, a foundationalist claims that before these rival interpretations begin, so to speak, both observers are “given” the same datum to interpret (in Latin, “datum” simply means “given”). A sufficient base of data will eventually enable a neutral judge to determine which interpretation best fits the data. What the thesis of theory-ladeness is claiming is that observers with different beliefs “see” or “experience” different things, before any interpretive process can begin. Thus observation by itself can never settle disputes between such rival systems of belief. Since there is no common datum against which to measure the acceptability of rival theories, the observations made by holders of different theories are said to be “incommensurable.”‘

Learning From the Past in Theology

Theology as a discipline is rather different than, say, the natural sciences, in that, by and large, the older an idea is, the more true it is. In theology, one simply has to take what has been said in the past seriously and in some ways authoritatively, and in other cases definitively. I see this as a fairly common-sense sort of idea. Consider the post-apostolic fathers (the ante-Nicene fathers). It makes a good amount of sense to take what they say as an authoritative and definitive interpretation of the teachings of the Apostles, since, you know, they were the disciples of the Apostles.

Another way it makes sense to take seriously the voices of the past also seems to be a common sense idea: a lot (a lot!) of people have thought about theology and theological things. Lots of these people were very, very smart and very devout Christians – so it makes a lot of sense to take seriously what they had to say. Chances are, somebody has had something very good to say on whatever theological idea your thinking about. Examples would be the medieval period – lots of very important and interesting thinkers there. It would be kind of not smart to simply ignore a thousand years worth of theological reflection.

Now, the opposite of what I’m saying is, unfortunately, seen more often in theology than it should be, and its basically taking the voices of the past less seriously simply because of who/where/when there did their thinking. Easy example: the medievals. It’s pretty easy, in theological circles, to make blanket-statements about the atonement because some guy’s theory of the atonement reflected an aspect of his feudal society (I wonder who that guy is). It then becomes even easier to write off the entire medieval period as theologically illegitimate because of an influential model of the atonement. I seen it with my own eyes.

The problem with that should be fairly easy to see (I actually see two problems): it’s pretty stupid to write off whole periods of church history on account of when/who they were, and it’s equally as stupid to write off whatever theological idea because it (in this case) is a model of the atonement obsessed with feudal concepts of justice and retribution (disputable, but moving on). I see the latter as worse, actually, because at the heart of nearly every theological idea, no matter how weird or offensive it may be to us, there is a legitimate theological concern. Stupid medievals, with their individualistic retributive penal ideas of satisfaction! Out with them. Never mind that behind such theories of the atonement lie some pretty deep theological reflection on the nature of the Incarnation, justice, etc. And there’s the rub: by dismissing an idea on account of what’s on its surface, we miss the deep and often edifying aspects of the idea floating below.

A kind-of case study of what I’m getting at can be seen in Nicholas Wolterstorff’s ‘Justice in Love’. Towards the end of the book, he engages in a exegetical study of the concept of God’s justice, drawing on the book of Romans. He states at the beginning of the chapter that he sees his project as concerned with the medieval concept of God’s justice, iustia dei. He then wonders why there seems to be a lack of Protestant engagement with this idea of justice – he cites N.T. Wright as an example. According to Wolterstorff, Wright has never discussed iustia dei  in any of his work on the topic of justification.

Wright has a habit of broadbrushing and oversimplifying ideas – the Enlightenment being a very prominent example. I suspect, though can’t of course be one hundred percent sure, that he would likely point to various examples of medieval theology gone wrong (purgatory, doing penance) as a reason why medieval theology was all muddleheaded, and then go about his day. He has of course engaged medieval theology (‘Scripture and the Authority of God’ had a lot of good work on medieval exegesis), but based on his slogan-like dismissal of various dynamic movements like the Enlightenment, I don’t see him as terribly concerned with medieval understandings of justice and what they have to say to us today.

This is a criticism that could probably be made of Protestantism as a whole – the medieval period is often trotted out as a whipping-boy along with the Enlightenment. The point of this, though, isn’t to pimp medieval theology but to highlight the perils of writing off the underlying concerns of any idea we disagree with for relatively shallow reasons, using Wright and iustia dei as a working example.

The point of all this rambling? Don’t write off an idea just because of what it says on the surface, but look to engage the underlying concerns of any idea.

Random Thought Note

Odd feelings listening to late 19th/early 20th century European nationalist music, in this case the Bohemian Bedrich Smetana’s ‘Ma Vlast’, or ‘My Fatherland’. Sustained reflection on the attitudes and cultural spirit behind such works can leave one with feelings of unease, though it is interesting to trace the thread of the developments of such attitudes through history, with most beginning with the enlightenment and seeing a lot of development and expression in German idealism (which was a failure as a coherent system of metaphysics but a powerful cultural force), such as Fichte and Hegel, continuing to Nietzsche and Wagner. Hegel’s philosophy of the state (which is genuinely chilling) gave definite impetus to later ideas that proved rather disastrous such as Marxism (the march of history, for example) , and it is of no small consequence that Nazi field libraries in WWII were stocked with Fichte’s writings. That many of these ideas found their fullest expression in music is a very interesting matter to think on.

A fuller exploration of these would take one back to the middle ages (where William of Ockham’s political thought was and remains hugely influential) and the development of the nation-state leading to the rise of nationalism – which in turn would take one back to the seminal political writing of all time, Plato’s Republic. Other crucial early modern thinkers would include Hobbes and Locke, though the political side of the reformation and the thought of the reformers is equally important.