Form and Reality

In a very interesting post Alexander Pruss discusses realism and skeptical scenarios:

The ordinary sentence “There are four chairs in my office” is true (in its ordinary context). Furthermore, its being true tells us very little about fundamental ontology. Fundamental physical reality could be made out of a single field, a handful of fields, particles in three-dimensional space, particles in ten-dimensional space, a single vector in a Hilbert space, etc., and yet the sentence could be true.

An interesting consequence: Even if in fact physical reality is made out of particles in three-dimensional space, we should not analyze the sentence to mean that there are four disjoint pluralities of particles each arranged chairwise in my office. For if that were what the sentence meant, it would tell us about which of the fundamental physical ontologies is correct. Rather, the sentence is true because of a certain arrangement of particles (or fields or whatever).

If there is such a broad range of fundamental ontologies that “There are four chairs in my office” is compatible with, it seems that the sentence should also be compatible with various sceptical scenarios, such as that I am a brain in a vat being fed data from a computer simulation. In that case, the chair sentence would be true due to facts about the computer simulation, in much the way that “There are four chairs in this Minecraft house” is true. It would be very difficult to be open to a wide variety of fundamental physics stories about the chair sentence without being open to the sentence being true in virtue of facts about a computer simulation.

But now suppose that the same kind of thing is true for other sentences about physical things like tables, dogs, trees, human bodies, etc.: each of these sentences can be made true by a wide array of physical ontologies. Then it seems that nothing we say about physical things rules out sceptical scenarios: yes, I know I have two hands, but my having two hands could be grounded by facts about a computer simulation. At this point the meaningfulness of the sceptical question whether I know I am not a brain in a vat is breaking down. And with it, realism is breaking down.

I am not completely sure what Pruss means by “realism is breaking down,” but he is looking at something important here. One question that needs to be addressed, however, is what counts as a skeptical scenario in the first place. In the rest of the post, Pruss makes an interesting suggestion about this:

In order for the sceptical question to make sense, we need the possibility of saying things that cannot simply be made true by a very wide variety of physical theories, since such things will also be made true by computer simulations. This gives us an interesting anti-reductionist argument. If the statement “I have two hands” is to be understood reductively (and I include non-Aristotelian functionalist views as reductive), then it could still be literally true in the brain-in-a-vat scenario. But if anti-reductionism about hands is true, then the statement wouldn’t be true in the brain-in-a-vat scenario. And so I can deny that I am in that scenario simply by saying “I have two hands.”

But maybe I am moving too fast here. Maybe “I have two hands” could be literally true in a brain-in-a-vat scenario. Suppose that the anti-reductionism consists of there being Aristotelian forms of hands (presumably accidental forms). But if, for all we know, the form of a hand can inform a bunch of particles, a fact about a vector or the region of a field, then the form of a hand can also inform an aspect of a computer simulation. And so, for all we know, I can literally and non-reductively have hands even if I am a brain in a vat. I am not sure, however, that I need to worry about this. What is important is form, not the precise material substrate. If physical reality is the memory of a giant computer but it isn’t a mere simulation but is in fact informed by a multiplicity of substantial and accidental forms corresponding to people, trees, hands, hearts, etc., and these forms are real entities, then the scenario does not seem to me to be a sceptical scenario.

A skeptical scenario, according to Pruss, is a situation where the things we normally talk about do not have forms. If they do have forms, we are not in a skeptical scenario at all, even if in some sense we are in a computer simulation or even if someone is a brain in a vat. On the face of it this seems a very odd claim: “form” seems to be a technical philosophical explanation, while asking if we are in a skeptical scenario seems to be asking if our everyday common sense understanding of things is mistaken.

Nonetheless, there is a lot of truth in his explanation. First let us consider what is meant by a skeptical scenario in the first place. In terms of his example, it is supposed to go something like this: “Is it possible that you are a brain in a vat without realizing it? If so, then almost everything you believe is false, since you do not have hands, the people you speak to are not real, and so on.”

In the post Pruss is pointing out a problem with the skeptical question. The skeptical question is like a skeptic in the remote past asking, “Is it possible that the earth is spinning without us realizing it? If so, then our everyday opinion that the sun rises every morning is false, since the sun does not move.”

The response to the second skeptic is evident: our everyday opinion that the sun rises every morning is not false, not even if the earth turns out to be spinning, because “the sun rises every morning,” is to be understood in whatever way is needed in order for it to be true. It refers to what happens every morning, whatever that actually happens to be.

Pruss is pointing out that we can answer the first question in the same way: our everyday opinion that we have hands is not false, not even if we are in a computer simulation or in a vat, because “I have two hands” is to be understood in whatever way is needed in order for it to be true. It refers to these two things in front of me right now, whatever they actually are.

Let’s suppose the skeptic tries to come up with a response. He might say, “Look, computer programs do not have hands, and brains do not have hands. So if you are a computer program or a brain in a vat, then you just do not have hands, period. So those scenarios do indeed mean that your common understanding would be false.”

It is certainly true that according to our common understanding, brains in vats do not have hands. So there is a tension here: the argument that it would be true to say we have hands even in that situation seems like a good argument, but so does the argument that it would be false that we have hands.

The answer to the difficulty is that we need to consider the meaning of “I am a brain in a vat.” Just as the word “hands” should refer to these two things in front of me, whatever they are, so the word “brain” refers to things inside of people’s heads, whatever they are, and the word “vat” refers to other things we sometimes experience in real life, at occasionally, or something very like them. But this means that just as “I have two hands” is to be understood in whatever way is needed to make it true, so also “I am not a brain in a vat,” is understood in whatever way is needed to make it true.

This means that correct answer to the original question was simply, “No, it isn’t possible that I will turn out to be a brain in a vat, regardless of any later discoveries, and it isn’t possible that the sun will turn out not to rise, regardless of discoveries about the motion of the sun and of the earth.”

The skeptic will want to insist. Surely events like those of The Matrix are at least conceivable. And if some such situation turned out to be true, then wasn’t it true that you were in a skeptical scenario and that your beliefs about hands and brains and vats were all false, and especially would it not be the case that your belief that you weren’t in a situation like that was false?

The correct answer, again, is that your original beliefs were not false. But in view of your new knowledge of the world, you might well want to adopt a new mode of speaking, and say things that would sound opposed to your original beliefs. They would not be opposed, however, but would simply be speaking about things you did not originally speak about.

Note however that “your belief that you weren’t in a situation like that” could now be taken in two ways. It could mean my belief that I am not a brain in a vat, and this belief will never turn out to have been false. Or it could mean a belief that there is not some larger view of reality where “he was a brain in a vat” would be a reasonable description, in the way that someone coming out of the Matrix would acquire a larger view. In reality I have the latter belief as well, as I consider it improbable that any intelligent beings would behave in such a way as to make that scenario probable. But I don’t think it is impossible for this belief to be falsified; and if it were, I would not say that my previous common sense beliefs had been false. This corresponds to what Pruss says at the end of his post, where he says that as long as things have forms, it is not really a skeptical scenario, even if in some sense he is in a computer simulation or whatever.

Why the insistence on form? This is related to what we called the Semi-Parmenidean Heresy. There we discussed Sean Carroll’s view, and noted that his position in essence is this: Metaphysically, the eliminativists are right. But it is useful to talk as though they are wrong, so we’re going to talk as though they are wrong, and even say they are wrong, by saying that common sense things are real.

This is ultimately incoherent: if the eliminativists are mistaken, they are mistaken in their metaphysics, since the position is just a certain metaphysical position.

It is not difficult to see the connection. According to a strict eliminativist, it would be literally true that we do not have hands, because there is no such thing as “we” or as “hands” in the first place. There are just fundamental particles. In other words, eliminativism would be even more of a skeptical scenario than the Matrix; the Matrix would not imply that your common sense beliefs are false, while eliminativism simply says that all of your beliefs are false, including your belief that you have beliefs.

And on the other hand, no scenario will be truly skeptical, even one like the Matrix, if it admits that our common sense beliefs are true. And as I said at the end of the post on Carroll’s view, this requires a metaphysics that allows those beliefs to be true, and this requires formal causes.

Alexander Pruss, however, seems to me to interpret this in a rather narrow way in his concluding remark:

If physical reality is the memory of a giant computer but it isn’t a mere simulation but is in fact informed by a multiplicity of substantial and accidental forms corresponding to people, trees, hands, hearts, etc., and these forms are real entities, then the scenario does not seem to me to be a sceptical scenario.

It is not clear what it means to be “real entities” rather than being unreal, given that you acknowledge them in the first place, and it isn’t clear to me what he means by a “mere simulation.” But this sounds a lot to me like, “If the world isn’t Aristotelian, understood in a very narrow way, then that would be a skeptical scenario.” This seems to me a kind of stubbornness much like that of James Larson. Disagreeing with you is not a war against being, and believing that your account of form and matter didn’t get every detail right, is not saying that our common sense beliefs are not true.

As an illustration of the narrowness in question, consider Pruss’s position on artifacts:

Suppose I am a plumber, and I take a section of pipe, insert a blowgun dart, and blow.  I just shot a dart out of a blowgun.  When did the pipe turn into a blowgun, though?

Did it happen when I formed the intention to use the pipe as a blowgun?  No: I do not have the power to make new material objects come into existence just by thinking about it.

When I picked up the pipe?  There are at least there is contact.  But surely it’s not the right kind of contact.  It would be magic if I could make a new material object come into existence by just picking up a material object with a certain thought in mind.

When I inserted the dart?  Presumably, not any insertion will do, but one with a plan to blow.  For I could just be doing plumbing, using the outer diameter of the dart to measure the inner diameter of the pipe, and that shouldn’t turn the pipe into a dart.  Again, we have some magic here–thinking about the pipe in one way while inserting the dart creates a blowgun while thinking about it another way leaves it a boring pipe.  Moreover, putting the dart into the pipe seems to be an instance of loading a blowgun rather than making a blowgun.

The solution to all this is to deny that there are pipes and blowguns.  There is just matter (or fields) arranged pipewise and blowgunwise.  And for convenience we adopt ways of speaking that make it sound like such objects are among the furniture of the universe.

Pruss is not simply putting out a position for discussion; this is what he believes to be true, as is easily confirmed elsewhere on his blog. Note that he is falling into the Semi-Parmenidean heresy here, except that he is even going farther than Carroll, and suggesting that “there are no pipes and blowguns” is a true statement, which Carroll would rightly deny. In this way Pruss is almost a pure eliminativist about artifacts. (He does also speak elsewhere more in the manner of Sean Carroll about them.)

To the degree that he is eliminativist about artifacts, he contradicts common sense in the same kind of way that someone contradicts common sense who says, “You do not have hands.” He just contradicts it about different things. And why about these things, and not others? I suggest that it is because under the ordinary Aristotelian account, it is likely that a man or a horse has a substantial form, but unlikely that a pipe has one. And although a pipe would have various accidental forms, the idea of a unified form of “pipeness” seems pretty unlikely. If this is actually his reason or part of it, then he is identifying skepticism with disagreeing with his philosophical opinions, even though his own opinions actually contain the skepticism: namely, disagreement with common sense.

My own response to this question would be different: being is said in many ways, and consequently also form and unity. And I reject any disagreement with common sense: men and horses are real, but so also are pipes. If I am not mistaken, all of these will have being and form in the way that is appropriate to them.

This or Nothing

In his homily on June 9th, Pope Francis spoke against excessively rigid views:

This (is the) healthy realism of the Catholic Church: the Church never teaches us ‘or this or that.’ That is not Catholic. The Church says to us: ‘this and that.’ ‘Strive for perfectionism: reconcile with your brother. Do not insult him. Love him. And if there is a problem, at the very least settle your differences so that war doesn’t break out.’ This (is) the healthy realism of Catholicism. It is not Catholic (to say) ‘or this or nothing:’ This is not Catholic, this is heretical. Jesus always knows how to accompany us, he gives us the ideal, he accompanies us towards the ideal, He frees us from the chains of the laws’ rigidity and tells us: ‘But do that up to the point that you are capable.’ And he understands us very well. He is our Lord and this is what he teaches us.

“Or this or that” and “Or this or nothing” are probably excessively literal translations of the Italian, which would actually mean “either this or that,” and “either this or nothing.”

It is a bit odd to speak of such views as “heretical,” since it would be hard to find a determinate doctrine here that might be true or false. Rather, the Pope speaks of an attitude, and is condemning it as a bad attitude, not only morally, but as leading one into error intellectually as well. We have seen various people with views and attitudes that would likely fit under this categorization: thus for example Fr. Brian Harrison maintains that a person cannot accept both Christianity and evolutionJames Larson maintains that disagreement with his theological and philosophical positions amounts to a “war against being,” thus asserting “either this or nothing” in a pretty immediate sense. Alexander Pruss maintains that either there was a particular objective moment when Queen Elizabeth passed from not being old to being old, or logic is false. We have seen a number of other examples.

The attitude is fairly common among Catholic traditionalists (of which Fr. Brian Harrison and James Larson are in fact examples.) Thus it is not surprising that the blog Rorate Caeli, engaging in exactly the “this or nothing” attitude that Pope Francis condemns, condemns Pope Francis’s statements as heretical:

(1) Either John Paul II and all the Popes who came before him are right, by emphasizing the “absoluteness” of the Church’s moral law and by classifying as a “very serious error” that the doctrine of the Church is only an “ideal”…

…or (2) Francis is right, by qualifying as “heretical” a rejection of the “Doctrine of the Ideal” as well as any affirmation of the absoluteness of moral prohibitions (‘or this or nothing’).

Regardless of the accusations of heresy on either side, however, Pope Francis is basically right in rejecting the attitude in question. I have spoken elsewhere about the fact that in discussion, one should try to look for what is true in the other person’s position. The most basic reason for this, of course, is that there is almost always some truth there. The attitude of “this or nothing” is basically a refusal to consider the truth in the other person’s position.

Strangely, as we will see in future posts, this turns out to be relevant to our discussion of elements.

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Good Will

St. Thomas explains what it means to call someone a good person:

He who has a will is said to be good, so far as he has a good will; because it is by our will that we employ whatever powers we may have. Hence a man is said to be good, not by his good understanding; but by his good will.

This is primarily a recognition that this is how people actually speak. When we talk about a good person, we do not mean someone who understands things well, or someone who plays the piano well, or someone who is good at driving a car, but someone who has a good will: someone who loves, wishes for, and chooses good things. But in addition to recognizing how we normally speak, St. Thomas is trying to explain why we speak this way. A good piano is a piano that functions well as a piano, and in a similar way, a good person would be someone who functions well as a person. And since the will guides all human activities, a person functions well who has a good will, and a person functions badly who has a bad will.

Pope Benedict XVI, in his encylical Spe Salvi, speaks of such conditions of the human will:

Our choice, which in the course of an entire life takes on a certain shape, can have a variety of forms. There can be people who have totally destroyed their desire for truth and readiness to love, people for whom everything has become a lie, people who have lived for hatred and have suppressed all love within themselves. This is a terrifying thought, but alarming profiles of this type can be seen in certain figures of our own history. In such people all would be beyond remedy and the destruction of good would be irrevocable: this is what we mean by the word Hell. On the other hand there can be people who are utterly pure, completely permeated by God, and thus fully open to their neighbours—people for whom communion with God even now gives direction to their entire being and whose journey towards God only brings to fulfilment what they already are.

Yet we know from experience that neither case is normal in human life. For the great majority of people—we may suppose—there remains in the depths of their being an ultimate interior openness to truth, to love, to God. In the concrete choices of life, however, it is covered over by ever new compromises with evil—much filth covers purity, but the thirst for purity remains and it still constantly re-emerges from all that is base and remains present in the soul.

The implication here is that most people are basically good at a fundamental level. They have a good will simply speaking, even if not in every respect. Some Catholics might object to Pope Benedict’s position, saying that it is not easily reconciled with previous Catholic teaching, much in the way that James Larson condemns Amoris Laetitia. If people remain fundamentally good as long as they have not “lived for hatred and have suppressed all love within themselves,” it is not easy to see how this can be reconciled with Pope John Paul II’s teaching in Veritatis Splendor when he condemns theories that separate a fundamental option from particular acts:

67. These tendencies are therefore contrary to the teaching of Scripture itself, which sees the fundamental option as a genuine choice of freedom and links that choice profoundly to particular acts. By his fundamental choice, man is capable of giving his life direction and of progressing, with the help of grace, towards his end, following God’s call. But this capacity is actually exercised in the particular choices of specific actions, through which man deliberately conforms himself to God’s will, wisdom and law. It thus needs to be stated that the so-called fundamental option, to the extent that it is distinct from a generic intention and hence one not yet determined in such a way that freedom is obligated, is always brought into play through conscious and free decisions. Precisely for this reason, it is revoked when man engages his freedom in conscious decisions to the contrary, with regard to morally grave matter.

The idea here is that if someone does something seriously wrong, even in an individual case, the person becomes a bad person simply speaking. This does not seem to fit very well with Pope Benedict’s suggestion, which seems to imply that someone can become truly evil only through a long process which eliminates love and goodness from their life.

The tension here is real. I have touched on this issue elsewhere, as for example while discussing the human tendency to divide people into “good people” and “bad people.” Nonetheless, it is presumably possible to reconcile these statements at least in a technical sense, much as I showed that Pope Francis does not contradict Catholic doctrine in Amoris Laetitia

In any case, common sense is enough to tell us that being a “good person” is to some extent a matter of degree. Most people care about doing good to some extent, even if some care more than others, and most people wish to avoid evil, even if they do not avoid every evil, and even if they have no wish to avoid certain particular evils.

 

Let’s Draw a Line

James Larson, in the note currently at the beginning of his website, accuses Pope Francis of heresy:

Note (April 16, 2016): In order to add clarity as to the nature of the explicit heresy taught in Amoris Laetitia, I have added one paragraph approximately 2/3 of the way through the article below. It reads:

Herein resides the essence of this heresy. It lies specifically in teaching that there is a “gradualness” applicable to the possession of charity and sanctifying grace. It is Catholic dogma that possession of supernatural charity is an ontological state created by sanctifying grace added to the soul, that one cannot possess this charity unless living in this substantial state, and that it is this state of being which is absolutely necessary for receiving the Eucharist and other sacraments. It cannot be possessed by a person living in objective mortal sin, or by any person who is in some process of pastoral effort working towards the attainment of some “ideal”.

Larson is saying that sanctifying grace is a binary state, that it cannot be possessed by someone “living in objective mortal sin,” that these items are Catholic dogmas, and that Pope Francis contradicts them. The text in which he supposedly does this is paragraph 305 of Amoris Laetitia:

Because of forms of conditioning and mitigating factors, it is possible that in an objective situation of sin – which may not be subjectively culpable, or fully such – a person can be living in God’s grace, can love and can also grow in the life of grace and charity, while receiving the Church’s help to this end.

Larson is mistaken on almost every point. It is true that sanctifying grace would normally be considered a binary condition, where either you have it or you do not. But the Catholic Church does not typically create doctrines concerning deep matters of ontology. If someone were to assert that some people are in a vague condition where it is unclear whether or not they are in a state of grace, just as it is unclear whether some people are actually bald or just almost bald, this would not be a heresy. Nowhere does the Church condemn such a view.

But this is beside the point. It is entirely obvious that Pope Francis makes no such assertion in the text under consideration. Nor does he assert this, or anything like it, anywhere else in Amoris Laetitia.

“Living in objective mortal sin” refers to the “objective situation of sin” in the text of Pope Francis, and refers to the general idea of living a life where one regularly performs acts which the Church considers to be objectively grave sins. Larson asserts that the Church teaches that such a person cannot be in a state of grace.

This too is mistaken. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states:

1857 For a sin to be mortal, three conditions must together be met: “Mortal sin is sin whose object is grave matter and which is also committed with full knowledge and deliberate consent.”

1858 Grave matter is specified by the Ten Commandments, corresponding to the answer of Jesus to the rich young man: “Do not kill, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and your mother.” The gravity of sins is more or less great: murder is graver than theft. One must also take into account who is wronged: violence against parents is in itself graver than violence against a stranger.

1859 Mortal sin requires full knowledge and complete consent. It presupposes knowledge of the sinful character of the act, of its opposition to God’s law. It also implies a consent sufficiently deliberate to be a personal choice. Feigned ignorance and hardness of heart do not diminish, but rather increase, the voluntary character of a sin.

1860 Unintentional ignorance can diminish or even remove the imputability of a grave offense. But no one is deemed to be ignorant of the principles of the moral law, which are written in the conscience of every man. The promptings of feelings and passions can also diminish the voluntary and free character of the offense, as can external pressures or pathological disorders. Sin committed through malice, by deliberate choice of evil, is the gravest.

The Catechism is clear that doing something objectively wrong is not enough for a sin to be mortal, or to exclude someone from the state of grace. In order for this to happen, there also needs to be “full knowledge” and “complete consent.”

The text does not explicitly address the kind of “objective situation of sin” that Pope Francis and James Larson discuss. Much less, therefore, does it assert that a person in such a situation cannot be in a state of grace. However, it is not difficult to see from the above text that a person could be in such a situation without mortal sin. One of the factors that can “diminish the voluntary and free character of the offense” is “external pressures.” The situations under discussion are precisely situations where there are external pressures. That is why they are considered “situations” as opposed to an arbitrarily repeated series of actions. Since the consent must be “complete” and since it can be diminished by these pressures, a person might very well fail to sin mortally in such a situation, even if the situation lasts for a long time.

We can see that Larson’s positions do not correspond very well with anything that the Church actually teaches. Why then does he make these assertions?

I suggest that we have here a case of highly motivated thinking. Larson wants to believe that sanctifying grace is a binary condition, he wants to believe that a divorced and remarried person could not be in that condition, he wants to believe that these are teachings of the Church, and he wants to believe that Pope Francis contradicts these things.

Why would someone have such desires? Larson says in article 25:

Since Pope Francis’ recent interviews and his letter to the editor of La Civilta Cattolica, I have received emails from traditional Catholics which speak of a new level of despair. It is as though they are desperately seeking some explanation of what is happening with the Papacy and the Church which will allow them to escape from coming to some dreadful conclusion.

The situation reminds me of a passage from Robert Bolt’s A Man For All Seasons. In the face of all the forces of evil moving in to ensnare and destroy him, Sir Thomas More offers the following impassioned words to his beloved daughter:

“Listen, Meg, God made the angels to show Him splendor, as He made animals for innocence and plants for their simplicity. But Man He made to serve Him wittily, in the tangle of his mind. If He suffers us to come to such a case that there is no escaping, then we may stand to our tackle as best we can, and, yes, Meg, then we can clamor like champions, if we have the spittle for it. But it’s God’s part, not our own, to bring ourselves to such a pass. Our natural business lies in escaping. If I can take the oath, I will.”

It seems evident that the “tangle of the mind” from which traditional Catholics are now desperately trying to escape is the apparent overwhelming evidence that their Church is being destroyed from within. They dread that they are being irresistibly backed into a corner where they will be forced to conclude that the Church, in what they always considered to be her inviolable nature (if she is to be considered real at all) has contradicted this nature, and has therefore been proved to be a human invention, and not the work of God. In other words, they fear the loss of their faith.

I think this is a correct description of how many people feel. I think it is also a correct description of the way Larson himself feels, and I think it can explain why he desires to hold the above opinions concerning Pope Francis and Amoris Laetitia. This might seem a bit paradoxical. He accuses Pope Francis of heresy. Would not this be a very good example of the kind of thing he should be hoping to avoid?

Yes, in one way, but in another way it is an advantage to him if Pope Francis explicitly falls into heresy. This is important to him. In the first quoted passage, he mentions the “nature of the explicit heresy” taught by Pope Francis. It is not only heresy, but “explicit heresy.”

When people change their minds, they often do so gradually, and by degrees, and in such a way that sometimes they do not even notice that they have changed their minds. It follows that if someone does not want to change their mind, they have a reason to be cautious about gradual changes of opinion. Such changes not only could lead to what they do not want, namely changing their mind, but they could lead to this without the person even noticing it has happened.

Another point should be made about this. I pointed out here that despite the fact that it would be unreasonable to say that getting one year older makes you pass from “not being old” to “being old”, this does not prevent you from growing up. In the same way, if someone changes his mind gradually, at each point he may be able to say, “this change is too small to constitute a passage from not having changed my mind to having changed my mind.” He may be quite right. But this will not prevent it from being true at the end that he has changed his mind in comparison with his original position.

And just as individual human beings change their minds, so the Church changes its mind, gradually and by degrees, and sometimes without saying that a change has occurred. So just as someone who wishes to avoid changing his mind should be cautious about gradual changes, so someone who does not want the Church to change its mind will wish it to be cautious about gradual changes. This is what is happening here with Larson’s argument. It is an advantage to him if Amoris Laetita is explicitly heretical, because in that case it can be completely rejected, preventing the process of gradual change. If the document is not heretical (and it is not) it will be bound to cause gradual changes of various kinds, and there is no way to predict the end results in advance.

In a certain way, traditionalist Catholics are often more reasonable in this regard than others who would be considered “conservative” rather than traditionalist. Thus for example Jimmy Akin says:

11. Does the document foresee any possibility for sacramentally absolving and giving Communion to people who are civilly remarried if they are not living as brother and sister?

It does. In the main text of the document, it begins by noting certain principles to be taken into account, stating:

For an adequate understanding of the possibility and need of special discernment in certain “irregular” situations, one thing must always be taken into account, lest anyone think that the demands of the gospel are in any way being compromised.

The Church possesses a solid body of reflection concerning mitigating factors and situations.

Hence it can no longer simply be said that all those in any “irregular” situation are living in a state of mortal sin and are deprived of sanctifying grace.

More is involved here than mere ignorance of the rule. A subject may know full well the rule, yet have great difficulty in understanding “its inherent values,” or be in a concrete situation which does not allow him or her to act differently and decide otherwise without further sin. . . .

The Catechism of the Catholic Church clearly mentions these factors: “imputability and responsibility for an action can be diminished or even nullified by ignorance, inadvertence, duress, fear, habit, inordinate attachments, and other psychological or social factors” (CCC 1735).

In another paragraph, the Catechism refers once again to circumstances which mitigate moral responsibility, and mentions at length “affective immaturity, force of acquired habit, conditions of anxiety or other psychological or social factors that lessen or even extenuate moral culpability” (CCC 2352).

For this reason, a negative judgment about an objective situation does not imply a judgment about the imputability or culpability of the person involved. (AL 301-302).

The document thus envisions the case of a person who may be living in an objectively sinful situation but who is not mortally culpable because of a variety of factors of a cognitive or psychological nature.

Nothing in this is new. The Church has long recognized that people living in objectively grave sin may not be in a state of mortal sin.

Akin is right that “the Church has long recognized that people living in objectively grave sin may not be in a state of mortal sin.” This was discussed above. But “nothing in this is new” is simply not true, if it is understood in relation to the question about communion for the divorced and remarried. The Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts stated in 2000:

Any interpretation of can. 915 that would set itself against the canon’s substantial content, as declared uninterruptedly by the Magisterium and by the discipline of the Church throughout the centuries, is clearly misleading. One cannot confuse respect for the wording of the law (cfr. can. 17) with the improper use of the very same wording as an instrument for relativizing the precepts or emptying them of their substance.

The phrase “and others who obstinately persist in manifest grave sin” is clear and must be understood in a manner that does not distort its sense so as to render the norm inapplicable. The three required conditions are:

a) grave sin, understood objectively, being that the minister of Communion would not be able to judge from subjective imputability;

b) obstinate persistence, which means the existence of an objective situation of sin that endures in time and which the will of the individual member of the faithful does not bring to an end, no other requirements (attitude of defiance, prior warning, etc.) being necessary to establish the fundamental gravity of the situation in the Church.

c) the manifest character of the situation of grave habitual sin.

The text is clear: people in the situation under discussion are not to be given communion, whether or not they are in the state of grace. It is true that they do not assert that such people are necessarily in a state of sin, as James Larson does, but the prohibition does not depend on their subjective condition. And thus when asked whether he intended to change anything, Pope Francis said that he did intend such a change:

Rocca: Thank you Holy Father. I see that the questions on immigration I had thought of have already been asked, and you have responded very well. So, if you will permit me to ask a question on another event of the last few days, which was your Apostolic Exhortation.

As you know well, there was much discussion on one of many points – I know we have concentrated a lot on it – but there has been much discussion after the publication…Some maintain that nothing has changed with respect to the discipline that governs the access to the Sacraments for the divorced and remarried, and that the law and the pastoral practice and obviously the doctrine remains the same; others maintain instead that much has changed and that there are many new openings and possibilities.

And the question for a person, a Catholic, that wants to know: Are there new concrete possibilities that did not exist before the publication of the Exhortation or not?

Pope Francis: I can say yes. Period. But that would be too small an answer.

Akin’s way of thinking goes, “This does not contradict the Church’s current teaching. So it’s nothing new.” Larson, far more reasonably, recognizes in practice (although probably not in principle) that “this does not contradict the Church’s current teaching” can be true at every point in time, without this preventing the Church from changing its teaching in the end. By asserting that Amoris Laetitia is heretical, he hopes to draw a line, in order to remove the possibility of gradual change ultimately resulting in substantial change.

James Chastek, talking about disagreement on philosophical topics, says:

We care too much about philosophical topics ever to agree about them, and we achieve widespread successful consensus on scientific matters because we care very little which theory turns out to be true. The beauty and utility of math and science are there for anyone to see, but it’s not as if any one would kill, die, be celibate, or riot over them. Math and science of themselves, cut off from any reference to the mytho-philosophical (like the praise or the defiance of the gods) are not the sort of thing that one would think to praise in epic poetry, polyphonic splendor à la a Gounod Mass, or even a pop song.

We have discussed much the same issue here, although we pointed out that caring too much is only one part of the cause of such disagreement. Something else can be seen in the case of Larson’s disagreement with Amoris Laetita. It is not merely that he cares about the position he holds. He cares about agreement and disagreement, directly. For the reasons stated, he wants to disagree with Pope Francis. Thus in order to be sure that he does, he needs to describe the Pope’s position in various ways.

This is not uncommon. People frequently care not only about their positions, but also about the fact that they agree with certain people, and that they disagree with others. People often draw lines exactly for this reason, namely in order to disagree with someone else.

 

Contradicting You and Contradicting Myself

Perhaps the most blatant form of confusing the mode of knowing and the mode of being  is to argue, “I think that X is true. Therefore X is actually true.” It would be rare, of course, that anyone would argue this way so explicitly. However, it is not unheard of for someone to argue more or less in this way:

  1. I believe that X is true. You believe that it is not.
  2. If you were right, X would be false.
  3. But X is true.
  4. Therefore X would be both true and false, which is impossible.
  5. Therefore you are not right, and X is true.

This comes to the same thing as the original argument, since “but X is true” is simply being taken from “I believe that X is true.” Evidently, if X were false, X would not be true, despite the fact that the arguer believes that it is true.

On his website, The War Against Being, James Larson frequently makes arguments which amount to such attempted arguments by reductio. In a sense he puts this argument into the very title of his website: who is fighting a war against being and what does this mean? The beginning of his first article gives some indications:

It is conventional, contemporary wisdom that there is probably nothing more detached from reality, and nothing more inconsequential to the real events of this world, than is the study or promotion of the discipline of philosophy – and especially that highest branch of philosophy which is called ontology, the science of being. All that follows is meant to be a refutation of this “wisdom.” The road which I shall take will not, for the most part, be the technical world of the professional philosopher – this of necessity, simply because I am not one. There is an even greater necessity which hopefully will justify my presumption as a layman in treating of the metaphysical reality of being, and the war which has been and is being waged against it, and which now seems virtually universally victorious.

It might seem that there is a reasonable explanation for his title here. His opponents (“conventional, contemporary wisdom”) are against philosophy. But philosophy is about being. Therefore his opponents are against being.

This argument is not technically valid even given the premises, because even if philosophy is about being, someone who is against the use of philosophy is not necessarily opposed to being. And in any case, one of his premises is that “philosophy is about being,” and the position of his opponents, as he describes it himself, is that philosophy is “detached from reality,” and consequently, according to them, it is not about being. So “war against being” is a polemical description of his opponent’s position, and involves the assumption that his own position is actually true. In the end it comes to little more than this: “Some people disagree with me. But I am right, and my position truly describes being as it is. So those people are opposed to being as it is.”

At various points, Larson accuses his opponents of contradicting themselves. For example, in article 12 he says:

Our analysis of the writings of Joseph Ratzinger, up to this point, has revealed that he has subjected his theological and philosophical thinking to the influence of reductive analytical physics, and that this surrender has necessitated the denial of traditional Catholic teaching in three main areas: the denial of substance; the denial of the law of self-contradiction; and the denial of the nature of dogma as objective, unchanging truth.

The last-mentioned denial – the denial that truth is immutable and non-evolving – is a direct consequence of the belief enshrined in the quote from Father Ratzinger which I offered earlier: “Revelation now appeared no longer simply as a communication of truths to the intellect but as a historical action of God in which truth becomes gradually unveiled.” This is in direct contradiction to the teaching of Vatican Council I:

“For the doctrine of faith which God has revealed has not been proposed, like a philosophical invention, to be perfected by human ingenuity; but has been delivered as a divine deposit to the Spouse of Christ, to be faithfully kept and infallibly declared. Hence also, that meaning of the sacred dogmas is perpetually to be retained which our holy Mother the Church has once declared; nor is that meaning ever to be departed from, under the pretext of a deeper comprehension of them.

The Oath Against Modernism contained the following affirmation:

“Fourthly, I sincerely hold that the doctrine of faith was handed down to us from the apostles through the orthodox Fathers in exactly the same meaning and always in the same purport. Therefore, I entirely reject the heretical misrepresentation that dogmas evolve and change from one meaning to another different from the one which the Church held previously. I also condemn every error according to which, in place of the divine deposit which has been given to the spouse of Christ to be carefully guarded by her, there is put a philosophical figment or product of a human conscience that has gradually been developed by human effort and will continue to develop indefinitely.

We can know with certainty that Joseph Ratzinger took this oath. We can know with equal certainty that he has violated it in its deepest meaning.

While one of his three denials is “the denial of the law of self-contradiction” (meaning non-contradiction), the third is “the denial of the nature of dogma as objective, unchanging truth.” In the following sentence, he equates this with “the denial that truth is immutable and non-evolving.” Notice that these are not the same: one can deny that dogma is objective, unchanging truth, without saying that truth is mutable or evolving. Larson’s equating the two does not seem to be accidental. Rather, the argument is that dogma is actually objective and unchanging truth: therefore saying that dogma can change, means that truth itself can change. This argument has almost the precise form of the original reductio we considered.

Later in the same article, Larson comments on Ratzinger’s position on science and faith, and on original sin:

Science, according to Joseph Ratzinger and the historical-critical method of exegesis, has shown us clearly the degree to which scripture is largely composed of human fabrications expressive of the theological-fictive or magical mindset of those persons who composed the scriptures. Because of the primitive intellectual state of these peoples, we are therefore required – in order to distinguish between what is truly from God and what is of human invention – to distinguish between form and content in any particular passage of scripture. Content can simply be defined to be the “spiritual” message which God wishes to pass on to us, while form is constituted by all the rest which is conditioned by particular historical circumstances, literary genres, etc.

Thus, in Faith and the Future, Cardinal Ratzinger applies this historical-critical method to the first 3 chapters of the Book of Genesis:

“The difficulty begins with the very first page of the Bible. The concept presented there of how the world came to be, is in direct contradiction of all that we know today about the origins of the universe….And the problem continues, almost page by page….in the very next chapter new problems emerge with the story of the Fall. How can one bring this into harmony with the knowledge that – on the evidence of natural science – man starts not from above, but from below, does not fall, but slowly rises, even now having only just accomplished the metamorphosis from animal to human being? And what of paradise? Long before man existed, pain and death were in the world. Thistles and thorns grew long before any man had set eyes on them. And another thing: the first man was scarcely self-conscious, knew only privation and the wearisome struggle to survive. He was far from possessing the full endowment of reason, which the old doctrine of paradise attributes to him. But once the picture of paradise and the Fall has been broken in pieces, the notion of original sin goes with it, to be followed logically, it would seem, by the notion of redemption as well.”(page 5-7)

It is certainly no wonder, therefore, that Cardinal Ratzinger, in his book In the Beginning…A Catholic Understanding of the Story of Creation and the Fall, labeled the term original sin as a “certainly imprecise and misleading term”, and then proceeded to describe it as something which is contracted after birth through our relationships with others, and therefore through imitation, rather than it being something inherited at the moment of conception through generation (see my article Point of Departure in Christian Order, March 2004).

While Larson should not be trusted in anything he says about Ratzinger, or about anything really, his description of Ratzinger’s position on original sin is especially inaccurate. Ratzinger actually says this:

Finding an answer to this requires nothing less than trying to understand the human person better. It must once again be stressed that no human being is closed in upon himself or herself and that no one can live of or for himself or herself alone. We receive our life not only at the moment of birth but every day from without —from others who are not ourselves but who nonetheless somehow pertain to us. Human beings have their selves not only in themselves but also outside of themselves: they live in those whom they love and in those who love them and to whom they are “present.” Human beings are relational, and they possess their lives—themselves—only by way of relationship. I alone am not myself, but only in and with you am I myself. To be truly a human being means to be related in love, to be of and for. But sin means the damaging or the destruction of relationality. Sin is a rejection of relationality because it wants to make the human being a god. Sin is loss of relationship, disturbance of relationship, and therefore it is not restricted to the individual. When I destroy a relationship, then this event—sin —touches the other person involved in the relationship. Consequently sin is always an offense that touches others, that alters the world and damages it. To the extent that this is true, when the network of human relationships is damaged from the very beginning, then every human being enters into a world that is marked by relational damage. At the very moment that a person begins human existence, which is a good, he or she is confronted by a sin-damaged world. Each of us enters into a situation in which relationality has been hurt. Consequently each person is, from the very start, damaged in relationships and does not engage in them as he or she ought. Sin pursues the human being, and he or she capitulates to it.

“Every human being enters into a world that is marked by relational damage,” does not speak about something that happens after birth, but something that happens at the beginning of one’s existence. Larson seems to seem speak of the end of the passage, but it is easy to see that Ratzinger is speaking there of personal sin, not original sin. It is simply wrong to say that he describes original sin as something acquired after birth.

It is not unreasonable to ask whether this understanding of original sin is consistent with the traditional doctrine. Larson, however, rather than questioning, simply believes that it is manifestly inconsistent with that doctrine. He goes on to say:

The third stage in the evolution of human thought, the one which we are in right now, and which has made necessary the “essentialization” of the other two historical periods of human spirituality and thought, is the “positivistic,” or scientific, stage. This is the stage which, according to Fr. Ratzinger, is the defining mentality of our age:

“It seems incontrovertible that today the mentality described by Comte is that of a very large section of human society. The question about God no longer finds any place in human thought. To take up a well-known saying of Laplace, the context of the world is self-contained and the hypothesis of God is no longer necessary for its comprehension. Even the faithful, like travelers on a sinking ship, are becoming widely affected by an uneasy feeling: they are asking if the Christian faith has any future, or if it is not, in fact, more and more obviously being made obsolete by intellectual evolution. Behind such notions is the sense that a great gulf is developing between the world of faith and the world of science – a gulf that cannot be bridged, so that faith is made very largely impracticable.” (Ibid, p. 4-5)

Because of this “gulf” which exists between the traditional faith and the world of science, Father Ratzinger informs us that the “plethora of definitions” which the Church has “accumulated in the course of history” has become a “burden.” The irreconcilable nature of such dogmas with the modern positivistic and scientific intellectual consciousness makes the traditional content of the faith “oppressive” to the modern believer. Thus we are faced with the supposed necessity of either setting aside these doctrines as historically provisional, or of engaging in a task of “essentialization” which seeks to determine what constitutes the “content” behind the “form” of such definitions, and therefore altering the traditional understanding of the terms used in these definitions. This, of course, is precisely what Cardinal Ratzinger did in regard to the terms “original sin” and “transubstantiation.”

I think we must pause at this moment to understand the broader implications of these teachings. Any truly “sensitive” Catholic, if he accepts the truth of Joseph Ratzinger’s analysis and conclusions, should feel betrayed not only by the Church but also by God. This betrayal is multi-leveled. The Bible, which for two thousand years was considered to be inspired and a totally reliable source of truths on all levels of man’s existence is now shredded of virtually all meaning except the symbolical and the allegorical. Catholic dogma which was the absolute sure foundation of faith, and especially catechetical instruction of the young, is now to be essentialized, even to the point of self-contradiction. But even more importantly, the entire traditional understanding of the epistemological structure of the human intellect has now been negated.

Larson believes that Ratzinger has “altered the traditional understanding” of transubstantiation and original sin. And he describes this as “Catholic dogma which was the absolute sure foundation of faith, and especially catechetical instruction of the young, is now to be essentialized, even to the point of self-contradiction.” Note the point about self-contradiction. In reality, there is nothing contradictory in Ratzinger’s account of original sin, whether or not it is consistent with the traditional doctrine. If the traditional account contains mistaken elements, and Ratzinger’s account corrects those elements, this is not a contradiction unless you assume that those elements are also true. And this is the attempted reductio, “If you were right, X would be false. But X is true, so X would be both true and false. Therefore you are not right.”

Larson is arguing in a similar style when he says that the “structure of the human intellect has now been negated.” He continues:

At the core of all traditional Catholic understanding of both Who God is and also the nature of man, lies the fundamental Biblical idea that man is created in the image of God with an intellect and will that truly reflect, through the analogy of being, God’s intellect and will.

St. Thomas is very specific in this regard. He writes:

“We must needs say that the human soul knows all things in the eternal types, since by participation of these types we know all things. For the intellectual light itself which is in us, is nothing else than a participated likeness of the uncreated light, in which are created the eternal types,”(Pt. I, Q. 84, A.5).

The world of St. Thomas (and therefore the world of traditional Catholicism) is a trustworthy world, because it is a world in which man – his senses, mind and heart – are intimately connected to and reflective of Who God is, and also basically reliable in their knowledge of His creation. It is under such conditions of reliability and correspondence to an objective order of Truth, that trust truly takes root, and hope flourishes.

The world of Joseph Ratzinger, on the other hand, is one in which the disconnect between the human intellect and objective reality and truth is a fundamentally proven fact of historical evolution. It is one in which there is little harmony between human perception and objective reality. The obvious logical conclusion of postulating such a world is that God created man with an intellect oriented towards delusion – towards the perception of shadows that mask reality.

We were led by God and His Church for 2,000 years to believe in creation ex nihilo, in the unique creation of man with a spiritual soul, in an original Paradise free from death and sin, in original sin, in Noah and his ark, in the divine inspiration present in every word of scripture, in sanctifying grace, and in transubstantiation. We are now told these are the “forms” of particular stages in the evolution of human consciousness which must be abandoned or essentialized because they were only provisional expressions of truths which always go beyond the ability of the human intellect to grasp. And it is in the midst of this world of delusions that Fr. Ratzinger asks us now to forget about God and reality as being knowable, and informs us that our new form of faith is not to be founded in knowledge, but rather in trust (we shall examine this point in a moment). One is left with the inevitable question: Why should a man or woman trust such a God?

It is hard to see what Ratzinger has said, even according to Larson’s polemical understanding, which can be taken to imply that “God created man with an intellect oriented towards delusion.” And here we perhaps implicitly have what I characterized as the most blatant form of confusing thought and reality, “I think that X is true. Therefore X is actually true.” Larson’s true argument, it seems, is something like this: “If Ratzinger is right, then I am mistaken about many things. And that means that God must have created me with an intellect oriented to delusion.” When he says, “The world of St. Thomas (and therefore the world of traditional Catholicism) is a trustworthy world, because it is a world in which man – his senses, mind and heart – are intimately connected to and reflective of Who God is, and also basically reliable in their knowledge of His creation,” Larson really means to say that he himself is basically reliable in his knowledge of God and the world. Since God created him with an intellect oriented to truth, it follows that “I believe X. Therefore X is true,” is a good and reasonable argument. And if it turns out that he was wrong about X, it follows that God did not create him with an intellect oriented to truth.

Let us be clear, then. Saying that you are mistaken does not mean that I am contradicting myself, if I do not accept your position in the first place. I contradict you, not myself. Likewise, opposing your positions and policies does not mean that I am waging a “war against being,” if I do not think that your positions correspond to being or reality in the first place.