Contemporary Aristotelian Metaphysics

The long-awaited anthology Contemporary Aristotelian Metaphysics, edited by Tuomas Tahko for Cambridge University Press, is now available.  The good news is that you can save over $7 by ordering it from Amazon.  The bad news is that it will still set you back $91.49.  (Hopefully a paperback version will appear at some point!)  Anyway, you can find the CUP page for the book here, and you can check out a preview via Google Books here(Gotta love the symbolism of the cover: A new days dawns as the sunlight of sound metaphysics illuminates the barren wasteland of modern philosophy. Well, that’s my take anyway -- I don’t know if that’s what Tuomas intended!)


Reading Rosenberg, Part VI

Let’s continue our detailed critical look at Alex Rosenberg’s The Atheist’s Guide to Reality.  In the previous installment, we took a detour to consider how some of Rosenberg’s problematic views in the philosophy of biology are developed more systematically in his book Darwinian Reductionism.  Here we return to the text of Atheist’s Guide and to the subject of religion, though we are not quite done considering what Rosenberg has to say about biological matters.  For he argues that Darwinism not only makes theism unnecessary (as he falsely assumes), but is positively incompatible with it: “You can’t have your Darwinian cake and eat theism too,” insists Rosenberg.  In particular, he thinks Darwinism is incompatible with the idea that God is omniscient.  How so?

Obviously, everything depends on how one understands “Darwinism” and “theism.”  Rosenberg says dubious things about both.  He assures us that Darwinism put the final nail in the coffin of teleology, and that any theism worth bothering with must attribute to God the intention to create us, specifically.  He then reasons as follows: Since they are non-teleological, Darwinian processes do not aim at the generation of any particular kind of species, including the human species.  In fact the generation of any particular species, including us, is highly improbable.  No one could have known before the fact that evolution would go the way it did.  But then an omniscient God could not have used such processes as a means of creating us, since only a very foolish deity would think it likely that natural selection would result in intelligent life.  

One problem with this is that it is false to say that Darwinism is incompatible with teleology.  For one thing, it is by no means clear that Darwinism really drove teleology even out of biology, let alone the rest of the natural world.  To hear writers as diverse as Etienne Gilson, David Stove, James Lennox, J. Scott Turner, and Marjorie Grene tell it, Darwinism does nothing of the kind.  For another thing, even if we do suppose either that biological phenomena are entirely non-teleological, or that the teleological aspects of biological phenomena are real but can be reduced to non-teleological features, it doesn’t follow that there is no irreducible teleology in the natural world at all.  As I have noted many times, the Aristotelian-Scholastic tradition argues that irreducible teleology of a very basic sort -- namely, bare directedness toward an end -- must exist wherever even the most elementary kinds of efficient causation exists.  (Rosenberg’s problem, as I have noted before, is that like so many atheists he thinks of teleology entirely on the model of Paley’s watch -- where the teleology involves the functioning of parts relative to a complex whole, and where the function is imposed from outside on parts that would not otherwise have it -- instead of thinking of it in Aristotelian terms, in which teleology is intrinsic to natural phenomena rather than externally imposed, and where the functioning of parts in relation to a complex whole is only one, relatively rare instance of teleology among others.)

Now, I have myself argued that getting from the world to the God of classical theism requires the distinction between act and potency and thus (since the notion of potency goes hand in hand with the notion of finality) the existence at least at the bottom level of physical reality of immanent final causality or teleology.  So, to that extent it is correct to say that theism is incompatible with a non-teleological universe (or to be more precise, that the possibility of arguing from the world to the God of classical theism is incompatible with a non-teleological universe).  But Darwinism, on any construal, implies at most only the non-existence of certain kinds of teleology, not the non-existence of all teleology; indeed, on an Aristotelian view, Darwinian processes themselves, like all efficient causal processes, necessarily presuppose the reality of some deeper level of final causality.  But the existence of any actualization of potency at all, and of any immanent teleology at all, entail the existence of the God of classical theism, including all of the key divine attributes (such as omniscience).  That, at any rate, is what arguments like those summarized in the Five Ways purport to show when rightly understood and completely spelled out.  (I explain in Aquinas and in my ACPQ article “Existential Inertia and the Five Ways” how they have been spelled out and defended in the Thomistic tradition.  I suppose I need to point out to the uninitiated reader that the Five Ways are not, and are not intended to be, complete “stand alone” arguments, but only summaries of and starting points for lines of argument that are more fully developed elsewhere.)  Various objections might of course be raised against these arguments -- objections I have responded to at length -- but Darwinism per se isn’t relevant one way or the other.

To be sure, the arguments do not all by themselves show that the God whose existence they purport to prove intended us, specifically; by themselves they leave open the question of whether or not human beings are an accidental byproduct of natural evolutionary processes.  But this does not help Rosenberg, for five reasons.  First and most fundamentally, it is very odd for Rosenberg to claim that any theism worth bothering with must hold that God intentionally created the human race, specifically.  It’s true that some forms of theism (such as Christianity) hold that man was made in God’s image, but that claim is logically independent of the proposition that the God of classical theism exists.  (After all, those who claim that man was made in God’s image also hold that God existed before He created man, would have existed even if He had never created the human race, and would continue to exist even if He decided to destroy the human race.)  It is either intellectually sloppy or intellectually dishonest of Rosenberg to suggest that showing that the human race was not made in God’s image would suffice to refute theism per se.  If the God argued for in arguments like the Five Ways exists, then atheism is false and that is that.  The serious debate will be between forms of theism, not between theism and atheism.  Whether man is made in God’s image will be relevant to the question of which form of theism is correct, but not to the question of whether some form of theism or other is correct.

Second, those who say that human beings are made in God’s image do not mean that our bodily nature is made in God’s image.  What they mean is that our rational nature as thinking and willing creatures is a finite reflection of God’s nature; our bodily characteristics could have been radically different, consistent with our being made in God’s image in this sense.  Moreover, those who hold that we are made in God’s image also often claim, on the basis of independent philosophical arguments, that our rational and volitional powers cannot even in principle be accounted for in materialist terms, including Darwinian terms.  Many of them also hold that given its immaterial powers, the human soul must be specially created by God each time a new human being comes into existence.  (Contrary to the impression one might get from Rosenberg, this doctrine was not cooked up as a way to reconcile evolution with theism by concocting some aspect of human nature which Darwinian processes did not generate.  The doctrine of the special creation of the human soul is centuries old, and is a development of arguments for the soul’s immateriality that are in turn as old as Plato and Aristotle.)  So, those who regard man as made in God’s image do not have to maintain that a species genetically and/or phenotypically identical to homo sapiens sapiens was intended by God.  The most they need to maintain is that God intended some biological species or other to come into existence at some point or other to which rational souls might in principle be conjoined.  And it is at the very least much harder to maintain that Darwinism is incompatible with this claim, even on the most anti-teleological construal of Darwinism.  

Third, even if we supposed that God did have to intend a species with the particular genetic and phenotypic characteristics of homo sapiens sapiens, it does not in fact follow even from the most anti-teleological interpretation of Darwinism that this result was improbable -- or at least not improbable from the relevant, “God’s eye” point of view -- for reasons Rosenberg himself should have seen given his commitment to the multiverse hypothesis.  For suppose that, as multiverse proponents often suggest, the existence of our universe is not in fact as remarkable or improbable as it seems given that it is only one of an infinite number of parallel universes.  On this view, our universe’s existence seems remarkable and improbable to us only because of our vantage point within it; but in fact it was inevitable that it should arise out of a process in which every possible universe is generated.  In this case we can imagine that God, intending the existence of homo sapiens sapiens specifically, simply caused the multiverse to exist, knowing that, even though the evolution of our species in any particular universe would be improbable, it would be inevitable that it will arise in some universe or other.  (Not that I endorse this suggestion, mind you, since I don’t buy the multiverse hypothesis.  The point is that Rosenberg, who does buy it, is again being either sloppy or dishonest.)

Fourth, the probabilistic nature of Darwinian processes does not in any event exclude divine intervention within a particular universe, for reasons Elliot Sober calls attention to in his recent book Did Darwin Write the Origin Backwards?  That the probability of a tossed coin’s landing heads is 0.5 is, Sober notes, perfectly consistent with saying that its probability of landing heads is either 0 or 1.   For each probability is relative to background conditions.  Given only that the coin has been tossed, its probability of landing heads is 0.5; given that it has been tossed and that its upward velocity, air resistance, the surface on which it lands, etc. are of such-and-such a character, then (assuming determinism for the sake of argument), its probability of landing heads is either 0 or 1.  When we make the judgment that the probability of the coin landing heads is 0.5, we are ignoring hidden variables of the sort which, when factored in, would make the probability either 0 or 1. 

Now, when we say that mutations are random in the sense of occurring with equal probability whether or not they benefit an organism, this, Sober says, is like saying that a coin is equally likely to come up heads whether or not its doing so will benefit the gambler who is tossing the coin.  The latter claim is perfectly consistent with the fact that when all the hidden variables are taken account of, the probability of the coin coming up heads is either 0 or 1.  And the former claim is perfectly compatible with the fact that when all the hidden variables that determine a particular mutation are taken account of, its probability of occurring will be either 0 or 1.  But there is, Sober argues, nothing in Darwinian biology per se that entails that divine intervention cannot be among those hidden variables in certain cases.  (We might add that assuming otherwise is like assuming that the fact that human beings sometimes interfere with the course of random mutation and natural selection -- as we have in experiments on Drosophila -- shows that Darwinian processes never really occur in nature.)

But all of this concedes too much to Rosenberg in the first place, and that brings us to the fifth and final point, which is that Rosenberg’s entire argument rests on a crude misunderstanding of the nature of divine causality.  In particular, he evidently knows nothing about the traditional distinction between primary causality and secondary causality, and operates with a crudely anthropomorphic conception of deity.  For he assumes that making evolution compatible with theism would require supposing that God intervenes in biological history at various points in order to alter the course of events so as to ensure that homo sapiens sapiens comes about, but does so in so subtle a way that it looks like the product of random variation and natural selection (but really isn’t, which is why such an account of evolution would not be truly Darwinian).  

But this is like saying that the author of a novel has to “intervene” in the story at key points, keeping events from going the way they otherwise would in order to make sure that they turn out the way he needs them to for the story to work.  Indeed, it is like saying that the author of a science fiction novel in which such-and-such a species comes about via natural selection has to “intervene” at key points so as to make sure that the evolutionary process comes out the way he needs it to in order for the story to work -- but at the same time has to do so subtly so that none of the characters would guess that he had intervened in this way.  The very suggestion is silly, for the author isn’t one causal factor in the story among others.  His causality relative to the story is not at all like the causality of either the characters or the impersonal processes operating within the story.  

Similarly, on the classical theist conception of God, God is not one causal factor in the universe among others, not even an especially grand and powerful causal factor.  He is not a “first” cause in the sense of being followed in a temporal series by a second cause, a third cause, a fourth cause, etc.  Rather, He is “first” or primary in the sense of being the fundamental cause, the necessary precondition of there being any causality within the universe at all, just as the author of a story is the “first cause” of what happens in the story, not in the sense of generating effects in the way the characters and processes described in the story do, but rather in the sense of being the necessary precondition of there being any characters or processes in the story at all.  Things in the world are “secondary” causes, then, in the sense of deriving their being and causal power from God, just as the characters in the story have any reality and causality at all only because the author of the story has imparted it to them by virtue of writing the story.  (For more on primary and secondary causality, see this post and this post.)

Now, it would be absurd to suggest that Macbeth did not really murder Duncan, but that it was Shakespeare who committed the murder and merely made it look like Macbeth had done it.  This would be to treat the author as if he were a character in the story.  For the same reason, it would be absurd to suggest that in a science fiction novel in which such-and-such a species evolves, it is not really Darwinian processes that generate the species, but rather the author of the story who does so and merely made it seem as if Darwinian processes had done it.  But by the same token, it is absurd to suggest that if God creates a world in which human beings come about by natural selection, He would have to intervene in order to make the Darwinian processes come out the way He wants them to, in which case they would not be truly Darwinian.  This is to confuse primary with secondary causality, to think of God as if He were merely one causal factor in the world among others, like treating an author as if he were merely one character in his story among the others.  (Physicist Stephen Barr made this point well in his lecture at Franciscan University’s recent Science and Faith Conference.  As I have pointed out before, though, one shouldn’t push the author/story analogy too far.)

In short, Rosenberg thinks of God as a Paley-style watchmaker, an anthropomorphic tinkerer who cleverly intervenes in a natural order that could in principle have carried on without him -- in this case by manipulating evolutionary processes, like the Marvel Comics character the High Evolutionary.  But as I have so often emphasized when criticizing “Intelligent Design” theory, that is not the God of classical theism -- of Athanasius, Augustine, Anselm, and Aquinas, of Maimonides and Avicenna, or in general of Christian, Jewish and Islamic orthodoxy and of philosophical theism.  (I should emphasize for ID enthusiasts that none of this presupposes that the standard Darwinian story is in fact correct in all of its particulars, or even that it is correct at all for that matter.  For the point has nothing essentially to do with Darwinism or biology in the first place.  What Aristotelian-Thomistic critics of ID fundamentally object to is ID’s overly anthropomorphic conception of God and its implicit confusion of primary and secondary causality -- and that, by virtue of these features, ID muddies the waters in the debate between atheism and theism, fostering misunderstandings of the sort that Rosenberg and so many other atheists have fallen prey to.)


Maudlin on the philosophy of cosmology

What’s the difference between a philosopher of science and a scientist who comments on philosophy?  The difference is that the philosopher usually makes sure he’s done his homework before opening his mouth.  I’ve had reason to comment on recent examples of philosophical incompetence provided by Richard Dawkins, Jerry Coyne, Stephen Hawking, and others.  (I’ll be commenting on further examples provided by Peter Atkins and Lawrence Krauss in some forthcoming book reviews.)  In an interview over at The Atlantic, philosopher of physics Tim Maudlin comments on Hawking’s ill-informed remarks about the state of contemporary philosophy.  Hawking and his co-author Leonard Mlodinow claim in The Grand Design that “philosophy has not kept up with modern developments in science, particularly physics.”  The gigantic literature that has developed over the last few decades in the philosophy of physics, philosophy of biology, philosophy of chemistry, and philosophy of science more generally, not to mention all the work in contemporary philosophy of mind informed by neuroscience and computer science, easily falsifies their glib assertion.  Says Maudlin:

Hawking is a brilliant man, but he's not an expert in what's going on in philosophy, evidently.  Over the past thirty years the philosophy of physics has become seamlessly integrated with the foundations of physics work done by actual physicists, so the situation is actually the exact opposite of what he describes.  I think he just doesn't know what he's talking about.  I mean there's no reason why he should. Why should he spend a lot of time reading the philosophy of physics? I'm sure it's very difficult for him to do.  But I think he's just… uninformed.

Maudlin is being too kind, for there is a very good reason why Hawking should make the effort to learn what philosophers are saying.  Hawking and Mlodinow not only pontificate about philosophy in their recent book; the book is itself essentially an attempt to do philosophy of science and metaphysics -- and a very bad one, precisely because they have not bothered to acquaint themselves with the basics of these fields.  Had they done so, they would have saved themselves from committing the egregious fallacies and other errors I and other philosophers have identified in our reviews of the book.  (If a philosopher tried to do physics without first learning what contemporary physics actually says, no physicist would be as generous with him as Maudlin is with Hawking!)

Maudlin has a lot of other interesting things to say, so do read the whole thing.  Commenting on the reasons why contemporary physicists fail seriously to grapple with the foundational philosophical questions raised by their discipline, he says:

[P]hysicists for almost a hundred years have been dissuaded from trying to think about fundamental questions.  I think most physicists would quite rightly say "I don't have the tools to answer a question like 'what is time?' - I have the tools to solve a differential equation." The asking of fundamental physical questions is just not part of the training of a physicist anymore.


Look, physics has definitely avoided what were traditionally considered to be foundational physical questions, but the reason for that goes back to the foundation of quantum mechanics.  The problem is that quantum mechanics was developed as a mathematical tool.  Physicists understood how to use it as a tool for making predictions, but without an agreement or understanding about what it was telling us about the physical world.  And that's very clear when you look at any of the foundational discussions.  This is what Einstein was upset about; this is what Schrodinger was upset about.  Quantum mechanics was merely a calculational technique that was not well understood as a physical theory.  Bohr and Heisenberg tried to argue that asking for a clear physical theory was something you shouldn't do anymore.  That it was something outmoded.  And they were wrong, Bohr and Heisenberg were wrong about that.  But the effect of it was to shut down perfectly legitimate physics questions within the physics community for about half a century.  And now we're coming out of that, fortunately.

Notice that even someone who disagreed with Maudlin that Bohr and Heisenberg were wrong to dismiss the need to address the metaphysical issues -- for that is what they were, on his account, essentially doing -- would in the nature of the case be taking a position that physics itself could not justify, a philosophical position.  And if they want to give a rational justification for this position rather than hold it as a mere prejudice, they will of necessity be engaging in philosophical rather than scientific arguments, and thereby implicitly conceding that there is such a thing as rational discourse that isn’t scientific discourse.  The only remaining question is whether to do philosophy well or badly, and those who pretend they are not doing it and scorn those who do are certain to do it badly themselves.  Scientism is self-refuting; or as Gilson famously said, philosophy always buries its undertakers.  

On the “fine tuning” of the universe and attempts to account for it in terms of various “multiverse” hypotheses (on which I’ve had occasion to comment recently), Maudlin remarks:

If we give up on that, and it turns out there aren't these many worlds, that physics is unable to generate them, then it's not that the only option is that there was some intelligent designer.  It would be a terrible mistake to think that those are the only two ways things could go.

I think he’s right about that.  Both atheists and some theists attribute an importance to this issue that it simply doesn’t have.  It is as foolish for theists as it is for atheists to make too big a deal of what current physics has to say about this or that, whether it’s “fine tuning,” multiverse theories, or whatever.  That’s “god of the gaps” (or “No god of the gaps”) territory, and it has nothing to do with natural theology as its greatest practitioners understood it, or as a serious atheist should understand it.  Natural theology, as I have argued, rests on deeper considerations than natural science -- considerations that any natural science must itself take for granted -- and thus on considerations that are unaffected by the current state of play in natural science.

Maudlin also makes some astute remarks about the relevance of contemporary physics to the philosophy of time:

Some physicists are very adamant about wanting to say things about [time]; Sean Carroll for example is very adamant about saying that time is real.  You have others saying that time is just an illusion, that there isn't really a direction of time, and so forth.  I myself think that all of the reasons that lead people to say things like that have very little merit, and that people have just been misled, largely by mistaking the mathematics they use to describe reality for reality itself.  If you think that mathematical objects are not in time, and mathematical objects don't change -- which is perfectly true -- and then you're always using mathematical objects to describe the world, you could easily fall into the idea that the world itself doesn't change, because your representations of it don't.

“Mistaking the mathematics they use to describe reality for reality itself” -- now there’s the fallacy of scientism in a nutshell.  Not that this entails that the mathematics does not describe the reality at all; the point is that it does not give us an exhaustive description of reality, but is rather an abstraction from a reality that in itself is richer than can be captured by mathematics alone, even in principle.  (Nor do proponents of scientism ever give non-fallacious arguments for thinking otherwise -- here’s one example.)

The claim that physics has shown that change is illusory is in any event seriously problematic.  As Karl Popper noted, Einstein, as interpreted by Minkowski, recapitulates Parmenides.  (See the essay “Beyond the Search for Invariants” in Popper’s book The World of Parmenides.)  And that means that relativity, if interpreted as entailing the illusoriness of all change, would inherit all the problems with Parmenides’ position.

Now I don’t myself believe for a moment that modern physics really has shown that there is no genuine change in the external physical world.  But even supposing for the sake of argument that it has, that would not show that all change is an illusion, for two reasons.  First, what we would have in this case is one more instance of the common strategy whereby science (as the moderns have defined “science”) attempts to unify phenomena by relativizing the apparent differences between them to the observer.  Hence “heat,” “sound,” “red,” “green,” etc. are redefined so that what common sense means by these terms (features which are irreducibly qualitative rather than quantitative, and which can vary from perceiver to perceiver) is relativized to the “mental” or “subjective” point of view of the observer, and what is allowed to count as “objective” or “physical” heat, sound, or color  is only what can be captured in a quantitative model -- the motions of particles, compression waves, surface reflectance properties, and the like.  So too, time and change, when treated as if they do not really exist in the external world, are relativized to the mind of the observer as mere projections onto external reality.

But the observer himself remains.  And as Popper pointed out, there is no getting around the fact that change really occurs at least within the observer’s consciousness itself.  To deny this is implicitly to deny the very empirical evidential base on which physical theory is supposed to rest.  (Democritus’ paradox all over again.)  Hence if Einstein really were Parmenides redevivus, his position would face incoherence just as the Eleatic philosopher’s did, at least if the Minkowskian interpretation is correct and if we want to say that the conscious subject is a part of a natural world that is purportedly free of change.  Alternatively, we could adopt a dualist view according to which the conscious subject is not a part of that world.  That will save the Minkowskian view from incoherence, but at the cost of merely relocating change rather than eliminating it.  (And also, of course, at the cost of leaving us with the problem of explaining how the conscious subject is related to the natural world if it is not part of it.)

A second point is that unlike Parmenides’ own block universe, the block universe of Minkowski is supposed to be governed by laws that are contingent.  And if they are contingent, then, the Aristotelian-Thomistic philosopher will argue, they are merely potential until actualized.  That means that even if there were no real change or actualization of potency within an Einsteinian four-dimensional block universe, the sheer existence of that universe as a whole would involve the actualization of potency, and thus something like change in the Aristotelian sense (and thus in turn an actualizer or “changer” distinct from the world itself, though that’s a subject of its own).

Anyway, the occasion of the Atlantic interview with Maudlin is the advent of philosophy of cosmology as a distinct subfield within philosophy of physics.  This is a welcome development, which will hopefully bring some sobriety to a discussion to which the likes of Hawking, Krauss, and others have been contributing so many silly and ill-informed remarks.  Here’s an appropriate video to watch in celebration.  (Just for laughs, you might think of the giant squid head as representing the dark forces of vulgar scientism, and the Beasties and their robot as striking back in the name of true, philosophically-informed science.  Have fun!)


Jokes, lies, and jocose lies

Many years ago, arriving at a party at a friend’s house, I noticed a Jaguar parked out front.  The guy who answered the door didn’t know me, but I happened to know through my friend who he was, and that he was the owner of the car.  So I decided to have a little fun.  “Who owns the Jag?” I said with mock distress; “It just got totaled!”  The only thing more priceless than the look of horror on his face was the “Who the hell is this guy?” expression that replaced it when I told him I was kidding.

Was I lying?  No, I was merely joking.  So what’s the difference?

You’ll recall that I have argued on traditional natural law grounds that it is always wrong to tell a lie, even if the sin is often only venial.  Circumstances are irrelevant to determining whether lying is wrong, because the act of lying is intrinsically bad, given that it involves intentionally acting contrary to the natural end of our communicative faculties.  However, circumstances are relevant to determining whether or not a given lie is gravely wrong.  They are also relevant to determining whether something counts as a lie, because language is conventional, and the conventions governing certain expressions determine that under certain circumstances they do not function to convey one’s true thoughts in the first place.  Hence to say “Fine, thank you” in response to the everyday greeting “Hi, how are you?” does not count as a lie even if one is in fact feeling terrible, because as a matter of linguistic convention these words function as a mere pleasantry under such circumstances, rather than a literal description of one’s mental or physical state.  Under other circumstances -- say when you are being given a medical examination for insurance purposes, and the questioner seriously wants to know how you are really feeling -- they would count as a lie.  (Earlier posts spelling all this out in detail can be found here, here, here, here, here, and here.  Please don’t bother commenting on the claims I’ve just made until you’ve read the posts in question, which deal with the stock objections at length.  I’m not going to rehash it all here.)

Recall also that lying is not the same thing as deception, even though there is an obvious relationship between them.  One can be guilty of lying even when one knows one’s word is not likely to be believed.  And one can legitimately deceive someone without lying to him, as when one speaks evasively, but not falsely, to someone demanding information he has no right to.  As John Henry Newman wrote:

An instance is supplied in the history of St. Athanasius: he was in a boat on the Nile, flying persecution; and he found himself pursued.  On this he ordered his men to turn his boat round, and ran right to meet the satellites of Julian.  They asked him, "Have you seen Athanasius?" and he told his followers to answer, "Yes, he is close to you."  They went on their course as if they were sure to come up to him, while he ran back into Alexandria, and there lay hid till the end of the persecution.

Then there is what natural law theorists call a “broad mental reservation,” which is distinct from a lie insofar as, given the conventions governing language, one’s listener could reasonably determine from one’s words under the circumstances what one really thinks, even if he is likely not to.  An example would be a secretary answering “He’s not in, can I take a message?” to someone looking for the boss.  Given the conventions governing such expressions, it is well known that what is meant is “Whether or not he’s in, he isn’t seeing visitors right now.”  Though if the questioner went on to say “No, seriously, is he really in or not?  I need to know,” to respond “No, he really isn’t in!” when the boss is in would, it seems to me, clearly be a lie, even if only a minor one.

Now jokes of the sort I played on arriving at the party seem to me not to count as lies precisely for the sorts of reason that Athanasius’s words, pleasantries like “Fine, thanks,” and conventional expressions like “He’s not in” used under typical circumstances don’t count as lies, even if the listener is deceived.  Jokes are such a common part of everyday life that whenever something startling is said, people automatically wonder whether it is meant seriously.  The immediate response is, commonly, not belief, but rather to exclaim “You’re joking!”  Hence it seems clear that the linguistic conventions governing startling statements are relevantly like those governing pleasantries and certain kinds of evasive or ambiguous speech.  The listener could in principle determine from the context that what is said is not intended as if it conveyed the literal truth, just as he could in the case of “Fine, thanks” or “He’s not in.”  And the fact that the speaker foresees and even hopes that the listener is nevertheless deceived (at least momentarily) no more makes such an utterance a lie than the hope that Julian’s agents would be deceived made Athanasius’s followers’ words “Yes, he is close to you” a lie.  Moreover, the circumstances of an utterance that determine whether certain words count as a lie plausibly include more than linguistic conventions and what is going on physically in the vicinity of a conversation.  They surely include also what immediately follows a joking utterance of the sort I made about the Jag -- a smile, wink, or laugh, or the words “Just kidding!” or the like.  Just as the theatrical context makes “My kingdom for a horse!” a non-lie even when uttered by someone who has no kingdom to trade for a horse, so too does the overall conversational context typically surrounding jokes like the one I made about the Jaguar make them non-lies.

But suppose I had carried the pretense on for some time.  Suppose the guy at the door said “Wait a minute, are you serious?” and I answered “Yeah, it’s totaled.  Was that your car?  Sorry, man, some drunk driver just plowed into it!”  To make this plausible, suppose the guy’s car was parked a couple of blocks away so that he couldn’t know I was joking just by peering over my shoulder, and had to go check.  Here I think we would clearly have a lie, just as we would in the case of the person who falsely says “Really, I mean it, he’s not here” to someone who asks “Seriously, is the boss in or not?  I really need to know.”  In particular, we’d have what is sometimes called a “jocose lie” -- a lie intended to amuse.  Another example of a jocose lie would be making up some story and relating it as true so as to make one’s conversation more entertaining.  Of themselves such jocose lies are considered by traditional natural law theorists to be merely venially sinful, though circumstances could make them mortally sinful -- for example, if the one telling a jocose lie intended gravely to inconvenience or humiliate his listener.

The view I’m putting forward here may be more lenient than that of Aquinas.  We are told the following story about him:

One day a Friar in a jovial mood cries out: "Friar Thomas, come see the flying ox!"  Friar Thomas goes over to the window.  The other laughs.  "It is better," the Saint says to him, "to believe that an ox can fly than to think that a religious can lie."

I don’t know the circumstances under which this is supposed to have happened, but if the first friar’s remark about the flying ox was relevantly like my Jaguar gag, I’m inclined to say that it was not really a lie at all.  In any event, the distinctions that underlie the traditional natural law view that broad mental reservations, conventional pleasantries, and the like do not count as lies were hammered out in the centuries since Aquinas wrote.  They are grounded in Aquinas’s overall approach to the subject even if they go beyond what he actually said himself.

“New natural law” theorist Germain Grisez also seems to take a more stringent view.  In Living a Christian Life, volume 2 of his The Way of the Lord Jesus, Grisez writes:

Humorous lies manipulate others and often offend their dignity…  [They] aim to deceive someone, although usually only temporarily, and generally in the context of playful mocking or teasing (“kidding”).  For instance, someone first tells a credulous person something astonishing, embarrassing, or frightening but untrue, and by this deception provokes an emotional reaction; then the joker manifests the truth and at least implicitly ridicules the reaction. (p. 411)

I have already explained why I think such “playful mocking,” “teasing,” or “kidding” does not count as lying in the first place -- given the linguistic conventions governing surprising statements, the listener typically can figure out that the speaker is not serious, in just the way that he can figure out the truth when a speaker uses evasive language or a broad mental reservation.  

But then, Grisez, like “new natural lawyers” in general, eschews the “perverted faculty” approach to the subject that (as I explained in a recent post) motivates the traditional natural law theorist’s view that lying is inherently bad.  Grisez appeals instead to the value of “self-integration and authenticity” and a lie’s tendency to “attack[s] the real community that truthful communication would foster” (p. 405).  Yet the suggestion that playful mocking, teasing, and kidding “attack real community” and “offend the dignity” of persons seems to me to be absurdly overwrought, certainly if intended as a general statement about such practices.  (Grisez says that “humorous liars typically victimize people whom they regard as inferiors,” but this way of putting it only reinforces the impression -- which nothing in his discussion clearly contradicts -- that he regards even kidding between equals as a kind of “lying.”)  Of course, mocking, teasing, and the like is sometimes intended maliciously, and can sometimes cause real harm even to people who are not oversensitive -- hazing, schoolyard bullying, and the like are obvious examples.  But everyday pranks and the joshing that friends engage in are not at all like this.  The “victims” of such jokes typically enjoy them -- “Ha ha, you got me!  Good one!” -- and would rightly dismiss as ridiculously humorless any suggestion that in doing so they are somehow complicit in an assault on their “dignity.”  Indeed, the sort of bonhomie that typically surrounds such joking surely fosters community rather than “attacks” it.  (Here as elsewhere the “new natural law theory” tends towards an excessive rigorism born of an obsession with a quasi-Kantian understanding of “respect for the dignity of persons.”  Of course, neither moral rigorists nor Kantians are famous for having a sense of humor.)

So, I would say that playful kidding of the sort I engaged in in the Jaguar case does not count as a lie, not even a jocose lie (and is thus not inherently wrong), whereas falsely insisting that what I had said was true even when asked whether I was joking would have been a jocose lie (and thus would have been inherently wrong, even if only mildly so).  There are interesting middle ground cases, though, that are not as clear-cut.  In Volume II of The Science of Ethics (a work for which I have great esteem), traditional natural law theorist Michael Cronin rightly says that:

It should be remembered… that it is possible for the jocular element in our statement to become itself a part of the statement instead of remaining outside the statement, as merely the end to which it is directed.  And thus what is often incorrectly called a jocose lie is really not a lie, but a true statement, made up partly of words, partly of jocose acts, and partly, perhaps, of the circumstances, for even the circumstances sometimes “speak.” … Smiling, nodding, a jocular tone of voice may all be used to convey our meaning or part of our meaning, just as well as words; and, provided their significance is understood by people generally, they have a claim to be regarded as a substantive part of our speech, as adding to, or modifying the literal sense of the words used.  (p. 72)

I would argue that these sorts of considerations support the claim that jokes of the “totaled Jaguar” sort do not count as lies under the circumstances described.  But Cronin says the following about another example:

To say to a boy on All Fools’ day that his teacher wishes to see him, when it is known that this is not the case, is a lie -- a very minor lie, no doubt, but still a lie.  The innocence of the end aimed at diminishes, indeed, the sin of lying, but it still leaves the lying statement what it is in itself, just as any other end would.  (p. 71)

This, as I say, seems to me to be a middle ground case.  On the one hand, unlike my “Jaguar” example, the content of the statement in question is of itself not necessarily surprising enough naturally to lead the listener to suspect that the speaker might be joking, and if the speaker does not soon go on to say “Just kidding!” or the like but lets the boy go to see his teacher, there is nothing else in the immediate context to indicate the speaker’s true thoughts.  That much supports Cronin’s judgment that this case counts as a jocose lie.  On the other hand, the overall context is April Fools’ Day, and most people are aware that jokes and pranks are unusually common on that day.  Someone who remembers what day it is will likely be especially wary, suspecting anything remotely surprising or unpleasant that anyone says on that day of being a joke.  Hence it seems to me that there are grounds for holding that the overall context makes it plausible that the average person could figure out the speaker’s true thoughts, so that the overall communicative act is no more a lie than the utterance of a mere pleasantry like “I’m fine, thanks” (even when one is feeling depressed) would be.

Someone might wonder: Couldn’t considerations of the sort raised here be used to justify practices like telling children untruths about Santa Claus, or deliberately telling a falsehood to the murderer at the door (practices which in earlier posts I have argued count as lies)?  The answer is No.  Take the Santa Claus case first.  In most cases, there is nothing analogous to broad mental reservation, evasive speech, non-literal language and the like here; nor, even if there were, does a small child have the sophistication to know the difference.  When you tell an adult that you’re fine even when you’re not, he knows well that you might not really be fine at all and that you didn’t really intend in the first place seriously to be claiming that you are.  When you tell him that the sun rose at 6 am today, he knows well that you do not literally mean that the sun moved relative to the Earth but that this is just a loose way of speaking.  But when you tell a four-year -old that a man in a red suit comes down the chimney on Christmas eve, leaves gifts around the tree, and eats the cookies the child has left for him, he understands you to mean that this is literally what happens -- that you are describing an event no less real and in principle observable than a visit by Grandma and Grandpa would be.  He doesn’t think that it is a joke, or merely a delightful myth that you don’t mean seriously -- especially if you insist that it is true even when he says “But Bobby at school said there really is no Santa Claus!”  It is sheer sophistry to pretend that this is anything but a lie, even if the motivation for it is innocent.  

Regarding the murderer who comes to your door looking for his victim, I suppose that if the murderer presented himself as just an ordinary visitor paying a visit and you said “Sorry, he’s not here,” this (like the secretary’s words in the example given above) would count as a broad mental reservation rather than a lie, given the linguistic convention governing such forms of speech.  But suppose the murderer says: “Look, I intend to kill this guy but I’m on a tight schedule here and I don’t have time to fool around.  So, just give me a straight answer-- none of this broad mental reservation or evasive speech stuff.  Is he here or not?”  In that case, if you falsely say “No, he’s not,” then you’ve told a lie.  Not mortally sinful, to be sure -- and consult this article by Fr. Lawrence Dewan for an account of just how minor a fault such an act would be -- but still a slight defect.

But rest assured that you can still joke with the murderer about his Jag being totaled…


Point of contact

Bruce Charlton identifies six problems for modern Christian apologists, and proposes a solution.  His remarks are all interesting, but I want to focus on the first and most fundamental of the problems he identifies, which is that the metaphysical and moral knowledge that even pagans had in the ancient world can no longer be taken for granted:

Christianity is a much bigger jump from secular modernity than from paganism.  Christianity seemed like a completion of paganism - a step or two further in the same direction and building on what was already there: souls and their survival beyond death, the intrinsic nature of sin, the activities of invisible powers and so on.  With moderns there is nothing to build on (except perhaps childhood memories or alternative realities glimpsed through art and literature).

From this problem follow several others.  Bruce continues:

Modern Christianity as experienced by converts tends to be incomplete - precisely because modern Christianity has nothing to build on.  This means that modern incomplete Christianity lacks explanatory power, seems to have little or nothing to say about what seem to be the main problems of living.  For example, modern Christianity seems to have nothing to do with politics, law, art, philosophy or science; to inhabit a tiny, shrinking realm cut-off from daily concerns.


Modern Christianity often feels shallow - it seems to rely on diktat of scripture and the Church - this is because moderns lack a basis in the spontaneous perceptions of Natural Law, animism, the sense of active supernatural power in everyday life.  Modern Christianity (after the first flush of the conversion experience) thus feels dry, abstract, legalistic, prohibitive, uninvolving, lacking in purpose. 

As they say, read the whole thing.  There is, I think, much truth in what Bruce has to say.  To be sure, I don’t for a moment think (and I take it that Bruce doesn’t think) that Christianity really is in fact “shallow,” “incomplete,” “dry,” “lacking in purpose,” devoid of “explanatory power,” with “nothing to build on” by way of common ground with secular modernity, etc.  Quite the opposite.  But I agree that it can seem that way to many modern people.  (It more or less seemed that way to me in my atheist days, before I discovered what Christianity, and in particular Catholicism, actually said -- that is to say, what its greatest representatives have actually held historically, as contrasted with the distortions of Christianity, whether liberal or fundamentalist, that have replaced it in much of the public mind.)

The problem, in part, is one of historical and cultural circumstances.  Take a simple example, the Christian description of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.  To modern people this sort of talk can sound unbearably mawkish; indeed, I sometimes find it unbearably mawkish, unless the context is such as to counteract the awful cultural associations that have come to surround it.  Hence, if I’m hearing a reference to Jesus as Lord or Savior in the context of the Mass (whether the extraordinary form or the ordinary form celebrated in a dignified way), it does not bother me at all; but if I hear it uttered by a televangelist, I feel (perhaps like a Dawkins or a Hitchens would) an irresistible urge to change the channel.  

Think, though, of the associations a word like “Lord” would have to someone in the ancient or medieval world -- it would bring to mind an emperor, or an aristocrat.  Think of what “Savior” would mean in a cultural context where ancient local communities were being swallowed up by ruthless and seemingly invincible empires, and where rigorist moral systems like Stoicism and Neo-Platonism competed for the allegiance of the intelligentsia -- that is to say, where people had an ongoing sense both of being in real physical jeopardy and of continual personal moral failure.   A description of Jesus of Nazareth as “Lord” and “Savior” would have the reverse of the sentimental and effeminate connotations secularists hear in it now -- it might bring to mind a stern Constantine riding to the rescue on horseback, say, rather than a Mister Rogers with long hair and sandals, ready with a smile and a Band Aid for your spiritual boo-boos.

Combine the egalitarian politics, easy morals, and relative affluence and social stability of recent decades, and few people in the modern secular world are looking for a Lord or Savior in a sense the ancients and medievals would have understood.  Add to that the fact that “Jesus is Lord!” has become the expression of a therapeutic, emotionalistic religiosity conveyed through mass-produced T-shirts, bumper stickers, and bad music, and the whole idea is bound to the modern secularist to seem unintelligible and repulsively tacky.  (Scratch a New Atheist and you’ll often find that this is the kind of stuff he’s reacting against, and all he’s ever known of Christianity.)

So that’s part of the problem.  But that can be remedied if proponents of a muscular and intellectually rigorous form of Christianity -- that is to say, of Christianity simpliciter, as it existed historically -- rediscover their ancient heritage.  For they will thereby rediscover too the heritage of the pagan world, and find in it the resources to communicate with modern man, indeed with any man.  Aristotelians and Neo-Platonists knew that God exists, they knew that man is not a purely material creature, and they knew that good and bad are objective features of the world and that reason directs us to pursue the good.  They knew these things through philosophical arguments which have lost none of their force, arguments which were picked up and refined by Christian thinkers and which informed the great Scholastic tradition.  

As Pope Leo XIII beautifully put it in Aeterni Patris, the intellectual treasures of the pagans are like the gold and silver vessels the Israelites took out of Egypt, ready for deployment in the service of the true religion.  Thus did the Scholasticism whose revival this encyclical fostered happily adopt whatever was of value in the thought of Greeks and Romans, Jews and Arabs.  With philosophy as with art, literature, and architecture, if you want to learn what the greatest non-Christians had to offer, come to the Church, which absorbs and protects it -- honoring our divinely given nature and its products even as she raises them higher through grace.  She reminds man of what he already knows, or can know, through his own powers, before revealing to him truths he could not arrive at under his own steam.  She speaks to him in his own language -- the language of natural theology and natural law, which are in principle accessible to all, and have no “sell by” date.  Even modern secularists know this language, for they are no less human than their pagan ancestors.  The problem is that they speak it at only a grade school or even kindergarten level, whereas the greatest of the ancients at least had high school level proficiency.  But through “remedial education” they, like the ancient pagans, can be prepared for the graduate level work afforded by divine revelation.

This is, of course, the idea of what Aquinas called the praeambula fidei -- the preambles of faith, by which philosophy opens the door for revelation (where faith and revelation, keep in mind, are when rightly understood in no way contrary to reason but build on it -- I have explained how in the first half of a previous post).  But this brings us to another problem.  Like the Pharisee who scorns the sincere piety and virtue of the Samaritan, some Christians scorn natural theology and natural law as impious or at least questionable.  They either despise human nature, and with it any non-Christian understanding of God and morality, as altogether corrupt and without value; or they are willing at least verbally to affirm that nature, but only if it is effectively absorbed into the order of grace, like the Monophysite who is willing to acknowledge Christ’s human nature only if it is first completely divinized.  On the former tendency, faith alone and scripture alone must suffice to bring one to Christianity, preambles be damned.  On the latter, human nature is conceived of in a way which (to borrow a phrase from Pope Pius XII) threatens to “destroy the gratuity of the supernatural order” by taking the natural up into the supernatural, in effect treating natural theology and natural law as if only the Christian can understand them aright.  In both cases Christianity can come to seem a matter of mere diktat (as Bruce Charlton puts it) -- fideistic, inaccessible from and irrelevant to the world of the non-believer.

The first tendency, obviously, is associated with Luther and Calvin, though it is only fair to acknowledge that there are Protestants who have resisted it.  All the same, their resistance is itself often resisted by their coreligionists, as is illustrated by a famous dispute between the 20th century Protestant theologians Emil Brunner and Karl Barth.  Brunner argued that natural theology represents a “point of contact” between human nature and divine revelation, by which the former might be able to receive the latter (though even Brunner qualified his notion of “natural theology,” lest it imply the certainty of God’s existence through natural reason alone that is affirmed by Catholicism).  Barth responded angrily (in a work with the pithy title “No!”), rejecting any suggestion that human nature contributes something to the “encounter” between God and man and arguing that any needed “point of contact” was itself provided by revelation rather than human nature.  This is a little like saying that billiard ball A knocks into billiard ball B by hitting, not B’s surface, but a surface provided by A.  If intelligible at all, it only pushes the problem back a stage: How does the surface provided by A itself have any efficacy vis-√†-vis B?  And how does the “point of contact” provided by revelation itself make any contact with human nature?

It is also only fair to point out that some modern Catholic thinkers have taken views which at least flirt with the second tendency I described above -- though in part under the influence of Barth.  Hans Urs von Balthasar sought to meet Barth halfway by rejecting the conception of man’s natural state developed within the Thomistic tradition and central to the Neo-Scholasticism fostered by Leo’s Aeterni Patris (a conception which I described in a recent post on original sin).  On this traditional view, the natural end of human beings is to know God, but only in a limited way.  The intimate, “face to face” knowledge of the divine nature that constitutes the beatific vision is something we are not destined for by nature, but is an entirely supernatural gift made available to us only through Christ.  In place of this doctrine, Balthasar put the teaching of his fellow Nouvelle Th√©ologie proponent Henri de Lubac, who held that this supernatural end is something toward which we are ordered by nature.  Whether it is even coherent to maintain that a supernatural gift can be our natural end, and whether de Lubac’s teaching can ultimately be reconciled with the traditional Catholic doctrine of the “gratuity of the supernatural order” reasserted by Pius XII, have for several decades now been matters of fierce controversy.  But the apparent (even if unintended) implication of the position staked out by de Lubac and Balthasar is that there is no such thing as a human nature intelligible apart from grace and apart from Christian revelation.  And it is in that case hard to see how there could be a natural theology and natural law intelligible to someone not already convinced of the truth of that revelation.

Related to this is Etienne Gilson’s tendency to deemphasize the Aristotelian core of Aquinas’s system and to present it instead as a distinctively “Christian philosophy.”  As Ralph McInerny argued in Praeambula Fidei: Thomism and the God of the Philosophers, Gilson’s position, like de Lubac’s, threatens to undermine the traditional Thomistic view that philosophy must be clearly distinguished from theology and can arrive at knowledge of God apart from revelation.  Such views thereby “unwittingly [erode] the notion of praeambula fidei” and “lead us along paths that end in something akin to fideism” (p. ix).  

McInerny’s book, along with other recent works like Lawrence Feingold’s The Natural Desire to See God according to St. Thomas Aquinas and His Interpreters and Steven A. Long’s Natura Pura, mark a long-overdue recovery within mainstream Catholic thought of an understanding of nature and grace that was once common coin, and apart from which the possibility of natural theology and natural law cannot properly be understood.  Nor, I would say, can other crucial matters properly be understood apart from it (such as original sin, as I argue in the post linked to above).  The blurring of the natural and the supernatural may also lie behind a tendency in some contemporary Catholic writing to overemphasize the distinctively theological aspects of some moral issues.  For example, an exposition of traditional sexual morality that appeals primarily to the Book of Genesis, the analogy of Christ’s love for the Church, or the relationship between the Persons of the Trinity may seem more profound than an appeal to (say) the natural end of our sexual faculties.  But the result of such a lopsided theological emphasis is that to the non-believer, Catholic morality can (again to use Bruce Charlton’s words) falsely “seem to rely on diktat of scripture and the Church” and thus appeal only to the relatively “tiny, shrinking realm” of those willing to accept such diktat.  It will fail adequately to explain to those who do not already accept the biblical presuppositions of Pope John Paul II’s “theology of the body” or of a “covenant theology of human sexuality,” their merits notwithstanding, exactly how Catholic teaching is rationally grounded in human nature rather than in arbitrary divine or ecclesiastical command.  Grace doesn’t replace nature but builds on it; and an account which heavily emphasizes the former over the latter is bound to seem ungrounded.

The late pope himself realized this, whether or not all of his expositors do.  In Memory and Identity he says:

If we wish to speak rationally about good and evil, we have to return to Saint Thomas Aquinas, that is, to the philosophy of being [i.e. traditional metaphysics].  With the phenomenological method, for example, we can study experiences of morality, religion, or simply what it is to be human, and draw from them a significant enrichment of our knowledge.  Yet we must not forget that all these analyses implicitly presuppose the reality of the Absolute Being and also the reality of being human, that is, being a creature.  If we do not set out from such “realist” presuppositions, we end up in a vacuum. (p. 12)

And in Chapter V of Fides et Ratio he warned:

There are also signs [today] of a resurgence of fideism, which fails to recognize the importance of rational knowledge and philosophical discourse for the understanding of faith, indeed for the very possibility of belief in God.  One currently widespread symptom of this fideistic tendency is a “biblicism” which tends to make the reading and exegesis of Sacred Scripture the sole criterion of truth…

Other modes of latent fideism appear in the scant consideration accorded to speculative theology, and in disdain for the classical philosophy from which the terms of both the understanding of faith and the actual formulation of dogma have been drawn.  My revered Predecessor Pope Pius XII warned against such neglect of the philosophical tradition and against abandonment of the traditional terminology.

And the Catechism promulgated by Pope John Paul II, citing Pius XII, affirmed that:

human reason is, strictly speaking, truly capable by its own natural power and light of attaining to a true and certain knowledge of the one personal God, who watches over and controls the world by his providence, and of the natural law written in our hearts by the Creator… (par 37)

There is a reason why the first Vatican Council, while insisting that divine revelation teaches us things that cannot be known by natural reason alone, also taught that:

The same Holy mother Church holds and teaches that God, the source and end of all things, can be known with certainty from the consideration of created things, by the natural power of human reason…


Not only can faith and reason never be at odds with one another but they mutually support each other, for on the one hand right reason established the foundations of the faith and, illuminated by its light, develops the science of divine things…


If anyone says that the one, true God, our creator and lord, cannot be known with certainty from the things that have been made, by the natural light of human reason: let him be anathema.


If anyone says that divine revelation cannot be made credible by external signs, and that therefore men and women ought to be moved to faith only by each one's internal experience or private inspiration: let him be anathema.


If anyone says… that miracles can never be known with certainty, nor can the divine origin of the Christian religion be proved from them: let him be anathema.

The point of such anathemas is not to settle by fiat the question of whether God exists or whether miracles have actually occurred; obviously, a skeptic will be moved, if at all, only by being given actual arguments for these claims, not by the mere insistence that there are such arguments.  The anathemas are directed at the fideistic, subjectivist Christian who would dismiss the atheist’s demand that faith be given an objective, rational defense, and who thereby makes of Christianity a laughingstock.  Preaching Christianity to skeptics without first setting out the praeambula fidei, and then complaining when they don’t accept it, is like yelling in English at someone who only speaks Chinese, and then dismissing him as a fool when he doesn’t understand you.  In both cases, while there is certainly a fool in the picture, it isn’t the listener.
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