Cur Deus Homo & Other Roman Problems: Some Quiddities

The valuable EH Looney – an orthospherean through and through, let it be noted, and so our ally and friend (witly or not), whose site I visit daily – has in a recent short post subtly erred, in three different and interesting ways. An Orthodox Christian who admires Rome with fervent intelligence, he nevertheless writes with eyes open:

The problem with Rome isn’t papal supremacy, or even the filioque, it’s that the Roman church is the cradle of nominalism. That sickness should have been condemned immediately rather than being allowed to fester long enough to create Luther and the Protestant deformation.

Also Anselm’s theory of the atonement almost totally obscures the existential nature of the paschal mystery into a legalism of the worst possible sort.

Now, there is some truth to each of these statements. Some truth; not all.

First, while nominalism is a perennial temptation to the sophomoric intellect, first proposed to man by Lucifer at Eden, nevertheless its most potent and perdurant formal manifestation to date did arise in the Latin West, with Roscellinus and Ockham.

But then, the Church is the religion of Adam, so that all cults whatever originate in it, and have diverged from it errantly. Rome insists that the Church is the cradle of everything: Islam, Communism, Mazdakism, Mormonism, atheism, Pharisaism, paganism, shamanism, Shinto: you name it. Eastern Orthodoxy agrees, of course. And both East and West agree that they are both the Church. The two lungs of the Church, that is to say, both agree that they are the two lungs of the Church. They agree therefore also that all other cults diverge from their joint and – when push comes ultimately to shove – agreeable witness.

The cradle of nominalism, and of all other doctrinal errors, is truth. No truth, then no possibility of error in respect thereto. That men err nowise impeaches truth.

Second, it is true that nominalism was specifically repudiated only at the Council of Trent, at which point the horse was already out of the barn.

Nevertheless it was in fact repudiated by the Church, early on. Roscellinus was condemned for his nominalism, and recanted it. Ockham was excommunicated, and his nominalism prohibited. And, of course, Aquinas – archon, paragon and archetype of the philosophia antiqua – is the preeminent theologian and the Angelic Doctor of the Church, and his realism the crown and summation of Western theology. The Church’s resounding magisterial affirmation of Thomism (in Aeterni Patris, ex cathedra Leo XIII) is an effectual repudiation of Ockhamism – and of all other doctrines that cannot be reconciled with Thomism.

The affirmation of truth is an effectual repudiation of all errors, whether or not those errors are anywhere explicitly catalogued. If I say that 2 + 2 = 4, it follows that 2 + 2 ≠ ¬ 4 without my specifying that this is so; to say that 2 + 2 = 4 *just is* to say that 2 + 2 ≠ ¬ 4.

Third, it is certainly possible to lose oneself in the formal thickets of Scholasticism, and so lose sight of the concrete mysteries to which the Schoolmen devoted their lives, and pointed their work.

But this can be accomplished only by a misprision of that work; by a sort of ideolatry. It was to the temptations of such error that the first of the Latin Fathers, the firebrand Tertullian, referred in asking the Greek Fathers what Athens might have to do with Jerusalem.

The Schoolmen themselves – even the errant among them, such as Ockham – did not usually fall into that sort of thing. In the first place, they were well trained. In the second, they were almost all besotted by Christ, utterly consumed in humble contemplation of holy mysteries.

Anselm developed his theory of the Atonement as an apologetical answer to the skeptic’s question, cur deus homo – why did God become man? Why, that is, did not Omnipotence simply repair the Fall by his own mere whim? Why go to the trouble of the Incarnation, and especially the Passion? It’s rather a tricky question. And it can arise only in minds alive to the philosophical puzzles that must attend any doctrine of an interaction between ultimacy and any sort of penultimacy. It is an inherently philosophical question, calling for a philosophical answer. Only having enjoyed the satisfaction of an adequate philosophical answer might a philosophical skeptic find himself able to proceed to worship in peace of heart and mind so as to open a way to mystical contemplation of the tremendous and mysterious fact of the Atonement that his philosophical satisfaction has enabled him to recognize as such.

Anselm’s answer was therefore a formal philosophical analysis, not a mystical treatise (if you want a mystical treatise from the Latins, better to turn to such as Eckhart, John of the Cross, the Cloude of Unknowyng, et alii). Nevertheless it was borne of Anselm’s own profound mystical contemplation – the man was renowned for his intense spirituality. He was not sainted on account of his philosophy.

The analysis in his Cur Deus Homo is often characterized as legal, for Anselm treats sin as man’s partial default on his legal debt to God, that he must somehow repay, but that – being ontologically deficient on account of the wound of his sinful deficit – he cannot possibly repay from his own finite resources, of which absolutely all are in any case also already owed to God. God becomes man then, uniting divine ultimacy with human penultimacy in one person, so that a man might redeem human debt from his very own infinite divine store of ontological wealth.

Now, insofar as a debt is a legal instrument, this is indeed a legal analysis. But notice that debt instruments are formalizations of concrete economic, thus moral, and so ontological relations (so are all legal instruments; as laws, trusts, agreements, verdicts, sentences, proclamations, declarations, regulations, and so forth). Legal instruments are to the concrete moral, economic and ontological relations to which they refer as words are to the ideas, facts and intentions they denote.

If I borrow $1,000 from you under a note payable, my debt is not a legal or financial fiction. It is not reduced to the instrument of the note. The debt would not vanish with the destruction of the note that records it. On the contrary, my debt to you is a real aspect of our concrete relations: a portion of my substance is properly yours, to the measure of $1,000, and this property of yours is recorded in the note.

That Anselm treats the Atonement under the terms of finance no more empties it of mystery or concreteness than a detailed topo map of Grand Canyon vitiates the Canyon’s numinous majesty. Nor does it even obscure the Canyon, except insofar as one uses it as a blindfold; as, i.e., one misuses it, qua map.

+++++++++++++++++

In closing, an ironic note.

One of Ockham’s main motivating ideas was the conviction that, as infinite, God is utterly impenetrable to the finite creaturely intellect, so that natural theology is simply impossible, and all our knowledge of him comes only from revelation. It is obvious that this cannot have been a delivery of Ockham’s own intellect; for on that basis it would be self-refuting: if we cannot reason about God, then we can’t reason that we can’t reason about God; so that when we think we are reasoning about God, in fact we are doing no such thing. It must therefore rather have been for Ockham a pre-rational hunch. On that hunch hangs his whole opus, one way or another. His nominalism, in particular, follows smoothly from his conviction of God’s impenetrability. If God is thoroughly unintelligible, then so are his works, such as the creation. The creation does not have a true order that we can understand. Our names for things, our categories of thought, then, do not truly pertain to reality. They are names only. They refer to nothing real.

I have not read enough of Ockham to know whether it occurred to him that revelation too is a handiwork of God, so that if God is unintelligible to the finite natural intellect, immured inescapably in its nominalist cell, then so likewise must his revelation, too, be completely unintelligible.

Ockham set himself against all the metaphysical realists, East and West – including Anselm – all of whom had agreed with Paul’s assessment that while we now see but through a glass, and darkly, nevertheless we do see, well enough indeed that we can tell how cloudy and dark our sight yet is. He set himself against philosophy as such; which is to say, against thought, against knowledge, against truth.

Ockham set himself, in fact – in moral, theological, and spiritual fact, aye and in legal and political fact, too – against the Church and the Pope. He was a disobedient friar.

The realists on the other hand, by their careful formal philosophical analyses of what they took to be a thoroughly intelligible reality, did not err in the opposite direction. They did not by any means reject revelation. On the contrary, they took its priority for granted. None of them would have entertained for a moment the notion that the finite intellect could comprehend God, much less analyze him adequately. Most of them, after all, were *professional mystics.* So none of them would have confused their maps of the Canyon with the Great Abyss itself.

Ironic, then, that they are so often chided for doing just that.

25 thoughts on “Cur Deus Homo & Other Roman Problems: Some Quiddities

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    • Well, the ostensible reason for his excommunication was that he left Avignon without permission from the Pope. But that’s obviously a trumped up charge, akin to jailing Al Capone for tax evasion.

      The whole Franciscan order had then of late been embroiled in a controversy with the Pope over whether friars or their order could hold property, in view of their vows of poverty, and of the Franciscan assertion that the Apostles were voluntarily impoverished. The Franciscans said no, the Pope said yes. At stake implicitly was the whole of the Church’s property, the loss of which would have demolished Church power and independence. It was this same issue that was later at stake in the English Reformation, when Henry VIII expropriated monastic lands and devolved them to his barons, removing them from the tax rolls of the Pope and adding them to his own.

      Ockham and the Minister General of the Franciscans fled Avignon with a few other friars and took refuge with the Holy Roman Emperor. In return for his patronage and protection – which he enjoyed for the rest of his life – Ockham wrote treatises arguing that said Emperor ought to rule over the Church in his domains – again, an issue that later factored in the schism of the Church of England.

      So, these were not exactly petty disputes. They were momentous. Nevertheless they had little to do directly with Ockham’s nominalism. Notwithstanding that, his teachings were prohibited in 1339, albeit only until the Church could examine them thoroughly – an instance of caution in due diligence most typical of the Church through the centuries. Apparently this examination was complete by the time of the Council of Trent (the jury is still out on Origen).

      The parallels between Luther and Ockham are striking: both nominalists, both at odds with the Pope, both refugees under the protection of German princes.

      NB: this is not to say that either Luther or Ockham were wholly in the wrong. As we have lately seen, it is quite possible for faithful and orthodox Catholics to find themselves at doctrinal or pastoral odds with a Pope.

      What, if any, is the connection between nominalism and disobedience? It’s pretty simple, really. The nominalist rejection of universals has the ultimate consequence of eliminating all relations among entities. It is radically atomist: every mind is immured in its own epistemological prison – a type of solitary confinement that, as fundamentally devoid of intersubjective meanings or intensions, is in the end insane, and so is even more epistemologically impoverished than Plato’s cave – and cannot communicate with other minds, or even other creatures of any sort. It is totally solipsistic. And the elimination of relations among entities forecloses any ratio between them, any reason of their differences, ergo any supersubjective order, whether social, cosmic, or spiritual. So it dissolves all bonds, including those in virtue of which the ecclesial communion coinheres, or for that matter the political, the social, the familiar, the personal, the organic – and the cosmic.

      One of the entities that eventually falls before Ockham’s Razor as wielded by consistent and thorough nominalists is the Logos himself.

      So Ockham’s nominalism was a huge factor in his excommunication, albeit mediately.

      By his own lights, Ockham’s rebellion against the Pope was surely undertaken in good faith, with good intentions, and for the best of reasons. Nevertheless rebellion it was, and a dissolution of social order, that would ramify down through the centuries with terrible effect. It is not perhaps too much to say that Jacobinism was a logical outworking of the Ockhamite rebellion.

      • Thank you for the summary of the ecclesiastical history. As for the philosophy, that’s a bit dire as a summary of the consequences of nominalism, don’t you think?

        (a) Nominalism of any variety doesn’t cut us off from beings or from each other. It only cuts us off from a uniquely appropriate conceptual/terminological system. We can still communicate using non-unique names that we converge upon. (And remember, not all relations are relations among universals! E.g. whether the cat is on the mat has nothing to do with a relationship between catness and matness.)

        (b) Due to the scholastic understanding of communication, the medieval realists attributed various special powers to (true) names and propositions which invoked them. Ockham’s suspicion of natural theology was, imho, *quite* proper and has been validated over, and over, and over again. (Natural theology is ever and again a scandal to the church.) But it was especially appropriate in light of the scholastic theory of terms, and makes his nominalism all the more appropriate, given the scholastic axioms he was working with; far from cutting us off from reality, Ockham is like the designated driver, taking away the keys to a vehicle humans were never meant to drive.

        Btw, the parallels between Luther and Ockham are not only “striking”; iirc they are the result of a theological tradition called the via moderna, the counterpart to the via antiqua you mention wrt Thomas.

      • The consequences of nominalism as I have sketched them are indeed dire. But I don’t think they can be avoided.

        If there is no such thing really as red, but rather only (as Ockham thought) a concept of redness in our minds, then red does not truly appertain, anywhere. It is a heuristic of our own device – useful, perhaps, in the internal economy of the mind, but no more. However much sense it makes to us, it is an hallucination.

        So likewise for all our concepts, whatever.

        Say there is a red ball on the table before me. Under nominalism, there is in reality no such thing as red, ball, table, before – or, if we press the issue, me, or existence. All those terms without exception are nothing more than subordinates of concepts wholly internal to my mind.

        We feel truly that, as you say, our knowledge – our incorrigible apprehension – that our terms never quite perfectly appose to reality does not cut us off from other things. But even imperfect apposition of terms is not possible if there be no reals out there to which they might more or less proximately, and thus truly, appose. Under strict nominalism, we can’t be correct about *anything,* because all our concepts whatsoever – even, in the absolute limit, our concepts about our selves – are about *stuff that is not real.*

        If there are no such things as cats or mats, there can be no such thing as cats on mats.

        The only way a nominalist can feel that he has contact with reality is by sneaking a few unprincipled realist exceptions into his attitude toward experience. Nominalists can mean what they say and think only by gainsaying their nominalism.

        Due to the scholastic understanding of communication, the medieval realists attributed various special powers to (true) names and propositions which invoked them.

        The alternative to nominalism is that terms have true meanings; and meanings have power (meaning is intension, and intensions always have ontological valence – i.e., causal effects). The alternative to nominalism, then, is that when we deploy terms, we deform reality. And this is obviously exactly what we find going on in all our interactions.

        There is no reason to suppose that terms have power only intrasocially. Indeed, they can have intrasocial power in the first place only insofar as they furnish true leverage upon the cosmos. We exert that leverage when we bless, pray, baptize, ordain, marry, and so forth; and when we vow, aver, tell, disagree, correct, and so forth.

        The Church proscribes sorcery then, not because it is vacuous, but because it is efficacious. Lucifer may not be the true name of the devil, but he knows whom you mean to denote when you call him that.

        Suspicion of natural theology is indeed always appropriate. But men can do theology at all only via the faculties bestowed upon us (gratuitously, to be sure) in our human nature. In that sense, then, *all* theology is natural theology, and the traditional division between natural and revealed theology picks out only their different sorts and sources of data.

      • You accept, though, that when a nominalist says that the “red ball on the table” is only a red ball on the table in our own psychic economy, and the psychic economy of the like-minded, he is not saying that the red ball on the table (the thing, the referent of the phrase) does not exist?

        I.e., there may be other nominal frames in which the object is a cyan ovoid on a bench, or whatever. Maybe such frames exist, maybe not; the nominalist’s claim, however, is precisely that if such frames exist and are internally consistent, then no one of them need be the “correct” frame.

        The concept of appurtenance and “true meaning” you seem to have in mind may be necessary, for example, in shamanistic cosmologies where knowing the true name of a thing gives you occult power over it. And I certainly agree that the scholastic cosmology had similarities to such a cosmology! But this conception of appurtenance is not necessary for objects to *exist* and it is hard to move on to the later stages of dire warning before doing justice to the opening salvo.

        >In that sense, then, *all* theology is natural theology, and the traditional division between natural and revealed theology picks out only their different sorts and sources of data.

        That is entirely reasonable. If we agree that the types of theology Ockham was attacking were proved dubious in the event and those that he permitted were not, then it is entirely irrelevant whether we call the former natural and the latter revealed, or use some other naming system.

      • You accept, though, that when a nominalist says that the “red ball on the table” is only a red ball on the table in our own psychic economy, and the psychic economy of the like-minded, he is not saying that the red ball on the table (the thing, the referent of the phrase) does not exist?

        Sure. It’s just that he can’t talk about it as truly featuring the same sorts of properties as other things, or as being the same sort of thing as other things. He can treat it only as an individual. He can’t treat of groups of any sort, or therefore of systems, networks, webs; so he can’t treat of communication, coordination, coherence, agreement or disagreement. He can’t treat of relations. For him, no part of experience can be generalized or linked to another; there are special cases, and nothing else.

        Nor can he treat the thing as really red, really spherical, really bouncy, etc. He can say of it only, “that thing is that thing.” Or, no, wait: “thing” is a universal, and ruled out; so, all he can say is, “that is that.” If even that. For, “that” is a universal, too.

        Oh, to be sure, he perfectly well can say more than that about the ball. But only insofar as he is willing to abrogate his nominalist principles.

        If there is no correct frame, then there is no incorrect frame. Ockham could point to the red ball on the table between us and say, “that’s a red ball.” I could respond, “no, it’s a black pony.” He’d have no way of correcting me.

        The concept of appurtenance and “true meaning” you seem to have in mind may be necessary, for example, in shamanistic cosmologies where knowing the true name of a thing gives you occult power over it.

        I didn’t quite mean that. I suppose it sounded as though I did when I tossed off that remark about Lucifer, but if you examine that remark carefully, you will see that it actually gestures in the *opposite* direction. I can call up Lucifer whether or not I know his proper name – the name that shamanistic people keep private – because both Lucifer and I know whom I’m denoting when I use the words “Lucifer” or “Satan” or “Lord of the Flies.”

        Terms work in language – whatever words we use to invoke them – because the fluent all (more or less) understand the concepts to which the terms are subordinate and which they invoke, and agree that the concepts are really present and at work in concrete intersubjective reality. I say, “Quincy, where’s that wrench?” You begin casting about for the wrench – not for the apple pie, or the kitten. And you suppose that the concept of the tool does truly terminate on some real in the near vicinity, for otherwise I would not have used the word that labels that particular termination (Ockham suggests that words are subordinate to terms, and terms to mental concepts; I think it more accurate to say that words are the labels we give to the terminations of concepts upon reals). Or if I say, “Quincy, get that antelope, quick, before he’s out of range,” you aim for the antelope, not the cloud or the dog.

        Because they shape action, the concepts denoted by “wrench” and “antelope” have causal influence; they operate on things, they change history. My suggestion is that if as nominalism avers it were true that concepts don’t in fact terminate upon things, then terms would not be able to affect history in this way, because no one would know what anyone else was talking about. Nominalism takes our common knowledge for granted, and assumes it would still be at work among us even if our concepts did not truly terminate upon reals. But it wouldn’t. If concepts did not truly terminate upon reals, we’d have no use for them, at all; so we would not have them. And that would mean that we could not learn, or think, or plan, or remember – much less talk.

      • >Ockham could point to the red ball on the table between us and say, “that’s a red ball.” I could respond, “no, it’s a black pony.” He’d have no way of correcting me.

        Hmm, he would, though. If you said “It’s a black pony” then you’d be wrong because it’s not black and it’s not a pony. But if you said “I think of it as a alsfjs wrqew, where ‘alsfjs wrqew’ means the same kind of thing as that black pony over there”, then you’re correct; Ockham has no way of saying that a system of names that distributes some black objects and some red objects into the same set (“wine-dark”, perhaps?) is ipso facto worse than one that segregates them.

        >My suggestion is that if as nominalism avers it were true that concepts don’t in fact terminate upon things, then terms would not be able to affect history in this way, because no one would know what anyone else was talking about.

        This clarifies to a large degree your early definition of fluency. That statement is true as far as it goes, but only if you accept that the same mutual understanding about the relationship between particular lexical items and concepts that makes lexical items meaningful is *also* what makes the concepts themselves meaningful. The difference between the lexical items and the concepts is not how it comes to be that fluency is possible, but what fundamental forces drive convergence onto common understanding – and this is not at issue between nominalists and realists (strictu sensu), since most realists would want to insist that their metaphysical realism does not tie them down to innate ideas.

        If you accept that the concepts that structure other lexical items are themselves structured the same way, then the problem with your conclusion pops out quite clearly: it creates a regress. If concepts which converge on a shared consensus in the same way as lexical items can’t refer to things, how could lexical items refer to concepts?

      • If you said “It’s a black pony” then you’d be wrong because it’s not black and it’s not a pony.

        But for the nominalist, “black” and “pony” don’t refer to anything real; there is for him *no such thing* in the outer world as blackness or ponyness. The notions are all in his head, and nowhere else. It’s a crazy idea, and terrifically hard to pretend with any sort of consistency, I grant – without importing a little realism to help things along. But that itself is an index of its absurdity. For the nominalist, “red,” “ball,” “black” and “pony” are all equally and completely vacuous in their intensions. They are not about anything. So he could have no grounds for an assertion that I’m wrong – or not – about the black pony.

        It gets worse. The nominalist rejection of universals entails that there is no such category as nominalism, nor any such things as nominalists.

        The red ball is, of course, manifestly *not* a black pony. It is a red ball. But nominalism won’t let us say that it is definitely a red ball, and not a black pony. It will let us say only, “that.” If that.

        That statement is true as far as it goes, but only if you accept that the same mutual understanding about the relationship between particular lexical items and concepts that makes lexical items meaningful is *also* what makes the concepts themselves meaningful.

        It’s the other way round. The common recognition that concepts terminate meaningfully upon reals is what endows lexical items with their meanings. With Ockham, I agree that lexical items are subordinate to (technically speaking, that they intend, and derive from) the orderly terminations (the terms) of concepts upon reals. Put another way, lexical items are meaningful to fluents, and discursively utile, in virtue of their shared recognition that the concepts to which the lexical items refer do in fact terminate orderly upon reals of their shared experience. In short: words are meaningful in virtue of the meaningfulness of the concepts to which they refer; and the meaningfulness of concepts vis-à-vis concrete reals derives in turn from their formal similarity to those reals.

        If concepts which converge on a shared consensus in the same way as lexical items can’t refer to things, how could lexical items refer to concepts?

        Quite. They couldn’t. That’s the difficulty with nominalism. If concepts can’t properly and truly refer to things, then there is just no such thing as reference to begin with, period full stop. Or meaningful lexical items, of course.

      • If we agree that the types of theology Ockham was attacking were proved dubious in the event and those that he permitted were not, then it is entirely irrelevant whether we call the former natural and the latter revealed, or use some other naming system.

        Well, it isn’t entirely irrelevant, then, because I don’t agree that the types of theology Ockham was attacking were proved dubious or that those he promoted were not.

        The via antiqua was never disproven. It merely fell out of fashion, in rather the way that antique music fell out of fashion … for a while. The via moderna, by contrast, is logically incoherent, six ways from Sunday. So …

        Just as the proposition that metaphysics is impossible is itself a proposition of metaphysics, and therefore autophagous, so Ockham’s doctrine that natural theology is impossible is a proposition of natural theology, and therefore likewise autophagous. It is a proposition about the relation between God and man that is not supported by scripture or the Magisterium. Indeed, revelation contradicts it, in Romans 1:20.

        That doesn’t mean it’s OK to be cavalier in doing natural theology. It isn’t OK to be cavalier in doing any sort of theology. Viz., there are lots and lots – indeed, many thousands – of idiosyncratic sects founded upon revelation. All but one are scandals to the Church.

      • The two arguments work in fundamentally different ways. “Metaphysical knowledge is impossible” plus “Statements about the possibility of forms of knowledge are metaphysical” yields a paradox of self-reference. But it relies on the assumption that the original speaker agrees that metaphysics covers the possibility of forms of knowledge. If the second statement were merely a *criticism of how he is using the word metaphysics*, then there is no self-reference and the conclusion would be an equivocation.

      • “Metaphysical knowledge is impossible” plus “Statements about the possibility of forms of knowledge are metaphysical” yields a paradox of self-reference. But it relies on the assumption that the original speaker agrees that metaphysics covers the possibility of forms of knowledge. If the second statement were merely a *criticism of how he is using the word metaphysics,* then there is no self-reference and the conclusion would be an equivocation.

        By definition, metaphysics proposes to cover everything whatever. Epistemology is one of its departments.

        Note however that I did not critique the statement that metaphysical knowledge is impossible. I critiqued the statement that metaphysics is impossible.

        Notwithstanding all that, the proposition that natural theology is impossible is itself an assertion about the relation of God and man that derives, not from revelation, but from … natural theology. It is itself an instance of the very sort of propositions that it declares to be impossible. If we can’t reason about God, then we can’t reason that we can’t reason about God. The notion that we can’t reason about God is, then, not even wrong. It is incoherent. So we can reason about God.

        None of this should be taken to indicate that I think natural theology preeminent vis-à-vis revealed theology. I am familiar with God’s arguments on that score, as recorded in Job.

        The heavens are nevertheless telling the Glory of God, so natural theology is at least possible, insofar as, nature being itself a revelation, natural theology is a department of revealed theology.

      • Just so we’re on the same page: as mankind’s knowledge of the works of God grows, these works only become more mind-boggling, more wonderful, and more glorious. But the scandal arises when, at any given point in time, a theologian pauses to explain how *his knowledge of nature* proves either (a) the existence or (b) the power of God, or (c) confirms the truth of Scripture. The problem with these arguments is that their logical underpinnings almost invariably imply that if the natural theologian knows less about God’s cosmic order than he thought (and oh, how often they are wrong!) then the same argument *disproves* God’s existence or power or *disconfirms* scripture. This, not because of any deep truth of theology, but simply because if p(x|y) > p(x) then p(x|~y) < p(x)

        I take your claim to mean that propositions about how to determine what is the Word of God and what is not are not necessarily contained in revelation (although in fact they are; but presumably one takes Deuteronomy as revelation first, and later uses its criteria to distinguish prophesy from false prophesy). But this does not mean that there is some fundamental underlying relationship between A="understanding God's explicit messages to us" and B="understanding facts about God that are implicit in aspects of the order of nature that are not messages" connected by the fact that both B and A'="determining whether something is a message or not" fall within the category C="~A".

        (And I admit I tweaked your metaphysics example. I'm familiar with the fallacy from logical positivism, where it is the claim that metaphysical *propositions* are *nonsensical* that is at issue, under the special definition of the Vienna Circle, not modality per se. I'm not sure whether you had in mind the logical positivist fallacy or a related one, but as stated I'm not sure wherein the vicious circle is said to lie. "Metaphysics is about everything" doesn't get it off the ground: I doubt anyone has ever bothered to say metaphysics was impossible without a special target in mind that they hoped to demolish…)

      • That’s a helpful clarification. We are not quite on the same page. I mean, I share your skepticism of apologetical arguments founded in the science of some particular age. That’s not what I mean by “natural theology.” I mean rather, “theology naturally possible to man without extraordinary supernatural assistance.” The ontological and cosmological arguments are good examples. They do not at all depend on any particular scheme of natural history. They operate equivalently in any orderly world, no matter what its system or nature.

        Whether there can be any natural occurrence without supernatural assistance is another question. Natural and revealed theology agree in answering, “no.”

        I take your claim to mean …

        Which claim?

        I didn’t mean to address the question – the salient and interesting question – of how to determine what is scripture and what is not. I meant to address the question of whether we have by our nature any access to data about God from any source other than scripture or tradition (as when revelation was handed down by Apostolic teaching), so that we can do natural theology at least up to a limit (that we can surpass only by recourse to revelation as handed down to us in scripture and tradition). Under theism, everything without exception is a datum about God. So, yes; in principle, at least, we ought to be able to do natural theology.

        I didn’t say that metaphysics was “about” everything, but that it “covers” everything. Likewise, physics is not about sociobiological or geological phenomena; but it covers them. Or again, math is not about physical phenomena, but it covers them.

        Are there first principles? Are there necessary truths? They cover everything.

        “Metaphysics is impossible” is self-refuting because it is an assertion either that there are no first principles or that, if there are, they are unintelligible. It is a claim about the existence or character of first principles. It is *about* first principles. It is, i.e., a proposition of the very sort that it says cannot be proposed coherently.

      • >The ontological and cosmological arguments are good examples. They do not at all depend on any particular scheme of natural history. They operate equivalently in any orderly world, no matter what its system or nature.

        The cosmological argument I take to be natural theology in a much stronger sense than the ontological argument, since it actually involves premises about the operation of nature, whereas the ontological argument does not (or: if its ontological categories are smuggled in from experience, it vitiates the argument so we wouldn’t have the ontological argument to kick around anymore). The identification of God with the Almighty is itself a matter of revelation.

        >Which claim?

        The claim that natural theology contains the whole of theology in a parallel way to (your other claim that) metaphysics contains the whole of everything.

        >Under theism, everything without exception is a datum about God.

        You are perfectly capable of being a nominalist when it suits you! But in our language, “natural theology” and “revelation” each cover a particular kind of data about God; if you want to change natural theology to cover all those data, you need to offer a new word for the data which aren’t intentional messages.

        > it is an assertion either that there are no first principles or that, if there are, they are unintelligible

        Well, it can’t be that there *are no first principles*. I can write the darn things down. It has to be, as you say, that they are unintelligible; or that they are unknowable; or that second-order claims about a principles’ “firstness” are unintelligible or unknowable.

        (It can’t even be that all first principles are false, because that would involve us in paradoxes before we had time to worry about self-reference…)

      • The identification of God with the Almighty is itself a matter of revelation.

        I take it that you mean the identification of that than which no greater can be conceived with YHWH; the identification of the God of the philosophers with the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. God certainly does proclaim his ultimacy and almightiness in scripture, so the identification would seem to follow. But all that the ontological argument proposes is the necessary existence of that than which no greater can be conceived; if we then want to take the extra added step of identifying that being with God, as God himself does in scripture, then fine. We agree with God, in so doing.

        …[your] claim that natural theology contains the whole of theology in a parallel way to (your other claim that) metaphysics contains the whole of everything.

        I haven’t made that claim about natural theology (nor, as I have already made clear, did I make that other claim about metaphysics). I said rather the opposite:

        None of this should be taken to indicate that I think natural theology preeminent vis-à-vis revealed theology. I am familiar with God’s arguments on that score, as recorded in Job. The heavens are nevertheless telling the Glory of God, so natural theology is at least possible, insofar as, nature being itself a revelation, natural theology is a department of revealed theology.

        You here likewise take me to mean the opposite of what I wrote:

        … in our language, “natural theology” and “revelation” each cover a particular kind of data about God; if you want to change natural theology to cover all those data, you need to offer a new word for the data which aren’t intentional messages.

        But I didn’t want to change the denotation of natural theology so that it covers the data delivered by revelation. On the contrary, as I just wrote:

        … we have by our nature … access to data about God from [sources] other than scripture or tradition … so that we can do natural theology at least up to a limit ….

        Scripture and tradition are the data of revealed theology. Let’s add in magisterial teaching and legitimate private revelation, as well. Not that revealed theology pays no attention at all to data arising elsewhere, of course. For, ex hypothesi, revelation is shaped for us its intended audience in such a way as to be intelligible to us, given our natural intellectual and spiritual endowments. It is given to us in concepts and languages of which we are capable. But the data special to revealed theology are, precisely, the data that have thus been revealed to us.

        Having said all that, there is a sense in which revelation that has been received into the world and affected it is thenceforth natural thereto, as being an aspect of the world as we encounter it. Scripture is a fact of history; and so, a fortiori, are the supernatural ingressions to this world that have changed the course of its history, and that scripture has recorded. This is the staggering thing, the wonderful thing, about the Incarnation. *Saint Thomas can put his hand in between the ribs of the Logos.* *We can eat the Body of the Logos.* By his revelation of himself to us within our cosmos, God has made himself a permanent and integral feature of it. Mind blowing.

        But I digress. The data proper to natural theology arise from sources other than scripture, tradition, magisterial tradition, and private revelation; for these are the sorts of data proper to revealed theology. Clear?

        Well, it can’t be that there *are no first principles.* I can write the darn things down. It has to be, as you say, that they are unintelligible; or that they are unknowable; or that second-order claims about a principles’ “firstness” are unintelligible or unknowable.

        Whatever. Any such claims are *about* first principles, and characterize them. They are, that is to say, propositions in the discourse of metaphysics, of the very sort that they claim are not possible.

      • Kristor,

        Wouldn’t a nominalist just say “Your choice to designate a certain range of wavelengths of light by the name ‘red’ is arbitrary and presumably a matter of convenience, but having made this choice, your statements about the outside world–say, that this ball is red–are objectively true or false.”?

      • That seems plausible, prima facie. But that’s only because what we have done without realizing it is sneak some realism into a putatively nominalist analysis, in the form of “wave,” “length,” “light,” and so forth. We are taking the wavelengths of light as objective categories of things, and “red” as the merely nominal term for those categories. But under strict nominalism, there is no such thing out there as a sort of light; no classes or categories, only individuals. If we take wavelengths as real, we are no longer nominalists at all, but realists.

        Nominalists always end up making this sort of unprincipled exception, generally without noticing they have done so (so that they are doing it honestly, in good faith). They have to, in order to seem to make sense. Viz.: the propositions of nominalism itself cannot be expressed except under realist presuppositions. The statement, “universals don’t truly appertain to things in themselves” is *entirely constituted* of universals; and inasmuch as it is an assertion of a universal truth, it proposes that universals *do* truly appertain to things in themselves.

      • Bonald,

        There are no wavelengths, there is no light. There are no photons, quarks, etc. If (in reality) matter only can exist as some kind of substantial form, you can keep denying substantial form all the way down. There is never any prime matter that you can point to as finally “real”.

  3. Wittgenstein, in the Philosophical Investigations, pointed out the cardinal error of Nominalism: “We are not analysing a phenomenon (e.g. thought) but a concept (e.g. that of thinking), and therefore the use of a word. So it may look as if what we were doing were Nominalism. Nominalists make the mistake of interpreting all words as names, and so of not really describing their use, but only, so to speak, giving a paper draft on such a description.”

    • Being God, he could not consistently do anything that he did imperfectly, or become something imperfect. There was no other sort of man that God could become than the perfect man. No other sort of manhood was optional to him.

  4. You note that 2+2=4. Please tell me where in the world I can find a “2.” You can’t; it is just a symbol. If you see the point that I am making, you are a nominalist. What exactly this has to do with Christianity is anyone’s guess.

    • You’re making the classic nominalist mistake of confusing the way that concepts are real with the way that substances are real. Concepts are properties of substances; they are real in virtue of the reality of the substances to which they are proper. That does not make them irreal.

      Nominalism is correct in its intuition that the only concrete substances are … concrete substances. But it is incorrect in the inference it then draws, that properties of concrete substances have no objective existence.

      What has all this to do with Christianity? Well, if nominalism were true, and universals did not really exist, then it would not be possible to make true statements of a perfectly general nature (such as, e.g., “universals don’t really exist”). All such perfectly general statements would be meaningless: not even false. That would rule out metaphysics (including nominalist metaphysics). And ruling out metaphysics would rule out ultimacy of any sort, ergo God. Pretty simple really.

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