The One Basic Thing

Over at Orthospherean Bruce Charlton’s Notions, I rattled off a comment about what a truly basic thing would have to be like, which upon reflection I believe may be worth promoting to a post here. Bruce had critiqued monotheism; I then pointed out that God in the OT had rather supported the idea, and said that monotheism is not monism; to which Bruce replied that Christian theology is certainly monist. I commented:

I should have written: NB: monotheism is not monism, simpliciter. It depends what you mean by monism. If you mean substance monism, on which there is only one type of thing, then Christianity is not monist. If you mean existence monism, on which despite appearances there is only one thing, then Christianity is not monist. If you mean priority monism, on which there is some basic thing that is prior to all others, then Christianity (like almost all religions) is monist.

If there is more than one basic thing, then creation cannot have a single origin, precisely because it has in that case a plural origin – or rather, origins.

Is there more than one basic thing? To answer that question, we need first to understand what a basic thing must be like.

  1. A basic thing must be simple. It must not be composed of other things, for if it were, those other things would be its bases, and it would not itself be truly basic.
  2. A basic thing must not be contingent. If it were contingent, its causes would be its bases, and it would not itself be truly basic.
  3. A basic thing must be immutable. If it were mutable, it would be both contingent on and composed of other things, which would be its bases, so that it would not itself be truly basic.
  4. A basic thing must be necessary; for, if it were not necessary, it would be contingent, etc.
  5. A basic thing must be eternal; for, if it had come into being, it would be contingent, etc.
  6. A basic thing must be ultimate. If it were subultimate, there would be some greater thing or things that, as greater, conditioned it. Those greater things then would be its bases, and it would not itself be truly basic. Thus to say that a thing is basic just is to say that it is ultimate, and vice versa.
  7. A basic thing must be perfect along all dimensions of perfection. If it were not thus perfect, it would be subultimate, etc.
  8. A basic thing must be singular. There cannot be more than one. If there were more than one basic thing, each would condition or limit the others, and so each would be conditioned or limited by the others. In that case, all of them would be bases of each other, and none of them would be itself basic.
  9. A basic thing must be prior to all other things. If it were posterior to any other things, those things would be its bases, and it would not itself be basic.

And so forth.

Evidently, if there are any basic things at all, there can be no more than one of them. Either there is one basic thing, then, or there are none. If there are no basic things, nothing is basic to anything. In that case, nothing has any bases. There is then at bottom no reason or cause or basis or foundation to things; no order or coherence or integrity; no world, in other words. But there is a coherent world, so it cannot be true that there are no basic things.

So there is one basic thing.

Which is a good thing, for if there were not, then there were nothing, and then no such thing as (in particular) our world, or any other.

The fact of the one basic thing enables all other things. It is therefore understandable why all men have felt the monotheistic urge that Steiner notices. It is the urge to comprehend a world that can in principle be intelligently comprehended (however partial our comprehension in practice) because it is thoroughly intelligible on account of its integral and orderly coherence. No coherence of things, no order and integrity in their mutual coordination, then no world. We find ourselves in a world, mirabile dictu. In it, things happen coordinately, regularly, lawfully; they adjust themselves to each other immaculately. This world must therefore be integrally orderly and coherent, and therefore intelligible; for the coherence of things consists in part in [the] mutual intelligibility of things.

If the monotheistic urge is doomed to frustration by the intractable chaos of things, why then there is just an intractable chaos, not a world; and then we can have no basis for asserting anything at all, *including the assertion that there is an intractable chaos of things.*

24 thoughts on “The One Basic Thing

  1. Evidently, if there are any basic things at all, there can be no more than one of them. — Kristor

    Thus…

    The First Law of (P)erfection:

    No redundancy

  2. Christ is risen!

    Thank you, Kristor — a beautiful little summary. I, myself, just cannot see _any_ attraction to what BC might call Mormon metaphysics. Culture, family emphasis, even some of their eccentric doctrines — yes, I see the attraction and the worthiness of them. Their metaphysics — not even a jot appeals to me. It just seems so unserious. I just cannot leave my ontological commitments behind. I certainly don’t have “it” figured out, but nonetheless, we’re able to see that certain paths dead end, go round in circles, or veer off the cliff. For someone as clear headed as BC is, who sees the importance of metaphysics (unlike LDS folks themselves), I don’t get his hostility to the traditional Christian (or mainstream pagan Greco-Roman, for that matter) understanding of the world. That people have muddled it isn’t really a poignant condemnation. People muddle everything. Scripture, marriage, friendship, sex, whatever . . . fallen man makes a mess of everything. Why would philosophical journeys be exempted?

  3. I think you would enjoy the blogging work of WM Briggs if you are not already familiar with him. In the linked article he refers to a concept of ‘parsimony’, perhaps in a tongue-in-cheek connotation, but something about it resonated with me. Why have many ‘prime movers’ if one will do? There was something I read (I think it was in Mere Christianity) where CS Lewis was discussing the nonsensical notion of multiple Jesuses, multiple ‘sons’ of God. His answer, if I recall correctly, was that more than one would imply that each was finite in some way, that each on his own did not contain the ‘fullness’ of what is implied in being the second person of the Trinity.

    So too with The One Basic Thing, which is essentially a recast Prime Mover argument to address a specific criticism. What role would another fundamental ontological unit fill that is missing from the prime fundamental ontological unit? Would it not imply there is another unit, more fundamental to the others? Parsimony: God could do it all himself, so there’s no need to complicate it.

    • Yeah, Briggs is great. He reads here, and we read there.

      I think it goes even deeper than a simple matter of parsimony, although that certainly tells. Consider that “two Prime Movers” is nonsensical; it is an expression of a contradiction in terms, like “square circle,” because you couldn’t have two Prime Movers any more than you could have two first positive integers.

    • I can see where you are going with that, and you are on the right track, but no. Negative entropy is a character of systems composed of things, so it is not basic.

      • Welp, it is neg-entropy that determines, what is a “thing” in a system, no? From a mathematical – “objective” point of view, all statistical states are just as probable and just as significant…

      • No order, no system or things therein, sure. But negative entropy is a property of physical states, all of which are contingent, so not basic.

        If you mean to ask whether the *form* of negative entropy is basic, the answer is again no; forms exist only as properties of concretes, and only one concrete is basic. So forms are basic not in and of themselves, but only insofar as they are primordially and eminently in the Logos.

      • When you say that “negative entropy is a property of physical states”, isn’t that a materialistic assertion?

        That is the way I understand that statement. I would say that the states are a name we assigned to some concept for some purpose, that the properties are contingent and that the purpose is what drives this whole thing.

        This is quite fuzzy, I am not very familiar with the concepts, sorry. Still, I think it basically holds.

      • By “negative entropy,” I took you to be using the term as it is deployed by contemporary physicists, i.e., as a property of physical systems. But then I jumped up from the physical to the formal, and there, too, found that negative entropy, qua pure form, is not basic.

        To say that negative entropy is a property of physical states is by itself to talk materialistically only if the materialists are correct that physical states are only material.

        They are not. Physical states are not only material. They are also formal, final, and efficient.

        … the states are a name we assigned to some concept for some purpose, that the properties are contingent and that the purpose is what drives this whole thing.

        If it’s our purpose driving the whole thing, then neither the driven, nor the driving, nor the driver, nor the purpose of the driver are basic; for, all of them are contingent.

      • Cannot but agree. You are right and I should have foreseen this. The way the term is used is significant. The point on purpose is important to raise, and we are not in disagreement.

        What could be further disentangled is the issue of properties. I do not want to claim, that you reduce being to material causes, but that you take material things to be primary, “things have properties”, while in empiric experience, you could just as well say that properties have things – that the relational, functional, effective side is primary. But this is not crucial.

        I didn’t want to talk about that. I wanted to ask about the reality of neg-entropy. It cannot be really measured, beyond its crude statistical forms. Yet entropy, ruin or chaos and the drive towards creation and maintanance of order is such an important issue. And if you ask, what is beyond ruin, it just is entropy. Not preciselly in the way the physicists use that term though…

      • … you take material things to be primary, “things have properties,” while in empiric experience, you could just as well say that properties have things – that the relational, functional, effective side is primary.

        Actually I think that there are things that are not material, and that things are integrations of properties. What has no properties or relations is not a thing; it rather is not, is nothing at all.

      • Cool, so that is clear. When you say that neg-entropy is a property of physical states and is therefore contingent, couldn’t it just as well be the other way around? That what defines and delimits the physical states that are in question is entropy?

        In other words – I propose that the reality of entropic flow is the basic condition for recognition of things, including valuations, and that it satisfies all your categories.

        Further, things that have properties can still be redundant. But things that have a purpose are building neg-entropy and are meaningful.

        I am just trying to state this as strongly as I can, so you can take a good shot. It just seems obvious to me. I wonder what I am missing.

      • When you say that neg-entropy is a property of physical states and is therefore contingent, couldn’t it just as well be the other way around? That what defines and delimits the physical states that are in question is entropy?

        All actualities – material and immaterial – are formed. The form of an actuality specifies its order; so it specifies its degree of orderliness – which is to say, its negative entropy. And the form of an actuality is at the same time the definition of what it is, the specification of it, and the constraint or limit laid upon it. The form of a thing is what the actuality of the thing makes definite.
        The form of a given actuality is a composite of many universal forms, that are manifest in many disparate particular actualities. It is composed of values of properties that are proper to the sort of thing that the actuality is.

        A thing that is not at all formed is not a thing in the first place. It is a portion of chaos.

        So, yes: their forms do define and delimit actual things, including physical things that are actual. But it runs the other way, too; for it is also true that such actual things actualize those forms (and thus limit and constrain those forms *modally*). Absent the actualization of the form of a thing, that form would be nowise actual.

        Now, none of the foregoing is dispositive with respect to the question whether forms are contingent. They are: they continge upon the divine act, as aspects thereof. The Lógos is primordially the Platonic Realm of the Forms as pure potentials for creaturely becoming. No Lógos → no potential for creaturely becoming. Forms are not therefore basic.

        In other words – I propose that the reality of entropic flow is the basic condition for recognition of things, including valuations, and that it satisfies all your categories.

        We distinguish between things by reference to the differences in their forms, of which one dimension is always their degree of orderliness; so, yes. But there are other formal differences that matter, such as color, mass, complexity, beauty, and so forth.

        Further, things that have properties can still be redundant. But things that have a purpose are building neg-entropy and are meaningful.

        Not sure what you mean here by “redundant.”

        I’m an Aristotelian, so I am convinced that everything is teleological. Nothing is without purpose. So it doesn’t seem quite right to me that purpose is ipso facto syntropic. Indeed, the purpose and intent of Lucifer is to maximize entropy. Heat death is his whole schtick. That’s why Dante depicted him frozen in ice.

        I think also with William James that the meaning of a thing consists in its consequences for experience; so that nothing that has any such consequences is devoid of meaning. But then, you might mean something different by “meaning;” and if you do, we may not disagree on these matters. Indeed, my strong hunch is that we are singing in harmony with different words.

      • I think we are quite close, yes. I think I can raise a few interesting points, but I have to let all this settle in my mind.

        Could you please clarify now, why you distinguish between logos and forms in principle? Isn’t this doubling why purpose seems syntropic?

        Lots of new words, thank you 🙂

      • Well, the logos of an actuality generally integrates many forms. The forms of redness and sphericity are integrated in the logos of the actual red ball, but are not the same thing as that logos. That logos of the red ball is itself a form.

        Note that the logos of the actual red ball is not the Lógos himself. The latter is the form of all other forms. All the logoi of all possible concretes are integral in and as him.

        Isn’t this doubling why purpose seems syntropic?

        I’m not sure what you mean by “doubling,” but purpose is not syntropic per se. It is possible to purpose destruction.

      • There are still some points that are not completely clear to me, but I assume those map correctly to reality, as does the rest. The following seems to be the important missing idea – from my perspective:

        Negentropy isn’t the same thing as orderliness. This is a materialistic reading that is wrong. Orderliness is simply the part that can be measured in a world of disorder. There is this weird paradox – chaos is chaos, it is redundant. But a perfect order is the same redundance. Defining the boundary between a signal and noise, recognizing “normality” is impossible in a perfectly ordered structure, the whole of it is just as redundant, nothing can be recognized.

        It works the other way around too if you can see this – the opposite of complexity isn’t simplicity, but isolation. Complex – widely interconnected and purposeful things can be quite simple. But such cannot be isolated from logos, obviously.

        This is a metaphysical notion, dependent on our judgment. Scientists handle it simply because all the intellectual talent went in their direction for a while, which, of course, will change quite rapidly.

        This realization hit me very hard one day, I was just reading a book on Arborist theory. Anatomy of wood and all that.

        The thing is, a tree is dead inside. The wood that is older than about four years is the same wood that might hold the roof of your house, just moister, it is not a living thing, it is just scaffolding.

        And somehow this seems like a perfect analogy to me. This is the idea that I chose as a motto for my blog. The “real” tree is actually the envelope, the actively growing part.

        Further, I do not think it is possible to purpose destruction, as a bit of pruning is not destruction. It is possible to will destruction, certainly, as the pain of existence makes it possible to wish that rather nothing would exist. But nothingness isn’t a purpose. And I would say this is pretty rare anyway, as people mostly adorn their evil and try to pass it as justice, or sacrifice for a better world.

        On reflections like these, I always remember the Goebbels kids, you know. Just to keep in mind, how deep one falls, when one falls…

      • I think you are using some terms in an idiosyncratic way. I am not clear on what you mean by redundant, or entropy, or negative entropy, or order, etc. Again, simplicity is normally understood to be the *opposite* of complexity. It is not usually taken to indicate isolation. To indicate isolation, most people use the term isolation.

        Again, complex doesn’t usually mean widely connected and purposive. Both simple and complex things can be widely connected and purposive. I don’t mind your using terms in novel ways, but if you are going to do so, it would be a gentleness to your readers to define your novelties carefully.

        Defining the boundary between a signal and noise, recognizing “normality” is impossible in a perfectly ordered structure, the whole of it is just as redundant, nothing can be recognized.

        I’m not sure what that means. It seems obvious to me that in a perfectly ordered structure, normality and the perfectly ordered structure are coterminous. In a perfectly ordered structure, the boundary between signal and noise is indiscernible because there is in it no noise, and so no boundary to ascertain. And I can’t see why it would be impossible to recognize anything in a perfectly ordered structure. Indeed, it seems obvious to me that in a perfectly ordered structure, everything would be perfectly recognizable, precisely because there would be in it no noise, and thus no confusion or uncertainty.

      • Heat death is an image of a perfectly ordered structure too, perfect normality. You said it, the perfectly ordered structure has no deviation from normality and thus is fully entropic.

        I mean, the reality of it is that in a state of perfect order, there is no opacity, but there also is no way how to allign your will with Purpose, with logos. Which is never static, but always in a process of unfolding.

        It would be the trite reality of hippies, everything as it should be. Yeah, thank you very much for taking the fun out of it.

        The opacity, the living mystery is essential – the creative principle implies the darkness where “order” can meet “chaos” and pull original things from the field of potential.

        I know that it is frustrating to face all this novelty that has to feel frivolous, but I think that if you search around a little, you will see it makes sense.

        I think I am not really interested in the things that can be explained, those books have already been written. I am interested in the more mysterious parts.

        I try to respect the reader as much, as I can, but you are smart, I bet you can see all this in ten minutes, if that is at all something you want to do.

      • … the perfectly ordered structure has no deviation from normality and thus is fully entropic.

        Like I said, you are using terms in an extremely idiosyncratic way. To say that a perfectly ordered structure is fully entropic is like saying that perfect black is completely white. Again, in normal usage, complexity is indeed the opposite of simplicity.

        … in a state of perfect order, there is no opacity, but there also is no way how to align your will with Purpose, with logos.

        On the contrary: in a state of perfect order, your will would be perfectly aligned with the Lógos – and with the logos of your own nature. And the state of perfect order would be maximally productive of novel values. There is no reason to think that in a state of perfect order, creative activity would come to a halt. There is no upper limit on the amount of beauty that can be created.

      • Yeah, I do not agree. If I stumble across an example that would demonstrate this, I will let you know and if you were to do likewise, I would be happy.

        Good talking to you Kristor, you gave me a good stretch 🙂

  4. Kristor, this kind of elegant, almost algebraic metaphysics is why I come here. I enjoy reading it, even if I don՚t accept it fully.

    My main objection is that while there may be a single unified most fundamental “thing”, the one thing we can be sure of (and agree upon) is that *it is not a thing* in the everyday sense of “thing”. By calling it a thing, you attempt to make it an object for language and logic. But our language, which is organized in terms of things and their properties, is inadequate to talk about this ultimate “thing”. Attempts to prove propositions about it, as you are doing, seem to me misguided at best and actively wrong at worst.

    Taoism, which we have discussed before, takes pains to portray the ultimate as something unknowable and dark, describable if at all only through negation or elliptical allusions. Your attempts to delineate the basic thing seem a bit crude to me (but also elegant!); they are assertive and direct in an area where such an approach is neither justified nor called for.

    I՚m basically an ontological monist (which seems to be the position you are elucidating, more or less) but an epistemological pluralist and antifoundationalist. That is to say, there is a single reality, which we all share, but our ideas about it are always inadequate, partial, and divergent. Even mathematics and logic are only tools for describing aspects of the ultimate, but they are only one kind of tool and not ultimately as ultimate as they like to pretend to be.

    I also think monotheism is less universal than you suggest. As an idea, it appears to have become the human default in the Axial age, alongside the development of complex hierarchical societies, and not by coincidence. And as an idea it seems to have been discarded in the modern age and now is dead, as Nietzsche proclaimed.

    • Aw, shucks, a.morphous. Thanks.

      Christian theology – both apophatic and cataphatic – has always insisted that God is indeed, as you say, not a thing like other things, and that it is rather stupid to talk of him as though he were; that whenever we do speak of him, it behooves us to remember that the terms we cannot but use cannot therefore properly pertain to him in the way that they properly pertain to other things. Thus the entire discourse about religious language, that asks such questions as the one you and I have discussed at enormous length: what could we properly mean by saying that an eternal being knows about temporal events?

      So, you are on solid ground there.

      Nevertheless it behooves us also to follow the metaphysical logic where it inexorably leads. When you do, you find always, sooner or later, that it leads to the Lógos – or, as that term was translated into Mandarin by the Jesuit missionaries to China, to the Tao. Which is only to be expected; the science of First Things cannot but touch on the very First Thing. Once your metaphysical reasoning has led you to the Tao, then, as mystics of all religions have agreed, you should stop reasoning (and start worshipping), because you have arrived at what reasoning of our poor partial sort cannot possibly comprehend. You have arrived at the limit – and indeed the ultimate goal – of our reason, and it is inapposite to try to pass that limit by reasoning.

      That caveat is itself a product of metaphysical reasoning. It is by metaphysical reasoning that Christian theologians (both apophatic and cataphatic) have always concluded that God is not a thing like other things.

      If he were, he would not be ultimate, or therefore basic.

      It is by metaphysical reasoning that Christian theologians have concluded that God cannot be comprehended by human reason, and that it is indeed somewhat presumptuous of us to try to comprehend him. God reproved that very sort of presumption in Job, the oldest book of the Bible.

      If God could be comprehended by human reason, he would not be ultimate, or therefore basic.

      Thus the metaphysical reasoning I employed in my comment over at Bruce’s Notions does not conflict with the altogether proper and noble philosophical humility of Taoism. On the contrary, it entails and so supports that humility, and demonstrates its propriety.

      … there is a single reality, which we all share, but our ideas about it are always inadequate, partial, and divergent. Even mathematics and logic are only tools for describing aspects of the ultimate, but they are only one kind of tool and not ultimately as ultimate as they like to pretend to be.

      We agree. I would add only that math and logic could not be tools for describing aspects of the ultimate if they did not in fact describe aspects of the ultimate.

      … [monotheism] appears to have become the human default in the Axial age, alongside the development of complex hierarchical societies, and not by coincidence.

      In fact, all cultures – even the most primitive – seem to have been at least dimly aware of the Most High God.

      [Monotheism] seems to have been discarded in the modern age and now is dead …

      Yeah, well, they said Jesus was dead, too. Somehow or other, no matter how long or how thoroughly his worship has been neglected, the Most High God keeps coming back.

      Because why? Because without him, *it is not possible to arrive at a coherent metaphysics.* All coherent metaphysical systems include him. The logic of being, and thus of being alive, require him.

      In its abandonment of monotheism, the modern age is not so different than other ages in which the popular recollection of the One Basic Thing upon which, witly or not, all religious traditions implicitly, willy nilly hang fell into desuetude, to be replaced for a time by puerile idolatry. The main thing that distinguishes the modern age from other idolatrous episodes is that its idolatry is not even puerile; indeed, it is not even infantile.

      I doubt that the modern rejection of God is going to last. For one thing, modernism won’t last. Nothing does, under the sun.

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