Philosophical Skeleton Keys: Person versus Entity

The Trinity is confusing and confounding to many because almost no one who talks about it remembers to point out that persons are not entities. If you treat persons as things, then the Trinity cannot possibly make any sense. It seems to say that 1 + 1 + 1 = 1. That’s nuts. Yet that’s how almost everyone talks about the Trinity.

I learned (from Whitehead) that persons are not concrete entities, but rather characters of concrete entities. When I much later figured out that the Persons of the Trinity are not different things, but rather characters of a single thing, the logical difficulties that had bedeviled me melted away, and I worried a lot less about it.

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How I Got Religion

Not, “how I became religious,” but “how I came to understand religion.”

It is extremely difficult for most moderns to negotiate the passage to the fundamentally spiritual perspective that all humans shared before the Enlightenment. At least, I found it so, for the longest time. Despite a number of spiritual experiences that I could nowise gainsay, I could make no philosophical sense of spiritual realities using the intellectual tool kit my Modern education had provided me. I got a lot of training in how to think about the physical, but I didn’t know how to think about the spiritual (or, for that matter, anything not physical). That made it somewhat incredible, and indeed somewhat scandalous. And this made it quite difficult to be wholeheartedly religious – to worship or say the Credo without invoking a string of philosophical hedges and equivocations that rather emptied the whole procedure of its numinous, compelling quality, and thus of its point.

Having no way to comprehend spiritual realities, I could not even understand quite exactly what the articles of the Credo properly mean, or what I was meant to be doing in worship. I now realize that I often encounter that same incapacity in atheist interlocutors. They don’t seem to have a way of understanding what it is that theists are talking about. So their arguments often miss the point entirely, and when theists point this out to them they simply can’t see that they are fundamentally misunderstanding the terms of the dialogue.

Modernity’s inadequacy to spiritual realities is echoed in its incomprehension of consciousness, agency, meaning, value, morality, and in the limit truth, beauty, and virtue – or their antipodes. Under its own terms, Modernism cannot account for these things, and must if it is to discuss them at all resort to unprincipled exceptions. This renders it incapable of coherent treatment of any of the basic aspects of life as it is actually lived and experienced. It is, in a word, unable to understand minds, or therefore persons, or a fortiori their lives.

Modernity does however comprehend bodies, better by an order of magnitude than any previous age. So naturally, and like any other successful weltanschauung, it wants to interpret everything under its own terms. It wants to make bodies basic, and reduce all experience to motions of bodies.

Modernism takes bodies to be utterly dead. It wants to say that everything is motions of those dead objects. But as is obvious to the most cursory consideration, the life of the mind is not a congeries of dead things, or of their lifeless collisions. It is an active, lively process. It is a series of happenings, a temporal assemblage of occasions, each of which – whether conscious or not – is in some degree alive to its past and intends some future.

[Of such lively intensions implemented in actual transactions among entities is the causal nexus that connects and relates disparate events constituted as a coherent integral world system.]

It is furthermore transparently obvious that no configuration of dead things can be alive. Only what is alive can be alive.

As incoherent, then, the Modern project of reducing life to motions of dead bodies is, not just doomed to failure, not just impossible (as a complete consistent logical calculus, while conceivable, is not possible), but strictly meaningless, ergo unthinkable: not even wrong.

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Necessity or Eternity

What is necessary is necessarily eternal, but the eternal is not necessarily necessary.

Time – which is to say, congeries of contingent events, that are causally related and that therefore, together, constitute worlds, extensive continua along time, space, and myriad other dimensions – occurs in eternity. It occurs eternally (and only then, and only in virtue of its eternal occurrence, temporally), but not necessarily. It occurs freely. So likewise also for God’s Act.

Eternal acts can be free. They are not necessarily necessary. Some may also be temporal, such as this moment in your life, or the Incarnation.

Necessities comprise what Whitehead called the Primordial Nature of God, and Plato the Realm of the Forms: the Nature in virtue of which there is such a thing as order in the first place, the order of all order. The free eternal Act of God, and all its derivates in his knowledge, comprise what Whitehead called the Consequent Nature of God. Both these Natures are eternal, and indeed coterminous, in that together they characterize a single Act; so that they are sections of a single Nature. But of the two, only the Primordial Nature is necessary.

NB: God’s omniscient knowledge does not continge upon creaturely acts, but vice versa. It is only in virtue of his logically prior knowledge of creaturely acts that creatures may act in the first place.

The Proper Terminus of Any Science

Explanations, and the understandings they mediate, must all terminate (at least in principle) upon *some singularity or other* if they are to hang together – if they are to succeed as explanations by satisfying our urge to understand. This is as true for explanations of singular phenomena as it is for explanations of regularities. Science then, of any sort, has no alternative but to adduce some singularity or other as the original fact or truth at the basis of all others. The terminus ad quem of the scientific project must be an account of the terminus a quo of all things: a terminal singularity. This, whether the posited singularity be a historical event such as the Big Bang, or a fundamental equation that can work as a Theory of Everything, or what have you.

But only one sort of terminal singularity can ultimately succeed – not at completing inquiry, for (per Gödel) that completion is not possible to finite beings, but rather at satisfying them that things cohere intelligibly. Only one sort of terminal singularity can set the scientist’s mind finally and fully at ease.

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Concreteness, Corporeality & Responsibility

English makes it easy to refer to a whole group of things as if it were a substantial entity in its own right, whether or not it really is. It then allows us to assign such things as motives, plans, and behavior to that merely notional entity. Thus, e.g., “Baseball been very very good to me;” “The Wehrmacht has taken Paris;” “Godless Communism killed 100 million.”[1]

It’s handy. But difficulty can ensue when we take our shorthand references to such groups as if they indicated something concretely real. The game of baseball can’t do anything, nor can the Wehrmacht, or Communism. Clemente was treated well by actual people involved in baseball, Paris was taken by German soldiers, and the victims of the Communist holocaust were destroyed by real men and women. It’s a category error to blame or credit merely notional entities. AN Whitehead called it the Fallacy of Misplaced Concreteness. It arises when we treat ideas as if they were actual and concrete. Concrete entities do all inherit ideas from their past, embody them, and propose them to the future. But without a concrete entity to do the inheriting, embodying, and proposing, nothing happens with the ideas. Ideas don’t have themselves.

Ideas are indeed causes, to be sure; the final, formal and material causes of events are all ideas, in the final analysis. But the inputs to an event are not yet the event. Only agents can respond to the ideas that are their factors. It behooves us then to remember to assign responsibility to natural persons, rather than to movements or schools, to philosophies or merely legal persons.

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When a complex orderly phenomenon such as consciousness arises in matter, it is these days often ascribed to a mysterious emergence of properties implicit in those of its material substrates. But really it goes the other way. Consciousness – ordered form in general – does not emerge from the material substrate of our world. It rather immerges thereto, from elsewhere. Novelty of all sorts is added to history from without.

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Stochastic Sempiternity

Bruce Charlton suggests in a recent post that the eternal pre-mortem existence of the human soul might be a way to provide room for our free agency in a system of things that seems otherwise, as wholly determinate in and by its derivation from some past, and ultimately by and from God, to provide none. If we are eternal, he argues, then obviously we are not determined by anything other than ourselves, and so are free – free, among other things, to Fall.

There are some fatal problems with this suggestion. But hidden within it is the germ of a solution to the problem Dr. Charlton has noticed. All that is needed to unpack it is to apply certain distinctions.

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Evil is Autophagous

“The instability of evil,” said Whitehead, “is the morality of the universe.” 

Evil is autophagous, is self-vitiating. It subjects itself to an ontological expression of the argument from retortion. This is easy to see if we look at the very most evil acts, as murder, aggressive violence, and so forth; who lives by the sword dies by the sword, for his fellows cannot ultimately tolerate the risk he poses to them. 

Again, with respect to abortion, the logic of the gedanken policy test is difficult to assail: a society that abjures abortion will outbreed one that does not, all other things being held equal. The logic of being is such that tolerance of abortion is disastrous for the toleration of abortion. Because pro-lifers outbreed pro-choicers, the latter are going to vanish, sooner or later. That’s all. For pro-choicers who take advantage of their choice are preventing the reproduction of their view of the world. 

These results demonstrate that the order of the universe, the very math of reality, contravenes evil. We are free to conduct our lives in disagreement with that order of things, but there is no escape from it; so that such disagreements must eventually end in disaster. Against such disasters, when they arrive, any arguments we might propose will be bootless.       

Liberalism may indeed take the whole of society. Such things are possible, at least in principle. But it cannot then but destroy itself, by destroying society. The liberal society, that does not believe it is right to defend itself, will be crushed by some other society, that does.

What Good is the Order of Fallen Being, Anyway?

Jeremy Smith posted a trenchant comment to one of my essays here, Liberals Anonymous. In that essay, I said:

Liberalism errs about the order of being, and so disagrees with the world. It’s poor policy to argue with the universe, no? Yet that is just what liberalism does …

Jeremy made a really excellent point:

But the world is fallen. Nature is fallen. The UNIVERSE is fallen. … Not just liberalism, but Christianity itself “disagrees with the world.” “The order of being” of the world is also fallen. The world is not the final authority.

He’s perfectly correct, of course. “My Kingdom is not from this world.” What then is all this traditionalist talk about how the Good Society conforms itself to the Order of Being? Ought we not to live away from this world, and toward Heaven?


But this is just what the world is doing; that’s the only reason it still manages to constitute itself a world from one moment to the next. If in order to continue in being the Fallen world were referring only to its own depraved past, and relying only on its own creative resources to cobble together a future, it would devolve almost instantly into chaos, as disparate creatures went each like sheep to his own disparate way. So it would dissolve. But it doesn’t dissolve. So that’s not what it’s doing. What the heck is going on, then?

Let’s unpack this.

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The Economy of Forgiveness: Part II

You’ll have an easier time taking in this post if you have first read Part I of this series. I there proposed some novel arguments, which this post relies upon and develops. 


Perhaps purgatory is a full repayment of our debt to the other creatures we have injured, that they have not forgiven us in the way Betty forgave Lester’s debt; a de-leveraging of our moral books. The suffering we do in purgatory could be credited to the books of our moral creditors. And it would ipso facto cleanse our own books of moral stain, fitting us to Heaven. In purgatory, the body of death, the body of debt, is calcined away, leaving and liberating the spirit, so that he may put on his true and originally intended resurrection body.

Note then that the currency by which we repay our debt in purgatory – the way we purge our books of debt – is through suffering. Measure for measure; nothing either omitted or left over. In the final analysis, the divine omniscience cannot abide anything less than a full accounting.

The currency of coinherence, then, the medium of coinherence, may be suffering. A bit of pain suffered in the payment of a moral debt releases a bit of one’s own love from the service of that debt and liberates it for higher use, and for a permanent increase in enjoyment by the whole system of things; when a member of the communion grows stronger, the community grows stronger. A bit of redemption is an increase in ontological actuality, and likewise in capacity for goodness, not just of the redeemed, but of his community and cosmos – of his City, as Williams would have it. As the US Navy SEALs say of their training, “pain is weakness leaving the body.” What is left is a bigger, fitter, stronger body, harder, healthier, more dense, more capable, more real.

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