Saturday, July 03, 2021

The Vinland Sagas


Opening Passages: From The Saga of the Greenlanders:

Herjolf was the son of Bard Herjolfsson and a kinsman of Ingolf, the settler of Iceland. Ingolf gave to Herjolf the land between Vog and Reykjanes.

At first, Herjolf farmed at Drepostokk. His wife was named Thorgerd and their son was Bjarni; he was a promising young man. While still a youthful age he longed to sail abroad. HE soon earned himself both a good deal of wealth and a good name, and spent his winters alternately abroad and with his father. Soon Bjarni had his own ship making trading voyages.... (p. 3)

From Eirik the Red's Saga:

There was a warrior king named Oleif who was called Oleif the White. He was the son of King Ingjald, who was the son of Helgi, who was son of Olaf, who was son of Gudrod, who was son of Halfdan White-leg, king of the people of Oppland.

Oleif when on Viking expeditions around Britain, conquering the shire of Dublin, over which he declared himself king. As his wife he took Aud the Deep-minded, the daughter of Ketil Flat-nose, son of Bjorn Buna, an excellent man from Norway. Their son was named Thorstein the Red. (p. 25)

Summary: The two Vinland-themed sagas cover roughly the same period, but in some very different ways. In The Saga of the Greenlanders, Bjarni Herjolfsson tries to find his father, who has emigrated to Greenland; Bjarni has never been to Greenland, but he risks the new trip. During the voyage, he is blown off course and sights new land, which he realizes is not Greenland; he eventually does make it to Greenland, but is criticized for not having even stepped off the boat to explore the new lands. Leif Eriksson, son of Eirik the Red, hears of this voyage and buys a ship; the original plan is for Eirik to lead the expedition, but Eirik is getting old and has a mishap in which he falls from his horse and takes it as a bad omen, so Leif leads it instead. Leif and his crew do find and explore new lands, which he names Helluland (Slabland) and Markland (Forestland), and an even better country that he names Vinland (Wineland) because of the grapes found there. (One of the completely accidental sources of entertainment in reading these sagas is how thoroughly unimaginative everyone is in naming things, the one exception being Eirik the Red, mentioned below. In fairness, plain names probably helped a bit with navigation, which has to be done largely by memory and description.) On the trip back, loaded with grapes and wood, Leif manages to rescue shipwrecked sailors and thereafter is known as Leif the Lucky.

Thorvald, Leif's brother, decides that Vinland needs more exploration, and when Leif gives him his ship he sets off to do exactly that. The settle in a truly beautiful place, but it turns out there are natives in the area, which the Scandinavians call Skraelings (we don't know exactly what the word means, but it probably means something like 'pelt-wearers', and we don't know whether they were Inuit or Mi'kmaq), and despite initial promising attempts at trade, things turn very badly due to the skittishness of both sides, and Thorvald is killed. They bury him there and return to Greenland. In Greenland, Thorstein, another of the brothers, decides to retrieve Thorvald's body, leading to the third voyage of the Eirikssons; however, they never make it, Thorstein dies of illness, and from the grave predicts that his wife Gudrid will remarry, and the man will be an Icelander. This she actually does, to a man named Thorfinn Karlsefni. They go on the fourth voyage to Vinland, and stay where Thorvald had camped. They meet the Skraelings again, and again, after an initially promising beginning, their relations degenerate into war; the Norsemen fight them off and then return to Greenland.

The last expedition is taken by Freydis Eiriksdottir; desiring wealth, she makes a deal with two brothers (one that she begins to break on the sly almost immediately). They make it to Vinland, but the two groups are constantly bickering. Freydis, who is cunning and evil, arranges the murders of the entire opposing party and returns home with all the wealth that had been collected by both groups, and thus extraordinarily wealthy. While she tries to keep her deeds secret, she is not entirely successful. Karlsefni and Gudrid eventually make their way to Iceland, and the saga attributes the root of its stories to Karlsefni; the pair will have three famous bishops among their descendants.

As I said, Eirik the Red's Saga covers the same period but in a different way, and it is immensely interesting to see the similarities and differences. There is no Bjarni. We start with Eirik the Red, which is why it gets its modern title, although Eirik is barely in it. (The original title of it seems to have been Thorfinn Karlsefni's Saga.) Eirik has to flee Norway because he murders a man; he ends up in Iceland, which he also has to flee because of a violent dispute; and that is how our heroes end up at the edge of the world in glacier-covered Greenland, which Eirik, in an unusual bit of Scandinavian marketing strategy, calls 'Greenland' because he thinks it will make it sound more attractive to potential settlers than a more accurate name would. Eirik's son Leif goes on travels, eventually ending up in Norway in the court of King Olaf Tryggvason, who gives him the mission of converting Greenland to Christianity. On his return, however, he is blown off course in a storm and discovers a new land rich with vines and wheat, which he calls Vinland. On the voyage from Vinland to Greenland, he rescues some sailors from shipwreck, showing his kind character. Back in Greenland, he converts the country and is afterward called Leif the Lucky. 

There is interest in returning to the lands Leif discovered, and this is done by Thorstein Leifsson. Eirik goes along with them, although he has a mishap on the way in which he falls from his horse and hurts himself. Nonetheless, he goes, but they never make it instead being blown the wrong direction by storm.

When they return to England, Thorstein marries a woman named Gudrid. Thorstein dies of illness, but from beyond the grave, and while he makes no predictions, he warns them to engage in more Christian funerary practices and also warns Gudrid against marrying anyone from Greenland. Because of this Gudrid marries an Icelandic merchant, Thorfinn Karlsefni. Karlsefni and his partners plan a large expedition to Vinland, and after visiting a number of other lands along the way, eventually make it. There they meet the Skraelings; after an initially promising beginning in trading red cloth for pelts, relations between the two degenerate into war. The Skraelings have a catapult-like device for throwing stones and the ability to create the illusion of greater numbers than they have. The Norsemen are forced back. During the battle, Freydis Eiriksdottir, a clever and courageous woman, despite being pregnant manages to scare off a group of Skraelings that surround her by seizing a sword from a dead man's head and slapping it against her breast.

The Norsemen begin sailing back to Greenland, but still have a few obstacles to overcome; at one point they are assaulted by a strange, fast-moving man-like uniped creature that kills one of their men and then speeds away before they can catch it. They also meet another group of Skraelings; the adults escape by vanishing underground, but two children are captured and taught the Norse language. They tell the Norsemen stories of two kingdoms, one a nation that lives entirely in caves, and another a nation that dresses in white, which the Scandinavians take to be the White Men mentioned in one of the tales of St. Brendan the Navigator. A significant portion of the expedition never returns at all, but Thorfinn Karlsefni and Gudrid eventually make it to Iceland, where three of their descendants become famous bishops.


Favorite Passages: From The Saga of the Greenlanders:

After a while he spoke in Norse: 'I had gone only a bit farther than the rest of you. But I have news to tell you: I found grapevines and grapes.'

'Are you really sure of this, foster-father?' Leif said.

'I'm absolutely sure,' he replied, 'because where I was born there was no lack of grapevines and grapes.'

They went to sleep after that, and the following morning Leif spoke to his crew: 'We'll divide our time between two tasks, taking one day for one task and one day for the other, picking grapes or cutting vines and felling the trees to make a load for my ship.' They agreed on this course.

It is said that that boat which was drawn behind the ship was filled with grapes. (p. 8)

From Eirik the Red's Saga:

Leif fell in love with a woman named Thorgunna. She was of very good family, and Leif realized that she knew a thing or two.

When Leif was leaving Thorgunna asked to go with him. Leif asked whether her kinsmen were of any mind to agree to this, and she declared she did not care. Leif said he was reluctant to abduct a woman of such high birth from a foreign country -- 'there are so few of us'.

Thorgunna spoke: 'I'm not sure you'll like the alternative better.'

'I'll take my chances on that,' Leif said.

'Then I will tell you,' Thorgunna said, 'that I am with child, and that his child is yours. It's my guess that I will give birth to a boy, in due course. And even though you ignore him, I will raise the boy and send him to you in Greenland as soon as he is of an age to travel with others. But it's my guess that he will serve you as well as you have served me now with your departure. I intend to come to Greenland myself before it's all over.' (p. 34)

Recommendation: Both Recommended.


The Vinland Sagas, Keneva Kunz, tr., Penguin (New York: 2008).

Friday, July 02, 2021

Invisible Intelligent Power

Tiddy Smith last year published an interesting article, "The Common Consent Argument for the Existence of Nature Spirits", in which he argued that a common consent argument for theism fails for reasons that nonetheless don't rule out the success of a common consent argument for nature spirits. The article doesn't seem to be easily available online, but there's a nice nontechnical summary of some features of it here. Perry Hendricks had a recent response, "How to Debunk Animism" (DOCX).

Strictly speaking, neither Smith nor Hendricks gets common consent arguments quite right; they both misunderstand them as being arguments from at least nearly universal belief that X exists to its being probably true that X exists; this has not been how people putting forward common consent arguments have generally understood them. In general, common consent draws on the fact that one's fellow beings are rational beings, and that while individuals can be led astray from individual quirks, the tendency of reason can more easily be discerned by looking at the whole population of reasoners, to the extent that it is possible to do so. (I've discussed some of this point here: I, II.) Common consent arguments in general are also not arguments that the conclusion is probably true, but (in weak forms) that it is reasonable and (in strong forms) that it is so reasonable as to be at least morally certain.

In any case, Smith rejects the probabilistic argument from widespread agreement for theism (which would be a more accurate label for the argument considered, and which I will abbreviate as PAWA-Theism) on the grounds that (A) agreement for theism is imposed, although Smith seems often to confuse coercive imposition with cultural diffusion and education, all of which are very different things, and (B) agreement for theism does not arise independently in each individual or each subpopulation. (Both the confusion of imposition with diffusion and the concern with independence would in and of themselves be evidence that Smith is not actually working with real common consent arguments, which are always about the greater power of human reason when it is not merely individual reason but common reason.) Neither of these problems arise if we consider a PAWA for animism. There is excellent evidence that animism arises or at least is found in 'separate knowledge communities' that are very isolated from each other and not under any identifiable regime of coercion. So, if (A) and (B) are problems for PAWA-Theism, they are not so for PAWA-Animism. 

Hendricks considers whether countervailing considerations can 'neutralize' this argument even if one takes its premises (i.e., that there is such widespread agreement among independent communities and that such widespread agreement makes the agreed-upon probably true) as true. He attempts to argue this on the basis of a 'problem of animistic hiddenness'. This is based on "the current widespread lack of belief in nature spirits". While this is based on comments by Smith himself, however, it, I think, is already a weakness in Hendricks's argument. First, part of the problem is an ambiguity never really properly eliminated by Smith over the meaning of 'animism', which can just mean belief in nature spirits of some kind, but can also mean a religious position in opposition to theism, in which one believes in nature spirits and not God. It is in fact quite common for there to be theists who do believe in some nature spirits; we wouldn't usually call them 'animists' but 'theists', but believing in God does not automatically mean one disbelieves the existence of nature spirits. (Indeed, historically, most theists have probably also believed in nature spirits of some kind.) Second, while bare animism is rare, and no doubt belief in nature spirits is relatively rare in academic circles, it's simply false to say that belief in nature spirits is unpopular. It varies in how specific and detailed the articulation of it is -- Icelanders have very specific ideas about how elves work, for instance, whereas (outside Native American communities) Americans who believe in nature spirits might not get any more specific than the generic belief in some kind of spirit of the land or waters. This is important because Hendricks wants to build his counter-argument on the basis that animism is not widespread at all times. But while it's true that bare animism is not widespread, belief in nature spirits of some kind has, in fact, been widespread at all times, and is widespread in our own.

Thus Hendricks's argument fails completely, although in fairness it's partly because of confusions introduced into the discussion by Smith. The disagreement in any case is somewhat pointless, because the question of animism vs. non-animism is too specific for this kind of argument. Most people have no idea what animism is, and thus are not actually believing 'animism' even if they are animists -- it's an extrinsic description. This is one reason why putting it in terms of nature spirits is better than putting it in terms of animism. But even this is not really adequate, because the real argument should be at a level more general. Hume was exactly right that the right level of analysis is the generic "invisible intelligent power", which may be nature spirits (like the animists Smith has in mind), or ghosts (like those for which the Mohists argued), or gods, or any number of other things. If we're simply trying to establish existence, we don't want to already be prejudging whether they should be kami or gods or elves or vengeful ghosts or what have you; we need to allow for the possibility that people could be right about their existence but misinterpret the details of their nature (e.g., by confusing one kind of spirit with another); and in this argument we'd need to consider the matter at a generic level that is suitable for discussing widespread agreements. Hume's 'invisible intelligent power' (IIP) meets these quite well. So, if we are considering PAWA's, the best one to consider is PAWA-IIP:

(1) Near enough everyone, both across nations and across eras, agrees that there are IIPs of some kind. 

(2) Whatever near enough everyone agrees is probably true. 

(3) Therefore, it is probable that there are IIPs of some kind.

As a PAWA, this is of course not a demonstrative argument (and also not a real consensus gentium argument, as it stands), but none of the problems for PAWAs considered by Smith and Hendricks apply to it: (A) and (B) are not problems for it, for much the same reason they are not problems for PAWA-Animism; and Hendricks's unpopularity problem is not a problem for it, because in fact belief in IIPs of some kind has always been extremely popular at all times, and still is today. Premise (1) is far more plausible for IIPs than for anything more specific (that there are kinds of intelligent causes other than living human beings is one of the most common beliefs in the world); so the only question that would be relevant would be whether (2) is actually true, either in general (i.e. whether there are reasons to accept it as a general guideline) or in this kind of case (i.e., whether there are any relevant defeaters). Which is perhaps as it should be.

All Is Cold Beauty

On Visiting The Tomb Of Burns
by John Keats

The town, the churchyard, and the setting sun,
The clouds, the trees, the rounded hills all seem,
Though beautiful, cold -- strange -- as in a dream
I dreamed long ago, now new begun.
The short-liv'd, paly summer is but won
From winter's ague for one hour's gleam;
Through sapphire warm their stars do never beam:
All is cold Beauty; pain is never done.
For who has mind to relish, Minos-wise,
The real of Beauty, free from that dead hue
Sickly imagination and sick pride
Cast wan upon it? Burns! with honour due
I oft have honour'd thee. Great shadow, hide
Thy face; I sin against thy native skies.

Keats seems to have visited Burns's tomb at Dumfries and written this poem on July 2, 1818.

Thursday, July 01, 2021

Two Poem Re-Drafts


I saw the beauty of your face,
an emblem born of higher grace;
I heard the beauty of your song,
for harmony my heart then longed.

Your eyes in vision ravish me
as signs of truth's eternity;
I am undone by glancing stars
and rise through them to splendors far.

All things of sense must shadows be
of things more real, of hopes more free,
and those who gaze with seeing eyes
know higher truths and thoughts more wise.

The eye of vice, so dark and proud,
is covered over by a cloud;
who would the good and splendid know
must good and splendid surely grow.

All beauty wakes the heart's desire
and flames it ardent; searing fire
then rises higher, above the earth,
to brightest light and purest worth.

Everything Flows to the Sea

Rise up my darling, come dancing with me;
like the wave of your hair, let your spirit float free;
I wish this sweet moment would evermore be,
but everything flows to the sea.

All is in motion and nothing is still,
nor can we stay it by power of will;
we cascade through life and tumble until
everything flows to the sea.

As the wind through the grass
will rejoice and then pass,
so everything flows to the sea.

As the earth ever turns
and the wood swiftly burns,
so everything flows to the sea.

As the day turns to night
and all dreams take to flight,
so everything flows to the sea.

Cast off your shoes and leap lightly along,
fill all your days with the splendor of song;
one day in darkness you'll join the great throng,
for everything flows to the sea.

Sing with me now, my love, sing with me:
Everything flows to the sea.

Wednesday, June 30, 2021

That the Kings May Fear Him

 The previous post, on the necessity of higher law and social pluralism to oppose totalitarianism, reminds me of a poem by Voltaire, which gives what is perhaps his most famous line. A book had been anonymously published called The Three Imposters; the 'three imposters' of the title are Moses, Jesus, and Mohammad, and it unimaginatively (but very frankly) gives the standard early modern freethinking account of religion as an 'empire of falsehood'  based on fear and encouraged by nefarious priests. Voltaire, no fan of organized religion himself, nonetheless regarded it as an odious book, saying of it, "This book of the Three Imposters is a very bad work, full of a coarse, mindless, and unphilosophical atheism." He wrote a poem against it, in which he turns on its head the argument that God is invented out of human fear and tries to differentiate his own view from that of the book being criticized. The poem insists vigorously on the need for higher law against tyranny, but as Voltaire does not, as far as I know, accept any kind of social pluralism, he would count as a poseur by my test. It's interesting how badly Voltaire's prophecy for the Enlightenment fails, which is linked, I think, to the naivete of the program, in which elimination of religious tests for office and the fading of religious rules will become a utopia of toleration. In reality, it's difficult to see what the particular sort of interreligious toleration he envisages would be, beyond a voluntary surrender by religious communities of every ability by which they could resist persecution, oppression, and harassment by the state. Ceasing to be robust and distinctive, they cease to be checks on usurpers of power. (Contrast, for instance, his comment about Jews giving up kosher laws with the argument of IV Maccabees, in which Jewish law, including particularly kosher law, is a form by which virtue can resist tyranny.)

Letter to the Author of the Three Imposters
by Voltaire

Insipid writer, who pretends for his readers
to draw the portrait of the Three Imposters,
how is it that, mindless, you become the fourth?
Because, poor enemy of the supreme being,
do you not confuse Mohammad with God,
and the works of man with God, his author?
Correct the servant but respect the master.
God ought not suffer for the stupidities of the priest;
recognize God, even when very badly served.

Of lizards and rats my house is full,
but the architect exists, and whoever denies it
under the guise of wisdom is touched with madness.
Ask Zoroaster, and Minos, and Solon,
and the martyr Socrates, and the great Cicero:
they all adore one master, one judge, one father.
This sublime system is necessary to men.
It is the sacred bond of society,
the first foundation of holy equity,
the bridle on the wicked, the hope for the just.

If the heavens, stripped of his august imprint,
were ever to stop manifesting him,
if God did not exist, we would have to invent him.
Let the wise proclaim him that the kings may fear him.
Kings, if you oppress me, if your majesties disdain
the tears of the innocent that you make to flow,
my avenger is in heaven: learn to tremble.
Such is at least the fruit of a useful belief.

But you, false reasoner, whose sad imprudence
establishes them on the path of crime,
what fruit can you draw from your pretty arguments?
Will your children be more docile to your voice?
Your friends, in your need, more sure and useful?
Your wife more faithful? And your tenant,
will he pay you better for not believing in God?
Ah, leave mankind their fear and their hope!

You object to me in vain the hypocritical insolence
of fierce charlatans raised to honors,
nourished by our works, watered by our tears,
of Caesars tainted by usurped greatness,
a priest on the Capitoline where Pompey triumphed,
of these sandaled wretches, excrement of humanity,
washing their detestable hands in our blood,
a hundred towns at their word ruined,
and the horrible mornings of blooded Paris.
I know better than you these awful monuments;
I have exposed them with my pen for fifty years.
But as the implacable enemy of this fanaticism
I adored God when I vanquished the devil.
I have always distinguished religion
from the evils that support superstition.
Europe has thanked me; twenty crowned heads
deigned to cheer my fortunate works
when Patouillet insulted me in vain.
I have done more in my time than Luther or Calvin.
They were seen to oppose, by fatal mistake,
abuse to abuse and scandal to scandal;
eager to throw themselves into faction,
they condemned the Pope and wanted to imitate him.
By them Europe was long desolated;
they troubled the earth, but I have comforted it.
I said to the disputants as they hounded each other:
"Stop, impertinent ones; stop, unfortunate ones;
foolish children of God, cherish your brothers
and stop biting each other over absurd chimeras."
Good people have believed me; the evil, crushed,
have hurled replies that are scorned by the wise,
and in Europe at last a happy toleration
has become the catechism of well-ordered minds.

I see coming in the distance those times, peaceful days,
when philosophy, enlightening mankind,
will bring them in peace to the foot of a common master;
fierce fanaticism will tremble to appear there:
there will be less dogma with more virtue.

If someone wants to enter office,
he will no longer bring the two witnesses
to testify to his faith but to swear to his conduct.

The attractive sister of a major cleric
a Huguenot swain will be able to marry,
we will see poverty clothed and nourished
with the treasures of Loreto, amassed for Mary;
the children of Sarah, whom we now treat like dogs,
will eat ham cured by Christians.
The Turk, without wondering whether the imam will pardon him,
will drink with abbé Tamponet at the Sorbonne.
My nephews will dine happily and without rancor
with the descendants of the Pompignan brothers.
They will be able to pardon this harsh La Bleterie
for having cut short the course of my life.
Among beautiful minds there will be true union.
But who will ever be able to dine with Freron?

My translation. The last part of the poem deals with Voltaire's enemies -- it's Voltaire, you don't think he would be able to resist a jab at his enemies, do you? (Note, for that matter, how he quickly gets the business of God out of the way to talk about himself; although, in fairness, he does give God the courtesy of first billing in the fight against tyranny. It's a sign of how seriously Voltaire takes his theism that he is willing to take second place to God.) But it's interesting how differently his enemies fare. The Marquis de Pompignan was known as the enemy of Voltaire; they had an ongoing literary and philosophical feud, and the Marquis's brother was Archbishop of Vienne, and wrote a book Voltaire satirized. But apparently Voltaire thought they gave as good as they got, because he treats their descendants well in his imaginary future, with no need even for pardon; La Bleterie, a major historian whose works were criticized by Voltaire, and who quipped that Voltaire forgot to have himself buried (a quip that seems to have both stung and impressed Voltaire), needs pardon, but will receive it (one day in the future, at least); but still nobody will like Freron, who repeatedly attacked Voltaire's character (and became one of Voltaire's favorite butts of insult). It's an unusual scale of merit, based not on religion but on the ability to skewer without scurrility.

Tuesday, June 29, 2021

Real Resistance to Totalitarianism

 There's been a lot of talk about resisting totalitarianism or fascism the past few years; most of it is transparent nonsense. But what does real resistance to totalitarianism look like?

Totalitarianism is the approach to politics that treats the state's authority as not limited by anything but itself; as the saying goes, it is an approach governed by the principle that everything is within the gambit of state power, nothing is outside it, and nothing is against it. Thus the only possible ground of resistance to totalitarianism as such (rather than just preferring your own flavor of totalitarianism to another) has to oppose this. There are only two ways something could fall outside of state authority: you need there to  be some authority either above that of the state or outside it.

(1) Above it: One of the things that is opposed to totalitarianism is the position that there is a higher law. What law can be higher than human law? It has to be either divine positive law, or natural law, or something similar, like a system of rights inherent to human nature or a providential moral order involving moral principles. If the state is not the highest authority, there must be a higher authority than the state, and this must actually be expressed; thus a higher law in some sense.

(2) Outside it: For there to be something outside the authority of the state there has to be some relevant community that is independent of the state and therefore has its own authority. That is, the same people have to be members of multiple independent communities or societies at the same time, in a pluralism of societies. These societies can be various -- families, churches, and the like are the most common ones that people name -- but if you are not members of other societies that have authority and within which you have rights upon which the state cannot trespass, then really, as far as you are concerned, the totalitarian is right about there being nothing outside the state.

Each of these, higher law and social pluralism, is in some way inconsistent with totalitarianism. Strictly speaking, you could accept just one or the other. But there are reasons why you should accept them both if you accept either. If you try to hold that there is a higher law, but no pluralism of societies, then the state is not the highest authority, but there is still nothing outside the state; you seem to still hold that the highest human authority in every matter is the state, so that you are left just demanding that the state enforce the higher law on itself. This is an empty demand; nothing short of God or whatever the higher authority is would really have the authority to say that the state is enforcing it incorrectly. On the other hand, if you accept social pluralism but no higher law, it seems that you have no explanation for why these other societies do not fall under the authority of the state; you are treating it as if it were just a brute fact that they do not.

All modern-style states tend to exhibit totalitarian tendencies, the all-devouring maw of expanding power. The states that do best in resisting this slide are those that at least acknowledge, in at least some practice as well as symbolically, that there is a higher authority than themselves and that other societies of some kind, operating within their jurisdiction, have a right and an authority that is beyond their reach. All others just slide in a totalitarian direction.

Therefore it seems that any real anti-totalitarian position has to acknowledge both a higher law of some kind and a social pluralism of some kind, and any real resistance to totalitarianism would require people actually trying to live their lives on the basis of these. People who claim to offer a serious resistance to totalitarianism while accepting only one of these principles are poseurs; people who claim to do so while accepting neither are outright liars, being (at best) totalitarians of a different stripe.

Monday, June 28, 2021

The Posterior Partiality of Utilitarianism

 Utilitarianism is officially an impartial approach to ethics; early utilitarians in particular make a big deal of this, although it continues to be important to the structure of the approach. However, when this is discussed, it is always prior impartiality that is considered, that is, prior to assessment of overall happiness; after this point, utilitarianism is not ever impartial. This posterior partiality is a significant issue arising from the fact that people are never positioned equally to contribute to overall happiness. In practice, the rich are better positioned than the poor, the powerful than the powerless, the educated than the uneducated, majority groups than minority groups.

That is to say, utilitarianism by its very nature cannot directly affect happiness; it is concerned with means to happiness (that is, effectively, what a utility is), causes of happiness. If the goal is to maximize overall happiness, this means that your primary focus will be on causes of happiness that can most affect that goal. Majorities, the rich, people in power, usually have larger effects on overall happiness than minorities, the poor, and people out of power, because they have larger effects, period. It is true that utilitarians will insist that their greater force should be directed in the direction of increasing happiness overall, which will necessarily require that they benefit the less fortunate; but for the same reason it will always be reasonable to establish special incentives to benefit rich people, powerful people, and majorities who do in fact act in this way. You establish stable, longterm trends by creating incentive structures that benefit those who tend in that direction, and if your goal is maximizing happiness, you will therefore generally want to give greater encouragement to those who can have the greatest impact in that direction. And those will be people with power and influence. If your standard is getting results, of whatever kind, the most powerful causes will in the long run always matter more.

Consequentialisms can be rigged up in all sorts of different ways, and utilitarianism is no exception to this, so conceivably there are particular versions that could tweak exactly how 'greatest happiness' is understood to avoid this. But by and large, utilitarian partiality for particular high-impact groups is only to be expected, and most forms of utilitarianism don't avoid it; after all, for much of its history, utilitarianism was more or less the Official Ethics of Colonial Empire -- certainly the classical utilitarians contributed more than their share to justifying imperial expansion and constructing colonial policies.

Hammer of the Gnostics

 Today is the feast of St. Irenaeus of Lyons. He was born in Smyrna (modern Izmir, Turkey) in about the second quarter of the second century, and knew St. Polycarp. He is always designated a Martyr in the lists, but nobody knows why; we have no actual record of his death. From his major work, Adversus Haereses (3.4.1-2):

Since therefore we have such proofs, it is not necessary to seek the truth among others which it is easy to obtain from the Church; since the apostles, like a rich man [depositing his money] in a bank, lodged in her hands most copiously all things pertaining to the truth: so that every man, whosoever will, can draw from her the water of life. For she is the entrance to life; all others are thieves and robbers. On this account are we bound to avoid them, but to make choice of the thing pertaining to the Church with the utmost diligence, and to lay hold of the tradition of the truth. For how stands the case? Suppose there arise a dispute relative to some important question among us, should we not have recourse to the most ancient Churches with which the apostles held constant intercourse, and learn from them what is certain and clear in regard to the present question? For how should it be if the apostles themselves had not left us writings? Would it not be necessary, [in that case,] to follow the course of the tradition which they handed down to those to whom they did commit the Churches?

To which course many nations of those barbarians who believe in Christ do assent, having salvation written in their hearts by the Spirit, without paper or ink, and, carefully preserving the ancient tradition, believing in one God, the Creator of heaven and earth, and all things therein, by means of Christ Jesus, the Son of God; who, because of His surpassing love towards His creation, condescended to be born of the virgin, He Himself uniting man through Himself to God, and having suffered under Pontius Pilate, and rising again, and having been received up in splendour, shall come in glory, the Saviour of those who are saved, and the Judge of those who are judged, and sending into eternal fire those who transform the truth, and despise His Father and His advent. Those who, in the absence of written documents, have believed this faith, are barbarians, so far as regards our language; but as regards doctrine, manner, and tenor of life, they are, because of faith, very wise indeed; and they do please God, ordering their conversation in all righteousness, chastity, and wisdom. If any one were to preach to these men the inventions of the heretics, speaking to them in their own language, they would at once stop their ears, and flee as far off as possible, not enduring even to listen to the blasphemous address. Thus, by means of that ancient tradition of the apostles, they do not suffer their mind to conceive anything of the [doctrines suggested by the] portentous language of these teachers, among whom neither Church nor doctrine has ever been established.

Sunday, June 27, 2021

Κύριλλος Ἀλεξανδρείας

 Today was the feast of St. Cyril of Alexandria, Doctor of the Church. Born in the town of Didouseya in the Nile Delta, his uncle Theophilus was Patriarch of Alexandria as well as one of the most ruthless and competent ecclesiastical politicians of his day, for which Theophilus was nicknamed by his enemies 'the Pharaoh'. In truth, to survive any kind of politics in rough-and-tumble, collapse-into-rioting-at-the-drop-of-a-hat Alexandria, you had to be hard as nails and as wily as a cat. Theophilus excelled at it, as seen in his complete outmaneuvering of St. John Chrysostom, and Cyril was in much the same mold. He followed in his uncle's footsteps and became Patriarch of Alexandria after him.

Alexandria, again, was notorious for its continual political melee, and Cyril was immediately locked into multiple political struggles just by becoming Patriarch. He repeatedly came to loggerheads with the prefect Orestes. At one point, one of Cyril's go-to men, suspected (on very little evidence) of trying to incite the Jewish community to riot, was tortured in public by Orestes in an attempt to make clear to Cyril who was in charge; Cyril responded by threatening to have the Jewish quarter set to flame if Orestes did not stop harassing the Christian community; ruffians from the Jewish community in Alexandria responded by ambushing and murdering a crowd of Christians; Cyril sent Christian gangs from synagogue to synagogue to hunt out the perpetrators, but seeing that this was spiraling out of control, confined himself to throwing them out of town. Orestes was furious at Cyril's unilateral usurpation of what he regarded as his own authority, and the feud between them went on (although Cyril did make several attempts to cool things down, none of which were successful). What is difficult to convey is how completely ordinary this was, that this was not some unusual eruption; this was a particularly notorious case because both the prefect and the Patriarch eventually appealed to the Emperor over it, which didn't usually happen, but if you read anything about Alexandrian politics in the period, this is the way it was all the time. There were major riots on a semi-regular basis, and between the riots you had turf wars between gangs from each of Alexandria's sizeable pagan, Jewish, and Christian communities, all of whom were able to handle themselves in everything from brawl to murder. In addition, every so often you'd get an influx of troublemakers from outside the city -- violent monks from the desert were a common problem in Alexandria -- and everybody pretty much ignored the law when it was convenient for them. It was not an accident that Theophilus had been such a formidable juggernaut able to use any political means available and outmaneuver less fire-forged politicians, and it is not accident that Cyril was much the same. It's also not surprising that he made enemies; almost everything we know about Cyril outside of Cyril's own writings is known only from people who hated him with a passion.

Rome was the uncontested principal see of the West, but the East had two candidates for the position, Constantinople and Alexandria. Constantinople was the see of the imperial capital; Alexandria was more deeply entrenched and had a longstanding alliance with Rome.  The two were also culturally very different, and on almost everything there was a continual struggle for whether the Alexandrian or Constantinoplitan vision of it would dominate. Theophilus at one point had gone all the way to Constantinople and deposed St. John Chrysostom, who was Patriarch of Constantinople at the time; in the strategic long term it was a mistake, since it was the first thing to instill a suspicion in Rome that perhaps Alexandria was not completely to be trusted, but of course, the Pharaoh did it just to make quite clear to Constantinople that he could. Chrysostom, a brilliant preacher with an abhorrence of politics of any kind, never stood a chance. But the struggle was structural, and continued.

Enter Nestorius. Refined, urbane, sophisticated, bureaucratic, pedantic, high-handed, elitist, and apparently quite charming Nestorius, a politician as opposite to an Alexandrian politician as anyone could be. Alexandrians like Cyril were in the thick of the crowds, from a city where half of politics was done by rough-handed men in the streets and you literally couldn't survive unless you could handle a mob. Nestorius, who was from Antioch, made his political career the Constantinopolitan way, making fine speeches for important people and networking with movers and shakers behind closed doors, away from any rowdy crowd. In 428 Nestorius climbed to the top, becoming Patriarch of Constantinople, and he very much thought of it as the top; the Nestorian vision of the Church was of standing synods and committees making the decisions under the leadership of the Patriarchs, and in the East, the Patriarch of Constantinople.

I called Nestorius 'pedantic', and this is the single most obvious trait he has, shining through pretty much every source we have, including his own works. When one of Nestorius's friends from Antioch preached a sermon arguing against calling Mary the 'Theotokos', the God-bearer, an already popular designation, the laity complained to Nestorius. Nestorius's response was lectures about how the priest was technically right, in which the continual resort to fine distinctions made people impatient. (At one point in the scandal that erupted, whenever Nestorius tried to talk to large groups, people would start heckling him by saying things like, "Strictly Speaking, Strictly Speaking!") The scandal spread, and in 429, Cyril's Easter letter to his priests and monks warned them against Nestorius's claims. The letter eventually made it back to Constantinople, where Nestorius preached a sermon against it. And let us just say that picking a fight with an Alexandrian is not a wise move.

A letter war erupted between them, and eventually tensions between sees allied with Constantinople and sees allied with Alexandria became so severe that the Emperor called a Church council at Ephesus in 431. It actually may have been Nestorius's idea: call a council, condemn Cyril, victory for Constantinople. But wily Cyril did two very Alexandrian things for which Nestorius was wholly unprepared:

(1) Early in the letter war, Cyril had discussed the matter with Rome, which had no patience for Nestorian pedantry, and, on the basis of the longstanding alliance between Rome and Alexandria, got authority to speak for both. Constantinople and Antioch were significant players, but they were not a match for Rome and Alexandria together. Cyril went into the dispute knowing that he could win in the long run. And when the Council was called, Cyril knew that the papal legates, who would be arriving late, would back him on the essential point; he was also willing to gamble that until they did arrive, he could for all practical purposes speak for Rome himself on any matter that came up.

(2) He brought his own crowd, a large pack of fifty, mostly 'desert bishops', monks who had episcopal ordination but whose jurisdiction was mostly to administer desert ascetics and hermits. Strictly speaking, he was only supposed to bring his most important suffragans. But, first, Alexandrians didn't think of the hierarchy in quite the same terms as the Constantinopolitans, so Cyril had no problem interpreting that rule generously, and second, Alexandrian politics, ecclesiastical or otherwise, was a kind of politics in which rules were not regarded as strict boundaries but as things that told you how far you could go before you would have to be prepared to fight your way through. And Ephesus, which leaned strongly toward Cyril on this particular point, could of course draw on all of its suffragans as needed. Nestorius, in contrast, arrived with 16 bishops.

It took a while for all the bishops to arrive, and in fact when the date that had been set for the opening of the Council came, there were still so many bishops arriving and yet to arrive that the Imperial representative didn't open the Council yet. So Cyril decided to open the Council himself. The first order of business: summon Nestorius to stand judgment. Nestorius, of course, ignored the summons. The Imperial representative showed up with a number of bishops pointing out that it was illegal to open the Council without the reading of the Imperial decree. Wily Cyril agreed to wait to open the Council, but he asked the Imperial representative some questions about what the decree technically said, so that they could be sure to do it properly. The Imperial representative then read the decree, and Cyril and his bishops noted that the decree had been read, so the Council had now officially begun. First order of business: since Nestorius hadn't obeyed the summons, ratify Celestine's judgment that Nestorius's claims were heretical.

The bishop of Antioch, John, had a sprawling jurisdiction, so it had taken him some time to gather his bishops; he arrived a little under a week after all this. He and the pro-Nestorian bishops formed their own council and condemned both Cyril and Memnon, the bishop of Ephesus. Meanwhile, the papal legates arrived and put their support behind Cyril. The Council sent a letter to the Emperor with its conciliar decision and asking for permission to go home. (Sending the letter was trickier than it sounds, because of course, they couldn't hand it over to the Imperial representative; so instead they had someone dress up as a beggar and smuggle it out in a walking stick.) Of course, that would take some time, so next order of business: summon John of Antioch to stand judgment. Of course John refused, so he was excommunicated, but not, like Nestorius, deposed. A few jurisdictional claims were adjudicated, and after a little more than a month of action, the Council closed.

The Emperor, of course, was completely unprepared for these events, none of which had gone at all like he had expected. Memnon and Cyril were arrested. Cyril escaped, of course, and managed to stir up through his connections a massive popular protest outside the Emperor's palace; and, as a large number of pro-Cyril sees, including Rome itself, sent envoys to the Emperor over the matter, the Emperor gave in and recognized the Council of Ephesus as the true council. Nestorius retired, Cyril came out of hiding and returned to Alexandria, where he died in 444. He was raised to the calendar of saints quite quickly, not because he was some kind of gentle soul and marzipan picture of holiness, but because he was the right fighter for the right cause at the right time.

The Mystery of Piety 1.Pr

First Question: Of What is Known of God as Precondition

Prologue to the First Question

1.Pr.1 On the Kinds of Proof

‘Proof’ is said in many ways. 

(1) All knowledge, properly speaking, is the knowledge of a knower, and therefore in the formal and proper sense a proof is that inference of a knower that actually results in knowledge of some kind. 

(2) However, in a broader and commonly used sense, we take proofs to be a logical object, a template formed by reason, and having existence only in reason, which serves to guide and communicate this kind of inference. This being-of-reason is distinct from the inference itself but drawn from it. In the first sense it is possible to say honestly that you have no proof of something when you have in hand a proof in the second sense; that is to say, having the template or model for inference is not on its own sufficient for inferring in the way it would indicate. This can happen, for instance, if someone explains an inference, and you understand their explanation, but you disagree with the premise; in this case, you cannot apply the premise to your starting point. Another kind of situation in which it can happen is when you are considering the inference hypothetically in order to determine whether it is a proof. 

(3)  In an even broader sense, and slightly improper, we use the term 'proof' to indicate a set of logically connected set of statements that are spoken or written. In the template sense, a proof is the same regardless of language, but in this sense a proof changes depending on the language in which it is couched, because it is in reality a linguistic product of the liberal arts of logic, grammar, and rhetoric in order to communicate the template. 

(4) And in another sense, we call 'proof' things that are neither inferences nor ways of communicating them, but are instead real things or experiences that allow for inferences productive of knowledge. In this case there can be a proof of something but nobody knows it; that is to say, the evidence is available but is not recognized as such. 

In what follows, the first sense of proof is used, although everything said about proof in this sense is easily transferred, with only minor modification, to proof in the second sense. Even in only the first and most proper of these senses, 'proof' is said in many ways, some more proper than others.

Aristotle tells us that a deduction (syllogismos) is reasoning (logos) in which, supposing some things, other things necessarily follow because of them. This reasoning occurs by way of a middle term, or medium of inference, which establishes the consequence and is closely linked with the questions we ask in order to know. If I ask whether a star is a dwarf star, this can be seen as asking whether there is something from which we can get a middle term, or perhaps a series of middle terms linked deductively, that connects being a dwarf star to anything we already know. If I ask whether a thing exists, this can be seen as asking whether there is something from which we can get middle terms from which its existence follows.

We regard ourselves as having unqualified knowledge of a thing when we think we know the why of a thing, precisely as it is, so that we understand that it must be so. A demonstration (apodeixis), which literally means a 'manifestation' or a 'showing forth', is a deductive inference productive of such knowledge in the sense that genuinely understanding the inference is itself the knowledge, where the principles of the inference are already understood. It is thus the most perfect answer to a question about why something exists or is as it is. For a deductive inference to be demonstrative, certain conditions must obtain.

(1) Its principles must be neither merely probable, nor doubtful, nor false, but true. What is known is always known only insofar as it is linked to being; even negations, privations, fictions, and so forth, can only be known insofar as we can connect them to what is. For instance, a hole is known only insofar as it can be related either to what is removed from something that actually is, such as the dirt removed from dirt to make a hole in the ground or to what is that can be related to it, such as its walls or something that could pass through it. But being and truth are convertible terms, so things can be known only insofar as they are linked to what is true.

(2) These principles must be reducible to first principles or else be first principles themselves, and these first principles must be immediate, in the sense that no middle term is required to join subject and predicate. That is, if you understand the subject term and the predicate term, you understand that the predicate term applies to the subject term without some further term through which it is applied. Such premises are necessary in some way, and are known by understanding (intelligentia, noesis), which is higher than the kind of knowledge given by demonstration (which is scientia, episteme).

A demonstrative proof is always a proof of a conclusion, which says something about something in some way. If there were an infinite regress in demonstration, there would be nothing about which something is said, or else nothing to say about it, because there would only be an endless series of middle terms connected with only one of these. Moreover, a series of middle terms can be treated as a single, complex middle term; in an infinite regress, all the terms other than one would be a middle term, which would not be mediating. Therefore, there must be principles that are immediate.

(3) The principles must be prior, that is, better known than the conclusion and knowable independently of the conclusion; and the conclusion must actually follow from the principles. The 'better' here indicates a kind of priority. One thing can be better known than another in two different ways: one, properly and in an unqualified way, in which it is better known in itself or by nature, because it is logically or intelligibly prior or more fundamental; the other, in a qualified way, in which it is the thing we happen to have come to know earlier. The first kind is more fundamental.

In a circular deduction, something is treated as both principle and conclusion; but demonstration must be of posterior, lesser known conclusions from prior, better known principles, which cannot be if conclusion and principle are the same, for nothing can be both prior and posterior with respect to one and the same thing, and nothing that is the same thing can be both better known and lesser known at the same time. Further, if demonstrations could be circular, we could prove things simply through themselves: As this is so, it is so. No knowledge can be produced by a such an argument, since it treats conclusions as if they were first principles in need of nothing beyond themselves.

Thus demonstrative proof is when a conclusion must follow from known necessary truths, so that it is known to be true because of them. It is a serious error to assume that this can be done only in one way. There are many variations on how this can happen, some of which are more perfectly demonstrative than others.

(1) Direct demonstration can be had in two forms. One is from what is prior absolutely and in itself, the underlying principles that make something so, and is called demonstration propter quid, sometimes called 'demonstration of reasoned fact' or (using Greek rather than Latin) 'demonstration dioti'. If we focus on the conclusion, a demonstration propter quid shows why the predicate must go with the subject; it identifies a cause or reason insofar as it requires something so that it cannot be otherwise. In many cases, it shows that a cause requires an effect. 

(2) The other form of direct demonstration is through what is prior relative to us, and is called demonstration quia, or sometimes 'demonstration of fact' or (using Greek) 'demonstration hoti'. It does not give an underlying account showing why the predicate in the conclusion must go with subject; it merely establishes, on the basis of something we know, that it does. In many cases, it shows that an effect requires a cause, or a sign something that it signifies. A quia demonstration differs from a propter quid demonstration in that its middle term, the link allowing the inference, is not a proper cause. But there are two other things it could be. It could be a remote cause, and then we have what is sometimes called an a priori quia demonstration. It could also be an effect, in which case we have what is sometimes called an a posteriori quia demonstration.

Demonstration quia is especially important in subalternate sciences; in such cases the higher science will sometimes have demonstrations propter quid but the subalternate sciences have demonstrations quia for the same conclusions. We see this in an especially easy way in the application of mathematics to the natural world; the physicist may show that some effect is due to a mathematical property, whereas the mathematician may show why it is.

We see similarly that there are situations in which one can join demonstration quia and demonstration propter quid so that by demonstration quia we move from effect to cause and by demonstration propter quid we move from cause to effect, thus first establishing the cause from the effect and then establishing how the cause makes the effect to be. This is not circular demonstration, because (1) in moving from effect to cause and then cause to effect, we are doing so in different ways and (2) to conjoin the two kinds of demonstration requires an additional investigation of different facts, evidences, and possibilities. When we have this kind of demonstration, it is known as a demonstrative regress or regressus. Jacopo Zabarella, who is most associated with discussion of this kind of demonstration, identifies the stages of the regress as resolution (demonstration quia from effect to cause), mental examination, which others call intellectual negotiation (investigation of different possible ways the cause might cause the effect), and composition (demonstration propter quid from cause to effect).*

(3) Indirect demonstration shows something impossible by reducing it to a better known impossibility, and this is often called reductio ad absurdum

(4) In other situations, we demonstrate only on a presupposition about an effect or something similar. Thus, for instance, we might prove a conclusion about a system on the supposition that it is not interfered with from outside; this is not itself something that is properly necessary, but the conclusion will necessarily apply to any situation in which it has conditional necessity, that is, any situation in which it is in fact true. This kind of conditional demonstration is sometimes called demonstration ex suppositione; it can be considered a demonstration in which our starting points are necessary in a qualified rather than full sense.

(5) Sometimes we have something that could be called a demonstration, but for which the principles are 'better known' in a secondary way. That is, they might be better known not in themselves but to particular people, in that they happened to learn them earlier. This can be called relative demonstration, although one sometimes also finds it called 'demonstration ad hominem'. In this form of demonstration the conclusion is aimed at and achieved only obliquely; what is demonstrated, strictly speaking, is the connection between the conclusion and what is already known to some particular person.

(6) At times our principles bring us to a conclusion that is true but only in a qualified way. For instance, we may be able to demonstrate that something is true to a certain degree of approximation; this demonstration of approximate truth is common when we are working with abstract idealizations or are ignoring factors minor enough to be negligible.

(7) Another way in which we can come to a conclusion that is true but only in a qualified way is when we are able to establish that something is truth-like or is congruous, fitting, or appropriate given what is true. This kind of demonstration is often called demonstration ex convenientia.

(8) Perhaps we can also put here what is often called a moral demonstration, in which we proceed to a conclusion that is known in a qualified sense, in that we know it not directly (scientia, episteme) but in the sense of being able to act prudently or with skill on it.

Of all of these, demonstration propter quid is most properly called demonstration, because it meets the requirements for demonstration without qualification and simply. Demonstration quia and reductio ad absurdum, on the other hand, do so indirectly. Both are much more common than propter quid demonstration. All of the others, which may occur in either direct or indirect forms, are demonstration with various qualifications; they may be considered imperfect as demonstrations, but granted the relevant qualifications would fit the definition of demonstration, so are at least in the same family.

Besides demonstration, which is proof in the strictest sense, there are kinds of argument that are called proof in a looser sense, because they provide stable reasoned opinions that help in disposing us to knowledge. These are known as dialectical proofs. They proceed from what are generally called 'probable premises', but 'probable' here is to be understood in the sense that they are accepted either by the wise (that is, those who are in a position to know) or by the many (that is, reasonable persons in general, abstracting from individual peculiarities), or that they are similar to such things as are accepted by the wise or many.

While dialectical propositions are lacking with respect to something required for demonstration, nonetheless arguments based upon them are often fittingly regarded as proofs in a looser sense of the term. They all are deductive in some way, and thus have a structure in which, some things being supposed, some things must follow; the connection between the two is given its force by something already known, which is presupposed, either explicitly or implicitly, as guiding the argument. This is what is known as a maximal proposition, a topic, or a commonplace. It is, so to speak, that on whose stability the argument stands. General examples might be 'What pertains to the more general, pertains to the more specific' or 'Things whose definitions are different are themselves different', but specific fields can have analogous propositions appropriate to their specific material, like conservation laws used to solve particular problems in physics and chemistry or general rules of evidence applied to particular cases in law. Such propositions serve as rules or guidelines by which we keep on track in using probable premises; they are also how we sort through various possibilities in order to find good arguments. In addition to such rules, we also may make suppositions or hypotheses, in order to see where they would end up, and postulates, by which we simplify complex problems into simpler ones. Because of this, dialectical reasoning that is well done often approaches demonstration; likewise, it may help us to rule out possibilities until we are in a position to demonstrate, as happens in the negotiation or examination stage of the demonstrative regress. However, unlike demonstrative proofs, nothing prevents dialectical proofs from being circular, and it is possible to have a dialectical proof from something less known to something more known, because coherence and practical value are much more important for dialectical reasoning than for demonstrative reasoning.

Outside of dialectic, we sometimes use the term 'proof' of arguments that get their primary force from rhetorical or poetic grounds, which become relevant whenever we are communicating arguments. All arguments, demonstrative, dialectical, or otherwise, have rhetorical aspects concerned with practical pursuit or avoidance of good and bad things and poetic aspects concerned with plausibility in imaginative representation, but in some arguments rhetorical or poetic presentation is itself the means by which we get from the principles to the conclusions. For instance, a rhetorically forceful argument might get its force from the fact that the one who presents it comes across as an honest, competent, and sincere fellow or as a credentialed expert (ethos) or from the fact that the conclusion appeals extremely well to the passions of the one to whom it is presented (pathos). Likewise, it sometimes happens that the conclusion seems to follow because the argument is presented in a way that so appeals to our imagination that we seem almost to see the conclusion to be so, due to the vividness with which it contributes to our imagination, as in a very cleverly done thought experiment.  These kinds of plausibility-based arguments are called 'proofs' when they have effects like those of proofs; as 'proof' here is a kind of metaphor indicating a particular kind of effect of the argument rather than its very nature, all of these arguments are proofs only figuratively. We should, however, not confuse them with sophisms, which we do sometimes call 'sophistical proofs'; this use of the term is not a metaphor but abusive, as if we said, 'alleged proofs' or 'proofs so-called'. Sophisms only have value for knowledge in being refuted. Rhetorical and poetic proofs, on the other hand, have a genuine contribution to play, despite not themselves bringing about knowledge; they smooth the communication of arguments, guide us in taking them into account in our practical lives, and they can even sometimes help us to form dialectical arguments by making it easier to consider possibilities, formulate middle terms, or avoid certain errors.

The First Vatican Council says, quoting Romans 1:20, 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: ever since the creation of the world, his invisible nature has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made. If we are interested in discussing divine things so as to know them, therefore, it is often of interest to determine with what kind of proofs we are working, particularly in order to identify the manner in which we know and the limitations thereof. The most important question touching on this is whether anything can be demonstrated, or whether we are confined to dialectical proofs.

1.Pr.2 On the Demonstrability of Something Divine

Let us consider the question of whether it is demonstrable that there is something divine of some kind. The demonstrability of the existence of something divine might be rejected for two reasons.

(1) One might oppose it by claiming that the existence of divine things is grasped immediately by understanding or intelligence. This makes the existence of divine things a first principle; first principles are indemonstrable because any demonstration presupposes them. First principles are in some sense known, but are not known by demonstration; indeed, they are already more known than any proof you could give. There are two major grounds on which one might make this claim. 

(1.1) One might make the claim that enunciable propositions like “The divine exists” or “God exists” are known immediately upon proper understanding of their terms. 

(1.2) One might make the claim that the divine itself is an immediate object of the intellect, prior to any candidate for a starting-point from which the existence of the divine may be proven. 

It is important to note with regard to both claims that this position does not require us to say that there are no arguments for God's existence, only that if there are any, they fail in one crucial feature essential to demonstration as such: that it proceeds from the more known to the less known, or from the prior in knowledge to the posterior. In the same way we can have no demonstrations for the principle of noncontradiction, because it is at least as known as, or better known than, anything from which one could try to demonstrate it. Nonetheless, we can have arguments for the principle of noncontradiction, for instance, arguments by retorsion, showing that people who profess to deny it nonetheless accept it, or arguments by consensus gentium, or arguments showing its connection with other fundamental principles. We could thus still have additional dialectical arguments for God's existence, even if either of the above claims were true. If, however, God's existence is already known by immediate understanding, then in taking it as a conclusion, there is no argument we could make that would proceed from something prior to and better known than the conclusion, and thus no way we could demonstrate the conclusion. Nonetheless, there is reason to reject either of these.

(1.1) With regard to the first, which holds that at least some enunciable propositions about God's existence are known when their terms are known, without the mediation of any middle term. Of this position, St. Thomas gives two explanations (SCG 1.11.1): This partly arises from the custom by which from the beginning people are brought up to hear and to call upon the name of God, and This partly comes about because of a failure to distinguish between what is known per se, simply speaking, and what is known per se by us. Thus the position underestimates the extent to which the obviousness of divine existence is due to a proper education or a social context in which divine matters are made salient. It also, however, makes a mistake with regard to immediate principles, by failing to recognize the limitations of the human mind. It may entirely be conceded that divine existence would be self-evident to God; but our minds are not able to conceive divine matters so fully and perfectly that we can assume this to be true of us. Thus someone may not understand the terms of the proposition properly. We see even with immediate principles that are directly within our reach, like the principle of noncontradiction, that people sometimes are confused about the terms; but we do not have the knowledge of what God is that would be required.

(1.2) With regard to the second, which holds that something divine is known directly by the intellect. This itself is of two kinds: one taking God to be primary object and one taking God to be known as light for other things known.

(1.2.1) We might hold that something divine is known directly by the intellect in the sense that God is the primary object of the intellect, as being the most fundamental thing about which we can think. But there is reason to think this false, because what the mind first knows must be most certain, but this is not so when we are speaking of God. It seems that we would therefore be required to say that God is in some way the object of our mind but not precisely known as such, which would appear to suggest that God's existence, as such, would then have to be known by reason, not immediate understanding. God far exceeds any object our mind can have, however. Therefore we read in Scripture (Ex. 33:20): Man shall not see me and live.

(1.2.2) We might also hold that something divine is known directly by the intellect in the sense that God is the light by which all things are known. Thus just as in visible things, we can see the light by which other things are made manifest, so in intelligible things, we can see the divine light by which other things are understood. However, this seems to elide different ways in which something can be responsible for knowledge. As Aquinas says (SCG 1.11.6), God is that by which all things are known, not in the sense that they are only known if He is known, as is the case among principles known per se, but because all our knowing is caused in us through His influence

All of these positions ((1.1), (1.2.1), (1.2.2)) involve confusions about the mind and its objects. The position in (1.1) confuses the thing itself and the thing as it is an object of the mind; that in (1.2.1) falsely assumes that what can be an object of our mind must be a direct and immediate object; and that in (1.2.2) confuses something's being a cause or source of our knowledge with its being an object of our knowledge. The confusion is perhaps strengthened by the fact that each of these has a similarity to a truth, as we will see: with respect to (1.1), it is true that God's essence is His actual being and that God is first and fundamental with respect to all else; with respect to (1.2.1), it is true that God is first intelligible being, and that our intellect in some way has an orientation to Him; and with respect to (1.2.2), it is true that God is first light and the source of all understanding. But if we do not make the errors noted, we see that none of these things imply that God's existence is known by us through itself, immediately, or self-evidently.

(2) The second position by means of which one might oppose the claim that the existence of the divine is demonstrable is the opposite of the first. Some people, regarding the arguments given for the existence of divine things to be weak (whether, as in some cases, because they were really weak, or, as in other cases, because they had a faulty understanding of the arguments, or, as in yet other cases, because they had a faulty understanding of what was required and not required in order to prove that something exists), have come to the conclusion that the existence of God is not demonstrable at all but only credible; that is, that it is not known but is instead to be accepted wholly with the trust of faith. Thus while the first position held that divine existence is not demonstrable because it is known through itself and not through another, this position holds that divine existence does not admit of demonstration because we cannot know it at all, even in principle, and can only believe it to be true. As with the previous position, this would not rule out all argument for God's actually being; but these would, instead of establishing that conclusion as known, merely confirm its status as believable.

This position has a similarity to a truth we will discuss below, that some kinds of demonstration are impossible in this context, but it errs greatly through a failure to consider the diversity of the ways in which things are demonstrated. As God has effects, including sensible effects, and as we are related to God in certain ways, demonstration from those effects or relations are in principle possible, and therefore at least a basic demonstration quia is in principle possible, because we may argue from the effect to the cause.

From the failure of these two positions ((1), (2)), it is clear that whether or not there is something divine is something that at least in principle admits of demonstration, one way or another. We need, however, to know something about what kind of demonstration would be relevant in order to know whether it is within the scope of ordinary human abilities. For some things are perhaps demonstrable in principle but would require starting points to which we human beings do not have direct access.

Having considered whether the actual being of something divine could be demonstrated, we should then consider the way in which it would be demonstrated. From our reason for rejecting the position that God's existence could be known immediately, we can see that we can have no demonstration propter quid of the existence of something divine. That is, in order to have such a demonstration, we would need to know God's very nature, what sort of being a divine being is, as prior to His actual being. This is obviously not true; if God did not exist, we could not know His nature at all, and the human mind does not in any case have such a full apprehension of the divine nature as to be able to know what necessarily must follow from it. Nor is there anything prior to God in light of which He could be better understood. Thus we cannot have a demonstration propter quid that God exists, and for the same reasons we can have no demonstrative regress, because no amount of dialectical work will cross the insuperable gap between what God is in Himself and what our minds can understand.

Nonetheless, there are other forms of demonstration, and none of the things we have considered rule out a demonstration quia. We can know that God is without knowing what God's being is in itself, by knowing God from His effects. It is clear, of course, that we do reason from effects to causes in order to establish that things exist. Aquinas gives one simple and obvious example of how we do (In Symb. art. 1): Suppose someone at the entryway to a house were to feel heat coming from within, and, on proceeding deeper into the house, were to find that the heat increased. From this he would reasonably conclude that there was a fire in the house, even though he had not yet seen the fire. It is clear, moreover, that some such reasoning is demonstrative, namely insofar as definite effects require causes. As St. Thomas says (SCG 1.12.8), In arguments demonstrating that God is, it is not necessary to assume the divine essence or whatness (quidditas) as the middle term...but in place of the whatness, an effect is taken as the middle term, as is the case in demonstrations quia. And as he notes in the same place, our very names for the divine show this, since they are taken from effects attributed to God as cause. This is within our reach, because many of these effects are sensible effects, and thus if God causes sensible effects, we can know them, and if we can know them as effects, we can conclude to God as cause. Thus it is in principle possible to have a demonstration quia of the conclusion that there is something divine.

1.Pr.3 On Initial Indications that Something Divine Actually Is

We have seen that it is at least in principle possible that one could demonstrate that something divine actually is, that this could be done with an appropriate quia demonstration from effects, and that as the effects involved are sensible things, the starting points of such demonstrations could possibly be had. One might still reject the demonstrability of the position that divine things actually are by claiming that the contrary is already demonstrated. That is, you could hold that it is impossible to prove that anything divine exists on the ground that you have a proof that nothing divine exists. This is relatively uncommon, for those who think atheism demonstrable are relatively few in the world. This will be dealt with as we continue, for nothing is better for establishing the demonstrability of a particular conclusion than actually demonstrating it and showing how arguments for the opposed conclusion are not demonstrative. However, before we do so, it is worth considering the question of dialectical proofs as well.

There are many things that initially suggest that something divine actually is. Recognizing these indications at least gives us a reason to inquire into divine matters further.

(1) First, there are many apparent direct and indirect experiences of what is taken to be divine, which are popularly called religious experiences. These are of many different kinds. There are very common experiences, like a general sense of powerful presence or special raptness or sense of illumination in religious contexts; others are less common but more common than is sometimes recognized, like vivid sense of the numinous or  visions and locutions; others are relatively rare, such as experiences of union; yet others appear to be relatively unique, such as some of the experiences of the Hebrew prophets or St. John, St. Augustine and St. Monica during conversation sharing the same experience of the Selfsame in the Vision at Ostia, or St. Teresa's experience of the angel and the Spear. But these are only some examples of note; actual cases are legion, found throughout the world, among Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, and others of all varieties.

We do not interpret experiences in isolation; it is a grave error to look at a single experience and attempt to assess it without any regard to other experiences. It is also a grave error to consider only experiences of a single type, as if real things were not experienceable in many different ways. Nor do we in any field of human life restrict ourselves entirely to what one experiences in one's own person; we all rely on the second-hand experience that we have by relying on others. Nor can we prejudge experience beforehand, since it is with experience that our reasoning begins; when we determine that someone is hallucinating or that they are experiencing a delusion, this is not because of some prior consideration of the objects, but due to other experiences and what can be known from them. 

It is true, of course, that individuals can have delusions and hallucinations, that people have on occasion had intense emotional connections to fictional characters, and are capable of misinterpreting even things that they really experience. But these are all things that are considered with regard to every kind of experience, and it is why one needs to rely not merely on personal experience but testimony, as well, and to consider experience widely rather than narrowly, taking into account indirect experiential connections as well as direct ones. When we do this, it is obviously false to claim that there is no evidence of the divine when so many people in so many circumstances have had so many different experiences of something divine of some kind.

(2) Second, the general consensus of peoples (consensus gentium) seems to suggest that it is natural for human reason to conclude that there is something divine of some kind. As human beings are rational and therefore civilizational beings, our very inquiry is social, requiring assistance from others in remedying the flows in our inquiry. Therefore all human beings at some time or another appeal to the fact that something is generally accepted, either among the wise, i.e., among those in a special position to know, or among the many. The latter provides the benefit of abstracting from the possibility of flaws in one's inquiry that are peculiar to oneself. It does not on its own rule out some more shared flaw. However, if one considers not one group but many groups, not one multitude but a multitude of multitudes, we may abstract from investigative flaws distinctive to particular groups, thus showing it to be reasonable to accept. As George Hayward Joyce says of a consensus gentium argument (The Principles of Natural Theology, chapter 5), "It rests simply on the principle that man's intellect is fundamentally trustworthy: that, though frequently misled in this or that particular case through accidental causes, yet the instrument itself is sound: that, of its own nature, it leads, not to error, but to truth." 

Thus, for instance, assuming that other minds exist, we can recognize that there is a consensus gentium for the existence of a physical world that is independent of our minds; that is to say, there is a unity of custom among different peoples, despite radical differences in custom, environment, education, and the like, that is resilient over time in the face of many changes, establishing it to be reasonable. This will be true regardless of whether there are cases of individuals, out of their own peculiarities, freakishly insisting otherwise; and if anyone were to attempt to claim that there was no evidence for the existence of such a world, they would be adequately answered by pointing to the multitude of multitudes. Consensus gentium, therefore, is general evidence of there being particular evidence that can reasonably be interpreted as requiring the conclusion. Likewise, given the many variations in views about the physical world and its relation to the mind, it can only conclude to a general conclusion; the point it establishes does not close the inquiry but serve as a reasonable beginning in light of which one may inquire into more specific questions.

Consensus gentium arguments thus primarily differ according to the kind of reasonableness in view. Thus some are arguments from the authority of shared human reason; others are arguments to rational convergence as a mark or sign of truth; others are arguments to what is natural to reason to conclude.

In Cicero's De natura deorum, the Epicurean Velleius gives a consensus gentium argument for the existence of gods, saying (1.16), "For what nation or race of men is there, that does not possess, independently of instruction, a certain preconception of them?" He attributes calls this a prolepsis or preconception, i.e., "a certain idea of a thing formed by the mind beforehand, without which nothing can be understood, or investigated, or discussed." That is to say, even in order to investigate or discuss whether or not there are gods, one must also know what it is whose existence you are investigating or discussing. But, he continues (1.17), since we have an idea of them implanted in us, "and as that upon which the nature of all men is agreed must be true, their existence must be acknowledged." Cotta, the Skeptic, however, responds by saying (1.23) that there may be nations so barbarous as not to believe in the gods. Later, the Stoic Balbus argues (2.2) that the belief has remarkable stability and has been strengthened by the passing of time, which destroys mere imaginations and confirms judgments, and notes the position of Cleanthes that the idea of gods comes from four sources, premonitions of the future, benefits received from the world, terrors of unusual events, and the uniformity of the heavens. It is clear, then, that Balbus's argument is not, like that of Velleius, based on the notion of an innate idea of the gods; rather, the point is that human beings rationally converge on it over time; and, in particular, of course, he holds that they do so on the Stoic view of the divinely rational universe, although he holds that human beings also often fracture and confuse this by excessive indulgence of the imagination. Cotta will then argue that Balbus's philosophical conception of divinity is not better than the traditional conceptions, based in imagination, of non-philosophers. It is implied, and we learn from other works (Tusculan Disputation 1.13), that Cicero himself thinks there is something to the argument.

It can be seen then, from the deliberately constructed ambiguities of the argument in Cicero's account that assessing the force of the argument depends on one's account for how it is this that belief in divinity is so extensive and stable. In some cases, people posit that there is an innate idea or sentiment of the divine. In others, appeal is made not to innate idea but to innate yearnings or natural desires that are satisfiable only if there is something divine. In others, appeal is rather made to reason as commonly tending in the same direction. The more universal the belief, the better for the argument, and some people putting it forward do, in fact, put it forward on the assumption that universality can simply be assumed. However, strictly speaking, and contrary to many critics, no version of the argument requires strict universality rather than practical universality, just as no account of a normal course of development requires that there be no freaks of nature; the argument is a response to the people claiming that there is nothing divine, and thus is arguing at a level of abstraction from peculiarities of individual cases.  As Charles Hodge notes (Systematic Theology, Volume I), "Should a tribe of idiots be discovered, it would not prove that reason is not an attribute of our nature. If any community should come to light in which infanticide was universal, it would not prove that parental love was not one of the instincts of humanity." And Turretin says (Inst. 1.1.16), "No more than the monsters and prodigies which are sometimes seen contrary to nature can overturn the regular laws established by God; or the instances of insanity overturn the definition of man as a rational animal." And this is indeed to the point, since in which people often accept consensus gentium arguments, such as the consensus gentium argument for basic moral principles, for the importance of art, for human fellow-feeling, it would not be to the point to indicate the existence of psychopaths, philistines, or misanthropes, although it can be reasonable to ask the question about the ways in which the common norm can degenerate in particular cases; these things are recognized as outliers. Critics are also too quick in their attempts to claim particular counterexamples; it is a common experience in arguing with atheists, even if not a universal one, to find the atheist believing in something, like truth or moral order, that other people would call divine in some way, and doing so in terms similar to the reasons why other people call it divine, but simply not thinking or even refusing to call it 'divine' for some personal or cultural reason. Questions of universality and counterexamples to it should not be handled glibly even in examining very basic and simple versions of the argument. However, it is also clear that versions of the argument based on reason are more tolerant of variation than those based on innate ideas or sense, and also more directly connect the matter with reason and truth rather than by way of ease of belief. 

John Stuart Mill discusses this line of argument critically in his essay, "Theism", which is arguably the best known attempt at actual refutation. He takes the argument itself usually to be used to argue for a sense or intuition of God, but argues that where we have definite evidence, the people who affirm the existence of God typically appeal to things like the design of the universe, not an internal intuition. While it is true that this is one line that might be taken, Mill's assumption that the argument involves an appeal to an intuitive perception is not universal, as I have noted. He dismisses the beliefs in divinity common among the uneducated or primitive tribes on the hypothesis that it is mere animism arising from generalization. While the latter dismissal is typical of Mill, mere hypothesis does not do away with the fact that these are rational people who are indeed able to think, even if, unlike Mill, they lack the second-hand evidence that education provides individuals about the nature of the world through the testimony of more intensive researchers and their collators. Being accustomed from their earliest days to certain ways of viewing the world, steeped in them, people often underestimate the extent to which all their knowledge is dependent on the apparent consensuses among the people they know, and likewise inclined to overestimate the extent to which their own views are based on first-hand evidence; in reality, the difference is almost wholly in the education. But both the relatively uneducated nor tribal religions are human, and therefore rational, and their reasoning cannot all be shoved onto a single track. 

 Despite the failure of Mill's criticisms, however, there are certain 'defeaters' for consensus gentium arguments that arise from its structure. For instance, the consent of peoples by its nature does not take into account new evidence not commonly available, so that something held widely by many may turn out wrong, despite the aptitude of reason for truth, because while the conclusion drawn was reasonable on the evidence had, the new evidence may change the overall face of things. The second thing that might answer a consensus gentium argument, simply based on its structure, is evidence that the consensus is an imposed rather than a natural consensus; that is to say, that the consensus is primarily due to particular human beings exercising the power of reward and punishment against their fellow human beings in order to drive them in a particular direction. Against the first one might say that this consensus includes many who have familiarity with any new evidence that might be proposed, and against the second that the consensus is too wide to be artificial, but both of these arguments have been made, and if they were developed properly, which they rarely are, they would be more serious objections than anything Mill provides, and would have to be considered in any full development of the argument.

(3) Third, the existence of something divine seems suggested by certain prima facie features of the moral life. William Whewell gives an example ("The Moral Argument for the Being of God"), which identifies four major strands:

(a) Sentiment of dependence: "The consciousness of existence, when reflected upon, is calculated to fill the mind with a sense of mysterious awe." We feel our dependency, and thus look for some adequate being on which we are dependent. 

(b) Sentiment of gratitude: "To be grateful for benefits is the instinctive prompting of our nature." We are, however, surrounded by many benefits, like those of nature, that are not owed to our fellow human beings. "Existence, with innumerable capacities and sources of good, is and must be felt by us to be a gift." Thus we often feel gratitude for these things. This inclines us to look for some being to which we can reasonably be grateful for these benefits.

(c) Sentiment of obligation: We have a moral constitution. "Among the necessary convictions of reason is the distinction between right and wrong, and the idea of duty or the moral law." We thus feel ourselves as under judgment and law in the tribunal of conscience and reason, and this leads us to look for "an Invisible Judge, who is the substance and administrator of the Moral Law". Further: "The ideas of right and wrong, merit and demerit, happiness and misery, are respectively linked each to each in the necessary convictions of the human mind." We recognize that virtue ought to go with happiness and guilt with misery. We do not find a world obviously like that, but this cannot change how we feel about it, because the feeling is rooted in moral reason. Thus we look for a being who can reconcile these things. We see this most clearly in cases where someone has a choice between life and duty, in which doing what is right will mean their death. If someone thinks that there is something that guarantees that death is not the whole story, that duty and happiness are ultimately united, however, then in that situation duty would be clearly more important than life. Thus "our practical principles -- the necessary dictations of our moral nature, impel us to act as though there were a God."

(d) Aspirational longings:  "Ever stirring in the depths of the soul is the desire for Well-being, for Truth, Beauty, and Goodness -- the aspiration after something more blessed, true, beautiful, and good than can be realized here below." This aspiration cannot be satisfied with the finite; it includes a desire for what goes beyond death. "Admit the being of a God who implanted these infinite desires in the human heart, and then we may find a ground of hope. Admit the being of a God, and then we can reasonably account for it that we have desires so far transcending all this life can give; and we may hope that the longings he has himself inspired may by him be fulfilled." 

Each of these is not really a single sentiment but a family of common sentiments; each family sets us to look for something real to correspond to them; each suggests the possibility that we might have these feelings for a reason. When we posit such a being ('superinduction' is Whewell's term for such positing), however, they in a sense jump together, by a sort of consilience, admitting of a unified explanation; Whewell takes this kind of consilience as a mark of intellectual progress. The identification of the sense of dependence is inspired by Schleiermacher, and the identification of both the sense of gratitude and the sense of obligation are inspired by Kant, while the identification of the aspirational longing a way of capturing aspects of our moral life that are of special concern to Platonists.

We have seen three lines of argument, experience both direct and testimonial, consensus gentium, and moral life, all three of which are historically quite influential. There is good reason to think that none of them are demonstrative, and, indeed, they are not usually put forward as demonstrative. The argument from experience is inductive rather than deductive, rising from particulars to universals. The consensus gentium is by its nature an indirect argument, and is generally recognized as such by those who take it to be important. Thus Flint says (Theism, Note VIII), "It is an evidence that there are direct evidences -- and when kept in this its proper place it has no inconsiderable value -- but it cannot be urged as a direct and independent argument", while Cardinal Mercier says (A Manual of Modern Scholastic Philosophy, Vol. II, section 32), "Its real value is that it supplies a presumption that valid proofs do exist." It also heavily relies on what is accepted by many, which is a sign of a dialectical argument from probable premises. Of the moral argument, Whewell says ("The Moral Argument") it is "a complement to the other arguments" and "one interesting portion of that various evidence which accumulates from every quarter around this great and central truth." It is, of course, not impossible that they could be transformed into demonstrations with further dialectical work to rule out alternatives and trace things back to immediate principles, tightening the arguments; but these three in particular were picked because they are arguments that admit of reasonable defense, but by their structure would require considerable work to make demonstrative.

Dialectical arguments can give very different kinds of results, and this is true here; one can draw different conclusions from the multitude of experiences, the consensus gentium, or the fit with moral life. Depending on how it is used, each of these indications, individually or in concert with the others, can be taken as (a) a heuristic, (b) a basis for a postulate for practical life or inquiry, or (c) a reason. Taken as heuristic, they allow us to consider various hypotheses that can then be further tested and refined; taken as grounds for a postulate, they allow us to assume their conclusion for practical life or further inquiry, until we have reason to change it; and as reasons, they provide support for suspicion, opinion, or belief.

But, suggestive as these might be, and even if we take them, individually or together, as dialectical proofs, in none of these things so far do we properly have a demonstration of divine things; we must look elsewhere for reason to think that the existence of divine things can be more than a convenient postulate, a reasonable suspicion, or a probable conclusion. In all fields of thought we should take with thanks any good reasoning we can get; but we should seek especially for demonstration when it can be had.


* See William A. Wallace, The Modeling of Nature, The Catholic University of America Press (Washington, DC: 1996), pp. 300-308, for a summary of Zabarella's conception of demonstrative regress and Galileo's adaptation of it.