Zeal for God, But Not According to Knowledge

St. Thomas raises this objection to the existence of God:

Objection 2. Further, it is superfluous to suppose that what can be accounted for by a few principles has been produced by many. But it seems that everything we see in the world can be accounted for by other principles, supposing God did not exist. For all natural things can be reduced to one principle which is nature; and all voluntary things can be reduced to one principle which is human reason, or will. Therefore there is no need to suppose God’s existence.

He responds to the objection:

Since nature works for a determinate end under the direction of a higher agent, whatever is done by nature must needs be traced back to God, as to its first cause. So also whatever is done voluntarily must also be traced back to some higher cause other than human reason or will, since these can change or fail; for all things that are changeable and capable of defect must be traced back to an immovable and self-necessary first principle, as was shown in the body of the Article.

The explanation here is that things do have their own proper causes, but these proper causes do not have the properties necessary to be a first cause. Likewise, the very distinction of these proper causes from one another shows that they must be reduced to a one single principle.

This response is correct, but it is difficult for people to understand. People tend to assume that the objection is fundamentally valid, given its premises. Thus many atheists believe that they have a very good argument for their atheism, and many theists assume that there must be falsehood in the premises. And the ordinary way to assume this is to say that we do see things in the world that cannot be accounted for by other principles.

This leads to an undue zeal on behalf of God, of the sort mentioned in the previous post. There is the desire to say that something was done by God, and only by God; not by anything else. In this way the premise that “everything we see in the world can be accounted for by other principles” would turn out to be false. The Intelligent Design movement provides an example of this desire. The linked Wikipedia article approaches this with a very polemical point of view, but I am not concerned here with the scientific issues. It is very evident, in any case, that there is the idea here that it would be good to prove that something was done by God alone, and not by any secondary causes. In this way people are jealous on behalf of God: if it turns out that it was done by secondary causes, that takes something from God, and in particular it makes it less likely that God exists.

The truth is mostly the opposite of this. Although nothing can be taken from God, the purposes of creation are better obtained if created things contribute whatever they can to the production of other things. Thus the world is more ordered, and so more perfect simply speaking.

As an example, consider the case of the origin of life. Unlike the process which gave rise to the origin of species, abiogenesis is not an established fact. What would be best, were it the case? I do not speak of the truth of the matter, nor what we might wish to believe about it, but which thing would be better in itself: is it better if life arises from non-living things, or is it better if life is directly created by God? For someone jealous for God in this way, it seems better if life were directly created, in order better to prove that God exists. In reality, however, it is better if life comes to be in a certain order, with a contribution from non-living things, to whatever degree that this is possible.

This is not just a matter of wishful thinking, in one direction or the other, although that can be involved. Rather, in cases of this kind, the fact that one thing is better is an argument, although not a conclusive one, for its reality.

There are many other ways in which this kind of undue zeal influences human opinions, and recognition of the truth of this matter has many consequences. But for the moment we are on another path.

No Envy in God

I commented here on the account of the Tower of Babel. Since I was making another point at the time, I did not remark on how God is portrayed in the story.

It could be argued that in the story, God is simply punishing human arrogance. The people say, “Let us make a name for ourselves,” which seems like an arrogant thing to say.

However, one also might think that God is responding to them in an envious way. “Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.” If they make a name for themselves, it will be by doing great things; so let us stop them from doing great things.

Of course, God is not actually envious in this way, for several reasons. First, the Supreme Good is lacking in nothing, and so cannot be harmed by the good of others. And the things themselves are perfected in this way, as we noted a few days ago. St. Thomas explains divine governance:

Secondly, the effect of the government of the world may be considered on the part of those things by means of which the creature is made like to God. Thus there are, in general, two effects of the government. For the creature is assimilated to God in two things; first, with regard to this, that God is good; and so the creature becomes like Him by being good; and secondly, with regard to this, that God is the cause of goodness in others; and so the creature becomes like God by moving others to be good. Wherefore there are two effects of government, the preservation of things in their goodness, and the moving of things to good.

God is not envious of his creatures when they bring about something good, because this was a big part of the idea of creation in the first place. In contrast, human beings are often jealous on behalf of God when this happens. We will discuss this in another post.

 

Origen and Adam Smith

Speaking of prayer, Origen says,

Suppose that a righteously minded physician is at the side of a sick man praying for health, with knowledge of the right mode of treatment for the disease about which the man is offering prayer. It is manifest that he will be moved to heal the suppliant, surmising, it may well be not idly, that God has had this very action in mind in answer to the prayer of the suppliant for release from the disease. Or suppose that a man of considerable means, who is generous, hears the prayer of a poor man offering intercession to God for his wants. It is plain that he, too, will fulfill the objects of the poor man’s prayer, becoming a minister of the fatherly counsel of Him who at the season of the prayer had brought together him who was to pray and him who was able to supply and by virtue of the rightness of his principles, incapable of overlooking one who has made that particular request.

The fact that the person’s prayers appear to have been answered by chance, Origen maintains, is merely an appearance. Since God is the cause of all things, he is also the cause, directly or indirectly, of all that results from those things, and consequently of these supposedly chance answers to prayer.

Adam Smith, in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, argues thus:

It is to no purpose, that the proud and unfeeling landlord views his extensive fields, and without a thought for the wants of his brethren, in imagination consumes himself the whole harvest that grows upon them. The homely and vulgar proverb, that the eye is larger than the belly, never was more fully verified than with regard to him. The capacity of his stomach bears no proportion to the immensity of his desires, and will receive no more than that of the meanest peasant. The rest he is obliged to distribute among those, who prepare, in the nicest manner, that little which he himself makes use of, among those who fit up the palace in which this little is to be consumed, among those who provide and keep in order all the different baubles and trinkets, which are employed in the oeconomy of greatness; all of whom thus derive from his luxury and caprice, that share of the necessaries of life, which they would in vain have expected from his humanity or his justice. The produce of the soil maintains at all times nearly that number of inhabitants which it is capable of maintaining. The rich only select from the heap what is most precious and agreeable. They consume little more than the poor, and in spite of their natural selfishness and rapacity, though they mean only their own conveniency, though the sole end which they propose from the labours of all the thousands whom they employ, be the gratification of their own vain and insatiable desires, they divide with the poor the produce of all their improvements. They are led by an invisible hand to make nearly the same distribution of the necessaries of life, which would have been made, had the earth been divided into equal portions among all its inhabitants, and thus without intending it, without knowing it, advance the interest of the society, and afford means to the multiplication of the species. When Providence divided the earth among a few lordly masters, it neither forgot nor abandoned those who seemed to have been left out in the partition. These last too enjoy their share of all that it produces. In what constitutes the real happiness of human life, they are in no respect inferior to those who would seem so much above them. In ease of body and peace of mind, all the different ranks of life are nearly upon a level, and the beggar, who suns himself by the side of the highway, possesses that security which kings are fighting for.

The inequality of wealth among men, Smith is arguing, is much less than it first appears. There may be a man who theoretically has a million times your personal wealth. But he cannot eat a million times as much as you, but only a little more, if at all. And likewise, in a somewhat analagous manner, in respect to wealth in all the ways in which it touches an individual. And consequently the benefit that comes from that wealth can be, and will be, distributed among other men, not in a perfectly equal manner, but in a manner far closer to equality than one would first suppose.

Smith asserts here that it is the “invisible hand” of Providence that has intentionally designed a world that must have these results. The terminology of the “invisible hand” is used by some modern economists in a more general way, simply speaking of the way in which good results can come about without the explicit intention of the persons concerned, without necessarily intending to say that the good results were intended in any sense, by Providence or anything else.

In reality, however, both Adam Smith and Origen are correct. All things come from the first cause. Nothing is lost on account of the fact that things proceed through secondary causes as well; on the contrary, this only makes everything better.

 

Supreme Good

In Chapter 4 of The Divine Names, Dionysius says:

Now if the Good is above all things (as indeed It is) Its Formless Nature produces all-form; and in It alone Not-Being is an excess of Being, and Lifelessness an excess of Life and Its Mindless state is an excess of Wisdom, and all the Attributes of the Good we express in a transcendent manner by negative images.

Now this is not especially easy to understand. But Dionysius seems to be saying that God does not posses life or mind in a literal sense, but is rather above these things, much as held by Plotinus. Possibly somewhat in contrast, he seems to believe that “Good” is an especially appropriate name for God.

According to the account we have given of being and the good, this is correct. If the good is that towards which things tend, then a necessary being must above all be good, because it has such a deep tendency to be that it cannot not be. Likewise, insofar as the good is understood as a final cause of other things, and thus as an ultimate explanation, while the first cause can have nothing else explaining its existence, it must constitute the supreme good not only in relation to itself, but in relation to all other things as well.

St. Thomas on God and Sin

St. Thomas argues that God is the cause of the action of sin, but not of sin itself:

I answer that, The act of sin is both a being and an act; and in both respects it is from God. Because every being, whatever the mode of its being, must be derived from the First Being, as Dionysius declares (Div. Nom. v). Again every action is caused by something existing in act, since nothing produces an action save in so far as it is in act; and every being in act is reduced to the First Act, viz. God, as to its cause, Who is act by His Essence. Therefore God is the cause of every action, in so far as it is an action. But sin denotes a being and an action with a defect: and this defect is from the created cause, viz. the free-will, as falling away from the order of the First Agent, viz. God. Consequently this defect is not reduced to God as its cause, but to the free-will: even as the defect of limping is reduced to a crooked leg as its cause, but not to the motive power, which nevertheless causes whatever there is of movement in the limping. Accordingly God is the cause of the act of sin: and yet He is not the cause of sin, because He does not cause the act to have a defect.

More detail on this distinction is found in the first article, where he directly argues that God is not responsible for sin:

I answer that, Man is, in two ways, a cause either of his own or of another’s sin. First, directly, namely by inclining his or another’s will to sin; secondly, indirectly, namely by not preventing someone from sinning. Hence (Ezekiel 3:18) it is said to the watchman: “If thou say not to the wicked: ‘Thou shalt surely die’ [Vulgate: “If, when I say to the wicked, ‘Thou shalt surely die,’ thou declare it not to him.”] . . . I will require his blood at thy hand.” Now God cannot be directly the cause of sin, either in Himself or in another, since every sin is a departure from the order which is to God as the end: whereas God inclines and turns all things to Himself as to their last end, as Dionysius states (Div. Nom. i): so that it is impossible that He should be either to Himself or to another the cause of departing from the order which is to Himself. Therefore He cannot be directly the cause of sin. In like manner neither can He cause it indirectly. For it happens that God does not give some the assistance, whereby they may avoid sin, which assistance were He to give, they would not sin. But He does all this according to the order of His wisdom and justice, since He Himself is Wisdom and Justice: so that if someone sin it is not imputable to Him as though He were the cause of that sin; even as a pilot is not said to cause the wrecking of the ship, through not steering the ship, unless he cease to steer while able and bound to steer. It is therefore evident that God is nowise a cause of sin.

It is easy enough to see that if God is the first cause, everything else comes from that cause, including human action. In what sense, then, is St. Thomas asserting that something of sin is not from God?

The idea is that “doing evil” is not some positive reality in itself, but the lack of doing good. All positive reality comes from God, but not what is lacking.

The obvious objection, of course, is that if all good comes from God, then if some good is lacking, God must have failed to provide that good, and so he would be indirectly responsible. St. Thomas is responding to this when he says, “In like manner neither can He causes indirectly,” followed by the example with the pilot.

In the case of the pilot, he is not to be blamed for the wrecking of the ship unless he should have been steering and was not. But since God does all that he does “according to the order of His wisdom and justice,” then if he does not provide some good, it was not true that he ought to have provided it. Consequently he cannot be blamed for its lack.

This argument is valid as far as it goes, but we can understand the matter more fully by making a distinction here. In the argument above, St. Thomas virtually equates “causes indirectly” with being morally responsible for a thing, and consequently, based on an argument that God is not morally responsible for evil, concludes that “neither can He cause it indirectly.” But St. Thomas is well aware that causing something (especially causing indirectly) and being morally responsible for a thing are two different things. Thus he justifies killing in self defense:

Accordingly the act of self-defense may have two effects, one is the saving of one’s life, the other is the slaying of the aggressor. Therefore this act, since one’s intention is to save one’s own life, is not unlawful, seeing that it is natural to everything to keep itself in “being,” as far as possible.

Evidently someone who does this causes the death of the aggressor. But he is not morally responsible for it. Thus causing something, especially indirectly, is not the same as being morally responsible for it.

Consider the case of the pilot of the ship. St. Thomas says that “a pilot is not said to cause the wrecking of the ship, through not steering the ship, unless he cease to steer while able and bound to steer.” But if we are considering mere causality, it is evident that whether or not the pilot is under an obligation of steering the ship is irrelevant. St. Thomas’s point is that if the pilot is doing something else more important, then he is not to blame for the destruction of the ship, even if theoretically he could have steered and failed to do the more important thing instead. This is true but the point is about blame, not causality. The destruction of the ship is indeed an indirect effect of the pilot’s action, even if the pilot’s action was morally praiseworthy, because he was doing something else more important.

And in that sense, all things, whether good or evil, reduce to the causality of the first cause, directly or indirectly.

As the Heavens are Higher than the Earth

Job accuses God:

It is all one; therefore I say,
    he destroys both the blameless and the wicked.
When disaster brings sudden death,
    he mocks at the calamity of the innocent.
The earth is given into the hand of the wicked;
    he covers the eyes of its judges—
    if it is not he, who then is it?

Ezekiel 18 seems to say something very opposed to this:

The word of the Lord came to me: What do you mean by repeating this proverb concerning the land of Israel, “The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge”? As I live, says the Lord God, this proverb shall no more be used by you in Israel. Know that all lives are mine; the life of the parent as well as the life of the child is mine: it is only the person who sins that shall die.

If a man is righteous and does what is lawful and right— if he does not eat upon the mountains or lift up his eyes to the idols of the house of Israel, does not defile his neighbor’s wife or approach a woman during her menstrual period, does not oppress anyone, but restores to the debtor his pledge, commits no robbery, gives his bread to the hungry and covers the naked with a garment, does not take advance or accrued interest, withholds his hand from iniquity, executes true justice between contending parties, follows my statutes, and is careful to observe my ordinances, acting faithfully—such a one is righteous; he shall surely live, says the Lord God.

If he has a son who is violent, a shedder of blood, who does any of these things (though his father does none of them), who eats upon the mountains, defiles his neighbor’s wife, oppresses the poor and needy, commits robbery, does not restore the pledge, lifts up his eyes to the idols, commits abomination, takes advance or accrued interest; shall he then live? He shall not. He has done all these abominable things; he shall surely die; his blood shall be upon himself.

But if this man has a son who sees all the sins that his father has done, considers, and does not do likewise, who does not eat upon the mountains or lift up his eyes to the idols of the house of Israel, does not defile his neighbor’s wife, does not wrong anyone, exacts no pledge, commits no robbery, but gives his bread to the hungry and covers the naked with a garment, withholds his hand from iniquity, takes no advance or accrued interest, observes my ordinances, and follows my statutes; he shall not die for his father’s iniquity; he shall surely live. As for his father, because he practiced extortion, robbed his brother, and did what is not good among his people, he dies for his iniquity.

Yet you say, “Why should not the son suffer for the iniquity of the father?” When the son has done what is lawful and right, and has been careful to observe all my statutes, he shall surely live. The person who sins shall die. A child shall not suffer for the iniquity of a parent, nor a parent suffer for the iniquity of a child; the righteousness of the righteous shall be his own, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be his own.

But if the wicked turn away from all their sins that they have committed and keep all my statutes and do what is lawful and right, they shall surely live; they shall not die. None of the transgressions that they have committed shall be remembered against them; for the righteousness that they have done they shall live. Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, says the Lord God, and not rather that they should turn from their ways and live? But when the righteous turn away from their righteousness and commit iniquity and do the same abominable things that the wicked do, shall they live? None of the righteous deeds that they have done shall be remembered; for the treachery of which they are guilty and the sin they have committed, they shall die.

Yet you say, “The way of the Lord is unfair.” Hear now, O house of Israel: Is my way unfair? Is it not your ways that are unfair? When the righteous turn away from their righteousness and commit iniquity, they shall die for it; for the iniquity that they have committed they shall die. Again, when the wicked turn away from the wickedness they have committed and do what is lawful and right, they shall save their life. Because they considered and turned away from all the transgressions that they had committed, they shall surely live; they shall not die. Yet the house of Israel says, “The way of the Lord is unfair.” O house of Israel, are my ways unfair? Is it not your ways that are unfair?

Therefore I will judge you, O house of Israel, all of you according to your ways, says the Lord God. Repent and turn from all your transgressions; otherwise iniquity will be your ruin. Cast away from you all the transgressions that you have committed against me, and get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit! Why will you die, O house of Israel? For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, says the Lord God. Turn, then, and live.

If life and death here refer to physical life, then the passage indeed would be opposed to Job’s claims, and Job might well respond:

How often is the lamp of the wicked put out?
    How often does calamity come upon them?
    How often does God distribute pains in his anger?
How often are they like straw before the wind,
    and like chaff that the storm carries away?
You say, ‘God stores up their iniquity for their children.’
    Let it be paid back to them, so that they may know it.
Let their own eyes see their destruction,
    and let them drink of the wrath of the Almighty.
For what do they care for their household after them,
    when the number of their months is cut off?
Will any teach God knowledge,
    seeing that he judges those that are on high?
One dies in full prosperity,
    being wholly at ease and secure,
his loins full of milk
    and the marrow of his bones moist.
Another dies in bitterness of soul,
    never having tasted of good.
They lie down alike in the dust,
    and the worms cover them.

Oh, I know your thoughts,
    and your schemes to wrong me.
For you say, ‘Where is the house of the prince?
    Where is the tent in which the wicked lived?’
Have you not asked those who travel the roads,
    and do you not accept their testimony,
that the wicked are spared in the day of calamity,
    and are rescued in the day of wrath?
Who declares their way to their face,
    and who repays them for what they have done?
When they are carried to the grave,
    a watch is kept over their tomb.
The clods of the valley are sweet to them;
    everyone will follow after,
    and those who went before are innumerable.
How then will you comfort me with empty nothings?
    There is nothing left of your answers but falsehood.

But if we understand Ezekiel to refer to happiness and misery, there is surely some truth in his claims, because happiness consists in activity according to virtue. So one who lives virtuously, at least to that degree, will be happy, even if he did not always live in that manner. At the same time, there is some qualification on this, both because human life is not merely an instant but a temporal whole, and also because even if virtue is the most formal element of happiness, it is not the only thing that is relevant to it.

Job and Ezekiel’s opponents seem to agree in an important way, even if they disagree about the facts. Both seem to be saying that God’s ways are bad. Either God’s ways are indifferent to good and evil, or worse, God supports evil himself. Either God treats the good and evil alike, and thus he is indifferent, or he gives better things to the evil, and is thus evil. Or, according to Ezekiel’s opponents, he unjustly spares the lifelong wicked on account of a moment of repentance.

In the passage from Ezekiel, God responds that it is not his ways that are unjust, but their ways. In the context of the particular dispute, the implication is that people fear this account because it implies that even if you have lived a good life for many years, a single evil deed may result in your condemnation. That is only bad, God responds, if you plan to do evil, in other words if your ways are evil, not his. Isaiah says, speaking of the same thing, namely the repentance of the wicked,

For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
    nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
    so are my ways higher than your ways
    and my thoughts than your thoughts.

As I pointed out earlier, Jesus presents Job’s characterization of God as something to be imitated:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?  Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

God is perfect, Jesus says, and consequently his activity is perfect towards all. And that results in apparent indifference, because it means that God treats all alike. Jesus is quite explicit that this applies to the very kinds of situations that Job and his friends are concerned with:

Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”

This would be inconsistent if it meant that “unless you repent, a tower will fall on you or some similar evil,” because Jesus is saying that the ones are no different from the others. It may be that nine of the eighteen were repentant people, and the other nine wicked. Or it could be broken down in any other way. The whole point is that the virtue of the people involved was not relevant to the physical disaster. The implication is that the physical disaster should be understood as a representation of the moral disaster that necessarily overtakes anyone who does evil. And that same disaster is avoided by anyone who does good.

More importantly, however, Jesus’s understanding is that God treats all alike because of his love towards all. And this implies that even the disaster of the tower resulted from love, just as the rain and sun do in the other examples.

How can this be? This will be the topic of a later post. Of course, a reasonable inductive inference, which may or may not be mistaken, would be that it might be not only later, but much later.

Crisis of Faith

In the last post, I linked to Fr. Joseph Bolin’s post on the commitment of faith. He says there:

Since faith by definition is about things that we do not see to be true, there is no inherent contradiction in faith as such being contradicted by things we do see to be true, such an absolute assent of faith seems to imply an assent to the content of faith so strong that one would desire to hold to it as true, “even if it (the content of faith) were to be false”. Can such faith be justified?

Consider the following situation: a woman has grounds to suspect her husband is cheating on her; there is a lot of evidence that he is; even when she asks him and he tells her that he is not, she must admit that the sum of evidence including his testimony is against him, and he probably is cheating. Still, she decides to believe him. I argue that the very act of believing him entails a commitment to him such that once she has given faith to his word, while it is still in fact possible that she is believing him though he is actually lying, this possibility is less relevant for her than it was prior to her giving faith. In this sense, after faith, the “if it were to be false” becomes less of a consideration for the believer, and to this degree she wills faith “even were it to be false”.

A more detailed analysis of the situation: various persons present her with claims or evidence that her husband is cheating on her. Before confronting him or asking him if he is, she collects various evidence for and against it. She decides that since believing him if he is dishonest is not without its own evils, if the evidence that he is cheating (after taking into account the evidence constituted by his statement on the matter) constitutes a near certainty that he is cheating — let’s say, over 95% probability that he is cheating — that she shouldn’t believe him if he says he is not, but must either suspend judgment or maintain that he is cheating. Now, suppose the man says that he is not cheating, and the evidence is not quite that much against him, let’s say, the evidence indicates a 90% probability that he is cheating, and a 10% probability that he is not. She makes the decision to believe him. Since she would not decide to do so unless she believed that it were good to so, she is giving an implicit negative value to “believing him, if he is in fact lying”, a much greater positive value to “believing him, if he is speaking the truth”, and consequently an implicit positive value to “believing him,” (even though he is probably lying).

Going forward, she is presented with an easy opportunity to gather further evidence about whether he is in fact cheating. She must make a decision whether to do so. If she is always going to make the same decision at this point that she would have made if she had not yet decided to believe him, it seems that her “faith” she gives him and his word is rather empty. A given decision to pursue further evidence, while not incompatible with faith, is a blow against it — to the extent that, out of fidelity to him, she accepts his claim as sure, she must operate either on the assumption that further evidence will vindicate him, or that he is innocent despite the evidence. But to the extent she operates on one of these assumptions, there is no need to pursue further evidence. Pursuing evidence, therefore, implies abstracting from her faith in him. To pursue evidence because it is possible that further evidence will be even more against him and provide her with enough grounds to withdraw her assent to his claim of innocence means giving that faith a lesser role in her life and relationship with him, and is thereby a weakening of the exercise of that faith. Consequently, if that faith is a good thing, then, having given such faith, she must be more reluctant to seek a greater intellectual resolution of the case by greater evidence than she was before she had given it.

All of this is true in substance, although one could argue with various details. For example, Fr. Joseph seems to be presuming for the sake of discussion that a person’s subjective assessment is at all times in conformity with the evidence, so that if more evidence is found, one must change one’s subjective assessment to that degree. But this is clearly not the case in general in regard to religious opinions. As we noted in the previous post, that assessment does not follow a random walk, and this proves that it is not simply a rational assessment of the evidence. And it is the random walk, rather than anything that happens with actual religious people, that would represent the real situation of someone with an “empty” faith, that is, of someone without any commitment of faith.

Teenagers will sometimes say to themselves, “My parents told me all these things about God and religion, but actually there are other families and other children who believe totally different things. I don’t have any real reason to think my family is right rather than some other. So God probably doesn’t exist.”

They might very well follow this up with, “You know, I said God doesn’t exist, but that was just because I was trying to reject my unreasonable opinions. I don’t actually know whether God exists or not.”

This is an example of the random walk, and represents a more or less rational assessment of the evidence available to teenagers. But what it most certainly does not represent, is commitment of any kind. And to the degree that we think that such a commitment is good, it is reasonable to disapprove of such behavior, and this is why there does seem something wrong there, even if in fact the teenager’s religious opinions were not true in the first place.

Fr. Joseph’s original question was this: “Can (religious) faith entail an absolute commitment to the one in whom we place faith and his word, such that one should hold that “no circumstances could arise in which I would cease to believe?” He correctly notes that this “seems to imply an assent to the content of faith so strong that one would desire to hold to it as true, ‘even if it (the content of faith) were to be false'”. For this reason, his post never actually answers the question. For although he right to say that the commitment of faith implies giving preferential treatment to the claim that the content of one’s faith is true, it will not follow that this preferential treatment should be absolute, unless it is true that it is better to believe even if that content is false. And it would be extremely difficult to prove that, even if it were the case.

My own view is that one should be extremely hesitant to accept such an assessment, even of some particular claim, such as the one in the post linked above, that “God will always bring good out of evil.” And if one should be hesitant to make such an assertion about a particular claim, much more should one doubt that this claim is true in regard to the entire contents of a religious faith, which involves making many assertions. Some of the reasons for what I am saying here are much like some of the reasons for preserving the mean of virtue. What exactly will happen if I eat too much? I’m not sure, but I know it’s likely to be something bad. I might feel sick afterwards, but I also might not. Or I might keep eating too much, become very overweight, and have a heart attack at some point. Or I might, in the very process of eating too much, say at a restaurant, spend money that I needed for something else. Vicious behaviors are extreme insofar as they lack the mean of virtue, and insofar as they are extreme, they are likely to have extreme consequences of one kind or another. So we can know in advance that our vicious behaviors are likely to have bad consequences, without necessarily being able to point out the exact consequences in advance.

Something very similar applies to telling lies, and in fact telling lies is a case of vicious behavior, at least in general. It often seems like a lie is harmless, but then it turns out later that the lie caused substantial harm.

And if this is true about telling lies, it is also true about making false statements, even when those false statements are not lies. So we can easily assert that the woman in Eric Reitan’s story is better off believing that God will somehow redeem the evil of the death of her children, simply looking at the particular situation. But if this turned out to be false, we have no way to know what harms might follow from her holding a false belief, and there would be a greater possibility of harm to the degree that she made that conviction more permanent. It would be easy enough to create stories to illustrate this, but I will not do that here. Just as eating too much, or talking too much, or moving about too much, can create any number of harms by multiple circuitous routes, so can believing in things that are false. One particularly manifest way this can happen is insofar as one false belief can lead to another, and although the original belief might seem harmless, the second belief might be very harmful indeed.

In general, Fr. Joseph seems to be asserting that the commitment of faith should lead a person not to pursue additional evidence relative to the truth of their faith, and apparently especially in situations where one already knows that there is a significant chance that the evidence will continue to be against it. This is true to some extent, but the right action in a concrete case will differ according to circumstances, especially, as argued here, if it is not better to believe in the situation where the content of the faith is false. Additionally, it will frequently not be a question of deciding to pursue evidence or not, but of deciding whether to think clearly about evidence or arguments that have entered one’s life even without any decision at all.

Consider the case of St. Therese, discussed in the previous post. Someone might argue thus: “Surely St. Therese’s commitment was absolute. You cannot conceive of circumstances in which she would have abandoned her faith. So if St. Therese was virtuous, it must be virtuous to have such an absolute commitment.” And it would follow that it is better to believe even if your faith is false, and that one should imitate her in having such an absolute commitment. Likewise, it would follow with probability, although not conclusively, that Shulem Deen should also have had such an absolute commitment to his Jewish faith, and should have kept believing in it no matter what happened. Of course, an additional consequence, unwelcome to many, would be that he should also have had an absolute refusal to convert to Christianity that could not be changed under any circumstances.

It is quite certain that St. Therese was virtuous. However, if you cannot conceive of any circumstances in which she would have abandoned her faith, that is more likely to be a lack in your imagination than in the possibility. Theoretically there could have been many circumstances in which it would have been quite possible. It is true that in the concrete circumstances in which she was living, such an abandonment would have been extremely unlikely, and likely not virtuous if it happened. But those are concrete circumstances, not abstractly conceivable circumstances. As noted in the previous post, the evidence that she had against her faith was very vague and general, and it is not clear that it could ever have become anything other than that without a substantially different life situation. And since it is true that the commitment of faith is a good reason to give preferential treatment to the truth of your faith, such vague and general evidence could not have been a good reason for her to abandon her faith. This is the real motivation for the above argument. It is clear enough that in her life as it was actually lived, there was not and could not be a good reason for her to leave her faith. But this is a question of the details of her life.

Shulem Deen, of course, lived in very different circumstances, and his religious faith itself differed greatly from that of St. Therese. Since I have already recommended his book, I will not attempt to tell his story for him, but it can be seen from the above reasoning that the answer to the question raised at the end of the last post might very well be, “They both did the right thing.”

Earlier I quoted Gregory Dawes as saying this:

Christian philosopher William Lane Craig writes somewhere about what he calls the “ministerial” and the “magisterial” use of reason. (It’s a traditional view — he’s merely citing Martin Luther — and one that Craig endorses.) On this view, the task of reason is to find arguments in support of the faith and to counter any arguments against it. Reason is not, however, the basis of the Christian’s faith. The basis of the Christian’s faith is (what she takes to be) the “internal testimony of the Holy Spirit” in her heart. Nor can rational reflection can be permitted to undermine that faith. The commitment of faith is irrevocable; to fall away from it is sinful, indeed the greatest of sins.

It follows that while the arguments put forward by many Christian philosophers are serious arguments, there is something less than serious about the spirit in which they are being offered. There is a direction in which those arguments will not be permitted to go. Arguments that support the faith will be seriously entertained; those that apparently undermine the faith must be countered, at any cost. Philosophy, to use the traditional phrase, is merely a “handmaid” of theology.

There is, to my mind, something frivolous about a philosophy of this sort. My feeling is that if we do philosophy, it ought to be because we take arguments seriously. This means following them wherever they lead.

There is more than one way to read this. When he says, “this means following them wherever they lead,” one could take that to imply a purely rational assessment of evidence, and no hesitancy whatsoever to consider any possible line of argument. This would be a substantial disagreement with Fr. Joseph’s position, and would in fact be mistaken. Fr. Joseph is quite right that the commitment of faith has implications for one’s behavior, and that it implies giving a preferential treatment to the claims of one’s faith. But this is probably not the best way to read Dawes, who seems to be objecting more to the absoluteness of the claim: “The commitment of faith is irrevocable,” and arguments “that apparently undermine the faith must be countered, at any cost.” And Dawes is quite right that such absolute claims go too far. Virtue is a mean and depends on circumstances, and there is enough space in the world for both Shulem Deen and St. Therese.

The reader might be wondering about the title to this post. Besides being a play on words, perhaps spoiled by mentioning it, it is a reference to the fact that Fr. Joseph is basically painting a very clear picture of the situation where a Catholic has a crisis of faith and overcomes it. This is only slightly distorted by the idealization of assuming that the person evaluates the evidence available to him in a perfectly rational way. But he points out, just as I did in the previous post, that such a crisis is mainly overcome by choosing not to consider any more evidence, or not to think about it anymore, and similar things. He describes this as choosing “not to pursue evidence” because of the idealization, but in real life this can also mean ceasing to pay attention to evidence that one already has, choosing to pay more attention to other motives that one has to believe that are independent of evidence, and the like.

 

Why They Don’t Return

As a framework for continuing the present discussion, we can consider a person’s religious opinions as though they had a numerical probability. Of course, as was said earlier, probability is a formalization of degrees of belief, and as a formalization, it can only be an approximate representation of people’s real behavior. Evidently people are not in fact typically assigning such numbers. Nonetheless, the very “rigidity” of such numerical assignments can help us to understand the present issue.

In some cases, then, a child will effectively take the probability of his religious opinions to be 100%. As said in the linked post, the meaning of this is that, to the degree that 100% is the correct approximation, it is approximately impossible for him to change his mind, or even to become less sure of himself. P. Edmund Waldstein might be understood as claiming to be such a person, although in practice this may be more a matter of a mistaken epistemology which is corrigible, and consequently the approximation fails to this extent.

In the previous post, one of my conditions on the process was “given that he is capable of looking at the world honestly.” This condition basically does not apply to the person assigning the probability of 100%. In effect, he is unable to see any evidence against his position.

But suppose our approximate probability is very high, but not 100%, as for example 99.99%. This is not a balanced assessment of the real probability of any set of religious claims, but is likely a good approximation of the assessment made by a child raised very devoutly in a religion. So if the person correctly assesses the evidence that arrives throughout his life, that probability must diminish, as described in the previous post. There will of course be individual cases where a person does not have the 100% assignment, but cannot or will not correctly assess the evidence that arrives, and will either continually increase his assignment, or leave it unchanged throughout his life. The constant increase is more likely in the case of converts, as in the linked post, but this also implies that one did not start with such a high assignment. The person who permanently leaves it unchanged might be more correctly described as not paying attention or not being interested in the evidence one way or another, rather than as assessing that evidence.

But let us consider persons in whom that probability diminishes, as in the cases of Shulem Deen and of St. Therese discussed in the previous post. Of course, since evidence is not one sided, the probability will not only diminish, but also occasionally increase. But as long as the person has an unbalanced assessment of the evidence, or at least as long as it seems to them unbalanced compared to the evidence that they see, the general tendency will be in one direction. It can be argued that this should never happen with any opinion; thus Robin Hanson says here, “Rational learning of any expected value via a stream of info should produce a random walk in those expectations, not a steady trend.” But the idea here is that if you have a probability assignment of 99% and it is starting to decrease, then you should jump to an assignment of 50% or so, or even lower, guessing where the trend will end. And from that point you might well have to go back up, rather than down. But for obvious reasons people’s religious opinions do not in fact change in this way, at least most of the time, regardless of whether it would be reasonable or not, and consequently there are in fact steady trends.

So where does this end? The process causing the assessment to diminish can come to an end in one way if a person simply comes to the assessment that seems to him a balanced assessment of the evidence. At this point, there may be minor fluctuations in both directions, but the person’s assessment will henceforth stay relatively constant. And this actually happens in the case of some people.

In other persons, the process ends for reasons that have nothing to do with assessing evidence. St. Therese is certainly an example of this, insofar as she died at the age of 24. But this does not necessarily mean that her assessment would have continued to diminish if she had continued to live, for two reasons. First, the isolated character of her life, meant that she would receive less relevant evidence in the first place. So it might well be that by the time of her death she had already learned everything she could on the matter. In that sense she would be an example of the above situation where a person’s assessment simply arrives at some balance, and then stays there.

Second, a person can prevent this process from continuing, more or less simply by choosing to do so, and it is likely enough that St. Therese would have done this. Fr. Joseph Bolin seems to advocate this approach here, although perhaps not without reservation. In practice, this means that one who previously was attending to the relevant evidence, chooses to cease paying attention, or at least to cease evaluating the evidence, much like in our description of people whose assessment never changes in the first place.

Finally, there are persons in whom the process continues apparently without any limit. In this case, there are two possibilities. Either the person comes to the conclusion that their religious opinions were not true, as in my own case and as in the case of Shulem Deen, or the person decides that evidence is irrelevant, as in the case of Kurt Wise. The latter choice is effectively to give up on the love of truth, and to seek other things in the place of truth.

As an aside, the fact that this process seems almost inevitably to end either in abandoning religious claims, or in choosing to cease evaluating evidence, and only very rarely in apparently arriving at a balance, is an argument that religious claims are not actually true, although not a conclusive one. We earlier quoted Newman as saying:

I have no intention at all of denying, that truth is the real object of our reason, and that, if it does not attain to truth, either the premiss or the process is in fault; but I am not speaking here of right reason, but of reason as it acts in fact and concretely in fallen man. I know that even the unaided reason, when correctly exercised, leads to a belief in God, in the immortality of the soul, and in a future retribution; but I am considering the faculty of reason actually and historically; and in this point of view, I do not think I am wrong in saying that its tendency is towards a simple unbelief in matters of religion. No truth, however sacred, can stand against it, in the long run; and hence it is that in the pagan world, when our Lord came, the last traces of the religious knowledge of former times were all but disappearing from those portions of the world in which the intellect had been active and had had a career.

Newman explains this fact by original sin. But a more plausible explanation is that religious claims are simply not true. This is especially the case if one considers this fact in relation to the normal mode of progress in truth in individuals and in societies.

But getting back to the main point, this explains why they “do not return,” as Shulem Deen says. Such a return would not simply require reversing a particular decision or a particular argument. It would require either abandoning the love of truth, like Kurt Wise, or reversing the entire process of considering evidence that went on throughout the whole of one’s life. Suppose we saw off a branch, and then at the last moment break off the last little string of wood. How do we unbreak it? It was just a little piece of wood that broke… but it is not enough to fix that little piece, with glue or whatever. We would have to undo all of the sawing, and that cannot be done.

While there is much in this post and in the last which is interesting in itself, and thus entirely useless, all of this evidently has some bearing on my own case, and I had a personal motive in writing it, namely to explain to various people what expectations they should or should not have.

However, there is another issue that will be raised by all of this in the minds of many people, which is that of moral assessment. Regardless of who found the truth about the world, who did the right thing? Shulem Deen or St. Therese?

 

Form and the Goodness of God

In his commentary on the Sentences of Peter Lombard, St. Thomas says:

Loquendo autem de necessitate quae est ex suppositione divini propositi, quo propter benevolentiam suae bonitatis voluit unicuique eam communicare secundum suam capacitatem, necessarium est quod cuilibet materiae praeparatae forma infundatur. Non tamen eodem modo est in omnibus formis; quia formae quae mediantibus secundis agentibus in materia producuntur, necessario in materia disposita recipiuntur necessitate conditionata in comparatione ad Deum, cujus virtute cetera agentia agunt; sed necessitate absoluta per comparationem ad agentia proxima, quae necessitate naturae agunt propter ordinem divinitus eis impositum, quem praeterire non possunt. Formae autem quae immediate a Deo inducuntur, non habent necessitatem absolutam ex parte agentis, sed quaedam ex parte recipientis, sicut in perfectionibus quae sunt de esse naturae, ut est anima rationalis. Formae autem quae non debentur naturae, sicut gratia et virtutes, immediate a Deo productae, nihil habent de necessitate absoluta, sed solum de necessitate ex suppositione divini ordinis, ut dictum est.

Which is, more or less:

But speaking of the necessity which is on the supposition of the divine intention, by which on account of the benevolence of his [God’s] goodness, he wished to share with each thing according to its capacity, it is necessary that form be infused into every prepared matter. But nevertheless not in the same way in all forms; since forms which are produced in matter through the mediation of secondary agents are necessarily received into matter with a conditional necessity in comparison with God, by the power of whom other agents act, but with an absolute necessity in comparison to the proximate agents, which act by necessity of nature on account of the order divinely imposed on them, which they cannot omit. But forms which are immediately imposed by God, do not have an absolute necessity on the part of the agent, but a certain necessity on the part of the recipient, as in perfections which are of the being of nature, as is the rational soul. And forms which are not owed to nature, like grace and the virtues, produced immediately by God, have nothing of absolute necessity, but only of the necessity on the supposition of the divine order, as was said.

St. Thomas’s overall point is that every disposed matter receives its corresponding form, and that this happens on account of the goodness of God. He asserts that there are three ways in which this happens:

(1) With respect to forms produced through secondary causes, the things involved cannot naturally fail to produce the form in disposed matter, although this is taken to be conditional in comparison with God, presumably in the sense that if God wanted things to happen otherwise, they could happen otherwise, just as St. Thomas asserts that in the Eucharist accidents can exist without substance, by the divine will.

This first case seems intended to cover all natural changes, with one exception (we will get to the exception in a few moments.) So for example, according to St. Thomas, if you dispose matter to be a certain color, it will necessarily be that color; if you dispose matter to be living matter, it will necessarily be living; and so on. Just as we saw with lines and squares, properly disposed matter always has the corresponding form.

(2) Second, there are forms that are “immediately imposed by God,” but which have a certain natural necessity on the part of the recipient. He mentions the rational soul as though it were an example here, but in fact it seems to be the only thing which is meant to fall into this category rather than the third category.

This happens because St. Thomas considers the human soul to be something exceptional and unique in nature, as we can see from his discussion of the human soul as subsistent:

I answer that, It must necessarily be allowed that the principle of intellectual operation which we call the soul, is a principle both incorporeal and subsistent. For it is clear that by means of the intellect man can have knowledge of all corporeal things. Now whatever knows certain things cannot have any of them in its own nature; because that which is in it naturally would impede the knowledge of anything else. Thus we observe that a sick man’s tongue being vitiated by a feverish and bitter humor, is insensible to anything sweet, and everything seems bitter to it. Therefore, if the intellectual principle contained the nature of a body it would be unable to know all bodies. Now every body has its own determinate nature. Therefore it is impossible for the intellectual principle to be a body. It is likewise impossible for it to understand by means of a bodily organ; since the determinate nature of that organ would impede knowledge of all bodies; as when a certain determinate color is not only in the pupil of the eye, but also in a glass vase, the liquid in the vase seems to be of that same color.

Therefore the intellectual principle which we call the mind or the intellect has an operation “per se” apart from the body. Now only that which subsists can have an operation “per se.” For nothing can operate but what is actual: for which reason we do not say that heat imparts heat, but that what is hot gives heat. We must conclude, therefore, that the human soul, which is called the intellect or the mind, is something incorporeal and subsistent.

Elsewhere he says that the human soul alone is special in this way. Thus in the next article he specifically denies subsistence in regard to the souls of other animals:

I answer that, The ancient philosophers made no distinction between sense and intellect, and referred both a corporeal principle, as has been said. Plato, however, drew a distinction between intellect and sense; yet he referred both to an incorporeal principle, maintaining that sensing, just as understanding, belongs to the soul as such. From this it follows that even the souls of brute animals are subsistent. But Aristotle held that of the operations of the soul, understanding alone is performed without a corporeal organ. On the other hand, sensation and the consequent operations of the sensitive soul are evidently accompanied with change in the body; thus in the act of vision, the pupil of the eye is affected by a reflection of color: and so with the other senses. Hence it is clear that the sensitive soul has no “per se” operation of its own, and that every operation of the sensitive soul belongs to the composite. Wherefore we conclude that as the souls of brute animals have no “per se” operations they are not subsistent. For the operation of anything follows the mode of its being.

As a result of this special account of the human soul, St. Thomas asserts that natural agents do not have the capacity, considered in themselves, to produce a human soul. Consequently he says that there is not an absolute necessity on the part of the agents, meaning that there is no necessity because there is not even the possibility, considered on the part of the agents in themselves. But he says there is a necessity on the part of the recipient, meaning that nature would be lacking its appropriate perfection if e.g. the union of human seed and egg did not result in a human soul. And on account of the goodness of God, such a lack will never be permitted. Consequently every matter that is disposed to be human, will actually be human, just as in the case of the forms of the first kind.

(3) Finally, there are forms which are not “owed” to nature in the way that other natural forms are, and in the way in which even the human soul is owed. Here St. Thomas speaks of grace and “the virtues,” by which he means supernatural virtues, not natural virtues.

In order to understand this case, we can imagine a situation where we construct many shapes: squares, circles, triangles and so on. We paint all of them white, with one exception: whenever we have squares, we paint them red. In essence, we have invented a rule: we consider squares, and no other shapes, disposed to be red, and we cause them actually to be so.

In our example, there is nothing about being square that would actually make a thing red. But there is a certain order there, imposed by ourselves, whereby being square is effectively a disposition to be red. In a similar way, St. Thomas asserts that there are dispositions that God considers to be dispositions for grace, even though in themselves they would not be sufficient to make a thing have grace, or even to make a thing need grace. But St. Thomas says that on account of the goodness of God, he considers “doing as well as one can” to be the disposition for grace, and thus God always gives grace to one who does their best, even if they are merely doing their best on a natural level.

While it is not the point of this post, it is because of this account of God’s goodness in relation to form and disposed matter that St. Thomas is fundamentally opposed to any kind of rigid understanding of the doctrine of extra ecclesiam nulla salus. According to St. Thomas, whether there is a natural necessity for it or not, every disposed matter receives its appropriate form, on account of the goodness of God.

 

All Things are Water

In book I of his Metaphysics, Aristotle comments on earlier opinions about the first causes:

Evidently we have to acquire knowledge of the original causes (for we say we know each thing only when we think we recognize its first cause), and causes are spoken of in four senses. In one of these we mean the substance, i.e. the essence (for the ‘why’ is reducible finally to the definition, and the ultimate ‘why’ is a cause and principle); in another the matter or substratum, in a third the source of the change, and in a fourth the cause opposed to this, the purpose and the good (for this is the end of all generation and change). We have studied these causes sufficiently in our work on nature, but yet let us call to our aid those who have attacked the investigation of being and philosophized about reality before us. For obviously they too speak of certain principles and causes; to go over their views, then, will be of profit to the present inquiry, for we shall either find another kind of cause, or be more convinced of the correctness of those which we now maintain.

Of the first philosophers, then, most thought the principles which were of the nature of matter were the only principles of all things. That of which all things that are consist, the first from which they come to be, the last into which they are resolved (the substance remaining, but changing in its modifications), this they say is the element and this the principle of things, and therefore they think nothing is either generated or destroyed, since this sort of entity is always conserved, as we say Socrates neither comes to be absolutely when he comes to be beautiful or musical, nor ceases to be when loses these characteristics, because the substratum, Socrates himself remains. just so they say nothing else comes to be or ceases to be; for there must be some entity-either one or more than one-from which all other things come to be, it being conserved.

Yet they do not all agree as to the number and the nature of these principles. Thales, the founder of this type of philosophy, says the principle is water (for which reason he declared that the earth rests on water), getting the notion perhaps from seeing that the nutriment of all things is moist, and that heat itself is generated from the moist and kept alive by it (and that from which they come to be is a principle of all things). He got his notion from this fact, and from the fact that the seeds of all things have a moist nature, and that water is the origin of the nature of moist things.

Some think that even the ancients who lived long before the present generation, and first framed accounts of the gods, had a similar view of nature; for they made Ocean and Tethys the parents of creation, and described the oath of the gods as being by water, to which they give the name of Styx; for what is oldest is most honourable, and the most honourable thing is that by which one swears. It may perhaps be uncertain whether this opinion about nature is primitive and ancient, but Thales at any rate is said to have declared himself thus about the first cause.

It is possibly for polemical motives that Aristotle portrays Thales as asserting that water alone is the principle of all things, to the exclusion of other kinds of cause besides the material cause. That is, most materialists, ancient and modern, do not believe that matter is the sole principle of reality. They may think it is the most important principle, but they recognize that other principles are involved, much as Lucretius recognizes that his atoms alone are insufficient to explain the world, but he must add something:

We wish thee also well aware of this:
The atoms, as their own weight bears them down
Plumb through the void, at scarce determined times,
In scarce determined places, from their course
Decline a little- call it, so to speak,
Mere changed trend. For were it not their wont
Thuswise to swerve, down would they fall, each one,
Like drops of rain, through the unbottomed void;
And then collisions ne’er could be nor blows
Among the primal elements; and thus
Nature would never have created aught.

We can understand however that even if Aristotle’s account may not be a completely accurate account of Thales’s opinions, Aristotle likely has a charitable motive for his presentation, namely the education of the reader, as by beginning by discussing the position that matter alone is the first cause, it becomes easier to see the necessity of other principles. And it is also possible that Thales did not mention any other principles simply because his interest was in the material principle, rather than from the wish to deny other principles.

There is some probability to the opinion, mentioned by Aristotle, that Thales’s idea about water had ancient predecessors. For example, there may be something like this in Genesis 1:

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.

And God said, “Let there be a dome in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.” So God made the dome and separated the waters that were under the dome from the waters that were above the dome. And it was so. God called the dome Sky. And there was evening and there was morning, the second day.

And God said, “Let the waters under the sky be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear.” And it was so. God called the dry land Earth, and the waters that were gathered together he called Seas. And God saw that it was good.

The text speaks of a number of principles, including God, and formless matter. But the formless matter is virtually identified with water; even when the earth is a “formless void,” there is still a “deep”, and there is still a “face of the waters.” And God makes the world by divisions in the waters, creating first sky and world, and then creating dry land by limiting the lower waters.

We can ask whether Thales was right in several different ways:

First, was he right if he is understood as Aristotle understands him? In this way, his position would involve denying all principles other than material principles. And in this way Thales was wrong, since there are other principles.

Second, was he right if he is understood in contrast with other materialist philosophers such as Anaximenes, who said that all things are made of air? We can see that there is a certain difficulty in such a supposition from the beginning. For if there is only one material principle of all things, why call it “water” or “air” in particular? If water contains nothing but the first material principle, and air contains nothing but the first material principle, why is one of them identified with the principle rather than the other?

Nonetheless, we can understand the claim to be something like, “Water is the most basic and natural form of the first material principle.” In this case, what it means to be the most basic and natural would be a matter of investigation, but there is nothing impossible about it in principle. But if we understand it in this way, Thales’s position (along with that of Anaximenes and others) is refuted by modern science, since water is known to be made of other more basic things, namely oxygen and hydrogen.

But we can ask whether Thales and Anaximenes were both right in a third way, a more generic way. If we break composite material things down into their parts, and their parts into their parts, and so on, will we always arrive at one basic material “stuff” which all other things are made out of?

This would necessarily be different from the prime matter of Aristotle, because this matter is understood to be completely formless. So while it may be part of a substance along with substantial form, it is not a part in the way that an arm is a part of a human being, or in the way that oxygen is part of water. A part in the latter sense already has some actuality; an arm has a certain shape even apart from being a part of a human being, and oxygen has qualities that it has even apart from water, while prime matter has no actuality whatsoever.

Since every order of causes comes to a first cause, the same will be true if we follow the order of material causality found by asking, “What parts is this made out of?” This cannot be refuted even if it turns out that material things are infinitely divisible, because it will not actually be true that anything is made out of an infinite number of parts. If we say, “this is made out of two halves, and the halves out of more halves, and so on,” this is not an explanation at all, as was pointed out in the post linked above, and so it cannot be a true account of why the thing is as it is. It may be that the thing is potentially divisible in those ways; but it is not actually made out of those parts. Instead, we are asking what we will arrive at if we look at the material composition of things, looking only for things with some actuality, and stopping when we find something which is not made up of other things in this way.

We made a strong argument that there only one first efficient cause. But we cannot duplicate that argument to show that there must be only one first material part of things, since the first efficient cause could be an adequate explanation of two or more first material causes. The theory of the four (or five) elements is an explanation like this. The first material parts are thought be four or five, according to this account, and in this way Thales would have been mistaken.

We can see some motivation for holding such a position. If there is fundamentally only one kind of “stuff,” why do we see various things in the world, such as plants and animals, rocks, chairs, and people? An account with a number elements can say that they form various things by being combined in various proportions and ways, while it is not evident how this question can be answered, if there is only one element.

Nonetheless, this does not really refute the position that there is fundamentally a single material element. If that element can exist in various ways, then it would be possible to explain how it could be used to form more complex substances. It is true that this would still leave something to be explained, namely the nature of those various ways that the element can exist, and how and why they come to be.

The position is neither refuted nor established by modern science. The Standard Model of particle physics contains many elementary particles, but in any case it is not thought to be a complete theory of physics.

Considerations of simplicity would favor the position of Thales. Other things being equal, it should be thought that a theory with a single element is more likely than one with ten elements; one with ten more likely than one with a hundred, and so on. Nonetheless, there does not seem to be any proof of Thales’s general position, nor any refutation of it. But one way or another, there will be one or more simplest material parts that everything else is made out of.