Replies to Objections on Form

This post replies to the objections raised in the last post.

Reply 1. I do not define form as “many relations”, in part for this very reason. Rather, I say that it is a network, and thus is one thing tied together, so to speak.

Nonetheless, the objection seems to wish to find something absolutely one which is in no way many and which causes unity in other things which are in some way lacking in unity. This does not fit with the idea of giving an account, which necessarily involves many words and thus reference to many aspects of a thing. And thus it also does not fit with the idea of form as that which makes a thing what it is, because it is evident that when we ask what a thing is, we are typically asking about things that have many aspects, as a human being has many senses and many body parts and so on.

In other words, form makes a thing one, but it also makes it what it is, which means that it also makes a thing many in various ways. And so form is one in some way, and thus called a “network,” but it also contains various relations that account for the many aspects of the thing.

Someone might extend this objection by saying that if a form contains many relations, there will need to be a form of form, uniting these relations. But there is a difference between many material parts, which might need a form in order to be one, and relations, which bind things together of themselves. To be related to something, in this sense, is somewhat like being attached to it in some way, while a number of physical bodies are not attached to each other simply in virtue of being a number of bodies. It is true that this implies a certain amount of complexity in form, but this is simply the result of the fact that there is a certain amount of complexity in what things actually are.

Reply 2. “Apt to make something one” is included in the definition in order to point to the relationships and networks of relationships that we are concerned with. For example, one could discuss the idea of a mereological sum, for example the tree outside my window together with my cell phone, and talk about a certain network of relationships intrinsic to that “sum.” This network would have little share in the idea of form, precisely because it is not apt to make anything one thing in any ordinary sense. However, I say “little share” here rather than “no share”, because this is probably a question of degree and kind. As I said here, “one thing” is said in many ways and with many degrees, and thus also form exists in many ways and with many degrees. In particular, there is no reason to suppose that “one” has one true sense compared to which the other senses would be more false than true.

Reply 3. A network of relationships could be an accidental form. Thus the form that makes a blue thing blue would normally be an accidental form. But there will be a similar network of relationships that make a thing a substance. If something is related to other things as “that in which other things are present,” and is not related to other things as “that which is present in something else,” then it will exist as substance, and precisely because it is related to things in these ways. So the definition is in fact general in comparison to both substance and accident.

Reply 4. This objection could be understood as asserting that everything relative depends on something prior which is absolute. Taken in this sense, the objection is simply mistaken. The existence of more than one thing proves conclusively that relationship as such does not need to depend on anything absolute.

Another way to understand the objection would be as asserting that whatever we may say about the thing in relation to other things, all of this must result from what the thing is in itself, apart from all of this. Therefore the essence of the thing is prior to anything at all that we say about it. And in this way, there is a truth here and an error here, namely the Kantian truth and the Kantian error. Certainly the thing is the cause of our knowledge, and not simply identical with our knowledge. Nonetheless, we possess knowledge, not ignorance, of the thing, and we have this knowledge by participation in the network of relationships that defines the thing.

Reply 5. The objection gratuitously asserts that our definition is reductionist, and this can equally well be gratuitously denied. In fact, this account includes the rejection of both reductionist and anti-reductionist positions. Insofar as people suppose that these positions are the only possible positions, if they see that my account implies the rejection of their particular side of the argument, they will naturally suppose that my account implies the acceptance of the other side. This is why the 10th objection claims the opposite: namely that my account is mistaken because it seems to be anti-reductionist.

Reply 6. I agree, in fact, that we are mostly ignorant of the nature of “blue,” and likewise of the natures of most other things. But we are equally ignorant of the network of relationships that these things share in. Thus in an earlier post about Mary’s Room, I noted that we do not even come close to knowing everything that can be known about color. Something similar would be true about pretty much everything that we can commonly name. We have some knowledge of what blue is, but it is a very imperfect knowledge, and similarly we have some knowledge of what a human being is, but it is a very imperfect knowledge. This is one reason why I qualified the claim that the essences of things are not hidden: in another way, virtually all essences are hidden from us, because they are typically too complex for us to understand exhaustively.

An additional problem, also mentioned in the case of “blue,” is that the experience of blue is not the understanding of blue, and these would remain distinct even if the understanding of blue were perfect. But again, it would be an instance of the Kantian error to suppose that it follows that one would not understand the nature of blue even if one understood it (thus we make the absurdity evident.)

Reply 7. God is not an exception to the claim about hidden essences, nor to this account of form, and these claims are not necessarily inconsistent with Christian theology.

The simplicity of God should not be understood as necessarily being opposed to being a network of relationships. In particular, the Trinity is thought to be the same as the essence of God, and what is the Trinity except a network of relations?

Nor does the impossibility of knowing the essence of God imply that God’s essence is hidden in the relevant sense. Rather, it is enough to say that it is inaccessible for “practical” reasons, so to speak. For example, consider St. Thomas’s argument that no one knows all that God can do:

The created intellect, in seeing the divine essence, does not see in it all that God does or can do. For it is manifest that things are seen in God as they are in Him. But all other things are in God as effects are in the power of their cause. Therefore all things are seen in God as an effect is seen in its cause. Now it is clear that the more perfectly a cause is seen, the more of its effects can be seen in it. For whoever has a lofty understanding, as soon as one demonstrative principle is put before him can gather the knowledge of many conclusions; but this is beyond one of a weaker intellect, for he needs things to be explained to him separately. And so an intellect can know all the effects of a cause and the reasons for those effects in the cause itself, if it comprehends the cause wholly. Now no created intellect can comprehend God wholly, as shown above (Article 7). Therefore no created intellect in seeing God can know all that God does or can do, for this would be to comprehend His power; but of what God does or can do any intellect can know the more, the more perfectly it sees God.

St. Thomas argues that if anyone knew all that God can do, i.e. everything that can be God’s effect, he would not only know the essence of God, but know it perfectly. This actually supports our position precisely: if you have an exhaustive account of the network of relationships between God and the world, actual and potential, according to St. Thomas, this is to know the essence of God exhaustively.

Reply 8. I concede the objection, but simply note that the error is on the part of Christian theology, not on the part of this account.

In this case, someone might ask why I included this objection, along with the previous, where even if I consider the theology defensible, I do not consider it authoritative. The reason is that I included objections that I expected various readers to hold in one form or another, and these are two of them. But what is the use of addressing them if I simply reject the premise of the objection?

There is at least one benefit to this. There is an important lesson here. Religious doctrines are typically defined in such a way that they have few or no undue sensible implications, as I said for example about the Real Presence. But philosophy is more difficult, and shares in much of the same distance from the senses that such religious claims have. Consequently, even if you manage to avoid adopting religious doctrines that have false scientific implications (and many don’t manage to avoid even this), if you accept any religious doctrines at all, it will be much harder to avoid false philosophical implications.

In fact, the idea of an immortal soul probably has false scientific consequences as well as false philosophical consequences, at least taken as it is usually understood. Thus for example Sean Carroll argues that the mortality of the soul is a settled issue:

Adam claims that “simply is no controlled, experimental[ly] verifiable information” regarding life after death. By these standards, there is no controlled, experimentally verifiable information regarding whether the Moon is made of green cheese. Sure, we can take spectra of light reflecting from the Moon, and even send astronauts up there and bring samples back for analysis. But that’s only scratching the surface, as it were. What if the Moon is almost all green cheese, but is covered with a layer of dust a few meters thick? Can you really say that you know this isn’t true? Until you have actually examined every single cubic centimeter of the Moon’s interior, you don’t really have experimentally verifiable information, do you? So maybe agnosticism on the green-cheese issue is warranted. (Come up with all the information we actually do have about the Moon; I promise you I can fit it into the green-cheese hypothesis.)

Obviously this is completely crazy. Our conviction that green cheese makes up a negligible fraction of the Moon’s interior comes not from direct observation, but from the gross incompatibility of that idea with other things we think we know. Given what we do understand about rocks and planets and dairy products and the Solar System, it’s absurd to imagine that the Moon is made of green cheese. We know better.

We also know better for life after death, although people are much more reluctant to admit it. Admittedly, “direct” evidence one way or the other is hard to come by — all we have are a few legends and sketchy claims from unreliable witnesses with near-death experiences, plus a bucketload of wishful thinking. But surely it’s okay to take account of indirect evidence — namely, compatibility of the idea that some form of our individual soul survives death with other things we know about how the world works.

Claims that some form of consciousness persists after our bodies die and decay into their constituent atoms face one huge, insuperable obstacle: the laws of physics underlying everyday life are completely understood, and there’s no way within those laws to allow for the information stored in our brains to persist after we die. If you claim that some form of soul persists beyond death, what particles is that soul made of? What forces are holding it together? How does it interact with ordinary matter?

Everything we know about quantum field theory (QFT) says that there aren’t any sensible answers to these questions. Of course, everything we know about quantum field theory could be wrong. Also, the Moon could be made of green cheese.

Among advocates for life after death, nobody even tries to sit down and do the hard work of explaining how the basic physics of atoms and electrons would have to be altered in order for this to be true. If we tried, the fundamental absurdity of the task would quickly become evident.

Even if you don’t believe that human beings are “simply” collections of atoms evolving and interacting according to rules laid down in the Standard Model of particle physics, most people would grudgingly admit that atoms are part of who we are. If it’s really nothing but atoms and the known forces, there is clearly no way for the soul to survive death. Believing in life after death, to put it mildly, requires physics beyond the Standard Model. Most importantly, we need some way for that “new physics” to interact with the atoms that we do have.

Very roughly speaking, when most people think about an immaterial soul that persists after death, they have in mind some sort of blob of spirit energy that takes up residence near our brain, and drives around our body like a soccer mom driving an SUV. The questions are these: what form does that spirit energy take, and how does it interact with our ordinary atoms? Not only is new physics required, but dramatically new physics. Within QFT, there can’t be a new collection of “spirit particles” and “spirit forces” that interact with our regular atoms, because we would have detected them in existing experiments. Ockham’s razor is not on your side here, since you have to posit a completely new realm of reality obeying very different rules than the ones we know.

There are certainly different ways to think about this, but this is in fact a common way of thinking about the soul in relation to the body. For example, consider this discussion by James Chastek:

Objection: Conservation laws require that outcomes be already determined. By your own admission, life has to be able to “alter what would happen by physical causes alone” and therefore violates conservation laws.

Response: Again, laws and initial conditions do not suffice to explain the actual world. Life only “alters” physical causes under the counterfactual supposition that physical causes could act alone, i.e. in a way that could suffice to explain outcomes in the actual world.

Objection: It is meaningless to describe life acting on physical laws and conditions when we can’t detect this. Life-actions are vacuous entities about which we can say nothing at all. What’s their Hamiltonian?

Response: Physical laws and conditions as physical are instrumental or partial accounts of the actual world. The interactive mechanisms and measurement devices appropriate to establishing the existence of physical causes are not appropriate tools for describing all causes of the actual world.

Chastek is deliberately ignoring the question that he poses himself. But we know his opinion of the matter from previous discussions. What physics would calculate would be one thing; what the human being will do, according to Chastek, is something different.

This almost certainly does imply a violation of the laws of physics in the sense of the discussion in Chastek’s post, as well as in the sense that concerns Sean Carroll. In fact, it probably would imply a violation of conservation of energy, very possibly to such a degree that it would be possible in principle to exploit the violation to create a perpetual motion machine, somewhat along the lines of this short story by Scott Alexander. And these violations would detectable in principle, and very likely in practice as well, at least at some point.

Nonetheless, one might think about it differently, without suggesting these things, but still suppose that people have immortal souls. And one might be forgiven for being skeptical of Sean Carroll’s arguments, given that his metaphysics is wrong. Perhaps there is some implicit dependence of his argument on this mistaken metaphysics. The problem with this response is that even the correct metaphysics has the same implications, even without considering Carroll’s arguments from physics.

It is easy to see that there still loopholes for someone who wishes to maintain the immortality of the soul. But such loopholes also indicate an additional problem with the idea. In particular, the idea that the soul is subsistent implies that it is a substantial part of a human being: that a human is a whole made of soul and body much as the body is a whole made of various parts such as legs and arms. If this were the case, the soul might not be material in a quantitative sense, but it would be “matter” in the sense that we have argued that form is not matter. In this case, it would be reasonable to suppose that an additional substantial form would be necessary to unify soul and body, themselves two substantial parts.

Reply 9. There in fact is an implicit reference to matter in the definition. “Apt to make something one” refers to what is made, but it also refers to what it is made out of, if there is anything out of which it is made. The form of a chair makes the chair one chair, but it also makes the stuff of the chair into one chair.

There is more to say about matter, but my intention for now was to clarify the concept of form.

Reply 10. The network of relationships is most certainly not a construct of the mind, if one places this in opposition to “real thing.” You cannot trace back relationships to causes that do not include any relationships, if only because “cause” is in itself relative.

I have argued against reductionism in many places, and do not need to repeat those arguments here, but in particular I would note that the objection implies that “mind” is a construct of the mind, and this implies circular causality, which is impossible.

Reply 11. The objection is not really argued, and this is mainly because there cannot be a real argument for it. There is however a rough intuition supporting it, which is that applying this idea of form to immaterial things seems unfair to reality, as though we were trying to say that the limits of reality are set by the limits of the human mind. Once again, however, this is simply a case of the usual Kantian error, mixed together with choosing something that would be especially unknown to us. An immaterial thing could not exist without having some relationship with everything else. As we have suggested elsewhere, “there is an immaterial thing,” cannot even be assigned a meaning without the implied claim that I stand in some relation with it, and that it stands in some relation to me. But evidently I know very little about it. This does not mean that we need some new definition of what it is to be something; it simply means I do not know much of what that thing is, just as I do not know much of anything about it at all.

 

Nature of Form

We add one final claim to the list in the last post:

(8) Form is a network of relationships apt to make something one.

I will approach this in the manner of a disputed question, first raising a number of objections, then giving my explanation and replies to the objections.

Objection 1. According to this definition, form consists of many relations. But form makes a thing one. Thus form should not be in itself many, such as many relationships are, since many things are composed of units.

Objection 2. The definition begs the question by saying “apt to make something one.” Form is supposed to make things one, but if we want to say something about the nature of form, we should explain exactly how and why it does this.

Objection 3. A “network of relationships” might be some kind of form, but it seems to be an accidental form, not a substantial form, while the definition of form should be general enough to include both.

Objection 4. A thing can have the relations it has because of its particular nature. Therefore its nature cannot be defined by its relationships, since this would be circular. Thus form cannot be a network of relationships.

Objection 5. The definition is implicitly reductionist, and therefore opposed to thesis (4). For a composite thing, whether animal or artifact or anything else, will have many relations among its parts which define it, but it can be looked at and considered in many ways, while what appears to be most real must be its most basic parts, such as atoms or quarks or whatever.

Objection 6. Form seems to be unknown to us in a way in which the content of this definition is not, and therefore they must be somehow distinct. For example, whatever might be said about the definitions of blue proposed in the last post, it is clear that something is lacking there. There is something about the nature of blue that is quite unknown to us. So it seems unlikely that blue can be defined in the way proposed, and similarly unlikely that form can be defined as a network of relationships.

Objection 7. Christians, at least, must reject this definition, along with thesis (3), since the essence of God cannot be naturally known by human beings. Therefore God has a hidden essence, and since it is entirely simple, it cannot be a network of relationships.

Objection 8. This definition implies that the human soul is like a harmony, with all the consequences suggested by Simmias in the Phaedo, namely that the soul is mortal. So again Christians, at least, must reject this definition.

Objection 9. Composite things are made of both form and matter, so a relationship to matter should be included in the definition of form.

Objection 10. The network of relationships seems to be a construct of the mind more than a real thing. So one should reject this definition together with rejecting thesis (4), since what a thing really is, is something more basic that causes these relationships.

Objection 11. The definition might be true of material things, but if there are any immaterial things, it will not apply to them. Instead, they might well exist in themselves, without relation to other things, or at least not being defined by such relations. Likewise thesis (3) should probably be denied in relation to such things.

But let us go on to the explanation of this definition. If we consider the question, “what is form?”, one might immediately see a problem. Form is supposed to provide us the answer to the question about what a thing is, so if we ask what form is, we would seem to need a form of form. And even if this is possible, it is a process that cannot possibly go on forever, and therefore we will reach a point where we cannot find a form of form, and therefore we will not be able to answer the question. This is a complex issue which I will set aside for now, simply remarking for now that the question “what is this” needs to be answered in different ways for different things, including for form itself.

At the same time, however, the arguments of the previous post imply that form is accessible to us, and that we can know it both specifically and in general. Essences are not hidden from us, and it is form that both gives a thing the essence it has and that makes us understand. And since it is the very thing that is present in our mind when we understand the thing, it should be just as accessible to us as the contents of our own mind. In other words, we can say what a form is by answering the question, “What does my mind have in common with this thing when I understand it?” And thus we can answer the general question about form by noticing what our minds have in common with things they understand in general.

This answer is implicit in the discussion of thesis (7) in the last post. We noted in the case of “blue” that what both the senses and the mind have in common with things is a certain relation or network of relationships, namely those that correspond to the relations possessed by things apt to be seen by the sight as blue. And this will always be the case whenever we understand anything, since our understanding will always produce a sort of “model” of the thing understood. This is necessary since the understanding does not become an actual copy of the thing; such a becoming would in fact exclude understanding. If your mind literally became a tree when it attempted to understand it, you would understand nothing, since trees do not understand.

This applies at many levels. For example, not only does it apply to meaning and understanding, in some way it applies even to our language on the level of syntax. For example, Word2vec is famously capable of producing analogies which somewhat reflect analogies between the things signified, even though the meanings of the words are absent from its analysis. We should not stress this too much, however, since this takes a very small subset of relationships, even a small subset of relationships found in language, and shows how they will have a structural similarity to their causes. In a sense this does mean that the forms of things are present in linguistic syntax, but it is a very attenuated sense. In contrast, the forms of things are fully present in our understanding to the precise degree that we understand them. The qualification is important: we don’t understand anything perfectly, and consequently no form should be expected to be found perfectly in our understanding.

Others have suggested similar ideas about the natures of things. For example, Sean Collins says:

But for now I will set that aside and come to what I should like to propose as the heart of my thesis. I mentioned a moment ago that Scholastic thought has always acknowledged a dependence of the qualitative on the quantitative. There are many things, nevertheless, which we may recognize without really grasping their full implications. This brings me to what my son Liam wanted to say about form. He proposed, seemingly rather starkly, that there is no such thing as form in material things. But I believe what he meant is that there is cannot be a form in the manner frequently assumed; and I think he is absolutely right. What do I mean by “the manner frequently assumed”? What I mean is that we can cheerfully assert that quality, and therefore also substance, depends on quantity, but yet not see what this really means. What it means – what science proves over and over again – is not just that quality and substance depend on form externally as it were, but that they depend on it much more internally, which is to say structurally. In other words, in material things, form turns out not only to be compatible with an internal structure and heterogeneity, but to depend on it profoundly. I want to say in effect that in material things, to a surprisingly large extent, form IS structure. And so a conception of form which unifies things to the exclusion of a structure is a false conception.

You will perhaps recognize that this solves some problems, but raises others. The biggest problem that it solves is that very Scholastic principle that I have been referring to, which is that quality and substance, the more formal principles, depend on quantity. Now we can start to affirm that we know a little better what that really means. What it means is not just that things have to “be the right size,” but rather that quality and substance depend on quantity internally, because it is quantity that makes structure possible; and structure is, if you will, the intermediary between matter and whatever more abstract kind of form we may have yet to consider. And what I want to insist on again is that this structure is not a negligible thing; in fact it is so important that scientists spend a very large portion of their time examining it. Without it we could know, did know, only the first rudiments of how material things are made. And so this is why the metric part of scientific investigation acquires such a prominent aspect; it isn’t because that is all that the scientists are interested in or that they arbitrarily restrict themselves to it; on the contrary, it is because that is the very condition upon which an understanding of material forms hinges. In various places, Aristotle notes that there is a real difference between a mere dialectical or logical investigation of physical reality, and a truly physical one. The latter, as Aristotle understands it, depends on a sufficient accounting of the material aspects of things so that we can begin to see how forms are truly materialized. Now we can see perhaps a little better how this materialization of forms really happens. It happens especially through the understanding of quantitative structure.

Sean Collins is speaking about material things in particular, and structure as quantitative. My account is similar but more general: if there are any immaterial things, or things without quantity, it applies to them as well. Thus I speak of a network of relationships, of which “quantitative structure” would be more like a particular example.

Paul Almond gives a similar account:

Reality can only be meaningfully described in terms of relationships between things and internal properties of things. That being the case, why do we take the approach of reducing everything to relationships only, so that the “things” being connected by the relationships have no internal properties and all that exists is the structure of relationships itself? The idea of reducing everything to relationships only has been proposed by Tegmark. Suppose reality were viewed as a structure of relationships between things that had internal properties. Those internal properties could themselves only be described in terms of relationships between things. This means that we would have a structure of relationships between “things” and, inside each such “thing” there would also be a structure of relationships between some more basic entities. We would have no reason for declaring a boundary between the relationships outside the “thing” and the relationships inside the “thing”. Instead, we could just take the “edge of a thing” away and say that whatever relationships existed within a thing were just part of the external structure of relationships. The end result of this is that the “things” connected by these relationships have no internal properties at all. All that is left is a structure of relationships between points that have no internal properties. All that remains is the structure itself.

Almond gives this as an account of reality as such, while we give it as an account of form. This is not entirely the same, and consequently Almond’s account could be taken as denying the existence of matter, much like Alexander Pruss. This will be discussed more in my response to objection 9, but my account is not intended to reject the existence of matter. Nonetheless, matter does not contribute to the intelligibility of a thing, and it is therefore true in a sense that form is “most of” reality.

This kind of account is sometimes taken to imply that our understanding is entirely and permanently superficial. For example, Bertrand Russell says in The Analysis of Matter (page 10):

Physics, in itself, is exceedingly abstract, and reveals only certain mathematical characteristics of the material with which it deals. It does not tell us anything as to the intrinsic character of this material.

While mathematical physics as such does have specific limitations, both by reason of the mathematical approach and by the deliberate limitation of subject implied in “physics,” there is a more general problem here. Any account whatsoever of a thing will explain that thing in relationship to everything else, without giving an account of the “intrinsic character of this material.” But this is not because we are necessarily failing to account for something. It is because this is what it is to give an account at all, and because the network of relationships really is the what it is to be of the thing. There is no hidden essence, and the appearance that there must be some other nature, more fundamental, but which cannot be found by us, derives from a temptation towards the Kantian error. The thing does indeed exist in itself, and its mode of existence is not our mode of understanding, but this does not necessarily mean we do not understand it. On the contrary, this distinction is absolutely necessary for understanding at all.

The replies to the objections will be in another post, and as is usual with a disputed question, will clarify various aspects of this position.

Ezekiel Bulver on Descartes

C.S. Lewis writes:

In other words, you must show that a man is wrong before you start explaining why he is wrong. The modern method is to assume without discussion that he is wrong and then distract his attention from this (the only real issue) by busily explaining how he became to be so silly. In the course of the last fifteen years I have found this vice so common that I have had to invent a name for it. I call it “Bulverism.” Some day I am going the write the biography of its imaginary inventor, Ezekiel Bulver, whose destiny was determined at the age of five when he heard his mother say to his father – who had been maintaining that two sides of a triangle were together greater than the third – “Oh, you say that because you are a man.” “At that moment,” E. Bulver assures us, “there flashed across my opening mind the great truth that refutation is no necessary part of argument. Assume your opponent is wrong, and then explain his error, and the world will be at your feet. Attempt to prove that he is wrong or (worse still) try to find out whether he is wrong or right, and the national dynamism of our age will thrust you to the wall.” That is how Bulver became one of the makers of the Twentieth Century.

In the post linked above, we mainly discussed “explaining how he came to be so silly” in terms of motivations. But Ezekiel Bulver has a still more insidious way of explaining people’s mistakes. Here is his explanation of the mistakes of Descartes (fictional, of course, like the rest of Bulver’s life):

Descartes was obsessed with proving the immortality of the soul and the existence of God. This is clear enough from his own statements regarding the purpose of the MeditationsThis is why he makes, “I think, therefore I am,” the fundamental principle of his entire system. And he derives everything from this single principle.

Someone who derives everything from such a thought, of course, is almost sure to be wrong about everything, since not much can actually follow from that thought, and in any case it is fundamentally misguided to derive conclusions about the world from our ideas about knowledge, rather than deriving conclusions about knowledge from our knowledge of the world.

While Bulver includes here a reference to a motive, namely the desire to prove the immortality of the soul and the existence of God, his main argument is that Descartes is mistaken due to the flawed order of his argument.

As I suggested above, this is even more insidious than the imputation of motives. As I pointed out in the original discussion of Bulverism, having a motive for a belief does not exclude the possibility of having an argument, nor does it exclude the possibility the argument is a strong one, nor does it exclude the possibility that one’s belief is true. But in the case under consideration, Bulver is not giving a cause rather than a reason; he is saying that Descartes has reasons, but that they are necessarily flawed ones, because they do not respect the natural order of knowing. The basic principle is the same: assume that a man is wrong, and then explain how he got to be wrong. The process appears more reasonable insofar as reasons are imputed to the person, but they are more exclusive of the person’s real reasons, while motives do not exclude any reasons.

As we have seen, Bulver is mistaken about Descartes. Descartes does not actually suppose that he derives his knowledge of the world from his knowledge of thought, even if he organizes his book that way.

 

All Who Go Do Not Return

Shulem Deen begins his memoir of the above name:

I wasn’t the first to be expelled from our village, though I’d never known any of the others. I’d only heard talk of them, hushed reminiscences of ancient episodes in the history of our half-century-old village, tales of various subversives who sought to destroy our fragile unity. The group of Belzers who tried to form their own prayer group, the young man rumored to have studied the books of the Breslovers, even the rebbe’s own brother-in-law, accused of fomenting sedition against the rebbe.

But I was the first to be expelled for heresy.

The call came on a Sunday evening, while Gitty and I were having dinner with our children.

“Shulem, this is Yechiel Spitzer,” a deep male voice said, and then paused. “Can you be at the dayan’s office for a meeting at ten?”

I wasn’t entirely surprised by the call. I had heard from friends that word was getting around the village: Shulem Deen has become a heretic.

If heresy was a sin in our all-Hasidic village in Rockland County, New York, it was not an ordinary one. Unlike the yeshiva student who ordered a taxicab each night to get away for an hour of karate lessons, or the girl spotted wearing a skirt that didn’t fully cover her knees, or the schoolteacher who complained of the rebbe’s lengthy Sabbath noon prayers, heresy was a sin our people were unaccustomed to. Heresy was a sin that baffled them. In fact, real heresy, the people in our village believed, did not happen in our time, and certainly not in our village, and so when they heard there was a heretic in their midst, they were not sure what to make of it.

The meeting itself is not the most pleasant:

“We have heard rumors,” Mendel began. “We have heard rumors and we don’t know if they’re true, but you understand, rumors alone are bad.”

He paused and looked at me, as if expecting me to show agreement of some sort.

“People say you’re an apikorus. People say you don’t believe in God.” He raised his shoulders to his ears, spread his palms, and opened his eyes wide. “How does one not believe in God? I don’t know.” He said this as if he were genuinely curious. Mendel was an intelligent man, and here was a question that, given the time and inclination, one might seek to discuss. But now was not the time, and so he went on to tell me more about what people were saying.

I was speaking ill of the rebbe.

I was no longer praying.

I disparaged the Torah and the teachings of our sages.

I was corrupting other people. Young people. Innocent people.

In fact, people were saying that I had corrupted a yeshiva boy just last week. Corrupted him so badly that the boy left his parents’ home, and— Mendel didn’t know if this was true, but so people were saying— went to live with goyim in Brooklyn. It was rumored that the boy planned to attend college.

People were saying, Mendel further informed me, that something must be done. People were very concerned, and people were saying that the bezdin must act.

“If people are saying that the bezdin must act, you understand, we can’t very well do nothing.”

Yechiel Spitzer, sitting at the very end of the table, twirled a few hairs beneath his lower lip and absentmindedly placed one hair between his front teeth. The three rabbis sat with their eyes downcast.

“You understand,” Mendel went on, “that this is not about causing pain to you or your family.”

Here he paused and looked at the dayan, before putting his palms flat on the table and looking at me directly.

“We have come to the conclusion that you must leave the village.”

I was being expelled, though in those moments, I wasn’t sure how to feel about it. My initial thought was to defend myself, to declare it all lies, hateful gossipmongering. But the truth was, I no longer belonged here. This was a community of the faithful, and I was no longer one of them.

How did things come to this point? To those who are curious, I recommend the book. However, Shulem remarks on this matter:

“What made you change?” people would ask in later years, and the question would frustrate me because the things that made me change were so many and varied that they felt simply as life feels: not a single moment of transformation but a process, a journey of inquiry and discovery, of beliefs and challenges to those beliefs, of uncomfortable questions and attempts to do away with them, by brute force if necessary, only to find that that was not possible, that the search was too urgent and necessary and giving up was not an option. Yet I found no neat answers but only muddled and contradictory ones, until hope gave way to disillusion, which would in turn give way to hope once again, but dimmer and weaker each time, until I would swing back to confusion and disillusion in an endlessly maddening cycle.

Overall, the process is so gradual that he does not even remember a definite moment of changing his mind, but only remembers the realization that he has already done so:

I remember that I was in the dining room, and through the thin walls I could hear Gitty busy in the kitchen: “Akiva, finish your toast,” “Freidy, stop bothering the baby and get dressed,” “Tziri, brush your hair and get your backpack.” The sounds all blended together. One by one, each of the children recited the morning blessings, groaned about unfinished homework assignments, lost shoes, misplaced hair accessories. I swung my prayer shawl over my shoulders, whipped up my sleeve, and wrapped the leather straps of my tefillin around my arm. And as I stood there, the black leather cube on my left arm bulging against the sleeve of my starched white shirt, my body enveloped in the large, white, black-striped shawl, the thought came to me:

I no longer believe in any of this.

I am a heretic. An apikorus.

For a long time, I had tried to deny it. A mere sinner has hope: An Israelite, although he has sinned, is still an Israelite, the Talmud says. But a heretic is lost forever. All who go do not return. The Torah scroll he writes is to be burned. He is no longer counted in a prayer quorum, his food is not considered kosher, his lost objects are not returned to him, he is unfit to testify in court. An outcast, he wanders alone forever, belonging neither to his own people nor to any other.

It was at that moment, sometime between fastening the knot of my tefillin against my occipital bone and racing through whatever chapters of prayer I still chose to recite, that I realized that my heresy was simply a fact about myself, no different from my brown eyes or my pale skin.

Earlier we discussed the possibility of changing your mind without realizing that you have done so, and there is no reason that this cannot apply even to things as important as religion. This seems to have happened in Shulem’s case, although of course he was aware of the process in a general way, as can be seen in the previous quotation.

If a person is raised in a religion from childhood, and taught to adhere very strongly to that religion, then given that he is capable of looking at the world honestly, he will almost inevitably go through a process much like the one described by Shulem Deen, even if it may have a different ending.

This will happen almost always, without regard to how much truth there is in the religion, or how much truth is lacking there. For at least in the devout cases of which we speak, the parents will teach the child that their religion is very certainly true, and it is unlikely that they will go out of their way to present arguments and evidence against it. And if they do present such arguments and evidence, they are likely to present them in the least favorable way, rather than in the most favorable way. None of this is very surprising, nor does it have much to do with religion in particular, but is simply the way that people generally present their opinions to others. But it follows from all this that the child is not given a balanced view of the evidence relative to his religion, but one which makes the evidence seem more favorable than it actually is. As was said, this would be likely to happen even if the religion in question were entirely true.

The consequence is that once the person begins to get a more balanced grasp on the evidence, which will be the natural result of living in the world, they will  begin to see that their religion was less certain than they supposed it to be.

This will happen even in the case of very devout people who are entirely enveloped, as it were, in the belief and life of their own religious community, and who seem to have virtually no contact with unbelievers or their reasons. Thus for example St. Therese, in her autobiography, speaks of the conflict between her belief in heaven and her doubts about it:

I was saying that the certainty of going away one day far from the sad and dark country had been given me from the day of my childhood. I did not believe this only because I heard it from persons much more knowledgeable than I, but I felt in the bottom of my heart real longings for this most beautiful country. Just as the genius of Christopher Columbus gave him a presentiment of a new world when nobody had even thought of such a thing; so also I felt that another land would one day serve me as a permanent dwelling place. Then suddenly the fog that surrounds me becomes more dense; it penetrates my soul and envelops it in such a way that it is impossible to discover within it the sweet image of my Fatherland; everything has disappeared! When I want to rest my heart fatigued by the darkness that surrounds it by the memory of the luminous country after which I aspire, my torment redoubles; it seems to me that the darkness, borrowing the voice of sinners, says mockingly to me: “You are dreaming about the light, about a fatherland embalmed in the sweetest perfumes; you are dreaming about the eternal possession of the Creator of all these marvels; you believe that one day you will walk out of this fog that surrounds you! Advance, advance; rejoice in death which will give you not what you hope for but a night still more profound, the night of nothingness.”

St. Therese mentions two things favorable to the existence of heaven: her own desire to go there, and the fact that “I heard it from persons much more knowledgeable than I.” No particular reason is given supporting the denial of heaven, except the “voice of sinners,” which corresponds in a certain way to one of her positive reasons, since St. Therese is aware that many of the sinners in question are also much more knowledgeable than she is. While not explained clearly in her autobiography, she stated verbally a few months before her death:

“If you only knew what frightful thoughts obsess me! Pray very much for me in order that I do not listen to the devil who wants to persuade me about so many lies. It’s the reasoning of the worst materialists which is imposed upon my mind: Later, unceasingly making new advances, science will explain everything naturally; we shall have the absolute reason for everything that exists and that still remains a problem, because there remain very many things to be discovered, etc., etc.”

Why is it such a bad thing to explain everything? Her fear, of course, is that the explanation will imply that there is no life after death.

Of course the arguments implied here, on one side and the other, are not very complicated or technical, because St. Therese is not a scholar. And although she may be able to see some reasons supporting their position to some extent, as in this case the progress of science, to a large extent her doubts are simply caused by opposing authorities: people more intelligent than she who do not believe what she believes. In this sense, St. Therese is a clear example of the point under discussion, where someone raised to hold to their religion with great certainty, comes to be less certain of it when they realize that the evidence is not all on one side.

Nonetheless, St. Therese is evidently not attempting to weigh the evidence on one side and the other, in order to decide which side is more likely to be true. She writes, again in her autobiography:

My dear Mother, I may perhaps appear to you to be exaggerating my trial. In fact, if you are judging according to the sentiments I express in my little poems composed this year, I must appear to you as a soul filled with consolations and one for whom the veil of faith is almost torn aside; and yet it is no longer a veil for me, it is a wall which reaches right up to the heavens and covers the starry firmament. When I sing of the happiness of heaven and of the eternal possession of God, I feel no joy in this, for I sing simply what I WANT TO BELIEVE. It is true that at times a very small ray of the sun comes to illumine my darkness, and then the trial ceases for an instant, but afterward the memory of this ray, instead of causing me joy, makes my darkness even more dense.

This should be understood in the sense of voluntary belief. While St. Therese feels the weight of opposing reasons, she chooses to accept one side regardless. In that sense, she does not need to find an exact measure of the weight of the reasons for one side or the other, because her mind is already made up: regardless of how things stand exactly, she will still choose to believe.

One difference between St. Therese and Shulem Deen, then, is that while St. Therese had an experience somewhat similar to his, she chooses to prevent this process from leading to unbelief. In his case, in contrast, there may not have been any particular distinct moment of choice one way or another, according to his description.

If we return to our child, however, there are a number of other possible results. We will discuss these in a future post.

Zimmerman’s Response to the Catechism

As I suggested previously, it is possible that the statement on original immortality in the Catechism was directed against Zimmerman’s opinion. Whether or not the authors of the Catechism intended this explicitly, Zimmerman surely noted the conflict with his own views. Wishing to remain an orthodox Catholic, he substantially toned down his opinion in a subsequent work. He discusses the text of the Catechism in chapter 7 of his book Evolution and the Sin in Eden: A New Christian Synthesis:

Today the Church goes ones step further than Trent by the teaching in CCC 1008 and again in 1018 that physical death was brought about by original sin: “As a consequence of original sin, man must suffer ‘bodily death, from which man would have been immune had he not sinned'” (CCC 1018, cf. GS #18).

The CCC is “a sure norm for teaching the faith and thus a valid and legitimate instrument for ecclesial communion… This catechism is given to (the Church’s pastors and the Christian faithful) that it may be a sure and authentic reference text for teaching doctrine and particularly for preparing local catechisms” (Apostolic Constitution on the publication of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, John Paul II, October 11, 1992).

Despite the refusal of the Council of Trent to define the doctrine that Adam would have been immune from physical death if he had not sinned, the Church today proclaims it as part of its catechesis. Actually, Trent did not oppose the common belief, and only refused to make it binding once and for all.

The CCC’s inclusion of the doctrine is of great teaching value to dramatically emphasize the evil of sin, of disobedience to God. Death follows sin, so beware! Genesis certainly does the same by pairing death with sin. This is an excellent teaching aid, already begun in Genesis, now continued in our Catechism.

There may be theological reasons of great depth in the teaching that bodily death is a consequence of original sin, aspects of a truth which remains to be mined and discovered. Sin is moral corruption of the sinner’s soul, and corruption of the body through death may be mystically associated with sin in the eyes of God as well as of man.

While apparently accepting the teaching of the Catechism here, Zimmerman may be implicitly questioning it in the last paragraph, suggesting, “Perhaps the teaching is there not because it is true, but because of another truth that we haven’t yet made explicit.” In any case, he continues to recognize that there is some evidence against the claim, and consequently remains dissatisfied with the teaching of the Catechism:

Are we puzzled by the fact that our present cosmos is not designed for human life which is immune from physical death? One response to the puzzle can be that God already foresaw that Adam would commit original sin, hence there was no need for God to design the cosmos for a condition which would never become real. I confess that this solution, although proposed by some people, does not please me.

Other considerations remain to be solved. We note that the CCC does not state that Adam was already immune from physical death before he sinned. Nor does it teach that he enjoyed perpetual youth and freedom from various natural hardships during his life before sin. Many things remain unsaid and unresolved, if man’s natural condition of dying a biological death began only after original sin.

A number of reasons converge to indicate that man’s immunity from bodily death, as taught in GS 18 and the CCC, has the fuller meaning of eternal death of body and soul. The context of GS 18 is about man’s yearning for eternal life, not for mere biological continuity on earth. Furthermore, footnotes 14 and 15 of GS 18 refer to biblical texts that pertain to spiritual death invoked by evil deeds; they do not treat about biological death. Finally, the Council of Trent yolked together death from original sin and captivity under the power of the devil. But saints who die a bodily death in holiness are not captives of the devil. GS 18 and CCC 1008 therefore point more plausibly to eternal death than to temporal biological death. If that is correct, then neither Genesis, nor the rest of the Bible, nor Trent, nor Vatican II, nor the Catechism of the Catholic Church indicates with certainty that man was ever immune from natural biological death before original sin. However, I remain open for correction on this point.

Of course, his opinion here is not plausible at all, if he means to suggest that this might have been the actual intention of the authors of the Catechism. That intention was obviously to refer to biological death. However, the opinion is not necessarily completely unreasonable from the point of view of development of doctrine.

In any case, Zimmerman remains dissatisfied with the teaching. The teaching of the Church may prevent him from asserting as a positive opinion that man would have died even without sin; but it cannot prevent him from noticing that there is evidence in favor of this.

Gehringer vs. Zimmerman on Original Immortality

Earlier we looked at a brief passage from a review by Joseph Gehringer of Zimmerman’s book on original sin:

Surprisingly, however, evolution continues to attract sympathetic attention in many orthodox Catholic publications. Even publications which are considered ‘conservative’ have been giving circulation to the erroneous claim that the Catholic Church has “never had a problem with evolution.” A recent editorial suggested that evolution was so probable – for philosophical reasons – that Catholics are almost obliged to accept it. Apparently the constant attacks on creationism in the secular media during the 1980’s have had their effect: Humani Generis has been forgotten and theistic evolution has become part of the new orthodoxy.

One of the clearest signs of this evolutionary trend is the appearance of a new book by Father Anthony Zimmerman, S.V.D., who is well-known for his work in Japan combating the twin evils of contraception and abortion. Fr. Zimmerman’s uncompromising position on these moral issues stands in strange contrast to his treatment of Scripture, Tradition, and dogma on matters related to human origins. On moral questions he relies upon the Magisterium as an infallible guide; on the question of Adam and Eve, he relies upon scientific theories as the most reliable guide.

Gehringer is criticizing Zimmerman’s apparent inconsistency, namely his appearing willing to follow the Magisterium on moral issues while appearing unwilling to follow the Magisterium on “the question of Adam and Eve.” Gehringer does not seem to notice, however, that this suggests that Zimmerman may have especially strong reasons for his opinions regarding the latter question, since he obviously prefers in principle to be faithful to the Magisterium. I would add the personal note that I have met Fr. Zimmerman in real life and I can testify that by any ordinary standard he is a devout, orthodox Catholic.

Gehringer criticizes Zimmerman’s treatment of tradition:

Tradition is divided into two types (page 208). Those teachings which Fr. Zimmerman accepts are called “Magisterial Tradition”; those he rejects are labeled “folklore tradition.”

As for dogma, under “Preternatural Gifts” in the Pocket Catholic Dictionary (by Rev. John Hardon, S.J.) we read: “They include three great privileges to which human beings have no title – infused knowledge, absence of concupiscence, and bodily immortality. Adam and Eve possessed these gifts before the Fall.” Because they do not fit into his scenario of a gradual, natural evolution, Fr. Zimmerman rejects the idea that Adam and Eve possessed these gifts. Although Vatican II refers to “bodily death from which man would have been immune had he not sinned,” Fr. Zimmerman suggests this is a “doctrinal mistake,” adding: “I look forward to the day when the teaching Church will come to grips with tradition about … the supposed lack of physical death in the original Paradise. Is that a folklore tradition?” (page 208). Over and over, both the great theologians and the actual teachings of the Church are challenged and questioned. For example, “The pre-sin Adam of Augustine, then, is not a functional Adam at all” (page 149). And, “The Church has not made its own this belabored reasoning of Thomas” (page 146). On the other hand, Fr. Zimmerman gives us extensive excerpts (“delightful and informative”) from Lucy, the Beginnings of Humankind, by Johanson and Edey (pages 64-65).

Since the gift of bodily immortality to Adam is considered to be a “de fide” teaching of the Church, Fr. Zimmerman employs a variety of devices to try to convince the reader that this ancient dogma is actually a misinterpretation of Genesis. He claims the Church has erred on a related issue; he explains that the statements of the Councils do not mean what they have always been understood to say; he ignores relevant Scriptural and Magisterial statements; and he caricatures traditional interpretations, subjecting some to outright ridicule.

Making a distinction between “folklore tradition” and “Magisterial tradition” is indeed a bit strange. However, despite Gehringer’s implication, the Church has no list of “de fide” teachings. When Gehringer says that Adam’s bodily immortality is considered to be a matter of faith, he refers to the opinion of some theologians. And just as some theologians say that it is a matter of faith, other theologians, like Zimmerman, may say the opposite.

Gehringer goes on to criticize Zimmerman’s discussion of the various magisterial statements regarding the issue:

The Decrees of the Councils fare no better at Fr. Zimmerman’s hands. Canon 1 of the Council of Carthage, approved by Pope St. Zozimus, is quoted on page 188, but it is described as a “sentence” written by 200 bishops. By page 207, Fr. Zimmerman admits it was a Canon, but he argues that it was not “a positive doctrinal assertion,” only an “ad hominem argument about physical death directed against the heretics.” The old Catholic Encyclopedia, in the article on “Pelagius,” tells us that “these clearly worded canons (… death did not come to Adam from a physical necessity, but through sin …) came to be articles of faith binding the universal Church.” Yet Fr. Zimmerman dismisses it as an “ad hominem argument.”

In its Decree on Original Sin, the Council of Trent promulgated five canons. The first canon declares: “If anyone does not profess that Adam, the first man, … drew upon himself … death with which God had threatened him, and together with death captivity in the power of … the devil … anathema sit.” Fr. Zimmerman ignores what the canon clearly states, arguing that “Missing … is the explicit statement that Adam would not have died a physical death had he not sinned, which had been in an earlier version” (page 10).

Note Fr. Zimmerman’s use of the “Heads I win, tails you lose” type of argument. The Council of Carthage adopted a canon which stated explicitly that Adam was immune from physical death before he sinned; Fr. Zimmerman rejects this as an “ad hominem argument.” The Council of Orange adopted a canon which refers specifically to “bodily death which is the punishment of sin”; Fr. Zimmerman does not quote it, but dismisses it as “something commonly accepted.” The Council of Trent reaffirmed these earlier teachings in different words (“Adam … by his sin … drew upon himself the … death with which God had threatened him”); Fr. Zimmerman rejects this as not being an explicit declaration. Clearly, Fr. Zimmerman shows himself unwilling to accept this Catholic dogma, no matter how it is expressed.

Trent’s Canon 2 declares: “If anyone asserts that Adam’s sin … transmitted to all mankind only death and the suffering of the body but not sin as well which is the death of the soul, anathema sit. For he contradicts the words of the Apostle: ‘Sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men as all sinned in him'” (Rom. 5:12 Vulg; see Council of Orange II, Canon 2). Fr. Zimmerman begins by placing quotation marks around the word “death,” even though none appear in his source, Neuner and Dupuis No. 509. Denzinger-Deferrari also has no quotation marks around the word. Next he asserts that Trent explicitly accepted “death of the soul” but did not explicitly accept a lack of physical death, an obvious misinterpretation of the words of the Canon. In an effort to support his misinterpretation, Fr. Zimmerman omits the quotation from Holy Scripture and the reference to the Council of Orange, both of which make it quite apparent that the Council was speaking about physical death.

Father Zimmerman’s disregard for the rulings of the Magisterium is apparent from his handling of other solemn statements as well. On page 207 he quotes from Vatican Council II, “that bodily death, from which man would have been immune had he not sinned.” After first claiming that “this English translation misses precisions of the Latin,” he proposes his interpretation. “The living Adam would go directly from his living body to heaven, and then the body would die…. Adam wouldn’t die, but his body would die. In this way all the bases are covered….” In the Foreword, this book is hailed as a “unique piece of theological exposition.” Unique indeed! Who else would propose as a new Catholic dogma that “Adam wouldn’t die, but his body would die” in order to ‘cover all the bases’?

Gehringer’s discussion here is a bit unfair to Zimmerman, and in reality the interpretation of magisterial statements can be quite complex and not nearly as straightforward as Gehringer supposes. However, at least regarding the last point, it is clear enough that “Adam wouldn’t die, but his body would die” is a contradiction in itself, and that here at least Zimmerman’s position is entirely unreasonable.

I would make a number of points about this disagreement.

First, it is not impossible for someone to hold Zimmerman’s position, even without abandoning or modifying the Church’s teachings on its authority and infallibility. Earlier we noted most of the relevant magisterial statements. The canons of Carthage and Orange are decrees of local councils, and so would not be infallible in themselves. The council of Trent modified an original formulation of its canons that made bodily death as such a result of sin, and given this modification it seems impossible to prove that they intended to define this claim about bodily death absolutely. Gaudium et Spes is not intended to be an infallible document, and the statement about bodily death is made in the context of other statements like, “All the endeavors of technology, though useful in the extreme, cannot calm his anxiety,” where surely no one would complain that the Church was wrong in general, if it turned out that the endeavors of technology calmed someone’s anxiety. And regarding the Catechism, Cardinal Ratzinger stated in Introduction to the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

The individual doctrines which the Catechism presents receive no other weight than that which they already possess. The weight of the Catechism itself lies in the whole. Since it transmits what the Church teaches, whoever rejects it as a whole separates himself beyond question from the faith and teaching of the Church.

This implies that unless the doctrine of original immortality is already understood to be infallible, the Catechism does not try to make it infallible. Of course someone like Gehringer could argue against all of this in many ways, as for example by the common consent of the Church and of theologians throughout history. But that would be an argument, and might or might not be right. Thus it is possible in principle for someone to hold Zimmerman’s position, even without changing any idea regarding the Church’s authority. But such a position would have consequences, and Gehringer has some justification for fearing those consequences. I will say more about this shortly.

Second, Zimmerman says a number of strange things about tradition and about the magisterial statements. Gehringer notes some of these things, such as the concept of “folklore tradition,” and the statement that “Adam wouldn’t die, but his body would die.” I noted above that generally speaking, Zimmerman is an orthodox Catholic. This is the best way to understand the various oddities of Zimmerman’s position. He does not like saying that “the Church was wrong”, and so he says various strange things in order to avoid this. As I said in the first point, in principle someone can hold Zimmerman’s position without rejecting the authority of the Church as such. However, it is not reasonable to hold this position without saying that the Church has proposed a false teaching a number of times, even if non-infallibly. So Zimmerman’s position appears unreasonable because he attempts to hold his position on original immortality while trying to avoid saying that the Church was mistaken, even in cases where in fact it would have been mistaken, under Zimmerman’s hypothesis.

Third, the real basis of the disagreement is the evidence against original immortality, discussed here and here. Zimmerman finds this evidence convincing, and consequently holds that it is necessary to adjust the teaching of the Church to correspond to this evidence. Gehringer instead wishes to say that the theory of evolution is false, and hopes that this will imply that there is no longer any evidence against original immortality.

There are several problems with Gehringer’s manner of response. In the first place, even if the theory of evolution was false, and even if there were no substantial evidence for it, there would still be evidence against original immortality, even if it would be somewhat weaker. Second, evidence is objective and does not change sides. So whether you accept or reject original immortality, or evolution, or anything else, is not the point. The evidence for and against these things will remain just as it is no matter what your position is.

Fourth, however, the consequences of that evidence will vary somewhat depending on how you react to it. There is evidence against original immortality, but there is also evidence (as for example those magisterial statements) in favor of it. Those evidences will remain just as they are no matter what someone’s position is. But there will be different ultimate consequences in terms of how people react. I said above that Gehringer has some justification for fearing the consequences of Zimmerman’s position. One of those consequences is that someone who holds Zimmerman’s position will almost certainly conclude that the authority of the Magisterium is weaker than many Catholics suppose, if he is honest enough to admit that his position implies that each of those magisterial statements was mistaken. Note that there is an objective aspect here as well: even if someone does not conclude that this position is ultimately true, the evidence against original immortality is also evidence that the Church’s authority is weaker in this way. But whether you believe that it is actually weaker in this way or not, may depend on whether you are convinced by the evidence regarding immortality.

But there is yet more for Gehringer to fear. Genesis assigns death as a result of the fall, but also other things, such as a woman’s pain in childbirth. But death seems the most important of these things. If death is not the result of the fall, then it is likely that the pain of childbirth and so on are not results of it. Thus it would be unclear that the fall had any results at all, which would suggest that it did not happen. This seems to suggest that the Bible as a whole would be false, given that considered as a whole it seems to be an account of the origin of death and how it is to be overcome. This, of course, is not a conclusion that Zimmerman draws or wishes to draw. But there is an objective aspect here as well: the evidence against original immortality is indirect evidence that the Bible as a whole is false, whether or not anyone draws that conclusion.

Genesis on the Fall

Given that the account of the creation and fall of man is not in a historical genre, what does the account intend to say about the world?

There are two ways in which an account like this can be taken. In one way, it would simply be a guess about the nature and origins of humanity. Taken in this way, it would present a possibility, but not claim that it is definitely the case.

The Catholic Church understands the text in a second way, namely as presenting the same possibility, but also as claiming that this possibility is actual. Thus the Catechism states,

The account of the fall in Genesis 3 uses figurative language, but affirms a primeval event, a deed that took place at the beginning of the history of man. Revelation gives us the certainty of faith that the whole of human history is marked by the original fault freely committed by our first parents.

This is a reasonable understanding of Genesis, even the first way is possible in principle. Taken as the Catechism takes it, Genesis would be saying that humanity existed in a more perfect state, and fell to a less perfect state due to human sin. St. Paul seems to have a similar understanding of Genesis, saying that “sin came into the world through one man.”

The text of Genesis, which should be understood as an image, presents this more perfect state as a situation where Adam and Eve are in the garden of Eden, living off the fruit of the trees, naked and unashamed, and with access to the tree of life, by which they might live forever.

The Catechism does not seem to summarize the more perfect state, but describes it indirectly, by contrasting it with the fallen state:

The harmony in which they had found themselves, thanks to original justice, is now destroyed: the control of the soul’s spiritual faculties over the body is shattered; the union of man and woman becomes subject to tensions, their relations henceforth marked by lust and domination. Harmony with creation is broken: visible creation has become alien and hostile to man. Because of man, creation is now subject “to its bondage to decay”. Finally, the consequence explicitly foretold for this disobedience will come true: man will “return to the ground”, for out of it he was taken. Death makes its entrance into human history.

St. Thomas discusses whether the defects that resulted from sin are natural or not:

Objection 1. It would seem that death and such like defects are natural to man. For “the corruptible and the incorruptible differ generically” (Metaph. x, text. 26). But man is of the same genus as other animals which are naturally corruptible. Therefore man is naturally corruptible.

Objection 2. Further, whatever is composed of contraries is naturally corruptible, as having within itself the cause of corruption. But such is the human body. Therefore it is naturally corruptible.

Objection 3. Further, a hot thing naturally consumes moisture. Now human life is preserved by hot and moist elements. Since therefore the vital functions are fulfilled by the action of natural heat, as stated in De Anima ii, text. 50, it seems that death and such like defects are natural to man.

On the contrary, (1) God made in man whatever is natural to him. Now “God made not death” (Wisdom 1:13). Therefore death is not natural to man.

(2) Further, that which is natural cannot be called either a punishment or an evil: since what is natural to a thing is suitable to it. But death and such like defects are the punishment of original sin, as stated above (Article 5). Therefore they are not natural to man.

(3) Further, matter is proportionate to form, and everything to its end. Now man’s end is everlasting happiness, as stated above (2, 7; 5, A3,4): and the form of the human body is the rational soul, as was proved in the I, 75, 6. Therefore the human body is naturally incorruptible.

I answer that, We may speak of any corruptible thing in two ways; first, in respect of its universal nature, secondly, as regards its particular nature. A thing’s particular nature is its own power of action and self-preservation. And in respect of this nature, every corruption and defect is contrary to nature, as stated in De Coelo ii, text. 37, since this power tends to the being and preservation of the thing to which it belongs.

On the other hand, the universal nature is an active force in some universal principle of nature, for instance in some heavenly body; or again belonging to some superior substance, in which sense God is said by some to be “the Nature Who makes nature.” This force intends the good and the preservation of the universe, for which alternate generation and corruption in things are requisite: and in this respect corruption and defect in things are natural, not indeed as regards the inclination of the form which is the principle of being and perfection, but as regards the inclination of matter which is allotted proportionately to its particular form according to the discretion of the universal agent. And although every form intends perpetual being as far as it can, yet no form of a corruptible being can achieve its own perpetuity, except the rational soul; for the reason that the latter is not entirely subject to matter, as other forms are; indeed it has an immaterial operation of its own, as stated in the I, 75, 2. Consequently as regards his form, incorruption is more natural to man than to other corruptible things. But since that very form has a matter composed of contraries, from the inclination of that matter there results corruptibility in the whole. In this respect man is naturally corruptible as regards the nature of his matter left to itself, but not as regards the nature of his form.

The first three objections argue on the side of the matter; while the other three argue on the side of the form. Wherefore in order to solve them, we must observe that the form of man which is the rational soul, in respect of its incorruptibility is adapted to its end, which is everlasting happiness: whereas the human body, which is corruptible, considered in respect of its nature, is, in a way, adapted to its form, and, in another way, it is not. For we may note a twofold condition in any matter, one which the agent chooses, and another which is not chosen by the agent, and is a natural condition of matter. Thus, a smith in order to make a knife, chooses a matter both hard and flexible, which can be sharpened so as to be useful for cutting, and in respect of this condition iron is a matter adapted for a knife: but that iron be breakable and inclined to rust, results from the natural disposition of iron, nor does the workman choose this in the iron, indeed he would do without it if he could: wherefore this disposition of matter is not adapted to the workman’s intention, nor to the purpose of his art. In like manner the human body is the matter chosen by nature in respect of its being of a mixed temperament, in order that it may be most suitable as an organ of touch and of the other sensitive and motive powers. Whereas the fact that it is corruptible is due to a condition of matter, and is not chosen by nature: indeed nature would choose an incorruptible matter if it could. But God, to Whom every nature is subject, in forming man supplied the defect of nature, and by the gift of original justice, gave the body a certain incorruptibility, as was stated in the I, 97, 1. It is in this sense that it is said that “God made not death,” and that death is the punishment of sin.

This suffices for the Replies to the Objections.

Basically St. Thomas is asserting that the condition of mankind was not natural in the sense of caused by nature, but it was something that would be desirable to nature. After sin, man fell basically to the level that could be caused by nature.

St. Thomas thus suggests a reason why it was fitting for man to be created in an immortal condition. He says in the cited article:

Thirdly, a thing may be incorruptible on the part of its efficient cause; in this sense man was incorruptible and immortal in the state of innocence. For, as Augustine says (QQ. Vet. et Nov. Test. qu. 19): “God made man immortal as long as he did not sin; so that he might achieve for himself life or death.” For man’s body was indissoluble not by reason of any intrinsic vigor of immortality, but by reason of a supernatural force given by God to the soul, whereby it was enabled to preserve the body from all corruption so long as it remained itself subject to God. This entirely agrees with reason; for since the rational soul surpasses the capacity of corporeal matter, as above explained (76, 1), it was most properly endowed at the beginning with the power of preserving the body in a manner surpassing the capacity of corporeal matter.

Understood in this way, the account in Genesis asserts at least two things: that man was created in a state above the state that could be caused by nature, because this was better, and that man fell from this state due to his sin.