Gnon Obvious

How can you define what is “real”, or have an “idea”, without deciding whether or not God exists?

— Chevalier de Johnstone (here)

June 19, 2013admin 27 Comments »
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27 Responses to this entry

  • spandrell Says:

    So it’s up to me to decide? Yipee!


    admin Reply:

    Aquinas was pretty liberal like that, apparently.


    Posted on June 19th, 2013 at 2:57 pm Reply | Quote
  • Orlandu84 Says:

    If the following sounds like a rant, I am sorry. A blaze with the fire of a thousand suns when I see someone blatantly misrepresent good thinkers. Accordingly, I begin my rant.

    @Chevalier de Johnstone
    “How can you define what is “real”, or have an “idea”, without deciding whether or not God exists?”

    Allow me to quote from St. Thomas Aquinas, First Part of the Summa Theologiae, Question 2, article 1:

    “Therefore I say that this proposition, “God exists,” of itself is self-evident, for the predicate is the same as the subject, because God is His own existence as will be hereafter shown. Now because we do not know the essence of God, the proposition is not self-evident to us; but needs to be demonstrated by things that are more known to us, though less known in their nature—namely, by effects.”

    We do not know the existence of God by itself because we do not have direct knowledge of God. Here on earth we come to know about God in one of two ways: by reason or faith. We come to know God by reason by coming to see that His effects (creation) require that He exist. One can also come to know that God exists by faith – which is a lot easier according to Aquinas. Thomas’s proofs of God’s existence all requires that a person experience life and from that experience demonstrate that God (or for this blog GNON) exists.

    Thomas goes on to state in article 2:
    “When an effect is better known to us than its cause, from the effect we proceed to the knowledge of the cause. And from every effect the existence of its proper cause can be demonstrated, so long as its effects are better known to us; because since every effect depends upon its cause, if the effect exists, the cause must pre-exist. Hence the existence of God, in so far as it is not self-evident to us, can be demonstrated from those of His effects which are known to us.”

    Thomas believes that effects and causes are tied together in a real relation that allows one to move from effect to cause with confidence. Thomas clearly states that we only come to know God by reason through demonstration, not a priori” reasoning. Whereas a priori reasoning depends on innate structures of thought, demonstration depends on experience. Broadly speaking Thomas, like Aristotle, accepts that reason functions. Neither Aristotle nor Aquinas thought that you required Kantian categories to be able to think. Categories of thought merely facilitate clearer and more refined thinker; they are not in themselves required for thought. Accordingly, we know what is real and have ideas because that is the nature of human beings.

    Rant end. The above is meant only as a general reply. I would be happy to go into specifics because I love myself some metaphysics.


    admin Reply:

    This has to be the most elevated example of ranting I have yet had the pleasure to encounter.

    The substance of your comment goes too deep for a quick response — but I share your hope that we can do some digging. The Ontological Argument (together with its modernist dismissal) provides an abundance of untapped cognitive material.

    Gnon — unpacked in its Steves version: ‘Nature or Nature’s God’ — directly connects with this problem because it is defined solely by its reality (whatever really exists, is it). The question Steves initially raised, insofar as I am properly understanding it, can be roughly glossed: How much can we build upon a commitment to a doctrinally indeterminate, or abstract, ultimate reality? Of course, believers and unbelievers can immediately opt out of this conversation by insisting that their preferred interpretation of ultimate reality must by accepted as a precondition of further discussion. There’s not much point making a spectacle out of doing so.


    Nick B. Steves Reply:

    Like me, de Johnstone is a Catholic convert. (Well, upon reading that again… it isn’t obvious) But his question “How can you define what is “real”, or have an “idea”, without deciding whether or not God exists?” doesn’t strike me as being particularly Catholic question. I can imagine having started a war over such matters when I was Protestant (so many icons, so little time!!), but it doesn’t feel quite right anymore. To whit, I find much with with to concur in Orlandu’s exposition of Aquinas: “we know what is real and have ideas because that is the nature of human beings.” That seems to get it about right.

    Of course, I am no more an expert on the authoritative interpretation of Aquinas than I am on what thinking Catholic-ly should feel like.

    The “nature or nature’s god” construction is, in my mind, a way of side-stepping questions of ultimate reality. Clearly, our mutual agreement on the Pythagorean Theorem is not dependent upon the ultimate nature of reality. Of course, we must agree on certain axioms and rules of reason, but almost everyone seems to have those by their very nature as humans. So if we can agree with Pythagoras, what else can we agree on without the aid of revealed religion? Probably quite a bit.


    admin Reply:

    “The ‘nature or nature’s god’ construction is, in my mind, a way of side-stepping questions of ultimate reality.” — ‘side-stepping’ through the disjunction, which is to be read as an expression of indifference? I can just about see that, but it’s no coincidence that both terms of this disjunction are variant ‘hypotheses’ of ultimate reality. If there was a third widely-held alternative — say ‘Zipp’ — which was neither God or Nature, but something quite other yet nevertheless a claim to label ultimate reality (perhaps ‘the God-making absolute’ — the Zippists don’t have to be especially persuasive for our purposes, so we need not detain ourselves with speculations as to details), then the construction would surely be ‘Nature or Nature’s God, or the Zipp of Nature’s God’ — whilst serving the same purpose: ‘in the name of ultimate reality (whatever that might be) expressed through natural law.’

    “Clearly, our mutual agreement on the Pythagorean Theorem is not dependent upon the ultimate nature of reality.” — that isn’t remotely clear to me. Mathematical proof — that which holds true under any imaginable conditions — provides indisputable access to ultimate reality.

    Nick B. Steves Reply:

    Not an expression of indifference, no. Only that people of diverse metaphysical commitments can agree upon enough of the facts to agree upon a prescription. Is “Thou shalt not steal” imprinted upon the Universe from outside (divine revelation)? I think, yes. An atheist would (I suppose) tend to think no. But we can still agree that “Thou shalt not steal” is an excellent prescription. At least it’s good for business. Whether it saves your soul… or whether anyone even has a soul… or whether a soul is salvagable… or even worth saving… is left as a later exercise.

    The rational theist believes that what is good for the soul also just happens to be good for society as well, because the universe was created in accordance with some eternal principles. So he is perfectly happy to accept evidence, when it is found, that comports with divine revelation; in fact, he expected such evidence to be there all along.

    So the only alternative to “Nature or Nature’s God or Both” as I tend to use it, would be I guess some utterly nihlistic one in which there is no evidence-based prescription possible. If we can agree on a good prescription, then we’re agreeing upon a particular “ought”, and (at least some of) the supporting evidence to get to that “ought”, irrespective of the ultimate source of that ought… or the ultimate source of the evidence.

    Maybe Pythagoras wasn’t a good example… but even there, there is still stuff we could, in theory, refuse to agree upon. The law of non-contradiction, for example. Or the validity of a proposition implies the validity of its contrapositive. It is self-evident of course, but there is no imaginable proof of these. They are either universally true, or it just a weird trick the universe happens to play on intelligent humans.

    So maybe a better example would be: Women should not be priests. To the traditional Christian, this is divine revelation. To the agnostic, it’s more of an empirical thing. Churches that have women priests tend to languish, men drop out, donations fall, the religion fails to reproduce itself, etc. Now the traditional Christian is going to hold to his view (probably) whether the empirical study supports it or not… but he expects the empirical to study to confirm what he already knows… because that’s just how the universe (in this case men and women and human congregations) was designed. And lo, the traddie and the honest agnostic end up in agreement at least one principle of how to run a church. Of course, if you wanted to destroy churches, then you might advocate a female priesthood… but that’s a different question.

    Nick B. Steves Reply:

    Yeah… and Orlandu has a low bar for ranting…

    “A^n + B^n ≠ C^n, for natural numbers A, B, C, and n ≥ 3” ranted Fermat.


    Posted on June 19th, 2013 at 4:27 pm Reply | Quote
  • Alex Says:

    Gnon-sense makes sense.


    admin Reply:

    It’s at the very least interesting.


    Posted on June 19th, 2013 at 6:30 pm Reply | Quote
  • Thales Says:

    Can I decide that God is me?

    Wait, why am I asking you?


    Posted on June 19th, 2013 at 6:45 pm Reply | Quote
  • Nick B. Steves Says:

    I must say I’m shocked to have seen that outburst from Mr. de Johnstone, whom I’ve always found to be genial and rigorous when he occasionally finds some fault.

    It has, however, never been clear to me why it is important (perhaps it isn’t) to manufacture a Theology out of the Very Lack of Theological Agreement.


    admin Reply:

    The odd outburst is OK, although highly counter-productive if you actually have something to say.

    As for manufacturing a theology, the goal was to argue (with you in fact) about time-travel. The ‘Theology’ was incidental (or instrumental), but since we have Gnon-knowledge about the working of providence, it might not be possible to take comfort in that.


    Handle Reply:

    I’ve stayed out of this conversation not because it’s not fascinating but because it’s too rich and I don’t think there’s anything I can contribute in a short comment. It’s times like this that I wish you would make a trip to the Imperial City so we could discuss the matter at length over a few stimulating beverages.


    admin Reply:

    That would indeed be delightful.

    Posted on June 19th, 2013 at 7:34 pm Reply | Quote
  • Orlandu84 Says:

    @ Nick Steves
    “Yeah… and Orlandu has a low bar for ranting…

    “A^n + B^n ≠ C^n, for natural numbers A, B, C, and n ≥ 3″ ranted Fermat.”

    I define “rant” as whenever my emotions cause me to spurt out words in outrage and disdain. When it comes to arguments, there is no argument that I detest more than the Ontological Argument. Perhaps the following will clarify my true feelings:

    I hate the Ontological Argument! I hate it with the fire of a thousand burning suns! The very concept of utilizing thought constructs to prove what exists outside of your mind reeks of Cathedral thought! Why Lord of Heaven and Earth did St. Anselm so err in his thought?!

    See the explanation marks! See the anger and wrath! Behold! I rant and rave;)

    Still, I have an odd sense of anger. Profanity from me is typically an indication that either violence is about to be unleashed or that I find myself in a group of people who swear as they breathe. Since this blog usually refrains from impolite speech, I would be very worried if you see me swearing.


    admin Reply:

    Whilst no defender of the Ontological Argument in its scholastic form, I hesitate to endorse the dismissal of the ‘category’ of ‘existence’ as a “thought construct.”


    Orlandu84 Reply:

    I guess that the best way to defend my above rant is to point out that human thinking is abstraction. Have you ever run into pure “existence”? I haven’t; I run into things…all the time 😉 Puns aside, I would hold that all human thinking is based around thought constructs that are supposed to correspond to reality. A thought is rational in so much as it relates the thinker to reality properly. Some thoughts correspond to things that actually exist, like trees and birds. Other thoughts correspond to things that do not exist in themselves but in actual things, like fingers or anger. Finally, some thoughts correspond to things that do not exist, like unicorns. if you agree that the above is true, then we are probably arguing about very little. Now, if you think that existence is some category of thought that we naturally have and do not arrive at by a process of thinking, then we have a major difference of opinion. For I hold that existence itself is Gnon just as Aquinas does.


    admin Reply:

    “For I hold that existence itself is Gnon just as Aquinas does.” — doesn’t it then become difficult to avoid sliding into pantheism (the great Spinozistic terror of modern theology)?

    Posted on June 20th, 2013 at 11:40 pm Reply | Quote
  • Orlandu84 Says:

    ” — doesn’t it then become difficult to avoid sliding into pantheism (the great Spinozistic terror of modern theology)?”

    Instead of a ton of quote, allow me to explain in broad strokes. For more information please see Summa Theologia, First Part, questions 2 and 3. First, through the five proofs (q.2, article 3), Aquinas establishes that God exists as that which comes before all else in terms of motion, causation, necessity, gradation, and governance but not with respect to time. Then in question 3, Aquinas establishes the simplicity of God. More specifically, in the eighth article of question 3, he goes over how God cannot be a composite with the things of the world. In short, being part of a compound goes against being essentially prior in terms of motion, causation, necessity, gradation, and governance. Later on in the Summa Theologia Aquinas will show that God exists with perfections above those of the material universe. I hope this clarifies the position sufficiently, but if it doesn’t, I am happy to continue.


    admin Reply:

    I have that gloomy Teutonic “Seinsfrage” thing nagging at me. If being ‘itself’ isn’t God, then it escapes subordination as a created thing, but if it ‘is’ God, the Spinozistic problem returns (intensified). In this context, priority in respect to “motion, causation, necessity, gradation, and governance” doesn’t seem to get us very far.
    Also, can we really separate ‘before’ from time-reference? (This is no doubt a wider concern to do with Aquinas’ Aristotelianism.)
    In any case, I’d very much appreciate you continuing.


    Orlandu84 Reply:

    Allow me to work on the second part of your post first.

    “Also, can we really separate ‘before’ from time-reference?”

    The clearest example of priority without time is an instantaneous line of causation. Let us take for the sake of argument my coffee cup. It is composed of molecules. Those molecules are composed of atoms. Those atoms are composed of electrons, neutrons, and protons. These sub-atomic particles are in turn composed of quarks or strings or whatever stuff the physicists think compose them. At every measurable interval of time, my coffee cup’s existence depends on this chain of being instantly working. Accordingly, the molecules are prior to (of before) the coffee cup, the atoms are prior to the molecules, and the sub-atomic particles are prior to the atoms not in time but in causality.

    Now, onto the first part of your reply. When Aquinas speaks of God as First Cause, he means cause in the above sense of transmitting being at every second to every distinct thing. Since we exist in a world where things exist dependent on chains of instantaneous causes, these chains of causes must be anchored to a single cause that explains itself. That First Cause causes itself to exist distinctly from the chains of causes. If that First Cause did not cause itself to exist distinctly as itself, it would not be the First Cause but just another cause. In that cause we would have an infinite instantaneous chain of cause, which is not possible. Either a chain of causes has a definite beginning or it cannot communicate being instantly. Since we know that being is transmitted instantly, then we know that the chain of causes has a beginning. Aquinas, as do I, calls that First Cause God.

    The most interesting part of the above is the conception of chains of causes that cannot be both infinite and instantaneous. In my experience that part strikes most contemporary people as really weird and confusing. What do you think?


    admin Reply:

    So for these purposes, we can translate out of time language into compositional language. That’s important (and something it would be interesting to return to quite soon). Your cosmological argument construction aligns Aquinas with Enlightenment thinking, in presupposing that the natural line of dependency is a transmission from (comparatively) basic parts to ensembles, so that the discovery of causal priority is a process of scientific reduction (from whole to parts).
    How compelling is this asymmetry, whether apprehended temporally or compositionally? Final arguments, comparably translated, derive the existence of parts from wholes. The kidney exists in order to purify the blood, and thus for the whole organism, from which it is causally dependent. An urbanite exists in order to contribute to the assembly of a city. Stars exist to make galaxies work (perhaps for functions yet to emerge — if time is allowed to creep back in).
    In very modern times, ’emergentist’ complexity theories have proposed far more subtle (quasi-)finalist or ‘teleonomic’ examples than those available to Aristotle and (as objects of critical inspection) to Kant. Unsurprisingly, they align with suggestions of time reversal (‘anticipated potentials’ and ‘convergent waves’) but that need not detain us at this point.
    Minimally, the question is, what gives the part causal priority over the whole? I’m not seeing a load-bearing structure in this.

    John Hannon Reply:

    Down at the subatomic level, however, your coffee cup becomes fuzzy, paradoxical and uncertain. Here particles are only waves of probability and flicker in and out of existence as random vacuum fluctuations. As Fritjof Capra notes, a subatomic particle “manifests a strange kind of reality between existence and nonexistence… It is not present at a definite place, nor is it absent. It does not change its position, nor does it remain at rest.”
    Does not causation cease to apply amid such weirdness?

    Posted on June 21st, 2013 at 2:01 pm Reply | Quote
  • John G Robinson Says:

    Hi John – I’m not sure that my grasp of particle physics is entirely complete, but I doubt that sub-atomic entities ever flicker in and out of existence. Their position at any given time is uncertain and based on probability. At a sub-atomic level the ‘rules’ of Newtonian physics cease to apply.

    For example, if you drop a ball (let us avoid apples!) it will fall to the ground as expected. If you were very small and able to drop some metaphorical sub-atomic ball (particle) it may well hit the ground, or go sideways or move upwards. I think I’ll call this Boolean reality, given the ‘OR’ nature of what might happen.

    As for time travel, I have no idea if time exists in the first place. It seems to us that reality depends on a linear progression from one thing to the next – but is this really so? Could it be that time is a human construct based on our hard-wired perception of reality? Suppose, instead, that we exist in a single moment where there is only change, and that this change can be described as ‘flux’ because it appears as linear ’cause and effect.’ Linear time may be an illusion in which case one cannot travel through it.

    Change can manifest itself as time, but it does not depend on a first cause as posited by Aquinas. If reality is change then a theoretical God must also be subject to it. A theist would say, ‘God is beyond change’, but I cannot see a Universe which does not depend on flux for its entire being, or any being which does not depend on flux.

    Personally, I find the notion of a God trivial and Medieval. I also find the concept intellectually conservative and terrifyingly smug, given the level of human suffering in the world. God, should such an amorphous pink jelly of a no-thing actually exist, remains aloof from human affairs leaving humanity free to rape the planet into the void and twist each other into tortured shapes. If something as complex as reality can be easily explained using brutish logic (the tractor of the mind) then the arguments employed to this end are doubtlessly flawed and usually I tend to leave them alone. Not this time it seems!

    I tend towards a less Westernised view of the world where I see that reality can only be transcended and revealed as no more than a convincing puppet show. It can never be properly explained (or indeed fully experienced) without direct apprehension. Thought alone is inadequate to this end.


    Posted on June 22nd, 2013 at 7:27 pm Reply | Quote
  • Orlandu84 Says:


    @John Hannon
    “Does not causation cease to apply amid such weirdness?”

    An excellent question, sir. So long as something is happening there, we have causation. More specifically, so long as whatever is happening down there does not explain its own existence but depends on something else to exist, we have causation. We might not be able to describe the causation in detail, but we know that something is happening. That we cannot speak with a great deal of certainty should fill us with humility and causation with what speak. Thus, I fully admit that the English word “causation” starts to loose its luster down there in the subatomic world. All I need it to do is designate that being is being given from one thing to another thing.

    “Minimally, the question is, what gives the part causal priority over the whole? I’m not seeing a load-bearing structure in this.”

    I am afraid that the search for the ultimate “load bearing structure” is itself a search for a coherent system of thought. Please excuse my meta argument, but here it goes. Most work in philosophy from the Enlightenment on has been focused on explaining how human beings understand. These systems of thought attempt to reduce reason into parts. I affirm that you cannot. Your reason simply works, just like your will simply works. The proof that you will and think cannot be objective because these two powers are what make you a subective person. Accordingly, my ability to conceive of higher levels of order within reality, whether those orders be intra or extra, cannot be proven. The ability itself is simply accepted. Aristotle’s advanced epistemology (which he conceived of as logic itself) were the laws of identity, noncontradiction, and the law of the excluded middle. Most modern philosophy has gone after a way of explaining how we can explain the universe. This search is a great way to make your head hurt in my opinion.

    Anyways, I bring up the above to frame my following answer. The part exists before the whole in so far as the parts communicate being to the whole. Aristotle’s brillant insight was to understand that the whole can also communicate being to the parts that they do not posses by themselves. Accordingly, what has priority over what is a matter of perspective – please, excuse the metaphysics pun 😉 In terms of material existence, atoms seems to be prior to molecules. In terms of human action, the soul is prior to the being that it communicates to the various members of our bodies. I hope that this answer better explains the internal coherence of my perspective.


    Posted on June 22nd, 2013 at 9:05 pm Reply | Quote
  • John Hannon Says:

    With regard to the relation of part and whole, Arthur Koestler coined the term “holon” to refer to something that is simultaneously a whole and a part. This idea was then later developed extensively by the transpersonal philosopher Ken Wilber, who begins with the assertion that –

    “Reality is not composed of things or processes; it is not composed of atoms or quarks; it is not composed of wholes nor does it have any parts. Rather it is composed of whole/parts, or holons.
    This is true of atoms, cells, symbols, ideas… There is nothing that isn’t a holon – upwardly and downwardly forever.”

    He then goes on to develop 20 tenets describing how holons interact and the patterns that connect them, and eventually incorporates the holon idea as a foundational element within his multidimensional, integrative theory of everything.

    Whether or not positing holons as fundamental in this way can contribute anything to the above discussion I shall leave for the experts to decide.


    Posted on June 23rd, 2013 at 12:01 am Reply | Quote

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