Friday, December 4, 2020

Augustine on divine illumination


Plato held that the Form of the Good makes other Forms intelligible to us in a way comparable to how the sun makes physical objects visible to us.  He also took our knowledge of the Forms to be inexplicable in empirical terms, since the Forms have a necessity, eternity, and perfection that the objects of the senses lack.  His solution was to regard knowledge of the Forms as a kind of recollection of a direct access the soul had to them prior to its entrapment in the body.

St. Augustine inherited this Platonic picture and transformed it.  The Form of the Good becomes God; the other Forms become ideas in the divine intellect; and recollection is replaced by divine illumination of the human mind.  The general idea and motivation of Augustine’s doctrine of divine illumination is clear enough, at least in light of its Platonic background.  But nailing down it precise content is notoriously difficult. 

The Platonic background

How was the Form of the Good supposed to make the other Forms intelligible, on Plato’s account?  Here’s one way to think about it.  A Form is a standard of perfection.  A particular triangle is a better or worse specimen of triangularity the more or less perfectly it participates in the Form of Triangle.  For instance, a triangle drawn slowly and carefully using a ruler is a better specimen than one drawn hastily and sloppily, because it more perfectly approximates the standard that is the Form.  Something similar can be said of all other things and their degrees of approximation to the standards that are the Forms they participate in.

Now, to understand the Form of X (whatever X is) as the standard by reference to which a particular X is a good X is essentially to see the Form as itself an instance of goodness – as participating in the Form of the Good.  In this way the Form of the Good illuminates – it makes intelligible to the eye of the intellect – the other Forms. 

But for Plato, you’re not going to get knowledge of the Form of the Good from acquaintance from particular good things, any more than you’re going to arrive at knowledge of the Form of Triangle from particular triangles.  And thus you’re not going to get it from sensory experience, which can only ever get you acquainted with particulars.  So our knowledge of the Forms must be a kind of drawing out of what was already in us prior to experience.  And since it can only have gotten in us by some sort of contact with the Forms, and we haven’t had such contact in this life, we must have had such contact prior to this life.  Knowledge of the Forms is thus a remembering of this prior contact.

The Augustinian transformation

The skeptical reader might wonder whether Augustine’s alteration of Plato’s general picture is motivated merely by Christian theological concerns, with no independent philosophical rationale.  But that is not the case.  For one thing, during the long history of the Platonic tradition between Plato and Augustine, God had, for philosophical reasons, already long since displaced the Form of the Good as the first principle of all things (even if Augustine’s view of the divine nature differed in important respects from that of predecessors like Plotinus).

More to the present point, potential theological problems with the notion of the pre-existence of the soul were not the reason Augustine rejected the theory of recollection.  The reason had rather to do with inadequacies in that theory as an account of our knowledge of the Forms.  As Peter King notes (in his article on Augustine’s epistemology in the second edition of The Cambridge Companion to Augustine), Augustine was keen to emphasize the objectivity of our knowledge of eternal truths of a mathematical sort, and of the Forms in general.  When you and I grasp that 2 + 2 = 4, it is one and the same truth that we both intersubjectively grasp, just as it is one and the same table we are looking at when we both see the table before us.  Similarly, when you and I contemplate the Form of Triangle, it is one and the same objective reality that we both contemplate.  But the most one could be aware of via memory is a subjective mental representation of a Form, not the Form itself.  Hence, recollection of a purported acquaintance with the Forms prior to birth cannot explain how we intersubjectively know them now. 

Something going on now must account for that.  King points out that for Augustine, we also need to account for the way that here and now you can come to understand such eternal truths, in a flash of insight or moment when it “clicks” (as when you figure out a proof or otherwise grasp the connections of logical necessity between propositions).  Mere recollection of something you purportedly learned prior to your soul’s incarnation in the body cannot account for that.  The theory of illumination is meant to explain all of this.

The basic idea

Recall that for Augustine, the Forms are to be understood as ideas in the divine intellect.  Indeed, their necessity, eternity, and perfection provide the basis of an argument for the existence of a divine mind to ground them.  (I develop a modernized version of the Augustinian argument for God’s existence in chapter 3 of Five Proofs of the Existence of God.) 

How, then, can we know the Forms?  For example, how could we know the Form of Triangle from experience of particular individual triangles?  For any such triangle is neither necessary nor eternal, but comes into being and passes away.  It is also imperfect, lacking the perfect straightness of sides that a triangle is supposed to have given its essence.  And any sensory representations or mental images we can form of a triangle are going to have the same defects.  Whatever else we can know of a triangle through sensation and imagination, the necessity, eternity, and perfection of the Form it participates in cannot be known that way.

Now, compare such a triangle to a red object sitting in a dark room, or to a red stained glass window on a moonless night.  The redness is there in the object or the window, but you will not see it without light.  You see the red of the object when light shines on it, and the red of the window when the light shines through it.  Absent such light, the redness will be invisible, even if you can know other features of such objects (by touching them say).  But the presence of the light immediately reveals the redness to the eye.  You might even say: “Aha!  It’s red!”

Similarly, Augustine holds, something analogous to light, but coming from God – in whom exists the Form of Triangle in all its necessity, eternity, and perfection – is what reveals these properties to the “eye” of the human intellect.  You might even have a flash of understanding that yields an “Aha!”

Illuminating illumination

The analogy between divine illumination and Plato’s comparison of the Form of the Good to the sun makes the general outlines of Augustine’s idea clear enough.  But making out the details is difficult.  Exactly what does this “illumination” amount to?  Obviously it does not involve light of the ordinary sort.  But what, then?

For starters, it is useful to keep in mind that we often describe the intellect as seeing that a proposition is true or that the conclusion of an argument follows from its premises.  There is an analogy between what the eye does when it sees a physical object and what the intellect is doing.  And it is not unreasonable to suppose that there might also be an analogy between the means by which the eye does what it does and the means by which the intellect does what it does.  If the former sort of seeing requires light, so too might the latter sort of “seeing” require something analogous to light.

But by itself that doesn’t tell us much.  The help provided by the analogy with Plato’s comparison of the Form of the Good to the sun is also limited.  Yes, the divine intellect illuminates the Forms for our minds just as the Form of the Good was said to do.  But the manner in which they do so is evidently different, at least given my proposed reading of how this works in the case of the Form of the Good.  I suggested that we read Plato as holding that, just as a tree and a triangle participate in the Form of Tree and the Form of Triangle, respectively, those Forms in turn participate in the Form of the Good.  And this makes those Forms intelligible, in the same way they make particular trees and triangles intelligible.

But seeing this involves (a) grasping the Form of the Good and (b) grasping the relation between the other Forms and it.  That is to say, it involves mental acts precisely of the kind that Augustine is trying to explain.  So, illumination of the kind he is appealing to is evidently different and more fundamental than the kind of which Plato was speaking (at least as I’m reading Plato).  But then, what does it amount to if it isn’t quite what Plato was speaking of?  The doctrine of illumination needs some illumination.

Three interpretations

Over the centuries, there have been three main approaches to spelling out Augustine’s position in more detail.  The first holds that in knowing the Forms, the human mind sees directly into God’s own mind.  The way you grasp the necessity, eternity, and perfection of the Form of Triangle, for example, is by virtue of your mind’s ascending from acquaintance with mere particular individual triangles and becoming acquainted instead with the divine idea of triangularity.  This interpretation is associated with the early modern philosopher Nicolas Malebranche, and is known as “ontologism.”

This interpretation would certainly make it clearer what illumination amounts to.  But unfortunately, it is highly problematic both philosophically and theologically.  The standard objection is that it would seem to imply that we have a direct intellectual grasp of God’s essence, which we clearly do not have.  If we did, we would have complete beatitude and be unable to doubt God’s existence, neither of which is the case.  It is also absurd to think that all people who are able to grasp even basic mathematical truths like 2 + 2 = 4 – which includes those who are utterly foolish and morally depraved no less than the wise and saintly – are thereby able directly to know God’s mind.  (Certainly, Augustine would not have held such a thing.)

A second interpretation holds that “illumination” amounts merely to the fact that God conserves the human intellect in being and concurs with its operation (just as he conserves and concurs with everything else), where the intellect is that aspect of our nature that is uniquely God-like.  This sort of interpretation is sometimes proposed by Thomists as a way of reconciling Augustine’s epistemology with Aquinas’s.  But it is decidedly deflationary, reducing Augustine’s view to just a colorful but very imprecise way of saying what Aquinas would later say with more precision.  Whereas the first interpretation makes the doctrine of illumination very interesting but highly problematic, the second makes it unproblematic but also uninteresting.  It also just isn’t exegetically plausible as a reading of Augustine, who was thinking along Platonic rather than Aristotelian lines.

The correct interpretation is surely the third one, which is a middle ground between the first two.  That is to say, it reads Augustine as making a stronger and more distinctive claim about the nature of illumination than the second interpretation does, but without going to the extreme of saying that the human mind can peer directly into the divine mind.

The basic idea of this third interpretation can be understood by returning to the analogy of the red object and stained glass that are illuminated by sunlight.  When you see the redness of the illuminated object or the glass, it is the object and the glass that you are looking at, not the sun itself.  The sun is not what you see, rather it is that by which you see.  But it is nevertheless something distinct from you, and without the help of which your eye would be unable to detect the redness.

Similarly, light from the divine intellect is what illuminates the Forms for our intellects.  This divine light is not itself what the intellect sees (contrary to the first, ontologistic interpretation of Augustine), but rather that by which the intellect sees.  But still (and contrary to the second, Thomistic interpretation of Augustine), it is something distinct from any activity of the human intellect itself, and distinct from God’s conservation and concurrence with it.  It is an extra divine assistance without which the intellect, relying merely on its own capacities, would be unable to grasp the necessity, eternity, and perfection of the Forms.

Residual obscurity

This is helpful, though more as a way of telling us what illumination does not involve rather than what it does involve.  To be sure, it is clear that it involves a kind of divine causality over and above the conservation and concurrence with the human intellect considered just by itself.  But exactly what is the nature of this causality? 

Gareth Matthews (in his essay on Augustine’s epistemology in the first edition of the Cambridge Companion to Augustine) suggests a further interesting interpretive detail.  As I discussed in a post from a few years ago, Augustine developed an early version of the view that material phenomena are by themselves inherently semantically indeterminate (a thesis much explored by contemporary analytic philosophers like Quine and Kripke).  That is to say, given just the physical facts alone, there can be no fact of the matter about exactly what an utterance, gesture, or physical representation means.  If you add to this the premise that there nevertheless sometimes is a fact of the matter about what they mean, it follows that there must be some additional factor over and above the physical facts.

Matthews suggests that dealing with this issue is another job that Augustine intends the doctrine of divine illumination to do.  Hence, consider a triangle drawn in black outline on a marker board, and also all the physical facts involved in your seeing it and judging it to be a triangle (the causal relations between the marker board and your eyes, the brain activity going on as you look at and contemplate it, the utterances you make as you look at it, and so on).  The semantic indeterminacy arguments developed by Augustine, Quine, Kripke, et al. show that these physical facts alone could not suffice to determine that you are conceptualizing what you are looking at as a triangle – as opposed, say, to conceptualizing it as a triangle with black outlines, specifically, or as a trilateral, or whatever.

And yet there is a fact of the matter about which of these is in reality the way you are conceptualizing it.  Matthews’ suggestion is that divine illumination is at least part of the story about what makes this the case.  You might think of it on the following analogy (mine rather than Matthews’).  Suppose you are trying to get someone to see something in the distance, such as a certain constellation of stars.  He says: “I don’t see it.  Where?”  You grab his head and move it slightly, directing or aiming it toward the specific area of the night sky you want him to see.  Then he does.  “Oh yes, now I see it!”

Matthews seems to be suggesting that divine illumination is analogous to that.  The physical facts, even together with the facts about your own immaterial intellect, are not sufficient to determine that you will conceptualize what you see as a triangle, rather than as a triangle with black outlines, specifically, or as a trilateral.  But the divine intellect “grabs” your intellect, as it were, and directs or aims it in such a way that at that moment you conceptualize it the first way rather than the other ways. 

Naturally, this raises all sorts of further questions.  But it does seem to illuminate a little further the nature of the causality Augustine attributes to divine illumination.

Related posts:

Augustine on the immateriality of the mind

Augustine and Heraclitus on the present moment

Augustine on semantic indeterminacy

The divine intellect

Rucker’s Mindscape

Plato’s affinity argument

The pre-existence of the soul

111 comments:

  1. "The physical facts, even together with the facts about your own immaterial intellect, are not sufficient to determine that you will conceptualize what you see as a triangle, rather than as a triangle with black outlines, specifically, or as a trilateral."

    See, im struggling to see why we need such a thing as divine illumination in the first place when we include the immaterial intellect. Doesn't the intellect have the capacity for most of these things? Determinate semantic content, grasping neccessary truths etc. Why does that further call out for explanation as opposed to being sui generis?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. "we also need to account for the way that here and now you can come to understand such eternal truths, in a flash of insight or moment when it “clicks” (as when you figure out a proof or otherwise grasp the connections of logical necessity between propositions)."

      Isn't that flash of insight just when a conclusion is actualised by its premises on some sense? I'm sure Aquinas said something to the tune that the intellect moves itself only insofar as premises actualise a conclusion.

      I guess once you are somewhat familiar with Aquinas' epistemology I struggle to see the issue from Augustine's perspective. But its so simple im certain im missing something!

      Delete
    2. From what i got from De Magistro, St. Augustine just did not have or did not agree with the active/passive intellect of Aristotle, so sense data was useless to know universals. but Dr. Feser interpretations of divine illumination are a bit diferent from what i got(i was thinking that it mean we got knowledge directly by God like the angels), so who knows.

      Delete
    3. Callum wrote, "im struggling to see why we need such a thing as divine illumination in the first place when we include the immaterial intellect. Doesn't the intellect have the capacity for most of these things? Determinate semantic content, grasping neccessary truths etc"

      The intellect has the capacity, but it doesn't follow that it will comprehend these things. Comprehension is a possibility, not a necessity, although the object itself may be a necessary truth.

      To use another analogy: The conceptual space of the Forms is like an enormous labyrinth, and the finite intellect traversing the labyrinth may or may not reach the target, even if it exists forever. That's partly why divine illumination is needed to guide us into all truth.

      Delete
    4. To put it differently, the Divine Agent is needed to actualize the intellect's potential to know the Truth.

      Delete
  2. Dr. Feser, since the topic is about Platonism, I have a question: how to explain the Forms to people so they actually get what I'm talking about instead of them saying it's something "in my head"? Is this even possible for most people?

    I tried to explain to my dad that, if Platonism or something like it is true, then that means that, in a sense, certain moral truths are eternal and that, in a sense, for example, chattel slavery has always been and always will be gravely wrong.

    He replied, "But these moral truths are quite new. Slavery was only abolished not so long ago."

    I tried to explain what I mean, but it seems like he can't even conceptualize it as anything other than, "It's in your head. It's "not real.""

    When I try to explain that the Forms, if Platonism is true, are actually *more* real than anything else, I just completely lose him, and no progress can be made.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I think it's easier to start with logic or mathematics, e.g. by pointing out that 2 + 2 = 4 was true before there were any humans around and would remain true even if the material world didn't exist. Prof. Feser has a useful summary of similar arguments in TLS and Five Proofs.

      Delete
    2. Ha, ha. Your dad seems to be quite adept at metaphysics to me , with sound gut instincts. He probably thinks that you are a bit of a loon.

      Delete
    3. John 6.20pm

      If the material world did not exist, 2+2=4 would still be true if, say, God existed, but it is generally claimed that propositions like that are necessarily true. Is that really the case? If absolutely nothing concrete at all existed, I ( like the father of Anonymous at 3.51pm ) just cannot conceptualise as to how propositions could just be 'hanging around', spacelessly and timelessly, to be either true or false.

      Delete
    4. I have some similar questions regarding forms:

      1) If a triangle only approximates the Form of triangularity because it doesn't have perfectly straight sides, then how can we know triangles approximate the Form of triangles at all?

      If they lack the basic properties necessary for being complete triangles - such as having actually straight sides - then how can they be called triangles to begin with?

      And how can we even know the Form of triangularity from imperfect material triangles who flatly fail in having certain properties that the Form or a perfect triangle would have?

      2) How can we know that a triangle whose third side is missing is in particular a bad triangle rather than actually being a good two-sided angle?

      This also applies to other cases where a bad example of X could also be a good example of Y - without human intention in drawing being the determinative factor.

      Delete
    5. Joe D,

      You must have some idea of what you’re referring to when you used the word “perfect” above; you didn’t use the word “nvposdgjrhqb5wej[8”. Why not?

      Delete
    6. @Anon: What do you mean by concrete?

      Delete
    7. John,
      I think it's easier to start with logic or mathematics, e.g. by pointing out that 2 + 2 = 4 was true before there were any humans around and would remain true even if the material world didn't exist.

      2 + 2 = 4 is true by definition. Your paragraph is like saying 'a subway would be a train that travels underground' was true before there were any humans, and would be true even if the material world never existed.

      Delete
    8. Anon 7.47am

      I do not have a background in philosophy, so apologies if my terminology is not clear or in conformity with conventional use sometimes.

      By concrete I mean not abstract, so that a concrete object would be a material or an immaterial particular. I can see how a proposition can have a meaning in relation to concrete particulars, but it makes no sense to me to imagine them existing abstractly in an otherwise empty universe.

      Delete
    9. I think it makes sense to think of propositions as ideas in God's mind. In that way, they would exist even if nothing material did. But is God concrete? Hm.

      Delete
    10. Aaaaaand . . . . . here come all the Nominalists. The arguments about universals are very old and easy to find. Any defense of Nominalism appeals to terms that would be indeterminate if Nominalism were true. In other words, any defense of Nominalism assumes Realism in its argument.

      Delete
    11. That's neither here nor there. I just don't know how to make sense of the notion that God is "abstract". In fact, I don't know if abstract and concrete are opposites to begin with. In a sense, isn't everything "concrete", even "abstractions"?

      Delete
    12. T N,

      There's a difference between "easy to find" and "reliable", there's a difference between nominalism and understanding what does and does not come from definitions, and there is a difference between sneering at a statement and saying it is wrong. After all, if universals have some sort of existence, "a subway is a train that travels underground" describes the universal 'subway'. You do think universals are true, right?

      Delete
    13. One Brow,

      I don't know what you mean by 'true by definition'. It seems like you might be confusing two separate accounts of analytic knowledge, (a) the notion that analytic propositions are true in virtue of meaning, and (b) the notion that analytic propositions merely express linguistic conventions and are (somehow) made true in virtue of these conventions.

      It's important not to conflate these.

      John

      Delete
    14. Anonymous 9.41am

      Arn't abstract objects ( if they exist ) meant to be causally impotent, whereas concrete particulars can stand in causal relations with each other? This being so, if God exists ,surely he is an immaterial concrete particular?

      I am a novice philosophically, so wonder why you should pose the teaser 'But is God concrete ?'

      Incidentally, I started off by saying that abstract object are MEANT to be causally impotent, because I understand that a minority of philosophers have argued that certain ones might be causally efficacious, for example the proposition ' it is an ethical requirement that the universe exists'.

      Delete
    15. God transcends the abstract-concrete dichotomy. He's not abstract because he is power, but he's not concrete because he's not one particular being among many, he's being itself.

      Delete
    16. Joe D.'s point is one that has troubled me too. Although we may have an aesthetic preference for what we understand as 'perfect' figures - e.g. circles, triangles, squares, etc. - why should we assume that God does too? After all, the divine intellect may well regard every figure as perfect, including, say, the figure that my badly drawn triangle might more closely imitate than would a more accurately drawn one. This is different from the case of natural kinds, for example, a tree, of whatever species and whether flourishing or stunted, is easily seen as an example of the Form of a Tree.

      Delete
    17. "...he's being itself."

      Isn't that a tautology? If something IS, then it's by definition being. On a related note, everything "else" would then also have to be contained within God/Being, since everything that is, well, is. In that case, some kind of panentheism is inevitable.

      Incidentally, I'm not quite sure what to make of the essence-existence "distinction". If essences are (are!) real, whatever else we may say about them, they have to in some sense exist. So to say there's a "distinction" between essence and existence is kind of puzzling.

      Delete
    18. Anonymous,

      Panentheism isn't the logical outcome. The logical outcome is that God is attributed with all powers and forms.

      As for the distinction, there are such thing as essences that do not have an act of existence. The essences of non-existent things like dinosaurs or unicorns do not have an act of existence attached to them.

      Delete
    19. "Panentheism isn't the logical outcome. The logical outcome is that God is attributed with all powers and forms."

      Can you expand on that? It would seem that if God is Being Itself, by definition everything that is has to be contained within being, since the very notion if something existing means it is part of Being. Am I missing something here?

      "The essences of non-existent things like dinosaurs or unicorns do not have an act of existence attached to them."

      But if the essence is real, then it exists. Everything that is real exists by definition. What else do we mean when we say that something is real other than the fact that it exists?

      Delete
    20. @Anon

      "Can you expand on that? It would seem that if God is Being Itself, by definition everything that is has to be contained within being, since the very notion if something existing means it is part of Being. Am I missing something here?"

      Well, God is not Being in the sense that "God = the being all that exist share", but he is being in a non-limited way. If God were also our being them He would be in time, change etc, He would not be God.

      Think of it that way: you and me are humans, that is our essence, this essence is what explain our caracteristics, capacities and limits. You could say that it limits our existence to this human one. Now God is not part of any genus and so He is not limited to a particular way, rather he is unlimmited in power, knowledge etc.

      As you can see, both we and God exist but in very diferent ways. This is why Aquinas uses the doctrine of analogy, it means that when we say "God is Being-Itself" we don't mean to say "being" in the same sense that we say "I have being". This means that if we put your reasoning in a formal argument it will follow the fallacy of equivocation.

      "But if the essence is real, then it exists. Everything that is real exists by definition. What else do we mean when we say that something is real other than the fact that it exists?"

      The essences of non-existing things do exist in a way, but only as potentiality and as thought, so they do not exist in the sense we normally mean.

      Delete
    21. John,

      Unless you are claiming that "2 + 2 = 4" is in category a), while "a subway is a train that goes underground" is in category b), I'm not sure why you think I would be conflating the two categories. Are you making such a claim?

      Delete
    22. Talmud 7.32PM

      Clear as mud i'm afraid , at least to me. Not at all convinced that the idea of 'being itself' in opposed to just 'being' has any content. 'Ground of being' would be meaningful, if that meant the necessary existant from which all else sprang. Is 'being itself' the same as 'necessary existant'? Is that what you all mean?

      Delete
    23. One Brow,

      Well, I don't think mathematics is analytic in the first place.

      I was merely pointing out your position (viz. 'true by definition') seemed to confuse different understandings of analyticity, and I was hoping you'd clarify which alternative you adhered to.

      Delete
    24. John,

      I'm not sure I'm entirely on one side or the other of that divide. I don't think there are any sort of mystical, unembodied forms that we instantiate when making arguments, but we created most of these constructions because of their usefulness in describing our world, not because they are objects of art.

      Delete
    25. OB,

      Right, so I think the appeal to linguistic conventions that you now seem to be favoring is basically hopeless. See especially pp. 51-58 of Laurence BonJour's In Defense of Pure Reason. (Of course, if you're aware of such arguments, I'd be interested in hearing how you'd try to address them.)

      Delete
    26. Anonymous,

      "Being itself", or, to be more precise that which is existence itself is meant to mean that God is not a thing whose essence has an act of existence attached to it, but something whose essence is His existence. You have to understand the essence/existence distinction to understand this, I'm afraid, else you won't grasp this.

      It's very easy to grasp it though. We can talk about what a thing is without mentioning whether or not it exists. For example, I can talk about the essence of what it is to be a lion or a dinosaur or a unicorn without mentioning whether or not there are lions, dinosaurs, or unicorns in existence. Therefore, it makes sense that essence and existence would be distinct at least conceptually. Furthermore, we know this must be a real distinction between essence and existence in the things we know from experience for three reasons. First, if there were no real distinction, then we could know whether or not a thing exists simply by knowing what it is, but this is not the case. Second, if there were no real distinction, then the things we know from experience would exist necessarily, for their existence would follow from what they are, but this is not the case. Third, if there could in principle be more than one thing the essence of which is identical to its existence, then two or more such things would be distinguishable in some way, but they cannot. For to distinguish between different things requires some distinguishing factor, and that which just is existence itself + A would cease being that which just is existence itself. Therefore, the essence/existence distinction is real in the objects of our experience.

      We can see, then, why God would need to be that which just is existence itself, for God would have to be a necessary being without cause that created everything else, and He would need to be one. Only that which is just existence itself would fit the bill.

      You were wondering earlier about panentheism and why God wouldn't just be one with everything. Now, there are several things that panentheists have in common with classical theists. Both panentheism and classical theism claim that God the creator of the world and that the continued existence of the world depends upon God’s ongoing creative activity, and both panentheism and classical theism maintain the immanence of God. The significant difference between the two is that panentheism holds that God ontologically includes the world while classical theism maintains an ontological distinction between God and creation. To put it another way, the classical theist sees creation as a relation or external property of God while the panentheist sees creation as an intrinsic property of God. Of the two, classical theism is correct given the essence/existence distinction. You can't add something to that which is existence itself and still have it be that which is existence itself.

      Delete
    27. @Anon

      "Clear as mud i'm afraid , at least to me. Not at all convinced that the idea of 'being itself' in opposed to just 'being' has any content. 'Ground of being' would be meaningful, if that meant the necessary existant from which all else sprang. Is 'being itself' the same as 'necessary existant'? Is that what you all mean?"

      Mister Geocon explained well a few important concepts, so maybe it is a bit easier to get now. "Being-Itself" would mean that God does not exist in a limited way, He is not a human or a rock, He just is, being non-limited and so not part of any genus.

      It is not that God is this existence, this being we all share. Rather He exists but in a diferent and separate sense. While we are in a way both being and non-being because we are limited and contingent God is just being, for He is unlimited and necessary.

      That is why i don't like terms like "being-itself" or "existence-itself", they do sound panentheistic as hell. "being" refering to us and "being" refering to God are not equivocal but neither are they univocal, what we have is analogy.

      Delete
    28. Mr Geocon and Talmid

      There are numerous contributors using the tag 'Anonymous'. I am the one who has been asking about the notion of 'being itself' , while it is another who inquired about panentheism.

      Thanks for both of your replies.

      So 'being itself' then, having no possible seperation of essence and existance ( these being identical in its case ) is interchangeable with 'necessary existant'. Is that correct? If so, I believe the latter to be a much preferable term, as it is self explanatory and much less likely to puzzle the uninitiated.

      Delete
    29. In a sense, they are interchangeable in that they all describe the same God in different ways. However, I feel that "necessary existant" doesn't put the emphasis on the lack of distinction between God's essence and God's existence, instead placing the emphasis on God's necessary existence. I like the term ipsum esse subsistens ("Subsistent Being Itself") that St. Thomas used.

      Delete
    30. John,
      Right, so I think the appeal to linguistic conventions that you now seem to be favoring is basically hopeless. See especially pp. 51-58 of Laurence BonJour's In Defense of Pure Reason. (Of course, if you're aware of such arguments, I'd be interested in hearing how you'd try to address them.)

      I don't seem to have a convenient way to access that material right now. However, I'm not sure that I agree I am appealing to linguistic conventions. I said we create them because they reflect the world around us (in a simplified manner). If they were mere conventions, with nothing of reality in them, they would not be useful.

      Going back to an earlier statement, I would agree many mathematical theorems (such as the Pythagorean theorem) are synthetic, at least in the sense that they are not just repeating the definition, but saying something not obvious from the initial axioms). However, that does mean all are synthetic, and I would still say 2 + 2 = 4 is true by definition.

      Delete
    31. Mr Geocon

      'Subsistant being itselt' sounds terribly mysterious, even more so than 'being itself'. 'Necessary existant' might not explicitly emphasise the lack of distinction between God's existance and essance, but that is surely implicit in the term.

      Delete
    32. "The essences of non-existing things do exist in a way, but only as potentiality and as thought, so they do not exist in the sense we normally mean."

      Hm. I don't think that appealing to how we 'normally' mean something is enough to establish something as profound as a "distinction" between essence and existence. If something exists, then it exists.

      I think here we can speak of some philosophers being misguided by semantics. Being, existence, real-ness, these are all essentially the same thing, and it makes no sense to treat them separately.

      The semantic confusion then leads people to think that an answer is possible to the question, "Why does anything exist at all?" when such an answer is clearly not possible, not even to God. Somewhere along the line of such an "answer" the semantic confusion is smuggled in such that the person, for some reason, excludes God from "anything" and then proceeds basically to make an argument for God's existence, when the question, "Why is there anything at all?" is a radically different question. Obviously, anything/everything would have to include God.

      And since not even God can answer that ultimate question, some kind of (qualified) irrationalism and metaphysical voluntarism is inevitable.

      As for panentheism, I think it is inevitable and true for several reasons, but that, too, is perhaps beyond the scope of this thread.

      Delete
    33. P.S.: With all due respect, the very fact that you can say, "the essences of non-existing things do exist" with a straight face should perhaps lead you to reconsider things. Can can something of a non-existent thing exist?

      Again, I think the problem here is essentially semantic/terminological confusion.

      Dr. Feser often rightly complains about materialists making a metaphysics out of method. But I think here we can speak of making a metaphysics out of semantics.

      Delete
    34. OB,

      I guess I don't understand this talk of us 'creating them' etc. if this isn't meant to refer to linguistic conventions in some essential manner.

      In any event, if you grant there's synthetic a priori knowledge, then deflationary proposals are out the window and we're back to affirming something that is true of mind-independent reality in all possible worlds and has essentially nothing to do with how we define things (at least, unless you take some kind of Kantian line, which is interesting but raises a whole host of separate issues).

      Delete
    35. @BeingItself anon

      I don't think the terms are interchangeable in our use, for some philosopher defends the existence of things that are necessary existent but are not Being Itself, like most modern platonists. I don't like "Being-Itself" and terms like that, so i usually avoid using they, but they do tell a bit more.

      In reality, though, i would say than you could be necessary existent only if you were like God, so yes, they refer to exactly the same reality.

      @Panentheistic Anon

      Terminology is the problem yes, but i don't think i'am the one erring. The average man in the streets would likely not fail to understand what i meant if i said that Harry Potter exists in a way, he likely would just think it is me being a bit of a smart-ass, but would not think i'am talking complete nonsense.

      The problem only arises if you insist that every word must have one meaning, but language does not work like that, so things are cool. Your talk about the famous question "why everything exists at all?" Also suffer from that, for everyone usually think this questions uses "anything" to refer for the sensible world we see, at most to our souls too if the person is a dualist.

      That is why Leibniz could correctly respond "Because God could not fail to exist by His nature" and no one of the inteligent philosophers who read him say "look at this contradictory idiot, lol!" And that is also why most people could believe that God(or gods) created everything and not them thin "oh my, what a stupid idea".

      Delete
    36. John,

      While I probably don't have your level of understanding of the terms in a philosophical context, I would see a "convention" as something done traditionally/habitually, as opposed to with a specific purpose and reason. When we create models to reflect and interpret reality, we are not doing so out of a habit handed down to us, but because these models accomplish things for us by reflecting/simplifying that reality.

      It can then be true that there are synthetic, a priori conclusions that are true in every universe, since the construction itself it possible in any universe.

      Delete
    37. Just saying that a term "sounds mysterious" isn't a convincing argument.

      Delete
  3. What role do the angels play in this enlightenment? (Pun intended)

    ReplyDelete
  4. "Similarly, when you and I contemplate the Form of Triangle, it is one and the same objective reality that we both contemplate. But the most one could be aware of via memory is a subjective mental representation of a Form, not the Form itself. Hence, recollection of a purported acquaintance with the Forms prior to birth cannot explain how we intersubjectively know them now. "

    Could not Plato respond that the "memory" of the Form is not what the intellect know but how he know? On Aristotle view the active intellect abstract the universal from sense experience, but the mind object is not this abstraction, rather it is the universal.

    btw, i can see how the active intelect can explain or knowledge of most universals, redness, for instance, is IN red things after all. But how could this method give us knowledge of things like substance, time, change, space, casuality etc? Kant take these to be necessary to understand experience at all, and it at least is a interesting view.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Hey Ed,

    Quick question about this:

    Matthews seems to be suggesting that divine illumination is analogous to that. The physical facts, even together with the facts about your own immaterial intellect, are not sufficient to determine that you will conceptualize what you see as a triangle, rather than as a triangle with black outlines, specifically, or as a trilateral. But the divine intellect “grabs” your intellect, as it were, and directs or aims it in such a way that at that moment you conceptualize it the first way rather than the other ways.

    Are you saying the divine intellect forces us to conceptualize a triangle in the first way, rather than the other two ways? Or is it that the divine intellect must enable us to conceptualize it in any of the three ways?

    ReplyDelete
  6. It is also imperfect, lacking the perfect straightness of sides that a triangle is supposed to have given its essence. And any sensory representations or mental images we can form of a triangle are going to have the same defects.

    Let us grant that any actual instantiation of "a triangle" in the physical world - say, a triangle drawn on white paper with a pencil and ruler - has imperfections. If you look at it with a magnifying glass, you see that the line wavers a bit. Under higher magnification, you see that the edges of the line are very rough, and ultimately the "line" itself isn't even continuous, but is made up of particles of graphite. The edges of the line aren't merely "rough", they are merely particles and you can easily see them separated from each other by other particles of the white paper.

    But these imperfections DO NOT seemingly repeat in the imagination. The imagination is not forced to imagine the grainy particulation we see under a microscope. The imagination can easily represent a simple "line" as a side of a "triangle" without any wavers or bends, without any imperfections, can't it? So, in what way must we accept that any mental images we form will have defects? Whatever may be true of real physical matter, my imagination doesn't have to present grainy particularity. It's not limited that way.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Tony,

      I guess what Feser meant is that the image of a triangle formed in “imagination” is still a very specific triangle with specific contingent attributes. For example, that picture of a triangle in the imagination would be either an equilateral triangle, or an isosceles triangle, or a scalene triangle. Or a triangle with black outline. But a triangle per se, or an universal triangle, is not restricted to any of such contingencies. Hence even a triangle-image in the imagination is still defective in the sense that it is not a triangle in its pure form.

      Triangle per se cannot be imagined but can only be conceived. To conceive is not to imagine. Forming images, even in the imagination, intrinsically comes with limitations. The only way for us to escape those kind of limitation is to conceive (which would not involve those kind of limitation).

      Cheers!
      johannes hui

      Delete
    2. Johannes, thanks. I agree with all that. I think that using "imperfect" for "not general" is poor phrasing. He should have used "limited" or something like that: the triangle in the imagination is a perfect instance of, say, a scalene triangle, so while it is limited and thus does not instantiate triangle-ness in a universal way (abstracted of all features not applicable to "triangle-ness"), it does instantiate it perfectly well.

      But it is indeed a small point, and his basic thesis remains valid: the mind cannot achieve the pure concept triangle-ness on the basis solely of this one scalene triangle in the imagination.

      Delete
  7. Could someone recommend a book which explores the topic of universals and the varying conceptions of them in a reasonably comprehensible and unbiassed manner, so that I can get a decent overview of the area?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Chapter 6 of "Medieval Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction" would be a good choice. If you want something longer, perhaps try "Universals" by J. P. Moreland.
      Bear in mind that both of those have some sort of ideology on the topic, but also that they do explore the other side of the argument, if only to just reject it.

      Delete
    2. Thanks for the suggestions, and accompanying warning.

      Presumably this is a key topic covered in university courses in metaphysics within philosophy departments. Can anyone suggest a standard text book with a comprehensive expositiom where the author does not have an axe to grind?

      Delete
    3. A solid introduction could be found in the Catholic Encyclopedia.

      Delete
    4. One of the six main sections of 'A Survey of Metaphysics' by EJ Lowe ( Oxford University Press) is devoted to the topic of 'Particulars and Universals' . This standard university metaphysics text book is not partisan in its exposition.

      Delete
  8. It's a little disappointing that a post titled "Augustine on divine illumination" doesn't contain a single quote of Augustine, nor provide any references to his writings on the subject. In my experience, Augustine explains himself far better than any commentaries. Why not let him speak for himself?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. There are no pithy quotes because "nailing down [Augustine's] precise content is notoriously difficult" when it comes to his "doctrine on divine illumination" beyond "his general idea and motivation," as we were informed at the top of the article.

      Delete
    2. I wasn't asking for "pithy quotes", but engagement with the primary source.

      If Dr. Feser's purpose is to discuss divine illumination in the Augustinian tradition, in the way he has discussed topics in the Aristotelian tradition, then it is perhaps not necessary to engage with the primary source, but the subject is Augustine's view, not the views of some modern commentators - respected philosophers as they may be, they are not of the same stature as Augustine.

      I was disappointed, as if someone had invited me to view some original paintings by an old master, only to discover that they were imitations made by amateurs.

      Delete
    3. Nemo, educated commentators on Augustine aren't amateur imitations.

      Delete
    4. Nemo, any quotations in a short article would have to be pithy, but Dr. Feser's contention is that Augustine made it a tough job to figure out what the precise details behind his general doctrine on divine illumination are. That contention amounts to a claim that there are no satisfactorily revealing pithy quotes.

      Perhaps Dr. Feser is wrong but in that case you could show this (by providing the pithy quotations that would disprove his contention, for example). But perhaps, and more likely, Dr. Feser is correct, in which case Augustine could not speak for himself through his writings, as they are frozen in the past, and apparently do not address the question. In this case, detective work after the fact would be necessary to "illuminate" the thinking that led to Augustine's general doctrine.

      This is what the article is about. I think that it does a fine and respectful job.

      Perhaps you feel that Dr. Feser is being critical of
      Augustine. I don't think this is the case. Feser is just trying to understand, or recreate, Augustine's thinking and is being as nice to Augustine as Aquinas always was.

      Yes, I would like to read some quotations of Augustine too, as he was a great writer, but in this case, it is too late.

      Delete
    5. Anonymous,

      When Dr. Feser writes about Aquinas' views on things, e.g. Aquinas contra globalism, he would quote extensively from his writings, and provide comments either to elaborate or connect the points. It is very helpful to someone like me who is not at all familiar with Aquinas.

      Unfortunately, he doesn't follow the same approach here, but instead, paraphrases and summarizes ideas which may or may not accurately represent Augustine's, and which require further clarification themselves. It rather reminds me of the Telephone game where the participants hear garbled messages several degrees removed from the origin.

      One cannot judge the quality of the commentators' work unless he is familiar with the primary source himself. I'll take up your suggestion and spend some time revisiting Augustine's epistemology: regardless of whether he addresses the particular questions raised here, I have no doubt his own exposition on the subject would be more illuminating and inspiring.

      "It’s not in the book or in the writer that readers discern the truth of what they read; they see it in themselves, if the light of truth has penetrated their minds."

      Delete
    6. Nemo,

      "When Dr. Feser writes about Aquinas' views on things, e.g. Aquinas contra globalism, he would quote extensively from his writings, and provide comments either to elaborate or connect the points."

      Look at the links Dr. Fesor provides to his previous writings at the end of his article. In all three of the linked articles entitled "Augustine on [...]" Augustine is quoted in the manner you like to see. This is Dr. Feser's habit. When such quotations are not available, of course, they cannot be put into the article, yet Dr. Feser quotes Augustine in the broader context of these links in support of his article.

      Read the linked articles.

      Delete
    7. You ever go out of your way to make someone a free meal, and they respond with: "Gee, this is really disappointing. I like chives in my mashed potatoes"?

      That's what blogging feels like sometimes.

      Delete
    8. Dr. Feser,

      My apology if I seem ungrateful, but it's a common human trait. As someone once said, "Not even God can write a book everybody likes." You're in good company. :)

      If Gordon Ramsey were to invite us to a free holiday dinner, I would have high expectations of the quality of the dishes, simply because of his reputation as a chef, the fact that the meal is free is irrelevant.

      Acting on the assumption that you want to inform and entertain your readers, I was trying to provide (what I thought was constructive) feedback, to help you help readers like myself. If there is a better way to go about this, I'd be glad to heed your advice.

      Delete
    9. Well said Nemo. This Feser jerk obviously does not appreciate criticism , even of the constructive variety and as politely expressed as yours. He much prefers the mindless obeisance of his coterie of doting admirers.

      Delete
    10. Nemo,

      That's fine. It's not the preference for quotes from Augustine that I found annoying -- totally fair point -- but the going on and on about it.

      Look, here's the thing. I'm extremely busy. It's very hard as it is to keep the blog going at all, given all the other commitments I have (writing deadlines, teaching, family commitments, and what have you). The blog sucks up a lot of time, with no remuneration.

      I'm happy to do it -- I've been doing it for well over a decade now -- and I appreciate all my readers and their feedback, including the criticism (when it's not completely obnoxious and unconstructive, like Unknown above). But I do confess that one of the few things I find really annoying is when people go on about how I'm not writing on something they wish I had, or too much on something they're not interested in, and so on -- as if they're not getting their money's worth or something. And as if I'm obligated to blog at all in the first place.

      Not to jump down your throat about it. Just tired after a long day. Peace.

      Delete
    11. "I like chives in my mashed potatoes"

      De gustibus non...
      Para gustos hay colores.

      I don't think Nemo intended going on and on about it though. He was dragged into into a longish and pointless exchange for making his original point.

      This had to do with the original version being the best, which is always a valid point. If one invites someone to a paella and they find olives and chorizo in it (as some English chefs have tried to do) or get served pizza with beef and ketchup on it, groans can be expected, and not just from purists.

      St. Augustine au Mathews may show that the original is usually better than convoluted experimentation, at least if we really want to get the authentic taste.

      Delete
    12. "I like chives in my mashed potatoes"

      Your blog is not only free and surely also tastes deliciously of chives, but in a world with too many who wilfully mislead, your blog and your work in general, play a leading and very important part in correcting the misdirection. Don't let the sniping discourage you. It means that you are close on the track of truth.

      Three cheers! Keep it up!

      Delete
    13. Anonymous,

      Very kind, thank you!

      Delete
    14. Miguel Cervantes wrote,

      "[Nemo] was dragged into a longish and pointless exchange for making his original point."

      I've had a few lengthy and (seemingly) futile exchanges at this site, but that was not one of them: I learned something from Anonymous (for that I'm grateful), and also got my point across, after a couple of attempts.

      You're right that I didn't intend to harp on the issue, but only tried to make myself understood.

      Augustine has been criticized by some for prolixity. Considering that his audience must have vastly diverse backgrounds and levels of intelligence and knowledge, like the readership of this blog, perhaps it is prudent to err on the side of prolixity to avoid confusion and misunderstanding. In that regard, I'm a bona fide Augustinian. :)

      Delete
    15. Dr. Feser wrote,

      "one of the few things I find really annoying is when people go on about how I'm not writing on something they wish I had, or too much on something they're not interested in, and so on --"

      You wrote about it before. It sounds reasonable: The reader is certainly not in a position to dictate what the author should write. I would not have made the comment, if I had thought that was what I was doing.

      Since you opened the door, I'll probe a little further: Could you give a few examples of criticisms of your books/blogposts that you do find helpful and why? It might give us a better guideline on how to provide feedback. Annoyance is too subjective a condition to avoid.

      Delete
    16. Nemo, I'm glad you take it in your stride.

      Delete
  9. "Recall that for Augustine, the Forms are to be understood as ideas in the divine intellect. Indeed, their necessity, eternity, and perfection provide the basis of an argument for the existence of a divine mind to ground them. "

    But if absolute Divine simplicity is true, there can be no "ideas" in the Divine intellect that aren't identical to the Divine intellect itself.

    Moreover, the "perfect Forms" seem to be simply a rudimentary form of data reduction, albeit clothed in philosophical language. ANY closed shape can be held to be a "perfect FORM". After all, a quadrilateral is also a "perfect FORM" just like a triangle. And so is a pentagon, a hexagon, a nonagon, etc, or a google-a-gon.


    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. But if absolute Divine simplicity is true, there can be no "ideas" in the Divine intellect that aren't identical to the Divine intellect itself.

      This is correct. But through self-knowledge, God has omniscience, since He is the source of all things. Understand, when we speak of God's intellect, we're speaking of something that is to God what intellect is to us, not something like a human intellect.

      Moreover, the "perfect Forms" seem to be simply a rudimentary form of data reduction, albeit clothed in philosophical language. ANY closed shape can be held to be a "perfect FORM". After all, a quadrilateral is also a "perfect FORM" just like a triangle. And so is a pentagon, a hexagon, a nonagon, etc, or a google-a-gon.

      So, what you're telling me is that you don't know what a Form is, but you think it sounds like something else and that gives you carte blanche to say something obvious as if it's a "gotcha"?

      The Forms are a standard of perfection of a thing, not a particular shape of something (which I think you're implying with your... whatever you're saying). According to Platonism, the perfect versions of quadrilaterals, triangles, pentagons, hexagons, nonagons, and google-a-gons are all existing Forms. The particular quadrilaterals, triangles, etc. participate in the Perfect Forms and are only pale reflections of them. And the various Forms in turn all participate in the Form of the Good. For the Forms, in turn, are mere instances of Goodness that participate in the Form of the Good.

      Delete
    2. I'm sorry, but you seem to have missed my points by a country mile. Let me try again and be more specific.

      There can be no such thing as the "idea of a triangle" in the Divine intellect unless the Divine intellect (which is identical to God) were identical to the idea of a triangle, which is absurd. Saying God is omniscient and therefore knows the idea of a triangle doesn't help, because this idea must still be something OUTSIDE His intellect.

      And merely restating Platonic teaching about Forms does nothing whatsoever to answer my objection. Yes, it is claimed that Forms are the standard of perfection of a thing, but the only way you get there is by using how our brains classify things (via data reduction). The point is that an "imperfect" triangle is a "perfect" something else.

      Delete
    3. There can be no such thing as the "idea of a triangle" in the Divine intellect unless the Divine intellect (which is identical to God) were identical to the idea of a triangle, which is absurd. Saying God is omniscient and therefore knows the idea of a triangle doesn't help, because this idea must still be something OUTSIDE His intellect.

      First, when we talk about God's intellect and its contents, we have to keep in mind that this is all analogical. While you would be correct that, were I using these words univocally when describing God, it’d have the problems you suggest. But this is not the case.

      Second, all of the separate ideas about things that exist or could exist appear to God as a single idea - an idea of the Good, an idea of Himself. It is through God's self-knowledge that He has knowledge of the world He created. Now, you could ask "okay, but wouldn't God be identical to the ‘idea of God’?” In a sense, He would be, but this isn't a problem for the Thomist. Unlike other essences, God's essence is that which just is existence itself. To have full knowledge of God's essence is to be God. This is a bit inscrutable to us mere mortals, but that's the point. That's one of the reasons why unknowability is regularly attributed to God.

      And merely restating Platonic teaching about Forms does nothing whatsoever to answer my objection. Yes, it is claimed that Forms are the standard of perfection of a thing, but the only way you get there is by using how our brains classify things (via data reduction). The point is that an "imperfect" triangle is a "perfect" something else.

      I fear that I'm misunderstanding you again, but you seem to be claiming that Platonism denies that particular objects can participate in multiple forms at the same time. Can you explain why you think this is an objection?

      Delete
    4. To be clear, I'm claiming Platonic Forms is 1) contradictory to Thomism and 2) not rigorously demonstrable from first principles.

      True, Divine attributes are analogical and not univocal, but I don't see how that helps here. It is still the case that all Divine attributes are identical to the Divine essence, which is identical to the Divine existence.

      When we say God is just or God is merciful, it means God is identical to justice and mercy themselves, although those terms, when applied to God, aren't univocally the same as our human concepts of those terms, but only analogous. Of course, our mere human intellects can't comprehend this completely, but it's not a contradiction. But when Platonism tries to say the idea of a triangle is "in" the Divine intellect, this entails that the idea of a triangle is therefore also identical to the Divine essence, even if the "idea of triangle" as applied to God is only analogous to our idea of a triangle. This, I claim, is absurd. The ideas of a perfect triangle vs. a perfect square are fundamentally contradictory in a way that perfect justice vs. perfect mercy are not, such that God cannot be both the idea of a perfect triangle and the idea of a perfect square, whereas He can be (and is) perfect justice and perfect mercy.

      Moreover, if we know the idea of a perfect triangle because God illumines with His idea of a perfect triangle, then this implies God illumines us with Himself, which epistemology a Thomist would reject.

      As for the second objection, the Platonist cannot rigorously refute that each object has its own unique Form which it participates "perfectly" in. So your "imperfect" triangle might actually be a "perfect" google-a-gon. Yes, our brains see "triangle" and not "google-a-gon", but that is merely a data reduction.









      Delete

    5. True, Divine attributes are analogical and not univocal, but I don't see how that helps here. It is still the case that all Divine attributes are identical to the Divine essence, which is identical to the Divine existence.

      When we say God is just or God is merciful, it means God is identical to justice and mercy themselves, although those terms, when applied to God, aren't univocally the same as our human concepts of those terms, but only analogous. Of course, our mere human intellects can't comprehend this completely, but it's not a contradiction. But when Platonism tries to say the idea of a triangle is "in" the Divine intellect, this entails that the idea of a triangle is therefore also identical to the Divine essence, even if the "idea of triangle" as applied to God is only analogous to our idea of a triangle. This, I claim, is absurd. The ideas of a perfect triangle vs. a perfect square are fundamentally contradictory in a way that perfect justice vs. perfect mercy are not, such that God cannot be both the idea of a perfect triangle and the idea of a perfect square, whereas He can be (and is) perfect justice and perfect mercy.


      Well, okay, but you’re wrong for the exact reasons I gave. God knows Himself, and through this self-knowledge, He knows everything else. This is the sense in which the form of the triangle and the form of the circle are “in” God.

      Understand, if these things weren’t “in” God in some sense, we’d have to conclude that either God did not create the Forms or that the Forms do not exist. Both of these are equally incoherent positions. If you have some alternative, then please give your answer.

      Moreover, if we know the idea of a perfect triangle because God illumines with His idea of a perfect triangle, then this implies God illumines us with Himself, which epistemology a Thomist would reject.

      Sure, but I wasn’t arguing for Augustinian epistemology, and I don’t think Professor Feser was either. He contrasts St. Thomas’s view with St. Augustine’s view in the article. I assume he’d side with the former over the latter.

      As for the second objection, the Platonist cannot rigorously refute that each object has its own unique Form which it participates "perfectly" in. So your "imperfect" triangle might actually be a "perfect" google-a-gon. Yes, our brains see "triangle" and not "google-a-gon", but that is merely a data reduction.

      Yes, and you might be a robot or an angel. Humans can make mistakes about what they experience. That doesn’t invalidate the idea of the Forms. My mistaking a good google-a-gon for a bad triangle doesn’t have any greater philosophical significance.

      Delete
  10. As Mathews mentions, St. Augustine states “it is from this light that the soul understands whatever it is able to understand”. Yet different individuals obviously have different aptitudes and intellectual abilities based upon their natures and formation, as we can easily see. It doesn’t seem to be explained by divine illumination at all. It looks more like St. Augustine wrestling with the baggage of Platonism than anything else.

    Any system which blurs the distinction between man and God ends up, not raising him to the level of God, but reducing God to the human level in the end. Malebranche’s errors show where it can end up. Mathews’ inference that St. Augustine uses illumination to enable “ambiguity free” perception as a normal human process seems to point to an example of the intuitive science favoured by Traditionalist and conservative thinkers. Malebranche was one of their heroes of course.

    The Thomistic understanding of humans being efficient secondary causes in knowing and understanding is surely the one which applies common sense and squares with the Faith. The alternative would be the erosion of man as a rational being distinct from God. One is also reminded of certain pious persons who believe that just about every thought they have comes from an evil or a good spirit.

    There seems to be another risk in making routine human knowledge the result of divine intervention (beyond that of being primary cause as with all human actions). It could blur the distinction between ordinary human intellectual activity and Revelation, which is God communicating truth to humans by a means which is beyond nature.

    Finally, it’s hard to say that Plotinus had replaced the form of the good with God. His concept “the One” is intentionally impersonal and therefore not the God of Abraham, who he was well aware of.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. "The One", for Plotinus, is simply the principle of individuation, that is, for something to exist it must in some sense be one. But the One is not an individual itself, as it would then be an example of what it is to explain.

      Delete
    2. I'am probably wrong, but i aways understood Plotinus as seeing the One as something like the Panentheistic God, except being impersonal. I believe that he saw the lower levels of reality as being united to the higher ones by more that just ontological dependency.

      Plato probably saw things that way too. The popular idea of there being two ontologically distinct worlds on Platonism(with the Forms being completly separate and casually impotent) was something i saw some deny before and the little i understood from Parmenides does sugest that Plato itself saw that view as flawled.

      Delete
    3. As every cause precedes its effect, and every cause contains its effect, then yes, the relation in more primordial than simple dependence. In the One, however, we have to remember that for Plato the One is not, and is not one. That is, the One is not a positively existing individual, as this would mean that the principle of individuation must also be an individual itself. The "cause" of a things goodness is it's one-ness, it's degree of existing as a single unit. So the One is not itself a level of ontological reality at all, as it is supra-essential and non-causal. However, if the One is supra-essential, and cannot be above Deity as then some would say it in some sense causes Deity, then so too must Deity be supra-essential. This puts to bed the notion of panentheistic Deity, I think. So far as it goes with the Forms, they are ontological categories, and are beneath Deity in light of their essential existence.

      Delete
    4. @Richard

      Thanks! I guess i can understand it a bit better. We could say them that, using a more Aristotelian language, that "the One" is something more like a formal cause that a efficient cause of things?

      The bit about Deity also helped me see why the "beyond-being" talk is there, so thanks again.

      Delete
    5. As far as it goes for things that are caused, I would say that yes, formal causality isn't far off the mark. As far as it goes for Deity, Deity cannot be considered to fit some pre-existent category, as Deity is -first- in consideration of things that exist. So for Deity, the first actuality is just pure self-identity previous to any kind of relation.

      Delete
    6. "The One itself is not an individual" as you note above. So would you agree that Plotinus did not postulate God, as understood by Moses or St Peter?

      Delete
    7. It's complicated with Plotinus. I don't think the One is impersonal at all, and some Plotinus scholars have pointed out that it would be absurd for Plotinus to think of the highest principle as being devoid of intelligence. By the principle of prior possession (or proportionate causality) the One must also have intelligence, life, etc. Plotinus just wants to stress that it is very different from our intelligence.

      It does seem that Plotinus thinks the One doesn't think of us, however. That would make it different from God traditionally conceived. But even then, maybe for Plotinus the One does know us somehow, hard to say.

      Delete
    8. Yes. Miguel. I would agree.

      Delete
    9. @Richard

      Would you say the same about Deity? From what i understand, Plotinus and most neoplatonists did not see Deity as this omnipotent intellect, like theists do, and that is why they had the idea of a eternal cosmos that is "emanated" by the higher realities in a hierarquical order.

      As i understand, the christian idea of seeing God as Father is kinda strange to they, even Aristotle God was not concern at all with us or the world.

      Delete
    10. For all of the Neoplatonists, the Gods are the first individuals, and all things proceed from Them. As the One is supra-essential, so the Gods are supra-essential as well, each one of Them existing as an absolute individual previous to any categorization. That is, since identity is the first actuality, as no one has any other individuals identity as some kind of potential, then the Gods just are fully Themselves and are not characterized by what They do, but instead by who They are.

      Each level of reality proceeds then from how those Gods choose to relate to one another. This should make clear that each God must be Themselves first, in order for any kind of relation to take place at all and so generate any kind of level of ontological reality. For example, the concept of intellect which you bring up is not itself an absolute individual , but is instead a relation due to the presence of the Forms within itself, which it beholds and contemplates. While Intellect is a unity, it is nevertheless also a relation and so is not a Deity, an absolutely unconditioned individual.

      Delete
    11. @Richard

      Very interesting, i really need to take a closer look to Neoplatonism someday, i did read Plato but a lot of what he writed likely just went over my head. I though there where just this divine and absolute impersonal reality(The One) and that everything else was like a manifestation of it(like on some forms of Hinduism for instance), but you are showing me that this is not exactly the case.

      Thanks again and last question: so the Gods actually do things similar to choosing, knowing, acting etc? That is something i did not understood before.

      Delete
    12. It seems that Monotheism is really not a Neoplatonic thing, but the tradition is not like what i thought it is.

      Delete
    13. I'll start at the top. As each God is non-extended, each God is -in- each God. This is the first relation which can only come about from each God existing as Themselves first, so that this second fact can be understood properly. This is not a question of parts relating to a whole, where each God would be a part of an abstracted divine class, but would instead be a case of wholes relating to wholes. So the "knowledge" each God has of Themselves is equal to the "knowledge" They have of each other God. This encompasses the first relation between the Gods. A God, if it so chooses to participate in the ontic manifold, may choose another Deity as a "parent", but this parentage does not create the Deity as such, instead it is a revelatory choice that points out where that Gods activity will be. So yes, Gods are active and choose things although They need not do so, since They are free to simply exist as Themselves without bothering with ontology at all.

      Delete
    14. I hope you don't believe this.

      Delete
    15. In fact, here is an example from the meditations of Plotinus where we see the Gods together:
      Let there be, then, in the soul a shining imagination of a sphere, having everything within it, either moving or standing still, or some things moving and others standing still. Keep this, and apprehend in your mind another, taking away the mass: take away also the places, and the mental picture of matter in yourself, and do not try to apprehend another sphere smaller in mass than the original one, but calling on the God who made that of which you have the mental picture, pray him to come. And may he come, bringing his own universe with him, and all the Gods within him, he who is one and all, and each God is all the Gods coming together into one […] (V.8.9.8-17)

      Delete
    16. @Miguel Cervantes? I do, in fact, believe this.

      Delete
    17. I think that Cervantes will think your beliefs a little odd Richard, and likely reject them for lack of evidential support. That is because he displays an egregious lack of self awareness regarding his own condition.

      Delete
    18. Hey Richard, just been looking at the list of blogs you follow. I used to read 'Subversive Thinking' years ago, but one day it simply vanished, all its myriads of posts gone. Do you know what happened to it?

      Delete
    19. @Anonymous: Jime got sick of the paranormal community online, and simply deleted his blog. I think when it came down to it, many people were turned off or became upset when Jime got around to arguments in favor of monotheism. Knowing the paranormal community as I do, I'm not surprised at his choice at all. When I last emailed him a few years ago, he was still researching and learning, but I haven't seen hide nor hair of him since then. He is very missed.

      Delete
    20. @Richard

      Thanks for you help, Neoplatonism seems pretty diferent from what i thought it was.

      It is a pretty pluzzling but also pretty interesting view. I will sure try to understand it better eventually.

      Delete
    21. Richard

      To stop blogging is one thing, but to delete such a treasure trove of valuable posts, including a myriad of interviews , is another. That suggests to me some kind of instability, or at least such a change in perspective as to see your previous activity as being undesirable or positively harmful. If he was beginning to explore the arguments for monotheism , perhaps he experienced conversion to Christianity say, and so saw much his previous theorising and output as being sinful?

      Delete
    22. Richard, It's true that Plotinus wrote about gods, but that doesn't amount even to what pagan cults of his time professed. Aristotle also talked about them and the need to conserve the traditional pagan religion of his time in the ideal polis, but not because he believed in them. He also didn't believe in praying to the Prime Mover. Nor did he think the Prime Mover could act in any kind of providential way, even if he could hear us. These thinkers were not about religion.

      Man can know the existence of God by the use of his reason. Unfortunately, ancient philosophers did not use undiluted reason and there is surely a lot of "ideological" baggage we have to discriminate between(thanks to men like St. Thomas). If Plotinus states that "man's one task" is personal perfection, without a relation to God, who is absent in any real way from the world, then his musings can go on forever. It's very difficult to see how such thinkers could rid themselves of the mirage of self-perfection without consciousness of the reality of original sin. Instead, the old inducement "you can be as God" still held.

      Indeed, the Greek ideal of independence and self-sufficiency is the quintessence of sin for Christianity. So the mentality behind Plotinus is still very fashionable, but I couldn't advise you to take it seriously.

      Delete
    23. "The affection of children for their parents, like that of humans for the Gods, is the affection for what is good, and superior to oneself, for they have bestowed on them the greatest benefits in being the cause of their existence and rearing, and later of their education," (Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics 1162a4-7).
      "We understand the Gods to enjoy supreme felicity and happiness. But what sort of actions can we attribute to them? … If we go through the list we shall find that all forms of virtuous conduct seem trifling and unworthy of the Gods … But for a living being, if we eliminate action, and a fortiori production, what remains save contemplation? It follows that the God's activity, which is transcendent in blessedness, is the activity of contemplation; and therefore among human activities, that which is most akin to the divine activity of contemplation will be the greatest source of happiness." (Nicomachean Ethics, 1178b7-24).
      "The things there [outside the heaven] are of such a nature as not to occupy any place, nor does time age them … they continue throughout their entire duration [aiĆ“n] unaltered and unmodified, living the best and most self-sufficient of lives." De Caelo (279a18-22) This literally points out an indefinite multiplicity of "things beyond the heaven". So while Aristotles concept of the unmoved mover allows one to deduce the need for Gods purely from physics, it does not limit the number of Gods in any way.
      "Friendship exacts what is possible, not what is due; requital in accordance with desert is in fact sometimes impossible, for instance in honoring the Gods, or one's parents: no one could ever render them the honor they deserve, and a man is deemed virtuous if he pays them all the regard that he can." (Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics 1163b) We can see here that this isn't a merely civic duty the polis is to undertake for the sake of it's health, and with the reference to parents we can see that the duty towards the Gods comes from their primordial activity as each things cause.
      So far as it goes for the ancient philosophers not using undiluted reason, I can't really imagine a more hilarious complaint. If one has access to undiluted reason, then one has a perfect intellect, and is in some sense perfect, which begs the question against the doctrine of original sin itself. For Plotinus, his perfection was perfection as a human, not as a God, and it came through the Gods. In the passage I quoted in my previous post, Plotinus literally includes prayer in his meditation, pointing out the providence required from Deity for any perfective activity we undertake. This also points out that the idea that the Gods don't "do anything" or are totally absent is ridiculous. So much for the "Greek ideal" of independence and self-sufficiency.
      And as far as this goes, nothing in your response could remotely serve as a response to any of the philosophical points I made above.

      Delete
    24. Nevertheless, Aristotle didn't believe in the gods of traditional religion. Are the gods of Plotinus those of the traditional cults of his society? What are their names?

      I would refer to the Thomistic understanding of what Aristotle meant by Prime Mover. However, Aristotle did not pray to him or expect any providential action there.

      As far as undiluted reason goes, I was trying to be polite to ancient philosophers. For all their efforts, they are burdened by false ideas and ignorance on issues that bear directly on the issues they discuss (original sin and the possibility of perfection for humans).

      I'm not sure what Plotinus meant by his gods and can't entertain you with a proper discussion about him. My point further back with which you agreed was simply that he did not believe in God as Abraham or St. Peter did.

      There must be problems with clarity in Plotinus however. On this blog, lucid people have managed to describe him as either monotheist or polytheist.

      Delete
    25. The idea that Aristotle didn't believe in the Gods of his traditional religion is adequately addressed by what I wrote above. His prime movers were not the summit of divinity, as I showed above. When any of these writers speak of the Gods, it means all of them. It does not just mean the Gods of the Greeks, but all Deities. Greek philosophy was not an eliminative project, it sought to understand all things inclusively so that the totality of all things could be adequately comprehended. So when they mention the Gods they simply mean all Gods. That's one of the funny things of a God pre-existing instantiated ontology, they also pre-exist the pantheonic relations that constitute that ontology.

      Delete
    26. @Richard

      I could be wrong, but i think that when Miguel says that Aristotle did not believe in the Greek Gods he meant that the philosopher did not take the myths as literal history. Sure that he was a polytheist at the end of the day, but i don't think what you posted is evidence of him believing on Zeus, Hades, Hera etc as the average ancient greek peasant thought of they.

      Take his teacher for instance. I remember reading Plato book The Republic and there Socrates says that Homer writings did not paint the gods right, for to him Homer Gods are too human-like, full of vices and ignorance etc. He even goes on to defend that the myths should be changed. He was a polytheist too, he argues for it on The Laws, but i think he did not believe on the myths literally.

      Sure Neoplatonists were polytheists, but i suppose that they saw the myths in a more allegorical way that we usually tend to assume, that is how i usually see modern pagans talking about they.

      Delete
    27. I disagree as to Miguel's meaning, but I agree with your assumption, if that makes sense. The myths are allegories about the activity of the Gods, not literally physical events. I'm no more troubled by Zeus and his supposed exploits than most monotheists are by Yahweh breaking wind while on a battlefield.

      Delete
  11. Atno,
    it seems Plotinus refused to allow "the One" any personality, as he denies it thought and consciousness - allocated to "mind", another entity, which creates by this means. "Mind" also seems imperfect because this creation is its means of uniting with "the One". Meanwhile, the One does not create. The world/soul is yet another level to "divinity". I agree that Plotinus is complicated, but it's impossible to find God in any of these levels because they all lack divine attributes and contain features incompatible with them.

    Moreover, while Plotinus may have stimulated early Christian thought and debate, he has been a long-term negative influence in his insistence on knowledge of the immaterial rather than religion as the rule of this life. Faith and grace are absent as the means by which we live. Like other pagan philosophers, without considering original sin, he could imagine forms of divinisation of humanity, but the Faith shows how pointless those efforts were. Late antiquity must have been a confusing time. Philosophers with the Faith are lucky to be living in 2020.

    ReplyDelete
  12. A three word precise definition of the One as experienced by Plotinus during the profoundly ecstatic contemplative state which he apparently entered into on numerous occasions during his life time. Which is also the native state of all human beings.

    Sat-Chit-Ananda

    Such could also be expressed in the ecstatic statement:
    Truth Is Beauty - Beauty Is Truth.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. So you are saying that this Plotinus character had bouts of mental illness during his life?

      Delete
  13. This goes to show just how poor non-libertarian political philosophy has always been. The medievals were no exception. The "natural law" reasoning supposedly justifying -- nay, necessitating -- the existence of Muh Holy Roman Empire is based entirely on an obvious non-sequitor. It does not logically follow that because peoples need ways of peacefully settling their disputes that the existence of a supra-national empire is necessary.

    ReplyDelete
  14. Just wanted to say I love these sorts of posts where you analyze an argument of some ancient or medieval thinker. My favorite was the series on Plotinus (who seems to me to be a seriously underrated philosopher in modern times). I also remember enjoying the Avicenna posts.

    ReplyDelete
  15. @Ed Feser:

    I wonder where you would fit Henry of Ghent's historically important (I'd have thought) views into your account. His early account seems to be something like, it's fine to have your empirically grounded opinions, but to grasp the essence of things with certainty it is necessary to go beyond fallible natural reasonings, although the fallible natural reasonings are necessary as providing the object for divine illumination to act upon. And, nota bene, such illumination leading to objective certitude certainly does not follow as a matter of course from just any avid investigation of whatever it might be, so it's not just something otiose.

    Henry's later view is more on deflationary lines, I suppose, but still interesting. The natural activity of the intellect is hidden as to its divine likeness. Instead there's a whole lot of ignorant arrogant ungrateful dumbasses who think and act like they know a buttload of crap about everything, but they don't. And to rise above this all-to-evident everyday depressing morass of intellectual posturing it is necessary for what is always present (the active concurrence in the life of the human intellect of the life of the divine intellect) to make itself manifest in accordance with the inscrutable working of nature and grace under divine providence. I'm not sure how to set that beside St Thomas's perhaps more precise views. But I don't see this has anything to do with reconciling Augustine and Aquinas, it's just a thinker thinking, trying to understand die Sache selbst.

    ReplyDelete