Wednesday, June 16, 2021

Indeterminacy and the comics

When I was seventeen, I wanted to be Al Williamson, the legendary science-fiction and adventure strip comic book artist.  Williamson is best known for his work on titles like Weird Science and Weird Fantasy for EC Comics in the 1950s, though in his later years he would be associated with the Star Wars newspaper strip and comic books.  (That was a tough one for me, since I love Williamson but can’t stand Star Wars.)  The uncolored original art for the classic opening panel from EC’s “Space-Borne!” (which you see to the left) gives a good sense of the Williamson style – elegant, lush, heroic.

For a larger sample of Williamson’s work , you might check out his adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s “A Sound of Thunder” for EC’s Weird Science-Fantasy; the amusing “The Success Story” from Warren’s Creepy magazine; his adaptation of the movie Blade Runner for Marvel Comics; and “The Few and the Far” from Pacific Comics’ Alien Worlds.  A new book, Al Williamson: Strange World Adventures, offers a pleasing overview of the cartoonist’s career, with a great many pages of original art reproduced on large pages in black and white so that the details of Williamson’s pen and ink work are all visible.

How can I excuse a post on Williamson at a blog devoted to philosophical and theological topics?  The answer is that the book provides (without intending to do so, naturally!) a couple of choice examples of the phenomenon known to contemporary analytic philosophers as the indeterminacy of meaning.  The basic idea, as longtime readers know, is this.  Consider any thought, any spoken or written words or sentences, any symbols, pictures or other representations, and in general anything with any sort of meaning or representational content.  There is nothing about the collection of physical facts concerning such things – for example, facts about the size or shape of written letters, facts about the brain or behavioral patterns, facts about the causal relations between a person and his environment – that can by themselves determine exactly what meaning is to be attributed to a thought or conveyed by an utterance, picture, or other representation.  For any set of physical facts, there will always be alternative possible interpretations one might assign to them.  Physical representations are therefore systematically ambiguous or indeterminate in their content.

This thesis, most famously associated with philosophers like Quine and Kripke, is of interest because of the dramatic conclusions philosophers have drawn from it – albeit different philosophers draw different dramatic conclusions.  Suppose you take the materialist view that there are no facts over and above the physical facts.  Then you will be tempted to draw the conclusion that there just is no fact of the matter about what any of our thoughts and utterances mean.  Suppose instead that you hold that there is and must be a fact of the matter about what at least some of our thoughts and utterances mean.  Then you will be tempted to draw the anti-materialist conclusion that the physical facts are not all the facts there are – and in particular that thought cannot be identified with anything material.  (The latter conclusion, as I have argued in this paper and in several follow-up pieces, is the correct one to draw.)

Here is one example from Williamson’s work that wonderfully exemplifies the phenomenon of indeterminacy.  In 1954, Williamson produced an especially beautifully-illustrated eight page story for The Amazing Adventures of Buster Crabbe.  But the series was cancelled before the story saw print.  About ten years later, comic book artist Wally Wood decided he wanted it for the first issue of his magazine Witzend.  But, while preserving the art, Wood came up with an entirely new story and dialogue for it, publishing it in black and white under the title “Savage World.”  Over fifteen years after that, the story was once again rewritten (this time by comics writer Bruce Jones), and published in Alien Worlds in a colorized version under the title “Land of the Fhre.” 

So, we have exactly the same series of images, but with three different narratives – three different ways of interpreting the significance of the images.  There is nothing in the images themselves that determines exactly who the characters are or what they are doing, what the larger background context is in terms of which we should understand the eight-page series of images, and so on.  Something outside the images, namely the intentions of the writer, has to determine all that.

Notice that this does not by itself entail that the images are entirely indeterminate.  At least given the general background context – the general conventions of art, the fact that we are dealing with a comic book story, that it is appearing in a science fiction magazine, etc. – we know that the images represent people and places, that the characters in the later panels in the story are the same as the characters in the earlier panels, and so forth.  (Though torn entirely from that larger context too, the physical attributes of the art wouldn’t by themselves suffice to determine even that much.)

This is a point worth making given an issue related to indeterminacy that arises in the theological context (and which arose in the comments section of a recent post).  As the history of Christian theology demonstrates, the same biblical passages can be interpreted in different ways, and stitched together into theological systems as unlike as the different stories assigned to the same Williamson artwork in my example.  Catholics and Protestants disagree over whether an authoritative institution like the Church is therefore necessary in order to assign to scripture a proper interpretation. 

But the Catholic position in this dispute is too often understood in a cartoonish manner (unfortunately, sometimes even by well-meaning but uninformed Catholics themselves).  The Catholic Church does not maintain that scripture cannot be understood at all apart from the authoritative interpretation of the Church.  She is not making the absurd claim that the words on the page are strictly unintelligible gibberish until the Church tells us what they mean (as if ordinary readers of Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek couldn’t make heads or tails of it until some Church official came along to tell us what it was saying!)  Obviously, the general sense of most passages is clear enough.  Rather, what is at issue is how to settle the interpretation of passages that are ambiguous, how to determine exactly what principle lies behind the teaching of this or that passage, how to apply it to concrete or unforeseen circumstances, and so on.

For example, when the Fifth Commandment says “Thou shalt not kill,” the Church is not claiming that this is no more meaningful than “Blah blah blah” until an authoritative interpreter comes along.  Obviously, that would be a ridiculous claim.  The general meaning is clear enough.  But is all killing ruled out?  What does the command imply with regard to self-defense?  The killing of animals?  Capital punishment?  Abortion?  Euthanasia?  Other biblical passages can help to a considerable extent, but they can't settle every single question of this type.  That is why (Catholics argue) an authoritative interpreter is necessary.

Another reason that the Catholic position cannot entail that biblical passages are utterly unintelligible before an authoritative interpreter comes along is that such a suggestion would render meaningless the Church's claim that she only ever teaches in a way that is consistent with scripture.  That obviously entails that there is at least some general meaning to scriptural passages that can be grasped by the reader even before the Church puts forward an authoritative decision on ambiguous cases, application to unforeseen circumstances, etc. Otherwise we'd have a ridiculous and Orwellian situation where the Church can always claim to be consistent with scripture, but only for the trivial reason that she can always just arbitrarily stipulate what scripture means.

An analogy would be the Supreme Court's claim to be the authoritative interpreter of the U.S. Constitution.  No one claims that the Constitution is strictly unintelligible until the court tells us what it means.  The general sense is clear enough.  Rather, the question is how to interpret ambiguous passages, how to determine what general principle underlies this or that part of it, how to apply it to new cases, etc.  That's why the court is needed.  (The difference between the court and the Church is that the court has no special divine guidance and therefore is not infallible – very far from it, obviously!)

Anyway, the “Savage World”/”Land of the Fhre” example provides a nice analogue to this more narrow sort of indeterminacy.  Given the general background conventions of art, the conventions of comic book art specifically, and so on, the attributes of the Williamson artwork are sufficient by themselves to tell us that what we are looking at are people, places, and buildings, that this is an adventure story of some type, that there is some sort of conflict between the characters, etc.  This is analogous to the fact that given the general conventions of the biblical languages, general background knowledge of human life, etc., the general sense of scriptural passages is clear enough (e.g. we know that the Ten Commandments tell us not to kill, steal, or commit adultery, we know at least in a general way what killing, stealing, and committing adultery involve, etc.).

At the same time, the specific details of the plot of the story, the motivations of the characters, etc. cannot all be read off from the artwork alone.  Something outside the artwork – the intentions of the writer and the story he imposes on the images – is needed in order to determine that.  This is analogous to the fact that the precise nature of the general principles expressed in scriptural passages, their application to new cases, what scripture implies vis-à-vis very technical and abstruse theological matters and issues that never arose at the time the Bible was written, etc.  cannot all be read off from scripture alone.  To that limited extent, the precise meaning of scripture is indeterminate apart from the reading given it by an authoritative interpreter. 

Here is another example from Williamson’s career, and recounted in Al Williamson: Strange World Adventures.  Williamson famously collaborated in his early work with a number of artist friends who would also become well-known, such as Frank Frazetta, Angelo Torres, and Roy Krenkel.  Their influence can be felt in Williamson’s 1950s-era work especially, including the examples I’ve linked to.  Now, Williamson was not keen on drawing superhero tales, and one publisher was not happy with the work he did on one such story.  The publisher hired Torres to do another story, in the process telling Torres how little he thought of Williamson’s work.  As a gag, Torres had Williamson do the job, without telling the publisher – and when it was turned in, the publisher praised Torres for it and told him how much better it was than Williamson’s work!

I would suggest that this episode illustrates another theme related to indeterminacy – what philosophers of science call the theory-ladenness of observation.   The idea here is that there is no such thing as observational or experimental evidence that can be described entirely independently of any background theoretical assumptions.  We are always making some theoretical assumptions when we interpret some piece of scientific evidence, and those assumptions can in principle be wrong or at least be open to challenge from incompatible alternative assumptions.  To take a stock example, whether I describe what I observe at sunset as the sun moving relative to the earth or the earth moving relative to the sun depends on which theoretical assumptions I bring to bear on the observation.  And ordinary observation, outside of scientific contexts, is like this too.

The relationship to indeterminacy is, perhaps, obvious.  What is observed does not by itself suffice to tell us its entire significance.  It is indeterminate between different possible descriptions reflecting different possible theoretical background assumptions.  (Note that here too, one needn’t hold that the indeterminacy is complete.  For example, I can know that I am looking at a large, round yellowish-orange object of some kind whether I interpret it as the sun moving relative to the earth, a stationary object relative to which the earth is moving, or for that matter an artificial sun like the kind in the movie The Truman Show.)

The Torres/Williamson episode nicely illustrates the idea.  The publisher evaluated the artwork in light of the background assumption that it was produced by Torres and not by Williamson.  Had he instead assumed from the start that he was looking at a piece of Williamson artwork, he may well have given it a more negative evaluation.  Note that that does not entail that there is nothing in what he is observing that does not reflect the publisher’s background assumptions.  There are images in ink on the paper, people and places and buildings represented there, and so on, entirely apart from the publisher’s assumptions.  But whether he is inclined to notice certain aesthetic and stylistic features, to overemphasize certain weaknesses in the drawing or certain of its strengths, etc. does reflect the assumptions he is making about who drew it.

Related reading:

Pop culture roundup [other philosophical posts on comics, movies, music, etc.]


  1. Ya can't get determinate meaning from an indeterminate collection of texts--and for that you need an authoritative Church. The Catholic position is not that all things are known, but only that some things can be.

    1. The Church's interpretation of Scripture is also a collection of texts (even arguably less important than Scripture, for Scripture is Divinely inspired, whereas Church teaching is only authoritative). Now, you would need the Church to properly interpret those texts too (assuming the principle that texts can only be interpreted properly with an authoritative interpreter), which can only be done via yet a new set of texts, and on to infinity.

    2. Anon1,

      You're missing the point that this is precisely why the ultimate authority must be a person of some kind rather than a text -- which is why the Church is conceived of in Catholic theology as a "moral person" or "corporate person" in the sense I described in another recent post. You can't ask a text what it means, but you can ask a person.

    3. Anon1,

      "The Church's interpretation of Scripture is also a collection of texts"

      That's the point: no, it isn't. The Church is a person, not a book. Sola Scriptura has God stuck in a book and can't get out.

      Assuming you're arguing for a Protestant view, does the Holy Spirit act in the Church? If so, how is that action not authoritative?

    4. Ed, but isn't that a problem we are having with Pope Francis? Francis wants to say that the death penalty is intrinsically immoral, but we say "you can't do that because it contradicts the historical texts of the Church." In other words, our textual interpretation trumps Francis's living voice of the Magisterium.

    5. David,

      Popes are not infallible when not speaking ex cathedra, and though assent to their teaching is usually required anyway, the Church herself affirms (e.g. in Donum Veritatis) that there can be exceptions in rare circumstances. Hence the scenario you're describing is not impossible given the Church's claims about papal authority and infallibility, rightly understood. I've explained this here:

      The need for an institution that is an authoritative interpreter does not require that the current main spokesman for that institution is right in everything he says -- again, the Church herself does not claim that he is in the first place. It requires only that (a) when a final, decisive decision is called for (i.e. an ex cathedra statement) there will be no error, and (b) the routine year to year, century to century teaching acts of the Church that have lesser authority than ex cathedra statements (i.e. the ordinary magisterium) will wash out errors over time, even if there is a blip here and there where bad non-infallible statements occur (as they have e.g. with Honorius, John XXII, Francis).

    6. David T,

      A useful way of putting this that I've heard Joe Heschmeyer use is that God does not make a person choose between schism and heresy. When a teaching rises to the level that disobedience to that teaching would require schism, then you know that the Church has taught infallibly.

      Peaceful days

    7. yes, I get all that. Suppose, however that the Pope and bishops come together and teach in what appears to be an infallible manner that the death penalty is intrinsically immoral? Would we reject the teaching on the basis that it contradicts prior infallible teaching, which we know through our textual analysis of the historical documents of the Church? This would put our textual interpretation over the living voice of the Magisterium. Or do we accept the teaching under the view that since the Church has spoken, our analysis must be wrong? A third alternative would be that we believe, in faith, that things will never come to this, and if it ever did, it would constitute a crisis of faith.

    8. "You're missing the point that this is precisely why the ultimate authority must be a person of some kind rather than a text -- which is why the Church is conceived of in Catholic theology as a "moral person" or "corporate person" in the sense I described in another recent post. You can't ask a text what it means, but you can ask a person."

      I understand that, but the answer you get from that person can only be in the form of a text, so the problem still exists.

  2. Glad that my errors helped inspire you to write this article - and give you the opportunity to talk about one of your favorite comic book artists in the process.

    I now see what my mistake was. I was correct to posit that any given communicative act is only ultimately intelligible by referring to an intentional agent. However, as your example with the artist shows, it is not merely the one communicating that determines the meaning. There are also pre-existing conventions inherited from other intentional agents that help determine the meaning. In other words, just because meaning is determined ultimately by an intentional agent does not mean that it is determined entirely by that agent.

    I propose that the Catholic Church's position on Scriptural interpretation, in light of this fact, can be summarized as such: For any given Biblical passage p, the Catholic Church as an institution has a place of privilege in determining the meaning of that p.

    1. Hi Mr. G, it was one of those happy coincidences. I was reading the book about Williamson and thinking how I might write up a blog post about it, and then you made that comment, which tied in quite nicely!

  3. Professor Feser, maybe I haven't searched enough, but have you ever written at length about Ronald Dworkin, specifically his right-answer thesis regarding questions of interpretation? He applies it to both literary and moral questions. Honestly I find his arguments for moral realism somewhat under-appreciated, but that may just be my opinion. Anyway, I'd love to read any thoughts you have.

    As always, thanks for quality reading material!

  4. This is a good article and articulates a principle that I've been thinking about a good deal lately.

    Here is a relevant example:

    Jesus: "But of that day or hour no man knoweth, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but the Father" (Mark 13:32)

    Traditional Catholic Theology: "Actually, Jesus knows the day and hour of judgment, not only as God but even as man. We should understand the passage in a different way, such as, it wasn't Jesus' mission to reveal it to us (even though if Jesus really didn't know the day and hour what we find in Mark 13 is exactly what we'd expect and Jesus had other ways of saying it wasn't his mission; and if instead Jesus had actually affirmed that He *did* know the day and hour, our theology would be exactly what it is now.)"

    Clearly words can be made to mean nearly whatever you want them to mean.

    Which, highlights the importance of Feser's comment above about the necessity of having a *person* as an authoritative interpreter to get through the mess. I would just add that it's this person's role to explain things in a way that is plausible. I can ask the Church to solve the tension that I highlighted above, but it doesn't do any good if the answers are unsatisfying. Then I just feel like I'm being tricked.

    1. Albinus,

      You say that "Traditional Catholic Theology" says this:

      "Actually, Jesus knows the day and hour of judgment, not only as God but even as man."

      Really? What makes you think so? Where does "Traditional Catholic theology" say that?

    2. T N,

      See my comment here for Pope St. Gregory the Great on this matter:

      It's a standard traditional scholastic teaching (consult any traditional scholastic manual that you please) that Christ had no ignorance in his human intellect. That he knew, in his human intellect, all past events and all future events, including the day of judgment. I am looking, right now, at Fr. Eduardo Hugon's Tractatus Dogmatici (written in the 1920s) where he states as much and goes into detail on the matter. Hugon does say that denying Christ's human knowledge of the day of judgment is not technically heresy but nevertheless that we must firmly hold that He did indeed know it. According to Hugon, attributing positive *error* to Christ's intellect would be heretical. Billot (quoted by Hugon) says that it is not possible to be orthodox if one attributes even *ignorance* to the soul of Christ.

      Also see here for a short article by Fr. Ryan Erlenbush on this matter which lists a few other relevant statements of the Magisterium:

      Hope this helps.

    3. Albinus,

      Are you making an argument that the issue has been settled by the long history of the ordinary magisterium and more recent questions are a rejection of a thereby irreformable teaching?

      The issue of the human intellect of Christ, as an aspect of the hypostatic union, is bound to be a very nuanced and difficult subject. So, when we look in history and find debate and confusion over the question, would that warrant the claim that “words can be made to mean nearly whatever you want them to mean.”? Or if we feel that the level of clarity on the subject is “unsatisfying”, we should feel “like [we’re] being tricked.”?

      Would the fact that the most esoteric and complex subjects can’t be exhaustively illuminated on demand warrant a retreat into a type of empirical verificationism where anything but the most blatant and obvious conclusions are tricks of an authority eager to maintain it's own power? Or that since the most vexing problems aren’t already answered, no question can be?

    4. TN,

      My point was not to defend the thesis that Christ suffered no ignorance in his soul. My point was to show that there is plenty reason for holding that this thesis is a traditional Catholic thesis. (That is what you asked about.)

      I do personally think that the issue, for Catholics, is sufficiently settled. But that really isn't relevant to my broader point, which was to highlight an extreme example of words of Scripture being "open" to an interpretation that literally contradicts the very same words of Scripture! It's this seemingly radical indeterminacy of the words that makes my comment relevant to Feser's post.

      In answer to the four questions in your 2nd and 3rd paragraphs: No, No, No, and No.

      If Scripture says Jesus doesn't know the day of judgment and nowhere says that he actually does but then Catholic theology claims that in fact he does know the day of judgment, then don't you think this is a good example of words being given a meaning that at least strongly seem to be contrary to what the words themselves would warrant?

      I don't think that mysteries like the hypostatic union need to be "exhaustively illuminated". In fact, I'd say by definition they can't be. But I do think that we should expect plausible answers when at issue is whether the words of Scripture are being given a meaning that seem to be the exact opposite of what is warranted by the Divinely Inspired text.

      If the Church's response to Mark 13 was that Christ didn't know the day of judgment in his human nature, then I think that would solve the problem to my satisfaction (though it would create problems elsewhere, which is precisely why the Church doesn't take this approach). But that's not what the Church says. Instead, we're asked to hold that Christ when saying he didn't know the day of judgment actually did know the day of judgment in both of his intellects and instead just must have meant something else (like, it wasn't his mission to reveal it, or he didn't know it *from* his human nature). If that is truly what Jesus meant, then it's one of the most extreme cases of "mental reservation" I have seen and in a context that doesn't seem to call for it. That's why I feel like I'm being tricked when I'm asked to accept this explanation. Not because I need perfect clarity, but because the answers seem ad hoc and implausible rather than profound.

      And, as I mentioned in another comment on the other thread on the Galileo affair: I don't think this issue in Mark 13 is, by itself, something that disproves Catholicism. It's just one of many things that need to be taken into consideration when making a judgment on the matter.

    5. Albinus,

      I see. I don’t know the aspects of this question in any detail, but in principle it seems that in evaluating historical questions we would need to consider a number of things, like what level of certainty would be reasonable to expect, etc. Certainly “thou shalt not steal” has a lower level of difficulty than the hypostatic union—and certainly descriptions of the later using plain human language is bound to be opaque to say the least.

      Perhaps we have our current understanding merely because people of the past chose the safe harbor of limiting themselves to what we cannot say (not always a bad idea). Perhaps future efforts will yield better answers.

      In any case, I agree with Feser’s explanation that starting at the plainest, simplest understanding is best. It’s just that not all issues are so easy to tackle.

    6. TN & Albnius --- I find Mark 13:32 interesting. On my conservative Protestant side of the fence, the usual reply I've seen is based on the human nature of Christ being featured in this passage.

      I don't have an issue with the whole human-vs-divine resolution of the seeming subordinationalist passages in John, and there the hypostatic union gives a satisfying reply to Arian-style claims. But for Mark 13:32, (and this could just be me), that sort of reply doesn't feel very satisfying.

      Albinus says: "And, as I mentioned in another comment on the other thread on the Galileo affair: I don't think this issue in Mark 13 is, by itself, something that disproves Catholicism. It's just one of many things that need to be taken into consideration when making a judgment on the matter."

      I say: I think this passage goes way beyond Catholicism and to the very essence of the nature(s) of Christ. Everybody in Christendom would be affected dogmatically if this passage is wrong or has been misunderstood through appeal to the hypostatic union.

      (I'm ok with there being a few exegetically-problematic questions in scripture; I almost expect it a priori.)

      My musings for what they're worth.

    7. Albinus writes:
      >My point was to show that there is plenty reason for holding that this thesis is a traditional Catholic thesis. (That is what you asked about.)

      That is actually a quite trivial statement IMHO. Molinism is "a Traditional Catholic teaching" on how Grace and Free Will operate. So is Thomism which contradicts it. So is Augustinianism which in part agrees with the Thomists and disagrees in part. etc....

      There are different schools of thought. I am shocked! Well actually I am not....

      Jimmy Akin explains in detail about the human knowledge of Jesus. ​Including Mark 13.

      QUOTE"It may surprise some modern readers, but the Church Fathers’ opinion on this question was mixed.

      This is revealed by their comments on Mark 13:32, where toward the end of his prophetic discourse, Jesus says, “But of that day or that hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”

      Some Church Fathers took this as a straightforward indication that the Son did not know the day or hour in his human knowledge.

      Thus St. Irenaeus of Lyons (c. 140-c. 202), combatting Gnostics who claimed to know all divine mysteries, wrote, “even the Lord, the very Son of God, allowed that the Father alone knows the very day and hour of judgment” and that “the Son was not ashamed to ascribe the knowledge of that day to the Father only” (Against Heresies 2:28:6).

      Combatting Arians, St. Athanasius (c. 295-373) wrote that, as the Word, Christ knew all things but, as man, did not know the time of the end:

      He knows also the hour of the end of all things, as the Word, though as man he is ignorant of it, for ignorance is proper to man, and especially ignorance of these things. Moreover this is proper to the Savior’s love of man; for since he was made man, he is not ashamed, because of the flesh which is ignorant, to say “I know not,” that he may show that knowing as God, he is but ignorant according to the flesh. (Discourses Against the Arians 3:43)

      St. Gregory of Nazianz (c. 330-c. 389), similarly wrote that “everyone must see that he knows as God, and knows not as man” and that “we are to understand the ignorance in the most reverent sense, by attributing it to the manhood, and not to the Godhead” (Orations 30:15).

      It is worth noting that Athanasius and Gregory of Nazianz are not only Fathers but also Doctors of the Church.

      Others, however, disagreed. Fathers—and Doctors!—such as Ambrose, Augustine, and Gregory the Great were on the other side of the question, and their view came to dominate the Middle Ages."END QUOTE

      The rest of his essay is worth reading. The actual position is quite nuanced and an interesting development in theology. The idea Christ knew in his humanity but was using a metal reservation also seems plausible.

      As Jimmy notes Quote"Apart from a letter by Gregory the Great to the patriarch of Alexandria from the year 600 (DS 474), where he sided with the view that would become dominant in the Middle Ages, we find no papal statements until 1943." END QUOTE

    8. Part II
      Albinus writes:
      >As to ​Hugon does say that denying Christ's human knowledge of the day of judgment is not technically heresy but nevertheless that we must firmly hold that He did indeed know it.

      Well that is his learned opinion but on unsettled details Priests and Bishops will differ. For example Cardinal Dulles said Von Balthazar's pseudo Universalism wasn't technically heresy but some Traditional leaning types dina fancy that opinion (like maybe Dr. Feser? I dina know? What say U professor).

      > According to Hugon, attributing positive *error* to Christ's intellect would be heretical.

      That makes sense. Jesus' natural intellect would contain no erroneous information believed by him.

      >Billot (quoted by Hugon) says that it is not possible to be orthodox if one attributes even *ignorance* to the soul of Christ.

      In context this could only refer to natural ignorance and I am dubious since Jesus did gain knowledge. Obvious Jesus human intellect is ignorant of things a human intellect cannot in principle comprehend.

      >If that is truly what Jesus meant, then it's one of the most extreme cases of "mental reservation" I have seen and in a context that doesn't seem to call for it.

      I don't see why not?

      >That's why I feel like I'm being tricked when I'm asked to accept this explanation. Not because I need perfect clarity, but because the answers seem ad hoc and implausible rather than profound.

      Then at best one might move toward the ancient opinion Christ human intellect did not know if it bugs you. It is not heretical. It is also not heretical to deny Limbo and believe God might save the unbaptized in an extra ordinary way as long as one realizes one's duty to seek baptism for their child.

      Some things have never been formally settled and the Church theologians can go back and forth before She definitively settles things. But in this case the knowledge of Christ's human intellect is clearly not settled.

    9. Son of Ya'kov and Eric,

      I think that Albinus is lamenting the seemingly intractable tension between all those possible interpretations, not denying they are there. And rightly so.

  5. Ed have you heard of Antonio Diaz-Ramos' recent work? He defends Ross' argument but argues that people such as yourself and others who have defended a type of Ross style argument as being unable to avoid the content fallacy objection. I think Diaz-Ramos has a paper on this in the same forth coming anthology you have contributed too (neo-aristotelian perspectives on natural theology?)

  6. Ed, I think you overemphasise the Church on earth as a corporation in this discussion. You've also compared this corporate personality to that of civil society in other posts.

    However, Catholic teaching doesn't make the comparison as it believes the personality of civil society is a legal fiction, (however real may be the cultural and historical material elements involved) as only the Church has a soul (the Holy Ghost) giving it intention, will, memory and eternity, in the strict sense. The Pope's guarantee of infallibility is to him personally not as the representative of its earthly dimension in the strict sense, but as the representative of the soul of the Church. In the same way, his jurisdiction is not excercised on behalf of the Church as an earthly society but is a delegation of the authority of God. All jurisdiction in the Church is a participation in Bishop of Rome's jurisdiction.

    This is a completely different model from that of civil society, which can have a beginning and an end that is entirely contingent (of course the absolute monarchical systems invented in the seventeenth-century disagreed, but they were only insanely trying to copy the Church in their attempts to divinise civil society, and ended up damaging both).

  7. If words and symbols are indeterminate by themselves with regards to their specific meaning, and the conclusion from this is that there are immaterial facts and so the meaning is immaterial, wouldn't this also apply to animals as well?

    Say you teach your dog to associate the word "ball" and "kick" with their respective English meanings, and say he proceeds to kick any ball that you bring to him when saying this, or that he simply goes looking for balls - this by itself is clearly a case of intentionality, and the dog can be said to understand the words in an analogous manner, even if not in the same way as we do. The dog's knowledge of what these words point to would be definite and wouldn't seem indeterminate.

    Animals in general also have intentions and their thoughts do have particular meaning - though they don't understand universals as universal - so it seems that the intentions and cognition of animals is also determiniate, or at least not indeterminate. Once an animal associates a given word with a given thing, there won't be much ambiguity about what it's about - and Aquinas himself says that animals' intentions aren't reducible to the senses and follow from an additional internal principle.

    So does this mean animals thoughts also have an immaterial component to them?

  8. Dogs don't understand or comprehend what they are doing, they are just doing.

    I think what Aquinas meant is that, in comparison to plants, which have purely vegetative souls, animals, which have sensitive souls, have an internal principle of motion. Plants purely react to stimuli, but animals have instincts.

    Depending on what kind of soul a thing has, its capacities come in packages. Having, say, a rational soul entails you will have rational capacities, like grasping abstract concepts and communicating those concepts.

    If a fully developed mature adult specimen of a dog could comprehend abstract concepts, it would be rational like us, but it would also have rational capacities like communicating those concepts. But dogs don't have this capacity, so we can conclude they don't have the others either, and thus are not rational.

    Animals don't have *thought* in the strict sense.

    Similarly, a baby will learn to do certain things before they are even able to comprehend it in anyway. A baby learns to react a certain way to certain words, but their not developed enough to say they comprehend what they are doing. But as that baby develops in to a fully mature adult human, it does have these rational capacities, which is why a baby is rational, but a dog isn't.

    1. Quote: "I think what Aquinas meant is that, in comparison to plants, which have purely vegetative souls, animals, which have sensitive souls, have an internal principle of motion. Plants purely react to stimuli, but animals have instincts."

      Yeah... that's not what Aquinas said. He says:

      "But the animal needs to seek or to avoid certain things, not only because they are pleasing to the senses (or not), but also on account of other advantages and disadvantages and uses: just as the sheep runs away when it sees a wolf not on account of its color or shape, but as a natural enemy; and again a bird gathers together straws not because they are pleasant to the sense, but because they are useful for building its nest. So animals need to perceive such intentions which the exterior sense does not perceive. Some distinct principle is necessary for this; since the perception of sensible for it comes by an immutation caused by the sensible, which is not the case with the perception of those intentions."

      Summa theologiae, I q. 78 a. 4

      So Aquinas admits that animals have intentions over and above what the senses tell them. And those intentions don't seem to be indeterminate.

      Also, the appeal to instinct is also a bit confused - while the lower animals such as insects can be said to do things mostly from instinct, some of the higher animals such as birds aren't purely limited to instinct. For example, crows can use their imagination to solve problems and make creative solutions - such as using coins to raise the water level to eat a peanut. This isn't just reducible to instinct, and it's clearly a higher form of cognition than instinct since it requires learning from experience and using the imagination (as well as general brain faculties associated with experience) to combine particulars into new relations. Aquinas even admits a type of prudence in animals, at least for those capable of being taught, in his Commentary on the Metaphysics somewhere.

      From this it seems that comprehension should be understood in multiple ways - animals may not have universals as universals, but they can be said to comprehend in a material way that is also truly knowledge, but not understanding as in humans.

  9. Here's a good Summa reference for this topic.

    Part one, question 1, article 10.

  10. Me, I prefer Star Trek to Star Wars. But they are both little islands in the vast archipelago of science fiction. My favorite is the Orion's Arm Universe Project.

  11. Very well. We need an autoritative interpreter. I can accept that.

    Now, here’s the question: why not Eastern Orthodox? Or Anglican/Episcopalian?

    1. When the Orthodox Patriarchs and the Anglican bishops excommunicate each other, who makes the final call?

    2. I’m not quite sure what you mean. As far as I’m aware, Anglicans only excommunicate Anglicans and Orthodox only excommunicate Orthodox.

    3. OK, when Orthodox Patriarchs excommunicate other Orthodox Patriarchs and Anglican Bishops excommunicate other Anglican Bishops, and whomever excommunicates whomever, who makes the final call on who's right?

    4. Dr. Feser did explain his reasons to become a catholic again on the book Faith and Reason: Philosophers Explain Their Turn to Catholicism. I think that you can still read his chapter on Google for free, i remember reading it that way.

      Ed could had defended his belief on catholicism on this post,but that would had taken away precious comic-dedicated space, so i can see why he choose not to.

    5. I’ve been thinking about this for a few years, and here’s how I see it:

      1.Christianity is true
      2.Thomism is true (maybe not doctrinaire Thomism but still)
      3.Open theism is true

      3.One of the problems with the Catholic Church is that it dogmatically asserts that God has foreknowledge of every single future detail. I can’t see how that can possibly be compatible with human free will. By the way, Peter Geach, the founder of analytical Thomism, was a kind of open theist. I’m not sure if he saw that this position was incompatible with Catholic doctrine.

      As far as I’m aware, though, neither Thomism nor open theism are incompatible with either Eastern Orthodox or Anglicanism. Sure, in Eastern Orthodoxy, a Thomist would be a bit of a pariah, but as far as I’m aware, it’s technically not against their dogma. Even more so in Anglicanism. In fact, St Thomas is actually venerated in the Anglican communion.

      As for open theism, only Catholicism has a clear dogma against it, as far as I’m aware. And I can’t accept dogma that is patently false, regardless what anyone says about authority.

      But I can see the argument for needing an authoritative institution interpreting basic dogma as well as an argument for the sacramental nature of baptism and the like. So I am left with Orthodoxy, Anglicanism, and perhaps Methodism.

      With Anglicanism, one may even argue that, what with English having become the global lingua franca in the centuries after its establishment, this itself can be seen as divine comfirmation of its truth and a kind of reward. I mean, not sure if such an argument would work, but one could make a case for it.

      Besides, there is a strain of Anglo-Catholic beliefs within Anglicanism, and I think those are very close to the truth.

    6. Just because God knows what you will do, it doesn't follow that you aren't free. As Feser notes, we can pretty clearly distinguish the free characters in a book from the unfree, even though we know that the author wrote the characters this way and knows exactly what they will do. We can still distinguish the good characters from the evil ones. The righteous from the sinners. In the story, they are free, the characters can even be punished and held accountable for their actions, even if the author knows what they will do.

    7. "As for open theism, only Catholicism has a clear dogma against it, as far as I’m aware. And I can’t accept dogma that is patently false, regardless what anyone says about authority." What exactly makes the RCC's position patently false? You would need to be certain God is inside time and certain time theories are true. If you conceive of god as atemporal, the logical consequences of his immutability no longer apply. Pray for the intercession of Mary of Bethany who seemed to known to be known to you.

      "Assuredly, I say to you, wherever this gospel is preached in the whole world, what this woman has done will also be told as a memorial to her." Matthew 26:11-13

    8. If God's foreknowledge of what we will do is metaphysically prior to our doing it, then our doing it is predetermined by His foreknowledge - it is metaphysically impossible for us to do otherwise under the circumstances.

      If our doing something is metaphysically prior to God's foreknowledge of it (i.e. God knows we will do something because we are going to do it) then God is metaphysically contingent and not a se.

      If God's foreknowledge lacks any metaphysical connection whatsoever to what is known, then it would be possible for God to "know" something that is false.

    9. Matjaz,

      So, if I got this right, Thomism is true . . . and also the antithesis of Thomism is true.

      Oh, ok.

      You say you can see the need for an authority . . . it’s just that it must be an authority you happen to approve of . . . which makes it no authority at all.


      It would be interesting to discuss the issue of whether God’s foreknowledge precludes freewill, but something tells me there are some more basic problems.

    10. The eastern orthodox church accepts the essence-energy distinction as doctrine, no?

      If yes, them a lot of thomist natural theology is out, unless you can accept the distinction as only nominal, then it works.

      About open theism: *laughs in frankfurt cases until the need to gasp to air comes, them stop a bit and start to laugh in primary-secundary casuality distinction*

  12. (Tangential, but with no other place to post it...)

    Lukasiewicz's "The Principle of Contradiction in Aristotle" has finally been translated into English. PDF is also freely available on the publisher's website:

    1. Sorry, it seems only the front matter is a freely available PDF.

  13. “So, if I got this right, Thomism is true . . . and also the antithesis of Thomism is true.”

    Wouldn’t the antithesis of Thomism be nihilism or something?

    In any case, I can assure you that my views are closer to those of Thomas than the views of Thomas are to Aristotle, and yet, no one would argue that Thomas was not an Aristotelian.

    Also, was Geach not a Thomist, then?

    “You say you can see the need for an authority . . . it’s just that it must be an authority you happen to approve of . . . which makes it no authority at all.”

    It needs to be an authority that teaches truth. Would you prefer I accept the authority of my atheist, Marxist parents? Or the authority of the left-leaning college professors that taught me? Of course, I’m going to make sure whatever denomination I choose, if any, is teaching what is closest to the truth. By your logic, I should have remained an atheist and a Marxist. Aftet all, disagreeing with my parents is already “choosing an authority I happen to approve of” rather than accepting the most immediate and natural authority, that of my parents.

    So I’m not sure what you are on about. When authority and truth clash, truth needs to prevail. If I didn’t believe that, I would have remained an atheist.

  14. As both a comic book artist and a devotee of this blog, I'm quite tickled at the astuteness of your analysis of comics. I've done exactly what is described in changing stories around completely using the same drawings. Great article.