Natural law vs the moral argument

Up until recently, I had thought that natural law theory was compatible with moral arguments formulated as follows:

  1. If God does not exist, then objective moral values and duties do not exist.
  2. Objective moral values and duties do exist.
  3. Therefore, God exists.

Moral arguments of this kind have been made popular by defenders such as CS Lewis and William Lane Craig, and this specific formulation comes from the latter. In a post from a few years ago I explained my position on the compatibility of this with natural law theory as follows:

I think technically we can still use [the argument] as [formulated above], but we must recognise that it is partly dependent upon something like the fifth way for its soundness. At the end of the day I think much moral debate can be had without reference to God, since it is based on what is knowable about our nature. But ultimately I think any viable ethics depends on God, including natural law. (section 4.1)

This is admittedly not giving much credit to the argument, but I have since realized that even this weak support for the moral argument is misplaced. It seems to me that once we clarify the above formulation, the first premise will be seen to be incompatible with natural law theory, or at least some increasingly popular versions of it.

To start on the more technical side of things, the first premise should be understood as a non-trivially true counterfactual with an impossible antecedent (see here for details):

1′. If God did not exist, then objective moral values and duties would not exist.

So far there is still no obvious incompatibility with natural law theory, but we can go further. Presumably, if we are running this argument, then we think that there is something special about moral values and duties that calls out for a theistic explanation. That is, we are not interested in the general fact that anything whatsoever exists, but particularly the fact that moral values and duties exist. If this were not the case, then wouldn’t really be running a moral argument at all, but would instead be running a cosmological argument.

The point of the first premise, then, is that we finite agents are not sufficient to account for objective moral standards, and so the presence of such standards would imply the existence of God. This suggests that another way of stating the first premise is as follows:

1*. If we were to exist without God, then objective moral values and duties would not exist.

(Those of us who are convinced that God is required to account for any existence should also read this as a non-trivially true counterfactual with an impossible antecedent.)

Apart from the reasoning that got us here, further confirmation that (1*) captures the intent of (1) comes from how the premise is often defended. Consider, for instance, the following quote from Craig:

If there is no God, then any ground for regarding the herd morality evolved by homo sapiens as objectively true seems to have been removed. After all, what is so special about human beings? They are just accidental by-products of nature which have evolved relatively recently on an infinitesimal speck of dust lost somewhere in a hostile and mindless universe and which are doomed to perish individually and collectively in a relatively short time. Some action, say, incest, may not be biologically or socially advantageous and so in the course of human evolution has become taboo; but there is on the atheistic view nothing really wrong about committing incest. If, as Kurtz states, “The moral principles that govern our behavior are rooted in habit and custom, feeling and fashion,” then the non-conformist who chooses to flout the herd morality is doing nothing more serious than acting unfashionably. (William Lane Craig, The Indispensability of Theological Meta-Ethical Foundations for Morality)

Notice that this line of argument envisions a world where we exist without God, and puzzles over where moral values and duties are supposed to come from in such a world.

Now, while natural law theory may not pose any obvious problem for (1) or (1′), once we recognize that these amount to (1*) the problem becomes clear. The whole burden of a natural law theory is to ground moral truths in the natures of things, and having the nature that we do is part of what it means for us to exist. In the world described by (1*), then, the fact that we still exist with natures means that we still have objective moral duties and values even though God is not in the picture — at least from the perspective of natural law.

Of course, the exact details of this will differ depending on the version of natural law theory we consider. On Platonism these natures will be unchanging Forms in some third realm, on Aristotelianism they are intrinsic teleologies in things, and the new natural lawyers focus more on the nature of practical reason than on the natures of things. And each of these has variants within it. Some versions of Platonism equate the Forms with divine ideas, so that taking God out of the picture will take out natures with him. But other versions have God completely separate, meaning that natures stay even after God is removed.

Thomistic natural law theory is of the Aristotelian variety and is the version I find most compelling. On the one hand, it agrees with Aristotle that morality is fundamentally grounded in the intrinsic teleology built into us by virtue of the natures we have. On the other hand, contrary to Aristotle, it says that this intrinsic teleology still depends on God. Mind you, not in a way that makes it distinct from our nature, as if our teleology could in any way be separated from what we are. Rather, it is by creating and sustaining us as the kinds of creatures we are that God upholds the intrinsic teleology that fundamentally grounds morality. Of course, the details of this are quite complicated, but the point is that on the Thomistic view our intrinsic teleology is not mutually exclusive with God being the cause of our nature.

This brings us back to (1*). This premise asks us to consider the world where per impossible God does not exist and yet we still do. Because in such a world we still exist, we also still have natures and the intrinsic teleology which fundamentally grounds morality. This remains true even our natures arose through blind evolutionary processes since what’s important is the nature we have, not how we got it. So, in this world where we exist without God there is still the foundational morality that arises from the natural law: it is still wrong for us to lie, to murder, to steal, etc.; we still have categorical obligations, are held accountable, and have a basis for moral authorities (see section 2.4 here); we still have objective virtues and vices; actions are still objectively good and bad. Of course, there will be no duties arising from divine commands, but on natural law theories, these are in addition to the natural law, not instead of it.

So, then, for those of us who accept the Thomistic account of natural law, the moral argument we’re considering should be rejected as unsound. And I suspect the same would be true for some other versions of natural law theory, whether they be Platonic, Aristotelian, or from the new natural lawyers. It is certainly true for Aristotle’s own version, which doesn’t even construe God as the cause of our intrinsic teleology. On the other hand, there is also a lesson for those defenders of the argument who don’t accept any of these natural law accounts: a full defense of the first premise requires a thorough critique of these different natural law theories, which is no simple task. Certainly not as simple as the quote above appears. After all, natural law theories have a long pedigree in the history of Western thought.

While this objection doesn’t affect all moral arguments, it is noteworthy because the version it does affect is quite common. The argument might still have apologetic value insofar as it could convince someone who already rejects natural law, but such a rhetorical strategy makes me somewhat uneasy.

Self-perfective immanent activity

At the beginning of his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle distinguishes two ways an activity can be related to the end for which that activity is done: either the activity is distinct from its end, or they are the same. We call those activities that are distinct from their ends transient and those that are the same immanent.

Now, because an activity can be done for a variety of reasons, it’s possible that sometimes it is transient and other times that it is immanent. For example, a paradigmatic example of transient activity is the building of an object, like a chair or house. In the paradigmatic case, you perform the activity for the sake of having the object, and since the object itself is distinct from the activity that brings it into being it follows that the activity is transient. But in another instance, you may not necessarily build a chair for the sake of the chair, but simply because you enjoy the process itself — perhaps you’ll break the chair down again after you’re done, so that you can rebuild it again tomorrow. In this case, the same underlying activity is now immanent. The upshot of this is that while we speak of the activity being transient or immanent, it’s really the activity considered with respect to a particular end that is transient or immanent. If we keep the activity but change the end, then we might also change between transience and immanence.

Moreover, there is a sense in which the distinction between transience and immanence is really between two ends of a spectrum rather than a dichotomy. To see this, imagine building a chair for the sake of developing skill in carpentry. There’s a sense in which this is transient, since the skill exercised in an activity — and future activities of the same sort — is not the same as the activity itself. But even so, the skill of an activity surely has more in common with that activity than the completely separate object it produces. So, we might say that building something for the sake of developing skill is more transient than building something for the enjoyment of building while being more immanent than building something in order simply to have that thing.

Speaking paradigmatically, then, the building of an object is a good example of a transient activity. A good example of an immanent activity, on the other hand, is the musical performance by an orchestra. In this latter case, the orchestra doesn’t perform in order to produce something at the end of it all, but simply for its own sake.

Interestingly, there are other immanent activities which seem qualitatively different from the orchestra performance, and our aim here is to give an account of this difference. The first example that jumps to mind is the activity of life in a living thing — life is, after all, a continual activity that a living thing is engaged in until it dies, and is immanent insofar as it is concerned with developing and sustaining the living thing. Another simpler example is the activity of learning, insofar as learning some things now enables me to learn other things later.

The main difference between the immanent activities that we’ve mentioned so far is that living and learning both involve a feedback loop of sorts, where earlier actions in the activity can enable or hinder later ones. If I start with learning correct things then this sets me up to learn more correct things later, but if I am taught mistaken information then this will hinder with my ability to learn correct things later — or, as Aristotle and Aquinas said, a small error in the beginning will lead to a large error in the end.[1] Something similar could be said for life, although in this case there are many feedback loops that we could consider. To take a simple one, if I eat improperly then this can interfere with my ability to eat food that is good for me, which in severe cases can even lead to things like refeeding syndrome. Or, again, if I damage my legs to the point where I can’t use them anymore, then moving myself to food and drink becomes more difficult.

Now, orchestra performances do not involve feedback loops of the kind we see in living and learning. Certainly what happens earlier in the performance will influence what should happen later in the performance, as the orchestra reacts to tempo changes or unplanned off-keys. In fact, such influence will occur even if everything is going exactly as planned, since the performance itself depends on the proper ordering of the actions within it. The difference here, though, is that earlier actions in the performance will not enable or hinder any musician’s ability to act later in the performance: the cellist playing a certain set of notes will not affect the violinist’s ability to play the violin.

In order to give an account of this difference between immanent activities, we must start with an account of activities in general which is expressive enough for us to point out where the difference lies. And indeed, we can give such an account: an activity is the measured exercise of powers for the sake of some end, where the end for which the activity is done determines the appropriate measure. A thing’s powers are what determine what it can and can’t do, and whenever that thing engages in an activity it does so by exercising its powers. The end for which the activity is done determines how and when those powers are to be used, which is what we refer to as their measured exercise. Thus, we can distinguish between three things: the activity, its end, and its powers.

We’ve already said that the difference between immanent and transient activities lies in the unity of the activity with its end: they are the same in immanent activities but distinct in transient activities. Going a step further, we can see that the difference between the two kinds of immanent activities that we’ve been discussing lies in the unity of the activity with its powers: either the activity influences its own powers, for better or worse, or it doesn’t. The orchestra performance does not affect the powers by which it exists, but the activities of living and learning include within themselves the development and sustenance of their powers.

Now, if the activity consists in the exercise of its powers, then what is happening when it influences its powers like this? To answer this we borrow a series of distinctions from Kenny: a power can be distinguished from its possessor, its vehicle, and its exercise.[2] The possessor is the thing (or things) that has the power, and the exercise is the manifestation of the power in a particular context.[3] The vehicle of the power is that feature (or features) of the possessor which grounds the power by providing the components used in its exercise. To give an example, I am the possessor of the power to walk, which I exercise whenever I use my legs to move, and the vehicle of which includes the bone and muscle structures in my leg together with the relevant parts of my nervous system. And the vehicle of a musician’s power to play an instrument includes their skill in playing that instrument, the relevant body parts, and the instrument itself. Influencing the vehicle of a power will influence the possessor’s ability to exercise that power, for better or worse, which is precisely what happens when an activity influences its own powers. When I stub my toe while walking, for instance, I hinder my power to walk by damaging a part of the vehicle of that power. And when I do physical exercise, I enable my power to walk by developing the strength of that vehicle.

All of this helps us see more clearly the difference between the immanent activities we’ve been considering. The orchestra performance does not affect the vehicles of the powers of the musicians to play their instruments, but what we choose to do in our life can and does affect the vehicles of the powers we exercise when living, causing our muscles to strengthen or weaken, our blood pressure to raise or lower, and so on.

Oderberg has called the latter class of immanent activity self-perfective, where the sense of perfection is that of completedness or wholeness or actualization rather than of moral perfection.[4] Self-perfective immanent activities are immanent activities which are unified with the powers that underlie them so that part of the activity is the further enablement of those powers. We might wonder, could there be an immanent activity which is done for the sake of hindering its powers rather than enabling them? Reflecting on what we’ve already said we can see that there could not: an immanent activity is done for its own sake and consists in the exercise of its powers. Thus, the hindrance of those powers would go contrary to that activity, and so if it were done for the sake of this hindrance the activity would both be done for its own sake and against its own sake, which is absurd.

Of course, this is not to say that a self-perfective immanent activity always succeeds in enabling its powers, for any number of things could cause it to fail to one degree or another. But in order to fail, you are nevertheless still aiming at the goal you failed to achieve, which is the point. Moreover, what it means for an activity to enable its own powers cannot be divorced from the appropriate measure of those powers. For example, part of human development is an increase in height, but it’s not as if increasing your height is always better for your life as a human. At some point, increasing your height will hinder your ability to live well.

Notes

  1. Paraphrased from the opening of Aquinas’s On Being and Essence, himself citing Aristotle’s On the Heavens and the Earth.
  2. I got this from Feser’s Scholastic Metaphysics (p. 45), who was citing Kenny’s The Metaphysics of Mind (pp. 73-74).
  3. For a detailed discussion of this, see Oderberg’s Finality Revived: Powers and Intentionality.
  4. See Oderberg’s Teleology: Inorganic and Organic.

 

Review of The Dictionary of Christianity and Science

Disclaimer: I was given a free copy of this book so that I could do this review.

The question about the proper relationship between science and religion has a long history in Western thought, going back to at least as far as the fifth century with St. Augustine. Over the centuries Christians have approached this question in a number of different ways and from various different angles, with new approaches being developed all the time. This overabundance of ideas can make it difficult for the layperson, the apologist, or the theologian to know where to start when it comes to answering their own questions about how science relates to Christianity, and what options others have proposed.

To those who are in this situation, or who are simply interested in the intersection of science and the Christian religion, The Dictionary of Christianity and Science will prove to be a very useful resource. It aims to be the definitive reference on these questions, and having spent some time with it I can say that it seems up to the task. The editors have clearly given careful thought about who they asked to contribute to the book. Some notable contributors are James Hannam, author of The Genesis of Science and God’s Philosophers; Craig Keener, new testament scholar and author of the voluminous Miracles; and Michael Murray, philosopher and author of the Nature Red in Tooth and Claw. Reading over the list of all the contributors and their credentials at the beginning of the book, one can’t help but anticipate a well-researched and helpful discussion of a wide variety of topics. And what follows does not disappoint.

The word “dictionary” in the book’s title might give the false impression that its only aim is to outline the meanings of words. Really, each entry is one of three kinds. There are introductions, which most resemble normal encyclopedia entries in giving a brief explanation of a particular topic. Then there are essays, which are much more long-form entries, giving the contributor space to unpack some specifics of the topic. And finally, there are multi-view discussions, which have different contributors defending contrasting views on a particular topic. We will have more to say about this third kind below.

Breadth and depth

By far the most impressive feature of the book is the variety of topics and views it is able to include. At the broadest level, we see topics including the early chapters of Genesis, the ancient Mesopotamian flood accounts, the hominid fossil record, the nature of explanation, the mind-body problem, life after death, Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, epigenetics, the multiverse, the image of God, and infinity. Peppered between these are entries on important figures in scientific or philosophical thought, such as Kant, Leibniz, Polkinghorne, Aristotle, Einstein, and Hawking.

As we zoom into more specific groups of topics, there continues to be significant variety, with entries covering theme from many angles. The group of topics surrounding the early chapters of Genesis, for example, are covered by separate entries on Adam and Eve, the age of the universe, the role of genealogies, interpretations of the days of creation, interpretations of the Genesis flood, the serpent in the garden of Eden, the Tower of Babel, and more.

The individual entries themselves are very well written and in-depth; and while this may be easier for the essays and multi-view discussions to achieve, the shorter introductions also succeed in this. Each of the contributors has put a lot of effort into conveying the important points of each topic, giving the reader a good idea of how it fits together. And after every entry, there is a list of references and recommended reading, so that the interested reader can delve more deeply into the relevant literature on that topic.

Multi-view discussions

Of the three types of entry, the multi-view discussions differ the most from typical dictionary entries. I was very pleased that the editors thought to include these, because some topics can only be fully understood when they are discussed in a debate where alternative perspectives are defended. And indeed, the way the multi-view discussions are handled in the present book does, for the most part, enable this to happen.

An interesting decision made by the editors is that the contributors for these multi-view discussions would not see each other’s contributions before writing their own. Now, for many of the discussions, this poses no problem at all. This is because the major points of disagreement between the represented views are well-known, and since each contributor is cognizant of this they endeavor to say something about them. The result in these cases is a very helpful contrast of the different views on the particular topic, without the drawback of one the views being given the “final say” on the matter.

Sometimes, however, things do not go so smoothly, as with the entry on divine action, which has two views represented. The concursus view, defended by Robert Bishop, holds that God continually works in and through natural causes, rather than winding up creation like a clockwork machine that is left to run by itself. While the engaged-governance view, defended by Jeffrey Koperski, holds that God can work miraculously in creation without undermining or violating the laws of nature. These views are not alternatives to one another, since they focus on different aspects of God’s action: the first affirms that God generally acts in creation by sustaining and concurring with it, and the second affirms that God can and does act specially in creation without violating its integrity. Indeed, each of these entries the contributor affirms the truth of the other view in a passing comment!

Now, I hasten to add that this problem of talking past one another is not a common one. Far more often than not the multi-view discussions provide a healthy contrast of opposing views on the topic. I mention it only in the interest of a thorough review. I can, however, propose that in future editions the topic of a multi-view discussion be specified more clearly. This could be achieved by giving each of the contributors a brief description of what is meant by the title of the entry. Or it could be achieved by giving them suggested key points to touch on during their discussion. Or it might be sufficient to simply disambiguate the topic in the entry name itself, so that rather than there being an entry on divine action there could be separate entries on general divine action and special divine action.

Topics included

I’ve already mentioned that the book covers an impressive number of topics, but I was quite pleased to see the value of casting such a wide net when deciding which topics to include. For instance, Michael Murray’s entry on animal pain discusses the problem of reconciling the reality of suffering in the animal kingdom with a good and powerful God. In the course of this, he references work in neuroscience and the role evolutionary biology might play in developing an explanation of this suffering. Thus, the entry is an example of how scientific work might be deployed to answer a theological and moral question. This and other entries like it show us that there is more to the relationship between religion and science than the resolution of conflict.

Some topics covered are less directly related to modern scientific notions, but paint a picture of science as an ongoing and developing human enterprise. So, there is an entry on human dissection which discusses the role the medieval church played in it and how it developed over the centuries. There is an entry on alchemy which discusses its principles and aims as well as its relation to the development of chemistry. And there is an entry on just-so stories which discusses the origins of the term and how it gets used by scientists to refer to overly-speculative hypotheses.

I wonder, however, if the net was cast just a bit too wide, with some entries seeming out of place. For instance, there is an entry on natural law theory, a family of meta-ethical views on how ethics is grounded. While the entry is well-written, I struggle to see its relevance to the question of Christianity and science, apart from having the words “natural” and “law” in its name. I found no entry on divine command theory (another popular meta-ethical view), so it doesn’t seem as though the editors thought meta-ethics as such warranted inclusion. Other examples of entries that seemed out of place were the one on the incarnation and the one on the trinity, both of which seemed more relevant to the broader question of the coherence of Christianity than its relationship to science. Fortunately, these out-of-place entries are few and far between, and for the most part, the wide casting of the net did not come at the expense of relevance.

Cross-referencing

Any good reference book should enable readers to cross-reference effectively, so that they can properly explore the topics covered within. This is all the more important for a book that covers as many topics as the present one, and the editors were evidently cognizant of this. As you read through any entry, the words or phrases that make up the title of another entry are set in bold, to signal to the reader which of the ideas covered in the entry have further information elsewhere in the book.

One thing that might be worth adding in a future edition would be entries which have the sole purpose of linking to other entries on the same topic under a different title. This would make it easier to find an entry on a topic which a reader might know by a different name to the one the book uses. I experienced this when trying to find the entry on animal pain, which I only managed to find after looking for entries on animal suffering, then suffering, animal, then pain, animal, and then suffering, problem of. Not all topics would admit of multiple names like this, but for those which do these “pointer” entries would make them easier to find.

Conclusion

The Dictionary of Christianity and Science is a valuable resource for the layperson, the scientist, the apologist, and the theologian. It collects the effort of many experts walking the reader through a vast array of topics related to the questions surrounding Christianity and science. With the multi-view discussions, it introduces readers to ongoing debates on various topics, while at the same time using these debates to define key terms and ideas within those topics. I can recommend it without hesitation to anyone interested in exploring this question that has been with us for centuries, and will probably continue to be with us in the centuries to come.

A simple matter made complex

Alice: I just bought a shelf from Ikea.

Bob: Strictly speaking, you bought the matter of a shelf from Ikea.

Alice: Well, that’s the thing that matters, isn’t it? 😛

Bob: Not really, since it’s the form that makes the matter a shelf.

Alice: That’s a different matter entirely, I was just —

Bob: Not so, it would be the same matter, just with a different form.

Alice: I was trying to say that there’s no disagreement of any substance here.

Bob: Agreed. For there to be a disagreement regarding substance, one of us would need to think the shelf had a substantial form.

Alice: No, I had something much simpler in mind.

Bob: Come now, you can’t seriously be considering whether the shelf is simple? It is evident that it must be a form-matter composite.

Alice: My point is that we’re talking in different categories.

Bob: Well, I wasn’t really thinking about the categories at all.

Alice: Yes, that was evident.

 

A web of links

I’ve been working on a number of larger projects over the past few months, and so haven’t had the opportunity to post anything in a while. I hope to be finishing up with some of these in the next few weeks. In the meantime, I’ve collected a number of interesting links (mostly videos) for your viewing pleasure.

Robert Kuhn over at Closer To Truth has recently interviewed Eleonore Stump on a number of interesting questions: What are persons? Do they have souls? Do heaven and hell really exist? And what is God’s eternity? Be sure to also check out earlier questions to her about God’s eternity and his relation to time.

Interested in music? Vox has some great videos discussing Rap and Kanye West, and Polyphonic asks what about John Bonham makes him such a good drummer.

If you thought American Sniper was obviously a pro-war movie, it might be worth reconsidering that assumption a bit more carefully. In their video essay, Storytellers argues that it is really a subtle and careful anti-war movie, and follows this up with a response video. On the topic of war movies, Storytellers also has an interesting discussion on the movie Jarhead.

Sticking with the theme of movies, Films&Stuff discusses the first Matrix movie and how it was structured around the theme of breaking rules. NerdWriter discusses how Lord of the Rings uses music as part of its story telling and what Logan means for superhero movies. The two Franco’s and Seth Rogen do a Q&A on the Disaster Artist. And Christopher Nolan does a Q&A on Dunkirk.

If like me, you quickly became tired of the Assassin’s Creed formula, then you might be pleasantly surprised by what the upcoming installment is shaping up to be.

If you enjoy (1) Let’s Play videos and (2) difficult platformers, then I can recommend BaerTaffy’s playthrough of The End is Nigh.

If you’re interested in Game Design, then I highly recommend Mark Brown’s discussion of Ori and the Blind Forest’s Ginso Tree level.

A while back Ian Bogost gave a talk on what makes things fun, and it turns out gameifying everything is not the way to do it.

Ever wanted to be able to speak backward? Well, Kurt Quinn can, and on Smarter Every Day they put this skill to the test.

You might have heard of the recent memo by Google employee James Damore, now commonly referred to as “the anti-diversity manifesto,” but more correctly called “the criticism-of-the-mechanisms-and-measures-used-for-increasing-diversity-without-consideration-for-alternative-solutions memo.” I guess the former is pithier. The reaction has been divided, to say the least. Some people seem to have not really read it all that charitably, while others have discussed the merits and possible corrections of the approach (see particularly the discussion between Grant and Alexander, and the responses of four scientists in relevant fields). Damore himself has recently been interviewed by Bloomberg.

Ever wondered why lowercase numbers don’t exist? Turns out they do!

A while back, over at the Augustine Collective, David Nolan discusses the role of emotions in Aquinas.

Feser on how to go to hell, how to think about angels, and the Benedict option.

Finally quantum mechanics. There’s William Wallace’s review of Smith’s book The Quantum Enigma, and Aaron Wall on intepreting the quantum world.

Fear of the Lord

Throughout the Scriptures — both Old and New testaments — God’s people are told to fear him, which at first glance seems to be an odd response to a God full of grace and love. Perhaps the most puzzling statement comes when the people of Israel first meet God at the mountain in Exodus 20. Notice what Moses says to the people in response to their fear:

Now when all the people saw the thunder and the flashes of lightning and the sound of the trumpet and the mountain smoking, the people were afraid and trembled, and they stood far off and said to Moses, “You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, lest we die.” Moses said to the people, “Do not fear, for God has come to test you, that the fear of him may be before you, that you may not sin.” (Exodus 20:18-20)

On the face of it, Moses’ words seem so strange as to verge on contradiction. What could the fear of the Lord possibly be, that he can speak about it like this?

Perhaps the most common way of making sense of the fear of the Lord is to say that it amounts to reverence for the Lord. While I don’t deny that it involves this, I struggle to see how this could be the whole story. After all, often the fear of the Lord is explained in genuinely scary terms, like our destruction or like the thunder and lightning in the quote above. These show us that God’s greatness can be a real danger to his people. It seems to me, then, that we need a more satisfactory account that does justice to this, without collapsing into the opposite error of denying God’s graciousness.

We mentioned fear in an earlier post on faith and hope, where we said that fear is uncertainty with dissent. That is to say, we fear something because we are uncertain as to whether it will be good or bad for us. Naturally, this often results in us wanting to avoid the thing we fear, lest the bad thing happen. We saw an example of this in that earlier post when the disciples are confronted by Jesus’ power in calming the storm:

On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.” And leaving the crowd, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. And other boats were with him. And a great windstorm arose, and the waves were breaking into the boat, so that the boat was already filling. But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion. And they woke him and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” And he awoke and rebuked the wind and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm. He said to them, “Why are you so afraid? Have you still no faith?” And they were filled with great fear and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” (Mark 4:35-41)

The disciples can see that Jesus is powerful, but they are uncertain whether he is good powerful or bad powerful and so they fear him. Note, however, that the fear here is not the right way to respond to Jesus. This is why he asks in exasperation why they are still afraid as opposed to having faith.

Closely related to fear is dread, which is thinking with dissent. When we dread something we are not uncertain about whether it is bad but are convinced to some degree it is. For the sake of illustration, imagine we commit some crime. Initially, we fear being caught, since we’re uncertain about whether it will happen or not. Once we are caught, however, we dread the punishment because we’re pretty confident it will happen.

So we have these two notions, neither of which seem adequate accounts of the fear of the Lord. In both cases, we are repelled from the thing we fear or dread, but the Lord whom we are to fear wants us to draw closer to him. Nevertheless, this sense of fear does seem to be what Moses has in mind when he says, “Do not fear” to the people of Israel. Having been confronted with God in the thunder and lightning, their (quite understandable) response was to stand far off and avoid talking with him. They were repelled from the object of their fear. Moses then urges them not to respond to God in this manner.

As I see it, the fear of the Lord should be understood as follows. God is the source of all goodness, making him unequivocally good for us and something we should be drawn towards. Furthermore, because of his grace, he will accept us and bless us if we come to him. But if we turn away from him — if we turn away from the giver of life — we will die; if we make ourselves his enemies, we will be destroyed. And this would be something very bad for us indeed.

So the fear of the Lord stands somewhere between fear and dread as we’ve outlined them above. There is no uncertainty here, for God has made these terms abundantly clear. And our destruction is only anticipated if we choose to turn away from him. Perhaps we should say, then, that fear of the Lord is conditionality with dissent: the badness of punishment remains an open possibility so long as we are capable of turning away from God, but will not happen so long as we cling to him. We don’t have a word for this — and presumably neither did the author’s of Scripture — so we use the word “fear” as the best alternative.

The most significant difference between the fear of the Lord and fear in the typical sense is this: instead of being repelled by him, we are drawn to him and repelled by his absence. We are drawn to live with the giver of life and serve creator of everything, and we are repelled by what will happen if we choose death over life and something created over the creator.

This reading fits well with how the phrase is used throughout Scripture. We see this in Moses’ words above. There he explains that the fear of God must be before them so that they may not sin. And we see something similar in his sermons in Deuteronomy:

Now this is the commandment, the statutes and the rules that the Lord your God commanded me to teach you, that you may do them in the land to which you are going over, to possess it, that you may fear the Lord your God, you and your son and your son’s son, by keeping all his statutes and his commandments, which I command you, all the days of your life, and that your days may be long… It is the Lord your God you shall fear. Him you shall serve and by his name you shall swear. You shall not go after other gods, the gods of the peoples who are around you — for the Lord your God in your midst is a jealous God — lest the anger of the Lord your God be kindled against you, and he destroy you from off the face of the earth… And the Lord commanded us to do all these statutes, to fear the Lord our God, for our good always, that he might preserve us alive, as we are this day. And it will be righteousness for us, if we are careful to do all this commandment before the Lord our God, as he has commanded us. (6:1-2, 13-15, 24-25)

And again we see the same ideas coming up in the Psalms:

Blessed is everyone who fears the Lord, who walks in his ways!… Behold, thus shall the man be blessed who fears the Lord. (Psalm 128:1, 4)

And finally, in the New Testament we see it most clearly in Paul’s words to the Philippians:

Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure. (Phillipians 2:12-13)

The verses that follow make it clear that Paul’s intention here is to urge them to continue living lives pleasing to God while they looked forward to “the day of Christ” (v16). This amounts to the same idea as we saw in Moses and the Psalms, but also taking into account the work of Christ.

Examples can be multiplied, but these passages show that understanding the fear of the Lord as conditionality with dissent does justice to its use in Scripture. Most importantly it explains why such fear is a good thing for the people of God to have, without undermining his greatness or his graciousness.

Dialogue on God’s interaction with the universe

Bob: How can an immaterial God interact with a material universe?

Alice: The question itself needs to be questioned before we can answer it.

Bob: How so? It seems like a fairly straightforward question.

Alice: Well, consider the word “interact.” God does not interact with anything. To interact requires action going in both directions, and since God is pure actuality this is impossible. Rather God acts on and through creatures without them acting on him.

Bob: Ok, so we’ll change the question to how an immaterial God can act on or through a material creature.

Alice: It’s better but still has problems. When you ask “how” God can act, what type of answer are you expecting?

Bob: I’m not sure I lay out exactly the type of answering I’m looking for, but I can give you illustrative examples. Fire heats by inducing mean molecular motion, I pick up things with my hands, and one stone acts on another by knocking into it. In each of these cases, I can point to the means or process by which some action is performed by one thing on another.

Alice: But on that account, the question is loaded! In each case, you could give some organ, part, or some material property by which one thing causes something in another thing. None of these kinds of answers apply to God since he has no organs, parts, or material properties. And to assume this in the question at hand is to preclude the possibility of giving an answer.

Bob: I grant your point but how, then, am I to proceed? Surely there’s a legitimate question to be asked here? And if we can’t use physical categories to have the conversation, then what can we use? After all, surely all our knowledge comes from our experiences of physical things?

Alice: It is true that all human cognition starts with sense data. But through abstraction and other intellective acts, we can move beyond these data, so that while our knowledge starts with our experiences it needn’t end with them. We do this, for example, when studying infinities in mathematics or when picking out idealized models in physics. Even in imagining things that don’t really exist, like fictional characters and stories, we are moving beyond what we have experienced. I agree that there is a legitimate question to be asked, but my point is that it should not be understood as a physical question but as a meta-physical one.

Bob: Ok, granted that the question — and therefore answer — is metaphysical, how would you answer?

Alice: One of the broadest distinctions we have in metaphysics is that between act and potency. Just as we’ve been saying, we come to understand this distinction through everyday phenomena like change and multiplicity. And once we understand act and potency, we can then move beyond these phenomena to talk about things beyond our everyday experience, like God. It is with categories such as these that we need to approach the question.

Bob: I understand the distinction between act and potency, and I understand that God is conceived of as a being of pure actuality. But how does this distinction answer the question?

Alice: It doesn’t by itself answer the question. But it is the first step in showing that the question is, in a way, misplaced.

Bob: I don’t see how it could be misplaced. After all, it seems quite natural to ask how a thing without arms or legs could act on material things.

Alice: Let me explain. Once we arrive at the distinction between act and potency we can draw out various corollaries, two of which interest us here. First, things act only insofar as they are in act. The basic idea behind this is that acting on something involves actualizing potentials in that thing, and since potency cannot actualize anything this can only happen insofar as the thing acting is in act. Second, potency limits act. When an act is understood as the actualization of this or that potency, it becomes qualified (or limited) by that potency. For example, the act of mean molecular motion is of itself not limited to a time or place or speed, but when it comes to actualize the potencies in something being heated then it will be limited in these ways.

Bob: I don’t see how all of this relates to the question. How do either of these help us find the metaphysical hand by which God acts on a material thing?

Alice: The point is that he doesn’t need such a hand in the first place! As material beings, we exist through the actualization of potencies in our matter. As such, our actions are limited in various ways, which is why we cause by means of organs, parts, tools, contact, etc. A particular fire can’t heat something across the world because it’s limited by its matter to a specific place and time. A particular stone can’t simply make another move whenever, but has to collide with it, because its causal influence is limited to where and when it is.

Bob: And what about God?

Alice: As we’ve said, God is pure actuality, which is to say that there is no potency in him that limits his action. He simply brings about his effects immediately, without any need for the various means we need as material beings. This is why I said the question is misplaced. If anything is surprising it’s that we limited beings can interact with each other, not that the unlimited God can act on us.

Bob: That may be evident upon later metaphysical reflection, but I think the question arises quite naturally from our everyday experience of how things interact with one another. After seeing that things typically interact by various means that depend on their materiality, we quite reasonably ask how it is that an immaterial God could do something similar.

Alice: That’s a fair point. The answer, then, is that an immaterial God does not do something similar. He does not interact, but rather he acts. And he does not act by means of something, but rather he acts immediately. His action is similar to ours in that it arises from him being in act, but it is different from ours in that his being in act is not limited by any potencies within himself.

Bob: I see. In a way, it is almost an inevitable consequence of his being the creator of everything. If he needed a means by which to act, then this means could not have been created by him.

Patience

A while ago my church was doing a series on the fruit of the Spirit, listed in Galatians 5:22-23. I did the sermon on patience, and below are the notes for this. The audio can be found at my church’s website. In addition to reading the list of the fruit in Galatians, we also read James 5:7-11, upon which the sermon is based. My broader approach to patience is based off Aquinas’s discussion in ST II-II Q136.

Be patient, therefore, brothers, until the coming of the Lord. See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient about it, until it receives the early and the late rains. You also, be patient. Establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand. Do not grumble against one another, brothers, so that you may not be judged; behold, the Judge is standing at the door. As an example of suffering and patience, brothers, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. Behold, we consider those blessed who remained steadfast. You have heard of the steadfastness of Job, and you have seen the purpose of the Lord, how the Lord is compassionate and merciful. (James 5:7-11)

Introduction

One of the clearest messages in Scripture is that the people of God need to be patient. As we just saw in Galatians, Paul lists patience alongside things like love, goodness, and joy — which seem like pretty good things for Christians to have. Scripture often tells us that God’s people need to have endurance, steadfastness, or perseverance. It tells us to not dwell in anger, and it tells us to forgive one another. And a large chunk of God’s interactions with us is through him promising something and us having to wait for it.

But why should we be patient? How does patience follow from the gospel? And what is patience, actually? These are the questions we want to try and grapple with tonight.

There’s what we might call the “lazy” answer to these questions which is easy but ultimately unhelpful. It goes something like this: nice people are patient, Christians are supposed to be nice people, and so Christians are supposed to be patient. I say this is unhelpful because it tells us nearly nothing about patience, and doesn’t help us understand how patience flows from the gospel. So, let’s put that to one side and start over afresh.

Patience in general

Let’s start by trying to understand patience in general. In our passage James illustrates patience with the example of the farmer. The farmer sows the seed so that the ground will produce food. But he knows that this will not happen immediately. He knows that in order for the plant to produce this food, it needs to take in a number of rounds of rain, and this takes time. So he waits calmly without giving up. He keeps his composure. So patience is about keeping composure.

But it’s not just this, is it? We don’t call people patient when they’re calm and life is easy. James knows this, since he goes on to talk about patience in the face of suffering. And we can see this if we think through the farmer example a bit more. Let’s say he planted the seeds and then forgot about them. Then one day he’s like, “Oh! Crops!” In this case he wouldn’t be showing patience: he would just be forgetful. On the other hand let’s say he needed food and this was his only way of getting it. Or perhaps he finds it difficult to wait through both autumn and spring rains to get these crops. It’s in these cases that he would be waiting patiently. So patience involves keeping composure in the face of difficulty, whether it be suffering, or stress, or weakness, or something else.

So far so good, but we’re still missing something: when we’re patient, what motivates our patience? The farmer doesn’t wait just because he likes waiting, and we don’t endure suffering because we enjoy suffering. More generally, we aren’t patient because we like going through difficult times. The farmer has an end in mind, he has a goal: he waits patiently for the rain because this is how he gets his crops to produce food. If he gives up waiting he gives up on this food.

And this principle scales up and down: if he only waits one day, he wouldn’t get much more than what he planted. If he waits through only the autumn rains he would see the plant’s stalk and leaves — and he’d be able to eat those, which would be good to some extent. But if he waits through both autumn and spring rains, then he gets to enjoy the what James calls the “valuable crop,” which would be a great good. His waiting pays off in that it enables he to take hold of the great good.

And this is true in general when it comes to patience: we keep our composure in the face of difficulty because we look forward to a great good that we can only get if we don’t give up. This is the last aspect of patience.

Patience is keeping composure in the face of difficulty for the sake of some great good.

We can see this definition work out everywhere in life, most clearly when we’re being impatient. When you’re driving to work and you get fed up because of the traffic, you are not keeping your composure in the face of that difficulty — you’re being impatient with the other drivers. When you start ignoring someone at church because they’re irritating and you’ve given up, you are not keeping your composure in the face of that difficulty — you’re being impatient with them. When you continually struggle to overcome a particular sin but it’s difficult and so you give up on it, you are not keeping your composure in the face of that difficulty — you’re being impatient with yourself.

Christian patience: the great good and source of difficulty

To understand Christian patience, then, we need to talk about the difficulties we face as Christians and the great good that helps us get through them. To start off we need to understand two things: (1) to be with God is the greatest anyone could ever hope for, but (2) our sin prevents us from being with him. So let’s unpack each of these.

God is the greatest good

I say God is good, but on the face of it referring God “a good” — or even “a great good” — can actually be slightly misleading, because he’s not just some good thing among the other good things we are familiar in everyday life. Good ice-cream, good paintings, good dogs, and good people are each is good and desirable, but only in a limited and qualified way. God, on the other hand, is good in an unlimited way. When I’m eating a good ice-cream, part of my desire is satisfied, but some part is left unsatisfied, since an ice-cream is not a painting, or a dog, or a good time with friends, or anything else I could want. This is because the ice-cream is limited — it’s just ice-cream. It would be different, though, if I could somehow experience God, since he is unlimited. There would be no part of me left unsatisfied. CS Lewis summarized this when he said,

He who has God and everything else has no more than he who has God only. (CS Lewis, The Weight of Glory)

Now, God is so good, so holy, and so beautiful that no-one can experience him all at once, at least not in this life. When we see goodness and beauty the various things throughout creation — when we see impressive animals, incredible plants, beautiful landscapes and valleys, when we amazed by the vastness of space, and when we’re occasionally pleased with ourselves — all we’re doing is looking through windows into this or that aspect of God’s infinite glory. And even then, these windows can be difficult to see through because of things like disease, and decay, and cruelty, and death. We never get to experience God’s glory all at once, but only bit-by-bit.

This idea that God’s beauty and goodness and holiness are expressed bit-by-bit throughout creation is spoken about in different ways in Scripture. So for example, David says, “The heavens declare the glory of God” (Ps 19:1), and the angels sang to Isaiah, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory!” (Is 6:3).

Wouldn’t it be cool, though, if instead of having God’s beauty just a little bit at a time, we somehow were able to have all of it at once? It would be like all the good times in life now, minus all the bad, but scaled up infinitely. We know it would be awesome, but don’t know exactly what that would be like, since we’ve never experienced anything like it before. We don’t get it, we can’t at the moment. As finite creatures with finite experience of reality, we have no way of picturing the true awesomeness of an infinite God. And that’s actually where the problem starts.

Sin prevents us from accessing God

You see, we’re so familiar with the finite things here in our everyday life and so unfamiliar with the infiniteness of God, that we find it easy to replace the one for the other — to focus on limited goodness rather than unlimited goodness.

Sometimes you’ll hear sin being spoken about in terms of “giving into desire,” as if the one who has the strongest desire is the one most likely sin. But in some sense it’s because our desires aren’t strong enough that we give up wanting to be with God and settle the lesser things we’re familiar. Again, CS Lewis summarizes this well when he says,

It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased. (CS Lewis, The Weight of Glory)

This giving up of God for some finite good is at the heart of we call sin. And sin always spirals into more sin. The more we choose finite goods over God, the more used it we become. It becomes easier to do again next time, and harder and harder to choose God. Sins we might’ve at one point thought unimaginable now become plausible, or even desirable. And so we spiral further and further away from God, alienating ourselves from him, and cutting ourselves off from ever seeing him face-to-face. This infinite goodness that is beyond our wildest dreams is now beyond our reach.

Again, the idea that our sin prevents us from accessing God is spoken about in different ways in Scripture. With Moses, for example, God said, “you cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live.” (Ex 33:20) And as Isaiah cried out when he saw God, “Woe is me! I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips… and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty.” (Is 6:5)

Christian patience: the gospel

It’s against this backdrop of us being cut off from infinite joy that the gospel shows us what Christian patience is all about. Because of Jesus the possibility of being with God in all his glory is once again brought within reach, so that anyone who wants it can have it. So, the greatest possible good we could hope for returns as something we can look forward to.

But we don’t get all of it right now, and this is where the difficulty comes in. When we turn to God our sin no longer alienates us from him, for sure, but we’re still people who find it easy to sin. As Paul says in his letter to the Romans,

So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin… What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? (Rom 7:21-24)

As we are now, we’re caught in what we might call “the twilight of sin,” the time between when Christ first came — when he fixed our relationship with God — and when he will return again — when he will fix us and we will get to be with God. And it’s this second day — which James refers to as “the coming of the Lord” (Jas 5:7a, 8c) — that we are to look forward to.

It’s because we’re in this twilight that we need to show patience. Right now we are weak and still find it so easy to choose lesser goods over God. But, if we keep our composure, if we endure through these difficulties, then one day we will get to be with him.

Christian patience: our weakness

Now, maybe there’s a particular sin you’re struggling with at the moment, and which you keep lapsing back into. In this case, there are two ways to give up. Either (1) you’ll find a way to justify or ignore the sin, by convincing yourself it’s not really that bad or (2) you’ll distance yourself from God because you’ve failed him. In a way, these two responses are opposites of one another: the one says your failure is so big that God won’t want anything to do with you, and the other tries to underplay the failure so that it’s not really a failure in the end.

But please don’t give up! I know it’s difficult, but remember that this life and this difficulty are temporary, and that one day this burden will be lifted from you. Recognize sin as the failure it is, and remember that God’s love is big enough to overcome it! Hate your sin, and keep your eyes facing forward to the day it will be gone. As Paul reminds us, “He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it.” (1 Thess 5:24) So be patient with yourself.

Christian patience: their weakness

But maybe it’s not your sin that you’re struggling with. As a community of people each weakened by sin in different ways, it’s inevitable that we’re going to fail each other sometimes. And as James says, we’ll be tempted to give up on one another, to grumble against each other. Either we’ll get angry at each other, or we’ll try avoid each other, or something in between, but it always results in more disunity than when we started.

When you’re tempted to give up on a fellow brother or sister the key thing to remember is this: the day that you look forward to — when your sin is removed and you are with God — is the same day that their sin is removed and they are with God. In other words, the day we long for is the day that we are all together in perfect unity. Now, if the day I look forward more than anything else involves me being with you in perfect unity, how could I not endure your failures now, and how could I not work for unity between us? Of course this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t correct each other, or rebuke each another, or things like that; what it means is that when we do these things that we should do them patiently.

Christian patience: the synthesis

Ultimately, if we are able to acknowledge our own sin without giving up on ourselves and if as a community we are able to bear with one another’s sins, then we will have created an environment in which we can help each other in our weakness. In the end this is part of the reason why God let’s us face these difficulties in the first place. As James says earlier in his letter,

Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. And let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything. (Jas 1:2-4)

Christian patience: some perspective

As I close I want to ask a more general question. So far I’ve been speaking about how the gospel relates to patience in the Christian life: patience with ourselves in our struggle against sin, and patience with our fellow Christians in their struggles against sin. I focused on the Christian life because this is what the New Testament focuses on. But what about the everyday stuff, like when I get angry in traffic on my way to work, or when I get fed up with my parents or my children?

I think the gospel has something to say about these too, but with a difference. When it comes to our struggle with sin, we should never give up, because an infinite God is always worth enduring through a finite difficulty. But in everyday life many of the goods we look forward to are finite, and so giving up can sometimes be the right thing to do. For example, if at work we come up with a plan to meet a certain goal, but halfway through we realize it’s not worth it, then the right thing to do is to give up and try something else. So, however the gospel applies in these cases, it cannot be in the same way as it applies to the struggle with sin.

So, how does is apply? The thought that I keep coming back to is this: on a normal day small things like stubbing my toe easily irritate me. But if I was fighting in a war and I stubbed my toe, I doubt it would irritate me at all!

The point is that it’s all about perspective: we’re more prone to get impatient in cases we think are more important. But when we have an eye on the bigger picture, the struggles that once seemed so big tend to fall away.

This is where the gospel comes in: it says that the everyday things we see and do are not the whole story. That behind the scenes there’s a war going, between eternal life with God and eternal death without him. And that each of us are soldiers — of a kind — in this war. As Pauls says in his letter to the Ephesians,

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might. Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm. (Eph 6:10-13)

We would do well to remember all of this on our way to work tomorrow; when a driver in front of us forgets to indicate and we’re tempted to be impatient.

McTaggart and meta-time

There is what I take to be an error common among my fellow Thomists regarding change and certain theories of time. Put tersely, this error says that the B-theory of time is committed to the Parmenidian denial of change. I had decided to write something about it, but after doing a bit of research, it occurred to me that a form of this error goes all the way back to the start of the contemporary debate about the nature of time. That is to say, a variant of this error is present in John McTaggart’s paper The Unreality of Time. Before I can write about the error of my fellow Thomists, then, it seems appropriate to first say something about McTaggart’s mistake. And that is the aim of this post.

As the name suggests, McTaggart’s paper puts forward an argument that time is unreal. In the course of doing this he introduces a distinction that is now commonplace in philosophy of time, namely the distinction between the A-series and B-series:

For the sake of brevity I shall speak of the series of positions running from the far past through the near past to the present, and then from the present to the near future and the far future, as the A series. The series of positions which runs from earlier to later I shall call the B series. The contents of a position in time are called events. The contents of a single position are admitted to be properly called a plurality of events. (I believe, however, that they can as truly, though not moretruly, be called a single event. This view is not universally accepted, and it is not necessary for my argument.) A position in time is called a moment.

The A-series is indexed by tensed terms like past, present, and future. The B-series, by contrast, is indexed by tenseless terms like earlier than, and later than. Both of these series index the same time into a time series (or timeline), but they do so differently: in an A-series there is a privileged moment we call “present,” and other moments are called past or present through reference to this moment. In a B-series, by contrast, there is no such privilege and all moments are, in a sense, on an equal footing.

McTaggart divides the time series into “moments” and calls the things at these moments “events.” Now, we need to clarify something here, because it’s key to understanding McTaggart’s mistake. We typically think of events as existing in reality and persisting across moments, as when I wave my hand for a few seconds. And at least initially McTaggart seems to talk in terms of change of reality, which aligns well with this typical way of thinking. However, he quickly switches to talking about change of the time series itself, which is what leads him into all manner of strange places. What do I mean by this? Let’s say I waved my hand from 12 to 12:05 and then stopped. Did the event of my waving go out of existence? Surely it did once 12:05 came along. But what if I asked whether the event happening at 12:02 went out of existence? On a typical reading — in which reality is the thing that changes — the answer would be the same, since I’ve just reworded the same question. But if we read it in terms of the time series rather than reality, then the question becomes whether me-waving-at-12:02 went out of existence. Do you see the difference? We are no longer asking about the event that spanned 12:02 (together with some other moments), but rather the particular slice of the event at 12:02 (rather than the slices at other moments).

As I said, in the course of his discussion McTaggart switches from talking about the event to talking about slices of the event. The confusing thing is that he refers to the latter as the event too. This is something important to keep in mind as we proceed.

With this in hand, we can formulate McTaggart’s argument as follows:

  1. Change is essential to time.
  2. Change is impossible if the moments of time are ordered only by the B-series.
  3. Therefore, the moments of time are at least ordered by the A-series.
  4. Being ordered by the A-series involves a contradiction.
  5. Therefore, the reality of time involves a contradiction.
  6. Therefore, there is no reality of time.

The relevant points here are (2) and (4). In defending both of these points, McTaggart makes unmotivated (and strange) assumptions about the nature of change and the interpretation of his distinction between the A- and B-series.

In discussing (2), he starts off well enough but quickly makes the switch that was discussed above:

If, then, a B series without an A series can constitute time, change must be possible without an A series. Let us suppose that the distinction of past, present and future does not apply to reality. Can change apply to reality? What is it that changes?

Could we say that, in a time which formed a B series but not an A series, the change consisted in the fact that an event ceased to be an event, while another event began to be an event? If this were the case, we should certainly have got a change.

But this is impossible. An event can never cease to be an event. It can never get out of any time series in which it once is. If N is ever earlier than O and later than M, it will always be, and has always been, earlier than O and later than M, since the relations of earlier and later are permanent.

The question in the first paragraph is about the application of change to reality. But by the time we get to the second paragraph he’s switched to talking about events as slices of real events. He correctly notes that if the slice of the event ceased to exist or came into existence, then “we should certainly have got a change.” But he incorrectly assumes that this change would be of the reality he was talking about in the previous paragraph. That he’s thinking in terms of slices becomes very clear in the third paragraph, when he evaluates the suggestion in the second. He says, for instance, that “An event can never cease to be an event. It can never get out of any time series in which it once is.” Now for a normal event to go out of existence, all that is required is for it not to exist at a later time. As soon as we start talking about getting out of the time series, then we’ve moved to talking about slices of events rather than real events. And once we start talking about that, then we’ve moved away from talking about change in reality toward talking about change of the time series.[1]

So we have that McTaggart intends to account for change in reality by reference to change in the time series. But now we have a problem, for this account seems to really only push the question of change up a level: from reality to the time series. What, then, accounts for the change in the time series? If we were to apply McTaggart’s account again, then we would have to posit a meta-time series which tracks the change of the time series. Changes in the time series would be accounted for by reference to changes in this meta-time series. But now we have the same problem again, for which we’d need to posit a meta-meta-time. And so on. Eventually we’d need be led to an infinitely nested collection of times and meta-times, and we wouldn’t have gotten any closer to accounting for the change we started with. In other words, McTaggart’s account of change leads to a vicious infinite regress.

This conclusion comes up in the paper a number of times in different forms, but it’s not clear to me whether McTaggart realizes that they’re all instances of the same problem. In the present section he rejects the possibility of the time series changing in this way (“the relations of earlier and later are permanent”), and thereby rejects the adequacy of the B-series given his account of change. Indeed, the same conviction continues through his entire rejection of the B-series being able to account for change. Consider, for instance, the paragraphs that follow:

Or shall we say that one event M merges itself into another event N, while preserving a certain identity by means of an unchanged element, so that we can say, not merely that M has ceased and N begun, but that it is M which has become N? Still, the same difficulty recurs. M and N may have a common element, but they are not the same event, or there would be no change. If therefore M changes into N at a certain moment, then, at that moment, M has ceased to be M, and N has begun to be N. But we have seen that no event can cease to be, or begin to be, itself, since it never ceases to have a place as itself in the B series. Thus, one event cannot change into another.

Neither can the change be looked for in the numerically different moments of absolute time, supposing such moments to exist. For the same arguments will apply here. Each such moment would have its own place in the B series, since each would be earlier or later than each of the others. And as the B series indicate permanent relations, no moment could ever cease to be, nor could it become another moment.

This entire discussion is predicated on the confusion between the change of reality and the change of the time series. Needless to say I think his criticism of the adequacy of the B-series to track change misses the mark, and this becomes fairly clear once we fix up this confusion. All one needs for change is that things can have different properties at different times, and nothing about this requires that we talk about these times in terms of past, present, and future (that is, the A-series). If time t1 is earlier than time t2, and I have different properties at these times, then I have changed. The B-series, then, is more than capable to track change.

McTaggart continues with his confusion when moving to discuss the A-series:

Since, therefore, what occurs in time [event-slices] never begins or ceases to be, or to be itself, and since, again, if there is to be change it must be change of what occurs in time (for the timeless never changes), I submit that only one alternative remains. Changes must happen to the events of such a nature that the occurrence of these changes does not hinder the events from being events, and the same events, both before and after the change.

Now what characteristics of an event are there which can change and yet leave the event the same event? (I use the word characteristic as a general term to include both the qualities which the event possesses, and the relations of which it is a term — or rather the fact that the event is a term of these relations.) It seems to me that there is only one class of such characteristics — namely, the determination of the event in question by the terms of the A series.

Here he envisages what we might call a “spotlight” theory of time. The ordered events permanently exist in the time series, and the present moment has a temporal spotlight shining on it. This enables us to track the progression of time by following the progression of this spotlight. Dropping the metaphor, this means that each of the event slices has one of three properties: it is past, it is present, or it is future. Only one such event slice is present, everything earlier than it is past, and everything later than it is future. McTaggart is forced into this because (1) he assumes change of reality involves change of the time series, and (2) he is convinced from preceding argumentation that this change cannot consist in the creation or destruction of event slices in the time series. Thus, his proposal: moments remain permanent without being created or destroyed, and the march of time consists in them merely changing their properties.

But this A-series proposal, just like the B-series proposal above, requires that there be some kind of meta-time. What, after all, would track the changes of the time series represented by the spotlight moving along it? Or, without metaphor, what would track the changes of the time series that occur when the event slices change their properties?

After much discussion about this McTaggart realizes that the way he’s construed things entails that there will be an infinite regress of times and meta-times. We might summarize the process as follows: we sought to give an account of change, and so we proposed the spotlight account. But this requires that we postulate a meta-time to track the change of the spotlight. If our original proposal was correct, then in order to account for this meta-time we need to propose a meta-spotlight. But this will in turn require a meta-meta-time. And so on. So we have a vicious infinite regress on our hands.

As far as it goes this is a valid conclusion, and one McTaggart could have raised when discussing the B-series earlier had he seen the implicit dependence upon meta-time there. As we’ve already said, however, instead of taking this as a reason to reject his account of change (in terms of the change of the time series), he takes it to mean that neither the A-series nor the B-series can be real. And since these are exhaustive options for time, he concludes that time cannot be real.

In fact, the problem isn’t with either the A-series or the B-series. As we did earlier, we can frame the infinite regress argument directly against McTaggart’s account of change without ever mentioning either series.

To summarize, then, McTaggart’s mistake was in confusing change to reality with change to time. Once this error is corrected, neither the A-series nor the B-series precludes the possibility of change, since both can track things having different properties at different times. And neither series necessarily leads one into an infinite regress.

Notes

  1. Initially McTaggart raises it as a hypothetical (“Could we say that…?”), and so long as it remains option that might admit of alternatives there is no problem in his argument. The only caveat would be that he cannot conclude to the unreality of time if he limits himself to only one option among others. The problem is that this is exactly what he does conclude.

We don’t do God

In a dialogue with the late Christopher Hitchens, John Haldane outlines why he thinks religion is crucial as a foundational political principle in societies made up of diverse cultures, religions, etc. Very roughly his position is (1) that the governing of such a society must be built around certain core notions like the respect for others’ rights or the pursuit of their well-being, and (2) that religion gives us the best (indeed, he thinks the only) grounds for motivating such respect or such a pursuit.

Backing up slightly it would be helpful to give some account of what we mean by “religion” and therefore, by contrast, “secularism.” The way I’ve come to understand it — and the way I think Haldane understands it too — is as follows: religion involves adding an extra layer to a worldview that admits of some form of transcendent reality, such that we can act justly or unjustly toward this reality. Religious living, then, is acting justly towards this reality. I deliberately phrase this in general terms because not all religions think this reality is one, or personal, or omniscient, or eternal, or any of the other attributes of the God of classical theism. Nevertheless they all have some notion of just activity toward this reality, even if perhaps they wouldn’t phrase it in exactly those terms. Secularism, by contrast, denies either (a) that there is a reality transcendent of us or (b) that we can act justly or unjustly toward it. For the purposes of living, then, the secularist has no interest in such a reality, even if they intellectually accept that it exists.

With this in hand, return to points (1) and (2) I mentioned above. I won’t say much regarding (1), but I appreciate that Haldane draws attention to the fact that “neutral” governance is an unachievable pipe dream. The point has been made in various ways before, but essentially it boils down to the fact that any governing system is committed (implicitly or explicitly) to a conception of the good that guides the decisions and trade-offs they make in governing.

With regards to (2) Haldane’s proposal for a religious grounding is that humans are created as image-bearers of God, and so our respect of other’s or our pursuit for their well-being would flow from our honouring God as part of our proper religious activity toward him. To phrase this in somewhat Thomistic terms, our respect for others is a participation in our respect for God. Of course, while this proposal doesn’t require the religion of a theistic sort, it does require a transcendent reality of which we can coherently be called image-bearers of as well as that justice toward this reality involve some form of honour. So while this proposal is certainly broader than the Abrahamic religions, it doesn’t extend to all religions.

At this point two clarifications can be made. First, contrary to what Hitchens assumes, Haldane’s proposal is not inconsistent with evolution, since the notion of creation he’s interested in is much broader than some seven-day account of creation. While it doesn’t even seem essential to Haldane’s proposal that we be created (since the key is that we’re image-bearers), even if we assume it is the creation could equally have occurred through evolution. This is an unfortunately common conflation found in the New Atheists, and is completely besides the point.

Second, and more importantly, Haldane is not proposing some form of divine command theory as his grounds. This point actually comes up explicitly in the discussion itself, but I thought it worth bringing attention to. His point is not that we respect each other our of duty imposed upon us by a God found in the revelation of a specific religion. Rather it is that grounding the motivation for following principles we can all agree to — such as the golden rule, or the respect of inviolable rights — requires a religious basis, and probably something like the particular basis he proposes.

Given these clarifications, what are we to make of Haldane’s position? The structure of the discussion unfortunately did not enable him to develop it to any great length or nuance, but we can comment on the gist of it that he managed to outline. As I’ve said already, I think point (1) is spot on. Regarding point (2), however, I’m inclined to think that it’s possible to develop an account of common goods that enables us to give the secular grounds of which Haldane is so skeptical. I’ve discussed this in one form or another on this blog for nearly two years, now that I look back. So to some extent I disagree with Haldane, but this disagreement is not as severe as might first appear, as can be seen in three points.

First, while I think such a secular grounds can be given, these ground are built on top of the nuanced Aristotelian teleological account of the good which Aquinas ably showed entails the existence of a supreme intelligence.[1] The grounds are secular in that they can be understood apart from religious considerations, even if they entail religious conclusions.[2]

Second, it must be admitted that the secular account doesn’t preclude the religious account given by Haldane. The two act together, enriching each other in ways sometimes inaccessible to the other. For instance, there is an existential impact of seeing all humans as images of a beloved Father that is out of reach for a purely secular account.

Third, while I think secular grounds can be given I have no illusions about how difficult such grounds would be to comprehend, let alone actually motivate someone to follow through on them. The difficulty of giving such an account has been a recurring theme since the time of Plato.[3] And once we have developed an account of goods and virtues, the particular kind commonness relevant to the project, powers and how they extend to common powers, the relation of common to private goods, rational duties, authority, justice, and so on, it’s difficult to be struck by anything other than the complexity and abstractness of it all, even if it appears to us satisfactory as a piece of systematic philosophy. And realistically, how many people will have the interest or capability to inform themselves of such an account? A further existential point is that such a dry account is far less motivating than the affection and honour found in the religious life. Overall then, I think a secular ground can be given, but that it is far too distant and disconnected from everyday life for it to be socially valuable. Haldane’s religious proposal is much better suited to this job.

In closing I want to clarify that neither the discussion between Hitchens and Haldane nor this post, are meant as an argument for religion. Rather, they’re discussions about the social value of religion in a diverse society.

Notes

  1. I am referring, of course, to Aquinas’s Fifth Way. Perhaps one of the clearest expositions of this is Edward Feser’s Between Aristotle and William Paley: Aquinas’s Fifth Way in Nova et Vetera Vol. 11, No. 3. See also Haldane’s own defense in his contribution to Atheism and Theism.
  2. This is not unlike what is true of many arguments for God’s existence, which run from things like change, existence, contingency, grades of perfection, and so on.
  3. As Rob Koons and Matthew O’Brien say in their article on poltical animals, “In attending to social nature, the ethically minded metaphysician must avoid both the Scylla of atomistic individualism and the Charybdis of organic collectivism. The attempt to navigate successfully the narrow strait between them has been a recurring theme in Western metaphysics, from the time of Plato to the present.”