Posts Tagged ‘Philosophy’

Plato: Timaeus

November 14, 2022

(Penguin Classics, 1965) [c.375 BC]
121 p.

A friend who knows a good deal more about Plato than I do suggested that this dialogue could make a nice double-bill with Hesiod’s creation poems, and he was right.

The set-up, dramatically, is that Socrates and several young men have reconvened on the day after Socrates’ great speech on the city (viz. The Republic), but this time it is the turn of the young men to speak, and one of them, Timaeus, has prepared a speech about the origin and order of the universe and of human beings.

After a few preliminaries, involving, among other things, the story of how the Athenian reformer Solon went to Egypt and learned about the antiquity of the world, Timaeus plunges into his chosen theme. Although he does not forsake Hesiod’s mythology entirely (“Earth and Heaven gave birth to Ocean and Tethys,” we learn), most of the discussion is in a quite different key. Timaeus’ approach is rational and systematic, drawing partly on metaphysics but, to a degree that surprised me, partly on nuts-and-bolts physics. A significant chunk of the dialogue, for instance, is devoted to describing the Platonic polyhedra and explaining how their shapes give rise to the properties of fire, air, mud, and everything else.

More interesting, to me, were the forays into metaphysics, ethics, and other topics we more readily associate with Plato. Little of this gets argued or developed at length, and of course we have to keep in mind that we are not hearing Socrates but someone else, but still I thought it was interesting to see how and where familiar Platonic ideas popped up.

Timaeus makes an early distinction, for instance, between “that which always is” and “that which becomes but never is”, and argues that while the latter can be apprehended by the senses, only the former can be grasped by understanding. This distinction provides an opening for a brief discussion of Forms; Timaeus claims that if understanding is something different from opinion, then Forms must exist, for to understand simply means knowing them.

This epistemological point is given a moral spin. The physical world, though restive and not amenable to true understanding, nonetheless reflects or instantiates in some way the unchanging order of the Forms, which are intelligible. Using the metaphor of orbits, Timeaus develops the idea that our senses are given us so that we can apprehend the order of the universe and mirror that order within our own souls:

“The god invented sight and gave it to us so that we might observe the orbits of intelligence in the universe and apply them to the revolutions of our own understanding. For there is a kinship between them, even though our revolutions are disturbed, whereas the universal orbits are undisturbed. So once we have come to know them and to share in the ability to make correct calculations according to nature, we should stabilize the straying revolutions within ourselves by imitating the completely unstraying revolutions of the god.”

This is such a beautiful idea. It reminds us of the Pythagoreans, and, unless I’m mistaken, Plato repeats the general idea elsewhere, but the main point is the idea itself. The harmony of the world is an aid, through apprehension and understanding, to the harmony of the soul. Modern cosmology has lost the capacity to make any kind of meaningful connection between physics and ethics, so we are striking a vein of pre-modern gold here. We are tempted to shrug such connections off as simply mistaken, but it might be healthy to resist such temptation. As C.S. Lewis argued in his wonderful book The Discarded Image, we are perhaps too little aware of how our own philosophical, or pre-philosophical, commitments condition our cosmology. We can see the all-of-a-piece interdependence of cosmology, theology, anthropology, etc. when we look at other cultures, but think we are immune. And perhaps it is really true that we are the ones who, finally, see things as they are! But love is blind, and that includes self-love.

In any case, it is evident that Timaeus’ belief that there is connaturality between the order of the world outside us and the possibility of order within us points in certain metaphysical and theological directions. And Timaeus himself gestures in some of these directions. He believes that the world is “a work of craft”, and is, as such, intrinsically intelligible. Although at bottom the material world is the realm of Necessity, the cosmos came to be when Necessity was subjugated to “wise persuasion” by Intellect. The agent that created the world (the famous demi-urge) “wanted everything to be good and nothing to be bad so far as that was possible”. It is only because the world is good (or as good as possible) that its influence on us can be expected to be beneficial in the way that Timaeus expects.


In Plato’s dialogues we see a theology that is fairly rich and sophisticated. Comparing his ideas to, for instance, those of Cicero makes the latter appear awfully rudimentary. Plato — or, I guess, Timaeus — understands that if God is the ultimate source of everything, then he must be quite radically unlike anything else. Timaeus remarks at one point that time was created with the universe, which emphasizes just how bold and thorough his conception of the ultimateness of God is.

The dialogue also includes an argument for the uniqueness of God that is interesting. Timaeus says,

…that which contains all of the intelligible living things couldn’t ever be one of a pair, since that would require there to be yet another Living Thing, the one that contained those two, of which they then would be parts, and then it would be more correct to speak of our universe as made in the likeness, now not of those two, but of that other, the one that contains them.

It’s not quite as clearly put as it might be, but this general form of argument remains a mainstay of the classical theist tradition to this day, and I was pleased and, I admit, a little surprised to find it here.

The last thing I’ll mention in passing is a moral claim that Timaeus makes, also in passing, when he says that moral evil is a result of either sickness or ignorance:

No one is willfully evil. A man becomes evil, rather, as a result of one or another corrupt condition of his body and an uneducated upbringing.

I found its appearance here interesting because I think of it as a characteristically Socratic claim, made here not by Socrates (though by one of his acolytes, so perhaps not all that surprising). Whether the claim be true or not is, of course, a much vexed question that I’ll not delve into today.


Reading Timaeus has been a peculiar experience for me. In many ways I found it unlike the other Platonic dialogues I’ve read. Socrates has only a minor role. The subject matter is largely natural philosophy rather than ethics or metaphysics. Much of the content is an odd combination of highly technical and highly fanciful (and Timaeus himself seems aware of this, averring more than once that his account was only “likely” or “as good as another”, and not certain). A reader who maneuvers through the long sections on how the shapes of various polyhedra produce physical properties like softness, wetness, etc. without skimming is more stalwart than me. Yet, at the same time, it is seeded with a number of striking ideas that beckon us into deeper waters.

Many people probably know that for many centuries this was the only complete Platonic dialogue known in the West. It is a little disturbing to see what a one-sided, and wholly inadequate, picture it provides of Plato as an artist and a philosopher. As I was reading, I realized with some dismay that although I know the basic shape of Aristotle’s preservation from antiquity and reintroduction to Western thinkers in the 12th and 13th centuries, I do not know the parallel story for Plato. I don’t think St Thomas knew Plato well at all. Forced to guess, I’d hazard that it was the Fall of Constantinople in the 15th century, and the concomitant migration of scholars westward, that brought about the Platonic revival among Europeans. Everything has a silver lining.

Marcus Aurelius: Meditations

May 9, 2022

Marcus Aurelius
Adapted by George Chrystal from the 1742 Foulis translation
(Walter J. Black, 1941) [c.180]
120 p.

Marcus Aurelius, he of the golden name and the laudable reputation, has for me always had something of an aura, as it were, about him. Even the terse title of his famous book promised something sturdy and placid, something on which to sit and rest myself. I am happy to have finally made the time for it.

It is rare to have a book, especially one of this kind, written by a man of such eminence. He was Roman emperor, the most powerful man in the world he knew, yet his book is not about conquest or war or even greatness in any worldly sense. It is a book about the interior life, for the most part: about virtue, and the good life, and preparing for death, and learning to be happy. He wrote it for himself.

It is an aphoristic book. Marcus Aurelius spent much of his time as emperor on the road, in the field of battle, and it seems he jotted down his thoughts when he had a fleeting opportunity to do so. The book it most reminded me of, at least structurally, was Pascal’s Pensées. Not the least of its merits is that it stands as a reproach to those of us who think we’re “too busy” to do something worthwhile.

Because of its fractured format, it’s a good book to dip into, and a difficult one to summarize. Today my aim is simply to pluck at a few dominant ideas that I noticed, and to preserve for my own benefit some passages that struck me as especially worthy.


Much of the book is occupied with the question of what constitutes good character. Let’s start with an extended sketch that he gives early in his meditations when he is recounting what he learned from various mentors and exemplars:

The counsels of Maximus taught me to command myself, to judge clearly, to be of good courage in sickness and other misfortunes, to be moderate, gentle, yet serious in disposition, and to accomplish my appointed task without repining. All men believed that he spoke as he thought; and whatever he did, they knew it was done with good intent. I never found him surprised or astonished at anything. He was never in a hurry, never shrank from his purpose, was never at a loss or dejected. He was no facile smiler, but neither was he passionate or suspicious. He was ready to do good, to forgive, and to speak the truth, and gave the impression of unperverted rectitude rather than of a reformed character. No man could ever think himself despised by Maximus, and no one ever ventured to think himself his superior. He had also a good gift of humour.

There we have a winsome and compelling portrait of a good man; who would not wish to be spoken of in such a way? One of the character traits in this sketch is integrity: to be what one appears to be, to be candid and honest in one’s dealings with people, to say what one means. This is a matter that comes up frequently throughout the book, and is expressed in different ways. For instance, he tells us that we should

Never esteem aught of advantage which will oblige you to break your faith, or to desert your honour; to hate, to suspect, or to execrate any man; to play a part; or to set your mind on anything that needs to be hidden by wall or curtain. (III.7)

Or, again,

If you discharge your present duty with firm and zealous, yet kindly, observance of the laws of reason; if you regard no by-gains, but keep pure within you your immortal part, as if obliged to restore it at once to him who gave it; if you hold to this with no further desires or aversions, and be content with the natural discharge of your present task, and with the heroic sincerity of all you say or utter, you will live well. And herein no man can hinder you. (III.12)

It might be that certain jealous or envious people will cast aspersions at a man who lives thus candidly before the world, ascribing to him secret hidden motives that he does not have, but this, says Marcus, is nothing to be concerned about:

Though others may not believe that he lives thus in simplicity, modesty, and contentment, he neither takes this unbelief amiss from any one, nor quits the road which leads to the true end of life, at which he ought to arrive pure, calm, ready to take his departure, and accommodated without compulsion to his fate. (III.16)

This is appealing to me; here is something to aspire to. But I fear, on good grounds, that I would fail, as I have failed at lesser challenges. A charge open to Marcus, as it is open to anyone who sets up an ideal, is that it is unrealistic: people just aren’t that good. We are all hobbled by various weaknesses and corruptions. This side of things is muted in the book, but not absent. At one point, for instance, he offers counsel on how to resist the lure of avarice:

Dwell not on what you lack so much as on what you have already. Select the best of what you have, and consider how passionately you would have longed for it had it not been yours. Yet be watchful, lest by this joy in what you have you accustom yourself to value it too highly; so that, if it should fail, you would be distressed. (VII.27)

This is a kind of therapy for temptation and weakness of will. In another place he offers advice to those who, though trying to live in accordance with reason — a Stoic ideal — find that they have fallen into error:

Remember that to change your course, and to follow any man who can set you right is no compromise of your freedom. The act is your own, performed on your own impulse and judgment, and according to your own understanding. (VIII.16)

To be in error is a fault, but to discover an error is an opportunity to exercise both freedom and gratitude. But he goes beyond even such rosy therapies and glass-half-full ruminations once or twice:

This your suffering is well merited, for you would rather become good to-morrow than be good to-day. (VIII.22)

I would bet that St Augustine read Marcus Aurelius.


Marcus had to deal with difficult people — not just irritating people, but people scheming against him for something, and perhaps in the grip of a particular vice. We all have to do this from time to time, according to our state in life. Marcus has some counsel for such situations.

Say this to yourself in the morning: Today I shall have to do with meddlers, with the ungrateful, with the insolent, with the crafty, with the envious and the selfish. All these vices have beset them, because they know not what is good and what is evil. But I have considered the nature of the good, and found it beautiful: I have beheld the nature of the bad, and found it ugly. I also understand the nature of the evil-doer, and know that he is my brother, not because he shares with me the same blood or the same seed, but because he is a partaker of the same mind and of the same portion of immortality. I therefore cannot be hurt by any of these, since none of them can involve me in any baseness. I cannot be angry with my brother, or sever myself from him, for we are made by nature for mutual assistance, like the feet, the hands, the eyelids, the upper and lower rows of teeth. (II.1)

There are a few ideas here: evildoers don’t know what they are doing, not truly; evil committed against me cannot hurt me, not truly; my own good is consonant with, rather than opposed to, the good of others. Each is debatable, of course, but each is important to Marcus’ way of seeing things. As to the last point, for instance, he cites (or coins) a neat aphorism: “What profits not the swarm profits not the bee. (VI.54)”.

The notion that a good man cannot be harmed by others comes up again and again. At times it is expressed metaphysically:

Material things cannot touch the soul at all, nor have any access to it: neither can they bend or move it. The soul is bent or moved by itself alone, and remodels all things that present themselves from without in accordance with whatever judgment it adopts within. (V.19)

The mind can convert and change everything that impedes its activity into matter for its action; hindrance in its work becomes its real help, and every obstruction makes for its progress. (V.20)

At other times it is stated in moral terms:

Let any one say or do what he pleases, I must be a good man. It is just as gold, or emeralds, or purple might say continually: “Let men do or say what they please, I must be an emerald, and retain my lustre.” (VII.15)

Or, conversely,

The sinner sins against himself. The wrong-doer wrongs himself by making himself evil. (IX.4)

Socrates used to say something very much like this, and there is a kernel of hard truth in it. I may be made to suffer for my integrity, but so long as I’m willing to undergo that suffering, so long as I value my integrity more than I fear the suffering, I cannot be compelled to forsake it. This is a stern moralism, but attractive. Consistently, Marcus counsels us to aim, in freedom, at what is right according to justice, and accept the consequences.

In the present matter what is the soundest that can be done or said? For, whatever that may be, you are at liberty to do or say it. Make no excuses as if hindered. You will never cease from groaning until your disposition is such that what luxury is to men of pleasure, that to you is doing what is suitable to the constitution of man on every occasion that is thrown or falls in your way. You should regard as enjoyment everything which you are at liberty to do in accordance with your own proper nature; and this liberty you have everywhere. (X.33)

We are to look at what is intrinsically right, without regard to extrinsic factors like approbation, reward, or suffering. Keep your eye on the ball. He is especially keen to discount the importance of rewards for good deeds. No doubt he was surrounded by sycophants seeking an imperial back scratch for services rendered, but he would have none of it:

When you have done a kind action, another has benefited. Why do you, like the fools, require some third thing in addition—a reputation for benevolence or a return for it? (VII.73)

Instead, he sketches for us an ideal to contrast with the fool:

Some men, when they have done you a favour, are very ready to reckon up the obligation they have conferred. Others, again, are not so forward in their claims, but yet in their minds consider you their debtor, and well know the value of what they have done. A third sort seem to be unconscious of their service. They are like the vine, which produces its clusters and is satisfied when it has yielded its proper fruit. The horse when he has run his course, the hound when he has followed the track, the bee when it has made its honey, and the man when he has done good to others, make no noisy boast of it, but set out to do the same once more, as the vine in its season produces its new clusters again. “Should we, then, be among those who in a manner know not what they do?” Assuredly. (V.6)

This is a matter that I’ve often thought about. I’m a person who, on those rare occasions when I do some good for a friend, does not expect anything in return. The matter is forgotten. Likewise, when someone does me a good turn, I don’t feel any pressing obligation to return the favour. I am grateful; I say ‘thank you’; and then I move on. I don’t keep accounts, for better or for worse. This can be irritating to my wife, who is much more sensitive to the intricacies of obligation and debt. But I am in agreement with Marcus on this point; I do what I see as my duty, or as right, and why should I place another under a debt for doing so? And when I receive a good from someone, can I not receive it as a gift, or must it place me under some obligation to reciprocate? Well, it is simpler, at least, to be as the horse, the hound, and the bee.

Wrapped up in Marcus’ counsel that we should simply do the right thing is his belief that we should not particularly care about the outcome. We do our part, he says, and the rest is not up to us.

Try to persuade men to agree with you; but whether they agree or not, pursue the course you have marked out when the principles of justice point that way. Should one oppose you by force, act with resignation, and shew not that you are hurt, use the obstruction for the exercise of some other virtue, and remember that your purpose involved the reservation that you were not to aim at impossibilities. What, after all, was your aim? To make some good effort such as this. Well, then, you have succeeded, even though your first purpose be not accomplished. (VI.50)

We encroach here on the Stoic belief that we should strive for detachment from success, fame, and wealth. Instead, we should accept, in humility and simplicity, whatever happens, be it good or bad by conventional standards of judgment. Such things — merely external things that happen to us — are of no ultimate importance:

Now death and life, glory and reproach, pain and pleasure, riches and poverty—all these happen equally to the good and to the bad. But, as they are neither honourable nor shameful, they are therefore neither good nor evil. (II.11)

When under the sway of our passions, we grow attached to things that are transitory and bound to pass away. We want things to be this way, and not that way. But this is a recipe for unhappiness, for all things are transitory, and even if we attain what we want, it will not last. Instead, we ought to receive everything that happens with a kind of detached indifference:

The healthy eye ought to look on everything visible, and not to say, “I want green,” like an eye that is diseased. Sound hearing or sense of smell ought to be ready for all that can be heard or smelt; and the healthy stomach should be equally disposed for all sorts of food, as a mill for all that it was built to grind. So also the healthy mind should be ready for all things that happen. That mind which says, “Let my children be spared, and let men applaud my every action,” is as an eye which begs for green, or as teeth which require soft food. (X.35)

Again, this way of thinking has a certain appeal. For a Christian it must be a limited appeal, for Jesus taught us to ask for our daily bread, rather than to <i>not</i> ask for it. The Christian way is to love rather than to be indifferent. And Marcus’ belief that it is better not to desire particular goods does occasionally cross the line into something that feels perverse:

You will think little of a pleasing song, a dance, or a gymnastic display, if you analyse the melody into its separate notes, and ask yourself regarding each, “Does this impress me?” You will blush to own it; and so also if you analyse the dance into its single motions and postures, and if you similarly treat the gymnastic display. In general then, except as regards virtue and virtuous action, remember to recur to the constituent parts of things, and by dissecting to despise them; and transfer this practice to life as a whole. (XI.2)

This just seems like a therapy for how not to like things: by conceptualizing them in a way that makes them not likeable.


A final theme of Marcus’ meditations that I’ll touch on is a familiar one: the brevity of life. This is a common enough trope in the ancient world; we saw it when we were reading Seneca a few moons ago, and it is a perpetual favourite of moralists the world over. All the same, Marcus invests the familiar tune with his own distinctive voice. He emphasizes the moral urgency that human life acquires because of its limits:

Order not your life as though you had ten thousand years to live. Fate hangs over you. While you live, while yet you may, be good. (IV.17)

And he concludes his entire set of meditations with a memorable passage on the inevitability and unpredictability of death:

You have lived, O man, as a citizen of this great city; of what consequence to you whether for five years or for three? What comes by law is fair to all. Where then is the calamity, if you are sent out of the city, by no tyrant or unjust judge, but Nature herself who at first introduced you, just as the praetor who engaged the actor again dismisses him from the stage? “But,” say you, “I have not spoken my five acts, but only three.” True, but in life three acts make up the play. For he sets the end who was responsible for its composition at the first, and for its present dissolution. You are responsible for neither. Depart then graciously; for he who dismisses you is gracious. (XII.36)

All the world’s a stage.


The Meditations is unquestionably a great book; it doesn’t need me to praise it. Reading as a Christian, I see its wisdom as limited in various respects, but that it contains genuine wisdom I do not doubt. Stoicism probably never found a better spokesman than Marcus Aurelius. Perhaps the thing that struck me most, as I was reading, was just how immediately it spoke to me. I would go so far as to say that for no book from the ancient world, with the notable and important exception of Augustine’s Confessions, have I felt the centuries melt away as I did with this. Marcus speaks to me as a contemporary, and that is a remarkable achievement.


The best revenge is not to copy him that wronged you. (VI.6)

Men will go their ways nonetheless, though you burst in protest. (VIII.4)

[Human nature and reason]
In the reasoning being to act according to nature is to act according to reason. (VII.11)

Had you at one time both a step-mother and a mother, you would respect the former, yet you would be more constantly in your mother’s company. Your court and your philosophy are step-mother and mother to you. Return then frequently to your true mother, and recreate yourself with her. Her consolation can make the court seem bearable to you, and you to it. (VI.12)

[Love those around you]
Adapt yourself to the things which your destiny has given you: love those with whom it is your lot to live, and love them with sincere affection. (VI.39)

[Choose the best]
Frankly and freely choose the best, and keep to it. The best is what is for your advantage. If now you choose what is for your spiritual advantage, hold it fast; if what is for your bodily advantage, admit that it is so chosen, and keep your choice with all modesty. Only see that you make a sure discrimination. (III.6)

[Change and transitoriness]
Consider frequently how swiftly things that exist or are coming into existence are swept by and carried away. Their substance is as a river perpetually flowing; their actions are in continual change, and their causes subject to ten thousand alterations. Scarcely anything is stable, and the vast eternities of past and future in which all things are swallowed up are close upon us on both hands. Is he not then a fool who is puffed up with success in the things of this world, or is distracted, or worried, as if he were in a time of trouble likely to endure for long. (V.23)

[Good zeal]
For what should we be zealous? For this alone, that our souls be just, our actions unselfish, our speech ever sincere, and our disposition such as may cheerfully embrace whatever happens, seeing it to be inevitable, familiar, and sprung from the same source and origin as we ourselves. (IV.34)

[Metaphysical beauty]
Whatever is beautiful at all is beautiful in itself. Its beauty ends there, and praise has no part in it. Nothing is the better or the worse for being praised; and this holds also of what is beautiful in the common estimation: of material forms and works of art. Thus true beauty needs nothing beyond itself, any more than law, or truth, or kindness, or honour. For none of these gets a single grace from praise or one blot from censure. (IV.19)

Most things you say and do are not necessary. Have done with them, and you will be more at leisure and less perturbed. On every occasion, then, ask yourself the question, Is this thing not unnecessary? And put away not only unnecessary deeds but unnecessary thoughts, for by so doing you will avoid all superfluous actions. (IV.24)

[Talking himself out of bed in the morning]
In the morning, when you find yourself unwilling to rise, have this thought at hand: I arise to the proper business of man, and shall I repine at setting about that work for which I was born and brought into the world? Am I equipped for nothing but to lie among the bed-clothes and keep warm? “But,” you say, “it is more pleasant so.” Is pleasure, then, the object of your being, and not action, and the exercise of your powers? Do you not see the smallest plants, the little sparrows, the ants, the spiders, the bees, all doing their part, and working for order in the Universe, as far as in them lies? And will you refuse the part in this design which is laid on man? Will you not pursue the course which accords with your own nature? You say, “I must have rest.” Assuredly; but nature appoints a measure for rest, just as for eating and drinking. In rest you go beyond these limits, and beyond what is enough; but in action you do not fill the measure, and remain well within your powers. You do not love yourself; if you did, you would love your nature and its purpose. (V.1)

Feser: Five Proofs of the Existence of God

June 16, 2020

Five Proofs of the Existence of God
Edward Feser
(Ignatius, 2017)
330 p.

Arguments for the existence of God are of perennial interest, and over the centuries many different lines of reasoning have been proposed. You have your cosmological argument, your ontological argument, your argument from design, your argument from moral objectivity, your argument from Bach – a personal favourite of mine — and many others. As a group, they proceed from a variety of different premises, and, naturally, particular arguments are convincing only to those who accept the relevant premises.

Some of the arguments are probabilistic and lead to the conclusion that God’s existence is likely; arguments proceeding from observations of particular features of the world, such as the argument from design, are of this kind. But there is a class of arguments which are deductive in form and proceed from premises which are difficult to deny; these arguments claim to be demonstrations of God’s existence —  “proofs”, to use Feser’s word. In this book, Feser puts forward five arguments of this type and defends them against critique.


Before proceeding to outline the arguments in question, it might be worthwhile to clear the ground of a few possible misgivings. There are some who see arguments for God’s existence as quixotic, and this can be for different reasons. If God – an all-powerful, all-good, eternal being who created the universe – exists, wouldn’t it be obvious? Or, from a different point of view, doesn’t belief in God’s existence properly belong to faith, and so isn’t it pointless, or even an impiety, to try to prove it by reasoning? Or, from yet another line of approach, aren’t philosophical arguments like this futile? Haven’t people been arguing these questions for centuries with no clear winner?

To the first point, the Christian tradition denies that God’s existence is obvious, in the sense of self-evident. St Paul does say that His existence can be known from the things that have been made, but doesn’t spell out how, and the Catholic Church actually holds as a dogma that God’s existence can be soundly demonstrated, but doesn’t specify what the sound argument is. In consequence, the Church denies that belief in the existence of God is something necessarily held on faith;  rather, she contends that we can know God exists, and that this knowledge is part of the “preamble to faith” (even if, in practice, many people believe in God intuitively or on the authority of the Church). And as to the futility objection – well, the same could be said for many, or most, philosophical arguments. Either you have the taste for this sort of thing or you don’t.


The five arguments Feser presents are not original with him, but are drawn from the long tradition of philosophical reflection on this topic. He calls them the Aristotelian proof, the Neo-Platonic proof (from Plotinus), the Augustinian proof, the Thomistic proof, and the Rationalist proof (from Leibniz). It should be obvious, therefore, that these are not just the “five ways” of St Thomas Aquinas.

He devotes a chapter to each argument, and each chapter has a consistent structure. He begins with a discursive argument introducing the main premises, clarifying the relevant concepts, and giving the form of the argument which establishes the existence of some entity or reality X. He then considers what the nature of X is and why it is reasonable to describe this as “God”. In the next stage, he formalizes the argument into a set of specific logical steps (between 27 and 50, depending on the case) linking the premises to the conclusion (“So, God exists”), making the shape of the argument as clear as possible. Finally, he entertains and answers a variety of objections that have been raised against the argument over the centuries.

To attempt to describe the arguments in detail here would reproduce the book, so I’m not going to do that. But I will sketch the basic idea of each argument, and then focus on a few particular points that interested me.


The Aristotelian argument begins from the premise that change occurs, and argues that this cannot be intelligible unless there exists, here and now, an unchanging changer (or, in the slightly more technical Aristotelian language, an “unactualized actualizer”) to ground it all. The argument goes like this: a given object (say, my drink) can change in various ways: it can become warmer or cooler, spill on the table, be poured into another cup, be chemically transformed by interacting with other objects, and so on. It could not change in these ways unless the change was caused, and the cause must be something outside it. Now, this thing causing the change must itself be either changeable or unchangeable. If the former, then the argument repeats; if the latter, then we have arrived at some entity which is unchangeable but causes the changes in other things. It is crucial to the argument that this causal series is not a temporal one (not an “efficient cause” in the Aristotelian sense) but what Feser calls a “hierarchical” series, one existing here and now and operative simultaneously. For example, my drink is cooling down, and this is because of heat exchange, here and now, with the surrounding air. This heat exchange is just energy transfer between the molecules of my drink and the molecules of air, and this energy transfer occurs because, here and now, there is an electromagnetic force which exists and acts between the molecules when they become sufficiently close to one another. And this electromagnetic force is, here and now, a result of the electroweak quantum field filling space, and this quantum field fills space, here and now, because… well, we don’t know, but we do know that the quantum field itself is contingent, exists in space and time, which are themselves contingent realities, and that they must be grounded in some deeper reality. Down, down we go, and the argument contends that we cannot go on to infinity, but must ultimately arrive at some level of reality which can “cash out” this hierarchy of simultaneous causes or conditions for the cooling of my drink. This is the unchanging changer (or unactualized actualizer).

Why identify this “thing” (if it is a thing) with God?  There follows a set of arguments to unfold the nature of this unactualized actualizer, and these arguments are neat (in the sense of tidy and tight) and also neat (in the sense of interesting). Feser argues that this “thing” must be outside space and time, immaterial, unchangeable, good (in the sense of ontologically good – fully itself, all it can be – rather than morally good), omnipotent (because it has power to cause all changes or actualize all possible realities), intelligent (in the sense of containing in abstract form the patterns of all it actualizes), and one. The validity of these subsidiary arguments are to be evaluated separately from the argument for the mere existence of the unactualized actualizer, but enough has been said to justify the identification of this reality with what we normally call God.

Feser considers numerous objections to the argument, from Hume, Kant, Russell, quantum mechanics, and others, and defends his formulation of the argument against them.


The Neo-Platonic argument begins from the premise that things of our experience are composed of parts, and argues to the existence of a reality which is itself non-composite or, to use the philosophical word, simple. Plotinus called it “the One”. In a way similar to the previous argument, the claim is that whenever we have a composite entity we have a hierarchical series of simultaneous causes responsible for combining those parts here and now, and that this hierarchical series cannot go on to infinity but must terminate in something which (by the nature of the argument) is not itself composite.

This is not just an argument about patching together material bits to make a composite object, but is a philosophical argument that applies to metaphysical parts as well, such as (to invoke Aristotelian concepts) form and matter, if they exist.

In classical theism, simplicity is the hallmark divine characteristic. God has no parts because, if He did, the particular way in which they were disposed would require an explanation outside God, and God would depend for His existence on something prior to Himself (in which case that thing would be God). But something which is absolutely simple is one, immutable (because there is nothing about it that can change), eternal (because there is no cause prior to itself that can bring it into or out of existence), uncaused but itself acting causally on all things, and purely actual.


The Augustinian proof is quite different. It concerns the nature of abstract entities like numbers, propositions, and universals. From the premise that at least one abstract object exists, the argument proceeds to the conclusion that an intellect exists, and that the features of this intellect justify calling it the divine intellect. Feser begins by laying out a battery of arguments (10 of them) to support the premise that at least some abstract objects exist, and then argues that this implies the existence of a mind in which these objects exist. But this mind must not be contingent on any material reality (since the abstract objects are themselves independent of material reality). Since at least some abstract entities seem to have necessary truth (like mathematical propositions), they must exist in a mind that is not contingent but exists necessarily. And so, step by step, the argument proceeds to the conclusion that the intellect in which these abstract objects exist is omniscient (containing all possible true propositions), eternal, etc., and that therefore it can be reasonably identified with the divine intellect.


The Thomistic proof proceeds from the distinction between essence — what a thing is — and existence — that a thing is — and argues to the existence of an entity in which essence and existence are not distinct. The essence of this entity is to exist, or, rather, the essence of this entity is existence itself. As such, this entity exists necessarily and all other things exist by participation in it.

Essence and existence must be distinct in most things because we can know their essences without knowing whether they exist (ie. a unicorn), because they are contingent (which would not be possible if an essence automatically implied existence), and because (which requires separate argumentation) there can be only one thing in which essence and existence are not distinct, and yet we observe many things.

A thing can begin to exist only by the action of another, for a thing which does not yet exist cannot act on itself or anything else. But whatever causes a thing to exist must either have its existence from itself or from another. All contingent things have their existence from another, and those others must in turn derive their existence from others, and so on. This is another “hierarchical causal series”, happening here and now, not spread out temporally. But then nothing can exist unless this series of causes terminates in something which has its existence from itself, something that exists necessarily, the nature of which is simply to be. But this is a thing in which essence and existence are identified. Therefore the existence of any individual contingent being requires the existence of something that exists necessarily.

Like the other arguments in this book, this is a fully metaphysical argument. That essence and existence are one in God is the classic Christian position, derived from Scripture (“I AM WHO AM”) and fully flowering in the thought of Aquinas. He proceeded to argue that God, so conceived, must be one, the cause of the existence of all things at each moment, itself uncaused, and purely actual or fully realized.


The Rationalist proof, which is the one of most recent origin, is based on the principle of sufficient reason. It begins from the premise that everything has an explanation and argues to the existence of a necessary being. This is an interesting one because it requires fewer metaphysical commitments than some of the other arguments, and relies on an uncontroversial principle that underlies all rational inquiry whatever. (Of course, the principle becomes controversial if it seems to imply God’s existence!)

The form of this argument will be familiar to any parent whose children are fond of asking “Why?” to whatever reasons are given them. The PSR (as it is called for short) states that “there is an explanation for the existence of anything that does exist and for its having the attributes it has”. It does not require that we know the explanation, or that the explanation be a deterministic one (ie. quantum mechanical causes do not undermine it). Feser does a good job explaining the incoherent mess one gets into if the truth of the PSR is denied.

The existence of contingent things must have an explanation, given PSR. If this explanation is in terms of another contingently existing thing, then it too must have an explanation, and so on. But this series of contingent things itself requires an explanation, and this passing of the explanatory buck can only terminate in a non-contingent thing – that is, a necessary thing, the existence of which, by its nature, requires no explanation. Absent this necessary being, we can never provide a complete explanation for anything.

The argument then proceeds along lines growing increasingly familiar to conclude that this necessary being must be one, the cause of all things, purely actual, immaterial, etc., and so reasonably identified with God.


Again, I have done no more than sketch the arguments here. Feser unfolds them in considerable detail, and devotes many pages to answering objections. I hope that I have summarized them with adequate faithfulness, although it has now been several months since I finished the book.

I find these arguments very interesting. It is a well-known phenomenon that physicists make poor metaphysicists, and I fear I am no exception to that pattern. I feel shaky when handling philosophical concepts like possibility, necessity, potentiality, causation, and so forth. Are these concepts reliable? Do they refer to real things? Do I understand these things clearly enough to reason with them? Personally I don’t feel particularly confident when on this ground. I am wary of any argument which seems to require that I phrase things in a particular way, or use particular concepts rather than others, for fear that the argument is only working by a linguistic formula. But I recognize this wariness as potentially unjust, for does the framing of arguments in particular ways reflect anything other than its making use of the appropriate terms?


The worry that some of the metaphysical concepts used in the arguments might be merely conceptual, not corresponding to anything real, is, in its worst and most destructive form, the worm of nominalism eating the metaphysical apple. Feser recognizes that the nominalist habits common to much modern thought act as an acid on the structure of these (and other) philosophical arguments, so he devotes several pages to counterarguments against nominalism, and these arguments I found quite interesting.

One counterargument is that a nominalist cannot state his position without having recourse to universals. A nominalist may say that things do not share a common nature (because he believes there are no such things as natures) but are grouped together for convenience because they resemble one another in some way. But, as Bertrand Russell pointed out, this “resemblance” is itself a universal. And if the claim is that this resemblance, too, is merely a convention or name, then the question arises why particular “resemblances” are grouped together conceptually, since this can only be on the basis of some higher resemblance, and on and on. The nominalist is stuck in a vicious regress.

Another argument is that nominalism’s attempt to evade essences or natures in favour of mere names or words is a non-starter, since words are themselves universals. A nominalist says there is no such thing as blueness, but only things we call “blue” because they have a colour in common. But you say “blue” and I say “blue”; are we saying the same word or not? If we are, then we’re using a universal, and the nominalist has failed. As Feser sums up, “it is notoriously very difficult to defend nominalism in a way that doesn’t surreptitiously bring in through the back door a commitment to universals or other abstract objects, in which case the view is self-undermining.”


Having presented his five arguments and defended each of them, Feser still has several meaty chapters in reserve. He has already treated not only the existence but also the nature of the entity or reality of the thing each argument arrived at, and we have seen that these things shared certain properties in common. In this later chapter Feser draws these lines of argument together to argue that these five arguments do not exist in isolation from one another, but are drawn together by many connections and all converge on a single reality: God. He then systematically treats each of the principal divine attributes — unity, simplicity, immutability, immateriality, eternity, necessity, omnipotence, omniscience, perfect goodness, will, love, and incomprehensibility – and examines how each is supported by the arguments he has presented.

The argumentation in this section is sometimes quite subtle. Feser follows Aquinas in thinking that talk about God must for the most part proceed analogically – that is, words applied to God cannot be understood in exactly the same sense in which we apply them to contingent realities, nor are the meanings unrelated in the two cases, but there is an analogy between them. Feser devotes quite a lot of effort to carefully articulating what this means, distinguishing types of analogy, etc. As a result of reading this section I came tantalizingly close to finally achieving my long-time ambition to understand the “analogy of being”, but I ultimately failed.

The relationship between God and the world is the next major topic of discussion, and here Feser provides helpful overviews of divine conservation (that is, that God conserves the world in being here and now) and the relationship between miracles and laws of nature.

In the book’s final chapter he steps back to consider a huge variety of objections that are commonly raised against the kinds of arguments the book defends.  These range from the manifestly incompetent (“If everything has a cause, what caused God?”) to the thoughtful (“Don’t the arguments based on the impossibility of infinite regress merely establish a necessary condition for the existence of a contingent world rather than establishing the existence of a necessary being?”). There is a valuable section critiquing scientism (the doctrine that science alone can provide genuine knowledge) and a good discussion of the problem of divine hiddenness. Indeed, this chapter, which accounts for about 1/5 of the length of the book, is a treasure trove of arguments and counterarguments relevant to natural theology.


At the end of this long overview, it is worth summing up some of the general features of the arguments presented. They are all metaphysical arguments. Nothing has been said here about science, or about any particular finding of the sciences. Nothing in these “first cause” arguments says anything about whether the universe is small or large, finite or eternal. It is hard to see how any future scientific discovery could have any bearing on them. Nothing depends on probability, an expanding universe, or the complexity of biological structures. Each argument starts from a single thing that exists here and now: I outlined the Aristotelian argument using my drink as an example, and that same drink could have served equally well for the others (except perhaps the Augustinian, though two drinks would have served there). The arguments are based on very basic ideas: change occurs, things are composed of parts, abstract objects are real, things exist contingently, and there are explanations for things. If the arguments are sound, they establish the existence of God with certainty. They are quite delightful and intriguing arguments.


I have been looking for years for a book that would clearly and carefully state classic arguments for theism, and especially for a book that would treat the divine attributes philosophically. I’ve read a few, but this has been the best. It would make a fine textbook for use in seminaries or university courses on philosophical theology. The attention Feser devotes to rebuttals of common misunderstandings and objections is a valuable service (though I can imagine a typical reader will have to hunt patiently for the answer to his objection amid the wealth of material). The writing is clear and concise, and I can see myself returning readily to this volume when I want to revisit the arguments or clarify my thoughts. There is much more here than I was able to absorb on one reading.

The existence of God is more than a matter of merely academic interest. I am myself a Catholic, so I affirm the existence of God. I pray, try to act in ways consonant with my dignity as a child of God, and hope to one day see God face to face. I do not spend a great deal of time, as part of my daily routine, thinking about absolute simplicity, hierarchies of causes, perfect ontological goodness, and so forth. Yet it would be false to conclude that these philosophical arguments are somehow irrelevant to my religious life and devotion. The God whom they reveal to the mind is, to say the least, mysterious, behind and before, replete and bountiful, overflowing with power, closer to me than I am to myself, hidden but present within every aspect of my experience, the great fountainhead of being, in whom I live and move along with everything else. There is substance here for fruitful prayer and reflection.

Stoppard: The Hard Problem

April 8, 2019

The Hard Problem
Tom Stoppard
(Faber and Faber, 2015)
76 p.

Tom Stoppard has always had a reputation as a playwright with an intellectual bent, bringing science and philosophy to the stage in a way that is accessible to audiences and infused with personal significance for his characters. The Hard Problem, his first play in nearly a decade, continues this tradition, though perhaps not as successfully as in earlier plays. The “hard problem” is the famous problem of consciousness: both whether and how conscious experience can be given a scientific explanation.

The play’s central character is Hilary, a young brain science research scientist, who has been well catechized. She knows that science is the privileged means of knowing the world and ourselves, that we are material in every aspect of our being, and that there are no mysteries in the world, but only problems to be solved. The trouble is — and this is what makes her an interesting central character — she doesn’t believe it, and is adept at ferreting out the cracks in the explanatory facade. She asks awkward questions. She calls bluff. She even prays.

The “hard problem” of consciousness is hard for a variety of reasons. One is that there is an explanatory gap between the kinds of entities that science deals with and the phenomena of first-person experience. One can know everything there is to know about the neurobiology of how photons of a particular energy incident on retinal cells trigger electrical signals to certain regions of the brain, but nothing in that body of knowledge tells us anything about what it is like to experience the colour blue, nor is it clear how knowledge of matter — which, according, at least, to the reigning scientific paradigm for the past 500 years, is defined to be essentially mathematical in structure and devoid of all mental properties — ever could tell us anything at all about conscious experience, or indeed why it ever could or would produce something like conscious experience in the first place. Given our understanding of what matter is, we can’t get there from here.

I am sorry to report that Stoppard does not solve “the hard problem” in the course of the play. Nor, to be honest, is the play much concerned with the problem of consciousness in particular. It comes up now and then, but the play’s interest is more broadly in whether scientific claims to complete or exclusive explanatory authority are justified. Are we really convinced by the portrait science paints of us? Thus in addition to the problem of consciousness, the play devotes quite a lot of time to the “problem” — for Darwinists — of altruism, and hints here and there at deeper problems posed by moral claims in general, which creep into our thinking and acting, and into the very practice of science itself, in ways that are subtle and often overlooked. In one funny scene Hilary asks an atheist character to pray for her, and, when he protests that doing so would compromise his moral and intellectual integrity, she asks, rather pointedly, “And that’s a problem, is it?” It is amazing how bags of chemical reactions get uppity when provoked.

The play therefore takes a refreshingly unorthodox approach to its subject matter. I note with pleasure that a review of the play at New Scientist complains of the “great shame” that Stoppard is interested in “what he sees as the limitations of science”. Clearly he’s doing something right. That said, the philosophical wealth of the play is more pauperish than princely. Even within the ambit of “the hard problem”, there is so much more that might have been said — about the common view that consciousness is like software running on brain hardware, for instance. And the play leaves untouched other aspects of mental life at least as difficult to account for in materialist terms, such as intentionality and even conceptual thought itself.

However, a play with a running time of 90 minutes cannot do everything. Its main purpose, of course, is to tell a compelling human story, and Hilary’s story, leaning heavily but effectively on dramatic irony, was interesting to me, and if the play raises provocative questions along the way, and does not presume that the received answers are the right ones, so much the better. Tom Stoppard hasn’t let me down yet.

Linked links

March 15, 2018

Today a set of items sewn together by threads firm and flimsy:

  • Some of us read not so much for plot as for style, but what is style? At The New Criterion Dominic Green has some ideas about it, expressed with style. It’s a splendid essay.
  • Joseph Epstein has written a nice appreciation of that delightful stylist P.G. Wodehouse. It led me to Roger Kimball’s older essay in a similar vein. And that led me to Christopher Hitchens’ thoughts on the subject. Wodehouse has been an obsession of mine of late; I’ve nearly completed all the Jeeves and Wooster novels. As displays of wit they are hard to beat.
  • And what about displays of Whit?
  • The film that won the Best Picture Oscar this year was del Toro’s The Shape of Water, which Ross Douthat sees as a rather unsubtle example of liberal myth-making. I’ve not seen it myself.
  • Neither have I seen — it was a strictly auditory affair — a recent debate between Jordan Peterson and philosophy’s own Angel of Death, David Benatar. At issue is anti-natalism, a view that holds that sentient life is an evil. (Peterson’s against it; so am I.)
  • I’m more likely to throw my support behind a proposition implicit in the novels of our great English moralist Charles Dickens: that coffee is an evil.
  • You have to wonder what the dickens the consciousness deniers are thinking. (Technical answer: nothing.) The linked essay is a good one, but over contented with its preferred solution, and not quite grappling with the scope of the problem. Most educated Westerners today are committed to a metaphysics that leads where the consciousness deniers have ended up. Do I hear someone whistling past this graveyard?
  • I think so, and I think I know the tune. Didn’t Ian Bostridge mention it in his reflections on the English choral tradition?

As an envoi, let’s hear something from that tradition. Here is Herbert Howells’ A Spotless Rose, sung by the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge.

Lecture night: Hart on consciousness

October 19, 2016

Today’s lecture is a treat: David Bentley Hart speaks about consciousness to an audience at (I believe) Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans. Hart is currently writing a book on the subject, a book which is to be an expansion of the treatment he gave the topic in The Experience of God. The talk describes a number of the problems faced by attempts to provide a materialist account of mind and consciousness, and outlines the features that a successful account of consciousness would need to have.

As usual with Hart, the ideas are challenging, the perspective is fresh, and the whole is expressed in melodious prose.

The talk raises a number of questions in my mind, but foremost among them is an issue that has long puzzled me. Many of the arguments against a materialist account of mind have the following structure: “Given the premises of the mechanical model of nature, it is impossible to provide a scientific account of this-or-that feature of mind.” The mechanical model is the one that has prevailed since the early modern period: the real is just atoms and the void, there are no formal or final causes, the mathematical structure of matter exhausts its properties. And, given those premises, I think the arguments Hart (among many others) offers are persuasive.

Yet it seems to me that one possible response, for those committed to a “naturalistic” view of mind and consciousness, is to challenge the prevailing premises of the mechanical model. Perhaps a materialist model of mind could succeed if the potentiality of matter were not stripped down to its mathematical minimum. For instance, if contemporary models of mind fail to bridge the gap between matter, on one hand, and characteristically mental properties (intentionality, unity, conceptualization, teleology), on the other, might this not be plausibly due to the fact that, in our theory of nature since Descartes, matter has been defined to have none of those characteristically mental properties, no final or formal causes? As such, the project was doomed from the outset by the very terms in which it was posed. If we were to restore the full panoply of causes to nature, à la Aristotle, might that not provide sufficiently rich resources to permit mind to find its place within the natural order? The pan-psychism that has been advocated by, for instance, Thomas Nagel, seems to me a step in this direction, and a not unreasonable one, given the objective and the obstacles.

In the lecture, however, Hart raises this prospect only to dismiss it, and I admit I didn’t understand his reasoning. If somebody feels able to explain this to me, I’d be grateful.

Rovelli: Seven Brief Lessons on Physics

September 6, 2016

Seven Brief Lessons on Physics
Carlo Rovelli
(Riverhead, 2016)
96 p.

These short “lessons” were originally serialized in the Italian press, and are here collected and rendered into elegant English. Rovelli is an eminent physicist who gives us a series of meditations on developments in physics since 1900.

They are arranged in order of increasing speculation: he begins with general relativity and quantum mechanics, presenting in non-technical language the main points — space and time are dynamic and responsive, and are filled with a restless boil of quantum fields. He proceeds to give brief — and I do mean brief — overviews of modern cosmology and the Standard Model of elementary particles. All of this is solid science; questions linger, of course, and he draws attention to those loose threads and nagging problems, but basically he is describing successful theories.

In the last three sections of the book he moves to topics of greater uncertainty. The outstanding problem of how to reconcile general relativity with quantum mechanics he broaches with a very interesting discussion of theories of loop quantum gravity, the basic postulate of which is that space-time is quantized. (Rovelli is himself one of the architects of this theory.) Amazingly, and rather gratifyingly, he doesn’t even mention the other principal effort to solve this problem: string theory. This is unquestionably the book’s finest witticism, one that I imagine has raised a few consternated eyebrows in faculty lounges.

The last section specifically about physics tackles the vexing puzzles that arise at the intersection of gravity, quantum mechanics, and thermodynamics. Laying great stress on the time-irreversibility of thermodynamic processes, he argues that thermodynamics has something crucial to tell us about the uni-directionality of time itself. This is a common trope in physics circles, but, correlation not being causation, it seems to me suggestive at best. But then he reminds us of Hawking radiation, in which quantum effects near black holes actually cause them to radiate heat, and one feels a chill of delight running up the spine.

Alas, the same cannot be said of the book’s final chapter, in which Rovelli takes a step back to ponder the implications of all this for human self-understanding. He emphasizes that modern physics has revealed the world to be radically different from the way we intuitively think of it, which is fair enough, and then argues that more such intuitions — those pertaining to human freedom, for instance, or consciousness — are due to be superseded by counter-intuitive scientific explanations. There appears to be nothing more to his argument than the power of analogy. He tries to declare a peace between his commitment to the power of physics to completely describe the world, on one hand, and his commitment to the legitimacy of humanistic values, on the other, but it is far from convincing. And he is rather dispiritingly emphatic in his devotion to immanence:

“Immersed in this nature that made us and that directs us, we are not homeless beings suspended between two worlds, parts of but only partly belonging to nature, with a longing for something else. No: we are home.”

Nothing new here, of course, and this view does have about it a certain poetry — he even cites Lucretius, the patron poet of materialism — but there are such a host of issues being passed over in silence that such poetry as it possesses sounds rather hollow.

The book is written in a lyrical tone, and would be accessible, I imagine, to anyone who has an interest in the subject matter. There is only one equation — Einstein’s field equation for general relativity, which he describes as “the most beautiful of theories,” and I’ll not argue with that.

Medieval philosophy, without any gaps

February 19, 2015

Over the past few months I’ve been listening in on a very interesting long-term podcast series: A History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps, by Peter Adamson. After covering Greek, Roman, and Islamic philosophy the series has recently reached its 200th episode and has begun to explore medieval philosophy. The podcast is very well done; each episode is about 20 minutes long, with a new episode every week or so.

The “without any gaps” modifier is part of the appeal. For instance, a typical survey of philosophy makes a fairly cursory mention of St. Anselm and his ontological argument for God’s existence; Peter Adamson devoted three or four episodes to exploring various aspects of Anselm’s thought. He also gave a few episodes to the 9th century metaphysician John Scotus Eriugena, who is often skipped entirely. Yet despite this level of detail the podcast is clearly pitched at non-specialists. The discussion is generally clear and often enlivened by an endearingly corny wit. I find it very enjoyable.

I can’t help wondering how far Adamson has charted his course into the future; he makes occasional jokes about the series never actually coming to an end, but the joke has a point. If Anselm gets four episodes, how many will Aquinas get? And Kant?! Well, with a podcast this interesting I can hardly complain.