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Fr. Jean Buridan and the Birth of Modern Science

November 20, AD 2014 5 Comments

Condemnations of 1277

The reaction to Pierre Duhem’s 1913 volume Le système du monde: histoire des doctrines cosmologiques de Platon à Copernic (The System of World: A History of Cosmological Doctrines from Plato to Copernicus) was both strong and spectacular. His work provided undeniable evidence that in the Middle Ages faith in the predictability of nature was rooted in the theology of God as the Creator of Heaven and Earth. It was not just a single belief, but a climate of shared belief nurtured by an educational system comprised of universities, cathedral schools, and monasteries that consistently taught Christian theology. Circumnavigate the conclusion however one may, the theological beliefs that united the consistent learning centers teaching those beliefs did not exist in any of the ancient cultures nor did the Scientific Revolution occur in them.

The people in ancient cultures had the skills to produce a viable science of physical laws and systems of laws, but they held some form of a pantheistic or animistic worldview. The worldview instilled by the Old Testament cultures was founded on the theology of a personal and merciful God who created a universe of order and routine. In early Christianity, from the first millennium and into the second, and even now, this worldview was maintained. It was maintained when the Greek works were introduced and translated to the Christian West in the Middle Ages. It was the Christian scholars who dared to reject certain long-held ideas from the ancient Greeks because those ideas contradicted the tenets of Divine Revelation. The significance of the difference in the Christian worldview and the pantheistic worldview is critical to the birth of modern science. Fr. Stanley L. Jaki named the “classical and most influential case” that represents the birth of modern science from Christianity, and this is the case of Fr. Jean Buridan (1300–1358), the French priest who developed the concept of the impetus which led to the modern concept of inertia and paved the way for Isaac Newton’s first law of motion.

Jean Buridan’s Impetus Theory

In his work Quaestiones super quattuor libris de Cælo et Mundo, Buridan showed that a radical departure from Aristotelian cosmology and physics was absolutely necessary for explaining the movement of bodies. Buridan not only departed from untenable ideas, he affirmed his faith in the Creator and derived from those “articles of faith” what could only be known by revelation and not by scientific demonstration. Buridan stated that “in many an instance one should not believe Aristotle who made many propositions contrary to the Catholic faith because he wanted to state nothing except what could be derived from considerations based on what is seen and experienced.” (Quaestiones, p. 152) Stated more concisely—and this should be considered carefully—it was faith, not observation, experimentation, or investigation that gave the first breaths to modern science.

Buridan’s theory of impetus is found in Book VIII, Question 12 of Super octo libros physicorum Aristotelis subtilissimae quaestiones. He was thinking about what moves a projectile after it leaves the hand of the projector. It is first necessary to understand what Aristotle asserted, which was the accepted explanation in Buridan’s day, so first a brief review.

Aristotle’s Theory of Motion

Aristotelian theory of motion held that terrestrial bodies had a natural motion towards the center of the universe, which meant, at that time, the center of earth. Motion in any other direction was “violent” motion because it contradicted natural motion and thus, required a mover to move it. Bodies were thought to naturally desire rest, so whenever something moved in any other way than naturally, there had to be a mover in contact with it. If the mover ceased to move it, the body fell straight to the earth and became suddenly at rest. Aristotle also argued that if the resistance of a medium through which an object passed remained constant, the body would move at a constant speed if the force exerted by the mover were also constant. [This is false. A constant force results in a proportionally constant acceleration (F=ma) according to Newton’s second law.]

Aristotle also held that if the resistance of the medium varied, the speed the object moved under constant force varied proportionally, and if the movement took place in a vacuum, bodies would move instantaneously with infinite speed. This is one of the reasons why Aristotle thought a complete void was impossible. Aristotle’s system included an explanation in Book VII and VIII of Physics, and Book III of De cælo that objects move farther when thrown due to a concept he coined as antiperistasis, which means a surrounding (peri) resistance (anti) caused by an action that induces an unchanging equilibrium (stasis). This concept applied to projectiles (thrown objects). Once the mover (the hand, for instance) throws the object and the object is no longer in contact with the mover, the air that resists the object (anti) is divided by the object and surrounds it (peri). By doing so, the air fills in the vacuum in the wake thereby impelling it along (stasis). When bodies fall to the ground, Aristotle attributed this natural motion to the soul of the object (animism) searching for what is best for it. Thus a ball thrown on earth will be impelled by antiperistasis, but will also be acted upon by the ball’s nature which searches for the ground, thus projectile motion.

According to Aristotle, the mass of an object is directly proportional to the nature of the object’s desire for its natural place. Therefore, Aristotle thought that two otherwise identical objects would fall to the ground with proportionally different speeds if one was twice the mass of the other, the heavier one falling twice as fast as the lighter one. The heavier mass’s larger nature held a larger desire to be on the ground, a conclusion that defies plain common sense and observation. It is easily observed that two balls of different mass fall at the same rate of acceleration, but this was not noticed or not admitted by the ancient Greeks or by the Muslims who followed Aristotle. Note, he was not referring to two dissimilar objects such as a feather and a ball which would fall at rates also affected by surface area and air resistance. Aristotle was referring to objects identical except for mass, i.e. two balls of the same size but different masses.

According to Aristotle, there were two kinds of bodies: terrestrial (natural) and celestial (divine). The terrestrial bodies moved toward their desired place of rest. The celestial bodies were the bodies from the Moon upward, and they moved in a circle in a sort of divine substance called the ether. This explained why the heavenly realm moved in continuous circles. They were in a perpetual contact with the Prime Mover itself, which is the basis of the doctrine of eternal cycles (the Great Year) of an eternal cosmos emanating from the Prime Mover. Thus, motion was explained in the heaven and on earth by the object dividing the substance (air or water on earth, the ether in the heavens) and the substance in turn filling in behind the object to push it along. On earth, objects also fell to the ground in search of their rest unless a mover kept them in their motion. In the heavens, bodies were in their most desired place as long as they were in contact with the Prime Mover.

Reconciling with the Christian Creed

Buridan, along with the other Christian scholars reconciling Aristotelian texts with the Creed, rejected the doctrine of the Great Year and eternal cycles of the universe. Because he viewed the universe as the creation of a rational Creator and thus viewed the universe as having an absolute beginning in time, Buridan, in thinking scientifically, necessarily had to ponder the cause of motion for heavenly bodies, which in turn meant he had to ponder the cause of motion for terrestrial bodies, and he did so in the same atmosphere in which the Condemnations of 1277 were made.

So, in Book VIII, Question 12 of the above mentioned work, Buridan appealed to common experience and judged Aristotle’s position to be unsatisfactorily solved. (The question can be found here at Professor Gyula Klim’s site.) Buridan gave the example of a child’s toy, the top. When a top spins, it spins in place so there is no vacuum left behind and thus no antiperistatic effect to impel the top to keep spinning. As a second example, he described the “smith’s wheel” and how it also moves in a circular motion but does not leave a vacuum. As a third example, he pointed out that if an arrow were sharp at both ends, it would still move in the same way as it would move if the back end were blunt. If the motion were caused by the impulsion of the air moving in behind the arrow as it pierced the air, the arrow with a sharp posterior should not fly as far, but this is not observed.

As a fourth example, he described the scenario of a ship moving through water. If the ship is going against the flow and the rowing is stopped, the ship continues on for a while and does not stop immediately. A sailor on deck, however, does not feel the air behind him pushing (impelling) him. He instead feels only the air in front of him resisting him. And if the man were standing at the back of the ship, the strong force from the air rushing in behind the ship and pushing it along ought to knock the man violently into the cargo. Experience shows in all of these scenarios that antiperistasis is false.

Buridan then argued that if, fundamentally, motion is maintained by continuous contact with a mover, then there is no explanation for how the top or the smith’s wheel can continue to move after the hand is removed, for even if a cloth surrounds the top or the wheel on all sides blocking any movement of air, it still spins after the hand is removed. Further, he argued, common experience shows that when a person pushes his hand through the air, he does not feel the air behind his hand pushing it along whether he has a stone in it or not. Buridan concluded that since, in those cases, there is no air to impel motion, no hand to sustain it, no rowing to move it, there must be another explanation. This is how he arrived at his impetus theory (see paragraph 6):

Thus we can and ought to say that in the stone or other projectile there is impressed something which is the motive force (virtus motiva) of that projectile. And this is evidently better than falling back on the statement that the air continues to move that projectile. For the air appears rather to resist. Therefore, it seems to me that it ought to be said that the motor in moving a moving body impresses (imprimit) in it a certain impetus or a certain motive force (vis motiva) of the moving body, [which impetus acts] in the direction toward which the mover was moving the moving body, either up or down, or laterally, or circularly. And by the amount the motor moves that moving body more swiftly, by the same amount it will impress in it a stronger impetus.

The impetus continues to move a stone after the hand throws it, and the impetus is continually decreased by the resisting air and by the gravity of the stone. He also related impetus to mass:

Hence by the amount more there is of matter, by that amount can the body receive more of thatimpetus and more intensely (intensius). Now in a dense and heavy body, other things being equal, there is more of prime matter than in a rare and light one. Hence a dense and heavy body receives more of that impetus and more intensely, just as iron can receive more calidity than wood or water of the same quantity. Moreover, a feather receives such an impetus so weakly (remisse) that such an impetus is immediately destroyed by the resisting air. And so also if light wood and heavy iron of the same volume and of the same shape are moved equally fast by a projector, the iron will be moved farther because there is impressed in it a more intense impetus, which is not so quickly corrupted as the lesser impetuswould be corrupted. This also is the reason why it is more difficult to bring to rest a large smith’s mill which is moving swiftly than a small one, evidently because in the large one, other things being equal, there is more impetus.

Tying this reasoning to common experience, Buridan also explained that this is why one who wishes to jump a longer distance takes a few steps back to run faster and drive himself farther, and why the jumper does not feel the air propelling him but rather the air in front of him resisting him against the force of his jump.

Guided by Faith

Finally, Buridan turned this path of reasoning toward the heavens and noted that the Bible does not claim that God had to keep his hand on the celestial bodies to maintain their motion. Buridan suggested that the motion of celestial bodies could be answered another way.

God, when He created the world, moved each of the celestial bodies as He pleased, and in moving them He impressed in them impetuses which moved them without His having to move them any more except by the method of general influence whereby He concurs as a co-agent in all things which take place; “for thus on the seventh day He rested from all work which He had executed by committing to others the actions and the passions in turn.” And these impetuses which He impressed in the celestial bodies were not decreased nor corrupted afterwards, because there was no inclination of the celestial bodies for other movements. Nor was there resistance which would be corruptive or repressive of that impetus.

In other words, Buridan introduced the concepts that would lead to Newton’s first law of motion, that a body at rest would stay at rest and a body in motion would stay in motion with the same speed and in the same direction unless acted upon by another force. The pantheistic worldview never would have led to such an idea because it was fundamentally and institutionally opposed to it. Buridan’s insight derived from his faith in the Christian Creed, Divine Revelation applied to reason and observation, which led to exact science as a self-sustaining enterprise of physical laws and systems of laws. “I might seek from the theological masters what they might teach me in these matters as to how these things take place.”

Following the Condemnations of 1277 by Tempier against a set of tenets upheld by Aristotle and his followers, a large movement appeared that liberated Christian thought from the ancient Greek thought and produced modern science. Duhem is considered to have identified the 1277 articles as the most significant event in the birth of modern science, while Jaki highlighted the spark ignited by Buridan a generation later. For Jaki, however, it is not a certain man, event, or date that marks the birth of science though; it is a breakthrough in a naturalistic worldview that rejected the pantheistic doctrine of eternal cycles and approached the investigation of nature guided by the light of Christian faith in a merciful, faithful God who created the world out of nothing with an absolute beginning and end in time, that is ordered, predictable, and stable, but also not a god itself. This breakthrough, just described, was based not on observation or experiment but on divine revelation and faith, and it is thus the birth of modern science, a fundamental departure from the worldviews in which modern science was stillborn.

Sources and Recommended Reading

  • Stanley Jaki, Science and Creation: From Eternal Cycles to an Oscillating Universe. Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press, 1986, see pp. 230-231.
  • Stanley Jaki, A Late Awakening and Other Essays. Port Huron, MI: Real View Books, 2004.
  • Herbert Butterfield, The Origins of Modern Science (New York: The Free Press, A Division of Simon & Schuster Inc., 1957).
  • Marshall Clagett, The Science of Mechanics in the Middle Ages (Madison,WI, The University of Wisconsin Press, 1959).
  • Pierre Duhem, Essays in the History and Philosophy of Science, Translated and Edited by Roger Ariew and Peter Barker (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, 1996).

Adapted from my book, Science Was Born of Christianity: The Teaching of Fr. Stanley L. Jaki. Available on Amazon.

Originally published at The Integrated Catholic Life™.

When Children Wonder if Faith Conflicts With Science

November 13, AD 2014 21 Comments

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My first grader, Lucy, is learning about Adam and Eve, Original Sin, and The Fall. Typically, she’s dotting her i’s and crossing t’s. Typically, I’m bracing for the usual question. “Wait Mommy, who did Cain and Abel marry?” I’ll explain how we do not know, and for the first time she may wonder if faith conflicts with science. That pains me a little. Her first kindergarten science lesson was “God Made Everything.” She plays with toads and salamanders, examines veins in leaves, sculpts birthday cakes out of mud, and hears her older sister wail when anyone stomps a spider because it was “one of God’s creatures.” She is awed by creation. The wonder drives her to love science, and I don’t want her to lose that.

Like her sisters, she marvels at fossils in books and wonders what it would have been like to roam with dinosaurs. She is already interested in the same-named female hominin whose 3.2 million year old skeleton was found in Ethiopia. Someday she’ll probably learn about the genus Homo and the extinct Homo species that might have been ancestors of Homo sapiens. She’ll probably read about Homo habilis, how they had good manual dexterity and made tools out of pebbles, or about Homo ergaster and their family structures in which parents protected children. She might read in science journals that genomic studies suggest Homo neanderthalis interbred with modern humans. If she takes a university biology course, she’ll likely hear scientific theories that challenge the Adam and Eve story I teach her now.

And she’ll probably still be paying a great deal of attention to the details. Will she know how to think these questions through? If I don’t teach her how, she may naively abandon her unexamined beliefs. I want my children to be so confident in their faith that they are unafraid to explore the hardest questions in science. Scientific discovery will go on righting itself in places where better discoveries are made and forging ahead where brighter imaginations tread.

Faith and science are both a search for truth. What is true for one ought to be true for the other, and ultimately it is. The tension of apparent conflict is due to our incomplete knowledge. Maybe we do not yet fully understand the point of Genesis. Maybe science will reveal more about our first parents and what it means to be human. After all, no scientist can deny 1) we are united as one species, 2) our species stands above all the others, and 3) human cultures have always searched for God.

So I’m learning to teach these kids to stand back and say: “Well, here’s this and there’s that. I’m not sure how it fits together, so I’ll keep learning.” Deeply I want them to know the search for truth must be guided by faith, to remember to order their thinking as adults the same way they did as children—awed by creation, driven by wonder, firmly grounded in what God has revealed.

Originally published at The Integrated Catholic Life™.

Does the Church Say Humans Evolved from Matter?

November 8, AD 2014 5 Comments

August 2012 035

After Pope Francis’ comments last week about evolution and the Big Bang, a mommy-friend asked me a question. Us mommies like clarity because we need clear answers for inquisitive children. She said: “I get that the Big Bang is possible, simply caused and designed by God. I get that life changes and evolves over time. No problem. But, does the Church really say that human beings have evolved from pre-existent matter? I have a hard time with that because it doesn’t jive with being made in the image and likeness of God.” I agree. Evolution is pretty easy to accept until you consider what it means for our origins.

The Church doesn’t teach one way or the other on evolutionary science (or any science), but rather gives guidance about where legitimate opinions may be held without leading to logical contradictions with dogma. It’s like the way moms lay down rules for kids at the park. “You may not go into that street or into that lake or up that tree, but otherwise you are free to roam in these wide boundaries and explore all you wish.” Because that’s what moms do, set parameter for their children’s legitimate freedom, and the Church is a Mother.

The parameters the Church gives are that we cannot deny the reality of 1) Adam and Eve or 2) the human soul. (See Humani Generis, 36-37) To deny the existence of our first parents would be to deny original sin. To deny the rational soul possessing the powers of intellect and will would be to deny that we are made in the image and likeness of God.

But we can explore the science of biological evolution. At the molecular level, it is genetic. As parents know, offspring are both genetically like their parents and genetically unique as individuals. As such, offspring respond in slightly different, and sometimes in strikingly different, ways to the same environments. Over time, certain genetic traits through reproduction may be selected naturally, the same way breeders can do artificially.

Microevolution is easy to understand because it can be observed even in a laboratory. Macroevolution involves vastly longer times and larger changes, but the process is the same. Offspring vary and respond to environments differently. So yes, it is plausible that our bodies materially evolved. We see that life forms were created to evolve.

What about Adam and Eve? The bottom line is: We don’t know how God created them, and maybe we never will. God revealed their reality, but not how He created them. Some theologians opine that God created the first human persons miraculously outside the laws of nature. Some opine that God ensouled two bodies just as He ensouls children at conception to create the unity of the human person. (See Forsthoefel, p. 104) These explanations, though complex and heavily nuanced, help to consider scientific discovery in the light of faith. Science and faith together help us to understand better the fuller truth of what it means to be human.

Originally published at The Integrated Catholic Life™.

Virtue: How the Human Person Achieves Maximum Potential

November 3, AD 2014 4 Comments

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Maximum Potential

Virtue derives from the Latin word virtus. In classical Latin it meant “worth, merit, the particular excellence of character or ability, moral excellence, goodness.”[1] It can also be translated in English as “strength or power.”[2] For instance, the maximum potential output from an engine is measured and given as mechanical horsepower, a comparison to the work that horses could do.[3] When the machine achieves its maximum potential, the machine has reached the fullest and highest expression of its capacity. St. Thomas Aquinas defined virtue for human beings in a similar way, as an ultimum potentiæ, or the “furthest point to which a power can reach.”[4] The German philosopher, Josef Pieper, interpreted this to mean “the utmost best a person can be.” [5] Claiming an ultimate implies a penultimate and a first, and all gradations in between. Such gradation sets up a view of the human person as someone becoming, rather than as a static being. It is to view personhood as unfolding in a dynamic reality, just as the universe is unfolding in a dynamic reality, constantly moving toward its end.

Thus, virtue implies a perfection of a power. According to Aquinas, power can be in reference to being and in reference to act. [6] Power in reference to being applies to matter. The power of a machine or a horse, for instance, or even a human body, refers to the physical ability to do work, and such power can be comparable between machines, animals, and humans. In fact, the mechanical power of a machine or a horse might even exceed that of a human. However, power in reference to act refers to willful intent, to spiritual ability, and as such applies to the soul. Humans have a rational soul, which instills them with the power to act rationally. Whereas an inanimate machine or a horse with a sensitive soul could have comparable powers to a human in reference to physical capability, humans have a higher power in reference to their souls and ability to make choices about how to act. The human person has the spiritual powers of intellect and will. Hence, virtue in reference to “works of reason” is most proper to man—excellence of character or ability, moral excellence, goodness, the perfection of spiritual power.

Love, the Mother and Root of All Virtues

This excellence and goodness means that authentic virtue is rooted in the highest spiritual power of charity, caritas, the highest form of love; Aquinas calls this love the “mother and the root of all the virtues.”[7] Simply stated, there can be no authentic virtue at all without love. Love is necessary for virtue, and since the pursuit of virtue is how the human person becomes more perfected, love is necessary for the human person, absolutely. The pursuit of this excellence is also the pursuit of ultimate happiness.[8] Love is a “theological” virtue, along with hope and faith. It is true that a person can attain some happiness by means of natural principles and reason alone, but such happiness has a limit that only goes to the end of one’s life.[9] There is also a happiness—a blessedness—beyond nature and reason directed toward God, the first beginning and last end of all things.[10] This supernatural happiness requires grace, Divine assistance, which is why this supernatural, highest love is a theological virtue. “All you that fear the Lord . . . trust him . . . hope in him . . . and love him; your hearts shall be enlightened.”[11]

In the order of perfection, love precedes faith and hope because goodness and happiness cannot be believed in if it is not hoped for, and such joy cannot be hoped for unless goodness and happiness are first desired and loved.[12] St. Augustine more succinctly defined Christian virtue as “nothing else than perfect love of God,” the “chief good, the highest wisdom, the perfect harmony.”[13] This is consistent with St. Paul the Apostle’s encomium on love.[14] “I may have utter faith, so that I can move mountains; yet if I lack charity (caritas), I count for nothing.”[15]

Authentic Virtue

Authentic virtue, then, presupposes two anthropological realities: 1) that the human person has a rational soul, and 2) that the most perfect act of a person is to love. Both of these presuppositions follow from the revealed truth of the Holy Trinity and the doctrine of Imago Dei, that man is made in the image and likeness of God. Both of these revealed truths explain why the human person has intellect and free will, and why humans are made to be individuals in communion, in personal relationship, with other beings.

In trying to understand the revelation of the Holy Trinity, theologians defined the word “person” more precisely. Historically, the Latin word persona after the corresponding use of the Hellenistic Greek πρόσωπον (prosopon), meant a mask on a character in a play or a juridical entity.[16] Christian theology clarified the meaning of personhood as early as the third century writings of Tertullian and the sixth century writings of Boethius who defined “person” as “an individual substance of a rational nature.”[17] The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit share fully in the one Divine Nature united in perfect eternal communion as One God, yet each is an individual, and as such, Persons, each an individual substance with a rational nature.

Scripture reveals two internal processions of the Three Persons of the Trinity. “From God I proceeded . . .”[18] This ordering has significance for the understanding of human persons. The Father is the source, the originator, the first principle of all things.[19] The Son is the second divine Person, the Word, the begotten of the Father.[20] The Son proceeds from the Father as an act of divine intellect, analogous in human experience to the procession or generation of a thought, the mind expressing itself in a concept.[21] The Holy Spirit completes the Trinity, sent by the Father through the Son as the second procession of the divine will, analogous in human experience to the love that proceeds from the mind and its thought.[22] It is love that completes the Holy Trinity, an eternal, perfect communion of God, the Being that is Life, Truth, and Love Personified.

Scripture reveals that this divine image is present in human persons, Imago Dei. “Let us make man, wearing our own image and likeness.”[23] Therefore, the human person is an individual substance of a rational nature, creature not equal to the Creator, not omniscient or almighty, not perfect in thought or will. “The divine image is present in every man. It shines forth in the communion of persons, in the likeness of the unity of the divine persons among themselves.”[24]

Because humans bear this likeness, they bear the spiritual power of intellect, the power to reason, and the spiritual power to will, the power to love. This is why human persons innately possess the reciprocal desire to love and be loved, to know and be known, to learn and make choices, to seek goodness and happiness and to abhor evil and misery.[25] Human persons consequently desire to belong to families, communities, and the entire race—many persons united as one entity. This is the basis of the Natural Law, and all humans are obliged to follow it, a law which is heard in conscience and fulfilled in the love of God and of neighbor. [26]

Advancing in virtue throughout life is therefore fitting to the dignity of the person. By reason he is capable of understanding the order established by the Creator, and by his free will he is capable of directing himself toward perfection, seeking and loving what is true and good.[27] Because the human person has free will, he can reject the reality of these divine truths, but as Pope Paul VI wrote in his 1965 pastoral constitution, Gaudium et Spes, to a modern world entrenched in doubt, “when [a human person] recognizes in himself a spiritual and immortal soul, he is not being mocked by a fantasy born only of physical or social influences, but is rather laying hold of the proper truth of the matter.”[28]

The Cardinal Virtues

These realities—that the human person has a rational soul, and that the most perfect act of a person is to love—guide the understanding of the natural, the cardinal, virtues. Just as there is an order to the theological virtues, there is an order to the cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance.

Josef Pieper called prudence the “mother of all cardinal virtues” because all the other cardinal virtues depend on the ability to deliberate reality, judge accordingly, make decisions, and carry through to actions.[29] Aquinas summed up the doctrine of prudence by saying that for the apprehensions of truth “reason is perfected by understanding.”[30] By “reason” Aquinas meant the regard for and openness to reality, the acceptance of reality. By “truth” he meant the unveiling and revelation of reality, be it natural or supernatural. There is an order, a plan, to practicing prudence. Aquinas described four steps: 1) the ability to silently contemplate reality (memoria), 2) the willingness to be open-minded to receive instruction (docilitas), 3) the ability to act swiftly with clear-sighted vision (solertia), and 4) the ability to fix the attention on what has not yet happened (providencia).[31]

Knowledge of the past is the intellectual virtue of “memory;” knowledge of the present is the intellectual virtue of “understanding.”[32] Docilitas (docility) refers to understanding. Docility does not merely mean to be pliant, but to have an open-mindedness to recognize a variety of things, to not cage the intellect with presumption. Solertia is the ability to confront sudden events decisively, to keep the mental eyes open and to think swiftly when swift thinking is needed, to not take blind action.[33] Providentia is the ability to realize uncertainty about future events and to not expect certainty where it cannot exist.[34] Prudence is the practice of holding interiorly the humility of silence and unbiased perception so that knowledge of reality can be transformed into a realization of the good.[35] To state prudence in the Augustinian terms of love, prudence is “love distinguishing with sagacity between what hinders it and what helps it,” directed towards God.[36]

Justice is realized in the external acts, the human person in relation with himself and with others. Like the other virtues, it can only be consider within the sevenfold (three theological, four cardinal) image of man and virtue.[37] Augustine realized in his Confessions that free will is the cause of injustice and doing evil.[38] Humans are made by “Goodness itself” who wills no evil but who is perfectly just in judgment and allows a man to suffer the consequences of his choices and of humanity’s choices in general, that is, of original sin. Justice presupposes that rights come from God and that man only serves another man in service to God.[39] It also demands that humans acknowledge the humanity of others, and as such honor what is owed to one another justly. Every act has a social and objective consequence. “We do not speak without being heard; we do not make use of a thing without using our own or another’s property.”[40]

There are two basic forms (species) of justice: commutative justice and distributive justice, which Aquinas identified in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics.[41] The hallmark of each is some kind of indebtedness, but to different subjects. In the first (commutative justice) indebtedness is owed to another person or group of person, and in the second (distributive justice) indebtedness is owed to society as a whole.[42] Whereas commutative justice can be settled by an agreement or contract between individuals about what is justly due to one another, an “arithmetical proportion,” no such agreement can ever exist with distributive justice because the “social whole” is greater than any individual can account for.[43] However, just rulers and leaders, entrusted with the distribution of goods for the whole, seek to fulfill the responsibility equitably, while, obviously, unjust rulers and leaders violate equitable distribution.[44] Even with these distinctions, there is no sharp division between commutative and distributive justice because in reality the individual who confronts the social whole is at the same time a member of it.[45] If abstractly a stable equilibrium of justice is conceived, it can be understood that every act of any individual disturbs the equilibrium, and in so doing turns the actor into either a debtor or creditor.[46] It is never possible to realize an ideal condition in human society, in the affairs of the world “everything depends on the rulers being just.”[47] Justice depends on the respect for the reality of the human person, which necessitates love to be rooted firmly in the hearts of men. For Augustine, justice is “love serving God only, and therefore ruling well all else, as subject to man.”[48]

“Fortitude presupposes vulnerability.”[49] Because humans have bodies, they are vulnerable to suffer injury. Everything done to a human person against his or her will is an assault, whether the injury is spiritual or physical. The deepest injury is death, and therefore, every courageous action is rooted in a readiness to die.[50] This is the reality of the virtue of fortitude. Martyrdom is the essential root of Christian fortitude, and a person needs overflowing divine grace to endure such great suffering.[51] The Christian loves life, but is willing to sacrifice the temporal one for the greater good, or for the greatest good which is God.[52] It is a paradox. “Whoever loves his life will lose it.”[53] Herein lies the reality and the mystery of the human person, an existence as bodies with souls, created but elevated, fallen but redeemed.[54]

Fortitude comes third in the order of cardinal virtues, a meaningful gradation. Without prudence and justice, there can be no fortitude because only a just and prudent person can be authentically courageous. Justice and prudence necessitate faith, hope, and love.[55] Fortitude cannot excel among the other virtues; it cannot “trust its own limits” and operate according to the truth of real things on its own.[56] To be brave requires an ability to discern when to endure an injustice or when to attack and defend the good.[57] Authentic fortitude rules out a swaggering and imprudent fearlessness.[58] Fortitude requires an unrelenting confrontation with reality, for without knowledge of possible perils and honesty about one’s abilities, the decisions and actions will be founded on falsity.[59] Like the other virtues, fortitude is founded on love, and because of the love of one’s self, of others, and of life, fear accompanies fortitude because fear is born of love.[60] What matters is the truth of things, the reality of eternal life.[61] According to Augustine, fortitude is “love readily bearing all things for the sake of the loved object,” which ultimately means “bearing everything readily for the sake of God.”[62]

Temperance, the fourth of the cardinal virtues, does not refer to mere quantity as if intemperance meant to indulge in excess. Rather lack of moderation toward sensitive appetites refers more broadly to passions and desires, and the sorrows that arise from absence of pleasures.[63] Where fortitude is about “fear and daring with respect to the greatest evils,” temperance is about “desires and pleasures” with respect to what is good.[64] God has established a natural harmony in the human body, therefore, it not evil to desire food and drink or touch and intimacy.[65] The virtue of temperance is to realize this order within the self, and to practice “selfless self-preservation.”[66] Chastity, for instance, resides in the soul but is expressed by the act of the body.[67] Temperance is distinguished from prudence, justice, and fortitude because it refers exclusively to the act of the individual.[68] Augustine said temperance is “love giving itself entirely to that which is loved;” it is “love keeping itself entire and incorrupt for God.”[69]

The Human Ought to Act Like a Human

If the reality of reality is not obvious enough in the discussion of this sevenfold hierarchy of virtues, it is instructive to consider how human beings and, for instance, hydrogen differ. Hydrogen is what it is. For the element or the molecule or the compound, there is either existence or non-existence, which depends on a certain unity and orderliness of matter. The same is true for computer chips and rocket ships. Between those inanimate objects and the human person there is a chasm because the human being exists as a being in a radically different manner than matter exists. Even the noblest creatures under man with vegetative and sensitive souls are what they are independent of their own reason or will, even in a state of unrealized potential. No one can convince a dog he ought to act like a real dog.[70] This is not so with humans. Virtue convinces the human that he ought to act like a human.

First, the human person, in realizing meaning and purpose, ought to be open to hearing the voice of God in faith. Second, the human person ought to be true to himself by reaching beyond himself in hope. Third, the human person ought to become more perfected through love (caritas), by pursuing excellence, ultimate happiness, and fulfillment, and by partaking in the power of his Creator. With his whole being, the human person ought to find the goodness in the existence of God, the universe, others, and himself. Fourth, the human person’s life ought to be authentically prudent because he has an openness to reality and accepts the unveiling and revelation of reality through reason, be it natural or supernatural. Fifth, the human person ought to be just because he respects and loves others, understands relationship and that he ought to give others their due. Sixth, the prudent and just human person ought to be brave and act to realize the good in his world, willing in his fortitude to accept injury for the sake of truth and justice. Seventh, the human person ought to practice self-discipline so as to protect himself in his temperance from self-destruction.[71] This is how a realistic anthropology leads to a proper understanding of the authentic meaning of virtue.


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What if We Lived in a Simulated Universe and Worshiped a Pimply Teenager?

November 1, AD 2014 7 Comments

In a 92:Y sponsored interview, Richard Dawkins and Brian Greene discussed the notion that our universe might be simulated and created by a future pimply teenager in his garage. Here’s a short clip with transcript at the YouTube link.

Here’s a summary of the interview. Dr. Nick Bostrom, a philsopher at the University of Oxford, proposed an argument that in the future we will have powerful supercomputers that can create universes ‘in silico.’ In these simulated universes, sentient beings will exist unaware they are in a simulation (think Matrix). Bostrom predicts that once humanity has the technology to create simulated universes, there will be more simulated universes than real universes because real universes are harder to create than computer universes. Therefore, in totality there are more simulated universes than real universes. “You come home at night. You flick it on. You create a universe, and sort of kick back and watch it happen.”

Bostrom argues that based on statistics it’s most likely we already do live in a simulated universe. According to both Bostrom and Greene, people find this the most compelling argument for the existence of a Creator. Why? Because it cannot be disproven and because this idea renders the Creator not some mysterious being but rather a human being. Greene envisions him as “some futuristic teenage kid with pimples in his garage who just created the universe.”

In the interview, Greene wants to know what Dawkins thinks of that. Dawkins agrees, “I can’t see how you could refute it; I can’t see how you could actually be sure we’re not.” Dawkins also says that if a religion rose up in this simulated universe created by the pimply teenager and he were one of the sentient beings living in the universe, he would not worship the kid. Greene is impressed that there’s actually a “logical sequence of words” that gives meaning to the argument there is a Creator of the universe. Dawkins is intrigued. He notes there also has to be a physics built into this simulated universe for it to operate, but that the “pimply youth” could also violate these physical laws during the simulation and suddenly make things happen, at will, that weren’t supposed to happen. Here Dawkins seems to get confused.

“Um, it’s got to be a pretty disciplined pimply youth that sees to it…” says Dawkins.
“…as a Creator of this world should be…” interjects Greene.

“Yeah, I would say, yes, but that…that we don’t, we don’t see that, well I suppose we don’t, I mean maybe, maybe…”

Correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems that Dawkins, Greene, and Bostrom also find this argument for the existence of a god compelling. I am surprised this is the argument they cannot refuse. I am also surprised Dawkins started to say we don’t see discipline in the physical laws of our universe. The scientific method depends on predictability.

My purpose, however, is not to deride or ridicule atheists who ponder our origins. We have that in common. These atheist scientists are bearing witness to the “permanence and universality of the question of origins.” This inquiry, the Catechism of the Catholic Church says, is distinctively human. And while the Pimply Teenager God of a Simulated Universe idea is just about as wildly mythical as the ancient religions who produced creation myths, it no less represents a search for explanation of some sort. It is at least less violent than the Babylonian creation myth whereby the mother goddess Tiamat spawned monster-serpents as children who revolted against her, planned evil, and dismembered her to form the world as they burst her belly and smashed her skull until she was angered like one possessed and lost her reason. Truly, that would be a world in which you could doubt the discipline of the Creator (or creator-monster-children-serpent-things).

Nonetheless, the Christian faith has always challenged arguments to our origins that are different from its own.

It rejects a Gnostic god, for instance, who would will people to shun the universe as evil while clinging to the spiritual realm. The Christian view is not based on blind faith, nor does it ask Christians to reject the material realm.

Christianity rejects a Deist god who would create the universe and leave it to run like a machine until he felt like tricking people by breaking the laws of physics, just as the Pimply Teenager god. Christians do not believe that God is a puppeteer determining every behavior and action in disconnected instances in time, creating scenarios as he goes. Such strict fideism assumes we cannot know with any certainty what the guiding hand will do next. This view denies that beings have intrinsic natures influencing their behavior, but the view is unbalanced; it over-emphasizes the freedom of God but denies his rationality. On the other hand, the Christian worldview is not strictly deterministic either, as if God created the world like he built a clock, wound it up, and ignored it to tick away time. That view is also unbalanced; it over-emphasizes the rationality of God but denies his freedom.

It is worth noting there could be no science in either of these scenarios, or in the Gnostic worldview. On this, I think we all can agree: Strict gnosticism, fideism, and determinism are inimical to science. The first denies the significance of physics, the second denies the predictability of physics, and the third denies the need for experimentation, for in a strictly determined world we would be able to deduce the entire physical system by pure thought. The Christian God demonstrates a fine line between rationality and freedom, a fine line we strive to emulate in our human endeavors.

Christianity also rejects a Pantheistic god, who would emanate the universe from himself or be one with the universe as the universe is created and destroyed in eternal cycles of good and evil. While this might make for some interesting simulations for the post-human basement dweller, it is not so good for us humans having a discussion right now. If the universe emanates from God and runs on an eternal cosmic ferris wheel, with all of us caught hopelessly in whatever part of the cycle we happen to have been born on, how could we have any desire for innovation or escape? We are either despairing at the bottom of the cycle or complacently soaring at the top, and we cannot have the motivation or the confidence to learn and dominate the physical laws of nature.

Finally, a Materialistic god could not exist, for it presents an internal contradiction. The word “god” typically refers to a supernatural being, or being itself, but a materialistic god would bewithin the natural world.

But a Pimply Teenage god of a simulated universe? I guess I’m wondering why atheist scientists think his existence is compelling enough not to refute, and how an atheist would describe this god should he be the atheist ideal.

With the exception of Materialism, anyone who holds these beliefs about the universe’s origin could, as Greene did, claim they are a “logical sequence of words” giving meaning to the argument that there is a Creator of the universe. The Christian view of origins, however, is not just a logical sequence of words; it is reasoned from divine revelation. The Christian assumes the universe and our existence is real, that it is not simulated. The Christian God is not only monotheistic, but Trinitarian and Incarnational. I’m sure Catholics here can explain more about these dogmas if anyone wants to know more, but the key word is “wants”. Faith cannot be imposed.

So yes, I suppose if we follow the line of thought from Greene, Bostrom, and Dawkins and ponder a post-human society someday when there will be a way to simulate universes, then yes, I suppose one could say, in the utmost simplistic of statistical statements, that there would be more simulated universes created with the flip of a switch than the one real universe. But that line of logic only begs the question, “Who created the computer and the computer god, and why did he have to flip a switch?”

Yet in the end, I think all of us, Catholics and atheists alike, can agree with Dawkins and Greene here—such a flippant clientele of supercomputer gods would not be worthy of our worship.

Originally published at Strange Notions.