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What Is Your Epistemology?

April 19, AD 2013 138 Comments


Epistemology is one of those words in philosophy that confuses a lot of people, but it means how do you get your knowledge. The word comes from the Greek logos which means “a kind of study or science” and the episteme which means “knowledge” so it is a reflection about the sources and the process of knowledge. Among the ancient Greeks there were different views.* Which one are you?


In ancient pagan Greece there were the materialists, the Stoics and Epicureans. According to the materialist all of our knowledge comes from our senses, from what we can see, touch, taste, smell, and feel. We process it in our brain and all truth is in terms of matter and energy. The materialist eventually says, “Truth is a process in the brain.” This is the atheist epistemology, and it was the epistemology of Karl Marx.

Karl Marx was a philosopher who concluded that there was nothing but the material, and thus the way to freedom comes from a better understanding of the laws of matter. He extended his materialism to the community. He believed that the way that we make our living, i.e. get our food, clothing, shelter, the material things that we need, determines our life and course of history — our communism.

Modern science has also shown us that we can explain much about our world in terms of matter and energy. Our brain is a material organ that operates according to natural scientific laws like a computer. If we want valid knowledge, then the brain must function properly; it can yield good results or it can crash, but by functioning properly, the brain will lead us to all the truth that is possible for the human mind, according to the materialist.


Then there were the spiritualists, like Plato whose philosophy was one of the greatest achievements of mankind. Plato believed that world around us, the world of the senses, is only a shadow of reality, not reality itself, a sort of reflection in the mirror of the real world. The real world cannot be known by the senses, he taught, but can only be known by a spiritual intelligence where innate ideas of truth reside. Truth is within us, and we have to become conscious of it again.

For the strict spiritualist, the real world cannot then be known by the senses. Plato believed the soul has always existed, and in its previous existence it saw God, the whole Truth. He also accepted the saying of the Pythagoreans that the body is the “tomb of the soul.” When our spirits descend into our bodies, they forget the real world and must be reawakened to the truth that is in us.

The Eastern religions share this epistemology more or less. For the first 600 years of Christian theology the Fathers of the Church were predominantly Platonists. The theology of the monks, Monastic theology, from 600 to about 1200 when the medieval universities were founded, was also predominantly Platonistic in its epistemology. Today Platonism can be found in the theologies of the Protestant churches.

A Middle Ground

The third epistemology is that of Aristotle, a middle ground between materialism and spiritualism. Aristotle pointed out that the data about reality comes through the senses just as the materialist says, but he taught that this cannot be the whole explanation of human thought. Our brains take in and process data from our senses, but a lot of the information is accidental, irrelevant material. We must also use our intelligence to analyze what the senses tell us, to separate out the irrelevant material. So our knowledge comes from both the senses and the intellect, which is able to transcend the level of the material in order to get at what is essential in the world and make a scientific critical kind of knowledge possible. This is the epistemology of the Catholic Church.

Around the thirteenth century with the beginning of the great medieval universities this epistemology emerged. Aristotle was a pupil of Plato, but his work was obscured and hardly understood, often confused with that of Plato. In the High Middle Ages, St. Thomas Aquinas saw clearly that the epistemology of Aristotle is different than that of Plato, and that it reconciles the materialistic and spiritualistic worldviews.

Aristotle denied that we have innate ideas as Plato taught, and instead said we come into the world with blank intellects. We know nothing intellectually. As children we begin to learn about its world through our senses. Babies touch things, stare at things, startle at noises, grimace or smile at tastes and smells; they begin to learn in a materialistic way. As children gather knowledge, they begin to think in an intelligent way. Children learn to see the difference between the external senses that contact the material world and the internal sensations or fantasies that go on in the mind. Then children learn to speak and communicate thoughts.

Human thought is expressed in language and it is beyond the language of animals. Animal language is only made of sounds that warn or attract, or convey some function of the material body. Human language contains abstract notions, and these abstractions are based on both sense data, and the analysis of that data, what is relevant and what is not for a given purpose. Consider the scientist. Would he be a scientist if all he did was observe the world? It is no surprise that the Aristotelian epistemology led to the development of the Scientific Method.

Which is your epistemology?

Most Catholics are probably comfortable answering this question, but I had never even heard it posed until I converted and began to study theology. A variety of people read this blog, so I pose the question to the readers.

Do you have an epistemology and which is it?

Or do you have none at all?

Some people seem to have an anti-epistemology, and go so far as to say that there is no truth at all. I have a developing theory (which certainly is not novel or unique) that this is the problem with science today. Too many scientists not only have no epistemology, they have lost the ability to trust that humans can even recognize truth. So they conduct studies to prove things that are obvious, wasting massive resources and distorting the purpose of scientific inquiry. Ah, but another time…

*Reference: This explanation is taken from a lecture in a Philosophy for Theologians course taught by the recently deceased Father Benedict Ashley, philosopher and theologian who spent his life bridging the gap between science and religion by teaching people how to integrate the teachings of St. Thomas into their thinking. Fr. Ashley was an atheist during college, and a member of the campus Communist Party. He converted to Christianity in 1938 and went on to serve as a Dominican friar for 71 years.

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  • Rob T

    Sigh. There is a huge difference between the phrases, “This is the atheist epistemology,” and “This is an atheist epistemology.”

    • Stacy Trasancos

      I don’t see the difference. Can you explain? I study atheism because I want to know what you/they believe. You’re agnostic, right?

  • Rob T

    Stacy, it’s not an atheist thing, it’s a “the/a” thing. For instance, there’s also a huge difference between, “This is the reason I jog” and “This is a reason I jog.”

    “The” implies that it is the only reason, or the only atheist epistemology, while “a” implies that is one of several reasons, or one of several atheist epistemologies.

    There is no single atheist epistemology. Ayn Rand, for instance, was a fervent atheist, but she built her epistemology on Aristotelian principles.

    Now, perhaps you meant, “This the only epistemology that I can view as consistent with atheism,” but that’s a much more limited statement than, “This is the atheist epistemology.”

    As for my own beliefs, I’m an atheist with regard to the God of the Bible, and an agnostic beyond that. I don’t know what other forces are out there. And then we get into issues like “What do you mean by ‘atheist’ and what do you mean by ‘God’?” Would you consider Spinoza an atheist?

    • Stacy Trasancos

      “Ayn Rand, for instance, was a fervent atheist, but she built her epistemology on Aristotelian principles.”

      I don’t know about that. I’ve read her quite a bit. I don’t think she held that the soul even existed outside of some energy manifestation of the brain, which would make her a materialist who hold man as his own god.

      Worth debating.

      • Rob T

        Actually, Stacy, I don’t see any reason why your description of Aristotelian epistemology excludes atheists.

      • Stacy Trasancos

        Because they have no way to account for the soul. That would logically mean that there are spiritual beings, and if there are spiritual beings, then there is a hierarchy, and if there is a hierarchy, then there is a God. Kind of like the Unmoved Mover argument. This is why Aristotle rejected materialism. Plato too, along similar lines. (Disclaimer again, that I’m a student not an authority.)

        • Rob T

          The word “soul” does not appear in your description of Aristotelian epistemology, nor do I see it as a necessary component. And then I don’t see the necessary jump from “souls” to “hierarchy.” That’s why I’m confused by your contention that atheists cannot hold an Aristotelian epistemology.

          • Stacy Trasancos

            Mind = Soul

            Catholic theology says the mind represents the intellectual power of the soul.

            If man is both material and spiritual, body and soul, then you have to ask where the soul came from and what happens to it after the man dies.

            An atheist doesn’t believe in spiritual beings without bodies, so he is left to define the mind in terms of matter and energy, which puts him right back to materialism, even if he doesn’t recognize it.

          • Rob T

            Even if that’s the case, how does that preclude an Aristotelian perspective? Materialists do not all deny the existence of what we call “thought.”

          • Tommy

            Aristotelian epistemology requires the existence of the soul because true knowledge occurs on the immaterial level. If the thing-known is immaterial, then the knowing agent must also be immaterial. The thing-known is the universal nature, and the knowing agent is the mind. Both are immaterial.

            (Remember, the mind is not the brain. And the universal nature is not the particular thing. )

            An ‘idea’ or a ‘nature’ is an immaterial thing; and as such it cannot be known, i.e. grasped, unless there were an immaterial thing to know it.

            In short, true knowledge is an act of reception, and “all reception occurs in accordance with the nature of the recipient.” That is why Aristotelian epistemology requires the existence of an immaterial soul.

          • Tommy

            Edits: Sorry, I posted my previous commented too soon; I wanted to make edits to it in order to make it a little more coherent. Also, sorry for my delay in the discussion. I love epistemology!

            Knowledge is the unification of the subject and the object, the relationship between the knower and the known. This occurs on the immaterial level. In other words, when we know a tree, that doesn’t mean we are cramming tree branches into our brain. The act of knowing is the de-materialization of that tree from its particular material circumstances.

            This is why Aristotelian epistemology requires the existence of the soul (or mind/intellect, which is the knowing power of the soul.)

            If the known is immaterial, then the knower must be immaterial too. If what-is-grasped is immaterial, then the grasper must be immaterial too.

            And remember: the mind is the not brain. Thoughts don’t take up space. Concepts are not seen under a microscope, no matter how powerful.

            True knowledge is an act of reception [the intellect's reception of the object's nature] and “all reception occurs in accordance with the nature of the recipient.” That is why Aristotelian epistemology requires the existence of an immaterial soul, or mind.

  • Rob T

    Hey Stacy, just a word of caution about this:

    “I study atheism because I want to know what you/they believe.”

    Atheists do not believe in God. That’s pretty much it. This can be more strongly held (“There is no God!”) or less strongly held (“I see no sufficient reason to believe in your conception of God.”

    I had to rewrite the first sentence of that paragraph a couple times. Atheists cannot be identified by what they believe so much as what they do not believe.

    And here’s where the note of caution comes in. There’s a huge difference (another huge difference!) between:

    “I study atheism because I want to know what you/they believe,”


    “I study atheism because I want to explore the logical implications of not believing in God, whether actual atheists believe those logical implications or not.”

    • Stacy Trasancos

      No, the word belief is what I meant. Everyone has beliefs. I want to know what atheists believe. There are logical consequences of saying you don’t believe in God.

      Spinozas epistemology would be a form of materialism. His mechanistic determinism wasn’t spiritual at all even if he spoke of it in spiritual terms. This was popular for the materialists then who saw that materialism in its strict form was absurd.

      That is my answer. Someone may disagree or correct me though.

      • Michael

        Belief is perhaps a imprecise word to use. It is often said that atheists have beliefs about God because they believe that God doesn’t exist. I would say no (as otherwise we would all have beliefs about astrology). Rather atheists just don’t accept any of the evidence offered that claims to show anything other than the material world.

        • Jacob S

          We do all have beliefs about Astrology. I, for one, believe that it is a bunch of unsubstantiated nonsense, and I imagine most people here agree with me.

          A belief is something that you hold to be true. Atheists hold that it is true that there is no God, and so have as a belief that “there is no God.” Materialists hold that it is true that there is nothing beyond the material, and so have as a belief that “there is nothing beyond the material.”

          It is a common tactic among atheists to try to portray anything called a belief as irrational and to elevate (from their perspective) their beliefs to some sort of higher level, but it doesn’t work.

          Tactics for doing this involve introducing some sort of standard for proof based on evidence and lots of use of the word “probably,” but as it fails to address the root of where those standards come from and what “probably” means etc. In short, it fails to examine its own epistemology sufficiently to recognize that there really is no fundamental difference in kind.

          • Howard

            Jacob S,

            The interesting complication that some atheists are trying to get away with is to claim to not take a position against the existence of God, then ridicule persons who do claim a belief in God – because of that belief.

            The ridicule is the tip-off.

            They are in this situation taking a position against the existence of God and hope they are not questioned as to the actual motive – AND/OR – a position against the way that belief was obtained. Either way for some reason they want to stay attached to the atheist description.

            In either case, the “I am just not convinced” or “It has not been proven [to me]” answer does not state a position on the question, Do you believe God exists?. While those answers are possibly true in themselves, they are evasive. The other side of those answers have to be, “I am not convinced He does not exist” and “It has not been proven [to me] that he does not exist”.

            Uncertainty, or is it better called agnosticism.

            If the question is “Does God exist?”, and if you deny anything non-material exists your only conclusion has to be as a materialist is, we cannot know until we find objective material evidence – a piece of His clipped toe nail for example. The obvious evidence is Jesus Christ, but try and present that in any material form. The Shroud of Turin perhaps. Maybe other indirect evidence such as our very existence. If you accept a non-material possibility then the answer becomes one of reason, translating the non-material understanding into a transmittable form.

            Random thoughts that made their way through my fingers.

          • Michael

            Technically all atheists are agnostics, just as technically we are all agnostic about astrology. However in practice non believers call themselves atheists because agnosticism has been associated with a position that is 50/50 as to whether God exists.

            Atheists therefore do not hold a belief that there is no God, only that there is no evidence for God.

            I have no expressed ridicule here.

            The Shroud of Turin was an excellent example. The testing was done by three separate, reliable labs with double blind samples. If they had come back with a first century dating I would have taken note and considered it worthy of consideration. Instead the dates came back from each lab indicating an origin at the same time as the Shroud appeared in the historical record.

            Sindonologists (not a word one gets to use often) countered with all sorts of reasons why the dating is wrong (contamination, patches, smoke damage, etc.) but one knows that not one of those objections would have been raised if the Shroud dating was to their liking.

            There, in essence, is the difference in the scientific approach to evidence and the religious approach.

          • Howard


            So you will know, I don’t get into arguments about the Shroud or studies about social issues or any other kinds of debatable study. I have seen enough to know that these arguments are endless.

            What is indefensible is that an answer to a question about your BELIEF is not answered by stating the REASON for the belief or lack thereof. A belief in lack of evidence is not answering the question.

            If a positive belief in God requires a convincing body of evidence, then, lacking that evidence means that you also lack a belief in God.

            You seem to be classifying yourself atheist based on not fitting into another group. Interesting idea. I wonder if other classifications systems would adopt that method?

          • John Darrouzet


            There is new science about the Shroud and a new, compelling book on Veronica’s Veil. Significant evidence is available for those who need or want evidence, like you seem to be calling for.

            Re Shroud of Turin: see

            Re the true face of Jesus (Veronica’s Veil): see

            See also the journalist, Paul Badde’s book: “The Face of God: The Rediscovery of the True Face of Jesus” [ ]

          • Michael

            I am not calling for evidence, The evidence is there. The shroud is dated to the Middle Ages. I’ve read many of the objections to the carbon dating and nothing of merit is mentioned. It is people trying to fit the evidence to their pre-conceived notions.

          • Jacob S


            There is a difference between an atheist and an agnostic. They are not the same thing. It is possible to believe that God does not exist. It is also possible to not know whether or not God exists, and to believe that such knowledge is not possible.

            For example, I am not agnostic when it comes to Astrology. I don’t simply say that I am not sure whether it is valid or not and haven’t been convinced one way or the other. I do not even say that I don’t think it’s possible to know if it’s true or not.

            No, it is my positive position that astrology is absolutely worthless bunk. Completely wrong. No merit whatsoever. This is a belief that I have. If you are agnostic about it, if you believe that astrology might or might not be true, then you don’t have this particular belief about it, but chances are you still have some beliefs about it.

            For even agnostics of both strong and weak varieties have positive beliefs: it may be that you believe that the existence of God is unknowable, it may be that you believe that it is irrelevant. It may be that you have the explicit belief that what you know does not imply the existence of God. You may even fall back on the old atheist/agnostic standby of saying that you believe that it is “unlikely” that there is a God. Whatever. Still a belief.

            Maintaining agnosticism as a legitimate fixed point (as opposed to a “still processing”) requires belief, because to say that you are and should remain agnostic is to make the positive statement that there is not conclusive evidence or reasoning of any sort to push the ball one way or the other, and/or that answering the question is not worth your time.

            And finally, your shroud example is not an example of religious logic. St. Thomas Aquinas is an example of religious logic. I truly am agnostic when it comes to the shroud (of a stable “it makes no difference” variety – haven’t bothered to examine the evidence because it doesn’t really matter).

            But for the sake of argument, say that your analysis of that debate is fair. Then it is not “religious logic,” it is “I want to be right logic,” and no group in the world has a monopoly on that. Many people, atheist or theist, use such types of reasoning when they don’t want to admit that they were wrong about anything.

      • UnbeliableThomas

        “I want to know what atheists believe. ” Well, I’m an atheist. I don’t *believe* in anything. The definition of believe is: “To think something is true without having proof or empirical evidence.”
        A true, or hard, atheist requires physical proof or empirical evidence of something before they will accept it.
        In summary, I *know* something is true. There is absolutely no physical proof or hard, tangible, empirical evidence for a supreme being.
        That would put me, and tens of thousands of my best buds, in the Stoic camp. And we are the future…..

        • Stacy Trasancos

          Unbelievable Thomas,

          So, you’re a materialist?

          The “Stoic camp” is ancient and they’ve yet to be any future.

          Can you defend your materialism? For instance, a question I ask a lot of atheists, how do you think freely if your mental process is just a bunch of molecules colliding?

        • Michael

          Blood circulation is what the heart does, gas exchange is what the lungs do, the mind is what the brain does.

          There is no evidence that mental activity has any other cause than in the brain. There may be still unanswered questions, such as “free will” and does it exist and if so how is it manifested, but neurobiology is making huge strides in the past few decades in understanding the workings of the brain.

          Again, with this, and other areas of human inquiry, the in science the default position is not to say “It’s because of God” and breathe a sigh of relief as we have that one covered now. Science looks for answers in the natural world and more often than not it finds them.

          • Stacy Trasancos

            Then how can you trust your reasoning? How do you know what is true? What is science if man cannot think freely?

            And on a snarky note, why do atheists call themselves “freethinkers” if they don’t really think they can think freely? :-) I know, snarky, but seriously, I ask this question a lot.

            If our discussion is no more mental than billiard balls hitting each other, then isn’t the argument that you know you nothing but atoms and molecules self-defeating?

            I love the answers the Church gives. We do have a soul with two powers, intellect and will. It’s glorious, but it also means we have a great deal of responsibility to use those powers rightly. It means I can move past the question of whether truth even exists or not, and can actually search for it.

          • Michael

            I never said “free will” didn’t exist, only that its explanation will probably come from science rather than philosophy or theology. Philosophy and science have argued it for centuries, neurobiology has had it for a few decades and has made astounding progress.

            Some atheists call themselves freethinkers because they are not compelled by church or state to ascribe to a certain position. A modern day Giordano Bruno is free to make identical statements today without fear for his or her life.

            It may seem to be demeaning that we are nothing but atoms and molecules and I understand the sentiment, but we must accept the world the way its presented to us, not the way we want.

            I have a friend, very intelligent, PhD in science and teaching at a university (that scores in the top 25 in the world university ranking), who is a Christian Scientist. He is very sincere in his beliefs but despite the fact that he teaches meteorology believes he can change the weather with his thoughts and prayers (also disease, famine, earthquakes, etc). That is his world and he would not want it any other way. Like him you have made your assumptions about God and have come to a conclusion you like. But does arriving a “glorious” outcome warrant making an unsupportable assumption.

          • Jacob S

            Michael:”I never said “free will” didn’t exist, only that its explanation will probably come from science rather than philosophy or theology.”

            I think you must either misunderstand what free will is, what science is, and/or what philosophy and theology are.

            Free will is the position that there is some part of us that can make decisions in a way that is not completely bound by any physical law or other controlling force whatsoever. (Which is not to say that all decisions of all people at all times are free or not influenced by exterior stuff, only that there is a will that can make decisions without regard to such things.)

            If this will is material, then it is bound by physical laws and is not free. If it is not material, then science will at most recognize that it can’t adequately explain the decision making process but, being science, won’t be able to know if this is because there is a will or because the theory just isn’t good enough yet.

            Philosophy says then that if there is a will and it is immaterial, and if there are immaterial things, then… etc. Materialism and atheism don’t survive.

            Michael:”It may seem to be demeaning that we are nothing but atoms and molecules and I understand the sentiment, but we must accept the world the way its presented to us, not the way we want.”

            Except that’s not how it’s presented to us. It is presented to us that we are atoms and molecules. The “nothing but” is an innovation that you add yourself.

    • Dan

      I am an athiest. I wasn’t always one. I grew up a strong Catholic. I even studied to be a priest. However the more I studied the more I saw the inconsistencies I faith and knowledge. Religion does not allow one to question it. It will not accept any thoughtful examination of principles or tenants. To do so invites reprocuessions. One must accept without question the dogma of the church including the virgin birth of Christ dispute all Mexican and scientific evidence to the contary.

      The honest answer is i don’t know if there is a godand i dont see any proof of one. It make that leap is as silly as convicting some of murder with any evidence or believing in unicorns.

      • Stacy Trasancos


        Hello! You went the opposite way that I went, but we are similar. We are ready to follow our beliefs all the way through.

        Can you say more about the inconsistencies in faith and knowledge, be more specific? You mentioned the virgin birth from Mary. What did you have difficulty accepting?

        Someone made a comment once (Jeff McLeod) that atheists who just can’t believe in God without tangible evidence are very intelligent people who do question everything and demand strong proof. (Jeff, I hope I summarized it accurately.)

        My conversion wasn’t so much based on intelligence as it was on love, but Jeff’s point is a good I think. I’ve met a lot of very intelligent atheists who were skeptics because they were curious and demanded proofs more than the average person.

        After my conversion I did explore the intellectual side of Catholicism though, and found it solid. The Church does not ask us to believe anything unreasonable. Faith is not opposed to reason at all. It’s beautiful to me actually. Very exciting to study dogma.

  • Rob T

    “I want to know what atheists believe. There are logical consequences of saying you don’t believe in God.”

    But that doesn’t mean atheists believe those logical consequences. It may mean they should accept and believe those consequences, but it does not mean that they do.

    This isn’t an atheist thing, either. Many of us do not believe the logically necessary consequences of our beliefs. In fact, given that no individual has perfect thought and unlimited time in which to think, I’d say everyone falls into this category in one area or another.

    So if you’re saying that people believe all the logically necessary consequences of their beliefs, I’m going to push back on that.

    • Stacy Trasancos

      This is splitting hairs, isn’t it?

      I want to know what they believe, so I can follow the logic for myself, and then see why they don’t do the same, which will either cause me to rethink my reasoning, or challenge them on their reasoning.

      In simpler words…I want to know what atheists believe. :-)

      I recognize that as a good communication skills, necessary actually.

      • Rob T

        Lord, it’s not splitting hairs at all! You want to know what atheists believe, and you want to know the logical implications of those beliefs, whether atheists actually believe them or not.

        That’s a worthy goal. But this idea that a people always believe the logically necessary consequences of their beliefs is not only untrue, but a disastrous communication/persuasion strategy. In fact, persuasion occurs when you show people they DO NOT believe the logically necessary consequences of their beliefs.

        If we’re talking about communication, I think your view is disastrous. Saying to someone, “If you believe A then logic requires you to believe B, but you do not believe B” is just good persuasion. But that’s not where your road takes you.

        Your road takes you to a place where you insist, “You do believe A, therefore you do believe B,” and then someone who (inconsistently) believes A but not-B will rightly decide you are in immovable error about their beliefs, shutting down conversation when it’s barely begun.

      • Stacy Trasancos

        I’m not doing the latter though, I’m doing what you say I should do. Did you read what I wrote?

        I don’t usually experience shut down conversations.

        Anecdotes aside, the materialist epistemology has long been ascribed to atheists, by atheists. Is that what is bothering you? That when laid out like this, the absurdities are obvious and you want to provide some way out?

        See? From an atheist apologist:

        The ol’ wiki:

        American Atheists:

        “Atheism is the lack of belief in a deity, which implies that nothing exists but natural phenomena (matter), that thought is a property or function of matter, and that death irreversibly and totally terminates individual organic units. This definition means that there are no forces, phenomena, or entities which exist outside of or apart from physical nature, or which transcend nature, or are “super” natural, nor can there be. Humankind is on its own.”

        I’m not just making this up.

        • Rob T

          When you say, “This is the atheist epistemology” rather than “This is an atheist epistemology” are not merely laying out the logically necessary consequences of atheism. Rather you are ascribing actual beliefs to actual people that they may not actually hold.

          And thanks for the links (one of which actually stresses the diverse philosophies and foundations of atheism), but I have to say this: Until there is a Jesus, a Paul, or a pope of atheism, there is no authority you can call on to say what actual, real, human atheists believe, beyond their shared (un)belief in the existence of God.

        • Rob T

          Also, I still don’t see how this precludes the Aristotelian approach to epistemology.

          • Stacy Trasancos

            The mind. It all comes down to explaining free will and intellect, at least as I see it.

  • Rob T

    Stacy, in this discussion I’m not using “Aristotelian epistemology” to mean, “an epistemology identical to that developed by Aristotle.”

    I can see why that might seem odd, but your post gives three categories of epistemology and asks readers, “which is yours?” So for the purposes of this discussion I’m using “Aristotelian epistemology” to mean that middle ground between extreme rationalism and extreme empiricism. This middle ground is pretty broad though, so perhaps we should use a different term.

    Any suggestions?

    • Stacy Trasancos

      Empiricism/materialism and spiritualism aren’t extremes so much as the tenets block much else.

      Aristotelian epistemology isn’t some broad middle ground with lots of possibilities either. There is a material world. Man has intellect.

      If the materialists ascribes the intellect to matter and energy, he’s still speaking materialism and borrowing words.

      If the spiritualist says there is only the intellect and even though we see and sense material things, they don’t have any contribution to truth, he is still a spiritualist.

  • Rob T

    Stacy, I now understand something better about the threads on this blog. Many of us have long been frustrated by your blanket statements about what atheists do and do not believe, as though all atheists were the same.

    Now I see what you mean when you make these statements: You’re not describing what individual atheists actually do believe, but what you view as the logically necessary consequences of the (un)belief.

    And that lead to the sort of confusion and stalled conversation that I described here:

  • Rob T

    Stacy, horning in on your question to Dan about inconsistencies in teh faith, here’s one reason I don’t believe in the Christian conception of God: I can’t reconcile the idea of an omnipotent omniscient God with personal human responsibility.

    I could reconcile a very powerful, very wise God with personal human responsibility, but once you go to absolute omnipotence and omniscience then it seems logically necessary that God is responsible for everything.

    Any links you’d care to send me to on this?

    • Stacy Trasancos

      Let me see if I understand. Do you want information on how we can have free will if God is omnipotent and omniscient?

    • Angel

      Rob T,

      You said, “…here’s one reason I don’t believe in the Christian conception of God: I can’t reconcile the idea of an omnipotent omniscient God with personal human responsibility.”

      Creating the whole universe takes a lot of time and effort, it takes commitment. From that commitment of fine tuning the universe so that life can exist, God will suddenly be uncommitted to us humans.
      Does that any make sense?

      “Gee, I spent the whole year writing this piano concertos and I’m dedicating this to you, so here’s the manuscript…, bye, oh and I don’t want to have anything to do with you anymore, bye again.”

      Since there is a mathematical blue print for the cosmos, then there must also be a plan for us humans.
      And as Catholics we believe that God’s plan for us was revealed to Israel.

  • Howard

    I have heard this argument over the definition of atheism many times. I have read/heard from persons that call themselves atheists that they know that there is no God, that there is only the material (not mentioning God), and that their only position is that they have not been shown proof of God’s existence.

    It is of no importance to me if the dictionaries of the world are up to date on usage or not, the latter always appears to me to be cleaver ploy used to allow those who claim it to be free to hold a firm position without having to question it.

    I can resist anything that comes my way and sound as if I saw absolutely no truth even to the slightest degree, and was not swayed in the slightest – because I would have to explore it honestly. All I have to do is say, “I am not convinced”.

    • Rob T

      Howard, I’ve seen the opposite behavior on the part of believers: They assume atheists are atheists because they like being “free to hold a firm position without having to question it,” and they do not “explore it honestly,”

      Many atheists became atheists precisely because they did question things, did explore it honestly. Now, you may believe that their honest exploration led them to wrong conclusions, but it’s a terrible cop-out — and often a factual untruth — to dismiss their beliefs as a lack of effort and honesty.

      • Howard

        Yes, I would question my motives also in a general context. But, I am referring to my experience. I find it rare that a self described atheist will approach the subject with an inquiring mind.

      • Howard

        To be clear, I am referring to the latter. Those that express their position do then have to defend it.

        • Rob T

          And Howard, it’s completely adequate defense to explain that you do not believe in something’s because the evidence for it is unconvincing — especially when you explain why you find it unconvincing.

          • Howard

            “especially when you explain why you find it unconvincing.”

            You offer good advice, explain. And you explain after you have thought. The point I am trying to make.

    • Michael

      Howard – I am an atheist and I know very few (if any) atheists who know there is not God. All say there is just no evidence to support a belief in God. Richard Dawkins, in his book The God Delusion, proposed a scale of 1 to 7 where 1 is total belief in God and 7 is total disbelief in God. He put himself at 6.7 to 6,9, depending upon the day. That’s probably where I feel I would fit as well.

      • Howard

        I have quoted Dawkins in another place to say;

        “I am not attacking any particular version of God or gods. I am attacking God, all gods, anything and everything supernatural, wherever and whenever they have been or will be invented.” TGD pg 57

        Sounds like a 7 and also that page 57 was written on a different day than pages you may quote. Not at all abnormal.

        This man does explain himself, he has to, because he exists among academicians.

        What I am referring to is the person who appears here and corrects anyone who tries to discuss beliefs that are articulated by self described atheists either directly or indirectly, by resorting to a favorite dictionary definition. What is the purpose? If your position is that you do not believe in God, that’s ok. But, you do share a definition with those who also do not believe in God and articulate that belief. The commonality is the subject of God and the insistence on some kind of physical proof of the reality of God – which is a position, a belief in the power of materialism.

        • Michael

          To be sure Richard Dawkins does not like the idea of God, but he is not an anti-theist, like the late Christopher Hitchens.

          One things Prof. Dawkins attempted to do in his book was to give a definition of the God he was no believing in. So often when someone says they do not believe in God and describes why, the response is – “Well that’s not my God”. Instead he tried to define a generic base level God that should be a starting point of most theistic systems.

          As to a belief in materialism, it’s less that, and more that there’s no evidence to support any non material content to this universe. There is no objective evidence for the supernatural that science can accept.

          • Howard

            He has also said to John Lennox, “I am a dedicated materialist.”

            I have read this book and I found nothing that would accept the spiritual at all. If he wants to co-opt the word god, I would object to that.
            I was trying to find the quote where he said, If a proof for God should be found I would hope that it would be brought into the material world. – close enough.

            “…there’s no evidence to support any non material content to this universe. “

            Do you really know what this means? If so please explain further.

          • Michael

            No evidence for anything non material is just that. No one, in his and my opinion, has offered any evidence for the existence of anything outside of the universe that science studies. Maybe you can be the first to do it.

          • Howard

            So if I was to paraphrase;

            No material evidence has been found outside of all material evidence.

          • michael

            No, no evidence of any non material influence on this universe. Instead of debating semantics, offer evidence if you have it.

          • Howard

            I listened to the first video you provided. I knew there had to be a source of the strange logic that appears on this blog from atheists. Thank you for that information.

            Hitchens explains atheism this way:

            An atheist is one who simply does not think that there is any evidence for the existence of God.

            This definition excludes Dawkins 1 – 7 scale that you posted. Was Hitchens a 7 which states,“I know there is no God”? This scale defines a persons attitude towards the existence of God, it does not include the reason for that attitude.

            Wikipedia quotes Hitchins as saying, “an antitheist, a term I’m trying to get into circulation, is someone who is relieved that there’s no evidence for such an assertion.” This seems to contradict his definition on the video.

            It seems to me that the semantics of the issue needs lots of work before it can used as argument. And also, acceptance of Hitchens definition is not universal. I view it as a cop-out and a valid point of discussion.

            He is correct that it is reasonable to reject any proof that comes his way. Considering that the same proof would have been accepted by the one offering it, it seems that in a scholarly discussion it is not enough to merely state, I don’t believe it. Otherwise what is he doing there? You or I could substitute for him and contribute the same value just using a stock phrase.

            He behaves more like a school yard bully to then ridicule and reject the PERSONS who accept that proof which I have seem him do, and his writings are material evidence of that.

            His desire not to call himself neutral, means that he is allowed to take an antagonistic position – not neutral at all. Then cleverly, invokes his definition of atheism to avoid any responsibility for that antagonism. A reasonable person requires an antagonist to defend strong insulting remarks or actual answers. Mr. Hitchens transparently wanted it all.

            I can see Dawkins reluctance to discuss anything with Craig. Hitchens was unhinged, sweating, not at all as sure of himself as with, for example Frank Turek, where Hitchens felt more comfortable to give negative opinions about religious people.

            Hitchens was not the debater that Dawkins is, he was a journalist who made a living writing stories that atheists loved to read.

          • michael

            Hitchens was a master debator and although I disagreed with him on many issues, I would have not wanted to debate him on any of them. But Hitchens was not Dawkins, and I am certainly neither of them and although we share many opinions, we are not in total agreement on our common non belief.

            Technically all of us are agnostic, but in the same technical vein we are all agnostic about astrology. can’t prove that it’s a load of horse hockey, but I’ve never seen one iota of evidence that would give it any credibility.

            One non-believer said that the only thing that humanists, rationalists, aheists, agnostics, freethinkers, etc. share is that we all have the same non-belief in God. After that we’re all different. And unlike religion where conformity is belief is a virtue, in non belief it’s the opposite.

            Hitchens was unique but in temperament, style, knowledge and approach to non belief, he was quite different from Prof. Dawkins.

          • Howard

            Michael, I don’t think you really are willing to understand Dawkins. He states his position clearly (I have opinions about that). I think you are trying to modify his position according to Hitchens desires.

            See the quote directly below.

            OK I’m not sure where it went. It’s the one about being a materialist.

        • Howard

          OK Michael, I am going to ask a favor of you. Ask Dawkins through why he refuses to debate William Lane Craig. Even Sam Harris has complemented Craig. This refusal has caused Craig to “Eastwood” Mr. Dawkins on TV.

        • Howard

          There is no semantic debate. I ask for clarity. We get used to meaning when speaking to those we know well.

          So, do you mean material evidence when you ask for evidence of a spiritual activity? And what kind of evidence do you expect?

          • Howard

            I’ve got to go. Plz continue tomorrow.

          • michael

            Howard – There is no evidence that there is any evidence of the existence of a God or Gods in this world outside of the personal claims of religious proponents. State any evidence that could be objectively studied and we have a start. But the God of the theists seems to be only supported by the exact same evidence that would be available if that God did not exist.

          • Howard

            “There is no evidence that there is any evidence of the existence of a God or Gods in this world outside of the personal claims of religious proponents. State any evidence….”

            If you accept the above as true, then I cannot do the impossible because I am only human.

          • michael

            I can think up lots of evidence of God. If prayer were shown to be efficacious in a scientific study rather than just through anecdotal claims. If there was evidence against evolution, where life didn’t just arise through natural means it would point to a God (or very advanced aliens). If there was a uniform belief or pratice (beyond be nice) among religious people around the world and at all times that would point to possibly a God’s presence but instead we have such a diversity of religions it’s hard to find a coherent theme in them.

          • Howard

            Michael, the question you have posed is:

            Show me evidence of God that I will accept.

            To shorten that to Show me evidence. relieves the responsibility you have to detail the requirements of evidence that you would be satisfied with, hence a waste of time for a person willing to provide that evidence.

          • michael

            Then show me the start of evidence. When one is conducting research one starts with indications, evidence that seems to indicate something but hasn’t been extensively tested in different conditions, controlling the parameters, etc. I don’t ask then for conclusive evidence, just a hint of an evidence.

            Remember one of the main hints that led to general relativity was that Mercury’s perihelion progressed 1.5 degrees per century. From that hint of evidence came general relativity. Do you have any evidenced hints?

          • Howard

            I hope you are not asking me to come up with some material thing that will lead to a discovery as unique as general relativity? Could you do that on demand, or at all?

            What I think you are asking is this. Begin your line of reasoning, take me to a conclusion, use only material evidence throughout in some unspecified manner, and I will tell you if I accept it.

            The better idea is for you to explain how it could be possible to convince you of anything no matter how it is approached, when you have already said definitively that nothing exists outside of personal claims, and you reject those. In order to convince someone with a mind set against being convinced is I believe, impossible.

            Throughout your responses is a hint that there exists a set of very rigid specific acceptable requirements you will only consider in any conversation about existence of God. But for some reason you won’t, or can’t, tell us what they are.

            For illumination, why don’t you comment on Stacey’s post below about evidence?

            Got to go until tomorrow afternoon.

    • Michael

      They are discussing what evidence would be necessary to believe in God right now at

  • Rob T

    For the past few hours I’ve done nothing but post here, and as much as I’ve enjoyed it, I do have a life and job and family to deal with. Thanks for the interesting conversation and contentious-yet-convivial tone.

    • Stacy Trasancos

      We aim to please! I have some kids running around here somewhere. :-)

  • John Darrouzet

    Sorry to be so late in this discussion. But I do want to contribute my understanding of the answer in terms of a statement I derived from materials found on the Internet and later posted on my FB page notes:


    Once, on LinkedIn, a question was posed concerning what was the greatest theory of all time. My response, based on the work of others, suggested the following. It fits very well with your excellent and enlightening essay. Put together, they answer the bottom line question for us moderns:


    To explain the process of how we know entities outside of ourselves (persons, things, or other beings), Saint Thomas Aquinas has recourse neither to the transcendental ideas of Platonism, nor the innate ideas of Descartes in his modern philosophy, nor to illuminations of saints.

    Aquinas effectively argues for a cognitive faculty in people that is naturally capable of acquiring knowledge of entities in proportion to that cognitive faculty.

    Knowledge is obtained through two stages of operation, sensitive and intellective, that are intimately related to one another. The proper object of the sensitive faculty is the particular entity, i.e., the individual. The proper object of the intellect is the universal. But the intellect does not attain any universal unless the material for it is presented to it by the senses.

    The two cognitive faculties, sense and intellect, are naturally capable of acquiring knowledge for subsequent understanding of their proper object, since both have such potential — the senses, toward the individual form; and the intellect, toward the form of the universal.

    Obtaining the universal presupposes that the sensible knowledge of the object which lies outside the knower comes through the impression of the form of the object upon the knower’s sensitive faculty. This is likened to the impression of the seal upon wax. The knower’s soul reacts according to its nature, that is, psychically, producing knowledge of that particular object whose form had been impressed upon the senses. Thus the faculty which was in potential is actuated in relation to that object, and knows and expresses within itself knowledge of that particular object.

    But how is the passage made within the knower from sensitive cognition to that which is intellective?

    To understand Thomas’ solution to the problem, it is necessary to recall the theory of Aristotle that Thomas works with: the individual form is universal in potential. It is the matter which makes the form individual. Hence if the form can be liberated from the individualizing matter, or dematerialized, it assumes the character of universality.

    This is just what happens through the action of a special power of the intellect, i.e., the power by which the PHANTASM (sense image) is illuminated. The phantasm is made by our senses when we see, hear, touch, taste, smell. Indeed, it is the stuff of dreams and imagination. Under the influence of the phantasm, the form loses its materiality in the knower. It becomes an essence or intelligible species. Thomas calls this faculty the “agent intellect”. (For Thomas the agent intellect is not, as the Averroists erroneously held, a separate intellect which is common to all people. Rather, all people possess the agent intellect, but to varying potentials.)

    The intelligible species is then received by the agent intellect, being passive since it receives its proper object, and become intelligible in act. When it does, the knower acquires the knowledge sought.

    The form, both intelligible and individual, is not THAT WHICH the mind grasps or understands (this would reduce knowledge to mere phenomenalism), but the form is the means THROUGH WHICH the mind begins to know the object (individual form) so the knower can begin to understand conceptually the mysterious essence of the person, thing, or other entity outside of the knower’s own self.

    The more the knower knows the entity, the more mysterious is the object. This is so because the knower realizes the object (person, thing, or other entity) is not created in such imagining or conceptualizing by the knower, but is only encountered by the knower on physical and metaphysical levels in this process.

    If people adopt this starting point in any discussion of HOW DO YOU KNOW THAT, the results become common sensical and lead to less controversy.

    Your imagination/conceptualization distinction adds more clarity to this epistemological process and enables us all to pinpoint further causes of disagreement.

    • Stacy Trasancos

      Sorry you couldn’t access the site earlier. I have no clue what happened. Thanks for your comment.

    • Howard

      John, I have trouble with the concept of the universal. I assume that it means the total person, his complete essence, the whole spiritual enchilada. Universal does not appear to be a very descriptive word.

      This universal is probably arrived at slowly, as impressions occur. Probably the explanation for wisdom.

      • John Darrouzet

        The “universal” is and was a concept that was used to apply to a range of things considered to be essentially the same. “Human beings” might be a phrase that refers to things, i.e. persons, in general. “Howard” would be the name, not of a universal, but of specific instance of the universal called “human being.” As you might suspect, the nominalists came along and claimed “universals” to be so only in name, not in essence. Modern logic, for example, works because it is a form of symbol or name manipulation placed in the context of hypothetical reasoning that does not require essential definitions, only conventional ones. The shift away from using “universal” as a descriptive word most likely resulted from the shift in epistemology, away from the Aristotelian/Aquinas approach to the modern view which yields a different epistemology for each person: relativism.

  • Stacy Trasancos


    I just wrote a post about Stephen Hawking and some things that were recently said/written by and about him. I was thinking about your comments above.


    Do you realize that for abstract theories of cosmology, the evidence is only reasoning? There is no empirical, tangible evidence, but induction and deduction of abstract concepts.

    What do you say of people who accept this theory as true, but reject the logical proofs of God’s existence?

    Further, why do you reject the life of Christ, the witness of the martyrs, the miracles of the saints, and the testimony of believers who have found Christ?

    • John Darrouzet

      Stacy, This is the correct approach to respond to such denials of “evidence.” It works as well with “proof.” Rather than waste time arguing about other matters, go at the question of what they claim to mean by the term “evidence.” Usually, they will fall back on sense perception. But this only takes them deeper into the problem they may not have explored. What is “sense perception”? The problem then becomes compounded if they resort to relying on material “evidence,” because they have no basis for talking about their own “mind” as distinct from their own “brain.” The more you push them back on their heels, they have no way to explain anything because they cannot explain the very language they use. They think subjectivity allows them to have a “private” language. This doesn’t work and so they are stuck in some solipsistic world of their own making. Then you simply ask: is there more than one solipsist? That should make them ponder whether the hole they have dug themselves can ever be gotten out of. Of course, it can, but they must admit they have started from a false position. It’s like pulling a sock out of the dryer. You find it inside out. To rectify the situation, you dig deep into the sock, grab it from its furthest point and pull, all the way out. The most deeply committed atheist is a sock pull away from being saved from his or her fundamental mistake. But is the mistake epistemological? I used to think so, now not so much. If this interests you I will follow up and explain further.

      • Stacy Trasancos

        Yes, John, please explain further. Is it a problem of will? Just guessing ahead.

        • John Darrouzet

          Yes, generally speaking, it seems to be more a problem of will, in a special way.

          Each person brings to the general situation a specific human case that creates the problem. Until one accepts the wisdom of Socrates and admits one’s ignorance, thus knowing we don’t know even what we mean by “knowing,” one can’t move forward and see that some form of belief is necessary as a first step.

          When a person is willing to examine their first principles, including the principle of noncontradiction and the principle of identity, then they have the opportunity to make headway in the intellectual adventure of a lifetime. That adventure leads to understanding the difference between myth as story-telling hypotheticals and mystery as living-life explanations.

          Our wills take us through much of this, but once our wills hit the wall of ignorance, we stop, We are taught to stop. Even Socrates stopped. The Buddha stopped.

          Jesus didn’t. What more did he do? My observation is that he came to realize that there is something more than emotion or reason or will that drives us. What is that something more? Is it something mirrored even in the most committed atheist? I think so.

          What it is is desire. Our deepest desires. While most of us grapple with what “evidence” we need to “prove” our starting points, we seem to want something, someone more. Where does that desire come from?

          In animals it most likely is called instinct. In those human beings who are relying only on their senses, it most likely is called intuition. In those human beings who are attempting to justify everything according to their intellect, it is most likely called insight and insight into oversight. In those human beings who are open to “evidence” beyond what they sense, it is most likely called inspiration. Thus we have different levels of desires or appetites. The most profound desires also bring the highest levels of appetite.

          See “The Fulfillment of All Desire: A Guidebook for the Journey to God Based on the Wisdom of the Saints” found here: [ ].

          In a single image, such fulfillment can be seen in the “Ecstasy of Saint Teresa” [ ] and most vivdly, in the case of Jesus at the moment he reached his life-long goal at Calvary. { ].

          This suggests to me that the key to helping others is finding out not what they need so much as finding out what they want. The deepest desire, I believe, is implanted in them at conception when the Holy Spirit, the Giver of Life, unites with the bodies of each person’s parents to bring life out of nothing.

          There is more to say, but I will wait for your expression of interest before I take on the problem of those who would be pulled back into “nothing” and its effect on our wills.

  • Bobby

    “The deepest desire, I believe, is implanted in them at conception when the Holy Spirit, the Giver of Life, unites with the bodies of each person’s parents to bring life out of nothing.”

    This is interesting and it goes along the lines of what C.S.Lewis wrote in Mere Christianity.

    He wrote that man has natural desires and needs and these natural desires are satisfied in nature, our material world. For example, when we are hungry there is food to be had, thirsty we have water, sexual desires are satisfied by sex but what of the universal desire to be happy? Some call it being comfortable or contentment but in any case it is a fact that happiness is sought after by all. Literature is filled pages of people seeking happiness in power, sex, money and many other things in this world, yet that desire for eternal happiness is still unfulfilled and unsatisfied.

    If there is nothing here in this world that will satisfy this hunger we have to be eternally happy, then perhaps it can only be satisfied in some other world, in something else, someone else and that is who we call God.

  • Jeff McLeod

    Thank you Stacy for bringing me up in the conversation. Yes you beautifully summarized the thoughts I’ve had for a long time.

    I do have one ardent wish for a certain kind of atheist who sees axiomatic truth as a settled, closed system, so to speak. The kind of atheist I have in mind is someone who envisions that the truth that we Christians believe diminishes or negates the truths that they hold about the universe.

    I would like that atheist to entertain the possibility that the authentic faith augments what you already know to be true. Not a shred of math, science, or logic is negated. It can SEEM so from within the perspective of some atheists. But seeming so is not being so. Reason is fulfilled in authentic faith, not negated.

    I would liken the epistemological stand of certain kinds of atheists as similar to that of mathematics before irrational numbers were recognized. The concept of number as coextensive with integer was fruitful for every day life for a long while. But certain contradictions arose within that conceptual framework that created a pressure to reconcile disparate facts that seemed conclusive in themselves, but which entailed difficulties; one such pressure was the impossibility of an integer diagonal to a square.

    It was only by augmenting the concept of number that the system acquired a more stable foundation; everything fell into place with better fit and greater confidence. The augmented concept of number, which included irrational numbers, ushered in a whole new era of insight.

    Similarly, today, the concept of a mathematical group generalizes all prior mathematics and leads us toward more comprehensive knowledge not only of quantities but their operations.

    The truth of Christianity is an augmenting truth. It does not negate anything known with certainty to be true right now.

    My wish is that a certain kind of atheist would see a light bulb go on at this statement. Like ancients had a restrictive concept of number, some atheists today have a constrained and restrictive idea of the concept of real.

    • Michael

      It’s not that the truth the numerous Christian denominations have diminishes the atheist, it’s the misunderstanding of why people are no believers that many atheists wish to clarify. And while believers often make statements like ” authentic faith augments what you already know to be true”, it’s always their particular faith that is the authentic one. And if different believers can reach the same conclusion in myriad different, incompatible ways, what does it tell you about the conclusion.

      To compare the mathematicians concept of numbers to axiomatic number theory is interesting but Godel showed that within any axiomatic system there remain theorems that are true that are unprovable. Mathematics, unlike science, is a human construct. Numbers, be they integer, rational, irrational, transcendental, imaginary, quaternions, etc. are human constructs created to facilitate descriptions of initially the real world and later for their own interest.

      “The truth of Christianity is an augmenting truth. It does not negate anything known with certainty to be true right now.” I had a prof at my university that had a theory of gravity that differed from Einstein. Incredible, we thought. But he told us there were probably 50 other competing theories out there now and that his did make any predictions that differed by General relativity that could be verified so he was resigned to it being not accepted and we wasn’t going to teach it because of that.

      You may say your brand of Christianity does not negate anything, only augments reality, but for me an outsider I see literally thousands of competing religions theories (once of which I grew up in and previously promoted) but no evidence that would cause one to differentiate between them for accept one.

      One sees it on the inside, and I know I once was. But once you step outside the specific religious world, like Albert Square, in Abbott’s Flatland, one sees how one’s parochial view has limited ones view.

      • Jeff McLeod

        Hey Michael,

        I understand the difficulty. All religions think they are the one true religion.

        I have to confess, I go to scientific conferences several times a year, and I dread them because I’m an introvert.

        Anyway, in my field there are several different camps of theorists, each one dislikes the other and believes their assumptions and methods are invalid.

        I can say this. I believe one of the theories is true.

        The fact that there are many people claiming to know the true theory does not lead me to conclude that all of them are false.


        I expect that one of them might be true while the rest are wrong. And furthermore when all truth is known, it will be very clear exactly how the false theories seemed to be true. And it will be clear exactly where their logic went wrong.

        Plurality of claims isn’t a sign of fraud. It’s what makes scientific conferences so cliquey and painful for introverts like me. In other words, in this valley of tears where we discover truth slowly over the course of centuries, it is our destiny to be mired in claims and counterclaims. That’s our status here on earth. But there is one truth.

        • John Darrouzet

          The late philosopher Mortimer Adler writes an excellent book on this subject, entitled “Truth in Religion: The Plurality of Religions and the Unity of Truth” that can be found at [ ].

          On my Facebook Notes page, I have posted my summary of his approach, his derived definition of religion in light of the plurality of religions and the unity of truth, his resulting arguments, and his open-ended conclusions that call for a more focused debate on the subject. Perhaps this would help: [ ]

          • Howard

            The FB link says unavailable. Do I have to go through some kind of friendship ritual? Is blood involved?

          • Stacy Trasancos

            I’m reading Mortimer Adler’s book on Angels right now. Did you know that he wasn’t even Catholic until very late in life. He wrote the book on Angels before he converted. Shocked me when I discovered that, which is why I’m reading the book.

            He wrote (I believe) the book you mention John in 1992, but didn’t convert to Catholicism until 1999, two years before his death.


            Jim, if you are following over here, what do you think about that? Quite the conversion story, no?

          • John Darrouzet

            Howard, “ritual”? Not really. Just go on FB and search “John Darrouzet” and you will be given the opportunity to send me an invitation to become FB friends. I will accept and then you will have access to my notes, among which is the one in question: “Truth in Religion: The Plurality of Religions and the Unity of Truth”. If this doesn’t work, just send me your email address. Mine is and I will email you a copy. Finally, please do send a blood sample to the closest Blood Center.

          • Howard

            It’s not in your notes, that is the problem. I see only 2 notes.

          • Howard

            I found it. The direct link from here did not work.

          • Howard

            John, regarding Joseph Campbell in your note.

            I remember the (I think) PBS series he did in the 80s. What I understood by his use of the word “bliss” was similar to a Christian’s saying about God’s calling or direction. This bliss is an internal voice of the person directing him toward higher level life decisions. Where he believed it came from originally I don’t know. To “follow your bliss”, a trade mark phrase, meant to follow what you heart tells you to do. Do what will bring you to a satisfied state in life. And I do not remember if he taught that it promised success. If I misunderstood him, it was a benefit! My sister took a course from him and I will ask her the next I talk to her.

            As far as his speaking about myth (lots), I consider C.S. Lewis the definitive authority on any comparison with Christianity. Campbell was just plain wrong.

        • Michael

          It’s certainly common, indeed almost required, in science to have discussion, disagreements and sometimes heated disputes over the frontier of knowledge but in religion it’s over just about everything. God is one, God is a Trinity. Jesus is man and God, Jesus is only man. The Eucharist is a symbol, the Eucharist is the actual body and blood of Christ, etc. Beyond God is and maybe God is Love, there is very little religions agree on.

          Imagine at your scientific conference (and I don’t know your field so I’ll give examples from mine) if the scientists argued about everything. Momentum is conserved, momentum is not conserved. Electrons are heavier than protons, no they’re not. Neutrons have no charge, yes they do. Have you ever encountered that at a conference? If you did, no one would take it seriously.

          • Stacy Trasancos

            Michael, scientists are even disagreeing on what solids and liquids are now.



            I’ve experienced what Jeff describes at conferences too. I was a prideful extrovert though and mostly hoped no one figured out how stupid I really was. So much information going by so fast, it was hard to keep up. I truly love the logical rigor of Catholic dogma. All those debates you refer to, there are solid explanations for why we believe what we believe. For the certain things, no wiggle room. It is almost like math, only more beautiful because it explains about ourselves.

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  • Joseph

    “Intellectum (autem), sive res intellecta, se habet ut constitutum vel formatum per operationem intellectus” (Sanctus Thomas Aquinas, De spiritualibus creaturis a. 9 ad 6).
    “Non ad intelligendum, sed quia intellecta est, ex plenitudine cordis et abundantiâ os loquitur. Et hoc modo procedit verbum, ut inquit Augustinus: ‘Non ex indigentia, sed ex intelligentia’, pertinetque ad perfectionem intellectus sic manifestare rem intellectam” (John of Saint Thomas, Cursus Theologicus, Disp. 32, a.4, n.47 [CT IV, 65b12-18]).

    • John Darrouzet

      Joseph, please correct this translation of your contribution: “The understood, or the known thing, is constituted or formed by the operation of the intellect” (St. Thomas Aquinas, to creatures, concerning spiritual. 9 to 6).

      “I do not in order to understand, but because it is understood, from the fullness and abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks. Proceeds in this sense of the word, as Augustine said: “I did not out of need, but out of intelligence ‘, so pertaining to the manifestation or the perfection of the intellect to the thing understood”‘ (John of St Thomas in the course of theology, in the following dis. 32, a.4, n.47 [CT 4, 65b12-18]).

      • Joseph

        The title of the Aquinas’ book is: “On Spiritual Creatures”.
        I think your translation is good. Anyway, here I put some corrections:
        [The understood, or the known thing (what is constituted or formed by the operation of the intellect) is formed] “not in order to understand, but because it [the thing] is understood, [because] ‘from the fullness and abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks’. And it is so [it is like that] that the word [‘verbum mentalis’] proceeds; as Augustine said: ‘Not out of need, but out of intelligence’, and pertaining to the perfection of the intellect to manifest the thing understood” (John of St Thomas in the course of theology, Disp. 32, a.4, n.47 [CT 4, 65b12-18]).
        And thank you!

  • Jeff McLeod

    Nice quote Joseph.

    I will try my hand at translating:

    Understanding of things is established through the operation of the intellect.

    But our mouth speaks not for the sake of our understanding, it speaks rather by virtue of having already understood; it reaches out from the fullness and abundance of the heart, and thus, the word proceeds, according to St. Augustine, not out of lack or deficit, but to fulfill or complete our knowing in manifesting that which we know.

    EDIT: I like John’s translation better: more rigorous scholastic language.

  • Jeff McLeod

    Now my attempt at tight conceptual paraphrase:

    Pure understanding arises from deficit of not knowing and must be constituted by the intelligence, but proclaiming what we know arises from love and the desire to bring to fruition what we know.

  • David Charkowsky

    Aristotle was quite the proto-Catholic, was he not? :-) This reconciliation of extreme, opposing positions reminds me of another: his reconciliation of two perspectives on the relationship between being and change. There is something Incarnation-al about his approach.

  • John Darrouzet

    Perhaps this is a question for another blog post, but as I read over the exchanges, I am beginning to wonder if the positions of those claiming atheism or agnosticism are not really derived from Gnosticism. [ see ] I wonder this because of the insistence on “knowledge,” especially sensed evidence, as the final arbiter in their judgment-making processes. To be taking the position that there is no god or that one cannot know there is any god, seems to leave a void that Gnosticism, under new guises, perhaps is filling. The ramifications are profound if this link is real. Perhaps, the atheists or agnostics among this conversation will comment on this. For example, if Hawking’s starting point for existence is some form of gravity, then Gravity would be his god and Gnosticism might have a name for such a god.

    • Howard


      under etymology, claims the word originated with Thomas Huxley and is not related to Gnosticism.

      • John Darrouzet

        Howard, thanks for the Wikipedia reference. As I read down further in the article, my point was confirmed in that philosophically, and to some extent from religious points of view, the starting points are similar: knowing (Gnosticism) and not knowing (Agnosticism) both are into judgment-making based on forms of knowledge. What this suggests is that, for people who start from such positions, knowledge-based approaches, positive or negative, trump approaches that are belief-based. While Gnostics pursue more even given their skepticism, attempting to make contact with the divine and thus achieve a form of “faith experience,” Agnostics do not want to. They may go beyond skepticism and reach a point of pure cynicism. They may ultimately place their “faith” in themselves alone. Thus I am reminded that faith is truly a gift that may not be successfully approached via knowledge, but rather is prepared for by recognizing how much we do in fact rely on what we believe first before we subsequently come to understand, if not fully comprehend.

        • Michael

          John – That’s not true, Agnostics are merely those who have not seen evidence to support a decision. One might call them wise.

          Take another example where we are all agnostic (I assume) and that is of life on other planets. There is no evidence to support the claims that there is or there is not life on other planets. One can give reasons to support or deny the claim but no evidence at all. We all should be agnostic with respect to alien life.

          This is not demonstrating belief or cynicism, only good judgement.

        • John Darrouzet

          Michael, I think you are confusing two different processes. When making judgments, evidence is required to complete the hypothetical reasoning involved. Your life-on-other-planets is a good example of making judgments about the problem. Decision-making on the other hand involves dealing with matters that must be addressed even when the evidence or reasons have run out. The most obvious example of this is deciding whether to marry another. No amount of evidence or reasoning will compel one person to love another to the point of wanting to marry. Those who can’t commit are agnostic about what it means to take that extra step beyond what they know and do not know. They may be skeptical still or even cynical; but, like the horse led to water, they will not drink. And in a strange way, when someone faces this judgment or decision dilemma, they may view the other (man or woman) as alien life, just not the type you are suggesting.

          The heart has reasons that reason does not know, said Pascal. The wisest of the wise, Socrates, knew he wasn’t wise. He relied on his daemon when he came to the end of his reasoning or sometimes even before [ See ] . In this sense, this wisest of humans was Gnostic in ways we moderns do not readily understand.

          Decision-making, in contrast to judgment making, requires something more than instinct or intuition. It requires insight into insight and insight into oversight. Gnosticism seems to stake its claim on insights into knowledge and Agnosticism seems to stake its claim on oversights involving knowledge.

          Knowledge and judgment-making go hand in hand. But decision-making takes one to that point in the forest where the beaten path ends and still one must go forward.

          To sit under a tree and wait for the answer is what Siddhartha did. Perhaps he was awakened by the undertow of nothing. Is that the starting and ending point of agnosticism: nothing? Is something better than nothing? Come to think about it: what is a “thing” from the perspective of an Agnostic?

        • Howard

          Yes, the material aspect is seen clearly in the discussions here. It is understood as a prerequisite for discussion by non-believers. There are those who will commit themselves to arguments based on reason, but, I have only seen logical break-down or faith in theoretical science or some other hope conclude the discussion.

          Any belief arguments are dismissed as nonsense and fanatical, as if it was a proven law of existence that understanding can not be discovered that way. The success of inspiration in science should be an example.

  • Brother Juniper

    My epistemology is tradition, which is human experience rubbing against reality for thousands of years.

    • Jeff McLeod

      Same with me. A sure guide to this encounter with reality is tradition in the form of language.

      One can look at the Oxford Dictionary to see how our understanding develops over the centuries. Language is something like a topographical map of reality when it is analyzed carefully and critically.

      One of the most powerful words is the word ‘person.’

      No matter what the vagaries of fashion, we have insisted that there is a separate something, different from the fact of the ‘human being.’

      We insist that, apart from the phrase ‘human being’ there is a substantial something we call a person. This of course is one of the ways that scholastics argued: The structure of reality is reflected in the way thoughtful people speak. Critical analysis of language reveals the structure of what is. Aquinas was very permissive in the range of thoughtful people whose speech he observed, including Christians and materialists alike. He was very tolerant that way!

      Modernists turned this linguistic principle on its head and made language into a game. Anything that can be said at all is ‘real’ for that person. Everyone is a special snowflake, meaning not that everyone shares a common nature as a ‘person’ but rather that everyone constructs their own reality.

      They confuse fantasy with reality which in olden days used to be called madness.

      • Michael

        And then one has courts extending some concepts of personhood to corporations.

        But surely semantics is not knowledge. Language is a social construct, a very useful one, but contains no knowledge in itself other than what meaning that society ascribes to the words that make up the language.

        To be sure one can gain insights into how different societies view themselves by examining their language but no matter how languages are constructed, it does affect reality.

        Perhaps modernist have turned language into a game where what ever a person says is real for that person. But couldn’t one also make that claim about the myriad religions and denominations. What they say is real for them.

        • John Darrouzet

          There are no private languages. Languages are meant for communication. If you are only talking to yourself, you are schizophrenic, if not solipsistic or both.

          • Michael

            Well I am a solipsist and I can’t understand why everyone else is. :->

            Exacting, languages are not private. We use them in social conditions and and assign words common meaning. In fields like science words have very precise,defined and accepted meanings (energy, potential, momentum). It’s when one goes into religion many words get cio-opted by various religions to sever multiple meanings. Perhaps the worse offender is Deepak Chopra.

          • Stacy Trasancos

            I love language. To add to the discussion, Fr. Jaki wrote about something simple, but profound. He may have taken it from St. Aquinas (not sure, haven’t read that part of his writing yet).

            He wrote about the difference between numbers and all other words.

            Numbers have exact meanings, their definitions can never be moved to a “more or less” “this or that”. The number 2 is exactly 2, no more, no less, not 3, not 1, not even 1.9999999999999999. You can conceptualize the definition space of a number as a strict cube, so to speak.

            With non-number words, the definitions are conceptualized as overlapping clouds. The words “good” and “well” have similar meanings and the words to define them could overlap, but still each word is different, and both words can be “more or less” or “this or that”. A good steak is not the same kind of good as a good book.

            In fact, as dictionaries show us, every single word needs other groups of words to define it. Lots of overlapping clouds.

            It’s a sign of our intelligence that we can intuitively know this, the difference between numbers and all other words, and define them.

            I just thought that was cool.

          • John Darrouzet

            Michael, is there more than one solipsist? Surely you are not claiming to be another?

            Human language is much more versatile than mathematics or science. The languages describing faith experiences are far more complex than the most difficult math or science. Why? Because math deals in closed systems of defined and derived limits. Science deals with things as objects and limits what can be said to what can be sensed or theorized. Human beings are much more desirous to go beyond such artificial limits. Deepak Chopra [ ] suffers from the problems many, if not most, solipsistic thinkers do.

            A more relevant (to Western philosophy) example is Rene Descartes. His encounter with an “Angel of Light” (any suggestions about who he referred to?) so upended his world that he subsequently felt obligated to re-construct it in over 6 days in his own image and likeness.

            Descartes’ approach to philosophy eventually led to Wittgenstein and his language-game approach to it. The result has not been happy, for wanna-be solipsists are popping up everywhere and communication rendered virtually impossible.

            And yet, beyond the five senses is the sixth: common sense. It rears its beautiful head and makes fallacies obvious. Once you see through fallacies, you begin to see the mirrored truths in them that provide more and more evidence of Truth.

          • Michael

            Human language may be more versatile but it is orders of magnitude less precise than mathematics (Witness that statement I just made).

            Math is not derived (what would it be derived from), it’s created. And the multitude of terms available in math dwarfs all languages.

            “The languages describing faith experiences are far more complex than the most difficult math or science.” I’ve read Teilhard de Chardin, Rahner, von Balthasar, and Lonergan. Their language suffers more from nebulous definitions bordering on obscurity. One can’t nail down meaning, it moves, it’s misinterpreted, it’s vague. Strange thing for a religion who founded remarked “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children.”

            Compare the imprecision of various theological discussions to this math world discussion of the Riemann Zeta Function ( ) No one know wheter the Riemann hypothesis is true but they can all agree on this information.

            Stacy 1.999999….. is equal to 2.

            2/3 + 2/3 + 2/3 = 2
            0.666…. + 0.6666…. + 0.6666… = 1.9999… = 2

          • John Darrouzet


            You write: “Math is not derived (what would it be derived from), it’s created.”

            Why make such an assertion? What evidence do you have?

            You must be uninformed or misinformed about some of the greatest mathematicians in history. They discovered math, its objects and their relationships. They did not “create” it. [ ]

            Descartes thought he could start from scratch after destroying everything in the world, including himself, with his methodic doubt. But he couldn’t rebuild it nor could he rebuild himself.

            (Whoever “you” are”), “you” apparently have not run into the limits of mathematics. Modern science did and sees math more as a modeling tool of what is discovered in the world.

            But science itself is hamstrung by limiting what is acceptable evidence and proof to explain the common place.

            Too bad you can only complain about the language used by such notables as Teilhard de Chardin, Rahner, von Balthasar, and Lonergan.

            You do not see your oversights and do not admit the difference between making judgments and making decisions.

            It appears you have been unable to unpack their writings yourself, especially since they do not as a whole write in mathematical sentences to satisfy you.

            Wittgenstein’s Tractatus must have been very tempting for you. But even he gave that mathematical approach over for an attempt to understand language’s role altogether and not limit himself to math.

            A true solipsist, like you claim to be, even Wittgenstein recognized the error of his mathematical ways.

            Given the cleverness of your mind, I suggest you take a look at Michael Schneider’s work on mathematics and geometry. [ See ] Perhaps you will find sources of inspiration outside of your solipsistic world.

            Perhaps his insights will puncture the bubble you are living in and enable you to make real contact with the rest of us humans. You are human after all, aren’t you? Or are you just a robot programmed to write like one?

          • Michael


            There are two main schools of mathematical philosophy out there, those that maintain that mathematics is created by mathematicians and those who maintain that mathematics was always there, it just need to be discovered. The latter I always thought was like Michelangelo’s quote “Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.” While I;ll grant an artist poetic license, I am less inclined to do it with a mathematician.

            You also realize, I was joking with my solipsistic remark., hence the :-> at the end of it.

            Modern science (I studied physics) uses mathematical methods as a modelling tool, picking what’s appropriate and discarding when isn’t (currently) relevant. Mathematicians often don’t like it but physicists have to work in the real (sort of) world where mathematicians are free to create mathematical systems that have little, if no, application to anything we might ever encounter.

            Are they discovering or creating mathematics. I would say the latter. Doing math is less like Priestly discovering oxygen and more like Gray writing “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard”. Oxygen clearly predated Priestly, whereas Gray’s verse didn’t exit before 1750.

          • Howard

            I am going to wander off to ponder the immense significance of Genesis 3.

          • Michael

            John – It always puzzled me why a God would not want his creation to know the difference between good and evil but it makes perfect sense to have this chapter promulgated by a priestly tradition in ancient Israel. An arbitrary dictate is given (don’t eat the fruit of this tree) and dire consequences result when Adam and Eve disobey. Knowledge of good and evil is best left to God and the ancient Israeli priests.

            That this disobedience required the Christian teaching of the atonement for this sin is made puzzling because now we know Adam and Eve never existed. Of course it’s now viewed metaphorical, but if the original sin is a metaphor then why not the atonement.

            That chapter is a condemnation of knowledge. Humans want to learn, will make mistakes doing so, but gradually, in halting steps they push back the boundaries of ignorance and darkness about the world around them. Genesis 3, more than any chapter in the Bible stands astride that progress and like Prometheus we have taken the fire.

          • Howard

            “Genesis 3, more than any chapter in the Bible stands…”

            My choice is confirmed.

        • Jeff McLeod

          You are thinking of a univocal language in which a word has one sense only.

          St. Thomas was rather obsessed with the question of whether words have one sense (univocal) or many senses (equivocal).

          His position turned out to be what I consider one of the greatest and most fruitful ideas in all of philosophy. The position he arrived at was the analogy of being.

          In short, words have degrees of sense all rooted in one sense.

          Want my awesome example?

          The symbol for multiplication (x or *) has a very specific meaning in mathematics…

          Or does it?

          It means one thing for scalar arithmetic.

          A x B = B x A

          But what about in higher order space, like matrix algebra?

          A x B

          is very different from

          B x A

          The meaning of symbols are not univocal, yet they are not equivocal either. They are analogical. There are grades of difference.

          For the purpose at hand, I am happy we extend the concept of ‘person’ to corporations. When a corporation screws up, I want it to somehow be responsible.

          Don’t you?

          If someone dies on a construction site due to negligence of the contractor, do you want the defense attorney to say “hey, what are you gonna do, sue the brick and mortar of corporate headquarters?”

          No, we create a corporation (corpus = body) to establish a legal entity that possesses “responsibility” in some analogical sense of the term.

          Isn’t that interesting? I think it is. I love Catholic philosophy because it is frankly more interesting and insightful than anything out there today.

          • Michael

            When a corporation commits a crime, I don’t want it sent to jail, I want the people behind it sent to jail. Don’t you? I don’t want them hiding behind a legal construct.

            As to mathematics, this is a case point where we define the operation (in this case scalar or vector multiplication) to mean different things depending upon the context. (A x B = – B x A)

            Words have many meanings that can change overtime. (hence “suffer the children”). But don’t blame it on the modernist, blame it on the fact that languages are growing, evolving, adapting human constructs.

            The structure of a language certainly does reveal how people speak. We now say fire fighter instead of fireman, police officer instead of policeman.

            People have always used many words, person, life, universe, etc. and these words have changed their meaning as new knowledge has emerged.

          • Stacy Trasancos

            Woops, I meant to reply to you Jeff.

            I never made the connection between corpus and corporation. Of course! Thank you.

            “I love Catholic philosophy because it is frankly more interesting and insightful than anything out there today.”

            Quotable! It sure is.

          • Jeff McLeod


            You say the meaning of a symbol depends on context. As someone who writes a lot of mathematical software I would look at you with a blank stare and say, certainly there is a deep isomorphism between the role that the product (x) plays in scalars and the role it plays in matrices, otherwise you ought not use the same operator.

            And there is an isomorphism. We know what we mean in the abstract by the product of two quantities. Right? We can make a cartesian product of a space of objects. The question is, what is it about the application of the product symbol (x) that changes when the dimensions change? Finding that out constitutes a new insight, an advance in knowledge.

            Similarly, to say that the Empire State Building exists is a very different use of the word “exists” than when we claim that God exists. If you recognize the difference in the meaning of (x) in scalar and matrix cases, think of the difference in the meaning of the word “exists” as being that difference a billion fold. Yet our existence, yours and mine, is analogical in some sense to God’s existence which is so radically NOT like our existence that we can’t imagine it, and indeed we shouldn’t try. See that we’re not talking spaghetti monster here?

            Think of mathematics before matrix algebra. Say that the full meaning of (x) was somehow “latent” at the time. It was potentially known, it could be known, but at that time in history it was not. What is clear is that there were new dimensions of the concept of a mathematical “product” that weren’t evident to people. They thought their concept of (x) was sufficient until a new perspective opened up.

            That’s the situation with us and God. We can’t know what we don’t know we don’t know.

          • Howard


            ‘When a corporation commits a crime, I don’t want it sent to jail, I want the people behind it sent to jail. Don’t you? I don’t want them hiding behind a legal construct.”

            It is impossible for a corporation to commit a crime

            The assets of a corporation can be held responsible and so can the persons that enter into activity in the name of a corporation. State law rules. It is not always true even in cases of monetary responsibility that persons are shielded.

          • Michael

            Jeff – I am not denying that math strives for coherence, yes scaler, vector multiplication are similar but not identical but similarities drift when one uses the same notation to represent multiplication in group theory or modular arithmetic.

            But that was the original point of this discussion, mathematics has a cohesion, language really doesn’t. Yes we have dictionaries and agreed upon meanings but they change and evolve because of society with no over sight body to guide that development (unlike in France where they have Académie française to oversee the language)

          • Jeff McLeod


            First I have to say it is a real pleasure to discuss these topics with you.

            There is no doubt that math has greater precision than natural language.

            If I understand your question to me, you wonder what “supervises” language.

            I work in artificial intelligence, and this is a familiar question. How do you train a machine to generate a representational system from chaos?

            The answer is: reality itself supervises the natural development of a representational system.

            Think of linguistic representations as having a “fitness function”. Those with greatest nearness to the truth (verisimilitude) will be preserved because they engender accuracy and success, others will die off.

            The representations with the longest history of survival are considered to be not constructions, but representations of the actual topography of reality.

            If a word doesn’t rub against the friction of reality, it gets no traction.

            So… some will say, following Whorf,
            “But wait, don’t the eskimos have like 20 different words for snow? See, language is a social construction!”

            I can say with some confidence that the idea of language as a social construction was way overstated. There is broad agreement in psychology anyway that there are linguistic universals for things like color. There really is a reality that supervises our experience.

            The eskimos have 20 words for snow because they know a lot more about it. Just like I know names for a lot more breeds of dog than others because I like dogs. I, too, could adopt the highly articulated language of snow if I became a student of it. And right now I am in no mood to become a student of snow. :(

          • Michael

            I’m not saying I wonder who supervises language but that it varies from language to language.

            No one supervises the English language save for dictionaries and there is mostly a rear guard action of reacting to changes rather than dictating meaning.

            In French, L’academie Francaise states what worlds are acceptable or not. It’s not always followed but most treat it seriously. I had a French professor at the Sorbonne where I took a course one summer who refered to herself as La Femme professeur. I asked her why not professeuse or something like that and despite being quite out spoken on women’s causes refused to call herself that. When I read in Le Monde some years later that they added that word I thought of her.

            “The representations with the longest history of survival are considered to be not constructions, but representations of the actual topography of reality.”

            Dragoons, unicorns and fairies have been in the language since time immemorial but they have no substance in reality.

            (Note : I live in Canada and do winter camping with my Scout troop. I’ve experienced at least 20 different types of snow and each one is cold)

        • Howard


          I like to think of math this way.

          I can conceive of a universe in which there are no discrete objects or parts. I am a consciousness of one. How would I be able to understand counting?

      • Howard


        Over the years I have been frustrated by the tendency of some persons to downplay and even totally eliminate the meaning of words.

        Various strange excuses pop up, instead of acknowledgement, for exaggeration or meaning that does not correspond to intended meaning, or lack of meaning. A strange attitude that says I am going to use that word or sentence and it is not important what it means! They are just words! The use of language has it’s social constraints, such as using the words “whom” or “one” around certain guys in certain situations. That circumstance is not even close to the danger of the denial of the purpose of language.

        • Jeff McLeod

          It is very frustrating. We have a right as human beings to count on the authenticity of others when they use words, we trust that they are seeking common ground, a meeting of minds with a common understanding when they speak to us.

          Thus it is immoral for a salesman twist words to deceive you into signing something you don’t understand. It is an act of human responsibility to use language. One places one’s very self behind the words one speaks.

          To disembody language from the personal responsibility of the one who speaks — which is ever the tendency of modern political and technological ‘progress’ — is to destroy personhood. We become a society not of principles but of linguistic rules. There is no “person” behind the rules. Just a faceless bureaucracy.

          Pope Benedict once said about satan that it might be fruitful to think of him as a non-person in the deepest sense of that term. He is described as the deceiver, which might mean he is the pure abstract “word” without the moral spine of the man to take responsibility for that word. It can mean anything you want it to mean. Satan gets to make stuff up and laugh when you obey. He washes his hands with a smirk and says “see you in hell.”

      • Jeff McLeod


        You said that dragoon, unicorn, and fairie are words that exist even though there are no such things.

        I think your comment is very near the heart of the matter.

        I think you and I have different ideas of word reference.

        I think that dragons, unicorns, and fairies refer to things.

        G.K. Chesterton said “Fairy tales are more than true — not because they tell us dragons exist, but because they tell us dragons can be beaten.”

        Are you the Wittgenstein of the Tractatus, or the Wittgenstein of the Philosophical Investigations? (apologies to John D. who wisely pointed out the relevance of this question much earlier!)

        I love every word of the Tractatus. Actually I think it’s poetry.

        Die Welt ist alles,
        was der Fall ist.

        (TLP, 1.0)

        Tell me that’s not poetry! Wittgenstein knew even then that words are vastly more expressive than the mathematical and logical use.

        As for me, I prefer the Wittgenstein of the Investigations. But I think what he meant is vastly misunderstood. You will be disappointed, perhaps, that I think Wittgenstein was a Thomist in the manner of St. Thomas Aquinas. This isn’t a freakish view! Wittgenstein’s friends Elizabeth Anscombe and Peter Geach thought he was clearly talking about mental acts and intentionality.

        Wittgenstein, as you know, would have plenty of room for unicorns.

        Even the great Pragmatist William James said that the meaning of a word is its “cash value” in life. But he made exceptions for angels and transubstatiation, etc. because these play a definitive role in the Catholic faith.

        I don’t think it’s at all easy to dismiss language just because its use is unfamiliar or doesn’t rank high on opinion polls.

  • Howard


    I just smile broadly everytime I load this post. The photo is great. Two souls enjoying God’s gift.

    • Stacy Trasancos

      Aren’t kids great. I call them “Little Aristotles.” That was what I thought when I first read this explanation. “Of course! That’s how children learn!” A baby’s smile is one of his first intelligent thoughts. “Hey, Mommy, I like you!”

      :-D Thank you Howard.

      • John Darrouzet

        At some point your “Little Aristotles” may turn into “Little Thomases.” The transition from “doubting Thomas” to “Angelic Thomas” is not always easy, but it certainly is rewarding. Keep this up, mom, you’re doing great by your children!

  • RichardGTC

    My epistemology is Aristotle/St. Thomas. My comment: great patience with many of the commentators.

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  • John Darrouzet

    Though this should be added to the conversation. It’s a quote from Chesterton:

    IN other words, the essence of the Thomist common sense is that two agencies are at work; reality and the recognition of reality; and their meeting is a sort of marriage. Indeed it is very truly a marriage, because it is fruitful; the only philosophy now in the world that really is fruitful. It produces practical results, precisely because it is the combination of an adventurous mind and a strange fact.

    M. Maritain has used an admirable metaphor, in his book “Theonas”, when he says that the external fact “fertilises” the internal intelligence, as the bee fertilises the flower. Anyhow, upon that marriage, or whatever it may be called, the whole system of St. Thomas is founded; God made Man so that he was capable of coming in contact with reality; and those whom God hath joined, let no man put asunder.

    Now, it is worthy of remark that it is the only working philosophy. Of nearly all other philosophies it is strictly true that their followers work in spite of them, or do not work at all. No sceptics work sceptically; no fatalists work fatalistically; all without exception work on the principle that it is possible to assume what it is not possible to believe. No materialist who thinks his mind was made up for him, by mud and blood and heredity, has any hesitation in making up his mind. No sceptic who believes that truth is subjective has any hesitation about treating it as objective.”

    ~G.K. Chesterton: “St. Thomas Aquinas,” VIII.

    • See also, St. Thomas Aquinas, Lecture 67 by Dale Ahlquist
    [ ]

  • Newman Ireland

    I guess I’m late for this one but I’ll answer the question anyway. As a Christian my epistemology ultimately comes from Scripture. The apostle Paul wrote in Corinthians that man is the image and glory of God. What does image mean? God is spirit and He is also a rational being. Therefore the image of God in man is the reasonable soul. I guess this makes me a Christian rationalist. But I remember thinking about the blank slate idea for the first time. The empiricist would say our ideas come through sense perception right? So if our minds in the beginning are blank slates, then how do we take this information and turn it into thought or understanding? In other words, how do we get from sense perception, to images, to ideas? This is a problem isn’t it? Also, we have abstract ideas like justice or love. Can you experience Justice? Can you observe it? Finally, I am familiar with Plato’s Forms and the world of particular things. As I understand it he didn’t except or limit himself to observable things in this world. I guess that’s why the world of particular were but a copy, albeit an imperfect copy, of the Forms. I suppose if weren’t a Christian I would follow Plato.

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