Tuesday, June 29, 2021

Ultimate and Penultimate Currencies

Note: I started writing this in January 2010, and apparently put it away for some time. The basic theorem is an idea that has stayed with me and that I think on not infrequently. I actually thought I had published it here already. Oops.

In reading Cardinal Ratzinger's Eschatology: Death and Eternal Life on the evolution through salvation history of the notion of our reward from our Creator, a point that I've been mulling for some time struck me powerfully. As everyone knows and as is well attested in the pages of Sacred Scripture, the earlier conception of our reward was long life and worldly prosperity. Many are the Patriarchs given their farewell encomium by cataloging the preternatural number of their years before their passing, their great worldly wealth, and their long and lasting memory in their many descendants.

The Single Penultimate Currency Theorem

As I mentioned in my previous post, our concern for ourselves, our well being centers primarily on our bodily existence. All other wealth (jobs, money, possessions, children; even to some extent honor or reputation and education) is wealth to the extent that it succors our bodily existence. Hence, all good boils down to a single "currency"—our lives.

Yet it is also apparent to those who take the time to reflect on life and its meaning, that this life is not everything. The most evident manifestation of this truth is that this life ends. What payment does one receive at the end of life? It is all the same. And when one is dead, how does a happy memory profit the deceased? He is clearly beyond caring. And to top it off, this condition last far longer than one's life.

People can use whatever evil means they can to acquire the wealth that enhances and preserves life. But is a dishonest life truly worth living? People with integrity, who are truly worthy of respect, will say "no." But what good can we cite that would be worth living and dying without the goods of this life as long as one keeps one's honesty? One doesn't have to name it to recognize it must exist if justice is to prevail and goodness and happiness go together (NB: for many ancient philosophers, virtue was its own reward, so it needn't be eternal life). So, there must be another currency, one that is more ultimate than our corporeal existence.

Life is a currency, but it is thus only the penultimate currency.

Two Antepenultimate Currencies

But there are more immediate currencies (goods that humans work for) that become evident when we reflect on the sterotypical differences between what motivates men and women. Men tend to work for outward recognition, things like status, honor, and money. Women tend to work for love and personal connection. It's almost as if the “masculine” world of “achievement” and the caregiving world were two independent economies. (I think this is the reason caregiving is so poorly remunerated: the true currency here is not money.)

They aren’t truly independent of course. In truth these two economies are interlocking, two sides of support for human existence. Traditionally the masculine economy is seen as bigger and more important: naively it seems to provide the context for the caring economy, but really the two provide the context for each other. It’s been the Christian genius to reveal how the caring economy is in many fundamental ways more important; it is closer to the ultimate currency (according to Christian lights), without being identical to it of course.

Saturday, June 19, 2021

Justice and gratitude

A friend recently reposted on Facebook a tweet that made the very worthy point that people who build accomodations for the handicapped in churches shouldn't expect effusive thanks from the people they've helped, since the act was a simply the duty of justice. It's a great point! But it made me reflect more deeply on the tension between justice and gratitude.

Justice of course is mandated by God. We need to treat our brothers and sisters justly. But gratitude is also mandated by God, and in fact is arguably the central Christian virtue. We need to give thanks, not only for what is granted us gratuitously, but also for what we receive that is simply our due.

These days everyone has rights. But (to vastly simplify) back in the day, all the rights belonged to one man (typically male), a monarch, or a small set of people, an aristocracy. Everyone else served them and received at their will. Whereas most people had to express gratitude for everything, the rulers got whatever they wanted, as their right, and thus had no need to express gratitude. The latter had no need to build the virtue of gratitude. So a small subset of people were designated with a tendency to lack a key virtue necessary for salvation, but the bulk of the population was given to exercise this virtue often.

These days of course, everyone is equal: we have all been elevated to the level of the rich rulers of the past. But our wealth is not primarily in money or real estate, but in rights. We all have equal rights, and thus we all equally are handicapped in the virtue of gratitude. Modernity has damned us by giving us nothing to hope for.

And Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly, I say to you, it will be hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” (Mt 19:23-24)

So while there can be no argument that everyone should have justice, it is also clear why we moderns have such difficulty with Christian faith.

Saturday, June 12, 2021

Heavenly families?

The epistle from St. Paul for yesterday's solemnity contains the following clauses that I've often heard:

For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named... (Eph 3:14-15)

But something struck me for the very first time yesterday. Apparently there are two different domains for families, heaven and earth. Earthly families we're all very familiar with. But what's a heavenly family?

Most likely it's not an earthly family whose members have made it to heaven. Such earthly families are already named on earth, not in heaven. Besides, Jesus communicates to us very clearly that such fleshly relationships don't have much weight in themselves in the world to come through the parable of the seven brothers who married one wife on their successive deaths (Mt 22:23-33, Mk 12:18-27, Lk 20:27-40). When we humans make it to heaven, we will be like angels, Jesus says, which begs the question: can angels have families? So the question remains: what is a heavenly family?

Coincidentally I recently started re-reading The Silmarillion and on the solemnity I turned to the "Valaquenta." The latter speaks of some of the Valar (the gods or highest angels), who are all created by Eru-Illuvatar (the One God) and effectively his children1, as being siblings2. What makes them siblings? Certainly it isn't parentage, since they are all equally created from the thought of Eru. Is there some other sort of grouping that's analogous to family relationships?


Notes

1. Though of course not "Children of Illuvatar" (i.e., elves and men).

2. Námo and Irmo are said to be brothers, whose sister is Nienna. And Vána is younger sister to Yavanna.

Sunday, May 16, 2021

Sean Carroll and Emergentism

With excitement a Catholic physicist friend pointed me to a recent paper by Sean Carroll Reality as a Vector in Hilbert Space. Carroll, as you may know, is a prominent atheist. My friend says Carroll's paper shows he is turning toward a more realistic metaphysics, and singles out this paragraph:

Nothing in this perspective implies that we should think of spacetime or quantum fields as illusory. They are emergent, but none the less real for that. As mentioned, we may not be forced to invoke these concepts within our most fundamental picture, but the fact that they play a role in an emergent description is highly non-trivial. (Most Hamiltonians admit no local decomposition, most factorizations admit no classical limit, etc.) It is precisely this non-generic characteristic of the specific features of the world of our experience that makes it possible to contemplate uniquely defining them in terms of the austere ingredients of the deeper theory. They should therefore be thought of as equally real as tables and chairs.

I haven't read the paper, but for my part, I'm rather cautious about reading too much into Carroll's claims. Feser has a concise paragraph that captures my general reservations about emergentism:

Second, the Aristotelian resists the language of “emergence” because, despite its anti-reductionism, it gives the impression of conceding to the reductionist the thesis that the micro-level is ontologically fundamental or privileged. It is as if the emergentist allows that the macrolevel is problematic in a way that the micro-level is not, so that we should concede the reality of macro-level phenomena only to the extent that we can make sense of them somehow “emerging” from the micro-level. As I have said, the Aristotelian rejects any such privileging of the micro-level. From an Aristotelian point of view, modern emergentist arguments, though salutary, are at best only partial rediscoveries of the correct, hylemorphist account of nature.

I may be misreading the paragraph, but it doesn't sound like Carroll concedes much, or anything really. I think he would do well to read the introduction of A.S. Eddington's The Nature of the Physical World.


Edward Feser, Aristotle’s Revenge: The Metaphysical Foundations of Physical and Biological Science (Editiones Scholasticae, 2019), 337-8.

Monday, April 26, 2021

Foundations of Mathematics

I watched this interesting 2017 PBS video "Crisis in the Foundation of Mathematics" today. I was struck by how in the Zermelo-Fraenkel set theory of the foundations of mathematics, the existence of infinite series has to be defined as an axiom: it's not automatic that they exist.

Another thing that came to mind is the weird way that mathematicians try to formulate a foundation for their discipline, for example, in order to broaden the natural (counting) numbers into the integers (that is, to include the negative numbers), they define an integer as the difference between two natural numbers. What I don't understand is why they don't just define negative numbers as an abstraction that incorporates the "take away" operation (subtraction) into the number. Imaginary numbers would then be a kind of "half-way" take-away, what amounts to a ninety-degree rotation (half of 180°).

I say "I don't understand," but seriously: why should anyone expect me to understand? My training is in physics, not mathematics, after all.

Friday, April 02, 2021

Death to Self and Discernment

That outward circumstances play a part in the formation of a spiritual judgment may be seen by merely looking at the kind of circumstances that interior souls at one time or another have to face. It is easy enough to estimate the effect of these things upon their characters. Loss of material goods conduces to a man's discernment. With detachment from outward standards comes a greater reliance upon the significance of the inward.

Sickness conduces to discernment. There is nothing like a long illness to teach a man the difference between true and false compassion. If only from the sight of his own self-pity, he learns the value of entering into the pains of others.

Suffering of every kind—and especially the suffering of temptation—fosters the potentiality of discernment. Not only is the genuine need distinguished from the sham, but even in the need that is unjustified, that is brought upon itself, an element of sincerity can be discovered that demands an act of understanding.

Solitude ministers to discernment. Sometimes it is born in it. In fact, one wonders how a soul can come to possess the discerning spirit without the help of solitude and silence.

And, above all, in prayer: in the practice of unrelenting prayer, hours of it and carried on over the years, a soul chiefly learns to judge according to the spirit. Discernment is nothing other than this: the power to interpret God. How, short of the directly miraculous, can God's will be interpreted as it is capable of being interpreted apart from the light of prayer?


Dom Hubert van Zeller, How to Find God ... and Discover Your True Self in the Process (Manchester, New Hampshire: Sophia Institute Press, 1998), 206.

Friday, March 26, 2021

Nature and Supernature

From David Schindler, I learned that "matter" and "form" are both relative terms. Now from Peter Kreeft, I learn that "natural" and "supernatural" are also relative terms:

The life of a human being, body and soul, material and spiritual, visible and invisible, is natural life, life that is natural to us. The word for natural life in Greek is bios. Zōē, in contrast, means supernatural life, more-than-natural life. Since different kinds of things have different natures, what is natural or supernatural is relative. Life is supernatural to rocks but natural to plants; sensation is supernatural to plants but natural to animals; reason is supernatural to animals but natural to us; God is supernatural to everything else but natural to Himself. He has a nature: He is good, not evil or indifferent; wise, not foolish; living, not dead, etc. This does not make Him finite, because each of His attributes is infinite. But they are positive attributes. He has a nature, a character.

Peter Kreeft. "Three Philosophies of Life" in Doors in the Walls of the World: Signs of Transcendence in the Human Story (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 2018), 7-25, at 20.

David L. Schindler, "The Problem of Mechanism" in Beyond Mechanism, ed. David L. Schindler (University Press of America, 1986), 1-12 at 3-4.