Sens Homines 100th Post

This is officially the 100th post published here on Sens Homines over the past fifteen months. Thank you to everyone who reads and follows along! I’ve very much enjoyed the process and journey and look forward to continuing on.

A lot has changed over the course of writing these one hundred posts. I’ve been reading back over some of my early posts, and honestly can’t help but cringe at times. If nothing else, blogging regularly has helped develop my own writing (although I certainly still have a long ways to go). But that was the whole point of this blog in the first place: the journey. Growing, learning, interacting.

So, with that said, I thought it’d be fun and interesting to take a look back.

Here’s a list of my own top fifteen personal favorite posts (ordered chronologically). These are the posts I enjoyed writing the most:

  1. Prime Mover Part 3: Final Objections
  2. G. K. Chesterton’s Heretics and the Importance of Creeds
  3. The Person of Jesus Part 1: Jesus’s Shadow over History
  4. My First Mass and the Worst Mass Shooting in American History
  5. A Socratic Dialogue about the Nature of Love
  6. Arguments for Atheism #2: Material Causation and Creation Ex Nihilo
  7. Christmas: To the End of the Way of the Wandering Star
  8. Brief Thoughts on Meaning, Purpose, and God
  9. Aquinas’s Argument from Degrees of Perfection Part 4: Conclusion
  10. Could an Evil God Exist? Thoughts on Classical Theism and Definitions of God
  11. Aquinas’s Argument from Design Part 3: The End
  12. An Augustinian Defense of Hell
  13. Beginning Metaphysics IV: Essentialism
  14. Assessing the Kalam Cosmological Argument, Part I
  15. The Incarnation and Boethius’ Hierarchy of Knowledge

A few of these might also be some of my least favorite posts. It’s funny how that works. It’s also quite interesting to compare this list to the list of most viewed posts. With a few exceptions, the two are almost completely different.

I currently have plans for upcoming posts that I’m excited for, including posts on more modern/contemporary material. And of course, always more Aristotle and Aquinas. Until then, thanks again to all my readers.

God bless,

Harrison Jennings

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The Incarnation and Boethius’ Hierarchy of Knowledge

The ancients and medievals were fascinated with the concept of hierarchies. In fact, for many of them, the very fabric of their worldview was essentially hierarchic. All things were seen as originating from God as their source, and being directed toward God as their final end/good; and within this framework the entire universe was held as existing in ordered, purposeful relationships. This understanding of reality as ordered/hierarchic manifested itself in nearly every aspect of life and thought: family and community structure, political systems, ecclesiastical organization, theology, philosophy, and, as we’ll see, epistemology.

Pseudo-Dionysius wrote of the celestial hierarchy of angels, mirrored in the Church’s own hierarchy. St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas wrote of the hierarchy of existing beings, from inanimate objects, to living plants, to animals, to rational humans. Plato had explained reality as ordered from the material to the immaterial and ultimately to the Form of the Good. For all these classical thinkers, their belief in an ordered universe expressed itself through hierarchical relations.

Boethius was certainly no exception. Continue reading

Review: Apologetics and the Christian Imagination

I am a student of philosophy. My mind thinks metaphysically more naturally than it does metaphorically. But as Holly Ordway argues in her new book, Christian apologetics must be about much more than just propositional argumentation: it must be a wholistic endeavor which engages the entirety of human nature, both in individuals and in societies broadly.

That is the central idea in Apologetics and the Christian Imagination: An Integrated Approach to Defending the Faith (Emmaus Road Publishing, 2017). In it, Holly Ordway, an English professor and convert to the Faith, presents a method of practical apologetics that is not in itself new, but is nonetheless not quite so frequently recognized or implemented, at least explicitly. Contemporary apologetics has often focused almost exclusively on the purely intellectual aspects of defending the Christian faith; but Ordway argues, quite convincingly, that doing so ignores significant facets of the human experience and hence can actually be detrimental to the overall project and ultimate end of apologetics, which is bringing people to a living faith. In the present book, she focuses on the human faculty of imagination and how it can be impacted through different mediums, especially literature and the arts.

Of course, it might seem a bit unusual to think of apologetics as a project consisting of writing a fictional story or painting a landscape or even designing a building, but that is exactly what Ordway is here suggesting. We’ve come to think of apologetics as too small and narrow a thing if we do not allow it to engage more than just the intellect. Even more importantly, we’ve come to think of human beings as too small if we reduce individuals to just their capacity to reason. Seeing this, however, first requires understanding exactly what apologetics is.

Apologetics, from the Greek apologia, is on one level just a defense of any particular view or position (think of Socrates’ trial in Plato’s Apology). In this sense, almost everyone engages in “apologetics” for something; every worldview or belief system will attempt at some point to defend itself, to give justification for itself. But very early on in the history of the Church, the concept and practice of apologetics was taken up by Christians and given a distinctly Christian interpretation. Think, for instance, of St. Justin Martyr, who early in the second century wrote his two Apologies, addressed to the Roman emperor himself, as an explanation of general Christian beliefs and a call for governmental protection against persecution. Thus apologetics is an ancient tradition within the Faith, and Christians have long understood it as central to the mission of the Church. In this second sense, apologetics takes on more than just a defensive connotation and instead becomes an active undertaking aimed at explaining and establishing the truth of the Christian Faith. In its Christian context, however, the end of apologetics can never be just winning an argument or debate or even convincing someone of the propositional truth of various Christian doctrines; its end, rather, can be nothing less than the radical, salvific transformation of the entire person, and entire communities and societies. This must include, of course, the convincing of doctrinal truths; but it must also be more. Why so?

Because, as Ordway argues, the human person is more than a mere intellect. And that is perhaps one of the greatest strengths of her book: she grounds it all in a proper understanding of human nature. She writes:

“Ultimately, the coherence and soundness of Christian teaching (truth), the witness of the Faith lived out faithfully in individual lives, families, and communities (goodness), and the experience of the aesthetic, emotional, and spiritual riches of the liturgy and the arts (beauty) are all connected. Our faith is deeply rooted and fully nourished only if we have all three transcendentals in our lives: goodness, truth, and beauty. Likewise, our apologetics and our evangelization will be most attractive, compelling, and convincing if we draw on all three. Truth, for the intellect; goodness, for the moral sense and the will; beauty, for the aesthetic sense, the emotions, and the imagination. In this way, our apologetics can touch mind, heart, and will, not in isolation, but in harmony with each other” [1].

If Christian apologetics is aimed at convincing others of the truthfulness of the Faith in order ultimately to transform their whole person and being in living faith, then what role exactly does imagination play? How can imagination do any “convincing” at all? As Ordway notes, our own culture has a somewhat impoverished understanding of the human faculty of imagination. We associate imagination with “the imaginary” [2], with day dreaming or fantasies or made up things. But imagination in its classical sense has a much richer significance. Ordway explains:

“For Aristotle, and for St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Bonaventure, and other medieval scholars and theologians, the imagination has a cognitive function: it mediates ‘between sense and intellect’ by conveying ‘data to the intellect’ . . . Imagination is the human faculty that assimilates sensory data into images, upon which the intellect can then act; it is the basis of all reasoned thought as well as all artistic, or what we would call ‘imaginative,’ exercise” [3].

In essence, the imagination provides the raw material upon which the intellect can then operate. In fact, the medievals would argue (as does Ordway), that without the imagination we could not reason at all, for we would have nothing to reason about. Ordway also provides several other vital roles that imagination plays, besides mediating between the senses and the intellect: 1) Imagination helps give meaning, and meaningful contexts, to the terms and language that we use. Without this, there can be no substantial communication whatsoever, at all. 2) Imagination is a necessary precursor and foundation to judgement. In other words, in order to judge whether a propositional statement such as “Dogs are sweet animals” is true or false, we first must grasp the meaning of the statement. The intellect/reason does the judgement, but the imagination generates the meaning [4]. 3) Imaginative mediums such as literature can embody truths and draw others into contemplation of them without forcefully or aggressively intruding upon them. 4) Imagination can work to dismantle misconceptions and distortions of meaning in order to provide a better framework in which to discuss the Faith. 5) Imagination allows us to enter into the experiences and perspectives of others to better understand them and their beliefs, enabling us to engage in better dialogue. 6) Imagination can strike at and bring to the surface natural and deeply embedded longings within us, leading us to further think about and explore the implications of such longings (such as our innate longings for meaning, purpose, beauty, etc.).

In all of this, however, Ordway is very clear that she is not in any way advocating for replacing or excluding the intellectual aspects of apologetics; indeed she recognizes these as vital. Instead, she is proposing an integrative approach, one which acknowledges the whole person of the human being with all its faculties and responds appropriately. In other words, we need both imaginative and intellectual apologetics if we want to establish the Faith as meaningful and true. And in this I entirely agree.

Overall, Ordway’s book is timely and significant, as Christians in the West continue to interact with and defend the Faith against raging secularism and increasing skeptical and non-religious sentiments. Ordway offers an approach to apologetics that I think can greatly supplement areas somewhat lacking in its contemporary project. There are several ways in which this could be done: on one level, apologists can just use imaginative material that is already there. But what I think is most significantly missing and needed, is for more people to actively be producing new imaginative material. The Church needs talented and passionate individuals to be writing literature, painting, drawing, sculpting, singing, performing, acting, writing scripts, producing movies, etc., in ways that both beautifully depict the rich depth and meaning and truth of the Christian Faith, and also engage a culture that is absolutely starving for wonder, beauty, and genuine art. In other words, we need a new C. S. Lewis. We need a new Tolkien. We need a new Dostoevsky, a new Mozart or Bach, a new Rembrandt, a new Shakespeare. And hopefully Ordway’s book can help inspire them to be such. Indeed, Ordway herself throughout the book includes some of her own imaginative material: each chapter ends with an original poem that reflects a general theme or idea from the chapter. In addition to being beautiful in themselves, these poems help demonstrate practical ways in which imaginative apologetics can be carried out.

In conclusion, Ordway’s book is extremely well written, full of depth and wisdom but presented in a concise and easily comprehensible fashion. She includes personal examples and helpful illustrations, and draws heavily from the work of C. S. Lewis and Tolkien, with whom she is expertly familiar. My absolute favorite part of the book was its emphasis on the Incarnation as the center of the Faith. She includes an entire chapter entitled “The Incarnation” which is beautifully and profoundly written; and throughout the book she relates the “embodiment” of meaning in words, literature, and art to the supreme Embodiment of God Himself in the flesh in the person of Christ. All in all, it was an excellent and insightful book which I would readily recommend to anyone interested either in apologetics broadly, or in how the arts can be implemented within a Christian context.

My thanks to Steven Edwards from Emmaus Road Publishing for providing me with a review copy of this book.

If you do not already, I invite all readers to follow this blog, either through WordPress or email. You can also like our Sens Homines Facebook page, linked here or on the righthand side of the page.

Notes

[1]. Ordway, Holly. Apologetics and the Christian Imagination: An Integrated Approach to Defending the Faith. Steubenville, Ohio: Emmaus Road Publishing, 2017. Pages 167-168.

[2]. Ibid., 15.

[3]. Ibid., 16.

[4]. Ibid., 29.

First Conference Paper Presentation: The Metaphysical Possibility of Creation Ex Nihilo

This past weekend I had the opportunity to present a paper at the undergraduate Mid-Atlantic Philosophy Conference, hosted by Prometheus Journal (an undergraduate philosophy journal) at Johns Hopkins University. It was an incredible experience, and I am extremely grateful to have been able to attend and present. In addition to getting the valuable experience of presenting a paper, I was also able to listen to some great and thought provoking papers from fellow students.

My paper should be published on Prometheus’ online journal at some point in the near future. When it is, I’ll provide a link. Until then, I’ll post the abstract of my paper below, as well as an (admittedly low quality) video of my presentation and the commentary and question and answer session afterwards. The title of my paper was “The Metaphysical Possibility of Creation Ex Nihilo.” Here’s the abstract:

This paper seeks to examine two seemingly contradictory concepts, one a metaphysical principle, the other a theological doctrine, as well as their historio-philosophical backgrounds and contexts, and attempts to discover whether or not they are reconcilable, i.e. whether they can be held together. The concepts in question are that of ex nihilo nihil fit, and that of creatio ex nihilo, respectively. The former was a principle deeply embedded in the process of Greek natural philosophy, and it led nearly all Greek philosophers to conclude that matter could never have come into being from nothing. On the basis of this Greek understanding of the principle, the first half of this paper will formulate an argument that summarizes the metaphysical problem of creatio ex nihilo. The paper will then argue that Aquinas’ analysis of creation, set within his metaphysical framework, offers one possible solution to that problem. In particular, this paper will emphasize that Aquinas’ distinction between the causal powers of finite beings as opposed to that of infinite being is the key to defending the metaphysical possibility of creatio ex nihilo.

As some readers may notice, the thrust of my paper was very much directed against certain arguments for naturalism which I’ve written about briefly before on this blog (see the Epicurean Cosmological Argument or the argument for naturalism from Material Causation and Creation Ex Nihilo), but treat in much more depth in the paper.

Here’s the video (Commentary/Q&A begins at around 39:41):

I was extremely grateful for the commentator from Prometheus who was exceptionally kind and engaging with my paper, as well as the others who asked questions afterwards. I’d like to provide a few more responses here, after having had some time to think about the questions more in depth:

The commentator’s first point was to bring up Heraclitus as a possible counter example to a pretty strong claim I make at the beginning of my paper: that until the birth of the modern period, the “ex nihilo nihil fit” principle was unchallenged and universally accepted. The commentator admitted that this was a relatively minor issue, but I think he was right to bring it up, since my claim was pretty strong, so strong, in fact, that even just one example would suffice to falsify it. The commentator referenced a discussion between Heraclitus and Cratylus in Book 4 of Aristotle’s Metaphysics. He says that this discussion seems to indicate a “tension” between their view and the view which I take as firmly established in the Greek tradition, namely that something cannot come from nothing. Here’s the full passage from Aristotle:

“Because they [earlier Greek philosophers} saw that all this world of nature is in movement, and that about that which changes no true statement can be made, they said that of course, regarding that which everywhere in every respect is changing, nothing could be truly affirmed. It was this belief that blossomed into the most extreme views above mentioned, that of the professed Heracliteans, such as was held by Cratylus, who finally did not think it right to say anything but only moved his finger, and criticized Heraclitus for saying that it is impossible to step twice into the same river; for he thought one could not do it even once” [1].

I do not take this as an explicit denial of the ex nihilo nihil fit principle, nor do any commentators that I can find; nor, indeed, does Aristotle himself seem to. The broad context of the passage is in Aristotle’s extended defense of the principle of non-contradiction, which he associates with a refutation of the belief that all things are perpetually in motion. He understands Heraclitus to hold this latter view, and says that such a position forces Heraclitus to hold that something both is and is not at the same time, which is a denial of the principle of non contradiction. One might argue that Heraclitus’ position implies or requires an ultimate denial of ex nihilo nihil fit, but Heraclitus himself never asserts this–indeed we have writings from him in which he claims that the universe is eternal and uncreated (which I quote in my paper). Here the issue is not ex nihilo nihil fit, but rather the principle of non contradiction.

Next is a question about the relation between essence and form in Aquinas. The commentator understood essence as being “strictly form” within the context of Aquinas’s hylomorphic (matter-form composition) view of reality. From this, I think he derives two distinct questions. The first question is about my use of the phrase “limited essence”, which he asks me to clarify. I could be mistaken, but from what I can tell, I think his question is directed towards why an essence would be “limited” if what is actually limiting is matter. In other words, if a thing is composed of matter and form, then matter is what limits the form, not the other way around. Since he understood essence and form to be identical, I think his question was why I would call the essence limited, rather than the matter. As I’ll explain below (and touched on a bit in the video), Aquinas does not take form and essence to be identical. But even if he did, I think the phrase “limited essence” would still be appropriate, in the sense that the essence would be limited by matter, not that the essence itself “limits”.

But Aquinas distinguishes form and essence, which was the point of the last question. In my paper, I explain that Aquinas has a sort of dichotomy between act potency relationships. On the one hand is the form/matter composition, and on the other is the essence/existence composition. In my paper, I state that in the latter composition, form is the actuality to the potency of matter; and in the latter composition, existence is the actuality to the potency of essence. Since the commentator took essence and form to be interchangeable terms for the same thing, he rightly saw a tension arise: if essence and form are the same, how could it be potency in one sense and actuality in another?

Now, for Aquinas, form and essence are certainly related, but not exactly identical. The essence of a thing includes both its form and matter–since to know what a man is (and hence know its essence) involves knowing that man is a material being, and hence knowing that man has a form instantiated in matter. Aristotle does not quite make this distinction, but Aquinas, drawing from some earlier Islamic thinkers, extrapolates it. This is seen especially in the question of angels. Aquinas held angels to be pure forms, not instantiated in any matter. Since he takes matter to be potency, the question is how angels can actually exist not instantiated in matter. If form is actuality, and angels are pure form, would this not imply that angels are pure act? But only God is pure act. So Aquinas posits that the potency of angels comes not from matter, but from their essence, which is actualized by an act of existing.

The first audience question was how God, being Pure Act, could possibly cause change in the world. This is a substantial objection to the First Way, and I’ve actually written a post devoted exclusively to it, so I’ll just link to that here.

The final question was about interpretation of substance in Aristotelian substantial change. In particular, the question was about an example I used to illustrate substantial change. I think this is a relatively minor issue, however, since the questioner acknowledged that another example I used for substantial change does work, and hence my point on substantial change in general stands.

In all, it was a fantastic experience. Thanks to Prometheus and the philosophy department at Johns Hopkins for making it possible!

Notes

[1]. McKeon, Richard, editor. The Basic Works of Aristotle. New York: Random House, Inc, 1941. Print. Metaphysics 4.5, 1010a6-14.

Sens Homines One Year Anniversary

Exactly one year ago today, on April 10, 2016, I posted my first actual blog post on Sens Homines: an introduction to Aquinas’ Argument from Motion or First Way. A lot has changed for me in this past year, but blogging here has been a great joy and source of growth. I’m extremely grateful to everyone who has read or responded at all over these twelve months, and am excited to see where the blog can go in the future.

Writing about the Five Ways has kind of been the heart and soul of the whole blog, so it’ll feel a bit strange once I finish this last series on the Fifth Way. Of course I’ll come back to the arguments often, but I also want to move on to some new topics.

In particular, here are a few things I want to start writing about, probably this summer:

  1. Ethics
  2. Philosophy of Mind
  3. The Kalam (I’d like to take an in depth look at the argument, since as of now I’m not really sure where I stand on it; I lean towards thinking it doesn’t work).
  4. Fine Tuning (same as above)
  5. Moral Arguments

As always, if there are any recommendations for topics, I’d be happy to consider them.

Thanks again to everyone! Here’s hoping to many more years to come.

 

 

50th Post: Thoughts on Blogging and Sens Homines

This present post marks the fiftieth on my blog, with the first real post having been published this past April. In all honesty, at that point I didn’t really expect to make this into something regular, and I hardly anticipated keeping it up for very long; but now I write around twice a week and doing so is one of my greatest pleasures. I love the reading, studying, and research involved, I love the process and struggle of writing, and, perhaps most of all, I love receiving responses from people, both complimentary and critical.

I think, in fact, that one of the main reasons I started blogging was to hear and consider the thoughts of people with very different view points from my own. My ideal in blogging is not just to have a platform for expressing myself, but rather to have a platform for conversing and engaging with others about things that are important to me. Reading, studying, and thinking pushes me and forces me to grow, but there is something about communicating with other people that adds a whole other dimension and depth to seeking truth.

A quick note: my posts are long. I know. At least relative to many blogs. My apologies to those who prefer shorter, quick posts, but I just cannot bring myself to sacrifice carefulness and thoroughness for brevity. One of the most frustrating things to me about popular apologetics work is its often media-like tendency to appeal to intellectual short-attention spans by taking short cuts and not adequately addressing or dealing with the material in an honest or complete way. I want to avoid that at all costs. I want to consider the best and most difficult objections to arguments for my own position; and I want to examine the best and most forceful presentations of arguments for positions other than mine. Anything less than this is intellectual dishonesty.

I have changed dramatically since I began blogging, and blogging itself has played a very large part in this. The goal was always to seek truth. I consider the journey of pursuing truth integral to what it means to be human. That, along with a few other, more personal reasons, is why I chose “Sens Homines”, Latin for “being human”, as the name for the blog. If you haven’t read the About page recently, I’d encourage doing so in order to get a fuller understanding of the meaning behind the name and its relation to the purpose of this blog. My understanding of what Being Human entails has evolved and grown since I started, much for the better.

So far, the range of topics of my posts has been fairly limited, and not without reason. I’ve written mainly on 1) the existence of God, 2) the person of Jesus, and 3) various related philosophical issues, often by way of a direct reading and analyzation of some of the great human thinkers. My own conception of this is that I’m building something, however slowly, and however long it takes. Writing paragraph by paragraph analyzations of each chapter of Aristotle’s Physics is tedious work. But without this foundational understanding of the ideas, everything else collapses.

I will, of course, be continuing to write about these things often, but I’d also like to expand. I especially want to begin (probably in a few months from now) writing about ethics and various ethical theories/systems, and perhaps philosophy of mind. If anyone has any suggestions for topics about which to write, I’d be more than happy to consider them.

Thank you to all those who read and respond. It truly means a lot!

In Depth Review of “Undeniable” By Molecular Biologist Douglas Axe

IMG_1967 *Note: This review is extremely long, much longer than I intended for it to be. It consists of a chapter by chapter summary and analysis, as well as preliminary and concluding thoughts.  I’ve provided headings before each section and chapter to make navigating easierWhile I apologize for the inconvenience of the length, I felt it was needed for the full, in depth treatment.

Several weeks ago, a highly anticipated book from molecular biologist Douglas Axe arguing for a new approach concerning the origin of life was released. The title of the book is Undeniable: How Biology Confirms Our Intuition That Life Is Designed and it is currently a #1 Bestseller on Amazon under the category of “Organic Evolution.”

As the title pretty obviously implies, the book and its author are advocates of the position that has come to be known as “intelligent design,” which broadly argues that life is the result of purposeful design, as opposed to the random/accidental/unguided chance of blind natural forces, which the theory of biological evolution is commonly understood to entail or at least imply. Continue reading