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A Modal Argument Against Naturalism from Transcendentals

For any argument against naturalism, we are going to have to specify the sort of naturalism we are discussing.  Here, my target is a rather broad notion of metaphysical naturalism.  Let’s define the notion in the following way: naturalism is the thesis that reality is exhausted by the natural.[1]  This is, admittedly not an informative definition (and somewhat circular), but it will do the job of being relatively broad for this argument, but not so vacuous as to be uninteresting.  Many contemporary naturalists would assent to the definition, and I, being Catholic, believe that naturalism, so defined, is false.

P1. Naturalism is true just in case “natural” is greater than and includes the combined extensions of terms that name each and every one of the categories into which being may be divided.[2]

P2. “Natural” is greater than and includes the combined extensions of terms that name each and every one of the categories into which being may be divided just in case “natural” is a transcendental that is convertible with “being”.

P3. All terms that are transcendental that are convertible with “being” are necessarily transcendentals that are convertible with “being”.

P4. If naturalism is true, naturalism is contingently true.

P5. If naturalism is contingently true, it is false that “natural” is necessarily a transcendental that is convertible with being.

C1. Therefore, naturalism is false.

The argument is a reductio, as the premises lead to an obvious contradiction if one assumes naturalism is true (i.e. “natural” is necessarily a transcendental that is convertible with “being” and it is false that “natural” is necessarily a transcendental that is convertible with “being”). Given the definition of “transcendental” and the plausibility of P3-P5, naturalism cannot be the case.

There are a few ways the naturalist may object (and why I think they are inadequate objections):

Objection 1: “Natural” is not a transcendental.

Reply to 1: If “natural” is not a transcendental, as defined extensionally, then it is not exhaustive of reality.  Let’s say that reality is composed of everything, all beings.  If “natural” doesn’t exhaust all beings, then there are beings that are not natural.  That, to me, is sufficient to falsify metaphysical naturalism.  So this is not a very good move to make, though it may be a knee-jerk move to make in response to the argument.

Objection 2: There are no transcendentals.  The idea that res, unum, aliquid, bonum, et verum or any other supposed transcendental like “beauty” is convertible with being is a quaint notion from an outmoded era of philosophy and theology when people drank in far too many Hellenistic notions.

Reply to 2: Fine, you dislike older ideas.  But the extensional definition of transcendentals are still on the table and there is no reason to think that we cannot categorize being, or devise a notion of a term that is universal.  After all, as I suggested in response to the first objection, to say that “natural” exhaust reality is to say something about the universality of “natural” and that its extension would be as broad as “being” or “reality”.  So, it sounds odd to object to there being transcendental terms when naturalism, so defined, depends on it.  Ah, but “naturalism” could be defined in other ways.  That’s true, but those sorts of “naturalisms” are not the target of this argument.  Moreover, I am not too sure that I am opposed to a form of metaphysical naturalism that is too timid to claim that “natural” exhausts “being”.

Objection 3: P3 is false.  There is no reason to think that if some term is convertible with “being”, then it is necessarily so.  It might be contingently convertible with being, especially if “transcendental” is only being defined extensionally.  That is, the transcendentals could merely happen to be convertible with “being”.

Reply to 3: It would seem, then, that we have two sorts of transcendentals: contingent transcendentals that happen to be convertible with “being” and necessary transcendentals that are necessarily convertible with “being”.  So, for instance, if God were actually to exist, there would be a sense in which res, unum, aliquid, bonum, et verum could be applied to God.  But, presumably, if God were to exist, “natural” could not apply to Him.  In other words, were there super-natural beings, “natural” would have a smaller extension than “being” and “natural” would cease to be a transcendental.  Yet, the other named transcendentals are not like this.  No matter what possibilia comes to be, the transcendentals would remain what they are.  It’s just that the actualization of the possibilia means that the actuality is res, unum, aliquid, bonum, et verum.  It seems, then, that the naturalist would be committed to the thesis that “natural” is convertible with “actual”, i.e. everything is actual if and only if it is natural.  But “actuality” is not a transcendental.  Rather, one can divide the various categories of being into act and potency.  In other words, actuality has a smaller extension than any given category and, a fortiori the combined extensions of all the categories of being.  Now the naturalist might quibble and say that any potential or possibility of the non-natural, or supernatural, is itself natural.  But this is not to address the question of whether “natural” is extensive with all potentials and possibilities, but just the actualities in which those potentials and possibilities obtain.

Another issue is that it is rather question-begging to demand that “natural” is one instance of a “contingent transcendental” convertible with being given what actually happens to exist.  Is there another such transcendental? Why are all the other transcendentals necessary and remain transcendentals no matter what happens to be in the world.

Objection 4: P4 is false.  Metaphysical worldviews, if true, are necessarily true.  Thus, if metaphysical naturalism is true, then it is somehow necessarily true.

Reply to 4: This is a rather strong position to take.  For it not only posits that supernatural entities, like souls, and gods, do not exist.  It posits that they cannot exist for metaphysical or broadly logical reasons.  It is not clear to me why this must be the case, and there seems to be good reason to think this is false.  1) Even if it is not supposed that the Anselmian God is metaphysically possible (from which, some would argue, His existence could be demonstrated), a less than maximally great or perfect divinity is plausibly metaphysically possible.  That is, a being that would sufficiently falsify naturalism, even if it is not morally perfect, omniscient, or omnipotent, could exist.  What’s more, if metaphysical naturalism is metaphysically necessary, then it would satisfy the Leibnizian question “why is there something rather than nothing” in much the way classical theists think God satisfies this question.  The classical theist says that God is metaphysically necessary, so not anything existing is impossible.  But the metaphysical naturalist doesn’t seem to make the same move.  Faced with the radical contingency of reality, the metaphysical naturalist usually doesn’t say that since metaphysical naturalism is metaphysical necessary, there must be at least one natural thing in existence.  If nothing were in existence, then nothing natural would exist.  Now a particularly impish naturalist might suggest that, were there nothing in existence, metaphysical naturalism would be true.  That is, one natural configuration of the world is “there not being anything”.  But if there were nothing, it wouldn’t be the case that “natural” exhausts reality.  “Natural” would not be predicated at all.  It would no more “exhaust” reality than “supernatural”.  So there not being anything is not compatible with metaphysical naturalism being true.  So if metaphysical naturalism is necessary, nothing is intrinsically impossible.  Yet, we have no reason to think that if naturalism is true, some natural thing or other must exist.

Objection 5: Okay, metaphysical naturalism is only contingently true, but “natural” is necessarily a transcendental convertible with being anyways.  In other words, P5 is false.

Reply to 5: Well, if there is no possible world where “natural” fails to exhaust “being”, then metaphysical naturalism would be true in every possible world.  Metaphysical naturalism cannot be contingent while it be necessary the everything is natural.  That just is to claim that metaphysical naturalism is true in every possible world (a strong claim to make).

In Sum: If I were a naturalist, I think I would try to argue that some transcendentals are contingent. I don’t think the argument would be very convincing, for the reasons I mentioned.  After that, I think I would want to argue that metaphysical naturalism is necessary.  Remember, it is not enough to simply say that metaphysical naturalism could be necessary. If all of the other premises of my argument are correct, and one wants to maintain metaphysical naturalism as true, one would have to admit that the only way it could be true is if it is metaphysically necessary.  However, I don’t see any good reason to think metaphysical naturalism is metaphysically necessary for the reasons I’ve outlined above.  So, it seems to me that, since “natural” is not a transcendental of “being”, metaphysical naturalism is false.

[1] Papineau, David, “Naturalism”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2009 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <>.

[2] This is based on an extensional definition of transcendentals offered by Jorge J.E. Gracia. See Jorge J.E. Gracia, 1992, “The Transcendentals in the Middle Ages: An Introduction,” Topoi 11(2): 113–120. Also Wouter Goris and Jan Aertsen, “Medieval Theories of Transcendentals”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2013 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <>

Intelligibility, Information, and Beauty

What is information?  Information expresses something.  It is intentional and so not random, right?  A Youtube collaboration between VSauce and Veritasium presents an interesting argument that information is random, or rather, entropy:

But is that right?  Information is random?  If so, wouldn’t it be unintelligible?

When transmitting information, you can compress all that which is a pattern or predictable.  This means that whatever cannot be reduced or compressed is pure information.  At the same time, pure information without pattern and order is meaningless.  It is just white noise.  So it seems that intelligibility is not the same thing as information, at least when it is defined as entropy (as it is in this information theory).  Meaning emerges from patterns of information.  The random must be ordered and patterned in ways that we can decode and understand.  So intelligibility or meaning is the confluence of information and order.

The video makes the neat point that our scientific theories are really just attempts to compress the information we find in nature.  It is interesting to note that scientists often prefer theories and equations that are described as “elegant” or “beautiful”.  In certain sense, the idea that intelligibility, or meaning, emerges from patterns of random information can help us to understand why we find these compressions beautiful.

In an earlier post, I had defended the beauty of the Trinitarian God over unitarian gods on the grounds that the Trinity has both unity and distinction, i.e. a simple unified divine substance that is three distinct persons.  I argued that we can objectively define that which is beautiful as that which is unified, harmonious, and ordered while admitting distinctions.

If information is maxim entropy, it contains an irreducible unity.  That unity of information becomes intelligible when it is ordered into patterns and brought into harmony with other bits of information.  It becomes meaningful.  So whatever is intelligible is inherently beautiful.  Thus, there may be something metaphysical underlying the idea that a scientifically true formula or equation is objectively “elegant” or “beautiful”.  We find that it is “elegant” or “beautiful” because it is a simple unity, yet it has the power to explain a wide variety of our data by revealing patterns.  The more unified and simple an equation is, and the greater amount of distinct phenomena it captures, the more beautiful it is.  This also hints at the fundamental unity between objective truth and beauty, which I believe we find in nature as a reflection of what is fundamental to the Godhead.

How is this fundamental to the Godhead? If God is Being itself, or Being must truly, then God must be perfect, simple, and irreducible.  Whatever is perfect in Being must be truly Good, and indeed, the Father is Good. Goodness is opposed to ignorance, as ignorance is a source of evil, so if the Father is Good, he must know His own Nature, and so must be thought thinking itself.  Since the Divine Substance is absolutely simple, the Father cannot abstract a genus or species to comprehend His Nature propositionally.  Instead, He must comprehend or grasp the Divine Nature Itself in a concrete way, or else He grasps nothing.  And in doing this, conceives of the Divine Substance distinctly from the One who is conceiving.  If God’s knowledge is accurate, he must conceive of the same exact concrete Substance that He is.  So his eternal conception of the Divine Substance is the same substance that He is, it is the grasp of the Truth of God’s Goodness.  And we call this eternal conception, or this eternally begotten grasp of the Divine Substance, the Son, who is the Truth itself.  As the Father knows the Divine Substance, the Divine Substance is essentially intelligible to the Father.  There is a distinction between knower and known and a pattern of sameness that makes the Divine Substance knowable to itself.  Thus, Beauty is intrinsic to Divine Substance in its self-intelligibility.  Since Beauty is that which is desirable in itself, the Will of God is directed towards the Divine Substance.  So another relationship exists between God’s Will and the Divine Substance, which is desirable because of the intrinsic beauty of the Divine Substance as a Self-Intelligible unity.  So the Divine Substance, which is the object of the Divine Will, proceeds from the Father (as Knower) and the Son (as Known), and must be distinct from these Two.  We call the object of the Divine Will, which is God, the Holy Spirit.  The Holy Spirit is true Beauty.  And so there is a Trinity of Persons that is the Godhead.

If the Divine Substance is Being itself, it is also the representative of the transcendentals of Being: Goodness, Truth, and Beauty.  Interestingly, those three transcendentals are convertible with Being but remain distinct from one another.  So we find that the Persons of the Trinity are convertible with God, but are distinct from one another.  This is not to say that the Son is not Good or Beautiful, or that the Holy Spirit is not True or Good.  Rather, I am saying that the Persons of the Trinity relate to one another in terms of Goodness, Truth, and Beauty.  But they are far more than these transcendentals.  I think it is a helpful way of understanding the relationships among the Persons in the ontological structure of their relationships (unbeggotten, begotten, and proceeding). The relationship among the Persons of the Trinity and the Divine Substance is ultimately mysterious, but an analogy to the trinity of transcendentals is a helpful image to have in mind.

Of course, whenever I reflect on the Trinity, I fear that I might stumble into heresy.  Nonetheless, I am drawn to thinking about it, like a moth to the flame.  How could I not?  There is nothing more mysterious, more beautiful, and more true.  So, if my comments are in error, I humbly submit them as a mere reflection that is subject to revision.

Formalizing Aquinas’ Fourth Way

A “less obese” Thomas for a bare-bones formal representation of the 4th way!

I am interested in Aquinas’ Fourth Way, but I find that he lays out the argument so succinctly in the Summa Theologiae that it’s hard to see a valid proof at first blush:

The fourth way is taken from the gradation to be found in things. Among beings there are some more and some less good, true, noble and the like. But “more” and “less” are predicated of different things, according as they resemble in their different ways something which is the maximum, as a thing is said to be hotter according as it more nearly resembles that which is hottest; so that there is something which is truest, something best, something noblest and, consequently, something which is uttermost being; for those things that are greatest in truth are greatest in being, as it is written in Metaph. ii. Now the maximum in any genus is the cause of all in that genus; as fire, which is the maximum heat, is the cause of all hot things. Therefore there must also be something which is to all beings the cause of their being, goodness, and every other perfection; and this we call God (ST I, 2.3).

I would like to eventually work out a stronger version of the argument–stronger, that is, by weaken some of the premises and show that they still lead to the conclusion that God exists. But, my first step is to try and properly depict the essence of the argument in its purest logical form. I think I have to quantify over predicates to capture what I think Aquinas is saying. Also, I’ve used the transcendental of “Truth” as the particular perfection in this formulation of the argument. I chose “Truth” because I didn’t want this to come off as a moral argument by using “Goodness”, and I didn’t want to use “Being” because I fear being slowed down by the “existence is not a real predicate” objection, though I think there are very good responses to that objection. Finally, I confess that I might have tripped up over some of my brackets, so forgive the crudeness of this draft, if crudeness you should find. I happily admit that the errors and misrepresentations are all my own, and not poor Thomas’ fault! So…

Πxy – x has a greater degree of predicate Π than y
ExΠy –x is the eminent cause of y being Π
Θx – x has godhood
Txy – x has a greater degree of truth than y
ExTy – x is the eminent cause of y being true
(NB: I use x, y, and z as variables and u, v, and w as pseudonyms)

1. (∀x){Θx ≡ (∀y)[(x≠y) → (Txy & ExTy)]} (definition)
2. (∀Π){(∀x)[(∀y)[Πxy → (∃z)[((z≠x) → (Πzx & EzΠx))]]]} (premise)
3. (∃x)(∃y)Txy (premise)
4. (∃y)Tuy (3 EI)
5. Tuv (4 EI)
6. (∀x){(∀y)[Txy → (∃z)[(z≠x) →( Tzx & EzTx)]]} (2 UI)
7. (∀y)[Tuy → (∃z)[(z≠u) → (Tzu & EzTu)]] (6 UI)
8. Tuv → (∃z)[(z≠u) → (Tzu & EzTu)] (7 UI)
9. (∃z)((z≠u) → (Tzu & EzTu) (5,8 MP)
10. (w≠u) → (Twu & EwTu) (9 EI)
11. Θw ≡ (∀y)[(w≠y) →(Twy & EwTy)] (1 UI)
12. {Θw → (∀y)[(w≠y) → (Twy & EwTy)]} & { (∀y)[(w≠y) → (Twy & EwTy)] → Θw} (11 Equiv)
13. (∀y)[(w≠y) → (Twy & EwTy)] → Θw (12 Simp)
14. [(w≠u) → (Twu & EwTu)] → Θw (13 UI)
15. Θw (10,14 MP)
16. (∃x)Θx (15 EG)

If you see any problems, let me know in the comments! On a lighter note, here is another version of the Fourth Way that I did with the help of lyrics from the 1980’s classic Higher Love, because if you think about it, there must be higher love…

[Update: My very bright and patient friend, Damon Watson, noticed some problems with the brackets and I have made changes accordingly]

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