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“If God Exists”

by Msgr. Ronald Knox

Let me suggest this point to you that God, not man, must be the measure of the Universe, must he the standard by which we are to judge all our experience. If we make man the centre of all our experience, then the riddle of existence becomes insoluble, and we had far better give it up.

Aristotle said that Man is the measure of all things. You see, you must have a fixed point somewhere for the start of  every investigation, a unit somewhere for the standard of every computation. I seem to remember that when they taught me science, they made me learn by heart a long formula, which said, “A gramme is the weight of a cubic centimetre of pure water, kept at a temperature of something or other Centigrade, at the latitude of Paris, on the level of the sea, in vacuo.” Now, that seems to me very sensible, although it might be more useful to me if I could remember what the temperature was. If you are going to weigh every thing in the world by grammes, you must have a fixed standard of what the gramme is; otherwise you will find that on one occasion you have used your cubic centimetre of pure water when it was frozen, and at another time when it was liquid, and at another time when it was half evaporated, and all your calculations will be miles out in consequence. In fact you will be very much in the position of the people in Alice in Wonderland, trying to play croquet with flamingoes for mallets and hedgehogs for croquet-balls; the flamingoes were always curling their necks round and the hedgehogs were always running away, so that you never got much further. You must have a mallet which moves only when you make it move; you must have a croquet-ball which stays put until you hit it, or the game is not croquet. In the same way, all measurement and all thought depend on the possession of a fixed unit by which your judgments can be compared.

Now, if you deny the existence of God, or if you deny it for practical purposes by treating it as a fifty-fifty probability, or if you use the word “God” in an insincere way, meaning a mere abstraction or a mere ideal when you use it, then you have to say that man is the measure of all things; that his thought is the highest form of wisdom which exists, that his conscience is the standard by which good and evil must be determined, that his intuitions are the only test of beauty. And indeed more than that; if you are to attain any kind of intellectual satisfaction, you must say that man’s thought is the source of all truth, makes things true; that his conscience is the arbiter of good, makes things right and wrong; that his intuitions are the origin of all beauty, make things beautiful or ugly. And that notion, if you press it, leads to mere intellectual despair.

Man’s thought is not a fixed thing. It is not merely that men disagree with one another; one generation of men sees things in a different light from the generations which went before it. There are fashions in human thought; mechanism was the keyword of the century before last, evolution of the century that has just gone, relativity of our own. Philosophy goes round in circles, now realism will be the dominant teaching, now idealism, now pragmatism; there is no fixed point, we are always changing. And always when the recognition of God’s existence becomes obscured in the public consciousness, thought turns back upon itself, and wonders whether it has any validity, and we are worse off than ever. After all, if a person refuses to believe in the existence of a world outside himself, and thinks that all his experience is a mere illusion, it is impossible to prove to him that he is wrong. If he says that two and two make five, or that time and space are a hallucination, it is impossible to prove to him that he is wrong. The human mind is as tortuous as any flamingo, as volatile as any hedgehog. And we are asked, not merely to believe that this uncertain instrument is all we have to judge our experience by which is in a sense true but that it is actually this erratic, eccentric mind of ours which gives things their truth, which makes things true. Whereas if you believe in God you know that God is Truth, and gives to all things that exist the truth that is in them, and gives to them minds,
according to their measure, some knowledge, although it be an imperfect knowledge, of the truth which he sees in the mirror of his own eternal being, perfectly as it is.

Man’s conscience is not a fixed thing either. If you took a referendum of England now, you would probably find that in the majority of English minds war is something in itself wicked (thus was, I think, true at the time I wrote it.) ; if you had taken it twelve years ago you would have found only a fanatical minority supporting that contention. A hundred years ago, people thought of divorce as something disgraceful; now, most people do not think of it as disgraceful at all. Some people want us to think that the only criterion of right and wrong action is the comfort or discomfort of our fellow-men, of the community at large; others, that we decide between right and wrong by a kind of artistic intuition; others, that conscience is a voice we must obey implicitly without asking why. Now, you will have a precious hard time making up your mind between right and wrong nowadays if you even treat your own unaided conscience as the judge of them. But we are asked to believe more than that; we are asked to believe that this uncertain instrument, the human conscience, is not merely the oracle which tells you whether a thing is right or wrong, but actually the authority which makes some things right and others wrong. Whereas if you believe in God you know that God is goodness, that he imparts to all things which exist the good that is in them ; that he gives to our hearts, though in a differing and an inferior measure, some appreciation of that Goodness which he sees perfectly mirrored and summed up in himself.

And so, still more obviously, with our intuitions about other things, our artistic judgments for example. That men’s tastes in beauty differ is a thing which has in every age been notorious; if you doubt it, you have only to go and look at the Underground Station in Piccadilly. Is there such a thing as absolute beauty ? If so, the human mind has taken a precious long time in deciding what it is like. And yet if there is no such thing as absolute beauty, the whole of art and music become a matter of mere individual caprice. And then the psychologists come in on the top of that, and explain that all our judgments of beauty are really due to processes in our unconscious minds, and rather unprintable processes at that. If you rule out God, these faulty, inconsistent intuitions of ours are not merely the only standard by which beauty can be judged; it is they that create beauty, that make things beautiful what nonsense it all is! Whereas if you believe in God, you believe that he himself is absolute beauty, and gives beauty to all things in this creation, and to our eyes and senses the power to see and to appreciate it.

Now, all these considerations I have been suggesting to you are not reasons why we should believe that God exists, but rather reasons for wanting him to exist. At least, there are
people who would try to prove the existence of God in this way, but I should not like to depend merely on such proofs myself. They are rather reasons for wanting God to exist. “If there were no God, it would be necessary to invent one,” as Voltaire said, if it was Voltaire who said that. The reasons for asserting the existence of God are reasons derived from the very nature of the world as we know it. If the created Universe were a mere lump of inert matter, lying about in space with no visible means of subsistence, we might perhaps feel inclined to give up the problem of how it got there although even its presence seems to demand the intervention of a Creator, of somebody or something which exists in its own right, instead of merely happening to be there. But when, from this lump of matter, a vegetable life emerges which was not there before, and from that vegetable life animal life, and from that animal life conscious life, the life of the mind, all with no natural reason to account for it beyond a mere chance juxtaposition of atoms then our reason does demand that there should be an agent at work, producing the things that were not from the things that are. It is no good saying that life was potentially present from the first; we still need some agent to bring that potency into act; life did not evolve itself, because until it had evolved it was not yet alive. Or alternatively, we discover, we are still discovering in the world of our experience, laws, infinitely subtle and delicate in their operation, which govern the ways of nature. Our minds, with great difficulty, can discover those laws, but they did not make those laws, they did not put them there they find them there. And since law and order can only be the expression of a mind, we have to believe in the existence of a Mind which invented those laws and imposed them upon brute nature. And so once more we find it necessary to believe in a Creative Intelligence, that is in God.

But now, you see, in proving the existence of God we find that we have gone further, and proved a whole lot of things about God. All the attributes of God, his simplicity, his immutability and so on, are not something which we learn from the Bible, or from the tradition of the Church, they are something which we learn from reason itself, learn from that same process of reasoning by which we prove that God exists. It is no good asserting the existence of a Creator who is not omnipotent; for if he is not omnipotent he is limited who or what is it that limits him? You will have to fall back on assuming the existence of some power greater than that of the Creator himself. It is no good asserting the existence of a God who is not simple, who is in any way composite; for if so you will have to fall back on assuming the existence of some power which produced that fusion of elements in him. And so on all through; the proofs from which we learn the existence of God give us some idea, necessarily, of his Nature.

Many muddle-headed people who think they cannot get on without God, if they really sat down to argue out the question of his existence, would find that they had let themselves in for a good deal more than they bargained for. They want God to exist as a sort of background to their lives; they want to feel that there is a supreme truth in which all our imperfect guesses after truth find their meaning; that there is a supreme Goodness towards which all our feeble moral effort strives; that there is a beauty which is beyond all earthly beauty, and is the explanation of it. That is what they mean by God; that is what they are wanting when they say they want God. But if they would only try to puzzle out the mystery of his Being they would find that he is a great deal more than that. They would find that he is a Personal Being, infinitely removed in dignity from this universe, his created handiwork; outside all time and all space ; not limited, as we are limited, by imperfections of nature; not composite as we are composite, not changeable as we are changeable; the Creator of all things, and such a Creator as not only gave them being but maintains them, from moment to moment, in being; who made them all for his glory, yet would have lacked nothing of that eternal blessedness which he enjoys if nothing had ever existed outside himself. That is the God they would find, if they would look for him; for whom they will not look because they are afraid of finding him.

They wanted God to exist as a sort of background to their lives; but if you once prove that he exists, you will find that he fills the whole stage. Man is no longer the centre of the Universe God is the centre of the Universe. Man is no longer the measure of all things, God is the measure of all things. All the greatness of man, all his splendid achievements in art and in music and in learning and in the conquest of nature, in laws and governments, in heroism and endurance, fade away into the background and become something very insignificant, when they are seen in contrast with the incommunicable Majesty of Almighty God. Lord, what is man, that thou rememberest him, or the son of man, that thou visitest him? So brief his existence, so puny his stature, so limited the possibilities of his being.

And it is not merely that God, once we have caught some hint of what he is, fills the whole picture and dwarfs his own creatures by the contrast. We begin to see, too, that God has claims upon man, which know of no limits and admit of no qualifications. We are God’s creatures, drawn by him out of nothing, and ready, but for the continued exercise of his power, to fall back into that nothingness whence we came; his dominion over us is absolute, and all his kindness in his dealings with us springs from the goodness of his own nature, not from any rights, not from any value, of ours. And having such dominion over us, he will expect from us love and worship and service, unquestioning obedience to his will for us; he will want to be the end of all our actions, as he is the end of all created things. So that our actions will no longer be regulated by our own measure, but by his. We shall not need to ask, “Is this course of action profitable to me, is it pleasant to me, is it worthy of me, is it a true expression of my own nature, is it the kind of action I myself should approve in my calmer moments, will it leave my character the nobler for its effects?” No, all those calculations, based upon human pride, will be superseded, will be put on one side; there is only one question which will be the ultimate rule of conduct “Is this course of action the course of action by which it is God’s will to be glorified in me?”

For us Catholics, and for all those who take their religion seriously, this sense of the overwhelming Majesty of God is the first consideration, comes before, even, our sense of his love and of his mercy; our God is a jealous God, is a consuming Fire; there is nothing we can do for him that we do not owe to him, no praise of him which can seem extravagant, no self-abasement before him which can seem undignified. In saying that God exists, we have admitted that he is everything, that man is nothing. To realize that unique Majesty of his, to realize this pitiable nothingness of ours that is the disposition into which, if we have followed them, this term’s conferences ought to lead us.

Originally printed in: “In Soft Garments: A Collection of Oxford Conferences”


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“The Birth of Our Lord”

by Msgr. Ronald Knox

[Click here to hear the audio of Msgr. Knox reading this sermon on the BBC in 1950.]

Christmas is a return to our origins. We make a holiday of it, only if we have the strength of mind to creep up the nursery stairs again, and pretend that we never came down them. So I will not apologize, on Christmas evening, for taking you back to the origins of our race; to those nursery stories which form the preface to the oldest book in the world, a book whose curtain goes up on a time when the world was not. They are out of favour nowadays, those old stories from the book of Genesis; we are half-ashamed of them, and do not like to be seen taking them out and looking at them; so it was with our nursery toys, when we had outgrown them. But, make what you will of those stories, deprive them as you will of their authority by representing them as a patchwork made up from older legends still, you cannot get away, altogether, from the spell of those remembered phrases, so apt to enshrine the primitive. There shall be no controversy; we will leave out the story of creation and the story of Paradise; the door of that fairyland shall be closed and the scientists mount guard over it with their flaming swords. The phrase I want to recall to you is the first utterance of fallen humanity; it is when Eve says, “I have gotten a man from the Lord.”

In some forlorn cave, remote of access, fenced about from the wild beasts, the first human mother gave birth to the first human child. “Cain,” she called him, the “acquisition;” she felt enriched. Sentence of death might have been passed on herself and the partner of her disobedience; they had made shipwreck of their stupendous venture; within a few years, for all they knew, human life would become extinct on the planet, and it would be given back to the jungle and to the white ants. But no, here was something saved from the wreck; here was a fresh representative to whom the torch of humanity could be handed on. “Unto us a child is born, unto us a man is given;” the raw material of that Christmas anthem rang through the primeval forest, with a presage of our immortal hope.

Trace the line of Eve’s posterity down, down through the uncharted centuries, till the index finger of your observation quivers and stands still at a point roughly nineteen hundred and fifty years ago. The same picture of Mother and Child is repeated; even the setting is unaltered, we are still in a cave. This time, the picture is a familiar one; thousands of artists have tried to make it their masterpiece; in a million churches, all over Christendom, the same pattern of Mother and Child is repeated, backed by a crude decor of brown paper and ivy-leaves. And our first thought is – perhaps the very sameness of this constant repetition has put it into our heads – our first thought is that this is just like any other human birth. If the Mother gazes down with rapt adoration at the Child, holds him forward, as if to attract our adoration too, is not that exactly what you see when you visit an ordinary human nursery? And of course we are right. The young mother who can say, with her first ancestress, “I have gotten a man from the Lord,” does look upon it as a kind of theophany; this is a miracle; this particular thing has never happened before. And of course she is right. All that is visible here, that tiny body, has come from her; has come through her from the common stock-pot of matter that we can measure and analyse. Even the life that beats there – how can we be certain that it does not simply derive from that mysterious reservoir of life which so extends and reproduces itself? Was not Eve called the mother of all living? And yet we know that because this tiny thing is a human being, it is linked to an immortal soul, to whose cravings, as yet, it is powerless to give expression. This is indeed an acquisition, not to the mother or the father only, but the common treasure-house of the human race; a new thing has come into existence. Unto us a child is born, a body that came from us. Unto us a son is given, a soul that derives neither from father or mother, but comes direct from God.

No, the first thing we have got to realize about Christmas, if we are to understand its message at all, is that this birth is just like any other human birth. We keep our birthdays, we visit the birth-places of great men, but birth, after all, is only a stage in a process. And the child who was born at Bethlehem had, for nine months, been carried in the womb at Nazareth, just like any other child; this is our guarantee that, although God, he was yet truly man. God did not deceive us by taking on mere appearance of humanity, after the fashion of the old heathen fairy-stories, be became man; that was the leverage, if we may put it in very crude terms, through which the work of our redemption was effected. And, very curiously, this is one of the lessons which the Church found it particularly hard to teach. The early heretics were not people who denied our Lord’s Godhead; almost without exception, they were people who denied his manhood. They could believe that God came to earth; they could not believe that he was human enough to be born, or to die. That primitive heresy re-awoke in the Middle Ages, lasted up to the time of the Reformation and beyond it. Perhaps that is why the Middle Ages gave us the Christmas crib. As we kneel before the crib, the first thing we have got to get into our heads is just that, the human reality of it all; God is actually here, among his creatures. The ox and the ass are represented in the stable, not merely to emphasize the humility in which Jesus Christ came to earth, the poverty of his surroundings. No, they are meant to give us a comfortable sense of earthliness, almost of earthiness; on this first Christmas Day even the poor relations of the human family must be asked in, or the party would not be complete. Unto us a Child is born; it is not simply that God will come close to us, that he will stand at our side, to help us fight against the limitations which hamper us, Eve’s children; he will become one of ourselves, become part of us.

But when we have said that, when we have said that it was just like any other human birth, we have to add, “Of course, it wasn’t actually like any other birth that ever happened.” Nor are we ashamed of the paradox; when we are tracing the history of God made man, our very terms of reference are paradoxical. This was like no other human birth, because the Mother in the cave, this time, was and remains a pure virgin. Of that truth, Christian thought never lost sight even for a moment, be the temptation what it might. Obviously, in the first ages the temptation must have been very strong. As we are reminding ourselves just now, the first heretics denied that Jesus Christ was truly man; it was only a phantom that was born – appeared to be born – of the Virgin Mary; that suffered – appeared to suffer – under Pontius Pilate. It would have been understandable enough, if orthodox Christian thought had recoiled to the other extreme; had soft-pedalled, if not actually abandoned, the doctrine of the miraculous birth, in its anxiety to insist that this was the human Son of a human Mother. But always Christian people had the instinct that your theology was safe when your opponents accused you of holding two doctrines that flatly contradicted one another. You were most likely to be right. They say the Mother in the cave, but never did their steady view lose sight of the Virgin.

And so you take your second look at the Christmas crib, and realize that your first view was wrong; or rather, was wholly incomplete. When you first looked at it, it seemed such a beautiful picture of motherhood – that and nothing more. “I have gotten a man from the Lord” – it was the old cry of Eve, repeated, as if by race-memory, down the centuries. And now it had reached its crucial expression; this particular cave at Bethlehem would be remembered as the birthplace of the greatest man who ever lived. And then…do you know what it is to go into a room, and gradually, not all at once, but gradually, get the feeling that there is a secret about, and everybody in the room is in the secret except you? It is a joke, perhaps, which is being played on you; and you look about uneasily, trying to find the clue to what is wrong, and yet not liking to seem as if you suspected anything. There is something of that impression, don’t you think, about our second look at the Christmas crib. Everybody is keeping so quiet; the shepherds seem to come in on tip-toe, the ass and the ox are just lying there, not feeding, the angels seem to be standing at attention, waiting for something to happen. And then you take another look at the centre of the group, and you notice at once what you ought to have noticed before. A mother? But this is only a girl! It’s not just a question of age, it’s a question of atmosphere; they are playing a trick on you, it’s a girl dressed up, in childish make-believe, as a young mother… And then you remember that there is no room, here, for make-believe. It is the mystery of the virgin birth.

Do not imagine that the Christian reverence for virginity is just a prudish running away from the facts of sex. If we pass over the facts of sex in silence, it is not because we think them disgusting, but because we think them too holy to be mentioned in common talk. If the Fathers of the Church, from the earliest times, insisted on the virginity of God’s Mother, it was not because they wanted to pay her a compliment, by ascribing to her a well-known Christian virtue; rather it was the other way about. They learned to reverence virginity because they had seen it in the Mother of God; because they had seen it in the stable of Bethlehem, and could not forget the experience. What they had seen there was an innocence which spoke to them of renewal. This other woman in the cave had brought them back to Paradise.

Christmas Day is a birthday just like any other; it is a birthday quite unlike any other; and no wonder, for it is the birthday of all of us. Go back for a moment to that first woman in the cave; when she cried out, “I have gotten a man from the Lord,” it was our birthday in a sense. The long history of woman’s child-bearing had begun; the process had been set in motion which was to give existence, all those centuries afterwards, to you and me. Eve, the mother of life; and yet, what thing was it she had given birth to, when she boasted that she had gotten a man? What was the acquisition she had won for us? She had borne the first man, and in doing so she had borne the first murderer. He came into the world to bring death, death to his own brother. And that natural life which our first mother bequeathed to us is, after all, only a life in death; sons of Eve, we are brothers to Cain and Abel, the villain and the victim of the first human tragedy.

Now turn back to that other cave, that other woman; what acquisition is hers? “I have come,” he tells us, “that they may have life.” The first-born among many brethren, St. Paul calls him; our elder brother, who has brought us supernatural life. Under the old law, the first-born son belonged by right (like all first-fruits) to God; in theory, his life was forfeit; in theory, he died that the rest might live. To St. John, that is the lesson of the virgin birth. Jesus Christ came to us, not in the order of nature; it was not the men of his own race who benefited principally by his birth, “Those who were his own gave him no welcome; but all those who did welcome him, he empowered to become the children of God, all those who believe in his name; their birth came, not from human stock, not from nature’s will or man’s, but from God.” On Christmas Day a whole supernatural family came to birth; virgin-born, because regeneration has brought back to them their lost innocence.

I repeat, we make a holiday of Christmas only if we have the strength of mind to creep up the nursery stairs again, and pretend that we never came down them. And that is what we are doing when we pay our visit to the Christmas crib. We are going back to the nursery where life, supernatural life, first dawned for us; trying to recapture some breath of our own first innocence, as we look at the girl Mother, and the divine Infant, and the manger which was all the cradle he had. It is difficult, at first, to get acclimatized to its atmosphere; everything is so quiet, so secret; the world is so remote; you feel as if there were a conspiracy afoot to keep you out of it. But this where you belong; you, too, have been born into the family of grace, and this is the cradle of it. Unto us a Child is born, to restore something of childhood, year by year, even to the most jaded, even to the most sophisticated, even to the most disillusioned of us.

Originally printed in “Pastoral and Occasional Sermons” pp. 411-416.

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Ian Boxall On the Number of the Beast

Boxall, Ian Boxall_Ian_012.JPG 102ND800 Ed Pfueller 9/19/13I had the pleasure of meeting Dr. Ian Boxall in 2009 when he was at Staggers, and he referenced a BBC series called Bible Mysteries from 2003. I never watched it and it turned out it never made it online, at least in whole.

Mark Goodacre found a copy and uploaded a segment of Dr. Boxall – now at Catholic U – giving an introductory explanation of how the number of the beast works in Revelation. Most interestingly, he explains the “other number of the beast,” 616, with some highlights of the Oxyrhynchus fragments of Revelation published in 1999.

Read it all.

In Soft Garments: A Collection of Oxford Conferences (Ronald Knox)

“In what Msgr. Knox calls the ‘4 a.m.’ mood, a sense of futility creeps in, a suspicion that the Christian system does not really hang together, that there are flaws in the logic . . . that there are too many unresolved contradictions. To this mood with its temptation to despair, Msgr. Knox talks with unfailing kindness . . . Those who have left their formal education far behind them will find huge solace in reading and re-reading this book. It should be at every bedside, ready to be opened at 4 a.m.” ~ Evelyn Waugh


When the Holy See gave a general permission for Catholics to matriculate at Oxford and Cambridge, the stipulation was made that lectures should be provided for them, to safeguard their faith against the influence of an uncongenial atmosphere. During the years between 1926 and 1938, when I was chaplain at Oxford, I delivered a good many of these myself; and I have collected some of them in this book, in the hope that they may suggest useful lines of thought to a wider (though I hope not much more learned) audience. In particular, I suppose that the subjects here discussed are such as figure, not infrequently, in the programme of the Catholic Evidence Guild. It will be seen, from a glance at the title page, that this book does not represent a complete course in any branch of apologetics. But I have tried to deal, unprofessionally, with some of the hesitations that most naturally occur to us Catholics, when we compare our intellectual commitments with the current thought of the present day. I have only altered the text where it contained topical allusions which might baffle the uninitiated reader. If I have not gone further, by removing traces of colloquialism and undignified illustrations here and there, it is because I dare to hope some of those who listened to the original utterances will come across the book (in circumstances how strangely remote from the past!), and refresh themselves, as they turn over its pages, with the memory of familiar things.

Aldenham, 1941.

ESSAY I: “The Cross-word of Creation”

ESSAY II: “‘Mind And ‘Matter'”

ESSAY III: “If God Exists”

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“‘Mind’ And ‘Matter'”

by Msgr. Ronald Knox

I talk about mind and matter, I am not going to attempt any precise definition of those terms; I am going to use them in a popular sense, the good, old-fashioned sense in which they were used by late-Victorian journalists. In that loose sense, the two terms between them exhaust our experience; everything of which we are conscious falls under one head or the other. Matter stands for all those things other than oneself, outside oneself (if I may use such grossly popular terms), which form the object of one’s experience; it is the brute fact which you can’t get away from, the rude reality which obtrudes itself into your thought. If you are in the dentist’s chair and shut your eyes and try to imagine that you are in a hot bath or in a punt on the river, that relentless drill comes buzzing round and having fun with your nerves, the symbol of matter triumphing over mind, insisting on making itself felt and being taken into consideration. The pleasant kingdom of the mind has no real frontiers to defend it; our thought cannot just select its own objects, as it would like to, they force themselves upon it; there is a something not ourselves which we cannot control or organize at will; let that, serve for our very inadequate definition of matter.

But matter doesn’t cover the whole of our experience; there can be no experience unless there is a mind to do the experiencing. If you tell a man to count how many people there are in the room, the odds are that he will return the figure one short, because by a trick of unconscious modesty he will have forgotten to include himself. And in the same sort of way unreflective people will be so absorbed in the things which are the objects of their experience, that they will forget the part which their mind plays in it all. I remember long ago, when he was a young don, the present Archbishop of York telling me that he was talking to a working man who had given expression to some rather materialist sentiments; and he turned on the young man and challenged him to prove his own existence. To which his only reply was, ” Ow, don’t talk like that; you make me feel quite funny.” “Well, of course, some people don’t like feeling funny, and try to forget their own existence in the steady contemplation of outward fact. But it won’t do; if you have persuaded the dentist to give you a whiff of gas, all that business with the drill can’t get itself across; your mind is free-wheeling away in delightful avenues of experience, discovering profound philosophical secrets which it tries to explain to the dentist on waking up, only to find that the secret is just a meaningless string of words. Strictly speaking, if you come to think of it, existence as you know it is divided exactly in half; one half is the things you know and the other half is your mind knowing them.

That we can’t fail to realize, the moment we stop to think about it. But what does give us an uncomfortable feeling about this relation of mind to matter is the fact that our minds are so closely wedded to our brains, and through them to our patently material bodies. An accident to the brain can send a man mad for the rest of his life; and there are all sorts of other ways, you can easily think of dozens of them, in which matter seems to have the whip hand over mind; indigestion, drunkenness, drugs, and so on, all affecting the life of the mind through the life of the body. So that it looks as if the mind had to play second fiddle after all; and people who like to use sham-scientific language will not be slow to tell you that the processes of the mind are only a function of the brain. That word “function” is a glorious piece of mumbo-jumbo; it means, in that connection, exactly nothing whatever. It may be true that each mental experience you have is connected with, nay, so far as our present experience goes, is inseparably connected with, some little groove inside one’s brain; I wish I could ever learn how to talk scientific language properly. But that isn’t to say that your thought is the same thing as the groove in your brain, which would obviously be nonsense. And to say that the one is a function of the other is simply introducing a mathematical term to cover up the nonsense. What does happen, if you come to think of it, when a person goes mad; what do we really know about it? All we know is, that the mind can only receive its impressions, can only express itself, through a mysterious liaison with the material body which belongs to it. When that liaison is disturbed, I suppose you have the same kind of situation that you have when a deaf organist is playing on an organ in which all the stops are out of tune. He may be the best organist in the world, but the noise that comes out will be simply beastly, because the organ with which he is expressing himself is quite inadequate to his powers of performance. We simply don’t know what has happened to the mind; all we know is that there has been an interruption in its sources of communication with the outside world.

But there is another temptation, I think, that most of us have had at times, which makes us think of mind as somehow inferior to matter. I mean the idea that mind is something unnecessary, a sort of additional detail which has somehow blossomed out from matter like flowers from the branches of a tree. Matter is the solid, self-subsistent thing; is mind anything better than a mysterious excrescence on it? And if it’s no better than that, shan’t we be obliged to admit that matter has a sort of priority over mind? For instance, if all minds suddenly ceased to exist in the world, the world would go on quite happily, with white ants or octopuses or something occupying the position of nature’s darling instead of man. Or even if you cut out all sentient life, there would be an interesting struggle to see which weeds overran which. But if you imagine all matter suddenly ceasing to exist at this minute, what picture can we form, apart from our theological pre-possessions, about what the world would be like? I shouldn’t be able to finish off this conference; I should be in a worse position than a deaf man talking to dumb men; I shouldn’t even be able to make faces at you. And, of course, there would be even more serious consequences than that. A world of blanks, moving about in a blank world that is the only picture we can form to ourselves with our present perhaps limited powers of imagination. Mind seems to depend on matter so much; matter to depend on mind so little.

Well, if you think a little deeper, you will see that that argument really tells in exactly the opposite direction. In so far as matter is important to the existence of mind, whereas mind is not important to the existence of matter, in that proportion we are emboldened to say that mind must, in the ultimate constitution of things, have a higher value and importance than matter has. For you can conceive of matter as existing for the sake of mind, whereas you cannot possibly think of mind as existing for the sake of matter. Take those twirligigs in our brains, which are the concomitants, the material coefficient, of our thought. It is possible to suppose that in some way those twirligigs are meant to pave the way for our thoughts, to facilitate our thoughts. Whereas it would be plain nonsense to suppose that our thoughts facilitate, or pave the way for, those twirligigs. The waggling of my tongue and the twitching of your ears, do subserve an end, though it may not be a very important end, by making it possible for me to transfer my thoughts to your intelligence. But it would be ridiculous to imagine that my thoughts exist for the purpose of making my tongue waggle, or your ears twitch. That which exists for the sake of something else must have less value, in the ultimate nature of things, than that for the sake of which it exists. Pills exist for the sake of health, not health for the sake of pills; which means that health is a more important thing than pills, and so on. And therefore, just in proportion as mind is useless to matter, in that proportion it claims to be a more worth-while thing than matter. So the materialist’s boomerang has come back and hit him in the face.

And there is, of course, another very simple and obvious consideration which asserts the priority of mind over matter; I mean the fact that whereas matter can only be the object of thought, mind can be its object as well as its subject. The mind of man, unlike brute matter, unlike even (unless we are strangely deceived) the consciousness of other sentient creatures, can turn back upon itself and become self-conscious, become aware of itself as thinking. That which can thus fulfil a double role in the scheme of existence must surely have a greater fullness of life and of meaning than that which is confined to a single role.

All that, perhaps, may help to allay a scruple which we are apt to get when we hear the scholastic proofs of the existence of God set out. It occurs to us, I mean, to wonder whether the God whose existence philosophy proves is not a kind of abstraction, instead of being a living Person. The proof from order, to be sure, does introduce us to the thought of a Mind by which this order was planned. But when we are told of a Necessary Being, presupposed by all the contingent beings around us, or of a Best which is implied by our better, we are tempted to think of that reality as if it were neuter, as if we ought to talk about It, not about Him. But if mind has this priority over matter in the order of being, then there is no question that the ultimate reality must belong to this superior category of Mind, must be, like ourselves, although not with the limitations which the word implies in ourselves, a Person.

There, perhaps, you will expect my meditation to come to an end; you will suppose that I have exhausted all I am capable of saying about mind and matter. But if so, you’ve forgotten something. Anybody who is in the habit of trying to do cross-words will be familiar with the irritating experience of puzzling for half an hour or so over a clue that just says “order,” or “object,” thinking it is a noun, and then suddenly realizing that all the time it was meant to be a verb. In the same way, I told you I was going to give you a meditation on “mind” and “matter”; and I shouldn’t have fulfilled my commission if I didn’t point out to you that mind and matter aren’t necessarily nouns; they can also be verbs. It’s a curious thing, you know, because the English language is not generally supposed to be a good one for expressing philosophical thoughts. And yet as far as I know English is the only language which turns mind into a verb and matter into a verb. And more than that, although both usages are little better than slang, I think they have a delicate exactness of meaning. Mattering is really connected with what we mean by matter, and minding is really connected with what we mean by mind.

You won’t need any profound analysis of what the two verbs do mean. If you are accepting an invitation to dinner, but are anxious to go on to a meeting or a concert or something at nine, you end up your note, “I hope it won’t matter if I go just before nine,” or “I hope you won’t mind if I go just before nine.” The sense is, in either case, I hope there is no objection to my going before nine. But we have these two colloquial ways of expressing the same idea, and we give a slightly different twist to the sentiment according as we choose one or the other. “When we say, “I hope it won’t matter,” we hope that it will not transgress against the code of politeness in general. When we say, “I hope you won’t mind,” we hope it is not the kind of action which will tread on the corns of that particular person. It is only things, you see, which matter; it is only persons who mind.

Now, in the exchanges of everyday life, I think it will always be found that when we say, “It doesn’t matter,” we always mean, “I shan’t mind,” or “Somebody or other won’t mind.” The latter formula is a more exact definition of our thought. If you say, “It doesn’t matter whether I get through Pass Mods at the end of this term,” you mean either mean, “I don’t mind,” or “The dons won’t mind,” or “My people won’t mind.” If you say, “It doesn’t matter whether I go to Gloucester via Swindon or via Kingham,” you mean either that the journey takes as long in either case, so you don’t mind, or that your ticket is available for either route, and the shareholders of the G.W.R., who are enriched in either case, don’t mind. Mattering, in the ordinary affairs of life, is always related to somebody’s convenience; it is always, in the long run, a person you are thinking of, a person who minds.

But you can use the verb “to matter” in what would appear to be an absolute, not a relative sense. For instance, somebody may ask you, “Do you think it really matters, if I get drunk?” Well, of course, he may simply mean, “Will the dean mind, if he finds me breaking lamps?” Or he may simply mean, “Would you say from your experience that I shall mind much if I have a hangover next morning?” But the presumption on which you answer his question is a perfectly different one. You presume him to mean, “Is there some permanent moral law which will be violated, some equilibrium in the nature of things (not merely in my own mind) which will be disturbed, if I get drunk?” For once, it seems, we have got away from the personal reference; there are things which really matter in themselves, independently of whether somebody minds or not. If we say that it matters a great deal when Hitler starts persecuting the Jews, we don’t simply mean that the Jews mind; of course they mind. And we don’t simply mean that the News Chronicle minds, because the News Chronicle is not our ultimate test of human values. We mean that there is some order of justice external to himself which Hitler is violating. The thing matters in itself.

But, when you come to think of it, can a thing matter in itself? That is where you come up against a fresh argument for the existence of God; the argument from conscience. I call it a fresh argument, because it is not explicitly stated among the five scholastic proofs; though, of course, you can say, if you like, that it is only a particular development of the argument from degrees of being. If you put it in its crude form, the argument from conscience runs, I suppose, like this: “I find, in my conscience, a law telling me to do this and that, forbidding me to do this and that; there is no law without a law-giver; hence a supreme Law-giver must exist, whom we call God.” But the form in which I should prefer to put it, for the purposes of this meditation, is the question, “Can anything matter, unless there is Somebody who minds?”

You see, the difficulty is not really confined to the moral order. How can there be any absolute Truth, unless it be the Truth which is in God? How can there be any such thing as beauty, with a power of its own to compel our homage, unless it be a reflection of the Beauty which is in God? But it is in the moral order that we recognize the difficulty most, because the moral order affects every decision of our wills. How can I rest content with saying that loving my neighbour, or following die path of duty, or respecting my own body, is something which matters, if that is all the account that can be given of it? It would mean that I, a person, am being ordered about and tyrannized over by a thing, my conscience. And that thing, my conscience, is a part of myself. Or, if you prefer to talk about duty instead of conscience, you are worse off still; I, a concrete person, am being ordered about by a thing which is an abstraction. Don’t let us fall into the error of saying that I don’t obey my conscience, but the general conscience of humanity. That is what these modern people are always trying to do; I got a letter only the other day from somebody who wanted me to sign a letter protesting against the persecution of the Jews “before the conscience of civilization.” But civilization is an abstraction, and it hasn’t got a conscience. What they mean is, a collection of consciences belonging to a collection of civilized people; just as when they talk about the universal mind they only mean a collection of individual minds. But I don’t want to appeal to my own conscience or to anybody else’s conscience; I want to appeal to Somebody who minds, and has a right to mind, whenever the moral law is infringed; and he who minds must be a Person. Short of that, I cannot make sense of the proposition that anything matters. I cannot see how any mere thing has the right to abridge the liberties of myself, who am a person.

That is the argument from conscience as I see it; not, I’m afraid, put to you with due forms of philosophical discussion. Of course, in the very last analysis, the thing is not as simple as all that. I mean, it would be easy for somebody to pose me with the difficulty: “Do you mean sin only matters because God happens to mind? That murder, for example, is not something wrong in itself, and God, if he had preferred it that way, might just as well have commanded, ‘Thou shalt commit murder’, as the other way round?” To that I suppose I should reply, that in the last mysterious analysis “it matters” and “he minds” are, in God, the same thing. Things aren’t good just because God wills them, nor does God will things just because they are good. Goodness is his own Nature, that is, himself. But if there were no he, if there were only an, it, to dictate commands to free moral beings like ourselves, could we reconcile ourselves to the indignity of it? I know I couldn’t.

Originally printed in: “In Soft Garments: A Collection of Oxford Conferences”


Theism Is Ill-Defined


Cosmologist Sean Carroll debated William Lane Craig in February 2014, which can be watched here (Carroll’s presentation begins at 44:15). He also gives a detailed recap of his arguments on his website, where he lays out his overall perspective, what can only be called agnosticism based on naturalism. (Naturalism generally is similar to materialism and some philosophers equate the two in essence. But many naturalists – unlike many materialists – reject any type of determinism; what is “unseen” but detectable is accounted for as “nature” and so naturalism may include metaphysics but without the label, which they eschew as “antiquated”.)

Carroll’s main point, a rebuttal to Craig’s conclusion that theism is better off with modern cosmology than without it, is this:

“[T]he real reason theism isn’t taken seriously is because it’s completely ill-defined. If we would presume to contemplate theism from an intellectually honest perspective, we would try to decide what kind of universe we would expect to live in if theism were true; then we would do the same for naturalism; and finally we would compare those expectations to the real world. But when we do that we find theistic expectations failing to match reality over and over again. Now, I know perfectly well (from experience as well as from cogitation) that you can never make headway with theists by claiming “If God existed, He would do X, and He doesn’t” (where X is “prevent needless suffering,” “make His existence obvious,” “reveal useful non-trivial information to us,” “spread religious messages uniformly over the world,” etc.) Because they have always thought through these, and can come up with an explanation why God would never have done that. (According to Alvin Plantinga, our world — you know, the one with the Black Death, the Holocaust, AIDS, Hurricane Katrina, and so on — is “so good that no world could be appreciably better.”) But these apologetic moves come at a price: they imply a notion of theism so flexible that it becomes completely ill-defined. That’s the real problem. Craig’s way of putting it is to suggest that God is “like the cosmic artist who wants to splash his canvas with extravagance of design.” That’s precisely why naturalism has pulled so far ahead of theism in the intellectual race to best model our world: because it plays by rules and provides real explanations for why the world is this way rather than that way.” (Sean Carroll, Post-Debate Reflections)

Wait a minute! If we would presume to contemplate theism from an intellectually honest perspective, would we not try to understand the kind of universe we do live in and from it see if theism is true? Then we would not do the same for naturalism; and finally compare those understandings of the real world? Science is about understanding what there is, not what we wish there might be, after all.

But this goes to the point about which Carroll is absolutely right: theism is vague and cannot be true as an ill-defined “higher power” or whatever. And because of this, his proposition above – thinking of the best of all possible worlds and evaluating a nebulous notion of a “deity” (for that is all theism can be) based on his imagination alone – is unsurprisingly unsatisfactory to him. Indeed, it is why he cannot make sense out of Plantinga’s assertion that our world is the best of all possible worlds, for Plantinga is not asserting this with an unspecific “theism” in mind, but the very specific Theos. Carroll allows for plenty of debate to occur among naturalists but then expects all theists to be uniform. He will compare and contrast numerous cosmological theories but disregard all religions equally, a mistake Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris often make as well. Carroll writes:

“[N]obody really becomes a believer in God because it provides the best cosmology. They become theists for other reasons, and the cosmology comes later. That’s because religion is enormously more than theism. Most people become religious for other (non-epistemic) reasons: it provides meaning and purpose, or a sense of community, or a way to be in contact with something transcendent, or simply because it’s an important part of their culture. The problem is that theism, while not identical to religion, forms its basis, at least in most Western religions. So — maybe, I suggested, tentatively — that could change. I give theists a hard time for not accepting the implications of modern science, but I am also happy to give naturalists a hard time when they don’t appreciate the enormous task we face in answering all of the questions that we used to think were answered by God. We don’t have final answers to the deep questions of meaning and fulfillment and what it means to lead a good life. Religion doesn’t have the final answers, either; but maybe it has learned something interesting over the course of thousands of years of thinking about these issues. Maybe there is some wisdom to be mined from religious traditions, even for naturalists (which everyone should be).” (Ibid.)

Cosmology, particularly the standard ontological arguments or Aquinas’ “five proofs” arguments have actually convinced people. The best of all possible worlds cosmology as presented by Plantinga has also convinced people to believe in God, but never to become theists. They immediately then move on to the resulting questions: What is God? Is God a Person or a Force? Is God connected with the universe or separate? The answers to these questions are intimately connected with religion; religion as Carroll defines it is a sociological understanding, not a theological one. Thinking people who are religious for the reasons he outlines do not remain so for long and end up materialists/naturalists or convert to another religion or denomination.

Yes, there should – in a sense – be a distinction made between theism and religion, but not for the reasons Carroll outlines. Theism is a vague notion of a deity of some vague higher rank than humans that is “out there” somehow; it is simply a statement of fact, that there is a “god.” That is it. Religion is a specific take on “god,” and offers an anthropology resulting from it as a consequence. In other words, it is not that theism forms the basis of religion, but rather theology does. Just as it is ill-defined (and unsatisfying and really meaningless) to be an atheist unless one adheres to a specific naturalist cosmological theory, so it is to be a theist.

Theism is a term out of comparative religion, it is not a principled position to debate against. William Lane Craig sees modern cosmology – despite his categorical and textual mistakes, Carroll cites, in presenting other cosmologists’ arguments – as having evidence for God. He accepts that we are in the best possible world, Black Death and Hurricane Katrina and all. This is why he replied that if the rules of cause and effect occur within the universe they must necessarily cause the universe. Why not a bicycle indeed? William Lane Craig is classified as theist sociologically, but only because he is an evangelical (Molinist) Christian.

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“Did Popper and Quine invent ‘Aristotelian essentialism’?”


by John S. Wilkins

There are many narratives told about evolution. One of the most widely told is the Essentialism Story, replayed in textbook, popular storytelling and philosophy alike. It goes like this: Before Darwin, biologists were constrained by essentialist thinking, in which they were committed to species being natural kinds where there were essential characters shared by every member of the species. Darwin changed all this by adopting a kind of nominalism, in which every member of a species, and every species, was a unique object, and no species had members that shared characters that all members exhibited, and which no other species did. Darwin developed a view in which species were populations.

Later, Michael Ghiselin and David Hull developed an individualistic view of species, in which species were, like Darwinian individuals, particulars not classes. This is the new metaphysics of evolution. Anything else is “outmoded metaphysics” (as a review of a colleagues’ paper called it). If you aren’t with the new evolutionary metaphysics, you aren’t modern.

Only, it isn’t historically the case. As I discovered when I was doing my doctoral thesis, there is little evidence that anyone was what I now call a “taxic essentialist”. Sure, people talked about essences, of life, of organs, and so forth. But they never accepted that species had to have what we now call necessary and sufficient conditions, or that members of a species or other taxon would bear such essential properties. I am not the only person to think this. The alarm was sounded by Paul Farber in the 1970s, but recently historian of science Polly Winsor has made the same argument (I sent a copy of my thesis to her and she replied that I was “courageous”, a red flag term for a newly minted PhD if ever there was. Polly cited my thesis in her paper). I discuss the story and its falsity in my book Species.

So, when did the story arise? Polly argued that it was based on the ideas of Arthur J. Cain, taken up and disseminated by Ernst Mayr, Hull and many others. Hull was influenced directly and personally by Karl Popper, whose graduate seminar he had taken in the early 60s, resulting in the famous paper “The Effect of Essentialism on Taxonomy – Two Thousand Years of Stasis.”

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