March 13, 2006

Blogging Parmenides

I feel the need to point to this post about Parmenides over at Mathetes simply because ... well, because I approve of blogging about Parmenides! The post gives a good overview of Parmenides' argument for the establishment of monism. To which let me add three things:

  1. This is the oldest deductively valid argument in surviving literature.

  2. It is contained in a hexameter poem (written, presumably, in imitation of Homer and Hesiod) which begins with an appeal to divine revelation (a narrative about being carried in a chariot to meet a strange goddess who promises to reveal "the way of truth" and "the way of mortal opinions, in which there is no truth at all").

  3. In addition to becoming the father of logic by being the first to (a) write down a deductively valid argument, and (b) formulate the principle of contradiction, Parmenides also becomes the father of metaphysics (according to me) by being the first person we know of to conceive of the possibility of "representation dualism."

My complements to Kristopher on his impeccable taste in blog subjects.

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January 14, 2006

Tying Up Some Loose Ends: Greek Musterion in the New Testament

I've been meaning for some time to write a post tying together two topics that I had previously discussed. The items in question are my discussion of translation and transliteration and my suggestion in this post that Pagan religion might have had an influence on the New Testament's mode of expression. The common tie? The word "mystery."

This word, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is first attested with the definition "A religious truth known or understood only by divine revelation; esp. a doctrine of faith involving difficulties which human reason is incapable of solving" in the Wyclif Bible of 1384. The same Bible introduces the meaning "A hidden or secret thing; something inexplicable or beyond human comprehension; a person or thing evoking awe or wonder but not well known or understood; an enigma." There does exist one usage of the word in poetry prior to this time, but it appears that the word has expanded to its present meaning primarily from this point; that is, it was transliterated into the language from the New Testament. You can see how much the meaning of the word has changed. It has virtually no religious connotation today. Now, there are two questions here that have a bearing on translation: first, do the OED's early definitions correspond to the meaning of the Greek word in the context of the New Testament? Second, does the present-day meaning of the word mystery correspond to its usage in the New Testament?

In fact, the original Greek word musterion is also a religious word (note that it is also the root of the word "mystic"), and it is here that we intercept the question of whether and how the New Testament's mode of communication was effected by Greek Paganism. In the previous post, I suggested that the resemblance of Luke's account of the Emmaus road to certain Greek myths may have been intentional, but I didn't have enough background to explain exactly how. Musterion is, in fact, a much better example. Let's look first at its usage in Greek Paganism.

A detailed discussion of this issue is found in the book A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities (online edition at Perseus), under the heading mysteria. I recommend reading the article, but I will present the important core ideas. The Greeks had many "mystery cults," as classicists often call them. The closest modern equivalent to the mystery cults of which I am aware is Freemasonry (it is in fact a very close equivalent). The "initiates" of the mystery cults would watch a sort of ritual drama which was intended to reveal truth about the universe through allegory and symbolism. These were supposed to reveal divine truth directly from the relevant god. The truth could only be learned at a particular shrine (the most famous being that of Eleusis) and communicating it was forbidden. There were various mysteries at different shrines where people of different ages and genders went. For instance, at one shrine young girls, ages 5 to 12, I believe, "played the bear for Artemis." No, we don't really know what that means. Only a few, like Eleusis, were open to all Greeks. Some of the mystery cults had multiple levels, each of which had different "mysteries" (remember, these are rituals and/or dramas that are intended to reveal truth to the initiate) at different levels of initiation, as, indeed, the Freemasons do.

There are a handful of cases in classical Greek literature where the word is used to speak of "secrets" more generally, but these are so rare that they ought to be taken metaphorically. It may be that the metaphor was "dead" by the time of the NT so that no reference is intended. It may also be that a new definition cropped up in between. I simply don't have the information on which to judge this. However, the word musterion itself was a relatively late development in Greek religious language (at any rate, Homer uses different words for similar things). Furthermore, we know that the word was still in use in this meaning in the first century, so even if it had acquired a more general meaning, the phrase "I reveal to you a mystery," often used by Paul, said in a theological context, would almost certainly bring the Greek mystery cults to the minds of Greek readers, and all of Paul's epistles except Romans are addressed to Greek cities.

Now the question is: why? What is the meaning and purpose of this Pagan reference in the New Testament? To examine this, let's look at the New Testament's use of the word.

20 of the words 27 uses in the New Testament occur in the Pauline epistles; 3 are in parallel passages in the synoptic gospels (Matt. 13:11, Mark 4:11, Luke 8:10) where Jesus speaks of the "mysteries" of the kingdom of heaven being revealed to the disciples; the remaining 4 are in the Revelation. The usage in the gospels and Revelation are straightforward: in the gospels the word refers to special knowledge revealed only to Jesus' disciples, in the Revelation it refers to the interpretation of symbolic or allegorical content. Paul's usage, however, is slightly more complicated.

Paul's "mysteries" seem to be doctrines of Christianity. He identifies the following as mysteries:

  • "that blindness in part has happened to Israel until the fulness of the Gentiles has come in. And so all Istrael will be saved." (Romans 11:25-26)

  • the gospel (apparently as a whole - Romans 16:25-26 [those verses are located at 14:24-26 in some texts], Ephesians 6:19. See also the summary of the Gospel at 1 Timothy 3:16.)

  • "[God] purposed in Hmself that in the dispensation of the fullness of the times He might gather together in one all things in Christ" (Ephesians 1:9-10)

  • "that the gentiles should be fellow heirs, of the same body, and partakers of His promise in Christ through the gospel." (Ephesians 3:3-7)

  • The "marriage" of Christ and the Church (Ephesians 5:22-32)

  • "Lawlessness" (2 Thessalonians 2:7)

Only one of these (the "marriage" of Christ and the Church) has an obvious symbolic/allegorical interpretation, so Paul apparently does not, by musterion mean, generally speaking, the correct interprettation of religious symbols/allegories. Fortunately, Paul gives us substantial hints at his meaning in Ephesians 3 (see also Romans 16:25, Colossians 1:26) when he says (vv. 5) that the mystery "in other ages was not made known to the sons of men, as it has now been revealed by the Spirit to His holy apostles and prophets." We see, then, that just as in the Greek religious context, Paul is talking about truth that is revealed supernaturally to certain people at certain times, but not part of general human knowledge. Is Christianity, then, a mystery cult? Certainly not! The mystery was not revealed in former times, but it has now been revealed by the Spirit, and Jesus gave us special instructions as to what to do with His secrets: "Whatever I tell you in the dark, speak in the light; and what you hear in the ear, preach on the housetops" (Matthew 10:27, cf. Luke 12:3). I conclude, therefore, that the New Testament's use of this word implicitly sets up a contrast between Christianity and the Pagan mystery cults: whereas the Pagans carefully guard their mysteries, the Christians are eager to announce them from the housetops! God's revelation, once given, is given to all mankind. All are welcome and invited to come and learn the mysteries of God. You need not go to any particular location or perform any particular ritual: we, the Church, will come to you to teach you the mysteries God has revealed to us.

This creates something of a difficulty for the translator, because modern audiences do not have familiarity with these kinds of religious "mysteries." As I mentioned, we have some secret societies that resemble the mystery cults, but modern religions tend not to work this way (although Mormonism does have some rituals that are open only to higher-level members of the church). As such, we do not have a term for this. The Eastern Orthodox Church continues to use the word "mystery" to refer to a mystical ritual, but this isn't quite right for Paul's usage either. Mystery is the word used in references to these things in writing about Greek culture and religion, so if the target audience of a translation is made up of hellenists, then keeping the word mystery is appropriate. Also, many "church people" have been taught the Pauline meanin of mystery as something that had never before been revealed to mankind, so this audience, although it doesn't catch the implicit contrast with Paganism, does get the correct meaning. But what about translations for more "mainstream" audiences? Is there a good translation of this word for that context, or is the best we can do something like the HCSB's "bullet notes?"

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January 07, 2006

Christianity and Aristotelian Metaphysics

In a recent discussion with Suzanne McCarthy, my views were compared to Aristotle's, and I pointed out that I am really more of a Platonist and am often irritated at the continuing dominance of basically Aristotelian metaphysical ideas in Christian philosophy. In this post I will discuss the nature of these Aristotelian metaphysical claims, the manner in which they have been incorporated into Christian thought, and my reasons for objecting to said incorporation.

Before I start, I should note that I am not an expert on Aristotle, so I will be examining only basic points of Aristotelian metaphysics, and relying on interpretations that I take to be fairly uncontroversial. Of course, since I am not an expert, I could also be wrong in taking my interpretations to be uncontroversial. This is a blog discussion, not a research paper.

Aristotle is a "common sense" philosopher. In stark contrast to Plato, his teacher, he is eager to embrace the basic assumptions of his culture, and even searches for truth in facts about the Greek language. (See especially the Categories.) He is responsible for the "subject/predicate" distinction in grammar (that is, the so-called "Aristotelian predicate" which consists of the part of the sentence which is not the subject, as opposed to the "Fregean predicate," which is a somewhat different concept), and he saw this as a window to the way the world works. He claimed that the world consisted of "substances" (the things that can be subjects of sentences) and that these substances have properties. The properties are the things that might be predicated of the substance. That is, in sentences like "I am a philosophy student," we state that some substance ("I") has a particular property (belongs to the class of substances which are philosophy students). Some properties are essential - that is, if they changed the substance would lose its identity and become a different substance. Others are accidental - that is, the substance retains its identity if they change over time. If I was a philosophy student essentially then when I graduated I would become a different person. Since this is not the case, it is safe to say that I am a philosophy student only accidentally. (Although I can assure you that I became a philosophy student quite intentionally and with much effort! "Accidentally" in this context merely means non-essentially.) These essences, that is, collections of properties which define what it is to be something, are logical entities which are instantiated by certain individuals (but, again in contrast to Plato, Aristotle holds that the actual individuals are the "real" things, not the essences).

According to Aristotle, substances have a two-fold nature: they are "form" and "matter." Aristotelian theories that posit this two-fold nature are called hylomorphic theories. Matter, on this view, is the basic "stuff" of the world. "Form" is what gives it its identity as a unique entity. This exists in a sort of hierarchy. For instance, my form is my soul, and my matter is my body. The form of my body is its "vegatative soul," which is the organizing principle that takes care of blood flow, growth, digestion, etc. (but not motion - there is an "animal soul" in between the vegetative and rational souls). The matter of my body is the organs of which is made. Each organ, in turn, has form and matter, and so on.

The school of Medieval Christian philosophers known as the Scholastics were Aristotelians. During this time, Aristotelian metaphysics became a part of Catholic orthodoxy. In fact, this started very early.

The earliest example of which I am aware is the Chalcedonian Declaration of 451 AD. The Greek text of the Creed is available, with some glossary and commentary here, and there is an English translation in the Wikipedia article. This creed contains many technical terms of Aristotelian metaphysics, and by their use becomes dependent on this type of metaphysical theory. For instance, the Creed affirms that Christ is "co-essential [Gr. homoiousion] with the Father according to divinity." The claim is that Christ, considered in terms of his divinity, has the same Aristotelian essence as the Father (more on this later). Next, it claims that he is "co-essential with us according to humanity." Christ, then, instantiates two disparate Aristotelian essences: the essence of divinity and the essence of humanity. This means that he has all the properties one must have to be divine, and also all the properties one must have to be human. Note, however, that I have just stated this in non-Aristotelian language, so thus far we are merely using the apparatus of Aristotelian metaphysics, but have not made ourselves dependent on it.

Later the Creed affirms that Christ exists as two natures (phuseis) united in one person (prosopon) and one substance (hupostasis). In Aristotle, a phusis is "nature as an originating power" (LSJ, s.v. 4.1). prosopon meaning person is a later usage and is not found in Aristotle. (The word literally means "face" and in Aristotle's time the widespread figurative use was for "appearance," but by the time of the New Testament and all the more so in the later time of the Chalcedonian Creed, the word had come to mean "person.") Aristotelian hupostasis is the ontologically fundamental substance, the really real thing. I think a contrast between prosopon and hupostasis is probably intended here, meaning that Christ, despite having two essences and two natures (the latter can, I suppose, be interpreted as saying merely that Christ has both a divine origin as the only begotten of the Father existing from eternity, and a human origin as a man born from the womb of a human woman at a specific moment in history), is united both as to his outward manifestation and as to his fundamental nature.

Still, one need not affirm all of Aristotelian metaphysics to accept the Council of Chalcedon. One need only accept some metaphysical theory on which all of the concepts just mentioned (ousia, phusis, prosopon, and hupostasis) have meaning. This can probably be done, with a bit of finagling, on any theory that accepts the substance/property model of the world, which is so deeply ingrained in most (all?) human languages that it is nearly impossible to think or act without implicitly assuming it, so this is a fairly minimal requirement.

Later on, the Scholastics made good use of Aristotelian language in examining theological questions. For instance, they stated that God's essence includes existence, and so God is identical with his essence, whereas we are merely instantiations of our essence (or essences - there is and always has been some dispute between Aristotelians as to whether there is a single essence of humanity, or a unique essence of every human being or both).

However, the Scholastics and other Medieval theologians and Church leaders also constructed doctrines that depended far more heavily on actually believing the substance of Aristotle's metaphysics than does the Chalcedonian Creed. The most egregious example is the Roman Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation. In the Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent Session 13, Canon 2, a strict definition of orthodoxy is given stating,

If any one saith, that, in the sacred and holy sacrament of the Eucharist, the substance of the bread and wine remains conjointly with the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, and denieth that wonderful and singular conversion of the whole substance of the bread into the Body, and of the whole substance of the wine into the Blood-the species Only of the bread and wine remaining-which conversion indeed the Catholic Church most aptly calls Transubstantiation; let him be anathema.

I was unable to find the Latin text of this online (and my Latin is really bad anyway), but the standard explanation of transubstatiation (see, e.g., Wikipedia) seems to be that "substance" here is the Aristotelian hupostasis previously discussed, and the "species" of the bread and wine which remains is the collection of properties associated with the bread and wine, so that the bread and wine takes on the real substance of the body and blood of Christ, displacing the substance of bread and wine entirely. The substances of the body and blood of Christ are apparently able to take on the form of bread and wine without losing their essences. This requires a host (no pun intended) of metaphysical assumptions. For instance, there must be fundamental "substances" of the body and blood of Christ which do not have any observable essential properties. (What are their non-observable essential properties? If they don't have any, in what does their essence consist?) Furthermore, we must believe that it is possible for one substance to transmute into another, which seems to require that there be some kind of basic matter which is independent of the substances, as there might be on a hylomorphic view. This metaphysical picture is getting to be detailed and complicated, and this is only the beginning. Anyone who does not hold such a metaphysical view is implicitly also declared anathema by the Council.

This is my primary objection to the importation of Aristotelian metaphysics to Christian doctrine: a complicated and detailed metaphysical system which is in no way essential to the Christian revelation becomes part of a test of orthodoxy. However, my difficulty accepting it goes further.

Today, Christian philosophers continue to be predominantly Aristotelian. I haven't made an exhaustive statistical survey to show this or anything, so it may be merely that the Christian philosophy I have read is not a representative sample, but I don't think so. For instance, a look at part one of Richard Swinburne's The Christian God shows that Swinburne, one of the dominant figures of Christian philosophy today, retains many metaphysical assumptions from Aristotle. In that book, he does not even discuss any of the objections to them. Furthermore, looking over a few issues of the journal Faith and Philosophy, which is published by the Society of Christian Philosophers, will show that Medieval Aristotelians, especially Thomas Aquinas, receive far more attention than the early moderns, although the latter group was composed almost entirely of Christians.

This is deeply troubling to me for a number of reasons. The first is that it is extremely problematic to allow views to appear to be essential to Christianity when they are not. For instance, think of the number of people who have been turned off to Christianity because they think it means supporting all of the policies of the Republican party, when this in fact has nothing to do with the basic message of faith. This is especially important in light of the fact that modern science requires the rejection of many points of Aristotelianism which to the modern thinker can make a system that requires one to accept any part of Aristotelian metaphysics suspect. But Christianity is not such a system. The second critical point is that I believe these Aristotelian views to be just plain wrong (the reasons why are a topic for another post).

I can only speculate as to the reasons for the continuing prevalence of these views. One speculation I might make is that the Catholic and Episcopal churches are more encouraging of philosophical pursuits than most other churches, and so Christian philosophy tends to have a Catholic/Episcopal bias. (I have reason to suspect that there might be a Calvinist bias in academic theology for similar reasons.) Whatever the case, I believe it is extremely important for Christians to critically examine these assumptions and engage with the world of secular metaphysics, as Peter van Inwagen has so admirably done. While Aristotle's influence persists, serious Aristotelianism seems to be rare in secular metaphysics (again, I haven't done an exhaustive survey, I'm just drawing on what I've read), so the assumptions made by Christian metaphysicians, or the things they are unwilling to challenge, may be hindering them from having effective dialog with the rest of the world of philosophy.

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October 20, 2005

An Ancient Greek What?!

The Economist is reporting on a new reconstruction by Michael Wright, a British museum curator, of the so-called Antikythera Mechanism. The Slashdot headline reads, "Ancient Greek Computer Reconstructed." In case you were wondering what on earth the Antikythera Mechanism is or was, Slashdot seems to think it's a computer. From ancient Greece. How ancient, you ask? Well it was discovered 100 years ago in a shipwreck off an island near Crete. The shipwreck has been dated to 87 BC. Which brings us to the title of this post: an ancient Greek what?!

Now, slashdot has a tendency to sensationalize, and this is no exception, but this is truly remarkable. I can't believe I haven't heard of it before. The actual find is just a rusted pile of metal, with something that looks like a gear sticking out of it. We're not completely sure what it does, but after bombarding it with various types of radiation to figure that out it seems that it has a differential gear in it. That's the thing in your car that allows equal torque to be applied to each wheel even if they move at different speeds (see wikipedia). It was (re)invented in the 16th century. Our best guess as to what the thing does is that you turn the dials on it to select a date and the device displays the position of the earth, the sun, and the known planets at that date on its face. That's what the reconstruction does, anyway, and since it is very similar in function to the analog computers developed by Pascal, Leibniz, and others, Slashdot has decided that it's a computer. Astounding.

See also: the ancient Greek steam engine and other notable 1st century inventions of Hero of Alexandria. Yes, it seems that he did build a coin operated vending machine. Nothing is new under the sun. Wow.

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