Against Extreme Divine Command Theory

William of Auxerre gives this brief but effective argument against the theory that actions are evil merely because God prohibits them:

Cum prohibitio sit ipse Deus prohibens, Deus ipse esset causa malitie in actione; quod absit.

“Since God’s prohibition [of an action] is just God himself prohibiting [the action], God Himself would be the cause of the evil in an action; which can’t be allowed.”

(Summa Aurea Book 2, Treatise 11, Chapter 3, Question 3)


Star Trek and Religion

I realized recently that out of the five Star Trek series, the majority have religious first officers.

Original Series – Spock doesn’t talk about religion and probably wasn’t meant to have a religion at the time of writing. But later on Vulcans are definitely portrayed as religious, albeit in a very un-Judeo-Christian way (e.g., Tuvok). Seeing as Spock is pretty keen on being as Vulcan as possible, we can safely assume that he was religious.

Next Generation – To my knowledge Will Riker had no religion, but I could be wrong.

Deep Space Nine – Entire episodes revolve around Kira Nerys’ religious beliefs.

Voyager – Chakotay’s generic but genuine Native American spirituality is sympathetically portrayed, though the writer’s seem to have completely forgotten about it halfway through the show.

Enterprise – T’Pol is Vulcan, and is portrayed as engaging in spiritual practices to a greater degree than Spock.

So that’s four out of five, or three out of five if we don’t count Spock; in any case a majority. If we do count Spock, Riker is the lone secular exception. If we cheat and count Spock twice because of the Animated Series, that’s five out of six.

There’s also an interesting mix of beliefs- polytheism, ancestor veneration, nontheistic philosophical mysticism. The lack of monotheism is notable, though Bajoran religion is obviously imitative of the Abrahamic faiths.

Of course, other than Ben Sisko (sort of), we have zero religious captains. Kirk expresses belief in God, but he might have been rhetorical or sarcastic.


Lewis and Burroughs on Mars

“There was one God, according to them, Maleldil the Young; nor was it possible to imagine Hyoi or Hnohra worshipping a bloodstained idol. Unless, of course, the hrossa were after all under the thumb of the sorns, superior to their masters in all the qualities that human beings value, but intellectually inferior to them and dependent on them. It would be a strange but not an inconceivable world; heroism and poetry at the bottom, cold scientific intellect above it, and overtopping all some dark superstition which scientific intellect, helpless against the revenge of the emotional depths it had ignored, had neither will nor power to remove.”
(C.S. Lewis, Out of the Silent Planet, Chapter 14)

Isn’t that last sentence exactly the situation in E.R. Burroughs’ Barsoom, especially in The Gods of Mars? You have strong, heroic red and green Martians on the bottom; advanced white Martians fooling them with a false religion that makes the White Martians Gods; on the top, black Martians who are themselves captive to an even sillier religion. I don’t know if Lewis ever read Burroughs, and maybe this is a generic enough sci-fi trope that he didn’t have to. But the similarity certainly struck me when I read it, and especially the fact that Ransom’s hypothesis couldn’t be more wrong when it comes to Lewis’ Mars.


Philosophy and the Dead

speakerReverence for the dead is something essentially human and Christian– not a cultish attempt to communicate with the dead or better their lot in some practical way, but the recognition, however dim, that personality survives the death of the body, and so can be honored and dishonored after death (whether or not the dead are conscious of it isn’t really the issue).

Historical philosophy (the kind of work I do) can be seen as a way of showing reverence for the dead. If Socrates or Descartes showed up at Loyola with something to say, I would be disrespectful not to listen to them, whether or not I agreed. Likewise even for, say, Democritus or William of Auxerre. They are our intellectual fathers and older brothers and deserve a fair hearing. But they can’t request that hearing for themselves, because they’re dead. So they need people to speak up for them.

An objection: Philosophy is about the truth, not honoring people.  The errors of deceased philosophers shouldn’t be promulgated merely because they’re deceased.

Reply: Of course not. If Socrates (for example) wanted to know the truth but taught something false, it would be dishonoring to Socrates to continue to teach his own, false beliefs. But first we have to study dead philosophers and see which of their teachings are true and which are false, a job which is by no means finished.

And before we decide which of their teachings are true, we have to understand those teachings on their own terms. That’s where the job of a historical philosopher is important.

And finally, while judging their teachings, we may find ourselves being judged by them, and our own convictions and conclusions questioned; and we may finally discover that the dead can still speak for themselves.



  1. This tea tastes sweet to me. (Empirically self-evident)
  2. Any taste is either a property of the thing tasted or of the taster’s experience. (DISPUTABLE)
  3. The tea’s sweetness is either a property of the tea or of my experience of the tea. (1,2)
  4. Nothing physical has a secondary quality (taste, color, smell, etc.) as a property. (Principle of modern science)
  5. Sweetness is a secondary quality. (Corollary of 4)
  6. Nothing physical has sweetness as a property. (4,5)
  7. Tea is physical. (Self-evident)
  8. Tea does not have sweetness as a property. (6,7)
  9. The tea’s sweetness is a property of my experience of the tea. (3,8)
  10. My experience of the tea is not physical. (6,9)
  11. Something non-physical exists. (10)


The sages said that like perceives like
and that when we understand a rock or a tree
it’s because we are, or can be, wood and leaf and grit,
the stuff in us answering to the stuff outside, and becoming it.

That’s why I spend my days looking at the stars,
tracing their steps with the twitches of my eye-muscles
till my pupils grow luminous and I begin to move,
and, as I dance with them, see
who they’re trying so desperately to impress.


Real Nonbeings?

Grant that an infinite regress of composition is impossible: it is impossible for some being to be composed of parts and C, and to be composed of parts and E, and D… etc. This seems self-evident.

(Definition: is part of iff combines with another part(s) to form and is really distinct from C.)

Grant also that, at most, only one absolutely simple being (= a being with no parts) exists. I find Aquinas and Avicenna’s proofs of this claim convincing. (In sum: if there were two simple beings, they’d be similar in some way and different in other ways. But this would mean they have parts, and therefore aren’t simple.)

(Definition: is a being iff it is logically possible that only exist (or only B and God, maybe). This is not a very good definition but it makes the point I want it to.)

If both of these are true, then every being (other than the Simple Being, if it exists) is composed of parts which, while really distinct, are not themselves beings.

Proof: Take any being A. Either has parts or not. If it does not, it is the Simple Being and out of our consideration. If it does not, it has at least two parts. Let be one of its parts. Is a being or not? If not, really distinct parts exist which are not beings.

So suppose is a being. Does have parts or not? If it does not, it is the Simple Being… etc.

If we allow that every part of a being is a being, then either (a) all parts are the Simple Being, or (b) there is an infinite regress. (b) is impossible. (a) is absurd since in this case only one thing would exist, and self-evidently more than one thing exists.

Therefore, at least some things exist that are not beings, and all beings other than the Simple Being  (if it exists) are composed of really distinct parts that are not themselves beings.

(So, for example, if essence and existence are really distinct, it doesn’t follow that essence is a distinct being that is combined with existence to form a third thing. Rather, it’s at least possible that the essence- existence composite is one being, and also its essence and existence are really distinct. Likewise for form and matter.)

(I know I’m playing fast and loose with my terminology here but I think I’m on to something. I’m still trying to figure out what.)