A beautifully told story with colorful characters out of epic tradition, a tight and complex plot, and solid pacing. -- Booklist, starred review of On the Razor's Edge

Great writing, vivid scenarios, and thoughtful commentary ... the stories will linger after the last page is turned. -- Publisher's Weekly, on Captive Dreams

Monday, June 23, 2014

As Screwy as an Electron

Let us begin with a quotation from the quantum physicist Richard P. Feynman:
"Electrons, when they were first discovered, behaved exactly like particles or bullets, very simply. Further research showed, from electron diffraction experiments for example, that they behaved like waves. As time went on there was a growing confusion about how these things really behaved ---- waves or particles, particles or waves? Everything looked like both.

... If I say they behave like particles I give the wrong impression; also if I say they behave like waves. ... They behave in a way that is like nothing that you have seen before. ... Electrons behave in this respect in exactly the same way as photons; they are both screwy, but in exactly in the same way….

The difficulty really is psychological and exists in the perpetual torment that results from your saying to yourself, "But how can it be like that?" which is a reflection of uncontrolled but utterly vain desire to see it in terms of something familiar. ... Do not keep saying to yourself, if you can possible avoid it, "But how can it be like that?" because you will get 'down the drain', into a blind alley from which nobody has escaped. Nobody knows how it can be like that."
-- The Messenger Lectures, 1964, MIT

IOW, says Dr. Feynman, it's a mystery. But the mysterious nature of photons and electrons does not deter us from our beliefs. And that leads us to today's topic, here at an end of a Year.

Trinity Sunday

For those who follow such things, there may be some recollection that 15 June 2014 was Trinity Sunday on the Christian Calendar and today, 22 June 2014, is Corpus Christi. These two feasts, which cap the Pentecost season, mark two of the most profound mysteries. No, not photons and electrons, but the Trinity and Transubstantiation.

Now while a mystery may be at bottom, well, mysterious -- what exactly is gravity? -- it may be useful to ask whether it is reasonable to believe in the mystery. There are excellent reasons, such as the Millikan experiments, to believe in electrons, even if their essential nature eludes our reason. But does this apply to such things as the Trinity?

Cardinal Schönborn of Vienna, in his catechesis on Genesis a few years ago, made the comment that the Church does not demand a blind faith, since that would not be a human faith, but rather looks for reasoned faith.
"A blind faith, one that would simply demand a leap into the utter void of uncertainty, would be no human faith. If belief in the Creator were totally without insight, without any understanding of what such entails, then it would likewise be inhuman. Quite rightly, the Church has always rejected "fideism" -- that very sort of blind faith.
Belief without insight, without any possibility of perceiving the Creator, of being able to grasp by means of reason anything of what he has wrought, would be no Christian belief. The biblical Judeo-Christian faith was always convinced that we not only should and may believe in the Creator: There is also much about him that we are capable of understanding through the exercise of human reason."
 St. Thomas, in Contra gentiles and in the Summa theologica, holds that reason and philosophy are the preamble to faith, that they can demonstrate that certain beliefs are reasonable, even if full acceptance requires faith.

It is worth noting that Plotinus developed a theology of a triune God in the pagan Neoplatonic tradition, described here, here, and here. He undoubtedly was influenced by the Christians he despised, and his reasoning was different from the Greek Fathers or from Augustine and Aquinas. Yet, he arrived at the same point. Meanwhile, at Mahabalipuram, Tamil Nadu State, there is a temple to a triune God (the Trimurti) whose aspects are Brahma the Creator, Vishnu the Preserver, and Siva the Transformer. So Gods who are three-but-one are not as uncommon as one may think.

Triune TOF?

1) TOF the Father; 2) TOF the Son; 3) TOF the Lover.
Yet there is only one TOF!
When TOF is with his children, he is TOF the Father, and this is how his children experience him. Well, usually. Sometimes. When he is with his aged sire, he is TOF the Son; and with the Incomparable Marge, he is TOF the Lover. Each of these people -- children, father, and wife -- experience TOF in a different way, and yet there is only one TOF. (Hey, TOF heard those sighs of relief. Stop it, right now!)

Now, the analogy is not exact. In fact, it is downright Sabellian. The three personalities are defined in relation to other beings. That is, they are external. This is not the case with God, who isn't supposed "a" being, even "a" supreme being, but rather Being Itself. Three personalities in one person can be a useful analogy to three persons in one being.

The Eastern Church has historically taken a "bottom up" approach, starting with the Persons as given, and trying to determine how they can be one in being. The Western Church has taken a "top down" approach, starting with the unity of God, and trying to discern how it can be three distinct Persons. The Eastern Church often teetered on the brink of Arianism, in which Christ and the Spirit were divine creatures, while the Western Church risked Sabellianism, in which the persons were reduced to mere modalities or offices, as in the analogy of TOF. It was because of resistance to Arianism in the East and to Sabellianism in the West that the filioque controvery arose.

So let's ask how Thomas approaches the Trinity.

The Aquinas Take

Suppose we have reached the point in our reasoning at which God is known as pure act, being itself, all power-full, eternal, etc., etc. We gotta start someplace. TOF has not the time to produce a digest version of Contra gentiles, Summa theologica, Compendium theologiae, or Contra errores graecorum.

Thomas' reasoning runs as follows:

1. As First Cause, God is the source of all powers in the world. This includes the powers of reason possessed by humans; viz., intellect and will.(*)

2. Since one cannot give what one does not have, there must be something in God that is at least like intellect and will in humans.
2.1 God is pure act without any potentiality, while matter is being in potency. So God must be utterly free from matter. But material forms are rendered intelligible by being abstracted from matter and from material conditions; so freedom from matter is the cause of intellectuality. Therefore, God must have intellect.
2.2 God understands Himself, who is perfect good. But to understand a good is to desire/love that good, and desire/love operates through the will. Therefore, God must have volition.
3. The process of the intellect is knowing. It is entirely internal to the intelligent agent. When we understand something, we generate in our mind a conception of the understood object. A conception is expressed in words.

4. God knows himself from all eternity. The subject (or principle) of this knowing is called the Father. Its object (or term) is called the Word.
4.1 The Word is the likeness of God himself, a concept emanating from God’s own self-understanding.  The Word is therefore sorta kinda like God's "self-conception." But because God is purely actual, this self-image must itself be actual.  IOW the Son does not proceed from the Father as a separate being but as an intelligible conception of God himself. 

4.2 The Word is thus conceived (or begotten) of the Father, since we say "begotten" only when like generate like. (We do not say that a human being has "begotten" his hair. Summa theologica I.27.2) Because there is only one intellect, the Word is the "only-begotten." We are justified in calling the Word "the only-begotten Son."

5. Since God is all-good and the Son is his generated likeness, God, who desires the good, loves himself from all eternity. The subject (or principle) of this loving is still called the Father. Its object (or term) is called the Spirit. (Summa theologica I.27.3)
5.1 The intellect proposes something to the will as a good and the will is drawn by its nature to this good. Love proceeds forth toward that which is desired and returns possessing the good in an eminent sense. By analogy, the immanent procession of the Holy Spirit corresponds to the procession of love towards the Word in the intellect of God.
5.2 The procession of love in God is not called "generation." The intellect is made actual by a likeness of the understood object residing in the intellect.  But the will is made actual by having a certain inclination to the thing willed.  So what proceeds in God by way of love, does not proceed as "begotten," but proceeds rather as spirit, which expresses a certain vital movement (e.g., one is moved by love to perform an action.)  The term "generation" is not appropriate but the Latin spiration does not have a familiar English ring to it. Hence, we simply say only that the Spirit "proceeds" from the Father.  (Summa theologica I.27.4)
6. God must be His own intelligence. "To understand" is second act. The corresponding first act is "to know." By analogy in humans, the agent intellect presents the possible intellect with an intelligible object. The agent intellect knows, the possible intellect understands. So in humans, knowing stands in potency to understanding. But nothing in God is related to anything else as potency to act. Accordingly God just is His own intelligence.
6.1 From this it follows that the Father and the Son are consubstantial.  If God’s act of understanding is His very being; the Son generated by that understanding will have the same nature as the Father, even though the Son is a separate hypostasis.
6.2 From this it follows that in some sense the Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son.
7. God’s will cannot be anything other than his intellect. A good that is apprehended by the intellect is the object of the will. This good moves the will and is the will’s act and perfection. But in God there is no distinction between mover and moved, act and potency, perfection and perfectible. Therefore the will of God is not distinct from the divine intellect.
7.1 From this it follows that the Father and the Spirit are consubstantial.  The divine intellect and the divine essence are identical (#6). Therefore the will of God is not distinct from the divine intellect/essence, even though the Spirit is a separate hypostasis.
8. There is no third procession. Divine processions derive only from actions which remain within the agent, that is, within God. In a rational nature, such as God, there are only two acts: the acts of intellect and will. The acts of sensation, which also appears to be an operation within the agent, are not intellective and require bodily senses. It follows that no other procession is possible in God but the procession of the Word, and of Love. (Summa theologica I.27.5)

Summa Blogpostica

a) God is a rational being, possessing something like intellect and will.
b) Therefore, there are two processions that remain entirely within God: intellection and volition, or two predicates: knowing and desiring.
c) As the principle (or subject) of both processions, He is the Father and, since God is purely actual, He is actually, entirely and completely the Father.
d) "To know" is "to conceive," and intellective conceptions are expressed as words. So as the term (or object) of the process of knowing, He is the Word.
e) Since the Word is in some analogous sense the self-conception of the Father, we say He is "generated" and call Him the Son. And, since God is purely actual, He is actually, entirely and completely the Son.
f) "To will" is "to desire" some good presented by the intellect, and intellective desires are expressed in "sighs" or a "going forth" (Lat. spirare) toward the desired. So as the term (or object) of the process of desiring, He is the Spirit.
g) Since God is purely actual, he is actually, entirely and completely the Spirit.
h) Hence, although God is One, He is also three distinct hypostases, or Persons. But these Persons are one in substance, and not separate Beings.
i) Since knowing and desiring (intellect and will) complete the acts of rational being, there are no other processions, and hence no other Persons.

Do not keep saying to yourself, if you can possible avoid it, "But how can it be like that?" because you will get 'down the drain', into a blind alley from which nobody has escaped. Nobody knows how it can be like that."

It was in that useless attempt to imagine "how it could be like that" that led the Eastern Arians "down the drain" on one side and the Western Sabellians "down the drain" on the other side. (Ever notice how heresies come in twos?) In effect, one heresy claimed that God was a "particle" and the other claimed He was a "wave." But in the "theological space" between Arianism and Sabellianism there is plenty of room for doctrinal nuances. Heresies often take something true and carry it too far. Strength stands in the middle. The Eastern Church built from the Persons up to to the One God and opened itself (by over-emphasis on the distinctness of the Persons) to the temptation of Arianism and even tritheism. The Western Church built from the One God down to the Persons and was vulnerable (by overemphasis on the oneness of God) to Sabellianism, in which the Persons became simply roles or modalities of God. If only they could combine forces.

It was in noodling out the Trinity (and the nature of the Incarnation, a separate topic) that Western Civilization (including Byzantium) hammered out the notion of persons that formed the basis of our laws and culture.


TOF is out of time. He had hoped to comment on Transubstantiation, today (now yesterday) being Corpus Christi, but he got all involved in the Trinity. Maybe later, hey?

Reading... if you dare

St. Thomas Aquinas' Works in English:
Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy:
Edward Feser: Plotinus on Divine Simplicity


  1. Being as unversed in theological anthropology as I am, are you aware if such conceptions and explanations of the Trinity preceded Aquinas, and if so, who, as far as we know, did it originate with? Thanks.

    1. At the end of the Gospel of Mark, Jesus tells his disciples to baptise all nations in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

      If (as the best estimates say) Mark was written from Matthew and Luke, along with Peter's teachings (or sermon notes), that means that the idea of the Trinity was there all along. And St Paul's letters have frequent Trinitarian blessings.

    2. Hi Loreman 72.
      I'm not sure that entirely gets at what I'm asking. The Bible, so far as I know, doesn't explain the Trinity in the terms that Aquinas or the OFloinn did (the Word being a perfected concept of the intellect, the HS being of the will, etc.). I'm just curious if Aquinas was seconding some other theologian or philosopher who had preceded him or if his specific explanation of the Trinity (not the idea of the Trinity itself) had originated with him.

    3. Augustine.

  2. I don't think it needs simplifying--that's pretty clear. Looking forward to Transubstantiation!

    Have you ever been a teacher in any official way? Just being nosey & not important. I've informally categorized most successful bloggers as "authentic teaching gift seeking outlet" or "temperament with a need to argue," with the occasional blogger who does both very well.

    1. Spent 30 years teaching statistical methods and quality management techniques, basic problem solving, etc. to engineers, managers, chemists, et al.

    2. ah. Good to know. It's sometimes hard to spot teaching under its corporate guises. I was more inquiring whether you've ever done RCIA or other adult faith formation, 'though I understand that's even more nosey a question. When I was a teenager, I pretty much would have sold my soul to have you as a catechist.

  3. But... the Father isn't the Son and isn't the Spirit (contra 6.1 and 7.1), because those names refer to their Persons which are distinct. They aren't each others' persons, though they have the same nature.

  4. Every time I scroll through this website, my eye wants to read the title of this article as "As Screwy as an Election".

    1. An election is only a quantum event when Democrats count the votes.

    2. A Democrat-controlled election is a step function: you step off the edge of foolishness and fall into s&*t creek.


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