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On The Universe We Think In

Some astronomers think that a great, even infinite, number of universes are floating about somewhere out there in space. These worlds, with no real evidence, to be sure, are said to exist in addition to the one in which most of us have but temporary residence. The universe we do find ourselves in does seem vast enough for the purposes for which we exist. And why do we exist? Indeed, one of the chapters of The Universe We Think In is entitled precisely: “Why Do I Exist?” This is a worthy question that we ought, sooner or later, to ask ourselves, even if we choose not to do so because, somehow, we are afraid of the answer.

A second, related, chapter is entitled: “The Universe We Die In”. The unique person, with a specific name and DNA, who is conceived of a man and a woman in this world, is the same one who dies. Sometimes he dies before birth, but most people die at various ages from one to ninety. Some few last for a century of living among others of our kind. We cannot arrive in this world but by conception and birth. We always leave it by death. Some scientists, to be sure, are working doggedly to make us live longer and longer as if increased length of life alone would somehow better explain why we exist in the first place.

Generally speaking, we find that we live in two worlds. One is the world that is, the one that supports us with what we need to live at all. The second world is the world of thought about this existing world which contains us within it. Truth is said to exist when what is out there, so to speak, corresponds with what we think about it. Some people, no doubt, do maintain that what is in our minds is wholly of our own concoction. These same people, when they are ill, instead of just changing their minds, still go to a doctor. In some things, it is still wise to see what people do rather than what they say.

At first sight, it does seem strange that anything works at all even when it does exist. If we build a bridge over a stream but miscalculate on the length, foundations, or stress, it collapses. It seems to be obeying a law that we, the designers, did not ourselves create but which we can understand and use. The next time we build the bridge the right way. It stays there. Why? Some correspondence exists between our minds and reality. They are related. Is that a mere coincidence?

The Existence of Mind

Another of the chapters in this book is entitled: “Why Are There Minds in the Universe?” It seems like more than an accident—partly because we cannot understand an accident until we realize that it is something that happens when two things, each with its own purpose, cross each other. Aristotle famously stated that our knowledge begins in wonder, not necessity. Our first act on seeing anything is contemplative. We just want to know what it is. Once we realize what it is, we might then proceed to make something with it or do something about it. It seems that nothing is complete until it is known. And it cannot be known without a knower. Among the finite things we encounter, only we human beings are also knowers.

For minds that are not divine, knowing what the cosmos is takes time and numbers. The universe needs to be known from within itself by minds that are finite. In this sense, the universe stands between two minds, the mind that ordered it to be as it is and the mind that learns from the things in the universe what is within it. The universe does not exist just to be there, it exists to be known. And once it is known, it exists that its knower within it might achieve his own end which, at bottom, consists in knowing the knower of its whole order of things.

The universe we live in is the same one that we think in. It is almost as if we find ourselves in the world in order to think about it. We think about the particular things in it, what they are, how they function. We also come to think about the universe as a whole and our personal place in it. The first chapter of the book asks us: How many of us are there over time? Why so many? The universe we live in is constructed on a grand scale. Yet, as Chesterton once said, we should not confuse matter with spirit. The smallest of the spirits is more important than the whole of the material world—a statement not intended to lessen the importance of the material side of the world. Both matter and spirit exist and seem to exist in some order. The universe reveals order, mind, as Anaxagoras taught Socrates, but the mind it reveals is not its own. It is a received mind. And it is clearly not our mind. We can, to be sure, impose our ideas on things. But if something is wrong with our ideas, sooner or later, things, including human things, won’t work or work as they ought to.

Our world is filled with things that do not go right because of the way we use them. Indeed, some things in the world are really bad because we use  them wrongly. This disorder can include our very selves. We find that we need to put some discipline into our own lives if we want to live justly and fairly among others. Indeed, we find, as Aristotle said, that without ordering ourselves we will probably not see properly what is ourselves. So we can wonder whether the world might not exist to see what we will do with it if we are let loose in it. The chapters in this book on politics, human destiny, and apocalyptic disorder deal with the side of existence that sees the cosmos as the arena in which human beings work out their final destiny in the time they are given.

Legislation and Mind

Law, in Aquinas’ presentation, can be understood as mind speaking to mind. Law intends that the mind that is in the legislation and the mind in the one bound to obey it are in correspondence. In obeying the law, we act rationally since we understand its reason. The universe itself is conceived to be founded in Logos, in mind. In this sense, knowing what is, in effect, means to know something of the mind that ordered things as they are. Aristotle defines mind as that power in us that is capax omnium, capable of knowing all that is. What is peculiar about the human mind is that it needs many minds over much time to see all that is there to see in this universe that already is.

The existing human being, however, is in a paradoxical situation. A purely natural man with a natural end never existed in this universe from its beginning. This is the teaching of the revelational tradition that notices that, as Aquinas said, “Homo naturaliter non humanus sed superhumanus est.” That is, each individual of this race of men in this cosmos was created to reach an end that is beyond the natural capacity of what it is to be a human being. But each person could receive this elevation because he was a human being whose mind is capax omnium. Human beings were created literally to know and live the inner life of the creator of this same universe. This is the telos, the end of both human beings and of the universe itself as an arena for revealing how each person lives.

In the universe we live in, the one key text to understand our situation is that provided by Plato at the end of the Republic. He understood that the record of each created person ultimately was to be judged by the way he thought and lived in the polities of his time in the world. No life is complete unless and until it is judged. And this judgment follows from the dignity of what it is to be a human being called to eternal life. This final judgment means that, while politics is the highest practical science, as Aristotle said, the absolutely highest science is that revealed to us about the final completion of our being.

The final drama of the world we think in is the judgment of how we have freely lived in the time and place we found ourselves living in. The universe itself is only fully complete when, as Aquinas is cited as saying in the first chapter, the “certain number” of beings invited to choose their eternal end have done so. The world we think in is the world that is.

Reader Discussion

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on June 19, 2018 at 10:46:42 am

This is a fascinating and persuasive essay, and I find myself in agreement with most of it. However, I do have to wonder if humans are indeed God's only creatures it applies to.

Having read many accounts of animals who seem to rise above animal-ness, I am not so quick to continue presuming our uniqueness in our relationship to God and his universe. When I read of an elephant wounded by poachers being guided by another elephant to a wildlife conservation center for treatment, I have to wonder which is more "human": the poacher or the guide elephant?

Numerous accounts of whales/porpoises/dolphins helping humans evade shark attacks, parrots who carry on meaningful conversations, a gorilla "commenting" on a striking news item on TV, and other such anecdotes, lead me to question whether we really are the only species who can be in touch with God.

I am not anything like a maudlin PETA activist (I eat meat), but I do have to think that just maybe there is room to include (some) other species as companions at a higher level in Creation's hierarchy than we have been giving them credit for, and I find that an appealing prospect.

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R O
on June 19, 2018 at 16:08:54 pm

I hereby nominate Prof. Schall for the Profile in courage Award. Imaging the flack he is going to receive for the temerity of suggesting that if people which to live a full life it is incumbent upon them to *order* that life.

"But, but, but, that would mean I have to do things I don't like, hear things I don't agree with it, respect the specific "life-ordering" of individuals other than myself. Quick, where is the nearest safe-space."

Sadly, this comment needs a slight modification to reflect present reality:

" Law [once] intend[ed] that the mind that is in the legislation and the mind in the one bound to obey it are in correspondence."

And again, it would appear that it is only the governing class that self describes as capax omnium. Apparently, both a halo and a more efficient corpus callosum is now included in the employment kit for government factotems.

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gabe
on June 19, 2018 at 16:47:53 pm

Saint Thomas Aquinas argued that theology "...is nobler than other sciences" because its purpose "... in so far as it is practical, is eternal bliss." The Founders, men of the Age of Reason and Enlightenment, viewed theology as the queen of sciences. They were highly educated, half of them attended college in which theology was integrated into almost every subject of study, all of them were thoroughly conversant with the Bible and most of them saw it as the revelation of God's design, purpose and role in the affairs of man and nations, including for America.

Thus, for me, it is high time that L&L published a commentary written by a theologian, and the eminent scholar James Schall, S.J. is ideal for that purpose since, for decades, he has taught and written with special insight on the subject of reason, its expansive power, its severe limitations and the existential and ontological dangers it poses by virtue of man's temptation to replace divine revelation with reason as the path to God, truth and goodness, which Schall says is"...the final completion of our being."

In his commentary Schall provides a brief summary of just a few ideas from portions of his latest book (which I have not read.) This summary would benefit considerably from more clarity and cohesion (at least for my mind untutored in philosophy,) but for me the most interesting sketch is the discussion of man's life in two universes, the physical reality of life and the universe of mind in which we contemplate the order of the universe, the meaning of creation and the purpose of life. ( Justice Kennedy's questions:) The latter universe is a "revealed order" subject marginally to the power of reason but, most important for man in his personal and political life, an order "filled with things that do not go right because of the way we (mis)use them..." (i.e., contrary to their nature and the revealed order) and because we deny the paradox that each of us is born ''to reach an end that is beyond the natural capacity" of what it is to be human."

I am aware that Fr. Schall's new book also discusses law and political philosophy, particularly utopianism, and look forward to reading those discussions. Good topic for an L&L podcast.

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Pukka Luftmensch
on June 19, 2018 at 21:21:36 pm

Second that podcast suggestion.

and well said Pukka!

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gabe
on June 19, 2018 at 22:42:23 pm

Here's Schall on ideology in today's " The Catholic Thing."

https://www.thecatholicthing.org/2018/06/19/on-ideology/

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Pukka Luftmensch
on June 20, 2018 at 10:37:49 am

Just as every element of truth serves to complement and thus enhance the fullness of Truth, so too, does every element of Love serve to complement and thus enhance the fullness of Love.

"The Founders, men of the Age of Reason and Enlightenment, viewed theology as the queen of sciences."

True, and yet The Age of Reason and Enlightment denied the fact that In order to worship The True God, one must first and foremost recognize that There Is only One Word of God, One Truth of Love Made Flesh, One Lamb of God Who Taketh Away The Sins of The World, Our Savior, Jesus The Christ, thus there can only be One Spirit of Perfect Love Between The Father and The Son, Who Proceeds from both The Father and The Son, in The Ordered Communion of Perfect Complementary Love, The Most Holy And Undivided Blessed Trinity. (Filioque)

"No one can come to My Father except through Me."

"It is not possible to have Sacramental Communion without Ecclesial Communion."

When you deny The Unity of The Holy Ghost, eventually , with time, you end up creating a god in your own image; a Christian conscience must first and foremost be in communion with The Christ.

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Nancy
on June 28, 2018 at 21:55:03 pm

This post reminds me of Michael Polanyi’s “Personal Knowledge,” 1958, yet the leap to Schall’s opinions seems more worthy and easier to reach---not adversarial.

As always, I think “the-objective-truth” is more definitive and defensible than the “truth [that] is said to exist.”

“Truth is said to exist when what is out there, so to speak, corresponds with what we think about it.” The-objective-truth exists, and humankind may discover, understand, and behave in order to benefit or not. Thus, we conform to the-objective-truth, the reverse of Schall’s order.

“The universe reveals order, mind, as Anaxagoras taught Socrates, but the mind it reveals is not its own. It is a received mind. And it is clearly not our mind.”

Each human has the individual power, the individual energy, and the individual authority (IPEA) to develop integrity. Integrity is fidelity to the-objective-truth. It is a comprehensive fidelity that extends to self, immediate family, extended family and friends, the people (nation), humankind (the world), and the universe, both respectively and collectively. However, not every individual discovers integrity. Also, the individual who develops integrity cannot know all the discoveries. When the individual is asked but does not know, integrity requires the response “I do not know.”

The collective mind, humankind’s mind, can account for the discoveries, but no entity possesses the collection at any point in time and some discoveries were lost in individual deaths.

“We find that we need to put some discipline into our own lives if we want to live justly and fairly among others. Indeed, we find, as Aristotle said, that without ordering ourselves we will probably not see properly what is ourselves.” Civic discipline requires impartiality.

During the last couple days it has occurred to me that the preamble to the constitution for the USA, a legal statement, offers individuals purpose and goals for civic discipline more than civil governance. Each citizesn may adopt the agreement or not. That articulation motivated me to mimic Abraham Lincoln in 1863: Gettysburg is hallowed by the sacrifices of impartial men so that civic discipline of by and for the people may survive.

“What is peculiar about the human mind is that it needs many minds over much time to see all that is there to see in this universe that already is.” In the-objective-truth what "already is" may no longer be. For example, 4.6 billion years ago, the earth was gaseous, and it may return to a gaseous state. If so, will humankind have colonized space and be aware of the earth’s return to gasses?

“The final drama of the world we think in is the judgment of how we have freely lived in the time and place we found ourselves living in. The world we think in is the world that is.“

I suspect Schall implies that the spiritual world is the world that is. If so, I must recall Soren Kierkegaard and say: That is a leap of faith I cannot take.

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Phillip Ray Beaver

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