The Oddity of God: A Preliminary Reflection on Alasdair MacIntyre’s Recent Comments

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. he was in the beginning with God. All things came to be through him, and without him nothing came to be. . . . And the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us, and we saw his glory, the glory as of the Father’s only Son, full of grace and truth. 

These verses from the opening of the Gospel of John, including also the intervening verses, constitute the fundamental Christian text detailing the primal relation between God and his creation, more so even than the beginning of the book of Genesis. After all, the “in the beginning” of John should remind any reader of the “in the beginning” of Genesis when things were made. By reminding us of Genesis, it also sheds light upon that earlier text.

If the “in the beginning” of Genesis metaphorically describes the beginning of time as well as the subsequent unfolding of God’s creation in time, describing both with image and figure, including also, and in particular, the unfolding of the history of his chosen people, the Israelites, the Gospel of John reminds us that there was a beginning, an origin, an αρχη in John’s Greek, before the beginning of time. Of its very nature, that origin or αρχη must exist non-temporally, for there can be no time before the beginning of time.

Thus, it is not a temporal beginning of which John writes, but a different sort of beginning. Not a beginning in the sense of what is begun—Genesis describes that. An origin of what was begun in Genesis, but prior to what was begun, an origin co-eternal with God and identical to God in some mysterious way. In John’s Greek, this origin is not only identified with God in some way but with intelligibility. In English, the translation has “word,” while the Latin has “verbum.” But the Greek has “λόγος,” which has a much richer sense in Greek than either “word” or “verbum” have in their respective languages. In addition to “word” or “statement” among others, it means “reason” or “intelligibility.” So, the αρχη that is the beginning before the beginning, and is identified with the divine, is not simply an origin in the sense of a cause, as that through which all things were made, but the αρχη or principle of intelligibility and reason by which all things were made, communicating to them their intelligibility as made by it. So, it is a beginning that provides to the beginning of time and the unfolding of history their intelligibility. “Through him [as Word, Verbum, or Λόγος], all things came to be, and nothing came to be without him.”

It is in light of this text from John that I would like to respond to the request to comment upon Alasdair MacIntyre’s annual lecture for the DeNicola Center for Ethics and Culture Conference of 2022. The theme of the conference was “‘And It Was Very Good’: On Creation,” while MacIntyre’s keynote lecture was entitled The Apparent Oddity of the Universe: How to Account for It?” MacIntyre’s approach to addressing the theme was philosophical, from the bottom up as it were. According to Aquinas, the method of philosophy is to begin with reflection upon the world in order to pursue knowledge and understanding of its highest cause, if there is one, and what that cause might be like or, even better, unlike. The method of theology, however, is the opposite, as it begins with the knowledge of God made known by faith in God and through revelation and pursues knowledge and understanding of his creaturely effects.

MacIntyre, as a philosopher and not a theologian, chose to reflect primarily upon the mysteriousness of the universe and so said very little about God. However, what he did say about God proved to be very controversial, particularly in the more mindless and wilder realms of social media and the Twitterverse, and especially among those who can only be described as self-appointed heresy hunters. I do not intend to defend MacIntyre here. Although, I doubt that he would choose to explain or defend himself either; were he to do so, he is more than capable of it. Anyone who would dare to do it for him is a fool. I will say this much, however—he has nothing to defend himself from. And the lack of charity manifested in the attacks against him is an embarrassment to the Church.

Others, however, were, and are, merely confused by MacIntyre’s talk. Again, I do not intend to explain it for them. But perhaps my reflection upon it will prove useful to them for thinking about the mysteriousness of the universe and its cause. So, I propose, rather, to ask what can be learned from MacIntyre’s rich and challenging philosophical discourse on the oddity of the universe, and to suggest that if anything at all is odder than the universe so described, it is only its creator. If along the way, some light is shed upon what MacIntyre said, and in particular what he did not say, that is just as well.

MacIntyre was concerned in his lecture to revivify a sense of wonder at the surprising and odd originality of the universe, the originality shown in the unfolding and evolution of its peculiar characteristics, in its various non-living physical characteristics, in the living physical characteristics it took on in the coming to be of living things within it, and most importantly in the originality of properly human activity as part and parcel of the physical world. Unfortunately, in the obtuse reactions to MacIntyre’s talk, very little attention has been paid to this main theme, most likely because of the obsessive attention paid in social media to what he is taken to have denied early on in his lecture, namely, God’s omniscience.

I will discuss God’s omniscience as it pertains to creation later. Here I beg my readers to pay close attention to the way in which I phrased that last sentence—taken to have denied. Much controversy among the heresy hunters could have been avoided had his listeners and their acolytes paid as much attention to what he actually said as I am asking to be paid to what I actually just wrote. The inattention of the critics is not excused by the fact that they had to listen to his talk and that listening is harder than reading, since the talk was almost immediately available online for reconsideration and reflection here.

Why should it be necessary to revivify a sense of wonder at the originality of the unfolding character of the universe and us within it? Consider a poem by Walt Whitman:

When I heard the learn’d astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.

In this poem, Whitman does not challenge the truth of what the “learn’d astronomer” said, closed off in the lighted lecture room. He is after all “learn’d.” The achievements of modern natural science are themselves wonders to behold, as MacIntyre mentioned, employing the example of Einstein and the Theory of Relativity, products of great human originality of thought that could not simply have been foretold or predicted as happening when they did and as they did. However, what Whitman suggests is that the truth as laid out in charts, diagrams, and equations, can also function to obscure the wonder and beauty of the stars themselves that the charts are intended to represent.

The point is not about Whitman’s experience of the wonder of the stars, but the wonder of the stars themselves, the stars that have to be observed with the eye in the darkness of the night to be seen clearly for what they are, as opposed to diagrammed in the artificial light of the lecture hall. One could always intelligently ask the learned astronomer, “yes, but where is the star on your chart?” To which the appropriate response would be, “well if you want to see the stars, go outside and look.”

The charts, diagrams, and theories are models of reality constructed from human originality and ingenuity as aids in understanding, but they are not the reality themselves that one seeks to understand. As a general truth about scientific theories, such models are limited in what they can express and represent of the reality that they bear upon, however original, ingenious, and good they may be. Newton may develop a theory of gravitation that may adequately describe the motion of an apple falling from an apple tree in terms of the forces acting upon it, the acceleration and velocity it is subject to, and where and when it will land on the earth. But what does he not represent in his physics? Well, for one, that it is a Red Delicious and not a Jonathan. That it has a certain biochemical structure that leads through its growth to its particular shape, shade of red, what counts for it as maturity such that under the attraction of gravity it will fall from the tree, and so on. Scientific models, as products of human ingenuity, are inherently limited in what they can represent of the richness of reality. If they were not limited, we could not develop them in the pursuit of understanding. Even now, in the midst of the extraordinary and beautiful advances of modern natural science, we are bears of very little brain while gazing upon the mysterious depth of reality with our theories.

One reason for such bear-brained limitation is the abstractive character of how we learn about the world through the finitude of our bodies and their senses, as much as through the abstract character of our thought. If we could not bring the abstract character of our thought in its theoretical aspects back somehow to our bodily and finite experience of the world, we would have no reason for thinking that such theories bear upon the world in any way. Even in the most abstract realms of our theorizing we employ metaphors and images from bodily experience to give sense to the theories, as in speaking of The Big Bang, or describing sub-atomic realities as simultaneously particles and waves. In the latter, we do so because the mathematics used to describe them is, on the one hand, that which we use to describe the ordinary-sized motion of particles subject to sense observation, and, on the other, the rather different mathematical formalization used to describe the motion of observable waves that we see on the beach, or by dropping a sugar cube into a cup of tea.

There is a temptation, however, in the face of the marvels of modern scientific progress, to think that the limitations of scientific modeling are merely temporally contingent, that, in the ideal limit, one could have a kind Uber-theory of reality, capturing every intelligible aspect of it. No aspect of reality would remain outside the scope of such an Uber-theory. Culturally, the most likely candidate for such an Uber-theory would be physics in the ideal limit. Already we have cosmology, promising, according to some, to give us an ideal theory of the unfolding of all the physical characteristics of the universe according to grand-cosmic laws of nature, starting with The Big Bang and working its way through the ages unto the present time, but proceeding on in a lawlike and predictable manner to the Big Freeze or the Big Crunch.

Whether the present universe will end in a Big Freeze of everlasting dissipating cosmic energy density or a Big Crunch of ever-increasing energy density into yet another singularity preceding yet another Big Bang, that is just a matter of our current ignorance of the initial conditions of the Big Bang as well as the present physical conditions of the universe. If we just had enough knowledge of such conditions along with enough knowledge of the laws of nature, in other words, if our knowledge were not limited in the way it is by the finitude of our bodies, then our knowledge would be complete. In particular, we could predict every subsequent physical state of the universe, as well as whether it is destined for a Big Freeze or a Big Crunch. But rest assured, surely the unlimited God has that knowledge, perfect knowledge of the initial conditions of the universe, its present physical states, and perfect knowledge of the laws that he, after all, created. So, God can make that prediction infallibly as to what the future holds, where we can only guess at it.

What I have just sketched is a picture of the ideal of scientific understanding described two and a half centuries ago by the great French mathematician and physicist the Marquis de Laplace in his A Philosophical Essay on Probabilities:

We ought then to regard the present state of the universe as the effect of its anterior state and as the cause of the one which is to follow. Given for one instant an intelligence which could comprehend all the forces by which nature is animated and the respective situation of the beings who compose it, an intelligence sufficiently vast to submit these data to analysis, it would embrace in the same formula the movements of the greatest bodies of the universe and those of the lightest atom; for it, nothing would be uncertain and the future, as the past, would be present to its eyes. The human mind offers, in the perfection which it has been able to give to astronomy, a feeble idea of this intelligence.[1]

I have simply substituted the name God for the “intelligence sufficiently vast” of Laplace’s prose.

To such an infinite intelligence, such a god, there is no mystery, no oddity, no originality, nothing new in the universe, since it is all, past, present, and future, “present to its eyes” as seen through the predictable laws of nature. In such a conception of the universe and the laws that govern it, what appears to us as odd and mysterious, full of originality and new things, is simply a mark of our relative ignorance by comparison to Laplace’s hypothetical omniscient intelligence, the all-knowing-god who from “the beginning” could perfectly predict what the state of the universe would be at any time after “the beginning.”

Laplace’s universe is a deterministic universe, a mechanism that does not depart from the iron laws of nature and is fit for description by laws expressed by non-probabilistic algebraic functions, if we can just find them. For Laplace, however, the point of writing about developing a theory of probabilities was to help us cope with the uncertainties of our cognitive limitations, our ignorance of those ironclad laws, to render the universe predictable and mundane as far as possible for our bear-brains. However, the perspective is not significantly changed by introducing quantum indeterminism at the level of the atom and below. In the first place, one can interpret quantum indeterminism as Nils Bohr and Werner Heisenberg did—roughly stated, in and through the act of observation, we significantly change the thing we are trying to observe, such that it never quite is as we observe. So, there is a limit to what we can know of such realities in themselves and apart from observation.

In the second place, even if one interpreted quantum indeterminism ontologically as an indeterminism of nature itself, and not due to our observational interference, nonetheless, the systems of particles that fall within the scope of quantum mechanics behave in highly predictable ways, ways that can be specified to a high degree of certitude in probabilistic laws. In that case, the Laplacian God might miss a solitary event here and there, but still know almost everything that happens, where we suffer much greater ignorance.

And third, in any case, at the level of the universe at which we experience it, by the correspondence rule, those laws appear to reduce to the old determinism of Laplace and his fellow mechanistic philosophers. So, quantum indeterminism, regardless of how one interprets it, makes no difference to the world as we experience it.

That MacIntyre was concerned with this disenchanted conception of the universe, lacking any real originality and newness, as well as the omniscient Laplacian god that comes with it, was manifestly clear in a number of ways to those who cared to listen carefully. By my rough count, after saying that not even God’s omniscience can know these singularities, MacIntyre goes on to use the terms “predict,” “predictable,” and “unpredictable,” around eighty times to characterize the kind of knowledge that he has in mind and the character of the “singularities” he has in mind, in denying that they can be known “before” they occur. Indeed, at one point in the talk explaining what he has argued, he says, “my claim is that the notion of predicting such singularities before they occur is unintelligible” (here, minute mark 33:10).

In the second place, he explicitly mentioned in his talk inheriting habits of thought that see the world as a world of predetermined and predictable events determined by physical laws, a view that we have inherited from the mechanistic philosophy of the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries. MacIntyre describes this view as still holding cultural sway over us, that is, as still providing us with a common cultural frame for considering how the universe operates, long after mechanism as a philosophical movement has fallen by the wayside.

In the third place, he explicitly mentioned what can be considered the successor philosophical movement to mechanism, namely, physicalism. Physicalism is roughly the thesis that the entirety of what exists is physical, where what counts as physical is what can be described in the ideal limit of future physics (or perhaps if we are feeling ecumenical some other natural sciences as well, like chemistry or biology). It is very much like the mechanistic conception of the universe, except that it has given up on the idea that the ideal laws of physics will be mechanistic laws. Mechanism did not, as such, rule out that there might be non-mechanical causes, although some mechanistic philosophers did. However, the laws or theories that are developed of the physical so described will still allow for the predictability of the future from the past and the present. Nothing new under the sun, as it were.

An important feature of such physicalism is what is sometimes jocularly called its “no spooks” commitment. We ordinarily use language that seems to implicate the reality of the mental, particularly in the lives of animals and especially human life, language that speaks of pains, pleasures, desires, hopes, fears, thoughts, beliefs, judgments, aspirations, decisions, intentions, and so on. However, for the physicalist that MacIntyre has in view, that language, like the language that speaks of witches, ghosts, and goblins, has no real referent in the universe. Or if it does, what it refers to supervenes on the physical so described and is causally inert in the universe. For MacIntyre’s target, the mental supervenes upon the physical universe but does not fundamentally affect it. It stands inert and apart from it as far as causal explanation goes.

The real causal action takes place down in the depths of the physical as described by ideal physics. However, for such a physicalism, the physical universe is causally closed as ideally described by the laws of physics, by which is meant only the physical as described by ideal physics can cause the physical. No spooks then. No mental causation interrupts the course of the physical universe from the supervening realm. The mind might be there, but it does not do anything, really.

In the easiest version, being in a certain physical state implies by supervenience being in a certain mental state. However, a feature of this position is that no mental state implies or causes any physical state or even any other mental state, despite the appearances of, for example, punching through a plate glass window because of one’s anger along with the desire not to punch the stranger in the bar whose insult made one so angry. Again, no mystery, no originality, no oddity for the omniscient god who accompanies this universe of physicalism, knows its past and its present, and in its omniscience can predict its future. It can even read the thoughts of its creatures and predict what they will think tomorrow, since along with perfectly knowing the physical state of the universe and its physical laws, it also knows perfectly the mental states that supervene upon the physical.

In the fourth place, MacIntyre shows his hand when he addresses the so-called “problem of other minds,” again, relating it to themes pursued in much of modern philosophy since the seventeenth century. It is not the same problem as physicalism, although it is related. It presupposes a view of the mind that allows for the efficacy of the mental in shaping the physical, but it tends to think of the physical in the same way as physicalists do—what is described by the ideal physics. On this view of “other minds,” the minds of others are hidden from view, masked like the Wizard of Oz behind the curtain of the body. One can never really know the thoughts of another mind except by hypothesis, since all one ever observes are the motions and noises made by the body. One hypothesizes that there is a mind, whether physical or non-physical, somewhere hidden from view that nonetheless is causally efficacious in bringing about the motions and noises of the body.

Thus, this view of the mind can, but need not be a way of pushing back against physicalism. The pushback cedes to physicalism its description of the physical world as exhaustively described by ideal physics. In the pushback, the mind is mysterious indeed, for it is not part of the physical world so described. Nonetheless, the pushback consists in asserting that the mind is capable of influencing the physical, at least in being able to cause what we identify as motions and noises coming out of someone’s mouth or colored marks upon bodily materials coming out of someone’s hand. In that, at least, it rejects the causal closure of the physical so dear to the ordinary no-spooks physicalist. This kind of dualism of mind and body, whether methodological or ontological, is popular among many theistic believers as a way of granting to the sciences the progress they have made since the Middle Ages, without granting to them the whole of the universe. It just grants to them the whole of the physical universe as described by ideal physics, in which the mental is foreign, but can intrude and interfere with otherwise perfectly predictable physics. This is a mind-of-the-gaps argument, to echo the infamous god-of-the-gaps of early modern theism, in the face of early modern mechanism.

Thus, the spooks are all around us, though hidden from view. To make themselves known they must encode their thought into sound or color that can be heard or seen by the body associated with another mind. The mind of the receiver then decodes the physical signal into her or his own thought world. The key, however, is that the decoder has hypothesized that the sounds or colors were produced by another mind that is otherwise unknown. The basis for the hypothesis is that these are the sounds and colors that the observer would make his or her body produce were he or she to want to speak his or her thought.

However, upon a moment’s reflection, it is clear that the hypothesis is unwarranted because it is based upon an assumption grounded solely upon the observer’s own mental life—the assumption being that another mind would act in the same way as the observer’s. But the observer has no evidence for this assumption, indeed cannot have any evidence for it. The position precludes any evidence concerning how another mind might operate in relation to his or her own. At best it seems it can only be a simple pragmatic hope that there is someone else over on the other side of the bodily divide, a hope making life possible between the associated bodies and the strangers in a strange land of the mental.

MacIntyre, in describing this problem of other minds, focused upon the reality of thought expressed in speech in this spooky world. But consider also what, if true, it means for the love we express for one another in our daily lives playing together, eating together, and other forms of cooperative action, or by smiling, holding hands, caressing, and making love. It is all bodily code between strangers who inhabit their own little strange worlds sealed off from one another by their bodies, code needing to be deciphered, in the hope that it is not an illusion and that maybe there is someone on the other side. How does she love me? Let me hypothesize the ways. Indeed, let me hypothesize her.

MacIntyre is undoubtedly correct that the world so conceived, first by mechanism and subsequently by physicalism, accompanied by doubts about the reality or efficacy of the mental and conceiving of ourselves as spooks, exercises a powerful influence upon contemporary philosophical movements, but also culture, both highbrow and popular. For the latter, just consider the importance of themes of human transcendence over the quotidian physical and materialistic world that surround us in literature, art, and film. In religion, consider the thoughts of some who see death as a difficult but welcome passageway into another better non-physical world, without these limitations. So conceived, the body is a kind of accident of our existence here in this life, but also even in the resurrection after death where we get it back like a piece of lost property.

MacIntyre is right to push back on this framing of the universe, from which originality and oddity have been banished, or at best allowed to dwell in some foreign universe hypothesized by the pious denizens of this one. The most obvious pushback comes when he quotes Aquinas writing about death and resurrection in his commentary on Corinthians, “anima mea non est ego.” “I am not my soul.” Just substitute “mind” for “soul.” That is Aquinas himself pushing back on the view that as human beings we are identical to our souls, souls conceived of as hidden entities hidden within our bodies or mysteriously attached to them in an accidental mode of existence. Aquinas is pushing back on the idea that we do not in fact die. The idea that we lose our bodies, but we live on in a bodiless realm, sometime in the future to get our bodies back is what is called “the resurrection of the dead.” But why would I want my body back if it causes me so much trouble in life? Why when it renders me opaque to and hidden from my friends, puts me at an insuperable distance from my wife and children, and weighs me down in this physical universe? The pious will respond, “well it will be a glorified body,” so no longer a burden. Will we also be given powers of telepathy to cross the inherent boundary of our bodies, even if glorified, telepathy that will make our thoughts transparent to one another? Aquinas says no. We are living physical bodies living in this physical world, not souls or minds. We communicate in and through our living bodies because we are identical to our living bodies.

Here one can think fruitfully of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s celebrated aphorisms, “the best picture of the human soul is the human body,” and “I am not of the opinion that he has a soul.” I am not of the opinion that he “has” a soul because I know his soul in knowing him, the living body who speaks to me. For Aquinas, I do not have to figure out that you are a human being because I somehow figure out or hypothesize that you have a human soul to explain your bodily behavior. I know you are a human being, a certain kind of animal, not a something differing from animals, but a something differing as an animal from the other animals that with us inhabit our world, just as they differ from one another. Your soul is manifest in your life as a human animal. The opinion that another has a soul is the fruit of the dualism that animates our culture and thought world, in which the mind (soul) is hypothesized as a hidden cause of bodily phenomena, a hypothesis, a spook, a mind-of-the-gaps that the physicalist is happy to do without.

For Aquinas, we do in fact die when the living bodies we are identical to die. Although our souls do not, we cease to exist. Whatever happens to our souls after we die, they are not us. And when we rise in the resurrection, it is we who rise from the dead and exist again into perpetuity.[2] Our bodies will be glorified because it is we who are glorified in the resurrection. Glorified rational animals, but not in another world. In this world redeemed and glorified. Then we will see the world’s glory, full of “grace and truth.”

If, instead of the soul being hidden from view, it is manifest in what we do as the living bodies we are, then if you want to know what I mean, do not hypothesize a cause behind the sounds or colors. Listen carefully to my words, and concentrate when you read them. I mean what I say. My thought is right there, manifest in what you see and hear. Do not hypothesize my love for my family. Watch me when I pick up my child and kiss him on the cheek. Watch me as I walk about the kitchen making Amatriciana, and then see how I serve it to my family. You will see the love. It is right there for all to see and hear if they pay attention to the universe around them.

This is a view of the mysterious universe and our place in it that MacIntyre is drawing our attention to. However, in that respect, at least, MacIntyre might appear to be wrong for thinking the world is a mysterious place. That my soul is manifest in the kiss I give my wife, the way I hold my child, the food I make my friends, or the way I entertain and respond to questions and comments from my students, is the least mysterious thing in the world. It is the air we breathe, provided we do not allow ourselves to be captured by a thought world that eats away at them with the acid of a scientistic physicalism. This world of human life appears mysterious to us because we allow it to be occluded by attitudes toward scientific progress that are not justified by that progress, no matter how wonderful and great they be. But of course, if we pay close attention to what MacIntyre said, we understand that that is what he said—it is mysterious to a world drunk on scientism.

Notice that what we need to do to avoid the loss of ourselves to one another is to abandon physicalism without abandoning physics. I cannot walk to the store to buy the guanciale I need to make the amatriciana unless the laws of physics hold as they do. I rely upon gravity and frictional forces as well as the mechanics of kinesthetic movement in my arms, legs, hips, the chemistry of the blood that my heart pumps to my muscles, the electro-chemistry of the nerve firings along the pathways from my brain to my muscles. I rely upon even the law-like quantum indeterminism of events taking place within and around me at the subatomic level. Without all of the law-like behavior of all these aspects of my existence as a physical being, studied and modeled in the natural sciences, I could not act, which means my soul would not in fact be manifest in what I do, for I could do nothing. My body would not be the best picture of my soul, because I would be dead. Or rather, I would never have lived.

All of this wonderful reality studied by physics, chemistry, biology, and so on make my life possible. Nonetheless, however adequate to the phenomena that the natural sciences bear upon, none taken individually or collectively are adequate to the depth of the physical universe we inhabit and the physical beings we are. As MacIntyre argued, all the predictability of all the various physical laws of all the different natural sciences that describe how it is possible for me to be writing as I am now, cannot predict what I am writing and what I will write. Nor could even I have done so, except in the most general and vague terms, before I began to write. I knew in general what I wanted to say, and could predict that I would write about certain broad themes raised by MacIntyre’s lecture. But the reality of what I actually say, what I concretely manifest in this essay only becomes knowable and known to me and to you in the actual writing. Later, however, I will distinguish between the way it is known to me and the way it is known to you.

MacIntyre mentioned as an example a Shakespearean sonnet. He might have mentioned Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice. Christopher Marlowe wrote an earlier play entitled The Jew of Malta, an awful play deeply suffused with antisemitism. Let us suppose, for the sake of argument, that Shakespeare, born the same year as Marlowe, was in general envious of the latter’s fame and productivity.[3] But also disgusted by his rabid antisemitism, even while Shakespeare may himself have shared more or less in some of the antisemitism of his time. Perhaps Shakespeare’s wife, Anne Hathaway, seeing him return from The Jew of Malta all hot and bothered, knowing of her husband’s envy of Marlowe and disgust at his rabid antisemitism, predicts that her husband will write a play prompted by The Jew of Malta. Perhaps she might also predict that the main character will be a Jew and even that the Jew will be given all the best lines. “That’s just Will,” she says to herself. What she could not predict was the play The Merchant of Venice, whose full title is The Merchant of Venice or the Jew of Venice. Nor could she have predicted the soliloquy:

If you prick us, do we not bleed?
If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison
us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not
revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will
resemble you in that. If a Jew wrong a Christian,
what is his humility? Revenge. If a Christian
wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be
by Christian example? Why, revenge! The villainy you
teach me I will execute, and it shall go hard but I
will better the instruction.

It is worth wondering about what Shakespeare might have been saying to Marlowe in writing those lines that Marlowe would undoubtedly hear. Could anyone have predicted that Shakespeare would write that? Marlowe? Laplace’s god? Not even Shakespeare could have predicted that he would write that passage or that very play in all of its details. If he could predict it, he would already know it in all those details. But then all he would have done in writing it is transcribe it, or “encode” it. So, when exactly did he conceive of it in all those details, if not in the writing? And, for the sake of argument, could he have predicted that too, predicted what he would conceive of it before writing it? This way, madness or an infinite regress lies, or both. Anyone who thinks you first write it in your head or mind and then transcribe it or encode it on paper is not a writer, or a very good one anyway.

If Shakespeare knew that he would write a play in response to Marlowe’s, it was not a knowledge by prediction, but a knowledge by intention. He knew what he intended to write—a play better than Marlowe’s. Perhaps one of Einstein’s friends, knowing of his obsessive personality, his mathematical genius, and his interest in the negative results of the Michelson-Morley interferometer experiment that showed that the speed of light was the same no matter in what direction it was traveling, could have predicted that Einstein would obsess over the implications of that result, trying to figure it out. What neither his friend nor even Einstein himself could have predicted was that he would come up with the Theory of Relativity to explain it.

The capacity to predict is characteristic of the ideal we have for the natural sciences we develop to understand the world around us. And as already mentioned, they are marvelously successful in being able to predict aspects of the physical world around us. But, they are not the only ways in which we know the physical world around us. For example, while I know by observation the position of the elbow of my coworker Pegeen, and may predict how it will slip off the desk she is sitting at as she falls asleep during my talk, I do not know the position of my own elbow by observation or prediction. I know it by proprioception or kinesthesia, which is not the sort of observational knowledge I have of my coworker’s elbow.

Proprioception is just one way of knowing aspects of the physical world other than by observation or prediction. I also know what I intend to do when I go home this evening. I know that I intend to begin working on the turkey for Thanksgiving tomorrow. That is not knowledge by observation of some inner state, where I discover and identify some piece of mental bric-a-brac with the label, “intention to work tonight on turkey for Thanksgiving,” nor is it a prediction. If I do not end up doing what I intended to do, it is not that I made a bad observation or bad prediction. It is that I abandoned my intention or someone or something impeded me from carrying it out. In the face of such failure, if it were a prediction, then as a prediction it would have been false, and I would have been wrong in making it, as wrong as a weatherman might be. But of course, I was not wrong in knowing what I intended, even if I failed to carry it out. Again, a gymnast may both predict winning the gold medal and know that she intends to do so. If she gets the silver, her prediction turned out false, but her knowing what she intended remains what it was, true knowledge by intention. Knowing what one intends is simply not the same thing as either observing or predicting that one will do it. I know what I intend to do simply by intending to do it. I make the world that way and know the world that I make that way.

Similarly, I know what I am doing right now in typing this sentence. But I know it by doing it, not by observing or predicting it. Yes, I can see and observe the letters appearing upon the screen before me. But my knowledge of what I am writing is not the result of observing what is taking place on the screen, finding out from the screen, as it were, what I am doing, what I am writing, hypothesizing myself as the cause of it. I know what I am doing by doing it, which is why I do not simply observe colors unfolding on a screen in front of me. Indeed, I know that I am the cause of the intelligible character of the writing I am expressing on that screen because I know what I am doing. In the beginning was the λόγος, the verbum, the word.

So, there are many ways of knowing the physical world we inhabit. Those ways include knowledge of the physical laws that are presupposed to what happens within it, but also include ways that are other than the ways of knowing exhibited in the natural sciences for which predictive power is a nearly supreme value. MacIntyre did not discuss these other ways of knowing. But what is characteristic of almost all of his examples of originality and “singularities” in the physical world is that they involved human action (he also mentioned new characteristics arising in the evolution of the physical universe. Again, a Shakespearean sonnet; Einstein and the Theory of Relativity.

I promised above that I would distinguish between the way my writing is known to me and the way it is known to you. I did not predict that I would do so. I stated my intention to do so. I will now attempt to carry out that intention. And, incidentally, I know what I am doing. If the Theory of Relativity could have been predicted or Shakespeare’s sonnet predicted, then that would just make of Einstein or Shakespeare mere transcription devices for the cosmos of physicalism. On the prediction view, from the very Big Bang itself, the cosmos awaited someone to transcribe, “Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang . . .” That is ridiculous. However, it does not follow that Shakespeare could not thus know his sonnet or Einstein his theory because neither could predict them. They knew them in the doing of them, just as I know what I am doing now, writing this essay. Michelangelo did not know the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel would be as it is by predicting it. Julius II may have known that Michelangelo was painting by observing him do it. But Michelangelo painted it, and he knew what he was painting by doing it. My wife and I did not predict our children. By God’s power and grace, we made them. Our making was our knowing. Our knowing was our doing.

Aquinas calls this kind of knowing practical and productive. It is not speculative or predictive. It does not know by observing or by observing and then predicting. What is done or made gives expression to and manifests the knowing as doing. In the speculative knowing of something, some existing being, its properties and states, including the potentialities of its powers and developmental states if it has them, is the measure or rule by which our knowledge is judged true, if true. However, in practical and productive knowing, the knowing is the measure or rule by which the act or product is judged to be true. Think of how a bicycle wheel is made true in its spin by the productive act of the mechanic who knows what he is doing, or the arrow shot straight and true by the archer who knows what she is doing. Think of how a spouse expresses true love in and through daily acts by which he or she serves the other spouse and their children. The acts are judged to be acts of true love in the doing. The practical knowledge from which they spring, manifest, and execute, is the measure of their truth.

Thus, actions and the products of actions can be judged true just as much as statements are judged true, albeit in an analogous sense of “true.” They are judged true by the practical and productive knowledge they spring from in the knowing by doing. When Christ calls himself “the truth,” he is not speaking metaphorically. “Through him all things were made, and nothing was made without him.”

Even if MacIntyre did not describe these ways of knowing by intending, doing, and making, rather than by observing or predicting, the physical world is mysterious and odd in the ways he described precisely because there are physical agents in the world who know by intending, doing, and making. They, we do not stand above the universe as spooks in another world and try to manipulate its deterministic ways. They—we—are physical beings, a certain sort of animal in the world that knows by acting, presupposing the ways of the universe described by the natural sciences, but also shaping it in new and creative ways. One of the mysteries of knowing by doing is that I do not need to know the physical principles that are presupposed to and enable my knowing by doing—I do not need to know how gravity works in order to know that I am walking by walking, even though my walking presupposes gravity. This knowing by acting is what is original and creative, and, as MacIntyre said, a reflection within us of the Divine creativity in making the cosmos and us within it, we who are made “to the image and likeness of God.”

In making his point about our creativity being a reflection of the creativity of God, I think MacIntyre chose poorly the biblical passage in which God tells Adam to name the animals. That image comes from the second Genesis story. That naming strikes me as much more akin to the observational and speculative theorizing of natural science, since it presupposes coming to know by observation the animals that have already been made, and subsequently describing them. A better passage to communicate the originality and creativity of knowing by doing comes from the first Genesis story. It comes from the very passage in which God actually says that we are made “to the image and likeness of God.” In that passage, just after it says we are made to the image and likeness of God, it says “and he blessed them and he said, ‘be fruitful and multiply.’” Thus, God commanded them to do something creative and original as the expression of his blessing and their being made to the image and likeness of God. Through them, things were made, and nothing human was made without them. This is knowing by doing.

At this point, it is appropriate to turn to the omniscience of God in order to ask how his omniscience stands with respect to knowledge of the universe in general, but also these singularities of human creativity that MacIntyre pointed to as genuinely creative human acts and productions that cannot be predicted on the basis of knowledge of the laws of nature and knowledge, even comprehensive knowledge of the state of the universe before these actions occur. We will do so in the next installment of this series.

AUTHORIAL NOTE: In what I have written, I do not believe that I have asserted anything either materially or formally heretical. But, in all I have written, I submit myself to the legitimate teaching authority of Christ’s Holy Church, and no one else, to teach me that I have.

[1]A Philosophical Essay On Probabilities, Pierre-Simon, Marquis de Laplace, trans. From the Sixth French Edition by Frederick Wilson Truscott and Frederick Lincoln Emory (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1902), 4. Emphasis added.

[2] Summa Contra Gentiles Bk.IV.82.6. Also, Scriptum super Sententiis, IV.d43.q1.a1.qc.1 ad 2. And Super Job, C.XIV.

[3] The following is an imaginative scenario based in history. I do not know how envious Shakespeare was of Marlowe. Nor do I know that he wrote The Merchant of Venice in response to Marlowe. The scenario is for the purpose of illustration of the larger point I will make.

Featured Image: Cellarius Harmonia Macrocosmica - Scenographia Systematis Copernicani, 1661; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100. 


John O'Callaghan

John O'Callaghan is an associate professor of philosophy at the University of Notre Dame and a permanent member of the Pontifical Academy of St. Thomas Aquinas.

Read more by John O'Callaghan