It is the evening for his class and of course the train was late. He will have to skip dinner, have a late supper; time only for a change of shirt and socks, and out.
He makes the library just on eight, sits at the back, composes himself. Tonight’s class sounds a little dry: Philoponus contra Aristotle (WEA Philosophy Module II: the Mediaevals) but turns out to be anything but.
The attack on Aristotle’s theory of the quintessence is merely a preliminary to demolishing his conclusion: that the universe was eternal because that fifth element, ether, has a circular motion; that everything comes into being from its contrary; that as there is no contrary to a circular motion, ether must have been eternally existent.
Philoponus counters by arguing that things come into being from non-being, but that non-being has no such status as that of a contrary – non-being is not the material out of which being is fashioned (Against Aristotle 5 fragment 132).
Joshua (Shua, to his friends) thinks there is a simpler approach, a practical one: Aristotle had had no experience of the Circle Line in the rush hour. The contrary to motion on the Circle is no motion. He is tempted to raise this in the discussion period, but is reluctant. He doesn’t want to be a smart aleck, to be thought flippant.
Now, cooking his supper, he wishes he had – it strikes him as logically sound. No matter, he has been stimulated, his head is still spinning (elliptically); progress has been made. For if, contrary to Aristotle, the universe had a beginning, it must have an end.
He takes from the grill his supper, cheese and mustard on toast, which, during his reflections, has been carbonized.
Augustine on Time is presented as a sequel – or rather, prequel – to last week’s class, grappling with challenges thrown up, the tutor hopes, by Philoponus’ argument with Aristotle. For if, contra Aristotle, the universe had a beginning, it raises a question in the questing mind (he actually says this): what was there before the beginning? What Began the Begin, to paraphrase Cole Porter (he says this too).
Augustine’s prior answer was, in a counter-intuitive move, to side with Aristotle, but for tactical reasons: the universe had no beginning in Time, since Time came into existence with the creation of the universe (City of God IX 4, 12).
So although God pre-existed the universe, he did so outside Time, though not before Time, since there can be no before until Time begins. This must be so, in order to answer satisfactorily the objector’s question: what was God doing before he created the universe? (Confessions XI 12, 14).
Shua thinks of a different answer, and determines this week to add it to the discussion. He becomes more determined as the lecture continues, teasing out the attempts Augustine had pursued to eliminate Time as an objective entity. Time, said Augustine, is all in the mind, for what we experience is a moment, an instant, an atom of the Present. The Past was a sequence of present instants, but no sequence of instants add up to more than an instant (XI 15. 20). Shua is intuitively dissatisfied.
As the discussion commences, he raises his hand then his argument: that there is a simpler answer to what God was doing before creating the world – creating an earlier world. Physicists posit the existence (he says this) of multiple universes. If the number of universes is infinite, this would give God enough to do for all eternity. His argument, he argues, has rigour, elegance, cuts through sophistry and preserves common sense.
Several, though not the tutor, applaud.
He is, he thinks, getting the hang of philosophy.
This week’s is the class Shua has been anticipating, the reason he signed up for the course: Boethius on Divine Foreknowledge. Not the topic per se, but its contextual provenance, so to speak, in Boethius’ masterwork, On The Consolation Of Philosophy, its very title beckoning to Shua’s spirit, but enhanced by the fact – as he understands it – of its, and Boethius, being composed under sentence of death.
For this, surely, is the function of Philosophy, its cutting-edge raison d’être: reason’s skirmish with existence in extremis.
It was also one of the few books – the only book – of which he had heard beforehand. But that, maybe, was fortuitous, or evidence of his own foreknowledge.
In the event, he finds it a trifle disappointing, his mind sluggish after a demanding day, laggard in keeping pace. Boethius’ solution to the squaring of Divine Foreknowledge with human freedom, i.e. disposing of Predestination, was that as God is beyond – or was it above? – Time (outside, at any rate), His knowledge of a human’s future act is not foreknowledge but simply knowledge, a seeing of an act in the present, which eternally Time is to God (DCP 5.6). This strikes Shua as a let-down, a sleight of hand already used by Augustine.
No matter. He leaves the class consoled and calmly elated, through a form of osmosis. He had once seen a painting by a Sienese artist of St Francis rejecting the trappings of his mercantile father and allying himself with the bishop. The setting of the bishop’s throne – a pink, slender-columned portico giving a glimpse of cloistered serenity beyond – had remained a touchstone, a Philosopher’s Stone, ever since. It was that monastic angularity, that sumptuous austerity he craved. Now he feels he has, for an hour and more, dwelt in it. Or dreams he has.
The fourth class, and the last before half term. Shua has learnt a lot, not least by experience, and has made provision against the unreliability (atemporality?) of the Circle Line and consequent late supper, viz. a can of saucepan-ready lobster bisque. He leaves it on the draining board and changes his shirt, then his mind – about the choice of shirt, as there are several buttons missing.
He has to decide: put on a dirty shirt; put on a shirt agape at the belly; sew on some buttons and be late to class. Self-respect dictates the third.
He thus arrives with the lesson (The Epistemology of Duns Scotus and William of Ockham) in full swing. In fact, Scotus has been done, they are onto Ockham.
Ockham, the tutor is explaining, took Scotus’ differentiation between abstractive and intuitive knowledge and extended it, raising in consequence the spectre of radical doubt.
For Ockham, he continues, there are only individuals; universals are not entities but abstracted from individuals, which are the first objects of sense and therefore understanding. Abstractive knowledge, then, presupposes intuitive knowledge, which, using the word in a non-intuitive sense, is caused by perception – though not necessarily sense-perception; he allows intellectual perception: states of mind, etc. (OTh 1. 28).
In the main, though, intuitive knowledge is caused by objects themselves. If we look at the stars, that perception gives us an awareness of them, though the awareness and the stars are not one and the same. For God could, if He chose, create that awareness in us in the absence of stars, by direct rather than secondary cause.
This is where the difficulties, the doubts, set in.
In such a case, that directly-caused awareness of non-existent stars would seem to qualify, for Ockham, as knowledge, intuitive knowledge. But it would be false knowledge. For Ockham, using his razor-sharp mind, makes a further distinction between intuitive knowledge and evident knowledge. Only if the stars are there would our awareness be evident knowledge, true knowledge (OTh 9. 499).
To further clarify – or mystify – if God causes such a false awareness, then my knowledge is not intuitive but abstractive. How then can we be sure that our knowledge is both intuitive and evident? Only by assuming that God had not caused – had no need or desire to cause – such a perceptually deceptive miracle.
And there, flourishes the tutor, opens the chasm of scepticism. He opens up the chasm to debate.
It’s fitful at first, but livens. Someone mentions Descartes’ demon; the tutor remarks that Augustine had used a similar ground-zero argument – “If I am in error, I exist”; someone else invokes Hermann Hesse in his Eastern phase, that if life is illusion, I too am illusion…
Shua, who has not comfortably comprehended the tutor’s lecture due to his flustered arrival, perks up at this. There seems, he thinks, to be a knack to non-existence.
He ventures a comment, to test the position: that to describe both life and ourselves as illusory means we are back where we started. The tutor lightly quotes Wittgenstein to the effect that philosophy leaves everything as it was. A wag asks if, in that case, they can get their fees back. For the tutor, that nicely rounds off the lesson.
Shua in his kitchen picks up the tin of bisque, opener in hand. He hesitates. Lobsters are usually boiled alive, he has heard. He reads the label punctiliously. It’s of no help. He lashes in with the tin-opener.
But as the bisque starts to bubble on the hob, he suffers more qualms. He visualizes a pot glazeless in a searing kiln. Is that why they call it bisque, he wonders. But he has nothing in the larder and no energy for a takeaway; the Ethics segment is late in the term; he suspends judgment.
It’s a clear night, stars are visible above the sodium haze. He stares up. He knows the stars he sees are no longer there; would that count as a miracle? He dismisses it as an entirely natural consequence, not at all what he is seeking.
What he seeks is a full-blown miracle: a repeal of evident knowledge, a divine assurance that the stars are illusory, all is illusory, an illusionary world ribboning out; others, himself, his self, his memories: her head on the pillow, cheeks furrowed, pillow furrowed, quilt buckled under geological stress, harrowed, the guilt, the naked clay in the searing kiln…
But it is, he knows, too great a miracle, too big an ask. It is not cessation he desires but erasure. And not even God, he has read, can abolish historical fact.
He would settle for a friendly Cartesian demon, sitting on his shoulder, whispering the world into deceptive tissue.
This is more modest, more manageable. We can accommodate his need. For what he – what you – have failed to realize is that this is the demon at work.