Sermon Notes: Building Blocks of Reality

Atheism Series 2/2
Homily for Trinity IX 2017

The reason for this homily was to explain reality's building blocks: the substantial forms. Without understanding the building blocks of reality itself, it's useless to try to understand the higher features of reality, such as God. My hope is to show that the two doors that seem to open to a material-only world are just as illusory as that world itself, and to open the true door to reality that has both material and spiritual dimensions to it.

Science Vs. Religion?

Science is often portrayed as being opposed to religion (any kind, for all are assumed to be equally false). Faith, according to those who try to pit the two against each other, is a belief based upon zero empirical evidence and thus is disconnected to reality. Religion, accordingly, ought to be relegated to the private life of its followers and kept out of public discourse, and especially politics. It ought not to be taught in school. But is this accurate? Is this true objectively?

If by "science" we mean only empirical evidence and inductions or deductions based upon it, then "science" cannot provide any meaning to reality at all, and by definition can only describe material in it. Yet the very claim that faith is opposed to it is a metaphysical claim, not a "scientific" one under that definition of "science," because the juxtaposition itself attempts to provide meaning.

Under this juxtaposition of "science vs. faith," faith is assumed to be untrue (materialists have redefined "spiritual" to mean "fantasy" or "untrue" rather than the original definition of "immaterial" or "metaphysical") and disconnected it with physical reality; the juxtaposition of "science vs. faith" is itself a philosophical value judgment not a conclusion reached by empirical analysis of matter. It is a claim that begins with the skeptical, materialist assumptions. Science, if the above definition is to be granted, cannot have anything to say about the truth or falsity of religion one way or the other. If we want to address that question, we must look to philosophy, not science - if that definition of science is granted.

What Is Science?

What if we don't grant that definition of science? Science would include physics and metaphysics. It would include biology, geology, astronomy, etc. and philosophy. It becomes broader than today's commonly-used narrow definition. Thus, science not only measures and reasons materially, but also reasons immaterially; it both provides conclusions of data but also strives for meaning. But how can we justify to skeptics the broader use of this definition of science? First, by knocking down the narrow definition's two methods of self-justification, and second by providing the only method left to deal with reality.

1) One possible route the materialist takes to justify himself is by nominalism, which only affirms general terms or predicates in grammar. Nominalism is the idea that universals (forms) are only names without any corresponding reality, and these universals (like redness or anger) don’t exist. Another type of nominalism says that abstract objects don’t exist. Only particular, concrete objects exist – for example, this coffee table here, or that orange sitting on the counter. Both versions of nominalism have a fundamental problem: their use of universal labels to deny universals. They can either embrace an infinite regress of sticking to the claim that similar particulars have a resemblance to other resemblances, or they can claim there is only one universal necessary. But an infinite regress is madness, just as is nominalism allowing even one exception of universality (a form).

2) The other possible route the materialist takes to justify himself is by conceptualism (which I mistakenly called "contextualism" in the above homily). It is the position between nominalism and realism, and asserts the universality of particulars as conceptualized frameworks existing only within the mind. Conceptualism would say that our minds have the power of forming meaning for things – coming up with mental concepts to understand objects in the world around us. For example, our minds can make up meaning by which to understand what we might expect a coffee table to be in reality (several sturdy legs, a flat surface on top where you can rest cups, etc). Conceptualism would say that universals only exist to the extent that our minds can conceive of them. Materialists who embrace conceptualism simplify the older conceptualist theories of the medieval nominalists and certain Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment thinkers by necessity to avoid metaphysics altogether. Mathematics reveals the "Achilles' Heel" of conceptualism most clearly, as explained in the homily. Another example, ironically, would be the unicorn. I need not post a picture of one, as we can all imagine one in our minds. Yet the unicorn doesn't exist in reality. This might seem like proof of conceptualism at first, but it's actually just proof that only the idea of one exists (or rather, we have imagined using our minds). We cannot imagine things we have no experience of in reality, even if that is borrowing from and merging parts of reality together as we do with the unicorn's horse-like body and rhinoceros-like horn. Our various concepts of space aliens share in earth-based qualities; even the most strange ones we imagine cannot totally escape aspects we've borrowed from reality. So ideas are not things in and of themselves, but the mind dealing with reality. And we reason from universals to particulars.

Suppose a culture has only four categories of colors, or only describes textures and not hues of colors at all? Applying labels to describe anything at all is an example of appealing to the forms, even if minimally. Regardless of the name one chooses - for language evolves - to describe things, the moment we describe more than one thing by its commonality, we make use of the forms. It's inescapable!

3) The last possible method of dealing with reality is called, interestingly enough, realism. Moderate realism is a refinement of Plato by Aristotle and clarification by Aquinas. Plato left us with the dilemma of asking, "Where is this world of forms?" Aristotle answered by saying, "It is here but outside time." Aristotelianism, or hylomorphism, means that every physical substance is the sum of the matter which composes it and the form taken by the matter. For example, a coffee table is the sum of the wood particles and nails which compose it AND the form/shape of a coffee table. Interestingly, the only time the Bible uses the word "substance" (ousia) - in this sense, is in the Lord's Prayer: Give us this day our "daily" (epiousion) bread(He who has ears...) Forms of matter exist not in a separate dimension to the world independent of matter, but instantiated in specific things. Matter must have form(s); matter is physical and in a particular time and space, while its forms are metaphysical (spiritual) and outside time and space. Forms of matter aren't free-for-all as Plato could be crudely summarized as teaching, but are tethered yet flexible not being material themselves. Then there are forms that exist that are not connected to matter at all. We can reason this by first rejecting nominalism and conceptualism and by seeing that moderate realism (aka Aristotelianism) alone can fully explain the immaterial forms such as redness or anger. (See last week's post for more.) In short, if we reject nominalism and conceptualism (and its varieties), and we accept realism (and rejecting its incomplete or contradictory varieties), and accept Aristotelianism in particular, we cannot escape that immaterial universals - forms - are real and thus the spiritual world actually exists. (This leaves aside ethics for the moment, which is even more damning to the materialist worldview.)

Why is Aristotelianism the most consistent and fullest realist explanation (and thus known as moderate realism)? Because it answers the paradox raised by Parmenides and Heraclitus; the first said no motion could ever occur despite what we think we see (e.g., Zeno's paradox of Achilles and the Tourtise), while the other said everything was in motion despite our conceiving of permanence (by the time you finish reading this you will be a different person). Plato brought balance to these with his theory of the forms, and Aristotle refined these by his hylomorphism, with particular appeal to potentiality and actuality. The material is particular, the one; the immaterial is universal, the many: matter and form. The material can become or "do," and does or does not: potentiality and actuality. Remember, potentiality means something has the capacity for coming into being (or actualized), and actuality means something has the state of being actual, or realized.

Paradigm Shift

To repeat a major point I made in the homily: hopefully by now, we're coming to see (if taking this post together with last week's) – even if the concept of the forms is still a bit elusive - it’s more reasonable to believe that Moses appeared out of his own time, or that a bush could burn and not be consumed, or that Jesus and Peter (for a time until his faith faltered and he stopped) could walk on water, than it would be to assume none of this could reasonably happen and that everything exists only in the mind or not at all. The latter two options – on which materialism and thus atheism must rely - ultimately require logical contradictions or self-annihilation, while the first requires logical conclusions that defy normal experience. Which path do we want to pursue?

Now that the two false doors have, hopefully, been shown for what they are, and we are sticking our heads in, looking through the real doorway, we can now see that the building blocks of reality are matter and form. Let's say we embrace substantial realism (substantial forms). That raises a whole new set of questions, such as, "What is the mind?" "What is the immaterial 'stuff' souls are made of?" "What is anger?"


"Scientific [as it is narrowly defined] arguments start from empirical premises and draw merely probabilistic conclusions. Mathematical arguments start from purely conceptual premises and draw necessary conclusions. Metaphysical arguments of the sort Aquinas is interested in combine elements of both these other forms of reasoning: they take obvious, though empirical, starting points, and try to show that from these starting points, together with certain conceptual premises, certain metaphysical conclusions follow necessarily.

And even if someone claims to doubt the empirical premises appealed to - as, for example, Parmenides would claim to doubt that change ever occurs - it will typically be a doubt of the sort that derives from some competing metaphysical theory, rather than from some scientific discovery of heretofore unknown evidence."

 - Edward Feser

For more information about "scientism" or "positivism" see Bp. Barron's video: