What Is the River?

In the course of a small conversation I had with Mr. John C. Wright in the comments of one of his blog posts, I said that if moral agents persisted across time, they must necessarily be outside of time and therefore conjoined to time by something outside of both and one is then just a little bit of thinking-things-through from God. His reply contained this very interesting question which I’d like to answer at length:

If the Ohio river is inside time, and flowing, and the water changes from moment to moment, in what way is it wrong or illogical of me to call it by the same name “the Ohio river” on Wednesday as I had done on Tuesday?

(I should note, if anyone is unfamiliar with Mr. Wright and his work, that he is a Catholic ex-atheist and is discussing the idea of atheistic ethics in the grand Catholic tradition of taking ideas seriously regardless of which “team” they might benefit because nothing is more important than the truth. Christians are in the pleasant position of not needing to fear the truth, because Jesus Christ is the truth. And the way and the life, but that does not directly bear on the moment.)

Unfortunately the only way to begin to address this question is by asking another question, and one so basic as to make most readers understandably grown: when we say “the Ohio River”, what, specifically, are we talking about? I know, I know, but hear me out. I promise I’ll keep it short.

When we say, “the Ohio River”, we are in truth referring to the form of a river which is instantiated in a particular place, for a duration of time. If we want to talk about the matter of the Ohio River, we must use far more cumbersome language, such as “the present riverbed of the Ohio River” or “The water flowing at this moment through the Ohio River”. Now, I think that the only reasonable position with regard to forms is Scholastic Realism, which is a sort of hybrid between Platonic realism and Aristotelian realism; scholastic realism holds that individual forms participate in the ideal of their form which exists in the mind of God, and it is from that participation that we can refer to two things by the same name and actually mean something by it. However, we need not go down the path of scholastic realism for the present purpose because the Ohio River is not a moral agent.

Before I get to the obvious objection to scholastic realism, let me address the Aristotelian objection to scholastic realism. Which is that the form of the Ohio River exists within time because it is subject to change. The Ohio river came into being and will probably go out of being; it grows and shrinks and occasionally has changed course. But the problem is that something is needed outside of the particular form in order for this to be the same form, rather than one form giving birth to another form and dying in childbirth. Why is it one Ohio River rather than many Ohio Rivers, in the way that wood gives birth to fire but is not fire? Aristotelian realism isn’t wrong, it is merely incomplete. (Which is why Saint Thomas could baptize it.) And so we return to the obvious objection, which was raised during the Endarkenment (more commonly called “the Enlightenment”).

The obvious objection to saying that the Ohio River, as a single thing, participates in the idea of Riverhood within God’s mind is simply to deny that the Ohio River is really one thing, but is instead a collection of things so similar that we give them all the same name. In this view of the name “the Ohio River” does not describe a thing in itself but rather a relation to us. “The Ohio River” thus means, “all that matter which is related to us in the manner of the water currently in the riverbed located as you’d find it on a map labeled ‘Ohio River’.” More colloquially, whatever water happens to be in a particular set of places going in particular directions. As with all forms of reductionism, it is unanswerable in itself except by negation. If a man says that there is no chair, only a collection of atoms in a particular arrangement he finds it convenient to call “chair,” there is nothing one can do to help him, except possibly giving him a vigorous beating with the object in question. No one is a sincere reductionist.

But it doesn’t matter, for the Ohio River is not a moral agent. If the Ohio River does something destructive, such as flooding a man’s house and property, no one holds that justice demands that vengeance be exacted upon the river. And in the case of one who holds the functional view of the river, he holds that it is not even possible to exact vengeance upon the river, for the water which did him harm is long gone.

This is not the case with moral agents. If a man killed my brother yesterday, I claim the right to kill him today because it is the same man who killed my brother. If I told people, “I claim the right to kill this man because he reminds me of the man who killed my brother” they would laugh at me or restrain me, depending on how serious they thought I was. And if they asked me, “But is he the same man?” and I replied, “I call him by the same name as I called the man who killed my brother.” they would grow angry with me. “Is he the same man or not?” they might reasonably demand of me. And if my final answer is, “He is not the same man but I am accustomed to treating him as the same man”  it may well end with my fellow villagers striking me down. And if I were to say, “He isn’t but for convenience I will say that he is,” it would be to the shame of my fellow men if they did not strike me down.

Morality requires identity across time to be meaningful. There may be no such identity, but if so there is no such thing as morality. This is why, to uphold morality, is to uphold identity across time. And once a man believes in actual identity across time, it is just a short hop, skip, and jump to believing in God.

Which is probably why pagan philosophers so often did believe in God.

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