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Trying to Fly with One Wing, Part 26: The Classification of Things

Some years ago a Christian friend and I found ourselves discussing angels. My friend talked as if he had just returned from heaven and his first Angel Conference. To substantiate his claims of how angels are involved in our lives, he began telling stories about angels and what he had read about them in the Bible. The only problem was that my friend’s narrative was laced with the names of characters and towns that were more likely to be found in contemporary North America than the ancient plains of Mesopotamia. Something was wrong, and it had to do with the most fundamental aspect of logic: how do we know what something is, and what it isn’t?

Most of this series has been about the problems we face during informal arguments when we use fallacies for the superstructure of our position. Recently I was asked to tutor a group of middle school home-schoolers in formal logic, which is about the foundations of logic. It has been years since I was exposed to these basic concepts, and I felt chagrined at not including them earlier in this series of articles. So, I’m going to take time to dig some deeper footings. The problem I hope to point out is that when the foundations of our arguments are weak, we are like an architect who uses a sandy beach as the foundation for an elaborate beach house. Even if we use steel for the superstructure, poor footings and a vulnerable foundation will weaken its ability to withstand a storm.

One of those foundational concepts is how we define the essence of things; that is, we need to make sure we’re taking positions about things that are true and not false. We need to be arguing on the side of substance and not non-substance. We need to be FOR something, and AGAINST nothing.

Something or Nothing?

On the popular DVD interview titled Common Ground, Protestant Pastor Steve Andrews interviews Catholic priest Fr. John Riccardo about the theological issues that bring them together. A great deal of the discussion centers on correctly defining terms, and identifying the essence of things. One of the theological issues that separate Christians is the concept of “justification.” Reaching back to the Protestant Reformation, some Protestants think Catholicism teaches that a person can be justified by the merit of his own works, without God’s grace, while some Catholics (and possibly some of the bishops attending the Trent Ecumenical Council), believed that Protestants entirely discounted the necessity and high importance of works performed in cooperation with God’s grace. It was this confusion that gave rise to the concept, within Protestantism, that a person can be saved by “faith alone” and not by works.

In the Common Ground dialogue, to a question by Andrews about whether or not Catholics believe they can work their way to heaven, Riccardo begins his answer by saying, “We [as Catholics] can say…that we’re saved by ‘faith alone,’ so long as we understand what we’re talking about by faith.” At first, it sounds as if Riccardo has just sided with a heresy. But, as he continues, we realize he’s about to each us something important — that at the level of faith’s essence Protestants and Catholics agree. That is, when properly defined, when identified truthfully and fully, Protestants and Catholics agree on what it means to be saved by faith — that faith is an action that involves our acceptance of Christ’s work and God’s grace, followed by our obedience. Faith is not the simple mental ascent to a concept, but rather, as Fr. John says: “Faith is clinging to Christ…it’s His action on the cross that saves me, which I have to respond to. I’m saved by His work alone, period. But I have to cooperate with that. I’ve got to welcome (Him) into my life and I got to do it every day.”

It took 30 years of dialogue, but the Vatican and the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) agreed in 1998 that the essence or the crux of the Protestant Reformation no longer exists. What changed was the groups’ agreement on how to define justification. They defined their terms, and realized they never really disagreed at all.

The Crux of a Thing

The definition of things is the crux of philosophy, logic, and truth. But just how do we go about deciding what something is? How do we decide if a statement is true or false, or if a thing is real or not? How do we decide if we are contending with “something” that demands our attention, or if what we have is  “nothing” — which demands our disinterest?

To many people, such a question makes no sense, and asking it is a waste of time. If we have nothing then how can we ask anything about it? If it’s nothing, shouldn’t we ignore it? Only if it’s something should we pay attention. (Dave Armstrong suggests that atheists might heed this advice.) Unfortunately that’s not what is happening around us. Our society is filled with “things” that are “nothing,” and judgments that are “false” and toward such things men and women hurry with abandon — chasing, ogling, and genuflecting.

Political Proposals

As I write this, it is three weeks before the 2008 national election — a particularly intense political season. Everyday in print, on the radio, on television and on bumper stickers we hear many claims that the other party is embracing concepts that are “nothing” or barely “something.”

In California, where I have plenty of acquaintances, Proposition 8 is on the ballot. Prop 8 defines the concept of “marriage” as the union between one man and one woman. The proposal’s language would add this sentence to the state constitution: “Only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California.” Citizens collected signatures to put Prop 8 on the ballot, in response to rulings by some judges who decided that natural law and mother nature were being unfair to homosexuals. (That’s sarcasm). So, with a stroke of the pen and a rap of the mallet, the justices proclaimed that gay couples should be allowed to procreate. God’s curious how that’s going to work. (More sarcasm.) Such is an example of the irrationality among supposedly the wisest human beings on the planet. It is a case of “nothing” being called “something.”

In the State of Michigan, where I live, the airwaves are filled with commercials about Proposition 2, which, if passed, would allow unrestricted embryonic stem cell research and subsequently the cloning of human embryos. Both are grave sins in the eyes of the Catholic Church.

One particular ad claims the other side is against “all stem cell research,” and that stem cell research offers our best hope for curing illness and disease. They claim that their political opponent has voted both FOR stem cell research and AGAINST it, and therefore cannot be trusted. What they don’t tell you, in any of the multiple ads, is that there are TWO kinds of stem cells and consequently two kinds of research. One type of research uses ADULT stem cells: It does not threaten a life, is legal everywhere, is morally acceptable to Catholic teaching, is supported by all parties, and has produced dozens of usable therapies that are alleviating suffering among thousands of people. The other type of research requires the destruction of EMBRYOS to harvest stem cells, takes a human life, is contrary to Catholic teaching, is not supported by all parties, is illegal in most places, and has produced NO usable therapies but only unusable mutations. The ads falsely claim that “nothing” is “something.”

Porphyry’s Tree

The attempt to describe or label something correctly goes back to Plato and his descriptions of reality and shadows, Aristotle and St. Thomas in their work to categorize being (the study of ontology), and many other philosophers and scientists like Carl Linnaeus, a Swedish botanist, physician and zoologist, who created the schema that we use today to label any living thing.

In the third century, Porphyry, a Greek philosopher who reportedly wrote 15 books against the Christians (only fragments can now be found), devised a useful device to help identify things. The Porphyrian Tree, simplified in Figure 1, forms the basis that allows us to begin to answer the old quiz show question: “Is it animal, vegetable, or mineral?” The tree allows things to be classified into five bi-polar divisions: substance or non-substance (e.g. reality or not real); material or non-material (physical or spiritual); living or non-living (organic or mineral); sentient or non-sentient (consciousness or plant-like); rational or non-rational (moral reasoning human or instinctual brute).

The traditional way to use a tree of this type, and it’s still used today and taught in traditional logic courses, is that if something requires classification along one of the “non-” branches, the classification dead-ends. Thus, a chair is a substance that is material, but non-living (Stop). That sounds okay, just as a human can be described as a substance that is material, living, sentient, and rational.

But how do you classify an angel? Per Porphyry, an angel is a non-material substance (Stop). It is not, nor can it ever be material, living, sentient (conscious) or rational.  While Christians might not have a problem with an angel being a non-material spirit, they would have a problem declaring it is also non-living, non-sentient, and non-rational, which is what the tree suggests by truncating the definition of its essence as non-material spirit. This probably didn’t concern Porphyry so much because he was against Christianity. But then again perhaps he designed this paradigm to aid his anti-Christian, materialistic arguments.

The problem Porphyry’s Tree presents is basic: It demonstrates that even when a seemingly rational schema is presented to us, unless we are particularly insightful, or particularly silly, we can find ourselves trapped in a disagreement without knowing how to get out of it. (Way out hint: Remember the story of the maiden, and her parents who sat crying under the ax stuck in the ceiling of the cellar worrying about how if she married the gentleman that had come calling on her, and they had a boy, and the boy should come down into the cellar, and the ax should fall on the boy’s head and klll him, how terrible it would be? Well, Prophyry’s tree is like that.)

Change the diagram (See Figure 2). Use the same terms, but restructure the schema’s relationships to align more closely with reality (See Figure 2, and Footnote 1).

Thus, a chair is still a non-living, material, substance, and a flower is a non-sentient, living, material, substance. But now we can properly describe, name, and identify an angel as a rational, sentient, living, non-material, substance.

Remember, however, that this diagram is nothing more than a bunch of lines on a computer screen (or paper if you print it out). Reality is a lot more complex. The reality we know as Christianity is filled with mystery that simple diagrams and the complexity of science will never unravel. Fr. Mitch Pacwa yesterday morning on EWTN suggested that even when we get to heaven and understand a great deal more, we will still not understand the mysteries of God; for if we did eternity would be boring.

Okay, so we’ve solved one problem by removing the ax from the ceiling. But using only the Porphyrian Tree and our powers of observation to determine the essence of a thing has its limits. To the observing scientist, the day-old human embryo is only substance, material, and living. We cannot recognize, until about week five of gestation a heartbeat, and we cannot measure electrical activity produced by the brain until about 6-12 weeks. Even some measures of sentient consciousness (recognition of self in a mirror), will not be recognized until months after birth, as well as signs of rational thought and moral reasoning.

Using either schema and only direct observation, therefore, does not provide us with a human being until months after it is born, and some would argue that we don’t have a fully developed human until the child has developed language skills. That could take years. Using such a reasoning chain alone is also problematic when sickness and disease strike. When consciousness and language skills disappear for a period of time due to accident, disease or old age, does human life cease to exist? On what basis, then, is a conclusion about human life made? When does a thing cease to be the thing it was? When is a thing that was something no longer that something and now suddenly nothing [Footnote 2]?

There are many ways to define something; what is described here is only one. But the problems illustrated above can be found in every other rational schema or device known to man that attempts to accurately define what something is, except for one.  And that one method is faith — God’s Word carried to us through the life and words of Jesus and the prophets. Here we are introduced to and reminded of things that reason alone cannot explain, but which reason does enlighten and support.

“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I dedicated you” (Jeremiah 1:5).

“Most blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And how does this happen to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” (Luke 1: 42-43).

What happened in the case of my friend’s stories about the angels of North America? It turned out that he had just finished reading a particularly long and exciting story by a Christian novelist about Biblical angels involved in 20th century America. While the essence of Biblical angels indeed is that of substance, the essence of the characters and situations in my friend’s novel were non-substantive or unreal. So good was the writing, however, and so true to the natural character of real angels, that it became difficult to tell the difference between stories of 4,000 years ago, and the fictional stories today.

My friend’s situation seems impossible, but it demonstrates just how easy it can be to believe in something that is not true, and why reliance on faith, diligent study, prayer, and the teachings of the Church are so critically important in our pursuit of truth and the good of all humankind.

[Footnote 1: Some of you who are familiar with the discipline of assigning the essence of something with the Porphyrian Tree may disagree with my seemingly arbitrary revision, with lines going every which way, and my apparent lack of discernment. My reasons for the diagram cannot be entirely defended, but I'll try. (1) Such lines on a paper can only help us define the essence of being in a crude way. Reality is far beyond what we will ever understand and thus I put lines every which way to remind us of our limited understanding. (2) Can something be non-living and sentient? Depends on how you define "sentient". If you limit the definition to things that can "sense" then most scientific measuring devices (sensors) are such things. (3) Can something be "non-sentient" and "rational"? Not that I know of. But then I know very little.]

[Footnote 2: Science and the Church both recognize that human life begins at conception with the formation of a human embryo. This discussion casts no doubt on that fact, but only on the limitations of using certain philosophical arguments to determine what is true.]


Stanley D. Williams, Ph.D. is executive producer for SWC Films, an independent film and television production company. He is the author of the motion picture screenplay writing guide, The Moral Premise: Harnessing Virtue and Vice for Box Office Success, as well as owner of media distributor Nineveh's Crossing. He can be reached at sdw@StanWilliams.com.


  • Kenneth Jones

    I gotta tell you, my head hurts (just a little) each time I read one of these installments; nevertheless, I devour every one.
    Fascinating.