philosophasting monks

I shall omit to speak about genera and species, as to whether they subsist (in the nature of things) or in mere conceptions only; whether also if subsistent, they are bodies or incorporeal, and whether they are separate from, or in, sensibles, and subsist about these, for such a treatise is most profound, and requires another more extensive investigation. –Boethius

“The universe cannot be only particulars as the nominalist maintains,” says one 13th century monk to another, as they sit, taking in the late evening sun on the monastery steps.

“Why not?” says the other monk.

“Because if this were the case…”

“That the universe is only particulars?”

“Precisely, because if this were the case, how could you possibly explain the growth of habit?


“Yes! Yes, how patterns multiply upon each other. How structures grow. How relationships –weather systems, and institutions alike–follow similar trajectories. How they both change and grow in predicable ways. How can you explain that we can both learn about the concept of force but not learn of it in the same manner, for I know how to swim and you do not?”

“Because these perceived patterns are nothing but mankind’s various cognitive strategies for adapting to and understanding these events. Because we can only know what the mind creates.”

There is a long lull in the conversation before the first monk says, with some trepidation brought on by the sheer anachronism of it all:

“How then, can one explain hemoglobin?”

“Hemo… what?”

Seeing the other’s puzzlement, the first monk is struck with confidence. He explains rather proudly (with typical scholastic arrogance) that:

“Hemoglobin is what oxygenates blood; but its function is of a general nature. Hemoglobin is structured in the negative image of what it is not, that is, oxygen. This is how hemoglobin functions to bind free oxygen in the blood stream. But the general function of this molecule is also why…”

He paused as he felt words not his own forced through his larynx and up through his mouth; rolling off the end of his tongue with a staccato expression uncharacteristic with his normally sullen and droll manner of speaking. He knew this was not the Lord’s doing.

“Explain yourself!” the second monk commanded, irritated by this break in what was already an infuriating explanation.

“This is also why…

other phyla of organisms… use entirely different bloodborne molecules to capture and distribute oxygen. (Deacon, 2011, p. 29)

It’s not the particular molecule that’s important, but rather what it does, how it functions. How it orients itself around something it is not.”

The two sat together uncomfortably, both perplexed and disturbed by the absurdity that had passed between them.

The second monk eventually replies: “I have absolutely no idea what you’re saying, nor the variety of sorcery that allowed you to receive such psychotic visions, and this in itself suggests that there is nothing ‘ontologically real’ about the generals you speak of. These are obtuse particulars! You are walking into territory that is reserved for God.”

“Perhaps you’re right,” says the first monk, experiencing a sudden sense of defeat and with it, a placid embarrassment.

The sun drifted behind a mountain, enshrouding their shrunken northern Italian valley in dim. Both were ignorant to the fact that their very existence was conjured up impersonally to function as a philosophical vehicle in a never-ending debate.