Substance and science

Aristotle sees the peculiar feature of substance as its ability to remain through contraries, which makes substance uniquely responsible for motion and change. Motion, which is of itself sensible and a defining characteristic of the physical world, is therefore only possible because of something that is not of itself sensible.

Objection: a surface changes both in quality, position, and place, but a surface is not a substance. Surfaces, moreover, are per se sensible. Therefore we do not need to posit substances to explain the motion of the physical or sensible world.

Response: A physical surface is the limit or totality of a quantity, but things can change from one physical quantity to another, and so one and the same thing has more than one definite quantity. But no actual quantity has more than one definite quantity.

Notice that this account of substance captures it in two ways: on the one hand, we see it in its indetermination or potentiality, and so in its dependence. It is neither this quantity nor another. Considered in this way, the actual quantity can be seen as replacing the substance, and so far as we study merely changes in quantity, we can overlook substance without consequence. On the other hand, substance is not this sheer possibility of things but  an actuality prior to the flux, and is therefore independent of it. To the extent that we forget about the reality of substance in this latter sense, change in quantity becomes either arbitrary or impossible, and so – even within the limits of a quantitative study – such forgetfulness will lead to either the belief that that the science is essentially subjective or that nothing it studies really changes.  Physical science has arguably reached both extremes in the Copenhagen interpretation (which allows for indeterminism only by making the science essentially dependent on the willed act of measurement) and in Einstein’s block universe.


Perseity and the Fourth Way, Part III

… Aristotle develops Plato’s account of perseity as “communion” into an account of the various relationships of universality between the subject and the predicate. We can first note that some predicates are said of all instances of some subject. Such predication seems to always involve perseity, though it need not be made explicit. In looking for an explanation of malaria, for example, we might notice that all cases of malaria arise from being near swamps, but this does not mean that it getting malaria and being near swamps considered precisely as such have a per se relation to each other. We can observe, for example, that the two are connected always or as a rule without being convinced that there is any intrinsic feature of a swamp that is the direct cause of malaria.

A more fundamental relation between subject and predicate is one that exists between them in virtue of something intrinsic or per se to them. For example, we don’t just believe that fire and its heat are simply together as a rule, we are also convinced that there is something intrinsic to fire that makes this so. Again, we do not just observe cones being a third of the area of the cylinders that contain them, we also can see that it is an intrinsic feature of the cone that makes this the case. We are (perhaps) not entitled to hold that these particular convictions are indefeasible, and perhaps either one is open to being overturned by the discovery of a cold fire or a new and more complete theory of geometry, but to be mistaken about which features are intrinsic to things is not the same thing as to deny that we can come to know any intrinsic features of some subject. At the bare minimum an intrinsic feature is a heuristic that guides our explanations of things from what merely happens to be so towards what must be so.

Aristotle’s account of the per se is based on the more fundamental axiom that our explanations of what things are must start off confused and imprecise and gradually be made more complete. Malaria does not come to us with a label or tag that tells us exactly what place to look for it or how we are to consider any of the objects in that place. It might first be related to being in hot climates; and then not to a hot climate as such but to hot areas with swamps; and then not to the swampiness of the place as such but to an extrinsic feature of swamps (sc. that mosquitoes adapted to use them as ecosystems); and then not to mosquitoes as such but to the fact that mosquitoes both carry and transmit a certain parasite. Notice that, with each progressive development in our understanding, we might be relatively convinced that we have found malaria as such. We might be convinced that malaria is just a peculiar way of being weakened or broken down by heat, just as some people still believe that colds are a peculiar way of being weakened or broken down by the cold. Again, we might be convinced that malaria is just a swamp fever, or that it is caused by something either intrinsic to swamps (e.g. their brackish) or something else. Every stage in this process might be supported by evidence to the point of convincing a rational observer; but for all that, we can recognize from our comfortable perch as outside observers that we have not found malaria itself until we have found the parasite. This terminal point of the explanation is simply when we reach to what the thing is in itself, that is, when we come to get a distinct look at the thing which we first understood only nominally and in a confused way.

Notice that on this account of explanation it consists in moving from some X to an account of what X is intrinsically or in itself. Explanation does not terminate in some brute fact in the face of which we can say nothing more than “it just is that way”, but rather in moving from something that is merely named to what the thing named is in itself. The explanation does not end with a shrug that can do no more than accept that “all explanations have to stop somewhere” but with the conviction that we have actually found the thing which we had initially done no more than name. The simplest account we can give of this sense of explanation is that it consists simply in discovering what we mean. We meant something by malaria, but this initial meaning occurred in a jumble of confused facts that required a difficult process of discovery and many sophisticated theories and tools to discover that malaria itself is the name for a mosquito-borne parasite.

Because this account of explanation is based on the general fact that explanations move from the confused to the distinct, every sort of cause will admit will move from some X that is merely named to the X itself. For example, the if we witnessed the first atomic attack on Hiroshima, we would want to know who was responsible for it and so we would be looking for an explanation in the order of agent causes. Now notice that the first person we could actually see dropping the bomb would be the bombardier on the plane, though it would be pretty easy to establish that he only dropped it at the behest of the flight commander. But neither of these persons is who we are looking for when we ask who is responsible for the event, but  only the one who was responsible for all of them doing what they did, sc. Harry Truman. Likewise, if we caught the Watergate spies, they would be the first persons we knew were responsible for the break in, but they would not be the ones we are looking for when we ask who is responsible for the break in.

Just as there is a long series of diverse subordinate agents there is a corresponding series of distinct goals or final causes: the bombardier was only intending to pull a lever at the proper time while Truman had the much broader motive of terrifying his enemies into unconditional surrender. Here again, explaining a fact consists in discovering who we mean when we consider “the one responsible for this” or what motive we are looking for when we ask “why did this happen?” Truman is not a brute fact explaining why the bomb dropped, he is the one we meant to talk about from the beginning when we spoke of the one responsible for the action. Again, it is ridiculous to say that the explanation of motives “breaks down” after we discover the motive to terrify the Japanese into submission, since this would be like saying that our ability to look for something “breaks down” after we find it.

On this account of explanation, the explanans is simply “the thing itself”: e.g. malaria itself is the parasite as opposed to any other environmental feature, the one who dropped the bomb was Truman himself as opposed to any of his subordinates. Though speaking of a “thing itself” certainly suggests the familiar Platonic theory, Aristotle’s account of explanation is a complete redefinition and repudiation of it. The things themselves are not separated entities, or even forms inhabiting matter, but just the precise realities that we first target in our merely nominal and confused accounts. The trajectory of explanation is not from the facts to a form that is outside of them but from a name which we impose in the midst of a confused awareness of facts to a thing among those facts that actually deserves the name. The thing itself – or the thing per se – is not given separately from what we start with, but within what we start with, though indistinctly.

Aristotle distinguished two senses of perseity. In the first, any intrinsic connection between a subject and predicate will be a per se connection. In this sense, when we say an exothermic reaction is hot we say something per se, since it falls in the very definition of exothermic reaction that they give off heat. There is, however, a stricter sense in which it is not precisely the exothermic reaction that is hot, but only the mean molecular motion, since it is only this latter that is precisely what heat is, and it is in virtue of exothermic reactions giving rise to such motion that they are hot. Aristotle called the looser sense of the per se kath’ auto, which can be unproblematically translated as  “per se”, but he called the stricter sense katholou (or “universal” in the genitive case) which we will here call primo since this was the Medieval usage. It is this strict sense of the per se – the per se and primo – that we target when we seek to explain something, even if, for practical reasons, we are often content with explanations that fall short of this level of rigor.

The Per se and Primo in The Fourth Way


Any causal explanation targets the primo and per se, and all cosmological arguments are a causal explanations of various things manifest to sensation. We can see that the Fourth Way is appealing to this principle because it twice appeals to the Medieval theory of fire as the cause of what was hot, which the Medievals saw as the per se and primo cause of heat, in exactly the same way that we now see mean molecular motion and the per se and primo cause of heat. It is crucial that we describe the Fourth Way as reaching, for example, what is per se and primo good, true, etc. because there are all sorts of things that are per se good – virtue, charity, food, and even everything that exists – which are nevertheless not good such first. This is why it is not enough to appeal to a principle like “things that are participated reduce to things that are essential”. Just as a thing can be essentially hot without being what is hot first, so too a thing can be essentially good without being what is good first of all.[1]

St. Thomas places the principle that the causal explanations reduce to some first in at the logical beginning of his cosmological arguments, though he first applies it to the special case of a first cause of motion, saying that a series of causes cannot be infinite because: “then there would not be a first mover, and it would follow that there would be no other movers, since a second mover does not move except by the motion of the first mover, as a stick does not move unless it is moved by the hand.” [2] St. Thomas’s example is clearly from the order of efficient causes, and we saw above that the a first cause is necessary in this order since such a cause arises simply from giving a distinct account of what one means in speaking about “what is responsible for the motion”. One simply can’t mean to speak about an instrument or something with a derivative responsibility for an action when he asks about what is responsible for an action. Doing so would be like answering a child who asked “why are we driving to Church?” by saying “because I’m pointing the car towards it”. To ask the question about my what intention is responsible for the action means asking about what is responsible first of all. Any other explanation explains only in a qualified sense, and is in some way an indistinct grasp of the facts.[3] While it is true that there are all sorts of reasons why we do not press our questions to completely distinct answers – reasons ranging from practical concerns to the dimness of our intellect to the desire to restrict ourselves to a limited domain of explanation – nevertheless St. Thomas is claiming that the completely distinct answer to “what is responsible for the stick moving” is “God”.

The Fourth Way starts from no specific class of facts, but from any fact about the world which, when understood per se and primo, deserves to be called God. St. Thomas need not be seen as restricting himself only to “transcendental perfections”, as the manual Thomists have read him. The Fourth Way can, in fact, start with things given in all the other four proofs, and can reach all the conclusions they reach by its own proper way of proceeding and without appeal to any extra premises. For example, we see movers that are more and less immobile, and so there must be some mover that is immobile per se and first; we see causes that are more and less causal, so some cause must be per se and first; and we see necessary things that are more and less necessary, and thus there is something whose necessity is per se and first. If such a being is “what all call God” in the preceeding proofs, it is also in this case.

Reading the Fourth Way in this way leads to several good results, which I will here only sketch in outline:

It gives the proof scientific value, even in the contemporary sense of science. The Fourth Way, as we have continually stressed, appeals to a principle that is common in all causal explanations, not just those that are supposedly metaphysical, but also those that are scientific, or medical. We are looking for the per se and primo just as much when we are looking for the cause of malaria or diabetes[4] as we are when we are looking to establish the existence of God. This explains why this proof is uniquely concerned with proving its relation to the empirical and scientific, not only by twice appealing to the Medival account of the per se and primo cause of heat, but also by referencing De Caelo et mundo, an essentially Astronomical book.

It gives a simple and elegant account of the analogy of names from creatures to God. On our account of the per se and primo, it is the end point of an explanation that starts from something that is merely named and moves to something most deserving of the name. But this how St. Thomas divides analogous names from univocal and metaphorical names in the Summa theologiae. If, St. Thomas says, we consider the thing we impose the name on first then we will call the creature “good” or “existent”, but if we consider what the name signifies, then we see goodness and existence as belonging not to the creature but to God. Words like “good” or “existent” can be understood as naming either the things we first grasp in an indistinct and simply nominal manner, and in this sense we “mean” to indicate creatures when we speak of them. But we can never mean to indicate the indistinct and secondary as such in a causal explanation, and so in the proper sense of meaning or signification we do not signify the creature. It is precisely this double sense of meaning, arising with respect to a single word, that gives rise to the diverse proportional or analogous names that are said of God and creatures.

It can contribute to a larger dialogue about the explanatory necessity of form. Though Thomists frequently lament that the modern sciences have apparently cast out all formal and final causes, they have not yet come up with a principle actually useful to modern science that points to the explanatory power of form. But an understanding of perseity seems to be just such a principle, for it reduces causal explanations to something “in itself” or “of itself”, which have been, since Plato, unmistakable references to formal causality; and such causes become final causes as soon as we recognize the role that they play in a causal process that brings them about.


[1] This premise seems to be particularly important to preserve the real integrity and perseity of creatures, and to keep a proof for the existence of God from negating their proper existence. This problem becomes particularly acute when we consider the question of human freedom in the face of the causal power of God; though, as we have just seen, there is no problem with saying that the creature is essentially free and even autonomous, we only deny that this essential freedom is the first such essential freedom.

[2] ST Note that the principle that causal explanations reduce to some first, though it occurs temporally at the end of the argument, is logically the first premise of the argument. No other principle or truth in the argument is more general. This general conclusion about causes is presupposed in the subsequent proofs.

[3] It’s interesting to note that some explanations are explicitly targeting means, and so are targeting things that are in themselves secondary. But even when we ask these “how” questions in the order of means, we are still we are asking for something that is first. A catapult, for example, in an instrument that uses a rock as an instrument to destroy things, but if someone asks “how did we destroy the city wall” the answer is not “with rocks” but “with catapults”. If we said only the first, we would mean that the rock was our primary instrument, i.e. that we held it in hand and hammered the wall, or hurled it at the wall with our bare hands.

[4] The recent finding of the ATP/P2X7R pathway by researchers at Boston’s Children’s Hospital is simply a finding of the per se and primo cause of diabetes

Appeal to brute facts in Medieval Cosmological arguments

The critique of cosmological arguments by appeal to brute facts (i.e. we must have something unexplained, so why not the universe?) fails to see that, for these sorts of arguments an explanation does not terminate by finding of fact of any kind, or even with a proposition, but with a subject about which the feature one was trying to explain can be said per se and first of all, or a predicate which is said of a known subject in this way. The search for who dropped the atomic bomb does not terminate in a fact, but with Truman, about whom that predicate is said first of all; the search for what heat is terminated not in a fact but in fire (for Medievals) or molecular motion (for us) which is said of the subject per se and first. Even if we took “Truman dropped the bomb” as a fact, it functions as an explanation so far as we discover an identity between the thing we were looking for (bomb dropper) and the thing we find (Truman).  It’s not just that the predicate and subject are convertible, but convertible in a certain way that we understand as being simply what the thing is, and the cause of all those things that have that feature in a secondary way (the way that, say, Tibbits dropped the bomb or fire is hot).

Destinctive feature of substance

The most distinctive mark of substance appears to be that, while remaining numerically one and the same, it is capable of admitting contrary qualities. From among things other than substance, we should find ourselves unable to bring forward any which possessed this mark. Thus, one and the same colour cannot be white and black. Nor can the same one action be good and bad: this law holds good with everything that is not substance. But one and the selfsame substance, while retaining its identity, is yet capable of admitting contrary qualities.

This feature is effective is dividing substance from accident, but not in dividing substance from the parts of substance. Surfaces, flesh, the soul, and the mind can all admit contrary qualities as well. We could target just substance by saying that admits of contrary qualities while remaining one and the same whole.

A morality of drug use (II)

One account of a morality of drugs would take drugs as chemicals that physically change us from one state to another. Our moral evaluations of them would thus turn on what state we started with, what state we ended with, and the reason for changing them.

This seems vacuous, but it might do real work. Consider a limited theological argument for why Christians should condemn the use of hallucinogens for religious or quasi-religious reasons (like the belief that knowledge of higher truth comes from taking them). For a Christian, the highest possible revelation is one given in the everyday world: it is a man walking around who is also God. Whatever mythical or theological elements might have worked into the story, they rest on a fundamentally and essentially historical basis. The hallucinogenic shift of consciousness is thus an implicit rejection that the highest, paradigm case of a revelation is given in everyday consciousness, and so a rejection of Christian revelation.

A non-christian analogue to the argument could be based on any claim that the space of revelation is the everyday world, and so, for example, should be based on the scientific or philosophical.

The (absense of a) morality of drug use

“Drug use” – leaving aside the therapeutic meaning and sticking with the illicit one – means at least four things:

1.) Use of hallucinogens, or drugs that are mind-altering at any dose, and not just with extreme dosages.

2.) Drugs that are not mind-altering at every dose. Alcohol is certainly included here, and some try to argue that cannabis is also.

3.)  Performance enhancing drugs.

4.) Drugs that are addictive though only very loosely mood altering – caffeine and nicotine, etc.

Given the wild variety here, the only common criterion that people find to treat the moral question is the affects that drugs have on health. The criteria is very broad, but not very deep. It has the value of being a relatively clear (major health affects – e.g. overdoses and long term diseases are easy to see) but it suffers from at least three major limitations:

a.) It’s difficult if not impossible to get any significant health effects out of a single use of any drug, or even out of multiple uses over large enough stretches of time. Single uses are harmful only when we shift from talking about drug use to talking about poisons. But poisoning is not anything peculiar to drugs. One can be poisoned by anything ingestible.

b.) It leaves one with the impression that there is no moral significance to anything formally belonging to the drugs themselves. Is it wrong to get high? Always? Sometimes? Is cheating the only problem with steroids in sport?

c.) It sees the morally significant aspect of drugs as their relation to overdose or addiction. Heroin and alcohol (now seen as comparable, if not equivalent) are bad and pot is harmless. We spoke of overdose in (a), but addiction is much the same. We can become addicted to any concrete, repetitive activity that is contrary to reason.

To be honest, I’ve heard almost no moralities of drug use, even under a vague description. I’ve seen moralities of the ingestible and the repetitive applied to drugs, and I’ve heard people appeal to principles like “poisoning is bad”, but not much else.  Even taking into account the trickiness of the virtue of temperance, one might expect more than this.

De anima III.4

Any definite organ of knowledge is limited to knowing one class of knowable objects. Eyes can’t smell, noses can’t hear or detect infrared.

Mind is not limited to knowing one definite class of objects. Considered in their generality, it is not limited to the real or unreal, possible or impossible.

Mind has no definite organ.

A cognitive power that has no definite organ is no real thing before it knows.

Mind is no real thing before it knows. It is neither nervous system nor a part of it, not a light or darkness.  It is not one or many.

(still, it is mine, but it cannot be mine in a way that alienates it from being yours – this is why the things of mind are necessarily common goods)

Though it is mine, mind in its state cannot draw objects from this substance. It draws from outside of itself.

To draw from outside of oneself does not decide between recollection and abstraction. Both involve intuition of exterior objects and require initiation by sensation. Both allow ways in which mind is separate and ways in which it is essentially embodied.

Though mind cannot draw forth actualities from its substance, it is the actualities of all that is knowable, whether through the intuition of all things in recollection or the agent intellect of abstraction.

Both recollection and abstraction place all the actuality of what is knowable in mind. Both of them make mind empty prior to the initiation of exterior things.

(The apparent contradiction arises from judging mind in a way peculiar to definite or limited things. It’s being mine does not make it a this as opposed to that. Buber’s contributions are important here.)

I describe mind as an it or thing but this is mere grammar and not ontology nor logic. It is like the definition of “person” which grammatically describes a general sort of thing but can only name a concrete individual.

The opposition of persons is never simply an opposition between things. Still, there is some real sense in which persons such as us are ontologically opposed.

At the limit case of personality, personality itself is absolutely no principle of opposition between persons. The multiple selves are absolutely one.

Moral evil as slavery

Moral evil differs from mere error or falling short of the standard in that the one acting is aware of the standard but is not acting upon it. In such an action, therefore, the rational standard of what is good has been rendered inert or thrown into the oblivion of the pre-conscious. But slavery consists precisely in the denial of someone’s ability to act from their own rational motives (Aristotle even defines slavery in this way, and this would seem to be its only possible justification, or the closest it could ever get to justification.)

Miracles and Scientific Naturalism

I’m fiddling around with this argument:

The sciences seek hidden explanations from manifest phenomena. We don’t need science to explain what we know from the beginning. But a miracle is a manifest phenomenon as opposed to one that needs to be ferreted out from things already known. And so the nature of miracles is opposed to their being scientific conclusions.

-Problem: not every divine intervention in the world need be called a miracle. There are at least three or four possibilities for divine intervention that are not considered miraculous: (a.) God’s tinkering with things quietly (b) doctrines like the special creation of the human soul; and (c) sacramental or moral transformation of things by grace.

My suspicion is that the divine action in the world will either be manifest or hidden in a way that we won’t be able to crack by systematic analysis. True, we can give some account of the need for special creation of the soul, and perhaps even for the moral transformation of that soul, but the concrete account of how this happens, i.e. our ability to cash out the doctrine in a physical theory, will prove elusive.

Here’s my argument: to cash out a doctrine in a physical theory we need to assume that our manipulation of the phenomena does not make a difference to what they would do of themselves, that is, that there is no already existent intention in the phenomena themselves that might conflict with our intentional manipulation of things so as to obtain an experimental finding. But divine intervention is of itself just such a pre-existent intention. And so special action in the world must either be manifest or prove elusive to our attempts to fit something into a physical theory.


Note on the critique of the reality of existence

Kant’s critique of existence, as it filtered through Analytic philosophy, became an argument like this:

Any real predicate (a predicate said of individuals) must be able to be both affirmed and denied of individuals.

Existence cannot be affirmed and denied of individuals.

Therefore existence is not a real predicate.

I see the force of the argument but it seems like it works better as a reductio ad absurdum against the major premise. “Exists” and “real” are more or less equivalent predicates, and it would be very odd to demand that “real” and “unreal” both be real. It would be like demanding that there were no real places on maps because “not a place on the map” does not show up on GPS. In other words, we can just say (with Barry Miller) that existence is a real predicate and non-existence isn’t; or that the whole problem is in assuming that non existence must be a real predicate, not in assuming that existence is one.


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