Augustine’s argument for psychic immateriality

Ed Feser has a great post on Augustine’s argument for psychic immateriality that impresses me with how terribly I often read Augustine: had I just read the argument he cites in De trinitate I probably would have brushed it off with a vague sense that it has to have a mistake somewhere, but the more I had to wrestle with Ed’s presentation the more this vague sense of general Augustinian wrongness faded away. Sadly, I habitually assume that Augustine’s arguments are in need of being tuned up or recast in order to be acceptable. An obvious reason suggests itself for this: I’m used to encountering Augustine as the raw material of competing systems (Franciscan, Thomistic, Calvinist, Mystical, Contemporary)  and so I’m habituated to seeing Augustine as saying nothing definite but still being an authority of world historical significance (!).

The argument:

But if [mind] were any one of [the elements], it would think of this element in a different manner from the rest.  That is to say, it would not think of it by means of an image, as absent things or something of the same kind are thought of which have been touched by the sense of the body, but it would think of it by a kind of inward presence not feigned but real — for there is nothing more present to it than itself; just as it thinks that it lives, and remembers, and understands, and wills.

Some clarifications:

First, I use “mind” as shorthand for what thinks, and which within this thought also knows it “lives and remembers, and understands, and wills”.

Second, I’ll use “atoms” to stand for whatever the elements are, or whatever proportion or arrangement they’re in.

Third, there is a difference between knowing that something is and knowing what something is. We can know that there is lightning without knowing what it is, or that there is a mind without knowing whether it is material or immaterial; biological or mechanical or spiritual, etc..

The argument:

1.) Mind knows that it exists without having to meet itself or form a theory about itself.

The reason I know that I have a mind is not because I met it in the kitchen this morning and it introduced itself. I also didn’t posit mind as a theory to explain various other facts since it is essential to theories that we don’t take them as facts given from the start, but that there is mind is given from the start.

2.) The mind is atoms.

Assumption for reductio, as the Analytic guys say.

3.)* Therefore, atoms know that they exist without having to be encountered in the world and without us having to form a theory about them.

But we obviously don’t and can’t know that atoms exist like this: we needed a century of arguments from Dalton to Einstein to establish merely that there were such things, even before we gave an account of what they were. And no one would suggest that, even if atoms were as factual as fire (which they’re not)** that we could know that they exist a priori. We still have to meet a fire somewhere to know that there is such a thing.

The conclusion is false and the first premise is given from experience. Therefore (2) is false. Q.E.D.


One objection to this is that it looks like the fallacy of the accident, cf.

I know a man is approaching

The man approaching is Socrates

Therefore I know Socrates is approaching

And so just as a man can be coming without us knowing he is Socrates, so too a mind can be atomic without us knowing that it is atomic. After all, just as it’s not the same thing to be a man and to be Socrates, so also it’s not the same thing to be a mind and to be atomic.

But Augustine’s whole point is that we need to make mind something that is known to exist neither a posteriori nor by theorizing, and material things are not such. Self-knowledge is something essentially different from our knowledge of others or objects.

Another objection is that the proof proves too much: if an atomic mind would know that there are atoms, wouldn’t an immaterial mind know that there is the immaterial? But if this is true, what do we need the proof for? It seems we’d just see the reality of the immaterial a priori. 

But far from being an objection, I think this is a very good illustration of the difference between a physical and metaphysical argument. In the physical, we tend to know that something is by direct evidence to the senses, whether by seeing its physical substance or interaction. But metaphysics does not prove that things are in this way, but by seeing that things are as opposed to what is physically present by physical substance or interaction. All our arguments about the physical start by sensing the thing or something it is interacting with, while all our proofs in metaphysics start by proving the existence of something that is neither sensed or interacting with the sensible world. This is why an atomic mind would be immediately known to be atomic, but an immaterial mind has to be known by proving its separation from the sensible world.

*That’s a DARAPTI syllogism, folks. You don’t see many in the wild.

**Even the pictures of atoms by scanning electron microscopes are still mediated by a theory – there is more to the process than just magnifying an image.

***I can’t decide whether these objections are interesting or irrelevant. Oh well.


A dead assumption in God foreseeing

The problems of God foreseeing are well known – if things are known in advance, nothing can be free; if God saw some evil happen, he should have stopped it; if God foresees his own action, even he can’t change his own mind, etc.

I’m not interested in solving the problem, only in pointing out something that is (sometimes? Often?) assumed and implied when we consider the problem, but which no one thinks is true when it is made explicit, namely Foresight is guessing or prognosticating, which is later confirmed or disconfirmed. Presumably, no one thinks that God’s foresight consists in his being the most perfectly talented guesser, or a perfectly well-informed pundit. No one thinks, for example, that my bringing a ham sandwich to work today confirms a previous divine claim that I would do so today.

But what is this foresight if it is not guesswork followed by confirmation? We must mean it is some sort of immediate vision: with God seeing all points in time like we see all the spacial parts in our horizon.  God sees things “before they happen”. But we can’t mean that God sees X before X exists; since under such a condition there is no X to see. The best he could see is some image of the event to come, not the event itself. If, for example, I tell you that I saw the September 11 attack before it happened, you’ll assume that I had some sort of vision or dream, but a dream is no more a vision of the event itself before it happens than it is a vision of the event itself after it happens. The vision substitutes for the event whether it is seen before or after, and so the actual event confirms it after happening. But this is exactly the sort of guesswork-confirmation model that no one thinks God is involved with.

Or assume that the vision is not a substitute. Assume that, while sleeping some night in, say, 1996, you really were watching the September 11 attacks happen. But if this is our ontology, we’re saying that in 1996 you watched them happen in 2001. So we can’t simply say that you saw them happen before they happened since you watched them happen in 2001, which is when they happened.

And so if we expose the assumption – believed by no one – that God does not foresee in the sense of guessing or predicting and later being borne out or confirmed, we are left with an ontology that this foresight consists in being able to see a thing happen when it does at the same time as before it does.

And so the answer to a question like “Why did God not stop some sin before it happened” is in a certain sense very simple: i.e. because, like us, he saw the sin when it happened. Indeed, it is necessary for both God and man to see a thing happen when it happens. In the same way, whenever God sees our choices, he also sees them in the exact same vision when they happen.  This seeing when the event happens is essential to the vision, whatever else might come with it.

This can be read just as well as a refutation of omniscience: one might just say it’s incoherent to see something when it happens and not when it happens in one and the same vision. But this is what’s God Knowledge comes to, not some infallible prognostication, or God seeing all things that will happen in his head before they do.


The SAT and ACT are predictors of success in college, and are quite good at it, but this is all they are meant to be. They need not at all measure whether one is good at mathematics, language, etc., still less whether they know what is most worth knowing in mathematics or language. But it is exactly these sorts of questions that teachers and designers of curricula need to ask.

I wonder if we might be better off judging college aptitude by completely random questions, the way the MMPI measures personality. Take ten thousand college students, ask them random questions (e.g. “I am bothered by constipation” or “I would like to be a singer”) and figure out which random questions select the successful and the unsuccessful.

Sure, it wouldn’t fly, but this is not for being less rational. But it would also free up high schools to teach what they think should be learned, without having to teach to a test; or free up colleges to have their own curriculum without having to keep a constant eye on grad schools, med schools, etc.


- To accept that God wanted a rational animal. He wanted something whose organs and physical structure would be cast up from an ocean of chance and unknown possibilities, and something that would get by not just through calculation, reflection, and deliberation but even by unconscious drives, unavoidable biases, urges that had long lost their environmental justifications, strange associations that are opaque to rational justification (like when we associate scents and strong memories) etc.

-That the person is a microcosm means not just the rather facile idea that the mind holds some picture of the universe in itself, but also that within human interior life there is the reactive, unreflective consciousness of the animal, the unconscious striving of the plant, and even the mystery of matter that is simultaneously completely inert and always active.

-We see the multiple lenses of a fly’s eye and assume they see a thousand little pictures. Nonsense. What they see is just as much one world as ours, but it is not characterized by objects (that is, things known being in front of us) but by radiants (that is, a complete dome of a world with all things in front, above, behind)

-Pit vipers see not just with eyes like ours but also in infrared. Nightfall is not when all goes dark but when all changes color. During the daytime, one and the same thing has two colors at once in the same way that it now can have a color and texture at once.

-Dogs would share and record scents like we do with pictures.

-”Scientism cannot be given a scientific verification”. Really? Doesn’t Shermer try to do this by appealing to the method as the only way to avoid cognitive biases, and then try to back it up with research findings, experiments, etc.? Perhaps this just pushes the goalpost back, but we might be able to argue that it pushes it back to a self-evident truth, like the desire to avoid contradiction. We might even allow a whole logic too, just deny any power as a tool of discovery outside of logical entities.

-Explaining things by laws is an attempt to explain the changing by the unchanging; the temporal by the non-temporal. Motion remains a way of being relative to the immobile, while this immobile thing does not change relative to it. The mobile is ruled, measured, and defined by the immobile without interacting with it. It makes no difference to this argument whether we take the law as in the mind or outside of it, or in things or outside of them, it only shifts the sense of “rule, measure, and define”.

-Retorsion and refutation leaves us with nothing. But something is better than nothing. True,  it is better to have no opinion than to have a false one, but the refuted thing is never so thoroughly false that there isn’t anything to recommend it.

Christ’s contribution to the ontology of the person

A familiar contemporary dilemma for Christology is:

1.) Christ has an individual human nature

2.) Every individual human nature is a human person

3.) Christ is not a human person.

The three claims cannot all be true, but (2) seems evident from the terms while (1) and (3) are essential to all accounts of the Incarnation. First, if Christ’s human nature were not individual and concrete, then it could not die, be born, suffer, or even be sensed since human nature in general, or as universal, or an essence can do none of these things. Second, if Christ is a human person then, given that all Trinitarian accounts make the Logos of God a person, Christ is two persons. But if this is the case, then the Incarnation is nothing more remarkable than my being a human person and God being one too.

This leaves orthodox Christology as having to deny (2) even though the premise seems evident form the terms. But I think the denial is actually illuminating, and that it reveals something crucial about the ontology of the person.

Notice that (2) turns on “human person” being either more general or convertible with “human individual”. Person, however, seems to add something to the individual. One attains to individuality simply by negating of universality of a nature, but a person is not a mere negation of universality to human nature. Personality, on anyone’s account, needs to allow for some sort of positive reality that sets one person apart from others (even if St. Thomas’s ontology was not always very good at accounting for this positive element.) Loving a person, for example, involves more than a recognition that the one loved is not predicable of many. True, it is evident from the terms that every human person is a human individual, but if we leave it at this the dilemma vanishes (the converse of 2 cannot form a syllogism with 3 or with 1).

And so the response to (2) is not just some ad hoc attempt to save Christology at all costs but rather involves the much more interesting claim that personality is something above mere individuation of a given nature, which seems to be a very desirable conclusion indeed.

Want (1), Want (2), and the transcendental good

Charles Young once served as a dissertation advisor to someone who researched how many persons are killed each year by rocking vending machines in an effort to get them to dispense free product. Turns out, twenty-five. Young would use this as an example of a time when, if you saw something doing this, you’d tell him “you don’t want to do that”. But focus on the sense of “want” in that sentence. It gets used all the time, but it is quite different from what we usually take the word want to mean. We all know that there is some sense in which a guy who is rocking a vending machine wildly with his arm up jammed in it up to the elbow wants to be doing just what he is doing, but he would still understand what we would mean if we told him he didn’t want to do it. So let’s distinguish

1.) Want (1). Is the want in “you don’t want to do that” or “you really want to figure out another way of getting a soda”

2.) Want (2) This is the want in sense that the guy with his arm up the machine wants to do what he is doing.

If you divide these senses of “want” then we can give a very good account of the transcendental good as whatever a thing wants (1). “Want” is here used in a loose enough sense to include how we use it when we say “this sodium atom combined with chlorine because it wanted eight valence electrons” or “the temperature dropped when you dropped the pressure because the gas wanted to preserve the constant.”  But in spite of being used so broadly, the sense is not vacuous: it is still univocally a want (1) as opposed to a want (2).

This helps to make sense of why Aristotle would say such otherwise odd things as “the good is what all things desire” or STA would say “everything desires its own perfection”. If we specify that we mean want (1), the statements are axiomatic, whereas if we mean want (2) they are certainly false, perhaps even necessarily false.

The temptation is to say that want (1) and want (2) are analogous, but this is not right. Rather, want (2) is a corruption or privation of want (1). Want (2), in fact, is not a type of want, in the same way that a broken car is not a kind of car (it is not a sedan, a sports car, a coupe, etc.) and artificial leather is not a sort of leather (even if it can perform some leather-like activities). Want (2) is a certain failure to want, even if one very familiar to us. This is why Socrates can argue in the Gorgias that the wicked man and tyrant never does what he wants. In fact, when we distinguish want (1) and want (2) we can make a more seamless transition from the transcendental good to the moral good, and back again.


A balancing impotence to technology

As our power over the natural world increases, so increases the fear and horror at masculinity and fighting spirit. Sure, warrior ethos is all well and good when we sent men out to the field with pikes, lances and perhaps even muskets, but as soon as we figure out how to make machine guns, mustard gas, high altitude bombers and nuclear weapons the warrior spirit seems to come at too high a cost. Civilization then directs its entire educational and cultural system toward the stamping out warrior masculinity: little boys must sit as silent and attentive as girls, they must be fitted with all manner of padding and protective gear to prove their fragility, they must be kept inside and away from kinetic activity, their schooling must be void of any of the Western classics (as these glorify war, fighting spirit, the sort of ideals that lead to conflict -like the value of the West). Boys cannot be allowed any sense of honor since this is just the sort of thing that leads to violence – and so they have to place no value on, among other things, their nation or feminine virginity.

We become not only horrified at masculinity but even our own power to decide, and so we long to outsource our decisions to Byzantine governmental structures, and perhaps even to machines.

Technology is a sort of exterior power, and we can only increase this power at the expense of certain sorts of interior power – spirit, self-determination, masculine thumos, honor, etc.. I prefer technology, as it’s all I’ve ever known, but it redraws the lines of the virtues in a way that other times would have found inhuman. For all that, the need for right reason in pleasure, difficulty, contingency and other persons still remains, though we don’t yet have a very good social sense of what this should look like.

Ockham’s guiding principles

According to Boehner:

General Principle:

1.) We are not allowed to affirm a statement to be true or maintain that a thing exists unless we are forced to do so either by self-evidence, revelation, experience, or a logical deduction therefrom.

This is, according to Boehner, the real sense of “Ockham’s Razor”

Theological/ Philosophical maxims: 

2.) All things not involving contradiction are possible to God. 

3.) Whatever God produces by secondary causes he can produce and conserve immediately without their aid. 

Or more generally:

3b) God can produce every reality apart from every other reality. 

Notice that, from (1) There can be no inference from one thing to another without its being necessary, but from (3) there is no necessity that any created effect follow from a created cause. The axioms thus combine to form an argument against having to posit any causal order in nature – perhaps even in logic itself, though Ockham would certainly want to deny this.


Ockham’s arguments against the division of essence and existence

Ockham concludes that essence and existence speak of the same thing, but the first as a noun and the second as a verb, that is, they are no more distinct in reality than, say,  “John is taking a lunch” and “John is lunching”, where we describe one and the same thing first by a noun and then by a verb.

Ockham sees a sufficient likeness between res, essentia, and entitas to move freely from one to the other, and a sufficent likeness between esse, existere, and existentia to do the same. He takes a real distinction as being between a one thing and another.

Here are his arguments from Summa totius logicae 3.2.27. I’m paraphrasing them and not translating them ad litteram.

1.) If existence is distinct from some thing, it is either substance or accident. All sides agree it is not a substance (one substance can’t be the existence of another) but if it is an accident it must be one of the nine genera. Both are absurd.

2.) If existence is unified to a thing, it either makes something intrinsically one or not. If not, the thing would be one only accidentally; if so, then essence is matter and existence is form. Both are absurd.

3.) If essence and existence were two things, God could preserve one without the other. But both are impossible. Ockham does not say why, but presumably he means it is impossible to preserve the existence of a thing without either the existence of the thing or the thing that exists.

4.) Note that if X does not exist, it cannot be anything at all - a fortiori it cannot be an essence. Therefore an essence that does not exist is not an essence. So if you say “essence may exist or not exist, therefore they are distinct” it is no different than saying “essence may or may not be an essence, therefore it is not an essence”.

5.) When the holy authorities say that God is ipsum esse, all that needs to be meant is that God exists necessarily and not from something else while the creature is contingent and from something else.


History as the absence of celestial spheres

At the first level of approximation, natural time moves in cycles. The sun comes up, falls, and comes up again; the same seasons come back every year; the same cycles of growth, death, re-absorption and re-birth typify all living things; and the universe itself is a wheel of stars whose motions can be cyclically predicted down to seconds of arc. This last, great cycle is self-evidently the cycle containing all others, and gives time an intelligible structure. Just as all things are in place in reference to the last place of the celestial sphere, all things are in time from its cycle. We therefore – and this is the crucial part – have a reason to assume that the universe is rationally recurrent and controlled by an intelligible regularity. All we need to do to see this is look up. Look, everything is rotating around the North Star, and every motion can be related back to the uniform rotation about an axis.

At the next level of approximation, all of this structure disappears. We nevertheless still see that nature is intelligible, and so we attribute these regularities no longer to the sphere of the stars but to “laws”. But law is a placeholder for something completely unknown and perhaps impossible. Sure, there are particular natures that account for some regularities, but the intelligibility of nature requires more than this. Without that last sphere in the universe, there is no one time to range over all natural events.* Time becomes both extensively and intensively infinite; it has neither beginning nor end, nor does any natural thing relate one time to another. In the absence of any concrete thing to tie all this together, we posit abstract ones: laws. But these laws are based on unverifiable assumptions, to say nothing of the causal action of the abstract.

Nature becomes intelligible on this account only to one who can comprehend the infinite, and who can recognize it it various anchoring nodes of significance.


*Even if, as happens in Einstein, this one time exists only in our ability to always transform one time into another

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