The active and the contemplative life are both ordered to the concrete. It is not as if the abstractions that the speculative thinker uses are the stuff of some special world that the intellectual gets to inhabit. Abstractions are only tools we use to get closer to the concrete and to understand it more intimately. I’ve known more than one thomist who would insist on the reality of the natural law but who wouldn’t realize that his own reason was a way of taking part in the divine mind; and I’ve known people who could spend years meditating on “the dignity of the human person” without recognizing that the guy next to them on the bus actually had that dignity.

The relation between reason, faith, and charity.

St Thomas famously calls natural theology the “praeambula fidei” or “preamble to the faith”. Later on, he uses this to object to the idea that faith has any merit:

Objection 1. It would seem that to believe is not meritorious. For the principle of all merit is charity, as stated above. Now faith, like nature, is a preamble to charity. Therefore, just as an act of nature is not meritorious, since we do not merit by our natural gifts, so neither is an act of faith.

He responds saying:

Reply to Objection 1. Nature is compared to charity which is the principle of merit, as matter to form: whereas faith is compared to charity as the disposition which precedes the ultimate form. Now it is evident that the subject or the matter cannot act save by virtue of the form, nor can a preceding disposition, before the coming of the form: but after the advent of the form, both the subject and the preceding disposition act by virtue of the form, which is the chief principle of action

Summa Theologiae, II-II, 2, art 9.

To give an example,  [natural theology/faith/charity] relate like [computers/internet/ blogging] or like [metal/knife/cutting] or like [man/ mechanical knowledge/ fixing a car]. St. Thomas’s idea of “faith and reason” is contained in this (the first two steps) and the dynamic of faith and reason is itself a part of a larger move towards charity (which it self is a motion towards beatitude, but this is a separate point, and not so much a fourth step). A great deal can be mined out of this comparison. While there is something to be seen in understanding that faith and reason are like two wings of a bird, or like getting to the edge of the shore and jumping off the boat, the real paradoxes of faith and reason require that we see them as related like metal and knives or like computers and the internet. In all of this, we can’t forget the further relation and distinction that both nature and faith have to charity (which also involves a relation and distinction between charity and faith/ nature).

The difficult relation between ancient and modern physics

The standard account of the first difference between ancient and modern physics is this:

Newton’s conception of inertia stood in direct opposition to more popular conceptions about motion. (1) The dominant thought prior to Newton’s day was that it was the natural tendency of objects to come to a rest position. (2) Moving objects, so it was believed, would eventually stop moving; a force was necessary to keep an object moving [numbering is mine].

(1) So Aristotle knew nothing about orbital motion, the motion of sea waves, or fire? Are we to assume that Aristotle thought the orbits would come to a halt at some point, or that fire needed some invisible hand to wobble or lift the flames? Even the causal reader of Aristotle knows he didn’t think that. He did, however,  say that the motions of corruptible things were somehow dependent upon unending motions, and he  then said the corruptible motions were of earthly bodies and the unending ones of celestial bodies. Modern science merely erases the boundary line between heaven and earth. Energy is defined by an ability to cause motion and it can neither be created nor destroyed. Energy might someday be a hypothesis as obsolete as the eternity of the heavenly bodies, but it would be a mistake to confuse the structure with the details of the structure.

2.) Forces must act on bodies? Aristotle never spoke of forces, and it is not clear how much value the concept of force has when we dip below the observable level. Newton and Einstein didn’t think motion always required a force either.  So since everyone agrees- and apparently has always agreed- that motion is not always explained by forces acting on bodies, what did Aristotle actually say?

One approach to Aristotle would be to see him as starting from an answer to a very fundamental question: what is it that is in motion? This sort of question is often devilishly hard to figure out. The first guess is that “a body” is what is in motion first of all, but that is not obvious- is it obvious that something would be immobile if it were non-extended? What about these “forces” that we are imagining as (sometimes) moving bodies? The safer and safer and more obvious answer to “what is first of all in motion” is something mobile.

Since mobiles are in motion first and primarily, everything in motion has a real duality. After all, mobile means “able to be in motion” and so one must invoke some other source to explain why it is actually in motion. One can place this other source wherever he pleases but the real duality of a thing in motion will remain. Aristotle called this real duality in the thing in motion a distinction between “potency and act”. He did not call it a distinction between “body and force”. This would have been too theory-laden and obviously false when taken as a general account, though it is certainly easier to imagine. Aristotle is explicitly taking into account the times when the duality of mover and mobile can exist in a single nature (like fire) or the times when it can exist in a single nature in such a way as to be sometimes exercised, sometimes not (as in all animals) or when it can be exercised according to the choice of something that is fully a self in a way no animal is (as in human beings). And yes, Aristotle is also taking into account those (relatively rare) cosmic times when a body is moved by an exterior force.   Aristotle is interested in a general account of motion as such, and all he can say- which is not nothing- is that there is a real duality of potency and act in whatever is in motion. The question of “something outside the mobile” being necessary to move it can only be answered in the context of the real distinction between potency and act. If you read some explanation of Aristotelian physics that doesn’t mention the distinction, you can write off the whole eplanation from the get go, since it suffers from a scholarly flaw as deep as if someone were to try to explain Newtonian physics without mentioning inertia.

Recognition of this real duality is perfectly useless to modern physics. The mode of analysis in modern physics considers the various algebraic relationships between the measurements, and these measurements do not need to consider the question of what is in motion first. Aristotle is not analyzing his subject in metrical terms, and so he arrives at various non-metrical divisions and relationships in the mobile thing. Modern physics uses a different approach. Where’s the problem? Forcing ourselves to choose one or the other is a false dichotomy.

This is not to deny that there are points of contact between Aristotelian thought and modern physics, but the relationship is messy and admits of many different kinds of answers, some easy and some hard, and it is not always easy to tell the difference.

another guest post by a slightly biased author.

the most obvious downside to using contraception is that when it “works” you don’t get babies…

no tricks, just treatsdaddy's little lady (bug)handsome manimg_44841img_4537

Where’s the fun or beauty in that?

The face of an angel, according to her mother, author of this guest post.

My Francesca.  Another proof of the existence of God.

the face of an angel

Meditation on matter

In our present mode of existence, we are essentially in nature’s cupboard. Our body, along with the bodies of grubs, weasels, the stone in Chartes Cathedral, and the horse head nebula, is in a container with a label we can’t read, waiting to be pulled our and made into something else.

Note on universal causes II

In a picture of the water cycle, the water stands for any body of water, the cloud for any cloud, and the land for any patch of land, but the sun does not stand for any sun, but for the one you point to in the sky. Universal causality is this sort of definite cause in relation to indefinite inferiors.

Not all universal causes have the same definiteness as the sun. When we talk about “the brain” we are making abstraction from your brain and mine, but within my body my own brain has universal causality over sensation, respiration, etc. If I wanted to draw a picture of my own activities exactly and precisely as mine, I could draw any act of sensation or any act of respiration, but I could not draw just any brain. I would have to draw my own. This is a veritable universal cause, but not as fully as the sun, for on the scientific level there is no concrete brain running all the actions of various persons.

The advance of the modern sciences suggests that universal causality might be a more localized, relative, and intimate phenomenon than the Ancients or Medievals thought. Or perhaps it is the case that we have only taken the lowest fruits so far from the causal tree. Metaphysics and Aristotle’s general physics provided us with one clear natural universal cause, and with the absolutely universal cause of all things, but the causes in between are much more difficult to find. The sun is given directly in observation as universal, and God is given by a method of analysis that is not effective for finding various inter-cosmic universal causes. We have only very recently hit upon a method that is effective at finding inter-cosmic causes at all- and it is worth noting that we are separated from the real beginning of modern science my only slightly more time than Aristotle was separated from the beginning of philosophy. We haven’t actually been doing modern science very long.

Note on universal causes

To explain the generation of this plant is done with a case history, but to explain plant generation requires a science. In the history, the various agent causes of the plant are treated on a particular level. Farmer Brown is just as important to the case history as the sun. On the scientific level, farmer Brown disappears but the sun remains. Both are particular things, but the sun exercises its causality on a universal level, both by imparting photons for photosynthesis and by driving the water cycle.

To find singular agent causes that remain at a universal level of analysis is extremely difficult thing to do. Newton famously tried many times to explain gravity by various particular causes that remained at the  universal level (one attempt involved the earth’s atmosphere). Newton reluctantly, and with some embarrasment, admitted he found no such cause and accidentally published his merely descriptive account of the effects of gravity: the Principia Mathematica. This story is usually told as if Newton were some kind of fool for worrying about not finding a universal cause, but in fact Newton saw the goal and structure of science far more clearly than those who would be puzzled over his sorrow.

The recognition of the universal causality of the sun is nothing new- the ancients and the medivals understood it very well. But it has become clear that not all universal causality can be “sun like”. We cannot divide the earth from the heavens and place the particular causes beneath and the universal causes above.

The necessity of matter pt. 1

A thing acts “from the necessity of matter” when it does something only on account of what it is made of. Said another way, when an adequate explanation of some action only needs to mention the parts out of which something is made, the action is from the necessity of matter. If you wan to explain why a saw rusts or weighs so many pounds or falls when you drop it, it is enough to know what is made of (it’s steel, with mass so and so, and it’s heavier than air).

Accounts given from the necessity of matter immediately suggest themselves as explanations of the inanimate world. If we want to explain the actions of air or water or fire it it is not clear that there is anything beyond the various parts of water or air or fire. Necessity of matter is often all one has to appeal to.

Accounts from the necessity of matter strive to explain things without taking into account the things that specify or determine matter.  As far as the accounts are concerned, there is no difference between a steel fork or a steel hip. This is why as the explanations become better, the terms of explanation become more common and homogeneous. The science advances to the degree that we strike upon concepts that are more homogeneous and undifferentiated. The first advance, which was more or less the only advance before modern times, was to replace “material” or “matter” which includes everything from paint to two-by-fours to bone and wood with the more homogeneous “elements”- but this proved inadequately homogeneous to really explain things from the necessity of matter. The real breakthrough came when we hit on using the idea of measurements as means of explaining nature, measurements  which reduced all things to perfectly homogeneous units of length, time and weight (weight later had to be replaced with a more universally homogeneous concept of “mass”). All modern scientific units reduce to this initial trinity of meters, grams, and seconds.

Ever since the modern sciences hit upon the idea of measurement as a tool to explain the necessity of matter, they had a tool to explain something about everything in nature. Whether they can explain everything about nature involves only determining whether everything can be reduced to the homogeneous ground of existing according to meters, grams, or seconds.  This question cannot be answered to by the modern sciences because they presuppose things as given in meters, grams, and seconds and so to discuss anything outside of this can have no [modern] scientific meaning by definition. If you ask why things are given in meters, grams. or seconds the answer is either obvious or meaningless: 1.) because we cut the units that way. 2.) But how are the things given apart from their units? (silence…wind… tumbleweeds) the question has no meaning for the modern scientist. At all.

Aristotle did not presuppose nature as measured and so had a chance to answer whether there was something outside of nature. He did not start with things metrically given- which would require that he only attain to what is metrically given- but with nature as mobile, which allowed him to meaningfully ask whether there was a cause of nature as such: a cause of motion. Notice that Aristotle’s approach is every bit as universal as the modern sciences, an it is even about the same subject. Motion presupposes length, it is given in time, and mass presupposes motion (we would never know mass if scales did not move). The crucial difference is that the subject is not given in the same way. Nature is given in the modern sciences in such a way that to ask “what is the cause of nature” is either meaningless or obvious (for either we have no scientific units, or we say men impose them). Nature is given in Aristotle in a way that allows us to meaningfully ask ” is there a cause of nature outside of nature?”

Everybody is aware of the sorts of things ancient and medieval science can’t do. But once we’re all done laughing about crystalline spheres, vapors, humors, the sun as “not hot” (really), the moon as perfect, and the heat of the blood being caused by fire; and once we’re done feeling superior for (someone else) discovering spacetime, the periodic table, the power of hypothesis, and mass-energy conversion,  we ought to take a serious look at the sort of question ancient science can answer, since they are questions that will not go away.

No Longer Anonymous

I was originally anonymous because everyone around me was. I thought it was simply what one did. Over time it became a habit that I had no interest in changing. I would occasionally read arguments against anonymous blogging or commenting but they didn’t seem to merit more than a shrug. Why assume a common motive, or any motive,  for Homer, Plato, guys who are role-playing as Warlocks, Mark Twain, people who write ransom notes, George Orwell,  most of the writers of Scripture, and a guy who doesn’t want his boss/colleagues/possible employers to know he holds some conservative/liberal opinion? There is also a verifiability problem- even though there are clearly times when I can tell that someone isn’t giving their full name, I can’t possibly see how I could tell when they are: if you say your name is Mary McTell, is it?

But I’m not anonymous anymore. If anyone is interested in my reasons, here they are:

1. ) All the serious philosophy bloggers give their names. That’s simply the way it is. I’ve been blogging more or less daily for five years (1776 posts in 59 months with several hundred deleted) so either I’m serious or I ought to be.

2.) I blog as a writing exercise. By writing daily in a semi-public forum I get an incentive to polish what I’m doing and cut out all the errors I’m prone to: over explaining, colloquialisms, over-qualification, non-unified paragraphs, sentimentality, overuse of semicolons and dashes, moving too quickly… Signing my name to the product gives that much more incentive.

3.) I also blog as a spiritual exercise. Nothing is quite as humbling as reading something I wrote several months earlier, since I invariably find myself thinking- “my goodness, I’m an idiot/ normal guy”. Signing my name to the product will make the exercise more effective.

4.) My wife Jessica (nee Oliver) wants to be able to mention me on Facebook.

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