Our notion of existence

The idea we form of existence or being has to account for how, for a living thing, to exist is to live, and to cease to exist is to cease to live.

Nature and naturalism

-I ran into this definition of (philosophical) naturalism, which struck me as pretty common: “The system of thought holding that all phenomena can be explained in terms of natural causes and laws.” Really? All phenomena? How about patching a tire? Choosing the winning lotto numbers (or the loosing ones)?  How about a white thing thing falling or a triangle having at least two sides? Stepping in the bathtub when an earthquake happens? How about wax becoming a honeycomb? In general, what about anything that happens by art or by chance? More controversial examples against the point might work better, since among “all phenomena” we find, for example, higher incarceration rates among blacks; fewer engineering degrees for women and Latinos; more donut shops owned by Cambodians; More atheist men. Natural laws and causes explain all of them?

For that matter, does the sentence “all phenomena can be explained in terms of natural causes and laws” come to be naturally?

If you don’t make any meaningful distinction between art and nature and chance (and luck), why should anyone take you seriously? Inventing some sense of “nature” in which artificial things or chance things arise “naturally” is simply an abuse of language and obviously wrong.

-Toward the end of his arguments that nature acts for an end, Aristotle gives this argument against those who assert that nature does not act for the sake of something.

[T]he person who asserts this entirely does away with ‘nature’ and what exists ‘by nature’. For those things are natural which, by a continuous movement originated from an internal principle, arrive at some completion: the same completion is not reached from every principle; nor any chance completion, but always the tendency in each is towards the same end, if there is no impediment.

The argument can be made more simple, as St. Thomas makes it: nature is a principle or source of something coming to be, just as art is a source by which artifacts come to be, and (in an accidental way) chance is the source of chance things. But simply in virtue of being a per se source or principle, nature acts for an end. The “end” is exactly what nature is a principle of.

This is the real reason why philsophical naturalism is contrary to understanding nature. Even on the most basic level of understanding what nature is, we must understand it as a principle of some principled thing and therefore as a  source that acts for an end. To use the jargon of the schools, that’s teleology. We all know what that means.

There is a widespread and pervasive disagreement about moral truths. This is not a sign of the weakness of our intellect, and so the proper response to this can never be a call to moral skepticism on the one hand or a more systematic moral exposition on the other. The disagreement is from the weakness of our will, and so the call must be must either be to total sloth (i.e. stop trying to act morally at all since it is too hard) or to grace.

-If someone argues that divine activity is required to account for our knowing faculties attaining to the truth, then it’s given that they attain to it. Most people simply prefer to take it as given and ask no further. What’s wrong with this? I never learned welding.

-There are an indefinite number of possible sense powers. Every actuality communicates a likeness of itself (as we know from color, heat, percussive forces, and whatever makes tastes and smells) and there are an unlimited number of actualities in things.

-Most of our sense faculties arose out of survival needs and not so much as tools to know reality. Taste and smell, for example, tell us almost nothing useful about things beyond what is necessary to know about them for our own survival, and the ease with which we see moving things can be explained in a similar way. Intellect, however, uses these tricks of chance to come to know. We developed a quick recognition of moving things for our own survival, but our intellect uses this to define nature as such.

-If there are an indefinite number of senses, the portion of reality we sense in infinitesimally small.

-The senses we have arose by chance, but it is stupid to think that this means they attain objects by chance. Corkscrews formed by chance would open bottles just as well as any other.

-If the universe were the size of a bus station and easy to understand then a.)  no one would doubt it was made, but b.) we would suppose that people made it. God sacrificed a bit of a.) so that b.) would be  beat-you-over-the-head- impossible to think.

-Nature is a source making from within. This is why it rarely signs its works with straight lines or right angles.

-What requires human skill to come forth does not come to be by nature.

-A Thomist who I deeply respect argued that if if some scientist brought forth a man from mud, the mud would be his father. The argument reduces to the definition of generation.

-Aristotle defines nature as a principle producing a result “always or for the most part”, and generation is clearly natural “for the most part”. What about what is left over, that is, the mutations? It turns out nature uses some of those too. Evolution shows how nature has a tidier system than even Aristotle thought. Nature, quite literally, has a system for turning its failures (at replicating genetic code) into successes (leading to survival of the species in a modified form).

-Aristotle insists rain falls for the sake of something. His objector claimed this was impossible: if it fell for anything, it would be to cause growth, but rainfall causes  rot just as easily as growth. Aristotle responds that the objection mismatches causes and effects. Rainfall is a part of a system of generation which includes both causing growth and causing rot. Aristotle saw more clearly. Rot is like nature’s refuse collection, or, if you are lichens or bacteria, it is nature’s cornucopia.

I read the passion as a story of what happened to Christ, but I am flattering myself. If I were alive at the time, even if I followed Jesus I would have seen his passion as a story of what the Governor and religious authorities did. Christ would have only been- at best- a secondary character of personal interest to me. The Pharisees and the Procurator had all the prestige, the degrees, the power, and benefit of cultural reverence. I would have envied and been cowed by them just as much as I now envy and am cowed by tenured, well published philosophers at prestigious universities. I think about how hard it is for me not to see Brian Leiter and P.Z. Myers as the primary figures in stories which feature them (especially about religious topics).

Don’t get me wrong- I’m not saying I would have agreed with what the Governor or the Pharisees did. I might have thought it was a terrible crime. I’m saying that while looking a the events of passover weekend, I probably would have seen them as “What Caiaphas, Pilate, and Roman Legion X (now forgotten) did”. Christ would have been, even to those who loved him, the supporting actor in a tale of injustice or mixed motives, not the lead role in the passion play.

Eating and knowledge, again

Eating assimilates an object to a subject by destroying the object. Knowledge assimilates an object to a subject by preserving the object. To doubt the objectivity of knowledge requires that we be confused about the difference between knowing something and eating it.

The eschatological importance of imagination

In the very first chapter of De Anima, Aristotle argues that the nature of the imagination is of decisive eschatological importance. While considering the powers that living beings have, he asks:

[I]s there any one among them peculiar to the soul by itself? To determine this is indispensable but difficult. If we consider the majority of them, there seems to be no case in which the soul can act or be acted upon without involving the body; e.g. anger, courage, appetite, and sensation generally. Thinking seems the most probable exception; but if this too proves to be a form of imagination or to be impossible without imagination, it too requires a body as a condition of its existence. If there is any way of acting or being acted upon proper to soul, soul will be capable of separate existence; if there is none,its separate existence is impossible. In the latter case, it will be like what is straight, which has many properties arising from the straightness in it, e.g. that of touching a bronze sphere at a point, though straightness divorced from the other constituents of the straight thing cannot touch it in this way; it cannot be so divorced at all, since it is always found in a body.

The question of whether any cognitive power survives death is seen as turning on ones account of imagination and its relation to thought.

The scientific method

The role of the testable hypothesis is well known in scientific method, but the role of quantity as symbolized is just as important but rarely seen. Nothing can be called science that doesn’t “crunch the numbers” at some point. If you don’t have numbers, you don’t have data.

The scientist makes no distinction between quantity and substance, or quantity from the numerals imposed to stand for it. It’s not that scientists decided to confuse these things- they are each distinguished by very basic arguments- it’s simply that the distinctions aren’t important for what scientists do. There is, however, an extreme ontological blind spot in failing to realize that those using the scientific method always operate under the restriction of what can be known about the world so far as it is known through symbolized quantity.

Knowledge becomes more perfect in one way in the mode of science and argument, which is like going from one proposition to another to another. It becomes more perfect in another way in the mode of experience and  illumination, which is like seeing the same proposition in a greater and greater light. The first mode is more communicable, the second more savored. The first is, as it were, more clear externally; the second more clear internally. The two modes are not so opposed that knowledge in one mode can’t arise from the other. There is no rigid separation of the two, but certain kinds of knowledge are more characterized by the first mode, others by the second; some kinds of knowledge go bad by overemphasizing one to the expense of the other, etc.

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