Perfection or act as ultimate

There is a perennial philosophical question about whether the “ultimate reality” (which means more than one thing) is static or dynamic. The debate spills over into politics (should our laws be fundamentally immobile, or should they strive to constantly change with the times?) into biology (does evolution show that any stability in species is merely apparent?) and it certainly can’t be kept out of theology (process theology represents one extreme in the debate). In the ancient world, Parmenides advocated the static nature of ultimate reality, whereas Heraclitus more appreciated the unstable character of at least some ultimate things (Heraclitus never advocated a completely universal flux, but he did appreciate the unstable character of things in a way that others did not).This dispute comes to an impasse in Plato, who argues both for the utter stability of ultimate things as forms; and for the dynamism of ultimate things as products of soul, which is essentially self mobile.

Aristotle’s great insight into this debate was that stasis or dynamism did not of themselves have the characteristic of being ultimate. What is ultimate is what is complete or perfect, and stasis or dynamism are only perfect relative to the thing that is static or dynamic. Dynamism is good for joints and bad for bones; stasis is good for a knife edge and bad for a heartbeat; and at different times stasis and dynamism might be good for the same thing. For Aristotle, what is ultimate just is perfection. Perfection- which of itself and in its very notion transcends and contains both stasis and dynamism- is the ultimate ground of things. This perfection, which St. Thomas tended to call actus but which he repeatedly insisted was a synonym of perfectio, is the absolute bedrock of Aristotelian-Thomistic thought. There is simply no other concept underneath this one.

Since motion is not a way of being at, it can only be a way of being between. Motion- even an unceasing motion- just is a way of standing to a from which and a to which. Motions or changes without ends would not be motions or changes.

Poetry is more philosophical than history, pt. I

I’ve known many people who are scandalized by Aristotle’s claim that history, because it is less universal, is less philosophical than poetry, and I suppose the scandal is common. I pick the word “scandal” carefully since something can be a scandal and yet be wholly desirable and attractive in itself. A scandal is simply an impediment we have to accepting something, and the impediment might very well arise from an error in interpretation or understanding, though not necessarily.

One way to approach Aristotle’s claim is to ask “what is the least philosophical of all things?” Here the answer is self-evident- on Aristotle’s account, the least philosophical is the least universal of all knowledge, which is the concrete experience of things given here and now. While this concrete experience is the least scientific or philosophical, it is simultaneously the principle of all science and philosophy and any knowledge whatsoever, and so the desire to expand our knowledge gives rise to the desire to extend the limited range of this experience.  We overcome this limitation by making narrations which can present the experience outside of the limited setting in which it occurred. I stress the making because it draws out that the process is an art-the art of presenting an experience of something here and now outside of the limitations which are essential to its concrete existence.  Our experience of the here and now is limited in two ways: by being in one place and not another; and by being in one time and not another. The first limitation is overcome by journalism, the second is overcome by history.

History is therefore less philosophical precisely by being more radical. So far as philosophy and science seek to get to the roots of things, history is very much like them, but it is like them by being ordered to the source from which they arise. History progresses and becomes more perfect to the extent that it distances itself from the sort of existence that philosophy considers. That being said, all science and philosophy seeks to attain to knowledge of things in their concretion.  In this sense, history is a sort of artistic anticipation of the term of science and philosophy.


Four trillion sheets of paper would stack from here to the moon.

(thickness copier paper .0038 inch. moon, 238, 857 miles)

What’s so bad about an infinite regress of premises?

Both Aristotle and St. Thomas endorse the idea that there is no infinite regress of truths from which we prove things, but that the series comes to a stand with something known in itself. If there were not some first, our knowledge would never be anything more than a hypothesis. Contemporary persons are all too prone to take this innocent reductio ad absurdum as a demonstration: both Quine and Bertrand Russell, for example, argue that all knowledge just is hypothetical. This is probably the position of the naturalists and physicalists too. All successful knowledge is scientific, all scientific knowledge is hypothetical, therefore etc. QED.

St.Thomas and Aristotle implicitly respond to this criticism by the simplest route: they show that there is something known first (sc. the principle of contradiction) but it is also fruitful to consider the what is wrong with the notion that all knowledge is hypothetical, considered in its own terms.

A hypothesis is not initially regarded as true, only as possible. As possible, its negation is also possible,  and so the hypothesis is essentially one side of a contradiction. Contradictions befuddle the mind and so, in choosing this hypothesis, the  will must step in and lay down that we are going to accept this as opposed to that. One can’t account for the hypothesis as such without placing the will in a formal role. Hypotheses are essentially chosen.  If all knowledge were hypothetical, it follows that the will is causally prior to knowledge as such. But if the will is causally prior to all knowledge, then in virtue of what does it choose? It cannot choose in virtue of what it knows- even in virtue of what is known in a probable way, since probable knowledge is knowledge. No- if the will is prior, then it cannot choose in virtue of anything it knows. It must choose as ignorant, with no more rational determination to one thing than another. Its choice must be essentially irrational. One would therefore be left saying that our rational ideas and sciences are simply developments of the irrational- a pretty clear contradiction, which at any rate ends up deny thing the very thing we were trying to explain.

Note on the distinction between quantity and substance

It belongs to substance properly to allow for the existence of change. If quantity were substance, then just as an individual man remains if he becomes larger, so too an individual number would remain if the number gets larger. Likewise, one and the same line would be at one time commensurate and at another time incommensurate with other lines. We could make a side of a square and its diagonal commensurate simply by changing the length of one, which would, ex hypothesi, leave us with the same line we had before, only larger (and now commensurate). We could make one and the same number even and odd, one and the same line rational and irrational. We could claim that five is “four” with perfect rigor and sincerity.

Notice that because quantity is not a substance, the eternal and timeless truths of the mathematician- which serve as examples of truth par excellence- do not follow from the ontological perfection of mathematical things (a perfection which is proper to substance). Rather, the supreme intelligibility of mathematical things follows necessarily from the ontological inferiority of quantity. The truths we establish about quantity cannot change only because quantity as such completely lacks a subject which would allow for it to change. We give no honor to the physical universe if, after we notice its beautiful proportions and mathematically expressible laws, we use this as evidence that the things in the universe are fundamentally mathematical. Such a claim is much more degrading than the claim that the universe is natural and changeable, for it is precisely as changeable that natural things manifest that they exist in themselves. It is as changeable that natural things are substantial, and as substantial they have a kind of transcendence over the merely sensible order. The kind of substantiality that we impute to the universe when we understand it according to the imagination is an ontological demotion of the universe itself.

Is “religion” as contemporary persons understand it an absurd term?

Victor Reppert questions a definition of “religion“:

“Religion is constituted by a set of beliefs, actions, and experiences, both personal and corporate, organized around the concept of an Ultimate Reality which inspires worship or total devotion.”

From Peterson, Basinger, Reichenbach, and Hasker, Reason and Religious Belief 4th ed. Oxford University Press, (2008).

[Reppert then asks] Based on this definition, is secular humanism a religion?

If one answered “yes” he would first be understood to be saying “therefore secular humanism is a religion”. But two other “yes” answers, to my mind, are closer to the truth:

1.) Yes, therefore this is a terrible definition of religion.

2.) Yes, therefore our concept of religion is absurd, since it includes both religion and its opposite.

The first assumes that our contemporary definition of religion is a useful concept, but it is poorly defined by Peterson, et al. The second is more radical- it claims that the reality that contemporary persons want to signify by the word “religion” is simply absurd. This is not because there is no such thing called “religion” but rather because when we group together all that we want the term religion to signify, we end up trying to unify contraries.

Words are tools made by the practical intellect, and like any tool they can be broken and abused. There is no impediment to one of our terms corrupting to the point of absurdity, and “religion” seems to be such a term.  I believe that we contemporary persons  wanted the term “religion” to have a meaning that ended up identifying one thing with its opposite. We wanted the term “religion” to name the common ground that was assumed to exist by an extreme and overly optimistic ecumenicism- a single common ground shared by Shamanism, The Seventh Day Adventists, spiritualism, Wicca, Arianism, etc. The more we tried to articulate this common ground, however, the more it showed itself as contradictory, vacuous, and overly-reductive.

One possible explanation of this is that religion is irreducibly relates to justice, and one simply cannot talk about justice without some reference to good and evil. We, on the other hand, want a definition of religion that makes no value judgments (as we call them) but it is not clear that such a definition is possible. St. Thomas defined religion as the just reverence to some power higher than man. We responded that we wanted to eliminate the idea of religion being just, since this would require us to include a value judgment about it when we spoke of it. St. Thomas’s response might well be “then you will end up trying to make one idea out of contraries; and religion will end up being the same nature as irreligion”. Alas, this seems to be what has happened.

Natural Right and Kid’s Stories

The folks at Positive Liberty are discussing natural rights (ht). Some deny that they exist (the rights, that is) others disagree; others say we need to get past the labels we apply to various ideas; but no one got around but no one got around to asking what it meant to call a right natural, even though everyone seems to admit that there are rights of one kind or another. It is reasonable to admit this, since my rights are that by which something is justly due to me, and there are at least some times when some thing is justly due to me.   

When we call rights natural we oppose to them to something artificial- much like when we use the word “natural” in “natural flavors” or “natural hair color”. Natural rights are therefore whatever is justly due to me before any convention or artifact, that is, before statues are written or customs made firm.

As a parent of a three year old and a two year old, I judge and execute claims to natural right all day. Plaintiffs and defendants usually represent themselves:

Girl: MINE!

Boy: No Mine!

Girl: No James, GO ‘WAY!

(screams and punches follow. Repeat as necessary)

Neither claimant appeals to custom or statute or even reason. It’s just theirs. That being said, one of them is usually right, even if they didn’t try to be. One of the claims is rational, even though none of the claimants are. Many- but by no means all- cases get solved by noticing who had the thing first. So what kind of right, in this particular situation, does the one who had it first have? I couldn’t just as easily have a statute or custom that gave it to the second one who had it, since this would be simply irrational. So far as any custom or statute is measured by something already given as reasonably just and due, it is measured by a natural right.

This natural right is not self- enforcing, it is not obviously from God, it is not universal in the sense that we could determine some absolute law that applied in all cases, it is not limited to merely rational beings (something is owed to some non-human animals) it is not any number of things that it is assumed to be both by those who affirm it and deny it. But if reason in any way receives its notion of right by looking at things, it observes and respects a natural right. “Natural right”, on the most basic level, follows from our gathering our notions of justice from experience.

In a single act of intellectual vision, we can see all the parts of a sphere. In fact, all the parts of a sphere are included in its definition (a solid body whose parts are all equidistant from a point called the center). Imagination and sensation, by any one look, will always leave half of the picture behind what is seen.

Nature as a deficient procession

In his most densely argumentative work, St. Augustine distinguishes the act of creation:

All corruptible natures therefore are natures at all only so far as they are from God, nor would they be corruptible if they were of Him; because they would be what He himself is. Therefore of whatever measure, of whatever form, of whatever order, they are, they are so because it is God by whom they were made; but they are not immutable, because it is nothing of which they were made. For it is sacrilegious audacity to make nothing and God equal, as when we wish to make what has been born of God such as what has been made by Him out of nothing.

There is a double procession from God; one that produces what is of him, another which produces what is not of him (Augustine is using the primordial sense of the genitive where it bespeaks generation, which requires a unity of nature. So some natures are one nature with God, others are not.) Creation is therefore understood as a falling away from or privation of the procession that generates the Word. So far as this deficient procession falls away, it is from nothing; for in the act of creation there is nothing outside of God. So far as it is is a procession, it constitutes a nature, for all procession is a communication of a nature in one way or another. In understanding creation in this way, the “nothing” becomes, as it were, far more like nothing- since it is simply the failure to be the divine nature. Creation also becomes far more illumined, for we can understand it as a particular way falling short and yet participating in the ideal procession.

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