A thomistic doctrine of natural science and quantity

St. Thomas made two claims:

1.) The physical sciences study things verifiable by sensation. This is, as it were, the filter we place on experience that lets only the objects of natural science in.

2.) Sensible reality is not homogeneous, but rather admits of an order of emanation from substance, and quantity is first: motion, shape, number, extension, etc.

It follows, I think, that the Thomistic doctrine of the physical sciences must include some idea that the sciences will advance to the extent that they become more quantitative and mathematical. This will not merely be an epistemic convenience or an exterior imposition imposed on nature, but a real revelation of what it is on the most basal level of nature,  given the filter we place on our experience.

The infinitely actualizing

It doesn’t take much imagination to see the infinity of mind: if my dad got a too good to refuse job in Paris before I was born, I’d think in French; if he’d have been killed in a car accident and we moved to his relatives in Mexico, I’d speak Spanish, etc. With speech would come any number of customs different from the ones we have now; a set of social concerns that we do not now have; etc. These were all potencies that could have been actualized and were not. The same infinity is clear from the subjects of fiction, the variety of art, the ease we speak of  “all possible worlds”, etc.

As we presently exist, however, we see no actualizing object that corresponds to this infinity of potency latent in the mind. The mind is therefore existentially restless. Cognitive objects parade before it like the animals paraded in front of Adam. We certainly cannot know all of them, and we can barely know one well, but we do know that none of them can exhaust the potentiality of the human mind, and in being known it would leave some potentiality unrealized.

Because mind gives rise to desire, this evaluation of objects recurs on the level of what is desirable or lovable, which is perhaps the more disturbing point. We could tolerate the idea that no known object could exhaust the potentiality of the mind, but it follows from this as an immediate corollary that we know no object that could satisfy the will. We can know only the unsatisfying and imperfectly lovable.  This was the actual point of the parade of the animals before Adam, and giving him the woman was a more perfect but still imperfect remedy.

Though mind and will, a human being is proportioned only to what is infinitely actualizing; a being which he cannot now see as an object. Such an object is an inference to the unseen. We know it as that which is simply knowable and thus lovable with no qualification whatsoever. It’s what we’ve always meant by lovable or knowable, even though everyone agrees it cannot be the first thing we name “knowable” or “lovable”.

To see the infinitely actualizing would be to see the last thing we could see, since in the face of it he could no longer find a motive to look at something else. There simply would be no other ends to attain or even entertain. There would be nothing else to love. If man were in the presence of the infinitely actualizing, he would know that there were things other than what he looked at but he would be  unable to see them as goals or ends or sources of knowledge.

Werner Erhard Explains himself

The post below references the philosophy of Werner Erhard. Hear him explain it in his own words (he starts about two minutes in, but the context helps):

The development of atheist existentialism- UPDATED

Werner Erhard, a pioneer in the popular self-help/ therapeutic self-actualization movement in the 1970’s, described his project as a continuation of the Atheist existentialism that stretched from Nietzsche to Sartre. Existentialism, he said, discovered that things were empty and meaningless, but they stopped there. Erhard said that he took the next step: it’s empty and meaningless that things are empty and meaningless. If things were pointless, why moan about it? If all there is is an abyss, why bother with morbid struggles against it? Why bother with being bothered? So what if there is no Absolute? Shut up already! You sound like an old man who complains about all the pills he has to take, or a teenager who complains that everyone is fake!

Everyone knows that Nietzsche would have railed against Erhard with all  he had – in fact, some of his most emphatic condemnations were against such “shallow” nihilism (though, from Erhard’s perspective, it is in fact a deeper and more profound nihilism). Some modern theist philosophers have echoed Nietzsche’s critique: David B. Hart has just written a rollicking condemnation of the “new atheists” on this point, as has Fr. Robert Barron. If only our atheists were like Nietzsche and Camus! Those were atheists that took the absence of the Absolute seriously!

Perhaps. What we have here is simply a dispute in atheist existentialism, just like any other philosophical dispute (say between idealism and realism, Platonism and Aristotelianism, consequentialism and deontologism, etc.) The dispute is this: does the absence of an Absolute matter? Sartre and Nietzsche both give a resounding yes- the absurdity of things/death of God must be taken with extreme gravity and solemnity. Erhard is the only one I know who has said a resounding “no”, but the rhetorical style of the new atheists seems to be more in line with Erhard’s notion of how one should act in the face of profound questions; and in this sense their philosophy is a more rational and reasonable a development of atheist existentialism: according to Erhard’s principles, it is a more perfect expression of atheist existentialism. Nietzsche would savage such philosophy with the most vituperative language- but again, his savaging them would just be one side of a philosophical dispute like any other, and deserves to be recognized as such.

Metaphysics as the distillation of what was always known

St. Thomas has an extremely broad account of “natural science”- all objects of sensation, or which are verified to exist by appeal to sensory evidence are in natural science. What else is there? How can an object even be present to us that is not present under these conditions? Leaving aside mathematical objects, metaphysical ones are reached by noticing a certain contrariety in the sensible things themselves. We observe, for example, that all the goods we know are limited. But the intelligible character of good is contrary to limitation, so far as we cannot love finite goods precisely so far as they are limited. Limitation marks the point where a certain good ceases and is cut off from other goods, and we cannot love anything because it is cut off from loveable things. Unlimited goodness thus becomes simply a clarification of what we have always meant by good: it was not the first thing called good, but it is most of all what the term means. Once such a principle gets admitted, it lets a good deal of other things in as well: truth, for example, is the good of the intellect, and so unlimited truth is simply a clarification of what truth is; and similar considerations apply to perfection, beauty, unity, nobility, causality, existence, etc, and then pour out to include the powers reality that correspond to.

Metaphysics is therefore a certain clarification of what we have known about a certain class of objects we have spoken of our whole lives; it is a distillation of things that have always been known, a distillation that requires that we have not encountered them in their pure  form  from the beginning. Christ’s correction of the rich young man “why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone” is not simply hyperbole; it is more like a grammatical correction from someone who knows what a human being means by the term “good”.

The object of metaphysics is thus simultaneously unthinkable and yet what was known all along, just as a good is never present to our thought without limitation (and certainly was not from the beginning), though we have always excluded  this limitation from what we meant by good. The first “never”, however, is a temporary condition- one that applies only so long as our intellect is pressed into the service of keeping a corruptible body alive.

It is this sort of articulation of metaphysics that throws light on the notion that life is absurd if not for God; the sense is that if we clarify that good must be unlimited, then logically- though this may not be possible existentially- we are left only with the options that either an absolute unlimited good exists (and that we can somehow attain him) or all of our desires are ultimately absurd (or that God exists and we cannot attain to him in any way). St. Thomas gives a proof that we should conclude to one side of this contradiction, but other proofs have been given that seek to persuade to the other side.

The philosophies of ‘there is nothing but___”

Mechanism is built on a very solid and simple metaphysics: there is only one kind of thing- taken as meaning there is only one way in which a thing that is “is”. It is not the only version of “there is only one thing”: Parmenides gave us another version of it, which was also popular in its day. Both Parmenidean doctrine and mechanism are marked by a their own version of “there is nothing but___”, though they put different things in the blank.

(There is also a dualist mechanism- like the sort advanced by Descartes, which asserts mechanical interactions in one sphere and spirit in another, but the salient point, as we shall see, is not whether one posits any two things, but two things that are not said to be in the same way. So taken, it is not clear if Cartesian dualism involves metaphysical distinction, or if it tacitly assumes “there is only one thing”. It seems more likely that such distinctions did not cross Descartes’s mind.)

Aristotle was the first to insist that there is not only one kind of thing; and he was the first to force this as far as it had to be pressed in order to avoid either mechanism, materialism, or Parmenideanism- he claimed that “is” meant irreducibly many things. To prove this, he appealed to the facts of basic experience, but the conclusion is so striking and difficult to hold that Aristotle was the only one to figure it out and give it a proper development, and everyone else who learned it learned it from him.

Note that if mechanism or the doctrine of Parmenides were true, there is clearly only one science, even if it has many specializations. If there is nothing but X, then all you need to understand reality is X-ology. All else is just a body of opinion or unknowable (we’d say “untestable”) conjecture.  This is why Parmenides called natural science “the way of opinion” as opposed to the way of truth; and why scientism or mechanism simply reverses his judgment, calling natural science the way of truth. Aristotle, on the other hand, claimed that there were really many sciences of reality that were really irreducible to each other, even in principle. There were not mere specializations, but absolutely separate sciences, the one which was not a mere continuation of the other.

All versions of “nothing but” are incoherent: Parmenides made the world one, but could not find a sense of one that was sufficiently unified and coherent; mechanism makes the universe a giant collection of tools without agents. Both of them have to deny (though for different reasons) an ontological difference between the living and the non-living; immanence and transitivity; agents and instruments; nature and art (again, by “ontological” difference we mean two beings of which “is” is not said in the same way). The great simplicity of the metaphysics, however, is a powerful opiate that dulls our (easily dulled) wits in the face of the incoherence.

Ramble on the unity of being as first grasped

Being and unity are the same thing but differ in ratio. One difficulty in this account is that “being” is grasped first by us and “unity” third. But what judgment can we form about the unity of being as we first grasp it? Is it impossible to meditate on  the unity of bring as being is known first? If what is first revealed to is in fact one, why can’t we meditate on that fact?

The principle of contradiction lays out everything in front of us at once: “is or is not” stretches from prime matter to the Trinity; and even across being and non-being. This is a breathtaking vista: making a view from the Alps seem claustrophobic. At the same time, the view that shows us everything at once can only do so by presenting the division of what is from what is not; not in the sense being is one thing and non-being is another thing (which is itself contradictory) but in the sense that there is a division in things such that one is not the other. Should we then say that the principle of contradiction gives us an absolute unity even while this unity is only revealed in the opposition of one thing to another? “The mind first knows being, and then that this being is not that one”. I lean towards saying “no” since the ratio of unity cannot be grasped until after being, even while there is no real division between unity and being.

“That this being is not that one”. This opposition is not the same as the opposition between one finite thing and another, but includes any division whatsoever, including transcendental multiplicity, which is found in even the Trinity (though St. Thomas would not use neuter pronouns to divide the Persons of the Trinity). Could we then say that it is not necessary that the second notion of our mind, namely “this being is not that  one” be opposed to our first grasp of being, because the division we grasp is not opposed to absolute unity?

Why not say that the first being that we grasp is, in fact, of a unity, though it does not yet have the ratio of unity; and that the second grasp of our mind of the division of things is not opposed to the real absolute unity?  The ratio of unity, however, comes immediately after this in the third grasp of our mind, as a consequence of our inability to understand unity apart from the negation of division.

Interior dialogue on free will

A: We do not have free will.

B: So what kind of will do we have then?

A: I don’t get the question.

B: Well, if you deny free will, it must be because you think the will is something else.

A: No, I think the whole idea of free will is a fiction, like “sunrise” or “the end of the rainbow”. It’s just a false judgment of appearances.

B: That’s fine- but to explain away the appearance of freedom isn’t the same thing as to explain away the appearance of a will. So what is a will?

A: It’s what people think makes them be able to choose this or that- even though they can’t.

B: So a will is nothing other than what makes people think they are free?

A: Yes.

B: But then a free will would be the free appearance of being free. This is incoherent.

A: All right, will must mean something, but I still think it means free somehow.

B: Does it seem reasonable to say that will is a kind of appetite, and that we can question whether this appetite has some sort of freedom? Even if “will” doesn’t exactly mean “appetite”, you’d still admit that we have desires and appetites.

A: Yes.”Will” doesn’t sound exactly the same as appetite or desire to me, but we really do have desires or appetites, and I deny that we have any real choice about which one we are going to follow. A perfectly formed science could tell us why some monks follow the desire or appetite to fast in the desert and pray while playboys follow the desire to live the high life. But they had no choice but to follow the desire they followed.

B: So what sort of thing is desire? For example, can we desire something that we are utterly ignorant of, or do we at least have to have some idea of it?

A: I’m not sure that “not being utterly ignorant of X” and “having some idea of X” are the same, but that seems right.

B: So the desire for X follows some awareness of it- though this can mean many different things. The desire for peace, for example, can be had even during war.

A: Right.

B: So you’re claiming that we have no choice but to desire the goods we desire?

A: Right, once we learn enough, we’ll know exactly why we see all these things as good. Just look at what evolution can explain about beauty, morality, altruism, etc.

B: But we desire these goods only so far as we know them?

A: yes

B: Now do we know everything we desire with absolute clarity, or not? If we want peace, do we know exactly what the peace will consist in, how we will get to it, how fast we can attain it, and all the other relevant details?

A: No.

B: But then our knowledge of these goals is vague and indeterminate, and could be fulfilled in any number of ways.

A: Right.

B: But if I truly desire, say, peace, and desire follows knowledge, then if the knowledge is indeterminate then the desire is indeterminate. But isn’t an indeterminate desire the opposite of a determinate desire? So isn’t this an undetermined desire- a free will?

A: I don’t know. I’m not sure that everything that is indeterminate is also free. Quantum events are undetermined, but I doubt they are free; so are dice throws.

B: But I’m not saying that every non-determined thing has to be free, but I would say it is non-determined. If desire follows knowledge, then if our knowledge is not determined to one course, how can our desire be?

A: Maybe there are more causes to desire than knowledge.

B: there almost certainly are, but this isn’t the point. We agreed before that desire is impossible without some sort of knowledge. You can’t very well say that when we desire peace we must know it, but then when we desire this or that particular means we need not know them. I don’t see how you can have an utterly determined desire unless you posit that we have an utterly clear knowledge of absolutely everything that must be done- which we clearly don’t have.

A: So are you saying that our freedom arises from our ignorance?

B: I don’t know if I would say exactly that, but there is some truth in that. “freedom” in a human sense requires that we don’t know exactly the way to attain a goal.

A: But we are not free with respect to this goal?

B: I don’t think so. If we had a perfect knowledge of the goal, and a perfect illumination of how to get to it, and a perfect rectitude of our will to attain it, and most importantly, if there were no intrinsic contingencies in the very natures of things that made goals uncertain, then we would not be free in the sense that I now say we are free.

More simply, if we stood face to face with the goal of our life, and knew it as such, then we would have absolutely no choice but to choose it.

A: Yes! that’s exactly what I think! I think this is exactly what science will show us!

B: Well then, I think we agree. The question only becomes now what is the goal and end of our life, correct?

A: Yes, exactly.

Overcoming division, or, the increase in communication

Unity and communication to others are from the same source, (act) and so increase in unity is proportionate to the power to share that unity with another. The absence of division in ones own self is proportionate to the degree to which that very unity can be shared with another.

Viewed from the perspective of one who comes along after the communication, we find a multitude of things, each with a unity that is somehow absolute. But he finds a very weak unity, one which seems far more mingled with what is opposed to it than with what is proportionate to it. We find a unity mingled with division from others; that is, with an inability to share existence with another. This division is at its most extreme in matter, a mode of existence that largely excludes shared existence.

This division is overcome at the lowest level by life, which can draw others into its existence (though, admittedly, only by destroying them by digestion) There is a more perfect mode of communicating itself by producing another of itself; though again, this is a procession from a conjoined material principle- a sort of eating in reverse.

This division from others is overcome more perfectly in sensation, where the other is not destroyed by being unified to another. Nevertheless, this unity is not according to what is innermost in the other, but only according to the lowest emanation of its existence: its external, physical accidents. This division is overcome only in intellect.

The study of nature is reductive

The science of nature must be reductive for two reasons: 1.) nature is a cause and source of natural things; and 2.) we only need a science if the thing we are looking for is not evident. The science of nature therefore exists only because a source and cause of natural things is not evident, which gives rise to the need to reduce the natural thing back to its source.

Nature is a source. People get confused about this: nature is not some thing, like a forest or a volcano or a beating heart. Forests are natural, in the sense of coming forth from nature (there is an extended and romantic sense in which we call the forest “nature”, which is fine, but it not the sense of nature we seek to understand by “the science of nature”) Nature is the source or cause of the coming forth, which is a very different thing. We find nature by tracing things backward to some source from which they arose- a source which they are in some ways only a participation in or a manifestation of (not all reductions are the same).

It is pointless to complain that some account of nature is reductive. If it were not reductive it would not be a natural science- and yes, I do mean “reduction” in the sense that it is now used. The only question is whether the reduction is done rightly, or if one reduction is taken as the only possible one, or if we seek to reduce what is in fact nature, and thus not reducible.

“Reduction” and “reductionism” are words similar to “anger”. Since immoderate anger is so common and well-known, we tend to use the word anger to mean immoderate anger; and since bad reductions are so common, we tend to call “reductionism” an incorrect reduction. But this is an error on our part that we should strive to purge out: just as the Stoics got a very distorted view of moral philosophy by confusing anger with immoderate anger, we can get a very distorted view of natural philosophy by confusing reduction with incorrect reduction.

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