1-31-12

In responding to the problem that God is able to do all things yet it is unable to lie or deceive, Anselm says that the word “able” or “ability” can be used to describe not only real powers, but also deficiencies and weaknesses. If asked to list off all the things a screwdriver can do, we’d say things like “tighten and loosen screws” or “pry off paint-can lids” or “sabotage locks”, but we wouldn’t say “it can rust” or “it can have it’s tip deformed”. Corruptions and weaknesses aren’t listed among a things abilities, even though the ability to be any of these things is intrinsic and inseparable from them. Once we start speaking about corruptions or weaknesses as abilities of a thing, we’ve noticeably shifted the sense of ability such that it is wrong to make a single list that included both senses.

But the sense of what it means to corrupt needs some refinement. Explosives and fuels, for example, have a being inseparable from their own destruction. Dynamite that must remain forever a foot-long red stick or gasoline that could never corrupt into water vapor and carbon dioxide could never exist, except by accident. The first thing we would include among the abilities of such things involves their ceasing to be what they are when they give rise to something else. The same account would apply to fuels in nature, like food or nutrients. And so we hit the paradox that there are things whose proper being (that is, the expression of their abilities) consists in a moment when they cease to be at all. The proper work of some things takes place in the moment when, in fact, there is no longer the very thing supposed to be working. This leads us to divide what we mean by a being (that is, some subject that does certain things) into those things that have being of themselves, and those that have being only by another. In the measure that anything is a fuel, for example, its whole being is from another. Such things could not be if they could not be.

But it seems that the place we call nature is one where, even if any one thing is what it is, it is also a fuel source. There is certainly some reality about me that a starving lion or cannibal tribe chases after; and even the most primitive stuff of the universe (like a floating hydrogen cloud) is a fuel source. Aristotelians would take this as an occasion to notice that there is a division in being in any natural thing into matter and form. This is fine, but the point of the discourse here is to reveal matter and form in a particular way. Matter is not some co-equal principle with form that belongs to the proper being of the thing, as though it could be placed alongside form in this way.  Matter or potency as such are outside of the proper being of a thing. “Matter” or “potency” in this sense are the measure in which a thing does not exist of itself. This is why the act of potential so far as it is potential is not being, but becoming or motion. Matter only enters into the being of something in the measure that it can be made formal, though there is an obvious contradiction in making matter be completely formal (though the closest thing to it might be the Medieval idea of the celestial bodies, where some form was thought to completely exhaust the possibility of some matter; and this category of being might at some point become important again to natural science.)

Following this line of inquiry about matter and form, the immaterial is simply that whose proper being exhausts what it is. An immaterial thing is just itself, as opposed to being a fuel source. The immaterial is much more solid and simple than the natural, being neither capable of being broken down for another or of admitting a proper account of itself as something other than what it is. In fact, a seemingly tautological statement (like a spade is a spade) seems to involve a sort of vision of reality that is only suggested by natural, physical being but can never be achieved by it. The ontological simplicity we want to attribute to chickens or oxygen or the various things we find around us cannot be verified by these things themselves in a complete way, and in this sense the world more suggest being than it gives us examples of it.

Anselm after the proof (c. 5-9)

After concluding that there exists some being than which nothing greater can be thought, Anselm discusses its attributes, concluding that God must be “whatever is better to be than not be”. He raises three problems to this: it is better to be sentient than not, but God does not have sense organs; it is better to be able to do all things, but God cannot lie or err; and it is both better to be compassionate and unbending in ones resolve, or merciful and just. The problems advance in difficulty, and each is representative of a distinct sort of problem in harmonizing the divine attributes. On the first level, we have a difficulty from being unable to transcend the imagination; on the second level there is a problem in transcending intellectual existence so far as it is imperfect (and so can fail either intellectually or morally) and on the third level there is a difficulty in reconciling attributes which each have an infinite perfection in themselves.

 

The interaction problem problem

We can’t say there is an interaction problem between an immaterial and material thing without assuming that the action of one on another must be an interaction. But why assume this? We could just stipulate that we are using the terms as perfect synonyms, but this only explains the problem away. If all we meant was “action”, then why did we gravitate towards the term “interaction”? A closer look at actions and interactions reveals important differences between them which illumine how one thing might act upon another without needing to interact with it. In fact, a closer look at (even natural) actions shows that the higher the action is, the less it interacts.

It’s safe enough to say that one physical thing can’t act on another without some interaction, that is, without the other reacting upon the one that acts upon it. If the bowling ball hits the pins, the pins hit the bowling ball. This is just Newton’s third law. As clear as it is, there are at least some fuzzy edges: light can act on empty space by illuminating it, but the empty space doesn’t act on the light (N.B. we’re considering the empty space as really empty, and not so far as it might have some body other than the light in it). Again, it’s hard to see how this interaction hypothesis is of much value in describing the actions of bodies and fields. The action of a body on space does not have an equal and opposite reaction of the space on the body; and similar things might be said about magnetic fields and the bodies they affect. Closer to our common experience, there are many other actions to which the third law does not apply: if I persuade you to vote for Jones, I’ve done an action that has no equal and opposite reaction.  Even setting aside human interactions, not every action of one thing on another is an interaction. For every bound of a ball there will be a rebound, but not every painting has a repainting (an antipainting?) nor does every burning have an antiburning. In other words, it’s not at all hard to understand what we mean when we speak of some actions not being interactions.

But here we have one of the simpler responses to an interaction problem: not every action is an interaction. If we take all the things we call actions, the ones that involve actual interactions are comparatively rare. It is true that every action of one physical thing on another will involve an interaction so far as we consider the action in certain ways (i.e. if we consider the sculptor’s action a “pushing” or “an action of one body on another” then there will be the reaction of resistance, but if we consider it as “sculpting” then there is not the reaction of anti- sculpting). But if this is what we mean by interaction, it is utterly irrelevant to considering a stipulated action of a non-physical thing on a physical one. Such a definition isn’t universally true anyway, since empty space as empty doesn’t act on light, and the definition is a poor fit to describe the actions of bodies and fields; but even if we admitted its universality arguendo it only applies to physical actions if we consider them in a certain ways and not others.

But I’m less interested in refuting an argument than illuminating an important difference among actions that allows us to articulate an action without a reaction, which renders intelligible what the action of the non-physical on the physical would be. What we are doing when we speak of “intereaction” is visualizing an action such that there is a causal arrow not only from A to B, but also from B to A. “Interaction” is the name we give to a multitude of causal lines. But we only understand this multitude through the individual or the one, and this one causal arrow, in all of its simplicity and intelligibility, is the best way to understand the action of the immaterial on the material. In fact, the closer we get to understanding what is most causal in nature, the closer we get to understanding the sorts of entities having causal arrows pointing in only one direction. I might lift up a pencil and release it, and so “change its potential energy to kinetic energy”, but such an action is action on a pencil, not an action upon energy. What we say about energy is pretty much what the Medievals said about the celestial bodies. We both might be wrong, but we won’t be wrong about the highest sort of causes having uni-directional causal arrows upon their effects; and this is a case where nature shows us what must be true of actions transcending the natural realm.

Nature, the source or principle

One of Aristotle’s simplest, most fundamental, and easily missed insights was that nature was a source or principle as opposed to the natural thing. No one could put the matter as simply as he does in the opening sentence of Physics II:

Of things that exist, some exist by nature, some from other causes. By nature’ the animals and their parts exist, and the plants and the simple bodies (earth, fire, air, water)-for we say that these and the like exist ‘by nature’.

And so nature is that by which some a natural thing exists. The attempt to understand nature isn’t principally the attempt to understand any natural thing – a tree or a woods or a pack of animals – but to understand that source or sources that gives rise to them.

Art is a source to, that is, a skill that one learns by which one might make various works of art or artifacts. We confuse the matter by calling the artifacts or works “art” also, but the primary sense of art is the skill or power which works to bring things forth. Now nature differs from art by being something that moves from within the thing itself – works of art don’t move of themselves – either because, like swords or coats or paintings, they don’t move at all; or because, like crossbows or steam engines or electronic equipment, they take some natural motion or process as a given. The need to take something natural as a given, with all the propensities to act that it already has, is fundamentally why works of art never move by themselves. Natures can take thing as given too: which is why Aristotle says that nature is not just an intrinsic cause, but the intrinsic cause that is first, for where nature presupposes some action or activity in something, it is the presupposed thing that is nature, and not the product that results, even if some natural being produces the thing.

Nature is thus the action of whatever thing is presupposed to a given action or result, irrespective of what performs the action or gives rise to the result; and if more than one thing is presupposed, the first or most fundamental of these things. The first such thing is whatever we make the things out of, or matter. This matter is either selected or not, that is, there is either some source that draws some matter in to constitute itself or not. There is no one name for the source or filter or selection or channeling of matter. So far as the thing selects or filters matter in preservation of its own integrity, it is called form;  but Aristotle will also apply the same term to a blueprint or conception or idealized natural law (like an ideal gas, non-gravitational space, point test particles, etc.), though later philosophers called this sense of form the exemplar. Againso far as this thing is some sort of goal or magnet of action Aristotle called it by the clunky-in- translation idiom of “that for the sake of which” (though, in Greek, hae hou heneka has more of a ring to it.) later philosophers shortened this to the more controversial-sounding but more elegant final cause. If there is no direction or selection or channeling of this kind, then the result arises by chance in the sense of there being no connection between some given process and a result. Since nature involves both things that come to be by chance in this sense and things that don’t, then chance, the exemplar, he hou heneka, and form all are nature too.

Since the investigation into nature is not a search for the thing but that by which things arise, but our everyday experience is principally of the things that have arisen, the investigation of nature moves beyond everyday experience in different modes that correspond to the different modes of nature. The simplest and most basic mode of attainment is through matter, the next is by chance, and in the primitive stages of science there should be attempts to treat these as exhausting nature – though the approach is handicapped, and even fatally flawed by having no formalism. At a later stage, this approach becomes more sophisticated: the attempt is to consider matter and chance as “real” whereas the various formalisms are only “models”; though this is untenable since the only value of a model is from its imitation of or participation in the real. At a final stage, there is an attempt to divide the formalism from the hae hou heneka, but this too is untenable, since they are the same thing viewed only as actually being or as becoming.

 

How cosmological arguments say science gives an insufficient account of nature

In his Mystery of Existence, Milton Munitz argues that cosmological arguments all fail since there is no reason to think that natural explanations of natural things are insufficient, and therefore no reason to posit any other causes. If we need an account for, say, why an asteroid hit Jupiter last Tuesday, none of the premises or equations which we use are insufficient or inadequate in a way that requires us to posit a divine cause. In response to this, we might be tempted to say that the causes are insufficient so far as they fail to give a metaphysical account of nature. But this approach is suspect, since it is fishy to posit an entire realm of inquiry in relation to which, mirabile dictu,  natural causes are insufficient.

Aristotle based his physics on the fact that there were two elemental ways to describe any change. As change involves moving from non-X to X, it can be described in two ways:

1.) Something becomes X

2.) The non- X becomes X.

Aristotle used the example of a “man becomes musical” and “the non-musical becomes musical”, but this describes any process where something new comes to be. Now the key thing for us to note is that an analysis of nature based on conservation laws is emphatically an approach to nature that sees nature in the first sort of way. Matter or mass or energy or momentum don’t pass away in exactly the same way in which a man becomes musical without passing away. When we decide to found an inquiry on conservation laws we implicitly decide to deal with it only so far as we can give an unqualified “yes” to the question of whether something survives the change. Whatever the value of this approach, it is not the only answer to the question, and the fact that we can answer the same question with an unqualified “no” remains there for anyone who chooses to deal with it. Now because what we call science is based on conservation laws, and conservation laws consider motion and coming to be entirely according to account 1 as opposed to account 2, it would seem that it is not scientific to analyze motion according to the second account or give an account of what needs to be true about coming to be if both those accounts are true of it. But it is also true, for the same reason, that what we call science is only a partial and insufficient account of motion, since it only treats of one true response we can have to the question of whether something is conserved in coming to be.

Now Aristotle based his whole physical doctrine of act and potency on this double account of coming to be (that is, on what had to be true about motion if both accounts given above were true of it) and he based his “cosmological argument” on the division of potency and act. This suffices to explain why what we call science can never formulate a cosmological argument, and its inability to do so is not because some clever thinker hasn’t hit on the right principle yet or (if we wanted to impute darker motives to them) scientists have an a priori commitment to doctrines like Mechanism or Naturalism. Science founds itself on conservation principles and so cannot raise the question of the contrary that is not preserved in coming to be, or of what must be true of motion if it is both true and not true to say something is conserved in becoming. From the POV of what we now call science, Aristotle’s question is outside of scientific inquiry, and so Milton Munitz is right that the cosmological argument does not arise from any insufficiency in natural causes as the scientist can understand them. At the same time, it is also wrong to say that it is only in light of a metaphysical account of change that the insufficiency of the scientific account is obvious, since to systematically develop only one of at least three different accounts of some reality is obviously to give only a partial account of it, and science is such a development.

 

The psychological Trinity in a dream

Augustine’s psychological Trinity is particularly striking in dreams. The sleeping self has two processions: a world with the self in it, and the very self experiencing the world. All three are of the same person.

Mobiles as participated beings

Aristotle’s own account of change starts by noticing that the reality of one and the same change can be accounted for in three different ways. The process of coming to know how to play an instrument can be described as either

a.) a man becomes musical

b.) the non-musical becomes musical

c.) a non-musical man becomes a musical man.

The accounts divide according to the answers we get to the question “does something remain the same during a change?”  In the first case, the answer to the question is an unqualified “yes”; in the second it is an unqualified “no” and in the third it is yes and no, both taken in a qualified sense. The problem is that no one way seems the correct way to describe the change to the exclusion of others, and so we are at a loss as to how to answer the question. Now any view of change will at least tacitly assume an answer. The first answer is the default since it’s the simplest. Change is just, say, the shuffling of elements and various parts from one place to another, and “the element” is imagined as being as real as a man. What is change? The element gets a new arrangement just as man becomes musical. Done. The difficulty with this barely needs to be said: to focus on simply the element that stays the same is to overlook something essential to the change. But then again, to include the part that is “not the same” as essential makes the essence of change “being both the same and not the same”. We might solve this with a distinction, but the distinction is trickier than it looks: it’s not as if the paradox is a facile as noticing that a pizza cutting wheel is both round and flat, or that a sword is both cuts and doesn’t (at the handle). This distinction can’t be made into physical parts (like a blade and the hilt) nor can it be made into logical parts (like “square” into “quadrilateral” and “equal sided”) or as relating to different categories (like a fire-hydrant into red and thirty inches high). Aristotle will explain all this by making a famous division of being into potency and act. But what does this mean?

While every becoming or change requires a subject, the very existence of this subject is derived from its term. To remove the term of a becoming immediately destroys the subject. If you drink the last coffee in the break room, you destroy the possibility of anyone coming down the hall to get some, irrespective of what anyone in the hall might think or do. Even if something is merely moving left to right, to remove anything on the right (whether we do this per impossible or by putting up a wall) is to destroy the subject of any such motion or coming to be. Now to destroy a subject isn’t necessarily to destroy something altogether, but only in the way it could come to be. Still, there is an odd dependence of a subject on its term, such that what changes must borrow its existence from the term, so that the existence of the subject is a kind of emanation or participation in the term.  The subject, taken precisely as a subject, only exists in the way that a mirror has the shape and color of a face.

But while it is true that to do away with the term is to do away with the subject, isn’t it just as true to say that to do way with a subject would do away with the possibility of attaining the term? If we got rid of an airport, we would get rid of the possibility of any subject coming there, but we could do the same thing by hangaring or scrapping every airplane. While there is a dependence here, the dependence is not equal in both directions. Even if some term requires a subject, we can’t say that the term is simply a participation in the subject or an emanation from it. Terms aren’t mobile. It makes no sense to talk about them as though subjects were drawing them in, or as if they had some activity that completes in getting to a subject. The principle of relativity or the equivalence between motion and rest is not applicable when we distinguish motion into subject and term.

 

 

Thinking without time, II

At the beginning of his speech in The Symposium, Socrates claims that we can only desire what we lack. The objection to this is immediate: wealthy men desire wealth; healthy men desire health, and in general everyone who keeps something good only keeps it because he desires to. But Socrates responds:

When you say, “I desire these present things,” we suggest you are merely saying “I wish these things now present to be present also in the future.” Would he not admit our point?” To this Agathon assented.

“And so,” continued Socrates, “a man may be said to love a thing not yet provided or possessed, when he would have the presence of certain things secured to him for ever in the future.” (Sym. 200d)

And so the desire for any good we possess is a desire to have it in the future, and we do not possess it as future. In fact, if we desire only to possess something now, the way we might desire a some tool only for the moment we need it, then we cease desiring it as soon as the moment is over.

But if love is essentially desire, then the lack of a good is part of the essence of love. Given that love seeks beauty:

“Well then, we have agreed that he loves what he lacks and has not?”

“Yes,” he replied.

“And what Love lacks and has not is beauty?”

“That needs must be,” he said.

“Well now, will you say that what lacks beauty, and in no wise possesses it, is beautiful?”

“Surely not.”

“So can you still allow Love to be beautiful, if this is the case?”

Whereupon Agathon said, “I greatly fear, Socrates, I knew nothing of what I was talking about. (Sym. 201b)”

Note that, by the terms of his argument, this lack of beauty or goodness is entirely a result of the limitation to temporal existence. The lack results only because the good we desire is separated from us in time, and because we are limited or constrained to the present. Seen from this angle, a timeless existence can be understood as the perfection of love, that is, the removal of any imperfection from love itself.

Thinking without time (pt. 1)

The first objection that Michael Martin raises to an immortal soul living in a heavenly afterlife is:

It is difficult enough to imagine even in a rough way what disembodied existence would be like in time and space. How would a soul move from place to place? How would it recognize other souls? What would disembodied souls do all day long since presumably there would be no need to sleep? The problem becomes insuperable when it is combined with idea that Heaven is outside of space and time. All of our mental concepts–for instance, thinking, willing, desiring–are temporal notions that take time to perform and take place at some particular time. Nontemporal thinking and desiring are inconceivable. Yet on this variant, souls think and desire nontemporally.

Notice that while Martin does not immediately discount the idea of a separated soul in space, he sees it as immediately incoherent for a soul to exist outside of time. Joseph Ratzinger (of all people) makes a related point in his Eschatology, where he denies that the person at death can be entirely drawn up into an eternal existence. Heidegger develops this point at much greater length (though apart from a consideration of an afterlife) by arguing that being cannot show itself to Dasein except as restricted to a temporal horizon.

We get a powerful support for this view from the way we articulate our thoughts. There doesn’t seem to be any complete thought without a finite verb, and every such verb must bring a time signification along with it. Heaven, it seems, is either an eternity spent saying “oooo… God!” or “ahhhh… Angels” or the attainment of articulate truth without predication, in which case its hard to know what we mean. The first possibility might be worth following up on (the idea that pure vision is the perfection of thought), but even then we visualize the process as ongoing and so in some way temporal.

But while we have no experience of a truth without time reference, we do have an experience of knowledge without predication, and knowledge without belief. If we take what rose means as an object, it is an object we can say we know, but not one we say we believe. But it would be more to the point to notice that the simple aspect of a present tense verb does not need to indicate limitation to a present moment in time, but can indicate an awareness we have of transcending the limitation to any one moment in time. Go back to the word means in I know what rose means. The word “means” is not a present tense to the exclusion of other times. The verb more indicates a state that persists or endures as opposed to indicating something that is limited to a present time. Latin and Greek use the past imperfect to indicate the same thing. So it looks like a closer look at verbs allows us to distinguish a temporal reference that indicates limitation to some time from one that indicates a transcendence of that limitation.

In fact, the same thing seems to follow from our ability to speak of time at all. We can visualize time as a line, that is, as static. Even if we need a temporal reference in every sentence, we still see the time we need as “beneath us” as though we stand above the past, present, and future like a mystic eye that can place events in any one of these locations. We have a particularly striking instance of this in the doctrine of determinism. Whether determinism is true or not, our very ability to conceive of its possibility requires that it be meaningful for use to see any moment as a nexus containing all actual and possible events.

And so we might give a coherent account of the soul’s knowledge in separation by preserving time to far as mind transcends time, and not so far as it is limited to it, which we can distinguish through a consideration of how verbs can speak of limitation or transcendence of time.

Nature and sensation II

Bill Vallicella quoted this parting-shot that Lawrence Krauss fired at William Lane Craig:

Classical human reason, defined in terms of common sense notions following from our own myopic experience of reality is not sufficient to discern the workings of the Universe. If time begins at the big bang, then we will have to re-explore what we mean by causality, just as the fact that electrons can be in two places at the same time doing two different things at the same time as long as we are not measuring them is completely nonsensical, but true, and has required rethinking what we mean by particles. Similar arguments by the way imply that we often need to rethink what we actually mean by ‘nothing’, from empty space, to the absence of space itself.

Vallicella focuses on the claim about “nothing”, and has a rollicking good time with it. I was more interested in the first few sentences, since I think Krauss is onto something but that he misses the real culprit. It’s not that our “common sense notions” are wrong, nor is there a problem with what other philosophers and scientists in this context call our “intuitions” (whatever they are), it’s rather that we’ve recognized that the common sensibles do not have an absolute objectivity. We’ve long grown accustomed to accepting that the proper sensibles (like flavor, scent, color, etc.) have only an imperfect objectivity, but we always figured that the common sensibles were not subject dependent but were really in things as primary qualities. Berkeley denied this long ago, and now experience is starting to force us to take his position more seriously, even if we don’t take it up entirely.

The basic position reduces to a dispute between Plato and Aristotle about what the study of nature is given that it is about both a.) a reality, and b.) what is given to sense.  Aristotle’s empiricism won the debate from the Medieval times to the 20th century, with its claim that sensation exhausts the content of nature in a more or less perfectly objective way, and that therefore natural science was a perfectly objective science. From the time of the Empiricists and Newton this position was modified to saying that only the common sensibles (like magnitude, time, number, position, place, etc.) were perfectly objective and universal, whereas the proper ones were not. There might not be color or taste, but there was obviously (so we thought) a three dimensional extension with a single time, where parts are either here or there. But now – As Plato and Berkeley have been arguing all along – the scientists are forced to accept that those sensibles are no more ultimately and absolutely objective than scent or flavor. This changes nothing about what natural science does, but it does lead to a very different account of its foundations and the sort of objectivity that it can boast of.

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