Differences of method in the problem of knowledge

Knowledge is opposed in one way to opinion and in another way to the incapacity for knowledge. Taken in the first way, the “problem of knowledge” is identical to the problem of certitude, i.e. “is it possible for us to attain to some unchangeable/ final/ demonstrated truth?”. This is the problem Descartes famously struggled with in the Meditations, and which had antecedents in Henry of Ghent, Augustine, and Plato. The second problem is the question of what makes the difference between something that knows and something that doesn’t. This is the contemporary problem of knowledge one finds between the Naturalists and those who think that knowledge is an irreducible reality. The Naturalist is striving for the next great unification in science: just as Newton unified heavenly and earthly phenomena,  motion and rest; Einstein unified acceleration and gravity; and the modern biologists assume that they have unified the living and the dead, so too philosophers want to accomplish the great unification between things that know and things that don’t. Non-Naturalists have exactly the opposite desire: they want to use non-knowing things as a point of departure to understand knowledge by negation. And so while the two sides disagree about what is true, they have a more profound disagreement of method, and this disagreement goes deeper than the problem of knowledge. The Naturalists see the advance of knowledge as unification and they therefore view any distinction between things as a sign that knowledge is incomplete; and the non-Naturalists, since they see negation as a tool of knowing, see that some knowledge becomes more complete to the extent that the distinction between things becomes sharper and sharper.  And so the problem of knowledge is based on a secondary problem of what it means for knowledge to advance.

Hylemorphism suggests one way to harmonize both approaches (the theory of Platonic forms would work too). Hylemorphism consists in the claim that there are two essentially constitutive parts of any natural reality: on the one hand there is a homogenous element that one understands better to the extent that formal distinctions are obliterated; on the other hand there is a formal element that makes one thing understood more clearly to the extend that we divide it from the background of things in which we first experience it as unified. This gives a double approach to any natural phenomenon: one that seeks after “matter”, that is, the dynamic ground where anything can be anything, and the intelligibility of the things has to come entirely from the outside (say, by imposing a mathematical structure) and another that seeks “form” – and knowledge simply is one of the clearest cases in which form rises above the flux and essential unintelligibility of things.

Action and interaction, II

An interaction is composed of transitive actions. Now transitive actions can be analyzed in two ways: first, into intransitive actions, e.g. if the hand pushed a box, then both the box and the hand moved; and if the line reeled in the fish, then the line retracted and the fish rose. Leave this sort of analysis aside. Interaction can also be analyzed into distinct transitive actions: reeling in the fish means both that the line acts on the fish and the fish acts on the line. This last sense is the reality captured by Newton’s third law, where every action (read transitive action) is only a part of a larger interaction, and so, for the physicist, every action of one thing on another is an interaction.

A transitive action is to an interaction as one to many. But all physical transitive actions are interactions, and so any physical action is a multitude. The individual transitive actions are only potential parts. To analyze a physical action into an actual transitive action requires analyzing the cause to a non-physical source. This analysis is not into the potential parts of the interaction (potential parts are not actual), but it is nevertheless the analysis of a physical action as physical. Considered in this sense, all physical action is analyzed into a way of taking part in the transcendent unity of a non-physical cause.

Action as opposed to interaction

From a comment at Feser’s blog:

[I]f meaning and intentionality are non-material/metaphysical properties of minds, how do they cause and constrain the physical behavior of our bodies? When your non-material mind rationally determines that you want to utilize the argumentative function of language by expressing a sentence using the keyboard of your computer, how does it make your hands do that?

The simplest way to imagine A acting on B is to imagine pushing,  pulling, or heating. When you take a closer look at what what these actions amount to, however, you see that they aren’t simply actions of one thing on another, but effects that result from a mixture or interaction of A and B. And so while you wanted to simply think about action, what you ended up visualizing was interaction, which is a very different thing. You wanted to consider a single causal arrow from A to B, and you ended up visualizing B acting on A in addition to this, and a net effect (C) that is something other than either action.

And yet for all that you still have an idea of action. The idea is simpler and more intelligible than interaction – in fact, interaction resolves to action just as molecules reduce to atoms or any compound reality reduces to its constituent parts. But what would be necessary for some A to just act on B? If B is a physical entity, A cannot be, for then we don’t have what we mean by action but a composite multitude of actions. And so an immaterial mind makes, say, hands act by simply acting on them, whereas a hand only “acts” on something by interacting. Even if it is easier for us to imagine the action of a hand on the hammer, upon analysis this is not what we meant to say when we spoke of action.

To put it another way: when Newton says that every action has an equal and opposite reaction, the first use of the word “action” is a logical abstraction, not something that the physical entities do. For the physicist, action just is interaction. Even if one argues that nothing acts, but that there is only interaction, that is, that an action can only occur in a larger interactive complex, it still is impossible to say that it makes no sense to speak of a non-physical action, since this is exactly what is involved in speaking of an action as such. The denial of immaterial beings would also be a denial of action as simply action.

Note on Aristotle’s Physics

Aristotle argued that the natural world is an object of stable and permanent knowledge. The opinion was the minority one: most thought that the knowledge of the world was simply doxa, that is, a falsifiable truth that had no perfect objectivity and therefore no permanence. This absence of perfect objectivity meant that the only knowledge of nature we could have needed to rest on stipulated realities and  hypotheses. While Aristotle wrote a lot about nature that was based on doxa, his Physics was thought to contain more permanent truths about nature, since it was supposed to be based on common experience, which was thought to be more or less true and not open to critique by specialized experience. But in turning to the Physics in search of such truths, all one  finds is a series of conclusions that are either false or of no value, and by “of no value” I mean the term as Aristotle himself used it: “definitions which do not enable us to discover the derived properties, or which fail to facilitate even a conjecture about them, must obviously be… futile (De anima, I:1)” If the value of definitions is from the power they give us to derive new properties and facilitate conjecture, then we must admit the truth of any number of things that nullify the supposed truth of common experience. For example, it is more valuable to identify rest and motion (as happens in inertia) or magnitude and time (as happens in Relativity). Again, we should affirm that things with no parts can move (Like electrons. The premise is not inconsequential – it grounds Aristotle’s proof for the existence of God) and we should deny that anything in motion needs a subject of notion (a light wave is not some thing waving – like aether) and that, as a consequence to this, magnitude is not the foundation of physical things, that is, a sort of substrate that supports all activity. It goes without saying that we can’t imagine any of these things or visualize what nature must be like if it is like this, but this seems to be the most fruitful way to consider it. This seems to prove that common experience of physical things is really just humanized experience, that is, the subjective conditioning of phenomena common to the human animal. Had we evolved to move at faster speeds or with a body closer to the Planck scale, our common experience of the natural world would be nothing like it is now. The truths that would remain the same would either be taken from mathematics or metaphysics.

And so while Aristotle deserves credit for making the strongest case that there is some permanent knowledge of nature, the project failed, and we have yet to fully mine all the truth that we can get out of its failure.

A nexus of Aristotle and Plato’s disagreement

Aristotle makes two claims about the source of motion:

a.) all motion reduces to something immobile

b.) All motion requires something immobile immanent in the natural world.

Plato disagrees with a. by reducing all motion not to the immobile but to the self-mobile; and he disputes b. by saying that there is nothing immobile immanent in the natural world. All immobility is proper to existing as the ideas.

Gregory of Nyssa gives an account of Naturalist Mechanism

But what, I asked, if… someone were to say that there was incorporated in, and belonging to, these elements a certain force which effects these intellectual insights and operations by a purely natural effort of their own (such effects, for instance, as we often see produced by the mechanists, in whose hands matter, combined according to the rules of Art, thereby imitates Nature, exhibiting resemblance not in figure alone but even in motion, so that when the piece of mechanism sounds in its resonant part it mimics a human voice, without, however, our being able to perceive anywhere any mental force working out the particular figure, character, sound, and movement); suppose, I say, we were to affirm that all this was produced as well in the organic machine of our natural bodies, without any intermixture of a special thinking substance, but owing simply to an inherent motive power of the elements within us accomplishing by itself these operations— to nothing else, in fact, but an impulsive movement working for the cognition of the object before us; would not then the fact stand proved of the absolute nonexistence of that intellectual and impalpable Being, the soul, which you talk of?

Gregory of Nyssa On the soul and the resurrection

God as activity without someone (like God) acting

The Catholic Encyclopedia explains the difference between the Aristotelian and Eastern conceptions of the procession of the Second Person:

In Aristotelean philosophy perfection is always conceived statically. No action, transient or immanent, can proceed from any agent unless that agent, as statically conceived, possesses whatever perfection is contained in the action. The Alexandrine standpoint was other than this. To them perfection must be sought in dynamic activity. God, as the supreme perfection, is from all eternity self-moving, ever adorning Himself with His own attributes

I’ve been repeating for years that the first sentence is false: my proof was Aristotle’s own account of what act is:

Our meaning [of "act" or energia / entelekia] can be seen in the particular cases by induction, and we must not seek a definition of everything but be content to grasp >the analogy, that it is as that which is building is to that which is capable of building, and the waking to the sleeping, and that which is seeing to that which has its eyes shut but has sight, and that which has been shaped out of the matter to the matter, and that which has been wrought up to the unwrought. Let actuality be defined by one member of this antithesis, and the potential by the other.

Note that, while Aristotle gives four examples of act or energia, only one of them is a static thing,  that is, a statue. All others are activities. And so Aristotle clearly wants to make a word that denotes both dynamic perfections (seeing, walking, etc.) and static ones (a statue, a house), that is, a word that speaks of perfection in whatever mode it comes. The Encyclopedia article, however, raises a different point: even if it is true that act denotes both static and dynamic perfections, it is still the case that Aristotle wants to found both of these perfections in the static perfection of an agent, namely, on the form. So far so good, but the next step makes all the difference. Consider U, which is defined as the fact that a form underlies or gives rise to an activity, that is, the fact that things act according to their forms. Is U a perfection? By Aristotle’s own premises, its pretty easy to argue that it isn’t: operation is the perfection of an agent (the whole teaching on act, and even Aristotle’s ethical doctrine rests on this). Operation is more perfect than form, and so U is a mode in which the superior is conditioned by the inferior, that is, a way in which a potency limits an actuality. It follows from this that pure act is pure operation, that is, an operation from which we deny an acting subject. Just as contemporary physics, in denying aether, came to see light as a wave in which nothing was waving, so too theology, by fully unfolding the notion of act, comes to see God as an activity in which no one is acting. There are all sorts of ways to misunderstand this, of course, though there are just as many ways to misunderstand the claim that God is a being that performs divine acts.  It’s a radical teaching though, and, at least as the Catholic Encyclopedia presents it, it’s one that even the East didn’t fully come to terms with. to speak of God “ever adorning himself with his own attributes” is only a modest move towards fully recognizing the consequences of the primacy of operation over form or substance.

Augustine on our vision of “Wisdom itself”

Augustine gives a proof that we know that we  see the existence of “wisdom itself”:

But wisdom itself never was unwise, and never can become so. And if men never caught sight of this wisdom, they could never with entire confidence prefer a life which is unchangeably wise to one that is subject to change. This will be evident, if we consider that the very rule of truth by which they affirm the unchangeable life to be the more excellent, is itself unchangeable: and they cannot find such a rule, except by going beyond their own nature; for they find nothing in themselves that is not subject to change.

De doctrina christiana I c. 8.

We know that there is wisdom itself because we have seen it; and we know we have seen it since we use it as an infallible principle of judgment, as when we see that a habitual and assured life of wisdom is preferable to an unstable and uncertain one. If we hadn’t seen the principle, the experience of the judgment would be instead the experience of merely drawing out a conclusion from a stipulation – we wouldn’t experience it as a deductive argument but as a logical progression that we were simply following out to see where it might go. Clearly, there is nothing peculiar to wisdom in the terms of the argument – any perfection that is always better to have than not have would have a transcendental exemplar, and so we wouldn’t have to change the structure of the argument to prove a truth itself, good itself, nobility itself, etc.

Thaumaturgus on the soul c. 4-7

4a.) The soul makes the body alive and moves it. If it moved it as one physical part moved another, it would not make it alive. Therefore the soul does not have physical parts.

4b.) If the soul were so mixed with body that it formed one compound with it, then the soul would not exist as its own simple substance, which is contrary to 3.

4c.) If soul had physical parts, it must either be moved from outside the body or within it. Not from outside, for this is contrary to what soul is; not from within, for the soul is what moves

4d.) The bodily is known by sense, but the soul is known not by sense but by its effects.

4e.) Everything is either animate or not. If the soul is an animate body, it is a body with soul, and so the question repeats. If it is not, then it could not animate another.

5.) What has no physical parts is simple, but the soul has no physical parts.

6a.) Whatever can corrupt or die has physical parts that it can be resolved into, but the soul is simple.

6b.) Whatever can lose its operative power lacks operative power as part of its substance. But to give life and activity belongs to the substance of the soul.

6c.) What does not cease to exist by its proper evil cannot cease to exist. But the soul does not cease to exist by the evils proper to it, like fear and vice.

7a.) What benefits the soul is of a like nature to it. But rational arts benefit the soul. Therefore the soul is rational.

7b.) Our activities are not sufficiently explained by the illumination we get from sensation. But the soul is the source of activity, and so is characterized by a higher kind of illumination and apprehension.

St. Gregory on the soul

Gregory Thaumaturgus gives several very solid dialectical arguments about the soul:

1. Wherein is the Criterion for the Apprehension of the Soul

All things that exist are either known by sense or apprehended by thought. And what falls under sense has its adequate demonstration in sense itself; for at once, with the application, it creates in us the impression of what underlies it. But what is apprehended by thought is known not by itself, but by its operations. The soul, consequently, being unknown by itself, shall be known property by its effects.

2. Whether the Soul Exists

Our body, when it is put in action, is put in action either from without or from within. And that it is not put in action from without, is manifest from the circumstance that it is put in action neither by impulsion nor by traction, like soulless things. And again, if it is put in action from within, it is not put in action according to nature, like fire. For fire never loses its action as long as there is fire; whereas the body, when it has become dead, is a body void of action. Hence, if it is put in action neither from without, like soulless things, nor according to nature, after the fashion of fire, it is evident that it is put in action by the soul, which also furnishes life to it. If, then, the soul is shown to furnish the life to our body, the soul will also be known for itself by its operations.

So, a brief commentary on Thalmaturgus’s first three chapters:

1.) Soul is known as source of bodily (that is, sensible) activities.

2a.) The most characteristic bodily activities are the ones we are in command of: waving a hand, walking, etc.

2b.) These activities are initiated from within, by ourselves.

3a.) Soul is seen most characteristically as a commander of the body, working from within the body itself.

3b.) This thing which commands can command in contrary ways (some ways are virtuous/ skillful/ perfective of the person while others are vicious/ inept/ destructive) and so soul admits of contraries.

3c.) Whatever admits of contraries is a substance, and in this sense soul is a substance.

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