How space and time are not real

(This takes the previous few posts as given)

The first grasp of “an interior principle” is matter. Many suggestions of the elemental matter of things have been given, from water (the first suggestion) to fermions and bosons (the last one). But there is an important distinction in this: given that the real is something supported by an intrinsic principle, then anything common to what has an intrinsic principle and what doesn’t can’t serve to identify the real, but matter as a source of spacio-temporal extension is common in this way. And so identifying something as spacio-temporal does not provide enough information to tell us if it is real.

Spacio-temporality allows a common platform to consider nature as art, and in this sense it is extremely useful. But it cannot be a sufficient ontology. So how does matter enter into the real things?



The objective is a thought with an object validating or justifying or supporting it. This might work as a theory of knowledge (though it doesn’t) but it can’t at all be an account of the real. Nevertheless, the basic intuition of the real being “the supported” is right. The real is supported by an interior principle while everything else is supported extrinsically by the mind. This “everything else” includes, inter alia:

1.) Fictions

2.) Things depending on the mind to exist more broadly: logical structures, sciences, positive laws, probabilities, language. In Aristotle’s theory, mathematicals are also included here.

3.) More familiar artifacts: tools, technologies, adornments.

4.) Falsities.

5.) Privations, negations, impossibilities, and non being.

6.) Goals that are in vain

7.) Heaps and other accidental wholes.

8.) Ideal, counter factual, and hypothetical constructs.

9.) Quantitative Infinities

There is an order among all this “non-real” stuff, and a lot of work to be done in dividing and distinguishing the various things on the list.


The “objective/subjective” theory of the real

The objective-subjective theory of the real appears to be a melange of four distinctions: 

1.) Episteme and doxa. These are the old Greek concern over the certain and scientific as opposed to what was “opinion”. Diversity and change in the former is impossible, in the latter expected and necessary. In a word, we either have certainty or we don’t. 

2.) Ens simpliciter and ens rationis. The subjective is what depends on the mind to exist: fictions, lies, science, logical inference, etc. The objective is, pace Berkeley, what would be there if there were no minds to know it. 

3.) The factual and uncertain. “objective fact” is a pleonasm. 

4.) The rational and emotional. Rational meaning “impersonal” whereas emotional states are not. 

On this account there are at least two sorts of problems, that is, facts that are difficult to harmonize with our theory of truth. 

1.) The objectivity of the fictional or non-existent. This is a pretty common concern in analytic philosophy from Russell to our own friend Bill Vallicella. They do not see the real as being from an interior principle, and so they can’t simply chalk up fictions or non-existent beings as each ens rationis, which can be taken both as “art” in the broad sense. One is never quite certain what to say about Hobbits or the present king of France. 

2.) The objectivity of the interior or non-public. Hence the problems of qualia, zombies, the chinese room, Mary’s red, eliminativism, etc. Interior reality is squarely on the side of the “subjective” side of the binaries given above, and all such things are reduced to their opposite.

This second problem is the problem of our present philosophy. The ancients did not and could not have fallen into it since their theory of the real was what came out of an interior principle. This is why their theories of the world were all kinetic and concerned with becoming and the problems attendant on it whereas our notion of existence seems far more centered on the “given” or “just there”. For us, interiority is a problem to be solved, occurring within a pure exteriority taken as given. 

The artificial as opposed to the exterior

The modern problem did not arise for the ancients not because they overlooked the subject but because they saw that which was really divided from “the interior” not as the exterior, but as the artificial or accidental. To lack an arche or principium of action, that is, to lack an interior source of being and unification and so to be inert, dead, and mechanical was not a feature of the exterior world but of artificial objects. 

The exterior and interior

It’s natural to us to divide the objective and subjective, the exterior and public world from the interior and private one. But the division is not natural in the sense of being universal – trying to find it before Descartes is not an easy thing, still less finding it as a fundamental division of being.

Descartes divided thinking substance from exterior, extended substance by an epistemological criterion: we cannot be deceived about interior reality but we might be deceived about exterior reality. The criterion continues to this day from Russell to Chalmers arguing that consciousness is a primary thing known.

The argument is a strange one since, taken on its own terms, we get only a division of how things are known to us.  The Cartesian argument leaves open the possibility that the exterior and interior worlds are really the same. Perhaps they’re one thing, or two things, or infinite things, or nothing at all; all we know is that, in the face of whatever-it-is we’re certain of one thing and less certain of another. In seeking to escape skepticism we end up with a distinction in things that leaves the world unknowable.

The other consequence is that the exterior world, by definition, lacks interiority. It becomes essentially intert, having no source within itself to give rise to activity. At the same time, the interior world is one of pure consciousness, that is, a world where all causal relations are logical inferences. But no one thinks that a cannonball brings down a wall by a logical inference. The exterior world is thus lifeless (mechanical) and causal power becomes only logical. What makes things go is a “law of nature” which is either in no way causal but only a description of what happens, leaving all real causes unsaid (the hard headed Empiricist tack) or it is endowed with a mystical mathematical causality acting within things (the idealist tack). But the dilemma arises only because we’re committed to holding that causal power is interior to things, and what is extrinsic has no interior.

Aristotle’s idea, as developed though Medieval thought (both Dominican and Franciscan) is that all things are, as it were, blooms proceeding from some source or principle. The first division in things is in the source that gave rise to them, that is, what we are given in the world is not an appearance, but a fulfillment of some arche or principium. One such arche is extrinsic to things, which gives us a class of the artificial and, by inference, a mind as the proper instrument giving rise to it. This is a totally different division of “the interior” and “the exterior”, but at least one that as the benefit of not confusing the map with the territory.

The imperfection of marital friendship (pt. 1: the thesis)

Michael Hannon does a very good job explaining the hard teaching about the order of sexually continent and and sexually active friendships – namely, that the former are more perfect than the latter. This is knowable by reason but only becomes practically feasible in religious communities (not just Christian ones, though these seem to be the only institutional strongholds for such perfect friendships in the West).

I have nothing to add to the parts of the essay I agree with, which leaves me with the only following paragraph to blog about:

The marital act itself provides a particularly clear illustration of such dis-integration [of a life consecrated to God]. Despite celebrity chastity speakers’ insistence to the contrary, sex isn’t the ultimate preview of the beatific vision but a distraction from it. Otherwise we would have a Mormon or Muslim heaven to look forward to, when instead Our Lord assures us that “in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven.” This is what St. Thomas Aquinas means when he compares sex to sleep. Neither of these activities is immoral, but both place real limitations on our beatitude in this life. By absorbing us in lower things, sex and slumber temporarily incapacitate our rational powers, which are our highest human powers and our most godlike powers. That is why chaste* friendship is even better than sexual union: because it is totally ordered to the best things without diversions from below.

Hannon and I agree that chaste* friendships are better and more perfect, but I disagree with the reason he gives for it. He argues this arises because sex temporarily distracts us from the exercise of our most God-like powers. I think this is an inadequate rationale and that a better one can be found in the essential exclusivity of sexual activity, which by its nature cannot be shared with many. Chaste friendships are more perfect because they are more communicable, and all such things are more perfect, ceteris paribus. 

Hannon cites St. Thomas’s comparison of sex to sleep. I’m not sure which text he has in mind, but the following one from ST. II-II 153.2 ad 2 is instructive. To set it up, St. Thomas is responding to the following objection:

Whatever incapacitates the use of reason is sinful

Sexual pleasure, because of its physical intensity, incapacitates the use of reason.

The response:

the mean of virtue depends not on quantity but on conformity with right reason: and consequently the exceeding pleasure attaching to a venereal act directed according to reason, is not opposed to the mean of virtue. Moreover, virtue is not concerned with the amount of pleasure experienced by the external sense, as this depends on the disposition of the body; what matters is how much the interior appetite is affected by that pleasure. Nor does it follow that the act in question is contrary to virtue, from the fact that the free act of reason in considering spiritual things is incompatible with the aforesaid pleasure. For it is not contrary to virtue, if the act of reason be sometimes interrupted for something that is done in accordance with reason, else it would be against virtue for a person to set himself to sleep.

St. Thomas’s response is therefore that the objection commits a fallacy of equivocation: the way in which sexual activity incapacitates reason – and therefore is contrary to reason – is not the way in which “being contrary to reason” means “sinful” the relevant sense. If it were, says STA, then sleep would be sinful. But this seems to give us a reason to think that STA’s reason for comparing sex to sleep is precisely to deny the sort of reason Hannon is giving, or perhaps to give us no indication of whether we are talking about moral imperfections. All we are told is that the way in which sex and sleeping distract from the exercise of our godlike powers are not ways which are contrary to the exercise of these powers in the sense we are targeting moral value.

Hannon certainly is clear that marriage is no sin, and so the above argument might seem beside the point. There are perhaps some moral imperfections that are not sinful. But either St. Thomas’s argument includes imperfections or it doesn’t:  if the first, then Hannon’s argument fails; if the second, he can’t use it to make his point.

My thesis is that chaste friendship, as friendship, is more perfect than sexual friendship because it is more communicable. Let’s start with the locus classicus of sexual friendship: Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife.  First given in Genesis 2:24, it is the defining account of marriage and therefore of sexual union, given by Christ himself (Mt. 19:5 Mk. 10:7) and by Paul in Ephesians 5:21. Notice that there are two elements in the account: the spousal intimacy of “cleaving to his wife” and also a leaving the father and mother. The establishment of the marriage relationship involves a breaking of another relationship, which is poignantly symbolized in the act of the father giving his daughter away, and which Christ speaks of when he says that in the resurrection persons neither marry nor are given in marriage.

The sexual relationship is more clearly exclusive in the sense that it cannot be shared with many persons, but only with one. This is exactly what marital fidelity consists in: to be faithful to one is inseparable from a rejection of all others. It’s unique to marital friendship that it is essentially private, so much so that even the depiction of its definitive act is essentially contrary to what sex is. Sex is obscene in the etymological sense: ob-scena is something that has to happen off-stage. Judith Reismann has amassed an impressive amount of evidence in favor of the idea that sexuality is of its very essence a private activity, and an attempt to make it common – whether by exercise or depiction – is a gross violation of its intrinsic structure.

This essential exclusivity and therefore hiddenness of sexual intimacy is one reason why it is such a good symbol of Christ and his church (cf. Eph. 5:25) The incarnation is a paradigm case of leaving the father so as to establish a union that is hidden from the world, and which picks out those who are in the Church to the exclusion of all others.

But this note of exclusivity makes it impossible for marriage to be an ideal friendship qua friendship. Friendship – and this is the whole argument underlying my thesis –  is essentially the sharing of a common good among persons, and a relationship that has no intrinsic exclusion of persons is more common and communicable than one that has such an exclusion. In this sense marriage will always be less perfect than what is enjoyed by Monks, friars, soldiers in a platoon, or even members of a corporation.

When we shift from considering the communicability of friendship to its object, then a different sort of order arises among friendships. Those ordered to God are more perfect than those ordered to the transcendent, those ordered to the transcendent are  more perfect than those ordered to the national or civic, and those ordered to any noble good at all are better than those organized for pleasure or acquiring material goods. But it is on this level that a consideration of matrimony becomes so interesting, since if we consider it as a natural good it is the least of all societies (the civic union is far more perfect) but in the order of grace it has been elevated to a sacrament, that is, a tangible sign that confers unity with the divine life. Christ could have, one supposes, elevated kingship or some other sort of political power to the level of a sacrament, but he chose the lowest, least perfect political union (the family) to be a conduit of the highest possible common good, that is, the life of God. Consecrated life, to be sure, has this same object, and it remains more perfect than marriage for the reason given above. But to leave it at this is either to overlook the sacramental character of marriage or the fact that sacraments as such incorporate us into the divine life.


*Hannon calls them chaste, but he no doubt meant to say “continent”. Chastity is just right reason in sexual activity, not abstinence from it.

Reproductive advantage (1)

Every science is entitled to take the existence of its subject for granted. Calculus textbooks don’t need and shouldn’t have chapters on the nature of mathematicals or the possibility of mathematical motion. For the same reason, biologists don’t need to give reasons for the value of reproductive advantage: it’s enough for them to point out that, absent reproducing individuals, there’d be nothing for them to study. But it’s a fascinating question to raise – why would something reproduce at all? Why do things try to continue? Given the centrality of reproduction to the development to maturity, physical structure, and above all the intensity of desire for reproduction in the living, one might suspect that an organism is nothing but a reproductive device (Aristotle defined all life apart from consciousness as reproductive soul, that is, a being whose raison d’être is reproduction). But what rational account can be given of this?  


What if praise and blame were the normative? (2)

 If the normative just is the praised and blamed, then it seems to be an index of group belonging. If we in turn take group belonging as an expression of the desire to survive, we might define the normative as the desire for life so far as this depends on group belonging. The oomph we feel in the normative – it’s voice that announces the thou shalt and shalt not – is an expression of our desire to live, and an awareness that this cannot be done apart from life in a group, and that it becomes more and more assured to the extent that we make ourselves paradigm instances of the rules of the group. The Darwinian or evo-psych ties here are apparent. 

One Thomistic response to all this is to say “this is exactly right, and since the one group that everyone belongs to is the human race, that is one group everyone needs to concern himself with being a paradigm instance of”. We might go on to point out that there are some well recognized rules for who counts as a paradigm instance of this group: they need to habitually deal well with others, with pleasures, with difficulties, and with the contingencies of life – the short names for which are justice, temperance, fortitude and prudence. This would be the “ideal group” that allows for us to identify the normative with group belonging and overcome the basic objection discussed in pt, 1. 

But saying this demands ordering different sorts of group belonging. Praise and blame explained the peculiar force of the normative by tying it to concrete, local groups of persons on whom we really depend for existence: our mates, family, neighborhood, and, at most, the people now alive in our time. To shift to talking about the human race as a group is a very different thing, and it’s not at all clear how anyone’s actual concrete life is extended by being a paradigm instance of a human being as such. How do we move from a Darwinian group to the human race?

But when we take a closer look at the sort of Darwinian explanations we notice that they tend to push us beyond the concrete. What exactly is “reproductive success” trying to do? It clearly wants to preserve something, but what? No concrete individual is preserved by reproductive success, regardless if we’re speaking about an individual animal or an individual gene. All these things have their term of life, and live it out irrespective of success in reproduction. This pushes us beyond the individual, but then what exactly is desiring to survive in reproductive success? Darwinian explanations really demand that we see individual desires as secondary causes – as sorts of instruments – to more general entities. And so the normative, like all things with Darwinian explanations, is a desire of a general thing expressing itself through me, and in which I find fulfillment. There is thus no need to explain how we move from a desire to live that expresses itself in a concrete group to a desire to live in the more general group of the human race, since it’s not that membership in the human race is what preserves us in concrete life, but rather, more interestingly, our very desire to survive in concrete life is a sort of instrument to more general causes.

Just how general these causes need to be is a matter of dispute, but Darwinianism clearly wants to push the limit to life itself, and perhaps beyond. The oomph of the normative thus becomes a desire for life as such to live on, and perhaps even a desire for being as such to be. 

But this isn’t quite right: it’s my desire that life live on, or that being be. But I can’t be speaking about life or being as abstractions, since abstractions either don’t really exist or, if they did, they wouldn’t need any help to live on.  But neither does it make sense to speak of my desire for the concrete universe to exist, since I have to mean either the necessary or contingent beings in the universe, but if I am speaking about all the contingent ones it is impossible for them to live on; and if I’m talking about all the necessary ones it is obviously unnecessary to do anything for them to live on. 

The Darwinian explanation of the normative thus seems to push us toward a saying that our desire is secondary or instrumental to another desire – another will – that is commensurate with life itself, if not being itself. 

What if praise and blame were the normative?

Praise and blame (PB) give us the best first look at what we means by “the normative”. So what would the normative be if it just were these things? 

PB seem to involve social relations and public behavior, or at least manifested behavior. Blame, in this context, is the cutting someone off from the social network, and praise is a recognition of their firm unity with it. The fittingness of isolation and separation as modes of punishment,* and collective mobbing in celebration as a natural mode of exuberant praise seem to point to this. On this account, the normative would be a metric of unity or division among a ordered group of gregarious individuals, and, since the unity and division are the life and death of a group, the normative is a baseline measure of the life or death of a group. 

True, an individual can PB himself, but praising oneself is not like taking one’s own temperature, that is, something that can be just as well by the oneself as by someone else. There is something hollow and pathetic is having to praise oneself, and something safe and cowardly about blaming oneself. There is also the fact that these internal actions frequently demand manifestation, hence the pressing physical need that many criminals have to confess or get something off one’s chest, or the deep dissatisfaction of having ones praiseworthy traits not recognized. 

On this account, the normative also has a cognitive aspect, since it essentially involves the judgments of others about us, according to what is a paradigm case of group cohesion or an act leading to its disintegration. 

The objection to all of this is so obvious that it’s hard to keep it till now: the normative is not what preserves communities, but which preserves a community worth preserving, that is, the community itself is measured by a normative standard and therefore cannot be identified with it. 

The objection leaves us with two options**: either the normative as such is an abstract and ideal rule that need not exist within an actual community or, what makes for a more interesting claim – the normative is a recognition of our citizenship in an ideal society, i.e. one in which PB is not contingent on something else. Here Thomists might think of ST I-II 2.3, where STA argues that the value of human action cannot consist in the PB we receive from human persons but it must consist in the PB we receive from divine persons, and this latter gives whatever derivative power or value we might experience in the former.  

*We find a limit case of this in the doctrine of Hell, a place where isolation is so absolute that, if someone is there, even one’s own perfectly loving mother would not miss him. 

**These need not be entirely opposed. An ideal community can be seen as the concretion of the ideal. This would give us a variant of the Euthyphro problem, and perhaps point out a unique solution to it. 

What Naturalism sounds like to natural theologians

Assume you’re an intellectual living in Alexandria around 350 AD. Euclideanism is a runaway favorite for the most effective scientific system of all time. It’s successfully determined the size of the earth, it’s been used to make a system of astronomy so precise that no one has improved on its accuracy for centuries, it’s built devices that can measure the distance of ships or allow for perspective in architecture, it’s showed the governing ratios for art, painting, sculpture, and the proportions of natural bodies. Plato has insisted that everyone learn it before they attend his ancient academy, some neo-Platonists mimic Euclid’s framework, and Aristotle’s whole theory of science takes it as a point of departure. The science has lead to many conclusions that seem shocking to common sense (like asymptotes, irrational numbers, angles less than any given angle…), while at the same time being based on principles that seem irrefutable and self evident.

You, however, work in a comparatively small backwater of inquiry: the nature of mathematicals. You spend your time engaged in the various disputes about whether they are Platonic substances, Aristotelian abstractions, Pythagorean monad or dyads, etc. You get in disputes with collegues, go to conferences, get alternately enthused and bewildered by all the various arguments, and gradually appreciate more and more how difficult the problem is.

One day, however, you hear a new theory about the nature of mathematicals, namely that the whole discourse is pointless and probably meaningless. You’re intrigued and a bit worried about the idea and so you ask some of those who advance the theory to explain themselves. Here are some responses you get:

1.) There’s no need to explain where mathematical things come from, and it’s probably impossible to do so. There is no explanatory gap within Euclid’s system for either Platonism or Aristotelianism to fill. What is your theory except a Platonism in the gaps?

You respond that you’re not trying to give a Euclidean theory, but you want to explain why there are Euclidean entities at all. Your interlocutor brushes off all that mystical sounding woo-woo. Why can’t the mathematicals just be there? What do Platonic heavens add to the rigor of Euclid?

You respond that the opinion he is giving just now is not a Euclidean one, but he laughs at that suggestion. All he’s making is a denial of supra-Euclidean reality. It’s not a belief, but the absence of a belief.

2.) Another guy, who is far more rigorous and analytic, brushes off the coarseness of the above opinion and tries to give a more subtle interpretation of it. To what extent, he asks, does any theory of mathematicals possess the theoretical virtues that we usually require of explanatory systems? Both Aristotelianism and Platonism and all the other theories are completely undefined, since the acceptance of one or the other makes absolutely no difference on the ground for how Euclid’s geometry advances. Does any theory yield a mathematically testable theorem? Can any of your theorems be used to falsify a theorem or give us new insights into the ones we have? Don’t all of these consequences reflect negatively on your whole domain of inquiry?

Here again, you try to explain that you’re not trying to give a theory in mathematics, but about mathematics. He insists you completely missed his point, namely that your theory is totally undefined and can make no mathematical difference.

3.) Others object that the whole idea of an extra-Euclidean system is nonsensical. How does this extra-Euclidean domain interact with the Euclidean one? If it has real effects in the Euclidean world, then it has to exist within it; and if it doesn’t, then how can it explain anything about it?

4.) Another guy is far more pragmatic, but agrees with the general thrust of what was said. The discussion of mathematicals has been going on for centuries and has gotten nowhere while Euclideanism has proved an unrivaled tool for explaining practically everything. Shouldn’t you try to stop solving all these problems by logic and try to use a method that’s actually gotten results? After all, Euclideanism has showed us the problem of just trusting logic to solve problems – there are all sorts  of counter intuitive conclusions that are nevertheless completely certain. He doesn’t say exactly what he means by logic, and it seems very odd to you to hear your arguments described as “solving things by logic”, but you figure that the debate won’t get anywhere.

« Older entries


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 155 other followers