One approach to Naturalism/Supernaturalism

Following Plato in Laws X we can divide Naturalism and Supernaturalism by asking whether nature is prior to art or art to nature. Plato advocates Supernaturalism by an argument like this:

1a.) What initiates its own activity is causally prior to what does not.

2a.) What initiates its own activity is alive.

3a.) Nature, as such, is not alive.

4a.) Life, therefore, is causally prior to nature.

While it doesn’t get us precisely to the causal priority of art, it gets close enough – we can’t imagine a life causing the universe from outside except by art. The opposite argument is this:

1b.) Art is an activity of a living thing.

2b.) A living thing is caused by a certain degree of complexity and organization of natural things.

3b.) What is simple is causally prior to the complex reality made from it.

4b.) Nature, therefore, is causally prior to art.

There is minimal dissent from the first and third premises, so the dispute turns on the account we give of a living thing.

For convinced hylomorphists, there is a way to order the two definitions of life: 2b is clearly in the order of material cause while 2a is formal. But material causes as causes are the last things in a causal sequence (though they are sometimes first in time) and so 2b is only a cause of life in a way subordinate to 2a.

Aristotle might also argue against the primacy of 2b from his account of chance: 2b gives an account of life that could be by chance; but what cannot be by chance is prior to what might be from it. 2b speaks of order (“organization”) but chance can only account for this or that instance of an ordered thing, and not the order itself. You might set monkeys to work on typewriters and come up with the best work of literature yet produced, but this presupposes the order of the language, syntax, apt metaphor, plot, and half a dozen other things that a monkey has to get lucky enough to satisfy. So a thing could only be by chance when it presupposes another sort of order; and since 2b describes what could be by chance even if it is in fact not, then this account of life cannot be the fundamental one.

But to the extent that 2b is true, life is intelligible to us. In understanding life we gain the power to control it, and to model it in a way that we can understand it as well as any machine we might make ourselves. Our knowledge becomes more godlike and impressive us, so much so that to the extent that we successfully understand life this way it becomes difficult to see any other mode of understanding it as bona fide knowledge. Even if assuming that life is intelligible to us is a clear case of the looking-for-your-keys-under-the-lightpost, but it rings hollow when we see the sort of practical results we get from the assumption. Shouldn’t real knowledge give us power over something? And what would it even mean for something to be intelligible, but not to us?

The principle that things should be intelligible to us is older than either modern science or Kant, but both of these gave the principle a new urgency. The success of the practical method, combined with the difficulties we have in understanding things in ways less intelligible to us, makes anything else seem impotent and merely verbal.






The structure of suffering

It’s easy to lose sight of the fact that there is a structure to suffering – it is not a relatively simple experience like rage but a multi-faceted one like love. Describing it leads to paradox and confusion – like explaining how fevers make us both hot and cold. While no one needs to be told that suffering is painful and that no one would choose it, it has other elements too, e.g.:

1.) Numinous insight. The one who suffers is seen as speaking with authority, even prophetically.  It’s not mere politeness that keeps us from contradicting or arguing with him, but a sense that he’s in a peculiar position to understand something. The examples here are almost too numerous for any list to do justice to: the holocaust narratives of Viktor Frankl and Elie Wiesel; the suffering speaker of the 21st Psalm; Job; St. Therese composing her autobiography while dying of tuberculosis; the forcefulness of The Band Played Waltzing Matildaand others too obvious to mention. This power is also abused: perverse victimization, and tales that purport to show how suffering shows the true emptiness of the self (say in Lucretius or Thucydides)

2.) A kind of return to infancy. Suffering makes everyone want to mother you. You are pitied, doted on, taken far more seriously than you very would be taken in normal circumstances.

3.) A decision of meaning. Suffering demands some answer to whether this is meaningful or pointless. Is this happening because the universe is indifferent to us, or because we are being called to transform its essential meaninglessness by a some sort of response? This connects to (1) – suffering demands a judgment on life, one that we see ourselves in some position to respond to. It makes sense that we would reach for either carnal or spiritual extremes in the face of the question.

4.) The establishment of sacred text. One very good practical account of a sacred text than one that you can quote from memory in the face of suffering. I love Plato, and in the cool reflection or normal life he is my beau ideal of mystical insight, but one doesn’t find himself quoting Plato in the Valley of death.

5.) A sense of God the Father. The God of the philosophers has minimal value in the face of suffering. One is either loved or abandoned by the Father – Christ’s Eloi might indicate that the love and abandonment are experienced together.

The argument from contraries in Phaedo begins with the unobjectionable claim that whatever comes to be X was non-X before, or that things come to be from opposites; but then Plato follows this with a remarkable premise:

[Opposites] involve a passage into and out of one another. And this holds of all opposites, even though not always expressed in words-they are generated out of one another, and there is a passing or process from one to the other of them?

That is, every opposite gives rise to its opposite. The claim seems crazy: moving to Paris certainly involves coming to it from the outside, but the move isn’t part of some larger cycle of moving into Paris and then out of it; growth involves getting larger, but (jokes about Grandma notwithstanding) there is no opposite process of becoming smaller. There is not just a obvious problem of various examples of coming to be, but the ontological problem of saying that a thing by nature gives rise to its opposite – which seems to mean that a thing seeks its own negation. So what could Plato have been thinking?

His defense:

If generation were in a straight line only, and there were no compensation or circle in nature, no turn or return into one another, then you know that all things would at last have the same form and pass into the same state, and there would be no more generation of them.

What do you mean? he said.

A simple thing enough, which I will illustrate by the case of sleep, he replied. You know that if there were no compensation of sleeping and waking, the story of the sleeping Endymion would in the end have no meaning, because all other things would be asleep, too, and he would not be thought of. Or if there were composition only, and no division of substances, then the chaos of Anaxagoras would come again. And in like manner, my dear Cebes, if all things which partook of life were to die, and after they were dead remained in the form of death, and did not come to life again, all would at last die, and nothing would be alive-how could this be otherwise? For if the living spring from any others who are not the dead, and they die, must not all things at last be swallowed up in death?

So he shifts to a fundamental level of nature, and claims that death cannot swallow up all life.



The Existential stance

Call the existential stance the way of considering the world where each thing is just this thing, here and now.  Each thing is incommunicable, particular, and is no broader than its history and its past. The existential stance is particularly easy to apply to loved things, or to odd and unique things. It is this stance toward the world that Hopkins praises in Pied Beauty

In this stance objects become incapable of entering into systems of thought. We have sensations in our body and histories in our intellect, but to enter into a discursive system breaks the existential trance. A discursive system requires that we see types, as opposed to the peculiar thing here and now. For example, to take some chemical in an experiment as this one here and now would make the experiment impossible. One could not draw a conclusion from whatever happened.

In this stance, things become largely ineffable. For example, to see the peculiar way in which a door handle has been rubbed and worn from repeated handlings has no particular name, and the sensation I have putting my hand on the table has only a general description using words that I could have used in infinitely other descriptions. The one exception to this is the proper name. My wife is the only Jessica, since all the other uses of that name are equivocal. Because of this, the existential stance develops in a way proper to it in interpersonal relations, and in the person’s own recognition of himself as a person – as in morality and politics. But though the existential stance forces itself on us in an unavoidable way in the personal, the personal is really a particular modality of the existential stance.

Though the existential stance makes the world ineffable and incapable of giving rise to a science or discursive system, it is nevertheless completely ridiculous to say that it shows us nothing real. It’s reality is beyond question. In fact, within  the existential stance it’s hard to escape the thought that this alone is what is real.

There is a long history of fearing the existential stance. Plato accused Heraclitus of saying something difficult and monstrous in thinking that one could not step in the same river twice; Aristotle was even more dramatic in seeing Heraclitus as only one significant moment in a collapse to complete intellectual corruption (we’ll end up like Cratylus, being able to do no more than point!) Both argued, not without reason, that we have to flee from the horrible idea that things are just this – reality must rather be logos. Maybe it’s a separated logos, maybe its a logos in things, but that has to be the real. The river that doesn’t flow is more real than the one that does. The reason for this is pretty straightforward: the absolute cannot admit of multiple approaches that are both concrete and total: If they are multiple, they can only be partial. But I’m a Trinitarian and so am not committed to ideas like this.

Dialogue on creation and possibility

A: But then your whole idea of creation is contradictory.

B: Why?

A: Because you deny it is from anything at all, but if we deny everything then a fortiori we deny real possibility.

B: Right. Real possibility is only in matter, or something like it.

A: But then you’re denying that creation was possible, and yet here it is!

B: That does seem to be a problem.

A: There seems to be a related problem for classical theism: if the universe came to be, it was possible. But this possibility was either in God or in another. If in another, then God did not create ex nihilo; if in God, then God is not a pure actuality.

B: But it seems really odd to say that if we start with the power to do anything, that the universe is not possible.

A: In one sense, sure, but not in another – if you start with everything in perfect fulness, then what else is there to make?

B: So your first objection seems to be that creation involves doing the impossible, the second is that pure act could not create.

A: I think so. You need possibility to be a given to get anything, even possibility. This might be why Avicenna put possibility outside of God.

B: But this just can’t work. The real has to come from some source. There can’t be a fundamental duality of God and possibility.

A: So you say.

B: But why can’t creation be unique in being the only action where the possibility and actuality of a thing are simultaneous?

A: Who knows, maybe this isn’t even unique: a thing only has to be possible when it is, I suppose. Maybe this is the sense of “concreation” of possibility. Still, there seems to be a problem.

B: How so?

A: Because creation is ongoing. If you really think possibility and act are simultaneous in creation, then any future state of the universe is impossible – including the one three seconds from now. But… That wasn’t true.

The glory and problem of creation

For those who see the divine as demiurge, the world is not like the god, but like the forms that the demiurge looks to. For those limited to the Aristotelian account of the divine as actuality or energia, the creature is like the divine so far as it is in act, but not according to the whole of its being. There always remains some potential part in it by which it is not like the god. The doctrine of creation takes a final, decisive step by making the totality of being a communication from the divine

The nexus between the ultimate forms and the participated beings is entirely outside the participated beings, and occurs only in the demiurge. For Aristotle, the nexus between the ultimate moving act and the moved acts is within the moved beings themselves: the energy he gives to act is the energy by which they act; but something interior an essential to them is not imparted by the first mover.

On this approach to creation, creation marks a certain limit case of putting the works of God within God himself. At the lowest level, of which demiurge theology is the noblest case, but which also includes Epicureanism and forms of deism, actual substances are placed outside of God, and he gives them, at most, some accidental form. In Aristotle, only potential reality is outside of God. In creation doctrine, no reality is outside of God. It is precisely this sort of exterior reality that we are negating with the “nihil” in creation ex nihilo.

Now one can retreat from creation ex nihilo for pious motives – if we really insist that there is no reality outside of the creative act we lose a real principle in things by which we might divide the divine from the created. Deists would never confuse God with creation since they are two totally different actualitites; Aristotle could never confuse the act of the prime mover with moved acts since there was the reality of matter that was entirely outside the activity of the first mover. But creation ex nihilo denies any reality to something outside of divine act. Just as we should challenge the Deist and Aristotelian accounts for leaving some reality with no explanation of how it is there, the creation ex nihilo account is open to challenge that it leaves us with no reality that can account for the difference between God and creation, which seem to negate any real division between God and creation.

St. Thomas might be thinking of a problem like this with his doctrine that prime matter is not created but “concreated”, though (if this is what’s going on) a problem like this deserves more than a verbal explanation.

Hylomorphic note (3)

But it’s crazy to think first matter is a feature of the universe. That said it’s only the universe that has all real possibilities of material things in it. but how does one square this with the need for a subject having no act at all? Are we forced to make some sort of division between “having no act” and “being potential to all natural things’?

More generally, how do we tell the difference between “potential to all material things” when said of prime matter and the universe?

Hylomorphism note (2)

So if “matter” is a recognition of the ability of things to be acted on it is an abstraction from the things themselves. Form is likewise an abstraction from the various ways that things can act. But there is an important difference: in acting on matter one and the same thing goes from one state to another, and so has an indefinite character as neither this thing nor that. But there is no form indefinite to “this”. Making form indefinite would simply make it a kind of matter. But then the abstraction picks out something real in matter that is not picked out in form, sc. its indefinite character.

But here we seem to fall into a trick of thought: because the abstraction is appropriate to the indefinite character of matter, it seems that matter exists in a continuous way. But in fact acorns make trees and trees make planks, but acorns can’t make planks. It is not the same ability to be acted upon that passes from one thing to the next. There is no matter running under all things. This is true even of prime matter, which is not (as alchemists seem to have thought) that which can become anything but only the recognition that the power to be acted upon sometimes includes the generation of new substance.

An analogy for prime matter. Say that the human auditory range is from 20 to 20k hertz. It follows that any sound falling in that range might be a word, and that no sound outside this range could be a word. We can therefore call the range 20 to 20k hertz “the prime word” (i.e. prime matter with respect to the domain of words in the same way that we speak of prime matter is matter in the domain of all natural things. There is something that can become every word, and every word is made from it, but it does not mean that there is some one thing in every word that can become any other. In the same way, prime matter is just the universe considered in all its possible ways of being acted upon.

Hylomorphism note

Hylomorphism posits matter as underling all change, but this matter is not a being but an aspect of a thing, that is, its ability to be worked with or turned into something else. We have no matter lying about, but we do have trees that can be made into coffee tables and hydrogen atoms that stars can turn into heavy elements. Similar things might be said about form: we have no power to act lying around, only artistic skill in artists, the heaviness and momentum of a pendulum in a clock, the heat in the flame of a cigarette lighter.

So what becomes of hylomorphism then? A natural thing can act and be acted upon. Among such things, some can be acted on to such an extent that they become another thing altogether – for Aristotle, these were the sublunar things, whereas the heavenly things could only be acted on to change place, but never change in being.

Does the Copernican turn obscure nature?

In Aspects of Plant Intelligence, Anthony Trewevas claims that plant intelligence is much harder to see in laboratories since plants in such an environment act in a much tamer manner and don’t exercise the full palate of their powers. The reason for this seems pretty clear: a plant in a laboratory isn’t fending for itself but is being either cared for or killed off by the researcher. A grad student in a laboratory experiment won’t use the full palate of his powers either, and the artificial environment – with the necessary need to hide what exactly is being asked of him or what the researcher is really looking for – will tend to lead to a half-hearted application of even the powers he is asked to exercise.

If we can generalize this principle to include even plants, then the path seems open to generalizing it even to matter itself. To have a nature at all seems to involve some ability to receive information and respond to the world, and the artificial world of the laboratory has a tendency to make this information processing far less profound than it actually is. At the limit of this, we get a view of matter as mere stuff, which is supposed to have no interaction at all with the world beyond being pushed around in a completely extrinsic manner. Matter, on this view, is purely inert: a car with no gas and no driver, and in fact with no structure at all beyond what allows for a very primitive set of responses to being hit. But this is not the description of a nature but of a heap.

We can see this account of matter as false while still recognizing that it has borne an impressive amount of knowledge. But false it is. To exist at all – to be more than a mere heap or extrinsically denominated whole – requires some sort of information processing structure and therefore something that will count as knowledge. We can keep the strata of existence (inanimate, plant, animal, human), but they are not divided by knowing/ unknowing binary but by various analogues of knowledge.

If this is right, then the attempt to isolate various phenomena, so that the nature in question can answer only the question we put to it, will open up a new vista of understanding only by occluding another perhaps more profound reality in the nature we seek to understand. On this account the experimental method is only one move in a larger philosophical attempt to understand nature, one that needs to include a phenomenological and ontological move as well.

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