Immaterialism and knowledge

Accounts of the immateriality of intellect need to do more than appeal to the fact that we have no idea what it would mean for matter to think, since to leave it at this would leave one powerless against the obvious fact that we have no better idea of what it would be for a non-material thing to think. We can’t see thought coming out of Leibniz’s mill, but this is just as true of the Platonic form of the mill. Disembodied existence is not obviously cognitive any more than physical existence.

The Greeks saw knowledge as the cognitive grasp of form. This was more a definition than a finding, since “form” meant whatever was intelligible about a thing. Plato, so the story goes, put what was intelligible about things separate from the things themselves, whereas Aristotle put the intelligible structures of material things into matter. Now Plato’s account makes intelligence pretty strightforwardly non-material: if what is intelligible about things is outside the material cosmos, then in knowing we occupy a state outside the cosmos. Aristotle’s account leads to immateriality by a more subtle but just as direct inference: if knowledge means having the intelligible structure of something, it must have it in a way other than the material thing with that structure. But it is precisely by having that structure that it is material, and so cognitive powers possess forms in a way that does not make them material things. This gives cognition a sort of immateriality, though we’d need additional premises to establish that some intellect was immaterial simply speaking, and not just with respect to the material things it knows.

So if we wanted a theory of knowledge that made no use of the immaterial, we’d need to say either that knowledge does not consist in possessing some intelligible structure in things, or that this structure was neither within or without the things themselves.

“Humanities” is what we can teach

Hypothesis: the difference between the humanities and sciences is that we have (or at least had) a pretty good idea how to teach the former and we have no idea how to teach the latter. In philosophy and theology and literature there is a longstanding canon of books to read and start with, in languages there is a clear order in which one learns grammar and vocabulary. We have a vague but simple enough sense of why these things are worth reading (because they are influential, or worthy in themselves) and we no more or less what they are good for.

All this gets lost by, say, math. Are we teaching math, or proto-engineering? What is even the vague order between geometry and algebra? What do we want the student to learn about? Is this a useful language, or are the relationships themselves of the quantities (if that’s even what they are) what’s important? One gets the sense that math, above all else, should be systematic, but the chapters of a math text largely arise at random: factoring, motion problems, rationalizing denominators, the FOIL method, complex numbers, the Pythagorean theorem…

St. Bonaventure:

Since, therefore, all things are beautiful and in some way delightful, and beauty and delight do not exit apart from proportion, and proportion is primarily in number, it needs must be that all things are subject to number. And for this reason number is the outstanding exemplar in the mind of the Maker, and in things it is the outstanding trace leading to wisdom.

If we could teach mathematics in light of that – which would require teaching it just as rigorously as we now teach it – math would be considered one of the humanities. As it stands, our mathematics is a witch’s brew of an old desire to beat the Soviets at science, a tool that SAT boards like because it is a good predictor of success at college, the demands of the Texas textbook industry, fifty years of inertia of having done it “like this” for reasons no one understands… etc.

An existentialist theology

Expectation presupposes finite possibilities. We expect a number between one and six when throwing a die and not, say, a chicken. These finite possibilities are like grids into which chance realities might fall, or into which planned or natural events might develop. If we take the totality of this grid, we get “possibility”, if we take it as the terminus of what comes to be or was meant to come to be, it is “essence”. Essence is thus the intelligible structure that pre-exists whatever comes to be. This “pre-existence” makes it a potency for which the proper act is existence.

So what if there were some existence that was just existence, and not the proper act of some essence. By the definition given above, we get four characteristics:

1.) Such a being cannot be expected. But this is not strong enough: to see it would be essentially and absolutely surprising. I say “absolute” surprise to indicate that there is no component, element, or logical structure of such a being that could be given in advance and into which the being might fall. To be surprised by something seen is at least to be able to predict that it is visible, and in this sense the no surprise given to the senses or falling within the ambit of intelligible objects can be absolutely surprising.

If, per modern theory, information is the novel or unexpected, then only this being is absolute information: that than which nothing could be more informative.

2.) Such a being has no being before it or simultaneous with it in time. What is in time arises from its possibility and intelligible structure.

3.) Such a being is unintelligible, in the sense of not being any act given latent within our intelligence. We can know it only under the condition over it being absolute information.

4.) It does not come to be, and is prior to whatever comes to be.

Job and Eschatology

The penultimate verses of Job:

So the LORD blessed the latter end of Job more than his beginning: for he had fourteen thousand sheep, and six thousand camels, and a thousand yoke of oxen, and a thousand she asses.

He had also seven sons and three daughters.

And he called the name of the first, Jemima; and the name of the second, Kezia; and the name of the third, Kerenhappuch.

and were no women found so fair as the daughters of Job

If one reads this as a mere continuation of events, Job’s whole story collapses into a tale told by an idiot. Children are not the sort of thing that one can replace like cattle or camels, and the narrator would be utterly clueless or just plain wicked to brag about how the Job’s new daughters (born after the others all died tragically) are now the sweetest and prettiest in the kingdom. What could possibly be the message, if we take it this way? Don’t worry about your dead girls, ’cause God can give you prettier ones?

No. The author had something completely different in mind, namely an eschatological account where all evils are reversed, though in a way that now seems at once simple and unthinkable: simple in the sense that we understand that evil must be reversed, overcome, and subordinated to goodness; unthinkable in the sense that this must be an event outside of history.

True, the verses following this one speak of the death of Job, but that is the point. This event is given as the last episode in Job’s life since it is the last episode in it: the one he will live in the eschaton.

The argument from evil is sound if it says that God’s existence is incompatible with evil ultimately. If we could stand at the end of history and see even the slightest and most insignificant evil that were not reversed, subordinated, and overcome, we could conclude with apodictic certainty that God is impossible. But if we now say that he is possible, we are committed to a claim about something we will see at the end of history.

Athanasius on the reason for the Incarnation

Athanasius’s account of the Incarnation is one of those ideas so logical and simple that, once you get it, you always feel like explaining it takes ten times more words than necessary.

1.) Man, created from nothing, is an animal who was given the likeness to the Logos.

2.) Man lost his likeness to the Logos, and so necessarily fell back to nothing – to corruption and death.

3.) Death therefore became necessary, but the Logos could not stand to lose those who were in his likeness.

4.) Death therefore had to somehow re-establish likeness to the Logos: but the only way death could re-establish likeness to the Logos is if the Logos himself died. 

5.) The Logos could not die if he did not have a body.

(Added later)

6.) The Logos therefore unified a body to his person, such that whatever happened to the body could be said to be done to the person.


Some objections to the virtual presence of elements.

Most versions of hylomorphism* say that any form added to the substantial is accidental. Thus if elements as substantial then things like horses, men, and cows are accidental. Modus ponens seems to give us material reductionism, and so non-reductive hylomorphists opt for modus tollens, and say that elements are only virtually present in the things made out of them. On this account, electrons are only virtually present in carbon, carbon only virtually present in an organic molecule, the molecule only virtually present in the living cell, the cell only virtually present in the organ, etc. The story seems to be something of a stretch when we hit the higher levels: can’t we just look at cells? How is this virtual presence somehow non-actual? Call that objection one.

Objection two is this: if the structure of an element enters into an explanation of a compound, then it cannot be virtually present in it, since “structure” seems to be taken on the side of form, and form on the side of act. Now while there is no problem with explaining density or mass by the virtual presence of molecules, since these things do not require any formal structure on the side of the element, if you ask a chemist what properties of things he explains by the formal structure of their elements then he’ll likely say “everything”. Spectroscopy depends in the structure of the atom, as does x-ray crystallography, the explanation of valences, the change of phases, the reason why some elements are reactive and others not, the explanation of the generation of electricity, etc.  It even explains why (to point to the common argument for virtual presence) why hydrogen and oxygen burn but water does not.

We bracket the Scotist doctrine of the plurality of substantial forms for the moment.

Hylomorphism and paradoxes of thought

Say you agree with the Neoplatonists that the mind is divided from body because it returns to itself, and you take this to mean that the mind in act is its own object: in knowing, we know that we know, though this sort of description becomes gibberish when applied to non-cognitive operations (in burning we burn that we burn, in running we run that we run… huh?). This retorsive power is not a mere mental trick, but has great significance since it opens the possibility of not just judgments that work or are correct (presumably, even mosquitoes can make these) but also judgments that are true. One cannot make a truth table, for example, without taking thought itself as an object of thought.

The division between retorsive cognitive powers and the non-cognitive will be unproblematic for pure spirits, but embodied beings are stuck having to think with tools that don’t share in this retorsive power. First of all, we think with language, which (often? always?) collapses into contradiction when we try to make it self-referential, as in the paradoxes of the liar or the knower. We might read Godel as extending this kind of paradox to formal systems as such, though there is an intimation of it even in material implication.

Whatever else a formal system might be, it seems to be something that would not require a retorsive activity to execute, and so if the mental is essentially and exclusively retorsive then there can be no formal system of all the mental: “language of thought” or “universal system of everything” become contradictory.

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.



« Older entries Newer entries »


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 162 other followers