A machine differs from a mere instrument by having some degree of self-activity, and as machines become more an more advanced they become more and more selves or at least self-like. At the limit of this is the notion of the self-machine or artificial intelligence. But this limit is never a rupture with the instrument but keeps its continuity with it. Make a machine as intelligent as you please, it still has an end outside of itself. Its outputs must be displays, even if ones that talk to us. But my talking to you does not make my mouth a display, nor does typing this make my hands outputs. The intelligent machine would be one to which interiority was superfluous, even where intelligence was immeasurably more powerful.

Call this the horror of the Chinese room, or the zombie character of AI. The horror is the thought of decoupling intelligence from interiority, or of having the power of intelligence without its dignity; calculation without being-for-oneself.

The Ontological Argument Anselm actually gives

Anselm gives two reasons why God/ that-than which etc. must exist. The first:

If that than which a greater cannot be thought can be thought not to exist, then that than which a greater can be thought is not that than which a greater can be thought.

Quare si id quo maius nequit cogitari, potest cogitari non esse: id ipsum quo maius cogitari nequit, non est id quo maius cogitari nequit. 

Notice that Anselm’s argument here stays entirely on the cognitive level. If you can’t think something greater than X, then you must think of X as existent. Anselm gives no other premise, but he might have been assuming one of these:

1.) If we must think something, then it is so. The normal response to “we cannot conceive other than P” is that P is so. If, for example, you notice that you cannot but think 2+2=4, you normally take this as evidence that it really is so. Even if it were logically necessary to assume that the moon was green cheese, then we could never establish it wasn’t. In fact, the possibility of disconfirming the antecedent (say, by taking soil samples from the moon) is a proof that such a claim can’t be logically necessary.

If this is what Anselm is thinking, then the attempt to refute his argument has to argue that P being logically necessary does not entail P expressing an existent fact. Perhaps an appeal to fictional characters might do this. It’s logically necessary to say that Sancho was the Squire of Quixote, but not that Sancho was. That said, most modern logics seem to deny just this claim about fictional beings for the same reason that they make contingent past events possible.

2.) The thesis contradicting Anselm is incoherent, and where one contradictory is incoherent, the other is true. Presumably the first thing an an atheist would have to do, on Anselm’s account, is give an account of God that could either exist or not. This is either Anselm’s account or it is not. If not, then he is speaking of someone other than Anselm, and so speaking past him; if it is Anselm’s account, no coherent account of it can be formed as non-existent.

Anselm’s second reason is more explicit, and is usually overlooked:

If some mind could think something better than you, a creature would ascend above the creator, and it might judge the creator, which is completely absurd.

Si enim aliqua mens posset cogitare aliquid melius te, ascenderet creatura super creatorem, et iudicaret de creatore; quod valde est absurdum.

The “creature/creator” language is shorthand. Anselm simply doesn’t want to fatigue the reader with “that than which…etc.” To avoid the same problem, let’s say

A = that than which something greater can be thought

B= that than which something greater cannot be thought.

Anselm then appeals to the claim that judgment requires the transcendence of the one making the judgment over the things he is judging, and so if A could judge B, then it would have to transcend B. It’s one thing to say it though – what could it mean?

1.)  Judgment is made over the logically contingent. Perhaps Anselm is taking “judgment” in the sense of what requires an indifference to the think judged, i.e. an attempt to consider it one way or another. Our ability to judge B in the relevant sense means our ability to relate to it as existing or not, which is exactly what Anselm is denying. But this would not explain the transcendence.

2.) Judgment is made over things one transcends. While contraries and contradictories drive each other out in the real world, they do not do so in the mind, and in this sense mind must transcend all contraries. What judges (mind) therefore transcends all contraries and contradictories (what either exists or does not). But if mind itself is an A, then the things mind judges: mind :: A, the mind : B. Three terms of the proportion exist, therefore the fourth does also.

3.) Any judgment presupposes the reality of the principle of judgment.   This is basically some version of the Platonic forms. Given that A’s have an indifference of being, they can only be in relation to something else, i.e. a B.



It’s at least logically possible to observe the whole of space as a whole, but not to observe the whole of time.

In practice, we lay claim to a hypothetical knowledge of the temporal whole of the universe by assuming that the laws will be invariant. But it’s strange to call something a scientific hypothesis which could only be confirmed at the end of history. Such an end will either come or not: if it comes it will come to late to be of any value to us; if it doesn’t we are still left with no confirmation.

It might be objected that we assume the temporal invariance of law all the time: in the face of an oncoming bus we don’t wonder if the relation between mass and force will hold after the time of contact; and this is true even when we study the universe. If this sort of assumption doesn’t count as presumptive and rational, what would?

But this argument conflates regularities with law, since law adds the idea that some sort of abstraction/ impersonal reality is at work behind the regularity. Assumption of regularity – which any person does spontaneously – does not get us to law, only the assumption that this regularity is impersonal (en passant, this speaks to another oddity in the Analytic account of the abstract as non-causal. It would be closer to the truth to say that we usually assume the causal is ultimately abstract.)

Where is the natural world?

Say I go outside and look around. So is this supposed to be the natural world? What if I run outside and have a religious experience? What if you run outside to see a miracle, join a Corpus Christi procession or to hear and respond to the adhan? You’re seeing all the same trees, curbs, sidewalks and the rest of it, but you’re not about to call it the natural world. It is not given to us as a field to which rational inquiry is the appropriate response, into which a “spiritual” consciousness sometimes intrudes.

Assume that Durkheim is right that there were once “enchanted” ages where spirits roamed around more freely. This doesn’t mean that the people of those times saw more items than we did. We have the same sensations as they had walking though the woods, but for one of us there is the action of sprites and nymphs and for the other there is the action of laws of nature.

There’s nothing about the content of human sensation that demands it be considered as natural or enchanted, law based or story-based. Whether what’s there counts as religious or secular depends on more than just what’s there. The under-determination of  the physical extends even to whether it is physical.

Similar considerations apply to the question of whether something is material or spiritual. Nothing could be more paradigmatically material than a stone – but what if I’m worshipping it? If we’re trying to figure out whether trees are spiritual or chemical, should we ask Druids or Botanists?  Who gets to decide if the Eucharist is spiritual or material?

Sinners, sins, and the mystery of finite persons

All my theology students to show up to the class convinced that God is love, and they take this as meaning that God is pure affirmation. If you point out that one can’t love something without disliking what harms it, the student intuitively hits on a distinction between the God’s universal affirmation of the sinner and his rejection of sins. The distinction even comes with its own slogan, taken as an axiom.

I don’t have any desire in refuting the axiom: like all my students I take it as axiomatic too. But the axiom is an abstraction from something more interesting and more complicated, and without this larger context the axiom leads to monstrous conclusions, and even ends up contradicting itself.

It is correct that the precise reason why God hates Joe’s sins is because of what they do to Joe, and so God does not just happen to love sinners and hate sins, but the first is the chief reason for the second. This is something that needs to be said more often: God does not hate sins because of his love of abstract laws but of concrete persons, and a good deal of moralizing can be condemned for just such a devotion to the abstract. But if we press the ontological division of the sinner and sin to an extreme we end up concluding that there is an impenetrable wall between who we are and what we do, which commits us to saying that none of our actions have any effect in determining who we are. And so an axiom which proves a universal human dignity, if separated from the larger reality in which it is embedded, ends up denying something at the heart of the very dignity it establishes i.e. the ability for persons to determine what they will be.

I suppose there is some easy-sounding distinction that can be thrown at this paradox, but distinction-making on this point obscures more than it reveals. It’s more illuminating to see the human heart as something that is at once inherently dignified and yet possessing the character of what it does. The person neither totally is nor totally is not, but is somehow capable of becoming what he is, or failing to do so.

Mental causality of the living

A: I can’t understand the Cosmological argument Athanasius gives. It sounds like the old pre-Darwinian idea that you can explain chickens by natural causes (eggs, chickens) and worms by natural causes (asexual reproduction) but you need God to explain why they’re put together in an order.

B: This isn’t what he’s saying: it’s that, without a guiding intelligence, there would be no distinction in things.

A: Right, but this is the sort of thing that gets explained by  selection. Ordered distinctions are whatever survives.

B: So we’ll explain things by chemistry then? Molecular machines and accidents of copying?

A: I suppose so.


B: But then nobody is in a position to explain why this living arrangement of chemicals becomes irreversible.  All chemical interactions are symmetrical and reversible and yet, in the living, they all move in one direction. Life can lose its force and the thing can die, but this isn’t at all the same thing as the reversal of the chemical process giving life.

A: This seems right: even if a chemical change is substantial, it’s not anything like the death of what one had before. We can change iron to rust to iron forever without having anything like resurrection or reincarnation.

B: Life is a negation of such homogeneous symmetry. There’s an order – an asymmetry – that’s something additional to what the physical sciences assume in explanation.

A: So if we see the physical as limited to the non-mental this sort of explanation as a mental causality.

B: Right.

Difficulties with assisted suicide.

-Any person’s suffering is a question addressed only to them. It is not just bad taste but impossible to tell someone what their suffering means or fails to mean. This does not mean that there is no fact of the matter or that all answers to the question are correct, only that a person’s own suffering demands a unique sort of silence from the gallery. Remember Job’s friends.

- Abstracting from any one person’s story, however, it’s odd that one widespread response to suffering is a call for assisted suicide. First of all, if any activity could be safely assumed to require no assistance, suicide is it. Moreover, our clamoring for assistance can’t be out of a widespread fear that we’ll botch the act. Guns are remarkably accurate at suicide-range; and no one doubts his access to heights, drugs, gasses or blades that are more than equal to the task. Again, it’s hard to see how one could make the act any more quick and painless than by the use of means anyone has access to without assistance. True, these means are a good deal more messy than phenobarbital, but this can’t be what people are lobbying for. The call for assisted suicide is not answered by someone saying “There’s no reason to make it so complicated: for under twenty dollars you can buy X, Y, and Z at Home Depot and a camping store and kill yourself painlessly without leaving a mess”.

- So assisted suicide can’t be merely a call for a painless, effective means or one that avoids making a mess. It is rather the more interesting and controversial claim that death is medicine, i.e. we want some terminations of human life to enter into the sphere of therapy and to be seen as proper applications of the medical practice. What was once taken always and only as a definitive sign that a therapy didn’t work is now a therapeutic goal.

-But for all that, we still need a criteria for what is therapeutic and what isn’t since without this no doctor would do one thing rather than its opposite. If avoiding death is no longer such a criteria, we are left only with personal choice, i.e. if I want X and medicine gives me X, then the medicine is effective. But there has to be more to it than this, since persons can be mistaken about what they want, or otherwise incapable of seeing it.

-But if one can be mistaken about whether he should die, he can be mistaken about whether he should live. But we believe we can deal with those in the first group by sedation, restraints, committing the person to a mental hospital, suicide watches, etc. If life and death are two possible therapies, then our power to administer one against the will of another argues for our ability to forcibly administer the other.

-If death were therapy, the presumption would be that the decision to use the therapy could be made by parents for minors, by spouses for an incapacitated partner, by the state for its wards, or by any caregiver for someone ruled incapacitated.

-All this is after the conceptual problems with death therapy, which seems like a straightforward contradictio in adjecto. 

Constructive features of world

Love your neighbor as yourself. But our love of ourselves involves a bias or perspective: given that we can explain almost any action in relation to someone’s character or in relation to his circumstances, that is, we can see any action either either as a sign of who someone is or as a fluke/ accident arising from other causes, we tend to explain our good actions in relation to our character and our bad actions in relation to our circumstances. Christ asks that we extend this bias/perspective to others. The tradition followed him:

You know well enough how to excuse and to color your own deeds, but you will not accept the excuses of others. It would be more just to accuse yourself and excuse your brother.

Imitation III. 2.

St. Thomas gives an ontological foundation for this:

[W]hen we judge of men, the good and evil in our judgment is considered chiefly on the part of the person about whom judgment is being formed; for he is deemed worthy of honor from the very fact that he is judged to be good, and deserving of contempt if he is judged to be evil. For this reason we ought, in this kind of judgment, to aim at judging a man good, unless there is evident proof of the contrary.

ST. 2-2. 60.4.ad 2.

That is, where opinion is the cause of good, we ought to seek to cause this good even where this is not warranted by the facts. Notice that this is more than “giving the benefit of the doubt” – it is giving a benefit within doubt or while doubting.* There’s nothing odd about refraining from judgment in a doubtful matter, but St. Thomas is arguing that we should go further and give benefits in doubtful matters.

Love takes any excuse to build up the good of the other and explain away his evils, and this seems like what one ought to do. But this will change our account of what the facts of the matter are. While the good and the evil are still seen the narrative we form of the actions of others has to shift toward encomium; what evils they do have to be seen as exceptions to their character. Since it seems to be impossible to do this, or at least o do it habitually, without believing it, then we have to believe it as well.

But all this seems more like a sermon than the point I wanted to make. What I’m more interested in is the sense in which the facts of the matter or the correct narrative of some event are not so much things to be found but things that should be constructed relative to an ideal. Something like this is going on all the time anyway – if we simply remembered every sensation, like a 360 panoramic camera that recorded all details indifferently, then the resulting data-dump would be infinite and meaningless. It’s only in light of some goal that we can carve out something significant from this infinite, and so memory is less a camera running than a narrative constructed out of infinite possible stories: it’s an editor.

The plot of Memento makes the point especially concrete since the main character has made his memory completely extrinsic and concrete. One comes to see that “plain facts” and the description of persons are always relative to some over-arching goal (say, the desire to avenge one’s wife). Such an account of things still allows for truth and lies (it turns out the the whole movie is motivated by just such a lie about John G, but it need not have been) but both truth and lie, fact and fiction, cannot be detected apart from a narrative, even while, they constitutes that narrative. One point of the movie seems to be a warning about the sort of naive realism that believes we simply read facts off the world independent of any structured moral narrative. Such a realism is hard to avoid since it’s hard to avoid concluding that the only other option is a self-refuting denial of objective fact, but in fact this sort of realism keeps us from seeing the ways in which we are lying to ourselves.

The world, in other words, is a place waiting to be made by human opinion. It is made out of the infinite and perspectiveless block-world of nature, but this making manifests or hides the reality given to it, depending on whether it is governed by truth or lies. Christianity claims that the truth of this creation is found in extending the bias/perspective we have of ourselves to others.

*True, we use the phrase “giving the benefit of the doubt when we mean we will think the best in a doubtful matter. But this seems to be a case of not saying what we mean.

Physics seeks its monad

A physical monad is one that could be broken up by no possible force. Leibniz doubted that one could ever find such a thing, and with good reason: such an atomic particle could only be verified to exist after it survived an infinite force, but we have no ability  to wield such a power. How does one build an infinite accelerator?  How long would it take to run the experiment? Said better,  all force equations give us gibberish when we try to give force an infinite value. If, for example, F=ma is taken for an infinite F, then either m or a is infinite too. But if we solve for the other variable, we get 1 equal to any finite number, say 2.

So body could never be experimentally verified monadic; nor could it be really isolated. Scientists are committed to being agnostic in principle on the question whether there is anything elemental and simple in nature.

But then the whole point of science is to explain the complex through the simple: this is simply what “analysis” means. So what is scientific analysis targeting if it can’t be targeting some ultimate particle? We can’t take the first step in analysis without some possible term: that would be like trying to divide a plane into the totality of surface lines, or resolve any two natural numbers to the real numbers between them.

The interaction problem

How does an armadillo interact with modus tollens, or a cornfield interact with a paint? Still, there are arguments that turn on affirming there are armadillos, and paintings inspired by cornfields. Causality is not interaction.

And what if we say “there are causal actions here, but they are just relatively complicated”. But are we then committed to saying there is no such thing as a category mistake?

All this is like a dispute between whether an effect arises from the real cause or the true cause. The existent and cognitive fields aren’t divided like that.

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