Note on Neoplatonism

1.) Eternity is unified while time is diverse or multiform, i.e. what is peculiar about time is that all its perfections cannot be had together while all the perfections of eternity are.

2.) Evil requires that choosing one good exclude another, and so eternity is necessarily good and things in time are contingently good or evil.

(N.B. the life of the damned is eternal only in the sense of continuing for all time, and so is a sort of temporal existence.)

3.) Because eternity is the paradigm for unity, in the measure that a thing is one is is good, and vice versa.

4.) Because the contingent reduces to the necessary, causality follows the Good and the One.

No agents are mechanical

The interaction problem:

 All agent causes are mechanical

non-physical things are not parts of a machine.

So non physical things cannot be agent causes.

“Mechanical” can be broad enough to be any push-pull set up running off an energy source, or even anything you could blueprint as running off some energy source to produce an effect.

Charles Taylor (in his article Cognitive Psychology) provides some reasons to doubt the major premise, the main one being that a machine is doing whatever it is being used to do, but not every agent fits this description. Human beings can be up to things without being used for anything.

The village battle scene in Predator, (skip to 2:28) starts when a pick up truck that is being used as a water pump is modified to become a missile. So was the machine in question for transporting cargo, pumping water, or destroying targets? Qua machine, of course, there is no answer to the question, which is why machines are re-purposed all the time. Is that hole in your dashboard a cigarette lighter or a power jack for a DVD player?

Natural beings use this sort of re-purposing all the time: panda’s thumbs, building a reward system on top of a reptile brain, using water-adapted organs for land-based animals, etc. Qua mechanisms, there is nothing they are up to. In order to account for how the animal is up to something you need to do more than give a mechanical account of it, which Descartes realized and concluded in good logic that the brute animals aren’t up to anything. At the bottom of their actions there is nothing like a self but only the ontological cipher of a pure automaton.

Mechanical philosophy, even understood broadly to include the way in which it can make room for fields or indeterminism, can’t describe even machines so far as they are up to something or engaged in an action. So in fact no agent causes are mechanical, at least so far as we take an agent as some entity that is up to something that couldn’t just as truly described in many other ways.

The “potential intellect” of De anima 3:4

A careful reading of Aristotle’s supposed “passive” or “potential” intellect shows that he explicitly avoids describing intellect in this way. His exact description is:

1.) If mind is like sensation, then it is a certain way of being acted on/ suffering (πάσχειν τι). The reason for the hypothetical and the “ti” qualifier is clear in the next sentence.

2.) He draws as an immediate conclusion that the part of the soul that thinks is impassive (ἀπαθής) and yet able to receive (δεκτικός) the point of the counterfactual in #1 is now clear: Aristotle wants to compare mind to sensation so far as both pick up on the reality of the world but he wants to explicitly deny that mind is potential or passive.

3.) He later seeks to set aside even the way in which sensation is impassive from the way in which intellect is, sc. both are impassive qua cognitive, but intellect is impassive by total separation from material. This suffices to divide it from nature (φύσις), though A will give an account of intellect εν φύσις in 3:5.

4.) Aristotle does seem to argue that intellect is always in some way a capacity (δύναμις) but this is not to be read as speaking of a passive intellect, but simply of the fact that we can know things without thinking of them.


De anima 3:5 (part 3: objections and responses)


1.) Aristotle’s first move in describing intellect is to call it receptive. It suffers or detects objects from the exterior world and so is essentially passive. Aristotle then proves that it is not only passive, but nothing actual before it thinks, and so, as described, it has no power to actualize itself. This requires positing an active intellect to explain how mind thinks at all.

2.) Throughout 3:4 Aristotle uses passivity and potentiality metaphors, including the tabula rasa. These are balanced out in 3:5 by pointing to the corresponding actuality, sc. a making or actualizing intellect.

3.) We need no account of the actual sensible world – we can just open our eyes and see it. But the actual intelligible world needs to be made actual. It is not simply given as though it were a scientific object in front of us.


1.) The conclusion that Aristotle derives from the receptivity of intellect is its being impassive (apathes). He further assumes that the first objection one would make of his description of intellect in 3:4 is that its impassivity would make it unable to interact with the material world. To assume that soul is passive is not only against the littera of the text but it assumes that Aristotle is giving an account of intellect that is unable to do the one thing that intellects do. It is to assume that Aristotle’s description of nous is of something unable to think.

The fundamental problem with the line of reasoning in the objection is that it misunderstands the receptivity of intellect as the inertness or inactivity. It misunderstands the difference between the receptivity of cognition and the receptivity of matter.

2.) The point of the tabula rasa example is to support an argument that mind is impassible in the face of an interaction-problem objection. The point is that an interactive system could not be a mind any more than a chalk-covered blackboard could be a writing surface. Interactive systems presuppose the interacting parts are both actual before they act, and the negation of this is exactly what is peculiar about mind. The interaction problem is a failure to understand what mind is in the same way as it would be a failure to understand writing with chalk if we thought we had to chalk-up the board to get it ready for writing.

3.) The world is given as scientific in the same way that it is given as sensible: as an object of experience that presents us with the problem of whether it is only an object or also a feature of the mind-independent world.

De Anima 3:5 (part 2)

(I became dissatisfied with STA’s account of the agent and possible intellects around six or seven years ago and have been trying to come to some conclusion about the matter since then. The two posts of this series are the closest I’ve come to an answer)

0.) Approach De anima 3.5 with the assumption that it is an attempt to respond to the question of how mind is the same as its object but does not always think (raised at 430a 4-7).

1.) This explains why this is the question posed two sentences before 3:5 begins and is not answered.

2.) It explains why 3:5 concludes by establishing a sense in which mind does always think and which it cannot always think.

3.) The rival position is one made canonical by St. Thomas, namely that 3:4 is an attempt to speak of the passive intellect and 3:5 speaks of the active one. This reading fails to account for the facts we pointed out in #1 and #2 and fails to account for the things discussed in the chapters. C. 4 and c. 5 are not attempts to speak of principles of mind but of mind as such. Neither a passive or active intellect thinks, but the entities described in chapters 4 and 5 do think.

4.) Still, it is very reasonable to read 3:5 in the way that I’ve just argued is mistaken:

Since in every class of things, as in nature as a whole, we find two factors involved, (1) a matter which is potentially all the particulars included in the class, (2) a cause which is productive in the sense that it makes them all (the latter standing to the former, as e.g. an art to its material), these distinct elements must likewise be found within the soul.

And in fact mind as we have described it is what it is what it is by virtue of becoming all things, while there is another which is what it is by virtue of making all things: this is a sort of positive state like light; for in a sense light makes potential colours into actual colours.

5.) “Mind as we’ve described it” is one reading of toioutos nous, but it need not refer to 3:4. The sense could be “mind in light of the distinction just given”. So how do we  read this as describing minds and not principles of mind?

6.) Aristotle’s claim is that since everything in nature has material and an agent, so too mind in nature has material and an agent. But “material” means mind so far as it strives to become all things but is incapable of being more than a few of them. It is hemmed in by physical limitations or the ways “in which human nature is in many ways a slave”. This is why Aristotle opens 3:5 with a claim about all things in nature (en apase te phusei, etc.) Mind so far as it enters nature has to be characterized by “matter” i.e. limitation and desire for forms that can never be completely acquired.

7.) Mind as maker or agent is present in nature in a completely different way, since to be an agent in nature does not require being a natural agent. The first unmoved mover, for example, acts in nature without being a natural being. Aristotle’s point in speaking of an agent intellect is to describe that there is something about it which, can act in nature without itself being natural.

8.) If we wanted to speak of “agent intellects” and “possible intellect” we would say this: Mind in itself is not natural but is capable of acting in nature. Considered in this way it is “agent intellect”. So far as we view it in nature it is “possible intellect”, i.e. it takes part in the limitation and desire for being that characterizes all natural things. These two elements are “present in the soul” because the soul is both natural thing and source of life, which latter need not be natural.

9.) This makes the traditional Thomistic teaching on passive and agent intellect largely superfluous, but there is an element in the controversy which was crucial to keep in mind, sc. the essential personality of intellect. Personality as present in nature is a limitation, largely subconscious, hemming in freedom, and in a large part of the population incapable of even rising to literacy. Personality as separate from nature (as “agent intellect” in our sense) is simply a self, which is always seeking to break out in nature but is frustrated by the strictures of embodiment. The Christian doctrine of resurrection cannot be understood as some sort of return to corporality in this sense of frustration, possible retardation, corruption, hemmed in freedom, etc. Christ’s resurrected body is not even properly historical.


De anima 3.5

hypothesis: the point of 3:5 is only to answer the question raised immediately before the chapter, i.e. “we must ask why the mind does not always think”. A’s answer is that mind does always think, when it is itself and nothing more. Being presently a part of a compound that is “something more”, it does not.

The hypothesis has the value of logical continuity, which is much shakier on other accounts of 3:5. A’s explanation of nous first argues for its proper nature as what is nothing actual before it operates, in contradistinction to all embodied cognition, and then talks about the operation or object of intellect as opposed to an object of embodied cognition. He then raises two objections to his idea of intellect: the first is the interaction problem and the second is how mind can think itself. A’s response to the second involves the claim that for unembodied beings the object and power are one thing, which raises the large and pressing problem of how a man could ever be not thinking, which is the problem he is trying to solve in 3.5.

A measure-modality rational theology

1.) Start with the question why would God create? Problem: how does creation have a positive value that is not an additional value over and above what one already has in God? How does God create without giving rise to a God-universe compound that is greater than either of its parts?

2.) We divide existence from a modality of existence. We exploit the longstanding belief that God is the fulness of existing without existing in every way (like an accident, a mollusk, or a potted plant), just as he has the fulness of knowledge without knowing facts in every way (by using radar, infrared sense organs, or living as a horse) or just as he has the fulness of power without exercising power in every way in which it can be exercised (since the power to sense or give off radioactive isotopes is one kind of power).

3.) Modalities are relations to a paradigm measure or ideal. The first property of this relation is asymmetry. The ways in which a horse falls short of an ideal involve a real relation to the paradigm or ideal of what it should look like but the paradigm involves no such intelligible dependence on the things for which it is the measure. Don’t be deceived into assuming the superlative is just the last stage of the comparative, as though 100% were existentially just the next unit after 99%. 100 percent is a moment when the measure and the measured are identical (100 is the “cent” of percent) and therefore the ontological status of the relation changes from real to merely logical. It is merely logical in two ways: 100 is measured by percentages only logically, and 100 relates to any of its subordinate measures only logically while they relate to it really. 100% would remain itself if it measured nothing less than itself. There is a perfectly intelligible class of all perfect-10 Olympic gymnastic performances. There’s even a video.

4.) In one sense measures do not have to exist. There was a long Olympic history before any perfect-10 performance. It is even possible to measure things relative to what cannot exist (physics does this all the time with frictionless surfaces, test particles, black boxes, etc.). But the proper interpretation of this is the one in line with what’s just been said: there is an existential asymmetry between measures and what they measure. If you take it as a given that what is measured exists, then the asymmetry of existence along with the principle of contradiction puts the measure on the other side. But all this amounts to is the claim that if the relative is assumed to exist then the absolute can be considered as non-being. This sort of hypothetical description is a the bottom of the claim of classical theism that God is not a being.  Note paradoxically that it is precisely because the relative depends asymmetrically on the existence of the absolute that, given the relative, we can treat the absolute as though it need not or even could not exist.

5.) The paradigm measure exists as a paradigm for action. Though only the divine acts by and for itself, both narcissists and those seeking theosis through virtue take this as a goal of action; only the divine can live entirely for others but this does not keep both those with Borderline disorder and the martyrs from trying to do so. In this sense “God” is the paradigm of human action both in its ultimate exaltation and degradation. The drama of beatitude and perdition is the human modality of taking God as paradigm or measure. This drama plays out in different ways for each part of the universe and for the whole thing. The universe is both sublime and monstrous, hospitable and hostile, provident and indifferent, super-intelligible and cruelly stupid in the same way the human race is, depending on whether its finite action of the universe universing is an approximation or defect of its paradigm. In the beginning there must be both creation and the dark chaos of the “waters of the deep”, simply because there is a relative being acting.

6.)  In God there are two sorts of processions: one of the infinite to itself which terminates in the persons of the trinity and the other of the infinite to the finite which terminates in creation. The first relations are existentially symmetrical and intrinsic to divinity, the second asymmetrical and extrinsic. Creation is God’s way of being other than himself by way of finite modalities of perfections that are, of themselves, infinite, and even the two uses of “self” used previously in the sentence are instances of the perfections in question. In this way creation is both from nothing and from God, depending on whether one takes it as a relative modality (since relations are not relative to relatives) or a relative modality of the infinite. 


The hermeneutic of the Holy Spirit

When it came to liturgical reform, one group of Catholics read Vatican II as a invitation to see what they could get away with and the other read it as a mistake that needed to be ignored, explained away, or interpreted as human and fallible words. The first group took no notice of the calls for balance, e.g. work in the vernacular and preserve Latin as the norm; experiment with new styles of music and ensure a pride of place to Gregorian chant; reform all elements of sacred architecture and set up schools of sacred art, etc. The second group does not make the slightest effort to suggest or impliment any reforms in the Tridentine liturgy, even extremely minimal ones: a greater promotion of the Missa cum populo (or merely encouraging the people to respond with the altar servers), petitioning to have the readings read in the vernacular, maybe even (gasp!) a simplification of the Kyrie or Domine non sum dignus. The problem is not that the liturgical manual is what it is, but that there is an extreme hardness of heart on the part of traditionalists to suggest even minimal attempts to be faithful to the demands of the Council.

What is needed is – and how would we even start? – to read Vatican II as the work of the Holy Spirit. We’re probably still too close to it for this to happen – some Council fathers are still alive and have a hard time relating to the documents except as the works of men and the world. As much as I like Ratzinger, for example, he usually seems to speak of the Council in this way.

Two critiques of Chomsky

1.) Chomsky claims both that “the physical” has a purely honorific meaning with no content, even within the physical sciences, and that it’s a matter of obvious logic that we are biological organisms with a definite structure, scope and limits. So… biological but not physical – even as defined by physical science?

2.) Chomsky claims that “real” is also an honorific adjective with no content. He always supports this with the same example, sc. the vacuity of speaking of “the real truth”. But this is so obviously a special case that you could literally pick any noun out of the dictionary at random to refute it. Here, let me prove it…

…I couldn’t find a dictionary so I pointed to a random page in Shakespeare and got…


So is it purely honorific to speak of “real death” as opposed to, say, apparent death (hibernation, stasis, lack of breathing with some brain activity) or fake death (playing possum, acting on stage, setting up scenarios to fool your creditors or your insurance company, etc.) or metaphorical death (sleep, extreme shock, renunciation of the world) or analogous death (sin, damnation, banishment)?

It is not even honorific to speak of “the real truth” but simply pleonastic.  Real gold = true gold.

Relationality in nature and out

It’s too early to know what lessons about reality we should draw from Quantum Mechanics, but one that intrigues me is Van Fraassen’s defense of relationality, or the claim that nature is nothing [actual] before interacting. I bracket “actual” since this is my own addition to the theory, the assumption being that interaction does not arise from the pure nihil, but is an actualization of a latent reality. Contrary to Aristotle’s belief, however, this latent reality is not present as an accident in the power of some pre-actual substance.

There is an analogue to relationally in Aristotle’s account of mind, which, on my reading, is defined as being nothing actual before it thinks (De Anima III. 4)Unlike an eye or a neuron which first has to be assembled into an actual structure before it can go on to function, mind is the source of operations without needing to be first assembled or made actual. On the relationality account of nature neither mind nor matter are anything actual before they perform the actions proper to themselves. Thinking-activity does not need soul as some pre-actual subject to support it in being, but nature also does not need atoms or fields as pre-assembled structures that can later go on to leave trails in cloud chambers or act on eyeballs.

One hypothesis is that nature is nothing before it interacts and mind is nothing before it acts. Action in nature never arises from a self except as a part of some collective; mind always acts as a self. The Democratean hypothesis that nature needs some unconscious self to be actual before its action is false: all one ever actually has are interactive systems. He confused natural parts with the parts of a city formed by minds engaging in collective action, and had to invent a zombie self (the atom) as an explanation.

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