American Christian smart kids on love

Young people are fascinated by love, but American Christian smart kids seem to have boiled down what they think the grown-ups say about it to a handful of axioms like:

1.) Love is a choice as opposed to a feeling.

2.) Feelings are fleeting and cannot be trusted.

3.) Love is completely different from infatuation.

The axioms form a garbled Stoicism and Kantianism. Feelings are untrustworthy things we suffer and which contribute nothing to the value of an action. Reason and deliberate choice is far more stable and lasting than feelings and is both lasting, moral, and trustworthy.

The claims are either trivial (i.e. mere stipulative definitions that lead nowhere) or false. We change our minds as often as our feelings, some feelings can become structural to one’s personality and so be just as lasting as any choice, and while no one would say that all loves are infatuations, the difference between them has to be cashed out in terms other than feeling and it is not clear that any such explanation is on offer.

All the arguments seem to be made by well-intentioned people who are terrified of eros and want to domesticate it into a circus lion or statue of Apollo. One could forgive the obvious impracticality of the theory if it weren’t also completely wrong, since eros is madness and there is nothing wrong with it being so.

The reality of eros is much more interesting than this stoico-kantian garble. Feelings of infatuation might be (by definition) fleeting and fickle, but this is because they are tied up with novelty and novelty cannot last. But there is a whole vast palate of feelings that are not only other than novelty but that require familiarity and shared history, like, I dunno, intimacy.  To speak of being intimate with someone you’ve only known briefly is either a euphemism or a joke. So it would be truer to say that love starts with a choice and only later becomes a feeling, since the feeling eros is going for is intimacy and intimacy can only be felt after a fairly long period of time. In the beginning it is only something we seek by choice and hoping.

The critique of feeling, like the critique of anger or revenge, is in fact a critique of unjust or perverse feeling (yet another reason to see this theory as muddled stoicism). But even after one clarifies that one should target unjust emotions the theory misfires badly by tagging infatuation as unjust. The better critique is that infatuation is a primitive or initial stage of intimacy that shouldn’t be confused with intimacy itself, and it’s lost only in the way that all primitive or initial stages are lost by what fulfills them.


Four senses of human equality

Human equality has meant at least four distinct meanings that can both complement and conflict:

1.) The denial of kingship or hereditary rule. This is the (minimal) sense of Jefferson’s claim that some men are not born with saddles on their backs, nor others born booted and spurred ready to ride them. Government is not provided for us by being born, nor are human beings like bees who are sorted into hierarchies by birth.

2.) The immorality of slavery. Lincoln shows how far this goes in his response to Douglas:

I have no purpose to introduce political and social equality between the white and the black races… I, as well as Judge Douglas, am in favor of the race to which I belong having the superior position…. but I hold that, notwithstanding all this, there is no reason in the world why the negro is not entitled to all the natural rights enumerated in the Declaration of Independence, the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. [Loud cheers.] I hold that he is as much entitled to these as the white man. I agree with Judge Douglas he is not my equal in many respects-certainly not in color, perhaps not in moral or intellectual endowment. But in the right to eat the bread, without the leave of anybody else, which his own hand earns, he is my equal, and the equal of Judge Douglas, and the equal of every living man.

3.) The supremacy of democracy. In this sense we are not just denying the existence of kings or hereditary rule but taking the further step that no one is more fit to rule than anyone else, and so the best regime is one that maximizes participation by the whole.

4.) Animal rights or the denial of speciesism. On this account “human equality” is an equality not to each other, but to other animals and perhaps even the whole biosphere. Plato sees this at the limit of human equality in the democratic state:

I must add that no one who does not know would believe, how much greater is the liberty which the animals who are under the dominion of man have in a democracy than in any other State: for truly, the she-dogs, as the proverb says, are as good as their she-mistresses, and the horses and asses have a way of marching along with all the rights and dignities of freemen; and they will run at any body who comes in their way if he does not leave the road clear for them: and all things are just ready to burst with liberty.

Compassion in carnivores

There ought to be a decent argument in that rules out animal cruelty while still allowing for human carnivorism, but all the contemporary arguments against animal cruelty I’ve read either fail to give any justification for eating meat or suggest that we shouldn’t. If, for example, it is always wrong to cause a sentient creature to suffer, a fortiori it is wrong to cause its death, right? The typical reason for avoiding animal cruelty thus lands us in Tom Regan’s absolutist animal-rights position: no hunting, meat, experimentation, etc. Almost no one finds this plausible in principle or practice.

Utilitarian arguments seem to allow carnivorism while ruling out cruelty, but only because they allow for any all-things-considered balance of interests, and I’m not in doubt that carnivores and meat-animals each have interests. That said, it seems absurd to argue that the killing an individual animal can fit into an account of that same animal’s interests, so I don’t think Utilitarianism will give us much help in avoiding cruelty while allowing carnivorism.

Humane treatment and carnivores might coincide with a teleological account of natural things. The existence of animals is subordinate to persons, which both allows for persons to justly kill them while also requiring that they exert a care analogous to (even if markedly different than) what any superior is expected to give to a subordinate.

Existential subordination is unavoidably speciesist though it need not rule out the feelings of empathy and concern for suffering in the animal world, and it might even explain such concern. Animal suffering is something we must not only avoid inflicting but also something we should minimize even when we do not cause it. But to do this is to declare ourselves as those in the position to remedy a condition that the animals cannot  remedy for themselves, which requires playing the role of a superior species.


Epicycle is a byword for hopelessly maintaining a theory by increasing complexity. But what are we to make of the shift in visualizing natural action as a clockwork, to a steam engine, to a mechanical computer to an electrical computer?

Whether brute facts are possible

Hume gives what is still the best account of what it would be to reduce phenomena to brute facts:

[The] ultimate springs and principles are totally shut up from human curiosity and enquiry. Elasticity, gravity, cohesion of parts, communication of motion by impulse; these are probably the ultimate causes and principles which we shall ever discover in nature; and we may esteem ourselves sufficiently happy, if, by accurate enquiry and reasoning, we can trace up the particular phenomena to, or near to, these general principles.

But success at reducing material activity to, say, gravitation is evidence that the statement “matter is gravitational” involves the same sort of predication as “squares are quadrilateral”, and the more success we have at the reduction the more confident we become. Successful reduction therefore drives out the idea that the explanans is simply a contingent, given brute fact and instead is taken as evidence that it involves per se predication.

Hume wants to divide reductive success from discovery of something ultimate, but the division seems unreasonable: Reductive success consists in finding the ultimate. The sense that we really can go no further in analysis is the grasping of an ultimate. We don’t take our failure to find a further reductive explanans as evidence that there is one out there we can’t find.

Sure, we can be mistaken about what is ultimate. Per se predicates are very difficult to find and very prone to refutation by experience. But we already knew that from Aristotle.

The basic issues are (a) whether sense experience ever gives insight or whether it is simply homogeneous repetition, and (b) whether the defeasibility of insight requires that insight never actually occurs. Both claims strike me as untrue to the experience of repeated events, and the second seems to conflate a fallible activity with one that cannot happen.

Most Empiricist or Kantian epistemologies suffer from just this sort of overlooking the reality of sensation giving rise to insight. Even Aristotle seems to do this – though he was probably the most eel-balanced empiricist who ever lived, when asked to explain insight he mumbled an enigmatic metaphor about soldiers fleeing from a battle. The difficulties in accounting for insight are very real – it’s not clear that one can define insight in a positive way, and there is certainly no formal-logical account of the process. The temptation to brush it aside altogether is unavoidable. That said, even the sharpest critique of the reality of insight – say, the grue-bleen problem- is still proposed as an insight into cognition.

The theory of recollection is still probably the most rigorous theory of insight on offer.

Predestination and freedom through Mark 5

  1. On the necessity of grace and the ability of the unassisted will:

(a) What is not known is not an object of choice.

(b) Free choice apart from the assistance of grace cannot know the object of salvation, whether as an end or a means to an end.

Eye has not seen, etc

I know that this man (whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, God knows) was caught up into paradise and heard things too sacred to be put into words, things that a person is not permitted to speak.

(c) The object of salvation, either as end or means to an end, cannot be an object of free choice apart from the assistance of grace.

         2. The Story of Jarius’s Daughter as interpretation and context.

While it occurs in Mark 5, Matthew 9 and Luke 8, we’ll use Mark 5.

While on his way to raise a dead person to life, Christ’s healing power is taken from him unwillingly by a woman who takes him as an object of faith. Both Matthew 9 and Luke 8 allow for the truth of Mark 5, but if we had only Matthew we would assume that Christ approached the woman, and if we had only Luke 8 we could assume the woman bumped into Christ and somehow drained him of his healing power. Mark 5 is therefore the fullest account.

Salvation is a journey from justification to sanctification and Mark 5 gives us a journey with two distinct salvation events. The main point of the story is that life comes to the dead: Jarius’s daughter neither does anything nor can do anything toward her salvation. But within this context there is a subordinate story of salvation being taken from God without his prevenient willing. The Incarnation thus allows some way in which salvation is robbed from an unwilling God.

We can share this with (1) above in more than one way, but the text itself suggests that the Incarnation itself is the grace that assists for salvation, even in the absence of God’s direct election of an individual. Through the Incarnation, grace comes to the dead in a way that allows for it to also be robbed from a God who is nevertheless surprised, and even taken by violence, by human initiative. The way in which grace came to dead allowed it to be taken by others, even where God was unwilling.


Facts and foundationalism

Asserting the primacy of facts in knowledge is foundationalist.

On the one hand, even if we are foundationalist about knowledge there are primary entities other than facts: axioms, postulates, definitions of all kinds (operative, stimulative, nominal, etc.) On the other hand, while foundationalism gives useful insights about knowledge it does not require the additional claim that it exhaustively describes knowledge. Foundationalism is any view of knowledge that takes it as like a building-like, but this is clearly very different from an account that, say, sees it as a network of associations.

So is knowledge like making a building or making a phone call, i.e. are we looking for a solid ground to build up a continuing set of arguments or are we taking intelligible content from some source in addition to responding to it with intelligible contributions of our own? On the first account the fact-theory opposition can play an important role, on the second it would be either out-of-place or a dangerous delusion, and at any rate the question itself is an obvious false dilemma.

As Midgley points out, this is not a truth about facts as such but about any account of knowledge or reality that divides it into levels, i.e. into fundamental realities (atomic particles, facts, God, laws of nature) and derivative realities (emergent phenomena, theories, creation, unreflective experience/ folk theories). Any such division runs into the problem of preserving the reality of both the fundamental and the secondary: We can’t set out to explain how one could form a solid house only to conclude that houses are somehow not real.

The attempts to save the reality of both the fundamental and the derivative have been more successful in the God-Creation account of different levels, allowing for both robust natural science and theology while also articulating a theory of analogy that allowed for one level to be a tool for knowing another level (along with the very helpful definition of creation precisely as the conferring of being or existence). Naturalist attempts have been less successful: Sean Carroll probably goes further than most in asserting the reality of the emergent, but in the face of any direct question about it he responds either by saying that the question is poorly framed or that anything is as real as we need it to be. The Naturalist problem is probably structural: how, after all, could it allow for an analogy of being or for anything conferring existence as such? How could its monistic epistemology allow for plurality in being?

On intercessory prayer

Prayer is not a technology and therefore doesn’t work.

Okay, so a thing works whenever it reliably gives us some good result, and there are non-technological ways of getting good results. But if a randomly selected group of persons were asked to figure out if (intercessory) prayer worked, we’d expect them to come up with something like the Templeton-funded Harvard Prayer Study. which clearly examines prayer like any other technological approach to an illness or problem.

If we noticed that we compare prayer to technology, it’s hard to avoid the idea that we are making a category mistake. Neither the Old or New testaments describe prayer as a rival to technology, and they are even of two minds about even the efficacy of intercessory prayer in a way that we are not of two minds about the efficacy of technology (even if we are ambivalent about its effects taken as a whole).

But what is intercessory prayer trying to do, then? If we are praying for divine intervention we are praying for either a miracle or something miracle-like, and no one expects events like these to be statistically significant. This might explain why it won’t show up in statistical studies (along with the obvious problems of putting God or any superior to the test) but this account could never work as an account of prayer itself. We’d be left only with an account of prayer that made it a technology that worked only rarely.

Intercessory prayer might be not a call for divine intervention, but a recognition that all whatever happens or fails to happen somehow traces back to divine causality, and so whatever happens can be seen as what God prefers. When we ardently pray, we either get what we want or recognize how contrary it must have been to the right order of things, if it needed to be denied even in the face of such ardent pleadings. We always get what we should have wanted, but coming t recognize this requires that we first come to God wanting something.

Is that it? The temptation is to the cynicism of seeing ourselves in a situation where prayer changes nothing, at least not in any statistically significant way. Leaving aside miracles, whatever happens, happens. But the cynical evaluation expects that prayer should be some sort of speech technology that humans control, as opposed to being speech directed at one that we already believes is a creator, and therefore presumably already has reasons for wishing secondary causes to work as they are working.

De anima III 4 and 5 (pt. 2)

(This argument isn’t quite right but it’s on to something)

Reading De anima III 4 and 5 as arguing for a potential and agent intellect would go like this:

In this text Aristotle is trying to explain how intelligence comes to know things from sensation. This requires a receptive and an actualizing power, and therefore the account begins in c. 4 by arguing for a power for receiving illumined phantasms and proceeds, in c. 5, to argue for the the existence of an illuminating power.

This reading is simple and appears to be the only plausible reading of several key texts, like this one from the beginning of c. 4:

The thinking part of the soul must therefore be, while impassible, capable of receiving the form of an object; that is, must be potentially identical in character with its object without being the object.

And this one from the beginning of c. 5:

[I]n every class of things, as in nature as a whole, we find (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 is by virtue of becoming all things, while there is another which is what it is by virtue of making all things.

Here’s my thesis: while the existence of potential and agent intellection is a reasonable inference from De anima III 4 and 5, to take it as Aristotle’s point gives us neither the best reading of the text nor a necessary truth about intellection.

Here’s my reading of III 4 and 5:

In this text Aristotle explains intellection as such. Because sensible things are more known to us, he compares intellection to sensation in two ways. In c. 4, he compares it to how sensation suffers its object in order to show that intellection is immaterial. In c. 5, he compares the way the intellect suffers its object to the way in which all things which suffer or undergo are relative to some actualizing power, in order to show that intellection is immortal in virtue of being self-active and somehow originative of the totality of things.

The text is therefore about intelligence as immaterial and then immortal, though one can see the potential and agent intellection as subordinate to these conclusions. This subordination both allows for the agent-possible distinction to be a reasonable interpretation of the text while still making it a failure to get the main point.

But I’m speaking of agent and possible intellection and calling their putative existence “reasonable” because, while plausible, they are not necessary features of intellection because:

1.) If intellection is defined relative to illuminated phantasms it will not continue after death unless we posit some new source of objects. But Aristotle concludes c. 5 with a claim for the eternal activity of intellection without positing any new source of objects. The problem remains even if we assume arguendo that the agent intellect was one for all persons and separate from them. What are the objects even of this new, (never before mentioned or mentioned again) intellect?

2.) The illumination-of-phantasm account as such does not demand the division of intellection from all possible organic cognition, but this is exactly what De anima III.4 proves repeatedly and at great length. “Illumination” is a metaphor that suggests spirituality but does not require it – a rough image or token of the thing would suffice to cash out the illumination metaphor. On my account, however, Aristotle compares intellect to light in order to establish its immortality rather than imputing illumination to intellect in order to have it do something to phantasms.

3.) What exactly is being illumined, anyway? If we are seeing a nature of the thing that is simply there, no illumination is necessary, but if this nature is a pure construct of our mind then in what sense is it being received from the world, which is exactly what one would posit a possible intellect to do?

4.) All sides allow that intellection arises from sensation, but it does not need to arise by some sort of agent illumination. It would be enough to make the sensible world better known, and our tool for fleshing out the glimpses we get of the intelligible world without making an idea materially dependent on a sense impression.




De Anima III c. 4 and 5

0.) While it gets read as an account of the potential and agent intellects, but I think this misses the main point and makes the description of nous very un-Aristotelian.

1.) Even if we believe that Aristotle is describing a possible intellect in III. 4, he is also clearly arguing for the immateriality of intellect. STA, for example, simply inserts these arguments in the Summa as the proof for intellectual immateriality.

2.) Potentiality first arises in the discussion because Aristotle draws an analogy from sensation to intellection. How else could a empiricist like him say anything about intellection, given he thinks it is not given to sense experience? The safest and least controversial claim A. can make is that intellect is a kind of perception, i.e. a way of receiving information about something. This was common ground even for Plato and the sophists, though the sophists defined knowledge by perception whereas Plato thought it was something in addition.

3.) The whole point of drawing the analogy is to divide intellection from sense. Intellect perceives, but

The mind, then, since it thinks all things, must needs be unmixed. For by intruding its own form it hinders and obstructs that which is alien to it; hence it has no other nature than this, that it is a potential capacity. Thus, then, the part of the soul which we call mind the intellect… is nothing at all actually before it thinks. Hence, too, we cannot reasonably conceive it to be mixed with the body.

The language is strained and might not translate well. The conclusion is that the mind has no definite structure before it thinks, like a central nervous system that is first assembled and then put to work. Perception is reception and so is incompatible with possession, and so if intellect possessed any form or actuality it could not perceive form or actuality as such.

4.) To read 4 as an account of the potential intellect misses the point of the chapter and makes the whole presentation very un-aristotelian. He is not trying to discuss supposedly passive intellect before ever speaking of intellect simply but to speak of the fundamental nature of the intellect by comparing it to sensation as a perceptive power and seeing the peculiar object of intellect as requiring intellect to have no actual structure before it thinks.

5.) No actual structure before it thinks. This is the core teaching of III.4, and the claim is so bizarre and unassimilable that it goes unnoticed. True, there is talk of an intellect as possible, but the stress is always that it is possible to all things or to actuality as such, and so can have no finite structure. Aristotle then drives this point home with supplemental dialectical arguments against intellective corporeality, each of which draws out a new element in intellective immateriality.

6.) I suspect that if we thanked Aristotle for dividing potential from agent intellects in III. 4 and 5 he would be baffled and ask us what we were reading. He, I suspect, simply wanted to discuss the nature of nous, first by an analogy to sensation and perception, and then by a different analogy in c. 5. More on this next analogy later.

7.) So how should one read what looks like a obvious proof text for two intellects?

These distinct elements [becoming and agency] 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.

More on this later too.

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