Nature and Life Life is

Nature and Life

Life is self activity, as opposed to natural activity. Chemicals, minerals, and even viruses properly understood do not have an activity that proceeds from a self in any way. A sign of this is that their motions can be described by “laws” of a particular kind. When a chemist or physicist talks about laws applying to the respective subject matter of their sciences, they mean more than they can give a description of “what action was determined”- they also mean to indicate the complete passivity of their subject matter to certain conditions or circumstances. Gas at such and such a pressure will be hot, all unsuspended objects will fall in the (roughly) the inverse square of the distance. Pressure, distance, temperature, force- all of which are extrinsic conditions or measures- are things the subject matter can be seen as wholly passive to.

Dante and The Song of

Dante and The Song of the Sullen

The river Styx marks the first major division in the infernal realm, between those who sin by weakness and those who sin viciously. In the deepest part of this river, Dante enounters the sullen. There is no evidence that the sullen are even there beyond the bubbles that rise and pock mark the swampy surface of the water.

Virgil tells Dante that the souls under the water say:

“sullen we were in the air made sweet by sun,

in the glory of his shining our hearts poured

a bitter smoke. Sullen we were begun,

Now we have this black mire to be sullen in.”

Vigil explains further:

“This canticle they gargle in their throats,

Canto VII, 120-26

as if they sang, unable to speak whole words”

There is an ambiguity in understanding what the sullen are doing. On the one hand, Vigil explains that the souls under the water are “speaking”, but on the other hand, they are speaking in broken words “as if they sang”. What is it to “gargle” out words “from the throat”? What is this kind of speech, done neither in words nor in song?

 Like many in the inferno, the sullen seem to be inheriting the true nature of the action that so marked them on earth. They tried to poison the world they lived in with their dark and bitter attitudes; and now they live in a world as dark as the one they desired to create. The sun and the bright air survive the sullen, but the sullen must live eternally in a world as dark as their formerly held opinion of the world above.

Nature and Law I don’t

Nature and Law

I don’t know if our courts ever gave a ruling on whether the sky was blue. But I do know there’s nothing they could do to change its color.

First Principles I have to

First Principles

I have to teach a class on composition. This was the first handout. It was understood.

The Three Truths of Composition

1.) Every art strives to make something well: portrait painting strives to paint portraits well; architecture strives to make buildings well; sewing strives to sew well. The art of composition strives to express ourselves well in writing and speech.

2.) Composition is something that must be learned. No one, not even writers with a great deal of natural talent, can escape the need to learn certain things that are necessary to express their thoughts, desires, emotions, ideas or feelings well.

3.) Composition is necessary for several reasons:

A.) If we do not express ourselves well, people will be unable to understand who we are and what we are saying. When people do not understand us, they usually interpret our words however they want to, and we therefore cease to exist as a unique person to them- rather they see us in whatever way they want to.

B.) If we cannot express ourselves well, we also cannot understand who we are and what we are feeling. Emotions, desires, thoughts and ideas will simply float around inside of us, and we will be unable to articulate them in any coherent way.

C.) If we are able to express ourselve well, it becomes easier to understand the beauty of writing, and the genius of the great authors, because it is easier to understand the genius of a great author when we know what the characteristics of good writing are.

Paper Fragment: “Natural Knowledge and

Paper Fragment: “Natural Knowledge and Faith in the German Idealists”

The secret title of this paper was “What Thomism is Not”. The title was repressed since I write in a time where reason is discriminated against. The section quoted below is a good introduction to what Thomism is not, because it articulates a sort of philosophy that has no room for mystery at all. Thomism often comes under fire in our time for being “too rational”, but this is a charge meant not for St Thomas, but for Hegel. This section of the paper follows a discussion of faith and natural knowledge in Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason.

Part Two


While Kant denies the knowability of God through speculative philosophy, he leaves open the possibility to relate to God by faith. We have already noted the peculiar character of this faith, sc. it does not necessitate a body of truths revealed by God. What would be the status of revealed truths, if any there were? The Critque of Pure Reason is silent on this question. Hegel’s Phemonenology of Spirit is not.

Hegel’s need to account for what have commonly been called “reveled truths” proceeds from a system of thought that strives to be absolutely inclusive. Despite the tendency of all the German Idealists to give transcendental and all embracing accounts of the world, none set the bar as high as Hegel. Hegel aimed at such transcendence that he was disturbed by his inability to account for the color of a pen. There is no room for a potential agnosticism in Hegel- the simple presence of things called “revealed” had to be accounted for in Hegel’s thought. The mere belief in revealed things was a sufficient condition for their rationality. They were a stage in the growing awareness of spirit. Hegel takes the things commonly held to be revealed, and derives them from the human mind.

The Trinity and the The Incarnation are primary examples of things commonly held to be revealed truths, accepted by faith. Yet, in the hands of Hegel the very notion of faith:

Is nothing else but the actual world raised to the universality of pure consciousness The articulation of this world, therefore, constitutes the organization of the world of faith, except that in the latter the parts do not alienate themselves in their spiritualization, but are beings, each with an existence of their own, spirits that have returned to themselves and abide in themselves…

Hegel then accounts for the Trinity and the Incarnation:

…the first is the Absolute Being, Spirit that is in and for itself in so far as it is the simple, eternal substance. But in the actualization of its notion, in being spirit, it passes over into being-for-another, its self identity becomes actual, a self- sacrificing absolute being; it becomes a self, but a mortal, perishable self. Consequently, the third moment is the return of this alienated self and the humiliated substance into their original simplicity; only in this way is the substance represented as spirit (pp.531-33).

As a description of the Trinity, one could do worse. It is startling to note, however, that for Hegel the Trinity manifests itself in a necessary and quite reasonable way. It is a philosophical doctrine. What Kant was content to keep silent about, Hegel lays claim to, claiming to use reason alone. The account of God’s knowability has changed, to say the least. Hegel sees no reason to assert the finality of an opposition between faith and knowledge. If there is any such opposition, it will be overcome by the movement of consciousness. Revealed religion will be dealt with at greater length a the close of the book, and where the opposition between what was once believed necessary to hold by faith and knowledge is definitively overcome:

God is attainable in pure speculative knowledge alone, and [exists] only in that knowledge, and is only that knowledge itself, for He is Spirit; and this speculative knowledge is the knowledge of revealed religion.

The identity of speculative knowledge and revealed religion leads to something that looks a great deal like speculative knowledge, but not much like revealed religion as commonly understood:

Speculative knowledge knows God as pure thought or pure essence, and knows this thought as simple being and as existence, and existence as the negativity of itself, hence as self, as the self that is at the same time this individual… It is precisely this that the revealed religion knows (pp.761).

There are few points of agreement between Kant and Hegel on this point. While Kant orders his entire system in the CPR to “making room for faith”, Hegel orders his whole system to destroy even the possibility of faith. Kant denies any knowledge we might have of God by natural reason alone, while Hegel makes an absolute identification between the powers of natural reason and what was held to be revealed God. For Kant, nature is a closed system of homogenous causes, having no room for the knowable presence of an absolute being, but for Hegel it is unclear if there is even an opposition between what might be called nature, and what might be called God (Hegel certainly doesn’t preserve the distinction between what everyone including Kant would call “natural knowledge” and “revealed truth”). The opposition between Kant and Hegel in the matter of God’s knowability is so extreme that it is hard to escape the creeping suspicion that this absolute contrariety might be a sign that they represent two extremes of a position- extremes which call out for a certain mean. The locus of this dispute seems to be radically different accounts of what each philosopher would call “natural knowledge”- a thorny topic that now cries out to be noticed.


The Everyday World. We get

The Everyday World.

We get the Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN) as part of our free cable. The lion’s share of their programming is sugar-pop gospel clap- alongs and gimmicky self-help style preachers; with occasional Left Behind style Stephen Baldwin movies, and programs catering to creationist junk science. The kid’s cartoons about the Old Testament are a particular disappointment.

CBN’s obsession with the end of the world and with miracles is very pronounced. In some ways it is confusing why they do this. Miracles happen rarely, and are hard to verify, and predicting the end of the world has a history of failure as long as the human race. Neither topic seems particularly sturdy or knowable. Why obsess about either one?

Perhaps this is all related to a fundamental paradox at the heart of those who run CBN. Consider this: CBN executives all firmly believe that there was a time long ago when God, for some mysterious reason, deemed it fitting to enter the everyday world. You could have God “over for dinner”, in a literal way. You could talk to him as easily as you could talk to your friend. You could pose questions to him. He lived in the everyday world of corrupt clergy, whores, and government bureaucrats. He was a construction worker, living in a town no more heavenly and metaphorical than Tomah, Wisconsin. That was God.

But what about now? If it was so fitting and necessary to have God in the world then, and if those people needed to see him like that, what about us? I don’t want to hear any of the tiresome metaphors about how “God is still with us in our hearts…” zzzz. If this is the only kind of “presence” God has with us, i.e. if God is no more present than Caesar or Lincoln (i.e. in books), then according to normal human discourse, we would say he isn’t with us at all.

And yet he must be present, right? Why? Why do we feel the need to have God in the everyday world again, as he once was? This is perfectly reasonable to expect. If God felt it fitting to manifest himself to the human race, he has to do more than pop in for 33 years and then leave. The human race has lived in places other than a first century middle-eastern suburb. A God who felt he had manifested himself enough by showing up in such a place would be a God who cared more for the human race than for individual people.

There’s the paradox. The folks at CBN firmly believe that God wants to have “a personal relationship” with every individual, and yet they offer a personal relationship that is no more personal than I can have with Lincoln or Caesar (i.e. by reading books about them). Pointing to some vague feeling in my heart is of no use. If all God wanted to be was a vague feeling in the heart of a man, then why did he even bother coming to first century Palestine? Was it simply so that he could die? If so, why did he insist on doing so much else, like having “personal relationships” with repentant hookers, construction workers, commercial fishermen, farmers, fruit vendors and government bureaucrats? These people had personal relationships with Christ. What about us?

I am not diminishing the role of faith here. All the people in the first century needed faith to recognize that this burly construction worker was God. But what thing in our everyday world can the people at CBN point to and say “this is God”?

The scandal, even to themselves, is that they have nothing. Their book is not God, a collection of clapping people is not God, no preacher is God. All they are left with is to chase after traces of this God, like a detective who is always one step behind the criminal. “God was Just here! He healed my bad back!”… “I saw God for a moment when we all were clapping!”…”God just solved my credit card debt!”…etc. When they aren’t chasing after the God who perpetually flees, they are fantasizing about the time when he will come back to the everyday world: “Man, one day I’m going to be driving along, and God will come out of heaven an snatch me out of my car”…”Oh yeah, I can tell that ever since Israel decided to sign the Oslo accords, God has been getting ready to come back”…”These new microchips that they developed are a sign that God will come sometime before the end of the year”…blah, blah, blah.

CBN is orphaned. Their only relief from this is not to think about it. At best, God is always someone who just left, or someone who is coming soon- and in either case he is decidedly not in the everyday world like whores or carpenters. Any talk of “a personal relationship” is muddle-headed and untenable. Any talk of a personal relationship requires, um, a person. Until you can point to Jesus (even if I have to hold he is there by faith), then give up the idea of a personal relationship. Content yourself with a God who loved Mankind in the abstract, particularly the minute portion of mankind that is educated enough to read his book.


Kant’s (commonly accepted) Redefinition of

Kant’s (commonly accepted) Redefinition of Faith

Faith is the assent of the mind to a something because it is revealed by God. (It makes no difference here how we come to hold that it has been revealed, only that we hold it has been so.)

Kant keeps the first part the definition: “the assent of the mind to something”, but he drops the second part. He treats “faith in God” as something that the philosopher, as such, is called upon to have. The objects of faith are no longer things held to be revealed by a mind higher than our own, rather they become merely things which our reason must postulate for whatever reasons. While this action appears to be humble (“don’t we have to admit that there comes a time when our reason just has to say we don’t know whether God exists? blah, blah, blah”) it is really the height of hubris. It collapses what is in fact a class of truths coming from God into a group of postulates held by human reason.

Lapidary Quotation “When you have

Lapidary Quotation

“When you have a crush, the most difficult part is when the other person is around. When you’re in love, the most difficult part is when they’re not around.”

Paper Fragment An experiment in

…While there are significant differences between the two views, they can also be brought together into a certain harmony- where what is true and fitting in each can compliment what is false or awkward in the other. This harmony is best seen when we realize that the words “soul” and “alive” and “self” are often used analogously, i.e. they are often used of many things which do not have the same definition, but share an instructive likeness. Diverse analogous terms do not need to be contradictory: very often they are compliment each other, as an examination of the pre-modern and Cartesian accounts of the soul will make clear.

Part One

The Pre-Modern Account of the Soul

The first properly philosophical attempts to articulate the nature of the soul saw it as the principle of life: the soul is whatever a living body has that a non-living body lacks. This account is sufficiently vague as to allow for a diversity of responses: Lucretius said that a living body is animated by atoms of a particular kind, others said that life resulted from a certain arrangement of the parts of the body i.e. that the soul stands to the body like a shape stands to a statue. Others, like Plato, said that the soul makes the body to be alive like a person might make a marionette appear alive: it “pulls the strings” i.e. the soul is in the body like a driver is in a car. All these accounts agree that the soul is what makes a thing to be alive, and that therefore it is “in” the body in a certain way: either as a material part is in a material whole, or as a shape is in a medium (e.g. marble or clay), or as an operator is in the operated upon.

It did not take long for the account of how the soul is “in” the body to reach a very subtle degree of abstraction. Aristotle transcends all the accounts of the soul’s interiority by making it in the body as form is in matter. This distinction is a very subtle one. Take for example, a tree. A tree has a certain ability to become certain other things, e.g. one can turn it into a desk, or a toothpick, or a set of bowling pins. But to make it any of these things, one has to destroy the tree; we certainly must change the definition of what we had to what we make. There is something about the tree that can become something else, but there is also something about the tree that cannot be something else: either it is a tree, or not. Whatever can become something else is called “matter” whatever can’t be something else is called “form”. The soul is said to be in the body of a living thing as form is in matter- it is what makes the intrinsically changeable and indefinite (either a bowling pin, or a tree, or a toothpick) to be a definite thing (this particular tree)

The account of the soul as a principle of life is sufficiently general and non-committal as to allow for a widespread acceptance, regardless of what particular account we give of how a soul is in a body. There is certainly some difference between a living and a dead body, even if the difference is only an apparent one. The presence or absence of a soul is said to constitute the difference between life and death; and we must either explain this difference, or explain it away. In antiquity, this difference was usually taken to be a real difference, and therefore the soul was taken to be a real i.e. a non-apparent thing. No attempt was made to reduce life and death to some common and more universal reality.

But though it is relatively innocuous to posit the soul as the principle of life, there are difficulties in doing so. For if we say that the soul is the principle of life, then we are committed to saying that all living things have souls. But it strikes many people as odd to talk about the “the soul of a carrot” or “the soul of a fish”. Souls seem to be only in human beings, or at least they are most perfectly in human beings. It is not enough for the soul to explain the difference between life and death; it must also explain the difference between one kind of life and another. If what makes a person to be alive were the same sort of thing as what makes a fish or a carrot to be alive, then we would expect the lives of fish, carrots, and people have the same sorts of lives. Whatever similarities we might note among all living things; e.g. nutrition and growth, will not sufficiently account for every kind of life. One has to talk about more than nutrition and growth if they want to give a full explanation of what it means for an animal or a person to be alive- we lose more kinds of things in death than our abilities to digest and grow.

The account of the soul as a principle of life is prone to reductionism; it can easily collapse human and animal life into the life of mere plants. The account, at its best, is forced to assert that the word “life” doesn’t mean exactly the same thing when it is said of a plant, an animal, or a human being. On the one hand, this helps to explain the tendency we have to say that fish and carrots don’t have souls- because the word “soul” doesn’t mean exactly the same thing to a plant, an animal, and a person. But on the other hand the account of the soul must be made more full if it is to be an account of a human soul. We must say more about the life that the soul is a principle of…