On all things being “really just atoms”

Materialism in its most common present form is the belief that only atoms are real. The irony of this position is that we understand atoms only to the extent that we understand that it not real, or at least less real. This is to say that the advances in understanding atoms are proportionate to our understanding it as less and less like the things in the real world. We first deny from atoms all of the usual and familiar characteristics of bodies: color, scent, roughness, smoothness, solid or liquid, etc. Over time, we gradually deny the reality of shape- the Bohr model and the quantum model and the stick-and-ball model of the atom are completely different shapes, and in chemistry one simply learns to accept that the atom doesn’t “really” have one shape as opposed to another. As this process advances, the atom reveals itself as less and less “real” to the physical sciences, and more and more only intelligible through mathematical symbols. This is why one of the the greatest impediments to understanding quantum theory is imagining atoms as “just as real” or even “more real” than cats and bricks and chickens- in other words, one of the greatest impediments to understanding matter is materialism.

Notes on things understood as subsistent accidents.

-The human soul can only be defined with the human body, and in this sense its mode of definition is like the mode of defining an accident. At the same time, the soul is not only subsistent, but the very source of the subsistence and existence of the body so long as it is unified to it.

-The central reality or dogma that one has to explain about the Blessed Sacrament is why when one points to it, he is pointing to God: This is my body. The technical term “transubstantiation” was coined to articulate the sort of change that could give rise to this reality. This leaves accidents remaining as sensible signs, and yet subsisting, properly speaking, in no substance.

-The central mystery of the Holy Trinity is one God in three divine persons. St. Thomas distinguishes these three persons as subsistent real relations. In our understanding, real relations are accidents of a substance.

Notes on definition

Why seek definition?

1.) Definition is a statement of what a thing is. To the extent that our discourse about something is not grounded in definition, we literally don’t know what we are talking about.

2.) Definition is the first principle of demonstration. But if defintion is sought as a principle, it is sought in a sense for its fecundity since it gives birth to all that is known of a thing. In fact, definition contains all that is known of a thing.

3.) Defintion is at the summit of intellect, and intellect is the highest power in human knowing- higher and more pure than reason. Intellect simply knows without needing proof.

4.) Attention to definition knits us most closely to the wisdom of the ancients. Defintion is the main goal of the Socratic method, and the principle of Aristotle’s science.

5.) Confusions about the relations between arious sciences and arts: politics, modern science, theology, history, all involve confusions about how various subjects are defined. Until we define sciences correctly, we will not be able to mark off the limits of one from another, or the relations of one and another.

6.) Definition is indispensible to understanding divine science. It is proper to the divine scinces to use logic in a more direct way than any other science.

7.) What is outside of definition, is in some way outside of essence, so if we do not demonstrate from definition our arguments would seem to turn on the accidental.

The primacy of the principle of contradiction over identity- UPDATED

Some thomists argue that the principle of identity is prior to the principle of contradiction. One frequent argument is that negation presupposes something positive, but the principle of contradiction is negative, and identity positive, etc. This argument confuses the order of reality and the order of thought: for the principles in question are principles are principles of thought, and human thought frequently understands first principles by negation.

The principle of contradiction, however, is fuller and more radical because it contains implicitly, but formally, both being and non-being and potency and act, because the principle consists in the denial of a possibility: the same thing cannot both be or not be… The principle of identity does not contain non- being or potency, except, perhaps materially and per accidens.

Sobriety and wisdom

St. Thomas claims that the wisdom of philosophy and theology takes a great deal of time to learn, because wisdom cannot be learned until the passions of youth have cooled down. Since St. Thomas elsewhere likens the passions of youth to drunkenness,  it makes sense to say that the wise man must be sober mined.

Perhaps one of the dangers in learning philosophy too young is just this lack of sobriety. The young or the young-at-heart who have some skill at philosophy and theology can easily fall into looking to it to provide wild flights of ecstasy and/or to provide them with a sort of club that they can swing at interlocutors to release youthful aggressions. This sort of youthful drunken energy can be a good thing, so long as the energy is being channeled and led by sober minded wise men, but the atmosphere and ideology of the modern college makes it inevitable that philosophy and theology would become equal parts artistic-metaphor-flights-of fancy and cudgel-to-beat-guys up.

Note on holiness and universality

Saint Josemaria observed that the nearer one comes to God, the more universal they become; that is, they communicate a more profound and intimate goodness to more people. At the summit of this approaching universality is the human nature of Christ and Our Lady, who are both properly speaking common goods. The ground of this universality is act, which by nature communicates itself.

To question everything or to doubt everything destroys wisdom for the same reason that to add pepper to everything destroys cooking. Wisdom does not consist in doubting everything, even at the beginning, but in acquiring a sense of what should be doubted, and what should not be.

Two distinctions

1.) The teacher acts, at his best, out of a love of spreading knowledge; the student acts, at his best, out of love of attaining knowledge. Both act for the same end of knowledge, but the first acts out of superabundance, the second acts out of lack. So there are two ways of acting for an end- one which presupposes lack, another that presupposes superabundance. The same is the case with the doctor and the sick man acting for health. God acting for any good- whether of grace or nature- is in the first way.

2.) In everything we see that is a “this particular thing” or a “this” (what Latin calls “hoc aliquid” and Greek calls “tode ti”) we can distinguish two aspects: distinction and limitation. Distinction can be understood as the lack of identity with another; limitation is that which circumscribes the thing within itself. These two aspects are always distinguishable in thought, but in all creatures (finite things) the two are found together; in God there is distinction without circumscription.

Notes on the -ble suffix and mobiles

We suffix “able” (or some version of it like “-ible” “-ble” or “-bile”) to show that something is, well, able.  Ability is either either active or passive: for example, desirable is active (able cause desire in another) and mobile is passive (able to be caused to move).

1.)  It follows immediately from this that everything that is in motion is being moved by another: for what is in motion is a mobile, and the mobile, as such, is what is able to be caused to move. Even when the mobile moves itself (like a cat, say, or a man) it cannot be actively causing motion as mobile. The motor is other than the mobile.

2.) The modern sciences, properly speaking, can neither affirm nor deny that everything that is moving is being moved by another, because they do not define the mobile according to its nature, but in a way that allows it to be measured. A mobile for the modern scientist is something like “what is traveling with a certain velocity (like meters per second)”. Both definitions are fine, and both are perfectly physical and natural definitions. There is a tendency among some thomists to claim that the first principle of the first way belongs to metaphysics. Not so. To say that mobile is able to be moved is no more metaphysical than claiming that a dog is an animal.

3.)  To realize that a mobile is caused to move does not mean that in every particular case we know what the mobile and mover are. The human mind frequently spends thousands of years knowing that something exists, but not knowing what exactly it is. To know that material things are made of elements does not mean that we know about hydrogen or quarks. It is important to note that failing to know what something is does not mean that our knowledge that it is is merely hypothetical, as is clear from the example of the elements. We may in fact never know what is actively moving certain mobiles (like projectiles), we may in fact never be able to precisely distinguish what is the active and passive principle . This sort of perpetual ignorance would be, in fact, rather unremarkable.

The -ble suffix and mobiles.

We call something desirable because of what it is able to do (sc. it causes desire) but we call something mobile because of what is able to be done to it. A phone is mobile if we can carry it various places; a light infantry unit is mobile if the commander can place them wherever he wants them; a mountain is seen as immobile because we don’t experience any forces that can move it from here to there.  Even when we ask of, say, a sick old woman “is she still mobile”? there is a certain passive sense, for the idea is “can she move herself“?

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