Note on knowledge as proportional to the known- UPDATED

Things are not known by being in consciousness the way that, say, shoes are in a box, for anything actually in something in this way is not actually known. How exactly things are in consciousness is a very mysterious and evident thing, but at the minimum we can say that such a way of being in involves a proportion between the knower and the known: as sight is to the visible and the dark, so hearing is to the audible and the silent.

A few notes

1.) It is because of this proportion of knower and known that Aristotle divides powers of reason into speculative; which are proportionate to necessary things, and practical, which are proportionate to operable things (an operable is something that can be made or done) .

2.) Knowledge not only contains in a way distinct from the way bodies contain, the two modes of containing are opposed; for if the eyes actually became green by looking at the lawn, it would tint all the other colors, just as when the skin becomes warm or cold, it impairs our ability to feel temperatures correctly.

3.) We sense something that makes a thing be what it is, without becoming that thing. In Aristotle’s language, sensation is reception of the form of another, as other (we say “as other” because otherwise the reception would make we ourselves green or warm or audible, etc.)

4.) Since knowledge receives all forms it is proportionate to, then by nature it can have none of the things it is proportionate to. Aristotle uses this to prove that intellect cannot be a body, since it is proportionate to all bodies (which would be manifest from the fact that it is aware of them qua body, which sense cannot be).

Two kinds of certitude.

Certitude, or firmness of assent to something, means two things. The first sort of certitude, which belongs to principles of knowing, results from the principle of knowledge being more certain than the conclusion. The second kind of certitude is a greater degree of assent to anything, whether it is a principle or not. Such certitude can be the product of increasing evidence, and/or the product of contemplation, and/ or the fruit of more experience, or dialogue etc.

Notes on two ways that human knowledge is perfect.

Our knowledge becomes more determinate by learning, and so at the beginning it is at its most indeterminate. This indeterminate knowledge, however, has an immense amount of certainty: vague generalities and universal axioms are all quite certain even though they don’t tell us about anything distinctly, that is, they don’t tell us about anything insofar as it is opposed to another and set apart from it. Knowledge gathered by learning, therefore, involves a certain paradox: it becomes more distinct by becoming less certain; or, the more our knowledge advances, the more it falls away from certitude. We could even say that the more perfect our knowledge becomes, the more imperfect it becomes, since knowledge is perfect in one sense by its distinctness, and in another by its certitude.

1.) This distinctness is the same as concretion, for a thing is known more concretely to the extent that it is separated from others. Certainty in knowledge, however, involves penetrating into something unchangeable, for knowledge is more certain to the extent that it is less variable and known as such. Viewed in the first way, learning involves moving from what is more abstrct to what is more concrete; viewed in the second way knowledge involvs a motion toward what is less unchangeable.

2.) Science is ordered to certian knowledge, which means that the more it advances toward the particular, the less it becomes able to derive certitude from the object of study, and it is more forced to derive it from the mind of the one studying. Hence, as knowledge approaches the concrete, models and contrived experiences (i.e. experiments) become more necessary. The most common and effective models by far are symbols, especially algebraic symbols.

3.) From this it should be clear how infirm the human intellect is. The human intellect can never have perfect knowledge in an unqualified sense: it can have the perfection of certitude or distinctness, but not both about the same thing. The more we unrefectively value distinct knowledge, the more we will insist that knowledge is variable and uncertain, and the more we value certain knoweldge, the less we will be able to say about things in a concrete or distinct sense. This is why the modern scientst and philosopher, who value the distinct, are prone to skepticism and complain about the vagueness and abstractness of ancient and medieval thought; and why ancients and medievals, who valued the certain, did not tend to value the power of knowledge to act upon and control particulars.

4.)  This paradoxical nature of human knowledge gives a reason for why it was fitting for the human mind to be conjoined to a body. Even though mind as such requires no bodily operation to exist, the lowness of the human intellect made it fit to be conjoined to an inferior power that knows pariculars in a more distinct and yet non-intellectual way. Sensibles are certain exemplars of the concretion that our mind has such a difficult time attaining.

Dead fathers and eternity

I spent most of my grandfather’s funeral trying to go to the car to eat Oreo’s (I was about three). Sometime after the funeral, I asked my dad whether he didn’t have a father anymore, since his dad had died. My dad told me-and I can remember this like it happened five minutes ago- even though his father died, he would always be his father. This was the first time I recognized what an eternal thing was.

The Divine Immutability as Negative, not Privative

D. W. Congdon recently objected to St. Thomas’ account of divine immutabilty (ht: Siris)

Perhaps the most telling failure in Thomas’ presentation of divine immutability is the inability of this immutable God to do anything new. Because God is actus purus, there is no conceivable sense in which God can do a new thing. In other words, what’s done is done. God is static and immovable, and no new event can ever occur. This of course is hard to square with the biblical narrative; one has to assume that the experience of newness in relation to God is simply a phenomenological illusion. All of this comes to a head when we reach Jesus Christ. How is the incarnation possible?

This difficulty provides a wonderful opportunity to point out the distinction between immutability as a privation, and immutability as a negation.

Privation is a lack. Immutability taken as privation is what a stone has when it is simply lying on the ground in the presence of no moving forces. If God’s immutability were taken in this way, then immutabilty could be seen as a  certain absence or lack, just as rock lying on the ground is not acting or doing. Taken in this sense it would be right to say that the divine immutability deprives God of something.

Negation means “other than” and does not require any lack or absense- of a new thing or anything else. Examples of negative statements are “sight is not hearing” or the “mind is not a sense power”. If the divine immutability is taken in this sense, we can affirm that God is immutabile in that he does not need motion to have some perfection, but already contains all perfections in himself in a supereminent way, as mind contains the knowledge of every sense power in itself, and yet is not a sensory power (if there is any resistence to saying the mind is not a sense power, I would note here that all that is essential to the point is that when someone says “the mind is not a sense power” he does not mean to deny the mind some sort of knowledge, as when we say “a deaf man is not able to hear”).  Immutability taken in this sense is a characteristic of perfection and supereminence, and is therefore belongs most fully to the divine nature- in fact this immutability belongs to the divine nature because he contains no privations of any sort, and never could.

As to the particular point about the Incarnation, I would argue that the divine immutability shows most clearly the radience of charity that is displayed in the Incarnation. God did not become incarnate because he lacked some goodness and needed to fill himself out. He did it wholly and totally for our sake.  

On scientific laws

In our modern understanding, a scientific law  is an algebraic equation of measured quantities, confirmed by many experiments; like PV=C, F=ma, or the Lorentz equations for time contraction.

 A few notes:

1.) This is true even of laws that we are not used to putting in equation form. Newton’s first law, in practice, means that F (uniform straight motion)= 0 and F (rest)= 0. The third law is F (action)= F (reaction). What was in parentheses should be abbreviated in subscripts.

2.) This is also true even of laws that might not have a clear mathematical formulation, like the law of multiple proportions or  energy conservation. These laws reduce to equations because they make the mathematization of nature possible. One can’t make an equation if things simply vanish into non-being after changing.

3.) Not only is it possible to have exceptions to the laws of science, it is expected since experimental results are rarely perfect. What’s more, a few exceptions would not do away with the law even if they were not due to experimental error. Laws are such for being frequently confirmed, not for being once or twice denied.

4.) All metrical quantities view nature in a homogeneous way, for quality is one genus. This mathematization hangs on a fact that many miss, but which Aristotle was right to point out: every change presupposes local motion and occurs along with it. This allows science to treat even qualities as quantitative and therefore mathematical things: heat, for example, is viewed as a motion of a particle.  


John 1:4

In the Logos was life.

1.) Life is existence; but it adds to the idea of existence the idea of existing from an interior source, and acting for oneself. A stone exists, and a man exists; but the stone simply has one part outside of another with no action for itself, while a man has something within him which unifies him and allows him to use things as tools and extensions of his own self. And so the Logos has this sort of intimate and interior existence, but this interior existence is precisely what allows him to stand to all things that were made through him (ibid 1:2) as certain extensions and participations of his own life.

Again, even though this passage begins by saying in the beginning was the Logos it is showing that the Logos is also the end of all things, for our whole existence is tied to the good of this Logos; he is literally the Logos (or reason) for our existence.

2.) In him was life. The verb is in the past progressive, indicating that whenever anthing is, he already has been, and continues to be, or rather, that he has a single unchanging existence transcending all change; before Abraham was, I AM. All time and creation is like a circle with the eternal Logos at the center, in the sense that one part of circle is made before another part, but all parts exist in relation to the center and came to be from revolving around a center already existing and determining the compass.

3.) In him was life. What then is in us? The passage continues: and his life was the light of men, and the light shines on in darkness. But if he is the light of men, and the light shines in darkness, then the human race is, in itself, a kind of darkness. This darkness in one way indicates a failure to exist: and darkness was upon the face of the deep… and God said “Let there be light” and in another way it indicates a failure to exist well, i.e. sin, as Scipture indicates in many places and he delivered us from the power of darkness into his own marvelous light.

4.) In him was life. But because the Logos was made flesh, and the life of flesh is in the blood (Lev 17:11). Then the light of men became the blood of Christ: and he took the cup after supper and saidthis is cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood (Lk. 22:20)”.

Properly speaking, goodness moves will, but in the case of the particular goodness which motivates the certainty of faith, we must add to the idea of goodness proportion to intellect. But goodness with a proportion or fittingness to intellect is properly called beauty. In the first awakening of science and wisdom, therefore, the mind finds itself seeking truth, having been motivated by a certain goodness which is properly beauty.  

On believing without evidence

Faith lacks rational evidence in the same sense that a student picks a teacher with no rational evidence that the teacher has a complete knowledge of what he wants to learn. The only way that a student could have such evidence of complete knowledge would be if he were competent to judge the teacher as an equal or  superior, but in such a case, the student would no longer be a student at all. This is why Aristotle, Augustine and St. Thomas say that all learning requires faith; not on the part of the science learned (the science itself is not based on faith- this would be a contradiction) but on the part of the one learning the science.

This faith on the part of the learner is by nature ordered to knowledge, in such a way that it would involve contradiction to speak of having faith in something that cannot be known. So faith is simply a stage of knowledge or learning: on the one hand it is opposed to complete knowledge- or “complete rational evidence” if you like; on the other hand it is a stage of learning and is therefore necessarily rational. The Christian faith extends this first stage of learning throughout our earthly life, and places the later stages of knowledge in our state of separation and of union with the glorified body.

Again, we have our noblest knowledge by learning, which means we know in the fullest sense only at the end of the process. This requires us to begin with a certain act of the will, motivated by some goodness. This goodness can be seen as a kind of colateral which allows the will to “loan” some certainty to the intellect, confident that the intellect can pay back he debt later with interest.  

Faith as grounded in an act of the will

Faith is something held as either true or false, and so properly speaking it is in the intellect. But the reason for assent is not in the intellect, but in an act of the will. So what moves the will? For St. Thomas and St Augustine, the answer is immediate and evident: goodness. Goodness and will go together like mover and moved, heater and heated, light and illuminated. So though we believe in truths not seen, we only believe because of a goodness we have seen. The sort of goodness most relavent to faith is holiness, and so one would expect that our faith can’t be stronger than our presence to holiness.

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