Notes on Reading St. Augustine.

In proving for the immateriality of the soul, Augustine gives an argument which, if formalized, makes a jewel of a syllogism:

All the the truths in the mind depend on the mind, and presuppose its life.

Some truths in the mind are eternal.

So some eternal things depend on mind, and presuppose its life.

Said another way, the eternal life of the mind must go along with the eternal truth of its knowledge.

The syllogism is simply radiant, but for lovers of Logic, it is also a rare instance of a third figure AI syllogism. Remember its name? Datisti. If one makes the minor universal (which is easy to do) we have a rare sighting of darapti in the wild.

– Augustine defines music as the science of modulating well- and he defines “modulation” as the power of moving someone. Music then becomes the science of moving people well. It would be good to include some account of the matter here too- like a reference to sounds, say, but I don’t know exactly wha I woul add to the definition.

Counterpoint to Below

Intelligence and simplicity of action will sometimes demand the use of randomness; we could have designed the coin-sorters in the grocery stores with optical scanners that analyzed each coin and picked it out of the bunch, but it was simpler and more efficient to simply shake the coins until they fell in the right slot. The randomness we find in nature is like that- a sign of intelligence which finds the simplest and most efficient ways to, say, generate new species.

Evolution and Randomness.

Evolution does not require randomness as such, the way that quantum theory requires real contingency. The whole theory of evolution can exist just fine if randomness simply means “some laws we haven’t figured out yet”. Now if there is a complete system governing evolution, there is certainly a great number of things to figure out: the development of mammals, for example, required an asteroid striking the earth; and the development of carbon molecules can only happen in the heart of a dying star. The arising of life required the some very particular actions of the whole universe, and so to understand the laws of the system that generated life would require knowing the laws governing the whole universe in a very particular and well defined way.

Dawkins does deserve credit or popularizing the idea that evolution is is actually a system and therefore is not fundamentally random. The question of how action directed by intelligence fits into his is a separate point- for St. Thomas, intelligent action for an end is given simply because there is an order of one thing to another at all. The mere fact that that organisms have an intelligible order to their environment at all- that they are warmed by the sun, say, is a perfect instance of what St. Thomas calls an action that is done for the sake of something, as is clear from Summa Contra Gentiles III: 2, where St. Tomas says that certain things act for an end when:

The force of any agent tends to some determined thing, for a certain action does not proceed from any old power- but heating is from heat, and freeing is from coolness, which is why actions differ in kind because of acting in different ways.  

Omnis autem agentis impetus ad aliquid certum tendit: non enim ex quacumque virtute quaevis actio procedit, sed a calore quidem calefactio, a frigore autem infrigidatio; unde et actiones secundum diversitatem activorum specie differunt.

Does the Brain Think?

The question is put in many equivalent ways: is thought an effect of the brain? is the brain responsible for thought? are all mental states brain states?

The question doesn’t strike me as much different than asking “is the hand the organ of grasping?” or “is the leg responsible for kicking?” or “are all digestive states stomach states?” The answer is certainly yes, and to resist entirely the force of the answer seems largely to argue for the sake of argument. It is equally evident that all of these actions and states are said in the mode of an instrument.  The hand certainly grasps, and the leg certainly kicks, but not in such a way as we conclude that the human being does not grasp or kick anything.  In fact, it is precisely because a human being kicks something or digests something that a leg or a stomach does something. The actions of the part are caused ultimately by a principle agent, even though they might be proximately caused by another part, like a hand is moved ultimately by a human being, even if it is proximately moved by the tendons, and remotely by the brain.

Many of the discussions about the brain’s causality of thought seem to involve the idea that if one makes the brain responsible for thought, that somehow it becomes the principle agent of thought. This is as silly as thinking that if one makes the hand responsible for grasping, that somehow it is the principle agent of grasping, as opposed to an instrument used by a human being. I call this conception silly because it is sees the brain in exactly the same way as the arm is portrayed in Dr. Strangelove.    

A separate difficulty involved here is the many meanings of the word “thought”. The word can apply to the activity of the interior senses as well as to intellect. If the question of “does the brain think” is phrased in such a way as to reduce all thought to sensation, that is another question.

Notes on “life” an an analogous term.

The fundamental objection to human immortality is that immortality would have to involve

a.) life after death, but

b.) death is when life stops going on.

So immortality means life continues after it no longer continues.

Plato’s response amounts to denying “b”, since he claims that a man is not the sort of thing that dies, only the sort of thing that looses a body. Aristotle argues that “life” is an analogous term, and so the argument cannot conclude (analogous terms cannot be the middle terms of syllogisms). The soul has life, the man has life, but life in the first sense is known far before life in the second sense, and the second is only known through the first. We know the man is alive first from our own experience of a man performing vital operations, and we reason to a principle which has its own proper operation. In the first case, life means (primarily) the operation of a soul-body composite, in the second it means the operation of the soul by itself. Life in the first sense is what ceases in premise “b”. It’s the first life we know, and which we know self-evidently. The second sense of “life” requires argument, and is very difficult to see.  

The renaissance thomists made many subtle distinctions. This is exactly the wrong thing for us to do. We shouldn’t start with St. Thomas and divide up his word before we have manifested the principles he works from by way of example and dialectics. The goal should be to tie his word closer and closer to our own experience.  

Two notes on the generation of an analogous concept

-The mind by nature notices the unities among things and forms a concept from them. Not all unities are of the same kind, however. Some unions presuppose equality between the things unified: this rose and that iris have that kind of equality as flowers. Other unions presuppose inequality between the things unified: this instrument and that agent have an inequality with respect to the action. Note that in each case the equality or inequality is necessary for the union as such.


-We divide equivocal terms into those that are simply equivocal by chance, like “junk” meaning a pile of refuse, and a Chinese ship; and those that are intentionally equivocal, or equivocal by reason. These second are analogous terms. Notice that the analogous term by its very nature is a kind of argument, because it consists in going from one meaning to another on the basis of some reason. The first things we mean by “being” are persons and cats an shower heads, etc. But then what about “hitting”? Is this a being? Maybe so, maybe not, but there does seem to be a reason to call hitting and other accidents beings, for at least they are distinguished from non-beings. The same will be said of potency.


But immediately an objection arises: if both cats and “hitting” can be called beings because the latter are set outside of nothing, then why not make “set outside of nothing” the very account of being as such? In fact, aren’t we requiring being to be univocal in order for it to be analogous? I there is some common meaning between the terms, isn’t that the univocal meaning? This general idea of being “set outside of nothing” might be what St. Thomas has in mind when he speaks about the ratio communis of an analogous name.  But at any rate, this common idea is not what either term means, and it is certainly not what the first term meant. Our first idea of being is much richer than simply a distinction from nothing. To identify the reason for the extension of the analogous name, therefore, does not mean we identify the real meaning of the term. All the meanings of “cold” include some idea of privation, but no meaning of cold is “privation”, and even if it were one of the meanings, this would be per accidens.

Is our word “life” the best equivalent to the pre-modern word “soul”?

The old debates over the nature of the soul are best understood through our modern debates over how to define life, because the attempt to define life has the sort of universality and reputed importance that the attempt to define “soul” used to enjoy. For example, when we ask “what is life” it is understood to admit of materialist response, a spiritual one, a religious one, etc. The ability to define life is also reputed to be of extreme significance, and so there are multiple attempts to provide an answer; the disciplines we call religion, philosophy, politics and science all weigh in- as they must.

I’ve read a good handful of the attempts to define life, and almost all of them would be helped out by some basic tenets of the philosophia perennis. One point in particular stands out: in most of the debates and discussions I read, it is assumed that the definition of life must be absolutely univocal for everything that is called living. In other words, it is assumed that the definition must apply in exactly the same way to an Olympic athlete and a dormant cactus. This presupposition will obviously be reductive, for one will be forced to say that our own life is nothing above what one finds in a tree in the snows. Aristotle and St. Thomas both saw life as admitting of more and less perfect instances, that could be grasped only by an analogous concept.  This is how we tend to speak of it too: when someone asks “when does life begin” or “what is the meaning of life” the word life means human life. This is what Aristotle would have called the primary analogue, whose definition is found in different ways in different living things.

Many of the definitions also tend to fall into the sort of traps that Aristotle noticed long ago: on the one hand, they will seek to define life dialectically, or wholly on the part of form (power to reproduce or react to stimuli or that which yearns for God), or on the other hand seeking to define wholly on the part of matter (the presence of an enzyme catalyst, a genetic code).  This is not to dismiss what they say, because all of these things will be involved in the definition of life, but I still would hold that it is only with Aristotle’s distinctions that one is capable of allowing for a synthesis of the various truths one finds in different disciplines.  

Separation from matter and motion as the cause of a perfection of intellect.

St. Thomas argues that there is a virtue of the intellect (he called it scientia) specified by a divine object separated from matter and motion. It is separate from matter, because the intellect is separate from matter; and from motion, for what is necessary is separated from motion. So the ascent of the mind to this divine object begins from two sources: an understanding of soul, specifically in relation to matter; and an understanding of motion, specifically as a source of contingency.

The fundamental awareness of soul and motion are absolutely certain. I move my hands, I taste food, I feel the pain of a headache. Soul is whatever this cause is that uses organs and is otherwise involved with them. Motion, at least so far as it involves going from one thing to another, is known by every sense. Even soul is known through motion, for it is known as a cause and causes are known by motion.

On Neo Thomism

My usual response to any discussion of neo-thomism is to point out that I’ve never read the works of Neo-Thomas.

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