Notes on our own intellect

-The story of Cupid and Psyche. Intellect is a god we only meet in darkness. If we try to shine our own small light upon it, it flees.

-“Intellect, more than anything else, is man” (Nic. Ethics, bk 10).  He means that intellect, which is a power of the soul and not the soul, more than anything else points to the sort of thing soul is, from which all the powers of man flow out. Even the human body, as human, is a procession from soul.

-The calcium making your leg bone is alive. If it breaks, it grows back together. Human calcium is a living thing.

-No one sees intellect and lives.

-Aristotle on intellect “when it is set free from its condition, it will be just what it is, and nothing more”. The “condition which includes something more”  is the condition of being a power bound to a bodily subject, for intellect in itself  consists in rising above the condition of bodily existence.

-If a tadpole thought about living on land, he would imagine himself suffocating.

-Just think about how much “Starry Nightdoesn’t tell you about who Van Gogh was. The cosmos tells you less about intellect. I took a test once on Van Gogh’s life with one of his paintings hanging at the front of the room. No one was cheating.

Can I see what the writer says when I look up from the page or screen?

What is unique to and distinctive of man in St. Thomas’s ethics

One of the more common debates in ethics is about the order between the intellect and the will, and its not uncommon for people to divide systems of ethics into the rational and the volitional/sentimental etc. St. Thomas is generally taken to be one of the high priests of rational ethics- although there is a good deal of competition here. Many who read St. Thomas’s ethics get the impression that acting well is just a certain way of thinking well.

Much could be said against this caricature of ethics  (anyone who thinks that being good is just a matter of thinking hard enough or being logical enough hasn’t thought much about being good) in order to get a grasp of where St. Thomas falls in this scheme, it’s best to start with the very first thing he says about ethics. As a set up, think normally and fill in the blank as you think St. Thomas would:

“What is distinctive and unique about man is ______, which sets him apart from the beasts”

Until last week, I would have put “reason” in the blank, and I think most thomists would also. Then, of course, another group would put “the ability to love” in the blank, and off we’d go… That’s why I was startled to read, in the very first sentence that St. Thomas writes about man in the moral section of the Summa:

The actions which a man does, the ones that alone are properly called human, are those which are proper to him so far as he is a man. But man differs from the irrational creatures in this that he is the lord of his own acts. So those actions are properly called human of which man is the lord. But man is lord of his acts through reason and will…

actionum quae ab homine aguntur, illae solae proprie dicuntur humanae, quae sunt propriae hominis inquantum est homo. Differt autem homo ab aliis irrationalibus creaturis in hoc, quod est suorum actuum dominus. Unde illae solae actiones vocantur proprie humanae, quarum homo est dominus. Est autem homo dominus suorum actuum per rationem et voluntatem…

The basis of St. Thomas’s ethics is man as lord. Reason and will are mentioned together as tools that allow for this lordship. To leap to “reason” would be to leap over the very first thing St. Thomas says about ethics.

I do not call God infinitely good because I see no evil in the world, but because all that I desire exists in him. No rational appetite can desire finite goods as finite, and so I am stuck desiring the infinite good in all that I do regardless of how much injustice I imagine in creation, and regardless of how well I recognize the real structure of my desires.

Last month I read a review of a television drama that was set in a concentration camp. The Jews debated among themselves about the existence of God, and in the face of one objection after another the  argument was finally  decisively won by those who claimed that evil made God’s existence impossible. Then, when they were all led off to the gas chamber, one asked “what do we do now?” and the answer was “We pray”. The answer was not absurdism or intellectual cowardice- it was the recognition in the face of death of the structure and order of the heart.

The root of Russell’s teapot objection

Most of the responses to Russell’s teapot objection leave the root of his objection untouched, therefore ensuring that the objection will reasonably sprout over and over again. The root of the objection is that the existence of God is a hypothesis, which I would simply deny. There is, of course, no reason why one cannot take something  not known by hypothesis and form a hypothesis about it- but such a hypothesis is superfluous and can be discarded.

With a hypothesis, one justifies what they start with by what they end with.  The starting point is freely admitted by all sides as unknown and freely created. None of the great theistic arguments start with an unknown premise freely created by the mind, but with truths given in sense experience analyzed by principles that are taken to be true. There is simply no hypothesis to dispute; no burden of proof to be assigned (when will that understandable but tiresome red herring disappear?); no series of various gods that need to be decided between from the start; no appeal to Ockham’s razor to decide between competing hypotheses even before the argument begins.

Imagine an apple falling because of an absolutely determinate and infallible cause. Now imagine an apple falling for absolutely no reason whatsoever. In both cases you imagine an apple falling (duh). Our imagination does not suffice to see causality. It makes no difference if we make the image is really large- like an image of the whole universe.

When limited by the body, the metaphysician is among bodies but sees the intelligences behind them. When no longer so limited, he will be among the intelligences behind the physical. The word “behind” here does not indicate a position.

Causality and truth as proportionate in St. Thomas

St. Thomas argues that the science that considers what is most causal, considers what is most true, and metaphysics considers what is most causal:

[S]cience about the true is not had except by a cause, from which it is clear that of these truths of which the science concerns itself, some are causes which also have truth. Truth cannot be known from falsity, but only through the true, so demonstration, which is what makes science, is from true things as is said in the first book of the Posterior Analytics

An ideal science would move both from causes to effects, and from what is more known to what is less known. In other words, if one started at the end of such an ideal science and moved toward the beginning, they would be getting closer and closer to universal causes, known in themselves. Again, the scientist tries, at one and the same time, both to give cause as and to explain the less known by the more known, and so it follows that the scientist is seeks to ground his enterprise on what is most causal and true in itself. This remains a goal of science, even if it is rarely achieved.

We can also use certain key axioms in St. Thomas’s to explain why what is most causal is most true. Causing is one way of acting, and a thing acts so far as it is in act; and at the same time, truth belongs to knowledge, and a thing is knowable so far as it is in act. Act, therefore, is a common measure of truth and causality, such that a greater cause must correspond to a greater degree of truth. Said more briefly, one and the same principle causes both existence and knowledge: form. It follows, therefore, that what causes nobler existence causes a nobler truth.

In fact, the union of causality and truth follows from the objectivity of knowledge. Objectivity requires that what perfects things (their form or structure) be what perfects mind. This is why St. Thomas defines knowledge as the act of being the very form that causes another thing to exist

“That which falls” part 1

Nature is in one way opposed to art, and in another way to chance. Nature is opposed to chance because of its intentional character, that is, because there is a causal connection between what something does and what it is. A falling tree might crush a lily, But the activity isn’t natural- otherwise trees couldn’t fall without killing lilies and lilies would live forever until crushed by trees. There is certainly some causality involved in the process, and there is even a sense of “natural” we can use to describe tress crushing flowers as “natural”, but the crucial point is that no one thinks the activity proceeds from either of the two natures involved, that is, from the proper nature or flowers or trees.

But while a tree doesn’t fall to crush a flower, it also doesn’t fall because its a tree! Things other than trees fall, even though it seems pretty clear that a tree is always concomitant with “that which falls”.

Aristotle took one very good run at explaining what “that which falls” is. He pointed to some evidence that falling things were made of earth (for all solid things seem to be either earthen or they corrupt into soil) and he thought that the earthen parts of things were attracted to earth. Earth wanted to be with earth. So earth was, properly speaking “that which falls”. Modern physics gives similar sorts of explanations for other things- any physics teacher can catch himself saying things like “the hot air is trying to get to the cold air” when he is explaining a thermodynamics problem; or “the negative charge wants to take the shortest path to the positive charge” when he’s explaining a circuit. Earth going to earth is the same idea. It was a theory to explain what “that which falls” was. The theory failed, of course. So now what?

The path of modern physics was to analyze simply the activity of falling- to divide it up into number measurements and observe the relationships between various number-measurements. “That which falls” was not treated of directly, but only through the ordered relationships that obtained between the various number-measurements. This is the sense of the modern project “forgetting about natures”. Bacon and Newton and Compte tended to make this point more forcefully than it needed to be made, and they tended to exaggerate the departure from seeking natures. The relationships we obtain between number measurements are still about some definite nature- it’s not as if we have to imagine that “natural laws” are some kind of ghostly platonic force that looks after the speeds of falling things. Even if one says that the laws are about “appearances” they are still the appearances of some nature- otherwise they are not even appearances.


Prudence is the habitual correct choice of the means to happiness.

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