5/ 31/ 10

Thinking in terms of the limits of a quantity allows us to see motion as a static magnitude. At any moment of a change, we can see, say, a thrown object as having a complete, black-line arc; or the object that is freezing as at some point on a time-lapse graph; or the  growth of a baby as charted in day-by-day pictures (though this last includes approximation along with limits). This is all fine, and it is a real understanding of motion; but it does not allow us to see motion as motion. Static magnitudes are at rest. This way of looking at motion is always hypothetical and even contrary to fact: if the change were to stop here, then the object would be here or at this stage, etc. If the thing in motion were not in motion, it would be this or that.

On the other hand, any look at motion as such reveals a very odd thing: in any one motion, there is no first or last motion, and in any one motion there was motion before; what changes place is not in any place, what changes temperature has no temperature; motion is essentially existence between in whatever respect it is moving.

One can explain the whole difference between ancient and modern views of nature by focusing on the difference between these different ways of looking at motion. Nature just is mobile existence, and every physics strives to explain this motion, but the chasm between the ancient and modern modes of consideration is very difficult to appreciate. We think it is a matter of development from one to another, or of one being right and the other wrong, when it is diverse modes of consideration.

Ponder in prayer

the final mommy edition:

habit is the foundation of virtue but is not the same thing as virtue.  For instance, it’s easy to say prayers habitually without making them our own.  How often do we recite our common prayers without really considering the words?  I was struck by this during one of those rare mommy moments of authentically active prayer: what do we ask our Lord to do when we say His prayer? “… forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”

Dear Lord: help me to forgive others as I would have you forgive my trespasses.

Why it really does take a village, and what that really means

Thomism: Mommy Edition

I’m currently making my way through Maria Montessori’s The Absorbent Mind.  In all likelihood I will be homeschooling the wee people at least for the early years and many people whom I respect very much heap praise upon Montessori’s philosophy of education and I have seen many, many, many estimable products of Montessori education.  I am inclined to think that her philosophy is particularly well suited for educating males.  But I’m reserving my overall judgment until I’ve read more.  (The Well Trained Mind by Susan Wise Bauer is next on my list, BTW.)

I must admit, however, that I was very uncomfortable with her contention that the child belongs to society.  It seems that this is one of the central premises from which much of her thinking proceeds:

If society holds it necessary to make education compulsory, this means that education has to be given in a practical fashion, and if we are now agreed that education begins at birth, then it becomes vitally necessary for everyone to know the laws of development.  Instead of education remaining aloof and ignored by society, it must acquire the authority to rule over society. Social machinery must be adapted to the inherent necessities of the new conception that life is to be protected.  All are called upon to help. Fathers and mothers must shoulder their responsibilities; and if the home fails for lack of means, then it is requried of society not only to give the needed instruction but also the support necessary for bringing up the children.  If education signifies a protection of the individual, if society recognizes as necessary to the child’s development things that the family cannot provide, then it is society’s duty to provide those things.  The state must never abandon the child. p14

I found myself reacting to this assertion in  much the same way I reacted to then First Lady, Hillary Rodham Clinton’s famous declaration that it “takes a village to raise a child.”  That is to say, my conservative instinct rebelled against the suggestions that the ever encroaching modern State had some claim over the education and formation of my child.  But with a bit of calm deliberation I realized that there is much truth in what both Montessori and Clinton had to say if understood properly – or at least if understood as I now do.

The first thing to understand is that there is an essential difference between “society” and “the Government.”  In the modern, Hegelian/Marxist world, this distinction is vanishing.  But in truth, there is a huge difference and we must re-establish this distinction in our public consciousness.  Societies exist in many different forms and do not necessarily possess the coercive powers of government.  Aristotle taught that life-long marriage exists for the sake of the child and that the family is the foundation of society.

In a very real way children to belong to society – this is one of the reasons it is so important that as a society we self-censor our public behavior/dress/language and rein in our pop culture images of violence/sex/exploitation.  Children soak up these images everywhere they go and cannot remove those images once they’ve entered their minds.  We are all responsible for the behavior that we model before children: our own and others.  If we understand Clinton’s statement in the same vain, then she clearly is right.  Of course, it takes parents to raise a child – and children do have a right to be raised by a mother and a father who are committed to each other for life – and parents cannot adequately be replaced by some nebulous “village” concept.  But children – and families for that matter – benefit immensely from an expanded social/support network.  The modern American concept of the nuclear family – mom, dad, kids, dog – living primarily independent of extended family is an odd concept indeed.  Not only does the tangible help of extended family make parenting easier, but giving children the opportunity to know the unconditional love of multi-generational / extended family life: grandparents, cousins, aunts, uncles, etc represents incalculable blessings to the children.  Human beings flourish in a loving, intimate family-environment.

The problem with Clinton’s use of the village metaphor is that she lacks the unwavering conviction that “family” and “marriage” have definite meanings or that they are anything more than mere human/social constructs.   A village populated by promiscuous heterosexuals or homosexuals, for instance, cannot provide the kind of unconditional, stable, loving environment that children and society need to flourish.  Moreover, modern liberals tend to believe that the State or Government can provide adequate substitutes for life-long marriage-bound parents/families.  Welfare programs that make it possible/easier for unwed mothers to raise children without fathers do far more harm than good to the social fabric.  Social norms that permit men to behave like roving inseminators without consequence destroy villages.  One reason that non-governmental social welfare systems are more effective at reducing these kinds of behaviors is because they lack anonymity – the people providing the assistance get to know the ones receiving the aid and there is a kind of accountability and appropriate stigma that can be associated with the behavior.   Non-governmental social welfare also counters the entitlement mentality which is so destructive of family life.  Rather, material assistance offered through churches, local food banks, private shelters are correctly viewed as “offering a helping hand”.  These organizations are better suited to establish personal relationships with the individuals seeking help – and this is the basis of authentic community building, community enhancing, welfare enhancing programs.

Mother Nature and Modern Technology

Hello gentle readers,

DH has gone to the cabin this weekend and asked me to fill in for him until he returns on Sunday.  I had the poor judgment to schedule a Pampered Chef event on Monday and making the trip with two wee ones for just two nights away is just too much so the wee people and I stayed home. Sigh.  It seems that almost every other Minnesotan is at the cabin this weekend too.

So about mother nature: the oil spill which is devastating the Gulf Coast is tragic and heart breaking.  It will be a good while still before we know what caused the explosion that killed 11 and has already poured millions of barrels of crude oil into the Gulf – was it an avoidable accident? reckless negligence? intentional sabotage? some other unforeseeable and unavoidable circumstance? Who knows.  But one lesson that should be drawn from this episode is that nature is still an overwhelming force that modern man, despite his advances and arrogance, still has not conquered fully.  The flooding in Tennessee and volcanic eruptions in Iceland are similar reminders, as was the earthquake in Haiti and the Tsunami a few years ago though their devastation was more easily written off as a product of the extreme poverty of those nations.  All sorts of people are going to try to use this tragedy to their political and ideological advantage; others will attempt to draw causal relationships or assert false conclusions. People will assert that we need more regulations and more expert oversight; that private industry cannot be trusted to protect the environment or the interests of the “little guy.” Others will assert that government is incompetent and should just get out of the way so that industry can be about the business of creating wealth, etc.  But at the end of the day, what we all need to remember is that there is still a great need for humility in human life. Scientific expertise and government regulation are no match for Mother Nature.

What machine adds to “tool”

A machine is a kind of tool, and we can see a particularly clear example of what “machine” adds to the genus “tool” in the word mower. A hundred years ago, a mower was the name of a person; now it is the name for a tool. Before this, there was a similar change in the meaning of thresher and reaper. The same is true (in America at least) of the word street sweeper. To see what machine adds to tool, one could ask why the primary meanings of these words changed.


Relation is a very unstable concept for the human mind- at one time it threatens to vanish into nothing and at another time it threatens to appropriate all reality to itself. When Aristotle  treats of relation, for example, he first takes up a persuasive but erroneous notion of it (that which is said of or to another), and when taken in this way the whole universe dissolves into a multitude of relations. On the other hand, those who were called the Nominalists really did deny real relations in things (saying, quite reasonably, that to be is to be absolute) but this destroys any essential objectivity of concepts (for when concepts are have no real relation, they have no real being to another, which gives birth to the famous “critical problem” or “problem of noumena” that defined modern philosophy). Relations are so tricky that even the word relation threatens to throw us off course. If I talk about the “relation” between father and son, it seems that I have one thing between things- though to assume this falls into the famous Bradley paradox of relations standing to relations ad infinitum. In fact, to speak of “relation” in an unreflective way makes relation into its opposite, namely, an absolute.

Aristotle eventually posits a better account of relation, which replaces what is said of another with that whose whole being is to or of another.  The stand by example here is a Father, whose whole existence under this formality is to his offspring. A more important example to keep in mind is that of a government or a parade, the whole being of which is in an order, and order consists in the standing of one thing to another (one of the philosophical mistakes I regret the most is saying that a state reduces to a substance. This was simply false. States, governments, parades, companies, etc. are sorts of relations. The mistake, however, does illustrate the danger of how relation can masquerade as substance, and thus appropriate being per se to itself.)

Relations are accidents, and as such have a dependence on a substance. Interestingly, however, in their formality as relations they are not to their substance but to the term of their relation. This formality as accidents to another that is other than their substance as supporting is what distinguishes their unique kind of being.

Relations admit of several crucial distinctions. There is first the difference between categorical and transcendental relations, which are relations in the category of relation as opposed to those that are not limited to this category. The latter kind are not called “relations” simply. Science and knowledge, for example, are kinds of qualities of the soul that nevertheless depend in their being on existing to another.

The transcendence of agent cause

Even if it is the case that the first agent causes we know are causes in the same genus as their effects (like a man fathering a son, or a moving object causing something else to move) this is not what we are most of all mean by a cause, nor what we are looking for when we ask for the agent cause of something. Cajetan makes this clear in an account of univocal causality (a cause that is in the same genus as the effect):

Where there is univocation, there is not a cause and effect formally and per se, but materially and per accidens, since the form of the effect does not depend on the form of the cause. For the humanity that is in Socrates formally taken, depends neither in being nor in becoming upon the form of the father of Plato, but the humanity of Socrates, because it is this [sc. humanity] therefore depends on a father. Consequently, the humanity that is the foundation of the similitude between father and son is not in the genus of cause and effect, except materially and per accidens…[1]

Say one wanted to speak formally about the agent cause of Socrates. The only manifest agent is  the mated pair of Mr. and Mrs. Socrates. But what does this explain? By positing Socrates Sr. as a cause, we do not so much explain a particular instance of humanity, we simply posit another instance of it. There is something inadequate in this explanation which fails to address what someone is actually asking for. A series of homogeneous agents, each which gives rise to a subsequent one, is analogous to a train of cars in a pile-up accident, each one of which damages the one in front of it. Say the pile-up is ten cars long. If the man in the fourth car went home to his wife and explained the damage to his car by saying “the car behind me ran into me”, there is something at least inadequate, and even somewhat deceptive about his answer. Why so? Among other reasons, he is citing something as a cause of the accident that was no more a cause of it than he was- in Cajetan’s vocabulary, the car behind him was only materially and per accidens the cause of his damage. “To give a cause of the accident” means something other than multiplying causes that are all of the same kind, even though it is not entirely false to cite such causes as causes of damage. Yet by definition all non-universal causes are of one in kind.

Transcendent cause” or “a cause transcending the genus of the things caused” is is a redundant pleonasm (redundant pleonasm- wink). Cause primarily means something that transcends a genus, even if we can call the causes in a genus real causes (though only in a derivative way).

[1] Cajetan, Commentaria in Prima pars q. 4 a. 3 no. 6 “Ubi enim univocatio ibi non est causa et causatum formaliter et per se, sed materialiter et per accidens quoniam forma effectus non formaliter dependet a forma causa. Non enim humanitas quae est in Socrate,  formaliter sumpta, dependet in esse vel fieri in humantate Platonis patris, sed humanitas Socratatis, quia est haec, ideo dependet a patre. Et consequenter humanitas, quae est fundamentum similitudinis inter patrem et filium, non est de genere causa et causatae, nisi materiaiter et per accidens…”

The possible as opposed to the impossible.

There is a possible as opposed to the impossible, and a possible as opposed to the necessary (God and energy are possible beings in the first sense, but not in the second). A “possible world” is clearly concerns a possibility as opposed to impossibility, and therefore it formally consists in all that is such that it is not necessary that it not exist.

To establish this kind of possibility can require three things:

1.) Establishing it absolutely. The most common kind of such “possibility” is when “possible” (or its negation or a synonym) is in the subject of a statement “the possible can either be or not be” or “impossibility of existence is denied of the contingent”. There is an abstraction from The concrete, existent world (whether actual or possible).

2.) Establishing it on the side of the matter. Why can’t I make a pterodactyl omelets? Because the stuff to make them out of doesn’t exist. They are impossible.

3.) Establishing it on the side of the agent. Why can’t I hear Mozart improvise or watch Michelangelo sculpt? We have even better pianos and chisels than either of them had access to, and the air vibrates just as well know as it did in 18th century Salzburg. There is no impossibility on the side of the matter, but the absence of an agent makes these impossible.

Notice that the latter two kinds of possibility are determined by some kind of natural inquiry, even if it is a pretty minimal natural inquiry. This kind of possibility is immediately reduced to some sort of appeal to sensation. The first kind of possibility is not immediately reduced in this way, and so has a kind of independence from natural science. A physicist is not the person you would go to in order to figure out, say, the sort of discussion of possibility we are having now- a discussion of the divisions and distinctions in the very subject of possibility.

The simplicity and free will of Pure Act

Edward Feser gives St. Thomas’s answers to the dilemma between free will and simplicity (one can more or less adapt the answers from here). Briefly, God does not have a real (or categorical) relation to creatures (since real relations cannot exist without their correlatives) and there is more than one kind of necessity (the necessity of supposition is not contrary to freedom). One can also respond to the dilemma by showing how absolute simplicity and freedom with respect to creation arise from one and the same source: namely, God being pure act.

Pure act is absolutely simple since composite parts are in potency to the whole, and so what lacks all potency lacks any composition. This conclusion is the easier one to see because it demands only that we understand act so far as it is opposed to potency, and thus in an exterior way. The next conclusion- the one concerning freedom- demands knowing what act is in itself.

The fullest and most complete sense of act is immanence, and thus the fullest and most perfect actuality is the most complete immanent activity of intelligence and will. Pure act is therefore immediately and self-evidently personal, intelligent, and perfect with respect to what it wills. This is why Aristotle doesn’t argue to the divine attributes of blessedness or perfect intelligence:  as soon as he establishes that some pure act exists he can simply set these things down as what he already meant.  This is also why St. Thomas can be so confident in the first way that the first mover is “what all men call God”, since a living, intelligent being with a perfectly rectified will who is responsible for the motion, activity and life of things in the universe is in fact what “all men call God”. (St. Thomas goes on to prove all these attributes too, mercifully, since he realized that his readers probably had less penetration into the concept of “act” than he and Aristotle had).

Pure act thus has a perfectly rectified will, which is to say it possesses the most perfect object in the most perfect fashion, and in an immutable and necessary way. The will of what is purely actual is thus completely determined and unchangeable, considered simply of itself. But this unchanging will is simultaneously absolutely free with respect to its inferiors. Freedom always involves imperfection, even when said of God, for it concerns an object that is other than the last end of the will as perfectly possessed. It’s important to get this right: while freedom is a perfection of the will, it always involves the imperfection, namely the imperfection of an object other than the last end of the will as perfectly possessed. God’s freedom is always said with respect to creatures- for this is the only way that freedom is a perfection of the will. Freedom is indetermination, and indetermination is only of value to a will with respect to things other than an absolute end in which it rests. If you are possessing your last end, indetermination of the will would be an imperfection and defect- just as it is now with respect to the goods we attain (no one wants to possess a good in a way that can be lost).

Our difficulty in understanding all this arises in no small part because we have divinized freedom and thus divinized something other than the greatest perfection of the will as such. We of course continue to want to hold on to goods we possess in an unchanging way that cannot be lost- which belies our divination of our freedom- but we continue to divinize freedom nonetheless.

Pure act is therefore 1.) necessarily simple as opposed to potency; 2.) determined in its will so far as it attains perfectly its greatest perfection; and 3.) free with respect to inferior beings other than its last will as attained. 2 and 3 in no way introduce composition, first because they are consequences of pure act; and second because they are simply two developments of one reality and actuality. They no more divide the will of God and make it two things than the ability to both illumine and dry makes fire two things.

The interaction problem

Stephen Pinker  (Via Marilynne Robinson via Martin Cothran) refutes, by way  rhetorical question, the existence of the soul-as-understood-by-Stephen-Pinker:

How does the spook interact with solid matter? How does an ethereal nothing respond to flashes, pokes and beeps and get arms and legs to move?

Ah yes, the interaction problem. Is that still around? Apparently so.

In one way, it’s hard to see how this problem arises: souls are forms, and so if this were really a problem, then there would also be an interaction problem for basketballs: How does a sphere interact with solid rubber? How does a Euclidean solid respond to the molecular structure of hydrocarbons? What an untenable dualism!”

But isn’t the soul a form in the substantial order, and not in the accidental order? Yes, but this still doesn’t give a duality of substances. Thomists don’t believe that the body has a substantial form that the soul is added to. The substantial character of the body is simply a certain emanation from the soul, and is lost immediately at death. “Corpse” is not the name of some one thing, but of a heap of things that have no actual relation to one another. Where is the duality? Interaction problems are between two things, but there simply are not two things here.

It turns out that soul-as-Stephen-Pinker understands it is a silly and mythical entity that owes its existence to Stephen Pinker (or any of us) being deceived by false imagination. First, we turn forms into things simply speaking; when in fact forms are certain things only with qualification that are necessary to explain what we call things simply speaking. If the verbiage there is too dense, just ask yourself if the roundness of a basketball a thing without any qualification. When you see a basketball, do you say that you see two things, a basketball and its roundness? There is also a second deception by false imagination that Pinker manifests by his “spook” talk.  Pinker is clearly conceiving immateriality as a kind of material existence- for it is precisely as material that beings exclude each other, become impenetrable to one another, and can only assimilate others by destroying them (that is, by digesting them). Immateriality is a negation of exactly this sort of exclusion that one is tacitly assuming when he posits an interaction problem between spirit and matter. Immateriality is (self evidently) the negation of material parts, and whatever lacks material parts cannot be excluded or rejected by the material parts of another, any more than a triangle is destroyed by adding a point to it. So even if one said that the material body and the immaterial soul were two substances simply speaking, there would be no problem of how one interacted with the other by perfectly penetrating and incorporating itself into it, since immateriality removes the impediment to this perfect penetration.

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