Regulation and its cognates as political problems

Recent court decisions have brought the Second Amendment back into discussion. One of the most interesting words in the amendment is also one of the most interesting words in the constitution itself, and even one of the most interesting notions in government: regulation, or to be well-regulated.

To govern involves, uncontroversially, the order of some multitude of persons. There are two limiting extremes about how this order comes about. At one extreme, we might argue that to govern means that an exterior group of experts or absolute rulers lead a multitude of persons who are essentially ignorant sheep who, if left to their own, would simply collapse into chaos and ruin. At  another extreme, we might argue that any extrinsic principle or rule is essentially an evil, and that the good order of a multitude comes about to the extent that we leave the multitude to itself. On the first extreme, the multitude is seen as determined toward chaos and ruin, and in need of being saved; on the other extreme, the multitude is seen as determined towards order, and so in need of being left alone. Again, on the first, the multitude has no interior principle in themselves that would lead to good order, in the second the multitude has an entirely sufficient interior principle of order leading to good order.

I call both opinions extremes because, if either is taken as a general theory, government would collapse into contradiction. It doesn’t take much reflection on either extreme to recognize that governing will have to involve some sort of middle course. The great benefit of the extremes, however, is that if one of them were true, then  government would be breathtakingly easy: at the first extreme, the right answer to any problem of the multitude is the empowerment of some extrinsic authority; at the second extreme it is the enfeebling or elimination of some extrinsic authority. Both provide us with an ability to solve any political problem without knowing anything about the problem itself. This complete ease of understanding and ready-made answers allows the extremes to be ideologies. On the one hand, political ideology is opposed to political practice, since the extremes are impossible; on the other hand political ideology illuminates and empowers political practice, since it is so intelligible and so communicable to many.

No word captures this tension between ideology and practice better than regulation and its various cognates (regular, regulated, etc). At present, the term leans towards belonging to the first extreme, that is, political “regulation” is seen as something imposed on a multitude who have no principle of order in themselves. Thus, the need for “regulation” is seen (by those of both ideologies) as an implicit belief that the thing one is regulating, of itself, tends to chaos. Interestingly, we don’t always use the cognates of “regulate” in this way: the regularity of the digestive tract is simply its health, that is, its acting correctly from an interior principle. A well-regulated digestive tract is not one that is ruled from the outside, but simply one that is healthy. Even when we take, say, Metamucil, the “regularity” we seek is something that primarily arises from within. Similarly, the regulations of a game aren’t extrinsic to the game, but more simply descriptions of the game as such. It’s not that a ball outside the foul line is really a hit, but we impose “regulations” to deny this- the regulation is simply an articulation of what in fact counts as a hit. We don’t have regulations in football or baseball because the sports are intrinsically disordered, but precisely because they have an order in themselves which is recognized in the regulation.  Nevertheless, regulation always involves a certain qualified chaos on the side of the thing that is regulated: we take Metamucil so far as our bowels have some chaos to them; and regulations do limit behavior in one way or another, even if the game isn’t sheer chaos. Thus regulation and its cognates, understood as we use them in common speech, are particularly good at illuminating the central idea of political practice. It’s a pity that “regulation” is taken as belonging to ideology, since when we take a closer look at the word we see that it is ideally suited, even in its preset use, to describe political practice as opposed to ideology: for regularity seems to recognize a real interior principle of things even while it recognizes that this principle is not always entirely capable of producing regularity.

Two meanings of science

John Wilkins makes an argument that, predictably, I have to take issue with:

several things mitigate against theism from the scientific domain.

One is that if you have a purely physical explanation for an outcome X, then the explanatory role for god in producing X is no longer necessary. For example, we do not need to appeal to God’s actions to produce babies in explaining fetal development from a fertilized zygote. A purely physical account is all that we require. This is the Excluded God from the Gaps argument. Once a gap has been filled by knowledge, God is not needed.

I could point out that it’s unfair to identify theism with “The God in the Gaps”, as Wilkins is clearly doing, but refutations of the claim that the two are identical are easy to find, or even think up oneself (I’m pretty sure Wilkins himself knows a few) so I won’t dwell on the point. I’m more interested now in a tension in the argument simply as given. The initial consequence is quite true: “if there is a purely physical explanation of X, then one need not invoke God to explain X.” The truth of the consequence rests on the truth that to give a purely physical explanation/cause would not give a divine explanation/cause. But then why not simply say that these causes or explanations belong to different sciences of X? There is no problem with one thing giving rise to multiple sciences: if your X is a human being, it can give rise to human anatomy, anthropology, sociology, etc. Again, you can study this “X” that is a man as a physicist (study his mass, gravitational effects, etc) as a chemist (consider his elements) as a biologist (study his genes/ genome/ evolutionary story, etc.) as a theologian (consider his order to God) or in many other ways. The human mind isn’t the sort of thing that can exhaust any X with one and only one science, or any one set of causes.

Briefly, “science” means either

a.) the search for physical causes/ explanations of X, and/or the method appropriate to this.

b.) any rational, objective, systematic, and methodological exposition or analysis of a given X.

Wilkins’s argument shows that theism is excluded from science in the first sense, but not in the second. In other words, he shows that a method that seeks only physical causes seeks only physical causes.

Learning to do

It’s easy to intellectualize moral and ethical problems (including political ones), as though reflection would be adequate to see the solution to the problem. Interestingly, we don’t think this will work for anything else we do: no one thinks that the usual problems that one has with playing piano or quarterback call for us to go reflect or study more music theory or football strategy, or to think more about what we should do when we are playing. This is not just a matter of training mere physical muscle movement- lawyers and teachers and mechanics need to practice what they do too. Doing anything is mostly a matter of doing it somehow badly, or at least very imperfectly for some amount of time, and we depend not so much on theory to solve difficult cases (though this certainly can play a role) but more on a person who’s done the activity more times than we have. As a rule, mentors and role models play a more important and formal role in learning how to do things than theory and reflection, even if both are essential.

This cultivated and practiced experience of dealing with moral problems, which is formed from being imperfectly moral for a good amount of time while seeking counsel and role models, and which has been perfected over time to the point where one internalizes his role models and takes pleasure in acting spontaneously as they would act, is what St. Thomas calls prudence or wisdom. This virtue is at the heart of his moral theory, notwithstanding all the repeated claims that he is a “natural law” theorist.


-The outlines of heaven: rejoicing and celibacy; having the greatest care and providence for the world even while having the greatest forgetfulness of it. This is the peculiar character of the house of the blessed. This seems like an unbearable contradiction, but it might just be what one would expect among the divinized: giving to another in no way out of debt or being obliged.

-We want some platonic form to rule the actions of God and man, as though it would be better for the impersonal to rule the personal. Even though it is sometimes necessary that this be so in limited and relative cases (like when we look for a government of laws and not of men) it could never be so absolutely- as though it would be desirable absolutely for the less perfect to submit to the more so; as though, immediately after concluding that God was a greatest possible being, we would conclude that he must be impersonal and inanimate.

The love of creatures

The same thing is a search for God even while it is incompatible with the attainment of him; and so the same thing is both an imperfect love of God and an imperfect hatred: the love of creatures. This is the paradox of the saint: that he somehow loves all things more perfectly than we do even while he despises them; and that we are attracted to those who live saintly lives even while we find that life repugnant.

Every Christian knows he should not trust in himself, and that he should seek salvation with fear and trembling, and that he is somehow an inveterate sinner irrespective of what degree of holiness he attains: all these facts stem from the same source: we cannot help by nature loving creatures. There is always this sharp corner in the Gospel or the lives of the saints that we try to blunt or explain away or deal with at some other time.

Seeing redness and seeing this red

I’ve been irritated for years by Analytic philosophers saying that they see redness (the claim probably came from all the discussions of “qualia”, but it spills over into other things). This is obviously false: you see this particular red surface of / radiation of ____. One no more sees redness than he sees humanity, and for the same reason.

There is some sense in which one sees redness, to be sure, but in order to profit from saying this it needs to be recognized as not per se what your eyeballs are aware of. The observation isn’t trivial: one of the most fertile problems that the ancients worked with was the fact that we somehow see man (or redness) even while we only see this man; we hear sound even while we only hear this sound. On the one hand, there are pretty obvious differences between sound and this sound (since this sound ceasing doesn’t make the whole universe go silent) on the other hand there are obvious identities between sound and this one  (for what sound could exist without being, in fact, this one?) Plato was forced to posit an entire second universe and a previous and eternal life in order to deal with this problem; Aristotle wrote one of the longest books in his corpus (Metaphysics VII) while struggling with the strange unity and distinction of “this X” (the “hoc aliquid” or “tode ti”) and “X-ness”. There is an inescapable ambiguity in even the word “red”: do you mean this one, or what is common to this one and that (this is the opposition between the tode ti or hoc aliquid and the quod quid erat esse or essence).  This is an extremely difficult, fundamental, and illuminating problem, which one skates right past if he doesn’t reflect on how he doesn’t see redness.

Two things are not always two things

Descartes seems to be a bona fide dualist, that is, he asserts that at there are two different kinds of things: those that think and those that are extended. Such a dualism might well have been unintentional- for dualism, if it means anything, means speaking about two fundamentally different sorts of thing, and it is not clear that Descartes used the word “thing” with any sophisticated or reflective account of it. “Res” (thing) is simply demanded by the mode of signification, since extensa and cogitans are adjectives that sound clunky when used substantively. Descartes only seems interested in the assertion that there are thinkers and “extendeds”, and that what is one is never the other.

I’m not aware of any moment when Descartes notices that there can be one thing that is not another without there being two things. That sentence is not a contradiction, just as the title of this post is not, for the first “thing” is used in an extended and derivative sense while the second one is used in a primary sense. The parts are not the whole, nor are substances accidents, but this division does not give rise to two things. If someone asks you what one thing you would want to have on a desert island, and you say your wife, he can’t object by saying that this would mean taking two things: your wife and her left pinkie toe. Similar considerations apply to all parts and wholes. The logical whole and part (like “rational” and “animal” in man) doesn’t make the thing defined two things, nor does the ontological composition of form and matter. Thing means something before philosophers get to it, and it is simply not the case that we can call the term of any division two “things” unless we qualify in one way or another that we are using “thing” in an extended sense, and not in the primary sense.

This division matters because we are prone to reify, or literally “thing-ify”, the terms of any division, but this is a trick of false imagination. Venn diagrams make “animal” a kind of whole, whereas the term as the logician uses it has more the character of a part- that is, a part of a definition.  (In fact the logical whole is in very important ways contrary to the integral or extended whole: for the extended whole is complete whereas the logical whole is confused and incomplete.) Even if we use the word “thing” for the product of all these divisions, this is no guarantee that we are speaking of what we mean by “thing” in an unqualified sense. In the absence of a qualification, we can’t use “thing” as though it were a sticker that can be slapped on the terms of any division whatsoever.

St. Thomas’s way of articulating this is that a substance, or “thing” in an unqualified sense, requires not just being set apart from some other (even where this other can exist separately), but also a complete or whole existence. This is not a mere semantic quibble, but a response to a legitimate problem that not every division- or “this is not that”- gives rise to a new whole. Thing requires both being set apart and being somehow whole. We can, of course, also give things a sort of whole existence in our mind that they don’t have in things (to use the word in two other ways) but to do so is to more make a statement about how we think than about the way things are.

We tend to use the word “thing” as if it were a rather unsophisticated concept, but a closer look at it shows a good deal of structure that is easy to miss. Our minds have spontaneously formed a much more complicated and sophisticated account of “thing” than we are prone to recognize. This is to be expected.

Mere Monogenism, and Adam and Eve

The Biologos forum has been discussing Adam and Eve. The discussion is framed as a question of whether they are historical or literary figures, and, if historical, how their existence can be brought into harmony with the theory of evolution. It’s not obvious that the initial division (historical/literary) is a good one- how does one apply it to, say, the Johnny Depp title character in Donnie Brasco, the “Jim Garrison” character in Oliver Stone’s JFK or, more classically, to Robin Hood or the Sheriff of Nottingham? The division of historical and literary is pretty clearly inadequate here. One might suspect that, for similar reasons, the pre-Abrahamic Book of Genesis is a paradigm case of when this division is inadequate (the Catholic teaching on Genesis of the last 100 years or so, for example, presupposes that this division is inadequate.)

But leave all that aside. The real problem is that the Biologos essay is indecisive and scattershot. This is why PZ Myers and Jerry Coyne smell blood, and fire away at the essay in their characteristic style (follow the links here. I’m not linking to those guys). Any success that PZ and Jerry might have is due to this: we are very prone to assume toubling and problematic assumptions into our discussion of Adam and Eve, and these assumptions need to be pointed out in the beginning, or our whole discourse will either be an expression of our own indecisiveness and confusion, or the false triumphalism of killing strawmen.

First, belief in a historical Adam and Eve is a belief in monogenism. Monogenism states that all human beings from some point in the past until now descend from a single set of parents (The literal truth of Genesis would probably require that this point in the past go back at least to Abraham, say 2100-1800 BC). It is helpful to contrast monogenism to different claims that make more assumptions, like

1.) We descend from one set of parents, and we have no other parents. In other words, when Adam and Eve existed, they were the only human beings on earth. This commits us to more than is required for monogenism. One can argue, of course, that the Genesis account requires this addition, but it must be recognized as an addition. Note carefully that the special creation of Adam by God does not require that he be the only man who existed at the time, any more than the special creation of Christ requires that Christ be the only man who existed at the time. Scripture relates any number of miracles where God does something that is also done by natural processes, but by using other means (e.g. making non-living things alive, making water into wine, etc.)

2.) We descend from some first man who has had a male descendant in every generation. This is the definition of the “Y-Chromosome Adam“, and (adjusting for sex) the “mitochondrial Eve”. Assume that Adam’s daughter went off, east of Eden, and married some human outside of her family. Then Adam could not be a “Y- Chromosome Adam” for that line of persons, though he is clearly responsible for the line. All that would be required for the “literal” truth of Genesis is that at some point in time, all lines not descended from Adam either died off or merged with him. Given that we know as a fact that this has happened for at least one man, who also exists under the additional stipulation of having only male descendants, there is nothing odd whatsoever in assuming the far more possible case of a man being the parent of the whole human race who did not exist under this restriction.

The necessary newness of art

Art can’t just be new, but nevertheless, is has to continually be made new and always change in some significant way. It’s not enough that it simply be beautiful, or, if it is, then part of that beauty involves being put in a contemporary idiom.

In certain ways, I can’t believe I just said that. Almost all of my tastes in art tend away from the contemporary, and I think it is reasonable to expect them to do so. This seems nothing more than the law of probability: the spacio-temporal extent of artistic genius is very small, and it is unlikely that any given person would find himself within it (of all persons, how many ended up living in the Florence of the Medici, Vienna of the late 18th century, or Elizabethan England?)  This leaves most people having to look some other time and some other place. Even if one disagreed with this, it seems unlikely that anyone could say that there was more great art now than in all previous times put together (a claim that is sometimes made, reasonably, about scientific or medical knowledge). One is therefore more likely to find greatness in the past. But for all that, art has to change and be made new anyway. This does not guarantee that the new thing will not be ugly or vulgar or simply worse than what we had before. It very likely will be.

Why is this? Isn’t’ it a terrible thing that art couldn’t just freeze when it achieved certain perfections? Perhaps, but that’s how it is. I can’t help that T.S. Eliot or Borges or Ted Hughes more speak my language than Shakespeare, even if Shakespeare is the greater master; and even while I despise musicals I know that they are more mine than opera ever could be. In some horrible way- and I interpret this as a judgment of condemnation- the grind is more my dance than the waltz.

What does art require? It would take a great genius to write, for example, the next opera, since this would involve doing something quite unimaginable. Whenever I try to imagine a new opera I only imagine the old being done again- but a truly new opera would not be like this.  Our contemporary artists seem very aware of this aspect of art and genius, which is why they place such value on  breaking barriers and shattering conventions. Again, they are getting half the story right: art really does continually find itself in need of someone who will do something unimaginable to the multitude. But there is also, as anyone would admit after two seconds of honest reflection, an objective demand and criterion that restricts the unimaginable thing. It must be beautiful, and the beautiful things are hard. The work of genius will be shocking, to be sure, but to shock is no guarantee that the whole work is of any value (or even that it was truly unimaginable.)

In the meantime, most art will be ugly will be a less perfect approximation and participation of the ideal in our contemporary idiom than some past art was in its own idiom. Our great musicians  will not have the perfection of the 18th century musicians, but they will be ours; our poets will not have the genius of the Golden age Latin poets, but they will be ours, etc. Art must necessarily push forward, even if it need not necessarily succeed (and perhaps usually doesn’t).

Moral being

The introductory lectio of the Commentary on the Ethics gives a fascinating division of the various intentions that reason forms:

Order compares to reason in four ways: there is one order that reason does not make, but only considers like the order of natural things [or reality- ed] There is another order that reason makes by its consideration in its proper act namely when it orders its concepts to one another, and the signs of the concepts which are signified by the voice. A third order is what reason makes by its consideration in the operations of the will. A fourth order which reason makes by its consideration is in exterior things of which it is the cause, like a box and a house.

Ordo autem quadrupliciter ad rationem comparatur. Est enim quidam ordo quem ratio non facit, sed solum considerat, sicut est ordo rerum naturalium. Alius autem est ordo, quem ratio considerando facit in proprio actu, puta cum ordinat conceptus suos adinvicem, et signa conceptuum, quae sunt voces significativae; tertius autem est ordo quem ratio considerando facit in operationibus voluntatis. Quartus autem est ordo quem ratio considerando facit in exterioribus rebus, quarum ipsa est causa, sicut in arca et domo.

These intentions are later named, respectively, the first intention, the second intention, the moral good, and art. The natural division of these four is to oppose the first to the latter three: the first is “not made by reason in its consideration” while the latter are all made in things by the consideration of reason.

St. Thomas is speaking in a very fundamental way about all four of these things, and so one can use this as a division to speak about any of the things he describes (I first noticed this passage when an author used it to divide symbols from the subject of logic) but I was reminded of the passage while reading of an article that spoke of ens morale or “moral being”. The text threw out the word in an offhanded way on route to making some other point, but it’s a division worth spending time on. Philosophy has always treated of ethics, but in decadent times it leans towards treating nothing but ethics. Sick persons spend far more time talking about their sickness than healthy persons spend speaking about their health, and for the morally sick persons and societies this means a good deal of projection and rationalization, though both require invoking moral norms. This is certainly not to say that all discussions on ethics are rationalizations, it’s only to point out an incentive structure that is geared to maximizing moral discussion (though not necessarily moral truth). The rationalizations, of course, are met with rebuttals, and the rebuttals with passionate counter-rebuttals, and this continuous whirligig will itself be turned into a rationalization (who can figure out the truth with so many contrary opinions?) and will thus become subsumed into the incentive to discuss nothing but morals.

Notice first that the moral order is divided from the real order in some way (as the first member of the distinction from the third). This is gives at least a shadow of truth to the division between the ought and the is, so far as there is a real division between the order that reason does not make and an order that it does make. Just as the order in things does not require that we think about them in the right order (and thus the first is divided from the second) so too neither the order in things nor in our thought guarantees that we will introduce the correct order of them into our will (and thus the first and second are divided from the third). This third thing is its unique class of being, set apart from both the first and second intention, and from the order of art. This makes sense of why moral being is divided, along with the second intention and art, from the order tat “reason does not make in things”.

Among the order that reason does make in its consideration of things, moral being is placed second. The first reason for this is because St. Thomas is moving from what is closest to reason to what is most remote. To introduce order into the act of reason itself is the closest to reason; to introduce it into the exterior world is furthest from it, but moral being consists in introducing order into something outside of reason, but yet still immanent and interior to the person himself. Moral being can thus be metaphorically understood as “the logic of the will” or as the “art of making something interior to oneself”. On the other hand, unlike logic, moral being consists in willing; and unlike art it consists in perfecting ones own act of willing and not an object.

One terrifying feature of moral being is how urgent it is, and how continuously and thoughtlessly we are producing it. Moral being is always throwing us into the world and making us in it. A logic of the will consists in willing (where “willing” is taken in a broad sense to include the things we omit or neglect to do), and it will not wait for us to develop a right “logic”, it will throw us into the world with whatever morals we have, and that continuously.  This constant action creates habits, and consequent pleasures, that tend to be a good deal more difficult to change than the habits that are between our second intentions: for example, the first time someone teaches you about hypothetical syllogisms you probably had not developed a strong attachment to affirming the consequent, but our first run ins with claims about what is right in the order of the will tend to  meet habits that are dead-set at least slightly off course. These habits are themselves kinds of arguments: how can this thing you say is a good be good if I find it so repugnant? This problem is secondary to a larger  one: for the order being considered here is an order of reason; but reason is not the only appetite we have. Sense appetite is live, strong, and it tends to exercise itself first.

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