The metaphysics of extension

Extension is a basic and immediately known reality. Bodies are extended, space has extension, time has length. We are familiar with the mathematical account of it. What about the metaphysical account?

Metaphysics analyses extension in light of the identity of the whole and the perfect (or act). Thus, extension has infinite imperfection, so far as by its very nature it admits of unlimited division. In natural extension, this division is not always infinite (though it remains infinite in motion and becoming) But there is nevertheless a necessity of division in all extension, and so a necessity of imperfection.

This imperfection is first overcome by that which, though extended, has its whole being in every division or part, that is, by life. In what lives, to exist is to live, and every part of that which lives is alive. Thus we divide mere extension from life, for the metaphysician knows life by its overcoming or transcendence of extension.

But if life transcends mere extension, there is nothing surprising in the fullest life transcending extension altogether. This fullest life is merely perfect and whole by itself, not existing in extended parts. Such subsistence is life, or that which transcends life. This is the existence of intelligence.

But extension serves as an analogue for other sorts of division that we find among intelligences. Just as we must transcend any division into extended parts, so too we must transcend the division of one intelligence from another. We attain to an intelligence that must be utterly sui generis, that is, of itself and in no way one of an enumerated plurality. This is the intelligence of the angel.

A naturalist paradox

It is paradoxical to hold both a.) Intelligence is (or will be) explained by natural science and b.) That natural science cannot explain nature by invoking the causality of intelligence. After all, if intelligence is just another subject of natural science, then there is no reason we can’t invoke it as a natural cause; and if intelligence is so outside of nature that it can never be invoked by a scientist, then it is supernatural.


The completed rejection of the argument from evil

Once we’ve made up our minds that the argument from evil doesn’t work we’re committed to believing that failure to see evil’s justification, ultimate destiny, or place within the whole is due entirely to the limitations of our intellect. We are committed to holding that there never was and never will be an action or event or occurrence which entirely drives out the necessity of our thanking and blessing God for it. This does not mean that we must wish everything to be or to have been, but only that we recognize that irrespective of what happens we will never confront a situation that does not in any way demand praise, blessing, and thanksgiving.


-We note that intellectual knowledge is universal for any number of important reasons: to establish its spirituality; to separate it from sense; to explain the puzzles of Parmenides, etc. Nevertheless, it is accidental to intellectual knowledge that it be universal. Separated intellects do not make predicable universals to know.

-There is a dangerous ambiguity in the claim that sense is of particulars and intellection is of universals- for “particular” means either a.) the mode in which sense knows or b.) the concrete existence of things. a.) describes a way in which sense attains something intellect does not, b.) does not. Confounding the two makes sensation the sole judge of reality, and intellect a mere power of fabrication. In fact, what we have is one and the same concrete reality known by two modes, but with a certain order.

-What exactly divides intellect from sensation, if it not universality? Perhaps the best answer is that intellection subsists of itself. I’m reminded of St. Thomas’s explanation of the obscure saying in the Liber de causis that “every intellect returns to itself by a complete return”

Return to its own essence means only that a thing subsists in itself. Inasmuch as the form perfects the matter by giving it existence, it is in a certain way diffused in it; and it returns to itself inasmuch as it has existence in itself. Therefore those cognitive faculties which are not subsisting, but are the acts of organs, do not know themselves, as in the case of each of the senses; whereas those cognitive faculties which are subsisting, know themselves (ST. I q. 14 a 2. ad 1 cf. Q.d. de veritate 1. 9  co.)

-Intellect is more objective than sense. So far as sensation involves the physical modification of an organ, it is not knowledge – indeed, this kind of modification is subjectivity.

Kant and St. Thomas, II

The principles Kant lays down in the Transcendental Aesthetic are at the foundation of his critique of metaphysics, but  I’m struck that Kant (IMO) spends far less time arguing for what is most pertinent to refuting metaphysics.  Kant continually returns to the thorny question of whether and in what sense space and time are real, but he says less about how what is given in space limits what can be known.

Kant’s fundamental argument that our mind is limited to objects known in space seems to be this :

By means of outer sense, a property of our mind, we represent to ourselves objects as outside us, and all without exception in space.

Thus “to be an object” requires “to be spacial”. The “without exception” is a limiting condition. Here we have an appeal to a real, bedrock, interior experience, a claim that one must either take or leave and upon which one can certainly build a solid philosophy.

St. Thomas certainly agrees with some sense of what Kant is saying (who couldn’t?) but he continually insists on a qualification that muddles the simplicity of what Kant claims. For St. Thomas, the human person, by intellect, intuits being as spacio-temporal. The standard Thomist formula for this was first given by Cajetan: the proper object of the intellect is being as concretized in a sensible quiddity; or being that is given (as Bergson would put it) “in the undifferentiated solid”. But the contemporary reader gets the best view of what St. Thomas meant in the phrase “being as spacio-temporal”. Thus in one sense all that is given is given in space and time, but it is given precisely as a mode of being, and being can never be considered as purely material in the concept, as though the entire formality of being as spacio-temporal was taken on the side of its spacio-temporal concretion or mode.

The Thomist thus posits a dialectical tension in the proper object of the human intellect: on the one hand it is the case that being only appears to him as concretized in the spacio-temporal order, but this concretion cannot exhaust the possible objects of his intelligence because a.) being, even as known, is essentially formal and so cannot be taken as purely material, even when it is put under the intelligible formality of spacetime, and b.) by analysis man finds himself not only incapable of reducing his notion of being to the spacio-temporal but he is led, in a positive way, to see the purely conditioned nature of spacetime and the openness to the absolute in being. Kant recognizes that the spacio-temoral order is conditioned and not absolute (see sections VIII and IX of the second division of the Transcendental Dialectic), but since he does not have a notion that the intellect properly knows being he does not have an intuition of anything that could be an unconditioned cause of the spacio-temporal order. He concludes, in good logic, that one simply cannot conclude to any cause or even object outside this order, since he has no intuition of what such an object might be.

The contrary of the Kantian analysis is most striking in St. Thomas’s Fourth Way, which presupposes that in the finite experience of good, truth, and “other such things” one intuits and experiences a form which of itself has no limitation, even though that form is completely given in the finite and conditioned order. In concrete terms, when we experience goods, we experience something which is a.) totally finite but b.) which we know we are not considering good because of that finite existence. This is the experience of the real possibility of infinite goodness, or of goodness as infinite. In this possibility, we can know either that such must be, or that some agent has within himself an infinite goodness which he can bring forth. Either way, goodness is simply infinite, measuring all, and all that we experience as limited in spacetime is good by taking part in it, and being measured by it. St. Thomas might even put it in simpler terms: the comparative more or less is most properly in compared to the superlative, and finite goodness, as finite, is comparative.


-Nothing isn’t empty black space and being isn’t whatever can fill it.

-Negate space. What then? A point. But points aren’t nothing – they are principles of things in space. Negate even the place. The unit remains.

-But it’s known by negation. But then it’s not known.

 a point and every indivisible thing are known by privation of division. This is because simple and indivisible forms are in our intellect not actually, but only potentially; for were they actually in our intellect, they would not be known by privation.

ST. 1. 14. 10

Note on transcendence

When A transcends B it is not necessary that either A or B is a part of some larger whole, or that it is the second of two things. The universe does not cease being all and truly whole even though it is created by another; physical laws do not cease to tend towards an explanation of all nature even while all the things they describe are mere instruments of life.

Put a growing clum of cells under a microscope. It pulls apart and then apart again. Everything in motion is an instrument, even while it remains the thing itself. But an instrument of  what? Some ghost? There are no ghosts. The thing does not cease being a true whole and totality even while it is transcended.

But how can any enumeration not be of some number of things? Because second intentions are homogenous even where the things are not. We count our abstractions (and the other tools of mind) even when we cannot count the things.

On the division between user and used in nature

Some things in nature use other things in nature. Plants use sunlight, whatever nutrients they find in the ground and rainwater; animals use the energy and nutrients gathered from plants and other sources; and human beings use nature to such an extent that they easily fall into thinking that nature has no value or even existence outside of its being used.

The simplest way to account for this use is to posit a single order of natural laws for all that we spoke of above: animals and the nutrients they gather are simply collections of natural things like chemicals and energy. On this account of nature we say that, for example, what plants are doing when they  absorb sunlight is that one kind of energy or mass bundle goes into some other mass/ energy bundle according to some set of laws that governs them both. All the actions of plants absorbing nutrients would be seen as the same sort of activity as a flame absorbing oxygen or a set of atoms becoming a molecule. Though I call this the simplest account this is not to make light of it: it took scientists a great many years to get a passable account of nature even in this simplest sense.

But though this simplest account of nature is necessary for a sapiential view of nature, it does not and cannot account for the observation that some things in nature use others. If we try to account for the observed distinction between user and used by a single set of action governing laws for both, then we have to say either that all nature is used, or that nothing is used in nature, and both options are absurd. What is used can be viewed as a tool, and so if there is a single order for all the actions in nature, then either all nature is a set of tools without a tool user or all nature is a tool user that has no tools to use.

1.) The distinction between user and used is the distinction between the living and the non-living. Since the living and the non-living in nature share the same mass/ energy base, but life has something beyond this, we need some name for that-by-which the living goes beyond. The ancient name for this is “soul”, and it only fell out of use rather recently.

2.) If one insists that “nature” means whatever can have its actions unified under a single set of laws, then part of our observing nature involves observing a supernatural element in it. I’m largely indifferent about whether one affirms the antecedent or denies the consequent so long as he adjusts his vocabulary accordingly.

3.) Note that the distinction between user and used is not the sort of thing that one tests. The details of what exactly the user makes use of need to be determined by hypothesis and test (for example, the determination of whether the plant takes is material from the ground or also from the air), but that there is a user at all is a different kind of fact based on another kind of observation.

The American presentation of the Theology of the Body

Every few months or so, controversy flares up over the theology of the body. To be more exact, the controversy is over the American presentation of the theology of the body. A large part of the problem is that TOB was developed by John Paul II, and no one has quite his flair for presenting ideas. Specifically, no one has ever been as good at presenting scandalous ideas in ways that caused no scandal. He had the mysterious charism of being able to, say, condemn Communism in the most strident terms and then share warm handshakes in photo-ops with Soviet leaders in front of enthusiastic crowds; he could argue that the Koran is clearly an inferior religious text (see “Crossing the Threshold of Hope”)  and still be loved and admired by Muslims.

This same charism is at work in his presentation of TOB. John Paul II is simply presenting the scriptural teaching on marriage, which in the New Testament involves the scandalous teaching that all human beings are called to celibacy: which Christ teaches when he says in heaven they neither marry nor are given in marriage, and which Paul develops in I Cor. 7.  John Paul II presents this as the universal call to Christ, and he can frequently do so in such a way as to accentuate the equality of all persons in Christ. This is certainly a kind of teaching on human dignity and the equality of women, however, it is (at least in part) the honey he puts on the rim of the medicine cup. Likewise, he teaches a great deal about the family’s likeness to the Trinity and the dignity of the married life, but he always keeps it in relation to the universal call to celibacy – which, if taught directly or even if taught by anyone other than him – would cause even very convinced Catholics to go running for the doors.

This universal call to celibacy and the essential inferiority of marriage never makes its way down to the popular level of presentation of TOB. I don’t mean that, say, Christopher West never teaches it, I mean that if he does it never enters the consciousness of his audience, and – to be blunt about it – the TOB in its popular American presentation is usually understood in such a way that the superiority of celibacy and our universal call to it is never discerned, and indeed cannot be discerned.

I have extreme doubts that anyone other than John Paul II could speak of his theology of the body in a popular way. Any attempt to make the doctrine popular must cut out the call to celibacy that it at its heart. Without this, the TOB becomes simply a celebration of sexual activity, taken out of a New Testament context that clearly makes it subordinate, less perfect, and destined in the divine plan to vanish from the universe.

Reduction to the uniform

All sciences reduce things to something uniform. A sign of this is the importance of uniformity in physical laws. Both classical and contemporary physics takes continued uniform motion (or inertia) as fundamental, chemistry and thermodynamics have always been based on the uniformity with which mass and energy are conserved, and  both classical and modern cell theory take it as a fundamental law that cells arise from other cells.

All uniformity involves infinity. The procession of the uniform never needs to be understood relative to something first that is in the same order as the uniform. The uniform simply is first. And so all philosophers attributed infinity to the first principle, since what is most fundamental is not to be explained by reference to some first, and only the uniform can be such.

But uniformity in metaphysics is the opposite of uniformity in physical laws. In physical law, the infinite and uniform is such that it never forms what is whole or complete. For the metaphysician, this is multiplicity or difformity, that is, the division of form or the difference of forms. All motion – that is any going from this to that –  is understood in metaphysics so far as it is between two forms (this and that) that are contrary to one another. What is uniform and singular in the physical sciences is diff-formal and multiple in metaphysics. When the metaphysician, like any scientist, seeks to reduce what he observes to the uniform he seeks what is utterly separate from the uniformity of what is at motion or at rest or conserved through change.

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