Schopenhauer’s critique of equivocal causes

Bill Vallicella links to an illuminating post he wrote about Schopenhauer’s critique of cosmological arguments.  The heart of the argument is this:

All change presupposes a subject of change.

Causality is a change.

Causality presupposes a subject of a change.

But to presuppose some subject is not to cause it, and so it is false to say that the ultimate natural subject that changes from this to that is caused. The subject is natural because a subject of change is nothing but a changing subject and so if the end result is natural, the subject is too.

Schopenhauer’s argument does a particularly good job at isolating the Kantian idea that, (to put it charitably) even if God could cause the world, it would be  a very different sort causality. Everyone understands the sort of causality of, say, one thing pushing another or one hot thing making something else hot, but the sort of causality that terminates a cosmological proof is a very different thing. Thomists can often play too loose with the idea of God being a “cause of being” or even “the first in an order of subordinated causes”. Do we even see these sorts of causes?

A larger problem is that the cosmological proof appeals to the idea that univocal causes are caused by equivocal ones – but whereas St. Thomas and Aristotle set forth very clear instances in nature of equivocal causality, most have fallen with the old physics. No one thinks, say, that “man comes from man and the sun” – by which Aristotle meant that, though John might generate John Jr., it was the sun that generated man as man, and thus contained within itself all the perfections of man, though in a higher way. Equivocal causes were once, quite literally, as plain as day. Anyone could just look to the sky and see them. But we cannot see them any more, and even if we could, we would not see them in the heavens. In effect, Schopenhauer’s argument in Thomistic language is much briefer:

All causes are univocal.

Cosmological arguments require non-univocal causes.

There is more than one response here.

1.) Causes as such do not depend on a subject, since causes as such don’t depend on anything. To depend on another to exist is to be an effect, and no cause as such is its contrary. The conclusion of the first argument we gave is therefore not necessary, and if the major is true the minor is false.

1a.) As a corollary, the divine causality most of all satisfies the notion we have of a cause. Because casuality by nature is distinct from dependence on another, and whatever requires a subject to cause depends on it, then a cause which presupposed no subject in its causal action would most of all satisfy what we mean by a cause.

Whatever one might learn from Schopenhauer, ther is one thing that needs to be utterly rooted up and thrown out – his judgment of metaphysical thing by the imagination. The sense that causes need some subject on which to act does not arise from considering them as known, but from false imagination. It is the cause as imagined that needs a subject or must be always univocal. Judged according to intellect – that is according to the intelligible notion of causality –  the need for a subject is a deficiency or imperfection of causal power.

“Cause” in St. Thomas’s axioms of causality

I wouldn’t presume that everyone comes to the idea of a cause in the same way, but at any rate everyone has some notion of one thing arising from another, or the transfer of something from A to B. St. Thomas called this influx. A notion like “responsibility” comes after this, and easily leads to confusion. A lightning bolt might be responsible for destroying a house or killing a cow, but this is a broader sense than the notion of influx from one thing to another, for no one thinks that it is destruction that is the thing transferred, or that death goes from the lightning bolt to the cow, even while the one is responsible for the other.  The word cause, however, is said both of this influx and thing that is responsible, though there are diverse orders among the meanings. In the order of our knowing, cause meaning responsibility is first since it is more general and indistinct; in the order of being or reality, cause meaning influx is first since influx does not happen because of responsibility, rather responsibility depends on influx.

All of St. Thomas’s axioms of causality apply to cause meaning influx and not responsibility. “A cause produces a similitude” or “an effect is pre-contained in the cause” or “nothing gives what it does not have” are absurd and obviously false when said of something merely responsible – the truth of the axiom that “nothing (that is, no cause) gives what it does not have” does not require that murderers are dead men or that one who yells “fire” is a riot. The axiom is not speaking of what is merely responsible for X but of an influx that gives rise to X.

Cause as influx can occur in two ways: either what inflows is present in the same way in both cause and effect (as when one moving thing makes another move, or one hot thing makes another hot); or in diverse ways (like when gravity makes something heavy; or when latent heat heats something). This is the basic division of univocal and equivocal cause, though it is incomplete until we consider the influx from the point of view of the perfection of bringing-into-being.

Evolution and teleology

I was struck by St. Thomas’s account of the ultimate interior end of the universe:

Now, in the order spoken of before, in which the rational Plan of divine providence is observed, we have said that the first is the divine goodness as the ultimate end… second is the numerical plurality (numerositas) of things, for the constitution of which there must be different degrees in forms and matters…

And so immediately under the order to God as an extrinsic principle, the ultimate good is the numerousness of things, a numerousness that is most of all verified in the division of one species from another by form. Note that, in this context, the numerousness of species abstracts from time – extinct species would thus be a contribution to diversity in the sense St. Thomas is speaking of here. Again, when we speak of a species here we abstract from the division of species and subspecies, and other such precisions.

Processes like selection and drift are unintelligible and superfluous except in relation to this sort of diversity, and so must be understood in relation to the chief interior end of the universe. Notice that this is a far more intimate and profound union between creatures and the creator than is usually posited by theistic evolution. Theistic evolution might posit intentional action in the making of the first species, or in occasional actions correcting or directing the process; but when we consider evolution as teleological according to the good St. Thomas suggests, it is not merely connected with an end so far as the need for the first living thing to arise (in which case evolution would only be teleological in the principle it arises from) nor is it only connected to intentional action at the occasional moments where God might step in and direct it; rather, it is teleological so long as there is any diversity in species at all, that is, always and in its own intelligible structure. Moreover, this end is not simply any old end – but the ultimate intrinsic end of the universe itself. Does theistic evolution ever connect evolution to a good of the universe, still less the greatest intrinsic good of the universe as such?

All this is perfectly consistent with any particular instance of selection and drift being utterly unpredictable as to its particular result. The goal that the process is working towards is not this or that particular species, and everything that atheist philosophers say about the utter-chanciness, unpredictability and absence of particular design in the process is true. It’s just that the goal is far more general, obvious, and separated from any particular instance of selection – which considered in themselves are each completely random.

Brute Facts

For Anscombe, a brute fact was opposed to a moral fact. Moral facts required certain dispositions of the perceiving subject (like maturity or good education) in order to be perceived whereas brute facts did not. Discerning that the sky is blue certainly seems different from discerning that a loving father’s discipline is good, though both are certainly facts, and one must mark off this distinction by fixing some sort of adjective. I’m not crazy about the adjective “brute”, but it will have to do.

Anscombe’s division has its limits. Aristotle (and all who followed him) makes a great deal out of the fact that sick persons cannot discern even what are called “brute facts” by the above definition. Men in fevers think spicy foods are bland, sweet foods are bitter, pungent things are odorless, etc. Indeed, Aristotle continually appeals to this as an analogy to explain the discernment of moral facts, that is, he argues that moral facts require a right disposition just as brute facts do. But again, this only shows that Anscombe’s division has its limits, which she no doubt admits herself.

Somewhere along the way, however, brute facts became unmoored from their relation to moral facts. As it stands now, a “brute fact” is supposed to be something that has utterly no explanation. It is not clear that there are such things, or even if they are possible. The first difficulty is that this account distorts what we first suppose a brute fact would have to be. If brute facts are “unexplainable facts” then statements like “the sky is blue” or “two plus two is four” cease to be brute facts, since one can give an explanation for why both are so. Another difficulty is that it is doubtful we have any criterion to discern brute fact, since no one has a very good sense of how to divide what can be explained from what can’t be. It might mean something to speak of facts that have no  explanation for the moment or on this or that hypothesis or school, but to claim that something has no possible explanation simply speaking is an odd claim – and at any rate if we could ever discern such a thing we would call it a mystery and not a brute fact. But doesn’t it make more sense to say that a mystery is the opposite of a brute fact?

Another problem with the account is that “explanation” means far more than one thing. It is not the same thing to prove (or explain) that something is so and to prove why it is so, as any scientist would tell you. That said, both require different sorts of explanations and proofs – sometimes even very elaborate ones.  If we take brute facts simply (that is, without some limiting qualification), it follows we can’t even establish that they are so. But if this is the case, then how in the world are they facts?

But perhaps a brute fact is supposed to be that which is not explained by something else, but itself explains other things. In this case, a brute fact is identical with a first principle or universal law or an axiom. But, here again, this is just not what we call “a fact”. When we speak about the “facts of a biologist” or the “facts of physicist”, or “the facts of an experiment” we aren’t talking about their fundamental axioms and laws. The facts of the science are things known even prior to the science itself while the fundamental axioms are not. Who thinks that the goal of science is to explain facts by facts (brute or not). If this were true, how is there any room for theory? Aren’t facts exactly the things we are supposed to explain?

And how would we distinguish such facts from the tautological or sheerly happenstance, since none of these things has an explanation either? There is no explanation for either a.) why did the earthquake happen while I stepped in the bathtub? or b.) Why are butterflies butterflies? But one can explain the lack of explanation- on the one hand there is mere chance conjunction of things, on the other hand there is only logical reflexive duplication. Neither have the same explanation for why they have no explanation. Both are at least mildly ridiculous. So is this what a brute fact comes to – the ridiculous?

The opposite of a real relation

Normally, saying that something is not real is a way of saying it is merely apparent, false, fictitious or phony. Nevertheless, the whole category of relation is an exception to this. Calling a relation not real – such relations are usually called “of reason” – does not mean we imagine a relation where none exists. It means that the terms of the relation do not depend on one another to exist.

Relations are first understood through the prepositions that signify them, that is, they are things that are of another or to or towards another. The grammar is purely instrumental here, our interest is in the reality spoken of.  Nevertheless, the definition is not formal enough: if we really want to specify a sort of being called “relation”, then relating must enter into its very being. For such a being, not-relating must mean not-being. This gives us a second account of relation: and though the second is more formal the first is more intelligible. So what do we do now? We can’t just call the first account of relation a phony account, as though it were merely a mistaken account to articulate what a relation is. The first account of relation isn’t like geocentrism, that is, something that was simply wrong and can be more or less be completely supplanted by another account; it simply wasn’t formal or precise enough, like when we say that tension is actually a tension gradient. To say that the first account captures nothing of the reality of relation cuts too far. Such relations allow for rigorous analysis, and not jsut because we understand them more easily.

Abstraction from conscience

All of the popular TV and movies that I grew up watching abstracted from the reality of conscience. All the criminals, villians, or persons who did bad deeds tended to be that human impossibility: the sane sociopath – that is, a normal and otherwise sane person who does evil and is otherwise untroubled by remorse or the desire to confess. The suave, Mephistopheles – style superbadguy was the rule. All wrongdoers could lie continually to authority with a straight face, and tended to suffer no obvious psychological corruption from doing terrible things (which happens even to those who do terrible things with some justification – soldiers sent to war frequently have a very difficult time dealing with the things they had to do- even the things they did justly). Murderers (even those who killed out of passion) were always caught by the great cunning or powerful technology of the detectives, and not – as is more likely to happen- by simply confessing to get the whole matter off their chest.

Somewhere in this critique there is room to mention the glamorous, attractive prostitute with all her teeth; the sexual libertine who doesn’t live in a shabby and cheap environment, etc.

Part of this might be the restrictions of the medium itself- it is no easy task to translate the interior world of conscience into the the visual medium of contemporary popular media. One simply can’t make much of a movie out of Tolstoy or Dostoevsky.

Reasoning in science and poetry

St. Thomas argues that the use of metaphor and image – which for him occurred chiefly in poetry but occurs in all fine art – was a kind of rational discourse. The testimony of artists is terribly mixed about this: on the one hand Dickens was quite clear that he wrote A Christmas Carol as a sort of argument; on the other hand artists bristle at the claim that they are moralists or that their art is an allegory for a larger point – and no one tends to experience art as though it were primarily an imperfect attempt at demonstrative or scientific discourse. So how is the use of an image a sort of rational discourse? Is it just “philosophy for the mob” or some other degraded thing?

Notice that St. Thomas is dividing various modes of rational discourse. The problem of the relation of poetry and science concerns the nature of a modal distinction, and strange way in which things that differ in mode are in one sense unified and in another sense opposed. Modal distinction always needs to be understood by two opposed accounts: one which unifies the things different only modally and another which opposes them.

To take a concrete example, it is difficult to read Dostoyevsky and not see him as persuading us to one particular answer to the consequence “If God does not exist, all is permitted”. But he is certainly not doing it in the mode that a moral scientist or metaphysician would use, and this difference in mode is a great consequence. When a metaphysician gets a hold of that consequence, he will cast God and moral prohibitions in metaphysical terms: God will become “the supreme value” or “the source of obligation” or, “an internalized voice of a parent” or “a construct invented for social order”. The discourse takes place in the infinite, wide open space of logical possibility. There is an indifference to any particular case, though not because what he concludes in irrelevant to it but because his mode of discourse doesn’t treat of it as particular. This mode of discourse makes Dostoyevsky’s question incredibly difficult to deal with: the infinite, wide open space of abstract discourse makes for too many counter-examples; it makes precision on what exactly the question is claiming difficult; it presupposes a great amont of previous metaphysical work; and the metaphysician’s indifference to the particular leaves off what is most significant in moral questions, making it seem that we are missing the heart of the manner. Most importantly, the sort of law that one speaks of when he asks if all is lawful apart from God is an interior, intimate and personal reality, and the scientific method does not strike anyone as the proper or poportionate tool to deal with such things. But, of course, Dostoyevsky does not raise or treat the problem in a demonstrative or scientific mode. He avoids the problem of the infinite counter-examples and indifference to the particular by not working within logical, abstract space but within the concrete space of the novel- for logical, abstract space is too unruly to raise the question in a precise way or deal with it in a satisfying way; but the space of the world created by Brothers Karamazov or Crime and Punishment gives the question an immediate force and a very clear answer. Most importantly, Dostoyevsky uses a tool that is more proportioned to manifesting interior, personal realities. The poetic mode of discourse gives Dostoyevsky a sort of algebra that can solve a problem very quickly and easily that Euclidian geometry could only solve with great difficulty, if at all. One simply sees that Raskolnikov or Ivan or Smerdyakov have a presence of God within them that both commands goodness and makes them human. Something is utterly and irretrievably lost when the philosopher reads Brothers K and then decides to try to deal with the question in the mode proper to his own discourse. Isn’t there something boring, futile, and vain about a bunch of philosophers all trying to figure out if Dostoyevsky is “right”? This does not mean that we cannot refute Dostoyevsky, but rather that such a refutation has to happen in the mode proper to poetry: and there really are such refutations – the comic book villain or suave, glamorous, unconflicted movie-villain is certainly one such. It is a contradiction in the world of Brothers K for there to exist a healthy, sane, otherwise normal person that relishes evil. If such a character were true in the mode that poetic discourse has truth (or if such a person could really exist), then Dostoyevsky would certainly be refuted.

The Power of the Gospel

The Jews seek signs and the Greeks seek wisdom. Notice that both signs and wisdom are in the cognitive order; both are perfections of intellect. Notice again that they exhaust the ways God is manifested in the cognitive order: signs are God’s peculiar and special manifestation of himself; wisdom deals with his general manifestation of himself in nature and the human person.

Nevertheless, Paul mentions these things to condemn them, or at least to critique them. But the condemnation has a context: he wants to oppose God’s cognitive manifestation of himself with the power of the Gospel. Power is related to action and thus to the order of the will. The Gospel consists precisely in this power: I am not ashamed of the Gospel, for it is the power of God (Rm. 1: 16) When placed relative to this, both signs and wisdom are ways of being short of the Gospel. Intellect is prior to will – and though this gives it primacy in one way it confers on it an imperfection relative to the Gospel itself. The search for signs and wisdom become a substitute for the Gospel so far as one rests in them as prior perfections of intellect alone, whereas the Gospel consists in a perfection that comes after this.

Augustine’s conversion serves as a model for what Paul is speaking of here. Augustine spends a number of years trying to deal with his intellectual objections to the faith: the problem of the origin of evil; the putatively vulgar style of the Gospels; the apparent truth of astrology; the spiritual nature of God, etc. But after he resolves all these problems, he still finds that there is a bondage of his will, and this is his last challenge. The intellectual problems were extremely difficult, but they are child’s play compared to the problems of the will. Augustine deals with his intellectual problems with flair, genius, and comparative ease – but in dealing with his own iron will, he experiences a nervous breakdown and a sense of absolute powerlessness (scroll down to Chapter 8). Again, even after Augustine dispels all of his intellectual problems, he still finds that he is not converted, and he has not yet experienced the power of the Gospel. He is simply a man who knows what he needs to do but refuses to do it. In fact, Augustine’s conversion happens after reading a passage that tells him nothing new! He converts after reading St. Paul tell him, in effect, “stop living a carnal life”. But Augustine already knew that the Gospel told him to do that – this was exactly his problem with the Gospel. The passage that converted him was one that he would have seen as a depressing condemnation of his whole life had he read it a half hour before. The difference is that, at the moment he read it, he experienced the power of the Gospel that turned a command that condemned him into a precept that governed his life. Nothing changed on the intellectual level – all that changed was that one and the same thing went from condemning him to empowering him.

The Gospel has intellectual and moral components; it asserts truths and makes commands. But the Gospel is most formally the interior unification that is experienced as not simply the awareness of truth or goodness but also as the empowerment to live that truth. It is a light that dispels all the gloominess of indecision, wondering, doubt, and the iron grip of those habits that we only discover after months of regret over being unable to change them. The whole world is looking to know something, and it raises question after question, hoping at one time for miracles and at another for insight. This is all fine, but even if we could satisfy every intellectual problem, this would only lead to the final confrontation in which we experience the heart of the Gospel, for dispelling the intellectual problems brings us only to the ultimate enemy: the iron will that, though formed willingly, oppresses us unwillingly.

Two notes on “meaning”

-There is a crucial difference between the meaning of a term and the way it is being predicated. Diverse modes of predication do not require the term to change its signification (or meaning).  For example, when the same term is said simply or in some way, this frequently gets called a “different meaning’. It is not so much that it is wrong to say this as we must divide this sense of meaning from the signifaction of the term.

-To have meaning (signify) is not the same thing as have meaning (to be fulfilling, purposive, or just desireable). I remember an atheist a few months back who said some blasphemous things, and when I told him they were blasphemies, he said that the term had “no meaning” for him. For whatever reason, contemporary English speakers are prone to play off this equivocation in the term “meaning”. That said, it’s argumentation of the cheap: instead of dealing with what your opponent said, you just insist – impossibly -that he hasn’t said anything.

Modes of objectivity

A: The concept that a reasoner makes is both objective and manifestive while the literature the author makes are manifestive but not objective. The author substitutes concretion for objectivity.

B: That is mostly true, but it distorts one thing. “Objectivity” is simply submission to experience, and the author submits to experience just as thoroughly as any reasoner. The author is simply an eye who can see in experience what is most manifestive.

A: But then what’s the sense in calling what he writes fiction?

B: If that’s what you mean by objectivity, then fine, but it’s a rather shallow and unreflective view of objectivity: it misses that the fiction is itself a product of submission to experience. To meditate on the way in which fiction is ipso facto non- objective misses that this very mode is itself conditioned by submission to experience.

A: But there is nothing reflective about it, there is no inquiry or discourse!

B: Maybe. Who knows how many philosophers Shakespeare had to speak to in order to write Hamlet? Maybe a hundred, maybe one – maybe he simply reflected on his own indecisiveness and over-intellectualization. He didn’t need reasoning, he just saw and wrote. This is not to say that there was no effort and discourse- it only means that the effort and the crafting of this sort of product is not the same sort of crafting that goes on when one tries to make a science. On some level, the effort is clearly the same: there were probably as many dead ends and half-baked attempts at Brothers Karamozov as there were at Newton’s Principia.

A: This can’t be exactly right: art is easier for human beings than science is. We succeed in making an end a lot more easily than we succeed in submitting to one.

B: Perhaps, but it is of little importance. It’s not as if great art or science are easy.

A: But they both consist in different sorts of making: the one seeks a construction that is true, primary, better known, more causative, etc; the latter seeks the construction that manifests through the concrete. Rational animal manifests all human beings in one way; Ivan Ilyich manifests them all in another.

B: this is true.

A: And the knowledge of the divine beings overcomes this opposition between what is poetic and scientific for us. All the concretion and distinctness that the author has is within the angel, but the mode of knowing is intellectual in the mode of the scientist. All sides of objectivity are present in those intellects above us as one, while what is objective to us is divided into diverse modes of objectivity.

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