Paradoxes in the unobservability of the idea and the mind that gives rise to it

Because the concept is an object known in itself it is not observable. To tease out this difference in knowing is no easy thing – it’s hard to say anything about it that doesn’t have a good deal that can go wrong with it. There are any number of traps to be avoided and difficulties that need to be addressed:

1.) The concept and its source are known in and by themselves, and yet they are still dependent on the mediation of sense. It’s not as if one can be aware of the concept or its source while he is unconscious, or otherwise cut off from some sort of sensory input. Uncharitable/ mystical  phrasing: we are saying concept and mind are both known by themselves, and not by themselves but in dependence on something else.

1a.) The fact that we cannot reason apart from sensory input does not give us the reason for the fact or the conditions under which this fact obtains. If the reason were our absolute inability to exist without such input, then we would draw one conclusion; but it is not necessary that this is the reason.

2.) Awareness of itself is an ability to know as opposed to an actual knowing. But what does self awareness mean? If the power is present of itself, then it is no longer as what it is (opposed to actual knowing). If it is not present of itself, then how in the world do we have self knowing? We seem to protest too much in saying mind is knowable in itself. If this were true, we shouldn’t be arguing about it, since argumentation is an attempt to make something known though the knowledge of another.

2a.) There is a related problem with the formal sign. If it is known as it is, then it is unknown (for it is that by which something is known, not that which is known) but if it is not known as it is, how is it known at all?

3.) Say we know ourselves by reflection. Isn’t reflection to see something in another? How does “self-reflection” escape absurdity? How can we wash out the idea of the mirror or the refracting surface from our idea of reflection?

The paradoxes might suggest that man is present to himself by the presence of another (the other being “the world”). This suggests some rapprochement with Heidegger’s thought.

The discourse about the formal sign and its source

If formal signs or ideas (and, by implication, the power from which they proceed) are not observable, then the systematic, objective analysis of them requires a different sort of discourse than scientific discourse. This means either that we extend the meaning of “science” or we refuse the name to one kind of systematic and objective analysis proceeding from general rules to particular conclusions, though this amounts to little more than a dispute about names (though it might be interesting to follow out the line of argument that would dispute whether something incapable of common observation could be strictly objective. I’d say no, but this seems to be how we tend to use the word “objective” – sc. as meaning both the unbiased and what can be experienced by many – and so it is a question worth asking).

The study of formal signs has to be opposed to what we first call science, not so far as science is systematic or unbiased but so far as it is given in common experience. The study of formal signs must be opposed to the observable and to the sensible (which amount to the same thing). They are not given by a passive experience of an object, and are therefore are given in an active experience of an object: that is, in the object’s own experience of itself. The different sort of knowledge therefore requires a different kind of being, namely, one that is capable of being present to itself as other.

Notice that we are dealing with an extremely odd sense of “unobservable”, though it is in some way suggested by things that are unobservable in physical science. Science has its unobservables too: Aristotle’s prime matter; an actually infinite inertial motion; the simultaneous velocity and position of a particle; a closed thermodynamic system; the singularity of a black hole… But the formal idea and its source are unobservable in a different sense, namely as not given in the sort of experience that gives us any of these things – even if, as St. Thomas says, they would not be knowable to us as we presently exist if not for some sort of concomitant sensible experience. The science of the formal idea and its source requires an experience that cannot be shared precisely because it is not passive but active; it is not conditioned by the exterior object acting on us but by the presence of the object to itself. So far as objectivity is conditioned by the object, this sort of experience more deserves to be called objective.

Given the way we presently exist, this science can only arise in comparison to the observational knowledge which we know best, and all of our language about it must be borrowed from this sort of discourse. When, for example, we call our knowledge of the formal idea and its source “reflective” we are comparing it to our experience of looking in mirrors and ponds, though of itself this is simply another observation.




Deely’s objection to physicalism/ naturalism

(Based on an argument in John Deely’s “Reference to the Non-Existent” in an edition of the Thomist that I’ve lost the citation for.)

John Deely raises the following objection to a physicalist account of signification. As a preamble,  physicalism is the doctrine that the real is what admits of scientific observation, and so is falsified if there is some knowable but unobservable reality.

No observable thing is such that it necessarily gives rise to the knowledge of something other than itself

Ideas or concepts are such that they necessarily give rise to the knowledge of something other than themselves.

No  idea or concept is an observable thing.

As a corollary, since we can observe brain states and neural firings, an idea cannot be nothing but a brain state or a neural firing, irrespective of what relation it might have to such things. (Perhaps such things are absolutely necessary to it, perhaps it can exist in some way without them, perhaps it can exist wholly without them, etc.)

The major premise is based on the fact that if there is some sign, there is no necessity forcing the one observing it to understand it as a sign, still less as a sign for this or that. Just because we agree that an amber light will be a sign for something doesn’t mean that some future archeologist must necessarily understand that we meant it as a sign when he observes it; and just because a certain rate of radioactive decay signifies that something is 9000 years old, or a certain lesion indicates a sickness doesn’t mean that everyone who observes the decay or the lesion must necessarily see the things they signify.

The minor premise is the definition of a formal sign, but it might be simpler for those who don’t read the Deely article to just call it an idea. Ideas make things known other than themselves by necessity. There might be some haggling over whether an idea of an imaginary thing does this (this is what Deely’s article was about), but for the purposes of this argument we can just bracket the discussion to those ideas that are about actual things – my idea of my wife, or of the lawn mower I’m looking at.

The argument is an interesting example of the attempt to articulate the dispute about intention between physicalists and dualists as a dispute about signs, that is, about things that make something other than themselves known. The middle term of the argument is what is most formal to the definition of a sign, though the same reality is what contemporary philosophers would want to call “intention”. But by approaching the problem through signs we can deal with it in terms of things we understand a little better than intentions or “aboutness”.

It is important to stress the point we made earlier that while this argument shows that something transcends the physical or empirical, this does not show us in what manner or to what degree it transcends the physical. For St. Thomas, the three examples that we gave above are descriptions of how the physical is transcended by animals, humans, and pure spirits respectively. Clearly, in the lowest degree of such transcendence, we are in no danger of assuming that there is something that can exist apart from a physical substrate. But though it is inseparable, it does not follow that “supervenience” is the best way to account for the relation of this transcendent part to the physical. It is closer to the truth to see the physical as infravenient to the transcendent, even in animals.

Methodological Naturalism

“Methodological Naturalism” pretends to be the uncontroversial form of naturalism, the form that we’re all just supposed to see is obvious. Is it? “The scientist only accepts natural explanations” easily slides into meaning “the scientist proceeds as if only natural explanations are possible” though this second statement is laughably false: saying this is no different than a chef explaining that when you use a knife you are supposed to proceed as though only cutting is possible; or a driver’s ed instructor explaining that drivers drive as if driving was the only possible way to get anywhere.

Brandon has said several times that a good deal of Naturalism consists in muddling the difference between a natural explanation and a naturalist one, which is exactly the difference I’m pointing out here. The difference is extreme and needs to be stressed: every scientist gives natural explanations, but as soon as one speaks about naturalist explanations (of any sort), he is sitting on a perch outside of any science, looking down on the science itself, and comparing it to different sorts of explanations, just as if you said “driving is the only way to get there”, you’re no longer speaking as a driver but some sort of transportation consultant who is working from a completely different sort of knowledge than the one drivers work from.

Shifting from “meaning/ intention” to “sign”

Meaning and to mean have taken on so many accidental and unhelpful meanings that it is not clear that they can do much precise philosophical work (the same is true of religion). Much of what gets called the theory of meaning could become more clear if we started using the word signification or if we started speaking about signs. At the very least, English speakers wouldn’t fall into the trap  of confusing intelligibility or absence of absurdity (have meaning) with signification (have meaning). There is more to intention than signification or signs, but if we start there we can at least start with something in concrete sensible experience and work our way out.

A sign has two relations: it manifests something, and it substitutes for another. Signs thus mediate between “that which knows” or “that by which someone knows” and “what is known”. One question that arises immediately is “why have such things?” why should we mediate the thing known and the one knowing? Why not just know the thing?  In spite of how prone we are to see signs as the signs of higher intelligence, they seem strikingly superfluous to intelligence. Why introduce a middleman? St. Thomas’s answer is that we introduce them (fundamentally, though not exclusively) because they can be shared with others (the various social or political or power-based theories of meaning might find some rapprochement with Thomism here).

The naturalist or physicalist/ dualist debate about meaning, if recast as a dispute about signs, might look like this: are all signs physical? Someone denying the claim might argue like this:

1.) No physical thing would cease to exist if it ceased to be a sign.

2.) Some signs would cease to exist if they ceased to be signs.

The major is straightforward and knowable by induction, and it would apply just as much to a process as an object. The minor would be based on a regress argument: whatever first makes something known and substitutes for another can’t cease to be a sign without ceasing to be, since to posit or declare that something will be a sign of another requires that some other is already manifesting itself to the mind by something substituting for another. This would be a “sign” in a secondary sense, but nonetheless true sense.

The physicalist response could be that what we are here calling a sign in the secondary sense is a brain state or stimulus. This stimulus gives rise to a relation, and like all relations it is “about” another (why don’t more physicalists try to reduce intention to simply relation? No one thinks there is anything non-physical about relation.)

I don’t know which side I favor. I’m pretty sure that the dispute about intention is a dispute about the two kinds of signs mentioned here, but I don’t know that considering them as signs – at least as I’m considering them now – is adequate to count as evidence for physicalist or dualists. I’ve argued before that I think both camps are wrong anyway, and the division of purely physical things into matter and form is not a division into two things, and so it’s not clear to me that I have a dog in the fight over intention or meaning.

The Amalekite massacre as a failure of Israel’s obligation

Brandon does a very good job of avoiding the literalism and emotionalism on the question of the Amalekite genocide (see comments of first link).

It strikes me that the simplest way to follow Brandon’s advice in a debate with Craig would be to compare the divine command to slaughter the Amalekites to two other commands to destroy cities given to righteous men: the destruction of Sodom proposed to Abraham; and the destruction of the Israelites proposed to Moses on the mount. In light of these, it seems that the righteous response to God telling you about the slaughter of a whole people is to plead with him to be mindful of his mercy, and to persevere in this until he relents. So far as Israel alwasy had an obligation to follow the righteous example of its patriarchs, the call to intercede for those who are (justifiably) doomed is a true obligation, and to fail in this obligation is a serious fault. Notice that this obligation is more directly based on the literal sense of Scripture more than Craig’s divine command literalism – it is exactly how Saul would have responded to the command if he took the literal sense of scripture as his guide in life.

On this account, the real failure of the Amalekite massacre is that Israel fails to extend the mercy of God to the nations. They choose to be simply like the other nations, and perform a rather typical action of a conquering army. The Amalekite massacre is really a failure of Israel to “let God be their king” and instead to just “have a king like other nations”. If God were their king, as he was for Abraham and Moses, the Israelites would have been true to their obligation, which has always been to be a conduit of mercy to all nations.

Cajetan on a fundamental difference between Thomistic and Scotistic theology

In his commentary on ST 1. q. 39 a. 1, Cajetan gives a very persuasive argument from Scotus against St. Thomas’s claim that the persons in God do not really differ from the divine essence. (Note: Adobe seems to have a marvelous new text reader, which allowed me to just cut and paste this from the PDF of the Summa. It tends to read the letter “m” as “ra”. I changed the first few, but then just got used to reading it. So if you are a Monk who is reading this after the collapse of Western Civilization and, for whatever irrational reason this is one of your textual variants of q. 39, please to not preserve the “ra” as a variant manuscript form. It really has no significance. Seriously.)

Concerning this claim the relations, or the the persons, do not differ from the divine essence as to the thing but only in ratio, several objections of Scotus arise in I Disputatio q. 4, for he wants it to be the case that person and essence are distinguished without any act of the intellect… The first reason is this: setting aside any act of the intellect, the Father has a communicable and an uncommunicable being according to the thing he is, therefore he ha sin himself a diversity of formal ratios. Because if there were somehtign of only one ratio in him, it would either be simply communicable or simply incommunicable, and both are heretical. The second reason is that the Father, prior to anything we might say about his origin, either understands his essence and paternity as two objects formally distinct, or not. If so, then the point is proven, because a cognitive intuition is of the thing so far as the thing is present to it; if not then they are distinguished only according to the mode of conceiving, therefore the distinction between them is not that this thing is communicable, and that is incommunicable. The conclusion follows from the fact that a distinction that is only in ratio makes no difference as to what the thing itself is.

VI. Circa illam propositionem, relatio, seu persona, non differt re, sed ratione tantum, ab essentia divina, occurrunt obiectiones Scoti, in I, dist. ii, qu. iv. Vult enim quod persona et essentia distinguantur sine omni actu intellectus... Prima ratio est. Pater, secluso actu intellectus, habet in re entitatem communicabilem et entitatem incommunicabilem: ergo habet in se rem diversarum ratignura formalium…quia si esset res unius rationis in se, vel esset tantum communicabilis, vel tantum incomunicabilis; quorum utrumque est haereticum. Secunda ratio est. Pater, intelligens in prirao signo originis se , aut intelligit essentiara et paternitatera ut duo obiecta formaliter distincta, aut non. Si sic, habetur intentura : quia cognitio intuitiva est rei secundura esse praesens in se. Si non , ergo distinguuntur tantum in modo concipiendi: ergo ex distinctione inter ea non est hoc coramunicabile, et hoc incommunicabile. – Et tenet sequela: quia distinctio secundum modum concipiendi , nihil facit in re.

Cajetan sets down this principle in response to Scotus, from which his response is pretty easy to infer:

In God, according to the thing that he is and in the real order, there is one thing neither purely absolute or purely relative, neither mixed nor composite or resulting from both, but eminently and formally having what is relative (and even of many relative things) and what is absolute, and so also in the formal order or the ratio of many forms. Of himself, and not just in a way that arises due to our speaking about this, there is one unified formal ratio in God, neither purely absolute nor purely relative, neither purely communicable nor purely incommunicable, but eminently and formally containing both what is of absolute perfection, and whatever is required for teh trinitatian relations. And it is necessary that this be the case: for it is necessary that watever is most simple in itself be maximally one, and that one adequate formal ratio correspond to it, otherwise there would not be one thing that was per se and commensurately universal intelligible by which everythign is known.

We err when, setting down the division between the absolute and relative as a principle, we imagine that this distinction between the absolute and relative is somehow prior to God; and that we consequently believe that we must place him in on one side of the distinction or the other. He is both opposites, since God is prior to being and to any of its oppositions: he is above being, above one, etc.

in Deo, secundum rera sive in ordine reali, est una res non pure absoluta nec pure respectiva, nec raixta aut composita aut resultans ex utraque ; sed eminentissirae et formaliter habens quod est respectivi (imo raultarura rerum respectivarum) et quod est absoluti : ita in ordine forraali seu rationura formalium, secundum se, non quoad nos loquendo, est in Deo unica ratio formalis , non pure absoluta nec pure respectiva, non pure communicabilis nec pure incommunicabilis; sed erainentissime ac formaliter continens et quidquid absolutae perfectionis est, et quidquid trinitas respectiva exigit. Oportet autem sic esse, quia oportet cuilibet siraplicissiraae rei secundura se maxirae uni, respondere unam adaequatam rationem formalem: alioquin non esset per se primo unum intelligibile a quovis intellectu…

Fallimur autem, ab absolutis et respectivis ad Deum procedendo, eo quod distinctionera inter absolutum et respectivura quasi priorem re divina imaginaraur ; et consequenter illam sub altero membro oportere poni credimus.

Et tamen est totum oppositum. Quoniam res divina prior est ente et omnibus differentiis eius: est enim super ens et super unum, etc.

Nietzsche and Parmenides- UPDATED

I love Parmenides, and there is much to love in him of permanent value: he discovers science (systematic argumentation on a single subject from principles to conclusions); he discovers being as a subject (and so invents metaphysics); he is the first to articulate the principle of contradiction; he isolates the fundamental problem of being and becoming, etc. That said, it is impossible to struggle free from the idea that his philosophy is an extreme position: he denies the reality of change, becoming, and any sort of spacial or temporal parts (in our terms, he makes them “subjective”, that is, features of experience that are observer-dependent and imposed by extrinsic denomination) he relegates natural science to a mere system of opinion; and he understands the identity of being and unity to mean that there is exactly one being.

But what exactly is wrong with his thought? Is it enough just to call it “extreme”? While this counts as a refutation, it is too universal, and therefore does not get to the heart of what exactly is wrong with Parmenides. What is wrong with him is best expressed in quasi-moral terms: his infidelity to sensation.  Sensation is a kind of mother or spouse, since it is responsible for our very being and is tied to us more intimately than any friend, and so there is something like a moral fault in pretending that its testimony is fundamentally deceptive. Someone needs to remind us of the way we distort ourselves when we dismiss our fidelity to sensation and temporal existence, and Nietzsche gives us the best example of this argument in his third chapter of his Twilight of the Idols:

You ask me which of the philosophers’ traits are most characteristic? For example, their lack of historical sense, their hatred of the very idea of becoming, their Egypticism. They think that they show their respect for a subject when they dehistoricize it sub specie aeternitas — when they turn it into a mummy. Everything that philosophers handled over the past thousands of years turned into concept mummies; nothing real escaped their grasp alive. Whenever these venerable concept idolators revere something, they kill it and stuff it; they suck the life out of everything they worship. Death, change, old age, as well as procreation and growth, are to their minds objections — even refutations. Whatever has being does not become; whatever becomes does not have being. Now they all believe, desperately even, in what has being. But since they never grasp it, they seek for reasons why it is kept from them. “There must be mere appearance, there must be some deception which prevents us from perceiving that which has being: where is the deceiver?” “We have found him,” they cry jubilantly; “it is the senses! These senses, so immoral in other ways too, deceive us concerning the true world. Moral: let us free ourselves from the deception of the senses, from becoming, from history, from lies; history is nothing but faith in the senses, faith in lies. Moral: let us say No to all who have faith in the senses, to all the rest of mankind; they are all ‘mob.’ Let us be philosophers! Let us be mummies!

Ouch. Though it hurts those of us who love Parmenides and are easily enamored with his mysticism, this sort of argument has permanent value as a sort of intervention. It is the vengeance of the senses, or, said another way, the cri de coeur of the friend we’ve slandered and grown estranged from.  That said, Nietzsche’s argument is simply the extreme opposed to Parmenides: the infidelity to intellect.

I don’t see any possibility for synthesis apart from some sort of doctrine of participation, where diverse realities admit of some order. But the original and best known doctrine of participation (Plato’s) doesn’t go far enough to preserve the reality of the world. At the other extreme, a doctrine like substance dualism goes too far in imputing reality to the physical world by simply making it another being opposed to the non-physical. What philosophers are getting at with the “interaction problem” is the problem of saying that there are two beings that are equally being (and therefore have equally autonomous operations). If this were true, it would fundamentally violate the real identity of being and unity.

So our notion of “participation” has to be more subtle than the mere interaction of equally real, equally existing physical and non-physical beings; and it must give a more robust account of the physical world than comes from Platonic participation.  True participation must be the synthesis that overcomes the homogeneous duality of dualism and the reductive duality of Platonism.

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