7 / 12 / 11

The physical sciences are based not just on measurement, but measurement of a rationalized continuum, which means that there is no possible measurement without a definite numerical value.

The measurement makes no distinction between “being at X” and “going through X”, which is only possible if one does not view motion and rest as contraries.

So far as our science is essentially metrical, there is no difference between motion and rest “in themselves” since measurement is a way of treating something in relation to another.

There is a way to determine motion or rest apart from measurement – through the experience of lifting ones limbs, feeling ones heart beat. Objection this is the same as to say that, if we use a straw, we can tell that we pull something up as opposed to creating the conditions under which the atmosphere pushes something up. Isn’t this based on the same experience of living activity? response: that is a difference between one action and another, not action and inaction. Insist: No, it’s saying that there is no difference between my action causing my motion and my action causing motion in another. I’m not the per se cause of motion when I use the straw – the atmosphere is. response We hit on contraries when we divide being in one place and to being in another and another continuously. How can “same” and “other” not be contraries? But I give up trying to come up with a concrete criterion to distinguish motion and rest in a particular case.

The account of motion turns on whether we need some criterion that verifies what is moving or resting in a particular case. Einstein goes further – how in the world do you rule out the ideas of crackpots without having such a criterion? Aristotle responds: we can study the difference between motion and resting without knowing what is moving or resting. In fact, we are forced to look at it this way when asking certain questions: How is motion possible given that motion is a multiplicity? What is required for there to be a real difference between going through and being at? What can become another being? If coming to be and being are contraries, how can being come to be? Isn’t this the same as heat becoming cool? How can something exist temporally if temporal existence involves ceasing to be (which is true whether we see all the moments of time  as equal or not – there isn’t much dispute that even equal moments are not identical ones).

Heidegger and Parmenides are speaking about the world.

“Method X answers everything” = “I’m only interested in the questions X answers”

One-method-for-everything thought is a sign of inappropriately narrow interests. Who could hold it who loved literature, music, poetry, daily social relationships, blind devotion to causes, politics? Who could hold it who did philosophy as though he we an actual human being?

“This method explains everything about the world”. It sounds like a late-night infomercial. It’s marketing, not philosophy.


We made a concept “fact” that we apply to things. Taken in a vague sense (Like in the idiom like “the facts of the matter” or William Strunk’s hated “the fact that p”) the term is  harmless, though it doesn’t do much work. When we call upon the term to do more precise work, like when we oppose it to “theory” or to “value” – and especially when we give primacy to such distinctions – we can raise the question whether the concept we made illuminates reality or blinds us to it.

Facts seem to be things known in which the observer plays no part. The “facts” are pure givens from which an observer makes a theory or which have no relation to the interests, habits, desires, biases, loves and hates, etc. of the observer (as “values” are thought to have). The account immediately needs some precision since it makes no sense to speak of something known in which a knower plays no part whatsoever. It’s not clear whether such a qualification might do away with facts altogether, but suppose that the “fact” is taken to be simply the principle from which other knowledge arises. On this account, “facts” are opposed to interpretations given of facts, or the accounts we try to give of them. But this wouldn’t describe what we call facts. Not all things to which we give interpretations are facts – perhaps even very few of them are; and if we said every principle or thing interpreted was factual, this would tend to distort the sense of principles or things interpreted. The principle of knowledge would be identified with that known thing upon which the knower had the least influence, and from which he was most detached, but such an account blinds us to the tremendous amount of work that goes into establishing just what comes first in knowledge, and what is most in need of being placed at the bottom of thought. A small mistake in the beginning quickly becomes extremely large. If there is anything deserving to be called a “fact” in Aristotelian- Thomistic thought, it is the difference between the per se and the per accidens, or perhaps the difference between potency and act, but this beginning fact takes a tremendous amount of work to get a clear look at, and then more work to see just why it deserves to be taken as fundamental.  If there is a fundamental fact in Newton, it is that force causes motion, but this too took a tremendous amount of work to be “obvious”. The certitude that we had of the fact had more to do with cultural pressures than real insight.

But could a fact be simply something about which we know that it is so, but we want to know why it is so? Here again, the definition is too wide, and it also comes into conflict with the sense that a fact should be at the basis of knowledge (since not every knowledge that something is the case is a basis of knowledge – it can frequently be a conclusion, like the fact that there are black holes). Nevertheless, it remains that the sky is blue and leaves are green. So aren’t these “facts”, for which reasons can be given (the refraction of oxygen, the need to absorb light, etc.)? Notice on this account facts become results or effects, in which case the sense of “fact” becomes too narrow. It is not necessary that we seek “why” in order to make something a fact, or even that some “why” be possible, as when we seek whether God exists. At any rate, not every awareness that something is so is called a fact.

Or is it as simply as saying that “fact” means more than one thing, and that all I’ve done here is play one sense of the term off of another? Here again, I don’t think this is the case. The basic idea of “fact” is something known in which the observer is invisible or irrelevant, but this is exactly what I think makes the concept problematic and productive of blindness. I think it is a concept that we form when we want to decouple knowledge from the need of a knower to purify himself, but I have doubts over whether such knowledge is possible or even desirable. Historians, journalists, scientists, and pretty much everyone else likes to think that they trade in “facts”, and that therefore they do not even need good judgment as to relevance, priority, importance, or even truth. The givens are all low-hanging fruit, and one must be either stupid or obtuse not to see them. But this blinds us to the importance and difficulty of the first things that we need to understand, or even which we in fact do understand first, and especially to the role that our own moral state plays in our discernment of reality. “Fact” can become at once a sign of and tool for the disintegration of the person, a way of making his knowledge separate and antonymous in a way that is neither true nor desirable.

None of this, of course, is a call to say “facts are really theory-laden” or “facts are never value-free”. The point is more radical – the concept “fact” distorts our relation to the real, and is an inadequate (or at least very severely limited) account of the things that we know. It is not a word like “sky”. It is a more subtle concept that many philosophies have simply done without, at least in the sense of a term that is called upon to do a great deal of subtle work. St. Thomas, for one, never felt the need to make the opposition between fact and theory/ value fundamental, and it is an open question whether this is an insight or an oversight.

Notes on chance in the broad sense

On the one hand, the relation between chance and the divine causality is simple: no one thinks that luck, for example, happens outside the divine causality – if anything (because of the absence of secondary causes) theists tend to see good luck as somehow more related to God; and others see a stroke of bad luck  as more pertinent to the argument from evil. On the other hand, it is no easy task to articulate what it means to cause a chance event. Though chance means many things, one of its basic meanings is an absence of causality between some action and its result. If I am planting a tree and strike oil or a landmine, both count as kinds of luck, but part of calling them luck is the absence of any link between my intentions and the result. The argument generalizes to all chance events if we take “intention” as meaning anything a process tends to. We know more or less what a tree that rots to the point where it cannot support  itself will tend to do: fall over. That it should crush a tyrant or the golden goose is outside anything that could be considered an intention. Don’t we call things “chance” specifically to deny this (very broad sense of) intention to them? What sense does it make to speak of a causal process that doesn’t tend to something in this broad sense?

St. Thomas preferred to answer this sort of question by arguments that chance events occurred among secondary causes: the general axiom in play was that the accidental reduces to something per se (and in this sense, intended). Another line of response in keeping with Thomistic thought is to point out that our mode of knowing does not penetrate to the concrete particular, and chance events are concretized in a far more irreducible way than intentional ones are. This is emphatically not to say that a thing is only called chance because of epistemological reasons (St. Thomas always insisted on the reality of chance), but only that our mode of knowing has to first come to gips with chance through a negation of the sort of causality that we know best – but to use our mode of knowing to define something does not require that thing defined is formally constituted by the way it is known to us.


A rapprochement between St. Thomas and contemporary atheism

The contemporary Christian/ Atheist debate is largely focused on evidence. St. Thomas’s teachings on the relation of faith and evidence are striking, and would help to push the debate to a deeper level, since there are many aspects of what he says that are closer to the atheist critique of Christianity. Consider the following texts, all from Q. 14 of De veritate:

Certitude can involve two things: 1.) the firmness of adhering to something; and so far as this is concerned faith is more certain than any understanding or science, because the first truth, which is the cause of the assent of faith, is a stronger case than the light of reason, which causes the assent of the intellect or science. But 2.) it also involves the evidence of the thing which is assented to, and in this way faith does not have certitude while science and understanding do.

certitudo duo potest importare: scilicet firmitatem adhaesionis; et quantum ad hoc fides est certior etiam omni intellectu et scientia, quia prima veritas, quae causat fidei assensum, est fortior causa quam lumen rationis, quae causat assensum intellectus vel scientiae. Importat etiam evidentiam eius cui assentitur; et sic fides non habet certitudinem, sed scientia et intellectus.

Notice what divides faith from science: faith is complete adherence to something without evidence.  Again:

Faith does not convince or give arguments to the mind from the evidence of the thing, but from an inclination of the will [in the one believing]

fides non convincit sive arguit mentem ex rei evidentia, sed ex inclinatione voluntatis.

This is a summary of a taxonomy of opinion, science, and faith that he had given previously:

Sometimes an intellect is inclined more to one thing than to another, though this inclination does not sufficiently move the intellect to some determination completely to one side, and so it accepts one side but always is in doubt. This is opinion… Sometimes the possible intellect is determined such that it totally adheres to one side of a contradiction, and this happens sometimes from the intelligible thing, and sometimes from the will. [the former way is understanding and science, but] Sometimes the intellect cannot be determined to one side of a contradiction: neither immediately through the very definitions of the terms (as happens with principles); nor through by the power of principles (as happens in demonstrations); but it is determined through the will, which chooses to to assent to one determinate side and because of something that suffices to move the will but not for moving the intellect, as when seeing something good or befitting about one side. And this is the disposition of the one believing [that is, with faith]

Quandoque vero intellectus inclinatur magis ad unum quam ad alterum; sed tamen illud inclinans non sufficienter movet intellectum ad hoc quod determinet ipsum in unam partium totaliter; unde accipit quidem unam partem, semper tamen dubitat de opposita. Et haec est dispositio opinantis… Quandoque vero intellectus possibilis determinatur ad hoc quod totaliter adhaereat uni parti; sed hoc est quandoque ab intelligibili, quandoque a voluntate… Quandoque vero intellectus non potest determinari ad alteram partem contradictionis neque statim per ipsas definitiones terminorum, sicut in principiis, nec etiam virtute principiorum, sicut est in conclusionibus demonstrationis; determinatur autem per voluntatem, quae eligit assentire uni parti determinate et praecise propter aliquid, quod est sufficiens ad movendum voluntatem, non autem ad movendum intellectum, utpote quia videtur bonum vel conveniens huic parti assentire. Et ista est dispositio credentis

Notice that all these accounts of faith are closer to the atheist critique of Christianity. St. Thomas even seems to go further than the contemporary atheist does – he doesn’t just say that faith is not proportionate to the evidence, or that faith does not have the extraordinary evidence that “extraordinary” claims demand, he says straight out that faith is complete assent to something without evidence, in virtue of choosing it for the sake of some good and not because of any cause that suffices to determine the intellect. Isn’t this exactly the critique of the contemporary atheist? But if St. Thomas incorporates an atheist critique of faith into his account of faith, what keeps him from reaching an atheist conclusion?

One thing to notice here is that faith is broader than the Christian virtue – it is any assent to something for the sake of a good even if we can’t see the reasons for assent. This is a pretty normal human action: we spend much of our day trusting that bridges will support us, our cars will keep running, and the planes will keep flying even when we don’t look into any of the reasons why this will keep happening. No atheist would dispute this, but their response to it is pretty easy to see: all of these acts of faith are pretty easy to convert to knowledge. If we doubt that the pilot can fly we can always ask for his credentials (a suggestive thing in this context), and satisfy some sense of knowing that he is capable. Interestingly enough, St. Thomas also seems to think that this is a universal criterion for faith – he also holds that faith has its value in relation to some knowledge that can come later. This is exactly why he defines faith as the virtue by which the knowledge of God begins in us. Faith is ordered to the knowledge of God in beatitude, even to the extent of being the initial stages of beatitude.


For all the importance that the word “appearance” has in philosophy (from Descartes to the Phenomenology, and in the continual debates about “things in themselves”), it’s striking that relatively few have noticed that the term is an auto-antonym, that is, it has meanings that contradict each other. The claim that “his sickness was apparent” can mean either that it was obvious and unquestionable,  or that it was questionable and worth looking into, or that it was altogether illusory. As Heidegger points out, if we rest everything on the idea of appearances then “bewilderment is unavoidable.”

Notes on the atemporality of intellect

1.) All successions of thoughts are reversible

No successions of temporal events are reversible

2.) Intellects, motivated by what does not yet exist.

3.) The atemporality of intellect comes at a cost – in separating from time it separates from existence.

4.) To use a brain to think is another cost, the irreversibility enters into thought.

5.) (Costa) Suppose water might just as soon boil if left by itself as cool to the surrounding temperature, friction might just as soon accelerate something as slow it, gravitational fields might just as well repulse as attract, etc. We think “but then the universe would be unintelligible!’ But this is not right rather, it would be a universe where intelligiblity would require knowing end states as opposed to initial ones. God could understand such a universe just fine, just by looking to what is future to us and understanding the past in light of it.

5a.) Considering what “intelligible” means, along with the difficulty of speaking about the “random” universe mentioned above illuminates what Heidegger would call the Historicity of Dasein.

5b.) For whatever reason, the universe is humanly intelligible. But nature is a sublime thing – if the universe were what we now call random, it’s worth asking if we would have simply evolved to be what we now call clairvoyant. St. Thomas argues that such a state is impossible for a finite intellect; and if this is the case other conclusions can be drawn.

6.) Some successive thoughts must be at once (a sentence).

No successive event can be at once.

Objection: Look at a chain, or the parts of a house, you can go from once part to another, but the parts must be at once.

Response: If their parts are successive (that is, they are being assembled) then they are not simultaneous; and they only are simultaneous when no longer being made.

Insist: But the sentence is the same: while being spoken, it is not whole or simultaneous; while whole, it is not being spoken.

response: the second horn is false, so far as “speech” is the thing understood; the action of knowing is an action; the doing of it is complete while being done.

7.) Thinking (like living and sensing) is immanent action

Immanent actions are complete while being done (seeing prey, seeing a solution)

No succession of events is complete while being done.

7a.) (Parmenides) Don’t speak of temporal being – this is sloppy speech. Being requires existing at once, but the temporal is not such.

Response: Just as immanent action is more clear in thought than in sense, and more clear in sense than in life, being is more clear in the eternal than the temporal, even though we cannot understand the former first. But there is some measure of incoherence and unintelligiblity in “temporal being”.

Nietzsche objects: “Mummies and corpses! A life that is ordered to nothing but sleep!”

response: You are right that Parmenides overlooked that the sensible, historical, etc. is the source of all our thought. But you’re overlooking that what is most real to us is most real simply.

8.) McTaggert needed more attention to the time of (the human and angelic) intellect. The relation between the B and A series gets tricky.

9.) Suppose more human units of speed were closer to c, or that we sensed gravitational fields with our eyes as opposed to EM waves. What would Euclidean Geometry have been then, that is, the first and most basic account of continuous quantity? For that matter, what would quantity be?

9a.) Dekoninck was right to distinguish the goals of ancient and modern mathematics, but he needed to take a longer look at the problem that the very account of space in Euclid is a human account, mixed up with the size of the units we find convenient. Had we evolved to move more quickly or sense other things, the very same universe as we have would give rise to a different Euclidian account. His dissertation on Eddington suggests that he was looking at this as a possibility.

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