Objections to the possibility of Thomistic metaphysics

(The following is an impenetrable ramble with occasional flashes of clarity.)

Start with this argument:

Our concepts of being, cause, goodness, truth, one, etc. are only be distinguished from the physical by a logical possibility.

Logical possibility can never establish real possibility

It cannot be known if being, goodness, truth, etc. are really distinguished from the physical.

The sense of the major is that , though we can see that the idea of, say, goodness does not contain reference to limitation or physical existence (the way that, say, dog necessarily involves some relation to having a skeleton, a beating heart, etc.) this lack of reference can be due either to there being no reference, or to our failure to see it. Thus one can never conclude from the existence of what Thomists have called “transcendental concepts” to the real possibility of transcendental existence (I stress the word possible since no Thomist has ever said that such concepts could establish the actual existence of such things.)

Clearly, the fulcrum of the claim is the word “only”. If we were really counting on transcendental concepts to establish real possibility (which happens in some versions of the ontological argument – Hartshorne’s , for example) then we have a problem. But the claim would be that the St. Thomas’s arguments for immaterial things involve an illicit move from the logical to the real at least with the notion of cause. What reason do we have for thinking that cause can be transcendent in the real order? Don’t we need to appeal to its very ratio, which is a dead end?

Thomists could avoid this if they said that we do not merely prescind from the limited when we consider causes, but rather that we see a repugnance to the physical or limited as such in causes. This would require, I think, a new mode of knowing St. Thomas did not explain.

But we don’t see it, we prove it!! The Thomist thunders back (he has been wanting to say this from the beginning). There is nothing odd about not being able to see whether something is possible before you prove it is so – this is the usual way human beings proceed! All sorts of things can only be shown to be possible after someone has proved them actual, goes the response.

A problem with this response is that, in the case of metaphysics, we are talking about establishing the existence, not of this or that thing in a given science, but of the entire science as such. Whatever we establish in a natural science (say, black holes) will always have real possibility so far as the thing is given to sensation and mobile; but the Thomist line is that there is no self-evidence of anything metaphysical prior to proof – there is not even any insight concerning the real possibility of the metaphysical prior to proof. This would require that we could prove something to exist prior to knowing knowing if it belonged in any way to a really possible domain of discourse. At the very least, this seems like something that needs to be proven. But proven with what?

How could there be a proof for the existence of something made by a science that claims not to treat of or even be about the thing proven? This is bootstrapping ones way out of a science. Perhaps a Thomist could give this  argument:

If nature is an effect of another, the one who knows nature can know it as an effect of another

Therefore, there is a real possibility that the natural scientist could discover nature as an effect of another.

The consequence is ambiguous: the natural  scientist is not simply “one who knows nature” – the putative metaphysician would know nature too, if metaphysics exists. But if metaphysics is a distinct science, how does the natural scientist prove anything in it, and if it is not, then it is simply a vaguely expressed natural science. And how can one establish that it is “partly natural science, partly not” (like a “limit of natural science”) without showing something outside of natural science, which is exactly the problem at hand? How can we avoid any postulate establishing something outside of natural science being anything other than special pleading, or begging the question?


  1. Brandon said,

    August 8, 2011 at 9:34 am

    So in a sense the problem here is how one gets the distinction between metaphysics and what you’ve elsewhere called first physics (physics at its most basic and general level) up and running in the first place. This is why assuming that the natural scientist can prove things about metaphysics doesn’t resolve the problem: the natural scientist can prove metaphysical assertions all day, assuming it is possible, and yet could only do so as natural scientist — how would he distinguish it from anything else he does in natural science?

    If we had clearly distinct domains of inquiry, say, physics and ethics, we might be able to get around this by showing that both are fed from the same spring; but this requires that we not already take physics as first philosophy, and so might run into the worry about begging the question.

    • August 8, 2011 at 4:08 pm

      On the one hand, nothing is easier than saying being is the one source in one way or another, but no one has yet given a good synthesis of all the peculiarities in the first steps of knowing being. St. Thomas never explained exactly how one gets being (his notion of “separation” cannot be pure negation, and analogy – including analogy of the word “cause” – seems as if it can only explain a likeness in naming between things already known. How does this give rise to a knowledge of being?) nor did he explain how all that he said about being can be unified in a single idea of being with its peculiar transcendence. This isn’t an omission – it was the next step some disciple was supposed to take, and I’m not sure anyone has taken it yet. The old High School football team rivalry paradigm among Scholastics was and is a large part of the problem. One wonders if, per impossibile, you gave St. Thomas a text from Scotus whether the end result would read like Cajetan or whether there would rather be more of an attempt at synthesis.

      Scholasticism can do a fantastic job of deconstructing it all and throwing it to the flames – and all societies get to the point where they want this to happen. It seems like we’re at a stage like that now, so it might be worth bringing back the old Franciscans and Dominicans so they can burn it all down before throwing each other on the pyre. Hopefully, we’ll get the next St. Augustine or Dante out of the deal.

      • Brandon said,

        August 8, 2011 at 4:35 pm

        It reminds me a bit of a criticism someone (Mascall? Farrer?) did of Gilson in which they listed all the different accounts Gilson at various times gives of how we know esse, and there were five or six mutually exclusive accounts.

        The rivalry issue is definitely a big one; looking back it is clear that so many valuable opportunities were lost because of it and the number just increased exponentially as time went on: things started and never completed, disputes becoming increasingly bogged down in technicalities, misreadings bordering on deliberate, brilliant ideas segregated from other brilliant ideas by school divisions, etc. And I’m not really sure anyone has learned the lesson.

  2. Peter said,

    August 9, 2011 at 4:31 am

    -“This isn’t an omission – it was the next step some disciple was supposed to take, and I’m not sure anyone has taken it yet.”

    How can this be true of your difficulties from your recent posts? If St. Thomas left the very possibility of and gateways to metaphysics to a student to figure out, himself not knowing, how could he truly say he has demonstrated anything whatsoever in metaphysics? Everything he says in that science would be dissolved into a thought experiment “as if”.

    How do you interpret Metaphysics 6.1 in light of your recent objections?

  3. August 9, 2011 at 6:15 am

    St. Thomas did the crucial groundwork – he explained how diversity of sciences follows diverse ways of abstraction in the sense of rising above matter and motion, tied it to a general theory of the way in which abstraction was necessary to human beings, worked out the diverse lights that the sciences are judged with respect to, and explained the whole in a way that made it seem like something obvious that everyone knew since forever. In doing so, he defined the subject of metaphysics as a speculative science in negative terms, though it is clear that the science cannot have a purely negative content, and so this negation was a placeholder for later philosophical work.

    This threat of the whole system dissolving into an “as if” will always be with us. I wonder sometimes how St. Thomas or Cajetan of John of St. Thomas could stand to see all the objections they saw without collapsing into nihilism. I’ve been forcibly struck, when reading the Summa, by how I could never decide between the objections and the response if you laid both in front of me, especially if you took away the corpus of the question, and this feeling repeats many times when I’m reading, say, JoST fire volleys against St. Thomas. I’m sure St. Thomas himself saw many more objections than what he wrote, and was constantly tempted to veer off into crucial digressions that he could see might arise from his words (which he certainly kept intentionally vague on many occasions). Through a superhuman strength of will he managed (somehow) to stay focused and logical. This is especially striking given his system, which is so integral that the failure of any part would threaten to destroy the whole. He probably lived in perpetual quasi-holy fear that it all might collapse with the next objection. The stories of the earnestness and concern with which he struggled to meet objections (staying up all night banging your head on a tabernacle?!?) certainly seem to suggest this. It is probably impossible to imagine just how much of a victim of his own intellect he was forced to be throughout life.

  4. lewis said,

    June 6, 2014 at 3:27 pm

    Hello, I am just a child and have not yet encountered and experienced this type of minds; however I have somehow landed on this article and amazed by the intensity that left behind here.. This particular subject has always been in my mind, and I am glad I’ve typed few keywords on the web and landed here..
    Sorry, my English is very bad, and I am not good with being logical.

    However, I just wanted to share my non existing thoughts. To me what feels more real is the thoughts that were traded most recently here.. A moment and event which has not existed to me until now. The number showed some time ago. I can only vaguely understand the terms and the names mentioned during this particular discourse. They are now in my amazon wish list; I love being a student at same time feel helpless. Please help me out if anyone can free my mind because of this concept of measurable and immeasurable state of being. Sometimes I ask myself why do I always try to prove my thoughts to another being and always seem to fail because I cannot provide with evidence or quotes from the past. As of this moment I feel like that we all seem to ask the same question but speaking in our own language. I must somehow abstract the sensation to another system called language to communicate. Sorry, this is hard for me to express, long story short I’ll share my non existing thought. I can already sense that with bit more of these energy given to the subject; it will one day become a reality. And beings who define reality as motion would likely to approach with the instrument humans created, given name of general science to come up with some particular quantity to satisfy their theory of mind. I keep reminding myself that there are people who say yes it can, no it is not, or maybe, I do believe all three is true.. by the way I just gone through first year in architecture school, who is curious about my thoughts that I must materialize to the physical world. I keep asking myself, what is architecture? What is architecture good for? What can it do? What role does it play in the idea in terms of Humanity, society and personal life? I seek for general understanding that would allow my mind to jump between the metaphysical and physical dimension. When I look at a child, I seem to understand many things. Nature of nature is beautiful because I cannot logically understand it yet. Units, details, categorizing, assumptions associate one being with a term that can automatically ultimately departing from a whole. This seed of thought might get stuck in the dimension of details or able to pass through the concept of time.. Just like no single words can contain enough information to express one’s feelings or emotion, as if our consciousness uses logic to create a loophole wanted to verify to believe. Even the language structure of western and eastern reflects understanding the perception of reality from entirely different perspective, which I can vaguely understand why I always keep my central idea towards the end..
    English is not my first language, please forgive me. Please share any knowledge or understanding which can lead me to a realization. I am seeking all types of knowledge and wisdom, for the goodness in nature and the people. The beauty of life and blessed for being able to feel this very moment. I hope one day I will be able to contribute back to the cycle.
    Thank you.

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