Wandering around to the question of the intuition of being

In the midst of raising various metaphysical problems, Aristotle critiques Platonism by comparing it to a kind of theology:

For they say there is a man-himself and a horse-itself and health-itself, with no further qualification,-a procedure like that of the people who said there are gods, but in human form. For they were positing nothing but eternal men, nor are the Platonists making the Forms anything other than eternal sensible things.

Nietzsche, among others, generalized this critique: if it is clearly absurd to “posit eternal men”, then it is just as absurd to speak of eternal forms or causes, since all the forms and causes we know of are as concrete and physical as men.If anything, the idea of an eternal form is an emptier thought than of an eternal man.

The Thomist response is that the idea of form or cause does not include concretion or physical existence. The response gives rise to questions that frequently go unanswered: if form or cause lack the notion of physical existence in their ratio, then is this because they merely prescind from the idea of the physical (the way one can consider an eclipse without considering it as an interposition of the moon)? If so, then they establish only the logical possibility of the supernatural (if that), which would mean that their “transcendental” character does not give a reason to admit a real possibility of such things. But if we do not merely prescind from considering one thing with another, then is this because we have some positive intuition of being apart from the physical, or not? If not, then it seems that we are stuck with logical possibility again; if so, its pretty clear that some elements of the Thomistic system will need modification.

Or is it that the supernatural is encountered as a pure “other” by way of negation, and nothing else? This is too apophatic and negative; and in good logic it would lead us into denying that we could know that the supernatural is.

I’m toying with this idea of an intuition of being, but I’ll try to find a few more arguments for it first. Maybe the Franciscan guys have some. Scotus. Scotus. Scotus.

Vallicella’s challenge to the “hylemorphic dualist”

Bill Vallicella issues the following challenge to Thomists (I’ll number the claims):

[T]here is a tension between soul as substantial form and soul as substantial subsistent form. Ontologically, one wants to protest, [1] a form is not the sort of entity that could be subsistent. [2] Necessarily, a form  is a form of that of which it is the form.  [3] But a subsistent form is possibly such as to exist apart from that of which it is the form.  These propositions cannot both be true.

My response:

[2] as we’ve quoted it is ambiguous, since “that of which it is the form” can mean either (a.) matter or (b.) the composite of form and matter. Either way, there is no presumption that form should cease when the composite does, and I think that Aristotle saw this to be the case.

Taken as (a.) claim [2] confuses accidental and substantial form. To cease to exist apart from a subject is proper to accidental form, since the subject of an accidental form is substance or a whole which exists of itself. The very ratio of substantial form is to communicate actual per se existence to what has no actual per se existence of itself. More simply – and my whole first argument comes to this – a substantial form does not inhere in a subject with actual existence, and so there is no presumption that to lose this subject is to lose actual existence. Generally, Vallicella’s account of form is of a dependent and derivative actuality, but substantial form id not this sort of thing.

Vallicella, however, meant (b.) but what we said above still applies in this case. A composite to ceasing to be is nothing other than for it to de-compose (“death is when the soul leaves the body” as the vulgar expression goes) but since form does not depend on matter for its actuality, then it is not necessary that it lose actuality by losing its connection with matter.

Further, Vallicella’s argument comes to this: form is a part of a composite, so when the composite ceases to be the form must also. But the consequence is false. Parts cease to be only as parts when the whole ceases. There is no necessity, either in experience or from the notion of a part, that the part must cease to exist altogether.

The general response to Vallicella’s argument is that Aristotle divided substance from what could be a “this” and subsist of itself. This was not an afterthought in Aristotle, but rather occurs in his theory of substance from the beginning. His first account of substance is “what is neither said of nor present in another”; and while the first is a logical reality of substance (its non-predicability) the second is more metaphysical. But note how Aristotle defines this reality of “present in”:

By being ‘present in a subject’ I do not mean present as parts are present in a whole, but being incapable of existence apart from the said subject.

Notice he sets aside the “parts” when defining “present in”. This becomes crucial to his theory later:

The fact that the parts of substances appear to be present in the whole, as in a subject, should not make us apprehensive lest we should have to admit that such parts are not substances: for in explaining the phrase ‘being present in a subject’, we stated’ that we meant ‘otherwise than as parts in a whole’.

(Both from Categories c. 5)

And so Aristotle wants to impute substantiality to parts in some way, which is exactly why he divided “parts” from “what is present in”. Aristotle, mysteriously, does not say exactly which parts he wants to impute subsistence to, though this is not important here. All that matters is that Aristotle is explicit that parts can have substantiality and that the soul is a part of a composite. Again, Aristotle provides for this possibility not as an afterthought, but from the very first moment he starts setting down the principles of substance. I lifted this whole argument more or less from St. Thomas’s account of how the soul “a certain this” (a certain substance) in the first question of his quodlibetal question on the soul, and so St. Thomas is not distorting Aristotle by saying that the soul is a part which can subsist, but following his text with great fidelity.

(N.B. Edward Feser also responded to Vallicella, and made different points than were made here. But If you read this blog you probably know that already.)

Thomson’s kidnappee turns 40

Francis Beckwith discusses Judith Thomson’s defense of abortion, published 40 years ago this year. He summarizes:

You are asked to imagine that you have been kidnapped and rendered unconscious by a vigilante gang of classical music aficionados who have surgically connected you to an unconscious violinist for whom you are alone anatomically suited to be his organic dialysis machine until he fully recovers nine months later. You awake and are told that the violinist will die if you unplug yourself from him.

Thomson argues that even though the violinist has a right to life, you nevertheless have a right to unplug yourself from him. This allows her to make the point that even if X has a right to life, that right by itself does not entitle him to coerce Y to provide bodily aid and sustenance to X, even if such assistance is necessary to keep X alive.

Some notes:

1.) Forty years of Analytic philosophers philosophizing by quirky anecdote? One can’t get anywhere in the school without writing his own Twilight Zone episode. Zombies, killer trollies, Chinese rooms… Admittedly, I like their stories more than their vast facades of symbol-talk. We all know what the Analytic commentaries on the story would read like: “Right to life R applies to X at time T iff X is such that she R-izes with property P…” What rigor!

2.) Beckwith passes over the merits of the story (probably for lack of space), of which the first is that it does not only apply to cases of pregnancy which occur by violence (rape, incest).  The story would also apply to a woman who took (sufficient?) reasonable steps to avoid pregnancy. This does, however, open up the line of critique similar to the one Beckwith pursues: it’s self-evident that a woman doesn’t consent to a pregnancy occurring from contraceptive failure, but is this non-consent like the drunk’s non-consent to drunken behavior (for which the drunk is culpable even if he did not consent to the behavior immediately, as Aristotle and common sense showed long ago); or is it like the non-consent of Thomson’s kidnapped person?

3.) As long as we’re philosophizing by Twilight Zone episode, let me try writing my own. You live in a world in which a multi-million dollar lottery prize is won by having a ten-minute conversation with a random person who was secretly chosen by a government agency. This creates a powerful incentive, of course, to speak to a great number of people for ten minutes. However, there is an ancient and time-tested tradition in this culture that you are married to the first person with whom you have a “jinx” moment in conversation – that is, when you and the other person say the same word at the same time (there are limits to this to avoid weirdness – no family members, etc.) No one in the society questions either the lottery or the jinx custom – they are totally off the table for reform. Everyone tries to practice safe speech, but whoever intends a jinx? The story has no moral, it just sets up a world as a problem. Take the trolley there.

4.) Given my own state, I tend to try to figure out where a father fits into Thomson’s story. Father’s don’t figure well. Either we’re the kidnappers, or the “kidnapper” is a pure contraceptive failure,  in which case we don’t figure at all. But if I am the kidnapper I’m clearly on the hook for all the needs of the violinist and the victim.

5.) The simplest rebuttal of the moral of the story is simply that the kidnapping victim is morally bound to keep himself plugged in. As I consider myself in that concrete case, I’m pretty sure that pulling that plug would be a choice I couldn’t live with. I’m sure that there would be a great initial uprush of indignation and a too-bad-for-him-then view of the violinist, but pulling that plug is cutting his throat, which is not the sort of thing one can live with after the passions calm down.

Naturalism as a opposed to pluralism

Naturalism is most well-known in its opposition to supernaturalism, but its opposition to pluralism is also very significant, and more manifestly absurd. The idea that it would be possible or even desirable – much less ideal – to verify everything given in every experience of the world by science, that is, by a hypothesis confirmed by metrical, publicly verifiable and repeatable evidence cannot survive five minutes experience of the actual world. Among other problems, it would require that we could know nothing in the world that was irreducibly qualitative, private and personal, unrepeatable, unable to be universalized, or ineffable.

Again, Naturalism is a sort of monism. If it were not, it would recognize science as a limited domain of discourse about the world, and the limit would restrict it from any judgment about other domains. In everyday life, everyone treats the knowledge of a scientist in this way. No one seeks out, say, physicists to answer questions about traffic law, the significance of the battle of Sharpsburg, the difference between the supine and the gerundive, when to allow kids to start dating, the metrical structure of the Catullus, an adequate fine for shoplifting, an answer to where I left my tape measure, the mobility of Euclidean solids, the difference between transcendental and categorical relations, the the value of the sub-deacon, the Islamic theological dispute over the ethics of coffee drinking, the structure of a supply chain for shipping marshmallows, etc. How could it even cross someone’s mind that there might be one method to settle all these questions?

Notes on evidence and belief

-While thinking over a comment thread at Pharyngula, I was amused by the idea of writing a science- fiction story about a society that saw evidence principally as testimonial and interpersonal, and which as a consequence had no problem thinking, with all sound rationality, that there was no evidence for scientific claims.  The idea is less of a stretch than it appears, since much of what we think about evidence is seen in light of courtroom procedure (like our idea of “proof burdens”), and courtroom evidence is essentially testimonial. You can’t call an experiment to the stand. In such a culture, natural science would have evidence only in a derivative and secondary sense of the term; and one sort of evidence at the root of religion – the experience of an interpersonal relationship with a transcendent person – would be evidence par excellence.

– Say the Pharyngulans convince me that there is no evidence for religious experience. So what if I have one? Do I have to change my old belief, or can I just use my old belief to define the new one? I still don’t have what I and the Pharyngulans meant by evidence.

-Brandon: “I’ll see your William Clifford and raise you William James.” Perfect.

– Our first evidence is interpersonal, or at least it is supposed to be. Kids are convinced of realities pertaining to their relationships with mother, siblings, father, friends, for at least as long as they are aware of anything deserving to be called a truth about the world. And which sort of truths strike us more deeply and with greater evidence anyway?

– There is a perennial story about the man who wants proof of his wife’s fidelity, and so makes an experiment of it. Herodotus begins his history with such a tale, and another shows up in Don Quixote. It manifests perfectly the difference between natural/scientific and personal/ testimonial evidence. The same difference is pointed out with greater pith in the Scriptur command that “thou shalt not put the Lord your God to the test”.


“How will I know when I know?” “What objective criterion can we set down to determine when it is right to assent to something?” etc. At bottom, what do we have except “Yeah, that seems right.” We can doll this up with more technical terms, like “the criterion of truth is the evidence of the known” or we can try to replace this criterion by some proxy for the sake of some goal (like the ability to create greater agreement about truth among our peers) but nevertheless all such proxy criteria, like appeals to the fruits or the consequences of things, or their utility to life or harmony with experience, or even reducibility to the self-evident all presuppose “Yeah, that seems about right”. So let that count as my epistemological school: seemsaboutrightism.

But shouldn’t we try to cast about for some one feature or formality that all these things have in common? Perhaps. Better to just figure out if there is a set of localized formalities dividing off various distinct modes of knowledge. But given the sheer magnitude and variance of the statements to which human beings have said “that seems right”, it is almost certainly pointless to try to set down one universal criteria for all experience. Even if we restrained ourselves to things that are more or less self-evident, this still remains true: we can’t find any one criterion for our verification that lead is heavier than aluminum, Euclid’s triangles have no depth, Van Gogh’s work is striking and lovely, some wars are unjust, verbs signify with time, one man’s conviction that one of his dreams was significant, another man’s conviction that an experience he once had of an angel was only indigestion or merely some other natural cause, etc. Even apart from the question whether these are true or false, trying to force one set of criteria on all of them is a fool’s errand.  Even trying to make several broad divisions in these things – like the division between “logical truths” and “truths about the world” – would overlook entire universes of human experience. This impossibility of a single criterion extends even as far as excluding the idea that all are judged to be true by some “sentiment of truth”, “manifest objectivity”, “interior conviction” or “intuition”, at least if any of these things are taken in a restrictive sense.

If this is right, it is more important at the beginning to determine what mode of discourse one is conducting, and what its various goals and evidences are. Evidence is essentially pluralistic and localized, even when one aspect of this pluralism is the various ways in which one ranges broadly across more than one domain of discourse.

The “imperfect abstraction” of the analogous

St. Thomas says that the ratio of a univocal term is wholly the same while that of an analogous term is in one sense the same and in another sense different. Thus there is a unity to the univocal that the analogous lacks. In the face of this, some Thomists (Grenier for one, and he usually stays close to John of St. Thomas) have argued that the ratio of the analogous term (which is fair to call the analogous concept) is imperfectly abstracted. I am not aware of any place where St. Thomas never uses such language (and at any rate I’m sure he never modifies “abstractio” as a noun or verb with “imperfecta” as an adjective or adverb, at least not by immediate apposition, since this can be checked electronically), but this is perhaps beside the point. Commentary can’t get everything from the letter. Nevertheless,though there is some value to this idea of “imperfect abstraction”  is very misleading and ultimately obscures more than it reveals.

Abstraction can be seen as necessary to human knowing in more than one way, but one basis for this necessity is that the physical is distinct from the intelligible, and so must be illumined and absorbed by an intelligible power. This taking of an intelligible residue from something not intelligible in itself is called “abstraction”; and since there is always some physical component to human knowing (like brain activity) there is always some abstraction.

Given that all human knowing is abstractive, the various concepts it makes are more perfect to the extent they are more unified. The principle in play here is the identity of actuality and unity. Thus all human knowledge is abstractive, and all abstractions are more perfect in the measure they are more unified, and the univocal is more unified than the analogous; making the analogous an imperfect abstraction. Q.E.D.

The error in the argument should be clear to anyone with ten-minutes experience with St. Thomas or Aristotle – unity means more than one thing, and to lack one sort of unity does not suffice to show that something is absolutely less perfect. If this were the case, angels would be less perfect than stones since they do not have the unity of matter and form. Still, one might insist, aren’t we comparing the diverse ratios (I’m trying to make this an English word, so I don’t use rationes for the plural) of the univocal and equivocal? Here again, the response repeats itself – there is not a univocal sense for “ratio” (or even “concept”)  when used of the univocal and analogous.

But isn’t it true that if we could have a completely unified concept of that which we in fact know by analogy, that we would know it more perfectly? Leaving aside what we just said that “perfectly unified” means different things for different concepts, it still remains that the antecedent of the argument, if true, would not necessarily give rise to a concept called “univocal”. God has a perfectly unified concept of all things, and knows all things by one intelligible species, but it doesn’t follow that there is in fact one univocal concept of God and the universe. The word “univocal” just can’t extend to take on this meaning.

And so there is a diversity of ratios and concepts. But the very unity of the concept of a concept requires making an order between the diverse senses. Now the fundamental order that St. Thomas observes in the analogous is the order of knowing; and in this sense it makes sense to say that the first sense of “concept” we have is the univocal. In this sense, it might be fitting to see the analogous as “imperfectly abstracted”, since, we know it by comparing it to the univocal, and thus know it in light of the non-presence of univocal unity. But, for this same reason, the analogous concept is a more perfect instance of a concept, since what is most knowable to us is least knowable in itself. The very knowability of the univocal as a concept proves its infirmity as a concept. And this is why the idea that the analogous is an “imperfect abstraction”, though it has some value, is more misleading than helpful.

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