A fundamental account of physicalism and its opposite

John Wilkins explains the reason he is a physicalist:

When I lost my belief in religion I had to decide what I needed to accept as a bare minimum. I decided that I needed to believe in the physical world. I never found the slightest reason to accept the existence of anything else. To this day I am a physicalist only because I never found the need to be anything else.

The principle of parsimony suggests that one should not believe in more than one needs to. Even if it does make you feel comfortable.

There are many reasons why someone would be a physicalist (John himself gives others), but this one is complete and absolutely fundamental. There simply is no reason behind this one, or at least there need not be. After this, physicalism can fall back into the defensive activity of answering various objections- it need not seek to do any more to establish itself in a positive way. If we tried to push the analysis any further back, we would slip into the non-rational sphere of personal and somatic characteristics, the infinite ocean of the subconscious, and the dark causality of whatever else there is.

My fundamental reason is the contrary of Wilkins. His challenge was to believe as little as possible, mine was to believe in the greatest thing possible. His fundamental outlook is critical and minimalist, my fundamental outlook is to find the greatest or loftiest thing that I can. He appeals to parsimony, and there is also a clear implied appeal to certitude; my appeal is to the natural desire to seek what is highest and most perfect. He takes it as obvious that one should never posit more than he needs to; I take it as equally obvious that no one would ever settle for the merely necessary and minimal. He might well see my choice as wishful thinking or a naive uncritical approach that could leave me duped in a thousand ways; but I see his as choice as mean, scrupulous, and closed- minded. His appeal is to Ockham’s razor, mine is to Aristotle’s dual axioms that what is most perfect in itself is least knowable to us and that we cannot but seek the beatitude that comes from knowing what is most perfect in itself.

To put it in a word, John sees everything beyond the minimum given in initial experience as a threat to philosophy, and even as unphilosophical; I see the whole point of philosophy as finding some object beyond this minimum given in initial experience.

I don’t know that there is any possibility of rapprochement here, or even if either of us can critique the other in light of a principle we both accept. By our own lights, the other is committed to irrational and even anti-rational beliefs, and it’s hard to see how we could account for this by saying both of us are working from some common understanding that the other guy is misinterpreting. This is particularly striking in John’s claims about the self – we both see that (his?) physicalism requires that the unified human self be an illusion, but he takes this as a philosophical proof for the impossibility of a unified self and I take it as a reductio ad absurdum against physicalism. For him, “the (unified) self” is an objection that he can solve by an appeal to semantic constructions, to me it is a starting point for what will count as a being.

Miracles as an insight dependent on ignorance

Many contemporary people recognize that there is something wrong about defining miracles as disruptions in the laws of nature, though they a.) find it hard to do away with the definition and b.) fail to see what exactly they are missing about a miracle when they define it in this way. C.S. Lewis is a good case of this (see page 5 here), and he might be to some extent responsible for its perpetuation. So what does such a definition make us miss about miracles?

Etymology is not always a good guide (see St. Thomas’s frequently repeated “stone” example in resp. ad. 2 here). But it is a very good guide to what is formal in a miracle. “Miraculus” named what was a marvel or an extraordinary wonder, and rather than shoving the wonder aside as subjective and trying to attain to some objective fact, it’s better to just stay with the idea of wonder and develop it.
Wonder requires ignorance, though not just any sort of ignorance. We are usually not aware of the things we are ignorant of, but this does not make for marveling. Marveling requires our ignorance to enter into consciousness. But the ignorance does not enter into consciousness in its usual mode, that is, as a confusion, an irritation, or a perplexity, or even an extremely rare fortuitous event (it’s the rare person who doesn’t find something marvelous in the account of human generation, or the fertility of the spring, and neither is  rare.) What seems most formal in the sense of wonder proper to miracle is that we have the sense that it reveals some agency or personality (or at least some transcendent reality) behind the action itself. Just how this personality is related to the event can remain obscure: no one has to be committed to the idea that the personality or transcendental cause behind a wonder moves the marvel that we see like a mere puppet, for example. We can remain perfectly ignorant of how this personality relates to the miraculous event – all that is necessary is that the event be a wonder revealing the action of a personality.

[To forestall one obvious objection, though wonder is a sort of ignorance it does not follow that just any increase or decrease in ignorance will lead to a proportionate change in wonder. Certain kinds of wonder increase as we find out more about things. All that is required is that something remains obscure or unknown.]

An argument from miracle or wonder requires ignorance – but it is a real argument. To see the marvelous is to see evidence for the divine, and to fail to see it is to fail to see such evidence. Since wonder is formally something within us and not merely some fact in the world, one and the same fact in the world can go from being a wonder to not being one. Say someone sees a finch beak and finds it marvelous, revealing personality and agency seeking to make itself known. Then say the same person reads Darwin’s account of finch beaks and, after seeing a perfectly natural cause for why the finch beak is as it is, ceases to marvel at it and ceases to take it as revealing personality. Note that it’s not that he has “replaced a supernatural explanation with a natural one”, rather he has changed the object of his consideration from a marvel to a non-marvel by removing or ignoring an element that is formal to it being taken as a wonder. We have not explained away something, we have simply changed the object we were considering, for, so far as a miracle or wonder is concerned, an object we are ignorant of is not the same object as one we understand. Ignorance is essential to wonder, and so the eliminating or overlooking of that of which we are ignorant makes us overlook what is marvelous. It’s not that the one who wonders meditates on ignorance for the sake of being ignorant – the one who wonders seeing something through ignorance. Just as an awareness of our own ignorance is useful to make us humble, and this awareness of humility is real knowledge, so too the peculiar sort of ignorance that gives rise to wonder reveals some personality working behind the marvel.

I experience the insight of ignorance all the time. I do metaphysics and natural theology, and so I’m especially sensitive to all the times when people say things like “how could you see X and not believe in God?” I tend to find such claims naive and even irritating – what an unreflective thought! What a vulnerable argument! There is so much more to seeing that God exists! This is, at least, my reflexive response. The truth of the matter is that one really does see God through marvels, and these marvels are essentially dependent on ignorance. God must show himself as much to the learned as the unlearned. What sort of God would only manifest himself to philosophers? It’s not even obvious to me that the learned are any better off for their knowledge.  I would expect myself to be the sort of person who in the Gospel who thought the voice from heaven was only thunder. If there were any way to explain it away (and especially if all the rubes or non-philosophers were convinced of it) I’m pretty sure I would try to explain it away.

We can hypothesize that when we have totally driven out ignorance we will no longer see the working of a personality behind marvels, but this does not describe the world we live in now, still less does it prove that we would lose nothing valuable by driving out all ignorance.

For the same reason, the exultation of human intelligence (say by a mythology that speaks of a time when science will have explained everything) cannot tolerate miracle, not merely because it “interrupts the natural system” or because it is unpredictable or goes against “natural law”, but simply because miracle requires human ignorance. A miracle is God’s way of speaking through human weakness and revealing himself in a special  way to the humble (that is, to those who make their ignorance and weakness an object of their consideration). For the same reason, God must hide himself from the proud, that is, from those who believe that they possess an intelligence that could in principle explain everything and a will that could accomplish all they desire.

Aristotle’s fantastic claim

Plato (at least in his middle period) felt in necessary to posit a world of forms that we lived in before falling to earth and being immersed in the amnesia of reincarnation. Aristotle denied this, and for years I’ve thought of him as the less mystical, more earthly thinker. But this is all wrong. Aristotle is just as convinced of the world of forms as Plato is, but he adds to it the extravagant and arresting claim that every individual makes this world. His agent intellect doesn’t go around lighting up forms piecemeal – it’s a sun generating an entire universe of forms, even if there is an extrinsic limit (from the body) on the number that can enter into our consciousness. We don’t need to reincarnate from one world into another because we are creators of the very world that Plato would have us descend from. The description of the being responsible for this creation is startling and scandalous – it is difficult to give a careful read to Aristotle’s account of the agent intellect without thinking that he is describing a god. Seen from this angle, the Scriptural notion of being the image of God through intellect and will takes on a much deeper significance. It’s not just that God knows and we know too; it’s that human knowledge involves the procession of a universe. Just as God is a creator in the real order we are creators in the intentional order, though in our case only an infinitesimal amount of our creation rises above the extrinsic limitations of body and out of the universe of subconscious life.

Ramble on experience as opposed to truth

Mike Flynn began his critique of Jerry Coyne with this marvelous distinction:

Now, by “literal truth” Coyne undoubtedly intended “literal fact,” since a thing may be true without being fact, and a fact has no truth value in itself.

This dovetailed with something I read in Ratzinger’s commentary on Gaudium et Spes: at one point  the council fathers did something like change a sentence from “the truth about religious things…” to “the experience of religious things…”. Ratzinger notes that the change was significant and problematic since the mere experience of things or a collection of facts cannot ensure their truth. The religious experience can be taken as a given – as a fact or even a universal fact – and still be (presumably) reduced or critiqued to a fundamentally untrue experience (like Feuerbach’s alienation of self-into-another, Freud’s infantile father-projection,  or the modern theories of agency detection)

The last string of parenthetical examples raises a quick objection: for those who speak of agency detection are (often) quick to point out that their theory doesn’t touch on the truth of religion. Whether they are right or wrong they still prove the point here: for all sides appeal to some disjunction between experience giving rise to fact and reason giving rise to truth. We cannot always be sure whether what we find in the initial experience will survive reduction or critique; though by the same token the reduction or critique can never do away with all that is given in the initial experience. Everything can’t be explained or critiqued away. In the face of this, the immediate reaction is to cast about for some standard to judge what will count as true. This is, at least, the immediate reaction of modern persons – the Medievals showed little interest in setting up some master criterion for what will count as true. But this, however, is just another fact that doesn’t show us the truth of things. Is the absence of criteriology in Medieval thought an oversight or an insight?

One argument in the Medieval’s favor is that the attempt to set up a criterion pretends to have access to a perspective that we simply do not have. It is an absolute that truth and error come to us in a messy, mixed-up fashion in the first experience, and we have no access to a perspective that can neatly divide the one from the other in every case. Truth doesn’t even mean the same thing in every case. Truth is (among other things) what the mind delights in, and the mind has a whole palate of delights that it can take in various things or even in one and the same thing. The search for a universal criterion imagines a one-sided satisfaction in things that would be unreasonable to expect of something of such bewildering complexity as the human mind. It’s startling how a mind that was as open to pluralism as William James (he was so open to it in religious experience that he thought it would be reasonable to bring back polytheism) could be so obtuse as to try to judge all truths by a single pragmatic test. But we’ve been tilting at that windmill since Descartes. Naturalism is the latest offering.

Knowing universally as opposed to knowing a universal

We are less likely to get caught in controversies about universals if we bear in mind that we need to think of them adverbially before we think of them as nouns. The first experience is not that we know universals but that we know the things in experience universally.  We don’t look out at a world of supposed “particulars”, and then, shutting off this consciousness and turning within ourselves, see a world of “universals”. To know as a human being doesn’t consist in spending half of ones day looking at sensible things and then (with all our sense powers made inert and unconscious) spend the other half of the day wandering around the glassy hallways of some Platonic museum. There is a single world of experience, and it is this single world that we see more or less universally. “A Universal” is a noun, to be sure, but it’s a noun like “quickness” – just as the first reality of quickness is really just various things moving quickly, so too the first reality of the universal is just various things known universally.

Say I walk into a random office cubicle. I look on the walls and see a picture of a child. My consciousness doesn’t divide the picture from any other picture of a child. As far as I’m concerned, the only thing I’m looking at is “child” or “memento” or even “office kitsch”. I would have the exact same consciousness if I saw any other child. But this kind of consciousness is very different from the mother who walks into the cubicle and sees the same picture. For her, it is not an experience of “child” but of “That time at Madison’s birthday party when she was wearing that adorable little princess costume and had cake on her face because her brother…” One and the same thing experienced can be understood at greater or lesser degrees of universality.

Note carefully that the difference between the two modes of consciousness is not exactly the difference between a vague grasp and a precise grasp. When all I see is “child” I have a vague grasp, but I can develop this vague grasp by various techniques until it develops into a science or an art. A good photographer develops his understanding of “child” along one path (always photograph them with setting X on a camera, don’t wait until after the dessert to photograph them, get an overhead shot of them to make their eyes look bigger, etc.) a pediatrician develops this understanding of “child” along another path (healthy heartbeats are higher than in adults, etc.) Neither development is the same as the way in which the mother develops her understanding, which is quite a remarkable development to watch -I’ve been startled for years by the degree of penetration that mothers and wives have into the behavior and unique character of particular persons as such (the overlooking of this mode of understanding and the overemphasis and glorification of science has some amount of male chauvinism as its cause.) The two modes of understanding are very different – to mention only one very important difference, the intellectual penetration into the particular usually needs to be mediated by love whereas the penetration into the universal need not be, though in a sense it’s certainly the case that spies and assassins spend some amount of time trying to understand a particular person.

Seen from this angle, it makes perfect sense to say that experience is neither universal nor particular. If it were one or the other, we could only have mother consciousness or scientific consciousness or artistic consciousness, etc. But one and the same experience gives rise to utterly different modes of consideration in diverse persons, or even in one and the same person at different times. The indifference of experience to universality or particularity is manifest from the diverse modes of consciousness that can bear upon it.

And so it is not that the scientist sees “a universal” whereas the mother sees “a particular” so much as, from looking upon one and the same experience, the scientist interprets it universally and the mother in a mode that develops particularity.  Neither mode of knowledge is reducible to the other, or attainable by exactly the same set of methods.

Virtue and gratuitous evil

All arguments from evil turn on gratuitous evil – i.e. an evil from which no good can result. Suppose there are such evils. It certainly seems to follow that some evil could force you to say your life is meaningless. Were this not so, then any evil you experienced could be an integral part of a meaningful life, and so would have meaning and purpose in light of that narrative. You could take pride in how you faced it, how you stuck to or turned back to your principles, how you didn’t despair, etc.

A gratuitous evil appears to be one which would be impossible to face with courage or to endure with patience. After all, these evils are gratuitous:  it’s not as if they could be an integral part to the exercise of a virtue. So either there are no gratuitous evils or human beings are unable to experience them, and either way we appear to have a blessed life.

The same line of argument extends to animal suffering. If evil is not the sort of thing that can deprive my life of meaning, why assume that it has the power to render an antelope’s life meaningless? But if any experienced evil can be an integral part of a meaningful life, then how could it be gratuitous?


The lines between theism and its many opposites tend to be drawn in such a way that the theists are tied either to the notion that God has quasi natural actions in the universe (a naive view of “tinkering with the world”) or of imputing an actuality in the world itself in the form of a determinate act in the thing itself giving rise to its teleological function. In all this, a Parmenidean Platonic/ Augustinian theism is overlooked, which takes it for granted that the universe is a flux, unknowable in itself (if “in itself” doesn’t deserve ultimately to be said of it) and knowable only by dialectical, positive, and (therefore) falsifiable methods; though it can also admit of a sapiential account that sees it in relation to an unchangeable world though this relation does not impart to it an intrinsic intelligibility or even existence. Of itself, the universe is nothing but a chaotic and changing weather of one thing blowing into another, but it is precisely in light of this that its whole “being” is a procession and arising from another, when judged from the sapiential point of view.

Is there a universe?

For the majority of Western intellectual history, the universe was a single place. It had a center and a periphery, and these locations had real physical significance (notice that geocentrism and heliocentrism are not really contrary theories: the theory of geocentrism involves the whole universe, whereas heliocentrism, at least as we understand it, is a theory about a vanishingly small part of the universe.) The physical events at the center were under the control of the events at the periphery, and this order of causality arose from a real division in the order of being, since the causes at the periphery were immutable and changeless whereas the events at the center were corruptible. This difference in being required a real difference in the physical structure of the things in different places, and the places themselves had a natural order among themselves. Notice the picture: the universe is a single unified place, where all the parts have degrees of being and orders of causality, and all that we can go out at night and look out and up at is an organism whose action we can trace back to a single action with a single time.

But all that’s false. So now what?

The unity in the universe is no longer a causal unity of all the parts working in concert. There might be a gravitational pull of everything on everything, but it doesn’t give rise to a gravitational system, that is, to a hierarchy of gravitational masses. The gravitational center of the universe is not the sort of center that gives rise to a hierarchy – it appears to be an accidental result of the mere sum of gravitational attractions – and similar considerations apply to all the forces of nature. Whereas Aristotle could assign a meaningful physical position and causal power to any celestial body, we are unable to see any compelling reason why any one of them should be there as opposed to in any other random place. It doesn’t even make sense for us to assign a position to the stars, as though the place we see them at is a part of any order to the whole.

The upshot of all this is that we are able to raise the question of whether all this stuff is a universe at all. If by “the universe” you mean “all the physical stuff there is” then there is certainly a universe, but it doesn’t appear to be anything beyond an entity we make by fiat. One could just as well assign a name to “all the cultures there are”, but to name such a thing doesn’t make for a single natural entity, even if we can find some common features among all of them or give some narrative of how one came from another in an historical progression. From where we stand now, it appears that “all physical stuff” is like “all governments”: neither forms a concrete unity outside of thought, even though we can find some common features among all of them (that all physical stuff arose from one big bang does not make it one single organism). Aristotle’s idea that the unity of the pure act is reflected in the universe by making the universe a single unified act is, for the moment, a failed hypothesis.  The truer hypothesis appears to be the Parmenidean and Platonic idea that the universe is a more homogeneous and undifferentiated stream of becoming which we understand only according to its phenomenal character and not according to universal relation of in the things themselves. There is still involve some real relation of the universe to the unchangeable, but it is the unchangeability of thought as such, whether the thought of a human mind, or of that which transcends the whole of this order of becoming. As a consequence, metaphysics or wisdom becomes more sharply cut off from science, as everyone appears to believe it must be.

Ramble on history and Platonism

Ultimately, the whole question of the relation between faith and understanding comes up here. It can hardly be disputed that as a consequence of the division between theology and philosophy established by the Thomists, a juxtaposition has been established that no longer seems adequate. There is, and must be, a human reason in faith; yet conversely, every human reason is conditioned by a historical viewpoint and so reason pure and simple does not exist.

Joseph Ratzinger.

From the Commentary on

Ratzinger’s general point is that the possibilities of dialogue between the Church and the secular modern world cannot presuppose some “pure reason” as an assumed starting point, but the quotation is quite clear that his claim has a broader application. Taken in its most universal extent, the idea is that there is no purely rational account of the world as a whole, and therefore one cannot view revelation as coming down upon some otherwise complete rational system.

At the heart of Ratzinger’s claim is that reason is a.) conditioned, and b.) conditioned historically. “Conditioned” is a softer word than “determined”, and the difference seems to allow for some kind of transcendence of history (“determination” involves being fixed or constricted to one thing, “conditioned” means merely that some historical element or relation is always an essential factor.) But what about history?

Plato and Aristotle agreed that change belonged to nature essentially, and agreed further that it was impossible for there to be nothing but change with nothing unchanging. To paint in broad strokes, Aristotle takes this to be a reason to introduce unchangeable things into nature, and Plato takes it as a reason to reduce everything in nature to a source outside of it. A large part of Aristotle’s reasoning comes from him seeing a structure in the progression of things, and from his taking the culminating point of the progression as being the fixed source or arche of the progression. Progression of any kind was thus immanently unified by the an actuality it was progressing to or falling away from as a term of the progression. Example: we can see a progression from embryo to foal to horse to nag (with indefinite, continuous stages in between). Arsitotle saw this as the immanent development and decline of one and the same thing; Plato saw any unity as having to come from outside of the what, in itself, was continually other and other and other. Restricting ourselves to this example, it seems like Aristotle has the stronger case – it’s the same horse, isn’t it? But what if we consider other progressions – the progression of time or the parts of space, for example, or of historical events? Here Aristotle himself denies that there is any actuality that progresses toward or falls away from something, and so in the measure that one sees historical progression as the most significant or fundamental reality of natural things, or even the most illuminating or useful hermeneutic, Aristotle’s appeal to immanent actuality is of less and less value.

But where does this leave the premise that progression presupposes some fixed actuality? Pure flux and otherness is just as impossible in historical progression as in the stages of life, but – pace to Hegel, the progression of all history is too variegated, diversified, and unwieldy to admit of any systematization from a consideration of the phenomena (Ratzinger’s point seems to presuppose that we now can no longer see either the Thomist or  the Hegelian systems as viable.) History simply does not suggest the immanent causality of some “Spirit”, except as a pure metaphor, and if it did it would only do so in the sphere of human actions, which of themselves constitute a vanishingly small portion of events which occur in the history of nature. This historical aspect of reality is better explained by a Platonic conception of things,  where one denies an immanent order within the progression of events, thereby unifying them in an absolutely transcendent other in which nature participates without ever having of itself the actuality that characterizes the actuality and reality they are participating in.

9 / 15 / 11

Claims that we make about science sound strange when we make the same claims about human beings. “Science will eventually figure out  consciousness” sounds convincing enough to be taken seriously, but  “Some human being will eventually figure out consciousness” sounds like a messianic hope. “We trust that science will drive out superstition and human misery” is presented as something we are justified in inferring from a consideration of the past, but “We trust that human beings will drive out superstition and human misery” seems far more pollyanic, since trusting human beings to dependably drive out folly or wickedness is not the sort of thing that history seems to justify. And so science, which in its concrete and actual existence is nothing but a utterly dependent and separable accident of  John or Mary’s soul, is projected into the world and given divine attributes like unthwartable power, omniscience, and a governing role in the history of human illumination and progress. Feuerbach is smirking somewhere.

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