Summa Theologiae I q. 88

I find Summa I q. 88 extremely disappointing, though disappointments are proportionate to expectations, and it’s altogether possible that I have unreasonable expectations.

Q. 88 concerns the knowledge we can have in this life of things above the physical world, and since Aquinas defines metaphysics as such a knowledge, the existence of metaphysics is here at stake. For those of us who are trying to be both metaphysicians and Thomists, this article should be a one of our central guiding lights. And yet, to be blunt, Aquinas never gives a satisfying answer to how we might know anything beyond the physical world, and he avoids pure agnosticism by ad hoc qualifications and unexplained denials that leave obvious questions unanswered. His response to a. 1 objection 5 is a good place to start. The objection reads:

As sense is to the sensible, so is intellect to the intelligible. But our sight can see all things corporeal, whether superior and incorruptible; or lower and corruptible. Therefore our intellect can understand all intelligible substances, even the superior and immaterial.

Aquinas responds:

Sense knows bodies, whether superior or inferior, in the same way, that is, by the sensible acting on the organ. But we do not understand material and immaterial substances in the same way. The former we understand by a process of abstraction, which is impossible in the case of the latter, for there are no phantasms of what is immaterial.

So “we do not understand material and immaterial substances in the same way”. So then, how do we understand them? This is the whole point of q. 88, and yet at the crucial moment all the reader hears is crickets.

What is even more striking, St. Thomas follows up this question with a denial that we can come to know immaterial substances from material things. At the very least, this indicates that STA thinks that the denial is closer to the truth. Every argument that we can reason from the things of the world to metaphysical reality is here an objection, but the responses to the objections leave one bewildered. After raising the objection that there is actually a science of metaphysics, the response is:

Science treats of higher things principally by way of negation. Thus Aristotle (De Coel. i, 3) explains the heavenly bodies by denying to them inferior corporeal properties. Hence it follows that much less can immaterial substances be known by us in such a way as to make us know their quiddity; but we may have a scientific knowledge of them by way of negation and by their relation to material things.

“Principally” is an obvious wiggle word. Thomas knows he can’t claim that our knowledge of metaphysics is purely negative, but this means that we must have positive knowledge in some way. This seems to be the point of adding the last four words of the response. Still, “relation to material” is not necessarily opposed to “negation”, since negation itself is a sort of relation. So there seems to be something wrong with saying the science is “purely negative” (it’s hard to see how this would be different from agosticism) but STA doesn’t seem to want to admit any positive grasp of the object either. Merely mentioning “the way of causality” or “the way of excellence” doesn’t seem to remedy the problem here, since if all one can say about, say, a causal relation is exhausted by our setting it apart from material existence, then the whole causal relation is known by negation. But if something else is known, then what is it?

St. Thomas makes a great deal of the idea that the human intellect is not proportionate to immaterial things. This idea, however, is not developed, and as far as I can tell all it means is to relate to another in such a way as to know it. But then it explains nothing to say human minds can’t understand immaterial substances since they aren’t proportionate to them, since this only amounts to saying that we fail to know something because we fail to relate to it in a way that is adequate to know it; which says nothign more than we fail to know it because we fail to do so.

Plato and the singular universal

Socrates claimed that the poets were not wise since anyone standing around could explain their work better than they could, and this idea that wisdom with respect to literature consists in being able to tell what it means continually recurs throughout Plato (he dedicates a whole dialogue – Ion – to the point). The platonic claim (henceforward “the platonic” account) caught on, and has been a permanent axiom of Western intellectuals since.

There is nothing wrong with saying “work X shows us blahblahblah”, but the platonic  claim is something in addition to this.  If wisdom about literature is to have the philosopher tell us what it means, then literature is an opaque riddle in need of some priest-interpreter, that is, that the poem is an incomplete work of philosophy or science. The Platonic interpreter goes through the book seeing nothing but symbols. When we’re told that Moby Dick is all about man’s relation to God or the Lord of the Rings is about nuclear weapons we’re all supposed to react as if the veil has been pulled back and the whole secret of the book has been revealed.  Notice that this is the opposite of saying “Moby Dick teaches us blahblahblah”, for saying this leaves open the possibility that the book is never exhausted by the interpretation. It also gives the novel primacy, for it makes it a teacher as opposed to a stupid riddle that would be lame and hidden without a philosopher. (For a clear example of the difference between the two modes of interpretation of Moby Dick, compare R.C. Sproul’s platonic interpretation to James Wood’s claim that the novel manifests things in a mode wholly different from the scientific and discursive mode.)

To make a point that has should be manifest from my tone, I think the Platonic mode of interpretation is false. What’s more, its dehumanizing and it completely distorts the actual relation between philosophy/science and literature. So what then is the right relation between science and literature?

Both philosophy and literature manifest something, and so far as this goes they both teach. But the goal of the manifestation is not the same: the scientist desires simply to know whereas literature seems to intend the very operation of actually knowing so far as it completes our being (this completion is experienced as pleasant, but to say that literature intends pleasure isn’t precise enough). And so in one and the same thing – knowledge- the scientist seeks a sort of pure objectivity whereas the poet wants this pure objectivity as perfective of the person in his operation. The manifestation of literature is pure and continuous vision – serene, motionless, and active; the manifestation of science and philosophy are nothing but a step-by-step knowing. This is why the manifestation of literature is a wordless “Ah!” or “that’s dead on”, while the manifestation of science and philosophy can walk you though all of its steps (except, of course, for the first and last one).

Given their different goals both require different tools. Since manifestation is more perfect in the measure that one thing harmonizes a multitude and shows it clearly, literature and science need a different sort of unity that manifests a multitude with clarity. While both make a universal so far as they manifest many things with one thing, literature does this by making a concrete thing, science by making an abstract one. F=ma tells you something about every force, Othello tells you something about every jealous man. The literary universal, however, exists only in a larger context or world; for while we can know the equation without knowing the whole of physics, Othello (the character) can only be known within the larger world of Othello (the play). Aristotle is right that a character is a sort of person concretely realized, but he never develops this idea that this very concrete realization can only exist within the larger world of the literary work. Details like plot and setting are  not the same as the literary world – they are nothing but abstractions from the concrete world that constitutes the literary work. It is this world that the author sees and has the power to describe in all of its wholeness.

World is obviously a metaphor. In one sense I mean only that it is the place of the characters and their action, but I also mean that it has a wholeness and completion of itself, and that nothing we take from it is ever quite as real as the world itself.  Just as nothing in the actual world is ever exhausted by any one thing we might take from it, so too nothing in the poetic world is exhausted or even proportionate to some moral or lesson we might take from it. This is why Othello is not a symbol for jealously – because his being is not exhausted by any one thing he causes us to know. The poetic world is not an incomplete thing waiting for a philosopher to interpret it, rather it is our interpretations that are always partial and incomplete. The poet isn’t even trying to make some proposition or set of propositions known, but to give someone a uniquely manifestive world which  manifests the actual world. It should be clear by now why Plato could never recognize the literary universal- its very concrete existence was contrary to his firm conviction that the most real should be modeled after an abstract idea. Aristotle did much of the groundwork to locate the literary universal as a bona fide logical entity – that is, as something perfective of the intellect as such, just as science is.

To sum up, literature and science are both ways of organizing experience in order to manifest something about the world. Both make a universal, though the division between these universals is radical and irreducible. To try to reduce one to the other is not only false but dehumanizing since it cuts off all access to reality that can arise from the poetic universal. The poetic universal simply does a better job at showing the reality of intellect and intuitive vision, and to miss this will make science a step-by-step walk from nowhere to nowhere. Again, when we stress the step-by-step advance in knowledge, we inevitability see ourselves as having gone further than those who came before us in history, whereas when we see the world through the poetic universal it becomes impossible to think that we are in any way presumptively better than those who came before us. The need for both of these universals is what we are  fumbling around for when we divide the sciences from the humanities and insist on the necessity of both (note how badly we butcher the distinction when we put philosophy – to say nothing of Plato – in the “humanities”.)

Apologetics as opposed to actual persuasion

It would be strange to measure the worth of apologetics by the degree to which it actually persuades non-believers. An apology in this sense is a defense, and the value of a defense need not be measured by the number of persons who are persuaded to stop attacking. In fact, the only reason to call the action apologetics is because we take it for granted that the attack will happen. There isn’t now, and never has been an art of science of conversion-making. Human beings and societies are not blocks of marble that we can make what we will by hammering on them, and their spiritual actions don’t play themselves out according to a routine that is determined enough that we can just read a few books and know just how bait them. I doubt that there is anyone who knows all the relevant reasons why he believes what he does, still less what he would need to be persuaded to believe something new.

Persuasion itself is an ambiguous thing (this seems to be the point Plato is making in his Crito). There is an unbridgeable gulf between what ought to persuade and what actually does (there are a hundred different reasons why one can count on having the former without the latter and vice versa) and because of this even a massive conversion or deconversion in the face of some argument would not necessarily count as evidence that the argument was coherent, ennobling or rational. In fact, regardless of what we believe we would make the greatest number of persons agree with us not by repeating rational arguments, but by changing manners: by setting up taboos against the contrary position, giving power to people to agree with us, and by ostracizing the opposition and banishing them to a place outside the pale of what a reasonable or decent person could believe. The greatest number of conversions would therefore follow a certain point where we stop reasoning and stop trying to say anything persuasive, that is, when our position holds the high ground over taboos, the levers of power, and the ability to ostracize. Over the centuries various religions and denominations or rational beliefs have taken turns having this power. But it is not obvious whether they were better for having it or even whether the very possession of such power is contrary to their existence.

Zeller and Cherniss critique Aristotle

Eduard Zeller critiques Aristotle (Page 188):

[Aristotle] could only regard the individual as real in the full sense, as a substance. For if this name is only given to what cannot be predicated nor present in another, only the individual nature is a substance. All general concepts, on the other han, express merely certain peculiarities of substances, and even generic concepts only express the common essence of certain substances. They can therefore be called substances in an improper and derivative manner, but they must not be regarded as existing outside things… but if the form, which is always something universal in comparison with that which is compounded of form and material, is allowed to have a higher degree of reality, and only the general, or that which is in itself earlier and better known can be the object of knowledge, we have here a contradiction of which the results run through the entire system of Aristotle.    

This suggests a criticism given at much greater length by Cherniss in his Aristotle’s Criticism of Plato and the Academy, where he claims that while Aristotle insists that  particulars alone exist as such, he cannot speak of universals without attributing to them exactly the sort of existence that belongs to particulars. Every principle that might divide the two is either incoherent or contradicted by some demand made by his critique.

The problem is thorny and has not yet been given any definitive answer. To intensify an argument from Cherniss, the very idea of this form seems to be incoherent in Aristotle’s system. If a form is immanent in each of two cats such that this one is really divided from that one, then things of one nature and being are things of more than one nature and being, since both nature and being are given by form. If one says the form is immanent by somehow being the same form, then one is simply a Platonist. 

The dialectic between the depressed and the energetic

My cousin’s wife is indefatigably energetic and cheerful. She smiles constantly, though not stupidly; always makes eye contact and shows interest in others; works all day without complaint or fatigue, etc. While speaking of one of our depressed relatives, she betrayed that she didn’t understand how in the world one could ever be depressed – “just think of something you are looking forward to”, she said. The comment was a throw off, so it wouldn’t do to press it to the letter. The sense is simply that depression was impenetrable to her, not for being too difficult but for being so incoherent and easy to dispel. She had clearly been dejected and frustrated or even filled with sorrow before, but she didn’t see why this should ever become depression, which was a very different thing. I, however, spent years thinking the opposite. The energetic and cheerful were impenetrable to me, and the whole idea of skipping cheerfully through life struck me as willful incoherence which would to collapse in the face of the slightest appreciation of reality.  I remember rejoicing when I read Walker Percy exclaim something like “Of course you’re depressed. How could anyone live in this world and not be depressed? Think of the sorts of persons that never get depressed: cheerleaders, California surfers, born-again Christians who’ve said the Jesus prayer and now know that they’re going to heaven no matter what. Would you trade your depression for the lives of any of those people?” This quotation can’t be pressed to the letter any more than the one above, but the sense is that depression arises from some appreciation of the real and that it reveals something precious and ennobling. By this point, everyone can recognize that the philosopher has to say something about how neither side is completely right and that the truth is some synthesis and critique of both views. This is right. But now that we’ve gotten the platitude out of the way, what are the details?

Economic depression is the collapse of the economy; depression is the collapse of the will to act. For the depressed person, the knowledge of the good (that is, of what they have to do) is not the dynamic knowledge that illumines and strengthens a person to get up and act; it is knowledge that simply informs without empowering. If one were simply oblivious to what they ought to do, they would never feel the pinch of being unable to will it; but the same is true of those who always get up and do whatever they need to do. The depressed person thus knows what he needs to do but finds himself unable to act, which seems to many like sheer contradiction.  How can you want to do something, recognize that it is in your power, and yet not do it? Seen from this angle, depression seems like so much infantile self-pity and bellyaching. The solution is simple: get up and do something! What therapy does the person need beyond someone just saying “Stop it!” “Stop it!” “Go do it now, you pathetic self-pitying loser!”

But if this is therapy then depression is therapy. The depressed person is telling himself to do things all the time. His whole day can be consumed with the awareness of what he ought to “just get up and do”. As said above, the problem is not the lack of knowledge of what needs to be done- such knowledge is, if anything, a necessary component of depression. There is a real distinction between knowledge as awareness or illumination and knowledge as the dynamic force that pushes us into action, and when the two are divided knowledge is experienced only as a burden and a condemnation. But from where the depressed person is sitting, this burden is appropriate and fitting. There is something so willfully obtuse about the one who bullies their way through every sorrow. The energetic have no appreciation or proper horror in the face of sorrows. Sorrow is just brushed aside like an audience member who makes a dull-witted comment in a Q+A: the energetic look at it, say something polite but detached, and move on to the next thing. But this is certainly to miss something about all the absurdity and evil that one encounters in the world. Even if there is something wrong about depression, it is closer to the truth than an energetic and empowered response.

Both the depressed and the energetic see each other as infantile. From the point of view of the depressed, what is all this “get up and go” but the stupid and immature bravado of one who refuses to acknowledge absurdity, evil, and the meaninglessness of sheer chance for what it is? The sense that you always have something to hope for is either a childish optimism or a childish confidence in a power other than yourself, which makes one a child either way. But if both sides agree that the other is infantile, this provides a possible point of possible synthesis and critique. If we are in fact (at least in significant ways) as powerless as infants, perhaps the energetic and the depressed both express two ways of dealing with the fact.  The energetic capture an infant’s ability to move onto the next thing and not dwell it, the depressed capture the infant’s recognition that he is powerless in the face of circumstances. Seen from this angle, the depressed and the energetic each get a part of an appropriate response to human weakness and powerlessness.

If this tension between the depressed and the energetic is meant to lead us to some truth in which they harmonize, and if truth is known by its simplicity, then perhaps we’re supposed to see ourselves as children of a cosmic father. On the one hand, it is only in this that the energetic can have real confidence and not just bubbleheaded optimistic self-assertion; on the other, this way of vindicating their confidence also preserves the fundamental awareness that we are powerless in the face of what might come. The analogy does not work in every way of taking it (no analogy does) and this notion of cosmic fatherhood has to be faithful in preserving the powerlessness that we feel in the face of evil (note that it is not evil that bothers us, since an evil that was completely under our power wouldn’t bother us at all). Still, if the only goal is to find the reality that is only partially revealed in the lives of the depressed and the energetic, some sort of Sky Father presents itself as the simplest reality.

What sort of revision does scientific research call for on the Catholic doctrine of the fall?

John Farrell wrote about the problem that modern theories of polygenism pose to the Christian doctrine of the fall. The article was picked up by Bill Vallicella and Mike Liccione. Any time one mentions this controversy, the discussion threatens to explode in ten different directions at once, so I’ll cut to what I take to be the final answer, which I see as having three parts: (a) No revision of doctrine is necessary (b) defending the old doctrine does not require dialectical backflips and hair-splitting; and (c) The revision that is called for is not a revision in doctrine but a move from the simplest set of facts congruent with a doctrine to a less simple set of facts congruent with the same doctrine. The difference here is crucial: a change in doctrine would be like moving from evolution to creationism; a change in facts congruent with one doctrine would be like moving from incremental to macro evolution or from Paley’s design theory to Dembski’s.

The best science is that there was never a time when there was only one generating couple on earth. Right off the bat, there are difficulties in bringing this finding into conflict with the Scriptural text, since Cain finds people outside of Eden as soon as he is cast out of it. We can, of course, adopt the ancient Rabbinical commentary on this that Cain in fact finds only his brothers and sisters, though this interpretation is perhaps not the simplest one, and it also creates its own problems (What are his siblings doing outside of Eden anyway? There appear to be a good many persons with a good deal of technical skill out there.) Even after we take into account the mythical character of the story, it is not clear that the intention of the author was to have Adam enter into a world without human beings. It is true that Eve is called “the mother of all the living”, but in everyday language we mean more than one thing by this, which should become clear in a moment.

The difficulties in parsing out the Scriptural narrative make us cast about for a more unequivocal statement, and all sides agree that we find it in Humani Generis:

[T]he faithful cannot embrace that opinion which maintains that either after Adam there existed on this earth true men who did not take their origin through natural generation from him as from the first parent of all, or that Adam represents a certain number of first parents.

Usually, authors include the next sentence that gives the reason why one can’t hold either position, but this skips too quickly over what exactly Pius is condemning. Just look at the words of the first condemned opinion:

After Adam there existed on this earth true men who did not take their origin through natural generation from him as from the first parent of all.

This is a statement about the world after Adam. But when something happens over a period of time (as opposed to being a single event) to speak of what happened after it is usually to speak of what happened after it ended not after it began. For example, if you say “after Marcus Aurelius the persecution of Christians ended”, you are talking about what happened after Marcus died. After can also mean “after the beginning”, as in “After Constantine, the Christians received more rights”, but even this is ambiguous, since one is really trying to speak of something that happened during Constantine’s reign and not necessarily at its inception.

Why is this significant? Take two hypotheses:

1.) There were no men anywhere on earth. Then Adam was created. Then all later persons descend from him.

2.) There are men on earth. Then Adam was created. By the time he died, all living persons had him as an ancestor.

Pius’s condemnation doesn’t apply to either hypothesis. Said another way, if we want to decide between these hypotheses – even as faithful Catholics – we are going to appeal to something other than Pius’s condemnation. All other things being equal, of course, the first hypothesis is the simpler one and so is the reasonable one to adopt, and for the Church Fathers and almost every scriptural commentator up until very recently, this ceteris paribus clause still had force. There was, however, always reasons to question it: one  could have always wondered  where Cain’s wives and male citizens came from (as the Clarence Darrow character does in Inherit The Wind), or he could fall across a finding in physical science that the human population was always greater than 1. Either argument gives a reason to abandon the simplest hypothesis. The need to “revise theology” is therefore not a need to move from one doctrine to another, but from a simpler explanation of the doctrine to a less simple explanation. By “simple” I mean more or less the doctrine one would form at first glance, all other things being equal. Again, the motion is not from one doctrine to another but from a simpler to a less simple set of facts under the same doctrine. We are not moving from monogenism to polygenism, but from a simpler account of monogenism (all after Adam descended from him, and there were no others) to a more complex monogenism (all after Adam descended from Adam, but there were others.)


A Thomistic (sort of) divine command theory

(Read in one way, this might be taken as a refutation of divine command theories)

There is no intrinsic limit on what might be necessary or fitting for our right operation, and so the normative is a kind of being which is distinguished from other sorts of being. Said another way, given the right operation of will there is no intrinsic limit to what might be necessary, instrumental, or fitting to its operation. The will might find itself in necessary relation to either an evil or a good, God or a creature, a truth or an error, the physical or the spiritual, or even being or non-being. Just as the mind’s ability to contain these things within its own act makes truth a kind of being, so too the will’s ability to relate all these things to its right operation makes the good even as normative a kind of being. Note that this does not mean that the good as normative is the same as the transcendental good that St. Thomas says is “convertible with being”. The transcendental good is convertible with being so far as being rises above potency and so is perfect; the normative good is convertible with being so far as there is no intrinsic limit on what might come into relation to the will as perfective.

In creatures, imperfection in the order of transcendental good reduces to the real division of potency and act – and concretely to the real division between essence and existence; imperfection in the moral order reduces to the real division between essence and operation. For the same reason, existence in creatures is a way of participating in the absolute identity of the divine essence and existence, while the normative or moral is a way in which creatures (specifically, humans) participate in the absolute identity of the divine essence with its operation. The reduction of obligation or morality to a divine command can occur along this line of analysis, but, by the very terms of the analysis, the “command” must be understood as the identity of the divine operation and the divine essence.

The more we try to concretize this analysis of obligation or the normative, the more we find a need for a redoublement or two-track analysis, that is, we must have one track that understands the operation as an essence, and another that understands the essence as an operation, and specifically as the operation of the highest sort of agent. On the first line of analysis, we see a “command” in its fixed character or as an unchanging edict for all time. On the second line of analysis, we see the edict as a procession from a free act. In other words, we isolate two different features of what we call a “command”, but we have no experience of a command that admits of the sort of unity we analyze the divine act into. 

“Command” is an analogous term, that is, the meanings of “[human] command” and “divine command” are in one sense the same and in another sense different. They are the same so far as, when considering a command, we view it as either (a) a procession from the will or (b) a normative being. But the sense in which a human command is an (a) and (b) is not the same as the way a divine command is. The unity we find between (a) and (b) in human commands must be negated when speaking of divine commands.

Hypothesis: unless we keep these sort of distinctions in mind, divine command theories will be crushed under some version of the Euthyphro problem. We will be unable to deal with how the primary being is at once a person and yet fixed in the way of an eternal good.

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