The Euthyphro problem that one actually finds in the Euthyphro, pt. 1

In contemporary philosophy, “The Euthyphro Problem” is a question about why things are good and about the difficulties in (a caricature of) divine command theory, but this is a very different question from the question raised in the Plato’s dialogue Euthyphro, which treats of various dilemmas that arise in trying to define what piety is. Euthyphro continually fails to define piety by continually failing to describe a being that would be worthy of piety, which is to say that he never comes up with an adequate notion of the sort of being that deserves to be worshiped as divine. This is hardly a hidden teaching of the dialogue, since the first definition of piety that Euthyphro gives is:

Piety is what I am doing, charging my father with murder…. For do not men regard Zeus as the best and most righteous of the gods?-and yet they admit that he bound his father (Cronos) because he wickedly devoured his sons, and that he too had punished his own father (Uranus) for a similar reason, in a nameless manner.

To which Socrates responds:

This is the reason, Euthyphro, why I am a defendent in this case – that I cannot accept these stories about the gods.

In other words, Socrates rejects the whole basis of Euthyphro’s piety, and he suspects that this is the reason why the Athenians are putting him on trial.  The dialogue is therefore a call to reform a false notion of what is divine in order to articulate the nature of a being to whom piety would be due.

Both Socrates and Euthyphro are working from the supposition that one and the same thing or action cannot not be both pious and impious. Following this, the problems that arise in finding an object of piety arise mainly from the problems of understanding the act of the divine will, that is, divine love. If a pious action is an object of divine love, then we require complete singularity and unanimity of the divine will; for without complete and unchanging unanimity, one and the same action can be both pious and impious. Euthyphro could have avoided this problem by stipulating that one and the same action could be pious or not, depending on which god one related it to (and so, famously, killing Trojans would be pious to Athena and impious to Hera), but Euthyphro, much to his credit, is not willing to accept such relativism. There might be some actions that are loved by one god and hated by another, but such actions cannot exhaust all pious actions, and certainly not the loftiest such actions.  However misguided Euthyphro might be about the piety of his own action, he nevertheless is right to never abandon the idea that some actions are just pious, now and forever. Euthyphro isn’t willing to accept the logical consequences of this opinion, however. It makes no sense to think that the pious is not somehow an object of divine love; but if something is absolutely and changelessly pious, what then? Euthyphro would probably make an even stronger claim: there are things which admit no possibility of being impious. But it is very hard to harmonize such an idea with a multiplicity of divine wills, and therefore with a multitude of divinities; and it even becomes difficult to harmonize with a single divinity that could change his will from one thing to another. This, of course, opens a new difficulty and problem, which Socrates develops with a second series of arguments.

Republic V, 476c.

If the world is a likeness of something that simply exists, and most of all satisfies what it means to exist or be good or be beautiful, what then?

So he who believes in beautiful things, but not in beauty itself, and is not able to follow someone who tries to guide him to the knowledge of it — do you think that his life is a dream or a waking? Just consider. Is not the dream state… just this: the taking of the resemblance for the thing itself?


The Thomist account of creation and its opposite pt. 1

Derek Jeffreys commented a recent post, and I mentioned at the time that I very much liked his 2004 critique of the non-reductive Physicalism of Nancy Murphy. While there is a good deal that I’d like to speak about in the essay, for the moment I’ll only talk about a point that arises from the essay. Murphy defends a claim about creation that, while very reasonable, is diametrically opposed to the Thomistic account and which carries with it very far-reaching implications for our human accounts of the world.

First, Murphy’s opinion, which claims that what God creates:

“Has a measure of independent existence relative to God, notwithstanding the fact that God keeps all things in existence. To put the point another way, if God were completely in control of each event, there would be no-thing to keep in existence. To create something, even so lowly a thing as an electron, is to grant it some measure of independence and a nature of its own, including inherent power to do some things rather than others.”

[Jeffreys quotes Murphy further] At all levels of creation, God creates “genuine individuals, with his or her own integrity, created powers, capacities, and typical behavior” that enable them to participate in creation. Moreover, God never overpowers God’s creatures, acting instead to sustain and influence them within their nature and powers. Thus, at the quantum level, God respects the “rights” of sub-atomic particles, acting within their inherent powers to actualize “one or another of the quantum entity’s innate powers at particular instants.

This is Molinism, by which I mean the actual historically held opinion of Luis de  Molina SJ, not what Analytic philosophers mean by the term. On this account, the independence of created things requires that their action be partially the result of created causes, and partially the result of divine causes. Creating independent things means God keeps his hands off of them and  never overpowers them by violating their natures. Deism represents one extreme and simplified version of this, where God causes things to be, and every subsequent action is entirely reduced to the things created, though perhaps it is occasionally violated by a miracle (note how miracles are now violations of natural law and order). It’s a reasonable opinion, but Thomism rejects it root and branch. Why?

On the Jesuit opinion, to bestow esse, that is, to create, is not to bestow the act of all acts and the perfection of all perfections in the sense of giving that without which there is absolutely nothing at all; rather creation gives “the act of acts” in the sense that there is some real actuality apart from it, namely the actuality that God “lets be” or “allows to happen” (we explicitly leave aside the privations that are allowed to exist). On St. Thomas’s way of seeing things, this is a failure to understand what creation is. Apart from what is given in the act of creation, there is absolutely no positive being. For a Thomist, Molina’s opinion requires saying that there are some positive reality in creation (whether substances or operations) which is not a created thing; that is, there are some creatures that are not creatures. One cannot specify anything other than God himself apart from the act of creation – there is no such being, whether actual or possible.


Being like unto God

For St. Thomas, love is the principle of every action (Divine Names IV l. 9; ST I. 20. 1 co.) This presupposes some point of nexus or agreement between the one desiring and the desired thing, and so presupposes the unity of things somehow diverse, that is, of similitude. This opens up new vistas of possibility for the revelation of Genesis that man is the image and likeness of God. If likeness or similitude is the basis of love, then our likeness to God is that foundation in our nature that allows us to love him. Thus, our existential or phenomenological experience of our likeness to God manifests itself in and through our dissatisfaction with the finite, or ontologically in the very contradiction we find in being satisfied in the finite as finite. The love of God is therefore a testimony to the possibility of metaphysics, for this love presupposes something divine in the human person by way of similitude.

Defining torture

I’ve watched  a few rounds of the debate over torture and was struck by how early and often the demand comes up to “define torture”. There seems to be some sort of silent agreement on both sides that this is an impossible thing to do. I’m missing something here since the action doesn’t seem that hard to define: the use of physical pain to break the will of another, where “breaking the will” (which can mean more than one thing) means “breaking ones self possession”. The definition manifests why such an action would be intrinsically evil, since to be in possession of ones own power to choose or of ones own will is necessary for human dignity. A man is a lord of his action, so much so that to attempt to break this lordship is, in a very real sense, worse than murder. It is the attempt to kill what is most of all human in a human being.

“God” as the name of a nature

(I’ve been tinkering with this all night, though I had to take a few hours off for a dinner party)

Dale Tuggy has a several-months-old poll that asks which of the following claims is false:

  1. The Christian God is a self.
  2. The Christian God is the Trinity.
  3. The Trinity is not a self.

One wonders if all we have here is the old dispute about hypostasis or substance returning in the modern world self. Overtones of the problem remain in the word substance, which means (even in English) both an individual and a kind of thing. This instability in the concept reflects the perplexity of human mind, which is aware that individual things exist but is unable to understand them except as sorts of things. Though we want “self” to mean the peculiar individual who is just this and no other, the word will necessarily and spontaneously mean a sort of thing, namely a nature that can direct his own acts, that exists of itself, etc.

But an ambiguity that is more illustrative of the relation between “God” and “self” can be seen in a word like president. On the one hand, we use this to speak of an office that is communicable to many and distinct from any one occupying it. On the other hand, “president” can be taken as the name of an individual. “God” appears to have the same basic structure: it is the name for a dignity, a topmost place in a universal hierarchy, etc. So far as we take it in this way, it is not the name of a self. But in a secondary sense the term extends to the one who holds the dignity or is at the top of the hierarchy, and for this reason “God” naturally extends its meaning to what possesses that nature.

Following out an insight like this, St. Thomas wouldn’t consider it odd to deny 1. “God” for him was first of all a nature as opposed to a proper name. Dale takes the term in this sense too, since he is speaking of the Christian God, which clearly takes “God” as a generic term that admits of specification (presumably, adding “Christian” just specifies we are speaking about the Christian take on this generic nature – “the Christian God” is not a personal name). So if we take “self” as describing an individual as opposed to a kind of thing (which seems to be what we mean first), then it is straightforwardly false that God is a self, just as the president is not a self but an office that could be held by any number of individual selves.

Perhaps executive would be an even better example, since it is the name of an office that can be held by one or many at once, though it can also be the name of an individual…

The dependence of time on change as a metaphysical principle

It’s hard to get anywhere in explaining what time is without saying that it is secondary or subsequent to change, and there is a pretty broad agreement that this is the case. Both Plato and Aristotle agreed to it, and their disciples followed them. Mc Taggart defines the principle in question well in his famous essay The Unreality of Time:

It would, I suppose, be universally admitted that time involves change. A particular thing, indeed, may exist unchanged through any amount of time. But when we ask what we mean by saying that there were different moments of time, or a certain duration of time, through which the thing was the same, we find that we mean that it remained the same while other things were changing. A universe in which nothing whatever changed (including the thoughts of the conscious beings in it) would be a timeless universe.

The immediate retort, of course, is that we have no problem imagining a world of completely frozen motion and thought (it’s a common enough sci-fi or comic-hero superpower) and there is a clear sense in talking about how long such a thing would be frozen. And so as long as we are thinking about  “A universe in which nothing whatever changed (including the thoughts of the conscious beings in it)”, why can’t we think of it existing for some time?  Even if we leave aside the question of “how long”, isn’t it obvious that a frozen world is still a temporal one, simply because the presence or absence of motion isn’t usually thought to have any effect on whether something is temporal? The genius of McTaggart’s explanation is that he incorporates a response to this: ” A particular thing, indeed, may exist unchanged through any amount of time. But when we ask what we mean by saying that there were different moments of time, or a certain duration of time, through which the thing was the same, we find that we mean that it remained the same while other things were changing”. And so we can eliminate this or that change from the temporal world, but to think on the basis of this that we could make some sort of radical division between thought and change would be, in light of Mc Taggart’s principle, the fallacy of composition. Whatever might change or not in a particular case, it remains that the modality of time tracks perfectly the modality of change.

This is a particularly powerful example of a metaphysical principle, not because it is the clearest one, but because it shows the sort of discourse on experience that metaphysics requires. The principle is not revealed by the repetition of experience, but by the deepening meditation on what is given in initial experience. There is a good deal of discourse involved in getting the point of seeing the principle clearly, but the discourse does not consist in a multiplication of some one experience nor in the unification of some field of data under a single idea. There is only the development of what is given in an initial experience of temporality, which reveals the nexus between temporality and a change that differs from the change in time.

Tinkering with truthmakers

Bill Vallicella returns now and again (and more often of late) to the discussion of truthmakers (see here for a great quick account in no. 1 and 2). It’s an interesting idea to tinker with.

Vallicella’s method is to start with the case where truthmakers are easiest to see in the hopes of working his way out. Because of this, he limits his examples to singular, positive, contingent (SPC) propositions like “Tom is sitting” or “Jones is sick”. Problematically, even SPC’s are difficult enough, and so one never gets to the point of considering other propositions. This raises the question whether the difficulty might be that we are considering the SPC too generally, since we are looking at it with an eye to understanding all propositions. Would it be better to consider what “truthmaking” would be for the singular and contingent as such, and not merely as true?

But of course it won’t do to try to consider the matter without some consideration of propositions as true. The whole question is about truthmakers, and without an account of truth we’re in no position to speak about how it might be made. Vallicella, like most Analytic philosophers, appears to be working from the idea that truth is a form (they would say property) of propositions. One can balk at this account – both Aristotle and St. Thomas take truth not as a feature added to a complete proposition, but as the action of making the proposition itself. Like all making it presupposes a standard, and truth appears to consist in attaining that standard. This is all lost if we treat the already made proposition as the subject of truth, which might be the source of some problems. Perhaps, we might say, that if the question is really about truthmaking then we cannot answer it by thinking truth as belonging to a proposition already made with respect to its truth. One does not make the proposition and then make it true over and above this, one rather makes the proposition true in the act of making it, not in the sense that the act of making suffices to make it true, but because in making we make according to a standard that can either be attained or not. On this account, the “truth maker” can be considered either as a.) as the standard or b.) as the activity (or person) that pulls apart proposition parts or identifies them in an effort to attain the standard, or c.) the proposition parts themselves. It’s easy to recognize three of the four causes here. The one that is left out is the formal cause, since forms do not exist during making. So perhaps that’s the problem.

Take the SPC proposition again, say “Cain is a fratricide”. At the beginning of Genesis IV it is false, at the end it is true. Vallicella sees one and the same proposition which goes from having one property to having another. Again, his thought is that there is a single subject that exits in two different truth states (having and lacking). But if we saw truth as a real making, that is, as a making of a proposition, which like all making is done with an eye to a standard, then to make “Cain is a fratricide” is not the same action at the beginning of the chapter as at the end of it. It’s not that one and the same thing goes from having a property to losing it. What happens is analogous to if your grandma made you a pair of pajamas for your first birthday and then made an identical pair (identical in all respects, including size) for your thirteenth birthday. The proposition is not numerically the same proposition, even if one writes it down and looks at it twice, since there are numerically two different acts of making. In other words, the proposition is not a single subject that goes from having one property to having another.

But then have I simply moved the goalposts to the discussion of the “standard”? Here again, even if I did, I think it pushes the discussion of truthmakers forward. Making needs a standard, that is, something that specifies that the making is of this and not that, and if we see truth making as (for us) the making of a proposition (as opposed to the proposition itself, except by extension) then we’ve made a real advance. But what is this “standard”? Is it a fact? a projection of the proposition? Is there any unproblematic way of describing it?

At the bare minimum, it is being as communicable to mind, or being as present to mind. This is simply what it means to serve as a standard for mind. Since we can experience in ourselves no intrinsic limit of making propositions- said positively, since we experience our infinite power with respect to making propositions – it follows that there is no limit to the manner in which being is communicable to mind. In fact, we must set up a real identity between being and its communicability or presence to mind, since if we did not we would have to posit something that could be but about which we could not make a statement about its being. It would be an unknowable about which it would not be true to say it was an unknowable. But there are no such things. Therefore being as being is communicable to mind. The difference is in our consideration and not in the reality we consider. Something of this sort of universality is required to account for the standard as a standard, even if it does not explain this or that standard.

The Heideggerian problematic and the Thomistic reduction to actuality

Let’s take Heidegger’s fundamental metaphysical question as being about what makes the being of entities possible. Whether one considers the being of beings (the entia, in St. Thomas’s Latin, or the Heideggerian ontic) or the very being of beings (St. Thomas’s esse) Heidegger wants to figure out something else, namely the condition of the possibility of ens/esse. Seen from this angle, Heidegger has ground to critique the Thomistic claim that the condition for the possibility of ens or esse is ipsum esse subsistens, for he appears to ask a more fundamental question that is simply not addressed by speaking of God as the cause of ens/esse. “Ontotheology” stops short of seeing the fundamental metaphysical question of how being as being can be given at all. That said, the mind completely fails out in the face of what could satisfy such a condition, for the critique of ontotheology cannot be contained to mere theology: any reality that might allow for the possibility of entities would fall by the same critique. And so being becomes an absolute abgrund of nothingness, dynamically giving birth to things from an unthinkable oblivion.

There are two obscure responses. The more familiar one – which is almost a reflex to contemporary Thomists – is to invoke analogous names. God is not some member of a set called “being” (whether ens or esse) just as the idea of a house is not some member of a class called “houses” (which might include, say, ramblers, colonials, split-levels, etc.) We can speak of a “house” in the mind without placing it among the class of houses. In fact, the closer an actual house gets to completion – the closer it gets to being an actual house – the further it gets from the sort of being that characterizes the house in the mind, for it gets closer and closer to existing by itself in matter. The fullness of its being thus consists in a separation in being from its source. At the limit of such a division, the very notion of being itself must admit of a division.

A better obscurity – and I say that it is better because St. Thomas considers it at greater length – is to point to focus on the notion of possibility. On the Thomistic account, the condition for the possibility of ens/esse reduces not just to the ipsum esse subsistens but also to the divine potentia, and St Thomas wrote a massive treatise on the power of God.  The first question God asks is whether God had power at all. This is a much thornier question than it first appears: power is a sort of indetermination (at the very least, it is an indetermination to the exercise of the power) but indetermination involves non-being, and so it seems that by making power intrinsic to God we make non-being intrinsic to ipsum esse subsistens- which is a pretty clear contradiction. St. Thomas here speaks in words that makes it clear that he appreciates the force of the difficulty:

It must be said that our intellect strains to express God as some most perfect being, because it cannot attain to him except from a similitude to his effects, and there is not found in creatures some highest perfection wholly lacking imperfection… and so we attribute power by reason of what remains [through the action] and what is its source, and not by reason of that which is perfected by the exercise of power [ed. or by the thing made].

Sed et sciendum, quod intellectus noster Deum exprimere nititur sicut aliquid perfectissimum. Et quia in ipsum devenire non potest nisi ex effectuum similitudine; neque in creaturis invenit aliquid summe perfectum quod omnino imperfectione careat… [and so] Potentiam vero attribuimus ratione eius quod permanet et quod est principium eius, non ratione eius quod per operationem completur.

QDP 1.1. co

To read the whole response one is struck by the uncharacteristic language of the intellect straining (nititur) to express itself. But note that the key thing it is trying to express is perfection. This is Aristotle’s great contribution to the question of being- he identifies act and perfection (to the extent of making them synonyms) and makes act knowable only by a pure intuition (though an intuition that is facilitated by comparisons and examples), and not in light of any other prior known or even more knowable thought. There is nothing more one can say about act than that it is what seeing is to the power sight, what the finished building is to the pile of building materials, what the oak is to the seed, what a meaning is to the sound of the word, and what God is to the universe. Act cannot be reduced any more than being can, since being is act.

And so a Thomist sees – at least claims to see – that the reduction of the question of being to the ground of its possibility can only be meaningful in the sense of a possibility which is active power. Given the status of our intellect, we conceive power as being both a source and fountainhead, and an incomplete and indeterminate sort of being, at least with respect to its exercise.  It is precisely the notion of perfection that allows us to make a division in these two elements, and if we did not reduce being itself to perfection it would be absolutely impossible for us to dissociate these two elements. But it is better to drop this last counterfactual and put the claim positively: it is because we understand being as a perfection, though in a hazy way, that, when we reduce being to the ground of its possibility, we are befuddled by whether this ground is absolute nothingness or the supreme existence. We haven’t yet purified the notion of possibility in light of being as perfection, which illuminates that our very notion of possibility is divided against itself and needs to be distinguished in light of the first and irreducible concept of actuality or perfection.

Ending the supposed primacy of fact

The idea that the basic structure of human knowing starts with facts that are explained by hypotheses needs to go. In fact this is not even a basic description of what science is.

-If we trace the thought back to what is supposed to be the first fact, we find it isn’t a fact. It’s not some given that shows up to consciousness with its own name tag, and already neatly cut off from the indefinite field of things we could have focused on, questioned, been interested in, or seen fit to integrate into a broader research program. Who ever saw such a “fact”? Darwin certainly saw no such thing when he saw finch beaks, neither did Oersted when he saw his compass needles twitch when they were put by live wires. None of these were “facts” apart from an already given research program, a set of questions, and a set of traps that the mind had already laid out in the hopes of making a catch. The theory determines what can be observed.

The last sentence is a direct quotation from Einstein. It was originally addressed to Heisenberg and, by his own account, was the motivating spirit that empowered him to see his famous uncertainty principle (all the details are in Louisa Gilder’s fantastic The Age of Entanglement). Heisenberg was absolutely floored to hear Einstein say this, and pointed out  that the whole basis of the theory of Relativity was based on putting observation before theoretical construct. Einstein responded saying “I may have said that when I was young. I may have even wrote it. But it was nonsense all the same.”

-A thing is in the knower according to the mode of the knower. The mode of the knower is a sort of trap we set for parts of experience  and the mind might be best viewed as a trap maker for the elements of experience. Experience is infinite, the mind has an ability to make infinite traps, and knowing is trap making. The mind doesn’t just wake up to experience with its food ready-made in the fridge.

The claim that everything can be figured out by positive methods is a liar paradox, but everyone knows this an it tends to keep us from seeing a deeper problem. The deepest problem with the idea is that it is simply wrong about how science works. Facts do not appear and then wait to be gathered into theory. The theory always comes first, though for the vast multitude the deepest and most causal theories are transparent, and they simply take them for granted until the inevitable crisis of foundations, which usually just amounts to our re-recognition of the deep theories which were transparent to us, and which constituted the facts. 

-“Science” does not consist in moving beyond philosophy, but in making a kind of philosophy transparent to one who will be considered “the scientist”.

That no scientific fact is primary is clear by considering any one of them at random. Pressure drops with temperature. This is a fact because you can drop the former while you watch a column of mercury contract in a pipette. This is a fact? Whoever thought to mediate the feeling of the coming winter with the sight of a glass pipette? And why were we marking off lines on a pipette anyway? The reduction must hits a theory, and a rather large one at that.

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