Nature and sensation

Contemporary physics is dealing with the new problem of incorporating the observer into physical definitions and laws, but this throws light on a problem that has always been with the science of nature. On the one hand, nature is a real system outside of us that is unified in an obvious way; but on the other hand nature is what is given to sensation. Now to define nature as what is given to sensation is to make it observer-relative from the start, and to define something in terms of what is very distant from its nature. So far as our sensation is common with animals, it does not even have truth as a value, which is why it is not always easy to detangle the reality of a thing in sense from what is merely useful to our life. Beetles and flies, presumably, rejoice in the sweet smell of poo.

The deeper problem is that even if sense were perfectly objective, the only way we could identify nature as a unified whole with nature as given to sense is if we said we had every possible sensation. But nothing could have all possible sensations, or even all possible sense experiences one could have from a single sense. Sensation is a melange of the object and the animal, and so even a single medium of sense and a single object could give rise to indefinite sensations (as Berkeley points out, just the differences in natural desire and size could make essentially different sense experiences from one object and medium).

Though we can’t have every possible sense experience, we try to overcome it by the common sensibles. Why not say that through the common sensibles we attain to something that would be given in any possible sense? How could a sense experience fails to have at least one thing from a list like motion, number, position, time, magnitude, etc.? But how do we see this about common sensibles? It won’t do to say that we cannot imagine having any sense experience without a common sensible, since we could say the same thing about the proper sensibles. We cannot appeal to anything in the sensible field, whether by its presence or absence (like darkness/black). So nothing seen in light or darkness can serve as the basis to say that nature is sensible, and yet this is the foundation of the possibility of natural science.



Note on Chesterton

I love Chesterton, but it is striking to notice the extent to which people miss how radical (and even postmodern) he is. One of the themes that runs throughout his thought is a notion of the contingency of the world that is so radical that he thinks it is not more rational that a tree, say, should send forth blossoms than that it should send forth flying trumpets. One doesn’t have to dig around or reason to this in Chesterton, it is a theme that runs like an antiphon throughout his work, and he tells us flat-out that it is the central belief of his thought when he gives his classic articulation of his intellectual development in the fourth chapter of Orthodoxy (i.e. in”The Ethics of Elfland”, which stands by itself as its own work.) His critique of causality very much suggests Hume: there is no “chain of causation” (“the worst chain to eve fetter a man”, as GK puts it) there is only weird repetition, while reality is such that one should be (pleasantly) surprised to find that it would, say, snow during an Alaskan winter than that it should be ninety degrees or rain frogs.

Chesterton’s belief seems grounded on thinking that poetic or mythological insight is attuned to the real just as much as logical or scientific discourse. While the default setting among us Westerners is that the scientific and abstract attains to the real and poetics and mythologizing attains only to a humanized and largely subjective world, for Chesterton they are all apiece. The world has a logical character (though it is a “trap for logicians” too), but this is entirely incorporated and inseparable from its poetic character. The mode of progression distinctive of calculation, syllogism, and symbolization is not intrinsically more objective than mythologizing or poetics, or at least they are not divided as the objective from the subjective.

The object, and the that-by-which it is an object

Looking over the goods of the world, one finds none that of itself would suffice to make its possessor good; and when one considers what such a “good possessor” would be, one speaks of a power or person characterized by goodness. Plato sees in this a fundamental problem with making good object-like, and so takes the radical step of saying that good is what constitutes things as objects at all. No sooner do we do this, however, than we make the good an essence or object like the objects it constitutes in being. We formalize our confusion by defining Platonism as a dualist doctrine that posits exactly two entities: the various object of the world and “the good” or “the forms”. But this operation is nothing but a receding from the world and a forgetting of the things in consciousness that arises from being absorbed into some sort of interior blackboard on which we have written a picture like “all things” with a circle around it, with an arrow pointing up to another circle that has “the good” written in it. There you have it! Two things! How will we ever resolve this Platonic dualism? In fact, the only reality of these “two things” is on our imaginary blackboard. Plato can reproach us by saying that he was talking about the world, not some child’s diagram we draw after we have receded to a place where the world itself has fallen inert. One doesn’t see goodness in the world. It is not an object. One can see piles of money, alluring pleasures, heroic deeds, monks praying in caves, etc., but the relation these things have to the good is not a relation to an object. It might even be helpful to divide it from relation.

This same inner blackboard fallacy is at the heart of our mistakes about creation, the divine causality, immaterial being, and even being itself. To even use the words is to assume that one has already made the mistake. The “object” or “things” are all givens, with their various relations to one another (say the relation of higher and lower or cause). But these objects are constituted as objects and things only by a relation to another which cannot be understood as a relation from one object to another. Heidegger deserves credit for being the first to never muddle this distinction between the object and that-by-which it is an object, and to recognize the far-reaching consequences of what this division entailed. Nonetheless, this has always been one of the central problems of philosophy. One could present the whole history of philosophy as the various attempts to articulate the division between the object and the by which it is an object, and the overlookings of this division.

Pluralism and its opposite, II

Pluralism and its opposite are divided by way of truth: we are pluralist about whatever multitude of beliefs is not measured by the truth of one of the members of the multitude, whereas in the opposite of pluralism (let’s call it “absolutism”, just to have something to say) it is the truth of one of the members of some multitude that measures the truth of the other members. Though Westerners are absolutist about scientific claims or (often) about secular representative democracy, when it comes to religious claims we are pluralist. Each man is orthodox to himself, and that’s all there is to it. All the purported testimony of the various gods is equal, and so no one testimony measures the truth of others. This basic line goes from Locke’s Letter Concerning Toleration to John Loftus’s Outsider Test.

We can hit two dead-ends in trying to explain the division between pluralism and absolutism. The first is to assert that everything is ideology, that is, that Western absolutism about science or secular representative democracy is just as much an ideology as religion, and that it is no different than the absolutism of other people in other places or other times. Milder versions of this same belief assert that everything is a “worldview” or that every doctrine rests on faith. But reducing everything to ideologies or power structures as opposed to truth overlooks the power of the attraction we have towards truth itself. Even if we say that sciences claim to truth is nothing but propaganda, this speaks to the magnitude and intensity of our attraction to truth. On the other hand, though it’s incoherent to see everything as ideology, the division between pluralism and absolutism is also not by truth, but by a particular group enforcing an orthodoxy about one sort of truth through means like social ostracism, granting favors to the like-minded, the use of taboos and witch hunts, the glamor and pomp of its power and widespread approval, or the use of plain brute force. As far as truth is concerned, the difference between absolutism and pluralism only involves conflating of the absence of one mode of truth or objective standard with the absence of truth or an objective standard altogether.

Truth is nothing more than the good of the intellect, that is, it is nothing more than what an intellect wants – and no absolutist doctrine can claim to give the intellect everything that it wants. It’s axiomatic that a person wants more out of an intellect than the orderly arrangement of metrically interpreted sense-data in line with some hypothesis, or some doctrine that tells him how persons should arrange themselves justly into a group. Truth is an infinite and variegated as desire, and no doctrine is anything more than one development in a universe of inhabitable territory. Even a “grand theory of everything” would be limited to a single method, a single logos or ratio of subjects it treated of, etc.

QDV q. 1 a. 5 ad 5

The truth according by which the soul judges all things is the first truth;

For just as the innate species of things flow from the truth of the divine intellect into the angelic mind,

So also the truth of the first principles by which we judge all things proceeds, in the mode of an exemplar (exemplariter), from the truth of the divine intellect into our mind.

And because we could not judge by it so far as it is the likeness of the first truth, therefore we are also said to judge all things by the first truth.

veritas secundum quam anima de omnibus iudicat, est veritas prima. Sicut enim a veritate intellectus divini effluunt in intellectum angelicum species rerum innatae, secundum quas omnia cognoscunt; ita a veritate intellectus divini procedit exemplariter in intellectum nostrum veritas primorum principiorum secundum quam de omnibus iudicamus. Et quia per eam iudicare non possemus nisi secundum quod est similitudo primae veritatis, ideo secundum primam veritatem dicimur de omnibus iudicare.

“To proceed in the mode of an exemplar”. An exemplar is what an artist looks to in creating, and so this sort of truth arises in judgment because judgment consists in making something. But why is it that the thing about which we are speaking cannot be the exemplar? Why wouldn’t  it suffice to have the whiteness of the snow be the exemplar of the truth we might make about it? Some possibilities:

1.) We can experience looking not just to the thing, but also to truth as a value when we seek to make truth in judgment. Even where there is not one method or criterion for what will count as true, we still can experience looking to the truth and not merely to this or that thing that might terminate the judgment.

2.) Any power that desires something has, as an exemplar, the ideal of what might entirely satisfy the desire once and for all. But no truth in particular could be such an ideal. This leaves for an ideal only some truth containing all others as the source and font of them all.

3.) We were given truths as exemplars by which we know all truths. But truths are from minds. That we have a desire for parsimony, avoiding contradiction, etc. might be explained by a natural process, but it wouldn’t explain why they are true.


Truth is what the intellect desires. So the answer to “what is truth?” comes from asking the intellect what do you want?

Pluralism and its opposite, pt. 1

Take diversity of belief as a given, that is, we believe X and some other group believes Y. What’s fascinating is how this difference leads in some instances to pluralism and in another instances to hieratic structures or judgments of good and evil. By “pluralism” I mean the idea  that everyone’s own belief, and the diverse goods that come from them are the last opinion in the matter; as opposed to thinking that all these opinions are to be measured against some external standard. At present in the West, the majority thinks that religious diversity is pluralist; we are evenly split on political diversity (some large groups think one political system is better than another while others are pluralist); and almost no one thinks that diversity in the explanations of events is pluralist (we will tolerate no pluralism when it comes to the natives explanation that a crocodile ate someone because a witch doctor cast a spell, and our explanation that there is no real relation between what the witch doctor and crocodile do, and that the connection is purely by chance if it is not by some natural mechanism.)

Taking a bird’s-eye view of the difference between pluralism and its opposite, it’s first interesting to note that the opposite has no name. We are pluralist about religion but ______ist about science…. what goes in the blank? There is no answer, of course, because the native’s view of witch-doctor causation is wrong and we are right. It’s not some matter of an overarching ideology or “-ism”. Again, we only advance secular representative democracy (or freedom) in the undeveloped world or the Muslim world because secular representative democracy is the best form of governance, and not because we are in the throes of  some ideology or “-ism”. I am not trying to be ironic here, only descriptive; I am not making any claim about truth but only about fact. Western consciousness is  structured such that pluralism about religion is a commonly accepted norm, pluralism about politics is less common but least intelligible, and pluralism about natural explanations or chance events is utterly forbidden. But it obviously won’t work to think I can treat this as just a fact when the very reason we consign some opinions to pluralism is because they lack truth. To say that Western consciousness is simply one mode of consciousness is to contest its claim: it is to contest the idea that it only holds what it believes for ideological reasons, whereas this is exactly what is being rejected. So what now?

Puzzling over definitions

I had intended to teach the Meno as treatise on forming definitions, but the class erupted into a controversy over the very first claim that Socrates makes. Meno first tries to define virtue by giving a series of examples of the virtue, and Socrates makes the obvious point that he wanted a definition and not a list. But the students were at each others throats over a dispute that ultimately crystallized into the argument that

Definitions are of things taken commonly.

What exists is not a thing taken commonly.

Therefore definitions are not of what exists.

Said negatively:

What we define is not a particular instance of something

What exists is a particular instance of something

What we define is not what exists; and what exists is not what is defined.

The first premise in each argument is exactly what Socrates is proving at the beginning of the dialogue, but the second premise seems pretty strongly attested to by experience.

At least one student explained the problem by saying that the defined does exist, and that all the particular instances where just participations in it. Without thinking something like this, it is very hard to account for the fact that definition is a perfection in our knowledge of the real. Ceteris paribus, it’s obvious that the one who could define something knows more about it than the one who cannot. The particulars no more exist than iron is hot, which is to say, if a particular exists, it’s only because this is radiating to it from some other source.

The Aristotelian response is to divide the way in which something is known from the way in which it exists. In practice, however, this tends to lead to a dangerous oversimplification, for we tend to distinguish the mode in which intellect knows from the mode of the real, while we secretly identify the mode in which sensation knows with the mode of the real. Things, so says the Aristotelian, do not exist as universals, for the mode of knowing is different from the mode of existence. But by the same logic, things do not exist as particulars, for the mode of knowing for sense must also be assumed to be different from the mode of existence. This leads us to the strange conclusion that the existent things of our experience are neither universal nor particular. One can certainly believe this (Avicenna did… or was it Averroes… and STA followed him, at least in the De ente et essentia.)

A Thomist answer in addition to the Aristotelian one given above is that the particular things in our experience – material things – are not perfect instances of things defined. To use the lingo, they are not perfect quiddities. This answer too is paradoxical, since definition is only an appropriate way of understanding material things, and so we are led to the odd conclusion that definition in the strict sense (which is of material things) is of things that can’t be defined in the strict sense (since they are not quiddities).


Minimal natural theologies (Complexity pt. II)

The most minimal natural theology would be to say that God is seen from looking at nature, but that no one can describe the formality under which one sees him, or perhaps that the foundation of the inference to the divine cannot be put in abstract formal language. Aristotle’s cave dwellers made an inference from nature to divinity, but we needn’t assume that any of them could put it in formal or systematic language. The least possible natural theology would argue that it is impossible to articulate this formality – maybe by an argument like this: God can only be inferred from nature so far as our cognitive powers are present and drawn into nature itself, but one need not have his cognitive powers present and drawn into nature when making some abstract argument (since one can give such arguments in ugly classrooms to people who have never seen anything but ugly cities, and have never seen nature as anything more than a resource dump that they must either exploit or irrationally defend), therefore etc…

A theology only slightly less minimal would allow for an abstract or formal inference from nature to the divine, but the principles of the argument would be either contested, opaque, or limp to the intellectual dispositions of most persons. One could argue for this using the same argument given above.

Like all doctrines that are too narrow, these theologies accentuate important truths. There is an inference to the divine from nature that eludes systematization, or at least that is never adequately seen in our various attempts to articulate it. This inference might require prerequisites, but it does not require a developed logical system, formal education, or even an awareness that knowledge can be systematized. But for all that, it still counts as a rational inference. This does not presume that the inference is correct, only that rational inferences are not exhausted by systematic ones, or even inferences that can be turned into systems. Even where systematization is possible, it is reasonable to expect that certain systematic truths can only be seen by those with particular moral dispositions, as Augustine claimed, following the teaching of the sixth beatitude.

Complexity and the divine inference pt. I

Does the Darwinian critique of design arguments show us a way in which we are not articulating the inference to the divine correctly?

Assume that the Darwinian critique is this: Nature is complex, and, while natural theology argues that this complexity could not arise except through some intelligence arranging the complex form, the Darwinian proves that mechanisms like selection and drift explain how complexity need not arise in such a way. And so the central idea, taken as a given by both sides, is that the complexity nature provides the inference to the divine. But, at least in my own experience of inferring God’s existence from the world of experience, it is not the complexity of the world that provides the point of departure. The sort of experience that, in my experience, would be most apt to making an inference to the divine would be watching my two-minute-old daughter start breastfeeding. I wouldn’t expect everyone to  make the same inference, or even that I would make the same inference if I watched someone else’s child start nursing, still less if I considered nursing in the abstract. But there is a luminosity in nursing in front of which reason and intellect are struck dumb. This luminosity would only increase if you gave me an intuitive vision, as sharp as a movie reel, of the evolutionary development from the first protein strand to the first breastfeeding human. In fact,  I’d probably be struck by an ecstasy that would glow through the rest of my life. Again, I’m not saying that everyone who experiences this would make the same inference I do – or even that I would make the same inference under more or less equal circumstances. But this is still the basic sort of experience from which I move from the natural world to the divine, and the fulcrum of the experience is not its complexity.

Many people have had this experience in the face of natural things, though one of the most common causes of the experience is the sight of the stars. It would be hard to beat Aristotle’s account of this experience:

Let us assume that there existed human creatures who had always lived beneath the earth, in comfortable and well-lit dwellings, decorated with statues and pictures, and furnished with all the luxuries enjoyed by human beings considered supremely happy. Though they had never come forth from the ground, they had learned by report and hearsay of the existence of certain divine powers or deities. Suppose then, that the jaws of the earth would open, and they would be able to escape from their hidden abodes and come forth into the regions which we inhabit. When, then, they caught sight of the earth and the sea and the sky, when they came to see the grandeur of the clouds and the might of the winds, and when they beheld the might of the sun and realized not just its size and beauty, but also, when night had darkened the earth, they beheld the whole sky spangled and adorned with stars… when they beheld all these things, most assuredly they would think that the gods exist and that these marvels are the handiwork of the gods.

Here again, it is not the complexity of the experience that serves to make the inference to the divine; and again (again) giving someone an intuitive vision of the evolution of the universe from the big bang to the moment where I stand would only intensify the ecstasy. One would probably pass out from the experience.

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