Is man a rational animal?

Since Plato, the way to find what is essential to X is to start with some general or indistinct concept and add differences until one hits X. On this account, the essential must be conceptual.  So what if the thing most essential to man is some mode of relation to being? One of the first things that we figured out about being is that it is non-conceptual, or, if one wanted to call it conceptual, it is absolutely not one of the concepts used in the Platonic process of definition. So long as we are trading in concepts, being, or any relation to being is either worthless or given, and in either case forgettable. So the attempt to find what is essential to the person in this way would overlook what was most essential to him.

Go further: if “rational” is proportionate to “being”, then it is not obvious that it can serve as a specific difference. Powers are understood through their objects. In fact,  they are really just the object itself in one of its modes.

Set out a Porphyrian tree with “irrational” and “rational” as the last division. So we’ve reached the human person. But what is the lesson? Is it that man is a part of reality or that we locate anything in the context of the totality of things? Taken in the second way, the totality itself becomes our one essential partner in locating any nature. On this account, the whole tree becomes the specific difference of a man. This is a metaphor, since it is not the difference of some concept but of being. This is another way of separating man from all other things, since neither animals nor angels make such trees. The animal has no communion with being, the angel’s communion doesn’t require tree-making. Say it another way: some start the Porphryian tree with “being”. We know you can’t, for it admits of no differences. But the sense in doing so is that we must locate all things within that field, and so we essentially relate to the field of being. Our attempt to locate things moves by way of things (sc. concepts) that are never adequate to the field from which we essentially start, and so to attempt to define man through such concepts is essentially inadequate.

From action to interaction (III)

Omne agit inquantum est in actu. Because the fullness and measure of act is operation, so far as something is perfect it is an agent exercising its agency. But interaction is only imperfect agency, for, qua interactive, an agent acts only as a part of a larger system of agency. And so in the measure that beings are more perfect, they rise above interaction (N.B. We are here only considering transitive actions).

On the lowest level one finds causes that only interact. These are purely physical entities. Because they only interact, they are only agents in an imperfect way, thus they only relate to final causes in an imperfect way, that is, while we can identify characteristic stages in a physical process,  none of these stages is an absolute term. Masses do not, for example, seek some absolute natural place, nor is the change from iron to rust anything but a relative slice of an essentially infinite process, like the cycle of water evaporating, rising, condensing, and evaporating again. Because they only interact, large scale systems of physical causes do not arrange themselves in sharply divided causal hierarchies: they form a cloud system of mutual interactions. This does not preclude order from large scale physical systems, but it makes their order less like a watch and more like the weather.

On the highest level there are causes that only act and in no way interact. These are the purely equivocal causes where the agent is essentially separate from what he acts upon.

At the middle level, there are causes that in one way act and in another way interact. Such causes have a non-physical principle of action, though they also have physical existence as as part of their definition. These are the natural living things.

From action to interaction (II)

While the ancient and Medieval world raised all sorts of problems about God’s activity on the world and the soul’s relationship to the body,  they never had an interaction problem. Aristotle, of course, knew about interaction, but he assumed it was secondary to the determination of a physical thing to the center of the universe or the outermost sphere, or at least of a thing to its natural place. As far as anyone can tell, however, there are no natural places, at least not in the inanimate world. Physical action between two things is not unidirectional to a place of rest but exists between the two objects. Action is interaction.

Interaction requires a homogeneous medium of interaction, like the touching surfaces of two bodies, or a field, bridge, or wire from one thing to the other. If all action were interaction, then to say the soul acts on the body means it interacts with it, and so that shares a single homogeneous existence with the body. “Immaterial soul moving a body” is straightforward contradiction. Aristotle could have laughed off this “interaction problem” by simply pointing to the stars or the center of the earth “Look” he could say “they act on bodies without having to interact with them”.  The soul and God were just like the stars, only better – for the soul not only moved the body without interacting with it but it transcended the material existence of the stars or the center of the earth. God and the soul were immaterial stars. Aristotle could arrange a hierarchy of action in a beautiful ladder: some things were physical and acted by interacting; others were physical and acted without interacting; and the highest were non-physical and acted without interacting. Gorgeous!

Gorgeous except for being false, that is. We can no longer see anything that acts without interacting, and so there is no physical precedent for the activity of a soul on body or of God on the world.  The stars no longer mediate the divine world, we simply have to go immediately from nature to the divine. The transition to divine things is now much more abrupt, sudden, and immediate, and we have yet to fully adjust to the switch. God was closer when he was on the other side of the stars; man was more intelligible when he was being made by the sun. God, without losing any of the properties he had, fell to the earth with the celestial spheres. What then?

From action to interaction, (I)

Aristotle’s celestial spheres were supposed to generate species, conserve things in being, impart motion to things on earth, etc.. How were they supposed to do this? Surely there must be some sort of mechanism of action, right? The question is crucial since to invoke a mechanism means placing the heavens and the earth in an interaction, which utterly changes the Aristotelian account. Aristotle’s stars did not interact with corruptible things – there was one and only one direction of action. This is well-known and well-exemplified by Aristotle’s understanding of gravity (heaviness or weight) in which the earth acted on stones, but the stones did not pull back on the earth. If one assumed the moon was a large falling stone, the center of the earth would pull on it, but it would not pull back on the earth.

But nature has no simple actions, but only interactions. This is, it seems, a necessary postulate and consequence of mechanist explanations.

Omne quod movetur, etc.

Interaction is of moved movers.

Physical motion is to a term, but to a good only where it can be an instrument. But goodness and being convert. Since physical motion is essentially a being, it is therefore essentially an instrument of another.

All physical motion is relative. If we see a contradiction in this, it is not a proof for absolute space or natural places, but for the dependence of the physical on the trans-physical.

Body A moves body B. But the actual resulting motion is affected by B’s moving A as well. So the resulting motion is the coalescing of the two. Call it C. But A is other than C. So whatever moves by interaction is being moved by another.

A is moving B, therefore A is the agent cause. False. The horse/ automobile / slave is A. Agency is not an index not of approaching a first push or pull, but an intention.

3/ 26/ 12

Without a doctrine of the Triune God, distinction is an imperfection, and so even the distinction of God and creature is an imperfection which is overcome by the perfection of the Absolute. The Trinity alone can preserve the doctrine of creation.

Al-Ghazali’s analogy to mystical experience

If one had to explain dreams to someone who never experienced them, he would find himself saying that there were certain men who were unconscious and yet experienced various images. The skeptic could reasonably say that this is all incoherent babble: what one was claiming is that there was an awareness of someone who was unaware. The attempt to develop the account would make dreams even more incoherent and even contradictory: they would be (supposedly) experiences which we made out of ourselves and yet were not aware of making; we would supposedly suffer these experiences though we were the only agents making them. Perhaps, after minute distinctions and hair-spitting that almost everyone would be unable to follow, we would succeed in showing that dreams were not logically impossible – though this is a bar of proof so low that even the flying spaghetti monster can clear it.

I’m happy both that faith is reasonable and that it is not the result of reasoning; that it is both not contrary to human thought and that it calls for more than can be attained by thought. Arguments help, but faith usually exists without them, and it always calls for something more than they can provide.

There is an element of truth in the atheist critique that faith is belief without evidence. True, the sense of “evidence” is usually either undeveloped or so overly restricted as to be of no value (omitting testimonials, personal experience, historical argument, etc.). But there is still an element in the faith that we cannot simply set out in front of ourselves, and which does not follow from rational evidence making a conclusion. So  faith must in some sense demand assent beyond what can be given in a rational, evidential case. What then?

There is one sense in which the advance of knowledge demands going beyond what can be given by the data or the evidence. Every hypothesis, guess, tinkering, working model or definition, idealization, counter-factual etc. anticipates data and commits us to taking up something as true for the sake of confirming it as true. But it’s not just that we anticipate data, we appear to be rationally flouting rules of reason. We seek to prove the antecedent by confirming the consequent. This is not a rational way of proceeding, so far as it violates a basic rule of formal logic, but it is nevertheless rational.

We can go further: it’s hard to see how we would ever get anywhere in reasoning if there was nothing more to it than following all the canons of formal logical reasoning in a mechanical or algorithmic way. How would we proceed before eliminating all possible logical options, look past irrelevant data, recognize and dismiss outlier cases, see patterns in messy data, hit on just the right test for some fact or the right metaphor to explain it etc.? There is a visionary power that lies behind reasoning, supports it, and clears the way for it. The visionary power can’t chop logic or explain itself, but it is most of all what counts as genius – more to the point, it is what makes the evidential case possible. Being prior to the evidential case, it can never be reduced to it. If anything, the evidential case is reduced to the visionary power.

Nothing of what we’ve said so far favors the faith over the denial of it: reasoning always rests on an act of vision (or the corruption of this act of vision) irrespective of what conclusion one reaches. But this does serve as a critique of the claim that belief follows an evidential case, as though a belief is only reasonable if it is the conclusion of some rational proof. The logical critique of such a claim is easy: if this were absolutely true, we couldn’t believe what we used to prove anything.  Ontologically, however, we must go much further – reasoning depends on our relationship to a noetic field which does not play by evidential or scientific rules, and so the attempt to place science and evidence at the rational basis of belief would itself destroy the very possibility of science or rational evidence. Nevertheless, this noetic field cannot be explained in sub-rational terms – or at least the cost of doing so is to deny that either science or evidence is rational. Any one can see that there is a foundation of reasoning, but we are continually prone to account for it in non- rational terms: instinct, sub-conscious, sentiments, assumptions, or even “faith”. All of these capture something about the noetic field that supports reason, but they all overlook what is most crucial to it: it sees truth, even if not infallibly.

Faith is not known by our natural powers of penetration into this noetic field, but it appears that the light of faith works within it. To put it in modern terms: faith anticipates the evidence in such a way as to place one in a research program and clinical trial throughout life.

Notes on Kant

-If reasoning is about those concepts that we can dominate, then we cannot reason about reality, what exists, or even about most of what we think. Kant would be right that we never reason about things in themselves, and that there was no science of metaphysics.

-I can experience, while reasoning about something, that the world of immediate experience goes inert, and that the problem works itself out on a sort of invisible, living blackboard space. This seems much like constituting the things about which we reason.

-Kant: “we must say there is a world in itself, since if we don’t then there is an appearance without anything appearing”. Would he have written that line today? However one responds, their whole epistemology hangs in the balance. Kant is, in effect, proving a world of objects about which we can be certain that they are even if we cannot know what they are.

-Kant makes reason dependent on sense intuition. But what is this sensation? Kant does not seem interested in sensation as a physical cognitive power, but formally as a power that does not attain the being or innermost nature of things. The two are not the same. For those of us (read: me) who see the real object as neither universal nor particular, but as transcending both, and which is intuited by a man as particular though his sense and universal through his intellect, it is possible to have a veritable intellectual intuition in the field of what would count as a sense intuition for Kant.

-The fatal flaw of all Empiricisms is to muddle the division between the particular opposed to the universal with the particular which exists. The first is a mode of knowing proper to animals, the second is the ontological finitude (or, alternatively, the division) of one being from another. The error is idealism in Heidegger’s sense: the constituting of a real being out of a mode of knowing it; just as it is the error that Aristotle rightly critiqued in Plato, only to fall into it himself: to confuse the mode of knowing with the mode of being. For all his insight into the process of knowing, Kant falls into it too with his account of sense intuition.

-We need to take the division of reasoning and intuition more seriously. Intuition cannot be merely a power that feeds reasoning – as though it has nothing to do but throw out a starter premise before going into hibernation. Push the idea of intuition – of nous or intellectus – to the limit: nous is irrational reason – that is, while it is utterly set apart from reasoning, so much so that it can validly and reasonably do what is, for reason, (say) the affirming of a consequent, it nevertheless provides reasoning with its soul: a connection to reality. Reason is derivative of a vision of the real and set apart from it, but nevertheless only has value in the measure that it illuminates the real.

Raymond Ruyer puts an interesting spin on a familiar argument against mechanism by exploiting the difference between a fact and a true proposition:

A dogmatic Behaviorist of the strict observance – who does not make behaviorism simply a provisional method – affirms that the behavior of human beings can always be described in terms of stimulus/response, and that the nexus of stimulus/response (if refined by the introduction of mechanistic intermediaries) always has the character of a causal chain, and it develops chain by chain, in strict conformity with a mechanical kind of causality. But if, by this hypothesis, the words and writings of behaviorist psychology are merely responses to stimuli, how is he right to believe himself correct as opposed to his adversaries, the “psychologists of magic and superstition”? His responses, like the turning of a sunflower, are facts, but a fact is not synonymous with a true proposition. The responses of his adversaries are facts just as much as his own responses. Why value the truth that might attach itself to one any more than the other? We might imagine a behaviorist defending his system brusquely (it is probable that he will be offended): “What you are saying has no meaning.” Yet the interruption only supports the very thesis he is attacking. But if, on the other hand, he says “You’re right! That’s true!” his own approval is a refutation: a mere effect can neither be correct nor mistaken. It is a property of purely causal doctrines that they are refuted both by approval and critique; and by way of contrary, the property of the doctrine of Meaning is to be confirmed both by dismissal and approval.

Ruyer Néo-finalisme. pp. 2-3

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