Dewey’s claim that science is not about truth

Dewey argues that the goal of science is not to figure out what things are, but rather to give an account of things where they have maximum convertibility with one another- i.e. the goal is to see all objects of thought as one thing or manifestations of one thing (we would say “where they are maximally reducible”). And so claims like “Heat is the average molecular motion” or “Jones is a swarm of electrical charges” are just like saying “That house is $140,000” or “Plastics are a good investment”. The goal in statements like these is not to say what things are (which can, in fact, be a real goal) but rather set up a standard which allows for a maximum amount of homogeneity among objects. You can’t use dollars to define a house, but you can use them to bring the house into a domain where it is convertible with an indefinite ocean of other things, i.e. a place where everything is a larger or smaller manifestation of the same thing.

The claim goes too far if it is taken as meaning that science never gets to anything essential or intrinsic to things: electrical charges are essential to Jones in a way that dollars are not essential to a two-story Colonial. But even where science hits on the essential, it still only allows a part of it to filter through, and Dewey was right to recognize it as the part having maximum convertibility. We only look for aspects of phenomena that allow for maximal reduction. We were looking for electrons because they were all the same; we looked for the motion of molecules when we studied heat because it would allow us to unify heat and motion. We may have found them because they were there to find, but this was not the only reason we found them. Pure objectivity in the sense of simply saying what the thing is was never the only goal.

Notice that all of these distinctions are taking place within the context of the true. We might not be able to define a house by dollars, but it is nevertheless true that some house is $140,000. Just because one is not looking to define things or say what they are does not mean that they are not after truth. But we have to separate truth as the search for “what a thing is” from truth as the desire to achieve maximal analytical reduction. Science is a mixture of these two sorts of truth, and so far as we are scientists, we have no ability to distinguish them.


Materialist: Given we all agree physical things are entities, this is the only sort of entity we need in order to explain knowledge.

Dualist:  We need another sort of entity in order to explain knowledge.

Thomist: We need something other than entities to explain knowledge.

Dialogue on religion and truth

A: It never crossed my mind that we could have so much in common and still disagree about this. Can we talk this through from the beginning? I’m spiritual, but not religious, and…

B: I’m religious but not spiritual.

A: Right. How is this even possible?

B: What’s so strange about it? I love going to services, being with fellow seekers, having a common belief, taking time to collect oneself and connect oneself… I look forward to it all week.

A: Yeah… but you’re an atheist, right?

B: I suppose so, but I don’t see what that has to do with anything. That’s a philosophical or scientific dispute. To be honest, I don’t see how anyone could ever do anything with that sort of question except argue about it.

A: So you’re an agnostic then?

B: Again, why is my belief only of value to you as something that needs to be put in the right file or bin? You are treating beliefs like some anal retentive office drone, who cares nothing about what he’s filing as long as it has the right number. You’d treat Shakespeare and Romance novels as just so much paperwork that needs to be filled out.  

A: That’s not right. I’m legitimately confused about how you can do what you are doing. How can you talk about “having a common belief” with many people if you think that belief is false? When you “go to services” you are going to a service for God.   Let me put it this way – you understand why some people would call you a hypocrite, right?

B: I suppose, but I think they all want religion to be something it isn’t. How many Dionysians do you suppose really believed in Dionysius? Do you think a priest in the temple of Isis would have thought that some wild Scythian should believe in Isis for the good of his soul? Picture this: Aristotle dancing around altars and sacrificing to all sorts of goddesses popping out of the head of gods, and then, later the next afternoon, he finishes his proof that God could only be pure actuality without a body and never generated. Are you saying Aristotle was irrational?

Religion is one thing, truth is another. We all think this. When something is true, there’s one version of it for all humanity, and everyone can see that it’s good for there to be one version for all humanity. If a Buddhist wants to shoot a rocket to the moon, we teach him Newtonian mechanics, and what’s more important, the Buddhist wants to learn Newtonian mechanics and knows that he should learn it. If he wants to have a spiritual or religious experience, we think it better to let him keep being a buddhist, and more importantly, he wants to remain what he is. Religion is about live and let live – it’s just a different sort of thing than truth. Truth is fine where it belongs – but it’s pure nonsense to try to force it where it doesn’t belong.

A: But how can one ever get away from truth? Consider what truth means when you speak about “dying for the truth”. Isn’t this something a person should always be willing to do, and isn’t it the sort of truth that we must have with respect to the question of whether God exists? If you don’t believe God exists, you shouldn’t be a part of a group that confesses that God exists. We can tolerate all sorts of things, but we can’t call someone good who doesn’t live in accordance with what she believes. Who cares about truth as “what is universal”. The more important sense of truth is living in accord with what you believe. So yes, if Aristotle sacrificed to Athena and then went off and proved there was no Athena, then he was a hypocrite. We might tolerate his hypocrisy, or even understand it, or even “live and let live” – but it’s still hypocrisy.

B: Listen to you! You’re a Christian, for goodness sake. Not a Christian like some of my friends, but like Torquemada! It’s Christianity that invented this crazy idea that religion was the sort of thing one has to die for. You know what pagans would do if his village was conquered by another one? They’d accept the gods of the conquerors, no questions asked! Gods are just part of the social structure – they’re bound up with the society in which someone lives, with its rulers and customs. This is why, whenever I travel, I try out the various churches in the area I’m in. In fact, I try various services here in town.

But let me get back to my main point.  Do you know what happens when you start insisting that “the god question” (as you call it) is something that needs to be “true” or “worth dying for”? It becomes worth killing for too. Is that what you want? Because that’s what it is. All your high-sounding “dedication to truth” is just another sword at the throat of the powerless. It’s really just dedication to my truth. Believe in my gods, (or don’t believe in any of them) or else! It wouldn’t change anything about an Inquisitor to make him torture for atheism – which is exactly what your idea of truth calls for.  

Look, I know you’re not “an Atheist” (as you would put it). You’re “spiritual”, and you have an idea of truth that convinces you that you should not be a part of a religion. All I’m saying is that, if you were really consistent with your application of this idea of “truth” that you are using to call me a “hypocrite”, then you are appealing to the same standard as an Inquisitor or a Communist. The whole problem with these guys is that they though “the God question” was a matter of truth. At the very least, you’re committed to this idea of “one religion for everybody”, even if you have prudential reasons for not insisting on it. Face it, you think that a Buddhist or a worshipper of Isis would be better off if they were “spiritual, but not religious”, just like you.

A: I don’t think that at all! I think Buddhists should die for their beliefs, Christians should die for theirs, etc.

B: And what about guys like me, who deny any connection between religion and truth, even why we still see the value of both?

A: I suppose you should die for that too.

B: But what do you have then? Anyone should die for anything? How is this any more noble than saying that no one should die for anything?   That’s the problem, you can’t separate this idea you have of truth as personal commitment from the idea of truth as objectively true. This ties you to the idea that there is some sort of objective truth about religion.

A: But you think that too! You make all sorts of objective truth claims about religion!

B: Maybe, if you want to put it that way. But again, I don’t take any of these claims too seriously. You’re the one who wants to categorize everything and put it into truth boxes. I don’t see much value in all these labels and theories. Labels and theories have their place, and their indispensible in that place, but you have to know when to use them and when not to.


They’re not anti-materialist but anti-existence

Say that I’m right and arguments against materialism based on intention are not properly against what is material or physical but against what exists (or at least what exists of itself, which seems to be the same thing). After all, an immaterial entity, taken as simply an entity in itself, has no more “aboutness” than a physical one and so would bring us no closer to explaining thought as thought, or a concept as a concept. Anti-materialist arguments would thus amount to claims that there is some entity outside of entities. But if this is what it comes to, one might be in doubt over whether they  refute materialism or advance it. Can’t the materialist claim that the supposed refutations of his doctrine prove too much? It’s one thing to argue that there is some entity outside of material or physical things; it’s quite another to argue that there is something outside of entities.

I’m comfortable with the idea of reality outside of the real since this seems to be my experience – there does not seem to be anything in experience or sensation like the experience itself. What would it even mean for an entity to be “experience like” or even “like my experience”? Still, this does not mean that the abstract articulation or argument for such a thing is more compelling than it is confusing. It’s not clear if one gets a single view of existence when speaking about something beyond what is real or existent.


You are a caterpillar and philosopher, specializing in personal identity. You know, as everybody does, that the contents of a cocoon are mostly liquid.

The intentional as opposed to the entitative (or real)

The Anglophone debate about intentionality has two familiar poles: one side insists that there is one sort of stuff in the universe and that it is a causally closed whole; the other side says that there is an irreducible difference between beings, such that no one inquiry into beings (like physics, say) could in principle exhaust them. Like any philosophical impasse, it’s inevitable that people will interpret it as showing a need for a synthesis of both positions. But what would that synthesis look like? There isn’t any middle between saying that there is reductively one sort of being, and saying there isn’t.

We Thomists can interpret the impasse over intentionality as forcing us to face up to a deep paradox at the heart of our system over what exactly intentionality is. The question arises in in response to two key texts: ST I q. 14 a. 1 and De veritate q. 2 a. 2.  In the first, St. Thomas argues that immateriality is the cause of knowledge, , but on a close reading (and especially when we compare the text to 2.2.) it’s clear that St. Thomas is opposing knowledge to matter so far as matter can only be the principle of some finite existing subject. Pay close attention to the two adjectives: finite and existing. In other words, so far as form is finite and the principle of an existing subject, knowledge is opposed to that too. In fact, so far as a composite being is finite or an existing subject, we also oppose knowledge to that. To push this to the limit: so far as the human soul or an angel is a finite existing subject, intentional being is opposed to that too. St. Thomas is only using “matter” or speaking of the “immateriality” of  knowledge/intentionality as a synecdoche.” The reason why he calls intentional being “immaterial” is because matter, on his system, can only be a principle of a finite existing subject (or, what amounts to the same thing, form is both a principle of being and of knowledge), but it’s not as if he is singling out matter as opposed to material form, the composite, the soul, or angels so far as any of these four things are considered in themselves. St. Thomas’s claim is that to be in a cognitive power (or intentionality) differs from everything else because it is to be in another or as opposed to being in oneself or for oneself. The things of the intentional order are not new entities existing in and of themselves, as though we add them on top of other entities like cats or angels – knowledge is explained by way of opposition to things that exist of themselves, or at least by way of opposition to finite things that exist of themselves. There is, if you like, a single reality or existence – when it exists in itself, it is an entity or a reality and when it exists in another (a cognitive power of some sort) it is intentional.

Thus, so far as we tacitly consider existence as pertaining to things that exist of themselves (even if this term is taken analogously) then knowledge or the intentional order – even “the things that exist in the intentional order” or “intentions” – are divided from this. If you make the perfectly rational assumption that whatever exists, exists in itself, then intentionality does not exist. Don’t rush in with distinctions! Just let it be the truth that, say, Eliminative Materialism or Naturalist Mysterianism is trying to articulate. Let the truth of the matter be even more radical and extreme than anything the Churchlands or Colin McGinn would claim: sc. there is an ontological non-existence to intentionality and an ontological befuddlement of even the principle of contradiction in the consideration of the mystery of intention. I’ll see your modern Naturalism, and raise you one Heidegger and a Meister Eckhart.

But if Naturalism is to have its truth then Thomism needs its critique. We’ve been too blithe about perfect rational coherence and have rarely been forthright about the paradoxes at the heart of our system. If Analytic philosophy is the measure of the rational (that is, if we must accept a sort of logical rigor that is opposed to the cloudiness that arises from accepting paradoxes) then it seems that Thomism does not fare well at all, and that it can call itself philosophy only of it ignores the consequences of its principles. The opposition between the ens reale and ens intentionale is a perfect case in point – why is Meister Eckhart the only one who confronted the obvious paradox of opposing the intentional to the real? Thomists divided esse into the esse of “entitites” and the esse of intention for centuries before Heidegger pointed out the obvious consequence (though he came at it from different principles) sc. that the being of entitites (esse reale) cannot account for the disclosure of entities (esse intentionale); and therefore so far as being is taken as the ground of the disclosure of entitites (which is exactly what, adjusting for vocabulary, Thomism says it is), then not only is “being” not the being of entitites, but being is nothing. A locution like sein expresses exactly the consequence that Thomism points at (John Deely wrote a book on this point).

The Materialist/Dualist question in the definition of knowledge

One of the most valuable contributions Thomism has made to human thought is its definition of knowledge as to be another as other. St. Thomas articulated the basic principles of the definition,  but it was only through the development of those who followed him that the definition got its final form (I haven’t researched to what extent the definition was found in other Scholastics. There is some indication that the definition was somehow present in Arab commentators, but I haven’t been able to trace down the original texts.)

The definition compares knowledge to the normal way in which things become something else: namely by becoming another (or something else) as themselves. A block of wood can become something else – a statue, say – and it does so by becoming the statue by itself (not that it chisels itself out, but that the same wood that was once a block becomes, say, a Hermes). A stone becomes hot by becoming hot itself, that is, the same stone that was once room temperature is now hot.

The oddity of knowledge is that, when it comes to be something new or something else, it doesn’t itself come to be that thing. It becomes something other, but not as itself. Neither the eyes nor the brain become green when looking at the grass – and even if they did it wouldn’t explain why the color is seen. We don’t become two when we smell two things, or become larger by feeling large ones.  The way in which consciousness takes things in is utterly different from the way in which physical thing takes another thing in. As fruitful as it may be to consider knowledge as a physical change (and there is an infinite amount of things to discover here) this whole consideration takes place outside of what is formal to knowledge – even knowledge of a purely rudimentary kind, as might be found in earthworms.

The definitive rejection of this definition of knowledge was by Suarez, who argued that knowledge was simply an agent-causal action of the object on the subject. Once one does this, it’s hard to see how the knower can avoid being anything except whatever physical matter it might have, which would make knowledge or consciousness nothing outside of what is studied by physics. If this is what knowledge is, then what is not called “the interaction problem” would definitively establish the necessity of materialism from the very definition of knowledge, for knowledge must consist at least in knowing the physical world, which (on the Suarezian account) requires being something that the physical world can act on as an agent cause. Again, for the Suarezian, knowledge requires the sort of thing that could be altered by the path of a photon, or be heated up by a flame, or become stinkier when in the presence of the rotten. For the Thomist, on the other hand, all of this can only be, at best, a purely material account of some sorts of knowledge, which is destined to stay forever outside of what makes knowledge to be what it is. The material account of knowledge is something like, if someone were to ask you to explain the Tale of Two Cities, you responded by saying that it was a Penguin Classic, about seven inches tall, weighing about a pound. This is true enough for any number of copies – there is no reason why it could not be true of all of them – but it is in the purely material order, by which I mean that it doesn’t even speak of the matter that “enters into form”.

So it seems like the question of the immateriality or materiality of the knower – the question of the various “dualisms” or “Naturalism/Physicalism” – must be raised in the very definition of knowledge. The account we give of knowledge cannot be neutral to the truth of materialism. The great challenge of Epistemology is that it demands that we answer the fundamental problem from the beginning – is knowledge understood as just another way of being acted upon/ acquiring something new, or is it best understood in opposition to the way in which physical things acquire or have new things, and therefore as formally non-material or spiritual?

pt. II

-We can read Descartes’s cogito as saying “that which sees substance (I think) sees existence too (I am)”.

-If one asks evidence for existence or reality, it can only be taken from that realm in which we also find substance, and not from the inferior realm of the sensible as such.

-These two questions are parallel: a.) how do I know that the things I know are real? and b.) how do I know that the things I taste are flavored? What we call knowledge has the real/substance/good as one of its objects, just as taste has flavor as an object. The confusion comes in when we think that we have to give evidence for the real from the sensible order, which is something like asking “how do I touch the scent?” – a question which is either absurd or capable of being aswered only accidentally.

-This is at the heart of the manner: we know what we call the knowledge of somethign with a phsyical or bodily organ: it’s sensation. So…

Whatever is given to a physical organ is given to sense per se.

Reality, goodness, truth, substance, are not given to sense per se but only per accidens.

So the modern problem of objectivity is ultimately a question about the immateriality of the soul.

The Cartesian/ Modern problem of objectivity in Aristotelian terms

Aristotle says that there are proper sensibles, like color or scent or whatever-it-is-that-only-touch feels; and there are common sensibles, like size or number (later Scholastics added a few more), but he said that things like substance are only accidentally given to sense. Thus, reality or objectivity is only given to sense accidentally, the way a rock might be hot or a surface might be phusia  fuschia fuchsia. Appealing to sensation to prove reality is like trying to explain the heat in the stone by appealing to the chemical properties of stones, or explaining why a surface is fuchsia by repeatedly returning to the Euclidian properties of a flat surface. The evil deceiver argument is therefore a specialized consideration of what is sensible per accidens. The benefit of Aristotle’s approach is that it situates the problem of the real within a larger context, and provides a new set of possible responses. If it is really true that denying reality and substantiality are in the same boat, then evidence for substantiality might count as evidence for reality as well. In other words, asking “how do I know if the world is really there?” is decided by the same sort of criterion or power by which we decide the question “how do I know that the green and the shape of this leaf belong to one thing? or “how do I know that the apple I am holding is both red and one in number? After all, why should we say that there is one reality that connects these two accidents or features?”  Again, say I’m talking to my wife and I’m struck by the Cartesian thought “how do I know my wife is really real, and not just the product of some evil deceiver/ scientist / dream sequence?” I’d say that this is the same thing as to ask “Setting aside whether my wife is real, how do I know that this flesh-colored, smooth, Pantene scented, five-foot-eight tall quantity is one wife? Even if I can figure out if any of this is real, I’ll still need to figure out why I posit a unity of flesh-colored and five-foot-eight! After all, I know that in the past I have been deceived about two accidents forming one thing, in fact, I’ve been deceived about this more often than about what was real!”

The analysis can keep going on these lines – good and true, for example, are only sensible per accidens and so will fall under the same sort of analysis as real and substance.

Aristotle gave us the basic fact: we cannot use the sensible per se as evidence for the sensible per accidens. No amount of appeal to the one can establish the other, any more than hearing could be any sort of final arbiter about how something tastes. So what do we say now? Is the problem that we think things like real or good need to give some sort of evidence for themselves, or that, if they must give evidence, that for some reason this must come from what is properly sensible? Or is there simply a truth – that the sensible world cannot be known as real, good, true, substantial, etc. by anything given within it per se?

Analogues II

Thomism: Atheists or Naturalists must say more than “the universe is all that exists”, since we say this too. If they want to separate themselves from us,  they must also deny that God is all that exists. We also go a step further, and deny that the universe is God.

– Question: when Thomists say on the one hand the universe is all that exists, and then God is all that exists, does the predicate mean the same thing in both cases? 

A1.) If you include the mode of predication in the idea of a predicate, then obviously no, and all Scholastics would agree. Existence is predicated per se and primo (the latter being “commensurately universal”, in some translations) of God, according to the first sense of per se. Existence is never predicated in this mode of a creature. What a Thomist means by sayign “God is the same in his existence and essence” is simply that existence is said of him according to this first mode of perseity.

A2.) If you take meaning in a broad sense, then (somewhat controversially) yes, and Thomists and Scotists would agree. Thomists go further, however, and say that “what we mean” when we use a transcendental term has two aspects: that which first verifies the concept, and that which most verifies the concept. Both are included in a common ratio of an analogous term, making these diverse senses partly the same (so far as they fall under a common ratio) and partly diverse (so far as they are diverse from one another).

A3.) If the question is taken to mean speaking about the particular, distinct reality in which the mind comes to rest, then there is a good deal of controversy. The Thomists seem to be asserting that the ratio of a term is a single whole, but the mind can only come to rest in one of its subjoined rationes, that is, though there is some common ratio of “exists” the mind can only come to rest in either existence said of creatures or of God. The critique of this argument (as given in The Doctrine of Transcendentals in Duns Scotus) is that a ratio or concept can never have this sort of duality: the whole point of a concept is to determine the mind to something, and so there is no reason for a concept to exist which does not do so. Thought requires thinking about something, but what are we thinking about if we posit some irreducible duality, with no common, general idea in which the mind can rest to contain both indistinctly?

-The Thomist says “both God and creatures verify what I mean by ‘exists'”. In this sense, “exists” must have one meaning. But they verify it in diverse ways, and not by being contained indistinctly in some general concept in which the mind can come to rest. Therefore, the use is not univocal.

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