Platonic notes

-Aristotle: the reason many things are alike are because they have the same form. Very well, but you also say there are many like forms: John’s soul, Mary’s soul…

-God and the universe are distinct, for God is not material. God and the universe are not distinct, for he exists in no other place. Since each soul has its own body, the same reasoning applies. So why not form and matter generally?

-Dekoninck: for all we know, the non-living world (and thus even the living so far as it is conditioned by it or studied by physics and chemistry) might be ontologically one thing. But this opens the possibility that Aristotle’s Categories cannot serve as a guide in either physics or metaphysics, which is exactly how Aristotle himself takes it. He’s quite convinced that what is not said of nor present in is a description of a fundamental ontological reality. If this is not the case, and ontological monism is possible, then Aristotle’s distinct substances are accidental divisions of a fundamental substance. This seems to be what Plato thought they were (Timaeus makes all physical reality various warpings of some underlying screen) and it seems to be how we want to see them. What scientist is content with irreducible dualities in the physical realm? Are any of us?

-St. Thomas, in explaining the knowledge of Christ, gives an account of what a complete human science would be: a complete science for every sensible species. This would have to be every ontologically distinct sensible species. So how many is that, and how do we answer the question?

-All agree science is about the universal as opposed to this X existing now.  But then science is about X throughout history. History – with all of its messiness, particularity, irrationality and facticity-as-opposed-to-truth – must enter into the scientific universal. Into essence.

– The non-living world follows a logic of unification. There is an element of this in the study of the living too (so far as the living is conditioned by the merely physical or descending from a single ancestor) but it also goes in the reverse. Advances in biology must also multiply the Kingdoms.

-Dialectic tends to unity even while it requires division – a dialectical opinion is essentially one side of a contradiction. Dialectic thus tends to an essentially unattainable goal. If you like, it tends to the impossible and therefore to nothing at all. It is not clear what we should do about this in light of Aristotle’s vary accurate accounts of agents only being able to tend to defined ends (is it even coherent to tend-to-nothing? You can’t remove something to tend to and then proceed to tend to it.). On the one hand, inquiry and science do not advance by physical motion and immanent act are complete at every moment. But there is some sort of perfection involved in the advance of knowledge.

– If all our knowledge is scientific, then there is necessarily an epistemic gap, even if all portions of it can be illuminated. Call it the epistemic Hilbert hotel. If a gap is necessary, what do we make of God-in-the-gaps?

-The gap is finite, so far as we tend to something; it is unbounded to far as we cannot attain it by the nature of our own powers. We are tending to a nature above ourselves.


  1. Jy said,

    August 27, 2012 at 11:24 am

    Your reference to an “epistemic Hilbert’s Hotel” elicited a “har har har” from the old math major in me.

    There seems to be a subtle pun-reference to your drunk-under-the-lampost post: “If all our knowledge is scientific, then there is necessarily an epistemic gap, **even if all portions of it can be illuminated**.” We, as scientists, know there is a gap, but unable to bridge it, we can only look for knowledge where we can get to it.

    We seem to want to put God in these gaps, because any other concept can’t bridge the unbounded aspect of that gap (as a knower whose knowing constitutes objects, as a mover who is unmoved, etc.). However, it doesn’t tell us much about God other than how he plugs in those gaps.This doesn’t work for things like “How on earth does a wave function get determined to *this* particular state”, another step in the dialectic might tell you that, but for things like “How can something move from potency to act”.

    • August 27, 2012 at 12:59 pm

      it doesn’t tell us much about God other than how he plugs in those gaps.This doesn’t work for things like “How on earth does a wave function get determined to *this* particular state”, another step in the dialectic might tell you that, but for things like “How can something move from potency to act”.

      How much it tells us would depend on how much we want to draw out of it. It tells us a few things about science too. The mind must tend to something known, but in light of the gap in its most certain operation it cannot tend to an end it can know of itself. So any scientific truth – even anything known by a human mind – is the hope for a transcendence that could only come from the communication of the knowledge of something higher, with the corollary elevation of merely human cognitive power. In this sense the gap in science is the hope of something we can now attain only by faith. The gap is at the same time a manifestation of the way in which all human knowledge is an anticipation of something else, while at the same time this “something else” only shows itself in relation to the things that it knows, and so shows itself more clearly in the things it knows best. Human knowledge is thus essentially an instrumental sign: something which, being known itself first, exists to make another known.

  2. August 27, 2012 at 3:02 pm

    “All agree science is about the universal as opposed to this X existing now. But then science is about X throughout history.”

    This doesn’t necessarily follow. A universal might just as easily stand outside time as merely be the span of it. It seems like you are making the sort of error that the set theorists did when they confused universal with set of all indivduals, but with time instead.

    Not that I am adverse to your conclusion: Thomistic natural philosophy plus history holds a lot of attraction for me.

    But your conclusion didn’t follow from your premise as far as I could tell. Perhaps there is some middle term that you left implicit?

    I hope this was clear.

    • August 27, 2012 at 4:31 pm

      This is easiest to see in generated things. If you want to study zebras, you don’t want to study the ones in the field now to the exclusion of their ancestors. But which ancestors get included, and how far back? Aristotle could ignore the question since, as far as he could tell, going back in time gave you nothing but zebras forever. He was wrong. Similar considerations apply to the elements given their generation from simpler things.

      Aristotle could universalize science apart from developmental history because he stipulated that when something came to be, there was a mature or finished state that was the completion and fulfillment of the steps leading up to it. But it was never clear how to cash this out in the inanimate world- all one finds is the potentiality of one thing flowing into another (and we do not mean that this “one” and “another” has any ontological meaning – maybe it does, maybe it doesn’t) But there is no perfection of the process to serve as a stable essence or universal apart from the flux of the history of the thing. Aristotle himself seemed to recognize this when he said the elements were mere potentialities. Why isn’t this true of stars as well? Galaxies? The whole inanimate cosmos? Essence can rise above the flux of becoming only if there is some final state of actuality that can serve to orient the becoming to a perfect state. But there is nothing intrinsic to the inanimate world that can serve this purpose.

      Mathematical things might prove an exception here, but (a)I was interested here in natural things and (b) there is an analogous flux of definitions in mathematics, because Aristotle was wrong that mathematical entities are more or less formal abstractions from natural things, and so there is no natural thing to serve as a standard for a “real” mathematics.

      • August 31, 2012 at 5:49 am

        An interesting take! I’ll have to think more about all this to be sure.

        But I think Platonists would have more trouble with this even than strict Aristotelians. My basic concern is, if there is any such thing as a universal, it has to be a form that is changeless. If the sensible universe is so defective and imperfect that it is simply flux and change, than Plato seems to have the best of it—insofar as I would still hold that there are forms out there that we know, and that never change. If one wants to hold that sensible things have forms–however hard it may be to pinpoint what the form is or to separate it from a closely akin species–one has to hold that the form itself is unchanging.

        But that isn’t to downplay the value of your insight into the need for history. Your example about our modern knowledge of the evolution of Zebras, for instance, is well taken.

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