Principles to divide intellect and sense

While it is helpful to divide sense from intellect by pointing to the universality of the latter, the division does not attain to intellect as such but to an imperfection of it. Another division might be more helpful, namely the one between the acquisition of observer-relative information and information about the object as it is in itself. All living things can receive signals and adapt their behavior to them, and in this sense there is intelligence wherever there is a unified, single, adaptive being. But to receive behavior-modifying information means to receive information that serves as a principle of action – what the Scholastics called “practical reason”. Speculative reason – or the interest in the object as it is in itself – is utterly different since it treats knowledge as the goal and not as the means. Seen from the point of view of the object, speculative reason marks that moment when the object full comes into its own and is loved for its own sake.

If we allow that knowledge is the attainment of an object, then speculative knowledge counts as the fullest sort of knowledge since it attains to the object simply speaking and not so far as it is useful to modify behavior. Practical knowledge is knowledge secundum quid, though we can make a strong case that it is possessed by any living organism, and perhaps by everything that can preserve itself in response to some sort of signal. As knowledge becomes more perfect, it does not become universal so much as it becomes more informed by object itself and less self/subject informed. At the higher levels, intelligence considers objects as such – IOW, it is scientific.

More importantly, sensible knowledge is never of the object as such, but of a mixture of the object and its activity on the organ. What you taste is not exactly the thing, but a mix of the thing and the disposition of your body, and how it acts on you. The two things mingle together to form a single object that is neither purely objective nor subjective. This is what intellection overcomes, and what sets it apart.

On this account human knowledge is higher than sensitive knowledge – at least as we find knowledge in non-human animals – but it is not knowledge in the fullest possible sense. Though not everything we know is ordered to modifying behavior, nor is it the physical mix of object and organ,  it is nevertheless grounded on processes that are (which is exactly why our intellection is universal). A more perfect sort of intellection would not attain to sensible things in this way, but would intellectually attain to their particularity. But it is extraordinarily difficult to articulate exactly what this would mean.

The irreducibly of subject and object

The first horror in modern thought is the possibility of solipsism, and modern persons intuitively hit on the idea very early on. What can we say in the face of the idea that this all might be a dream or subjective projection? The basic fear here is that objectivity is simply a mode of subjectivity. Interestingly, Eliminativism is the polar opposite of this, i.e. the claim that subjectivity is merely a mode of objectivity. As soon as one discovers the subject – as soon as one is modern – solipsism and Eliminativism are the furthest extremes of his fundamental philosophy, i.e they are the maximal simplifications of the basic data he starts with.

We find truth between the simplified extremes, which forces us into granting an irreducible existence to both the subject and the object. By “irreducible” I mean that the one cannot be taken as a mere modification or modality of the other but must have being and subsistence of itself. But it follows from this that being cannot be taken as either objective or subjective, but as transcending both.

I’d suggest that a great deal of modern thought is an attempt to come to terms with the irreducible division of being into subject and object; which has the corresponding problem of an epistemology that can allow for the knowledge both of objects and of non-objects.

Scriptural interpretation

-If historical-critical methods sufficed to interpret scripture, couldn’t we replace revelation with research? If they don’t suffice, what else do we need?

-Say STA was right about that we needed revelation because we were called to a good beyond reason and research. What would it mean to treat the text as beyond reason? The inability of rational methods to solve very basic problems might do the trick.

– Historical methods have an irreplaceable role to play in the interpretation of the text, since it claims to present historical realities. But for the same reason, Greek philosophical ideas, typologies, and allegorical readings also have an irreplaceable role to play. Scripture makes explicit typological and allegorical claims and avails itself of Hellenic philosophical ideas.

– Is it just a matter of what makes the text come alive for the believer? Everyone has heard the scholar or pastor say something like “I never understood this text until I understood the context of second-temple Palestine” or “Jesus’s mission only makes sense in the context of first-century Messianic claims,” etc. St. Augustine says the exact same things about noticing typologies, and had the same sense of seeing reality.  If he made a clever an insightful allegorical reading, all the intellectuals in the audience would have had the same warm identification with it, and the mystics, and others who were proud of their simple faith,  would have had the same fear that he was over-intellectualizing and reducing the mystery of the revelation.

Is that all there is to it? We live in a time where only the factual is true/real? Is our incarnationalism just journalism, i.e. revelation is only experienced as real to the extent it is a sort of journalism, such that if the text is not written in this way we need to reconstruct a journalist account of it? We want the incarnation as a news report or documentary film.

-Problem: the documentary seeks a sort of narrative transparency. It is not a testimony. It identifies truth with “objectivity”, i.e. it minimizes the role of the narrator’s testimony. But Gospel narratives make a critical reference to just such testimony – they are necessarily apostolic.

Foundations vs. Consensus/progress (pt. ii)

-Mystically, the Tower of Babel is the account of the incompatibility of philosophical and scientific knowledge. We can never make our foundations (philosophy) reach to the heavens (progress to include all the world in such a way that all the peoples belong to it).

-Let us make bricks and bake them thoroughly (Gen 11). The bricks make the structures; and they are “baked thoroughly”, that is, they are kiln-fired for extreme strength. The foundations have been informed by technology; philosophy by science.

-Behold, the people [is] one, and they have all one language/ border (שָׂפָה); and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined/ plotted (זָמַם) to do.

The verse here warns against the unity of language/borders, since there will be no impediments to what is imagined/plotted. Limits must be imposed not only on nations, but on the degree to which the ideas of the mind can find consensus, i.e. in language. There must be limits not just in the speculative but practical order (imagined/plotted)

-So the LORD scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth: and they left off to build the city. 

but the scattering comes with the promise:  I will even gather you from the people, and assemble you out of the countries where ye have been scattered, and I will give you the land of Israel. But the original decree can never be abrogated, and so the gathering shall not happen by knowledge or science but by faith.

Foundations vs. Consensus/ progress

From Van Inwagen’s  critique of Colin McGinn (ht)

Here are some things we understand, at least pretty well: planetary orbits, cell division, rainbows, electrical conductivity. Here are some things we don’t understand at all: conscious awareness, knowledge, free will, understanding things. That is, we are, as a species, pretty good at mathematics and science and no good at all at philosophy. Why is this?

Van Inwagen must have realized the irony in his position: we can claim to understand things but not the very understanding by which we do so. We know all sorts of things, except for the small detail that we don’t know what it means to know. This is fine as an observation of fact, but it also seems to point to the futility of trying to separate “science” from “philosophy” and claim the first is successful whereas the second is a failure. All “science” is on this account is a doctrine that grounds itself on naive, operationalist principles and which tries to explain as much as it can on this unexamined and provisional basis. We are pretty good at explaining the causes of rainbows, so long as we don’t ask what we mean by “cause” (!); we have a total theory of the universe, but are totally confused about what theories are. For that matter, our account of the “universe” cannot determine whether it is all things or not (since whatever we mean by universe appears to allow for the possibility of a multiverse). Even if we had a theory of everything, it would only be a something-or-other about something-or-other.  It might be a “better” something or other than the one it replaces, and it would certainly give us more power to do stuff, but any ultimate certitude we might feel in pondering it would be an illusion we created by forgetting the naive foundations that it rests on. We think we have certitude, when all we have is the consensus of the forgetful.

The success of science in making consensus presupposes forgetfulness, i.e. a group of people agrees to shelve the discussion of the basis of things and work on something else. Philosophy (or even science so far as it turns itself to the fundamental things) refuses to do this, but the cost of doing so is lack of consensus and therefore of progress. For whatever reason, these diverse goods are incompatible for a human mind, and so we are left to choose which good we will be a part of cultivating. Whatever one says about this choice abstractly, as a concrete choice of an individual human life it is largely determined by particular talents, interests, personality quirks and the idiosyncratic facts of history, and in this sense there is no better or worse option.

There will always we a tendency among those with the consensus to tyrannize over others, and to marginalize all those who fall outside of the consensus. This happens not only in science trying to tyrannize over philosophy (i.e. as the various positivist philosophies from Comte to Daniel Dennett have tried to justify), but also in successful philosophies tyrannizing over others, e.g. Neo-thomism persecuting other Scholastic opinions from Aeterni Patris to Vatican II, or the present attempts of Naturalistic philosophy in the Anglosphere Secular University to marginalize their rivals.

I am not here giving an apologia for skepticism. My claim is not “when you look at the foundations, everything is hopelessly obscure!” The claim is rather that looking into foundations is always a relatively lonely affair, and that it should be. For whatever reason, philosophy is killed by too much consensus. The Kantian contempt for “dogmatism” in metaphysics, or the 1930’s kefluffle about the incompatibility of philosophy and religion is really a muddled account of the incompatibility of philosophy and consensus. One can find real certitudes in philosophy (or, again, science as focused on fundamentals) only among a small group of persons. While there is no logical inconsistency in having everyone believe these certitudes,  in practice it always leads to an anti-philosophical atmosphere where all rivals as heretics, and to the widespread aping of various ideas by people who call themselves philosophers but who have no idea what their doctrine is actually based on. Mass consensus makes for philosophical laziness, where the great majority of philosophers think they can refute ideas when in fact all they can do is deliver pre-scripted monologues to caricatured opponents.

The axiom of perfections pre-existing in agent causes

Someone googling around about agent causation (in order to make an objection at Randall Rouser’s site) found me saying that:

[A]ny perfection possessed by an effect must be possessed in equal or greater degree by its agent cause.

He responded:

But this is not true. IBM’s Deep Blue computer can play chess more perfectly than any of its human creators. Aquinas can be forgiven for not knowing that, but we know it now.

The causal axiom in question needs to be explained in four stages. First, it will seem almost universally false, second, it will seem vacuous and tautological, third it will seem false again, and last it will show itself as a useful insight about causality.

1.) It seems universally false. Why stop at Deep Blue – why even take such a complicated instrument? True, the programmers of Deep Blue couldn’t beat Kasperov, but a person using a screwdriver also couldn’t drive in a screw more perfectly just using his hands; a person driving a car couldn’t move that fast without it; a surgeon couldn’t do the surgery just as elegantly with his bare hands, etc. Isn’t the whole point of making tools to accomplish some task we couldn’t accomplish without them? Shouldn’t we make the axiom that an agent cause must lack any perfection it brings about?  In this sense, it seems not just that the axiom is false, but that its contrary is axiomatic!

But this is not how the axiom was meant to be taken. By “equal or greater degree” what is meant is that the agent has the thing it bestows on the effect either (a.) in the same way the effect has it, or (b.) in a virtual way. Examples of (a.) are when the sun causes something else to heat up, or when the fridge cools down food. Examples of (b.) are a bit more subtle – a knife causes something to be cut not because it is cut, but because it has something that is ordered to cutting (sc. its honed edge). This leads us to…

2.) The claim seems vacuous and tautological. If this is all one means, then all the axiom comes to is that an agent either is the very thing it causes, or it is merely ordered to causing it. Fire has a power to heat and is itself hot, matches have the power to heat even if they are not hot. Matches are, on this account “virtually hot”, knives have cuts not by being cut, but by having a power to cause them.

3.) But then the claim seems false again. What sense is there to describing a knife as “virtual steak” because it can butcher a cow? Why call malaria parasites “virtual fever”? Is there any sense to this at all?

Perhaps there is. Consider the malaria parasites again. True, fever results from them, but is it the parasite that does it? Is causing a fever an essential part of its life cycle, or is it rather an accident of its development in the host? These are interesting and perhaps even helpful things to know. Say that the malaria parasite causes a fever as an essential part of its life cycle. In order to do this, it would need some chemical trigger. If you discovered such a trigger in research, you actually would  name it after its effect. In fact, such a thing has already been named after its effect – it is a pyretic, i.e. “fever causing” or “a virtual fever”. My guess, however, is that the parasite only has fever as a side effect – though a necessary one – of its life cycle in a host. If this is the case, then it is not the parasite as such that causes the fever, even if its action is necessarily correlated with it.  If you were doing research on malarial fever, this is exactly the sort of problem you would need to solve. But the light you would be following to solve the problem would be the idea that finding the cause of the fever means locating what exactly is pyretic – is it something in the virus as such, or something else (viz. an immune system response, an overabundance of choleric humors, whatever). But this leads us to seeing…

4.) How the causal axiom is an illuminating, subtle, and yet a priori truth about causation. We tend to know effects before causes, and identifying causes in the fullest sense means locating precisely what contains the effect virtually. Sometimes we settle for what is less than a cause, sometimes we have no name for precisely what formality the cause corresponds to, but any systematic inquiry into agent causes is only complete when it locates some locus where the effect we wanted to understand was virtually, causally contained.

Essence/nature vs. the individual

– Is mere appeal to matter sufficient to account for the fact that numerical multiplication is necessary because no individual could exhaust the essence of a natural thing? The principle of multiplication needs to play some role in highlighting diverse aspects of essence. How does matter do this? Matter certainly explains something about multiplication, the way the amount of cookie dough can explain how many times we can multiply out the shape of the cutter, but this leaves out the precise good and purpose of multiplication. Natural individuals are in this sense  more like different artistic renderings of a single subject or different accounts of the same story. True, matter plays a role in this – one needs enough paint to give multiple depictions of a landscape and enough air or ink to tell the same story – but it can’t be the whole story of individuation.

– As a natural essence becomes more perfect  individuality becomes more prominent.

– In God, essence and self, nature and life are the same. They are divided in us – nature is for us hidden in the darkness subconscious, and yet has a sort of primacy from its necessity and riveted attachment to the good; life in us is free and self-determining, and yet has the imperfection of not yet resting in its fixed good. In God, there is a largely incomprehensible overcoming of these imperfections: nature itself enters into the sunlight of what is free and self-determining, while at the same time not sharing in the indetermination of not resting in ones end. God has the autonomy of choice without having its indetermination; and the necessity of his life is not from the fact that it arises for him from dark regions, as though by the decree of another. We have no experience of this unity: judged by the things in our experience, it is impossible.

-The moral absolutes are fixed for us because, at least in part, they arise from a region our life cannot illumine. Nature is, for us, subconscious. We wake up with the ethical imparatives and logical laws written on the wall, and we have never seen the one who writes them there.

– We have choice, that is, freedom within strictly determined and finite alternatives. Nature fixes finite alternatives for us, and these of necessity. This necessity has two aspects: on the one hand a positive one – it is necessary determination to a good; on the other hand a negative one, it is necessary for us because we simply cannot question it. It is just given, and that’s all. This is why the ethical imparative seem at the same time good and yet static and lifeless.

– Our conflicting ideas of ethical imparatives gives rise to the Euthyphro dilemma. On the one hand, the absolutes are absolutes – standards under which all things fall. On the other hand, they are static and therefore lifeless. So is God the highest being or not? As absolute, yes; as static and lifeless, no. But if there is a God, what must he be? A dynamic absolute? Here again, we have no intuition of something that can overcome the opposition here.

– If we did not dream, we would think it would be incoherent and even contradictory – What is this nonsense about conscious experience while one is unconscious? Nonsense and contradiction!

– Here again, I think we’re led to the idea that an epistemology that makes intuition absolutely foundational to knowledge will have to deny any rational account of God as classical theism articulates him. This is more costly than it might look – though many would not cry to lose the identity of essence and existence or nature and supposit,  the spiritual existence of God has to go too. God in one way or another will have to become physical if he is known. This is one suspicion I have of the the scientific justifications of God through religious experience – they are fundamentally intuitional. James himself was led to advocate, or at least expect polytheism.

Objection – Andrew Newberg sees religious experience as involving suppression of spacio-temporal awareness, and thus are pointing to the non-physical. Very well, but there still is no intuition of spirit as such – the concrete that wholly exhausts the possibility of multiplication. A God which is such a spirit is one only in a accidental, and fundamentally solitary sense.



Ps. 94 as a window into virtual causality

He who made the ear, does he not hear? He who formed the eye, does he not see? Ps. 94:9

1.) First, we are working under the hypothesis of a person making the ear or eye. The question “that which formed the eye, does it not see?” is an interrogative question and not a rhetorical one. So far as it refers to causes like the formative activity of the mother’s womb or natural selection – both of which form ears and eyes – then it is not necessary that the thing forming see or hear. The Psalmist was of course familiar with the fact that ears and eyes are formed in nature (you can even see it happen on some animals), but he here is interested in this sort of causality as an extension or manifestation of something else.

2.) Notice the Psalm does not say “he who made the ear, does he not himself have ears?” Eyes and ears are means to a certain goal, i.e. receiving sorts of information, and there is no necessity that the same goal be realized by the same means.

3.) This is the sense in which things are virtually present in their agents, and that every cause needs to have that which it gives to the effect. The axiom does not require that murderers be dead men.

4.) If some cause possesses an effect in the same way the effect has it (like fire in the match and in the candle) this is wholly accidental, and indeed would leave some cause unexplained. If God is the first cause, it is thus necessary that he see (i.e. be aware of a narrow band of EM waves), though that he not have this awareness with eyes. The pre-existence of something in a cause, as such, must be different from its existence in the effect.

Analogy in St. Thomas

One of the first moves in explaining the doctrine of analogy in St. Thomas has been to point out that analogy is from the Greek idea of proportion or ratio. St. Thomas himself explains analogy by ratios, either as different ratios to the same thing (like 5/4 and 3/4, which has the technical name of “proper proportion” ) or the same ratio to different things (like 3/8 and 6/16 or “proportionality”).  The explanation works up to a point, but it leaves the main question of analogy open. Visualizing ratios between ideas allows us to see a way in which ideas can admit of both real equality and diversity, but Thomists are not interested in analogy in general but only so far as it helps us establish the unity of metaphysics and the attribution of positive names to God, and in neither case is it particularly satisfying to say that the various names involved are somehow the same and somehow different. This is the metaphysics of a confused teenager, i.e. “like, God and us are sorta the same but, like, not totally” or “substance and accident are both being, but they’re not like, ya’ know, being”.

St. Thomas is clear that the sorts of analogies he is interested in are the the ones where there is one thing signified (res significata) and diverse ways of signifying it (modus significandi). This is the precise way in which an analogous name, like equal ratios, can be both one and diverse. Notice STA says that there is only one thing signified. If you want to talk about existence or goodness, there is really just one thing there. There is one idea of existence, goodness, person, etc. and not a heap of loosely related analogous ideas. That said, we are not interested precisely in existence or goodness, but in the way in which these are, for example, predicated of God and human beings – and here is where one introduces a diversity. One can mean a single thing by “sews” but still not predicate it in the same way of the tailor and the needle; you can mean one thing by “choose” without having to say that means and ends are chosen in the same way; and likewise you can mean one thing by “exists” and not predicate it of God and creatures or substance and accident in the same way. This is just the way we deal with naming things that are arranged in causal orders: instruments and agents, subordinate and ultimate ends, essential and participated forms, etc, and the relation of God/creature and substance and accident is precisely such an order. God stands to creatures as a first mover to a secondary one, and so is described by the same sort of language we use to describe instrument/ agent relations (even if there are important differences) and substance is a subject for all other entities and so is as though the first in the order of material causality among definite things, and exists simply whereas other things exist secundum quid.

This is the “analogy” that STA was interested in. Notice that “ratios” can only get one started and can’t tell the whole story. What is chiefly involved here is a thing with a single meaning with essentially different predications.* This doesn’t exhaust all that STA means by analogous naming, but it touches on the main points.


I’m taking predicate not in a grammatical sense but in the sense where even adjectives and apposite nouns are predicates (they are prae-dicere, or “said of” something). We aren’t just talking about, for example, goodness as a grammatical predicate, as when we say “God is good” but also when we think about “the good and holy God” or speak of “the divine goodness”.

Thomistic responses to an Analytical objection to the identity of existence and essence in God

Anthony Kenny, echoing Peter Geach, argues that it is absurd to say that God’s essence is the same as his existence since this would mean that the answer to “what is God” would be “there is one”. Can we reconstruct a Thomistic response to this?

First, translating the Kenny/Geach objection into Thomistic language gives us something like this: the questions “whether it is” and “what it is” are irreducible, and thus the one can never serve to answer the other. St. Thomas was aware that these questions were irreducible and yet he still posits at least one “what” question (sc. about the divine essence) which terminates in a “whether” answer (that it is “esse”).

St. Thomas articulates the problem very close to this in QDP 7.2, arg. 2.

The two questions whether it is and what it is are diverse, and we know how to respond to one of these and not to the other, as is clear from the authority cited above (Damascene -ed.) So what corresponds to the “whether it is” of God and the “what it is” is not the same, but the first corresponds to existence and the second to substance or nature.

duae quaestiones diversae sunt, an est, et quid est; ad quarum unam respondere scimus, ad aliam vero non, ut etiam ex praedicta auctoritate patet. Ergo id quod respondet ad an est de Deo, et quod respondet ad quid est, non est idem; sed ad an est respondet esse; ad quid est, substantia vel natura.

Problematically, STA rolls this objection in with two others and then gives a reply that he gives other places:

Being and existence are said in two ways, as Metaphysics V makes clear. Sometimes they signify the essence of a thing or the act of being, sometimes they signify the truth of a proposition, even in things that do not exist; as when we say that “blindness exists” because it is true that a man is blind. So when Damascene says that the existence of God is shown to us, the existence of God is taken in the second way and not in the first. For in the first way the existence of God is the same as what his substance is; and as his substance is unknown, so is his existence. But we do understand in the second way that God is, since we conceive this proposition in our intellect from his effects.

ens et esse dicitur dupliciter, ut patet V Metaph. Quandoque enim significat essentiam rei, sive actum essendi; quandoque vero significat veritatem propositionis, etiam in his quae esse non habent: sicut dicimus quod caecitas est, quia verum est hominem esse caecum. Cum ergo dicat Damascenus, quod esse Dei est nobis manifestum, accipitur esse Dei secundo modo, et non primo. Primo enim modo est idem esse Dei quod est substantia: et sicut eius substantia est ignota, ita et esse. Secundo autem modo scimus quoniam Deus est, quoniam hanc propositionem in intellectu nostro concipimus ex effectibus ipsius.

Cajetan fleshes out this response, albeit while addressing a slightly different question:

The existence of God differs from the rest of beings in this, that the existence of God is the “what it is” of God himself, such that this proposition “God is” is said in the first way of speaking per se. The existence of the rest of things does not stand to them in this way, but is distinguished from their nature. From this it arises that the existence of God, in itself and absolutely, is the proper terminus of the question “what it is”, and it is the foundation of the question “whether it is” only relatively (secundum quid) i.e. so far as it grounds the truth of a proposition. The existence of other beings is not put in view from the question “what it is” because it is not predicated of them according to the first mode of speaking per se, as is clear inductively (“man is”, “the sky is”, etc.) but it is put into view simply and in itself by the question “whether it is”. And because of this, when we know about other things the answer to the question “whether it is” we are said to know both the existence that is the truth of the proposition and the very existence of the thing (STA’s two modes of  being mentioned above – ed.) because the thing is known in the proper way in which it is knowable. But when we know the answer to the question “whether it is” about God, we are said to know it according to the truth of the proposition and not the very existence of God – not because the ultimate term of our knowledge is the existence of a proposition… but because by this knowledge the existence of God is not known as it is knowable in itself by the appropriate question, since it is not known through the nature (quid) of God.

Notice how Cajetan answer rests on the modes of perseity, where God is said to exist per se in the first sense while nothing else does. This is the mode where a predicate is said of something because it belongs to it intrinsically and by its nature, the way we say fire is hot or elephants are placental mammals (by way of contrast, a stone is not hot per se, nor is an elephant angry or a father per se). Roughly, what being a placental mammal is to a antelope, existence is to God. We are, however, incapable of seeing the truth of the comparison by knowing what God is in himself. Here is it important to divide the theoretical knowledge we can have of sensible or physical things from the knowledge we can have of God. Though we know some natural things by their effects (say, an undiscovered planet) this does not preclude us knowing the planet in itself (say, by seeing it in a telescope, or sending astronauts on the long journey to see it). God is not knowable in this way, but only through his effects. To put it in Franciscan/ Kantian terms, natural things are always in principle given in intuition to us while God is not. Taken in this sense, the basic Thomistic claim is that there need not be an intuition for every object known, but only of those whose existence is different from essence.

If this is the right line of critique, then a response to the Kenny/Geach objection pushes us to see at least three things: a.) the modes of perseity, b.) the unknowability of God’s esse in itself, which can be known from the esse that is the truth of a proposition and c.) the differing modes of knowing intuitive and non-intuitive beings.

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