A scholastic account of a phenomenological claim

One way to translate a fundamental claim of phenomenology into Thomist terms is to say that before Phenomenology, everyone was working from an unrealized negative abstraction from their actual experience of the world.

Thomism developed to recognize several different sorts of abstraction. There were at least two sorts of positive abstraction, sc. the abstraction of a universal whole from its parts (like when we get the idea “placental mammal” by looking at pigs and cows) and the abstraction of a form from the-thing-with-the-form (like when we get the idea of “redness” from “red” or the idea of a circle from looking at a wheel.) Both of these abstractions, however, presuppose the more general reality of negative abstraction, which is simply the act of considering one thing without another. This allows not only for positive abstraction but also the mere act of paying attention or focusing on one thing and letting others fall from consciousness, e.g. we can consider the color of a rose without considering its scent. This sort of “abstraction” is found in any finite cognitive power – a cat focusing on something will tune other things out.

The claim of phenomenology is that pre-phenomenological thinkers all made an unrealized negative abstraction from the world as actually experienced. Experience comes to us as a totality, but science and philosophy all try to start from some part divided from that whole. Aristotle, for example, starts with “substance”. He separates, say, a cow from the field of experience, lets everything else drop from view, and quietly assumes that the world is an enumeration of these substances. But experience does not come to us like this. We see the whole first and then divide it into parts (like “substance”) by various turns of focus. True, if we are to study anything, we need to let this initial totality fall into the subconscious, but this only means that any act of learning involves a submersion of a vast section of the world as it comes to us. This is one application of Heidegger’s idea that every disclosure of being also hides it.

Arguably, by overlooking this initial totality of experience, we have fallen into the idea that analysis is fundamental, or that ultimate reality is the part. Our ontologies are thus all searches for the ultimate part. We seek reality in what is most isolated and cut off from things.

A sound version of the God in the gaps

Even if we take “God in the gaps” as a fallacy, we dismiss the argument too quickly. There is very often more going on in them than what can be waved off with a catchphrase or quick refutation.

The familiar structure of the sort of argument that gets called God in the gaps would be something like ‘How can you say there is no God? You can’t possibly explain _____________” More formally, the argument seems to be

There must be some explanation for ___________, since it’s there.

There can be no natural explanation for ____________,

Therefore, there is some explanation above or beyond nature, and this is what all call God.

Predictably, the minor premise is attacked. The argument requires that something is unexplainable in principle, but we can’t establish the existence of such a thing by multiplying instances of things actually unexplained. We thought we needed God – i.e. an act of special creation in addition to the general creation- to explain star formation, elemental genesis, the origin of species, etc., but we were wrong. This leaves open the central question whether there is something unexplainable in principle. So how can we being to touch on that question?

Some marvels arise when we don’t know an explanation, but they are of different sorts. The marvel at a magic trick is dispelled when the trick is explained, but the wonder of, say, seeing your two-minute old baby know how to nurse is not the same sort of thing. The difference I’m interested in here is that the first wonder can be repeated on command in front of pretty much anybody; while the second strikes you out of the blue, and you are simultaneously amazed that everyone can’t see it and completely able to understand why they wouldn’t.  This difference seems to be grounded in different ways in which the marvel is seen as integral to the reality of what we are seeing. In seeing the magic trick, no one assumes they are seeing something fundamentally real – no one calls 911 when Copperfield cuts a girl in half or Houdini is underwater for twenty minutes. But the amazement at seeing the child nursing or the night sky or whatever-it-is is a sense that you are seeing the reality of things. During the experience you are flooded with the idea that there is a dazzling and therefore inexplicable reality at the basis of things. Non theists have this experience too, and so it’s not definitive for the God-in-the-gaps argument, but it does move the argument to a more interesting place, since now theists and non-theists are on the same page that there is something inexplicable in principle.

There does, however, seem to be an atheist way to interpret the experience in question. After all, if there is something inexplicable in things, it is false to say that there must be some explanation for ___________, since it’s there. But the argument hides a subtle and significant claim: sc. that if something is in principle inexplicable to us, it is altogether inexplicable. But this claim does not seem to be faithful to the very experience it is trying to explain. The ecstasy of seeing something inexplicable in things is not an awareness of their fundamental irrationality – it is not the chaos and abyss of something that falls outside of reason altogether; though for all that it remains something in principle inexplicable to us. If this is so, we have a good reason to accept the theistic account of the experience over the atheist one.

I stress that, by the very premises of his argument, the theist can give no explanation for the thing – not even “God did it”. God does not enter into the account of the marvel as a being we can ferret out by a causal account. God shows up in the argument as he who is necessary if we are to distinguish what is inexplicable to us from what is wholly irrational. IOW, we’re working from the idea that being is intelligible, and if it is not so to us, then it must be so to another. Without this division, it seems impossible to faithfully account for the experience of a natural marvel. If this is what the supposed “God-in-the-gaps” argument is trying to say, then the argument is sound.

The absolutes of physical things

-Without ether, it becomes impossible to make light a physical phenomenon as opposed to a mathematical one. The problem is a familiar one, since it is the exact problem that led Newton to posit ether in the first place – since without ether space was a purely mathematical phenomenon. Time was too, but for whatever reason no one posited time ether.

-If “space” is just “whatever all physical things have in common”, then it can’t do the work that Newton needed it to do. This makes space Einsteinian, i.e. purely relative. Newton needed space to be wholly separate from the physical. This makes for an interaction problem every bit as compelling as the soul-body version, but for whatever reason we don’t dwell on it.

-“But we don’t dwell on it because we don’t believe in absolute space any more!” This misses the point. The need to divide the purely mathematical from the physical is just recast by an account of a new absolute (EM waves) with no ether-principle that can distinguish the purely mathematical from the physical. Like it or not, we’re insisting that EM waves are wholly separate and divided from physical phenomena. They’re Euclidian realities (okay, Riemannian, same difference) defining physical spaces.

-What about Einstein’s space, then? It is entirely relative, which renders it incapable of being a substrate or medium for an absolute. You can’t write red letters with black ink.

-Mathematization of nature is one way of articulating the radical difference between the absolute and relative. We can understand a world where mathematical things are separate from the world, but still structure it, all the while not interacting with it. They are extrinsic from what they define while still being intrinsic to it. This is simply the role absolutes have to play. We could do more to articulate the reality of God and soul by mathematicals.

-Newton’s ether was a concession that did not eliminate the fundamental scandal. Ether might correspond to absolute space and remain at rest (allowing for a division of real and apparent motion). But a contraction of ether would still be in absolute space.

-The absolute space is at once necessary and superfluous. We needed it to account for a real division between real and apparent motion and rest, but it required an appeal to something that could never be used. No one could do an experiment that required us to mark off meters in absolute space.

-For Aristotle, a mathematical thing is a physical one with something left out. On this account, the physical is fundamental and the mathematical is derivative. The science of the last few centuries wants to reverse this, but is ambivalent.

– Is mathematics abstract, or is the physical exemplary/incarnational? Are the two compatible by making “abstraction” epistemic and the other ontological? Is the Euclidean triangle an abstraction from all the triangles we visualize, or are the visualized triangles all derivations and incarnations of a more fundamental idea?

Arguments that we are certain that we must be uncertain about uncertainty vs. determinism

Take probability or uncertainty. Is it an ontological or epistemic reality?  We have yet to reach any conclusion, and so we drop the problem. But the only reason we are dropping the problem is that the goal is to be certain about one option or another, which opens the possibility of a third option: namely, that we are in principle and not just in fact unable to resolve the question by scientific means, and so can hold out no hope whether the sciences will be able to decide between ontological probabilism and determinism.  Here are a few arguments:

1.) Inductively, we have been arguing about probability since Pascal and the debate has only become more intense and intractable by QM.

2.) All measurements are imperfect. There is no way for it to distinguish non-mathematical rational and irrational magnitudes, and it is only precise within a finite accuracy. But certitude in the sciences is pegged to measurement.

2a.) A perfectly determined universe is logically possible, but it is, by definition, one whose motions are infinitely precise. But we are unable to verify the existence of an infinitely precise quantity, since all of our measurements have a definite, and therefore finite accuracy.

3.) For simplicity, we must treat some quantities as negligible but are not sure which ones are. Newtonian mechanics was verified to 10^-6, and if any quantity were basically negligible, it would be things on the Planck scale, though it made all the difference between classical and quantum physics. We have no idea how many scientific revolutions are right of the decimal point.


Matterless particles. Of matter.

-Matterless particles make as much sense as light without ether.

-Take the ether out of light and you are left with a purely geometrical wave. So why not have purely geometrical points? response: a geometrical point could not be used to build up extension. Sed Contra but a purely mathematical particle would be no better than a point at making a physical body! One can’t multiply any Euclidean reality into a real body.

-Photons. Ether particles.

-Speaking experimentally, whether there are particles or a vacuum depends on whether the observer is moving accelerating.

The sexual revolution and secular society

The contrary view of sexual activity to the one advanced by the sexual revolution is one defined by a vow. In one sense this is obvious: the sexual revolution rejected the idea that sexual activity is defined by marriage, and marriage – at least before it was modified by the sexual revolution – is a vow. But vows are contrary to the revolution in a subtler and more fundamental way – here I’m thinking of Foucault’s arguments that the sexual revolution was about self-definition, or Casey’s claim that it finds its justification in our right to define our own existence. A vow, on the other hand, sets up fixed limits and a moral structure that are incompatible with continued self-definition. Another way to put the problem is to see it as two different opinions on what it means to define oneself. When one defines himself by a vow, the sense is that he specifies intrinsic limits, unchangeable elements, and broad and even infinite domain of actions that are intrinsically harmful to the structure that exists by the vow. Defining sex by vows thus defines broad sphere of sexually immoral actions. The sexual revolution, by contrast, didn’t recognize any sexual acts as immoral – except perhaps its very logical repugnance to defining sexual activity by marriage (to remain a virgin until marriage, for example,  is taken as a mark of shame indicating personal turpitude or immaturity.)

The clearest objection to vows is that we simply lack the intelligence to make them. The future is unknown to us and therefore includes contingencies that we simply cannot plan for but which a vow cannot avoid tying us to. Who can be sure his wife won’t become crazy, catatonic, or perhaps just less fulfilling than someone or something else we might discover later? Again, even if the future were not contingent, the immaturity and necessary lack of marital experience seem to make marital vows crazy. Why not just try it out for a while and see if it works? In light of this, vows need to be underwritten by a power beyond ourselves. Social structures and safety nets certainly help, but the fundamental thing we need is the confidence that there is some purpose to sticking with the vow, no matter how pointless or harmful it might appear in light of present circumstances. But no human knowledge or structure could underwrite such a claim. And so the vow is really only reasonable from within a worldview that includes the providence of a benevolent God. The multitude of worldviews opposed to this – whether atheist or theist (like Epicurianism, some humanisms, or deism) might very well still have vows, but they could only be frightening and terrible things that, for all we know, might turn out to be suicide pacts. They cannot underwrite the claim that a vow is good things to the individual that makes one.

If a society is secular it has to decouple sexual activity from vows, and thus from marriage. The logic of the consequence stays the same, whether we use it as a basis of modus ponens or modus tollens.

Dream-wakefulness equivalence and consciousness studies

A: Newton showed that rest and uniform motion were equivalent, even the same. Einstein showed the same thing about acceleration and gravity.

B: How?

A: Because you could never do an experiment while in one state that would be different from the other.

B: The same is true of dreaming and being awake.


1.) Something like this might be behind why our science of mind is always a science of “consciousness”. This abstracts from its definition in relation to reality or truth.

2.) We could escape from the problem by saying that the dream/wakefulness question is resolved by discourses that do not depend essentially on experiments, but this would mean that it would not be entirely adequate to deal with the problem of consciousness by physical sciences.

2a.) The point is obviously not that an observer in some reference frame can’t tell the difference between waking and dreaming, but that he can’t and needn’t do so by experiments.

3.) Just as “consciousness” is mind as though truth or reality were not essential, it also does not capture what is uniquely human. Dreamers and animals are both conscious.


Sharpening the hard problem (pt. 1)

Say you give a bunch of brain scans, record what lights up, and then ask the person to describe what they were perceiving at the time; your subjects all respond that they clearly perceived that they were not limited to their body, that they would survive death, and that time itself – to say nothing of our time ending – is an illusion. The experiment has actually been done by Andrew Newberg, and could be repeated from multiple evidence streams (say, from nuns doing centering prayer, shamans taking DMT, Buddhists meditating, etc.)  We could label the brain scan something like “brain activity where brain perceives the non-necessity of brain activity for thought”. In this case, the “qualia” problem is made sharper since the qualia in question are asserting a real separation from observable reality. Note that we don’t need to claim that the particular brain state in question is actually separate, but only that it perceives that neither that state nor any other is necessary. 

What’s going for determinism, again?

Me: So why do you want me to be a determinist again?

My Einsteinian-Laplacian side: Because otherwise something won’t be predictable by the tools that have worked so well so far, and so our science will not be totally exhaustive and infinitely precise.

Me: You want me to choose that over the reality of free choice?

Working division between physics and metaphysics

Metaphysics (or at least special metaphysics) seeks first causes whereas physics tries to explain things in causal systems. These are diverse diverse: a first cause is not taken as subordinate, whereas a cause in a system is always subordinate to the system as a whole.

Newton’s third law specifies the empirical domain. It is a domain of systems, i.e. a place where every action has an equal and opposite reaction, and so where any cause is just a part of a larger cause-effect system.

Without a homogeneity of cause an effect in a system, one can’t write an equation. Goodbye (physical) science.

The irreversibility of temporal relations is not an exception from Newton’s third law. Time is not an action on something.

The simplest solution to the family of interaction problems is to deny that the cause-effect relation is an interactive relation. This is only true in the physical domain, indeed it specifies the physical domain.

Making a physical difference does not require entering into a physical system. This is true only where symmetry is isomorphic with cause-effect. Thus, the best argument for physicalism begs the question.

The homogeneity of interactive causes, curiously, makes physics in one sense indifferent to causes. There is some truth to the idea going around lately that cause and effect are only logical distinctions in a single, unified phenomenon. This is true, for (physical) science.

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