Sex differences and the basis of the philosophy of nature

Research shows that males are better at detecting motion while females are better at detecting the division of one body from another. This suggests that a masculine account of the philosophy of nature would start with nature as mobile and proceed to considering it as bodily while a feminine philosophy of nature would go exactly in the reverse. On this account of things, the Aristotelian-Thomistic account of nature is fundamentally male, as is modern physics so far as its fundamental quantities (length, mass, time) all reduce to motion. A feminine account of nature would, in metaphysics at least, stress the difference between the finite and the infinite as being more fundamental than the difference between the temporal/eternal or the changing/ unchanging (perhaps Scotistic metaphysics suggests something in this direction); and in physics it would look more to the formal structure of wholes – as we see, for example, in Bohr’s reasoning about the atom.

Again, the male fascination with machines (which a family friend of mine detected even in chimps) would lead them to see nature fundamentally as a sort of mechanical art; the female fascination with personal bonds would lead to seeing nature as an information-system. Masculine nature pushes, pulls, forces, has hierarchical order, is fundamentally energetic etc. while feminine nature communicates among parts, processes information, works to integrate things into the whole, orders holistically, etc.

Athanasius’s cosmological argument

From On the Incarnation c. 2:

[I]f  everything has its beginning of itself, and independently of purpose, it follows that everything would only exist, so as to be alike and not distinct.

And, given that body is homogeneous, it would follow that everything must be sun or moon, or that a man would be only a hand, or eye, or foot.

But as it is this is not so; rather, we see a distinction of sun, moon, and earth; and again, in the case of human bodies, of foot, hand, and head.

Now, such arrangement of separate things as this tells us not of their having come into being of themselves, but shows that a cause preceded them; namely God, the one who makes and orders all.

I’ve been fascinated by this argument since the moment I read it, now over fifteen years ago. It is at once more simple than other arguments (proving existence and providence at a single stroke, and apparently from the mere nature of the distinct things we see around us) and at the same time it does not neatly reduce to the other well-known genera of cosmological arguments. There is more to the argument, for example, than a teleological proof, a Platonic One-over-the-many proof, or even a first efficient cause proof.

First, to start with the simpler parts of the argument, Athanasius’s examples appear to be chosen to establish that the cause he is speaking of is (a.)  outside the cosmos (this is the sense of using the examples of sun and moon) and (b.) is at work in each of the parts of the universe (this is the sense of using the example of the parts of the body.) The first example points to the existence of something supernatural; the second points to the existence of something involved with natural things.

But the main work of the argument is the first conditional. Let me put the conditional in a slightly more complicated form, defend it, and then show how it is equivalent to Athanasius’s:

If diverse things form a single reality,* there is some cause separate from them. 

The best defense of this premise is, oddly enough, in Chapter VI of William James’s Psychology “On the Mind-Stuff Theory” (it’s also in Volume 53 in the Great Books series). James uses it to show that, despite all the best efforts to the contrary, psychology has to posit the existence of a soul separate from all mental reality; though the same premise gets us Athanasius’s conclusion that we need some being separate from all natural or noumenal reality. To give just one of James’s examples, muscle fibers might each all contract, but the only way they cause a leg-bone to move is if there is a tendon uniting the two. More broadly, distinct realities are each contained in themselves, and one can no more get a single effect out of them without an extrinsic cause than you could form a twelve-word sentence by having twelve men each think of a distinct word at the same time.**

It follows that if we deny there is a cause separate from diverse things, that either

a.) there are no diverse things

b.) diverse things do not form a single reality.

Athanasius’s explicitly addresses (a.) but not (b.), which is excusable if it is unintelligible – as I think it is – to speak of diverse things that do not in any way form a single system or reality. In fact, this seems to amount to saying that we have two utterly distinct universes, each a single, utterly homogeneous whole, which do not and cannot interact with each other in any way and yet are both homogeneously physical (which is certainly not what the multiverse theory says, since if this were the claim than an utterly useless, unconfirmable, reality that would explain nothing about the world we live in).  That said, denying (a.) also doesn’t make much sense, so this leaves us with some separate cause of all distinct things that form a single system.

When I proposed this argument to a class, one student suggested that the laws of physics could play the role of the separate thing. It was a fascinating suggestion since it points to the peculiar way in which physical law plays a divine role for us – pervading all things and binding them together, while somehow being separate from them. At once perfectly immanent and transcendent! All this is made possible by our unwillingness to take a stand on what physical law is: if it is really separate from the universe, then they are by definition supernatural; if we make them only immanent to the universe, then they become mere parts of the system, but then they become distinct parts of the system, even though the only reason we posited them was to explain the actions of all the parts. Putting the laws of nature into the universe seems like trying to explain spelling by positing more letters.


*By reality I mean that they either form a single being (like the parts of a body form an animal) or that they coalesce to form a single activity (like vector forces coalescing to form a single vector, or cars colliding at an intersection)

**It’s interesting that this premise is compatible with (though does not require) a complete denial of immanent teleology. One might visualize a cosmological argument that argued to the divine existence both from the affirmation an denial of immanent teleology.

Why the trial of Socrates is the trial of all philosophy, and the Socratic response

At the beginning of Apology, Socrates makes clear that he must address the arguments of two “Accusers”. The second group are those accusing him in court, but there is a first group that has been accusing him for a long time by mocking him in plays, talking behind his back, and casting aspersions on his life. Socrates specifies three main arguments of this first group:

1.) That Socrates does not believe in gods

2.) That he busies himself with things other than the affairs of earth.

3.) That he makes weaker arguments appear the stronger.

The accusations aren’t crazy, and have parallels for us: philosophers do tend to be overwhelmingly atheist (the most well-known survey shows at least a 4 to 1 margin, and this is before one includes agnostics). For his own part, Socrates admits that he does not believe that the Hellenic myths of the gods are true (Euthyphro, 6b). Again, philosophy will always be accused of being useless – viz. what are you going to do with that? We should all, so the second charge goes, strive to study and practice something that will have be of more value to the everyday affairs of life. The final charge is the accusation that philosophy is nothing but clever word games, which consist mostly in taking things that everyone knows (“the stronger argument”) and making them seem to be baseless or contradictory. It’s all but impossible to teach philosophy for fifteen minutes without having the students raise at least the last two objections, and it’s difficult to teach religious students without hearing some variation on the first question, since there will always be a tendency in such a group to think that faith or myth has neatly solved many of these problems and there is something suspicious, defiant, and even wicked in seeking to interrogate them by reason.

IOW, the charge of the “first accusers” is simply the perennial charge against philosophy. So what does Socrates say?

Briefly, Socrates claims that his mission is done in piety and obedience to the Gods, and that he seeks what is more useful than anything, since he seeks for something without which nothing can be useful to human life.

Socrates begins philosophy when an oracle tells his friend that no one is wise than Socrates. His response is to go out and try to find someone wiser than himself, though he gives various accounts of why he is doing so. At first, he appears to just be confused and he is striving to figure out what the god meant; later his mission changes into an attempt to vindicate what the god said; and his final conclusion is that the God did not mean to lift up Socrates above the common run of men, but rather humble the common run of men down to the level of Socrates, whose only “wisdom” is his awareness that he is unable to answer the sort of question that a wise man should be able to answer. Specifically, he has no answer to the question Who makes human beings good? We are told of a time when he posed this question to Callias:

“Callias,” I said, “if your two sons were foals or calves, there would be no difficulty in finding someone to put over them; we should hire a trainer of horses or a farmer probably who would improve and perfect them in their own proper virtue and excellence; but as they are human beings, whom are you thinking of placing over them? Is there anyone who understands human and political virtue? You must have thought about this as you have sons; is there anyone?”

If you want a good horse, you know who to go to, and more or less what process will make one; likewise if you want a good dog or a good car. This even generalizes to the the physical parts of the person: if you want a well- sculpted body, the steps to it are pretty well defined, even if not altogether easy to follow. But what process does one follow to become a good person? The perennial debates over curricula testify to insuperable difficulties at solving even the less controversial aspects of being a good person – and this is before we raise the issue of social justice, sexual ethics, the right music to listen to, the right religion to practice, the right role for a person within that religion etc. Who is the one who has worked all of this out? Would we even know him if we saw him? And even if he had worked it out in general, what would that mean for me? even if the height of human excellence was in desert asceticism or dying for the polis or quietly contemplating or achieving enlightenment or vanquishing ones enemies, this would tell me almost nothing at all about what should be doing with my life.

In the face of this question, we can recognize 1.) that Socrates is right to say that no one is wise since no one has worked this out and 2.) that it is precisely in relation to our answer to this question that anything is useful at all – for nothing is useful except what confers some benefit, but nothing counts as a benefit except in relation to our pre-existent idea of what human excellence is. It is the recognition of this intellectual destitution, and its principal significance, that Socrates calls “philosophy”. All later developments start from here.


Looking for the sensation of time (1)

Sitting at a traffic light, I figured I’d try to focus on the sensation of time. I knew the abstract arguments well enough (though no one knows them all) but I thought I’d try to just focus on the sensation. But what does this involve focusing on? The sensation of all the various colors was clear enough and has no immediate obscurity about it; so was the sensation of the steering wheel or the hum of tires.  The first guess was to try to find it in the cars making a left turn in front of me. But was this a sensation of time, or a motion that time is added on top of? Taken in this way, motion has some sort of priority over time. Something seems right about this: looking at leaves flutter back and forth suggests motion in an immediate way, though it suggests time only secondarily. This seems to be because I can see the leaves moving in an indefinite way – they are just “jostling”; but time involves something definite. To see time in the leaves I have to divide them into “now” and “later” whereas the jostling is just an indefinite moving about that one doesn’t have to explicitly divide into “here” and “there”. True, if you want to explain the motion or give an account of it, you need to divide off terms like here and there; and you can always just see the motion according to its here and there, but the mere sensation of motion doesn’t force this division upon us. When the subway flashes by us on the platform, or a bus whooshes by at a crosswalk, there is just an indefinite “going” and not a definite division into “here” and “there”. But to see time in a dropping leaf requires seeing something definite in it: we have to sense where it is as distinct from where it was or from where it will go. 

In this sense, the priority of motion is  from its being indefinite while time is essentially definite. The indefinite is a sort of backdrop or material in which the essential definiteness of time stands out. Making motion definite likewise seems to require a backdrop or material on which these divisions can stand out – and this seems to be our idea of indefinite extension/space. This would explain why, if we want to make everything definite and distinct in our account of nature we will have to identify space, motion, and time, since we will negate the very indefiniteness and imprecision that allows us to distinguish the one from the other. And so the division of extension, motion and time is the sort of division we find between material and the thing made out of it, or between the unfocused attention which has the world as just “there” and the focused attention that draws something out of this indefinite consciousness. Just as motion is usually what snaps us out of the undifferentiated “thereness” of the presence of the world (think of someone waving their hands to get your attention, or the focus of hearing a twig snap in a dark and otherwise silent woods), so too time snaps us out of the undifferentiated “going” or “jostling” of things. Time is thus, in sensation, the essential actuality of indefinite motion, just as motion is the essential actuality of its indefinite, ambient backdrop (whether this backdrop is space, or silence, or room temperature).

If this is right, then the sensation of time might help to address some of the paradoxes of time. Take for example the paradox that the past and future “do not exist” whereas “here” and “there” or the other parts of space and motion do. On our account, which sees time as essentially formal whereas space and motion are material and indefinite, all this means is that time does not have the undifferentiated, indefinite existence that we can cognize in space and motion, and so is seen as “nothing” when existence is taken in a sense appropriate to space and motion. Briefly, the parts of time do not “exist” because we are working from an understanding of existence that is (tacitly) proper to matter, or to undifferentiated “stuff”. 

Because of this, to understand eternal things as containing time or as a simple “now” that is taken as a point as opposed to a line is to go in exactly the wrong direction, and to impute to the eternal thing a more degraded existence than even the temporal ones. Eternity cannot be understood as a falling away from time to the static, indefinite character of space, but as the term one launches into after braking out of the ascent from extension to motion to time. A pure intuition of such a level of existence would require that we see time as essentially indefinite, though this is impossible for us. In this sense, time places a fixed limit on what we can intuit. Time is a “horizon” in the sense that it is meaningless to talk about overtaking it or taking a step beyond it.

But while it is impossible to take time as indefinite simply, there are modes of overcoming it in a qualified sense through realism in painting, metaphor, music, and immanent action.

That bumper sticker (☼)

– Coexist.

– It’s showed a surprising shelf life. Anything that widespread that hasn’t gone stale yet must be speaking to something people find important.

– Assume there was some widely accepted symbol for the sort of syncretism or pluralism the sticker is advocating. Say ☼. Could we put ☼ in the bumper sticker (say as the dot at the end of an exclamation point: “Coexist!”)? In one sense, yes, since for all of its irenic aspirations, ☼ is just another absolutism; in another sense no, since this contradicts the very ability of ☼ to make the bumper sticker in the first place.

-☼ makes a totality of which it can’t be a part. It must either be absolute or impossible.

-Can we be syncretistic about governments too? Can we make other bumper stickers that advocate a Communist-Liberarian-Feudal-democratic-Monarchy? Should Glenn Beck, Trotsky and Otto Von Habsberg coexist too?  If they were to coexist, they would have to do so in some definite system. I can’t think of one that wouldn’t end up negating, denying, and even punishing the claims of any two of them.

Ahh, but that makes the division clear: we’d be willing to force a form of government on people, but not a religion. This is one of many ways in which violence is the definitive question we raise about “religion”. Challenge: to find a reason for not forcing a religion on persons that does not apply to forcing a form of government upon them. There are good (though debatable) reasons to argue that one cannot force Christianity on persons, but “religion” is larger than this. 


Daydream of a sermon to intellectuals

For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Saviour: Who will have all men to be saved, and to come unto the knowledge of the truth.

“This quotation has generated controversy among theologians since the beginning, for if God wills everyone to be saved, then it certainly seems that everyone will be. Even if we can make sense of God’s will not being done in this or that particular instance, it seems impossible to argue that this could be true when all things are accomplished.  Ideas like this gave rise to what Origen called apokatastasis and which is now called universalism. Augustine thoroughly critiqued these ideas, but the debate will always be with us.

“But I want to pass over that whole debate here, though I would point out that it becomes extrordinarily difficult to see Paul as a consistent preacher if we read him as denying that anyone can be excluded from the kingdom of God. Rather, I want to focus on the passage in question and point out what Paul actually meant, as opposed to reading the text in isolation. Isolated readings are not always wrong, but there is a danger in an isolated reading here. We intellectuals love our extensive, abstract schemes and we are always tempted to read things as taking part in them. The great themes of “God’s will” and “the possibility of all being saved” tend to blind us from the concrete problem that Paul is speaking about here.

Lets take the passage from the beginning:

1 I exhort therefore, that, first of all, supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks, be made for all men; 2 For kings, and for all that are in authority; that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty. 3 For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Saviour.

“Paul wants the Church to pray for everyone, which implies he is concerned that the Church tends to avoid praying for some. He is particularly interested in addressing the danger that the Church might neglect to pray and give thanks for the civil rulers who are presently resisting, harassing, and persecuting the Church. But why is this a danger? Because the Church easily understands resistance to its mission as setting up an “us vs. them” dynamic where we are the Church and they are the forces of the world. But this is a false vision of the Church – for the Church is the mystical body, and the mystical body includes all who can be members and not just those who are. This is a crucial point that we cannot stress enough – while every other corporate body on earth only includes those who are actual members the mystical body includes all those who could be members. No one is a member of the McDonalds Corporation just because he could work there, but everyone is a member of the mystical body if he could repent and believe. This is a great mystery, and difficult to keep in mind, but the heart of the mystery is that the difference between the Church and the world is not a difference between two sorts of persons but between two sorts of loves that all persons have. All the conflicts of the world are conflicts within the mystical body – even those that don’t involve Christians at all. There is no “secular society” in opposition to the mystical body: there is simply a part of the mystical body that calls itself secular – and they can only call themselves this because they don’t know what they are. No one is falling out the Church, there are simply members of the mystical body that fail to call themselves what they are and fail to live the life they were actually given. True, to be a part of the body in these ways might not grant one salvation, but it is membership in the body all the same.

“It is precisely this vision of the Mystical Body that Paul is striving to advance in this passage. By revealing himself, God has made a single Church of all those who could  love the things which are revealed, irrespective of what they happen to believe in now. None of us will ever meet a person who is not already a member of the Mystical Body with us, and this is the truth that should govern our relations with others.

“I find this reading of Paul very challenging, even more challenging than the debate about universalism. Universalism is a debate about what God will do, and we can speculate about this for a thousand years without ever having to change anything fundamental in our attitude towards life. But to see all we meet as members of the mystical body – as brothers and sisters to us in Christ – is so extraordinarily difficult and challenging that I’m tempted to scurry back to the cool, detached world of theological speculation. But this would only evade the truth that, at the bottom of things, there is only one people, one culture, and one society of Christ, irrespective of what we decide to call ourselves or believe.

Nothing at the bottom of things

Reading the Presocratics, the idea slowly dawns that all of them are looking for a single substance to reduce all changeable things to. All options were tried: water, the indefinite, fire, air, atoms, homogeneous being, all substances, ideas, etc. and all of them proved incomplete or somehow inadequate. Seen from this angle, Aristotle’s way of solving the problem is simple, but astonishing:  there is no substance that we can reduce physical things to. The thing given in ordinary experience is substantial, and is not analyzed into the substantial (Aristotle in the Categories makes a threefold division between substance, accident, and parts, and each of the two need to be opposed to the remaining one.)

Another way of saying this is that, if we take the substance of something to be what is constitutive of it, then there is no one substance that physical things reduce to. Intrinsic causes are irreducibly multiple and heterogeneous. We will not find anything at the bottom of things, since there is no one thing to find. We might, for all I know, discover some last part of things – a subquark or foundational field of all fields; and this last part might even constitute a sort of total genus that is complete in itself and without any gaps – but it still won’t be the only genus intrinsically constituting the physical thing. Once one adds up all the parts, there is no other part to find, but one still hasn’t found everything that constitutes the physical. Parts obviously cause wholes, and even completely cause wholes, but the whole itself is also causally prior in a different order and causes the parts. This is clearest in the case of living things, which a philosopher friend of mine describes as being like a man juggling blocks with letters, and somehow managing to make the letters continuously spell the same thing while making their arc through the air. In the face of such a bizarre phenomenon, we either posit some unseen ghost (dualism) or declare by fiat that the prodigy is just a brute fact of material interaction (naturalism) but both answers are almost immediately unsatisfying; indeed, both are different ways of saying that nothing is different from the parts – naturalism takes the nothing as absolute while dualism imputes some sort of substantiality to this ghostly nothing. This is just our contemporary way of getting stuck in the Pre-Socratic rut – in fact, we are even trapped with Thales in waffling back and forth between “all things are water” (naturalism) and “all things are full of gods” (dualism).

Purus actus gaudium purum

Said in English the title seemed sentimental, but pure act is pure joy all the same, since to be pure act requires the awareness that one will always possess the highest possible delightful reality. But the intensification of delight is measured by its approach to an ecstasy that we fear will kill us or split us wide open; and in this sense pure act becomes much more intelligible through the processions that come forth from it. Christianity claims that these processions can be verified within pure act itself, though natural theology can only content itself with the inferior sort of procession that terminates in creation.

Creation thus  reduces to ecstatic joy, and so it is by joy that creation makes a unique return to its source; and by gloominess, apathy, dullness and depression that it experiences a peculiar alienation from it (N.B. sadness and sorrow are not in every way contrary to joy, and we only include those sorts of sadness that are).

Seen in this way, the argument from evil is recast as an argument from inappropriateness: how can God rejoice when there is so much evil in the world? What sense is there in reducing the events of life to an indefatigable rejoicing? C. S. Lewis seems to be responding to an idea like this when he denies that the world can have the final veto on the dispositions of heaven. It’s ultimately incoherent to pray – in an inversion of the third petition of the Our Father –  that our will be done in heaven as on earth.

The indefinite and the infinite

– Yesterday, while explaining the possible translations of Latin nouns, all of us fell into a collective astonishment that the indefinite article cannot be plural. You can’t have “a forests”, though this is not because the article is itself singular (there is no mystery to why you can’t say “that forests” or “this planets”, but the impossibility of “a planets” is not the same).

(N.B. see the comments for a discussion of “some” which is indefinite while being both singular and plural.)

-The first explanation anyone ventured was that the article was somehow infinite, and there is only one infinite thing.  Someone else objected with a second-hand account of Cantor’s multiple infinities, though everyone saw that we had to give some account of why the idea “infinities” made sense, and so we had to allow that they could be somehow many.

-The indefinite and the infinite are not the same. Mathematics gives a particularly sharp division: it is not the same thing for things to be infinite as it is for them to be undefined. “Undefined” means something like “there is no way to incorporate the thing into an operation” (say, the idea of dividing X by zero, since we’re not sure if the result should be X, or infinite, or zero). Whatever infinite means, it’s not this – even though we don’t know how to deal with “infinity” as though it were exactly the same as a finite quantity (applying basic algebra to ∞ + 1 = ∞ gives us 1=0).

-The infinite is the negation of a terminus or limit; the indefinite is the incompletion of the first act of the understanding. Modernspeak: infinite is either metaphysical or a broad category including the metaphysical and the epistemological; the indefinite is epistemological.

-For St. Thomas, two infinites bookend reality: on the one hand there is an infinite which is such by having no potency at all; on the other hand there is an infinite that is purely potential. David of Dinant identified them.

-This meshed with a text I was reading from Giovanni Gentile, arguing that consciousness was infinite, since for it to recognize anything is to place it within its ambit, and so any possible limit would be placed within it. The point can be generalized to all that exists: no living thing has a terminus that is a part of its being – death is not a part of life; and the corruption or analysis of any form is not a moment in the existence of that form.

Two incompatible objections against metaphysics (pt. 1)

Consider two objections:

1.) Metaphysics is pointless because it does not reach any definite conclusions. All metaphysical options have remained unchanged, or only been multiplied, since the time of the Pre-Socratics.

2.) The sciences have rendered metaphysics superfluous or false by explaining its conclusions in another way.

One problem to focus on is that the first claim sees no single metaphysics, but an irreconcilable crowd of competing doctrines, while the second sees metaphysics as unified enough in its conclusions replaced by a single method. So how can we see these claims as compatible?

Easy:  science is a method that works and metaphysics doesn’t have one. Metaphysics tried to figure out things from principles that were not testable when they should have framed hypotheses that could be decided by a test that could be agreed upon in advance. And so the diversity of metaphysics is a result of its absence of a decent method, and the one decent method we’ve found to solve questions replaced it.

But while this account does a tolerable job at explaining objection 1, it gives us no reason to believe that 2 is true – it even gives us a reason to hold that 2 is false. You haven’t explained any of the conclusions from Parmenides to Heidegger by switching to a hypothesis/test method. You haven’t resolved a single philosophical dispute, whether it was between Plato and Aristotle; the Idealists, Rationalists and Empiricists; Continental and Analytic philosophers, etc.


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