Could emergence be hylemorphic?

Emergence appears to be the idea that certain phenomena of X do not belong to the elements of X, e.g. All the various atoms that make up water are not wet, and so wetness is said to emerge at some point; amino acids and organic molecules aren’t alive, but at some point you can get a living thing out of them.

It’s unclear if emergence is meant to be taken as a fact or an explanation of a fact. My sense is that it is taken as more or less factual. There appears to be an implicit interpretation of the fact, however, one where the structure out of which things emerge is definite, clear, and substantially real whereas the thing that emerges is a ghostly, ethereal question mark. Life doesn’t vanish into organic molecules, but it also is seen as arising entirely a tergo and lacking the clear substantiality of organic molecules.

A hylemorphic account of emergence might go something like this: emergence is a mode of understanding things in the order of material causality, so far as the parts of thing are always in this order. Seen in this line, the ghostly nature of the emergent thing is a symbol for formal causality. It is, if you like, the moment where we recognize that we have crossed over a threshold into an order of causality that is no longer homogeneous with the constituent parts. It’s not that the molecules are more real, they are just more primary in the material order. And so we might make a slight correction to the way we visualize emergence and see it in a hylemorphic way: the emergent reality appears to lack the substantiality of the parts not because it is less real, but because we have recognized a sort of causality that is no longer homogeneous with the causality of the parts. 

Sciences and the humanities

-To have wandered into the conclusion that Planck and Einstein give us knowledge of the world but Homer and Tolstoy do not means we’ve made a wrong turn somewhere.

-Seeing the real world as impersonal and mechanical as opposed to personal is not an insight into all reality but a personality trait that reveals one aspect of it; and an overwhelmingly male one at that. The insistence that reality is only mechanical thus involves the marginalization and degradation of an opinion that is overwhelmingly feminine.

-The love of the concrete and sensible manifests itself in one way by the collection and categorization of facts, tables, and detailed measurements and in another way by the careful construction of character, plot, setting, etc. Newton saw every massive thing in an apple; Tolstoy saw the whole natural law in Anna Karenina.

-The love of health, gadgets, massive (and therefore impersonal) social structures and forms of entertainment.

-Does doing an experiment demand the patience of, say, reading Moby Dick? Sure, “it depends”, but we don’t expect most people to have the have stamina to hold together a work of 19th Century lit.

Notes on creation ex nihilo

-I wanted to write a news story where Lawrence Krauss explains non-fat milk by quantum principles, since “non-fat” is an obvious sort of non-being out of which one generates skim milk.

-“Nothing is a physical concept, since something is a physical concept“. The same argument proves that an anatomist studies everything that is non-fat; and that a brewer knows how to make grape juice or diet coke since both of them are, ya know, non-alcoholic.

-Creation is whatever does not have existence first, though it might have it per se. Fire has heat per se, but it is not what heat is first; an exploding atomic bomb killed the people of Hiroshima per se, but Truman killed them first; animals are made out of things like muscle, skeletal structures, etc. but they are made out of cells first; a drunk with no booze wants to get some per se, but he wants to get drunk first. A doctrine of creation arises out of our discovery of the sort of thing that would have existence first, and the recognition that it can’t be, say, a cat, a quantum vacuum, the Pythagorean theorem, a particle, a thought, a logical truth, an angel, a physical law, or even a universe.

-What is said about existence in the doctrine of creation can be said just as well of goodness, truth, dignity, life, self-action, thought, love, perfection, etc. We might attribute these all to their own god, but it can be said of unity too.

-“Why something as opposed to absolutely nothing?” is answered by a shorter question: what exists first? 

-Again, all sorts of things exist per se but not first. They might exist like this forever, or even necessarily.

-Not all sufficient causes are first causes (fire suffices to make something hot, but it’s not what is hot first) and not all first causes are sufficient causes (Truman would not have sufficed to kill the people of Hiroshima without the bomb). The doctrine of creation, and the cosmological arguments I’m thinking of that explain it, does not require the principle of sufficient reason.

-Creation is a doctrine that makes a certain denial of the substantiality of creation. There is a creator, and anything else is characterized by lacking any primary ontological foundation of its own.

After watching “The Nature of Existence”

(It’s a free-play on Netflix, other links here.)

The format of the movie is simple: ask short, existential questions to as many diverse persons as possible and allow only soundbite answers into the final cut. The result is something like “What is God?” followed by a series of jump cuts to “God is all around us” (cut) “God is everyone of us, taken together” cut) “God is the whole point of living” (cut) “God is the reason why anything exists at all” (cut) “God is a trick that evolution played to give us meaning” (cut) The result is frenetic and dizzying, leaving one with a sense that all the answers are equally arbitrary and/ or incomplete.  This is exactly the conclusion the narrator of the movie draws – sc. that we don’t have any answers yet, only an ongoing questioning.

Then again, what sort of questioning is this? Certainly not Socratic questioning- in fact, it is the sort of questioning that belonged to Athens as Socrates found it: a democracy where every opinion was possible and so none seemed definitive. We, like them, find ourselves inescapably in a pluralist world of opinion, and so the prevalence of any one opinion can be nothing but the will of the stronger (Trasymachus) creating social conventions (Callicles) through some sort of partisan indoctrination (Gorgias).  But this sense of “questioning” is directly contrary to Socrates’s questioning. Even where Socratic questioning reaches no conclusion, it still drives out what a wealthy, educated pluralist democracy (WEPD) calls questioning. Here are some differences:

1.) On ignorance. Both Socrates and the WEPD can believe that they are ignorant of answers, and even that they cannot find the answers they are looking for. But Socrates takes awareness of this ignorance as a part of piety, i.e. He sees himself as manifesting that true wisdom belongs to the God and that our own ignorance is a continual testimony to this. This is said outright in the Apology, but it is a part of the structure of all Socratic-Platonic thought. To take one example out of many, Socrates argues in Euthyphro that he cannot believe in the gods of Athens since they disagree with each other, and anyone who disagrees cannot have knowledge of the true natures of things. This sets up the true divinity as the one who knows the natures of things, while (as the dialogue proves) neither Euthypho or Socrates are capable of coming to know this. Whatever WEPD questioning is, it’s not this.

2.) On what to do with opinions. There seems to be a strong tendency in WEPD to celebrate the multiplication of opinions, or to take their continual multiplication as the nature of things. Socratic questioning, on the other hand, values winnowing down opinions, even if the winnowing down process cannot come to a final rest. Socrates might not define piety in Euthyphro, but he rules out any number of very common dead ends; he may not define virtue in Meno, but he rules out Meno’s celebration of pluralist virtue.

3.) On the significance they attach to the plurality of opinions. For WEPD, the diversity of opinions is an argument, or at least the major premise in an argument. We are supposed to conclude something from the diversity of opinion, and treat this conclusion as profound and significant. For Socrates, this diversity of opinion is like background noise, and it does little more than serve as a backdrop for his search for truth. Socrates refuses to bow to the crushing weight of the diversity of opinion around him. This makes sense in light of #1 above, since the diversity of opinion is not some venerable challenge that reveals reality, but simply the scrambled cacophony of minds without wisdom. 

“Folk” psychology vs. science

If one is raising the question about the reality of the responsible, unified, personal subject, then the opposition between “folk” psychology and scientific findings is a false dilemma. There are plenty of scientific psychologies that presuppose a self as an ontological foundation. Frankl’s Logotherapy is an clear instance: he formed his thought after extended clinical experience, followed by forming testable empirical definitions that were subjected to statistical analysis, and yet the core of the theory is an explicit rejection of the idea that the self is reducible to natural drives and forces.  More generally, the success of any scientific psychology that places real value on personal choice, responsibility and maturity can serve as scientific verification for the reality of the self.

Maybe neurology will succeed in explaining all of human behavior without having to posit the reality of a unified self. I doubt it, and my money’s on that after a string of early successes all of its claims will seem as naive as any of the previous attempts at a single-principle catch-all explanation of human behavior: cf. repression theories, behaviorism, inner parent/child conflicts, transactional analysis, psychiatry itself, etc.. Still, maybe it will be different this time (!) and neurology will explain it all. Nevertheless, any reduction-of-self theory is opposed not just to unrefective “folk” psychology but also to many reflective, rigorous, scientific psychologies, and it does not follow from this opposition that we get to treat one as true and the other as false. All sorts of scientific theories are at loggerheads in their fundamental principles, and no one thinks this requires us to throw out one of them root and branch (think of the role of probability in Thermodynamics and QM as opposed to the Einsteinian block-universe.) These are paradoxes: i.e. invitations to further research that strives to preserve the essential truths of both horns of the dilemma. Beating one horn of a paradox against the other is the reasoning of a child.

“Nihil in intellectu” by its own light

It’s fascinating to try to figure out how we would account for the principle that nothing is in the intellect that was not first in the senses by the principle itself. How was that in the senses?

1.) By the word-sounds or shapes. The sounds or squiggles play a crucial role in making the proposition known.

2.) By the image-metaphors we use to understand the relevant terms. “Nothing” gets visualized as black, unlit extension; “the senses” as disembodied eyes; “first” is seen as some object to the left of another on a line, etc.

3.) By a vague ghostliness in comparison with concrete things. We visualize a proposition as more symbolically than, say, a cat. The cat in the intellect is visualized as more or less four-legged, warm-blooded, and purring. The visualization of a proposition is more abstract and metaphorical – maybe like the abstract linkages of Venn diagrams.

I point this out because all three do a very good job at manifesting what the proposition leaves out: The word sound and shape is not what is most significant about it, even if it is necessary; the image metaphor is almost a distraction from what one is trying to understand; and the symbol covers over as many realities about propositions and predication as it explains.


Thought experiment on negative emotions

Start with being vexed or angry. Suppose every time someone made me angry, a bright yellow neon sign (that only I could see) started flashing over their head and told me whether they were vexing me on purpose or accidentally. If they were doing it on purpose, I’d probably refuse to get angry by the force of the anger itself; if they did it accidentally, I’d either let the action pass or try to explain the effect that they were unintentionally causing (at which point they might well start doing it on purpose, but then the first response would kick in). The same goes for other negative emotions that might arise from others: envy, depression, lasciviousness. Something analogous extends to objects as well: the desire to gorge oneself in the presence of food, etc.

Notes on media as myth

-It’s disturbing to recognize the news as our education about what a significant event in life is.

-That we understand news as a report of what is important when it is selected for being attention-grabbing. It wasn’t meant to be important but novel, lurid, glamorous, out of the ordinary.

-What is important in life is the same as what life is must fundamentally. It is mythos.

-There is religious commentary on news stories, but not no religious news. There are religious news outlets, but they are unable to make a story.

-Why is news so powerful? Because it is media, that is, a middle or mediator that by its nature is transparent and therefore unseen. You can’t see the window when you’re looking at something through it. To hear a news story requires submerging the reality of the teller into the subconscious. Repeated often enough, this makes the newscaster our nature. He becomes the principle and cause of what is seen as significant in life within us.

–To critique a myth requires that we be already disenchanted with it, and so that it ceases to be our myth. This doesn’t mean we can’t critique the myths we believe at all, only that we have to toggle back and forth between myth and something else to do it.

-Socrates to Euthyphro: “that is why I am being brought to trial- I find it impossible to believe such stories as these about the gods”.

The timelessness of war

I teach Latin texts and so have spent a lot of time reading ancient accounts of war. I’m continually astonished by how timeless it is, though it is difficult to pin down what I mean by this. On the one hand, any study of history is punctuated by those plus ça change moments where you can see the people of your own time doing exactly what has already been done many times, and in this sense all history suggests a single, timeless human nature of which any particular instance is just a copy. The timelessness of war is something in addition to this, but I’m not sure just what the addition is. Here are some ideas, in increasing order of strangeness:

1.) The addition that war makes is simply that it is striking. It is violent and so evening-newsworthy, proving itself particularly good at capturing attention. Its attraction is therefore the same sort of thing as celebrity news and criminal activity dealing in death and sex.

2.) The essence of war is so dominant that any accidental or circumstantial addition to it does not amount to much of a change. War involves specifying a location in space where groups of young men are required to kill each other. Any addition to this – like whether this killing might occur by wood, stone, metal, or atom-smashing,  or whether the space you specify is on land or in the sky – doesn’t add much of anything to the basic fact. Thus, the peculiarities of history and technological advance change less about war than they change about, say, communicating, farming, marriage, travelling, etc. and so war gives one the sense of being more timeless than these things.

3.) More radically, war is simply discontinuous with peacetime consciousness. Here I’m thinking of Lee Sandin’s marvelous essay Losing the War, where he argues that war experience simply can’t be put into peacetime experience.  I’m thinking also of my own experience of bloodlust after 9-11 – about how, for example, watching an episode of 24 was morally engaging and entertaining as opposed to being comically over-dramatic and morally grotesque (which is all it can be to me now).

4.) We cannot reduce a principle to the thing it is the principle of, and war is a principle of historical life. It determines the one who is to determine the rules by which the particular historical time will be structured. All new orders must begin in some act of violence that severs them from the status quo ante.

Science and prudence (II)

Imagine Newton walking across the Cambridge lawn and seeing that apple fall again. This time, however, he thinks “Wow, I’m really hungry and that apple just fell because it was ripe. Lucky me!” This is certainly a way of relating to the apple, but it could not have given rise to physics. The “Newton’s apple moment” was an insight about how the apple was undifferentiated from stars, planets, and everything in the universe. The insight is that everything has heaviness —> gravitas —-> gravity.  This is why unification is built into science from the first moment of its awakening – the first moment is a unification. Any differentiation – like a difference between gravity and electricity – resists a scientific relation to objects, and science will push towards eliminating it with a spontaneous and ineliminable force.

But science is not the only relation that a mind can have to objects. At other times it is crucial to preserve an entity in its concrete particularity and in its differentiation from other things. While I think morally, I cannot relate to my action as though it were undifferentiated from others. Whatever else might be true about the action, it is crucial that it is mine and not yours. True, I might think that the same thing that is bad for me to do is bad for you to do, and in this sense there is an undifferentiated description of an action, which might deserve to be called “a law” in a way similar to how physical rules are called “laws”. But even moral laws by their nature can never be perfect descriptions of a moral action.  First, morality can never completely abstract from the individual that acts as an individual. Second, moral laws can be completely met in a variety of different circumstances and ways: a complete account of the momentum and position in any Newtonian state will specify exactly how the state will progress over time, but a complete account of courage cannot tell us precisely what action will always count as courageous in any set of moral circumstances. A sign of this is that knowledge of physical laws does not require us to deliberate about what should happen in any particular state, but even a complete knowledge of moral laws requires us to deliberate about what should happen in various moral circumstances. Again, formulating physical laws and applying them in concrete circumstances are not usually two distinct activities requiring different skills, i.e. the same guy who formulates the law of gravity can point to all the instances of it, and verify them by mere sensation. But to formulate a moral law is a very different skill than being able to apply it in the concrete, which is (one reason) why we divide legislators from judges.

The way of relating to objects by morality is clearly messier and more complex than the scientific way of relating to them. Science does not need to divide into legislators and judges, it does not have to mire itself down in peculiar and therefore unrepeatable circumstances (we can’t run a human act over again to get a better moral look at it.) it does not have to focus on the individuals it is dealing with, etc. Because of this, there will be a spontaneous desire to reduce moral actions to science – to come up with laws that can describe moral actions concretely and in all circumstances. The success of science will always give rise to experts in education, moral issues, political discourse, psychology, etc. all of whom will try to overcome peculiarity, individuality, and unrepeatablity with some universal system. To say the least, any success of these systems will require more than the system itself, and they all contain the seeds of their own destruction. The system must gradually become more and more byzantine in its attempt to scale universality down to the particular, but this only leads to greater moral bewilderment and confusion, thus making the whole process intrinsically self-defeating: if the law stays general, it is not applied to the particular; and if it tries to get to the particular, it becomes so byzantine and overwrought that no one can apply it to the particular.


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