Individuation and form

On the one hand, Thomistic theory explains the multiplication of individuals through matter. But another element in individuation is the consequent limitation of form by matter. Form as such has to be visualized as broader and more expansive than the form of the composite, and as having in itself a fuller range of perfection than can be actualized in any composite with that form.

An example of this is personality types. The analysis of personality types seems to indicate a structure in the human species as such, where each of the types is a partial expression of what is a formal totality. No one individual can be both extraverted and introverted, but it’s hard for me not to see these as parts of a larger formal totality. Aristotle’s account of the social division of persons at the beginning of the Politics – even if incorrect – points to the same thing. Most fundamentally, the division of male and female in living things bespeaks an intrinsic complementary existence in life itself, or at least in sexually reproductive life.

More briefly, and even if my above examples are wrong, it is contrary to the very nature of species that there should be one individual expressing all possible perfections of that species. Even though multiplication of species happens by matter, it is intrinsically necessary to the perfection of natural species, and so of the form,  that there be a multitude of members.

Now it is not necessary to form as such that it have the this sort of intrinsic complementarity and/or hierarchy that cannot be instantiated except in a multitude. In the measure that form subsists of itself, then the self exists for itself and not as a part of some greater formal totality. Human beings attain this subsistence in perhaps the faintest possible way, and it is always conditioned by the latticework of complementarity and partial formal existence. Our perspective is always male or female, introverted or extraverted,  young or middle aged or old, etc. Nevertheless, in the measure that we are rational there is always the suggestion, perhaps even the hope, of transcending this perspective. This is one way of understanding the way in which man is a subsistent form – it is not that there is one and only one man, but that human rationality always brings with it the suggestion of transcending human nature by a purely unlimited self – for better and for worse.

Parmenides, (iv. the syllogistic approach)

1.) Being is that which intellect knows. 

This is the first principle. It can be taken in more than one way and not all ways of taking it are true. The exact sense in which I’m taking it will develop over the course of the explanation. I’m here understanding being as an object of a power, and I call that power mind so as to compare it with other cognitive powers. Just as color or shape are all objects of vision and sounds or motion are all objects of hearing, so too being is the object of mind.

2.) Being as an object of intellect is divided from the objects of sensation. 

What is sensed is always the act of an organ, and this is a mix of objective and subjective elements. The sense object is not simply the exterior being that acts on the organ, nor simply an ex nihilo construction of the organ itself, but is an inseparable mix of resulting from the two. This mix is not equally objective and subjective in all senses, or in each of the sense powers of various animals: sight is more objective than smell for us; in bloodhounds there is more of a parity in the objectivity of both. Nevertheless, a sense object does not exist in act apart from an organ to perceive it since the organ is a necessary (though not sufficient) condition for its existence. But it is ridiculous to suggest that being does not exist in act apart from an organ to perceive it.

This preserves the best elements of the idealist/intellectualist and empiricist traditions. With the Empiricists, we insist that there is a necessarily objective element in sensation, with the idealists we insist that objectivity in the proper and fullest sense belongs to intellectual knowledge in opposition to sense knowledge. That said, we also agree with the Empiricists that one can discover the objectivity of intellect within sense knowing. We can really say that I see Joe or even I know he exists, I touched him; though we agree with the idealists that we can only make this judgment within intellect, even if it is a judgment about what is sensed.

3.) The being that is the object of the intellect is not being as such. 

If it were, then it would have intellect as a necessary condition for its existence, in the same way that color has an organ as a necessary condition for its existence. But, from (2) this is not the case.

4.) Being as such is divided from being as the object of our intellect because of the nature of the first principle(s) of our judgment. 

The first principle of our judgment is either contradiction or identity, but both understand being in relation to what I here call “the shadow” of being. Contradiction necessary relates being to what is not, not in the sense of relating it to absolute non-being, but simply because it must recognize this is not that. Identity consists in predicating some X of itself, but this is different from saying X exists, and and so identity must take things as indifferent to being or not being.

There is not an equality between being and its shadow – the first is the whole source of intelligibility for the second, but, given the first principles of our judgment, the two are necessarily correlative. Whatever being falls under our judgment has to be understood as having this double shadow of this is not that and the “X=X” is prior, and thus indifferent to, “X is”.

5.) There is a vision of being prior to all judgment. 

Any judgment presupposes vision, and being comes with a shadow not precisely as known, but as it falls under the principles of judgment. But this shadow could not even be recognized as a shadow unless there is some vision prior to the principles that give rise to it.

Now one sense of the word “knowledge” is whatever follows the first principle of knowledge, and one sense of this is whatever falls under contradiction and/or identity. If we work from this meaning, then being as such is not known, and it is inseparable from absolutely nothing at all. Indeed, it is impossible! And so by taking “the knowable” in this sense that we first might be tempted to have an apophatic account of being itself, similar to the Neo-Platonic “One”. But this is clearly incoherent, and the culmination of such indiscriminate apophatism is not mystical flights beyond being but the making-trivial of transcendence. This sense of knowledge is not the only one. Still, this sense of knowledge articulates a real totality outside of which there is nothing, and it does provide us with some insight into being as such.


design vs. dependence on intelligence (ii)

On the one hand, adaptation is opposed to design, since a designed system is one where the being of all the parts is explained in relation to the function of the whole. We don’t explain car cigarette lighters as designed to run DVD players, or a tree branch we use as a cane as designed to support our weight. These are features of adaptation and not design. In this sense, to explain the parts of organisms as adaptive is to see them as undesigned. 

And yet adaptation is clearly compatible with design: in fact, all of our designs are somehow adaptive. Art as such involves adapting something to ones own purposes: cows don’t grow skin to make baseball mitts or put on muscle to feed tailgaters. 

And so while there is a logical division between adaptation and design there is no ontological reason why adaptation cannot be the tool of design. Nature works with the hand its dealt, even if this hand has some elements of unfittingness, bad luck, or less than ideal structure. Not everything in nature is explained by appeal to what is best in the sense of being the best one could do if he started with perfect knowledge and a blank slate – but it might well be the best given the concrete circumstances of what one wanted to do with the hand he was dealt. Nature, as Aristotle said, is like a doctor who heals himself or a barber who shaves himself, but he could add to this that he is forced to work within the concrete situation in which he finds himself, with all of its limitations, shortcomings, and unpredicatable happenings. 

Parmenides (iii, the Platonic development)

A: So let’s start again with the idea that being is that which the mind knows.

B: Very well.

A: And we saw that, though we can make sense of this initially, we later saw that we needed to divide what the mind knows from fictions, impossibilities, the manifold, mere ideas, etc.

B: True, though we still describe all these things as negations of being.

A: Exactly. It is as though the first thing we know is being, but that being always casts a shadow, or appears as a radiant body with a black backdrop like a sort of theater in which it appears.

B: That’s true – whenever we think of something coming into existence we always imagine a sort of container for it: hence coming into existence.

A: And yet, upon reflection, we see that being makes the container intelligible, even if we cannot understand being apart from this containment?

B: That’s right.

A: This makes sense of why the principle of contradiction is first for us – we understand being from the beginning in relation to this shadow it casts, or this theater of nothingness in which it appears.

B: But the principle of contradiction isn’t first – we can first tell that the being is itself.

A: So you say that the first thing we know is the identity of being with itself, that A is A?

B: That’s right.

A: But if this is what is first, then we cannot first judge that A is.

B: Those are separate judgments.

A: But then doesn’t the idea of a shadow return in another way?

B: How so?

A: Because if the first judgment is that A is A, and this is a separate judgment than that A is, then the first judgment is indifferent to what is, and what is not.

B: Exactly.

A: And so on this account  there is a mixture of being and its shadow manifested in the principle of identity.

B: Right, though with the principle of contradiction we visualize the shadow as exterior to the being and with the principle of identity we visualize it as within the being itself.

A: But though we talk about them as “shadows” this is a metaphor that needs to be made more exact, correct? By “shadow” we don’t mean to indicate that they are absolutely nothing, only that they are secondary and other to the being?

B: Right. When I divided myself from you, I am being and you are the “shadow” in a sense, or there are the intrinsic properties of my self and my division or opposition to you.

A: So this theater of being is “non-being” in a very precise sense – it is the situation of finite beings, or beings that are this and not that. 

B: True, but even at that, is this what we were looking for?

A: Now I don’t know what you mean.

B: We were targeting being, after all, but what we’ve found is being-and-its-other.

A: Right, but it seems we can only make sense of being as being-and-its-other.

B: But that’s an obvious contradiction in terms. To identify those two things would destroy our very ability to distinguish them – it would even destroy the very idea of being-and-its-other.

A: But this identity is a condition of our knowing anything at all. For a being to enter into the theater of our consciousness, or even to be judged to be itself means that it is being-and-its-other.

B: But remember how we proved yesterday that when we say “being is what the mind knows” we are not speaking about being itself?

A: Yes.

A: And so given the argument here, it seems that being itself is something that must fall outside of the principle of contradiction or identity. It must be outside the theater of our mind, where things can only come if they cast shadows without and within.

B: And yet we can know that it is outside the theater of the mind, for the things that fall within this theater are not precisely being but being-and-its-opposite.

A: Exactly.

Parmenides (ii, corollary)

That the mind knows being in the way that the eyes know color or shape, and yet there is the crucial difference that color and shape are a mixture of subject and object and so could not exist without subject. Color is not just a wavelength, but an interaction of this wavelength and the organs; shape is not just an objective feature of space but also a result of our low velocity relative to c.

This is why so far as we restrict ourselves to sensible objects (as happens in natural science) interaction is the same as to be intelligible. But the fact that we understand this as a compund of more simple realities proves it is a secondary and derivative reality.

Variations on a theme by Parmenides

A: So then, what will count as being? Is it just what can serve as an object for our mind?

B: No, since this is broader than being. We can know the engine is aluminum and that it is broken, but in  the second case we only use “is” to indicate the absence of something.

A: So to get at being we need to narrow down the objects of our mind to exclude absences, impossibilities,  fictions, mere ideas, and perhaps many other things.

B: Yes.

A: And so it seems we need to set aside what is many as well.

B: I don’t see why. There really are multitudes.

A: But you know how it is when, after an investigation, we recognize that the categories we put things in were wrong? We call both fish and whales fish, gnats and fireflies flies, and we look for a cure for cancer for a long time before we figure out it is not one disease but many. We called these things one, but they were not one. Our mind, in truth, cannot  take these as an object, but only as objects, and so we cannot say that an object is unless it is really one.

B: But aren’t “red, white and blue” all objects of the mind, taken at once?

A: Yes, but as colors, or a flag, or a pattern, or some other real unity.

B: But this seems to be just a trick of grammar: we defined “being” as “what is an object of the mind, apart from fictions, etc.” So of course where there is multiplicity, there is not being. But this is a feature of the subject of the sentence, not of reality.

A: So you claim that we could have just as easily started by asking “what are beings?” and then we would have seen what is one as outside of this?

B: Exactly.

A: But doesn’t this involve some real standard in virtue of which they all count as beings?

B: Yes.

A: So then even this multitude can be an object only so far as it is one.

B: But then what about the prevailing view in metaphysics that being is not one but many? Just as what we called “fish” broke down on closer analysis into, fish, whales, and other swimming things, so too doesn’t being break down into entirely different categories of things? Isn’t this Aristotle’s doctrine of analogy?

A: But isn’t a cognitive object nothing but an object of some power?

B: Yes.

A: And so if there are really distinct objects there are really distinct powers?

B: that follows

A: And we agreed at the beginning that being is whatever serves as an object for us?

B: Yes, so it would seem that the only way for being to be really many is for I myself to be many.

A: And that’s riduculous.  Which leaves us having to deny that being is in any way many.

B: But then maybe there is a problem in our first account of being.

A: That seems right, and I suspect that it is this: tell me – it seems right to me that if there were no ears, then nothing would be heard.

B: Right.

A: But the same thing can be said of the possibilities of these things, namely, if there could be no ears, then nothing could be heard. 

B: Right

A:  But this is the same as saying that the possibility of there being some audible object depends on the hearing power being possible.

B: That’s right, and I suppose the same would go for all the other powers too.

A: But when it comes to mind, we won’t say the same thing? We would not say that the possibility of there being anything depends on there being some mind?

B: It doesn’t seem right to say that. At the very least, it’s not the sort of thing we can just assume.

A: And so when we say “being is whatever is an object of the mind” we don’t assume that this is because it is depending on mind to be?

B: Exactly.

A: So it doesn’t belong to being itself that it should be the object of mind?

B: Right.

A: And so it doesn’t follow that our account of being was an account of being itself. This would only be true if mind were a sense power, or rather, if mind were a sense power than things would only spring into existence with us.

B: And they don’t. Which leads us to the paradoxical conclusion that it is precisely the objectivity of being that keeps it from being an object.

A: Or that being as such is not an object, at any rate not an object for us.

B: But it does seem right that if being is an object for anything, it must be absolutely one.

Is Trinity a unifying hypothesis in Platonism?

Plato identifies at least six things that would count as an ultimate reality: The “thing itselfs” or forms; the demiurge, the One, the first self-mover or soul, the Good, and the Logos or intelligence. Trinitarian theory would identify, reasonably enough, three classes within this otherwise unrelated list:

1.) The-principle-without-principle. On considering this aspect of the ultimate, we see it as absolute first. We here encounter Plato’s idea of the One. This One is so absolutely first that that it cannot even be taken as a principle of some larger totality, it is not precisely a principle of the world, since then we take it as what is first in a whole. Rather, the One is simply all things, not in the sense the whole cosmos is God, but in the sense that the true and even physical entity of all things has its true existence in the One. All apart from the One is simply the many, which is neither possible nor able to be thought of except as and by the One.

2.) The Logoi. Here we turn on the ambiguity that Logos is both the power of intellect and the intrinsic product of intellect, i.e. the idea. Here we have the dual Platonic ideas of the “Thing itself” (sometimes called the “Platonic form”) and the Logos or creative mind that was developed most fully by Plotinus and Philo and later adopted by the Gospel writers. Considered as “the thing itself” this reality is taken as absolute and without a principle. All things are likenesses to it, but it is not a likeness of all things. Taken as Logos, however, the Platonists were clear that it was from another. It is divided from the One as the first activity of the One.

3.) The remaining ultimates. Here we find the demiurge, the Good, and the the first self-moving reality or soul. Considered as demiurge, this reality is subsequent to the Logoi, and looks to them in its action. Considered as The Good itself, it is both equal to the logos and somehow superior to it, for the Good is primary among all the forms. It is, famously, the sun in relation to which all things are and are intelligible (which also seems to give it a sort of equality to the One). Considered as self-moving first soul, it both exists for itself (for its energy and life is entirely of itself) and the source of all action in the world.

We can take these descriptions of the ultimate reality as at once descriptions of a single reality or essence and on the other hand an articulation of three distinct hypostases in that essence. True, Plato himself would have doubtless just have kept them distinct, and even introduced orders of created subordination in them. But trinitarianism provides a structure that can at once make all of the six descriptions truly ultimate and yet also preserve the order that each of them have to the others.

Designed by vs. dependent on intelligence (pt. 1)

(Part II is here)

To be designed by an intelligence is a special case of depending on an intelligence: everything that is so designed is so dependent, but not everything that is dependent on intelligence is designed by it. To say that some organism or system is designed by an intelligence means that everything in it can be related to the function of the system, and so we can give evidence against design by finding features in the system that are vestigal or otherwise somehow unrelated to the system. Here we might notice the distinction between design and adaptation: my kinds, for example, might wonder why anyone designed the plug for the DVD charger to look so strange, or why it never crossed anyone’s mind to just put standard sockets in a car. So long as they were determined to see this plug-socket relation as arising from design, they might hypothesize that there was something about the nature of cars that called for a larger, inch-round socket, and that it would be somehow inappropriate to put a merely standard socket in the car.  Maybe the kids would think that the designers made the socket bigger so that it would be easier to find when we fumbled around for it while driving; maybe they would advance a Aristotelian theory that circular plugs are inherently more perfect than standard sockets, etc. For anyone over thirty, the reason why this is a pointless line of analysis is clear. No one designed the plug-socket connection but simply adapted the plug to something that was not even a socket at all but a cigarette lighter.

Design thus calls for a certain analysis of the parts of systems that is refuted by finding vestigal, junk, or merely adaptive parts in the system. But even if design is the clearest indicator of intelligence being involved with a system, it is not the only indicator. This is clear even from the examples we’ve used to illustrate the difference: to say that the DVD plug-socket system was designed system is a dead end, but it is equally a dead end to deny that it depended on intelligence to come to be. There are even obvious elements of design in the system, but just not in way that can be explained in relation to the ideal functionality of the whole system.

The crucial difference between design and dependence is the role allowed for secondary causes and historical existence. Adaptation means that the one adapting recognizes that the thing he is adapting has its own causal structure apart from his purposes, and that the whole of its being is not ordered to the singular end that he puts it to. That said, when things have structures adapted to certain ends, or even designed for certain ends, the time can come when those ends are no longer important or even desirable. Yet the structure remains, and so it must either be adapted to new goals, or carried along as vestigal, or become a liability. Ideally, of course, we would want it to be adapted to the new goal. This is, at least, how we would design things to happen.

It is possible that adaptation presupposes design, and/or that all that appears vestigal or junk serves some useful, designed purpose. We can only wait and see to what extent the hypothesis that nature does nothing in vain is empirically useful. At the moment, it seems true to some extent, but clearly limited. But whatever we end up thinking about design, the question of dependence on intelligence is still a live issue, though it is not necessarily one that we can arbitrate by empirical or positive methods.

Hypostatic union

The first sort of objection one would make to orthodox Christology would be like this:

God cannot X

Christ actually did/ was X

Therefore, Christ is not God.

The X might be any number of predicates, viz. die, be born, have a body, learn things, be a creature, not know things, etc.

The orthodox response to the objection is that it fails to grasp what we mean by a hypostatic union, sc. the unity of a human nature in a divine person. The basic principle is this: when something is unified to a person, what affects it affects the person, even if the person can exist without it. If you touch my hand, you touch me; if you cut off my hand, you do me injury even though my person can survive without a hand and might even exist before it (say, in utero.) This principle applies not only to body parts but even to property, clothing or likenesses.  If you venerate a statue you venerate the person it is a likeness of, and if you can express your anger or disgust at a person by harming what they own.

There are important ways in which the hypostatic union has to be divided from all these modes of unity to a person,  since the hypostatic union is sui generis,  but the basic fact of unity-to-person remains. There are also, of course, important objections that can be raised to this response, but it still counts as a response to the first sort of objection given above.

Limits of matter/form analysis

A colleague asked me yesterday what exactly the division of matter and form explained about, say, vocal chords. The basic answer is that it explains how they could both be beings and come to be. It also explains why, when we consider them qua bodies, they are not alive. But all this is to say that matter and form are answers to questions that no one is asking. In fact, we find it terribly difficult to take the Parmenidean problem seriously enough to look for a solution. This is not to say the Parmenidean problem should be dismissed, but it rings hollow to us, and so Aristotle’s solution to it seems superfluous.

A deeper problem is that composition of matter and form was only designed to explain things so far as they come to be, and so it runs into problems when we try to use it to explain things that don’t come to be. But all the main physical theories demand the existence of physical things that don’t come to be, and so matter and form can only be a partial account of physical things. This was less of a problem on the ancient/ medieval theory, since they thought the non-generated beings were the celestial bodies, and so the matter-form schema was easy enough to translate over to them. But the Newtonian idea of absolute space or the contemporary idea of EM waves as purely formal do not admit of the same simple translation. Again, an idea like inertia seems to mean that every body participates in the sort of eternal action that was once only imputed to the celestial bodies, which means we should broaden the quondam account of the celestial bodies to include all bodies. In fact, even our idea of gravitational action of gravity requires this (remember that, for Aristotle, if a body reached the center of the universe its impelling tendency would cease, but gravitational attraction does not cease when the bodies are in contact). But no one has even suggested the outlines of a coherent account of such corruptible/eternal composition.

But even of we could figure out the problem of the physical first mobiles being somehow distributed throughout things, a more pressing problem for us is the fact that the human person is neither wholly physical, nor is he exhaustively explained by natural generation. Direct creation is also a necessary principle of his existence, and creation is not any sort of motion or generation. An adequate understanding of a person will therefore require understanding him in opposition to hylemorphic compositionBut we cannot do this in the most simplistic way, sc. by denying that the person is a hylemorphic composite. Persons are hylemorphic composites, but they aren’t only this. But what are we saying here? Isn’t this just a dressed up way of saying that persons are, like, totally sorta hylemorphic?

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