Snodgrass

-Just as our knowledge of something does not suffice to make it thought about, so too it does not suffice to make the thing exist.

-Existence and subjectivity are two horizons of experience – horizon in the sense of something that makes objects possible while never itself being an object like them.

-Idealism identifies being with essence. Realism, while recognizing this as impossible, is unable to positively conceptualize what makes the difference. This inability is the heart of Kant’s critique of Anselm’s argument.

-Existence is God (since he is existence primo and per se), I see existence, therefore I see God. Pantheism! Absurdity! Not quite: the argument parallels this one – heat is mean molecular motion, I perceive heat, I perceive mean molecular motion; or Truman dropped the bomb, I saw the bomb drop, therefore I saw what Truman did; or again, Suffering is necessary to go to heaven, I want to go to heaven, therefore I want to suffer. We can see something without being cognizant of what the thing is per se and first, or what counts as its necessary condition. As we work our way up towards the ultimate thing we’re looking for, we hang on to what we initially called it (which is the only way we can hope to have a coherent account of it). This is all St. Thomas’s talk of analogy comes to, which is why he never thought to work out a grand theory of it.

-So modern thought begins with the search for absolute certitude. One way to interpret Kant’s answer to this is that certitude follows what owes its existence to us. This is an ancient axiom: Socrates uses it to refute Thrasymachus (If justice is the will of the leader, then the leader cannot make mistakes) St. Thomas uses it to define truth (the perseity of truth follows the intellect on which it depends to exist) and the Copernican turn is just a restatement of this ground of certitude. We cannot be mistaken about what owes its existence to us: This post is called snodgrass.

The search for absolute certitude is fascinating: “to be sure” or certain is said first of one’s footings (hence, a sure-footed mountain goat) and the sense, for clear reasons, carries over into knowledge. But why the desire for an infinitely certain basis, one that could not slip up under any possible scenario? It would be crazy to desire this of our footings or bearings. This is not to say that it is crazy to desire it in thought, though the basis of this desire has to rest on something other than the practical necessity to get on with things.

Kantian thought

The science of 100 thalers that I’m using or thinking about does not contain a whit more facts or truths than a science that I merely know.

Catholicism and the problem of modernity

Theologians from Hegel to Ratzinger have seen a fundamental problem of their project as how to make Christianity acceptable to modern persons. The problem can mean more than one thing, though it is often shorthand for the claim that Christianity rests heavily on myth and modern persons no longer have any interest in mythical foundations. The claim rests on two centuries of form criticism that takes the mythical vs. historical problem as the central concern of exegesis, which means that modern theology (and most people reading this blog have probably taken a class or ten like this) usually starts with damage control over the concept of myth – “myth doesn’t mean false” (Rollo May); “mythos is the counterpart and equal to logos” (Karen Armstrong); “myth is not just pre-scientific fairy tale” (Paul Tillich) etc.

The damage control accounts might all be fine as far as they go, but they cannot escape the liar paradox. To explain myth as true, or equal to logos, or not just pre-scientific while using logical, scientific discourse is a hypocrisy of logic. If myth is so true or noble or relevant then why are we studying it?  Why is a professor talking about it?

I have to admit the whole mythos-logos debate is extrinsic to my experience of Christianity, and it seems more like a problem peculiar to leftist Protestantism, or at least late-stage, iconoclast, intellectual, non-authoritarian Protestantism. Growing up outside this tradition doesn’t cause the same anxiety over myth-logos division, and even makes it seem like a problem created by Enlightenment rationalist leftism.

The easiest and most illuminating example I can give of this is a life-long Catholic’s experience of the stations of the cross. The stations are a given of Catholic experience: they’re just there, and always there, no matter whether they’re ugly or corny or intriguing or kitsch. They’re what Jesus is before you have any idea of what is going on in the gospel or in a sermon, and before you have any sense of Jesus even being a figure in salvation history. Now the stations have a something like a temporal progression and a historical basis, this only goes so far. The fourth station records Simon helping Jesus, but then Simon vanishes for the rest of the stations; the sixth station tells of a woman with no Scriptural basis and a dubious Medieval sounding name; other stations record, quite apart from any record, that Jesus fell three times, etc. One approach to all this is to blast it as non-historic, non-scriptural, and even incoherent (where does Simon go?) but this only makes sense to a critic who experiences it all from the outside. To one who grows up with it, the critique goes quite the other way: the Stations are experienced as an antibody to the perversion of intellect by pan-historical hubris or first-century chauvinism. Logical analysis is fine, but it has to make room for Simon being present during one station and vanishing; historical rigor is indispensable, but it has to allow that the unprecedented or never repeated might happen; and the Scriptural accounts of the Via Dolorosa are important to base ourselves on, but they can’t be taken as a club to bash Medieval talk about Veronica wiping the face of Jesus or Jesus falling three times on the way to Calvary. I don’t usually think about all this, I just have one box in my brain for form criticism and another for praying the stations. This sort of consciousness gets learned early – my five year old daughter thinks (quite by herself) that Adam and Even is a folktale with no connection to Jesus even while she cries while looking at Jesus’s second fall.

All this does not make criticism impossible, still less does it mean that anything goes (wide swatches of hagiography, for example, are long overdue for critical destruction), rather it carves out a role for authority and tradition outside of a pure subordination to critique. It is a challenge to Enlightenment pan-rationality, though obviously not challenge that can be made in Enlightenment terms. Seen from this angle, the “problem of making Christianity relevant to modern man” rests on a deeper, more problematic Enlightenment assumption of the universal scope of rational critique. The force of the critique, of course, is that the rational attempt to refute it tacitly accepts its terms. But irrefutability is not the same thing as truth – the criterion for truth could never be a the absence of something. You might be able to prove the limits of logic, but not the logical value of what falls outside of it, and to call any such reality “illogical” is decidedly tendentious. More importantly, the attempt to characterize what falls outside of logic by a mythos-logos division gives the division a decidedly rational or logical tint. It’s no more inherently rational to reverse the process and describe all the spinnings of reason in a Nietzschian manner as the desiccated corpses of mythical or poetic truth. It is the same thing to mock Medieval superstition as it is to say that Socrates or Hegel are clowns singing love songs to skeletons. In this sense, Catholicism is positioning itself as a mean between the German rationalist critical tradition and the Nietzschian response to it.

More notes on the Sci. Am. article

– My Dad is a lifetime subscriber to Scientific American, and so I grew up with it in the house. I’ll never be able to look at it as just another magazine.

-Even without this background, I still liked the article. I’m impressed by anyone with a command of the concrete reality since I am usually only comfortable with abstractions or eternal archetypes. I’m an NT who is amazed, fascinated, covetous and contemptuous of the ST’s, and I’m sure both of us can look at the arguments of the other as both totally convincing and utterly facile.

-But let’s play around with these empty logical abstractions and/or paradigm archetypes of reality for a while. First, the thesis: life does not exist because it is an arbitrary threshold of particle complexity. 

The thesis means that “life” is an line drawn across the particulate, though not a line that falls upon any essential division in it. One supposes that the line we draw between electrons and protons falls on a real division in things, since it reflects a division that is intrinsic to the real sive particulate. But then things get interesting, since the “life” line differs from the proton/electron line by being extrinsic or outside the nature of fundamental particles, even while these things are, by hypothesis, the totality of the real. But this commits us to realities outside the real. What could that mean?

To generalize the problem gets us this: the possibility of being mistaken about life requires that our thoughts and choices are somehow indifferent to what is real or unreal. But reality, whatever else we say about it, can’t be indifferent to the real or unreal. Being mistaken about life, therefore, requires positing that thoughts and choices are other than the real. As much as we would like to toy with the idea of simply denying thought and choice altogether at this point, as they occur in the problem here they are precisely what allow us to be mistaken. Calling thought and choice merely apparent requires calling the mistake merely apparent too.

The upshot is that any discussion of mistakes or non-existing things requires positing something other than the real, and so allowing for the possibility of error requires recognizing the something that is divided both from being and non-being. In the Thomist tradition, this was seen as “esse in alio” or “esse intentionale”, which was the full flower of immanent activity, or life. In this sense, being mistaken about life was something that presupposed life as such.* Nevertheless, there is still something right about being mistaken about the existence of life, since life in its fullest expression is precisely a reality that can recognize in the actuality proper to itself simultaneous contradictories (e.g. it can know vision and blindness in one idea.)

____

The ability to be mistaken is not intrinsic to mind, but it is a corruption that is peculiar to it, just as rust is not a sort of iron, but a corruption peculiar to it.

 

Scientific American: There is no one catch-all definition of life, which is a sign that life does not exist but that “What differentiates molecules of water, rocks, and silverware from cats, people and other living things is not “life,” but complexity.” (ht)

Ten seconds of Googling later:

In science, there are at this time a number of approaches to characterizing complexity, many of which are reflected in this article. Neil Johnson admits that “even among scientists, there is no unique definition of complexity – and the scientific notion has traditionally been conveyed using particular examples…”

From freedom of will to the paradox of will

The freedom of the will is necessary if we make rational choices in contingent matters. By “contingent” I mean there is more than one good and choice worthy option. Said another way, further analysis or analysis by an ideal mind would not reveal one and only one correct option, but an irreducible multiplicity of options, each with an ultimately defensible rational basis.

This seems to me the best description of the situation that we find ourselves in. Multiple options are possible, and not only because because of some failure of our intelligence to apprehend the one and only one best concrete option. Reflecting on the choices we could have made after school, or with respect to the persons we’ve met, or to the various things we’ve given our lives over to, I can’t avoid thinking there were some times when I recognize that there were multiple incompossible options that each could be ultimately rational .

On this account, the freedom of the will follows from the fact that we could be different without being worse; or that we could choose another path without it being better, and that both possibilities were rational. The denial of freedom of the will either involves saying that the choice is made by factors other than reason (that is, by denying it is a rational choice) or that nothing is of itself contingent. The second option is problematic, however, since if we deny real contingency by saying that it is only because of our ignorance of what is really best, we still find ourselves in a position where this ignorance cannot be entirely eliminated. This leaves us with multiple choices that are ultimately defensible to us, since the ideal is not knowable to us.

And so on this account the freedom of the will stands or falls in the idea that reason is a causal factor in choices where multiple things could count as best, regardless of whether this multiplicity of options arises from our ignorance or (as I think happens at least sometimes) because a multiplicity of options are rationally best in their mode of consideration, even to an ideal mind.

On this line of analysis, will arises because reason is a necessary but not sufficient cause of the action. Whether from its ignorance and/or the facts of the world, reason finds itself in the face of goods that it cannot arbitrate between. Thus, we need to posit a factor other than reason, which nevertheless preserves the rational character of the choice. If, for example, we only posited a universal coin-flip in the face of these inevitable rational log-jams, it would not always preserve the rational character of the choice. The factor we introduce must supplement rationality, and so have an equality with it. It cannot be a merely subordinate factor, for subordinates take their motion and activity from others and will is introduced precisely because reason is incapable of imparting such activity or motion.

Will is thus a fascinating power that is at once divided from reason, and so has principles of its own that are not subordinated to it, and yet whose whole being is to preserve the rational character of choice. So far as we take its activity as preservative, we see it as subordinate to reason; and yet so far as we take its activity as necessary to deal with what reason is incapable of dealing with, we see reason as subordinate to its activity. As much as I would be tempted to call “mutual subordination” a sheer contradiction, it does seem to have place here. In fact, we might even find a strange synthesis of all the opinions about free will in the true structure of reason and will: so far as reason is subordinate we have a true libertarian, and even voluntarist free will; but this is not all one can say about the matter. Considered in its supplementary role, will vanishes into reason, and so any particular choice must be seen as either as essentially irrational (an internal coin-flip) or as rationally determined (reason always finds one and only one concrete choice that it necessarily chooses).

The Scholastic temptation to order all of these distinctions in some universally valid schema, where we distinguish orders of causality and then try to put them all in one and only one master order, strikes me as concealing more than it reveals. Better to leave the plurality in its plurality, recognize its diverse orders, and avoid trying to make some master order among them.

Anselmian Response

One response to the Kantian (or broadly Thomistic) critique of the ontological argument is to say that it confuses a concept as such with a concept as equivalent to essence; or that they confuse the intelligible structure of things as known with their ontological intelligible structure. When we say that existence adds nothing to a concept, this is true of the concept as such or of the intelligible structure of things as present in an intellect, but it is false when said of the intelligible structure so far as it belongs to the thing itself – were this not the case, then nothing could actually exist with an intelligible structure.

More briefly, there seems to be a confusion between extrinsic or paradigm forms and intrinsic causes. The blueprint as blueprint is never a real building, but it is equivalent to an intrinsic form that does come to exist. Kant is right that a real building adds nothing to the blueprint, but this is clearly not the whole story.

The Parmenidean claim that the to be and the to be thought are the same is, at least for us, only (at best) a statement about essence, which has a real ambivalence to conceptual and real existence. But even this statement admits of significant qualification: the ambivalence co-exists with the a division of form into paradigm and intrinsic cause.

Seen from this angle, the Anselmian proof is the claim that the equivalence of thought and essence requires that there be some maximal intrinsic form corresponding to a maximal paradigm. But this seems like a difficult case to make, given that there is no necessity for a paradigm to have a real intrinsic cause. Blueprints are not necessary indications of buildings. Nevertheless, of we had a general theory that existence was nothing but a participation in an essence or paradigm case (as Plato seemed to have thought) then the knowledge of a maximal paradigm would immediately be known to exist, if by maximal we meant “non-participated”, which, again, seems to be what Plato would have thought.

And so an ontological argument that would make more explicit some Platonic presuppositions might go like this:

1.) I know the maximal paradigm. (true by reflection, or coherent use of the term)

2.) The essence that corresponds to the maximal paradigm, if there is such an essence, is non-participated.  (From Platonic and Thomist principles. The premise is given even in STA’s critique of Anselm’s argument in ST 1. 1.2.2.)

3.) Among the essences that correspond to paradigms, to exist apart from or after the paradigm is proper to the participated. (Definition of “participated”, which also follows from an account of how generation happens.)

4.) Therefore, I know that the essence which the maximal paradigm corresponds to exists.

Universal, particular, and being

Let’s take abstraction as given. We sense particulars and form universals from them by way of drawing out various common features. The abstraction, however, has to leave aside the concretion and therefore existence of the particulars.

But this leaves existence without a home. The universal abstracts from it, and yet existence is clearly common to many things and so can’t be located in the particular. The particular can be given to the mind as some sort of correlative to universality, but existence is distinguished from both terms of the relation.

Neo-Scholasticism described existence as known by an “imperfect abstraction”, though the description might hide more than it reveals. The term suggests that being is given by a defective act of abstraction or that, if one could only abstract more perfectly, he would have no idea of being at all. To say the least, this paints the wrong picture of what’s going on.

The Laval school sometimes complained that being as such is the most vacuous and empty of concepts, and that to merely appreciate things as beings is to have a radically imperfect knowledge that needs to be perfected by concretion. If this were all there were to it, it would be one way to understand existence as given by “imperfect abstraction”. But the argument confuses the order of demonstration with the order of universality. Understanding something as a being can be taken in two ways, either as a vague, imperfect awareness of its existence, or as a subject of metaphysics. In the first sense, being is an imperfect concept, in the second its degree of perfection depends on the level of sophistication with which one has explicated it in its proper science. To merely understand that an elephant exists tells us almost nothing about it, but the degree to which our understanding of existence is perfect (even the existence of elephants) is a function of how far we have progressed in metaphysics.

True, being is given somehow by abstraction in the sense that it involves brain activity, but it cannot be just taken as the most universal concept without leaving something crucial out. One way forward would be to see being as latent or habitual in human knowledge, and only actualized by sense activity and abstraction, though with a different root. I Sentences 3.4.5. might be helpful, or the other places where St. Thomas deals with the soul’s knowledge of itself.

Believing without evidence

Many of the apologetic responses to the charge that faith is belief without evidence stress the fact that faith is trust or testimony, both of which easily transition to the idea of faith as a relationship. The response is necessary but others are illuminating. St. Thomas’s answer to the question is at ST II-II q. 2 a. 3.

The first principle in St. Thomas’s response is that whenever a nature A is subordinate to B, then A will both have a motion proper to itself and from B. The ocean, he explains, has one sort of activity considered by itself and another when considered in relation to the moon. This sort of subordination happens all the time in nature:adaptations, for example, (or whatever one wants to call them)  involve things that have functions of their own which are appropriated to different functions, as when we use a cigarette lighter in a car to run a DVD player, when heat-regulating feathers are turned into tools for flight, or when whatever-it-is that a Panda’s thumb was doing gets co-opted to strip leaves from bamboo.

St. Thomas applies this duality of function to the person considered as a reasoning animal. Of itself human reasoning is considers things animals can know, namely, things that are given to sense, and when it gives a systematic account of such things its called “science” or “physics”. Considered in relation to God, however, human reasoning is appropriated to a different function, and thus it acquires a function outside what can be known by science, in the same way that powering a DVD player is outside the function of a cigarette lighter or flying is outside the nature of heat-regulation. Seen from this angle, objecting to the rationality of faith because it cannot be given to properly human abilities is comparable to objecting to the possibility of writing since ink by itself will only spill into chaotic blotches and not into letter-shapes. The faith function of the mind is outside what a human intellect can do by itself, but things in art and nature have all sorts of functions beyond the functions that they can do by themselves.

This account of faith makes it, in St. Thomas’s language, a sort of light beyond the light of reason or the light of sense. To use an example from Christian religion, it is one thing for some animal (human or not) to see the man Jesus, another thing for a philosopher to see God by way of argument, but it is a third thing for a man to see that the man Jesus is God. In this sense, the Liberal tradition in theology is right that religious experience is self-justifying and neither has nor needs a foundation in science or history. Thomists can agree with Bultmann at least this far about the radical and irreducible division between the Christ of history (or, a fortiori, the Christ of metaphysics) and the Christ of faith.

But the division between the light of faith and (properly human) reason cannot be made so sharp as eliminate all dependence of the one on another. The very idea of subordination or adaptation presupposes that the adapted or subordinated nature has at least the logical possibility of being appropriated to the other function, and St. Thomas would add to this demand that the higher function of faith must be a perfection of reasoning. Faith, in other words, has to be more than a mere adaptive use of reason, it has to be a perfection of reason. St. Thomas sees the perfective adaptation of faith as consisting in that it actually delivers an absolute good that can be apprehended by reason, but which it does not have the power to ascend to by its own.

 

An argument for “happiness” as opposed to “flourishing”

There is a strong undercurrent of dissatisfaction among Anglophone Aristotelians and Thomists over rendering the Greek eudaimonia or Latin beatitudo as “happiness”. Happiness, so the argument goes, is an English term for a sense of pleasant living, reasonable adjustment to one’s circumstances, and freedom from depression or anxiety. Whatever value there might be to such a state, it does not indicate that one is doing what he ought or is to be set forth an an ideal for human life, both of which are elements in the A-T account of eudaimonia/ beatitudo. It certainly doesn’t make sense to have a happiness phone survey on the A-T account of things, at least unless the survey asked some objective questions about what degree of virtue was attained by those being called.

Initially, happiness tends to mean something more or less easy to get – within pretty broad limits, if you do anything long enough you’ll come to see what you do as important and valuable, and in this sense you’ll get some sort of satisfaction and even fulfillment from it. In this sense happiness just involves routine. In an even looser sense, we consider ourselves happy if we’re not depressed or afflicted with some sort of crippling mental illness, which makes everyone usually happy in the same way that everyone is usually not bedridden.

Happiness in these senses is just doing of some meaningful task. We cannot, however, make things meaningful just by doing them, and so there is a logical necessity to question whether the meaning we derive from our activities is genuine. This first happiness is therefore necessarily interrupted by the question whether this sort of happiness is substantial or just a facade

And so the sort of happiness that basically everyone has – freedom from mental illness with a daily routine – logically implies the question of genuine happiness as soon as we realize that we can’t make something meaningful just by deriving some sort of enjoyment or fulfillment from it. Sain another way,  the foundational question of “Le Sens du sens” arises in the face of the run-of-the-mill happiness that everyone can get, which means it must raise the question of exactly that sort of happiness we want to target in A-T ethics. 

In fact, happiness has a two-tier structure to it, where there is a general and common sense that points to a more fundamental sense. It is similar to the term want in the sense that if we see someone doing something stupid or harmful we can tell him “you don’t want to do that”, even when there is no question that they want it. Just as we want what “we don’t want” so too we are happy with what doesn’t make us happy.

 

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