A division in act by power

All power is power of acting with respect to some X. Since power as such doesn’t involve dependence, either this relation involves a real dependence or it doesn’t. We are most familiar with powers that in fact depend on the X in some way in order to act: perhaps we need the parts that make it up (the way we need bread to make a sandwich), or some instrument (a knife), or the right conditions for working, or it might need the consent of the thing itself (telling someone to make a sandwich for us). But it  To be independent, however, would be to create ex nihilo – where the “nihil” is a negation of the need for the parts, conditions, memories, consent of others, the right working conditions, any instruments, etc. Though we approach this independent power by way of all these negations, it is actually simply the real existence of what power logically is.

In dependent power, we posit not just a power to act but a power to receive – an active and passive potency. These will be correlative aspects and not absolute entities. If the passive potency of the action were made impossible, the active power would also be made impossible. Independent power, however, is not a correlative but presupposes the real non existence. In fact, apart from the creative act, the term of the action is not just non existent but impossible.

ST. 1.1.1-4

1.) The goal of the Christian life is the knowledge of God: that is, to know by sight what one now knows by faith

But it is one and the same knowledge by which God knows his own truth and creates the universe

But every sort of knowledge is perfect only when it achieves its full actualization.

Therefore, inter alia, the goal of the Christian life is the creation of the universe.


2.) Beatitude is perfect friendship

Perfect friends share all their thoughts with another.

God’s thoughts create the universe.

All productive thoughts complete themselves in producing

Therefore, beatitude involves, inter alia, the creation of the universe.

Data and enlightenment

Data, so the modern proverb goes, is not the plural of anecdote. In fact, it’s not even the plural of experience. Data is a certain sort of experience treated by a certain sort of means, and it both illumines and occludes experience.

Data is, first of all, something recorded. But records involve a good deal of social infrastructure: they normally require specialized scribes, a consistent source of stuff to keep the records on (paper, clay tablets, etc.) building structures that are secure enough to expect records to stay safe and uncorrupted, etc.

On the other hand, data is publically given according to standards laid down in advance. Personal experience can be made data only after we have testimony of it according to some unifying question; the personal and interior element in the experience is never what is recorded.

At the moment I’m fascinated by how the rise of data is involved in Durkeim’s concept of disenchantment, which he takes as a central feature of the growth of the secular, contemporary world. It seems undeniable that the pre-enlightenment world of healing shrines, ringing bells to ward off lightning, sympathetic medicine and potions, and fanciful saints’s tales cannot survive the rise of data,which is to say they can’t survive a world where data is taken as ideal experience. You can ring bells to ward off lightning but the records won’t show any decrease in fatal strikes; you can tie turnips to the feet of persons with gout, but the records won’t show improvement any greater than chance. Steven Pinker wants to extend this point to all prayer –  the data won’t give you any more reason to expect results than not.

This shift to data will necessarily kill off much of the popular basis for pre-enlightenment magic, in much the same way that it deserves to kill off the widespread scientific superstitions of our own day (diet pills, muscle-builder gimmicks, health fads, etc.) We’ve killed off the bell ringing and some of the fanciful saints’s tales, but what are we supposed to do with the healing shrines, prayer, and liturgical action that are still alive and well? We might see these as the last strongholds left in front of the march of data, which will be driven out just like the rest. Sooner or later the weight of the prayer-data will make prayer seem ridiculous to everyone, and all the attempts to evade the data will seem far-fetched and ad hoc.

Data certainly seems to drive out magical thinking, and spiritual practices of all sorts often have magical aspects. But in light of all our modern superstitions it might seem better to see magic as a certain corruption of anything powerful, science included: if you can put a man on the moon, you get late-night advertisements for foolproof diet pills. But this doesn’t speak to the question of how shrines or prayer might relate to data: is it enough to argue for some quantifiable benefit to prayer (say, maybe daily prayer makes us more calm and long-lived) or should we also fight for some good of prayer that is not captured by data?

Parmenides and Aristotle revisited

Aristotle: …but then how would you tell me about this at all? If there’s no change then how do you speak, expect to change my mind, or even tell the difference between your premises and your conclusion?

Parmenides: This is a completely false dilemma. Just because something is not real does not mean it has no explanatory role to play. In fact, a non-existent thing might even be necessary to our thought. Have you ever heard of ideal gases, black boxes, average number of children, the sunrise and sunset, or a thousand other such things? Change is certainly necessary to our thought, just as a moving sun is necessary to our perception. But this does not require us to say that such things really exist. There’s more than one sense of “is” – sometimes it only involves knowing what we mean, and seeing an explanatory value in something, but without asserting that such a thing exists in fact.

A: Yes, let’s talk about these different senses of “is”. If I say “I’m going out to buy coffee”, then whatever I buy is coffee, right?

P: Right.

A: But I can either buy beans or a drink, correct?

P: Right

A: So one sense of “is” involves what can be something, another involves what actually is something.

P: Right.

A: But this is the whole problem with your argument. You say “if something comes to be, it comes to be either from what is or what is not. But not from the first, for then it does not come to be; and not from the second, for nothing comes from nothing.” But you overlook that “is” has two senses. The end result is actually, and it comes to be from what is potentially.

P: So change, on this account, is from the possible per se. 

A: Exactly.

P: And something either is possible or not?

A: I think that’s right.

P: But then all you’ve done is blown squid ink and shifted the goal posts back. “The possible”, whatever this is, is not exempt from the law of either existing or not existing. If you want possibility to be, then you’re asserting a unity with what you call act, and precisely as unified it cannot come to be. If you want possibility not to be, you assert some unity with non-being, and as such it cannot give rise to anything. All of your arguments just seem like clever ways to talk yourself out of the principle of contradiction, and to assert some magical tertium quid between what exists and what doesn’t. This is, as far as I can tell, all your “potential being” comes to. You yourself in your writings say that it might just as well be potential privation or non-being.

A: But this is just how we find the world. On the one hand, it’s clear that impossible things do not exist, and so by the principle of contradiction we must say that possible things exist. On the other hand, future things clearly don’t exist, but they are possible. We understand possibility as in one sense existing and in another sense not.

P: Maybe we do, just as we understand all sorts of fictional things. But we know that something can’t be such a thing. If you really want to spin what is necessary for your thought into reality, then why don’t you extend the same privilege to the principle of contradiction? Isn’t that far more necessary for your thought? Your whole argument is question begging anyway, since I deny any reality to temporal things anyway. They are all doxa – that is, things that arise from the fact that we know the world, but do not and cannot exist in it. And it’s not as if I deny them arbitrarily – I’m just following out the consequence of the obvious principle that a thing either exists or it doesn’t.

A: Right, a thing is what exists or not. But we’re not talking about things but the sources that give rise to things. Possibility is, of itself, a source of a thing and not a thing.

P: But if you want to make this break you have to – again for what seems like the thousandth time – break the universality of either existing or not. What use is it to assert some world of “pure sources” if we can’t even relate it to the world we know? You repeatedly insist on “being-non-beings” or “thing-non-things” in order to prove me wrong. If this is what you need to refute me, I’m pretty confident in what I think.

Here’s what I think our disagreement really comes down to: you want nature to be just as intelligible and scientific as our understanding of being and non-being. True, if nature is perfectly intelligible then there has to be some domain of “possible being” with a ghostly existence, and the various exigencies of thought have to find purchase in the real world – like when we call a possible thing the thing itself. But I say this is not science but dialectical opinion.

Neither loves nor acts

Aristotle defines substance as what is neither said of many nor existent by its presence in something.

Thesis: without substance, nothing either loves or acts.

If there is no substance, then all that is is said of many. But then all that is loved is said of many, and so we might replace anything loved with something else. But this is the same as not to love it at all.

If there were no substance, then there would be no love only use. But use is unintelligible except as love of self, or benefit to self. Use makes no sense as benefit to another. And so whether we act for a self or for another, there must be what is neither said of many nor present in another.

But all actions are either for self or other, for preservation or as the result of something preserving itself. (really? even when nature moves in cycles? Here too, the cycle preserves itself.)


St. Thomas’s proof that sacred doctrine is a science rests on the idea that some sciences start from things evident to everyone while others don’t, and theology is a science in the second way. In modern discourse, this second sort of science is one that starts with formulas (literally “the short forms”) i.e. a short instruction that tells one what to do in the face of certain facts, but the reason for which is more or less hidden. So we could learn Euclid II. 4, every part of which can be reduced down to his common notions evident in themselves, but we can also just give kids a formula that works to show the same thing, i.e.: “the FOIL method”.

What’s fascinating is the extent to which the first sort of science is has been occluded by the second. It’s all formulas now, and to try to chase down their basis often leads only to a haze of assumptions, simplifications, and the occasional a priori argument. St. Thomas was working from the idea that all formulas must be shorthand for the findings of a purely deductive system, but it’s not clear that this is so. While one can generally be confident of hitting an a priori argument for purely mathematical things, even here no one has yet been able to reconstitute a complete science that they all belong to. Everything seems to fade off into the haze of pure relations, something like St. Thomas’s Trinitarian personsA fortiori, the possibility of a purely deductive physical system seems even more dim. Science has the occasional deductive argument (Newton’s Principia or Minkowski’s proofs for space time) but attempts at a full and complete system seem to shatter into more localized discourses that are held together by models, guesswork, thought experiments, things we know are false but which make the math easier, and (sure) the occasional a priori argument.

The upshot is that St. Thomas is defining theology in opposition to a kind of knowledge that we cannot have, at least not with anything like our cognitive powers as presently constituted. But this seems to re-orient the trajectory of science as a whole. The purely deductive system is still an ideal, and there must be some coherent basis of formulas, but this science does not seem to be achievable with knowledge as we have it now, since a deductive system along those lines collapses into Godel’s theorems and Quine’s critiques of deductive empiricism. Aristotle’s vision of the purely deductive system in Posterior Analytics seems to be pointing to a consciousness that we cannot now enjoy, but which we clearly see is possible – and which is even the necessary basis for what fragments of science we have.

What St. Thomas thought was peculiar to divine science, namely that it was based on formulas that could only be resolved in a higher consciousness (i.e. “the light of glory”) might perhaps be better applied to human knowledge as such. Our knowledge will advance and deepen over time, but not by finding the system of systems. All we’ll ever get from following out what we now have is a greater and greater plurality of dialectical systems, not some deductive universal axiomatic system. That’s what God and the saints enjoy, and we have only suggestions of it. And signposts.

The first sense of miracle vs. Doctrine B

While In its precise and rigorous sense the term “miracle” is set in opposition to nature (considered as the normal or regular course of things) in its first vague and general sense it is a marvel or wonder, something that arrests attention. But there are all sorts of times when the this sort of thing happens in the face of the natural – even in the face of the natural as the everyday or normal. The everyday can still be surprising – the first time one sees the Northern Lights or a tree turn fuchsia in fall it’s hard to avoid thinking that nature just is surprising, that is, the unforeseen and remarkable is intrinsic to it and can never be driven out, whether by the advance of knowledge or the collapse of nature into heat death. Miracle in this sense has a version for atheists and secularists who can, relative to this, even boast a more or less robust spirituality, one based on a much more marvelous view of the world than any which existed in the eras of faith. We this get a possible rapprochment between a sort of spiritual atheism and Christianity: both can be based on miracles, and see them as founding and establishing the value of the their respective discourses. The new Cosmos series was pretty clearly atheism in this vein.

In this sense both Christianity and spiritual atheism are opposed to doctrine B, which sees nature as intrinsically intelligible to us all the way down. It clearly can’t be this in fact, but it is so as an attainable ideal. This final or complete science eliminates all possibility of surprise, seeing as essentially and unambiguously ignorance. To marvel at ignorance is just more ignorance – it’s more an occasion to be ashamed that we haven’t worked everything out yet. Nature is fundamentally evident, being is intelligible, and we need to be hard-headed and methodical in dealing with it. Any mechanist account of nature would be a doctrine B since it would make nature something we could understand all the way down. Block universes are also Doctrine B’s.

So the miracle in its first, vague, and experiential sense has a theist and atheist application, and both are opposed to the idea that there is no reason why the universe should surprise us, except for the embarrassing reason that we have yet to figure it out. In a word, doctrine B sees no latent spirituality in surprise. One difficulty in deciding among them is that it’s not clear to what extent they are stable characters in persons. Is anyone ever continually aware of the universe as surprising? How far do we ever really believe that the universe is nothing but a transparently intelligible mechanism? Still, this division of theist and atheist spirituality and hard-headed rationalism (which also might have theist and atheist variants) seems to capture something fundamental in an approach to life.

Faith, reason, and orders of causality

Just as we explain the relation between creator and creature, the relation between reason and faith is best understood in terms of primary and secondary causality, which is clearest to us in the relation between agents and their instruments. The basic analogy is this:

what a mind can do by itself : what mind can do in connection with the primary agent :: reason : faith.

Here mind is a secondary cause or instrument. Every instrument is capable of doing things by itself, though this might be clearest in the more advanced sorts of instruments. Computers can update themselves, spell-check, play audio files, etc., that is, do all the things which, if they couldn’t do, they’d need repair. This need for repair is a useful line making off what any instrument can do for itself. We’d either fix or trash a hammer that was hissing one claw end or a lose handle, but not one that couldn’t swing itself or squarely hit a nail.

This relation is at the heart of many of the puzzling things said about faith and reason, like

1) The relation explain how we can be both made for faith (for everyone makes an instrument with an eye to its use by the primary agent) but also that it is not irrational to not have faith (since it is not a defect of an instrument to be unable to do what it can only do in connection with the agent).

2.) It explains how God’s actions can never be violent but will always be in line with our will. One cannot commit violence against a keyboard by typing with it.

3.) It explains how reason can have its own complete domain with its own integrity while at the same time being open to another one. There are no gaps in the universe just as there are no parts missing from a complete hammer. For all that, it can’t swing itself – but the swinging is not a feature on the same level as the claw end, handle, face, etc. A consideration of the historical-critical method would be to the point here.

4.) It transcends both fideism and rationalism. Rationalism say, in effect, we are irrational for not having faith. This is wrong, not only because it fails to give a reason for Christianity at all, but because it sees defects where there are none. Fideism insists that whatever is betond what the mind can do by itself must be beyond what the mind can do altogether. Applied to all secondary causes, this would mean we couldn’t write an essay on a computer.

5.) It explains the otherwise obscure claim in STA that grace always builds on nature. Of course it does – but not as a second story but the way any use of an instrument presupposes that the instrument is in good working order. This in turn opens up an avenuse to see the necessity of philosophy and science in theology.

If you play around with the analogy for a awhile it starts seeming that any failure to understand faith and reason traces back to some overlooking of the relation between primary and secondary causes.


Tuggy’s latest Trinitarian dilemma

Brandon is critical of Dale Tuggy’s latest dilemma for orthodox Trinitarians:

1. The Father and the Son are the same God.
2. For any x and y, and for any kind F, if x and y are the same F, then x is an F, y is an F, and x = y. (x and y are numerically one)
3. The Father = the Son. (1, 2)

I’ve read Tuggy give dilemmas like this for years, though I don’t usually challenge them because our philosophical differences are vast and (probably) intractable. But this particular dilemma is interesting because it opens itself to an interesting retorsion. Assume that I read Tuggy’s dilemma and had exactly the same idea for a response as Brandon. This sort of thing happens all the time – it’s the reason we watch game shows. But then by Tuggy’s #2 my idea would be numerically the same as Brandon’s. But then what do we do with the fact that my idea is mine and his is his?

That last question isn’t rhetorical: I’m not trying to refute Tuggy, at least not directly. But I do think that ideas allow us insights into sorts of unity that suggest the sort of unity and distinction we find in the Trinity. We can have the numerically the same idea in a way we can’t have, say, the same shoes. If you and I have the same shoes, then either we mean nothing more than that we have the same kind of thing or we’re passing the same pair between us, with the one guy always having to do without what the other guy has. But ideas are not like this: If you and I both yell “four” when someone asks us what two plus two is, we have to say something more than that we gave the same kind of answer. Again, if there are three Camry owners there are three Camrys, but if there are three people who know Latin there aren’t three Latins. Put crudely, what it means for a material object to be the same or different is divided from what it means for l’esprit to be the same or different, because the things in the latter group allow for a numerical unity that is compatible with possession in diverse selves. If I had to critique Tuggy’s argument, that’s where I’d start.

These are old insights: Aristotle would argue that the mind is nothing but what it thinks; and even in sensation our organs contribute to the object we perceive only to the extent that it is not objective. On this account, perfect objectivity would just be identity with some object, even if done by multiple selves. To approach the Trinity from this angle would be to see God as perfect or pure objectivity, though not limited to a single one thinking. We have minimal additions to make to Aristotle’s idea of thought thinking itself – we include only that it belongs to the perfection of such a being to have a second person perspective. To leave it at this, however, would make the God purely intellectual – probably better to add another self to make him loving and volitional as well. But then I’d have the same idea as Saint Augustine. Heh.


If I could exhaustively give all my reasons for loving someone then I could articulate what someone else might have just as well, and so replace the loved one.  But the loved one is irreplaceable. Therefore I can never exhaustively give all my reasons for loving someone. It follows that every love for a person is somehow infinite – and that there is always more beyond what I could hope to bring to conscious light.

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