The initial hard problem of knowledge


The initial situation of knowledge is that  when we look at this and try to describe it, it is impossible for us to mention anything that could just as easily have belonged to a non-this. The sentence just said is not an exception to itself: the very words “this” and its negation are contained in the claim.  We do have proper names, but any attempt to understand what they are naming collapses into the same problem.

Plato’s response to this is to say that the general names simply are what exists – whatever might fall under a proper name is not a subsistent reality or “thing in itself” but only, at best, a thing by another. This doctrine probably faces insurmountable problems in the face of the cogito, i.e. in face of my awareness that James Chastek exists. Aristotle’s response is unclear and ended up with a wide divergence of interpretation. All sides begin with an agreement that understanding abstracts from primary substance and that primary substance was the fundamental reality, but there was a subsequent disagreement over the reality of the thing abstracted. Just what the correct interpretation is will never be known, but at the end of the day we are left with some version of the claim that what is fundamentally real is not intelligible to us.

And so we have the original problem of knowledge. Any theory of knowledge has to account for how I knowl the real, but Plato’s account cannot explain the I and Aristotle’s cannot explain the real. We either get an explanation of the subject or the predicate in I know the real, but not both.

As said, this is an initial problem and not a final one: the whole point is what we say next.

Positive monogenism

Ed Feser has a very good account of what contemporary Catholic orthodoxy requires in the special creation of man. He clearly has many authorities behind him, and his thesis – that Mike Flynn’s hypothesis about special creation is not necessarily contradicted by an argument by Dennis Bonnette – is very minimal and difficult to argue with.

Since I was a partial inspiration for Flynn’s thesis, I’ve got an excuse to return to my thinking on monogenism and the nature of Adam’s (failed and abandoned) vocation toward creation. Now I’m convinced that it is impossible to have a Catholic theology that is not committed to monogenism, or one that reads the Adam account as mythical in the sense of not requiring some real, original first human ancestor. But I’ve also never seen any reason to back away from my friend Fr. Bolin’s distinction between positive and negative monogenism: positive monogenism says that all human beings descend from some one set of ancestors, negative monogenism is the more complicated thesis that all human beings descend from one set of ancestors and this set was the only human beings on earth. Now if genetic theory suffices to identify true human beings (which is something Feser would deny) then modern genetics gives a very good refutation of negative monogenism* but it gives a much stronger set of confirmations of positive monogenism. Not only has positive monogenism happened, it’s happened more than once under circumstances that are much more exotic than are required of Adam. So for someone who is looking for a synthesis of Catholic theology and scientific consensus, positive monogenism might provide a way forward.

True, on positive monogenism there was, at least to some point in history, human beings that were not descended from Adam, and we don’t know what role such persons play in salvation history.  Someone who holds to positive monogenism doesn’t need to give any account of what would have happened to such persons: Perhaps they would have all been killed off, perhaps they would have been offered some sort of incorporation into Adam’s life, perhaps they simply were not at all called to share in Adam’s life, or perhaps, more likely, Adam was called to extend some sort of divine life to them. Positive monogenism simply doesn’t know: Adam fell too quickly for us to get a sense of what the plan for him was. His children wandered off and coupled with the persons in the rest of the world, with everyone now under “original sin” because of his fault, i.e. everyone lacked the original justice that – in one way or another – was supposed to come to all persons through Adam. It seems likely that, after Adam, all persons would have received original justice just by being generated, but, as it stands, we don’t receive this and so the same act of generation ends up “transmitting” original sin – not because original sin is some malice added to the will but because it is simply a absence of a positive quality that human beings require to live a life pleasing to God.

A positive monogenist would probably add to mere positive monogenism the idea that Adam was specially created and had no ancestor.He might even want to add more to this and say that this act of special creation was meant to establish Adam as the first member of salvation history, not the first being with a rational soul. The idea would be that Adam was not special by being the first being with a rational soul but by being the first person called to participate in a life that was higher than reason. True, man’s soul is made by an act of special creation, but man’s having a soul is not something that of itself makes him rise above the natural order. One advantage of the account I’m giving here, therefore, is that it locates Adam on a properly supernatural level, which we fail to do when we see the distinctive mark of Adam as being his rational soul.

*Bonnette denies this and says the evidence doesn’t point one way or another. Science is more a matter of following the consensus, and Bonnette seems to be an outlier from it. At any rate, I have independent reasons for wanting to reconsider some facts about Adam, some of which I’ve touched on here.

Another approach to the First Way

As a BARBARA syllogism, the First Way is:

Everything moved by another is moved by a first, immobile mover.

Everything in motion is moved by another.

Everything in motion is moved by a first, immobile mover.

Now if we step back from the controversial fact that this is supposed to be proving the existence of God (which, for whatever reason, always tends to trigger logical hyper-scrupulosity), we might take it as a rather uncontroversial proof for either laws of nature or something like energy.* Physics is in the business of explaining why things move around, and it always explains things in terms of some first thing that always remains unchanged in itself. If you see a bunch of things fall in the inverse square of the distance, you account for this by saying there is some law of gravity, and this law of gravity doesn’t move around – whether in the inverse square of the distance or in any other way. Again, if you see things moving around, you account for their motions in terms of energy or something like it, and this energy doesn’t ever change qua energy, but only manifests itself in different modes. So the major premise and the conclusion seem to be uncontroversial claims – which gives us the minor premise for free by logic alone (though this is usually the most controversial premise when the FW is usually presented)

But even if the laws of nature or something-like-energy are immobile in themselves, neither suffice to explain why anything is actually in motion. Laws of nature only give us actual motion if we help ourselves to initial conditions, since laws are ways of relating initial conditions to outcomes. Energy also doesn’t explain why something is actually moving, since energy is the ability to do work but a thing has the same ability to do work whether it is actually working or not. And so while physics explains things in motion by relating them to the immobile, the immobility it attains to is still not adequate to account for the things of experience, leaving us having to add something to physics in order to account for the very thing it’s trying to explain.

Read in this way, the FW is an apologia for metaphysics, that is, for a science distinct from but contiguous with physics which carries on the explanatory enterprise to its conclusion. Physics carries the explanation as far as it can go along the line of things that can be given to sensation, which allows at most for things that interact with something we can sense either directly or through an apparatus. The physicist’s job is done as soon as he hits on some unseen power that works interactively, that is, the power of an entity that cannot exist apart from something at least potentially sensible, like laws of nature, which are defined with physical and sensible things (like meters, masses, speeds, etc.).


*”Something like energy”, i.e. maybe mass-energy, or whatever might wind up unifying all the fundamental forces, or what might end up unifying the fundamental forces with dark energy, or what might unify the dark energy-fundamental forces thingamajigger with something else we end up discovering. At any point on this progression, energy is something remaining the same in itself and yet manifesting in diverse modes to give us diverse forces.

Hypotheses about the relation of sovereign power and the soul

1.) If the whole of man is not above sovereign power, then he rises above a power which extends to death and deprivation. But every person has some part of himself that is beyond all political power. Therefore, every man has a part of himself rising above the power of death and deprivation.

2.) If there is a soul, then there is a part of man that need not fear the power of the sovereign. But the whole of man must fear the sovereign power; therefore man has no soul transcending nature.

3.) If man rises above the fear of death by a power inherent in himself, then he need not rely on the power of Christ to be delivered from the power of death. But man must rely on the power of Christ to be so delivered, therefore etc.

4.) (same as three, with no reference to Christ, but put simply in terms of a need to be delivered from death.)


Prime movers

Aristotle made the number of prime movers, logically enough, equal to the number of prime movèds or mobiles. He wasn’t sure how many such mobiles there were: he had a hunch that there was only one, but the authorities of his time said there were over 50.  What does our physics think?

Presumably energy moves all things before anything else, and so far as we see it as shifting forms and being applied now here and now there we see it as mobile as well. But if this is right, why posit a mover of the energy itself? Isn’t this like positing a mover that makes steam expand, or a mover that tugs metal for magnets? Presumably, steam expands simply by itself, and magnets need no assistance to drag ferrous metal. If energy just is, as the textbooks agree, the ability to do work, and so to move things from one place to another, what help does it need to move anything? Why look for some cause other than this?

Aristotle would probably want to appeal to the ways in which energy not only moves, but is required to have a real and not merely logical unity projected onto something that is of itself merely an unconnected heap. Conservation laws must ultimately be cashed out on the level of the universe, and they presuppose that any form of energy can be cashed in for another form, and we either have to say there is some real cause of this or that the conservation laws are merely logical constructs. But such a cause would have to affect its work without using energy, or else our explanation becomes circular. This seems to require some cause ordering and giving an intelligible structure to energy, or whatever primary reality we posit to account for motion in different modalities.

But perhaps a more direct way to the idea of a prime mover from energy might begin with the textbook definition of energy as the ability to do work. While clear enough for physical purposes, this description glosses over an ontological division between abilities in first and second act. Things have the ability to move others both when they are doing so and when they aren’t, and so defining energy though an ability to move can’t of itself explain why anything is actually in motion; though it will allow us to say that all in motion is moved by energy, and this energy by definition moves it.

On this account of the first mover, it is the being whose essence and activity are identified, i.e. there is no difference between what he is and what he can do. Said another way, the first mover is that which is essentially in second act, that whose ability does not stand equally to action and inaction. Just what we are to make of such a being – if the idea is coherent at all – is not entirely clear, but we seem to be committed to the idea that such a being is either impossible or necessary.

Legislating Exceptionless Manners

Call manners a contingent expression of various universal desires – on this account sex, eating and friendship are universal desires while polygamy or rape culture; eating at table or with utensils; associating only with ones own race or with all races are manners. But this won’t get us close enough – manners also have to relate more or less directly to our relationships with other persons. And so while agriculture or tax law or scientific funding are in one way or another contingent expressions of universal desires (to eat? to survive? to know?) they don’t count as manners.

For Americans. the Civil Rights Act remains a watershed moment in the attempt to legislate manners, and the success of the law (where “success” has its most uncontroversial meaning of “accomplishing what it set itself to do”) has given great confidence in the power of law to affect manners in a far reaching way. The success of the Civil Rights movement is taken by many groups both the justification and the promise of what they are trying to do. It is the proof their enterprise can work too, and not only work but work justice.

This approach to manners makes them not only legislated but also universal or exceptionless – i.e. they apply to all places and times without exception. You can’t go off into the hills and form your own discrimination club, nor are there special festivals of discrimination at various times which allow everyone to exclude other races from whatever they’re doing. We view such exceptions as negations of the very thing we are trying to do. Our sense is that if we allowed groups or festivals like this they could only be proofs that what we were trying to do was a lie that no one believed in – the exception would be taken as showing what we really wanted to do, while the rule would be only a pretense or affected show.

But this view of manners is itself contained under manners, since it is a contingent expression of the universal desires. It is a contingent fact that exceptions are seen as negations; they might just as well be seen as confirming the existing order. Inverting a given order in some place or time is simply one way of recognizing it as the given order. To put a theoretical spin on that claim, perhaps the universal desires that we experience in ourselves are not the sort of thing that can exist in a single exceptionless set of manners. Perhaps the rule is rational, but human beings are not entirely rational in the same sense – perhaps there is some dark and irrational force that needs to be given its due as well.

I’m not arguing for exceptions here, only pointing out that they rest on an implicit and contingent anthropology. We must think either that there are no dark and irrational forces within us or that practical reason can deal with at least some of them by universal prohibition. We either deny all dark urges or deny they have any legitimate expression. The first option seems utterly ruled out by experience, which leaves us having to address the problem of how we can be essentially constituted by something that has no legitimate expression. Christianity has a clear and consistent answer to this paradox though the idea of original sin, but the secular world has yet to hit on an adequate response to the problem. Freudianism at least recognizes the problem, though the secular world no longer believes in Freud any more than in original sin.

But we can only get by so long without a serious institutional response to the dark forces intrinsic to the person. Just what will take the place of the divine will and initial act of creation? It seems quaint to insist on the necessity of the cultured gentleman. We might get by for a while by seeing the dark forces as not dark at all – perhaps when we let the lion out of the cage it will turn into a kitten. This is unlikely – chances are are we’ll spend a few years trying to crush it with more and more Byzantine legal restrictions before it dawns on us to raise the question of why we are trying to repress it at all.

An extreme thesis in natural theology

A: I’ll just say it – we need to posit evil in God.

B: But this is a settled question. God is entirely good and admits of no evil. It counts as a relatively rare case of philosophy coming to a definite conclusion. Placing evil in God would make him both good and evil, and therefore somehow incomplete, or that-than-which a greater could be thought.

A: I agree that God is entirely good, but this is why I want to place evil in him. Let me explain that. You accept that if God exists, the argument from evil must be unsound?

B: Absolutely.

A: And wouldn’t you also say that if the argument from evil is unsound, it must be because it is better to overcome evil than to never let it arise?

B: This seems right.

A: But then it is better to place evil in God as that which is eternally overcome than that which never arises.

B: Let me think about that.

A: God’s supreme goodness is his supreme overcoming, not some sort of serene, Platonic separation from the world that he made. He is the exemplar of what the world should be.

B: And so you see the drama of this world as reflected in the life of God himself?

A: Absolutely. Isn’t this what the Christian thinks? You have God tempted by Satan – but it is crucial to the story that he could have fallen – you aren’t Docetists, after all. Christ “had no sin” in the same way Adam did – it wasn’t given in advance that he couldn’t fall. We can’t vacate from Christ this moral victory in the face of evil, but to make his virtue invulnerable certainly seems to do just that.

B: What else do you think this explains?

A: It can make more sense of the reality of Hell, I think, and the value of Christ’s eternal sacrifice. We visualize Christ’s sacrifice as something which, even if it was made once, is now being done “automatically”, as though his offering to the Father is not ongoing. Where is the drama in that? One might as well be redeemed by an idol – if he simply stands there before the father like a fountain or a back-yard water feature that simply “pours out” grace automatically. We can likewise see the necessity of the eternity of Hell – it is populated by those who choose to be eternally overcome by infinite goodness.

B: Infinite goodness? But then how is there any drama in your God? How could infinite goodness ever lose out to evil?

A: Precisely because the infinite goodness consists in his continual overcoming.

B: So now we’re talking about continual overcoming – about time and incompleteness.

A: Maybe so. But the alternative, it seems to me, is to have a god so bound by his necessity that his personality is completely ridiculous. We only add personality on when we are forced to, and not because it is integral to our conception of God. How thin is St. Thomas’s reason for divine personality! What is it “that which is most perfect in nature is the person, etc.” But this idea of perfection is precisely the sort of determined act that freezes the divine existence.

B: So this is what it comes to – another complaint about the static character of existence in natural theology. Another complaint that it gives us an impersonal God.

A: Well, yeah.

Bias and reason

From an article speaking of confirmation bias:

In 2009, a study at Ohio State showed that we will spend 36 percent more time reading an essay if it aligns with our opinions

But a preference to spend more time reading things you agree with is either not a bias, or some biases are reasonable. It is almost tautological to say that, ceteris paribus, you spend more time with what you prefer, and so if bias means nothing more than preference then bias is both desirable and unavoidable. But presumably biases are irrational or distorting preferences, i.e. preferences that occlude the truth.

Confirmation bias really happens, and is easy enough to prove with experiments on even small groups of persons, like Peter Wason’s 2,4,6 experiment. But while it’s true that we spend more time looking for confirming evidence than disconfirming evidence, it does not follow that a person with perfect objectivity would spend an equal amount of time looking for both, and just what the appropriate time-ratio would be is probably a ridiculous question to raise.

But there is a deeper problem: calling something confirmation bias is just the first move in trying to out what a reasonable approach to evidence should look like. True, in Wason’s experiment almost everybody will fail to find the rule Wason wants them to find, but it doesn’t follow that a more reasonable person would be just as zealous to disconfirm an initial idea as to confirm it. For all I know, the sort of person that does well in the Wason experiment might make a worthless scholar; and my suspicion is that something like this might just be the case. It may not be reasonable to be just as open to doubt as to confirmation in our initial experiences with things, still less that we should prefer doubt to confirmation (Teleb, for example, argues that we should, and Descartes does the same thing with his methodological doubt).  Perhaps doubt can only be effective on a basis that can only be established by a preference for confirmation.

Cognitive research isn’t my field, but I’ve tried to read widely in the popular lit. One concern I have is with a short term bias that can’t yet raise the question of what a long-term view of what a reasonable person would do in the face of evidence. This is tied to a deeper question of what exactly counts as a reasonable response, and getting some short-term answers systematically wrong might well be compatible with this.

Two more Nows

4.) The Now of Remembrance. While physical nows divide up time purely sequentially, such that if there is a sequence of events A,B, C, then B is closer in time to A than C is, the now of remembrance is not like this. Birthdays, Anniversaries, events in the liturgical year, etc. are all moments when we experience being closer to an event in the past than we felt, say, two months before, even though the moment two months before was closer in sequential, physical time. We are closer to the resurrection on Good Friday than we were last Christmas, even if the latter is closer to it in physical time.

5.) The Now of Music. The melody is somehow whole, happening now, without needing to be present at once.

Different nows

1.) The now of physics. Discovered clearly from the beginning of physics, it is the infinitesimal boundary of past and future. It came to be an answer to an equation, a location in a “dimension”, where a dimension was a variable quantity we needed to know in order to figure out where an object was.

2.) The psychological now. Discovered by William James, it was the length of a single act of focused mental energy, lasting at most a few seconds, though this sort of description was extrinsic to it. It’s the length of time you can train on something before making that shift to processing it in memory. It was later discovered to have a basis in the structure of how the brain processes information.

3.) The now of conscience or of religious awareness. This is the now that Catholics speak of in the Hail Mary. It is the now of moral decision or the awareness of the significance of choice. It is in this now that we have to reject temptation, take the steps towards right, listen to the promptings of conscience, etc. It is crucial to understand this as a now – since the heart of this experience is the sense that something cannot be put off to later. The decision might not be dramatic – it might just a prompting to get back to work and stop screwing around, but it still happens within that now of decision.

Interestingly, we tend to treat now (1) as the definitive now on which the others are based, but it is clearly the most hypothetical and unconfirmable of all the nows. Physics has yet to say anything about the necessity of an infinitesimally small time that somehow limits past and future. The paradoxes involved in this are perhaps insurmountable, and it’s hard to see how we could ever physically confirm the existence of infinitely small quantities. Now (2) is at least confirmed experimentally. Now (3), however, is the most immadiately known and least theoretical of all the nows, and they are all, in different degrees, abstractions from its much richer ontological reality.

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