The practical vs. the interpersonal

– A thing is an object of practical knowledge so far as it owes its existence to us, and therefore so far as it owes its truth to us.

-All entities known by experiment are objects of practical knowledge, even if it is practical knowledge in the service of theory. This is more true the closer one gets to physics; but it’s certainly true of any enterprise that converges on a physical law. All physical laws, and even many physical definitions specify ways of controlling the thing defined.

– Physical law specifies an in-principle way for mind to control phenomena, and so nature is seen through the lens of the impersonal and passive. If this is how we understand our relationship to the supernatural, then we have either magic or superstition.

-When relation to the supernatural become a matter of technique, one has superstition and magic. One has the same thing in the attempts to control other persons by technique. Using techniques in the sense science has techniques means we are being manipulative.

-When we say God is pure act, we certainly deny the kind of passivity and ability to be manipulated that our minds have to nature. But is the interpersonal relationships clearly involve sorts of influence and activity that is neither manipulative nor done on some sort of inert and passive entity. If you change my mind, it doesn’t negate my own autonomy or make you manipulative.

-Relationships between lovers are not act-potency relationships, even where there is influence. Lovers influence so far as they have a shared life.

-God’s own sharing of his life with us in friendship is the reason why we can really influence God by prayer, and really change things by it, while at the same time recognizing God as the First Immobile mover of all things, who cannot be changed in any way. What is negated by this latter fact is any sort of deceptive manipulation, not the mutual influence of the shared life.

-Manipulation and practical knowledge is based on act-potency relationships, together forming  system in which the system alone is “what acts”; interpersonal friendships are based on two agents forming a shared life.


  1. January 1, 2015 at 7:21 pm

    Ian Hacking somewhere argues that scientific phenomena have to be made, since you need to be able to get what you are studying into a reliable and consistent form, and that recognizing this explains a great deal of the history of science. E.g., why is astronomy the first natural science to develop? Because astronomical events are already so regular that you don’t need to do much to them beyond measuring them to make them phenomena for scientific reasoning. What makes for the differences in ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ sciences — the ease or difficulty of making their phenomena. And so forth.

    • January 2, 2015 at 9:34 am

      Thinking about this last night I was struck by just how ideal the stars are as objects of physics: one can just observe the universe (when will that ever happen again?) the events recur with almost perfect periodicity, all the items of study are homogeneous and simple (stars just twinkle), there’s just enough oddity and queerness to keep the study interesting (planets, the size of the moon changing), the study has rewards at each of its steps (first notice the pole star, etc.) and we’ll never again get a phenomenon that is so physically determined and amenable to making predictions. It’s like God hung the stars to make physics.

      But that’s almost certainly backwards: in fact physics is just the attempt to get everything in nature to be like the stars, or to extract from physical reality everything that is star-like. The vision of particles floating in a void according to a perfectly determined law is the attempt to see all reality like the night sky again.

      • January 2, 2015 at 11:06 am

        This seems to tie in with a point that has been noticed at least since Duhem, that when modern scientists think of ‘scientific method’, they tend to think of something that is very similar to the way the ancients and medievals thought of astronomy in particular — hypotheses that save the phenomena, mathematical models confirmed by prediction, etc.

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