The Physics of Relics

A colleague asked how one would describe the Catholic teaching on relics. I was struck that the first few reasonable explanations were completely false. True, they help bring the saint to mind; true, they aren’t prayed to with latria but with some declension of it; and it’s even true that the relic will (presumably) be reanimated in the resurrection of the body. But the Catholic idea seems to go beyond all this so far as it imputes holiness as belonging to an inanimate object, and not just as an observer-relative property. Holiness is a physical characteristic, and it can characterize both the animate and the inanimate. This is why Catholics are often confused about what to do with desiccated blessed palms, worn-out bibles or even broken statues. We can’t just throw them away, and not just for fear that someone might be scandalized. We wouldn’t feel any better about throwing them away hidden in a box.

Now in one sense there’s nothing odd about having physical properties unknown to physics. All proper sensibles are like this (taste, color, texture, etc.). But we also can’t just see these properties as observer-relative. All this is in contradiction to our idea that, by looking around, we just look at the natural world.


(notes on stuff already said)

Newton: A machine is a conduit that increases force by diminishing velocity (consider the rotational velocity of a lever, the deceleration of the ax or hammer, the lift of an inertial body on the inclined plane, etc.)

Gelernter: a machine transforms energy into value.

Gelernter’s definition needs to be added to Newton’s since without value we can’t tell if the machine is working or not. A scale and a trebuchet are the same lever. More simply, “is it working?” is a normative question.

The lever is balanced. Is it working? The neuron fires.

If you put a pebble in a bag for every sheep you see, the pebble-bag is a computer. Each stone is a code.

Plato: code is a reminder. You keep the pebbles so you don’t have to remember the sheep.

By meaning anything be anything else. A star can be a state, blue can mean liberty, a scratch can be a conquest, F can be force. This gives infinite possibilities but essential dependence. What could be anything is none of those things. Have the intention look away for an instant, and this sort of accidental being immediately ceases to exist.

Of course the brain is a machine for thinking, like the jaw is a machine for chewing. Just look at it – it’s a lever. And so it can work, provided one pre-supplies inputs from somewhere and value from somewhere else. Note that the machine is even more dependent on the source of value than the source of force: turn off the source of force, and it can work for while on pure inertia; turn off the source of value, and it immediately ceases to work, even if it happens to move.

“It’s a machine for producing value!” Egad. Like a martini for producing gin.

Sean Carroll: “look at this equation. If there were soul, then you’d need to add another symbol.” Snark. Cuz’ who needs a soul to have symbols, amIright?


So large set of “meaning” questions are straightforwardly questions about the good: the meaning of life/ whether life has any meaning are the same question as what good there is to life or whether life is good.

If Aristotle is right, many of these good questions are function questions, as when we ask what something’s good for.

But then are meaning of life questions just questions of what a living thing is good for? Do we want the answer to include the bacteria in my sinuses, the mosquito that buzzes in my ear, the carrots in my garden, the chickens in the coop, etc.?

Unlike Aristotle, we seem to have a sense that something can just be there without having anything it should be doing. We know what it means to object that something doesn’t do, it just is. This is even seen as a virtue, cf. art.

This sense we have of the virtue of art parallels the sense we have of human goodness. “The dignity of the person” or “the equality of individuals” isn’t seen as depending on what they do. Christianity boasts of this inherent/ essential dignity or unalienable claim to divine love. DeKoninck railed mercilessly against this idea as the ultimate perversion, but JPII ended up the saint.

I know vaguely what tree-functions and tree goods are, but I’d rather use many of them for boards, campfires, shade, ash, etc. When it comes to the ore in the ground, even the vague sense of its own good gets lost, and I’m left only with what its good for. What is the inorganic but the ashes of some burned-out star? (Substance)

What is accidental becomes essential to intention.

Communicating substantiality, (pt. III)

On pages 164-71 of his Scholastic Metaphysics, Edward Feser denies the division between natural and artificial forms. One has to read the chapter carefully to see him do it, since it seems like he is simply trying to explain and even defend the difference between them, but the difference turns out to be only that nature and art provide us with good first examples of substantial form and accidental form. This is a Thomistic defense of modern philosophy, though to explain this we need to take a short detour though the old notions of particular and universal agents.

On the older account of things, nature and art where names for, respectively, an intrinsic and extrinsic principle of action. Seeds need only the right conditions to make plants, but pages and ink need more than the right conditions to make books; and since pages need a writer, one assumed that the “intrinsic principle” that nature needed was also some agent cause. Now Aristotle knew that nature needed extrinsic agents too, which is why he said that man came to be from man and the sun, but this agency only helped to buttress the absolute distinction between nature and art since  “the sun” was seen as exerting a mysterious, astrological causality on generation, and the suggestion that we could control this sort of astrological causality would have struck Aristotle as both ridiculous and hubristic. Astrology is fate, and to pretend to control fate is both ignorant and immoral.* And so Aristotle was convinced that nature and art were ontologically distinct on the level of agent causality, since nature traced back to an utterly mysterious sort of natural agency which did not admit of manipulation by any human art, even in principle.

St. Thomas, of course, had a troubled relationship with astrology, though it’s unclear whether he appreciated the full force of the conflict between having both astrological, fatalistic causes and free will. St. Thomas usually addresses the problem by saying the will is a spiritual cause and the stars are not, but this argument collapses as soon as one inquires about the physical effects of a free choice. STA even seems to speak at cross-purposes when he tries to explain himself on this, as in Q. 115 of the Prima Pars, where he starts of with a proof that no body can be a universal cause (a. 1), before going on to prove that the heavenly bodies are universal causes (a. 3).**

But our best guess about nature is now that there is no in principle division between natural and artificial agents. Whatever nature can do, we can do also. There is no special sort of energy that nature can control and we can’t. Soul alone is the universal agent cause of things. But this is exactly what Descartes was arguing for in his cry to “becomes masters and possessors of nature”, namely, It was no longer hubristic or ignorant to lay claim to exactly the same power that nature used to do things, since now soul, and above all the human mind, had been literally exalted in excelsis.

Though this isn’t exactly right. In eliminating the distinction in agency between nature and art, it is just as right to say that nature became art as art became nature. Just as art could do no more than rely on the powers of things to form a unity, so now nature could do no more than this. This left us either having to deny real unitites in nature altogether, or to say that both natural and artificial agents did not suffice to give us the unified beings we actually find. The first option is metaphysical nonsense, and we are forever in debt to Plato in Parmenides for insisting on this (Proclus would later make this the foundational doctrine in theology in his Elements) the second option sees all natural unity as a participation in a divine reality, communicating its being to nature. The Christian doctrine of the Trinity puts the finishing touches on this by seeing this communication of being as intrinsic to God himself.

Objection: But “nature” is still different by the fact that matter has an intrinsic order to being a natural thing, but not to being an artificial thing. Steel has a natural order to whatever-it-is steel does, but not to being a car.

Response: But all “natural” can mean in this sense is “something that some matter was ordered to”, and the only cash value of this is in seeing what we can make out of what. If we made a salmon out of an acorn, then an acorn would “naturally” make a salmon on this sense of nature; if we made an intelligence out of drums of chemicals or microchips, then, mirabile dictu, microchips and drums of chemicals could naturally make an intelligence (and yes, I think this makes me revise a lot o what I’ve said in the past about the ontology of strong AI, though I’m still uncomfortable about the idea of an intelligent machine, which to me would be a finite intelligence existing for another finite intelligence). This leave no meaningful division between the natural and the artificial, though this is a completely different division from the substantial and accidental.

*This belief persists with us as a ghost-like possibility, though not with reference to the heavens but with reference to time itself in movies like 12 Monkeys, Deja-Vu, Terminator III (yes, I watched it).

** Before we chuckle at the ignorance of those poor, astrological medievals, we should take a minute to reflect on our hopelessly confused opinions on the relationship between physical bodies and mathematical laws. Why do we think that nature is determined because the result of an algebraic expression is? When we speak of the causal close of the physical, how does this leave room for the mathematical formalism of the very laws we say are at work in it?

Communicating substantiality (pt. II)

(Still noodling with the argument from Michael Bolin, here I try turning it into a cosmological argument.)

Let it be given that some natural substance arises from physical parts, as Aristotelians say is true of men, horses, roses, etc. and Atomic theory says is true of atoms.

But substance cannot arise by being identical to the parts, for the parts are many but the substance is one; nor can it arise as being actualized by the parts, for many things make one only when they are in potency to it. Thus actual substance arises neither from identity with its parts or by their causality, and so derives its actuality from another.

Now if this other acts by acting on the physical parts, it can no more account for actual substance than the physical parts themselves. But all natural causes act in this way, since we observe no second sort of natural energy or power that kicks in after the natural agent has brought the parts together.

And so what is most actual in nature arises from a region beyond all observable natural causes. The energy or power that actualizes what is most immanent in them is by that very fact entirely transcendent to them.

By the same argument given above, this being must either be a substance or something whose whole being overflows substance. And thus there is a substantial or supersubstantial reality beyond all nature that accounts for the existence of nature.

For those who take persons as substance, and as the highest sort of substance, the supersubstantial reality beyond all nature can be called a person. For those who take only what is conserved in being while others pass out of being as substance, then this supersubstantial reality transcends that which endured imperishably throughout all time. But it seems best to take these as diverse perfections of substance in nature, and so the supersubstantial reality beyond nature at once fills out and exceeds the reality of an eternal person. And this all understand to be God.

Communicating substantiality

(Tinkering with a thesis by Michael Bolin, contested by Fr. Waldstein)

I) What comes to be exists in another.

Proof: No substance comes to be, but either is or is not. But all non-substances exist in another.

Objection: But an accidental form either is or is not too – something either works as a house or it doesn’t.

Response: A house is a number of substances with the right position and relation, and one can be closer or further to some number. But a substance is not a number of substances with the right position and relation, therefore etc.

All accidental forms arise from taking a part or whole of a substance and moving it to another place, bringing it into the proximity of other substances, etc. Accidental forms thus have a clear relation to a process. But it’s just because they are this checklist of substance + right position + right relation to other substance that the accidental form can be realized in stages whereas the substantial form can’t be.

II) But we need some sort of account of substances coming to be. We see it happen.

III) An S-form necessarily comes to be whenever the appropriate A -form comes to be.

But how does the S-form necessarily come to be from the A-forms? It can’t come to be by just being them, since this would make it accidental; nor because it is actualized by them, since this would make it in potency to them, when in fact it is their act.

Thus A-forms have an order to S-form, but they cannot actualize this form. S-Forms must be actualized by another. The accidental form has an order to an end that it cannot actualize by itself.

Perhaps substantial form is most comparable to hearing a broadcast. Put the right accidental forms in place (wires, tuning knobs, antenna, electro-guts), and you’ll necessarily hear the broadcast, but not because the broadcast is identical to that form or because the form you make causes the broadcast to occur. You use the language of “taking part in” or “participating” to indicate what your accidental form does with respect to the broadcast. Obviously, as soon as you start thinking about how radios actualize broadcasts, the metaphor goes lame and ceases to apply.

IV) But natural things are essentially mobile, in development, evolving, temporal, changing.

All nature can account for is the accidental form that is open to participating in what might be called the broadcast of substantiality. There is a realm outside of nature which is essentially the communication of existence, without which nothing in nature can exist of itself.

inconscium superat animum

In a section called “objections to prayer” (2727) the Catechism remarks:

[S]ome would have it that only that is true which can be verified by reason and science; yet prayer is a mystery that overflows both our conscious and unconscious mind.

oratio mysterium est quod nostram conscientiam nostrumque inconscium superat animum

“Mystery” in the Scriptural sense is not a baffling or unintelligible object or proposition but an ongoing and therefore incomplete revelation. This ongoing revelation will always have something unintelligible and baffling about it, but this is not because God had any interest in being baffling or unknown (since revealing yourself and your plan for the universe is a pretty stupid way of going about this) but rather because he respects the developmental and historical nature of creation. Like everything else in time, revelations in time evolve, grow, mature, and develop. Mystery is therefore the opposite of obscurity – it is a sort of education.

In one very important sense mystery has ceased with the Incarnation, since there is a definitive sense in which revelation cannot develop beyond this. Mystery only exists now so far as we see the Incarnation in relation to its eschatological revelation of judgment, in its sacramental or Scriptural hiddenness, or in its relation to the progressive dispelling of obscurity from the minds of the members of the Church. The mystery of prayer seems to map best over this last sense of mystery.

But why speak of prayer as a mystery that overflows (an exactly right translation of superare in this context) the conscious and unconscious mind?

The unconscious mind is the confederacy of unknowable but properly human conditions placed on human thought. These conditions are either natural or (in some way or another) constructed. We cannot cannot help thinking of things as finite, temporal, spacial, numerable, repeatable, etc, and this natural habit habit remains even in thinking of individuals, forms, souls, human persons, angels, and the Trinity. This is why we don’t know metaphysical things by abstraction but only by a judgment that negates an unconscious condition put on the objects we know. Less universally, the unconscious involved the conditions of what Wittgenstein called the background understanding. I can’t help thinking that when I look around I’m seeing the natural world, and that the supernatural must somehow intrude into this. I know this is a particular, contingent and historically variable background understanding, and I can even experience it as inadequate (the experience of mass, or the Muslim call to prayer don’t make much sense on this bifurcation) but I still can’t help working within this background in my own life.

The Cathechism speaks of prayer, in opposition to reason and science, as overflowing these human conditions placed on human thought. It can fill up a philosophy or discourse on nature but never be captured by them. The reason for this is given earlier in an account of contemplative prayer, which describes it not the attaining of an abstracted or separated object or the penetration into it, but as

“[N]othing else than a close sharing between friends; it means taking time frequently to be alone with him who we know loves us.” Contemplative prayer seeks him “whom my soul loves.” (2709)

Among human friends, there is always the equality of nature, which requires that their interior life be articulated and shared only by way of signs for abstractions and separations. The friendship of prayer is not like this, and so is an education overflowing the conscious and unconscious mind.

Knowing individuals

Aristotle argues that a particular substance is only given to sensation per accidensand that all that is known to intellect is universal. So what knows the particular substance as such?

St. Thomas usually appeals to some sort of “reflection on the phantasm” to explain this, but it’s unclear how this is supposed to work. How does this retorsive action give a power to see something that neither sense nor intellect as such can see?

To appeal to an instinct here is to change the question. All instinct would mean is that some power or another is naturally moved to see individuals. But what power are we talking about?

Josiah Royce raises this problem in his Lecture on the Conception of Immortality.

[O]ur human type of knowledge never shows us existent individuals as being truly individual. Sense, taken by itself, shows us merely sense qualities, — colors, sounds, odors, tastes. These are general characters.
Abstract thinking defines for us types. A discriminating comparison of many present objects of experience, such as autumn leaves, or human faces, or handwritings, shows us manifold differences, but always along with and subject to the presence of likenesses, so that we never find what common sense assumes to exist, namely, such a difference between any individual and all the rest of the world as lies deeper than every resemblance. And even if by comparisons and discriminations we had found how one being appears to differ from all other now existent beings, we should not yet have seen what it is that distinguishes each individual being from all possible beings. Yet such a difference from all possible beings is presupposed when you talk, for instance, of your own individuality.

Concupiscence (pt. II)

An old professor of mine used to tell a story about a students who were annoyed and even confused to find themselves in a business ethics class- “why do we have to learn ethics when this is business?” The class itself seemed like a contradiction in terms – business was a domain of action where moral considerations were simply out of place. I’ve met a similar  confusion when I’ve tried to teach students about the evils of usury – they’re baffled at the thought that the act of loaning money as a business would need to take moral considerations into account. This non-moral evaluation of business actions is one of the dominant and haunting themes of The Godfather – where the division between “business” and “family/personal” is such that the respective virtues of both are in contradiction: “family” is a domain of action which demands mercy, forbearance, acknowledgement of the humanity of others, faithfulness, sacrifice, etc. whereas “business” marks off a territory that demands the complete suppression and reversal of all of these.

As with “business”, we also want sex to be a field where moral considerations are simply out of place. Peter Singer makes this claim explicitly when he argues that sex as such “raises no unique moral considerations at all”, and this is what one is logically committed to if he sees no moral criterion in sexual ethics beyond consent.  Put in Scholastic terms, the claim is that there is no virtue of sexual temperance but only a evaluation of whether the sex is consensual or not, which isn’t a consideration of temperance but justice.

And so both business and sex are seen as fields where moral considerations do not apply. This should be expected: both sexual desire and the desire for money are easily drawn into the updraft of particular or infinite concupiscence. Artificial wealth (what can be exchanged) is easy to detach from natural wealth (what we use to survive) and when so detached it we cannot but take it as an infinite good, even if it is one that has lost its raison d’être. In the same way, there is an artificial sexual desire that is easy to detach from its natural desire, and when so detached it will be both an infinite good and yet lack any reason to be desired at all.

Once we set artificial objects of concupiscence as goods in themselves, we will perpetually oscillate between seeing them as gods and seeing them as meaningless. in fact, the perfect expression of this “godlike meaninglessness” might be simply what seems to be our dominant sexual ethic: “do whatever you want”. The world is at once entirely yours, O ye god, and yet no object in it is any more worth seeking than any other.

But setting up a moral-free zone of activity ends up swallowing everything into that realm.The genius of The Godfather is in how it shows that the attempt to divide the non-moral zone of business from family ends up making everything “business”. Michael and Fredo are the centerpieces here, but one can take it as the dominant hermeneutic for every criminal in the film. A better example, however, comes from another genre. The monster of the horror movie tends to be some sort of infinite concupiscence: the blob, the zombie and the vampire all eat forever; the alien of Aliens reproduces at any cost and without limit; and in general the one whose desires bring death cannot be killed himself.


A: Well, if that’s what they call marriage then I don’t see why any couple couldn’t have one.

B: But you’re so committed to Natural Law arguments, and you’re Christian!

A: Right, but all Laurie and I did was fill out our parents names on a computer, go up to some Bureaucrat at a row of teller-windows, and sign something we barely read in front of him. There was no preparation, no articulated expectation, no ceremony. I don’t even take it as requiring or even allowing me to sleep with her, and neither does my Church. If this is marriage, there’d be nothing weird in marrying my dad.

B: I think you’d feel something odd in doing that

A: Maybe so, but would there be anything rational in the feeling?  If everyone at the office were marrying their dad, that weird feeling would disappear pretty quickly. There was just nothing in the activity that was, I dunno, marriage-like. What I did at the teller window can be opted out of at any time, without finding fault, for little more than a small fee and less paperwork than it takes to fill out a car loan; no one expects that it has to last; no one expects us to have kids or even puts any pressure on us to do so (if anything, its the opposite). I don’t take it as allowing me to sleep with her before our church ceremony, and I doubt anyone who was doing without the Church ceremony would wait for the civil one.

B: You’ve made that point about sex twice.

A: What can I say – being engaged sucks.

B: But just because something isn’t in an ideal state doesn’t mean you can just keep corrupting it.

A: That’s true – but I’m not saying that anything goes, but that the ceremony itself doesn’t demand anything that could be used as a principle of limiting that teller-window ‘ceremony’ to one man and one woman in a lifelong union who both do not actively try to thwart conception.

B: So the ceremony as it is does not contain any reality that might serve as a principle to limit the ceremony to what you consider is essential to marriage.

A: How can I point to anything in it and say “no, you shouldn’t be able to have this with your father”? What would clash with the demands of the contract, other than perhaps a purely arbitrary clause in the contract like “you can’t make this contract with your father”?. And what would that prohibition be except the corpse of an outmoded prejudice? I know exactly what I could point to in the religious ceremony to rule that out, and what rules it out in the definition of a marriage – but nothing in that teller ‘ceremony’.

B:  You keep saying that but it isn’t true. Whatever anyone thinks of marriage these days, they think it recognizes some sort of legitimate sexual desire and sexual relationship. People can disagree whether it plays a role in making the sexual desire licit to act on or not, or on what sorts of sexual desire are licit, but all sides agree that it is at least on this.

A: Okay, but so what? Sure, John Corvino and Maggie Gallagher can hold hands and agree that marriage recognizes a legitimate sexual desire and relationship.

B: That seems to rule out your “marry my dad” example.

A: I guess that’s right – but I don’t see how it gives me anything that has the essential notes of either matrimony or something meeting the minimal definition of marriage.

B: You would have to argue that legitimate sexual desire required all your essential elements of marriage: heterosexuality, lifelong commitment, no voluntary frustration of the link between sex and offspring, etc.

A: And how would anyone do that?

B: I don’t know – it’s your argument. Take it from the beginning – what is the basic desire at work in sexual desire

A: Easy: concupiscence.

B: And what is the structure of concupiscence?

A: It divides into the common and peculiar. Aristotle wrote about that first:

Of the appetites some seem to be common, others to be peculiar to individuals and acquired; e.g. the appetite for food is natural, since every one who is without it craves for food or drink, and sometimes for both, and for love also (as Homer says) if he is young and lusty; but not every one craves for this or that kind of nourishment or love, nor for the same things. Hence such craving appears to be our very own.

This seems to be our predicament with love too: not everyone craves one kind of love, nor do they love the same sorts of things. There’s a huge variety of sexual proclivities, orientations, and tastes.

B: So how are the two related to each other, this “common” and “peculiar”?

A: The second seems to arise out of the first. STA gives the briefest account I know of:

The reason [there are two] is because the appetite of the animal is moved by the instinct of nature alone, and so they enjoy only the things that pertain to preserving nature… but in man there is sense knowledge which becomes rational knowledge and then in turn moves human appetite. This is why a human being can delight in the very things suitable to sense considered as suitable, even if they are not ordered to preserving nature.

B: Is this some sort of biological point?

A: I don’t think so. Who knows what they’ll find out there in the crazy world of nature? I think the only point is that some desires have a clear orientation to preserving nature and others don’t.

B: But then what would happen if the peculiar desires became utterly detached from the common ones?

A: I think the closest analogue would be with wealth: one sort of wealth takes care of bodily needs (like having a large grain supply that you intend to eat) and other sorts of wealth is used for exchange (like money, or a large supply of grain you want to trade for something). Now it would be crazy to utterly cut off the latter from the former – to just keep heaping up coins or bartering chips with never a hope of using them.

B: A guy who did that would have no reason to seek them out in the first place.

A: Right.

B: But then sexual desire can never be cut off from that goal of preserving nature, can it?

A: That seems right.

B: And this “preservation” means simply keeping the nature in existence?

A: Right.

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