Nature is both art and subconscious

Physics understands nature by comparing it to art, whether it’s Aristotle seeing matter and form as bronze and the statue, Galileo seeing inertia as a swift boat on a flat sea (or carriage on a smooth road) Descartes seeing all animals and complex systems as machines, Einstein seeing time as a clock, Planck seeing all energy as the colors of a heated black box, etc.. This analogy lets us see nature as rational and intelligible. Taken in this way, reason comes before nature and arranges it as a sort of art.

But nature is also what conditions and gives rise to rationality and choice, e.g. a natural desire is one that we simply have prior to any reasoning or choice about it. Taken in this way, nature is the subconscious or unconscious, and so is happening behind reason’s back. In this sense, nature is what we see in a dreamless sleep.

These two senses are not a facile equivocation. Both are accounts of nature as source or principle of action. But this source is both comparable to reason and yet prior to it.



  1. Jack said,

    July 26, 2015 at 3:44 am

    Professor, I have a technical question relating to St. Thomas’s teaching on the will and its proper object. I’d like an experienced Thomist to help explain this to me because I’m sure that I’m failing to understand some subtlety. Sorry if this is the wrong place!

    My question is this:

    How does St. Thomas maintain that “evil is outside the scope of the will” and that “all things desire good”? (Summa, II-I, Q. 8, Art. 1)

    The article in the Catholic Encyclopedia on Sin states:

    “A pure or entire privation of good could occur in a moral act only on the supposition that the will could incline to evil as such for an object. This is impossible because evil as such is not contained within the scope of the adequate object of the will, which is good. The sinner’s intention terminates at some object in which there is a participation of God’s goodness, and this object is directly intended by him. The privation of due order, or the deformity, is not directly intended, but is accepted in as much as the sinner’s desire tends to an object in which this want of conformity is involved, so that sin is not a pure privation, but a human act deprived of its due rectitude.”

    This doctrine does not agree with my intuition. Let’s take the example of fornication. One could say that the object of the fornicator’s desire is good in and of itself, but that the deprivation of chastity and right reason resulting from the act, while not directly intended by the fornicators, is evil. That’s fine, I can understand that. But what about the case where a fornicator deliberately desires to sully a person’s chastity and takes pleasure in spreading impurity? It seems to me that the object of our will is not just created substances (which are of course good in themselves) but also changes in those objects, e.g. when a murderer desires to kill someone, the object of their desire is a certain change in a substance, namely, its privation of life. So, it seems to me, that the human will is capable of directly and intentionally willing evil insofar as it can wish to deprive objects of goods which the intellect knows the objects’ have. This to me is the very essence of wilful sin, namely, to deliberately will disorder or destruction, the privation of good in the created order.

    Thank you for reading,


    • July 26, 2015 at 3:12 pm

      I’ll respond to this as a thesis:

      The human will is capable of directly and intentionally willing evil insofar as it can wish to deprive objects of goods which the intellect knows the objects’ have.

      The crucial qualifications here are directly and intentionally. I’ll take the first one as meaning “immediately” and “first in causal order.” Causality in the moral action is the opposite of actual causes in time: in moral actions the ultimate cause comes first and everything else arises as a means with respect to it – a thing can’t exist as a means to X before one has specified an X. So what gets willed directly is whatever one is ultimately trying to achieve. So we have to take the thesis as meaning “Can a deliberately done evil be not merely a means but also as an ultimate end?” I think the answer is no, with a remote maybe.

      If evil were willed as an ultimate end, then happiness is evil, and this can’t be the case. Again, if evil could be an ultimate end then we couldn’t act for the end either out of love (which is essentially a desire for goods, even when mistaken) or out of anger (which is a desire for justice, even when immoderate.) We also couldn’t be motivated to do evil out of a desire to magnify our glory or power, or out of a desire to manifest some truth to the world (say, our conviction that all life was meaningless). It’s hard to see how this can be a coherent description of an action. So, simply speaking, I’d have to say no. This no not only makes it difficult to see how any evil can be done directly, but also intentionally, since “intentionally” in moral actions doesn’t just mean “knowingly” or “deliberately” but most of all the explicit description of the object one is acting for.

      But human life is vast, varied, and well-schooled in dark acts, and I wouldn’t want to rule out the notion that one could degrade reason and habituate evil to the point of actually executing an action of the sort we just described above.

  2. obscure said,

    July 27, 2015 at 1:37 am

    First, the intention is towards the good.

    Second, the good is understood in a certain way.

    The fornicator wishes to engage in a certain act not just for pleasure (taken brutally), but also to possess the object through degradation. True possession of another person is mutual and thus the fornicator is in grave error. Spreading impurity to another or degrading them renders them as a possession and as a pseudo-mutual associate to the fornicator who at least tacitly senses his own impurity via affections. Clearly, the fornicator is not fully aware of the state of his own person i.e. through vicious habit he has become less human; although, he will never become extensively un-human.

    The murderer believes that an elimination of an impeding person is also and extension of his own person such that he understands the destruction of the other person not just through the receptivity of that person, but also through his (the murderer’s) extension. Indeed, the pleasure of harming others lies entirely in the area of personal extension. Much can be said on this, but I’ve known sufficient violence in my life to find the topic boring. But, just consider how a father extends his own person in an act of love towards his children or his wife: Do you see the possibilities and even the internal contradictions of human personality here?

    Sorry if I’ve been unclear or have not worded myself adequately.

    • obscure said,

      July 27, 2015 at 1:38 am

      I had meant to reply to Jack.

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