Nature’s borrowed existence

Living things exploit free energy as a resource to preserve their existence. Non-living things don’t do this: Jupiter doesn’t use gravity to maintain its size – its size (and, in fact, the only existence it has as a planet) was just an effect of gravitational attraction on clouds of gas. Saturn doesn’t use its momentum or the sun’s warping of spacetime to preserve its orbit – its orbit is just an effect of these things, uncoordinated by any logos or substantial totality of Saturn itself. Natural things are existential ciphers, being neither a stable logos nor being preserving its own existence. That these atoms now are water is not existentially different from their now splashing in a pond or orbiting in a comet. They could be anything else in the same way that they could do anything else.

This existential nullity is what allows living substances to form themselves from natural things. If the atom were a bona fide substance then the organism would be a cloud or a heap when the reverse is the case. Life takes advantage of the insubstantial character of natural elements to both elevate them and constitute itself.

The natural world does however have a borrowed substantiality. This is clear from inertia, understood to include not just the tendency of an element to preserve its state of motion or rest but also to preserve its being (setting aside for the moment the effects of entropy and atomic decay) shifting an element or a compound takes energy. The basic fact of nature is its tendency to keep whatever being it has borrowed for itself. Nature is by definition a secondary existence and activity, as Plato argues in Laws X.


The Gospel

1.) In the beginning was the ecstasy. The self was outside of itself, and so both truly one and truly divided. The ecstasy was whole and lacking nothing, unlike how we now divide ecstasies into those from beauty, joy in work or action, loss of the mind in truth, etc.

2.) The ecstasy was three totalities: there was nothing in it that was not giving rise to ecstasy; nothing in it that was not its cognitive essence; nothing in it that was not its own work of ecstasy. Again, all these were truly one and truly divided, as we experience in every ecstasy.

3.) The self-possession is perfect logos; the work in perfect operation is the Spirit. And all was complete and nothing more was called for.

4.) And they said “There is nothing more to bring forth. Let us bring forth from nothing” And so in the absence of anything given or motive, anything obliged, anything perfecting, they again were outside themselves, taking ecstasy in the universe.

5.) And in this ecstasy there was first the ecstatic ones. And the first of these leapt beyond all others in returning to the source from which they came. And these were first seraphs and then the blessed, though the story of moving from this first thing to the second is the whole of the rest of the story.

6.)  A limit and bottom was fixed to the first ecstasy of the universe. In this bottom and limit the ecstasy was maximally diffused, dim, and weak, such that nothing dimmer or weaker was possible. This limit was the rational creature, which now both came forth and did not come forth. It came forth in the sense that it casted about, planned and drew things to itself; but it also did not come forth because it needed all these things it casted about for to constitute itself. Because it did not yet exist, this casting about by the human logos was purely unconscious and incremental. The story of this unconscious and incremental drawing forth and self-making of the human logos is natural history and physical science.

7.) And the human logos said “Let there be motion”. And motion was. From motion mobiles or substances arose, and from these substances quantity-made-intelligible-by-qualities and the relations between them arose. And humanity was already present in the motion.

8.) Then human logos said “We cannot yet be constituted from this because it is too simple. Let the motions of things fail, and from the failure of these simple things to preserve themselves complexity shall come forth.” And from the entropy, change, failure, and natural evil of simple things the complex came forth. And the logos of all these, both the simple and the complex, was contained in the human logos.

9.) Then the human logos said “So it is. Now there is enough complexity that we can come forth. Let us wait for the act of the covenant that is required to bring us forth.” God made this act, as he had promised in the covenant he had established in creating the humanity that had brought forth the universe. The complexity of what was both man and not-man, woman and not-woman was unified by the human soul, and by covenant all such complexity would be made human.

10.) Then God said “Human Persons, off all ecstasies, yours is most likely to fail. What you first love first is not most loveable and the world you have brought forth is filled with chance, failure, and all the tools needed to bring you forth. I will give you original justice, which will make you an exception to all these things you have done in bringing forth yourself. You will not suffer from chance or natural evil, and you will be given all necessary and sufficient aid to attain perfect human happiness”.

11.) Human persons – having already made the universe – rejected original justice.  This was both a complete failure of the human project, which also constituted a failure of the universe they had brought forth, which was now crowned by a something corruptible and increasingly corrupted. A place to dispose the corruption – a trash dump or Gehenna – came forth.  

12.) Then God said “There is nothing more to bring forth. Let us bring forth from nothing.” And so in the absence of any obligation or anything perfecting the divinity, failed humanity was made divine. The divine self had a second birth into human nature to establish a way for human persons to have a second birth into divine nature.


Interaction and the spear thrower

Lucretius argued for the infinity of the universe by imagining a spear-thrower at its edge. We can’t imagine any finite space that isn’t contained by a greater, and so there must be spaces within spaces forever.

The interaction problem extends this line of thinking to effects in space. Say you come to the edge of a physical effect. The energy by which it’s moving has to come from somewhere. You could even poke at it with your spear, right?

We can no more imagine a non-interacting effect than a non-contained space, but contemporary persons are more comfortable with a finite universe than a spiritual cause of physical effects. Presumably we’d claim this is because of the demands of physical theory – GTR demands a (sort of) finite universe but the conservation of energy or Newton’s Third Law demands interaction of physical causes and effects. I think the argument fails for a few reasons:

1.) The ontology of energy and force is not defined enough even to justify the claim that interaction is more probably true. Asking what energy is very quickly collapses into either contradiction or pure mathematical convenience.

2.) The ontology of what interacts energetically is also poorly defined. STA would treat “energy” as an accident of moved movers, and to do so changes nothing in the equations.

3.) Plantinga notes that conservation laws apply only to closed systems, and he denies that the universe is a closed system.

At any rate, interaction problems are all composition fallacies that try to bootstrap from facts about interactive systems to causal orders. But interactive systems are only accidentally causal since, as Newton points out (and this is the real ontology of the Third Law) the difference between cause and effect in interactive systems as such is only logical and does not involve an essential order.


Sense intuitions as limits

Kant’s opening moves in setting up a metaphysics that will refute classical metaphysics are to claim that human knowledge is limited to intuited objects, and that we intuit only sense objects. If true, the refutation is a fait accompli, since classical metaphysics is of objects for which there is no sense intuition.*

Let’s take it as axiomatic that sense intuition is primary. Kant takes this primacy as a limit that makes everything beyond it unknowable or even meaningless, and the Nietzschean/Empiricist/Naturalist tradition that came after Kant followed him in this. The classical tradition has two different approaches: in the Platonic tradition sense intuition is of a reality that takes part in an object that we intuit by intelligence; in the Aristotelian tradition there is no intuition outside of sense but we can judge things intuited by sense to be the appearances of things unseen.

There are two reasons to think that sense intuition cannot constitute a limit on knowledge: (a) Any limit to knowledge is contextualized by the known and (b) sense intuitions are essentially passive while knowledge is essentially active. For (a) while it is possible for a physical limit  to not be contextualized by something physical (the boundaries of the universe, say) cognitive limits can only be contextualized by something noetic. Vision, for example, is limited by darkness and hyper-luminosity, both of which are seen; and silence is detected with the same organs as sounds. In the intelligible order what exists is contextualized by our awareness of its contradictory through the principle of contradiction. In other words, the noetic order differs from the real by the fact that opposites always exist for it. For (b) knowledge is not a way of suffering something but of perfecting a cognitive being interiorly. We don’t explain our knowledge by speaking of how we receive the world but of how the world, precisely as other, is our own.

What we say here will also be applicable to the (often poorly formulated) question of the existence of mathematical and logical things.

Prayer-effectiveness studies

A: The Harvard prayer study is a real challenge to my faith.

B: What, this?

A: Oh, I’d never read it, but thanks… This is such an odd way to run a study. The pastors themselves divided two groups and then prayed for one and not the other. But it’s hard to imagine a prayer that would be more heartless and invalid than one that actively refuses to pray for some group in order to see if they do worse.

B: Why “invalid”?

A: Prayer is a lifting of the heart to God. I don’t see how that’s happening if your actions are saying “I’m gonna actively ignore this group of people and see if that harms them”.

B: Okay. But I doubt there’s any way to make this work.

A:  Not even if you simply asked questions about whether the patients themselves were praying, or believed that others were praying for them?

B: No, because I don’t see any way to establish what it would mean for the prayer to work. Say a statistically significant group of persons who prayed to get better got better. Is this evidence that God responds to prayer or that prayer has a placebo effect?

A: But what if those who prayed actually did worse or no better?

B: Who knows? Maybe we take that as evidence that prayer doesn’t work. But all this would mean is that it’s determined a priori that we won’t find evidence of the effectiveness of what a believer calls prayer.

A: So if you’re trying to validate or invalidate what a believer calls prayer, this experiment isn’t going to do it. The validation hypothesis is undefined.

B: Right. I’m not sure whether it would be underdetermined in every attempt to experiment with prayer, but anything close to this experiment would be. I suppose that they wanted to have “third party” prayer to avoid the placebo effect, but this demands that those who pray level a de facto curse on the control group. Who would expect a prayer like that to make a difference?

A: You wonder how the command not to put the Lord to the test fits into this.

B: Right. The atheist take will be “yeah, don’t ever check whether what you’re doing is working! That’s a real strategy for success!”

A: I can imagine Boghossian saying that.

B: He’s who I had in mind. It seems like he’d be giving his opponents a more charitable reading if he discussed miracle claims in Catholicism: the Tilma, the blood of Januarius, the healings at Lourdes, or even the various intercessions that are offered as evidence in canonization. These are actually times when the Church claims where looking for evidence that there was divine intervention  does not involve putting the Lord to the test.

A: It seems like you’re giving “you shall not put the Lord to the test” a logical sense – as soon as you are testing the Lord, you adopt a viewpoint that requires there can be no meaning to “passing the test”.

B: This might be a fault in all rationalist schemes. If your faith is founded on any rational test you can only believe it as far as reason can go. But faith demands assent to the unlikely and the unprecedented, while reason has to have a bias against these things. The closest reason can get to faith is to say “yeah, we can’t rule that out” or maybe “yeah, those sources were convinced this faith claim was true.” But assent to anything requires more than “I guess I can’t rule it out”.



Selection is luck

Natural selection either kills off your competitor’s genes or yours: when the coal plant opens up the white moths die and the black moths dominate; when random gene mutations give bears white fur the ones in snow flourish and the ones in forests famish. There’s nothing to selection as such* beyond the fact that some guys are lucky and some ain’t.

For beings with intelligence, however, environmental changes are also indeterminate opportunities. Within limits, you can adapt to the coal plant. Luck still plays a role in who flourishes and who doesn’t, but it no longer suffices to explain whose genes live and whose don’t.

Aristotle generalizes this point by saying that any case of good or bad luck involves goal-seeking behavior, and so only makes sense within an already-given teleological network. This allows for real luck but only in the context of intention – the farmer who finds a treasure while digging a well or the lion who spots a gazelle while looking for her cubs, etc.

*I’m not contesting evo-devo here, or the idea that the possibilities of selection are limited and structured.

Transcending Selection

The common element in the classical treatments of knowledge is that the opposition between appearance and reality leaves us unable to get beyond appearance and leaves every animal in its own umwelt. Whether hunting orange is the same color as the leaves or not depends on whether you ask the hunter or the deer; whether dung smells sweet depends on whether you ask a human or a beetle; whether some plank is solid or flimsy depends on whether you ask a mouse or a gorilla, etc. We can walk through all the proper sensibles to find the same relativity, and, as Berkeley points out, secondary sensibles are purely derivative from these and are unintelligible without them. Whether something has shape can’t be answered apart from either color contrasts or the sense of rigidity to touch; whether something is in motion depends on the observer’s motion as well. Call this the subjective element in all sensation which accounts for why every animal has its own unique lived experience of the world, or umwelt.

But to notice the subjective elements in sensations is to divide umwelt from the world, which is by definition to transcend umwelt. Attempts to establish the total dominance of the subjective element always fail retorsive analysis since they all constitute claims to how things are in reality.

The transcendence of umwelt is also a transcendence of natural selection, since when a being both has an umwelt and transcends it (which is peculiar to human existence) artificial selection becomes possible both for itself and what it can control. We can, with Steven Pinker, call the truth-awareness that grounds artificial selection “adaptive behavior” only if we recognize that natural selection does not suffice to explain what is adaptive.* I don’t mind if Pinker wants to insist that truth seeking behavior arose out of natural selection, I’d only want to draw a corollary to this that, if this is so, natural selection has transcended itself.

We get an a priori account of Plantinga’s EEAN by recognizing that truth transcends selection since natural selection can only suffice to account for the variety of organisms so far as they do not see their environments as real/ true or apparent/ subjective/ false. As soon as this realization dawns on something, artificial selection becomes a possible adaptive principle, and any analogy between artificial and natural selection has to be just as careful to notice the differences as the points of agreement.


*I’m not here talking about the way in which the explanatory reach of natural selection is limited by mechanisms like drift or bottlenecking limit it, but the way in which unconscious processes are limited by conscious ones.

Creation theory of substance

CTS= substance is an immediate divine effect.

Corollary: the substance of anything is a divine logos, and so transcends any model or (even in-principle) construction of human techne.

Substance = interior source of activity. The substance of the car is gas. Physicists know the substance of nature like the mechanic knows the chemistry of combustion.

The universe is a completely closed system in the same way that a car is completely mechanical.

We defined matter, energy, fields, etc. in ways that make them given operationally and so as able to be manipulated.

The point of defining physical quantities through experiment is not to merely make them confirmable but to make them controllable.

Mechanism is essential to human logoi. Presumably we can find machines forever, as Leibniz said we would.

We don’t reduce nature to fundamental facts but to points of contact with divine action.

Death of God, death of vows

When you give up on absolutes you give up on oaths and vows of fidelity.  To a large extent this is life in the West, though the logic of the position is still working itself out. Seeing one’s country as having an absolute value largely died off after World War I, and such a stance is now seen as naïve patriotism that the enlightened see as naked relations of power and a fairy tale told to rednecks so they’ll be willing to die in the army (until we eliminate armies altogether). Marriage vows are seen as contingent to any number of factors and can be dissolved for any or no reason, and the vows themselves are seen as ceremonial and exterior to the act of living together. It does not cross anyone’s mind that the oaths that doctors take to heal could be a conflict with State demands that they assist in or cause some deaths. What in the world does an oath have to do with the reality of suffering, patient freedom, and the vagaries and nuance of the real world?

Religious faith – and let’s just say it, the faith the West had in the absolute value of Jesus Christ and his Church of his saints – was the lynchpin and paradigm of a whole complex of absolute values which half the world is trying to undo and the other half wants to preserve without demanding faith in the paradigm. This is not a sermon – Nietzsche said exactly the same thing. One can’t critique his insight but we might critique his hope that the death of God was a great and exciting new opportunity. The Dionysian spirit, it turns out, needs oaths and vows if it will ever turn eros into something lofty, creative and transformative as opposed to collapsing into something dissipated, cynical, emasculated, and always open to the prospect of causing its own death.

On the Pastoral

There’s been a tendency since Vatican II to use “pastoral” to mean nuanced, qualified, soft-spoken and dialectical. The pastoral, so we’re told, recognizes the difficulty of the problem and identifies with the confusion of the one suffering it.

All this assumes that those seeking guidance never want something clear, straightforward and emphatic, though we know by experience this isn’t so. The problem is that pastoral is not a single ready-made style of discourse or rhetorical tone but a genius to adapt to one’s audience and the demands of the peculiar situation. We don’t become more pastoral by trying to sound like Gaudium et Spes but by, say, giving a close read to Gregory the Great, who has pastoral genius in a truly world-historical way. Even if one can’t give Pastoral Rule a close read, his genius is just as clear in the famous letter to Mellius, where one can see a 200 word masterpiece of nuance, clarity, psychological insight, balance, and dedication to principle.

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