Chain relatives and the Fourth Way

I’ve claimed that all the Five Ways begin with a type of chain relative, i.e. repeatable relations like “being to the left of” or “being fathered”. But what about the Fourth Way? STA seems to mention no chain relatives at all, but simply says right out of the gate that things that are more and less good, true, and dignified, etc. (GTDE) exist relative to something maximal. Nevertheless, we understand the claim better if we take it as a conclusion for a reductio ad absurdum that assumes the GTDE has no maximal but is only relatively greater and less.

Start here:

[The] bald assertion of a difference between fair and foul things, virtuous and vicious actions, offers no standard whereby to determine their difference no reason for the similarity of all fair things qua fair and for their difference from all that are foul. So long as these are only characteristics of material individuals no standard can be found, for to measure individuals against one another is to seccumb to relativism.

Harold Cherniss, The Philosophical Economy of the Theory of Ideas. 

Logically, things are either more or less GTDE only relative to each other or ultimately to something maximal. Said another way, iff we take the more and less GTDE as a chain relative where something less relates to something greater, with the greater in turn being something less relative to some greater, etc; then this either goes on without ever requiring some ultimate, or some ultimate is required. But if the first, then GTDE is arbitrary and consists in nothing more than the irrational prejudice. I stress that it is an irrational prejudice to set it apart from what we are doing when we declare something better by hypothesis, since the whole point in treating something as if it is greater in GTDE is to find out what is in fact greater, i.e. to discover some standard why things are more and less what they are. But to assume that all one ever has are chain relatives is to dogmatically rule out discovering anything that is truly better in fact, and so to deny any point of framing hypotheses about it. But it is reasonable to form hypotheses about what is more or less GTDE, and so these things must exist relative to something maximal.

This throws light on an important difference between what is more and less in mathematical and virtual quantity. Mathematical quantities are given in greater or less on some continuum or set of ordered points, say, the number line. This number line fixes what is greater or less in terms of position or direction: what is to the right is greater than what is to the left. But in order to develop the analogue to position or direction in virtual quantities we need some standard S1 different from the things which we order. If S1 is itself variable in GTDE to S2, then unless S2 is given we cannot be sure even of the “direction” we have set up for the things falling under S1. The difference between the more and less in quantity and the GTDE is that what sets the direction of the greater an less in quantity is not itself a quantity, but what sets the order of, say, goods is itself a good. This is why the order of integers need not have a greatest but the order of virtual quantities must, and why, even though things greater and less in virtual quantity are chain relatives that can have an indefinite order of things merely relatively greater and lesser, it is impossible that all virtual quantities be of this kind.

Experiential axes of nature

-Physics takes us closer to nature on one axis only by taking us further away from it on another.

-Taylor bases his theory of the secular on the “buffered self” who is insulated from any intrusion of other intelligences. Concretely, this is accomplished by buffering ourselves from nature: we approach it though intelligence and clinical experiment rather than experience and co-existence; we leave the work of growing things, tending them, and killing some of them off to small groups of experts; we exempt ourselves as much as possible from natural rhythms and limits by electric lights, temperature controls, and our extension of motor and sensory powers by transport and communication, etc. We don’t need to denigrate one axis in the face of another, we simply need to drop the epistemic monism that makes us assume we have to pit one against the other.

-“What value is there in a buffered life? Do you want to believe in fairies?!?!” Sure, fairies don’t exist, but neither do test particles, ideal gasses, black boxes, frictionless surfaces, perfectly inertial motion, or a quantity of kinetic energy that is somehow both cause an effect of the same particular motion. Sometimes the non-existent is an indispensable light to seeing the existent. People who talked about fairies weren’t just entertaining themselves, nor are we.

-To see the existent. Our metaphors and analogs to understanding reality tend to come from the visual and tactile, but this throws an important axis of nature into the shadows. When we approach nature through the audible, its relation to the non-existent becomes crucial. Unless we remember what is no longer an object and anticipate parts of it that are not yet given audible objects cannot form a structured whole. The whole visual universe pretends to exist at once, as does the thing we grab. The audible whole demands Augustine’s distensio animi, i.e. a lived experience that has to go outside the given and existent into the world of the anticipated and lost, and tie it together to what is in front of us. Again, sometimes the non-existent is an indispensable light to seeing the existent.

-Disclosing things to a finite mind requires covering and backgrounding other things.

-We assume the pre-moderns were terrified by nature and so put gods behind it to make it tolerable. 200,000 years of neurosis, broken by industrialization!

Types of gratuitous evils

The philosophy of religion of the last 30 years or so has done a good job of showing that the argument from evil has to rest on gratuitous evil, but there is no consensus or even much inquiry over what exactly such an evil is. Sure, gratuitous evils are somehow pointless or not leading to some greater good, but this can happen in at least four ways. Evils might be justified as ordered to either (a1) an actual good or (a2) a possible good and the evils themselves can be considered either (b1) in particular or (b2) in general.

(a1)(b1) If evil has to be justified in this way, then every particular evil has to be seen as ordered to actual greater good. If we can’t see any concrete good greater arising from the fawn that’s burned in the forest fire or little Timmy dying of cancer, then the evil is gratuitous. If we further stipulate that the good that has to arise has to be peculiar to the evil in question and that it can’t be eschatological or far remote, g-evils seem plausible.

a1b If evil has to be justified in this way, then there must be some actual good that arises out of an evil, but only so far as it is a sort of thing. On an account like this, we might say that our bad backs were a consequence of bad luck, and the bad luck was allowed so that backs could be generated by natural processes like selection. This does not give a justification for bad backs as such, but only a justification for allowing things to happen by selection. Still, there is a concrete good that arises from allowing evils like bad luck, sc. the efficacy of secondary causes. If a g-evil is one that lacks a justification like this, they seem a good deal less plausible.

(a2)(b1) On this account of evils, every particular evil is justified because it makes some greater good possible, but there is no necessity that this greater good ever come about. So maybe the point of my back pain is to make heroic charity possible or inspire others to flee from complaint at my bad example, even though I never develop any charity and no one else leaves off bellyaching. It’s unlikely that all evils could be justified in this way, but this does not preclude an indefinite number of them being so. On this account, the justification of evil opens up to counterfactual possibilities which would be remarkably hard to calculate even in a single case, especially once evils start causing each other.

(a2)(b2) On this account, evils are justified only in general, and an indefinite number of them might lead to no actual greater good at all. So perhaps the fawn that burns in the woods is only justified as an instance of animal pain, but animal pain existed only for the sake of a good which, while making it possible, never came to pass. The amount of counterfactuals now become incalculable and the parameters of possible goods are probably unknowable.

These justifications are orthogonal and all or none of them might play a role in a possible theodicy. If we assume all justifications have to be type-1, the burden on theodicy is very high and we might even let Rowe get away with assuming that it’s obvious that there are g-evils.

A right to truth aporia

Let a person lose a right to truth whenever the truth would foreseeably and materially contribute to his doing an evil. And so the (sigh) Nazis at the door (groan) lose their truth rights for the same reason that an insane man loses his gun rights.

But why is it shameful to lie one’s way out of martyrdom? It’s worse than this: in lying your way out of martyrdom the one you are lying to by definition lacks a truth right, so your public profession of faith would be a case of giving someone something they have no right to. So now we’re committed to a morality that turns martyrdom into a sort of theft or despoiling of goods. We’ve probably made a wrong turn somewhere.

So maybe we add an epicycle and describe truth rights as being lost whenever truth would foreseeably and materially contribute to doing an evil to someone other than yourself. Even of we get past the stink of the ad-hocery, this still leaves us with something of a Monty Python martyr trial: three believers get tried together and, while each person confesses they are guilty the other two loudly protest “No he isn’t! We’ve never seen him before!”  After all, we can’t just say that the others should keep quiet: that would be the moral equivalent of doing nothing when the suicidal man had a gun.

So the flip side of right-to-truth claims is that they involve a limitation on professing fidelity. Religious faith would be a paradigm case, and other sorts of fidelity would be limited a fortiori. Right to truth claims seem to have some difficulties accounting for our need not just to know truth but to be faithful to it.

Leibniz, the Fourth Way

Leibniz’s Discourse on Metaphysics opens with a proof logically equivalent to the Fourth Way:

Whatever is more and less with no greatest possible is not more and less perfect

So (by contraposition) whatever is more and less perfect is such relative to the greatest possible perfection.

His first claim is supported by an insight into numbers, which admit of no maximum and are not better or worse by being more or less. We can hit the same conclusion by considering privations: if a threshold has to be the same width as a 30” door, there is no maximal way it can fall short of being that size, since falling 30″ short would leave one with no threshold at all. And so if anything is better and worse, there must be some greatest possible perfection.

The Augustinian tradition established that the greatest possible perfection is God. In giving a critique of idolatry, Augustine pointed out that if one could think of something better than the object they were considering, then the object they were considering was not God. So by the same contrapositive move  Leibniz made, God is the object than which nothing greater can be thought.

Mysterium iniquitatis

Moral evil is only possible for a being that need not think about all it knows. Requiring a diversity of concepts in order to know suffices to make some item of knowledge known but not thought about. But any finite intelligence – whether angels or human beings – requires a diversity of concepts in order to know.

The blessed cease to know by a multitude of concepts so far as God himself becomes the concept by which they know, even if they still traverse this concept by some sort of discourse and therefore multitude. The eschatological conquest of moral evil requires that all evil be somehow subordinated to this sort of vision.

Evils in stories

When evil occurs in a story you have to know where you are in the story to know what to think either about the evil or the story. A New Hope that built up to and ended with the destruction of Alderaan and had no sequels would be something very different from the Space-Western we actually got. It would require totally different screenwriters, a different sense of what the human condition is, a different view of the status of the absurd, etc.

So the argument from evil requires that we either have to assume there is no narrative arc to the universe or that any narrative must find its resolution now. The first option seems to help ourselves to the assumption that there is no God and the second is proven obviously false with the passage of time. If not for this, we need to take Ivan’s route that some evils (can’t? ought not be? are not?) ordered to goods, and either argue or intuit the existence of gratuitous evils. I haven’t seen any evidence yet that the arguments can advance beyond the stage of rhetorical questions.

Celebrate monism

-Naturalism is the opposite of dualism, and so is a monism. Why celebrate monism, especially in epistemology?

-Naturalism’s claim to be a monism is belied by its attempt to exclude the supernatural while holding onto natural sciences and mathematics and logic. Who thinks there is a monism covering all this?

-Monism would require way more than just relations between discourses (making math the tool of science, say).

-“The sciences are our best method for discovering reality”. What “dualist” needs to deny this? STA would never doubt that we’re better at discovering reality that can be sensed than reality that is given any other way. Discovering something as best does not establish a monism at all – it works just as well as a case for pluralism.

-Anything sensed requires matter to be and be known, any formal structure abstracted from sense requires matter to be, but not to be known. But it would be contradictory to say forms could not be without matter, and in formal systems, what can be must be. Voilà, spirits.

-Naturalism is in conflict with all the other areas of philosophy that celebrate pluralism. Why do we demand science to be some strongman to save us when we demand this nowhere else? Try demanding this in gender studies, political theory, etc.


Math but not Spirits (4)

Say you spend the first day of algebra learning about the nested hierarchies of numbers: naturals, wholes, integers, rationals, etc. and then you wonder if any other sorts of numbers exist. Later, when you find out about the complex numbers (or even the h and j numbers my students told me about today) you find out that the answer is yes.

In some other context (like a philosophy class) you’re talking about substances or the status of abstractions and someone asks whether numbers exist. No one is quite sure what to think, but since everyone agrees that a number isn’t something you could display in a zoo or spot in a telescope we guess that the answer is no.

And so we have two senses of exists that lead to totally different answers to the question of whether numbers exist. Exists (1) seems to belong to anything that can be an object of discourse, i.e. something with discoverable properties, unlike a the properties of fictional beings that can have no existence beyond what is actually given on the page. As BV points out somewhere, real objects differ objects like Hamlet because there is no fact of the matter whether Hamlet is, say, left-handed or green-eyed apart from what is already present in the text. Exists (2) is anything given by sense or the instruments of sense. At the beginning of De ente STA called existence (1) the truth of propositions while existence (2) is something in one of the ten categories.

The objects of metaphysics exist (1) and don’t exist (2).  No one is looking for God in a telescope or for the soul on an fMRI. These sorts of objects have a long history of being described as formal and no one seeks forms of any sort like this. But while no form depends on matter to be known, it some do depend on matter to exist. Not all forms can be of this kind.

What’s stage two?

The degree to which anything is significant or life-altering is can’t be given in well-defined units, but it’s reasonable to take an unplanned pregnancy as being about as significant and life-altering as getting an injury from a car accident. Some percentage of both will be no big deal, involving an initial shock or inconvenience that soon gives way to situation-normal, but these percentages are not significant enough to keep either event from being a cause of concern. In both cases something is involved that can permanently and profoundly affect someone’s life, loved ones, and society in a way they don’t want.

But if any group of drivers suffered injuries from car accidents at the rate at which contraception fails, no one would let them drive. Rates of contraception failure per year are measured in percentages while even the most accident-prone drivers (drunken teenage boys, say) have injury rates given per capita. Whether we recognize it or not, even the most effective forms of chemical contraception leave us with a crisis of unplanned pregnancies and so can only ever be the first move in a two-stage response to unplanned pregnancy. Line up all the hard-case testimonials as you want of poor women surprised by pregnancy – so far as your only response is contraception you won’t get the numbers below crisis level.

At this point we can either allow abortion as a backstop or take steps to minimize the shock caused by having a child. The two responses might not conflict logically but they do conflict practically – any response to lessening the blow of unplanned pregnancy will probably require incentivizing the strengthening of social relationships while abortion does away with what would be the foundation of any strengthened relationship. At any rate, the contraception one uses disposes us to one option or the other. Chemicals and barriers before conception dispose to using chemicals and throwing up barriers after it (so much so that both chemicals are now delivered in the same pill) and accepting the parameters that nature works within before conception dispose one to accept them afterward.

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