The Fourth Way, fire, and entropy

The Fourth Way makes the claim that because things are more or less hot there is something maximally hot. This was based on STA’s idea that fire was a chemical released by burning, meaning that a campfire took fire out of logs just like a still takes alcohol out of fermented things. His example was incorrect but the principle remains as a valuable though unarticulated postulate for chemists, which is assumed in their long list of separation processes. If we wanted to update the fire example we could do so with any property of pure substances: e.g. given that some drinks are more and less intoxicating, there is something maximally intoxicating.

Digging deeper in the Fourth Way one finds STA’s reliance on the idea that every act communicates itself so far as possible. “Communicates” is a transliteration, not a translation – what he means by the term is the complementary description to participation. Participation is the dependence of a part on something that it common, the way players participate on teams or interlocutors participate in discussions. This generalizes to the fact that matter participates in form, and then further generalizes to potency participating in act. The reverse activity from act to potency is what STA calls communicatio, though there is no corresponding technical term in English.*

So why STA was wrong about fire being a chemical existing in either a pure or mixed state, he was right that heat is an act of some potency, and that this act communicates itself or diffuses itself as far as possible. The communicatio of heat is familiar from the phenomena that we label entropy, though we give an accidental description of it as a tendency to disorder. Nothing about the phenomena changes if you view nature as diffusive self-giving or dissipating tendency to disorder, but these are completely different views of what nature is and what it is up to. Our description is equivalent to describing a car as an exhaust-making tool, or breathing as a process that seeks to make carbon dioxide.

On the communicatio account of entropy the closest analogue to the Fourth Way, ironically enough, is Sean Carroll’s argument that the cascade of entropy is necessarily infinite. Reformulated in STA’s terms, this is nothing but an application of the principle that all finite diffusions or communications of act are participants in an infinite and unlimited act. I’d agree with Carroll, of course, and he might even have a whole shelf full of models that point to the need for some time with infinite energy, but I’m pretty sure that if we took the idea seriously then, just like Aristotle did in Physics VIII, we’d find that there’s a limit to how much energy we could hope to find in any given physical system. So what if your theory demands more actuality than a physical system can provide? That’s a pretty good account of what a cosmological argument is.


*One synonym for communicatio is “diffusio” which is the term STA tends to apply to the communicatio of the good (cf. “the good is diffusive of itself”).

The puzzle of potential form

One puzzle of hylomorphism is that it needs to give some account of potential form, but it’s not clear how to do this.

Form only exists in matter or the composite, but it doesn’t exist from matter or the composite. That this in-existence sometimes is and sometimes isn’t requires that the form be somehow contingent, but this can’t be the contingency of the composite.

The parallel problem of matter does not arise, or at least not in the same way. It’s in the very nature of potency that it is not actual now and later is, and so calling matter potential suffices to explain motion from one thing to another.

Here’s another run at the same problem: as Dekoninck liked to point out, form exists only as a term of generation but it is not generated. So we have to find some account of how things exist always and only after a process and not before, but not because of the process.

Another: Aristotle addresses the Parmenidean problem, but not entirely. He does a very good job at explaining becoming as a continuous process between terms, but not becoming as “what was not and later is”. The two are not the same, even on Aristotle’s own account of things, since form was not actual and later is.

Aristotle seems to want to say that forms simply always are: circularity is the form of the bronze disc, but circularity does not arise. But this doesn’t address the problem. Maybe forms qua forms are abstract, but we need to account for how Circularity is in the o of this now, which, let’s not forget, is exactly what Aristotle is trying to explain.

This is why STA was right to say that we need to posit not just a participation of matter in the act of form, but also a participation of composite form in separated form. Whether we take forms as equivalent to existence, as A did, or take form as potency to existence but not to motion, as STA did, form arises in an act of creation.

Faith through its objects

How far can we get in an attempt to explain faith in God though the next closest modern-world analogue, faith in the nation?

Nations obviously exist in the sense that millions of people act as if they do, but the attempt to find a natural foundation for them turns out to be so difficult that many have concluded they don’t have one. What sort of foundation could we have hoped for, anyway? Nations don’t divide different species, and even if we could agree about the existence of races, different nations don’t map out racial differences.

Human families have a natural foundation in relations of birth and rearing, and along with this comes bonds of fidelity: a willingness to sacrifice for the good of others up to and including dying for them. The nation demands marriage meet state approval and that education follow its curriculum, and makes additional claims on us through culture and the Laws (I’m thinking of the speech of lady laws in Crito) and so lays claim to the same bonds of fidelity. The church, of course, can make the same claims. And so both the nation and church wrangle over the foundation of our existence with the church’s appeals for fidelity (faith) having a clear divine component while the nation seems more conflicted on this point, allowing a range of options from theocracy to hagiarchy to ceremonial deism to secularity to outright foundational criticism of all religion.

Fidelity in this sense is a sort of pietas or reverence due to the source of your being, or to the mother and father and its analogical developments. Nation or church seems to mark the outer-limit of this in numerical terms (which, contra Singer or Unger, gives a principled reason to think one’s positive ethical obligations are localized).

If this is right, you have an obligation to your church in much the same way that you have an obligation to your nation, and so it is reasonable for religious obligation to follow accidents of birth. This doesn’t make these accidents absolutely binding no matter what, but they seem to be reasonable to take them as prima facie binding until seriously undermined. That religious and scientific claims show different demographic distributions arises reasonably from the former being claims on fidelity.

Hylomorphism through temporality or vice-versa

One way to understand hylomorphism is as articulating the insight that you are now not all you were nor will be. This gives a kind of primacy to the present moment as a point of reference, that can be considered either

1.) relative to its past

2.) in itself with no relation

3.) relative to future.

1 and 2 involve some difference and some contingent being (though the degree of contingency can differ). With 2 there is no time to be otherwise and so the being is necessary.

This view does not assert the ontological priority of time. It is not necessary that time to be some background in which contingency can spread its legs. Time can simply be an abstraction of something common to all contingent and necessary beings in nature. It is also not the claim that only the present moment is real. Like presentism, this view prioritizes the present moment for being the indispensable first reference point (as it remains in Relativity by being the apex of the light cone) and, more importantly, it makes only the present moment of some observer actual, but unlike presentism it allows for both the future and past to be real by their relation to present existence (this is not a verbal distinction but an attempt to capture what we mean when we say that we are now not all we were or will be.) Hylomorphism is thus a middle ground between A and B theories, asserting that all times are real by reference to the present, which alone is actual.

From this angle, we see why potency (or matter) exists only by participation in form (or act), and why form is the culmination of some desire in matter. Everything starts by marking out a point that is here-now and then asking how one got here or what he could do, is obliged to do, could do to create a better or worse version of what he has, etc.

Hylomorphism does demand that time is real. It is true that your only knowledge of the past is in the present, and so, for all you know, there may be no past at all. This present moment has dinosaur fossils in it, perhaps another present will not. For all you know, or so the objection goes, there could be merely many  present moments, with no order among them. This is the radically simplifying view of Barbour’s Platonia. On this view, however, memory is not a cognitive function, and prudence and science (the first which plans, the second which predicts) are not intellectual activities. So such a world cannot be known by any of our faculties or methods, nor could such a hypothesis ever be tested or confirmed.

Hylomorphism demands a block universe so far as all times are real, but there is no time at which all times are actual. Nevertheless, it both allows for and seems to demand a perspective from which all times are totalized since no one temporal viewpoint suffices to explain the harmony and agreement between diverse viewpoints, either for one observer or for a multitude. This totalization for one observer is soul; for many world-soul; and any harmony between soul and world-soul in turn will have reference to another principle beyond abstractive or nature-ordering intelligence.

The clay-shape metaphor has some value for explaining hylomophism but it obscures as much as it reveals. Considered as here-now the whole statue is form. Considered as indefinitely extended into the future, the whole statue is matter (this is what we mean by saying it is contingent or, if it were living, mortal). Considered indefinitely extended into its past, the statue is the form of some matter (and so generated). Short of indefinite extension, it is possible for the statue to be the subject of accidental changes, and so to be form of some matter in a different way.

Creation is the denial of any intrinsic past-relation for a substance. This is what we mean by creation being “from nothing” (which is only clarification if not pleonasm). Said another way, creation means that something exists with a here-now that is not a terminus ad quem for anything else.

Freedom is like creation but is the denial of any intrinsic past-relation for an agent’s action in time. Freedom is absolute when the production of an action in time has absolutely no relevant past relation on the part of the agent; freedom is qualified to the degree that it falls away from this. Life has freedom to the extent that its actions are not exhausted by the temporal story that goes back indefinitely and is terminated more or less arbitrarily. Reason has freedom to the extent that individuals can be praised or blamed. God has freedom to the extent that nothing in time at all that conditions action or serves as an absolute motive of action.

The source text of the Fourth Way

STA says twice in the Fourth Way that the argument is taken from Metaphysics II. The specific text is pretty clearly 993b 24. The Greek text is garbled, but STA smooths it out and gives a commentary that concludes to the existence of a separate form who is the cause of existence. For another translation, see here, paragraphs 292-5.

Whatever is called supreme among other things is so in virtue of something being caused in those others that is predicated of them univocally, in the way that fire is the cause of heat in the elements. And so since heat is said univocally of fire and the thing that is composed of elements, it follows that fire is the hottest thing.

[Aristotle] mentions univocation because sometimes an effect is not similar to its cause in a way that makes it of the same species, due to the excellence of the cause. The sun, for example, is a cause of heat in lower things, but the inferior things cannot receive the effects of the sun or of other celestial bodies so as to be one species with them, since they share in matter. Because of this we do not say that the sun is the hottest thing in the way fire is, but that the sun is something more than even what is hottest.

Truth, however, is not limited to a species but relates to all that is, and because the cause of truth is one with its effect in both name and logos, it follows that what is a cause to things derived from it, so far as they are true, is the supreme truth.

Aristotle later concludes that the principles of things that always exist, sc. the celestial bodies, are necessarily supremely true. He gives two reasons: (1) they are not “sometimes true and sometimes not” and because of this they transcend what is generable and corruptible in truth, that sometimes exist and sometimes do not. (2) Nothing is a cause of the celestial bodies else unless it is a cause of their being. And because if this something transcends even the celestial bodies both in being and truth, since even if these are incorruptible they nevertheless have a cause of being moved and even of their being, as the Philosopher explicitly says.

This has to be the case since it is necessary that all things that are composite or exist by taking part in something else reduce, as to their causes, to things which exist by definition (quae sunt per essentiam). All corporeal things are actual beings only so far as they exist by taking part in forms. So there must be some separate substance which exists by definition which is the source of corporeal substance.


Christian-cum-evolutionary theory of the fall

Intelligence arising by nature is so complex that it takes ages to assemble and so will always arise as adapted to the conditions of those ages. We’ll be healthiest feeding on the amounts that we got over the ages of development, we’ll be naturally social with the sorts of groups that we spent ages being social with or hostile to the groups we were hostile to, and, most of all, we’ll be adapted to a world that isn’t changed all that much by our presence. But (practical) intelligence is by definition the power to adapt the world to your presence, which means that the exercise of our existence is now potentially in conflict with the conditions of our existence. The two need not conflict, but recognizing where they will conflict requires an extraordinary amount of prudence, and since even a perfect human intelligences cannot anticipate all that might arise from their actions, this prudence requires the even more difficult willingness to change what we are doing as soon as we recognize it threatens us.

One dimension of original justice was just this increased foresight (which probably required some direct communication with the divine) and the willingness to correct the course when unforeseeable evils arose.* The fall, considered from this angle, is nothing beyond the absence of such foresight or willingness to correct course. As fallen natural intelligence increases, therefore, the probability that it will contradict the conditions for its existence approaches 1. Notice I’m not pointing to the efficiency that technology gives us in killing or controlling others- it does give us this, but this is a superficial and specialized manifestation of the contradiction that arises from intelligence being adapted to a world without it. Intelligence means that the exercise of a natural power is not necessarily adapted to the conditions in which it exists, and because of this even good intentions and noble aspirations can be in conflict with the conditions of our existence. The human tendency to violence might well be an evolutionary accident arising from splitting off from a proto-chimp as opposed to some more peaceful ape, but seeking goods or striving for noble existence would be with us no matter how we existed, and we have problems even here. A fallen bonobo-evolved intelligence would kill itself off as surely as a fallen chimp one.

In other words, “the fall” is simply being an intelligence alone in the world.  We’ve described it in big-picture terms that point toward a species-level self-caused extinction (and this is part of being fallen), but this reality is fractal and plays itself out in smaller societies and in each individual life. No individual natural intelligence could anticipate all the consequences of its search for goods, and it must be willing to abandon its efforts in the face of new information.  Original justice was only the help we got to do this; the fall only its absence.

The fall thus does not make sin a logical necessity but a moral necessity. Pelagianism is not the failure to recognize an intrinsic corruption or birth defect but the naive belief that an undirected finite intelligence suffices to direct and correct itself, even in its first and most simple actions. If an Evolutionary psychologist wants to say that our tendency to evil is not an ancient curse but simply the character of intelligence in the world then we say that he’s missing that the curse consists in intelligence being alone in the world. The study of intelligence in the world is a branch of theology.

*I’m assuming that such a correction is a sort of human perfection, and so God would allow some unforeseen evils even in the state of original justice so far as they were perfective.

Abstraction vs. separation (pt. 2)

STA divides abstraction (which gives rise to math and what’s now called the sciences) from separation (which gives rise to what he called metaphysics or divine science). As I’m interpreting him, abstraction gives rise to concepts or categories which are essential for us to know what something is while separation is the set of tools we use to articulate the insights we have into non-physical things: negation, causation, transcendence, etc. and which we describe by negative and analogous names.

Metaphysical substances are all persons and so non-homogeneous. At the limit of personality are the divine persons that cannot be assimilated into any genus at all. These we can know only that they are and not what they are. In the inanimate world things are utterly homogenous and interchangeable – while they are individual things their individuality adds nothing beyond being an enumeration of their type. The first hints on individuality arise in the living world where some substance acts of itself, and this responsibility gets another intrinsic conditioning to its existence when the type divides into male and female, since it now becomes impossible for all the perfections of the type to be realized in a single individual. After this, social structures in the animal kingdom make the type less and less able to realized in a single substance, serving to make individuality more and more pronounced. Many of the big-5 traits have precursors in other social species. To the extent that these structures are physical and generic they can always remain essentially homogeneous and so knowable by abstraction.

The definitive first step beyond this occurs in the human intellect. While it is always conditioned by personality and so by subconscious structures, this personality is in the service of a person, i.e. one who knows being and so transcends the information that physical cognition can provide. The existence we know is always from physical cognition, but not always in the same way. In the sciences and math physical cognition is the whole content of the thing known (though only mathematics considers this content as abstract) while in metaphysics abstracted content is the instrument we use to articulate insights into the non-abstractible. The first among non-abstractibles is existence, which is always left behind in abstraction; the next is the self or person, who is the subject of the intellectual act and is known through the abstraction without being abstracted. We flesh out this insight into the self who knows existence by negation, sc. the mind is nothing actual before it thinks. It is not, like the central nervous system, a cognitive apparatus with actual existence that is first assembled then put to use. This is the first instance of non-homogeneity, though it is at the minimal possible level. Being a person for us is still entirely conditioned by personality, i.e. the subconscious structures of the central nervous system that, of themselves, share in the impersonality of the inanimate world.

Conceptualization vs. judgment

Natural theology advances by moving further and further from sensation and so also from conceptualization.  Existence is non-conceptual, persons as persons or unique beings as such are non-conceptual, a being that transcends the distinction expressed between abstract and concrete terms or between nouns and verbs is non-conceptual, a primary cause to which all sensed phenomena are secondary causes is … etc. Concepts are abstractions and abstraction necessarily places an entity in a homogeneous category. STA’s claim is that we can nevertheless exercise an act of judgment that does not combine or merely instantiate concepts but recognizes a reality outside the conceptual, as we seem to do whenever we judge that there is something to being a person that is not just an enumeration of the concept “humanity”.* This seems to be the best way of taking his once-much-argued-over claim in the De trinitate that judgment gets to the esse of things, i.e. it is not limited to combining or judging the instantiation of concepts but is capable of insight into the real existence of things, which the fist act of the mind cannot do since it is limited to abstraction.

One way to view the Kantian project is as a development of the thesis that all thought is conceptual i.e. categorical. On such a restriction natural theology vanishes without a trace from theoretical reason. Existence is non-conceptual (“not a predicate”) since it always comes with a notion of being concrete, individual, and set-apart, and so must be left behind whenever the mind abstracts. This doesn’t just get rid of our theoretical knowledge of God but of anything in its autonomy or self-subsistence, which Kant, in good logic, is quick to affirm. The autonomous existence of things is now no longer theoretical but practical, and all the big questions about God or the self or the nature of things have to be placed on a moral plane in order to be taken as serious philosophy. God, for example, is goes from founding existence to founding human moral codes; the discourse that once claimed some sort of insight into God now shifts to being religion, or the set of behaviors that follows our conviction that God exists. To express it in a way that is particularly attractive to Americans: what’s the point of believing anything that isn’t going to make a difference in how we live (or make a living)?

Later developments of the Kantian project will continue to flesh out the logic that existence claims are only instantiation claims, and are therefore unable to attain to things as they exist. “Existence” is nothing beyond a denial that the number of things is zero. The ineffability of individuals is taken to mean that even judgment does not attain intellectual insight into things in their autonomy. For STA, logic included any discourse that showed things as they are, and so even included poetics (understood very broadly as any mimesis or discourse through images); for us logic is nothing but an ordering of the conceptual and so reality can show up in it only as concept instantiation. This doesn’t require us to deny the existence of poetry or art, but only to deny that it is a dimension of logic, as it was until our Post-Kantian era. As a consequence we relegate all this to a dimension of existence called the emotional, although we are deeply ambivalent about what emotions are and what sort of connection they have to reality. Once seen as a supra-rational connection to the sublime they are now largely seen as subjective in the sense of providing insight only into our personal values and not into how anything outside this might exist.

Call this the consequence on which all sides agree: if the mind knows things as they are, it has insight beyond concepts and their instantiation. Your view of what counts as knowledge will largely depend on whether you affirm the antecedent or deny the consequent.

*What I mean is that there is something peculiar about the sort of name that “person” is since it is neither an individual name like Jerry or Fido or Indianapolis nor a species name like “dog” or “city” or “human”. Calling someone a person is an attempt to explain that they are the sort of thing that is not merely a sort of thing, or that there individuality goes beyond mere enumeration.

The context of the Five Ways

The Five Ways occur within an attempt to describe the triune God:

The consideration of God will have three parts (1) What belongs to the divine essence (2) what belongs to the distinction of persons (3) what belongs to the procession of creatures from him.

Consideratio autem de Deo tripartita erit. Primo namque considerabimus ea quae ad essentiam divinam pertinent; secundo, ea quae pertinent ad distinctionem personarum; tertio, ea quae pertinent ad processum creaturarum ab ipso.

This is also clear from a consideration of the source material for the Summa. It is essentially an updating or  new edition of the Sentences, where the treatise on God was much more obviously an attempt to understand the Trinity since the questions on unity and distinction are more jumbled together as opposed to being neatly separated into two separate treatises on God. One danger in this neat, systematic division is to lose sight of the unity of the project.

Specifically, the Five Ways are the first move of a larger project to describe what is common or essential in the triune God, establishing that there is something deserving the name deus whose existence cannot be simply observed but needs to be proven from what we observe. This need for proof is itself a fleshing out what God is. One does not need to prove the existence of the universe or nature or beings who dwell on a mountain, and so STA rules out the god of pantheism or the Olympians or of temple-idols, who do not need to be proven but can be simply observed. This account of the divine is not opposed to faith but is integral to it, and is apiece with Scriptures constant drum-beat of the condemnation of the gods of the Gentiles. One need not have faith in the existence of a deity that can be observed.

The focus on the need to describe the Trinity continues in the questions following the Five Ways: e.g. the familiar and foundational thesis of God as actus essendi or the same in essence and esse is appropriated as an explanation of the unity of the persons who share a single act of existence.

That STA is doing theology is not an excuse to do bad philosophy, as though his arguments are shooting from the hip and silently assuming that we can just get all this stuff by faith. It is an attempt to integrate, to the degree they had developed at his time, the whole tradition of the Church with Scriptural authority and the insights of the science and logic. The philosophy can no more be shoddy philosophy than the patristic citations can be shoddy citations. One can isolate and admire the philosophy of the Summa in much the same way we can admire its appropriation of Augustine or Neoplatonism (and there are studies on this too), but this is an abstraction from the work that STA is engaged in.

My point is that it is deeply mistaken and short-sighted to take the theology of the Summa as somehow opposed to the simple truth of the Scriptures. The Summa is simpler than Scripture. It distills the whole of Scripture down to the thesis that God created a world that fell away from him and was returned to him in Christ and then tries to flesh out the details of what is involved in this. It would be truer to see the Summa as a simplification of Scripture than as an alternative to it.


Independence, a Theology

Both cosmological arguments and miracles argue from events in the world to divinity. In this we see the true account of the miracle as the extraordinary experience or mode of consciousness, though this miraculous experience makes the world it breaks into ambiguous. The point of the miracle is that the miraculous only reveals what is always present, but there is a tendency in the mind to slip into taking it in exactly the opposite way. If the divine is miraculous then the everyday world of sense experience becomes the shadow or absence of divinity. Nature is the world into which divinity intrudes and so the miracle is not a revelation but violation.

I’m not critiquing this idea, or at least not entirely. Creation gives being and so has to allow for a robust sense of creaturely independence. Our view of creation can’t be limited to an emanation from the first cause or the extension of an action of an unmoved mover but has to find some way for the world to be merely natural. The dependence of creation on God cannot make created substances into divine accidents, and creation being a relation can’t be opposed to creation being a substance. Many strains of Islamic or Christian theology are uncomfortable with this and would prefer a world where being is not given but only radiates.

Orthodox Christianity was always kept from this sort of monism by trinitarianism. The principiation of the Son is not opposed to his divinity, which becomes the ultimate a fortiori for the autonomy of the natural world. If even God can come forth from God or if even trinitarian persons can have being from another then an independent creation with its being from another should be no problem. Trinitarianism and creation are mirror mysteries, showing different modalities of how coming forth from another does not rule out existing for oneself.

The ontology if gift approximates the mystery. Being is separate and independent while having an origin in another, in a way that a gift can be something that’s ours without being out of our substance. There is some sense in which the miracle is a violation that reclaims the mundane for the theophanic, which is why Scriptural miracles would tend to clump around the times when God is re-orienting the trajectory of salvation history. The rest of the time is lived in memory of what the Lord has done and the anticipation of what he is to do.

« Older entries Newer entries »