Interpreting violence.

A protest group does something violent. Interpretive choices:

1a.) That particular protest got out of hand, and it tells us nothing about the group in general.

1b.) The violence shows us what the group is all about.

2a.) All human action has context and is never without sympathetic motives. They feel frustrated and unheard. They are overwhelmed by the urgency of meeting the evils they face. We should seek understanding and reconciliation.

2b.) There is never an excuse for violence and it must be strongly condemned by all.

3a.) Look at all the wonderful and sympathetic goods that these protesters are for, and all the evils they are against!

3b.) Look at all the wonderful goods that the protesters are against, and all the evils they are for!

4a) The goals and aims of the protesters call to mind all the great social activists of the past.

4b.) The goals and aims of the protesters call to mind all the early years of all the most wicked and destructive social movements of the past.

Given the complexity of human motives, especially when they are arising collectively in the surreal mode of consciousness caused by the high-energy intoxication of crowd madness, there will almost certainly be a true description of the violence in all eight ways. So the question whether a description of a riot is true is of extremely limited value, in fact, the conviction that a reporter or pundit or home viewer has that their account is true is more likely to blind us to how much work our tacit interpretive scheme is doing.


The daimonic in reasoning

My experience with knowing things has depended heavily on a daimonic manthat is, someone whose intellect is treated as beyond normal human powers. He always got the benefit of the doubt, his status went well beyond a primus inter pares, and any disagreement with what he said would be a watershed moment in your intellectual development.

My first daimon was a philosophy instructor I had as a college sophomore. He had studied under MacIntyre and pointed me towards Leo Strauss, but after a few years I grew to see STA as the daimon of daimons, which is more or less where I am now.

Impersonal things get invested with daimonic power too – science is a daimon now, and the scholastic method (basically, a college of daimons either commented on or harmonized with Aristotelian syllogistic in the disputed question format) functioned in this way in the past. Christians can take scripture and/or the Church in this way too.

What role does the daimonic play in my certitude about things? Does it keep me from being able to say that I’m just following the evidence wherever it leads, viewing it dispassionately through reason alone? Probably not: reason is social and hierarchical, and other persons and their work are integral to our own insight, and  we miss something crucial about someone’s arguments and behavior when we fail to see his daimon. If your idea of “reason alone” lacks this, it’s an account of divine knowing, and so a kind of thought you’ve never had.

Dionysian transgression (or liberation)

Every few years I try to read The Gulag Archipelago, but before I can get through a hundred pages the cruelty of the events makes the reading too disheartening to continue. Within the first twenty pages, for example, you hit the story of a man who was arrested during a time when his dead child was lying in state, and during their procedural search of the home the police dumped the child’s corpse on the floor to search inside the coffin; then the story of a man who was arrested while doctors were performing a surgery on him, and was thrown in a prison cell before being sewn up. After this you’ll still have another 400 pages to get through. In volume one.

What is cruelty to us (and in fact) was for the guards who committed it a proof that they acted for an absolute value. When they dumped the dead child on the floor knew that this could never be justified for any other goal than the one they were acting for, which was an absolute to which every other value must give way. And what were the police supposed to do when they came to the hospital and found the man in surgery? Wait? That would acknowledge some barrier to the reach of the Party, or some circumstance that limited the appropriateness of its actions. You can’t understand what happened until you can feel the thrill in the heart of the police barging into operating rooms or throwing over coffins as agents of irresistible power, absolute certitude, unstoppable action. They blast through any limitation of manners, sentimentality, law, morality, or religion, and every transgression serves as yet another proof of their omnipotence and the supreme value of their service to the cause.

The paradox is that the thrill of omnipotence requires the transgression, but in breaking the limit we either recognize it condemns us (which is already to put ourselves behind it) or the limit itself ceases to act as a limit, and so ceases to prove our omnipotence. We thus have no third option beyond repentance or finding a new domain to trespass.

The transgression of taboos against violence and power are apiece with the taboos against sex, and  so the sexual revolution follows this same logic.* As this is all the same Dionysian ecstasy it’s pointless to suggest the equivalent of a ceasefire in the sexual revolution, as though all sides could agree that the border between acceptable sexual behavior and deviancy should be drawn here, never to change.** The sexual revolution is not fighting for a new natural law that draws the lines dividing chastity from perversion in new places but for the perpetual transgression of (or liberation from) all limitations on sexuality, and it when it has crossed over all its borders it will simply increase the scope of what is included in sexuality.


*There is probably no better liturgy for this ecstasy than the orgy followed by the wild collective dismemberment of a living animal, which was the ecstatic spirit that Jeremiah spoke of saying For of old you have broken thy yoke, and burst thy bands; and thou saidst, I will not serve! Yea, on every high hill and under every green tree you have laid like a whore.

**I tried once to think through a dialogue between someone with the enthusiasm of the sexual revolution and someone who wanted to rein it in. Couldn’t both sides agree that, say, a taste for child prostitutes would forever be off the menu of acceptable sexual activity? This sort of dialogue can never take place though, since it’s contrary to the very spirit of the revolution to agree to some stable limit. It’s not so much that their for child prostitutes as that they are against saying any limit is forever.


Certitude as social

Certitude is largely conditioned by how much we care about the outcome. If two sides have passionate opposing views, both will be quite certain, and an outsider looking in will think the whole matter is uncertain.

Physics and Chemistry say almost nothing that outsiders care about.  Sure, outsiders follow the results of physics and consume popular accounts of it, but if all the results came out the other way the outsiders wouldn’t care much. It’s grabs attention to publish that neutrinos might travel faster than light, but no one will riot or boycott or sermonize against the lab that publishes it. Outsiders only start to care about outcomes at the level of biology, which has all sorts of stuff to say about human exceptionalism, race, sexual differences, human origins, sexual activity in humans, etc. As soon as the outcomes matter, however, all these topics fade into obscurity and studies start to pop up either way, with different eras and research teams get different findings, and all the “textbook certitudes” vanish. This doesn’t mean that everyone is right or that there can’t be a definitive answer, but if you want resolution you need to prepare for a very long and volatile campaign, which will require a lot of spadework and at least one ultra-daimonic individual of world-historical significance.

Philosophy and theology are almost entirely concerned with topics where we care about the outcome, and are therefore less certain. An outsider will inevitably wonder whether philosophy and theology have ever reached a definitive conclusion on anything. Analytic philosophy tries to deal with this by carving up philosophy into topics that not many people care about, and this scientific approach has had some continuity and success.

If you want universal, textbook certitude and consensus you need topics that almost no one cares about. That, or totalitarianism.

The missing shade of blue and the nature of relation

Famously, Hume objects to his empiricism with the thought experiment of “the missing shade of blue”. After arguing at length that all thoughts and ideas trace back to simple impressions, Hume pauses to raise an objection: shades of a color are clearly simple impressions, but assume you had a sheet of paper where all the shades of blue were laid out as continually getting lighter and lighter, and you cut out a section, taped the ends together, and showed it to someone. Even if they could not see the cut or the tape, they could immediately tell that a shade was missing simply from the break in continuity, and it would also be relatively easy to imagine what color the shade was, even if one had never seen it before.  It’s a testimony to Hume’s genius that he hit on exactly the example showing that human experience of reality cannot be limited to the sensation of the physical world, since relations like “bluer” or “less blue” can be real even where they are not relative to something sensed. We identify a hiatus in the colors continually getting lighter or darker only because we can see their relation to something absent. Assume the missing shade was periwinkle. Then while there is no quality periwinkle among your colors, no quantity of tinting color proportions that gives rise to periwinkle, and no substance of ink with that shade, there is still a real relation of all the colors to periwinkle, which is exactly why we both see it as missing, and why the quality is in fact missing. One of the great virtues of Hume’s argument is how it demonstrates the reality of relations. The colors are not bluer or less blue than an idea of periwinkle any more than the color is missing because we notice a gap. The color is missing because relations are real features of the extra-mental world even without a positive quality, substance or quantity to serve as their foundation.

Hume’s thought experiment generalizes to any continuous order of one thing to another. Assume we cut a section out of the water cycle, say, condensation. If we showed the resulting picture to anyone they could immediately see that something was missing: water evaporated and rose and later fell down in droplets, but there was a missing transition section from one to another. If we drew the process of prenatal development while jumping from the embryonic stage to birth, everyone would see that the fetal stage was left out. True, nature does sometime move in quantized shifts, but this does not undermine our ability to use continuity as a heuristic, and at any rate there is a good deal of work to be done in explaining the meaning of quantized shifts. It is not clear whether the shift arises from trying to model discrete quantities with continuous magnitudes, or whether the absence of any physical meaning to transition states is like the absence of any meaning in a game of checkers to moving a piece halfway onto a black square. At any rate, the point is not to defend the absolute value of continuity, but to use continuity where it really exists to show how relations are the only things real things the extra-mental world whose reality does not depend on being in the extra-mental world. To return to our example: all the shades of blue have the same real, extra-mental relation to periwinkle whether it is present or missing from a palate of shades.

Infinite regress and correlation.

One interpretation of Aristotelian denial of infinite regress is that if an action required infinite causes it could never be done, and so that any action is done – or even doable – refutes the possibility of it having infinite causes. But why believe the conditional if causes are infinite, the action cannot be done?

On a Humean account of causality, or any account where causes are essentially temporal, the conditional would be true just because no agent could could put an infinite time between an initial and final event. That an action have a cause and effect at all requires it to have a finite time, and so, ex hypothesi, finite causes.

If causes are not essentially temporal there is still a presumption against infinite causes since, again, cause and effect are finite as correlatives. Speaking of a “cause of the cause” or as “both cause and effect” is either (a) to stop viewing the thing you are looking at as cause and re-evaluate it as effect, or (b) to stop viewing it as a primary cause and see it as a secondary one. The question is then whether, in some processes, one can re-evaluate all causes in one of these two ways. This means that a process that gave rise to something is all effects and no causes, or everything secondary with nothing primary, which is like trying to rearrange a set of objects vertically so all are above and none are below. With this set of instructions, it’s clear that the action could never be done, and so such a model of things could never describe how anything actually happened. This is why in the First Way STA can deny infinite causes because they would do away with something primary. The claim is not question-begging but axiomatic, at least if you understand the terms with the sort of clarity that STA does.

So the impossibility of infinite regress of effects or secondary causes is evident from the terms since it follows from their genus: relation. Relations co-exist, and an infinite regress of either effects or secondary causes denies this co-existence.

The Fifth Way (pt. 2)

The Fifth Way rests on the axiom that all order is from intelligence. Few commentators have noticed how central this claim is to STA’s work, though it is frequent and invariant from the beginning of his career to the end (search “ordinare” in the Thomistic index.) The axiom arises as a conclusion from several different lines of thought:

1.) Self-ordering is fundamental to any order, and anything self-ordering is intelligent.

2.) Order is a relation, and relations are only given to intelligence.

3.) Self order is a participated perfection that is proportionate to intelligence.

4.) Things that are not actual before they act cause things that are actual before they act; the former are intelligences, the latter are physical.



One sense of belief is about claims or propositions: “I believe in extraterrestrial life” or ” I believe that most pennies aren’t copper but aluminum.” Another sense is directly in things: “I believe in the Independence Party” or “I believe in direct democracy”. Belief in the second sense means trusting in something to deliver good things, and so its natural concomitants are (minimally) trust and warm regard or (in stronger modes of belief) hope and love.

This division of types of belief is crucial to the question of belief in God. In one sense, all such belief might mean is that we think that God in fact exists, in the same way we might think aliens exist or the planet Vulcan doesn’t. In the second sense we mean that we have confidence in providence and in the divine plan at work in the world. In philosophy or in the various attempts to prove the existence of God, belief is largely in the first sense. In religion, it’s also possible to have faith the first sense but not in the second, which is one way of understanding the distinction between a living and a dead faith, or to harmonize the Pauline account of saving faith and James’s claim that even devils believe in God, and tremble. Pascal’s God of the philosophers and God of faith is also probably better reframed as a belief of the philosophy and a belief of religion. There’s a sense in which these are compatible, since you can’t have belief 2 without also accepting the truth of various factual claims, but it’s just as important to remember that it’s possible for them to be opposed to the point that the first sort of belief is seen as substituting for the second. This arguably happens any time natural religion or spirituality is pitted against revealed religion.

Existentially, it’s relatively easy to say any of the Christian creeds in the first sense. One simply has to mentally check “yes” to claims like “there’s a Trinity out there somewhere”, and “Christ is present in his Church”. But to say the creed in the second sense is much more challenging. Not only do you now have to put real skin in the game, you are suddenly attempting to see the world as a theater of transforming divine power and reframe all the claims of those who oppose it, in the words of the baptismal rite, as “empty promises”.


The axiom of like causes and a general cosmological argument

Brandon put up a post on divine command theory. I asked him if law and morality shared relevantly similar features with art and nature, with an eye to the thesis that there is some unified cosmological argument that could start from either pair. He’d already thought of that. I’m now feeling around for what the general argument for the thesis is.

Start with the axiom that similar properties have similar causes. There is probably no science without it. But things that depend on reason to exist share common properties with things that arise naturally. Positive laws and moral imperatives are both experienced as binding; both human arts and non-human animals act for goals (chimps fish for termites, birds fly south, the digestive tract releases leptin to tell us we’re full…); both the mind and natural things have some constitutive component that is common to many things (an “idea” or “form” or “pattern”) both art and nature follow ordered steps to produce some effect, etc.

Given any one of these common properties, we have three options for the agent-effect relationship of these common properties:

1.) Mind causes nature.

2.) Nature causes mind.

3.) Some tertium quid that is neither mental nor natural causes nature and mind.

The first scenario describes what most would call a supernatural being or god, but so does the third – any agency that is neither mental nor natural must transcend both and so is, by definition, supernatural. Without such transcendence option 3 requires a contradictory agent that is simultaneously mental and non-mental.*

Option 2 can avoid supernaturalism, but it comes at a pretty high cost. Like properties require like causes not just under any way of considering, but precisely under that formality. Now we know that mind can, precisely as mind, give rise to all sorts of non-mental things (this is what cooking does, for example) and so there is no impediment to it giving rise to nature under this description. But for non-mental things to give rise to reason precisely as reason (which is not the same thing as to account for it as, say, a complex brain structure) is to give a rational argument for radical irrationalism.

Sure, this argument has similarities to the EAAN or a slight modification of Nagel’s critique of Darwinism, but I think this means that the like causes axiom is at the basis of both of them. It also allows for a cosmological argument even if we can’t decide between natural law ethics and divine command theory, occasionalism and natural causes, Platonism and Aristotelianism, ID or the Fifth Way, etc.

*Notice that the question is not whether there is some common genus of the mental and natural, but how to describe the agency required to account for the like properties in both. The contradiction does not arise in assuming that the mind is a complex atomic structure while nature is not, and that both are “natural” i.e. atomic structures – but when we try to identify an agent of both that need not be either.

Platonic Forms

Aristotle describes Platonic forms as just like the things of sense, only eternal. This is true but Aristotle stumbles by assuming that eternity means existing indefinitely in time whereas for Plato this Aristotelian description is of something existing, well, in time.

Admittedly, Plato’s account of forms was unclear, problematic even to him, and shifted significantly over his life, but his account of eros in Symposium requires temporality to be a middle state which cannot characterize anything absolute or of-itself. If eros is incomplete because it lacks future perfections it still desires to have, anything with a future will have the same incompletion and so could never be a thing-in-itself.

On this account the eternal is just what Plotinus said it was: to have all goods, so that the “eternal man” is not some crystaline celestial biped but that which possesses all possible goods of humanity. Such a being could never be a human individual since there are essentially diverse perfections that cannot be all possessed by some individual, which is why the goal of the Republic is not to make all persons into philosopher kings or guardians or souls of bronze, etc. Plato didn’t seem to see this far, but all the principles are there to form the conclusion, and it shows the emptiness of Aristotle’s critique that an eternal white would be no more white than one that lasts a day. If white is a true type, then the white itself is that which transcends the multiplicity of all shades while being present in all of them. Clearly, this isn’t eggshell, macaroon, Scotland road, snow-white…

The form of X is therefore not a stripped-down being containing only the essential, but a transcendent totality that can only be imperfectly realized in matter, requiring a multitude of material individuals. At the limit of this is the one as such requiring the multitude as such, or the singular exhaustive logos of creation and the multitude of material creation in all given individuals throughout time.

There is a complete division between the logical universal and the form of something. While many logical universals have corresponding things in themselves, not every logical universal has a corresponding form, which Plato discovered late in life in Statesman. It’s possible there are Greeks and so the “Greek itself”, but “barbarians” is a junk-drawer concept with no “Barbarian itself”. Figuring out what has a form and what doesn’t is an ongoing work and even to discover such a correspondence does not make the logical predicate identical with the thing in itself.

The thing in itself is related to the logical predicate as giving it foundation or substance in reality. Norsemen and Chinese are “barbarians”, and various illnesses are “cancer”, but the unity of the predicate is not based in the world but in an ens rationis. Though many predicates are like this, not all can be such, at least not so far as declarative speech is a vehicle of insight and is not, as Nietzsche claimed it was, just the continual reassertion of tautologies constructed out of power and nothing.

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