Words and consent

Language is social and part of being social is getting things from others. If we leave aside the times when one compels others to hand things over by threat, force or fraud there is still a wild diversity of experiences of consenting to hand something over. Something might be handed over cheerfully and immediately, grudgingly and after much wrangling, or even joyfully after much wrangling. It’s worth focusing on just the first and the last, since both can be institutionalized into what might be called two very different economies of consent.

The familiar American service-with-a-smile is one version of consent or disapproval given cheerfully and immediately. One does’t haggle at McDonald’s. The agreement of what you get is described in clear and exhaustive detail and carried out in an impersonal manner. Nothing would be essentially different in the interaction if the whole process were mechanized. What would one lose in the McDonald’s experience if the store were a vending machine that we spoke our order to? Paradoxically, when consent or disapproval to what we want is clear, unambiguous and cheerful it can also be mechanical, which is the same as saying that consent plays no role in the process. If all there is to getting things is a price and a rote-process, why involve persons at all?

To the extent that we want our action of getting something to be personal and social we need a second economy of consent: haggling. Haggling, however, allows for a range of outcomes that are more or less consensual, allowing for everything from a great mutual enjoyment to exploitation. So actual consent or interpersonal interaction is something relatively more murky. In the absence of institutions and folkways setting some parameters of discourse (e.g. in some parts of the American South it’s understood you always refuse the first offer of something you want.) we can expect systematic confusions of what is acceptable and what isn’t, or what is permissibly (and perhaps even laudably) aggressive and what is degrading harassment. Whatever one does there will be clear cases of harassment too, but I’m leaving those aside for the moment and focusing on how we will systematically muddle persistence and rudeness, the virile and the predatory, etc.



-“Existence” appropriates the word “standing” to describe the real, but standing is a participated activity, using the solidity of the earth to establish the solidity of posture. Still, it is standing out, divided from a homogenous background.

-Essence makes being an abstract noun, and so pulls being back into its homogeneous background of identity with others.

-Libet tentatively thought he had established free choice as a veto to a subconsciously originated thought-stream. The veto, of course, also allows free choice to consist in the consent to the thought-stream. For the cog-sci critique of freedom to admit this, however, is to give away the store – free choice would now be universal as either a veto or consent to the alternatives subconsciously proposed.

-The critique of freedom is thus an account of the structure of freedom. The human spirit acts upon subconsciously proposed content. Part of this content will be radically free since it is habitual and therefore the result of previous choice.

Marriage and infertility in Catholicism

The infertile couples objection. But wouldn’t there be something perverse about seeking to marry someone because he or she was infertile, or restricting your dating search to only those you knew were infertile? This is probably not a very popular search term for prospective mates, but is it much of a stretch to see that someone defending a Catholic view of sexuality could see this sort of activity as perverse?

Maggie Gallagher might take issue with this, arguing that fertility and infertility are natural parts of heterosexual coupling and so there would be nothing wrong in seeking out one of them in particular. More importantly, it’s hard to see how intentionally seeking out an infertile person is an impediment to marriage, since sterility explicitly isn’t.

This raises the question whether the procreative dimension of sexuality is found simply in sexual complementarity, where procreativity is a proxy term including not just natural times of fertility and infertility in sexually complementary coupling (both the monthly and post-metapausal ones), but also fertility and infertility as conditioned by sickness (say, by hysterectomy or congenital fertility problems). This sexual complementarity is all that is required for marriage qua procreative or open to life, even if induced infertility (artificial contraception) is an impediment to the exercise or consummation of marriage already contracted. This seems bound up with the recent account of marriage as needing to be consummated in a human way, which might deserve a greater place in the discourse about contemporary sexual ethics.


Consenting for others

Authority is command and so is not a kind of receptivity or subordination, but any authority not creating ex nihilo has to work within given conditions and so is subordinate to these givens as a condition of exercise.

These givens are volitional since we have to accept them in some way or another, though much of this acceptance was done before we were born by those with the power to decide for us. Whether contemporary Americans accept republican government was decided by someone else just as much as the decision that makes one a native speaker of English or Portuguese, a meat-eater or vegan, African or Latino, Atheist or Hindu. My parents could have chosen to speak Klingon to me, or to divorce each other and marry people of other races before I was conceived, or feed me whatever food or doctrines they felt like.* All such decisions are made by others, and at least some of them are deeply significant and irrevocable.

Others often consent for us; if they cannot then the normal life of raising and ruling is nothing but violence. Jefferson’s musing that no generation has the right to bind the next to a form of government sounds noble but makes all child raising unjust, and if we understand the claim that “no one can make another believe something without their consent” as ruling out the possibility of consenting for others we are committed to the same absurdity. What godparents and parents decide for a six-week-old child being baptized only formalizes a decision that parents are making all the time, and which they make even in the choice of whom, when and where to become parents at all. Governments claim an even more expansive power to consent for future citizens, even after these future citizens become adults. No American has been asked recently to vote on continuing colonial independence, and none needs to be.

The Fatherhood of God involves a similar power of consent for others, and so creation involves  a veritable divine command theory.

*Though in keeping with the argument, some of these decisions might well be made for the parents in advance, since any authority they have is conditioned and made possible by things they have already consented to by others.

Matter and spirit, being and operation

1.) For God, being and operation are the same, and so there is no division between ontological goodness and goodness simply. For all else, the goodness of operation is an accident.

2.) In things that are only physical, this accident sometimes exists and sometimes doesn’t, and the substance exists before the accident can.

3.) Among spiritual created beings, the substance does not exist before the accident does but only simultaneously with it.

4.) Embodied human persons are the lowest level of spirit. The substance of spirit is never without the accident of operation, but the accident of operation sometimes is and sometimes isn’t. This is the state that Aristotle calls possible intellect, and it is exactly this state of what sometimes is in operation and sometimes isn’t that Aristotle denies to…

5.) Disembodied spirits, whether human or otherwise. This is the substance “making all” with a hexis that is “like light”, in one sense by making sensations intelligible, but in a more accurate sense because light suggests an activity that is its own substance. The air is both luminous and illumined. When disembodied, a human or non-human spirit “just what it is and nothing more”, i.e. with nothing else to impede the accident from continuous exercise, like having a material component to intellection or desire. More to the point, the substance that has no actuality without its accident now  has an accident that is no longer capable of being intermittent. Operation and substance become inseparable and so corruption and death become impossible.

6.) Christianity adds the teaching that this incorruptible entity also has an invariant moral state, consisting in an orientation toward or away from its final end. This possibility of an invariant orientation away from happiness is the horror of death. It is unclear what role death would have played in a world where the punishment of this turning away was not a possibility.


Zen as a critique of a material self

The search for a homunculus to explain cognition was always a pointless infinite regress, but our only other option seemed like denial of a self altogether, which was the only thing worse than no explanation at all. But the impasse can be interpreted as two sides of the failure to understand the mind’s substantiality as non-bodily.

The homunculus or gaseous spiritual self is a self like a cinderblock is – it is a placeholder for what lies around now and does something later. Bodies and material existence are actual before they act since one has to assemble the physical thing or at least take it as an actual given before imputing an action to it. It’s this finite existence prior to activity that limits the range of activities or, in the case of cognitive powers, that limits the range of formal objects that the animal can assimilate. Knowledge of being, on the other hand, is not limited in this way, and even if we only know being in the minimum possible way it can be known (sc. as a formal characteristic of a material and sensible object) minimal knowledge is still knowledge.

The Buddhist critique of the substantial self, which cognitive science seems to find more and more attractive, can be assimilated to an account of a substantial soul as a critique of the claim that the soul is material. Aristotle can say with Hume that we see nothing within mind that it not the activity of mind. Mind is not like, say, some material object that we can understand as a substance even when it is not acting, like a grounded plane or a knife in the drawer or a hibernating computer. All that “remains” of the mind that is not thinking is pure possibility of thought and not a dormant actual structure waiting to be put to work.

Eschatological Extinction

Christians believe that death is a definitive divine judgment on a species-wide alienation from God (or a “punishment for original sin”) and so death must be eventually species-wide, i.e humanity must go extinct. Christ does not return as an interruption of daily life, coming like a sheriff into the everyday world to set things right, but to judge a race that has run its course some time after the last human being has been wiped from the cosmos. Human extinction is thus a definitive “sign of the times”.

Chicken -egg

(The point here isn’t criticism but just to clarify how we are supposed to understand causality when we think we could have a chicken-egg problem)

-Is the egg fertilized?

If so, it’s already a chicken, if not, it’s a part of one.

-Unfertilized eggs are just another animal cell, just another gamete. So are we asking whether the animal or its cells came first?

-Gametes are instruments and parts, given they only have half a genetic code. Here we get into a part-whole problem. A half of a dollar can be either fifty cents or half of a bill, and half a genetic code is more like the second than the first. A machine part (like an engine) is more like fifty cents than the half a bill.

-If we’re asking whether primitive or rudimentary stages precede fully developed ones, is this even open to question?

-If we want to speak of cyclical causality we are comparing it to something like the water cycle. So which came first, rain or evaporating groundwater? Isn’t this the same as asking where do you have to start drawing the circle? You can’t exactly say “nowhere”, but there is no point in particular (so is there a point in general?) Where circles start is a Buridan’s Ass problem.

-If I give you a bag of five Oreos, then there has to be a fifth one, and something can’t be fifth if nothing is first. But it doesn’t matter which Oreo is the fifth or first, which is why I could hand them out one at a time by reaching in at random.

-Cyclical causality needs something to break the Buridans Ass problem of getting the process started, and so it would make sense that there is some intentional mechanism to induce randomness.

WLC frustrations

To read WLC on timelessness is a strange proposition for one who sees rational theology as the development of an argument for why one would believe God exists at all. Page after page of what seem like plausible reasons for why God must have a real relation to the world or that divine simplicity is incoherent become arguments for how act depends on potency, that it is necessary that there only be the contingent, that perfection is a comparative with no superlative, that a “biblical” God was already so like a creature that the Incarnation was almost a redundancy, etc.

In what is the WLC God divided from the universe? How does his Kalam argument give us a divinity, and not simply a creation with one more being (a being, moreover, that has to be proved – but who would prove the existence of a cosmic being? We would just point to it, or to some experimental proxy for it. Does Craig’s god show up like this?)

First Way Variant

All physical movers involved in a motion are interactive.

Some mover involved in a motion is not interactive.

“Interactive” substitutes for “moved mover”. The first premise is a variant of Newton’s Third Law.

In other words, the interaction problem generalizes to any non-physical agency. What Princess Elizabeth wondered about Cartesian souls is a problem for any non-physical action.

Interaction is reversibility, or an indifference of direction in action. Giving action value makes it no longer reversible. Value plays no role in the physical world as such – the intelligible directions in which physical processes develop do not involve a better and worse. With life, however, value is unmistakable and so the source of life is the first non-interactive mover. Soul is thus the first answer to the interaction problem: to the question “how does it act upon the body?” the answer is not that it shoves parts around with mystical power but that is gives a substantial unity to the body, therefore making it a locus of value for itself and for valuing other things, and  making what would be otherwise reversible physical motions into things with a definite direction toward or away from value.

The extent to which anything is a source of substance and unity is therefore the measure to which it is a cause of value and therefore of motion.



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