On intellects- potential : agent :: non-beatified : beatified

While one can read Aristotle’s distinction between potential and agent intellect in the way the Medieval Muslims and Christians did, namely through Alexander’s account of an illuminated and illuminating intellect, what Aristotle was actually claiming was that embodied intellects can be considered as embodied or as intellects, and as embodied they are potential and as intellects they actualize and give rise to the intelligible world.

Embodied cognition is potential because (a) it is sometimes thinking and sometimes not and (b) the reality of death gives rise to intellect as intellect from merely embodied intellect, since intellect is cognition of being and therefore cannot be a finite or physical structure. Aristotle interprets (a) as also contrary to the nature of intellect as intellect, probably because he’s working from an argument like:

Whatever gives rise to the eternal is eternal.

The intellect, as intellect, gives rise to the eternal.

Therefore, the intellect, as intellect, is eternal.

In other words, we can experience that some truths are true at all times or would even be true were there no times, and anything that can give rise to such things would have to share in this character. Our experience of (a) requires that the thoughts we have now are something in addition to intellection as such even while it eternal in itself, and its eventual separation by death will give us “what is only itself and nothing more, and this alone is eternal and imperishable”.

STA, however, radically re-contextualizes Aristotle’s claim by teaching that the truths of the human intellect, as truths, are not eternal. They appear to be eternal by being true at all times, but:

That something is always and everywhere, can be understood in two ways. In one way, as having in itself the power of extension to all time and to all places, as it belongs to God to be everywhere and always. In the other way as not having in itself determination to any place or time, as primary matter is said to be one, not because it has one form, but by the absence of all distinguishing form. In this manner all universals are said to be everywhere and always, in so far as universals are independent of place and time. It does not, however, follow from this that they are eternal, except in an intellect, if one exists that is eternal.

So created truth is not measured by time, but not because it contains all time. Created truth is finite in time but not measured by time; uncreated truth is neither finite in time nor measured by it. While this doesn’t do anything to change Aristotle’s claim (b), it gives a new way of understanding the relation between potential and agent intellect. All finite intellects (men or angels) are potential intellects so far as their conceptions are not the divine essence, but since the beatific vision is the created possession of this essence, then the finite intellect is a potential intellect not in relation to some its bodiless state but relative to the beatific vision.

In this sense, the distinction between the potential and agent intellect is common to men and angels. They are potential intellects so far as they lack all beatitude (whether they are in via or not) and they are agent intellects so far as they are blessed.


An ontology of stuff (2)

-Dennett dismisses dualism as involving “spook stuff”. My guess is that he wouldn’t lean too hard on the term “stuff” but just liked its rhetorical punch. Still, the ontology of stuff shows what’s wrong with the critique: “stuff” connotes what can be possessed or controlled, and which therefore can be understood through our control over it.

-Control gives understanding over what can be possessed. The “can be” is both ontological and normative – we’re talking about what can be justly possessed. It’s an interesting locus of the normative and ontological: we might call some person our chattel or property, or have a law that makes such persons no different from houses or cars or crops, but all we ever have in fact is an imaginary entity forced to hang together by acts of violence.

-Understanding experimental, model based knowledge in terms of the ontological division of possessor and possession shows the problem of “dualism” as a description of the belief in immaterial existents. Is contract law dualist for dividing persons and property? One assumes that “dualist” would divide some domain into two components. True, if there were stuff and spook stuff we would have a real dualism, but there cannot be immaterial stuff, i.e. an immaterial resource to be mined, modeled, experimented on, and placed at the disposal of some possessor. Even the immaterial joined to a body cannot exist like this – which is why human chattels are impossible.

-Things that can be controlled act on each other by interaction; and interaction is to exert control over what exerts the same kind of control over you. Therefore, the control of a possessor over a possession is not interaction.

-Sure, we live in a world of stuff. All the objects of our world are somehow objects of our possession, but this description still needs an “our” or world of selves standing to stuff just as we do- and the world of stuff relates to other selves outside of it.

An ontology of stuff

English has used the term stuff since the 1440’s, and most of its familiar meanings are from the beginning. Stuff is one’s possessions, the material making things up, the undifferentiated plurality-of-whatever, etc.

Stuff seems like a transcendental since thing is a sure transcendental and stuff shares many of its meanings. Nevertheless, stuff doesn’t extend to all being since things that can be controlled or possessed can’t be stuff. A car, knife, horse, house, tackle, slaves, or solid-gold-jewel-studded planet are stuff while your children and wife are not. This is why stuff cannot have personal value even when it has the sentimental value that comes from being an irreplaceable individual possession like a priceless violin, beloved slave, or rare artifact. All such things are still your stuff – in fact in one sense they are even more stuff, sc. in the sense of the term meaning what is most worth having (cf. “let me show you my good stuff” or just “this is the stuff”).

So far this is more like an account of an English term than a view of reality, but it points to a universal ambiguity between existence and possessibility. For possession requires an ontological division and hierarchy of possessor and possession, meaning that wherever this distinction is found a possessor can grow in understanding a possessable thing by understanding how it is controlled. We can thus understand stuff (often called “reality” or “the world”) by examining how it can be controlled. This is what any experiment does, or even any conceptual model of something. When we’re talking about stuff, the questions “what is X?” and “how could we make X happen or exist?” will, to a large extent, need to coincide.

But where something is no longer subordinate as possessable, control no longer gives insight into what it is. Embodied persons certainly have stuff that enters into unity with the person, and much of their life will consist in trying to assert control over this element that needs to be controlled (passions, diseases, unconscious pathologies, etc.) and this element allows for some degree of insight into persons though control over this sort of stuff, but no amount of stuff so joined to them can abrogate the ontological division between possessor and possessed that must obtain in order for control to convey insight. Where persons relate to persons, whether as equals or subordinates, control over behavior is no longer an insight into what they are dealing with. You shall not put the lord your God to the test  (Or your wife, for that matter). There seems to be a garbled understanding of this among some Naturalists (I’m thinking of John Wilkins) who distinguish something like “social meaning” and “group values” from scientific truths. The distinction is fine so long as we map it over the ontological distinction of possessors and possessables, which carve off different ontological domains of discourse.

One can describe these different domains of discourse as arising from the difference between the relation of soul/spirit to body and the relation of spirits to each other, though it is difficult not to turn these spirits into quasi-bodies or objects of control, as when we imagine our soul as if we possessed it or when we ask questions like how soul and body would interact.


What’s an automobile?

The car (thing one rides in. Latin : vehiculum) is called automobile (self-moving) when it moves without horses. But, of course, the car didn’t become any more self-motive than it ever was (or any more than a train car is now) it simply got a lengthened platform with a mechanical engine. It was “automobile”, I guess, for purposes of sale: instead of buying the car or cart here and the horse somewhere else one could just buy cart and power-source all at once. So it would have been better to  it a “combine” than an automobile.* If it were better engineering to separate the engine from the car and sell them separately, we wouldn’t have developed automobiles but cars on the one hand and  artificial horses on the other, which probably would have led to the same equivocation on “horse” as we now get on the word “mouse” said both of the rodent and the piece of computer equipment.

All this raises the question of what an automobile would actually be. The simplest answer is the negative one based on the previous paragraph: an automobile (self-mover) is not an automobile (engine-car combine). Any motion or moving of something requires both power and a vector, but the car has no power in itself and the engine has no direction in itself. Again, the whole point of a combine is to harness some power source, but a harness is a complex entity made of both yoke and bridle or tug and rein. The tug or the yoke get more attention, but they are obviously meaningless without the rein – the only point of harnessing a power source is to perform some definite task.

So is the automobile the car-gas-driver-passenger combine? The “car” in this sense is the harness, the gas the horse, the driver the rein-mover, and the gas the passenger-mover. In all of this the driver or passenger seem to have a special role as automobile, with the whole point being to make a passenger of a certain kind (making the passenger the first final cause) by means of a driver (the first agent cause). But “the passenger of a certain kind” is whatever is carried at whatever speed it is carried, at whatever time it is carried, i.e. the “passenger” is really just “the journey”. The problem, however, is that then the “automobile” just becomes a way of saying that the journey is the journey, at which point we realize that we haven’t found the thing we were looking for. We’re asking about what would be genuinely self-motive, not what cluster of partial and dependent causes might result in a motion.

We have two options: either we stipulate that “self” just means a cluster of partial, dependent causes or we say that any cluster of partial, dependent causes is not self-motive. “Cluster”, of course, doesn’t do the reality justice: we can’t have this cluster explained or directed by some self, since then there would be some self existing as an unmoved mover that was responsible for the motion while not itself being in motion.

*”Combine” however, was already taken, but not to name something that combined the a power source and the action, but something that combined the actions of reaping and threshing.

The persons of the Trinity are the fulness of the unseen God:

Father: the hidden God as transcendent: Not that anyone has ever seen the Father; only I, who was sent from God, have seen him. Jn. 6:46.

Holy Spirit: The hidden God as immanent:  no one else can know God’s thoughts, but the Spirit of God. 12 And what we have received is no spirit of worldly wisdom; it is the Spirit that comes from God, to make us understand God’s gifts to us 1 Cor. 11-12.

Son: God as hidden in plain view: Then Jesus came into the neighbourhood of Caesarea Philippi; and there he asked his disciples, Who do men say the Son of Man is? “Some say John the Baptist,” they told him, “others Elias, others again, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” Mt. 16: 11-13 He gave it to them, saying, “This is my body given for you” Lk. 22:19

Since revelation presupposes hiddenness and removes it, there is a corresponding fulness of revelation though the diverse trinitarian persons.

The analogy of sexual objects

The sublimation of sexual desire has been taught from Plato to Freud. Sexual desire – or more likely human sexual desire – has no definite or fixed object but is a drive for a series of analogously related objects. For Plato the objects are all analogously beautiful, starting with a desire for physical beauty, advancing to the desire for appropriate and fitting social-political relations, and culminating in a vision of the eternal and invariant beautiful itself; for Freud sexuality is libido or life-drive, starting with, again, the familiar desire to reproduce one’s own life but advancing to a desire to contribute to the higher life of culture and learning.

The indetermination of libido is not just to objects at different analogous levels but also to objects at the same level, which is why, as one sex researcher has put it, human sexuality seems to be an experiment that nature is running to see what happens when it makes a species with no fixed object of sexual desire. Even on the basic physical level of sexual expression the range of objects is vast and with no obvious common denominator: the Graeco-Roman encomia to heroic pederasty strike most of us as both wicked and simply unthinkable, just as the Christian sexual ethic that replaced it would strike them as effeminate (to them, monogamy and fidelity were as feminine as skirts and soap-operas) and strikes the children of the sexual revolution as morbid, superstitious, degrading and (most of all) completely impractical. Even within a single Romantic tradition there are differences so vast as to render the feeling strange and bizarre- Dante never even spoke to Beatrice? Josephite marriages are possible? Seriously?

Human sexuality refers to analogues. It is a desire to bring forth from within oneself or continue living in another, and so in human life this is conditioned by our sense of self and of what human life consists in. New beliefs about the self therefore require new kinds of sexuality and vice-versa, and there will be as many fulfilling, corrupting, and simply diverse sexualities as there are correct, distorted, and different views of the person and the beautiful.

The Scholastics gave an account of all this through artificial concupiscence, though they did not apply it to sexuality. And so we while it might make for better instruction to say hat Christ and Mary did not suffer from concupiscence (meaning the fomes of sin or disordered concupiscence) it would be truer to say that the more familiar forms of concupiscence aren’t most of all what concupiscence is, and that the saints have a good deal more of the genuine article than the sinners. As with all analogues, the first X’s we know aren’t what most deserve the to be called X. When libido is understood correctly as a desire to bring forth from within oneself and continue living in another, Mary’s Josephite marriage shows infinitely more libido than even a normal Christian marriage, to say nothing of the paradigm serial sterility of contemporary sexual ethics.


Cartesian epistemologies and Dominican alternatives

0.) Descartes has the strange position of being almost universally critiqued by those who end up basing their thought in one way or another on some Cartesian claim.

1.) Descartes is the last great anti-Dominican or, put positively, the last great developer of Franciscan and Jesuit later scholasticism. If you read the Meditations with any awareness of the debates on omnipotence, intuitions of existence, the Ontological Argument, God’s role in human knowledge, etc.  this all becomes clear as day. Descartes is rebooting scholasticism in an attempt to retrieve its original project of compressing knowledge: where the 12th and 13th Century Scholastics were trying to compress the sprawling, prolix patristic literature down to a clear and minimal coherent system, Descartes tries to do the same thing with late Scholasticism. One can present this either as an advance of Scholasticism or a destruction of it, but it certainly crushed the Dominican tradition.

2.) The critiques of Descartes theory of knowledge as dualist, human-centric, and unable to overcome his skepticism are relatively superficial and leave the deep features of the system untouched in a way that guarantees we will never escape the Cartesian problem. At the same time, it gives rise to the modern conception of what knowledge is, and so shifts the meaning of “science” to the one more familiar to us.

3.) The deep features of the Cartesian system (and it’s not clear the extent to which even Descartes was aware of these features) are (a) a denial of the reality of relations (b) the denial that the concrete participates in the abstract and (c) a belief in the essential subjectivity of knowledge.

4.) The consequence of (a) is that all things are absolute entities in themselves if they exist at all, so if  ideas exist they are things in themselves with no co-existent or correlative being beyond themselves. The problem of how ideas relate to the world now becomes unavoidable. For that matter, the problem of how ideas relate to a self becomes unavoidable. They are now understood as strange “absolute knowns”, without reference either to self or world, and can now only be imposed on the world by will.

5.) The teaching of (b) is something that was perhaps less-than-clear in both the Aristotelian and Dominican traditions, and the denial of (b) was more a result of the Franciscans pushing for a clarity on the nature of abstract ideas or natures that lead to what we now call nominalism. as we’ve known for at least the last 50 years, it’s not always easy to pin this label on the Franciscans in a way that divides them from Dominicans since the difference seems to be that the D’s were content to leave things a bit more blurry than the F’s were. But it seems pretty clear that the D’s allowed some way in which what is called the abstract was an ontological principle of the concrete whereas the F’s refused this. The clearest illustration of this is Ockham’s refusal and continual refutation of the idea that things are, say, round by roundness or hot by heat while STA develops a theory of participation that demands to allow for just this sort of causality.

But since ideas are abstract, the Franciscan teaching introduces an ontological division between ideas even as representations and things in the world.  Even if one allowed that ideas relate to the world (already a problematic claim from [a]) they are not reflections of the world but models of it. The aristotelian axiom that the mode of knowing is not the mode of being gets a new interpretation. For the D’s, this axiom meant that the form in things was considered apart from individuated matter but was still a principle of the real existence of the thing. For the F’s, this form was of itself individuated and so could not be related to the thing in the world, even as a principle.

6.) Descartes most long-lasting success was to re-define knowledge as subjective or in-the-person. This is both a corollary to (a) and (b) and its own independent claim. If all forms are absolute, then knowledge must be simply an absolute accident, like a quality; if the concrete does not participate in the abstract, then the idea cannot be anything beyond the mind of the knower (say, something that all knowers are sharing in). But the main difference is that the Dominican’s followed Aristotle in defining powers though objects, and subjects through powers. Defining knowledge thus begins with the reality of the object and defines the known as that which is apt to be in another, in the same way that defining fishing either begins with assuming the reality of fish or takes the whole activity as in vain. In STA’s account, for example, realism about the material world is either attainable or cognitive activity is pointless, but in the Jesuit-Franciscan account of cognitive action we get a third possibility. Even if the world did not exist there are still necessary truths and therefore bona fide human knowledge – in Descartes’s scheme we still have mathematics, ideas, the cogito, and a proof for the existence of God.

7.) When we put all of these things together we get a Cartesian account of knowledge that is still specifying the modern project: knowledge and thought is a kind of entity. One of the hardest things to explain about the Dominican tradition is that it divided the way knowledge exists from the way entities exist: starting with the object and bolstered by claim (b), they argued that entitative existence was when forms gave reality to things and intentional existence was when the very same form gave reality to knowledge. Form either informed matter making a material thing, or informed a cognitive power, making consciousness (i.e. a sense awareness or an idea). By rejecting (b) and asserting (c), the lynchpin of the Dominican theory was pulled out and knowledge became just another accidental form like redness or warmth. But on the Dominican theory one can’t hope to give a scientific account of knowledge as an entity among other entities or activity among other activities since it must be divided from this sort of existence in order to be understood at all.

One gets garbled, telephone-game accounts of this Dominican idea in Descartes’s division between the mental and physical, or in the claim that there can be no “objective” accounts of “subjective” experience, or in the claim that intentional existence is not physical, etc. It’s hard, however, to flesh out these garbled accounts without falling into some Cartesian paradox like the interaction problem or absolute skepticism, and much of the contemporary puzzles about intentionality are really just puzzles about the reality of relations – admit that relations are real, and the puzzle of how anything can be “about” something is no more pressing than the puzzle of how it can be “above” something or “hotter than” something. Relations are real, and one relation to another is to be about it. Done.


Why sciences can’t distinguish mental and physical

-Chomsky, Russell, and Strawson all defend the claim that the sciences don’t tell us enough about  mind and the physical to know whether they are the same or different.  They not only draw different conclusions from this but make the claim itself for different reasons. I disagree with all their reasons and think there is a better one on offer.

-“Mind” and “the physical” are both substance terms, making them claims about what something is beyond its functional role. This means that no functional definition can divide mind from matter since this posits a superfluous “substance” beyond the functional interaction. Snow made in a snowmaker is formed intentionally while snow formed in clouds isn’t, and the entropy made by a refrigerator is intentional while entropy from a rock cooling off in the forest isn’t, but the functional account of crystal formation and entropy is the same in both cases. So long as we’re defining things functionally they aren’t physical or mental, and (this being the most important point) this isn’t a bug but a feature: the whole point is to define things occurring from non-intelligent secondary causes on a platform that will allow them to occur by intelligent secondary causes. Us, that is.

-So it’s right that the physical sciences don’t allow us to distinguish mental from physical, but this is not because they are at some incomplete stage of development and we need to role up our sleeves and get to work (Strawson) or because the nature of things is mysterious and forced us to give up looking for what things are and accept more humble descriptions (Chomsky) but because the sciences deliberately define subjects of study in a way that is indifferent to whether they arise from physical or mental secondary causes. Without this, the sciences could never be the handmaidens of engineering.  

-Suppose you stipulate that any functional definition is a physical one. But then “physical” means what is designed to unify the mental and physical, which is guaranteed to cause bewilderment and sophistry as soon as we try to use scientific findings to distinguish the two, i.e. to say anything about them as separate.

Contemporary Anti-Stoicism

If Stoicism is the belief that exterior circumstances are at most of minimal significance to happiness then it strikes an interesting contrast with the dominant social theories of the contemporary West. The Social Gospel Movement, Progressivism and consumer culture take extrinsic circumstances as essential to happiness and even as foundational to it. As FDR put it:

We have come to a clear realization of the fact that true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence. “Necessitous men are not free men.” People who are hungry and out of a job are the stuff of which dictatorships are made.

In our day these economic truths have become accepted as self-evident.

Self-evident indeed. Compared to Stoicism, most of us see social justice/Progressivist/consumer culture as a blast of real life and cold hard facts. The reasons for this came from all over:

1.) The Gospel Christ. In the Nineteenth Century, Christ’s Kingdom message was given a new emphasis, and was reinterpreted neither as spiritualized or as concretized in Catholicism but as a project for social reform. Part of this was a bona fide work of exegesis trying to discover the Gospel Christ actually preached, which seemed to demand his followers exercise a great deal of care for the poor and the oppressed. Another part of this was Christians having to keep up with the new claims of the social sciences that were arising in response to changing social conditions. As the CCC puts it:

The social doctrine of the Church developed in the nineteenth century when the Gospel encountered modern industrial society with its new structures for the production of consumer goods, its new concept of society, the state and authority, and its new forms of labor and ownership.

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But these “new structures” were themselves an impetus for anti-Stoic feeling in…

2.) The critique of Christianity. Preaching that the goods of the world are irrelevant to human fulfillment easily becomes a tool for social oppression. Why should you care if the Kings and lords have everything and the peasants and slaves have nothing? There’s no relation between having stuff and happiness, right? While Marx may have had something different in mind by “opium of the masses”, it stuck in the popular mind as a bumper-sticker critique of the Stoic contempt of external circumstances which seemed to be a core teaching of the Christian Church.

3.) The Behaviorism-Advertising Complex. If ever there was a philosophy of happiness consisting in external circumstances, it was Behaviorism, where external circumstances and environment were the only causes of human activity. The truth of Behaviorism would render Stoicism not just false but absolutely unthinkable.

The link between Behaviorism and advertising is logical because genetic. After losing an academic post for an affair with a student, leading Behaviorist John Broadus Watson went to work on Madison Avenue, supported by the idea that if he could make baby Albert hate anything he wanted, he could make men reach for their wallets. The advertisement, in other words, is simply operant conditioning, and it carries with it a set of assumptions about what provides human fulfillment.

Stoicism : an introduction

One quick introduction to Stoicism is to start with the claim that human fulfillment does not require the right external circumstances but the right internal states, the first being our control over our interpretations of what happens to us.

The justification for the claim is:

1.) To deny it makes the moral life a matter of control over external circumstances and not of individual responsibility and choice. But the moral life does not seem to be the sort of thing one can control externally. We can externally suggest, incentivize, cajole, trick, or threaten all sorts of actions, but at the end of the day the moral component of the action is either interiorly chosen or not at all. So it looks like the moral life should at least always formally consist in an interior choice and not an exterior state.

2.) Human life cannot be pointless, but if fulfillment depends on exterior circumstances then for all we know, human life could be pointless. Exterior circumstances are subject to chance both in arising and continuing, and so to make fulfillment conditional on them is to subject them to the same hand of chance. Aristotle seems to twist about under this objection in his account of the relation between fortune and happiness in Ethics 1. c. 9 and 10, and his last word on the matter seems to be a puzzling resolution:

…[t]he happy man can never become miserable; though he will not reach blessedness, if he meet with fortunes like those of Priam.

The Stoic charge against this would be that it is a distinction without a difference, though Aristotle might respond that the Stoic is demanding more precision in moral matters than one can get – happiness is to a large extent not a matter of fortune but not entirely.

Stoicism has a tendency to several extremes:

1.) The sense that the paradigm moral life is in the one who bears tremendous misfortune with equanimity. This extreme is so pronounced that it became what the word “stoic” means in vulgar speech. The connection between this sort of philosophy and the one found in the late Old Testament and New Testament/ early Church morality is clear.

2.) A paradoxical view of the world as both perfectly ordered and meaningless. If exterior circumstances don’t matter, then they are simultaneously exactly as they should be and pointless. Marcus Aurelius and Coheleth thus coalesce in a single strange view of the world.

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