The certitude of conclusions

Math is the paradigm instance of proof, and one of the things it shows us is that the relation between our initial beliefs and the conclusion we prove can have any measure of certitude. Sometimes math proves a conclusion that is so counterintuitive we have a hard time accepting it even after we see it demonstrated,* sometimes it proves something that seems so self-evident we don’t see the point of the proof at all, sometimes by the time the proof is done we are less certain about the conclusion than when we started.**

Proofs in metaphysics touch on subjects that we often find ourselves deeply committed to in one way or another, and so different persons at different times will relate in different ways to the proof. Sometimes it seems that all we’re trying to do is clarify the basis of a self-evident axiom, other times the conclusion is so off-putting we figure there has to be some problem with it somewhere. When it comes to the big topics of God, nature, freedom, mind, authority, human nature, etc. the same conclusion that is axiomatic at one time seems impossible at another. STA  notes that in his own time people viewed demonstrations for the existence of God superfluous, and so for him the proof was mostly a formal requirement of his Aristotelian attempt to build up a science about God, but for us the same proof is a scandal to our views of the universe, which even believers see as a self-sufficient system that God can only be present in by intrusion. Again, when I give Rawls’s veil of ignorance argument to students it strikes them as something they’ve believed forever, but if we gave the same argument to STA he’d find it as bizarre as the thought that you could assign family members to arbitrary roles in the family.

The point is not to argue for historical relativity but to point out a dimension of what it is to prove something. Proofs do not universally take us from an initial hypothesis with 50-50 probability to a final conclusion with a probability of 1. It’s equally silly to think that we haven’t proved something until we’ve counted up the number of persons who we’ve convinced. If all we wanted to do was convince people of some metaphysical premise the smart play is to drop proofs altogether and use marketing, peer pressure, advertising jingles, rituals, opportunities to enhance one’s reproductive fitness by believing the premise, etc.

Proofs are about trying to build up a body of knowledge, either for its own sake or the sake of some action. They are a fantastically ineffective approach to getting people to commit themselves to something, notwithstanding the non-zero percentage of the population who are committed to something because of a proof.

*Many see Euclid 3.16 like this, or Poincare’s proof that there is a possible geometry where a straight-line is perpendicular to itself.

**Russell and Whitehead taking an entire book to prove 1+1=2 is a case in point.

Wishing upon God

Ed Feser posted an interview he gave on the Drew Marshall show, which Marshall prefaced by explaining that after being a pastor for nine years his beliefs about God changed and could now be described in three ways:

1.) He was no longer certain about the existence of God. I italicize the word because Marshall himself stressed it repeatedly, and clearly took it as the best description of his beliefs.

2.) He said his beliefs shifted “from faith to hope”, i.e. he now does not say God exists but that he hopes he does. God, that is.

3.) He said he envied others who had religious experiences, and he wants the same sort of experience in order to start believing in God.

Marshall’s predicament is sympathetic and probably common, but he’s missing the key verb that describes it. He’s not hoping for God and he isn’t exactly looking for faith: he’s wishing for God.

Wishes are for unattainable things, which is why we can even wish for the impossible- like the familiar wish that we hadn’t done something. We wish when we want some good without taking even the first steps to attain it. It is a conscious want that never rises to the level of being willed.

“Hope” can be a synonym for “wish” but when used in this sense it is different from the virtue of hope. Hope as a virtue is a confident expectation of good things – so Steven Pinker or Gene Roddenberry has hope in science and a shrewd investor might have high hopes for his stock portfolio. Hope requires a commitment that has changed your actions, the way that the investor has put skin in the game by buying stocks or Pinker has tied his reputation to the success of the sciences. So Marshall hasn’t shifted from faith to hope in the way Christianity means it, but has lost both faith and hope and retreated to a wish.

Since wishes are viewed as unattainable their only possible fulfillment is from another. You can wish upon a star, say, and Marshall clearly is wishing upon God in asking for some religious experience to break though nature. How Marshall figured out that nature was autonomous and executes all its actions independently of God he does not say. Presumably he has a knock-down refutation of all cosmological arguments, since the success of any of these would mean that his experience of nature would be an experience of God.

This last claim is crucial because it points to the place where Marshall really has put his faith, though he might not have done so with full awareness. He really is confident that the world of everyday experience is one in which God can only be present by intrusion, and not by creation, conservation, or through other modalities of instrumental causality like sacraments, ritual, sacred hierarchy, etc. He’s wishing for the existence of God only from a real faith and robust hope in what Fr. Stephen has rightly critiqued as the two-story universe.

Hitler on the Left

Hitler definitively rejected Leftism only after he studied it carefully to size up its strengths and perfect them in his own political life. The first two strengths he noticed should be obvious to everyone: form collective associations with broad support and master the the tools of propaganda. The last thing he learned from Leftism were the arts of terror that go back at least to the French Revolution, but which Hitler distinguished into physical terrorism (what we usually call just “terrorism”) and spiritual terror, that is, to relentlessly demonize, demean, harass, and troll your opponents until their collapse comes “with mathematical certainty”.

The Hitlerian insight is therefore that relentless insults and trolling opponents are the same sort of political acts as flying planes into buildings or blowing up a wedding reception with a drone strike. This is probably right, but what Hitler missed in this insight was that regardless of what short-term success it might have – like compensating for a power imbalance (the planes) or keeping your casualty counts low (drone strikes) – terrorism ends up emboldening your enemy more than it breaks his spirit. Ironically, this is what Hitler should have learned even from his own experience, since he learned about terrorism precisely by discovering it among the tools of those who used it in the hopes of breaking the influence of his beliefs.

Education and Reform

The education of advertising. As Neville puts it, “when the advertisement argues that you deserve to treat yourself to a silky expensive shampoo it is quite clear that there is no reason why you deserve it.” To recognize the premise at all is to recognize that it’s highly questionable and maybe even contradictory (what’s the difference between “deserving something for no reason” and “deserving something and not deserving something at the same time”?) but adversing doesn’t educate dialectically or scientifically but by directly affecting the background assumptions of thought through image, incantation, peer pressure, playing on our automatic decision making heuristics, etc.   No one could object to the way in which advertising educates, the question is about the content.

The parable of the wheat and the tares. It’s clearly a critique of Church reform. Anyone who wants to significantly reduce the number of weeds will harm the wheat. The logic of the parable points toward the wheat itself as the reformer, harming himself in an effort to purify the field.

-The wheat and the tares has to be read as a critique of our good intentions and even of our love for the Church. Corruptio optimi pessima is not just about falls from grace but about the unintended evils that inevitably attend the search for purity, utopia, or even radical justice in the face of real and horrible evils. It’s the corruption of trying to save children by sacrificing the presumption of innocence, of responding to a mass killing by setting up a surveillance state, or of thinking that honest history can only keep us from repeating evils if the historian refuses to acknowledge any cogent, very persuasive, and sympathetic reasons why the Nazis/Communists/Pharisees/Reformers/Renaissance popes/etc did what they did.

-The Church’s sex abuse scandal is nauseating and any call to acceptance or moderate reform is even more nauseating. Heads should roll, the episcopacy should be more than decimated, the whole teaching on sexuality and celibacy should be set right… All true. But all the “shoulds” are eschatological appeals. The Ascension left us with no one to whip out the moneychangers. The Apostles went to the temple everyday but it never even crossed their minds to whip out the vendors that in all likelihood returned the same day that Christ drove them out, if they ever left at all.

-But why should the wheat harm itself by ripping out the tares? What mechanism comes into play? One answer is that the focus on (again, the real and harmful) evils of others inevitably becomes a substitute for rooting out the evils in ourselves. I’m nauseated by the sex abuse scandal, but there is the small matter of how I have no rational control over how I’m eating, speaking, getting angry, using my time, etc. Another answer is that reform too often wants to change things through dialectical reasoning and policy when we are more in need of attractive examples and a new mythological discourse that directly educates the background assumptions of thought.  How many people respond to a crisis in the Church by saying “Wow, now I really have to get to being a saint” or even “Now we need beautiful art, music, and community more than ever”?


Matter, desire, and force

-There are pre-existent things, i.e. the thing itself is what it could be later. The calf is the pre-cow/veal/ bull/ steer/ baseball glove, etc. So taken, things are material. This is not a term of art, but simply what material means.

-There is something in us that could be either well-fed or a corpse, though from our perspective the first is a desire and the second is forced. The distinction between desire and force is whether what comes later is in harmony with what is earlier or drives it out.

-The reason why Newton made force fundamental and not desire was because his physics rests on what drives out an earlier form of a state of rest or state of motion. This is what Marcus Berquist misses in his otherwise incisive criticism of the Newton’s definition of inertia as a force exercised in the change from motion to rest. The reason why no force maintains a body in rest or motion is the same reason we need not be forced to eat when we’re hungry, or grow after eating. Newton’s insight was that body as body was material for either motion or rest.

-If body as such were essentially at rest, a living body could never move and vice versa. It’s precisely the indifference of the physical to motion or rest that makes life possible. This is one thing that is missed in Aristotle’s idea of physical motion: if the elements have an essential motion or place, then life would never be a development of the physical, but an act of violence committed against it.


Human spirituality and the meta-Kantian critique

Kant makes a famous criticism of Wolff that he generalizes to all metaphysics before him, and so it can serve as a summary of the critical project:

[Wolff] would have been peculiarly well fitted to give a truly scientific character to metaphysical studies, had it occurred to him to prepare the field by a criticism of the organ, that is, of pure reason itself. That he failed to perceive the necessity of such a procedure must be ascribed to the dogmatic mode of thought which characterized his age, and on this point the philosophers of his time, as well as of all previous times, have nothing to reproach each other with.

So metaphysics failed because it forgot to give a rational criticism that would delimit the powers of reason itself. This raises the possibility of a meta-Kantian critique that demands that we first establish the conditions of the possibility of an organ critiquing itself. My claim is that this sort of meta-Kantian critique arises from the spirituality of human experience since it demands a cognitive organ that is distinct from its object only in ratio and not in re, i.e. for such a power the distinction between subject an object would be like the difference between the stairs up and the stairs down, not between stairs and the elevator.

To critique an organ is to give an account of its limits, but an essential part of doing this is to give an account of what is beyond those limits. Compare vision to proprioception – defined roughly as the sense we have in our inner ear that detects what direction is down. We know that there are possible experiences of EM waves outside of what our eyes can see, but there is no possible correct experience of what is down beyond what proprioception detects.

The criticism of cognitive organs demands resolving whether their limits are drawn in a larger field of possible experience – as is the case with vision – or whether the limits of the organ are coterminous with the field of its possible experiences, as is the case with proprioception. If the first, the critique of the organ requires knowing that there are possible objects of experience outside of our own but we could not experience them, if the second the critique of the organ demands knowing there are no possible experiences other than the ones we have.

If the organ of thought can critique itself it therefore has the resources to raise this question about thought and to come to some more or less reasonable conclusion. So are the “objects of possible human experience” like the EM waves that we see or like the ground that we detect? And to raise the meta-Kantian critique again, what sort of cognitive organ could decide that question? 

Minimally, it requires that what light is to the eyes or the ground is to proprioception, human experience is to human experience, i.e. the cognitive organ in question needs to be such that the distinction between object and subject is only in ratio and not in re. We therefore couldn’t model it either on the sense organs that detect features of the world, or on the central nervous system (whether as whole or part) detecting activity in another part.

There are, of course, all sorts of machines with a part that scans whether they are working as a whole, but this is not the model of cognition we are looking for. The copy machine in my office reports when any part of it is broken, including the part that scans for broken parts. But this requires that the part that scans be different in re from what it scans, since if it weren’t the scanning of what was defective would itself be a defective scan, that is, the report of something being unreliable would necessarily be an unreliable report, IOW, the error report that  “scanning part A101 is defective” would need to be disregarded.

So no physical system could serve as a model for the sort of cognition that the Kantian critique requires. Since all require distinctions in re between subject and object, either as one whole to another or one part to another part. But to be capable of answering the question of what limits there are to cognition requires a mode of cognition where the subjective-objective distinction is only in ratio and not in re.

Defining life

1.) Per the Voyager project, life was “a chemical system capable of Darwinian evolution”. The definition was a relation –  a principle – to the largest body of knowledge about the definiendum. So “the definition of X” = what makes for X-ology. Cf. Aristotle in De anima: 

[I]n all demonstration a definition of the essence is required as a starting-point, so that definitions which do not enable us to discover the derived properties, or which fail to facilitate even a conjecture about them, must obviously, one and all, be dialectical and futile.

My definition of life though form (soul) is a part of a discourse that explains the hierarchy of forms, with each substance transcending a lower substance. This discourse compensates for a blindspot in the biology with which we are more familiar.

2.) Chemical system. A system is an organization of substances. This suggests to many that a living thing is an accident of non-living substance, though life is not just substantial but paradigmatically so.

3.) The original Eliminative Materialism was to deny life was substantial, or to believe in what Dekoninck described as the “Lifeless World of Biology“. The present denial of consciousness is the latest manifestation of our confusion about allowing anything to be substantial if the non-living world is. This is the blindspot mentioned above.

4.) Aristotle saved the substantiality of living and non-living substance by making being arise from form. All forms transcend matter, and one grade of form transcends the grades beneath it. Form(1) in matter makes an object of physics. Form(2) does to matter all that form(1) does in addition to making it alive. Form(3) does to matter all that form(2) does in addition to making an object and subject of consciousness. Form(4) makes quidditative forms equal or beneath it exist objectively.

5.) Form(4) things have a bottom, so that the only thing beneath them is not itself a form (4). There is also a top, that is entirely and purely objective, and in no way  conditioned by the non-objective. The bottom are human persons, the top divine ones.

6.) All forms tend to transcendence, just as the attraction of floating elements in space and collapsing into stars is already part of the story of how life arises.

7.) In one sense higher forms are emergent from lower ones. All things tend to transcendence, but emergence only accounts for a desire to transcend and not its fulfillment. If form(1)’s could think, they would know life only by proving that it existed, though the whole of their being is a sort of tendency to be subsumed into it. Emergence of form is only the desire for or tendency to creation.

The four degrees of form

Form first adds to matter to make a natural thing and then three later forms add to form-matter composites to make the living, the conscious and the noetic.

1.) Nature. As essentially mobile it divides into matter and form as principles of motion. Matter is fundamentally an indifference to any particular direction or operation, but selects any form that dominates over it to the exclusion of all the forms.

Aristotle hypothesized four fundamental forms that could initially dominate matter, divided by the directions of the universe to which they tended (fire and earth moved up and down absolutely, air and water so moved relatively). We’ve since replaced this idea with other hypotheses of what is moving absolutely and relatively, but through these different changing paradigms Aristotelian matter remains whatever it is either proximately or remotely the basis of relative or absolute motion. Obviously, our present notion of the elements has nothing to do with matter in this sense, and the role that earth, fire, air, and water played for Aristotle is now played by space and stuff in space.

Form adds to matter a determinate relative or absolute motion of a subject.

2.) Life. While nature moves either always or sometimes relatively, all the activities of life are absolute.  If one views an organism as a purely physical system, life adds to that system an absolute direction. For example, chemical combinations only change relatively from O2 to CO2, but animal respiration has an absolute direction. The material world knows only combination and separation, and nothing of “waste” or “material” or (a fortiori) of what acts on material to do its work. What arises in the living physical system for the first time is agency above and beyond mere interaction. 

Form as life (soul) adds agency to natural interactive action.

3.) The Conscious Subject. Usually called “sentience”, it adds objectivity to the mere agency of the subject.  What is part of an experience is part of life, and the sensed world is part of experience. While mere soul is the form of the living subject’s body, actual sentience or consciousness is the form of the objective world outside of the subject, since apart from this world there can be sensation only potentially.

Soul as sentient adds to the subjective agent a form of the exterior, objective world. 

4.) Nous. We now understand what nous is in its opposition to a conscious subject. The conscious subject has objectivity only as a component to its experience, just as form is only a component of natural being. The objective form of conscious experience is also intrinsically constituted by a subjective reality that is distinct from it. Whether one senses it as warm or cold depends on what animal he is, what colors one sees depend on the same thing, and all the arguments for the relativity or non-existence of sentient reality (Plato, Berkeley, Idealism, etc.) turn on realizing this subjective component in the experience. It’s important in this connection to remember that perspective is essential to this sort of conscious experience.

It is not just sensation that has this subjective component, but also any unconscious component to experience like personality structure, IQ, gendered existence, etc. Just how far these subjective components go is not clear, but they are deeply structural to the experience of the conscious subject.

Nevertheless, there is an object in human experience that is not perspectival, and even if it is inflected through subjective experience and historical reality it is not intrinsically constituted by it. Being, truth, unity, the real or unreal, or even the recognition of sentient experience as true or real or illusory are all purely objective. Even if we are embedded in a peculiar perspective we are nevertheless capable of hermeneutical translations of perspectives other than our own, which can only make sense by allowing us some access to, yes, “the view from nowhere”.  Even if one denies any content to this purely objective stance (which I think is false, but conceivable) being, truth, reality, etc. can only function as placeholders if we already grasp that there is something which is capable of receiving infinite possible content.

We called sensation a conscious subject because subjectivity is essential to its consciousness. We only call nous “subjective” in the sense that anything that acts is a subject, not because its subjectivity constitutes the conscious experience. The form of nous is nothing other than the form as it exists in reality, and this form of life/knowledge is “subjective” only in the sense that the subject is aware of nothing other than what is real, even of its own reality. It is for this reason that, so far as we are nous, what is subjective is simply false.

Life as Nous adds to the partial objectivity of the conscious subject the forms things entirely as they are. 

Blue buttercups

One attempt to explain Kant’s objection to the Ontological Argument claims that it boils down to this: non-existence is not a property, therefore existence is not. The objection is puzzling since it’s even more evident that a non-property is not a property, while a property is, and so the fact that non-X is a non-property can’t prove that an X isn’t.

Another problem is that when the adverb ‘non” is used apart from any context it’s what Aristotle called an infinite name, which is not a name at all since significance must be ranged under the principle of contradiction while infinite names can be said as much of beings and non-beings.

(This is probably the response Aristotle would have given to the raven paradox.)


Eternity containing time

On any account of eternity it contains all times, but on the lowest level all this means is that the eternity is timeline with arrows on both ends. Boëthius broke with this idea and made eternity something entirely different form time, but the tradition that followed him said that eternity did not just differ from but also contained time. But what sense can we make of eternity containing time?

One image is that eternity contains time like a vase contains water, in that both have a shape, but the vase has it in itself while the water doesn’t. Eternity contains time in the sense of bestowing an existence that time does not have of itself. But what could it mean to say that time has no existence of itself? One approach would be to notice that every analysis of time tends to problematize its existence, if not deny it altogether. Theories of time either assert that only the present is real or all times are equally real, but first does away with time since the present is no more time than a point is a line, and the second does away with time since if all times are equally real they would be so all at once, and to consider anything all at once is to occlude its temporality. Sure, it’s obvious that time exists, just as it’s obvious that the water is ten feet deep. On closer analysis, however, it turns out that saying that water is ten feet deep is tied up with its container being at least that deep, and so it is with speaking about the reality of time.

Eternity contains time in a more perfect way by gathering it together and giving it meaning. This is clear in the way that fashion differs from art, since fashion : art :: time : eternity. Both fashion and art  hit something ideal or paradigmatic, but the fad hits on this only transiently. Art arises from fashions only to the extent that it transcends their temporality. Art may never do this entirely – even Chartres looks old and Mozart sounds old – but it’s clear that we can reach an ideal beyond the merely current or historical, and to do so is to contain all times. Art is not a long-lasting fad but a transcendence of it, one which transcends precisely by not being limited to its time.

If this is right then the beauty of God is properly eternal and contains all being, in the way that art captures the ideal state of what it represents in a way that cannot be dated. With us, this art is always limited by the possibilities of the medium and our historical existence, but in creating ex nihilo these limitations are not a factor. The beauty of God is therefore his containment of the universe in the transcendence of any time, and to look upon him is both to recognize what was already known and to see it for the first time.

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