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.

Aristotelian and Lucretian accounts of matter

Aristotle defined matter relative to motion as a subject of change. The more familiar definition of matter is the Lucretian one that defined it relative to the sense of touch. In this sense classical physics will come to see matter as “hard” or “impenetrable”, i.e. as giving resistance to forces pushing on it. Over time the this was distilled down to its essence as whatever resisted attempts get it to change from motion to rest or vice-versa, which is now called mass. 

The definitions seem to be in tension when Aristotle sees the subject as being perfected by change. Why resist perfection? The perfection, however, comes about by overpowering and destroying whatever form the object has, which is the source of inertial resistance, i.e. mass. The Lucretian definition of matter is therefore what Aristotle would see as an account of a form as terminus a quo of a change. Newton’s first law therefore develops the Lucretian insight into the peculiar form of physical objects relative to a possible change, which is how we should understand mass.

But if mass is an account of form as opposed to matter, what’s matter? It’s whatever would be equally happy to be active or inactive, at motion or rest, but which can be counted on to hold onto whichever is more dominant. As Aristotle put it, it is the female desiring the male or, as we’ve now refined the idea, the female/nature selecting for dominant traits. If this is right, the ideal body is analogous to the perfection of pair bonding, with the glorified body being the analogue to the indissoluble sacramental bond.

Law and extrinsic dignity

STA divides actions into an interior principle (either first or second nature) and an exterior principle: law. Law is thus both a link to something higher and the recognition of a constraint on how much we can do by ourselves; in the first sense it is a source of dignity and in the second sense a limitation of it.

(1) Law is taking part in something above ourselves, so there can only be law to the extent that we understand our actions in this way. This often happens though the antiquity of law, which gives the sense that this is how things have always been done, but it minimally requires the universal conviction that law deserves the sacrifice of any gain that could come at its expense. Where this conviction is not universal, the sense grows that law is for suckers, and that its veneration is a myth that the strong use to keep the stupid in line and to get them to die on cue. This seems to be the conviction that arose in the U.S. after Vietnam, where any possible source of law in tradition, government or patriotic feeling was called into question.

For all that, we still derive dignity by participation in a collective that transcends us: those who go to Ivy league schools enjoy the glow of the alma mater, sports fans rise and fall with the fortunes of the team, scholars congratulate themselves at passing peer review, etc. What’s been largely missing since Vietnam is a common dignity that could be the foundation of law. Sports teams and colleges don’t write laws, and allegiance to a political party is not to the entity that makes law.

(2) Participation requires subordination of the part to the dignity of the whole, so the person has to take himself to be less dignified than the whole. That vague contempt one might take for everyone that didn’t go to Harvard is a contempt for the a state that everyone is born into. So far as we live under the idea that we exist and have dignity of ourselves we will see no point in participated dignity, and in this sense individualism is contrary to law. While it’s unavoidable that we will relate to our dignity both through our talents and intrinsic qualities and our participation in larger collectives, nevertheless the individualist spirit as such must marginalize and occlude this latter source of dignity.

Persons in individualist cultures will be keenly aware of the ways in which collective dignity can destroy individual value: the dangers of conformity and patriotism, the stupidity of mob behavior, etc. They also know the thrill of believing that one is the master of his actions with no need for exterior principles. All my reasons can be my own, all my accomplishments can be by my effort… Doesn’t the principle of sufficient reason require that all that ever occurs must have a sufficient reason that I can know for myself? 

But operation follows existence, and only God exists without participating in anything else. All created activity is under law, and so the universe must have at least one Dionysian hierarchy and we shouldn’t be surprised to find more of them.

The reality of law constrains how much we can know, since all knowledge is within us but law is a source of our action that is not within us.



Exploring a definition of transcendence

Hypothesis: Transcendence is part-whole relation, such that A transcends B when both share a predicate (making for the relevant whole of which A and B are parts)  in such a way that no multiplication of of B’s could equal an A or make up for a loss of it.

The common predicate.


The Trancendens (A)


The transcensum (B)


Human common goods



formal part


material parts

Biological common goods

Used/ had by a living thing



a species


Meaningful/ goals of action




Particular acts of life


Learned by experience






Worlds of experience or attitudes toward the world








Finite, temporal modes of knowing


Angelic knowledge


Human knowledge


Knowledge by revelation


Beatific vision


Knowledge in via



Against spiritual matter

Hylomorphism defines matter as the subject that receives different forms over time, so if a hylomorphic thinker also defined finite cognition as one that receives different cognitive forms at different times, then it seems that he’s committed to saying that the knower is material in one way or another.  So why would one think that finite contain was immaterial or spiritual when receiving different forms is what matter is?

STA’s most exhaustive treatment of this is in De spiritualis creaturis  q. 8 where he reduces matter to its status as potency. I want to give a give an argument by reducing finite cognition to its first principle.

Finite cognition starts from the principle of contradiction.  As a judgment about the world it is the claim that contradictions cannot exist, as a claim that about thought it is a claim that one must be true and the other false. So the presence of contradictories is impossible in the world but possible for the mind, since the contradiction is precisely what the mind judges impossible.

If we are arguing then I have to simultaneously think about my argument and yours. If not, we are not arguing at all but delivering unrelated monologues. The whole drama of the argument is from the contradiction at its heart, and so the contradictory co-presence that is impossible for the world is necessary to the life of the mind.

So the difference between cognitive and non-cognitive forms is that cognitive ones allow for the presence of contradictories in their subject while non-cognitive forms do not, and this fact itself is the condition for cognitive forms existing at all. So wherever and by whatever means forms constitute a world they must differ from the form as known, and forms constitute a world either by existing in matter or in themselves. It is uncontroversial to point out that a form existing in mind (i.e. due to its mind relativity) does not exist in itself, but for the same reason it cannot exist in matter. If we made mind a material subject we would deny the first principle of its existence.

Magic vs. religion

Matt Dillahunty and Derren Brown both show that some Christians use mentalist tricks and stage magic to arouse the feeling of being struck in the spirit or of experiencing miraculous healing, and Brown even puts on atheist revivals where he mimics the “word of the spirit” and “faith healing”. This has been done before: at the end of the 18th Century Franz Mesmer made a name for himself by reproducing the effects of popular Catholic exorcist, and so played a part in the Church tightening up the criteria for what behavior merited liturgical intervention, and one of the dominant criticisms of religion in the 19th Century was the enthusiasm on display in personal or Pentecostal religion.

I’m someone with an allergic reaction to charismatic religion and so I can watch all this debunking with some degree of detachment, and maybe even smug satisfaction. But not entirely. Any religion has to allow some value to numinous or extraordinary experience. My own religion at least allows for charismatic practice and requires some ongoing, officially recognized miracles, and I was not unaffected by this criticism of the the image of Guadalupe. So my own religion too can’t just declare a pox on all numinous experience, and though I prefer the Catholic approach to pentecostal or numinous spiritual experience I also think there is another avenue of critique of its naturalist debunkers.

The ur-faceoff between religion and stage magic was between Moses and the magicians. Moses makes snakes and the magicians make them too; moses turns the river red and so do the magicians; Moses makes frogs and the magicians, etc. Each time the magicians replicate what Moses does we’re told “And Pharaoh’s heart was hardened, as the Lord had told them”, i.e. Pharaoh is convinced he knows exactly what is going on.

But after the plague of frogs we get this exchange:

And the magicians did so with their enchantments, and brought up frogs upon the land of Egypt.

Then Pharaoh called for Moses and Aaron, and said, Intreat the Lord, that he may take away the frogs from me, and from my people; and I will let the people go, that they may do sacrifice unto the Lord

10 And Moses said, To morrow, be it according to thy word: that thou mayest know that there is none like unto the Lord our God…

13 And the Lord did according to the word of Moses; and the frogs died out of the houses, out of the villages, and out of the fields.

While Pharaoh is convinced that his magicians can bring forth everything that Moses can, it never even crosses his mind to ask if they can take it away. Magic can mimic God’s action in the world, but it is unable to reign in the power it unleashes. The application to technology is unmistakable – no one misses its positive benefits, but the thought of restricting its advance strikes all of us as absurd. The power we attain over nature comes with a corresponding sense of hopelessness at the thought of being able to avoid doing anything that can be done, no matter how monstrous or destructive it might be.


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