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.


Conclusions as per se effects

One reason to distinguish soundness and validity is because it’s clear that formal validity does not require the argument be true. This is easy to show when one or both of the premises is false:

All blue colored fruits are bananas

All monkeys love blue colored fruits

All monkeys love bananas

So far, so good. But if we try to add to the idea of validity that a false conclusion never follows from true premises, we hit the problem of the Port-Royal syllogism:

Who calls you an animal speaks the truth

Who calls you a jackass calls you an animal

So who calls you a jackass speaks the truth.*

My solution is that neither the first syllogism nor the second have true conclusions since a conclusion as such is something that follows from premises, and so the conclusion of the first is that monkeys love bananas so far as they are blue, and the conclusion of the second is that it is true to call you a jackass so far as you are homogenous with one. The first claim is simply false and the second is not true per se.

The conclusion is an effect of the premises as cause, and so only follows from them so far as the premises are causal, and the crucial qualification of causality is being per se. This is the shortest way out of Mill’s critique that the syllogism is vacuous – causes aren’t vacuous and premises are causes.

In hypothetical syllogisms, like “If/then” or “either/or” this is also true, but the major premise is not the parts of the conditional but the conditional itself. So the conditional “if square circles exist, logical contradictions exist” is true, though both of its parts are impossible.


*The syllogism can be universalized to show how anything is anything, just replace “You” and “jackass” with the two things you want to identify, and replace “animal” with any common genus or predicate.


The Ancien Régime vs. the Veil of Ignorance

Rawls’s Veil of Ignorance is a thought experiment that attempts to show why the maximization of equality should be the goal of justice. We imagine ourselves setting up a system of justice in which our role will be randomly assigned. Given we might show up anywhere, justice must consist in trying to make all roles as equal as possible. I want to modify Nussbaum’s well-known objection to explain what the Ancien Régime (AR) would find unintelligible or question-begging in the experiment.

Imagine using the Veil of Ignorance to figure out what a well-ordered family would look like. I start off with a normal distribution of toddlers, marriageable women, teenage girls, old men, men between 25-40, etc. No matter how I set it up, it is impossible to assign persons to the roles randomly. The toddler can’t be the mother of the old man, and it’s impossible to figure out what the 25-40 year old man would do in the role of the teenage girl. The structure already assigns the normal distribution of persons their place in the scheme. Setting up a family at all is to assume that personal roles can’t be randomly assigned.

The AR saw societies as relevantly similar to families. One couldn’t just assign anyone to be a peasant or a Lord since reality simply came carved up into peasants and Lords. The objection to this idea is the familiar claim that all men are created equal, which is the foundation of liberal theory in opposition to the AR forms of justice.

Arguably, the AR had unrealistic expectations that heredity preserved peasants as peasants and Lords as Lords, but the liberal regime has its own unrealistic explanations that social roles are homogenous enough to be filled under the Veil of Ignorance. And, of course, no liberal society has ever been able to arrange a society where the social hierarchy did not take into account age, intellectual ability, familial role, etc, all of which are set by the nature of things.

If this is right, the AR will tend to dishonesty in its account of how natural and God-given social roles are. This is, in fact, Plato’s “noble lie”. The liberal regime will tend to dishonesty in its account of how fluid social roles are, and how much of social hierarchy is already set in the nature of things.

The dark side of assuming human equality is that unequal outcomes require either structural injustice (if the underachievers are “good”) or laziness (if they are “bad”). In other words, inequality is always a moral problem, which was exactly what the Veil of Ignorance was supposed to explain. This will end up either with false accusations of injustice against rulers or false beliefs that those at the bottom deserve what they get.

Initial claims of consciousness

A: Why bother with theistic arguments anyway? What do they show about what God is to me?

B: Huh?

A: Sure, God created the universe, but for what? There are infinite possible creations that make it nothing to me. 

B: Like what?

A: Maybe it’s a Calvinist universe of the massa damnata where almost everyone is damned (or just me); maybe we are fifty years from the definite revelation that shows that all of us are damned anyway; maybe this is the possible universe where there is a contradiction in happiness.

B: Those all seem pretty far-fetched.

A: And how would the world look different if they were true?

B: Fair enough. So is your point that it wouldn’t matter if God existed if one of the evils he allowed was a pointless human existence?

A: Yes. Any account of the created world allows for the existence of evils, so what does it matter to me if the world is created if one of those evils is my own pointlessness or ultimate suffering?

B: And that’s why you said you didn’t care about theistic arguments.

A: Exactly. Why should I care if God exists if one the the evils he allows is my own pointlessness or ultimate suffering?

B: Don’t look at me, I don’t buy into the arguments anyway.

A: Right, but even if you were an atheist there would be no assurance that there was a point to all this. If your consciousness was a program being run by some advertising agency to see how effective their campaigns would be throughout life, all this would look the same as it does now.

B: So what do yo want, or what do you feel is missing? Some sort of guarantee to consciousness?

A: No, that begs the question I’m asking. A guarantee is something over and above an initial claim. I want the initial claim, like “your actions a part of a larger project in which your good matters” or “No matter what you try, there is little practical possibility of getting more than occasional mid-grade happiness and depression which your death will not improve upon.”

B: “Not improve upon” : like Hell, nothingness, finding out that it was all advertising research…?

A: Sure, take your pick. Even before death it’s not clear how heavily constrained my happiness is. How much I can do to make myself happier just isn’t clear to me. It would be disheartening to discover that happiness or virtue or whatever were as hard as weight loss. I suspect it probably is, and that after you take into account genetic factors there is relatively little you can do to move the needle.

B: So what’s the takeaway, then?

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