Number and existence

The contemporary thin theory of existence says that existence is just the denial of the number zero or that there is at least one of some concept. To exist is to have a first instance, or (if we’re precise about not calling something first until there is a second) in having something that is able to serve as the first of some series.

Concepts have plural instances in two ways. The number of some things is constrained by having enough stuff to make them out of, e.g. how many cookies you can have is constrained by how much dough you have, and the number of possible mice by how much carbon the stars have made, etc. But how many species you can have is not constrained by how much stuff one has but the number of formal or specific differences, which also accounts for how we have a number of sciences, number systems, geometries, angels, political systems, ideologies, word meanings, languages, etc.  So having more than one of some concept is said in one way when speaking of how species multiply concept genera and how individuals multiply genera and species.

What the “concept with at least one member” account of existence assumes is that number is not just any enumeration but a plurality that arises in the absence of formal difference, i.e. what the Medievals called “matter as the principle of individuation”.

Ancient vs. CM physics (3)

Classical-modern (CM) physics sees motion as relative to any fixed point, ancient physics sees motion as relative to its own from which and to which. So if I walk to the fridge, on the ancient account I am moving with respect to the couch I left and the fridge I’m going to, whereas in CM physics I am moving with respect to these, your right earlobe, the center of gravity of all the beetles in Peru, or any point that one can specify in on the blackboard-space of the entire universe.

The accounts arise from differences over motion per se. For Aristotle motion as such was a fulfillment of a mobile, and so was relative to its own terms. In CM physics, however, motion is per se relative not to some concrete physical terminus but to the mathematical theater of all motions in space, so one says either that motion is relative either to a subsistent mathematical space or to all the objects in the universe. But it’s probably wrong that there is any subsistent mathematical space, so motions are relative to the universe as a whole.

There is also a way in which ancient physics is relative to the whole universe: all physical motion reduces to change of place, and all places reduce to the whole of the universe. So all accounts of physics agree that qua physical, the ultimate description of anything is that the universe is universing.

The division between ancient and modern physics is not over any action qua physical, but over the way in which we are explaining things when we explain them as physical. One can explain shapes and squares as figures, but there is nothing more to being a shape than being a figure while there is more to a square than being one. The question is thus whether there is a formal difference that one adds to the motion that goes beyond place-shifting. For Aristotle there was, since, as mentioned above, beyond place-shifting there was fulfillment or the good, and since this belonged to all physical things as physical there was another axis of description than just that the universe was universing. It was because motion reduced to goodness or perfection that it was defined not just relative to the universe but relative to its terms.

Here again, however, we might not have a real difference between Ancient and CM physics but only the difference between an Ancient summary sketch of the whole and a CM attempt to fill out all details. If the universe is universing, universing is its fulfillment. Acting universe-ly can’t be the whatever-happens in the universe any more than acting squirrel-ly could be whatever happens to a squirrel, since the latter occasionally includes being hit by a truck or being ten feet from a cow, neither of which describe what squirrels are. A complete physics – any physics – requires an account of what is fulfilling or good for a universe. CM physics seems to want to work toward this sort of explanation from the bottom up, filling out all the details until one gets a view of the whole; Ancient physics gives a summary sketch of the whole trajectory of the discourse and tries to fill out the details with subsequent sciences. Either approach runs the risk of losing sight of the ultimate goal: one complaint against Ancient physics is that it was too quick to think it had figured out the various goods of the things it studied (mountains are there to make men remember the loftiness of creation or whatever) but it’s just as incisive a critique to point out that CM physics loses sight of the good of the universe that is required in order for it to be universing at all.

Plato is still right about the causality of the good, even if science is ten thousand years from being in a position to get the first glimpse of what the good is.

Ancient vs. Classical-modern physics (2)

If motion is ontologically indefinable in the way that mathematical physics seems to take it, it is an irreducible transcendental and so is convertible with being.

One can do physics just fine without ever taking it as an ontology, and one can have this ontology without doing physics from a conviction that motion is unavoidably given.

By motion I’m including time, and so the conviction that there is no thought without time is a variant on this same idea. Here too kinesis is being.

But is it indefinable? The insistence that motion is always background relative suggests that it is a sort of relation. Still, if it is a relation it is not in the category of relation and is therefore still transcendental, and the claim would remain that there is nothing more one can say to specify the transcendental relation than “it is moving with respect to”. In the end, this is all the background amounts to: that motion is always motion with respect to something.

Ancient vs. classical-modern physics

Descartes gives a half-hearted definition of motion, but it’s so obviously circular that his point has to be that no definition is necessary. Ancient physics thus starts from a definition of motion and classical-modern physics doesn’t. Why does this matter?

If motion is undefinable it can’t be in a genus and is therefore transcendental, but ancient physics also didn’t specify a genus for motion. The difference is that the ancient definition makes motion transcendental but reducible (the act of potential with privation) while the modern account makes it irreducible. The ancient physics reduced act, potential and privation to the primacy of act or perfection, and so one interpretation of classical/modern physics would be an account of motion where motion itself plays the role that act or perfection plays in ancient physics. Consequently, energy becomes both cause and effect of all action and interactive forces are seen as excluding all other causality as superfluous.

The harmony objection in Phaedo

Simmias responds to Socrates’s arguments for the immortality of soul* by claiming soul is like the harmony of a lyre. The example is particularly apt, since it’s clear that Socrates praises the soul as a heavenly and transcendent thing and the timbre of the lyre evokes the same sense of the heavenly. For all that, however, the heavenliness of the lyre is just the vibration of the string and disappears as soon as the string breaks. The example thus has the effect of advancing the sort of hard-nosed/ debunking rhetoric so typical of the materialist tradition. Soul is just the proper functioning of a machine, and the notes of the lyre = the good working order of the vending machine = the ticking of the clock, etc.

Socrates gives two responses, the first denying that the soul is functional and the second claiming that even if the soul is functional, it is not like the functioning of a body.

Soul cannot be a function because soul as functioning is understood through virtue or health while soul as soul is understood as giving a sort of existence. As functioning, soul has a greater or lesser activity and operation (fish swimming, birds nesting, dogs chasing cars) but as soul it gives something its existence as a species and so isn’t more or less of a type, but simply the species that it is (fish/squirrel/bird).

But even if soul were function it is not like the functioning of the vending machine or the computer program. Soul commands and arranges matter. The central nervous system doesn’t just give rise to desires but is shaped as a whole by them, and soul preserves the unity of the animal even with all matter flowing into it and being sloughed off again. While the activity of a whole physical system is an effect of its parts, the activity of a living system is not purely physical except by abstraction. Of itself, life is irreducibly bio-physical. Said another way, life is a physical system but not a physicalist system.

Socrates’s responses complement each other – life functions are substantial functions in opposition to being the sort of accidental functions we understand best. Saying the man walks or the rock falls is not the same kind of predication as saying that the man lives. Some activities don’t just result from or inhere in substances but constitute the substance in its species. To use language that STA will apply to the Trinity, some processions are not accidents coming out of substances but are things that are one with their principle precisely by coming forth from it.

*None of these arguments change if one substitutes “life” for “soul”, though one has to understand “life” in a formal sense as whatever a living thing has.

MS and ~MS

At some point I was made head of humanities at my school. So far no problems have arisen from the fact that I don’t believe humanities exist.

Clarification: Literature, Philosophy, Theology, History, Classical Languages, etc all exist, (duh) and I know all sorts of persons see them as so unified that they teach all of them in one course, but I disagree with the approach and think it reflects a brokenness in modern curricula that ultimately stultifies both the humanities and math/science

As a purely negative description, humanities is non-math/science (~MS). One could just divide the curriculum into MS and ~MS, but to leave it at this gives us no reason to include ~MS in the curriculum and no standard by which to exclude all manner of nonsense. Say what you will about (insert wacky university humanities course here) that it’s ~MS is beyond reproach. It’s not surprising that (whatever) found its way into the program, if all it had to be was unscientific and/or knowable by the innumerate.

Presumably the word “humanities” is supposed to be more than a negation, like the topics of the study that humanize students. But why assume that the point of teaching theology/ classical languages/ history is some generic humanizing influence common to all of them? I teach theology because theology is worth teaching, not because it is the delivery vehicle for a humanization that might just as well come from philosophy or classical languages.

More problematically, why is MS not part of this humanizing project? My own experience is Plato’s, that it’s hard to learn what an argument is without spending at least five hours a week for a year with Euclid, and half of what gets called humanities is just extended argumentation.

The division of MS and humanities probably felt natural because there is enough of a difference between  quantitative and verbal intelligence to teach the two topics separately, but the separation between them has led to a ~MS that has little sense of argumentative rigor and to an MS that understands itself exactly as Russell did:

Pure mathematics consists entirely of assertions to the effect that, if such and such a proposition is true of anything, then such and such another proposition is true of that thing. It is essential not to discuss whether the first proposition is really true, and not to mention what the anything is, of which it is supposed to be true…[M]athematics may be defined as the subject in which we never know what we are talking about, nor whether what we are saying is true.

While MS is the paradigm of human knowledge, what so many students find infuriating is this sort of arbitrariness. Some subjectively-felt-arbitrariness is essential to any kind of learning, since if students could perfectly understand the material at the beginning they wouldn’t even be students, but Russell’s account is way stronger than this. It demands smothering any fundamental understanding in order to get on with the work of constructing the biggest formal system we can, and if that’s what MS comes to it’s hard to see why it should be viewed as anything more than a hobby for eccentrics. Why not dedicate twelve years of compulsory study to playing chess or writing clever palindromes?

Ah, but MS gives us technology! Our indifference to the truth of MS is tolerable because it works, and often impossible things work better than possible ones.  Engineering works great if you believe both that  the earth is both infinitely small and infinitely large, or that the sun moves and stays still, or that small amounts of friction or wind resistance don’t exist, etc (The puzzles of QM might amount to nothing more strange than the indifference engineers have always had to incompatible models that both work) I don’t want to sharply distinguish the engineer’s indifference from speculative understanding: what works is probably the ultimate sense of truth among things existing in matter since the fieri* of matter is a coming-to-be because it is a being made. If this is is right, however, it’s being very poorly taught in our own MS curricula, since we can’t teach MS as pre-engineering unless the students are learning it with their hands. As a rule, they aren’t.

The division between MS and humanities is downstream from a fissure that gave us a Russellian MS and a “humanities” where we could still be allowed to ask what we are talking about and whether what we are saying is true. As plausible as this division seemed by the division of types of intelligence, it is fundamentally unsustainable and leads to the perversion of both MS and ~MS. While it’s easy to joke about the ways “humanities” have collapsed into silliness, lack of rigor, and gullible theorizing, they are simply the canary in the mine. More than one observer has noticed that the science of the last forty years has been living off past glory and given to faking its results.

*”To move” and “become” are paradigmatic middle-voice verbs, as “to move” in material things is always ambiguous between agents and patients. But agency and reception are categorically different despite being welded together in matter. Puzzles about spiritual or even formal activity both in God and creatures trace back to an attempt to give everything the obscure and ambiguous existence and activity of material things.

Unjust consent

The Sexual Revolution increased sexual access for everyone and so accepted an increase in access for exploiters and abusers (Hey, if you want an omelet).

Objection: there was a widespread agreement to increase sexual access only among consenting adults.

Response: Business transactions make it clear that all kinds of consent are exploitive. Consent is usually given in timeshare sales, phone bills 50-100% greater bottom lines than announced in the big print, donations or campaign contributions that are functionally equivalent to bribes, payday loans, loans made to those in dire circumstances, loans made at no risk to the lender, most college loans, most historically existing forms of debt peonage, accepting perpetual slavery as a punishment for default or as the price for anything at all etc. Since sex might be the only thing we want more than money, there are as many ways in which sexual consent is exploitive.

People agree – consent – all the time to exploitive, wrong, and unjust things, and it is silly to protest that their agreement makes everything right. But this is where everything gets interesting, since we find ourselves trapped by the question of what justice looks like in sexual relations, i.e. what are sort of sexual relationships to which one ought to consent? This is, however, exactly the sort of question that the Sexual Revolution wanted to replace with an economy of sheer consent, and it’s here that one sees the contradiction at its heart.


The immaterial

Material being has a logico-ontological sense of what is more or less designated on the Porphyrian tree and an epistemological sense of what is directly or indirectly sensible, and so immaterial being is an existent that we cannot locate on a Porphyrian tree and which is not a direct or indirect object of sensation or mathematization.

As non-Porphyrian, the immaterial is described only with analogous terms. Substance, accident, time, motion, place, act of a body, activity, life, thing, being, etc are all used of it in senses which, being non-Porphyrian, can’t be located in a remote genus. We are not allowed the vaguest knowledge of what precisely spirit is or how it functions, nor can we model its activity or understand it by mathematical or algebraic laws. As extensive as our knowledge can get of the immaterial, it can only establish that certain things exist and that they have certain functions. The point where science usually starts, with the knowledge that something is true and with certain functions, and that we should turn to knowing how it does what it does and what exactly it is according to a precise definition, is where our knowledge of the immaterial ends. Over time one gets used to hitting the point in the conversation about the immaterial when one comes to the wall where further discourse becomes impossible. The wall is sometimes lovely in its own way. You can touch it knowing it’s what will fall at death.

But knowledge in any domain is infinite, and there is no end to propositions-known-that about the immaterial. Even the space within the walled garden is infinite.


Choice and the God of the Five Ways

The God of the Five Ways can only be seen as ruling out free choice in a way that would rule out any agency. If God’s causality in the specification of every action rules out the agency* of choice it rules out the agency of throwing, biting, jumping, running, growing or whatever. The problem with this is that the Five Ways presuppose the reality of all these sorts of motions or changes, modes of agency, kinds of generation, etc as first premises, and so if some corollary to the argument rules out free choice then the whole argument for the existence of God eats its own tail, like this:

1.) Changes, agency, generation, (CAG) etc are real and not merely apparent.

2.) If CAG are real, God is real and not merely apparent.

3.) If God is real, there is no choice, agency, generation, etc.

4.) Therefore, CAG are not real but merely apparent.

A Thomist can either accept that choice and predestination are compatible or deny that there is any proof for the existence of God at all,** but he can’t prove the existence of God and then use it as a presupposition in an argument that choices are not real. God and choice – or any creaturely agency – stand or fall together.

*This is true by definition of the Second Way, which starts from the reality of agent causes in sensation, but it is necessarily true of all the Five Ways in one way or another. To deny that fire burns, for example, denies the letter of the First Way.

**To take this second option, however, undercuts the whole edifice of Thomism, and so would be the end of anything deserving the name.

Literally true

If your eye cause you to sin, pluck it out is supposedly a paradigm case of hyperbole or exaggeration, but why not just take it as a literally true counterfactual? If a foot actually were the root of all your moral failings, and amputating it would instantly transform you into a morally perfect sage and saint, who wouldn’t cut it off? Whole nations would have been footless and eyeless for ages. Small price to pay, when put in the balance with all the evil that moral depravity brought about in the same time.

Sadly, the cause of moral depravity is harder to identify than feet, eyes, or any other part of the body.  Maybe it arises from parts of us that are a lot dearer to us than feet or eyes, or maybe to recognize the cause is to realize that one never loved it at all.

« Older entries Newer entries »