Knowing in the eternal logoi

Plato claimed ideas were causes of sense knowledge and that learning from sense was a way of working backwards from effects to their source. Empiricism, whether in its Humean restrictive sense or the broader Aristotelian tradition, claimed that sense knowledge is the cause of an idea since ideas have less content than the sense information from which they arise.

The difference between the Platonic and Empirical traditions seems to be in whether they focus on the eternity of ideas or their content. The eternity of ideas is one dimension of their being true, which is why theories only vary or change to the extent that they are false or incomplete but facts change all the time without being false or incomplete. I was sitting and now I’m not. The invariance of ideas allows them to be metaphysically fundamental for the same reason that the conservation of matter or energy makes both of them fundamental to physics. On the other hand, the content of the ideas is weaker than the sensations from which they come since one and the same sensation can give rise to multiple ideas.

STA tries to harmonize Platonism and Empiricism in his account of how the mind knows sensed things in the eternal rationes or logoi. The reasoning can be put like this:

1.) X is a light if we know something in or by X.

2.) The light by which things are known is either proportionate to the one who knows or not.

3.) When lights are proportionate to our understanding, both the light and what we know by it are  known to us. We can both stare at a candle and at the things it illumines.

4.) When lights are not proportionate to our understanding, we know things by it, but not the light itself is not known as an object. We can’t stare at the sun but only what it illumines.

5.) The eternal rationes or logoi of things are lights not proportionate to our understanding.

STA’s support for the claim that these rationes are lights is:

[T]he intellectual light itself which is in us, is nothing else than a participated likeness of the uncreated light, in which are contained the eternal types.

The “participation” in question here is more or less what it is in Plato: a per accidens property that depends on the property existing per se. If intelligibility is proportionate to immateriality and/or actuality then the intelligible in the fullest sense of per se is the purely immaterial and actual, and this is God.

Because the purely immaterial and actual is not proportionate to our knowing it does not suffice to cause knowledge. If there were only a sun we could not stare at anything.

But since besides the intellectual light which is in us, intelligible species, which are derived from things, are required in order for us to have knowledge of material things; therefore this same knowledge is not due merely to a participation of the eternal types, as the Platonists held, maintaining that the mere participation of ideas sufficed for knowledge.

So what we know is a participation in intellectual light. But what sort of participation is this? Things participate when they are greater or less in virtual quantity, and so are relative to something maximal. This happens in two ways (a) by composition, the way that coffee becomes sweet when you add something per se sweet to it like sugar or stevia (b) by exemplarity, the way that we rank things relative to an ideal. (A) is not how eternal logoi make things known, and so it looks like we know things in the eternal logoi by recognizing how they always fall short of an ideal of rationality. If this is right, we’d expect that all accounts of the world that make it perfectly intelligible to us would distort the world as we actually find it: perhaps by making the world purely mathematical, or utterly determined and devoid of all freedom or chance, or with all species clearly and sharply divided from other things and with no fuzzy lines, or all motives being either purely irrational or purely rational, etc.


Feser’s defense of retribution

Feser’s By Man started a dispute about the morality of capital punishment, but his argument makes it clear that the denial of the morality of capital punishment is only the canary in the mine for a premise whose logic has yet to play out. Feser’s claim is that the death penalty stands or falls with retributive justice, but in the last 70 years we’ve been trained to see such justice as wrong.

Retributive justice is based on our natural desire to cause pain to those who cause harm. As anyone who lives with kids can tell you, your desire for this is older than speech or even your awareness of self. Like all natural desires, one would assume that it can’t be simply evil but has to have some licit expression, but whenever I ask people about retributive justice they deny that it is legitimate at all.

Almost no one, and certainly none of our elites, are raised in structures that allow any place for causing pain to those who cause harm. Schools have made corporal punishment unthinkable, the vast consensus in social science is that spanking should never be done, the most well-known podcasting philosopher argues that one can never initiate any form of violence (i.e. any aggressive and undesirable action), and all my bright, well-formed students think causing pain is always ignoble and wrong. I stress ignoble since they think causing pain is childish, degrading, bestial, etc. This training starts young- I work on the same campus as a high-end suburban pre-school which treats denying even the possibility of painful punishment as comme il faut, so that if little Hayden is being rotten on the playground he gets a firm but rational lecture about his need to make better choices (sc. “Hayden, yanking Sophia’s hair was a bad choice. Are you going to make a choice to go on the buddy bench for playtime or are you going to choose to say sorry to Sophia?”)

I grew up being trained in this same condemnation of retributive justice, so I sympathize with the teaching and can feel its force from the inside. Even if punishment is (slightly) painful we demand those meting it out to act in accord with double-effect, so that they never will the pain as such but only the desire to correct. Hey, isn’t that just what training is? Isn’t that, ya know, education? 

Even if this line of reasoning works it obviously doesn’t scale. No one would take the main purpose of a rape sentencing hearing as to educate or train the one convicted. The point is to figure out how much pain we want to cause him because of what he did, i.e. to figure out what amount of suffering is proportional to his crime. As Feser points out, if this is what justice is then the only question about when some crime is proportional to death,  and once we locate the point where death (or racking, or crucifixion) is proportionate to what occurred, the only question is whether the punishment will lead to greater evils than it will solve.

If justice is retributive, some severely painful punishments are allowable in principle. Feser argues that this is modus ponens, and to deny the death penalty denies justice. Our own tendency is to take it as modus tollens that commits us to denying that punishment is ever moral. As mentioned, Stefan Molyneux actually goes this far, and we train children to agree with him.

Our own widespread and systematic suppression of the natural desire for vengeance makes the Victorian suppression of sexual desire seem mild and half-hearted by comparison. We had our reasons for suppressing vengeance after 1945 (do we really want people with nuclear weapons to think they need to get even?) but in the end all these pan-supressions of natural feelings are utopian, and bets don’t get surer than betting against utopia.



Permission vs. toleration

Permission and toleration have widely overlapping meanings, but in contemporary English “permission” has a more active sense. To “give permission” brings to mind green-lighting a project or signing off on someone’s action or filling out the permission slip that lets the student go on the field trip. All this causes confusion when theologians speak of God’s “permissive will” that allows damnation or his “permission of sin”. Toleration would be the better word. God certainly isn’t green-lighting sins but putting up with them, which also helpfully raises the question of just how long he will put up with them.

Abstraction of form

It’s easy to understand the claim that we “make an abstraction of the form” as a sort of mental vacuuming, as though we stare at the podium and vacuum out the ghostly form of a podium.

In fact, abstraction is simpler and more self evident: abstraction is to think about something without thinking about something else. Examples: we think about the taste of a banana without thinking about the stock market; or think about the letter M without thinking about the shape of pears; or about the color of sheep without thinking about the depth of the Thames. In other words, we abstract forms whenever we think about one thing without thinking about everything, i.e. always.

While there is a sense to “abstracting from the phantasm” it is also helpful to notice that we neither abstract from phantasms nor from the world – we abstract from the totality of all things we could think about.

On this account, the solution to the problem of universals is that “a universal” is just to think about, say, the taste of a banana without thinking about the last banana you ate, or the best banana you ever ate, but just the banana taste without any of such individuating description. One can give a nod to Platonism by saying that this taste really is in any particular banana, and in this sense universals are real, but the universal also exists as concretized in a particular. For all that, we aren’t committed to Nominalism since the heart of Nominalism is a denial of abstractionism, i.e. to to think of one element of something requires that we think of everything that makes it concrete or particular.

Relativism, Justice, and Pluralism

Relativisms are rarely formally defended but are more giving way to the seeming intractability of moral disputes and widespread moral disagreements between reasonable persons. The most attractive feature of relativism is being the simplest possible response to moral disagreement between reasonable persons. As a bonus, the disputes are resolved by saying that everyone is right.

Relativisms are usually named by what they specify as absolute: historical relativism sees a historical era as an absolute beyond which there is no appeal; cultural relativism believes the same thing about a culture. Moral relativism should either be called personal relativism or else be taken to mean any relativism about morals, whether the absolute is the person, culture, era, governing structure, or whatever.

Though rarely formally defended relativism gets its strongest defense by Thrasymachus, who argues that interpersonal relationships are working as they ought whenever those in power are working to their own advantage. Socrates succeeds in showing Thrasymachus that he can give no account of how those in power work for their advantage since “those in power” have some skill that those they rule over lack, but whenever skilled and unskilled persons interact the skill is exercised for the good of the unskilled. Surgical skill is to heal patients, teaching skill is to instruct students, baking skill is to please consumers of pastries, etc. The only reason the skilled and unskilled are interacting is for one to impart and the other receive. It’s the unskilled that take advantage of the skilled, not vice-versa.

Thrasymachus responds by distinguishing short-term and long term advantage. Turkey farmers work for the good of turkeys in the short term, but only until Thanksgiving. One response to this is that it’s not exactly right: turkey farmers don’t work for the advantage of turkeys but for the advantage of those who eat them. The only reason the turkeys are getting fed is because consumers tend to prefer turkeys that way. Rather than take this tack Socrates shifts to an argument that might be reframed in slightly different terms, if we define:

R = A relativist, whether cultural, historical, individual, etc.

CG = A believer in some common ground behind moral disagreement, whether this common ground is scientific, Western, found in the decrees of the pope, resolved by the Koran, etc.

Socrates points out that all R’s have moral disagreement both against CG and other R’s, since if he is a cultural R he will be against both CG’s and R’s of other cultures. On the other hand, while CG’s disagree with R’s, nevertheless being a CG consists in the belief that one can identify some common ground from which disagreement is impossible. Two CG’s about the Koran can’t believe that a question is resolved by the Koran and that they can disagree about it.

So R’s disagree with both CG’s and other R’s while CG’s disagree only with R’s. Socrates’s takes this as evidence that relativism can’t be a skill of getting along with others, since those with skills only find themselves in disagreement with those who lack the skill and not with others having it. If, arguendo, you and I have the same ability to spell, neither of us can correct the other but only those with less skill than ourselves. For us, the main problem this reveals is the inability of relativism to provide an irenic, peaceful co-existence. If your group and my group really have different truths, there is no skill by which we can co-exist : relativism demands that the only possible peace is a wall of separation between your group and mine.

But the skill of getting on well with others and having a peaceful co-existence with them is justice, so relativism denies the possibility of justice. Put better, relativism is the limit of justice, i.e. it is the point where our skill at bringing about peaceful co-existence fails. Relativism can never be just, or, if it is, it is the part of justice that specifies relations with those with whom we have no common ground and so can only be dealt with through manipulation (like propaganda, rhetoric, walling people off or setting up ghettos, using violence, etc)

Pluralist cultures of cultures of diversity are midway between justice and relativism, foregrounding the differences between persons and seeking to minimize their interactions to more or less formal structures. Diverse peoples have different movies, shops, music, myths, festivals, etc but they share the same cops, welfare agencies, public schools, government reps, etc. In other words, all the things we enjoy and celebrate in common life are different and all the authoritarian or bureaucratic structures are the same. This might allow for larger and perhaps more prosperous societies, but in many ways this is the only thing worse than sheer relativism. Justice loses all its savor and relish since anything we enjoy doing cannot fall under its scope. Justice ceases to be about an actual human life with its pitfalls and enjoyments and becomes bureaucratic, authoritarian technique. All peas and no dessert.



Social science vs. science

The reproducibility crisis in social science reinforces its claim to be scientific. So sure, we can’t reproduce 35-75% of results, and those we can reproduce have weaker findings, but in the end the science will only get better!

We’re less good at seeing how social science is an analogous term and not another species alongside the “hard” sciences. Social science makes predictions and demands reproducible findings, but it isn’t an attempt to reduce all phenomena of some type to a single rule or law since predictions in social science don’t view everything that fails to fall under the prediction as refuting the theory. Even if you could predict success in life from resisting the temptation to eat a marshmallow, you wouldn’t see every opposite outcome as a refutation. The easiest explanation of this is to say that social science is like weather prediction: Human behavior and weather are both really complex, and so we shouldn’t expect anything at this point in our intellectual development beyond an improved ability to forecast their behaviors.

This doesn’t seem to be what social science is up to, however. Weather prediction is just fine not knowing what actually causes weather so long as it has a reliable set of signs by which it can make predictions, but it’s hard to see how social science can have this same indifference. If a pressure increase helps me predict rainstorms I really don’t care whether it is a cause, effect, sign, or even wholly unrelated to rainfall but just happens to help me predict it, but I can’t have the same indifference about my claims that stereotype threat predicts low test scores since the whole point of making the claim is to say something about the effects of stereotype threat. Briefly, social science doesn’t predict like weather forecasters do since the weathermen treat successful prediction as a goal while social scientists take it only as a means to get insight into something causal. By “causal” I also mean the term as science uses it, which means getting to something ultimate and not secondary to some other cause of a similar type. Science can’t seek any old causes in a domain – only the ultimate ones count.

This takes us back to the problem of those who can’t resist eating marshmallows but turn out successful in life, or who defy the commands of authority in response to commands to administer electric shocks, or who become more religious when you tell them to think rationally, etc. These wouldn’t be a problem if social science were as indifferent to causes as weather forecasters, but they aren’t.

One solution is that social science is restricting possible causes a priori by an agreed-upon set of postulates, and then using statistical means to get clear on what can still count as a cause in this restricted domain. So we make certain broad claims that low test scores or are due to structural factors and then set out to figure out what structural factors those are, or we assume that our belief in our own well-being is happiness and set out to figure what causes such belief. If this is right, social science should probably have a more robust discussion of these agreed-upon postulates. That might be right where the problem is, however, since social science would probably insist on resolving these disputes by the tools of social science, which are precisely the things we are trying to get to the point of using.

My suspicion is that social science is solving this problem by the largely unconscious (and therefore pathological) enforcing of dogmatic conformity, which limits the range of possible ultimate causes to a tractable number.


Material reductionism

Things are real at different levels of designation. The proper name is the thing at its most designated, being is the thing at its least designated, and designations like “animal” or “living” are midway. These levels of designation arrange themselves in a Porphyrian tree.

Above the level of proper names, designation increases by shedding formal differences, and each time one sheds off a new form one has the subject of a more universal science. The formal differences between humans and animals and among animals themselves are shed for the unitary vision of all things as one biological tree of life, but then biology is stripped of its formal difference and made only a specialized case of organic chemistry, which is in turn is stripped of formal differences and seen as just low energy physics. In hitting this last point we have stripped off all the formal differences we can, and so far as being is whatever is least formal and least designated, physics is the study of being.

Reduction is abstracting formal differences, and it is material reductionism since abstracting form leaves matter. Since to know anything as material means to know how to work with it, the reductionist project defines things operationally. To be is to be controlled so that being unable to specify what will happen in a controlled setting (like an experiment) is a failure to understand. Knowledge is ability to predict, i.e. to control the outcomes within systems we set up. We know that the ideal gas law is true when we can drop the temperature in a volume and see the pressure drop too, and that Relativity is true when we can take a picture during an eclipse with the stars here and not there.

If the reductive object presupposes the removal of form then form cannot be understood from within the reductive project. The project can explain everything – it extends to being, after all – but does not allow for its own meta-explanation. In this sense the totality of natural explanations cannot be a Naturalism, i.e. our total account of natural things cannot include an account of our theory of explanation. The theory touches on form in the moments when it realizes that the reduction can never be complete and at the times when it appreciates matter as apt to receive form.

The dream of “unification” is the dream of reaching the utterly formless ground of being, or of reaching that level of being where all is one, undifferentiated, and yet capable of being all that exists. This is what Aristotle called prime matter, though we could only approach understanding it by infinite steps. The unity abstracted from all form is unintelligible to us.

In calling any being “mechanical” or “physical” we are almost always making an abstraction. Even chemistry involves some set of formal differences : chemists can’t just ignore the difference between physical and chemical changes, or reduce the latter to the former. Chemistry is nothing but low energy physics in the same way that a sugar cube is nothing but a regular Euclidean solid.

Formal differences make for beings that, while respecting the actions of more abstract levels, allow for actions of a different kind. Formal differences allow for chemical changes that, at the level of physics, are “nothing but” the low energy physics. Formal differences in turn give rise to life and to knowledge in its different forms. The new behaviors made possible by the formal difference are not made possible by interaction, since interaction is between two complete entities but, say, a living thing is only “physical” by abstraction.



The procession of the Son

Life as vegetative is complete in its breaking off to form another, i.e. the full ripeness of the carrot or the potato is in sprouting and therefore being another, making it most itself in its being another.

Reproduction is the seed or gamete in act, constituting a new individual being apart from its source. Knowledge also consists in something animate being the act of another or in being a new substance. Reproduction only gives unity in species, however, which in physical things is not a real unity, but the union of the known with the knower constitutes the perfection of an organism.

If Aristotle’s God of thought-thinking-itself could reproduce, however, the unity it would have would be real and constitute the perfection of its life.


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