The self-reflective cogito

Both Plato and Aristotle made actuality the measure of knowability, so a systematic inquiry into being-as-doubtable would be a vision of the possibility of things. This is, in fact, exactly where Descartes’s methodological doubt takes him, culminating in a vision of the world as entirely contingent beneath divine omnipotence, and the apparent reality of all things as controllable by a cognitive manipulator stronger than ourselves.

Descartes escapes the possibility of doubt through self-reflection. The precision here is important: Descartes misses an opportunity when he defines himself as “A thinking thing” and not a self-reflective one. Reflection occurs when any action has a numerical* identity of origin and terminus, e.g. the face in a mirror is both the source of the image and the object of sight, but mind is not just reflective but self-reflective since it is not both origin and terminus in something else, like a reflective surface. Had he focused on what was formal to the cogito, he might have divided mind from body by the intensive and the extensive, where the intensive character was given in the mind’s unity of principle and terminus. While extension doubles by going outside of itself, mind doubles by its source becoming its own terminus.

The terminus of mind is thought, considered both as object and as awareness of one’s own thinking. Like sensation, thought is an immanent act, but it differs from sensation because it is not just awareness of an object but also of itself. Sight is an awareness of visibles but not of vision while thought is an awareness both of the thinkable and thought. It’s only because thought is both of these that we can compare thought to object to see who they measure up, giving rise to truth and falsity.


*Any cycle has an identity of origin and terminus, e.g. in semi-automatics, shooting the bullet also causes the next cartridge to load. Reflection differs from a cycle in that numerically the same thing repeats or comes back: the same sound echoes, the same light bounces off the surface, etc.

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Faith making whole

Christ continually preaches faith as a kind of power. Sometimes, but by no means all the time, the accounts of the power of faith read like we now call placebo cures, like the story of the widow touching the hem of his garment (Mt. 9: 20) the curing of the blind men in Mt. 9: 29 or Lk 18: 42, or the curing of the ten lepers (Lk. 17: 19). In all of these, Christ stresses that the power of the healing was from the faith of those healed.

I call these placebo cures not to give them a modernist explaining-away but as the first step toward imagining the actual presence of Christ. Everyone has some experience with a presence that has power to alleviate sorrows, like mothers kissing bruises. Most of our sorrows are at a level where the line between mental and physical causes are blurry, so that a dramatic-enough presence or change of events would make the pain disappear. But we have to extrapolate far beyond our normal experience of this sort of healing presence before hitting one that would be equal to Christ’s, even after conceding that he might have lived in a time that was more willing to allow for this sort of healing.

The healing presence is holiness, which we can only dependably make present at lower levels of resolution. We know how to make spaces and things holy by building them on the site of some epiphany, dividing them from the profane, requiring some sort of purification to enter them, singing music of certain kinds, etc. The success of pilgrimages shows that this sort of holiness is strong enough to have healing power.  That said, it’s persons that are holy simpliciter, and we have a harder time delivering these to the world.

Inertia v. motion

-Go up to the blank whiteboard and draw a rocket. The picture can’t tell the student where it is or whether it is moving or not. When we mathematize space the same thing happens. There is no place and no difference between motion and rest.

-An inertial motion clearly isn’t going anywhere, i.e. there is no definite place to which it tends. It also didn’t arise from any given place, since motion arising is a sort of acceleration, and inertial motion is not. Inertial motion is defined in abstraction from what makes motion finite, and so is infinite by definition.

-Inertial motion needs no cause of moving any more than resting stone needs a cause of continued inactivity. Though true, internal motion is defined in abstraction from its origin and terminus and  inertial rest is defined separately from any conditions that brought it about or will make it cease.

-Motion might be distinguished into causes in fieri and in esse where the coming to be of motion is acceleration. Inertia has no cause in fieri but inertia isn’t a sort of becoming since it is defined in abstraction from both its origin and its terminus.

-Aristotle defined motion by its terms, and it’s not clear that it is definable in any other way. Inertial motion has one element of motion but motions as such are from somewhere, to somewhere and inertial motions are not.

-One can see or experience something deserving the name inertial motion but it cannot be defined.

-The joke that “you’re not late till you get there” is true not just of being late but early, fast and slow , rightly directed or off target, or even having a direction at all. Inertia only has a direction from a counterfactual, sc. from a terminus that does not belong to it as inertial.

 

 

The interiority of nature and mind

The Cartesian division of nature and mind makes mind entirely interior and nature entirely exterior. All there is to nature is extension, understood as the possibility of indefinite divisions which, conveniently, allows nature to always correspond to uniform units of our own devising. Given this perfect correspondence, we can in fact replace nature with the algebraic relationships among our units. Voilà, nature is replaced by a much cleaner and more intelligible algebra, and we speak of nature as “governed by laws” when in fact we’ve just substituted it with abstractions.

Substitution is an idealization or useful fiction of treating nature as identical to art, but an essential difference remains. Art exists in an artist who moves things outside himself while nature is an inherent source of motion. You need someone other than the bricks to make a wall, but you don’t need anything other than bricks for them to press on each other or fall. Nature is an interiority as much as mind is, and at the borderline of consciousness it is clear that mind arises from nature, shades into it, and is interpenetrated by it.

Nature’s interiority is unconscious, but its unconscious character is the whole psychoanalytic cosmos subtending conscious life. Our conscious life is now fed from domains outside consciousness: the speed of IQ, the sources of big-5 traits, the functioning of the nervous system, etc all work as unconsciously as hair growth or blood circulation. Calling these interior sources of action brutish or simple is a fantastically stupid aesthetic: artists are clever, but none of them has ever been able to make consciously what embryos or even bacteria can make unconsciously; human systems are reliable and precise, but none are as reliable as electron orbitals or a millionth-part as precise. Nature can pull off greater feats of organization than the German postal system in the leg of a mosquito, or one cell in that leg, or one part of that cell, ad infinitum. 

The interiority of mind is not opposed to the exteriority of natures but is the culmination of their interiority. Mind marks the moment where nature becomes aware of what it is and becomes to some extent capable of setting its own goals.

 

Philosopher’s kid stories

Fifi (seven years old, responding to a conversation about modern cosmology) “You’re saying that the cosmos is a machine. That’s crazy. The cosmos is not a machine. It’s something God made so that we could live.

Me: So why do you think it couldn’t be a machine?

Fifi: Just look.

Me: I guess it doesn’t look much like a machine. And it doesn’t break down.

Fifi: Right. The universe can never break down. But trees break down and stars break down.

Me: So trees and stars are not the cosmos?

Fifi: No. The cosmos is time. 

Me: You mean the things around us are made out of time?

Fifi: No, I’m saying that time is everywhere and always and it never breaks down. So the cosmos is time.

 

Behavior-affecting beliefs

One of the leitmotifs of James’s Varieties is

[I]n the metaphysical and religious sphere, articulate reasons are cogent for us only when our inarticulate feelings of reality have already been impressed in favor of the same conclusion… The unreasoned and immediate assurance is the deep thing in us, the reasoned argument is but a surface exhibition. Instinct leads, intelligence does but follow.

James is explicit that this is a property of the metaphysical and religious sphere, and so is just as true of irreligion as religion, atheism as theism. I think that the relevant sphere where this is true is wider, and that what James is talking about is any sort of belief that has a significant-enough effect on life. For example, if you could wave a magic wand and make the whole population  believe that chapter 4 of a biology textbook were true, none of them would feel either affirmed in how they live or feel the need to change their lives, but things would be very different if you waved your wand and made everyone believe in animism, feminism, or the perverted faculty argument.

Consider two degrees of belief: (a) accepting something as true which demands significant changes in behavior and, at a higher level, (b) a belief of this kind that actually does cause significant changes in behavior. The difference between the two is what St. James meant when he insisted that faith without works was dead, or what Christ meant by Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father (Mt. 7:21).* 

Perhaps the science of James’s time wasn’t sufficient to give him (a)-beliefs at all, but ours certainly is. Our knowledge that cigarettes cause cancer, that obesity causes early death, or that burning fossil fuels exposes us to global catastrophe are all commonly held (a) beliefs, but the extent to which they are (b) beliefs is less impressive. So certain (a)-beliefs might get wide lip-service without ever turning into (b)-beliefs. For all I know, this was just as true for Christianity in Christendom as it now is for our beliefs that we need to burn less fossil fuel or lose weight.

This is true a fortiori for (a)-beliefs that are not widely believed or are opposed by elites. One of the most effective campaigns to shift an (a) belief to a (b) belief was tobacco use, but this success only began decades after we severely restricted tobacco advertisements. If we had the same public cigarette-rhetoric of the 1960’s, with glamorous starlets and ruggedly handsome men smoking in movies, million-dollar campaigns for smoking on all manner of media, health studies funded by RJ Reynolds, etc then we’d probably have an anti-smoking campaign that was no more effective then modern anti-obesity campaigns. As a consequence, we’d be a lot less convinced that “cigarettes kill” was an (a) belief at all. Who knows? Different studies show different things!

The point James wants to make about theology is therefore a general point about any behavior-affecting belief, which is exactly what we’d expect since the intellect is not hermetically sealed off from the rest of the soul or from our social existence. Intellection is not just a power of discernment and reasoning but a principle of desire and of integration with other persons, and so we can never entirely divide apprehension of truth from our behavior (especially our habits) or our social existence.


*See also the parable of the two sons, which argues that action is so much superior to mere belief that it can take its place, or the parable of the four soils, where much rudimentary belief fails to bear fruit.

Divine capriciousness in the immolation of Isaac

Obviously, the command for Abraham to sacrifice Isaac is a challenging text that seems to force on us the fact of divine moral capriciousness or amorality. Though the question of God’s relation to morality is larger than any one story could address, Scripture’s own interpretation of the story is best read as a rejection of divine capriciousness or amorality.

From Hebrews 11:

Abraham, when God tested him, offered Isaac as a sacrifice. He who had embraced the promises was about to sacrifice his one and only son, 18 even though God had said to him, “It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.” 19 Abraham reasoned that God could even raise the dead.

The Scriptural narrative leaves no doubt that…

(a) God promised that a great nation would arise through Isaac, and

(b) God commanded Abraham to kill Isaac,

…And so the only point of interpretation seems to be whether God can renege on his promises, but Hebrews seems to be saying that this is precisely the point of difference between Abraham and most of us who are reading about him. We’re the ones tacitly assuming that God could be unfaithful, maybe under some variation on a belief that William of Ockham put so forcefully:

God can command the created will to hate him and the created will can do this, moreover, an act that can be moral in this life can be moral in the next, and since God can command persons in this life to hate him, he can also command it of the blessed.

Relative to this, God breaking promises is small potatoes. God is totally free and omnipotent, and so can be anything he wants, even be unfaithful. Abraham, in contrast, is described as seeing divine infidelity as impossible, so much so that he “reasoned that God could even raise the dead.” So a story that appears to be an argument for divine capriciousness turns out to be its absolute rejection. The paradigmatic man of faith is the one who would insist on the impossibility of divine infidelity, even when this insistence drives him to deny the finality of death.

To insist on anything in the face of death is also raises the question of what is ultimately real. Things are real to the extent they are certain, and death seems like the limit case of what is certain.  Faith consists in putting one’s esteem of the divine fidelity even beyond that, so much so that even the death’s finality becomes contingent. One can have faith in some sense without having it to this extent, which defines faith as a process of growth on a continuum. Paul seemed to speak from Abrahamic maturity of faith in Romans 8:

For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, Nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

On this account of faith, it is growth in the conviction of the reality of divine fidelity is more certain than death. Faith must also reject any element of divine capriciousness even after it accepts  dogmas like original sin, predestination, ‘leading into temptation’, or the toleration of some actual sins and not others.

The overseer analogy

STA objects that God cannot know the future:

[E]ven what we ourselves know, must necessarily be; and, of course, the knowledge of God is much more certain than ours. But no future contingent things must necessarily be. Therefore no contingent future thing is known by God.

The argument is easy to retool as one against free choice, viz: free choice requires future contingency but the future is not contingent because God knows it.

In response, he gives a well-known analogy of one on a road and the overseer:

Things reduced to act in time, as known by us successively in time, but by God (are known) in eternity, which is above time. Whence to us they cannot be certain, forasmuch as we know future contingent things as such; but (they are certain) to God alone, whose understanding is in eternity above time. Just as he who goes along the road does not see those who come after him; whereas he who sees the whole road from a height sees at once all traveling by the way.

The analogy is from space to time, and amounts to a “flatland” argument since the overseer is above those walking around on the flat space. Divine duration is seen as an ulterior dimension to temporal duration. It follows that things that are really impossible – and not just unknowable- within temporal duration are possible in divine duration. In a two dimensional space, it is impossible to draw a circle cutting another circle that doesn’t cut it at two points, but in three dimensions this impossibility no longer exists. So for those who exist in time it is impossible in principle to know the future, but within the divine duration this impossibility no longer exists.

But wouldn’t it be possible for temporal beings to know the future by being told? Isn’t prophesy a possibility?

But isn’t this like assuming that anything that can be expressed in three dimensions can be expressed in two? This dovetails with the actual prophesies that I accept, which could be either hyper informed analysis of human affairs* or are expressed in ways that were multiply-realizable.**

Can we make the argument more formal?  Given all our beliefs – whether natural or revealed – fall under the principle of contradiction, and it is impossible under that principle for future contingents to have truth values, e.g. in the statement tomorrow there will be a sea battle neither the truth nor the falsity is necessary but only their conjuction, this would seem to be true even of a prophesy.


*Like the Fatima prophesies of “Russia spreading her errors around the world”

**Like Christological prophesies of Psalm 22 or Isaiah 53. “They have pierced my hands and feet” was realizable in ways other than crucifixion.

Cosmos vs. Universe

Universe and cosmos often get treated as synonyms, but they are as a whole to an infinitesimally small part.

God creates a thing (a) to exist and therefore act in itself and (b) to find its supreme good in what is in fact the supreme good, namely God. But things only act of themselves to the extent that they set their own ends, and things only set their own ends to the extent that they are intelligent. God, himself intelligent, therefore made the universe in order that the fullness of intelligences might exist, which means that every sort of intelligence that can exist does exist.

Intelligences have a means of understanding and an understandable thing, sometimes called concept and object or idea and object. There are infinite understandable things since the understandable is being as opposed to the impossible, and this is not a finite genus. The means of understanding, however, are fewer in higher intelligences. God understands all understandables distinctly by understanding himself while we would understand this only by infinite ideas. There is therefore an infinite distance between man and God in which beings might exist that understand all things distinctly by some definite plurality of ideas. Such are the angels, from which it follows that the angels are actually infiniteHumanity is therefore the outermost limit to angelic plurality, which like any limit is both a term of approach and an essentially different species.

When object and concept are distinct, the object is the perfection of one who understands, meaning the knower as knower is greater than the known as known. Created intelligence thus demands ontologically transcending some object. Because angels are actually infinite, every angel ontologically transcends something essentially spiritual and of its same kind, even as they transcend humanity. Humanity, however, demands this same transcendence, but it cannot transcend something of the same kind as itself. Thus the cosmos or the physical universe was necessary as a fulfillment of the universe. Taken formally, the cosmos is that which human intelligence properly transcends and therefore knows quidditatively.

The universe and cosmos are therefore very different:

The universe. This is the totality of creation in which the angelic : non-angelic :: infinite : finite.  Non-angelic creation exists only at an infinitely distant last outpost of creation before vanishing into an infinitesimal obscurity that is not of itself able to fulfill the purposes of God creating at all.

The cosmos: Material creation of itself has no reason to exist – it does so only because human intelligence would be incomplete without something that it formally transcended. In making the cosmos, God created something that he would never have created by itself. The cosmos is therefore not necessary for human knowledge simply speaking, but only that it might know quidditatively.

As intelligence, humanity transcends cosmos but as material it is the terminus of cosmic activity and so forms a single entity with it. Humanity is the point of material existence and the point where it stops being material, in the same way that making it to the finish line is both the purpose of the race and the point where one stops racing.

All this would probably be a point of hilarity for Naturalism, but I’d suggest that it better account for the truths in Naturalism than the doctrine itself can. On our account, the cosmos really does have no purpose in itself, and “The more the [cosmos] seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless“. There is an ontological sense to the mechanical view of nature, which sees all values in nature as relative to human values. There is no ethics to “the biological” or “the natural” as such, though this tells us nothing about what either of these realities might be in union with human life. In other words, our account allows for the unintelligibility, chaos, and pointlessness of nature can be made a part of an intelligible plan and therefore of a scientific account.