Matter (4)

Change compels the acceptance of reality neither definite nor with logos. Dunamis or “potential”

Potency is other-than-this but not anything-other-than-this. Why not? Because its capabilities correspond to the finite character of the logos of which it is a part. This correspondence is intrinsic to the reality of potential, so potency accounts for the finite character of logos.

Finite essence is therefore potential and so is not definite or a logos, so what makes essence intelligible is not what makes it finite. The perfection of intelligibility going from the confused to the distinct is different from the finitude making one thing different from another.

This seems to compel a distinction between the intelligible as such and the intelligible to us, since it seems that what is intelligible to us is a finite this as opposed to that. Then again, it’s one thing to (a) affirm the distinction between two things and (b) affirm one thing without affirming another. The first requires that what we’re speaking of be finite, the second does not. And so intelligibility, even to us, is formally (b) and not (a) though (a) is necessary for the intelligibility of the finite. (b) is open to both an in infinite and finite logos, and therefore to the order between them. But this order is clearly from what is logos only qualifiedly (intelligible to us) in its dependence on what is intelligible in itself.

The intelligible in itself – which, not to beat around the bush, is God – makes intelligible all that is intelligible and therefore is understood as virtually all that can be known. We affirm all that can be affirmed without requiring a distinction between two things, two parts of one thing, without potency or absence. God is all transcendentals, or, better yet, what founds all transcendentals which for us are divisible in ratio in (a). God is also the absolute and the relative (considered formally), virtual quantity, all that corresponds to transcendentals (e.g. the mind that corresponds to truth, will to goodness) and all perfections corresponding to mind and will. We affirm all of these as (b) to the exclusion of (a) when we consider them as they exist in God.

God is the one about whom we affirm any perfection (b) to the exclusion of (a). God’s unintelligibility-to-us consists in his being intelligible in himself. As Thomas put it, a creature seeing God as he is in himself wouldn’t call God good or wise but a single name that included both the good and the wise, along with all else that is true about him. Our inability to speak that word is the measure of God’s unintelligibility to us, though that word is itself the divine logos is God.




Matter (3) On reduction to matter

Reductionism ended up as a bad word, but any systematic explanatory discourse is reductive. If there was nothing more fundamental than when we see by looking, or if the fundamental realities were more numerous and confusing than what they might explain, why bother with science at all?  The heart of science – or even of explanation at all – is the realization that things are simpler, more intelligible, more elegant, and more interconnected, i.e. that reduction works.

The complaint about reduction is probably better put as a complaint about reductions with unspecified domains. Take what usually gets called material reductionism. What is being called matter here is not formally matter but the first actualities above matter, and as a first actuality it is exactly what we’re supposed to reduce things to. That said, this level of primary actuality is first in the domain of time or becoming. The ontological domain is entirely different, being in one sense an independent domain of reduction and in another sense a causally prior one.

So it’s not just the Churchlands or Alex Roseburg who are reductionistic: Any cosmological argument is reductive too. Again, we can speak of an emergence out of the first actuality of the ontological order as easily as the temporal order since in both cases some reality of another order (say, a cow) is arising out of a complexity not present in a more fundamental order (like subatomic particles or the divine simplicity). Sure, a living being is nothing but an emergent reality from low energy physics, but he’s also an emergent reality from the immobility of pure act.

Seen in this way the problems of reductionism are analogues to the problems of the problems of creaturely autonomy that were raised for the whole history of Christian philosophy from Augustine and Boëthius till now, which in turn arise form a desire to explain anything in a systematic or scientific fashion. My only objection to this is thinking that limiting domains of actuality is somehow parsimonious or scientific.



A limit of hypothetical reasoning

Hypotheses require detachment.

Not all beliefs allow detachment.

Not every belief can be a hypothesis.

Detachment is the ability to be indifferent about the truth of something, to adopt a “wait and see” approach, to collect evidence on both sides of a question.

Example 1:

Religion and irreligion to not allow for detachment. If I’m detached from the truth of Islam then I am ipso facto an infidel. There’s a whole zoo of Infidels: openminded, seeking, hostile, lukewarm, irenic, indifferent (as one of these infidels I’m not quite sure how to describe myself, though certainly not “seeking”) but for all our variety there is still not the possibility of detachment from the truth of Islam since, so long as one is weighing the evidence between Islam and the infidels he is himself an infidel. Obviously this is true of Catholicism, Agnosticism, or Atheism understood as the absence of belief.

More Generally:

What’s true of religion is true of other things too.  I can’t very well tell my wife that I’m presently considering whether to continue our marriage vows or break them since to adopt such a stance already violates my vows. The same goes for anything you take a vow to, like a nation or the military.  Wherever your relation to another is a matter of fidelity: God, secular ideals, country, ideology, spouse, sexual freedom, children, equality, military service, Anti-Ancien régime humanism… in none of these is one allowed the detachment required for hypothesis or opinion.

So the general axiom is detachment is not possible in matters of fidelity. As a consequence we can’t have opinions or frame hypotheses about these things. If openmindedness is adopting a hypothetical stance, not all our beliefs allow for openmindedness.

So we hit again the question of the relation of faith (i.e. fidelity) and reason. In the relation of philosophy and theology much of this border was pretty well defined in the middle ages, but in our own time the relation between theology and history looks like the wild west.

Matter (2)

What changes or matter is the indeterminacy of a thing or its ability to be something else. One couldn’t create or isolate matter any more than one could create a shadow and then build the object casting it. Matter, as Aristotle introduces it in De anima is neither this nor that. 

Inorganic bodies, for example, are matter for living beings since they are neither living nor dead but are capable of becoming an organism that can both live and die. Sentience is neither rational nor irrational but is capable of being integral to an organism that can be rational.

Matter is real since not just anything can become anything else, but the reality of matter is not a lego or amorphous putty but is only different in ratio from the sheer indetermination of a thing to its existence here and now as this. Matter as such is nothing fixed, definite, or with logos. 

There is a bottom to material regression. It’s simply the material of inorganic bodies. Just as inorganic body is immediately under life and sentience immediately under reason, so too matter is immediately under organic bodies like elements or whatever physics discovers as fundamental. You can call these fundamental particles “matter” but this is an analogy, just as you call both an assembled and unassembled piece of furniture “a bookcase” or both Wilbur and pork “a pig”. Speaking precisely the inorganic is the first actuality above matter or transcending matter. It is the lowest actuality, not the first potency.

Matter cannot be created except in obliquo by creating things that can be other than what they are here and now. You don’t create matter but beings that are indeterminate to what they are, and thus have what is capable of being something else. You create what is incapable of having all of its goods and holding them by nature.

Cartesian success is subordinate power

The Cartesian project to make persons the masters and possessors of nature – usually just called science – is both promise and limit. As promise, it delivers us nature as purely responsive to the human will and therefore producing not the world we see around us but the utopias that we construct in imagination. Nature is more and more evacuated of positive content and seen according to its purely instrumental character.

But it is also a limit. To the extent that nature isn’t making my utopia it’s outside of my control and the sciences are of no use in dealing with it in this way. Science can only respond to the world as uncontrolled as a problem to be fixed and not as a problem to which we need to find some means to adapt, redeem or mourn. For example, we can’t control either death or luck, and “bad luck” includes everything from uncontrollable circumstances to unforeseen calamities to losing out on the various lotteries for good genes, good parents, a good society or good historical times.

Even if we had the perfect technique to make utopias, to assert a utopia is just another assertion of the good, and we have a lifetime of experience knowing how we respond to an assertion of the good. Some defy or fall short of it all the time and all defy and fall short of it some of the time. No matter what you think the ideal life is – beatitude, virtue, maximizing outcomes for all, everyone doing his duty – it’s obvious that the overwhelming majority of moral agents aren’t universally or even frequently successful. The ultimate uncontrollable reality is thus our discernment of and conformity to the very utopia that the technique seeks to bring about.

The technical power that is the mastery or possession of nature is therefore the handmaiden to a completely different sort of power that both discerns the good and provides us with the power to want it and to redeem ourselves from our refusal to accept it.


Everyone from the Pre-Socratics to the guy writing Chemistry textbooks agrees that matter is what things are made of or what changes from one thing to another, but Aristotle’s unique discovery is that what changes cannot be fixed, definite, or actual.

When the bird on an elm flies to a maple neither the bird as bird nor the bird as on elm is what changes. As bird it stays the same, and being-on-an-elm never becomes being-on-a-maple. To allow for what changes Aristotle was compelled to admit a reality that was not itself definite or actual or with any logos as all. Of course we need not compel ourselves to this but can just take motion as a given and analyze it into subatomic particles, but matter as such – even what the chem. textbook means by matter – remains a reality neither definite, fixed, actual or with a logos in itself.

What changes depends on definite, actual logoi without itself being a definite actual logos. The dependence is continual: at any moment in the bird’s flight we can freeze the motion, at least in thought, and the bird will have just as definite a place as it had at the beginning. In Chemistry or particle physics we treat these continually present definite and actual logoi on which matter depends.

What changes depends not just on definite features but also on the end. This is why actions can be frustrated or done in vain, like driving to a store that is closed or a mouse seeking to feed on the peanut butter on the trap. Purely inertial, mechanical or natural motions move only instrumentally and so considered in themselves are infinite in both directions. Their end is whatever end is given to them by a principal agent, and their nature is whatever ends-from-another they are capable of maintaining.*

Matter therefore is not definite or actual in two ways. On the one hand as a subject composing things and as as a natural being which is nothing but an openness to the activity of some principal, living agent. This is just as true of subatomic particles and virtual fields as of earth, air, fire and water.

*We can define nature as the way in which anything is capable of executing the action of a principal agent. Insight into nature in a living being is an insight into what use life makes of nature, insight into the universe as a whole is an insight into what God and the angels are performing outside of themselves.

The Power of the Word

One puzzle in the Augustine’s conversion is that he found grace and comfort in a Scriptural passage that, on its face, could have just as easily led him to despair. To set the stage: Augustine, humiliated and in the midst of what would now be called a nervous breakdown brought on by his cupidity and weakness of will, opens Romans at random and reads:

Let us behave decently, as in the daytime, not in carousing and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and debauchery, not in dissension and jealousy. Rather, clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the flesh.

Isn’t this the last thing one would want to tell someone who can’t control himself? How is this different from listening to what was wrong with Augustine, and then just telling him: “well, STOP IT!”

Augustine’s response is:

No further would I read, nor did I need; for instantly, as the sentence ended — by a light, as it were, of security infused into my heart — all the gloom of doubt vanished away.


Scripture differs from other writing in that it doesn’t just command but has the power to bring about what it commands. Augustine’s prayer give what you command and command what you will describes one and the same Scriptural text. The prayer enraged Pelagius, but one wonders if part of the problem is that Pelagius couldn’t see it as fundamentally motivated by Augustine’s understanding of Scripture as a word that both commands behavior and brings the behavior about by one and the same word. Pelagius got the impression that Augustine advocated a quietism of a powerless person waiting for God to do everything when in fact what Augustine more had in mind was the power of lectio divina. 

If this is right, part of our own lectio divina should be intentionally seeking out the morally difficult and challenging passages of Scripture in order to let them bring about in us the change that we can’t bring about in ourselves.

BADs in Creation and Predestination

A Buridan’s Ass Decision (BAD) is any choice described like this: you pick A and not B but had no reason for picking A and not B. You go to the store for milk and take that jug and not the one right next to it; your daughter wants a theme for her birthday and would be just as happy with Frozen or Beauty and the Beast, etc. So a BAD is any decision such that you have a reason in general for picking some A but no reason for picking this A. For all that, the decision requires that you pick something concrete.

BADs are clearly parts or possible descriptions of decisions describable in other ways. I chose to get milk or give my daughter a theme birthday and the BAD happens as a secondary dimension of that choice.

The question of BADs enter Thomistic theology in the doctrine of creation and predestination.

Creation: We get different perfections from doing different things, e.g. Thomas would have been a different person had he never chose to pray or write. But God would be no more or less perfect or blessed had he never chosen to create at all. We can’t locate a motive for creation in any superiority ex parte Dei for the act of creation or the ~act of creation.

Predestination: While Thomas gives reasons why God would allow some to live according to their nature (and so without grace) and others not to (and so be saved) he insists one can’t give a reason for why John ends up in group A and Mary ends up in group B.

Whether creation or predestination is a BAD will depend on what account we give of what is going on in a BAD. Speaking for myself, a BAD feels like a part of my decision I give over to irrational or natural sources of activity, which is why advertisers spend so much time trying to hack the heuristics that the non-conscious mind uses in decisions like this. In other words, a BAD seems to require a division in the self between nature and self. But though this is a real division in us it is a real identity in God: every self in God is really identical to the divine nature (as this is true of everything in God). This raises the possibility that BADs can only be rational for a divine agent.

On this account BADs, like luck, appear to be relative to the agent making the decision. For us, the concrete specification of an action must be understood as having no reason, i.e. as arising not from self but from nature.



Notes on the Problem of Evil

-The mistake is thinking that sorrow is a statement about the universe when it’s a question. 

-Craig and Feser divide the emotional problem of evil (intractable?) from the intellectual problem of evil, which they see as straightforward.

-Meditate on the emotional problem, though. Sure, you’re convinced and see no way out, and so the problem seems intractable. But that’s not the only emotional flavor the problem has: what about a desire to be understood and loved? What about self-pity? A petulant desire to curse anyone whose love or happiness might threaten our precious pet-suffering?

-There are hard truths, but the problem of evil doesn’t taste like one of them. No one could think about it continually and as ultimate without degrading himself. If we ever penetrated to the heart of the universe we would meditate on it constantly, renounce any other pleasure to enjoy it, etc.

-The desire not to persuade someone with the problem of evil, but to intimidate.

-The wrath of God stereotypically in the OT is also a question: Is God judged by The Universal Morality of Conscious Beings™ and therefore a monster, or is all reality somehow willed by God and therefore holy or at least meaningful?

A joyful heart cures all things (Prov. 17:21)


Note on historical biblical criticism 

It’s complaints: lots of textual variants, absence of early manuscripts, interior incompatibilities.

We have no autographs. What then? Does a believer declare the autograph inerrant and attribute the problems to the scribes, interpolated legends, pious stories?

Hypothesis: History is essential and fundamental to scripture in the way that it is for other liturgical and devotional realities.

I grew up looking at the stations of the cross. Four stations aren’t scriptural at all, a few others have single attestations… Should a “historical critical” church architecture cut the stations down to ten? No, this fails to get what they are doing, but what exactly are they doing? Neither flouting history nor open to being reformed by it. Or take the Christmas crèche. Assume scholars are right that Mary gave birth in a lower story of the house where animals slept, and take for granted that the Gospels themselves don’t insist the Magi came to the stable. For all that, a “critical crèche” with no Magi and an upper story living quarters is unnecessary.


Part of the answer is that the stations and the crèche are not just attempts to represent history but are also ways of living out the faith of the saints. In praying at the crèche I’m praying with St. Francis in one of his signal devotions, and my memory of staring up at the stations as a kid is a memory I share with John Paul II. These things have a taproot in the life of Jesus, but am I supposed to throw off a real historical connection to Christ-as-prayed-by-St. Francis for the sake of a clearer historical connection to Christ-as-now-understood-by-critical-scholars?


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