Matter vs. initial conditions

On any account of natural laws they are purely formal accounts of actions here and now. You can’t explain this falling rock here and now by a totality of laws since no law can be framed that places an object at a particular location but every action here and now has a particular location.

This is an old aporia

Things are intelligible

The intelligible is not here and now.

Things are here and now.

The required source of the difference between things-as-intelligible things-as-hereandnow is the screen-of-forms for Plato, Aristotle’s matter (or ‘signatured’ matter) or the initial conditions or historical accidents that correspond to scientific laws. Leave aside Plato for the moment: how does matter compare to initial conditions as an account of the unintelligible in things?

Both are first in the temporal order but they explain this priority in different ways. Matter sees time among potential being or proper to it whereas initial conditions seem to take time as a formal cause imposed on things as the ticks of a clock cutting actualizations or numbers.

Both are acted upon from without, but matter is preserved throughout the action while initial conditions obviously disappear and are preserved only in the explanation of the phenomenon.


We can’t understand the pre-modern beliefs about soul before understanding that they saw the term as uncontroversial from being obvious. A soul was whatever a living thing had that its corpse did not, or what pigs had that pork didn’t. Speaking about “proving the existence of soul” would have been the same thing as proving that some things are alive. It was not something that would divide the nowadays dualist and materialist; and no one was compelled by soul-talk into imagining ecoplasm or gaseous vertebrates pushing bodies around.

Aristotle defined soul as form, and what was just said about soul extends to form. Form is initially the totality of the characteristics that make a thing be, or whatever makes a thing be by belonging to it.* Speaking about a proof for forms in this sense would be proving that things had characteristics; denying the existence of forms is denying there are any characteristics. Again, no one is compelled by form-talk into imagining ghostly line drawings that float about and slam themselves into pinkish goo (prime matter!) in order to make sparrows and spam. Form was a placemarker word for a larger research project of speaking about how various things are intrinsically made to be, and what characteristics they shared with others.

We refine the account of form by refining what it means to be, which happens not by dividing a genus by differences but by dividing the diverse ways of being. Thomas gives us a list of these ways in c. 11 of his Fallacies:** 

For being is per se or per accidens, by which we get the fallacy of the accident; it is perfect or imperfect by which we get the fallacy of secundum quid and simpliciter. By being opposed and non-opposed we get the fallacy of ignorantio elenchi; by it being the same or different we get the fallacy of begging the question; by it being prior and posterior we get the fallacy of the consequent; by it being a cause or caused we get not-cause-as-cause; by it being one and many we get the fallacy of many-questions-as-one.

[N]am ens aliud est per se, et aliud per accidens: et secundum hoc accipitur fallacia accidentis. Item secundum perfectum et imperfectum accipitur fallacia secundum quid et simpliciter. Secundum autem oppositum et non oppositum est fallacia secundum ignorantiam elenchi. Secundum vero idem et diversum est fallacia petitionis principii. Secundum vero prius et posterius est fallacia consequentis. Secundum causam et causatum est fallacia secundum non causam ut causam. Secundum autem unum et multa est fallacia secundum plures interrogationes ut unum.

All of these divide up the different modalities or measures of being, and their clarification and order is what the Aristotelian tradition calls the analogy of being. 

Being per se is substance and accidentally is accident, which is the first division of form. As perfect or imperfect form is either actual or potential, which in turn will lead us to divide matter from form as a subject of change. The most well-known dispute about forms was how to understand the relation between forms-in-minds and forms-in-things. Both uncontroversially are forms since both things and ideas have characteristics (like “being physical” or “being correct”) but the dispute between Platonists and Aristotelians was over how the two were the same or different, with Platonism claiming they were the same object and Aristotle claiming they were the same logos or ratio. Nominalism seems to be the denial that there is any unity among the two at all, and that ideas (of themselves?) correspond to nothing at all.***

Thomas does prove that soul is not a body but the form of a body, but a close look at his proof show that he proves that soul is a substantial form ≠ the substantial form making something a body, or that a thing is made living by a substantial form that cannot be identical to another substantial form making something a body, since, were it so, then obviously every body would be alive.

*We’ll have to divide form from matter at some point, but this helps to explain why Aristotle so often would identify the form and the thing. Under the initial account of form, form is the thing.

**The text, yet untranslated, was proven authentic by Busa, in spite of now being listed as one of the dubia at

***We can get get to the heart of the differences if – leaving aside divine ideas and divine being – we see platonism as saying that forms in things and forms as known are the same in essence and mode of existence; Aristotelianism as saying that forms have one essence in different modes of existence, and Nominalism saying that the two forms are diverse both in essence and existence; or share no common essence or existence (though nominalism has more than one way of denying common essences.)

The unity of control of nature and its givenness

Nature is intrinsically open to and dependent on the action of spirit and, so taken, the human person gets its charter for the dominion and control over nature.

Control, however, is an action and so is actualized by a good, and this good is either identical with the agent (i.e. agent and its good are distinct only in the modus significandi) or consists in the unity with just such an agent so far as it is possible.

In humans and all created intellects this union occurs by the person loving this agent as his own good.

The unity with such an agent is either in himself or in his effects. The first of these effects is the created universe with its diverse natures.

Nature’s openness to spirit gives a real charter to its control by created persons, but this control presupposes that the first motion given by spirit to nature is precisely its constitution in being and its governance from a supreme good that, unlike man, makes nature to exist as his effect and therefore demands man love nature as an effect of the supreme agent.

Briefly, one and the same principle, namely nature’s openness to the action of spirit demands that creatures love nature both as plastic and as a determinate effect and therefore fixed and not plastic effect of the first spirit.


The devil’s triumph

Catholics tend to understand the protestant Sola Scriptura as either material sufficiency or private interpretation, but taken the first way it isn’t heretical an taken in the second sense it isn’t protestant, since fatally underqualified. Private interpretation is downstream from what the protestant is actually driving at, which is one reason why he is immune from the argument – perfectly true as far as it goes – that scripture never demands Sola Scriptura.

Protestantism at its most persuasive takes Sola Scriptura as discipleship to scripture as God’s word. It insists on the bible as uniquely inspired and not simply inerrant or infallible, since its words are properly spoken by God even if through the instrumentality of a human author contributing his full humanity. So taken, the Sola can mean that Christianity has no time for anything but the meditation on Scripture. Any other book speaks a merely human word, and though we’ve been blessed with some preternaturally wise, holy and intelligent persons they all fall infinitely short of speaking an inspired word.  Only scripture gives us access to the energy of properly divine speech, which not only commands but gives the power to fulfill the command.

But then we’re back with the original problem: none of this is heretical. But that’s too tepid – this is the faith! It should be shouted from the rooftops! The only meaningful critique of protestantism is one that manages to preserve all this better than protestantism.

We might get something of this critique in the basic axiom of language which, as Thomas puts it, is that language is essentially interpersonal. Robinson Crusoe needs his wits and sensation more than ever but his language not at all, except as a habit-relic. Language exists within what we now call a community. In giving one word to the human race, God made the whole of human history in one sense the community of the word, even though we are not fully perfect participants in this community simply by being born. Nevertheless, the word was given so that persons might become full and perfect participants. So far, all this falls out from Sola Scriptura.

As we only have one word and one human race there can be only one community too, running thorough the whole of history and continuing till its consummation. Like any community, it requires some rational principle directing its continued existence (aka authority) and it’s here that the best part of protestantism becomes a poor fit with the way protestantism itself developed. When the western Church split it’s hard to argue against protestants showing themselves as the better disciples of the divine word as inspired, but its also hard to argue against the Latin Church doing a better job at maintaining the visible, authoritative community in which the word has meaning.

The devil’s great triumph in Western Christianity was to divide the community of the word into those zealous for the word and those zealous for the community. Catholics were wounded by relating to scriptural devotion as somehow protestant; protestants were wounded by seeing any attempt to situate the divine word within a visible, historical community as degrading it to “the traditions of men.” Again, Catholicism came to stress its visible historical power more and more as time went on, concentrating more and more power in Rome even as Rome’s actual authority diminished to almost nothing; protestantism stressed the divine character of scripture to such an extent that any demonstration that it was spoken within a properly human community was practically a refutation. At the end of this all we get a pope as international celebrity-oracle who should fix everything and a protestantism that takes scripture as refuted by its redaction history and by the diverse traditions of, say, Christ’s infancy narratives, the Synoptic vs. Johannine Christ, the details of the passion and resurrection, etc. The last word on all this is one that all sides should agree on: only God can save us.



Angels as causes of local motion

Thomas believes nature is governed by angels, but the first objection he makes to his belief seems fatal: nature, after all, is a power to execute actions for the sake of one’s own goals, and whatever can act by itself needs no determination from another. Thomas replies that nature acts only as moved, and so spiritual beings move physical ones. Natural law doesn’t preclude spiritual activity but consists in the various ways beings are capable of receiving it.

Nature changes in lots of ways but everyone from the Pre-Socratics to contemporary physicists reduce them to local motion, i.e. the change of some fundamental subject in space and time. Thomas’s account of this is that local motion is the least potential of all changes, since change belongs to a subject and local change requires no intrinsic change in the subject. Higher beings – i.e. more actual motions – cause lower ones. Whatever our garbled evolutionist allergies are to the idea that more actual beings cause less actual ones, every physics is entirely compatible with the idea.*

Thomas presses the axiom further. Since more actual beings cause less actual ones the higher actuality of spirit causes the lower physical order, not in any old way but by acting to cause change or rest in place since it is precisely this natural action that is most actual, and therefore serves as a point of nexus with the oder above it.

The danger in any hierarchy is the temptation to collapse it to the action of the highest member, and so we’ll be tempted to read angelic motion as depriving nature of any activity at all. The same problem is at work in divine omnipotence and the free choice of creatures, or even the reality of substantial generation and corruption in spite of the supreme actuality of local motion. The basic problem is that we visualize the action of A on B as violence and not as gift and fulfillment; and we see power as increasing by centralization and not by diffusion. We read our totalitarianism into a universe whose subsidiarity knows nothing of it.

*The main impediment to this in our own time is not just garbled evolutionism but the conflation of the actual changes physics studies, which require actualizing real potentials, and the mathematical accounts of these changes, which ‘change’ only metaphorically and so could give us only metaphorical hierarchies. This math-ism repeats one of the very rare mistakes in Plato of conflating the mode of knowing with the mode of being.  

Mediatrix syllogism

[T]o the disciple, [Jesus said] “Behold thy mother!” And from that hour that disciple took her unto his own home.

Jn 19:27

[The mother] entered the home of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit.

Lk. 1:40

The disciple is given Mary as mother and she enters into his home, and from the moment he enters and speaks the word, those dwelling within are filled with the Spirit.

Objection: The middle term of the argument is missing, as “home” in John 19:27 is provided by the translator. All John 19:27 says is that the disciple took her εἰς τὰ ἴδια or “into his own” or, as Jerome would put it “in sua.” i.e. a disciple of Jesus takes Mary into [reflexive pronoun in neuter plural.] John does not use “idios” anywhere else to mean “home”

Response: The objection comes to nothing. What else would one call the sphere of all one’s possessions?

John’s use of idios or “his own” as a substantive deserves a close look, as the term speaks to a subtle and complex theology:

“He came unto idios and idios received him not (1:11)”

“When [the devil] speaketh a lie, he speaketh of idios, for he is a liar, and the father of it (8:44)”

“Jesus knew that his hour was come that he should depart out of this world unto the Father, having loved idios which were in the world, he loved them unto the end (13:1 the beginning of the last supper discourse.)”

“If ye were of the world, the world would love idios (15:19)”

“Behold, the hour cometh, yea, is now come, that ye shall be scattered, every man to idios and shall leave me alone: and yet I am not alone, because the Father is with me (16:32.)

Christ’s gift of his mother to the disciple is thus the means by which we take for our own what is God’s own, and absent this, “our own” is simply the sin and the flesh. In this precise sense of the mother being the very thing that is God’s own which becomes our own, the mother IS grace.


Our public eschatology

The practical living of human life necessarily presupposes faith in what happens after death, which I’ll here call an eschatology. It is a faith because it is taken as settled despite not being evident to human reason, and it’s presupposed because even being open minded or agnostic rests on a working faith in how we can reasonably act in the face of death. Any presupposed faith creates problems for secular culture since secularity rules out the possibility of faith being rational, and this problem is part of our public eschatology, which falls somewhere between the largely unspoken “when you die, nothing happens” and the ceremonially spoken “when you die, you’re comfortable forever (or for at least as long as it would bother your loved ones if you weren’t)”

Though vague, this public eschatology does real moral work. It removes any relation of our actions now to an eschatological consequence and so (allows/traps us into) living immanently and in the here-and-now. We have less anxiety or hope for future things and more anxiety and disappointment over current events. Given the axiom of lex orandi the view of heaven as comfort-for-everyone both causes and reenforces a world that is far more comfortable and safe for everyone, as Steven Pinker has documented. To the extent that we see our life as having some relation to God or beatitude we see it as having a great deal of time to work with and allowing for a great deal more personal exploration and tolerance for mistakes. Our vague eschatology thus reenforces its own vagueness: if we have so much time and can tolerate so many more mistakes, the demand for precision, hard truths, expert oversight and urgency in the face of our own death goes out the window. Relative to death, human life is like a machine that never brakes and always gives good results, so we don’t need a long list of rules to follow in using it, we can dispense with any need for advice or oversight in dealing with it, and we can be much more blasé about how it gets used. So our popular eschatology gives comfortable lives with little anxiety over future things, a familiar and even breezy relation to divine things, an indifference to death, and a theology with no hard truths or mystery. Epicurus smiles upon us.

Except for the nagging problem of whose insight into death this eschatology rests on. I suppose we can point to its successes now, but this creates its own set of problems. One problem is that the success we have now is largely defined after the eschatology is already in place and after we have ruled out other views of life as fulfilling and desirable, and so to point to the fulfilling and desirable results of the eschatology has an obvious circularity. No, we’re back to the original problem: absent revelation, eschatology is irrational and eschatology is rationally unavoidable.

Theology of sex and death

For the last fifteen years Catholic sexual ethics has been converging toward embodiment as its first principle. The idea seems to be that contemporary sexual ethics has become more and more disembodied, by understanding the person as essentially sexless or bodiless and free to dispose of the body in any manner that serves his (again sexless) desires. If Catholic ethics is right, it needs to account for the necessity of embodiment while still recognizing that how disembodiment has enough truth to convince almost the entire world.

This suggests an anthropology of the person as the union of a spiritual soul to a body. The problems of this union recurs in sexual ethics but they first arose though the problem of death. Traditional Christianity demands the intercession of saints* and though the necessity of this intercession is older and more foundational than any clear idea of soul, Christianity inevitably needed the intercessor to somehow survive death. For all that, Christianity itself begins with a resurrection or re-embodiment, and quickly developed into a general hope for all to be perfected in re-embodiment.

So maybe the Theology of the Body needs to develop into a theology of sex and death.

*Which can in turn be seen as one application of the more ancient religious idea of some union with ones ancestors, which is also more ancient than an idea of soul but requires developing some idea of soul in order to be anything more substantial than nostalgia.

The significance of what will happen

Concern over current events should be reasonable, but much of this reasonableness depends on what the event will become. Is it going to vanish in the next news cycle, or is this (even minor) event the spark that lights the powder keg?

One of the harder disciplines of mind to accept is that no one knows and no one could. We can’t see the future because there is nothing there to see. God knows “the future” only because he knows all things at once and nothing can be added to his knowledge, not because he stands at one moment in time and swami-sees another one yonder. You say the same thing in saying God knows the future as saying nothing is future to God. But (in my bid to win the stupidly obvious statement award) we’re not God.

Aristotle gives nature necessity only ex hypothesi and not a tergo – once we see C happen after B  we can sometimes ferret out B or A as necessarily its cause, but it doesn’t follow that if you have A and B you will necessarily get C, certainly not if C is big enough to count as a historical event.

We often use future-telling as a substitute for moral arguments, so that we say “event X is the beginning of the end of our culture” or “event Y is the dawn of a new day” when we would have been closer to what we wanted to say with “event X is evil” or “Y is good and makes us happy.” The two are connected since the immoral is ultimately destructive, but there is no straight line between this event and this concretion of the ultimate.

To the extent that we try to replace moral argument with future-telling we are trying to replace prudence with science or the moral with the factual. We do this in the hope that facts are less controversial and less open to interpretation than moral statements, though this is probably illusory since tautologous. Things only count as facts after some at least tacit agreement to accept them as uncontroversial.


On not caring what another does

One of the antiphons of political discourse is “not caring what another does” or asking rhetorically “why do you care about —-?” This was clearly the issue during the Lincoln-Douglass debates and is now a familiar trope in sexual-political matters.

Cares are desires, and their absence can be taken in two ways. (1) on the side of the (moral) behavior or object itself, meaning that one has no desire for one behavior rather than another. In this sense, not caring what another does includes not caring whether evil is done or good is avoided. So taken, non-caring is at best moral callousness and might even be, said Catholic-wise, incompatible with charity for one’s neighbor and therefore a mortal sin. (2) non-caring can be taken on the side of the agent of moral action, meaning that one has no desire to exercise control over the behavior. In this sense not caring includes tolerating some evils for the sake of the common good.  (2) is compatible with wisdom and even with divinity as it has a necessary connection to the common good, though it is arguably “non-caring” more secundum quid than simpliciter. 

With respect to evils, (2) rules out (1) since it is the same love of the common good that rules out mortal sins and tolerates some evils. Moreover, the compatibility between not caring (2) while caring in (1) seems to rest on the only alternative being a totalitarianism. Christianity’s teaching on Hell, or even its theodicy more generally, seem to be a repudiation of all totalitarian schemes.

Our own political schemes are prone to fail through an unwillingness both to acknowledge something as evil and destructive and yet tolerated even in an ideal regime. Even omnipotence tolerates evils, and carves out a place in its world for what grieves it.

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