Saying what something is

We say what things are; and so “what something is” is both in speech and the thing. If they differed essentially, we would not say what something is. This “what it is” is a certain other to us, for it is an “it”. The status of other is not lost, although it is one in us and in the thing.


A note on “the Liber de Causis”

A cause is a positive principle on which an effect really depends for its existence. The more something is a source of existence, then, the more causal it is, and the more eminent it is as a cause. Similarly, the more something is a source of existence, the more it approaches what is most universal, for existence is the most universal of all formalities- since it alone separates a thing from nothing.

(note the difference between the universal in predication and the universal in cause; a more universal predicate speaks to a imperfection in intellectual knowledge; but to be the cause of such a universal, which means to extend your causal power more widely over all things, is a sign of perfection. Neither is a more universal cause, say the cause of existence, a cause only of a part of something, or the cause of something indistinctly, for existence pertains to all of the parts, and subsists within all, setting all apart from nothing. A similar consideration applies to “living” and “man”.)

Qualia and science

Plato and Aristotle both agreed that when some sense thing was outside of our sense experience, we no longer had any certainty about it- which is in fact evident from the terms, since you can’t have actual sense certitude without actually sensing. Aristotle reared his whole careful theory of physics with this in mind, and he was also careful to allow for a sort of qualified or hypothetical certitude of sense things; i.e. the closer a science got to particular sensible things, the more concrete it would become, but it would also fall further an further from certainty to mere hypothesis. Some modern philosophers have noticed that “to be outside of sense experience” can be said not only of something that has, say, passed from sight or is out of earshot, but it can also apply to the things that are in another person’s consciousness, as opposed to being in our own. This is a clever new way of putting the old problem of sensibles and intelligibles. If a modern philosopher asks me how I would know that his black is not my white, I wouldn’t look for the sort of certitude that one can have about intelligible things; all I could have is some kind of hypothetical certitude. More importantly, though, it is necessary to see the problem like the Greeks did, and take it as incentive to turn away from the merely sensible to the intelligible and speculative things.

The principle of causality

The principle of causality is not “everything has a cause” or (as it is sometimes put) “every event has a cause”. Both are false, since chance events, as such, have no causes. As Aristotle would point out several times, to think that every event has a cause leads to superstition and absurdity: why did the earthquake happen when I stepped in the bathtub? There simply is no reason. Its a coincidence. All or at least most of history seems to reduce down to mere coincidences- we can usually give no more cause for an event than to say that it happened. Nature abounds in these coincidences too: that tree vegetation should die out just when our first ancestors were in the trees was a coincidence- no one would say that the tree dryed up so that primates would leave it and develop into human beings. Now if someone wanted to say that the primates left so that they might eat; or the tree drew its hydration into its core to keep from total dehyration, then they would be giving in the first place a common sense explanation and in the second place a scientific one, but this is neither here nor there: it suffices now to notice that chance things and events have no causes. (interesting point: for thomists, the statement “everything has a cause” is false, because of the principle of causality- which should be clear in another post.)

In order to avoid this absurdity, some thinkers have said that the principle of causality is “every contingent thing has a cause”. This statement is unobjectionable if “contingent” is taken to mean “can be or not be” or “what is undetermined to something”. Insofar as something is not determined to something, it most be determined to something by another, and this “other” that determines is called “the cause”. Nevertheless, this is not the principle of causality, because even though every contingent thing has a cause, it is not true to say that every caused thing is contingent, for some necessary things were caused. The truths in my mind are necessary, but they did not exist before I existed- and my teachers caused them as mine. To say “every contingent thing has a cause” is true, but it is not a principle of causality, because causality applies to more than the contingent.

This is why thomists say that the principle of causality is “every composed thing has an agent cause”. Every composed thing is caused, because “the composite” is constituted in existence by its parts being composed, and this must be done by some other, because otherwise a thing would have to cause itself before it existed. Similarly, every caused thing must be composed, for causing involves something other imparting some determination to something, which presupposes the determination and the thing being determined. Agent causality, therefore, applies primarily, per se, and universally to the composed- and the modes of agent causality will follow the modes of composition.

Causes as simultaneous.

All the proofs for the existence of God rest on causality, and none of the proofs work unless we recognize that causes and effects are simultaneous. Notice the difference in meaning between the verbs “to cause” and “to be responsible”: we can be responsible for something that has happened, but we cannot cause something that has happened. The two meanings are easy to confuse, but we always keep the cause and the effect simultaneous. When speaking of causality, it’s best to hold on to the progressive aspect of the verb: say, for example “He was/ is causing” whenever possible.

“The cause” i.e. the noun form, since it is a noun, precinds from temporal signification. The term still has the sort of simultanaity that nouns have, for “the cause” is relative, for it contains “effect” in its definition, and the cause is properly the cause of something, namely the effect.

Three Notes on Abraham and Isaac

– In the Summa, St. Thomas twice defends Abraham’s intention to kill Isaac, saying that God is the Lord all things, and commands the death of both the just and the unjust. I take the response as definitive- and I wonder whether we might even be able to pull a few corrolaries from it, like

a.) Not only was Abraham righteous, he would have sinned in not intending to kill Isaac. For the same reason, if Isaac’s had no openness to being killed, this ommission would have been materially sinfull and objectively wrong, although Isaac need not be culpable.

b.) God is the common good of all creatures, for he is not diminished by being shared or participated in. If we consider Isaac as a creature, then, we can consider him as to be sacrificed for his own good.

– We are told nothing about what Isaac thought of the prospect of being sacrificed. Many people assume that he was simply horrified by it, others go on to claim- as though it were obvious- that Isaac must have born deep psychological scars from this for the rest of his life. Aside from the fact that we can read about the rest of Isaac’s life in Genesis, and he shows no evidence of such scars, we simply don’t know how he responded to the prospect of being sacrificed and it is presumptive for us to assume we can speak for him. Perhaps he was horrified, or perhaps he thought “Lord, if it be possible, let my Father not do this, nevertheless… Perhaps he was horrified, but later was ashamed of his horror, because he thought is showed a lack of faith. We simply don’t know. If we insist on speaking to what Isaac thought, we have to do so according to what we know about Isaac himself: he was a theist, a religiously observant man (of the same faith his father founded), and a patriarch of a faith that has survived and flourished for thousands of years.

– It struck me this morning that the ram that was substituted for Isaac had it horns caught in brambles. In other words, it was wearing a crown of thorns.

Note on definition

Science is a certain interior discourse, beginning with something within us that is known in itself. The perfection of what is known in itself is given by definition, or the knowledge of what is is to be the thing defined. This definition states what is first in the being of the thing- and this can only be said, not symbolized or stated in merely operational terms. Definitions are not true or false, only true or unknown. Definitions can never be replaced by an enumeration of examples.

Life as a cause

Cut the tip of of a blade of grass, and it will grow itself a new one. Even if one says that there is nothing but elements, what the grass just did exceeds the power of the elements as such. It did something for its own sake, for itself. No diamond ever did such a thing, no star, and certainly no blade of grass that has died.

But we don’t say that life exceeds the power of the elements because it has a property that goes beyond the power of any element; this would be the fallacy of composition- like saying because no one human being could reproduce, then no two of them together could either. And it’s simply true that life is in one sense nothing more than a composition or harmony of elements, if we mean that if we take all the elements away the living thing disappears too; and if we could reassemble all the parts perfectly there might well be a living thing in front of us.

And yet it is impossible for life to be a mere composition or harmony of elements, because composition and harmony are effects of some operation, but the very first thing that we know about life is that it is a certain cause of operation. The very reason we call the thing alive is because it acts for itself and causes things. This is the general form of the argument that Socrates gives to Simmias in the Phaedo.

Prime matter, part II

If one defines prime matter as “that from which substances come to be” then it is evident that prime matter exists- things cannot come to be from nothing at all, at least not naturally. Again, there should be no dispute about whether matter is potential- a thing only becomes something because it is able to. The only question then is whether prime matter has any actuality or not- but if it does, what comes to be would have to be an accident, because it would be existing in another.

Coming to be and prime matter.

The natural and the artificial are both sorts of things that come to be. The artificial, as such, comes to be from some natural thing; but from what does a natural thing, as such, come to be? If we say “from something natural” we haven’t yet explained how it came to be qua natural. This is why philosophers were forced to posit something from which substance and a natural thing came to be, yet which has no nature or substantiality of its own. Said another way, prime matter is necessary because nature is the sort of thing that arises and comes to be on its own.

« Older entries