Certitude as social

Certitude is largely conditioned by how much we care about the outcome. If two sides have passionate opposing views, both will be quite certain, and an outsider looking in will think the whole matter is uncertain.

Physics and Chemistry say almost nothing that outsiders care about.  Sure, outsiders follow the results of physics and consume popular accounts of it, but if all the results came out the other way the outsiders wouldn’t care much. It’s grabs attention to publish that neutrinos might travel faster than light, but no one will riot or boycott or sermonize against the lab that publishes it. Outsiders only start to care about outcomes at the level of biology, which has all sorts of stuff to say about human exceptionalism, race, sexual differences, human origins, sexual activity in humans, etc. As soon as the outcomes matter, however, all these topics fade into obscurity and studies start to pop up either way, with different eras and research teams get different findings, and all the “textbook certitudes” vanish. This doesn’t mean that everyone is right or that there can’t be a definitive answer, but if you want resolution you need to prepare for a very long and volatile campaign, which will require a lot of spadework and at least one ultra-daimonic individual of world-historical significance.

Philosophy and theology are almost entirely concerned with topics where we care about the outcome, and are therefore less certain. An outsider will inevitably wonder whether philosophy and theology have ever reached a definitive conclusion on anything. Analytic philosophy tries to deal with this by carving up philosophy into topics that not many people care about, and this scientific approach has had some continuity and success.

If you want universal, textbook certitude and consensus you need topics that almost no one cares about. That, or totalitarianism.

The missing shade of blue and the nature of relation

Famously, Hume objects to his empiricism with the thought experiment of “the missing shade of blue”. After arguing at length that all thoughts and ideas trace back to simple impressions, Hume pauses to raise an objection: shades of a color are clearly simple impressions, but assume you had a sheet of paper where all the shades of blue were laid out as continually getting lighter and lighter, and you cut out a section, taped the ends together, and showed it to someone. Even if they could not see the cut or the tape, they could immediately tell that a shade was missing simply from the break in continuity, and it would also be relatively easy to imagine what color the shade was, even if one had never seen it before.  It’s a testimony to Hume’s genius that he hit on exactly the example showing that human experience of reality cannot be limited to the sensation of the physical world, since relations like “bluer” or “less blue” can be real even where they are not relative to something sensed. We identify a hiatus in the colors continually getting lighter or darker only because we can see their relation to something absent. Assume the missing shade was periwinkle. Then while there is no quality periwinkle among your colors, no quantity of tinting color proportions that gives rise to periwinkle, and no substance of ink with that shade, there is still a real relation of all the colors to periwinkle, which is exactly why we both see it as missing, and why the quality is in fact missing. One of the great virtues of Hume’s argument is how it demonstrates the reality of relations. The colors are not bluer or less blue than an idea of periwinkle any more than the color is missing because we notice a gap. The color is missing because relations are real features of the extra-mental world even without a positive quality, substance or quantity to serve as their foundation.

Hume’s thought experiment generalizes to any continuous order of one thing to another. Assume we cut a section out of the water cycle, say, condensation. If we showed the resulting picture to anyone they could immediately see that something was missing: water evaporated and rose and later fell down in droplets, but there was a missing transition section from one to another. If we drew the process of prenatal development while jumping from the embryonic stage to birth, everyone would see that the fetal stage was left out. True, nature does sometime move in quantized shifts, but this does not undermine our ability to use continuity as a heuristic, and at any rate there is a good deal of work to be done in explaining the meaning of quantized shifts. It is not clear whether the shift arises from trying to model discrete quantities with continuous magnitudes, or whether the absence of any physical meaning to transition states is like the absence of any meaning in a game of checkers to moving a piece halfway onto a black square. At any rate, the point is not to defend the absolute value of continuity, but to use continuity where it really exists to show how relations are the only things real things the extra-mental world whose reality does not depend on being in the extra-mental world. To return to our example: all the shades of blue have the same real, extra-mental relation to periwinkle whether it is present or missing from a palate of shades.

Infinite regress and correlation.

One interpretation of Aristotelian denial of infinite regress is that if an action required infinite causes it could never be done, and so that any action is done – or even doable – refutes the possibility of it having infinite causes. But why believe the conditional if causes are infinite, the action cannot be done?

On a Humean account of causality, or any account where causes are essentially temporal, the conditional would be true just because no agent could could put an infinite time between an initial and final event. That an action have a cause and effect at all requires it to have a finite time, and so, ex hypothesi, finite causes.

If causes are not essentially temporal there is still a presumption against infinite causes since, again, cause and effect are finite as correlatives. Speaking of a “cause of the cause” or as “both cause and effect” is either (a) to stop viewing the thing you are looking at as cause and re-evaluate it as effect, or (b) to stop viewing it as a primary cause and see it as a secondary one. The question is then whether, in some processes, one can re-evaluate all causes in one of these two ways. This means that a process that gave rise to something is all effects and no causes, or everything secondary with nothing primary, which is like trying to rearrange a set of objects vertically so all are above and none are below. With this set of instructions, it’s clear that the action could never be done, and so such a model of things could never describe how anything actually happened. This is why in the First Way STA can deny infinite causes because they would do away with something primary. The claim is not question-begging but axiomatic, at least if you understand the terms with the sort of clarity that STA does.

So the impossibility of infinite regress of effects or secondary causes is evident from the terms since it follows from their genus: relation. Relations co-exist, and an infinite regress of either effects or secondary causes denies this co-existence.

The Fifth Way (pt. 2)

The Fifth Way rests on the axiom that all order is from intelligence. Few commentators have noticed how central this claim is to STA’s work, though it is frequent and invariant from the beginning of his career to the end (search “ordinare” in the Thomistic index.) The axiom arises as a conclusion from several different lines of thought:

1.) Self-ordering is fundamental to any order, and anything self-ordering is intelligent.

2.) Order is a relation, and relations are only given to intelligence.

3.) Self order is a participated perfection that is proportionate to intelligence.

4.) Things that are not actual before they act cause things that are actual before they act; the former are intelligences, the latter are physical.



One sense of belief is about claims or propositions: “I believe in extraterrestrial life” or ” I believe that most pennies aren’t copper but aluminum.” Another sense is directly in things: “I believe in the Independence Party” or “I believe in direct democracy”. Belief in the second sense means trusting in something to deliver good things, and so its natural concomitants are (minimally) trust and warm regard or (in stronger modes of belief) hope and love.

This division of types of belief is crucial to the question of belief in God. In one sense, all such belief might mean is that we think that God in fact exists, in the same way we might think aliens exist or the planet Vulcan doesn’t. In the second sense we mean that we have confidence in providence and in the divine plan at work in the world. In philosophy or in the various attempts to prove the existence of God, belief is largely in the first sense. In religion, it’s also possible to have faith the first sense but not in the second, which is one way of understanding the distinction between a living and a dead faith, or to harmonize the Pauline account of saving faith and James’s claim that even devils believe in God, and tremble. Pascal’s God of the philosophers and God of faith is also probably better reframed as a belief of the philosophy and a belief of religion. There’s a sense in which these are compatible, since you can’t have belief 2 without also accepting the truth of various factual claims, but it’s just as important to remember that it’s possible for them to be opposed to the point that the first sort of belief is seen as substituting for the second. This arguably happens any time natural religion or spirituality is pitted against revealed religion.

Existentially, it’s relatively easy to say any of the Christian creeds in the first sense. One simply has to mentally check “yes” to claims like “there’s a Trinity out there somewhere”, and “Christ is present in his Church”. But to say the creed in the second sense is much more challenging. Not only do you now have to put real skin in the game, you are suddenly attempting to see the world as a theater of transforming divine power and reframe all the claims of those who oppose it, in the words of the baptismal rite, as “empty promises”.


The axiom of like causes and a general cosmological argument

Brandon put up a post on divine command theory. I asked him if law and morality shared relevantly similar features with art and nature, with an eye to the thesis that there is some unified cosmological argument that could start from either pair. He’d already thought of that. I’m now feeling around for what the general argument for the thesis is.

Start with the axiom that similar properties have similar causes. There is probably no science without it. But things that depend on reason to exist share common properties with things that arise naturally. Positive laws and moral imperatives are both experienced as binding; both human arts and non-human animals act for goals (chimps fish for termites, birds fly south, the digestive tract releases leptin to tell us we’re full…); both the mind and natural things have some constitutive component that is common to many things (an “idea” or “form” or “pattern”) both art and nature follow ordered steps to produce some effect, etc.

Given any one of these common properties, we have three options for the agent-effect relationship of these common properties:

1.) Mind causes nature.

2.) Nature causes mind.

3.) Some tertium quid that is neither mental nor natural causes nature and mind.

The first scenario describes what most would call a supernatural being or god, but so does the third – any agency that is neither mental nor natural must transcend both and so is, by definition, supernatural. Without such transcendence option 3 requires a contradictory agent that is simultaneously mental and non-mental.*

Option 2 can avoid supernaturalism, but it comes at a pretty high cost. Like properties require like causes not just under any way of considering, but precisely under that formality. Now we know that mind can, precisely as mind, give rise to all sorts of non-mental things (this is what cooking does, for example) and so there is no impediment to it giving rise to nature under this description. But for non-mental things to give rise to reason precisely as reason (which is not the same thing as to account for it as, say, a complex brain structure) is to give a rational argument for radical irrationalism.

Sure, this argument has similarities to the EAAN or a slight modification of Nagel’s critique of Darwinism, but I think this means that the like causes axiom is at the basis of both of them. It also allows for a cosmological argument even if we can’t decide between natural law ethics and divine command theory, occasionalism and natural causes, Platonism and Aristotelianism, ID or the Fifth Way, etc.

*Notice that the question is not whether there is some common genus of the mental and natural, but how to describe the agency required to account for the like properties in both. The contradiction does not arise in assuming that the mind is a complex atomic structure while nature is not, and that both are “natural” i.e. atomic structures – but when we try to identify an agent of both that need not be either.

Platonic Forms

Aristotle describes Platonic forms as just like the things of sense, only eternal. This is true but Aristotle stumbles by assuming that eternity means existing indefinitely in time whereas for Plato this Aristotelian description is of something existing, well, in time.

Admittedly, Plato’s account of forms was unclear, problematic even to him, and shifted significantly over his life, but his account of eros in Symposium requires temporality to be a middle state which cannot characterize anything absolute or of-itself. If eros is incomplete because it lacks future perfections it still desires to have, anything with a future will have the same incompletion and so could never be a thing-in-itself.

On this account the eternal is just what Plotinus said it was: to have all goods, so that the “eternal man” is not some crystaline celestial biped but that which possesses all possible goods of humanity. Such a being could never be a human individual since there are essentially diverse perfections that cannot be all possessed by some individual, which is why the goal of the Republic is not to make all persons into philosopher kings or guardians or souls of bronze, etc. Plato didn’t seem to see this far, but all the principles are there to form the conclusion, and it shows the emptiness of Aristotle’s critique that an eternal white would be no more white than one that lasts a day. If white is a true type, then the white itself is that which transcends the multiplicity of all shades while being present in all of them. Clearly, this isn’t eggshell, macaroon, Scotland road, snow-white…

The form of X is therefore not a stripped-down being containing only the essential, but a transcendent totality that can only be imperfectly realized in matter, requiring a multitude of material individuals. At the limit of this is the one as such requiring the multitude as such, or the singular exhaustive logos of creation and the multitude of material creation in all given individuals throughout time.

There is a complete division between the logical universal and the form of something. While many logical universals have corresponding things in themselves, not every logical universal has a corresponding form, which Plato discovered late in life in Statesman. It’s possible there are Greeks and so the “Greek itself”, but “barbarians” is a junk-drawer concept with no “Barbarian itself”. Figuring out what has a form and what doesn’t is an ongoing work and even to discover such a correspondence does not make the logical predicate identical with the thing in itself.

The thing in itself is related to the logical predicate as giving it foundation or substance in reality. Norsemen and Chinese are “barbarians”, and various illnesses are “cancer”, but the unity of the predicate is not based in the world but in an ens rationis. Though many predicates are like this, not all can be such, at least not so far as declarative speech is a vehicle of insight and is not, as Nietzsche claimed it was, just the continual reassertion of tautologies constructed out of power and nothing.

Trinitarianism in a Painting

Okay, so it’s a Rockwell painting. Deal with it.

The Father, the ungenerated, dominating the age from creation to the Incarnation, is seen only from the back. The Lord said “you shall not see my face, for no man shall see me and live…I will take away mine hand, and thou shalt see my back: but my face shall not be seen.”

The whole visible of the Father is the generated image:

Jesus saith unto him, Have I been so long time with you, and yet hast thou not known me, Philip? he that hath seen me hath seen the Father; and how sayest thou then, Show us the Father? Believest thou not that I am in the Father, and the Father in me? 

The image in the mirror has no composure to his face but is simply “what is happening” in the life of the artist. He is logos or facticity of the generated. That said the image in the mirror is shown with his shirt open to the heart. The image has a palate and is ready to work:

Jesus saith unto them, My meat is to do the will of him that sent me, and to finish his work.

The posture of the Father (and by imitation, the Son) is divided, allowing on the one hand for the generation of the image, arising as light from light, and allowing on the other hand for the generation of the pencil-image face arising from the co-substantiality of painter and image. The Father gives rise to the Son by light, but to the Spirit only so far as he can see himself in the Son. There is therefore both a monarchy of the Father making both mirror image and pencil image, and a generation filioque so far as the Father can never give rise to the Spirit apart from seeing himself in the Son.

The Spirit is both between the Father and the Son and above them. He is the only face showing friendliness, fellow feeing, idealization. His is the third image that is co-substantial with the other two, since the whole reason for the reflection or the painter is to have the pencil image. The Face of the Spirit is the only one in the process of completion, for only his age has yet to find its consummation. It is also the only image that looks at the viewer, because he alone is the God who is among us, even though to see is face is the same as seeing the face of the others.

There is, of course, the “fourth” Rockwell by implication: the one who actually painted the picture with all three faces. None of the faces can exist except as existing in the unity of the one from whom they all proceed and with whom they are all identical.

What Hume called the necessary connection between cause and effectis what the Aristotelian tradition called the per se as opposed to the accidental.

– Hume: we see the brick fly and the window break, but no necessary connection. What am I seeing when I see something destructive or dangerous? If I’m trying to intimidate you,  do I know that I am? I suppose it could be a projection of my habits, but the remedy of this is a claim about being.

Fifth Way (pt. 1 initial puzzles)

The Fifth Way turns on the difference between intelligence and unintelligence or knowing and not knowing, but our speech and thought on this blurs in exactly the way that makes the claims of the proof puzzling.


Any entity that beneficially adapts itself to circumstances can be described with cognitive terms. The birds know to fly south before winter, spiders know how to make webs, animals and plants struggle for existence[1] etc. we extend these terms to any actions where the outcome is part of the causal story one is telling: the hypothalamus tells the ovaries to release progesterone, atoms try to get eight valence electrons, the release of leptin tells you you’re full, etc.  But telling a causal story at all involves making the outcome part of the story, and in this sense it’s hard to find any natural action[2] that isn’t for an end in the way STA means it. The only actions that aren’t for an end are those which are unpredictable, in the sense of not even being predictable by the laws of chance. Once we understand what STA meant by teleology the greatest scandal he gives to the modern mind is in not being teleological enough, since he thought some outcomes were unpredictable, even in principle, from an awareness of the laws and initial states of the universe. His view of nature made it something much more ontologically loose and unruly, whereas ours makes nature much tighter, precise, and authoritarian down to the last detail. For him, there were real chance outcomes in nature that were not just an expression of our failure to know the true causal stories; but for us a “chance outcome” means only that we are ignorant of the real causes in play.


The Fifth Way therefore poses two very striking puzzles. First, all STA means by acting “for an end” is an action with an orderly causal story, and he certainly seems to assume a good deal when we looks at an orderly causal story and say that it demands some directing intelligence. There is nothing about, say, the rock cycle,  the production of heavy elements, the life stages of moths or the procession of the equinoxes that cries out for some directing intelligence. It would be one thing if we related to, say, water droplets the way we related to five-year-old boys, in which case seeing the water cycle would be as impressive, unexpected, and suggestive of the presence of directing knowledge as an orderly kindergarten classroom. But STA is quite explicit that he is not seeing nature like this. For him, natural objects are constituted by the tendency that they have to play out the causal stories they play out. But then why in the world does he demand anything more than the natural thing to explain the causal story it generates? When a thing is already acting for an end, any “directing intelligence” is without any work to do. Things only need direction that have no direction in themselves.[3]


The second puzzle is that to the extent that a thing directs itself we tend to describe it in cognitive terms, so to be impressed with the ability of corvids to adapt to the world means to be impressed with their intelligence, and to recognize a bear cleaning out a cave in late fall is to recognize that it will hibernate soon, etc. Even single celled organisms learn to do things or receive information from their environment. But if self-direction just is some measure of intelligence, why in the world would one claim it needs intelligence? In fact, the example that STA gives in the Fifth Way seems to belie his argument for just this reason. An arrow needs to be directed by an archer only so far as it lacks any ability to orient itself to its target. To the extent that a projectile can orient itself to the target, we call it a “smart bomb”, which dispenses with any need for intelligent exterior direction. Again, self-direction to an end is a measure of intelligence that rules out the need for directing intelligence.


Our response to both these objections is straightforward. The argument of the Fifth Way is this:


All order depends on intelligence

Every causal story is an order.

[1] One of the great ironies of our modern outlook that the theory that was widely perceived as doing away with purpose in nature would us a purpose clause to articulate its fundamental axiom.

[2] There are causes in mathematics too, as when increasing the sides of the legs will cause the hypotenuse to increase, but any final causality in this story is only a story of our increase in knowledge, not an explanation of the life-narrative of right triangles.

[3] This is why it would be a serious mistake to think that STA is giving a design argument in any recognizable contemporary sense. All such arguments try to prove that some outcome could never have been expected from its antecedents, and so some directing intelligence was necessary. For contemporary  design arguments, claim that for nature to make a cell is as wildly improbable as kindergarten boys all agreeing to sit quietly. What makes STA’s argument so puzzling is that he is assuming exactly the opposite.

« Older entries