Communicating substantiality (pt. II)

(Still noodling with the argument from Fr. Michael Bolin, here I try turning it into a cosmological argument.)

Let it be given that some natural substance arises from physical parts, as Aristotelians say is true of men, horses, roses, etc. and Atomic theory says is true of atoms.

But substance cannot arise by being identical to the parts, for the parts are many but the substance is one; nor can it arise as being actualized by the parts, for many things make one only when they are in potency to it. Thus actual substance arises neither from identity with its parts or by their causality, and so derives its actuality from another.

Now if this other acts by acting on the physical parts, it can no more account for actual substance than the physical parts themselves. But all natural causes act in this way, since we observe no second sort of natural energy or power that kicks in after the natural agent has brought the parts together.

And so what is most actual in nature arises from a region beyond all observable natural causes. The energy or power that actualizes what is most immanent in them is by that very fact entirely transcendent to them.

By the same argument given above, this being must either be a substance or something whose whole being overflows substance. And thus there is a substantial or supersubstantial reality beyond all nature that accounts for the existence of nature.

For those who take persons as substance, and as the highest sort of substance, the supersubstantial reality beyond all nature can be called a person. For those who take only what is conserved in being while others pass out of being as substance, then this supersubstantial reality transcends that which endured imperishably throughout all time. But it seems best to take these as diverse perfections of substance in nature, and so the supersubstantial reality beyond nature at once fills out and exceeds the reality of an eternal person. And this all understand to be God.

Communicating substantiality

(Tinkering with a thesis by Fr. Michael Bolin, contested by Fr. Waldstein)

I) What comes to be exists in another.

Proof: No substance comes to be, but either is or is not. But all non-substances exist in another.

Objection: But an accidental form either is or is not too – something either works as a house or it doesn’t.

Response: A house is a number of substances with the right position and relation, and one can be closer or further to some number. But a substance is not a number of substances with the right position and relation, therefore etc.

All accidental forms arise from taking a part or whole of a substance and moving it to another place, bringing it into the proximity of other substances, etc. Accidental forms thus have a clear relation to a process. But it’s just because they are this checklist of substance + right position + right relation to other substance that the accidental form can be realized in stages whereas the substantial form can’t be.

II) But we need some sort of account of substances coming to be. We see it happen.

III) An S-form necessarily comes to be whenever the appropriate A -form comes to be.

But how does the S-form necessarily come to be from the A-forms? It can’t come to be by just being them, since this would make it accidental; nor because it is actualized by them, since this would make it in potency to them, when in fact it is their act.

Thus A-forms have an order to S-form, but they cannot actualize this form. S-Forms must be actualized by another. The accidental form has an order to an end that it cannot actualize by itself.

Perhaps substantial form is most comparable to hearing a broadcast. Put the right accidental forms in place (wires, tuning knobs, antenna, electro-guts), and you’ll necessarily hear the broadcast, but not because the broadcast is identical to that form or because the form you make causes the broadcast to occur. You use the language of “taking part in” or “participating” to indicate what your accidental form does with respect to the broadcast. Obviously, as soon as you start thinking about how radios actualize broadcasts, the metaphor goes lame and ceases to apply.

IV) But natural things are essentially mobile, in development, evolving, temporal, changing.

All nature can account for is the accidental form that is open to participating in what might be called the broadcast of substantiality. There is a realm outside of nature which is essentially the communication of existence, without which nothing in nature can exist of itself.

inconscium superat animum

In a section called “objections to prayer” (2727) the Catechism remarks:

[S]ome would have it that only that is true which can be verified by reason and science; yet prayer is a mystery that overflows both our conscious and unconscious mind.

oratio mysterium est quod nostram conscientiam nostrumque inconscium superat animum

“Mystery” in the Scriptural sense is not a baffling or unintelligible object or proposition but an ongoing and therefore incomplete revelation. This ongoing revelation will always have something unintelligible and baffling about it, but this is not because God had any interest in being baffling or unknown (since revealing yourself and your plan for the universe is a pretty stupid way of going about this) but rather because he respects the developmental and historical nature of creation. Like everything else in time, revelations in time evolve, grow, mature, and develop. Mystery is therefore the opposite of obscurity – it is a sort of education.

In one very important sense mystery has ceased with the Incarnation, since there is a definitive sense in which revelation cannot develop beyond this. Mystery only exists now so far as we see the Incarnation in relation to its eschatological revelation of judgment, in its sacramental or Scriptural hiddenness, or in its relation to the progressive dispelling of obscurity from the minds of the members of the Church. The mystery of prayer seems to map best over this last sense of mystery.

But why speak of prayer as a mystery that overflows (an exactly right translation of superare in this context) the conscious and unconscious mind?

The unconscious mind is the confederacy of unknowable but properly human conditions placed on human thought. These conditions are either natural or (in some way or another) constructed. We cannot cannot help thinking of things as finite, temporal, spacial, numerable, repeatable, etc, and this natural habit habit remains even in thinking of individuals, forms, souls, human persons, angels, and the Trinity. This is why we don’t know metaphysical things by abstraction but only by a judgment that negates an unconscious condition put on the objects we know. Less universally, the unconscious involved the conditions of what Wittgenstein called the background understanding. I can’t help thinking that when I look around I’m seeing the natural world, and that the supernatural must somehow intrude into this. I know this is a particular, contingent and historically variable background understanding, and I can even experience it as inadequate (the experience of mass, or the Muslim call to prayer don’t make much sense on this bifurcation) but I still can’t help working within this background in my own life.

The Cathechism speaks of prayer, in opposition to reason and science, as overflowing these human conditions placed on human thought. It can fill up a philosophy or discourse on nature but never be captured by them. The reason for this is given earlier in an account of contemplative prayer, which describes it not the attaining of an abstracted or separated object or the penetration into it, but as

“[N]othing else than a close sharing between friends; it means taking time frequently to be alone with him who we know loves us.” Contemplative prayer seeks him “whom my soul loves.” (2709)

Among human friends, there is always the equality of nature, which requires that their interior life be articulated and shared only by way of signs for abstractions and separations. The friendship of prayer is not like this, and so is an education overflowing the conscious and unconscious mind.

Knowing individuals

Aristotle argues that a particular substance is only given to sensation per accidensand that all that is known to intellect is universal. So what knows the particular substance as such?

St. Thomas usually appeals to some sort of “reflection on the phantasm” to explain this, but it’s unclear how this is supposed to work. How does this retorsive action give a power to see something that neither sense nor intellect as such can see?

To appeal to an instinct here is to change the question. All instinct would mean is that some power or another is naturally moved to see individuals. But what power are we talking about?

Josiah Royce raises this problem in his Lecture on the Conception of Immortality.

[O]ur human type of knowledge never shows us existent individuals as being truly individual. Sense, taken by itself, shows us merely sense qualities, — colors, sounds, odors, tastes. These are general characters.
Abstract thinking defines for us types. A discriminating comparison of many present objects of experience, such as autumn leaves, or human faces, or handwritings, shows us manifold differences, but always along with and subject to the presence of likenesses, so that we never find what common sense assumes to exist, namely, such a difference between any individual and all the rest of the world as lies deeper than every resemblance. And even if by comparisons and discriminations we had found how one being appears to differ from all other now existent beings, we should not yet have seen what it is that distinguishes each individual being from all possible beings. Yet such a difference from all possible beings is presupposed when you talk, for instance, of your own individuality.

Concupiscence (pt. II)

An old professor of mine used to tell a story about a students who were annoyed and even confused to find themselves in a business ethics class- “why do we have to learn ethics when this is business?” The class itself seemed like a contradiction in terms – business was a domain of action where moral considerations were simply out of place. I’ve met a similar  confusion when I’ve tried to teach students about the evils of usury – they’re baffled at the thought that the act of loaning money as a business would need to take moral considerations into account. This non-moral evaluation of business actions is one of the dominant and haunting themes of The Godfather – where the division between “business” and “family/personal” is such that the respective virtues of both are in contradiction: “family” is a domain of action which demands mercy, forbearance, acknowledgement of the humanity of others, faithfulness, sacrifice, etc. whereas “business” marks off a territory that demands the complete suppression and reversal of all of these.

As with “business”, we also want sex to be a field where moral considerations are simply out of place. Peter Singer makes this claim explicitly when he argues that sex as such “raises no unique moral considerations at all”, and this is what one is logically committed to if he sees no moral criterion in sexual ethics beyond consent.  Put in Scholastic terms, the claim is that there is no virtue of sexual temperance but only a evaluation of whether the sex is consensual or not, which isn’t a consideration of temperance but justice.

And so both business and sex are seen as fields where moral considerations do not apply. This should be expected: both sexual desire and the desire for money are easily drawn into the updraft of particular or infinite concupiscence. Artificial wealth (what can be exchanged) is easy to detach from natural wealth (what we use to survive) and when so detached it we cannot but take it as an infinite good, even if it is one that has lost its raison d’être. In the same way, there is an artificial sexual desire that is easy to detach from its natural desire, and when so detached it will be both an infinite good and yet lack any reason to be desired at all.

Once we set artificial objects of concupiscence as goods in themselves, we will perpetually oscillate between seeing them as gods and seeing them as meaningless. in fact, the perfect expression of this “godlike meaninglessness” might be simply what seems to be our dominant sexual ethic: “do whatever you want”. The world is at once entirely yours, O ye god, and yet no object in it is any more worth seeking than any other.

But setting up a moral-free zone of activity ends up swallowing everything into that realm.The genius of The Godfather is in how it shows that the attempt to divide the non-moral zone of business from family ends up making everything “business”. Michael and Fredo are the centerpieces here, but one can take it as the dominant hermeneutic for every criminal in the film. A better example, however, comes from another genre. The monster of the horror movie tends to be some sort of infinite concupiscence: the blob, the zombie and the vampire all eat forever; the alien of Aliens reproduces at any cost and without limit; and in general the one whose desires bring death cannot be killed himself.


A: Well, if that’s what they call marriage then I don’t see why any couple couldn’t have one.

B: But you’re so committed to Natural Law arguments, and you’re Christian!

A: Right, but all Laurie and I did was fill out our parents names on a computer, go up to some Bureaucrat at a row of teller-windows, and sign something we barely read in front of him. There was no preparation, no articulated expectation, no ceremony. I don’t even take it as requiring or even allowing me to sleep with her, and neither does my Church. If this is marriage, there’d be nothing weird in marrying my dad.

B: I think you’d feel something odd in doing that

A: Maybe so, but would there be anything rational in the feeling?  If everyone at the office were marrying their dad, that weird feeling would disappear pretty quickly. There was just nothing in the activity that was, I dunno, marriage-like. What I did at the teller window can be opted out of at any time, without finding fault, for little more than a small fee and less paperwork than it takes to fill out a car loan; no one expects that it has to last; no one expects us to have kids or even puts any pressure on us to do so (if anything, its the opposite). I don’t take it as allowing me to sleep with her before our church ceremony, and I doubt anyone who was doing without the Church ceremony would wait for the civil one.

B: You’ve made that point about sex twice.

A: What can I say – being engaged sucks.

B: But just because something isn’t in an ideal state doesn’t mean you can just keep corrupting it.

A: That’s true – but I’m not saying that anything goes, but that the ceremony itself doesn’t demand anything that could be used as a principle of limiting that teller-window ‘ceremony’ to one man and one woman in a lifelong union who both do not actively try to thwart conception.

B: So the ceremony as it is does not contain any reality that might serve as a principle to limit the ceremony to what you consider is essential to marriage.

A: How can I point to anything in it and say “no, you shouldn’t be able to have this with your father”? What would clash with the demands of the contract, other than perhaps a purely arbitrary clause in the contract like “you can’t make this contract with your father”?. And what would that prohibition be except the corpse of an outmoded prejudice? I know exactly what I could point to in the religious ceremony to rule that out, and what rules it out in the definition of a marriage – but nothing in that teller ‘ceremony’.

B:  You keep saying that but it isn’t true. Whatever anyone thinks of marriage these days, they think it recognizes some sort of legitimate sexual desire and sexual relationship. People can disagree whether it plays a role in making the sexual desire licit to act on or not, or on what sorts of sexual desire are licit, but all sides agree that it is at least on this.

A: Okay, but so what? Sure, John Corvino and Maggie Gallagher can hold hands and agree that marriage recognizes a legitimate sexual desire and relationship.

B: That seems to rule out your “marry my dad” example.

A: I guess that’s right – but I don’t see how it gives me anything that has the essential notes of either matrimony or something meeting the minimal definition of marriage.

B: You would have to argue that legitimate sexual desire required all your essential elements of marriage: heterosexuality, lifelong commitment, no voluntary frustration of the link between sex and offspring, etc.

A: And how would anyone do that?

B: I don’t know – it’s your argument. Take it from the beginning – what is the basic desire at work in sexual desire

A: Easy: concupiscence.

B: And what is the structure of concupiscence?

A: It divides into the common and peculiar. Aristotle wrote about that first:

Of the appetites some seem to be common, others to be peculiar to individuals and acquired; e.g. the appetite for food is natural, since every one who is without it craves for food or drink, and sometimes for both, and for love also (as Homer says) if he is young and lusty; but not every one craves for this or that kind of nourishment or love, nor for the same things. Hence such craving appears to be our very own.

This seems to be our predicament with love too: not everyone craves one kind of love, nor do they love the same sorts of things. There’s a huge variety of sexual proclivities, orientations, and tastes.

B: So how are the two related to each other, this “common” and “peculiar”?

A: The second seems to arise out of the first. STA gives the briefest account I know of:

The reason [there are two] is because the appetite of the animal is moved by the instinct of nature alone, and so they enjoy only the things that pertain to preserving nature… but in man there is sense knowledge which becomes rational knowledge and then in turn moves human appetite. This is why a human being can delight in the very things suitable to sense considered as suitable, even if they are not ordered to preserving nature.

B: Is this some sort of biological point?

A: I don’t think so. Who knows what they’ll find out there in the crazy world of nature? I think the only point is that some desires have a clear orientation to preserving nature and others don’t.

B: But then what would happen if the peculiar desires became utterly detached from the common ones?

A: I think the closest analogue would be with wealth: one sort of wealth takes care of bodily needs (like having a large grain supply that you intend to eat) and other sorts of wealth is used for exchange (like money, or a large supply of grain you want to trade for something). Now it would be crazy to utterly cut off the latter from the former – to just keep heaping up coins or bartering chips with never a hope of using them.

B: A guy who did that would have no reason to seek them out in the first place.

A: Right.

B: But then sexual desire can never be cut off from that goal of preserving nature, can it?

A: That seems right.

B: And this “preservation” means simply keeping the nature in existence?

A: Right.

Dawinisms – UPDATED

The facts of Darwinism allow two interpretations:

Darwinism A: The structure of an organism arose from factors like selection, drift, and descent. Calling these processes “successful” means only that the organism got lucky, and “lucky” means simply that it happened to survive till now for one reason or another. The primary lesson of selection, therefore, is that there is no ideal organism, just one possible way of interacting with the environment that happened to work.

Darwinism B: The structure of an organism is such that it makes the organism strive to attain goods, above all the good of its own intrinsic operation or self-expression. Reproduction arises from this striving, and as a material process it may occur with copying errors. These copying errors, however, can in turn be exploited by the organism (usually unconsciously) in its striving for its own goods. The primary lesson is that factors like descent, selection, etc. either arise from the organism striving for its proper good or find their only meaning in this context.

One interpretation of the difference is whether substances or operations are basic. Does form follow function (Darwinism B), or vice versa? Should the organism be taken as a sort of function, i.e. a striving for some sorts of actions, self-expressions, and goods (B); or should it be taken as a structure that might act well or poorly – who cares, so long as it finds a way to survive? (A)

More simply, is survival apart from any good or evil self-expression of the organism a sufficient explanation of structure (A) or is the organism’s striving for its own well-functioning state the sufficient explanation of how processes like descent or the exploitation of mutation (selection, etc.) can be beneficial or not?

Do we say “look, a think can survive regardless of whether it performs its proper function or not – even if it doesn’t have one (A)” or do we say “Survival is itself done by a thing striving for its own good”.

I forget who it was that said the best explanation of selection was a child’s game which was a bunch of shapes in a can, with the bottom of the can such that any shape could fit out if it happened to find its slot. You then shook the can and bet on which shape will fall out. This seems closest to an account of Darwinism A – the shapes don’t contribute anything to success at falling out – indeed as far as they are concerned it makes no difference whether they fall out or not. A better metaphor for Darwinism B would be betting on a football game.

There are deep conflicts in the vision of nature behind A and B that cannot be solved by mere accumulation of data. Is nature fundamentally a striving for goods or not? Does form follow function or vice versa? Is nature characterized fundamentally by action or inertia? Is consciousness a moment when nature finally becomes aware of the process that has been driving it all along (knowledge of good) or is consciousness merely a peculiar way of action, a mere phenotype among others, which sheds no particular light on processes that are non-conscious outside of human life?

For Aristotle, function was primary both in experience and causality, and so his biology saw the functional goods of organism as basic and the structure of the organism as consequent to them. For us, it’s the phenotype of the organism that is basic, and the function might happen or not, or even exist or not. On the first account, man (the substance) is a certain way of getting virtue to occur; on the second a collection of traits is seen as merely what survived, apart from whether virtue is sought or even if it does not exist at all. We collect a lot of data on organisms in an attempt to find what is really common to them and so necessary to characterize the population; Aristotle collected a lot of data in an attempt to find what was a paradigm in some nominal class. In a class of students, we are looking for which traits among the population really do characterize all of them; Aristotle is looking for the one student in the population who best most counts as a student.

Visualizing creation

It’s easy enough to imagine the universe flashing into existence, but this cannot have a physical meaning. It can, however, serve as a metaphor for creation.

Say the universe is five minutes old. Knowing this, now I ask “what happened five minutes ago?” The answer is “whatever was happening then”. I, of course, want to talk about some sort of transition and so I rephrase the question as  “no, what happened at the midpoint of the time between 5.5. and 4.5. minutes ago? In visualizing a time before the five minutes there’s no doubt that I’m imagining something, but presumably the point of talking about time is to talk about it as it is and not as it is in our imagination, and so talking about “5.5. minutes ago” is a failure to keep to this rule. So either both times are imaginary, or only the first is: if the former, I’m not asking about the universe but about about my imagination of it; if the latter then the times are not continuous and so can have no midpoint. You can imagine as many counter-factual histories as you please, but you can’t ask what happens in the time between a counter-factual history and a real one.

In visualizing this flash point beginning of history we have a metaphor of nature as at once being given an existence of its own and being entirely dependent on another. We have a sense that the flash makes it exist of its own. One needs only to “get it started” and it carries on by itself, and the “getting it started” has no physical meaning, as said above. At the same time, the flash-into-existence metaphor speaks to the lack of an ontological foundation of the universe. So the metaphor seems to speak at cross-purposes, as giving both an independence and dependence to the universe.

Our visualization of the creation of the universe, therefore, cannot have a physical meaning, but is a metaphor for the fact that what is created both exists of itself and is dependent on another. We can approach creation by two tracks – by way of its existential poverty or its existential sufficiency. The first has been well explored by cosmological arguments, but the second, though almost entirely unexplored, would be an approach more fitting to the modern-contemporary temperament.

But “sufficiency” means “needing no other” and so the only theism that we seem to be able to get out of the sufficiency of the universe is pantheism. Is this right?

St. Thomas divides “creation” into the active and passive: the active being God himself as indistinguishable from his power, passive creation as the creature. Here the better metaphor for creation seems to be the line and its point – the two differ in being, but in such a way that all finitude is on the part of the point. The limit, like the creature, both differs from the figure and is inseparable from it. Creation is not a part of God any more than a point is a line segment, but just as a point marks the place where an expanding line ceases to give rise to a line segment, creation marks the location in which God’s activity terminates in something less than the persons of the Trinity.

Last Franciscan

Hypothesis: The Descartes of the Meditations is the last great Franciscan scholastic.

The Theory that it is a work in that tradition: 

1.) For years we’ve known about the Augustinian roots of Descartes, but recent scholarship shows that “Augustinian” seems to really mean “Augustine as filtered through a tradition starting with Alexander of Hales, interpreting Aristotle through Avicenna, and writing a manual that teaches Bonaventure, Scotus, Petrus Olivi, Ockham, etc.” Here I would lean heavily on Lydia Schumacher’s Divine Illumination. 

2.) The Meditations reads like a spiritual work of the sort that characterizes the Franciscan tradition. There are no prayers in it, which counts as a significant difference, but it is clearly the journey of a mind in search of God through an inward turn understood in a distinctively Franciscan way.

3.) “Ockham’s Razor” has been difficult to find because it isn’t there in the way it is usually understood. Who would ever make it an axiom not to include superfluous elements in an explanation? As Boehner argues, the real Ockham’s razor is Ockham’s consistent effort to reject whatever he is not forced to believe, that is, if you can doubt it, you ought to doubt it. This just is the Methodological Doubt of the First Meditation, even if MD is a particularly strong reading of the principle. So taken, Descartes is founding a whole philosophy on Ockham’s razor.

4.) The certitude of intuitions is a central question for Ockham, and it’s unclear that he ever resolves it. Descartes clearly is responding to this voluntarist tradition in Meditation 1 by simply refusing to take direct intuition as causative of knowledge.

That this is the last work in that tradition. 

5.) After Descartes, one is no longer arguing with scholastic problems but with problems in Descartes.

6.) In Descartes philosophy gains a new independence from theology. There is a clear rejection of or addition to the idea that philosophy is an ancilla theologiae, and a sense that it must now provide a foundation for a new sort of inquiry into nature. The Meditations does not open up to the world of revealed theology, or even to a religious world of prayer. The God of the Meditations is neither the Thou of the Intinerarium nor the first stage in a picture of revelation, as it is in the Medieval Summas.


I’ve always been Catholic, but for years now the lives of the saints have struck me as falling somewhere an a continuum from disheartening to repugnant. Their extreme asceticism and renunciation was an ideal that was either unattainable or disgusting, though I knew I had to find some way to see it as good. The few times I actually tried fasting I found it illuminating and beneficial, but the insight seemed hard to keep one’s focus on, and so I’d find myself looking at the saints with the same yuck-feelings. If that’s sanctity, I thought, it’s a life for someone else. This post is not about shaking off those feelings – most of them remain. But I have found ways to contextualize them in helpful ways, most of all by seeing spirituality as a sort of athletic activity.

Askesis is from the root Askeo meaning to train or to exercise, where (as in English) the central meaning of the term is athletic training. Paul, who was nothing if not combative and energetic, uses the term everywhere as metaphor for the spiritual life, though most quotably in 2 Tim. 4:7  “I have fought the good fight” . The locus classicus of this spirituality is 1 Cor. 9: 24-27:

Know ye not that they which run in a race run all, but one receiveth the prize? So run, that ye may obtain.

25And every man that striveth for the mastery is temperate in all things. Now they do it to obtain a corruptible crown; but we an incorruptible.

26I therefore so run, not as uncertainly; so fight I, not as one that beateth the air:

27But I keep under my body, and bring it into subjection: lest that by any means, when I have preached to others, I myself should be a castaway.

Now athletic training is on the one hand good for everyone, and on the other hand impossible for all but a few. There’s almost certainly a team or a sport out there for everyone, from kindergarten t-ball to geriatric water-robics. But to be an athlete simpliciter is the province of a few. The value of being an athlete simply (or, nowadays, a professional) is certainly not in providing an activity that anyone can perform, and the fact that almost no one can perform it will always be a part of the goodness it offers. But while almost no one can participate in professional sports as an athlete, we nevertheless can derive great meaning from participating in them as spectators, followers, and fans. This might be a part of the older attraction to patron saints.

Now if you understood the saints as giving an ideal that we are all called to, sanctity could only be disheartening. You might as well tell me to compete in the Olympics or win the heavyweight title. That’s not happening. Even the first stage of the process isn’t happening. But one can love the performance of the saints- we’re even called to love it. This love doesn’t spur action in the sense of making me think I should do it myself – it’s part of the very attraction of the saints that they are doing what I am incapable of. But fandom to the saints does spur changes in action in a different way: it redefines one’s sense of glory, promotes the value of spiritual good, and gives a deeper sense of the church as a place where we participate in spiritual excellence in part by cheering for things we could never do ourselves.

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