Degrees of soul, and a note on Christian philosophy

Descriptions of the soul as the form or act of the body are imprecise. The soul is the act of what is potentially alive. Physical bodies are  only the lowest instance of this.

The body as such is only potential nutritive and reproductive life, which makes life in this sense entirely present the living subject and in no way outside of it. Through sensation, however, soul becomes the act of something only partially subjective. The sensible object is potentially alive because it becomes a part of experience by being sensed, and experience is a mode of life. Sensation alsohas an essential subjective component so far as it depends on a sentient organ, but sensation as such differs from the nutritive/reproductive soul in being not purely the act of a body, but the act of (1) a subjective, potentially sentient organ and (2) an objective, potentially sensible object.

At the last level of soul it is the act of a purely objective and in no way subjective. This is the point of Aristotle showing that nous is in no way the act of a physical organ, i.e. it is in no way subjective.

The reason why Aristotle thought there were different sorts of soul that were only analogously “soul” was because each kind had an essentially different relation to subjectivity. The nutritive/reproductive soul was the act of something purely subjective, the sentient soul was the act of something partly subjective and partly objective, and the intellectual soul was the act of something purely objective.


Corollary: If Aristotle considered intellect as such, and not as a kind of soul, he would have pointed out that intellect as soul is the lowest sort of intellect, and that it can only be purely objective so far as it knows that things are. If intellectual soul wants to know what things are it needs to involve sensation and therefore it picks up a subjective component.

This is why intellectual soul was, for Aristotle, only potential intellect, i.e. it was potential to the state of separation after death when it would be an actual intellect, and could know what things are without recourse to sensation. Christian philosophy usually denied this because of theological assumptions that held that death was a punishment and therefore a privation. Unlike Aristotle, they held that our intelligence was essentially an intellectual soul, as opposed to our intellectual soul being a potential intellect.

I lean toward thinking that Christian philosophy is confused on this point, and that it has confused death as such with death as terror and moment of judgment, which is certainly what it becomes after the deformation of sin. Christ’s terror at the face of death is his “becoming sin for us (2. Cor. 5:21)”, not a revelation of what a sinless man would have made of death, since such a revelation would have been no use to us.


Contemporary sexual theories

I’m a father of three girls and so virginity is a large part of my theory on sexuality. They need to keep theirs until marriage and all who seek to bring about the contrary will be beaten until unresponsive. This feeling is instinctual and therefore I’d have it even if I couldn’t articulate its value, but since this is what everyone believes about sexual orientation you can call it a part of mine.

I have three sons too. Their virginity plays less of a role in my theory of sexuality, but since part of loving someone is not wanting them to be worthy of being beaten until unresponsive, I don’t want them messing around with anyone’s daughters, and all girls are someone’s daughter. So I’m indirectly committed to the virginity of my sons.

Contemporary theories of sexuality have no place for the value of virginity. This is not necessarily because they are libertine since there have been all sorts of libertine theories of sexuality that still carved out a crucial place for the value of virginity. The ancient Western world had arguably far fewer sexual taboos than us, but a father still could expect his desire for perfect pre-marital continence to be honored and enforced as good.

Just because you allow for gender fluidity, divorce, contraception or homosexual equality doesn’t mean you have to accept that anyone can do what they want with your daughters, as is proved by the ancient Romans. Our sexual ethic is therefore not just libertine or tolerant but also individualist. If some girl wants to be sexually active, what does it matter what her father thinks about it? If she’s sexually active and doesn’t want to have kids, then what does it matter if her mother wants grandkids? One of our deepest theoretical commitments is that these desires have nothing to do with permissible sexual behavior, and it’s a testimony to the depth of the commitment that it is assumed by the most traditionalist and conservative of sexual theories. It’s not as if Theology of the Body takes notice of what your father or mother wants.

The commitment is at least exploitive and probably unsustainable, though human beings can keep exploitative states-of-affairs up for a good while. In denying any expression to a father’s or mother’s desires for their children we are committing an injustice against a very widely held sentiment that is every bit as intense as any sexual orientation. This kind of repression will make for a neurosis that, like any neurosis, can only be the principle of destructive behavior.






Petitionary prayer

A: So you think that science is just idealized human knowledge, and you see something odd in putting all our trust in this idealized human knowledge?

B: I see a problem in putting all of one’s trust in anything human, idealized or not.

A: What other choice do we have, though? We’re talking about putting out trust in some power, and we will often – perhaps even usually – do this in the face of some evil we seek to be sheltered from or avoid.

B: Yes.

A: So what other choice do you have in the face of suffering or death than human ingenuity? If you can’t feed a town, your child is dying, your cows get ringworm, your wife is depressed, etc. You only have so much life and time to give to options. You could pray they might change or you could appeal to the work of the clever humans around you. Which do you think will, in the long run, actually work?

B: It sure seems like we count on human reasoning to work those out.

A: Exactly. Prayer is a failed hypothesis.

B: If that’s how we’re going to characterize it, then how to we explain the existence of “prayer” civilizations that also had medicine, politics, horticulture, etc? Why not say that later medicine replaces the “failed hypotheses” of primitive medicine, or that more scientific horticulture replaces less scientific horticulture? Why are we pitting prayer against the sciences?

A: Don’t we pray all the time for things like that? When I go to church people are praying all the time for the sorts of things that get accomplished by medicine or politics or scientific food production. Why am I bothering to pray for Billy’s full recovery or peace in the Middle East or the starving children in Africa? Whether I pray or not Billy is going to be healed in the hospital or by sheer chance, the Middle East will get peace either by clever politicking or by sheer chance, and the starving children of Africa… you get the idea. We need rational politics, food production methods, or theories of how one society might help or harm another. Prayer is a fifth wheel.

B: All sorts of people see the success of these things as an answer to prayer. There’s a long tradition in Scripture of asking God to raise up a deliverer from among the people.

A: I like that argument. In some sense that prayer is the whole of salvation history. Still, I don’t see what praying for the one who delivers by his skill, knowledge and charisma does. 

B: You said before that without skill results happen only by chance.

A: Right.

B: Now chance in this sense is neither probability or necessity, since both of these allow us to see things coming, but there are intrinsic limits on how much human beings can see coming. Even if the whole universe were entirely determined, the ability of even idealized human reason to predict and control it under every description will be limited.

A: What you you mean “under every description”?

B: I mean that an insurance adjuster might be able to predict how that ten accidents would happen today, but not that John Jones would have an accident today. And I don’t think anyone can predict the odds of, say, the army or the politician catching the necessary lucky break that makes his work possible. The set of all ways one can get lucky is undefined.

A: I see where you’re going. Whether reasoning has necessary causes or probabilistic ones, it can’t get all the way down to reality under every description. For all that, reality under those descriptions that reason cannot reach still affects the world where reason has to do his work.

B: That’s where I was going. So far as out problems are within the reach of reason, prayer is primarily a prayer that God may raise up a deliverer from among his people. So far as they are outside the reach of reason, we are praying for good fortune, lucky breaks, serendipity.

A: Still, if prayer works, shouldn’t those who pray get more of them?

B: How do you measure that?

A: Why not just measure the effects? Like outcomes of some surgery for those who pray and those who don’t. Sure, I can’t measure lucky breaks, but I can measure their outcomes.

B: I’m stuck on that. What difference would we expect prayer to make? If we expect 30% of non-prayers to survive but 50% of those who pray, how would we interpret this? What about the other half of those who pray?

A: At least you’d have a difference. What you actually find is that 30% get better whether they pray or not. So what difference does it make?

B: Isn’t there an important difference between single trials and ways of life?

A: What?

B: It’s one thing to rate someone’s performance in any particular task and another to guan how much better a life is with them. So it’s one thing to judge outcomes for a particular surgery and another to judge them for a whole life.

A: So you’d expect to see long-term differences in those who pray, but not measure it in one-off trials. We do find that. But why do we find that?

B: The one-off test has the feel of a trial whereas the long-term differences keep a distance from this. But I’d need to flesh that out more.

The impossibility of BF(2)’s

There are brute facts simpliciter, or the most basic, non-axiomatic givens in any explanation. In any investigation there will be things that everyone recognizes could be otherwise but are not open to question in the context of the investigation. Call them BF(1)’s.

BF(1)’s appear far less often than brute facts used to establish Naturalism or stop the conclusion of a theistic argument (2). BF(2)’s differ from (1) since they require further explanation be logically impossible. Naturalism is a theory about the whole space of possible explanations of nature, and so the Naturalist can’t say “all explanations of nature bottom out in the set of (natural) brute facts Q, but other explanations are possible.”

Facts differ from axioms, the self-evident, or relations of ideas by their contrary being logically possible. BF(2)’s are therefore propositions whose contrary is logically possible, but for which it is impossible for there to be any explanation of how this could be so. So BF(2)’s require that the contrary of the fact could have been otherwise, but that there is no possible account of how it could have been otherwise. And that’s a contradiction.

Again, assume that proposition B is a BF(2) that Naturalism rests on. (i) qua fact, ~B is possible, but (ii) qua BF(2) it is logically impossible for there to be an account of how ~B could be the case. But if it is logically impossible for there to be any account of how something contrary-to-fact could be the case then that contrary is impossible. So being a BF(2) requires that ~B be both possible and impossible simul. 


The impossibility of Naturalist brute facts

1.) Scientific explanations require laws and initial conditions. More generally, some some intelligible process arising from a given fact.

2.) Take the given fact. Facts are given differently from axioms. Both the fact and the axiom enter explanation as a proposition, but  the axiomatic proposition is one where we see the unity of subject and predicate while we do not see this for the fact.

3.) Either an explanation of the proposition is logically possible or not. If not, we must either have an axiom or what nowadays gets called the “brute fact”. Note that this is not a “brute fact” as first coined by Anscombe to describe more or less basic levels of explanation, but as it nowadays gets used to forestall theistic arguments and/or to establish some Naturalisms.

4.) Brute facts only exist if there is some proposition that (a) cannot logically be the conclusion of some line of reasoning and (b) is not axiomatic. In other words, there must be some proposition whose unity cannot be explained either by its own terms or any other. The “cannot” there needs to be very strong: there would be a logical impossibility in the unity of the proposition arising from its own terms or by those terms in unity with others, since allowing for the first logical possibility would make the proposition an axiom (and so not a brute fact) and the latter would be to deny it was a brute fact altogether.

5.) But if it is logically impossible to unify terms either by themselves or another term, we have no more reason to affirm predicate than to deny it. I stress the logical impossibility because we see all sorts of facts around us that are neither axiomatic nor for which we see any obvious connection. It’s presently a fact that  “My couch is 15 feet from the overgrown raspberry garden”. There is nothing axiomatic in this, and I’m a bit puzzled at the thought of what I would use to conclude that (a ruler maybe?) Now if I wanted this to be a brute fact I’d have to keep insisting it was not an axiom (which would be easy) while making the additional claim that there is a logical impossibility in its being a conclusion of some previous propositions. But that’s (a) nuts and (b) an argument that it could not be a fact at all.

Philosophy with a four-year-old

Monika: Why do people kill God?

Me: Because they’re bad, Momo.

Monika: But why are people bad?

Me: Well, why do you do bad things?

Monika: I don’t know.

Me: There was a man named Socrates who said that people do bad things because they don’t know what is good. What do you think about that?

Monika: No. I do bad things because God goes away. Because he died. God just goes away and I do bad things.



Monika: Why are there too many people on earth?

Me: How many people should there be, Momo?

Monika: Ten.

Me: Ten people? That’s almost no one!

Monika: No. Everyone on earth should be one family.

Wanting MIW (1)

It is necessary and sufficient that goodness be what you want to do. Said another way, the reason for “why shouldn’t I?” is “because you don’t want to”. Another answer eo ipso leaves the question undecided.

The basic mistake made about goodness is believe that what we want mistakenly, in vain, or wrongly (MIW). In fact, for an action to be MIW requires that the act already be specified, and wanting is an action. Therefore what we want MIW is not a case of wanting.

‘Evil’ is anything wanted MIW, etc. Since all this presupposes a definite character and goal to wanting, evil is any means that can’t get us what we want.



Sin against the Spirit, (2)

[W]hoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven, but is guilty of an eternal sin. He said this because they [the Pharisees] were saying, ‘He has an evil spirit’.”

Mark 3: 28

In Mark the sin against the Holy Spirit is exemplified by one who sees the driving out of evils spirits as the work of an evil spirit. Since those in Christ’s audience didn’t distinguish “having an evil spirit” from simply “being bad”, the unforgivable sin is the belief that bad actions get good results. But all sorts of people believe that, and it’s arguably the foundational belief of modern political theory, from Machiavelli defending the value of Caesare Borgia’s terrorism, to Mandeville promoting “private vices, publick benefits”, to the Leftist acceptance of revolutionary terror from the French to the Russian revolution. Chesterton points out that people relate to the devil as the wicked one who at least gets things done – the one you have to turn to if you actually want to get results. It’s interesting to contemplate the Pharisees calling Christ Beelzebub out of respect or even envy, i.e. that he gets people to be good only  in virtue of some dark charisma.

If this is right the unforgivable sin arises from the deep desire we have to crack skulls for a better world or kill our way to utopia. Kids very clearly have desires like this very young, and its a perennial shortcut, dark side power that we fantasize about using to solve our problems.

Existence as primary

1.) An individual cannot be referred to in any way before it exists. 

While we use an individual name before the individual exists, we refer to any individual who might come and not to the individual who does. If a newlywed couple decides to name their first boy Horace and they later have a boy, the name has two different referents. Before he is born “Horace” only referred to “whatever boy might be born”, but after he is born it no longer has this vague, ‘whatever’ referent but a concrete one. Before he is born the name’s reference is to a slot that might be filled by indefinite individuals, but this is not what it refers to after he is born.

2.) What cannot be referred to in any way cannot have an ontological property in any way. 

If it could, there would be some property which, being ontological, would be a possible object of science. But whatever is a possible object of science must possibly refer to some object.

3.) An individual’s existence is ontologically primary. 

This is a conclusion. The primary is that which is prior to all else.

Objection: The conclusion is trivial. All it says is that only existent beings have properties.

Response: No, it is stronger than this. First, it shows that existence is a real property since anything that causes a real difference is a real property, and existence alone causes a thing to be an object of reference. Second, it shows that “a potential individual” is not the concrete individual in a potential state. Contra Leibniz, reality is not a substructure of latent individuals that fight out to see who will rise to the top.

Objection: The only reason we can’t describe individuals before they exist is our ignorance of scientific law, and so the only reason the first premise is true is because of ignorance.

Response: Relatively few accounts of scientific law make this objection work. If laws are helpful simplifications, or statistical truths, or have intrinsically limited accuracy, or have limits of scale in going from a simple “one particle, one force” universe to our own, then there is no reason to think they would predict the individual. But even if law predicts all outcomes with infinite precision the prediction of the concrete is not possible. Law predicts concrete individuals only from initial conditions, which are historical accidents falling outside of law.

Objection: Fine, but you can get initial conditions just by looking around.

Response: No, by looking around you don’t just get initial conditions, you get the outcomes of your laws given the initial conditions you assumed beforehand.

Objection: You just don’t get it. If you know the laws and initial conditions, then you can predict individuals, and therefore refer to them, contrary to your first claim.

Response: In order for this objection to work it’s not enough that your conditional be true, the antecedent also has to be possible, and it isn’t. What predicts the concrete case is never just law but the law-condition complex, the inability to have the conditions be intuited during time means that they can never be concretely given.

Objection: Why couldn’t some possible being intuit them at the first moment of the universe?

Response: The idea of a first moment is itself only knowable by the law-condition complex, but even assuming there was some first moment of the universe, no intelligence within the universe could know it. Intelligence cannot arise within the universe until after many years of evolution and development.

But if you are not talking about a being within the universe, then we are talking about a sort of possible ontology utterly different from the one I’m describing here.



Contra STA on post-mortem cognition

A: So you take exception to St. Thomas’s teaching on post-mortem human cognition.

B: In part, yes. I agree with him that the human intellect is spiritual, and that it is the form of a body. But I say that its post mortem existence is a negation of physical existence, not the privation of physical existence.

A: What’s the difference?

B: If your car does not have a steering wheel, that’s a privation. If your cat does not have a steering wheel, that is a negation. It might be true that both don’t have one, but for the first this is a lack and the second it is not.

A: Why do you want to say that the post-mortem soul has no body but does not lack it?

B: Because otherwise there is no difference between the post-mortem soul and the soul as it is now in a dreamless sleep or under anesthesia. We know exactly what the privation of sense activity is, and it is not what would characterize a separated soul.

A: You explained this before with your three axes of the human soul.

B: Right. At the lowest level of living existence there is mere eating and reproduction. Call that the X – axis. Above this is a level of sentience, instinctual activity, and the first stages of signal use and communal life in brute animals. Call that the Y axis. Above this is a self-reflective and being-cognizant power that goes beyond both animal life and even an infinitely complex physical process. Make that the Z axis.

A: What then?

B: Well it’s clear that one can have greater or lesser activity on each axis. Being under anesthesia is like being on the Y axis with a value of 0, but death is like the Z axis existing by itself.

A: So it isn’t really a Z axis at all in that state.

B: Exactly.

A: I thought you said that the soul was form of a body, though.

B: And that’s what it is, when embodied.

A: But isn’t that just where your commitments get you into trouble? You say the soul must be understood as form of a body, and that it need not be so understood.

B: Sure. What is serving as the Z axis must be understood as a measure of depth, but when both other axes cease to exist it must be understood in another way.

A: That wouldn’t be enough to decide whether the change was a privation or a negation, though.

B: Right. I think the missing link is a consideration of time and perhaps even history.

A: What?

B: STA’s defines human existence relative to human cognition, and human cognition relative to the role it plays in the physical universe.

A: So the point of human beings was to place a unity within the universe that it did not have before it was cognized.

B: But the think he made to know the universe by nature could be separate, and so whatever account we give of its purpose has to account for this possibility.

A: The “separability” you are talking about is death, and death is a privation.

B: Like anesthesia, you mean? Or a dreamless sleep?

A: No.

B: Why can’t it be a privation simply because all physical systems undergo a substantial change, such that they are no longer apt to be informed by the soul of the individual? That seems like privation enough, doesn’t it?

A: But you’re not allowing for the way in which the soul is perfected by body.

B: I don’t see how this is anything but a failure to understand hylomorphism. “To be perfected” is something peculiar to potency or matter.

A: So your claim is that STA missed a consequence of the soul being form of body?

B: Yes. His overlong and tortured treatment in ST 89 gets hung up on trying to find a way in which body perfects soul, and I think he could have just cut the gordian knot and said that no matter perfects form. The point of the matter-form unity in the person is the perfection of the universe, like we just talked about.

A: There are all sorts of problems with this that you have yet to deal with.

B: Let’s hear them, then.



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