Why call them ways?

One of the questions in the air for Contemporary Thomism is what STA means by calling his theistic arguments the five ways. Regretfully to those who claim that he called them ways because he didn’t want to call them proofs, this sort of distinction was unknown to STA, and the ways are said to prove (probare) God exists. There is much more to be said in defense of the idea that STA called them ways because he saw them as all modes of a single form or template, differing only by their sensible points of departure.

The template looks something like this:

Whatever is X-ing is X-ed by another

X-ing things that are X-ed by another are caused by what’s ~X-ed.

A ~X-ed cause of X-ing is God.

You have to massage the mode of signification in order to make the paradigm work, but the first premise is established for all the proofs follows argumentation like this:

1.) What is in motion is potential

The potential as such is actualized by another

2.) Whatever has an agent cause is being caused by another.

3.) Whatever is contingent is caused by another, and so also what is necessary by another

4) Whatever is more or less perfect is caused by the maximal.

5.) Whatever acts for an end without intelligence is caused by what acts with it.


In the last two ways, the existence of God is given from the moment you establish this “other”, but in the first three ways there is the additional step of having denying infinite regress, though our present ideas of infinity are so opposed to STA’s that we can present his thought better by saying, with Leibniz, that even if there were infinite things caused by another, all the causes of the event could not have this character. You might very well have infinite copies of the choir program, but not all the choir programs could have been copies.

The third premise is never adequately explicated for modern taste, but we tend to give the fifth way a pass so far as it establishes some intelligence beyond nature. But they establish in turn a substance that (1) arose from no previous potentials and has no further possibilities to actualize (2) has no source of its existence (3) is a necessary being and (4) excels all other substances in good, truth, dignity, etc.


Coalescing of commitments

We’re committed to some things because of evidence and to other things out of vows. “Evidence” has a field of meanings just as “vow” is also part of a larger field including what is sacred, what we are faithful to, etc. Both commitments can be absolute, though not in the same way. The principle of contradiction, basic truths of the sciences, a shared life with my wife, and my willingness to kill or die for (at least a few) American interests are all things about which I’m not open to alternatives, but there is more than one kind of absolute commitment in play. I’m not in doubt about the PoC but I also can make no sense about what it would mean to die for it; and I’m not open to life with women other than my wife but this was not after a thorough vetting of all other alternatives or an analytic insight that showed her preferable to all others.

As Nietzsche noticed these two sorts of commitment coalesce in our commitment to truth, so much so that truth seems like an iridescent color that seems now evidential, now sacred. Without denying the evidence of things, N. would still insist that this evidence is also implicated in a will to truth. The Christian existentialists (I’m thinking of Blondel and Marcel) can be read as agreeing to the same thing, but then questioning the opposition between what is revealed and what is rational. The evidential and the sacred are too implicated in one another to be divided sharply as distinct logoi, which gives rise to a Christian philosophy, even if this idea is as obscure as Christian geometry.

The First Way, developed from the idea of potency given yesterday

What is in potential but changing needs something else to explain the change.

-If someone asks “how did the cow become steak?” you need to say more than “because it could be one”. If someone asks how Eddie learned to play piano, you need to say something more than “because he was able” or even “because he had talent”.

But what is changing is potential.

-Nothing considered as actual is seen as becoming something else. It is not seen relative to anything other than what it is or the state it’s in.

So what is changing needs something else to explain the change.

Omne quod movetur ab alio movetur is a claim about potential being, i.e. the referent for the “quod” is “potential being”.

The “something else” is either in motion or not. Assume it’s not. This means there is some entity that both moves things and cannot be located on a timeline relative to a later state. Everything in the universe is the first but not the second; and the universe itself is the second but not the first. So there is some cause of motion that is neither the universe nor in the universe. And this all can recognize as God.

Assume the “something else” is in motion. Let the sum of these something else’s be taken. If all are moved by another with nothing else, then all movers are secondary and derivative sorts of things with nothing primary, which is impossible (like having copies from no original). So there is something whose substance and nature both moves things and cannot be located on a timeline relative to some later state.




The reality of potency

It’s crucial to Aristotle’s account of potency that it is a claim about a use of is. He might mean the difference between saying “glass is breaking” and “glass is fragile”, where the first describes an activity in act and the other a possibility, but it’s hard to see how this requires distinct meanings of the copula. If we formed propositions not by using the word “is” but by, say, writing the predicate vertically, then the “is” would be nothing except the   some word or words being written up and down.

glass f

How is this a distinct sense of “is” if the potency is entirely in the meaning of the term and the copula is in its position?

Another way to approach what Aristotle means is to consider the changes of a thing through time: to watch one and the same mind go from ignorant to aware to adept to master; or one and the same pile of protein elements go from being a calf to a cow to ground beef to human muscle. If you plot all these on a timeline, then any given stage both is the fulfillment of what came before it and is the principle of what comes after it. Given any temporal thing has a real relation both to what came before it and what came after it, and given both of these are distinct from each other, there is a real distinction between the actuality and its potency of a thing, even though both equally describe what it is.

Buckley Era anti-nationalism

-The argument of Liberal Fascism is that the nationalist/internationalist dichotomy is not fundamental or even essential to the political Right/Left. Socialism and central planning is leftism whether internationalist or nationalist, and free markets and… uh… not-central planning is conservatism or the right, whether nationalist or internationalist. This “not-central planning, but not nationalist” philosophy was central to the contemporary Right in what might be called the Buckley Era, running roughly from Whittaker Chambers’s conversion in 1952 (or the nomination of Goldwater a decade later) until the last election.

-Until the end of the Cold War The Right didn’t need to define what “not-central planning” was since it was obvious: not-Soviet Russia. This set the bar so ridiculously low for what would count as “non-centrally planned” that almost everyone could clear it. All you needed was to prove that your citizens had more freedom and autonomy than a the subjects of a totalitarian regime that could be spied on continually and sent off to gulags with the wild approval of state-run media.

-But what positive account of social order takes the place of “not-centrally planned”? The Libertarian response is “nothing at all”. In the absence of control we get the best social order, and minimizing regulation is the surest path to justice. This philosophy has proved a hard sell and can’t be taken as a live political option.

-The McIntyre-Kirk response is something like “traditions and folkways of a people”.  But how is this not a nationalism? “Internationalist traditions” are hard to come by outside of Catholicism or colonialism, and an internationalist Confessional Catholic or colonial state is even less of a live political option than Libertarianism. None of the mandarins of the Buckley Era would argue for that.

-An uneasy consensus seemed to form around the idea that “traditions and folkways” were the acceptance of various rational propositions of founding-era documents, and so “not-centrally planned” ended up meaning “the proposition nation”. But to follow the whole train of logic made this claim a farce. The whole point of critiquing central planning was that the mechanisms of order and social harmony were beyond reason, but now we were saying, in effect, that all of these mechanisms and structures would arise immediately as soon as everyone gave rational assent to some short list of claims made by 18th Century political science. Reason, it turns out, could suffice to ensure a just political order, and the reasoning wasn’t even that complex! It was just a proposition!

-Toward the end of the Buckley Era, this proposition became not just rational but self-evident to all people, so much so that if you just removed any impediment to American-Free Market- republican-capitalismTM then it would break out spontaneously by the free will of the liberated masses, no matter what their particular ethic background was. This was an explicit rationale of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Here again, the farce became more and more apparent.

-And so all attempts to articulate what “not-central planning” means in the absence of a Soviet bad guy seem to lead back to some sort of nationalism. But nationalism was exactly what the Buckley Era conservatism banished, purged, and treated as a taboo.

-And how could we not treat nationalism as taboo? Nationalism is a replacement for reason. It is because science is impotent and unequal to the task that we must turn to the ethos of the nation – to things ethnic – and give them the sort of assent that we want to give to science. But this is certitude in the absence of evidence! Blind faith! Who could ever have this sort of naïve patriotism after the thirty years war of 1914-45?

-Our allergy to nationalism is part of a larger allergy to faith. The Left (at least in its press junket) claims that reason is all one needs: science and planning suffice to ensure justice and the social order is transparent to the human mind (or at least an elite human mind). The Right in the Buckley Era critiqued this claim but refused to come to terms with the logic of its position, which requires the impotence of reason to argue for the necessity of faith. The recent (and once supressed) nationalist movements on the right have yet to fully come to terms with the way in which nationalism is not another rational political system that can be proven superior on its merits.

Nature’s borrowed existence

Living things exploit free energy as a resource to preserve their existence. Non-living things don’t do this: Jupiter doesn’t use gravity to maintain its size – its size (and, in fact, the only existence it has as a planet) was just an effect of gravitational attraction on clouds of gas. Saturn doesn’t use its momentum or the sun’s warping of spacetime to preserve its orbit – its orbit is just an effect of these things, uncoordinated by any logos or substantial totality of Saturn itself. Natural things are existential ciphers, being neither a stable logos nor being preserving its own existence. That these atoms now are water is not existentially different from their now splashing in a pond or orbiting in a comet. They could be anything else in the same way that they could do anything else.

This existential nullity is what allows living substances to form themselves from natural things. If the atom were a bona fide substance then the organism would be a cloud or a heap when the reverse is the case. Life takes advantage of the insubstantial character of natural elements to both elevate them and constitute itself.

The natural world does however have a borrowed substantiality. This is clear from inertia, understood to include not just the tendency of an element to preserve its state of motion or rest but also to preserve its being (setting aside for the moment the effects of entropy and atomic decay) shifting an element or a compound takes energy. The basic fact of nature is its tendency to keep whatever being it has borrowed for itself. Nature is by definition a secondary existence and activity, as Plato argues in Laws X.


The Gospel

1.) In the beginning was the ecstasy. The self was outside of itself, and so both truly one and truly divided. The ecstasy was whole and lacking nothing, unlike how we now divide ecstasies into those from beauty, joy in work or action, loss of the mind in truth, etc.

2.) The ecstasy was three totalities: there was nothing in it that was not giving rise to ecstasy; nothing in it that was not its cognitive essence; nothing in it that was not its own work of ecstasy. Again, all these were truly one and truly divided, as we experience in every ecstasy.

3.) The self-possession is perfect logos; the work in perfect operation is the Spirit. And all was complete and nothing more was called for.

4.) And they said “There is nothing more to bring forth. Let us bring forth from nothing” And so in the absence of anything given or motive, anything obliged, anything perfecting, they again were outside themselves, taking ecstasy in the universe.

5.) And in this ecstasy there was first the ecstatic ones. And the first of these leapt beyond all others in returning to the source from which they came. And these were first seraphs and then the blessed, though the story of moving from this first thing to the second is the whole of the rest of the story.

6.)  A limit and bottom was fixed to the first ecstasy of the universe. In this bottom and limit the ecstasy was maximally diffused, dim, and weak, such that nothing dimmer or weaker was possible. This limit was the rational creature, which now both came forth and did not come forth. It came forth in the sense that it casted about, planned and drew things to itself; but it also did not come forth because it needed all these things it casted about for to constitute itself. Because it did not yet exist, this casting about by the human logos was purely unconscious and incremental. The story of this unconscious and incremental drawing forth and self-making of the human logos is natural history and physical science.

7.) And the human logos said “Let there be motion”. And motion was. From motion mobiles or substances arose, and from these substances quantity-made-intelligible-by-qualities and the relations between them arose. And humanity was already present in the motion.

8.) Then human logos said “We cannot yet be constituted from this because it is too simple. Let the motions of things fail, and from the failure of these simple things to preserve themselves complexity shall come forth.” And from the entropy, change, failure, and natural evil of simple things the complex came forth. And the logos of all these, both the simple and the complex, was contained in the human logos.

9.) Then the human logos said “So it is. Now there is enough complexity that we can come forth. Let us wait for the act of the covenant that is required to bring us forth.” God made this act, as he had promised in the covenant he had established in creating the humanity that had brought forth the universe. The complexity of what was both man and not-man, woman and not-woman was unified by the human soul, and by covenant all such complexity would be made human.

10.) Then God said “Human Persons, off all ecstasies, yours is most likely to fail. What you first love first is not most loveable and the world you have brought forth is filled with chance, failure, and all the tools needed to bring you forth. I will give you original justice, which will make you an exception to all these things you have done in bringing forth yourself. You will not suffer from chance or natural evil, and you will be given all necessary and sufficient aid to attain perfect human happiness”.

11.) Human persons – having already made the universe – rejected original justice.  This was both a complete failure of the human project, which also constituted a failure of the universe they had brought forth, which was now crowned by a something corruptible and increasingly corrupted. A place to dispose the corruption – a trash dump or Gehenna – came forth.  

12.) Then God said “There is nothing more to bring forth. Let us bring forth from nothing.” And so in the absence of any obligation or anything perfecting the divinity, failed humanity was made divine. The divine self had a second birth into human nature to establish a way for human persons to have a second birth into divine nature.


Interaction and the spear thrower

Lucretius argued for the infinity of the universe by imagining a spear-thrower at its edge. We can’t imagine any finite space that isn’t contained by a greater, and so there must be spaces within spaces forever.

The interaction problem extends this line of thinking to effects in space. Say you come to the edge of a physical effect. The energy by which it’s moving has to come from somewhere. You could even poke at it with your spear, right?

We can no more imagine a non-interacting effect than a non-contained space, but contemporary persons are more comfortable with a finite universe than a spiritual cause of physical effects. Presumably we’d claim this is because of the demands of physical theory – GTR demands a (sort of) finite universe but the conservation of energy or Newton’s Third Law demands interaction of physical causes and effects. I think the argument fails for a few reasons:

1.) The ontology of energy and force is not defined enough even to justify the claim that interaction is more probably true. Asking what energy is very quickly collapses into either contradiction or pure mathematical convenience.

2.) The ontology of what interacts energetically is also poorly defined. STA would treat “energy” as an accident of moved movers, and to do so changes nothing in the equations.

3.) Plantinga notes that conservation laws apply only to closed systems, and he denies that the universe is a closed system.

At any rate, interaction problems are all composition fallacies that try to bootstrap from facts about interactive systems to causal orders. But interactive systems are only accidentally causal since, as Newton points out (and this is the real ontology of the Third Law) the difference between cause and effect in interactive systems as such is only logical and does not involve an essential order.


Sense intuitions as limits

Kant’s opening moves in setting up a metaphysics that will refute classical metaphysics are to claim that human knowledge is limited to intuited objects, and that we intuit only sense objects. If true, the refutation is a fait accompli, since classical metaphysics is of objects for which there is no sense intuition.*

Let’s take it as axiomatic that sense intuition is primary. Kant takes this primacy as a limit that makes everything beyond it unknowable or even meaningless, and the Nietzschean/Empiricist/Naturalist tradition that came after Kant followed him in this. The classical tradition has two different approaches: in the Platonic tradition sense intuition is of a reality that takes part in an object that we intuit by intelligence; in the Aristotelian tradition there is no intuition outside of sense but we can judge things intuited by sense to be the appearances of things unseen.

There are two reasons to think that sense intuition cannot constitute a limit on knowledge: (a) Any limit to knowledge is contextualized by the known and (b) sense intuitions are essentially passive while knowledge is essentially active. For (a) while it is possible for a physical limit  to not be contextualized by something physical (the boundaries of the universe, say) cognitive limits can only be contextualized by something noetic. Vision, for example, is limited by darkness and hyper-luminosity, both of which are seen; and silence is detected with the same organs as sounds. In the intelligible order what exists is contextualized by our awareness of its contradictory through the principle of contradiction. In other words, the noetic order differs from the real by the fact that opposites always exist for it. For (b) knowledge is not a way of suffering something but of perfecting a cognitive being interiorly. We don’t explain our knowledge by speaking of how we receive the world but of how the world, precisely as other, is our own.

What we say here will also be applicable to the (often poorly formulated) question of the existence of mathematical and logical things.

Prayer-effectiveness studies

A: The Harvard prayer study is a real challenge to my faith.

B: What, this?

A: Oh, I’d never read it, but thanks… This is such an odd way to run a study. The pastors themselves divided two groups and then prayed for one and not the other. But it’s hard to imagine a prayer that would be more heartless and invalid than one that actively refuses to pray for some group in order to see if they do worse.

B: Why “invalid”?

A: Prayer is a lifting of the heart to God. I don’t see how that’s happening if your actions are saying “I’m gonna actively ignore this group of people and see if that harms them”.

B: Okay. But I doubt there’s any way to make this work.

A:  Not even if you simply asked questions about whether the patients themselves were praying, or believed that others were praying for them?

B: No, because I don’t see any way to establish what it would mean for the prayer to work. Say a statistically significant group of persons who prayed to get better got better. Is this evidence that God responds to prayer or that prayer has a placebo effect?

A: But what if those who prayed actually did worse or no better?

B: Who knows? Maybe we take that as evidence that prayer doesn’t work. But all this would mean is that it’s determined a priori that we won’t find evidence of the effectiveness of what a believer calls prayer.

A: So if you’re trying to validate or invalidate what a believer calls prayer, this experiment isn’t going to do it. The validation hypothesis is undefined.

B: Right. I’m not sure whether it would be underdetermined in every attempt to experiment with prayer, but anything close to this experiment would be. I suppose that they wanted to have “third party” prayer to avoid the placebo effect, but this demands that those who pray level a de facto curse on the control group. Who would expect a prayer like that to make a difference?

A: You wonder how the command not to put the Lord to the test fits into this.

B: Right. The atheist take will be “yeah, don’t ever check whether what you’re doing is working! That’s a real strategy for success!”

A: I can imagine Boghossian saying that.

B: He’s who I had in mind. It seems like he’d be giving his opponents a more charitable reading if he discussed miracle claims in Catholicism: the Tilma, the blood of Januarius, the healings at Lourdes, or even the various intercessions that are offered as evidence in canonization. These are actually times when the Church claims where looking for evidence that there was divine intervention  does not involve putting the Lord to the test.

A: It seems like you’re giving “you shall not put the Lord to the test” a logical sense – as soon as you are testing the Lord, you adopt a viewpoint that requires there can be no meaning to “passing the test”.

B: This might be a fault in all rationalist schemes. If your faith is founded on any rational test you can only believe it as far as reason can go. But faith demands assent to the unlikely and the unprecedented, while reason has to have a bias against these things. The closest reason can get to faith is to say “yeah, we can’t rule that out” or maybe “yeah, those sources were convinced this faith claim was true.” But assent to anything requires more than “I guess I can’t rule it out”.



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