The synthesis of ancient and modern physics and politics.

1.) Once you see Ancient and Medieval thought for the wisdom tradition it is, you want to advance it.

2.) The challenge of advancing the tradition happens on two main fronts: physics and politics. Morals and logic only need to be defended, explained, and put apposite to the other approaches to morals and logic. Physics and politics demand a new synthesis with contemporary approaches to the same subjects.

3.) We deny the synthesis by dismissing anything in need of change or assimilation in either the ancient or modern approach. The contempt for the ancient tradition is familiar to anyone, e.g. we can give a progressive account of knowledge that sees all earlier stages as corrected and dismissed by later ones, or else we can trade in caricatures of ancient thought. Those who fall in love with the ancient tradition are prone to making the analogous mistake of treating later developments in politics and philosophy as spreading by contagion: as if Nominalism or Empiricism or Subjectivism were all diseases we caught and not rational (even if ultimately misguided) responses to problems in the older theories.

4.) The main difficulties with synthesizing the older physics with the new are (a.) contemporary physics does not recognize a hierarchy of causes. The division between primary and secondary, equivocal and univocal, etc. play no role in the structure or order of the universe though they are the raison d’être of the Medieval. (b)  Causes that form the bases of explanation for contemporary physics never advance beyond operational definitions. No attempt is made to explain what category of being they might occupy, nor is it seen as a scientific endeavor to try to find one. (c) it’s not clear that any major claim in contemporary science is the sort of thing that a person could understand in a global or deductive way. Lines of explanation frequently branch into experiments one has not done and which contain many unarticulated assumptions and references to bafflingly difficult machinery. We can get from first axioms to the existence of God in 2,500 words of text; no one knows how to get to the God-particle in the same amount of space or even if it is possible.

5.) The main difficulty in adapting ancient politics to modern is that ancient politics bases all politics on the common good of a shared life, but no one has a vision for how there can be a shared life among the number of persons in a modern state. Ancient politics was proportioned to life in the Ancien Régime, where various causes pushed sovereignty downward to very small regions, where there was widespread religious homogeneity, and where the private space-public space divide was far less sharp than it is now. One can’t just scale up, secularize, and get by without overcome the collective fellow feeling that was part of life in the AR. Arguably, the sheer bloodiness and awfulness of the religious wars of the 17th century was motivated by the sense that their would would become unintelligible and impossible without its religious basis, and we can’t be so blithe toward the pluralist/ secularist state that they so violently rejected.



Life and localization

Take Leibniz’s Mill as sound. Consciousness is nowhere in the cogs, wheels, or parts of your model. So where is it?

If we divide consciousness from its machinery it’s assumed it has to haunt the machinery or meet up with it at some point. The line of reasoning is probably like this:

Awareness is an activity of a living being.

All activities of a living being are localized in the being.

So awareness is localized in a living being.

But the line of reasoning is confused. The parts of a mill have a clear location, and this location can be extended by all the mechanisms that reach to the object of sense, but if consciousness is in none of these places then it is not localized. At any rate, living beings do all sorts of things that are not localized inside of them – like whatever they do with projectiles or parts that they send out from themselves.

Consciousness is the way in which life escapes the subjectivity of localized existence. It only ‘brings the world into” life in a way that makes life escape its own localization. Ruyer’s way of putting it is that consciousness does not generate its field but is the field it generates. Sentient beings are where they sense, and to object that they cannot act there is either false (since they can sense there) or commits the fallacy of the accident (since nothing acts on the exterior world qua sentitent). And so eyeballs and occipital lobes are conditions of existing as a visual field as opposed to existing in the way things do when they feed or grow.

Taken in this sense the diverse sorts of life are ways of standing to physical existence. Nutrition, growth and reproduction are all ways of standing to physical existence by being an intrinsic form; sensation is a way of existing as a visual field, but as standing to the body as something giving orientation. We see things from one angle, hear and smell them from some distance, touch them from the bottom or the top, etc. Intellection loses this perspective and orientation to some localization, though it continues to use the parts of us obedient to intellection to establish emotional shortcuts to conclusions or meditate on sense data.

Nature and life

All models of agency make it interactive, so either all agency is interactive or models of agency do not suffice to capture what it is. I favor the second option since agency is asymmetrical, and put the joint where models suffice and where they don’t at the division between the physical and the living. For things that are both physical and living, this division is not some point where soul interacts with body, rather the whole entity as natural interacts with what it touches and the whole entity as living pushes things per se and only is pushed accidentally. As a physical entity the difference between whether I am moving or resting is simply an arbitrary choice of reference; as a living entity I am moving whenever I’m using the motion of my own body to achieve my ends and I am an agent cause of motion whenever I use anything to achieve my ends (cars, moving sidewalks, the gravitational field of the earth).

If there were natural places we could use these to determine whether natural things were moving or not, but it does not appear that natural places are things that nature cares about in any straightforward or obvious way.

Hylomorphism (2)

By “oxygen” do you mean the resource that made the ozone you’re smelling, or the locus of the recipe that used itself, the other two oxygens and an electricity source to make the scent?  Using and being used aren’t the same, even where one uses his own substance.  This account is opposed to the sort of particle-as-pure-foundation account that does not see it as essentially resource and recipe.

So should we give a plan-resource account of the oxygen that makes ozone or a ontological monistic account of it? It is pointless to try to solve the matter by hard-nosed realism. In both cases the particles are “all there is”, but on the first account “to be a particle” is to exist on two ontological axes whereas in the second there is only one. The most significant difference is that on the first account it is possible to allow for the substantial existence of both oxygen and ozone whereas in the second case only oxygen can be a substance while ozone has to be an accidental or emergent form.

It is difficult to find the right word for the account of matter opposed to the resource-recipe account. “Mechanical” account comes close, but it’s really more like the “pellet-cloud” account of matter, where particles form compounds like water droplets form cloud-shapes. There is no empirical difference between the two accounts, and on both accounts the particle is as substantial as it can ever be. The essential difference, again, is whether anything other than the particle can be substantial: molecule, protein, cell, tissue, animal… The second difference is that the pellet-cloud account of the particle makes it entirely driven a tergo as opposed to being either a determinate or indeterminate recipe using whatever resource it needs to establish its existence.


Here’s a recipe for ozone: have lightning strike the ground. Both the ingredients and recipe are given. How so?

Here’s one idea: oxygen is the ingredient and the specification-of-how-things work is the recipe. While this is a useful dialectical description it has an obvious category mistake since the act of telling me something does nothing to bind oxygen into O. The recipe is something read off the world but given in it, and so the previous question is left unaddressed.

So maybe the recipe is present as a space-time process, like lifespans or history. This is something real, but it is no longer a recipe since lifespans are not guides or determinations of possible actions.

Here’s what’s left: the thing we call oxygen is both ingredient and recipe of ozone, so that oxygen A, oxygen B, and oxygen C, form O3 only when A uses both itself, the other two, and the lightning bolt as a resource in forming the final product, and the same description can be had from the perspective of B, C or the lightning bolt, though in this last case the recipe-bearer ones only its power and not its substance to form final product.

In the process just specified the difference between what is a resource or instrument and what is a recipe-bearer is not peculiar to one item in the recipe, in much the same way that if you want to have five marbles then you’ll need a fifth one but no particular marble has to have this description. This material equivalence will characterize all physical processes, until one is alive. At that point, what is using what as a resource is no longer only materially or arbitrarily specified. The fox uses the hen, not vice-versa. Explaining this asymmetry requires positing something over and above the complexity of the system, since even infinitely complex material systems – the system of all possible particles, say – need not have anything more than a material difference between resource and recipe-bearer. So soul returns under a description analogous to the one it has always had.


Critiques of the Novus Ordo point continually to its self-description as a common meal to the exclusion of calling it a sacrifice. The self-description was an attempt to advance the idea of liturgy as a public activity, and it is clearly not meant to deny the sacrificial character of the Mass, but all take for granted that these two descriptions compete with one another.

Here’s a strong thesis: Failure to get that the Mass is a supper-sacrifice misses the whole point of Christianity. 

But why not? The paschal lamb is a supper-sacrifice, and Christian passover is a meal consummated in death. But the main point is more basic. Sacrifices are essentially offered to God e.g. we kill the dove and burn it to send it up to the infinite. To eat the sacrifice is to say that man consumes that which is God’s own, that is, what is offered to God is now offered to the human person. This is the whole point of Christianity: God sharing his life with man through a grace that makes the person a participant in the divine nature.

Moved movers

The symmetrical character of natural activity conflicts with its need to get started. By the first, any action might is equivalent to its reaction – which does what is like trying to decide whether the curve is convex or concave. But getting started is a matter of the inert being actualized by the active, and this is not just convex-concave difference. The active an inert are asymmetrical and irreversible.

Objection: Take two bodies A and B that are twenty feet apart in empty space. They will act on each other gravitationally and get started moving toward one another. Any “conflict” seems so easy to overcome that its hard to see how it can get started.

Response: Let A = an unsuspended anvil 20 feet over a B-irthday cake. Everyone can see that this is a set of initial conditions we’re considering  in media res. But the surprise of an anvil twenty feet off the ground is an insight into the fact that the no body has any reason to be where it is apart from the causal history that accounts for what its doing there. So the objections ends up showing the opposite: any initial condition reiterates the conflict in natural action between the requirement that it be interactive and thus symmetrical and  and that it get started and therefore be asymmetrical.

Because of this, no natural being as such can act by itself but only by taking part in something else that acts by its own initiative and from motives that are its own.

No silent spectators

Traditionalists have much to celebrate in Sacrosanctum Concilium, or, put negatively, they have many just grounds of complaint against the actual liturgy of the contemporary Church. Latin should, for example, be given pride of place and Gregorian chant should be the normal and familiar music of the Mass. But Traditionalists have to eat their peas too, and one of the central texts in this vein is Paragraph 48:

The Church, therefore, earnestly desires that Christ’s faithful, when present at this mystery of faith, should not be there as strangers or silent spectators (muti spectatores); on the contrary, through a good understanding of the rites and prayers they should take part in the sacred action conscious of what they are doing, with devotion and full collaboration

Had the Church been content to speak of “participation” or even “full collaboration” the EF Mass could have gotten away with more or less superficial revisions (demanded by paragraph 50). Silent spectators can still consciously participate in an action. But to rule out muti spectatores requires, at minimum, that the laity say a good portion of what the altar boys once said and that we carve out more opportunities for speaking during the eucharistic prayer. I’ve been a part of many traditionalist communities, and not one of them was bothered by not being faithful to the council on this point. If anything, it is an unspoken point of pride among traditionalists to stay silent and be inactive during the liturgy – the allergy that most traditionalists have to the kiss of peace in the Novus Ordo is a case in point.

Vatican II clearly wanted the liturgy to be a public act performed by all the faithful, though in a way that preserved the difference between the sacramental priesthood and that of all believers. If there is any doubt on this point it dies soon after reading the Catechism of Vatican II (cf. CCC 114041) The revisions of the Mass (and of church architecture) are most sympathetically understood as attempts to promote the liturgy as communal prayer. The attempts don’t have to be viewed as successful, but we can’t drop the goal at which they aim. That said, the roadblocks to celebrating mass as a collective ritual are substantial and do not suggest any easy solution. We have insisted for centuries that religion is a matter of personal belief as opposed to collective practice, and our age of mobilization makes any stable community difficult. But it’s the duty of those of us who don’t have the answer to keep the question alive until it can find a reformer of genius and/or a road to an organic response.

The metrical-projection fallacy (2)

Per the metrical-projection fallacy, the various problems of consciousness are not about consciousness as such, but about positing any divisions in the logical genus created by the operational definitions that science trades in. Science is a collective agreements to view diverse phenomena in a logical genus where their differences drop away, since this allows them to be identical with their measure and so to be placed on graphs or to admit of algebraic relationships. Sometimes our awareness that differences are real makes this agreement seem too demanding but it has always ended up being made. Motion has been unified to rest, agents to instruments, life to the non-living, etc.* Consciousness is just the latest field where we are protesting that something constitutes a specific difference from some larger genus, but if it goes the way the others have gone, in fifty years no one will even remember the controversy or bother to give the fig-leaf explanations of it being emergent or reductive. No one will remember that there is a difference to explain. Did anyone notice in tenth-grade biology that life was explained entirely in terms of non-living processes? No. There was nothing to explain since nothing was noticed.

Science is not an objective account opposed to a subjective account, or the grand culmination of human rationality, or a story of how things are and not why they are, or a factual account opposed to culture, values, religion, mathematics, logic, etc. It is the logos of things taken operationally and therefore in a logically abstracted genus where object and measure are identical. This creates a dialectical platform in which all discourses are unified and so can cross-fertilize and mutually enlighten, and which also sees its objects as inert before the initiation of an in-principle controllable stimulus and so as potential instruments for human agency. All this would be fine if we took it for what it was and accepted that the specific differences of things had to be understood in a different way, but instead we set up schemes of dualism, emergence, illusions of difference, and reductionism in order to account for how there can be any difference between a genus and its species, before forgetting the whole enterprise and carrying on as if it never happened.

*The attempt to unify consciousness to the non-conscious is arguably not even the most radical attempt to do away with a specific difference. Newton’s invoking of “mathematical principles” of nature unifies logic and reality, and so unifies real being and being dependent on the mind. Once one has done this, unifying consciousness to the non-conscious is small potatoes.

As Dekoninck pointed out over his whole career, this unification is very old. It’s what Aristotle called dialectic, and one of his longest books was dedicated to giving a theory of it.

The metrical-projection fallacy

1.) You go to a booth where a guy is selling different varieties of six packs. He can ask you which six you want, but he can’t ask you which number you want. This six is not that one, but this number is.

2.) This fact remains when one thing measures another. If you pull out your Einsteinean measuring rods and measure off six units from this end of the room to that, the rods and the room are the same number but not the same six.

3.) When we define things by how they are measured we understand them in the way that they are the same as their measure, i.e. we consider them in an abstract, logical genus, like understanding apples and oranges as fruit.  So long as all we’re counting, selling or storing is fruit then apples are oranges are pears. Again, if you mean an apple and orange are the same in the way you are choosing to compare them, then there is nothing to being one that isn’t the whole being of the other. But when we compare things as measure and measured it is logically necessary that what we leave off is the nature of the thing in its specific, concrete identity. In this sense, the specific concrete identity of a thing must be left off when we understand it as measured. Note that we aren’t leaving it off provisionally in the hope to get to it later, we’re leaving it off in principle.

4.) All the operational definitions of science are defined by measurement. It is meaningless to talk about what some reality is apart from some procedure that specifies how you are going to observe and quantify it (cf. The first chapter of the hard science textbook which, following the demands of national curriculum standards, explains the difference between accuracy and precision.)

5.) Science requires an in-principle abandonment of attaining things in their specific, concrete being.

6.) Lets’s say you go out to your lab and, with careful metrical precision or statistical probability, prove something about wave functions, elements, universal grammar, etc.. The following moves are fallacious: (a) to look at the phenomena again and see it as nothing but a projection of wave functions, elements, energy, or (in language) as a working out of universal grammar or (b) to object that some method cannot get a hold of the phenomena because it cannot specify an operational procedure to capture their reality. Both moves are category mistakes. Both are the same as objecting to the claim that horses and lobsters are different since, if they were, they would need something that made them different from animals. Animals are animals, aren’t they? This is a weaponized variant of Whitehead’s fallacy of misplaced concreteness.

7.) “But how can you deny that horses and lobsters both reduce to animals? Wait, maybe horses and lobsters supervene on animality! Or perhaps we will defend a horse-animal substance dualism!” Behold, all the joyful discourse you can look forward to after you define the physical metrically and then do either 6(a) or (b).

« Older entries Newer entries »