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.


Dressgate proves once again the power of philosophical problems to be both perpetually captivating and infuriating, both of which follow the fact that, like teenagers in love, everyone who gets bit by problem like this feels like first person ever to experience it. On the one hand, there is the awareness that we’ve struck something deeply significant, but on the other hand the difficulty of the resolution becomes quickly insufferable, and so we turn to the answering-class to exorcise our frustration with an appropriate spell, which nowadays needs to include clauses like “our ___ evolved in order to”, along with the spice of some in-group shop-talk.

The dress is a pretty basic problem of illusions of the sort Descartes introduced into modern thought but which was developed into its weaponized form by Berkeley. The basic insight is just a variant of the principle of contradiction:

If p is not more reasonable than its denial, then p is not

(1) real/objective/episteme/fact but only

(2) illusion/subjective/doxa/opinion.

When it comes to illusions, we’re forced either to say that one of the contraries is unreasonable to hold or that the p in question is somehow outside of the field that we are gesturing at with (1), and therefore has some sort of type-2 existence – though whether “existence” is the right word here is part of the problem. As a rule, the first wave of responses is to deny the antecedent in some way or another (and so to say that p is more reasonable than its contrary); the second wave (or the first response of the answering class) tries to make the case that p is a 2. Some ‘realist’ philosopher then comes along and try to make a more sophisticated case that p is a 1. What we now call “science” leans toward the second wave response, and in this they are defending a variant of the old sophistical epistemology that Plato combated with such care, and which he might have conceded too much to, if we believe Aristotle.

In the face of this, its inevitable that someone will try to come up with a declension of type 1 existence, though this is an area where talk is cheap and real, principled solutions are difficult. For all that, it’s hard to see how the right answer can avoid being an account of how 1 and 2 are a graded continuum of possibilities that can progressively depart from one extreme and shade into the other. St. Thomas argued that, while all knowledge was immaterial, that some of it was more “immersed in matter” than others. Kant seemed more to be working from a peculiar spin on the Scholastic axiom that whatever was known is in the knower according to the mode of the knower, and even if we disagree with his solution it still might be necessary to revisit the axiom.


I’ve been reading and discussing STA for years now, and these are a set of claims that I know he says somewhere but which I just can’t find in the corpus. I’ve actually read #3 myself, and maybe even blogged on it, but the others are all things that I’ve heard from some authority who I absolutely trust, but which I’ve never been able to find a citation for.

So call this tenth-degree black-belt Thomism trivia. He who finds citations for all four will be a figure of world-historical insight:

Where does STA claim:

1.) All levels of being are contained in Christ.

2.) The actual cross on which Christ died can be worshiped with latria. 

3.) Both time and motion rely on memory to exist.

4,) The blessed hear audible music in patria. 

The Last Myth

The standard account of the rise of science starts with the Presocratics rejecting religious myth for explanation by rational accounts. It’s interesting to compare this to Lucretius’s panegyric of Epicurus in De rerum natura 1. 62-79, which is a pretty straightforward myth about… the rejection of religion by rational accounts. After praising the power of Epicurus’s mind to vault over the walls of the world, and his superhuman power of will to rise beyond superstition, Lucretius concludes with this solemn, spondaic clause that

Opteritur, nos exaequat victoria caelo.

[Religion] is torn down, and this victory makes us equal to the gods (caelo).

Here we are not just writing philosophy or science in verse, but striking a definitive mythological note. It is a liberation myth, where we are no longer in terris oppressa gravi sub religione (oppressed on earth by the solemnity of religion) but made equal to the gods who once kept us in line with threats and demands upon our substance.

All this raises the question whether the familiar idea of the replacing of myth by rational philosophy and science is not, in actual fact, the apotheosis of myth. It is the myth that announces the end of, even the impossibility of the truth of any myth. This apotheosis gives us that distinctively modern sense of myth as the false, primitive, fantastic, and unbelievable. Mythopaeic strives for its ultimate accomplishment in going beyond merely being invisible (for most fundamental beliefs are invisible) and attaining to the status of being seen as unnecessary and even impossible.  We need no fantastic stories about gods! We can just look at the world and see it as it is! Just look at all these results, based on nothing but reason and experience! Just look at this solemn, white-coated scientist leaning over to look into some apparatus and record the plain results in symbolic runes – what could be less like crazy poeticizing than this!

All this has the uneasy likeness to a more familiar story where the definitive act of heaven is to be made subject to men and rejected and killed by them: he has come unto his own, but they knew him not.  Or maybe we have cast off myth once and for all. How could we tell the difference? Or is it just this inability to tell the difference in these sorts of matters that makes the myth necessary in the first place?

Time and causality

A: Causality is real, and therefore time is. That’s all that needs to be said.

B: So you mean objective, really passing A-series time?

A: Exactly. At the end of the day, all Eternalisms are committed to things at diverse times being real all at once, and therefore nothing is responsible for something being real. If everything already is, nothing can cause another to be.

B: But God can be responsible for the existence of the universe without being in A-series time. I’m not saying I think there is a God, just that he allows us a way to conceptualize a division between being a cause and being in time.

A: But you can’t get time out of this altogether – there is still time on the side of the effect. God’s being responsible for the existence of the universe requires A-series time on the side of what comes to exist.

B: Why so? What if God just made the angels? Not that I believe in them either, but is there time for pure spirits?

A: Sure, if you mean that they need more than one incompatible perfection to exist. They can change their minds, for example – think one thing and then another.

B: This is a strange sense of time, though – it’s like talking about the length of time for a syllogism or a mathematical argument. It might take us time to say it or get neurons to fire, but the logical implication doesn’t take any time.

A: But that’s just what sets mere logical implication from time! Sure, the premises cause the conclusion, but you could just as easily run the argument in reverse, as happens when we start taking the argument as a reductio ad absurdum. But you can’t just as easily run the sequence of causality in reverse and, say, generate a father from the son. If my voice speaking now persuades you, you can’t run your persuasion backwards to make the voice that speaks to you now.

B:  Yes, it would be a very strange sort of physics that thought everything was reversible like that – even relationships of coming to know, and we can’t very well have a physics without assuming that various events can cause us to think things.

A: So is that enough? Do we have time now? You can’t very well have a physics without causality in nature too – even if some omelet unscrambled itself into eggs again, it would still just be a cause of them.

B: I’m not sure if it is exactly the same argument that gets run both forwards and backwards, and so there might be a way to say that the father generates the son (as cause) and the son generates the father (as a sign of his existence), but it does seem like there is an asymmetry in any given cause and effect that can’t be run backwards.

A: So is this enough to give us time, at least in the effect?

B: It seems like if you want causality it’s hard to get rid of time. Still, I don’t quite see how mere contingency gives us time’s passage, especially since you grant that there’s no contradiction in a thing being outside of time and still causing things in it.

Moral Facts

Justin McBrayer sets out to explain why children do not know there are moral facts, and gets soundly execrated in his comment thread.

Reading over the article and the comments, it becomes clear that there is something fundamentally problematic in the set of popular socially-approved stances one can take to the fact – value or fact – opinion distinction. Either one accepts the distinction and takes morals as subjective, or you reject it and you take them as objective. Those who try to strike a middle path are generally seen as trying to introduce something ‘subjective’ into morals, and so are put in the first group since, apparently, “subjectivity” observes something like the one-drop rule.

The word “moral” can be taken either in the ancient sense as indicating actions that make one happy or in the modern sense as indicating an obligation. We’ll bracket the ancient sense for the moment, although most of which will get said here is pretty easy to translate into that account.

On the one hand, a moral fact is simply the fact that I am obliged to do something, and to deny that there is a fact of the matter here is a non-starter. You might as well deny that there are birds. Sure, I suppose you could make some abstruse taxonomic argument that birds are really just dinosaurs, but it has no power to work as a magical incantation to make parakeets vanish from cages or chicken disappear from my sandwich. If I want to walk out of the store with five pizzas and a tub of ice cream, I happen to know that I’m obliged to pay for them, to do so with dollars, and to wait in line to do so. Telling me that this is an ‘opinion’ is a failure to grasp both the situation I find myself in and the epistemological stance I have to it.

But the “I” in the above example is important, as are all its circumstances, and considering them gives us a clear sense in which obligation is like an opinion and not a fact. If I had a free-pizza and ice cream coupon or was starving, I wouldn’t be obliged to pay for the things; if I were in another country I wouldn’t have an obligation to pay in dollars; and there might be any number of situations where I wouldn’t have to stand in line to do so. There have been times when I just mobbed the counter to pay for something, or was allowed or expected to jump to the front of the line. This is also true of every obligation – you expect that in many or all cases of experiencing one you could change some circumstance and remove the obligation. And so opposite obligations can be both binding and reasonable, which is the mark of an opinion as opposed to a fact.

The upshot is that obligations have both what is distinctive about fact and what is distinctive about opinion. To think they must have one to the exclusion of the other is to miss the nature of the thing you’re dealing with. Sure, you can set up a theory that all obligations are ultimately facts (like Kant or Sam Harris try to do) or that they are all mere opinions (like Callicles tries to do) but it seems simpler to reject the distinction altogether, as we are just starting to do with the “nature-nurture” distinction. I think the way to do this is though an analysis of natural and positive right, but that would be a topic to deal with later.

Ex nihilo

Creation ex nihilo compares God to an artist, saying that he produces the universe without presupposing some stock of stuff that he makes it out of. We could say it was equivalent to “creation without matter”, and this would get us close enough, but it raises too many questions about what a “created spirit” would be.

But saying that God creates without matter is just the first move in an account of creation. The matter which someone uses is the least significant part of the artwork, and it is defined purely functionally. Marble or granite might be sculpted, but so could anything that could play a marble or granite like role. If I were writing with a quill I’d need ink, but anything that could play an ink-like role would do no matter what it was. If you told me that the stuff in my inkwell was really a dessert topping I might well just shrug and keep on using it if I couldn’t tell the difference.

Matter, in other words, is whatever some agent can use to make a form. Both human and non-human agents use whatever is around to make whatever gets made. Birds will make nests out of twigs, or shards of paper, or swizzle sticks, or whatever can play the nest-matter role. There’s nothing that is just nest matter to the exclusion of anything else. It’s this purely functional character of matter which explains why it can never be primary in existence.

So in a certain sense all creation is ex nihilo – some agents need matter, but they only in the sense of needing some “whatever will work” to do what they want to do. Matter is not a substance but a function. If you’re writing with a quill you need something that sticks and stains in the right way, but it doesn’t matter whether it’s a floor wax or a dessert topping. Matter is literally insubstantial – we need the substance so far as we need the characteristics that flow from it that allow it to play a certain role, but if we could have these without the substance, or in any other substance it wouldn’t bother us.

This insubstantiality of matter opens up a way to understand creation ex nihilo – sc. that it is a way of intending the existence of all substances. When we desire to make something we’re indifferent to the substantiality of matter. We do not and cannot care about what it is in itself. To create from nothing opens the possibility of universal concern for all things, that is, it allows for an agent that is entirely concerned for each of the substances that make an absolute totality. God alone could create a universe, not in the straightforward sense that he alone is outside of it, but in the sense that he is the only one that could desire it as a totality of substances in themselves. To create from matter requires indifference to the substantiality of things, and God alone can escape this in his act of production.

Indifference to substantiality reverberates outward – if I don’t care about the substance I can’t care for what it does of itself. I only want its activity and characteristics so far as they fit into my plan, not so far as they have a plan and a desire for themselves. God alone escapes this limitation as well. It is only in God that there can be simultaneously the love of all substances in the universe and the production of substance. In us, these two cannot be held at once. We could never create a universe because we could never desire to do so. We would need some stock of stuff that could not be regarded in its substance, and so could never be loved.

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