Scotus’s argument (pt. 2, w/ response)

Scotus points to a sort of 20-Questions game that starts with a guy saying “I’m thinking of something that exists” according to the rules of the game, you know the thing exists, but you don’t know if it’s God or a creature, substance or accident, instrument or agent, etc.

St. Thomas, however, seems to think that all indetermination in thought has to reduce to some indetermination in things, or that a generic thought has to correspond to some potency in things.

that from which the difference constituting the species is derived, is always related to that from which the genus is derived, as actuality is related to potentiality. For animal is taken from the sensitive nature by way of concretion, since a thing is called an animal when it has a sensitive nature; or rational when it it has an intellectual nature. [Animal enim sumitur a natura sensitiva per modum concretionis; hoc enim dicitur animal, quod naturam sensitivam habet, rationale vero sumitur a natura intellectiva, quia rationale est quod naturam intellectivam habet]

The same argument holds good in other things

ST. 1.4.5. co

So logical determinations are seen as real natures “in modo concretionis” which STA takes as equivalent to saying that a thing has some real nature. Thus there is no indeterminate concept which is not at least the attempt to speak about some indeterminate nature.

But then what do we say about the twenty-questions game? Presumably STA wouldn’t deny that you could play the game, but only that the thought you started with was of real existence. Perhaps he’s call it a failed attempt to visualize existence or a counter-factual visualization of existence; one that could only be true if God had a divine nature instead of being it.

This is the foundation of the strange Thomistic claim that God is beyond being.

Scotus’s argument

Scotus: Take any thing A. if you are certain it is B but not certain it is a X, then B and X are distinct concepts. But we can be certain God exists without knowing if he is finite or infinite; and we can know something exists without knowing if it is a substance or accident. Therefore there is one concept of all being, whether finite or infinite; substance or accident; or even creator or creature (since you can know that there is something but be in doubt over whether it is created or not).

Thomas seems to agree with the minor premise, since he first proves that God exists and only later proves he is infinite; and he proves that God exists by starting with the existence of sensible things, which can only be shown to be creatures after the proof.

Brentano on the spirituality of the self

1.) Minimally, the self requires the unity of conscious experience, meaning the unity of some being that performs some action, not just the unity of the action.

2.) If the unity of the self is non-spiritual, then it is in the brain.

3.) But the brain is a collection of specialized modules and organelles: this part taking care of memory; that part taking care of focus; another part taking care of releasing dopamine, etc.

4.) A collection of modules would suffice to explain a unity of an action, but not the unity of a being performing an action.

5.) So the brain can’t suffice to explain what is requisite for the self.


Notice that the inability to locate the unity of the self in the nervous system affects our ability even to say its action is unified: actions are done by something. Conversely, this unity of consciousness is within the specialized modules or organelles.

Divine real possibility

Brentano argues, to my mind persuasively, that the kernel of truth in the Ontological Argument is that if God is possible, then he exists. So what arguments might one give that God is really possible?

1.) The Leibnizian argument. In the opening of the Metaphysics, Leibniz claims that what we mean by God is the most perfect being, and that if some highest degree is not possible to something, it is not a perfection. By contraposition, by calling something perfect, we mean that some maximal is really possible.

2.) The logical argument. I’m not a fan of this one, but the idea is that whatever is conceivable without contradiction is possible, and God is putatively conceivable without contradiction.

3.) The failure of the flagship argument for divine impossibility. The Argument from Evil will always be the paradigm argument for the impossibility of God, but over the last few years it’s become clear that it cannot be based on mere evil or suffering (which anyone can verify the existence of) but has to be based on gratuitous evil or suffering. But we have no ability to verify whether there are any such things as gratuitous evils, and even if did we would have to stand at the end of history to do so.  This leaves only the Argument from Incoherence, which is more obscure and difficult to make.

4.) From the possibility of human happiness. Here we’d appeal to a variant of Summa T 1.12.1: the fulfillment of anything seems to be possible, even if rare, and the fulfillment of a being that seeks first causes is to know an uncaused cause. In the order of ends and agents this cannot be either natural laws nor the universe.

The Euthyphro problem of consciousness

A: So tell me about this Euthyphro problem of consciousness.

B: I take one version of the Euthyphro problem as this: abstract things have the perfection of being intelligible, eternal and unchanging, and whatever has the perfection of life, action and knowledge is concrete. So when we say God is the most perfect being, which do we mean?

A: St. Thomas says we speak of God as abstract when we want to talk about his simplicity and concrete when we want to talk about his existence.

B: That’s a fine rule for speech, but what are we supposed to think? Everyone repeats Thomas’s account of God as ipsum esse subsistens without noticing just what a scandal it is. “Esse” is an abstraction, in fact the maximal possible abstraction, but the subsistent is precisely what we abstract from to make any abstraction! St. Thomas is saying that God has two perfections which, for us, are necessarily exclusive.

A: All right, so let that be the Euthyphro problem: what’s the Euthyphro problem of consciousness?

B: I think a similar problem arises when we try to ask what consciousness is.

A: I don’t get it. My consciousness is mine, so it is concrete.

B: But the abstract just is the mind as actualized. The mind, at least when it is at work, is just what the Platonic form would be, if it existed; and yet for all that, the mind is obviously and evidently alive.

A: And so consciousness – at least so far as it knows abstractions – raises the same problem as the Euthyphro raises about God.

B: That’s my claim.

A: But then what about someone like Hume, who denies outright that we actually know abstractions?

B: There will be some tensions there, but I think they give way to a deeper agreement. I think all I’m doing here is giving a solid argument for what Hume is gesturing at when he says that the best we can do with the mind is speak of it by analogy, though its true nature is unintelligible to us. Put in our language, this is because the true nature of mind is a concrete abstraction or an abstractus subsistens, which is a nature that is unintelligible to us that can only be understood by negation and analogy.

Hume against the abstract

Part One: that Abstract Ideas are Impossible

(In Three Arguments)


a.) Abstraction is separation

b.) By contraposition, the inseparable cannot be abstracted.

c.) But the impression or idea of line cannot be separated from its definite endpoints.

d.) But if anything could be abstracted, it would be an abstract quantity from a concrete one.

e.) So nothing can be abstracted.


a.) A merely faint and muddled idea that could be confused with its instances is not an abstract one

b.) But all ideas are merely faint impressions (from sec. 1-3)

c.) Therefore there are no abstract ideas.


a.) What is impossible to be understood by a clear and coherent idea in the mind is really impossible.

b.) Therefore, What is absurd for reality outside the mind is absurd for the reality within it.

c.) But abstract existence is impossible for reality outside the mind

d.) Therefore, abstract existence is impossible within the mind.

Part Two: What Supposedly Abstract Ideas Actually Are 

(Prologue with Four Explanations)


The putatively abstract idea is particular in its existence, but general in representation. By “general” we mean “we are accustomed to associate it with many”

So what is the basis of this “custom” that makes us associate some idea with many particulars? This is, for Hume, “the only difficulty that can remain on this subject”. His prologue to a proposed solution is fascinating:

The most proper method, in my opinion, of giving a satisfactory explication of this act of the mind, is by producing other instances, which are analogous to it, and other principles, which facilitate its operation. To explain the ultimate causes of our mental actions is impossible.

(Four Arguments)

a.) When things are hard to imagine, we invent symbol systems in order to make them more concrete. No one can visualize a chiliagon, but we can all understand a thousand-sided figure. The symbol is a remedy for the weakness of visualization.

b.) A single idea often sets off a cascade effect of evoking others, like a smell bringing back the idea of childhood, or a word that reminds us of a whole sentence, viz. “four-score” or “unalienable”.

c.) [I simply don’t get what description he is trying to give here, so I’ll just block-quote it]

Thirdly, I believe every one, who examines the situation of his mind in reasoning, will agree with me, that we do not annex distinct and compleat ideas to every term we make use of, and that in talking of government, church, negotiation, conquest, we seldom spread out in our minds all the simple ideas, of which these complex ones are compos’d. ’Tis however observable, that notwithstanding this imperfection we may avoid talking nonsense on these subjects, and may perceive any repugnance among the ideas, as well as if we had a full comprehension of them. Thus if instead of saying, that in war the weaker have always recourse to negotiation, we shou’d say, that they have always recourse to conquest, the custom, which we have acquir’d of attributing certain relations to ideas, still follows the words, and makes us immediately perceive the absurdity of that proposition; in the same manner as one particular idea may serve us in reasoning concerning other ideas, however different from it in several circumstances.

d.) Imagination is a prodigious genius at suggesting fit ideas for our use. It ranges freely over all concrete instances by a power, that we might never be able to explicate. But just because we can’t understand how this power works does not require us to say that it has recourse to something that has no concrete existence, any more than our failure to understand how a jet engine works requires us to say that it has parts with no concrete existence.


The Father alone is God, for he is the sole and sufficient source of both Son and Spirit.

The Son alone is God, for there is nothing outside his idea that can known about God, and this “nothing outside” must include existence.

The Spirit alone is God, for there is no reason for either the Son or Father to exist except as expressed in him.

I’ve argued before that we have no idea of that which transcends both the abstract and the concrete. We may perhaps have no such word, but what else is the abstract idea itself, or consciousness so far as it makes the abstract idea? A more exact grammar would put mental items in a transcendent class.

We can get Kant out of Aristotle by omitting the agent intellect. For A, the object of the intellect is not wholly received but also made, and so not wholly conditioned by possible experience.

Objection: agent intellect acts on experience, and so presupposes it. Response: as agent, it suffices to make it. Otherwise: intellected objects are not the same as sensed ones (as any dog suffices to prove).

So if the world were in a wholly natural state for Aristotle, it would be a perfectly static four-layer cake (from earth up to fire) that was being orbited by stars.

What, on this picture, are we to make of the idea that the stars are orbiting for the sake of generation? Does the orbiting make it impossible that the layer cake ever form?

The lesson: Nature has both what is perpetual and what tends to stasis and dissipation.

The Forms

-Plato’s forms are an account of insight,. i.e. of the thing we see when we have an insight. What did Newton see in the apple? The same thing Archimedes saw in the bath, or Augustine saw in his sin before his conversion.  What do you see whenever you “get it”?

-I can remember having a mental block for months over what an indirect question is. I actually kept asking things like “I want to know what an indirect question is.” At some point I just got it. This is the thing itself.

Platonic forms aren’t ghosts of things in some heavenly museum. They’re what you see when, after some time with mere examples, names, mechanical manipulations of things, diverse appearances whose unity is hidden, little formulae that you know how to use, etc. you suddenly see what the thing is.

-This insight is compatible with error. Newton did see the Platonic form of all bodies in the heaviness (gravitatis) of the apple. So what if gravity later got redefined?

-The form is not an ideal, except so far as the ideal is particularly good at making what the thing is known.

-The form is not the mind of God, except so far as insight often seems like revelation.

-Saying platonic form is an account of insight is an attempt to speak of the platonic form of platonic form. Before insight, we have any number of things: a word that one repeats, an idea you try to explain to students reading the Phaedo, an idea that the commentators never seem to quite “get” but which they always speak about, a subject people talk about in college or a class that no one knows quite what to do with, an object we train an animal, machine, child or student to react to. It’s often an idea you try to refute.

-Plato posits forms to account for why we have more than doxa, that is, something that, even if true, is a prejudice. It is literally pre-judgment, since we judgment is of what things are. Judgment is also form. 

-Negations can take part in form. It is also a revelation to see that something are not others and never can be. Repentance or metanoia is an insight into a form, though a privation of one.

-Soul is the place of forms. The reasoning is largely an algorithm that could be better executed by the inhuman.

Scientific vs. logical stuff

We have to be patient with the neuroscience and give it time to figure out consciousness. 

So what about consciousness or the mind makes it putatively a scientific problem?  The simplest answer is the inductive one: we’ve gone a long way in explaining things like memory, the differing brain regions of differing experiences, the biological basis of some personality traits, the chemical treatment of depression and metal disorder, the neurological account of seizures, behavior disorders, learning disabilities, etc. Call all problems like this “science stuff”

All this contrasts to the the fact that we don’t expect the sciences to solve mathematical or logical problems. What new discovery will resolve the Riemann hypothesis or Cantor’s continuum problem? Which experiment will give a clear resolution to the paradox of entailment or the problem of explosion?*  Call this “logical-mathematical stuff” (L-M).

So we’ve got some problems that we expect sciences to solve, and others we don’t. So is consciousness or the mind entirely like the science-stuff, as the induction would suggest, or is it also like the L-M stuff?

Answer: It’s like science stuff, because it exists.

Objection: But the opposite of “exists” in that statement is not what fails to be in any way at all but what exists only in the mind. This sticks us with the burden of a hopeless tetrad:

1.) Mind is entirely contained by the existent.

2.) L-M things are entirely contained by the mind.

3.) L-M things are not entirely contained in the existent.

You can make the containment operator either existential or logical, either way we have to reject some limb of the problem. But so long as it makes sense to divide existence in the mind from real existence we’re stuck having to reject (1).


*Pace Sam Harris, moral problems are probably this sort of thing too, though I won’t insist on this point. I also won’t insist in the same point that could be made about the dispute between Russell and Moore on idealism/realism or between VanInwagen and Bill Vallicella on the thin theory of existence.


[Lecture notes]

1.) Usury – like moral philosophy in general – is not my field, but its just near enough my orbit that I find myself tempted to say things about it. Needless to say, this is a situation tailor-made to maximize error.

2.) Usury is controversial both in itself and in a special way for Catholics. Usury is usually exhibit A for someone arguing that the Church has changed its teaching. They have some cause to say this: it’s impossible to miss the fact that usury was hotly debated for many centuries while the most recent Catechism has no entry for usury. It does not even use the word (it uses the word “usurious” once, though it doesn’t seem to mean much more than “exploitative”.)

3.) The definition of usury given by the Lateran council is the most definitive. It has three parts, sc. usury is:

a.) Seeking profit

b.) from the use of a thing not fruitful in itself

c.) without labor, expense, or risk to the lender.

Let the meaning of (a) count as obvious. (b.) One element in being “fruitful” seems to be what we now call “returnable”, i.e. if I let you have my chainsaw or my car it’s “returnable”, and so you can use it and bring it back. The opposite of this is, of course, the non-returnable – if my wife borrows a cup of sugar from the neighbor it’s understood that it would be irrational to ask for her to bring it back. The crucial first move in the morality of usury happens when we recognize that it’s irrational to talk about loaning the non-returnable. You can’t loan you neighbor sugar, nor can he properly borrow it from you. We use the word “borrow” only to sound less forward, i.e. because it sounds demanding to using the verb “give” or “take”. Neertheless, this is a purely metaphorical sense of loaning or borrowing. There is something irrational in loaning the non-returnable in the proper sense of the term. And so the usury of money is irrational since money is a non-returnable good. You can no more return the twenty dollars I might “loan” you than you can return the sugar I “loan” you. To use the word loan as anything other than a pleasant sounding metaphor for give is to do something irrational. But it certainly seems that much of what we call “loaning money” goes beyond a pleasant sounding metaphor. This a prima facie case for the irrationality of usury, but it’s clear that it can’t take us all the way, if for no other reason than we haven’t yet gotten to (c) in the above definition.

Take a simpler case of “loaning” non-returnable goods, like the sugar example. It’s conceivable that this might become at least quasi-formalized, and your neighbor might ask you to give her back sugar at some point in the future. You can’t give the same sugar back, but you might give something back equivalent to it. But it would make no sense for her to say “because I’m giving you this now, by right I can demand even more later”. The claim is just batty – there’s no law of sugar or its exchange that makes it intrinsically capable of demanding a greater return than output. But this doesn’t mean that there couldn’t be various extrinsic factors that make it reasonable to ask for more in return than one gave out. Still, these are extrinsic factors – (c.) list circumstances that change something intrinsically irrational (asking for a greater return on something given) into something permissible.

4.) So let’s take a close  look at the circumstances. Assume that, by loaning you sugar, it made it necessary for me to make another trip to a very distant store. It might be understandable for us to agree that you’d not only give me some sugar back but also chip in for gas. In this case my loan would involve labor costs on my part, and you would chip in to cover these labor costs. This is the equivalent of what Medieval theologians called damnum emergens, which was the one circumstance that all theologians agreed gave one a claim to a greater return than what one gave. The Franciscans, for example, loaned money to people chiefly to save them from usurers but they still did it in a quasi-formal fashion that led them to incur various costs. The “interest” on the loan was simply a way to cover these costs.

But (c.) clearly indicates circumstances other than labor. We can punt on expense since it can be folded into labor. The more interesting circumstance is risk. Interpreted most conservatively, risk might be rolled into labor or expense. It’s unreasonable to expect if you have loans out to many people, that not all will be able to repay. Thus in order simply to break even you might agree to have each person return slightly more than they were given, to cover the expense of defaults. And so the minimal interpretation of the circumstances in (c) is that they are various ways of accounting for reasonable expenses that might be connected to the act of loaning. But it’s possible to have a broader interpretation of these circumstances, and Brandon gives the perfect account of them here.

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