Choice and the God of the Five Ways

The God of the Five Ways can only be seen as ruling out free choice in a way that would rule out any agency. If God’s causality in the specification of every action rules out the agency* of choice it rules out the agency of throwing, biting, jumping, running, growing or whatever. The problem with this is that the Five Ways presuppose the reality of all these sorts of motions or changes, modes of agency, kinds of generation, etc as first premises, and so if some corollary to the argument rules out free choice then the whole argument for the existence of God eats its own tail, like this:

1.) Changes, agency, generation, (CAG) etc are real and not merely apparent.

2.) If CAG are real, God is real and not merely apparent.

3.) If God is real, there is no choice, agency, generation, etc.

4.) Therefore, CAG are not real but merely apparent.

A Thomist can either accept that choice and predestination are compatible or deny that there is any proof for the existence of God at all,** but he can’t prove the existence of God and then use it as a presupposition in an argument that choices are not real. God and choice – or any creaturely agency – stand or fall together.

*This is true by definition of the Second Way, which starts from the reality of agent causes in sensation, but it is necessarily true of all the Five Ways in one way or another. To deny that fire burns, for example, denies the letter of the First Way.

**To take this second option, however, undercuts the whole edifice of Thomism, and so would be the end of anything deserving the name.


Literally true

If your eye cause you to sin, pluck it out is supposedly a paradigm case of hyperbole or exaggeration, but why not just take it as a literally true counterfactual? If a foot actually were the root of all your moral failings, and amputating it would instantly transform you into a morally perfect sage and saint, who wouldn’t cut it off? Whole nations would have been footless and eyeless for ages. Small price to pay, when put in the balance with all the evil that moral depravity brought about in the same time.

Sadly, the cause of moral depravity is harder to identify than feet, eyes, or any other part of the body.  Maybe it arises from parts of us that are a lot dearer to us than feet or eyes, or maybe to recognize the cause is to realize that one never loved it at all.

Francis’s spiritual insight

St. Francis’s teaching to Brother Leo on perfect joy is that it comes only in accepting the world as it is, though especially when it’s most vexing or horrible. This sort of acceptance is not resigned indifference or pollyannic optimism but an interior strength which manifests fullness of inner vitality and inability to be overcome by the world. Francis quotes Paul who says that he boasts, i.e. he proclaims his own excellence by the cross of the Lord, which is why his whole argument for accepting the world even at its most horrible is that this alone manifests our own greatness.

Francis’s happiness is consistent with stoicism – if joy is the full radiance of human independence and life it cannot be something we could lose by a change in the exterior world, and very little of the exterior world is in our command. The trust in providence is also consistent with stoicism. The comparison breaks down in Francis central desire for the cross, i.e. for a desire to be conformed to Christ, in whom human suffering becomes not merely a human perfection but a divinizing one. This difference allows the acceptance of life to be not merely a human perfection but an ontologically transformative one.

Humanism replacing religion

Humanism sees any appeal to (non-human) mental causes as superstitious and so it doesn’t distinguish, as religion did, between good appeals and bad appeals but sees both religion and superstition as “superstitious”. This only works to the extent that the search for mental causes can be re-interpreted as an inappropriate and fumbling search for humanist impersonal causes.

Humanism might have a point to the extent that religion is a desire for explanation or control, but control is an inevitable part of any human endeavor that allows for it. Farm policy, the process of drug approval, the prison system, public school, the YouTube comments policy, and a thousand other things can be explained by the human desire for power and control without ever touching on the point of any of these things as such. Whether religion can be fulfilled by for impersonal explanations depends on the degree to which the relevant explanans can be decoupled from personal characteristics like mercy, forgiveness, interpersonal love, wrath, punishment, etc, and it’s hard to see how any such decoupling could be plausible.



No accidental ideas (2)

(Yesterday I claimed we fail to understand either intelligence or intelligent desire – free choice – because we visualize it as the accident of a substance. Here is my translation of St. Albert’s argument against knowledge being either an accident or hylomorphic composite. Original is here, p. 498.)

Albertus Magnus

De intellectu et intelligibili 

Liber Unus, Tractatus III, Caput 1.

How is the Intelligible in the Intellect?

…Since every act of understanding arises from an assimilation of the intellect and the intelligible, both must become one, but this unity is not entirely like subject and accident, nor is the unity like the the unity of matter and form, as is shown in De anima III. So we now turn to showing what exactly the unity is.

The best explanation is to look at how light is one with the colors that are drawn from it (abstrahuntur),  since among all corporeal beings there are none in which the likeness to the incorporeal is clearer than light, which is why the agent intellect is said to be like light in De anima III. There are three things in light: the light, the lighting, and the luminous (lux, lucere, lumen). Considered in themselves, they seem to have either no difference, or very little, but if we consider them relative to each other they have tremendous differences between them. Light is the form of the luminous in a body giving light, lighting is the radiation of the form to something else, and the luminous is that form received by that which first illumines. Insofar as the color is drawn forth (abstractur) from the body and made spiritual in its nature (secundum esse spirituale) in the transparent medium it is not entirely like an accident in a subject, since an accident does not have the form and essence of an accident from the subject, but merely exists because of it (sed est tantummodo). Color, on the other hand, has its essence and form as a color from light, as is set down in De sensu et sensato. 

Color is also not in light like a form in matter, because form is drawn out of matter (educitur) by the alteration of matter, and results in the generation of a composite thing. But color is not drawn out of the transparent medium in this way but is drawn out of the colored surface by a formal abstraction (abstractione formali) like a shape from a signet ring.

Again, form has material existence in the matter in which it is, but color in the transparent medium has a spiritual nature and not a material one, because the change of the transparent medium is immediate, as is true of [the light, the lighting and the illumined].  If we say the intellect is a light which exists in itself, then the intellect, the intelligible, and its own self-intelligibility do not differ from each other. In understanding that which receives its own intellectual light it understands its own act of knowing, and in understanding anything intelligible, it understands both itself and its proper action.

We need to visualize the known and the intelligible in the same way, because it exists in itself and it is abstracted from things, and when it exists in the light of the intellect it exists in that which gives it an actual intelligible form, and not as an accident in a subject or as a form in matter. It befits its spiritual nature that when abstracted from things it is neither an accident, nor a substance according to the fullest sense of the term (verissimas acceptiones) nor is it a difference or species of being, unless we take being in an extended sense (secundum quid). Intentions are, rather, certain intentions of beings taken from the power of their own agent causes: for just as it is in the power of light to confer existence to colors it is in the power of the intellect to confer existence to intelligible things taken according to the act of understanding.

It should be clear from this that the intellect understands its act of understanding by no operation or action other than understanding its own intelligible things, and that it understands itself by understanding any intelligible. The cause of this is what was already said, that the intellect pours forth (sonat) the incorporeal light of the intellectual nature, and it has the same form in itself whether it is received in some nature to be known, or remains in itself, or is received or terminated above the intelligible. That said, if any of these is referred to each other, they differ according to the things to which they are referred.


Divine moral obligation

I don’t think God has moral obligations, but as long as everybody else takes his “moral perfection” or “omni-benevolence” for granted, I’ll assume that there is some sense to a divine moral obligation and see what follows.

Moral obligations fall within our power and knowledge. Given omniscience and omnipotence, it looks like God has infinitely binding moral obligations, i.e. he seems bound to do anything a moral agent would do if he had the power and ability to bring some good about. So it looks like the Argument from Evil is self-evidently true, since it’s obvious there are evil situations that would be very different if some being with perfect goodness and know-how were in the room. As Rowe put it, it’s just obvious that evils happened that a god would have been morally obliged to prevent.

But this putative self-evidence comes from conceiving omniscience halfway and not as a bona fide view from eternity. If moral obligation extends as far as vision and power then God’s decisions are made with an eye to the totality of all time and throughout the whole universe. Accurately describing God’s moral obligations can only be done from an exhaustive knowledge of what is, for us, the totality of future consequences, which means that the definition of divine moral obligation commits us to being unable to confirm whether such obligations are fulfilled or not.

If God exists and has moral obligations, all we can say is that this results in whatever the universe happens to look like. The desire for anything more, like the Pauline promise of Rm. 8:28, is purely revealed and confirmable only in the eschaton. If you take this to mean that it is meaningless to talk about divine moral obligation I’m fine with that too. I didn’t believe in it in the first place.



No accidental ideas

If you visualize choice as a little imperative popping into the head, you might then fight over whether it was put there by a spirit or as the term of some physical process.

You might visualize an idea popping into existence in the same way, though the same sort of problems don’t arise. Those who put ideas in spirits can keep them there, those who put ideas in neurons can keep them there, but the idea doesn’t need to do anything else. Still, as soon as we want ideas to do anything – to will – we are back to step 1.

But what if the problem is with the belief that ideas pop into existence as an accident of some subject? Accidents, after all, don’t act qua substance, and so if the idea is an accident of spirits or brains, then neither minds or brains think, any more than hot water or fire might heat, but not so far as either is water or fire, but so far as each is hot.

The death of justice

In response to the 1993 murder of the black Londoner Stephen Lawrence, the British Home Office issued a report that defined racism as “any incident which is perceived to be racist by the victim or any other person.” While it’s nice for someone to go on record with what seems to be the default definition of racism in the contemporary world, the embarrassment of saying the definition out loud explains why few ever go on the record.

The definition requires either that we’ve ceased to define racism as injustice or that any sincere accusation is decisive evidence of injustice. Justice is dead either way, and this is heartbreaking.




On squaring the circle

Squaring the circle is not the impossibility as such, it’s constructing a straight line and a curved line rational to one another, e.g. a curved line = straight one. We have no way of constructing the equivalent of dipping the circle in ink and rolling it out on a sheet of paper.

If you impose the real numbers or irrational numbers on figures, of course, any seventh-grader can do it.

The prefix auto-

The car becomes auto-mobile when it needs nothing else added to it in order to move, that is, when you no longer have to hitch it to a horse. The process becomes auto-matic when it needs nothing else to look after it (the “-matic” stem is from μέμονα meaning “to look after”).

Auto-X indicates that that X

(a) needs nothing else to be a complete instance of the type and

(b) is the paradigm by which less complete instances are measured.

Plato first recognized the value of auto, and you could explain most of his philosophy as a meditation on it. What is auto-just, for example (usually translated as “the just itself”)? It can’t be punishment, or the judicial process, or laws or judges, since all of these can be just or not. So what do these processes have if they are just? The minimal answer, which Plato himself gives in Phaedo, is that they are justice-having. The answer seems harmlessly-tautological until one starts drawing conclusions with it, or until one recognizes how central the rejection of the claim was to the system of William of Ockham. If all things “subsist by subsistence”, as Ockham seemed to joke, then esse is God, and one can form a valid cosmological argument from the fact that anything at all exists.

Aristotle’s generalization of the auto came by treating it as a prepositional phrase, the kath’ auto, which passed into Latin as per se. 

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