Relationality in nature and out

It’s too early to know what lessons about reality we should draw from Quantum Mechanics, but one that intrigues me is Van Fraassen’s defense of relationality, or the claim that nature is nothing [actual] before interacting. I bracket “actual” since this is my own addition to the theory, the assumption being that interaction does not arise from the pure nihil, but is an actualization of a latent reality. Contrary to Aristotle’s belief, however, this latent reality is not present as an accident in the power of some pre-actual substance.

There is an analogue to relationally in Aristotle’s account of mind, which, on my reading, is defined as being nothing actual before it thinks (De Anima III. 4)Unlike an eye or a neuron which first has to be assembled into an actual structure before it can go on to function, mind is the source of operations without needing to be first assembled or made actual. On the relationality account of nature neither mind nor matter are anything actual before they perform the actions proper to themselves. Thinking-activity does not need soul as some pre-actual subject to support it in being, but nature also does not need atoms or fields as pre-assembled structures that can later go on to leave trails in cloud chambers or act on eyeballs.

One hypothesis is that nature is nothing before it interacts and mind is nothing before it acts. Action in nature never arises from a self except as a part of some collective; mind always acts as a self. The Democratean hypothesis that nature needs some unconscious self to be actual before its action is false: all one ever actually has are interactive systems. He confused natural parts with the parts of a city formed by minds engaging in collective action, and had to invent a zombie self (the atom) as an explanation.

Braine on sensation

David Braine points to the long history of defining sense knowledge through its fallibility (Plato in Theatetus, almost the whole modern Rationalist tradition, turn of the century British thought, etc.) this tradition in turns leads to accounts of sensation that make it purely interior. STA seems to confirm this when he argues that Aristotle’s claim that sensation is inerrant describes sensations as subjective reports: we are in a position to infallibly report that we see the water as blue or that the food tastes sweet, but not to report on the objective status of  either.

Braine’s critique of this is that it isolates the person as observer from the person as a someone wandering through the world, exploring it, trying to accomplish tasks in it, etc. Pure observation cut off from its larger context in the life of the organism gives rise to the appearance-reality problem in sensation, though arguably this tells us only that we can’t determine the objectivity of sense from considering it qua observer.

Braine also critiques the idea that the fallibility of sense is established though pointing to bent-paddles, the way things taste to the sick, phantom limb phenomena, etc. All seem to be cases of seeing privations of X as types of X, though this is arguably a confusion between how we speak and how we know things are. Calling Homer a blind man doesn’t make blindness a formal or specific difference. In knowing what things are we’re trying to get a hold of their complete reality, and privations can’t play a role in this effort. This last premise is one I’m very sympathetic to – much of Catholic sexual teaching is explained by realizing that privations can’t function as elements in the account of the reality of something.


Temporal modalities and B-theory

1.) Take Aristotle’s sea battle. Either there is one (S) or not (~S)

2.) Restricting ourselves to the present moment, the conditional is necessary and, necessarily, one option is necessary and the other impossible.

3.) In a moment considered as later, the conditional is necessary but, necessarilyboth options are contingent.

4.) The present can be considered either within itself (2) or as a moment later than the past (3). Similar things occur with the past considered in itself (2) or relative to what is even more remote in the past (3).

This breaks down in the relation between the future and future-perfect, where there are earlier-later relationships but all parts of the conditional are contingent.  It is true that a sea battle will either have happened or not by the time you count to ten, but reaching ten or not is the same sort of thing as the sea battle. All we are doing is taking a future thing as given, not discovering it as necessary.

6.) So the temporal definition of modalities is incompatible with B-theory, since earlier-later divisions do not suffice to account for modality defined temporally. The incompatibility is particularly strong: assuming the adequacy of B-theory, we have no idea what to say about the contingency or necessity of past, present, or future events.

7.) But this seems to require that, if I see a sea battle happening now then, for all I know, it is just as possible that it is not a sea battle. B-Theory goes and time is real.



Divine simplicity vs. possible worlds


BV shows the following are inconsistent:

1. God is simple: there is nothing intrinsic to God that is distinct from God.

2. God knows some contingent truths.

3. Necessarily, if God knows some truth t, then (i) there an item intrinsic to God such as a mental act or a belief state (ii) whereby God knows t.

4. God exists necessarily.


 Suppose God… knows some contingent truth t.  He knows, for example, that I have two cats.  It follows from (3) that there is some item intrinsic to God such as a belief state whereby God knows t.  Given (1), this state, as intrinsic to God, is not distinct from God.  Given (4), the state whereby God knows t exists necessarily.  For, necessarily, if x = y, and x is a necessary being, then y is a necessary being. But then t is necessarily true.  This contradicts (2) according to which t is contingent.

I think I know the response STA would give, but it will be unacceptable to anyone who sees possibility as a feature of possible worlds.

For STA real possibility is a feature of what can be otherwise, which assumes some later time in which it can be otherwise. So long as we consider a thing as within a “now” that prescinds from any later state, we consider it in a way that cuts it off from what it requires to be contingent, thereby making it necessary. This is why STA claims that “Socrates sits” is necessary when he is sitting. So if God sees all things in an eternal now he sees them in a way in which the contingent and necessary are not opposed. Vallicella’s t is therefore both a necessary and contingent truth,* making the tetrad is consistent.

This account of real possibility requires that we see it as a modality of time, and the PW account of possibility will not allow for this. There is no clock for all possible worlds that can allow ‘Socrates sits” to be present in all of them at the moment he is sitting. Whether it’s more reasonable to take this as a critique of PW’s or as a critique of classical theism is something I don’t know enough about PW’s to argue to any conclusion.

*Specifically, it’s a contingent truth known in a mode that makes it necessary, and part of inerrancy would be the ability to distinguish what belonged to the claim as temporally located from what belonged to it from the mode of knowing; just as for those of us who see possibility as a temporal modality assert the same thing about the claim “Socrates sits” when we consider it in a certain way, i.e. as prescinding from any later time.

God is not omni-modal.

The various “omni” prefixes attached to divine X’s do not apply to the diverse modes of X. When we say God is omniscient we don’t mean he knows all things in all ways they can be known: he doesn’t know the color of blood by sensing it or my private thoughts by being me. When we say God is omnipotent we don’t mean that God has to lift stones with crowbars if I do.

One place to discover the value, uniqueness, and justification of creatures is their mode of operation. We don’t need creatures to have knowledge or power or goodness or whatever. But to know objects by hearing them or move them by interacting or be good by arriving at the right time are all ways of existing that would not be with divinity alone. The same applies when we try to bootstrap from our mode of action to God’s: if I conserved something in existence by thinking about it I would have to think one thing, then another, but this is for the same reason that I would have to physically interact (or sweat) if I wanted to move a sufficiently large rock.

I was reminded of this by reading Jimmy Akin’s Catholic defense of Parmenides. As someone who’s read both Jimmy and Parmenides with great profit I liked the series, but many of the arguments would not remain if we distinguish the way in which the universe is known by God from both the way it is known by us and the way in which the it exists in itself.


An order in creation, Trinity, Divine Self.

The distinction between act and potency/ form and matter was first developed to explain natures as generated or mobile or evolving, but when Medieval Christians got a hold of it they tried to use it to answer two questions that they were very interested in: (a) How do things exist dependently on a creator? and (b) how are things individuals of some common nature (e.g. how are intelligent beings – whether human or divine – persons?) The relation that these have to catechetical instruction is obvious, with (a) being the opening chapter of any catechism on creation and (b) being the follow up chapters on the Trinity and Incarnation.

One response to (a) is that esse actualizes the union of form and matter that together constitute essentia.  But how can this account preserve the distinction between finite and infinite esse? Creation can’t take part in infinite esse as infinite, and created things can’t participate in the infinite so far as the infinite is finite. This is an auxiliary reason why STA says that esse is neither infinite or finite (In octo libros Physicorum VIII l. 21) which fits into the larger context of his doctrine that esse can never be a conceptual quidditas since existence is unique and peculiar to whatever has it. Mine is not yours is not God’s. I’ve expressed this same thought by saying that esse is the unreachable limit at both ends of the Porpyrian tree: it can be approached but never reached by ascending in abstraction (since it is not a highest genus) and approached but never reached by descent to the particular (since no species divides by differences into it’s indefinite # of particulars).

The reality of existence at the downward unreachable limit to particularization is why I accept the modern Thomist idea that esse is the principle of what we call individuation while “matter signed by quantity” is simply the principle of enumeration or being countable (pace Reichmann, who swims against the tide). Aristotle’s discussion of individuation only sought to explain what we call multiplication and not the positive perfection of existing in a particular nature or of being a self, which is exactly what we are targeting in (b).  This is also the reason why the Trinity shows up as the ultimate perfection of esse as such: if esse is both the upward and the downward limit of our conceptualization, then one and the same esse can exist both as a universal said of many and as its ultimate concrete particulars. In fact, we might even go further: if the act of existence and essence are the same in God, then what is intelligible about God (essence/logos/concept) is the same as both the concrete reality of God and that which embraces the Logos/ concept/ essence and the concrete reality of God. Father embraces both Logos and concrete, though as an existent containing both in a way that cannot be contained by a higher; The Son is the logos containing all that is intelligible about God – which includes and does not abstract from God’s existence; and the Holy Spirit is contained by Father and Son while being also the concrete reality of God, beyond which no further reality is possible.


Divine hiddenness and the feminine

The argument from hiddenness is one version of the argument from evil, sc. if God existed he would be more evident or more eager to set up a relationship with individuals. Briefly, if God exists he would prefer to be an object of knowledge.

Christianity concedes this in one sense but denies it in another. God wants to be an object of knowledge eschatologically or at the end of the life of the human individual and species, but short of this he prefers to be an object of faith, i.e. an object of total commitment or assent in the face of uncertainty. Why?

A strong response is that this is logically necessary. God wants to be known as the culminating event of history, and so knowledge is not a possible road to union before this. If this is so, the argument from hiddenness wants to short-circuit history, and perhaps it should be careful what it wishes for, since the knowledge that drives out all doubt comes in the culminating act for both the saved and anyone else.

We might be able to make out the outlines of an epistemological or anthropological reason as well. Perhaps rational accounts need to begin as cases of faith seeking understanding, i.e. a way of fleshing out and articulating beliefs that we have already given total commitment to in the face of uncertainty. I don’t at all think that this means that reason is a wax nose to irrational prejudice – part of being a rational account is to follow from things that you share both with the alike-committed and the uncommitted. But suppose truth is a woman in the nuptial sense: you can only get to see all of her after you take a vow to all of her as unseen. Under this hermeneutic the argument from hiddenness is a certain failure to understand how to woo women – it’s the effeminacy of the man who figures that if the girl likes him she ought to call.

Artificial equine

One critique of strong-AI that was suggested by Chomsky but not made explicit is that intelligence is too bound up with human life to be artificially replicable by mimicking some human cognitive behaviors. It would be obtuse to describe automobiles as a triumph in the advance of an artificial equine project, as though “horsepower” were a real distillation and capturing of what horses are, or to see scuba gear as a definitive step forward in the march to the achieve the artificial piscine, as though all our previous attempts to swim underwater were crude, unscientific anticipations what we finally achieved though compressed gas, heel fins, regulators, etc.

This dovetails with the claim that the sciences are reductive in the sense that they want all things formally in one algebraic genus and materially in one tactile genus, which makes any specific difference problematic. If there were horse scientists, they would not only be baffled by life and consciousness, but by whatever difference constitutes the equine, which would be known from within by the houyhnhnm philosophers but is unknowable to us.

Short Special Metaphysics

1.) What is actual before it actual knows, knows that a limited and finite domain of being exists and is oblivious to the rest (like taste qua taste is oblivious to color)

Mind is not limited to knowing that a finite domain of being exists while being oblivious to the rest (it knows that there are knowns and mysteries.)

Mind is not actual before it knows. (the proof also follows on the supposition that there are no mysteries)

2.) What must be first produced or given energy and direction a tergo to act needs to be actual before it acts

Whatever arises from a causal history is first produced or given energy and direction.

Whatever arises from a causal history needs to be actual before it acts.

Whatever is not actual before it acts does not arise from a causal history.

Mind is not actual before it acts.

3.) Whatever is not actual before it acts, acts without interacting.

Mind is not actual before it acts.

So mind acts without interacting.

Force and energy are features of interactive systems (e.g. those falling under the Third Law)

Mind acts and moves without force and energy.


Probability is teleological

Probability is teleological and can describe natural things to the extent they are also. Here’s the argument:

Surprising things are chance events in the sense opposed to teleology.

Probability calculations seek to drive out surprise.

So probability calculations seek to advance the teleological and drive out the chance that is opposed to this.

You flip the fair coin a hundred times. You expect about 50-50 heads-tails with a margin of error of 5. Failure to get this is surprising in the sense we want to focus on. This allows logically for the following responses:

1.) You suspect the coin isn’t fair.

2.) You wonder if your model of probability is adequate.

3.) You treat the event as an outlier that rarely happens and that would wash out with a larger sample size or running the trial a few more times.

Notice that as long as #1 and #2 are ruled out #3 is all that’s left, but if we fail to disprove #3 we have to either retool #2 or add some epicycles to it, since we can’t develop a theory that assumes we are systematically deceived about what we’re observing, as a systematic belief in #1 would require. In other words, since we have to drop #1 as a long-term theoretical solution, all probability is a standoff between #2 and #3, with the one driving out the other.

#3 is chance in the sense that is opposed to teleology. This is why Aristotle defined chance as essentially rare, since by definition if it happens more than rarely it is taken as a fact that refutes your theory. Your model is built to predict outcomes, and this allows for prediction failure only in the case of outlier phenomena. Notice that when we call the #3 events rare this does not mean the same thing as “improbable”. All sorts of improbable events (like getting four of a kind, say) can be predicted by a theory. #3 events are improbable in the sense of being entirely outside the model that established both what will count as probable and improbable. The chance event, strictly speaking, has no probability whatsoever. While it is improbable in some sense (equivocal) of the term, in the technical sense we want to target now it is a-probable. And so we hit on a harmony between Aristotle’s account of chance as rare and TOF’s and Brigg’s antiphon-axioms that there is no probability outside the model and randomness is never a cause. Probability theory can never absolutely rule out chance, but it is (a) entirely outside the model and (b) lacks the sort of necessary connection that is the sine qua non of cause-effect relations. The reason why there is no probability outside the model is that, without the model, we have no way to distinguish #3 events, which are essential to any account of probability to distinguish.

In other words, while there is certainly some (equivocal) sense of chance or randomness that probability theory deals with, it is intrinsic to the theory that it exclude and seek to drive out chance in sense #3. But this is the only sense of “chance” or “randomness” that is teleology excludes.  It is only in this sense of chance that expectation of outcomes is frustrated, i.e. when the order between conditions and outcomes becomes necessarily frustrated and so intrinsically rules out teleology. Since it is just this sort of thing that probability seeks to minimize, marginalize and rule out, probability theory is intrinsically teleological. Q.E.D.


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