The primary component of being

The lynchpin of Lonergan’s account of being is to qualifiy being as “the content of the unrestricted act of knowing” with the primary component of being as opposed to secondary (Insight, Part II, c. XIX, part 6). This distinction follows two senses of “intelligible”. There is a broad component so far as one speaks of an object understood (the secondary sense), but within these sorts of objects we can identify a ground or source of intelligibility as a primary component in the object. The distinction between them is that primary components are understood only with a grasp of understanding itself while secondary components can be understood without any awareness of what understanding is.  Lonergan’s example is from the positive integers. One can do arithmetic without knowing what an insight is, but one can’t recognize the infinitude of the same integers without having an insight about what mind can do. The amazement that even a young child gets from recognizing infinity is a recognition of his involvement in it, or of how he can keep going just as they keep on going, and this element of understanding is present in any act of understanding. How many trees do you understand in “tree”, or forces in the idea of “force”? True, the infinitude of the concept is, for us, very dim and in need of a good deal of fleshing out, but this speaks to the clarity or mode of the primary component and not to its nature or extent.

So there is a primary and secondary component in all intelligibles. But being is the content of the unrestricted act of knowing, and the secondary component of being is restricted by definition since it leaves off the intelligible source in knowing the intelligible thing while the primary component does not. Therefore being is the primary component of being. The theistic implications are clear.

A neoplatonic-Christian morality

1.) Is eternity attainable? 

If so, it cannot be before death since the whole of this life is in time. So even if we say “yes” we will distinguish the morality of attainment and the morality of this life, or a happiness that is absolute from one that is for now.

2.) If attainable, then how? 

There seems to be no one who argued we could know it was attainable by reason, though if it is attainable then we could not rule out its being possible. So far as reasoning is discursive and fed from sensation, the attainment of eternity is unintelligible to it. In order to attain the eternal a rational being must acquire a new nature, which happens only by rebirth.

3.) If attainable, can it fail to be obtained? 

If so, after death those who fail to attain must be met either with annihilation or the perpetual continuance of time. But annihilation introduces duality into the divine act and so is at least unfitting and probably impossible. Leaving aside the question of punishment or what the metaphor of the flames means, the eternity of Hell is perpetual time.


The privation account of moral evil

Manichaeism can’t be foolish or shallow since most of my students aren’t shallow but most of them are Manichaeans. As a moral theory it is the simplest and most initially persuasive on offer, and it’s so basic it tends not to be formally articulated at all. The foundational axiom is there are good objects and bad objects or moral choice requires a good and bad object. It took an Augustine to see what was wrong with this, but even his privation account of evil tends to just be understood in a Manichaean way e.g. we understand the good object as “something” and the bad object as “nothing” and then continue on just as before. The puzzles and contradictions soon fatigue, however, with students saying things like “evil is wanting nothing” or “evil is a desire for non-existence”, etc.

The Neoplatonic account of moral evil, which is the point of departure for any privation account of it, rests on an account of the difference between time and eternity. Time is a distension or dispersal of goods, or a mode of existence where some goods cannot be had without renouncing others. Eternity is much simpler: to enjoy all goods. Time consists in a series of zero-sum-games that arise from the intrinsic limitations of things, which in turn gives rise to the need for choices that are made with an eye to enjoyment; eternity is the enjoyment that one has in the absence of all such limitations. There are no choices in eternity, only the willing enjoyment of what one has.

Both evil and moral choice exist only in time since they can only exist in the context of zero-sum games wherein the good we grab can involve moving closer to or renouncing the ultimate good. Evil is not an object or even something we can think about while acting but a good that can’t serve as a means to attain the ultimate. In the absence of an ultimate good both evil and moral choice become unintelligible, which is why all moral theories tend to be named after their account of what the ultimate good is (utility, virtue, duty, divine decree, etc.)

One value to the Neoplatonic account is that it comes with eternity as a paradigm or limit case of the ultimate good, even if this is not attainable. Morality then becomes a contextualized or qualified as an attempt to do the best we can with a morality that cannot be defined by its absolute condition, i.e. the attainment of the good that is ultimate without qualification. For Augustine morality gets a new urgency from the belief that the ultimate good is attainable as a moral goal since our choices are capable of being either co-ordinated or uncoordinated with the enjoyment of God himself. Our own accounts of morality – even the Christian ones – don’t seem to raise this question of ultimate goods and this infects all moral questions with some degree of darkness, confusion, and an attempt to accept some tragic condition.

Thomistic vs. Lucretian theosis

The essentials of humanism have been articulated for a very long time as what you get when you tear down god and put man in his place. It’s hard to beat the haunting majesty of Lucretius’s way of putting this:

Opteritur nos exaeqat victoria caelo. 

[religion] has been torn down, and this victory makes us equal to the gods.

Christianity also has a way of making man equal to the gods though the Incarnation and, in its Western articulation, though a vision of the divine essence in which God himself takes the place of any possible idea or even direct intuition we might have of God. While St. Thomas’s attempt to articulate this is strained and hesitant, his last word on the problem is that the divine essence is united to the created intellect as the object actually understood, making the intellect in act by and of itself. While STA doesn’t push this argument to the next stage by pointing out that a similar thing would be said about the act of the will, so far as our idea of God is replaced by God himself we have to allow some sense in which self-love and love of God become identical, making the two greatest commandments coincide in a single action.

So there is both a Thomistic and Lucretian humanism corresponding to different accounts of divination or theosis. The two differ in means: the Lucretian is from the advance of a disenchanting scientific model of the world that reconstructs the whole of reality from principles whose natures are are clearly known from the beginning (space, void, force, particles) the Thomistic vision is the approach to a cause whose nature is known only at the end since beatitude is, so far as reason is concerned, the culmination of our attempts to know the essence of the cause of the world. The Lucretian advance of knowledge drives out the gods since it rules out ab initio any need to conclude to the principles of the world, the thomist argues that we can only know that there is a principle of the world from the beginning, not what it is in itself.

The two also differ in ends: the Lucretian theosis is mostly a narrative of liberation and authority where we throw off the impediments that kept down humanity and claim the right to determine our own destiny. On the one hand we want a brotherhood of all persons, now seen as free and equal with a dignity of existing for themselves; on the other hand the control of our destiny has to involve the power over life and death along with a rational disgust at the idea that our community would be allowed to arise from the dumb luck of whoever might happen to be born by random acts of conception and then raised by undirected acts of parenting. The Thomistic theosis is not something to be achieved now, and this present world is one whole ultimate reason is to be revealed later. Whatever cultivating or directing roles we take in natural processes are always subordinate to a larger narrative where what actually happens – mistakes and all – will be seen as part of a divine plan to be revealed in our vision of the cause of the world.



Is the New Right political?

The intellectual patrimony of the contemporary Right was constructed with an eye to avoiding another Hitler. Hayek, Schumpeter, Von Mises, Popper, etc. were all mid-century Austrians who all felt the need to articulate Never Again systems. Their claim -which I’ll simplify to the thesis of “The Road to Serfdom” – was that authoritarianism arises by taking advantage of the sort of centralized systems of governmental control set up by the interwar Left, and so the only way to avoid Hitlers was to dismantle, decentralize, and deregulate. Among Americans this belief dovetailed with a constitutional movement that sympathized with the founding-era suspicion of governmental power, which was part of a larger tradition of classical liberalism that all the Austrians celebrated.

Because of this the contemporary Right saw itself as a third way to either the Right or the Left. It rejected both the collectivism and internationalism of the Left and the Nationalism and racialism of the Right. But this left it without a principle of collective action or identity, making it strangely unable to account for what made it a political movement. The best that Americans could come up with was that we were a “proposition nation” committed to equality, but the proof that no one ever took this seriously is that to do so would be infinitely more intrusive and statist than the Nazism it sought to avoid. It’s very easy and requires minimal invasion into personal life to confirm that someone is, say, German or sufficiently German, and once you determine someone’s level of Germanity it will stay the same throughout his life. But a proposition nation would require ongoing check-ins about our commitments to personal belief under threat of penalty. “Citizen Jones! Convince us you believe in what we call EQUALITY, or else!”

In practice, the contemporary Right turned to the same principle of political order as the New Left did: crass individualism and the pluralism of do your own thing, which is indistinguishable from a rejection of political order.  If I really am to do my own thing, the state is just there as another resource to be fleeced, and everyone else has the same “rights” over me (in scare quotes since the law that ensures such rights is just another resource to be fleeced, not a guarantor of justice. “Right” is just another exercise of raw power, not a claim to a good in justice).


Mechanism and teleology

1.) We take it as given that mechanical explanations are opposed to teleological ones even while we have no experience of a machine that is not made for a purpose and it’s not clear that an analogous extension of the idea of a machine can be alienated from being a tool for producing something of value, even if machines differ from mere tools by having a sort of autonomy. It’s easy enough to imagine finding ourselves in the face of a machine that was utterly unknown to us and whose action we analyzed only by pushes, pulls, and other ways of exchanging velocity for force, but this is to put off or bracket the question of teleology as opposed to answering it one way or another.  Maybe this analysis is approaching a teleological account, maybe it is forever incapable of giving one, maybe there is not one to give, maybe the question requires a different discourse…

2.) True, we’re assembling a theory or a model and these will always be underdetermined by facts. But all this means is that the end we approach seeing will share in the hypothetical character of the mechanism we are putting together in thought.  Being given the model kit is not like being given a set of legos: the observed action of what you are trying to explain is a limit on what can be put together.

3.) Anti-teleology doesn’t deny purpose, only that purpose plays a causal role in the generation of the object. If you find a branch on the ground and use it to fish it doesn’t follow that trees grow branches so that you can fish. This made sense on a Cartesian account where human minds or God could use things that were laying about for their own ends, but it’s not clear we can give a coherent account of what is going on if the one who is exploiting things for their own ends is the same sort of thing as what he exploits.

4.)  Leibniz gave an account of nature as infinitely layered machine complexity. There is always something about art that is other than the artifact: if you buried a bed and it sprouted it would grow a tree and not a bed. Leibniz is denying this of nature in an interesting way: one never finds “stuff” in nature, i.e. parts that are meant for something else, and so explanation of nature can never bottom out in some fundamental moving piece that pushes all the rest. So long as you follow out this sort of explanation, you will therefore go on forever. There is no Humean fundamental fact to find. For all that, there is another axis of explanation that ties the mechanism to the program/ subconscious / meme like causality of the monad, of which even an infinite mechanism is an encoding.

Here to help

My son Manny is 20 months-old with a speaking vocabulary of fewer than ten words, though he understands a great deal more. Yesterday he stole a ball from a neighbor’s house. When asked whether he stole it he said “No. I help.”

I helped. The sense seems to be that helping involves partially taking control of something that belongs to another, like a first-grade teacher taking a student’s hand and guiding it in the right pen stroke or a fireman grabbing someone’s body and pulling it out of a fire, which is exactly how Manny understood taking the toy. After all, great evils arose from the ball staying at the neighbor’s house, among them being Manny’s inability to have it.

This put me in mind of a scene from the Little House books when Kansas settlers justify westward expansion by pointing out that none of the Native peoples work the land. The white advance, you see, is the better thing for the land itself since it cultivates it and makes it more suitable for human habitation. We helped!


SJP2’s account of dignity

There is a traditional Catholic account of human dignity was that the person is in God’s image and (leaving aside the damned for a moment) is always called to union with him. John Paul II gives an account of human dignity that appropriates Kant’s second categorical imperative: the person is always to be loved as opposed to merely used. The definition has proved particularly fruitful and appropriate to dealing with the moral problems of a technologized world.

One consequence of the definition, which for many Catholics counts as a scandal, is that it is very difficult to square it with an in-principle acceptance of capital punishment or eternal punishment. Both seem to be cases where the person is irrevocably and completely subordinated to the good of a whole by having to give his life up forever for the sake of retributive or restorative justice. Both seem to preclude, in Kant’s way of putting it, our ability to take the person as an end and not merely as a means to something else. Under such a restriction, capital punishment can only be defended as a sort of self-defense, but while self-defense can be plausibly justified through double-effect reasoning but CP cannot. We can defend ourselves against a threat without the death of the aggressor being a failure of our intention, but the same can’t be said of CP, and it is completely incoherent as an account of eternal punishment. So we seem stuck having to drop CP and hellfire or the dignity of persons as St. John Paul understood it along with all the conclusions we used the principle to explain and justify. To leave it at this makes it hard not to experience the tradition of the Church as a burden, and one looks about for a distinction that allows one to commute the either-or into a both-and.

One possibility is to see the common good as the person’s ultimate good, and so any orientation of the person to this good can never be contrary to seeing them as an end in themselves. Orienting someone to a common good like the (even restorative) justice of the state can never be seen as subordinating his individual good to the good of something else, even in the cases where he will necessarily die for the sake of that common good.

But it’s hard to see how this would keep the rest of St. John Paul’s philosophy in place. Why not see contraception (or even pornography) as falling under the common good in the same way?

St. Thomas might suggest that St. John Paul’s account of persons applies to persons to the extent that they are free from sin. Good persons must be dealt with as ends in themselves, while the evil as such can only be used, and to the extent that the evil becomes inveterate the only appropriate response is to use the person according to an irrevocable act. This solution is problematic too.


Our mind as separate

While mind as such is non-physical, it is necessarily physical for us. In explaining this STA describes the necessity as the sense meaning ease of operation, e.g. if you want to work thirty miles from home you need a car or a bus pass or something like this. Sure, you could get up every morning six hours before work and run a marathon and then some, but setting up your affairs in this way would argue for a lack of foresight and would involve a general diminishing of your quality of life. In certain limited and narrow ways your life would certainly improve: you’d certainly get better at running and you’d miss far fewer details about the objects on your commute, but on the whole you’ve lost something you need. In the same way the knowledge of our soul in the state of separation will improve in certain narrow ways while suffering an overall diminishing of quality of life. Certain facts about metaphysics will become much easier to know and even self-evident (like the existence of the spiritual) and mind will not suffer fatigue, but it will have to stand in the face of the infinite logoi of being without the benefit of the automatic responses that it now uses to isolate salient data. For example, the separated soul lacks:

1.) IQ. This is a metric of how quickly we can find salient data and establish connections, but the process the does this is purely unconscious.

2.) Personality. This is the way in which our automatic responses to stimuli put us into behavioral sub-groups, e.g. some spontaneously respond to crowds, new things, and popularity with excitement and others with wariness or disgust; some respond to authority with easy acceptance and others with reservations and difficulties, etc. Note that personality is being used broadly enough here to also include one’s sexual identity, which also is absent from the separated soul. You can’t call the Saint Teresa you pray to a woman in the same sense as a girl on the street.

3.) Concrete examples of its logoi. This is what STA honed in on when he explained the necessity of body. Things proceed from God to creation in two ways: into minds as objective and into existence as subjective. As subjective they are individual and so multiplied by number; as minds they are unique and so non-repeatable. There allows for a range of individuals that are more like what is multiplied or more like the individual mind. Our mind is a lower-limit case in of a mind most like multiplied individuals, and so can be helped by having the world of multiplied individuals forced upon it.

It’s fine to see this a defense of the resurrection of the body, only we can’t view this as a return but as a transcendence. We get back what we had before only in the way that the transcendent contains the inferior. Persons in the Gospel, for example, speak of seeing Christ and not knowing who he was; St. Bernadette describes the face of the Virgin as the symbol-cluster of a liturgical icon.

Mind and light

Aristotle shows mind is nothing actual before it thinks. This makes it like light, which is a wave that is not something actual before its waving. In the same way that there is no aether waiting in the dark to be quickened into brightness there is no mind waiting dormant and inactive before thought.

But should we take the example of light as an insight into Aristotle’s account of mind or a critique of it? Both he and the tradition that followed from him took this description of mind as setting it apart from physical things, but the likeness between mind and light argues against taking A’s description as so setting it apart. But this line of reasoning has less truth in it than the alternative for a couple of reasons:

1.) Aristotle is not opposing mind to physical things as physical but to physical things as cognitive, i.e. to sense organs and the grand structure of the central nervous system, and the example of light keeps this opposition intact.

2.) While actual light is the act of whatever is apt to be light, actual mind is the act of what is is apt to be something else. Mind is intrinsically made actual by its object or by another as other while light is intrinsically actual by nothing outside of itself. The comparison between mind and light shows that what Aristotle discovered as obtaining objectively about mind also obtains subjectively among any physical subject without mass that by nature moves at the speed of light.

This allows light to function as an analogous referent midway between the physical and the spiritual. Like the spiritual it is nothing actual before it thinks, but it differs from the spiritual in that it is only itself and not intrinsically all things or being as such.

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