Zen and the art of hylomorphism…

I just finished watching Erleuchtung Garantiert (EG) (Enlightenment Guaranteed), a 1999 film by Dorris Dörrie, recently best known for her 2008 film, Die Kirschblüten – Hanami. I was struck by a quotation from a book on Zen featured in the film.

Let me first give a brief synopsis of EG. It charts the spiritual growth of two brothers, Uwe and Gustav, as they go from married life in Germany to a sort of lay-Zen freedom in Tokyo. We first meet Uwe, a real estate agent, as a cranky, dissatisfied husband and father of four children, while Gustav first appears as a fairly serene, jolly fengshui design consultant, devotee of Zen wisdom, and husband to a shallow wife. Due to a sudden crisis in his life, Uwe persuades Gustav to allow him join him on his trip to Tokyo, during which Gustav wants to visit Noto Monzen, a Zen monastery. In Tokyo, the two brothers, who for the most part carry on a hilarious repartee, quickly encounter difficulties and scrape by long enough to reach Noto Monzen. There they live a short time as Zen novices, an experience which at times dredges up old grudges from their childhood, but in the end helps them face themselves and find greater peace. The film is superbly well directed, delightfully acted, and rather perfectly diegetically structured.

Now, the quotation that grabbed me. On the flight to Tokyo, Gustav attempts to console Uwe by handing him a book about Zen. Uwe finds a card in the book and reads, “Leben heißt Leiden [Life is suffering].” He hands the book back to Gustav in bemused disdain. Later, however, Uwe is more engrossed in the book, and on the train to Noto Monzen, he reads the following words:

“Wir müssen das Trugbild durchschauen, dass es ein Ich gibt, das von dem dort getrennt ist. Bei unserem Üben geht es darum die Kluft aufzuheben. Erst in dem Augenblick in dem wir und das Objekt eins werden, können wir unser Leben wirklich erkennen.”

“We must look through the illusion that there is an I separate from that there. Our [ascetic] discipline is all about canceling this divide. Only at the moment we and the object become one can we really know our life.”[1]

This immediately struck me like a metaphysical one-two combo.

First, Uwe’s mention of “I and the object becoming one” reminded me that the union of the subject and object is a fundamental tenet of Thomistotelian epistemology (TE). As St. Thomas notes in De Veritate, citing Aristotle’s De Anima III, 8, the soul is in some sense all things (Lat., hoc autem est anima, quae quodammodo est omnia; Gk., εἴπωμεν πάλιν ὅτι ἡ ψυχὴ τὰ ὄντα πώς ἐστι πάντα·).[2] In TE, there is a genuine union of the percept and the perceiving organ. For instance, light is the proper object (or, perceptual mode-of-being) for the eye. Sound is the proper perceptual mode-of-being for the ear. Molar texture is the proper object of the skin. And so forth. The union of object and subject, percept and perceiver, is the act of sensible cognition. As St. Thomas says in De Veritate (cited below in note [1]),

True expresses the correspondence of being to the knowing power, for all knowing is produced by an assimilation of the knower to the thing known, so that assimilation is said to be the cause of knowledge. Similarly, the sense of sight knows a color by being informed with a species of the color.

Convenientiam vero entis ad intellectum exprimit hoc nomen verum. Omnis autem cognitio perficitur per assimilationem cognoscentis ad rem cognitam, ita quod assimilatio dicta est causa cognitionis: sicut visus per hoc quod disponitur secundum speciem coloris, cognoscit colorem.

The perceiver has the potency for sight, but only when his visual potency is combined with a proper visual object does he engage in active perception (viz., sight, hearing, feeling, etc.). By the same token, proper objects of sensation possess the potency for perception (i.e., perceptibility), but only in combination with a perceiver are they agents (i.e., activating entities) in perception. If we lacked the potency to perceive certain, so to speak, ontological bandwidths of reality, we could never pervceive without activating prosthetic organs properly attuned to those bandwidths. Likewise, if an object lacks a potency for being-perceived, then it could never actually be perceived. An example of this active/potential blend in cognition is the fact that we cannot, without special equipment, perceive infrared or ultraviolet light, but bats and butterlfies can perceive such light. We lack the potency for such perception (unless of course we activate prosthetic devices to amplify our perceptual potencies), but that does not mean flowers and stars lack the potency for being perceived under the mode of ultraviolet and infrared light. Bats and butterflies have the agency for perceiving ultraviolet and infrared light, which activates the potency of that light, but much of what we actively perceive is imperceptible to them. What a star is qua objectum scientia (as ‘an object of knowledge’) just amounts to which of its perceptual potencies are actualized. The role of science is to scrutinize which of these potencies are actually there to be perceived in various objects, and then to taxonomize objects according to their actual natures.

In any case, it is only when we posit an absolute incommensurability between the organ of perception and the objects of perception, as Descartes did, that we lose the right to say perceivers actually know the objects in their environment (as post-Cartesian epistemology has demonstrated in extremis). If there is no genuine (i.e., inborn or natus/naturalis) union of the object and the subject, then, as Locke claimed, all we know are our ideas of objects, our vivid inner (secondary) representations of otherwise colorless, soundless, flavorless, etc. (primary) objects. The “common bond” in which object and subject mutually “find themselves together,” is called intentional being (esse intentionale). The perceiving mind wanders about the world, in both senses: about as in ‘throughout’ (along one’s “world-line” in spacetime), and about as in ‘towards’. The mind persistently and naturally forms intentional bonds with the objects (res extensae) it encounters, and eo ipso knows itself as a knowing being (res cogitans). Perception and cognition are intrinsically intentional, about, directed-at, in-tension-with the objects of its attention. As Uwe read in the book on Zen, “Only at the moment we and the object become one can we really know our life.”

So much for the first punch delivered by Uwe’s quotation. The second thing that hit me is how this convergence of Zen and TE insights–– about the union of object and subject, the I and the that there–– seriously undermines the conventional divide (oh, the irony!) between Western and Eastern wisdom. In both Zen and Thomistotelian, there is a vital emphasis on the immediacy of the world in our perception of it. The immediacy of the real world fills our minds so that we are literally displaced from within ourselves. The immediacy of the world draws us out of ourselves, away from the stifling provincialism of our inner world when it is devoid of objective content. Zen asceticism is a formula of systematic engagement with the world so that we are drawn away from our Ego, away from the illusion that “I” exists on its own, as some autonomous reality. In Zen asceticism and TE (which of course also flourished for centuries in a Catholic spiritual milieu), we find true ourselves only as we find ourselves truly in the world. For a theist, this of course means that we find ourselves among our fellow creatures, joined to them by intentional bonds, which are mediated through our cognitive capacities. The universality of intentional being in discrete entities not only allows us to know objects, but also truly to know ourselves as knowers in the union of our minds with the sensibles before us. We cannot, pace Descartes, know ourselves as existent knowers apart from that which we know, apart from that which actively informs the potency of our minds.

But there is more. Since intentional being is neither purely natural being (esse naturale, i.e., the “thing in itself” when unperceived) nor purely abstract (esse immateriale, i.e., as a pure concept apart from its particular material instantiation), but a link between these two kinds of being, it is the bridge on which we stand behind pure matter and the ideas of the Divine Mind. We can imagine things that do not exist, but they only have esse immateriale, and things, pace Berkeley, can exist without our perceiving them. It is the sheer immateriality of, say “2,” stripped of all particular, material characteristics as this or that instance of “2,” which enables “2” to surface repeatedly, inexhaustibly, and identically throughout material reality. Insofar as every percept is a small surprise which “thrills” and livens our cognitive world–– insofar as every thing is something real which did not necessarily have to exist in our perception, and which may disappear at any moment–– then all perception is a constant parade of the world contingency. None of our perceptual contents exist for us necessarily and absolutely; they all come and go and change. So the world. It does not exist necessarily; it came, is on the go, and always changing. To perceive this is to perceive that its contingency for all possible perceivers is just as fundamental as that of all percepts for us as perceivers. The sublime union of the knower with that known is a goal of Zen practice, but is ultimately and truly the privilege of God alone, in whom all things exist at one with His own being.

Ultimately, Zen and TE are theories of aesthetic existence. Any work of art enjoys the three modes of being I mentioned above: esse naturale, esse immateriale, and esse intentionale. In the mind of the artist, before she produces the work, a work of art is purely abstract immaterial “thing,” still unmaterialized and undifferentiated by matter. (If my concept of a future work of art just is my neural makeup as I ponder it, then why is the actual finished product nothing like a clump of brain tissue?) Once it is produced, the work of art enjoys a natural existence even when no one beholds it. When the lights fade and the doors close in the gallery, the works of art inside persist, as natural objects but not as objects of art. Only when their aesthetic potency is activated in the moment of perception do works of art “mobilize” their intentional mode of being, a mobilization which concomitantly activates the mind of the subject in the intentional union discussed earlier. This is, of course, what the art-lover means by saying she “loses herself in” a work of art, and what accounts for the ancient link between aesthetic and religious rapture: her Ego becomes amalgamated with the intentional being of the objet d’art and, in turn, she may proceed along that intentional bridge towards the beauty of the art itself as it exists from eternity in the Divine Wisdom. To know the beauty of the creation is to know the preeminent beauty of the Creator. These are but the three classical paths of Scholastic theology (i.e., via causalitatis, via remotionis, and via eminentiae) deployed in the world of art.

[1] Just because I find it a challenging and intriguing claim, I want to add what Uwe reads next:

“Erleuchtung ist nicht etwas, das man erlangen kann. Es ist die Abwesenheit von etwas. Ihr ganzes Leben lang sind Sie hinter etwas hergewesen, haben nur ein Ziel verfolgt. Erleuchtung bedeutet, all das aufzugeben.”

“Enlightenment ist not something one can obtain. It is the absence of anything. Your whole life has been behind something, has pursued only one goal. Enlightenment means giving all that up.”

[2] I have provided the context of St. Thomas’ claim in De Veritate, in Latin and English.


De Veritate, I, rep.:

If the mode of being is taken in the second way—according to the relation of one being to another—we find a twofold use. The first is based on the distinction of one being from another, and this distinctness is expressed by the word something, which implies, as it were, some other thing. For, just as a being is said to be one in so far as it is without division in itself, so it is said to be something in so far as it is divided from others. The second division is based on the correspondence one being has with another. This is possible only if there is something which is such that it agrees with every being. Such a being is the soul, which, as is said in The Soul, “in some way is all things.” The soul, however, has both knowing and appetitive powers. Good expresses the correspondence of being to the appetitive power, for, and so we note in the Ethics, the good is “that which all desire.” True expresses the correspondence of being to the knowing power, for all knowing is produced by an assimilation of the knower to the thing known, so that assimilation is said to be the cause of knowledge. Similarly, the sense of sight knows a color by being informed with a species of the color.

The first reference of being to the intellect, therefore, consists in its agreement with the intellect. This agreement is called “the conformity of thing and intellect.” In this conformity is fulfilled the formal constituent of the true, and this is what the true adds to being, namely, the conformity or equation of thing and intellect. As we said, the knowledge of a thing is a consequence of this conformity; therefore, it is an effect of truth, even though the fact that the thing is a being is prior to its truth.

Q. Disp. de Ver. I, resp.:

Si autem modus entis accipiatur secundo modo, scilicet secundum ordinem unius ad alterum, hoc potest esse dupliciter. Uno modo secundum divisionem unius ab altero; et hoc exprimit hoc nomen aliquid: dicitur enim aliquid quasi aliud quid; unde sicut ens dicitur unum, in quantum est indivisum in se, ita dicitur aliquid, in quantum est ab aliis divisum. Alio modo secundum convenientiam unius entis ad aliud; et hoc quidem non potest esse nisi accipiatur aliquid quod natum sit convenire cum omni ente: hoc autem est anima, quae quodammodo est omnia, ut dicitur in III de anima. In anima autem est vis cognitiva et appetitiva. Convenientiam ergo entis ad appetitum exprimit hoc nomen bonum, ut in principio Ethic. dicitur quod bonum est quod omnia appetunt. Convenientiam vero entis ad intellectum exprimit hoc nomen verum. Omnis autem cognitio perficitur per assimilationem cognoscentis ad rem cognitam, ita quod assimilatio dicta est causa cognitionis: sicut visus per hoc quod disponitur secundum speciem coloris, cognoscit colorem.

Prima ergo comparatio entis ad intellectum est ut ens intellectui concordet: quae quidem concordia adaequatio intellectus et rei dicitur; et in hoc formaliter ratio veri perficitur. Hoc est ergo quod addit verum super ens, scilicet conformitatem, sive adaequationem rei et intellectus; ad quam conformitatem, ut dictum est, sequitur cognitio rei. Sic ergo entitas rei praecedit rationem veritatis, sed cognitio est quidam veritatis effectus.

If…, then…?

If Heaven is just an illusory way to assuage the fear of mortality, then is the assertion of nonexistence upon death a way to assuage the fear of eternal retribution?

* * *

If euthanasia is so good, why do we try talking people down from suicide?

* * *

If scientific theories do not simply “fall out” from natural sensation and perception, are they purely natural?

If medicine is intended to redress the errors of natural biology, and if medical equipment is an artificial appendage to natural organisms, then is everything even possible wholly natural?

If even one thing is artificial as distinct from natural, can everything be subsumed under nature?

If everything is lumped together ontologically as one whole “sheer Nature,” then is it even coherent to make distinctions? (If everything is the same, then nothing is different, and therefore it makes no sense to ascribe common properties to different objects. If every thing, in other words, is everything, then no thing exists. If I say everything is water, with reference to what do I contrast ‘this’ and ‘that’ as exhibits of water? Insofar as all assertions presuppose distinctions, how we can assert ontological uniformity without presupposing ontological diversity? Is monism, of which naturalism is a type, even coherent?)

Careful with that razor!

It is not an uncommon argument against teleology that the appearance of design and finalized function is but a cognitive illusion generated by our brains for survival value. The first thing that strikes me about this claim is how seriously it complicates the attendant claim that our cognitive capacities are merely and wholly evolved by natural selection (NS). If we are so abysmally wrong about purpose and finality, which we see everywhere, how reliable are our cognitive apparati? Are our brains really so poorly adapted to reality that we consistently and automatically ascribe purposive behavior to observed phenomena? If so, how much confidence can we have in the idea that NS has molded our brains to perceive the truth about the world?

I also have to wonder what survival advantage there is in generating consistently misperceptive cognitive faculties vis-à-vis objects and organisms. I mean, surely an organism does not need an elaborate cognitive apparatus for ascribing intentionality to lifeless, non-teleological phenomena to propagate its genes. Presumably, mind evolved to “pick out” purposeful behavior among evolving fellow anthropoids… but in that case, where did all that purposive mindedness come from in the first place? If there is no mindedness and finality “there” in nature, how can sentient organisms evolve to “pick it out”? (Very Zen-esque: what is the selective advantage of one mind thinking?) What selective pressure was subcognitive perception responding to in order that it evolved to teleologized cognition? The theory of NS stipulates that heritable features can only adapt to and flourish in niches that “pre–support”, as it were, those functions. For example, to borrow from Fr. Edward Oakes’s point in a lecture he gave about five years ago, wings can only evolve in an environment that displays precise atmospheric and gravitational parameters. Moreover, Oakes notes, following Daniel Dennett, we can extrapolate from evolved artifacts back to the environment in which they evolved. Imagine a bunch of futuristic Martians, who know nothing about Earth’s atmosphere, one day found a heap of wing fossils and bird skeletons drifting in space. By examining the artifacts, they could extrapolate not only the existence of a suitable “flightable” environment (i.e., one that was pre-supportive of flighted creatures), but also discern many features of that environment (viz., based on the size of the skeletons, the angulation of the joints, bone density, etc.). To adapt a point from the Dao De Jing, although a window is technically a void, a non-entity, a pure lack, yet its “ontic potentiation” generates a genuine structure around it in the ordered context of a larger “ontic habitat” (i.e., a window in a wall in a house). To quote from Hagakure (chapter 2):

Our bodies are given life from the midst of nothingness
Existing where there is nothing
is the meaning of the phrase:
Form is emptiness.
That all things are provided for by nothingness
is the meaning of the phrase:
Emptiness is form
One should not think that these are two separate things.

What the foregoing indicates is that nature can only evolve according to niches supportive of certain functions and structures. We live in a world full of minds ordered towards purposes (namely, our own minds). Is there, then, a pre-supportive niche for mind and teleological cognition in nature? If not, how could such cognition adapt into a nonexistent niche in the natural order? If there is intrinsically no “design space” for teleological cognition, how could it evolve? If, by contrast, there is a pre-established niche (or potential) for rational cognition inherent in nature, then just how “natural” is nature? (For more along these lines, see the latter half or so of my post, “And your punt, exactly?”)

In any case, for the purposes (yuk yuk yuk) of this post, my main worry about the illusion of teleology is a pari passu (or a “critical parsimony”, goose-and-gander) argument.

The thrust of arguments against teleology based on NS, and in favor of purely naturalized selection (PNS), is twofold. First, NS can explain, or account for, the appearance of “finalized structures” (i.e., entelechies) without positing purposiveness and, second, by doing so NS is metaphysically less extravagant, which, by most accounts, avoids the pain of “Ockham’s” Razor. According to that axiom, We should avoid needlessly positing entities (Entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatem). In other words, the more we can explain with less, the better. Positing a metaphysical somesuch called “teleology” seems needlessly to clutter our ontology. Naturalistic mechanism, by way of good old NS, can account for the appearance of that metaphysical fiction as an illusory consequence of our higher cognitive functions; as such, naturalism is ontologically less bloated and therefore a better theory than, say, Aristotelianism.

Here is my “critically parsimonious” worry, though: how does the concept of “causation” fare under the same treatment? As Hume argued so mercilessly, “causation” is neither an obvious principle of reason nor an empirically observable reality. It is merely a cognitive illusion which we cast over otherwise metaphysically discrete phenomena. Rationally, we lose nothing by denying there is a metaphysical “principle” of causation that “acts on” spatiotemporally contiguous phenomena. Our ability to imagine two conjoined events occurring just as we perceive they do, yet without superimposing a metaphysical cloak of “causation” over them, indicates that causation per se is not a rational necessity (such as the principles of identity and noncontradiction). Empirically, moreover, we lose nothing of observational value if we strip away the “spooky,” “invisible” so-called “power of causation,” and instead simply record what happens in conjunction with what else. Malebranche and Leibniz have amply demonstrated the rational coherence of (parallel) occasionalism, even if occasionalism strikes us as highly counter-intuitive. (Anti-teleological NS, general relativity, and quantum mechanics all strike us as highly counter-intuitive, but that doesn’t mean their lesser, older substitutes has any place in mature metaphysics, right?) If certain laws of nature are just brute givens, then why is not the ‘occasional’ order of serial events also not just a given ab initio? Moreover, aren’t we being better philosophers by stripping our ontology down to the bare minimum of entities to account for our experience, and isn’t “causation” just a clunky metaphysical dangler on a potentially more austere ontology? Causation per se adds nothing conceptually to metaphysics, but does draw the wrath of Ockham’s razor by adding a gratuitous, quasi-mystical entity to it.

The point is, of course, that if we can dispense with teleology by saying not only that it is a cognitive illusion but also that another ontology can explain everything that a causal metaphysic does, but more economically, then why can’t we likewise dispense with causation on the same grounds? Hell, I can think up an account of the evolution of “causal cognition” in terms of NS just as easily as anti-teleologists “explain away” final causation in terms of NS. To wit: Minds that tended to “ascribe” “causal power” to some phenomena and to “regard” other conjoined phenomena as “effects” of prior phenomena, also tended to pay more attention to phenomena in general. As a result of greater attention to passing phenomena, such “causalized” minds were better able to survive and propagate their genes. If the mind is a pattern-making machine (regardless how illusory our sense of order and beauty is in hardcore naturalistic terms), then those minds which more successfully and frequently imposed a pattern of cause-effect on otherwise incoherent phenomena were selected for as better manipulators of those phenomena. The eye that “expects” these and those phenomena to follow such and such phenomena, will be that much more disposed to react to subsequent phenomena. All the while, however, the truth is that there is no metaphysical, “immaterial” force at work between phenomena. If believing in such a “force” sharpens the mind over generations, so much the better.

It is too little recognized that “causation” is, arguably, no less anthropomorphic than teleology. As Derek Melser notes in his florilegium–essay, “Where Our Notion of ‘Causation’ Comes From”: “…the concept of causation, of events ‘causing’ other events, thought by some philosophers to be the concept that natural science is founded on, is actually an anthropomorphic metaphor derived from certain features of personal action.” Melser quotes R. G. Collingwood’s An Essay on Metaphyics (pp. 334–336): “The natural scientist is trying to construct a science of nature in terms of analogies drawn from the conscious life of man. It is only through such analogies that nature becomes intelligible to man; a science of nature which renounced their use would accordingly be no science at all.” If we relinquish the notion of causation, we lose the right to practice exact science. Exact science aims to explain the causal links that generate phenomena. If, however, there is no such thing as causation per se, then there are no causal links per se, and therefore nothing for science to discover. This in no way diminishes the instrumental robustness of science, since, as long as we plan and predict based on the phenomenal conjunction we have theretofore observed, we will be able to manipulate the world quite successfully. If our efforts along a certain line of “natural causation” hit a dead end and start not to work, it just indicates the prior pattern of occasional phenomena has veered into a new direction and we need to adapt to a new pattern, ready at any moment to relinquish our latest theory at the altar of falsification. If new data upset our habitual sense of the world, we need only pick up the thread, jettison our outmoded “theory,” adjust to the current array of serial phenomena, and go on our merry way as scientific pragmatists (or, pragmatic scientists). Never need we posit some abstruse immaterial principle of causation to help us observe what happens over time.

Perhaps you noticed a crucial inconsistency in my just-so story about the evolution of causal cognition. To wit, I said that enhanced attentiveness was a result of the inherited disposition to ascribe causation to phenomena. In other words, I appealed to causation in my argument against the reality of causation. My argument might be called “causal eliminativism” à la the Churchlands. By their lights, while they formally deny the reality of “minds,” they admit to using “mental talk” but only do so in order to move us along to a physicalist “theory of ‘mind’,” which will, in a completed science, eliminate, and not merely reduce, the concept of “mind” itself This technique is reminiscent of Wittgenstein’s ladder in his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (English):

Meine Sätze erläutern dadurch, dass sie der, welcher mich versteht, am Ende als unsinnig erkennt, wenn er durch sie – auf ihnen – über sie hinausgestiegen ist. (Er muss sozusagen die Leiter wegwerfen, nachdem er auf ihr hinaufgestiegen ist.)

Er muss diese Sätze überwinden, dann sieht er die Welt richtig.

My propositions are elucidatory in this way: he who understands me finally recognizes them as senseless, when he has climbed out through them, on them, over them. (He must so to speak throw away the ladder, after he has climbed up on it.)

He must surmount these propositions; then he sees the world rightly.

(In passing let me note that, to the same extent that “causal eliminativism” seems highly wonky and implausible, physicalist eliminativism should be repudiated for being just as wonky and implausible.)

The reason we cannot escape from natural-causal talk––even though it clutters our ontology, is not rationally necessary, adds nothing to our empirical gains, and is an anthropomorphic confabulation––is closely related to the reason why biologists cannot dispense with teleological talk. Analytically, both teleology and causation are useful fictions–– or are they? What if they are but two sides of the same real coin? Indeed, what if causation itself is but a fundamental species of natural teleology? In other words, the reason causation is theoretically irreducible in “explaining” nature, is because natural entities themselves are ordered toward certain effects and not toward others. If, as Hume argued in masterly anti-teleological form, it is no more (or less) rational to suppose rolling one billiard ball into another will result in the second ball rolling as it is to suppose the second ball will crack open to hatch a chick–– if in other words, there is no intrinsic causal finality of “rolling a ball into another ball,” then we are well within our rights to say there is nothing to causation as a normative principle. Unless natural phenomena are ordered towards specific effects proper to their formal and material constitution, then there is no reason to expect such and such effects nomologically to follow such and such causes. It may be the case that attentive minds were able to evolve into causal-cognizers, but that does not ground the metaphysical principle of causation as producing those cognizers. All it means is that the prior string of contiguous phenomena have not killed the descendants of deluded causal-cognizers (i.e., us). We are, as NS theorists would have it, all just the offspring of the lucky ones that didn’t die. Who knows why? Who cares? The more we cling to our inherited advantages the harder sudden environmental changes in selection pressure will hit us. There is no inherent reason we should preserve or prefer one set of human attributes to another, since, in time, “human nature” could become wildly foreign to what it is now. There is, in other words, no intrinsic causal link between what we’ve become (causes), what we are (mode), and what we can become (effects).

Unless we deploy a metaphysics that posits causes as actually and specifically generative of their proper effects, we can only agree with Hume that causes are only potentially and contingently generative of their observed effects. By using the words “actually” and “potentially” I intend to remind the reader of a metaphysic that posits causes and effects in just this way, namely, Aristotelianism, in which causes are but the active mode of an entity as its interacts with the potentiality of other objects in spacetime. Insofar as causation is a form of actus, and insofar as actus is the common, integrating dynamic of fourfold causation (material, efficient, formal, & final) as it “ripples through” the potentia of materia quantitate signata (i.e., matter quantitatively individuated), actus efficiently yields formally proper effects as potential final ends of matter. Only if objects are integrally ordered to produce certain effects can we extrapolate from the effects back to the causes as true nomological explanations of the world’s basic metaphysical structure.

Pressure…in a vacuum?

I am greatly intrigued by the concept of natural selection (NS). In this post I would like to consider three aspects of the theory which I think place it in a proper metaphysical setting and, as a consequence, complicate the appearance of its scientific hegemony.

My first claim concerns the logical vs. empirical status of NS. Is NS logically necessary? Are logical axioms falsifiable and, therefore, are they properly scientific? Is NS a ‘first principle’ of reason? (Also, every 150 years or so in the hx of science….)

My second line of inquiry concerns the coherence (or incoherence) of cosmological NS à la Lee Smolin, Max Tegmark, i.a. What sort of pressure can a quantum vacuum put on its decoherent universes? If the quantum vacuum is all that there is ab initio, what conceivable “environment” is there with and “in” which it can interact in a thermodynamically irreversible way (i.e., instance a wave function collapse)? If they are causally impermeable to each other, what sort of selection pressure can “competing cosmoi” put on each other? Is Being as such a potentially “scarce resource” that limits ontic proliferation?

My third point concerns the metaphysical presuppositions of NS. If “irreducible complexity” is to have any bearing on design and order vis-à-vis NS, it must be a metaphysical principle of nature as such, and, as Ray Michuga has argued, not merely a quantitative principle of material complexity. (Cf. Klee on “ordered diversity”.)


Natural selection doesn’t mean truth-selection…

“Biologists discover the evolutionary roots of religion!”

“Biologists discover the evolutionary roots of food!”

In the second case, we uncontroversially see that food meets a need integral to vital human nature. In the first case, we see a similar instance of integral satisfaction. If God is an illusion generated by natural selection, then so is caloric consumption. In the order of analogy, God meets a need integral to human nature, just as everyday food does. Just as the need for food is integral to grasping the evolution of humans up to this point as metabolizers, so the need for God is integral to grasping the emergence of human beings as worshipers.

+ + +

Only brains that responded to the objective fact that 2 objects combined with 2 objects make 4 objects were selected for by prior selection pressures and reproductive opportunities. It takes special effort to overcome that mathematical illusion with the advanced powers of abstraction. We all ‘know’ that 2 things placed adjacent to 2 other things still only make for a pair of two arbitrarily juxtaposed objects.

Only brains that responded to the objective fact that God exists were selected for by prior selection pressures and reproductive opportunity. It takes special effort to overcome that illusion with the advanced powers of abstraction. We all ‘know’ that theology is just a hyped-up version of the natural cognitive assumption that agents lie behind motion and order.

If natural selection doesn’t consistently and profoundly yield truth-bearing cognitive apparati, why look to it for a consistent and fundamental explanation of truth as we perceive it?

Quick notes on mind, brain, will, action, etc.

As John Broughton’s surveys show, physicalism and dual-aspect theory of mind are as naively intuitive (i.e., in the child psyche) as dualism. Cf. Rieber, Body and Mind, pp. 188ff.

+ + +

One man, call him Johann, stands before another man, call him Gunther. Johann shouts repeatedly at Gunther’s legs, “Walk now! Go on, move! Walk forward!” But Gunther remains standing.

Johann’s then shifts his gaze to Gunther’s face and tries shouting again. “Go on, move! Hurry up! Walk past me, over there!” But Gunther remains motionless as before.

Finally Johann leans towards Gunther and shouts directly at his forehead, “I’m ordering you, walk away now!” After a moment or two of this, Gunther does walk away. Johann appears relieved.

What can we learn from this?

The brain is a physical organ of the human body. The legs are also human bodily organs (i.e, organoi somatikein (Greek?), tools of the body). According to some, it is the brain itself that perceives, grasps, computes, analyzes, and responds to stimuli, such as Johann’s shrill orders. If this were so, however, why does shouting at a man’s legs seem any more (or less) bizarre than shouting at his brain to compel action? It is the man, not his legs or brain, that initiates motion. Presumably the brain is wired “correctly” to grasp linguistic cues, while the legs lack sufficient complexity or neural sensitivity to “grasps” language. But if the legs are so dumb (or should I say deaf?), then how does the brain, ex hypothesi, “communicate” with them? Presumably, the same auditory “signals” sent by our words to a man’s brain are but coded differently as electrical “impulses” applied to the legs. (Again, though, do we really want to say the legs ‘have’, or perhaps ‘resist’, ‘impulses’ to ‘action’??) If so, this is just a vindication of hylopmorphism, insofar as the same formal order can dematierialize various tracts and levels of matter in the same way.

If the brain “causes” human action based on human signs and orders, how do the legs “respond to” such elevated things as speech and volition? Legs are but bone, nerves, and muscle stitched together, and we all know bones, nerves, and muscle are anything but cognizant. Yet, if I can “talk to” a man’s brain, and his brain can “talk to” his legs, why can’t I talk to his legs directly? (Is speech really just an electrical emisiion??) Do we really want to attribute such ‘translation’ skills to the brain, as one organic clump of matter among many?

Meaning is neither reducible to nor deducible from its constituent elements, not any more than a triangle is reducible to or deducible from its constituent elements. In the same, but metaphysically inverse, way that the phoneme “c” cannot and does not convey “cat”, the single neurons in the parietal auditory cerebral regions cannot and do not grasp the meaning of “cat.” Since neurons can only grasp distinct auditory inputs in spacetime input (viz., “c…a…t”), they cannot grasp “cat” without there being a synthetic organ of cognition. Presumably this is the brain itself, but even then, grasping what “cat” refers to is not the same as grasping what “cat” means. Otherwise, every time we heard “cat” we would look around for a small animal to feed, pet, or disdain. Words are not indices of objects, like bleeding holes are indices of gunshots, but rather signs (Gk., semeia, wonders) which possess an irreducibly intentional and immaterial dimension in which meaning exists––exists as neither a neural nor a cerebral, but rather a whole-person, phenomenon.

+ + +

I would also like to note how the title of Ted Honderich’s book How Free Are You? in and of itself seems to vitiate his thesis, namely, that determinism is true and humans lack free will. Free will is predicated on, among other things, the ability to grasp rational directives and truly deliberate between possible rational alternatives and options. In the very act of asking “How free are you?” Honderich presupposes a human capacity for deliberation––which makes no sense on determinism qua lack of a libero arbitrio. My ability to ponder just how free I am itself unveils my theletic dynamism as an agent susceptible to alternative replies to that question. As, I believe, Grisez, Finnis, anfd Boyle argue, the effort to convince non-determinists of determinism performatively undermines determinism. If it’s not up to the readers, or anyone else, to come to an answer on their own, freely and rationally, why bother asking the reader––or, indeed, oneself––how free we are? Why ‘ought’ a determinist get pissed at me, as a metaphysical libertarian, if, according to his own position, there is nothing I can do about my beliefs?

Why the arguments for atheism are moral arguments, and why that matters

At ST Ia Q2 A3, where Aquinas offers his well-known “five ways” of proving God’s existence, he notes and replies to two objections. To paraphrase, the first is that “infinite goodness” is incompatible with the existence of “evil”; the second, that citing God is “superfluous” as an explanation for the world’s existence. It’s pretty evident that the problem of evil and the superfluity of God qua explanation are posed as the most common objections even today to classical theism. Aquinas presents them, in effect, as metaphysical objections and answers them accordingly. But I shall argue instead that they are, at bottom, moral objections. If I’m right, that has great significance for natural theology and apologetics.

My claim that people pose the problem of evil as a basically moral objection to classical theism ought to be uncontroversial. The most common way of pressing the objection is to argue that God’s permitting some people to suffer horribly beyond their deserts, when he could prevent it, is immoral. That is taken to be incompatible with God’s being perfectly good, a quality classical theists ascribe to God. Of course, another way to pose the problem of evil as an objection is to argue that, although a perfectly good God might well want to prevent such suffering, he is powerless to do so. That is taken to be incompatible with omnipotence, another attribute classical theists ascribe to God. But that way of pressing the objection is fairly easy to answer. Although an omnipotent God could well have created a world in which suffering does not far outstrip deserts, God has not done so; given the natural order God has willed, it is logically impossible to prevent such presumptively disproportionate suffering without divine intervention so regular as to destroy the natural order of things. And omnipotence neither need nor should be thought to include the ability to do the logically impossible. So much is, or ought to be, obvious. Of course, the standard reply to that defense is to argue that God is immoral for creating and sustaining such a natural order in the first place when, as granted, God have done otherwise. But that’s essentially the same as the first way of pressing the problem of evil as an objection to classical theism.

My claim that the superfluity objection is also, at bottom, a moral one is much more controversial. Most of what follows provides my argument for it.

Metaphysical (as distinct from methodological) naturalists typically hold that the sorts of explanation of the world’s existence proffered by classical theists—chiefly, by means of a posteriori cosmological and teleological reasoning—cannot do the sort of work that explanations in general are supposed to do. If so, then citing God as creator and/or designer of the world fails to explain anything; therefore, there is no reason to hold that God as explicans exists. But what does it mean to say that theistic explanation of the world’s existence doesn’t do the sort of work that explanations are supposed to do?

Classical theists should not, and the most intelligent among them do not, argue that presenting God as creator and/or designer does better explanatory work than the natural sciences. Those sciences have their own explanatory aims and canons which, though not immune to revision, remain exactly as they are whether or not classical theism is true. The theistic argument is, rather, that citing God as explicans does a different sort of explanatory work than natural science. The naturalist reply is that no such alleged “explanation” should be counted as explanation. What is the argument for that reply?

To explain something is to account for why it thus and not otherwise. In order do that, one must show that the explicandum would have been different if the explicans had been different. But classical theism does not claim that the world would have been different if God did not exist; the claim is that the world would not exist at all if God did not exist. That requires holding, among other things, that the world can and should be conceived as a certain totality which counts as an explicandum, such that only the action of something not comprised by that totality could account, in some non-trivial way, for why just that totality exists. But it will not do to characterize said totality simply as the physical universe studied by natural science, even at some hypothetical state before the Big Bang. For all we know, the primordial universe might have been the product of something else which could not qualify as the God of classical theism, but which might turn out to be identifiable by means of natural science—if not our science, then somebody else’s. No, the totality that divine activity supposedly explains must be the totality-of-things-that-happen. Call that ‘T’. Granted we do not know its full extent, T certainly exists. But such a totality, the naturalist would say, cannot admit of non-trivial explanation. We can explain its existence simply by noting that each of its constituents exist; but that would be trivial, and certainly not what the classical theist is after. And the reason we cannot have what the theist is after is that the theist cannot say what would have been different about T if God did not exist. T remains just as it is, whatever it is, whether or not God exists. Hence, goes the argument, citing divine activity to explain T’s existence does not and could not really explain anything. There is no non-trivial explanation of T’s existence. As Laplace said, there is no need of the God-hypothesis. It is superfluous.

From this point of view, it will not do to cite some version of “the principle of sufficent reason” as a premise in an argument for the claim that something not comprised by T accounts for T’s existence as a totality. There’s already “reason enough” for T’s existence as a totality: that of each of its constitutents. But that is hardly germane. What the theist must do instead is show that T is the sort of entity whose existence calls for another sort of explanation altogether. Yet how is the theist to do that? The only way he can do it is to show that, whatever the extent of T as a totality, its constituents cannot, either individually or collectively, account for the general causal regularities that must be cited in some explanation of how things happen as they do—i.e., the constituents of T cannot account for the “laws of nature.” But that sort of explanation would have to show that such laws would have been different if God as creator and/or designer did not exist. And that in turn would have to cite some sort of causal regularity. But given that such regularities are supposed to be part of what’s being explained, such an explanation cannot qualify as an explanation at all.

It might seem that the way for the theist to begin countering that line is to point out that it premises scientism: the thesis that only what can be known scientifically can be known at all. He can then go on to argue that there is no good reason to believe scientism. And he would be quite right. Humans have always known various things non-scientifically, and no scientific argument for scientism can be given. But that will not suffice by itself. For the naturalist can always argue that, even if scientism is false, his point about explanation remains untouched. Even if there are things natural science cannot explain, and thus cannot know, that’s no reason to believe that T’s existence can be explained in some other way. Unless and until the theist can show that his “explanation” of T’s existence does what explanations do, he hasn’t explained anything.

As I’ve suggested, the debate is really about the nature of explanation. It is evident that there are successful explanations in the contexts of ordinary life and natural science, but it is by no means evident that there can be a kind of explanation which doesn’t tell us how things would have gone differently if the explicans did not exist. To be sure, the theist must say that, if God did not exist, then T would not either—a conditional statement which, if true, is very important indeed. But that doesn’t tell us that things would have been different if God did not exist; it only tells us that there would have been no “things” to be either the same or different if God did not exist. Absent some account of explanation which shows that such a peculiar result can function as explanations do, the theist has not established that he’s explained anything. Nor will it do for the theist to insist that T is the sort of thing whose existence is explicable; for the only “sorts” of things we are familiar with are the sorts of things already comprised by T.

The only honest way for the theist to proceed is to argue that the question “Why does T exist?” is meaningful in such a way that one could reasonably entertain a non-trivial answer to it. That would show that we cannot rule out T’s existence being explicable in terms of something which T does not comprise. And the only way to develop such an argument is to show that (a) one cannot rule out that T’s existence embodies an intention, because (b) intentional explanations need not be thought reducible to causal explanations, which perforce cite natural regularities. That kind of argument has been given from time to time. In my hoary PhD thesis, I developed along such lines a book-length argument that it’s more reasonable to allow for a unitary explicans of T’s existence than to rule out the possibility of such an explicans on epistemological grounds. I still would argue to that effect.

As I’ve discovered over the years, however, the naturalist objection to that move is an essentially moral one. In ordinary life, natural science, and especially in formal disciplines such as logic and mathematics, there are reliable, agreed-upon methods for evaluating explanations as successful or unsuccessful. Prima facie at least, there are no such methods in natural theology—a discipline that not even the majority of religious believers find helpful. Given as much, naturalists typically argue that one ought not to expect people to find any of the putative explanations of natural theology cogent as explanations. Expecting people to do so is, in fact, morally defective. For such “explanations” necessarily transcend the sorts of considerations that it’s reasonable to count as evidence; expecting people to go beyond the evidence in forming their beliefs is expecting what’s unreasonable; and expecting from people what’s unreasonable is a sign of disreputable motives that are themselves all too evident in the history of religion.

To judge from the recent literature of the “new atheism,” which is really the old atheism with shoddier arguments, that’s the kind of objection, other than that from the problem of evil, which motivates people to be atheists. I have no doubt, of course, that some atheists are such because they very much don’t want to consider the implications for their lives if Christianity or some other form of classical theism is true. But that only serves to supply theists with a moral argument against atheism that is too ad hominem to be worth pressing. The real interest of the moral arguments against theism is that they steer the debate into a channel where the theist is on firmer ground.

Regarding the problem of evil, the theist can and ought to argue that the atheist has no moral legs to stand on. If a given atheist is an emotivist or some other sort of non-cognitivist in moral philosophy, he has no reason to believe that there are objectively binding moral norms which God fails to satisfy. If a given atheist is a utilitarian or some other sort of consequentialist in moral philosophy, he has no reason to believe that God’s utility calculations, if there is a God, are inferior to his own. If a given atheist is some sort of deontologist in moral philosophy, he must show several things: that the moral norms he believes bind humans absolutely do so even though there is no God; that even if there were a God, those norms would bind God in pretty much the same fashion as us; and that God, if there were a God, could not be said to observe them. All that is, at the very least, a tall order.

Regarding explanation and evidence, the atheist needs to show more than merely that it’s unreasonable to expect people in general to find classical-theist natural theology persuasive. That people in general do not find such theology persuasive is easily accounted for by factors other than the objective quality of its arguments. Most people lack the happy combination of time, talent, and education to study and evaluate such arguments, so that whatever the reasons this-or-that person might have for believing in God, they cannot be faulted for leaving natural theology alone. For that reason, classical-theist philosophers don’t expect most people to follow and evaluate their arguments. So the debate is really among philosophers, and the question whether one ought to go beyond what’s generally recognized as evidence is a debate in moral philosophy and psychology.

About that debate, I shall conclude by noting that the atheist has a lot more work to do than simply pointing out that something called “religion” violates his moral norms. There are many different forms of religion, and some are more capable of moral self-reformation than others. But what is such “moral self-reformation” supposed to amount to? Before a charge of immorality can be made to stick, there has to be antecedent and common agreement about what morality requires. A person who wants to press a moral argument against theism, but who believes that the universe is morally indifferent and that no transcendent lawgiver underwrites morality, is burdened with showing that the moral norms he upholds are objectively binding as such. For unless and until he can do that, his moral arguments against theism can do no more than beg the question.

Laws or wills?

The following are excerpts from my latest post at FCA. Go there to see the unusually lengthy combox thread:

Is there any law that dictates what the most basic laws of physics are? Are the laws of the universe self-ratifying, or are they in need of some grounding principle to account for their exact correlations?

If there is no rational ordering principle for the basic laws of physics, they are irrational. If they “just are,” independent of some basic principle that correlates them, then they are inexplicable. That is, if there is nothing by which or in terms of which we can explain the most basic laws, we therefore lack a real explanation of those laws. …

On the one hand, theists assert that God best explains the nomological order of the cosmos. On the other hand, atheists assert that the universe can just as coherently fill the role of “most basic cause.” The key argument against the alleged sufficiency of God as an ultimate explanation for everything else, is that God Himself seems to require an explanation. If the universe’s most basic laws require God, then why doesn’t God require something to explain His nature? We’ve all got to have some most basic premise, so if theists can have God as their metaphysical bedrock, why can’t atheists have the cosmos as their bedrock? …

…the late Fr. Stanley Jaki argued for decades that Gödel’s theorems had huge consequences for the world of physics, and noted sardonically for nearly as long how little attention had been paid Gödel by the inhabitants of that world. “Herein lies the ultimate bearing of Gödel’s theorem on physics,” Jaki explains in “A Late Awakening to Gödel in Physics”. …

It does not mean at all the end of physics. It means only the death knell on endeavours that aim at a final theory according to which the physical world is what it is and cannot be anything else. Gödel’s theorem does not mean that physicists cannot come up with a theory of everything or TOE in short. They can hit upon a theory which at the moment of its formulation would give an explanation of all known physical phenomena. But in terms of Gödel’s theorem such a theory cannot be taken for something which is necessarily true.

This relates to my opening questions because, if the basic laws of the universe are one day found to be consistent, they will for that reason be unprovable. If, however, they are proved, they will for that reason be inconsistent. Indeed, the “extra step” of proving the basic laws’ coherence is none other than the human articulation of that proof (i.e., nothing less than an axiom “extrinsic” to the set of basic laws). As such, the universe’s basic structure lacks the metaphysical self-sufficiency and ontological necessity that characterize God Almighty. …

God does not stand in need of further explanation, since, first, He is a personal event, and therefore presupposes an agency that formal systems lack, and, second, His Triune “structure” need not be proved, since there is nothing logically deducible about free personal actions. The perichoretic structure of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is not a formal set of axioms: it is an eternal utterance and eternal echo of an eternal Word of Living Love. Apart from the divine agency itself, there is no formal, logical reason why the Father begets the Son in the Spirit, and, hence, there is no need for an extrinsic grounding principle for the ordo divinitatis (aka, “the Triune set”).

Nor is there any logical necessity in the creation of the world: it is a free effulgence of the Triune goodness. This is why we will never discover logically necessary physical laws (cue Gödel’s incompleteness theorems again): the laws of physics are consistent, but not intrinsically, deductively, apodeictically provable. Moreover, they are not even provable as such without reference to their intelligible ratification by the Mind of God. …

God did not obey a basic “law” in existing triunely or in creating anything, but He did execute His own will without remainder. Nature, by contrast, lacks a will and can only follow its basic laws––laws, which, once more, insist upon being accounted for. …

On the philosophy of the anthropology of religion…

Seeing as things have been pretty slow here at PhilPer, and seeing as some readers still hope to hear an achey-breaky “But I’m not dead yet!” I decided to kick up some dust here… sort of… by linking to several posts at my own blog, FideCogitActio (which all this time has been unobtrusively linked in the sidebar). You can comment here, of course, but why not give my blog a whirl?

Stars on bellies or bellies under stars?


Your mouth bone is connected to your stomach bone…


All good things…


A tomato to snuff a cigarette?


We’re all in this together, asunder together…


Begin with a turnip…


What’s your punt, exactly?


Do Freudians know that I don’t dream of electric sheep?


Great, but not funny… funny, and may be great…

The Mystery of Unfunny Great Actors


Bones of glory…

More dust-upkicking via FCA…

Bones of convention…


For the feastday

I st-anselm2thought I’d observe the feast of St. Anselm today by pointing readers to a truly remarkable little essay by Brandon Watson on Anselm’s argument for God’s existence in Chapter 2 of the Proslogion. Though written three years ago, and garnering zero comment, it’s well worth discussing. I’d like to initiate discussion of it here.

To that end, I’ll just post the heart of it; but I caution those interested to read it all before commenting.

….the Fool either understands what he says does not exist, in which case he contradicts himself, or he does not contradict himself because he does not understand what he is saying does not exist. As Anselm says, “Even though he may say those words in his heart he will give them some other meaning or no meaning at all.” So what is to be made of this?

I myself take Klima’s view that the argument is sound. However, most of what I will say here does not require agreeing with me on this point. All it requires is that we ask, “Even supposing it is sound, what then?”

A sound argument is one that is logically valid and has true premises. But not all sound arguments are particularly helpful for coming to a conclusion. For instance, it is fairly easy to create arguments that are sound but that beg the question — that is, arguments that are logically valid and have true premises, but whose premises can only be known to be true if we already accept the conclusion. When our interest is persuasion, the discovery of the truth, or anything else that relies on going from the unknown to the known or from the not-believed to the believed, we need something more than soundness. Klima argues, and I think that he’s right, that the problem Anselm’s argument faces is precisely at this level. Despite the fact that it is a sound argument, and shows that the atheist (the one who denies there is a God because that than which no greater can be thought does not exist) would be contradicting himself if he were seriously to reflect on that than which no greater can be thought, nonetheless it’s possible to rationally reject the argument. As Anselm himself recognizes, understanding the words “that than which no greater can be thought” is not the same as having that than which no greater can be thought as an object of the understanding.

Cross-posted @ Sacramentum Vitae

Thank non-God for Science and thank Science for non-God!

So, the claim is that modern physical science is the deliverance of our Stone Age brains from the cognitive myopia we evolved over eons, yes?

Science at last gives us the precise apparatus we need as a species to overcome the crude folk theories of ontology, physics, biology, and ethics which we have simply picked up and confected for survival value, yes?

Our natural, common sense assumptions about the world, while helping us survive and procreate, are woefully off-base about the actual workings of the physical cosmos, correct?

Natural selection, therefore, has given us a range of useful but misguided capacities just so we can pass our genes along, right? We are, in other words, naturally wrong about the world we inhabit (at least on a theoretical, if not perceptual, level)?

There is, then, no inherent need for us, as products of natural selection alone, to understand, say, quantum mechanics and electrodialysis, since, obviously, numerous species (and all our pre-scientific ancestors) passed along their genes just fine without such heavy-duty rational insight, yes?

Is it not, then, almost axiomatic that natural selection has no selective “interest” in how impressive or dull our theories are? As long as we can function well enough, at a perceptual and kinesthetic level, to survive early death and pass on our genes, what need is there for nature to select for advanced theoretical truth about the non-genetic world?

In light of the above considerations, what grounds do we have for saying natural selection has brought us to a true grasp of the world? Scientific knowledge is not a normative, predictable result of natural selection. If it were, we would have all evolved scientific instincts, but, again, we actually have crude, anthropocentric, small-range, large-scale myopia about the world. Therefore, we are at our most procreatively fit without any theoretical baggage confabulated by modern exact science. Therefore, the theory of natural selection alone lacks a cogent basis for the emergence of scientific theoretical knowledge. In which case, however, what grounds do we have for adhering to the theoretical confabulation called “natural selection”? Do we need to understand natural selection in order for our societies to function stably enough that our species can procreate? Clearly not.

Only if advanced scientific theories are construed as deductive elaborations of our brute sensory grasp of the world can we say that exact theoretical science naturally emerges from the process of natural selection. Unfortunately, it is harder to find a worse caricature than that of how exact science has actually developed and how it actually works.