A is to B as…

The material (as sheer undifferentiated causal space) is to the physical (or, corporeal) as the physical is to the sensible.

The sensible is to the mental (i.e., as the realm of percepts) as the mental is to the intellectual (i.e., as the realm of concepts).

The intellectual is to the mental as the divine is to the intellectual.

If any of these ontological “planes” or “spheres” can and do interact, then the forms of interaction we (think we) understand better (e.g., the neural basis of mentation, the physical basis of motion, etc.) can illuminate the other forms of interaction in appropriately analogous ways. If, for example, intellectual thought can somehow meaningfully depend on and causally relate to mental operations, without however being sufficiently produced by or causally “subjugated” to them, then perhaps divine action becomes more lucid as depending on and being causally connected to human existence, without being caused or limited by it.

Does intellectual action, on the whole, have any meaning apart from mental operations? Likewise, I ask, does divine “action” have any meaning apart from human operations? I suspect both human intellectual power and divine power have a real vitality ad intra, which is free from any powers activated ad extra, the former as a supra-mental contemplation of God, the latter as a supra-economical contemplation of the divine Persons.

P.S. It may be more illuminating (or perhaps just as bemusingly unilluminating, in a different way) to read the chain of analogy backwards: the divine is to the intellectual as the intellectual is to the mental; the mental is to the sensible as the sensible is to the physical; and the sensible is to the physical as the physical is to the material. Perhaps, then, the physical is to the material, in a strangely analogous way, as the God is to the world: as Pure Form-Act to pure material-potency.



16 Responses

  1. Elliot:

    What you have here is an intuition. I suspect it is a sound one. But needs fleshing out to be illuminating.


  2. I’m afraid I don’t buy it. The physical world has a clear reality to it; we didn’t create it (either by imagination or manipulation), it was before we were, and its existence does not depend on ours. (Yup, I’m a realist.) The world of percept (I take the one I actually know something about) is a realm of useful approximations; our percepts model the world we perceive, but the models are always imprecise and frequently fluid, as the world around us is chronically underdetermined by our sense data. There are lots of heuristics and probabilistic choices going on, as we try to construct a usable model fast enough to be useful. So we have a net loss of reality as we go from physical to mental.

    As we go to the realm of the intellectual—that is, the realm of concepts—we are abstracting from an abstraction. Again, we have a loss of detail and an increase in the extent to which the concepts are divorced from physical reality. So—at least as far as concepts about physical reality are concerned—we again have a net loss of reality in this transition.

    But then we go to the divine. Here we have a sharp increase in reality, as we are moving from an abstraction built on an abstraction by an observer to the realm of the creator himself. Nor can I see on what grounds it could be argued that the divine is less detailed than the intellectual in the way that percepts are clearly (even necessarily) less detailed than the physical reality they describe.

    Now, it may be that, as somebody who studies perception but doesn’t do professional philosophy, I’m misunderstanding your use of the terms. Or it may be that my basic ontological categories just aren’t Greek enough. But as it is, I’m afraid I don’t buy the validity of your chain of analogies.


  3. I was not intending to suggest the divine level of agency and insight it less “detailed”, rather that, because it is the most “general”, it is the least “specific” (I’m using the terms suggested by Peter Brown). Ironically, because God’s knowledge of the world holds generally, it is true in every detail on every lower level of being.

    Also, a key premise of this “chain of being” is that the world is indeed real, but that its reality can be diversely manifested. The pure potentiality of the material is real only insofar as it stands in potency to the real physical determinations that influence it downwards. Likewise, the corporeal/sensible world we really know, is that which grounds the realness of the physical world as the world we can explore. We don’t create the sensible world from physical nonreality, but use the corporeal level in order to study the physical. Also, while our mental theoretical constructions about the physical and corporeal world(s) are real (qua entia rationes), they are only real in so far as they are informed by an intellectual (i.e., higher than mental) ordering of them in relation to the divine light that illuminates our intellects from above.

    I don’t deny the reality of any level, but I am trying to work towards an insight of how one level’s impact on another, or relation to another, can shed light on other levels of being and agency. I suppose my chain could be read as a series of implicit analogies: the lower level stands in relation to the higher level as matter does to form, and, further, the agency which a higher level can enact upon a lower level will manifest either “filling in” privations or rearranging lower objects’ relations to that agency, other “co-ontic” entities, etc.

  4. Perhaps I can invoke St. Thomas to help make my point:

    “Notice, also, that the proximate cause is the same as the posterior cause and that the remote cause is the same as the prior cause. Hence these two divisions of causes into prior and posterior, remote and proximate signify the same thing. Moreover, it must be observed that that which is more universal is always called the remote cause, but that which is more particular is called the proximate cause. For example we say that the proximate form of man is his definition, namely, rational animal; but animal is more remote and substance is still more remote. All superiors are forms of the inferiors. Again, the proximate matter of the statue is bronze, but the remote matter is metal, and the still more remote is body.”

    “Sciendum est quod idem est dictu causa propinqua quod causa posterior, et causa remota quod causa prior. Unde istae duae divisiones causarum: alia per prius, alia per posterius; et causarum alia remota, alia propinqua, idem significant. Hoc autem observandum est, quod semper illud quod universalius est, causa remota dicitur, quod autem specialius, causa propinqua: sicut dicimus quod forma hominis propinqua est sua definitio, scilicet animal rationale mortale, sed animal est magis remota, et iterum substantia remotior est. Omnia enim superiora sunt formae inferiorum. Et similiter materia idoli propinqua est cuprum, sed remota est metallum, et iterum remotius corpus.”
    De principiis naturae, cap. 5

    I take St. Thomas here to mean that there is a sort of inverse proportionality between a thing’s conceptual remoteness (e.g., body is more remote from a statue than metal is) and its ontological priority (e.g., body as a general class of things is ontologically “superior” to a particular member of that class). It is by way of analogy that I am inclined to see God’s utterly transcendent remoteness from the vagaries of existence sub specie categorialis, as it were, as a possible grounds for His immanent priority over any creature. Just as ‘body’ is transcendentally prior to a body, yet fully immanent and ontological prior to any body, so God is removed on the one hand, yet immanent on the other.

    So, I repeat my main thesis: the lower level stands in relation to the higher level as matter does to form, and only formal agency supervenes in a free, creative way to open reality as we know it.

    And I am certainly aware of the risk of scaring people off with Latin… but hopefully a blog for Catholic, and presumably Thomistic, philosophers can handle a pinch now and then. 😉

  5. Honk if you love Latin!

  6. One other reference I wanted to add to this, if for no other good than to add it to the stew before it slipped my mind:

    “Although creatures have not existed from eternity, except in God, yet because they have been in Him from eternity, God has known them eternally in their proper natures; and for that reason has loved them, even as we, by the images of things within us, know things existing in themselves.” (ST I.20.2 ad 2).

    “…licet creaturae ab aeterno non fuerint nisi in Deo, tamen per hoc quod ab aeterno in Deo fuerunt, ab aeterno Deus cognovit res in propriis naturis: et eadem ratione amavit. Sicut et nos per similitudines rerum, quae in nobis sunt, cognoscimus res in seipsis existentes.

    I cite this to buttress, or perhaps simply coax out, the idea that, just as we transcend the sensible world, and even the mélange of percepts, by an act of immaterial intellection, so God might be seen as transcending the world in an analogous way. What I am hoping to accomplish with this line of thought, is explore how the mystery of divine action in the world can be made more intelligible, less fantastic to skeptics and deists, by way of analogy from the levels of causation they already admit.

    In case anyone is still interested, I am getting some of these ideas from Wolfgang Smith’s The Quantum Enigma, esp. his discussion of vertical causation.

  7. So where do agape and koinonia fit into this scheme?

  8. Another reference for this train of thought:

    ST Ia, q. 76, a. 1:

    “But we must observe that the nobler a form is, the more it rises above corporeal matter, the less it is merged in matter, and the more it excels matter by its power and its operation; hence we find that **the form of a mixed body has another operation not caused by its elemental qualities.** And the higher we advance in the nobility of forms, the more we find that the power of the form excels the elementary matter; as the vegetative soul excels the form of the metal, and the sensitive soul excels the vegetative soul. Now the human soul is the highest and noblest of forms. Wherefore it excels corporeal matter in its power by the fact that it has an operation and a power in which corporeal matter has no share whatever. This power is called the intellect.”

    [“Sed considerandum est quod, quanto forma est nobilior, tanto magis dominatur materiae corporali, et minus ei immergitur, et magis sua operatione vel virtute excedit eam. Unde videmus quod forma mixti corporis habet aliquam operationem quae non causatur ex qualitatibus elementaribus. Et quanto magis proceditur in nobilitate formarum, tanto magis invenitur virtus formae materiam elementarem excedere, sicut anima vegetabilis plus quam forma metalli, et anima sensibilis plus quam anima vegetabilis. Anima autem humana est ultima in nobilitate formarum. Unde intantum sua virtute excedit materiam corporalem, quod habet aliquam operationem et virtutem in qua nullo modo communicat materia corporalis. Et haec virtus dicitur intellectus.”]


    Those forms of love fit into their proper levels of agency, namely, that which exists for humans and their collective relations to God. Those forms of love do not “fit” into the material, physical, or even corporeal levels, but only in the mental, intellectual, and divine levels.

    Your question is so short (cryptic?) as to leave me wondering: what are you getting at that I am missing?

    Consider ST Ia, q. 20, a. 2:

    “God loves all existing things. For all existing things, in so far as they exist, are good, since the existence of a thing is itself a good; and likewise, whatever perfection it possesses. Now it has been shown above (Question 19, Article 4) that God’s will is the cause of all things. It must needs be, therefore, that a thing has existence, or any kind of good, only inasmuch as it is willed by God. To every existing thing, then, God wills some good. Hence, since to love anything is nothing else than to will good to that thing, it is manifest that God loves everything that exists.”

    [Respondeo dicendum quod Deus omnia existentia amat. Nam omnia existentia, inquantum sunt, bona sunt, ipsum enim esse cuiuslibet rei quoddam bonum est, et similiter quaelibet perfectio ipsius. Ostensum est autem supra quod voluntas Dei est causa omnium rerum et sic oportet quod intantum habeat aliquid esse, aut quodcumque bonum, inquantum est volitum a Deo. Cuilibet igitur existenti Deus vult aliquod bonum. Unde, cum amare nil aliud sit quam velle bonum alicui, manifestum est quod Deus omnia quae sunt, amat.]

    In tandem, ST Ia, q. 19, a. 4:

    “We must hold that the will of God is the cause of things; and that He acts by the will, and not, as some have supposed, by a necessity of His nature.”

    [Respondeo dicendum quod necesse est dicere voluntatem Dei esse causam rerum, et Deum agere per voluntatem, non per necessitatem naturae, ut quidam existimaverunt.]

    God’s will to bring things and people into existence is an act of personal love for them as both sharers in His being (a form of transcendent koinonia) and as absolute subjects of His grace (total agape). Least, ’tis how I see’t.


  9. Eliot:

    Thanks for the clarification. Philosophy at this level (or perhaps, of this type) is outside my paygrade, to coin a phrase, but it immediately struck me that agape and koinonia did not appear in your analogical chain, and I’m wondering if this has anything to do with the gap between Eastern Christianity and that of the West in that, for the former, both are clearly ontological categories even if they were not for Aristotle.

  10. Fr Greg:

    Please elaborate on the ontological status of koinonia and agape in Eastern Christian theology. Are we talking divine energies here?


  11. Elliot:

    Since it is axiomatic in the East that the Divine Essence is unknowable (except by the Divine Persons themselves), then, yes, the Divine Energies; however, there can be no contradiction between the two.

    What I’m thinking of primarily is Zizioulas’ “Being as Communion” in which, given the eternity of the Trinity, primordial, uncreated being – God – is presented as inherently communal, and therefore, agapic.

  12. Fr. Greg:

    it is axiomatic in the East that the Divine Essence is unknowable

    Without explanation of how the term ‘divine essence’ is being used, that statement is very perplexing to Westerners.

    As used in the Byzantine tradition defined by the Cappadocians, the Pseudo-Dionysus, and Gregory Palamas, ‘divine essence’ means roughly ‘what-God-is irrespective of what God does’. Given that sense of the term, it is almost trivially true that the divine essence is unknowable save by the divine persons themselves. For if what is not God is to know God, that can only be in virtue of what God does or has done ad extra; accordingly, it is impossible for what is not God to know God irrespective of what God does.

    Such a use of the term ‘divine essence’ is intelligible but not, I believe, helpful for any purpose other than establishing that theology must be apophatic to some extent. But theology is also cataphatic to some extent, even by Eastern standards. For instance, you say that God is “inherently communal and therefore agapic.” That of course is true. It also commits one to affirming that perichoresis is of the essence of God, not merely something the persons happen to do, as if they could conceivably have done otherwise. But insisting that the divine essence is unknowable precludes saying that.

    This is why I prefer the Thomistic use of the term ‘divine essence’ to mean “what-God-is eternally and unalterably.” That sense includes but goes beyond the Byzantine, as we need to if we’re going to do “theology” in any but a purely apophatic and therefore uninformative way.


  13. Dr. Mike:

    My main focus here is not the essence-energies distinction, although, as I said above, there can be no contradiction between the Divine Essence (including as defined by Aquinas) and the Divine Energies, between what God is and what God does. IOW, if we say that the Divine Essence is inherently perichoretic, we do so because the Divine Persons eternally “do” perichoresis.

    However, again, that is not my main concern. My concern is that on this account, agape, koinonia, and yes, perichoresis seem to be, at best, subsumed under the “intellectual” or “contemplative,” whether human or divine. Perhaps, given Aristotlean and Aquinian/scholastic use of these terms, this is legitimate, but if that is the case, then the denotations of these words need to be clarified in our contemporary context, where they have taken on perhaps more restrictive meanings than what they connote when used by Aquinas or Aristotle.

  14. Fr Greg:

    I get the sense that you’re evaluating Elliot’s analogy as though it were meant to more comprehensive than it really is. It only works on a certain level; it certainly can’t be taken as the template for a complete theology.


  15. Fr Greg:

    Dr. Liccione is right. My analogy is meant only as a dusting off of a pretty ancient concept––the great chain of being––in slightly more analytical terms in order to explore, mainly, the problem of causation “across” ontological levels. In no way should the “intellectualist” flavor of my analogy-series be construed as an exhaustive account of God’s triunity in se or mercy to us in Christ. At most, my line of thought intends to help us grasp just HOW God can and does interact with the world, and this, by viewing His agency-relation to us and the world as a supereminent analogy for how we interact with a world so radically different from us (atoms, molecules, bricks, etc.). It’s what the Scholastics called (cf. section III.] the via causalitatis advancing to the via eminentia, with the proviso, à la the 4th Lateran Council, of via remotio, namely, that “between the Creator and the creature there cannot be a likeness so great that the unlikeness is not greater.” Hence, fear not, the agapic nature of God as a perichoresis of total open, given koinonia is absolutely prior, in faith, to the tinkering I’m doing about the power of God as man might grasp it by reason.


  16. Fr. Greg:

    You are right that “the denotations of these words [esp. intellectual] need to be clarified in our contemporary context, where they have taken on perhaps more restrictive meanings than what they connote when used by Aquinas or Aristotle.”

    So let me explain, briefly, what I mean by “intellectual” in my analogy.

    The intellect is the immaterial principle of the human soul that allows humans to “grasp” universals in the midst of particular sensibles (e.g., grasping “triangularity” despite having seen numerous different kinds of triangles). The power of the intellect lies in its ability to correlate immaterial concepts, as opposed to sensible percepts, into a coherent intellectual idea, which is the basis for rational reflection and decision. It has little to do with being “all brain” or being “bookish” or “impersonal”––all terms which you seem to fear diminish God’s agapic nature in favor of His power as a pure withdrawn “watcher” or ice-cold “knower”.

    Here follow several quotes from St. Thomas on the matter, but if your eyes glaze at that idea, stop now. 😉 After all the quotes is a list of some previous posts from my blog about these matters.

    In the words of St. Thomas:

    [S]ince Aristotle did not allow that forms of natural things exist apart from matter, and as forms existing in matter are not actually intelligible; it follows that the natures of forms of the sensible things which we understand are not actually intelligible. Now nothing is reduced from potentiality to act except by something in act; as the senses as made actual by what is actually sensible. We must therefore assign on the part of the intellect some power to make things actually intelligible, by abstraction of the species from material conditions. And such is the necessity for an active intellect.
    –– ST Ia, q. 79, a. 3, resp.

    [Sed quia Aristoteles non posuit formas rerum naturalium subsistere sine materia; formae autem in materia existentes non sunt intelligibiles actu, sequebatur quod naturae seu formae rerum sensibilium, quas intelligimus, non essent intelligibiles actu. Nihil autem reducitur de potentia in actum, nisi per aliquod ens actu, sicut sensus fit in actu per sensibile in actu. Oportebat igitur ponere aliquam virtutem ex parte intellectus, quae faceret intelligibilia in actu, per abstractionem specierum a conditionibus materialibus. Et haec est necessitas ponendi intellectum agentem.]

    [A]bove the intellectual soul of man we must needs suppose a superior intellect, from which the soul acquires the power of understanding. For what is such by participation, and what is mobile, and what is imperfect always requires the pre-existence of something essentially such, immovable and perfect. Now the human soul is called intellectual by reason of a participation in intellectual power; a sign of which is that it is not wholly intellectual but only in part. Moreover it reaches to the understanding of truth by arguing, with a certain amount of reasoning and movement. Again it has an imperfect understanding…. [W]e must say that in the soul is some power derived from a higher intellect, whereby it is able to light up the phantasms [i.e., mental images; cf. ST Ia, q. 79, a. 4, ad 4]. And we know this by experience, since we perceive that we abstract universal forms from their particular conditions, which is to make them actually intelligible. … But the separate intellect, according to the teaching of our faith, is God Himself, Who is the soul’s Creator, and only beatitude; as will be shown later on (90, 3; I-II, 3, 7). Wherefore the human soul derives its intellectual light from Him, according to Psalm 4:7, “The light of Thy countenance, O Lord, is signed upon us.”
    –– ST Ia, q. 79, a. 4, resp.

    […considerandum est quod supra animam intellectivam humanam necesse est ponere aliquem superiorem intellectum, a quo anima virtutem intelligendi obtineat. Semper enim quod participat aliquid, et quod est mobile, et quod est imperfectum, praeexigit ante se aliquid quod est per essentiam suam tale, et quod est immobile et perfectum. Anima autem humana intellectiva dicitur per participationem intellectualis virtutis, cuius signum est, quod non tota est intellectiva, sed secundum aliquam sui partem. Pertingit etiam ad intelligentiam veritatis cum quodam discursu et motu, arguendo. Habet etiam imperfectam intelligentiam, tum quia non omnia intelligit…. Unde oportet dicere quod in ipsa sit aliqua virtus derivata a superiori intellectu, per quam possit phantasmata illustrare. Et hoc experimento cognoscimus, dum percipimus nos abstrahere formas universales a conditionibus particularibus, quod est facere actu intelligibilia. … Sed intellectus separatus, secundum nostrae fidei documenta, est ipse Deus, qui est creator animae, et in quo solo beatificatur, ut infra patebit. Unde ab ipso anima humana lumen intellectuale participat, secundum illud Psalmi IV, signatum est super nos lumen vultus tui, domine.]

    Reason and intellect in man cannot be distinct powers. We shall understand this clearly if we consider their respective actions. For to understand is simply to apprehend intelligible truth: and to reason is to advance from one thing understood to another, so as to know an intelligible truth. And therefore angels, who according to their nature, possess perfect knowledge of intelligible truth, have no need to advance from one thing to another; but apprehend the truth simply and without mental discussion, as Dionysius says (Div. Nom. vii). But man arrives at the knowledge of intelligible truth by advancing from one thing to another; and therefore he is called rational. Reasoning, therefore, is compared to understanding, as movement is to rest, or acquisition to possession; of which one belongs to the perfect, the other to the imperfect. And since movement always proceeds from something immovable, and ends in something at rest; hence it is that human reasoning, by way of inquiry and discovery, advances from certain things simply understood––namely, the first principles; and, again, by way of judgment returns by analysis to first principles, in the light of which it examines what it has found. Now it is clear that rest and movement are not to be referred to different powers, but to one and the same, even in natural things: since by the same nature a thing is moved towards a certain place. Much more, therefore, by the same power do we understand and reason: and so it is clear that in man reason and intellect are the same power.
    –– ST Ia, q. 79, a. 8, resp.

    […ratio et intellectus in homine non possunt esse diversae potentiae. Quod manifeste cognoscitur, si utriusque actus consideretur. Intelligere enim est simpliciter veritatem intelligibilem apprehendere. Ratiocinari autem est procedere de uno intellecto ad aliud, ad veritatem intelligibilem cognoscendam. Et ideo Angeli, qui perfecte possident, secundum modum suae naturae, cognitionem intelligibilis veritatis, non habent necesse procedere de uno ad aliud; sed simpliciter et absque discursu veritatem rerum apprehendunt, ut Dionysius dicit, VII cap. de Div. Nom. Homines autem ad intelligibilem veritatem cognoscendam perveniunt, procedendo de uno ad aliud, ut ibidem dicitur, et ideo rationales dicuntur. Patet ergo quod ratiocinari comparatur ad intelligere sicut moveri ad quiescere, vel acquirere ad habere, quorum unum est perfecti, aliud autem imperfecti. Et quia motus semper ab immobili procedit, et ad aliquid quietum terminatur; inde est quod ratiocinatio humana, secundum viam inquisitionis vel inventionis, procedit a quibusdam simpliciter intellectis, quae sunt prima principia; et rursus, in via iudicii, resolvendo redit ad prima principia, ad quae inventa examinat. Manifestum est autem quod quiescere et moveri non reducuntur ad diversas potentias, sed ad unam et eandem, etiam in naturalibus rebus, quia per eandem naturam aliquid movetur ad locum, et quiescit in loco. Multo ergo magis per eandem potentiam intelligimus et ratiocinamur. Et sic patet quod in homine eadem potentia est ratio et intellectus.]

    I have written more than once on this topic, and I have added ** to those posts I think most edifying or apt for this discussion:

    **1. “Take a long slip of paper…”

    2. “Robo-Survey”

    **3. “Brain, Mind and Computers”

    4. “River in the River”

    5. “Lower the Bar”

    6. “No-brainer”

    7. “D. Melser on Thought”

    **8. “Reimers on the Soul”

    **9. “Goodly Chain of Being”

    **10. “Scientists prove…?”

    **11. “What’s the matter?”

    [1] I posted a brief review of Zizioulas’s splendid book some time ago at FCA, if you’re interested.

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