Archive for the ‘Terms’ Category

Thomism and Aristotelian Science

Tuesday, August 12th, 2008

In some of the earlier chapters of the Compendium Theologiae, Thomas refers to various principles of science involving the four elements, air, earth, fire, and water. I passed over these rather quickly; Jacques Maritain in his Introduction to Philosophy tells me that I was right to do so. Maritain says that it’s appropriate for metaphysics to draw on the “special sciences,” i.e., physics, biology, and so forth, for illustrative examples, while not in fact depending on those examples for purposes of proof. In this way, though Thomas often alludes to contemporary notions of science, he only uses them for examples, and so this is not a problem for his philosophy or theology.

This, Maritain says, was the mistake of the “decadent Thomists” of the 18th century: they were determined to hang on to all of Aristotle and Thomas, including the parts belonging to the “special sciences”, and consequently were laughed out of court.

Physics vs. Metaphysics

Sunday, August 3rd, 2008

One of the things I’ve been slowly coming to terms with during this process is the difference between physics and metaphysics. It’s difficult in part because metaphysics is alien to my experience, and in part because terms I understand in a physical way are used in a different sense in metaphysics. The term composition, for example: in a physical sense, it means composition of a whole out of parts, e.g., an axe is made up an axe head and an axe handle. In the metaphysical sense, apparently, it means composition of potency and act.

Anyway, a thomist has a neat little post that speaks (metaphorically) to the relationship between physics and metaphysics: they are two distinct and cross-cutting kinds of analysis. I reproduce it here in full:

When I ask “how does a book get made?”, one mode of analysis will involve printing presses, glues that allow for binding, typeface arrangement, paper feeding, the production of suitable inks, etc. Another mode of analysis will involve elements of composition, paragraph structure, narrative, style, etc. Both kinds of analysis explain the whole book, but in different ways and according to different formalities. We don’t have to call either mode of analysis “incomplete” because it leaves out elements in another mode of analysis. Nothing fails for omitting what is irrelevant to its own consideration.

Here we see physical analysis of a book vs. literary analysis of a book. A metaphysical analysis would be yet a third way.

Sentient vs. Sapient

Saturday, July 12th, 2008

Just found a neat post on the abuse of the word “sentient”. The word “sentient” is often used in science fiction to describe members of intelligent races. As the linked article points out, “sentient” actually means “experiencing sensation or feeling”.

According to Thomas and Aristotle, human beings have both sense (by which we perceive sensible things, things that we can see, hear, touch, smell, and taste) and intellect (by which we understand that which we sense). If I recall correctly, the sense is also involved when we imagine, that is, when we make images in our heads, or things we have not sensed, e.g., unicorns.

This is an important distinction, as animals have sense but lack intellect. At present, though, most people conflate the two, and that’s what’s going on here.

The author also makes a neat point, which I hadn’t previously appreciated: that it is through the sense that we know particular things; it is only through the intellect that we know universals. Cool.

Anyway, the word “sapient” would be a better choice than “sentient”.

Existence as the Ultimate End

Wednesday, July 2nd, 2008

I’ve been pondering Thomas’ statement in CT 11 that

…since natural motion tends to what is naturally desired, the ultimate act must be that which all desire. This is existence.

I think I begin to understand, and the answer, as I conjectured, lies in Aristotle. I am no expert in Aristotelian philosophy; what little I know, I learned from Mortimer Adler’s book Aristotle for Everybody.

As I understand it, every substance, that is, every distinct thing, has a nature, which it might or might not possess in its fullness. It is the nature of an acorn to become an oak tree. As an acorn it has the potential to be an oak tree, but not the actuality; the full grown oak tree, then, possesses its nature more fully than the acorn does. All things tend toward this full existence; in plants and animals we call this “growth.”

But human beings are a problem. According to Aristotle, what we ought to do is that which is truly good for us; and that which is truly good for us is that which brings us to the fullness of our existence, to possess in actuality what we would otherwise have only in potential. But, as Thomas will no doubt eventually explain as we get further along, sin darkens the intellect–in Mark Shea’s pithy phrase, “Sin makes you stupid.” It is frequently the case that things seem good to us that aren’t good for us at all. Nevertheless, according to Aristotle the life that is truly good for us and that will truly make us happiest is a life of perfect virtue. It is only in living such a life that we reach our full potential, and become most fully and perfectly human.

Or, as Jesus says, he came that we might have life and have it abundantly (John 10:10).

So I think that’s what Thomas is talking about: not mere existence, but existence in its fullness, possessing our nature in its fullness.

There’s more to be said, here, on the nature of good and evil; but that’s another post.

Note: I’ve attached a link to Adler’s book; and if you buy it at that link, I get a kickback from Amazon. I’m not suggesting that you ought to buy it at that link; it was simply the easiest way to include a link to the book given the blogging software I’m currently using.

Negative Theology

Sunday, June 29th, 2008

There’s something important about Thomas’ approach to natural theology that isn’t immediately obvious: it is essentially negative. In fact, all natural theology is essentially negative.

Backing up a moment—natural theology is that branch of philosophy that deals with what we can know about God through pure human reason, given our knowledge and observation of the natural world around us. Natural theology depends in no way on any divine revelation apart from Creation itself.

The problem is that apart from revelation, God is almost completely beyond us. As Pope Benedict regularly puts it, He is the Wholly Other. And so natural theology, far from being a list of positive statements about God, is really a list of negative statements. For example, God does not change. God has no parts. God is eternal, i.e., God has no succession of time.

This is just something to keep an eye out for as we proceed.

Essence, Genus, and Species

Saturday, June 28th, 2008

The essence of a thing is what makes it what it is. If you change a thing’s essence, you have a different kind of thing. A thing’s essence is distinct from a thing’s accidents, those features of a thing that can be changed without changing the kind of thing it is. If I’m not mistaken, a thing’s essence is also referred to as its substantial form, though there might be a subtle distinction that eludes me.

Thomas often speaks of essence in terms of genus and specific differences, or genus and species. These terms are similar to those used in zoological taxonomy, though I suspect that here as well there are subtle distinctions that elude me. In particular, I’m not sure if Thomas thinks that every being has a species and a genus and that’s it, i.e., that his system of taxonomy is only two levels deep (which is hardly enough), or whether it’s simply a convenient way of expressing similarities and differences between two begins which have both essential similarities and essential differences.

My suspicion is that both are true: that Thomas presumes, God’s creation being an orderly place that reason is capable of understanding, that in principle every being does have a proper genus and species, but that in practice he doesn’t try to enumerate them. Though it may be that Aristotle provides such an enumeration which Thomas takes for granted. Aristotle seems to have been very fond of the making of lists and the categorization of things (and of the definition of the categories by which to categorize them).

Note: If anyone can recommend a good introduction to the thought of Aristotle that is accessible to the layman but more advanced than Mortimer Adler’s Aristotle for Everybody, I’d greatly appreciate it, as I’ve not been able to identify one. I do highly recommend Aristotle for Everybody, though.

Aristotle for Everybody


Wednesday, June 25th, 2008

Forms are a big deal in Aristotelian philosophy, and hence in Thomist philosophy. That which is per se to a being, that which makes it what it is, is its substantial form. Thus, your dog has the substantial form of a dog. There is also accidental form, such as a being’s color. Your dog might be brown, but it can be dyed blue, thus changing its form.

Note that form is not shape. A chair has the form of chairness, for example. But think about all the many different kinds of chair you’ve seen, all of which have the form of chairness, but which have many, many different shapes. If a being has an accidental form, Thomas refers to it as having the form per accidens rather than per se.

Most (all?) change involves gaining or losing a form. The terms generation, corruption, and alteration, which Thomas uses in CT 4, refer specific kinds of change. Generation is the gaining of a new substantial form. If I have an axe head, and an axe handle, and I put them together, I’ve made an axe. The two pieces together are a new being, which has a new substantial form, that of being an axe. Corruption is the loss of substantial form. If I hit you in the head with the axe, your body loses its substantial form, that of being a rational animal; it is merely a dead body. Alteration is the gain or loss of accidental form. If you dye your dog blue, you now have a blue dog: your dog remains a dog, though perhaps a disgruntled one.


Monday, June 23rd, 2008

When I hear the word “substance,” I think of an arbitrary quantity of some particular kind of relatively homogeneous but not necessarily identifiable stuff, as in “The murder weapon was coated with an unpleasant cheese-like substance.” When philosophers use the word “substance” it means, more or less, an individual thing, something that has its own identity. I’m a substance; you’re a substance; your dog is a substance; the chair you’re sitting on is a substance, and so is the computer you’re reading this on.

Or so I gather. It’s not clear to me whether one substance can be a part of some other substance. My wife and children and I are each substances; but is our family a substance? I have the notion that it isn’t.

In Summa of the Summa, Peter Kreeft defines a substance as “a being that exists in itself rather than in another.” So since my brain exists as part of me rather than in itself, I would guess that my brain isn’t a substance. Unless, of course, it was removed from my head and preserved in a jar. In that case, I would cease to be a substance, having lost my substantial form. But that’s another topic.

Update: Actually, on second thought, perhaps my brain is a substance either way. Kreeft contrasts substance with accidents, which I’ll have to define later; but I gather that the color “green”, for example, is not a substance because it doesn’t exist in itself. Substances can be green; but you can’t pick up a green at the store. You can pick up an orange at the store; so an orange is a substance that happens to be colored orange, which color is not a substance.

Incidentally, the Summa of the Summa is also available from Amazon.

Summa of the Summa

(I don’t get any kickbacks if you order the book by clicking on the link, by the way.)

Update: I found a resource on-line, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, which has more on the notion of “substance”. It turns out that there are primary substances and secondary substances. My brain is a primary substance; “the human brain” is a secondary substance, the kind to which my brain belongs.