Archives for category: Philosophy

Axioms, Chance, Providence

John C. Wright’s article Last Crusade: The Promise of Peace (April 9, 2017) exposes why moral agnosticism makes impossible the advent of leftist utopian promises.

A commenter wrote in the thread: “I don’t subscribe to the belief that conscience comes from God, but this is a minor quibble.” I admired the irony of the proposition and, reading it again later, I felt compelled to find out how Aristotle, St. Thomas Aquinas and Jacques Maritain already answered the quibble. The following arguments are inspired from Maritain’s Preface to Metaphysics: Seven Lectures on Being (full text). A few relevant quotes are reprinted at the end of this post.

So, let us quibble first with the MATERIALIST’s argument:

  1. Axiom : a cause must be greater, or at least equal, to its effect.
  2. Physical, empirical matter is inferior to immaterial, non-empirical things such as soul and conscience (characteristic of the self and the capacity to act).
  3. Therefore, physical matter cannot be the cause of non-material, non-empirical phenomena.

Then with the PANTHEISTIC argument:

  1. According to the axiom of finality, an agent is a being which can determine itself to act, either reflexively (in and on oneself) or transitively (exerting an action on other beings, including creation).
  2. The eternal, cyclical world of metempsychosis is deemed to be one undetermined being.
  3. Therefore, it cannot be an agent nor a patient (caused, moved by another). The movement, the action our senses perceive is deemed to be a deception, thus an evil, in this worldview.

The belief that multiplicity and motion must be a deception is a logical conclusion from the premise that there is no determination, hence no finality, but the premise is false. It is a statement contradictory to the metaphysical axiom of SUFFICIENT REASON (or grounds for being), which calls for the determinate nature of every being, as well as to the axiom of FINALITY, which calls for a preordination of every nature, or essence. Preordination takes place in the creative mind before any being comes to existence, either ex nihilo (including the creation of a new soul at conception) or by rearrangement of existing things.

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Civilization Is A Conversation

The popular philosopher Stefan Molyneux (https://freedomainradio.com) often reminds his audience that “civilization is a conversation. ” I read about the same idea before in a blog article by John C. Wright (www.scifiwright.com) about the Great Books. A philosopher himself, as well as a novelist, Mr Wright is an alumnus of St. John’s College of liberal arts. I gather the school’s Great Books program was inspired from the writings of philosopher Mortimer Adler on “The Great Conversation” and his editing work for the Encyclopaedia Britannica Great Books series.

According to classical philosophers and other classical writers who had to know philosophy as a general foundation for their field, philosophy and science, literature and arts, civilization in a word, is a great conversation, and philosophy is its common language. It began to spread from Greece some six centuries before Christ.

Metaphysics, or philosophy properly so called, is the conversation about the fundamentals of everything that is or may be, especially the “why”, the causes. The “how” is more particularly the domain of empirical sciences and mathematics.

Ethics is the part of philosophy that examines the use of practical reason, or moral conscience. Why is there a sense of right and wrong? Why is conscience attracted to the good and repulsed by evil? Why is happiness connected to the good? These are some of the main questions of moral philosophy.

The moral questions are of course paramount also to religion and theology. Philosophy is the greatest achievement of the human mind unaided by faith, since it derives its information from the senses, external and internal. But the self-revelation of God being at the same time the revelation of man to himself (e. g. John 2:25), the Judaeo-Christian revelation is a very reliable source of information for philosophy, particularly for natural theology (or theodicy) and ethics.

Christian theologians, philosophers, and authors of literary or scientific writings were the ones who kept the conversation ongoing and timeless. It is timeless because philosophia perennis, the common philosophy of humanity (as philosopher Jacques Maritain would say), known also as Aristotelian-Thomism, or classical theist philosophy, is true in all essentials and those essentials are not subject to time. True philosophy is therefore capable of organic, continuous development upon this perennial basis.

Up to the 1960s, every generation educated by learned masters had access to the great works of the past and to a common philosophical framework. Scholars and writers could thus contribute to build on and transmit the intellectual and moral treasure of civilization, the treasure of human wisdom.

 

Conversation Slows Down

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The following is a slightly expanded version of my comments under the thread “The Empire of Lies”, an essay from John C. Wright (February 13, 2016).

“Either there is truth or there is not.”

After this opening line, Mr. Wright proceeds to demonstrate that the statement “there is no truth” is impossible and self-destroying, an absurdity even if only for the sake of argument. Such an argument is sustained solely for expediency, for moral reasons, in order to pass vice for virtue, virtue for vice, and evildoing for good works. In short, nihilism.

The origin of such extreme moral outlook is sin unacknowledged, unrepented, and conscience stifled accordingly. As Jacques Maritain explained, when we sin, the will (or the “reason of the heart” as Blaise Pascal would put it) listens to emotions and sentiments and averts its inner eye from the sound principles of the practical intellect, that is, the truth as seen by the conscience. By blurring objective truth about the objective good, the will is generally able to trick a poorly formed conscience into taking an evil for a good, or a lesser good for a greater good, or evil means as expedient to attain some good.

But the guilt remains. To evade the guilt efficiently, there is no other way than to attack the principles, the axioms themselves (identity, reason for being, finality, causality, etc.), and ultimately the transcendentals above the principles: no objective beauty, goodness or truth, thus no moral obligation.

Now, what is truth? The shortest and simplest definition is: Truth is the conformity of the mind to things. An honest search for truth makes licit almost any question. For example, the question “Either there is a God (or gods), or there is not” implies that the human mind might be able to discover the truth, or accept the revelation of truth.

If there are things, there is a God, because nothing contingent can exist if there is no necessary being which is the first cause and reason for being of everything else. Hence the same reasoning applies to truth: if there is something, there is truth in the same measure that things do exist and are good and beautiful, and at least partly knowable.

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Three Tales of Two Cities

In the last page of A Tale of Two Cities (quoted below), Sydney Carton, a London lawyer, lays down his life to be executed in Paris during the Terror in place of his friend Charles Darnay (d’Aulnais), a French émigré who looks exactly like him. For most of his life, Sydney was not a very good man, but his love for Darnay’s wife, Lucie, daughter of the good Doctor Manette, has changed him and he serenely walks to the scaffold. To protect his family, Darnay will then on pretend he is Carton, and his children will bear the name of the hero who saved him.

At the end of the movie The Dark Knight Rises, Commissioner Gordon reads a few sentences from Dickens’ text as a funeral eulogy for Bruce Wayne. Christopher Nolan said that A Tale of Two Cities was an inspiration for his script. An idea to be noted in both works is that the oppressed  – real or self-imagined – become the oppressors in the hands of evil manipulators.

The title Dickens chose, and indeed the whole novel, is a metaphor about two material cities, London and Paris, and the political positions they represented at the time, compared with the City of God and City of Man from Saint Augustine. London and Paris both actually figure the City of the fallen, corrupted Man, of any political persuasion, whether self-righteous or conscious of his evil ways. The good and just who selflessly help others and save lives, and foster hope and love in other souls, sacrificing their own life if they must, figure the City of God.

Civitas, Polis

It is no coincidence that the word “Cities”, in the title of Dickens’ novel, in French translations nowadays reads more often “villes” (towns), which has no particular philosophical meaning, than “cités” (cities), the more direct equivalent of Latin. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia article on “Christendom”, the word “city” itself is too narrow, except in a very metaphorical sense, to adequately translate civitas”. It seems, however, that we have no other choice than this term, and that the French translators and editors of A Tale of Two Cities showed a serious lack of classical literary and philosophical knowledge. Another such example would be the American editors who chose to transform the Philosopher’s Stone into a meaningless Sorcerer’s Stone in the title of the first Harry Potter book.

The Greek poliscivitas in Latin – is the very object of political philosophy: a community larger than a household and a village, and the workings of this community. A city can be as small as a little town or as large as a city-state, country or empire. The main purpose of the community is to give the citizens the means to live a good life in areas where isolated men or small groups cannot achieve it, hence the principle of subsidiarity: the larger community must not usurp the responsibilities of the smaller ones, notably the family.

Like personal moral life, public moral life needs the transmission of a moral code. In the public, political life, this is done through the enactment of laws. Law enforcement is known as the policing of the City, to prevent it being destroyed by anarchy and crime. Aristotle’s Politics is then a treaty of ethics, in fact the second part of his moral philosophy that began with Nicomachean Ethics.

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Beauty is in the Form

Professor Edward Feser quotes a sarcastic passage by Isaac Asimov and asks why plastic objects cannot eventually be admired as antiques.  (“The metaphysics and aesthetics of plastic”  Feb. 14, 2014)

Elsewhere, a commenter quoting from a David Gerrold novel compares moral integrity to that of a plastic balloon, lost when the balloon is destroyed by a pinhole. Philosopher and novelist John C. Wright answers that forgiveness is better than asking for perfect integrity. (“Why the Rats Conquer Empires”, Feb. 27, 2014 )

I looked into the matter in Plato and Maritain.

Perception of form

Beauty, Plato said, is in the form. It is not in the philosophical prima materia, that cannot exist without an essential form. Contrary to Plato’s theory, though, separate forms of material beings do not exist either, except as concepts. For example, human form, or nature, does not exist apart from actual human beings.

Form differentiates individuals only in beings who are pure forms (God and angels). There are as many angelic natures as there are angels. But physical beings are differentiated by matter, and all individuals in a species share a common form.

By the fact it has a form actualized in matter, every physical being, particle, element, compound has the same degree of intrinsic beauty that the form lends to matter. Although an unlearned observer may not perceive anything interesting and pleasing about, say, subatomic particles, an observer possessing even a small knowledge of the thing certainly does.

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Eternal Wisdom at Play

I have been listening to Father Robert J. Spitzer’s conferences on various physics theories about the universe, theories not only hinting, but demonstrating, that the universe has a beginning, thus necessarily a transcendent, metaphysical, cause. The contents of these lectures may be found in his book New Proofs of the Existence of God (2010), and on the Magis Reason and Faith Institute’s website, as well as in other interviews and lectures recorded in 2011.

The ones I preferred are the Gonzaga University lectures (April 5 and 6, 2011). They are the most detailed and the most lively and there are more matters discussed in the period of questions.
Part 1: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mJBLp7cOt90
Part 2: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HmVvx51zsqg

The first part is on physical theories (see a few highlights in the notes below).

The second part is on anthropic coincidences, what is called the “fine-tuning” of the physical laws. There is a “huge improbability” (10 to the 10 to the 123 against) that all the 17 generative cosmological constants would fall randomly in the minuscule range of values necessary to allow the emergence and sustaining of life forms.

A few years ago, I read about the “Rare Earth” theory and the narrow range of values required in our solar system to sustain life. I was happy to have the additional information about cosmological constants.

Moreover, the way in which the lecturer presents the subject is very accessible for a moderately educated public to grasp, and very agreeable for the philosophically inclined mind: William of Occam could not have dreamed a thinner razor blade to reduce the answers to the question.

While listening to all these examples and comments on the minutely fine-tuned constants of the universe, I was imagining Eternal Wisdom at play (Proverbs 8:30), winking at all these beautiful minds and asking, like Fr Spitzer does: “Which choice is more reasonable at the end of the day?”

And I join Father Spitzer in his exclamation at the awesome panorama: “I am glad for the entire extravaganza. It just really is a comfort to know that God did not underestimate the intelligence or the love that we would have in viewing that universe.”
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Abstraction and Judgment

In a blogpost titled “The Other Side of the Picture” about the failings of Leftist and politically correct college education, John C. Wright wrote:

”This is a mental disorder inflicted by modern education. It is a narrowing of the mind in the name of broadmindedness, and the closing of the mind in the name of openmindedness.
“It is the folly of those who are taught only enough of a subject to be told the objections and questions undermining its foundations, but not enough to do the disciplined and rigorous intellectual work, yes, the hard work, of answering those objections or sitting as a judge and making a determination of their admissibility, as debating as a juror and weighing their probity and pertinence.
” [my emphasis]

I was at the same time reflecting on an idea I noticed in Dr. Bruce G. Charlton’s Thought Prison where he qualifies Leftist and PC worldview as “abstract.” I was a bit taken aback by the term, as I find nothing wrong with abstraction in itself, but then I recalled, from Maritain’s works, that abstraction is only the first of the two necessary operations of the intellect.

Knowledge – and determination of an act as good or not when speaking of the practical intellect – is achieved only when ideas formed through abstraction of universal essences are processed in the second operation of the mind, namely judgment, where they are checked against reality. To be proven true, an idea must terminate at the thing itself, actual or possible; judgment must assert what the thing is in extramental reality.

It is then no wonder that Leftists and nihilists are always accusing others of being “judgmental.”
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MYSTERY OF BEING
Summary of Preface to Metaphysics

The following summary of Jacques Maritain’s Preface to Metaphysics – Seven Lectures on Being, with some quotes from a couple other books, is not a scholarly work, so there will be no quotation marks or italics apart from those already in the text. Passages between brackets are my comments or paraphrases.


Being As Such
The object of metaphysics is the knowledge of being as such. Being is the first object attained by every man the instant he begins to think as a rational creature, but at this stage it is a more or less confused perception of the concrete being, enveloped or embodied in sensible things. The metaphysician will consider the essence, or nature, of sensible things by abstracting, or disengaging their intelligible values from particularized objects.

Essence/Existence
The first operation of the mind is thus to apprehend essences (what is universal, what is the nature of the thing), but the term of knowledge is the actual, existing being, the esse in the strict sense. Thomist philosophy does not stop short at essences. It is to existence itself that the intellect proceeds when it formulates within itself a judgment by composition and division (second operation of the mind) corresponding to what a thing is or is not outside the mind.
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