Monday, April 08, 2019

In the Beginning

Starting in 2012, I'm finding far more good material, which, as I said, is slowing me down. Between 2006 and 2011 it was mostly the occasional sentence or paragraph that was worth preserving, but now I'm actually finding whole posts that don't let me down.

Therefore, in order to organize these Good Posts -- or at least know where to find them -- I'm going to republish them. This is more efficient than placing them in the files containing only sentences and paragraphs. There's still an overwhelming amount of information that needs to be pruned, but at least I'll know where to find stuff. It's for my convenience, but feel free to peruse.

This post is about Where to Begin; or rather, where is the so-called beginning:

What's first? And who's on it? Things? Or Principles? Or do they co-arise?

Way before I ever encountered Thomism, I attempted to think through all this on my own. Yes, you could say "needlessly," as it turns out, but not necessarily.

I say this because I'm always shocked at how frequently my own free application of reason ends up in the same attractor as this Thomas fellow. Details may vary -- after all, he couldn't have foretold 700 years of scientific development -- but the broad outlines are similar. Let's say we're in the same school, if different classes. He's long since graduated, while I am definitely a sophomore (or less, depending on how you look at it).

But in any event, we share the same principal. Why? Because the One Cosmos mysthead tells me so:


So, in the bOOk, I begin with the question -- the first question, as it were -- of "Where in the world do we begin? Do we have any right to assume that the universe is intelligible? If not, you can stop reading right now and do something else, something that actually has a purpose."

Wait, a footnote, the first one. Let's see what it says. "Bear in mind, however, that if the universe has no purpose, then neither will anything you do instead of reading the book. Therefore, you might as well read the book."

So you see, there's really no way to avoid reading the book. You have no excuse, only pretexts.

Back to the text: "But if the universe is intelligible, how and why is this the case?"

Blah blah yada yada, "Of course we should start our enquiry with the 'facts,' but what exactly is a fact? Which end is up? In other words, do we start with the objects of thought or the subject that apprehends them?"

And hey, "just what is the relationship between apparently 'external' objects and the consciousness that is able to cognize them? Indeed, any fact we consider presupposes a subject who has selected the fact in question out of an infinite sea of possibilities, so any conceivable fact" is bound up with the knowing subject.

So it seems that first things are immediately followed by first questions. That is, humans are uniquely capable of asking questions about the things they first encounter. Knowledge begins with this encounter between subject and object, but doesn't end there, as it does in animals and other atheists.

Rather, human beings may reason about their experience of things -- and, equally important, reason about reason itself. A better name for metaphysics might actually be "meta-epistemology," or "meta-ontology," or something similar, so the accent is on the unavoidably transnatural source and vector of reason.

Metaphysics begins in being, not knowledge. Which is why any metaphysic that begins with science is, in the words of Maritain, "false from the beginning," because science assumes being without attempting to account for it.

To use a construction analogy, science analyzes the building without getting into the question of how it got there or who planned it. Indeed, it cannot even address the question without fatal contradictions, e.g., the absurcular argument of natural selection.

But unlike science, metaphysics is utterly useless, which is another way of saying that it is completely disinterested and hence objective. Conversely, science always assumes a point of view, and more generally, a whole paradigm (usually unexamined).

Now, "useless" doesn't imply "worthless." Hardly. To the contrary, "nothing is more necessary to man than this uselessness. What we need is not truths that serve us but a truth we may serve" (emphasis mine).

My fellow Raccoons, now we're talking: ask not what Truth can do for you, but what you can do for Truth.

"For that truth is food of the spirit.... Useless metaphysics puts order -- not any sort of police order, but the order that has sprung from eternity" into man's otherwise rudderless -- or groundless -- intelligence (Maritain).

To express it poetically but then again literally, metaphysics allows man "to gravitate, head first, to the midst of the stars, while he hangs from the earth by his two legs."

In other words, in the Upanishadic formulation, the universe is a tree with its nonlocal roots aloft and local branches down below. Therefore, in the bobservational formulation,

history is a chronicle of our evolutionary sprint from biology to spirit, in which we first climb down from the trees of eastern Africa and then up the metaphorical Upanishadic tree....

Thus, we start our journey 'out on a limb' and soon find ourselves 'grounded,' but eventually find a radical solution to our troubling situation, arriving at the root' of the cosmos" ("radical" being related to the Latin "root").

UPDATE SEVEN YEARS LATER: This is all another way of expressing the Christian formulation, i.e., Creation-Fall-Redemption within the larger Divine-Cosmic circle of exits-redditus. I suppose it would be correct to say that the Incarnation allows humanity as such to participate in the trinitarian alphOmega.

Sunday, April 07, 2019

Evolution or Natural Selection: Pick One

Evolution: a process in which something passes by degrees to a different stage (especially a more advanced or mature stage)

We are firm believers in evolution. What we do not understand -- in principle, mind you -- is how a believer in metaphysical Darwinism can simultaneously maintain a belief in evolution, since the one -- "passing to a more advanced stage" -- precludes the other -- "random error + survival" (and to say these two definitions are mutually exclusive is not to say the latter process doesn't take place, only that it is incompatible with words such as "advance" or "progress" or "purpose").

In short, when we say "evolution," we do not mean evolutionism, which is another species entirely, a flightless bird of a different father.

Evolutionism is a metaphysical doctrine maintaining that ultimate reality involves a kind of unfolding from primordial substance. It reduces to pantheism -- or elevates matter to God -- as everything is seen as an explication of what lies hidden in potential in mere matter. It violates reason and common sense, as it not only tries to derive the higher from the lower, but ultimately, if pressed to its conclusion, everything from nothing. Life must reduce to death, spirit to matter, absolute to relative, necessary to contingent, and your little theory of evolutionism to a sacred cow pie. Which you just stepped in.

I am not being polemical or unfair. Rather, just asking the evolutionist to be intellectually honest and consistent, and to draw his principles to their conclusion. After all, we are honest about our principles, and wouldn't dream of hiding their implications. Schuon:

We do not deny that evolution exists within certain limits, as is indeed evident enough, but we do deny that it is a universal principle, and hence a law which affects and determines all things, including the immutable.... [W]hat has to be categorically rejected is the idea that truth evolves, or that revealed doctrines are the product of an evolution (emphasis mine).

Ultimately it's one more lame attempt to deploy verticality in order to deny the vertical. Metaphysical evolutionism begins and ends in the invention of

“horizontal” causes because one does not wish to admit a “vertical” dimension: one seeks to extort from the physical plane a cause that it cannot furnish and that is necessarily situated above matter.

It naturally ends in "the negation of an entire dimension of the real, namely that of form, of the static, of the immutable; concretely speaking, it is as if one wished to make a fabric of the wefts only, omitting the warps." In its attempt to reduce semantics to syntax, it negates its own comprehensibility. It's one thing to eliminate truth, but don't then try to make a true statement!

As mentioned in previous posts, the idea of evolution had literally been around for hundreds of years prior to Darwin. Indeed, Maritain points out that a number of pre-Socratics hit upon the notion, which isn't surprising, since it is one of a handful of metaphysical possibilities presented to us in any attempt to grasp the unchanging reality beneath appearances (ultimately there can't be that many options, e.g., materialism, idealism, organicism, etc.).

If we think of these men as analogous to children (by which I do not mean to insult them; rather, that, philosophically speaking, man was in the position of a child, starting with nothing), then we can understand how one might arrive at the notion that all is Change, or Being, or One. In other words, they are searching for the ultimate abstraction, or principle, which can account for each and every particular instance (which is indeed the purpose of metaphysics).

So Maritain reminds us that various forms of evolutionism were taught by Greek thinkers of the fifth and sixth centuries BC, such as Anaximander, Empedocles, and Heraclitus, the latter of whom is famous for teaching that "all is change," and that one cannot step into the same stream twice.

But again, if this is true, then it must also apply to Heraclitus' doctrine, such that if he's right, he's wrong. The same applies, of course, to modern Darwinists, to the extent that they elevate their science to a metaphysic.

Maritian traces the evolution of philosophy -- which is to say, increased proximity to wisdom -- from these early thinkers, through Plato and Aristotle and on to St. Thomas. And when we say "evolution," we mean evolution. We do not mean random change, as if there were no essential difference between Heraclitus, Aristotle, and Thomas, and that one might as well flip a coin to determine which is closer to truth.

[Note to myself from yesterday: do not fool yourself -- ultimately the only objective measure can be proximity to God. Otherwise all is opinion, and man is sealed in cosmic stupidity.]

No, when we say that philosophy -- and science, for that matter -- has evolved, this is what we mean: that it betrays a clear and recognizable direction that only the fool or tenured could deny.

Not to speak ill of the dead, but this denial is precisely what our late uncle-through-marriage -- an esteemed University of Chicago historian -- maintained. It so happens that he was friendly with Thomas Kuhn, who wrote the celebrated Structure of Scientific Revolutions. In one of those rare occasions that I had it completely backwards, I argued that Kuhn wasn't implying that there was no such thing as objective scientific progress. (Admittedly, I didn't actually know this. Rather, I just assumed that no one could be so stupid as to believe otherwise. I was a little naive back then.)

So, when we talk about philosophic or scientific progress, what are we really talking about? In other words, what is the measure of progress, besides getting a lot of free stuff from the government on somebody else's dime? Thus far Maritain hasn't come right out and said it, but perhaps the most noticeable change we see between, say, the pre-Socratics through Aquinas, involves the power of abstraction.

In fact, we can indeed trace this arc all the back to animals, who have no powers of abstraction. In many ways man is defined by this power, which is largely rooted in language, and prior to language, in my opinion, the hand. Yes, the hand, because it is nature's first all-purpose tool. Because the hand can do this and the hand can do that, we grasp the underlying principle of grasping. (They say science is the invention of invention, but one must first hand it to the humble hand, without which we could never have extended our grasp to science.)

Remember a couple of posts ago, our discussion of how rational skepticism is the cure for a corrosive cynicism gone wild? Well, Maritain makes exactly the same point vis-a-vis the Socratic method. Note that both the cause and effect of cynicism is the absence of truth. I suppose postmodernists must pride themselves on being the first humans to be courageous enough to embrace the truth that there is no truth, but that is an ahistorical fiction.

Rather, this kind of relativism had already taken philosophy to a dead end by the time Socrates arrived on the scene. These early victims of tenure

were embroiled in confused strife, an interminable battle of opposing probabilities. The immediate and obvious result of these attempts at philosophizing seemed the bankruptcy of speculative thought.

It is not, therefore, surprising that this period of elaboration produced a crisis in the history of thought, at which an intellectual disease imperiled the very existence of philosophic speculation. This intellectual disease was sophistry, that is to say, the corruption of philosophy.

Sophistry is not a system of ideas, but a vicious attitude of the mind.... For the aim and rule of their knowledge was no longer that which is, that is to say, the object of knowledge, but the interest of the knowing subject....

[T]he most characteristic feature of all alike was that they sought the advantages conferred by knowledge without seeking truth.

They sought the advantages conferred by knowledge so far as knowledge brings its possessor power, pre-eminence, or intellectual pleasure. With this in view, they put themselves forward as rationalists and walking encyclopedias; to every question they had an answer, deceptively convincing....

They did not seek truth.... For with men and children alike destruction is the easiest method of displaying their strength.... Every law imposed upon man they declared to be an arbitrary convention....

Well, that's the tragic history. It reappeared in the 1960s, this time as intellectual farce. Time will tell if we ever reenter the stream of real progress (although no one is obligated to participate in the anti-evolutionary stupidity of his times!).

[And it's not so much a stream as metaphysical plumb line: To change thoughts repeatedly is not to evolve. To evolve is to develop the infinitude of a single thought. And A thought should not expand symmetrically like a formula, but in a disordered way like a bush (NGD).]

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