The picture above is the Astronomy Picture of the Day for November 11, 2007. It shows the Crescent Nebula in Cygnus.
Thursday, November 15, 2007

Aristotle Metaphysics

The opening picture might be more appropriate for a discussion of the Physics or for a discussion of cosmology, but I liked it, and Big Bang cosmology ultimately leads to thinking about being and the nature of being.

Back in the 1980s I watched the PTL club from time to time, and one time a woman came on and spoke about her involvement in the occult. She said that she had destroyed her books on metaphysics. That left me rather puzzled because I had read parts of the Metaphysics when I was much younger, and I couldn’t see what was wrong with Aristotle. Over time it gradually became clear to me that just as with certain other words, such as “mystic,” that it was misused. In the case of metaphysics it was used as synonymous with the occult. (Mystic is misused to mean mysterious, while mysticism is often misused to mean the occult as well.)

Aristotle starts off in Book I by asserting the universality of the desire for knowledge, "All men by nature desire to know. An indication of this is the delight we take in our senses; for even apart from their usefulness they are loved for themselves; and above all others the sense of sight. For not only with a view to action, but even when we are not going to do anything, we prefer seeing (one might say) to everything else. The reason is that this, most of all the senses, makes us know and brings to light many differences between things.”

If I understand this passage correctly, Aristotle is asserting the primacy of sight as a means to knowledge. I raised this question, in the context of the blindness of Oedipus, when I asked a class why Oedipus blinds himself while Jocasta commits suicide. I tried to bring home to them that vision is a primary means, if not the primary means, of knowledge, and tried to relate it to the story of Rebel Without A Cause (the book, not the movie). In the book Harold suffers from an eye disorder, and the shrink, Robert Lindner, makes an offhand comment to him. Harold says “I’d rather be blind than see the things I’ve seen.” This ultimately proves to be the primal scene. Harold witnesses his mother and his father having sex. So to block out this forbidden knowledge Harold develops an eye condition that blocks his sight. Similarly Oedipus puts his eyes out because they have conveyed to him that forbidden knowledge, the knowledge of his mother’s body.

Aristotle sees science and art as arising out of experience. Art “arises when from many notions gained by experience one universal judgement about a class of objects is produced.” Art also pertains to universals, while experience is of individuals. So a cure, in Aristotle’s example, is always directed to an individual, a Callias or a Socrates, rather than to men in general.

Could you make that application today in a medical situation? I think that it still holds. I was thinking of a man who is looking for a drug for AIDS or syphilis, but that man is still looking for a specific drug to counter a specific disease, i.e., individual, so I don’t think that’s a valid counter-example.

Aristotle concludes the first part of Book I by asserting that Wisdom deals with first causes, “all men suppose what is called Wisdom to deal with the first causes and the principles of things; so that, as has been said before, the man of experience is thought to be wiser than the possessors of any sense-perception whatever, the artist wiser than the men of experience, the masterworker than the mechanic, and the theoretical kinds of knowledge to be more of the nature of Wisdom than the productive. Clearly then Wisdom is knowledge about certain principles and causes.”

2500 years after Aristotle the science fiction writer Robert A. Heinlein described a man he called the “encyclopedic generalist.” Heinlein’s concept meshes fairly well with Aristotle: “We suppose first, then, that the wise man knows all things, as far as possible, although he has not knowledge of each of them in detail.” Here we have a justification for the idea of liberal education. The knowledge of many things, the fox, if you will, is preferable to the detailed knowledge of one thing, or of a few things, the hedgehog, because it leads to wisdom.

Aristotle continues on with some commentary on the nature of Wisdom. “But the divine power cannot be jealous (nay, according to the proverb, 'bards tell a lie'), nor should any other science be thought more honourable than one of this sort. For the most divine science is also most honourable; and this science alone must be, in two ways, most divine. For the science which it would be most meet for God to have is a divine science, and so is any science that deals with divine objects.” Is Aristotle here talking about theology? If so, he would seem to be anticipating the positions of Aquinas and Newman, both of whom regarded theology as a science. On the other hand, if I recall my reading of Copleston’s history of philosophy correctly, it may be before there was a formal break between philosophy and theology. In that case the question is moot.

In chapter 3 of Book I Aristotle gives the four causes of a thing: “Evidently we have to acquire knowledge of the original causes (for we say we know each thing only when we think we recognize its first cause), and causes are spoken of in four senses. In one of these we mean the substance, i.e. the essence (for the 'why' is reducible finally to the definition, and the ultimate 'why' is a cause and principle); in another the matter or substratum, in a third the source of the change, and in a fourth the cause opposed to this, the purpose and the good (for this is the end of all generation and change).” These are the four causes, formal, material, efficient, and final.

Aristotle then begins a formal criticism of his predecessors. He finds that some had postulated only the material cause, but “as men thus advanced, the very facts opened the way for them and joined in forcing them to investigate the subject. However true it may be that all generation and destruction proceed from some one or (for that matter) from more elements, why does this happen and what is the cause? For at least the substratum itself does not make itself change; e.g. neither the wood nor the bronze causes the change of either of them, nor does the wood manufacture a bed and the bronze a statue, but something else is the cause of the change. And to seek this is to seek the second cause, as we should say,-that from which comes the beginning of the movement.” So it is not sufficient for there to be only a material cause. Parmenides is described as postulating two causes.

In Chapter 4 he discusses Empedocles, and says that Empedocles mentions good and bad as principles. He also asserts that the universal good, good itself, is the cause of all particular goods.

In chapter 5 he discusses Pythagoras, and at one point he remarks of Pythagoras, “but being forced to follow the observed facts, and supposing the existence of that which is one in definition, but more than one according to our sensations, he now posits two causes and two principles, calling them hot and cold, i.e. fire and earth; and of these he ranges the hot with the existent, and the other with the non-existent.” Oddly, this seems to anticipate Augustine’s idea that evil is not something positive, but rather a negative, a lack of good. I’ve speculated that there is an ontological impulse towards non-existence, that evil is a deliberate will to obliterate existence itself. See my posts that are dated October 2001.

In Book II he discusses the problems of philosophy. “The investigation of the truth is in one way hard, in another easy. An indication of this is found in the fact that no one is able to attain the truth adequately, while, on the other hand, we do not collectively fail, but every one says something true about the nature of things, and while individually we contribute little or nothing to the truth, by the union of all a considerable amount is amassed. Therefore, since the truth seems to be like the proverbial door, which no one can fail to hit, in this respect it must be easy, but the fact that we can have a whole truth and not the particular part we aim at shows the difficulty of it.” Here and later on in the opening of the third paragraph, “It is just that we should be grateful, not only to those with whose views we may agree, but also to those who have expressed more superficial views; for these also contributed something, by developing before us the powers of thought,” we find a rationale for a defense of free speech.

In the opening of Chapter 2 Aristotle asserts that there cannot be an infinite series of causes. “But evidently there is a first principle, and the causes of things are neither an infinite series nor infinitely various in kind. For neither can one thing proceed from another, as from matter, ad infinitum (e.g. flesh from earth, earth from air, air from fire, and so on without stopping), nor can the sources of movement form an endless series (man for instance being acted on by air, air by the sun, the sun by Strife, and so on without limit).” Back in the ‘70s I made the assertion in my thesis that mathematicians routinely deal with infinite series. That statement is probably true as far as it goes, but the concept of the limit is also used in dealing with infinite series, so that a terminus is introduced at one end or the other of a series. Aristotle might well argue that an infinite series that has a beginning, such as the series created by progressive doubling of 1, is not truly infinite. The idea of a beginning, as embodied in Big Bang cosmology, is supposed to have been repugnant to Einstein. If you go back to the Big Bang, and ask what caused it you are left with the assertion that there was a flux that caused the Big Bang. If you ask what caused the flux, one answer is that it simply happened. In other words you have a causeless cause. It seems to me that what occurs is simply that you have arrived at the same position as Aristotle and his scholastic heirs.

December 13, 2007—It's been a while since I posted anything about Aristotle. I've been preoccupied with a visit from my son, who lives in the alternate universe known as California, Christmas shopping, and extensive sleeping.

Book III discusses the main problems of philosophy. Aristotle asks whether one science can treat off all of the four causes. Aristotle doesn't really answer this until Book IV, and his answer is that the object of study for the science he is describing is being as such.

Book V is a philosophical lexicon that provides definitions for a 30 terms.

Book VI distinguishes between theology, which is the topic of the metaphysics, and mathematics and physics. "We answer that if there is no substance other than those which are formed by nature, natural science will be the first science; but if there is an immovable substance, the science of this must be prior and must be first philosophy, and universal in this way, because it is first. And it will belong to this to consider being qua being-both what it is and the attributes which belong to it qua being." In other words, mathematics and science have different objects. Those who believe that both science and religion offer valid insights and truths into the world frequently make this very point. Aristotle while writing within the context of Greek religion, frames the question in terms of scientific approaches to different questions so that he considers metaphysics/theology to be as legitimate a science as physics or mathematics. The modern approach, exemplified in some of the reports of the strident scientific atheists, is to claim that metaphysics/theology is not a legitimate science, and that only those sciences that deal with material and efficient causation are valid sciences.

Book VII enters into a discussion of being as substance. This is continued in Book VIII.

Book IX has a length discussion of potency and actuality, i.e., that which is potential and that which is actual.

December 19, 2007—Book X focuses on topics such as the kinds of unit, unity and plurality.

Book XI repeats matter from books III, IV, VI and part of The Physics.

Book XII deals with substance, and the nature of being, potency (potentiality), actuality, and movement. There is a lengthy discussion of movement, and the necessity for an unmoved mover. In chapter 7 Aristotle almost waxes ecstatic in his presentation, "If, then, God is always in that good state in which we sometimes are, this compels our wonder; and if in a better this compels it yet more. And God is in a better state. And life also belongs to God; for the actuality of thought is life, and God is that actuality; and God's self-dependent actuality is life most good and eternal. We say therefore that God is a living being, eternal, most good, so that life and duration continuous and eternal belong to God; for this is God." In Part 9 he offers a solution to a problem that vexes Shaw's devil 2,500 years later.

In the Don Juan in Hell segment of Shaw's Man and Superman Don Juan indicates that he intends to spend his time in heaven contemplating life itself. Eric Bentley comments that the idea of life contemplating itself in is too metaphysical for Mephistopheles. In my M.A. thesis I made the comment, which seemed reasonable to me at the time, that the subject contemplating itself as its own object was split on the semantic level into subject and object. Aristotle, in describing the divine thought, offers his own explanation. "We answer that in some cases the knowledge is the object. In the productive sciences it is the substance or essence of the object, matter omitted, and in the theoretical sciences the definition or the act of thinking is the object. Since, then, thought and the object of thought are not different in the case of things that have not matter, the divine thought and its object will be the same, i.e. the thinking will be one with the object of its thought."

Books XIII and XIV deal with questions about number, and its relation to being.

This finishes the St John's readings for the Freshman year. I'll be reading Faulkner till Christmas. Next up is Soldier's Pay. After Christmas I'll be reading whatever my wife gives me for Christmas. Then I'll resume with the Bible (Exodus) from the St. John's list.