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I’m currently researching for a chapter in my thesis on Moltmann’s innovative trinitarian understanding of divine passibility (God, as Trinity, suffers). Kevin Vanhoozer is a contemporary impassibilist whose book Remythologizing Theology: Divine Action, Passion, and Authorship (2010) presents a meaty restatement of the classical theist (and, according to Vanhoozer, necessarily biblical) position on divine impassibility. One of the strengths of the book is Vanhoozer’s attention to words and definitions. He makes sure he defines his terms before using them (here, impassibility and emotion), which is too often left undone in other studies on the subject.

However, I just read Vanhoozer’s discussion of contemporary theory of emotion. He identifies two main theories. The first attributes emotion to bodily functions (“Non-cognitive (physicalist) theories”) and the second to the mind (“Cognitive (mentalist) theories”). Now, my lack of familiarity with the subject here may lead to some embarrassment on my part, but I just don’t get Vanhoozer’s rejection of the first:

“The physicalist view of emotions is not without significant problems, even apart from the issue of God’s corporeality [which camostar will not be addressing either]. First, such theories fail to acknowledge the importance of the influence of one’s beliefs on one’s emotions. It is not simply my seeing a snake that causes me to fear it but my belief that it is poisonous. Second, it is impossible to distinguish between emotions on the basis of physical sensations alone: fear, anger, and love alike may manifest the same physiological symptoms (i.e., rapid breathing). It follows that physical sensations are not themselves what we feel as emotions. Third, it is difficult to appeal to emotions as motives that explain a person’s behaviour if emotions are only bodily sensations. I do not shout at my neighbor because my heart is beating fast but because I am angry about what he did. Finally, while we regularly ascribe moral worth to certain emotions, it is difficult to hold persons praiseworthy or blameworthy for their sweaty armpits” (406-407).

Again, don’t treat me as an authority here, but I don’t see how these can be objections to a physicalist understanding of emotions:

  1. Why does Vanhoozer imply beliefs are non-physical? Obviously they arise in accordance with the environments that individuals develop within but this does not rule out the physicality of either those environments or the “cognitive” constructions that the individual develops. (By environment here neither do I make a distinction between nature and nurture. The environment is the individual and the individual is the environment. The distinction is nominal). Surely whatever beliefs are made up of that we identify as “cognitive,” for example memories, are a result of physical (at least if I’m reading this not as a Christian)* responses to the environment.
  2. Similarly, just because physical sensations are “smaller,” that is, occurring in the “mind” rather than the “body” like rapid breathing, the example Vanhoozer uses, they should not therefore be excluded from being physical sensations. Yes there is overlap between different emotions but to say that we can’t distinguish them physically is (a) to claim that the differences between them are unaccountable for physically, as if in the brain, too, the exact same thing is going on in both love and anger; and (b) comes close to the assumption that emotions are set categories anyway, whereas they developed pre/historically as organisms responded to their environments and, the same thing but accounted for in more recent terms, as human societies developed different socio-cultural contexts in which to be emotional. What if some emotions that used to be distinct are now “physiologically indistinguishable” and vice versa?
  3. Based on these first two objections to objections it should be clear now that shouting at a neighbour in anger can be accounted for in physicalist terms. It is a physical response as much as the heart beating is.
  4. Vanhoozer here shifts the argument. But just because we have socialised predispositions towards particular emotions, we cannot therefore make a theory of emotion conform to our ethics systems.

It looks like I’ve come down rather hard on Vanhoozer. That’s why I’ve titled this post as a question. The objections I have raised seem patent to me but I feel like I’m missing something of the complexity of the argument because of my unfamiliarity with the literature. It has otherwise been a very illuminating read so far!

*While not addressing questions of divine and human agency, my developing “Christian” understanding of physicalism accepts the classical theist “infinite qualitative distinction” (Kierkegaard) between God and the world. Through creation, God gives life to everyone and everything by the Holy Spirit, who in a very limited sense indwells them and guides them. In new creation, believers receive the Holy Spirit “properly,” in the same way Jesus received the Spirit, but for us as a deposit ahead of the resurrection. Included in Jesus’ divine sonship, we can live a life apart from the “physical,” though, in biblical terms, the world of sin and death, and instead live a life towards the new creation that God has brought in Jesus and will bring in Jesus.

The subtlety of hair

The subtlety of hair,
The scratchy scalp,
The seriousness of the forehead,
The brow of the eye.

The audacity of eyebrows, in general,
The sleep in an eye,
The blur of the other one,
Grease is the word down the length of the nose.

Yesterday’s growth just north of the lip,
The good-morning salt in the underbite,
The suitability of the chin for paint preparation,
The perfect neck.

The “here I am” of the shoulders,
The “there you go” of the arms,
The “as luck would have it” of nipples,
The handiness of fingers.

The slap of the puku,
The stop-to-think finger-home of the inny,
The monstrosity of the penis,
The contentment of the ball-bag.

The camaraderie of thighs in the crisis of rising,
The possibility of knees,
The difficulty of shins,
Don’t try to convince me on ankles.

The ground beneath the feet,
The stubs before the toes,
In the body the ambivalent,
In the ambivalent the absurd,
In the absurd God.

This is a series working from the Penguin edition of Aristotle’s Metaphysics, translated by Hugh Lawson-Tancred.

In chapter two Aristotle addresses an important objection to the project of metaphysics, that is, there is an infinite series of causes. By implication, metaphysics can never adequately arrive at any kind of first cause. Aristotle begins by noting that matter if traced back through its causes eventually reaches a beginning point, so does change, and so does the goal of things when traced forward. Neither last things nor middle things are causes of a series. Last things do not cause because nothing follows them. Middle things, though they cause last things, are dependent on that which comes before them. Without this primary thing there can be no cause.

Aristotle also considers that not all things are caused in a linear series like this. Some things “bend back” (46) for mutual causality so as air causes water so water causes air. In this process, one thing is destroyed and the other is generated, then again. However, that from which water and/or air originated in the first place cannot be destroyed as it is eternal. Not only backwards, it is also eternal in that all things are done for its sake. If there are infinite causes then there can be no “good” at which all things aim. Neither would mind, which acts for the sake of limited things, exist. The next part is quite technical, but from what I understand Aristotle argues that because an infinity of causes has no beginning and thus also no end then tracing the series is impossible to do with a finite mind. Indeed, an infinite mathematical series cannot be known. But this knowledge is not necessary to cognition. Cognition, which is knowledge of causes, would be impossible if the causes were infinite.

I doubt I’ve done Aristotle the grace of understanding him before writing this post. Nonetheless, from what I do understand, there are some important assumptions here underlying his metaphysical project. Aristotle rejects the idea of any existing infinity: “And it is not possible for any infinite thing to exist; otherwise, infinity would not be infinite” (47). To me this is both poetically and logically valid. A truly infinite infinity must extend beyond existence itself. My confusion is with Aristotle’s invocation of an eternal first cause from which and to which all things go. There is probably some important distinction between eternity and infinity in the Greek of which I’m unaware, but initially I see little difference between an infinite series of causes and an eternal first cause. If this first cause is eternal, the source of all, and thus unlike any other cause we know then how can we be sure that it does not consist in an infinity of other causes, those obviously not open to human cognition!

Another assumption is that the source provides the end. But I wonder if it can be said that if the source produces something other to itself then is not that otherness, even if it is an otherness in the minimal sense, that there is something other than the eternal first cause, already the source of another end? Is it quite possible that this first cause is swallowed up in a teleology completely foreign to itself? It could be said that if this is the first cause then nothing foreign to itself could be its teleology because all that exists comes from it. However, this understanding of cause is very linear and assumes that nothing new can come about. That the caused thing is not the cause itself is the beginning of a last thing that differs from its first thing.

This is a series working from the Penguin edition of Aristotle’s Metaphysics, translated by Hugh Lawson-Tancred.

My last post ended on Book Alpha 7. Chapters eight and nine were technical critiques of earlier metaphysical philosophy. Aristotle ends Book Alpha concluding that the earlier philosophers were all seeking principles and causes, the aim of metaphysics, but their methods and findings were confused.

In Book Alpha the Lesser, Aristotle clarifies his method and his aims. He opens, “The investigation of truth is in a way difficult and in a way easy. An indication is that no one can worthily reach it nor does everyone completely miss it, but each thinker says something about nature, and individually they make small contributions to it, and from them all together a certain volume arises” (43). The goal of metaphysics arises from a community of philosophers across history. Even the ones “who have gone astray” have contributed to this end by preparing the way. Indeed, Aristotle’s work up until now in this book indicates the seriousness with which he understands the communal nature of the metaphysical project.

Aristotle ends this chapter with a brief comment on truth. Truth concerns causes because it is cause that relates each thing to being. Specifically, uncaused, eternal things are “most true” (44) because they are true despite context and are the cause of all else.

I want to spend some time here because Aristotle strikes me as quite a systematic thinker (this is clear reading the Nicomachean Ethics also). This means that a lot of his earlier assumptions will inform his later findings, so that the validity of the latter is dependent on that of the former. Firstly, I’m sceptical of this idea of “reaching” and “contributing to” truth. Whether textual or oral, “truth” in this sense is so fickle and vulnerable. Just like the rest of nature, ideas change and disappear. The multiple destructions of the Library of Alexandria in the ancient world is a powerful statement of this. Thus although truth for truth’s sake is a beautiful thought, I can’t accept that there will be some metaphysical project that will get truthier and truthier. Rather nations, cultures, and individuals will have to continually begin at the beginning again and again, or even continually arrive (or arrive elsewhere) at the idea of a truth for truth’s sake.

Moreover, unless a system of truth is identical to the thing of which it is a truth rather than being an interpretation of it then truth is never really arrived at. To arrive at it would be to negate all that purports to be a truth in relation to it, whether that be before the project begins or at its very end. But — although he probably didn’t intend it — Aristotle has already said something along these lines in including as contributors those who went in the opposite direction from truth. If I understand him correctly, he is affirming their contribution to truth in showing successors what road not to take to truth. Not-truth acts as a boundary marker for truth. It is thus that it is related to truth and has some truthfulness to it. If I were to say that Aristotle is still alive today, it would be true in the sense that it stands on the edge of the truth that he is not alive. It does not stand outside of this, because otherwise neither alive nor no-longer-alive could be understood. Thus they are both true, but in different ways. Additionally, it is true insofar as it has being as a statement. To differentiate the truth as interpretation from the reality it interprets is to posit two realities. However, an interpretation only arises as an extension of or change within the reality it interprets. It, too, does not occur outside of reality but on its edge, or, if we want to rid the interpreter of all transcendence, within the reality. Everything we say of the reality that is cause is already a truth because it is already related to it.

This is a series working from the Penguin edition of Aristotle’s Metaphysics, translated by Hugh Lawson-Tancred.

Having arrived at the aim of metaphysics, that is, to ascertain the principles and causes from which the world comes, Aristotle spends a few chapters recalling how philosophy before him has approached the question. He begins chapter three by pointing the reader to the four kinds of causes he discussed in detail in Physics. The actual text does not give much information because Aristotle doesn’t have anything to add to what he has written elsewhere. The translator’s introduction to the chapter is helpful though: a thing causes another thing in four ways, “by providing the form that it realizes, by being the matter from which it is made, by being the source of the process that leads to its coming to be or by being that for the sake of which the thing is produced” (11). These may not be four kinds of cause as much as they are four ways of explaining cause.

The early philosophers ascribed cause to material things such as water, air, or fire. Some favoured a single principle while others ascribed cause to multiple, even infinite sources. But matter could not explain everything. Thus some went further and pointed to a mind or love/desire beyond matter as something that organised the world and/or gave it purpose. To explain the source of bad things, strife (which Aristotle does not really explain) was sometimes posited as a cause that worked in dialectic with love. However, many of these ideas were not adequately clarified by the philosophers and poets who suggested them, nor applied consistently in their thought.

In chapter five Aristotle recalls how the Pythagoreans with their love of number managed to see number as elementary for all things. One, in turn, was elementary for all number. Many philosophers were also monists (those that believed existence or reality is one). Aristotle distinguishes two monists, those who accepted a doctrine of movement and those who denied that change is possible. In chapter six he goes on to examine the origin of Plato’s Theory of Forms, that is, that there is a real world of abstract Forms of Ideas beyond that of perception. Aristotle sees Heraclitus’ scepticism towards the reliability of the senses and Socrates’ search for universals in his ethical philosophy as the key influences acting upon Plato’s thought here. In Plato’s philosophy, it is the Forms which are the causes or principles of things.

In chapter seven Aristotle contends that none of the many philosophers briefly surveyed went beyond the four causes he outlined in Physics. “[R]ather, all seem to be indistinctly grappling after these” (26). While most philosophers attributed cause to matter, only a few posited something extra-material like mind or love, which is the source of change. Aristotle maintains that none of them posited teleological causes, that is, the causes which give things their purpose.

This is a series working from the Penguin edition of Aristotle’s Metaphysics, translated by Hugh Lawson-Tancred.

The first chapter ended with Aristotle suggesting that “wisdom is knowledge having to do with certain principles and causes” (6, emphasis mine). Now, to understand what this particular knowledge is, Aristotle begins with the wise person. The wise person has knowledge that goes beyond particulars, has a knowledge which is not immediately available to all people, can teach this knowledge accurately, and chooses their knowledge for the sake of the knowledge itself rather than treating it as instrumental to some external goal. The wisest person is the one with the most general knowledge, that by which all other subject areas can be known. This is the discipline of metaphysics, which examines principles and causes.

Aristotle goes on to compare metaphysics with other sciences: “And the most fundamental of the sciences, more fundamental than that which subserves it, is that which discerns for what end each thing must be done” (8). The sciences are not undertaken for their own sakes but only insofar as they are instrumental to particular ends. We might learn more about bees in biology so we can better utilise them for their honey. Metaphysics, however, has no end external to it because its end is itself: “So it is clear that we seek [this knowledge] for no other use but rather, as we say, as a free man is for himself and not for another, so is this science the only one of the sciences that is free. For it alone exists for its own sake” (9). (Thus, though we might undertake a biological investigation for its own sake, I would imagine that Aristotle would point to a more general knowledge which this points to and as such must in some sense be undertaken for another end, even implicitly). In this sense metaphysics is “better” than the other sciences that aim at ends outside themselves. Moreover, metaphysics is the highest science because it aims at the highest knowledge, the knowledge of god: “For god is thought to be among the causes of all things and to be a kind of principle” (10). That is not to say that god is necessarily the subject of this knowledge, only that god already has this particular knowledge at which metaphysics aims.

When reading the Nicomachean Ethics I noticed this preference of Aristotle’s for things that are for themselves and not instrumental to other things. He probably unpacks it a bit more elsewhere. I wonder though to what extent metaphysics is its own end. This is probably crude and a gross misunderstanding but if someone undertook a metaphysical investigation would not their end be different from their beginning? A metaphysical investigation is not static. It aims at the unknown beyond itself. I would add, who knows an end in the beginning? I might undertake a metaphysical investigation for its own sake, yet if metaphysics aims to share in god’s knowledge then isn’t it quite possible, whoever this god is, that it will arrive at a knowledge that it is indeed instrumental — there is something better beyond metaphysics at which it should aim. At least this is how I as a theologian would read Aristotle. Thus the cross and the resurrection of Christ look more than a little different from philosophical contemplation on principles and causes. Obviously this is no judgement on Aristotle but only a consideration for how he is appropriated.

So it’s summer and I’ve taken a break from theology to dip my toes into some Aristotle. I just finished Nichomachean Ethics last week, and had some good thoughts here and there but nothing I really developed. As I’ve been reading the Metaphysics today I’ve had so many thoughts that I just had to share them. I’m working through the Penguin Classic edition with Hugh Lawson-Tancred (London, 1998 (Reprint 2004)). What’s extra awesome about that is there is not only a reasonably extensive introduction, as with most Penguins, but also a running commentary, at the beginning of every chapter, which are usually only a couple of pages each! This is much preferred to those fiddly endnotes in other books!

In Book Alpha, ch.1, Aristotle begins, “By nature, all men long to know” (4). He makes a connection between human desire for knowledge and their “delight in the senses.” From the senses he notes two distinct forms of knowing. Experience is a more implicit knowledge that works with someone’s memories to inform their actions in particular situations. Skill, however, arises from reflection on experience, generalising from particular situations to develop universal knowledge that is applicable in situations of that type. Aristotle uses the example of two sick people. The experienced person can heal one sick person and then use that experience to heal another. The skilled person generalises from this to infer that the particular way in which these people were healed can be applied to the category (species) human. This is universal knowledge because it applies to every kind of this situation, whereas experience as particular knowledge is focussed on the link between two particular situations. Experience remains important because it is the link between the theoretical knowledge peculiar to skill and the particular situations to which it is applied. Generally, because of the universality of skill’s knowledge, it is to be privileged over experience. It is concerned not just with the basic facts of things but their causes, reasons, purposes, etc. This is what Aristotle names wisdom, “knowledge having to do with certain principles and causes” (6).

What I like about Aristotle’s arrival at a definition for wisdom is that there is an implied connection with the daily, banal human activities. Aristotle selects medicine as an example (his father was a doctor), but, moreover, throughout, the idea that a distinction between experience and skill, two things essential to the everyday of human activity, illuminates the nature of metaphysics is a beautiful affirmation of philosophy’s relevance to and source in the wider phenomenon of human culture.

That doesn’t stop me, however, from feeling that Aristotle has not laid all his cards on the table. As an introduction to the study of metaphysics, as we might know it, or first things, etc, Aristotle finds an analogy suitable to the assumption that there are universals higher than particulars, and these universals, the first things, are the proper subject matter of metaphysics. Although I love Aristotle’s emphasis on the importance of particulars, my complaint at this stage of the book (three pages in) would be that no skill or universal knowledge is truly universal. There will always be a particular exception to any such statement which identifies as universal. There will always be a way of getting behind it and exposing it for that which it is, a dirty particular, or a collection of particulars, which are in reality the same. So in saying that this medicine heals all people with this disease, it’s important to ask where the boundaries are between this medicine and not this medicine, human and not human (even if some blurry link between these two is no longer extant, this at least causes us to understand a universal as merely functional and not ontological), this disease and not with this disease. If this is the case, then the subject of metaphysics is not first things but in-between things.

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