Your counterfactual ideas are fantastic

January 20, 2016 § 9 Comments

One way to be an Aristotlean-Thomist is to understand AT metaphysics as consistent and complete. If you aren’t a positivist though then seeing ‘consistent and complete’ together like that ought to make you chamber a round. If Aristotlean metaphysical theory is in any sense consistent then it cannot at the same time be formal and complete.  If it is not formal then the symbols and grammar have to have epistemic wiggle room: the meanings of words and rules of inference themselves have to be allowed to shift around from one thing to another in a literally unspecified and unspecifiable way.  This is basically the same as being inconsistent.

If AT metaphysics is not complete that just means that there are metaphysical truths that it doesn’t capture. Modern people find the idea of there being truths within the domain of a theory that the theory doesn’t capture rather alarming. But I’m not a positivist, so what modern people find alarming is just what I expect to be the case.

So when I say I am not an Aristotlean part of what I really mean by that is that I am not an Aristotlean in a positivistic sense. And that is because I am not a positivist in any sense.  It is possible to take any theory as positivistic: as a “theory of everything” within the domain it covers. This is always a basic epistemic error, for any sufficiently interesting subject about actual reality. The relationship between theory and reality is inherently non-positivistic.

One of the things I think Aristotle gets right at a high level is his conceptual understanding of act and potency: of actual things, and the real potentials these actual things have to transform or move into other things or states. If a boulder sits on top of the mountain then the potential to roll to the bottom of the north side of the mountain, and at the same time the potential to roll to the bottom of the south side of the mountain, really do exist in that boulder. Real potentials inhere in actual things. In addition, if the boulder ends up at the bottom of the north side of the mountain it remains true that the boulder really did used to have the potential to roll down the south side of the mountain: a potential it no longer has.

Human beings have imaginations which allow us to conceive of counterfactuals. Sometimes the counterfactuals pertain to things which really could have been but now cannot be. Sometimes they pertain to things which may come to pass in the future. But often they are merely stories – stories like my boulder and mountain, which may illustrate a point about reality but which do not refer to actual reality.

So to Aristotle’s act and potency we should probably add fantasy: that is, made up stories about ‘things’ which are really concepts. Whatever we may think of concepts – and as a mild sort of Platonist I am likely to grant them more reality in some senses than you are, if you are a typical post cartesian modern – it is clear that concepts and actual reality are not the same. A concept of a boulder is not itself an actual boulder.

And at the root of recent controversies over making reference to ‘the same God'[*] lies, in my view, an incapacity to distinguish fantastic reality from actual reality.


[*] See here, here, and here.

 

§ 9 Responses to Your counterfactual ideas are fantastic

  • semioticanimal says:

    You hit on an interesting point that was discussed in depth in the Late Scholastic period, especially by John Poinsot (aka John of St. Thomas). The distinction is between ens reale (real being) and ens ratione (beings of reason). John of St. Thomas also referred to these as extra-mental and mental beings. Being as first experienced (ens primum cognitum) is a mixture of both as we first become aware of things existing in themselves apart from their relation to us in our passions or emotions. The Scholastics were focused on distinguishing the two with gaining a greater grasp on real being, but mental being plays an eminent role in our lives and perception of the world, which is why idealism and subjectivism often have a rhetorical advantage against some realisms that can make the ens ratione either ens reale or nothing at all.

  • vishmehr24 says:

    1) Are you applying Goedel’s theorem to AT metaphysics?

    2) Is AT metaphysics formal in a mathmatical sense?

    3) Is it claimed in AT that it is complete in the sense of capturing all possible metaphysical truths?

    4) Metaphysics differs from special sciences that it invites exploration in depth of the same truth. It is not a question of an axiomatic systems that grinds out theorems by formal manipulation of symbols.

  • Zippy says:

    vishmehr24:

    1. You can look at it multiple ways. Godel’s theorem certainly shows the folly of positivism, even in the penultimately rigorous domain of mathematics. But you don’t have to be a mathematician to grasp that positivism is folly.

    2. It doesn’t have to be. If it is treated as a source of true insights and not like a ‘theory of everything’ then it is not positivistic.

    3. See (2)

    4. Um, OK.

  • […] about reality, or even to think about reality at all — as opposed to being trapped in the storybook carnival of the post-cartesian […]

  • Ian says:

    Hi Zippy,

    If you consider yourself a mild sort of Platonist and not an Aristotlean, what is your view of the Church’s turn toward Aristotelianism and away from Platonism after Aquinas? Do you view this as a turn in the wrong direction?

  • Zippy says:

    Ian:

    Keep in mind that I really am just some guy, not a trained philosopher or anything, and my views are filtered heavily by what I have happened to read and the disputations in which I have participated about those subjects.

    It isn’t clear to me that even Aristotle was an Aristotlean in the sense in which I am not an Aristotlean, so there is that. My quibbles have to do with the treatment of artifacts and ‘abstract’ (that is, non-physical) objects, largely in the writing of Oderberg and Feser. I think strict Aristotleanism runs into trouble with things like ‘liberalism’ or ‘the pythagorean theorem’ for example because, as I understand it, it fails to treat those things as ontologically real independent of the minds apprehending them.

    In short, assuming I have a grasp of things, to the extent I take issue with (certain views of) Aristotleanism it is because those understandings are not realist enough: in particular about non-physical objects.

    Plato had issues too. There is no reason that I can see to think that ‘abstract’ objects are all that is really the case given Plato’s own premises, but for some reason Plato seemed to think so (I have been told). In fact I think the term ‘abstract’ for non-physical objects or properties of objects is deceptive, because it connotes – at least to me – presence only in the mind.

    In the words of William Shakespeare, “There are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

    I just recently got a copy of Aristotle’s critique of Plato, so that should be interesting when I get to it.

    Looking at it all from slightly higher altitude, as I say in the OP the problem may be less with Aristotle or Plato than with viewing philosophical engagement with reality, perception, knowledge, and language as if those engagements gave rise to totalizing ‘systems’; and it isn’t clear that Aristotle, Plato, Aquinas, or Augustine (to pick prominent examples) would have viewed their own engagement with reality in this way.

    I am pretty sure my views line up pretty well with Aeterni Patris and Fides et Ratio. But, as they are my views, that is probably better for other people to judge.

  • Ian says:

    Thanks for the response.

    I think strict Aristotleanism runs into trouble with things like ‘liberalism’ or ‘the pythagorean theorem’ for example because, as I understand it, it fails to treat those things as ontologically real independent of the minds apprehending them.

    I am no philosopher either, but I have wondered if Aristotelianism allows for these sorts of things to be eternal Divine Ideas in the Divine Intellect. That would allow us to say that these things have an ontological reality independent of any human mind apprehending them, but they would not be independent of any mind full stop, being dependent on the Divine Intellect. (I assume that’s how a Christian Platonist would deal with the Eternal Platonic Forms, since he does not have the option of saying that anything could exist independent of God. I don’t see why an Aristotelian Christian could not make the same move.)

    Regarding your Pythagorean theorem example, do you think a modern Aristotelian would say that it did not exist before Pythagoras discovered it since no mind had yet apprehended it?

    I enjoy reading Edward Feser and I find him very persuasive. Interestingly though, when I read The Last Superstition, I found his explanation of Platonism to be very elegant and I found myself nodding in agreement, even though one of his goals was to show why he thought Aristotelianism was superior to it.

  • Zippy says:

    Ian:

    I have wondered if Aristotelianism allows for these sorts of things to be eternal Divine Ideas in the Divine Intellect. That would allow us to say that these things have an ontological reality independent of any human mind apprehending them, but they would not be independent of any mind full stop, being dependent on the Divine Intellect.

    I’ve made that point myself too, e.g. here. (Did I just reference an 11 year old comment?)

    Regarding your Pythagorean theorem example, do you think a modern Aristotelian would say that it did not exist before Pythagoras discovered it since no mind had yet apprehended it?

    Well, I’ll just say that on the few occasions when I’ve asked questions like that I have not gotten an answer that I understand. What is written certainly seems to imply it.

  • Zippy says:

    Also, I second your praise of Ed Feser’s work. His books are just fantastic — even when I disagree here and there I learn a lot, and he has re-presented venerable ideas in very pedagogically or autodidactically helpful way.

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