St Thomas Aquinas

Ontic Structural Realism, forms, and Aquinas’s philosophy of mind

In my last couple posts (first here and second here) I have been looking at what I now know is called ‘Ontic Structural Realism’ — the idea that all that exists are the structures of relationships between things, and that things have no meaningful existence beyond this — and its link to consciousness (which it seems had not been considered before, which is exciting!). I now want to very briefly look at how this idea works with Aquinas’s idea of forms (taken from Aristotle) and his philosophy of mind.

Forms

The form of a thing is simply the account of the “what-it-was-to-be-that-thing”. Eg a human is a bipedal animal that can talk. It’s those properties that make X to be X.

We should be careful not to reify it into something it’s not: it’s not a ghostly separate substance that’s added to the thing to make it what it is. It’s not exactly a thing at all. It’s more like the definition of the thing. And it’s not one more part of the thing, so much as it’s the thing as a whole. In the example of a bronze sphere, it’s the geometry of the sphere.

It’s counterpart is the matter that the object in question is made of. So a bronze sphere is made of bronze (its matter) and made into a sphere (its form).

Now considering the idea of forms from the perspective of OSR, there’s no difficulty in saying that forms are structures of relationships, as OSR says is true for all things. The account of X is the relations proper to X, that make X what it is, as X. So eg a house is a house because it is a man made habitation for humans – it is related to humanity as a product of human work, and as a home. These two relations create a structure of relations, and that relational structure is what we term a “house”.

The intellect, forms, and the brain

Aquinas tells us that, “a thing is known in as far as its form is in the knower” (ST I Q75 a5). It’s a great insight that knowledge of a thing is a question of its form being in the intellect. To know X is to comprehend its essential X-ness. We can say that X exists in the mind. But we have knowledge of things such as fish, and yet we know that there are no fish actually materially swimming around in our brains, such that a neurosurgeon might take one out and have it for dinner. So we can reasonably assert that things exist within the mind according to their forms, and therefore immaterially.

Aquinas took this point and reasoned from it that the intellect itself must be immaterial. But I think this step is unnecessary if you accept the claim that the form of a thing is simply the structure of its relations, and understand that it’s possible for these same structures to be instantiated in various mediums, eg the matter and or processes within the brain. The structures within the brain are capable, I suspect, of taking on any structure that is logically possible, including the structure of forms.

Let me know what you think!

On self love

Since charity is a kind of friendship, as stated above (II-II:23:1), we may consider charity from two standpoints: first, under the general notion of friendship, and in this way we must hold that, properly speaking, a man is not a friend to himself, but something more than a friend, since friendship implies union, for Dionysius says (Div. Nom. iv) that “love is a unitive force,” whereas a man is one with himself which is more than being united to another. Hence, just as unity is the principle of union, so the love with which a man loves himself is the form and root of friendship. For if we have friendship with others it is because we do unto them as we do unto ourselves, hence we read in Ethic. ix, 4,8, that “the origin of friendly relations with others lies in our relations to ourselves.”

St Thomas Aquinas, ST II:II q25 a4

I love this passage from the Summa. It’s so deep and affirming, and places proper love of oneself in such a high regard.

“Love is a unitive force.” A lot of Catholics like to always define love as “willing the good of the other”, which is a great definition in its own place, but seems to be used too often to suck the beauty and joy out of love. No, love is a force, a force that unites, the force that takes two and makes them one. This is also implies that our love of God is necessarily directed towards our divinization (or “theosis” as the Greeks call it).

In a sense, “self love” is an inappropriate term, because love is a unitive force between two people. But a man is “one with himself” which is something more than unity or friendship, more than love as we generally use the word. It’s something more, not less.

To love yourself is to be one with yourself, and it’s only from this unity that love of others is possible at all. This is the principle, the form, and the root of all other friendships. We can be united to others only insofar as we are one with ourselves. This is a truth that’s confirmed in all my experience: the best and most reliable friends are those who love themselves best, knowing their own worth and goodness.

This idea of self love as oneness leads to an interesting link between self love and integrity, which is also a matter of being one, whole, integrated. If you love yourself, you won’t deceive or betray yourself. You’ll be true to your own values.

So, how do you actually love yourself?

Some people really struggle with this. I think it’s something most of us are ignorant of in our society, and if anything it’s even worse among Christians, since we place so much importance on sacrifice and dying to self and our own unworthiness of salvation. But God made us good, and it is good to love what is good. God loves us, and it is good to love what God loves. And it is good to love those who are closest to us, such as our friends and family, and no one (besides God) is closer to a man than himself. Accepting this is a good start.

Then, treat yourself like you would treat a good friend in your situation, or like a good friend would treat you. Or as Jordan Peterson puts it in ’12 Rules for Life’, “Treat yourself like someone you are responsible for helping” (rule 2). It takes a little time and imagination, but after a while it grows more and more habitual to be good to yourself. It’s not merely indulging yourself, and it’s not just putting in the work to improve. It’s caring for your good as a whole being. You need exercise and sustenance and rest and recreation [what a beautiful word].

As noted above, integrity is critical to self love. You have to recognise your values and live according to them. You have to be honest with yourself and with others, because we can only be one with ourselves to the extent that we hold to the truth of who and what we are.

Going to confession is a good exercise in this honesty and integrity, as is doing penance, because it means facing up to ourselves including our failures, and then working to make things right. It might sound paradoxical to say penance is an expression of self love, but there it is.

Another important part of self love is surrounding yourself with love. Make the effort to stay in touch with family and friends, and to make new ones too. Frequent the sacraments. Read scripture and good books. Make time to pray. Watch wholesome TV (‘Queer Eye’ springs to mind). Spend time in nature (it’s strange to say, but there’s a lot of love in nature).

(image links to a good article on Aquinas’s advice for dealing with sadness)

That’s all I’ve got for now! God bless!

Foxes and Goodness and God

I follow a fantastic twitter account, @hourlyFox, which posts one photo of a fox each hour. If you’re on twitter, follow it.

These foxes have taught me a profound truth: goodness is something solid and real. Sometimes I forget this. I start thinking of goodness as being something subjective, existing only in our minds, or as being just relational, existing only between things. But these foxes disprove this.

These foxes are good. God sees foxes, and sees that they are good. And they are not merely good-to-me or good-according-to-me; they are good-in-and-of-themselves. Foxes were good for millions of years before we humans even showed up.

As St Thomas said, “Goodness and being are really the same, and differ only in idea” (ST I, Q.5, Art.1). Foxes remind me of this truth. When we forget this, we can become stupidly small minded, obsessed with ourselves and with other people’s thoughts. When we are the measure and centre of the universe, the source of its meaning, our universe becomes as small as we are, and will suffocate us with its pressure.

It’s not all about me! It’s not even all about us! The universe would still be genuinely good if human beings never existed. Of course, we are good too, but not merely by our own judgments.

All of this does raise the question: who is it good to? Because as much as foxes are good in themselves, I’m not sure if the idea of “good” makes sense in a non-personal context. St Thomas links goodness with desire, which is surely tied to personhood. So can anything really be good in itself?

Yes, by being good in God. I believe that foxes being good in themselves is the same as foxes being good in God’s eyes. In fact, I believe their existence is the same as God’s knowledge/experience of them. God is not separated from reality for there to be a subjective-objective distinction. He is the non-other.

What’s more, the goodness of each fox is a participation-in and revelation-of the goodness of God, that is, God Himself.

Now we must ask: have we just shifted the existential burden onto this “God” character? Is the world small and in itself meaningless to Him, if not to us?

No. We must remember that God is perfectly humble (and this humility is Himself). Like fox cubs at play, He doesn’t act for any end beyond rejoicing in the act itself. It has no greater meaning and it needs no greater meaning. He has no greater meaning and He needs no greater meaning. He is love.

God bless you!

Summa Says – You don’t know what “God exists” means

FOURTH ARTICLE [I, Q. 3, Art. 4] Whether Essence and Existence Are the Same in God?

Obj. 2: Further, we can know whether God exists as said above (Q. 2, A. 2); but we cannot know what He is. Therefore God’s existence is not the same as His essence–that is, as His quiddity or nature.

Reply Obj. 2: “To be” can mean either of two things. It may mean the act of essence, or it may mean the composition of a proposition effected by the mind in joining a predicate to a subject. Taking “to be” in the first sense, we cannot understand God’s existence nor His essence; but only in the second sense. We know that this proposition which we form about God when we say “God is,” is true; and this we know from His effects (Q. 2, A. 2).

I love this. How can God’s existence be the same as His essence, when we know He exists, but can’t know what He is? St Thomas doesn’t hold back, and tells us that we don’t know what it means that God exists, even if we know it to be true.

God’s existence is not the same as the existence of you or me or the angels or numbers or anything else in existence. He doesn’t exist as a thing that could conceivably exist or not. Existence as we know it is something subsequent to God; He created it. He is so far beyond all, that He is even, as Dionysius puts it, “beyond being”.

We know that He exists in an unknowable way. Our every attempt to grasp His existence is doomed to fail. We could even say, taking existence as just the existence we know, that God does not exist. But we’d also have to say that He doesn’t not exist. He is above existence and non-existence.

For things, all existence occurs within a space, and makes that space occupied rather than unoccupied, like adding a drawing to blank paper. Their existence realises some possibility. But God’s existence is logically prior to everything, or else He isn’t God, and so there is no space that He occupies, no possibility for God’s existence that is realised. He just is.

Why does this delight me so much? I think it’s because it means that, since we can’t know God in Himself through our minds, we must rely entirely on another, more intimate, way. We must love Him. We must be one with Him.

God bless!

Each thing is destined for its own fulfillment

Each thing is destined for its own fulfillment.

This occurred to me recently, for some reason. Seeds are destined to become plants. Children are destined to become adults. Food is destined to be eaten.

But my statement is self-evident. Of course everything tends towards its end, that’s why it is its end. The two parts of the statement are defined by each other.

Yet this only deepens its meaning, I feel. Everything contains within itself, exists according to, and tends towards its own essential principle. It is what it is. It reminds me of the meaning of the divine name, ‘I Am That I Am’ or, ‘I Will Be Who I Will Be’.

The river flows towards the ocean. The child grows into an adult. The seed becomes a tree. That is what it is, what it does, and what it will be.

In each case we can also note that the end is also the origin. It is from its origin, and so to be according to itself is to be according to its origin, and to tend to itself is to tend to its origin. It is contained by its origin, and its origin is contained within it.

And the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.‘ – T. S. Elliot

Ultimately, God is the first origin and final end of all things. And in each thing being and becoming itself, it tends towards God Himself. The whole cosmos is heading towards its fulfillment in God. As St Paul wrote,

‘He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.’ [Colossians 1:15-20]

And,

‘For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until now’ [Romans 8:19-22]

And again,

‘When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to the one who put all things in subjection under him, so that God may be all in all.’ [Corinthians 15:28]

God bless!