Metaphysical middle man

As I’ve noted many times (e.g. here), when a thinker like Aquinas describes God as the First Cause, what is meant is not merely “first” in a temporal sense, and not “first” in the sense of the cause that happens to come before the second, third, fourth, fifth, etc. causes, but rather “first” in the sense of having absolutely primal and underived causal power, of being that from which all other causes derive their efficacy.  Second causes are, accordingly, “second” not in the sense of coming later in time or merely happening to come next in a sequence, but rather in the sense of having causal power only in a secondary or derivative way.  They are like the moon, which gives light only insofar as it receives it from the sun.

The moon really does give light, though, and secondary causes really do have causal power.  To affirm God as First Cause is not to embrace the occasionalist positionthat only God ever really causes anything to happen.  Alfred Freddoso helpfully distinguishesbetween occasionalism, mere conservationism, and concurrentism.  Whereas the occasionalist attributes all causality to God, mere conservationism goes to the opposite extreme of holding that although God maintains things and their causal powers in being, they bring about their effects all by themselves.  Concurrentists like Aquinas take a middle ground position according to which secondary causes really have (contra occasionalism) genuine causal power, but in producing their effects still only ever act together with God as a “concurring” cause (contra mere conservationism).  To borrow an example from Freddoso, if you draw a square on a chalkboard with blue chalk, both you as primary cause and the chalk as secondary cause are joint causes of the effect -- you of there being any square there at all, the chalk of the square’s being blue.  God’s concurrence with the secondary, natural causes he sustains in being is analogous to that.

Concurrentism alone, the Thomist holds, can adequately account for both the natural world’s reality and its utter dependence on God.  Occasionalism threatens to collapse into pantheism insofar as if it is really God who is doing everything that creaturely things seem to be doing, it is hard to see how they are in any interesting way distinct from him.   (Consider that a mark of a thing’s having a substantial form rather than an accidental form -- and thus of its being a true substance, with an independent existence, rather than being a mere modification of something else -- is having its own irreducible causal powers.)  Mere conservationism, on the other hand, threatens to collapse into deism, on which the world could in principle carry on just as it is even in the absence of God.  (For if, as the Scholastics hold, a thing’s manner of acting reflects its manner of existing, then what can bring about effects entirely independently of God can in principle exist apart from God.)
That secondary causes are true causes, even if ultimately dependent on God, is necessary if natural science is to be possible.  If occasionalism were true, absolutely everything that happens would, in effect, be comparable to a miracle and there would be no natural regularities to discover.  Physics, chemistry, biology, and the like would be nothing other than branches of theology -- the study of different sorts of divine action rather than of (say) the properties of magnetism, electricity, gravitation, hydrogen, helium, bodily organs, or genetic material as such.  And if God’s ways are inscrutable (as they must be given that He is pure actuality, subsistent being itself, etc.), then there could in that case be little reason to expect regularity in any of these spheres.  (As Alain Besançon has argued, a tendency toward an occasionalist conception of divine causality is part of what distinguishes Islam from Christianity – and this is no doubt one reason why natural science progressed in the West and stagnated within the Islamic world.)

But it is not just in the area of efficientcausality that this middle ground position is theologically and philosophically essential.  Final causality too must be regarded as immanent to nature, and precisely because efficient causal powers are.  For Aquinas, there is no way to make sense of the fact that an efficient cause A regularly generates a certain specific effect or range of effects B -- rather than C, or D, or no effect at all -- if we don’t suppose that A inherently “points to” or is “directed at” B as toward an end or goal.  Immanent efficientcausal power goes hand in hand with immanent finality or directedness; deny the latter and you implicitly deny the former, which is why Humean skepticism about efficient causality as a real, objective feature of the world followed upon the early moderns’ chucking-out of immanent final causes.

That means that potency as a real feature of nature would go out the door with immanent finality, since a potency is always a potency for some particular outcome, toward which it “points” or is directed.  If there is no finality inherent in nature, then there are no real potencies in nature either.  And if potency is not a real feature of the world, then there is no basis for an Aristotelian-Thomistic argument from change or motion -- that is to say, from the actualization of potency -- to the existence of an Unmoved Mover (or “Unactualized Actualizer”) of the world.  (Indeed, as I argued in my 2011 lecture at Franciscan University of Steubenville, which you can view on YouTube, there is in general no way to argue from the world to God if potency is not a real feature of the world.)

Immanent formal causes -- substantial forms or immanent natures, inherent in natural substances themselves rather than in some Platonic third realm -- are essential for the same reason.  For a thing’s substantial form is the immediate ground both of its efficient-causal powers and its “directedness” toward certain ends.  Hence if formal causes are not immanent to natural substances, neither are efficient causal powers or finality (i.e. teleology or “directedness” toward an end). 

The distinction between immanent or “built in” efficient, final, and formal causes on the one hand, and extrinsic or externally imposed causes on the other, is essentially coterminous with the Aristotelian distinction between “nature” versus “art” (which I’ve discussed in several places, such as hereand here).  To appeal to an example I’ve used several times before, a liana vine (the sort of vine Tarzan swings around on) is a paradigmatic natural substance, whereas a hammock Tarzan might make out of living liana vines is a paradigmatic artifact.  The difference is that the vines have an inherent tendency to carry out activities like taking in nutrients through their roots, growing in certain patterns, etc., but do not have any inherent tendency to function as a hammock.  That is why, unless occasionally pruned, re-tied, and so forth, living liana vines will presumably not stay configured in a hammock-like way.  The hammock-like function is externally imposed on the vines, whereas the functions of taking in nutrients, growing in certain patterns, etc. are “built in” to the vines, just by virtue of being vines.  That is what it is for the vines to have the substantial form of a liana vine, whereas the form of being a hammock is a merely “accidental” form.  And that’s what it is for the nutrient absorption and growth patterns to be instances of immanent finality or teleology while the hammock-like function is an instance of extrinsic finality or teleology.  And precisely for that reason, efficient-causal powers like the ability to facilitate a restful sleep are not inherent to the vines as such, but result only from Tarzan’s having redirected the vines away from their natural tendencies and toward an end of his own.

Now just as attributing real causal power to secondary or natural causes (contra occasionalism) is in no way inconsistent with the claim that all causal power ultimately derives from God as First Cause, so too, insisting that final and formal causes are immanent to natural substances is in no way incompatible with affirming that God is the ultimate source of natural teleology (as the Supreme Intellect which directs things toward their ends, as Aquinas holds in the Fifth Way) and the ultimatesource of the forms of things (insofar as, as Aquinas also holds, the forms of things preexist in the divine intellect as the archetypes according to which God creates).  The latter positions are essentially analogues, for formal and final causes, of the concurrentist position vis-à-vis efficient causes. 

Indeed, concurrentism requires such a view about formal and final causes, for the reasons already indicated.  If formal and final causes in no way derived from God, then neither would a thing’s efficient causal powers (which follow upon its substantial form and teleological features) depend on God.  We would be left with mere conservationism at best.  On the other hand, if formal and final causes were entirely extrinsic, imposed from outside by God but in noway inherent in things themselves, then neither would a thing’s efficient causal powers -- which, again, follow upon its form and its teleological features -- be inherent in it.  We would be left with an essentially occasionalist position.

This is why the Aristotelian-Thomistic position is, as I have argued many times, fundamentally incompatible with Paleyan “design arguments” and “Intelligent Design” theory.  Insofar as these approaches treat natural objects as artifacts, they essentially attribute to them merely accidental rather than substantial forms, and teleology or finality that is entirely extrinsic rather than immanent.  This not only gets the natural order entirely wrong insofar as it ignores the Aristotelian distinction between “nature” and “art,” but it leads (whether the proponents of these views realize it or not) to a conception of divine causality that threatens to collapse into occasionalism.  (Though other things such writers say tend toward the opposite extreme of deism.  For they hold that whether the order exhibited by natural phenomena has a divine cause is a matter of probability -- which entails that it is at least in principle possible that the formal, final, and efficient causes of things might lack a divine sustaining cause.  The Thomist view, of course, is that this is not possible even in principle, so that the existence of a divine source of formal, final, and efficient causality is not a matter of mere probability but rather of metaphysical necessity.)

Earlier I cited the moon’s illumination of the earth, and Freddoso’s example of the chalk, as illustrations of the idea that secondary efficient causes have genuine causal power of their own even though that power ultimately depends on something outside them.  Are there examples that might help us to understand how finality, teleology, or directedness can be both immanent to natural substances and yet dependent on a divine source?

There are.  Consider, first, a simple analogy.  A white wall on which ordinary sunlight is shining is white and not at all red.  A white wall on which red light is shining is in one sense red, but it derives its redness entirely from the light.  And a red wall on which ordinary sunlight is shining is in some sense red inherently, but the redness is nevertheless manifest only insofar as the light is shining on it.  Now compare God’s imparting of teleology to natural substances to the light’s shining on a wall.  Natural teleology as writers like Paley understand it -- something entirely extrinsic to nature -- can be compared to the redness a white wall has only when the red light is shining on it.  But natural teleology as Aquinas understands it is like the redness a red wall has when ordinary sunlight is shining on it.  The redness is really there in the wall, yet it cannot in any way manifest itself apart from the light.  (I ignore the scientific details as irrelevant to the purpose of the analogy, and I do not claim that the analogy is perfect, only suggestive.)

Or consider signs, linguistic and otherwise.  The word “triangle” and the symbol Δ can both be used to represent triangles in general.  Now neither one can do so on its own, for each by itself is a mere set of physical marks with no symbolic content.  A mind must impart such content to them.  Moreover, the connection between the word “triangle” and triangles is entirely arbitrary, an accident of the history of the English language.  And even Δ hardly resembles all triangles; for example, there are obvious respects in which it does not resemble right triangles, or green ones, or very large ones.  All the same, there is obviously something inherent to Δ which makes it a more natural symbol for triangles in general than the word “triangle” is.  Though both symbols ultimately depend for their symbolic content on a mind which imparts that content to them, Δ nevertheless has an inherentaptness for representing triangles in general that “triangle” does not.  Now compare God’s imparting of teleology to natural objects to a mind’s imparting symbolic content to signs.  For Paley and his conception of teleology as entirely extrinsic, natural objects are like the word “triangle,” whereas for Aquinas they are like Δ.  As with the word, the symbol Δ refers to triangles in general only insofar as that meaning is imparted to it, but there is still a natural connection between Δ and triangles in general that does not exist between “triangle” and triangles in general.  (Again, I do not say that the analogy is perfect, only suggestive.)

A final analogy is taken from linguistic representation specifically.  If we consider the words and sentences we speak and write, it is obvious that they get their meaning from the community of language users that produces them, and ultimately from the ideas expressed by those language users in using them.  Apart from these users, these linguistic items would be nothing more than meaningless noises or splotches of ink.  Still, once produced, they take on a kind of life of their own.  Words and sentences printed in books or recorded on tape retain their meaning even when no one is thinking about them; indeed, even if the books or tapes sit in a dusty corner of a library or archive somewhere, ignored for decades and completely forgotten, they still retain their meaning.  Moreover, language has a structure that most language users are unaware of, but which can be studied by linguists.  Still, if the community of language users were to disappear entirely – every single one of them killed in a worldwide plague, say – then the recorded words that were left behind would in that case revert to meaningless sounds or marks.  While the community of language users exists, its general background presence is all that is required for meaning to persist in the physical sounds and markings, even if some of those sounds and markings are not the subject of anyone’s attention at a particular moment.  But if the community goes away altogether, the meaning goes with it. 

By analogy (and here too I do not claim that the analogy is exact) we might think of the relationship of the divine intelligence of Aquinas’s Fifth Way to the system of final causes in the natural world as somewhat like the relationship of language users to language.  God directs things to their ends, but the system thereby created has a kind of independence insofar as it can be studied without reference to God Himself, just as linguists can study the structure of language without paying attention to the intentions of this or that language user.  The directedness toward certain ends is in a sense just “there” in unintelligent causes like the meaning is just “there” in words once they have been written.  At the same time, if God were to cease directing things toward their ends, final causes would immediately disappear, just as the meaning of words would disappear if all language users disappeared.  In this way, immanent teleology plays a role similar to secondary causes in the order of efficient causes, as I suggested above.  Just as secondary causes have real causal power of their own, even if it derives ultimately from God as First Cause, so too natural objects have immanent teleology, even if it derives ultimately from God as ordering intelligence.  (This is notintended as an exposition or defense of the Fifth Way itself, mind you -- for that see Aquinas.)

As I have said, to deny the immanence of teleology would be implicitly to deny that natural substances have real causal power and that there is any real potency in nature -- and thus to undermine the foundations of natural science and natural theology (or at least any natural theology that argues from the world to God).  It would also undermine the possibility of natural law.  For there can be such a thing as natural law only insofar as there are ends toward which human beings are naturally and inherently directed, and which we can therefore know by studying human nature.  If teleology is entirely extrinsic -- no more immanent to nature than the time-telling function is to the metal parts of a watch -- then it can only exist in the world, including human beings, insofar as it is imposed on it entirely from outside either by us or by God.  If by us, then ethics is essentially a human invention; if by God, then it is a matter of sheer divine command, which entails that we could know what is good or bad for us only by reference to those commands rather than by reference to human nature itself.  (I discussed this issue at greater length in an earlier post.)

In short, natural law, natural science, and natural theology presuppose the reality of nature -- nature as something which, though ultimately dependent on God (and necessarily so), nevertheless is distinct from God and thus can at least partiallybe understood without reference to God.  That is why we can know that certain actions are good for us and others bad whether or not we know that the former have been commanded by God and the latter forbidden by Him; it is why we can do physics, chemistry, and biology without constantly asking “What were God’s intentions in making [quarks, phosphorus, dandelions, etc.]?”; and it is why we can know that teleology and potency are real features of the world whether or not we know that there is a God  (so that the arguments for the existence of God from the reality of natural teleology and potency are not circular arguments). 

You might say that the natural order is the metaphysical middle man between human beings and God.  There are certain kinds of religious sensibility eager to cut out the middle man – to deny nature, or do dirt on it, or make it “respectable” by absorbing it into the order of grace.  Sometimes this takes a “high church” form – pantheism, say, or occasionalism, or Barthianism and some other strains of Protestantism, or the Catholic nouvelle theologie.  (I said something about some of these views in an earlier post.)  Sometimes it takes a “low church” form, as with Bible-thumping (or Quran-thumping) fideism, or the crude picture of natural objects as artifacts of “the ‘carpenter’ of cheap apologetics” (as Gilson once described the anthropomorphic god of popular design arguments).  What these otherwise very different views have in common is a tendency to deny that the natural order per se really has anything interesting or important to tell us -- to insinuate that we have to go straight to theology for that.  Zealous to honor the Creator, they end up insulting His creation.

And now, for you Boz Scaggs fans who have held on to the end, thinking this post had something to do with his classic Middle Man, here’s the best known cut from the album.

Nothing More To Say

Time For Recess

For the record: I have no idea about the validity of "recess appointments," or of claiming the Senate is in session when everyone is, in fact, gone; which is what Rs had done before the appointments Obama made that have now been declared unconstitutional. If they are, I wouldn't defend them in any way; although if it turned on the definition of "recess," when, in fact, everyone had hightailed it except for a designated R stooge to go to the floor for a few seconds every three days, which is what happened, then I'd think it was pretty phony business.

Meanwhile, though, it's worth knowing a couple of things about the judge who made the ruling:

One of the most effective judges in implementing partisan Republican policies from the federal bench has been David Sentelle. He is like the Zelig of GOP judicial activism -- from appointing Ken Starr to exonerating Ollie North and Admiral Poindexter, from letting Dick Cheney keep the publics' energy papers secret to approving Bush secret search warrants: the guy seems to show up everywhere the GOP needs a judicial hatchet man. 

According to the book "The Hunting of the President," in an article written while he was on the U.S. Appeals Court, Sentelle "accused 'leftist heretics' of scheming to turn the United States into 'a collectivist, egalitarian, materialistic, race-conscious, hyper-secular, and socially permissive state.'" This is not Ann Coulter, who makes her living out of outrageous and often violent comments about liberals; this is a federal judge who played a key role in passing out Iran-Contra "get out of jail cards" and set-up the impeachment of Bill Clinton.

As you can see from the quotation in our excerpt, Sentelle's core beliefs amount to a Rush Limbaugh rant on a day when he is in his uber-demagogue mode. And remember Sentelle "accused 'leftist heretics' of scheming to turn the United States into 'a collectivist, egalitarian, materialistic, race-conscious, hyper-secular, and socially permissive state" while sitting as an active judge on the D.C. Court of Appeals!

To understand Sentelle a bit, you need to know his origins and chief political sponsor.Sentelle is a former North Carolina GOP state party official and attorney (Mecklenburg County Republican Chairman in 1979-1980). He was a Jesse Helms protege. Helms got Reagan's people to appoint Sentelle to the United States District Court for the Western District of North Carolina. Ironically, when his wing nut soulmate, Antonin Scalia, was appointed to the Supreme Court, Sentelle was "moved up" to the D.C. Appellate Court to succeed him there. (It should be noted that former NC Senator Lauch Faircloth -- who John Edwards defeated in 1998 -- was also an active promoter of Sentelle and played a role in Sentelle's appointment of Ken Starr for the purpose of finding a legal toehold to impeach Bill Clinton.)

I'll note, in fairness, that it was a unanimous decision from a three-judge panel of the D.C. Circuit, a very conservative court in general (consisting of more than three judges); so it wasn't just the aforementioned reprobate. Did he hand-pick the other two? Are they as partisan as he? Well, who knows? It's probably moot, anyway; at this point I suppose it'd be up to the Supreme Court, if the administration appeals. And I'd guess that wouldn't get past the ferocious five.

Meanwhile, given the weak tea that is the so-called filibuster reform capitulated by agreed to by Harry Reid, and the Rs' continued prime directive to prevent our president from doing anything, government will remain hogtied by their refusal to approve appointments, even those cleared easily by the relevant committees.

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God and man at HuffPo

Over at The Huffington Post, Rabbi Adam Jacobs defends the cosmological argument for the existence of God, kindly citing yours truly and The Last Superstition.  Give it a read, then sit back and watch as the tsunami of clueless objections rolls into the combox.


Interesting: turns out, for the Catholic church, fetal personhood ends on the way to the bank. Maybe you've already heard: In a response to a wrongful death lawsuit against a Catholic hospital, wherein doctors failed to attempt to save the twin pregnancies of a woman who'd arrived in their ER with a massive heart attack, the church is defending itself on the grounds that the "twins were fetuses, and not people."

The hospital's defense, so far successful, is to claim that because the twins were fetuses and not people, this can't legally be viewed as a wrongful-death situation. 
Of course, the problem is that the hospital is run by Catholic Health Initiatives—Catholic, as in that religion whose leadership routinely claims that not only are fetuses people, but so are embryos, zygotes, and fertilized eggs. That claim is used to turn women into sacrificial lambs for the faith, denying them not just elective abortions but telling them that it's not OK to terminate pregnancies where there's no chance of producing a live baby. Women who go to Catholic hospitals in these situations have been denied procedures to save their fertility or even their lives. But, as this lawsuit shows, the passionate belief that anything post-fertilization is a "person" evaporates the second it stops being useful as a way to oppress women (and the second it starts possibly costing the Catholic hospital money).
Yikes. So much for morality and absolutism. Not when money is involved, anyway. But it's part and parcel of the whole debate: easier to tell other people how to behave than to behave that way yourself. It's useful to know that as the Church imposes its moral rhetoric on everyone else, it couldn't give less of a shit about it if it might cost them pieces of silver. I find it enlightening. And startling, matter of fact.

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2013 US Open at Merion - A Historic Course & Red Basket Golf Swag

U.S. Open 2013 - Merion
2013 US Open Apparel & Accessories      presentation by GolfGirl via Polyvore
"I love Merion... and I don't even know her last name." ~ Lee Trevino

The quote is an amusing ode to the Golden Age golf course where, in 1971, Trevino won his second US Open in an 18-hole playoff over Jack Nicklaus.  

Nicklaus himself has admitted to a longstanding love affair with the Pennsylvania beauty, as have countless players, writers and fans. 

However over the past few decades, the beloved Merion, has come perilously close to becoming a victim of her historical layout. 

Some felt it could no longer stand up to the demands of a US Open; that modern equipment... and increasingly athletic golfers... had made the 135 acre course obsolete. Others cited the logistics of a 21st century tournament, with massive merchandise tents and huge corporate hospitality installations.

However Merion's magnetism... combined with the determination and creativity of it's members... ultimately won the day. Holes were lengthened, bunkers added and fairways narrowed down... and innovative solutions were put into place to handle logistics. In less than five months the US Open will again be contested on the fairways and greens of Merion's East course.



Here is a very interesting rumination on today's American South. It reinforces and clarifies what has seemed obvious to me and, probably, everyone else who looks at it: their current intransigence is precisely about Obama. To receive help from a black guy offends their sense of dignity. It's encoded deeply enough there that it moves them to hurt themselves in the process.

... They were defeated but not dumb. With dreams of an agrarian society, they might denounce the industrial north, but they got the funds to bring electricity to large parts of the South from the government’s Tennessee Valley Authority. ...
But the current South is willing to cut off its own nose to show contempt for the government. Governor Rick Scott of Florida turned down more than $2 billion in federal funds for a high-speed rail system in Florida that would have created jobs and millions of dollars in revenues, just to show he was independent of the hated federal government. ... 
No part of the country will suffer the effects of global warming earlier or with more devastation than the South, yet its politicians resist measures to curb carbon emissions and deny the very existence of climate change ... But it just digs deeper in denial. The South has decided to be defeated and dumb.
... I was made aware of the odd mix of gain and loss when I went back to Atlanta to see my beloved grandmother. She told me not to hold change between my lips while groping for a pocket to put it in—“That might have been in a nigger’s mouth.” Once, when she took me to Mass, she walked out of the church when a black priest came out to celebrate. I wondered why, since she would sit and eat with a black woman who helped her with housework. “It is the dignity—I would not let him take the Lord in his hands.”
... That is why the worst aspects of the South are resurfacing under Obama’s presidency. It is the dignity. That a black should have not merely rights but prominence, authority, and even awe—that is what many Southerners cannot stomach. They would let him ride on the bus, or get into Ivy League schools. But he must be kept from the altar; he cannot perform the secular equivalent of taking the Lord in his hands. It is the dignity.
Up north, where the racists are more sprinkled about, it's just manifest in blind hate and conspiracy theories. They can accept the needed government programs with the luxury of railing about it at the same time.

There's false dignity, too; and it's just the inverse of self-esteem. You call upon your self-described "dignity" to convince yourself you're better than "they" are. It's always been the source of prejudice and bullying and the sort of formless rage we see directed at President Obama.

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Reality Hurts

In 2012, US oil production increased faster than at any time in history. So much for teabagger/RWS™ claims that Obama is trying to shut it down.

So guess how the wingnuts have responded to the news, as a sampling of one of the wingnuttiest site's comments shows:

To: MinorityRepublican Not that the Obamatrons haven’t tried to stop it.  
To: Nachum
Not that the Obamatrons haven’t tried to stop it. I can only imagine how much American energy would be produced if the current regime weren't blocking it at every turn! We'd be independent of the middle eastern goons if a pro-energy, pro-business administration were in power. Instead, Obama fights the oil producers with absurd regulations and confiscatory taxes to keep his muzzie kinfolk enriched. And, We the People, suffer pain at the pump year after year with the pretender and his gang in charge.
"Blocking it at every turn." The proof of which, evidently, is the record-breaking increase. Amazing. The farce is strong in these people, and it's beyond comprehension. But it's also obvious that there'll never be a way to get through to them. No amount of facts, no amount of evidence to the contrary of everything they believe will change their minds. For some reason, they're unalterably invested in their hatreds and blindness. Clearly, their need arises from a very dark place. These are damaged people.

The irony, of course, is that isn't exactly good news to liberals concerned about greenhouse gas production. But the larger point is the extent to which our politics is poisoned, maybe irreparably, by people such as these. And the ones they elect to Congress.



A bit of a change of pace, here's my latest Sunday newspaper column:

I’m writing this on the day the world disappeared. 

Beyond my low white fence is nothing; nothing but heavy fog and grey silence. Islands, water, mountains, as gone as if they were never there. It feels like riding the only bit of turf in the universe, or that there’s no universe at all except this little spot, disconnected, nothing above or below, in front or behind. Other than the cedar tree, visible only partway to its top, and the empty maple, only a step from passing into invisibility, there are no living things. Finding no markers between up and down, maybe the birds are disoriented. Whatever the reason, they’ve gone quiet, making isolation even more palpable.
Because I like living where the seasons change, I accept it. Until I don’t, at the point when it begins to feel claustrophobic. It’s been foggy for several days, now; this time around, it’s been lifting, or at least thinning to the point of moderated visibility, as the day rolls it up. It wasn’t too many years ago, if you remember, that we were fogged in, the whole city, for, maybe, a couple weeks straight, with no breaking through. That began to feel unearthly; a sense there was no way out, no direction to go. No direction at all, really. Just monochromatic nothing, with no points of reference. The mind needs horizons, and there were none. 
Driving, slowing for the bleakness, oncoming cars appear suddenly, too close. It’s unnatural, unmaking the rules of sight and distance, the expected timing and rhythms having disappeared with the horizon. Headlights take on a feral and feline aura, creeping into view before their cars, undimming their way out of the fog, coming in on Cheshire cat feet. Menacing. Trees, what can be seen of them, stand colorless in silence, and, because it’s winter, their grey nakedness feels ominous, feels like they’re waiting to step out of the fog (or further back into it), biding their time for something nasty. Unbounded by edges, imagination confounds. 
During my surgery training in San Francisco, our tiny mid-city house was right on the fog line. We could open the front door to the same sort of greyness I’m looking at now, except that our neighbors never quite disappeared. Out our back door, though, at the very same time, our Sunday morning coffee deck and Arizona-like rocky garden remained sunbathed. The house was magical in other ways, too, being our first. To get into the garage you lifted a trap door. Built right after the earthquake, the house was of wood, and low to the ground. Only 900 square feet, it had an improbably nice kitchen. And that yard. I wasn’t home much; but when I was, there were always sunny Sunday mornings, and coffee on the deck, and the fountain. 
Always, no matter the weather elsewhere, the back garden remained sunny. With its lilies and, until they gave themselves up, one day, to wandering raccoons, koi, our artificial pond, into which I’d built that fountain, sounded us a million miles from the city. In memory, the fog never made it past the front door, or robbed us of the view of our cypress tree. I could be wrong. 
Foghorns were more distant in San Francisco than they are here, far enough away to be always romantic, a reassuring foot- or mind-hold, orienting to direction, unlike the fog. Here we live not far from the Mukilteo Lighthouse with its foghorns, and the romance fades over the day; especially since – maybe because of the bluffs – it’s hard to tell from where the ever more intrusive moaning comes. But I know where it is; so the fact that the sound is directionless only magnifies the sense of disconnection. 
So, you might be asking, what is a fluff-piece like this doing in the opinion pages? Two things. For one, I don’t like being a scold all the time. For another, I’ve noticed something which, in my opinion, deserves consideration: without foghorns, there is no fog. The louder and more frequent the horns, the denser the fog. Think about it: if there were no fog, there’d be no need for the horns. “Big foghorn” is behind this. The fog comes in because of the horns, not the other way around.


Mumford on metaphysics

In another in a series of excellent interviews with contemporary philosophers, 3:AM Magazine’s witty and well-informed Richard Marshall talks to analytic metaphysician Stephen Mumford.  Mumford is an important and influential contributor to the current revival of interest in powers and dispositions as essential to understanding what science reveals to us about the natural world.  The notion of a power or disposition is closely related to what the Scholastics called a potency, and Mumford cites Aristotle and Aquinas as predecessors of the sort of view he defends.  Mumford’s notion of the “metaphysics of science” is also more or less identical to what modern Scholastic writers call the philosophy of nature.  But Mumford’s interest is motivated by issues in philosophy of science and metaphysics rather than natural theology.  The interview provides a useful basic, brief introduction to some of the issues that have arisen in the contemporary debate about powers.

Some comments on the interview: Mumford cites Bertrand Russell as a great thinker from whom one can learn much even if one largely disagrees with him.  I agree with that assessment (where Russell’s serious philosophical work was concerned, anyway -- his popular writings on religion, morals, politics, etc. are awful), and I wrote my doctoral dissertation in part on Russell.  I would qualify some of the specific points Mumford makes, however.  The early Russell famously rebelled against the neo-Hegelian monism that dominated British philosophy in the late 19thcentury, in favor of a metaphysics of radically discrete objects.  He famously suggested that for Hegel the world is like a jelly -- one continuous blob, as it were -- whereas for Russell himself the world was like a bucket of shot, countless disconnected individual bits.  

Mumford gives the impression that dispositionalism -- which affirms an interconnectedness between things insofar as dispositions tend toward their manifestations (e.g. brittleness tends toward breaking) -- entails a return to something like the monism Russell rejected.  But I think that is not correct (and I’m not sure Mumford would actually take it that far).  Instead of comparing the world to either jelly or buckshot, we might compare it to a museum full of paintings that represent each other from different points of view.  The paintings are discrete objects (unlike the Hegelian jelly) but not radically independent (unlike Russell’s buckshot) insofar as they point beyond themselves to each other.  The Aristotelian conception of the world, anyway -- which, in fairness, Mumford himself may not be entirely committed to -- is a middle ground between monism (whether Hegelian, Parmenidean, or what have you) and radical metaphysical individualism (whether Humean, Ockhamite, or whatever).

Mumford might not be entirely happy with the painting analogy, though, since he indicates that he disagrees with George Molnar’s idea that powers exhibit a kind of intentionality insofar as they are “directed toward” their manifestations, and he favors instead the notion of what he calls the “dispositional modality, between pure necessity and pure contingency.”  Here (with qualifications) I would side with Molnar.  I also am wary of Mumford’s rejection of the division of properties into categorical and dispositional, which seems to threaten to lead to a metaphysics of pure potency devoid of act, to use the Scholastic language.  (These are issues I’ll be dealing with in some forthcoming work on causation.)

Mumford also unfavorably compares Wittgenstein to Russell.  I agree with Mumford’s reservations about Wittgensteinian method, but I think that Wittgenstein is nevertheless of great significance for metaphysics(despite Wittgenstein’s own intentions!) insofar as his work constitutes a powerful critique of reductionism, scientism, and related notions.  I would say that Wittgenstein’s position points in the direction of something like an Aristotelian conception of human nature, even if he would himself never have taken it in that direction.

These disagreements notwithstanding, Mumford is always interesting and the interview is well worth reading.  Mumford makes some wise remarks about science, noting that “physics largely consists of a mathematical representation of reality: usually an artificial portion of reality in a model.  Reality should not be mistaken for that mathematical representation.  The world is not a number, nor an equation.”  (This is a theme I have addressed many times, such as hereand here-- Mumford, who is a fan of comic books, might especially like the first of those posts.)  The joke Marshall cites from the book Mumford co-wrote with Rani Lill Anjum nicely parodies the clueless scientism that permeates so much of contemporary intellectual life.
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