Tuesday, 15 January 2019

How Many Fundamental Things?

One of the most basic questions of ontology, both ancient and contemporary, concerns the number of basic “things,” for lack of a better word, in existence.1 For Plato and many Christians, the world is fundamentally split in two, we live and act in the world of becoming, which is contrasted to the world of Being. For an idealist like Berkeley, there is only type of thing, mind. In this brief essay I will argue that twice in the history of philosophy we have seen a similar set of arguments being used by philosophical schools who differ over the number and nature of fundamental things.

I will begin with the problem in ancient times. As I mentioned above, Plato's philosophy is often considered dualistic because Plato divides reality into Being and becoming. The world of Being is changeless and eternal, while the sensory world of becoming is constantly changing. But the world of becoming is not merely changing, it also displays consistency. According to Plato, this is because the things in the world of becoming participate in the world of Being, giving things things their essential characteristics and behaviors. Aristotle, and Plato himself before Aristotle, point out a problem with the notion of participation. It's not clear what participation is, what mechanisms (if any) are involved, or how two radically different types of thing could interact with each other. Aristotle tried to solve this problem by displacing the world of Being as a separate realm from his ontology, and offering a philosophy that is not nearly as dualistic as Plato, hylomorphism. Instead he argued that the form or essence of an object was completely immanent and within the object itself. On this account there is no need of a murky concept like participation. But in a different area of metaphysics Aristotle runs into a similar problem—when arguing that there cannot be an infinite regress of causes because change or motion must begin with some changeless substance (the prime mover or a substance that that is pure actuality), Aristotle describes a prime mover who is separate from the world that the prime mover moves. For Aristotle the prime mover is something like thought thinking itself. But how can thought set matter into motion? What are the particular mechanisms at plat when pure actuality actuates some potential in a substance that is a composite of form and matter? The same problem is met.

Tuesday, 25 December 2018

Merry Christmas

Things have gotten slow around here over the holidays, but we haven't forgotten about you. Regular posting will resume in January.

Tuesday, 4 December 2018

The Principle of Disagreement

Now the question raised by the mode of disagreement is this: Is the Principle of Disagreement true? And the answer is surely: Yes, the Principle is true. For suppose that it were not true. Then the following could be the case. I recognize that there is a dispute about the authenticity of the Magna Moralia, some holding that the work was written by Aristotle himself and others holding that it is a later counterfeit. I believe, further, that the dispute is still undecided: the parties have not come to any agreement, and no decisive argument or consideration for or against authenticity has yet been advanced. Nevertheless (if the Principle is false) it is rational for me to hold that the work is not authentic. Now it seems clear to me that this is incoherent; for how could it possibly be rational for me to plump for authenticity, thus opting for one side of the dispute, and yet still maintain that the dispute is undecided? If it is rational or warranted for me to decide against authenticity, then I must suppose that whatever warrants my decision also and thereby decides the dispute, which I can therefore no longer hold to be undecided. If, on the contrary, I insist that the disagreement remains undecided, then I cannot consistently suppose that my inclination to reject authenticity, whatever it may be founded upon, has any satisfactory justification; and hence it is not rational for me to reject authenticity.

Of course, I may adopt it as a 'working hypothesis' that the Magna Moralia is a counterfeit. I may act as if the work is spurious – say, by excluding it from my translation of the collected works of Aristotle. But in so acting I am not manifesting any belief that the work is spurious. I am not putting money on the horse. (Moreover, I may perhaps also hold that it is likely or probable that the work will turn out to be spurious. Then I shall indeed hold a belief on the matter – but not a belief which is, in any straightforward way, a party to the disagreement. For the disagreement is not over probabilities but over authenticity.) Thus while recognizing the existence of an unresolved dispute over authenticity, I may yet act as if the work is spurious (and perhaps even take it to be probably spurious); but I cannot rationally believe that it is spurious.

If the putative counter-example to the Principle of Disagreement is incoherent, then any putative counter-example is incoherent. And thus the Principle is true. Then since the Principle on which the mode of disagreement rests is true, the mode does indeed induce suspension of judgment. If I recognize undecided dispute over ?Q, then I must – I rationally must – suspend judgment over the matter.

Jonathan Barnes, The Toils of Scepticism.

I've discussed the principle of disagreement in a previous post here (the first premise), and thought some of you might be interested in Barnes's full argument for it.

Saturday, 17 November 2018

Stoicism and the Four Noble Truths

Over the last decade or so an alliance of sorts has formed between the modern Stoic movement and a variety of Buddhist popularizers, especially those influenced by the secular Buddhist movement. It has been noted that both Buddhists and Stoics sought 1) to quiet their desires and minds through various techniques, 2) to impose on themselves a strict simplicity in thought, word, and deed, and 3) to take hold of a super-ordinary freedom. This point of view has been put forth in articles, books, and videoes. While no one reasonable claims that the two are identical (that Zeno would have become Bikkhu Zeno upon hearing a sermon, or that the the Buddha, had he traveled to Greece, would have set up shop under the Stoa) it often seems to me that the similarity is overstated between these two venerable traditions. As an experiment of sorts, I decided to imagine what a Stoic would think of the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism—how we would react and respond to the essential tenets of Buddhism, that were supposedly the core message of the very first sermon the Buddha taught after his Awakening.

Thursday, 8 November 2018

The Franciscan Master

Today is the Feast of John Duns Scotus. I'm not Christian, but I have great respect for Scotus's work. Here is a quote from Efrem Bettoni's Duns Scotus: The Principles of his Philosophy depicting the great man in an act of intellectual heroism:

In 1304 Duns Scotus was already known both within and outside the Order as a religious of deep spirituality and as a man of wide culture and powerful mind. When Father Gonsalvus of Spain, Minister General of the Franciscan Order, proposed him to the Provincial of Paris as a candidate for a master's chair at the University of that city, he expressed himself in the following terms: "I recommend to your charity our beloved brother in Christ, Father John Scotus, whose laudable life, excellent knowledge, most subtle genius, and other remarkable qualities are fully known to me, partly because of my long association with him, and partly because of his widespread reputation.”

However, in 1304 Duns Scotus was no longer in Paris, as he had to leave the city suddenly in 1303, in the middle of the academic year. What was the reason for this sudden departure? In the first months of 1303 the struggle between Pope Boniface VIII and the King of France, Philip the Fair, which is better known from Dante's poem (cf. Purgatorio, XX, 85-93) than from the reports of historians, had become greatly intensified. Philip the Fair looked for adherents to his antipapal policies among the clergy. This led to a split even among the members of the religious orders. Duns Scotus, as is well documented by the list of the Friars Minor that took side with the Pope against the King—a list discovered and published by Father Ephrem Longpr√© in 1928—did not hesitate to follow the dictates of conscience and truth. Royal reprisal forced him to interrupt his teaching and return to Oxford in England, where he lectured during the scholastic year 1303-1304.

When in 1304, following the death of Boniface VIII, the storm subsided and all political difficulties were removed, John Duns Scotus was sent back to Paris by the Minister General in order to obtain the title of master. About Easter in 1305, when Simon of Guiberville was chancellor of the University, the official proclamation took place. 

This second period of teaching at the University of Paris became famous in scholastic tradition because of the theological dispute of the Subtle Doctor in favor of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Mother. Later traditions have invested this famous battle with legendary elements. Allegedly it ended in a grand finale, in which the Franciscan master, emulating in the field of culture the deeds of the bravest knights, victoriously withstood all the masters of the University of Paris, who were fierce opponents of his Mariology. However, the substantial historicity of this famous dispute has been proved in recent years by Father Charles Balic with an abundance of arguments which show how well Duns Scotus deserves the title of knight as well as of doctor of the Immaculate Conception.

Sunday, 4 November 2018

The Goal of Skepticism

An article one of our authors, Brian York, wrote during his time as a student was recently published on pages eighty-five to ninety-three of the fourth issue of the independent journal Julep. I don't necessarily endorse everything he says in it, but it's worth checking out.

I haven't read any of the journal's other articles, which appear to be about subjects other than philosophy.

Friday, 19 October 2018

Can God Make a Picasso?

That God ultimately produced everything besides himself mediaeval philosophers had no doubt. But precisely what this creative act amounts to, whether and in what way it is ongoing, and how divine production relates to, say, human production—all these were important open questions. The title of this article is meant to focus our attention on one of the most interesting of these open questions, as it was discussed by Oxford philosophers Walter Chatton (d. 1343) and William Ockham (d. 1347). For while Chatton and Ockham would certainly have agreed that God is ultimately responsible for the existence of the works of Pablo Picasso (and indeed Picasso himself), they would not have agreed in precise detail about how to answer the question I intend in my title, that is: Does it violate God’s omnipotence to say that he cannot make something that Picasso made—for example, the painting Guernica—without using Picasso himself as an intermediate cause?

Rondo Keele. "Can God Make a Picasso? William Ockham and Walter Chatton on Divine Power and Real Relations". http://muse.jhu.edu/article/218279/pdf.