“Why the Germans? Why the Jews?” Thinking about Gotz Aly’s New Book, 70 Years after Auschwitz

Given that this week marks the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, I’d like to share a new book on the Holocaust that I’ve been reading: Gotz Aly’s Why the Germans? Why the Jews? It raises the question of how the conditions for the Holocaust could have come together in the first place, and one of those conditions (he suggests) is a simple one: the seventh deadly sin–envy–and its correlates, such as resentment, Schadenfreude (taking secret pleasure in the misfortune of others), and over-compensation born of self doubt (“I’m really superior to those elitists over there; I’m exceptional, they are crap–and holding me back!”).

Such attitudes had infected German politics.

So it’s a hard-to-put-down read that resonates (troublingly) with some of the dynamics in contemporary American politics. While reading this book, for instance, I can’t help but think that the chest-thumping phrase, “American exceptionalism,” is a milder version of the Germans’ “master race,” bandied about as a Medusa amulet to ward off the self-doubt that we actually aren’t all that different from other countries.

Nations suffused with envy and resentment (masked as defiant independence and supreme confidence) grow paranoid, irrational, and dangerous. A lesson we need to relearn again and again, apparently.


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How Do You Know? Factive Verbs in Relation to Political, Religious, and Scientific Discourse

I’m thinking about factive verbs this morning in relation to such things as global warming, God’s existence, evolution, the future of the stock market, etc.

ESTABLISH, for example, is a very strong, emphatic verb, as in, “I’ve established the truth of this matter.” It’s akin to LEARN (as in “I have just learned that my father has died”), or to KNOW (as in, “I know that my father has died”), or to DISCOVER (as in “I just discovered that my father died yesterday”).

Other verbs like this are admit, perceive, recognize, secure, confirm, observe, show, and remember.

Grammarians call these factive verbs.

The linguist Steven Pinker, in his book The Stuff of Thought (2008), gives this example of a particularly dishonest and pernicious use of a factive verb: “When [President] Bush said that the British government had ‘learned’ that Saddam had sought uranium, he was committing himself to the proposition that the uranium seeking actually took place, not that the British government believed it did” (8).

Factive verbs are extraordinarily tricky to use, for we all know (know itself is a factive verb!) that we cannot ever really know things with absolute and complete certainty, and yet factive verbs function in sentences in this absolute fashion.

They are meant to set before the mind something that is to be treated as true. And yet, when we are trying to speak carefully and honestly, there is always a feeling that we should qualify our factive verbs, especially when we put them in the past tense, as in ESTABLISHED, for they seem to want to deconstruct themselves.

Another aspect of factive verbs, therefore, is in relation to deductive and inductive reasoning. In deductive reasoning, if our premises are true, the conclusion is 100% certain (“Socrates is a man, all men are mortal, therefore Socrates is mortal”). In inductive reasoning, if our premises are true, the conclusion is something less than 100% certain (“Socrates sneezed, people who sneeze tend to have colds, therefore Socrates PROBABLY has a cold”). Factive verbs follow readily from deductive arguments, but are exaggerations in relation to inductive arguments (“We KNOW Socrates has a cold”; “We KNOW that sea levels will rise six feet over the next century,” etc.). Inductive reasoning requires that we qualify our claims (“We think it’s probable Socrates has a cold,” etc.).

So factive verbs are all variations on the claim to definite knowledge. Thus the implications for caution and skepticism in the use of factive verbs like “know” or “settled” in political, religious, and scientific discourse are pretty clear, especially in relation to the future. You can, for example, listen for a speaker’s use of factive verbs, and when it’s your turn to speak, point to the factive verb and ask a simple question: “How do you know?”

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Pipeline vs Freeway: What is Net Neutrality, Really?

Net neutrality treats the Internet as a data pipeline, akin to a water pipeline. It doesn’t discriminate between the content that flows through it.

That’s all net neutrality is.

But there are Republican politicians who want to monetize the Internet pipeline on behalf of Internet providers, turning it into something more akin to a freeway with fast lanes and slow lanes. On the freeway model, websites, ads, and streaming videos from large corporations and billionaire-funded politicians would load quickly (because they’ve paid big bucks to get their messages prioritized and channeled past non-paying messages), while everybody else’s messages (whistle-blowers, small alternative media, YouTube video makers, podcasters, bloggers, etc.) would stall and get buried in the data slow lanes.

A monetized Internet dis-empowers individuals and empowers large corporations and rich interests.

I support leaving the Internet pipeline a pipeline, not turning it into a freeway with fast and slow lanes. Whatever flows, let it flow at exactly the same rates (as the situation is now). That’s net neutrality.

If you have an Internet connection, and put data out on the Internet in the form of a podcast, a video, an image, or a text, people should be able to locate you, and download what you have to say as quickly and as easily as, say, McDonald’s or the Koch brothers. It’s what makes the Internet awesome and democratically empowering–whether you’re 18 or 80.

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China’s New Silk Road Economic Belt

Eight jarring quotes from a recent Salon article by Pepe Escobar, a correspondent for Asia Times, suggest to me that China is going to fly past the United States as the preeminent global power–perhaps as early as a decade from now. Here’s the first quote:

Singapore’s former foreign minister George Yeo sees the newly emerging world order as a solar system with two suns, the United States and China.

Second quote:

Russia, India, and China have just sent a powerful message westward: they are busy fine-tuning a complex trilateral strategy for setting up a network of economic corridors the Chinese call “new silk roads” across Eurasia. Beijing is also organizing a maritime version of the same, modeled on the feats of Admiral Zheng He who, in the Ming dynasty, sailed the “western seas” seven times, commanding fleets of more than 200 vessels. Meanwhile, Moscow and Beijing are at work planning a new high-speed rail remix of the fabled Trans-Siberian Railroad.

We can’t even get high-speed rail between LA, Vegas, and San Francisco. Third quote:

[T]his is just part of the frenetic action shaping what the Beijing leadership defines as the New Silk Road Economic Belt and the Maritime Silk Road of the twenty-first century. We’re talking about a vision of creating a potentially mind-boggling infrastructure, much of it from scratch, that will connect China to Central Asia, the Middle East, and Western Europe. Such a development will include projects that range from upgrading the ancient silk road via Central Asia to developing a Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar economic corridor; a China-Pakistan corridor through Kashmir; and a new maritime silk road that will extend from southern China all the way, in reverse Marco Polo fashion, to Venice.

Fourth quote:

In 2009, the Asia-Pacific region had just 18% of the world’s middle class; by 2030, according to the Development Center of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, that figure will rise to an astounding 66%. North America and Europe had 54% of the global middle class in 2009; in 2030, it will only be 21%. 

Fifth quote:

Follow the money, […] no less than 200,000 Chinese workers were involved in the production of the first iPhone, overseen by 8,700 Chinese industrial engineers. They were recruited in only two weeks. In the U.S., that process might have taken more than nine months. The Chinese manufacturing ecosystem is indeed fast, flexible, and smart — and it’s backed by an ever more impressive education system. Since 1998, the percentage of GDP dedicated to education has almost tripled; the number of colleges has doubled; and in only a decade, China has built the largest higher education system in the world.

Sixth quote:

The extent and complexity of China’s myriad transformations barely filter into the American media. Stories in the U.S. tend to emphasize the country’s “shrinking” economy and nervousness about its future global role, the way it has “duped” the U.S. about its designs, and its nature as a military “threat” to Washington and the world. The U.S. media has a China fever, which results in typically feverish reports that don’t take the pulse of the country or its leader. In the process, so much is missed. One prescription might be for them to read The Governance of China, a compilation of President Xi’s major speeches, talks, interviews, and correspondence. It’s already a three-million-copy bestseller in its Mandarin edition and offers a remarkably digestible vision of what Xi’s highly proclaimed “China Dream” will mean in the new Chinese century.

Seventh quote:

Xi Dada (“Xi Big Bang” as he’s nicknamed here) is no post-Mao deity. He’s more like a pop phenomenon and that’s hardly surprising. In this “to get rich is glorious” remix, you couldn’t launch the superhuman task of reshaping the Chinese model by being a cold-as-a-cucumber bureaucrat. Xi has instead struck a collective nerve by stressing that the country’s governance must be based on competence, not insider trading and Party corruption, and he’s cleverly packaged the transformation he has in mind as an American-style “dream.” Behind the pop star clearly lies a man of substance that the Western media should come to grips with. You don’t, after all, manage such an economic success story by accident. It may be particularly important to take his measure since he’s taken the measure of Washington and the West and decided that China’s fate and fortune lie elsewhere. 

Eighth quote:

[L]ast November he [Xi] made official an earthshaking geopolitical shift. From now on, Beijing would stop treating the U.S. or the European Union as its main strategic priority and refocus instead on China’s Asian neighbors and fellow BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, and South Africa, with a special focus on Russia), also known here as the “major developing powers” (kuoda fazhanzhong de guojia). And just for the record, China does not consider itself a “developing country” anymore.

Note to self: learn Mandarin, pronto. (What’s pronto in Mandarin?)

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How Global Warming Denialists Are Likely to “Reason” about Berkeley Physicist Richard Muller’s Findings

I suppose Berkeley physicist Richard Muller is a fool for putting together a team that included a Nobel Prize winning scientist, revisiting all the data on climate change to date, and coming to the same conclusion as the current scientific consensus: the globe is warming, and carbon dioxide is the cause.

Muller sees no other plausible alternative thesis–indeed, none is ever consistently on offer. No other thesis accounts for all of the converging lines of evidence better than the current scientific consensus.

So Muller, in discovering this, is obviously a fool.

Global warming denialists, on the other hand, are not at all foolish, for they read the Rush Limbaugh funded American Thinker website for the lowdown on global warming.

And though global warming denialists have no competing alternative thesis that accounts for all of the converging lines of evidence better than carbon dioxide as the cause of global warming, they are in need of none. Instead, they can simply shift among a menu of theses, briefly offering one thesis, then another.

The alternative thesis, in other words, can be the kitchen sink: maybe global warming is caused by volcanoes; and if not volcanoes, maybe it’s the sun; and if not the sun, maybe it’s not happening at all. Maybe the scientists are involved in a conspiracy to promote a hoax, etc. In any case, it couldn’t possibly be the thing that happens to account for the converging lines of evidence most directly and simply: carbon dioxide from human activity. Of that, they’re 100% certain.

William of Occam was a fool, Richard Muller is a fool–but AM talk radio? Nobody’s fool.

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Dr. Michael Greger Says: Take Two Tablespoons of Ground Flaxseed and 100 Micrograms of B-12 Daily

Dr. Michael Greger (below) is a heavy enthusiast for incorporating ground flaxseed into one’s diet (two tablespoons per day for adults), and if you’re vegan or vegetarian he says you should be supplementing with B-12 to the tune of 100 micrograms a day (this apparently brings down inflammation, which is associated with numerous diseases). If you can get past his cornball delivery (which grows on you if you give it a chance, and is kind of endearing), he says a lot of sensible things about the role of diet in relation to disease.

UPDATE: Late this morning, I took his advice and mixed two tablespoons of ground flaxseed with some oatmeal. When heated, it’s kind of gluey in texture, but good.

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From His Book, “Unweaving the Rainbow”

This is terrific. Richard Dawkins on death. And life.

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Campus Rape and Silence

Concerning campus rape, The Hunting Ground is getting a lot of buzz at Sundance as a powerful documentary. The NYT also gave it a strong review.

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Letter Writers Heart Richard Dawkins

The beloved Oxford evolutionary biologist, Richard Dawkins, reads out representative samples of the love he attracts from those who follow his work.


The tone and content of the letters remind me of numerous pronouncements made by famous theologians and preachers throughout history. Here are a few:

Tertullian (160-225)

“At that greatest of all spectacles, that last and eternal judgment, how I shall admire, how laugh, how rejoice, how exult, when I behold so many proud monarchs groaning in the lowest abyss of darkness; so many magistrates liquefying in fiercer flames than they ever kindled against the Christians; so many sages and philosophers blushing in red-hot fires with their deluded pupils; so many tragedians more tuneful in the expression of their own sufferings; so many dancers tripping more nimbly from anguish then ever before from applause.” [De Spectaculis, Chapter XXX]

Augustine (354-430)

“They who shall enter into [the] joy [of the Lord] shall know what is going on outside in the outer darkness…The saints’… knowledge, which shall be great, shall keep them acquainted…with the eternal sufferings of the lost.” [The City of God, Book 20, Chapter 22, “What is Meant by the Good Going Out to See the Punishment of the Wicked” & Book 22, Chapter 30, “Of the Eternal Felicity of the City of God, and of the Perpetual Sabbath”]

Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274)

In order that the happiness of the saints may be more delightful to them and that they may render more copious thanks to God for it, they are allowed to see perfectly the sufferings of the damned….The saints in heaven know distinctly all that happens…to the damned. [Summa Theologica, Third Part, Supplement, Question XCIV, “Of the Relations of the Saints Towards the Damned,” First Article, “Whether the Blessed in Heaven Will See the Sufferings of the Damned. . .”]

Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758)

The view of the misery of the damned will double the ardour of the love and gratitude of the saints of heaven….The sight of hell torments will exalt the happiness of the saints forever….Can the believing father in Heaven be happy with his unbelieving children in Hell…I tell you, yea! Such will be his sense of justice that it will increase rather than diminish his bliss. [“The Eternity of Hell Torments” (Sermon), April 1739 & Discourses on Various Important Subjects, 1738]

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Hubble Zooms In On A Distant Island Universe

Some life perspective. In the below video released by NASA this month, the Hubble telescope does a gigapixel zoom-in on Andromeda, another island universe beyond our own. (It was Kant who first speculated that distant nubulae–tiny, blurry “clouds” visible in the clear night sky–might be “island universes”).

In the 1920s, from Mount Wilson in California, we learned that most distant nubulae are in fact what Kant thought they might be: galaxies of stars akin to our own Milky Way galaxy. They weren’t in our galaxy, but far, far beyond it.

So we’ve known we live in a multiverse–a vast collection of island universes–for less than 100 years.

As for Andromeda, it’s the largest galaxy in our Local Group and contains a trillion stars (at least twice as many as the Milky Way, which has between 200-400 billion stars).

In terms of sheer numbers of stars, Andromeda is to the Milky Way what China, in terms of population, is to the United States. It’s an even bigger ass thing than our own big ass thing.

Andromeda is an elephant, not touched by anything we do. Like God.

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Practicing Angry


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Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel: Get an Annual Flu Shot and a Colonoscopy Every Ten Years, But Skip Your Annual Physical

Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel, an oncologist, writes at The New York Times today that you should get an annual flu shot and a colonoscopy every ten years, but skip annual physicals.


He says there is no evidence that they save lives. None. 182,000 people participating in various randomized trials over many years have revealed no difference in mortality between those getting annual physicals and those who only go to physicians for specific complaints.

They cost the country billions, but they don’t save lives.
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An Atheist Leads a Prayer at a City Council Meeting…

No, it’s not the beginning of a joke, but it made me smile. Naturally, before Preston Smith, an atheist, got started on his invocation, a number of the pious council members of the fine city of Lake Worth, Florida, split the scene.

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Thomas Aquinas for Beginners

Listening closely to theist arguments–and Aquinas. As an agnostic, I’m not sure whether God exists or not, nor whether Thomas Aquinas’s metaphysics is wholly correct, but I’m also not the sort of person who is interested in practicing confirmation bias (counting the hits, but not the misses, for my pet theories; never reading the books of those whose views are different from my own, etc.). When I lean toward a thesis, and the issue is important to me, I try actively to seek out evidence and arguments against my thesis, and not be too fast in dismissing the views of others. The following quote of Spinoza’s ought to be better known: “Non ridere, non lugere, neque detestari, sed intelligere.” (Not to laugh, not to lament, not to curse, but to understand.)

So though an agnostic, I’m interested in understanding exactly why the most articulate theists are certain that God exists (or, at least, think it’s highly likely). And the most articulate theist who has ever lived is Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274).

Edward Feser. The strongest contemporary proponent of God’s existence, in my view, is the Thomist philosopher, Edward Feser, and in his book, Aquinas: A Beginner’s Guide (2009), he has a superb chapter–chapter 2–introducing the metaphysics upon which Aquinas based his arguments for, well, everything–including God’s existence. Feser stresses repeatedly that you can’t really understand Thomas Aquinas without understanding his metaphysics.

Feser’s chapter on Aquinas’s metaphysics, however, is long–53 pages–so what I thought I would do is digest some of the key ideas from the chapter. If you want to go deeper, you can get Feser’s book here. My examples and elaborations will tend to be my own, not Feser’s, and if a Thomist thinks I’ve botched a concept, or illustrated it with an improper analogy, blame me, not Feser.

Ontology: the study of being. An especially helpful thing in Feser’s metaphysics chapter is his definition of ontology, and it’s a good place to start. Here’s Feser (31):

Aquinas, following Aristotle, regards metaphysics as the ‘science which studies being as being,’ rather than (as other sciences do) studying some one particular kind of being among others (In Meta IV.1.529). (For this reason, metaphysicians in the Thomistic tradition have often preferred the label ‘ontology’–from the Greek ontos or ‘being’–as an apt name for their discipline.) Act and potency, form and matter, essence and existence, substance and accident, and the like are all merely aspects of being, and thus their study gives us greater understanding of it.

OK, so we’ve got the first step in getting our heads around Aquinas’ metaphysics: it’s the study of being, not non-being or particular beings, and Aquinas, usually following Aristotle, treats being as consisting of paired aspects: act and potency, form and matter, etc. These conceptual pairings can assist one in thinking clearly about the nature of being from an Aristotelian-Thomistic (A-T) perspective.

Act and potency vs. being and nothingness. If ontology is the study of being, what about non-being? Why don’t Aquinas and Aristotle–like, say, Buddhists–start their philosophizing with non-being–with emptiness or nothingness–instead of being?

The reason is that Aquinas and Aristotle think that the Presocratic philosopher, Parmenides (c. 515-450 BCE), gets something fundamentally wrong. Parmenides argues that change is an illusion, for “the only thing other than being is non-being, and non-being, since it is just nothing, cannot cause anything” (9). For Parmenides, in other words, non-changing being is always non-changing being. It always already exists, and there’s nothing with the power to change it. We don’t experience it this way, but Parmenides claims that this is how it really is. “Nothing can come of nothing” (to quote King Lear in Shakespeare)–and so being, having nothing external to move it, doesn’t change.

Aristotle and Aquinas don’t respond to this as a Buddhist might. A Buddhist, following the Indian philosopher Nagarjuna (c. 150-250 CE), would likely say something like this: non-being (emptiness, nothingness) opens up a space for things to happen; things can change into other things because they’re essentially empty, a nihil, nothing. “No flower in the flower,” says the Dalai Lama. It’s through nothingness that transitory things can exist at all, and it’s because transitory things exist that nothingness is known. Neither being nor non-being is prior to the other; there is a middle way between the ideas that nothing really exists and everything really exists. Every particular thing that exists actually has no substantial essence or permanent existence, but is an unstable, spontaneous, and mutually interdependent arising out of the dynamic emptiness. And reality is thus non-dual because there is no thing that exists in the flux that is independent of all the other things in the flux. Particulars arise, ripen, and pass away, but they add up to nothing. Unstable interconnection and emptiness make way for change.

But this isn’t Aristotle and Aquinas’s tack concerning change. They agree with Parmenides (and King Lear) that nothing can come of nothing–but contra Parmenides, to get non-illusory change, they posit that whatever exists possesses two aspects: act and potency (actuality and potential). A living cat, for instance, actually exists and has the potential to change into a dead cat if an external agent moves it in the direction of that potential (as when a car runs over it). Act and potency–actuality and potential–are the dual aspects of the cat’s being. It’s what the cat is. And the potential of the cat is, as it were, in the cat, in its nature; its very being.

So that’s how Aristotle and Aquinas posit that change can occur within being itself: it has two aspects (act and potency), not one, and it can be moved by an external being that is itself in motion (think of a line of dominoes enacting their potential for knocking one another over).

Contra the Buddha and Nagarjuna, then, non-being need play no role in getting change to occur because the car that threatens to drive over the cat also possesses act and potency (the actuality of existing and the potential for movement). The car is really real; it’s not nothing. And in this instance, if it were to begin rolling, it could become the external source that moves the cat from being alive to being dead. Likewise, gasoline would be one of the reasons the car got rolling in the first place. Everything that exists, in short, is accompanied by potencies that can be realized when an external source acts upon them. No thing moves of itself, it needs an external cause. So on Aquinas and Aristotle, this is how being changes. Chains of causation move the world. Causation is central to A-T metaphysics.

But what does it mean to say that the cat is not only actual in this moment, but has, in its very being, other potential ways of being? Where do these potentials–these potencies for change–reside? Can we bring them out of the cat that we might see them?

Essentialism. We can’t place the cat’s potentials on a table like they’re material objects and literally see them before they manifest, but according to Aristotle and Aquinas they’re in the cat just the same, and we can imagine them. The cat, for example, might be sleeping in a sunny spot on the table, but it nevertheless possesses the power to wake and scratch. It’s part of the cat’s nature to do such things. In asserting this, Aristotle and Aquinas are, like Plato, realists, not nominalists, in that they think we actually discover our abstractions about what cats are–we’re not just making them up as we go along (as a nominalist might suppose). Our conceptualizations concerning what a cat is, and is capable of doing and becoming, are not arbitrary. They’re not mere conventions of language or ideas solely serving human purposes, but real. The cat possesses a real essence (it is a domesticated carnivore), and this essence is manifested in its properties (it eats meat; it has instincts for hunting), potencies (it has the power to scratch), and potentials (it is inclined to sharpen its claws on furniture on awakening, and it might do so when it awakens).

The cat may also have accidental features not essential to its nature as cat qua cat, such as the color of its fur. Feser quotes Aquinas as making the essence-accident distinction in these words: “What makes something exist substantially is called substantial form, and what makes something exist accidentally is called accidental form” (13-14). In other words, if you change something essential about a thing (turning a carnivorous cat into a vegetarian), it’s a substantial change, and if you change something non-essential (the color of the cat’s fur), it’s a trivial, non-important, accidental change. Here’s Feser: “Those features deriving from the essence, such as Socrates’ ability to learn languages, are…referred to as ‘properties,’ since they are proper or necessary to a thing in a way that its purely contingent features (like Socrates’ being in Athens or having been a soldier) are not” (25). Put another way, if we identify and define Socrates’ substantial form as most essentially that of being a rational animal, the sorts of properties that go with that substantial form are such things as humor and the ability to learn languages, not whether Socrates wears blue or green socks.

But where, again, does the essence of Socrates or a cat reside? From where do these properties and potentials manifest? Is the Dalai Lama right that there is, ultimately, “no flower in the flower”–no essence of Socrates really in Socrates, and no cat really in the cat–or are Aristotle and Aquinas right that there are real essences that can be known and that truly exist somewhere beneath the appearances of things?

Hylemorphism (from the Greek words hyle–matter–and morphe–form). Aristotle and Aquinas are certainly not Buddhists or nominalists–they think things really and truly exist. Nor are they Platonists in the sense that the essence of the cat–the perfect cat–resides in a Platonic heaven of ideal forms (alongside the perfect chair, the perfect triangle, etc.). Instead, Aristotle and Aquinas are hylemorphists.

Hylemorphism is a term out of classical philosophy (first used by Aristotle, later picked up by Aquinas) where a designer takes raw material and uses her mind and hands to impose purpose and form on it, as when St. Paul writes, “Shall the clay say to the potter, why have you made me thus?”

A blog post, for example, is a hylemorphic project, where the matter of words is ordered by the author into a very definite form. As is a poem. Or a building. The soul of a thing–its essence–is its matter and form combined with the intention of its author.

So both Aristotle and Aquinas believe in hylemorphism. They believe that essences reside in an inseparable combination of two things: matter and form. If you want to know where a cat’s animal soul, nature, essence, potentials etc. reside, they’re not in its matter–the organic chemistry of which the cat is composed–nor in its heavenly form (the ideal cat), nor in some part of its body or head (such as in the brain), but in its matter and form as a whole when combined. That’s what it means to exist.

Think again of St. Paul’s clay pot. The pot is not just its matter (the clay), and not just its form (the pot’s shape). It’s the combination of the two that makes it what it is. Likewise, the matter and form of the cat are composite. Its existence is its substantial form combined with a body. And we, as rational beings, can apprehend and comprehend its existence; the very nature of its being, whose substantial form is at once everywhere “in” the cat–and no place in particular. Like the clay pot.

If it is correct, then, to say that we can abstract the essence of the cat–its substantial form–and hold it in our minds, what a superpower we are endowed with! It means that we are akin to God in our rational faculty, our intellect. We can reach to the depths of things–to the very ground of their being–and name them accurately. And when a human apprehends the essence of a thing, the form of that thing is now located in two places–in the thing itself and in the mind that contemplates it. How wild a thought is that? Perhaps there’s something to the intuition that photography achieves a kind of soul catching.

But for Aquinas, there’s an exception to existence as matter combined with substantial form that doesn’t necessarily hold for Aristotle. For Aristotle, when your matter and form break up, that’s the end of you. As a compounded being, your matter and form are what you are, and you don’t reside anywhere outside of your matter and form. But for Aquinas, that’s not always the case. Here’s Feser: “Anything compounded of form and matter is also compounded of act and potency, but there are compounds of act and potency that have no matter” (13). Feser is referring to angels here. For Aquinas, angels have existence and potencies to act, but their existence is non-corporeal, non-material. Like God, they lack bodies, yet still exist. And humans, being just a little beneath the angels in the hierarchy of being, can go on, unlike animals, after death. They retain the form of their intellects and wills at death, where they go to God and await the time when their essential forms–their souls–are finally reunited with their bodies (at the resurrection of the dead and Final Judgment). From the Final Judgment forward, each individual will go on existing in his or her resurrected body-soul (matter with form) everlastingly, enjoying heaven–or burning in hell. Aristotle probably wouldn’t have accepted this narrative, but Aquinas does.

Final causation. If things generally change because being itself manifests as composites of matter and form, act and potency, substance (essence) and accident, what causes movement to get going in the first place? In answer to this, Aquinas follows (once again) Aristotle in identifying four causes for existence, movement, and changes in quality, quantity, and substance. As can be surmised from all that’s been written above, causation is extraordinarily important to A-T metaphysics, and three of Aristotle’s four causes have already been touched upon. Those three are the following:

  • efficient causes (the immediate or proximate cause for an event happening, as when one domino topples into another, enacting the second domino’s potential for falling)
  • material causes (a domino made of iron exists in a very different state, and possesses some very different potencies, from a domino made of balsa wood. Among them, the ability–or not–to put out an eye if thrown, and the ability–or not–to float. The matter of which a thing consists is part of what causes the thing to be what it is)
  • formal causes (the substantal form of a thing, as when we say a domino is a three dimensional object that is small, oblong, and possesses between one and twelve dots on one of its sides. You don’t have a domino if it doesn’t possess this substantial form; the substantial form is what causes the domino to be a domino, and not something else)

The three causes above are fascinating to contemplate, but so is Aristotle’s fourth cause–his notion that things have final causes–ends, purposes, goals to which they are inclined to be drawn by their hylemorphic (matter-form) natures.

A pen, for example, consists of matter and form that, if pushed by a hand across a page in a certain way, is inclined, should it possess ink and not otherwise be broken, to make marks on paper. It’s the end to which it inclines because it is of the matter and form that it is. It’s not conscious of this end, of course, but being of the matter and form that it is–being what it most essentially is–it’s going to tend toward this end should a hand initiate its potential.

Thus if an alien ever came to Earth and encountered a pen, it could probably work out what the pen is for without any human instruction. It could just start playing with the pen until its matter and form revealed its best, most efficient, and most natural use: to make marks on paper laid on a hard and flat surface. In no time at all, the alien could also work out what the matter and form of desks and chairs are most efficiently and naturally used for as well.

It’s important to emphasize that it’s the matter and substantial form of a thing that tells you its end; it doesn’t have to be conscious, nor does it need to have been designed by a conscious being to have an end. Things incline to certain ends according to their hylemorphic natures–their substantial forms combined with particular types of matter. Thus, if you go out of doors, you can identify what an acorn’s chief end tends toward (making oak trees), and if you open a body, you can see what the heart’s chief end tends toward (pumping blood). A thing tells you, depending on the context it has been put in, what it will tend to move toward–which needn’t necessarily be its chief end. Put an acorn in the ground, and it will be inclined to make a tree–its chief end–but put it in a fire–not its preferred environment–and it will be inclined to crackle, darken, and ultimately experience a substantial change, turning into pure carbon.

So matter combined with a substantial form expresses itself in different contexts. Put a person–an animal with rational faculties–in a monastery with no books other than religious ones, and he or she will tend toward the contemplation of God. There is something in the nature of humans that inclines them toward God contemplation as opposed to, say, making a nest of the monastery’s available paper (as a bird might do). Put that same person in a disco, and he or she might tend toward bobbing the head and dancing, while a bird might seek escape out a window. The end and true nature of a thing–and its properties and potencies–are revealed, and sometimes concealed, by context. But with just the right conditions, you stand a good chance of finding out exactly what a thing’s ultimate end most truly inclines toward. In the right conditions of soil and light, for example, a great and mighty oak is the acorn’s ultimate end.

Thus the regular inclinations and therefore predictability of matter-forms suggests that what science is actually up to is discovering real essences inclining toward ends dictated by their natures. And so Feser writes the following (49):

[Science is] in the business of uncovering the hidden natures or powers of things. Actual experimental practice indicates that what physicists are really looking for are the inherent powers a thing will naturally manifest when interfering conditions are removed, and the fact that a few experiments, or even a single controlled experiment, are taken to establish the results in question indicates that these powers are taken to reflect a nature that is universal to things of that type.

In other words (to echo Hillary Clinton), you can’t know how far a frog will jump until you poke it–revealing its potential. And once you remove the confounding variables for why the frog jumps one distance the first time, and another distance the second time, you close in on the nature of the frog’s jumping powers, and what those powers are directed toward–what Feser calls those “states of affairs beyond themselves” (50).

But why do combinations of matter and substantial form naturally orient and incline to “states of affairs beyond themselves”? It sounds mysterious. Spooky. What is it about the magic of putting matter/form together that, like striking a match, it thereby breathes fire into matter/form’s existence, inclining it toward one set of regularities, but not another?

And think of our thoughts. Even though they have physical correlates in our neuronal processes, they are not experienced as being physical, but mental states. Nevertheless, they have the same characteristic of physical matter/forms insofar as they orient to “states of affairs beyond themselves.” Isn’t it strange that this is so? From the most lowly rock to the human mind, there appears to be no escaping existence as inclinations, regularities, and ends. When you’re conscious, you’re always conscious of something. Your awareness moves out and toward. As Feser observes (50-51):

When you think about the Eiffel Tower, say, your thought is ‘directed towards’ [inclined towards] something beyond itself in a way analogous to the manner in which a match is, on the Aristotelian analysis, ‘directed towards’ the generation of flame and heat as a final cause. Similarly, when you reason through an argument, your thought process is ‘directed towards’ the conclusion as the end towards which the premises point. 

In other words, we appear, in our mental activity, to be mirroring what matter-form does in the physical world: arrange itself toward this or that end, or revealing a particular, regular, and predictable potency in response to being acted upon. And so Feser writes (51):

From human thought and action to the world of biological phenomena in general to inorganic natural cycles to the basic laws of physics, final causality or teleology thus seems as real and objective a feature of the natural world as Aristotle and Aquinas took it to be.

No rest for the existent.

What this means for God. The questions of God’s existence, and how we ought to live if God exists, are not subjects that the second chapter of Feser’s book explores (these questions are addressed in the book’s subsequent chapters), but given the A-T metaphysics outlined above, it’s not hard to sketch from here the subsequent argumentative moves of Aquinas:

  • Nothing can come of nothing, so being is primary.
  • No being moves of itself, yet all things we observe are in motion, contingent and transitory.
  • To start and sustain all this contingent and transitory motion, there must be a necessary being, an unmoved mover.
  • This unmoved mover must be being itself, without limit, not composed of actuality and potential like all other beings, but pure actuality, pure existence. No being can be more wholly existent than this first being, and we call this being God.
  • This being’s existence is good–for to exist is good–and it is supremely good, for it is most supremely existent.
  • The substantial forms of things directed to their most perfect fullness of being must be good, for they seek to instantiate the creator’s highest ideal for them.
  • Evil is the absence of perfect existence, perfect being. It is a failure of being to reach fullness of being. So evil is absence of perfection or completion in whatever exists imperfectly or incompletely (an eye that is blind, for example, is unable to fulfill its end; a club foot is the absence of an ideal foot).
  • You can look at the matter and form of a thing and infer its essential purpose–the purpose the designer shaped it for. All things created by God have essential purposes, and we can discern them. The form of the penis, for instance, tells you that its essential usage is for reproduction with a vagina. That’s what God made it for. You aren’t to use it in the ass or mouth–and no jerking off! These are its “accidental” (non-essential) usages. Thus Feser states elsewhere (in his book, The Last Superstition) that homosexual inclination, if genetic, is a defect of desire akin to being born with a club foot.
  • Humans, as rational animals, are in the image of God, who is rational. Therefore, the highest end to which humans can incline is toward God.

You get the idea. Tidy. Very near to mathematics. The conclusions, like clothes from a flipped laundry basket, tumble out naturally from their premises, all doubts supposedly giving way to metaphysical demonstration. Who needs telescopes? And that’s Aquinas in a nutshell.

One atheist’s pushback. Jean Paul Sartre’s famous three-word retort to the Thomistic essentialism outlined above is the following: “Existence precedes essence.” In other words, human imagination, cunning, openness, variety, and freedom precede any essentialist definition that one might impose upon a thing in advance. Sartre says that if God is dead or not speaking, we can work freely with a thing, if we wish, and make what the original designer supposedly considered marginal about it, central (or make the central marginal).

Fashioning and definition can be democratized and taken from God and the theologians.

So if we’re free–if our existence as free beings precedes essences–we can use the penis for pleasure (for example). We needn’t let the inertia of a thing’s supposed essence foreclose in advance our options. You can use a thing differently from that to which it is usually inclined. In each moment, you can make something new. That’s Sartre. That’s existentialism. That’s post-World War II pushback against hylemorphic and authoritarian essentialism. And after the Holocaust, it certainly appeared to Sartre and other intellectuals that the God thesis (God exists and is a being who is attentive to us, and all good and powerful) was done–or ought to be done.

And once God is considered dead, or to have gone silent and thereby given the clay its freedom, asking “What’s the clay for?” loses its force. Humans become the measure of all things. Our existence precedes essence. We decide what to make important about a thing; what we will call a thing. Like Adam in the Garden, we assert our prerogative to name the animals for ourselves.

Sartre rather nicely accords with evolution, whereas Aquinas is in a decidedly awkward relation to it. Though Aquinas is almost certainly correct that things display identifiable inclinations based on their unique combinations of matter and form, evolution doesn’t recognize essential species categories; it works with variety along a continuum, making things new. What, for example, is an individual human from the vantage of evolution, but a variation cast into the next round of dicing selection? Time waits for no definition of man–not even Aquinas’s.

Who assumes the power of meaning maker? So if God exists, you can argue, as Aquinas does, that God should cut the card deck of meaning, purpose, narrative, and definition. But if God doesn’t exist or isn’t talking, we cut the deck. Whoever has the authority to cut the deck (or shape the clay, or name the animals) is in the role of the designer, the fashioner, the definer, the meaning maker. Matter and form can have inclinations, but to possess ultimate meanings, there must be a meaning maker. And if the ultimate meaning maker, the unmoved mover, doesn’t exist–or doesn’t exist in the manner we imagine (all good, conscious, attends to human beings, etc.)–then we make our own meaning, and define what’s important.

So does existence precede our essence, as Sartre claims? Or is Aquinas right that essence precedes existence? Which side are you on?

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The Evolution of Kindness and Sympathy

A really good evolution education video via the University of California at Berkeley. We’ve evolved to be more like bonobos than sharks, and it’s one reason why I’m not worried that the decline of religion will lead to deteriorating moral behavior among humans.

Something especially fascinating to me here is the idea that prolonged childhood puts selective pressure on our species to nurture offspring, and to experience the full range of nurturing emotions. These emotions are then extended to adults and distant others as well. Very interesting. Prolonged childhood leads to social bonding.

So if you find yourself sympathetic towards others, thank your children. If they did not take so long to reach maturity and independence, our species might be far less socially cooperative and gregarious than we are. It’s fascinating to contemplate that global civilization, trade, and solidarity exist because our children have evolved to be dependent upon us for so long–and that we have evolved to love them.

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LED Lightpaper

Is it coming?

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An Analogy for Comprehending Why Population Geneticists Say Adam and Eve Never Existed

Imagine an island off the coast of a continent. Two birds from the continent–a male and a female–get swept up by a storm and find themselves stranded on this island. They go on to mate and a new species of bird evolves. They’re the Adam and Eve of that particular species on this particular island.

But wait. What if six birds are swept over to the island, and they begin interbreeding? Over time, mutations swap in all sorts of directions between the descendants of those six, and those mutations add up to a new species specially adapted to that island.

Which couple is the Adam and Eve of the new species now? Answer: there was no Adam and Eve for that species. There was a population that got isolated down to six–that bottlenecked at six–and those six combined their genetic inheritance to generate and swap genes to make the new species, and the variety of genetic diversity it possesses today.

Population geneticists would know that there were six individual birds from which the species branched, not two, based on the amount of genetic diversity displayed by the contemporary members of the group. They would know this for the same reason that population geneticists know today that the contemporary diversity of humans indicates that our species has never bottlenecked at a figure of less than about 12,250, and that the Khoisan tribe in Africa possesses the most divergent genetic profile of any group of people on the planet.

But what if those birds evolved a civilization and had a religious text that told them that their species started with a couple, and they read it literally? Then you could posit that of those six original birds, two of them were given one mutation–a spiritual mutation–in which God put an eternal soul into them. This is not something traceable by genetics, but it would be reasonable to assume that if the soul mutation was advantageous, then it would likely spread to all the descendants of the six birds over time (by interbreeding).

The birds could even posit (if they wanted to), that their Adam and Eve soul mutation started on the continent, and spread among many birds before it ever came to the island, and that all six original inhabitants of the island had souls (because their moms and dads had souls back on the continent).

In other words, there’s a way around the genetics. If you’re prepared to treat a soul change as a species change that confers benefits to the possessors, you’re home free.

And when it comes to miracles, you can do anything you want. You can put the eternal soul mutation anywhere along the continuum of our evolutionary lineage. All bets can be off. Population geneticists can’t prove the birds’ religious story is wrong, but the birds can never know whether or not they’re deluding themselves.

But imagine if the birds had experts in literature and the study of bird culture, the overwhelming majority of whom saying, “The Adam and Eve bird story in the Old Book is an etiological narrative (a campfire story about origins). It doesn’t need to be read literally.”

Now things get complicated again. Would it be wise of the birds who are religious and accept evolution to go against both the geneticists and the cultural and literary academics of their species? Or would it be best for them to say, Let’s read our Adam and Eve bird story as a good campfire tale, and leave it at that?

Which conclusion is in accord with empiricism and Occam’s razor? Can the birds’ religious orthodoxy, like the birds themselves, evolve to accommodate the deliverances of their reality testing or not?

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A New Golden Age? The Empty Soul Revs Up, Getting Ever Better at Gobbling Things Into Its Seemingly Bottomless And Insatiable Abyss, And We Call It Prosperity

Some good news. We are basically living in the most peaceful and prosperous moment in human history. Ever. Here’s Fraser Nelson, editor of The Spectator:

A study in the current issue of The Lancet shows […] Global life expectancy now stands at a new high of 71.5 years, up six years since 1990. In India, life expectancy is up seven years for men, and 10 for women. It’s rising faster in the impoverished east of Africa than anywhere else on the planet. In Rwanda and Ethiopia, life expectancy has risen by 15 years. […] The World Bank’s rate of extreme poverty (those living on less than $1.25 a day) has more than halved since 1990, […] Just over a century ago, a period of similarly rapid progress was coming to an abrupt end. The Belle Époque was a generation of scientific, medical and artistic advances, which, then, felt unstoppable. John Buchan summed up this mood in his 1913 novel The Power House. “You think that a wall as solid as the earth separates civilisation from barbarism,” one of his characters says. “I tell you: the division is a thread, a sheet of glass. A touch here, a push there, and you bring back the reign of Saturn.” So it was to prove. Nothing is irreversible. And there will be a great many people for whom life is tough, and looks set to remain so for some time. We still have a lamentably long list of problems to solve. But in the round, there’s no denying it: we are living in the Golden Era. There has never been a better reason for people the world over to wish each other a happy and prosperous new year.

I don’t want to downplay the real good here for the poorest of the poor. But isn’t it interesting that the prosperity isn’t felt in terms of most people’s personal immortality projects? In other words, most people are subjectively more or less happy, secure, and satisfied–or unsatisfied–with their attempts at meaning making as they’ve always been.

The unease and restlessness persists. Things can get substantially better materially, yet nothing works. You know what I mean. Why is that?

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Some Good Reasons to Think Adam and Eve Never Existed

First, there was never a bottleneck of two people that accounts for the diversity of humans living today.

Second, geneticists tell us that the diversity of contemporary humans derives from no less than 12,500 black African ancestors, 2,500 of whom left Africa to populate the rest of the globe between 50,000 and 100,000 years ago. That’s as narrow as the bottleneck ever gets.

Third, the probability that Y-chromosome Adam (120,000-350,000 years ago) and mitochondrial Eve (140,000-200,000 years ago) were of the same reproductive age at the exact same window in time, were located close to one another geographically, and actually had children together, is vanishingly small. (If you want to chuck a miracle into your first-couple thesis, I suppose that would be the place to do it.)

But, in any case, there was no first couple. There was not even a first human. There is only the continuum of an evolutionary lineage that goes all the way back to the first cell.

In other words, like thumbing slowly from one page of a cartoon flip book to another, a single offspring does not tend to dramatically vary from its parent.

Just as one cannot pinpoint the moment when a tadpole becomes a frog, or a toddler a child, so there was no moment that a Homo heidelbergensis couple gave birth to the first “true” Homo sapien. These classifications are for our convenience, but at the boundaries they’re not meaningful. If you’re going to refer to the “first” Homo sapien, he or she spent its first nine months in the womb of a Homo heidelbergensis mother, and could just as easily have remained designated as one of those as one of us.

Introducing the miraculous insertion of souls into a first couple, and positing that that first couple’s offspring slowly displaced the soulless, doesn’t help, for their genetic markers would still accompany them, and geneticists say that our contemporary genetic diversity is too large to be explained by a bottleneck of two people. There never was such a dramatic, two-person, genetic bottleneck.

So Occam’s razor here suggests something much simpler than the bestiality hypothesis: Genesis 2 and 3 should not be read literally.

Like the Iliad, the Genesis story has beauty, poetry, and psychological power, but strictly speaking, it’s not true. There was no first man formed from inorganic dust, no first woman drawn from his rib, no special garden between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers where they lived, no forbidden tree they ate from by which death and sin entered the world, and no children they produced that went on to colonize the planet.

It’s okay to treat an etiological narrative as an etiological narrative. It’s okay to correct a genre category mistake (mistaking a figurative narrative for a literal one).

Occam’s razor, baby, Occam’s razor.

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Brian Greene Still Thinks String Theory Has Promise

30 years of work on string theory without experimental verification has not deterred Columbia theoretical physicist Brian Greene. He’s still betting on string theory. Money quote from his January 2015 article in Smithsonian magazine:

I’m gratified at how far we’ve come but disappointed that a connection to experiment continues to elude us. While my own research has migrated from highly mathematical forays into extra-dimensional arcana to more applied studies of string theory’s cosmological insights, I now hold only modest hope that the theory will confront data during my lifetime. 

Even so, string theory’s pull remains strong. Its ability to seamlessly meld general relativity and quantum mechanics remains a primary achievement, but the allure goes deeper still. Within its majestic mathematical structure, a diligent researcher would find all of the best ideas physicists have carefully developed over the past few hundred years. It’s hard to believe such depth of insight is accidental.

I like to think that Einstein would look at string theory’s journey and smile, enjoying the theory’s remarkable geometrical features while feeling kinship with fellow travelers on the long and winding road toward unification. All the same, science is powerfully self-correcting. Should decades drift by without experimental support, I imagine that string theory will be absorbed by other areas of science and mathematics, and slowly shed a unique identity. In the interim, vigorous research and a large dose of patience are surely warranted. If experimental confirmation of string theory is in the offing, future generations will look back on our era as transformative, a time when science had the fortitude to nurture a remarkable and challenging theory, resulting in one of the most profound steps toward understanding reality.

I don’t know. Maybe.

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