The Timaeus Principle, Continued

· atheism, Faith, Nature, Philosophy, Reason, Religion, Science

So what, then, is this “Timaeus Principle”? In a word, it is the same thing that De Koninck calls the principle of indeterminism. De Koninck wrote about this on many occasions, but for the most part his writing has been overlooked or ignored. Judging by its reception by many traditional natural philosophers, one might surmise that De Koninck’s writing on this subject were the expression of some sort of private whim, something of minor consequence, not to say outright wrong. But it is, on the contrary, a matter of major consequence, and a central part of De Koninck’s own thinking. Anyone who seriously hopes for an integration of philosophy and modern science, or for a cosmology that promises the possibility of incorporating both modern and ancient thought, as well as religious and secular thought, needs to care about this. In later (perhaps much later) posts, I  am hoping to make a case that the principle of indeterminism bears even on the philosophy of mathematics, in ways which have yet to be examined.

Three of the principal essays in which De Koninck wrote on this are Thomism and Scientific Indeterminism, The Problem of Indeterminism, and Reflections on the Problem of Indeterminism. The latter two essays are available in the first volume of Ralph McInerny’s English translation of the works of De Koninck. (Eventually it is hoped that not only these essays, but all of the writings of De Koninck will be available at this new website.)

Well, then: what is the principle of indeterminism? Timaeus and Plato thought that material things could not be known in a truly philosophical way, because they held that matter itself was a source of indeterminacy, and was hence antithetic to philosophical knowledge. It was not, as I have noted before, until Aristotle’s decisive advance, wherein a distinction was recognized between matter and privation, that it became conceivable that even material things could be the object of scientific investigation.

But it doesn’t follow from this that Plato and Timaeus were entirely wrong in seeing matter as a source of indeterminacy of being. What does follow is that material things can have a genuine share in logos, to which matter is not opposed in principle; for even matter itself derives from, and is ordered to, the Divine source of everything intelligible. But what characterizes matter most inherently is its potential ordering to beings of many kinds. While this ordering makes matter able to be a genuine principle of being, and genuinely a part of “what it is” of, say, a dog or a tree, it also involves a certain degree of indeterminacy. The “what it is” of material beings will therefore have a corresponding degreeof indeterminacy. And the form to which matter is correlative is a correspondingly indeterminate sort of principle, which is why it has matter as a co-principle to begin with. Angelic forms, by contrast, have no such indeterminacy.

Failing to understand the character of both matter and form in material beings typically results in a vain pursuit of “the definitions” of material beings after a manner which cannot suit the objects defined. (De Koninck referred to this as “bad angelism” as well as  “fixism.” The latter term is connected with the very important bearing this whole question has on evolution, to which we will turn later.) Some colleagues of mine, even to this day, have trouble getting past the idea that there must be a philosophical “genus” and “species” of electron, dog, cat, Tiger Swallowtail, or, say, any of the other 50, 000, 000 or so insects inhabiting the planet…. Years ago a friend and fellow student of mine — now a well respected professor of philosophy at a reputable university — asked me the sort of question that is typical: she said to me, “What’s the definition of culture?” What she wanted was a formula. I mumbled something like, “I don’t know.” Culture, mind you, is closer than many things are to being definable in the way she imagined, because it is human; and human things are indeed closer to immaterial than is, say, an insect.

There are many important corollaries to draw from the principle of indeterminacy, some of which I hope to discuss in the future. I’ll start here with just one, but one which itself has broad implications. Those who are stuck in the traditional mindset I just described typically uphold philosophy over science because they say that science never reaches certitude about anything, and, naturally, they prefer the discipline in which they suppose that we can get certitude about things. The typical scientist, of course, tends in just the opposite way; he sees the “philosophers” as people who have to observe the real action from the sidelines because they can’t do serious science.

The truth about who’s right in this disagreement would start to become clearer if it were seen that it is not only we human beings who are either certain or uncertain, but the things we know are themselves endowed with greater and lesser degrees of certitude and intelligibility as well. If there is a difference between “science” taken generically and philosophy taken generically, it is for just this reason. An enormous volume of thought — much of it semi-neurotic — has gone into whether we can or cannot be certain about scientific hypotheses and theories. But almost none of it has begun by taking cognizance of this fact that the objects themselves have varying degrees of certitude, to which our human acts of knowledge — by which we fulfill the larger cosmic desire for the intelligible — are able to bear, in every case, a perfectly proportionate response. This means that while we may have “less certitude” about, say, the existence of oxygen, than about the existence of the human species, this does not mean that we are uncertain about it.

To be continued….

An apologetic note to readers: I know it is annoying that I write provocative things and then don’t follow up for a month. There just doesn’t seem to be enough time. Readers familiar with the Thomas Aquinas College seminars will have some understanding of why (I’m teaching one this year, as well as an extra class for a sick colleague, as well as six thesis advisees….) Not really the best excuses, I know, but I’ll try not to take so long between posts. At least over the Christmas break….


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  1. John Froula

    I’ve been reading some DeKoninck on this, two of the essays mentioned and his Dissertation, and am left with many questions. You understand the postion to be that the “what it is” of a material being is involves indeterminacy because matter itself is not determined to a certain form. I do not see how that follows. A ball is not determined as to whether it is either kcked or thrown, but if it is thrown, it is thrown, not indeterminately thrown. Likewise, matter may be informed in many ways, but once informed, say a lump of gold, while it can change, it is gold while it is, and not indeterminately so.

    I understood, perhaps imperfectly, that indetermincy had to do with the natural motion of a matter form composite.

    Also, the inability to determine exact specific differences and so come up with definitons does not seem like a result of indeterminacy. Are the defintions of animal and plant and man uncertain? They are material, so the same principle of material – indeterminacy – uncertainlty should apply.

    Thanks for any possible and contingent response.

    • sdcojai

      Hi, John.

      You are certainly not alone in your doubts about how to understand this indeterminacy of which I speak. But DeKoninck himself is very unequivocal about it. Gentleman that he was, he had a way of severely chastizing some of his own colleagues, yet doing so in such a discrete way that, if one was not paying attention, one could quite fail to notice what he said. I myself experienced that when I was younger, because I just assumed that whatever he said would be conformable with what I had been taught. But when I paid more attention, I saw that he was looking far more deeply into things than I had recognized. Nevertheless, he writes (most of the time; there are exceptions) in a way that leaves one free to not notice if one is so disposed.

      A major impediment to seeing what he is saying results from assuming that determinacy just means invariability, and indeterminacy variability. But that isn’t really what DeKoninck has in mind — although no doubt indeterminacy is associated with variability. What DeKonnck has in mind is much more like what Timaeus has in mind, and Plato too, when they speak of the material being unknowable. And that should not be dismissed as merely “Platonic,” because it is closely connected with the theory of abstraction from matter espoused by both Aristotle and Aquinas. They agree with Plato, in effect, that the material is, precisely by being material, reduced to a a lower degree of intelligibility.

      One might grasp this partly by analogy with the arts. For example, compare a watercolor painting with an oil painting. Why is the latter more determinate, clear, and intelligible than the former? You can see that it is not because one varies and the other doesn’t, but rather because of the different kinds of matter that the forms are in. But if one thought that the sort of determinacy required for intelligibility was nothing other than happening to be static for some time, this itself would become unintelligible.

      As regards your question about defining animals, I think it is important to see that there are different kinds of arguments. Some arguments, even while apparently deductive in form, are really an expression of an accumulation of experience. Hence merely having the form of the deduction doesn’t guarantee understanding, if one either doesn’t have, or fails to pay attention to, the requisite experience. In the matter at hand, one really needs to be impressed with the fact that for several millenia nobody has been able to “define” a dog in the (degraded, in my view) Scholastic understanding of what a definition should be. Shouldn’t we find that a little strange?

      But we have, I will assert, actually been able to define a dog in a different way, one which take account of secondary causes more adequately, and is enabled to do so precisely because it recognizes the connection of secondary and material causes with indeterminacy, and therefore seeks less a determinate kind of definition.

      I think a clear grasp of what DeKoninck understands by indeterminacy also depends somewhat on understanding the role of quantity in material being. DeKoninck himself compares material species with the continuum, which is infinitely divisible, or divisible in an infinity of places. DeKoninck makes the comparison to suggest that material species, likewise, are divisible a quasi-continuous way, which is to say that they don’t have the determinacy of immaterial species. DeKoninck presents this as if he were merely making an analogy, but on reflection one can see that it is very likely much more than that. Material species really do depend on the quantitative in a very fundamental way; and as a result of that we commonly refer to distinctions which are “qualitative” as opposed to others which we say are “merely” “quantitative.” But further, if one recognizes that quantitative form is material with respect to qualitative and substantial form, one can begin to suspect that qualitative and substantial forms will very likely be subject to the continuous variability of quantitative form. And if one gives contemporary science its due, that suspicion is amply borne out.

      I’d like to say more to illustrate my meaning further, but unfortunately I’m out of time for now. –Regards, SC

      • John Froula

        Dr. Collins
        Thank you for your response, and my apologies for the obscurities in my first questions. I now see you are right about De Koninck’s position being that the natural form itself is indeterminate as well as its motions and effects. “Thomism and Scientific Indeterminism” says as much. I still have some lingering questions about what that would mean though.

        Determination seems to refer to determination to something. In the analogy about the paintings, I can see how the watercolor is less determined than the oil to the thing it is supposed to be a representation of. But how can we say it is less determined simply of itself? The water color is itself the same way the oil painting is itself. If matter is determined to a form it is determined regardless of the perfection of the form. Is a fly less a fly than a man is a man because the fly’s form is less perfect and intelligible than a man’s? If what is meant by indeterminism is imperfection or unintelligibility, why introduce a new and more obscure terminology? If something else is meant, what is it exactly?

        The same question could be put with respect to the points on the line. There is a kind of indeterminism of points on a line because any point of a potentially infinite set can be determined. But once a point is determined, it is a determined point. Likewise, matter can be determined to potentially infinite forms (according to De Koninck I gather) but once the matter is determined to a form, it is that material species. It is not just sort of the material species. The fly is a fly, not moving in and out of being a fly, not a fuzzy fly, not sort of a fly. My inability to define a fly does not mean that it is not one thing and so determined to one form.

        “Now it is manifest that of one thing there is only one natural form whereby it exists; and hence such as it is itself, such also is its work. But the form whereby the will acts is not only one, but many, according to the number of ideas understood. Hence the quality of the will’s action does not depend on the quality of the agent, but on the agent’s will and understanding. So the will is the principle of those things which may be this way or that way; whereas of those things which can be only in one way, the principle is nature.” ST I 41, 2

        About the definition of animals, the point I would like to make is not that “dog” could be defined determinately, but that “animal” could. There would then be a determined definition for some natural form. In fact, as I understand, De Koninck does not put all material species on the same continuum, but sees a discreet difference between at least four natural forms. So difference among animals is like points on line, but animal and plant are different lines.

        Thank you again and all the best, John

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