Thomism, Karl Popper, and the Existence of Oxygen

· History, Philosophy, Psychology, Reason, Science

In the end of my last post, I implied two things that need elaboration. The first is that varying degrees of certitude and intelligibility can be found not only in our acts of knowledge, but also in the things themselves that we know. The second is that “less certain” is not the same as “uncertain.”

I also made a third, seemingly more incidental claim: I said that much of what has been said and written about the certitude of human knowing is “neurotic.” That might sound like unnecessarily poking fun at someone, but I meant it fairly literally, and not as an expression of scorn. This is closely related to the first two thoughts, and so I should start by explaining it further.

The Cartesian-Humean revolution marked a decisive turning point in our culture’s attitude to certitude. The change involved much more than merely how much certitude we were willing to settle for; it was, as we say, a “qualitative” change and not merely a “quantitative” one. To understand it one must go behind the question of certitude and observe what we value our knowledge for, however certain it might or might not be. The intellectual revolution inaugurated by Descartes had, as one of its principal aims, to redirect our attitude to knowledge, to see it not so something that lifts the mind up, but rather as the expression of our reason’s power of dominion over things. The ancient tradition inaugurated in philosophers such as Pythagoras saw the logoi present in the realities around us as something Divine, something which could not but lift up our very souls by beholding them. That was the very reason for philosophical pursuit, for seeing philosophy itself as the noblest of pursuits. But Descartes decisively shifted the focus of attention away from such intelligible logoi; it was not in them that the value of knowledge was to be found, but rather in reason’s own power of capturing the essence of things through a systematic method.

This shift, despite its full significance perhaps not being immediately apparent, is quite clearly expressed in Descartes’ desire for what he calls a “mathesis universalis” or universal method. It is significant that Descartes sees this both as a method (“methodos”) and as a full accomplishment of knowledge, a “mathesis.” The idea of a “method” for knowing certainly did not start with Descartes; Aristotle, long before,  had held that the pursuit of knowledge without benefit of a method is likely to involve lost effort. In Aristotle, the proper use of logical tools was an example of a such a method. But what is new with Descartes is that the method becomes the knowledge itself. This, of course, would find even further development in Kant, and later in Hegel, for whom “logic” acquired a completely new meaning, one which nevertheless was evidently present already, at least seminally, in Descartes’ thinking.

But then what, we may ask, becomes the source of the dignity in the act of knowing? It can no longer be the intelligibility of the object itself, which before had been seen as capable of lifting reason up to the Divine, but now becomes as mere matter to reason’s activity. (Later, of course, this is taken up by Kant, who sees the inevitable need, following Descartes, to restore the role of the intelligible in giving dignity to knowledge; but this intelligible itself unavoidably comes, in Kant’s treatment of it, to be seen as reason’s own work.)

To see the full significance that this has in our understanding of certitude, we could describe our knowledge as having both a material and a formal element. The material element (in the present perspective) is the intelligible; the formal element is the certitude with which we possess this intelligible. But in the Cartesian vision, this intelligible ceases to be a real element at all. Certitude comes to be, as it were, the whole of knowledge, a form not appropriated to any matter at all. The meaning of certitude therefore becomes completely indiscernible as something to be judged in relation to real intelligible being; it must rather be be judged according to “purely formal” criteria bearing no relation at all to the real certitude of intelligible being itself.

But “purely formal” criteria of this sort must, by necessity, lead to a sort of “neurotic” attitude to knowing. For the original source of reason’s dignity has been removed; in place of intelligible being, possessed by the mind with such certitude as the object itself can support, there is now nothing but the certitude itself, not measured by anything. Certitude now therefore becomes an end in itself, an end which can never be adequately justified, and yet at the same time one which is quasi-infinite in its demands.

So… perhaps it isn’t yet fully apparent how all this bears upon “Thomism, Karl Popper, and the Existence of Oxygen.” But I’m out of time for now…. You, dear readers, will have to have your sense of wonder exercised for yet a while longer.

More later!


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  1. anaxagorus

    Can you point out where in Descartes “the intelligible ceases to be a real element” of our knowledge? Also can you point out where “certitude becomes an end in itself … indiscernible as something to be judged in relation to real intelligible being?” The modern sciences from my perspective aim at knowledge of things — ie the pursuit of cosmology aims to comprehend the whole (intelligible being), as well as the history of how we came to be. We gain insight into the whatness of astronomical objects — stars, nebulae, galaxies, quasars, and what is the source of their brightness — black holes. These seem to be intelligible objects worthy of study in their own right. For the cosmologist, certitude is not the most important thing in our knowledge, as evidenced by the fact that cosmologists don’t place a premium on the precision and accuracy of their calculations and are satisfied with approximations because they realize that the sheer complexity of things makes such precision impossible. So how is Descartes significant in terms of modern scientific thought?

    • sdcojai

      Greetings, Edward, and Merry Christmas to you and your family!

      I was just in the process of responding to your last comment (only two months later!), when I saw your next two. At this rate it’s going to be hard to catch up! Oh well….

      I don’t think that Descartes ever explicitly says that the intelligible ceases to be a real element of our knowledge. He does say … at the end of the Discourse on Method, I believe? … that health is the end of philosophical speculation. That’s a rather amazing statement, no? But the Rules for the Direction of the Mind, and also La Géométrie, which I take to be the work by which Descartes intends to illustrate the Rules ¬¬¬– both clearly reveal Descartes’ intention of making philosophy into a method which constitutes the very substance of philosophizing. My assertion that the intelligible ceases to be the object of knowledge is an inevitable consequence of that goal – at least as long as the intelligible is recognized as being a characteristic of real being, and not of a method of procedure.

      In all such questions it seems to me to be extremely important to look at the doctrine – in this case that of Descartes – as a coherent whole, so far as possible, and therefore as one that has implications, sometimes stated and sometimes not. The implication that should interest us in this case is that certitude as such is the end of knowing, rather than the intelligible, to which certitude would only be a mode of possession. I agree with you that the typical scientist nowadays has gotten past that error and the unavoidable subsequent neurosis, or never had it. But philosophy remains very much infected with it, and the philosophy of science does as well.

      The theory (or theories) of knowing as model-making is connected with this problem. I think you are more right to say, as you did in your last comment, that science aims at a real knowledge of things, than you were in an earlier comment when you said that science nowadays hasn’t gotten much further than Ptolemy, since both are doing essentially the same thing, namely making models.

      It’s not that I doubt that scientists make models; they obviously do. But I don’t think that the end is the models; models are an instrument of knowing. I hope to write more soon about this idea of an instrument, as it seems to me to be crucially important to understand it. If one tries to make the instrument stand in for that to which it serves as an instrument, one ends up with aberrations of understanding, because, of course, the end is then finally reduced to the same order of causality as the instrument, and is thus not understood.

      Even in Ptolemy, I think it is a serious mistake to think of the models or representations as mere means of prediction. Prediction is, to be sure, an important means of verification, but it is not the end; it is more on the level of the inherent power of the instrumental cause, rather than of the cause to which the instrument is subordinated.

      That probably sounds too abstract. What I mean, more concretely, is this. In human knowing, exterior representation – models – are something that we look through and not just at. Sometimes we can see better by looking through a representation than we could by not doing so. This would not happen if the intellect were itself a purely material power, on the same level as the material representation that we make; in that case the representation could not be instrumental to the power of the intellect.

      I can illustrate what I mean with speech, which is a material, instrumental cause of intellectual communication. The spoken sounds are not capable, of themselves, of bearing intelligible significance; but as instruments of the intellect they are. So when we speak, we communicate our minds to one another. It would be a mistake, obviously, to suppose that what is communicated rises to no higher a level than what spoken sounds are capable of by themselves as mere sounds, rather than as instruments of thought.

      Literature consists largely of intelligible representations – models, one could say – of human action. There again, the exterior model cannot be such a vehicle of intelligibility as it really is except by being an instrument of the perceiving mind, the object of which is ultimately not the model but reality itself.

      Popper appeared in the title of my last post because he is a prime example of one who does not know how to distinguish what pertains to the intrinsic power of the instrument of knowing from what pertains to its power by subordination to a principal cause. And while, as you say, ordinary scientists go about their daily business of wondering and learning about the world, the philosophy of science remains, in my view, very much impeded by this misunderstanding.

      So… when you say, in your last comment, that “the modern scientific mind does not seem to be able to transcend his own power of reasoning,” I have to disagree with what I take you to mean. In my view, it’s a badly corrupted philosophy of science which has imposed on the scientists this restrictive view that all they ever do is represent by models. That is plainly not true, after all. In the early days of chemistry, Lavoisier produced a new theory about elements. When it was still new and not very well researched, one might have said with some plausibility that he was making a “model,” and understood that to mean that the chemists had as yet little power to see through the model to something that lay beyond it. And even today, I would not deny that there is perhaps some aspect of model or representation involved in our understanding of what Lavoisier discovered. But to insist that we see nothing real about what Lavoisier discovered — that is, real as opposed to representational — would be unreasonable.

      …Which is why “oxygen” appeared in the title of my last post. It’s a name for something real.

      That’s a quick, incomplete sketch of what I hope to write more about later.

      P.S. Ed, wordpress seems to have swallowed your second comment. I approved it, but I’m not sure why it isn’t appearing. Sorry…. You could repost it, maybe?

      • Ed Wassell

        I don’t think I intended to convey in my comment that one cannot use the models to see some aspect of reality through them. Scientists are clearly able to deduce some very interesting conclusions about reality through their models. But what they see through the models is largely some material being or material mode of being or formal (as in mathematical) principles behind material being. Steven Barr does a good job in his book “Ancient Faith and Modern Physics” of seeing through the models to certain more philosophical truths, ie that man is in some way the center of the universe and the evolution of the cosmos seems in some way to be designed for the existence of man. Dr. Barr as a physicist seems to have deduced truths that are very consistent with the thought of Charles DeKoninck. I am not at his level as a physicist, so I am reluctant to state my opinions too strongly and am open to correction — you should invite him to join your blog. He sees much more through the models than I do. But I do think that for most physicists, the model is an end of the intellectual pursuit and they are ultimately looking for the model from which everything can be deduced as Hawking states in his Brief History of Time. But none of their work can grasp angelic causality, comprehend the rational soul, or reach the intelligent mover behind all. And this is why I said that they do not seem able to transcend their own power of reasoning or grasp the “invisible” realities. I think Dr. Barr would agree with this point, as he seemed to believe that we cannot reason to these immaterial truths (he seems to think Aristotle and Thomas’ proofs are not vaild), but must hold these invisible truths by faith, which faith is not inconsistent with science.

  2. anaxagorus

    On another note, the modern scientific mind does not seem to be able to transcend his own power of reasoning. For the only way the scientist approaches the universe is through observation and modeling, then comparing the observations with the theoretical calculations deduced from his models. Thus there is no room for the cosmos, or the intelligible objects of thought to be anything greater than what can be imagined and modeled through human intelligence. The scientist cannot grasp being, one and true, or nature, motion and essence because these concepts can not be reduced to mathematics and fit into his models. Thus, the modern man cannot see anything greater than what is conceived by his own models. He seems incapable of knowing angels, the soul or God. So we seem to be in a similar position intellectually to the ancient Greeks prior to the arrival of Anaxagorus and the ‘Greater Mind’.

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