Tuesday, June 3, 2008

A goodly, if not great, chain of being…

Being is that which is only conceivable as existing.

Matter is that which exists––in discrete ways as material objects––in the displacement of one thing from another. Materiality, à la C.S. Peirce, is obstinate reactivity.

Form is that which integrates discrete materials into a larger whole. Form is the principle of operative order that distinguishes one material object from another on a conceptual level. It is not something imposed upon matter, but that which integrates matter to act in consistent ways, as exact science regards them. An electron is different from a positron formally, not materially. This is what we, unwittingly perhaps, say when we use the word "organism"; a thing is an organism by virtue of the fact that it is organized. Organization is something formally, not materially, constituted. My desk is no neater for having more objects it, if I don't apply a formal order to it, and thus organize according to an immaterial principle of matter.

Beauty is that which unifies at least two formal objects under one idea. An electron and a positron evince beauty in a way that an electron and a stalk of asparagus do not. The beauty of a neat desk is what I see when I find its many items arranged under one idea, even if this idea is not verbally expressible.

Good is that towards which form is ordered, appropriate to each entity's formal structure. Food is a good for the formal maintenance and growth of the body, as one highly integrated formal structure.

A better good is chosen from among multiple possible goods as that which more completely and consistently orders something towards its proper good. For example, eating a bowl of ice cream immediately, while starving, only to find it is poisoned and causes terrible stomach pains, is a lesser good than waiting even several more hours for a tiny portion of bland food that restores health. A quotidian example, I know, but perhaps my point is clear. I raise the issue, about relative goods, because perhaps to some readers (if I may presume) the idea of good is utterly subjective and not subject to rational ordering. Isn't good, as G.E. Moore argued in Principia Ethica, basically just as intuitive, and thus morally incontestable, as redness and sweetness? If we don't accuse a colorblind man of wrong for seeing red poorly, or not at all, why ought we assign blame to seeing good differently than others, much less seeing good in something most people see as bad? If good is just a natural property of experience, like sweetness, hardness, etc., then we can all feast alike––without moral recriminations. If good is merely a subjective "sense" of things in our perceptual ambit, how could we possibly order them on some larger––dare I say, supersensible––scale?

What I dislike about Moore's position is that it doesn't seem to take nature as seriously as ArisThomism does. I believe formal structure, as articulated by St. Thomas among other Scholastics, is a potent source of insight, not to be jettisoned despite four centuries of Cartesian "mechanicomania". Form is making a comeback in two, if I may, forms: software and vertical causality. As James F. Ross argues in his essay, "The Fate of the Analysts: Aristotle's Revenge",

[W]e can predict six features of philosophy--and of science too--: (1) reinstatement of a theory of inherent forms: that there are dynamic explanatory structures inherent in matter (but inseparable except in thought, from matter, though variously realizable in matter)[17]…; that (2) such dynamic structures explain, indeed ARE … the continuous regularity of behavior, say, of protons; (3) that the natures of things (the materialized structures) and the abstractable laws, are NOT simply the local aggregations of matter, the way a pile is resultant from the grains of sand[18] but that there are, as yet undiscovered, principles of emergence-- principles of what Aristotle called "eduction of forms for matter"…, by which stable, causally specialized structures (e.g. cell structures) develop from more general ones (.e.g. [sic], molecular ones); (4) that human intelligence is the active ability to discern and to recognize dynamic structures in nature (and their consequences, even hypothetical ones), irrespective of the indeterminacy of hypotheses or the undertermination of reference; and (5) that the objective of science is comprehension … --to be streetwise in the universe--and that scientific comprehension of physical reality has to be expressed, and aided, with mathematized abstractions, with formal models, and with technology.

Likewise, as Allan F. Randall claims in "Quantum Miracles and Immortality",

Strong AI adopts the Aristotelian-Thomistic view of the soul, as the 'form' of a conscious being. The form of a thing is, in modern terms, the in-form-ation required to completely describe (or simulate) the thing. The formalistic conception of the soul was the most widely accepted view of the soul in the Roman Catholic Church at the end of the Middle Ages. The Christian doctrine of resurrection of the body is based on it: God can resurrect you because he is omniscient and knows your form.

Reducing reality to undifferentiated raw matter, which is what materialism aims for, is a fine rationalist project––except for the small problem that it, like all forms of monism, cannot face the fact of the highly differentiated, formally discrete nature of reality. As Walther Ehrenfried Tschirnhausen [just cuz it's fun to type in full] pointed out to Spinoza, without ever getting a promised reply, by assuming all is One, insofar as all is God, we have no way to account for so many contingent small ones that constitute reality. If all we are is God Himself, how, frankly, do we come by Spinoza himself? If everything, likewise, is only atoms, how do we have so many superatomic structures which defy purely atomic description? As quantum mechanics indicates, atoms do not really exist unless "dematerialized" or "collapsed" by a larger whole, namely, an observed quantum reaction. Much the same holds for cells, structures that do not exist independently but only exist in a formal unity with the role they play in a larger tissue. Quantum functions and cells are what they are in virtue not of linear, mechanistic causation but by way of a larger "vertical causation" that cannot be accounted for in terms of those smaller entities themselves. I refer the reader(s) to Wolfgang Smith's writings on this idea in The Quantum Enigma and The Wisdom of Ancient Cosmology. I also hear Franklin Harold's The Way of the Cell is fascinating for the light it sheds on cellular reality as inherently co-ordered, that is, teleological.

I have taken this teleological detour to clarify why Moore's just-so account of Good is not so good. Good is as much a reality as the objects and things to which we apply the term. And because nature, as a congeries of dynamic formal structures, is real, so too are various ends real toward which real things are ordered by virtue of their own natures. This means not all 'goods' are really good, insofar as some 'goods' detract from a thing's actual formal end. Hence, while I may see 'goodness' in the precision crafting of a nail protruding from the floor, it is a lesser good to put that nail through my foot, because I have my own set of goods that contravene on the nail's humble goodness. Insofar as reality is dynamically discrete and organically operative, it is arranged, improved, or deformed in connection with intrinsic goods.

I have all this to express the following thought:

Insofar as one good is higher than another, there is a highest good that orders all other goods towards it in one beauteous formal act of benevolent regard. This highest good we call God. God is that which, that Whom, gives an orange its goodness for satisfying your hunger, and gives your newly consumed energy from the orange its goodness as ordered towards performing well in a violin recital, which in turn gives goodness to your family cohesion in celebration of your musical award, which in turn, etc. etc., which finally gives the entire cosmos its goodness as Created Gift in the act of prayer you perform thanking God for everything just as you drift of to sleep. It may be that for some the best argument for prayer is that it is the most efficient means of ordering the largest amount of reality to the highest good with the greatest beauty. It expends no canvas, no oils, no bandwidth, no federal grants, no troops' lives, not even much air, if done mentally. In one cascade of silent neurological work, the entire cosmos can be dematerialized and formally constituted as a work of great beauty and a canvas for boundless thanks.

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