Philosophy: The Value of Sticking Your Neck Out

I recently read (or listened to anyhow) a book called The Dream of Reason: A History of Philosophy from the Greeks to the Renaissance by Anthony Gottlieb. Now I am not that interested in ancient philosophy and philosophers, or at least wasn’t before this book. My general point of view is (was?) that we owe ancient philosophers a huge debt of gratitude for their dream of using reason to understand the world. But I also believe that their theories were all just shy of 100% hogwash and no rational person today (thanks to our scientific knowledge) would ever choose to be ‘an Aristotelian’ or some other follower of one of the ancient schools – unless they were doing it for purely religious reasons. (I tend to give people a pass if they are doing it for religious reasons.)

I’m probably wrong in this opinion, since there are many very smart and sincere philosopher’s today that are Aristotelians. But, given my bad attitude, I’m not likely to give them the time of day to convince me otherwise.

With this attitude, is it really that surprising that I have made little effort to study philosophy? But here I think I’ve erred. For after reading a book like The Dream of Reason, I can see that there is immense value in understanding the historical problems that these philosophers were grappling with and to look, with 20/20 hindsight, at what their graspings eventually led to.

And one of the key lessons of the book, if I were to pick one and call it the main theme, is that no matter how wrong you are, if you at least try to use reason, you are probably on the right track. In short, the book screamed to me “Stick your neck out and be wrong! Only the Rejectionists (i.e. people that point out all the problems of other’s beliefs but advance none of their own) truly fail in the realm of Reason!”


Let’s start with Thales. Here is a guy that gets almost everything wrong. For example, he thought absolutely everything in the universe was made of water. Water?!  And he also believed that the earth floated on a sea of water and that magnets are alive. Goodness, how lame can you get?

Except, of course, that there is nothing lame about it. As Gottlieb points out:

Take water first. One distinguishing feature of what we now call scientific account of things is that it should aim to be as simple as possible. Thales rather overshot the mark and tried to reduce everything to just one thing, namely water. … But in seeking a natural substance to unify and thus simplify the phenomena of the observable world, instead of making things more complicated by invoking lots of gods, he was a least looking for knowledge in what we now regard as the right sort of place. (p. 6)

Goodness! Gottlieb is right. Thales was wrong, but in a really productive sort of way! Or in other words – as difficult as it is to believe — he was approximately right.

Yeah, okay, maybe he was on the right track with the whole ‘all elements are made out of the same stuff’ thing, but the earth doesn’t float in a sea does it? And magnets being alive is about the stupid things I could imagine. Except, well…

Why assume that the earth would float like a log rather than sink like a stone? Yet even this defeat is a sort of victory for Thales. In order to refute him we have to reason with him, a compliment we would not think of paying the Egyptian priests.

Thales probably deserves the same compliment for his claim that magnets and amber are alive (or have a soul, psuche, which in those days meant much the same thing). He noticed that they can cause some objects to move and can move themselves towards them, and he was trying to account for this mystery by proposing that they have a type of animation. Spontaneous motion is, after all, often a sign of life. We would object to Thales that the power to cause motion is not quite enough on its own to justify calling a stone alive; but this does not mean we can dismiss his ruminations as mere crankiness. Today there is still not precise definition of life, and in the seventh century BC there was barely even a vague one. Thales’ apparently outlandish idea may there be seen as the natural result of having an inquiring mind at a time when precious little was understood. (p. 7-8)


Okay, so maybe Gottlieb has a point about Thales. But what about that idiot Parmenides.

[Parmenides] held that one cannot meaningfully think or say anything about ‘what is not’. In his view, this would amount to speaking of nothing, and a man who speaks or thinks of nothing does not succeed in speaking or thinking intelligibly at all. (p. 55)

What a nut case! If you can’t speak of what is not, what exactly can you speak of? Certainly not of someone being born or dying. Indeed, if anything ever changes – and mind you that would be the whole world! – then you are speaking of ‘what is not’ which is (according to Parmenides) impossible. The fact that the world does change notwithstanding. Surely here we have a philosopher not worth remembering, right?

But as it turns out, even that nut case Parmenides was on to something.

…Aristotle, dismiss Parmenides with the remark: ‘His assumption that “is” is used in a single way only is false, because it is used in several.’ However, before we write off Parmenides as a man who not only produced poetry but could not even understand his own native language, there is something worth bearing in mind. The tools of grammatical analysis that Plato used to clarify the notation of ‘speaking of what is not’ had only just been developed, apparently by the itinerant ‘Sophist’ teachers who congregated in Athens at the time of Socrates…. Such grammatical terms and distinctions were not yet common currency in Parmenides’ youth and it may never have occurred to him to think about such matters systematically. Indeed, it might never have occurred to Plato or Aristotle to think about them either, if the enigmatic statements of Parmenides and other early thinkers had not prompted them to do so. (p. 59)

And it gets worse. Parmenides not only apparently forced later thinkers to clarify things, but his own student, Zeno, whose sole purpose in life was to defend Parmenides, might be one of the most important things to ever happen to the philosophical world.

Zeno and His Paradoxes

Zeno just wanted to get people to stop making mock of Parmenides. (And let’s face it, Parmenides sort of deserved it.) So he came up with a series of paradoxes that still are very important today.

Consider, for example, one of Zeno’s infamous paradoxes of motion. Suppose for the sake of argument that motion is indeed possible, as common sense says it is and Parmenides denies. And suppose, for the sake of illustration, that the famously fast Achilles intends to run a race at the Great Panathenaea. Zeno points out to Achilles that before he can reach the finishing post, he must get halfway there. And before he can get halfway there, he must get a quarter way. … Achilles begins to realize that he is in trouble, for this line of reasons can evidently be continued indefinitely. Zeno persuades him that he therefore cannot run any distance at all… (p. 65-66)

Now as it turns out, I had already heard of Zeno. In fact, Zeno is still quite popular today because everyone feels a need to refute him as the starting point to certain advanced concepts. Zero is particularly important to Calculus, which might be thought of as a mathematical solution to Zeno’s paradox.

The scientists and philosophers of each age tend to use Zeno’s paradoxes as a peg on which to hang their thoughts about subjects that are tangled up with infinity, such as the divisibility of space and matter, and the concepts of time and motion. (p. 68)

So as it turns out, even a seemingly flat out wrong set of ideas like Parmenides were ‘on the right track’ from a certain point of view. The mere fact that he was willing to stretch his neck out and try to apply reason to something caused the advance of knowledge. He may have believed in something that was not true, but at least he believed in something (i.e. wasn’t not a rejectionist) and defined himself by those beliefs rather than his disbeliefs. And he was rewarded for his efforts.


At least when we get to Aristotle, no one doubts the value of his contributions. Yet he was wrong about just about everything too.

I listened to a physics lecture at Berkley where the professor started out going over the history of physics. He described the physics of Aristotle with rich humor in his voice. Aristotle believed that the elements had a natural affinity for each other. So if you pick up a book and let go of it, it falls to the earth because that book is primarily made of the element of earth. The element of air would tend to rise and the element of water was somewhere in between, floating on top of earth, but not rising to the air. It’s all quite ridiculous.

Or is it?

This isn’t very good physics, I’ll admit. It makes no predictions, can’t be falsified, and has the added disadvantage of being wrong.

But isn’t it more or less true that the world of ‘things’ can be split into a few pretty good categories: solids, liquids, and gases? (With fire being ‘energy’)

Aristotle may not have discovered physics, but he was absolutely on to something that was true.

Also, consider this:

We have seen that according to Aristotle that mark of a highly developed science is that it deals with the universal of essential truths about each type of thing – for example, that all cows are ruminants. One of his favorite ways of putting this was to say that science is concerned with ‘that which is always or … for the most part’. …  (p. 273)

Science is built on the idea that the laws of physics are always true. There would be little point in science if that were not so. We’ve been forced to ‘push back’ what we consider the primal laws – and we are still not sure – but it’s that underlying belief that drives science.

Even in the case of ruminant cows, where Aristotle got it wrong again, we can see that he was on to something.

In Aristotle’s ‘Substance Theory’ living things have an eternal nature. This must be so (argues Aristotle) because otherwise there would be no eternal essential truths about cows. So what is a ‘cow’ then?

We know he’s wrong, but how do we know that? Simple, really, because thanks to natural selection and evolution, life evolves and dies out, forming groups and clusters of similar types of life. There probably is no set of characteristics that stamp a cow a cow – so substance theory is bad physics. But there is a general set of characteristics that causes us to call a certain type of being a cow based on similarities and kinship to others. The underlying forces that cause this clustering of characteristics are eternal just like Aristotle had hoped. Substance Theory is bad theory today, but it lead to good theory and was in fact indispensible to modern theories.

Democritus and Atomism

Which brings me to the crown jewel of philosophy (in my opinion, anyhow): Democritus.

Democritus came up with this wild theory that all things were made up of atoms. This idea actually stemmed from, of all places, Parmenides’ theories. Democritus seemed to believe that Parmenides, while obviously wrong about the world not changing, was at least on to a correct idea that the world was somehow eternal and unchanging. His idea was to imagine the world made up of various ‘atoms’ or tiny particles that were indivisible and unchanging. They could then explore out different configurations and forms and thereby allow for change in a changeless world.

The atomism of Democritus is not the same as ‘atom theory’ today, but one is a direct descendent of the other.

Even more impressively, a daisy-chain of influence extends from the ancient atomists to the triumph of modern atomic theory of matter in the nineteenth century. (p. 95)

And notice how this means that the nut case Parmenides is, in some legitimate sense, the father of modern science.

Perhaps the most striking thing about it is that this seemingly scientific philosophy grew straight from the dark and incredible notions of Parmenides. It took just one tweak of Parmenides’ premises to turn his motionless, unchanging One into Democritus’ buzzing profusion of atoms. (p. 95)

Lessons Learned

I hope I have impressed upon you the importance of ‘believing in something.’ Yeah, you will probably be wrong. But so what? It would be impossible to be less right then Parmenides, yet he is the father of modern science! (Go figure!) If you even so much as try to use reason, you will probably be on to something no matter how wrong you were.

Consider, for example, the struggle between Atomist and Substance Theory. It’s tempting to claim that Atomist turned out to be right and Substance Theory turned out to be wrong. From a certain legitimate point of view, this is the case. Aristotle’s imagination that living things has some sort of magical characteristic called ‘a substance’ that never changed simply is not true because in fact all things – including living things – are made out of atoms. And all atoms are identical.

Yet can we truly say that Aristotle was wrong? What Aristotle really discovered was that things in the world can be categorized. It is this discovery, probably more than any other, that eventually lead to the rise of reductionism. We can break down complex things into simpler things. We can categorize them and break them apart, and put them back together again. Aristotle, even in the very thing he was most wrong about, turned out to be the father of library sciences, computational theory, and even object oriented programming. Therefore substance theory is still alive and well, albeit not in the way Aristotle intended it.

18 thoughts on “Philosophy: The Value of Sticking Your Neck Out

  1. This was a very good look at philosophic history and the book sounds interesting for what it discusses. Frankly, I still think its all bunk to study, but its nice to see how science developed into what we have today.

    One of the things that I never can understand is how humanity remained so stupid for so long. We should have had, for instance, the industrial and scientific revolution during the 1000 years of Rome working off the productivity of Greece. For that matter, if not Rome then at least the long generations of Chinese development. Now an explanation of that would be a book I would like to read even if, and especially if, it showed how humans really weren’t stupid or at least what kept us back. My own theory is that philosophy, even if it eventually brought scientific thought, forced dogmatic ways of looking at the world.

  2. Aristotle wrote about a very large number of subjects – picking and choosing the things that he got wrong doesn’t help very much in evaluating the value of the things that he got right.

    In particular, no one reads philosophers from 2400 years ago for their insights on physics. Everything they knew about that is hopelessly out of date. However, what some of them had to say about metaphysics is far more generalizable, and not at all obviously wrong.

    Here you are characterizing Aristotle’s “substance theory” (which is metaphysics, not physics) in a way that would be ridiculous even to Aristotle. The primary philosophical issue here is whether forms are real or not.

    Aristotle did not deny that forms could change. He did not deny that forms could go completely out of existence. The whole idea of an immutable “eternal cow” that exists whether or not it is instantiated is a better caricature of Platonism than Aristotelianism.

    In Aristotle’s metaphysics the form of something disappears entirely as soon as the last instance is destroyed. If you have three copies of the book and burn all three, no more book.

    What is do ridiculous about that? We speak about information in exactly the same way today. If one just wants to collect reasons for looking down one’s nose at anything more than twenty years old, they are easy to find.

    Academics are full of this sort of self-congratulatory philistinism. You can hardly read two paragraphs before they start making fun of people who were hundreds of times smarter than they are, either because of an exaggeration of real mistakes, or because they know the caricature far better than the reality.

    If you want to criticize Aristotle, maybe you should actually learn a little bit about the subject first.

  3. I prefer to draw a distinction between intellectual history and philosophy, the latter is a skill set while the former is a set of facts. Of course it’s pretty difficult to draw a bold line between the two since it’s all but impossible to trace the intellectual history of any idea without going through a philosopher or two, but I still find the distinction valuable.

    It sounds to me that the book was an attempt to use intellectual history to illustrate the value of philosophical skill set, and with that I am all on board. While in college I had a pretty hard time distinguishing the two. I had always read and learned quite a bit about which philosophers said what about different subjects and I thought this was what doing philosophy was. It wasn’t. Not even close. It was while in this mind set that I got mediocre grades at best on my philosophy papers.

    Once I came to appreciate that philosopher isn’t about knowing “that” but knowing “how” two things happened. First, my grade dramatically improved. Second, I realized that philosophy is REALLY hard. The skills required to identify what any claim really amounts to and how any such claim is justified is not at all easy and require a lot of time, patience, charity and humility. If you’ve ever met a philosophy student, it should be clear why such things do not come easy to them.

  4. Jeff,

    Yes, I think your distinction makes sense and I would agree that this was the author’s point.

  5. Mark D,

    Hey man, I get it that I haven’t exactly been a friend to philosophy and that this is something you care deeply about. And I get it that you are sensitive on this subject.

    But honestly, do you even realize what you just did?

    Someone (me) just admitted that he used to dislike philosophy and philosophers but that this book started to change his mind. He then wrote a glowing book review of a book that is a glowing survey of how valuable philosophy was to us modernly. (Including, I might add, giving Aristotle full credit for some of our most important modern concepts about what you are calling ‘forms.’ See final paragraph of post.)

    You then proceeded to personally insult both authors because it wasn’t glowing in the ways you thought it should be and because you disagree with some of the book’s interpretations of Aristotle being reported, ultimately condemning both authors for “self-congratulatory philistinism.” (Never mind that Gottlieb loves philosophy and philosophers and can’t seem to stop singing their praises and never mind that I am reporting on how wonderful the book is.)

    Now maybe it’s just me, but this probably isn’t the way to win people over to your point of view. 😉

  6. I’m with Bruce all the way on this one. My undergrad focus was in analytic philosophy which went quite well with the fairly intense disdain I had/have for all philosophy which was done more than a few decades ago. I also lump pretty much all continental philosophy in that bag as well. I know that I don’t give it it’s full due, but I’m okay with that. Again, I think the skills of doing philosophy far, FAR outweigh any amount of knowledge about various philosophies (if I can call them such).

    Bruce’s book sounds pretty interesting in that I could imagine myself reading it some day. As for all those authors which the book is about, on the other hand, I have no interest in ever read them.

  7. Bruce N, it is nice that authors like this are giving Aristotle credit for constructing primitive and naive precedents to contemporary ideas rather than dismissing him as a complete simpleton.

    By every indication, however, it is pretty clear that they don’t really understand Aristotelian metaphysics and haven’t spent much time trying. Otherwise they wouldn’t say such silly things about it.

    The very first thing to understand is that the classical Greek idea of “substance” is not “stuff” – it is form plus matter. In addition, as I mentioned before, Aristotelian metaphysics does not rely on immutable or eternal forms of any kind.

    Third, in terms of modern physics, Aristotle’s view is far more accurate than the idea that matter is constructed of indivisible atoms. Atoms aren’t indivisible. Sub atomic particles aren’t indivisible either. On this point Aristotle was right, and Democritus was wrong. The idea that sub atomic particles are constructed of “prime matter” (e.g. energy) in mutable forms is far superior.

    So it would appear that the primary achievement of these authors is to be spreading slightly lower grade misinformation about Aristotelian metaphysics than their predecessors. I guess that is progress, but it would be far better to have a book written by authors who weren’t so philosophically naive, who perhaps spent a few minutes with the best secondary literature on the subject.

  8. Mark,

    You’ve been reading my posts for a while, so you know I strongly favor a computational view of reality. (I also know you don’t like that view of the world.) Yet Substance Theory has more than a passing kinship to my views. (As I’ll explain below.) So the truth is that I have an overwhelmingly positive view of substance theory when taken in that light.

    And I openly admit I don’t particularly like much philosophy (especially modern philosophy, though I have some notable exceptions) so I have little incentive to really get in the details of ancient philosophical theories and compare them to their modern versions. So you are right that I know little about the subject and I don’t deny that. One book (and perhaps my last) hardly makes me an expert.

    But even a complete neophyte like me can see that there is a potential problem with your argument that needs some addressing:

    You argue: 1) substance theory is metaphysics, not physics, so I clearly don’t understand what Aristotle was taking about, and 2) substance theory is closer to modern physics then atomism because atomism was so completely wrong on the indivisibility of ‘atoms’ where as substance theory is very close to modern physics in that there are forms and a single substance (energy) that all things are made up of.
    So here is my question back: Which is it?
    Does substance theory correctly describe the physical world as you are saying – thus making it physics – or is it solely “metaphysics” and thus I shouldn’t be making such a comparison and neither should you? You can’t have it both ways. You can’t use both of these arguments at the same time without contradicting yourself.
    Now let’s dig a bit deeper into the idea that ‘atoms’ can be divided, unlike ancient atomist claims to the contrary. But (as Gottleib points out in his book!) do you really know there isn’t a primal atom that can’t be divided? Of course not. Quarks might be indivisible since we have yet to divide them. So when modern philosophers advance this charge all they are doing is playing a shell game of words that makes a simple issue an unnecessarily confused one via misleading language.

    Worse yet, it’s entirely beside the point! The reason we call them ‘atoms’ today is because you can’t divide them without turning them into some other element. You can’t take gold and keep dividing it into smaller and smaller parts forever and have it still be gold (as was once believed.) So the idea of ‘indivisibility’ did end up applying to even what we modernly call ‘atoms.’ To silently skip over this point is to miss the very real connections between modern and ancient atomism.
    Likewise on the ‘metaphysics’ defense. If Substance theory tells us something meaningful about the physical world – as you yourself assert! – then you don’t get to claim that anyone that sees significant parts of it as ‘bad physics’ must not understand it.
    And then there is the problem of the word ‘metaphysics’ itself. It’s really only a loose label of convenience that is a moving target based on what ‘physics’ has or hasn’t absorbed to date. So the ‘metaphysics’ defense is questionable on that front too.
    Then there is the charge that substance theory is more closely related to modern physics then atomism. Yes, finding every touch point you can with substance theory and emphasizing every difference you can with atomism can lead to this point of view. But it’s not going to change the reality that atomism did prevail and did form our modern physical and chemistry theories while substance theory did not. The fact that atomism is the actual father of our modern science simply negates this whole argument you are making here in my opinion. Atomism proved the theory with greater verisimilitude.
    Plus, it’s a matter of history that many ancients that bought into substance theory took it as far more than what today we’d call metaphysics. Certain physical claims about substance theory were dreadfully wrong. For example, the bread and wine in the Catholic communion are made up of bread and wine molecules both before and after the blessing and there is no such thing as an ‘essential property’ called ‘a substance’ that changes (without affecting the atoms, of course, which continue to be bread and wine molecules in every conceivable sense) into the ‘essential property’ of the flesh and blood of Jesus.
    Yes, one can see why the early Christians made this mistake. A bachelor has an ‘essential property’ of ‘being unmarried.’ A chair has no ‘essential property’ of being made of wood – being made of wood must therefore be an ‘accidental property.’ If you make it of stone, it’s still a chair, right?
    So the Christians figured – based on their understanding of substance theory – that there must be some essential property of the bread and wine that changed into the essential property of the flesh and blood of Jesus and the mere appearance was all ‘accidental properties’.

    Back then, they were indeed asserting something about physical reality. Today, now that we all agree atoms exists, Catholics are only asserting that there is some non-physical essence that changes but leaves the atoms alone.
    But this really was just bad thinking based on confusion of how humans use language (and how human’s think) compared to actual physical reality. The reason a bachelor has an essential property of being unmarried is because the word ‘bachelor’ tautologically means ‘unmarried male.’ And the reason a chair has no essential property of what material it is made up of is because ‘a chair’ is a word that has a solely functional definition. The ancients didn’t understand this back then, so they got confused. Modern philosophers *should* understand this and we should discard the parts of the theory that no longer make sense rather than trying to needlessly defend it.
    None of this dims my positive view of substance theory. Because what substance theory really is (amongst several things, actually) *is a phenomenal description of how humans think.* Consider, for example, how the human brain struggles to see that a bachelor and a chair aren’t really physical objects, but functional ideas about objects. The human brain doesn’t differentiate between ideas and objects well. But that means substance theory has a glorious future in artificial intelligence, studies of the brain, and, yes, computation.
    And if I’m right about the computational nature of reality, then I wouldn’t count substance theory out entirely in the physics department either. I suspect Substance theory will really come into its own once the computational nature of reality is finally embraced fully.

  9. The Next Day: I had a thought. It might be that we are just talking past each other, Mark. (In which case you ignore everything I said.)

    When I claimed substance theory was failed physics, I meant that only as ‘substance theory believers made asssertions about the real physical world that have since been disproven’ (think of the transubstantiation example.) You probably mean that Aristotle had theories he labeled as physics (i.e. the four elements, etc.) and theories he labeled as metaphysics (i.e. substance theory). I won’t dispute this.

    But I stand by what I said as being correct. Original substance theory followers did use it to make physical assertions that have since proven untrue: specifically the idea that objects have accidental properties and essential properties. The real truth is that accidental properties and essential properties are brain states of the mind and therefore a function of language and aren’t actually associated with macro objects themselves. Or, if you prefer, all properties are accidental since all objects are just atoms that can be reconfigured in various ways.

    I don’t care if you call this physics or metaphysics. It’s an assertion about physical reality (physics) nonetheless. I meant no more than this.

    And, as you yourself pointed out, substance theory *can* apply to modern physics. I don’t buy into the example you use. But I do accept that information theory and computation are a sort of ‘form’ plus ‘matter’ (used loosely). That’s how I see substance theory as having a modern analog. The truth is that information and algorithms are not physical themselves, but are intimately tied to the physical world. You can’t have them without a physical world and the whole physical world is made up of them.

    So if this is what you were getting at, it might be we are agreeing more than it first appears.

  10. Bruce, I do not deny that advocates of the substance theory had extremely limited knowledge of physics by modern standards, and sometimes made mistakes due to the interpretation of their own theory.

    However, I claim that the idea that substance theory has been disproven in any material respect to be completely unsubstantiated. The suggestion relies on complete misconception of what substance theory is all about.

    As I said, “substance” in Aristotelian metaphysics is not what we think of “substance”, it is not “stuff”, it is not some sort of fluid, it is rather form plus matter. The key claim of Aristotelian metaphysics is that similar objects have similar forms, and furthermore that similar forms have something real in common between them.

    So if we have two trees, for example, something about the form of each is common between them. William of Ockham made a bit of a career out of making fun of the claim that Aristotelian forms were real in the same sense that a thing is real, but his metaphysics makes exactly the same point – that there is a real similarity between similar things.

    The opposite point of view, “nominalism”, claims that the similarity between similar things isn’t real at all, but rather is all in the mind. That sounds batty to me.

    Debates about realism aside, substance theory is more like a framework for analysis of physical questions. It does indeed suggest, by its own terms, that there is no such thing as a fundamental particle.

    It is also weak in areas where modern science is weak. Aristotle was a determinist and had no place for libertarian free will, or metaphysical randomness for that matter. That is where I believe he went wrong with biology.

    He claimed that species were eternal on deterministic grounds. If determinism is true, and energy is conserved, that is a mathematical fact. See the Poincaire recurrence theorem. If determinism is true, everything is eternal – species might disappear for a while, and then come back in the same form they were in before.

    That is not a problem with substance theory, that is a problem with determinism. A problem we still have today. Biologists lack a micro-physical theory to even make evolution possible. Of course they don’t care, they are biologists. As far as physics is concerned though, it is a unresolved question.

  11. By the way, if you talk to a sufficiently sophisticated advocate of transubstantiation, I think you will have a difficult time proving that it is wrong at all. How would one go about proving that the “real presence” of Christ is not in the Eucharist, anyway? It would be like proving that animals don’t have spirits.

    For all _practical_ purposes the real presence of Christ is in the sacrament. Those who partake worthily are sanctified, and those who make a mockery are condemned.

  12. Mark,

    Forgot to come back and read these.

    Good responses.

    I was actually planning a post about transubstantiation in the future where I was going to argue that very case. However, ‘real presence’ isn’t quite the same as transubstantiation. “Real Presence” is a more viable theory if understood as not the same as transubstantiation. I think it’s a stretch to call them one and the same, though I realize they are (intentionally) mingled.

    Consider this quote off wikipedia:

    Orthodox and Catholics believe that in the Eucharist the bread and wine are objectively transformed and become in a real sense the Body and Blood of Christ; and that after consecration they are no longer bread and wine: the consecrated elements retain the appearance and attributes of bread and wine but are in reality the body and blood of Christ.

    (Taken from the “Real Presence” entry)

    The fact is that we can scientifically disprove the above statment for all intents and purposes. We *can’t* disprove “real presence” in every sense, however. In fact, I would assume that if defined correctly, we Mormons accept ‘real presence.’

  13. By the way, compare this quote from me and the following one from you:

    The real truth is that accidental properties and essential properties are brain states of the mind and therefore a function of language and aren’t actually associated with macro objects themselves.

    The opposite point of view, “nominalism”, claims that the similarity between similar things isn’t real at all, but rather is all in the mind. That sounds batty to me.

    My first quote might make it sound like I believe in “nominalism” but really I don’t think I do. In fact, I’m not sure I even disagree with you on this point.

    There are obviously real similarities that exist between trees or it would be impossible for us to have come up with the concept (which is a brain state) of a tree in the first place. So there is a real world connection.

    That being said, it’s probably a safe bet that it’s impossible to give a specific definition for tree. And therefore it’s probably impossible to specify that X characteristic is an essential property of the substance ‘tree’ and Y is an accidental property of ‘tree.’ I doubt such a formulation is at all real.

    The real truth is that due to evolution we have many branches on a family of organisms that we conveniently call trees. But the concept (brain state) by which we make that label is vague enough that it’s entirely useful to reapply that concept to many otherwise unrelated things. Likewise, there is no really hard separation between ‘tree’ and ‘bush’ precisely because both are really part of the same ‘family tree.’ I doubt there is anything in nature that can be so precisely defined that it’s possible to speak of essential vs. accidental properties. (Well, anything in biology, maybe… perhaps we could find examples in physics where there are hard constants that exist.)

    This is why I say I doubt there is such a thing as essential vs. accidental properties except in cases for concepts that were intentionally made up to have an essential property (i.e. all bachelors are unmarried.)

    But I am not denying your point of view that there are real similarities that exist and that is why we are able to make up categories. It is not, therefore, “all in our minds.”

    Poincaire recurrence theorem

    I had always called this “Eternal Returns.” Good to know it’s real name.

  14. Bruce, The Poincaire recurrence theorem proves that recurrence is a mathematical property of systems which are deterministic and energy conserving. There have certainly been others who advocated eternal recurrence long before that. I maintain that strict causal determinism makes life meaningless, and its existence more or less absurd, and the Poincaire recurrence theorem is the main weapon in my arsenal for demonstrating that proposition.

    There is a subtle difference between substance theory and conceptualism. Substance theory claims that the forms of things are real, at least in the sense that they are something you can be wrong about.

    Substance theory is hard to formalize, however, due to the fuzzy boundary problem. We know that that there is something real (objective) in common between two different trees, but at the macro level it is certainly difficult to treat with mathematical precision. Where a mild form of conceptualism might disclaim the idea that there is much of anything real in common at all, we just incidentally group things together.

    William of Ockham maintained that forms were ambiguous enough that they certainly did not qualify as “things” in the ordinary sense, so he invented a doctrine of “real similarity” between objects that did not rely on forms at all. He was a conceptualist with regard to mental classification of things with real similarities. Some of the Aristotelians (Thomists mostly) hated this so much that they characterized him as a nominalist, a wildly incorrect description that has been prevalent ever since.

    As for me, I lean toward Ockham’s view of real similarities, but I also believe with a little bit of finesse one can consistently deploy the whole idea of the nature of things (e.g. human nature) which pervades Western language, and which is what substance theory is really all about.

    The proposition that substance theory is worthless is equivalent to the proposition that macroscopic entities have neither real natures, real properties, nor real dispositions. That is an attack on a long tradition of human thought that isn’t justified.

    My number one problem with deconstructionism is this sort of bipolar thinking that says that if a concept is fuzzy that it is entirely subjective, or that because our manner of thinking is inevitably flawed, it has nothing to do with the world as it really is. David Stove called the latter argument “the Gem”, and made quite an (infamous) reputation making fun of that sort of thing. As a realist, I agree. The idea that mental concepts have nothing to do with real similarities, properties, or “natures” is absurd.

    Aristotle wise, sure he made some famous mistakes. However, I have found the logic behind his system of metaphysics to be enlightening even where I know its application has been flawed. He was a far more rigorous thinker than many people give him credit for. The only people these days that seem to really appreciate that are are small number of mostly Catholic neoscholastics, and it is by reading them that I learned to look beyond the scuttlebutt and appreciate the merits of Aristotelian metaphysics as a logically consistent way of understanding the world. To me it has been some of the most productive hours I have ever spent in terms of understanding the history of thought, which I find endlessly fascinating.

  15. I agree though that there is a distinction between the idea of “real presence” and “transubstantation”, however I don’t think the two ideas are mutually exclusive, because one can consistently think of presence as formal “substance”, as Catholics do when they claim that the three members of the Godhead are “consubstantial”. So transubstantiation is the claim that the Eucharist becomes consubstantial with Christ in some real sense, consubstantial meaning shares a similarity (if not identity) in form.

    Now we know that the physical form of the sacrament does not change very much, so to maintain transubstantiation in the modern world, one must rely on more subtle spiritual changes, which is where the commonality with “real presence” comes in. Mormons think of spirit as a second kind of “stuff”. Catholics (as good Thomists) tend to think of spirit as a kind of form, literally the form of the body.

    So like we say that spirit is a special kind of matter that is more fine and pure, a Catholic would defend transubstantiation as a real change in substance that is more fine than we can scientifically detect.

    The thing is that there is no question that the process of worthily partaking the sacrament aids in the transformation to a Christ-like nature, so even if there is not transubstantiation in the sacrament itself, the whole process of repentance is transubstantiation of the body, from the nature of the “natural man” to the nature of the “man of Christ”, “natural (or first) nature” here being an interesting combination of two closely related concepts.

  16. My number one problem with deconstructionism is this sort of bipolar thinking that says that if a concept is fuzzy that it is entirely subjective, or that because our manner of thinking is inevitably flawed

    I definitely agree with you on this. My current ongoing argument with SmallAxe on the “Case for Christ” thread boils down to this. He seems to believe that if one can’t define a word precisely that he has proven it doesn’t exist.

    I maintain that strict causal determinism makes life meaningless, and its existence more or less absurd, and the Poincaire recurrence theorem is the main weapon in my arsenal for demonstrating that proposition.

    Eternal returns is one of my main arguments against, say, hoping that “the singularity” is going to save us. (An argument Enoch suggested to me.) A really large computation does not save us from Eternal Returns. Life is still pointless and meaningless. It just takes longer to realize and accept it.

    But make the computation infinite, and that problem goes away entirely. It is also one of the reasons I do not fear a computational point of view in and of itself. “Libertarian Free Will” means nothing to me. I neither believe it or disbelieve it (much the same way I neither believe or disbelieve in transubstantiation.) I simply do not care because both are currently wholly undefined concepts that can only be negatively defined (defined in terms of what it is not). So I have no use for them until they become a real concept that is something rather than is not something. For example, I have no problem with Frank Tipler’s view of transubstantiation as a quantum harmony with God. I’m not prepared to say I believe it, but it is at least a concept worth talking about becuase it actually exists as a definitive idea. I just doubt Catholics will care for that formulation or even accept that it’s actually a form of transubstantiation.

    Mark D, I have no problem with the fact that you place a heavy emphasis on Libertarian Free Will in your own philosophy. I get it that it’s important to many other things in your philosophy, so it’s taken on an existence of it’s own in your thought processes.

    I’m just explaining why I personally, and currently, have no use for the subject. But I could change my mind very quickly if it could be non-negatively defined. In fact, if it could be non-negatively defined, I suspect it might turn out to be something I already believe in.

    In the mean time, I’m indifferent to it because I don’t believe it’s anything but a word that may or may not point to an actual logically coherent thing.

    By comparison, I actually do believe ‘substances’ are a worthwhile concept that really does have it’s own existence. I just don’t believe they apply the way Thomas Aquinas tried to apply them. I don’t even believe substances are difficult to define or use. For example, we could define ‘a tree’ as that group of organisms that are similar enough to each other that we humans wish to call them a tree. That’s actually a pretty concrete definition to me.

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