Here is our schedule so far:
Friday the 15th
6:20 - 6:40 Matt
Wednesday the 20th
If you're not booked, or you want to change your time, you can add your pick in the comments.
Today we considered Thomas Aquinas' account of natural law. We saw that Aquinas is committed both to the view that being good is a kind of soul development and that the world contains a natural moral law. The natural law begins with the principle that we must pursue the good. It builds on that to demand that we preserve ourselves, act in accordance with our natures, and also act as social beings. Aquinas thinks that these principles, if correctly understood, will lead to moral rules that apply everywhere and to everyone, rules against murder, theft, adultery, and so on.
We considered a very interesting case for Aquinas: the case of Abraham. Abraham is commanded to sacrifice his son, and Abraham never complains or says that it is immoral. Now Aquinas is committed to the view that the natural law forbids murder, and yet Abraham is ordered to kill his son - isn't that murder? Aquinas' philosophically interesting, if not emotionally satisfying, point is that if we don't think it is wrong when we die of natural causes, then we are already committed to the view that we live and die at God's will, and that God is not robbing us of anything if he allows us to die. So if it is up to God whether Isaac lives or dies, then it is not wrong for God to make Isaac die. So if there is nothing wrong in the first place, why is it more wrong if Abraham carries out an act which is not wrong? To put it very simply, if Isaac's life belongs to God, why is it wrong for God to dispose of it in any way he thinks good?
As I mentioned in class, some of you won't be able to make our final oral exam on the 20th. I've scheduled an alternate exam for those of you who would prefer it on the 15th. There's still room if any of you would prefer a 20 minute time slot on the 15th (7-8pm remains available). Otherwise, the final exam will be on Wednesday the 20th. I guess I'll ask folks to pick a time slot for that exam on Wednesday.
The oral exam will last 20 minutes. I'll ask you a few questions from the list below, and we'll discuss the answer.
Oral Exam Questions
Boethius of Dacia (not the same Boethius we studied last week, this is a 13th century Danish philosopher of the same name) argued that, in order to be good, the soul needs to exercise all its capacities. Since Aristotle thought that the human soul has three overall capacities, nutrition, perception and reason, all three must be involved. But philosophers, Boethius argued, are well placed to be good. Why? Because (1) philosophers understand why it is important to exercise their reason and achieve a balance in one’s soul, (2) because those who understand the satisfaction of intellectual pursuits are inclined to value them, and value them above lower pleasures, and finally (3) because one can’t go too far wrong when all one is doing is thinking.
Boethius of Dacia is emphasizing the importance of getting your soul right. What we saw in Aquinas was the view that getting your soul right can’t be the only goal of the good life. That’s because otherwise, your soul would be (in some way) be it’s own goal. Rather, we want to get our souls right because so doing enables an eternity with God, who satisfies all desires. Only something that satisfies all desires, Aquinas points out, can be the ultimate goal.
We ended up talking in class a bit about the puzzling New Testament passage where Jesus talks about marriage. If you’re married to multiple people on earth, someone asks, whom are you married to in heaven? Jesus’ puzzling answer is that no one is married in heaven. Now that’s an interesting point because it helps us understand what Aquinas means. Aquinas would say that if you needed to be married in heaven - if you missed people - then there would be unsatisfied desires in you. But God is an object that satisfies all desires. So it must be the case that no one in heaven will feel unsatisfied for not being married.
Today we discussed Freedom.
Anyone who wants to say that human beings are free has to answer the problems of determinism, or fatalism. Today, we saw three different answers to three different problems.
Problem 1: Do we have options when we act? First, we talked about the way that Augustine and Anselm view free will as will that is functioning correctly. It's a surprising view, because it means that freedom of the will does not require us to be able to do other than we did. Some people think that freedom requires 'alternative possibilities', i.e. if I freely did X, I could have done otherwise. This is called the Principle of Alternative Possibilities (PAP). Augustine and Anselm deny PAP. They think you can be perfectly free, even if you couldn't do otherwise.
Problem 2: Does God's foreknowledge impede our freedom? You might think it does. Here's the argument: if it was true last week (say) that I would be typing these words now, then I had to be doing what I am doing right now. But God always knew that I would be typing these words now. Therefore, God knew last week that I would be typing these words now.
Now Boethius would not deny that God knows what I am doing at any moment of my life. His point is rather that God's knowledge, like His being, is timeless. So it's wrong to say that God knows anything last week, because God is not in last week. And since God's knowledge is outside of time, we avoid the problem of God knowing what I will do ahead of time.
Problem 3: Aren't we determined by the causal sequence of things in our minds? Finally, and very briefly, we had a look at a point that Henry of Ghent makes. Henry points out that when we say that we are determined, we mean that things happen to us, and then we react. But maybe persons aren't like other causes and effects. Maybe reasons or experiences influence persons, but don't determine them. Perhaps the agent can be a cause in a way that is different from most causes and effects. If so, maybe there is a reason to doubt that we are determined.
Today we finished talking about Thomas Aquinas' five ways to show the existence of God. As came up in class, I think there are lots of good ways to interpret the five ways. At any rate, Aquinas is proving the existence of God from the phenomena of:
After that we spoke about Agustine's suggestion that all evil is a privation. This means that every apparent evil is the lack of some good. For example, a sickness is the lack of some health. A bad decision shows a lack of good sense, a deficient purpose, or something of this sort. The beauty of this account is that it shows that evil isn't a thing it itself. This means that God need not create evil, nor is evil an actual thing for which we can assign responsibility to God.
Then, we considered Aquinas' (and Boethius) suggestion that Being and Goodness are the same. This is one of the central beliefs of medieval philosophy. It's not just that God is the fullest being and the fullest moral perfection (although that is true). It is that in all of creation, for something to be is for it to be good. How can that be? Well, it's connected to the suggestion that evil is nothing except the lack of some good.
Last of all we briefly say Aquinas' famous doctrine of analogy. Aquinas is walking a line between two bad options in theology. We might think that the words we apply to God function in the same way as they do when we describe ourselves. But this seems to lead to the conclusion that God's goodness is like mine, even if there is much more of it. Alternatively, we might say that there is no comparing words when we apply them to God and to ourselves. But this renders theology incomprehensible. Aquinas suggests a middle way: maybe words apply to God and to human beings analogically. Just as God's fatherhood is the origin of human fatherhood, maybe God's goodness, which is the origin of human goodness, is analogical to it.
The third Essay (Due Friday, December 7th) is online now.
Today we talked about two proofs for the existence of God.
First, we encountered St. Anselm's Ontological Argument for the Existence of God. It turns on the concept of greatness. Anselm asks whether we can conceive of a being-than-which-none-greater-can-be-conceived. If the concept makes sense, we can ask what such a being would be like. There may be many things we don't know about such a being, but we could know for example that it is more powerful and anything else. Otherwise, a stronger being would be even greater than the being-than-which-none-greater-can-be-conceived - but that's absurd, since we started out with the assumption that this being is at the top. No being could be smarter than the being-than-which-none-greater-can-be-conceived. If it were, that being would be greater. So now we come to the question: does the being-than-which-none-greater-can-be-conceived have to exist? It seems to Anselm that existence is a property that makes a thing greater (that's why no one would trade me a measly existent $100 for a glorious but non-existent house). If so, it seems that the being-than-which-none-greater-can-be-conceived must, by definition, exist. So this means that the being-than-which-none-greater-can-be-conceived does exist.
Notice that what Anselm is proving isn't the God of Christianity - it is a much leaner conception of God. We call this lean conception of God, God understood as a perfect being and with no personal characteristics, the "philosopher's God". Anselm has proved that something matching the characteristics of the Christian God exists. It is as if a detective proved that something with human characteristics lived in your house. That's true - but there's much more to be said, since it is you in particular, and not any human, who live there. So, as Artie pointed out, the philosopher's God is compatible with any of the monotheistic religions, and also with deism. Presumably, to show that Christianity is accurate, Anselm would have to give more proofs. But he's certainly brought us in that direction.
Then we had a quick look at some of Thomas Aquinas' "five ways". Aquinas doesn't think it makes sense to have proofs of the existence of God, because (as we saw early on), theology is a higher science than philosophy, and it doesn't make sense to prove something from a less certain science in a more certain one. However, Aquinas gives five ways of approaching what is sometimes called the cosmological argument. As we saw (and will see more of next week) the five ways show that to get a sequence of events (or effects, or possible things, etc.), you require a starting point which does not itself require explanation. In order to explain a sequence of causes, you need a first cause - and that cause has to be the sort of thing that (a) creatively causes other things and (b) does not itself require a cause. Aquinas thinks that that is what we mean by "God". Again, we have arrived at the philosopher's God.
There's more left in the passage for today. We'll pick it up in next week's class.
Today we discussed Avicenna, Aquinas, and Buridan on existence and essence.
Essence, as we saw, is what makes a thing itself. Your essence is that without which you could not be you.
Now as we saw, Aquinas offered a rather neat argument for why essence and existence are separable. He argued that if we can think of two things as being separate, they must be two different things. If so, then existence and essence are separate. Buridan took aim at this argument, and argued that that this form of argument is not obviously good. For example, we quite often think of two things as separable because we understand them incompletely. If we better understood them, we would see how inseparable they are. As we saw, the issue is connected to universals, for universals are really free-floating essences. Aquinas is willing to suppose that such universals exist, at least as concepts, as Avicenna explained is the case for horsehood. But Buridan is a nominalist. For that reason, Buridan cannot allow that essences exist independently of things.
Finally, note Aquinas' fascinating claim, that in God and God alone, existence is essence. We will return to this topic next week.
Today we began with a question about what a human being is and ran into a problem in the way that medieval philosophers understood understanding itself.
First, we looked at Augustine. He wasn’t influenced by Aristotle, but rather by Plato. On his view, you are your soul, but not your body. Your soul is joined to (perhaps one might say, trapped in) a body, but the body is not you. When you die, your body will fall apart, but you will be unharmed.
Next we looked at philosophers influenced by Aristotle: Averroes, Siger of Brabant, Aquinas and Buridan. All four adopt the Aristotelian view that all substances are hylomorphic compounds, meaning that all real things are unions of form and matter. This means that your soul is a form, but unlike Platonists, Averroes, Siger, Aquinas and Buridan do not think you are separate from your body: you are the combination of matter and form. Now this makes it hard to see how you could survive after death, as both Islam and Christianity teach. These philosophers found themselves in a good news/bad news scenario. Good news: Aristotle did seem to think there was a part of the soul that survives death. Bad news: it’s not obvious that such a survival means individual survival.
What Aristotle wrote was that the part of our soul that understands, the intellect, can be understood (like anything) in terms of form and matter. The ‘matter’ has lots of names: the potential/patient/hylic intellect. That’s the part that adopts the structures that you understand, and permits you to remember. Then you have the active/agent intellect. This allows you to select what to remember. And Aristotle then says that the agent intellect (1) to some extent rises above matter, because it has no corresponding material portion, and (2) is eternal. It’s important to understand that Aristotle is being really unclear here. There was no consensus on what he was saying in the middle ages, and there isn’t any today.
Averroes and Siger take Aristotle to be saying that the agent intellect is like an additional, active form that is shared by every human being. When you’re alive, you feel as though you’re an individual, thinking and remembering. But when you die, you don’t just lose your memories (because you lose your hylic intellect, which dies with your body), but you also lose your individuality. In most cases, Aristotelians say, a hylomorphic compound does the thinking. But in the case of the agent intellect, Aristotle seems to say that a form does the thinking. If that’s true, the form presumably continues to think after we die. But since we’re unions of form and matter, that thinking can no longer be our thinking. In consequence, there is apparently no individual survival after death.
Aquinas’ strategy is to take a more moderate reading of Aristotle. Maybe all Aristotle meant, Aquinas says, is that the intellect is the most pure, un-material part of you, and the agent intellect is the most pure, un-material part of the intellect. For that reason, perhaps it survives. But it’s definitely a part of your form, and it is your agent intellect, Aquinas maintains. Otherwise it couldn’t be you that survives death. Aquinas is interpreting Aristotle here, but he does something else interesting too. He argues that if a human being isn’t demarcated by its form - if there’s this separate agent intellect form thing that does our thinking - then Aristotle’s picture of science wouldn’t work, because we couldn’t identify a species that really explains what human beings are. So Aristotle has some reason to agree with Aquinas’ interpretation, because otherwise his science might not work.
Ben raised the interesting question of whether maybe Aristotle changed his mind. That’s always a question for an interpreter, and for a historian of philosophy, but it should be a last resort. Otherwise we risk not seeing the clever ways in which philosophers solved problems. In a way, that’s because historians of philosophy are more interested in the philosophy than the history. If it turns out that Aristotle was inconsistent, then all we’re left with is history. So we proceed on the assumption that he was consistent, in the hopes of finding a brilliant resolution to the problem.