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Quote for the Week (Slightly Belated)

That time either has no being at all, or is only scarcely and faintly, one might suspect from this: part of it has happened and is not, while the other part is going to be but is not yet, and it is out of these that the infinite, or any given, time is composed. But it would seem impossible for a thing composed of non-beings to have any share in being.

–Aristotle, Physics, as translated by Joe Sachs (Rutgers University Press: 2011), 217b30; courtesy of Wikiquote.

Too Much Meta!

“What is meta,” you may ask, “and how is there too much of it?”  Those are excellent questions.  In order to answer them, I’ll need to give a little background on just what it is I’m talking about.  “Meta” comes from the Greek preposition μετά, which simply means “after” or “beyond”, among other things.  It can also be a prefix in which the basic meaning is attached to the root word.  For example, “metamorphosis” pairs meta– with with a derivative of μορφή (morphē), “form” or “shape”, giving the meaning, “beyond the [original] form”.  Thus, in a metamorphosis, something (such as a caterpillar) goes beyond the form it has into another form (such as a butterfly).

A subtle shift in this straightforward meaning began with the works of Aristotle, and rather inadvertently, at that.  Aristotle’s books on various topics derived from what we would now call lecture notes for the talks he gave at the school he founded, the Lyceum. These were either written by Aristotle himself, or taken down by his students.  After his death, these notes were collated and arranged by topic.  The book dealing with the working of the natural world was called the Physics, from the Greek φυσικά (physika), which simply means “having to do with nature”.  The name stuck, and we still call the study of mass, energy, motion, and such “physics”.  The book that was placed next in the sequence after the Physics dealt with abstract topics on the nature of being, what we can know and how we can know it, causality, and so on.  Whoever it was who arranged the texts very pragmatically called this text τὰ μετὰ τὰ φυσικά (ta meta ta physika), literally, “the things coming after the Physics”).  In other words, it was the next book after the one on physics, so its title was essentially After Physics!

This was shortened by the Romans, who translated Aristotle into Latin, to Metaphysica, which we Anglicize as Metaphysics.  From early on, the tendency was to interpret “meta”–“beyond”–as meaning not “beyond” in the sense of “the next book in the sequence”, which was its original connotation, but “beyond” in the sense of “transcending”.  Thus “metaphysics” was understood to mean “that which goes beyond ordinary physics” or “that which transcends nature”.  This has been the standard connotation of “metaphysics” ever sense; and this connotation has determined the use of “meta” in other contexts, as well.

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Plants, Animals, Humans, and Souls


Last time we talked about the concept of the soul in general, as it’s usually understood in our culture.  Having established that basic foundation, I want to use it to analyze the question of who–or what–actually has a soul.  This is why, by the way, I’m categorizing this post in my polygenism series.  The ideas I intend to develop will figure more prominently in the larger context of polygenism and (possibly) the Fall of Mankind.

So as we said, the soul as generally understood could be defined as follows:

  1. It is the seat of personality and individuality
  2. It is associated with the body, but different from it
  3. It is immaterial, or to put it differently, non-physical
  4. It is separable from and can survive without the physical body

Definition:  To be clear, 3 means not made of matter or energy.  The soul is properly defined as “spirit”, which is not part of the material universe in any way.  We discussed this a bit last time.  We’ll look at the term “spirit” shortly.

Corollaries:  From 2, it is clear that though the soul is not itself material, it can affect physical objects.  It does this every time we move, in fact.  If psychokinesis is a real phenomenon (which I may discuss in detail later, but won’t here), then the soul may be able to affect matter beyond the body with which it is associated.  From 4, it follows that it is at least possible for the soul to survive physical death.  While not a direct corollary, the immortality of the soul–that it is indestructible and can never cease to exist–is typically assumed in the Western tradition since the time of Plato.

What I want to look at now is how, and if, the term “soul” can be applied to life forms besides ourselves–principally animals, but plants, too.

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(Body) and Soul

“Body” is a concept with which few of us have a problem.  We all have bodies after all.  No one doubts this, except perhaps for solipsists and those who’d argue that we are actually brains in vats (or for Wachowski fans, that we’re connected to the Matrix, which is essentially the same thing)*.  For the purposes here, at least, we’ll consider such viewpoints in light of the commonsense perspective–that is, that they’re cracked!  Thus, what I want to look at is the idea of the soul.  I’m doing so in order to develop the groundwork for some ideas I want to explore in my series on polygenism, specifically, and more generally in regard to my series on the Fall.  Since this post itself is a sort of stand-alone, though, I’ll put it in “Religious Miscellany“.

I should preface this discussion by stipulating that I do believe that the soul, as an entity distinct from the body actually does exist.  Obviously, not everyone believes this.  Many of the philosophically materialist persuasion would argue that what is commonly called a “soul” is merely the complex interaction of electrochemical processes in the human brain.  The more radical would argue that the mind itself is no different from the brain, except perhaps in an analytical sense.  Some, such as Daniel Dennett (if I understand him correctly) would even go so far as to deny the existence of sense of self and personal experience.  In this post, I’m not interested in arguing against a materialist view of the comos. For those interested in such a defense, I’d refer you to C. S. Lewis’s book Miracles.  For now, suffice it to say that I’m taking the existence of a discrete, immaterial soul that is distinct from the body for granted.

We use the word “soul” all the time, and we all have a vague agreement on what it means.  In general, “soul” means the center of identity that makes a person who he or she is, and which is distinct from the body.  That is, our memories, thoughts, emotions–that which we consider to be our “self”, our “identity”, including but not limited to the mind, is the soul.  The soul is in some sense “in” the body (though the spatial term “in” is really a metaphor) and interacts with and is affected by the body–for example, if the body becomes tired enough, we become unconscious, and things such as drugs can affect our minds.  Despite this, the soul is distinct from the body, and is usually held to be separable from it, and to survive the body’s death.

Further, as is popularly conceived, though not always clearly articulated, the soul is not only the locus of the true self, it is the self.  We speak of having a soul, like we have a car or a television.  However, as the term is usually understood, it’s more accurate to say that we are souls.  This follows the ideas of Plato, notably in his dialogue Phaedo.  In effect, the true person is the soul, which merely “wears” the body as one would wear clothing.  Thus, while we may identify with our body, there is still a sense in which we do not consider it equivalent to ourselves.  We speak of “my” hand or kidney or hair, as if these things are not actually part of us, any more than “my” book or computer is.  We say of a departed one that “he” went to Heaven (or perhaps Hell), or that “he” was reincarnated.  Since his body remains, it is evident that the “he” to which we refer is the soul.

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On Shaving

I don’t use a straight razor, by the way.  I don’t want to slit my own throat accidentally, after all!  I do use mug soap and a brush, though.  In any case, this post is a departure from my usual topics; but then again, variety is the spice of life.

As is the case with most young men, I found the advent of facial hair an exciting time.  My parents had bought me a shaving kit, without comment, around Christmas my freshman year of high school, or maybe for my birthday that year (which would have been the summer between freshman and sophomore year); I don’t remember clearly.  I allowed it to sit for a few months.  After all, I didn’t know what the threshold was for starting to shave (how fuzzy does the peach fuzz have to be?), and this was one of many things that Dad seemed to feel no need to discuss.  I was a first child, and Mom and Dad had me relatively late (for those days); and in retrospect, I think they often assumed that kids would “just naturally” do the various developmental things at the appropriate age.  Thus, shaving did not need to be discussed.

Be that as it may, I eventually caved in some time during my sophomore year, and shaved the fuzz off.  It was rather anticlimactic, really–not much effort at all.  I did leave the “mustache”–scare quotes intentional–intact, though, and kept it there for the rest of the year.  Alas, every young man has to go through his “pencil-thin mustache” stage, I guess.

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Sea Battles and What Will Be


Last time we looked at the philosophically perplexing case of a finite but immortal being that makes an irrevocable choice.  The whimsical example we used was of Highlander Connor MacLeod, who resolves that he will never eat a broccoli fudge sundae throughout eternity.  To do so is not a logical impossibility as being a married bachelor would be, for example.  It seems common sense, then, to say that Connor at any point could eat the sundae; he just doesn’t want to, or has chosen not to.  However, to say that a thing could happen–which is the same thing as saying it’s possible–seems to imply that, given a sufficiently long period of time, it will happen.  I didn’t give the term last time, but this idea is sometimes called the plenitude principle.  This principle seems to imply that if it’s logically possible to eat a broccoli fudge sundae–which it certainly is, aesthetics aside–that sooner or later Connor will indeed eat it, given that he has literally all the time in the world.  This, however, seems to imply that Connor does not have the free will to eternally refrain from such sundaes.

On the other hand, if we say that Connor can indeed go forever without eating the sundae, that seems to mean that there is zero probability that it will happen; which seems equivalent to saying that it cannot happen;  which seems to say it is not possible; which seems to conflict with the notion of what it means to say that it is logically possible, and with the plenitude principle.  It’s even worse than that in that Connor’s ability to forever forgo broccoli fudge sundaes by an act of free will seems, paradoxically, to undermine the notion that he has free will.  To see why, we need now to discuss naval battles.

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Quote for the Week



To modern educated people, it seems obvious that matters of fact are to be ascertained by observation, not by consulting ancient authorities. But this is an entirely modern conception, which hardly existed before the seventeenth century. Aristotle maintained that women have fewer teeth than men; although he was twice married, it never occurred to him to verify this statement by examining his wives’ mouths. He said also that children would be healthier if conceived when the wind is in the north. One gathers that the two Mrs. Aristotles both had to run out and look at the weathercock every evening before going to bed. He states that a man bitten by a mad dog will not go mad, but any other animal will (Hiss. Am., 704a); that the bite of the shrewmouse is dangerous to horses, especially if the mouse is pregnant (ibid., 604b); that elephants suffering from insomnia can be cured by rubbing their shoulders with salt, olive oil, and warm water (ibid., 605a); and so on and so on. Nevertheless, classical dons, who have never observed any animal except the cat and the dog, continue to praise Aristotle for his fidelity to observation.

Bertrand RussellThe Impact of Science on Society (1951), p. 7

Quote for the Week


Aristotle, as a philosopher, is in many ways very different from all his predecessors. He is the first to write like a professor: his treatises are systematic, his discussions are divided into heads, he is a professional teacher, not an inspired prophet. His work is critical, careful, pedestrian, without any trace of Bacchic enthusiasm. The Orphic elements in Plato are watered down in Aristotle, and mixed with a strong dose of common sense; where he is Platonic, one feels that his natural temperament has been overpowered by the teaching to which he has been subjected. He is not passionate, or in any profound sense religious. The errors of his predecessors were the glorious errors of youth attempting the impossible; his errors are those of age which cannot free itself of habitual prejudices. He is best in detail and in criticism; he fails in large construction, for lack of fundamental clarity and Titanic fire.

Bertrand Russell, in A History of Western Philosophy (1945), Book One, Part II, Chapter XIX, Aristotle’s Metaphysics, p. 161

I actually like Aristotle all right, and I think his virtue ethics are still relevant.  However, I think many of his ideas, especially as filtered through Scholasticism had a bad effect on Western Christianity and society at large.  There are still some that want to defend his philosophy, or the Thomism that comes from it, even in places where modern science has shown it to be manifestly wrong, and I’ve been in on a couple such discussions of late.  Thus, while I’m not intending to dismiss his importance or influence, or trying to argue that he was always wrong, I think it’s good to post some critical quotes.

Quote for the Week


Coming to the fair land of Cecropia
he piously founded an altar of holy friendship
for a man whom the wicked may not properly even praise;
he, alone or the first of mortals, showed clearly
by his own life and by the courses of his arguments
that a man becomes good and happy at the same time:
but now none can grasp this any more.

–Aristotle, Altar Elegy, in which he speaks of his mentor and teacher, Plato

Plato or Aristotle?

There’s a pop-culture game you see now and then, the name of which I’m unsure, but which you could call “this or that”. You name a certain pop-cultural category in which there are (or are perceived to be) two different major choices, and the players pick which one. For example: “Coke or Pepsi”; “Chevy or Ford”; “PC or Mac”; “Marvel or DC”. You get the idea. If one played this game with ancient philosophy, one might say, “Plato or Aristotle”.

The two giants of Classical Greek philosophy are an appropriate “this or that” for various reasons. Theirs are the last two major schools of Classical Greek philosophy–after Aristotle comes the Hellenistic age. Hellenistic philosophy (some characteristic examples of which are Cynicism, Skepticism, Epicureanism, and Stoicism) is generally thought to be less ambitious, more inwardly directed, and more pessimistic than Classical philosophy. On the other hand, the towering genius of Plato has had the result that we have only fragments of the pre-Socratics. Many of them probably weren’t systematists; but even of those, such as Pythagoras, who probably were, we have little that remains. Thus, for Greek philosophy at its height, the choices are Plato and Aristotle.

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