iSoul In the beginning is reality

Tag Archives: Philosophy

philosophy historically and as distinct from other disciplines

From natures to nature

This post follows on a previous post here.

How did we get from natures to nature? In a word, nominalism. The many natures of pre-modern science have been transformed into one nature or Nature, reified if not personified as a thing or force or being.

Nominalism is the teaching that universals or qualities or natures do not exist. Only particulars or quantities or individuals exist. And the result is that only one universal or quality or nature is acknowledged to exist, the somewhat mystical universal quality or nature of everything that underlies all the particulars and quantities and individuals.

We can see nominalism in physics and chemistry, with the rise of the atomic model of nature as composed of one kind of atoms, with only different quantities and configurations to differentiate them. We can see nominalism in biology, with the rise of the evolution model of nature as composed of one kind of life, with only different lines of descent to differentiate individuals. We can see nominalism in politics and economics, with the rise of the equalized person interchangeable with any other person.

By why should this one universal or quality or nature exist at all? Why not go all the way and deny any universal or quality or nature? Nominalism has no defense against such a move. And so we are seeing nominalism end in nihilism, the denial of nature altogether.

We are also seeing the rise of an opposite extreme: that every individual is a unique kind of person and that every individual life is a species. If there are no permanent kinds or species, then individuals are the only kinds. Every person has a right to a unique identity, unique treatment, and unique pronouns.

Nominal breakthroughs

Modern science is quantitative, not qualitative. The top breakthroughs in modern science have broken through traditional distinctions of quality or kind. Consider the following:

(1) Newton’s theory of gravitation broke through the traditional distinction between the sublunar and supralunar universe (e.g., the earth and the heavens). All motion is subject to the same laws.

(2) The atomic theory of matter broke through the traditional distinctions between different kinds of matter (e.g., water, earth, air, and fire). All matter is merely a combinations of atoms (or subatomic particles).

(3) Darwin’s theory of evolution broke through the traditional distinctions between different kinds of organisms (e.g., humans and animals). All species are merely variations of life (or genes).

(4) Einstein’s theory of relativity broke through the traditional distinction between space and time. All dimensions are subject to the same laws.

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Scientific nominalism

Nominalism has three senses:

  1. A denial of metaphysical universals.
  2. An emphasis on reducing one’s ontology to a bare minimum, on paring down the supply of fundamental ontological categories.
  3. A denial of “abstract” entities.

William of Ockham, the name most associated with nominalism, agreed with the first and second senses, and in a lesser way, the third sense. The scientific principle called “Ockham’s razor” (or “Occam’s razor”) focuses on the second sense.

Ockham’s “nominalism,” in both the first and the second of the above senses, is often viewed as derived from a common source: an underlying concern for ontological parsimony. This is summed up in the famous slogan known as “Ockham’s Razor,” often expressed as “Don’t multiply entities beyond necessity.” Although the sentiment is certainly Ockham’s, that particular formulation is nowhere to be found in his texts. Moreover, as usually stated, it is a sentiment that virtually all philosophers, medieval or otherwise, would accept; no one wants a needlessly bloated ontology. The question, of course, is which entities are needed and which are not.

What this means for science is not a vague simplicity but qualitative parsimony:

This distinction is between qualitative parsimony (roughly, the number of types (or kinds) of thing postulated) and quantitative parsimony (roughly, the number of individual things postulated). The default reading of Occam’s Razor in the bulk of the philosophical literature is as a principle of qualitative parsimony.

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The hierarchy of knowledge

The physical sciences, especially physics, are considered nowadays to be the pinnacle of knowledge. They are given credit for modern technology, which has far surpassed any other civilization. Maximum deference is given to the physical sciences, which then function as the paragon of all knowledge. “Physics envy” pervades the study of knowledge today.

But it is a mistake to put the physical sciences at the top of the hierarchy of knowledge. They are very limited in scope, and their methods are not appropriate for all disciplines. Instead, the most general disciplines should be at the pinnacle of knowledge. For secular universities this would be philosophy, and for religiously-affiliated universities this would be theology.

The humanities should be returned to their place of seniority above the sciences. Philosophy, great art and literature, classical studies, and mathematics should regain their seriousness and their cultural significance. To some extent mathematics still receives respect, but it is considered an arcane subject, which happens to be useful to arcane specialists.

The social sciences and history should be next in the hierarchy of knowledge. They are dependent on the higher disciplines but are more general than the physical sciences. They provide the context for the physical sciences, which has been weakened by over-reliance on physical knowledge. This extends to all studies of humanity, including those that intersect the physical sciences such as biology. We must never forget that we are humans first, and animals second.

The physical sciences and the practical arts such as business, engineering, medicine, and technology should complete the hierarchy of knowledge. There’s no discredit in coming at the bottom for that is where we mostly live our lives. We are accustomed to extensive physical knowledge as a resource for solving the complex problems of contemporary society.

This is a return to the old academic hierarchy. It was abandoned out of fear that narrow-minded clerics and philosophers would limit the ability of scientists to discover new realities. That is a lesson of history that bears remembering – but only as a genuine history, not as a prejudice against philosophy and theology. We should also be wary of the Whig histories of those who misread the history of ideas.

Temperament and explanations

The temperament of science exists within the typology of philosophy. Aristotle’s typology of causes (explanatory factors) provides a fourfold typology, which provides the basis for each twofold scientific temperament. The four causes/factors are the final, formal, efficient/mechanism, and material.

Final Cause or Teleology Formal Cause
Efficient Cause or Mechanism Material Cause

The scientific temperaments are:

hylomorphic – material and formal (Aristotle)

dynahylic – efficient/mechanism and material (lower; modern)

dynamorphic –and formal (design)

dynatelic – efficient/mechanism and final (transportation)

teleomorphic – final and formal (upper)

The teleomorphic is the inverse of the dynahylic. Each temperament is a explanatory axis of the full explanation.

These explanatory factors address why and how. There are also other factors to consider: who, when, and where.

General and special knowledge

General knowledge is based on common experience and is available to everyone. No special training or vocabulary are necessary for general knowledge. It is also called ‘general revelation’ and ‘common knowledge’. This is the knowledge that realist philosophy builds on.

General sciences are the areas of general knowledge. In philosophy these are ontology, epistemology, and ethics. Since the existence of God and creation may be demonstrated from general knowledge, there is a general science of theology. General creation is general knowledge of creation.

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Special knowledge is based on uncommon experience that is available only to those who make a special study of them and learn their special vocabulary. The special sciences such as chemistry and physics are forms of special knowledge. They begin with general knowledge but then add special studies of particular aspects of general knowledge. This is the knowledge that anti-realist philosophy builds on.

Special revelation is another form of special knowledge; it requires knowledge of revelatory texts and faith in their message. Special creation is special revelation or knowledge about creation such as the special status of humanity.

Special knowledge in the light of special revelation is different from special revelation in the light of special knowledge. Here is a diagram of their relationship:

General knowledge/revelation ⇒ special knowledge1 ⇒ special revelation2 vs.

General revelation/knowledge ⇒ special revelation1 ⇒ special knowledge2

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Examples of general revelation in the Bible:

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. Genesis 1:1

The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork. Psalm 19:1

Examples of special revelation in the Bible:

Genesis 1:2 – 3:24; Romans 16:25; I Corinthians 14; II Corinthians 5:19; Ephesians 3:3; Revelation 1:1

Methodical Realism

Here are excerpts from Étienne Gilson’s Methodical Realism (Le réalisme méthodique), translated by Philip Trower (Christendom Press, 1990 / Ignatius Press, 2011):

The mathematician always proceeds from thought to being or things. Consequently, critical idealism was born the day Descartes decided that the mathematical method must henceforth be the method for metaphysics. p.11

Indeed, all idealism derives from Descartes, or from Kant, or from both together, and whatever other distinguishing features a system may have, it is idealist to the extent that, either in itself, or as far as we are concerned, it makes knowing the condition of being. p.12

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Handbook for Beginning Realists

From Étienne Gilson’s Methodical Realism (Le réalisme méthodique), Chapter V: A Handbook for Beginning Realists, Translated by Philip Trower (Christendom Press, 1990 / Ignatius Press, 2011). (See also here.)

1. The first step on the realist path is to recognize that one has always been a realist; the second is to recognize that, however hard one tries to think differently, one will never manage to; the third is to realize that those who claim they think differently, think as realists as soon as they forget to act a part. If one then asks oneself why, one’s conversion to realism is all but complete.

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Observers and travelers again

This post continues the ones here and here.

Realism considers what is perceived with full consciousness as reality. Apperception and reality correspond to each other. The role of theory is to clarify this correspondence, not to deny it. So realists understand observation to be correct, not to be altered by theory.

Anti-realism considers what is judged with full consciousness as reality. Judgment and reality correspond to each other. The role of observation is to clarify this correspondence, not to deny it. So anti-realists understand judgment to be correct, not to be altered by perception.


The proper observational frame of reference is at rest. Observers are unable to know the destination of a moving figure (a movement) but can accurately know its relative position or momentum. The proper traveler frame is in motion toward a destination (or away from a contra-destination, such as a workplace). Travelers are unable to know the relative position of any moving body but can accurately interrogate the relative progress toward a destination.


The light of the Sun is transmitted directly to Earth. The light of the Moon is reflected light; it is the light of the Sun re-transmitted. With sunlight the first leg of the trip is seen as instantaneous. With moonlight the second leg of the trip is seen as instantaneous. The observer sees an instantaneous object; the transmitter sees an instantaneous reflection.


The perfection of motion is to arrive at its destination. That is, a motion has the potential to become actualized at its destination as a movement. The persistence of a movement has the potential to keep moving and become actualized in a motion.

For Aristotle most phenomena have final causes, destinations. Motion is on the way to being at rest. For modern science most phenomena have no final causes, no destinations.


Observers know best where they are, their location. Travelers know best where they’re going, their velocity or momentum. These are like the position of a particle and frequency of a wave. Observers see particles coming at them. Travelers see waves trailing behind them.


Experimenters are like travelers or transmitters. They have a target or goal they are aiming toward. At first they are instigators, not observers, though in the end they observe. Real observers can be like this, too: they often begin with some observation in mind.

Is God immutable or faithful?

Aristotle (Metaphysics) and Aquinas (Summa Theologica) argue for the existence and attributes of God from the observation of motion or change. Aristotle lists four kinds of motion and change: in substance, in quality, in quantity, and in place. These simple changes do not exhaust the kinds of change – even Aristotle implied there were ten kinds, corresponding to his ten categories (Physics 3.1 at 201a8–9).

More significant kinds of change have to do with interpersonal relations. For example, someone says they will do something and then changes their mind. Or someone makes a promise they are unable to fulfill. People change as they mature, which may include character or personality changes. The meaning of an action may change based on the context.

If we focus on simple changes, as Aristotle and Aquinas did, then their argument concludes that God is immutable, that is, incapable of change as if God were like something immobilized, such as a broken limb immobilized by a cast. Does that express the sense in which God is the same yesterday, today, and forever (Heb. 13:8)? No. The reason is the focus on a narrow range of change.

If we focus on the widest range of change, and God is unable to change in any of these ways, we find that God is always consistent, true to his word, has the same personality, and acts the same way. That is, God is faithful.

Numbers 23:19
God is not a man, that He should lie, Nor a son of man, that He should repent; Has He said, and will He not do it? Or has He spoken, and will He not make it good?

Deuteronomy 32:4
The Rock! His work is perfect, For all His ways are just; A God of faithfulness and without injustice, Righteous and upright is He.

Romans 4:21
being fully assured that what God had promised, He was able also to perform.

1 Thessalonians 5:24
Faithful is He who calls you, and He also will bring it to pass.