sunnuntai 29. huhtikuuta 2012

The moment of perfection

According to Aristotle, the progress from sense perception through memory and experience to true knowledge involves growing generalisation: while in perception we see only singular appearances, in experience we become acquainted with a number of objects of the same sort and in knowledge we can finally recognise that objects of certain sort necessarily have certain characteristics. The generalisation means loss of some concreteness – ”animal in general” is not coloured or at least does not have any peculiar colour. Still, it also allows us to deal with a set of various objects in a conveniently short manner.

Aristotle envisioned that the generalisation progress would have a limiting point, which he described as the first philosophy – not first in the order of learning, but first in the sense of importance. This first philosophy would be farthest from concrete experiences, but still deserves the name wisdom as the final aim of human endeavours. Note how Aristotle here moves away from the original meaning of wisdom as the capacity to know how humans should live – Aristotelian wisdom is far above such pragmatic concerns.

In this primary field of inquiry one should e.g. determine what facets of an object are required for its proper description. Aristotle noted that most of the earliest philosophers had exhaustively described how every-day objects are made out of materials like water and air. Only some had had the idea of describing basic forces that were supposed to activate the combination and recombination of materials. Platonists had had some inkling that describing the structures of the things would help in explaining them, although they had apparently thought of these structures as things independent of the every-day things, thus needlessly multiplying the number of entities. Finally, many of the previous thinkers and poets had emphasised how the world was good or in accord with some purposes. These four facets – materials out of which things are made of, forces changing the things, structures characterising the things and the purpose for the sake of which things exist – are then the only things required for a complete description of a thing and its processes.

Aristotle also noted that description of all the four facets must end at some point. If a statue is made of bronze, bronze is made of further elements and so on, this progression of constitution must end at some ultimate material, which is not made of anything. Similarly, everything embodies various structures – it is e.g. brazen, statue, likeness of a Greek philosopher etc. – but some structure of the thing is full in the sense that the thing cannot be modified or structured any further. Furthermore, changes of a thing must begin from some first change, and the changes must have some ultimate goal, which has not been striven for because of a further goal.

There would then have to be four different sorts of ultimate principles, from which all explanations and descriptions should begin. The problem is whether all of the four principles should be investigated by the same field of philosophy or whether they all should have their own disciplines. The problem boils down to the question what is the common topic uniting all the four major principles. Aristotle's answer is that as they are principles required when describing anything there is, the primary philosophy should study literally everything there is – trees, humans beings, lakes and everything else. Yet, the primary philosophy should not be interested of characteristics peculiar e.g. to trees, but only of characteristics common to all things there are.

What should the primary philosophy investigate then? Aristotle noted that the phrase ”being” might well have different meanings – we may say even that there are holes in my sock, although holes are things of very different sort from socks. Still, Aristotle thought that we could find some primary meaning of being, to which all other meanings of the word would be related. After all, there wouldn't be any holes without socks or other ”holed” objects – thus, there are clear levels of primacy among different beings, and presumably, a most primary level of beings.

A further problematic concerns the question what are the actual characteristics that are to be found in this primary level of things. Aristotle himself started from the fact that – at least in Greek – adding the phrase ”one” added nothing to the meaning of a word: ”one man” means precisely same as mere ”man”. Thus, any object studied by primary philosophy should also be in some sense ”one”: that is, a distinct unity. Aristotle also recognised that things could be ”one” or same in many different senses – some things are unified by belonging to same class, others by having been made of same stuff, that is, by being the exactly same thing. Furthermore, any discipline studying a characteristic like unity should also discuss the lack of this characteristic, which in this case should apparently be plurality, which also has many senses like oneness. Aristotle then suggested that all characteristics definable through the concepts of unity and plurality should be part of the primary philosophy. For instance, a thing is something else than a given thing, if they are made of different stuff, and they differ, if they don't have same qualities.

Furthermore, Aristotle stated that the primary philosophy should also study the primary truths from which all other truths are to be derived, because these truths should be valid for all beings. Aristotle does not mean that the primary philosophy should literally prove these truths, because they in fact should be presupposed by all demonstrations. Yet, the primary philosophy could still in some measure at least defend these truths. Thus, one could defend the most primary truth of them all: that nothing can both be and not be something at the same time and in the same respect. Aristotle is not so much concerned of people who deny this principle in some cases: one might very well say that e.g. an object looks white and does not look white, that is, depending on the perspective from which the object is looked at. Even in these cases people would mostly admit that there is some primary level of discussion in which the principle does hold – for instance, the statement saying that an object looks differently coloured from different perspectives might be true in all contexts, while its opposite would be false in all contexts.

It is the person denying the validity of the principle in all cases Aristotle worries most. In effect, the denial would mean the denial of any absolute standpoint – all statements would be true in some sense and false in another. Aristotle himself pointed out that such a position would rule out all meaningful discussion. Indeed, it would make everything a complete chaos. Furthermore, it would make all decisions pointless: because I would always both exist and not exist, it would be just as same if I just would go and throw myself off a cliff.

The denial of contradictions appears then to be required at least in some primary level, and similarly one should accept the statement that all things either have a characteristic or not, Aristotle continued. True, one could suggest that the process of changing from one characteristic to another would constitute a third possibility. Yet, one would still have at least some definite possible characteristics of which a thing should have at least one – definitely being something, definitely not being something and being in a process of changing from one state to another. The only other possibility would be to accept an indefinitely numerous set of mediating states – a process from a state of being something to a state of changing this state, a process from the original state of being something to the the previous process etc. Thus, the statement of definite options should be also accepted at least in some level.

The primary truths apply then at least to the primary level of beings, but the question is, what this primary level consists of. The problem is deepened by the ambiguity in the use of the word ”being”. Firstly, ”being” is used in phrases like ”this is so and so”, where we affirm that some statement is true, that is, that certain thing can be characterised in a particular manner. Yet, true statements are clearly not as essential as the things that we state something about – statements are dependent on human beings, while things in general might not be.

Secondly, in a related sense, we might say simply ”it's this”, when we just apprehend some thing. This is also a true statement, but true in the sense of coming in contact with something: an opposite state would not be an assertion of false statement, but a state of not coming in contact with the thing. Still, even here the statetement is not as essential as the thing contacted. Thus, truth in general does not constitute the primary level of being.

Furthermore, we could speak of a thing being something accidentally, just like a quack might manage to cure his patient, if he gets lucky. Such accidences cannot be systematically studied, just because they are mere accidences – we cannot say why it was a quack who did the curing, because his quackness had nothing to do with the curing, and indeed, quacks usually don't cure people. The primary level is then not to be identified with any mere accidental features that might change from one situation to another.

Now, in all changes there is something that remains same throughout the whole process: for instance, when a piece of bronze is made into a statue, the statue is still a thing made of bronze, although its original shape has changed. We might thus suppose that what remains constant in all possible changes constitutes the primary level of being. Then again, this constant element would not be in itself cut into individual pieces, because this would require a further structurisation of this ”prime matter”. Yet, it appears evident that the primary entities are individual things of some sort and thus not a mere shapeless unity of matter.

It then might appear that structured pieces of this stable element underlying all changes would fit the role of primary beings. This is what we actually suppose normally, because cats, planets and rocks are just such structured pieces of matter. One could say that even abstract geometrical entities - such as lines, triangles and cubes – are structured pieces of a stable space and so also fit this supposed definition of primary level. In fact, all things that can be defined (e.g. human being) can be analysed as being further structurations (rational) of a stable element capable of being structured in several manners (animal). Only indefinable primary concepts cannot be described in this manner.

The problem is that these structured pieces are obviously dependent on the stable element and on the structure. Indeed, the most familiar of these structured pieces are suspectible to destruction, just as they have been generated, e.g. a cat is born and dies. The case of generation and destruction actually suggests that the structures are more stable than the structured things. In case of living beings, a living being that begins the process of generating another living being uses some material by giving it a similar structure to what it itself has, just like a cat is conceived by other cats. In artificial production, on the other hand, the producer at least thinks of the structure she wants to embody and uses the materials for producing this embodiment. Furthermore, there is the third possibility that something accidental begins a process of generation, but even then the structured element must have had a capacity for being structured in this manner. While ordinary things come and go, their structures remain, and it even seems meaningless to ask how e.g. a structure of life could be destroyed.

Aristotle finds other reasons for upholding the primacy of the structures. People can express wonder for various things: say, ”cow – sick?”, ”thunder – tonight?” or ”Madonna – in Moscow?”. These expressions of wonder, which could be turned into why-questions, have the same shape: they express wonder of a feature that some thing has. The wonder might be answered by determining the factor causing the feature – what made the cow sick or generated thunder tonight – or by determining the purpose for the feature – for what reason Madonna chose to travel to Moscow.

Aristotle then noted that one could also express wonder of the thing itself and not just its feature. In one sense such wonder is irrational: it is self-evident that e.g. horses are what they are. Yet, the wonder in this case is explicable – we are wondering e.g. what makes these bones, blood and other tissues into a unitary being that we can call a horse. Aristotle notes that it is simply that these constituents take on a certain structure, that is, the structure of a horse.

It appears then that it is the structure that is the most primary constituent: in other words, the important question is not what something is made of, but what it is made into, i.e. what its essential nature is. Of course, there are also secondary structures. Hence, we could speak of the structure of whiteness and we might even find a suitable definition for something being white. Yet, just like such accidental features are not beings in the primary sense, also only the things of primary level have a structure in a much stronger manner.

Furthermore, individual things cannot really be captured merely by their structure, because in addition to their structure, the things have also the material from which they have been made. Of course, we could add to the definition of a thing the material, but this would still not individuate the thing enough – even if we would have two structurally identical statues made of bronze, they both would still be made of a different pieze of bronze and would still be different things.

Structures thus appear to be something that could be shared by a number of things, but this has its own problems, because the primary things are usually thought as individuals. One possibility might be to assume that the structures would be indeed independent individuals, which would somehow make material objects assume shapes resembling themselves, somewhat like in Plato's theory of ideas. Yet, Aristotle at once points out the dilemma that such an assumption just begs the question: what then structurises these supposed ideal structures?

Aristotle's final answer is that the primary level of beings depends on the context. The stable element common to various things has the capacity to become any of these things, just like bronze can take various shapes. When the capacities are activated, a certain concrete thing is generated, and when the activating element is removed, the concrete thing is destroyed – thus, we might say that a shapeless blop of bronze is less primary or less active than a statue made of it. Finally, what makes the stable element into a concrete thing and thus activates its capacities is the structure. One might still ask what then combines the stable element and the structure. Aristotle's answer is that they just are defined as being necessary complements to one another: the stable element has the capacity to be structurised in some manner, if suitable external influences affect it, while the structure is just the activation of this potential capacity.

Because the components of the primary level are explained through concepts of potential capacity and its activation, Aristotle accordingly proceeds to analyse these terms. He notes that potentiality in Greek means primarily something that can be changed by some external element, just like a piece of bronze can be sculpted into a statue. More generally even things that cause changes may be said to have potential capacities, just like fire has the capacity of burning a forest.

In many cases, capacities belong to inanimate things or to animals incapable of choosing their own actions. Such capacities can only be passively activated by suitable circumstances, just like fire grows when oxygen is present and a starving animal starts to salivate when it senses food. Then again, a free agent with a capacity – say, a doctor – can choose not to use her activities and might even use it for contrary purposes, just like the doctor might use her medical knowledge for killing a person.

When does then a thing have a capacity for something? Megarian school had suggested that a thing had potential capacities only when it truly used them. Aristotle noted that this idea would lead to obvious absurdities: whenever we were not doing sums, we would lose our capacity for arithmetic. Aristotle himself noted that some capacities were inherent in natural properties of some things, just like eyes have the capacity for seeing. Then again, acquired capacities were usually received in whole when one for the first time used them, just like a practicing architect could be said to have the capacity for building only when she has built a house.

In rare cases Aristotle accepts capacities that do not have a corresponding actual result, for instance, a capacity for infinite divisibility of matter can never be wholly activated, because there is no final point at which the divisibility would end. Most of the time, an activation of capacity results in something that differs from the capacity, but also from the process of activation: this process is limited by the actual result. The result might be a thing generated through the activation of the capacity, such as a house made by an architect. In more important cases, the result of the activation is itself an activity, just like the activation of generative processes of life causes the beginning of a new process of life of a living individual. Such an activity would have no external end it would try to acheive, unlike the process of activation.

Aristotle notes that we cannot really speak of the capacity without mentioning the result of its activation – capacity of sight is just a capacity for seeing something. Then again, the result can be mentioned without mentioning the capacity. In general, the result is more essential than the capacity: the capacity is desired for the sake of acheiving the result, and not the other way around. True, capacities do appear to be prior in time, because one must have the capacity, before one can activate it. Yet, the result must often exist before the capacity in another individiual thing – thus, although a fetus might have the capacity to become a horse, the fetus itself is preceded by other horses which have conceived the fetus.

The primary level of being has thus been discovered, but it is not yet clear what classes this primary level is divided into. We know already from the Aristotelian physics that there are things that have a tendency to change in various ways, when left to their own devices. Some of them, the earthly things, changed in an irregular manner, while the celestial objects appeared to move eternally in a constant manner. An interesting problem lies in the question whether only those things studied by the physics exist: if this would be so, the primary philosophy would be only the most general stage of physics.

Aristotle does appear to accept beyond physical things also mathematical objects, which cannot be physical, because the do not change their nature – a triangle has always three sides, as long as it is a triangle. Yet, these objects cannot really be independent objects, because then the connection of mathematics with actual triangles would become incomprehensible. Instead, objects of mathematics are only physical things, when we disregard their material substrate and consider only their geometric form and quantity – there is no abstract heaven of triangles, but only actual triangles, which can e.g. change their shape. Other possible candidates for non-physical or invariable objects would be Platonic ideas. Yet, accepting such objects as independent of the natural things causes several problems, for instance, it unpurposefully adds a layer of objects beyond what we can see and hear.

Still, the eternal motion of stars does require something beyond mere physical things that will keep the heavenly spheres moving – and the stars must move eternally, or otherwise we must presuppose a sudden point of time in which everything in the world started inexplicably. Even a mere potential capacity for moving the stars would not be sufficient, because such a capacity might accidentally stop working. Instead, this moving principle should be constantly active in the same manner.

Because it cannot then change its state, it must be in the most perfect state possible for it and indeed for anything. Yet, it would still be constantly active, but its action would have no other goal beyond its own self-satisfaction – the perfect thing would live in an enduring orgastic moment. Aristotle suggested that the nearest we can ever come to feel the same as the perfect thing is when we without any external purpose think some fairly abstract philosophical issues and take pleasure in our capacities for handling such difficulties.

Aristotle deplored the idea that this epitome of perfection would go on turning the crank that moved the universe: this would make it seem like this perfect thing or God would want something by causing the movement happen. Instead, the God does not will to move the universe, but merely inspires the universe to move with its very existence – it is so perfect that the sphere of the stars tries to imitate it by its own constant movement, and from the heavens the movement the passes to Earth.

Aristotle also appeared to waver in the question, whether there are only one or more of these perfections. On the one hand, all the planets appeared to need their own governing principles that kept their movement going on. On the other hand, there are various difficulties in accepting more than one perfect being. The sensible things can be differentiated at least through their different matter: even two pieces with the same structure can be made of different materials or at least different pieces of the same stuff. Now, material of structures was to be analysed in terms of potential capacities: bronze is just something that can be used for brazwn objects. But the perfect being would have no potentialities and thus it could not have any individuating matter. Hence, it appears that there could be only one perfect thing.

Whatever the case, the perfect being would be the apex of a hierarchy based on the notion of perfection, high above mere mortals. Indeed, this perfect being would be the source of all perfection and goodness in the world – the perfect thing inspires others. So, the primary philosophy lies in close connection with these theological speculations – all beings receive their meaning from the perfect being.

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