The Reality Enhancement Factor

Once in a while, some random messenger from heaven gives to us the gift to see as we really see.  A strong expectation is overthrown, or a prediction turns out false, or a long-held view finally breaks down under objections, and for a moment the mind’s eye focuses enough to see—a blur.

Because that’s what we actually see most of the time.  Human persons—friends, family, enemies, whatever–are the most vivid realities around us, and yet every sage who ever was said that to know oneself is the work of a lifetime, so of course our actual understanding of other people—whose thoughts we don’t think, whose feelings we don’t feel—is an even slower project.  Despite a high school grasp of science, most of us interpret the world through physical theories half a century outdated, and even the scientists at the front of their fields grasp their own theories by way of metaphors—space bends, or is made up of strings, or other phrases that have no literal meaning—and fully expect their own ideas to be outdated eventually.  We go forward in life like backpackers in a fog-shrouded valley, working by the feel of the ground, dim impressions of trees overhead, and the general direction of the light.

To see the blur as blur all the time would not only drive us crazy but nearly immobilize us.  Focused on the blurriness of the blur, we would be afraid to act and would probably underestimate how much we really know:  it is too difficult to stay exactly balanced all the time, so if we did not overestimate what we know then we would underestimate it.  Mercifully, therefore, God has made us such that we fill in the gaps in our knowledge.

For example, if I enter a dark room in which in reality I see only a few stray gleams of light, my familiarity with the room combines with my imagination to generate a view of the walls and the furniture and so on as though I really saw it all.  If someone moves the furniture or puts the vacuum cleaner in the middle of the room, my familiarity with what should be in the room combines with my imagination to generate a clear view of a witch or a goblin—again, as though I really saw it!

The same thing happens in personal relations.  What we actually know of a person are a few outward actions and a few words, all of which admit of many interpretations.  But our imagination of what it would be like of we did and said those things combines with our general view of that person to generate a view of their motives and beliefs seemingly even clearer than our vision of the goblin in the dark room.

The same thing again happens in the most intellectual pursuits.  Any time I think about something that has very little being in itself, such as prime matter or electrons, I endow it with more being than it has:  prime matter surreptitiously becomes a bland, grey stuff; atoms and electrons become balls with smaller balls moving in circular orbits about them.  Being is light to the mind, and just as the imagination fills out the gaps in a dark room, so the mind fills out the gaps in being.

Taken all together, this Reality Enhancement Factor transforms the blur of our lives into a clear, sunlit meadow at noon.  It’s a blessing:  our creative guesses are in fact true enough often enough that they can be taken as at least one artist’s rendering of the truth, and in the meantime we don’t slip into the fallacy of skepticism.  But it’s also a curse:  if we truly believe our sight to be as clear as it feels most of the time, then we stubbornly cling to our unjust perceptions of a person, or we refuse honestly to consider plain evidence against our theories and dismiss as stupid or dishonest everyone who disagrees.  Recognizing the REF is crucial.  Humility without skepticism is a mark of the educated man.

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How bad imagination can kill final causality

For this post, the Dr. is in. Although family doings are better blog material than academic musings, nonetheless academic music is much of what happens inside my head. From that perspective, academic musing is in fact family doing–it’s about my life, just not about the part you would have caught with a camera.

At any rate, for many years I have passed on to others what I myself received from Francis Bacon, namely that modernity is built on a rejection of formal and final causality, matter and efficient causes being approved. Recently, as I meditated on ST 2-1.1.2, new light was granted me from Renee Descartes about what Bacon’s maxim means. It begins with the distinction between substance and accident.

In the modern imagination—only early theorists like Descartes really thought about it, so now it’s passed down by way of unexamined habits of imagination—a “substance” is an inert thing like a Mr. Potato Head doll, while all of its accidents are “qualities” attached to it, as the ears, eyes, and nose are attached to Mr. Potato Head. This means that everything active about a substance derives from accidental “qualities” rather than from the substance itself.

This makes sense, given the denial of substantial form. Because every inclination to action arises from form, matter without form would be inert; in the terms of Aristotle’s Physics, because nature is a principle of motion and of rest in the thing, to deny that substances have natures is to deny that they have any principle of motion in them. All inclinations to action would come from accidental forms, but these accidental forms would all be only incidental to the substance—attached like a Mr. Potato Head part—because the only essential connection between prime matter and accidental forms comes through a substantial form.

It follows that no substance has a natural motion, but all motion comes from something extraneous to the substance. Or to put it another way, even the motions arising from a substance’s own accidents are only incidental to the substance itself, something like violent motion. Or to put it still a third way, all motion is like the outcome of different causes interacting with one another—chance—because every motion arises from the incidental combination of accidents and their inert host.

This means that a non-intelligent substance acting for an end is entirely unintelligible. Of course, this is exactly what Bacon meant when he denied the existence of final causality, but I think I’ve made some forward progress: I have discovered a source in the imagination of modern resistance to nature acting for an end. Once a person imagines substance itself as inert—which is what matter without form would mean—then he will simply not understand what anyone is talking about when it comes to natural motion toward an end.

If we undo the error by embracing form, then the substance itself (a) has something fundamentally active about it and (b) gives rise to “properties” or accidents that are not incidental to the essence of the thing. So the substance itself gives rise to its motions and to the accidents by which it carries out those motions. In other words, the substance itself is fixed on moving toward a definite thing that is relevant to the substance—to its good. Now, a good which is the terminus of a non-random motion is an end. So movement following on a fixed inclination toward the good is action for an end.

Just as final causality vanishes when substance is imagined one way, so it intuitively reappears as soon as one grasps that being is a kind of act. As Aristotle remarked upon making the act/potency distinction, “Had they grasped this nature, all their difficulties would have been solved.”

P.S. In the second-to-last paragraph, the phrase “to its good” sparked a long and fruitful conversation with my brother-in-law. I hope he’ll write down the results for everyone to enjoy!

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As easy as falling off a blog

Only a couple of years ago, we kept up with friends by reading their blogs.  By now, gone are most of the family blogs, because they have migrated to Facebook; we are the only people we know without active Facebook pages.

And here we are, not only failing to catch up with the times but willfully falling further behind by actually starting a new blog instead.  Why would that be?  Why not take the easier path?  Several reasons:

  • Facebook as a medium encourages short statements of fact or opinion, but militates against sustained narrative prose or reasoning.  It is Twitter’s more respectable cousin.
  • Facebook as a networking system puts pressure on users to accept unlimited contacts by couching itself in terms of friendship:  unless you accept someone’s request for admission to the show, you are not his or her “friend”.  Just this week, Facebook said to me concerning my live-in brother-in-law, “You are not Robert’s friend.”
  • Facebook in fact uses the metaphor of face-to-face contact systematically to suggest that being “connected” is equivalent to being “in community with”, that “connectivity” is the same as “communion”.  By taking this line, it actually tries to demote true personal communion to its own level.  It is the enemy of actual face-to-face exchange; it is Facelessbook.
  • If we all give in to Facelessbook, it will become socially and professionally required, like the cell phone my employer imposed on me.  It already is in some fields.  Resistance is futile in the end, but in the meantime one can make a symbolic gesture, like hoisting one’s native flag over invader’s camp.

More positively, this was an opportunity to build my own website, use a web hosting service, and do all the FTP and Admin and other cool stuff, and it’s geeky fun to learn.

A blog actually encourages me to write, and writing is food for my soul.  My wife wants to write more, too.  While some argue that lengthy prose is inappropriate for the Internet, lots of blogs out there prove them wrong every day; while the blog lends itself well to short stuff, it is not opposed to long stuff like PublicSpace, Facelessbook, or Twitter (no need to parody that last one!).  For more, see Fr. Hardon’s “Writing and the Spiritual Life”.

So you still won’t see us on Facelessbook, even though it is an easy way to stay in touch with lots of people–as easy as falling off a blog.

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