55 years ago, I tried to run away from my Catholic family by hiding in a Catholic seminary - wrong move! Since I couldn't fight mother, church and God and had to conspire with them against me, the only thing left was to attack Aristotle. A philosophy student came down to the secondary school and announced that they were studying hylomorphism and I reacted saying, "That's wrong" and for the next five years tried to prove that Aristotle's theory of matter and form was wrong, until I found that it was right.
Not to say that there aren't stupid things in the seven years of systematic philosophy and theology undertaken by every pope, bishop and priest. For example, Thomas Aquinas said that when fire is applied to the substance of wood it produces the substance of ash. No modern person talks that way. Aquinas used the descriptive word 'substance' because he could see the effect but had absolutely no idea of the cause. Any child can see that he was simply ignorant of chemistry - it hadn't been invented yet. Fifty plus years ago I was outraged that lecturers accepted this, but now realise that a word can have twelve definitions in a dictionary that are all wrong but the devil is in the detail and the thirteenth may be right. The Church was prepared to ignore all the rubbish because the word 'substance' has some connection with Aquinas's theology, which is what they were trying to conserve.
The other thing that changed my view was the fact that Thomas Kuhn had written his book, not that I would ever read it - enough Aristotle already! - but Kuhn gave a name to what had happened. He talked about a 'paradigm shift'. The Scholastic discourse had collapsed at the end of the thirteenth century, which is to say it no longer made sense, you couldn't produce anything new, the disciplinary matrix was gone. Why has the Church operated in a failed paradigm for all these centuries, teaching these concepts to modern people who live on the other side of the paradigm shift? Because how else were they going to access Aquinas? The answer of course is a bit of systems analysis and systems design. Any computer programmer who has converted a legacy program to a new platform can tell you the Church has to deconstruct Scholasticism, extract the teaching and put it in a new context.
You would be surprised and bewildered if you received an invoice that showed not only the date but also Napoleon's birthday. In my first information systems lesson, this example was used to show that the date module should return the date and nothing else, and to show that the inner workings of the date module are of no interest to the billing system that printed the invoice. You in turn are not interested in either the billing system or the date module. You just want to know how the heck they charged you that much and how you are going to pay for it. In general systems terms, each system is a black box to the other. In computer terms, the screen you are looking at now can be seen because it has the focus. The various links you can see will take you to other screens that can't be seen at this moment and are only virtually present because they don't have the focus. Looked at from the vantage point of where I stand now, I can view information systems as an expression of Eriugena's Divisions of Nature - one reveals, the others are in shade - but I hadn't arrived there yet. First there had to be another conflict with Aristotle.
I did the business degree to learn computers, get a trade and get away from ideas, but soon found that the computer was an expression of Logical Positivism, a failed idea that has been discredited in both science and the social sciences. Words refer to things and not thoughts on a computer, which means you can map out the knowledge structure of a domain and create the corresponding database, but you cannot store an idea on a computer and you cannot store wisdom on a computer. Since the medium is the message and the computer is the medium, the computer would have to be redesigned before it could be used for religious purposes.
There are some unexamined assumptions underlying the computer that made me uneasy. When it comes to computers, our behaviour is entirely rational. Systems are organised in hierarchies, files placed in folders or subfolders and data indexed by category. All common sense really! Then I remembered that Aristotle's influence is so great that what we in the West call common sense is actually an expression of his philosophy. Aristotle invented science with his work in marine biology, classifying life forms by their genus and specific difference. We classify things in the same logical way, and do so inevitably, because this is our inherited framework of thinking. Once again I could see that the rational mind has an answer for
everything, especially where it is most inappropriate, and I had to find
a way out.
Added to this, according to Aristotle any one thing is made up of two co-existing principles, matter and form, which is a metaphor taken from pottery, where the clay makes up a pot and the shape makes it amount to a pot; but this leaves out the potter, the one who makes the pot and gives it its form. Mathematicians have a theory that says in any set of equations there is at least one equation that actually exists but cannot be explained. The form exists as part of the pot but can only be explained by reference to the potter. Of course the rational mind never does this and stays within the system that has the focus, where its rules apply.
We have to behave rationally, maintain our focus, eliminate distractions and stay within our framework of thinking if we want to get anything done. Our appreciative system, the sum total of our reality and value judgments, helps us do this by only allowing in 'facts,' things that correspond with our view of reality and by only considering things that are 'good,' meaning those that meet our approval. Our emotions help us maintain this general drift, or intentionality, by filtering out any conflicting thoughts before they reach the conscious mind. All systems work until they don't. This works well for us up to the point where our view of reality doesn't stack up, where what we thought was good turns out to be bad and where our emotions turn out to be the result of poor toilet training. What was once relevant is now inappropriate. We need our own personal paradigm shift. The question is, how do we shift from one way of thinking to another?
I went looking for other expressions of knowledge and came across some Taiwanese students who were busy converting the ancient Chinese method of classifying plants by pedigree and expressing it in terms of Aristotle's genus and specific difference, the exact reverse of what I was trying to do. This led me to John Scotus Eriugena, John the Irishman from Ireland, in whose Irish view of the cosmos the fox standing in front of him was an epiphany of the divine. This sounded good but the question remained, how do you store an epiphany on a database?
Meeting Eriugena was pivotal, for he turned out to be the translator of Pseudo Dionysius the Areopagite, someone often quoted by Aquinas, and this led me to Nicholas of Cusa, who had his own personal copy of Eriugena. Cusanus, the guy from Cusa, turned out to be the most significant German thinker of the fourteenth century. He lived in the period immediately after the collapse of the Scholastic discourse and before the rise of science, which meant he didn't think in terms of Aristotle and he didn't think the way we do.
The Church and Islam
Alarm bells rang for me in my first lesson in Scholasticism, which is Aristotle plus talk about God, when the lecturer suggested that Aristotle was really a Christian because his thoughts were so in line with the Christian concept of God. He might equally have said that the God of Christian theology was merely an extension of Aristotle. It is easy to create your own monotheistic god. Take whatever you know, kick the ends out and project it to infinity. There you will find an elderly gentleman on a cloud, a ruthless Arab warlord or an imaginary best friend, depending on your starting point. Why aren't alarm bells ringing for the Church, when it knows full well that Scholasticism was developed by Islam? Now Islam is among us and the Church has no answer, for it shares the same concept of God. The medium is the message and Aristotle is the medium. Can the medium of Aristotle's thought ever deliver a concept of God that is anything other than the Islamic One God?
Our concept of God tells us nothing about God, for God is unknown, but it does shape our thinking. When the founder of Islam presented a unipolar concept of God, he restricted his followers to a unipolar way of thinking, whereas the impact of Revelation had already been fully worked out in the early Greek Christian community, and they had a dipolar way of thinking.
The early Church
We can't go back in history, but we can access these times through Pseudo Dionysius the Areopagite. Church Councils turned to him, as did Aquinas and the mystics. Nicholas of Cusa provides a living connection to Dionysius, in that present day scientists say you can't know anything if you don't have a metaphor and Cusanus used this same idea of a metaphor to explore the unknown. His understanding of the unknown would have come from Eriugena's Divisions of Nature, where one is seen and the rest are in shade. Since Eriugena was the translator of Dionysius and was familiar with early Greek Christianity, his understanding of the unknown would have come from the apophatic way of Dionysius, which we know today as the dark night of the mystics. This gives us a way to explore the relationship between a known system and an unknown system.
Cusanus said that the ontology determines the metaphor, the metaphor does not determine the ontology. Niels Bohr was a deeply religious man and gave us the structure of the atom by seeing its spectrum as a stained glass window. We might think that he sat in church looking up at the window and had this bright idea. Cusanus would say that is not the way metaphors work. St Teresa of Avila had a deep relationship with God and having experienced the effect of this relationship, was able to say that we are like a window that must be clean so that the maximum light comes through into the room. Anyone applying that metaphor has a way of further exploring the unknown. For Cusanus, a metaphor does not give you positive knowledge of God. When you take what you know and extend it to the maximum, you begin to understand what God is not. The way Joseph Ratzinger, Pope Benedict XVI, put it is that God is the known that ontologically determines the knower, compelling the knower to find out about themselves and their place in the world. Or as Jacques Derrida put it, there is no outside to the text.
By reaching back to these times, Cusanus was able to develop his own form of Neoplatonism. He had identified two relationships that underlie all concepts of reality, whether we acknowledge it or not. On the one hand there is the relationship between unity and variety and on the other hand there is the relationship between being and becoming. He developed a framework of thinking that is more basic than individual metaphors, a dipolarity where each pole of the relationship needs to be considered separately, for each requires a different way of thinking. By separating out unity and variety, he was able to consider variety in itself and conclude that the universe is infinite and expanding in all directions. Wherever you stood would seem like the centre, so the earth was not the centre of anything. It seems extraordinary that Copernicus did not turn to him for protection, for Nicholas of Cusa was a mystic, a Cardinal in the Catholic Church and the protector of Germany against the Pope. Nicholas of Cusa is right and the whole of creation cries out that the prophet of Islam is wrong. It is right to consider God as one in so far as that is one pole of thinking but it also requires an equally valid, polar opposite way of thinking to develop an adequate concept of God.
The border between systems
On the day hurricane Sandy crossed the east coast of America, the New York Times ran an article on how, as a young man, Peter Neumann had breakfast with Einstein, where they discussed design. Einstein told him that everything should be as simple as possible, but no simpler. For forty years Neumann had been saying that the design of computers was wrong and now the Pentagon was paying this eighty- year-old man to redesign the computer. The article said that his great contribution was to consider the border between systems. This is the sort of problem Enid Mumford from the University of Manchester was talking about when she considered the implementation of strategic systems back in the 1980s. She said it may be that with really difficult problems you can't begin to understand the problem until you know all the ways of solving it because until you know all the ways of solving it you may not have the information required to understand the problem.
My friend Gerald Stack, with whom I have been discussing this since day one, has observed that I circle around with matter and form but never quite land it. I would like to extend Aristotle's metaphor to include the potter who gives form to the clay and say that the structuring activity of a higher system provides the form of the lower system. For example, if you go to the bottom corner of your computer screen and right click on the date and time, you can change the settings so that the date module returns the date and time in a different form. Inconveniently, the pot can also be considered in itself without reference to the potter. The rational mind can stay entirely within the system that has the focus and derive all its conclusions from the data without reference to any other system. I will never be able to quite land it because there is a clear division in the concept of form. It can be considered either as a kind of activity or as a combination of elements, just as an electron can be considered as a wave or as a particle depending on the point of view of the observer. Nevertheless, the attempt at a solution does provide feedback to the underlying really difficult problem. It confirms that there is a real dipolarity involving two different ways of thinking and that some kind of formal method is required to switch between one pole and another, in this case between the pole of being and the the pole of becoming. In other words, I think Nicholas of Cusa knew a thing or two.
Thomas Aquinas was called the Angelic Doctor, or as we would say, he was a Class Act and his answer to the problem of the border between systems was right up there. Faith has to be based on reason and Aquinas based his theology, which is the knowledge of a higher system, on the rational system of Aristotle, but the problem he encountered at the border of two systems was how to convey what he wanted to say while remaining intellectually consistent. His theological position was that God loves us and wants to be friends with us, but friends have to share something in common and there is nothing in us that equates to God except our capacity to be, think and act. The Father establishes Himself at the source of being by sending the Word to the source of thinking and sending the Spirit to the source of acting, thereby establishing in us a new nature called grace, but that is equally unknown, for anything at the source of a river cannot be part of the river. To express the fact that we live entirely in this world yet relate to God and act from grace, Aquinas had to step outside Aristotle's rational framework of thinking and reach back to Dionysius the Areopagite and a polar opposite way of thinking.
The method he devised for switching between poles was to swap the rational order of things that puts being first, then truth and then goodness (or as they would say, unity, intellect and desire) for Dionysius's order of Being first, then Life and lastly Intellect, which reverses the order of truth and goodness at the border of two systems. The switch back was to say that when we pursue this good our aim is to grasp the unknown object and then know it intellectually, which restores the rational order in which truth comes before goodness. What all this means is that 'good' is just like form and is a divided concept. In the system that has the focus, good is the result of the rational process, where we first establish that an entity exists, then find its attributes and then derive its value, but when all is done and dusted there remains some element of good in the known system that cannot be explained by the system because it is the good of an unknown higher system.
The Church and rationalism
Aquinas hopped over the fence, stole the neighbour's fruit and scurried back home, which was fair enough as part of the Scholastic discourse, but Scholasticism collapsed and the Church continued as Team Aristotle, creating a liability that prevents it communicating with the modern world. Joseph Ratzinger's pitch to the papal conclave to get himself elected as pope was that he was the only one who knew what to do about rationalism, and clearly the College of Cardinals saw rationalism as a big problem because they elected him pope, but then he couldn't do anything about it because he was part of the problem. When you are inside a framework of thinking there is only one choice, either go with it or get out and perform a completely fresh, top-down analysis to create a paradigm shift, as Nicholas of Cusa did. Unfortunately we can't follow Nicholas of Cusa because he didn't follow anyone, so if you want to follow him you have to not follow him - if you get my drift. The choice is actually between being a completely original thinker or being a mentally lazy person who hangs on to tradition because it worked in the past.
The Enlightenment provides our framework of thinking, but the Enlightenment cut religion adrift and commandeered reason for its own purpose. The British Empiricist, John Locke, paved the way for science by redefining the word 'idea' to mean that knowledge comes from things and information is derived from data, but religious ideas are not developed in this way and so religion is consigned to the irrational. The Church can't even have a discussion about God because rationalism controls the definition of the word 'god'. When people in modern society talk about God, they are referring to the god of Thomas Hobbes, whose Deism influenced Voltaire and provided the god of the American Constitution. It is the god of the lowest common denominator, where if you affirm belief in something, anything at all, and have a positive attitude towards society then the country welcomes you under the principle of religious freedom. Of course Islam will have none of this and enters a country as a virus that would take over the host. Their One God wipes out any other concept of God and the followers of Islam are committed to the political manifesto of its founder. The Church is on a hiding to nothing. It is not quite right to say its goose is cooked. Rather, it is standing there like a goose waiting to be cooked.
Rationalism may seem an intractable problem, but it is headed down the same path as the Church. When Vatican I defined the doctrine of Papal Infallibility it put the ship of Peter in a bottle and then the Church Triumphant of the 1950s inserted the cork, but Vatican II defined the Church out of existence, exploded the bottle and set the ship of Peter back on the waters again by saying the Church is the Kingdom of God present in mystery. Post Vatican II, our subject is not 'church' but the Kingdom of God present in the world. Cardinals in the Catholic Church are called 'Your Eminence' and rationalism calls their top people 'Eminent Scientists' and so the one who discovers the answer to life, the universe and everything will presumably be called Pope Scientist, or 42 for short. Einstein's group, the Vienna Circle, dominated rational thought in the twentieth century through the Orthodox Consensus, which held that rational thought must be completely objective and exclude the observer. Logical Positivism gave empirical expression to this by saying that a statement is meaningless if it is not derived from evidence. When scientists discovered that experiments give different results depending on the point of view of the observer and realised that you can't perform science on the scientist who is in the act of performing the science, they blew the Orthodox Consensus out of the water. Thomas Kuhn destroyed Logical Positivism in science by showing that facts are only facts within a framework of thinking. C. Wright Mills destroyed Logical Positivism in the social sciences by saying that to move from individual facts to understanding trends requires an act of the imagination. Closed systems contain within themselves the seed of their own destruction. Or, when a pendulum reaches the end of its swing, you look up and go Whoops! We're about to go back the other way again. Or, Nicholas of Cusa is right and there is a real dipolarity that underlies everything - Oh, and of course computers are still based on Logical Positivism, where words refer to things and not to thoughts.
Thomas Kuhn's original solution to the problem of Logical Positivism applied the word 'paradigm' in the strict sense of John Scotus Eriugena's Divisions of Nature, where one reveals while the others are in shade, meaning everything that we can know is contained in this one known system and anything else that may or may not exist belongs to some other unknown system. Science wouldn't come at this and so he had to fudge the idea of a paradigm shift to mean that, although facts only occur within a framework of thinking, the data is still available when we shift to some other framework of thinking. With that settled, science was able to continue on with business as usual, acting as if it had access to all the data in the universe. Science is as science does, but the only useful definition of a paradigm is in the strict sense, where it can be used as a tool to help us explore the unknown or, if we are in a dark place, to consider whether the presence of a paradigm can bring us into the light.
C. Wright Mills' reinvention of the universal idea not only solved the problem of Logical Positivism, it also put paid to John Locke's restrictive definition of an idea, provided an entry point for the Church to engage with the modern world and showed it the way to defeat Islam as it did back in the time of the Scholastics. Universal ideas are neither good nor useful. They are simply the puzzle left over from the intersection of reality, language and the way we are situated in the world. Regarding language, when we read the words on a page, we 'twig' the meaning. Clearly, we don't analyse the ink marks. Applying that to reality, when we pick up a piece of tile that has three sides and say 'triangle,' do we leap to the universal idea 'triangle' or do we derive the concept from the data? Plato held that 'Beauty' is an independently existing universal idea and the beauty of a sunset is its participation in Beauty. His pupil, Aristotle, said Nah! Beauty is in the eye of the beholder and it is a combination of the objective unity, truth and goodness found in the sunset, plus the subjective appreciation of the congruence of elements. People approach the issue of universal ideas in different ways depending on their mentality. The romantic mind stands on the bridge and admires the beauty of the sunset, while the classical mind stands on the shore and admires the beauty of the bridge in the light of the sunset. Beyond the horizon lies the dipolarity of Cusanus. The Scholastics would say that on the one side we are individuated by matter, which means we can look at ourselves as things, follow John Locke's definition of an idea, learn about our behaviour from rats and reduce education to outcomes. Universal ideas bring this to a halt and force us to consider the other side. The Scholastics said that we are also individualised by our underlying rational substratum and do not sit comfortably in this world. We do not fit in our own skin. As persons, we do not discover bright ideas in the external world, but rather generate ideas that cause change in the material world. We are an independent intellectual principle, or logos, that moves between one pole and another, transforming the world and making it amount to something other than what it is now.
Aquinas gave five 'proofs' for the existence of God in which he worked the universal idea, with the added twist that the reader already believed in God. Since they are not actually called proofs but 'ways,' his aim must have been to keep the rational mind busy while he got on with his theology. Regarding language, we all know what 'God' is, but language can't say that God is. 'God' and 'good' are two sides of the same coin, where on the one side 'good' is a grab bag word that contains all the things of which we approve and on the flip side 'God' is a grab bag word that contains all the qualities we may want to project onto the unknown and, equally, both concepts may be empty of content. Regarding reality, a mountain climber hanging in the air by a rope may have some other mountain climber above him and so on, but eventually you have to confront the big 'M' Mountain. Somewhere up there, someone has an ice pick stuck in the mountain. Aquinas talked of five dependencies, but that leaves us with the question, is there a big 'G' God, some independent universal idea like Beauty, or is it all inside our heads? If there is no outside to the text, then nothing can prove that God exists and we are left with the bare fact that we have no explanation for our lives. And isn't that the whole point? By straightening out our God talk and confronting the bare facts, we get rid of the projections, the jealousy, the monsters, the figures of authority. We deflate the balloon of fantasy and separate out hopelessness from hope. The death of Jesus was the collapse of God, but he came to them again in the darkness saying: See I am not like that at all. I love you and want to be friends with you.
The Middle Ages were preoccupied with universal ideas because they were part of the baggage brought by Islam when it came riding in on the back of Scholasticism and stormed the University of Paris. Everyone was reading Aristotle and Aquinas had to respond and, with the aid of a clean translation, he drove them out, but he had the utmost respect for Islam's greatest philosopher, the one he called the Commentator and who was known in the West as Averroes. The West took it very seriously when Averroes said, 'Religion is for the ignorant' and, ultimately, this is why our law, science, government and all other disciplines are separated out from religion and operate in their own disciplinary matrix. By contrast, Islam refused to listen to him and this is why their religious leaders are the ones who decide what is true.
Averroes said, 'We are all part of a universal mind' and the West found that so seductive it remained paralysed for 200 years, for it would have meant the end of Christianity and we all would have been Muslims. Averroes was both a great religious teacher in Islam and its greatest philosopher, so he knew both the One God and its implications for humankind. The One God and the universal mind are two sides of the same coin. On the one side is the complete set of attributes of the One God and on the flip side is the corresponding set of universal ideas. On the religious side of the coin, if you want to declare that God has certain attributes, you must first conceptualise those attributes. For example, to say that God is just, you must first experience someone acting justly and then make the imaginative leap to the universal idea of justice and then project that out to infinity and the Justice of God. On the human side of the coin, once you accept that universal ideas are real, all people who see someone acting justly make the same imaginative leap to the same universal idea of justice - and so on, through the whole set of universal ideas as determined by the set of attributes of the One God - and then, all in together this fine weather, it necessarily follows that we are all part of a universal mind. Which is a bit of a boost if you like groupthink or if you are a Muslim and like to put on a united front. The trouble is this necessarily implies that there is no such thing as an individual in Islam.
Whatever the process of the Medieval mind, they must have come to realise that the One God is the product of universal ideas, but universal ideas are an illusion, therefore the One God is an illusion. The One God of Islam must have seemed much more powerful than the Judaeo-Christian God, and it was, because the God of the Jews and the Christians is only the God of the real, whereas the Islamic One God is the product of someone's fantasy and fantasy is bigger than reality. The followers of the unipolar God are locked into a unipolar way of thinking, for their theory is an explication of their founder's thought. The founder of Islam said that God is this way and the followers of Islam can only think that way and when the framework of thinking fails they have no way out, there is no exit. By contrast, Medieval people met the collapse of the Scholastic discourse with a shrug, for although inspired at the time, Scholasticism is only one way of conceptualising God, and the God of Revelation is an active presence, alive and living in the community, pressing us to find new ways of expressing our experience of Him.
Hi. I'm Michael Whitely.
I have just read an article that says form applied to matter is a male, gender thing. How did they get there? No idea.
I am not headed along that path so I thought I had better lay out my trajectory.