Philosophically anarchic vs. dysfunctional

Some have suggested that human will is compelled to choose what it does, though not coerced. For not all compulsion is violent, only external compulsion: the movements of nature are compelled but not violent, since violence — originating outside — is incompatible with both the natural and the willed — both of which originate inside. The suggestion, however, is heretical since it destroys the notion of human action as deserving or undeserving: somebody so compelled to act that he can’t avoid it doesn’t seem to be doing anything deserving or undeserving. The opinion is also philosophically anarchic, not only opposed to the faith but destroying the foundations of ethics. For if we are not in any way free to will but compelled, everything that makes up ethics vanishes: pondering action, exhorting, commanding, punishing, praising, condemning. Opinions like these, which destroy the foundations of a branch of philosophy, are called anarchic: the opinion that nothing changes, for example, which does away with natural philosophy. People are led to embrace them, Aristotle says, partly by brinkmanship and partly by sophistical reasoning to which they can’t find the answers.

— St. Thomas Aquinas, Quaestiones Disputatae de Malo (McDermott translation)

Finding the term philosophically anarchic a little odd, I looked up the original and found that Prof. McDermott has taken certain liberties with the text (something I had suspected anyway, since his Aquinas is so readable!). In the original Latin, the bolded clause reads as follows: Huiusmodi autem opiniones quae destruunt principia alicuius partis philosophiae, dicuntur positiones extraneae. — so it appears that Aquinas is not calling such opinions anarchic but rather foreign to philosophy, a designation which makes much more sense. Such opinions, regardless of whether or not they can be proven false, simply have no place in philosophy.

(I also looked up the passage from Metaphysics Aquinas cites here, just in case positiones extraneae should turn out to be a translation of a Greek term more properly translated as anarchic. But Aristotle merely attempts to explain why some people might deny the principle of non-contradiction. He doesn’t create and define a category of anarchic/foreign opinions as Aquinas does, or at least not in the cited passage.)

Aquinas’s concept of opinions which are foreign to philosophy is comparable to my concept of philosophically dysfunctional opinions. (See my use of that term here and here.) But Aquinas’s definition — opinions “which destroy the foundations of a branch of philosophy” — manifests a typically scholastic let’s-classify-everything approach which I find less than helpful. I prefer to define a philosophically dysfunctional opinion as one that undermines, not some particular branch of philosophy (perhaps some branches, such as astrology, deserve to be undermined?) but philosophy itself — thought itself, in fact.

The end purpose of all thought is to serve as a guide to action. This purpose can be frustrated, and thought rendered dysfunctional, in several different ways, but — to attempt to get into the scholastic spirit a bit — philosophical dysfunctions can be classified under three main heads:

  1. The denial of ends. If nothing is good or bad, or if no particular thing matters more than any other particular thing, then the idea of a “guide to action” makes no sense. A guide cannot function without a destination.
  2. The denial of means. If there is no causation, or if causal relations cannot be known and reasoned about, there can similarly be no guidance. In addition to knowing the destination, we need to know which roads lead to it and which do not.
  3. The denial of agency itself. Obviously if there is no action — only the passive propagation of mechanistic cause-and-effect — then there is nothing to guide.

1 Comment

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One response to “Philosophically anarchic vs. dysfunctional

  1. I’m pleased to have you ‘on side’ in exploring the implications of free agency, because once the decision has been made that it is necessary and real, then various consequences are implied which I think do not usually tend to be followed up.

    In fact, one of the things I find most impressive about Joseph Smith’s Restored Christianity, is the way in which he – step by step, and not without faltering, but with great determination and completeness – follows up the implications of human free agency for our fundamental status in the Christian world.

    (In what follows I use God to refer to the one God the Father, creator of Heaven and Earth; and lower case god to refer to the many Sons of God’ of the same ‘kind’ as Jesus Christ – to which status Christians believe humans will be resurrected. This use of lower case god is mainstream Christian and occurs frequently in the Bible – perhaps sometimes also referring to the angels, whose status in relation to God and Man is scripturally ambiguous.)

    It is hard to make sense of free agency without also acknowledging that humans are of the same ‘kind’ as God – are minor or flawed/ corrupted gods, but of the same general kind.

    Free agency is such an astonishing thing, implying such qualitatively superior powers on the part of humans, that something of this sort seems to be implied (I’m not saying it is entailed, but it is at least potenitally implied).

    Because free agency cannot work in a void – but also goes with knowledge/ intelligence and reason – which both enable learning from experience, and provide or supply the basis for free agency. And for the ‘triad’ of free agency, intelligence and reason to be able to operate under widely varied and often hostile mortal conditions, and for learning to occur; seems to imply an autonomy from these mortal conditions. It seems to imply the autonomy of the soul (or unique personal spirit).

    And, in turn, such autonomy seems to imply ‘eternal’ existence – in the sense of pre-existence of the soul (before mortal life) and well as its persistence after death – other wise (it seems!) the free agent soul would be subject-to the conditions of moral life, and therefore unfree.

    But while mainstream Christian thought has tended, often, to regard incarnation of the soul and the added factor of the body yet another disadvantage which *limits* agency (the body’s needs and weaknesses are seen as a constraint on agency) – JS saw the body as an enhancement of agency, by (as it were) concentrating the diffuse matter of the soul/ spirit into a form that is capable of mastering matter in a proto-god-like manner (en route to full godhood).

    I have extrapolated, but the main point was the first – that the reality of free agency is not just god-like, but evidence of god-status – not just potentially, but here and now, actually, in mortal life. Which implies that we are already Sons of God here and now on earth – but at an incomplete and unperfected, at least partially-corrupted and indeed preliminary developmental stage.

    (And, because of free agency, capable of rejecting further development or indeed denying our Son of God status; we can freely chose to sell ourselves into slavery, and thereby to ally with the other spirits, the other Sons of God, who have already done so.)

    A full recognition of the reality/ necessity of free agency at the core of Man, therefore leads onto many other plausible inferences – not compelling entailments, since they can be and are usually denied; but these inferences seem to flow naturally enough from the structure and inclinations of the human mind.

    And if the human mind is regarded as capable of free agency (and has knowledge and reason, thus can learn) then what results is a higher estimate of Man’s capability and role and evaluative ability than in most mainstream Christianity – in other words something much like the core of Joseph Smith’s Restored gospel.

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