Category Archives: Aristotle

Response to “A Critique of Foot’s Natural Goodness ” by Michael DeBellis

The following is my response to an essay by Michael DeBellis criticizing Phillipa Foot’s thesis that virtue ethics can be based on a neo-Aristotlelian analysis of human behavior as a biological process. Below I will only respond to the first major section of the essay and hope that the reader will be able to see how I may approach the rest. As for Foot’s work, I have not read it but from what I have heard second-hand it seems to resemble mine in many respects, insofar as it takes interest in the sense that Aristotle treated ethics to be a subfield of natural science. Indeed any modern person is compelled to believe something like this upon the reading the “Physics” followed by the “Nicomachean Ethics”. So what I say below should not be taken as saying anything about Foot’s presentation of these ideas. Rather it is only concerning the issue she, Michael and I deal with in our work: the deeply Aristotelian idea that moral criticism of behavior might somehow be based on the same implicit biological teleology. In my view, the “implicit teleology” of biology is not that of form but of telos. What does this mean in normal non-philosophical English? When you hear people claim that “evolution has no telos”, this is correct if they are saying this in one of three ways:

  1. Evolution does not have intentions in the same way that an animal or human might; i.e. some subjective sense of purpose for action.
  2. Evolution does not aim at a particular form as its end point. It does not inevitably create humans or any other lifeform.
  3. Evolution does not arrange things to benefit any particular living creature or species. Nature is not ultimately “for” human benefit or welfare.

I do not deny any of these theses, but they do not exhaust the senses of natural purpose or function that are accepted among biologists. To see how this is so, I suggest you read the latter section “Different Sense of Ought” of my “The Theory of Ethical Selection”, where I have a taxonomy of goal oriented behaviors from Aristotle and show how phylogenetic evolution (teleology that is not oriented toward a particular form or beneficiary) is purposeful in a way that fits comfortably within an Aristotelian view. I think that the only reason that this is not common knowledge among philosophers is due to the contingent fact that the readership of Aristotle and evolutionary theory are somehow distinct. This need not be so, and this contingent fact makes much mischief with moral theory’s inability to deal with natural teleology and natural axiology.

DeBellis: “Aristotle or Evolution?”

From DeBellis: “In Natural Goodness (Foot 2001) Philippa Foot bases part of her argument on her interpretation of biology and what biology defines as a good non-human animal. I think her understanding of biology is flawed and her concept of a good or defective animal is incoherent. Early in the book, Foot declares that a wolf who is a free rider is defective. This is not accurate from a biological sense. Free riding is an example of a game theoretic strategy. It is usually the case that within a species different organisms adopt different strategies depending on the genes of the individual and/or the characteristics of the environment. Free riding is no more an a-priori defective strategy than sharing. They both emerge at various points in most social populations. Biologists analyze how often and when free riding occurs in social animals such as wolves and primates and the consequences that may apply to them by others in the pack when they do. However, these free rider animals are not considered defective, indeed in some species virtually all the conspecifics are free riders at some point in their lives.”

My Reply:

The main problem with this paragraph is that when discussing “ethics” DeBellis implicitly assumes that ethics is from a “God’s -eye view”. Indeed, he is correct in the sense that from a God’s eye view, parasites are just fine and in no way defective.  But no living creature exhibits cognition from God’s persepctive, they all seem to take on their own perspectives, and their perspectives always seems to be oriented towards increasing their inclusive fitness.

So parasitic species such as cuckoos and ticks do exist, and from a God’s eye view they are just as “fit” as other species, but this does not mean that we do not try to deny parasites the opportunity to free ride on our resources or bodies. But we do not ascribe moral vice to them; they are merely “bad” creatures, creatures whose badness is inherent in the entire species. Note that this “badness” is not from God’s eye, but from the “gene’s eye view”. From the view of our gene pool (the “gene’s-eye view”), parasites are indeed very bad and we should expect that any creature with any feelings or thoughts would dislike parasites. In fact, we can go further than this and say that any sentient creature ought to hate parasites. And more than that, all non-sentient creatures ought to behave as if they hate parasites. Why? From a gene’s eye view, it is obvious why, and this is the same reason why real actual creatures who actually believe in God (as in traditional peoples and modern conservatives) tend to believe in a God who hates parasites. (Surprise, surprise!) Why? Because they, just like everything else in the natural world, evolved. This fact alone, according to evolutionary theory, is enough to imply an objective and essential telos. In natural teleology, according to Richard Dawkins:

We are survival machines-robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes. (“The Selfish Gene”, preface to the 1976 edition, pp. 1)

The argument of this book is that we, and all other animals, are machines created by our genes. Like successful Chicago gangsters, our genes have survived, in some cases for millions of years, in a highly competitive world. This entitles us to expect certain qualities in our genes. I shall argue that a predominant quality to be expected in a successful gene is ruthless selfishness. This gene selfishness will usually give rise to selfishness in individual behaviour. However, as we shall see, there are special circumstances in which a gene can achieve its own selfish goals by fostering a limited form of altruism at the level of individual animals. (“The Selfish Gene” pp. 2)

This is nothing other than a teleological argument, which claims that the axiom of modern biology is that all living creatures qua living creatures are for something. The “something” is none other than reproductive fitness over the long term (i.e. evolutionary or geological timescales), and this goal is what I will call “The Final Cause” (with capitals). It follows that everything about any living creature is either for The Final Cause, or is a by-product of some other trait which is for The Final Cause. Now you can doubt Dawkins on this point and claim that he is merely going with his religious instincts, but I will assume that he and Aristotle both know what they are talking about.

So now we turn back to morals: morality is not some imagined “God’s-eye” cognition, but rather evolved for The Final Cause. How would it benefit The Final Cause for a pack of wolves to accept a free rider or other parasite? It would not; on the contrary, it would cripple “their” Final Cause very much. In other words they ought not to allow parasites and free riders. By this use of “ought” I am not making a claim about what biologists should feel or think about the wolves, but only what wolves should feel or think about the creatures they meet and deal with.

Morality is itself an evolved behavior; its imperatives and principles are derived from those of life itself. At least that is my hypothesis, and it is falsifiable in the same way as any other hypothesis of ethology (the biology of animal behavior) is. Before you decide that it is wrong, perhaps you should ask your self if you actually have another explanation for moral behavior. As far as I can see, there have only been two other sorts of explanations given for morality: theism and dialectical materialism. Both of these share with my own Darwinian materialism the axiom that the cause for being of a thing is the essence of the thing. The parallels of Darwinian materialism and theism are explaored in the the section “God vs. the Fact/Value Distinction” of “The Theory of Ethical Selection”. (Someday I may explore the parallels with dialectical materialism. )

The key thing is that morality (qua animal behavior) originates from within the process of evolution and its imperatives are only meaningful from within that context, not from the deist God’s eye view standing outside the world. But this does not mean that these imperatives lose their force, on the contrary they gain their force from our status as living creatures of a certain type. So just as most standard non-Darwinain moral theories assume that moral laws only apply to humans and are based on human nature, so also do Darwinian materialists. The main difference is the we moral materialists have a defensible explanation for why all creatures could have different moral codes that are binding on each of us differently. All moral laws, for wolves or humans, only apply to the beings for whom they evolved. This does not deprive them of their imperative force, but is its “originative source” (Greek- “arkhe” a.k.a. “principle” or “foundation”).  In that sense they are all different, being specific in the original sense of “specific” – referring to a species of some genus (e.g. rational animal), but not to all the members of that genus (in my example, the genus “animal”).  On the other hand, all the specific animal moralities are not merely synonymous by chance (as where two unrelated things are called by the same word), but all refer to a common telos, sincethey all are based on the pursuit of the same thing: The (biological) Final Cause. In this sense,  darwinian materialism is closer to traditional human beliefs than the modern secular ethical theories of recent times. In fact, it never fails to astonish me just how effective religious practice is from a Darwinian perspective. And how could it be otherwise, given that the principles and causes underlying the behavior of living creatures be they religious or otherwise? The laws of nature are not up for ratification by anyone regardless of creed, we can only choose how we follow them. If you want to be moral, you will behave in such a way as to increase the fitness of your gene pool, if you behave the opposite, then you will be “immoral”.


Could a Naturally-Evolved Creature do Metaphysics as a Rigorous Science?

Q: What does the evolutionary origin of the mind entail for metaphysics? Does this mean it is hopeless? (Let us leave aside the challenge of how we could know the truth of evolution without metaphysics.) Assuming evolutionary origins of our cognitive structures, does this leave us a basis for metaphyics and fundamental ontology?

A: I say yes; evolution does not make metaphysical science impossible. In my view, we have to accept the evolutionary origin of the science of being qua being before we can have any hope of doing it properly. Without the evolutionary context, we cannot know what we are doing. Imagine trying to reverse engineer a complex device without knowing its function; that is what metaphysics has been doing for most of its history. At least, that is what the following seeks to establish.

For the sake of argument, let us assume that:

  1. From an evolutionary perspective, “all that matters” is adaptive fitness.
  2. Thus a naturally evolved creature will not necessarily evolve to know the truth, but merely encode useful rules for behavior.

The best example for number 2 above (creatures who do not care for nor need the truth). are plants. Plants have no “behavior” at all in the sense that we animals normally use that term. They have no cognitive functions as we animals normally use that term. Thus they have no cognitive structures with any relationship to truth at all. However, they are very successful. So obviously realism is optional for evolution.

There are numerous downsides to human-level cognition, for example 20% of our calories go to our brain, and it makes our childhood rather long.

So just as there is no necessary reason of evolution to favor the truth, there is also no necessary reason for evolution to favor any sort of mental faculties at all.

But the lack of necessary reasons for x does not entail lack of contingent reasons for x. For example, evolution does not necessarily favor flight or walking or photosynthesis or slithering or any number of survival strategies; all of these are contingent features of life. However, each of them has a place because increasing fitness entails a diversity of adaptive strategies. Mammals are more successful than birds or dinosaurs because our underlying “bauplan” is much more flexible w.r.t. a wide variety of adaptations: digging, swimming, flying, etc. And the use of intelligence also makes humans more flexible to adapt to or even create a wide variety of ecological niches, including outer space. But even if we restrict ourselves to pre-modern technology, humans are the most widely adapted mammal in the world. No other primate even comes close, although primates are not all that successful compared to rodents. But still, we are the only large animal who has a chance of surviving the destruction of our planet in 5 billion years. Not bad.

Of course, this only speaks to the evolution of “mind”, and not of the realism . But if mind is contingent, then realism is doubly so, for the same reason.

In my view, scientific realism is only a refinement of everyday naive realism. The fact that we believe in the realism of common everyday objects is not necessary either; we could evolve to treat our daily phenomenology as a mere game. But this latter attitude would also be just as contingent a possibility as the realist attitude.

In my view the temptation to be non realist about life in general is a symptom of reading only modern thinkers to the exclusion of Aristotle. Surely Aristotle was mistaken on a great many counts, but his basic methodology is still useful to avoid the many pitfalls of both analytic and Continental thought.

I say all of this in the context of believing that the content of first philosophy is simply the reverse-engineering our our human operating system as distinct from the surface grammar of our language. But just because there is an empirical / a posteriori aspect to metaphysics does not mean it is not possible as a science of being qua being.

Assuming that our mind does process information successfully, there is no reason to suspect that it cannot be reverse-engineered. By “successfully”, I mean that is reaches a decision based on input that achieves the relevant function and outcompetes other ways of avoiding extinction.

Notes on Aristotle’s “Metaphysics” Book VII


[These are my notes on the seventh book of Aristotle’s Metaphysics, also called book “Z” or “Zeta”. It concerns the concept of “substance” (ousia), or in other words “the most real sort of thing that is”. It shows how Aristotle defends his views against both idealism and materialism. In my view, this can be well adapted to modern debates concerning reductionism and physicalism and I hope that it is clear how I think this is so.

One item that puzzled me at first and that paid off my inquiry was the variety of things that were claimed by Aristotle as being “substance”. From a modern perspective, it seems that atoms and molecules are not at all substantial in the way that an organism is. But the funny thing is that there is a really interesting reason why some substances can include as material constituents other substances, even though substances are not merely matter. In the end, I think that there is an explanation for this that includes both Kantian and evolutionary ideas, but this will have to wait for another blog post. I think that this will address many of the concerns raised by the fact that the creatures who implement the highest categories of reason evolved through a contingent process in time and space. If you really pay attention to my description of the relation of elemental and biological substances but below and in a previous post on the “Physics”, you will see it.

It requires some understanding of the following:

  • Aristotle’s “categories” described in his work Categories.  I have not yet posted notes for this, but you can read this for now.
  • Aristotle’s “Four Causes” from Physics Book II.]

Ch. 1 – Being as Substance

  • ” ‘Being’ has many senses. (See Book V.vii)
    • But “being” denotes first “what a thing is” (its individuality) and only after the other categories.
    • All that is is either substance or “a determination of a substance” (some other category).
    • Non-substances (other categories) cannot exist independently or separated from substance.
  • How is substance primary?
    • “In definition”
      • “If we say something is ‘good’, that is not really meaningful unless we know the substance of which is is said.”
    • “In knowledge”
      • We cannot know is something is “x” or “y” unless we know what sort of substance it is.
    • “In time”
      • Because actual substance is always temporally prior to all its other categories.

Ch. 2 – Opinions on substance.

  1. Things commonly accepted as substance.
    • Organisms
    • Parts of Organisms
    • Elements
    • ‘And their different species’
    • “and their parts and what is compounded of them, e.g. the physical universe and its parts (the stars, the Moon, and the Sun).”
  2.  Are all of these subsatnces? Are there any other substances?
  3. Pythagoras says that geometrical forms are more substantial than matter.
  4. The physiologoi reject nonsensible substances.
  5. Plato
    1. accepts geomentry and adds Forms;
    2. rejects material substances.

Ch. 3 – Substance as Substratum

  • There are four strong candidates for substance:
    • Substratum
    • Essence
    • Universal
    • Genus
  • Possible substrata:
    • Matter
    • Sensible Form
    • Hylomorph – the matter/form compound.
  • Any of these could be “that which has predicates but is not predicated of another.”
  • If we define it over-simply thus, it seems that matter is the most likely substance.

Ch. 4 – What has essence?

  1. “Essence” is :
    • What a thing is of itself
    • What a thing is in virtue of itself.
  2. Essence is NOT:
    • “A musical person” – accidental quality of substance.
    • “A white surface” – accidental quality of form.
    • “A white man” – accidental quality of substance.
    • “A cloak”
      • artificial product.
      • compound
        • of material elements
        • of matter and form by skill, not nature
  3. Essence belongs to:
    • Substance “primarily and simply”
    • secondarily to all other Categories, which are said to “be”
      • By equivocation
      • In a qualified sense
        • We know that something is unknown
        • In the sense that nothing “is”.
      • Analogically as in:
        • “Surgical” (tools, practitioners, patients, supplies, rooms, schools, books, techniques, data, terminology)

Ch. 5 – Have coupled terms essence of definition?

This chapter deals with the essences of coupled terms like “white man”, white surface”, “musical man”, or “female human”. It is clear that the separated terms have essences in some sense; what about the compound terms taken jointly?

Essential attributes.

  • Noses are either concave or snub (per se attributes).
  • Animals are either male or female.
  • Quantities are either equal or not.

But whiteness is a NONessential attribute of man.

“Essence” is said analogously or in a different sense in both substance and other categories.

“Thus in one sense there will be no definition or essence of of anything except substances, while in another sense the remaining categories also have them. And so it is manifest that definition is the formula of the essence, and that essence belongs only to substances or to them alone in the proper, primary, and unqualified sense.”

[It seems that nonsubstantial essences are merely classificatory, while substantial essences have other senses:

  • Living essences have their form as their essence.
    • The genotype is the essence, in the following sense:
      • the genotype is nonsensible
      • the genotype is the cause of being is and temporally prior to the phenotype.
  • Molecular essences are the the molecules interface with other molecules; in other words, those aspects of the molecule that make it a suitable substratum for biology.
  • Atomic essences are the properties of the atom (atomic weight, outer electron shell configuration) that determine its chemical behavior.

Notes about these essences:

  • Lower-level substances (e.g. atoms )are “subsumed” into the essences higher level substances. (e.g. molecules).
  • The essence of the living substances is their encoded genotype (informed matter).
  • The essence of non-living substances is their interface with living creatures.]


Ch. 6 – Is a thing the same as its essence?

Two questions:

  • Does “The being” = “The being’s substance”?
  • Does “the being’s substance” = “the being’s essence”?
  1. Q: Why would the essence of the subjects of accidental predication be identical on the view that “a thing = its essence”? After all, it is its essence.
    • A: In one sense, the essence of “white man” and “black man” are the same, since both are “men” and the color is non-essential.
  2. What about per se expressions?
    1. Assuming the (Platonic)? Forms:
      • IF – Essence = Form
      • AND – Form = “ontos on” (thing in itself ?).
      • THEN – Essence is the things themselves. [substance?]
    2. “That each individual thing is one and the same as its essence. … is clear … from the fact that to know the individual thing is to know its essence.”


Ch. 7 – Analysis of the Generation of Substance.

  1. Things Belonging to any of the categories may come into being in many ways.
    1. From many types of causes
      1. nature
      2. art
      3. spontanaeity
    2. Genesis is effected:
      1. BY something (efficient cause)
      2. FROM something (material cause)
      3. FOR something (final cause)
  2. “Some artificial, like some natural, products are also produced spontaneously and by chance; for sometimes, even in the natural sphere, the same things are generated both from seed and without it.” (from History of Animals (eels, fish, testaceans, insects) as well as(Physics?)”2.9″”
    1. Processes of production are analyzed in this section in two ways:
      1. By process:
        1. First the thought
        2. Then productive action
      2. Modes of speech
        1. “From sickness to health” – (not a health from sickness)
        2. “Statue made from stone” – (not from stone to statue)

Ch. 8 – What is generated? The “Hylomorph”

Q: When a substance comes into being, what is it that does so? Form, matter or both?

A: The “hylomorph” (compound of form and matter) comes into being.

“… We do however, cause a bronze sphere to ‘be’ inasmuch as we produce it from bronze andsphere; we put the form into a given lump of matter and the result is a bronze sphere. But if the essence of sphere were produced, it would have to be produced out of something; for what is produced must always be divisible and be partly one thing and partly another – partly matter and partly form.” … “Clearly, then the Forms (if there are such things) do nothing to explain generation or substances, and therefore cannot be considered self-subsistent substances.” Because substances cannot be predicated of another substance.

“Living creatures indeed are more truly substances than anything else, and in their case, if in any, we might expect to discover forms. But no, the begetter is adequate to generating the product, i.e. to putting the form into the matter. The completed whole, a certain form in a certain flesh and bones, is Callias or Socrates; but they are different by virtue of their matter, but the same in form, which is indivisible.” [Note the contradiction with Charlotte Witt’s thesis of individual essences.]

“If then we make the spherical form itself, clearly we should have to make it from some thing, and the process will go on like that ad infinitum.” [But given that the form is ‘made’ (by phylogeny or stellar nuclear synthesis) is it not made from existing “relative form” or ‘intelligible form’?]

Ch. 9 – Production: Autotmaton and non-substances.

“And here is a peculiarity of substance: there must pre-exist in actuality some other substance which produces it, e.g. an animal in the case of animal generation, but a quality or quatity need not necessarily pre-exist otherwise than potentially.” [On the modern view of cosmic and biological evolution, this is not true; nuclear synthesis and phylogeny both generate substances without actual pre-existence.]

Ch. 10 – Parts and Whole

Q: Does the definition of a whole contain that of its parts? What parts are prior to the whole?

Ch. 11 – Parts of the Form / Concrete Whole

Q: Essence seems to be mostly about form. Are there essences which “include” matter? Circles clearly are the former, but “animal” clearly includes matter in the definition.

A: Living creatures are essentially animate. meaning the are defined by movement of matter in space and time. A dead hand is only a ‘hand” equivocally, for it lacks the essentiall principles of change needed for a complete substantial hand.

“With regard to mathematical objects, why are they not the definitions of the parts included in those of the whole; e.g. why is not the definition of the semicircle contained in that of the circle? Not because they are sensible objects, for they are not … semicircles, then, are not part of the universal Circle, but of particular circles,”…

We have stated generally:

  1. What essence is and how it is self-subsistent. (ch. iv)
  2. What sorts of definitions include parts of do not. (ch. v, x, xi)
  3. That material parts have no part in the definition. (ch. v, x, xi)
  4. “That primary substances (ch. vi) e.g., crookedness, (??????????) are the same as their essences, while concrete things involving matter are the same as their essences.”
    1. Concrete things cannot be defined, and all parts of the thing are parts of the thing
    2. But the definition or essence can be defined, and the parts of the concrete thing are not the parts of the essence.


Ch. 12 – [Nothing here folks, move along.]

Ch. 13 – Universal is not substance.

  1. a) A thing’s substance is peculiar only to it and nothing else. b) Substance is not predicated of a thing; whereas universals are always predicated of another.
  2. Perhaps universal is merely included in the essence as “animal” in “man” or “horse”. In that case either:
    1. It must be definable. [And thus contain another universal as defining element.] OR
    2. If not all elements are definable, then some are and thus a) above must be true
    3. It is impossible that individual of substance, if composite, should be composed not of substance or individuals but of qualities. [The qualities are not prior to substance in definition or time.]
    4. If “animal” were substance, then the substance Socrates would contain another substance “animal”.
  3. No common predicate denotes a “so-and-so”, rather “such-and-such”.
  4. A substance cannot contain “other substances existing actually”. [But does not a living substance consist of elemental substances?]

“Substance is definable in one sense and not in another.”

Ch. 14 – Forms are not substances.

This chapter looks at further problems with Platonism:

  • Making Forms substances.
  • Making Forms separate from concrete individuals.\
  • Resolving species into genera and differentia.

Ch. 15 – Forms are not substances, continued.

“Substance” is twofold:

  1. The “concrete thing” – the “hylomorph” (form and matter compound)
    • capable of destruction.
    • NOT demonstratable by reason.
  2. The Form – The substance of the concrete thing.
    • NOT capable of destruction.
    • Demonstratable by reason.
  3. Can the Form be defined?
    1. Each Form is singular.
    2. Which is the overlap of other universals.
    3. But universals apply to many, as do any set of universals.
    4. Even collections of universals that happen to have only one existing examplar COULD have more. (For example, if you created a copy of the Sun, it could still never be the Sun).
    5. [So if the Form is substance, then how could it be many? Since substance has predicates but never is a predicate.]

Ch. 16 –

  1. Of the substances, most exist only “potentially”.
    1. Parts of animals.
      1. Do not exist separately.
      2. When separated are merely matter, losing their form.
    2. Earth, fire, air – “None are one, but they are like a heap.”
    3. One might suppose that parts of animals exist “in act” (i.e. are substances?), YET:
      1. Parts exist only potentially.
      2. For parts are connected “by nature”, not “by violence” (biai) or by growing together.
  2.  Universal not substance of a concrete thing.
    1. On ‘x’ = an ‘x’ thing/itself.
    2. The substance of one ‘x’ is one.
    3. No universal can be a substance or the substance of a thing.

Ch. 17 – “The True View of Substance”

There are two ways of asking “Why is ‘x’ a ‘y’?”:

  1. “Why is man an animal?” – Because the from of  animal is in the form of man.
  2. “Why is this matter a man?” – Because the matter has taken the form of man.

A compound which forms a unity (“hylomorph):

  1. is not merely an aggregate of material elements. (Gk. “hyle“)
  2. but also includes something destroyed by dissolution. (The Form, “morphe” or “eidos“, not the form itself, but the particular instance of the form that was in the particular bit of matter.)

Philosophy East and West: Pt.1 -Introduction

Introduction – The Four Noble Truths of Philosophy.

A lot is said about the differences between Eastern and Western philosophy. A great many people are of the opinion that if we gave equal time to Eastern thought in our education, it would revolutionize our science and/or culture. Of course, such a statement is hard to confirm or deny without waiting for time to pass, but I find that most people who make this claim have no special expertise in any sort of philosophy at all. There is a commonly expressed idealistic preconception of Eastern thought that sees it as being the next level up from Western ideas, such that it seems like foolishness to us Westerners, much like the way that philosophy or science seems like foolishness to the layman. In many cases, this is true, for example Descartes’ famous cogito is quite vulnerable to many Eastern criticisms. However, Descartes is not the last word from the West. Although Buddhism may have been the best challenge to Descartes in his time, there are now better approaches, although Buddhism is still worth a place in the conversation even today.

My approach is heavily influenced by both Eastern and Western thought, and I am not completely sure that I would have reached my current views without heavy exposure to Eastern theory and practice. However, I do think that Eastern thought is for sure not so very far ahead of Western. I do not want to bother with claiming one or the other is better in any unqualified sense, or that one of the two is optional for further progress on our most important questions.

I think that what they share is more fundamental than how they differ. In my view they all share the following four features:

  1. That there are “Many Things“, that we find in this world.
    1. Objects
    2. People
    3. Organisms
    4. Facts
    5. Data
    6. Occurrences
  2. The Many Things are Problematic in some way.
    1. They do not quite make sense.
    2. They are hard to predict.
    3. They suffer or cause suffering.
  3. There is a “One Special Thing
    1. behind,
    2. under or
    3. above all the Many Things.
    4. This One Thing is somehow intrinsically related to all the Many Things, much like God or Natural Law.
  4. The One Special Thing from step three might be the Solution to the Problem of step two.

As I was writing, the above, I noticed how similar the four points were to the Buddha’s “Four Noble Truths”. However, the steps could be filled out with values from numerous schools of thought from all over the world. In the following, we will look at the starting points of the three major sources of philosophy that the world has had in the past.

The Plan of the Treatise.

We shall start with the tradition of China and proceed to Greece and India and see how each of them compare. We shall choose for our examples three ckassic books and under each we list the four headings that we gave above: Many Things, The Problem, The One Special Thing, and the resulting Solution to the Problem:

  1.  The Tao Teh Ching. of China.
    1. The Ten Thousand Things; Heaven and Earth
    2. Life out of Balance/Ignorance of the Way
    3. The Way (Tao)
    4. True Power (Teh)
  2. The Bhagavad Gita of India.
    1. The nature of Maya.
      1. Complete Illusions
      2. Relative Delusion
    2. The Root of Ignorance – Confusion about your self.
    3. The Immortal Atman. – Your True Self
    4. The Science of Raja Yoga – Connecting with the True Self
      1. Study – Jnana Yoga
      2. Worship – Bhakti Yoga
      3. Morality – Panca Sila
      4. Yogic observances
      5. Meditation – Dhyana Yoga
      6. Service – Karma Yoga
  3. The Metaphysics by Aristotle.
    1. What are there? – Nature, Good, Forms
    2. What problems are there?
      1. Cosmological Decay
      2. “Frustration” of Nature
      3. Moral Vice
      4. Ignorance
    3. The Arche and the Four Causes.
    4. The Solution:
      1. Skill
      2. Virtue
        1. Moral Virtue
        2. Intellectual Virtue

There could be many other choices for these: in each of these traditions, there is a great variety of schools of thought that radically disagree with each other. I do not want to efface the differences with or between Greece, India and China, but I think that what is shared among all of them is something that is very useful to know no matter which tradition you call home.


Notes on Aristotle’s “Metaphysics” Book I

These are my notes on the first book of Aristotle’s Metaphysics.  They contain a few original thoughts, and should give you an idea as to whether you would like to read this work. Book I is a good introduction to Aristotle if you have already read the early Greeks. The only other thing that he wrote that might be good to read ahead of this is Physics Book II, for which you can find my notes here.


The value of knowledge

For Aristotle, knowledge is inherently good. Some knowledge, to be sure, is only of instrumental value, but the deepest and most valuable knowledge is inherently good and thus ought to be valued for its own sake.

Likewise, sensory input is also valued for its own sake, because nature has fitted us to enjoy senses so that we take initiative in exploring and paying attention to the world around us.

[Note on evolution and the “inherent value” of knowledge.]

[From a modern evolutionary standpoint, knowledge and sensation are not an inherent value, but rather these are adaptations intrumental for the goal of  not going extinct, which from an evolutionary perspective is the only inherent value. It is this latter value which alone is inherently valued in living nature, and this is true whether there are any creatures who are aware of it or not. Even if humans disagree, that does not change reality. 

It might be that case that disagreeing with evolution is actually better from an evolutionary standpoint, and this does not at all make evolution false; it just means that it is not “Good” to know the Truth. However, in all my work I assume that the Truth is Good as well as Beautiful. But that is just my assumption because that’s my adaptive strategy. I will also assume that the reader also sees Truth as Good and Beautiful.

So what Aristotle says here about knowledge of the highest truths being inherently good must be taken as being true from within the standpoint of the evolved organism (for us) rather that being true in theory, or “in itself”. In theory, we really do not know this to be true, but most people who read philosophy will assume it to be true, for otherwise, they would not be reading it.]

Sensation, Experience, Knowledge

Sensation, Experience, Knowledge are somewhat similar, but they should not be confused with each other.

Sensation – Perception of such and such a thing here and now. Very often in philosophy sensation and perception are defined separately, but it seems that in this context they are lumped together when contrasted with experience. Aristotle claims that invertebrates ( which he calls “non-sanguinous animals”, animals wothout blood) have only sensation without experience. [Citation ?]

Experience – The memory of many sensations and perceptions of things which are continuous over time. Aristotle claims that non-human vertebrates (“sanguinous animals”) have only sensation and experience without knowledge. [Citation ?]

Knowledge (“episteme“, “tekne“) – After experience, humans can derive knowledge of the causes and principles that underlie the objects and processes that we experience.  Aristotle claims that only humans (“animals having logos“) have knowledge. [Citation ?]

“From a practical point of view” experience is as good as art, skill or knowledge. But for Aristotle, the person with knowledge of principles is “wiser” than one with experience.

[ On the distinction between inherent and instrumental value.]

[From an evolutionary or historical viewpoint, it is clear that there is considerable overlap and crossing-over between inherent and instrumental value.

Take for example, the practices of hunting, fishing, gardening, and herding. For brevity’s sake, we will refer only to “hunting”, but it will be clear that everything we say applies to a great many other things.

Hunting clearly falls under the Aristotle’s category of “productive art”, meaning that it is not inherently good for its own sake but is valued for the production of food. I take it as self-evident that all living creatures that hunt only do so in order to eat and this avoid extinction. So far we agree with Aristotle, but if we look closely, this view ignores certain facts:

  • Our cats and dogs very often enjoy chasing animals that they don’t bother to eat even when they are not hungry.
  • Humans also still hunt animals and seem to think of the activity as being inherently good. People who could very easily and cheaply obtain food from the grocery go through a lot of expense and trouble to go hunting.

Similar observations could be made about fishing, gardening and herding animals. On the one hand these activities are “productive arts” and thus clearly of instrumental value, but it also seems that people experience these activities as being inherently good.

Why is this? It seems that this is likely due to the long evolutionary history we have with these activities. So many generations of our ancestors depended for their survival on these skills, so that those who survived were those who enjoyed them for their own sake. In this way, we see that the inherent/instrumental value distinction is not as absolute as Aristotle might think. However, this does not undermine most of what he says about them, and I think that his basic arguments are sound.]

Ch. 2 – Wisdom: Knowledge of First Causes

  • Common views about wisdom:
    • “Knows all things” but not “every particular”.
    • Understands that which is difficult.
    • “More accurate”.
    • “More capable of understanding the causes”.
    • Inherently good, not instrumental.
    • Authoritative or supervisory rather than subsidiary.
      • Architecture, not construction.
      • Science, not medicine.
      • Medicine, not Nursing.
  • Because of the above points, the highest wisdom will be:
    • More universal or abstract.
    • More primary.
    • Of “what is most knowable” in itself.
    • Be of the highest “final cause” (summum bonum).
  • Wisdom = “knowledge of first principles and causes including the first cause”.

Ch. 3 – Early materialism: material causes

Philosophy seeks principles and causes in the “really real” (onto on, ousia ). For the physiologoi (Thales, Anaximenes. Heraclitus, et al), this was matter. Because all change is change of an underlying matter that persists through change, the matter is the really real, while its superficial appearances are only relatively real.

The form-matter distinction

Late in the chapter, we see that the “differentiae” of the prime matter (“primary substratum”) as being in some sense “formal”.

“Now they [the atomists] enumerate these differetia:

  • shape
  • arrangement
  • position
  • [size]”

Each of these is a “form” of matter; not unlike the atomic forms that define our modern conception of matter.

Ch. 4 Slightly later materialism: Efficient causes

  • The earliest thinkers lacked efficient causes.
    • Physiologoi
      • Thales
      • Anaximenes
    • Eleatics
      • Parmenides
      • Melissus
  • But pluralists made one of their natural elements serve as a source of movement.
    • Hesiod – Eros, “chief among all immortals”
    • Heraclitus – fire
    • Empedocles
      • Eros – Good, gathering, creating
      • Eris – Evil, dissipation, decay
    • Anaxagoras – Mind (“deus ex machine”)

Ch. 5 – Pythagoras

  • Pythagoras introduces mathematics into the study of nature.
    • Numbers resemble things which come into being.
      • Resemblance = formal cause
      • Musical forms
        • Both Mathematical and Sensible
        • Emotive content relates to Eros
        • The numerical nature of these forms are hidden.
      • Astronomy
        • Very mathematical – considered a branch of mathematics in the ancient world.
        • Sensible forms in space and time that are perfectly mathematically precise.
        • Astrological thesis – “As above, So Below.”
          • Days
          • Tides
          • Seasons
            • Weather
            • Life cycles
        • Yin/Yang binary opposites
          • Odd/Even
          • One/Many
          • Right/Left
          • Male/Female
          • Rest/Motion
      • Treat numbers as part of material causes.
        • “But as we have seen, form and matter are correlative”
          • Form is “Intelligible matter”
          • Matter differentiates by form
            • Atoms, Elements
            • Molecules, Compounds
      • Excludes efficient causes
      • Problems
        • No efficient causes.
        • Superficial use of mathematics
          • Numerology
          • Idolization of Decimal numeral 
          • system
        • Aristotle’s summary of above:
        • “From what has been said, then, and from the wise men who have now sat in council with us, we have got thus much—on the one hand from the earliest philosophers, who regard the first principle as corporeal (for water and fire and such things are bodies), and of whom some suppose that there is one corporeal principle, others that there are more than one, but both put these under the head of matter; and on the other hand from some who posit both this cause and besides this the source of movement, which we have got from some as single and from others as twofold. Down to the Italian school, then, and apart from it, philosophers have treated these subjects rather obscurely, except that, as we said, they have in fact used two kinds of cause, and one of these—the source of movement—some treat as one and others as two. But the Pythagoreans have said in the same way that there are two principles, but added this much, which is peculiar to them, that they thought that finitude and infinity were not attributes of certain other things, e.g. of fire or earth or anything else of this kind, but that infinity itself and unity itself were the substance of the things of which they are predicated. This is why number was the substance of all things. On this subject, then, they expressed themselves thus; and regarding the question of essence they began to make statements and definitions, but treated the matter too simply. For they both defined superficially and thought that the first subject of which a given definition was predicable was the substance of the thing defined, as if one supposed that ‘double’ and ‘2’ were the same, because 2 is the first thing of which ‘double’ is predicable. But surely to be double and to be 2 are not the same; if they are, one thing will be many—a consequence which they actually drew. From the earlier philosophers, then, and from their successors we can learn thus much.”

    Ch. 6 – Plato

    • Platonism “bears a strong resemblance” to Pythagoreanism.
    • Plato “affirmed that sensibles exist only by participation in the Forms”,
      • while Pythagoras said that things imitate the numbers.
      • But neither school really properly defined either relationship.
    • For Plato, both Forms and numbers are eternal and unchangeable, but
      • while each Form is uniquely itself,
      • numbers are many of the same kind.
      • The “Divided Line”:
        1. Forms (Formal Principle = “the One” = unity among many)
        2. Numbers
          • intermediary category
          • Combination of both:
            • “One”
            • Great/Small (Magnitude)
        3. Sensibles
          1. Material principle = magnitude
      • Aristotle seems to say here that Plato does not treat of efficient and final causes.
        • However, Plato often deals with “the Good”, as in the purpose of political cooperation in The Republic.
        • Ad there are two efficient cause found in Plato:
          • The “Demiurge” or “Divine Workman” in the “Timaeus”
          • Eros in the “Symposum”

    Ch. 7 – Review of Chs. 3 – 6

    Previous thinkers did not treat the formal causes properly, not even Plato, who neglects their role in [natural ?] change. Plato, merely uses the forms to impart essence to objects. [Classification ?]

    Ch. 8 – Criticism of Early Systems

    • Physiologoi
      • Problems with monism
        • Ignore non-physical beings
        • Ignore efficient causes
        • Ignore formal causes
        • Dogmatically assign one element as the Arkhe or “Prime Matter”
      • Problems with Pluralism
        • Elements do not remain themselves but transform into one another.
        • Insufficient treatment of efficient causes.
        • Qualitative change requires a single substratum.
        • Anaxagoras
          • Previously unmixed state?
          • Some elements cannot mix.
          • Affections and attributes
            • Cannot exist apart
            • Therefore cannot be a mixture.

    Ch. 8


    Ch. 9,10 – Criticisms of Plato

    1. While Forms ought to be fewer in number than sensible beings, it seems that there would be more Forms than particulars. This is because there ought to be Forms for each of the following:
      • Sciences / Arts
      • Negations
      • Perishables – because we can recognize them.
      • Relative terms
      • The particulars themselves – because we can recognize individuals, not just species and genera.
    2. ?
    3. ?
    4. Forms are useless for explanation:
      • Cannot cause motion.
      • Cannot be substance unless it is in a substance.
    5. Things are not compounded of Forms.
      • What uses Forms as models?
      • You can be like something regardless of Forms.
      • If Form and participation are admitted, each thing will have many Forms.
      • Forms have other Forms, which destroy the absoluteness of the form/matter distinction.
    6. If Forms are apart, they cannot be the substance of particulars.
      1. Non-substances come into being the same way as substances (that have Forms).
      2. In the Phaedo, Plato calls the Forms “causes of being and becoming”.
        1. Forms or not, becoming requires efficient causes.
        2. Many things become without Forms.
          1. (“houses” and “rings” [Which are not substances but should have Forms])
    7. If a concrete individual is a ratio or numerical harmony, then it is a formal cause, but material causes needs must also exist.
    8. Platonists have abandoned physics, but cannot speak of Forms except as causes of sensible beings.


































    Notes on Aristotle’s “On the Soul”.

    Book I

    Ch. 1 (402.0)

    What is the “Soul”?

    • By genus
      • nature – Is it physical , illusory, or supernatural?
      • form – is the soul a form?
      • matter – is it material?
    • By category
      • substance – Is it a separately existing being?
      • quality – Is it a property of a body?
      • quantity – Are there many souls, or is there ultimately just one “Oversoul”?
      • Is it an “affection” of the body? (Epiphenomenalism)
      • etc.
    • By potentiality/actuality (See Metaphysics Book IX)
    • Divisible or not?
      • Are souls discrete units, one per organism,
      • Or is it a subtle form of matter  that is fungible or not localized?

    Questions for the study of the soul to answer.

    • Are all souls “the same”?
      • If not the same do they differ by species or by genus?
      • Most people tend to study the human soul only.
        • Are all animals a species of “animal soul”?
        • Or are each type of soul different in definition? “horse, dog, man, god”. (402.6-7
      • Are all souls separate of are they parts of one soul? (402.9)
    • The middle path between materialism and dualism.
      • “There is also the problem whether the properties of the soul are all common also to that which has it or whether they are peculiar to the soul itself; for it is necessary to deal with this, but not easy. It appears in most cases that the soul is not affected nor does it act apart from its body, e.g. in being away, being confident, wanting, and perceiving in general; although thinking looks most like being peculiar to the soul. But if this too is a form of imagination or does not exist apart from imagination, it would not be possible for even this to exist apart from the body.” (403.10)
      • For Aristotle, the separation of the soul and body is not like supernaturalistic dualism, but rather more like an abstract “software” for the hardware of the body.
        • For this reason, the Aristotelian “soul” is physically causal.
      • “It seems that all the affections of the soul involve the body – passion, gentleness, fear …for at the same time as these the body is affected in a certain way.  …  If this is so, it is clear that the affection of the soul are principles involving matter. Hence their definitions are such as ‘Being angry is a particular movement of a body of such and such a kind, or a part of potentiality of it, as a result of this thing and for the sake of that.’ And for this reason inquiry concerning the soul either every soul of this kind of soul, is at once the province of the student of nature.” (403d25-28)
      • “But the student of nature and the dialectician would define each of these differently, e.g. what anger is. For the latter would define it as a desire for retaliation or something of the sort, the former as the boiling of the blood and hot stuff around the heart. Of these, the one gives the matter, the other the form and principle.” (403d28ff)
        • Similarly, for the explanation of a computer system:
          • Physicist – As an electrical device
          • System analyst (“Dialectician”)-
            • Serves a function
            • Has form (software’s logical structure).
        • How similar is Aristotle’s soul theory to software?

    According to G.M.A Grube (“Aristotle” page 97) the final cause of every organism is reproduction “after their own kind.” (415b26ff)

    Question: Is this true? How similar is this to the modern evolutionary concept of adaptation? In the modern view, each organism is optimized to pursue a certain strategy of perpetuating its genotype.


    Notes on Aristotle’s “On Generation and Corruption”

    Book II

    This book is really interesting for those who like their history of science, especially where the typically down-to-earth Aristotle crosses over into astrology and myth.

    Ch. 9 (335.10ff)

    Refers to Socrates in Plato’s “Phaedo”

    • Concerning things which are, such as:
      • Forms
      • Things which “have” forms.
    • Of things that become, they come to exist by “taking form”.
    • ”                                                   “pass away by “losing form”.

    For physiologoi and the atomists, matter is the source of change or movement.

    “But neither party [idealist nor materialists] give the correct account, for if the forms are causes, why do they not always generate continuously rather than sometimes doing so and sometimes not, since both the forms and the things which partake of them are already there?”

    Ch. 10

    On the astronomical cause of natural corruption:
    The source of cycles of growth/birth and corruption and death are in the heavens. All natural change has its ultimate arkhe in the heavens: the Sun rises and sets each day; the ecliptic tilting each year is the cause of the yearly and daily cycles. Since winter is the season of decay and death, its arkhe is the lowering of the angle of the ecliptic each year. Rebirth thus happens when the ecliptic’s angle increases again.

    This interpretation is deeply rooted in the mythology of “Hamlet’s Mill“. a worldwide mythological trope whereby all pain and suffering is due to some “ur-catastrophe” that unseated the celestial axis from it’s original socket and made the ecliptic tilt like it does. It just so happens that winters are cause by this tilt, but not, of course death and pain. NOTE: I do not endorse the main thesis of the discredited work “Hamlet’s Mill”, however, it is a theme with wide provenance neat to find this in Aristotle. I am not sure how widely know the precession of the equinoxes was in the ancient world, but I am open to a few independent discoveries, perhaps even in the New World.

    Ch. 11

    Are there any necessary beings?

    Contingent genesis: “going to be”

    Necessary genesis: “will be”

    Conditional necessity: for the roof to be, the foundation must also be.

    338.0 In nature, only circular motion is “necessary becoming” in the strictest sense.