02 September 2015

Fragment of a Dialogue on the Nature of Perfection


ALICE. I am very confused.

HARRY. What's confusing?

ALICE. I've been reading St. Thomas's *Summa Theologiae*. It was smooth sailing for the first few articles, and then I got to q. 2 a. 3, and I'm stuck.

HARRY. Which part of that article is confusing to you?

ALICE. Well, it's all pretty difficult, but right now I'm stuck on the fourth way of proving God's existence: the argument from degrees.

HARRY. It's a hard argument. Say more.

ALICE. Well I think the argument is swiss cheese. Holes all the way through.

HARRY. Haha. Yeah, it does seem that way, doesn't it. Well, let's talk through it together and maybe we can find a way to understand it.

ALICE. Ok. My first problem is with the degrees in question. I've thought about this a lot, and I want to focus in on the notion of "degrees of perfection".

HARRY. Ok. Let's start there. So, what is perfection?

ALICE. Well, when we talk about perfection, we're generally talking about the extent to which a thing has a particular form. So, for example, if we talk about how round a pearl is, we're comparing the actual shape of the pearl to a certain ideal shape, like a sphere, and judging the propinquity of the one to another.

HARRY. Right. That sounds right.

ALICE. Ok, well that's fine. But notice in this case that the perfection of a thing always seems to be relative to something else. The perfection of a pearl as round is relative to the perfect roundness of a sphere. The perfection of a dog as a hunting dog is relative to the ideal set of characteristics of a hunting dog, etc. But if the relationship which constitutes a thing's perfection is always *relative*, and its relative to something else, then perfection is not an *intrinsic* feature of things, but is *extrinsic*. And once we say that perfection is *extrinsic* to things, because it's relative to something other than the thing itself, we have to ask what establishes the relationship between the thing and the ideal to which it's compared. And it seems like that relationship is established by the mind, meaning that perfection is always going to not just be relative and extrinsic, but dependent on the subject making the judgment of perfection.

HARRY. Hmmm.

ALICE. And obviously if perfection is relative, extrinsic, and subject-dependent, then it's impossible to talk about the real order of perfection, because there is no objective order of perfection.

HARRY. Ok. So. We should hold on a second. I think if we're going to find a way through this we need to identify a weak point in your reasoning here.

ALICE. Ok. Great. I think the most hopeful solution to my problem would involve establishing that perfection can be relative in such a way that the relative ideal is designated by the thing itself, so that whenever we point to X, we have the choice either to designate an arbitrary formal ideal and judge it relative to that, or to identify the formal ideal implied by the nature of X, and judge X relative to that.

HARRY. Excellent thought. So the problem then would be to figure out two things: (1) how things can, by nature, designate the ideal form relative to which their perfection is to be judged; (2) whether forms in general stand relative to each other in terms of their perfection.

ALICE. Right. So the line of approach would be to show: (1) that this sort of relationship is possible; (2) that every form participates in a chain of relations like this.

HARRY. Ok.

ALICE. Ok. So we begin with that: what is it that makes this sort of relationship---i.e., a determinate designation, given an individual, of a form relative to which its perfection is to be judged---possible?

HARRY. Well, let's start with individual entities as wholes, i.e. individual substances, and not talk about beings of reason or accidental attributes or any of that just yet.

ALICE. Ok.

HARRY. In that case, it seems like the reasonable answer to your question would point to the nature of the individual substance in question. We judge the perfection of a particular thing relative to the natural potency it possesses as member of a particular species.

ALICE. And how do we know that there are such things as determinate natural species?

HARRY. Well, let's start with this: do you believe that there are determinate actual qualities? Is it possible to say truly that "This thing is this way"?

ALICE. Yes, I accept that. Things have determinate characteristics.

HARRY. Ok, well, if things have determinate characteristics, then we have to ask what "things" are. What is it that bears these determinate characteristics? You agree that if there are determinate characteristics, there must be determinate entities which bear them?

ALICE. Yes, that's true.

HARRY. So, if there are determinate entities, they must each be united in themselves. In other words, if it's "that thing" that has a particular characteristic, there must be something about "that thing" which unites it.

ALICE. Supposing I doubt that, what would the problem be?

HARRY. You know what... Hold on. I think there's something really interesting back in what you were saying before. Let's backtrack a little.

ALICE. Ok.

HARRY. You said that perfection is essentially a relative characteristic, because we know from making judgments of perfection that they always involve the comparison of one thing to another under a certain aspect.

ALICE. Right.

HARRY. Well, doesn't it seem like that's kind of an odd thing to say? Perfection always involves a reference to another thing?

ALICE. Why is it odd?

HARRY. Well, let's just assume that it's true, and that additionally the relation is intrinsic to the thing in question: i.e. there is a real answer to the question "What is the norm relative to which X is to be judged as perfect or deficient in itself?" These suppositions by themselves seem to be enough to establish a kind of graph of perfections: every instance of a particular kind of thing will be relative to some ideal form to which it's compared...

ALICE. But this is going to be true even if perfection is a purely subjective thing.

HARRY. That's true. I guess in order to establish a series of linked nodes in this graph we would need to have perfection not just be relative, but also objective. In other words, we would need to be able to ask not just the obvious question "To what extent does X have the form of Y?" but the more universal question "To what extent is X informed at all."

ALICE. Right, and in order to do that, we need to establish that being informed, or actual, etc., admits of degrees. Which I think brings us back to where we started.

HARRY. Ok, so how would actuality have degrees?

ALICE. Well, suppose there are fundamental or atomic characteristics or forms. For example, permanence or corporeality. Something could be said to be more actual to the extent that it possesses that form, as well as another. For example, something that's corporeal and also heavy, vs. something that has no mass.

HARRY. Right, and obviously the objection there is that it's not clear how to determine whether having mass or being massless is more truly a "perfection".

ALICE. Well, I don't think we can judge simply on account of something like having mass or not having mass whether the things in either category are more or less perfect. I'm not sure that that kills this line of thought, though.

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