Philosophical Investigations

Back to Hugh McDonald's Home Page
Can Knowledge be Bad?
The Effect of Technology on Business Practice A look at technologically induced numbness.
The Truly Risible Man Chesterton and the Value of Laughter
Marshall McLuhan and Thomas Aquinas
Why the Philosophy of Thomas Aquinas
St. Thomas' Five Ways in Detail
Reflection on Luck and Lotteries

Why the Philosophy of Thomas Aquinas?

Thomas Aquinas was a philosopher and theologian of the 13th century. He received his education from the Benedictines, who during the dark ages kept alive the literature of the classical period, both secular literature and religious. In his days, the writings of Aristotle, long forgotten in Europe, reemerged by way of the Arabs. Aristotle lived 300 years before Christ, and was tutor to Alexander the Great. He investigated and wrote about all range of natural phenomena, and held that scientific knowledge started from experience, to which then then we apply logic.

The general approach of Aristotle was applied by some, notably Averroes, to support arguments that man's soul was not immortal, and otherwise in support of positions contrary to religious belief. Those who supported this position avoided trouble by saying that there were two truths, one that applies theology when one reasons starting from what God has revealed, and another truth that applies when one reasons starting from our experience of nature. Thomas Aquinas firmly held that there could only be one truth, and that if we reasoned correctly about experience, and reasoned correctly about God's revelation, we would see that they do not contradict each other. Where natural science seems to contradict God's revelation, it is either because we have misunderstood God's word, or we have drawn false conclusions from the findings of natural science.

The problems that Thomas Aquinas grappled with are still with us. One such problem is the problem of knowledge. If you pick up any edition of Scientific American, or any other science journal for the general public, you will find a problem: the same issue will have some articles that assume that only that which is measurable by scientific instruments can be said to exist, and it will have other articles that use complex mathematical arguments. The problem in this is that no scientific instrument can measure thought. Even if a writer argues that only measurable material things exist, he is using reason and thought to demonstrate it. If he in turn says that his reasoning is merely a material process, he is saying that it has no more power to prove anything than his stomach does, since a physical event in the brain is simply a physical event like one in the stomach. The attentive reader will see the consequences of this problem. If thought and understanding are merely material processes, then there is no reason to think that anything in man survives when the body perishes. If, on the other hand, thought and understanding are not physical processes, then there is the possibility that there is something more to a human being that a bunch of matter arranged in a certain shape, and so there is the possibility that we live after physical death. I hope to explore this problem as these pages develop. I welcome dialogue with those who disagree with my approach. To respond to this, e-mail me at

Another problem is the claim that natural science has a sufficient explanation for everything that is. That explanation is that the material universe can be explained entirely in terms of matter in motion. If so, then there is no need to suppose that there is a God. On the other hand, every science uses assumptions that it accepts but does not prove. For example, physics assumes but can never prove that all things can be described and explained by simple laws. Physics cannot say why this should be so. Even mathematics depends on simple insights that cannot be proved by mathematics itself. For this reason, philosophy is necessary for understanding. Any particular science focusses on one part of reality and uses its own particular methods, and so has a limited area of competence. An accountant may know his task very well, but the method of the accountant is not the one to apply to moral questions, where there are things that cannot be measured. The artist is out of his league when he applies his methods in the area of accounting (even creative accounting, so called). The skills of the computer programmer are of little help in running a society and in political questions. it is a very common mistake to apply the methods of a particular science to questions that do not belong within the competence of that science.

One of the problems in thinking about the important questions is when we assume that our concepts and words must have the same exactness that they have in mathematics and physics. Concepts such as "cause", "nature", "good", "true" cannot be defined in the same way. In fact, if we wanted to be so exact in all we said and thought, it would be impossible to speak or think. Yet, although our notion of "cause" is vague, how would it be possible to reason in physics, biology, or mathematics without every using the word "cause" or "because", or "true" and "truth"? A mathematician cannot really tell you what "one" means, but he would get nowhere if he didn't think of or speak of "one". The whole point is that there is some sense in saying that everything must have a cause, even if it is not the same kind of cause that we find in that natural sciences. If the things we see are not causes of themselves, then there must be one highest cause. This will also be something of which I will write further.

Another issue that we face today is that of uncertainty concerning what is good and evil. Only a person who lives in a very closed and protected environment would be unaware that different individuals and different groups of people have very different notions about what is right and wrong, and what is the purpose of life. At the same time, anyone who knows various cultures, who has travelled, and who has read enoughto be acquainted with the past, also knows that there are many things that remain the same. First of all, the basic needs and inclinations of human nature remain the same. We have a basic inclination to preserve our existence, give existence to others, and to try to achieve a fuller existence. Also, whatever the particular rules, all cultures despise the fool and praise the wise, despise the coward and praise the brave. Perhaps there are statues or monuments raised to men who were thieves somewhere in the world, but we may doubt that they are honoured because they are thieves, but rather they would be honoured in spite of that, on account of something else. The understanding that human beings have a common nature and that the broadest base of moral values are rooted deeply in that common nature is expressed in the theory called NATURAL LAW. This theory says that what is right and good comes from human nature itself, and those who make laws must respect what it good, protect it and promote it. If they do not, one is not bound in conscience to regard it as a law. An unjust law is not law at all. One way or another, when anyone says that there are absolute human rights which the law must respect, they are taking the position that there is something called the NATURAL LAW.

Thomas' Five Ways to Demonstrate God's Existence

The English Text
The Latin Text
Some Reflections on Luck and Lotteries

The Elusive Word CAN


The nature of luck eludes the hard headed man. By the hard headed man, I mean the man who believes in the power of numbers. While from day to day he cannot predict whether it is going to rain, from month to month, from year to year, he can depend on a certain amount of rain as a constant. The question of probabilities seems to be pretty well wrapped up, as it were, by mathematics. While an individual occurence is unpredictable, an aggregate of occurences can be predicted. He may never buy a lottery ticket, but he will buy insurance.

It is a tautology to say that what is going to happen is going to happen. It is like saying that a rose is a rose. The more mysterious notion is that of something which can happen. This may be called possibility. Possibility seems to focus on the psychological aspect of what can happen. Suppose, for example, that a meteor is presently headed toward the city of Niagara Falls, undetected. There is nothing in the natural course of things that will impede its course. The collision with Niagara Falls, in this case, is something that will happen. The person who does not know of its existence may say "it is possible that a meteor will strike". In actual fact, either a non-collision or a collision is inevitable, in this case the latter. The use of the word "possible", then, refers not to reality, but to the person's sense of expectation. He would not be totally surprised, though certainly somewhat startled, if a collision place.

If we take an empiricist stance, say that of David Hume (1711-1776), and say that our ideas extend no further than our sensations, and that there is no idea that cannot be reduced ultimately to a sense image, we may ask, what sort of series of images would adequately represent this notion of possibility. I would propose the following. The camera moves in to a man talking with his wife, saying that a meteor could hit Niagara Falls. Then the camera presents the piece of rock moving toward earth, then switches to people ambling carefree through a park. The camera returns to the first man. He goes outside, looks at the sky, but it is overcast, and then goes in again. A few seconds later, there is a bright flash through the window, then some appropriate pryotechnics. His wife shrieks, but he has a look of only mild surprise.

The above perhaps adequately represents one meaning of the word "can". We can represent a state of affairs from which something will follow, and then one ignorant of the state of affairs. This picture, perhaps, is enough for the hard headed man.

There is another sense of the word "can". When I say, "I can go to the movies" or "I am able to go to the movies", my expression is not based on the same sort of picture. When I use the word "can", I do not have a picture of what I am going to do, as something as inevitable as a piece of rock following its predictable course until it reaches its destination. If I end up at the movies, or end up somewhere else, I will not greet the event with surprise. Once I end up where I am going, I will not say "the other thing could have happened" in the sense that there was only one possible future, but I was ignorant of it. What I mean is that I was capable of bringing to realization one of two possibilities. It does not matter, at this point, whether someone will come along and say that it really was a case of inevitability, that I could only have ended up at the movies because such was my genetics and environment. Whether that is true or not, that is not what I had in mind when I said "I can go to the movies".

If I were an analytic philosopher, I might say that the use of the word "can" here corresponds to no single observable fact, nor to any collection of such facts. True enough, I do not believe that if someone claimed to be ignorant of what the word "can" means as I have used it, I could show them a picture or a movie that would clarify the issue. For all that, like the indefinable word "is", we cannot long do without the word "can", or some other word that does the same job. If someone asked me what "is" or "exists" means, and demanded that it be reduced to an image, I could show any image. "There is a horse", when there was a horse. "The dog exists", when the dog is in front of us. The demander of images might get confused: "so - exist - that means to be a dog?". If I kept pointing at different things, he might object that "is" is a very fuzzy concept indeed. It seems to mix all sorts of things together. The word "can" presents a similar problem. Show me a movie of a man who can go to the movies. The movie might be of a man at a home, then getting on to a bus, then him sitting at the movies. Does this scene differ in any element from a man who does not go the movies? Perhaps, the story of the man who can go to the movies is really two stories, the man who does go, and the same man who does not go. Then, there are simply two stories.

If to be exact means to find a satisfying picture to explain a word, then the word "can" is most inexact. For all its inexactitude, we seem to be quite comfortable using it when talking about our own actions and those of others. In its normal sense, it can be reduced to an experience, but not an experience that can be adequately represented by a satisfying picture. That experience is the experience that an attentive person has when he decides to do something. Of course, we do many things out of habit. A man drives to work everyday. If he gets in his car with the intention of going somewhere else, and his thoughts wander, he may find that he has driven to the place of work, not to mention having run a few red lights. Yet, for all our habits, each is capable of turning his attention to what he can do, and make a decision. The experience of making a decision, say some psychologists, is the singular circumstance when we see a relation of cause and effect from the inside, rather than merely seeing two subsequent events. In a decision, I experience myself as the efficient cause of my own action. This experience cannot be represented by any picture that would explain what I am undergoing, and what I am actually effecting, to anyone else. Yet it is just as real an experience as the experiences of my five senses when I look through a telescope, at a thermometer, or anything else that I might appeal to in formulating a scientific law.

If the experience of personally being the cause of a decision has any validity, and if I deny it validity I must deny validity to all experiences, then at least in that small sphere of the universe affected by my decisions, I must say that the notion of "what can happen" cannot be reduced merely to a picture of one inevitable flow of events, plus a man ignorant of key factors and withholding judgement. The flow of events, of matter, can be redirected in fundamental ways by a human decision. If I choose not to negate the experience of decision, I find myself in a world that has many possible futures.

I do not profess to understand how physicists demonstrate the principles of quantum physics, and I possess only a dim grasp of their conclusions. I gain from them merely the idea that the processes which affect matter at the smallest level cannot be viewed, on a one to one basis, as inevitable. The observer awaiting an outcome, as radioactive decay, cannot think in terms of the inevitability of what actually will happen. That means, perhaps, that the human decision, and the sense of the word "can" as it applies to a human decision, also applies at the quantum level.

Today, perhaps, there is still a lingering notion that the question of what matter is has been all wrapped up. For centuries, matter was envisioned as inert and irreducible particles, atoms, and "a-tom" means "indivisible". What once was called an "atom" in the full force of the word, now retains merely the name. Though the search for an elementary particle, further irreducible, continues, a particle suggests a picture, not of matter, but of a thing, something which is this and not that. What we normally mean by matter is not a particle, no matter how elementary, but a particle is envisioned as made out of something. Plato would have said that things are made out of space, that space itself is matter. That position is echoed by some physicist-philosophers today, but space is not a "something". Space is an abstract notion based on the notion of location, and a location is always the location of something. Aristotle present matter not as a "something", but that which is capable of becoming something. As a mere capability, it cannot exist apart from being in composition with a particular something. The particularity of whatever that something is is called its form.

Again, mere picture thinking does not help, but it is inevitable that in understanding what matter is, we move beyond pictures. It is a paradox perhaps, but the consistent empiricist, perhaps the radical empiricist, cannot be a consistent materialist. Show me a picture of matter. You may point at a material thing. Perhaps a dog. So, is matter a dog? You clarify the matter, pointing at a pizza. So, by matter do you mean pizza? If you do not give up on me as being hopelessly dense, you might be so creative as to show me a dog eating pizza, and then getting fat. I can see thin dogs, pizzas, the absence of pizza, and the fat dog. I cannot see the mere matter that underlies the transaction of a dog nourishing itself with a pizza. Yet, I can understand it, but that in understanding it I am certainly going beyond the empirical. At the same time, in understanding matter, that constant that remains in the transformation, I understand the word "can". I can look at a pizza and say - here is something that is capable of becoming dog meat or human flesh.

Thus, the word "can" is restored. What about luck? Did not the hypertext link promise some insight into luck? Now, if the primary paradigm for understanding "can" or "to be able" is the experience of the human decision, and if at the small level of quantum events I think of things that "can happen", I am inclined (though you may not be, but bear with me) to see the universe as charged through and through with something like personal action. If it is true, that a quantum event "can happen" but is not inevitable, then what explains it if it does? If matter is merely that which can become something, then where does the push or inner determination originate, whereby this happens rather than that? Reflections along these lines may lead one to suspect that there is room in the universe for a notion of providence, not merely as though the mind of the Absolute Being has built a perfect clock that runs from the beginning of time until the and, but one in which, without violating what can be expected to happen at the quantum level, the Absolute Being, or lesser beings, can intervene.

The eye can be determined to see or not to see by one photon more or less that what hits it. When a photon finds a new home, we cannot say as a determinist would what will happen next. The same may apply to other points in the nervous system. It is very delicately poised for reacting to events at the quantum level. An analogy might be the difference between a nudge and a tickle. Nudge a sleeping dog and nothing happens. Tickle it, so much as touch the end of a hair, and it moves. This is hardly at the quantum level, but it supplies a useful analogy for what does happen. Whatever happens in the nervous system of a dog, the impact of one photon may set in motion the whole dog, or it may not.