by David Fleischacker
Description and Explanation: Mendel’s Pea Plants
One good illustration of the dynamic relationship between description and explanation is found in Mendel’s breakthrough into genetics. Description to recall is articulating how a thing relates to us. Explanation is relation things to things. At least that is a starting point for defining description and explanation, we can become more precise later.
Mendel’s attentiveness to the descriptive features of pea plants provided him with a starting point that led him to his formulation of an explanatory term that gave an account for some of those features. We know these features as phenotypes. Every phenotype is a descriptive conjugate or set of conjugates. The color and shape of the peas and pea pods, the flower color and their positions, as well as the size of the plant were all observable traits. Color, shape, and size are traits that relate something to us, through our motor-sensory being. Furthermore, there is something important about the particular traits Mendel selected. Each were found in one of two forms (eg. tall or short, green or yellow), and never in some type of mixed combination. One could as well control these traits through proper breeding. This provided a fruitful ground for asking questions, expanding observations, building explanations, testing those explanations, and asking further questions. It was what I would call a rich descriptive matrix.
This real reason that this matrix was rich is because it was one of those zones in the world of description that provides a starting point for launching into the world of explanation. One finds the same kinds of zones in other scientific breakthroughs. Certain descriptive accounts of gases led to atomic theory. Moving projectiles and other similar falling objects that had a high density and relatively low friction level provided that matrix for early modern physics. Though pea plants are not the only living thing that could have provided the zone for this breakthrough into genetics, they were Mendel’s zone.
In starting with a rich descriptive matrix, notice that one is starting with conjugates in act. A conjugate in act just means that one is dealing with real, experienced existing descriptive traits. In Mendel’s case, he went a bit further and counted the actual frequencies of the alternatives of the seven descriptive conjugates. He counted how many pea plants were tall and how many were short given various crossings of parents. He could mate two tall plants or two short plants, or a tall and a short plant, and then count the frequencies of the tall and short characteristics in the offspring. He did this for all the traits. He performed thousands of crosses. Notice that in counting, he also had to organize his findings into columns allowing for the discovery of patterns. And patterns is what he found, those patterns now familiar to all of us, namely that these traits were found, depending on the parents, in distinctive ratios — either all one trait, all the other trait, three quarters one trait and one quarter the other (3:1) or half one trait, half the other (2:2).
Notice, thus far, I have stayed entirely with descriptive conjugates. Both the actual frequencies and the surmised ideal frequencies (eg. 3:1) are based on those descriptive features. Explanation comes later, along with an explanatory account of the statistical frequencies. The next blog will be on how these frequencies of descriptive conjugates led to the explanatory conjugates in Mendel’s moving mind.
by David Fleischacker
One of the areas that I have found to need further articulation in Lonergan’s writings is that of the scope and the relationship of explanation and description. Description is rooted in an account of things in relationship to the human motor-sensory operations. How much of the universe can we discover through description? What are the types of patterns that can be discovered? How does description come to grasp unity-identity-wholes? Which types of unity-identity-wholes can be discovered by description?
Explanation in contrast is more comprehensive and its natural limit is proportionate being, though through analogy it contributes to explanatory accounts of Revelation. In general, via Lonergan’s articulation in INSIGHT, explanation deals with the relationships of things to each other.
Also, as one fills out the scope of description, what more precisely is the relationship between description and explanation, not just generically, but in a variety of fields. There are likely patterns that will be discovered. In INSIGHT, there is a generic account of the movement from description to explanation in the first chapter, via the account of explanatory definitions and then the move to implicit definitions. This is advance in chapter 8, the chapter on things. Things can be discovered and articulated in terms of descriptive and explanatory conjugates. More will be able to be said however through studies of interiority as various fields of study historically unfolded, such as in physics, chemistry, and biology.
The import on such an articulation of the relationship of description and explanation is twofold; on the one hand it will allow for a deeper grasp of the capacity of description to know being, on the other it will clarify the path that one must take to reach explanatory knowledge which liberates one more fully into the full scope of proportionate and analogical knowledge of being.
FYI — I will not be posting blogs during this August, 2017.
If you glance through the liturgy of the hours and the divine office, you will notice the frequency that the word light is used. Of course, it is in the context of prayer, and it is an attribute of Jesus Christ and of all the persons of the Holy Trinity. It is not by accident. Light in the physical world is the closest analogy to the spiritual that is found. Aristotle recognized that sight is the most liberated of the senses and the one that is closest to the nature of the human mind, especially what he called the Agent Intellect and Plato called the light of Being that illumines our minds and allows us to search out and then gaze out upon the world of being that is behind and beyond the world of appearances. St. Augustine also picks up on on this light and expands it from the light of being to the light of conscience, the light of faith, and the light of glory. Light is at the very essence of the human soul. St. Theresa Benedicta (Edith Stein) picks up on this in her book The Science of the Cross, and recognizes that this inner light is the essence of the human soul, and it is the inner region of the soul where God dwells, and unfortunately, the place from which we as human beings tend to be exiled. Which means we are exiled from our selves. But Christ wants us home, to return to abide with Him forever. God is light. And so are we.
In terms of the transcendental notions then, these are the differentiate lights that Lonergan has articulated in an explanatory manner. As long as we exist, that can be actuated. But they can also remain merely as a capacity for self-transcendence. When the interior question for understanding arises with regard to an experience, then this light has awakened. It is the same quest in which an insight emerges, and this can then be described as an illumination or an ah-ha experience. Notice how this parallels physical light. When light shines off into space with nothing to illumine, it seems dark. But as soon as something comes into its realm, like a moon, then it illumines the object, and suddenly our eyes have something to see. The same with the quest for understand. And insight (act of understanding) allows the eye of the mind (as Augustine frequently uses the term), and eye intrinsic to the quest (a question is intrinsically conscious and intentional) to see (intend) something. Furthermore, once seen, then we can speak it, and this parallels the need to conceive of the insight.
Once the insight is conceived, then a new transcendental notion can be actuated in our capacity for self-transcendence. There are two sequences of actuated quests here. The first regards the correctness of the insight. Is my insight into a representative democracy correct? The second is whether we have a factual object understood by the insight. Is our country a representative democracy? The first has to be answer correctly before the second can be answered factually. Both arise in the quest for truth or being. To answer this quest for truth, first one needs to gather evidence and then reach a kind of insight into whether the evidence is sufficient. Lonergan calls this a reflective insight, which traditionally is named a grasp of sufficient evidence. Such an insight then allows one to answer the quest and pronounce a judgment. Yes, that is the meaning of democracy. Or yes, we live in a representative democracy. Or maybe I realize that I do not understand the nature of a democracy, or that we do not live in one. These too are judgments, answers the that quest “Is it so?”
As the mind rises into the world of truth and being through judgment, then the possibility of a new light or transcendental notion emerges. Judgments of fact attune us to the world that is. Judgments on the correctness of insight not only make possible a grasp of judgments of fact, but also these open up to us worlds of possibility and even probability. We can then wonder about doing something in light of the possibilities that could become factual. There is as Lonergan articulates a scale of feeling that intentionally awakens to objects of fact and objects of possibility. Naturally, these response to the greater possibility (the greater intelligibilities and factualities) with more vibrancy or more commonly, with more energy. This can become vastly disordered of course. But nonetheless, our entire souls awaken within this light of goodness, of value, to the possibilities of our creative free participation in the coming to be of this world, and even facets of our own existence. Appreciation, thankfulness, and love respond to this world of intelligible facts that are good. Free decision is the possible response to intelligible possibilities and probabilities that then brings about factual goods. This light is that of conscience. It is the full realization of the transcendental notion of value. As the landscape of intelligibility grows, the landscape of possibility, probability, and factuality grows. That is the growth into an entire scale and horizon of the good.
Ultimately it also is the expansion of the actuation of the entire capacity for self-transcendence that then awaken to the question about unrestricted answers to the potentially unrestricted quests. That is as Lonergan articulates in chapter 4 of Method in Theology, the emergence of the question of God. If one has been appropriating one’s own interiority, one realizes as well that this is also an awakening to the very inner essence of one’s own soul, to the capacity for self-transcendence. As that capacity becomes actuated, its full actuation, the full actuation of the transcendental notions, which is aptly described as an unspeakable illumination through God’s outpouring love who gives himself as a Triune self to the subject, is then a state of being in love without conditions.
I want to bring this back to the liturgy of the hours and divine office now. This unfolding of this liturgy throughout the year cultivates the human subject, and through it, God tills the landscape of one’s horizon at all levels of conscious intentionality, from experience up through moral acts to purify the totality of one’s soul so that it is more and more permeated by the transcendental notions. Then one becomes more and more a light in this world.
The liturgy of the hours and divine office however as liturgical however revolve around an even more potent set of lights. Those lights correctly understood and entered are the sacraments. The sacraments are gifts from God that literally started in the motor sensory world that if rightly received permeate the entire human subject from the lowest to the highest levels of conscious intentionality, and these do so by actuating the capacity for self-transcendence in its state of being in love without restriction. This state as long as it lasts and as much as it is lived from then increases the realization of each transcendental notion as it awakens along the paths of emerging conscious intentionality, and it transforms the entire landscape of conscious intentionality. The Eucharist is the supreme realization of all of this. One literally is moving into the inner reaches of the Holy Trinity. This is why it is described as an eternal banquet. At a mass, one’s motor-sensory being literally participates in a physical encounter with that which has been transubstantiated into the ascended incarnate Son of God who opened the doors for humanity to enter the inner life of the Holy Trinity. We are literally able to move closer in space and time to this reality. This reality though emerges into all levels of conscious intentionality through acts of faith and gifts of grace. The Father sends His Son into us through their Holy Spirit, literally and spiritually. Is this necessary? No. It is a gift and promise. God makes it possible for us to receive him into our beings in a manner similar to how Mary when Gabriel came to her and she proclaimed her fiat. The Son was then literally conceived in her. When we sit in the physical presence of the Holy Eucharist, the body-soul-humanity-divinity of the Son, God promises to enter us if we are rightly ordered, receptive, and pure. It reaches its height when we say and Amen to Him, and we are feed physically and if rightly purified, spiritually with Him. As incarnate beings, this way of being given the Son then illumines the totality of our conscious intentionality in a manner like nothing else. We can then understand what someone like John Henry Newman meant when he said that our presence in and reception of the Holy Eucharist is the closest we get to heaven while on earth. It is heaven, the eternal banquet. Now that is a light.
Just some thoughts.
by David Fleischacker
Last night, I met a seminarian who had been reading Saint Augustine’s Confessions and was discussing how much he liked the last section (book 10 and on) on memory, time, and eternity. It brought to mind some of my own memories about the book and about Saint Augustine’s City of God. Memory is that by which a person is oriented in the present and toward the future. Amnesia helps to point this out – without memories we would not know the people around us, or even our own names, or the language that we speak. A priest friend of mine pointed out another thing that was even more important to Augustine that is linked to memory, namely commemoratio. Notice that it has the word memory in it. As well it contains “co-“ and “ratio”, which points to living in the truth with each other. Fr. Matthew Lamb writes on this term. Commemoratio articulates the public nature of truth and how living in that truth as a member of the one human race results in a mutual indwelling.
In the Confessions, it is illuminating to read the first nine books as an account of the conversion of Augustine’s own memories, a conversion that awakens him in a more comprehensive biographical manner to the eternal love and forgiveness and justice of God. Even the simplest memories that he has, such as stealing fruit (something like Adam and Eve had done) are transformed into forgiven acts by which God’s glory shines upon him and the world, and he is elevated into the light of God’s loving forgiveness as a son of God the Father. Throughout those nine books, Augustine recalls with God’s help the multitude of memories of relationships with family and friends and teachers. In each case, these memories are transformed in God’s loving light. One sees how Augustine discerns the dialectic of sin and grace operative in his life, and how God’s grace was working at every moment, even those that were the result of his own sin as he was tossed or tossed himself into the storms of life. He came to apprehend God’s pursuit of him even in those dark and descending moments in his life.
For Augustine, after his conversion, recalling every memory as he does in the Confessions involves a transformation of his presence with the others in his life. They come to dwell in him as creatures and as part of God’s loving providence, as individuals in a fallen world whom God calls out like He did in the Garden of Eden…. Where are you? Why are you hiding? If you have read the Confessions you know that before Augustine’s conversion, he was in the “out of doors” and enslaved in his disordered desires. He could not think of God or of other human beings except in material images (God as a kind of infinite matter with an infinity of space). God allowed him to travel through a multitude of experiences (including his travels into the Manichean religion) that constantly included God’s response — sometimes one of desolation that was a result of his fleeing from God, other times one of consolation in which God was awakening him to the truly good. These moments, especially those that awoke him to the question of good and evil, eventually brought him to a moment in which his mind was elevated to apprehend reality that was beyond the material (see book 7, chapter 10), and that his sinful state was far from the light above. Even with that experience, he was not free. His will had to be liberated from the world of lust and disordered desire, a liberation which he recounted in the details of book 8. After God frees him, Augustine is able to join in a new commemoratio with his own Mother before she dies.
These transformed memories allow Augustine to grasp, live, and dwell from the totality of his life, his friends, family, and enemies within a commemoratio of God’s eternity and love. That is the real commemoratio of the human race. Years after writing the Confessions, Augustine’s City of God expands his commemoratio to include a transformation of how one should live in the totality of history as a dialectic between the city of man and the city of God.
In terms of intentionality analysis, a few notes are in order.
- Through the operators of the transcendental notions, intellectual operations (insight), rational operations (reflective insight and judgment), and moral operations (apprehension of value, judgments of value, and decisions) emerge within the subject. Though these are intrinsically independent of the empirical residue, they are extrinsically dependent in and through motor-sensory conscious intentionality, which in turn operates within a neural matrix all the way down to quarks and primitive forms of energy. Memory at these higher spiritual levels has a dependence upon these material levels, and so it can be disrupted by damages or disruptions of these lower levels. Destroy the neural matrices and the ability to re-enact intellectual, rational, and moral operations is lost. In other words, these intellectual and moral habits are lost. To state this another way, images, phantasms, and certain types of symbols are necessary for the emergence in human subjects of insights, reflective insight, and evaluative insights. Memories always include this embodied element in the human subject. Once embodied, the transcendental notions are able to generate with greater ease those spiritual operations.
- In the human subject, there are not from what I can discern any memories that are purely spiritual and completely independent from the neural and motor-sensory levels. This simply follows from Lonergan’s point about the relationship of spiritual operations upon the lower sensate operations in all human subjects. Insight is always into image/phantasm. We need our bodies to have insights, to affirm judgments, and to make decisions. Likewise, our memories require a re-enactment of our neural matrices involved in phantasms.
- Memory is not merely a material act however. Once one has an insight, “recalling” that insight, and becoming intelligibly present to the object of the insight again is simply to have the same exact insight as the original. There is no difference. However, the recollected insight does emerge “easily” or habitually because a change has taken place in the neural matrix (though there is much work to be done, many studies of the biochemistry of memory have been conducted, and reveal some interesting and fascinating processes).
- Having the freedom to recall insights, judgments, and decisions, or in more comprehensive ways, systems of thought and scales of value, itself includes a neural matrix of embodied connections. From what I can tell from neurological studies, key parts of the forebrain (or what some call the executive brain) are involved in this liberty.
- True direct insights are isomorphorphic with the form that is known by these insights. This allows for an indwelling of the known in the knower, and the beloved in the love. Thus when mutual intellectual subjects know and love each other, then there arises a mutual indwelling. This provides the basis and possibility of commemoratio. When that mutual indwelling is rooted upon the indwelling of the Holy Trinity, along with the entire City of God, then one begins to get a sense of the more comprehensive character of commemoratio.
- The transcendental notions are likewise a key in recalling memories as well. A mere forebrain neural structure is not going to be able to pull forward the proper images needed for insight because it is not capable of seeking a spiritual operation, such as an insight. The forebrain needs to be sublated within the spiritual operators that we call the transcendental notions (of intelligibility, of being, and of value) which form the comprehensive capacity for self-transcendence.
- One final note, from what I have seen in the biochemical studies on neurons, “memory” is not stored in one location while the image/phantasm is located in another. Rather, once one has an insight, the recollection of that insight is simply an enactment of the same neural streams that led to the original insight. (the same is true when one remembers a sense operation — seeing is not one operation and the memory of seeing another, rather, remembering a seen object is simply activating the neural patterns involved in first seeing the object.