Monday, May 4, 2009

The recalcitrance of matter

When I work with material objects, I am sometimes annoyed at things just not working. The cord of the mower gets caught on a bush. The wood I am drilling into splits. The phenomenology of annoyance is no doubt complex, but I think the following is right: when one is annoyed at x doing A, one is (emotionally) treating x as if x were functioning improperly in doing A. Consider, then, the following argument:

  1. (Premise) It is sometimes appropriate to be annoyed at matter failing to serve one in some way even when no human being designed the matter to serve us in this way.
  2. (Premise) It is only appropriate to be annoyed at something insofar as it is functioning improperly.
  3. Therefore, matter can be functioning improperly in failing to serve us in some way even when no human being designed the matter to serve us in this way. (1 and 2)
  4. (Premise) If x functions improperly in failing to do A, then it is a function of x to do A.
  5. Therefore, matter sometimes has the function of serving us in some way even though no human being designed it to do so. (3 and 4)

All of this coheres with, and suggests, the Christian story of the Fall: matter does have the function of serving us in all kinds of ways, but after the Fall it fails to do so.

But now this failure can be understood in two mutually non-exclusive ways: (a) the matter fails to do "its job" narrowly defined; and (b) we fail to make use of the matter in the way we should thereby making it impossible for the matter to do "its job" broadly defined (it can't serve us if we don't use it rightly). The argument above fits well with (a), but it may well be that (b) is the right story in a lot of cases, and maybe even in all of them. Now, if (b) but not (a) is the right story in a given case, then premise (1) will not exactly be true in that case: annoyance might be appropriate, but not annoyance at the matter. The annoyance should be directed at oneself, or at humankind, or at Adam and Eve. However, this objection presupposes that to be annoyed at x doing A entails being annoyed at x. But I do not know that this entailment holds. It may be that there is a difference between being annoyed at x doing A and being annoyed at x for doing A. If there is such a difference, then one can hold that (1) is compatible with (b) being the right story even in all cases. (Perhaps there is an argument similar to the above that can be formulated that fits with this. The conclusion will be that we are sometimes appropriately annoyed with ourselves for not having skills for working matter, skills that it is not our function to have unless some story about how we were given mastery over matter but then fell is true.)

Actually, theologically, I find both (a) and (b) plausible. The Fathers do think the Fall extends both to the human being and to the rest of nature. If so, then (1) is true, and the argument is probably sound, but of course to base the soundness of (1) on the theology of the Fathers would beg the question.

For a better justification of (1), I would note that I am drawn to the thesis that every basic distinct kind of emotion is sometimes appropriate, but I do not know how to make that precise, not knowing how to define "basic" and "distinct". If the thesis is true, and if there is a basic distinct kind of annoyance at "dumb matter" (i.e., at matter not designed by a human being for anything), then we will be able to have (1) be true.

In any case, the argument I gave strikes me as not very strong. It is very easy to deny (1) by saying that in the cases of annoyance at dumb matter, one has misplaced the proper object of annoyance. Nonetheless, that move is a sceptical move, and sceptical moves should be epistemically costly. So while one can get away with denying (1), this adds to the cost of any position that forces that denial.

The post is triggered by frustrations with converting the Coulter 13.1" telescope that I bought into a split tube (else it wouldn't fit in our Taurus, and would break my back). Or, more precisely, frustrations with reassembling it. Alas, I've learned that plywood splits and that cross dowels need to be pretty close to exactly at right angles to the bolt. Fortunately, there is always JB Weld, my favorite adhesive for projects where Duck tape just isn't good enough. Hopefully the scope will be ready for the Philosophy Department Star Night tonight, assuming the weather cooperates (oddly, though, I don't get annoyed at the weather in the way I get annoyed at objects).


Dan Johnson said...

Really neat argument.

I wonder, is it possible for emotions to be justified for us and for it to still be the case that we should avoid them? It seems that the Christian should avoid certain emotions like annoyance and anger in situations where they might strictly speaking be justified. Does this make sense? If this is true, this wouldn't threaten your argument; my worry is motivated by a half-felt intuition that Christians should avoid annoyance at inanimate objects and even at people.

Alexander R Pruss said...


This is a nice point.

I think that at least in our fallen state sometimes we need to avoid justified emotions. I take emotions to be akin to perceptions, and appropriate emotions to be akin to veridical perceptions. But some veridical perceptions it is better to avoid, whether to protect the privacy of others or to avoid distraction, temptation or inappropriate emotions. Likewise, it is good to avoid some appropriate emotions. For instance, righteous anger or satisfaction with oneself.

Even in paradise, it would have been good for Eve to avoid looking too much at that yummy-looking fruit.

It's a good question whether in an unfallen and temptation-free state, like the state of the blessed after the resurrection, there will be any appropriate perceptions or emotions that it is good to avoid.