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Podcast – How Does One Know?

I recently joined John Johnson and Larissa Bianco over at the Albertus Magnus Institute to talk about all things (or, at least, a lot of things) related to knowledge and the specifically human difference in how that knowledge unfolds in our experience. Be sure to check out the AMI website, especially the two summer courses starting in June: close read’s of Newman’s Idea of a University and Plato’s Republic!

But first, follow us into the weeds of knowing (and be sure to listen to the many other great podcast episodes available here). What is knowledge? How do animals know? How does human knowledge differ fundamentally from that of an animal? What roles are played by signs and relation in human knowledge? Why is knowledge a source of joy? What does it mean to say that “all men desire to know?” What is the object of that knowledge? The questions keep on coming!

Mentioned in the podcast: Education and Digital Life: Founding Declaration and Related Essays.

How and Why We Study Logic

Excerpted from the lectures given to the Lyceum Institute Trivium: Art of Logic Course.

“What more can be said about logic?”  I am acutely aware, as I pen these words that I pen them not to be read (even if someone other than myself might and does indeed read them), but to be spoken; to be given in a lecture, that is—a lecture for the Lyceum Institute, a lecture belonging to a course, and a course belonging to a holistic study of all three arts constituting the Trivium.  Though logic may be studied on its own, both as an art and as science, its greatest fruit comes when studied integrally with the other arts of the Trivium.  This sentiment—or rather, the mixed sentiments of hope, humility, and no small amount of trepidation, since I am myself well aware of my woeful inadequacy as a teacher, especially of logic—this sentiment finds itself grounded by the well-wrought intellectual insights of far wiser men: men such as R.E. Houser, John Deely, and John Poinsot, all of whom I consider my own teachers in this most difficult of subjects.  My failings, however, are not a reflection of their abilities: for I have learned logic through their printed works, rather than in-person instruction, and thus have not benefitted from direct correction.

The purpose of these lectures, indeed, is not to say anything new or novel about logic at all.  That does not mean there is nothing new to be said about logic, only that I am not here intending to say it.  Rather, these lectures aim—as is more broadly the goal of this course as a whole and of our first course of study of the Trivium in the Lyceum Institute—these lectures aim at displaying and explicating the art for a living audience.  They form part of a multi-party dialogue: between myself, as the instructor, and you, as the audience; between us, as a class, and the texts, which we read; and between the shared knowledge we gain and the knowledge we yet seek.  Between instructor and audience, there is formed a whole; between that whole, the class, and the texts, there is formed a second whole, that shared knowledge.  But knowledge, always and invariably, prompts new questions, an inquiry beyond itself.  These lectures are merely my own contribution… and rather a minor contribution, at that, in the grand scheme of this dialogue.

Our world—by which I mean not merely the physical environment of earth (though inclusive of it) but rather, more primarily, the specifically human environment of linguistically-perfused culture—suffers a problem of meaning.  I have addressed this problem in many other places.  We may redress this problem of meaning, however, only through language, and only if we conceive of language in the right way: not merely as an abstract system of arbitrarily-stipulated symbolic communications, ordered principally toward pragmatic ends and for the sake of manipulating that world to our ends (such manipulative bearing being one of, if not the, principal causes of our meaning problem), but rather as the way in which the true meaning of things comes to light in the first place.  For developing a facility with language so-conceived, we must study all three arts of the Trivium.  In the Art of Logic, in particular, we attend specifically to the illative relation, whereby we discover how language leads thinking through inference to truths not immediately evident—to truths obscured by malfeasant rhetoric or the will-to-power, to truths hidden by those who wish only to bend the world to their wills, instead of standing themselves humbly open to the real.

Sign up for the Lyceum Institute and join us in the study of Logic this Spring! Lectures begin 1 May 2023 and discussions on 8 May 2023. All members are welcome to take the Art of Logic course, at every level of enrollment.

John Deely on the “Practical Value” of Logic

Peirce rightly speaks of the practice of boasting of the utility of this or that science as a “nauseating custom” (1898a, alt. ver. : CP 1.667). This is because the practice in question almost invariably is indulged in for purposes quite unrelated to the true character of the science in question or to the advance of scientific inquiry as such. Nonetheless, there is a legitimate general sense in which all the sciences, logic and ethics included, may be said to have a practical value, inasmuch as, in the light of understanding gained from any given inquiry, application of that understanding may be made to meliorate some state of affairs or other. It is essential, however, to notice that this general “practical value” is a consequence of theoretical understanding, and not something separate from or independent of a properly scientific—that is to say, thematic and systematized—study of, for example, the symbolic structures of thought, on the one hand (in the case of logic) and action, its motives and consequences, on the other (in the case of ethics). No doubt our practice of discourse will be influenced by a study of logic, and, if the study is sound, improved. But to aim at this improvement directly and from the outset is a fundamental blunder. It is no wonder that many courses in “critical thinking” amount to little more than an elaborate spelling out of the steps to go through m choosing the best refrigerator to buy for your home, or a hopelessly superficial skill in identifying and labeling “fallacies”. For this reason, one of the most notable students of logic (Joseph 1916: 10) went so far as to recommend that we abandon speaking of logic as an art, in order to make plain what is in fact the case: that any properly human practical value of logic is in consequence of its theoretical study, and not an end that can be attained directly. In this sense, any scientific study has a “practical value”.

But, while any scientific study has practical value in an indirect sense, the practical value of logic, even if indirect, goes beyond that of the other special sciences, and precisely for this reason logic is commonly viewed not just as a “general education” requirement, but as a “core requirement”—that is to say, as one of the foundations of liberal arts education even from the days when science in our modern sense had not yet been established or envisioned as part of the curriculum of schooling at any level. In other words, uniquely in the case of the science of logic, we are quite justified in speaking of its utility or “practical value” for reasons that are related both to the nature of logic as a science and to the advance of logic as a scientific inquiry.

The exceptional extent of logic’s indirect practicality becomes apparent in Joseph’s spelling out (ibid: 11) of the threefold rationale for the practical value of logic. Of the three elements he identifies in this rationale, the first logic shares with any science, as we have taken note. The remaining two, however, distinguish logic’s foundational character as permeating the humanities and the sciences alike—that is to say, the whole of our discourse.

The first practical value of logic in general education, the one it shares with any exact science, is that it demands a careful, systematic and precise treatment of its own subject matter, which tends to produce a habit resulting from an appreciative understanding of the need and importance of carefulness in the study of any subject.

The second practical value of logic, however, lies in an effect which the study of a special science like chemistry, physics, or biology, is not equally calculated to produce. This effect is a better realization of what general forms are latent in the language we habitually use (especially where it is a question of our natural language, hut also in specialized and “artificial” circumstances of discourses which… inevitably interface with and influence the prejacent natural language, ensuring its continual evolution, in fact, and expansion into new scientific fields), through becoming familiar with the task of examining our reasonings precisely to see whether their form is conclusive in itself in its contrast with the factual content.

The third practical value of logic is likewise commensurate with our discourse in its totality, whether everyday or scientific, theoretically or practically oriented: logic requires us to deal directly with what knowing is, insofar as there are standards implicit in thought itself by which it is possible to separate knowledge from opinion and also to distinguish levels or grades of both, thereby making us more alive and sensitive to, as well as more careful about, shortcomings in our own opinions and those others try to persuade us of.

I think we need not go as far as Joseph recommended in abandoning all talk of logic as an art in order to appreciate the difference between logica docens and logica utens and to appreciate the essential dependency of the latter on the former as far as it concerns an educational context beyond the exercise of practical reason. It is true that the theoretical study of logic not only can be but, in recent years, has been entirely divorced from the context of actual discourse in common experience. But this need not he the case (nor is it wholly new), and may even be regarded, in many instances, as a pedagogical aberration. Nor does the late modern artificialization of the context of logical study change the fact that there are indirect consequences of logical study for everyday discourse when the foundations of such study are properly established (a project toward which this book is mainly aimed). These consequences are nonetheless real, and become direct from the side of the theoretical understanding once acquired. There is nothing wrong with pursuing the theoretical study in such a way as to facilitate that indirect consequence, that overflow, as it were, into practical reasonings, and much to recommend such a pursuit, however much late modernity chose to eschew it. Indeed, what has always distinguished logic as a liberal art from logic developed as a science in its own right, without any regard for its connections with daily discourse, is just this way of pursuing properly logical study.

John Deely 1985–2015: Logic as a Liberal Art, 12–15 (not to be confused with Houser’s Logic as a Liberal Art).

Sign up for the Lyceum Institute before May 8 and you can join us in our study of Logic! Open to all members. Enroll here.

What is Music?

Few, if any of us, go very long without hearing music. We have available to us more hours of streaming than ever we could hear in several lifetimes. It sits available through every device; it attends nearly every commercial, every television show. The quality of a movie may be greatly enhanced, or perhaps even ruined, by the accompanying score. But what is music? We may define it narrowly, that is, with respect to its form as such: some articulation of sound as organized with pitch or rhythm for the purpose of being heard… and find this dissatisfying.

Antiquity’s Approach to Music

As with many questions, we have much to learn from antiquity. Saints Augustine of Hippo and Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius both wrote treatises on music, and for both—as for Plato—music formed an integral part of education. Within its doctrines were contained not only vocal and instrumental performance but also lyrical meter for poetry. And perhaps much more important, and much more telling, was the intrinsic connection of the musical to the moral.

…since there happen to be four mathematical disciplines, the other three share with music the task of searching for truth; but music is associated not only with speculation but with morality as well. For nothing is more characteristic of human nature than to be soothed by pleasant modes or disturbed by their opposites. This is not peculiar to people in particular endeavors or of particular ages. Indeed, music extends to every endeavor; moreover, youths, as well as the aged are so naturally attuned to musical modes by a kind of voluntary affection that no age at all is excluded from the charm of sweet song. What Plato rightfully said can likewise be understood: the soul of the universe was joined together according to musical concord. For when we hear what is properly and harmoniously united in sound in conjunction with that which is harmoniously coupled and joined together within us and are attracted to it, then we recognize that we ourselves are put together in its likeness. For likeness attracts, whereas unlikeness disgusts and repels.

Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius c.505 AD: De institutione Musica, lib.1, c.1, in the translation by Calvin M. Bower, p.2.

Perhaps, if we wish to understand what music is, we should recover and re-examine these classical sources. But perhaps we can draw on some other sources, as well.

The Poles of Feeling and Intellectuality

One such source, and far from the only contemporary thinker deserving of consideration with regard to this question, is the late John Deely, who once offered a definition that may provoke an interesting conversation. He wrote:

An idealized system of prospective audial experiences which will evoke, sustain, or counter within an Innenwelt basic elements of mood, emotion, or feeling. Within this prospective, in fact, there is an analog range between the asymptotic poles of sheer feeling vs. sheer intellectuality, along which the system can be formalized in an endless variety of relational patterns, according to emphasis within which definite types or styles can be conventionally constituted (“classical”, “folk” “Indian”, “African”, etc.).

Definition of John Deely provided in a handwritten note to Eero Tarasti and his wife [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CqUldV0D5DU @ 15:30]

As a quick explanatory note, the Innenwelt is “like a cognitive map that relates the self to the world of objects” (in the words of Kalevi Kull). To have asymptotic poles of feeling vs. intellectuality as evoked, sustained, or countered within the Innenwelt is to have one’s thoughts and feelings able infinitely to approach one another but never fully coalesce into a perfect unity; and conversely, to be repelled by one another, but never to be fully separated.

This definition hardly stands as definitive—and even in what it provides, there remains much to be clarified. But it is provocative nonetheless. As such, we would invite you to join us this evening for our Philosophical Happy Hour (from 5:45–7:15pm ET) to engage in a conversation about music: its nature, purpose, structure, value, and function in our human lives, from the mundane to the sacred and everything in between. Use the form below.

Request an Invite

John Deely on Deconstruction

Deconstruction, or deconstructive textual criticism, arose in the 20th century, primarily under the auspices of Jacques Derrida’s effort to destroy theories of cognition-independent meaning. The methodology is often employed to show apparent contradictions or ambiguities of meaning in various texts. It stands in radical opposition to rigid textual literalism. On the one hand, it does grasp something true about the nature of linguistic signification, and how the control we have over language allows for a certain slipperiness in our meaning. On the other hand, as John Deely here makes clear, deconstruction is a tool rather than a system, and turned into a system, becomes an absolute dead-end.

From a 2001 interview with Elliot Gaines:

…Sometimes a student asks, “What about deconstruction?” I point out to them, if you construct, say, a simple three-word sentence—kind of a caricature, but not too much so—you say something, you have an intention; you have what you say to realize that intention; and you have the aspect of the world with which the sentence connects. Now the first thing you do [in deconstruction] is you sever the author’s intention. It counts for nothing. The words, you give a life of their own. [Next] you sever the connection with whatever the words refer to. Now, you just have the three words. But it turns out you don’t just have three words, because if you look up those three words in the dictionary—let us say the first word has five definitions, the second word has nine definitions, and the third word has three definitions—now you’ve got twelve, seventeen little balloons that you can combine and re-combine in any ways that you like, and suddenly what seemed to be a straightforward statement is saying a whole bunch of things, some of which are sensible, some of which are non-sensible, and maybe almost none of which have anything to do with either the author’s intention or with the state of the world. It’s a very good way for loosening up texts. But it’s not a systematic program, because it can’t go anywhere—once the texts have been loosened up… then what? So you have an ad hoc technique.

[Transcribed from video below]

From Semiotics 2008:

Deconstruction is a project to which any and every text is thus (indeed!) a-priori liable. But, what needs to be noted—and what deconstructionist Derridean epigones so far have never noticed—is that the ultimate source of the passions in the environmental interaction (both cultural and physical) of human animals with material surroundings objectified in turn imposes indirect limits on the deconstructive process, just as more directly there is also need for consideration at times (though far from always, and deconstruction as a method marks a great advance in the understanding of this matter) of the “intentions of the author”. (Deconstruction as a process normally tends legitimately and systematically to leave out of consideration authorial intention as a factor in the construal of texts; yet there are times when such intention as textual factor cannot be omitted from consideration without some distortion of sense at critical junctures, so far as linguistic signs have not only a customary and iconic dimension but also and always a stipulative dimension as well, which is exactly what separates them within the class of “customary signs” from the purely customary signs of the “brute” animals overlapping within the semiosis of human animals, and conversely.)

Thus the omission in semiology (i.e., in the Saussurean model proposed for sign-in-general) of a signifié in the semiotic sense of “object signified”, which results in the complete elimination of things-as-they-are-in-themselves from the theoretical ambit of semiological analysis, is exactly what leads (not necessarily, but in the practice of thinkers mistakenly thinking that the Saussurean dyadic sign-conception is indeed a general model, which it is not) to the abusive and narcissistic excesses of deconstruction (mis)construed and (mis) applied as a “universal linguistic method”. This same blunder, expressed in several issues of the History and Theory journal over the last two decades, can be seen as the root of the dilemma in which some contemporary historians—falsely thinking that semiology as such is “postmodern”—find themselves unable to explain the difference between historiography and fiction. This again is a logical consequence of failing to recognize the duplicity of the notion of signifié hidden (or lost) in the dyadicity of the Saussurean proposal for the being proper to “sign”.

A valuable method and landmark contribution to the development of semiotic consciousness, deconstruction is but a tool among others for achieving textual interpretation, distortive however when it is (mis)taken for or (mis)represented as the “whole story” (or even “last word”) in the reading of texts. It is a preliminary step, more-or-less useful depending upon how rigid the reading of a given text has become or is tending to become (as, for example—to take an utmost extreme illustration—in the view of some that Koranic texts are not subject to interpretation, and so cannot even be translated into another language than their original).

Deely 2008: “Aristotle’s Triangle and the Triadic Sign” in Semiotics 2008, lxii—lxiii.

Brief Commentary

There are no signs which do not require interpretation. It is the very nature of signification that whatever object is signified, it is signified to an interpretant, and the interpretant is subsequently attuned to the object somehow from itself. This necessary interpretation does not mean that we lose the object. Rather, it means that we never receive the object purely and wholly as it is in itself. We compress, add, and relate other meanings to what we receive. I can express these modulations of meaning in new and different words. If I read something and try to say what it means in words other than those that I myself read, I am expressing an interpretation.

Put otherwise, texts are meaningful only in triadic relations. As Deely says above, there is the authorial intent, the text itself, and the aspect of the world intended. In deconstruction, we sever the text from intent and the world. This can be used to discern ambiguities or imprecision in the words, or to discover new potential connections. But, while authorial intent stands secondary in a text’s signification, it is not wholly irrelevant. Further, the connection of the text to the aspect of the world intended must be “reconnected”. Otherwise, we transgress the “indirect limits” of meaning imposed by the world itself. To posit, as I recently saw someone do, that “meaning is in the text” results in promotion of deconstructionism. Text, to be meaningful, must signify something other than itself.

Trauma, Sorrow, and Beauty: Maritain and Rouault on Art

On 13 April 2023 at 7pm ET, Dr. Thomas Hibbs (see event times around the world) will present the Annual John Deely / Jacques Maritain Lecture for the Deely Project at Saint Vincent College, in Latrobe, PA: “Trauma, Sorrow, and Beauty: Maritain and Rouault on Art” (Zoom link).

In his work on the crisis of the visible in contemporary culture, the philosopher Jean-Luc Marion argues that images typically operate as idols rather than icons. The images we encounter are “proportionate to the expectation of desire.” Such a culture excludes images that would engage us so as to transform our desires and lead us out of ourselves to transcendence. We need more than simply a reorientation of our vision. The new pedagogy of images cannot be straightforward or initially affirmative, since it must make us aware of our disorders, sorrows, and traumas. It will offer hope not through facile transcendence but through otherwise hidden paths at the margins of mainstream civilization. In the philosophy of art of Jacques Maritain and the art of his friend Georges Rouault, images take on the evils and afflictions of this world, its manifold traumas and sorrows, and trace a path toward beauty, gratitude, and joy.

Abstract of the Presentation

Thomas Hibbs is currently the J. Newton Rayzor Sr. Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at Baylor University, where he is also Dean Emeritus. Hibbs has published more than 30 scholarly articles and seven scholarly books, including three on the thought of Thomas Aquinas. He has also published two books on film and co-authored a book, Soliloquies, with the Japanese-American artist, Makoto Fujimura. A new book, Theology of Creation, is set to be published in August of 2023 by Notre Dame Press. He also has a book on Justice as Solidarity under contract with Word on Fire publications. Hibbs has published widely in the popular press, with more than 100 reviews and discussion articles on film, theater, art, and higher education in a variety of publications including First Things, The Chronicle of Higher Education, The New Atlantis, The Wall Street Journal, and National Review. He writes regularly for The Dallas Morning News.

About the John Deely / Jacques Maritain Lecture

The Annual John Deely / Jacques Maritain Lecture strives to make better known the work of these two great thinkers in the Poinsot-inspired tradition of Thomistic philosophy. Jacques Maritain wrote many insightful works on art. Indeed, I am reminded (as Dr. Minerd quoted from it recently) of this fascinating passage from “Sign and Symbol”:

in a work of art are found the speculative sign (the work makes manifest something other than it is) and the practical sign (it communicates a stimulation, an appeal); not that the work of art is formally a practical sign; it is rather a speculative sign which by superabundance is virtually practical… In the work of art… we meet with what can be called the direct sign (indicating an object) and the reverse sign (making manifest the subject).

Maritain 1937: “Sign and Symbol” in Ransoming the Time, 253.

Two things catch my attention here. First, the superabundance of the work of art that makes it virtually practical. Second, the notion of the reverse sign, which manifests the subject. I believe one sees this latter clearly in the work of Rouault. Trauma and sorrow appear in his faces. He shows beauty in a certain simplicity. This should be a fascinating lecture and Q&A!

For all those unable to attend in person, the session can be watched live on Zoom: “Trauma, Sorrow, and Beauty: Maritain and Rouault on Art”.

Exploration through Practical Signs

I apologize to the folks at the Lyceum for my long absence!  A new project that I’m beginning with my friend Fr. Cajetan Cuddy will hopefully help me to spin off some of this kind of content as I write on various Thomistic topics online.  But… I realize, also, that I’m not much of a “blogger.”  This is too long-form to be called that.  But, it is somewhat half-baked (perhaps three-quarter-baked), so it’s not quite “an article” either.  Ah, well….

Over here at the Lyceum, there is a great interest in the world of semiotics. And well… Here I find myself back close to the topic of the posting I made last year regarding extrinsic, formal causality and practical signs. For the upcoming annual American Maritain Association conference, I’m going to be giving a paper on the notion of practical signs, as a kind of draft for a chapter in a book I am (slowly….) writing.  I apologize for the conceptual overlap, but I think that an article laying out the theme in an essay by Maritain will be of use to the readers here.

Recovering the Practical Sign

The importance of doing this kind of recovery work regarding this topic is particularly clear to me. Based on conversations I had with our dear John Deely during his last days.  I’m sure a number of the readers here at the Lyceum are aware of the fact that early on in John’s life as an academic he had an important experience reading Maritain’s essay “Sign and Symbol,” published in French in Maritain’s Quatre essais sur l’esprit dans sa condition charnelle and in English in Redeeming the Time.  Although it was not the only factor leading to his later semiotic reflection, it was an important occasional cause that determined his later intellectual work.  In short: if John Deely could miss it, so will (and have) many others. 

Given the love of Deely here at the Lyceum, allow a bit of personal musing to open up this article.  One day at his house in Latrobe, John and I were talking about this or that—wherever his mind wished to traverse during those days when his powers had been hampered by his terminal illness.   As we were talking, I asked him: did you ever write anything explicitly about practical signs in John of St. Thomas?  He was a bit puzzled while trying to recall, and basically could not recount whether or not he did, though he did not believe that he did.

Truth be told, I somewhat expected this answer from him. I already had a sense that I couldn’t find this in his works. But afterwards, I went and checked as much as I could in his texts themselves and by way of a digital search of his works.  Obviously, his oeuvre is massive, so it is always possible that one might easily overlook something that is, in fact, contained somewhere in his works.  However, I could not find any substantive discussion of the topic of signa practica in those express terms and at any lengthy detail.  (It’s implicit in many places, but treatment of this theme in the Cursus theologicus of John of St. Thomas seems lacking.  I welcome any recovery projects that can show me where it is taken up by John in detail.  It would be an important point of continuity between his semiotic project and my own thought.)

Maritain’s “Sign and Symbol”

Thereafter I went back to read “Sign and Symbol” both in English and in French.  I was quite blown away by the central role, played by the topic of practical signification early in the essay, as well as in the lengthy endnotes included with the chapter.  I could not believe that John had overlooked this point, concerning which Maritain goes on at great length in the footnotes to the text.

As I work on this topic, I will be gathering together the various sources that I have stumbled across regarding the notion of practical sign.  Elsewhere, I will develop (in outline) some of the broader history of the language of “practical signs” as found in modern and medieval authors.  Here, in the spirit of connecting things to John Deely’s work, I am merely going to attempt to lay out Maritain’s own use of the term in “Sign and Symbol.”

If you have read this essay by Maritain, you are likely most familiar with the final section, dedicated to the notion of magical signs and “the nocturnal kingdom of the mind.”  In this latter section, Maritain is interested in developing the notion of functional “state” / “status” in order to provide a kind of epistemology of the human mind in a more primitive state, where the imagination (and cogitative power and memory) play a more emphatic role in the elaboration of knowledge than in a civilization in which abstract intellectual discourse has become culturally diffused.  The section is intended to develop certain themes in Lucien Lévy Bruhl and other authors concerned with questions of anthropology, as well as in Bergson’s Two Sources of Morality and Religion. Although this closing section of Maritain’s essay includes some important points regarding practical signs, I will be focusing on his earlier remarks therein, as well as his citations and comments in the end notes to the chapter.

At the start of the essay, Maritain opens with some standard discussion of signs as we find it in John of St. Thomas (Poinsot).  The readers here at the Lyceum are, deeply exposed to this topic, so I’m going to presume that you are at least generally aware of the important general outlines of Poinsot’s semiotics, especially as found in the Material Logic.  If I would point out one additional element, that is rather important here, Maritain notes how the (vicarious) objective causality involved in signs involves a kind of new mode or presence, the presence of knowability: through and in signs, precisely in their role of being signs, that which is signified becomes present, in a new manner of existing (p. 193).  Interesting developments of this theme can be found also in Maritain’s essay on language, found in the latter’s definitive form in the edition put together by Deely.  Through and in signs, other beings are themselves present, though in alio modo esse, through a cognitional (intentional-objective) presence.

Definition of the Practical Sign

Now, what is it that is signified by practical signs?  Action. For our purposes right now: human action involving above all the practical intellect, which judges and commands concerning the order that a human will should and must have in its activity.   Here it is important to note that technically the will plays an important role in constituting practical signs.  (So important is this factor that some, like Bl. Duns Scotus, would even go so far as to say—incorrectly to the Thomist’s eyes—that there are certain relations created by the will.) Nonetheless, insofar as the object of the practical intellect “is a known object, is something to be put into existence, something to be made concrete in action” (p. 195), the will plays a special role in the objectivity of practical signs.  Practical signs are destined to manifest “an intention of the intellect and the will” (197).  In other words, such signs are those which are used by the intellect in practical knowledge—whether artistic or moral—and are those signs which derive from the practical intellect’s activity (p. 197), which is destined, by its very nature, to be the (extrinsic-formal) source of the very intelligibility of the will.

So, practical signs are used by the practical intellect and also derive from its activity.  Thus, everywhere that there is human activity, we could say that the intelligibility of moral reasoning (and technical-artistic reasoning as well…) leaves an entire train of intelligibility in its wake.  You might think, for example, of something as simple as the plants that are sitting in the bay window of my office. They were put together by my mother-in-law for my kids to have something to watch grow as we enter spring this year. Technically, those plants have their own intelligibilities that can be manifested to intellects that are prepared to see such data.  However, we can also understand these plants as calling to mind the moral choice (and command) effected by my mother-in-law.   In other words, the planter (constituted as a kind of “moral whole”) can bring to mind something other than itself: not merely my mother-in-law, not merely other plants, but an act of human moral-intellection and freedom.  And what is more, this kind of sign represents a sort of “invitation” for my own moral intellection: “go and do likewise.”  In other words, we can apprehend the little planter as having a unified moral species, being as it is the embodiment of a past action.  It is not merely a physical specimen.  It is a moral specimen, and it signifies something other than itself, namely a particular kind of beauty-infused generosity toward by children.

Now, in “Sign and Symbol,” Maritain notes both natural-practical signs and conventional ones.  (One cannot help but think of Thomas Reid here, but ultimately Maritain is doing something much more speculatively grounded.)  Natural signs would include, he says, things like “gestures of supplication and command; smiles and glances laden with some intention or other,” etc.. (There are important connections here to what John Deely says, in Introducing Semiotics, about the various “entia rationis” that are formed by animals’ powers of estimation.)   Among conventional signs, Maritain includes “signs employed for the control of traffic or to aid navigation; gestures and formulas for taking oaths; military insignia; religious rites; etc.” (p. 197). (Here too, related topics can be found in Introducing Semiotics, and peppered all throughout Deely’s works.  Moreover, too, there are some examples of interest in the works of sacramental theology by Louis Billot, whose theory of sacramental causality is, however, problematic.)

Causality of the Practical Sign

At this point, however, it is very important not to commit the error that one finds all too often in more-superficial accounts of what practical signs are.  Under pressure from the needs of sacramental theology, especially regarding sacraments in the Christian order (in contrast, for example, to “sacraments of the Old Law”), quicker summaries of the divisions of sign will tend to ambiguously slur together sign-causality (which is “vicarious objective causality”) and efficient causality.  A good example of this can be found in the relatively schematic and sketched-out words of the 16th-17th century Irish-Bohemian Franciscan Friar Francis O’Devlin: “A speculative sign is that which causes its significate [in knowledge], as smoke in relation to fire and words in relation to things.  A practical sign is one that together causes and signifies, as the sacraments in relation to grace” (Philosophia Scoto-Aristotelica Universa [1710, p. 450]).

Or, in a more rigorously structured form, consider the following objection and response in John of St. Thomas’s Cursus theologicus.  In the argument he proposes against his own position, it is denied that the notion of sacrament as such (thus in its broadest acceptation, including more than the sacraments of the New Law) would be a practical sign, for this would seem, the “interlocutor” says, to foist efficient causality even on to sacraments of the Old Law, which, in fact, did not themselves involve efficient causal power. They did not of themselves confer such grace but, instead, merely signified the salvation that was to come in Christ (see ST III, q. 62, a. 6; q. 60, a. 2, ad 2; q. 61, a. 3).  They were be external signs of the internal working of God; however, they were not (according to the Thomist jargon), separated efficient-causal instruments of the Incarnate Word.

We are not here concerned with the details of the scholastic-theological theories of sacramental causality but, instead, with the particular claims regarding practical signs deployed in such debates.  Thus, Poinsot presents to himself this objection:

The notion of practical sign consists precisely in the fact that it brings about what it signifies (efficiat id quod significat).  However, not all sacraments bring about what they signify. Therefore, not all of them are practical signs.  The major premise of this argument is proven as follows: if a practical [sign] does not bring about what it signifies, it is, then to be numbered among speculative signs (invenitur in speculativis signis). Therefore, it is necessary that it involves something more than merely representing what it signifies; now, this additional element is to effect, that is, practically bring about (practicare) and enact (operari) that which it signifies.  Thus, it is necessary that a practical sign bring about what it signifies, for otherwise it is not clear what the notion of “practical” involves in such signs (Cursus theologicus, vol. 9 [Vivès], q. 60, disp. 22, a. 2, no. 116).

To this Poinsot responds, retaining the notion of practical sign for all sacraments, whether of the “law of nature” (outside of the Mosaic Covenant), the “Old Law,” or the “New Law”:

That a practical sign brings about what it signifies must not be understood as referring to physical and productive efficacy in esse (for this is not required for the notion of that which is practical) but rather refers to a quasi-moral efficacy—that is, a causality directing and ordering to an end.   And thus, the fact that a practical sign brings about what it signifies cannot involve something different than what holds true for the practical intellect.  Now, just as the practical intellect does not need to productively bring about something in order that it be practical but, rather, does so, as it were, by ordering and directing (and according to a moral ratio), the same holds true for the sign derived from practical intellection.  Thus, when a given sign is practical, this consists in the fact that it signifies, though not having representation as its end but, rather, sanctification or a holy work (opus sanctitatis).  However, that it bring about what it signifies and have [this] as its end is not of the essence of precisely what it is to be practical sign (non est de essential practice ut practicum est), though it is possible that such causality be found with it (ibid., no. 117).

Pushing the point, however, the objector says that such moral causality must, nonetheless, be in the genus of efficient causality:

A moral cause is truly efficacious.  Now, the practical intellect is concerned with deeds as its end, precisely as a moral cause, for it morally brings about what it signifies.  Therefore, by being practical, it is to be placed in the genus of efficient causality, at least morally.   Thus, just as it is of the essence of the sacrament to be a practical sign, it will also be of the essence of a sacrament to be a cause, and thus placed in the genus of efficient causality, at least moral efficient causality (ibid., no. 118).

In response to this:

Absolutely speaking, it does not belong to the nature of that which is practical that it be the moral cause of its object.  For as St. Thomas says in ST I, q. 14, a. 16, God has, simply speaking, practical knowledge of evils, but is not said to be the moral cause of evil.  Therefore, it suffices that the practical intellect order its object to a given work and not come to its end in knowledge of a reality, having it as its end.  However, it does not require that such ordering function as a cause in the manner of an efficient-causal principal but, rather, as ordering to an end that is a work, whether or not from this fact it is said to cause the latter (ibid. no. 119).

Thus, by way of summary, we might take his remarks earlier in the disputation in question:

The ratio of practical sign merely requires that it signify its significate as something to be given in practice, not by the causality of the sign itself but by the causality of another cause, though signified by this sign. For the ratio of sign merely requires the signifying of causation, not the causing of that which is signified. In other words, it suffices that it signify a reality not precisely so that it be represented or precisely as it is representable [as would be the case in speculative signs] but, instead, as it is caused and given [through practical agency] (ibid., no. 83).


The ratio of practical sign does not come from the fact it would exercise efficacy precisely because of its very nature as a sign (ex ipsa ratione signi), as though it had in itself the power of effecting but, rather, that is ordered to a work as to its principal end, whether this work is brought about by means of a power communicated to the sign itself, or joined to it from without, that is, by means of a disposition by the one who uses it, or something similar, as was explained earlier, especially since it is not of the nature of the practical intellect that it should have efficiency in the external object itself (ibid., no. 43; on the last point, cf. nos. 119–120).

Therefore, the point is clear: efficient causality is one thing, signifying causality is another.  And no matter how much one increases the force of the vicarious objective causality of signs, one will not get, from the causality of signs precisely as signs, a causality belonging to a different genus of causality. Although someone like Louis Billot, SJ had much of interest to indicate regarding the way that practical signs can, for example, bestow particular ranks and functions upon those designated by those signs (cf. Billot, De ecclesiae sacramentis [1914], 66ff), nonetheless, his solution, which posits a kind of half-way house of “intentional” causality seems to buy its sacramental causality on the sly, by trying to fuse together aspects of vicarious objective causality and efficient causality into a kind of hybrid. (On this topic, see Maquart, “De la causalité du signe: Réflexions sur la valeur philosophique d’une explication théologique.”)

Now, all that has been said here is summarized well by Maritain in “Sign and Symbol”:

In order to be practical, the intellect does not need to be drawn outside its proper limits as intellect.  It is within these limits, remaining intellect and without passing over to nervous motor influx that the intellect exercises its practical functions and deserves to be practical.

So also, in order to be practical the sign does not need to be drawn outside its proper limits as sign and thus become an efficient cause.  It is by remaining within the genus proper to signs (formal causality) that it exercises a practical function and deserves to be called practical: as making manifesting not precisely a thing but an intention and a direction of the practical intellect.  It is not as itself causing or operating something that the sign is active; it is as conducting or directing the operation by which the thing signified is produced or caused (Maritain, “Sign and Symbol,” 197).

For the purposes of this “article”, I will leave things here. As I keep writing, I will put together the various sources that are implicit in much of what I have said. There are a number of exegetical, historical, and philosophically speculative issues involved in these matters. They are of pivotal importance for articulating the nature of cultural realities. It is a great disappointment that the topic has not been discussed in any significant detail in the Thomist mainstream. Let us at least hope that those of us who take John Deely as a kind of master will do him the homage of filling out this important aspect of our day-to-day life amid the activity of the semiotic animal that is man.

Note from Dr. Kemple: if you are interested in John Poinsot’s semiotic, sign up for this seminar!

On Signs and Simulations

On 15 March 2023, the Lyceum Institute held a Philosophical Happy Hour on the topic of “simulation hypotheses”.  This essay draws upon the observations offered and explored in that conversation and attempts a synthetic presentation of the collective insights of our community, with the addition of reflection and research by the author.  These Happy Hours are open to the public.

Note that this presentation proceeds in a manner open-ended and dialectic, even as it takes a definitive position.

1. Introduction: A Tired “Question”

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“What if we live in a simulation?”  The question seems almost a joke; a way of lampooning the weed-addled minds of college sophomores or tech billionaires… between which, on questions of philosophy, there seems little difference.  But, although it may induce an eye-roll or a stifled sigh from a professor (especially if coupled with lines from The Matrix), the question has again gained steam, and its continual resurgence (never fully going away in the past quarter-century) should not be ignored.  Intellectual provocateur[1] David Chalmers, in 2022, published a book titled Reality+: Virtual Worlds and the Problems of Philosophy.  As a disclaimer, I have not read (nor do I intend to read) this book.  But I did read the review in The Point written by Alexa Hazel, in which she explores how “XR” (“extended reality”, comprising virtual, augmented, and “mixed”—which latter two terms mostly overlap) gives credence to the belief in such hypotheses.  Books are published every few years which revive the question on the back of some new technology, or study, or a reframing of a position old.  But these are late developments in the contemporary revival of what, in fact, is quite an old question.

For the posit—that, based upon our experience of the world and the discoveries we have made about our own cognition, there may be reasons to believe our perceptual experience inadequately represents, perhaps even falsely represents, what exists independently of our own minds—antedates Nick Bostrom and Rizwan Virk, The Matrix, David Chalmers, Gilbert Harman and his brain in a vat, and even René Descartes and his evil deceiver.  Its roots appear in the mythic consciousness: that is, the consciousness which has not distinguished the intelligible meanings which stand apart from perceptual things and those perceived things themselves; in a consciousness which bifurcates reality into the “present” and the “transcendent” without distinguishing those bifurcated objects.  Some have argued that Plato’s theory of Ideas and their “reflections” (and his Allegory of the Cave) present the same thesis.  One can find the poetic fragments of Parmenides and Heraclitus claiming that either all change, or all sameness, are illusion—the things we perceive either never really change or they are never really the same, but they are nevertheless still just the very things we perceive.  In many non-European cultures, such as the Lakota Sioux, one finds the concept of the Wakan Tanka (Wakanda in closely-related languages) as a “Great Spirit” or “Great Mystery” which is both diffusive through all things and yet not identifiable with them.[2]  Indeed, it seems human beings have always struggled with the nature of reality: that we have perhaps always struggled in our discernment of the real here-and-now-present from the transcendent.

Perhaps this conflation of ancient mythic religious belief, with its lack of any hard and fast distinction between the transcendent really real and the immanent unreal appearances of things, and modern technological simulation hypotheses, with their absolute division of the neurologically or otherwise simulated fakes and the non-simulated extramental real, seems an unsuitable confusion or a false parallel.  For the mythic seems to hold, perhaps, to a division, but one of the spiritual and the corporeal, or of the diffuse transcendent real and the concretized illusory unreal.  Conversely, is it not the claim of simulation hypotheses, in all their varieties—whether local and time-constrained (as, e.g., The Matrix) or global and with respect to all extra-mental being (Descartes’ evil deceiver)—that what we perceive is not at all the really real, and that, behind or outside of this, there stands a true or fundamental and non-simulated reality—where the appearance of things and the things themselves are the same?

Certainly.  And, as we will show in conclusion, between this posit and the mythic consciousness there stands not a dime of difference.  To illustrate this closeness between the two, we will show that simulation hypotheses always fail in two regards.  First, there are no good arguments for it.  The arguments which are given typically fall into two categories: one, statistical probabilities, and two, simulations of the gaps.  The statistical probability arguments hold that, given our advances in virtual simulations of the real, it seems more probable that a wholly-convincing simulation will be developed than that it will not, and that, since it seems more probable that it will than it will not, it seems more probable that it already has.  And so, too, it was argued, it seems probable than an infinite number of monkeys with an infinite number of typewriters will produce the works of Shakespeare—but they never would.  By “simulations of the gaps”, I am alluding of course to a “God of the gaps” argument, which claims that the unexplained phenomena of our experience are evidence of God, which has always been a terrible argument and not in need of repudiation (if your only argument for something is that it fills a gap where no explanation is yet found, you are not demonstrating anything other than your own poor facility of reasoning).[3]

Those arguments based upon statistical probabilities, however, may and likely do confuse many.  I have, after all, heard the monkeys-on-typewriters line even from reasonably intelligent persons, despite it being an unintelligent claim.  But, just as with the monkeys, statistical-probability-based claims for simulation hypotheses mistake large numbers for explanatory causes.  By examining (albeit relatively briefly) how we are able to experience anything, based upon the causes that we do know and the causes of our knowledge, we will show why such hypotheses are nonsensical to hold—and, ultimately, why it amounts to another form of mythic belief.

Before we enter into this particular demonstration, however, it is important that we undertake consideration of two necessary preliminaries: first, the meaning of “real” and its opposed derivatives (2); and second, why these simulation hypotheses have gained again in popularity and whether they are even accurately named (3 and 4).  Subsequently, we will lay the semiotic groundwork for a refutation of the only “meaningful” argument for simulation hypotheses (5), and conclude by showing the sameness between this belief and one lost to myth (6).

2. Varieties of Unreality

In the 1960s, Umberto Eco—noted novelist and semiotician—toured the United States for the first time.  Resulting from this tour was the long essay, “Il custome di casa” or “Faith in Fakes”, in which Eco characterized the culture of the U.S. as obsessed with simulacra: not the things themselves, but the ability to create representations of them which are every bit as “real” to us, and most especially those representations which are of something other which others are themselves not.  For example: “This is a photograph of Mickey Mouse”—but there is no Mickey Mouse.  He is not real.  But we have representations of “him”.

Eco’s essay was later retitled and retooled (with details from further, later visits and observations) in an English translation as “Travels in Hyperreality” picking up the term “hyperreal” from Jean Baudrillard’s 1981 book, Simulacra and Simulacrum.  Baudrillard defines the hyperreal as “the generation by models of a real without origin or reality”,[4] which is to say, a fiction treated as though constrained by rules of a reality that themselves are not found in the reality we factually inhabit.  We see this continued obsession with the hyperreal today in concepts such as “the Star Wars Universe” or “the Marvel Cinematic Universe”, flights of escapist fancy into the fictive worlds of J.R.R. Tolkien or J.K. Rowling, immersions into “gaming lives” that bear little-to-no relation to the life lived in the physical body, and so on.  These may have some correspondence to the reality which we know—galaxies, earth, mountains and rivers, rational and irrational creatures alike—but those are incidental backgrounds, at most, to the specifically hyperreal quality of these fantasies.

But can we understand what truly is meant by the hyperreal if we do not understand what is meant by the real?

Behind the ostensible sameness in terminology and even examples characterizing Eco’s and Baudrillard’s discussion of the “hyperreal” stands a profound difference.  Shaping Baudrillard’s thought is the mold of Jacques Lacan; that of Eco, an admixture of Aquinas, Ferdinand de Saussure, and Charles Sanders Peirce.  For Lacan and his followers, “the real” designates something always outside our grasp; for in grasping it, we subjectivize, internalize, culturize whatever it is that is so grasped.  Even the term “real”, for Lacan (and Baudrillard by extension) is not really a representation of the real itself, but only our bastardized way of negatively representing that perpetually “other”.  Contrariwise, for Eco—with whom I disagree on no shortage of issues or points but fundamentally agree on this—the real is incompletely and imperfectly accessed, but accessed nonetheless.  Thus, for Baudrillard, the hyperreal cannot really be opposed to a true cognition-independent reality, but is the necessary and inescapable fictive domain into which we are increasingly drawn, as we become increasingly distanced from any realization of the encircling horizonal “real”.[5]  The linguistically-signified stands presupposed in opposition to the real, as what is outside of and irreducible to language; language, through its symbols, creates a fictive hyperreal that substitutes for and expands beyond the resisting horizonal embrace of the irreducible real.  It is meaningless, for Baudrillard to call the hyperreal “fake”, because we can grasp a fake only as failing to be the real.  Distinctions of “fake” and “real”—already losing their own proper character simply through being articulated in that distinction—disappear all-but-entirely under the auspices of the hyperreal.[6]

To pivot back to Eco, however, and more generally the semiotic tradition which he represents, the “real” is not inaccessible and fakes are or can be meaningfully distinguished from what is genuine.  Much of Eco’s literary career was premised upon the very real nature of this distinction between the genuine and the fake, and the very real way in which people have failed to distinguish between the two.[7]  Our confusion about what is real, or genuine, and what is unreal, or fake, has spread like a virus in the wake of modern communication technologies—not, I believe, because of a technological determinism, but rather because of the way in which we have immersed ourselves in technological environments without careful observation of how this has modified our relationship with language itself.  Consider, for instance, the way in which we use “real” and “genuine” as synonyms.  Is this a thoughtful use of language?  Does this obscure the meanings of “real”, of “genuine”?

We will back our way into this question by thinking about other varieties of the “unreal”: namely, those belonging to “extended reality”.  Virtual reality (VR) aims to displace the user’s experience of the environment with one simulated.  Augmented and “mixed” realities (condensed here into AR) generally aim, instead, at either overlaying the “real” perceptual environment with additional information or at negating some element of perception, usually to heighten or sharpen focus on some other.  The (in)famous Google Glass would be an example of the former; noise-cancelling headphones or earbuds, the latter.  Would it make sense to describe these “extensions” as “extensions of the genuine”?  They claim to extend “reality”.  How?  What is it that is being “extended”?  AR technologies modify the objects given to perception.  VR technologies provide their own particular objects for perception.  Does this mean that perception is reality?  A host of other questions follows—but let us keep ourselves focused.  Are we extending reality itself or are we modifying our perception of it?

Do we know what “real” means?

3. Motives behind Positing a Simulation Hypothesis

The hesitation many have in answering this question, it strikes me, reveals something important in the thinking behind simulation hypotheses.  We will return to the meaning of “reality” below (in a sense, throughout).  But first, let it be stated that, during our discussion at the Lyceum, one of the younger members stated that, of his own generation, “nobody is prepared for reality”.  In other words, the kids—18, 20, 25 years old—cannot handle themselves in the world.  They are reliant upon buffers between themselves and any potential difficulty: parents, the internet, smartphones; the safe mediations of screens and simulations, pretend worlds and anonymous IDs.  They put off the yoke of personal responsibility often, if not always, and take it upon themselves as seldom as possible.

Many see in this lacking preparation for the world a fault of education, and rightly so, but the fault is incorrectly placed at the doorsteps of our institutions—they are sadly far downstream of the problem.  How is that an entire generation, or two, or three, have not been able to handle reality (whatever it is that we mean by that)?  Are they prepared to handle something else?  To handle anything?  Increasingly, it appears, the hyperreal alone stands within their competence, and, increasingly, that hyperreal moves farther away from the true real—instead, into a fantasy irreconcilable with nature, increasingly toward virtual reality.[8]

Defending this thesis—that recent generations’ technological use has resulted in an environment of expanding hyperreality to obscuring the discovery of the real—goes far beyond this brief essay (requiring at least a book).  But in short, we may point to one particular historical event through which the immersion in fantasy, and abstraction of the person from true reality, became the norm: the advent of the smartphone.  For with computers, be they desktops or laptops, use has a fixed locale and purpose.  To take a laptop with you in the early 2000s meant you had an intent for it, a purpose to which you were going to fix it and yourself—even if that purpose was only to make yourself appear invested in something serious, sitting at a Starbucks… while surreptitiously re-arranging the order of your “top friends” on MySpace.  The computer is something you go into or out of.  One enters and exits the environing digital space.  One puts the computer to sleep.

The smartphone remains ever vigilant, ever attached, ever ready to receive us, to envelope us.  We never really leave it: so often in arms reach; so seldom, if ever, turned off.  We put them in our pockets, close to our bodies.  We set them on our nightstands and charge them, leaving them on, so they can be accessed in a split second.  To make a long story short, in consequence… nobody is prepared for reality.  We live currently in the hyperreality of an inhuman digital sphere.  Perhaps, we seek, we desire that ever-more-encompassing digital hyperreal because we, not knowing what reality is outside that comprise, fear this unknown.

Avoidance of reality does not newly characterize human activity. It always has.  Our own age distinguishes itself in this regard, however, by having made it the easiest thing one can possibly do (and, moreover, by rejecting those truths about ourselves that make reality accessible and intelligible to us).  In a matter of seconds, I can saturate my eyes and my mind with images of exotic, distant locales, news of events far more interesting than those surrounding my own physical being, with curated images of pleasure bearing for me no immediate or evident complications.  I can nourish fantasies sexual and violent—not only through the smartphone, but through the ways in which all technological devices (televisions, gaming consoles, PCs, laptops, tablets) now seek to draw their users deeper and deeper into an ever-more-convincing unreality.  In the words of Umberto Eco, “Absolute unreality is offered as a real presence.”[9]

Nobody is prepared for reality.  They prefer the simulation, the accepted real presence of the unreal for which they are not only prepared, but eager—perhaps desperate.  They are prepared, eager, desperate for the illusion of self-determination.

4. What is a Simulation?

Of course, preparation (and indeed eagerness) for something requires knowledge of that for which we are to be prepared.  Thus, we must ask the question, what is a simulation?  This also requires that we return to the question: what is meant by the word “reality”?  Again, we exceed the bounds of this essay.[10]  In short, however, most people by the term mean something (as pointed out by one of our Faculty Fellows) along the lines of “what can be empirically observed, measured, and recorded as an ‘objective fact’”.  The “real” stands independent of opinion or “subjectivity”.  To this we contrast the imagined, the fictive, the opinionative—the simulation, the “virtual”.  As someone else pointed out—and it is worth noting here to be retrieved farther on—“virtual” comes from the same root as “virtue”.

We will come back to this.  First, we must recognize that with every hypothesis of simulation, the one positing the hypothesis presupposes some reality which is both extrinsic to and even somehow causal of the simulation itself, and usually this “reality” is presupposed in the sense just mentioned.  That is, to be a simulation is to be a likeness of something else, and something presumed to be discoverable by the means with which we encounter things having a mind-independent existence of themselves.  If we live within a simulation, it is a simulation either of something alike to that in which we believe ourselves to live—the “reality” which our simulation models”—or it is a likeness creatively constituted by some mind “outside” the simulation, i.e., a likeness to the ideas of that mind.  And so even if is technologically-mediated, existence with a simulation stands possible only on the presupposition of some mind from which the ideas, the meaning which we ourselves experience, must have come.  Of course, we then must ask: where did that mind get its own ideas?  What if those, too, are from within a “simulation”—and so on, ad infinitum?  Then the whole chain becomes irrational and the idea unintelligible (since it never resolves into anything “first” which sets the chain causally in motion).[11]

But let us suppose, in order that we might face a cogent situation, that there exists some “reality” beyond the veil of the simulation, a reality itself non-simulated, within which we are circumscribed.  How is the simulation delivered?  We know that we ourselves exist (as Descartes correctly noted, even if he incorrectly made it the starting point of his philosophy) by the fact that we experience ourselves thinking.  Are these thoughts bound somehow to the localized brain we believe ourselves to have?  Is there a brain being stimulated somehow?  If there is not—if we, whatever we are, do not exist at all as the beings we imagine ourselves to be—then there is nothing that can be said at all; we can only discuss something of which we have experience.  If the “real” is entirely unlike anything we know, then we cannot say anything about even what it might be—not even by analogy.  We might as well deny the law of non-contradiction.  But if the “simulated objects” somehow represent the “real” which exists “out there”, would it not be more accurate to call the hypothesis one of stimulation, as one of our conversation participants rightly suggested?

The technology for such deceptive stimulation, doubtless, is possible.  Even without intrusive or direct neurological stimulation, it has been reported by heavy users of virtual reality (VR) technology that they experience moments of confusion about which “world” they are inhabiting, or whether their memories are of things that happened in the “real” or the virtual “worlds”.  What does it mean to call a world virtual?  Modern parlance uses the term to signify the “fake” which nevertheless strives to present itself as close to the “real” (or “genuine”) as possible.  “Virtual reality” therefore means: it is not real, but it has the perceptual force of the real—as close as we can make it, at least.  The roots of this meaning consist in a certain conflation between two senses of the term.  On the one hand, “virtual” has long signified (1) the ability of something to produce alike to another in effect despite a difference of form (in the way that Thomas Aquinas says the faculties of the animal soul are virtually contained in the human); on the other, it has also been used (2) to signify what has a sameness in form—as, for instance, in a representation—despite the absence of its actual efficacy.[12]  The first definition posits the virtual as something substitutive in efficacy but not form; the second, as substitutive in form but not efficacy.

In the immersive VR simulation, forms present perceptually what has no efficacy of itself, since it does not have existence except as a representation of something other.  Yet the more intense the immersion, it appears, the more the mind will forget this absence of efficacy and fail to judge correctly concerning the existence of the virtually-presented.  Thus, in the cognitive-world of the VR-immersed individual, the two meanings of “virtual” converge: the objects have no existence and no efficacy of themselves—they are not things of themselves—but because they are convincingly-enough presented in perceptual form, as objects they (1) take on the efficacy of things, despite the absence (2) of the cognition-independent formal actuality of what they represent.

This convergence of the two senses of the virtual gives credence to the belief that we can be thoroughly deceived about the real.  Could we create a digital environment where the perceptually-presented objects are so well-presented that they appear to the individual as indistinguishable from the mind-independent entities of which they are simulacra?  Could a machine, by stimulative control over the brain, wholly determine the experience produced for a human being—could we be so immersed in this convergent virtuality that we have no recourse to the cognition-independent real?

Many would answer yes.  But this belief presupposes as a given something not, in fact, true: namely, neurological reductionism (or “neuroreductionism”).  The neuroreductivist thesis holds all human consciousness or conscious experience to consist in nothing more than the neurochemical interactions occurring within the brain (and, perhaps, its related systems), which somehow (it has not been explained, merely handwaved at with the words “emergence” and “complexity”) give rise to the quality-laden experiences we have.[13]  By manipulation of signals alike to those that the human body uses in such neurological communication, it has been convincingly demonstrated that we can simulate various stimulations: send the right signal to the brain, and a person may believe his hand is on fire, even if it is not.  But does this mean that the human experience of burning consists in nothing more than such neurological stimulation?  Does the human experience of burning reduce to naught but the fact of its occurrence?

Of course not.  That anyone would believe so shows just how badly we have lost and forgotten ourselves.

5. Recovering the Signs of Meaning

We have already been living in an immersive simulation for quite some time: not one produced by skillfully-crafted neurological deceptions as to the virtual presence of objects falsely believed efficacious as though actual things themselves, but one propagated rather by the pervasion of false understandings, most especially about what we ourselves are, and exacerbated by our recent technological innovations.  Immersive digitally-constituted “virtual reality” environments become convincing to their users—that is, confusing them about what is or is not real—because they choose to remain and simulate interactions within them.  But as we noted above, many find the immersive simulated unreality preferable, at least in idea, just as they indulge themselves in the hyperreal, precisely because it is easier and less threatening; it gives the illusion of control, or at least, of burdening the individual with no responsibility.  If we wish to understand why arguments that we live in a simulated environment find adherents or are entertained so readily, we cannot ignore the contemporary weakness of the will.  It can further be argued that the atrophy of the will follows itself in the wake of a cosmological despair, a despair that the universe lacks any meaning but that which we give it ourselves (as argued in the Aquinas’ Cosmological Vision seminar).  Though I cannot enter into the full exposition here, I believe this lost sense of meaning and the immersion into simulations of our own fantasizing creations has brought many within our culture to the brink of psychosis.  Such bordering upon psychosis has resulted in a profound inability to know one’s own self, a forgetting of the self.[14]

Affecting a recovery of our sense for meaning (and perhaps changing the conditions under which such psychoses stand so close) requires not only repudiation of modernity’s falsehoods—most especially but not limited to that which presupposes a division between the “subjective” and “objective”, that which unquestioningly accepts the “external world” as meaningfully divided in experience from the “mental existence” we ascribe to ourselves—but a deepened understanding of what knowledge is (4.1), how we gain it (4.2), and how we share it (4.3).  Here, we find semiotics provides a wealth of resources for affecting a synthesis of recovery (particularly of the pre-modern Latin-age way of looking at the world) and deepening our understanding.  We can here, of course, give only a condensed hint of this synthesis. 

These next few sections will be dense; those who wish to jump to the conclusion (5) can do so with this simple line: one can simulate an object, but one cannot simulate a sign-relation.  Anyone looking, on the other hand, for a primer in semiotics can find one in the lecture given here.  The heart of semiotic inquiry consists in recursive reflection upon the convictions of thought through which we direct our actions.  It does not fear making but seeks rather to correct continually whatever errors arise in our thinking.

Error in theory not subject to a process of reflection and revision leads, sooner or later, to incoherent ways of acting.  One such incoherence, relevant to the forgotten self here under discussion, follows from materialist reductionism, including that of the neurological variety: namely, that it retains as necessary for the purposes of communication (even among its most hardcore adherents) language that signifies realities of experience irreducible to the material.  Put in other words, even in denying the reality of anything but the material, the materialist functions as a de facto dualist.  The de facto dualist, proclaiming himself a materialist, continually uses sign-vehicles believed to identify a fiction.

But this incoherence consists not only in relying upon a non-material realm of objects signified despite denying their possibility; for dualism itself is an incoherent thesis.  We cannot reconcile our experience by invoking only the material, nor can we do so by splitting it in two.  Neither theory accounts for a unified whole of life, nor even of knowledge.  What sense does it make to say that someone—a subject­—can know “empirical and objective fact”?  If all things subjective are not fact, how does this knowledge of the “objective” enter infallibly into the “subject”?  In what way would this “knowledge” exist outside the subject, since it has meaning only for a subject?  Thus, the tacit and oft-unquestioning acceptance of both materialism and dualism has led to a divided—no, a fragmented—way of living. 

Removing ourselves from this fragmentary way of life proves no easy task, for this fragmentation has divaricated throughout that fantasy-world for which alone generations today are prepared.  But the principal step consists in recollecting what we are, and here we use the word “recollect” with a deliberate twofold meaning: to remember but also to collect-together-again the shattered parts of the human experience.[15]  Most pressingly for our own purposes in this essay, we must attend to the unity of human knowledge, and specifically by the unifying nature of signs.[16]  Here we can give only a sketch of these thoughts, with the hope of developing them further in a planned book.

5.1. Recollecting knowledge of reality

To know: a verb used throughout history, across cultures, and expressed in diverse languages, to signify not only something shared among all animals, but something distinctly human.  Do we know what it means—to know?  It should strike us as an irony, no doubt, that many people are confident they possess knowledge but lack any confidence that they know what it means to know, or what knowledge is.[17]

Briefly, however, to give a primer on the meaning of “to know” according to the Aristotelian-Thomistic tradition: it is an act or an operation that belongs within a larger genus of actions: namely, cognition.  Sense-perceptual grasp and evaluation of objects, as possessed by every animal, qualify as cognition, but not as knowledge.  Knowledge, rather, pertains specifically to the intellectual grasp and judgment concerning objects.  This intellectual grasp consists in a certain distinction of the meaning of the object from the particular object itself.  Put otherwise, in its operations of knowledge, the human intellect seeks the discovery and understanding of what is: the irreducible object of intelligible meaning which can be grasped by the mind but which intelligibility—even if constituted into existence somehow by the mind—is irreducible to that mind.[18]

This is a point difficult to grasp.  But what it helps us here to see, in short, is that knowledge consists in a certain unity between the knower and the object known, which object known is really other than the knower, even if it exists only because of the knower.  The otherness of the object allows it to be shared; that is, the object, because it is always other, remains always communicable (to which we will return below in 4.3).  But what allows there to be an object at all is the sign, which is not merely the intermediary which affects the relation, but which is the irreducibly triadic relation itself.   The object, not being the knower, must be united to the knower somehow, and it is through the relation affected by the sign-vehicle that this union comes to be (as will be diligently explained in this seminar).

The intelligible object—that is, the irreducible object of intelligible meaning, which is what it is always, regardless even of whether it is—as grasped through sign-relations is an object about which we cannot ever be mistaken.  We can be mistaken, and very often are, in conjoining and dividing this intelligibility with and from other intelligible objects, or in judging it to exist or not in one or another situation.  But the grasp of the intelligibility remains with us always and infallibly.  I might be deceived as to whether my hand is on fire—but that stimulation does not deceive me as to what fire is, even if fire does not exist independently of some simulation of it.  This meaning, which is the proper object of knowledge, defies reduction to any number or complex arrangement of stimulations; for stimulation consists in naught but the constitution of the material elements of a sign-vehicle—which material elements are themselves inadequate to explain the grasp of objects themselves irreducible to any quantity of material representations.  That which I understand intellectually by the word “fire” can never be exhausted by any number of particular flames, nor by any complexity of neurological stimulations.  The intentional dimension of knowledge defies materialist reductionism; this, of course, does not deny the possibility that our experience is or could be simulated.  But it does mean that the simulation does not exhaust our experience, for the simulation cannot be causal of everything present to us by the apparently simulated objects.

Or, to put this otherwise: knowledge consists in a union of the knower and the known.  This relation of unity—an intentional unity—as known in reflection is an object which could not be simulated.  The object known, as a universal intelligibility not constituted by simulations (which are always particular), exists as real, regardless of whether it exists as this or that particular.  But what reasons are there to believe that this intelligible real has no connection to the sensible encounter with the world that we all experience?

5.2. Recollecting discovery of reality

“There is nothing in the intellect that was not originally in the senses”—this, for Thomists (and Aristotelians generally) can become something of a maxim unquestioned as to its meaning; but it remains true nonetheless.  Even the ideas of objects we have which are understood as far removed from the corporeal—ideas such as God, angels, truth, salvation—originate from our sense experience.  Yet today the very notion of sensation has become confused for many, for it is believed something that occurs in the brain, to which occurrence the sense organs are merely extrinsic instruments.  As I have written elsewhere:[19]

[those who take the neurologically-reductionistic view of sensation hold that sensation] is not a real experience of the extramental at all, but only the body’s response to various kinds of stimulation: such that, by sublimating the ordinary causes of such stimulation we can produce precisely the same effects in the brain, thereby causing people to have experience of things which are not there.

This thesis presents several errors wrapped into one.  For one, it conflates… sensation and perception.  For another, it seems an inheritor of the error in modern treatments of sense objects… But perhaps most fundamentally, it seems to beg the question of the reality of relations [or, we might say, their unreality]: that is, it presumes relations between the sensed objects and the experience of sensation are not real, but only some physical contact, and that if one can produce the same effect without that contact—by an alternative stimulation—there is no real difference in the one sensing, unless he tries to operate on that sensation as though there were an object “out there” in the world.  This is incorrect as pertains to the functioning of the brain, as a matter of fact: since the stimulation only evokes objects somehow already retained in the brain, and thus already somehow experienced.  But more fundamentally, it mistakes representation for sensation.  Someone can hallucinate—have represented through the neurological structures responsible for sight, for instance, a tiger sitting on the couch—and know that there is no tiger there.  But what is signified by the very word sensation is that relation to an external object impressing itself somehow upon the organs of sensory reception.

We may deceive the brain by stimulating it to the representation of something it has encountered already.  Can we deceive the brain into believing it is forming a sensation from the very beginning?  No experiments have been performed to suggest this is possible; nor, do I think, it would be considered ethical to perform such experiments.[20]  And so it is important to ask: just what are we really stimulating?  I, for one, do not know; and I suspect that many, most, or perhaps even all others—even those who successfully design and carry out experiments which show an ability to convince persons they are having sensations which they are not—do not truly know either.

Perhaps most importantly, however, we can recognize that most of what we call our sense experience consists not merely in sensation—that is, the relation to the external object which impresses itself somehow upon our organs—but perception: that which collates, evaluates, and patterns the objects in relation to each other and to the self.  My experience of sensory objects almost never consists in sensation alone.  I would have a hard time describing even what that would be.[21]  I do not grasp “green-sense-item” and “black-sense-item” and chirp-chirp-chirp, but the colors of my water glass and my desk, and the sound of a bird.  Even if I do not put names to these things, I put evaluations to them.  The green is neutral, the black is pleasing, and the bird is, frankly, a little bit annoying.  The neutral green and pleasing black are in front of me; the annoying bird, to my left.  Even if I am hallucinating the particular chirp-chirp-chirp, the annoyance at the noise remains quite real.

Could the annoyance be simulated?  Perhaps.  But that is not the point.

Rather, the point is this: I do not discover things “out there” that I then subsequently store away “inside” my mind.  I experience things-in-relation; never just things-pure-and-simple.  The thing which I sense, if I experience it at all, is mediated by my own cognitive being; by the faculties which turn that sensory experience into a sign-vehicle of perceptual awareness.  To quote C.W. Spinks, “all reality, for sign users, is mediated; that is, reality is already virtual.”[22]  The distinct atomization of those sensory experiences into green, black, bird-call comes only after we have distinguished the things-signified from the relations-of-signification—a distinction which can be made only with intellectual awareness.  When we divorce these intellectual objects from their perceptual genesis—primarily by inverting the meaning into something subjective instead of something relational—we cause the connection between our intellectual and perceptual modes of awareness (and our reflexive awareness of this connection itself) to wither.[23]  If we do not recognize that the intellectually-grasped meanings are signs of the things from which the meanings were derived (not exclusively of them, but of them and those alike to them), then we do not properly understand the meanings.  I know green as what pertains to the color of the glass, but also of the book cover, and the pine needles still attached to the trees (the only outdoor green visible to me in these the waning days of winter).  The greens are not the same; but “green” names each as present in their relations to me.

Can we simulate, stimulate, that relation?  The sense-perceptual relation, that is, consists in the presence of the sensory object to the cognitive apparatus through which we govern our interactions with the perceptual environment.  Even in a virtual reality simulation, the relation to the object is real, even if the object itself is not a thing-in-itself; but as an object, it still possesses a reality, one socially and digitally constituted, which remains the terminus of a relation itself non-simulated.  Even if we misjudge the nature of that relation as being “real” in a way which it is not, it remains truly a relation.

So what is it, again, that we are simulating?  After all, does not even the idea of a simulation hypothesis enter our minds through some aspect of reflecting upon our sense experience?

5.3. Recollecting our shared reality

At this point, we have a choice.  We can believe that this “naming” which we experience and that we believe ourselves to experience sharing in with others exists all as a fiction in our own minds—produced by something unknown, fabricated by a really real we can never touch—or we can believe that these words name realities for others, as well, and that somehow we experience them together; that our experience of these intelligible realities sense-perceptually grasped does not consist in the radical subjective individuality of us each, but that their encounter unfolds in a shared world of experience. I can believe that something other, an unknown, unknowable cause, produces a fiction for reasons I cannot understand, such that you are something of which I cannot be at all certain; or I can believe that sensation conveys to me objects that I grasp intellectually and express linguistically, and that these objects and linguistic conveyances exist in a shared, public reality really represented thereby. 

One of these beliefs, as well-noted by yet another member, fails adherence to the principle of parsimony (better known, unfairly, as “Ockham’s razor”)—that is, not to propound causes beyond what appears necessary to explain the phenomenon in question.  One can derive, further, no meaningful conclusions from it: an unknown and in principle unknowable cause produces a world so convincing that we cannot know whether or not we have ever touched “base reality”.  It is as airtight a thesis, and as unfalsifiable, and as absurd, as solipsism.  Funnily enough, if you slap a simulationist and claim that it did not really happen—just as with a solipsist—he will not likely behave as though accepting of your claim.  Especially not if you slap him a second time.[24]

And herein lies the crux of the issue: a simulation-by-stimulation might deceive us into thinking that there exists some object which, in fact, does not; or that the object possesses attributes or properties which it does not.  But it cannot produce nor detract intelligible meaning from those objects.  It is in relation to these intelligible meanings that our actions are rendered properly human and upon which we base all of our subsequent human actions.

Do we share in these intelligible meanings—regardless, even, of whether they are instantiated in physical being?  There exists no United States of America, independent of thought; nor a boundary between the United States of America and those of Mexico; nor between New York and Pennsylvania—nor even a New York, nor an old.  We may append the meaning of these terms to geography, but that geography does not determine their boundaries, else they would never have changed.  I may speak of maple trees, or pine, and though every maple and pine disappear off the face of the earth tomorrow, you will still know (at least vaguely) what I mean.

That we are primed to believe in really quite an absurd hypothesis—a simulation of whatever variety—stems I believe from a forgottenness of just how relationally-pervaded our experience is; a forgottenness in the sense of Heidegger’s Vergessenheit/Vergessung, a forgottenness which “obliviates” the notion from our conscious awareness.  The fictive hyperreality of our digitally-mediated experience accelerates this forgottenness.

Umberto Eco and Jean Baudrillard, albeit in rather different ways, posit the hyperreal as a kind of unreality, and often, indeed, it is.  But a more recent semiotician, Farouk Y. Seif, offers an alternative view:[25]

Hyperreality is not unreal, but quite the opposite; it is, one might say, a generous semiotic realization of the real, which again, according to Baudrillard, is more real than the real itself… Ontologically, the world has been, and forever will be, woven out of the constant integration of reality and hyperreality.  It is unjustifiable to claim that either side of this polarity takes precedence over the other.  This paradoxical understanding makes sense of the everlasting tension between reality and hyperreality.

Though I do not fully agree with Seif, he has here an important point: namely, that most of what we might call the hyperreal belongs, simply, to that through which we constitute our cultures.  But culture can be deviant, as the present hyperreality of that in the Western world so amply proves.  A hyperreal divorced from or contrary to nature becomes one perverse.  Recall the earlier point concerning the convergent meanings of “virtual” in our present struggle with VR: we now have a substitution of form in possession of efficacy precisely because we invest the object with belief in its (un)reality.  As the totality of the “extended real” becomes all the more encompassing, we increasingly lose awareness of the terminal object’s nature; we fail progressively in distinguishing what belongs to it from itself and what belongs to it from some cognition-dependent appendage, especially as we subjectivize the meaning of those cognition-dependent predicates.

6. Conclusion: Putting the “Question” to Bed

As two participants together articulated in our conversation, the complete subordination of the intellect to purposes of practical intent, veering away from a speculative inquiry into what things are, prevents the person from seeing beyond the superficial.  Yet even the sleepiest of human intellects recognizes that there exists more to reality than what the senses grasp.  If the intellect bends all its intent toward mastery of that which appears, the hypotheses concerning whatever there might be of reality “beyond the veil” tends to model it strictly in terms of an anthropomorphic avarice for control.

In a brilliant essay of 1971, titled “Myth as Integral Objectivity”, John Deely describes myth as “a proposition or set of propositions considered precisely from the standpoint of its success in social existence, regardless of its truth, or more exactly, in spite of its more or less indeterminate truth-status at the time of its social acceptance.”[26]  Is it possible that an infinite number of monkeys given an infinite number of typewriters could produce the works of Shakespeare?  Yes.  Is it necessary?  Not at all.  It is also possible, after all, that an infinite set of an infinite number of monkeys with an infinite number of typewriters that one would have nothing more than an “infinite” amount of feces flung.  We cannot disprove that the monkeys might produce Othello, syllable for syllable.  We also cannot disprove that human beings, or some other intelligence, would create a simulation perfectly convincing that the user exists in some reality; but the idea that it is necessary that such would, will, or already has occurred is as false as believing that Bobo the Chimp will write Iago’s soliloquies.

For necessity follows from causality, from something which belongs to the nature of the cause.  We human beings—intelligent creatures generally—have no need to produce virtual realities or simulations.  Our cognition, as we experience it, always consists in a kind of twofold indeterminacy.[27]  We may always add to, develop, and build up our concepts in different ways; and we may always ourselves as cognitive beings individually and societally develop and change in ways not constrained by necessity.  Such belongs to our very nature as cognitive entities; to what we are.

The belief that all we experience as “reality” is only an illusion behind which there stands some cause to which we cannot penetrate may be a very socially successful proposition; it certainly promotes a lot of research into technology and neuroreductivist approaches to study of the human being.  Ignoring what we truly are, in favor of the practical possibilities of determining who we wish to be, or how—the myth of the simulation hypothesis carries this quite effectively.

In the introduction and conclusion, you will note, I have put the word “question” in scare-quotes.  “What if we live in a simulation?”  No one truly asks this, because it cannot be refuted.  To answer affirmatively does require, however, that we deny our knowledge of anything, including our ability to know.  Absurd.  And socially successful.

[1] Let’s be honest: this is nothing but a polite euphemism for “sophist”.

[2] Cf. Cassirer 1925: Sprach & Mythos, 67: “apart from any category of personal being, which is never really strictly applicable, even the mere concept of a thing with independent, substantial existence is too rigid to render the fleeting, elusive idea that is here to be grasped.”

[3] E.g., Rizwan Virk 2019: The Simulation Hypothesis: “…the simulation hypothesis provides a better explanation for many of the strange phenomena that science hasn’t been able to explain: How and why does quantum indeterminacy exist?  What happens to consciousness after we die?  Can consciousness be transferred?  How are time and space related?  Are they quantized?  Why do light and electromagnetic phenomena play such a central role in physics?  If nonhuman intelligences such as angels exist, where are they located?  The simulation hypothesis can even provide an explanation for aspects of reality that have mystified scientists, ranging from psychic phenomena to UFOs and synchronicity.”

[4] 1981: Simulacres et Simulation, 2.

[5] Cf. Lacan 1964: Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis: The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book XI, translated by Alan Sheridan, 49: “The subject in himself, the recalling of his biography, all this goes only to a certain limit, which is known as the real.  If I wished to make a Spinozian formula concerning what is at issue, I would say—cogito adequate semper vitat eandem rem.  An adequate thought, qua thought, at the level at which we are, always avoids—if only to find itself again later in everything—the same thing.  Here, the real is that which always comes back to the same place—to the place where the subject in so far as he thinks, where the res cogitans, does not meet it.”  See also the translator’s note, 279–80.  Baudrillard 1981: Simulacres et Simulation, 2-3: “By crossing into a space whose curvature is no longer that of the real, nor that of truth, the era of simulation is inaugurated by a liquidation of all referentials—worse: with their artificial resurrection in the system of signs, a material more malleable than meaning, in all that it lends itself to all systems of equivalences, to all binary oppositions, to all combinatory algebra.  It is no longer a question of imitation, nor duplication, nor even parody.  It is a question of substituting the signs of the real for the real, that is to say of an operation of deterring every real process via its operational double, a programmatic, metastable, perfectly descriptive machine that offers all the signs of the real and short-circuits all its vicissitudes.  Never again will the real have the chance to produce itself—such is the vital function of the model in a system of death, or rather of anticipated resurrection, that no longer even gives the event of death a chance.  A hyperreal henceforth sheltered from the imaginary, and from any distinction between the real and the imaginary, leaving room only for the orbital recurrence of models and for the simulated generation of differences.”  It is important to note that Lacan distinguishes between “the real” and “reality”, but such distinction, I would argue, dissipates into something meaningless for us, with the “unreal” nature of our cognition and cognition-dependent ability to communicate.

[6] Cf. Baudrillard 1981: Simulacres et Simulation, 126: “That is simulation: not that the factories are fake, but precisely that they are real, hyperreal, and that because of this they return all ‘real’ production, that of ‘serious’ factories, to the same hyperreality.  What is fascinating here is not the opposition between real factories and fake factories, but on the contrary the lack of distinction between the two, the fact that all the rest of production has no greater referent or deeper finality than this ‘simulacral’ business.  It is this hyperreal indifference that constitutes the real ‘science-fictional’ quality of this episode.  And one can see that it is not necessary to invent it: it is there, emerging from a world without secrets, without depth.”  Cf. also Žižek 1989: The Sublime Object of Ideology, which ties together the “real”, “symbolic”, and “ideological”—in a way quite insightful as to the constitution of ideologies but nevertheless entirely unhelpful for realizing the truth of “the real”.

[7] In Foucault’s Pendulum, for instance, the central plot device concerns the creation of a fictional “Plan” of intricate conspiracy theories to reshape the world, which some begin to take seriously, and death and chaos ensue.  The Island of the Day Before unfolds through the confusion of Baroque-era science, magic, metaphysics, cosmology, and maritime discovery; The Prague Cemetery concerns entirely the creation of fakes and finding ways to influence real world events through them.  His most famous novel, The Name of the Rose, centers around the fear that truth will unravel an elaborate lie.

[8] One thinks here of Nozick’s “experience machine”.  As I related during our conversation, from a source I sadly cannot remember, I recall hearing a professor saying that, every year for decades, he gave his students Nozick’s argument and asked how many would plug in, for how long, under what circumstances, etc.  For the most part, the professor said, students would only agree to use it for a brief time.  But around the late 2000s, the ratio started changing: more and more students said they would plug in, for longer—even, some, forever.  What happened?  It is probably no coincidence that, not only was this the first generation to “grow up on the internet”, but in 2007, the smartphone brought us into the internet, all the time, always.  Perhaps we are living in a simulation… of sorts.

[9] 1967–95: Travels in Hyperreality, 7.

[10] My own thoughts are more fully developed here.  As another young member pointed out, we do well to examine the etymology (which one will find at the link).

[11] As another member put it, technologies such as “Artificial Intelligence” (a misnomer, I assure) are capable of recording patterns and reproducing them with a higher degree of accuracy than human beings, they cannot grasp nor replicate the meaning behind these patterns.  ChatGPT might flawlessly imitate Faulkner’s style, but it will never bring to bear the weight of his words.  If an AI is responsible for the stimulation that produces a human mind’s simulation, that AI must have received its own directives from elsewhere.

[12] Peirce discusses these two senses in the 1906 version of Baldwin’s Dictionary of Philosophy and Psychology, 763b.

[13] For instance, this opinion article in Scientific American laughably suggests that, because we have a sensation of gravitational forces while wearing a VR headset that simulates riding a rollercoaster, the experience of qualia exists entirely as a product of our own neurological interpretation of perception—and just nevermind that the associative perception stems from our non-VR-immersed experience of gravity.  Even worse, the article concludes that, “as with characters in [a video game], our product mostly [sic] likely is for the benefit of someone experience our lives through us.”

[14] Cf. James Phillips 2000: “Peircean Reflections on Psychotic Discourse” in Muller and Brent (eds.), Peirce, Semiotics, and Psychoanalysis, 16-36.

[15] It belongs to another post—or perhaps something quite a bit longer—to examine all the various ways in which we experience this fragmentation itself.  One example which comes to mind would be the ways in which we speak about the relation between mind and body, or self and body.  We hear expressions such as “comfortable in my own body” and do not question the implication of the prepositionally-signified relation “in”.  This would perhaps cohere with the aforementioned potential writing concerning our tenuous balance upon the precipice of psychosis.

[16] See again this article in Reality, particularly section three.

[17] (One finds this echoed, in a different way, in Hazel’s aforementioned article; she doubts experience to be simulated digitally by the vividness of sense experience.  And then, in an about-face: “Or maybe it could be.  Perhaps it’s all digital—who knows.”  It this intellectual modesty—or noetic despair?)

[18] This relates directly to the claim that “being is the first and proper object of the intellect”.

[19] 2022: Introduction to Philosophical Principles, 2nd ed., 254.  The following pages also detail the error in modern treatments of sense objects.

[20] The Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II, in the thirteenth century, reportedly had infants raised without (or with minimal) human interaction, to see if they would develop a natural language—but, instead, they died (despite adequate nutrition).  Would a disconnect of human beings from their natural sensory interactions be a second “pit of despair”?

[21] I can certainly do no better than Yves Simon in his 1934: Introduction to the Metaphysics of Knowledge, 115: “How strange the world when it is merely sensed!  How familiar nature when it has become intelligible!  If we pay attention to these convergent facts, we come to realize that the universe of pure sensation is an inhuman universe that becomes human only to the extent that sensation is penetrated by thought.  The customary universe of human perception owes its appearance, its consistency, and its humanity to the presence of thought in human perception.  The sensualist charade is exposed.  What those who claim to explain the highest operations of the mind by reference to sensation alone are actually using is not pure sensation but the complex of human perception in which thought is already present.  Pure sensation, even aided by the richest train of images, can never explain the slightest thought.”

[22] 1993: “Myth, Semiosis, and Virtual Reality: Or Something Virtual Comes this Way” in Semiotics 1993, 109.

[23] Cf. Rushkoff 2010: Program or Be Programmed, 64: “our inability to distinguish between a virtual reality simulation and the real world will have less to do with the increasing fidelity of simulation than the decreasing perceptual abilities of us humans.”

[24] Cf. Chalmers 2022: Reality+: Virtual Worlds and the Problems of Philosophy, “Can you prove you’re not in a computer simulation?

“You might think you have definitive evidence that you’re not.  I think that’s impossible, because any such evidence could be simulated.”

[25] Farouk Y. Seif 2012: “Semiotic Paradox of the New Media” in Semiotics 2012, 61.

[26] Deely 1971: “Myth as Integral Objectivity” in Realism for the 21st Century: A John Deely Reader, 214.  As he goes on, “‘myth,’ properly taken, designates whatever conceptions men have of reality that (a) have a bearing here and now on their actual lines of conduct and (b) are held to be true or probably true in some basic sense that cannot for the moment be established in indisputably evidential terms.” And, 215: “myth names a socially successful proposition or set of propositions indeterminately true or false.  Social success combined with veridical indeterminateness characterizes myth in just the way that veridical determination independently of social success characterizes a proposition as properly philosophical or scientific.”

[27] Cf. Kemple 2019: The Intersection of Semiotics and Phenomenology, especially 1–7.

Semiotics: The Tractatus de Signis of John Poinsot

What is a sign? It is a deceptively difficult question—deceptive because we think we know when we have never bothered truly to ask the question. We believe that we see and hear signs everywhere: guiding our use of streets, telling us where to exit, the location of the bathroom, what dangers might lie ahead, and so on. But in truth, though we experience signification in these instances, the things we identify as the “signs”—the on the street corner, the glowing plastic “EXIT” over a fire door, the nondescript white silhouette of a representatively feminine shape over one door, the print of a large clawed mammal in soft dirt—are only a part of the signs that we experience. The truth hides in a reality far more complex and far more interesting. Discovery and understanding of this hidden reality impacts our understanding of the whole universe, and of ourselves not least of all.

We name this a seminar in “semiotics”, and so one might expect that it concerns thinkers and issues raised no earlier than the late 19th or early 20th centuries, at which time Charles Sanders Peirce (10 September 1839—1914 April 19) retrieved the term from its neglected proposal in John Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding. But—while certainly we will be concerned with many of the issues that preoccupied Peirce and his successors—we find their genesis not in the twilight of modernity, but the twilight instead of the Latin Age. For Peirce was inspired in much of his thinking by the Conimbricenses, a 16th-17th century semi-anonymous group of Jesuit scholars who wrote extensively and profoundly on signs. These same Conimbricenses were, moreover, the teachers of João Poinsot, variously known also as Juan de S. Thoma, Joannes a Sancto Thoma, John of St. Thomas, or, in our usage here, John Poinsot (9 July 1589—1644 June 15).

Poinsot, who took the religious name Joannes a Sancto Thoma upon entering the Dominican Order in 1610 to signify his fidelity to the great saint’s thought, died just six years before René Descartes (31 March 1596–1650 February 11) and yet, despite a much greater profundity of thought and insight, has remained relatively unknown (at least when compared to his French counterpart). Indeed, where Descartes began in earnest the Modern Age of philosophy, with its characteristic Way of Ideas, Poinsot brought to a close the Latin Age. Their relative fame and obscurity to history follow from complex causes. One of these, no doubt, is that while Descartes wrote short and accessible texts, Poinsot crafted both a Cursus Philosophicus and an (incomplete) Cursus Theologicus—each many thousands of pages.

Within this Cursus Philosophicus we find a textually-dispersed but nevertheless conceptually-united Tractatus de Signis, a Treatise on Signs [required]. This treatise has been extracted, arranged, translated, and editorialized in an edition by John Deely (26 April 1942—2017 January 7), first published in 1985 and again in 2013. A careful examination of this text reveals that, while Poinsot may have been the “evening star” of the Latin Age, he proves also the “morning star” of the new, genuinely post-modern era, the Age of Relation. In this seminar, we will study this Tractatus de Signis with close attention. Access to the seminar begins on 18 March 2023.


Discussion Sessions

2:15pm ET

(World times)
Study Topics &

(required in bold)
Copy of the Tractatus de Signis is required. Available from St. Augustine’s Press or other booksellers (1st edition acceptable).
18 March—April 8Preparatory Phase:
All participants are expected to read widely from a selection of articles and texts—including reading required texts in advance—while joining in communal textual discussion.

No discussions are scheduled during this phase, but it is pivotal for entering correctly into the active discussion phase (15 April—June 10).
Week 1: Preliminaries: Entry into the Tractatus
Lecture: An Abbreviated History of Semiotics
» Poinsot 1632: Tractatus de Signis (TDS) 4–39.
» Deely 1994: “A Morning and Evening Star”
» Deely 2009: Augustine & Poinsot, 3–59.
» Kemple 2022: “Augustine: Instituting the Given Sign” and “Aquinas: The Metaphysics behind Semiosis”.
Week 2: Cognition-Dependent Being
Lecture: Entia Rationis and the Constitutive Acts of the Mind
» Poinsot 1632: TDS, 40–76.
» Maritain 1959: Degrees of Knowledge, 118–44.
» Doyle 1994: “Poinsot on the Knowability of Beings of Reason”.
Week 3: Relational Being
Lecture: The Nature and Kinds of Relation
» Poinsot 1632: TDS, 78–112.
» Deely 1985: “Editorial Afterword” in TDS, 472–89.
Week 4: Sign-Relations
Lecture: The Being Proper to Signs
» Poinsot 1632: TDS, 114–52.
» Deely 1990: “Signs: The Medium of Semiosis” in Basics of Semiotics.
» Kemple 2022: “Poinsot: The Essence of the Sign”.

Week 5: Triadic Elements of the Sign-Relation
Lecture: Cognitive Powers and Objects
» Poinsot 1632: TDS, 153–92.
» Deely 2009: Purely Objective Reality, 14–37.
Week 6: The Causality and Extension of Signs
Lecture: The Degrees of Specifying Causality
» Poinsot 1632: TDS, 193–219.
» Deely 1994: New Beginnings, 151–82.
Week 7: Division of Signs, Part I
Lecture: Toward an Understanding of Concepts
» Poinsot 1632: TDS, 220–61.
» Beuchot 1994: “Intentionality in John Poinsot”.
Week 8: Division of Signs, Part II
Lecture: Toward an Understanding of Language
» Poinsot 1632: TDS, 262–83.
» Maritain 1957: “Language and the Theory of Sign”.
10 June—July 2Writing Phase:
All participants in the seminar are not only encouraged but expected to submit an essay of no less than 3000 words pertaining to the Tractatus de Signis of Poinsot.

The essay may be evaluated for publication in Reality.


Lyceum Institute seminar costs are structured on a principle of financial subsidiarity. There are three payment levels, priced according to likely levels of income. If you wish to take a seminar but cannot afford the suggested rate, it is acceptable to sign up at a less-expensive level. The idea is: pay what you can. Those who can pay more, should, so that those who cannot pay as much, need not. Lyceum Institute members receive a further discount (see here for details).

One payment covers all 8 weeks.

This is an advanced seminar, tantamount to a graduate course in difficulty and intensity. Students should be familiar with the Scholastic and especially Thomistic traditions, or at the very least, with the semiotic work of John Deely.

Registration is closed — thank you for your interest and perhaps we’ll see you in one of our upcoming seminars!

Pricing Comparison

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Advanced Lyceum EnrollmentPremium Lyceum Enrollment
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$40 after
8 seminars included
$40 after

⚘ John Deely on the Role of Signs in Human Knowing | Banzelão Teixeira & IO2S Closing Ceremony

On 7 January 2023 (today!) at 11:30am ET (see event times around the world here and join the live Q&A here), Banzelão Teixeira will present, “A Semiotic Perspective of Cognition: John Deely on the Role of Signs in Human Knowing”. Teixeira obtained a Master’s degree in philosophy in 2001 from Divyadaan: Salesian Institute of Philosophy, Nashik, India. In 2016, he completed his doctorate in philosophy from the Salesian Pontifical University, Rome, on the topic “The Tractatus de Signis of John Poinsot and the New Realism: A Study of John Deely’s Proposal.” Presently he is the Director of Divyadaan: Salesian Institute of Philosophy where he holds the chair of Philosophy of Communication. He is also the editor of Divyadaan: Journal of Philosophy and Education. He is interested in hermeneutics, communication, semiotics and ecology. His recent publications in the field of semiotics include: “The Notion of Sign in Augustine, Aquinas, Poinsot,” (2016); “Semiotic Revolution in the 4th Century: Assessing Augustine’s Contribution to the Ancient Discussion on the Sign,” (2017); 21st Century Realism: John Deely’s Recovery of Poinsot’s Doctrine of Signs (2018); “The Supra-subjective Nature of Relation: John Deely’s ‘Semiotic’ Response to the Modern Impasse,” (2018); “The Semiotic Proposal of John Poinsot: A Brief Overview of Tractatus de Signis,” (2018); and “The Role of Signs within Cognition: A Semiotic View of the Process of Knowing,” (2020).

Commentary will be provided by Cristina Greco, Assistant Professor of Semiotics and Communication, Vice Dean for Academic Affairs, and Head of the Communication Research Unit (CRU) at the Jeddah College of AdvertisingUniversity of Business and Technology (KSA), and John Hittinger, Professor of Philosophy at the University of St. Thomas and the Director of John Paul II Studies.

Guests speaking as part of the closing ceremonies include, Brian Kemple, Brooke Williams Deely, Donald Favareau, Farouk Y. Seif, Hamid Malekzadeh, Inna Merkulova, Joseph DeChicchis, Mário Santiago de Carvalho, Br. Norman Hipps, O.S.B., Olga Lavrenova, Paul Cobley, William Passarini.

Join the Live Q&A Here.

2022 International Open Seminar on Semiotics (IO2S) | Website

This collaborative international open scientific initiative and celebration is jointly organized by the Institute for Philosophical Studies of the Faculty of Arts and Humanities of the University of Coimbra, the Lyceum Institute, the Deely Project, Saint Vincent College, the Iranian Society for Phenomenology at the Iranian Political Science Association, the International Association for Semiotics of Space and Time, the Institute for Scientific Information on Social Sciences of the Russian Academy of Sciences, the Semiotic Society of America, the American Maritain Association, the International Association for Semiotic Studies, the International Society for Biosemiotic Studies and the Mansarda Acesa with the support of the FCT – Foundation for Science and Technology, I.P., of the Ministry of Science, Technology and Higher Education of the Government of Portugal under the UID/FIL/00010/2020 project.