8.28.2010

Faith of Our Fathers

"Now," said she, "I know another cause of thy disease, one, too, of grave moment. Thou hast ceased to know thy own nature. So, then, I have made full discovery both of the causes of thy sickness and the means of restoring thy health. It is because forgetfulness of thyself hath bewildered thy mind that thou hast bewailed thee as an exile, as one stripped of the blessings that were his; it is because thou knowest not the end of existence that thou deemest abomidable and wicked men to be happy and powerful; while, because thou hast forgotten by what means the earth is governed, thou deemest that Fortune's changes ebb and flow without the restraint of a guiding hand. These are serous enough to cause not sickness only, but even death; but, thanks be to the Author of our health, the light of nature hath not yet left thee utterly."

-Boethius, The Consolation of Philosophy, Book I: The Sorrows of Boethius

Philosophy admonishes Boethius for forgetting his own nature and the nature of the world as God's creation. Notice, though, that he cannot forget these things unless he is able to first know them. Boethius knows that God exists and that He governs the word, and it is his later willful ignorance of these truths which causes him to doubt both Providence and Justice. The above passage relates how the maiden Philosophy chooses to describe his loss of faith. It is not that he has doubted something for which there was never any actual evidence, rather, it is that he has chosen to ignore what he knows in the face of seemingly indominable suffering and misfortune. This is what faith truly is, that a man may hold onto the truth despite his passions and emotional reactions towards the ever changing circumstances of material existence. It is not believing in something that is absolutely contrary to what we know, and it is not blind trust in an arbitrary authority. These are modern notions which seek to define religion as a kind of irrationailty without any foundation in reason. Inasmuch as a Chrsitian implicitly accepts these definitions of faith, he is lost in a desert of the mind where knowledge cannot grow.

8.09.2010

August 9th, St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross

Pure Being, which has nothing of non-being in itself, is in such wise eternally infinite that no non-being is before it or after it, and it contains within itself all that is or can be. This being is all that it is in the highest measure of being, or more correctly, it is measureless (it is the very measure by which all else is to be measured)- it is pure act. In it nothing is shut, nothing remains unfolded; it is rather in absolute openness, illumined in itself and through itself; that is, it is light itself - it is pure spirit.

-St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein)
Potency and Act, conclusion.

8.07.2010

Masters and Servants

There is a certain demystification of the natural world that occurs as our scientific knowledge increases. Every time something is analyzed, classified, and put in a book we seem to have gained mastery over a new piece of reality; it is somehow inferior to us now because we have successfully understood it to at least some degree. Some ancient people worshiped stars, for example, but modern man knows what stars really are and therefore does not worship them. Once we can relate to something as knower to known the object of our knowledge is somehow conquered or less than us in some way. Fear, wonder, and awe are reduced as a result of us possessing true knowledge of things. If an entire galaxy can somehow be known then there is a sense in which even the stars and planets can fit within our heads with ease.

This is the glory of metaphysics and theology, that any real metaphysical or theological knowledge we possess demonstrates definitively at least one thing: We are the masters of nothing. As creatures and as objects belonging to the finite world, our vast knowledge of the entire universe is completely insignificant when compared with the knowledge we have of things that are not of the physical world. It is not a matter of degree. To know that God exists, to know that the angelic universe exists, to know that all the things we see and touch are secondary to the higher being that is our creator, this is knowledge that can never make us masters. This is the knowledge that makes us servants, the knowledge that gives us fear, wonder, and awe. To truly know the star is to cease worship of it; to truly know God is to begin to fall prostrate before Him in praise.

8.05.2010

Unnatural Relations III

Today, many are giving their opinions on Judge Walker’s Proposition 8 ruling. Obviously, some are for and some are against it, but my question does not concern itself primarily with either homosexual “marriage” or its apparent legal justification. What I want to know is this:

Can a healthy and unified polity exist which contains citizens who openly disagree about such fundamental matters?

Religion, as even an atheist can admit, has been a principle of cohesion among the peoples of the earth for all of our history. Our foundational myths, stories, beliefs, rituals, practices, moralities, etc. provide us with a framework within which we are able to live a properly communal life with those to whom we are somehow naturally attached. Liberalism, the project of modernity, purports to be able to structure human life in a way that is neutral to all of the differing claims of religion and even culture, but one more question comes to mind whenever this is proposed as a satisfactory answer to my first question:

Why would somebody want to live in this way unless they were not themselves already neutral to the differing claims of all the world’s cultures and ways of life?

In other words, who but a modern man would want to live in a modern world? The only people who actually think that the liberal orthodoxy imposed upon us is, in fact, neutral are people who happen to have no moral objections to the practices in question in the first place. At some level I have no problem with this, for this is just a particular example of the general principle I affirmed above. But our history is not so neat that we can all live in the way we choose, and what we call the “culture war” is really a war between two different cultures that desire to occupy the same seat of power and historical dominance. The only answer I can possibly think of is that we must radically devolve power so much so that no orthodoxy can be imposed so universally and so uniformly that people feel alienated from the very world in which they live. But, then again, the radical devolution of power is itself opposed by the liberal orthodoxy. It seems that we are at an impasse. Let the war resume…

Addendum: I posed this question to Thomas Fleming and here is his response: "The simple answer to the first question is: No, absolutely not. Devolution of power would be the answer, if it were possible, and it would only be possible in conditions of economic, social, and political collapse. The only answer for Christians is to do what they once did: live as Christians. Until they quit listening to and supporting the frauds and quacks who take their money and mount campaigns pretending to challenge a regime they actually support–say, people like Pat Robertson or Bill Donahue or Focus on the Family–even sincere Christians will not only not make any difference, they will not even attempt to lead Christian lives."

Cartesian Ontology Necessitates Mind/Body Dualism

Descartes is usually credited with being the father of modern philosophy. Modern philosophy, in this sense, represents two different yet related ideas. First, Descartes inaugurated a radical methodological doubt which refused to give any sort of deference to the traditions of the past. This philosophical individualism is wholly distinct from everything that came before it. Aristotle, who was the paradigmatic philosopher for most of western history until the early modern period, would always consider the opinions of his predecessors before expounding his own particular doctrines. Even Plato’s Socrates, who was notorious for his criticism of popular Greek moral and political thought, did not offer a wholesale rejection of tradition as the only means of properly attaining truth. Doubt, then, is Descartes’, and it was this doubt that became the foundation for his entire philosophy and much of philosophy afterward. Second, modern philosophy, particularly the early modern era, represents not merely a methodological rejection of the past but also its theoretical rejection. In other words, Descartes popularly marks the end of the Aristotelian grip on the world of western thought. Descartes’ explicit rejection of core Aristotelian doctrines, and the Scholasticism that was built upon them, makes him the first truly modern philosopher. This accolade, however, was ill-gotten.

The rejection of a broadly Aristotelian philosophy birthed a plethora of errors and seemingly unsolvable philosophical problems, and of them, none are more famous, or infamous, than the mind/body problem. When discussing this topic, philosophers rightly regard Descartes as being the first philosopher to state the relation of the mind and the body in such a way as to make the recognition of the problem obvious. This, in turn, results in an almost irredeemably puzzling confusion about how the mind and the body interact. This, however, is not the real problem. Rather, it is Descartes’ ontology and how it is responsible for creating the mind/body problem instead of simply discovering it. If there is any type of solution to be found it is in a return to a more Scholastic metaphysics and the Aristotelian doctrines that provide for its foundation.
In his Second Meditation, Descartes attempts to understand who or what he essentially is. By placing all things in doubt, Descartes arrives at one conclusion of which he is indubitably sure: He exists. He demonstrates how this one thing cannot be reasonably doubted:

“Is it then the case that I too do not exist? But doubtless I did exist, if I persuaded myself of something. But there is some deceiver or other who is supremely powerful and supremely sly and who is always deliberately deceiving me. Then too there is no doubt that I exist, if he is deceiving me. And let him do his best at deception, he will never bring it about that I am nothing so long as I shall think that I am something. Thus, after everything has been most carefully weighed, it must be finally be established that this pronouncement “I am, I exist” is necessarily true every time I utter it or conceive it in my mind” (Meditations on First Philosophy, pg108).

Now that he has found something of which he can be absolutely certain, Descartes proceeds to apply this same method to other aspects of his existence in order to understand more completely who, exactly, he is. He entertains some possible answers; perhaps he can say that he is a man. But he can then ask what a man is, and, in his mind, to say that man is a rational animal is a confusing waste of time (notice that the term rational animal would be a standard Scholastic answer to the question “What is a man?” Descartes vehemently and abruptly rejects this approach immediately). Ultimately, he will not be satisfied by any answer that suggests that his identity has anything to do with the nature of bodies. Instead, Descartes concludes that he is essentially a thinking thing. His essence is therefore thought, which can have nothing to do with being a body or being within a body. Even sensation and imagination are reduced to thought. The things which are sensed or imagined could be dreams that have no reality but, nevertheless, he is sensing and imagining and this cannot be doubted. We can ask why Descartes is at such pains to eliminate the possibility that his essence has anything to do with his corporeality, and the implications of his answer will provide both philosophers and scientists with a conceptual sketch of the nature of matter and causation that remains largely uncontested to the present day.
For Descartes, the essence of matter is extension. It is from this principle that every other attribute of matter can be derived. “Thus extension in length, breadth, and depth constitute the nature of corporeal substance; and thought constitutes the nature of thinking substance” (The Principles of Philosophy, Part 1, 53, pg. 245). What Descartes has done here is conceptualize matter in terms of what is mathematically quantifiable. In this way, physics now becomes the true method of discovering the manner in which objects actually exist. The implication of this belief, then, is that what we experience through our sensation is decidedly not a part of the actual nature of the substances which we perceive:

“In this way we shall perceive that the nature of matter, or body in its universal aspect, does not consist in its being hard, or heavy, or colored, or affecting our senses in some other way, but solely in its being something extended in length, breadth, and depth. For as regards hardness, we do not know anything of it by sense, except that the portions of the hard bodies resist the motion of our hands when they come in contact with them…” (The Principles of Philosophy, Part II, 4, pg. 254).

Descartes is making two critical points in this passage. First, everything that we perceive in the world, despite our particular sensations, is really made up of some collection of uniform particles which are nothing other than their quantifiable dimensions. Second, the only way we can explain any changes in these objects, either as we perceive them or as they change in themselves, is through what Descartes calls motion. By motion, Descartes means local motion or movement from place to place. Strictly speaking, Descartes says that motion “…is the transference of one part of matter or one body from the vicinity of those bodies that are in immediate contact with it, and which are regarded as at rest, into the vicinity of others” (The Principles of Philosophy, Part II, 25, pg. 262). A stock example would be billiard balls striking each other; one ball moves until it hits another one, that one then moves while the first ball comes to rest.
In this brief outline we have the now common image of the physical world. Everything is simply matter in motion. At its most fundamental level, the world is nothing other than material particles colliding with one another continuously. This is the modern mechanistic picture of nature, and it owes much of its existence to the father of modern philosophy.
Notice, though, that nowhere in this picture can mind or soul be found. All material substances are essentially extension, but extension is seemingly unsatisfactory in explaining human existence. If the things which we experience in sensation, for instance, are not actually parts of material substances, then it logically follows that the human mind cannot also be material. Consider a piece of chalk. Upon looking at it, most people would conclude that it is white. According to Descartes, however, this certainly is not the case. Whiteness is not “in” the chalk because the chalk is only the sum of its moving quantifiable elements, none of which possess any color, taste, smell, etc. The whiteness of the chalk, then, can only be in the mind of the observer. But the mind of the observer cannot also be said to be material since we just said that it is the mind which perceives these different qualia (sensible qualities). Cartesian dualism is thus the only way out of this conceptual impasse.
Although this argument might appear to be utterly distinct from the one in the Meditations, it is actually a different way of saying the same thing. Going back to the Second Meditation, we see that Descartes decides that he is a thinking thing only after he has established, however roughly, his conception of matter as extension. This is the only reason why he is able to imagine that his body does not exist and that therefore he must be whatever it is that thinks, which is his soul:

“On the contrary, I was under the impression that I knew its [body] nature distinctly. Were I perhaps tempted to describe this nature such as I conceived in my mind, I would have described it as thus: by “body,” I understand all that is capable of being bounded by some shape, of being enclosed in a place, and of filling up space in such a way as to exclude any other body from it; of being perceived by touch, sight, hearing, taste, or smell; of being moved in several ways, not, of course, by itself, but by whatever else impinges upon it” (Meditations on first Philosophy, pg. 109).

It is his clear and distinct idea of matter as one thing and thought as another that enables him to separate them. His conceptual distinction comes first, his idea of himself as essentially a thinking thing comes afterward.
Descartes has to understand the soul in terms of a separate and distinct immaterial substance that somehow exerts causal force over the physical world of matter in motion. How does it do this? Centuries have passed and it still eludes us; most philosophers have now simply disregarded the immaterial soul in favor of materialism because Cartesian dualism just seems so untenable. The truth, though, is that the mind/body problem is necessitated by Descartes’ mechanistic conception of nature, i.e. understanding nature as matter in motion. Instead of accepting this description of the world while denying Descartes’ dualism, we should deny his conception of the material world as thoroughly inadequate.