Arimathea
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Philosophy
All wisdom begins in wonder, and this delight kindles a desire for truth that leads us on a quest for the really real -- the source of being itself. Hence, the philosophical impulse, albeit often manifested in atheistic and irreverent stumblings in the dark of human ignorance, begins and ultimately ends in theology -- communicating and communing with our origin and goal. We men are rational animals who seek to know. We are agents of truth who want correct answers to questions that we must ask. From the noblest objects of contemplation to the seemingly insignificant everyday trivialities of life, we attempt to unravel perplexing knots. Limited, blind, and distracted, we nevertheless struggle for wisdom. This is our lot, and it is also our glory.
Physics
Nature loves to hide
Tuesday, March 29, A.D. 2016
ETI in the Sky

Today marks the third anniversary of Lawrence Auster’s untimely death—very sad. I miss reading his View from the Right, and I frequently wonder how Auster would comment on the passing scene. May his memory be eternal.

In honor of Mr. Auster, who frequently wrote about quirky, interesting side topics, I present a suitably out of this world article from Salvo, “ETI in the Sky: What the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligent Life Means for Us.” The article’s author Hugh Ross surveys the disappointing results in the search for extraterrestrial intelligent life—disappointing, that is, to those of us who had hoped or expected to find some trace of non-human civilization “out there.”

Perhaps, pessimism is unwarranted; Ross’ conclusions are based on assumptions that may not be justified. I don’t know; I’ll defer to the scientists in their judgment. Yet, I do question how we can confidently expect alien life and civilization to follow our own model. Isn’t it conceivable that the conditions for intelligent life elsewhere need not be the same as the conditions for such on earth? Furthermore, one of Ross’ points is based on the idea that an advanced alien civilization would harness local solar (stellar?) power in a particular way. Cosmic-sized cultural imposition of a decidedly Baconian-Cartesian flavor, no? So, I remain agnostic on the issue, though Ross’ article did make me a bit sad. For all the splendors of our world, it is disappointing to consider the universe so limited in its manifestations of life.

Posted by Joseph on Tuesday, March 29, Anno Domini 2016
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Wednesday, May 7, A.D. 2014
Blind to Our Own Nose

Christus resurrexit!

In Wikipedia’s article on Alfred North Whitehead, we find a short but insightful quotation from one of Whitehead’s lectures:

Every scientific man in order to preserve his reputation has to say he dislikes metaphysics. What he means is he dislikes having his metaphysics criticized.

Superb!

The same can be said for most substantive topics that irritate irritable intellectuals.

Posted by Joseph on Wednesday, May 7, Anno Domini 2014
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Tuesday, December 24, A.D. 2013
Lennox and Dawkins Debate

I wish the new calendarists out there a lovely Christmas Eve and a happy Christmas feast with their loved ones.

Below is a debate organized by the Oxford Museum of Natural History between John Lennox, Fellow in Mathematics and Philosophy of Science at Green Templeton College, and Richard Dawkins, husband of Lalla Ward, who played Romana on Doctor Who. The two Oxford men debate points from Dawkins’ book, The God Delusion.

As always, I indulge in my dirty habit of reading internet comments. It fascinates me that the commentators all watched the same debate but came away with such strikingly different opinions of how it went. Among the expected comments, I found this jolly quip:

VANITYBONET: “What is God, a kindergartener playing hide and seek like a little brat? God should not have to be sought, because left to one’s own devices void of logic and reason anything can be found that automatically aligns with what the individual is seeking regardless of there being no proof of its existence. If God is real, there should be absolutely no reason that He cannot find a way to reveal himself to everyone in such a way as to make His existence irrefutable.”

pappasgirl283: “You mean, like DNA, the night sky, how we are fearfully and wonderfully made . . .”

Follow that yonder star, folks.

Posted by Joseph on Tuesday, December 24, Anno Domini 2013
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Tuesday, February 12, A.D. 2013
Omen Dei?

Agence France-Presse yesterday published a lovely photograph of lightning’s striking the cupola of Saint Peter’s Basilica hours after Pope Benedict XVI announced his forthcoming retirement: “Coup de tonnerre sur le Vatican.”

Several media outlets have covered it in tandem with their own papal retirement stories. As usual, I read the articles’ comments for the occasional amusing or insightful note. “Nick” commented on the Skye (AOL Weather) post:

It’s no coincidence that lightning struck the cross on top of the Vatican the day the pope announces his resignation. But people do not want to believe in a higher power so will do anything to write it off as coincidence. Even if God came down and sat on the roof they would say he was a cloud or something.

I smiled at the last line; it is true. Nick’s comment reminds me of “How the Dwarfs Refused to be Taken In” from The Last Battle. And the parable of the rich man and Lazarus makes the point more bluntly. My friend Andrew often refers to this vivid depiction of spiritual blindness by Lewis, and I think of it whenever I deal with skeptics. How many times have we heard atheists ridicule God as a groundless, superfluous fantasy? They are tragically like Lewis’ dwarfs (dwarves!) who cannot see the abundance of evidence all around them.

Concerning the lightning bolt at the Vatican yesterday, Humean skepticism has a point. Lightning happens, and men appear to impose interpretations on this rather regular occurrence when it is in their minds to do so. In other words, we only see meaning when we are looking for it. However, that does not rule out inherent meaning. If the world is intelligible, then I do not find it absurd that seemingly “independent” phenomena would intersect in ways that we recognize as “signs.” Coincidence? Well, coincidence is a way of describing events that appear unrelated to us, though no events are truly unrelated. It is just that our human perspectives are quite limited. I deal with a similar idea in “Meyer’s Intelligent Design,” and I elaborate further in “Is God an Accident?”:

I marvel at how clever creatures can draw explanatory principles from the empty well of chance. Chance does not explain; chance merely signifies the complicated levels on which intentional agents experience reality. With apologies to Aristotle, allow me to talk about my fictional pals, Bob and Matt. Bob the bartender owes Matt the Maytag repairman money that he intends to pay him when he sees him again. One day, Bob goes to Best Buy to buy his belle, Betty Sue, a microwave oven. Matt happens to be at Best Buy trying to catch up on the latest developments in the laundry machine trade. Bob sees Matt and pays him. We can say that Bob’s paying Matt when he did was the result of chance. There was agency by both men, but the result of their intended ends was not intended by either one of them. Chance explains an element in the story.

Yet, note that chance only indicates how the intended actions of two agents interelated in a wider theater than their own perspectives. When we consider a theater as wide as reality, what role does chance play? Is it not simply what we might call the order of being’s manifesting itself in motion? When people speak of chance, they often mean random and unpredictable. Yet, we observe everywhere the tendencies of nature and the probability of phenomena that betray an order. The universe has a structure that is intelligible. It has patterns that human reason perceives and understands. When we attribute causality to chance, we simply admit that we remain ignorant of the whole as was Bob of all the facts. Yet, Bob and Matt both acted as agents with will and ends, and they acted so in an orderly universe.

Coincidence, as a species of chance, is how we in our ignorance perceive simultaneous events when their relationship is not obvious.  However, if the ideas interrelate as the eternal intelligible structure of reality, in the mind of God, then the manifestations of those ideas in time and place—in becoming—would expectably interrelate on the “horizontal” level, as well. Moreover, everything that happens in time has a causal relationship with everything else on the timeline; everything is part of that river. I suspect that pagan divinization and astrology originate in recognizing this aspect of the world. It is a metaphysically respectable point that has been besmirched by soothsayers’ capitalizing on ignorant man’s desires and fears.

Posted by Joseph on Tuesday, February 12, Anno Domini 2013
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Monday, November 12, A.D. 2012
Phase Change

We just commemorated the ninety-fourth anniversary of the Great War’s end. I recommend that you read “The Gardener” by Kipling if you missed my mention of it over the summer. May the dead find peace, and may our civilization recover from the shock induced madness resulting from the last century’s wars.

For something else fitting for the time, you may wish to read Kristor’s “Phase Change” on the Orthosphere. Kristor’s argument reminds me of Kuhn’s paradigm shifts in the natural sciences.

Is it bad that I wish to live in interesting times? At least, such is preferable to bad times. Écrasez l’infâme is an attractive motto for the heretics of every age.

Posted by Joseph on Monday, November 12, Anno Domini 2012
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Wednesday, September 26, A.D. 2012
Does Quantum Physics Make It Easier to Believe in God?

I hope that our rabbinical friends have had an edifying Day of Atonement.

Over the summer, the Orthosphere’s Bonald wrote on contemporary physics and its underlying philosophical understanding: “Philosophy in physics: returning to measurement.” Bonald links to an essay by Stephen Barr on Big Questions Online wherein Barr argues that quantum physics undermines materialism: “Does Quantum Physics Make it Easier to Believe in God?” It is a short but fascinating read. Barr argues that a materialist who accepts quantum physics is forced to justify his materialism by adopting the “Many Worlds Interpretation” of quantum mechanics. He seems to think that the metaphysical stinginess of materialists will make them hesitate to adopt such an outlook to save their materialism, thereby undoing their materialism.

Bonald, however, considers the Many Worlds Interpretation a genuine threat to traditional understandings about man and, I suppose, to a particular cosmological “paving” argument for the existence of God. I disagree and commented so:

I wish that there were more article’s like Barr’s — it is intelligible by the “uninitiated” without being condescending. It is hard to find well written explanatory articles about math, science, or philosophy that speak toward a broad, educated audience outside the field. We have become a society of insular experts.

Also, I do not see what is so alarming about the “many worlds” theory. I have wondered about it, though not from knowing any discussion of it in physics — and certainly not to defend materialism. Rather, I wonder if our thinking that our world is “the world” is similar to our thinking that our present is “the present.” I call the latter temporal chauvinism. For our “now” is not God’s now any more than the moment when Heloise and Abelard first discovered their great love or some occasion in the thirty-fourth century of the Christian era. For God is beyond time, and thus past and future are causal directions in cosmic history relative to a given “present” moment on that timeline. Maybe, the same holds for multiple worlds. God surely knows every possible world, of which ours is one. But is it “the one” or simply one for us? Perhaps the structure of modal logic actually reveals something about reality — wherein the principle of plenitude may hold.

Moreover, wouldn’t the many worlds theory itself discredit materialism? For if certain features/elements/entities show up in many worlds, and if there is an identity among them, then what is that very identity? If a particular baseball exists in so many different worlds, what explains the correspondence? Any decent answer will eventually have to resort to the non-material — form, an assembly of certain qualities (again, form), a relationship of the parts to the whole (formal structure yet again), and so on. Of course, we need not many worlds to see the same argument against materialism (thinking about atoms will suffice), but I find it queer that materialists would latch onto such an obvious refutation of their world view as a defense for that view.

Materialism seems to be called into question by the very theory that is supposed to support it. In multiple worlds, there is some sort of identity among certain elements/parts/unities/entities in the worlds, and that identity cannot be material. If each thing is utterly discrete/different, then what’s the point of the many worlds? It would seem a huge con. If there is an identity, then the materialist must explain such identity in material terms. Bonald responded:

The idea that my consciousness might bifurcate is one that I find troubling. Either all the bonald-states with nonzero amplitude are one person or they’re separate people. Either way, I would have to weaken my concept of unity and self-identity to either

A) something that could simultaneously hold two incompatible conscious states

B) something nontransitive, since in which (bonald after measuring result a) = (bonald before measurement) and (bonald after measuring result b) = (bonald before measurement), but (bonald after measuring a) =/= (bonald after measuring b)

I find both alternatives distasteful.

I do not share Bonald’s angst because I am rather agnostic about the nitty gritty details of metaphysics. As I have written before, what really are we? If my true being is an idea in the eternal mind of God, then we may see how Bonald’s objections can be answered. For the instantiation of myself in one world is really myself, and the instantiation of myself in an alternative world is really myself, though they are not the same instantiations of myself. The same mystery of existence holds true in our own world through time. Identify persists through change because the identity is something other than the combination of the temporal-spatial facts of any given moment. Such is Plato’s affirmative path as opposed to Buddhist nihilism’s peculiar via negativa from old Parmenides’ house.

Posted by Joseph on Wednesday, September 26, Anno Domini 2012
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Wednesday, July 25, A.D. 2012
Evolution Is Not a Reason

A few weeks ago, Kristor posted a brief but cogent piece on the Orthosphere: “Evolution Is Not a Reason.” Here is a selection:

But note that to say “X came about because of evolution” is only to say, “X came about because X came about.” “Evolution” in that sentence is not an explanation of what came about: it just is what came about, period full stop. Nor is the process of evolution capable of explaining anything; for “the process of evolution” is just another way of saying, “the way things happen.” It tells us nothing about why things happen, or happened. I.e., it doesn’t tell us the reasons that things happen, or happened; doesn’t tell us the logic that informs what happens. To say that X happened because of evolution is just to say that X happened because X happened. It’s obtuse.

This does not at all mean that the research programs of evolutionary psychology and sociobiology are bootless. On the contrary: if there are certain things that seem to go along with the practice of being human, or of being human in society, that should indicate to us not that such practices are meaningless and unfounded, but precisely the contrary. If iterated natural selection is anything other than chaotic noise, it is a way of fitting humanity to the world by a procedure of trial and error. It is a method of learning; and learning is always about something, so that if natural selection is producing an actual order in humanity, that order addresses and responds appropriately to – i.e., is proper to – the nature of reality. When, e.g., evolutionary psychology tells us that women generally prefer to mate with men who show a good likelihood of being able to provide for them and defend them, we may infer that it is objectively better for men to support and protect their wives, than not; i.e., that the preference that men should be providers and defenders is built into the world.

Why does our society listen attentively at the feet of Paul Krugman, Malcolm Gladwell, and Fareed Zakaria but ignores unknown fringe commentators like Lawrence Auster, Lydia McGrew, Bill Vallicella, and Kristor himself? Even among noted academics, men like Alasdair MacIntyre, Roger Scruton, and Robert P. George get short shrifted, while the powerful turn their ears toward the soothsayers for the Zeitgeist. Such a pity.

Getting back to the argument, it has always annoyed me that seemingly intelligent people attribute intelligible causation to chance, by which they mean unintelligible randomness. I wrote in “Is God an Accident?”

I marvel at how clever creatures can draw explanatory principles from the empty well of chance. Chance does not explain; chance merely signifies the complicated levels on which intentional agents experience reality. With apologies to Aristotle, allow me to talk about my fictional pals, Bob and Matt. Bob the bartender owes Matt the Maytag repairman money that he intends to pay him when he sees him again. One day, Bob goes to Best Buy to buy his belle, Betty Sue, a microwave oven. Matt happens to be at Best Buy trying to catch up on the latest developments in the laundry machine trade. Bob sees Matt and pays him. We can say that Bob’s paying Matt when he did was the result of chance. There was agency by both men, but the result of their intended ends was not intended by either one of them. Chance explains an element in the story.

Yet, note that chance only indicates how the intended actions of two agents interelated in a wider theater than their own perspectives. When we consider a theater as wide as reality, what role does chance play? Is it not simply what we might call the order of being’s manifesting itself in motion? When people speak of chance, they often mean random and unpredictable. Yet, we observe everywhere the tendencies of nature and the probability of phenomena that betray an order. The universe has a structure that is intelligible. It has patterns that human reason perceives and understands. When we attribute causality to chance, we simply admit that we remain ignorant of the whole as was Bob of all the facts. Yet, Bob and Matt both acted as agents with will and ends, and they acted so in an orderly universe. Likewise, evolutionary biology does not show that order develops from chaos. Rather, evolutionary biology recognizes that the particular qualities—the particular structure of our universe—gives rise to the multiplicity of life as we know it. There is no way to pass the buck of design to nothing. As the ancients knew, there must be an uncaused cause. When, in thought, we encounter the wondrous beauty and unity of the intelligible world, we recognize such a source. For Bloom, this recognition is an illusion. It is strange to consider how much effort the blinded put forth in order to remain in darkness.

One cannot get one’s organizing principle from unordered chaos. The typical “orthodox” understanding of Darwinian evolution is metaphysical nonsense. I think that evolution occurs, but certainly not by “chance.” The following posts deal with similar topics:

“Meyer’s Intelligent Design”
“Nagel on Evolutionary Naturalism and the Fear of Religion”
“Random Mutation Generator”
“The Hubris of Reductionism”

Posted by Joseph on Wednesday, July 25, Anno Domini 2012
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Friday, July 20, A.D. 2012
Immaculate Evolution

Ron Unz published an essay in The American Conservative this week that reviews the data in IQ and the Wealth of Nations by Richard Lynn and Tatu Vanhanen: “Race, IQ, and Wealth.” It is somewhat lengthy for a net rag, but Unz is always worth reading for his honesty in assessing evidence and in asking questions. He argues that Lynn and Vanhanen’s own research in IQ and the Wealth of Nations undermines their position that the average intelligence quotient of a given population results chiefly from that population’s genetic inheritance—a position called the Strong I.Q. Hypothesis. He not only mentions the well known Flynn Effect but also considers the variation of I.Q. in a given population or in closely related populations compared to the economic conditions of the population over time. Unz further argues that population I.Q. tends to rise with urbanization, as urban living provides the mind much practice in skills measured by I.Q. tests. He suggests that a contemporary city dweller may not actually seem “smarter” than his great-grandfather who was a farmer, but his I.Q. would be significantly higher. Similarly, Unz reasons that memory power has decreased with the rise of technology that has reduced the need to exercise memory in today’s society. In conclusion, Unz notes how different studies contradict both the Strong and the Weak I.Q. Hypotheses, and he calls for more research to be done in an area where few people have the courage or the intellectual integrity to do the work.

It seems obvious to me that nature and nurture play a role in human intelligence, as they seem to do in all human development. Moreover, it must be that nature and nurture have interacted and mutually influenced the other throughout human history. Human beings change and are changed by their human (cultural) and non-human environment. Furthermore, I suspect that each person, and in each grouping of related people (from more to less closely related), has a range of ability dictated by nature. Environmental conditions, personal choices, and the catch-all of fortune decide where in that range development actually reaches. As I have previously stated, a youth average in gymnastics ability would likely become much better at gymnastics were he placed in an intensive childhood training program—like that to which the Chinese Communists subject their Olympic athletes. It also seems likely that a boy naturally gifted in gymnastics ability would excel in basic gymnastics without any formal training—just by playing around in his yard. However, such a gifted lad would not even begin to reach his potential if he were raised as a couch potato who never climbed on the monkey bars. Yet, when someone with natural talent has the opportunity to develop his abilities, then he will excel to the heights of human accomplishment. It takes a special person to be Michael Phelps; not everyone can do it, even with the same resources and training. Why should this be different for matters of the mind?

Controlled reproduction—eugenics—clearly works in animal husbandry, even with “mental” qualities such as temperament and intelligence. This holds true not simply for individuals and litters but also for the extended family of a cultivated line—a breed. Certain breeds of dogs, for instance, have certain tendencies, and different breeds display various ability levels, though, as Aristotle observed, fringe exceptions occur in nature. With dogs, intelligence seems to be inherited. Why should we expect human beings to be any different?

Of course, the egalitarian Left has a problem with nature and with her unequal distribution of goods.

This topic reminds me of a comment that I made earlier in the year. In January, MSNBC fired Patrick Buchanan after negro “empowerment” groups complained about his arguments in Suicide of a Superpower, wherein Buchanan asked about the future of an America no longer populated by Old Americans. In response to an article in The Daily Caller about MSNBC’s severing of ties, a commentator named Stan wrote:

The defeat of Nazi Germany on the battlefield in 1945 had the direct consequence that open, honest discussion of race related issues has become forbidden, the ultimate taboo.

Boas-Lysenkoism rules in a true dictatorship not seen since the Soviet Union.

Witness even here on this so-called right wing website, how posters all claim that they are not “racists”, whatever that may mean.

In contrast, every single public figure, scientist, political leader, explorer, philosopher and intellectual in the nearly 3000 years of Western civilization, until the advent of Franz Boas, Lysenko and the Frankfurt School in the 1920-1930s, was a racist, in the real, proper sense of the term.

This madness is the suicide of the West.

Buchanan dared to say what should be obvious to anybody with half a brain.

To which I replied:

Stan,

Don’t you know that the human race is mystically exempt from the the rules of genetics that we see in all other species? Inheritance and environmental influences on reproduction do not affect the human race. We should dub this Hallowed Truth our “immaculate evolution.” To think otherwise is to go down the slippery slope toward genocide! Or, at least, that is the sermon that I continually hear from all quarters. It doesn’t make much sense to me, but our Betters must be right.

Living creatures are complex, and human beings are especially so. We do not fully understand what makes us what and as we are. However, we know—and have known for millennia—enough about animal life to recognize the importance of inheritance. To what extent the various influences determine our aptitudes and dispositions remains a mystery. We should thus refrain from imposing ideology upon biology. As Unz argues, we need more evidence to reach a solid conclusion.

Posted by Joseph on Friday, July 20, Anno Domini 2012
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Thursday, March 1, A.D. 2012
Pantheism

Last week on View from the Right, Lawrence Auster mentioned Indian spiritual teacher Meher Baba’s ideas about evolution. Frequent commentator Laura Wood then criticized Baba’s views and noted how they contrast with her understanding of Christian doctrine. Wood comments:

Baba’s pantheism is as faulty and erroneous as Darwinism, and far more pernicious as few people truly believe that earth was created in a mindless, random process whereas many people believe in pantheistic creation and the idea that we have many lives in which we might gradually improve ourselves and correct our mistakes. The God Baba admits into the evolutionary scheme is superseded by his creation: the god-like evolving soul assured of ultimate union with its Creator, who is immanent in nature. In essence Baba says the soul creates itself, progressing from mindless matter into intelligence through its own seeking, its own internal purposiveness. You wrote: “[T]he soul is seeking ever greater intelligence, ever greater consciousness.” In other words, it possesses intelligence and consciousness even in inanimate forms. This entails some form of divinity in matter, a notion that in one sense is not all that different from the Darwinian idea that consciousness evolves from matter. The difference in the Baba view is that matter has been endowed by God with awareness from the beginning. But if a stone had a soul in the beginning, it would have a soul now. And if there is this spiritual kinship between human beings and all of nature then we must naturally identify with some of the passivity and indifference of non-human creation. Genesis is then entirely wrong in its distinction between human beings and the rest of nature.

Indeed, we do identify with the passivity and indifference of nature; I am often mindful of my animality. Moreover, that there is a distinction between man and the rest of creation does not equate the rest of creation’s utter lack of relationship with God. The Seraphic Doctor teaches that the world is God’s footprint (vestigium) and man is his image (imago); both bear a resemblance to God, though in different ways. Consider also psalm 148. It is poetry—but poetry that reflects the truth that all creation worships God in its proper manner—even a stone. Similarly, the Prophet Isaiah declares: “For ye shall go out with joy, and be led forth with peace: the mountains and the hills shall break forth before you into singing, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.” Of course, those Hebrew prophets were known for their rampant pantheism.

Auster replies by noting how Baba’s teaching differs from pantheism:

However, Baba’s scheme is not pantheism. He does not say there is anything divine in matter. To the contrary, he says that the material universe, and all the living forms through which the soul passes, are God’s dream—a dream God experiences (in the form of evolving souls) in order to come to full consciousness. Also, the soul as he describes it not immanent in nature. To the contrary, the soul is beyond nature, beyond not only the physical body, but the astral and mental bodies. The soul, which he describes as an individualized drop in the infinite ocean which is God, takes on bodies and has experiences through them, but is beyond all bodies. The main point of Meher Baba’s teaching is that only God (and the soul which is a part of God) are real. The universe and all its phenomena and experiences are a dream or illusion through which the soul must past in order to come to the truth.

This is what you would expect from Ammonius were he to become a Hegelian. I suppose that we see something similar with Teilhard de Chardin, who seems to be a Hegelian Empedocles, though perhaps such is a bit redundant.

Anyway, Auster and Wood’s brief Babasque discussion reminds me of a quick note that I sent Andrew a few months ago:

When I first started delving into metaphysics and theology at college, I remember reading about panentheism. I think that [Bishop Timothy Kallistos] Ware brings it up as a possible Orthodox position. However, I recently realized that non-Platonists are incapable of understanding the transcendent/immanent relation of God to the world. For them, “panentheism” is how they interpret what we believe. They do not have the necessary metaphysical categories in their own world views. As such, non-Platonist Christians accuse us of paganism, which is what panentheism would imply, though perhaps the very best form of paganism. It’s another example of the flatland principle.

As hypothetical two dimensional intelligent beings would have much difficulty comprehending three dimensional reality, folks with a flat metaphysical horizon have trouble understanding any view that denies that God is a being among beings. Just ask John W. Robbins.

Posted by Joseph on Thursday, March 1, Anno Domini 2012
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Monday, February 13, A.D. 2012
Nominalism, Nihilism, and the Will

For today’s entry, I wish to respond to a comment submitted by Tyler, a reader, on last Friday’s post, “Abortion as a Sacrament”:

As a someone who generally lines up with Right-libertarianism but has sympathy with neocon and Straussian thought, I appreciate the point you are making. I’m also an atheist (though I was a Protestant years ago as you may remember). So I guess my problem is that I don’t see how nihilism dictates worship of the will. If everything is meaningless, so is my will (and consistent nihilists like Alex Rosenberg would argue that the will is an illusion to begin with). From a godless viewpoint parts of your reactionary philosophy could be defended.

But my real question for you is how do you truly avoid worshipping the will? You are exercising your will by writing about your philosophy—if enough people come to agree with you, and your ideal society came to be, it would be an act of human will. The restrictions on human will that you like would come into being through human will, would they not?

I do not deny the existence of the will or that it has a proper place in human life, though I admit that I do not understand the faculty. My friend Andrew argues that there was no fixed understanding of the will as a special faculty before Augustine. If you look at ancient psychology, the consensus seems to be that the soul is a composite of different forces. Consider the numerous images of the soul in the Platonic corpus or the rational, animal, and vegetative parts of the soul in Aristotle’s De Anima. There are distinctions between voluntary and involuntary actions in the context of ethical discussions, but the driving force in the soul behind a man’s voluntary actions appears simply to be the strongest part of his particular soul. The good man’s reason leads him; his inner man rules the lions and the beasts of his thumotic and appetitive drives. The virtuous man’s practical reason determines his course of action. Hence, the Socratic tradition and its descendants stress the importance of moral education and the habitual exercise of virtuous deeds in order to shape the soul so that the rational element grows strong in its command over the irrational elements.

With Augustine, however, we get a faculty that appears to be the desk on which the buck of volition stops. For the Hellenic tradition makes it difficult to see men as ultimately responsible for their actions. Virtue is largely the result of being well reared. Yet, we might wonder how we can justly blame a man for his own upbringing that corrupted him and set him on a wayward path. Political necessity requires judgment and punishment, but such penalties are more practical in character; they make no claims on the ultimate origin of good or bad behavior. By contrast, Augustine the Christian worries about the divine justice in the judgment and punishment of a higher court. Augustine’s attempts to address that problem set the stage for the Western debate on the will, from De libero arbitrio to his later anti-Pelagian writings, which inspired Calvin’s predestination doctrines a millennium afterward.

I have no settled opinion on the matter. Last year at this time, frequent View from the Right commentator Kristor and I had an exchange that resulted in several posts where I stated my perplexity and my commitments regarding the will, mainly in the context of the problem of evil. I find it difficult to understand anything undetermined. The world that we witness is one of intelligible causality, and it is bizarre to think of the will as free. Yet, we have the experience of a faculty that suggests uncaused action. It is therefore understandable that Descartes and other moderns find the imago dei in the will, which seems a fitting image for the uncaused cause. Perhaps, Kant’s distinction of the noumenal from the phenomenal realm offers the best way possible to approach the mystery of the will.

The point of my last post stands regardless of our precise understanding of the will—namely, that the reduction of reality to the will is the wicked seed from which modern madness has grown. I suggest that the previous philosophical tradition is the correct one, where volition, however we conceive of its exercise, occurs in a world that has meaning apart from the will . . . and where will finds its appropriate exercise in conformity to our knowledge of the good. I proposed that modern confusion resulted from a bad turn in late medieval theology. Nominalism—the rejection of formal reality beyond a tool of human thought—was championed by religious men who thought that essences restricted the dominion of God. Their concern has its roots in a prior theological mistake that separates God’s will from God’s knowledge. For only by introducing such divisions in God may one conclude that essences threaten divine omnipotence. Yet, it is perverse to separate God’s will from his knowledge and his goodness. Though we do not know God’s essence, the divisions in being and in the faculties of our soul that relate to being do not apply to God, where the transcendentals exist in a unity, or at least in a state that transcends our understanding of unity. For us, truth and goodness—being as known and being as desired—remain distinct. Moreover, our faculties that deal with truth and goodness—our intellect and our will (however it is understood)—are distinct from each other and from their objects. Our divisions do not apply to God. There is no divine will separate from divine knowledge or divine goodness or divine love or divine power. The cruder Mohammedans and Calvinists err when they consider essences or an eternal standard of goodness an impediment to God’s omnipotence. For they make God into a divided being like us rather than the source of all being.

Historically, this theological error corrupted natural and moral philosophy, as well. Reality was reduced to will. Nominalism ultimately undermines all knowledge save the brute, irreducibly felt presence of the self. A brilliant and decent man like Descartes may recover enough ground to reconstitute some edifice of knowledge after having wrecked our cognitive abilities to understand the world as intelligible, but the worms of this reductionism would not rest. Yet, the slide toward more reductionism was not justified. Take Hume, for instance, who by all accounts was an intelligent and observant fellow. In An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, the Scotsman fails to account for our knowledge of “mathematical facts,” and his nominalist epistemology cannot explain how our minds associate “similar” ideas without admitting the metaphysical system that he wishes to reject. Even with a sincere philosopher like Hume, obstacles and snags to his project are curiously overlooked and forgotten. Likewise, the long march of Western philosophy from the love of wisdom to the dejection of nihilism is accompanied by thousands of such moments wherein men of genius continue to build their castles upon clouds while ignoring foundational problems that just happened not to be their problems.

“All reality is simply the stage upon which the self wills to act.” “But, Herr Doktor, are you proposing solipsism?” “No, not at all, for you are another self” “But we share the same stage?” “Indeed!” “But how does your self recognize my self as distinct from your self and from the world that it evidently creates?” “It is in the nature of the self’s free positing of itself to recognize the free self positing of other selves.” “But if the self can detect independent selves and is aware of the nature of these selves, at least in this respect, why can’t we affirm that we might understand the nature of the world in which the selves meet? After all, the world is the context of the self, and a shared world between multiple selves seems more independent than a projection of the selves.” “Achtung! You risk caving to the transcendent temptation! Don’t you realize that we abandoned all that superstitious, unfounded medievalism centuries ago? After all, it’s 1804!”

Such is not really that much of an exaggeration. Instead of picking on German idealism, we could consider any modern philosophical current where its claims about the limitations of knowledge undermine its own philosophical endeavor. See “The Necessity of Knowledge” for a fuller treatment of this story. Ockham’s parsimony has resulted in systems so niggardly that they cannot afford the mental resources to see the world as it is or even as they dare argue it to be. They make lavish claims about the world like the prodigal son, but they have rejected traditional approaches to the world that affirm man’s ability to know and the world’s ability to be known just as that self exiled youth rejected the household and ways of his father. In this, they just do not notice their ideas’ inadequacy because their attention is turned to their pet questions. I suspect that my fellow Cincinnatian Thomas Kuhn described intellectual labors within world views correctly. Though his concern was natural philosophy rather than metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics, I think that the same human tendency prevails in all disciplines. Men often see only what interests them; they ignore or disregard tangential matters that do not relate to their current obsession.

What has concerned Western man for centuries has been power. Interest in nature for reasons other than mastery has been a minority position for ages. Knowledge of formal causes would not help us build more effective rockets or washing machines. Such knowledge might even cause us great inconvenience; it is a costly enterprise to consider natural ends. Just dealing with Kantian liberals and their moral hangups with autonomous wills really takes its toll on the bottom line. Do we really want to open up Aristotle’s long buried box?

Nominalism thus prevails not due to its rational superiority but because it facilitates increasing human power and because nominalists have failed to ask fundamental philosophical questions for the past seven hundred years. Ask a materialist basic metaphysical questions about matter, about the structure of an atom, about the identity of atomic structures, and you will bore him, anger him, or convert him. With apologies to Cardinal Newman—to be deep in metaphysics is to cease to be a nominalist.

Our reduction of all reality to the will, which is the consequence of nominalistic reasoning whereby our knowledge of the world continually diminishes as we rob ourselves of the ability to look at the world with our full intellectual faculties, eventually leads to chaos. I hold that our political disorder has its origins in the misplaced supremacy of the will, which has resulted in an endless rebellion against authority of any kind, whether ancestral, natural, or divine. If there is no natural value—no true hierarchy of goods—then everything is arbitrary. Everything becomes a projection of the will, and authority becomes simply an opponent in the struggle of wills. Yet, for what do these wills struggle if nothing else can be known—if nothing else matters? It is an absurdity that leads men to misology and nihilism. As Tyler notes in his comment, true nihilism entails the rejection of the will itself, but that rejection can only be theoretical. If a man lives, he necessarily affirms his will’s existence (however the will is conceived) by undertaking any act. So, having rejected God and reason, modernity becomes the idolatry of the will, disconnected from other aspects of reality that impinge upon boundless freedom. We might call modernity’s intellectual destination “dishonest nihilism”—an inconsistent rejection of being.

Andrew suggests that modern thought consists chiefly of philosophers with daddy issues who assume that no one ever had insight until them—a sort of adolescent intellectualism that refuses to grow up. When such spiritual immaturity informs—or fails to inform—political life, we get modern politics, wherein the most rebellious of the rebels (and all modern men are rebels) rejoice in their Satanic rejection of good. Accordingly, Lawrence Auster of View from the Right often calls leftism the political expression of evil:

. . . because people become immoral and unworthy of love, people stop caring for each other. And since, as I’ve often said, leftism is the political expression of evil,—more particularly, since leftism is the political expression of the rebellion against God and goodness of which Jesus speaks—under leftism people become increasingly unlovable and turn coldly away from each other. The forces of cohesion that hold a society together, die.

What is leftism? The deliberate destruction of the forces of cohesion—namely, goodness and love—that hold human society together.

It is not by coincidence that the Anton LaVey and his band of liberals, hedonists, and Nietzscheans chose to honor evil when they founded the “Church of Satan” in the 1960’s—that decade of tacky rebellion. For Satan is the ultimate rebel. Two of their “Pentagonal Revisionism” objectives are:

4. Development and production of artificial human companions—The forbidden industry. An economic “godsend” which will allow everyone “power” over someone else. Polite, sophisticated, technologically feasible slavery. And the most profitable industry since T.V. and the computer.

5. The opportunity for anyone to live within a total environment of his or her choice, with mandatory adherence to the aesthetic and behavioral standards of same—Privately owned, operated and controlled environments as an alternative to homogenized and polyglot ones. The freedom to insularize oneself within a social milieu of personal well-being. An opportunity to feel, see, and hear that which is most aesthetically pleasing, without interference from those who would pollute or detract from that option.

Ours is an age of autonomy, of empowerment, of freedom, of choice! At least, the self proclaimed Satanists understand the true nature of modernity. It is an exultation of the will divorced from any other considerations; it is praise of Adam’s sin wherein he placed his ego above God in his ranking of goods. Of course, these latter day Satanists eschew the traditional understanding of the demonic, at least at first. They worship themselves, not the devil, but the turn from God and toward nothingness is the same. I think of Screwtape’s seventh letter to Wormwood:

MY DEAR WORMWOOD,

I wonder you should ask me whether it is essential to keep the patient in ignorance of your own existence. That question, at least for the present phase of the struggle, has been answered for us by the High Command. Our policy, for the moment, is to conceal ourselves. Of course this has not always been so. We are really faced with a cruel dilemma. When the humans disbelieve in our existence we lose all the pleasing results of direct terrorism and we make no magicians. On the other hand, when they believe in us, we cannot make them materialists and sceptics. At least, not yet. I have great hopes that we shall learn in due time how to emotionalise and mythologise their science to such an extent that what is, in effect, belief in us, (though not under that name) will creep in while the human mind remains closed to belief in the Enemy. The “Life Force”, the worship of sex, and some aspects of Psychoanalysis, may here prove useful. If once we can produce our perfect work—the Materialist Magician, the man, not using, but veritably worshipping, what he vaguely calls “Forces” while denying the existence of “spirits”—then the end of the war will be in sight. But in the meantime we must obey our orders. I do not think you will have much difficulty in keeping the patient in the dark. The fact that “devils” are predominantly comic figures in the modern imagination will help you. If any faint suspicion of your existence begins to arise in his mind, suggest to him a picture of something in red tights, and persuade him that since he cannot believe in that (it is an old textbook method of confusing them) he therefore cannot believe in you.

Lewis well recognized that the forces of hell are cunning.

Tyler’s point about nihilism is a personally moving one for me. In my entry, “Criterial Argument for the Existence of God,” I copied an exchange wherein I admitted to having a “nihilistic temptation.” Since my first year in college, I have had a nagging suspicion that every absurd claim might be true, even though such fails the obvious retortion test and removes the possibility of further thought. Yet, it appears that our freedom for foolishness is so great that our minds are able to entertain, at least in a suggestive way, any ludicrous proposition. In response, Kristor notes:

As to the temptation of nihilism, I feel it, too. But is not this the same thing as to say simply that I feel temptation? Temptation to any sin, however trivial, is a temptation to some turn or other toward nothingness. Followed persistently, all sins lead ultimately to the outer darkness.

Nihilism offers no truth, of course. Yet, we are agents of truth. We are agents of action. We are. Nihilism is the purest Satanic stance, though it is a path that we cannot tread. We cannot live according to nothingness. We inevitably must affirm goods in order to live. Even the simple act of brushing one’s teeth or drinking a glass of water necessarily implies goods that we have claimed to exist. To be a human being is to act, and to act is to proclaim a moral dimension to the universe. Dionysius notes that even the demons, insofar as they exist, are good. Similarly, insofar as we remain men, we manifest the goodness of existence and, perhaps unwittingly and even, ironically, unwillingly, we thereby acknowledge the falsehood of nihilism in deed.

Update: Kristor adds the following comment on the original post:

The mere exercise of the will is not tantamount to the worship thereof, particularly when it is constrained by an intellectual knowledge of truth. By the same token, to say that the will ought to be subordinated to the intellect is not at all to denigrate the will, but only to coordinate it to its proper role in the economy of the person.

Rosenberg is quite right in saying that if there is no truth then the will is an illusion. If there is no truth, then “the will exists” is false. But then, so is “there is no truth.”

Posted by Joseph on Monday, February 13, Anno Domini 2012
AnthropologyEpistemologyEthicsMetaphysicsPhysicsPolitics • (8) CommentsPermalink
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