Arimathea | Philosophy
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Monday, May 9, A.D. 2016
Charlton on Modern Cynicism

Christ is risen! I hope that my fellow Orthodox had fruitful Holy and Bright weeks. Enjoy the festive season—and the spring.

I have several accumulated links that I would like to share, but today I recommend Bruce Charlton’s “Ingwaz - the metaphysics of ‘-ing’, of polarity.” As is often the case with Charlton’s musings, I found the post extraordinarily insightful. Following a clear, brief exposition of what I would like to call Realism 201 (τὸ γὰρ αὐτὸ νοεῖν ἐστίν τε καὶ εἶναι), Charlton explains:

So the division of inner mind and outer reality/ nature is nonsense; we are always and inevitably involved in everything we ever consider by thinking.

However, this thinking can be (usually is) something of which we are unaware. We therefore tend (unthinkingly) to regard the ‘outside’ world as if it was independent of our thinking. We tend to suppose that the outside world is real and solid, while our thinking (which in reality is involved in everything we know or imagine about that outside world) is merely ephemeral and pointless.

This is because if we divide thinking from the outside world, thinking dies - it becomes static, inert, it stops ‘-ing’ and is a mere dead specimen (‘thought’). What is really happening is that we have started thinking about a situation where there is no thinking, and are unaware that in thinking this we have not actually imagined a situation where there is no thinking - we are merely unaware of the thinking that is engaged in imagining it!

This is the modern condition. Modern analysis is unaware of - and denies - the pervasiveness of thinking at all times and in all situations. This state of unthinking doubt about thinking can be called cynicism.

So, the first move is to become aware of our own thinking in any and every situation - to recognize that everything involves thinking - we are therefore always engaged with everything, involved with everything: there is no objective alienation.

But is thinking valid? That is the fear that haunts cynical, nihilistic modern man. The fear is that - even though it makes no sense and cannot be done to use thinking to doubt the validity of thinking; maybe thinking is not valid anyway - maybe we just live in an un-avoidable delusion? The idea accepts that it makes no sense to be thinking about thinking being ‘unreliable’ - but maybe that is true anyway!

This cynicism, I believe, is the modern condition; it is a fear rather than a philosophy, it is a cynical suspicion that there is really no purpose, meaning or reality - and this state was facilitated by Natural Selection which seems to have ‘discovered’ that that is how nature works. This is untrue, and makes no sense; but the effect is rather to implant a fear, a suspicion that it might all be a delusion than to make any kind of logical point.

That has been the point at which Western thought has been stuck for more than 200 years - the fear that everything we think we know about everything comes from thinking, and that thinking - the very basis of knowing itself - might be a circular system of unavoidable but nonetheless false assumptions.

This places Man into an existential state where he does not know where to start in escaping. Once he has come to doubt thinking, then he cannot get out. All he can do is try to manipulate his emotions so as to feel better, here and now.

Yes! Brilliant. Myself, I have wrestled with this very illogic since my undergraduate days, knowing (abstractly) how absurd it was—but nonetheless remaining a slave to the fear. As I was reading the post, I thought, “Indeed, it’s demonic.” And, of course, Charlton nails it. He likewise notes how most modern men adopt a cynical attitude toward the most fundamental questions but casually and bovinely follow the herd when it comes to the venerated venereal idols of the age. Fortunately, I was cynical enough to want to follow the nihilistic path to its conclusion—and I realized that such was pure, hellish madness—the ultimate (and existential) reductio ad absurdum. My firm and absolute confidence in Platonism co-exists with—perhaps depends upon—an awareness of what its rejection ultimately entails, and I am not willing to consider that path any more than I have. My accompanying daemon shouts, “NO!” And, by grace, I hearken unto it.

Posted by Joseph on Monday, May 9, Anno Domini 2016
Thursday, March 3, A.D. 2016
The God Confusion

R.J. Snell has a brief but important article in the Intercollegiate Review about the nature of God and how that theological issue has affected the West: “The God Confusion: An Ancient Dispute in the Modern Heart.” I have addressed the same point several times on this site, starting with “Square Circle.” The rational order of the universe reflects God rather than constrains him. Nature is not a threat to omnipotence but a manifestation of such.

I should note that I have since softened my stance about the square circle; I am no longer sure that God could not make a square circle. This change has nothing to do with theology—I still affirm the same theological point. Rather, it has to do with the limits of human understanding. From our perspective, it is clear that a square cannot be a circle—and vice versa. Yet, it seems possible that there could be some possible coherence of the shapes at another level of understanding. I do not wish to indulge postmodern attacks on our knowledge; fie, fie, fie upon such a suggestion! However, as I have noted before, the flatland principle seems quite reasonable to me, given the general myopia and widespread ignorance of mankind. Imagine how geometry might appear to a two dimensional perspective. Several Euclidean rules would strike a two dimensional mind as ridiculous, and we see a similar relationship between hyperbolic geometry and the Euclidean tradition. It seems obvious that the distinct natures of the square and the circle rule out a square circle, but, contra my post from seven years ago, we do not comprehensively and exhaustively understand geometry. Intellectual humility does not necessarily lead to po-mo misology—or even to its more respectable Kantian precursors.

Posted by Joseph on Thursday, March 3, Anno Domini 2016
Friday, January 22, A.D. 2016
Two Different Takes on Philosopher Kings

May the Lord have mercy on our nation.

I have tried to avoid watching televised political debates and campaign interviews over the past several months, but I have, at times, wandered into them. On a few such occasions, I have cringed when Senator Cruz and others have mentioned “philosopher kings” with disgust. As any student of Plato’s Republic will know, the intended targets of the politician’s ridicule can in no way be considered philosopher kings, the rule of whom we certainly do not deserve (per de Maistre and good sense).

Well, at least one journalist has called Cruz on his wording, “Ted Cruz is the bad guy in his own philosophic narrative.” I confess that I find it irritating to agree with a whippersnapper leftwing activist in his criticism of the Right’s senator sweetheart. Republican voters deserve better politicians (—or do they, M. de Maistre?).

Fr. Patrick Henry Reardon has also recently addressed philosopher kingship in Touchstone, where he meditates on the proper role of Adam (and, by extension, us) in creation. It is worth your time.

Posted by Joseph on Friday, January 22, Anno Domini 2016
Thursday, April 10, A.D. 2014
Desiccated Intellectual Life

Here are some links to posts about our sorry academic and general intellectual situation:

“College Students Demand Respect” on The Thinking Housewife with a guest article by Richard Cocks

“The Academy Then and Now” by Paul Gottfried at the the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy site (courtesy of Thomas F. Bertonneau)

“Arguing Over Argument in the Internet Age” by James Kalb in Crisis Magazine

If that was not enough doom and gloom for you, check out this enthusiastic support for constructivism: “Constructivist Learning and Teaching.”

Sigh. I stand by my belief that nominalism has been the chief specific cause of the West’s decay.

Rend your clothes and toss dust.

Posted by Joseph on Thursday, April 10, Anno Domini 2014
Friday, June 28, A.D. 2013
Flight from Objectivity

A few months ago, I read a short quotation by Ayn Rand in a comments thread that I found insightful. It is from a speech that she gave in A.D. 1960:

The truth about the intellectual state of the modern world . . . which distinguishes it from other periods of cultural crises, is the fact that what people are seeking is not the answers to problems, but the reassurance that no answers are possible.

According to the comment, you may find this in Rand’s Philosophy: Who Needs It. I sent the quote to my friend Andrew, who replied so:

I think she’s right about the post-modern world. But it seems to me that the modernism, of which I assume she is a proponent, has the opposite flaw. It treats the perennial unpleasantries of the human condition as though they were problems to be answered, when, in fact, no answers are possible. So it’s almost like the Hegelian dialectic in reverse. First there was a reasonable synthesis, then with the Enlightenment, an overly simplistic thesis, and now with post-modernity, an oversimplified antithesis. And I’m sure that when we return to the reasonable synthesis of past ages, we’ll call it progress.

May such progress come quickly!

Posted by Joseph on Friday, June 28, Anno Domini 2013
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
Monday, December 17, A.D. 2012
Omniscience and Synchronicity

A few months ago, Kristor posted a short essay on The Orthosphere about “Omniscience & Synchronicity” that is worth your time and reflection.

Posted by Joseph on Monday, December 17, Anno Domini 2012
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
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:


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
Wednesday, December 7, A.D. 2011
Kristor on Mystery

Auster frequently addresses the Darwinian question on his View from the Right, but a tangential post from a few days ago caught my eye. In it, the ever insightful commentator Kristor elaborates on the Bonaventuran distinction between apprehension and comprehension:

When we speak of knowing something, we may mean either that we apprehend, or that we comprehend. To apprehend is, literally, to “grasp at or toward.” To comprehend is to “grasp together.” Apprehension happens when we know of something, but do not understand it; we can touch it, but it escapes our grasp. Comprehension happens when we know of something and have some understanding of it; when we are able to wrap our minds around it.

So, then: we can apprehend that there is—that there must logically be—something outside our world, and greater, for only thus could there be a context, a way, a receptacle in which the world could come to be. We may come to understand certain things about that transcendent reality. But only a few things, and them but dimly. We cannot ever understand it in its fullness, or even come close. There is no way to grasp him, who has our whole world in his grasp.

The only sorts of things it is possible for us to comprehend are those that are lesser than we. These we may encompass. Part of the reason we have theories about the world is that the theories are small and intellectually manageable, as compared with the complex concrete realities to which they refer. The theories are smaller than we are. The realities to which they refer never, ever are.

To apprehend something without understanding it, is to be confronted with mystery. Sometimes we can dispel the mystery a bit by our own efforts. Our understanding may even be good enough to give us great power. But no matter how deeply we plumb a phenomenon, howsoever humble, we can never find its bottom. Take a pebble. What is it? What is its complete, exhaustive description? The answer cannot be completed, even in an infinite span of time. Nicholas Rescher points out that the number of true statements that can be made about anything is infinite; and Gödel proved that no self-consistent answer to any question can ever be completed. Thus the more one learns about something—about anything—the more one learns that there is more to learn about it. Think of something homely and familiar—say, knitting, or model railroading. One could never get to the bottom of them, never finish them, never express all their beauties. Every concrete actuality is infinitely deep.

And the reason this must be so is not far to seek; for every instance of definite being must necessarily arise in the context of, and as a derivate of, the limitless indefinite. Being as such is the necessary prerequisite and source of every particular being. Reality is infinitely deep, because its depths are in the fathomless abyss of God. So, a pebble is as rooted in God, and as full of his presence and expressive of his glory, as the highest seraph. One of the reasons scientists—even the atheists among them—do science is that, in delving into the depths of the real, they apprehend that glory, wonder and power at the root of all things. Depth calls to depth.

No matter what it grasps at, knowledge never suffices to its object. Only being suffices; for a being can suffice to itself, indeed must do so if it is actually to be. The only way to comprehend a thing fully, then, is to open oneself to it and make oneself a part of it, to partake in it. Comprehension is trans-rational, trans-cognitive. It happens when we allow ourselves to be comprehended by something larger than we are.

Such is worship. It is effected by sacrifice.

Curiously, as mystics all tell us, in the utter turn of the soul to God is delivered a full comprehension of all lesser things.

It seems to follow, then, that progress toward knowledge is an infinite activity wherein we come to know more and more what we apprehend. We never exhaustively comprehend eternal truths, but we conform our minds to being as we continue to understand it better. Only God comprehends completely.

Posted by Joseph on Wednesday, December 7, Anno Domini 2011
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