Thomas Reid on Perception

‘Every man feels that perception gives him an invincible belief of the existence of that which he perceives; and that this belief is not the effect of reasoning, but the immediate consequence of perception. When philosophers have wearied themselves and their readers with their speculations upon this subject, they can neither strengthen this belief, nor weaken it; nor can they shew how it is produced. It puts the philosopher and the peasant upon a level; and neither of them can give any other reason for believing his senses, than that he finds it impossible for him to do otherwise.

– Thomas Reid (Essays on the Intellectual Powers of Man, 1785)

Some More Metaphysical Musings

‘Existence precedes essence.’ This is the classic existentialist declaration – but I was recently thinking whether or not it makes sense to abstract existence from essence (not in relation to existentialism – that was merely the first thing I thought of on this topic) in this or in any other way. My first thought is that it doesn’t make much sense – how can the essence of something be separated from the thing itself? If we abstract and separate the essence of a thing from its existence, how do we have knowledge of the thing? I suppose another more roundabout way of asking the question is this: what is the primary object of our intellect (or intellectual activity), the thing itself or its essence?

Here I’ll quote from Thomas Torrance’s Reality and Scientific Theology:

‘All our knowledge in this or that science is not simply knowledge of a special field of experience, of a particular set of existents, or of some complex of relations, but in all such cases knowledge of things or events that partake of being. Hence every concept we have of things carries with it an epistemic relation to the being of beings. That is why, as Duns Scotus used to claim, the primary natural object of the human intellect is not the so-called essence or quiddity of a thing abstracted from its actual existence, but being (ens est primum obiectum intellectus nostril). Nor is it even this or that being, but being as such (primum obietucm intellectus nostril natural est ens in quantum ens). In particular beings being presents to us aspects of itself for our knowledge and as such makes itself accessible to us in such a way that it admits of signification, intention, description, and so on, in its objective reality independent of us.’ (p. 136)

There’s a lot going on there, but the reference to John Duns Scotus especially intrigued me, so I broke out my A Short History of Medieval Philosophy, by Julius R. Weinberg:

‘We must now raise the question of essence and existence. Scotus recognizes a distinction between the being of essence and the being of existence. But he is insistent on the following: that to be is not something added to essence, and that to be does not really differ from essence. There are several reasons for this. In the first place, we cannot maintain that the being of existence has differentiating characteristics which are different from the differentiating characteristics of essence…Furthermore, if existence were something added to essence, the existing individual would be an accidental unity, i.e., not a genuine individual but an accidental composite of several things. Yet we know that an individual is an essential unity. For these reasons, essence and existence are not really distinct things. They are, however, formally distinct. This means that in a single individual, the nature of the individual differs from its existence even though it is logically impossible for the nature and the existence to be separated even by divine power. Also the difference between nature (or essence) and existence in the individual is there before any activity of a mind which discovers and contemplates the difference. In other words, the formal distinction is in the thing prior to any operation of the human (or any other) intellect.’ (p. 217-218)

Basically, Scotus is saying that existence and essence aren’t distinct things – they’re simply formally distinct, objectively apart from any operation of any mind, in the individual. If they were distinct things, then the individual wouldn’t be a genuine individual – genuine individuals exist, therefore, existence and essence are not distinct, very very roughly speaking. The individual, then, partakes of being – or rather, perhaps we can say that being itself, objective being as such, is manifested in the individual and we come to know of being in its particular manifestations. This seems to me to be a rough but accurate summary of the two above quoted passages.

Among other things, there are some subtle points about realism being made – namely, that being as such exists independently of any perceptual activity by any intellect – in the above cases, we come to have knowledge of being as such by coming into relation with individuals, or to be more technical, particular beings.

Some Thoughts on Thought

Every once in a while, I like to engage in some less-than serious philosophical thinking (by this I mean pure speculation with no serious intention of solving any problem or doing anything besides occupying some free time) – this particular time, it was about thought.

There was a great episode of Cowboy Bebop in which a cult sought immortality by uploading their souls (or minds, or selves, I don’t remember exactly) to the ‘web’. This has always been an interesting topic – one that’s received a lot better attention in sci-fi than in actual science, in my opinion. But at any rate, a really interesting subject. Every once in a while one hears about how our brains are really digital, or digital supercomputers, or something along those lines – pure nonsense, I say. Conceptual confusions, to take a page from Wittgenstein’s playbook. Stanley Jaki, in his book on the subject (entitled Brain, Mind, and Computers) commented that in every age, the mind/brain is conceived as whatever technology is most exciting, for lack of a better term. It’s been depicted as hydraulics, electrical circuits, waterworks, and in our time, its most often portrayed as a computer – unfortunately, there seems to be a rather negative side effect to this practice: it’s the tendency to take as real or concrete a metaphor that simply helps us grasp an abstract or puzzling or difficult concept.

But suppose that our self really can be uploaded to the web – again, one can find some serious discussions on this topic (seriously mistaken, in my view, but serious nonetheless) with a simple Google search. Would that pretty much end the mind/body debate (which, for the record, I think is a debate that is more misplaced that anything, but just for the sake of argument assume otherwise)? Would there be an aspect of us that is immaterial (I’m using immaterial in the classical sense – not as some weird kind of substance but in the more [say] Thomistic sense, such as the immaterial intellect)? Probably not, if its digital and can be uploaded to the internet – I have a hard time imagining how something digital can also be immaterial. So we’d end up being material objects and nothing more – our selves (or mind, or soul, or whatever you care to call it) is simply the material part of us that survives the death of our bodies. That doesn’t seem too coherent though, but who knows. Perhaps our digital self takes the place of the immaterial soul. Maybe the word ‘digital’ is just being redefined – kind of like the word ‘nothing’ in the contemporary debate about the origin of the universe. Definitely something to look into – though I think I trust the sci-fi writers to make more sense of such an idea than the science writers.

Some More Epistemological (and Metaphysical) Thoughts

I maintained in the previous post a kind of realism based relations and relationship – namely, our relationship to the world and the objects it contains. My basic thought is that we are in relation the world and its various objects, and through these relations we know the actual objects – the things in themselves. There remains a fair amount of details to be worked out, but I think this is a line of thought worth pursuing.

A central point here is the rediscovering (for lack of a better term) of the human being as a personal agent. Thomas Torrance makes some extremely perceptive remarks in his ‘Reality and Scientific Theology’:

‘If man is considered only as “thinking thing” poised upon himself over against the world out there, then the world can be brought within the knowledge of the detached subject only by way of observing phenomena, accounting for them through determining phenomenal connections, and reproducing them to rational representation. Thus the “world” is that which is constructed out of the states of man’s consciousness, not something with which he interacts as a personal agent: it is merely the subject of his objectivist and objectifying operations.’

‘But it is action, in which we personally behave in accordance with the nature of the things around us, that connects man and the world in a way that overcomes the detatched relation between man and nature.’ (T.F. Torrance, ‘Reality and Scientific Theology’, p. 57)

Torrance goes on to comment on man’s active agency – which replaces the older dualisms by taking seriously the relations and interrelations between people and the world. This dualism is, I think, a major part of pretty much all science and philosophy – though often at a ‘subconscious’ kind of level.

Epistemological thoughts

A small argument for a relational epistemology: things have the ability to be known – if things didn’t have the ability to be known, we couldn’t know about them. We have the ability to know – without this, we couldn’t know. But one of these without the results in no knowledge – each must exist in relation with the other for there to be true knowledge. By coming into a relation with the object, we come to know the object directly – we know the thing in itself.

Call it relational realism. We know the thing in itself, have direct access to the object of our knowing, by being in a relation to/with it.

This is far from complete – but I think there is some potential here.

Bonhoeffer on the Conscience

‘This flight, Adam’s hiding from God, we call conscience. Before the fall there was no conscience. Man has only been divided in himself since his division from the Creator. And indeed it is the function of the conscience to put man to flight from God. Thus, unwillingly, it agrees with God, and on the other hand in this flight it allows man to feel secure on his hiding place. This means that it deludes man into feeling that he really is fleeing. Moreover it allows him to believe that this flight is his triumphal procession and all the world is fleeing from him. Conscience drives man from God into a secure hiding place. Here, distant from God, man plays the judge himself and just by this means he escapes God’s judgement. Now man really lives by his own good and evil, from the innermost division within himself. Conscience is shame before God in which at the same time our own wickedness is concealed, in which man justifies himself and in which, on the other hand, the acknowledgement of the other person is reluctantly preserved. Conscience is not the voice of God to sinful man; it is man’s defense against it, but as this defense it points towards it, contrary to our own will and knowledge.

Adam, where are you?” With this word the creator calls Adam forth out of his conscience, Adam must stand before his Creator. Man is not allowed to remain in his sin alone, God speaks to him, he stops him in his flight. ‘Come out of your hiding-place, from your self-reproach, your covering, your secrecy, your self-torment, from your vain remorse…confess to yourself, do not lose yourself in religious despair, be yourself, Adam…where are you? Stand before your creator.” This call goes directly against the conscience, for the conscience says: ‘Adam, you are naked, hide yourself from the Creator  do not dare stand before him.” God says: “Adam, stand before me.” God kills the conscience. The fleeing Adam must realize that he cannot flee from his Creator.” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, ‘Creation and Fall/Temptation: Two Biblical Studies’, p. 90-91)

More thoughts on ‘Where the Conflict Really Lies’

So far, the strongest point in the book are the two chapters on divine intervention – ‘The Old Picture’, and ‘The New Picture’. Plantinga really, really knocks this one out of the park. Having read some of his essays where he more broadly sketched out this topic, it was nice to see it developed at length and in depth – this is a topic that deserves to be engaged much more fully in the theological world.

A thought I had while reading these sections: has the realm of the quantum become a refuge for God and His action, or is this a legitimate way of modeling God’s activity in the world?

I did think that some of Plantinga’s defense of intelligent design was a bit weak – I personally find the more Aristotelian accounts of teleology to be a sounder foundation/explanation than the William Paley style arguments employed here. More to come.