Note on Unconscious Activity

The famous Libet experiments are often taken to show that there is no free will – there are a host of other experiments, of the empirical and philosophical, that are along the same lines, which attempt to demonstrate that from a lack of conscious control over our entire mental life we have no free will. What I see, however, is a statement of the obvious. Most of what I do every day is unconscious – from driving to work to typing while talking to someone else, pretty much all of what I do is not consciously controlled by me. David Bentley hart had an interesting insight in ‘Being, Consciousness, Bliss’:

‘Whatever that impulse is, then, it constitutes at most a physiological potential for action, not a decision to act. So, even taken entirely on their own terms, these experiments tell us little that we do not already know: that the impulse to act frequently comes before we consciously choose to comply with or resist that impulse. One might almost say that our free decisions seem to act as formal causes of action, imposing determinate order upon the otherwise incohate promptings of our neurons.’ (p. 163-164)


Gregory of Nyssa on Nature and Persons

This will hopefully be the first of many posts on the thought of Gregory – Hans urs Von Balthasar’s essay on Gregory should be arriving any day.

‘Our first point is this: To use in the plural the word for the nature of those who do not differ in nature, and to speak of “many men” is a customary misuse of language. It is like saying that there are many human natures. That this is so is clear from the following instance. WHen we address someone we do not call him by the name of his nature. Since he would have that name in common with others, confusion would result; and everyone within hearing would think that he was being addressed. For the summons was not by an individual name, but by the name of a common nature. Rather do we distinguish him from the multitude by using his proper name, that name, I mean, which signifies a particular subject. There are many who have shared in the same nature – disciples, apostles, martyrs, for instance – but the term “man” in them all is one. Hence, as we have said, the term “man” in them does not refer to the particularity of each, but to their common nature. For Luke is a man, as is Stephen. But that does not mean that if anyone is a man he is therefore Luke or Stephen. Rather does the distinction of persons arise from the individual differences we observe in each. When we see them together, we can count them. Yet the nature is one, united in itself, a unit completely indivisible, which is neither increased by addition or nor diminished by subtraction, being and remaining essentially one, inseperable even when appearing plurality, continuous and entire, and not divided by the individuals who share in it.’ (Gregory of Nyssa, ‘Theological Orations: On Not Three Gods’, ‘Christology of the early Fathers’, p. 258)

Another note on Hume, Chesterton and Causality

Hume’s denial of causal connections being a kind of objective feature of the world was made on the basis of his radical empiricism – we can’t experience causality in a sensuous way. But why agree with his empiricism? Empiricism has been all but abandoned, and in its more extreme form, logical positivism, actively rejected. Why assume that Hume’s empiricism is true? Sure, we can’t have knowledge of causal relations via empirical datum, but so what? While empirical sense data is essential for a lot of knowledge, it’s certainly not necessary for all knowledge – empiricism itself cannot be verified empirically. So Hume’s critique, while in my opinion correct, ends up losing some of its force once one no longer believes the myth of empiricism.

Chesterton, Hume, Contingency and Causality

Hume famously argued that causality was a mental construct and not an objective feature of reality – we see one billiard ball hit another, but we don’t see or sense causation – we merely see the fact of the balls collision and draw the causal connection ourselves. Causes do not necessitate their effects. In theory any effect may follow from any cause.

Chesterton, in his book ‘Orthodoxy’, (specifically, ‘The Ethics of Elfland), pursued a somewhat similar line of thought, though it may be that he was far more radical. Chesterton conceded that there are, in fact, things such as logical and mathematical necessities – one plus one is two, if I am the son of a miller, than a miller is my father. These are necessarily true. But then he makes what may turn out to be a stunning observation:

‘If Jack is the son of a miller, a miller is the father of Jack. Cold reason decrees it from her awful throne: and we in fairyland submit. If the three brothers all ride horses, there are six animals and eighteen legs involved: that is true rationalism, and fairyland is full of it. But as I put my head over the hedge of the elves and began to take notice of the natural world, I observed an extraordinary thing. I observed that learned men in spectacles were talking of the actual things that happened — dawn and death and so on — as if they were rational and inevitable. They talked as if the fact that trees bear fruit were just as necessary as the fact that two and one trees make three. But it is not.’

What Chesterton does here is to note that there is nothing necessary about an actual fact – that X happens does not mean that X is necessary. In all actuality, Chesterton says that anything may happen. There is not a chain of absolute causality about simple factual happenings – in the physical sciences, ‘there are no laws, only weird repetitions.’ 

Hume took the insight and argued that we have no right to expect that something, say, eating bread, will produce the same effects as it did in the past. I was nourished by bread in the past – but it does not follow necessarily that I will be nourished by it in the future.

Chesterton took this basic point and agreed with it – I’m not nourished by bread by necessity. It’s entirely possible that bread will not nourish me in the future. But what Chesterton argued is that though everything is contingent that happens, and we can’t count on repetition in a logical and necessary sense, reality is structured such that it should turn out to be an odd surprise if one should find trees bearing tigers instead of fruit. Every event is radically contingent, but reality itself is not structured in such a way that anything does come anything. The relations between necessary and logical propositions and facts do not give us a structure of reality as a whole which involves a chain of causation for every event – no event had to occur a certain way.

‘Chesterton’s stunning insistence in ‘The Ethics of Elfland,’ that science as such gives only logical identities and relations but no realities, should make him appear an interpreter of science to be ranked with a Duhem and a Meyerson.’ (Stanley Jaki,‘Interpreter of Science,’  from ‘Chesterton, A Seer of Science’).

It took me a long time to see the force behind Chesterton’s line of thought. The radical contingency and opposition to strict causal laws goes far beyond Hume, in my opinion.


My wife, and my dog.

Smiling Sticks

Pumpkin Glory

Everyone, meet my dog, Glory. The past few days she’s been wandering around the house with a pumpkin hat on. She cracks me up! Tomorrow will be 6 months from the day we rescued her. What a wonderful 6 months it’s been!!! This picture has been melting the hearts of my friends and family, so I thought I would share it with all of you! (: Enjoy!

Have a beautiful day! ♥

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More Metaphysical Musings

If great art reflects in some way the glory and beauty of God, what of somber art, or sad music? I remember Wolterstorff said something quite profound about God and suffering:

‘It is said of God that no one can see His face and live. I always though this meant that no one could see His splendour and live. A friend said perhaps it meant no one can see His suffering and live. Or perhaps His suffering is His splendour.’ (Nicholas Wolterstorff, ‘Lament for a Son’, p. 81)

That particular volume is a profound and painful meditation in the context of the loss of a dear loved one – but I wonder if something along my current line of thought can’t be drawn from it. Could it be the case that genuine sad music, genuine heartbroken, grief-stricken music, reflects an element of God’s suffering (I here affirm Barth’s position in impassibility, which you can find in the ‘Barth’ category on the right side of the blog)?

Metaphysical Musings

I’ve never really put too much though into Platonic realism. I knew about it and all, but really have never really sat down and thought about it. But a while ago I read something about Schopenhauer’s theory of music – how music actually enables us to see the Forms, of sadness, or happiness, or whatever, and by doing so release us, if only for a moment, from Will. That, to me, (and I’m *not* a Schopenhaur expert at all, so that’s probably a pretty lame breakdown of hi idea) is one of the most beautiful ideas in philosophy, and the more I’ve thought about it lately, the more force it seems to have. From a theistic perspective, in which God *is* goodness, and beauty, it would seem that music and art don’t reflect simply an abstract Form out there in a metaphysical realm, but reflect something, however imperfect and however small, of that Ultimate Reality which is the very substance of beauty, and love, and goodness. For that brief moment that we see a great painting or hear a beautiful song, we catch a small glimpse of that from which beauty and goodness derive any meaning.

Metaphysical Note

I don’t think it’s really right to say that ‘science proves X philosophy is true’, or, ‘science proves X metaphysics is true’, because philosophy and metaphysics deal with that which makes science possible on a foundational lvel – not how this or that particular physical state is possible, but how is that there is any physical state at all, and what makes (say) change from one state to another possible or sensible? It’s far more general – not this or that phenomena but how it is that phenomena is in the first place. You can get from philosophy to science, but not from science to philosophy.