More Reading Notes 11/30/14

Just got Gilson’s ‘Unity of Philosophical Experience’ yesterday, and it’s great. So far a good, detailed historical exposition of medieval and early modern philosophical ideas. The sections on Descartes are really interesting. So far this is the best of the three Gilson books I’ve read.

Searle’s ‘Mind, Language and Society’ is fantastic. The opening section on basic metaphysics is just outstanding and once you get into the meat of his position on consciousness it just gets better. His view of consciousness as a biological phenomenon akin to vision or taste is pretty interesting and reminds me of Timothy O’Connor’s view of emergent individualism. But it’s definitely classic Searle – clear, precise and easy to understand philosophy and biology.

Pelikan’s ‘Spirit of Eastern Christendom’ has been a great resource. His sections on Maximus, nature, will and the christological debates are brilliant and should be required reading for anyone interested in theological anthropology.

I’ve started paging through my copy of ‘The Philosophy of Language’, edited by A.P. Martinich. Specifically, the section on speech-acts (John Austin, to be more specific). Philosophy of language is so fun – learning ‘How to Do Things With Words’ is one of the coolest things in philosophy.

I skimmed through a lovely little book called ‘This Book Has Feelings’, which is a broad overview of the psychology of emotion written in a very light and easy to understand way. It’s worth spending the few bucks on, in my opinion. I read it when I had a sudden urge to study nostalgia and the neurobiology and psychology behind it, which is a fascinating thing to study.

I’ve been reading ‘Tales From the Empire’, which is the first volume in the ‘Tales From’ series of Star Wars books. It’s pretty cool, because several of these short stories were actually source-material that was published in the ‘Star Wars Adventure Journal’, which was a companion to the Star Wars RPG. Great little stories – short, punchy, grimy. They feel like the old LucasArts games – like the Jedi Knight games. Dark corners, back alleys, and all manner of fun.

Thoughts on Natures and Freedom

I happened upon a comment made in regards to Johnathan Edward’s book on freedom of the will, in which it is stated that man always acts in accordance with his nature. This is interesting to me, for a number of reasons. What follows are some jumbled thoughts on the subject.

First off, let’s forget about ‘free will’ in the sense of being able to choose X over Y, since as I’ve argued before, the freedom of the will has very little to do with volition or choosing. Edwards’ claim is that we always choose according to our inclinations and affections. This seems to me demonstrably false – it is not my natural inclination to run 2 miles every day (even if it is a slow pace) or to limit from my diet beer, soda and cake, yet I do so in defiance of my inclinations (which is to sit on my couch, drink beer and get fat). I certainly hope I’m misunderstanding something here, because to ascribe inclinations and affections such determinative power seems quite silly.

What then is a nature? It’s not something which determines how I act, since I can always act outside my nature. In fact, I don’t think ‘nature’ has a whole lot to do with volition, or choosing, or inclinations, or any of the standard ways in which the will is usually explained. Theologically, human nature, humanity, is Christ. Jesus is true human nature. Torrance goes a bit more technically into defining nature – he takes a cue from Heidegger and defines it as the being of something which is revealed out from its hidden-ness. He ties it very closely to being.

Man’s nature is oriented towards the Good, though the effects of sin often make this fact a hard one to believe. One is not free by choosing X over Y. Instead of the nature being that which determines how we act, our nature is that to which we are oriented and which we may or may not move towards. True human nature is Christ. True freedom is the realization of our being in Christ. Freedom is not the ability to choose according to our natures. Freedom is attaining that to which our nature is oriented.

Joy, Longing and Nostalgia

C.S. Lewis is pretty well-known for his ‘argument from desire’, which is more or less a take on certain aspects of Platonic philosophy. Nostalgia and joy (or sehnsucht, or longing) for Lewis are indicators of our other-worldiness. Our desires and longing for beauty reflect our desire for the Divine, beauty itself. That small nostalgic ache we get at the end of a beautiful symphony or as a sunset fades is a desire for something ‘which no natural happiness will satisfy.’ Sensible beauty serves to awaken a much deeper longing for the beauty of the absolute.

Augustine makes a similar point in with the famous opening phrase of his ‘Confessions’: our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you. Pascal says similar things as well. Beauty, the experience of the beautiful, our desire for the beautiful, is a reflection of our desire for the absolute, for beauty itself. Lewis makes another point that when we have summoned into glory, that old ache will be healed. We’ll be made whole again. (A quick Google search will yield a large number of quotes made by Lewis on this topic that are worth reading)

‘The beautiful is unquestionably a transcendental orientation of the mind and the will, because the desire it evokes can never be exhausted by any finite object; it is an ultimate value that allows one to make judgements of relative value, and that weds consciousness to the whole of being as boundlessly desirable. whether or not there is actualy such a thing as an eternal beauty beyond the realm of the senses, the effect within us of beauty’s transcendce as an ideal horizon, toward which the mind is habitually drawn and apart from which the mind would not be open to the world in the way that it is. And that, in itself, is enough to render the physicalist narrative of causality profoundly dubious.’ (David Bentley hart, ‘The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss’, p. 285)

Now, obviously, this isn’t an argument of any kind – nor is it ignoring the physiological/biological aspects of nostalgia, which, incidentally, is a fascinating study. Think of this as simply some musings on the transcendent nature of the experience of beauty.

Pelikan on Maximus and Augustine

‘It is instructive at this point to contrast the Augustinian system with that of Maximus. For example, Maximus said that “we were freed by holy baptism from ancestral sin,” which sounds very much like the Augustinian doctrine of a sinfulness passed on from Adam to his descendants for all generations. Human nature lost “the grace of impassibility and became sin.” In other passages, too, Maximus spoke of sin and the fall in an apparently Augustinian fashion. But Maximus’s doctrine, while referring of course to the sin of Adam, did not have in it the idea of the transmission of sin through physical conception and birth. Rather, Maximus saw Adam not as the individual from whom all subsequent human beings sprang by lineal descent, but as the entire human race embodied in once concrete but universal person. In spite of the superficial parallels between the two, therefore, Augustine’s doctrine of man and Maximus’s doctrine were really quite different. Photius recognized that the church fathers had a twofold anthropology, one praising and the other reviling human nature. In the Eastern tradition this did not lead to the Western view of sin through the fall of Adam, but to a view of death through the fall of Adam, a death that each man merited through his own sin. Thus the hardening of Pharaoh, which Augustine had interpreted as at one and the same time a result of the secret predestination of God and an act of Pharaoh’s own free will, was to Photius a proof that “God, who never does violence to the power of free will, permitted [Pharaoh] to be carried away by his own will when he refused to change his behavior on the basis of better counsel.’ (Jaroslav Pelikan, ‘The Spirit of Eastern Christendom 600-1700,’ p. 182)


Searle argues for biological naturalism against dualism and materialism – he claims that dualism/materialism both lead to incoherent conclusions. I agree with this, for the most part. Cartesian dualism, or substance dualism, seems to be largely a dead end (except for Swinburne) – and, as I’ve noted before, dualism of this stripe is pretty much a product of Descartes systematic abstraction and reification of the mind and secondary qualities.

Now, I have no problem with consciousness being a biological kind of thing – it is certainly silly to think of consciousness as a kind of mysterious non-material product of an equally mysterious mind, and then this leads to the interaction problems. So perhaps, instead of naturalising consciousness, as Searle does, there’s a mediatory way. Suppose we think of consciousness as physical and biological but simply not reducible to the physical and biological.

For me personally, it’s intentionality that is the biggest circle that a naturalist has to square, and I don’t think it can be done. It seems to me to be pretty much wishful thinking to suppose that a purely physical system can be ‘about’ something, or have any kind of intentionality. Hart makes an interesting point:

‘Thoughts can be directed towards things, but (if the modern picture of nature is true) things cannot be directed towards thoughts, and so the specific content of the minds intentions must be determined by consciousness alone. One could never derive the specific meaning of a given physical event from the event itself, not even a brain event, because in itself it means nothing at all; even the most minute investigation constituents and instances could never yield the particular significance that the mind represents it as having.’ (‘Being, Consciousness, Bliss’, p. 195-196)