David Bentley Hart on Transcendence and Metaphysics

‘The dogmatic definitions of the fourth century ultimately forced Christian thought, even if only tacitly, toward a recognition of the full mystery—the full transcendence—of Being within beings. All at once the hierarchy of hypostases mediating between the world and its ultimate or absolute principle had disappeared. Herein lies the great “discovery” of the Christian metaphysical tradition: the true nature of transcendence, transcendence understood not as mere dialectical supremacy, and not as ontic absence, but as the truly transcendent and therefore utterly immediate act of God, in his own infinity, giving being to beings. In affirming the consubstantiality and equality of the persons of the Trinity, Christian thought had also affirmed that it is the transcendent God alone who makes creation to be, not through a necessary diminishment of his own presence, and not by way of an economic reduction of his power in lesser principles, but as the infinite God. In this way, he is revealed as at once superior summo meo and interior intimo meo: not merely the supreme being set atop the summit of beings, but the one who is transcendently present in all beings, the ever more inward act within each finite act. This does not, of course, mean that there can be no metaphysical structure of reality, through whose agencies God acts; but it does mean that, whatever the structure might be, God is not located within it, but creates it, and does not require its mechanism to act upon lower things. At the immediate source of the being of the whole, he is nearer to every moment within the whole than it is to itself, and is at the same time infinitely beyond the reach of the whole, even in its most exalted principles. And it is precisely in learning that God is not situated within any kind of ontic continuum with creation, as some “other thing” mediated to the creature by his simultaneous absolute absence form and dialectical involvement in the totality of beings, that we discover him to be the ontological cause of creation. True divine transcendence, it turns out, transcends even the traditional metaphysical divisions between the transcendent and the immanent.’

– David Bentley Hart (stolen from Eclectic Orthodoxy)


The Metaphysical Instinct

The metaphysical instinct has its origins in our awareness of contingency – the contingency of both ourselves and everything that is not ourselves. This instinct, this awareness, is responsible for some of the great creative minds in the natural sciences, as Stanley Jaki has argued quite powerfully. What the metaphysical instinct does most profoundly, though, is to compel us from the contingent to the necessary – this seems to be something over which we have little positive control (though we are quite capable of resisting and distorting this instinct). Reality itself, contingent as it is, points to and compels us towards the non-contingent – if we are in contact with reality in any meaningful way, then sooner or later this instinct will lead us to the necessary.

The metaphysical instinct, though it leads us to the necessary, does not lead us there necessarily. As I said above, this instinct can be resisted and distorted – a look over the history of philosophy will reveal the ideas which follow from this resistance and distortion. Positivism, rationalism, empiricism – all epistemological extremes. The metaphysical instinct compels us towards a middle ground, where our contact with empirical reality leads us far past the merely sensory.

If one grants that we are in contact with reality, a coherent, ordered universe of related things in their totality, then sooner or later, the metaphysical instinct will compel one to the necessary, the non-contingent, the Absolute, the explanation for the contingent reality with which we are in empirical contact. One can resist this instinct and the compulsion, but only at the price of sinking into mystery-mongering. To deny the metaphysical instinct and to resist the compulsion to the Absolute is to deny reality itself.

Reading Notes 4/30/14

‘Foundation and Empire’ is still really good – the Mule is a great character, and he has yet to be fully revealed. I cannot wait to get to the next book in the series. I wonder if anyone has ever tried to make use of psychohistory – seems like something that could work. If it did, that’d be pretty cool. After the Foundation novels, I’ll either start the Robot novels or ‘The Edge of Tomorrow’.

Hasker’s ‘The Emergent Self’, is a great book – I’m right now reading about the unity of consciousness as an argument against the mind being a material thing – known in modern terms as the transcendental unity of apperception, or in normal words, it’s an argument from the fact that consciousness is a single, unified experience.. Thanks for that really catchy phrase though, Kant. It’s a solid argument, though.

I have a great edition of Lovecraft stories, entitled ‘The Necronomicon’, and it looks beautiful – and I saw at the bookstore that there’s another volume, same format, of his non-Cthullu weird tales. I’d like to get that. I also saw a volume of his where the edge of the paper is black – so when the book is closed, instead of white, it’s solid black. Really cool.

I’m writing notes for a blog post on ‘meaning’ which is trickier than you might suppose. Hopefully it will appear soon – ‘meaning’ is a difficult thing to work through.

On that note, I’ve started using a composition notebook for writing, notes, etc. I used to have a little legal pad, which has a lot of scribblings on it, which I may transcribe to this larger book. Or I may keep the legal pad next to my bed, because sometimes I have an idea, but really don’t want to get out of bed, and end up forgetting by morning.

There is a great Twitter bible study going on:

http://alastairadversaria.wordpress.com/2014/04/20/twitter-bible-reading-group/ – for the schedule, see the post below.


I should have put this out earlier, but I forgot. It’s definitely worth participating in, though – lots of good food for thought so far. Use the #luke2acts hastag if you want to contribute.

Note on Mind

William Hasker makes a good case for emergent dualism, against Cartesian and Thomistic dualism (hylomorphic dualism). The very basic idea is that the mind and consciousness are generated by the activity of the brain. Such a theory avoids dualisms, which I like (though Thomism isn’t as crude of a dualism as a lot of other kinds) and it seems to make sense of the biological/physiological data. It’s a theory I’m so far sympathetic with, but not entirely convinced by.

New Books

To my surprise, there was a fill-a-bag-for-5-bucks sale at the local library – needless to say, even though I don’t need any more books, I filled my plastic shopping bag (provided by the library) with:

‘Abraham Geiger and the Historical Jesus’, by Susannah Heschel. Never heard of either of these folks, but it sounded interesting, and it’s got an endorsement by Sanders on the back, so how bad could it be? Jewish perspectives on historical Jesus study are always cool.

‘Introduction to Metaphysics’, edited by Andrew Schrodinger. I almost didn’t get this one, but it’s a sourcebook of texts on issues like free will, causality, universals, mind/body, etc etc, from Aristotle, Carnap, Berkeley, Russell, Locke, Descartes, Mill, Hume, and a ton of others, lots of which I don’t have firsthand access to. So it’s nice to have that.

‘Introduction to Logic,’ by Irving M. Copi. This is a textbook on, you guessed it, logic -a tad dated (1972), but still good. Tons of tables, practice stuff, explanations, etc.

‘Dynamics of Faith’, by Paul Tillich. Figured, why not? Might as well have it on hand.

‘A Sheltered Life: The Unexpected History of the Giant Tortoise’, by Paul Chambers. I always try and pick a book or two about something I know nothing about, and I know nothing about giant tortoises, so there you go.

‘The Idea of the Holy’, by Rudolf Otto. I’ve wanted this one for a while but not enough to go out and spend money on it. Like Tillich, good to have on hand.

‘The Cosmic Blueprint: New Discoveries in Nature’s Creative Ability to Order the Universe’, by Paul Davies. I flipped through this one and it seemed really good – lots of stuff about chaos, Prigione, thermodynamics, order, self-organization, etc. I have another book of his about philosophy/theology/physics and it’s terrible, but his straight science stuff is outstanding.

‘The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection of the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life’, by Charles Darwin. Need I explain?

Note on Intelligibility

I’ve made a fair amount of noise here about the intelligibility of reality – that there is an inherent rationality, order and intelligibility in the universe which is open to our inquiry. But it came to me last night that perhaps there doesn’t need to be built-in intelligibility for us to be able to make sense of things. Consider television static – concentrate on it long enough, and you’ll start to hear or see patterns that aren’t there. I don’t think static has any intelligibility – but the analogy shouldn’t be pushed too far.

The example above does takes place in our universe, so maybe we can’t get away from the built-in intelligibility. Of course, this may just go to show the extent to which we are meaning-makers – the extent to which our minds in their own way give shape to reality. Not idealism, mind you, but what the classical tradition called ‘the active intellect’, which is a kind of formal cause for the sensory data we receive.

At any rate, I slept poorly, so I’ll end my coffee-fueled rant.

Thought Notes on Hasker and Free Will

– Hasker observes that there is next to no empirical evidence for determinism – I’d go a bit farther and argue that empirically and scientifically, determinism is bankrupt, especially since the work done by Ilya Prigione in the field of non-equilibrium thermodynamics.

– Hasker also notes that ‘free will’ really has to be analyzed from the perspective of agent causation – that is, the person, or agent, as a whole has to be taken into consideration when thinking about human action. He also astutely notes that once if one wants to take this position, one has to reject mechanistic explanation and allow for the teleological. I find this refreshing – personally, I couldn’t care less about Frankfurt counterexamples.

– It should be no secret to anyone who reads this blog that I think the ‘free will’ debate is pretty muddled – trying to analyze whether or not any given action is ‘free’ is, to me, a pretty ridiculous idea. My immediate volition may be uncoerced/undetermined in the sense that no one is holding a gun to my head, and that I’m not strictly determined – but a lack of coercion hardly leads to the conclusion that such volition is self-caused, freely. No action occurs in a vacuum – every action I undertake is the product of my having undertaken a previous action, and each action I undertake narrows the choices I can make in the future. Free will conceived as volition simply leads to a self-made prison – my choices growing ever more restricted because of each action I undertake. (Here I’m rather indebted to Maximos the Confessor.)

– I won’t contradict myself and say that any given volition is determined by previous action/volition, which is what it sounds like I’m doing above. But it is, to quote Hart, subordinated and confined:

‘All possible choices are external to the will that chooses; they shape it from without, defining it even before it has chosen. Moreover, these possibilites are exclusive of one another: one makes a possible course of action real by rendering other courses of action impossible. And, as we all know, one can choose foolishly, or maliciously, or with a divided will. Freedom, so understood, would consist in no more than a certain kind of of largely vacuous and limited potentiality dependent upon other limited and limiting potentialities.’ (‘The Doors of the Sea’, p. 70)

– There has to be some kind of telos for the person – an end to which we are directed, a purpose for which we aim – for freedom, a real freedom, to be conceivable. Those intrigued by Maximos will find what I believe to be a substantially correct account of the person and freedom in his writings.

Note on Agency

William Hasker notes in ‘The Emergent Self’ that:

‘Mechanistic causation and mechanastic explanation are fundamentally nonteleological.’ (p. 63)

In light of this, which I take to be a fairly accurate description of mechanistic philosophy, there cannot be a fully mechanistic account of human action. Human action, and freedom/freedom of the will, require a telos, an end, a purpose, and any account which denies any of those things will ultimately fail to be coherent.

Note on Philosophy of Mind

I started reading William Hasker’s ‘The Emergent Self’ earlier this week – it’s basically philosophy of mind from an analytic point of view, which doesn’t really thrill me at all. To be honest, I hate the language and style of analytic philosophy (with the odd exception here and there). It causes me to spend way more time than necessary trying to figure out what is actually being said when I have to translate symbolic logic used in an argument for supervenience.

That aside, however, I found his criticisms of eliminative materialism pretty sound (not that EM is a really hard target) and the discussion on epiphenomenalism and mental causation quite interesting, along with the sections on mind/brain identity. Again, lots of the language is hard for me to work with but overall the arguments are interesting.

What still stands out to me is the extent to which a lot of these problems are trying to deal with a fairly naive Cartesian dualism – the interaction problem, mental causation, etc all really seem to be problems only if one accepts that either dualism of the Cartesian stripe is true or materialism/naturalism/physicalism is true. It’s odd to, more or less, ignore other conceptions of mind/matter, like Thomism, Buddhism, or any of the classical perspectives, Platonic, Stoic, etc. There’s lots out there.