Reading Notes 5/11/2014

I started reading David Bentley Hart’s article on Anselm’s ‘Cur Deo Homos’, and he makes an interesting case for reading Anselm in a much more patristic light, instead of the typical way he’s understood (in terms of merit theology/trangression/honour). Hart notes similarities in Athanasius, though, and that’s fairly interesting. Hart argues that Anselm, once some of the language barriers are overcome, is drawing from the themes of recapitulation to make his own argument – with lots of neoplatonism as well. I’ll read it a bit more in depth, but so far it’s an intriguing take on a well-worn topic.

I’m reading, one chapter per night, through Abraham Joshua Heschel’s ‘dogmatics’ – ‘Man is Not Alone’ and ‘God in Search of Man’, and I’d like to do a bit of systematizing along the way. Those two books are fantastic works of philosophy – the latter being one of the best books on religion/philosophy I’ve ever read. It’s safe to say that Heschel’s philosophy of Judaism has had a profound influence on my own spiritual development.

Wright’s book on justification remains one of my favourites. His exegesis of Galatians, while brief, is superb – though the brevity has no doubt been the reason for much of its criticism. His framing of the doctrine around the Abrahamic promises is absolutely on point, as is his insistence that the problem surrounding the occasion of Galatians is the ethnic identity of Israel. I pretty much regard this aspect of the NPP as firmly established.

Epistemology and Being

I thought fairly long and hard about the previous post I put up – Hart made a persuasive case for ‘practical idealism’. But is it true? I’ll expound a little on the realism to which I hold (which is very heavily influenced by Torrance) and see if they can fit together.

In knowing, we come into contact with a distinct reality that discloses itself to us – it discloses its own ‘truth of being’. This disclosure is controlling, in that it forces the a priori concepts/categories we have to conform with the nature/activity if whatever reality is at hand. Basically, we think ‘after’ the nature of things as they reveal themselves in their activity/operations (there are similarities here with Gregory of Nyssa’s trinitarian theology).

This disclosure of nature by activity doesn’t mean that the nature is something we know comprehensively – since nature is related to being, and the intelligibility of being is inexhaustible, even though we can know the nature as revealed, we cannot comprehend the nature. While our active intellect is formal cause of our knowledge, our concepts, significations, categories, etc, can never exhaust even the simplest reality – its very act of existing is, in a way, infinite in being.

Now, our active intellect is, as just stated, a formal cause, in that it organizes our knowledge of the intelligible being of the reality at hand into meaningful ‘structures of knowledge’. These structures are what is extracted, as Hart said, from everyday experience and formalized into meaningful categories of understanding. The key difference is that the active intellect is, for lack of a better term, subordinate to the reality it apprehends, in that its categories are always open to revision or outright discontinuation in light of the reality at hand disclosing itself to us anew, or as we experience it anew. The most simple reality, with which we are in contact with and acquainted with everyday as a matter of mundane life, has an intelligibility of being which is infinite and incomprehensible, because even the most simple reality simply exists. 

David Bentley Hart on Epistemology

‘If none of this is an illusion, and if in fact world and mind really are open to one another, and reason is real and not a fantasy generated by fortuitous regularities of physical events in our brains, then it is perfectly rational to accord a certain causal priority to mind over matter in our picture of reality…it certainly seems that, in abstracting experience into various kinds of ideal content – formal, mathematical, moral, aesthetic, and so on – the mind really does extract knowledge from what would otherwise be nothing but meaningless brute events. In fact, reality becomes more intelligible to us the more we are able to abstract it into concepts and to arrange it under categories, and then arrange our concepts under ever simple, more comprehensive, more unconditioned concepts, always ascending toward the simplest and most capacious and most unconditional concept our mind can reach. To say that something has become intelligible to us is to say that we have an idea of it that can be understood according to the simplest abstract laws and that leaves no empirical or conceptual remainder behind. This is the highest form of intelligibility. We may or may not be Platonists in our metaphysics, but we certainly must be practical idealists in our epistemology. (David Bentley Hart, ‘The  Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss’, p. 232-233)

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)

Hart Contra Hume

‘…a series of mere sense impressions of consecutive events, like smoke rising from a fire, can be synthesized into the judgment that the relation between the two evens is one of causality only because the mine already possesses the concept of cause. Hence what the senses perceieve as only a sequence the mind understands as a real consequence. And the category of cause could not be abstracted from nature were it not already present in the mind’s perception of nature. In a broader sense, however, one can say that apart from the rational organization of experience in an articulated and continuous order, under concepts formally prior to empirical data, the world would be nothing more than a sea-storm of sense impressions. The senses would not be able to perceive sequences of events because they would not be able to perceive distinct events at all.’ (David Bentley Hart, ‘The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss’, p. 190-191)

As the title of this posts makes apparent, this seems to me to be a direct refutation of Hume’s ideas on perception of causality and the self – Hume argued that the self is just a bundle of sensations and impressions. Such a view of the self is simply, to borrow from Fr. Stanley Jaki, a heap of bricks.

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)

David Bentley Hart on Consciousness and Knowledge

‘Consciousness does not merely passively reflect the reality of the world; it is necessarily a dynamic movement of reason and will toward reality. If nothing else is to be concluded from the previous chapter, this much is absolutely certain: subjective consciousness becomes actual only directed through intentionality, and intentionality is a kind of agency, directed toward an end. We could never know the world from a purely receptive position. To know anything, the mind must actively be disposed towards things outside itselff, always at work interpreting experience through concepts that oly the mind itself can apply. The world is intelligible to us because we reach out to it, or reach beyond it, comng to know the endless diversity of particular things within the embrace of a more general and abstract yearning for a knowledge of truth as such, and by way of an aboriginal inclination of the mind towards reality as a comprehensible whole. In every moment of awareness, the mind at once receives and composes the world, discerning meaning in the objects of experience precisely in conferring meaning upon them; thus consciousness lies open to – and ventures into intimate communion with – the forms of things. Every venture of reason toward an endm moreoever, is prompted by a desire of the mind, a “rational appetite.” Knowledge is born out of a predisposition and predilection of the will toward beings, a longing for the ideal comprehensibility of things, and a natural orientation of the mind toward that infinite horizon that is being itself.'(David Bentley Hart, ‘The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss’, pp. 238-239)

Reading Notes 10/15/13

David Bentley Hart’s ‘The Experience of God’ has so far been the best experience of reading I’ve head in a long, long time (Plantinga’s ‘Where the Conflict Really Lies’, was like this for me, only way more analytic). Definitely one of the best philosophy/metaphysics/philosophy of science/religion books recently published. That guy is way too smart. I’ll probably post some review-ish stuff after I’ve read it more, but suffice it to say that he brilliantly dismantles materialism on three fronts: that of being, of consciousness, and bliss. The best section so far? Very hard to say. I’ll go with consciousness and bliss for the moment – his exposition of various problems in philosophy of mind (qualia, intentionality, abstract concepts) is, quite simply, superb. Bliss? Absolutely fantastic exploration of desire, the will, the good, beauty, etc. Being is outstanding as well (it’s pure fun watching him analyze Platninga’s modal ontological argument), but so far consciousness and bliss are the best for me. If you haven’t read it, read it. It’s cheap on Amazon. One last note: his use of Eastern (primarily Hindu) and Islamic metaphysics in the section on being is pretty dang cool.

Finally getting around to reading N.T. Wright’s big books – unfortunately the library only had ‘Jesus and the Victory of God’, so I’m starting there. Very readable and easy to understand – it is dense in parts but that’s purely due to the content and not the style. I forget sometimes how powerful of a thinker Wright is, and this book is definitely re-proving it. So far of his I have and have read ‘Paul’, ‘Justification’, ‘Scripture and the Authority of God’, ‘Surprised by Hope,’ (which lives up to the hype) ‘Evil and the Justice of God’, and his popular commentary on Paul’s prison letters (and most of his available online articles and essays). N.T. Wright is the man.

Plowing through Wolterstorff’s ‘Divine Discourse’. Yikes. Dense and analytic. Well written, but even great style can’t un-densify such a topic. Great exposition of the famous Augustine passage, ‘take and read’, (or something like that), and a superb analysis and discussion of speech-acts. Great stuff for the philosopher of language in me. His seperation of divine speech and divine revelation is pretty interesting, and I’m looking forward to his discussion of inerrancy.

Also just got Torrance’s ‘Incarnation: the Person and Work of Christ’. Not as good as ‘Atonement’, unfortunately. It has a much less polished feel (these are, however, lectures – but ‘Atonement’ didn’t have this same feel). Great content – Torrance really doesn’t need a introduction in terms of his brilliant thought and command of primary sources. But again, just not as ‘wow’, feeling as ‘Atonement’. Great discussions on the meaning of ‘nature’, though, as well as things like election, hypostatic union, etc.

Sort of continuing to read through Russell’s ‘Knowledge of the External World’, and every time I pick it up, wow. What a brilliant mind – clear, precise writing, even on such a heavy topic. His linguistic approach to the problems of external-world knowledge is pretty cool, but his sense-data thing is a little out of date. But on the whole, a great philosophical read.

I just ordered Tim Maudlin’s ‘The Metaphysics Within Physics’. I’ve read/watched some of his stuff and I like him a lot. Hopefully this volume will give me a bit better understanding of modern metaphysics in current cosmology.

Finally, starting to make progress in Timothy Zahn’s ‘Vision of the Future’, which is part 2 of the ‘Hand of Thrawn’ two-book series (duology?). Yes, I am a Star Wars geek.  Zahn is an amazing sci-fi writer (read ‘Outbound Flight’, or ‘Heir to the Empire’ for further proof) and this story, while not his best work is pretty darn entertaining if a little long-winded. Over 700 pages, I think. Great writer, good writing, and a good yarn. Highly, highly recommend any of Zahn’s work, but the two cited above are absolute standouts and some of my favourite overall fiction.

And that’s what I’m reading. I hope to soon go through the two Tillich volume I have, ‘The Courage to Be’, and ‘The Essential Tillich’, in a more systematic way. I’d like to continue ‘The Russian Experiment in Art’, and explore art/aesthetics in more detail overall. John Haldane and Roger Scruton have both written in this area and I’d like to read them as well. I’ll probably start re-reading the McCarthy books I have – ‘The Road’, ‘Suttree’, ‘No Country for Old Men’, ‘Outer Dark’, and ‘All the Pretty Horses’, – come winter. Maybe go back through Redwall again. I also need to go through the to C.S. Lewis books I have on literary criticism/literature, ‘A Study in Words’, and ‘The Discarded Image,’ which means I’ll inevitably go through ‘The Monsters and the Critics’, by Tolkien.

Anyways, enough rambling. Hopefully I did nothing more than show a love for a good book – there is almost nothing I love more tan talking at length about books.