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)