An Introduction to Philosophy for Deacons: Issue #13

(The following are the written notes/texts of four, three hour, online session presentations given in the months of February through May in A.D. 2018.  A similar set of presentations was given to a previous group some years earlier.  The group consisted of diaconal aspirants, spouses, and diocesan officials of the Diocese of Pueblo in Colorado, United States.  The fifteen articles found here will include thirteen specific philosophical issues, covered in those four online sessions.)

Let us now turn to Issue #13:  Essence and the Rejection of Essence

A distinguishing feature of moderate realism is the belief that things are real and that each thing has its own essence, its own nature.

With modernity, beginning around A.D. 1250, we see a growing disbelief in, and disregard for the reality of essences or natures.

A distinguishing feature of modern science, in contrast to the open ended considerations of philosophy, is the strict limit science places on what it considers.

Modern science limits itself to causality, the relationship of cause and effect, the belief that all that can be known about things are their external causes.  By contrast, the natural philosophy of classical science and the belief of Roman Catholic philosophy, is that the essences of things are made up of four internal causes referred to as material, formal, efficient, and final.  This doctrine of moderate realism and natural philosophy is called causation.

Being only interested in external causes, modern science has no interest in discussing the essences or natures of things.  And, in fact, when you talk with real scientists who have no bones to pick with religion and philosophy, you will notice they almost never use the words essence and nature.

A second rejection of essences or natures involves the social and political and philosophical attitude referred to as historicism.

Historicism is quite prevalent in how most people think and talk today.  Historicism states that things don’t really have essences or natures.  The truth which one can discern regarding the things with which one interacts is not found by discovering the internal causes which make up their essence or nature.  Rather, historicism asserts that any truth, if we can call it truth; any truth which can be known about any given thing can only be known when the story, the history, of that thing is fully played out and known.

In the words of George Wilhelm Frederic Hegel, whose writings, according to Hannah Arendt, are nothing but a philosophy of history; according to Hegel, “the owl of Minerva spreads her wings only with the falling of dusk”.

The owl of Minerva in Greek mythology was the symbol of knowledge and wisdom.  Dusk represents the end of the story; the history, of some thing one considers.  Only when the story of that thing is ended, can we really know what that thing is about.  Only then does the owl of wisdom spread its wings.

We live in an age in which people have real doubts about whether or not things have actual essences, which are valuable to know.  The people to which we preach have real doubts about whether or not we can actually know things as they are in themselves.

One important manifestation of this modern doubt in the existence of essences, and doubt in our ability to known things as they are in themselves, involves issues related to human rights; the natural rights possessed by persons.

In Roman Catholic social science, the word rights refers to those things which persons need to attain those goals which are uniquely human.  In order to become free, to be creative, to be happy, to attain eternal life; persons must have certain things; things such as food, shelter, education, health care, freedom, family.  Persons’ rights to these things are called natural.  These rights are called natural because they are related to those goals which are part of human nature.

We can only know what the goals of human nature are, if we can discern and display what human nature is; the essence of human kind.  If there is confusion about what human nature is, or if there is doubt that we can identify essences; it necessarily follows that we cannot identify the natural rights of persons.  

In order to correctly identify the natural rights of persons, we must first clearly understand human nature.  In order to understand human nature, we must be certain that things in general, and persons in particular, have essences or natures which can be discerned and displayed.

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An Introduction to Philosophy for Deacons: Issue #12

(The following are the written notes/texts of four, three hour, online session presentations given in the months of February through May in A.D. 2018.  A similar set of presentations was given to a previous group some years earlier.  The group consisted of diaconal aspirants, spouses, and diocesan officials of the Diocese of Pueblo in Colorado, United States.  The fifteen articles found here will include thirteen specific philosophical issues, covered in those four online sessions.)

Let us now turn to Issue #12, The Ego-Centric Predicament

When we see an apple, when we smell the scent of apple blossoms, when we hear music; it is true, that that of which we are aware are images of these things within our minds.  Our awareness is of these mental image constructs.  These images in our minds are due in part to electrical and chemical impulses in and through the sense organs, and within the brain.

Rene Descartes provided us the philosophical language to state and understand this truth.

Descartes also pointed out that such mental-images could be mistakes or illusory.  His examples were mirages and dream images.  Today, we know that near indistinguishable mental images can be formed by means of brain injury, brain damage, hallucinogenic drug use, interaction with advanced algorithmic based software systems.

We have become use to the real possibility that all the mental images of which we are aware exist only in our minds.  Movies regularly invite us to consider the possibility that not only is synthetic experience preferable to real experience; they invite us to consider that all experience is actually, only neuro-electrico-chemical synthetic experience.

Monsignor Robert Sokolowski of The School of Philosophy of The Catholic University of America refers to this in the following manner, “Consciousness is taken to be like a bubble or enclosed cabinet; the mind comes in a box.  Impressions and concepts occur in this enclosed space, in this circle of ideas and experiences, and our awareness is directed toward them, not directly toward the things “outside”…we are not in any direct contact with them…we are caught in an ego-centric predicament.  It seems unquestionable that everything cognitional must happen “inside the head,”  and that all we could possibly be in touch with are our own brain states.  I once heard a famous brain scientist say, almost tearfully, that after so many years of studying the brain, he still could not explain how “that avocado-colored organ inside our skulls” could get beyond itself and reach out into the world.  I would venture to say that almost everyone who has gone to college and taken some courses in physiology, neurology, or psychology would have the same difficulty.”

If all individual awarenesses are of various brain states, we then do not sense a world outside our own brain states.  We no longer have a world in common.  Sokolowski continues, “If we do not have a world in common, then we do not enter into a life of reason, evidence, and truth.  Each of us turns to our own private world…we do our own thing….the truth makes no demands on us.   We know this relativism cannot be the final story…but philosophically and culturally we find it difficult to ratify our naive acceptance of a common world and our ability to discover and communicate what it is.”

If we do not have a world-in-common, if we are unable to discover and display realities outside of ourselves, we then begin to avoid dialogue.  Dialogue is the use of speech to display truths.

Beginning in the mid A.D. 1800s, a growing realization of the ego-centric predicament and a response to the ego-centric predicament arose.  This response to the ego-centric predicament is now known as phenomenology.  The founder associated with phenomenology is an Edmund Husserl.

Because the ego-centric predicament had many moral, social, and political ramifications, phenomenology was adopted by many Christians, many Roman Catholics, and persons who became Roman Catholics.  I wish to mention only three.

Edmund Husserl was a teacher of Edith Stein.  Edith Stein earned her Ph.D. summa cum laude under the direction of Husserl in A.D. 1913.  Stein was born a Jew,  Later, she also became a Roman Catholic, being baptized in A.D. 1922.  In A.D. 1933, Edith Stein entered a religious order and became known as Sister Teresa Benedicta of the Cross.  In A.D. 1942 she was executed at Auschwitz because she was a Jew.  In A.D. 1987 she was beatified and in A.D. 1988 was canonized a Saint by Pope John Paul II.

Pope John Paul II, also a canonized saint, as the Polish priest Karol Woytyla, earned a Ph.D. in philosophy with an emphasis on phenomenology.

Robert Sokolowski, a professor of philosophy at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., has the sobriquet of “the other Polish phenomenologist” in reference to the Polish phenomenologist Woytyla.

Phenomenology invites us to “get back to the thing itself”.  Regardless of what we are considering, a thing such as gravity, or the person in our pastoral care who is suffering emotionally, or an event such as opioid addiction; phenomenology invites us to “get back to the thing itself”.  Phenomenology invites us to discover and display in dialogue the essences of things.

Phenomenology refers to “getting back to the thing itself” as eidetic imaging.  This eidetic imaging causes phenomenologists to realize that awareness ia always awareness of something; consciousness is always consciousness of something.

Essences and natures are always the ultimate route and source of all mental impressions.  The discovery and display of the essences of things, persons, and events is what truth is.  Dialogue is the means by which truth is displayed.

An Introduction to Philosophy for Deacons: Issue #11

(The following are the written notes/texts of four, three hour, online session presentations given in the months of February through May in A.D. 2018.  A similar set of presentations was given to a previous group some years earlier.  The group consisted of diaconal aspirants, spouses, and diocesan officials of the Diocese of Pueblo in Colorado, United States.  The fifteen articles found here will include thirteen specific philosophical issues, covered in those four online sessions.)

Let us now turn our attention to Issue #11:  Material Reductionism

Roman Catholicism, in its theology and philosophy, states that the human person is an indivisible unity of body and soul.

In his Discourse of Method, Rene Descartes articulates the idea that the human person is composed of a res cogitans (the thinking thing) and a res extensa (a body thing).  He states that the res cogitans (the thinking thing) resides within the res extensa (a body thing).  He states that the res cogitans is the spiritual component of the human person, is the place where the person is found, and is the place where thinking is located.

Further, in his Discourse on Method, Descartes gives birth to the concept and practice of medical technology.  He states that the best way to deal with the illness and physical needs of the human person is to understand that the human body is a machine and should be treated as a machine.  We would say today, that Descartes gives birth to the idea that the human body is a carbon based machine in contrast to those machines/tools which are composed of silicon (e.g. eyeglasses, computer components) or of metal (shovels, tractors).

Modernity, modern western culture, largely embraces the Cartesian ideas that the human person is a spirit in a body, a ghost in the machine; and that our physical needs are best met by treating the human person as an electro-chemical machine.  This idea of the person as a ghost-in-the-machine is called Cartesian dualism.

Material reductionism is a result of the modern adoption of the ideas of the ghost-in-the-machine and of the human body as an electro-chemical machine.

Material reductionism is the attitude that the ideas and images in our minds can be accounted for by chemical and electrical modifications within our physical brains.    We know that, to a degree, this is true.  We know that the actual apple at which I am looking; that the light by which we see that apple is changed into optical electrical impulses and chemical impulses in the material brain which contribute to creating an image of the apple in our minds.

Further, we know that people taking hallucinogenic substances or who suffer from brain injuries or diseases, see (feel, smell, taste, hear) things which are only present in the mind.  For example, a victim of war related Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and alcoholism may begin to see snakes which aren’t real.

If the snakes I see are nothing more than some neuro-electrical-chemical activity in the brain, then it becomes possible to assume that other things, such as love, can also be just a neuro-chemical-electrical activity in the brain.

As persons resign themselves to a material reductionist possibility; they become more materialistic, consumptive, self-serving, utilitarian, hedonist.

Sometimes material reductionism will adopt a mental-gymnastics to develop reasons to suggest that the human machine can generate values and virtues which transcend the human machine; which are more than neuro-electrical-chemical states.  Such attempts fail due to being, ultimately, self-contradictory.

A final necessary consequence of the idea that human values and virtues are the products of neuro-electrical-chemical activity, is the belief that non-human entities can also have similar neuro-electrical-chemical values and virtues; non-human animals, human-animal chimeras, advanced algorithmic machines.

Because it is true that the images in our minds of things outside ourselves are, in part the result of optical and cerebral electrical-chemical activity and because synthetic experiences can be created which are indistinguishable from actual experiences; because of these, many persons have lingering doubts about the reality and value of actual human values and virtues.  These doubts coincide with preferences for synthetic experience.  Examples include:

  • phubbing (phone-snubbing) excessive cell phone use in social situations
  • addiction to totally immersive electronic video-gaming
  • doubt of dialogue’s value due to the growing inability to distinguish whether the conversation I am having is with a person or an algorithmic software program.