Ephemeral Philosophical Reflection: Writing

“Anyone who has followed this discourse and digression will know well that, if…anyone…great or small, has written a treatise on the highest matters and first principles of things, he has, so I say, neither heard nor learnt any sound teaching about the subject of his treatise; otherwise, he would have had the same reverence for it, which I have, and would have shrunk from putting it forth into a world of discord and uncomeliness.  For he wrote it, not as an aid to memory–since there is no risk of forgetting it, if a man’s soul has once laid hold of it; for it is expressed in the shortest of statements–but if he wrote it at all, it was from a mean craving for honour, either putting it forth as his own invention, or to figure as a man possessed of culture, of which he was not worthy, if his heart was set on the credit of possessing it.”

Plato, “The Seventh Letter”, translated by J. Harward, Great Books of the Western World, Volume 7–Plato.

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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.

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.

An Introduction to Philosophy for Deacons

(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.)

We have now covered ten philosophical issues.  The choice of the content of these issues were

  • first, to provide you a sweeping survey of the 2,500 years of western philosophy, and
  • second, to provide you some exposure to those philosophical ideas which have been impactful upon or related to Roman Catholic Christianity.

Now we turn to contemporary western philosophy.  Here we are interested in three particular and important issues which have social and political ramifications for the world today.  These three issues are called material reductionism, the egocentric predicament, and the rejection of essence.

Contemporary Roman Catholic philosophy has taken notice of these three developments, seeks to understand them, and seeks to provide guidance in how to address and deal with them.  Specifically, it seeks to provide awareness of these issues for and to provide guidance on how to address these issues, to and for those who will be pastoral ministers, catechists, and homilists.

Deviating slightly from the outline I gave you originally, I will now treat these three contemporary developments as separate issues.  Issue #11 will be Material Reductionism.  Issue #12 will be The Ego-Centric Predicament.  Issue #13 will be The Rejection of Essence.

An Introduction to Philosophy for Deacons: Issue #10

(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 attention to the tenth issue: the rediscovery of Aristotelian Realism and Ethics

 

Aristotle:

The Medieval Period, the Middle Ages (c. A.D. 500 to 1200) ends with the rediscovery of Aristotle’s realism.

Due to Augustine’s appropriation of Platonic idealism, Christianity takes a neo-Platonic turn, developing social and political structures which emphasize an immaterial spirituality; things such as God and angels and heaven and prayer.

One manifestation of this neo-Platonic turn is the development of the monastic movement; which represents the choices of many to remove themselves from the work-a-day world to a world which is closer to heaven and God.

However, the occupants of the monasteries are still very much human and need to fill their time.  In addition to food production and prayer, many are involved in the discovery, repair, copying, and preservation of extant texts.

Among those texts preserved are the writings of Aristotle.  Christianity’s turn away from Aristotelian realism and toward Platonic idealism is the means by which Aristotle’s realism is saved for future generations.

 

Thomas Aquinas:

  • Rediscovers the writings of Aristotle
  • Thomas uses Aristotle’s methods and philosophical concepts to investigate theological matters.
  • The rediscovery of Aristotelian realism will lead to the birth of modern science.
  • Thomas uses Aristotelian social and political concepts to create new ideas and attitudes toward issues of political power, government, and law.
  • And very important is his use of Aristotle to expand upon ideas of Saint Augustine to formulate a Natural Law theory.

Natural Law theory

  • Consistent and compatible with a contingent view of human nature (down-to-earth)(feet on the ground).
  • Consistent and compatible with both the incarnation focus of Roman Catholicism and its faith based soteriological concepts.
  • There are four types of Law: eternal, natural, positive, and divine.
  • The manner in which Thomas discusses these indicates that he, Saint Thomas, fully believes that morality and politics must have human happiness as their focus and must always take into account the changing nature of human contingencies.
    • Eternal Law:  is the plan of God’s wisdom, found in the “mind” of God, by which God is involved in and directs all action and all motion of creation. 
    • Natural Law:  are fundamental inclinations placed by God in the minds of all persons.  Persons become aware of these good inclinations by means of reason directed by the Holy Spirit.  Natural Law is awareness of those aspects of eternal law which apply to human being and action.  Participation in and adherence to the natural law leads persons to their proper ends/goals.
    • Positive Law:  refers to the human ability to use reason to apply aspects of the natural law to social, political, and moral affairs.  (The word Positive is derived from the Latin word posit meaning “he puts/places”.  Sometimes Positive Law is called, somewhat inadequately, Human Law or Civil Law.)
    • Divine Law: refers to special announcements of revelation such as the 10 Commandments or Magisterial pronouncements which seek to fill holes present in positive law.
        • The need for Divine Law is exemplified in Jesus’ parable of the “Weeds Among the Wheat” (Matthew 13:24-30).  Along this line, Aquinas points out that if a lawgiver or law enforcer were too rigid, the application of law would do more harm than good.  Thomas points out that if every evil were legislated against, much harm would be done.  This is Thomas’ way of saying human nature is contingent, messy, broken, and that the lawgiver and law enforcer must make accommodations for those limitations.
  • Sensitivity to human nature as it actually is, will lead Aquinas to articulate (ST, I of II, Q19) his famous articulation of freedom of conscience; the right of the individual to follow his or her own well informed conscience, even when the dictates of that conscience are at odds with civil and/or ecclesial law.

 

Kant:

Five hundred years after Saint Thomas, Immanuel Kant will articulate ideas already percolating in western culture between the times of Aquinas and Kant.

Among these Kantian ideas is that morality should not be based upon nor accommodate the contingent, messy, incarnational, actual, down-to-earth, earthy ways of human nature.  Morality should be based on a priori synthetic propositions, which apply to all situations for all humans at all times.

Kant is a return to Platonism.  The un-earthly, non-human, ideal moral ideas of Kant bare a resemblance to the neo-Platonic Christianity of the Medieval/Middle Ages period, to the Platonism adopted by Augustine and to the idealism of Plato.

One manifestation of that Platonic adoption is that morality should be based on ideal concepts of law and morality.  Therefore, a Natural Law based morality, such as that of Aquinas, is to be rejected for two reasons (which we saw earlier):

  • Thomas Natural Law moral theory asks us to be realistic, down-to-earth, and to take into consideration the ever present aspects of human contingency.  Thomas’ morality is an incarnation reality.  Like Jesus, Thomas’ morality seeks to be fully immersed in the actual real human condition; not to have the human condition perfected as a condition for God to enter human history.  Kant rejects such a contingency based morality because such a morality can never be infallibly formalized.
  • Only ideal a priori synthetic ideas, like the algorithms governing an idealized right triangle, can obtain the necessary universality to be right in every instance.  To base morality on nature is to base morality on entities which, like the shapes of actual triangular forms, can never be universally uniform.

An Introduction to Philosophy for Deacons: Issue #9

(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 attention to the the ninth issue:  Knowledge Acquisition

Earlier, in the third issue, I pointed out a contrast between Plato, with whom ancient/classical philosophy begins, and Rene Descartes, with whom modern philosophy begins.

With Plato, as exemplified by his Allegory of the Cave, we are introduced to the idea that the best path to knowledge acquisition is through the community activity of dialogue.

With Descartes, as intimated by the narrative of his winter bivouac, we are introduced to the idea that the only useful path to knowledge acquisition is through isolated activity which denies the value of community dialogue.

There are other aspects of this contrast to which I now wish to introduce you.

Augustine’s “I believe so that I might understand” and Saint Anselm’s advocacy of “faith seeking understanding”, provide us examples of a mind set that the best path to knowledge acquisition is through attitudes of faith, trust, and loyalty.

This communal dialogical mentality continues throughout the Medieval Middle Ages period, examples being the monasteries as places of knowledge preservation and the development of the universities in the later Medieval Middle Ages period.

But, at the beginning of the period of modern philosophy, around A.D. 1250, we see a contrary attitude arise which gives rise to what might be called causation-limited-science and to what is called, the technological agenda of modernity.

In the words of Rene Descartes and Francis Bacon, two of the greatest minds of modern mathematics and scientific method, we see a complete awareness of the previous faith based attitude and a complete rejection the trusting, loyal, faith filled based learning espoused by the faith based attitude.

We see this rejection of faith, trust, and loyalty as a sure basis for knowledge acquisition in the sixth part of Descartes Discourse on Method.  In the following quotation, Descartes rejects “the speculative philosophy taught in the schools”,   “The schools” refers to the birth of the universities in the late Middle Ages.  The phrase “speculative philosophy” refers to the philosophy of Plato and Aristotle.  Descartes writes, 

“I perceived it to be possible to arrive at knowledge highly useful in life; and instead of the speculative philosophy usually taught in the schools, to discover a practical, by means of which, knowing the force and action of fire, water, air the stars, the heavens, and all the other bodies that surround us, as distinctly as we know the various crafts of our artisans, we might also apply them in the same way to all the uses to which they are adapted, and thus render ourselves the lords [masters] and possessors of nature.”

We can also see this same rejection in the words of Francis Bacon where he writes, “The Research into final causes, like a Virgin dedicated to God, generates nothing.”  The “final causes”, which Bacon rejects refers to the internal causation ideas of Aristotle and to the Christian God who authors and stills goals and purposes in the things God creates.

Finally, we see this rejection of the Platonic Christian ideal of knowledge acquisition happening best within attitudes and institutions based on faith, trust, and loyalty, in the section of the Meditations and Discourse on Method in which Descartes writes his well known je pense, donc je suis, cogito ergo sum, “I think, therefore I am”.  Descartes tells us that “I think, therefore I am” is only a broader example of his most central idea, which is, je doute, donc je suis, “I doubt, therefore I am.”  With his “I doubt, therefore I am” as the basis of his new infallible method of knowledge of acquisition, he tells us that the best way to acquire new knowledge is by doubting every assertion, being skeptical of every assertion until they are proven self-evidently or proven by mathematical consistency and/or logical support.