Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Mind and Body, Medieval and Modern: Augustine and Thomas Aquinas Versus Descartes

by David McGraw

Part I

In order to examine rightly whether materialism is true of the human person, one must first understand what is at stake and what alternatives there may be. In this age of Western philosophical history, that point entails that one must begin by resolving some of the errors and confusions derived from Rene Descartes. Like his predecessors, Descartes said materialism is not true of the human person, but what he meant be this denial turns out to be seriously different from what they meant.
Descartes thought of himself as a "second Augustine." In fact, the comparison of Descartes with Augustine shows rather clearly where they differ and where Descartes went wrong.
Saint Augustine exalted number as the principle of material things. Indeed, in one way, Augustine would almost be willing to agree to the thesis that material objects have only mathematical attributes, but not in the way Descartes imagined. The exact difference between them on this point is the heart of the dispute.
Augustine accepted and used Aristotle's analysis of material objects when it served his purposes, but his basic framework was Platonic or Neoplatonic. This comes out clearly in his analysis of how matter is informed. Divine wisdom is the principle of cosmic order. A dead body partakes of Divine wisdom only in the least and lowest measure. Because of this, the dead body has only number but not life or reason. In this way, and in this way only, Augustine would almost agree that material things have only mathematical attributes. Bodies have nothing more than number, measure, and weight only as being comparatively weak and shadowy on this basis.
Again, God creates matter and so must in some way contain material attributes within Himself. But He contains these attributes only by comprehending them within His knowledge and power, not by exemplifying or displaying them within His own nature. Mathematical attributes are not aspects of the Divine nature, and they are not a spillover or overfolw from the Divine nature, for there is no spillover or overflow. There is creation. God makes there be things that are not Himself and that receive from Him.
Augustine proclaimed all this, and Descartes would say he affirmed it. But Descartes did not follow out the consequence. A rational creature is superior to a dead body because God gives more to the one that to the other, and the same God is giving in both cases, although in different measures. Thus, when a created spirit does not have various mathematical attributes, this is not because it lacks something that matter has. It is rather that a created spirirt is so richly powerful by nature as to transcend the whole order of material being, including the attributes proper to material things.
The same God gives existence and attributes to both soul and body. This point is critically important. Augustine considered that matter sits at the bottom of the hierarchy of the universe. But Descartes was really denying that there is any hierarchy of the universe. Matter has the mathematical attributes, but the soul does not. Thus, they belong to different orders of being. Plato and Augustine might have to argue about whether matter is too weak and shadowy to contain or support mental life. But for Descartes, such life is simply irrelevant to matter. Mental life belongs to the soul instead of the body because the soul is the right kind of thing, and the body is the wrong kind of thing, to have these functions. So, if matter may be said to be weak, this is not because it is lacking compared to the soul. It is only because matter does not share in any law or structure that makes the connection of soul and body possible. Descartes strips down matter, but chiefly because he strips down the whole universe by denying such laws and structures.
Along this line, Descartes did not really share Augustine's strict opposition to materialism, although he would say he did. Descartes agreed with Augustine that God is totally immaterial and incorporeal. However, the concept of being purely spiritual did not mean to Descartes what it meant to his predecessors. His concept was negative in the wrong way.
The old positive concept is of levels of power and perfection that cannot be captured within matter. A pure spirit is unextended, but not because it lacks anything. Rather, it is not limited by space. Thus, God "virtually" contains attributes that He does not display. Somewhat analogously, the human soul comprehends but does not exemplify extension. More properly, the soul exemplifies extension by developing and maintaining the body, but not within itself. Descartes may have thought in these terms about God, but he did not think this way about the soul. But Augustine thought this way about both God and the soul.
On this basis, it is almost as if Descartes did not really think materialism is false of the human person after all. The reason is that the soul cannot rightly be said to be superior to the body, since the inner functioning of the soul belongs to a different order of being from the life of the body. It is almost as if the soul exercises mental life instead of developing and maintaining the body. On the other side, Augustine was very clear that the soul to which mental life belongs is the same soul that animates the body.
Yet Augustine agreed with Descartes that the human soul is numerically separate from the body and all its parts. Once again, however, the soul is separate from the body as superior to the body. It is not as though body and soul were beings of different orders that had to be magically joined at the pineal gland.
Then again, perhaps the challenge is to know what may be involved in transcending the whole order of material being in this way. In fact, Augustine himself found this hard to understand. His breakthrough came when he read the books of the "Platonists." Now, Plato was concerned with the fact of reasoning, and there is an obvious way in which reasoning involves going beyond material limitations. Given this, one can then think of things with this capability as belonging to some superior order of being (which is what Plato did in contemplating the soul).
In what way does reasoning go beyond material limitations? One who reasons is concerned with abstract principles that apply generally. (For instance, a veterinarian may think abstractly about dogs in general.) These principles apply fully and undividedly to each of a multitude of things. (The whole of what the veterinarian knows about dogs applies in its totality to each of Fido, and Rover, and Spot, and so on.) On the other side, the concrete example is just that, an example of the principles it embodies. (The veterinarian is aware of the particular dog Sparky as a given instance of what he knows.) Again, one who reasons can cut across time and space to contemplate the events and situations of remote ages and remote regions. (An astronomer does this in thinking about galaxies long ago and far away.) Indeed, reasoning involves latching onto principles that stand fast forever, beyond time and change. (Mathematics is an obvious illustration of this.) Through reasoning, one can go beyond the limits even of actual reality to be concerned with hypothetical cases. (A scientist can think about would result if such and such were to happen.) On all these points, one who reasons reaches beyond the limitations of the material.
What must be noted here is that, in view of all these considerations, knowledge based on reasoning is also superior to knowledge based on observing through the senses. Unhappily, Descartes lumped together intellectual functioning and sensory experience as mental, in contradistinction to the material. In doing this, he ended up downgrading the traditional division between sense and intellect. This error was cirtical. For sensory experience does not have these benefits, and so it stands with the material, across the great divide from intellectual functioning. Therefore, one who stands within the tradition derived from Descartes may well find the idea of spirit as superior to matter hard to understand, for he has lost sight of the principal manifestation of this superiority in ordinary human experience.
With all these considerations in view, one may go back and examine whether materialism is true of the human person. Perhaps the first thing to note is that the modern version of the problem about mind and body is not the version that was important in earlier centuries. A philosopher concerned with the modern problem will answer crude versions of materialism by saying these theories cannot account for the mental life of a dog or a cat, let alone that of a man or a woman. This answer, however, is clearly not relevant to the problem as Plato understood it. Plato argued that the soul is not merely a function or combination of bodily processes, for it can exercise effective control over animal appetites. This reply belongs to a different world from that of the modern version.
In earlier centuries, it was considered that the material world is reasonably rich, as opposed to being stripped down in the manner of Descartes. The question was whether, given this, the human subject must then include some level or layer above the material. Plato said yes, as did Aristotle, Augustine, and Thomas Aquinas. They said this because they believed (1) the distinctive functions of intellect and will reach above the material and (2) these functions cannot really be constructed from lower level processes.Whether all this is correct or not, these thimkers at least asked the right questions more than those who follow Descartes.


  1. I would like to welcome David to our group. As you point out the claim that the mind is non-spatial is hardly original with Descartes, and it is certainly more plausible when emphasizing reasoning aspects of the mind than with those concerning sensory experiences. I know that Descartes struggles a bit in giving a non-spatial account of experiences in his reply to the objections of Gassendi. Do you know if Augustine also addresses this issue?

  2. A hearty welcome to David McGraw, and thanks to him for this fascinating and lucid exegesis that serves to remind us of the metaphysical background behind the thinking of Descartes on these topics, something that is often excluded from discussions of his ideas on vision, and on the nature of mind and its relation to the body, even in the philosophical literature.

    Atheists reading David's remarks will naturally be skeptical and certainly uncomfortable with the central role that God plays in this metaphysical picture, but I would ask, if God is "removed from the equation," as it were, does that picture still make sense? This is one of the problems with the history and philosophy of science in general, since so much of science was developed by pious men. The current arch atheist spokesman, Richard Dawkins (as it happens a cousin of John Smythies) would undoubtedly argue that God (and thus spirit) is just superfluous or an anthropomorphic myth to explain physical phenomena, and that it can be omitted completely without loss of sense.

    Is it just a coincidence that most of us contributing to the blog are also interested in cosmology and ontology in general, even if we are not mostly "pious men"?

  3. Welcome David! This refreshing reminder that Cartesian dualism (the target of so much contempt by contemporary materialists) is not the only form of dualism comes at a timely moment—at a time when any mention of any kind of dualism at a neuroscientific or psychological conference is liable to be hissed off the stage. Your account of Augustinian dualism was very informative. The new theory of material dualism recognizes that the psyche (as one may call the part of a human being that is not ontologically his/her physical body) contains a non-material non-extended potentially immortal part—the transcendental Self. This is in line with classical Hindu psychology, where the Self appears as the Atman, that belongs to Brahman—which Aldous Huxley called "The Divine Ground of all Being." Bill referred to the skeleton in our family cupboard—namely the Atheist Messiah himself. However, I am glad to be able to inform the group that he is balanced by another cousin—Yorick Smythies— was was one of Wittgenstein's two closest disciples, along with Elizabeth Anscombe. Yorick was also a staunch Catholic: as was another more distant cousin—Graham Greene.

  4. Well, as for the balance among the cousins, hey, what can I say? As for Hinduism, I am with Thomas Aquinas (and also Augustine) in denying that the human soul is naturally divine. As near as I can figure, Aquinas was right in the reasons he gave for saying the soul is not of God's own substance. The working of the human intellect is weak and limited even at best, even when everything goes right. There is not the perfection God would enjoy. As for the idea that such weak limited functioning is merely some construct within God, or some game God is playing on Himself, there seems not to be any way to make this add up or work out in detail. Like Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, I agree with Hinduism there is God the Absolute at the top as the primary basis, but as the Creator ex nihilo. The human soul is spiritual, but as a created being. On the other side, I must concede there is some problem here. Since reasoning involves viewing "all time and all existence" (as Plato said), or viewing from the "God's eye point of view" (as it is put nowadays), it seems to be somewhat mysterious why any being other than God Himself can reason. This point would seem to be the best entering wedge for this version of classic Hindu psychology. Still, I do not buy it, and I hope I can find another answer. Well, there is Dave's rant for tonight. So sorry, but you pushed one of my buttons.

  5. If I have understood David's synopsis, the Divine and spirit are not extended (admittedly a curious order of existence for a scientist or even a philosopher to contemplate), whereas the world of matter and the senses is. It would be interesting and helpful for our purposes here to know how Augustine and Aquinas arrived at these ideas, though I should imagine it was to create a logically (internally) consistent picture that would also be consistent with the Scriptures, as became the whole goal of Scholasticism.

    In historical context, both Platonism and neoplatonism enjoyed wide popularity in the Renaissance, thus closer to Descartes' time, and it would be interesting, for example, to know how much of his thinking might have been influenced (if at all) by Plotinus, for one, and his ideas about wholes and "the One" ("Τὸ Ἕν" in Hellenistic philosophy), which would thus tie in with Gestalt theory and Ganzheit philosophy.

    This past year or so I have become somewhat interested in neoplatonism partly because of interest I have in the ideas of Surrealism which, I believe an argument could be made, are neoplatonic in nature, and that particularly the idea of the "fourth dimension," which they tried to equate with the "sur-" part of "surrealism," is essentially a quasi-Platonic one. Of course, with the notable exception of Michel Larrouges, all the Surrealists were devout atheists (as Marxists), in spite of their great interest in the occult and the paranormal.

  6. In fact, the Divine and spirit turn out to be less curious for a scientist to think about than may be imagined. As I developed in the essay, Augustine learned to think beyond the material from the Platonists, and Plato was concerned with the fact of reasoning. Now, perhaps the best statement around of the need for the "God's eye point of view" in reasoning comes from a scientist, John Haldane (the biochemist of the early twentieth century, not the modern philosopher). The quote is from his essay "When I Am Dead," in Possible Worlds and Other Essays. "But I notice that when I think logically and scientifically or act morally my thoughts and actions cease to be characteristic of myself, and are those of any intelligent or moral being in the same position; in fact, I am already identifying my mind with an absolute or unconditioned mind." The idea of being absolute or unconditioned in this way is what Augustune and Thomas Aquinas had as their idea of God. The idea of going beyond material limitations (but perhaps not all limiitations) is their idea of being spiritual. That is all.

  7. David says that the fact that the human intellect is weak and limited counts against the Hindu concept that the human soul is a part of the Divine Ground of all being in some sense, since God is perfect and cannot, logically, have imperfect parts. However, the skeptic could ask, if the human intellect is so weak, how could humans ever hope to discover the facts about God that various theologians claim that they know? Different religions give different answers to these questions. Furthermore what guarantee is there that God, if such exists, is bound by human logic? I feel that, in trying to understand God and the origins of the Universe, we humans are like tadpoles in a muddy pond trying to understand the General Theory of Relativity.
    In these matters I adhere to the sturdy agnosticism of Thomas Henry Huxley.
    It is possible, that this world, with its ration of joy and love—and all its pain, misery and suffering—was created by a God, for what purposes we can scarcely be said to know. We can only make hopeful guesses.
    It is also possible that the world (especially the infinite Universe described by Brane Theory) was not created, but simply exists—but this does not rule out the possibility that human beings have immortal souls in the Eastern tradition. Only dogmatic Identity Theorists believe that humans cannot have souls under any dispensation. The questions of whether God exists, and whether humans have immortal souls, seem to me to be quite distinct. Unlike the problem of the existence of God we can approach the problem of the human soul in a scientific manner: Jean-Pierre has shown us one promising way to do (in this blog).

  8. Certainly, I myself do not see how the amazing Universe we live in can have been formed solely by an accumulation of random events honed by natural selection. For me an enigma still lies behind the Universe. What humans need to do at the present time, as moral beings, is to combat the nihilism that infects our current Weltanschauung and to which the current narrow outlook of orthodox science lends powerful support. As Steven Weinberg put it:
    “The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless.”
    “If there is a God that has special plans for humans, then He has taken very great pains to hide His concern for us. To me it would seem impolite if not impious to bother such a God with our prayers”.
    A civilization based on these principles is not going to last very long—especially in competition with militant Islam with its fanatical drive and huge demographic advantage.

  9. In my satirical play “The Trial of God” (Amazon, 2006) God is accused by the Counsel for the Prosecution (Voltaire) of numerous crimes against humanity. The Counsel for the Defense (the Archangel Michael) argues that God can be best understood, not as Jean’s “Great Mathematician”, but as the Ultimate Artist. The Universe is His artistic, rather than moral, creation. Art, not science, offers humans the best way to understand the world. Science just tells us about the mundane mechanics of the world. Art, Michael continues, tells us about what the world really is. Witnesses include Darwin, Freud, Nietzsche, Marx, Machiavelli, Einstein, Crick, Jesus, and Muhammad, The verdict is left to the reader.

  10. Yes, right. What the wisest men would say, I do not know. As for myself, I should have to say that, unless we can rightly affirm that "human logic" (=logic founded on the basic division between truth and falsity) applies to God, then we just do not know enough about Him to speak of Him at all, even to affirm that He exists. We have simply to leave alone the whole question, for we literally do not know what we are talking about.
    Assuming that logic does apply even to God Himself, what then? One can know about Him by tracing through what is entailed in His status and character as the primary basis, the "Ground of all being." Beyond that, all that can be known is by special revelation.
    As for the question of immortal souls, yes, in one way this is separate from the questions about God or no God. Then again, I should have to go along with the line that Bill Rosar indicated above and say the question about mind and body leads into deeper questions of ontology and cosmology. From there, I would agree with the basic ontology of Thomas Aquinas. Given this, it seems to be fairly clearly a slam dunk that yes there is God the Absolute at the top as Creator ex nihilo.

  11. On second thought, I see I have understated my case. It is not just that we cannot affirm God unless we can say logic applies to Him. It is much more serious. It is that we cannot even ask whether He exists or not. Unless the basic division between truth and falsity applies, there is no difference between saying He exists and saying He does not exist. But of course, a question with no difference between the answers Yes and No is a nonsense question. This strong version of not knowing what we are talking about is what is at stake here.
    Moreover, it will not work to leave aside the talk of God and speak of the basic mystery of the Universe. Some version of this same problem will apply to anything that may be said about the "Ground of all being." Whatever may be said will be nonsense unless logic applies. Is there only chance and chaos, with random events that have added up to be honed by natural selection? Given that logic does not apply to the primary basis, there will be no difference between the answers Yes and No.
    Furthermore, the question of whether God is "bound by human logic" involves a fundamental error. Stated in these terms, this question is exactly backwards. It is not that God is bound by human ideas and categories. It is that human thinking, when it goes rightly, reflects the order of reality, of which God is the First Principle. If there is any legitimacy at all in speaking of reasoning as based on some "God's eye point of view," there has to be at least this much.

  12. I wish there was some way of tying this metaphysical discussion in more directly with our stated topic, which is the structure (and nature) of visual space, a topic that as we have seen thus far, is itself a rather more profound and baffling one than vision science cares to admit, preferring instead as it does to affect more knowledge than we actually possess.

    Ray Tallis, who is one of our readers and contributed a chapter here from a book he is writing, is an avowed atheist, and it would be interesting to know his thoughts in response to the dialog above between David and John as it relates to the topic of our blog. In lieu of that, here is Ray arguing for atheism

    What comes to mind just now is Isaiah: "'My thoughts are not your thoughts, and my ways are not your ways,' declares the Lord." This would seem to argue against an understanding God through logic, as many believers and atheists choose as the basis of their typically futile debates. Another approach is that of Lutheran theologian Rudolf Otto, whose work I have mentioned already, his book "Das Heilige" ("The Idea of the Holy") arguing that religious experience has its basis in a peculiar kind of emotion and consciousness, not in logic at all, which Otto viewed as a rationalization of something that is pre-rational (perhaps supra-rational?).

    To the extent that visual space is subject to being part of numinous consciousness, this seems relevant, as I wonder whether persons suffering from associative agnosia are capable of having visually numinous experience and does it depend upon an intact visual system?

  13. Funny, too, that I now recall that same passage from Isaiah was quoted to me by a pious M.D. sleep researcher at UCLA Medical Center, whom I consulted now many years ago when I was doing a little research on "night terrors." He had a special interest in super normal visual capabilities observed in catalepsy, for example, detecting incredibly brief images flashed on a TV screen while in a cataleptic state (as I recall, his name was Zimmerman).

  14. David, I agree with John in favoring agnosticism, and with Bill that it would be good to tie in issues being discussed with that of whether the conscious mind is spatial or not. I know that Descartes in his Sixth Meditation has two arguments that the mind is spatial one from the alleged clear and distinct knowledge we have of the mind, and the second (which I find more interesting) involving the claim that if the mind was spatial it would have distinguishable parts, and hence these parts in principle could be separable which goes against the basic unity of the conscious mind. Interestingly, Hume uses the same principle, of distinguishability leading to separability, to lead to the conclusion that the mind is just a bundle of sensations, and hence does not have a basic unity. Personally I think that the proper reply is to question the principle, but do you have an opinion here, or do you know if Augustine does?

  15. Well, I believe Augustine speaks to the specific question of the mind as spatial, but I am still in the course of researching that. In the meantime, I too am in favor of what Bill said, and I have been thinking about his proposal that visual experience may have to do with the numinous. My answer here turns out to include my answer to what Hume said.
    Of course, even assuming God exists, the superior reality of God and the things of God could not be apprehended through any sensory experience, visual or otherwise. However, what Bill said may still be right in some way. An honest atheist may be very resistant to logical arguments for God. The reason may be that his basic presuppositions are greatly different from those of one who affirms God (whether as the transcendent Creator or in terms of pantheism). Now, it might perhaps be that the nature of visual experience, when analyzed carefully and correctly, turns out to defeat the atheist's basic presuppositions in some way.
    What I mean can be illustrated by a parallel case. In the course of my teaching over the years, I have (following William James) pointed to the fact of selective attention as disproving the thesis that the mind is just a bundle of sensations, emotions, et cetera. (Here is my answer to Hume.) To be sure, selective attention is very much an observed fact of everyday life, but it has sometimes been overlooked. Somewhat analogously, it may perhaps be that there are overlooked aspects of visual experience that defeat or disprove the basic presuppositions that support atheism. If this were so, it might then be that these aspects are more clearly noticeable in the more exotic cases, as Bill indicates.
    But let me say, I myself am at least sympathetic in principle to agnosticism. In some cases, the best certainty an honest man can claim will be, "Well the other people are wrong, and I hope I am right." This point will often apply to philosophical arguments about the questions of God or no God.

  16. As I have noted Ganzheit psychology expressly studied the properties of wholes, and saw Gestalten as a special case of the property of wholeness, rather than Gestalt being primary, as the Gestalt theorists argued (I have mentioned already how all of this grew out the concept of "Gestalt qualities" put forward by Christian von Ehrenfels, the central idea being that wholeness was a *quality* not a quantity, ergo, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts).

    Just last night I was checking the definition of the old metaphysical term "integral whole" partly because of my interest in the latter, and some historical work I am doing on classical conceptions of part-whole relationships (which were naturally also of interest to the Ganzheit psychologists). I found this definition from 1731: "That which has the same nature with its parts, so every single drop of water is water." Doesn't this sound like a "quale" like yellow or loudness? Similarly where does the property of squareness reside in a square? We can see that something "looks" square before checking to see if its corners are "square," and its sides straight.

    This tendency of ours to perceive unities is inconsistent with the notion of a bundle of sensations. If we cannot even be clear about such fundamental empirical verities such as that, how can we begin to approach the notion that the universe may itself have "whole properties" that we have not discerned, except manifest in the goal of the "unified field theory" perhaps. Doesn't this begin to sound like God? Whether one calls it the Universe or God may depend upon our limited capacity to conceptualize, or our naive arrogance to think we even can.

    But certainly such wholes seem completely at odds with what the visual system seems to be doing in the brain which, if anything, seems to dissect the visual "image" coming from the retinas, much as our other organ systems are involved "breaking down" everything from air to food--what might rightly be called "processing" (etc. etc., as the King of Siam says in "The King and I").

  17. Since the 1970s psychologists have distinguished between states of consciousness and "altered" states of consciousness, with only the latter including numinous experience. There has been quite a flurry of interest in recent years over the idea that there is a "God nucleus" in the brain responsible for religious experience, though right now I don't know whether or not it has only been confined to the temporal lobes (TLs), as Michael Persinger has proposed from his experiments applying mild EM stimulation to the scalp area over of the TLs. In his characteristically skeptical and overstated claims about TL function (rather, dysfunction), Persinger it seems has actually experimented with John's cousin (not, alas, the Good Yorick, but the wicked Richard). Perhaps not surprisingly, he did not report having anything like a religious experience (as here reported on the blog of a proud atheist biologist): http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2006/04/godless_physiology.php

  18. "The whole is more than the sum of its parts" is, of course, from Aristotle's Metaphysics. The Gestaltists actually distinguished their view from that in a way which is perhaps relevant to David's points about extension, number, and mind:

    "It has been said: The whole is more than the sum of its parts. It is more correct to say that the whole is something else than the sum of its parts, because summing up is a meaningless procedure, whereas the whole-part relationship is meaningful." (Kurt Koffka, "Principles of Gestalt Psychology," p 176)

    I should also mention that von Ehrenfels (d. 1932) was quite metaphysical, and envisioned the far-reaching implications of the putative Gestalt qualities in his book "Cosmogony," wherein he called God the "Allgestalter."

    Unfortunately today much interest in his work, the Gestaltists, and the Ganzheit school seems to center on its implications for the rise of National Socialism--a pity, because these were lofty thinkers (IMO)and their contributions to philosophy and science need to be viewed outside that deplorable political context, much as we now value the scientific contribution of men such as Wernher von Braun and how Western culture has long accepted the enduring value of ancient Greek philosophy outside the politics of the Hellenistic culture in which it arose. This is a typical example of the sort of "press" Ehrenfels gets these days: http://books.google.com/books?id=vUwxW_ZwkgkC&pg=PA111&lpg=PA111&dq=kosmogonie+ehrenfels&source=bl&ots=AnMtODYbAd&sig=Lh9LgsXOtau-80_XpUp847FJO-k&hl=en&ei=KvPeTOriMpHCsAOX9MmhCg&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=2&ved=0CBoQ6AEwAQ#v=onepage&q=kosmogonie%20ehrenfels&f=false

  19. The point that the skeptic I quoted was making was that what may seem obvious to us primitive inhabitants of an insignificant planet may not seem obvious to God, or to possible higher intelligences on other planets. David says our logic recognizes a basic division between 'true' and 'false'. But perhaps God can recognize shades in between, or again perhaps He cannot. How do we know? Bill's quote from Isaiah is very apposite—but can be interpreted in several ways. Bill’s quote from Otto stresses the important non-logical, or pre-logical, bases for belief in God. So belief in God does not necessarily depend upon logical argument.
    However, I am not a philosophical skeptic (I have only frequently encountered him in philosophical arguments). I feel that we should be able do enough with ordinary logic to make sense of the part of the Universe that we inhabit, so long as we do not make statements of fact about what we cannot know. I suggest that all statements about God should be prefaced by the agnostic statement "If there is a God, then ..."
    When David says

    “Furthermore, the question of whether God is "bound by human logic" involves a fundamental error. Stated in these terms, this question is exactly backwards. It is not that God is bound by human ideas and categories. It is that human thinking, when it goes rightly, reflects the order of reality, of which God is the First Principle. If there is any legitimacy at all in speaking of reasoning as based on some "God's eye point of view," there has to be at least this much”.

    I agree that this is the right way to put it. However, it remains a hypothetical statement based on the over-riding premise “If God exists…”

  20. I agree with David that “the question about mind and body leads into deeper questions of ontology and cosmology.” But I believe that this can be done if we constrain theological considerations, that certainly should be expressed, to the hypothetical level.

    Bill’s question of whether people with apperceptive agnosia can have numinous experiences is very cogent. This asks whether, or to what extent, these experiences are based on brain activity. I doubt if there are many, if any, such recorded cases in the literature. But Jean-Pierre’s NDE data shows that experiences can occur in the absence of any recordable brain activity at all, which has a bearing on Bill’s question.

  21. Lastly David suggests—
    ‘ Now, it might perhaps be that the nature of visual experience, when analyzed carefully and correctly, turns out to defeat the atheist's basic presuppositions in some way.” His target is specifically Hume’s famous statement about the fact that, when he searched around in his mind, he could not find any trace of a Self—only bundles of sensations. I have suggested before that the most telling rebuttal of Hume would have been to ask him, when he was searching around in his consciousness in this way, what was doing the searching. The answer, of course, can only be the Self. The establishment of the Self as an existent does not, in itself, refute the Identity Theory that is one of the mainstays of Atheism. Refutation of the Identity Theory depends on the fact that it does not conform to Leibnitz’s Law of the Identity of Indiscernibles—only a dualist theory of some kind does so conform. But a dualist theory is also compatible with the Hindu position that David rejects. So these considerations, plus Jean-Pierre’s new data on NDEs, might confirm that humans have potentially immortal souls—but it is difficult to see how they could be used to refute Atheism. Perhaps David could tell us what sort of facet of “the nature of visual experience” he would accept as refuting Atheism? Would he accept a transcendental “mystical” experience of the type describes by William James (the reality of which I fully accept)? This includes in many cases visual experiences—but there is much more to them than that—e,g, powerful emotions, cognitive aspects and behavioral changes for the better.

  22. One of the difficulties with skepticism is that it ultimately refutes itself: Skepticism seems never skeptical of itself, and the self-appointed "skeptics" we see in the course of their debunkery (yes, there is such a word) never seem to doubt the validity of what they are doing. Perhaps their most asinine tack goes something like "if X can be faked, X is most likely a fake, rather than real." Following that reasoning, one could "fake" much of science (as is done in the movies through special effects), and (falsely) conclude that it was the result of fakery. Their mischievous folly is almost without limit--and quite unproductive, because their central article of faith is an unquestioning adherence to status quo "normal" science (Kuhn), not its advancement, or what Julesz amusingly called "paratrooper science." What does it tell us about the skeptics that one of their leaders is a professional magician?

  23. As it happens, I was not thinking of mystical experiences. What to say about those would be another whole line of research for me. I was concerned that there may be observed facts of everyday life having to do with visual experience that are often overlooked, just as the fact of selective attention is often overlooked by Hume and his friends. What might such visual facts be? Yes, I have some idea, but at this point, my thoughts are a little too speculative. Also, I expect that, when it is developed, and if it should pan out, my answer will call for a new essay instead of a mere comment.
    In the meantime, I may say I might have to agree on the importance of pre-logical bases for belief in God. I said was sympathetic in principle to agnosticism, and so I am. But I think full agnosticism will not work. The question of God or no God gets into a cluster of primary choices, and at least some of these choices are just too basic to allow for neutrality. Thus, I would have to say agnosticism can be developed theoretically, and even proclaimed sincerely on that limited basis, but it cannot be lived.

  24. Another difficulty with Hume et al is that they may have been naive realists, or tended to be, at a time when the bizarre physical picture of the world developed by modern physics did not yet exist. So that would affect their notions of seeing, imagining, and thinking accordingly, if they thought the physical world was something like the perceptual world.

    Do I take it, David, that you are equating numinous experience with "mystical" experience? I don't think Otto equated the two by any means.

  25. Again, I would ask David, how does the existence of God bear directly/indirectly on the topic of this blog? It looks like the website devoted to dualism got in a similar situation, when debate of theological matters was apparently voted best made into a separate website.

  26. Quite clearly, the existence of God does not bear directly on the topic of this blog. Indirectly, there might be plenty of bearing, if it should turn out that the atheist's basic assumptions about how human awareness latches onto the real world cannot accommodate the observed facts of visual experience. I suspect this may be so, but I cannot yet affirm it. This is something I hope to explore in time to come and possibly set forth in a new essay later.

  27. I agree that we should shelve theology until David posts his adumbrated essay that involves overlooked visual experiences.
    Re skeptics: you can never win a debate with philosophical skeptics for there is no absurd argument that they will not resort to in order to deny your case. However, one must be forewarned that the contemporary scientific world is full of them, always on the look out for heresy. For example, It is unfortunate that the attitude of mainstream science towards parapsychology today is firmly rooted in philosophical skepticism.
    Bill—please explain further what you mean by 'numinous' and 'mystical'.

  28. Re: "God's Eye View": I remembered something that I came across in my research on the influence of classical Greek ideas on part-whole relations (especially Platonic/neoplatonic ones), a long poem by astronomer-naturalist, Thomas Ignasius Maria Foster (1789-1860) who, like Cousin Yorick, converted to Catholicism in his mid-30s.

    The poem, entitled "Pan, a Pastoral of the First Age," was explicitly by its author intended to counter the "skeptical" views of philosophers such as the Bishop Berkeley (he actually cites in a footnote a book by Lady Mary Shepherd, "Proofs of an External Universe").

    At one point the poem contains a sort of "trope" I have now identified as being of classical origin about harmony and part-whole relations as seen by God. It occurs in an imaginary dialog with Pyrrho and other skeptics (hopefully Thomas Droulez will be reading this for obvious reasons, too):

    "Into the darksome cavern of Despair.
    Twas in this horrid cave thou didst conceive
    The frightful notion of nonentity,
    And thought thyself a solitary being
    Amidst a theatre of shadowy forms!
    Who cannot draw a fearful argument,
    From our vain dreams, against th' external world;
    If, by perversion of philosophy,
    He will confound the visions of light sleep,
    Caused by the unsound workings of the brain,
    With their true archetypes, those waking thoughts
    Which are the heralds of external things?

    "But, Pyrrho, while the expansive mind remain
    Lock'd up in this dim nook of mortal flesh,
    All things appear as in a darkened glass,
    Known but in part, or like obscure reflections
    Of brighter beings in a world unseen.
    But when the bubble burst, th'imprison'd soul,
    Loos'd from her bondage and set free to roam
    Though realms ethereal, will return to God,
    From whom she sprang; and then like him will see
    All things in just relation; and their parts,
    Which now seem so disjointed or unformed,
    May, when the mighty whole be viewed at once,
    Appear compact in perfect harmony.
    Be it our care to keep the mind in poise:
    Some men too little, some too much descry:
    Thou seest no heaven; Orestes saw two suns,
    And doubled Thebes, while thou denied the world.
    The soul of man sits on a dangerous perch."

  29. To explain Rudolf Otto's theory of the numinous in nutshell would take some doing, John. He believed that religious consciousness (synonymous with numinous consciousness as he defined it) was sui generis, a category unto itself. For it, he eventually appropriated an old Scholastic term, "Sensus Numinis," which he only discovered after formulating his idea of the numinous independently. One of his later books, published in 1932, is entitled "Das Gefühl des Überweltlichen (sensus numinis)," which translates approximately as "The Feeling of the Otherworldly (the numinous sense)."

    Beginning with its most primitive stages as a peculiar and distinctive kind of "spectral fear" that Otto called "daemonic dread," similar to the fear of ghosts and the uncanny, he posited that the numinous feeling gradually grows and evolves in people and culture until it becomes obvious to those experiencing it that it is a feeling that does not pertain to the ordinary world at all, but to a transcendental order of existence--the world of the numinous, or "Überweltlichen."

    That's it in a nutshell, though Otto's thinking suffers some from being based on Kant's categories and Wundt's "feeling tones," when a much better model would have been Ganzheitspsychologie (its founder, Felix Krueger, was Wundt's successor as chair of philosophy at Leipzig).

  30. The naturalist-astronomer's name is *Forster* and I misspelled it (pardon me). I neglected to include that the "trope" in his "Pan" alludes to the Greek concept *summetria* (symmetry), viz. "a just and mutual proportion of each part in respect of the whole," which also became virtually synonymous with their notions of beauty, that are clearly derived from certain special mathematical relationships (e.g., the "Golden Mean," or "Golden Section," that in Latin was known as the "sectio divina"--the "Divine Section"). Plotinus writes quite a bit about the beauty of God and relates that beauty to the concept of symmetry (ergo, the "God's eye view"). But for Plotinus, like Otto, the primary quality of God was beauty and the unique emotion associated with the Divine, rather than rationality per se.

  31. I suppose the skeptics would have a field day here, as one of their favorite targets is the "Golden Mean." There has been a long standing argument as to whether the ancient Egyptians knew of the Golden Mean in constructing the pyramids, and that the Greeks may have learned of it from them. It has been observed that the pyramids observe the "Golden Ratio" 3:4:5, and it is significant that the Greek word *analogia* started as a mathematical concept, and meant "resemblance of ratios." Unfortunately all of this long ago fell into the hands of crackpots and cranks which has rather muddied the waters a bit . . .

  32. I continue to be much impressed by the scope and depths of Bill’s knowledge of the important (but overlooked) farthest reaches of philosophy, science, literature and the graphic arts! The poem by Thomas Forster is a masterpiece of ‘metaphysical’ poetry. It is technically brilliant and also it is about an important subject (unlike most of modern poetry, which is obsessed with the trivial). I looked the author up on Wikipedia. He was one of the gifted amateur natural scientists like Darwin and Galton, who were such a feature of the Enlightenment. I was also interested to see that Foster was a physician. Yet the entry in Wiki has only this to say about his poetry “… some of is writings being poetical” —not a word about his being a great poet!!

  33. Here is two poems that I published in 2002* on the same subject:

    My Dying Brain

    A lingering strain fades upon my ear.
    The priestly candle dims from out my sight.
    The tattered banners of regret and fear
    Vanish in the rush of inky night.
    A fleeting numbness saps my failing will
    As the barque of life drifts on the ebbing tide.
    The embers of remorse glow redly still,
    And lay waste the fabric of my threadbare pride.
    A thoughtful Hippocrates once said
    “The brain is the messenger to mind.”
    So the dying brain by necessity is led
    To terminate this service for mankind.
    When the fire of life sinks dangerously low
    Its shadows on the wall of Plato’s cave
    Dance their last fling and inconsequently go
    Back to the lamp of the magic lantern show.
    But the walls are made of thought, not graven stone.
    At death the veil is torn aside, to let us newly see,
    As we, neither forsaken nor alone,
    Are swept by the cool, clear light
    Into Eternity.

  34. Eternity

    The bubble of consciousness,
    a mirror to life, a window on time,
    is born on a wide and generous host.
    The River of Mind, green pebbled and clear,
    flush in the pride of its emerald tide,
    silently flows past shores unknown
    to the pale white ocean with silver sands
    that rings our temporal world around;
    beyond the stars, outside of time.
    whose outflung freshets and opal shoals
    we sometimes glimpse at the edge of a dream:
    “There, far to the right—oh, can’t you see.”
    Hardly more than a shimmering mist,
    A flicker of hope, a promise of calm,
    A pledge of all that is sacred to man
    The seal of Eternity.

    *Poems from the Edge of Time. Ellis, Pulborough.

    Note: the phrase “River of Mind” is borrowed from Arthur Koestler

  35. Thank you, John, for sharing these beautiful poems! Obviously you and Forster are kindred spirits.

    One of the main premises of Surrealism was the idea that "surréalité" (surreality) was a poetic reality, mediated by poetic associations, intentionally eschewing rational ones in favor of poetically synchronistic ones. "L'image poetique" was their main "instrument" for exploring that reality, according to André Breton, the founder of the movement. It was Breton's contention, though, that "l'image" was not necessarily verbal, especially given that all of Surrealist poetry was eventually upstaged by its painters (Dali, Ernst, and Magritte, et al). But can one say that their paintings are "otherworldly"? Visionary? Mystical?

  36. In answer to Robert's query, yes, Augustine does consider the specific question of "how the soul, without any length, or width, or height of its own, can hold images without number of such great spaces." His answer is that the soul is able to hold great spaces in memory, even though it has no quantity, because of its superior power. Along this line, Augustine points out that the eye of an eagle is smaller than that of a man yet has greater power of sight. Thus, size "counts for nothing, as regards the power of perception in the senses themselves," and so the soul's lack of spatial magnitude does not show any unreality or even weakness.
    What Robert will say, I do not know. As for myself, I think it is Augustine's answer that is weak. I agree that the functioning of intellect and will must belong to something superior to the material. Therefore, yes, the soul is able to dominate sensory awareness as having superior power. But then I would have to say this point cuts both ways. A pure spirit (such as God, or an angel) knows as well as a human subject, indeed even better, but in a superior mode, apart from sensory perception and mental imagery. On the other side, given that a human subject has all this, then there is at least an enormous presumption against any claim that the human soul is numerically separate from the body and all its parts. Consequently, I must say even Augustine's dualism fails, let alone that of Descartes.

  37. Pace, Augustine, but it seems to me that either he was involved in a classic contradictio in adjecto, or else he was defining his terms differently that we do today, with respect to basic concepts of memory, sight (and power thereof), and perception.

    For example, how does he know that the eagle has a greater "power of sight" than humans (presumably the eagle having no soul), yet human perception is then more powerful? How so?

    Presumably he is thus drawing a distinction between sight and perception - but in what way? An example would be helpful in order to say more, whether to assent or dissent. What does it mean for "the soul . . . to dominate sensory awareness as having superior power"?

    At least for our purposes here there are a lot of assumptions in Augustine's formulations about superior powers that don't really get us very far, if our goal is at least epistemology and not theology. To say that angels and God have greater powers than we do doesn't help us much in elucidating the nature and structure of visual space - or am I wrong in that?

  38. It seems like, while the claim that the conscious mind is not spatial definitely predates Descartes, and that he was basically taking it over from the medievals, as I also think he does with his proofs for God's existence, Augustine's earlier arguments were basically theological in character, holding that non-spatial forms of existence were superior to spatial forms. I know he uses a somewhat similar tact with his solution to the problem of evil in saying that evil does not exist in its own right but instead is the privation of a good. All of this would seem to assume that the imperfect is dependent on the existence of the more perfect, and certainly this assumption can be questioned by looking at both evolutionary epistemology, not to mention Darwin's evolution of species, where in both cases the more perfect seems to evolve from the less perfect.

  39. Part I
    Yes, Augustine's thinking is largely theological. Yes, he would say the imperfect is dependent on the existence of the more perfect, as did Plato before him, and to a lesser extent Aristotle as well. As for evolution, the obvious fallback position for all three would be that the whole world of living beings on Earth and all their processes, evolutionary or otherwise, depneds on what is up in heaven. Mind you, this is the fallback position. In fact, all three would find the whole modern line about evolution to be seriously questionable.
    And, to tell the truth, so do I. As near as I can figure, what is commonly proclaimed as a legitimate scientific theory is in fact a package deal that includes philosophical, and in some cases even theological, assumptions as well. These further assumptions are of course contrary to the older tradition of Plato, Aristotle, and Augustine. It is then proclaimed that the older tradition has been disproved by modern science, but that is false. The older tradition is only "disproved" by the package deal and not by modern science as such.
    Well, as you may gather, this is one of my pet peeves. I could say much more, but this is not the forum for that.

  40. Part II
    The contrast here is not between sight and perception, but between sensory perception and awareness. An eagle has greater power of visual perception than a human subject. (This is known through its observed ability to detect and swoop down on prey from great heights.) On the other hand, the human subject has greater awareness and knowledge than the eagle, since the human subject has intellectual capability.
    The point of speaking about God and angels here was to illustrate something about human subjects by way of contrast. A pure spirit would presumably not experience visual space, in terms of either sensory perception or mental imagery. Since human subjects do experience visual space, it looks like the human "soul" (=what exercises mental life in the human subject) is not a pure spirit separate from the body in the way Augustine thought.

  41. "Awareness" strikes me as being a rather slippery word in this context, as it can refer either to perceiving (e.g., seeing) or knowing in the sense of thought, so it is often difficult to know what is being denoted. I would want to know what Augustine uses in Latin. My assumption is that he uses forms of *cognitio*--to cognize. But it is arguable that perceiving qua knowing involves a form of intelligence, and I come back to my quotation from Sherlock Holmes in "The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle": "Watson, you can see everything. You fail, however, to reason from what you see."

    The fact that the term *agnosia* (from the Greek *gignōskein* = to know) is used with reference to seeing, points to the fact that there are different semantic senses of the verb "to see," as has long been known to some philosophers, but distinctions not generally made in cog. sci., which tends to just (ignorantly) subsume seeing under the general rubric of "cognition" today, thus departing from an semblance of ordinary usage by so doing.

    What this suggests to me is that whereas VS is spatially extended (and it would seem counterproductive at this point to deny that it is spatially extended), the thought processes--indeed the intelligence--that supports even basic cognition such as object recognition, and which is knocked out in agnosia, are not experienced as being spatially extended, which may be behind the idea that intelligence and mind are non-spatial entities. This simple experiential (or phenomenal) insight may be behind Augustinian thought, or what informed it. David?

  42. This brings us back to the *big* question of how something spatially extended interacts with something that is not, and whether this even makes sense. It is a problem that has plagued the study of perception and cognition for decades (if not centuries), namely, how to conceptualize the interface between the perceptual world (spatially extended) and thought processes in relationship to it (not spatially extended). Every effort to connect the two has involved conceptual gymnastics with typically artificial and overly abstract results.

    Can that which is abstract be spatially extended? I have never found a satisfactory answer to that question.

  43. Yes, right. In this context, I meant the word "awareness" to cover the totality of conscious mental life, including thought, memory, imagination, emotion, sensory experience, et cetera. Thus, even though the eagle's eye can see better, the man has richer mental life and greater knowledge. That is all.

    There seems to be an easy way to understand the kind of superiority involved when Augustine and Thomas Aquinas speak of spirit as superior to matter. Solid geometry is "superior" to plane geometry in an obvious way as including all the power and perfection of plane geometry but also having much more. Along this line, it seems fairly clear both what it means, and how it is true, to say what works in three dimensions can dominate what works in only two dimensions. Something like that is involved here.

    As for the interface between sensory perception and intellectual functioning, yes, that is the $64,000 question in this context (or perhaps the $128, 000 question in these days of inflation). Yes, it does go back for centuries. But the place where I shall try my luck on this is in Part II of the essay, where I go into what Aquinas developed.

    Visual impressions show themselves to involve space, but thought is not experienced in this way. No doubt this point is part of what Plato and Augustine had in mind. However, I think Augustine did not go into the "nitty gritty" of visual experience in the manner of modern inquirers.

  44. I do think that to include sensory experience as being "mental" comes at a later historical epoch than mind qua thought and reason, and its relationship to spirit, which may further explain why mind was construed to not be extended spatially.

    The analogy to spatial dimensionality is therefore all the more curious, i.e., to equate greater understanding with higher dimensions, especially as the "power" seems to derive from spatiality in this instance, not something unextended. One is again reminded of Abbott's "Flatland," then again of the "trope" to which I referred above in the poem by Forster.

    As luck would have it, I found another instance of the same trope from 1835 in an anonymous article on German Shakespearean criticism, published in Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine which, after stating that one would have thought everything of critical value had already been written on Shakespeare in English, was surprised by German scholarship:

    "And yet ever and anon, and particularly of late, arises some new adventurer, who either by penetrating more deeply into the poetic spirit of individual parts, detects undiscovered meanings, new shades of feeling, or delicacies of allusion, in passages which had seemed timeworn and hackneyed; or elevating himself to that higher and more comprehensive point of view, from which objects are seen in their just relation and proportion to each other, is enabled by a large and reconciling criticism, to blend in harmonious union many elements which had appeared inconsistent, and in what had seemed to common eyes little better than a magnificent but chaotic mass, the result of blind chance, and ill-directed power, to exhihit the goodliest proportions, the most profound and refined adaptation, and the most unerring dramatic skill in awakening and developing the leading impression which the whole was intended to produce upon the mind."

    I would not be surprised if that "trope" is found in Augustine somewhere. This "higher and more comprehensive view" is itself a recurring one in philosophy, and was central to Wittgenstein's idea of a "perspicuous picture" that was lacking in our understanding of language (Peter Hacker has written about analogies of "surveying" figuring in Wittgenstein's analogies about being able to see connections.)

    That said, one could only hope that during the ensuing millennium and a half since Augustine's time, something more has been learned about vision, especially by those whose purpose has not primarily been the philosophy of religion, but natural philosophy.

  45. David, Did I ask if you were familiar with the views of Ockham on quality, quantity, substance, and extension? His arguments are very relevant to the topics discussed here, and something I first learned of from a classmate in philosophy at UCSD many moons ago, who presented them in a seminar on the philosophy of mathematics.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.