Philosophical Skeleton Keys: Facts Are Fossils of Acts

Of all the Philosophical Skeleton Keys I have written about, this one is the hardest. Not because it is inherently complicated, but rather because it is so simple, and so powerful; and because the moment I understood it so many perplexities so completely vanished that I have now but little recollection of them. So completely did this Key dispose of so many problems, that I cannot now well remember what most of them even were!

I use this Key all the time; so often, that I don’t usually notice having done so.

It opens all sorts of locks, but I suppose that the most important of them is the Hard Problem of Consciousness, as David Chalmers has called it: namely, how do you get awareness out of the coordinate activities of trillions of particles that – on the usual modern construction of “matter” – are not themselves at all aware? The Hard Problem is the difficult and apparently incorrigibly perplexing nub of the Mind/Body Problem; the other aspects of the Mind/Body problem are what Chalmers calls the Easy Problems. Translating the Hard Problem into the terms I shall employ in what follows: how do you get lively acts from dead facts?

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Upstate Consolation University to Ban Friendship, Create Innovative Bookless Library

Mehar Shandruff-Danpoo Center

UCU’s Mehar Shandruff-Danpoo Multicultural Center and Cafetorium

The Academic Senate of Upstate Consolation University has recently passed several new and exciting policies that will go into effect at the beginning of the fall semester.  Among these dynamic and progressive measures are a ban on friendship and a plan to make the campus library entirely bookless.  Minky Winceapple, formerly Chair of the Studies Studies Program, now serving as Under-Dean for Oversight of Policy Sensitivity, explains that the new regulations “are based off of grounded theory so as – intersectionally, of course – to promote the cross movement mobilization of marginalized people who have been disadvantaged by multiple sources of oppression.”  Winceapple continues, “These policies will raise awareness by subverting structures of privilege through an extra-categorical strategy derived from critical thinking – such as the type of thinking I am using right now.”  Measly Prudence, formerly Lead Vice-Coordinator of the Office of Dining Relations, now serving as Associate Provost for the Task Force on Inter-Varsity Diversity, seconded Winceapple’s enthusiasm: “We are implementing practices,” he said, “that will recognize and honor our multiple identities, co-facilitate an interconnective learning experience, and enable us to visualize how better to ventilate the bathrooms in the administration building – perhaps with the type of ventilation I am using right now.”

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What It Is Like To Be a Secondary Cause

As the First Cause of everything, God is the primary cause of everything. Creaturely agents are secondary causes. They have effects of their own, arising from endogenous factors, and not only from God. Where in our inner phenomenal life does the influence of the divine primary cause leave off, and our own work as agents and secondary causes – co-creators with God, or as Tolkien called us, sub-creators – begin?

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Iliminative Materialism

I have several times remarked that, on the most popular modern doctrine of matter – that it is dead stuff – eliminative materialism is the only consistent sort. If the universe is nothing but dead stuff, it is impossible for us to be alive, or therefore conscious. You can’t assemble a living conscious mind out of nothing but dead stuff. Thoroughgoing, consistent materialists, who have the courage of their convictions, forge ahead and, on that basis, deny the reality of consciousness.

There are few such.

There are of course some problems with eliminative materialism. In the first place, it insists that there are no conscious minds such as those that confide in eliminative materialism. In the second, because eliminative materialism is not itself composed of dead stuff, on its own terms it has no concrete existence.

On eliminative materialism, there’s no such thing as eliminative materialism, and no one exists to believe or disbelieve it.

So it can’t be true. It can’t even be wrong. It cannot be meaningfully asserted; so it cannot be meaningful.

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Clickety Claque

“We have what Frenchmen call a ‘cliqué,’
Who entertain a sort of pique
Against all sacrilegious wights
Who meddle with their sacred rights.”

The Mysteries of Charleston (1846)

Humans naturally follow the crowd and assume that popularity arises from some merit in that which is popular, and unpopularity from some demerit in that which is not.  While it is true that the food in a crowded restaurant is often better than the food in a restaurant where listless waiters lean against the bar and flick flies with stained towels, those who follow the crowd are usually following what the crowd follows.  And the crowd is usually following a clique or a claque. Continue reading

A Head on a Pike: François-René Vicomte de Chateaubriand on the Revolution

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Anne-Louis Girodet (1767 – 1824): François-René Vicomte de Chateaubriand Contemplating the Ruins of Rome (1804)

Along with Joseph de Maistre and Louis de Bonald, François-René Vicomte de Chateaubriand (1768 – 1848) rightfully takes his place as one of the most prominent of the early Catholic pro-monarchical Francophone critics of the French Revolution.  Chateaubriand’s authorial career began in 1797 with the publication in England, where he had gone into exile, of his Essai historique, politique, et moral sur les révolutions anciennes et modernes considérées dans leur rapport avec la révolution française.  Chateaubriand, like Maistre, had witnessed the Revolution directly and experienced its devastating effects personally.  His younger sister died in a Jacobin dungeon; his elder brother and his sister-in-law lost their lives to the guillotine.  Chateaubriand himself fell, seriously wounded, during the Siege of Thionville while fighting as a private soldier in the Émigré Army in late August 1792.  He managed to make his way to Brittany, his home, from there to the sanctuary of Jersey, and finally to London where he commenced the impoverished ordeal of his long recuperation.  The Essai, which runs to nearly six hundred pages, reveals its author’s erudition, which its successors such as The Genius of Christianity (1802) and The Martyrs (1809) would further attest.  Chateaubriand proposes to study in detail the five revolutions that he can identify in antiquity and the seven in modernity with the twin aims of discovering the revolutionary causality and of applying that causality to an analysis of the French Revolution.  Chateaubriand remarks that, according to the legends, Greek monarchy suffered a general catastrophe in the aftermath of the Trojan War.  Even before Agamemnon’s ill-fated enterprise, however, the stories of Oedipus, of the Seven against Thebes, and even of Theseus suggest a crisis or weakening of kingship.  The chaotic aftermath of the Greek victory in the Troad saw the demise of dynasties, such as that of the Atreids in Mycenae.  Darkness descends over Hellas.  When affairs once again emerge into the light, monarchy has vanished, its place taken by the turbulent poleis or as Chateaubriand calls them, not without prejudice, les républiques.

Chateaubriand makes the point, in his discussion of the historical poleis, that these democracies rarely in fact heeded the popular will.  Rather, clever power-seekers manipulated opinion for selfish ends.  Competition among power-seekers generated factionalism, which periodically broke out into open conflict.  Laws intended to enrich the ruling class exacerbated the resentment of the poor against the rich.  As Chateaubriand writes, “The poor in the state are infinitely more dangerous than the rich, and often they are worth less than them.”  Chateaubriand never indicts the poor; he indicts those who create poverty.  Once the difference between rich and poor exists, however, and especially when the manipulators have sabotaged the inherited social order, violent convulsion becomes inevitable.  Chateaubriand cites the history of Athens from Codrus, the self-sacrificing last king of Attica, to Solon as a near-perpetual cycle of mobilized factions, tyranny, counter-tyranny, and, on exhaustion, attempts to repair political order through the writing of new constitutions.  The Athenian project of acquiring an empire led to the city’s defeat and to decades of chaos until, at last, the Macedonian phalanx imposed a new order.  A republic, in Chateaubriand’s assessment, is an inherently unstable type of polity.

No one, regrettably, has ever translated the Essai into English.  Those who can handle French and who interest themselves in the irony that Reaction arises from Revolution will find a reward in examining it.  Fortunately, Chateaubriand treated of the Revolution elsewhere, as in his autobiographical Memoirs from Beyond the Tomb, composed in the last ten years of his life and issued after his death; and he alludes to the Revolution in the final section of The Genius of Christianity.  The tableaux of revolutionary France that Chateaubriand paints in the Memoirs exercise a powerful compulsion over the reader, revealing as they do the anti-civilizational ferocity of an insurrectionist campaign to establish, all in the name of reason, the regime of liberté, égalité, et fraternité.

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The Envy of the World

“There is America, which at this day serves for little more than to amuse you with stories of savage men and uncouth manners, yet shall . . . show itself equal to the whole of that commerce which now attracts the envy of the world.”

Edmund Burke, Speech on Conciliation with America (1775)

I recently crossed Louisiana on Interstate 10, and by close reading of the passing billboards formed a clear idea of the state’s economy.  The foundation of Louisiana’s economy appears to be the fees and settlements connected with lawsuits against homicidal trucking companies.  Although I did not notice too many Louisianans squashed on the roadway, “big rigs” were out in plenty, and their drivers did not look like men who were inclined to swerve.  Thus, from half of the billboards along the highway, there glared the square-jawed faces of legal bulldogs who promised to mulct these truculent teamsters to the enrichment of squashed Louisianans. Continue reading

A Very Brief Anatomy of Worship

“‘I declare, your worship, there is nothing you don’t know.”

Cervantes, Don Quixote (1605)

When a Sancho Panza addressed Don Quixote as “your worship,” the salutation was meant to acknowledge the knight’s superiority in status, rank or worth. When a lawyer addresses a judge as “your honor,” or a courtier addresses a monarch as “your majesty,” they do exactly the same thing. Worship was originally the state of possessing extraordinary worth, and only by extension became the words, acts, and other rites by which this extraordinary worth is acknowledged by lesser beings. Continue reading

Ockham’s Razor, the Gordian Knot & the Thomist Marlinspike

Reality is a knotty problem. It is terrifically difficult to unsnarl it, so that we understand it. It won’t do to cut through it, as (according to the most famous version of the legend) Alexander did with the Gordian Knot. To do that is in the final analysis to surrender to befuddlement, even as one defies it and forges onward, damning all torpedoes. So while Ockham’s Razor is amazingly useful as a way of clarifying and simplifying our understanding, it is not itself a way to arrive at understanding. You want to shave with it, rather than slash.

When Ockham’s Razor cuts away entities that are inherent to the experience of understanding, it forestalls understanding, rather than facilitating it. For example, if you find that your explanation of consciousness is so wonderfully parsimonious that it eliminates consciousness from the universe altogether, you’ve cut too deep.

I used to deal with gnarly knots all the time when I was working as a whitewater boatman. [I’m not working on the River these days, but I’m still a boatman; it sticks with you.] When you put enormous tension on a knot, as happens when it is doing what you wanted it to do under stressful conditions, it can tighten so much that it becomes impossible to untie with fingers alone. It is tempting at such times to just say the hell with it, and cut through the knot. But that’s a bad idea when you are hundreds of miles from the nearest supply of line, in the deep wilderness. You never know when you might need that piece of line uncut. So an outdoorsman will never cut line unless he must.

Instead, sailors and boatmen use a fid or marlinspike:

The marlinspike is not a sharp cutting blade, but a smooth dully pointed stout poker. Poked into the interstices of a knot, a marlinspike can be used to pry apart the recalcitrant strands without cutting them, and allow for a good grip on the one that must be pulled through in order to loosen the doggone thing (sometimes pliers are needed for that).

To unsnarl the world knot, you want the right tool for the job. A razor is the wrong tool for undoing knots. What you want is what might be called a Thomist Marlinspike: neither affirm nor deny, but rather first distinguish. Once you’ve pulled the strands apart, untangled the knot, and laid it out nice and straight, then you can get to work on the line with Ockham’s Razor, shaving off the frayed bits to make things all nice and tidy, shipshape and Bristol fashion.