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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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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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.

On Chains & Links, Caused & Uncaused

We have heard on occasion from atheists who argue that the system of what is and has been – our cosmic history – is uncaused (so that it stands in no need of a Creator). It’s an old argument. Each of the bits of our cosmos are indeed contingent, so it goes; but the system as a whole is not: there had necessarily to have been something or other, and this particular series of contingent events is just what we happen to have inherited on that account.

It won’t do.

Say that I had a chain composed entirely of steel links. Would you believe me if I said it was a golden chain? Would you buy it from me at the present price of gold?

On Divine Omniscience versus Creaturely Partiscience

Divine Omniscience and our own creaturely, partial, imperfect knowledge – our partiscience – are categorically different sorts of operations. Both are sorts of discernment – from the Latin scindere, “to cut, divide,” thence from the PIE root *skei-, “to cut, split” – but they are fundamentally different sorts of cut. They cut in opposite directions.

Omniscience cuts, and so differentiates. Partiscience cuts and so sorts the resultant differentiae, so as to integrate them (so far as it can).

Thus the Perennialist intuition, altogether correct, that creation is outward from an Original Unity, whereas creaturity is a return toward that Unity from Partiality.

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Government is Always an Owned Business

Whatever its outward ostensible form, government is always owned, & is always farming society for its own benefit.

The fiction that it is ever otherwise is like the fiction of objective, unbiased journalism. There is no such thing.

There is always a nomenklatura, and there is always a deep state; and the interpersonal relations of the people therein are always more or less feudal and familiar.

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The One Basic Thing

Over at Orthospherean Bruce Charlton’s Notions, I rattled off a comment about what a truly basic thing would have to be like, which upon reflection I believe may be worth promoting to a post here. Bruce had critiqued monotheism; I then pointed out that God in the OT had rather supported the idea, and said that monotheism is not monism; to which Bruce replied that Christian theology is certainly monist. I commented:

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What Every Little Girl Dreams of These Days

On the train last evening I spotted – or perhaps I should say, I was assaulted by – a placard advertising a music festival. I thought: Is this what women really want for themselves? Is this supposed to be attractive?

Honestly, the woman looks like she’s being tortured. Fun!