I had a hard time understanding how prayer might work until I flipped the figure and ground: it’s not that prayer is mediated by run of the mill physical transactions, but vice versa.
I feel sure that I am nowise unique in having struggled for years with the difficulty of the ontological status of the Platonic Forms. On Plato’s account, so far as it went, the Forms subsisted in a different realm – indeed, a different sort of realm – than our own. I could see well enough that, as immutable, that Realm must be more actual than our own. But, what is that Realm, where is it (is that even an appropriate question to ask?), and what relates it to our own? Indeed, how could a purely formal realm link up at all to our material world? I found I could not even begin to think about it.
Until you have made the leap of faith, you can have no idea what it means. So you can have no very good way to make it, no? How does one know which way to jump, with no idea where the edge of the precipice might lie?
Such was the difficulty that perplexed me for many years, as I struggled to understand how to step through the membrane that separates belief from unbelief. You can’t step through it if you don’t even know where it is! Continue reading
It would seem that freedom and causation are incompatible. If acts are wholly caused – as they must be, if they are to be intelligible, and so more or less intelligent, and so integrated fully in a coherent world – then how can they be free? If acts are even a little bit free, are they not to that extent chaotic, ergo unintelligible, and so an insuperable impediment to the integration of a coherent world?
There is in fact no such incompatibility.
This one is so simple, I’m shocked it took me so long to get it. But it eliminates ab initio a whole raft of perplexing conundra; not least, the puzzle of self-reference: of how it is that we can apprehend ourselves.
The basic idea is that we can only apprehend what is, and is therefore definite: definitely itself, and not some other thing. To the extent that a thing has not yet finished becoming, and thus become forever fixed in its character, it is not yet in fact out there for us to apprehend. It is invisible to us, and to all others, because, being as yet indefinite, it has as yet no definite character that we might grasp and evaluate. It just isn’t yet finished becoming. And until it is finished becoming, it isn’t yet anything in particular. It isn’t itself. It isn’t.
Until it is, and is therefore definitely itself and not something different, it cannot act qua itself. It cannot have any effect. We cannot be affected by it. We cannot feel it.
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 well 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?
I’ve been thinking about angels a fair bit recently on account of the fact that my wife and I moved houses this last spring. Hard to see the connection between those two topics, I know. But it’s there.
Shortly after we moved, a realtor friend responded to my newsy message about all the problems we were suffering in the new place (and still are, to a not inconsiderable degree):
… I sympathize with your after move feelings. In addition to what to do with [all your] stuff, issues with the new house are appearing. This is because the house typically goes into shock when a new owner arrives and it starts acting out. You want to be there, but the house is not sure it likes you or the new arrangement.
Patience is the key. Gradually, the house will accept you and all will be well.
I tell all my clients the above and may have already shared this with you.
I realized with something of a shock that this had the ring of truth. The house seemed to be *resisting* us.
In a recent essay, I suggested that the angels are the concrete archetypes of the Platonic Forms. This in response to a few Ockhamian challenges to Plato regarding the Forms that I there adduced:
What’s the Platonic Realm, for Heaven’s sake? Where is it? How does it interact with our own? If it does interact with our own, then isn’t it really integral with our own? If so, then what sets the Forms apart from their contingent instantiations here below? What does eternity have to do with creaturity?
… If [the Platonic Realm is concrete], and therefore ineluctably particular, then how is it universally and archetypally Formal?
Well, OK. Stipulating to the notion that the angels are the concrete archetypes of the Forms, how does that help us answer those questions?
Ockham comes in for a lot of criticism around these parts, the poor honest earnest man. And not unrightly, perhaps, given his (largely innocent and inadvertent) role in the incipience of the prevalent modern nominalism that has gutted the West (he was not really much of a nominalist, as we think of nominalism these days). But in most things he was on target (this is true of all heretics, scoundrels, sinners, and fools (or else they’d die before they could do much damage, understood by their contemporaries as mere silly kooks)). Most of all, he was right in respect to his famous Razor, which more than any of his other immense contributions to human thought will surely warrant his everlasting renown – his status, shared with only five or six other philosophers, as a household name (at least among those who consider themselves somewhat educated). Even men who know nothing else whatever of epistemology or philosophy of science have some notion of Ockham’s Razor. His Principle of Parsimony is perhaps the most important operational, practical principle of thought (the Principle of Sufficient Reason, e.g., is by contrast ontological; or again e.g., the Principle of Noncontradiction is logical; and so forth). It is the whole basis of American Pragmatism, which is to say, of the philosophy of science universally presupposed in the practice of professional scientists. It is followed in its pragmatic importance – opinions differ about their proper order – by the Principle of Elegance (the more beautiful theory is more likely to be true) and the Principle of Adequacy (theories must adequate to the entirety of their proper domain). I would add also the Principle of Serendipity – as I here now decide to name it, not knowing how other thinkers might have done so: the principle, i.e., that a true theory is likely to explain more things, and they unsuspected things, than we had looked for it to explain – things that, i.e., are outside its (expected) proper domain (huge swathes of mathematics, e.g., turn out to exemplify the Principle of Serendipity).
Ockham, then, God Bless him: All else equal, that theory is best which is simplest – which postulates the fewest types of concrete entities.
So then: what about the Platonic Forms? Ockham’s Razor – a native, chthonic tendency in my thinking from infancy – bugged me about them from the first moment I read of them. What the heck are they? Are they a different sort of thing than the things of this world? What’s the Platonic Realm, for Heaven’s sake? Where is it? How does it interact with our own? If it does interact with our own, then isn’t it really integral with our own? If so, then what sets the Forms apart from their contingent instantiations here below? What does eternity have to do with creaturity?
I struggled for several decades to understand composite wholes (organisms, organs, ecologies, societies, and so forth (not to mention molecules, atoms (in the Rutherfordian sense rather than the Democritean), cells, organelles, hadrons, etc.)) as deriving from and completely explained by the interactions of their constituent parts, until I finally realized that it simply can’t be done. Such “explanations” inevitably invoke the whole they are trying to explain as an obscure feature of their parts. They are, i.e., somehow or other circular. This is why honest and careful materialism *just is* eliminative.
The derivation must run the other way, if we are to understand either wholes or their parts. And once we run the derivation in the proper direction, taking the whole as itself an ontological real independent of its parts, and prior thereto, and furthermore definitive thereof, why then all sorts of vexing problems that simply cannot be solved under the terms of materialist modernism – the mind/body problem, in particular – simply vanish. There are to such ontological holism furthermore all sorts of interesting consequences, that tend to validate both our quotidian experience and the deliverances of traditional supernaturalism.