Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Another Argument for Berkeleyan-Style Idealism

This is from my book Why Christianity is True, Chapter 3, pp. 64-66.

First of all, let’s talk a little more about the issue of consciousness being irreducible to non-consciousness.  I made the argument that consciousness must be traced back to the First Cause, because you can’t get consciousness from non-conscious stuff.  This might have raised a question in your mind:  “If consciousness cannot be derived from non-consciousness, then wouldn't it work the other way as well?  Wouldn't non-consciousness be irreducible to consciousness?  And if this is the case, then wouldn't the First Cause have to have two parts which are irreducible to each other, making him divisible?”

This would indeed be a problem if we were to affirm that consciousness and non-consciousness are completely and ultimately distinct things.  But I don't think that is the case.  (And in fact it can't be the case, because God must be simple/indivisible!)

Since God is a mind (the Mind), and since God is simple, we must conceive of creation as being produced by the mind of God.  In this way, as in many others, God is like an author who writes a novel.  How does the novelist produce the novel?  She does so by imagining a world—full of events, characters, places, etc.—and thus bringing it into being by her thinking of it.  (She will probably then write it down, but it exists in her mind first.)  The world of the novel—particularly before the novelist writes it down—is completely dependent for its existence on the novelist and the novelist's sustaining that world in being by her thinking of it.  We cannot draw any absolute distinction between the existence of the imaginary world of the novel and the author's perceiving of or keeping in mind that world.  To use a phrase from 18th century British philosopher George Berkeley, as far as the world of the novel goes, “to be is to be perceived.”

This is a good analogy for how God creates the world, with a few adjustments:  1. Unlike a human novelist, God can keep the whole universe with all its details—past, present, and future—in his mind at once (and timelessly, since he is outside of time).  He has no need to write it down.  In fact, “writing it down” is a meaningless concept in this context, for it implies a physical being with space outside of himself and other materials—paper and pen—with which he records his thoughts.  God is not in time or space, so there is no place “outside of God” for God to write anything down.  Rather than being simply one being in a reality in which he is surrounded by other objects, he himself is the full context of all of reality.  2. A human world-creation is going to lack much reality and substance, because human imagination is very limited and weak.  When you create an imaginary character, that character is real to an extent—he really exists in your mind insofar as you imagine him.  But he is a mere spectre, a ghost, in comparison to yourself and the rest of the external world.  But God's mind is unlimited and full of power.  When he “imagines” or perceives a world, that world is full of substance and reality from its overall form down to the smallest details.

So what I'm suggesting is basically what the Apostle Paul said about our relationship with God in the Bible, in Acts 17:27-28:  “He is not far from each one of us; for in Him we live and move and have our being.”  God created the universe and keeps it in being by his thinking or perceiving of us.  This means that material reality is not some thing that exists ultimately independently from mind/consciousness, but is ultimately a part or a mode of consciousness.  We should not think of a chair, for example, as a totally independent object made of some substance that is irreducibly distinct from consciousness, but as an object existing ultimately in God's perception and thus as an aspect of that perception.  There are not two fundamental substances—consciousness and non-consciousness—but one substance—consciousness—in which is contained the forms and relations of matter.

This makes sense, if you think about it.  If you consider the properties of a material object—like a chair—it becomes apparent that they are dependent for their existence on being perceived.  What are the properties of a chair?  It has texture, color, taste (not a good taste, I presume, but some kind of taste nonetheless), smell, form, dimensions, etc.  All of these properties are defined only in relation to perception.  Texture is relative to the sense of touch.  Color is relative to the sense of sight.  Taste is relative to the sense of taste.  Smell is relative to the sense of smell.  Form and dimension are relative to an observer who is in a particular location.  If you think about a chair, you will notice that the different parts of it, which allow it to be an extended object in space, only exist in relation to a grid, the center point of which just happens to be the center point of your own point of view.  The dimensionality of the chair is made possible only relatively, in reference to your viewpoint, as you look at the chair from your particular location.  This is the case with real chairs, as well as chairs you might imagine in your mind.  Look at any picture or piece of art, and likewise you will see that there is always a point of view implied.  Form and dimension are inseparable from perception and a perceiver.  The very concept of a “material object” makes no sense independent from the concept of the object's being perceived.  Matter, by its very nature, is a mode of perception/consciousness. 31

31  I mentioned the philosopher George Berkeley above.  While I don't agree with everything in Berkeley's metaphysics, I think he was onto something in his development of his theory of “idealism” (not to be confused with Hegelian or Kantian concepts of “idealism” which are a whole different matter).  In his works he tried to articulate and argue for the idea that matter is not fundamentally distinct from consciousness but is an aspect of it.   His Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge and his Three Dialogues between Hylas and Philonous are a good source for reading more about his ideas on this topic.  Jonathan Edwards, the famous Puritan theologian and philosopher, also developed similar ideas.

For more, see here.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

195 AD: No Sola Scriptura in Sight

A few months ago, I read an article by Dr. R. Scott Clark who runs the Heidelblog, a well-known Reformed theology blog.  The article is promoting the Reformed "Regulative Principle of Worship" (which I talk about and respond to from a Catholic point of view in this article).  In the article, Dr. Clark talks about the famous debate in the early Church over the timing of the celebration of Easter.  You can read the short account of this controversy from the early Church historian Eusebius here (chapter 23-25).  Basically, there was a dispute that took place in the 190s AD (about one hundred years after the end of the age of the apostles) over two different dating systems for the celebration of Easter.  The whole affair came close to causing a schism in the Church, but the intervention of peacemakers (particularly St. Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons) helped it reach a peaceful end.  In the course of discussing this controversy in his article, Dr. Clark says this:

The date for Easter was controversial was because both sides were arguing over which date was more biblical. No one was arguing in the early 2nd century that the church has authority to impose practices and observances that are not imposed in Scripture.

I found this comment striking because it is precisely dead wrong, and its dead-wrong-ness helps to illustrate precisely the opposite point from the one Dr. Clark was attempting to make.  In actuality, no one in the Easter controversy was arguing that their date was more biblical.  They knew better than to try that, since it is obvious that the feast of Easter isn't even mentioned in the Bible.  Rather, each side was arguing their position from an alleged unwritten tradition coming from the apostles.  One side cited the practice of the Apostle John, and the other side cited a different tradition (perhaps one stemming from Peter and Paul in Rome).  Dr. Clark thinks that no one in the early 2nd century (actually, this controversy took place in the late 2nd century) believed that the Church had the authority to "impose practices and observances that are not imposed in Scripture."  But, actually, everyone believed that, and this controversy illustrates it.  No one in this controversy, so far as we have any record of, advocated a Sola Scriptura approach to the issue, or (as Dr. Clark and other Reformed theologians would have done had they been there) objected to the whole controversy as wrongheaded because of its lack of a biblical foundation.  This shows well just how absent the idea of Sola Scriptura was from the consciousness of the entire Church just one hundred years or so after the days of the apostles.  The early Church was Catholic in its view of Scripture, Tradition, and Church authority, not Protestant.

I'll close with a couple of quotations from two early Fathers--St. Basil of Caesaria and St. Vincent of Lerins--which articulate the Catholic view of the early Church, a view which continues to be articulated by the Catholic Church today.

Of the beliefs and practices whether generally accepted or publicly enjoined which are preserved in the Church some we possess derived from written teaching; others we have received delivered to us "in a mystery" by the tradition of the apostles; and both of these in relation to true religion have the same force. And these no one will gainsay—no one, at all events, who is even moderately versed in the institutions of the Church. For were we to attempt to reject such customs as have no written authority, on the ground that the importance they possess is small, we should unintentionally injure the Gospel in its very vitals; or, rather, should make our public definition a mere phrase and nothing more. For instance, to take the first and most general example, who is thence who has taught us in writing to sign with the sign of the cross those who have trusted in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ? What writing has taught us to turn to the East at the prayer? Which of the saints has left us in writing the words of the invocation at the displaying of the bread of the Eucharist and the cup of blessing? For we are not, as is well known, content with what the apostle or the Gospel has recorded, but both in preface and conclusion we add other words as being of great importance to the validity of the ministry, and these we derive from unwritten teaching. Moreover we bless the water of baptism and the oil of the chrism, and besides this the catechumen who is being baptized. On what written authority do we do this? Is not our authority silent and mystical tradition? Nay, by what written word is the anointing of oil itself taught? And whence comes the custom of baptizing thrice? And as to the other customs of baptism from what Scripture do we derive the renunciation of Satan and his angels? Does not this come from that unpublished and secret teaching which our fathers guarded in a silence out of the reach of curious meddling and inquisitive investigation?  (St. Basil of Caesaria, On the Holy Spirit, Chapter 27--from the New Advent website, embedded links removed) 
But here some one perhaps will ask, Since the canon of Scripture is complete, and sufficient of itself for everything, and more than sufficient, what need is there to join with it the authority of the Church's interpretation? For this reason—because, owing to the depth of Holy Scripture, all do not accept it in one and the same sense, but one understands its words in one way, another in another; so that it seems to be capable of as many interpretations as there are interpreters. For Novatian expounds it one way, Sabellius another, Donatus another, Arius, Eunomius, Macedonius, another, Photinus, Apollinaris, Priscillian, another, Iovinian, Pelagius, Celestius, another, lastly, Nestorius another. Therefore, it is very necessary, on account of so great intricacies of such various error, that the rule for the right understanding of the prophets and apostles should be framed in accordance with the standard of Ecclesiastical and Catholic interpretation.  (St. Vincent of Lerins, Commonitory, Chapter 2--from the New Advent website, embedded links removed)

For more, see here and here.

Published on the feast of St. Benedict.