Creatio ex Nihilo: The Grammar of Agency

Originally posted on Eclectic Orthodoxy:

Until we grasp the radical transcendence of the eternal Creator, we cannot think rightly either his providential action in the world or of the peculiar freedom that we, as creatures, enjoy in him. Like the ancient Greeks we conceive of God as a being within the order of the cosmos—a supreme, perfect, noncorporeal being but a being nonetheless. And given our present scientific understanding of the universe, it’s difficult for us to envision how such a being can be providentially involved in world and cosmic history. Maybe he got things started at the Big Bang (or maybe not), but since then the cosmos has been rolling along quite nicely without him, thank you very much. God does not appear in the cosmological equations of the physicists. He is an unnecessary hypothesis. Divine transcendence is thus inevitably interpreted as distance and noninvolvement, a functional deism. If God is present in the…

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Kant and the Moral Argument

Here are three answers to a part b question on Kant’s moral argument:

They vary in quality -see if you can critique them.

  • ‘Morality has nothing to do with the existence of God’. Discuss.
  1. Kant believed that morality proved the existence of God. He thought that good people would seek happiness and therefore because it couldn’t be found on this earth it had to be found in the next life. But Freud proved that morality was given by your parents and your upbringing. This shows that morality doesn’t have to come from God. Also Kant’s argument doesn’t work as sometimes people do good things for rewards, and not out of duty.
  1. Kant’s argument is incoherent – it has at least two main areas which are strongly disputed by philosophers. The first is that ‘ought implies can’. Kant claims that whilst the imperative for moral agents to act according to their duty has no reward other than itself, nonetheless all actions have a goal, and the goal which moral actions aim at is the “highest good,” (summum bonum) which is a world in which both moral virtue and happiness are maximized. If I have an obligation to seek this highest good, Kant maintains, then it must be achievable.

But this is just wishful thinking; it may be that the sense of moral obligation we feel is just the result of upbringing or societal pressure as Freud would claim. In that case, just because I ought to do something, there is no guarantee that it will be achievable – the source of moral obligation is not a universal moral law, but a subjective, culturally bound set of practices.

Equally, some have questioned the notion that ought implies can when applied to the existence of things rather than just what should happen – Kant is clearly saying that the state of the summum bonum must exist somewhere because ought implies can, but this is false. Ought implies can if applied to an action, for instance if someone tells me I ought to try to work harder, but it tells me nothing about what actually exists.

However, Kant would probably say that his argument does not make this step; it is merely a working out of what morality implies, and shows what we have to postulate in order for moral actions to make sense.

It is also unclear that even more straightforward uses of ought imply can. For instance we might say of someone that they ought to be paid more, even though we know that their employer doesn’t have the money to do so.

Ultimately, Kant’s argument relies on the assumption of the fairness of the universe, but many philosophers would contend that this is unwarranted.

  1. The summum bonum is an incoherent notion in the sense that it doesn’t seem to follow from Kant’s moral theory – in fact his moral theory seems to disallow the existence of the summum bonum, as it functions as a reward for moral virtue. Kant rules out any possibility of reward for moral actions – the good will is that in which we act for duty’s sake, whereas the summum bonum is the state of supreme happiness which is the end goal of perfect virtue. But surely this is a reward by another name? As Michael Palmer has suggested – this looks suspiciously like trying to keep your cake and eat it.

However, it is possible that the notion of the summum bonum as a reward by another name does not do justice to Kant’s actual theory. Kant does seem to have identified a key element of moral behaviour – happiness or a state of satisfaction that one is acting in the right way, and although the summum bonum and duty are in tension, it is perhaps not completely incoherent. Kant is concerned with establishing the implications of morality, and if there is a conflict between my happiness and my duty, then perhaps the only coherent solution is that God will resolve that conflict.

Thomas Talbott: The Inescapable Love of God (part 9)

Matthew Livermore:

More on the philosophical problems raised by belief in an afterlife reward or punishment

Originally posted on Eclectic Orthodoxy:

3) “The free will theist’s understanding of hell is, in any case, utterly inconsistent with the New Testament teaching about hell” (The Inescapable Love of God, p. 171).

God does not damn, we damn ourselves; God does not cease to love and tender his unconditional forgiveness, we reject his forgiveness and alienate ourselves from his eternal fellowship; God does not inflict eternal suffering, we bring this suffering upon ourselves through our obdurate impenitence. This is the critical contention of what has become the dominant understanding of eternal perdition in Eastern Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism, and mainline Protestantism. It is known as the free will defense of hell and was popularized in C. S. Lewis’s The Problem of Pain and The Great Divorce (for a succinct presentation of the basic models of damnation see Thomas Talbott, “Heaven and Hell in Christian Thought“). It is difficult to know when…

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On Renunciation, Liberation, Sin and Death

This follows on from my previous post, which was a simple expression of desire and yearning for liberation in the song Fisherman’s Blues by the Waterboys. But liberation from what? What are the chains which hold you fast? It is the big question – and different religions answer in different ways. Religions such as Buddhism usually characterise those chains as ones of ignorance and desire and suffering. In Hinduism the word Moksha expresses the idea of freedom from these marks of reincarnation. In Christianity the emphasis is more moral – the chains are ones of sin and thus death. As often happens, the reading I was doing today was saying a lot about this yearning for liberation, and the entrapment of the human being. For A2 students perhaps wondering what this has got to do with the exam – stay with me to the end!

As usual I have been doing one of my favourite things – reading about Tolkien! In particular the excellent ‘Tolkien’s Sacramental Vision’ by Craig Bernthal. I have based much of what I say here on his chapter ‘Penance, Reconciliation and Their Refusal’ in that book.

For Tolkien evil is something by which we are caught. There is a strong element of addiction in all those who are caught by evil in The Lord of the Rings – not just those who are caught by the Ring, but for instance Pippin with the Palantir etc. This is something especially fresh to me at this moment because in preparation for Lent – and hopefully beyond it – I have decided to try and break my dependence on mobile devices and social media by selling both my smartphone and my tablet.

This may seem extreme – ‘haven’t I got any self-discipline?’, people have said to me; ‘just stop checking them so much, there’s no need to go that far.’ My answer to that is – would you say to an alcoholic ‘just have a little glass of whisky – have you no self-control?’ Of course they haven’t, that’s the point, and whilst I don’t think my compulsion to check my phone and go on social media is quite that bad yet, I have become aware over the last few months of a rather negative impact of all these things on my life. Quite apart from the fact that I have not really read any actual books for years, when I used to a lot, (no time to – I have twitter to check!) my sleep was cut down because I would be on my phone until the early hours, I found myself forced by Facebook into a projecting a distorted version of myself and recognised rather a lot of ego investment and pride in what I was doing, which sometimes made my interactions with others negative. These are probably just some of the negative effects of having constant access to social media on mobile devices. I’m sure there are limited positive effects, but for me they have been massively outweighed by the downside mentioned above.

I mention all this not to further mire myself in pride – look how abstemious I am! – but to give a practical example of the results of effectively chosen renunciations. I have been more productive, at peace, calmer and happier this week than I have for a long time, all by giving stuff up. It will become more difficult as I realise that I cannot rely on things like Google Maps or Kindle on journeys! But as renunciation goes this has been fairly easy! I’m not quite ready for the hair shirt and bread and water yet!

My point is it is very easy to become caught in the technological age. You find whole hours have gone by just staring at your phone. For many people this is fine. They are happy playing candy crush saga or whatever. But I have too much that I want to do. I don’t want to obliterate myself, to numb my awareness. I want to stay awake. I need to stay awake – to be vigilant in a moral sense, but also to create – you cannot create without life making some kind of sharp and shocking splash against your skin every now and again. Those who create, be it art or poetry or whatever, I would guess have found working ways of allowing life to sabotage their carefully planned and controlled creative environments, but not sabotage too much. It’s a tightrope walk, creativity.

But once you remove the external traps that are there to catch you, it is not all plain sailing. A subtler form of trap lies in wait within, a tendency which the external technological traps were just there to exploit once it manifested. This is the inner disposition of restlessness. This is a much more difficult trap to renounce. [see Josef Pieper – Leisure; the Basis of Culture]

Returning to the Biblical basis of this, the Old Testament Covenant was a life or death choice. The choice of evil meant you were ensnared by death, and as Bernthal points out St. John says much the same thing: “He that loveth not, abideth in death” (1 John 3:14)

“Death is a condition you enter while alive, and you abide in it – you accept it, you don’t struggle, and your conscience grows numb” – The way Bernthal puts it echoes my fear that midway on my life’s journey I begin to blunder off the path, being full of sleep:

Midway on our life’s journey, I found myself
In dark woods, the right road lost. To tell
About those woods is hard–so tangled and rough

And savage that thinking of it now, I feel
The old fear stirring: death is hardly more bitter.
And yet, to treat the good I found there as well

I’ll tell what I saw, though how I came to enter
I cannot well say, being so full of sleep
Whatever moment it was I began to blunder

Off the true path.

Dante, Inferno, Canto I

The entrapment, the capture, is a slow process; you don’t presumably realise where you have started to go wrong until it’s too late. Persistence in sin makes you go spiritually blind, as Feser puts it here (Sex Part II – Aquinas on the daughters of lust), which explains a lot.

That abiding can be turned around – he that loveth, abideth in life, clearly, and this is the ‘life to the full’ that Jesus speaks of, which comes from drinking of the waters of eternal life that He gives us. Graham Ward says:

“The goal of contemplation is a mutual discerning – to know even as I am known. The knowing is a condition of being, a condition in the Johannine texts that is often described as abiding (‘meno’ – to stay, to stand, but transitively, to await, to expect.)”

The paradigmatic case in all Tolkien’s work of this abiding in death is Smaug. This dragon is possessed by what he possesses: his hoard of gold. He abides with death – a reign of pure quantity as Guenon put it – every last gold piece counted, and unable to rise from the hoard in case something goes missing. He is therefore bound to the tomb of his cave. This grasping or appropriation Tolkien uses as an analog of our epistemological appropriation, our inability to let the known be known without somehow attempting to make the known into an image of ourself, is a reverse case of that ‘knowing as we are known’ which is abiding in love. We must constantly practise renunciation in order to allow things to be as they are, not what we want them to be.

Heidegger takes the moment of death, cutting as it does across all our plans and intentions, as a spiritual opportunity, as it presents us with the possibility of absurdity and therefore invites us to live life authentically. At least, this is what I take him to be saying! Heideggerians correct me if I’m wrong! When life is lived ‘as rite not as flight’ then we are learning how to die well, which is surely the aim of a good life.

In the Silmarillion, men, when rejecting death, enter into a deeper spiritual death. They lose vibrancy and joy. The mark of being captured by evil is joylessness, lack of merriment or gaiety. How do we avoid this? Interior battle is Tolkien’s answer – look at how many battles there are in the Lord of the Rings – but most of them go on in the inner forum of conscience of the characters. We need all the spiritual weapons we can muster for these battles – waybread, the phial of galadriel, the elven rope – all of these gifts which save Frodo and Sam are sacramental or prayer related. We have been given help in the battle.

To go back to Dante, in the Inferno, the negative gravity of sin pulls him into hell – he cannot ascend the hills he has come down, and must go through hell to escape. ‘Sin creates a proclivity to sin’. In the Catholic tradition, this is why confession is so important. Herbert McCabe:

“The fire of hell is God. God is terrible and no man can look upon him and live, he is a consuming fire. To be safe in the presence of God you must yourself be sacred, you must share in God’s power and life. To have come into the presence of God without this protection is damnation. That is one picture of hell, the fundamental biblical one…

But hell is also the inability to accept death. The damned man is he who does not die in Christ, for whom death is therefore not a means of resurrection to new life. He is not able to make the act of self-sacrifice required of him. He is unable to see why he should. I picture the damned as spending their time continually justifying themselves to themselves, constantly showing how right they were and why they have no need to repent…

All the souls in hell, I think, are quite convinced that they have been damned unjustly. The analogy I find most useful is that of the child who has lost his temper and is sulking. He wants of course, to return to the affection of his friends, but he is blowed if he is going to apologize, his pride keeps him out even though he wants very much to return. Everybody is fully prepared to have him back if he will only make the gesture of returning, but this he finds himself unable to do. He cannot perform the self-abandonment required. He is unable to die.

Anyone in hell who was sorry for his sin would of course instantly be in heaven; the point of hell is that this does not happen.”

Fisherman’s Blues

And I know I will be loosened
From the bonds that hold me fast
And the chains all around me
Will fall away at last

Mike Scott

Expression of yearning for liberation in the future – eschatological and romantic – certain knowledge that freedom will be attained in the arms of the beloved – this is mystical writing – the reason I love The Waterboys!

 

 

 

The Little Onion

In a previous post I discussed the philosophical problems with belief in an afterlife, and ended with a parable from Dostoevsky about an old woman and an onion. I was asked what I thought would have happened if she hadn’t kicked out, shaking off the hangers-on, and whether it would conflict with traditional notions of afterlife reward and punishment.

I think the first thing to say is that in the Christian tradition we can never talk about simply ‘my’ salvation – it is always our salvation – so the old woman was wrong to think that she could be justified in kicking the others off – she is not the one to decide how God might work with that one good action of hers – or rather if she does set herself up as the arbiter of that she will be sinning – and equally our bad actions have consequences that we cannot foresee. I think this can be seen in the Lord’s Prayer: ‘forgive us our sins and deliver us from evil’, and I think this is a key part of what Father Zosima means when he says of man:

“But when he knows that he is not only worse than all those in the world, but is also guilty before all people, on behalf of all and for all, for all human sins, the world’s and each person’s, only then will the goal of our unity be achieved. […] Only then will our hearts be moved to a love that is infinite, universal, and knows no satiety.” (The Brothers Karamazov 4.1.2)

Certainly this was also Von Balthasar’s view. It is our salvation not my salvation – it is also our sin, not other’s sin – which is a temptation we all know well, to point the finger of blame – in fact Zosima goes further even than this:

“make yourself responsible for all the sins of men […] by shifting your own laziness and powerlessness onto others, you will end by sharing in Satan’s pride and murmuring against God.” (6.3.g)

If we do not take seriously Christ’s injunction to “judge not, lest ye be judged, for as ye mete out, in the same measure it will be meted to you” and keep constant vigil on our thoughts, we will end up cooperating with evil. It is not enough just to follow the laws. This interconnectedness of all humans on the moral level is taught by all the great saints and mystics, as well as by Christ himself.

What does this mean then for the old woman? She could have brought people out of hell with her one little onion. The fact that she did not remain still and started selfishly kicking indicates that if you spend a lifetime nourishing mean-spirited habits, those habits will eat into any spark of goodness and grace that you have offered in your life, such that, whilst that single act of generosity would be enough to save not just one but many, it would be overcome by the darkness of habitual sin – such is the gravity of accumulated vice – or karma as it is known in the East.

Looking in more depth at the kicking out at the hangers on – I think this act of violence was as Rowan Williams says “the determination to distinguish dimensions in the other that exceed what is chosen and granted”.

Because the giving of the one small onion, even in its finitude and apparent paltriness as a moral action, nonetheless reflected the absolute gratuity of the universe as gift, it was strong enough to pull out many when received back as gift from the angel.

But the old habitual ‘instrumental mentality’ takes over, and as soon as the old woman makes the decision about what can or cannot be granted to the other, the fragility of that same gift in relation to freedom is revealed.

To end with some more from Rowan Williams:

“Because all of them [the issues that arise in Dostoevsky’s fiction] are in one way or another grounded in the question of what we owe to each other, they are all of them connected to the problem of lack of depth [what Charles Taylor calls the ‘buffered self’] and the instrumental mentality which flows from this. Owing something to another is a recognition that what my relation with that other properly involves cannot be reduced to what I decide, to what I choose to “grant” to the other. And the inexpressible or inexhaustible hinterland of the other is precisely what exceeds my choice and has no need of my license.

For Dostoevsky one of the characteristic motives in planned violence, individual or political, is the determination to extinguish dimensions in the other that exceed what is chosen and granted. And the contemporary cultural scene is one which strongly suggests that there is more than one style of violence directed against these rebel dimensions in humanity: to take the most obvious example, the global economy works on the assumption that local solidarities and patterns of shared meaning are all accidental to the fundamental practice of human beings in the world, which is the unrestricted exchange of commodity and currency. All particulars are levelled or assimilated to each other on the principle that everything has an exchange value that can be clearly determined. And the principle is applied equally to objects and to practices and skills: hence it becomes possible to quantify quite strictly the value of activities that were formerly regarded as given meaning by their intrinsic human worthwhileness, and surrounded accordingly by informal cultures and disciplines. The point at which the activity of nursing the sick can be expressed in terms of a producer supplying a customer is the point at which the culture of nursing the sick begins to disappear. It is replaced by contractual negotiations of power between the two interests represented, producer or supplier and consumer: whose will is going to be secured and protected? What do I need to concede in negotiation so as to secure the maximum amount of liberty for my future choices? And when such contracts cease to be satisfactory, there is no relation left; the other has ceased to be properly instrumental to my will and can be safely discarded.”