What is an experience of a spiritual soul?

A hundred years ago the immateriality of soul was only seen as verifiable through paranormal powers: telekinesis, ESP, knowledge of the future, astral projection, table-turning, reincarnation or whatever. Everything else was taken as an embodied cognition that could be lost just as it could be impaired. But if human persons have spirits then spirit can’t just be exercised in its vastly infrequent and evidence-thin paranormal experiences, there must also be some spiritual dimension to mundane, everyday experience. So what is it?

Human consciousness differs from other animals by having knowledge itself as one of the things it knows. Other animals see physical things better than we do, but we also see physics; other animals have better perceptions of living beings than we have, but we can perceive biology. It’s our loss that we don’t have access to a physical science that might be developed by animals with radically different organs than our own or access to a philosophy of mind that might be devised by animals with nine brains, but we appear not to have it because there is none on offer. Until the aliens show up, we’re left as the only animal that compares what it knows to the world to see how it measures up.

But knowledge of knowledge is the act of a spirit, as is clear when we compare it to cognition by physical organs.  We can smell a scent or taste a flavor but it’s meaningless to speak of the smelling of smelling or taste of taste. Even if we installed a third eye on a swiveling gooseneck we could only use it to see an eyeball, not to have vision of vision. Again, even if we hacked into the electrical signals in the eyeball or the occipital lobe that are interpreted as vision, the vision would still be in the interpretation, not the signals. We can see an organ just fine with another organ, but not the cognitive act of the organ, which is experienced within the organ or not at all. Where organs do the knowing there is no knowledge of knowledge, but this is what our experience of knowing most of all is.

Knowledge of knowledge, i.e. self reflection, is first of all what allows us to be a self or “I”. For all the deflationary philosophy thrown at the term, it remains the guarantee of both our spirituality and the possibility of our complete corporeality. When I say, for example, “I am digesting” or “I am sunburned and in pain” I identify myself with my body, even though doing so is only possible in virtue of reflexive spirituality. The stale division of theories of mind into dualist/ monist is, at best, the sort of crude first approximation that nature/nurture was, since it is precisely the dualism of the person into spirit and what is other than spirit that allows him to be fully identified with his body. The impressive acts of self-recognition done by chimps, elephants and magpies do not require their knowledge itself to be known to them and so ground what is, for us, an “I”.

Self reflection is also why we experience things in the world are true or false, i.e. as agreeing with our beliefs about them or not, or even how we can have beliefs at all. It is why I can form hypotheses or make guesses about the world and see if they’re right.

And so the experience of the spiritual soul is first of all our experience of being selves believing things as true or false, in other words, it is an experience of normal functioning human consciousness running across all levels of IQ and even across altered and impaired modes of consciousness. Drug users, for example, don’t cease to be selves experiencing things held as true or false. Without this basic human experience one cannot even say what he’s experiencing, though even apart from out ability to articulate the experience we still have it.


Conscience Theory of Divine Command

CTDC  states that the sacrifice of Isaac, the ban of the Amalekites, and other OT moral horrors are the voice of God as the voice of conscience. Abraham was morally certain that (for example) to hold back the sacrifice of his son is to concede that his God is not worthy to be offered all goods. Again, Abraham becomes convinced beyond all doubt and after much reflection that to hold back what he loves most from sacrifice is to merely continue the sacrifice of Cain, or to concede that the Moabites alone recognize the true God. The revelation of the Ram on mount Moriah is the voice of God in the more traditional and straightforward sense, and not as conditioned by conscience.

The general lesson is thus apart from revelation, even the most prudent and pious will experience feeling morally bound to goods which are, in fact, monstrosities. Given the circumstances in which conscience finds itself, even the paradigm of holiness will be morally obliged (through conscience) to perform the gravest of evils. A fortiori, the conscience of the imperfect will bind us to a monstrosity every other week.

Suffering and maranatha

-We trust advice on suffering only from the suffering. So this cannot be advice.

-There is a challenge in shifting from “permission” to maranatha. “Why did God allow this” is anwered, for believers, by some sense of purpose or reason, but we are incomplete if we rest here and perhaps not even faithful to the true horror of the original suffering. When will the Lord not just justify but reverse this?

-“God permits” is not “God greenlights”. Think Lincoln permitting slavery vs. Douglass permitting it.  Douglass allowed for perpetual slavery, Lincoln allowed only a road to ultimate extinction.

-The critique of Christianity as opium is first addressed to those who have fallen into the comforting despair that we can merely be consoled and not redeemed.

Job and Satan. The free will defense includes the devils.

-Satan’s non serviam is his own interpretation of what God called him to.

-The Fall made suffering just. The Incarnation made it an evil that demands justification.

-“When the Son of Man comes, will there be faith on earth?”, i.e. when the final eschatological promise is revealed, will anyone have been waiting for it, crying out for it, even demanding it? Or did we just get tired of seeing the same sky everyday? There is an eschatological despair in our sense of the heavens as the paradigm for necessity/ determinism.

-In Christ man demands a new heaven and a new earth. His physicality is the assurance of a new physical world where all is justified and reversed. Those in the early church who expected his immediate return were not tricked by some botched reading of an obscure prophesy, they simply saw Christ as physical and drew the obvious inference.

Metaphysics isn’t physics

In the face of this objection:

We understand that God exists

We do not understand what God is/ his essence

Therefore, God’s existence is not his essence.

STA says:

Existence (esse) means two things: either the act of the essence, or the composing of a proposition made by joining a predicate to a subject. Taking existence in the first sense, we cannot understand God’s existence nor his essence; but only in the second sense. We know that this proposition which we form about God when we say “God is,” is true; and this we know from his effects.

The point generalizes to the intellect or to any transphysical reality as such. To say that the objects exists, as Frege would put it, is not to say that we have an intuition* of it on which we can base a later discourse about their nature but to say that we can form true propositions about them by way of causal explanation. This is not at all the same thing as positing theoretical entities in physics, since the formal definition of these always involves some sensible thing like a reading on a gauge or a splatter-pattern on a photo plate. Unseen causes in physics are never formally unseen, though they do intimate the sort of causal explanations that ground metaphysics by not being seen in themselves but by proxies.

The absence of intuition of the metaphysical divides it formally from physics, and gives it an entirely different sense of evidence, proof, object, and claims to existence. The Naturalist demand for evidence or proof is almost certainly question-begging, since metaphysics does not claim to give one an intuition of the object either in itself or by some sensible proxy. That said, the Naturalist demand might be more charitably understood as a demand for the beatific vision.


*This is intuition as it was used from Ockham to Kant: the immediate presence- and so existence – of the object. It is certainly not “intuition” as used in Analytic philosophy, where it seems to mean an uninformed prejudice.

Friendship and Incarnation

STA argues that both intelligence and will are unifying powers, but they differ in that known things exist in the mode of the knower while chosen things have their own proper existence. Because of this, it is better to know things below us than to love them, and better to love things above us than to know them. I use “better”  to refer to both terms of the relation – both the higher and the lower are better off if the higher knows more than he loves, and the lower loves more than he knows.

Among equals, therefore, the ideal state is friendship, or the state where our knowledge of the other always keeps pace with our love of him and our love always shows more things to be known. If we were all friends we would have no need of lower sorts of organization. The city of pigs needs no politics. But this is an eschatological vision, not a universal plan for present life. For now, we enjoy the friendships and accept the rest.

The God we discover by natural theology more knows us than loves us, and it is better that way. Providential order sees to it that each thing has its place, and it is precisely because God transcends us that we can accept his totalizing rule for life in a way that would be totalitarian and inhuman if it were exercised by another human. It is both horrifying and blasphemous to see this sort of honor given to human beings.

The Incarnation preserves this order while opening an entirely new dimension within it. God remains provident while becoming friend in a robust and literal sense.

Purpose vs. evils

There are things for which we see no plan or purpose but which we are convinced must have one. Suffering is the paradigm case since it forces the problem of meaning on us, but any action beyond a living being acting for an obvious good has a meaning/plan/ or purpose very much hidden to us.

Inability to find meaning is logically explosive, since any supposed meaning that cannot stand in the face of suffering is no meaning at all. Again, our own plans are too implicated in natural processes to keep their meaning when nature is seen as without one. The cycles of grief, for example, can be seen either as meaningful consolations or as proofs that nature is resilient and adapts itself to suffering. Taken in the first way, they are seen as insights into a deeper purpose, taken in the second way the happier part of the cycle is seen as proof that love is something that nature can easily dispense with.  But very little of even the meaning we make for ourselves can survive a belief like that.

Greater plans or meanings commit us to an intelligence beyond ourselves who is involved with the world and working in history. Suffering and evil, or the weather-like flux of nature are thus better seen as demanding a judgment from us about God. Evil is not evidence we need contrary evidence for – the whole question is what judgment we will level in the face of the pointlessness of evil and our total repugnance (including our intellectual repugnance) to meaninglessness. Theodicy and the various responses to the problem of evil largely miss the point. We agree over who and what is required if things are purposive. Our disagreement is whether love is stronger than death, or the reverse.

Evdokimovian theory of beauty

Paul Evdokimov was an Orthodox theologian who develops a theology of beauty in his book The Art of the Icon. What follows is a theology of sacred beauty that uses motifs from his work.

1.) Beauty is essentially a call to ecstasy. The experience of beauty is of being called forth toward something promised as opposed to exhaustively comprehending something within us (like when we see from one end of a truth to another) nor is it the actual possession of something outside of us, as happens with the good. Beauty is incomplete in the sense of promising more, and it is ecstatic because it does not offer this “more” as something to be possessed by intelligence or will.

2.) There are diverse sorts of ecstasy and therefore diverse sorts of beauty. Bacchic ecstasy is the lowest form, and so the lowest form of beauty. Endokimov never considers this sort. Apollonian ecstasy arises from our marvelling at perfect technique, exact realism, and other ways of creating the beautiful though mastery of the manipulation of artistic elements. This sort of beauty enters into the fine arts in the late Medieval period through Giotto and the invention of perspective, trompe-l’œil, and other sorts of visual realism.

3.) Sacred ecstasy differs from both the Apollonian and Bacchic mode. From an Apollonian point of view, the icon is a primitive sketch or quasi-abstraction. It needs development into greater historicity and faithfulness to the world. From a Bacchic point of view, the sacred lacks dynamic energy and the power to form social communion.

4.) Apollonian and Bacchic ecstasy both seek to displace the sacred. The Bacchic does so by seeking to inject sexual themes or themes in which the crowd can lose itself in collective activity. This happens principally by music but can also happen through architecture that emphasizes open spaces centered around an elevated, central performance altar. The Apollonian seeks to give sacred art greater realism, and it does so by giving architecture greater precision or music greater technique.

5.) There is a contradiction at the heart of Apollonian beauty. It wants to both be an ideal and real: Christ on the cross both looks like a real person and yet has a flawless, unblemished body, a clean-cropped beard etc. Because of this, the Apollonian shifts to seeking for sur-reality in an attempt to get at the “true ideal” that is behind the mere appearance. All displays of technique quickly become insipid and lead to primitivism as a backlash, whether it is the virtuoso pianists of the 19th century or the electric guitarists of the late 1980’s.

6.) While Bacchic or Apollonian ecstasy have their place, they become demonic when they try to displace the sacred. In this sense, beauty is alienable from truth and goodness so far as one kind of ecstasy can set itself up as the truth of another.


Liturgical reform

If we wanted a liturgy that spoke to the heart of contemporary persons, it would need more sex, violence, and profanity. If we appropriate our cultural symbols and artistic lingua franca, nothing would feel authentic without a few f-bombs, blood, and naked bodies. Tastefully done, of course.

This is not even a point about contemporary life. Liturgy seeks transcendence and the most visceral transcendence we experience is through Bacchic energy. Historically, many liturgies did count on the power of horror and libido: human sacrifice, temple prostitutes, collective use of hallucinogens, crowd frenzy, public mutilation, finding meanings in chance events…

The point, I guess, is that there is more than one sort of liturgy; more than one “public work” of crowds rallying in search of transcendent reality.

How is soul separate? (III Response to Kebes in Phaedo 96-106e)

1.) P-form. Whatever you understand when you understand something.

2.) The soul understands itself. Therefore the soul itself is a P-form. While other animals and plants have souls, only the soul of the person is, in addition, a p-form.

To update, “consciousness” can be replaced for “soul”. Clarification: the self-knowledge in question is not a knowledge of what soul/consciousness is, but initially only that it is. An actual theory, as opposed to a sign of it or a record of it, is an actual way consciousness is.

3.) But no P-form can be other than itself. Equal things can become unequal, but equality cannot be; an even number of stars might become an odd number, but an even number will never be odd.

4.) No p-form soul will cease to be itself.

5.) But all that ceases to exist, ceases to be itself.

6.) No soul ceases to exist.

Commentary: The basic inference is from self-reflection to self-subsistence, by noticing the common feature between formal abstractions and the concrete human soul (both are immediate objects of understanding). Plato seems to leave out the crucial element of his argument that the human soul is a p-form while this is not true of all souls, although many of the problems of the Phaedo are resolved by doing so.

Phenomenologically, the self-reflection of soul is why we relate to both the world and our beliefs as true. We see truth because we can compare our thoughts to the world. Lacking this, science is impossible, and sciences are demonstratively impossible for non-persons (which is in many ways a pity. I kinda wish we could get physical theories from animals with other sense powers than ourselves.)

How is soul separate? (II)

-The theory of recollection sees the soul-body nexus as revealed though intellectual-sensible objects that have exemplified-example union. These are inseparable so far as nothing is exemplified without examples, but the separability is also clear. STA also sees the reason for union in a similar way:

If, therefore, the inferior substances received species in the same degree of universality as the superior substances, since they are not so strong in understanding, the knowledge which they would derive through them would be imperfect, and of a general and confused nature. We can see this to a certain extent in man, for those who are of weaker intellect fail to acquire perfect knowledge through the universal conceptions of those who have a better understanding, unless things are explained to them singly and in detail.

-Time in nature and in mind result from the soul-body nexus. If someone asks you how long a logical inference takes, in one sense the inference itself is instantaneous but the normal distribution of neuronal-firing will be some number of milliseconds. If someone asks you how long the Boston marathon takes, you can’t say “in one sense the marathon is instantaneous, in another sense the normal distribution of finishing times is between around two and eight hours”

It’s true that any motion can disregard the middle moments, and sometimes we even define them out of existence. Chessmen move instantaneously in the sense that the motion from here to there is irrelevant to the game.  A game like “War” or Solitaire is decided as soon as the shuffling is over. In digital systems or in anything based on bits, the fact of the decision is all that matters – the time taken to get to it can be often disregarded. One account of determinism is to see the universe as an information system or card game like Solitaire. There is no contingency, only ignorance.

But this comes to the same thing: in one sense anything we understand has time an in another sense it doesn’t. This is exactly hat we would expect if everything we understand is a soul-body object.


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