God as a Cartesian self

Tim Wilson sets out Descartes as an example of someone who thinks that a human would not change at all if one turned off all their unconscious powers. Reason is so separate from physical processes that to separate it from them would not change its activity, and  reasoning in turn is seen as exhaustive of everything that is human. Defined in this way, Wilson makes short work of the idea that humans are Cartesian selves. Human conscious experience involves an awareness of up and down, spontaneous familiarity with our native language, a quick ability to react to threats, familiar faces, an instinctive desire for food, mates, theoretical accomplishment, etc. These are all givens that we suffer in thought and which already structure conscious experience before the self does anything for itself. There is real self-activity in spite of all this, but it occurs like an executive activity that works in the context of a large bureaucracy and an already extensively established order.

The characterization is not a fair account of Descartes (who took mechanism as the first, simplest, and most fertile hypothesis of matter – which it is; and who suggests the infamous pineal gland hypothesis as one idea among many), but it does interesting theological work. Compared to human persons, God is a pure self, that is, a self that is anticipated by the supposed Cartesian self. In every way that our consciousness is conditioned, God is simply a self. We make ourselves what we are only with difficulty and after forming habits which can never have the tenacity of nature itself, whereas God is pure self-activity – all that he is traces back to him, as though chosen from all the possibilities of existence. That said, he does not choose from some palate of possibilities in making himself what he is- this would be just another sort of determination prior to his self activity. Possibility therefore cannot be some domain independent of and prior to divinity. Rather, God is an infinite fullness and possibility is the shadow of this- a purely empty space marking out the derivatively existent and not-yet existent imitations or partial reflections of divinity. It is the “face of the deep” spoken of in Genesis.

But to leave it at this would leave out something crucial. To divide God from the derivative world of possibility gives us only a first and third person perspective. God in speaking to himself is the “I AM”, and in referring to the world of possibility can speak of an “it”, that is, something that falls outside of the ambit of his act of speaking and thought. But what about the second person perspective? To deny this of God would require us to deny that we have this perspective within ourselves in virtue of being selves, and as a proper perfection of it. This seems like explaining something very important away.

1 Comment

  1. Maureen said,

    August 3, 2014 at 5:06 pm

    The Cartesian ideation, within sufficient Aristotelian metaphysical reason is the closest my understanding came to the idea of, “quintessence.” Truly, without a second person, perhaps a second line drawn between the triangle; or intermediate gave more dimension – in metaphysical terms – as to draw closer in thought to the understanding that, “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end;” rather than having Aristotles’ rectilinear idea, go awry into the longest accordian, eventually arriving back to the first lower octave. Not to discount Empiricism, but you may forget the meaning of the song.

    Re: round squares-

    “In these celestial models the apparent motions of the fixed stars and the planets are accounted for by treating them as embedded in rotating spheres made of an aetherial, transparent fifth element (quintessence), like jewels set in orbs…. ”

    “Following Anaximander, his pupil Anaximenes (c. 585–528/4) held that the stars, Sun, Moon, and planets are all made of fire. But whilst the stars are fastened on a revolving crystal sphere like nails or studs, the Sun, Moon, and planets, and also the Earth, all just ride on air like leaves because of their breadth.[9] And whilst the fixed stars are carried around in a complete circle by the stellar sphere, the Sun, Moon and planets do not revolve under the Earth between setting and rising again like the stars do…”

    “Adi Setia describes the debate among Islamic scholars in the twelfth century, based on the commentary of Fakhr al-Din al-Razi about whether the celestial spheres are real, concrete physical bodies or “merely the abstract circles in the heavens traced out… by the various stars and planets.” Setia points out that most of the learned, and the astronomers, said they were solid spheres “on which the stars turn… and this view is closer to the apparent sense of the Qur’anic verses regarding the celestial orbits.” However, al-Razi mentions that some, such as the Islamic scholar Dahhak, considered them to be abstract. Al-Razi himself, was undecided, he said: “In truth, there is no way to ascertain the characteristics of the heavens except by authority [of divine revelation or prophetic traditions].”


    “According to Damascene (De Fide Orth. ii) that of the first day was spherical in form and without stars, the same, in fact, that the philosophers speak of, calling it the ninth sphere, and the primary movable body that moves with diurnal movement: while by the firmament made on the second day he understands the starry heaven….”

    ” We say, therefore, that the words which speak of the firmament as made on the second day can be understood in two senses. They may be understood, first, of the starry firmament, on which point it is necessary to set forth the different opinions of philosophers. Some of these believed it to be composed of the elements; and this was the opinion of Empedocles, who, however, held further that the body of the firmament was not susceptible of dissolution, because its parts are, so to say, not in disunion, but in harmony. Others held the firmament to be of the nature of the four elements, not, indeed, compounded of them, but being as it were a simple element. Such was the opinion of Plato, who held that element to be fire. Others, again, have held that the heaven is not of the nature of the four elements, but is itself a fifth body, existing over and above these. This is the opinion of Aristotle (De Coel. i, text. 6,32).”


    “Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house.” (Matthew 5:15)

    “Remember therefore from whence thou art fallen, and repent, and do the first works; or else I will come unto thee quickly, and will remove thy candlestick out of his place, except thou repent.” (Acts 19:8-12)

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