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.


How is soul separate?

A: But which operation of the soul is clearly non-physical? It would be one thing if we had evidence for psychokinesis, telepathy, telling the future or whatever. What can you point to?

B: What’s wrong with Plato’s?

A: What, “the forms themselves”? Who can believe that? What about the third man?

B: I think this develops his thought in a direction he had no interest in. His basic point is that learning arises from sensation but doesn’t seem to terminate in it. When you teach someone you use examples in the hope that they will get what’s exemplified. The “forms” or “things in themselves” are just ways of talking about what you get when you get something and the only thing we’re for sure about is that it is a different sort of reality than the things exemplifying it.

A: Different from the sensible.

B: Yes. The physical is always correlative to sensation and learning is getting past this. Learning consists in getting something that is wholly contained in any individual without being exhausted by any one.

A: But the learning is always from sensation.

B: Recollection is a theory about learning from sensation.

A: So even here the separation from the physical is a union with it.

Morality and torture, pt. II

I’ve argued in the past that torture is wrong because all torture attempts to use pain to alienate persons from their own self-possession, and it is always wrong to intend to cause such alienation. The word “torture” can also describe acts of physical cruelty or features of punishments, but I leave these outside of the consideration because the first is not morally problematic (we all see that pointless cruelty is immoral) and the second falls under a different set of considerations (the morality of punishments) The morality of torture is the most interesting when it involves the use of pain to alienate self-possession and so obtain information.

STA raises the question of torture in the context of compelling persons to accept the faith. Bottom line: he does not allow it for those who never accepted the faith but he does allow it for heretics and apostates, who have once vowed to accept the faith as confessed.  What’s interesting is that one can accept the argument against torture given above while allowing its use to compel heretics and apostates, since a vow once given can never be rescinded and so one can never will contrary to what they have vowed. Taking a vow has to mean that any future renunciation of that law is not an act of reason. Since conscience is already bound one way, it is hard to see how we act against conscience by compelling it that way.

Do I need to say that I’m not arguing for torture here? Well there, I said it.

One difficulty is that torture means everything from cruelty to compelling to a sort of information seeking. The Church and the Enlightenment seemed to be most of all against cruelty or severity in punishment while we are more focused on the information-extraction problem (the ticking timebomb, or whatever). The morality of cruelty is, to be sure, largely a casuist question of particular practices, and if torture is seen this way it tends to collapse into the rhetorical question of “what is torture anyway?!?!” But the question of alienating someone from self-possession by pain is a different question.


The Continuity of Geocentrism and Copernicanism

Scholars of Medieval and Ancient cosmology have long known that the supposed “Copernican dethronement” is a facepalmingly bad anachronism. Those who put the earth at the center of the universe did not regard this as putting humanity at the center of attention but as putting it at the greatest possible distance from the incorruptible and perfect world of the outermost sphere. If being at the center of the universe was any great privilege, those in the deepest pits of Hell would be far more in God’s favor than the saints on earth.

In fact, seeing the earth at an infinite remove from the divine is perhaps the only point of continuity between the geocentric world and the Pascalian world we replaced it with, with its horrible stretches of infinite space. There is something archetypal (evident?) about the earth as a place of exile. Not even God could come here except as a wanderer or as cloaked in mystery. Said another way, for him to come to it as God would utterly destroy this place being earth.

The critique of Christianity paradox

The main critique of any post-axial religion is the Argument from Evil, but in the last few centuries we’ve added the critique that only atheism sees the world as it is, sc. as immense and without concern for some lone species of hairless primate. This might start as a critique of design but it is inseparable from the scientific disenchantment that moves out of the infancy of an anthropomorphism into the full grandeur of the tree of life, the majestically indifferent post-Copernican world, and Darwin fish.

These critiques conflict, perhaps fatally. The first insists that God has no answer to suffering and the second that the Christian world is infantile and therefore consoling. God cannot both save us from the indifference of the universe and have no answer to the suffering that we find in it.

I’m not appealing to dialectics here but more to experience. The sort of evils that someone might ground the AFE upon (the sudden or painful death of children) are the sorts of things that Christians overwhelmingly experience as throwing them into a pit so deep that God alone can be found at the end of it. The friends of those thrown “into the depths” feel compelled to speak and know they have nothing to say; compelled to be with them and know they can never be with them. Anyone might descend into Hell, but only Christ has gone there with any hope of returning. God is literally the only consolation one can experience in the depths of suffering, and so he is the only possible solution to the problem of evil. We can respond to this by saying it is all wish-fulfillment, infantilism, or pre-scientific enchanted magical thinking, but this commits us to declaring the AFE unsound.


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