Quotation

He who learns must suffer, and, even in our sleep, pain that we cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God. - Aeschylus

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Waking Up: True Paradoxes

In the fourth chapter of Waking Up, Sam Harris briefly sums up the evidence of the benefits of meditation and then generously grants the reader access to parts of his spiritual journey, and both of those sections are worth reading.  Unfortunately, I didn't have the money (and still don't) to find an excellent teacher in Nepal from whom I could learn meditation directly.  Nonetheless, the very effective presentation of the apparent paradoxes of meditation very much spoke to my experience of it.

When I was working on my first university degree, I struck up a brief correspondence with a gentleman in England who had a Masters degree in Philosophy.  One of the discussions we had was with regard to paradoxes, and we discovered that we both took the view that certain kinds of paradoxes would need to be true for our universe to exist as it does.  This was notable because of the fact that on most topics of interest, we took wildly different positions: he was an atheist and I an agnostic theist, he an anarchist and I a statist, he a communist and I a capitalist.

My views have since changed on more than one of those matters, but what we shared in common remains: an understanding of logic and its limits, a modest epistemology, and an appreciation for paradox.  So when Sam Harris writes of paradoxes, I find myself very interested in what he has to share with us on the subject.

The last paradox mentioned in this chapter is one described by Harris as the paradox of acceptance.  The first part of the paradox is that our lived experience informs us that we find fulfillment in the self-improvement prompted by our lack of acceptance of things as they are, that we would not become happy by merely giving up and saying, "Well, I'm good enough as I am."

 "It would seem that very few good things in life come from accepting the present moment as it is.  To become educated, we must be motivated to learn.  To master a sport requires that we continually improve our performance and overcome our resistance to physical exertion.  To be a better spouse or parent, we often must make a deliberate effort to change ourselves.  Merely accepting that we are lazy, distracted, petty, easily provoked to anger, and inclined to waste our time in ways that we will regret later is not a path to happiness."

The second part is that we must at the same time fully accept ourselves in the present moment, seeing that we are nonetheless of great value.

"And yet it is true that meditation requires total acceptance of what is given in the present moment.  If you are injured and in pain, the path to mental peace can be traversed in a single step: Simply accept the pain as it arises, while doing whatever you need to do to help your body heal. ... The paradox is that we can become wiser and more compassionate and live more fulfilling lives by refusing to be who we have tended to be in the past.  But we must also relax, accepting things as they are in the present, as we strive to change ourselves."

This way of expressing the paradox reminded me of my study of wu wei from the Taoist tradition, specifically its succinct way of expressing the magnificence of correct action not caused by a striving for action.  This lack of striving while retaining the ability to act is a result of selflessness, what I described in my review of the third chapter of Waking Up as Killing the Self.

This leads us to the paradox involved in the description of eliminating the sense of "I" that Sam Harris puts forward in the fourth chapter as he relates the experience of the seminal teacher of one of Harris' meditation teachers.

"While sitting alone in his uncle's study, Ramana suddenly became paralyzed by a fear of death.  He lay down on the floor, convinced that he would soon die, but rather than  remaining terrified, he decided to locate the self that was about to disappear.  He focused on the feeling of 'I' --a process he later called 'self-inquiry' --and found it to be absent from the field of consciousness.  Ramana the person didn't die that day, but he claimed that the feeling of being a separate self never darkened his consciousness again."

In this case, the paradox is that as we search for a distinct self, we inevitably see that it cannot be found, that it only existed to the extent that we clung to the notion of the self.  And once we no longer cling to the notion of the self, then the self disappears because the self was itself only the act of clinging.  (This is a rather Buddhist view of the matter that I'm taking here, and perhaps I should be wary of it given that the Buddha was killed in my review of the first chapter of Waking Up.)

This paradox leads us onward to a further paradox which Harris explains as he analyzes different approaches to using meditation to realize our selflessness.

"We wouldn't attempt to meditate, or engage in any other contemplative practice, if we didn't feel that something about our experience needed to be improved.  But here lies one of the central paradoxes of the spiritual life, because this very feeling of dissatisfaction causes us to overlook the intrinsic freedom of consciousness in the present.  As we have seen, there are good reasons to believe that adopting a practice like meditation can lead to positive changes in one's life.  But the deepest goal of spirituality is freedom from the illusion of the self--and to seek such freedom, as though it were a future state to be attained through effort, is to reinforce the chains of one's apparent bondage in each moment."

It turns out that if we cling to our practice of meditation as a panacea for suffering, it thwarts the very purpose of the spiritual life by continuing our clinging.  The clinging that constitutes the self remains; it is simply that the object to which we cling has changed, and it is often the case that we cling all the more strongly to it precisely because we believe that it could release us from suffering.   As a result, we can completely miss the Buddha's point in trying to follow him on the path of meditation.

So how can we solve the paradox?  We can only solve it by living the aforementioned paradox of acceptance.  We must both begin to let go of the sense of "I" which is the manifestation of clinging and at the same time we must (no less strongly) act in a disciplined way in order to carry out the actions necessary to let go.

In the spiritual life, the true paradox is resolved not by wriggling out of its grasp, but rather by fully embracing yet another true paradox.




Note:  Photo credit goes to me.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Why Evolution Is True: The Whole Story

I recently began reading the book entitled Why Evolution Is True by Jerry Coyne, famously an opponent of creationism, intelligent design, and religion in general by way of the conflict thesis.  This does not mean that he has no respect for any form of religion whatsoever, despite the fact that he recognizes that the opposition to evolution is grounded in religious views.

"It's clear that this resistance stems largely from religion.  You can find religions without creationism, but you never find creationism without religion.  Many religions not only deem humans as special, but deny evolution by asserting that we, like other species, were objects of an instantaneous creation by a deity.  While many religious people have found a way to accommodate evolution with their spiritual beliefs, no such reconciliation is possible if one adheres to the literal truth of a special creation."

I happen to disagree with Coyne that it is impossible to reconcile evolution with the literal truth of a special creation, but that's a philosophical issue for another time.  It's obvious that he does recognize that some religions are not the enemy of evolution, so we can't take his views as meaning that he harbors such a strong reaction against religion that he tends to reject everything that a religion might present.  It also does not mean that he is dogmatic with regard to the truth of evolution, as we can see from the following passage:

"Because a theory is accepted as 'true' only when its assertions and predictions are tested over and over again, and confirmed repeatedly, there is no one moment when a scientific theory becomes a scientific fact.  A theory becomes a fact (or a 'truth') when so much evidence has accumulated in its favor--and there is no decisive evidence against it--that virtually all reasonable people will accept it.  This does not mean that a 'true' theory will never be falsified.  All scientific truth is provisional, subject to modification in light of new evidence.  There is no alarm bell that goes off to tell scientists that they've finally hit on the ultimate, unchangeable truths about nature.  As we'll see, it is possible that despite thousands of observations that support Darwinism, new data might show it to be wrong.  I think that unlikely, but scientists, unlike zealots, can't afford to become arrogant about what they accept as true."

Furthermore, Coyne understands the religious concerns and that they are non-trivial concerns.

"To many, evolution gnaws at their sense of self.  If evolution offers a lesson, it seems to be that we're not only related to other creatures but, like them, are also the product of blind and impersonal evolutionary forces.  If humans are just one of many outcomes of natural selection, maybe we aren't so special after all.  You can understand why this doesn't sit well with many people who think that we came into being differently from other species, as a special goal of a divine intervention.    Does our existence have any purpose or meaning that distinguishes us from other creatures?  Evolution is also thought to erode morality.  If, after all, we are simply beasts, then why not behave like beasts?  What can keep us moral if we're nothing more than monkeys with big brains?"

What's more, he notes the important point that religion isn't the only factor in a widespread public rejection of evolution in the U.S.

"Aside from its conflict with fundamentalist religion, much confusion and misunderstanding surrounds evolution because of a simple lack of awareness of the weight and variety of evidence in its favor.  Doubtless some simply aren't interested.  But the problem is more widespread than this: it's a lack of information.    Even many of my fellow biologists are unacquainted with the many lines of evidence for evolution, and most of my university students, who supposedly learned evolution in high school, come to my courses knowing almost nothing of this central organizing theory of biology.  In spite of the wide coverage of creationism and its recent descendant, intelligent design, the popular press gives almost no background on why scientists accept evolution.  No wonder then that many people fall prey to the rhetoric of creationists and their deliberate mischaracterizations of Darwinism."

I think he's basically correct about the lack of information being a big factor.  The fundamental problem with the average attempt to demonstrate the inadequacy of the theory of evolution is that the interlocutor generally forgoes dealing with the whole story.  Instead of looking at all (or at least a good sample) of the evidence and learning the proposed mechanisms by which evolution operates as well as how they relate to one another, it's criticized on the basis that our grandfathers were not actually spider monkeys.

Or that more complex organs like an eye could not possibly have arisen from far more simple organs which merely sense light.  Or perhaps that evolutionary theory precludes the possibility of a divine creator.  Or even that it rules out the possibility of a perfectly intelligent designer.  Those conclusions might be entirely correct if the theory of evolution were telling a very different story; if the theory of evolution claimed that species differentiation could occur in only one or two generations, then it might be a fair criticism to point out that our grandfathers were not spider monkeys.

The reason that it is definitely not a fair criticism is that the theory of evolution doesn't claim that speciation occurs that quickly.  Nor does it claim that simple light-sensing organs become complex eyes overnight.  The only way to come to the conclusion that the theory of evolution entails these things is to avoid reading most of the story.

I would be doing much the same thing if I believed that I understand the Bible because I have read The Book of Genesis and the Book of Revelation and rejected Christianity because I found it incredible that God would create the Earth with such care and then unleash the four horsemen upon it in the very next book.  If I proclaimed Christianity completely absurd upon reading only two of the dozens of books in the Bible, then Christians would immediately spot the problem.  And the problem in this hypothetical scenario would be that I was failing to understand Christianity (at least in part) because I didn't have the whole story.

This is not to say that everyone would believe in Christianity (or evolution) if they but have the whole story.  It is to say that if one has the whole story, it becomes quickly apparent that those oft-repeated critiques are not very good ones, and that any critiques leveled against it need to actually respond to Christianity (or evolution) as a whole.

Accordingly, Coyne provides us with a synopsis of the whole story so that at the very least, a mere lack of information will not be the basis for objections to evolution, and hopefully we can find better ones to use for folks who still object to it.  I will be providing parts of the story from his book in future posts, and I am certainly open to letting someone who lives in the area borrow the book if they want to learn more.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Waking Up: Killing the Self

So far, "The Riddle of Self" is my favorite chapter in Sam Harris' newest book entitled Waking Up.  He does a wonderful job of distilling some basic truths of the human experience found in the world's great religious traditions into explanations that are not dependent on those religious traditions, and uses examples which we can relate to easily so as to make the points effectively.  The first of which is that self is an illusion, like many illusions we experience.

"The one thing each of us knows for certain is that reality vastly exceeds our awareness of it.  I am, for instance, sitting at my desk, drinking coffee.  Gravity is holding me in place, and the manner in which this is accomplished eludes us to this day.  The integrity of my chair is the result of electrical bonds between atoms--entities I have never seen but which I know must exist, in some sense, with or without my knowledge.  The coffee is dissipating heat at a rate that could be calculated with precision, and the second law of thermodynamics decrees that it is, on balance, losing heat every moment rather than gathering it from the cup or the surrounding air.  None of this is evident to me from direct experience, however.  ...  The taste of the coffee, my satisfaction at its flavor, the feeling of the warm cup in my hand--while these are immediate facts with which I am acquainted, they reach back into a dark wilderness of facts that I will never come to know.  I have neurons firing and forming new connections in my brain every instant, and these events determine the character of my experience.  But I know nothing directly about the electrochemical activity of my brain--and yet this soggy miracle of computation appears to be working for the moment and generating a vision of the world."

This chapter is about understanding the self in light of the scientific evidence (and empirical evidence more generally) and learning how to deal with the self in order to advance in the spiritual life.  Where Harris and I probably agree most strongly is that the great goal of the spiritual life is to put an end to our constant selfishness, our seemingly interminable focus on the "I" which is thinking, generally in self-serving ways that inhibit the human flourishing we both seek to promote.

"My goal in this chapter and the next is to convince you that the conventional sense of self is an illusion--and that spirituality largely consists of realizing this, moment to moment.  There are logical and scientific reasons to accept this claim, but recognizing it to be true is not a matter of understanding these reasons.  Like many illusions, the sense of self disappears when closely examined, and this is done through the practice of meditation."

For Harris, the way to accomplish this is by recourse to meditation practices found in the Buddhist traditions.  He suggests that it is in these traditions that we find a means to not only understanding the truth that consciousness properly understood is selfless, but also in learning to live out that truth.  In short, he sets out to help us kill the self as we experience it.  On the other hand, he proposes that Christianity keeps us from killing the self.

"Obviously, there is something in our experience that we are calling "I," apart from the sheer fact that we are conscious; otherwise, we would never describe our subjectivity in the way we do, and a person would have no basis for feeling that she had lost her sense of self, whatever the circumstances.  Nevertheless, it is extremely difficult to pinpoint just what it is we take ourselves to be.  Many philosophers have noticed this problem, but few in the West have understood that the failure to locate the self can produce more than mere confusion.  I suspect that this difference between Eastern and Western philosophy has something to do with Abrahamic religion and its doctrine of the soul.  Christianity, in particular, presents impressive obstacles to thinking intelligently about the nature of the human mind, asserting, as it does, the real existence of souls who are subject to the eternal judgment of God."

As I mentioned before in my review of the first chapter of Waking Up, I'm quite in favor of meditation and in particular the meditation practices found in Buddhist traditions.  I have practiced it myself, and there are certainly benefits to it aside from the fact that it's the only way I can get rid of a bout of hiccups.  I think Harris gets a lot of things right about Buddhism, and that his admiration for the Buddha's teachings is just as sincere as mine.

Where I think he goes wrong is in understanding the relationship of Christianity to the self, and not just to the soul per se (I have already explained what I find to be the problems with his understanding of the soul in my review of the second chapter of Waking Up).  Fortunately, Harris himself gives me the material with which to illustrate the situation when he discusses two ways to deal with daily suffering due to our thoughts.

"We can address mental suffering of this kind on at least two levels.  We can use thoughts themselves as an antidote, or we can stand free of thought altogether.  The first technique requires no experience with meditation, and it can work wonders if one develops the appropriate habits of mind.  Many people do it quite naturally; it's called 'looking on the bright side.' ...

In fact, the effects of consciously practicing gratitude have been studied: When compared to merely thinking about significant life events, contemplating daily hassles, or comparing oneself favorably to others, thinking about what one is grateful for increases one's feeling of well-being, motivation, and positive outlook toward the future."

This first approach is certainly one of the approaches of Christianity.  A constant state of gratitude is something many Christian mystics and Saints have suggested cultivating, right in line with the New Testament instruction to "give thanks in all circumstances".  The second approach is less popular in Christianity; there are mystics and saints who took contemplative approaches that allowed them to stand free of their thoughts, but most of them took active approaches to stand free of their selfishness instead.

Harris seems to think that Christianity doesn't go far enough in escaping from the thoughts that cause us suffering, that it stops at the first level and doesn't bother looking at the deeper cause of suffering so that we can learn to address it.  I would propose instead that Christianity goes farther than Buddhism; where Buddhism teaches us to wake up from the illusion of self by repeated practice in meditation, Christianity teaches us to love it to death, to end our selfishness by acts of loving service which gradually transform us into selfless beings who truly see that our neighbor's good is worth giving everything to accomplish.

The problem with Christianity is not that it is too timid to explore the mind and see what lies beyond the self, that consciousness is selfless, but that it boldly leaps past the mind and asserts firmly that Love is what lies beyond the mind.  Where Harris stops, quite reasonably, and claims that consciousness free of self is itself what lies beyond our experience of the self, Christianity rushes in like a fool and claims that we can find an eternal wellspring of love beyond our experience of self, and that the ground of being from which the well springs loves us as well!

This all seems a bit much for a philosopher who does not want to jump to conclusions hastily, especially one for whom the Christian cosmology rings false.  But what could possibly be more true for those of us who have learned to kill the self through meditation?  When we empty ourselves of the experience of self, of our constant attendance to the ego, then what we find in the emptiness left behind by the self is a love and compassion deeper than we could have ever imagined before killing the self.  When we awaken from the dream of self, we find the reality of love.

This is, of course, very similar to what the Buddha taught us out of his own experience.  After he ventured completely beyond the bounds of self and passed the great illusion of "I" which is a result of clinging, what the Buddha found was an unending source of loving kindness.  In what seems like emptiness to the ego,  the Buddha discovers that there is a fullness of compassion beyond any experience of compassion we have while we hold for dear life onto the transient desires of the self.

The Buddha became awake, and it is precisely this waking up that shows us that when we venture boldly past the illusion created by our willing slavery to the ego, when we follow the Buddha in dropping the veil of self to which we have been clinging, we find a ubiquitous springing forth of love beyond the veil.  As the self dies, this all-pervading love shines all the more brightly through us.

Sam Harris recommends that we take the Buddha's advice for killing the self, which is to transcend our thoughts rooted in selfishness by repeated meditation.  And that's fair enough.  I too would be very happy to see many people become awake.  Nevertheless, I would suggest that we do not need to awake to the illusion of self by the slow, plodding method of contemplation.  We can kill the self without ever meditating as long as we follow the way of radical acts of love.

It is acts of selfless love that by their very nature draw us through the illusion of self and into the reality of love, and just as with meditation, the more we practice these acts, the more we dwell beyond the self.  The beauty of it is that it requires no special technique or training to cut through the illusion of self; anyone can make the leap of faith to believe in Love and respond to the greatest love they can imagine by giving their greatest love to others.

The Buddha and the Christ both demonstrate and teach an approach for killing the self; it's just that the approaches are ordered differently.  The former wants us to ask the right questions so that we might later learn to love, and the latter calls us to love first and ask questions later.

Where the Buddha teaches us how to carefully dispel the illusion of self so that we can live in loving-kindness for all beings, Christ calls us to a love so radical that the self falls away as we run to embrace the poor and vulnerable so that all beings might join us in the arms of Love.

Killing the Buddha - Killing the Soul - Killing the Self



Note:  Photo credit goes to me.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Waking Up: Killing the Soul

As I continue to read Waking Up by Sam Harris, I find myself very much enjoying his well-written descriptions of the results of research into the functions and limitations of the human brain.  Not only that, but his way of presenting the hard problem of consciousness for a non-philosopher is very good.  There's really no way to avoid oversimplification when trying to present a topic like that to those not familiar with the philosophy of mind, but he manages to present the problem accurately enough without employing loads of jargon.

He makes an interesting connection between consciousness and the soul after discussing how the two hemispheres of our brains appear to be separate consciousnesses bound together rather than a singular, truly unified consciousness.

"What is most startling about the split-brain phenomenon is that we have every reason to believe that the isolated right hemisphere is independently conscious.  It is true that some scientists and philosophers have resisted this conclusion, but none have done so credibly.  If complex language were necessary for consciousness, then all nonhuman animals and human infants would be devoid of consciousness in principle.  If those whose left hemispheres have been surgically removed are still believed to be conscious--and they are--how could the mere presence of a functioning left hemisphere rob the right one of its subjectivity in the case of a split-brain patient?"
"The consciousness of the right hemisphere is especially difficult to deny whenever a subject possesses linguistic ability on both sides of the brain, because in such cases the divided hemispheres often express different intentions.  In a famous example, a young patient was asked what he wanted to be when he grew up: His left brain replied, "A draftsman," while his right brain used letter cards to spell out "racing driver."  In fact, the divided hemispheres sometimes seem to address each other directly, in the form of a verbalized, interhemispheric argument."

This he takes to be an argument against the Christian concept of the soul, suggesting that if there is no truly unified physical consciousness which emerges from our brain, then there is no soul in the Christian sense.

"Much of what makes us human is generally accomplished by the right side of the brain.  Consequently, we have every reason to believe that the disconnected right hemisphere is independently conscious and that the divided brain harbors two distinct points of view.  This fact poses an insurmountable problem for the notion that each of us has a single, indivisible self--much less an immortal soul.  The idea of a soul arises from the feeling that our subjectivity has a unity, simplicity, and integrity that must somehow transcend the biochemical wheelworks of the body.  But the split-brain phenomenon  proves that our subjectivity can quite literally be sliced in two.  (This is why Sir John Eccles, a neuroscientist and committed Christian, declared, against all evidence, that the right hemisphere of the divided brain must be unconscious.)"

This seems to be an attempt to kill the soul; admittedly, it is a bold move to attempt to kill something fairly widely believed to be immortal.  I have to respect the willingness to make bold arguments, given that I tend to favor bold arguments myself.  But is it really so bold?  Harris seems to assume that the soul and consciousness are equivalent, at least functionally.  And he seems to assume that consciousness emerges from brain activity without any further cause, which is a perfectly valid assumption for someone doing scientific investigation.

If it's true that the soul is equivalent to consciousness and also that it emerges from a physical entity, then on his view the soul cannot be immortal because that which is physical can be destroyed, at least in principle.  Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that Harris sets out to kill the mortal soul, given his assumptions about the soul which so pervade his explanation of it.  It seems like a strange move for a philosopher to argue against the Christian view of the soul by assuming that its premises are wrong in order to prove them wrong.  Isn't that rather like Christians assuming the existence of God as the author of Sacred Scripture in order to prove the existence of God from Sacred Scripture in order to show that atheism is incorrect?

I found myself very confused by this line of reasoning (on both the part of Harris and John Eccles), mostly because I'm not readily familiar with Christian understandings of the soul in which the consciousness, or mind, is identified as the soul.   Generally, the soul is understood to be both distinct from and tightly integrated with our body-mind system in an ontological sense.  Specifically, the soul is understood as the vital principle from which our bodily and mental faculties emerge.

The understanding of the soul held to by the largest Christian church in the world, specifically the Catholic Church, would seem a useful example.  The Roman Catholic Church could be fairly said to have adopted the Thomistic understanding of the soul, and for Thomas Aquinas, there were vegetable, sensitive, and rational faculties of souls, among others.  If Aquinas takes the view that only some souls have what we think of as a rational mind, or consciousness, then it seems extremely unlikely that Aquinas was equating the soul with consciousness.

Even if we were to identify consciousness with the sensitive faculty of souls and include other animals, then the fact would still remain that vegetables (in whichever sense one would like to take it) would have souls and yet might easily not have consciousness on the view of Aquinas.  There is no way to get to the notion that Aquinas would equate the soul with consciousness.  It would seem much more likely that consciousness as we understand it would be a faculty of a certain subset of souls on his view.

Of course, not every Catholic is Roman, and so it might be worth looking at Eastern Christian thought on the soul and its relationship with the conscious mind.  On the Eastern Orthodox and Eastern Catholic view, the conscious mind (nous in Greek) is one of several activities or energies of the soul rather than being the soul itself.  This too, seems to escape Harris' criticism because it does not equate the soul with consciousness.

There are probably some Christian understandings of the soul as mortal (rather than immortal which is the more common view) that would be compatible with the view that the soul is a consciousness which is an emergent property of our brains.  And I'm sure that there are Christians who do believe that the soul is identical to consciousness, and perhaps the point Sam Harris brings forward would be a serious problem for that view.  Since I don't agree with that view either, it presents no particular difficulty for me if he does point it out.

It could present a problem for Deepak Chopra, for example, who in this video seems to briefly equate the soul with consciousness.  If that brief equation is truly representative of his views, then it might or might not be a problem.  If Chopra takes the view that the brain is simply the physical manifestation of the soul-consciousness and that the soul-consciousness is not dependent on the brain for existence, but rather that the brain is dependent upon the soul-consciousness for existence, then it is easy enough for him to suggest that the soul-consciousness has multiple manifestations which are linked together via the brain.  And if we damage the brain, he could say that we have merely damaged the physical manifestation of consciousness rather than consciousness itself.

Even in the case of a person who takes the view that the soul is consciousness, there is no particular need for them to commit to the idea that consciousness is solely physical or that it emerges from physical processes.  Understandably, Harris seems inclined to think that consciousness is not some sort of spiritual principle and wishes to ground our understanding of consciousness in the physical realm as much as possible, but there is no compelling reason for his intellectual opponents to follow his lead unless they unexpectedly find his desire that they accept his premises a compelling reason.

But this is not the end!  Harris has another point against the mortal soul for those who are not convinced of its death thus far.

"In such cases, each hemisphere might well have its own beliefs.  Consider what this says about the dogma--widely held under Christianity and Islam--that a person's salvation depends on her believing the right doctrine about God.  If a split-brain patient's left hemisphere accepts the divinity of Jesus, but the right doesn't, are we to imagine that she now harbors two immortal souls, one destined for the company of angels and the other for an eternity in hellfire?"

I suppose it's an option that Christians could adjust to the evidence of split-brain patients by claiming that they are granted two souls at the moment of the brain splitting, though I don't see that becoming a popular option.

But just as before, I find myself wondering why that's the proposed outcome.  It seems much more likely that those who take the traditional Christian view of the soul would suggest that what matters is what is apprehended by the soul, not what is apprehended by the brain, and that the soul is not dependent on the brain, but rather the brain is dependent on the soul.  There's no particular reason for the Christian to assume that if the brain apprehends two things which are mutually exclusive, then the soul must do so as well in some fashion.  This is particularly true on the ancient view that the soul has multiple faculties and free will. 

The lack of equivalence between the soul and consciousness seems to be yet again a difficulty to overcome in the quest to kill the immortal soul.  Far from killing the Christian concept of an immortal soul, Harris seems to have at best killed the concept of a mortal soul, a soul which is merely a unified consciousness, perhaps an emergent property of physical processes.  I completely agree that such a mortal soul does not make much sense in light of the evidence, so to that I say, "Good work, sir!"

Now that the mortal soul has been killed, perhaps we can turn our attention to the immortal soul.  To rephrase a traditional proclamation: The soul is dead.  Long live the soul!

Killing the Buddha - Killing the Soul - Killing the Self



Note:  Photo credit goes to me.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Fair Questions: Is Thomas Aquinas a Body-Soul Dualist?

A while back, one of my friends and I were discussing the nature of the soul, specifically the understanding of the soul held to by Fr. Robert Barron, who has since been appointed Bishop.  From what I understand, he has been strongly influenced (like many Roman Catholic theologians and philosophers) by a Thomistic framework for understanding issues of the soul.  My friend suggested that then-Fr. Barron was a dualist with regard to the body and soul and critiqued what I will call for convenience the body-soul dualist position.  Specifically, it was proposed that Barron was committed to a body-soul dualism because he believes that souls have a sex, more precisely that they are either male or female.

I very much agreed that body-soul dualism is an erroneous position.  I do, however, dispute that Barron is a body-soul dualist precisely because he is grounded in the Thomistic framework for understanding the soul.  As a disclaimer, I am not a Thomist, and I also have no particular love for the Scholastic tradition in general.  Nonetheless, in the interest of fairness, I think it is my obligation to present a more accurate understanding of the Thomistic perspective on the soul so that my friend can critique the position correctly.

Even the experts over at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy cannot lump Aquinas in with the dualists.  His philosophy, like much ancient thought, violates the simplistic boundaries which we modern thinkers tend to place on philosophies.

"Philosophers nowadays will want to know how this account of substance places Aquinas on the question of the relation of body and soul with respect to Dualism and Physicalism. Not easily. Aquinas maintains that the soul is capable of existing apart from the living body after the death of the body, because the soul is incorruptible. This might suggest that he is a kind of Substance Dualist, the soul being one substance and the body another, with the soul “interacting” as it were with the other substance, the body. However this picture fails to recognize the Aristotelian terms of the account that Aquinas provides of soul and body. Thomas knows and accepts Aristotle's assertion in De anima II.1 that it is as pointless to ask whether soul and body are one as it is to ask whether the seal and the wax are one--they are."

Thomas Aquinas (and by extension Barron) believes that the soul is one; it is the principle from which all of our activities spring forth.  The soul accomplishes these activities by means of the faculties of the soul:

For Aristotle, the soul is one, but endowed with five groups of faculties (dunámeis): the "vegetative" faculty (threptikón), concerned with the maintenance and development of organic life; the appetite (oretikón), or the tendency to any good; the faculty of sense perception (aisthetikón); the "locomotive" faculty (kinetikón), which presides over the various bodily movements; and reason (dianoetikón). -- The Catholic Encyclopedia

What contemporary culture tends to think of as the body (perhaps in the sense of physicalism) which has various emergent properties which at first glance are not obviously physical, is understood the other way around by Aquinas.  For him, it is the soul which has various emergent properties which at first glance are not obviously spiritual.  On his view, what we might describe as the bodily faculties are what we might (rather crudely) think of as the physical manifestations of the vital principle which is the soul.

For Aquinas, it could be fairly said that just as those of us who have rational souls are not straightforwardly rational at all times and in all ways, so too those of us with male souls need not be straightforwardly masculine at all times and in all ways.  Because the multiple faculties of the soul are in constant interplay, it is not a simple matter to predict which faculties will dominate the activities of the soul, and that only grows more difficult when free will is entered into the equation.

As a result, there is no particular reason to believe that the Thomistic position warrants the view that a male soul would only have what we tend to think of as masculine inclinations, or that it would have to understand itself as masculine if it were in fact a male soul. There is, therefore, no necessary commitment to a body-soul dualism which follows from a Thomistic account of the soul in which souls have a sexual identity.

Not only is Aquinas explicitly not a dualist, the dualist conclusion that the body and soul are truly separate are ruled out by his Aristotelian premises about the soul.  There is not any way for Aquinas to get to the dualist position even if he desired to do so.

Friday, September 18, 2015

Unfair Questions: What is essential to the Catholic faith?

I was recently asked to explain what is essential to the Catholic faith, that which must remain in order for the Catholic faith to remain "after all else is stripped away".  I reluctantly provided an answer, but could not escape the sense that the question was problematic.

The question assumes that there is something essential to the Catholic faith which can be understood as distinct from the whole of Catholic faith with its liturgies, its mysticism, its sacred texts, and its doctrines.  The underlying assumption is that a faith ought to be able to survive as a single proposition, and more specifically as a single proposition which can be expressed simply.  On this view, the faith of the Church cannot be, as W.V. Quine might describe it, a great web of belief in which propositions are mutually supporting one another.

For someone who seeks what is essential about the Catholic faith, it is assumed that we can still understand the faith of the ancient churches when we strip away all of their fullness, the richness of their theology, the depth of their philosophers, the wisdom of their mystics and ascetics, the beauty of their liturgies, and the boldness of their doctrines.  Under what other circumstances would we grant this assumption (aside from the Protestant Reformation)?

Who asks, "What is essential to the flower?  What remains when we remove the petals, the stamens, the carpels, the sepals, and the stem?"  As we all intuitively grasp, all parts of the flower are essential to the flower.  No one removes the petals or stem of the flower in order to better see its unadulterated essence; the flower exists in its fullness, beautiful and effective in its wholeness.  To remove any of its parts is not to reveal what is essential, but rather to destroy it, to wrench it from the beauty and fullness of life which it has according to the whole of it.

Like the flower, the Catholic faith has the beauty and fullness of life when it exists as a whole, a coherent web of belief which is the flowering of Christian thought; removing any part of its fullness is to destroy it.  Remove her liturgies, her mysticism, her sacred texts, and her doctrines...what remains may be essential, but it is no longer the Catholic faith, because to be Catholic is to exist, by definition, according to the whole.

One of the many things which is essential to the Catholic faith is precisely that fullness of truth, goodness, and beauty.  The Catholic faith is not something which can be distilled into something smaller, more streamlined, or more palatable.  The Catholic faith cannot exist safely and legally in countries in which Christianity is tolerated only to the extent that it is a private and quiet devotion, precisely because the fullness of the Catholic faith cannot be merely a private and quiet devotion; it must by its nature break out of the confines of individual lives and overflow into the community, visible and distinctive in its beauty.

The Catholic faith in its fullness leaves no room even for the individual ego, its structure and doctrines binding us to forsake all others for the sake of Christ, to rest our gaze only upon Christ and His Church.  This endless adoration of our Lord is the seed of the faith; ours is not just a faith of seeds, but rather a flowering faith which spreads beauty, truth, and goodness everywhere.  From the seed sown by the Gospel encounter with Christ in our hearts, we grow to love the art and music which are the petals of the Catholic faith, the doctrines of the church which are the stamens, the liturgies which are her carpels, and even the fibers of Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture which are her stem.

So to those who would wonder what is essential to the Catholic faith, my longer answer is that all of it is essential.  Every bit of the good, the true, and the beautiful is essential to the Catholic faith, just as all of the parts of the rose are essential to the flower we grow in the garden for our beloved.  In the same way that we do not remove the petals on the rose before showing it to our beloved, so too should we choose to not remove anything from the Catholic faith before presenting it to those we love.



Note:  Photo credit goes to me.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Love it to Death: The Gift of Loneliness

I was not often alone as a child, and I was rarely lonely.  My life was full of the laughter, the love, and the hurts associated with family life.  That filling of my life with the presence of family prevented me from ever facing the deeper pangs of loneliness, of confronting the sense that I was lacking something so profound that its absence could not be ignored.

It was more common for me to be alone as a teenager, and I was often lonely.  The inconsolable loneliness of an introverted teenager can be difficult to describe because the emotional states are of such great height and depth at that age, and they are so reluctant to share them and thereby ease the burden of carrying their experiences.  So many things are being felt for the very first time during that stage of life, and the lack of experience makes those feelings loom large like the darkest storm clouds or the most brilliant sunset in a way that adults who have been through those feelings many times no longer experience them.

The teenager often feels a keen need for acceptance and does not yet know what true acceptance is because of the lack of experience, and so they both have great difficulty finding it and feel its lack deeply.  Loneliness is often experienced as a curse, an unfair withholding of those presences and relationships which hold at bay the pain of solitude.  For the person who is not yet at peace with himself or herself, who has not yet learned to accept the totality of their existence as good, to be alone is to inevitably gaze upon the light of their being and see all the darkness surrounding it.

The one who is never alone without being accompanied by the misery of loneliness has not yet discovered the deepest loneliness, free of misery's loving company.  Part of the journey of adulthood is entering into pure loneliness into which no one can follow, not even the voices in our heads that echo the demands of our parents, the accusations of our peers, and the cries of our children.

I am often alone as an adult, and I no longer feel the pain that once accompanied loneliness.  I enjoy my daily respite from the business of life so that I can spend quality time practicing the love of life.  My time is filled by creating gifts for others, praying for others, edifying myself, and generally taking care of my soul that it might be strong enough to lift up the souls of others.  My time alone has transformed from an onerous burden on my ego to a joyful gift for myself and others.

Of course, my peace with being alone would not be possible without having accepted the gift of loneliness.  If I still saw being alone as a curse to be escaped by diving into a world of fantasy and games, retreating into a haze of numbing alcohol, or falling into the emptiness granted by Zen meditation, then I could not accept the great gift of loneliness.  If I still avoided loneliness, I could never have made the journey through the desert for 40 days, following my Lord in accepting the gift of loneliness.

It was in venturing alone into a barren land that Jesus was able to confront the temptations of life directly, facing the ego which asks us to be enslaved to the whims of the body, which asks us to take power over others rather than lifting them up, which asks us to embrace our pride and insist that God do as we will rather than having it be done to us according to His will.  In the same way, it is in venturing into the barren land of loneliness that we are able to confront the temptations of our life directly.

It is in accepting the gift of loneliness that we learn to accept the desires of the ego without giving in to them in the moments in which we do not have the closeness of our friends and family to distract us from them.  It is in accepting the gift of loneliness that we learn to practice using our bodies and minds to create good things for others, thereby holding them in our hearts even when they are far from our bodies.

It is in accepting the gift of loneliness that we learn to relinquish the power and control we seek for ourselves, allowing His power to be sufficient for us.  It is in accepting the gift of loneliness that we learn that God wills something greater for us, a closeness with Him which is so pervasive that it cannot exist when we do not leave ample time to be alone with Him alone.  It is in accepting the gift of loneliness that we learn to humbly stand aside, letting go of our attempts to fill our lives with good things, and letting God fill our lives with even greater things than we could imagine.

The gift of loneliness is that we have the opportunity to look deeply into ourselves and find the emptiness that was once filled with human love, waiting in stillness as God fills that emptiness with divine love as we seek Him in the silence.  The gift of loneliness is that we make the newfound space in our lives a space in which all that is good, true, and beautiful lifts our hearts to Him who is alone capable of filling our lives to overflowing.

The gift of loneliness is that it allows us to see that our being is lacking everything when we are alone, and that God gives us everything when we are alone, pouring Himself into our lives in each moment in which we can discipline ourselves to stop seeking anything else.  The gift of loneliness is that our prayer to God can truly become, with much practice, unimpeded by the mad scramble to meet the desires of our bodies, minds, and hearts which so pervades our lives; our prayer is transformed into a prayer of perfect love which looks neither to the right nor the left, but only toward the Beloved.

In diving deep into the ocean of loneliness, we learn gradually and painfully that it is the ocean of love, that the pain of loneliness is that we are distant from the presence of human love and have nothing to shield us from the fire and light of His glory as it shines upon our being even in the darkest depths of our souls.  In loneliness, we love to death all those parts of us which stand between us and our Beloved even when we are alone, allowing His love to burn the darkness between us away so that we might never be lonely again.

It is only in loneliness that we learn how far we are from being alone, and it is only the lonely who find that the gift of loneliness is to show us the final end of loneliness.

Monday, September 7, 2015

Love it to Death: Enter Under My Roof

This week, I was an Extraordinary Minister of Holy Communion.  I have been trained to perform those duties for many years, but it has been several years since I have had an occasion to do so because I have declined to perform those duties every week at the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass as do most people who are trained for it in our parish.

For a few hours, the Body of Christ was at my apartment, safely in a pyx made of precious metal. Unsure of where to put Him, I placed the pyx on my bookshelf front and center, prominently displayed among items of importance given by dear friends.  My instinct was to make sure He could rest where I would naturally remember joy and love.  Not because He is lacking anything, but because it properly disposes me toward joy and love in His presence.

It was a strange thing to have Him under my roof.  I occasionally play Gregorian chant anyway, but I couldn't imagine playing anything else at the time, so I fired up my laptop and found a very peaceful album of Gregorian chant.  I also felt strongly that it was right to kneel in reverence and pray for a moment before moving on to my daily tasks.

I found that the Real Presence shaped my life in small and yet profound ways as I went about my usual household tasks, and in much the same way that it shapes my life during the liturgy.  I found myself turning to Him as I washed out a dish.  I found myself wanting to sing His praises.  I found myself praying to be adopted into the divine household, though I am far from worthy of such an honor.

Before receiving Holy Communion during Mass, we pray, "Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed."  This is one of the many instances during the Mass that Sacred Scripture is drawn upon for the personal and communal prayer of the Christian liturgy.

In the Gospel of Matthew, a scene is recounted in which Jesus is asked by a Roman centurion to heal his servant.  Jesus, being a man of sacramental character, wanted to go to his servant and heal him, just as he healed blind and deaf men by laying his hands on them.

"And the centurion making answer, said: Lord, I am not worthy that thou shouldst enter under my roof: but only say the word, and my servant shall be healed. " (from the Douay-Rheims Bible)

The centurion was correct of course, that Jesus did not need to enter under his roof in order to heal the servant.  And in the same way, Jesus does not need to enter under the roof of our mouth in order for our soul to be healed.  Nonetheless, he insists that we eat His flesh and drink His blood in the Gospel of John.  He is not content to merely heal our soul at a distance, but rather wishes to reach out to us and heal us in our body and our blood as well by His precious body and His precious blood.

Christ comes as the Son of God, the God who held nothing back in loving His creatures, the God who sent His only Son as a sacrifice so that we all might be sons and daughters of God, adopted into the household of our Lord and Savior.  As God treats us with such an extravagant love, we who are so much lower than He who sets the stars in the sky, so too must we treat our least brothers and sisters with that same extravagant love; whatsoever we do to them we also do to Christ who poured out His life as an offering of perfect love for us.

As valuable a lesson as it is to realize that we need to treat everyone as if we are not worthy for them to be under our roof, particularly the most vulnerable and downtrodden, it is a great joy to remember that God invites us to enter under His roof, to partake of the divine life of love in the household of the Lord.  He says to us, "Enter under my roof, all of you who are poor in spirit, who are merciful, who hunger and thirst for righteousness, who make peace, who are pure in heart, who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness."

It is precisely in following His example of inviting us under His roof despite our lowliness that we learn to love others as He loved us.  It is in following his example of inviting all into the divine life of love that we learn to invite all of our brothers and sisters into seeking the divine life of love with us, adopting them into the great family of the pilgrim Church on Earth and the triumphant Church in Heaven.

It is in following His example that we love to death our lack of hospitality, welcoming all those who are made in the imago dei to join us in accepting the grace which enables us to enter under the heavenly roof in the houses He has prepared for us.  It is in accepting the Body and Blood which He offers that we are enabled to take our place at the table of divine love, to feast at the eternal banquet which Love has laid out for all who enter under His roof.

Friday, September 4, 2015

The Other Side: The Iron Man Argument

Recently, a friend of mine charged me with employing a straw man argument, which is an informal fallacy.  I completely agree that I was committing an informal fallacy, but I do not concede that it was a straw man argument.  I propose that I was committing a different informal fallacy, and I would suggest that it be called an iron man argument.

The straw man argument is employed quite frequently, and it has two essential components.
  1. The argument refutes an argument other than the one being advanced by the other side.
  2. The other side's argument is replaced by a weaker argument so that it is easier to refute.
This is a highly effective rhetorical move, frequently used in political circles, and used even more frequently in online arguments, though it's difficult to imagine the sheer scale of straw men being erected by millions of people all over the world, every day.

For example, a politician might point out that it is logically inconsistent to charge a man with a double murder when he kills a pregnant woman, but not to charge him with conspiracy to commit murder when he tells his girlfriend that she had better help him kill the child before it's born because he's not ready to be a parent and then drives her to the abortion clinic.  (As an aside, who's ever ready for parenthood anyway?)

This is a valid point, but given that most other politicians have no stance on enacting statutes to deal with conspiracy to commit murder for idiotic boyfriends, using it as an argument against a pro-choice political opponent would likely be a straw man because 1.  it's not the same argument made by pro-choice legislators and 2.  it's a much easier argument to defeat than the bodily autonomy argument generally made by pro-choice legislators.

The iron man argument is employed very infrequently, though it also has two essential components.
  1. The argument refutes an argument other than the one being advanced by the other side.
  2. The other side's argument is replaced by a stronger argument which is more coherent/consistent.
For example, someone arguing the pro-choice position on abortion might advance the position that it is morally acceptable to kill a child in the uterus at certain stages of development because it does not have a capacity to feel pain and pleasure, and yet strongly object on moral grounds to killing a pregnant panda bear in the early stages of pregnancy because it would kill a panda cub at a time when panda bears are very rare.

The person making the iron man argument would fail to address the incoherence of the other side's actual argument and instead attack the more coherent position advanced by Peter Singer regarding the nature of the right to life and its roots in the capacity to feel pleasure and pain, observing that the effective altruism with which that position is coherent leads us to whatever is most effective at reducing suffering, and that what is most effective at reducing suffering is the removal of the nervous system which allows us to feel pain.  Granted, that would kill us all if we followed it in practice, but it would be rationally consistent.

This is, of course, an example of committing an informal fallacy, albeit not a straw man.  Instead of erecting a straw man and knocking it down, the person employing the iron man argument uses the rhetorical shift to erect an iron man and burn through it with a plasma torch.

It's a fallacy I try to be guilty of as often as possible.  I prefer to address a stronger argument than the one actually made by the other side, both because it keeps me from falling into the trap of thinking that everyone who holds [insert name of intellectual position here] is incoherent and because it allows the other side to see that there are more coherent and consistent arguments than they are currently making.

Whereas the straw man argument is advanced out of a desire to win at any cost, the iron man argument is advanced out of a desire to to strengthen both sides by strengthening their arguments.  As iron sharpens iron, so too an iron man argument sharpens another iron man argument.


By "<none>" at Marvel Comics' official website. Retrieved May 21, 2010., Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=27426317