Category Archives: metaphysics
In going through old documents on my expansion drive, I found an essay that I had originally written for the defunct Beliefnet blog Kingdom of Priests. I don’t recall the context in which I originally wrote it. However, I think it’s an interesting and worthwhile discussion of faith vs. reason, and the possibility of miracles. I have edited it very slightly, and will post it in “Religious Miscellany”, since it works best as a standalone essay, I think. Enjoy!
I think there are important distinctions to be made among the irrational, the nonrational, and the suprarational. “Irrational” means “against reason”–especially in the sense of “contrary to established, observable fact“–and is rightly used as a derogatory term. Examples would be believing that the Earth is flat, or that 2 + 2 = 18; or behaviorally, punching someone out because he’s wearing blue. In short, “irrational” means lacking reason in an area in which it is expected.
“Nonrational” means “not having to do with reason” and is neutral. All lower animals and computers are nonrational–they have no self-awareness* and do not reason. Even a computer does what it does automatically. Emotions and preferences are also nonrational, but not necessarily irrational. My preference for vanilla ice cream over chocolate has nothing to do with reason–it’s a matter of taste–but it’s not irrational, either. No emotion is “reasonable”–emotions can be used for good or bad purposes, but they have their own domain while reason has its own area, as well. The interrelationship of emotion and reason is complex, but neither is “superior” to the other, or sufficient by itself. Reason by itself isn’t enough–as Chesterton said, the problem with the madman is not that he’s illogical, but that he’s only logical. Reason alone can’t give meaning, purpose, or proportion. In the words of the Scrpit song, “You can’t find faith or hope down a telescope”. On the other hand, emotion alone is incapable of exercising judgement. To jettison reason would put us at the mercy of every transient feeling. That way lies barbarism and chaos. True humanity is reason (or logic) and the non-rational (emotion and intuition) working together harmoniously (we hope!). To be pop-culture about it, you need Spock and McCoy!
Way back here we looked at the question of why humans are created as embodied beings. In most Abrahamic religions, and in some other Western religious systems, as well (e.g. Platonism and Gnosticism), God is said to have created the bodiless intelligences–what we call “angels”, some of whom later become “demons”–before He made embodied intelligences–that is to say, us. Since the angels are typically seen as far superior to us, the question arises as to why God bothered in making embodied creatures to begin with. I came to no definite conclusion on this question, though I have some ideas banging about in my head. What I want to do here is to put a different spin on the whole question by looking at the angels and speculating as to what, exactly, they are. This will tie in with some other themes we’ve looked at.
In the Christian tradition*, beginning with Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite and continuing through various Church Fathers and theologians throughout the centuries (not least of whom as St. Thomas Aquinas in the West), angels have always been understood to be bodiless spirits. In our discussion of the soul a little while back, we described the human soul as the seat of personality and intelligence, which is immaterial and which can survive the death of the body. An angel has a personality and intelligence, just like a human; but it has no body. Thus, an angel could be viewed as a pure mind. Angels, of course, are often described as being humanoid in appearance–and sometimes, spectacularly, non-humanoid (see Ezekiel 1:4-21, Isaiah 6:2, and Revelation 4:6-8, for example). Despite this, though, they lack physical bodies–such appearances are for the benefit of humans. The angels either take on a temporary body (to put it in modern terms, they manipulate matter into a body which they use like a puppet) or manipulate the viewer’s mind so that they see an apparition that isn’t physically there (something like this is implied in the Book of Tobit, when Raphael reveals himself to be an angel; see Tobit 12:15-19). Theologians have debated which of these scenarios is likelier; but they have agreed that angels have no bodies of their own.
Last time we talked about the concept of the soul in general, as it’s usually understood in our culture. Having established that basic foundation, I want to use it to analyze the question of who–or what–actually has a soul. This is why, by the way, I’m categorizing this post in my polygenism series. The ideas I intend to develop will figure more prominently in the larger context of polygenism and (possibly) the Fall of Mankind.
So as we said, the soul as generally understood could be defined as follows:
- It is the seat of personality and individuality
- It is associated with the body, but different from it
- It is immaterial, or to put it differently, non-physical
- It is separable from and can survive without the physical body
Definition: To be clear, 3 means not made of matter or energy. The soul is properly defined as “spirit”, which is not part of the material universe in any way. We discussed this a bit last time. We’ll look at the term “spirit” shortly.
Corollaries: From 2, it is clear that though the soul is not itself material, it can affect physical objects. It does this every time we move, in fact. If psychokinesis is a real phenomenon (which I may discuss in detail later, but won’t here), then the soul may be able to affect matter beyond the body with which it is associated. From 4, it follows that it is at least possible for the soul to survive physical death. While not a direct corollary, the immortality of the soul–that it is indestructible and can never cease to exist–is typically assumed in the Western tradition since the time of Plato.
What I want to look at now is how, and if, the term “soul” can be applied to life forms besides ourselves–principally animals, but plants, too.
“Body” is a concept with which few of us have a problem. We all have bodies after all. No one doubts this, except perhaps for solipsists and those who’d argue that we are actually brains in vats (or for Wachowski fans, that we’re connected to the Matrix, which is essentially the same thing)*. For the purposes here, at least, we’ll consider such viewpoints in light of the commonsense perspective–that is, that they’re cracked! Thus, what I want to look at is the idea of the soul. I’m doing so in order to develop the groundwork for some ideas I want to explore in my series on polygenism, specifically, and more generally in regard to my series on the Fall. Since this post itself is a sort of stand-alone, though, I’ll put it in “Religious Miscellany“.
I should preface this discussion by stipulating that I do believe that the soul, as an entity distinct from the body actually does exist. Obviously, not everyone believes this. Many of the philosophically materialist persuasion would argue that what is commonly called a “soul” is merely the complex interaction of electrochemical processes in the human brain. The more radical would argue that the mind itself is no different from the brain, except perhaps in an analytical sense. Some, such as Daniel Dennett (if I understand him correctly) would even go so far as to deny the existence of sense of self and personal experience. In this post, I’m not interested in arguing against a materialist view of the comos. For those interested in such a defense, I’d refer you to C. S. Lewis’s book Miracles. For now, suffice it to say that I’m taking the existence of a discrete, immaterial soul that is distinct from the body for granted.
We use the word “soul” all the time, and we all have a vague agreement on what it means. In general, “soul” means the center of identity that makes a person who he or she is, and which is distinct from the body. That is, our memories, thoughts, emotions–that which we consider to be our “self”, our “identity”, including but not limited to the mind, is the soul. The soul is in some sense “in” the body (though the spatial term “in” is really a metaphor) and interacts with and is affected by the body–for example, if the body becomes tired enough, we become unconscious, and things such as drugs can affect our minds. Despite this, the soul is distinct from the body, and is usually held to be separable from it, and to survive the body’s death.
Further, as is popularly conceived, though not always clearly articulated, the soul is not only the locus of the true self, it is the self. We speak of having a soul, like we have a car or a television. However, as the term is usually understood, it’s more accurate to say that we are souls. This follows the ideas of Plato, notably in his dialogue Phaedo. In effect, the true person is the soul, which merely “wears” the body as one would wear clothing. Thus, while we may identify with our body, there is still a sense in which we do not consider it equivalent to ourselves. We speak of “my” hand or kidney or hair, as if these things are not actually part of us, any more than “my” book or computer is. We say of a departed one that “he” went to Heaven (or perhaps Hell), or that “he” was reincarnated. Since his body remains, it is evident that the “he” to which we refer is the soul.
Most physicists use quantum mechanics every day in their working lives without needing to worry about the fundamental problem of its interpretation. Being sensible people with very little time to follow up all the ideas and data in their own specialties and not having to worry about this fundamental problem, they do not worry about it. A year or so ago, while Philip Candelas (of the physics department at Texas) and I were waiting for an elevator, our conversation turned to a young theorist who had been quite promising as a graduate student and who had then dropped out of sight. I asked Phil what had interfered with the ex-student’s research. Phil shook his head sadly and said, “He tried to understand quantum mechanics.”
So irrelevant is the philosophy of quantum mechanics to its use, that one begins to suspect that all the deep questions about the meaning of measurement are really empty, forced on us by our language, a language that evolved in a world governed very nearly by classical physics. But I admit to some discomfort in working all my life in a theoretical framework that no one fully understands. And we really do need to understand quantum mechanics better in quantum cosmology, the application of quantum mechanics to the whole universe, where no outside observer is even imaginable. The universe is much too large now for quantum mechanics to make much difference, but according to the big-bang theory there was a time in the past when the particles were so close together that quantum effects must have been important. No one today knows even the rules for applying quantum mechanics in this context.
–Steven Weinberg, Dreams of the Final Theory (2011), Ch. 4. Quantum Mechanics and Its Discontents
We’ve been discussing free will in the context of universalism. The notion put forth by defenders of the Traditional View of Hell (TVOH) in recent times has tried to defend God from charges of wantonly tossing people to damnation by asserting that the damned damn themselves. That is, those who choose against God, who choose to reject Him, voluntarily remove themselves from His presence. This removal from God’s presence is Hell. To the objection that they would surely change their minds sooner or later, the assertion is made that it is possible to reject God permanently, that is, to make an irrevocable decision from free will. For one to assert a universalist view–that all will ultimately be saved–one must argue that no such irrevocable decision, at least regarding Hell, is possible. This possibility of eternally irrevocable choices is what we’ve been looking at.
Let’s briefly sum up what we’ve decided thus far. Some argue that in the afterlife time as we know it no longer applies to saved or damned souls, and thus that their choices are not irrevocable over countless aeons, but rather made once and for all in an eternal moment. Against this, I’ve argued here and here that this can apply only to God Himself, and not to lesser beings, even immortal ones in the afterlife. Therefore, I’ve focused on whether or not a choice, can, in fact, be eternally irrevocable. I began that discussion here and elaborated here. I’ve used the whimsical idea that Connor MacCleod, eponymous hero of the Highlander movies and guest star in the series, has vowed that he will never, ever eat a broccoli fudge sundae. I’ve further specified that he is truly immortal–he will live not just for an unimaginably long time, but literally for all eternity. Can he keep this vow?
Because I live for the applause…. I do like it when I get traffic here and it’s great when my posts make people think, actually, but as to this post, some explanation:
Way back in the early part of my series on the Fall, I put a picture of Lady Gaga at the top of a post on theology and titled it by quoting “Bad Romance”, purely on a whim and the humorous notion that it might drive blog views. I doubt it did that very much, but I got a kick out of it, and as it turned out I worked more ideas from the song into later posts. I’m not exactly one of Lady Gaga’s “little monsters”, but I have a moderate fondness for her music (though the latest album is distressingly weak), and somehow I find “Bad Romance” compelling.
Anyway, I just finished my fifth post themed from “Bad Romance” and I decided I’d put them all here (in addition to the series to which the properly belong and under which they’re already listed). The topics are not directly connected, but they circle around the Fall of Man and universalism, with a bit on dualism and the Bible, too. Perhaps after reading some, visitors may be interested in looking back at previous posts in the sundry series. In any case, enjoy!
Because I’ve been thinking it’s been way too long since we’ve had some Gaga here–and how better to celebrate my 1500th post?
I’m writing this as a standalone, though it has some relevance to some of my other posts on religion. In speaking of God, one has to remember that one is always talking in terms of analogy. However, given that we can’t help using language, we have to use analogy whether we like it or not. The danger, of course, is too much anthropomorphism. We have to steer between the Scylla of not being able to talk about God at all and the Charybdis of making Him appear too much like one of us. There are different ways of plotting this course, and the one I want to talk about here is one that began a couple of decades or so ago: open theism.
Before we can talk about open theism, we have to lay a bit of background. The foundational religions of the West are the Abrahamic religions; and the foundational text for all of them, to one degree or another, is the Old Testament (known to Jews as the Tanakh, or often in English as the Hebrew Bible). One of the most prominent aspects of the Old Testament is the way it portrays God. The OT, by and large, is extremely anthropomorphic in its description of God. He is described as having various bodily parts, and Moses is granted the favor of actually seeing Him from behind (Exodus 33:18-23). He is depicted as having limited knowledge (Genesis 18:21) and as apparently forgetting things (Genesis 8:8, where He is implied to have suddenly remembered Noah after having forgotten about the Flood for the last forty days). He is depicted as changing His mind back and forth (Exodus 32:8-14). According to the Old Testament, God orders genocide with little compunction (Joshua, all throughout) and smites His own people, including innocents, for totally capricious reasons (2 Samuel 24 and 1 Chronicles 21). Examples could be multiplied, but hopefully these are enough to get the picture of a God who is rather disturbing, who is–well, psycho. This, for anyone past the barbarian tribesman phase, is a problem.
This post is a short aside in which to put a necessary part of an argument I’m making in its own place. I’ve discussed what I’m going to talk about in other posts, in bits and pieces; but this way it’ll be a one-stop shop that I can always link back to.
God is typically defined as being omnipotent–Almighty or All-Powerful. This is conventionally understood to mean that He can do anything. Of course, when it comes to philosophy or theology, sooner or later someone will toss out a question such as this: Can God make a married bachelor? Can he make it so that 2 + 2 = 5? Of course, the classic question of this type is, “Can God make a rock so big even He can’t lift it?” In classical theism, the answer to all these questions is “No.” What I want to do in this post is to show why.
As a slight but necessary tangent to my series on free will and choice, which is itself a slight but necessary tangent to the issue of universalism, it’s necessary here to discuss the three basic views (there are subcategories, but these are the main ones to consider) regarding free will, or the lack thereof.
Libertarianism (not to be confused, in this context, with the odious political party or the even more odious political philosophy) is the belief that humans do indeed have free will. Free will, in short, is real, not an illusion. Just so we’re clear, we’re talking about the commonsense definition of “free will” as “the ability to do whatever you want, within the constraints of ability and duress”. The last clause is important. I am not free to flap my arms and fly to the moon, since that’s impossible. The poor man is not free to eat at the Ritz, as the saying goes, since he lacks the money. If I’m in jail or under the influence of drugs, my free choices may be prevented (I can’t just walk out of jail) or suppressed (I might do things under the influence that I normally wouldn’t). Still, the basic definition–that I can do what I want, if I’m able to do so–is a good one for free will.
At the risk of stating the obvious, it is worth saying at this juncture that free will implies moral responsibility for one’s actions. If I freely do something bad, I am responsible for that and worthy of blame, or even imprisonment or execution, if what I do is bad enough. If I do something good through my own free will, I am worthy of praise and perhaps even honors and accolades. This accords with the commonsense view of what free will is and what it entails.