Thursday, March 5, 2009

Reflections: On the Substance of Ideas

When reading an anthology on the philosophy of Jonathan Edwards, I came across a quote that really stuck in my mind. Perhaps you won't find it nearly as profound as I did, but I felt I ought to share it. It's an excerpt from an essay by Norman Fiering, from the anthology Jonathan Edwards and the American Experience.

This passage is a discussion of Edwards' epistemology, and it begins by listing the 5 primary models of epistemology considered by Edwards and his intellectual forbear, Malebranche (father of occasionalism).

The ideas we have of bodies, our knowledge of the external world, Malebranche argued, can be gained in only one of five ways: [1] the bodies themselves may emit "species" that resemble them, which was the prevailing Scholastic view; [2] the soul of man may have the capacity in some unexplained way to produce ideas of things out of the impressions made upon it by bodies, as though man were himself a God able to create and destroy real beings; [3] our ideas may be created with us from birth, and as needed appear to us with God's aid, which was the Platonic solution; [4] the essence of all things may be perceivable within the mind itself without need of anything outside; [5] or, finally, the soul may be united with God and thus dependent upon God all of its thoughts, which was Malebranche's view.

This is a rather involved passage, so a quick summary. Malebranche assumes, tellingly, that ideas have real substance. The substance of thought is non-physical (obviously?) but no less real than anything else in the spiritual realm. From this basis, the question is how humans are able to rationally absorb the ideas of physical objects, since our sensory perceptions are distinct from our reason.

Some ancient philosophers and medieval Scholastics thought that everything in nature possessed some limited kind of 'soulishness,' and could therefore emit that non-physical substance (like an aroma) to be absorbed by a mind. Their view is often ridiculed--Cicero mocked it by asking, "does the island of Britain emit an image of it that strikes me in the head every time I think of it?"--but it still strikes me as intriguing.

The second option, however, interests me the most. It asserts that, based on our perception of physical substances, humans are able to convert those into non-physical substances. Malebranche dismisses this as idolatrous anthropocentrism, as ludicrous as the statement that all men were gods.

But perhaps that's precisely the point. Man was created in the image of God, and inherited some of His creative capacity. Perhaps we are reflecting His nature when we think, because we are indeed creating real (if immaterial) substances by the fact of our reason. Perhaps the inspiration and fulfillment we find in constructing a work of art or engineering, is same inspiration we find in constructing an edifice of systematic thought. Perhaps our minds preserve the dignity of secondary causation, just as much as our bodies.

What do you think?

Are ideas real, in any sense? Are they, in fact, substances, and if so, what kind? Are they purely physical (neurological), purely spiritual, neither or both?

If ideas are real, how are they formed? By whom are they formed?

If ideas can be formed by humans, is this a mere dispensation or special grace given by God, or an intrinsic capacity of humans that attests to the imago dei and the dignity of our power of secondary causation and creativity?

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Contemplations in Theology #9

I think I was self-centered, in my early desire to reflect God. But my early attempts trained me in the habits that continue to show me the path to selflessness, the way of humility. They gave me the instincts to desire to be a helper, a support and comfort to others.

I am a child of Mercury--at my best, I am active, purposive, and joyful. The natural desire of the Mercurial personality is to be the delight of Jupiter, the King. But this desire goes deeper. In a certain sense, children of Mercury desire to become Jupiter, to reflect His glory to such a degree that we find ourselves immersed in it. The desire to manifest God's majesty is what drives me to leadership, and to counsel my friends--not only to do good, but to show others how to do good as well. "The hands of a king are the hands of a healer."

More importantly, however, that desire is what drove me to the arms of Christ; it provided the foundation for my spiritual rejuvenation in recent months, and what continues to propel me forward even through days of difficulty and stress.

But that is for another story. For now, God bless ye, merry gentlemen, let nothing you dismay. O, such tidings of comfort and joy!

Confessions: #3

An open letter to Ian, a kid from my first-grade class.

I hardly remember you. I never saw you after first grade, and I had almost forgotten you entirely by the third grade, when I started homeschooling. But a few years later I remembered, and those memories appall me even today.

I remember watching you cry. I remember making you cry. I remember enjoying it.

There were three of us in that first-grade class who were fleet of foot and mind: Alex L, Roger, and myself. You were not only a slow learner, but also overweight, and we teased you mercilessly for it. We taunted you in the playground during recess. If you tried to respond, we could turn your own insults against you; if you tried to catch us, we could outrun you. You were helpless.

Can you fathom how much this bothered me when I remembered this, in my fifth-grade Sunday school class? There was a time in the first grade when I had been a bully.

I never saw you after that year. Perhaps you moved, perhaps you found another school. I hope you recovered from us, but I'll never know. All I remember is that I had hurt you, and never had a chance to ask your forgiveness.

This note will not find you, so this apology is for my friends. Forgive me my sins against you, whether done knowingly or unknowingly. And to Ian, this is my penance for you: whenever I see another hurting, I would help them as though I were helping you. This is all I know to do.

Be strong in Christ,

I wish I could undo the past, but memory has made me who I am today. I am a better man because I remember and recoil from evil. This is no consolation for those whom I hurt, but the greatest consolation for me. God forgave my evil, and used it to teach me good. Glory to the King of Zion! How deep are the wounds of the Lion of Judah!

An open letter to several of my college friends:

I don't even know why I write this, but words seemed necessary. I hardly even know why our paths intersected so strongly, but then again, actions seemed necessary there. To reflect Him, in word and deed, may God bless our enterprises.

At the beginning of the quarter, each of you struggled. In your own ways, in your own time, you wandered in your faith, and foundered in your relationships. For some reason--God knows why--I was placed at a crisis point in your lives. I felt compelled to make myself known to you, to speak and pray and offer counsel. I hardly even knew myself in those moments; it felt as though I were not at the helm of my own heart and mind.

Is prophecy possible? For a man whose lips have been branded by coal from the altar, it is still possible to cry out "Here I am, Lord, send me"? For it was in those moments that I truly understood the prophetic voice, and that I made my own that 'voice in the wilderness crying.' I understand the typology of the moon: that the star which in the daylight of reason breeds confusion, sheds at night just enough light to guide our feet to safety. I spoke in a different tongue than I knew before, a dangerous tongue, only suited for times when hope has vanished.

Yet my voice produced fruit. Some of you I know quite well; others, I pray Heaven I knew better. But for those I knew, my counsel helped them find themselves and find God; it had rejuvenated them, in some sense.

You cannot comprehend the blessing I feel to have been a part of your lives. You cannot understand the tremendous relief it is, to be the one upon whom others put their burdens. I need help as much as others--perhaps, as I see now, more than others--but it is characteristic of my personality to desire to be that bulwark and support of others. You gave me a glimpse of what it is to have that desire fulfilled, and I will not soon forget it.

I know not how you will read my words, but I pray they find fertile soil in your spirit. Go with God,