Friday, November 28, 2014

David Bentley Hart on the Wages of Nominalism

"In the age of the mechanical philosophy, in which all of nature could be viewed as a boundless collection of brute events, God soon came to be
seen as merely the largest brute event of all."

YES!!! The wages of nominalism is a mechanistic worldview.


"According to the model that replaced the old metaphysical cosmology, in fact, at least in its still reflexively deistic form, there is no proper communion between mind and matter at all. The mindless machinery of nature is a composite of unrelated parts, in which the unified power of intellect has no proper or necessary place. Even the human mind inhabits the universe only as a kind of tenant or resident alien and not as an integral participant in the greater spiritual order of all things, able to interpret physical reality through a natural intellectual sympathy with and aptitude for it. In mediaeval philosophy it had been a standard precept that the human intellect can know an external object for two related reasons: first, because the intellect and that object both, according to their distinct modes of activity, participate in a single shared rational form (the form, for instance, that is embodied and made particular in a certain pale yellow rose languidly nodding over the rim of its porcelain vase, but that is also present in my thoughts as something at once conceptually understood and sensually intuited in the moment in which I encounter that rose); and, second, because the intellect and that object both together flow from and are embraced within the one infinite source of intelligibility and being that creates all things.

"Thus to know anything is already, however faintly and imperfectly, to know the act of God, both within each thing and within the self: a single act, known in the consonance and unity of two distinct instances or poles, one “objective” and one “subjective,” but ultimately inseparable. By contrast, Ren√© Descartes (1596–1650)—the philosopher most typically invoked as emblematic of the transition from premodern to modern philosophical method—is often said to have envisaged the human soul as (in Gilbert Ryle’s phrase) a “ghost in the machine.” Whether or not this is entirely fair, it is certainly true that Descartes thought of all organisms, including the human body, as mechanisms, and he certainly thought of the soul as an immaterial “occupant” of the body (although he allowed, in some inadequately explicated way, for interactions between these two radically disparate kinds of substance, and even for their collaboration in a third kind of substance). According to the earlier model, one could know of God in knowing finite things, simply through one’s innate openness to and dependence upon the logos that shines forth in all things, and on account of the indissoluble, altogether nuptial unity of consciousness and being. According to the Cartesian model, however, in which the soul merely indwells and surveys a mechanical reality with which it has no natural continuity and to which it is related only extrinsically, nothing of the sort is possible. This is largely why, for Descartes, the first “natural” knowledge of God is merely a kind of logical, largely featureless deduction of God’s “existence,” drawn chiefly from the presence in the individual mind of certain abstract ideas, such as the concept of the infinite, which the external world is impotent to have implanted there. All of this was perfectly consistent with the new mechanical view of nature, and all of it set both the soul and God quite apart from the cosmic machine: the one haunting it from within, the other commanding it from without.

"As I have said, the dissolution of the geocentric cosmos, with its shimmering meridians and radiant crystal vaults and imperishable splendors, may have been an imaginative bereavement for Western humanity, but it was a loss easily compensated for by the magnificence of the new picture of the heavens. Far more significant in the long run was the disappearance of this older, metaphysically richer, immeasurably more mysterious, and far more spiritually inviting understanding of transcendent reality. In the age of the mechanical philosophy, in which all of nature could be viewed as a boundless collection of brute events, God soon came to be seen as merely the largest brute event of all. Thus in the modern period the argument between theism and atheism largely became no more than a tension between two different effectively atheist visions of existence. As a struggle between those who believed in this god of the machine and those who did not, it was a struggle waged for possession of an already godless universe. The rise and fall of Deism was an episode not so much within religious or metaphysical thinking as within the history of modern cosmology; apart from a few of its ethical appurtenances, the entire movement was chiefly an exercise in defective physics. The god of Deist thought was not the fullness of being, of whom the world was a wholly dependent manifestation, but was merely part of a larger reality that included both himself and his handiwork; and he was related to that handiwork only extrinsically, as one object to another. The cosmos did not live and move and have its being in him; he lived and moved and had his being in it, as a discrete entity among other entities, a separate and definite thing, a mere paltry Supreme Being. And, inasmuch as his role was only that of the first efficient cause within a continuous series of efficient causes, it required only the development of physical and cosmological theories that had no obvious need of “that hypothesis” (as Laplace put it) to conjure him away.

"It was the arrival of Darwinian theory, needless to say, that initiated the final phase of this process, and that transformed an implicit cultural fait accompli into an explicit conceptual fait √©tabli. In the ancient or mediaeval worlds, the idea of the evolution of species would not necessarily have posed a very great intellectual challenge for the educated classes, at least not on religious grounds. Aristotelian orthodoxy maintained the fixity of species, true, but one often finds a remarkably undogmatical approach to the questions of natural history in classical, patristic, and mediaeval sources, and (as I have noted) no dominantly great interest in a literalist reading of the creation narratives of scripture. It would not have been drastically difficult for philosophers or theologians to come to see such evolution as the natural unfolding of the rational principles of creation into forms primordially enfolded within the indwelling rational order of things. In the wake of the triumph of the mechanical philosophy, however, when nature’s “rationality” had come to be understood only as a matter of mechanical design engineered from without, the Darwinian proposal of natural selection suggested the possibility that nature might instead be the product of wholly indeterminate—wholly mindless—forces. This was indeed, as Daniel Dennett has said, a dangerous idea to many minds; once enunciated, the concept of generative and cumulative indeterminate selection could perhaps come to be seen as an explanation for everything. Today, in fact, some physicists even wonder whether our universe and its physical laws might not in some sense be the product of such selection, played out among an unimaginably immense variety of universes. Who knows? Whatever the case, however, it seemed a dangerous idea only because of the metaphysical epoch in which it was first proposed. In a different age it would have threatened merely to modify the prevailing picture of how “higher” causes work upon material nature, but it would not have been mistaken for a rival metaphysics. Nor should it ever have been. Natural selection obviously cannot by itself account for the existence of the universe, or for the lawfulness of nature, because—to sound again one of this book’s persistent motifs—the question of being cannot be answered by a theory that applies only to physical realities, and because even natural selection must be bound to an ensemble of physical laws to which it could not itself have given rise. By the latter half of the nineteenth century, however, very few persons remembered how to ask either the question of being or the question of nature’s lawfulness properly; both had been largely lost sight of, even by most philosophers and theologians, somewhere behind the imposing and seemingly urgent question of cosmic design. Ontology had been displaced by cosmology, and cosmology had been reduced to a matter of mechanics. In an age in which God had come to be thought of merely as the architect and technician of an intrinsically mindless natural order, the thought that the appearance of design in nature might actually be only the residue of a long and varied history of fortuitous attritions and mutations seemed to imply that an adventitious designer had no necessary part to play in the grand scheme of things. There was simply no longer any need for this ghost beyond the machine."

~David Bentley Hart, The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, and Bliss

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