Monday, October 25, 2010

Readings: of The Ghost in the Machine

from the fourth essay, “Thinking Again,”of Marilyn Robinson’s book, Absence of Mind – the Dispelling of Inwardness from the Modern Myth of the Self:

As Bertrand Russell pointed out decades before Gilbert Ryle coined this potent phrase [i.e “the Ghost in the Machine”], the old, confident distinction between materiality and nonmateriality is not a thing modern science can endorse. Physicists say a change in a split photon occurs simultaneously in its severed half, at any theoretical distance. As if there were no time or space, this information of change passes instantly from one to the other. Is an event that defies any understanding we have of causality a physical event? Yes. Can the seeming timelessness and spacelessness that mediate this change also be called physical? Presumably, since they have unambiguous physical consequences. Then perhaps we cannot claim to know the nature of the physical, and perhaps we ought not to be so confident in opposing it to a real or imagined nonphysical. These terms, as conventionally used, are not identical with the terms “real” and “unreal,” though the belief that they are is the oldest tenet of positivism. The old notion of dualism should be put aside, now that we know a little about the uncanny properties of the finer textures of the physical.

This consideration, which has long lingered on the periphery of my knowledge base—as an uninvited squatter of sorts—has indeed (now that Ms. Robinson has so forcefully rubbed my nose in it) caused me, of necessity, to put aside my old notion of dualism.

I have not been a positivist. But I have been a dualist of the type: Spirit Good / Matter Bad. As such distinctions become ambiguous, however, so must that species of dualistic assumption. The only sort of dualism left standing would be that of the Good as opposed to the Evil. But if, as we are sometimes told, the Evil has no real existence, but is only an absence of the Good, then what? It’s all Good?

You tell me. I’m stumped…


screaminian said...

i think all this thought is in dualistic contrast to our nature and result of our denial of it. evil to those that think evil of it.

Rodak said...

Interesting. And how would you describe our nature?

screaminian said...

trying not to be flippant, or to oversimplify... far from altruistic our nature is lust and greed. selfish. sex, drugs, and rock 'n roll.
our nature is to take what we want when we see it, if we can, from whoever holds it.
not to get all allegorical, but our integrity is suspect from the first bite of that forbidden fruit.

Rodak said...

Well, that's precisely the thesis that Robinson spends her whole book arguing against. I suggest that you read it and see where her argument breaks down. (If it does.)

lissla lissar said...

Okay. I was going to post earlier but my mind fell apart from sleep deprivation. This may still be very foggy. I'd say that our desires aren't necessarily evil, but they're often inordinate, meaning we desire too much or inappropriately. It goes with I think St. Thomas's position that during the Fall our reason and will, which were made to rule our nature and desires, were displaced, and now have only faulty control at best.

It goes along nicely with the understanding that evil is a lessening of good, or a tending towards destruction. To desire leisure: good; to desire leisure to the exclusion of necessary activity is a sin. It's inordinate.

Rodak said...

What do we do, Lissla, with the evidence of science that everything in existence--all of creation, to look at it with a metaphysical component--is subject to entropy--a tending towards destruction? Does the ephemeral nature of the material universe render it increasingly evil? Does the our own materiality--the flesh--which, as St. Paul points out, leads us to do that which we would not do, and unable to do as we would, not then make our material component more evil than good?

Rodak said...

On page 132 of 135 of the book in question, Robinson writes:

"Each of us lives intensely within herself or himself, continuously assimilating past and present experience to a narrative and vision that are unique in every case yet profoundly communicable, whence the arts. And we all live in a great reef of collective experience, past and present, that we receive and preserve and modify. William James says data should be thought of not as givens but as gifts, this by way of maintaining an appropriate humility in the face of what we think we know. The gifts we bring to the problem of making an account of the mind are overwhelmingly rich, severally and together."

Thought of in this way, we benefit from a providence that dwarfs us and all of our science, whether that providence is understood to be the gift of a deity, or to come from the arbitary forces which we know as the laws of physics.

lissla lissar said...

Oh, that quote is beautiful.

If matter is inherently evil, what about the Incarnation? God became man without lowering or staining Himself.

I'm having trouble thinking clearly right now, but I think there's a problem with treating evil as a thing in itself, instead of an absence or lessening

I think, if we take it as a given that God made matter, then He must like it. Surely God, who loves us and holds us in existence by His love, isn't disgusted by our condition of mortality, and the fragility of matter. I don't think ending (which leads to new beginning) is necessarily evil, although evil tends to lessen or destroy.

Hmm. Having trouble articulating. Will try to come back later when the baby isn't having fits.

Rodak said...

There is the concept that the Fall included not just Man, but all of creation. Matter, therefore, would be in a degraded condition, since the Fall, analogous to that of Man.
The philosophical Problem of Evil, with which the Gnostics and the Neoplatonists struggled, is not really satifactorily answered by orthodoxy: if God is omnibenevolent, as well as omniscient and omnipotent, then why did He create a creature--and a world--which he must have known would fall?
We say, well He wanted Man to have free will. Given all the hideous suffering that has been caused by free will since the Fall, why wouldn't an omnibenevolent God have simply avoided the creation of the physical world in the first place?