Time Psychologized

Time Psychologized

Augustine is famous as the originator of a psychological conception of time: “tempora sunt tria, praesens de praeteritis, praesens de praesentibus, praesens de futuris. Sunt enim haec in anima tria quaedam et alibi ea non video, praesens de praeteritis memoria, praesens de praesentibus contuitus, praesens de futuris exspectatio” (Conf. 11.20.26). Future and past don’t exist out there somewhere; nor indeed does the “present” really exist, since the present is merely the extensionless horizon across which the future gives itself over to the past. Each of the three tenses is rather a stance the knower adopts to the world: what I see now, I see as present; what I remember, I remember as past; what I anticipate, I anticipate as future. Augustine even says, “In te, anime meus, tempora metior” (Conf. 11.27.36). Time’s measure isn’t in the external world; rather, as Pegueroles glosses this passage, “Cuando medimos el tiempo, lo que medimos es la resonancia que causa en la conciencia las cosas pasajeras” (Pensamiento filosofico, 63).

This has quite radical consequences for his metaphysics of creation. We might construe it in either a Kantian or a Berkeleyan sense. Perhaps, you might say, what Augustine means is that there is a fully mind-independent world of sensibles that is spatially extended, but whose temporal extension is a (mind-dependent) secondary quality. Kant’s Transcendental Aesthetic (at least on the two-worlds reading) is essentially a radicalized version of this thesis, now taken (as it inevitably must be) to link together space and time. In a letter in 1792, Kant wrote, “Herren Eberhard’s and Garve’s opinion that Berkeleian Idealism is identical to Critical Idealism (which I could better call ‘the principle of the ideality of space and time’) does not deserve the slightest attention. For I speak of ideality in reference to the form of representation while they construe it as ideality with respect to the matter, i.e., ideality of the object and its existence itself” (Gersh & Moran, 250). About this passage, Karl Ameriks comments: “It is hard to imagine a more direct expression of a clear understanding on Kant’s part of the fundamental point that his idealism allows, where Berkeley denies, the existence of representation independent entities” (Ibid.). But, on this picture, it’s quite easy to see why Kant would insist that we cannot say anything at all about these representation-independent Dingen an sich, except that they constitute a “bare something = x.” It’s also hard to imagine a better recipe for skepticism.

We might, however, take Augustine’s psychological account of time in a Berkeleyan sense. In his notebooks, Berkeley suggests that time is nothing more than the mind’s successive acts of apprehending objects. Two entries are particularly relevant: “Time is the train of ideas succeeding each other” (58). From this, he concludes, “The same τὸ νῦν not common to all intelligences” (58). Interestingly, Pegueroles draws a similar conclusion about Augustine’s theory of time: “El presente solo se da en una conciencia. La realidad del presente es de orden psicologico, no espacial” (63). (There are difficulties here about how to explain our ordinary “clock-time,” by which we fix temporal reference in everyday life. Cf. Grayling for discussion of this in relation to Berkeley…)

On this Berkeleyan reading of Augustine (or properly Augustinian reading of Berkeley), we might say that sensibles attain to the status of unities (sc. beings) at all only by virtue of being unified by the mind’s apprehension of them – the mind is the activity of unifying sensibilia, in finite and approximate instances in the case of creaturely persons, but infinitely and perfectly in the case of the LORD. As Pegueroles comments, “El espiritu creado esta a medio camino entre el instante fluyente del cuerpo y el instante pleno del Espiritu infinito” (64). Berkeley returns again and again to this theme, not least in Siris, where he writes, that if the physicist “ascends from the sensible into the intellectual world, and beholds things in a new light and a new order, he will then change his system and perceive, that what he took for substances and causes are but fleeting shadows; that the mind contains all, and acts all, and is to all created beings the source of unity and identity, harmony and order, existence and stability” (§295).

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Anima Forma Corporis

On my principles, can one say “anima forma corporis” (the soul is the form of the body)? Doesn’t that require a kind of dualism of soul from body that I’m trying to abjure? I don’t think so. “Form” is equivalent to “actuality,” and I very much want to say that “soul” is the way to pick out the existent as actual, as active, as a knowing and willing agent. On the other hand, insofar as the existent is finite, passive, patient of and vulnerable to the world, it is body — the two, as Berkeley emphasizes in Siris — are opposing concepts, not distinct substances.

But isn’t one point of the “anima forma corporis” line to insist that the soul can exist in separation from the body? Distinguo. My soul can exist in separation from the sensible form in which it appears now, but the act of that separation (death) reconstitutes that sensible form as something other than a human body (it becomes, as the Thomists rightly insist, a mere trace of a body). I deny, however, that any soul can exist without body at all — a soul without any trace of passivity or finitude would simply be the LORD. As Dante rightly saw, souls in the intermediate state have bodies, of a sort, which make them available in certain ways (to the stones the proud carry, to the thread that draws shut the eyes of the envious), but not in others (they cannot embrace one another, they aren’t opaque to sunlight).

Berkeley, of course, simply denied the existence of the intermediate state, taking the resurrection to follow immediately upon death — but even if doctrinal commitments preclude some Christians from affirming that thesis, they needn’t reject the inseparability of soul and body as such (as Griffiths’s Decreation demonstrates).

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Natural Teleology and Divine Language

There’s a deep intimacy between Aquinas’s proof for the existence of God from natural teleology and Berkeley’s account of the world as divine language. Let’s consider them each in turn, and then reflect a bit on their interrelations.

The proof from natural teleology comes in the famous discussion of the Five Ways in ST 1.2.3. A preliminary observation: yes, these are in fact proofs, despite the assiduousness with which some recent Thomists have sought to avoid that conclusion: “Deum esse quinque viis probari potest” (Ibid.). I see no possible way of interpreting “probari” as not at all involving rational demonstration. This doesn’t mean, however, that Aquinas thinks that this kind of demonstration, while engaging natural faculties for knowing, is available apart from revelation. In the Treatise on Faith, he goes so far as to declare that pagans’ attempts to speak about God fail “omnino totaliter” (ST II-II.2.2.ad 3).

The fifth of these proofs is essentially an inference from the intelligibility of creation to an intelligence who stands behind it. “The fifth way,” Aquinas writes, “is taken from the governance of things.” That is, some things that lack cognition still “act with regard to an end (propter finem), which is apparent from the fact that they act always or frequently in the same manner…whence it is clear that it is not by chance, but by intention that they arrive at the end.” It’s important not to confuse this argument with arguments from “irreducible complexity” made on God’s behalf by advocates of Intelligent Design. I lack the competence to pass judgment on those arguments, but they have nothing to do with the problem to which Aquinas directs our gaze here. He has his eye on a much wider and more ordinary field: do you ever notice, he effectively wonders, that even inanimate objects seem to behave as though they have intentions or aims? As C.S. Lewis points out in The Discarded Image, the medieval favored metaphors of will (the stone longs to return to the earth), whereas we talk in terms of the even less plausible metaphor of intelligence (the stone obeys the law of gravitation), but both idioms capture the strangeness of the world: natural objects, themselves pretty clearly not intelligent, belong to a world of overwhelmingly intelligibility.

Aquinas goes on to observe that things without cognition only arrive at an end when directed by something with cognition (like an arrow by an archer). Intelligibility cascades downward from intelligence to what it orders; it doesn’t he insists, well upwards from the unintelligent. We might wonder if modern physics or evolutionary biology hasn’t refuted this line of thought (doesn’t matter simply spontaneously organize itself in accord with natural laws? Doesn’t natural selection blindly mold simpler life forms into more complex ones?). This intuition rests on a confusion, born from taking something for granted: most fundamentally, natural order only seems spontaneous if you take for granted the presence of the natural laws themselves. But why the actual world and not a much less interesting alternative? Aquinas is unwilling to take the fact of order for granted; he agrees with Berkeley that “a blind agent is a contradiction,” that action is for an end, and that an end is something intended. If this is right, then, “there is something intelligent, by which all natural things are ordered to an end, and we call this God.”

Berkeley was likewise struck by the excessiveness of natural order, which he insisted could only be explained as a manifestation of intelligence – not yours or mine, of course, but God’s. His most detailed discussion of this problem comes in Alciphron, where Euphranor observes, “From motions, therefore, you infer a mover, or cause: And from reasonable motions (or such as appear calculated for a reasonable end) a rational cause, soul, or spirit” (4.4). But the motions of nature are even more reasonable (sc. manifesting a wise ordering) than human motions: “doth it not follow then, that from natural motions, independent of man’s will, may be inferred both power and wisdom, incomparably greater than that of the human soul?” (4.5) But the free-thinker Alciphron objects that ascriptions of personhood to whatever causes natural phenomena are far-fetched: “I have found that nothing so much convinces me of the existence of another person as his speaking to me”; but, “you will not, I suppose, pretend that God speaks to man in the same clear and sensible manner, as one man doth to another” (4.7).

Euphranor seizes the nettle in the objection, albeit gradually. He suggests that they think about the perception of distance, which is complicated by the fact that we perceive the three-dimensional manifold of space by way of a two-dimensional image projected onto the retina. That is, distance is “a line turned end-wise to the eye,” which consequently cannot “project more than one single point on the bottom of the eye.” As such, “the appearance of a long and a short distance, is of the same magnitude, or rather of no magnitude at all, being, in all cases, one single point” (4.8). But this means that distance itself isn’t “immediately perceived” (4.8). Rather, we infer distance from the relative sizes of objects: “I find by experience that, when an object is removed still farther and farther off, in a direct line from the eye, its visible appearance still grows lesser and fainter: And this change of appearance, being proportional and universal, seems to me to be, that by which we apprehend the various degrees of distance” (4.8). But notice that the connection b/w distance and “faintness” isn’t (logically) necessary; the latter only suggests the former by way of constant conjunction (4.8). (Optics accounts for perception of distance in terms of the angle of light’s reflection, but that’s not what we use in inferring distance, 4.8.)

It follows from this that “the littleness or faintness of appearance…can no more suggest different degrees of distance…to the mind, which hath not experienced a connexion of the things signifying and signified, than words can suggest notions before a man hath learned the language” (4.9). (Berkeley at once approaches and stiff-arms Kant’s theory of the transcendental aesthetic, which argues that to experience anything at all is to experience it in space. It’s not a difference, though, about the contribution the mind makes to the perception of space, but rather about whether that contribution is innate and immediate or acquired and gradual.)

Our perceptions of light and shade signify (come to count as perceptions of) changes in distance, but they do so conventionally. Euphranor thus feels entitled to conclude, “It seems the proper objects of sight are light and colours, with their several shades and degrees; all which, being infinitely diversified and combined, form a language wonderfully adapted to suggest and exhibit to us the distnaces, figures, situations, dimensions, and various qualities of tangible objects: not by similitude, nor yet by inference of necessary connexion, but by the arbitrary imposition of Providence: just as words suggest the things signified by them” (4.10). That is, light and color signify visible objects. With this, Alciphron finally gets it: “I see, therefore, in strict philosophical truth, that rock only in the same sense that I may be said to hear it, when the word rock is pronounced” (4.11).

Oddly, in Alciphron Berkeley explicitly restricts the “divine-language” thesis to visual phenomena; the other senses lack sufficient “articulation, combination, variety, copiousness, extensive and general use, and easy application of signs” to qualify as a language in this sense (4.12). This, it seems clear to me, is a particularly egregious human parochialism on Berkeley’s part, owing to the fact that vision is by far the richest part of our sensory experience of the world. If we had a canine auditory and olfactory system, however, I doubt very much that Berkeley would have found this a remotely plausible claim.

Fortunately, he eventually seems to have overcome this prejudice, whether consciously or not. When Berkeley reprises the divine language argument in the Siris, he expands it to include all of the senses, and also demonstrates its classical pedigree: “There is a certain analogy, constancy, and uniformity in the phaenomena or appearances of nature, which are a foundation for general rules: and these are a grammar for the understanding of nature, or that series of effects in the visible world, whereby we are enabled to foresee what will come to pass, in the natural course of things. Plotinus observes, in his third Ennead, that the art of presaging is in some sort the reading of natural letters denoting order” (§252). He goes on to write, “The phaenomena of nature, which strike on the senses and are understood by the mind, form not only a magnificent spectacle, but also a most coherent, entertaining, and instructive discourse; and to effect this, they are conducted, adjusted, and ranged by the greatest wisdom” (§254).

Aquinas argues from the inescapability of treating the world as intelligible to the fact of a superintending intelligence who renders it so; Berkeley argues from the inescapable fact of treating the world as significant to a speaker who signifies by way of it. John Roberts captures the essence of this argument beautifully: “According to Berkeley, the necessary precondition of having any kind of knowledge at all is the adopting of the personal stance—not to this or that particular thing but to reality as a whole” (A Metaphysics for the Mob, 83).



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An Advaitin Questions Berkeley

One of Berkeley’s central metaphysical theses is that spirit and perceivables differ toto caelo from one another — perceivables (“Ideas”) are passive, inert; they’re what appears. But to appear, Berkeley notes, is a dative relation — every appearance is an appearance to. To what? Spirit, Berkeley says, whose property is to be active, even if only in receiving ideas. The difficulty with this is that, by definition, whatever one gets in mind is an Idea, which differs toto caelo from Spirit; so, we can’t get Spirit in mind. To objectify the knower itself is simply to form an image of it; when you look for the (transcendental) self, all you find is its shadow, the empirical self. (To use the Kantian distinction.)

Nonetheless, Berkeley takes it that we can know Spirit — slantwise, as it were. We can form what he calls a “notion” of Spirit, reflexively, through the very act of knowing and willing itself. It’s hard to beat Roger Scruton’s description of what this kind of knowing is like, though he would demur from the metaphysical conclusions Berkeley seeks to draw from it: “I know that I am a single and unified subject of experience…I know this on no basis, without having to carry out any kind of check, and, indeed, without the use of criteria of any kind – this is what is (or what ought to be) meant by the term ‘transcendental.’ The unity of the self-conscious subject is not the conclusion of any inquiry, but the presupposition of all inquiries. The unity of consciousness ‘transcends’ all argument since it is the premise w/out which argument makes no sense” (The Soul of Nature 72).

But here’s a tricky question: if Berkeley takes it that possessing a location either in space or time is a property only of Ideas, including the constellations of Ideas that constitute human bodies (he does, more or less), and if possessing a distinct location in (or pathway through) space-time is the principle of individuation for finite substances, then doesn’t it follow that Spirit can’t properly be individuated at all?

Here’s how Schopenhauer, a great student and critic of Berkeley, put the question: The will “is free from all multiplicity, although its manifestations in time and space are innumerable. It is itself one, though not in the sense in which an object is one, for the unity of an object can only be known in opposition to a possible multiplicity; nor yet in the sense in which a concept is one, for the unity of a concept originates only in abstraction from a multiplicity; but it is one as that which lies outside time and space, the principium individuationisi.e., the possibility of multiplicity” (The World as Will and Idea, §22, p. 146).

Schopenhauer, though he argues with some plausibility that the above position is already implicit in the “Transcendental Aesthetic” of Kant’s first Critique, was also among the first European philosophers to be influenced by Indian philosophy, in particular by the Upanishads as interpreted by the Advaita (Non-dualist) Vedanta. The Advaitins had been making more or less his same point for about 1000 years. Here’s a representative quotation from the Drg Drsya Viveka (Investigation of the Perceived and Perceiver), quoted by Anatanand Rambachan: “The form is perceived and the eye is the perceiver. It (eye) is perceived and the mind is the perceiver. The mind with its modifications is perceived and the Witness (the self) is the perceiver. But it (the Witness) is not perceived” (quoted in Advaita Worldview 37). Krishna puts the point evocatively in the Bhagavad Gita: “The body is called a field, Arjuna; the one who knows it is called the Knower of the field…I am the Knower of the field in everyone” (13.1-2).

Berkeley, of course, isn’t going to be converted just yet. Like Aquinas facing down the Averroist thesis that all of humanity shares a single agent intellect (just like, in fact), Berkeley will have common sense objections, to start: “If there is one intellect, no matter how diverse may be all those things of which the intellect makes use as instruments, in no way is it possible to say that Socrates and Plato are otherwise than one understanding man” (ST 1.76.2). If anything is obvious, surely it’s that whatever constitutes me as a knowing and willing unity isn’t identical with what constitutes you as a knowing and willing unity. Or, at least: even if whatever constitutes both me and you as knowing and willing unities is in fact one and the same, our identity with it, or non-duality from it, can’t require our identity with one another.

The big question here, I suppose, which Berkeley never even attempts to answer so far as I’ve seen, is this: How could God — the Infinite Spirit who creates all that isn’t he — create a finite spirit? Berkeley has an account, drawn in terms of God’s speech, for what it is for the LORD to create Ideas, but he never discusses what it is for the LORD to create another perceiver. The Advaitin and Schopenhauer make the interesting point that, if spirits properly speaking transcend spatio-temporal determination (being the condition for such determination), then it’s hard to see how they can be distinguished from one another or even from God (or Brahman).

Two desiderata for a properly fleshed-out Berkeleyan metaphysics, then, have to include 1) an account of the creation of finite spirits, and 2) an account of the identification of finite spirits with bodies.

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Knowing God — Comparing Platonists and Advaita Vedantins

I’ve written before about the interesting similarities between Platonism and the Advaita Vedanta; here’s more grist for the mill.

Andrew Louth writes about the Platonist conception of “knowing the Good”: “The Form of the Good is unknowable, and so, if the soul is to know it, it must in that act of knowing break through the normal limits of knowledge: it is in ecstasy that one knows the Unknowable. Such a connection is not merely implicit. Plato himself makes it in his Seventh Letter, when speaking of the ultimate knowledge, which is the goal of the philosophic quest: ‘for it does not admit at all of verbal expression like other studies, but, as a result of continued application to the subject itself and communion therewith, it is brought to birth in the soul on a sudden (exaiphnes), as light that is kindled by a leaping spark, and thereafter it nourishes itself’ (Ep. VII, 341 CD)” (Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition, 13).

Francis Clooney writes about the relation between Upanishadic study and realization of Brahman in the Advaita tradition: “In neither Advaita nor yoga is realization caused by anything: twisting one’s body this way and that does not cause realization, words uttered or written on a page do not cause knowledge of Brahman. But in both, practices are essential to the achievement of what can never be the result of practices. If one were to despise bodies or to avoid texts because of some desire for a higher spiritual knowledge, one would be left with an undisciplined and unrealized desire; only through the physical and textual does one acquire a knowledge which is reducible to neither…It is a skill practiced and perfected over time. Nonetheless, the resultant realization is not temporal and is not merely the product of certain actions effected in a certain order” (Theology after Vedanta, 128-9).

The thought here, expressed by Plato and Shankara, separated by continents and centuries, is virtually identical: communion with ultimate reality happens only through and after a demanding apprenticeship in knowledge, but that practice is only a necessary condition for, and not a cause of, the sudden union of the soul with that Reality. In both cases, the language of “grace” is almost irresistible. And indeed, if we turned to Christian accounts of this same kind of experience — for instance, the one Augustine reported himself and his mother to have had at Ostia (cf. Conf. book 9) — that’s exactly what we would find…


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A Puzzle about Bodies

Say my body is that finite vantage from which I am available to the sensible world, and the sensible world to me. The puzzle is that this vantage seems not to be an extensionless point on the world’s horizon, but rather a collection of such points distended within the world, each constituting its own boundary between my subjectivity and the world, and from which each of those other boundaries appears as object. That’s highly abstract. To illustrate: when I open my eyes, I take in the world as visual; I see a table over there, the chair I’m sitting in, and know each of these as objects; but I also see my hands and feet, and know them as objects as well, even though they’re equally points of my availability to the world as tangible — by way of my hands, I know the smooth surface of computer keys as objects, but equally the ductile protuberance I call a nose as object, from which I also take in the world as olfactory…and we could go on. My body, in short, is the place where my objectivity and subjectivity interpenetrate.

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Why fMRI scans explain not one human behavior

A therapist once tried to explain to me why people in states of extreme anger aren’t able to reason: if you monitor the brain of someone in such a state on an fMRI scan, you’ll see the frontal cortex — where reasoning is ostensibly “housed” — go dark, shut down. An enraged person literally can’t reason, she solemnly intoned; the hardware that runs that particular piece of cognitive software is temporarily off-line.

But here’s the thing: that whole line of reasoning gets this topic completely backwards. We’ve known since Aristotle (hell, since Homer, writing about Achilles), that rage and other intense passions inhibit reasoning. No surprise there. And in fact, it’s only because we know this about people — only because we understand what a rational person looks like and does, and what an enraged person looks like and does — that we’re able to interpret the fMRI scan in the first place. We look at the activity in the brain of an angry person, notice that the amygdala is particularly active, and think, “Hey, maybe the amygdala has some relation to anger.” If the amygdala lit up when someone was smiling and chatting cheerfully, do you think anyone would’ve drawn the same connection? (I’m told by people better informed than I that the idea that complex processes like higher-order reasoning or anger can be tightly correlated to particular brain structures is mostly fantasy, but let’s just keep things simple.)

Far from substituting for the supposedly superficial “folk psychology” of ordinary life and traditional philosophy, the neuroscience of human behavior is entirely parasitic on it, because (as Roger Scruton argues in The Soul of the World, among many other works) the persons to whom that behavior belongs exist only on the surfaces of things, in the social world where we meet one another face to face and “I to I.”

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