Miscellany: On light, beauty, sense-perception and other topics

On the mystery of cognition:

Thinking/cognition weaves together what perception through the senses scattered asunder: namely, the “what” from the “how,” essence from appearance, form from matter. This oscillation between sense and intellection, looking and seeing, outer and inner, exitus et reditus, is the heartbeat of perception and the heartbeat of Creation.

On light, beauty, and sense perception:

I think that, as light is to the eye, so beauty is to the soul. I propose the analogy very precisely and comprehensively. To wit, the eye does not create the light it sees, and yet without the eye, no light can be seen. Illumination is a fact but we can shut our eyes to it and so not experience it. Hence, the experience of light is contingent on a functioning and receptive organ to perceive it. Similarly, beauty is a fact but we ourselves must be adequate to perceive it if we are to have any experience of it. Put another way, the eye of the heart may not remain closed without rendering us insensate to beauty. 

One factor that seems to immure the heart and thence to obviate its sensitivity to beauty is the utilitarian mind. Beauty is a kind of recognition of absolute value so as long as I am regarding things instrumentally, the perception of their beauty will escape me. Put another way, the eye of the heart is open in the presence of attention without intention

 Plato calls both light and vision “ἡλιοειδῆ,” or “sun-like,” and Plotinus elaborates the analogy by observing that the organ that is to perceive a phenomenon must itself participate the nature of that same phenomenon: “No eye ever saw the sun without becoming sun-like, nor can a soul see beauty without becoming beautiful.” Goethe further develops the connection to disclose a temporal or phylogenetic dimension to the ideal or metaphysical relationship: “Out of indifferent animal organs the light produces an organ to correspond to itself, and so the eye is formed by the light for the light so that the inner light might meet the outer.”

Finally, I think Keats was more of a philosopher than any of his contemporaries when he declared:

“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all

               Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”

Beauty is the essence of things insofar as it may manifest itself in sensory appearance.

In respect to perception as such and the question of colorblindness: I don’t think it’s quite right to say that someone without the ability to discern colors sees a different world. In fact, we have no way of verifying the phenomenology of anyone’s sensory experience and hence, if it were true, like Empiricists seem to believe, that sense perception is objective, then we would have to affirm some kind of solipsism. On the contrary, sense experience is itself entirely subjective but we overcome the provisional subjectivity of sense perception by means of the logos in us and hence we participate in the “common world” that Heraclitus was on about. I think this is right because otherwise I would be living in a different world every time the lighting conditions were altered and I would inhabit one world on either side of my respiratory cycle etc. Even relativists believe we live in a common, objective world or they would not bother to argue against it. 

On the invention of “nature”:

Modern thinkers invented the concept of “nature,” in its current sense. Before the Scientific Revolution, there was no equivalent word for what we mean by either “physics” or “nature” today because there was no equivalent concept. The closest equivalent for Ancient and Medieval thinkers was physis or natura on the one hand, and ousia (οὐσία) or esse on the other, in Greek and Latin counterparts, respectively…. The Scientific Revolution and thence the birth of modern science was inaugurated when the likes of Bacon and Galileo began to conceptualise Nature not as a goddess and also not as an organism, but as an artefact, whose form, motion, and creative principle were imposed, as laws, from an intelligence outside of it. In some ways, this was an inheritance from traditional Christianity, which depicted God in a rough analogy with a craftsman, though Creation is accomplished through his Word and not with tools. But a distinction must be drawn between the Medieval (i.e., more particularly, the Realist school, chief representatives among which are Albertus Magnus and his pupil, Thomas Aquinas) and the modern conceptions of Creation. Perhaps the best way to do it is just to double down on a relevant disanalogy in the comparison above and to emphasise that Creation through the Word is substantially different than creation with tools because in the first case, Creation is something like an instantiation, or even an incarnation, while in the latter case it is more like a product. Put another way, in the first case, the creative principles, though transcendent to their objects, are also immanent in them, as formal causes, for instance…. The modern period took form as this immanence was eclipsed by a vision of Nature as the subject of abstract mathematical laws. 

Returning to the basic phenomenon of extrinsicality or “eviction from Eden”: to atone for this estrangement, the Λóγος itself assumed the same condition as those who had fallen away from Original Participation in the lumen gloriae, to lead them back into communion with it: “And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us.”[1] The remainder of the Gospel of John depicts the apotheosis that is complement to the Incarnation, and in this, sings of the selfsame procession and reversion, or exitus-reditus, Fall and Redemption, systole-diastole, or death and resurrection mystery that throbs as the metaphysical heart of the world and of Nature. In the beginning, humanity subsists within this metaphysical heart. Then it is cast out, and meaning is sundered from matter, speech separates into an outer and an inner aspect, signs divide from their significance. As I indicated, “The Tower of Babel” story of Genesis depicts this fracturing.[2] Finally, the reditus, redemption, or reversion consists in the reintegration of these sundered aspects. This is the meaning of the name “Jesus Christ,” as a union of the human and the divine, the sensible and the intelligible, which is the essence of the Λóγος. It is also the meaning of Jesus’ words as the Evangelist bore witness to them: “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life . . . the only way to the Father is through me.”[3] The Λóγος is initially imagined to be something separate from us or not to exist at all. At the same time, “the world” is experienced in austere objection and extrinsicality. But I believe our redemption from the post-truth era comes as the dawning on us that the Λóγος is more fundamental than either of the terms of this supposed disjunction, and the Λóγος in fact provides the condition for establishing any such disjunction—which is also always a relation—in the first place.

[1] John 1:14.

[2] The Stoic philosophers also expressed such a distinction when they spoke of the lógos endiathetos, the “indwelling word,” or “verbum quod intus lucet,” and lógos prophorikos, the “expressed word,” or “verbum quod foris sonat” in Augustine’s terminology. Naturally, Augustine characterises this phenomenon with the utmost rhetorical precision and clarity, “Thus in a certain fashion our word becomes a bodily sound by assuming that in which it is manifested to the senses of men, just as the Word of God became flesh by assuming that in which it too could be manifested to the senses of men” (Augustine, The Trinity, 410).

 “Ita enim uerbum nostrum uox quodam modo corporis fit assumendo eam in qua manifestetur sensibus hominum sicut uerbum dei caro factum est assumendo eam in qua et ipsum manifestaretur sensibus hominum” (De Trinitatae, XV, xx).

[3] John 14.

Why is the ability to appreciate beauty commensurate with being a good person? 

This is one of the mysteries that to me—with my current level of understanding at least—transcends the capacity of my intellect to explain and which nevertheless is something whose truth I recognise. I suppose it is an intuition of what Aquinas et al. meant to indicate by the term “transcendental”: namely, a principle that transcends and spans all of the Aristotelian categories.

On the sun as a conscious being:

Some people with a panpsychist bent have set forth the conjecture that the sun is conscious. I think it is misleading to say it this way but my objection is not the boneheaded materialist one. Rather, I think what we mean by “the sun” today, following some four odd centuries of scientific materialism, implies that it is not conscious and hence most people will find the proposition laughable. For the same reason, however, it is impossible to conceive of how consciousness could emerge from mere matter and force. Hence, the so-called “hard-problem.” Normal people will conclude from this that science is incomplete while fanatics like Daniel Dennett will decide consciousness must be an elaborate hoax. The fact that matter as such is basically defined in such a manner as to make it inconceivable that consciousness could arise from it is just the same principle that makes the notion of the sun being conscious appear absurd. But, in the same way, the obvious inadequacy of matter alone to explain true being should also give us pause in our conclusion that the sun is what we think it is. If by “the sun,” we mean to indicate a material body of plasma or nuclear fusion reactions or whatever, then it is obviously conscious. But the same way of thinking leads behaviourists to deny consciousness to men as well. We should not believe the second proposition and hence we should also not believe the first. It is worth noting that the one who wishes to understand the problem of whether “the sun” is conscious encounters a similar difficulty to the one who wishes to evaluate Plato’s extramission theory of “light”: to wit, he has to have grasped what is being meant by those terms and not assume as foregone that the meaning that the majority of scientists have affixed to them is the correct one, or even if it is, that it is the only one.

On the meaning of “freedom”:

We have no adequate concept of “freedom” today in ordinary political discourse (I am not putting it in quotes to be ironic but to emphasise it). Following Hobbes and Locke and other Liberal thinkers, “freedom” is equated with “lack of external compulsion” or “lack of external restraint on my actions” or “being at liberty to pursue my desires” or “being at liberty to choose between many options.” This turns the traditional notion of freedom—at least since Plato and Aristotle and dominant in medieval philosophy—on its head. From the traditional perspective, a person is least free when she is pursuing her desires. “A man has as many masters as he has vices,” to quote Augustine. To have many choices simply means to be in ignorance as to which of them is the right one. Conversely, to recognize the goodness of a given action means to have no choice but to carry it out, and to carry it out means to act in freedom. To the degree that I can recognize the good but not perform it, I am unfree. St. Paul is describing something similar here: 

“…for to will is present with me; but how to perform that which is good I find not. For the good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do. Now if I do that I would not, it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me.”

Photo by Anni Roenkae on Pexels.com

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