Perennial Mysticism

This is the Tao of the Buddha, available to all who desire freedom from suffering, identical to the Way of Epictetus:

To practice silent meditation in an effort not to attain Enlightenment or gain any metaphysical knowledge, but to strip away all desire, which is the cause of all suffering, and to encounter the original state of nonthinking.

Amidst all of the teachings of the world, this Dharma is to be practiced, and nothing is to be believed. Such also is the Way of Christ, where the Way is to be practiced, for the practice of the Way is indeed Faith and Faith the practice of the Way, and nothing is to be believed.

Quiet your thoughts and behold your Original Face before you were born.

Before Enlightenment: chop wood, carry water. After Enlightenment: chop wood, carry water.

To those who do not desire freedom from suffering, do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law.

Past Tense

A compendium of quotes from various authors with some of my own ideas interspersed throughout.

Life can only be understood backward; but it must be lived forward.

Life is no argument. Suppose a man wanted to impart the following conviction: truth is inwardness, objectively there is no truth, but appropriation is the truth. Suppose him to be very eager and enthusiastic to have this said, since if people could only hear it they would be saved; suppose he said it on every occasion and succeeded in moving the hard-boiled as well as those who perspire easily: what then? No doubt there would be some workers standing idle in the marketplace and simply on hearing this summons would go forth to work in the vineyard – proclaiming this doctrine for all. And then? He would then have contradicted himself still further, just as he had from the beginning; for the eagerness and enthusiasm to have it said and get it heard was already a misunderstanding. What of course was most important was that he should be understood, and the inwardness of the understanding would consist exactly in each individual coming to understand it by himself.

My life as a young man can be described in a single phrase: it was a period absolutely without hope. My life at the time lay entirely in the grips of nihility and despair. My decision, then, to study philosophy was in fact – melodramatic as it might sound – a matter of life and death. In the little history of my soul, this decision meant a kind of conversion. That a materialistic philosophy cannot answer the problems of the soul is clear to me from my own experience. For me there is no way to doubt that the questions of the soul are the fundamental ones for man.

With mind distracted, never thinking, “Death is coming,” to slave away on the pointless business of mundane life, and then to come out empty – it is a tragic error. This is what is sad when one contemplates human life, that so many live out their lives in quiet lostness. They live, as it were, away from themselves and vanish like shadows. Their immortal souls are blown away, and they are not disquieted by the question of its immortality, because they are already disintegrated before they die. The tragedy of life is not death but what we let die inside of us while we live.

Knowledge of the truth I may perhaps have attained to; happiness certainly not. What shall I do? Accomplish something in the world, men tell me. Shall I then publish my grief to the world, contribute one more proof for the wretchedness and misery of existence, perhaps discover a new flaw in human life, hitherto unnoticed? I might then reap the rare reward of becoming famous, like the man who discovered the spots on Jupiter. I prefer, however, to keep silent. Sometimes I feel it’s my mission to bring faith to the faithless and doubt to the faithful.

. . . . .

Under peaceful conditions a warlike man sets upon himself. The specifically Christian concept of sin, along with associated feelings of guilt, finds as its source a falling short of the Platonic Ideal, thus introducing an infinitely indebted bad conscience. Such a description as this of the religious psychology may approximate the truth, but as it has been said – we are condemned to be free. The religious is ineffable. It is that of which language can only communicate indirectly, metaphorically, or not at all. It is not truth, nor creed, nor belief. It is that which exists outside of any abstract thought. Consider the childlike faith and imagination. It is that which disappears the very moment speculation appears. The religious is an understanding that finds outward expression in works of love. Who would give a law unto lovers? Love is unto itself a higher law. It is in this sense that disinterested science and reason cannot possibly begin to approach or understand the religious, much less exist in it via understanding. For psychology, the religious remains a mere intellectual interest in understanding the religious, which is precisely a prevention from attaining the religious. For objectivity, the religious is precisely the paradoxical; for reason, it is the absurd – the intuitive and instinctual. To be religious is to be infinitely interested in existing – to the point where the dualistic designation of subject and object disintegrates in ecstasy.

Being an individual man is a thing that has been abolished, and every speculative philosopher confuses himself with humanity at large. Once you label me, you negate me. In so-called Christian speculative thought, what other presupposition can there be at all than that Christianity is the very opposite of speculative thought, that it is the miraculous, the absurd, the mystical, with the only requirement that the individual is to exist in it. If there is speculative thinking within this presupposition, then the speculative thought will instead have as its task a concentration on the impossibility of speculatively understanding Christianity. People have wanted to perform the astonishing trick of saying: “Christianity is an objective doctrine.” This is what has abolished Christianity.

At the bottom of Christianity there are several subtleties that belong to the Orient. In the first place, it knows that it is of very little consequence whether a thing be true or not, so long as it is believed to be true. Truth and faith: here we have two wholly distinct worlds of ideas, almost two diametrically opposite worlds – the road to the one and the road to the other lie miles apart. To understand that fact thoroughly – this is almost enough, in the Orient, to make one a sage. The Brahmins knew it, Plato knew it, every student of the esoteric knows it. The cause of the origin of a thing and the purpose of its eventual utility lie worlds apart. It is in this sense that the teaching found in mythology is not to be found in any merely literal interpretation.

However far man may extend himself with his knowledge, however objective he may appear to himself, ultimately he reaps nothing but his own biography. Remember, if you gaze long enough into an abyss, then the abyss will gaze back into you. Gradually it has become clear to me what every great philosophy so far has been: namely, the personal confession of its author and a kind of involuntary and unconscious memoir; also that the moral (or immoral) intentions in every philosophy constituted the real germ of life from which the whole plant had grown. Indeed, if one would explain how the abstrusest metaphysical claims of a philosopher really came about, it is always well (and wise) to ask first: at what morality does all this (does he) aim? Accordingly, I do not believe that a “drive to knowledge” is the father of philosophy; but rather that another drive has, here as elsewhere, employed understanding (and misunderstanding) as a mere instrument.

What is the value of truth? Consult the unlearned. If the problem is to calculate where there is more truth, whether on the side of the person who only objectively seeks the truth and the approximation of the truth, or on the side of the person who is infinitely concerned that he in truth relates himself to the world with the infinite passion of inwardness – then there can be no doubt about the answer for anyone who is not totally botched by scholarship and science. Faith consists in the presuppositions on which a man lives his life. In this sense, it is necessarily of a moral nature, which leaves any metaphysical claims in the background.

A scientific interpretation of the world might be one of the most stupid of all possible interpretations of the world, meaning that it would be one of the poorest in meaning. Assuming that one estimated the value of a piece of music according to how much of it can be counted, calculated, and expressed in formulas: how absurd would such a “scientific” estimation of music be. Nothing of what is “music” would be left in it.

No real blood flows in the vein of the knowing subject constructed by Locke, Hume, and Kant, but rather the diluted extract of reason as a mere activity of thought. In this sense we can begin to understand that any analysis of the universe is no replacement for phenomenological experience. Awareness in the present moment, qualia experience, is all we ever really know. Science is also a form of poetry, but in our age this is a much more obscure idea. It is in this sense that the juxtaposition of science proper and authentic religion has produced a widely misunderstood false dichotomy.

Being human may be likened to the act of watching a movie. Knowing fully well that the movie which captivates us consists of many individually meaningless scenes that are arranged in such an order as to produce the illusion of a continuum; knowing fully well that the characters portrayed are not real, but mere actors; we tend to mentally make connections and fill gaps to create order, consistency, and meaning. Likewise, we willingly submit to deluding ourselves into believing that the characters are real people, forgetting all about any notion of actors. So it is that there are two truths involved in the act of watching a movie. Likewise, there are two truths involved in the act of being human.

In our conventional wisdom we all recognize that today is Saturday, January 19, 2013. My intention is not to dispute this notion or to discredit history or our conventions of time or place. What I mean to do is simply elicit not “what” is left when all such conventions are removed from thought, but rather “how” we relate to what is left. This seems to me the ground of the most basic form of bad faith and cognitive dissonance in the human mind. It is in this sense that the bodhisattva understands both his illusion and his freedom.

Nihilism is the greatest danger facing our age, yet it does not realize that nihilism itself is essentially a reactionary speculation and therefore intimately related to the religious. Verily, both disappointment and freedom are observed in the child that loses faith in – Santa.

. . . . .

Even as the will of man has been and continues to be the domination of nature, it is never too late for a return to nature. Wed to bad conscience the unnatural inclinations.

You shall no longer take things at second or third hand, nor look through the eyes of the dead, nor feed on the specters in books. You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things from me. You shall listen to all sides and filter them from your self.

Pay no attention to the faults of others, things done or left undone by others. Consider only what by yourself is done or left undone. Learn to accept yourself exactly as you are, for therein lies perfection.

Rather than truth, than money, than fame, than power, than possessions, than happiness, than life everlasting – give me authenticity.

Lost out of context, ye had not yet sought yourselves: then did ye find me. Now do I bid you lose me and find yourselves; and only when ye have all denied me, will I return unto you.

Life is a mystery to be lived, not a problem to be solved. We should consider every day lost on which we have not danced at least once. And we should call every truth false which was not accompanied by at least one laugh.

* * * * *

Living in the land of the free and the home of the brave, I feel bound in chains and witness no audacity. People demand freedom of speech as a compensation for the freedom of thought which they seldom use.

Government, as a noun, is a convenient political fiction. Public image is always necessarily an illusion. Pay no attention to the men behind the curtain. These men only hold as much power as you allow them to hold.

Do not let your own fire go out, spark by irreplaceable spark in the hopeless swamps of the not-quite, the not-yet, and the not-at-all. Do not let the hero in your soul perish in lonely frustration for the life you deserved and have never been able to reach. The world you desire can be won. It exists, it is real, it is possible, it’s yours. The question isn’t who is going to let me; it’s who is going to stop me.

Finding the center of strength within ourselves is in the long run the best contribution we can make to our fellow men. One person with indigenous inner strength exercises a great calming effect on panic among people around him. This is what our society needs – not new ideas and inventions; important as these are, and not geniuses and supermen, but persons who can “be”, that is, persons who have a center of strength within themselves.

Political realism is a theory of political philosophy that attempts to explain, model, and prescribe political relations. It takes as its assumption that power is (or ought to be) the primary end of political action, whether in the domestic or international arena. In the domestic arena, the theory asserts that politicians do, or should, strive to maximize their power, whilst on the international stage, nation states are seen as the primary agents that maximize, or ought to maximize, their power. The theory is therefore to be examined as either a prescription of what ought to be the case, that is, nations and politicians ought to pursue power or their own interests, or as a description of the ruling state of affairs – that nations and politicians only pursue (and perhaps only can pursue) power or self-interest. Realpolitik refers to politics or diplomacy based primarily on power and on practical and material factors and considerations, rather than ideological notions or moralistic or ethical premises.

Independence is for the very few; it is a privilege of the strong. And whoever attempts it even with the best right but without inner constraint proves that he is probably not only strong, but also daring to the point of recklessness. He enters into a labyrinth, he multiplies a thousandfold the dangers which life brings with it in any case, not the least of which is that no one can see how and where he loses his way, becomes lonely, and is torn piecemeal by some minotaur of conscience. Supposing one like that comes to grief, this happens so far from the comprehension of men that they neither feel it nor sympathize. And he cannot go back any longer. Nor can he go back to the pity of men.

What happened to the authentic individual? What happened to the free spirit? Precisely how autonomous are we? We have locked ourselves up in cages of fear and, behold, do we now complain that we lack freedom? Our integrity sells for so little, but it is all we really have. It is our very last inch, but within that inch, we are free. I often feel like I’m living a lie. Most people just accept mediocrity and live as though they will never die. Your principles are not my principles. You aren’t worthy of my principles. And don’t you allow me to be worthy of yours. Life is too sacred to allow ourselves to be defined by, or slaves to, any system or ideology. I swear by my life and my love of it that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine.

Reject the insidious pressures in society that would blunt your critical faculties to all that is happening around you, that would caution silence in the face of injustice lest you jeopardize your chances of promotion and self-advancement. This is how it starts and before you know where you are, you’re a fully paid-up member of the rat-pack. The price is too high. It entails the loss of your dignity and human spirit. Or as Christ put it, “What doth it profit a man if he gain the whole world and suffer the loss of his soul?” Beware the merchant and his limitless tools of persuasion, for there is nothing too sacred for his sacrifice. Be the change that you wish to see in the world. The price good men pay for indifference to public affairs is to be ruled by evil men.

. . . . .

Somewhere there are still peoples and herds, but not with us, my brethren: here there are states.

A state? What is that? Well! open now your ears unto me, for now will I say unto you my word concerning the death of peoples.

A state, is called the coldest of all cold monsters. Coldly lieth it also; and this lie creepeth from its mouth: “I, the state, am the people.”

But the state lieth in all languages of good and evil; and whatever it saith it lieth; and whatever it hath it hath stolen.

The state, I call it, where all are poison-drinkers, the good and the bad: the state, where all lose themselves, the good and the bad: the state, where the slow suicide of all – is called “life.”

Many too many are born: for the superfluous ones was the state devised!

. . . . .

Justice is the advantage of the stronger. The world is will to power. Money is power incarnate. And the love of money is the root of all wealth. Natural selection is indifferent until manipulated. Fnord. Nothing is true, everything is permitted. War is father of all, king of all. Some it makes gods, some it makes men, some it makes slaves, some free. What can be smashed must be smashed; whatever will stand the blow is sound, what flies into smithereens is rubbish; at any rate, hit out right and left, no harm will or can come of it.

Do I contradict myself? Very well, then, I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes. With one’s principles one wants to bully one’s habits, or justify, honor, scold, or conceal them: two men with the same principles probably aim with them at something basically different. Jesus said to his Jews: “The law was for servants – love God as I love him, as his son! What are morals to us sons of God!”

Abundance of knowledge does not teach men to be wise. Only authenticity nourishes creativity. Whoever is a teacher through and through takes all things seriously only in relation to his students – even himself.

. . . . .

Therefore do I tear at your web, that your rage may lure you out of your den of lies, and that your revenge may leap forth from behind your word “justice.”

Because, for man to be redeemed from revenge – that is for me the bridge to the highest hope, and a rainbow after long storms.

Otherwise, however, would the tarantulas have it. “Let it be very justice for the world to become full of the storms of our vengeance” – thus do they talk to one another.

“Vengeance will we use, and insult, against all who are not like us” – thus do the tarantula-hearts pledge themselves.

“And ‘Will to Equality’ – that itself shall henceforth be the name of virtue; and against all that hath power will we raise an outcry!”

Ye preachers of equality, the tyrant-frenzy of impotence crieth thus in you for “equality”: your most secret tyrant-longings disguise themselves thus in virtue-words!

But thus do I counsel you, my friends: distrust all in whom the impulse to punish is powerful!

Distrust all those who talk much of their justice! Verily, in their souls not only honey is lacking.

And when they call themselves “the good and just,” forget not, that for them to be Pharisees, nothing is lacking but – power!

With these preachers of equality will I not be mixed up and confounded. For thus speaketh justice unto me: “Men are not equal.”

Good and evil, and rich and poor, and high and low, and all names of values: weapons shall they be!

. . . . .

Some writers have so confounded society with government, as to leave little or no distinction between them; whereas they are not only different, but have different origins. Society is produced by our wants, and government by wickedness; the former promotes our happiness positively by uniting our affections, the latter negatively by restraining our vices. The one encourages intercourse, the other creates distinctions. The first is a patron, the last a punisher. Society in every state is a blessing, but government even in its best state is but a necessary evil; in its worst state an intolerable one.

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there. When the soul lies down in that grass, the world is too full to talk about. Ideas, language, even the phrase “each other” doesn’t make any sense.

Note #24719462

“They are all children of God, loved and created by the same heart of God… Where is my faith? Even deep down… there is nothing but emptiness and darkness… If there be God — please forgive me… Such deep longing for God… Repulsed, empty, no faith, no love, no zeal… What do I labor for? If there be no God, there can be no soul. If there be no soul then, Jesus, You also are not true… Jesus has a very special love for you. As for me, the silence and the emptiness is so great that I look and do not see, listen and do not hear.”

– Mother Teresa

My Heart is Broken

Evanescence – My Heart is Broken

I will wander ’til the end of time, torn away from You.

I pulled away to face the pain.
I close my eyes and drift away.
Over the fear that I will never find
A way to heal my soul.
And I will wander ’til the end of time
Torn away from You.

My heart is broken
Sweet sleep, my dark angel
Deliver us from sorrow’s hold
(Over my heart).

I can’t go on living this way
But I can’t go back the way I came
Chained to this fear that I will never find
A way to heal my soul
And I will wander ’til the end of time
Half alive without You

My heart is broken
Sweet sleep, my dark angel
Deliver us

Change – open your eyes to the light
I denied it all so long, oh so long
Say goodbye, goodbye

My heart is broken
Release me, I can’t hold on
Deliver us
My heart is broken
Sweet sleep, my dark angel
Deliver us
My heart is broken
Sweet sleep, my dark angel
Deliver us from sorrow’s hold

Songwriters: Amy Lee / Tim McCord / Terry Balsamo / Zach Williams

My Heart is Broken lyrics © BMG Rights Management

Epistemology & The Soul


It was shortly after finishing the second edition of Natural Theology & Classical Apologetics that I wrote this essay. It is clear that at the time of this writing I did not possess the understanding of some of the ideas that I now have. Some ideas in this essay are oversimplified and reflect the infancy of my own understanding.

Epistemology and the Metaphysics of the Soul

by Joshua Synon

If I have a book which understands for me, a pastor who has a conscience for me, a doctor who decides my diet, I need not trouble myself. If I am willing to pay, I need not think. Others will do it for me.

– Immanuel Kant

When I began to inquire into the relationship of the body to the mind, spirit, or soul, I had no idea how deeply profound the topic really is, and how hotly debated it has been throughout history. Most people today would explain, in a very Neoplatonic way, that the human soul is analogous to a truck driver with the body being the truck. This is an ancient approach to the issue that is termed dualism in which the human being is comprised of two ontologically separate substances, namely the body and the soul. In this vitalistic understanding, the soul, the vital essence of life, is said to live on after bodily death and, hence, is the real us, the truck driver. In most cases, it seems, the soul is synonymous with the mind. But dualism is not the only view of reality prevalent in history. What evidence do we have that a soul or a vital substance that is ontologically separate from matter actually exists? Cannot the natural sciences explain self-consciousness and thought in totality? Many have thought so and, if so, then there seems to be no need to postulate a separate substance that animates our body. This latter group posits that all that exists is the material world of matter and energy.

The ancient Eastern sages did not develop great epistemological systems, mostly because they were a more practical lot, but they seem to believe the nature of the human soul to be part of a mystical grand system of order, perhaps a universal consciousness or a type of pantheism, which has moral responsibilities to other beings. They seem to presume that we are spiritual creatures. Some claim that reality is multifaceted and therefore ultimately inarticulate. The goal of the Buddhist, for instance, is to achieve a state of complete emptiness or “no-thing-ness” with only experience of the moment remaining, a completely spiritual and selfless state of being. Western thinkers, however, have attacked the notion that consciousness can exist without sense data to interpret or think about. In this case, what is one really conscious of? To answer that one is conscious of his own consciousness is only begging the question.  As soon as consciousness is conscious of some “thing” an interpretation has already taken place.

As Eastern mysticism has not satisfied the majority of Western thinkers, the West has developed grand epistemological and metaphysical systems, grounded in reason, that attempt to make sense of reality and discover the true nature and purpose of human being. In order to counter the antifoundational and relativistic thinking of the sophists, Plato (427-348 B.C.) argued that for us to even have ideas in our mind there must be an external world (a foundational reality) that we do not directly interact with where these ideas come from. The world that we experience merely takes part in or resembles this perfect and timeless world of Forms (a type of emanationism). From this he developed the notion that all knowledge is recollection. He invoked his famous allegories of the divided line and the cave to explain this point. Plato ultimately divided the soul into three parts: reason, spirit, and appetite. Reason is our rational side, spirit has to do with our will, and appetite is synonymous with our natural desires. Plato taught that reason should rule our spirit and appetite. The nature of the soul was said to be immortal and upon bodily death, then, it was said that the soul is released into this perfect reality of Forms, which later became adopted by the Christians as the concept of Heaven. This dualistic view led Plato’s followers, including said Christians, to view the body as evil or a type of prison for the soul.

Aristotle (384-322 B.C.) was by far Plato’s greatest student and, even so, disagreed with his teacher on many grounds. Aristotle was a naturalist and thus rejected the existence of a separate world of perfect Forms. He rather took the stance that the “Form” of a thing is actually in the thing itself. Aristotle posited that everything can be explained in totality in terms of four causes: material, formal, efficient, and final. The material cause is simply the substance or matter that a thing consists of. The formal cause is what makes a thing as it is. The form of a thing, for Aristotle, was synonymous with the soul. The efficient cause is simply the how of a thing; how it has come into existence, what (materially speaking) caused it to be. The final cause is synonymous with the end or purpose of a thing. Consider the example of a statue of a woman. The material cause would be stone; the formal cause a statue of a woman; the efficient cause the sculptor; the final cause the depiction of a woman for the sake of aesthetic or religious value. Aristotle had this idea that formed matter held its final cause, its entelechy as he called it, its ultimate purpose, within itself. It is the job of the formed matter to realize this purpose or entelechy. Modern functionalism is reminiscent of Aristotle’s concept of the soul.

Aristotle held that the human soul is entelechy. It is therefore incoherent to suggest that the soul could be separated from the body. Additionally, he suggested that there exist three types of soul: vegetative, sensitive, and rational. All the vegetative soul does is absorb matter from other things. Plants could be said to possess this type of soul. The sensitive soul is a step up in that it can “register information regarding the form of things, but does not absorb or become those things” (Soccio 170). Animals possess the sensitive soul. Human beings are said to possess the highest form of soul, the rational form. This form includes the other two, but goes beyond with “capacities for analyzing things, understanding various forms of relationships, and making reasoned decisions” (ibid). A human being can choose to realize his entelechy or not. For Aristotle, the soul is not a separate mystical reality such as dualism might suggest. The formed body cannot exist without the soul, and vice versa. It is nonsensical to speak of the soul without reference to a body of some sort. In effect, his approach is dissatisfying to many because it seems to deny any notion of life after death. But in all actuality, his view does not, indeed cannot, negate a personal afterlife. It simply has nothing to say of such matters. In any case, the ancient Greeks were of diverse opinion with some considering biological reproduction (or even “intellectual offspring”) sufficient to constitute the notion of human immortality.

One intriguing view that is related to Aristotle’s is termed nonreductive physicalism. This is a form of materialism, but it claims that the form of something, including mental processes, cannot be reduced to merely physical aspects. Thus, physics alone can never fully explain the universe. “Philosophers of mind call the subjective aspects of mental events qualia (or raw feels). There is something that it’s like to feel pain, to see a familiar shade of blue, and so on; there are qualia involved in these mental events. And the claim is that qualia seem particularly difficult to reduce to anything physical” (“Dualism”). There have been many attempts to explain these qualia, both physically and mentally based theories. Nonreductive physicalism seems to hold to a form of property dualism, which “asserts that when matter is organized in the appropriate way (i.e. in the way that living human bodies are organized), mental properties emerge” (ibid). Like Aristotle’s position, this position cannot say anything about life after bodily death. Any notion of an afterlife would be purely speculative.

Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), an English political philosopher, was of the opinion that, “All that exists is bodies in motion.” The natural sciences and modern psychology seem to be inclined to a materialistic monism, or physicalism, which claims that matter is all that exists. In this system, mental states are reduced to nothing more than physical states. Consciousness is then merely an artificial property that we ascribe to ourselves in an attempt to meaningfully describe the interaction of various atoms and chemicals in an otherwise random and meaningless system. Colors and sounds are merely waves and vibrations that we artificially apply meaning to. It must follow that we also ascribe artificial meaning to morality, the soul, and free will.

Hobbes believed that before each decision we make, we unconsciously (and/or consciously) and mechanistically weigh a list of pros against a list of cons to decide which choice to make in a matter. We will always choose, it is claimed, whichever decision will bring the most pleasure and/or relieve the most pain, whichever decision will fulfill the strongest present desire. If we do happen to choose otherwise, it is only because we were ignorant of the opposing list, and the result is a “bad” decision. This way of thinking is reminiscent of Socrates’ view that it is impossible for a human to knowingly will evil. The trouble that I run into with this theory is in finding a basic principle that defines pleasure.

The natural schools of science such as behaviorism, eliminative materialism, and type identity theory hold that everything can be explained in full by physical laws and natural processes. As such, they are deterministic and mechanistic views that seem to deny the reality of free will and an external supernatural or nonphysical reality. Indeed, a truly free will makes no sense in a determined universe, it is quite inconceivable. If our actions are just effects of biological and physical processes, then there is no such thing as morality or responsibility. Free will is then an illusion. Atoms cannot make choices. Mind, therefore, is really matter and there is no getting past our human nature. Modern psychology has attempted in many ways to describe the human mind in purely physical ways.

Hobbes, however, was a compatibilist with regard to free will. He would define free will in a different way than most would today. Rather than claim that free will is the absolute ability to choose between two or more options concerning a matter, he would claim that free will is “a hypothetical ability to have chosen differently if one had been differently psychologically disposed by some different beliefs or desires” (“Compatibilism”). With this definition, free will is said to be compatible with a determined universe. But this definition seems to lack the complete and utter freedom that “free will” implies. It would seem, rather, that we are definitely influenced by beliefs, desires, and physical “laws,” but by no means determined. However, more problems arise when we attempt to prove the free will of beings other than ourselves.

It seems a mistake, as Hume would suggest, to generalize these laws of physics and then apply them back to human actions and claim that mankind is completely deterministic, thereby opposing the commonsensical notion of free will. As Kant argued, which we will see later, “[W]hen a theory results in conclusions that are clearly inconsistent with experience, real-world evidence must outweigh theoretical consistency” (Soccio 325). Though some people argue for a strict determinism, nobody lives as though they actually believe it. It must be noted, however, that even if the mind can be fully explained via natural processes it seems that, although it would rule out the need to invoke a soul, it cannot deny the possibility of a soul (as we will also see later).

Some claim that modern quantum mechanics lends support to the notion of free will. In the tiny world of quantum physics, it is said that events can occur without any reason whatsoever, essentially randomly. To some, this implies that not everything is determined, including the human will. But the problem here is that this would reduce free will to a purely random, chaotic phenomenon. Free will is indeed indeterminate in a sense, but it is still caused by an act of volition on the free agent’s part. Since both pure determinism and pure chaos are opposed to free will, quantum physics does not seem to lend much help to the argument for free will. It does, however, go to show that we cannot definitely state that the universe is strictly determined, thus leaving the door open for faith in free will.

René Descartes (1596-1650), a noted French philosopher, is generally considered the father of rationalism in modern philosophy. He posited that the only way to gain absolutely certain knowledge is through reason alone (i.e. a priori). He chose to doubt everything that his senses told him because he believed that they could be deceiving him: perhaps we are all now dreaming, or perhaps there is an evil demon that is deceiving us. In doing so, he started with a blank slate and his first conclusive, undoubtable claim was the knowledge that he exists as a thinking being. This thinking being, he concludes, is his mind or soul and exists independent of the body. The view is espouses is termed substance dualism, which holds that the mind and body are distinct and separate substances. Unlike much of Christendom, Descartes makes no distinction between the mind, spirit, or soul. But if the dualistic model is true, then how can the soul actually interact with the body and vice versa (save the speculative and mystical notions of occasionalism or parallelism, both of which invoke God, but have no real explanatory power)? If the mind is substantially different than the body, then why is it that when the body drinks, the mind becomes drunk? Descartes would reject the truck driver analogy in favor of a more intimately united theory with the pineal gland being the epicenter of interaction between body and soul. He then proceeds to prove the existence of a good God a priori via ontological arguments and develops a trust of his basic senses on that foundation.

While reading Descartes’ Meditations on First Philosophy, however, I began to ask some serious questions and found that I was not alone in my inquiry. What can a mind without a body know or even think about? Is it really possible to know anything a priori? Certainly a spirit cannot know anything a priori pertaining to bodily or sensational experience because it lacks a body itself. It has been postulated that things such as mathematics and geometry are true a priori independent of whether anybody knows this or not. But can a spirit know such things a priori? Concepts such as mathematics and time exist as human ideas of relations of objects and events, but do they actually exist in and of themselves as Plato would claim? How can mathematics or geometry be knowable in a purely spiritual or rational realm, as the are both merely descriptions of relationships between material objects of human perception? Once we invoke bodies, then mathematics seems to apply. But before that, there is nothing for mathematics to explain. It seems impossible to teach a spirit the concept of numbers or for a spirit to even think about mathematics. Indeed, I cannot think ofanything that a spirit could think about without reference to any material form. Similarly, it would seem that if we were to shut off all of our senses, we could not think of anything other than, perhaps, our past experiences while in the body. It seems, then, that experience must be the ultimate seat and cause of all knowledge. Furthermore, if a spirit cannot think about anything or know anything (besides, perhaps, past bodily experiences), and a spirit is defined as mind without body, then is it really mind? Is it not rather nothing? This is not even to mention the complex processes involved in the human brain. It seems to follow that if God is spirit, as is traditionally thought, the only conclusion to be reached is that God is nothing – nonexistent. As we will see later, Descartes failed in his attempt to prove the existence of God or even the reality of the self.

The view that all knowledge comes from experience (a posteriori) is termed empiricism and was espoused by an influential English philosopher named John Locke (1632-1704). This man came to deny the possibility of innate, a priori, ideas. He believed that human beings are born with a blank slate, a tabula rasa, which is gradually filled with sense data. Locke claims that, “Nothing exists in the mind that was not first in the senses.” He does recognize, however, along with Descartes, that we do seem to possess a substance that is separate from our body; a thinking substance. Locke divided qualities of experience into two categories, namely primary and secondary qualities. Primary (i.e. objective) qualities are those that are independent of any perception of them, such as shape, size, and location in space. Secondary (i.e. subjective) qualities are those that depend on the perceiver, such as color, sound, or taste (Soccio 290). In Locke’s epistemology our experiences are nothing more than photographs or copies of the real thing (think re-presentation). As we all know, a photograph is never equal to the real thing. Therefore, we can never experience any thing-in-itself as it exists objectively. But if everything that we think we know about external things is actually just sense data in our own minds, then how can we even be sure that there exists anything outside of our own minds (cf. solipsism)?

Ah, but what if the only thing that actually exists is mind (or will)? What if what we call reality and matter is actually an effect of, and dependent on, the mind or soul, an active product of the thinking spirit? Would this not solve our problem? George Berkeley thought so. He took Locke’s epistemology a step further to one of its extreme, albeit logical, ends. Berkeley contends that all that really exists are Locke’s secondary qualities. We cannot even say anything about primary qualities, for it would be unintelligible to attempt speaking of them. So who is to say that they exist when nobody is perceiving them? This would relieve us from looking for meaning in our existence because existence would be meaning. God would, of course, be the ultimate mind, which makes all other minds possible. If this were the case, however, it would seem that I could simply will certain things to happen, such as bending a spoon with my mind. But perhaps there are mental limits imposed by God that prohibit my mental bending of the spoon. God is what holds everything in existence while we are not experiencing it, for he is the all-perceiver. This can easily lead to a form of pantheism, such as that which Spinoza espoused. However, Berkeley failed to prove the existence of an all-perceiver. In this case, however, it seems to make absolutely no difference to our experience whether noumena exist or not, whether we label it as matter or mind. It seems that Berkeley was simply giving a different name to the same thing as the materialists.

The renowned British empiricist David Hume (1711-1776) pursued Locke’s epistemology to its furthest logical end. In his works, Hume “makes compelling arguments against materialism, the possibility of a spiritual, supernatural reality, and personal immortality… [and] challenged established religious beliefs, moral judgments, reason and rationalism, earlier forms of empiricism, and the certainty of science” (Soccio 296). He was of the opinion that neither matter nor mind exist, a complete skeptic or agnostic. He denied that we can know anything. He even denied the concept of a persisting self. When I speak of me, what am I speaking of? This thing that is doing the speaking of course. But can I explain the concept of me outside of any sensational experience? I cannot think of a way to do so, to describe my mind, or my self, without reference to my body or its perceptions. It seems, then, that the mind is inseparable from the body. We seem to be merely a bundle of sense perceptions, impressions as Hume called them, that are diluted into “ideas” (synonymous with Locke’s copy theory). If something did not come from an impression then it is meaningless. His conclusion is “that identity is not a property of things, but a mental act” (Soccio 302).

Furthermore, Hume tells us that “beliefs that cannot be reduced to sense experience are technically not ‘ideas’ at all: They are meaningless utterances” (Soccio 300). Included in these beliefs that are not empirically experienced are those of God and the spirit or soul. If my body is not different in any sense from my spirit or my self, then life after bodily death seems to be ruled out. Again taking Locke’s epistemology to its logical conclusion, Hume concludes that the only thing we can know is our own perceptions, which occur in some type of pattern or regularity to which we ascribe meaning and coherence. He denies the rationality of inductive logic, which science depends on. Induction “reasons from the particular to the general” (Soccio 304). But Hume would claim that we have no right to make that jump. This is why he rejects even seemingly self-evident concepts such as cause and effect or objective morality. David Hume’s philosophy has devastating effects on faith, reason, and science. He concluded that we can be sure of absolutely nothing. But surely nobody can consistently live a truly skeptical life. The only reason Hume gives for being able to live a normal life in light of his skepticism is that nature tends to take over and fill in the gaps when he is not thinking about it (Soccio 304). This complete skepticism really leaves us nowhere and gives us nowhere to go, not only concerning the relationship of the mind to the body, but concerning anything at all.

Thus far we have explored dualistic and monistic (both physical and mental) views of reality. However, there also exist two other less widely known views: pluralism and neutral monism. While the former posits that there exist more than two essential substances in the universe, the latter suggests that there does indeed exist only one substance, but that substance is neither material nor immaterial. Rather, this single substance is said to be neutral, capable of existing as both matter and non-matter. Some have claimed, however, that this is simply a rehash of Berkeleian idealism. Each of these, however, seem to be venturing into the metaphysical realm of unfalsifiability.

Perhaps it is again a mistake to generalize things. Strict materialism, any type of monism really, seems to be begging the question in that it defines everything that exists and is sensible as matter and natural and then claims that nothing exists besides matter and the natural. If any genuinely new type of thing were to be discovered, including something that many would deem supernatural or somehow inherently new, it could then be labeled natural, sensible, and material. Idealism seems to do the same exact thing. In this way they are both unfalsifiable and seem to be giving different names or descriptions for the same exact stuff.

Perhaps our definition of spirit as mind without body is flawed. Perhaps the soul is as complex, in some way, as the body. Perhaps we cannot properly understand the nature of spirit. As my studies continued I inevitably encountered the German philosopher named Immanuel Kant (1724-1804). Kant’s philosophy was an effect of the inadequacies of the two major philosophical schools and the deterministic implications of science in his day. The rationalists “established grand systems of logical relationships ungrounded in observation or perception,” while the British empiricists viewed “the human mind as the passive receiver of impressions and experiences” (Soccio 322-3). All the empiricists were left with in the end were ideas, which could never really bring them back to experience of external realities, the result of which was “Hume’s admission that we must believe in an external world, in selves, and in causes and effects, without ever knowing them” (ibid).

Kant saw philosophy tending toward absurd conclusions and science leading to a mechanistic universe with no basis for free will or morality. Moreover, a strict empiricism, Kant claims, aside from presupposing what it sets out to disprove, restricts us from making judgments about our experience, while a strict rationalism produces antinomies such as it being possible to prove both that the world had a beginning in time and is limited in space and that the world had no beginning and has no limits. As both notions are absurd, it would seem that neither reason alone nor sensations alone can render knowledge.

Kant began by stating that the normal division of knowledge into a priori and a posteriori was insufficient:

[The] old division between a priori truths and a posteriori truths employed by both camps [rationalism and empiricism] was insufficient to describe the sort of metaphysical claims that were under dispute. An analysis of knowledge also requires a distinction between synthetic and analytic truths. In an analytic claim, the predicate is contained within the subject. In the claim, “Every body occupies space,” the property of occupying space is revealed in an analysis of what it means to be a body. The subject of a synthetic claim, however, does not contain the predicate. In the phrase, “This tree is 120 feet tall,” the concepts are synthesized or brought together to form a new claim that is not contained in any of the individual concepts. The Empiricists had not been able to prove synthetic a priori claims like “Every event must have a cause, because they had conflated “synthetic” and “a posteriori” as well as “analytic” and “a priori.” Then they had assumed that the two resulting categories were exhaustive. A synthetic a priori claim, Kant argues, is one that must be true without appealing to experience, yet the predicate is not logically contained within the subject, so it is no surprise that the Empiricists failed to produce the sought after justification. The Rationalists had similarly conflated the four terms and mistakenly proceeded as if claims like, “The self is a simple substance,” could be proven analytically and a priori.

Synthetic a priori claims, Kant argues, demand an entirely different kind of proof than those required for analytic, a priori claims or synthetic, a posteriori claims. Indications for how to proceed, Kant says, can be found in the examples of synthetic a priori claims in natural science and mathematics, specifically geometry. Claims like Newton’s, “the quantity of matter is always preserved,” and the geometer’s claim, “the angles of a triangle always add up to 180 degrees” are known a priori, but they cannot be known merely from an analysis of the concepts of matter or triangle. We must “go outside and beyond the concept… joining to it a priori in thought something which I have not thought in it.” … A synthetic a priori claim constructs upon and adds to what is contained analytically in a concept without appealing to experience. So if we are to solve the problems generated by Empiricism and Rationalism, the central question of metaphysics in the Critique of Pure Reason reduces to “How are synthetic a priori judgments possible?” … If we can answer that question, then we can determine the possibility, legitimacy, and range of all metaphysical claims. (McCormick)

Kant proposed an extraordinary idea, such that he termed it a Copernican Revolution of his own in philosophy: “He would reverse the course of his philosophical predecessors and assume that instead of the mind having to conform to what can be known, what can be known must conform to the mind” (Soccio 325). Knowledge then becomes a “kind of interaction, a two-way street between the knower (the subject) and the known (the object)” (ibid).

Kant’s answer to the question is complicated, but his conclusion is that a number of synthetic a priori claims, like those from geometry and the natural sciences, are true because of the structure of the mind that knows them. “Every event must have a cause” cannot be proven by experience, but experience is impossible without it because it describes the way the mind must necessarily order its representations. (McCormick)

Kant divides reality into two categories: phenomenal and noumenal. The phenomenal is reality as we experience it, while the noumenal is reality as things are in themselves. The only thing we can know about noumena is that it exists, at least logically:

We can experience only what our human faculty of understanding is capable of… Kant argues that although we cannot directly experience noumena, a special class of transcendental ideas bridges the gap between the phenomenal and noumenal worlds. Empirical ideas are validated by sense data (experience). Transcendental ideas are “triggered” by experience when we rely on them to impose unity on the totality of our experiences. They “unify” or “make possible” having experience in the first place. Without some sort of unifying structure, Kant argues, the mind could not ‘experience’ raw sense data. It would be meaningless, undifferentiated – unexperienced. (Soccio 327)

These transcendental ideas, almost reminiscent of the Greek logos, can be said to be structures in the mind that interpret phenomena. It is this structuring in the mind that makes any experience possible. Kant developed a table of categories that is comprised of these ideas or structures. “Kant identified three transcendental ideas: self, cosmos (totality), and God… Kant goes on to say that we must act as if self, cosmos, and God refer to existing things but that, as in the case of all noumena, there is no way empirically to verify that they do. They refer to universal ideas that regulate human understanding” (Soccio 328). These ideas or structures make up the faculties of synthesis and understanding in the mind:

We must assume the ideas of God, freedom, and immortality, Kant says, not as objects of knowledge, but as practical necessities for the employment of reason in the realm where we can have knowledge. By denying the possibility of knowledge of these ideas, yet arguing for their role in the system of reason, Kant had to, “annul knowledge in order to make room for faith.” (McCormick)

Kant holds that the very intelligibility of the universe necessarily implies certain ideas, including God, but that the nature of human reason renders direct (noumenal) knowledge of the ontological status of such a transcendental (noumenal) being utterly impossible. In saying this, “Kant means that God is not the kind of thing that can be verified by an appeal to experience… Kant, however, claims that it is not possible to dismiss the idea of God…” (Soccio328). However, “a consciousness that apprehends objects directly, as they are in themselves and not by means of space and time, is possible – God, Kant says, has a purely intuitive consciousness – but our apprehension of objects is always mediated by the conditions of sensibility” (McCormick).

The metaphysical implications of Kant’s transcendental idealism are staggering. His philosophy is to be differentiated from the idealism of, say, Berkeley because Kant is an empirical realist. However, he says that we can only know things as they appear to us. His revolution ratified the sense of self and an external reality, and therefore the natural sciences, from Hume’s radical skepticism, pronounced the subjectivity of truth (which was later expounded on by the existentialists), and threw most metaphysics and speculative theology out the window. There could be an infinite amount of things out there that are real, but we as human beings cannot say anything about them. We cannot possibly comprehend them, unless we are afforded some new type of sense. It would be like trying to teach a man blind from birth the concept of color; like a sphere trying to describe the concept of three dimensions to a circle. Even then, we could still only know some new phenomena, but not the noumena directly. It seems to follow that the only way for human beings to understand anything about a metaphysical reality outside of the five senses must be in the form of analogy from a divine or supernatural source. Even then we cannot properly understand the details of any different metaphysical reality. We can only be certain that a reality outside of what we experience does indeed exist. This would seem, then, to lead toward a type of theological agnosticism. Moreover, it appears that Plato’s cave allegory fits quite nicely with Kant’s philosophy. Any man that has indeed seen beyond what normal humans sense would have trouble explaining it to others.

Kant also lays out a remarkable moral philosophy that is described as a sense of duty found within all rational creatures, which posits the reality of free will and moral responsibility: “Kant asserts that it is possible to be both determined, or unfree (in the phenomenal world), and free (in the noumenal world)” (Soccio 330).

While it is interesting to speculate, it may not be possible until bodily death to say anything absolute about the nature of the human soul or what happens to it thereof. Perhaps we shall never know. Where any of this gets us in life I have failed to ascertain. Perhaps the ancient Eastern sages were wise in not wasting time developing elaborate epistemological systems. Any system that attempts to explain the universe is going to be inadequate and insufficient. Perhaps we should stop all of this nonsensical reasoning and begin to live life instead of attempting to make sense of it.

It is easier to indulge in abstract thought than it is to exist.

– Kierkegaard

You will never be happy if you continue to search for what happiness consists of. You will never live if you are looking for the meaning of life.

– Albert Camus


“Compatibilism.” Wikipedia. 26 April 2006.

Descartes, René. “Meditations on First Philosophy.” The Philosophy Source. Version 3.0. CD-ROM. Belmont: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning, 2004.

Gogan, Aisling. “God in Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason.” Memorial University of Newfoundland. 26 April 2006.

McCormick, Matt. “Immanuel Kant – Metaphysics.” The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.Ed. James Fieser. 2006. 26 April 2006.

O’Connor, Timothy. “Free Will.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Ed. Edward N. Zalta. 2005. 26 April 2006.

“Philosophy of Mind.” Wikipedia. 26 April 2006.

Pratt, David. “Consciousness, Causality, and Quantum Physics.” Exploring Theosophy.1997. 26 April 2006.

Robinson, Howard. “Dualism.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Ed. Edward N. Zalta. 2003. 26 April 2006.

Soccio, Douglas. Archetypes of Wisdom: An Introduction to Philosophy. Belmont: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning, 2004.

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