Imagine a world with one government. The focus of the government is making sure everyone is part of “one unified happy family.” The state controls all aspects of life. “Diversity” is celebrated in word, but ignored or pushed aside in practice. The government ignores individual differences between people, whether it be athletic ability or behavioral differences–absolute equality is preserved. Most people in this state believe that, after death, they will merge into oneness with the universe and lose whatever individuality that remains. Does this sound like a utopian world to you?

The European Union, which attempts in its own way to re-establish the unity of Europe before the fall of the Western Roman Empire, is supported by seemingly disparate groups: some (though not all) Marxists, Social Democrats, Corporatists and other big government, Bismark-style conservatives. The UK, which has not totally lost its historic independent streak, tends to oppose the Union. At least those who argue for the EU use their minds; the same cannot be said for the cotton-candy brained New Agers who believe in some utopian unity in 2012 (in 1969 it was the “Age of Aquarius”). New Agers, who “feel” without putting their emotions under the discipline of reason, tend toward a vague form of ontological monism and pantheism that totally subsumes the individual. Sometimes the more “thoughtful” New Agers may useĀ  (still questionable) arguments from quantum entanglement or the Higgs Field to support their position.

Human beings are social animals, and naturally work together best in smaller social groups. The family is the basic unit of human social interaction, followed by friends, acquaintances, and strangers. It is true that Jesus Christ affirms that all people are our neighbors–that is, we are all human persons made in God’s image, thus not considering a person a neighbor because of his ethnicity is wrong. In His time, the conflict was between the Jewish people and the Samaritans The “Good Samaritan” overcomes the prejudice of the Samaritans against Jews and helps a person in need.

Jesus’ parable should not be used to argue against a hierarchy of communities beginning with the family, where we first learn to love people in spite of differences and learn to deal with fellow human beings, sometimes with much conflict. A person’s first obligation, apart from religious obligations, is to his family, and then to the other groups mentioned above. An emphasis on “we’re all really one” to the detriment of individuals and individual families ignores human nature and will only lead to a socially engineered, artificial society that, in the end, must be unified by the force of government power or by the pernicious influence of large corporations on the general culture. Individual identity is subsumed under a monster state (in socialism) or under the influence of corporations through the media (in corporatism, which, as I always emphasize, is not the same thing as capitalism).

Religion that ignores individual human beings is also pernicious. It is true that human beings, as all substances, are, as Father W. Norris Clarke put it, “substances-in-relation.” That includes relation to one another, to nature in general, and to God. But such relationality does not take away from the fact that each human being is also an individual substance with a personal unity whose value comes from God, the Creator. I have heard rebellious Christians claim that desire for individual resurrection is selfish. It can be, I suppose, but understanding human beings in relation to God and each other surely includes a natural desire to be united to God and to loved ones (and later, to others) in a resurrection world. Unity with God or with each other neither subsumes individuals nor subsume individual communities, though many human relationships will be transcended and become something deeper and far more valuable than relationships on earth. Even the Christian mystics, who in the height of their experience often used language suggesting an ontological monism, in the end recognized that they are created beings, individuals, though they are wholly dependent on God for their continued existence.

Recognizing individual families and small groups, as well as acknowledging the individuality of human persons, implies a less intrusive state as well as smaller businesses oriented to the good of their individual communities. Of course there should be a respect for other people, even those who are strangers, but fundamentally no government or corporation should interfere with the hierarchy of love that is natural to human beings and which forms organic, not forced, communities.

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Does Thomism Really Avoid the Lockean Epistemological Gap between Idea and Thing?

September 21, 2011

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Portrait of John Locke, by Sir Godfrey Kneller...

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John Locke thought of himself as a realist (not in the Medieval sense of accepting the reality of universals, but in the modern sense of believing in a mind-independent world). Yet it seems that his philosophy leaves no room for any knowledge of that alleged world, as Berkeley and Hume pointed out. Locke believed that all knowledge comes by means of sense experience (thus he is an empiricist, as opposed to being a rationalist such as Descartes–it is ironic that in his hierarchical classification of knowledge Locke lists intuitive knowledge as first, demonstrative knowledge as second, and sensory knowledge as the lowest form of knowledge, barely to be called knowledge). Locke believes that knowledge arises by means of ideas in the mind. Whether these ideas are images or something else remains a subject of debate among Lockean scholars. In any case, Locke believes that that a quality is the power to produce an idea in the mind. Primary qualities are actually in the thing-in-itself, and our ideas of primary qualities are isomorphic with the actual structure of the physical substance we perceive. Primary qualities are measurable, and include size, shape, and mass. Secondary qualities are not in the thing itself; our ideas of secondary qualities are not isomorphic with the actual structure of the material substance. However, the primary qualities interact with human sensory organs and with the human brain to produce ideas of particular colors, odors, sounds, and tastes. Thus, secondary qualities have a partial basis in the thing-in-itself despite the lack of isomorphism between idea and thing.

The classic problem with this view is that Locke claims that we are only aware of our own ideas. We do not have any direct access to the material substance, to the thing-in-itself. In fact, substance is just that which underlies the qualities, a “something-I-know-not-what.” But if we lack access to the thing-in-itself, there is no way to compare our ideas to the actual object allegedly causing those ideas to determine which qualities are primary and which ones are secondary. Access to knowledge of extramental reality seems impossible, and a trip down the phenomenalist brick road of Berkeley, Hume, and the sense data theorists of the early twentieth century. Such an idealistic journey is not what Locke wanted to make. Idealism has serious difficulties; the source of the ideas (our own minds? the mind of God) remains a mystery, and the orderly nature of the phenomena we experience is left unexplained unless a person takes the Berkeleian route of positing God to explain natural laws. Direct realism is another option; the label of “naive realism” is a pejorative and is a blatant attempt to beg the question regarding the truth or falsity of direct realism. As for the straw men critics of direct realism try to knock down, no direct realist has denied the possibility of illusion. It is Berkeley and Hume’s phenomenalism that cannot distinguish between illusion and reality except by taking Hume’s route of more vivid ideas (which he calls impressions) being the most “real.”

Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas were both direct realists. Aquinas accepted the idea that knowledge comes through the “phantasm,” or sensory image, from which the mind extracts the intelligible content from a material substance. Thomists today often say that the difference from Locke’s view is that Locke believed we have access to ideas, not the thing in itself–it is the ideas that we know. In contrast, Aquinas believes that it is through the phantasm that a person gains some knowledge, albeit limited, of the thing-in-itself. But does this really avoid Locke’s problem or does it evade it by a kind of word game?

After reading more of how contemporary Thomists deal with the epistemological gap, I must back away from my earlier position that Thomism does not avoid an epistemological gap between mind and thing. Contemporary Thomists believe that humans have evolved as part of their environment, not as creatures separate from their environment. Even thought knowledge is of “external” things, there is a communication of intelligible content from object to subject–agent causation is not limited to human agents. The phantasm contains the information that human beings extract to help them to live in the environment in which they are embedded, to the point that the person becomes “intentionally one” with the thing-in-itself. While Duns Scotus posited intuitive knowledge of an object as existing in addition to a rather traditional Aristotelian account of knowledge, I am not sure that such an intuitive knowledge is necessary for human beings to get by in the world. If such intuitive knowledge exists (perhaps in the form of psi), such knowledge could speed up our apprehension of a thing and determine whether or not it is dangerous. But if the mind is not considered a container, but as one way of an organism’s acting in the world, that seems to eliminate the Lockean gap between idea and thing. The phantasm becomes that “by which” a person apprehends some aspects of the being of a thing.