Tag Archives: Mind


For 30 years or longer I have been trying to figure out what makes skepticism, indifference and atheism plausible and belief in God difficult for some people.  I am sure there are many reasons and the relative strength of each varies from person to person. But one stands out to me. The external, physical/material world seems so real to us that we have a hard time imagining anything real that is not also external and material. This sentiment is expressed by a saying making the rounds on Facebook: “I worship nature. Don’t laugh. At least I can prove it exists.” I laughed anyway.

During his early adulthood, under the instruction of the Manicheans, Augustine of Hippo also experienced this difficulty:

When I wanted to think of my God, I knew of no way of doing so except as a physical mass. Nor did I think anything existed which was not material. That was the principle and almost sole cause of my inevitable error. ..If I had been able to conceive of spiritual substance, at once all their imagined inventions would have collapsed and my mind would have rejected them. But I could not [Confessions, trans. Henry Chadwick, (Oxford 1991), pp. 85, 89].

And speaking of the philosophers of his day, who focused on external appearances, Augustine says,

They can foresee a future eclipse of the Sun but do not perceive their own eclipse in the present. For they do not in a religious spirit investigate the source of the intelligence with which they research into these matters (Confessions, trans. Chadwick, p. 74)

Baron Holbach, author of The System of Nature (1770) and patron of Paris’s atheist and freethinking community, attempted to explain the whole world and every event within it in material terms. His fundamental assumption seems to be that the true nature of things is revealed only in empirical experience. Empirical experience works by physical contact between our bodies and other bodies. We know things only in their external relationships to us and other things. Reality consists exclusively of external bodies set in relation to other external bodies. Holbach then interprets all our internal experience, which we do not experience empirically through the senses, in keeping with his external view of knowledge. We know that our minds, ideas and concepts possess no reality beyond the physical forces that bring them about. God is a creation of the human imagination, which itself is a product of the motions of matter.

As you can see, Holbach falls into an error similar to the one Augustine complained the Manicheans made, that is, that reality can be known truly only as external bodies and the images that represent them. Augustine saw through this error when he realized that we have internal access to reality as well as external access. Limiting knowledge of reality to how things appear from an external viewpoint severely limits and greatly distorts our understanding of the world. Holbach, the Manicheans and the nature worshiper mentioned above forget that the internal power by which we know the external world also knows itself and all its contents. And the mind knows itself and its contents not by physical contact with external surfaces but by knowing itself directly. Inside the world of the mind, nothing is external and material. Nothing takes up space or weighs anything. Nothing breaks down into smaller material bits.

In Augustine’s view, the Manicheans, and by extension Holbach and all metaphysical materialists, should have given priority to the knowledge gained by our mind’s experience of itself. Privileging an external point of view makes an inferior, indirect and obscure access to reality the judge of a superior, clear and direct access. It dismisses our sense of certainty that our minds are real and possess freedom and causal power over our bodies in favor of an analogy drawn from our external observation of the interaction of assumedly mindless bodies. It rejects our internal experience of immaterial ideas, logical laws, concepts and relations and forces them into the pattern we derive from external observation, that is, they must be material bodies externally related to each other, despite our invincible inclination to believe otherwise.

What a difference there is between the two systems (Atheism and Christian Theism)! Christian theism asserts that the appearance of humanity and all that goes with it—mind, reason, freedom, self-consciousness, moral intuition, and all that is made possible by them—reveals the true nature of the ultimate reality behind all appearances better than the externality, unintelligibility, inertness, and mindlessness of matter. And this truth comes to light in our experience within ourselves of ourselves and in fellowship with other human beings. The idea of matter is derived from sense experience’s discovery of opacity and obscurity in its vision of the world in contrast to the clarity of ideas and the self-identity and self-transparency of the mind in its act of thinking and self-reflection. Atheism (at least the most common contemporary forms) views the mindless externality of matter as disclosing the true nature of what we wrongly think we know on the uniquely human level: mind, qualities, freedom, consciousness, self-consciousness, reason, intelligibility and moral intuition.

Here is a stark choice. Both views make knowledge claims. One must choose. But the irony is that in choosing materialism I give revelatory priority to something I know externally, obscurely and indirectly over what I know directly and clearly by virtue of the process of thinking. I assert that the ultimate and underlying reality from which thinking, ideas and concepts derive is itself unthinking, obscure and unthinkable. Don’t miss this: ironically, if not in complete self-contradiction, materialism is a theory that conceives and thinks of thinking and concepts as secondary qualities derivative of matter, which is the complete absence of mind and intelligibility! According to their theory, the very power (mind) and its instruments (ideas and concepts) by which materialists formulate, defend and explain the philosophy of materialism, need to be resolved into their (material) components in order to get a clear idea of what they really are. What an absurdity! Mind and the idea of ideas are obscure and complex whereas the idea of matter is simple and clear? Of course the idea of matter is simple and clear but the idea of matter is in the mind. But matter itself is defined by being external to the mind and obscure to the eye of the mind. So, in the theory of materialism I am basing my understanding of all reality on something that can be known only as unknowable and obscure. Surely there is some kind of incoherence here!

But everything changes if with Augustine we give priority to internal experience. The way we know our minds and their contents becomes the model for our knowledge of the external world. We experience the world not only as external, material and obscure but also as internal, ideal and transparent. Through our senses we receive into our minds information (not simply dumb physical impacts) embodied in the world. This information becomes internal to our minds; only then do we possess knowledge of the “external” world. Assuming that this information truly exists in the world apart from the work of our minds, we can ask from where it came. Or, since we know from our internal experience the creative and shaping power of mind and ideas, we can ask about the nature of the Mind that thinks and creates the world I experience as intelligible but not as the product of my or any human mind.

The apostle Paul was not making idle conversation with the Athenians when he quoted the Cretan philosopher Epimenides: “For in him we live and move and have our being.” Unlike the young Augustine, Holbach and today’s nature worshiper, Paul looked around at the world and saw in everything the marks of the divine Mind, and he felt surrounded, indwelt and empowered by the Spirit of the living God. Our task, Paul says is to “seek him and perhaps find him, though he is not far from any one of us” (Acts 17:27). And it helps to begin your search in the right place.

Sometimes the Soul Needs to Listen to the Body

Nine days ago I underwent surgery for an inguinal hernia. My recovery from the anesthesia took longer than I expected, and I’ve been exhausted the whole nine days. What surprised me is how much my physical trauma manifested itself in my psychological moods and thoughts. I kept thinking I would use the physical recovery time to read and perhaps write a little. But instead I felt two disturbing moods come over me. I felt no energy for work, and when I tried to get something done my concentration failed me. Usually, I feel so many ideas clamoring for expression that I feel no lack of creativity. So, I feel like I’ve got nothing accomplished in the last nine days. And in those moments the thought crept in that my creative days are over. Nothing will change, ever! Compounding my inability to work was a burden of guilt (I can think of no better word.) for not accomplishing anything really worthwhile. My book project languishes, and I don’t feel like writing an essay for Ifaqtheology. But as I am pulling out of my funk, I’ve started thinking about the ethical and theological implications of these experiences.

God created us body and soul, physical and mental. And sometimes we downplay the intimate unity of body and soul. From an ethical point of view the soul/mind is supposed to rule the body. The body sends demands to the soul/mind, and the mind is supposed to judge the merit of those requests, measure them against other demands and the moral law. The body does good work for us, but it needs the eyes of the mind to enlighten its myopic vision of the good. But in the last nine days, I’ve learned that sometimes the body is smarter than the mind. The mind can be driven by wishes and theories to ignore the facts. The body stays stubbornly in the realm of fact.

I find it very interesting that the body can communicate with the soul/mind in a way that the mind can translate into thought and proposed action. In my case, my body was not urging me toward immoral actions so that my mind/soul had to be on its guard to redirect its urgings. My body was telling me to rest and let it heal. It communicated that message in clumsy ways as the body always does. It simply communicated a feeling of sleepiness, tiredness, pain, disinterestedness, and lack of creative energy. My mind at first was confused at this. “No, we have work to do! Books to read! Essays to write!” I was treating my body’s messages as if they were telling me to do something immoral, to be lazy, to shirk my duties. It took my mind nine days to accept the truth that my body knew from the start. After a physical trauma, my work, my duty, is to give my body time and leisure to regain its strength. I just have to believe that it will happen and I will know the joy of productive work again. Sometimes the soul needs to listen to the body!

An Impersonal God?

Last week we pursued the question of whether it makes sense to think of the mind that gives the world its intelligible order as impersonal. Can we reasonably think of that mind as a primitive urge, a logical necessity, or the goal of evolution? We ended that post by observing the counterintuitive nature of belief in an impersonal god. How can we believe that the universal mind that gives the world its intelligible order and that produced human beings does not itself possess the qualities that make human beings personal: self-consciousness, reason, freedom, and the ability to relate to other persons?

Today I want to make a bit more explicit our intuitive belief that the mind that produced the world is much greater and better than we are. Let’s remember our earlier argument for the irreducibility of the intelligible aspect of nature and for a universal mind that is the explanation for that intelligibility. We argued from our own experience of ourselves as free causes and originators of information that mind is a better explanation for the intelligible order in nature than chance is. The decision for a universal mind was prompted by our intuition that information always originates from the free act of an intelligent agent. And free acts always involve self-awareness and are always enacted to achieve ends. Hence the assertion that the universal mind is impersonal contradicts the original reason for rejecting materialism and accepting the irreducible reality of mind. To deny that the power that forms the world into an intelligible order is free, reasonable, self-aware, and able to relate to others is to retreat from our first decision point and to fall back into materialism and chance.

To think of the universal mind as impersonal is to confuse mind with ideas or concepts. Indeed, ideas and concepts are not intelligent and free. They are objects the mind creates and thinks. My previous argument for the irreducible nature of the intelligibility in the world did not contend that the intelligible order is itself personal. It contended, rather, that the universal, intelligible order is the product an active, universal mind. And the mind responsible for creating the intelligible order of the universe must be free, reasonable, and self-aware to a degree far beyond human beings. If that “mind” were impersonal, it could not produce anything; instead, it would itself need to be produced. And we would simply be mistaken in using the word “mind” to designate the impersonal order that evolved by chance.

To think of god as impersonal sees God as in some way embedded in or limited by matter, perhaps, in analogy to the way we are embodied. Our bodies carry on many of their organic functions independent of our will or even our awareness. Many of our feelings and urges arise in us involuntarily. But again, refer to my original argument for the universal mind. The universal mind must be responsible for the entire intelligible order or the argument fails. But asserting that the universal mind is embodied in matter denies that that mind is responsible for all the intelligible order; for it could not be responsible for itself, its own embodiment, or the laws that govern that relationship. We would have to face again the prospect of materialism and chance as the explanation for everything, that is, underneath the intelligible aspects of nature rests a non-intelligible cause working by blind processes to produce all natural phenomena.

The intuitive assumption that drives our argument is an ancient one clearly articulated by Aristotle and used in theology by Thomas Aquinas: actuality is prior in being to potentiality. It is intuitive because we experience it in ourselves and in our observations of the world: Only actual, living minds produce information. A cause imposes its (actual) likeness on the effect to make it actual. Order produces order. True chaos never changes. The intuition that actuality is prior to potentiality makes it impossible to believe that the amazing intelligible order in the universe arose from absolute disorder by chance. The mind that orders the world must itself be purely actual, possessing maximum order.

The most reasonable conclusion available to us at this point—given our assumption that a universal mind is the cause of the totality of the intelligible order of nature—is that God is pure, active mind completely independent of matter. But if God is pure, active mind, God must be maximally free, self-aware, rational, and able to relate; that is, personal to the highest degree.

God, Matter, and Other Minds: Is Christianity True? (Part 10)

In the past two posts we examined a background belief that must be true if atheism is true, that is, that matter is the ultimate reality that explains the existence and nature of everything else. We evaluated this materialist option from two different experiential starting points, our experience of the intelligibility and materiality of the external world and our experience of our own minds as active, free, and creative. In this tenth part of our series (“Is Christianity True?”), we will consider materialism from a third experiential starting point: our experience other minds, other intelligent human persons.

Amazingly, we can understand and think ideas that come from other human minds. We find ourselves not only able to read the passive information written into nature and able to write information into the physical world, we also encounter other minds like ours, active and free and able to communicate information from their minds to ours through language. Although there is no way to prove that a human body with whom we are speaking really possesses a mind like ours, we believe it so strongly that we think it absurd to doubt it. We recognize in others what we experience as self-evident in ourselves. What does our experience of other minds, that is, other intelligent human persons, add to our experience of the intelligibility of the physical world and of ourselves as active minds?

1. The existence of other minds confirms our internal experience of ourselves as active, free, and creative minds. Our experience of freedom, which seems so real experienced from inside, is confirmed as really real in encounter with other people who act and express that same freedom. Our mental encounter with other minds differs from decoding the structures embedded in the physical world. In our efforts to understand the intelligible order in the physical world we experience the order as passive and ourselves as active. But when we meet other minds we find that they are also active and creative. In encounters with other people we experience being understood by the thing that we are attempting to understand. We meet a new kind of reality, a person. Other minds/persons actively resist and protest any effort to reduce them to their ideas, sense impressions, or material constituents. We also resist and protest depersonalization. And, in encountering other persons we become aware of our own irreducible personhood more intensely than we can in encountering the passive intelligible order in the physical world.

2. The existence of other human minds and our ability to communicate with each other adds a new dimension to our experience of the intelligibility within the world. Our minds meet and transfer information through the medium of the external world in which we find an intelligible order that can be understood alike by many minds. In verbal language we encode information in the medium of air as sound impulses. Receiving information from another person through language gives us confidence that we know what the other is thinking, and we know it by rethinking the thought communicated.

Our experience of other minds as free actors and creators of information and as co-readers of the information encoded in the physical world reinforces our conviction that the order that structures the physical world is indeed intelligible and derives from an active mind. We experience minds other than our own creating information understandable by us and still other minds.

3. Encountering other intelligent persons introduces a moral dimension to our experience of mind, a sense of the inestimable worth of others. I will deal in greater detail with the moral dimension of human experience later. Here I will point out that encountering other intelligent persons introduces the idea that the universe is ordered not only in increasing levels of complexity but also in increasing levels of value, which in turn gives birth to the idea of a teleological order that moves toward producing greater and greater perfection.

Does our experience of other minds/persons add anything to the case made in the previous two posts for choosing the option that affirms the irreducible and primordial nature of mind, intelligibility, life, and spirit and rejecting materialism? Yes, I think it does. (1) In the previous post I argued that our experience of our own active minds gives plausibility to active mind as the explanation for the intelligible order in the world. Encountering other free and creative persons strengthens our conviction that our minds are irreducible to matter. Hence our experience of active minds/persons other than our own reinforces the idea that a primordial active mind orders the world. (2) Our experience of other minds/persons opens up a moral and teleological dimension to our experience of the world. These dimensions cannot be perceived simply by using our reason to read the information embedded in the physical world or experiencing ourselves as creators of information. If the worth we perceive in other persons is a real property, independent of our subjective feelings, this worth must be the product of a valuing and purposive mind at least equally primordial with matter.

Next week, we will summarize the case for moving through the first decision point on the road from non-belief to Christian belief in the direction of belief. Though we cannot remove all possible doubt, we will take the road marked “Mind is at Least Equally Primordial with Matter” and leave untraveled the road marked “Matter is the Ultimate Reality that Explains Everything Else.” Now we are faced with the second decision point: is the mind that orders the world one or many, personal or impersonal?

Think With Me About “The Happy Life” (Part One)

In Augustine’s Confessions, book 10, the great theologian/bishop struggles to articulate his search for God in words understandable to his readers: “How then am I to seek for you? When I seek for you my God, my quest is for the happy life” (10.20; trans. Chadwick). Many people do not understand why we should seek God with all our heart, but everyone wants to be happy even if they have never been truly happy. Human beings feel their need for something they are missing, but they do not have a clear idea of what it is. Hence life is an endless quest for that thing.

Augustine describes the natural course of the quest in this way: first we seek the missing thing among the things around us. We explore the range of the five senses in hope that they will unite us with the good thing we seek. In effect, we ask natural objects, “Are you what I am seeking?” They reply, “No, we cannot give you the happy life you seek; for we too are finite and mortal.” The plants and animals, the rivers and mountains, the sun, moon, stars and planets say, “We are not your God. God made us. You must go further and higher.”

Augustine, then, turns inward to his mind, to his reasoning power, memory and imagination. There he finds a power much greater than nature displays. The mind can contain the universe with room to spare. It can conceive of infinite universes and imagine whole worlds that do not exist. It contains immaterial logical laws, numbers and principles, and it can judge all the data coming from the senses, naming each thing and judging its nature and qualities. It distinguishes between true and false, good and bad. The mind can think about itself, explore itself, remember itself and move itself. It can even think about itself thinking about itself! Augustine finds himself astounded: “Great is the power of memory, an awe-inspiring mystery my God, a power of profound and infinite multiplicity. And this is mind, this is myself. What then am I my God? What is my nature?” (10.17; trans. Chadwick).

In his wonder at the extent and power of the mind, he comes face to face with his inability to grasp himself. The mind can grasp any finite thing and surpass it; but it cannot grasp itself. The mind cannot get beyond itself to see clearly its origin and limit; yet it knows that it did not create itself or endow itself with its powers. Nor can the mind see clearly in the external world or within itself the thing it has been seeking all of its life. It does not find there the good thing that brings the search to an end and produces unsurpassable happiness.

Everyone seeks happiness but not everyone seeks it in the right place or understands that no finite thing or unending series of finite things can bring the search to a successful end. For the human mind can surround and surpass any finite thing. Whatever its beauty and power to entice and please, we can imagine something more, something better. Emptiness and dissatisfaction always accompany that infinite restlessness that is human nature. Hardly have we attained and possessed the good thing we sought until we are looking beyond, over and around it. “I am not what you were seeking,” it says even as we embrace it in the first delightful moment.

Let me say it again, happiness cannot be attained by coming to possess any finite thing, and seeking happiness in an unending series of finite things will eventually produce exhaustion and boredom. The emptiness we feel and the dissatisfaction that drives us onward can be filled and ended only by a Good that contains every possible good simultaneously. It must be infinitely good so that nothing better or more can be imagined or conceived; otherwise we will again be looking over, around and beyond it for something better or something more.  It must be present all at once lest our dissatisfaction and emptiness plague us forever.

What is this infinite and concentrated Good? Who is greater than the mind? “God” is the only fitting word to name this infinite good. Apart from God, I see no hope that human nature can be fulfilled, that we will find that for which we have been seeking all our lives. If there is no such Good, if happiness is just an ever-receding illusion, if there is nothing at all that can fill up the human heart, then human nature has been lying to us and the universe is guilty of false advertising; and human beings are misfits and anomalies and human existence is an absurdity.

But I do not believe that human existence is an absurdity; nor is human nature a liar. Hence I will not give up my search for “the happy life” or the only Good capable of bringing my search to a happy end.

More to come…

Thinking and Thoughtfulness: Part 3 Introspection


Introspection is also an important operation of reason and a necessary prelude to thoughtfulness. It attempts to look within our inner consciousness to see it apart from our relationship to external objects. Introspection works to isolate, observe and relate distinct feelings, moods, memories, ideas and values in the mind or soul. Perhaps Augustine’s Confessions does not conform exactly to my definition of introspection–which I admit is rather radical and “pure”–but it does provide an excellent example of the inward-turned eye that sorts and sifts motive from motive and feeling from feeling seeking deeper self-knowledge. Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s The Reveries of a Solitary Walker, though narcissistic and dripping with self-pity, also displays an astounding inward awareness that is quite instructive about what we can learn from introspection.

Without introspection our consciousness would be engulfed by wave after wave of sensation or lost in abstractions of thought. Socrates’ observation that “the unexamined life is not worth living” comes to mind here. Apart from some introspection there is no self-knowledge and without self-knowledge we could not distinguish between the life we freely enact and events that merely happen in, to or through us.

Notice how introspection relates to common sense and scientific thought.  In distinction from common sense, introspection isolates the self from external relations by ignoring the external causes of internal experience. In analogy to science, it treats relations within the self like science treats relations among things external to the self. It wants to see its feelings and moods, beliefs and ideas and their interrelationships undistorted by their external relations. Whereas science wants to escape the distorting influence of internal subjectivity on our knowledge of external things, introspection wants to escape the clouding influence of external things on awareness of our internal condition. If science risks self-deception by ignoring the influence of the subjective on our knowledge of the external world, introspection risks self-deception by thinking it can isolate our internal subjectivity from the external world.

Introspection alone cannot lead to complete self-understanding because the self exists only in relation to the not-self, to the external world of people, nature and things. Nonetheless, introspection is valuable because we cannot think everything at once. We cannot think about the self in itself and its relation to external objects and the characteristics of the objects in themselves in one thought at one time. To achieve greater understanding we must move back and forth between part and whole, inside and outside, self and other to grasp all dimensions of something…even if that something is us.

To be continued…

Next time we will think about thoughtfulness itself…I promise.