Transcriptions from the Q&A with David Bentley Hart — Discussing “Roland in Moonlight” from Ta’seel Commons with Hasan Azad and Esmé Partridge

What follows are my own transcriptions from this interview with David Bentley Hart by Hasan Azad and Esmé Partridge (posted on April 8, 2021). It starts and ends with readings by David from his most recent book Roland in Moonlight. Between these readings, the interview moves through the topics given in bold text (with all words transcribed here being from Hart):

How to re-enchant the world

27:07

Oh that we could all be more like Roland. There are some things that we should not aspire to.

…I don’t know if [re-enchantment] is one of those things that individuals have the capacities to do. I really do think that there are ways of seeing reality that are unfortunately a kind of destiny, a kind of a historical destiny for us—the way that we perceive things, the way we think about them, the sort of communion we are capable of having with them. The obvious roots of return, the obvious avenues of reconciliation with that reality are the same as they have ever been: the arts, religion (not in the dreary sense of conforming oneself simply to a certain canon of dogmas but I mean in the ancient sense of religion as a certain virtue, that is a certain habitus of the mind, a certain willingness to be open to the divine, to what it shows itself in nature). For late modern people, the arts are an absolutely necessary avenue of return. At one time, for all human beings, this was simply the organic expression of our nature. Every culture produced poetry before it produced prose, produced highly abstract painted figures before it produced the ability to sketch out the blueprints of a city. The artistic impulse was—like the capacity for dreaming vidily—something that was spontaneous, organic, inescapable and necessary for us. Now it is a capacity that we have to recover almost willfully.

I think there is a serious, a spiritual, a real moral tutelage in the arts because one has to learn to surrender to another’s vision and a vision that conveys to us more than we can tell ourselves. In the late modern world, religions have become rather positivistic systems of propositions and adherences that …[are] a desperate attempt to recover a sense of the sacred but in the terms of a late modern positivist grammar of proposition [and] tenant. …But that is not the virtue, that is not the habit of mind, the habit of soul that “religio” once was, which was rather a capacity to be seized from without by what shows itself in us and beyond us.

So I think that the way back in for modern persons is necessarily an aesthetic discipline: learning to see with the eye of appreciation and surrender before you begin to encumber it with moral or doctrinal expectations. It’s not surprising to me that the one area where atheism never seems to be able to get a foothold is in the musical world. There have certainly been atheist composers, but they are actually a vanishingly small number. To take probably the best living British composer right now, [Sir James] MacMillan, all of his work is absolutely saturated in his faith and in sacred themes. I don’t think he’d be able to write music on any lesser theme than God. And the arts in general, even when they try to take leave of God, return again and again, like they are probing a wound or a place where a tooth has been lost. …A good example is Philiph Roth. …There is something about attempting to create which always makes one, if not open to, at least obsessively concerned with, the creator of all things, with creation as such, with the mystery of the being of things as an act of creative intentionality. …In the world of the arts, …you can have an artist who has no sense of the transcendent as a real possibility in his own life or her life, and yet you can’t have an art from which the transcendent is absent and that doesn’t invite one to turn towards transcendence.

34:28

Materialist savagery

35:34

As for materialist savagery, I mean, look, every age has its own special evils, its own special barbarisms. You don’t have to idealize the past to recognize the special evils of a world that really presumes as its tacit metaphysics, as its presupposed picture of reality, a mechanistic [and] materialist model of reality. …We are in the age of technology …in which nature rather than being the upwelling mystery of being has become rather this dead realm of resources waiting [for] our exploitation. Technology is the ultimate realization of the control over fortuity, over reality that’s anumbrated …as the axial age—the moment of the vertical transcendence beginning to chase away the intermediate levels (the spirits and gods). Putting that genealogy to one side, what you can say is that we’ve arrived at a point at which it became possible …that human nature itself could become a technology.

…You don’t really have to make an argument about whether materialist savagery is a proper way of thinking when we saw genetic or eugenic pictures of humanity emerge as soon as it became possible to think of humankind as a technology that should be mastered and improved and that improvement involved the destruction of supposedly defective models which would mean those racially not elect. Or humanity becomes an economic technology. We saw in the worst excesses of communism in the twentieth century—or at least totalitarianisms that called themselves communisms—basing their remit to reinvent the human, to reinvent human society, on its mastery of the technology of homo economicus.

Materialism of the most purely reductive kind, say what you like, make all the disclaimers you wish, is ultimately an invitation to trespass upon the inner precincts of the mystery of the human in a way that previous generations knew not to do. There was always that inviolable inner sanctuary that was the special home of God or the gods or the daemons and of the spirit, the self, the soul that one could not touch. Humanity was not just a technology to be adjusted, rearranged, reconstructed.

The moment that sense of an inviolable sanctity or an inaccessible divine temenos in the human person or in nature or in the created world or in animals, …all sorts of atrocities from cruelty to animals to destruction of the world at large as a standing reserve of neutral dead resources, right up to the holocaust and the gulags, that’s the consequence of a certain ideological and metaphysical revolution: the movement from the mystery of being to the mechanism of nature in the modern sense (physicalism).

Now, again, you don’t have to idealize the past. …That same sense of the sanctity and the  inviolability of the human person and of the mystery of the gods or of God could be allied to fairly cynical authoritarian structures of power that exploited and abused (and still do, in their own way). As I say, every age, every epoch of the spirit so to speak, has its own special evils. The evils of an unguarded and dogmatically confident materialism… again Hiroshima …Nagasaki.

41:16

Consciousness

41:53

Each philosophical project to come up with a plausible logical causal connection between first person phenomenal intentional mind and third person electrio-chemical and mechanical events has failed, has magnificently collapsed under the burden of its own contradictions and warrantless presuppositions. As sciences that mistake themselves for sciences of consciousness—which are actually just sciences of neurological correlation with cognitional states—have proved (as we could have predicted they must) impotent to give us any insight on this union of the first person and the third person.

More and more you’ve seen philosophy of mind among committed physicalists tend toward two extremes. One is panpsychism. …Understood as a purely materialist system, [it] is based on a kind of fantastic notion of consciousness as a property attendant upon every physical symbol—like simple atoms onward or even at lower levels of reality than atoms, down to Planck scales. …To use the Kantian language, [there is] a pathological side concomitant with the nomological side of nature. Somehow, through cumulative complexity, this becomes greater structures of consciousness or becomes consciousness as we think of it. Whereas I’m sympathetic to certain kinds of panpsychism of the non-materialistic type, the materialist picture simply defers the problem to the Planck scale. You’ve still got this inexplicable union of the nomological and the pathological as well as now an infinitely amplified combination problem of trying to understand how a composite effect or consequence of physical states can lead to a simple state (apprehension or consciousness).

The other extreme is simply to deny that consciousness exists altogether. Total eliminativism says that what we call consciousness is just folk psychology and that one day we will be able to chase away talk of intention and choice and subjectivity and pathos and qualia by understanding first the chemical, biochemical, electrochemical and then understanding the physical laws underlying that so that we could reconstruct the seeming phenomenon of consciousness from basic particles upward.

That’s just stupid. …For fifty years, Daniel Dennett’s been preaching this, and for fifty years he’s failed to make it even logically coherent because he’s always failing [with] the one thing that he’s supposed to be explaining which is the evident fact of first person experience. [But this] is the one thing that he cannot accept because, as sophisticated as he and others like him are in their grasp of the sciences, they’re still fixed in the mechanistic paradigm, the mechanistic metaphysics of the 17th century. And how was that metaphysics fashioned? It was from a metaphysics that excluded mental phenomena like intentionality, teleology, consciousness and just put them in a different realm altogether (that of soul). [They] ultimately tried to drag them back into the mechanistic picture but without any means for doing so because it’s already been expelled from nature. This is not a problem for an ancient Aristotalian or a Platonist for whom the structure of nature is already mind like. It already has an intrinsic teleology. It already has a kind of pathos. In fact, there is quite a lot of panpsychism in the early Aristotle.

…I think the sane conclusion to anyone who has really deeply immersed themselves in the absolute oceans of philosophical and scientific literature on this is that there is no way plausibly, causally, of explaining consciousness in physicalist terms. The eliminativist option is just an insult to our intelligence. So panpsychism is winning the day one way or the other. As long as it’s still framed in physicalist terms, it too is going to fail. Now I also dislike the Cartesian model. I’m a pure idealist. I believe that the ground of all reality is consciousness. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t physical bodies, but whatever there are, whatever unions or dis-unions they are (body, mind, soul), however it works, all of it is reducible to a more original unity, a sort of metaphysical monism of mind. Obviously, I think there is one preeminent mind. …To use the word with dangerous imprecision, everything ultimately is an infinite act of thought.

47:38

Divine feminine

49:23

We are born out of the world. We are sheltered. We are nourished. The traditional images of the divine feminine again fall into the very traditional paradigms of motherhood and spousal love and all that. …One of the reasons that Sophiology has this rich thematic depth to it …is because it [works against] this tendency to exclude …one half of human experience, of human capacity, of human nature, …whether it is the feminine in all of us or whatever. …In so doing, you create this curiously bifurcated understanding between God and his creatures, God and his creation that is itself already premonitory of an ultimate nihilism.

53:17

…There is a history in the West that tends toward this nihilistic estrangement. First you get the God of absolute will and power who is sort of a cartoon of a king on his throne with absolute privilege and potency. Then that becomes the model of the sovereign self because the self becomes a mirror of the God who is most high so that the pure sovereign God of 16th and 17th century theology becomes also a reflection of the absolute sovereign of the emerging nation state. Then the self becomes an absolute sovereign for whom God becomes a rival.

…I don’t know the degree to which talk about Sophia or the divine femine has the power to disrupt that image, but I certainly hope that it could do some serious work.

54:21

Embodiment

1:09:58

I’ve written on this before: Paul in 1 Corinthians 15 talking about the spiritual body as opposed to the animal body or the psychical body—a body of ψυχή (psyche) or πνεῦμα (pneuma). The body is still body for Paul. He believes in spirit as a kind of element. In fact, this is common for late antiquity. They think of it as a kind of an ethereal or super-ethereal sort of element that is also somehow the wind. Or it is the subtle part in the wind. Or it is an ichor, a subtle essence in the optic nerve or optic causeways. There is not the firm distinction; there is not a Cartesian distinction. You’ll often hear that Plato was a kind of Cartesian, but that is wrong. There is not a mechanical body in Plato. The body itself is a reflection of an eternal idea, naturally fitted to the expression of a spiritual presence, and it dies the moment that the spirit is not there. The mechanical idea has not [developed]. It is not the Cartesian automaton or the Cartesian puppet waiting for an immaterial puppet master somehow miraculously to take control in the pineal gland.

Embodiment—for Paul flesh and blood will pass away, …Paul is quite explicit about it as “flesh and blood cannot inherit the Kingdom of Heaven”—but the body remains. You find this both East and West, in the sense of the subtle body or the spiritual body. It is not a rejection of embodiment. In fact, it is understood that communion [and] community for finite spirits is an embodied reality. It is embodiment as such. But it is embodiment within a hierarchy of embodiment. It is embodiment within a spiritual community which is itself the greater body of the Protanthropos, the totus Christus (in Christian thought) or Adam Kadmon’s cosmic expression. And you have this in Islam as well as the origional man or the man from above. …This is nested embodiments within nature, within the world, within the greater body of the one human nature. In Greek, physis is not an abstraction in the way that we use nature now. Like natura, it has that sense of being also birth, of being a line of descent. …Physis can mean literally your origin, your physical origin, your family, your people, your race, the whole human race.

Disembodiment—the notion that we are abstract essences—you don’t even find this in the supposedly gnostic literature. There too there is the very firm identity of a true, a subtle body. [Disembodiment] is very much a modern phenomenon—the notion that the self is so isolated from nature, from reality, so pure in its absolute sovereign selfhood that it is not even really local. It doesn’t exist within the ecology of living selves, within the hierarchy of embodiment. It is a curious picture because it is completely contrary to every moment of actual experience. …It is even true in the psychoanalytic tradition. We have no modern concept of the self that isn’t this strangely abstracted remnant of what a real human being is.

1:14:32

Story of humans all disappearing as we “upload” ourselves

1:20:14

The story that Hasan [was thinking of is that], at one point in the book, Roland thinks of writing a science fiction story in which algorithms of certain computers have become so sophisticated that they not only pass the Turing test, they succeed in convincing everyone that the computer itself is conscious, so that people begin downloading their minds into it. But actually there is a total affective void on the other side. There is no consciousness there, but no one knows this until they’ve all been downloaded.

…Read “The Invention of Reality” [by Adolfo Bioy Casares in La Invención de Morel], and you’ll get the point that I was making. …[It] is about what appears to be a community of real people, but it is nothing but empty projections left behind by a machine that is still running. It is a brilliant little grim phantasy.

1:21:48

Finding all the great traditions of the world to be full of beauties and profundities and God to show himself in a multitude of ways and places

1:30:15

Are there there any universalist theologians within the Islamic tradition

Roland barks at 1:34:04 when he objects to a fine point in David’s summary of N.T. eschatological thought (with David maintaining, despite Roland’s objection, that a Preterist reading is reasonable).

1:36:38

How persons are identities constituted by a whole history of loves and affinities and associations with others

1:38:26

Since none of us is God, except by participation in the divine presence, that essential structure of what it is to be a person, the depth of the undisclosed …reveals itself in a Logos, which manifests itself, and comes to itself in spirit. …None of us is complete in and of ourselves. Unlike God, since we are finite, changing, synthetic (…neither essence nor existence but the two in dynamic union), that fullness of ourselves, who we are coming to ourselves, is always mediated through and by otherness and others, in language, in community. We cannot come into full expression as human beings, you can’t love, you can’t think except by way of an exteriority that is also a response of intentionality and self out there. …Divine personality—to use that word in a dangerously imprecise way—can be complete in itself and can have the fullness of relation and life in itself if it is infinite. We cannot. We’re neither thinkers nor feelers nor creators nor selves except in and through others, and by that relation we come to be.

1:40:27

1:42:45

Militant compassion as something that dogs embody and something that we need in our lives in the United States (ending in a description of a dog, Laurie, that David had as a child who adopted and nurtured everything)…

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