Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Being, Consciousness, Bliss [Review]

Astonishingly, given the somewhat deceptive (or perhaps inept) marketing of the book, this was David Bentley Hart's best book to date, which is saying something monumental. What neither the title, nor the jacket cover, nor even the blurb reviews reveal is that the book is primarily a relentless, blistering attack on the superstitions and credulous fideisms of materialism. Over and against this decrepit and impoverished philosophy of reality, and in response to its inept attempts to demystify the world, Hart turns to the common deposit of theistic metaphysical tradition for the arresting and compelling antidote. 

In the mystery of being, in the mystery of consciousness, and in the manner that they blissfully coinhere as a surfeit of physical reality, the Supernatural, the Absolute, the Good, Beauty -- in a word -- God is immediately present to us in every moment. Yet we dull and numb ourselves to this reality in innumerable ways, but especially through the barbarisms of the 'mechanical philosophy' that we have inherited from 'the Enlightenment'. 

As for the attempts of naturalism to sweep away such an obvious reality, Hart is insistent all such attempts are pitifully incoherent and suffer massive -- almost certainly insuperable -- explanatory deficiencies. While the traditional metaphysical arguments for God -- arguing from contingency to a necessary and absolute ground of being, for example -- are comparatively sublime with scarcely any of the objections lodged against them being worth serious consideration.

According to Hart, most materialistic attempts to deal with the question of being either try to dismiss the central question -- namely "why is there something rather than nothing?" -- as a fallacy of grammar or as ultimately unintelligible (it clearly is not), or to posit that the sum total of contingent, physical reality might somehow (magically and irrationally) add up to the source of its own being, and not itself be contingent. And that's when they're not being really sloppy, confusing cosmology for metaphysics and making simplistic category errors such as mistaking a quantum vaccuum for 'nothing.'

Similarly impotent are the physicalist accounts of consciousness, which Hart sees as an undeniably immaterial datum, and the most primordial one of them all, present to each of us in every moment and upon which all other realities that we perceive are dependent. Hart claims there is an infinite qualitative abyss between the neurochemical events which consciousness is dependent upon and consciousness as experienced, such that no number of purely quantitative mechanical steps could ever give rise to this peculiar and fortuitous subjective interiority, which each of us owes all our knowledge, experience, and awareness to. Hart writes:
Most attempts to provide an answer [to the question of consciousness] without straying beyond the boundaries of materialist orthodoxy are ultimately little more than vague appeals to the power of cumulative complexity: somehow, the argument goes, a sufficient number of neurological systems and subsystems operating in connection with one another will at some point naturally produce unified, self-reflective, and intentional consciousness, or at least (as strange as this may sound) the illusion of such consciousness. This is probably just another version of the pleonastic fallacy, another hopeless attempt to overcome a qualitative difference by way of an indeterminably large number of gradual quantitative steps. Even if it is not, it remains a supposition almost cruelly resistant to scientific investigation or demonstration, simply because consciousness as an actual phenomenon is entirely confined to the experience of a particular mind, a particular subject.
With this being the case, materialist accounts of consciousness reek of magical thinking. Even if we grant that one day neurobiology will exhaustively map every aspect of the brain, science will have not come a step closer to puncturing through the veil and entering into the content and interiority of the purely subjective conscious mind. One can only deny that such an immaterial, or supernatural, reality exists -- if one can at all -- by sacrificing reason itself on the alter of materialism in a self-immolating act. A high price to pay, indeed, if one is to prize 'reason' and 'empiricism' above all else, as so many scientistic materialists putatively do. 

Just as impossible to account for on materialistic terms is the innate human longing for the Good and the concomitant abhorrence of evil, which materialists must deny as being in any sense 'real' in favor of them being illusions in a deterministic universe (though few of them seem willing to fully come to terms with this logical inevitability). If you can't but do what you are bound by the laws of physics to do -- as you are no more than matter in motion -- no materialistic morality can ever amount to anything more than nonsense. As Hart puts it:
A naturalist morality is a manifest absurdity, something rather on the order of a square circle, and it requires almost heroic contortions of logic to make the notion seem credible. Fortunately, the human will to believe is indefatigable.
Attempts to ground morality in evolutionary incentives (once materialism has cleared the hurdle of being and consciousness, which it necessarily can not do) are ultimately tragically resistant to empirical verification, and must always remain just-so fables. This doesn't mean that it's completely false that certain evolutionarily advantageous 'moral' traits are preserved and passed along via natural selection acting on genetic material, but this hardly is an account of the actual nature of human morality as it exists. From a materialist perspective what would be called 'moral' can't be other than that which is evolutionarily advantageous, and our genetic so-called 'self-interest' (wherever it comes from, and whatever it is exactly), is tied to the interest of, for example, our tribe. Hence a degree of selflessness and cooperation (at least within the tribe, though usually not between tribes) is more likely to ensure the passing on of our genetic material. This hardly explains the origin of the moral impulse, however, rather only its transmission within the species. And even then, only to an incomplete degree, when we consider the many ways that the moral impulse far exceeds, and often contradicts, the dictates of evolutionary incentives. The evolutionary explanations of this phenomenon are quite clearly ludicrous attempts to force the data into a conceptual scheme which has no room for it. 

Central to Hart's argument is the claim that most of the contemporary debates surrounding God do not have as their subject the God of traditional theistic metaphysics, but rather some particularly potent cosmic demiurge, or watchmaker god, or an especially large and benevolent gentleman who is perhaps the first of a long series of causes, but not Being as such which gratuitously donates being to beings. Not the God who is utterly transcendent and fully imminent, filling all things, yet beyond all things. Not the fullness of actuality, in whom we live, and move, and have our being. etc. Once such a confusion is eliminated, and the content of the concept of God is understood as it has widely and traditionally understood by the venerable contemplative theistic traditions, most of the contemporary debates melt away into utter irrelevance.

Hart covers a great deal more than I've hinted at here: teleology and intentionality in consciousness as necessary elements of reality, and without which we can't begin to reason; the self-defeating and demonstrably false assertion of scientific empiricism having an exclusive claim to genuine knowledge; qualia as a datum inexplicable by naturalism; the materialist failure to dispel with free will; the manner in which being, consciousness, and bliss interrelate and are not only metaphysical explanations of God, but also phenomenological explanations of the human encounter with God; the absolute poverty of materialistic aesthetic accounts; mystical experience visa vis contemplative prayer and asceticism as the only 'empirical' means for investigating 'the God claim'. Just to name a few. 

Rising above the nature of the current debate on such issues -- both sides of which usually share covertly atheistic presuppositions -- Hart's lucid argumentation, acerbic wit, and stellar prose masterfully combine to produce one of the most stunning, potent, holistic, and engaging arguments for belief in God and against materialism that I've ever read.


P.S. In one of the blurb reviews advertising the book, Hart was said to have been advocating an 'ecumenical theism'. Happily, that's not exactly accurate. To an Orthodox -- or any religious particularist, really, but especially to Orthodox -- such language can sound like syncrenistic sloppiness, if not heresy. Hart makes clear in the introduction that in attempting to define 'God' as precisely as possible, and in accordance with the overlapping metaphysical wisdom of all the venerable theistic traditions, he isn't advocating a milquetoast relativism or against particularism, and certainly not denying the truth of the full revelation of God in Christ. Rather, he is only attempting to provide clarity to an essentially philosophical debate that is desperately in need of it. He is quick to note that, such philosophical knowledge about God, is not the same as union with God or knowledge of God, in accordance with Orthodox teaching.


  1. Great review, I'm in agreement with just about all of it (although I'm not sure it's his best book). I also think that the marketing of the book doesn't really match the content, and as such I was a bit disappointed that Hart didn't really discuss the contemplative traditions at any length.

    Are you aware of anything that Hart has written which specifically addresses the difference between the Abrahamic and Dharmic (and specifically Trinitarian vs Monist/Non-Dual) understandings of God? I know he's quite sympathetic to certain aspects of Buddhism (not sure if you've seen this review in First Things before: but he's never (to my knowledge) tackled monism head on, at least not in his public writings (he touched on it in Beauty of the Infinite, but not at any great length).

    1. Hey Origen. I was actually *pleasantly* surprised the book was different than it seemed to be, because the subject matter of comparing the venerable theistic traditions didn't interest me any. And you're right, he doesn't do much of that at all, here. As to whether he's written about it elsewhere, I'm not sure, though I can't recall much of anything of his that delves too deeply into it.

  2. Just out of curiosity, why doesn't it appeal to you?

  3. Thanks for the heads up. Haven't seen this book of his before

  4. Have youever noticed that Christians seldom, if indeed ever, talk about Consciousness either with a Capital C or a lower case c.
    They seldom talk about Bliss too. To say nothing of Love-Bliss-Radiance.
    Can a sinner be full of Love-Bliss-Radiance?

    Please find an Illuminated Understanding of Reality via these references
    Plus this reference on what the much vaunted (death haunted) Western mind in both its secular and so called religious forms is really all about.