Review (Part Five): The Experience of God — Being Consciousness Bliss, by David Bentley Hart


Mind over matter

There is a mystery at the base of all of our ruminations about consciousness, and that sense of mystery resists reduction to material causes.  Reality is one, embraced within the totality of being.  “[P]erhaps we really should look elsewhere for the source and sustaining principle of that unity.”  And Hart does:

[T]here is no good reason not to accord serious consideration to the ancient intuition that the true order of ultimate causes is precisely the opposite of what the materialist philosopher imagines it is, and that the material realm is ultimately dependent upon mind rather than the reverse; that the fullness of being upon which all contingent beings depend is at the same time a limitless act of consciousness.

He’s talking first about the absolute primacy of mind, within which matter resides, and also about the absolute primacy of the mind of God, within which man-as-contingent-being resides.  Mind is more real than matter, because it is more immediate.

We have far better warrant for believing in mind than believing in matter.  Of the material world we have compelling evidence, of course, but all of it consists in mental impressions and conceptual paradigms produced by and inhabiting the prior reality of consciousness.

This is why Hart repeats, several times through this book, that “we can approach nature only across the interval of the supernatural.”

God’s relationship to His physical creation

What precisely is the relation between the being-ness of the world, and our knowledge of it?  Hart is engaged in somewhat speculative philosophy here, but he rationally suggests that not only does reality exist in the consciousness of God, but that there is an interrelationship among material things that is more intimate than their physical relationship.  That is, that to exist is to be knowable, and to be knowable is to be known.  Perhaps to exist fully is to be manifest to consciousness.

There is a point then, arguably, at which being and intelligibility become conceptually indistinguishable.  It is only as an intelligible order, as a coherent phenomenon (sensible or intellectual), that anything is anything at all, whether an elementary particle or a universe; perhaps it is true that only what could in principle be known can in actuality exist.

Hart traces this idea of intelligibility to God in this way.  From the foregoing, it is rational to accord a causal priority to mind over matter.  Reversing that, as materialists do, would mean that we are bombarded with perception of “nothing but meaningless brute events,” about which the mind would literally be unable to make sense.  Physical reality is more intelligible to us as, in the mind, we arrange our perceptions of it into categories and concepts.  In doing so, we arrange our concepts to ever simpler, more comprehensive, and less conditional concepts, moving in the direction of a unity which ties together all such concepts.

The highest form of intelligibility of the physical world is an idea that can be understood according to the simplest abstract laws; an idea which leaves no empirical or conceptual remainder behind.  This is why so many ancient philosophers like Plato developed some idea of a form or essence which underlies (or better, over-arches) the disparate material things of our sensory perceptions.  This ideal dimension of physical things was not only a real property of their existence, but in some sense was identical with existence itself.  The physical reality of a thing was derived from this idea of things of that type, and that derivation was of the essence of the existence of the thing itself.  The thing was understood to be derived from the idea.  The idea is a product of mind, not of matter.  Hart asks rhetorically:

What . . . is an idea other than the product of a mind?  What is a concept other than the expression of a rational intentionality?  And how, therefore, could being be pure intelligibility if it were not also pure intelligence – the mind of God, so to speak?

What is Bliss

Hart defines what he means by bliss, as follows:

If reason’s primordial orientation is indeed toward total intelligibility and perfect truth, then it is essentially a kind of ecstasy of the mind toward an end beyond the limits of nature.  It is an impossibly extravagant appetite, a longing that can be sated only by a fullness that can never be reached in the world, but that ceaselessly opens up the world to consciousness.  To speak of God, however, as infinite consciousness, which is identical to infinite being, is to say that in him the ecstasy of mind is also the perfect satiety of achieved knowledge, of perfect wisdom.  God is both the knower and the known, infinite intelligence and infinite intelligibility.  This is to say that, in him, rational appetite is perfectly fulfilled, and consciousness perfectly possesses the end it desires.  And this, of course, is bliss.

Telos from transcendental reality

Our experience of reality does have a transcendental structure.  The very shape of conscious intentionality is entirely determined by transcendentals like truth, goodness, and beauty.  They constitute an absolute orientation for thought.   This suggests a fundamental failing of the materialist conception of reality.  The rational capacity to think and act in obedience to transcendental values creates a dependency of consciousness upon a dimension of reality found nowhere within the physical order.  Goodness, truth, and beauty are not physical things, yet human consciousness is oriented according to them.  This telos is inexplicable, for materialists.

All pursuit of these transcendentals — truth, beauty, goodness — is the pursuit of what is beyond the physical.  Hart describes that pursuit as being the pursuit of bliss, in this way:

The ecstatic structure of finite consciousness – this inextinguishable yearning for truth that weds the mind to the being of all things – is simply a manifestation of the metaphysical structure of all reality.  God is the one act of being, consciousness, and bliss in whom everything lives and move and has its being; and so the only way to know the truth of things is, necessarily, the way of bliss.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *