Dabney on Sensualistic Philosophy

(Please don’t get started on Dabney or racism.  He was a white supremacist, just like everyone else in America, North or South, at the time.  I condemn his racism as much as I condemn the racism of Lincoln or Sherman.) I am only posting this because of his discussions on faculty psychology as they relate to Edwards studies).

Dabney anticipates modern debates. He sees in the “Sensualists” modern Neo-Atheism. His response is an early, if inchoate, form of Alvin Plantinga’s Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism. As Dabney sees it, the danger is if man is nothing but atoms, how can there be the existence of a soul, mind, will, or even God? Of course, many physicalists today deny precisely that, so sometimes Dabney’s reductios fall flat. His arguments are worth exploring, nonetheless.

Positive statement of the thesis: human intelligence is a pure rational spirit, not a bundle of senses (Dabney 12). He sees the beginning of Sensualism in Thomas Hobbes, where desire is “sensation transmuted.” And against later empiricists such as Locke, they confuse the occasion of the genesis of ideas with its cause (22).

Not every chapter is of immediate relevance. Dabney–as well as his opponents–were working with very limited understandings of science. Dabney’s true genius, rather, lies in his discussions of mind and soul. “The mind is a distinct spiritual substance” which is part of the common sense of mankind (107). And in defending the validity of a priori notions, he writes, “Our minds are validly entitled to intuitive cognitions gained apart from sense-experience (159). Concerning the origins of a priori notions, Our notions are determined from within our mind and not by a posteriori causes (182). Dabney even anticipates the idea of “properly basic beliefs” (he calls them ‘primitive judgments’). It is a judgment that does not depend on prior premises, whether deductive or inductive.

Dabney even anticipates modern rebuttals to empiricism and scientism. Sensual Empiricism is self-refuting. The claim “the mind derives all its ideas from sensation” is itself a non-sensory derived statement (185)! How can the empiricist make a universal judgment about cause-effect without seeing all examples? The mind, by contrast, makes immediately active judgments. When we see a succession of events, our mind automatically sequences them regardless of whether we have empirically verified the prior concept of “succession.” It just happens (shades of Thomas Reid!). Indeed, we have Properly basic beliefs (1st principles, etc) which cannot be conclusions of observations because “they must be in the mind in order to the making of any conclusions” (189).

Dabney and Free Agency

Dabney notes that the reformed system is not fatalistic or deterministic. He argues, “the grand condition of moral responsibility is rational spontaneity (211). The sensualist, by contrast, volitions are the effects of desires, and desire is sense-impression reappearing in reflex form.” The object of our choosing is the inducement to volition and the motive is the subjective cause. Motives arise from subjective reflections (214).

Volitions are free, yet they often have a uniformity of quality that we can predict them. This uniformity is what the Scholastics called habitus, the permanent subjective law of man’s free agency. Freedom is more than the liberty to execute volitions. The soul is self-determining. This is not Pelagianism, though. We are not saying the faculty of will is self-determining. The soul has its own regulative law of action. This regulative law is its dispositions. This fact coexists with the fact of consciousness.

Wherein consisteth man’s free agency? We maintain that the soul is the self-determining power. We reject the idea that the will is in perpetual equilibrium (and here Edwards’ critique is accurate).

Evaluation:

This book is hard-sledding. Some of it will not be relevant to the Christian theist today. A lot of Dabney’s reductios assumed that even his opponents will agree to the idea of “mind” or “soul.” This is not the case today. Further, some atheists can even hold to property-dualism, which does not reduce all to matter (e.g., holds to mental states). On the other hand, though, the book is an outstanding presentation of the traditional doctrines of the mind, soul, and free agency.

 

About J. B. Aitken

Interests include patristics, the role of the soul in the human person, analytic theology, Reformed Scholasticism, Medievalism, Substance Metaphysics
This entry was posted in American Theology, Philosophy and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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