Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Acting versus Knowing

Acting versus Knowing
By Paul Richard Blum
[Now pp. 147-151 in
Das Wagnis, ein Mensch zu sein: Geschichte - Natur - Religion

When Jesus was brought to the Calvary and crucified between the two malefactors, he said, according to St. Luke: “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.” Luke continues his account by telling how the soldiers and bystanders “decried him, saying, He saved others; let him save himself.”
[1] These people don’t know what they do, while Jesus knows but does not act. And this knowing without acting (“forgive them”) is expressly referred to the Father.[2] Later, St. Peter comments on this event, saying that the murderers did so “through ignorance,” whereas “those things, which God had shewed by the mouth of all his prophets, that Christ should suffer, he hath so fulfilled.”[3]

Beyond all salvational meaning, this story discerns quite clearly that knowing is not acting, and that God acts “through the mouth of the prophets,” i.e., only by dignifying himself to descend to the understanding of humans and, eventually, by becoming human. People don’t know what they are doing, God knows better.

In ordinary English language it is a common criticism or praise to state: “He doesn’t know what he is doing!” or: “He knows what he is doing.” Obviously, this has epistemological and moral implications. On one plane this judgment says that the person applauded has all the necessary information, training, and practice to do his job; his decisions are based on knowledge.[4] Furthermore, this person does not only make decisions – as might depend on a merely cognitive processing of information. Those who “know what they are doing” are also doing something. In a video tape that was meant to warn against driving under influence of alcohol the following wording was used: “These kids [who had crashed a car because of driving drunk] have made the wrong decision.” Maybe, but I should say they have acted wrongly. Those, who know what they are doing, not only judge, they act. However, as it is possible to act without knowing (“They know not what they do,” etc.) knowledge is not a necessary reason for acting, although it may prepare the ground on which acting comes about. And obviously, this entails a moment of spontaneity and volition. The moral implication of knowing what one is doing, hence, is that this praise refers to a virtuous person.

In a virtuous person knowledge, skills, wisdom, experience, etc. all combine to righteous action. Whatever ethical system may be on the market, all virtuousness and righteousness depends on responsibility. The acting person has to answer virtual questionings on the morally relevant act by giving an account of the motives: this is the literal meaning of responsibility and accountability. However, any such answer will refer both to knowledge and to the past that has preceded the act. Responsibility is about knowledge, even though ultimately it was not knowledge itself that drove the deed but rather the virtuosity and righteousness as realized and executed in the act.

Moreover, the action itself can never be reduced to such precedent mental operation as is involved in processing information and making decisions; lest it be an act, rather than the consequence determined by preceding operations of the intellect, the act is – by nature of being an act – a spontaneous happening. Every act that is not acted upon is free. Spontaneity as the original source of free acting is independent of knowledge and deliberation. Of course, thoughts and experience contribute to actions, but not inasmuch as such actions are truly free. Freedom of action does not depend (logically and factually) on intellectual operations. Otherwise it were not true what Forrest Gump said: “Stupid is as stupid does.” Forrest definitely did not know what he was doing, but he did the right thing. And all the movie is an account on his actions – on hindsight.[5] In judging a moral action, we need to refer to the past. Moral action, as a free action, is independent of preceding circumstances and knowledge. Moral judgment is always a posteriori. This entails that every judgment on actions is bound to time, and from this it follows that all human acts are directed – not to the past – but to the future.

Consequently, any attempt at relating acts to knowledge, i.e., any attempt at tying free action to right knowledge, has to overcome the divider of the time line. In order to establish the virtuousness and righteousness objectively, and not a posteriori, one has to reach a plane where knowledge and action are equal. And this level it is traditionally thought of in terms of God’s foreknowledge. As it is clear from the preceding observations, such foreknowledge would question the freedom of such act. And time matters.

This was, indeed, the key discovery of Lorenzo Valla (1405-1457), the humanist who most insistently opposed Boethius’ endeavor to interpret Christian belief by means of philosophical reasoning. As Valla reports in his Dialogue on Free Will, Boethius said that “God, through an intelligence which is beyond reason, both knows all things for eternity and holds things present.”[6] This is to say that such foreknowledge that might not prevent spontaneous action must deprive it of its time-relatedness, namely its unprecedented origin within time, and this would entail that foreknowledge would strip the deed of freedom. Accordingly, Valla objects: “But can I, who am rational and know nothing outside of time, aspire to the knowledge of intelligence and eternity?”[7] He stresses that humans necessarily act in time not knowing what they do, at least in comparison with the timeless knowledge of God. The discussion that ensues can be summarized as follows: First, it is a fallacy to believe that virtuousness and righteousness of human acts must be determined as forms of knowledge. For knowledge, by its own nature, is timeless, while acts are bound to time. But even if we assume an objective point of view from which acts can be judged not only a posteriori but rather regardless of any relation of prior and posterior, this does even less mean that this knowledge produces the acts.

Even on a human level, predicting an act that is coming to be is not based on the temporality of that act but on the knowledge of the nature or essence of that act, a knowledge that is abstract, i.e., independent of the individual instantiation of the performance of the act. If I start to draw a circle and stop at some point, every observer will guess correctly that, once I resume the movement of drawing, I will eventually make the line I was drawing meet the beginning, thus completing a circle. However, it will be no happy guess, nor prediction of a future event, but an application of an abstract notion of the nature of a circle. In the same way, the observer’s knowledge does in no way produce the circle.

The traditional confusion of prediction and production – a topic on which Valla dwells at length – is fairly expressed in the English word “providence”. Even though providence simply ‘fore-sees’ what it going to happen, it also seems to ‘provide’ for things to happen, and to see for that. The foresight of divine providence includes conceptually all possible actions, including those that are actually realized by man. This is Valla’s concluding answer to the problem as staged by Boethius: “It is possible for you to do otherwise than God foreknows, nevertheless you will do not otherwise, nor will you therefore deceive Him.”[8] Again, it is clear: God knows, humans act.

In order to strengthen this point and to push it to the ultimate paradox Valla tells a fable about a man who received from the God Apollo the oracle that he will commit crimes in his future life. Apollo refuses to revise his verdict by stating that he himself only knows of the crimes, without causing them. If there were any appeal possible it were to be directed to Jove, the God who creates men mean or good. The meaning of this fable is, as Valla explains,

“that, although the wisdom of God cannot be separated from His power and will, I may by this device of Apollo and Jupiter separate them. What cannot be achieved with one god may be achieved with two, each having his own proper nature – the one for creating the character of men, the other of knowing – that it may appear that providence is not the cause of necessity but that all this whatever it is must be referred to the will of God.”[9]

Valla eventually concludes that the only means to alter one’s fate, that is: to secure good actions in the future, is to pray humbly for God’s mercy.

With this device Valla makes transparent that the debate about divine foreknowledge and providence is a philosophical tool to analyze the structure of human action. Elevating human affairs philosophically and theoretically to the plane of unrestrained knowledge makes it possible to judge them on a whole as to their end and to their moral status. At the same time this epistemological device deprives human actions of their peculiarity, namely of their being founded in the core of spontaneity and will. Referring human affairs to divine providence makes it evident that human acts are not by nature and not necessarily connected with wisdom or knowledge.

Valla’s treatise was intended to foster piety and to set an end to frivolous, allegedly philosophical speculations on God as though God were endowed with human traits, such as time, error, and temporal action. Martin Luther pushed this argument further towards a total denial of human freedom and total affirmation of the dependence of any act from God’s grace. As a further development, if not as a well meaning remedy, René Descartes laid the emphasis on the purely intellectual nature of man, as though by thought all problems could be solved through rationality. Both developments fell prey to Jacques Maritain’s criticism of the one-sidedness of modern anthropology.[10] Maritain implicitly returned – probably without knowing of Valla – to the humanist’s understanding that knowing and acting in themselves were two different traits of man, but integrated in man. Consciousness of the divine roots of humanity also entails that the gap between intellect and will, and thus between reason and morality, is actually and factually filled in human existence itself, which is, however, no prejudice on the morality of an individual act.

My interpretation of Valla’s dismantlement with regards to God’s knowledge and God’s will gives him credit to have detected that this very unity of knowing and acting not only occurs in God, but is an expression of the factual unity of both functions in man as man. There can be no doubt, then, that this unity is as paradoxical or dialectical in man as in the God of the philosophers. Maritain’s “integral humanism” pays tribute to this paradox.

To conclude, I may hint at one solution of the problem: Karol Wojtyla, in his book The Acting Person introduces consciousness as the unifying property that accompanies both acting and knowing. He states from the outset that knowledge is not the origin of personhood, but rather that action is the fountain of knowledge of the person.[11] Knowledge of the person is not knowledge that drives the person but rather the result of human action. “The essential dynamism of cognition, the very activity of knowing is not part of consciousness.”[12] While knowledge is constantly alienated from the acting person in as much as it objectifies what it knows,[13] the human person in performing acts of knowledge and acts of action builds this specific form of awareness that bridges between knowing and volition, and it is this consciousness that builds person as such. Consciousness, as a reflection and mirroring of performance,[14] then, makes it possible that man can act morally to the extent that we may know what we are doing.

[1] Luke 23, 34-35 (King James version).

[2] Obviously, forgiveness and revelation are acts in God, but a kind of acts different from those expected by the bystanders and from those addressed in this paper.

[3] Acts 3, 17-18: “And now brethren, I wot that through ignorance ye did, as did also your rulers. But those things, which God before had shewed by the mouth of all his prophets, that Christ should suffer, he hath fulfilled.” (King James version)

[4] Cf. the analysis of skills in Aristotle, Metaphysics, Alpha 1.

[5] I am referring to the film Forrest Gump (1994), directed by Robert Zemeckis, with Tom Hanks.

[6] Lorenzo Valla, Dialogue on Free Will, transl. by Charles E. Trinkaus, in: Ernst Cassirer, Paul Oskar Kristeller, John Herman Randall (ed.), The Renaissance Philosophy of Man (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1948), pp. 145-82; here p. 160. For the Latin text I use: Lorenzo Valla, Über den freien Willen/De libero arbitrio, ed. by Eckhard Keßler (München: Fink, 1987), which reprints the ed. by Maria Anfossi (Florence 1934), reference is made to Anfossi’s page numbers; in this quotation: p. 15. Valla refers to Boethius, Philosophiae consolationis libri quinque, V pr. 6. On Valla and other Renaissance philosophers on freedom see: Paul Richard Blum, Philosophieren in der Renaissance, Stuttgart: Kohlhammer, 2004, chapter 5.

[7] Valla ibid.

[8] Valla p. 169 (p. 30).

[9] Valla p. 174 (p. 38).

[10] It is sufficient to refer to the criticism of the “Protestant ‘Discovery’” and of humanism in Integral Humanism, chapter I, ii: Jacques Maritain, Integral Humanism, Freedom and the Modern World, and A Letter on Independence, ed. Otto Bird (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1996), p. 164-65: “Just as pure Protestant theology of grace is a theology of grace without freedom, the pure humanist theology of metaphysic of freedom [sc. that of Louis de Molina] is a theology or metaphysic of freedom without grace.”

[11] Karol Woytyla, The Acting Person, ed. A.-T. Tymieniecka, Dordrecht 1979. This work originally published in Polish in 1969, was translated into English, when the author had become Pope John Paul II; however, I used the revised edition in Italian translation: Persona e atto, ed. Giuseppe Girgenti and Patrycja Mikulska (Santarcangelo Romagno: Rusconi, 1999); p. 87: “… nell’approccio da noi scelto si vuole più che altro mettere in luce ciò che la concezione actus humanus presuppone: l’atto infatti, è anche fonte della conoscenza della persona. L’atto in sé, come actus humanus, deve contribuire all’attualizzazione conoscitiva della potenzialità, che esso presuppone e che è alla sua radice.”

[12] Ibid. p. 101: “Esprimiamo qui l’opinione che l’essenziale dinamismo conoscitivo, l’attività stessa del conoscere, non appartiene alla coscienza.”

[13] Ibid. p. 99-101.

[14] Ibid.

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