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Would AI Choose Asceticism? A Second Lecture for Scientists

Author: Dr Jonathan Kenigson, FRSA*
Second Lecture for Silicon Valley Executive Network (SVEN)
Silicon Valley, California, USA

For the Ascetic, Happiness arises when the Will is free to pursue the Beatific Vision. There is no happier man than he who is free of: (1) phenomenal obligations and conscious mental phenomena that are infinitely self-perpetuating and other than the Beatific Vision (2) phenomenal obligations that are not devoted to the Beatific Vision. One may refrain from the phenomenological definition of “Happiness” but may still discuss its gradations with the caveat that any such definition is tentative upon an ethical system and a motivic principle of Desire or Pleasure. One reasonably posits that – whatever definition of Happiness is chosen – a given agent X is happier when he avoids consideration of states of affairs beyond the compass of his possible attainment. One may also reasonably posit that the same agent X is happier when mental phenomena are directed to the attainment of the Beatific Vision. In the first instance, one first supposes that X possesses a conscious mental phenomenon that, when indulged by the mind or senses, elicits more attention to the same phenomenon. It X were happier entertaining this mental phenomenon than not entertaining such, then X would be happier entertaining ad-infinitum some chain of phenomena A1, A2,… such that their perpetual entertainment elicits greater Happiness than conscious mental phenomena elicited by the Beatific Vision. If X is an Ascetic, then his greatest Pleasure is in seeking the disclosure of the Beatific Vision. The chain A1, A2… is then an example of a sequence of phenomena that produces greater Happiness in X than the attainment of the Beatific Vision, but not greater Pleasure. One may then inquire if this chain of thoughts has some telos. If it does not, it is mere reverie or daydreaming. The man who entertains such reverie, if it is not contrary to his desires or ethics, should state that he is happier in reverie than in the pursuit of the Pleasure that he posits is greatest. By the Happiness-Pleasure Conjunction, it follows that X must not be an Ascetic. Or it must be that the initial premise is incorrect and should be rejected on logical grounds alone. For (2), one may first suppose that an Ascetic X exists who is happier entertaining phenomenal obligations of the type cited than those devoted to the Beatific Vision. One may then inquire whether such mental phenomena have a teleology (as in (1)) or not. The second case engenders the same contradiction as (1), so it must follow that the phenomena have some Teleology other than the Beatific Vision. Since the Ascetic posits his greatest Happiness as his greatest Pleasure, it must follow that X has proposed to follow some phenomena that contradict the Happiness-Pleasure conjunction. This is again a contradiction.  

For the Ascetic, the freedom of the Will is bound by Desires except that for the Beatific Vision, and the libido produces Desires not equivalent to the Desire for the Beatific Vision. Consequently, for the Ascetic, the freedom of the Will is bound by libido. In the Christian tradition, this conclusion is most obviously present in John 8:31-36, Romans 7:14, and Romans 8:21. This Septuagint tradition borrows from the prevalent Hellenistic Levantine philosophy present in the Phaedrus, Gorgias, Theaetetus, and Republic (Books 1, 4, and 9). The Aristotelian counterclaim is – broadly – that it is possible to place Desire in right-balance between renunciation and concupiscent Pleasure. Because Aristotle conceives of Desire as a disposition toward Pleasure and proper Desire in accordance with Reason, one finds a mottled picture. On the one hand, Book 1 (Chapter 5) of Politics argues that Passions should be in slavery to Reason. On the other hand, the Nicomachean Ethics Book 7 (Chapter 5) posits Desire as a mean between extremes which has a proper mean for every virtuous man. Because the Desire of the Ascetic is for the Beatific Vision is unlimited, Aristotle argues that such man cannot possess Virtue or Happiness. But the Ascetic finds the greatest Happiness in the object of his greatest Desire and seeks this Desire to be unlimited. The Attic εὐδαιμονία characterizes Nicomachean “Happiness” and may well be translated as “wellness in the World,” or that highest Good that is pursued for its own sake. Aristotle never characterizes all forms that this life may take and even argues in Book 7 that such classification may be impossible, with only “candidates” given. Eudaimonic life is subject to disruption by Chance and is also subject to conditions present at birth. Thus, this life is not attainable for everyone. It is possible in this sense that Hellenistic religious philosophy recognized renunciation as Pythagoreanism or syncretic sectarianism and that Aristotle views religious Desires as a subset of all Desires subject to Reason and – in Eudaimonia – subject to Chance. The Ascetic must not take this view because he possesses a single unbounded Desire which is neither subject to Reason nor subject to Chance. Augustine takes this view in Confessions Book 6 and City of God Books 4, 14, 19, and 21. In this discourse, the Passions make a slave of the Will, save the passion for the Beatific Vision. Part 4 of Spinoza’s Ethics argues that Will is never free of Teleology, but that rational subordination of the Passions is necessary because Passions are deleterious to philosophical life. This also strongly contradicts the view taken in City of God and the definition of the Ascetic rendered in the Prolegomena herein. Even Book 7 of Meditations of Aurelius does not argue that Passions should be completely subordinated to Reason in a pseudo-Platonic sense of Republic Books 4 and 9.  The Ascetic must recognize that he is not a renunciant; he merely seeks his greatest Pleasure, employing functional-rational tools to attain such as-necessary. The Ascetic does not “give up” Pleasures but lives in accordance with the pursuit of his greatest Pleasure in the sense of Augustine but not of Aristotle or Kant.

The libido is falsely assumed to be necessarily unchecked by any agent other than the Will. In checking Desire, the Will is not free to explore alternative aspects of its expression. It would follow that the Ascetic desiring Freedom of the Will should not undertake activities that engender Desire unless that Desire is for the Beatific Vision. For Utilitarian and Psychoanalytic thinkers influenced by post-Enlightenment empirical philosophy, “Desire” is rendered in a behaviorist context. The phenomenology of Desire, inasmuch as such is possible, is a science of reward, motivation, punishment, and a reasoned calculus of Pleasure. The more radical Utilitarian would assert, like the Hedonist, that Pleasure is his only law, and that his actions are “good” since they maximize individual Pleasure or collective happiness. The consequents of this calculus are, at least in theory, amenable to statistical analysis. To Desire is necessarily to act in accordance with Pleasure. Pining is emotionally situated in the deprivation of reasoned action upon Desires. Some Desires are infantile and destructive (as in Freud), and some are noble and philosophical (as in Mill and Bentham). In the end, however, Happiness is Pleasure applied to the sphere of human relations.

The Rationalist tradition originating in the Presocratics differentiates appetitive and rational Desires. The appetitive Desires stem from biological necessities or even physical principles. For the Aristotelian, it is perfectly consonant with mathematical physics to attribute “Desire” to the motion of heavenly bodies, for instance. These bodies “Desire” or “favor” circular motion. In such thought, the object Desires its Final Cause. Natural Philosophy is a transcendental analytic of Cause and its origins. Nature Desires progenation of Creatures; Creatures Desire progenation themselves. The Appetitive Soul reflects as a motive in the achievement of intermediate and final causes. This approach to Desire is akin to the modern turn toward empirical Psychology but retains a principle of rational cause. Spinoza echoes this distinction well and Monadology must explain how the ostensibly mercurial nature of Desires is consonant with an atomistic and Teleologically deterministic natural law. The resulting Rationalism posits – universally – that some End is served by all Desires, and that these are inherent in the atomic structure of the Monad for every possible mind. Desire is not willed but foreordained. In antithesis to the Levinasian or Gadamerian Existentialist, the Monadologist must assert that all Desire is causal of some Rational End. This premise is difficult to defend without a Theological Teleology.

Theological conceptions of the Aquinian sort recognize Desire as lack. As God is complete in Himself, He cannot Desire anything that is created. Substances in themselves must Desire, as is their plight. To Desire of Substance is to mature to its Telos. Through attainment of its own end, it reaches its perfection. Because God wills all creatures to reach their respective perfect ends, a Substance can be imputed to Desire that to which it tends. Complete disorder is philosophically impossible because there is no imperfection so absolute that Desire cannot overcome it. A thinking being (Spirit or Man) may admit to knowledge of the principles of Cause in a system. As such, they participate in Creation by knowing the Creator most as He is in-himself and sensing a lack in-themselves. Other sensible creatures lacking Reason may Desire through participation in the ends most proper to their maintenance. Nature is harsh but also bountiful, and Her principle is the preservation of Beings through the Instincts that brutes possess. The Aristotelian Vegetative Soul possesses its own mode of Desire, which is that of the Law of Nature governing its maintenance within a principled economy of Divine Supervenience. For Aquinas, the attainment of happiness via natural means is impossible. Will (Conscious Desire) seeks Good, while Intellect seeks Truth. The Desire in both stems from their ever-present lack of fulfillment. The Aquinian Ascetic stands at the juncture between Will and Intellect and recognizes the Kingship of the Divine over both. Man is never satisfied without perfect Good and as-such is never satisfied without the Economy of God, the latter of which is capable of bridging Reason by Revelation and aligning the appetites with the Good. The infinite nature of this Desire admits frustration. The Platonic tradition similarly characterizes Desire as a lack. The Philebus considers Desires of animal necessity in men as equivalent to Desires for the state obtained upon fulfillment of the Desire. Desire and fulfillment are opposites. For Plato, however, Love and Desire are interchangeable. All Love is a lack of that which is beloved. Paradoxically, then, all Desires are satisfied by the state engendered by satisfaction. The infinitude of Desires is generated by the instability and mutability of satiety. Desire engenders lack, just as lack engenders Desire in those disposed to Desire what they lack. The parlance of any of the Aristotelian, Enlightenment Rationalist, or the British Empiricist authors of eminence does not mesh with the Platonic view. Love is not a state of longing but of fulfillment; Desire may engender the Lover to fulfill his aims.

*Pagination is from Great Books of the Western World, 1952 Edition.

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