Discussion of chapter 5 from Hart's The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss

I hope to include an excerpt at a time every day (or so if life intrudes) in the manner of Merv’s delightful MacDonald meditations. Here is the opening paragraph of chapter five form David Bentley Hart’s book.

Consciousness does not merely passively reflect the reality of the world; it is necessarily a dynamic movement of reason and will toward reality. … this much is absolutely certain: subjective consciousness becomes actual only through intentionality, and intentionality is a kind of agency, directed toward an end. We could never know the world from a purely receptive position. To know anything, the mind must be actively disposed toward things outside itself, always at work interpreting experience through concepts that the mind itself can supply. The world is intelligible to us because we reach out to it, or reach beyond it, coming to know the endless diversity of particular things within the embrace of a more general and abstract yearning for a knowledge of truth as such, and by way of an aboriginal inclination of the mind toward reality as a comprehensible whole. In every moment of awareness, the mind at once receives and composes the world, discerning meaning in the objects of experience precisely in conferring meaning upon them; thus consciousness lies open to - and enters into intimate communion with - the forms of things. Every venture of reason toward an end, moreover, is prompted by a desire of the mind, a “rational appetite.” Knowledge is born out of a predisposition and predilection of the will toward beings, a longing for the ideal comprehensibility of things, and a natural orientation of the mind toward that infinite horizon of intelligibility that is being itself.


Pretty clear to me that I shall have to read this book. Whereas I know McGilchrist comes at all this from the same generally agnostic POV as myself, Hart is a serious Christian theologian who is able to incorporate a very wide range of ideas into what begins and ends in a theistic POV. If I really want to understand what is at issue, I need to reach out beyond the POV of those who think as I do, not that I’m thinking of moving out of the old neighborhood.


Pretty heady stuff (for me anyway) - meaning that it bears multiple readings for me because it takes me effort to begin to explore what’s being said.

I really like that! And his mention of ‘communion’ with forms of things (or I might venture to add in … communion with the things themselves to the extent that we get some window of view in. All that sounds to me like a healthy relationship with God’s creation.

I feel the same way. It is quite a reach for anyone, seemingly equal parts philosophy and poetry. I constantly wonder what role a theistic orientation might play in what he says. But so far it feels about right in terms of describing how it feels from the inside.

I only made a small trim in the first paragraph. The next two will probably need more.

I think it will be better for me to drop a new quote in the evening. Hopefully no one will lose sleep over it but I fear if I try to do it in the morning my day won’t get started properly.

This is the more greatly abridged second paragraph. There will be times when I fear the florid language and multiple examples will illicit the tldr response. Since I hope for some at least to come along with me on this I can’t help but try to clear away some brush from the path.

The mind does not simply submissively register sensory data, like wax receiving a signet, but is constantly at work organizing what it receives from the senses into form and meaning; and this it does because it has a certain natural compulsion to do so, a certain interestedness that exceeds most of the individual objects of knowledge that it encounters. The only reason that we can regard the great majority of particular things we come across with disinterest , or even in a wholly uninterested way is that we are inspired by a prior and consuming interest in reality as such. There simply is no such thing as knowledge entirely devoid of desire - you could not make cognitive sense of … apart from the action of your mind toward some end found either in that thing or beyond that thing - and so all knowledge involves an adventure of the mind beyond itself.
… this essential directedness of consciousness sets it apart from any purely mechanical function. Desire, moreover, is never purely spontaneous; it does not arise without premise out of some aimless nothingness within the will but must always be moved toward an end, real or imagined that draws it on. The will is, of its nature, teleological, and every rational act is intrinsically purposive, prompted by some final cause. … What is it that the mind desires, then, or even that the mind loves, when it is moved to seek the ideality of things, the intelligibility of experience as a whole? What continues to compel thought onward, whether or not the mind happens at any given moment to have some attachment to the immediate objects of experience? What is the horizon of that limitless directedness of consciousness that allows it the mind to define the limits of the world it knows? Whatever it is, it is an end that lies always beyond whatever is near at hand, and it excites in the mind a need not merely to be aware, but truly to know, to discern meaning, to grasp all of being under the aspect of intelligible truth.


I have not read enough of Hart to form an opinion, although I am aware of his writings and more or less agree with his orthodox Christian outlook… having said that, I cannot help but ask how would such desire work with the helpless, the dispossessed, the sick, the hungry, etc. I say this because these are the concern of the Christian message. I think hunger, for example, is rather spontaneous and presents a nothingness to the person suffering.

This is in no way a criticism of Hart or of Orthodoxy - rather it is a reflection on activities that are contemplating and perhaps philosophical (and apply to me as much as anyone).

I imagine he will end up saying so but I find myself eager for him to make clear that the premise is not one that we supply in any deliberate and conscious way. Culture will finally help to shape that premise but even before that, I suspect he will say, there is an inborn drive to find the world and our place in it to be something comprehensible. Mostly the progress we make in that direction will be discovered to be already given in layers of our being not dependent on our reason. Our bodies, brains and minds are ancient though not in any static way. Our capacity to represent the world verbally and otherwise is the manner in which we hope to find it all made comprehensible but somehow I don’t think this will be so simple.

From what I read in the intro and in other quotes online I don’t think he expects his answers to be entirely satisfying to most Christians though he does think they should be unsettling to atheists. Not sure what how he thinks an agnostic should react but most of what I’ve heard and read from him was at least agreeable and at times enlightening.

My biggest influence, Iain McGilchrist, is an agnostic and gives Hart major kudos for influencing his own writing.

I had unexpected company and a request for help come up tonight so I may postpone the next paragraph. I’ll read it over again and decide.

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As order does not mean meaning, meaning doesn’t either.

So far Hart seems keen to insist that our reasoning is not a deterministic result of our biology, leastwise that such an interpretation doesn’t comport with how it feels from the inside. Since he takes consciousness seriously that seems like a reasonable way to go.

What warrant is there for that insistence on the unnatural?

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Consciousness is unnatural?

That’s the warrant? Or somehow our utterly cognitively biased and mathematically and phenomenologically limited reasoning is somehow not natural doesn’t mean it’s unnatural?

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You lost me. But I’ll take an intuitive stab at it.

Being is primary. Consciousness as humans experience it is a mode of being, our mode of being. Detachment as practiced in science is a methodology. Through it much has been gained obviously. Good stuff. But it is still just a methodology, to be applied wherever it is fitting. Is it fitting to apply it in examining the consciousness we all experience?

To do so I think results in a clipped view of consciousness. All we see is our own eye staring back at us down through the microscope. That isn’t consciousness as such. just consciousness as engaged in the methodology of science.

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I don’t see the philosophical relevance. And what does ‘Being is primary’ mean? All in nature is for sure. Including consciousness. Which is no infinite tabula rasa.

Well for me it is simply about wondering what we are. What is it about our kind that makes the methodology of science available to us?

It is to focus on how we are rather than what we do. Whatever we may do has to be within the range of what we can do and that will depend on what we are. So I find it helpful to delineate being as primary.

Right. So consciousness is entirely natural and got here in the same manner as the rest of nature. I entirely agree with you, if you weren’t jesting, that our tabula is not rasa. Leastwise that is an open question: how much leeway do we have?

I expect Hart will decide as McGilchrist does that our dispositions close down our options. I’m well past the age where having my options closed down is disturbing. At some point it is nice to get comfy in our own skin.


Aye Mark, you’re a have your cake and eat it too kinda guy! : )

And no, we obviously have no leeway whatsoever. The only realistic hope is utilitarian technocracy: that the mahout gets to whisper to the elephant.

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The heart was for the Righteous Mind reference. I seriously doubt you or I heart a utilitarian technocracy.

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I’m noticing that what I’ve been posting from MacDonald recently seems to be dovetailing nicely with the subject areas Hart is probing (especially this morning’s MacDonald entry). Would it be a fair summary to say that MacDonald seems to be giving an earlier clerical / theological take on what Hart is investigating with more modern psychological tools? The overlap of subject matter is probably not accidental since we’re both fascinated by this anthropocentric self-reflection.

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I was critical of this paragraph thinking it redundant. Now I see it as interesting. But for as good a writer as he is I am appalled by his second sentence (“something comestible slinking through the forest shade” ?!), the sort for which his Goodreads reviewers deservedly excoriate him. Unless this is part of his self depreciating humor which is readily apparent on videos of him speaking. Anyway, on to paragraph 3:

Perhaps this is all only the special predicament and glory of a remarkably fortunate primate, and we have become the rational possessors of the world only because we have somehow acquired a pathetic hunger for an illusory end - “truth as such” - that transcends all these merely concrete objects of awareness in which we might or might not have some interest. Perhaps it is only the accidental exaggeration in our species of an animal capacity for recognizing danger or noticing something comestible slinking through the forest shade that has somehow produced in us this paradoxical longing for an ultimate abstraction, and rendered us not merely responsive to our physical environment but obsessively conscious of it as well, insatiably transforming the real into the conceptual, arranging experience into webs of associations, ideas, and words. It seems unlikely, however. Nature could scarecely have implanted that supreme abstraction in us, at least not according to any physicalist calculus of material causation, because abstract concepts are not natural objects. And so an essential mystery lies at the very heart heart of rational life: in all experience there is a movement of the self beyond the self, an ecstasy - a “standing out”- of the mind, directed. toward and end that resides nowhere within physical nature as a closed system of causes and effects. All rational experience and all knowledge is a kind of rapture, prompted by a longing that cannot be exhausted by any finite object. What, then, do we really seek in seeking to know the world? What lures us on into reality? Is it only an illusion, or is it something that opens the world to us precisely because it is a genuine dimension of reality, in which the mind and the world together participate?

On my way to check that post out now.