(Warning to the reader: This article may be boring. It is a consideration of ideas, the process of getting them and how they are used to interact with the world. It is decidedly uncreative and entirely self-indulgent, written for my own edification and amusement. Proceed at your own risk!)
The following will be some musings about the mind and its relationship to reality. I realize that this is the arena in which some of the most brilliant minds in history, Plato, Descartes, Kant, and countless others, have been defeated, so I will proceed with great caution. I am writing this in the spirit of Brother Francis, who said many times that by using ideas, and comparing and contrasting them, we will increase our understanding of them. Brother also cautioned his students to refrain from becoming inventive when considering matters as deep as this so I will eschew all creativity in this matter.
All of us, without exception, whether we realize it or not, must wrestle with the fundamental problem of our interaction with the world, if for no other reason, than to successfully make it through any given day. Nothing in our experience is outside of it. Even the very words I am writing are within its scope, both for me as I write them and for you as you read and understand them. The very fact that I can reflect on my own thoughts and convey these reflections via the written word, assures us both that we have minds and that those minds are immaterial.
Thought is not material. Thought produces no images. Images are in the imagination; they are material. The imagination is material and is located within the brain. Images are not called ideas; they have been given their own name — phantasms. One of the most amazing things is that my immaterial, purely abstract thoughts are being shared by you as you read these words. There has been no “mental telepathy,” nor any trickery. We may be thousands of miles apart or many years removed. The words you read may be on paper or even appear as digital images on a screen. Yet, you share my thoughts.
Several media are involved in this process of sharing. A medium is something that comes between two other things. Thus, my thoughts, which are entirely inside of me and, by themselves, could never be shared with anyone else, must be transferred by some means. In the case of each idea in this article, the first medium was the idea itself. Until I had a reasonably clear idea, there was nothing to transfer. As a thought, or idea, per se, it remained inside my head. It had done its job of capturing the essence of something outside of me. It was a medium for me to understand the outside world. In order to share it with you, I then had to associate the idea with a term, a word which represented my idea. The term then had to be made into something material so it could be transferred to someone else. For the purpose of transference, I could have used a pen and paper or, as I have done here, a computer and digital images. If you were in my presence, I could have conveyed the ideas to you through speech and not have written it down. Speech would have used the medium of sound to convey the ideas rather than the written word as in the case of this article. Of course, you are engaged in the same process: getting ideas from the words I have written and reflecting on them. You may even see fit to share them with someone else some day and will go through a process similar to the one that brought my thoughts to you.
The world intrudes itself on my senses and, from these intrusions (which are referred to as sensory impressions) I instantly form abstract ideas, which are different from the sense impressions themselves. An idea grasps the essence of an entity in the world outside. It is not possible to see an image of an idea. Most of us form some sort of mental image to represent the idea, but this is not the idea itself. For example, for the idea “tree” most of us see some sort of an indistinct tree-like thing in our imaginations. This image is a phantasm. Ideas are purely abstract.
Here is a very clumsy description of how the process works. I see a tree. Via the medium of light, a tiny image of the tree is projected onto my retina. The image is translated into nerve impulses and stored in my imagination, which is located in my brain. Immediately, upon registering the phantasm in my imagination, my mind, which is not located in my brain, grasps the essence of tree. (The mind is a spiritual faculty of the soul and, while it uses the brain, it is not the brain.)
To elaborate a bit on what I said above: The medium for grasping the essence is the idea. It is purely abstract. It is not the same as the image and it is not stored in my brain. It also has no name; no term is associated with it yet. Eventually, I will either learn the term that is commonly assigned to this idea or, if no one else has encountered it before, I may assign one of my own.
One of the most difficult things about reflecting on the process of thinking is a confusion between phantasms and ideas. If one thinks about a tree, some sort of image appears in his imagination. It could be indistinct or it could be of a certain type or species. Here is the difficulty: the image of the tree is not the idea “tree.” The idea is abstract and, as such, it has no image; it is an essence as it has been grasped by the mind. Essences have no images. Try to think about the idea “tree” without seeing that pesky image. It is very, very difficult because the idea is completely abstract and resides in the intellect while the image is concrete and is stored in the brain. The mind and the brain are so interconnected and the process of grasping ideas from sense images is so much a part of us that separating them takes real effort. The very process of reflection, the mind considering itself, especially when considering the abstract idea, can make a person dizzy.
After I have gathered some ideas, I could close my eyes, plug my ears and immerse myself in my own thoughts, mulling them over, reflecting on them. I could shut out all interaction with the world around me and continue this process of reflection until my soul and body become separated and I am no longer a living material person; or, until I become hungry enough to make myself a sandwich. But, if I choose to interact with the world, I interact with it in two ways. I receive ideas from the world. I use these ideas, in turn, to act upon and influence the world.
Although my appetites may urge me towards satisfying some bodily need, I can ignore them and continue thinking with my eyes closed and my ears plugged. Until I express my thoughts in some sort of action, they remain only my thoughts. Even if I simply write them down, I have translated them into action. Notice also that my appetites themselves push me out into the world. Though they are entirely inside of me, they prompt me to reach outside of myself to satisfy them. We are beings that are meant to interact with the world. Our accumulation of ideas results in the way we evaluate everything and everyone around us. It is this interaction with the world that is the most important part of my consideration.
Until recently I owned a coffee mug that said “Attitude is Everything.” I had gotten it years ago, at a training session that promoted positive thinking and personal motivation. During the event, I took a photo of one of my associates. His copy of the same mug was prominently displayed on the table in front of him, as his head rested on his hand, while he slept through one of the sessions. Like so many of those “motivational” meetings, it had fallen short of its stated objective. (Notice how I introduced phantasms such as “mug” and “table” in this paragraph but, notice also, it was done by way of abstract ideas.)
“Attitude is Everything” is related to another saying that is popular among the Positive Thinking gurus: “What the mind of man can conceive and believe, it can achieve.” I recently sold my house in Wisconsin and moved to Indiana. Having to go through a lifetime of accumulated stuff was overwhelming. After spending too much time becoming more and more discouraged by the prospect of sorting through and packing everything, I recalled these two little aphorisms. Suddenly, the problem became manageable. When I realized that it was the relationship between my mind and the reality before me that would get the job done, I was encouraged to proceed. The only way it would happen is if I actually performed the task at hand. The only way to begin was to walk over to a shelf or closet and start sorting. It was that simple. I had to not only interact with the world in thought, I had to translate those thoughts into action. To put it another way: abstract ideas which were purely in my mind COULD have consequences in the real world; if I was ever going to move out of my house and to a new city, they had to. My attitude had to be one of purpose, of assurance, of optimism, of perseverance. Without an attitude that I could successfully carry out my decision to move, I never would have gotten out of my chair.
Here are some definitions of attitude: “A mental position to a fact or state.” (Merriam-Webster) “One’s disposition, opinion, mental set, etc.” (Collins Dictionary) “A feeling or opinion about something or someone, or a way of behaving that is caused by this.” (Cambridge Dictionary) “A settled way of thinking or feeling about something.” (Oxford Living Dictionary) Attitude interacting with the world could be another way of saying ideas have consequences.
Outside of the normal bodily appetites and desires that are common to all living beings, ideas determine how I will interact with the world, including how I will control those appetites, or if I will interact with the world at all, or control myself in the least. In short, my attitude determines or influences how I consider the world, and everything and everyone in it. From the moment I wake up every morning, my attitude determines how I will act, what I will do, and whom I will do it with. It has enormous influence on that point of contact between abstract ideas that are inside of my mind and the hard reality that is outside of me.
My attitude, my “mental position” or “settled way of thinking” includes my beliefs. A belief is defined as “something one accepts as true or real.” My beliefs, which make up a very important portion of my ideas, have an enormous influence on my attitude, my mental position concerning everything. My beliefs guide my interaction with the world. For example, if I believe that I have no immortal soul and that I am basically the same as a cow or a pig, my interaction with the world will reflect this. My attitude will be one of satisfying my own desires, of avoiding pain and of maximizing pleasure. This may require me to assist others to maximize their pleasure and avoid pain but the driving force behind my apparently selfless actions is the same.
If I believe in Reincarnation and that I will be rewarded or punished for my actions by the quality of a future life, and that I deserve the current condition of my life because of one of my past lives, I may look at those who are less fortunate as having deserved their state, however miserable it might be. I will be disinclined to help others because it might interfere with their ability to pay for their past errors and earn a better life the next time around. Life will be cheap because people simply move into another life when they pass from this one. Dying is no big deal. They will have many opportunities to “get it right” in the future. Societies in which this belief is held by the majority of the people tend to have significant portions of the population that live in misery and grinding poverty while nothing is done to alleviate their suffering. If I have more wealth and comfort than others it is because I earned it in one of my past lives and I deserve it.
Let us say I believe that I have one life and that the State holds more-or-less supreme power over the actions of its citizens, that the state is responsible for rewarding the good and punishing evil. My outlook will be one of duty. In effect, I owe everything to the State and I am subject to the whims of whoever is in charge. Tennyson’s famous words may be applied to those for whom the State is supreme: “Theirs not to reason why, Theirs but to do and die.” I will view the government as the source of the basics of life for me and others in times of need. I will depend on it to prevent disasters if possible and to make things right after they occur; to make sure everyone is fed, clothed, housed, educated and given medical care; and to ensure that no one is allowed to become too wealthy. My attitude will be one of trust in the beneficence and ultimate fairness of the State.
Let us say another person, subject to the same government, believes that the individual is the source of all good; that nothing gets done unless he does it himself; that he is responsible for providing for all of his own needs; and that the government is always an interference and a restriction on his individual freedom. It should be obvious that his attitude towards the State will be one of distrust and possibly resentment. His ideas about the State are clearly different from the person who views it as paternal. His ideas determine his attitude and his attitude determines how he will interact with the world around him, including the government.
Here is something to consider: the thoughts in my mind, invisible to others, known only to myself, always limited in their number and scope, which have arisen from sense experiences, combine to form my attitude — the way I view the world. My ideas form my attitude, my mental position, my settled way of thinking. My view of the world determines how I will interact with it. In the most pragmatic way, ideas have consequences. If I add the sense of purpose to my ideas, I arrive at the adage: what the mind of man can conceive and believe, it can achieve.
I attended Catholic grade school and two years of Catholic high school prior to the closing of Vatican II. At that time there existed something that we called a “Catholic attitude.” In a mixed group of people, it was easy to spot the Catholics. They would hold themselves in a reserved manner; dress with a bit more formality; speak with words that reflected a Catholic understanding of the world; and, even though Catholics have always been sinners, they would exhibit a consistent opposition towards evil and never approve the sort of openly diabolical variety we see around us today. The “Catholic Attitude” was real, even tangible, and could be counted on by the rest of society to act as a balance to offset extremes and an anchor to keep it from slipping back into pagan debauchery. Catholic ideas and beliefs formed individual attitudes and, in turn, those attitudes had consequences. In a very concrete way, attitude was everything.
This is the sense in which various devout persons have said we need to have the “mind of the Church.” We must have a set of Catholic beliefs which influence our interaction with everything and everyone; otherwise, our actions will guided by another set of beliefs, whether we are conscious of them or not, Actions are always guided by beliefs. We must reflect on our ideas in order to discover our beliefs. We need to compare and contrast ideas; to make certain they are consistent with each-other and the outside world; to clarify them until they form a cohesive whole in our minds. Catholics call this process meditation.
For skeptics, the question lingers: how much of our belief in God and His Church is in our heads and how much is “real?” After all, our beliefs are entirely in our minds, and, though beliefs may be based on outside reality, they exist entirely inside of us. How do we know that this stuff is not simply a figment of our own imagination? The answer for skeptics is straightforward: This is our human condition. There is no avoiding it. This is the case for every human being that has ever lived or ever will live. We exist in a world of other beings, yet all our ideas about the world and everything in it are inside of us. The very fact that a skeptic wonders about such things is proof that there is an objective reality and that his mind is capable of conforming to it. The short answer to the skeptic is: Get over it!
Despite the discussion of a “Catholic attitude” it must be pointed out that my consideration of attitude is not quite Catholic — yet. In order to reflect an attitude that will tend towards the salvation of our souls, we must also actively cooperate with God’s grace. Our attitude could be naturally elevated but not directed towards God until we determine to do so.
Since all of us have thoughts, every one of us is going to have an attitude, whether we consciously choose it or not. Each of us is capable of reflecting on these ideas and choosing our attitude. As Catholics we should be encouraged by the popular adages what the mind of man can conceive and believe, it can achieve and attitude is everything. By carefully choosing our ideas, by reading good spiritual books and articles, by turning our discussions with other Catholics into an examination of holy thoughts and practices, by reflecting on the example of the saints, by setting spiritual goals, we can control our attitudes and turn them into powerful forces for good. We can then look at the world around us and, with good Catholic Attitudes, we can begin to cooperate with God’s grace and accomplish the great things that Our Lord and Our Lady expect of us. With continual prayer, with good counsel, with humility, and with the understanding that ideas have consequences, we can confidently set about changing the world for God’s Church — restoring the world in Christ.