Hart-Norman on being and consciousness


David Bentley Hart on the Radio Program Unbelievable? (hosted by Justin Brierley) discussing theism/atheism with Richard Norman. It’s an often listened to episode. It might not interest everybody, but I particularly found certain of his expressions (bold) helpful, given where I am.

The passage is my transcription (from 27:55 to 33:22) of Hart’s response to questions put to him by Norman regarding what is meant by saying God is ‘being’ and not ‘a being among beings’ (quite the topic in theological debate recently) and then how it is that consciousness is transcendentally structure. The entire exchange is great. Given the nature of its being a call-in radio interview, there are interruptions, incomplete sentences, etc. so the transcription is a bit choppy.

First of all you have to be careful about what this very venerable classical distinction [is saying], between saying that God is actus essendi subsistens…and saying that he is a discrete being among beings. On the other hand if you’re going to talk about consciousness…I want to point out that subjectivity is not the sole emphasis there. If you reduce it to a phsychologistic portrait of consciousness rather than emphasizing the transcendental conditions underlying that, then you get a false problem.

One thing I found…is the tendency to imagine that in metaphysics the alpha privative always entails an ontological privation. That is, if you use a negative formulation then you’re talking about impoverishment. If you say that God is ‘impassible’, that’s often taken as meaning that he is bereft of those capacities that make human beings and other finite beings capable of experiencing pathos (a modification of their nature from outside), whereas of course traditionally these are meant to be affirmations that God infinitely exceeds the finite conditions in which we experience these things. Take the privative prefix in ‘infinite’. We say that there are finite, specific numbers. We say the infinite is not a number among other numbers in that way, but we’re not denying that the infinite is capable of quantity or extension. We’re saying—and this is the traditional formulation—that the reason you put this alpha privative prefix on these words is simply to indicate that all the positive aspects that a finite being possesses as conditions of his or its existence are possessed in an infinitely greater degree by the fullness of being that is God (including consciousness).

So first of all understand the metaphysical claim being made when you’re saying that God isn’t “a being.” If you have for instance two chairs in a room they’ll relate to one another in a specific way. One is here. One is there. They delimit one another. They each define…[pause]…whereas the relation of either of those chairs to God is not that kind of relationship. And therefore we say God is not another object alongside them….

The second question then is how that absolute being can also be conscious. Again, if in the traditional metaphysical sense you understand being as the superimmanent source of all the powers of existence, then consciousness is among those as, perhaps in some ways it’s the supreme expression, but I think here you don’t have to go that far to understand that his isn’t a problem, because as I said you’re starting from a psychologistic notion of subjectivity, which is one I reject. I would submit that even in your own consciousness you approach the world from what Kant would consider a sort of transcendental apperceptive position, that is, a transcendental unity not reducible to your changeable finite psychological identity or your physical or emotional constitution, and that I think cannot be reduced to physical processes…not even to your empirical ego. And I regard that as the most fundamental act of consciousness—unity and intentionality—as a participation in that unconditional source which is God.

I admit this gravitates toward an idealism which I happen to embrace. But if you take the ‘not’ of being (the alpha privative) as a statement of privation rather than what it’s meant to state, as just the difference of the modality of how we ascribe being to God, then you create a false dilemma because you’re treating it as an abstract category that then magically can also be related to as a person, and that is simply to impose modern ways of thinking about these words on a tradition that I think is richer and more coherent.

4 comments on “Hart-Norman on being and consciousness

  1. malcolmsnotes says:

    Well 0 not sure he’s really solved any problems here. The problem of course is how an immutable and changeless being (or just immutable and changeless being itself) can know free creatures who are themselves undergoing true becoming. In other words, I don’t think he’s done anything to solve the “syncing up”of God’s changelessness (as it is classically understood) and the creation’s changeFULness. — I’m not saying anyone CAN, only that he, at least here, has not.


    • Tom says:

      Malcolm, what up? Where you been?

      I think the question you bring up is a good one but distinct from the question they’re discussing. I agree it’s legit to ask HOW divine consciousness comprehends changing finite beings. What they’re discussing is just the question of WHETHER the structure of our (not God’s) conscious experience (its qualia, its teleology, it’s aesthetic orientation, etc.) can be accounted for in purely materialist terms or whether such phenomenology requires some explanation (absolute, infinite, self-existent) that is not itself just another item in the list of items needing explanation.



      • malcolmsnotes says:

        Hey there Tom. I’ve been around – but mostly studying for my board exams (which I just passed.) I’ve been so obsessed lately with God’s existence prior to creation I seem to be reading that problem into every other theological/philosophical issue I see people discussing!

        I got one for you that you should do a post on. Do you think God has “properties” or do you think he is simple? If the former, then which essential properties did he have before creation? And, if he changed after creation, did he give any of those properties up? (For instance, if he was essentially happy, did he then become able to be pained by his creation? Or if this second person of the trinity was essentially immaterial, did he become material?) But how, then, could these have been essential properties? In other words – can a being lose its essential properties and be the same being? That seems a contradiction.

        On the other hand, if you think God is simple, how can he be triune? That is, if there is no “real” composition in God (but only an apparent one based on our finite minds) doesn’t this result in Modalism?

        Ha – you shouldn’t have asked me what I’ve been up to!


      • Tom says:

        Congrats on passing your exams. Hard work I’m sure.

        Ah, the complex doctrine of simplicity. I don’t always get the implications. But I do agree that it makes no sense to suppose God is “composed of” or “assembled from” parts. That’s something I definitely want to say. I’m not convinced that saying that means God doesn’t have properties, or that what we call properties are just formal distinctions we make about God based on what look to us like expressions of distinct properties. I can’t imagine, for example, that the eternal generation of the Son is convertible with the proceeding of the Spirit, or that both are equally convertible with God’s creation of the world, or that in God “knowing” and “willing” are identical. And while I’ve agreed that God doesn’t constitute his triune existence and identity through ‘temporal becoming’ in the way we must, I don’t see that this must imply there can be no conceivable unrealized potential in God. I’m referring, for example, to the claim that God must eternally and immutably know all created actualities in their actuality, there being no possible movement in God from knowing ‘this is actual’ to knowing ‘this is now not actual’).



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