What reading metaphysics should be like

0268037078.01.LZZZZZZZKudos to Fr Aidan for sending me a copy of Norris Clarke’s The One and the Many (2001). I’ve read essays and chapters by Clarke and enjoyed him. Clear, easy to follow, well-informed, and – and this is what inspired this post in the first place – “godly.” I mean that in the classical sense of having an explicit awareness of God’s presence. I picked up on it earlier in Clarke, but not like I sense it in The One and the Many, which is a major philosophical work on metaphysics. Finding writers who are clear and genuinely helpful is rare. Finding one who makes it impossible for you to read without coming into an explicit awareness of the subject matter, whether God as so-named or God under any of his transcendental names (the Good, the Beautiful, the True), is priceless. You don’t get past the first chapter of Clarke without encounter his deep humility, his sense of dependence, and most of all, his infectious sense of ‘wonder’ (which, as we know, is the first true philosophical intuition), wonder that there is anything at all. Clarke doesn’t relay information. He shares an experience of the intelligibility and goodness of ‘being’. Come to think of it, I pick up this same sense of wonder when I read Hartshorne – and you can’t get any more non-Thomistic than Hartshorne!

Since I’m talking about Clarke for the moment, let me share a passage that slowed me down and brought me into this reflection:

Personal awakening to the wonder of being. To be a good metaphysician…one must move beyond the merely abstract understanding of the meaning of being toward an existential “awakening” to experience what actual existence means in the concrete for the whole person – mind, heart, imagination, feeling, all together. In the light of this intuitive experience one can then take reflective possession of its meaning, generalize it to the whole realm of actual existents, and develop it into the fully explicit metaphysical understanding of being as that which is. Various personal experiences have been found apt for leading us to such an existential awakening to what it means to be. Examples are:

1) The threat of loss of one’s own existence or that of a loved one: realization of existence through contrast with its absence.
2) And intense love experience: the wonder and delight that so and so is truly real.
3) Experience of an intense hope, longing, at last realized: “At last it’s real, not just a dream.”
4) The contemplative wonder of a child, a poet, an artist, or a scientist at the beauty and order of the universe, and, even deeper, at its presence at all.
5) A profound religious experience of gratitude for creation as gift (Jews, Christians, Moslems in the revelation of creation tradition, and, mysteriously, Buddhists).
6) The experience of radical boredom, despair, existential anxiety, total loss of meaning or significance of the universe as a whole and of my life in it: this puts existence itself in question by awareness of our radical contingency, precariousness, as poised over nothingness, “surrounded” by nothingness, e.g., Heidegger, for whom the awareness of being is inseparable from the awareness of nothingness, Das Nichts.

If you’re familiar with what Dwayne and I often reflect upon here, you’ll recognize in Clarke’s statements the role of what we (following Loder and others) call ‘The Void’. I haven’t read everything there is to read on metaphysics, but I can count on one hand those I’ve read who manage in their opening pages to stand me before the mirror to perceive in myself the wonder of being at all, and, in addition, to appreciate this wonder precisely in light of its gratuity and givenness in the face of my nothingness – Le Vide, Das Nichts. This, I think, is what reading metaphysics (by Christian authors) should be like.

To end with a thought on this in a very different context (e.g., origins and evolution), this is why I think humankind was created mortal from the get-go. There’s no coming into the fullness of being that is not a coming into to truth of being, and part of our truth is our absolute contingency, gratuity, and dependency upon God, and that means embracing the truth of our utter nothingness; and you don’t get that without mortality. To the extent it is true that we are nothing in ourselves – mortality is a grace.

Prepositional knowledge

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From him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory forever!”    (Rom 11.36)

To hear God in Scripture is to see oneself (James 1). To see oneself truly is to see God – to see God speaking me into existence, painting me into being. To know oneself is to know the truth about oneself, and that means experiencing oneself as given. Acknowledgment of this is all we truly give back to the God who gives us life and being – to know ourselves within the absolute priority of God’s initiative, of God before all things, in all things, beyond all things, “from whom and through whom and to whom are all things.” We possess ourselves, the purpose, meaning and fullness of our existence, prepositionally. Can “I” be something over and above this? Can “I” possess a truth that exceeds these prepositions? No, the gift I am given to be is the gift I am given to see, and that is to see and know myself as the truth and beauty of being “from,” “through,” and “to” God.

Memory lane

lib3-3a1I apologize for my absence. New job. Learning curve has me pretty busy. I’ve been reflecting on some previous thoughts regarding the ‘will’, ‘freedom’, issues related to ‘libertarian’ choice, and – no surprise – Incarnation. If such questions interest you, here are a few previous  posts (teasers included) you might enjoy

Creation ex nihilo
“In classical theism, the wonderful truth of ‘divine aseity’ (understood as the fullness of God’s triune life sans creation) thus reduces to mere abstraction. There’s no ‘actual’ God who is ever free ‘in his actuality’ from the determination to create. God doesn’t know what it’s like to be God apart from having determined to create. We think this is bad news precisely because it offers us a God who has no experience of being actually free and infinitely full apart from us.”

God’s creative options
“God either creates to bring all he creates to fulfillment in/through Incarnation, or he doesn’t create at all. All other varieties and created distinctions don’t constitute a range of options God chooses between. They are all potentialities inherent in the capacities and dispositions God breathes into his one determination to create for Incarnation. It should then be impossible not just to speak of this creation apart from Incarnation/Christology, but to speak of God’s creating at all apart from the intention to incarnate. Indeed, I’m suggesting that all possibilities for creation derive from and return to the one possibility of Incarnation.”

God wills our improvisation
“God’s will in sustaining creation as such embraces created improvisation on our part, which means—I’m afraid to utter it—the divine will (viz., logoi) is given to us to improvise upon. I mean, if you want to retain mystery, there you are. The endless possibilities are God’s, their final arrangement is ours. But if this is his will, then it seems to me that the mode of God’s knowing creation would reflect the mode of his willing; that is, God would know the improvisational form which divine logoi finally take in us as a knowledge of form ‘apprehended’ or ‘received’ and not only a knowledge of created being as ‘given’. What the world gives to God is what it gives back to God in improvisation upon and within the grace of being.”

God at the improv
“…so God gives himself (as divine logoi) without reservation to the free determination of created others — viz., God gives himself to be improvised upon. And there’s really no way the trajectories which the world actually ends up taking (this route as opposed to that route) can be eternally known even if the scope of all possible trajectories derives from and is known to God. That actual trajectory is the creature’s discrimination among possibilities, something over and above the possibilities themselves.”

Freedom as creative liberty among loving options
“Would spontaneity in this situation be a violation of freedom if the motivation remains love throughout? What else would a perfected creative liberty be but a certain species of playful spontaneity if God’s will for us terminates in a scope of beautiful possibilities and our truest freedom amounts to a creative choice among them? It seems to me that if our perfected wills can creatively express themselves in this sense, then spontaneity per se would be a fulfillment, not a violation, of our truest freedom.”

Incarnation or nothing at all
“…theologians feel themselves forced to give an account of the faith in terms of innumerable ‘logically’ possible worlds, worlds the possibility of which have to be accounted for theologically so long as they generate no logical contradiction (strictly speaking) but which are unthinkable Christologically.”

Living, moving, and having being in God—Part 2

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Fr Aidan has a nice review of the (Thomistic) classical position on God’s relatedness to the world. I’d like to pick out a portion of it for comment. He summarizes:

Of every being and of the universe as a whole we may ask why? but of the One who is the answer to that question, why? may not be asked. It may not be asked because God can only be the answer if he lacks all the features of finite being that raises the question to begin with. And that, I think, is what actus purus effectively means. God is the infinite plenitude, fullness, and perfection of being and thus the ultimate and final explanation for why finite beings exist. He does not contain potentiality, because that potentiality would in turn evoke the metaphysical question. Potentiality requires the action of another agent to bring it to fulfillment. A rubber ball cannot realize its potency to bounce unless someone throws it against a wall; a stick of butter cannot realize its melting potential unless someone spreads it on a hot slice of toast. “Potency does not raise itself to act,” explains Thomas; “it must be raised to act by something that is in act” (SCG I.16.4). If God were not the infinite actualization of existence, then not only would we find ourselves wondering “Why does God exist instead of nothing?” but so would God! We might even imagine Deity as enduring an eternal existential crisis: “Why do I have all of this unfulfilled potential?”

There’s a lot to agree with here. I like the explanatory approach centered on asking ‘why?’ and seeking answers that explain our actual experience (including our finitude, temporal becoming, aesthetic appetite, consciousness, etc.). ‘Why’ is an intuitive and clarifying question, and Aquinas understood (as did all Christian thinkers before him) that neither any particular thing in the universe, nor the material cosmos as a whole, is sufficient to account for why there is anything at all rather than nothing. Given the nature of created becoming, some explanation is required – some reality that is its own reason for being, not requiring an explanation for its existence from outside itself, a self-sufficiently transcendent reality that explains both itself and all else – i.e., God.

We can and must ask ourselves ‘why?’ of God as well. But with God we get a different answer because a God capable of answering why the material-sentient universe exists without begging the question of his own existence is unlike the universe in profound ways. Where the ‘why?’ question asked of the universe derives its answer outside itself, God – properly understood – is the answer to his own ‘why?’. In this sense every sane theist agrees with Aquinas. It is a point I have urged open theists to explore at greater depth with seriousness and an open mind.

compassionOne could (and probably ought to) for the sake of argument ask whether the cosmos itself can be its own explanation. After all, if theists can posit God as uncreated and self-sustaining, let’s just suppose (as Carl Sagan asked us to) that the universe is self-sustaining and exists necessarily. Why multiply explanations beyond necessity?

By all means, one ought to explore this option. We won’t do that here, but it’s been done at great length by others, and we agree the cosmos does not give evidence of being self-sufficient/self-sustaining. My comments here are directed to theists who already grant this and who agree that God is the world’s transcendent creator.

The question that continues to be debated today by some, and which we here are most interested in, is: What sort of relations might a transcendently self-sufficient God have with the world he creates and knows? Certainly there would be a certain asymmetrical relation. That’s already entailed in God’s being the end-of-the-line sort of answer to our question ‘why?’. God explains why there is anything at all rather than nothing. Creation does not, however, explain why there is a God. Obviously, a non-mutual relation obtains: God creates and sustains the world, gives it being, and explains why it is at all. The world cannot explain God in any such respect.

For some, this is all there is to say about the manner of relations that might obtain between God and the world. However, while divine aseity (as self-sufficient transcendence) is true and essential, many don’t feel that it follows that God “does not contain [any conceivable] potentiality.” The reason some, like me, think this doesn’t follow is because it doesn’t seem that all potentiality evokes the specter of a mover other than the agent. We can imagine the realization of unrealized potential in God which does not require that God, like created beings grounded in him, “be moved” by a power outside himself. In our view it is false, as Fr Aidan argues (following Aquinas), that “[all p]otentiality requires the action of another agent to bring it to fulfillment.” That rule would follow for created beings certainly, but it’s conceivable, we think, that some potentialities (namely, divine potentialities) may be self-sufficiently motivated and actualized from within, freely and contingently.

Examples that demonstrate Aquinas point with respect to creatures are innumerable. Fr Aidan describes a few – rubber balls, sticks of butter, etc. With respect to created entities, Aquinas has to be right when he says “Potency does not raise itself to act; it must be raised to act by something that is in act.” But does it follow that a self-sufficient reality (God) – a reality whose essence is self-sufficient act – cannot be thought to have any unfulfilled potentiality since it must them be dependent upon something outside itself to raise any supposed potency to actuality?

It depends on the potency. If we mean a self-constituting potential, then God would require some reality already in act to bring his potential to fulfillment, and obviously we do not want to say that. But not all unfulfilled potentiality need be self-constituting. Potential may be self-expressive and not self-constituting. We think there are good reasons to suppose, given the existence of the kind of world we live in, that God is more than necessary (i.e., God transcends his own necessity), and as such his essential, antecedent, triune actuality both determines the scope and nature of his potential for self-expressive acts and that this antecedent actuality is the only realized ‘act’ we need to reference in explaining the movement of such potentiality to actuality.

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Such contingency in God would be of a peculiar kind. It would realize self-expressive, not self-constitutive, potential, and it would do so unlike created potentialities which require ‘being moved’ by some actuality other than God. There seems no a priori reason to suppose that a God self-sufficient to explain why the world is at all could not himself possess unrealized potentialities for a contingent expression extrinsic to the necessary plenitude of his essential triune act, and that these potentialities would require nothing outside this plenitude to raise them to actuality. Like the classical tradition, God would not be subject to finite, created becoming (he would not become a mere ‘god’ who requires a mover other than himself), but unlike the classical tradition God would possess potential for duration without loss, duration that includes contingent, gracious, wholly self-expressive relations.

Would those relations with the world be “real”? If ‘real’ relations are defined as relations that affect or determine what a thing is essentially, then I’m happy to say God is not so affected by his relations with the world, because I do not suppose God to be essentially affected by us. But if ‘real’ relations are defined simply as relations one truly has (i.e., relations that involve one in acts of mind and will vis-à-vis what one is related to) but which remain extrinsic to what one is essentially, then I’m fine with positing God’s real relations with the world. Does this commit me to a notion of divine simplicity unacceptable to classical theists? I’d be surprised if it did not. I know these terms (“real” for example) have long established meanings and many are loath to adjust/expand meanings and vocabulary to accommodate new insights. I don’t have any pretenses about affecting the conversation at that significant a level. I confess, I’m more interested in working out my own salvation with fear and trembling.

Jesus, Savior, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.

Vita ex nihilo

val-hammond-coeurFor a moment, think of creatio ex nihilo (“creation out of nothing”) as vita ex nihilo (“living out of nothing”). It might let some light in on the what I’ve been trying to get at in exploring the Void.

In a comment intended to clarify the relation between the ‘natural’ and ‘gnomic’ will (between our ‘will’ as given and sustained by God as its ‘natural’ end, on the one hand, and its ‘deliberative’ capacity to determine itself relative to God, on the other), David Bentley Hart writes:

In the interval between these two movements [natural and gnomic] – both of which are rational – the rational soul becomes who God intends her to be or, through apostasy from her own nature, fabricates a distance between herself and God that is nothing less than the distance of dereliction. For, whatever we do, the desire of our natural will for God will be consummated; it will return to God, whether the gnomic will consents or not, and will be glorified with that glory the Son shares with the Father from eternity. And, if the gnomic will within us has not surrendered to its natural supernatural end, our own glorified nature becomes hell to us, that holy thing we cannot touch. Rejection of God becomes estrangement from ourselves, the Kingdom of God within us becomes our exile, and the transfiguring glory of God within us – through our [gnomic] refusal to submit to love – becomes the unnatural experience of reprobabtion. God fashions all rational natures for free union with himself, and all of creation as the deathless vessel of his eternal glory. To this end, he wills that the dependent freedom of the creature be joined to his absolute freedom; but an indispensable condition of what he wills is the real power of the creature’s deliberative will to resist the irresistible work of grace.” (emphasis mine)

All I want to pick out from this is its perspective on hell as the unwilling soul’s experience of God’s glory and beauty. I believe this is the standard Orthodox view of hell. What constitutes the torment of hell is not any kind of absolute absence from God to which the wicked are exiled, but rather the presence of God revealed to a heart and mind unwilling to receive him. Hell is unwelcomed intimacy. (Think of Sartre’s play “No Exit” which tells the story of three people bereft of eyelids and condemned to spend eternity together in a single room, hence Sartre’s “Hell is other people.”) Similarly, hell is how those who refuse God’s beauty in this life experience the revelation of it within themselves in the next. Their posture with respect to God, not God’s with respect to them, is their self-determined agony.

I think this is a kind of general principle true of all our struggles and difficulties throughout life. I’m not interested here in the doctrine of hell per se. I’m more interested in the idea that we create torment for ourselves by misrelating “within” a certain truth of God’s glory and beauty. I’m wondering if some of the difficulty that my passibilist friends (those who believe we are in a position to diminish and improve God’s experienced beatitude) have with the notion of an undiminished divine beatitude might be a reluctance to embrace the Void, i.e., the truth of our nothingness and contingency. It’s a very peculiar sort of self-awareness that goes beyond any academic recognition that we are not eternal, or self-sufficient, and that we depend upon God as Creator.

We want to mean something, to be something permanent. Fair enough. That’s our ‘natural’ will/desire at work. But for passibilist believers, this natural desire precedes rather than follows the truth that grounds it, and when that happens we misconstrue our ‘meaning’ as the difference we make to God rather than the difference God makes to us and so misinterpret our God-given desire to make-meaning. We may recognize that we “live and move and have our being in God” (Acts 17.28), but we live by construing our fullest meaning otherwise, partly at least, as the sense or measure in which God lives and moves and has his being in us. So to be in the presence of a beauty and delight that doesn’t need us, that isn’t improved upon or completed by us, ends up being viewed by passibilists not as the fulfillment of desire but as its denial and so as a kind of torment. Such was my own experience.

This all makes me think of hell as passibilism’s last stand, as the experience of wanting to mean something prior to and independent of what God means (to himself and to us), of wanting one’s meaning to be a meaning one introduces into the Meaning-Maker (God) who is source and giver of life, as opposed to an utterly receptive mode of meaning-making as vita ex nihilo, i.e., as accepting and celebrating one’s existence as a mode of divine self-expression. When this is thought not to be enough, glory and beauty become torment.

To begin or not to begin, that is the question—Part 2

creationOn to some thoughts in response to the idea that the created order may in fact be eternal (never “having come to be”) and yet be metaphysically contingent.

First (and my thanks to Alan Rhoda for helping clarify this point for me), there are different types of modality, and thus different types of modal contingency. While some philosophers conflate “logical” and “metaphysical” contingency, this is arguably a mistake. Logical modality is constrained only by internal consistency, whereas metaphysical modality is also constrained by what exists. Metaphysical possibility, arguably, doesn’t follow from logical consistency.

Second, and more to my Orthodox friends, consider Athanasius’ debate with Arius. When the Church anathematizes one who says of the Son “there was a time when he was not,” is this not said in recognition of a fundamental distinction between divine being as uncreated and thus without beginning (i.e., there was not a time when he was not) and human being as created and thus having begun (i.e., there was a time when created things were not)? Does not Orthodoxy assume in the logic by which it condemned Arius a fundamental difference between uncreated and created being with respect to “having not come into being” and “having come into being”?

Third, as all know, Plato himself, and then Neo-Platonism with Plotinus (the philosophical context of early Christianity) held the world to be (a) eternal and (b) ontologically dependent upon the God. But the Church objected to this understanding of things in refining its understanding of CEN. But what’s the point of positing CEN if it’s construed as compatible with the eternity of a world that is ontologically dependent upon God? Pagan Neo-Platonists granted that much themselves. So what were Christians objecting to in rejecting this pagan view and positing CEN as an alternative? It doesn’t seem to me that positing CEN in terms of an eternal world which is dependent upon God is adding anything unique by way of critique or modification of pagan Neo-Platonism. But this is a problem since we know Christians believed that in arguing CEN they were offering a view of creation contradictory to that of Neo-Platonism.

Fourth, supposing that the world has always existed (a) implies an infinitely temporal past, for creation itself is irreducibly temporal, and more concerning, an eternal material order would (for Christians) (b) remain subject to, and grounded in, God-given teleology. This would (c) land Orthodoxy in the same mess as Process theists, namely, supposing that the present state of creation is preceded by a temporally infinite teleological failure, having tended naturally forever toward fulfillment in God without having reached its goal. If protology entails eschatology, a protology that posits an everlasting history of teleological becoming that has failed to reach its end is fatal to Christian hope.

Fifth, does anyone know the present status of the authority of the Condemnations of 1210-1277? Not that Protestants or Orthodox are subject to them, and it seems they lack final Papal endorsement, but it would be interesting to know what other Christian believers make of the arguments. Medieval theologians debated the eternity of the world, among other things. In the 13th century, in an attempt to fix a distinction between Aristotle and Christian faith regarding the implications of CEN for the nature of creation, the Catholic church (via the University of Paris and certain local ecclesiastical powers) condemned certain propositions relative to Aristotle’s influence upon Christian theology, including the claim that “that the world is eternal.”

Brief comments, I know; and without full arguments for each claim along the way. But I hoped a shorter statement would help me crystallize the issues, and the questions, for myself.

To begin or not to begin, that is the question—Part 1

infinite_stairwell_span02I believe in creatio ex nihilo (CEN), or creation out of nothing. I’ve always taken this to mean the created order ‘began to be’. I don’t get into debates over the temporal semantics of such a unique beginning (for example, in what sense can we talk about God “before” creation?), but I do understand “being created” as entailing “having begun to exist.” I also equate “being created” with “being a subject of temporal becoming.” But there are certain implications to supposing creation is eternal that present problems. So let me grope around here and try to make some sense of my questions.

Recently the distinction between kinds of “contingency” came up in a conversation with Bill Vallicella. He had posted on this distinction in reply to Fr Aidan’s request. I asked a few questions. Bill responded.

Bill makes a distinction between two kinds of contingency:

  • Modal Contingency. Something is modally contingent if it might not have existed and/or it might fail to exist. (I take it this is equivalent to metaphysical or ontological contingency).
  • Dependent Contingency. Something is dependently contingent if it depends for its existence upon something else.

These are meaningful categories under which to contemplate the nature of things. My questions engage a further step Bill made regarding the relationship between modal necessity/contingency and dependent contingency/non-contingency. Hopefully the quadrants below will clarify my issues.

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Whatever exists, then, is either modally contingent or modally necessary AND either dependently contingent or dependently non-contingent (or not dependently contingent; if you’re a professional philosopher trained in logical notation, forgive me if I get the negation in the wrong place).

An example of a Quad 3 reality would be (carefully said) “God” who exists necessarily and depends upon nothing for his existence. An example of a Quad 4 reality would (in my view) be all non-divine realities (the world and all that is in it) as created. Quad 1 arguably is empty since (I’m assuming here) nothing can exist necessarily which also depends for its existence as such upon something outside itself.

Now we come to my first difficulty—Quad 2, that is, things that are modally/ontologically contingent (they might fail to exist) but their existence, though contingent, depends upon nothing whatsoever. Their existence is a “brute fact.” Nothing ‘explains’ or ‘accounts for’ their existing. Bill finds this a meaningful concept. I don’t.

My second difficulty has to do with the temporal nature and implications of modally contingent realities. For the sake of argument, let’s limit this to Quad 4. Is it intrinsic to such realities that they “begin to exist”? Bill and, as I’m discovering, every modern Orthodox person I ask about this curiously hold that Quad 4 realities needn’t be thought of as having a beginning. Being “created” doesn’t entail “beginning to exist.” Entities may be modally/ontologically contingent (i.e., they may not have existed at all and may fail to exist), and they may depend upon God for their existence, but they have always existed and always will exist. Their modal contingency requires only that it be true that they “may” not have existed or they may cease to exist, not that it be the case that they “began to exist.” Thus the “out of nothing” in CEN (on this view) merely describes a “dependency” relationship. It says nothing about whether creation is eternal or whether it “began” to be.

I’ll just leave the descriptions there for now and come back with a follow-up post to share some thoughts on why it seems to me we should think of non-divine, created being as (among other things) “having a beginning.”