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.