March 2008


The Future of Philosophical Theism

Anselm refers to God as that than which nothing greater can be conceived, on the basis of which he argues for God’s absolute and immutable perfection. If God were to change, God would either be better or worse than before — which means that there would something conceivably better than God, namely, some past or future instance of Himself. Since to say ‘there is something conceivably better than that than which nothing greater can be conceived’ is to utter an outright contradiction, God’s perfection must be absolutely immutable.

Charles Hartshorne, perhaps best known for his defense of a modified version of the ontological argument, challenges Anselm’s understanding of divine perfection. At an existential level, love seems to imply that the lover rejoice in the joys and share in the sufferings of the beloved. So, if God loves us creatures, then His own happiness must in some way vary with ours — however changeless His power, wisdom, and glory may be.

Hartshorne charges that Anselm’s concept of absolute perfection is metaphysically incoherent: An absolutely perfect being is a being that possesses actually all possible perfection. But the notion of possessing actually all possible perfection is absurd since, as Hartshorne puts it in Reality as Social Progress, “it implies that mutual incompatible possibilities are co-actualized.” For example, it is surely good to be a bird and to possess wings, just as it is good to be human and possess hands. But to possess one or the other implies limitation; and winged-handed beasts would surely have their own specific limitations as well. Since the actualization of some possible perfection is always at the expense of the actualization of other possibilities, to claim that “God possesses all possible perfections” is to say that the simultaneous possession of incompossibles is possible – a contradiction to be sure. God’s perfection cannot, therefore, be absolute in the way Anselm thinks it is. Hartshorne proposes instead a notion of perfection according to which God is that than which no other being can be greater, except for future instances of Himself. God is not an unmoved mover; God is that being unsurpassable by all other beings other than God. Anselm’s and Hartshorne’s position are usually designated as classical theism and neo-classical theism respectively.

I think Hartshorne is correct is arguing that for classical theism, the distinction between possibility and actuality ultimately breaks down. At least one proponent of classical theism, Nicholas Cusanus (1401 – 1464), argues explicitly that it must collapse. One finds a splendidly concise presentation of his argument in the sixth chapter of the dialogue entitled De Possest or, following Jasper Hopkins’ translation, On Actualized Possibility. I have paraphrased the argument elsewhere as follows: “Relative possibilities often pre-exist their co-relative actualities; the mound of clay pre-exists the sculptor’s masterpiece. Absolute possibility cannot, however, pre-exist absolute actuality; for the possible cannot become actual save through the actual. Further, absolute actuality cannot pre-exist possibility; for if absolute actuality were not possible, it could not actually be. So since neither absolute possibility nor absolute actuality is prior to the other, each coincides with the other.” Cusanus also argues that God must simultaneously possess perfections that are in the created realm otherwise incompatible; consider the following argument taken from his first and most famous work, On Divine Ignorance: “The absolute maximum [God] is actually everything that can possibly be (omnis id quod esse potest). The minimum is that than which there is no lesser, i.e., it is the absolutely smallest possible. Therefore, the maximum, which is all possibles, must be the minimum.” (Should classical theists be tempted to dismiss Cusanus as a Renaissance aberration, I would argue that something like his doctrine of the coincidence of opposites in God must be the case for any system of classical theism in which God is said to be able to create or not create, to create other worlds incompossible with the actual world, and to contain virtually or eminently the perfection of all possible creations.)

For Cusanus the emergence of such apparently contradictory conclusions is not a reason for abandoning classical theism; but for Hartshorne it is. The difference can be explained in part when one considers the motivation behind their respective speculative projects. For Hartshorne, speculative philosophy is, in the words of Whitehead, “the endeavor to frame a coherent, logical, necessary system of general terms in which every element of our experience can be interpreted.” To the extent that something fails to be described in those terms, even God, the system is deemed inadequate. For Cusanus, on the other hand, speculative philosophy is one means by which one prepares oneself for deeper, more intimate union with God that lies beyond discursive reasoning. Classical theism (a discursive habit of mind that attempts to show that certain predicates belong to God necessarily) anticipates negative, mystical theology (a silencing of discursive reason in expectation of an immediate union with God through love) as its proper fulfillment.

Note, however, that while the neo-classical theist may reject classical theism as simply incoherent, classical theism cannot so quickly dismiss its apparent rival. If classical theism anticipates the collapse of the contrary concepts characteristic of discursive reason, then the sharp distinctions between such pairs of opposites like act and potency or being and becoming – contrasts that especially typical of the metaphysical systems from which classical theism received its initial impetus – invite rethinking. For example, classically the notion of receptivity implies potentiality, which in turn implies imperfection; and yet we find a contemporary classical theist like Norris Clarke rethinking the issue in his 1993 Aquinas Lecture entitled Person and Being. Clarke states: “In the lower levels of being, indeed, receptivity is woven in with poverty, incompleteness, the process of change from potentiality to actuality. As we move higher in the scale of being, however, specifically into the personal, it turns more and more into an active, welcoming, gratefully responsive attitude, which is a positive joy-bringing aspect of personal relations.” True to has classical roots, Clarke immediately adds, “and if all change and time is removed from it, so that the receiver always possesses what it has as gift, as in the case of the inner life of the divine persons in the Christian Trinity, then receptivity, represented archetypically by the Second Person as Son and Word, must be a purely positive perfection connatural to being itself.” (My emphasis)

I am not surprised to find within the works of an especially astute student of classical theism like Clarke the assertion ‘receptivity must be a purely positive perfection connatural to being itself’, no matter how grating such an assertion might at first strike the classical theist’s ear. It is indicative of what I hope will be a the future progress of philosophical theism over the next century or so, namely a synthesis of the classical and neo-classical paradigms of divinity – a synthesis every bit as momentous as the synthesis of Platonism and Aristotelianism in the works of thinkers like Aquinas and a synthesis, I believe, called by the very aspiration of classical theism itself.

To that end, I propose to the reader the juxtaposition of three simple arguments from Anselm, Hartshorne, and Cusanus respectively. At play in their differences are some of the most primordial of our metaphysical concepts, concepts like the actual, the possible, the existent, change, time, limit, lack of limit, negation and perfection; and at stake is the most unassailable of all philosophical principles, the principle of non-contradiction. I do not yet know what sort of spark might fly from this titanic clash of flint and steel, but I recommend their juxtaposition as an object of frequent meditation for aspiring metaphysicians.

A new twist on an old problem.

Traditional natural law theorists are sometimes accused of committing the naturalistic fallacy, since their arguments about good and evil (both natural and moral) are usually based on a theoretical grasp of a thing’s nature. Proponents of the so-called “New Natural Law Theory,” for instance, blame the traditional natural law theorists for attempting to “deduce” a list of goods from a theoretical grasp of a things nature. Complicated arguments usually ensue regarding the relationship between the practical and theoretical operations of reason.

Now I think the naturalistic fallacy is closely related to the devaluing of nature typical of modern thought. For pre-moderns like Plato, Aristotle, Augustine and Aquinas, on the other hand, nature is value laden, so that a theoretical grasp of a thing’s nature in some way entails knowledge of what is good for that thing.

I wish, however, to address this claim that traditional natural law starts with a theoretical grasp of a thing’s nature and then from it “deduces” what is good for that thing. Discussions with my colleague Joe Spoerl have led me to adopt the following position: One can’t deduce an “ought” from an “is”, but we do get an “is” from an “ought,” and we get an “ought not” from an “is.” In this blog entry I’ll briefly explain and defend this claim.

Let’s start with getting an “ought not” from an “is.” We ought not to do evil. Evil, as Augustine and many others argue, is a privation of a proper good. A good being “proper” or not depends on its relation to a thing’s essence. Proper goods belong to a thing in virtue of the thing’s essence. Hence, eye sight is a proper good of a frog, but not a proper good of a rock; the privation of sight, or blindness, is an evil that a frog can suffer, but a rock cannot. In light of this definition of evil, it follows that in order to recognize evil one must first start from a knowledge of a thing’s essence, for we can’t recognize a “privation” unless we first know the proper “completion.” The more we know a thing, the more we know its proper goods, and the more we are able to recognize the privation of those goods as evil.

This line of reasoning supports the claim that from a theoretical grasp of a thing’s essence or nature we actually can deduce what things are evil for it. For example, a theoretical grasp of human nature would include in it the notion of “rational;” hence, we can deduce that the privation of reason is an evil for the human being, and the willful privation of reason a moral evil. Knowledge of a thing’s nature is thus required in order to recognize a lack as an evil. What a thing “is” must be known before one recognizes what “ought not” to be the case with it.

Here, however, is an interesting twist: where as knowledge of a thing’s nature is prior to knowing what is evil for it, knowledge of what is good for a thing is prior to knowing its nature. This is because, as Aristotle says in the De Anima II, we know a thing’s nature in terms of its powers, a power in terms of its activity, and an activity in terms of the object to which it is directed. The object brings into act and there by perfects and make intelligible the otherwise latent and incomplete natural power of the substance. All of the powers of the soul, then, are known in terms of the objects to which they are directed and by which they are actualized: the power of vision, for example, is made known by colors; the power of hearing is made known by sounds. After experience and reflection on the relationship between a thing and its surrounding environment, we progress to judgments concerning certain objects as perfective of a thing – that is, we judge that object “x” is “perfective of” and hence “good for” that thing; and upon this judgment we infer that the thing is of such a kind as to have “x” as one of its goods.

A things nature is known in terms of the goods that perfect it. Knowledge of goods is in this a way prior to knowledge of a things essence. From this it is clear that one cannot start with a knowledge of the essence and go on to deduce what goods belong to it. Rather, we see what things are good for a thing, and thereby come to a knowledge of the thing’s nature.

In this way, I would agree that you cannot deduce an “ought” (good) from an “is” – no deduction that starts from a thing’s essence arrive at a good that was not previously known. But you can and do get an “is” (a theoretical understanding of a things nature) from an “ought.”

For the sake of brevity I’ve had to sacrifice a certain degree of precision. When the inadequacies are detected I hope that they can serve as the occasion for further discussion.

Polonius: What do you read, my lord?

Hamlet: Words, words, words.

Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act 2, scene II

 

Part of what makes Hamlet Shakespeare’s greatest character is his dizzying word play.  But Hamlet’s linguistic felicity is not simply a matter of jest – he uses language to poke and to prod, to deceive, to coax, to insult, and to seduce.  What’s more he is painfully aware of the slipperiness of words.  On the one hand they grant us the ability to communicate and to express ourselves – without them there could be no sharing of truth.  On the other hand, they can be counterfeit and one can never be sure when they are spoken truly.  Finally, Hamlet recognizes that words have a power all their own to control us, to free us, to mesmerize us and to seduce us.  Words reveal things that we wish to hide, they tell us things that we don’t know, or don’t wish to know.  But what precisely are words and what do they tell us about ourselves?

 

Strangely, we tend to trivialize words, to think of them as poor substitutes for actions and things.  Actions speak louder than words, we claim.  A picture is worth a thousand words, we say. And yet, would actions speak at all without the assistance of words?  To suggest that actions speak is to assimilate them to words even as we try to elevate them above words.  And pictures?  Generally they come with words attached (titles or captions) and usually their significance is lost without the right words available to explain them.  Nevertheless, we want the real thing, not mere words.  But can we get the real thing without words? 

 

We often act as if we could somehow break free of words, as if they were a temporary inconvenience that we might somehow overcome.  For example we like to think that our own thoughts and emotions at least, our inner lives, are clear to us.  But for some reason we struggle to find the right words to communicate our thoughts and feelings to others.  Perhaps, we think, it is because the uniqueness of an experience, a feeling, or a thought is lost when it is packaged and communicated in the generality and impersonality of a word.  For example, it is a cliché to point out how overused and devalued words such as “love” are – I can love ice cream, a car, my pet, God, my wife, a TV show, etc.  How can a word used a thousand times a second to refer to countless objects, emotions, and relationships possibly express the particular and personal reality of my experience?  If only we could communicate and relate to each other and the world without having to rely on the inconvenience of words. 

 

We crave direct connection to ourselves, to nature and especially to other people; we long to connect without the intermediary of words and signs.  But we always are related to others through the mediation of symbols and signs, of words, broadly speaking.  Think of love for example — what closer and more complete relation can we have to someone?  And yet, even in love, our relation to the other person is mediated by symbols and signs, by words.  We do things as signs of love, we say “I love you”, we exchange rings and vows and give each other cards on special occasions, etc.  All of these are ‘words’ of one sort or another, trying to compensate for the fact that my love is only known to you through these words and gestures and never directly. 

 

Why do we need words?  Why are they so elusive?  What is the source of their power?

 

Rather than seeing words and signs as a limitation, as a stumbling block to true relationship, direct connection, and pure experience I think we should recognize them as signs of something fundamental: human experience is essentially symbolic, composed of signs, words.  Without words we would have no relation to things or people or God.  To dream of a relation without words, to dream of immediate connection is to fail to understand the nature of relation and connection.  To dream of an experience that would not call for words and signs is to fail to understand the nature of experience.  Words are the symbols of our nature – namely, that our nature is always pointing beyond itself, beyond the here and now, beyond the immediate.  We transcend ourselves.  If we didn’t we couldn’t relate to anything, not even to ourselves.  But to always be pointing beyond oneself is the basic structure of what a sign, or a word, is.

 

To understand this we need only to think about the objects of our experience and our relationships to other people.  Do things exist without words?  Do emotions, feelings, relationships exist outside of language?  For us there is never simply an object or a relationship in a pure experience that would be prior to any and all words or signs – everything we experience is already a kind of sign, pointing beyond itself, back to us or somewhere else.  Every emotion or thought is by its nature related as a sign to something else: my elevated pulse and flushed cheeks are signs of my anger; my anger points to an offence and hence to my ideals; pleasure and pain, Aristotle tells us, are signs of our character; a thought points to some problem or question; my computer points out to me all the work I have to do that requires writing and words; the door signifies passage and movement as well as enclosure and withdrawal (I can close the door to keep others out, to hide my possessions); the window signifies dreaming, the beyond, the outside.  The barren tree limbs signify to me that winter is not over and the stones signify the solidity of foundations.  Things are already words, signs pointing in all directions and teaching me where I came from, who I am, and where I am going (to paraphrase the title from Gauguin’s famous painting).  From these things I learn what words are.  Emotions are signs too.  My actions are signs; my body is a system of signs that communicate and express, they signify to me and to others in ways that I am never fully controlling.  Hölderlin writes, “We are a sign that is not read.”  To be in love with someone is to be a sign pointing to another sign; and if we are to love the other person we need to learn how to read, how to listen. 

 

If this is true, then facility with words, with signs, with language means letting the world speak to us.  To speak well begins with listening well.  But this requires recognizing that words are not tools, instruments, they are not merely a means of communication that we create and control.  Rather they are more like messengers or spirits inhabiting things, thoughts and feelings.  We need to be able to hear the other person who is speaking, whose being is speaking, whose being is to hear and be heard, to signify and be significant.

Polonius: What do you read, my lord?
Hamlet: Words, words, words.
Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act 2, scene II

Part of what makes Hamlet Shakespeare’s greatest character is his dizzying word play.  But Hamlet’s linguistic felicity is not simply a matter of jest – he uses language to poke and to prod, to deceive, to coax, to insult, and to seduce.  What’s more he is painfully aware of the slipperiness of words.  On the one hand they grant us the ability to communicate and to express ourselves – without them there could be no sharing of truth.  On the other hand, they can be counterfeit and one can never be sure when they are spoken truly.  Finally, Hamlet recognizes that words have a power all their own to control us, to free us, to mesmerize us and to seduce us.  Words reveal things that we wish to hide, they tell us things that we don’t know, or don’t wish to know.  But what precisely are words and what do they tell us about ourselves?

Strangely, we tend to trivialize words, to think of them as poor substitutes for actions and things.  Actions speak louder than words, we claim.  A picture is worth a thousand words, we say. And yet, would actions speak at all without the assistance of words?  To suggest that actions speak is to assimilate them to words even as we try to elevate them above words.  And pictures?  Generally they come with words attached (titles or captions) and usually their significance is lost without the right words available to explain them.  Nevertheless, we want the real thing, not mere words.  But can we get the real thing without words?

We often act as if we could somehow break free of words, as if they were a temporary inconvenience that we might somehow overcome.  For example we like to think that our own thoughts and emotions at least, our inner lives, are clear to us.  But for some reason we struggle to find the right words to communicate our thoughts and feelings to others.  Perhaps, we think, it is because the uniqueness of an experience, a feeling, or a thought is lost when it is packaged and communicated in the generality and impersonality of a word.  For example, it is a cliché to point out how overused and devalued words such as “love” are – I can love ice cream, a car, my pet, God, my wife, a TV show, etc.  How can a word used a thousand times a second to refer to countless objects, emotions, and relationships possibly express the particular and personal reality of my experience?  If only we could communicate and relate to each other and the world without having to rely on the inconvenience of words.

We crave direct connection to ourselves, to nature and especially to other people; we long to connect without the intermediary of words and signs.  But we always are related to others through the mediation of symbols and signs, of words, broadly speaking.  Think of love for example — what closer and more complete relation can we have to someone?  And yet, even in love, our relation to the other person is mediated by symbols and signs, by words.  We do things as signs of love, we say “I love you”, we exchange rings and vows and give each other cards on special occasions, etc.  All of these are ‘words’ of one sort or another, trying to compensate for the fact that my love is only known to you through these words and gestures and never directly.

Why do we need words?  Why are they so elusive?  What is the source of their power?

Rather than seeing words and signs as a limitation, as a stumbling block to true relationship, direct connection, and pure experience I think we should recognize them as signs of something fundamental: human experience is essentially symbolic, composed of signs, words.  Without words we would have no relation to things or people or God.  To dream of a relation without words, to dream of immediate connection is to fail to understand the nature of relation and connection.  To dream of an experience that would not call for words and signs is to fail to understand the nature of experience.  Words are the symbols of our nature – namely, that our nature is always pointing beyond itself, beyond the here and now, beyond the immediate.  We transcend ourselves.  If we didn’t we couldn’t relate to anything, not even to ourselves.  But to always be pointing beyond oneself is the basic structure of what a sign, or a word, is.

To understand this we need only to think about the objects of our experience and our relationships to other people.  Do things exist without words?  Do emotions, feelings, relationships exist outside of language?  For us there is never simply an object or a relationship in a pure experience that would be prior to any and all words or signs – everything we experience is already a kind of sign, pointing beyond itself, back to us or somewhere else.  Every emotion or thought is by its nature related as a sign to something else: my elevated pulse and flushed cheeks are signs of my anger; my anger points to an offence and hence to my ideals; pleasure and pain, Aristotle tells us, are signs of our character; a thought points to some problem or question; my computer points out to me all the work I have to do that requires writing and words; the door signifies passage and movement as well as enclosure and withdrawal (I can close the door to keep others out, to hide my possessions); the window signifies dreaming, the beyond, the outside.  The barren tree limbs signify to me that winter is not over and the stones signify the solidity of foundations.  Things are already words, signs pointing in all directions and teaching me where I came from, who I am, and where I am going (to paraphrase the title from Gauguin’s famous painting).  From these things I learn what words are.  Emotions are signs too.  My actions are signs; my body is a system of signs that communicate and express, they signify to me and to others in ways that I am never fully controlling.  Hölderlin writes, “We are a sign that is not read.”  To be in love with someone is to be a sign pointing to another sign; and if we are to love the other person we need to learn how to read, how to listen.

If this is true, then facility with words, with signs, with language means letting the world speak to us.  To speak well begins with listening well.  But this requires recognizing that words are not tools, instruments, they are not merely a means of communication that we create and control.  Rather they are more like messengers or spirits inhabiting things, thoughts and feelings.  We need to be able to hear the other person who is speaking, whose being is speaking, whose being is to hear and be heard, to signify and be significant.