Dialogue on creation and possibility

A: But then your whole idea of creation is contradictory.

B: Why?

A: Because you deny it is from anything at all, but if we deny everything then a fortiori we deny real possibility.

B: Right. Real possibility is only in matter, or something like it.

A: But then you’re denying that creation was possible, and yet here it is!

B: That does seem to be a problem.

A: There seems to be a related problem for classical theism: if the universe came to be, it was possible. But this possibility was either in God or in another. If in another, then God did not create ex nihilo; if in God, then God is not a pure actuality.

B: But it seems really odd to say that if we start with the power to do anything, that the universe is not possible.

A: In one sense, sure, but not in another – if you start with everything in perfect fulness, then what else is there to make?

B: So your first objection seems to be that creation involves doing the impossible, the second is that pure act could not create.

A: I think so. You need possibility to be a given to get anything, even possibility. This might be why Avicenna put possibility outside of God.

B: But this just can’t work. The real has to come from some source. There can’t be a fundamental duality of God and possibility.

A: So you say.

B: But why can’t creation be unique in being the only action where the possibility and actuality of a thing are simultaneous?

A: Who knows, maybe this isn’t even unique: a thing only has to be possible when it is, I suppose. Maybe this is the sense of “concreation” of possibility. Still, there seems to be a problem.

B: How so?

A: Because creation is ongoing. If you really think possibility and act are simultaneous in creation, then any future state of the universe is impossible – including the one three seconds from now. But… That wasn’t true.

The glory and problem of creation

For those who see the divine as demiurge, the world is not like the god, but like the forms that the demiurge looks to. For those limited to the Aristotelian account of the divine as actuality or energia, the creature is like the divine so far as it is in act, but not according to the whole of its being. There always remains some potential part in it by which it is not like the god. The doctrine of creation takes a final, decisive step by making the totality of being a communication from the divine

The nexus between the ultimate forms and the participated beings is entirely outside the participated beings, and occurs only in the demiurge. For Aristotle, the nexus between the ultimate moving act and the moved acts is within the moved beings themselves: the energy he gives to act is the energy by which they act; but something interior an essential to them is not imparted by the first mover.

On this approach to creation, creation marks a certain limit case of putting the works of God within God himself. At the lowest level, of which demiurge theology is the noblest case, but which also includes Epicureanism and forms of deism, actual substances are placed outside of God, and he gives them, at most, some accidental form. In Aristotle, only potential reality is outside of God. In creation doctrine, no reality is outside of God. It is precisely this sort of exterior reality that we are negating with the “nihil” in creation ex nihilo.

Now one can retreat from creation ex nihilo for pious motives – if we really insist that there is no reality outside of the creative act we lose a real principle in things by which we might divide the divine from the created. Deists would never confuse God with creation since they are two totally different actualitites; Aristotle could never confuse the act of the prime mover with moved acts since there was the reality of matter that was entirely outside the activity of the first mover. But creation ex nihilo denies any reality to something outside of divine act. Just as we should challenge the Deist and Aristotelian accounts for leaving some reality with no explanation of how it is there, the creation ex nihilo account is open to challenge that it leaves us with no reality that can account for the difference between God and creation, which seem to negate any real division between God and creation.

St. Thomas might be thinking of a problem like this with his doctrine that prime matter is not created but “concreated”, though (if this is what’s going on) a problem like this deserves more than a verbal explanation.

Hylomorphic note (3)

But it’s crazy to think first matter is a feature of the universe. That said it’s only the universe that has all real possibilities of material things in it. but how does one square this with the need for a subject having no act at all? Are we forced to make some sort of division between “having no act” and “being potential to all natural things’?

More generally, how do we tell the difference between “potential to all material things” when said of prime matter and the universe?

Hylomorphism note (2)

So if “matter” is a recognition of the ability of things to be acted on it is an abstraction from the things themselves. Form is likewise an abstraction from the various ways that things can act. But there is an important difference: in acting on matter one and the same thing goes from one state to another, and so has an indefinite character as neither this thing nor that. But there is no form indefinite to “this”. Making form indefinite would simply make it a kind of matter. But then the abstraction picks out something real in matter that is not picked out in form, sc. its indefinite character.

But here we seem to fall into a trick of thought: because the abstraction is appropriate to the indefinite character of matter, it seems that matter exists in a continuous way. But in fact acorns make trees and trees make planks, but acorns can’t make planks. It is not the same ability to be acted upon that passes from one thing to the next. There is no matter running under all things. This is true even of prime matter, which is not (as alchemists seem to have thought) that which can become anything but only the recognition that the power to be acted upon sometimes includes the generation of new substance.

An analogy for prime matter. Say that the human auditory range is from 20 to 20k hertz. It follows that any sound falling in that range might be a word, and that no sound outside this range could be a word. We can therefore call the range 20 to 20k hertz “the prime word” (i.e. prime matter with respect to the domain of words in the same way that we speak of prime matter is matter in the domain of all natural things. There is something that can become every word, and every word is made from it, but it does not mean that there is some one thing in every word that can become any other. In the same way, prime matter is just the universe considered in all its possible ways of being acted upon.

Hylomorphism note

Hylomorphism posits matter as underling all change, but this matter is not a being but an aspect of a thing, that is, its ability to be worked with or turned into something else. We have no matter lying about, but we do have trees that can be made into coffee tables and hydrogen atoms that stars can turn into heavy elements. Similar things might be said about form: we have no power to act lying around, only artistic skill in artists, the heaviness and momentum of a pendulum in a clock, the heat in the flame of a cigarette lighter.

So what becomes of hylomorphism then? A natural thing can act and be acted upon. Among such things, some can be acted on to such an extent that they become another thing altogether – for Aristotle, these were the sublunar things, whereas the heavenly things could only be acted on to change place, but never change in being.

Does the Copernican turn obscure nature?

In Aspects of Plant Intelligence, Anthony Trewevas claims that plant intelligence is much harder to see in laboratories since plants in such an environment act in a much tamer manner and don’t exercise the full palate of their powers. The reason for this seems pretty clear: a plant in a laboratory isn’t fending for itself but is being either cared for or killed off by the researcher. A grad student in a laboratory experiment won’t use the full palate of his powers either, and the artificial environment – with the necessary need to hide what exactly is being asked of him or what the researcher is really looking for – will tend to lead to a half-hearted application of even the powers he is asked to exercise.

If we can generalize this principle to include even plants, then the path seems open to generalizing it even to matter itself. To have a nature at all seems to involve some ability to receive information and respond to the world, and the artificial world of the laboratory has a tendency to make this information processing far less profound than it actually is. At the limit of this, we get a view of matter as mere stuff, which is supposed to have no interaction at all with the world beyond being pushed around in a completely extrinsic manner. Matter, on this view, is purely inert: a car with no gas and no driver, and in fact with no structure at all beyond what allows for a very primitive set of responses to being hit. But this is not the description of a nature but of a heap.

We can see this account of matter as false while still recognizing that it has borne an impressive amount of knowledge. But false it is. To exist at all – to be more than a mere heap or extrinsically denominated whole – requires some sort of information processing structure and therefore something that will count as knowledge. We can keep the strata of existence (inanimate, plant, animal, human), but they are not divided by knowing/ unknowing binary but by various analogues of knowledge.

If this is right, then the attempt to isolate various phenomena, so that the nature in question can answer only the question we put to it, will open up a new vista of understanding only by occluding another perhaps more profound reality in the nature we seek to understand. On this account the experimental method is only one move in a larger philosophical attempt to understand nature, one that needs to include a phenomenological and ontological move as well.

Authenticity, sex and education

Contemporary Westerners are committed to what Charles Taylor calls the ethic of authenticity. We tend to value things in light of how they fulfill us as individuals. We want careers that correspond to who we are and resonate with some unique and fundamental characteristic in us; we choose a church and a school that are tailored to our peculiar needs; we obsess from puberty over whether the ones we are attracted to are the one for us; etc. All this seems obvious to us, and we can easily wonder how it could ever be otherwise, but authenticity is unintelligible and even repugnant to persons who see these sorts of decisions as belonging to a community or tradition: those who believed that you should go to the Church in your neighborhood and belong to the sect of your nation; or that you should marry those chosen by parent or who are closest to your family; or who see work and labor not as personal vocations but as community or familial functions (e.g. you’re a smith because you are a Smith, you’re a priest because you’re a Coen, you’re a circus performer because you’re a Wallenda, etc.) Some glimmers of this traditional view remain (as when people root for local or national sports teams or take pride in their ancestry) but for the most part the sort of structures necessary for people to enjoy traditionalism simply don’t exist, and even if history took a strong turn toward traditionalism tomorrow, we would still be fifty years from having a traditionalist or communitarian society.

I don’t see any simple way to praise or condemn either authenticity or traditionalism. I favor authenticity on balance, but this is not to say one can’t recognize severe limitations and even soul-crushing blind spots in it. We can all feel horror over a traditionalist ethic that traps the occasional person in a life they find repugnant and to which they have no innate inclination, but there are horrors in authenticity too. Authenticity takes it as axiomatic that  any action as good if all those affected by it find it fulfilling, but it’s easy enough to see where this can go wrong.

Sexual activity seems to be one area of human life where those committed to an ethic of authenticity fail to see the paradoxes and difficulties of their commitments. We want Churches, schools, communities, etc. that speak to our unique needs, but what about the manifold ways that sexual desires are individuated to persons? We can’t condemn them like we condemn violence or property crime, where the activity is clearly contrary to the personal desires of the victims. So one group of those in the ethic of authenticity see no meaningful limits at all in sexuality as such – we can condemn violence or imperfect consent, but only in the same way we condemn any act of violence against the person. Within the ethic of authenticity, there doesn’t seem to be any sexual morality, only acts of violence that might happen to involve sex. Everything else is just a matter of what (mature enough?) participants find fulfilling. Notice that there is much more involved here than a “do no harm” ethic. Authenticity adds to this that justice is best achieved by an activity that all parties find fulfilling.

True, we are not always in a position to know what is fulfilling to us. We can meaningfully tell someone “you don’t want to do that” even while recognizing that he obviously has an immediate desire to do the thing in question, like a man who lights a match to have enough light to see if he still has gas in the tank. But I don’t see all that many arguments about sexual morality that move along these lines, and it’s even unclear what such an argument would look like. There seems to be a widespread disapproval of, say, polyamory, but I’m aware of no arguments that try to make the desire itself mistaken. And who would be bold enough to say that the desire of the other person is mistaken anyway? What puts us in a better position to see that than the person who has it? Whatever danger is ultimately involved is more subtle than the dangers we can point to in with a guy holding a match over the gas tank.

Similar problems arise in education. Students want to take class X because they find X-related activities fulfilling, but education seems to be largely a process of insisting that what one finds fulfilling now is not what is ultimately fulfilling. We can get by for a while by being confident that students are young enough that no one thinks they’re in a position to know what is fulfilling or not, but this confidence fades quickly.

So the traditional theories of sex and education have yet to fully find their justification within the ethic of authenticity, and there is a widespread belief that authenticity simply rules them out altogether. I haven’t got the answer either.



Negating what is finite in intelligence

We’re constrained to say the Creator has intelligence or something transcending it, and so has reasons for creating. But this sense of reason needs to be sifted of what is peculiar to finite reason.

Our reason takes reasons from outside itself, and so there is a difference in existence between things known as they exist and as they exist in understanding. This makes the reasons abstract, but since we always act for the sake of something concrete, we can always distinguish our reasons from what we act for.* There is always a formal end, or an aspect under which we see something as desirable and the objective end, or the concrete thing that appears to us under that aspect. So Robin Hood’s formal end is the relief of the poor and his objective end is money. The first is an abstract ideal; the second a concrete thing.

Infinite intellect negates this division between formal and objective end. This opens up certain theological possibilities. If formal and objective end are unified, might be able to see the concrete reality as such as the intelligible aspect under which it is created. There is not some abstract reason motivating the creation of this concrete entity, the concrete entity just is the reason. This is, for us, an impediment to understanding providence, since we look for reasons that might be alienated from the individual as such.

The identity of the formal and objective end also means that created realities exist not merely notionally in the Creator, but even according to what we are constrained to call a “physical” existence. To put the created only notionally in the Creator would be to alienate formal and objective ends.

*This abstract/ concrete binary is the Aristotelian one, which sees the intellectual existence of things as posterior to their sensual existence. Plato reverses this order, but it would lead to a mere vocabulary change, i.e. we would say that we know the thing itself, but act to attain a participation in it.

“The cycle of violence”

Speaking of a “cycle of violence” presupposes that we have bracketed any discussion of justice or fault: one can’t speak of “stopping the cycle of violence” so far as is thinking that A was unjustly attacked by B. Now bracketing the discussion of fault might be crucial – everyone is aware of times when the disputes over fault have become intractable and so we are forced to seek some conceptual scheme that can allow us to resolve the dispute without assigning fault. “Circle of violence” is just such a conceptual scheme.*

But bracketing off a claim to justice requires a pretty powerful alternate good in its place, but just what is that? Certainly the “cycle of violence” metaphor seems to come with its own built in justification – the fighting is cyclical and so incapable of any final resolution. The metaphor suggests that fighting itself is inherently futile since it is only a moment in a larger cycle that can never resolve anything. But this claim is nonsense, and perhaps even beside the point. Almost none of the wars America has fought can be meaningfully seen as moments in an unending cycle of violence, continuing until now. Where are the Kamikaze pilots? The redcoats? Violence has decisive resolutions all the time, it even seems to have them as a rule. It might make more sense to speak of a circle of violence in the context of a protracted war that has been without resolution for decades, but even wars like these have had decisive resolutions, say in the wars between Rome and Carthage. So the seeming built-in justification for “ending the cycle of violence” can’t be right.

Within the Christian narrative, there is a clear sense to ending the cycle of violence. This is simply mercy and forgiveness, and an acceptance of the mystical value of suffering. We overlook justice for the sake of a much greater good – forgiveness. The Christian has in this the good of conforming to Christ. But can this sort of narrative be played in a secular key?

There are certainly decent secular arguments against war, but arguing against the cycle of violence requires much more than this, namely a greater good than justice. Secular theorists might, like any else, argue that some belligerents are either too weak to reasonable hope to resolve their wars, or that they are unwilling (rightly or wrongly) to do what needs to be done to resolve the war, but this is simply an argument against war as such. They might develop a doctrine of the brotherhood of all persons or the mystical power of but these are also arguments against war altogether, not against forgoing justice.

If we want to hang onto the idea of ending the cycle of violence, we need (1) a recognition that violence is sometimes just, but that (2) there is a good that transcends justice. Christianity has exactly this in mercy, but this doctrine leans heavily on things that are purely of revelation: the redemptive power of suffering, the mystical value of conformity to Christ, the trust in providence for those who follow Christ, etc. There doesn’t seem to be any secular versions of (2), only arguments against the reasonableness or justice of going to war at all, or at least in engaging in some particular war.


*one can also bracket the discussion of justice because he thinks both sides are unjust and doesn’t want to bring it up – say in a dispute between the Hatfields and Mc Coys. But this can’t be assumed universally any time we argue against ending the circle of violence, since thsi is just a way of smuggling in the idea that all war is wrong.

Better, but not the whole (yet)

-The doctrine of the Mystical Body seems to be a repudiation of the idea that the whole spiritual good could ever be present in a single sort of spiritual life. Some spiritual lives are better than others, and some are even ideals, but all come at some sort of spiritual cost.

-All the opportunities for holiness in marriage seem to be at the same time impediments to holiness. I am both baffled how anyone could ever be holy or know their own weakness unless they had to raise a child, and yet am completely aware that the process requires sacrificing an attention that could be directed entirely to God. I reject all the easy attempts to resolve the paradox, as though it were just a matter of focusing entirely on the element of self-knowledge and sanctification and making that one’s divine attention; or else saying that the renunciation of family life comes at no real spiritual cost, even if it is a cost that, if paid, will yield a hundred-fold return.

-The resurrected self in some way overcomes the essential partiality of the spiritual life and allows the individual to be a whole while at the same time a citizen of a new Jerusalem. But this sort of self is outside of history, and all the encounters with the resurrected Christ in Scripture point to an uncanny presence that no one can make sense of in the present categories of understanding. Those on the road to Emmeus see Christ but are forbidden from recognizing him (???) The disciples get various orders from the Christ about where to fish and yet don’t recognize him until they catch something (not from his voice?) John makes the telling but incoherent comment that “No one asked if it was Christ, for they knew he was” (???) And Thomas responds to Christ not with relief or surprise or joy or even more doubt – all understandable human responses – but with the left-field profession of Christ’s divinity. This is before we deal with Christ’s appearing in locked rooms, being transfigured, or doing things at different places (this is taken as a sign the Gospels are incoherent – whereas it seems to fit better with the overall picture to think that Christ’s body just had a less rigid connection to being in place). And all of this is before we try to make sense of Paul’s idea of a “spiritual body”, which, by our present categories, seems to be a contradictio in adjecto.

-“In the Resurrection, there is neither marriage nor giving in marriage, but they live like angels in heaven.” By getting bodies, one becomes like the bodiless; by ceasing to be immaterial (the soul in separation) we become more like spirits.

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