Killing God as historical cause

Rationalist arguments against God-in-the-gaps are useful for ferreting out an idea of God that really does need to go: God as a first cause in history. It’s a fine myth and a terrible theology.

By now we’ve had four hundred years of gods who needed to get some natural process going: the Newtonian god that had to hit the planets with just enough finely-tuned force to put them into orbit; the pre-Darwinian god that had to make sure that someone put the chickens and the worms in the same ecosystem or needed to make sure that the chickens were given beaks that could pull out the worms; now there are arguments for the god who needed to form some first living cell, announce the Big Bang into existence, tune up the gravitational constant, decide that ice should have a greater volume than water, etc.. If we could only go far enough back in time we could see God at work! He’s got to be back there somewhere!

The argument is about as good as one that would claim to find God by zooming in on some area. How much resolution would it take to see all the little divinions at the bottom of things!?! He’s got to be down there somewhere! Whatever begins to exist must have a cause, right? So matter has to begin to exist at some point, since under that threshold there must be nothing.



The argument of Humanae Vitae

1.) Before 1960, all known forms of contraception were either barriers or poisons and so could be easily categorized as contradicting the (more or less biological) nature of sex.

2.) After 196o synthetic estrogen became widely available and could suppress ovulation, making pregnancy much less likely (failure rates between 2-10%). Unlike barriers and poisons, women’s bodies release estrogen to suppress ovulation all the time. So long as the only Catholic objection to contraception was its being a barrier or poison which interfered with a natural process, the Pill was licit.

3.) If there is something wrong with artificial contraception it could no longer be based on appeals to defending the integrity of a natural process. The easy condemnation of biologism was lost. What it was replaced with is articulated in Humanae Vitae pp. 12 ad 13, which argue that willful suppression contradicts love of one’s spouse (12) and God (13).

4.) HV speaks of the inseparable connection between the unitive and procreative significance of marital sex, and somewhere along the way the became the “dual ends of the sexual act”. The only point HV is trying to make, it seems to me, is that contraception is wrong because it is loveless, which is such a bold claim that everyone has been assuming that it must be saying something else. The point is not that marital intercourse has two autonomous goals that Catholics have to try to simultaneously both keep in view, it’s the much more striking claim that an essential condition of loving someone erotically is wanting to have a child with them, at least so far as this means doing nothing to suppress fertility.

5.) Claiming this does nothing to remove the usual objections. What about elderly marriage? Marriage to women with hysterectomies? HV might be content to just claim that the eros here can only be imperfect, though accounts of a type of thing don’t take peculiar circumstances into account. Just how far one can develop this idea of degrees of imperfect eros might be an interesting research project.


Even if we ignore everything unique about Christian marriage, its status as sacrament is a prima facie objection to the possibility of Christian divorce. Christian churches, as far as I can tell, have never raised the possibility of a formal process that could undo a sacrament – there is not even a name for what, say, “unbaptizing” would be. Among Catholics and Orthodox this problem is even more acute by being repeated in several other sacraments. What would “unconfession” be? Or unconfection of the Eucharistic species? True, there is some sort of dispensation from Holy Orders, but the priesthood as sacrament is seen as indelible.

Any notion of Christian divorce either has to see it as non-sacramental or has to give some account of unsacramenting. Option 2 is as unknown both to history as to spellcheck, and so the possibility of Christian divorce rests on denying it’s a sacrament. Some Reformation churches did this long ago, but it is not a viable option for Catholics.

Catholicism seems to be in the process of looking for a tertium quid between marriage and divorce: a sort of yet-to-be-defined pastoral status that nullifies the binding character of the vow while still not recognizing any formal process like divorce. This new status, as far as I can tell, would not be the result of any one-size-fits-all process but of personal consultation and spiritual guidance but would still have to somehow unsacrament a previous marriage. While I get the reasons for wanting this to be so, the cost to our understanding of the sacraments is usually not factored into the discussion. The cost in question is pretty clear: even if all of sacraments depend on ministers to be accomplished, they are chiefly the exercise of God’s fidelity to the Church, which leaves us with no account of unsacramenting that avoids imputing infidelity to God. This is one of the main reasons why marriage is the paradigm for understanding all of God’s relations to his Church, and why the tradition of the Church saw marriage as indissoluble and as sacramental in a mutually-implicating way.

A grue-bleen theodicy

Compare the argument from Pseudo-Empiricus:

If God is willing but not able to get rid of evil, how is he all-powerful?

If not willing but able, how is he good?

If willing and able, why is there evil?

And a parallel argument from someone halfway through watching A New Hope:

If George Lucas is willing but not able to avenge the destruction of Alderaan, how is he the script writer?

If he is not willing but able, how is this movie not utterly nihilist?

If he is willing and able, why is it not avenged?

An overlong account of creation

An atheist claim at Strange Notions:

[I]f God exists, then prior to creating anything, all that existed was pure perfection. But at present, there exists a universe made up of finite constituents. That fact is more surprising on theism than it is on a view which states that the natural world is an uncreated, causally-closed system.


[I]f God is to have reasons to create at all, those reasons would lead him to create one or more of what philosopher Evan Fales calls perfect creatures. A perfect creature is a person just like God in every way but whereas God is uncreated, a perfect creature is created. A perfect creature is maximal in his power, his knowledge, and most importantly, his moral perfection.

Something is fishy in the foundations of the argument though, since all these same premises could be evidence against the existence of God from the fact that we don’t have perfect houses. What, aren’t houses “finite constituents” of the universe? Look, there’s one over there!

So are we supposed to restrict ourselves to just natural things?  If Lassie has a genetic disease making him an imperfect dog, are we to assume that the theist position is that the imperfection is a feature of Lassie’s creation by God? Doesn’t the fact that it is a genetic disease require that it arise from his ancestors?

If you want to talk about creation so far as it is set apart from the productive activity of the universe, then you can’t just take a finite thing and force one to choose whether its features are created or Naturalist. Your account of creation demands some hypothesis about the contributions from secondary causes, and these hypotheses run the gamut from Berkeleyian divine-mind-projection theories and various forms of occasionalism to the Scholastic Molinist-Thomist theories to Darwin’s well-known if continually overlooked framing of his own evolutionary account of as an account of secondary causes. But on any account what we actually find in any supposedly created universe is always conditioned by secondary causes, and so where these cannot bring forth perfect persons they will neither be found nor intended to exist in creation.*

We either have to take “creation” as primary-cum-secondary causes or as the primary cause in its opposition to the secondary, and either way breaks a straightforward inference from the features of things to the act of creation. What is odd about the Strange Notions debate is that both debaters are working from the same incoherent conflation of these two meanings since both assume that if creation occurs we should be able to take any feature of the universe as directly related to creation, which is something like taking any act of the executive branch as an act of the president. There is, of course, some sense in which every executive action is from the president, but any account of how this occurs hangs on a latticework of qualifying features like co-operation, delegation of authority, initiative and latitude in subordinates, spheres of competence, and the toleration or suppression of incompetence, mistakes, or mutiny.

So how should be understand the primary : secondary cause relation, where “creation” is sometimes understood as both the first term alone and as the confluence of both terms? Here’s a theory:

Creation is the communication of existence to what is other than God, and one of the simpler ways of dividing this from the action of secondary causes is to divide what causes existence from what causes becoming. By existence we mean the unreachable limits of both ends of the Porphyrian tree, which can neither reach existence as some highest genus nor as a concrete particular this. All concepts are therefore dynamic entities with a trajectory both upwards toward what is at the limit of abstraction and a trajectory downwards toward what is the principle of all human intellection in sense. Without existence as a downward limit of conceptualization concepts could not be about anything, without the upward limit they could have no intelligibility, and so to do away with being at either limit is to lose both the possibility and foundation of concepts.

When we say that the creator is the cause of existence or “why we have something or not nothing” what this involves is primary causes : secondary causes :: being : conceptualizable.  On the one hand, this means that all human concepts are proportionate to secondary causes and are only appropriate for knowing them, on the other hand human thought can know these concepts as trajectories to an unreachable limit and so as dependent on a non-conceptual other than serves as a foundation. In one sense this non-conceptual other is nature, both in the subconscious structures of mind and the sensory givens of the world, but it must be nature as ordered to truth and not mere human prejudice, which requires that this foundation either be or arise from intelligence.

More to the point, the dynamic character of concepts can only be unified by being if being overcomes the opposition between the abstract-intelligible-formal and the concrete, i.e. by what lacks physical genesis while still being a source of action, and what is entirely present in both the world of sense and of abstract being while nevertheless being infinitely removed from either. It’s either this or its source that we call God as creator.

The truth of Naturalism is the same truth Kant found, sc. that existence as such is not found among concepts and therefore is not the object of properly human science. But this overlooks the complementary fact that existence is an unreachable limit of the concepts themselves in such a way that it can be known as truth-preserving while overcoming the opposition of the necessary existence of the intelligible and the self-existence of what requires personality or something transcending it. And any claim that it isn’t interested in me has to get past the obvious objection that it is structuring my thought right now.

Where the account of creation assumed at Strange Notions fits in this is anyone’s guess.

*That said, even if the universe is complete in space it is not complete in time, and so any definitive ruling out of “perfect persons” could only be done from the end of history.

An Ochkamish Nominalist argument

1.) God is omnipotent.
2.) Omnipotence = can do all that is logically possible.
3.) Therefore, all that is logically possible is really possible.
4a.) If things have essences, then some things that are logically possible are not really possible.
4b The proof) Let some thing with an essence perform all actions that are logically possible. At least some are not real possibilities since essence, if it does anything, imposes limit on possible actions.
4c.) And so if some thing has an essence, then to perform all logically possible actions would have to both be done and not be done by the thing, which is a contraction.
4d.) Therefore, either no thing has an essence, or some logically possible actions are not real possibilities.
5.) But all logically possible actions are real possibilities.
6.) Therefore, no thing has an essence.


This argument fails to distinguish what is possible with respect to the absolute power of God from what is possible for creatures considered in their finite existence. As finite, it is analytic that the creature is limited in his powers to act. Distinguo 4b and deny conclusion.


Where a possibility is really absent from a subject, it is impossible for it to come to be by any power, whether human or divine. Therefore the problem remains.

Objection 2

God is the source of the existence of possibilities, and so if he were to cause some things to come about by divine power, we simply judge that he also causes a possibility to come forth also.

Response 2

I concede the argument, but deny that such a possibility can be introduced into any finite essence, since to introduce a possibility into a finite essence against this essence would be to make an essence that both can and cannot do something. Example: if it is of the essence of brute animal that it not reason, it is impossible that a brute animal reason. Yet brute animals can reason by the absolute power of God, as is clear from Balaam’s ass. Thus the argument remains.

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