Sunday, August 27, 2006

Pure Actuality and Immutability

Many theists who subscribe to divine immutability and timelessness follow Aquinas in holding that God is Pure Act. For Aquinas, this means not only that God is completely determinate and without any residual indeterminacy or "potency" but also that God is existence or "actuality" pure and simple (ipsum esse subsistens, actus purus, etc.), without any limitation. Accordingly, there are degrees of being. God exists in the fullest possible sense exhibiting all pure perfections to the highest degree. God's essence is therefore said to be identical with his existence. What he is, the very fullness of being, guarantees that he is. Creatures exist in a diminished sense, however, and exhibit perfections only to a limited degree as constrained by their natures or essences. Thus, in creatures there is a real distinction between existence and essence. What they are does not suffice to guarantee that they are.

From this perspective, change requires that actualization of a potency. God is essentially Pure Act and so lacks potency. So God cannot change. Immutability, in short, is necessary to secure the Creator-creature distinction.

I think this argument is fallacious. And to explain why I'd like to consider what it could mean to say that God's essence is identical to his existence.

The key word here is "essence". In one sense, that term denotes the qualities or properties that are necessary to a thing. Thus, it is generally held by theists that God is essentially (i.e., necessarily) good. In no possible world is God evil, unjust, or nonbenevolent. But not all of God's qualities can be essential in this sense. For theists also generally hold that God is free with respect to all sorts of things, such as whether to create and which sort of world to create. That God is the creator of Adam and Eve is, for example, not necessary, for God need not have created them at all. So if we say that God existence is identical with his essence, then we cannot take "essence" to mean that which is necessary to God. Instead, we have to construe "essence" in a broader sense to refer to all those properties that in fact characterize God, whether necessarily or not.

So we arrive at a conception of the divine essence that contains two different sorts of properties: (1) properties that are necessary to God (like goodness), and (2) properties that God possesses contingently (like being a creator). What this means is that the fullness of being (pure actuality) is compatible with multiple possible determinations. Pure actuality in that sense is compatible both with God's being a creator and with his not being a creator.

But if God's being Pure Act is compatible with multiple possible determinations, then there is no obvious contradiction in God's changing with respect to some of his contingent properties all the while remaining Pure Act. In other words, being "Pure Act" in the sense of the fullness of being does not automatically entail being completely determinate without any potency.

As for whether the contingency of creation implies potency in God, Aquinas' would reason something like this:
  1. Whatever is in potency with respect to some determination can only acquire that determination through the agency of something that is in act with respect to that determination.
  2. Nothing can be both in potency and in act with respect to the same determination at the same moment.
  3. Therefore, whatever is in potency with respect to some determination can only actually acquire that determination through the agency of something else. (1,2)
  4. If creation involved the actualization of a potency in God, then something apart from God would have to actualize that potency. (3)
  5. But apart from creation there is nothing apart from God.
  6. Therefore, if creation involved the actualization of a potency in God, then creation would be impossible. (4,5)
  7. But creation is possible.
  8. Therefore, creation cannot involve the actualization of any potency in God. (6,7)
I am not persuaded, however, because I think premise (1) is false. I offer as a counterexample the possibility of free choice (in the libertarian sense). Prior to a free choice, the agent is in potency with respect to several mutually exclusive possibilities, and what effects the determination of the will is simply the agent himself. This does not mean that the agent was somehow both in act and in potency in the same respect at the same time. If the agent were already in act in that respect, then there wouldn't have been any choice to make. Thus, in a free choice we have a case in which a potency is actualized but not by anything that is already in act in that respect. Hence, if premise (1) is correct then libertarian freedom is impossible. If libertarian freedom is possible, however, then premise (1) is false, and with it goes the Thomistic argument for divine immutability. And either way, it looks like Thomism is incompatible with libertarian freedom, which confirms the argument of my previous post.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Can a Timeless God Freely Create?

I don't think so. Let me explain.

To say that God freely creates is to say that he could have refrained from creating and that he could have created a different sort of world, one with different initial and boundary conditions.

To say that God is timeless is to say that he undergoes no change in any respects whatsoever. In other words, it is to say that God is absolutely immutable.

Given these two assumptions (and assuming, of course, that there is a God who has in fact freely created), we can derive a contradiction:
  1. God is absolutely immutable.
  2. God has freely created.
  3. A free act proceeds from a free decision from among several mutually exclusive possibilities.
  4. Therefore, God made a free decision to create from among several mutually exclusive possibilities. (2,3)
  5. A free decision from among several mutually exclusive possibilities involves a change in one's 'intentional stance' from regarding something as indeterminate (as one of several possibilities) to regarding it as determinate (as the chosen course of action).
  6. Therefore, in freely created God undergoes a change in his intentional stance. (4,5)
  7. Therefore, God has changed in some respect. (6)
  8. Therefore, God is not absolutely immutable. (7)
But (8) contradicts (1), and since (8) follows from (2), it follows that (2) contradicts (1). Hence, God cannot both be absolutely immutable (and timeless) and freely create.

The only way to avoid the conclusion is to challenge the logic at some point or reject one of the independent premises, namely, (3) or (5). As far as I can see, the argument is valid, so the logic seems to check out. One might, however, try rejecting premise (3) by arguing that a free act need not proceed from a free decision. Perhaps God never decided to create. Perhaps he has just immutably willed to create. Okay, but what makes this "willing" free? That God has immutably willed to create could just as easily be said of a God who had no freedom, who had to create precisely the sort of world that we find ourselves in. Perhaps one could say that God's immutably willing to create is free because nothing about God's nature constrains God to will as he does. But if that's so, then why does God will as he does? Why does he immutably will to create precisely this type of world and not another or no world at all? It's not clear that any answer can be given unless it's along the lines of "because that's what he decided to do," in which case premise (3) is conceded. On the current proposal, therefore, it is just a brute fact that God wills as he does. He didn't choose to will as he does; he just does will as he does. I think it's safe to say that that's a rather lame explanation.

What's more, how is a denial of (3) to be squared with divine providence (i.e., God's manner of ruling creation)? Every theory of providence that I am aware of - Calvinism, Molinism, open theism, etc. - makes explicit reference to God's 'deciding' on or 'choosing' one possibility from among several others. The Biblical writers talk that way as well (for example, the nation of Israel is said to be "chosen" of God).

As for premise (5) it too seems to be highly plausible. Certainly when we make decisions we move from a state of indecision to a state of decision and a clear change in our intentional stance vis-a-vis our deliberative options takes place. Does this have to be the case for a timeless God? Perhaps not. Perhaps God's deliberative process can be understood in terms of distinct logical moments, rather than distinct temporal moments. An example of this distinction is the order of the steps in the proof of a mathematical theorem. It takes a human mathematician time to trace through the logical steps in performing the proof. That's a temporal sequence. But in the proof itself, considered abstractly as an ordered set of propositions connected by logical rules, there is only a logical sequence. The axioms from which the proof sets out are logically prior to the conclusion, but not temporally prior to it. Could God's decision to create be understood along similar lines? In other words could we say that God's contemplation of possibilities and his deciding to actualize one of them occur simultaneously, as it were, with the "change" in God's intentional stance reflecting a mere logical sequence and not a temporal one?

I don't think this will work because the relation between (1) God's contemplation of a set of creative possibilities and (2) his selecting one of those is not a logical sequence. In other words, no purely logical relation is going to get you from a proposition describing a set of possibilities ("Either A or B or C ...") to a proposition affirming just one of those possibilities ("A"). The latter just doesn't follow from the former. What we need is not a logical rule, but something substantive, namely, the exclusion of the other possibilities ("Neither B nor C ..."). This exclusion is due to a volitional act on God's part, an act that effects a transition from volitional indeterminacy ("Either A or B or C ...") to volitional determinacy ("A"). And it is simply incoherent to suppose that God (or anyone else) could be in both states at once. There are two distinct intentional stances here, and they are incompatible. Hence a free decision to create involves a qualitative change in God's mental life. And qualitative changes are temporal, not logical.

I conclude, then, that the above argument is sound. A timeless God could not freely create. On the assumption that God has freely created, therefore, it follows that God is not timeless.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

The Meaning of Life - Part II

In my previous post, I concluded that when people ask about the meaning of life what they normally want to know is whether an individual person's life can have an ultimate and objective meaning of a sort that could matter to that individual. In this post I want to consider what that meaning might consist in.

First, for an individual's life to have meaning in the specified sense there must be the possibility of an enduring afterlife. Why? Well, if my death results in my ceasing to exist, it's hard for me to see how my life could be objectively meaningful in any way that should give me consolation. Perhaps during my life I live nobly and make many others happy and so they remember me, for awhile. But why should I care if I won't be around? What's more, one thing cosmology seems pretty clear on is that eventually the universe will undergo either a Big Crunch or a Big Freeze, depending on whether the universe keeps expanding or not. In either case, the human race and all other sentient life in the universe will become extinct sooner or later, at which point (assuming materialism is true) there will no longer be anyone to care whether I or anyone else every existed at all. No mere perishable legacy can give life an ultimate meaning.

Second, there must be the possibility of a conscious afterlife. After all, if I don't cease to exist at death but continue eternally in an unconscious state, it's hard to see how as far as I'm concerned that could be any better than ceasing to exist. I certainly won't notice a difference.

Third, there must be a differential afterlife. If there is some end to which I am destined and cannot avoid, then none of my choices ultimately matter in that respect. If I have no control over my eternal destiny, if it's simply chosen for me by some combination of nature and nurture and I'm just along for the ride, so to speak, then there doesn't seem to be any sense to speaking of my choices or my life. Hence, there doesn't seem to be any sense to speaking of the meaning of my life. On the other hand, if I do have some say in my final destiny, if I'm not simply the resultant effect of nature and nuture but am to some extent a self-determining agent, then we can speak of my choice, my life, and the meaning of my life.

Fourth, there must be the possibility of a intrinsically desirable afterlife. After all, even if I do have some say in my final destiny, if my only choice is between, say, eternal solitary confinement in a small box or annihilation, then I'd say that someone's playing a really sick joke on me. I'd probably opt for annihilation in that case, but that would be to acknowledge the ultimate futility of my existence. Add to my choices something intrisically desirable, say eternal bliss in heaven, and now my choice is truly significant and matters in an ultimate sense.

The above may not be exhaustive, but they all strike me as necessary conditions for an individual's life to have meaning in an ultimate and objective sense that could matter to that individual. There are other conditions, however, that, while they don't seem to be strictly necessary, do seem to enhance the meaning of life. I'll discuss these in my next post.

Monday, August 21, 2006

The Meaning of Life - Part I

To ask "What is the meaning of life?" presupposes an affirmative answer to the question "Does life have a meaning?" Asking that question, in turn, presupposes that one has some idea of what the phrase "the meaning of life" could mean. What would it mean for life to have a meaning, if it has one? That's the question I'd like to consider in this post.

First, when people ask questions about the meaning of life, the term "meaning" usually has the sense of an ultimate purpose or point, as in "What's the point of it all?" We could also speak of life having an ultimate value, making an ultimate difference, ultimately mattering, having an ultimate raison d'etre, and so forth. Sometimes the point is phrased by asking why anyone should care about life.

Second, that the meaning sought for is supposed to be "ultimate" is important. Things that are ultimate have a "buck-stopping" quality. For example, the "ultimate" cause of all things, if there is such a thing, cannot itself be something that is caused. To ask, "what caused the ultimate cause?" is sheer nonsense, and shows a failure to understand what "ultimate" means. Similarly, to ask for the "ultimate" meaning of life is to ask for something for which it wouldn't make sense to ask "what is its purpose?"

Third, questions about the meaning of life aren't usually concerned with the meaning of life in general ("Why should it matter whether being living things?") or even with the meaning of human life in general ("Why should it matter whether human beings exist?"). The usual intention, rather, is to ask specifically why it should matter whether I exist. That's the sense in which the question of the meaning of life seems most gripping to many--could it be that my life doesn't really matter?

Fourth, the usual intent of the question is for some objective ground of the meaning of one's life--not a mere subjective ground, namely, a mere subjective feeling that one's life matters, but an objective ground puts that subjective feeling on a firm foundation. Indeed, no one would even become troubled about the question of the meaning of life if all they were looking for was something subjective. The mere fact that they find it troubling that their life might lack a meaning shows that they already place a sufficient subjective value on their own life to take that question seriously. People who commit suicide don't do so because they think that their life has no subjective value--the mere fact that they seriously entertain suicide ("to be or not to be?") shows that they already place a high subjective value on themselves. But people do frequently commit suicide if they've become convinced that their life has no objective value, if their subjective sense of their worth doesn't seem to them to be objectively grounded. This was probably the case with Ernest Hemingway and Hunter S. Thompson.

In conclusion, what we want to know is whether an individual person's life can have an ultimate and objective meaning, and that of a sort that could matter to that individual. In a subsequent post I'll consider what that meaning could consist in.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Fumerton on Inferential Justification and Skepticism

I've been busy the last few weeks vacationing, wrapping up my summer projects, and getting ready for the Fall semester. Below is a link to one of my recently finished projects. Entitled "Fumerton's Principle of Inferential Justification, Skepticism, and the Nature of Inference", it's a revision and expansion of some parts of chapter 3 of my dissertation.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Philosophers Play Soccer

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Presentism, Truthmakers, and God

I've just finished revising my paper "Presentism, Truthmakers, and God" and have sent it off to a journal. I made quite a few changes from the earlier version. For those who might be interested, here's the abstract:
Abstract: The truthmaker objection to presentism (the view that what exists simpliciter is coextensive with what exists now) is that it does not have sufficient metaphysical resources to ground truths about the past. In this paper I identify five constraints that an adequate presentist response ought to meet. In the light of these constraints, I examine and reject several recent proposals by John Bigelow, Simon Keller, and Thomas Crisp. Consideration of how these proposals fail, however, points toward another proposal, that truthmakers for truths about the past are to be identified with God’s memories, which seems to work. I conclude that presentists have, in the truthmaker objection, considerable incentive to endorse theism.
And here's a link (.pdf)