Category Archives: philosophy
All true morality, inward and outward, is comprehended in love, for love is the foundation of all the commandments. All outward morality must be built upon this basis, not on self-interest. As long as man loves something else than God, or outside God, he is not free, because he has not love. Therefore there is no inner freedom which does not manifest itself in works of love. True freedom is the government of nature in and outside man through God; freedom is essential existence unaffected by creatures. But love often begins with fear; fear is the approach to love: fear is like the awl which draws the shoemaker’s thread through the leather.
–Meister Eckhart, Sermon VII : “Outward and Inward Morality”; courtesy Wikiquote
Stage plays also captivated me, with their sights full of the images of my own miseries: fuel for my own fire. Now, why does a man like to be made sad by viewing doleful and tragic scenes, which he himself could not by any means endure? Yet, as a spectator, he wishes to experience from them a sense of grief, and in this very sense of grief his pleasure consists. What is this but wretched madness? For a man is more affected by these actions the more he is spuriously involved in these affections. Now, if he should suffer them in his own person, it is the custom to call this “misery.” But when he suffers with another, then it is called “compassion.” But what kind of compassion is it that arises from viewing fictitious and unreal sufferings? The spectator is not expected to aid the sufferer but merely to grieve for him. And the more he grieves the more he applauds the actor of these fictions. If the misfortunes of the characters –whether historical or entirely imaginary– are represented so as not to touch the feelings of the spectator, he goes away disgusted and complaining. But if his feelings are deeply touched, he sits it out attentively, and sheds tears of joy.
–St. Augustine, Confessions, Book 3, Chapter II; courtesy of here; my emphasis.
Or perhaps we’re fictional characters? (read through the linked thread in detail to see what I mean)
Last time we established that we’re at least like fictional characters, whether we actually are or not. We are, as it were, characters in God’s novel. Thus, the relationship of a human author to fictional characters in his writings is at least a useful (if imperfect) metaphor for God’s relationship to us. We don’t want to take it too far, but it’s a useful heuristic.
Well, using this heuristic, the world can look an awful lot like Macbeth’s “tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” I think it is possible to make an argument justifying the evil and nastiness in the word, as I’ve summed up here. That’s not quite what I’m interested in looking at right now. Rather I’m interested in this question: What obligations (if any) does an author have to his (or His) characters?
One simple answer is given in Jeremiah 18:1-10 and in several other passages referencing it: God is the potter, we are the pots, and He can do any damn thing He wants to the pots, who have no right to complain, period. In our analogy, He owes the characters in the story nothing, and can write them as He pleases, and they have no right to complain. I have to be honest here and say that I have a deep loathing for these passages, but they tend to be the go-to quotes used to “justify the ways of God to man,” as Milton put it. In the strict sense, this is true–God is omnipotent and sovereign–but I reject this in the crudely literal and simplistic sense in which it’s generally used, that is, that we should accept whatever God dishes out passively and not even think about getting upset about it or questioning God’s goodness. The problem I have with this is that I like happy endings.
Tags: Chess, Christianity, Dostoevsky, Elaine Page, Gnosticism, H. P. Lovercraft, Jeffrey Burton Russell, Josh Groban, literature, metaphysics, philsophy, religion, The Brothers Karamzov, theology, Tommy Körberg, Unequally Yoked, universalism
I’m still looking at universalism, but this is a slight sidetrack to the last few posts. I’ll be indexing this under “Religious Miscellany” instead of “Universalism: What the Hell?”; but it is germane to universalism, as I’ll point out later. Also, what was originally supposed to be one post has metastasized to over a thousand words before I’ve even got to the main point I wanted to make, so I’m breaking it in two. Alas, such is the blogging life….
Stories and narratives are among the most distinctively human activities. We are, as far as we know, the only beings that tell stories; and if any other animals are intelligent, then they probably tell their own stories in their own ways. We might almost as well call ourselves not Homo sapiens–”man the thinker”–but Homo narrans, “man the storyteller”.
J. R. R. Tolkien famously proposed that any time we make art, our creativity and our artistic creations are a reflection of God, the Great Creator of the cosmos and of us. He called this “sub-creation” and considered it very important. We are made in God’s image, and as such everything we are and everything we do is a reflection, finite and dim though it is, of His perfection. Our intelligence is a reflection of His intelligence, our love a reflection of His love, and so on. The greatest act of God was the creation of the universe, bringing something out of nothing. We, of course, cannot do that; but we can use our abilities and the materials we have at hand to make beautiful things, to produce art, to use our imagination and creativity. Since creation is God’s highest act, our sub-creation is the way we can most closely imitate God, most clearly reveal His image in us, in Tolkien’s view.
In fact, Tokien took it a bit further than that. He believed that insofar as our sub-creation was a reflection of God’s creation, it was, in a subsidiary sense, at least, real. Now Tokien did not, of course, believe that the events of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings had actually happened. He didn’t think anthropologists should study the genetic differences among men, elves, and dwarves; nor did he think that someday archaeologists might dig up the ruins of Minas Tirith. Rather, he thought that his works (and any literature of value), through the fictional narrative, could reveal things about ourselves and the world that could not be conveyed merely by nonfiction or exhortation. In this connection, it is important to point out that he said, “I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations.” The value of fiction, in Tolkien’s view, is not that it teaches us simplistic lessons in the manner of an Aesop fable, but that it gives a way of looking at the world from a fresh and multifaceted perspective.
Yes, I know it’s a reach, but it is Zep.
We’ve been discussing the seeming paradox encountered if we posit an immortal being making a voluntarily irrevocable decision–that is, something like “I will never do X”, where X is not forbidden by outside factors, but only refrained from as an ongoing act of will, then it seems as if he can’t have free will. This is because if he succeeds in keeping his decision, then the probability that he ever does X is zero; but zero probability implies that something can’t happen; and if it can’t be that the being in question could ever do X, then he seems to lack free will, since by definition having free will to do X implies that there is a probability greater than zero that he could do it. Conversely, if there is a non-zero chance of his actually breaking his stated decision and actually doing X, the implication is that sooner or later, given all eternity, sooner or later a situation will arise in which he will break the decision. But if this is inevitable, then once more free will takes a dive. Since we’re interested in whether or not the damned in Hell or the saved in Heaven can ever change their minds, this is relevant to the theme of universalism. In the last post, I argued that this paradox does not apply to God, for the reasons discussed there.
Here I want to make a couple points to avoid a possible error. Part of the reason I gave that God can make eternal and irrevocable decisions voluntarily, keep them perfectly, and yet not be affected by the paradox is that He is outside of time completely; to put it another way, only God is eternal in the strict sense theological sense of that word. Now it might at this point be objected that the angels, demons, and damned and saved humans are also outside of time, so they, too, can make irrevocable decisions without contradiction or paradox. I don’t think this is correct, though, for reasons I’m going to explain.
Update: The informal theme for these last few posts has been to put not pictures, but videos of songs connected (often tenuously) to the topic of the day. I had a draft for this which I’d forgotten about, and forgot the music I’d prepared for this post. Thus, I’m returning it, and modifying the title to reflect it. Enjoy!
Back here, we saw what I consider a conundrum: If we posit an immortal being, it seems that if that being makes a permanent, irrevocable choice of the form “I will never, throughout all eternity, do X,” then whether the being keeps its promise or fails, either result seems to undermine the idea of free will. This is important in discussing universalism, since a universalist will want to make two metaphysical assumptions: one, that a damned being in Hell could, in principle, change its mind; but a being in Heaven would not ever choose to do so. The asymmetry here needs to be address, as do the issues touching on free will. Before I do that, though, I want to claim an exception: None of these potential paradoxes applies to God.
In order to support this contention, I had to make a slight detour. Here I discussed the traditional understanding that God must always be seen as analogical to us in any attributes posited of Him. He may “live”, “love”, “think”, and so on; but these words always must be understood as analogies, expressing something different when applied to God, as opposed to when they are applied to us. Even “exist” must be understood analogically.
Then I moved on to look at the mode of God’s existence. God, unlike us, is a necessary being. This means that He contains no potentiality, but is pure actuality. To put it another way, He encompasses all possibilities “simultaneously” (to use a temporal word that does not apply to God), so He is all that He is in all ways at all times. In short, He can never be other than He is.
Finally, it’s worth reiterating something I noted some time ago and alluded to in the last paragraph: It is extremely important to remember that God is completely out of time, and can never be said to be in it, connected to it, or related to it in any way we can understand. God’s existence is essentially “all at once”
I now assert that, given the preceding, the following is true:
God, unlike any other being, can make eternal and irrevocable choices (“I will never do X”; “I will always do Y”) without contradictions or any diminishing of His free will.
God’s “will” and “choices” are analogues to what those terms mean for us. Moreover, given His transcendence of time and given that God is pure actuality–that He cannot be other than He is–we cannot speak of Him as changing His mind “later”. There is no “later” or “earlier” for God. There is no contradiction of His free will, either–since God is truly eternal, and pure actuality, His unchanging being is an eternal manifestation of His will, which cannot be other than it is. Therefore, God can make irrevocable choices with no contradiction.
Now it might be pointed out that the Bible describes God as changing His mind many times; and even on the more theological level, one might argue that God relates to humanity in different ways in different eras. However, this change is only apparent, caused by our perceptions. The shape of the moon doesn’t change; its motion with respect to Earth and the sun makes its shape appear to change over the course of the month. Likewise, God is as He is, always–our perceptions of Him in His interactions with us are what change.
Thus, for God, the problem of eternal choices is no problem. It’s when we move to humans and angels that we need to face these issues. I want to argue that angels–and perhaps humans in the afterlife do not experience time as we do now, but that they don’t experience it as God does, either. That’s what I want to look at next.
The above is an old Army recruitment ad. Those who are old enough will remember the slogan of that time, “Be all that you can be!” But if I want to be all that I can be, that must mean I’m not yet all that I can be. In short, I’m a contingent being. What’s that? Well, let me back up.
All of us are finite, limited beings, as is every individual thing in the cosmos. By definition, if something or someone is finite, that means he or she or it can have only a limited number of properties at any one time. Right now, I’m about five feet eight inches tall, for example; when I was five years old I did not yet have the property of being that tall. Recently having entered the sixth decade of my life by turning fifty, I’ve realized that I can look forward (?) to the gradual compression of ligaments, joints, and tendons which will perhaps put me below 5′ 8″ again. Meanwhile, the hairs on my head are slowly taking on the property of being gray (while others, by falling out and ceasing to exit, are losing the property of being hairs at all).
This was analyzed by Aristotle as the distinction between potentiality and actuality (in Greek, dynamis and either energeia or entelecheia, respectively; in Latin, potentia and actualitas). To oversimplify, “actuality” is what something is, and “potentiality” is what something can be but at the moment is not. A tree, for example is a tree; but it is potentially lumber if it is felled and cut up. A pile of lumber is a pile of lumber, but it is potentially furniture or a house frame. A tomato seed is potentially a plant, and the tomatoes it bears are potentially food, which is potentially those who eat digest, and assimilate it. Seems pretty much common sense, and it is. However, there are some interesting things that follow from this.
Last time we talked about an important conundrum of free will. We’ll take a brief side tour here to look at something relevant to that conundrum.
I’m sure we all had analogies such as these:
on innumerable tests as kids. One thing many may not know is that analogies–or better, the concept of analogy itself–is highly important in traditional theology. First, though, let’s dream a little dream.
The greatest minds, as they are capable of the highest excellencies, are open likewise to the greatest aberrations; and those who travel very slowly may yet make far greater progress, provided they keep always to the straight road, than those who, while they run, forsake it.
–René Descartes, Discourse on Method, Part 1; courtesy of Wikiquote
Though I consider my series on universalism essentially completed, I have recently been involved in some discussions that have motivated me to write some addenda on the topic. In order to look at the issues in which I’m interested, in this regard, I have to preface it with a note on one of the great conundrums of classical philosophy: free will.
More precisely, I want to look at some logical conundrums arising from it. I’m not interested in defending free will against determinism in its various flavors. Rather, there are certain things pertaining to my discussion on universalism which need to be covered more thoroughly in order to set the stage for the addendum I wish to discuss.
Melissa Etheridge’s song makes one think of the kind of thing kids will do, where one claims the ability to do some fabulous, or outright impossible things. Upon being asked to “prove it!” the kid will respond, “But I don’t want to right now!” One is also reminded of the episode of Cheers where Cliff claimed to be a blackbelt in karate but refused to be baited to prove it because the philosophy was pacifistic (as it turned out, he later “proved” it by smashing a board with his bare hand, then drifting away from the amazed crowd and whispering to Diane, “I think I need to get to the hospital!”). Humorous, yes, but this touches on a deep issue.
To modern educated people, it seems obvious that matters of fact are to be ascertained by observation, not by consulting ancient authorities. But this is an entirely modern conception, which hardly existed before the seventeenth century. Aristotle maintained that women have fewer teeth than men; although he was twice married, it never occurred to him to verify this statement by examining his wives’ mouths. He said also that children would be healthier if conceived when the wind is in the north. One gathers that the two Mrs. Aristotles both had to run out and look at the weathercock every evening before going to bed. He states that a man bitten by a mad dog will not go mad, but any other animal will (Hiss. Am., 704a); that the bite of the shrewmouse is dangerous to horses, especially if the mouse is pregnant (ibid., 604b); that elephants suffering from insomnia can be cured by rubbing their shoulders with salt, olive oil, and warm water (ibid., 605a); and so on and so on. Nevertheless, classical dons, who have never observed any animal except the cat and the dog, continue to praise Aristotle for his fidelity to observation.
–Bertrand Russell, The Impact of Science on Society (1951), p. 7