Category Archives: metaphysics
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.
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.
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.
We may treat of the Soul as in the body — whether it be set above it or actually within it — since the association of the two constitutes the one thing called the living organism, the Animate. Now from this relation, from the Soul using the body as an instrument, it does not follow that the Soul must share the body’s experiences: a man does not himself feel all the experiences of the tools with which he is working.
Perhaps, the good and the beautiful are the same, and must be investigated by one and the same process; and in like manner the base and the evil. And in the first rank we must place the beautiful, and consider it as the same with the good; from which immediately emanates intellect as beautiful. Next to this, we must consider the soul receiving its beauty from intellect, and every inferior beauty deriving its origin from the forming power of the soul, whether conversant in fair actions and offices, or sciences and arts. Lastly, bodies themselves participate of beauty from the soul, which, as something divine, and a portion of the beautiful itself, renders whatever it supervenes and subdues, beautiful as far as its natural capacity will admit.
Let us, therefore, re-ascend to the good itself, which every soul desires; and in which it can alone find perfect repose. For if anyone shall become acquainted with this source of beauty he will then know what I say, and after what manner he is beautiful. Indeed, whatever is desirable is a kind of good, since to this desire tends. But they alone pursue true good, who rise to intelligible beauty, and so far only tend to good itself; as far as they lay aside the deformed vestments of matter, with which they become connected in their descent. Just as those who penetrate into the holy retreats of sacred mysteries, are first purified and then divest themselves of their garments, until someone by such a process, having dismissed everything foreign from the God, by himself alone, beholds the solitary principle of the universe, sincere, simple and pure, from which all things depend, and to whose transcendent perfections the eyes of all intelligent natures are directed, as the proper cause of being, life and intelligence. With what ardent love, with what strong desire will he who enjoys this transporting vision be inflamed while vehemently affecting to become one with this supreme beauty! For this it is ordained, that he who does not yet perceive him, yet desires him as good, but he who enjoys the vision is enraptured with his beauty, and is equally filled with admiration and delight. Hence, such a one is agitated with a salutary astonishment; is affected with the highest and truest love; derides vehement affections and inferior loves, and despises the beauty which he once approved. Such, too, is the condition of those who, on perceiving the forms of gods or daemons, no longer esteem the fairest of corporeal forms. What, then, must be the condition of that being, who beholds the beautiful itself?
So are you denying that it’s a natural human impulse to crave freedom?
Of course not. Otherwise we wouldn’t have the periods of freedom that we’ve had in human history. I’m just saying that it’s not the only human impulse, and rarely is it the most powerful one. You begin to see that when life becomes unsettled, when there are dangers, especially that people cannot understand. It’s then that human beings tend to look at solutions to these problems that typically involve restricting freedoms. In other words: when life gets rough, the need for freedom, or the impulse for freedom, which is real —it’s part of the human constitution you might say— tends very commonly to be eclipsed by other needs. These can simply be for security, or they can be darker needs to bolster up an identity to attack, marginalize, or even exterminate others. These are all classic human responses. The idea that humans are by nature free is one of the most harmful fictions that’s ever been promoted anywhere.
What is your own relationship with religion?
I don’t belong to a religion. In fact I would have to be described as an atheist. But I’m friendly to religion on the grounds that it seems to me to be distinctively human, and it has produced many good things. But you see these humanists or rationalists who seem to hate this distinctively human feature. This to me seems to me very odd. These evangelical atheists say things such as: religion is like child abuse, that if you had no religious education, there would be no religion. It’s completely absurd.
You also say that ‘atheism does not mean rejecting belief in God, but up a belief in language as anything other than practical convenience.’ What are you getting at here?
I was referring to Fritz Mauthner, who wrote a four-volume history of atheism. He was an atheist who thought that theism was an obsessive attachment to the constructions of language: that the idea of God was a kind of linguistic ideal. So that atheism meant not worshipping that ideal. But he took that as just an example of a more general truth: that there is a danger in worshiping the constructions of language. Of course religions like Christianity are partially to blame for this. But for most of their history, these so called creedal faiths didn’t define themselves by doctrine. Instead they had strong traditions of what’s called Apophatic theology: where you cannot use language to describe God.
Would you call yourself an existentialist?
No I think that carries too much baggage. I’m a sceptic, but in a positive sense. I don’t mean just standing back from belief, and not having any. But exploring different views of things that have been part of the human world: like the views of the pagan philosophers, with a view to seeing what benefit they can be to us.
Why do you dispute the notion that knowledge is a pacifying force?
Well there is this notion in some intellectual circles that evil is a kind of error: that if you get more knowledge you won’t commit the error. People often say: if we get more knowledge for human psychology won’t that help? No. All knowledge is ambiguous in this way. The Nazis were very good at using their knowledge at mass psychology. Or if you were a Russian revolutionary like Lenin, you might use the knowledge of the causes of inflation to take control of the central bank, create hyper-inflation and bring about your revolutionary project. So knowledge can never eradicate the conflicts of the human world, or produce harmony where there are conflicting goals to start with. Because knowledge is used by human beings as a tool to achieve whatever it is they want to achieve.
In one part of the book you ask why humans have such a need for meaning. You’re a philosopher: isn’t meaning important for you?
Well knowledge is important. But I’m not sure if finding a true meaning is. But one of the chief reasons humans need meaning — and I’m only speculating here — is that they are conscious of their own mortality. Even Epicurus said: When we exist death is not, and when death exists we are not. What he was getting at was that we have a different sense of time that other animals don’t have. If we have the idea of our mortality then we see our lives in a different way because we think we see them as a single coherent story.
It is now time, leaving every object of sense far behind, to contemplate, by a certain ascent, a beauty of a much higher order; a beauty not visible to the corporeal eye, but alone manifest to the brighter eye of the soul, independent of all corporeal aid. However, since, without some previous perception of beauty it is impossible to express by words the beauties of sense, but we must remain in the state of the blind, so neither can we ever speak of the beauty of offices and sciences, and whatever is allied to these, if deprived of their intimate possession. Thus we shall never be able to tell of virtue’s brightness, unless by looking inward we perceive the fair countenance of justice and temperance, and are convinced that neither the evening nor morning star are half so beautiful and bright. But it is requisite to perceive objects of this kind by that eye by which the soul beholds such real beauties. Besides it is necessary that whoever perceives this species of beauty, should be seized with much greater delight, and more vehement admiration, than any corporeal beauty can excite; as now embracing beauty real and substantial. Such affections, I say, ought to be excited about true beauty, as admiration and sweet astonishment; desire also and love and a pleasant trepidation. For all souls, as I may say, are affected in this manner about invisible objects, but those the most who have the strongest propensity to their love; as it likewise happens about corporeal beauty; for all equally perceive beautiful corporeal forms, yet all are not equally excited, but lovers in the greatest degree.