In defense of religion, chapter IV

At last we come to the divine nature.  This installment is about three pages.

In defense of religion IV:  unqualified being

The above thought experiment about adding consciousness to a rock brought out a new aspect of positive existence:  it admits of gradations.  This is quite different from the first definition of existence (x exists = x is instantiated), which is an on-off affair.  Of course, it is true that a thing either has some presence or none at all, but one thing may be present more deeply or extensively than another thing.  A rock’s presence is limited; it lacks the vital and mental degrees of presence.  Furthermore, its presence is limited in space and time, and even in those regions of space that it does occupy, at each point only a part of the rock is present, rather than the whole thing.  One might say that the existence of the rock is qualified; we say “it is present”, then we add “but…” followed by a list of qualifications—“here” but not “there”, “in this way” but not “in that way”.  This might seem an excessively negative, glass-half-empty way of looking at things.  Why not express this as “and” instead of “but”:  “the rock is present, and it is here”?  The reason is that “x and y” is only correct if y is not already contained in x, but “presence” already implicitly contains “presence here”.  It’s not another concept.  If I were to say “x is present, period”, i.e. without qualification, the natural way to understand this is that x is present everywhere.  Mental actuality provides another good example.  Wisdom is an aspect of mental actuality, and one that admits of gradations. However, when I say that a person has a high degree of wisdom, I don’t add another quality to that of wisdom; there is something odd in saying “he is wise, and to a high degree.”  On the other hand, we can say that a man is wise in some areas but foolish in others.  His wisdom is qualified; he is wise, but with “buts” attached.  If I say, “he is wise, period”, this would imply the fullness of wisdom.

So actuality admits of degrees, and the highest degree seems to be the simplest one, the one in terms of which the others are understood.  This suggests a third way of understanding actuality:  in terms of a perfect case that all positively existing beings resemble except as they are limited in various ways.  Existence would then be analogous, but by participation (i.e. by common reference to a single exemplary case) rather than proportionality.  Do we ever assert connections like this in daily life?  Here’s an example.  Suppose we read in the newspapers about three imperfect states.  One is a gangster state where rulers wield power for selfish ends; a second has just rulers but ones who lack the coercive power to enforce their decrees; a third is ruled by libertarians, whose mad theories lead them to neglect the economy, the environment, and public morals.  What do these three have in common?  They are all imperfect states.  The state itself is a simple idea:  the nexus of authority that imposes justice and protects the common life.  There are many ways of falling short of this one idea, though.  Still, the three states fall into a single class by their reference to a common standard.

Could there be such a thing as pure existence, existence without qualification?  Surely such an idea is crazy—there are an infinite number of ways of existing, and many of them contradict each other.  A thing can’t be both red and blue; it can’t be both a bird and a fish.  Whatever it is, it must miss out on the perfections of the things it isn’t.  Remember, though, that we mean unlimited existence of the second (presence) kind, not the first (instantiation).  Each of the above things possesses a positive element and a negative element.  Only the positive element is the actuality part.  Red is light at one wavelength; blue is light at another.  There’s no reason why one can’t have light at both wavelengths; it’s only the definition of each color that excludes this, i.e. the definition contains this negative element.  Similarly, if a fish is an animal that swims but doesn’t fly, and a bird one that flies but doesn’t swim, then there’s no reason one couldn’t have a being with the positive elements of both, an animal that both flies and swims.  It’s only the negative elements in the definition of “fish” and “bird” that would prevent us from calling this being a fish or a bird.  It’s not that fish and birds have something that the unqualified existent lacks.  So existence without qualification would be some combination of light at all frequencies and a flying-swimming animal?  No, because the terms “light”, “flying”, “swimming”, and “animal” themselves contain negative elements as well as positive ones.  Our work is just begun if we want to extract the purely positive.  Thus, it is not obviously crazy to assert the idea of unqualified presence, although I certainly haven’t yet proven that there are no hidden contradictions.  Still, it seems that between one kind of being and another, it’s the negative element in their definitions, rather than their positive actuality, that clash and can’t combine.

Let us assume that unqualified existence is conceivable; what would its properties be?  The most obvious form of limitation is limitation in space; a material object is present in some places but not others.  Unqualified being can’t be like that, so it must be everywhere and pervade the whole universe.  However, it wouldn’t do this in the way of an infinitely large object, such as a gas of infinite extents.  Such a gas would be divided into parcels, and only one parcel would be present at each point in space.  Therefore, only a small part of the total object (gas) would be present to each point, so its existence everywhere would be limited.  The unqualified being would have to be totally present everywhere, a property called omnipresence.  Being totally present everywhere, it could not be spatially divided into parts; we should in fact say that an unlimited being is immaterial.  This doesn’t mean that it lacks any of the actuality of material beings (the way a ghost lacks a body), but that it lacks all of the limitations inherent in material existence.  Assuming we can grant some ontological status to the past and the future, this same line of reasoning will apply to time as well as space, so that an unqualified being should be atemporal and eternal as well as immaterial and omnipresent.

The principle that divisibility into parts betokens limitation doesn’t just apply to spatial and temporal divisibility; it is quite general.  When a being’s existence comprises several unrelated acts, this means that some acts are not present to others; the being is not fully integrated.  For example, for human beings, the vital and mental processes are not fully integrated.  I can’t consciously control my heartbeat, and my heartbeat doesn’t enter into my awareness.  Parts of me are limited in their presence even to other parts of me.  The unqualified being must be fully integrated, so that it either consists of only one utterly simple act, or all its acts are so interconnected and interpenetrating that they are like one act.  The unqualified being supremely fulfills one of the prerogatives of actuality identified in the last chapter:  unity.

The other prerogative of actuality we identified was causality.  The ability to exert causality we may call power, so an unlimited being must be supremely powerful, i.e. omnipotent.  What would omnipotence be like?  Our physical intuition, that power consists in the ability to apply force on other things, gives a very impoverished intuition of power at its utmost limit.  Just as omnipresence is qualitatively different from being infinitely big, omnipotence is qualitatively different from being able to apply infinite forces.  At its heart, causality means sharing actuality; its positive (in the ontological, not just moral, sense) aspect is the ability to create.  The ability to destroy has more to do with the limited ability of other beings to receive actuality than it does with the intrinsic power of the destroyer.  The fact that I can make fire with my lighter is a real power; the fact that I can burn paper with this fire is just a statement on the weakness of paper.  More real power means more real ability to create.  We finite creatures are very limited in our creative ability—even those things we call our creations derive only a small part of their actuality from us.  When a sculptor creates a bronze statue, he doesn’t create the bronze; nor does he keep it in existence.  All he does is impose a shape.  An omnipotent being could generate all of the being of its creations; it would have no need of outside help from raw materials.  This would be creation ex nihilo, a thing beyond our experience, but a necessary power for an unlimited being.

What about the mental dimension of awareness?  In the last chapter, I argued that consciousness is a real and irreducible level of existence.  Therefore, an unlimited being must have it, and to an unlimited degree.  What would this entail?  Mental presence is called awareness, and the distinct property of awareness is that it is intentional, i.e. it’s awareness of something.  Unqualified awareness would include awareness of everything—it would mean knowing everything, i.e. omniscience.  Omniscience includes knowing all the true facts about the universe, including the past and future.  However, it means much more than this.  An omniscient being also has the fullness of what we call understanding and appreciation.  It would have a perfect aesthetic and moral sense.  It would be absurd to think that you could observe a work of art or a heroic act and appreciate something in such things that an unqualified being wouldn’t also notice.  That would mean you having an awareness that it lacks, so that its awareness wouldn’t be unlimited.  Also, an omniscient being would fully appreciate the value of individuals—it could see that unique beauty in each person as much as (in fact more than) that person’s own mother.  This kind of appreciation is something that we finite beings only really have for those we know and love deeply.  So omniscience, unqualified awareness, includes complete knowledge, the fullness of wisdom, and the fullness of the appreciative aspect of love toward itself and every other being.

Our purpose, you’ll recall, is to see if the idea of unqualified existence is coherent.  Our method for attempting to show that it is coherent is to derive a fairly complete set of properties such a being should have and to show that they are mutually consistent.  If they are inconsistent, then the idea of unqualified being is meaningless.   We have found that unqualified actuality in the material, vital, and mental orders would entail omnipresence, omnipotence, and omniscience.  Are these properties consistent with each other, or do they clash?  Clearly, they are mutually consistent.  One doesn’t need to have any weakness to have all knowledge, etc.  In fact, the different aspects of actuality actually seem to lose some of their distinctions in this limit.  The material and vital aspects of presence basically collapse into the mental aspect for an immaterial being.  Omnipotence and omniscience together constitute omnipresence, because they mean that a being’s knowledge and power are everywhere.  When an omnipotent being creates something ex nihilo, it must have complete knowledge of its creature, because the creature has absolutely nothing in it that the creator didn’t put there.  Since, as it will turn out, all finite beings are creations of an unqualified being, this being must be omniscient simply by knowing itself and its own creative decisions.

Perhaps unexpectedly, the third explanation of existence succeeds.  The common element of everything that exists is that all things participate in unqualified being; they are all differently truncated versions of this being.  Another surprise is to notice that, although “unqualified being” is such a counterintuitive—even esoteric—idea, every great civilization has known of it; they all call this being things we may translate as “God”.   So far, we have only shown that the idea of God is coherent, not that He actually exists.  In the example of the three imperfect states, which we said were related by reference to a common standard, there’s no reason to think this standard must actually be instantiated somewhere.  Its existence might be purely Platonic.  “Big deal,” an atheist might be tempted to say.  “Who cares if the idea of God is coherent?  The idea of Santa Claus is coherent too, but it’s still silly for people to believe in him.”  True, but we have shown more than that the idea of God is coherent; we’ve shown that this idea is the hidden basis of the most profound truths about the cosmos:  what distinguishes presence from absence, and what makes all of the beings in the universe a single family.  One may disbelieve in God if one wishes, but it shows a gross lack of understanding to compare this belief to belief in the Great Pumpkin or flying spaghetti monsters.  God isn’t just an idea; He’s the core idea.  If He doesn’t exist, the universe is a rather absurd place for pointing to Him.

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